Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dance Concert


Before the Curtain

I have no words that will fully express what it was like to watch our children perform the stunning choreography they they themselves created and staged, with the help of their two dance teachers. It was one of those moments when my heart just swelled and my throat filled up and tears of immense joy and gratitude for the power and glory of these children brimmed over. There are really no words that will do the evening justice so I won't even try. Here are a couple of backstage moments instead, which I think capture the engagement and camaraderie of the dancers. I chose photos that include several of my daughter's best high school friends. My sweet girl is the one in black leotard with face painted in the middle of the group on the right. In the next post are photos from the performance.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Long Distance Song

Today at lunch I offered a bright new Hawaii quarter as change, and I instinctively paused to think whether I should have parted with it instead of turning it over to my husband. And then I remembered.

When our boy was seven and our girl was five, and the U.S. Mint began putting out all those new state quarters, my husband decided that he would collect shiny new quarters with the limited edition design from every state until he had assembled complete sets for each of his children. He bought two of those bi-fold boards with a map of the country and little cut out circles to hold the quarters, and whenever he received change in a store, he would sift through it like a miner panning for gold to see if he had netted a new treasure. I remember when he placed the first quarter in its circle, we remarked that this would be a ten-year project, that our son's collection of new state quarters wouldn't be complete until he was 17 and heading off to college, because the treasury planned to release only five new state quarters each year.

Not once in the ten years that the state quarters were being released did my husband flag in his mission. It never occurred to him that he could just order two complete sets at the end of the cycle for a price. No, what made the collections he was assembling precious was the effort involved, his patience and attention in doing this thing for his children, day after day, year after year.

And now, both collections are pristine and complete because this is who my husband is. He knows how to run a long-distance race. And if it involves his children, you can be sure, he'll never quit.


The show must go on

My daughter was disappointed this morning when it was announced schools would be closed, because she has been rehearsing for months, and very intensively this week, for her school's Dance Concert, which opens tonight. She is in two of the dances, all of which have been created by student choreographers. This is her second year performing (she is on the right in the still from last year's concert, above). She exhaled when it was decided at noon that even though school was not in session today, Dance Concert would go on as planned, since the venue was sold out and the dancers were itching to dance!

My daughters five best friends who have been with her since kindergarten, all attended tonight and the six girls went out for dinner afterward. I love the way these girls support one another's pursuits, even though they are all at different high schools now. My husband and I will attend tomorrow night's performance, and Saturday night's too, and in the middle of it all, on Saturday during the day, we will also attend junior college day, the kickoff of the whole college application process for eleventh graders. My girl was tapped by her teachers to lead one of the college day workshops so she is having a very busy time. And of course, there is always schoolwork. I've literally been holding my breath all week on her behalf!

Observing my tamped down anxiety, my husband looked over his professorial reading glasses and said, "I think you need to see someone and take something."

I opted for pop culture escapism. While I waited for my girl to come home, I watched the American Idol auditions. I didn't think I would watch this season, but out of curiosity I tuned in last week and who knew that I would fall in love with new judge Steven Tyler of Aerosmith? Aging rock and roller, khol-rimmed eyes and a Puckish sense of fun, no meanness in him that I can see, irreverent and foul mouthed and challenged in the area of impulse control, a recovered addict with the classic rocker's to hell and back trajectory, and now the rocker has the balls to say yes to being a judge on bubble-gum pop American Idol—and my God, he's adorable! Somewhat unhinged and this is me take it or leave it and if you take it, we'll have a blast and if you don't, well, I plan to have a blast anyway.

The other new judge, singer Jennifer Lopez appeals to me, too. Overall it's a kinder, gentler judging panel, way more playful, and way more in touch with what it takes for those kids to stand up there and lay themselves bare. This new panel respects the voices, the musicality, the performances. They are not about humiliating the contestants, and for me that is a relief. Steven Tyler said he wants to find the next Janis Joplin, and he's clearly attracted to the voices that have tears and pain and broken chords in them, those are the ones who move him. He's currently writing his autobiography, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? No, not at all. I can't really hear it over my own noise, so we're good.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snow Day

New York City public schools are closed for only the seventh time since 1970, and where I live the children are out with their sleds, very happy campers. When they were younger, my kids were out there too, cavorting with their friends, while we parents took a moment to catch up with one another and build neighborly connections. I miss those days, but the view from my window this morning infuses the memory with a certain sweetness. Nineteen inches fell, just one inch less than the great Boxing Day blizzard of 2010. But by now, we've had so many intervening snowfalls, New Yorkers are unfazed. Besides, the forecast calls for more snow tomorrow, and Saturday too.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

And then this

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Pablo Neruda
Extravagaria 1958


Such a hard day. So much turmoil among the humans in the maze. Brain chatter at a crescendo. Heart pounding, fear acting like the prima donna of the show. What part of this is ego? What part fear? What part chemistry spilling red and sticky all over the floor? I wish I could pick these knotted threads apart, I kind of need to right this minute, so I can know how to proceed.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

State of the Union 2

Obama is my president.

Family History

Yesterday I kept thinking about my mother's nine decades of life and all the places it had taken her, from the humble house on Little Kew Road that her father built, and in which she lived with my grandparents and her eight brothers and sisters, through her rural years in the Postal Service when she met my dad, to their student days as newlyweds in London when my dad was in law school, back to Jamaica where they raised their children, then to Antigua then St. Lucia, and even to a ceremonial room in a fabled palace when she thought she would burst from the pride she felt in her husband. She knew better than anyone what he had had to overcome to be there. She knew the intelligence and integrity of the man. She knew his silly side, his tender sentimental side, and she knew he could be riven with emotion and in those times she knew how to steady him. Having watched them, I mostly know that whatever dark nights might take hold of me, I will get to tomorrow. As my father did. She made sure. 

I went looking for a photo of the original four of us from the day in November 1987 when my dad was knighted by Queen Elizabeth herself, in a great room at Buckingham Palace, but after I unearthed the album I realized our scanner was broken, so I decided to just take a picture of the photo of my parents that is already in a frame, sitting on our bookshelf. Custom dictated that my dad wear top hat and tails, with trousers of a particular pinstripe. In our London hotel room the night before the ceremony, my brother and I laughed and played dress up in the rented attire, and my mom got misty when she looked at my dad and said, "I wish your mother were here to see this."

Since I was already taking pictures of pictures this morning (and of the snow, falling again outside), I snapped some frames in other corners too. On the left above are my parents on the occasion of my father's retirement in October 1991. I wasn't at the banquet as my son had just been born. The photo inserted in the edge of the frame is of my brother at age five. I like the matching bow ties. In the red frame at right is my husband with his parents during one of our visits to Antigua the year after we were married. All these mothers and fathers and firstborn sons, and the sons and daughters and their children not pictured. Strings of my heart, all.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Lady G

My mom is 89 years old today. There she is above, all elegance and grace, my father teasingly poking her with a pen. She is not deterred. She will maintain decorum until the shutter clicks, and then we will all crack up laughing. That's my husband and me on the far left, a week after we were married. Has it really been twenty-five years? Next month, my dad will have been gone for fifteen years. You can see his mischief here. He was a brilliant mind, a judge whose decisions made the most compelling reading. My mother was his editor, the one who made sure he didn't descend into legal mumbo jumbo, that his writing remained riveting and true as clear glass. They were partners in every sense. He became a sir, knighted by the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace for the measure of his work. I was there when he knelt and she laid the sword on his shoulder. That made my mom officially a Lady, which she had always been anyway, just ask her sisters.

It was a rare and hallowed thing to be raised by these two. I grasp that fully now. Oh we had our days of rain, our shadows. But there was love throughout. There was always so much love. I remember my father in his final weeks, flirting shamelessly with my mother on the last of her birthdays that he would witness. They giggled as he slipped his hand along her soft arm, a secret joke blooming between them. When I opened my eyes this morning, I could see so clearly the way my father's eyes danced when they alighted on my mother that afternoon. He was in a hospital bed in St. Lucia. She was in a cool blue linen dress, worry lines around her mouth, yet she couldn't help laughing as he flirted, and when she laughed she was radiant. They had been married forty-seven years but he was still just a boy who couldn't believe his good fortune in spending his life with this girl.

Happy birthday, Lady Gloria. I know you still miss him more than you can bear to say. But take your time here. Don't rush away. Somewhere he is waiting for you. He knows, as we do, you are beyond compare.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


I need to be careful with my words, so that I don't say exactly the wrong thing because even when the wrong thing is true and maybe even a necessary thing it can still be the wrong time and leave a mystery wound.

Maybe I can hole up here in the safe heart of my family, just the four of us, just the five six ten more of us, bonded by tangled familiarity and history and incautious love and reckless speech and forgiveness every time.

I am missing the particular blue of the sea that I grew up with, the cool bracing feel of turquoise flutes holding me close, swirling and swishing against my sun-warmed skin, the taste of salt on my lips, the memory of light and lightness and free.


Above the Bar

That's my son at a track meet this weekend. The camera caught him just before the snap, the sharp straight kick out and up of his legs that propels him over the six-foot-and-a-half-inch bar. It still astonishes me that he can do this.

What faith high jumpers must have in their ability to land when they take off flying, hurling themselves backward over a great height, trusting body knowledge, harnessing will and sinew to do their bidding, to remind their souls that they have always known how to soar.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Usual Posture 3

This picture makes me happy. 
She's so absorbed by her self-assigned task.
So capable and focused. Pure flow.


Last night at about 9 p.m., my aunt's home attendant called and said my aunt was refusing to get up from the sofa in the living room to get ready for bed. She said every time she approached her and tried to take her arm to help her up, my aunt would flail and fight and tell her, "Don't touch me." And then she would continue to just sit, staring into to space, into who knows what thought pictures were inhabiting that space. The home attendant asked if I could come over there and help because she didn't know what else to do. I asked my husband to come with me. My aunt feels very safe and grounded in his presence. We went across the courtyard to her apartment, and there she was, still on the couch, looking very small and hunched and bewildered.

She gazed at us when we walked in, as if taking a moment to understand who we were and then she smiled fleetingly. We sat on either side of her and asked her how she was doing and just generally chatted with her. We can no longer grasp a single thread of what she is saying, but we knew she was engaging with us in conversation just the same. At one point she was trying to tell us something, and we just listened and wished we could fathom what it was, because it seemed to her important. Eventually we asked if she was ready for bed and she nodded. My husband helped her to stand, holding both her hands while I got the wheelchair and pushed it next to her. But my aunt just stood for a while, unwilling or unable to make her feet do her bidding to turn her body so she could lower herself into the wheelchair, and after a while she just sat back down on the couch.

The home attendant sat on the other side of the room, shaking her head in frustration. She doesn't have the patience of the home attendant who comes on the weekends. This woman, though well-meaning and really very funny, is more brusque, wanting to get things over with. My aunt has a visceral negative response to that. It makes her want to resist with all the force she can marshal, which is still a lot.

My aunt seemed agitated when she sat back down. I stroked her hair, which always seems to calm her. And then I had the idea of offering her money to put in her pocket, since she is fixated on her finances above all else, having once run the Office Services department at Barnard College, and having had to dole out money to her two children for one thing or another her whole life long. Now that her daughter, the addict, is no longer in the house, money lasts a long time, as my aunt's needs are few. But she likes to have a few dollars in her pocket to give to her great grandsons when they visit, or to her grand nieces and nephews. When I pulled out three twenties and handed them to her, she brightened at once. I suspect she felt as if she now had some agency. And sure enough once the bills were safely tucked into the pocket of her dress, she began pushing herself forward to the front edge of the couch as if to stand. This time when my husband helped her up, she did her little shuffle to turn herself around to sit in the wheelchair and I wheeled her into her bedroom, where the home attendant took over.

Once she was ready for bed, we kissed her and she looked at us intently, trying again to tell us something. It seemed to be a story of a time long past, and we nodded and murmured to her and found a break in the unintelligible sounds she was making to say our good nights. As we walked back home I was thinking how very lonely it must be to be so trapped inside yourself, the memory still vivid of when you were powerful and in charge, but now you are dependent on the patience and humor of paid caregivers, waiting for the arrival of relatives who might or might not happen by that day, and who even when they do come, leave much too soon and never really change a thing.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pot Watching

My husband spent Monday afternoon cooking beef bourguignon, a recipe he's cobbled together from Julia Child's classic version and his own online study of other approaches. He picked and chose what made sense to him, and then he got out his lovely orange cast iron Dutch oven and he began to chop and mix and sear and brown and run back and forth to the store, adding and adding ingredients to the pot until his strew was bubbling happily, and all afternoon he would raise his face into the air to test the aroma and he would say, "Ahhh, it just changed again."

Meanwhile my daughter was in our bedroom with her friend from school, studying biology, both of them lying on their stomachs or sitting cross-legged on the king size bed, laptops open in front of them, drilling each other with note cards in hand. And every so often she would wander out to the kitchen to check on her dad's progress and to talk cookery with him, until finally at 7 p.m. everything was ready. We all brought out bowls and spooned in the exquisite brown stew rich with mushrooms and bacon and carrots and pearl onions and the most tender beef I have ever tasted and after we ate the meat, we sliced crusty bread to soak up the broth and really, I should have taken a picture but I was too busy enjoying myself and I didn't think about recording how sumptuous it looked when I first opened the pot until it was halfway done.

Willow had the presence of mind to take a picture.

Act as if

A leaf fluttered in through the window 
this morning, as if supported by 
the rays of the sun, a bird settled on the 
fire escape, joy in the task of coffee, 
accompanied me as I walked. 

—Anais Nin

Monday, January 17, 2011


The farm in winter by John McDaniel

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,
Letter From a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

The book Begin With a Dream tells the story of Manhattan Country School, the progressive elementary and middle school my daughter attended for the first decade of her life in the classroom. It's a memoir of how Augustus Trowbridge, a Philadelphia Main Line WASP whose forebears made the family fortune as merchants in the triangle slave trade, would use his life of privilege to found a school in which there would be no racial or economic majority and where each child would, in the immortal words of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Gus and his wife Marty were utterly inspired to do this work by Dr. King. Gus told me later that he and Marty sat in front of their TV screens watching the brutality that transpired during the 1965 March on Selma, and in that moment they knew they would have to do something to rebalance the scales of privilege in America. They would devote the rest of their lives to doing that. "Differences must be immediately experienced, treasured and understood," Gus wrote in the school's inaugural brochure, "because a school that avoids differences places education outside the context of living." 

I ended up being a sort of midwife to this book and I believe it is work I was meant to do. Perhaps it is why I happened across this small progressive school in the first place, and why its very walls whispered to me that this was to be my daughter's place. Perhaps it's why she was accepted despite the fact that the school is harder to get into than Columbia University in terms of sheer numbers. Surely it is why, the first time I heard Gus speak at a conference about his life's work, I went up to him afterwards and gushed, "You need to write a book about this." He looked somewhat startled, I was a stranger to him then, and he stammered, "Well, I'm trying to do that." Gus was retired by that time, and was no longer a daily presence at the school. But four years later, he approached me in the living room of the school, which is located in what used to be a very grand townhouse on the margin of the Upper East Side and Harlem, and he said, "Well, I have completed a draft of that book, and I would like it if you could read it and tell me what you think." It was the first time we had spoken since the day I so presumptuously suggested he write his story.

The next day when I dropped my then fifth-grader off at school, Gus had left for me 600 single-spaced pages in a binder. Over the next year, working together, we reorganized and edited the book down to 353 pages that tell the very moving story of a man committed to a mission despite all manner of obstacles, and a school committed to realizing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  My daughter is immeasurably richer because of her foundational experience at this school, which also has a working organic farm. 

From second grade on, classes spend a week together at the farm, three times a year. There they do morning and evening barn chores, plant, tend and harvest their own food, milk the cows, feed the chickens, weave textiles, learn to tap maple syrup, press apple cider, bake bread, and they cook all their meals together in the farmhouse kitchen. And when the chores are done, they play, city children running free in the country air. I could go on and on about the farm, but that is a story for another day. Suffice it to say, the farm is one of the many reasons our children are so bonded all these years later.

Seventh-grade farm trip.

Another reason is the fact that every year on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday, the entire school, led by its eighth graders, marches to commemorate the life and work of Dr. King. In my daughter's eighth grade year, her class chose the issue of gay marriage, reasoning that if Dr. King were alive today, he would certainly take up this cause. As he famously wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail on April 16, 1963, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Each year the eighth graders write speeches and deliver them during the march as a call to action. Their speeches tell stories or recount histories or imagine letters that illuminate the issue at hand. My daughter wrote her piece as a letter from a gay-bashing police officer who participated in the violent 1969 siege on The Stonewall Inn, ground zero for the gay rights movement. In the letter, the officer was explaining to his daughter that he finally understood why his actions on that day were wrong, and how much she had taught him over the years about equal rights.

On this day in 2008, surrounded by fellow marchers, our girl read her letter into a mic standing in the sub zero cold outside The Stonewall Inn, which is still open for business today. We were so very proud of her and her classmates, and moved by the rainbow of children, parents, teachers, friends, from the pre-kindergarteners to Gus and Marty Trowbridge, now in their seventies, marching for justice and freedom and unity, keeping alive the dream for which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived and died.

My daughter's class wore rainbow capes the year they led
the MLK March. Each eighth grader delivered a speech
about a contemporary issue of civil rights and gay rights.
Their teacher called them "rainbow superheroes."

We're Okay

Yesterday was weird.

Which was weird because the night before had been so much fun. Seven of us celebrated the birthday of one of my very best friends at the new Italian restaurant across the street where the staff is beginning to know us and the service is warm and neighborly. The little girl who lives upstairs and who my daughter babysits sometimes, made a festive crown with streamers and huge tissue flowers and paint and glitter gel for the birthday girl who is also her mother's best friend. The Movie Star was there. Our birthday girl is his best friend too. My friend whose birthday it was has a gift for bringing people together, which is how we came to be two social workers (not surprisingly, my friend's vocation), a documentary filmmaker, a ceramic artist, a magazine editor, an ichthyologist and a movie star at the same table.

This new restaurant doesn't yet have its liquor license so we brought in our own bottles, and my upstairs neighbor brought a chocolate cake and we all talked and laughed and ate good Italian food and drank good wine and had a lovely time. The people next to us kept watching our table and I thought it was because we were having so much fun, and because we were visually such a curious assembly of people and maybe they wondered how this group got together and maybe they also looked at the Movie Star with his Hollywood handsome self and thought "Isn't that....?" and then maybe they decided we were Glamorous People instead of a just a bunch of fellow travelers trying to make ends meet and make everything the way we think it should be but really never is. When we got up to leave the woman at the next table said to me, "That looked like a lot of fun," and it was, indeed it was. And she had the warmest most openhearted face and I had a strange desire to know who she was and to be friends with her and isn't it true that we never really leave high school.

And then on Sunday morning, everything started out perfectly normal and then in a moment when my husband and I weren't paying attention, we squabbled, neither of us listening to what the other was saying and the whole day just skidded off the rails after that. Maybe it was because I drank wine last night. I am not much of a drinker. I think it sends me to a dark place, not in the moment, but I'm starting to realize that the day after I can fall into a funk.

In any case, I didn't want to be around my husband because he was acting like he didn't want to be around me, so I went over to my mother's studio for a while, thinking I would sit there and watch a movie in the empty apartment while back at my house my husband yelled at the playoff football game on TV. But when I walked in I realized that I hadn't really been over to my mom's apartment since my cousin and her kids stayed there over Thanksgiving and so many little details were out of place, not the way my mother likes them, so then I started to put things back in their place and wipe down the windowsills and dust the furniture and scrub down the bathroom and the kitchen and arrange the cushions and change the pretty cloth doilies and change the sheets on the bed and stuff all the towels my cousin and her children used into the hamper for laundering, and I just kept going and going and couldn't stop doing, because if I stopped it would just assail me how much I missed my mother who is warm in Jamaica right now in my brother's house, and who might never come back to this little apartment across the way from me. She took everything with her this last time. Even her rolling walker, which is usually parked in the far right corner. It looked so empty, that corner. So I moved the antique chair that used to belong to my long dead grand aunt into that corner and folded my mother's red blanket, the one she loves so much because it is perfectly soft and never makes her feel too hot, and I placed the blanket carefully on the chair and now the corner looked occupied and not so sad. When I was done fixing everything I went to wash my hands in the bathroom and I used her bath gel and it was so much her smell, and I could remember the way she smells when I hug her and that's when I cried.

I went to sit in her recliner but instead of trying to find a movie to watch I called home. My husband answered. "Why are you still mad?" I asked him. "It was just a little stupid thing." In a mad sounding voice he said, "I am not mad, I am just watching the game." So I asked to speak to my daughter and she was pure light, pure music, the way she so often is, and she was browsing recipes on her laptop instead of studying for the midterms she has this week, and she told me about an onion and gruyere tart she found that I would absolutely love, and she made my heart feel tender and grateful and I started to miss her sweet face and so I decided to go home.

By the time I got there she had sorted the dirty clothes and towels and was gathering up the detergent and bleach to do laundry. I decided to go downstairs to the laundry room with her, just because I wanted to be with her some more, even though I hate doing laundry and have hired my daughter to do it like a real job, with weekly pay and everything. I started to help her put the clothes in the different washing machines, but she laughed and said, "Mom, you're mixing them up," so I laughed too and shrugged and left her to it and wandered over to the bookshelf where people leave the books they no longer want because we live in apartments and these small spaces easily get cluttered and sometimes you just have to make breathing room. And sitting on the bookshelf, dusty and coverless and waterstained was that classic deconstruction of transactional analysis, I'm Okay, You're Okay by Thomas Harris. It was written in 1967 and the language seemed already archaic. But perusing the table of contents I saw a chapter titled "P-A-C- and Marriage" and I turned to it. I soon learned that P-A-C stands for the Parent-Adult-Child aspects we habitually express. And the first thing my eye landed on was this:

"Marriage is the most complicated of all human relationships. Few alliances produce such extremes of emotions or can so quickly travel from professions of the utmost bliss to that cold, terminal legal write-off, mental cruelty."

And this: "Yet the average marriage contract is made by the Child, which understands love as something you feel and not something you do, and which sees happiness as something you pursue rather than as a by-product of working towards the happiness of someone other than yourself."

Those words, presenting themselves right at that moment, made all the difference. I decided right then and there to stop acting from my sulky wounded Child place, to try to get to my more generous and forgiving Adult place and let my husband off the hook. It was a petty thing anyway, and my mood was totally prolonging it. So I went back upstairs with my daughter, who appeared to have no idea that anything was amiss, and I behaved as if nothing was in fact amiss and soon enough, nothing was.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

January Love

I'm always so late in sending Christmas gifts. Mine usually arrive sometime in the new year. If it's a good year, they will be shipped before January is done. In a bad year, I might finally send something in July, or hand the presents to my nieces and nephew when they arrive for Thanksgiving. You probably think I'm exaggerating, but I'm really not. I'm usually too overwhelmed in December to manage the kind of organization required to choose, wrap, box and mail gifts on time. It's all I can do to make sure the people I will actually be with, such as my husband and children, are covered.

And so I find myself ruminating in January, trying to match the person with the gift, and trying to hit the right level of gifting. If you're shipping a gift, then it has to be something more than if you're handing a wrapped present to someone on Christmas morning. I'm starting to grasp how I arrived at this particular mathematics of gift-giving, one that keeps me stalled for weeks. It plays out like this: I will buy a gift for someone, and then it will sit there as I imagine that person opening the box and finding just this small thing, so inadequate, not one of many presents under the tree, not part of the party but a tardy guest who must now atone for the late hour.

And so I go out and buy another gift to add to the first, and this takes time, because I have to think about the person, in this case the three families worth of loved people in Virginia and Maryland who have yet to be gifted by me, and I have to come up with something as targeted as the first gift, something that isn't a throwaway but truly matches who that person is trying to be. It's easier for the grown-ups, they don't care really. They don't even have to get a gift, truth be told. But their children. I want their children to feel that I honed in on their hearts, to feel the thrill of what's inside the box, inside the festive wrapping paper in January, arriving all by its lonesome, missing all the hectic glory of Christmas morning.

The irony is my own children appreciate without question or calculation any gift that arrives, more so the love of the gifter. So why do I not permit my relatives who live at a distance the same grace? Why do I allow guilt to settle itself next to January love all wrapped up in Christmas paper?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chocolate Decadence

Chocolate Salted Caramel Cupcakes. Right here. These are richest, most decadent things I have ever tasted. This is what my girl spent her snow day making yesterday. She even made the caramel herself. I didn't know people did that.

I have to admit when I walked through my door last night, what greeted me wiped away all traces of my bad day. Not the cupcakes, as good as they were. No, it was the girl. And her sweet daddy, of course. I am a lucky woman.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Art of the Possible

Start by doing what's necessary, 
then do what's possible, and suddenly 
you are doing the impossible. 

—Francis of Assisi

Of course, I'm quoting the saint who venerated poverty above all else, so that might not really be helpful. On the other hand, they say whatever you need, give that, so living with an open hand may be just the way to ensure that money worries won't come to stay. In any case, faith is the thing. Faith that we will be protected, that we will have what we need, that we will be able to provide for our loved ones. St. Francis of Assisi was Italian born. The photo above is of my daughter in Italy last summer, looking into her little red wallet with an expression of perfect faith that what she is seeking will be found there. This is my lesson for today. 

Not Easily Broken

Sometimes when I am furious and frustrated, I cry. I am sitting at my desk right now, having just put down the phone, and tears like they're flowing from a damned open spigot are washing down my face. I'm not sobbing. I'm just infuriated and feeling royally screwed over by a certain enterprise and I'm trying to get a handle on myself because I have to be the calm, strong center for someone who is anxious right now and looking to me for solutions. I have to convey to this much-loved almost-grown person that everything will be alright. And it will, I know we will figure it out. But oh how life changes moment to moment and all you can ever really do is your best, even when your best falls short of what is truly needed. Today is not a good day. Today I feel fragile and breakable, twisted by my own fears. But I have to project assurance and the promise of everything working itself out in ridiculously short order. Fuck.

The Warmth of Other Suns

A note about one of the authors mentioned in my last post, the extraordinary Isabel Wilkerson (yes, I am a fan):  A former writer for the New York Times, she is the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in American journalism. Inspired by her own parents migration from the South to Washington D.C. when she was a child, she devoted 15 years to writing a compelling narrative on the nation's great unsung migration. From World War 1 through the 1970s, some six million Blacks fled their homes in the South to create new lives in urban centers in the North and West.

A reviewer for The Wall Street Journal wrote: “The Warmth of Other Suns is a brilliant and stirring epic, the first book to cover the full half-century of the Great Migration… Wilkerson combines impressive research…with great narrative and literary power. Ms. Wilkerson does for the Great Migration what John Steinbeck did for the Okies in his fiction masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath; she humanizes history, giving it emotional and psychological depth.”

Isabel Wilkerson is a writer of truly dazzling gifts, but it is her depth of research and her humanity that take her work to another plane entirely. I humbly predict that her book will earn her a second Pulitzer Prize this year. Remember I said that. You can find out more at

What was hidden

I opened my eyes yesterday morning with no dread in my chest, the day just was, and I was ready to meet it, and then I remembered it was the day of my audit. A very good day for an audit, I thought, even though I had tried unsuccessfully to reschedule it. But my auditor didn't call me back, and so I was forced to get as ready as I could in the time I had. I hoped the 1.11.11 date would prove auspicious in the best way. I was at least willing to entertain signs of good rather than the certainty of catastrophe. I had worked hard to prepare and now all I had left to to do was make multiple copies of the paperwork and organize them in the neat plastic sleeves that my sainted accountant had given me.

As I dressed, it occurred to me that the process of preparing to meet the exam had not been without its gifts. The effort to put on paper the details that would allow the auditor to understand the nature of my work, forced me to grapple in a new way with a nonfiction book I am writing. Suddenly, I understood exactly how to organize it, I knew exactly what voice to use. I realized that so many of the random narratives I had been writing, stories that forced their way out of me, were in fact part of the book. I have chapters already completed!

And I realized that even though I have recently felt as if I didn't care one bit if I ever published another book, now the stirrings were in me again, I wanted this one to see the light, to exist in a form as substantial as Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club and Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, which I now understood to be the godparents of my own effort. Both of these books are masterful pieces of literature, one of fiction, the other narrative nonfiction, and they are by writers whose voice and sensibility and practice put them at the very pinnacle of their craft. But, presumptuous as it might sound, these are the two books that, if they could birth a child, might produce the book I am trying to write—the book I finally understand that I am writing.

How did the audit go? Meh. It continues. But now I am calm. I know what its purpose in my life has been. So thank you, Uncle Sam. I know you'll take your pound of flesh but I got something, too.

Monday, January 10, 2011

He felt better

My son left to go back to school this morning. He was running late, but he did indulge me by pausing for this photo before he rumbled out the door. He already had his game face on. Now my living room is neat as can be. All the blankets and comforters dragged out of closets by him and his friends are folded and put away. The errant socks tucked down into sofa creases are waiting to be laundered. The electronics cords that just yesterday were snaking across my coffee table, have been rolled and stuffed into suitcases. All the cushions that he carelessly tossed aside whenever he dived onto the couches are back in their positions. Now the missing him begins.

They've got this

My son is not feeling well tonight. Dinner didn't agree with him. He lay on the couch feeling nauseous, which worried me because he goes back to college in the morning. Classes won't start for another two weeks but he has indoor track meets this week and next, and needs to be up to par. And you hate to send your children from your home when they are not well. You want them right there, under your care. He's going to be staying in the track and field house and not in his dorm room until classes start, which means he'll be roughing it, living out of a suitcase, sleeping on a couch. I don't want him feeling unwell. He's finally gotten rid of the cough he came home with at the end of last semester. If he's leaving me tomorrow, I want him perfect.

He hasn't packed yet. He hadn't done laundry either, but he managed to get his sister to agree to do it for him—for a price. I heard them negotiating and they settled out at fifteen dollars. My girl has a little cottage industry going there.

The thing is, she has a midterm paper to write for history, which is her hardest class, but one she finds very exciting because the teacher is so engaged. "Mom, he is a genius," she told me in that absolute 16-year-old way. (I could hear the exclamation points and I could kind of hear the f-word she didn't include to qualify genius.) She hates the hours of history homework she gets every night, but she looks forward to the classes, knowing she will be challenged, provoked, entertained.

The intel is that her history teacher is a very hard grader. The twelfth graders who had him last year told her, "By the end of the year you will adore him, but don't expect any As." Still, she wants to do well, and maybe she is hitting her stride because she got a perfect score on the last test. But now she is trying to write her midterm paper while doing her brother's laundry on Sunday night, and it is due in the morning. "Mom, I've got this," she keeps telling me when I try to shoo her back to her computer. She won't even tell me what the paper is about, because she says, "You'll just keep asking me questions and freaking out. I've got this." No doubt she does.

Or maybe this paper won't be her best work given the distracted last minute conditions under which she is working. But I have to keep things in perspective. It could be that tonight, her care for her brother might take precedence. Close to midnight, thinking it would make him feel better, he went to take a shower, and after he dressed, he went into his sister's room and lay down on her bed. She was cross-legged on the floor, tapping away on her laptop, and he decided to keep her company. But very soon, he fell asleep. The next time I looked in on them, she was putting the comforter over him, tucking the pillow under his head. I just stood at the door and watched her taking care of him and then she came over to me and hugged me, looping her arms around me in the way she does. She is a healer that one. When you are near her, you feel calm and loved and healed. My eyes just filled with tears as I wrote that.

Seeing her with her brother tonight made me remember another night back when she was two years old and her brother was four. He had misbehaved in some way that must have seemed very extreme at the time, though I can't remember what it was anymore. His dad had got down on his level, face to face, and spoken to him very sternly, wanting him to understand that whatever it was he'd done was seriously not acceptable.

We decided to give him dinner and put him to bed early instead of a time out, as it was already evening. He was not pleased. Both kids were sharing a room then, my son in the top bunk, my daughter below, and she sat in the middle of the room holding a stuffed toy and looking up at her brother as he sobbed in fury and sorrow and protest. Eventually he cried himself to sleep.

When I came in a short while later to get my little girl ready for bed, this is what I saw: She had climbed with her two-year-old legs up the ladder to the top bunk. She had tugged and pulled a pillow bigger than she was under her brother's head. She had carefully covered him with his blanket, and she had put the stuffed animal against his cheek. And she had fallen asleep up on top of the covers, curled up next to her brother. I went quietly out the room and called my husband to see them.

These children. They swell my heart.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Sarah Palin needs to take responsibility for posting the map that marked home districts and named the members of Congress who voted for health care with bullseyes shaped like the cross-hairs of a gun sight. Today, her violent incitement came to pass with the shooting in Arizona of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the killing of six others, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old who were standing in her audience outside a grocery store in Tucson. Just a regular Saturday morning torn apart by gunshots. Thirteen more were wounded by the fire and a young man described as "a fringe character" was arrested. Hate is ugly. And today it was deadly, too.

There it is, the fateful map with Palin's signature for good measure, like marching orders. And there is Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' name, four down on the left. The woman was shot point blank in the head while at a meet-and-greet this morning. She is now fighting for her life, while the right wing disavows any part in her shooting. They forget the rhetoric of hate and the crescendo of fear they have recently conducted like a doomsday symphony. What in hell did Palin and Beck and the Tea Party and Limbaugh and Boehner and the rest of that chorus expect?


Update on Sunday morning: News reports are that Congresswoman Giffords is responsive and "able to communicate" nonverbally.

An aide for Sarah Palin issued a statement saying her map had nothing to do with guns, it was all a big misunderstanding. Never mind Palin's earlier description of the map as her "bullseye list" and her tweet that said "Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: 'Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!' Pls see my Facebook page." Her Facebook page was where her map was posted. As of today, it's still there.

It is emerging that the shooter was possibly an untreated schizophrenic, which as Radish King notes in the comments, circles back to the need for easily accessible health care for those who are mentally ill. This is who Sarah Palin's 'Reload!" mantra is most likely to incite to senseless violence. This is why we need to be more responsible in our public discourse.

And finally, the dead. Among them was an aide to Giffords who was engaged to be married. A federal judge who came by to say hello to the Congresswoman. And 9-year-old girl who had just been elected to her school's student council, whose neighbor brought her to meet Giffords because she thought it would inspire the bright third-grader who was interested in public service. 

In a cruel irony, this little girl was born on September 11, 2001 and was featured in a book called Faces of Hope: Babies Born on 9/11. A short life bracketed by tragedy. Her name was Christina Taylor-Green. Her sweet face is below.