Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Desire is a house

“Listen. Look. Desire is a house. Desire needs closed space. Desire runs out of doors or windows, or slats or pinpricks, it can’t fit under the sky, too large. Close the doors. Close the windows. As soon as you laugh from nerves or make a joke or say something just to say something or get all involved with the bushes, then you blow open a window in your house of desire and it can’t heat up as well. Cold draft comes in.” 

—Aimee Bender, Willful Creatures

I don't fully grasp what that passage means, and yet I understand it intuitively, in a way I cannot quite articulate. I will try anyway. I think the passage is saying something about the authenticity of connection, the absolute commitment needed to sustain desire, the ability to keep all that presses in somehow light, lest it create stress fractures where desire can leak away, quietly, sneakily, or all at once in a whoosh through a window blown open by a wind in the bushes, by life itself. Desire, it turns out, can be a fickle guest, a fragile ghost—unlike love, which can fill up a house and is not undone by the limitless space outside of walls. It could be this makes no sense at all. But I do like that house, the windows glowing warm in the twilight as we drove by on the highway, the cold draft at bay. 


The text my daughter sent me this morning after getting out of her first class of the year:

"Mom, it's so good to be back!"

And now I can exhale.

Speaking of exhaling, here's a beautiful update: With the repeal of DOMA, my friend Mark and his husband Fred, who is French, have prevailed. Mark's petition for a green card for Fred has been has been approved. Here's a photo of the happy couple of 23 years and their lovely family, cribbed from Facebook. I imagine they feel as if the sky overhead is twice as large today.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Moving In

We're just back from driving our girl to college for her sophomore year. It was an excellent overnight trip, all things considered, and even though I thought this time it would be just us and our girl shopping for dorm and school supplies, my son and my niece having graduated, it turned out we still had a crew: Our daughter's friend and the friend's boyfriend tagged along for the shopping trip on day one, and my heart son E., who is in his senior year at college in the same town, joined us for last minute, just remembered supplies on day two. E. is our neighbor in the city. He and our son have been best friends since they were babies; he and our daughter now have a sweet, bantering friendship as well. I'm glad he'll be in the same town as her for another year. I know if my daughter ever needed him, she would only have to call.

I enjoy having the crowds of young people in our car. It makes me feel more connected to the present, their present, not so wistful for what is past. I love hearing their rat-a-tat overlapping chatter in the backseat, my husband and me listening mostly without comment but occasionally catching each other's eye in a secret sidelong smile.

Our girl will have her own room this year. Her single is as tiny as her shared double last year was spacious. I mean tiny. But that wasn't the worst of it. My girl was ready to deal with a small room in exchange for having her own sanctuary, but none of us could have predicted the walls painted in a particularly unattractive and closed-in grayish-purplish-brown. I have no idea who thought that color was a good idea for college kids in a pressurized environment in a part of the country that is bitterly cold and grey for most of the school year. Really?

My daughter solved the space dilemma by hoisting one end of her bed on top of the chest of drawers and double stacking risers on the other end. Voila, space opened up! She moved the desk from in front of the dormer windows so that the hutch wouldn't block her view; made her little rented fridge a bedside table, and set out her DIY projects on the shelves—the painted Mason jars and jewelry tree and chalk board. She hung her colorful scarves as wall art, and by the time we came by to get her the following morning, the space looked vastly more navigable. She was cosy and comfortable on her high bed, even if she might have to make a running start to get on top of it (I'm exaggerating). She sent back a suitcase and a large plastic bin with us. The rest of her stuff fit neatly under the lofted bed or in the fairly large closet.

There was nothing to be done about the color of those walls, though. I offered to call and ask the residence life people to paint her walls white as a mental health issue. I was serious, too. "Mom," she said, hands on my shoulders. "Stop. It's not as if I'm the only one with walls this color. I'll figure something out." She plans posters and string lights with photos and postcards and art clipped along it with clothespins. She isn't worried. My husband said, "Did your parents ever even see your dorm room when you were in college?" He has a point.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

They know how to fly

My son came home from the woods last night to spend our anniversary evening with us but also to borrow our car. It was interesting how the dynamic of the four of us seems so balanced, as if everything is back in place. It was lovely. But then he left again before daylight this morning to drive back up to camp where he will work his final day and then pack up his things and bring them and himself home. But not for long. Tomorrow morning he and a number of his camp friends will fly out bright and early for a week of revelry at the beach in Miami. Apparently this is something the counselors do at the end of camp every year, but he never could join them before because he always had to head back up to college. This year he's in the mix. That's him and one of his closest friends in the world out on the Sound last week, on a day off from work. My son is a lean six-foot-two. His friend J. is a lean six-foot-nine. He makes my son look look so much smaller than he is in real life.

Here's another picture of them from when they travelled to England together a couple years ago. I sort of adore this photo. They look so free, men of the world, owning their place in it. But I remember they drove a car that was so small, J.'s head stuck out of the sun roof. 

Our daughter is in the throes of packing up for her return to college tomorrow. One of her best lifelong friends is transferring to the same school this year. She is already there for orientation and just texted my girl how much she loves it. She and her mom and my girl and I had dinner together Thursday night before she left. She was so nervous, a mountain of clothes piled up on the floor in the middle of her room. She and my daughter were going through and deciding what she should take, while the mamas talked. I am glad these two will have each other. Here's a photo of them from this summer. 

My girl is also busy with various DIY projects to decorate her dorm room. She's over the moon about having a single, although her roommate from last year will be right next door, and another suitemate from last year will be two doors down. She's been painting Mason jars for flowers, pencils and coins, and has determined her color scheme will be soothing pastels. Here are the finished Mason jars.

My husband meanwhile seems to have ducked into his metaphorical cave, which might be how he deals with incremental losses such as our children flying the coop. I feel lonely out here on the plains without him but there's nothing to do but wait for him to emerge. Perhaps the engagement of driving our girl north and helping her get what she needs to set up herself up for the new school year will beckon him back. He's really very funny and charming when he's present. He can really set the mood. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

27 Years Ago Today

Happy anniversary to the love of my life and the wonderful father of my children. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Angels in the outfield

It's hard to stay mired in a funk when this girl is around. She has such a sunny spirit, she just reaches inside your state of overwhelmed and pulls you up for air, and she doesn't even know she's doing it. How did we get so lucky that she chose us? Some children are just easy to raise, and she is like that. A room gets happy when she walks into it. I think sometimes she looked down from baby heaven (a concept she used to tell me about when she was four years old) and said, "That one there, she's going to struggle a bit, I think I need to go and help her out." God, I am glad she chose me to be her mama.

We went back-to-school shopping yesterday, and we had so much fun, her trying on clothes, playing with reinventing her style, us chatting and laughing, just that. She bought dresses and playacted, "I'm a girl, mama! I have dresses!" She has, up to now, been strictly a jeans and sweatshirt and boots sort of girl unless forced to dress up for school events. But maybe because she couldn't wear jeans to her restaurant hostessing job this summer, she's branching out, experimenting. She did buy an army shirt that she threw on over those very nice dresses and belted at the waist. It was a look. What can I say? She is adorable in all of it.

So we decided to go with Mary as Aunt Winnie's new home attendant. The other home attendant, the one who does weekdays, was thrilled with my aunt's condition and mood when she came in this morning, and she and Mary seem to be working together very well already. My aunt seems to like her, as evidenced by the fact that she actually ate very well from her yesterday, and laughed a little when Mary sang. Mary does talk a lot, and sings—off-key but with gusto—to my aunt, too, and maybe that is a good thing given the long stretches of silence that would live in that house otherwise. Maybe we got lucky finding a new person so quickly. Cross your fingers. Hope we thrive. As Yolie said, "She may just be another kind of angel." And Steve said, "What seems peculiar may in fact be a gift."

Do you all have any idea how much I appreciate each and every one of your comments? How much they—and you—scaffold me? Today I am functional, aware of my vast blessings and hopefully on the way to just fine.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Rock, Paper, Knife

I am not entirely sure what is up with me. My throat and chest feel tight, like a rock is blocking my air, and all the external reasons I can come up with don't seem adequate to explain it. I sit here, tears spilling down my face, bereft, but of what? I wish I could do what some people know how to do so well, shut down, withdraw speech and love, envelop wounds in a cocoon of don't care. Even when they do care. Oh, I am a mess today. I don't know how to move forward. I am bleeding, but there are no knives in sight. I swear it feels as if I am bleeding out.

I need to stop watching Dexter.

My daughter goes back to college in a week. This does not help. Last night the realization came upon her. "Oh no," she moaned. "Summer is over. I'm gonna have to go back to classes!" "Transitions suck," I said, and she laughed. "Yes!" she agreed. "Big time. Too many transitions!"

Aunt Winnie, 94, has a new home attendant. We had to make a change because the weekend person couldn't manage her anymore and her frustration was making her unkind to my aunt. This new woman, I can't tell if she's really good or really strange. She treats my bedridden aunt like her little baby, cooing to her and kissing her forehead after every bite she takes or sip she swallows. My aunt has been refusing to eat lately. It takes enormous coaxing to get her to unclench her teeth. The home attendant who comes during the week is the only one who is able to reliably get food into her. 

Yesterday, I called my mom in Jamaica and asked her to talk to her big sister and encourage her to eat something. I put my mom on speaker phone and she said, "Come on, Winnie, one spoon for you, one for me, and know with each bite how much I love you." Aunt Winnie opened her mouth and took a few bites after that and then no more. The home attendant, Mary, then offered her Ensure so she would get some nutrients. She was patient and didn't give up and Aunt Winnie eventually did drink it down. But not before Mary launched in a high-pitched warbling rendition of "Amazing Grace," which did not seem nearly so odd to my aunt as it did to me. In fact, Aunt Winnie began to drink when Mary began to sing, and so I joined in and there we were, singing the hymn written by a sailor tossed in a storm at sea as she sipped her nutrients. When Aunt Winnie finally finished the milky liquid, Mary gathered her up in her arms and showered kisses on her head and cooed at her some more. I felt vaguely uncomfortable but Aunt Winnie was nonplussed. 

Mary definitely knows how to change her and turn her in the bed with the right motions and tricks so as not to injure her. She told me that the people she was working with before had asked her to leave because they wanted to withdraw food from their elder and whenever she came she would disobey that and feed her client. "She was hungry!" she exclaimed, showing me a picture of this woman on her phone. The woman was as tiny and old and emaciated as Aunt Winnie, and even though Mary should not have shown me a picture of another client, her affection for the woman was touching. Still, I'm not sure Mary doesn't have a couple of rivets just a little bit loose. I don't know whether to ask the agency to make her permanent on Aunt Winnie's case or not. I don't trust my own judgement. I guess I just need to observe their interaction some more. 

Life can be so fucking hard sometimes, and the hard can blindside you, too, knocking you down when you aren't paying attention because it seemed, just the moment before, that everything was going along just fine and you could let down your guard, breathe. I can't catch a proper breath this morning. It feels trapped somewhere just below my throat. So much free-floating pain. 

But look at this couple. Last night as I was heading out to meet a friend for dinner in the neighborhood, I saw them, sitting on a bench, heads together, talking. They had such a light coming off them. They seemed so happy. I asked if I could take their picture and he said, "Well, sure," and she said, "Life is just so good!" I told them I thought they were beautiful. They just smiled indulgently and graciously, and we introduced ourselves and talked for a few moments and then I went on my way. Their names are Lionel and Jean, which seems perfect somehow. I am holding on to the vision of them, today. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Anniversary Month

In a couple of weeks we will have been married 27 years. Look at us back then, at Bonne Terre in St. Lucia a little while after we got engaged. My father took this photo, which has lived in a frame on my parents' dresser longer than we have been married. Dang, we're cute, even in this sun-faded record. I don't think we fully understood or appreciated the extravagant gifts of youth. I'm trying not to make the same mistake at the age we are now.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Bonne Terre

I am lost in old photographs I brought from my parents' home. Here's one of my father and my son when he was just three months old. How my father adored him. As my boy got older, he and my dad were revealed to possess the same quirky humor. I miss my dad, who's been gone seventeen years, and in a different way I miss my boy, 21 years old now. He has been away all summer in the woods, and will be traveling with friends until early September. And then he will be moving back home. At least until he decides his next act. His plan is still to be a paramedic firefighter even though he's got a job as a track coach. His path will unfold.

Emotional Yoga

I started the day with some light yoga exercises, really small stuff, and yet it so invigorated me. Even my gimpy left leg felt stronger, less painful to move, and—this is weird—longer, so that my gait rocked less. When we were in St. Lucia, my brother, a doctor, said, "The mistake people make is that when one part of the body hurts, they forget they can still work out the other parts of the body." My brother said a lot of things that inspired me in terms of doing the work to become healthier. He has the touch, a knack for talking about what you need to do health-wise in a way that makes you feel as if he simply cares about you. You don't feel judged or criticized, just worthy and loved enough for him to share what he knows that might help you. And this being my brother, the good health guidelines are inevitably served up with a generous dose of plain good fun.

So yes, I started the day with a light yoga practice and it was eye-opening. Literally. I am so unfit. I remember when these exercises felt like nothing at all, no work or effort. I even wondered whether I should keep doing them because how could something so effortless be making a difference. Well. Let me tell you, they are not easy anymore. But they do invigorate and that's enough to encourage me to keep going.

Now if we could only find a workout for the emotions. This morning I came to work and had a fuss, let's call it that, with the writer I work most closely with. She was unhappy that she could not reach me last evening for a conference call with the lawyer about a story we are working on, even though I had texted her the number where I was. The text didn't get to her phone until after she was off the call. I wasn't particularly concerned because we're going to have to have many talks with the lawyer in the course of this story, but the writer was so extremely bent out of shape about my not being on the call. She felt that I hadn't heard the lawyer's concerns and so couldn't strategize with her about how to solve them. I told her I would talk to the lawyer myself today, but she seemed fixated on yesterday's conversation. I, meanwhile, was fixated on her tone, which came to my ear as an upbraiding, and at a certain point when it seemed to me we were going in circles, I said, "Look, I don't need to sit here and be scolded by you. I'm done. We need to move past this." She grabbed her papers and ran out of the room almost in tears. I sat there feeling totally bewildered and upset too. Had I been too harsh?

We work very well together usually, this woman and me, but occasionally we have these dust ups. I felt righteous and put out. But I also knew she was feeling stressed about what she's juggling, including a person central to her story who seems to be AWOL, and she said my not being on the call made her feel she was unsupported. I thought about that kindness piece I put up here a few days ago. I tried to get past the righteous indignation to tune in to what would be the kind thing to do. Finally, I went to to her office to talk to her but she was on the phone. So I sent her this email.

"I'm sorry I wasn't on the call. I tried to be on it, sending you the number to reach me, but you didn't get my text till after you were done. I am sorry you are feeling unsupported. I will call [the lawyer] today to get a sense of her issues so that when you are in the field next week we can strategize about the best way to address any legal concerns. I am sorry you are feeling upset; I am feeling upset, too, mostly because of your tone in our conversation, but I realize you probably don't know how it came across to me, just as I seem to be lacking full insight on how much this bothered you and why. So. I'm sorry. We can figure this out. I realize you are feeling a lot of stress and don't mean to add to that. If you would like to speak after I've talked to [the lawyer] we can do that. Otherwise, good luck with the issues you're trying to solve right now."

Truly, I didn't feel as if I should apologize, but I also knew it would enable us to move on. I'm not sure if I did the right thing or not. Everything still feels pretty crappy and unsettled inside me, even though outwardly we seem to be back on an even keel. I think I need some emotional yoga.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Up on the Roof

Our friends have a roof terrace atop their apartment building and last night they invited a few of us to gather there for dinner. It was a perfect evening, a gentle breeze stirring, various libations set out along with black beans and Spanish rice and Brazilian braised chicken and the most delicious salad I have ever eaten, with arugula, watermelon, mint and feta cheese, I even went back for seconds, and I am not a lover of salad.

And then the sunset came in, a blaze of orange over the river. Once it got dark we sang happy birthday to one of our friends, after huddling in the elevator alcove to light the candles in the night breeze. We sat a couple of hours longer, talking and relaxing into each other's company, and I was grateful after the work week that was, to be reminded that we have dear friends of more than fifteen years standing with whom we can raise a glass and tell stories and share history on a balmy summer night. That's a photo of the lovely birthday girl above. Another friend, pictured below, just texted me. "Last night was terrific," she said. "I felt blessed."

Friday, August 9, 2013

On Being Kind

This Syracuse University 2013 Commencement Speech by writer George Saunders is what I need to hear today and what I would like to share with my children. Photograph by Damon Winter/ New York Times


Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “Ellen.” Ellen was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well,everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.

Congratulations, by the way.

When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can….

And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really:selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Bey looks cute with her new short crop

And I know her head must feel light and free, too, with all that heavy hair subtracted. I'm feeling anything but light and free. More like weird and shaky, not moody so much as spiky, my energy uneven and uneasy. Definitely chemical, I know this clearly. But still, I'm quietly jumping out of my skin. I can't process much less write anything of consequence in this head space. So what you get is Beyonce's big chop as shown in the selfie she posted last night, which Black women all across America are having an opinion about today.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Grandma Camp

I found this photo later, and have decided it deserves a post all of its own. This was the crew every summer at my mother's house in St. Lucia. These blessed children.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

It gets better

Yesterday I was in a dark place. Today, the sun is out and the sky is blue and nothing has changed between then and now except the internal weather. Go figure.

So Jeff Bezos of Amazon bought the Washington Post. This is momentous news in my world. The man is a gladiator of innovation and he'll probably now sell Kindles with the Washington Post preinstalled, which will put many other newspapers on their heels.

Estimates are starting to come in for the work that needs to be done on my mom's home and so far they are very reasonable because the people who are doing the work all know and love my mother from when she lived there, or were sent to us by someone who knows and loves my mother, and I cannot tell you the blessings in all of this, with some of them refusing to charge for their labor, and the real estate agent/ project manager, who is the daughter of one of my mother's dearest friends on the island, whose family's shipping and storage business we will also be using, refusing to take any payment until the house is rented and she gets her commission. This says to me that she is very sure that she can get the house rented. And I know that the sentence before last was a very long sentence but I am refusing for the moment to go back in and fix it, which I suppose is my prerogative.

What else? I'm back at work. Our acting editor in chief has been confirmed as the official new editor in chief, which is a very good thing as this woman knows what she is about. I'm in that place where I'm learning new things again, and engaging on a new level in social media for the job, and it feels good to break out of what I already know how to do and have to master something new.

I have nothing much to report. I will soon be going through all the artifacts I brought home and no doubt I will share a few more of the photos here, but not today. One effect of spending the last week tossing and saving and organizing my mother's things is that our little apartment now looks impossibly cluttered, so full of stuff everywhere, and I just want to throw it all out and start with a fresh new palette. But of course, I can't. Not without a plan. Is it time to put out the mountains of books in every corner of my bedroom? In my closets, on my windowsills? Is it heresy to let go of bound books in an e-reader age when there will be fewer and fewer of the three-dimensional kind?

The photos are from places around the corner from my mother's house where we would go some evenings to drink fizzy cocktails and draft off their internet since my mother's house is not yet wired. We will have to wire it in order to get it rented. No internet is a deal breaker, even if you are steps from a pristine beach and various entertainments. We're all not really sure how this overseas landlord thing is going to work out, but we're getting a teeny bit excited by the possibilities.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Old photos found among her things

We went through literally hundreds upon hundreds of photographs in my mom's house this last week. Some of them I snapped with my camera, wanting them to be immediately accessible, not lost once more in envelopes, albums, random piles. Here are a few.

True love

My brother and me

Four of the six sisters, cruising in Alaska

When we met

Son, fishing

Daughter, fishing

Grandson, beloved

Granddaughter, beloved

The next two photos were taken at the airport in Jamaica when Aunt Winnie (far left) was returning to New York after spending the summer with us. In those days numerous family members would turn out for your send off, standing in a cluster on the gallery and waving until the plane was out of sight. I am the chubby girl in the pink plaid dress in the center of the group, biting my nails in the first picture, anything but graceful. My brother, the thin bespectacled boy beside me, has his dukes up, as he did in all photos from that time. We were, I think, 10 and 11 years old. I am sure my mother (in red dress) told me to stand properly for the second photo, admonishing me to put my legs together and stop biting my nails. Look how perfectly I complied. But really, the girl I recognize is the one in the first photo. She is, to my eye now, awkward in her skin but appealingly full of attitude.

Tiny Treasures

My husband and I arrived home last night after a week in St. Lucia with my brother. We spent the days fielding estimates from contractors, upholsterers, stagers and real estate agents, all in the name of getting my mother's house ready to be rented. The whole roof of the house will need to be replaced, the bathrooms refurbished, the wall paper removed, the carpeting in the bedrooms pulled up and replaced with tiles, the furniture reupholstered, everything plastered and painted anew, then arranged and staged for rental.

The packing up of our parents personal effects wasn't nearly so wrenching as I imagined it would be. And of course, my brother was there, and he likes to mix in the fun. So in the evenings after the work was done, we'd head out to the strip for dinner, or karaoke, or drinks at the hotel around the corner where we'd sit beachside sipping margaritas or amaretto sours as we checked our messages on their internet. I was glad my husband was there with me. He and my brother get along famously, full of banter and joking. It made the task at hand less arduous, much more of a communion. Some nights, exhausted from the day's labor, I would send the men off on their own and gratefully climb into bed with my book, relishing the expansive comfort of my mother's house before the coming changes.

Going through our parents papers and photographs and artifacts felt more like an honoring of the two who raised us, a peek behind the curtain of what we knew of them. There were some surprises, chief among them my mother's extraordinary stamp collection, dating back to her childhood, with pristine first day covers and correspondence with people from all corners of the globe, old stamps affixed to the envelopes, presentation albums from places as far flung as New Zealand and Cameroon, and as close to home as Jamaica and St. Kitts, and we didn't even know she was a collector, let alone an ardent one her whole life!

Finding these tiny treasures everywhere, in boxes labeled in my father's distinctive hand, in envelopes tucked in drawers for later sorting, or carefully put away in cabinets, we were confused. Who was the collector, we initially wondered, our father or our mother? And how was it they had never mentioned what was clearly an enduring passion. I called my mom, who confirmed she was indeed the collector. She almost cried when she understood that we had not tossed her stamps, that we recognized the loving hand that had curated them, and were gathering them together for safekeeping. My mother, speaking to us from Jamaica said, "I sat here worrying that you would find these things and not recognize their value. It eases my heart, you have no idea how, to know my stamps will continue to be loved. I am glad now that I never gave or sold them away."

There was one red album, among all the albums, that I recognized as mine from when I was 10 or 11 years old, the stamps lined up in so painstaking a manner I could see my OCD had been present even then. How was it, during the brief time I collected stamps of my own, that my mother never mentioned her own passion. Now that I was asking, she began telling me stories of walking to the post office in the rain as a child and counting out her saved pennies for a new first day cover. Come to think of it, my mother's first job was as a post mistress in Spanish Town. It makes sense now. That was where my father met her when he was working as a clerk of the courts there.

It was in such small ways that this week of sorting and tossing and keeping and cherishing filled in the details of my parents' life together. It was sacred work, in the end, and it brought my brother and me closer than ever, both of us so completely aware of the privilege of having been parented by these two souls. Rather than hollowing me out, as I though this week would, the curating my parents' possessions left me feeling filled up with gratitude and wonder and love.