Thursday, September 24, 2015

Being at home

My son is housebound as he recovers from knee surgery and he's going stir crazy. Poor kid. At least the pain is manageable. He'll be in that leg brace for a while, and doing physical therapy to get the leg strong again. He's been working from the couch, solving issues by phone. And now it turns out that he has been offered a promotion for when he goes back into the office, because he's a bit of a workaholic, that kid, and they rely on him. His girlfriend also works hard, putting in long hours as personal trainer. They're so diligent and responsible. She is trained in theater though. She loves that world. Meanwhile my son wants to save lives. He said to me yesterday, "Stress is working hard at something you don't love. Fulfillment is working hard at something you do love." I worry a little about these young people working so hard at jobs that are not their dream, leaving them no time to pursue their heart's desire. Still, change can be set in motion on any given day. We who love them have to trust they will find their true path.

I have one more chapter to write to complete a first draft of the memoir of an extraordinary 97-year-old African-American doctor, and I cannot seem to write the first word of it. Instead I have been going through all her papers, piece by piece, and making adjustments in previous chapters. It feels overwhelming to put the final punctuation mark on the narrative of such a life. I have come to adore this woman, who hired me to write her life's story, and paid me enough so that I could focus on it with a whole heart. I am well ahead of my due date, so I will have time to go over the entire thing again, to refine and make it better. She wants to self-publish. Even if the book gets picked up by a mainstream publisher, she still wants to be her own publisher. She has no intention of waiting till 2017 to see a bound book and I'm thrilled she's so self-directed. We've determined I will oversee that part of the process as well, so if any of you out there have self-publishing experience, I'd love to hear your advice! (Brittany? Steve?)

Life scrolls on, one day to the next. My bones ache something fierce. I'm trying not to be nervous about how I will make a living once the book I'm working on is complete. I frequently get approached to ghostwrite or edit books, but for less money than it takes to live in this city. Much less if you want to know the truth. I'm grateful people want to hire me, but a book is an all-consuming undertaking, and I give my whole self to it once I say yes. So I really need to figure out how to charge properly for this, and to be okay if people say, sorry, that's more than I had in mind, even if there is not yet another job waiting in the wings. I have to trust I am on my true path.

On a related note, here is a pic from homecoming weekend at my daughter's school. She looks like she's having a blast. How is it related you ask? Well, I imagine finding or being on one's true path can feel a lot like coming home to yourself. I made that up, but I think it might be true.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


We are a lonely outpost in the city, with no close family near by. At dusk on a Saturday, when I've been inside all day and the the ceiling begins pressing down on my head, there is no one I can call. No one I can visit without first making an arrangement. For so many years my aunt and uncle and in some seasons my mother were across the courtyard, with other cousins nearby. The elders are gone now and the cousins moved to another city. I have friends, and maybe some of them get lonely at dusk, too, but we don't think to call each other on the spur of the moment. Unless we've made a plan, we stay in our silos. And so, at dusk, I sit on a bench until night falls and the lamps come on and then I go back inside.

Sometimes I go to a movie.
Sometimes I bury myself in work.
Sometimes I eat the wrong thing.
Sometimes I play Candy Crush.
Sometimes I walk slowly among the trees.
Sometimes I sit on a bench and read.
Sometimes I feel sorry for myself.

Sometimes I feel grateful my children are okay, and remind myself that while it can feel as if my life has imploded to the size of a thimble, theirs is big and wide, and these are thoughts after all that can only be indulged if one's children are doing okay. My daughter is at homecoming this weekend and performing with her step team, and my son seems to be rallying after his surgery, the worst pain eased. He and his girlfriend and his dad are watching football. I am going outside with a book. See you on the other side.

Knee surgery

Our boy had surgery to repair his torn ACL yesterday, and when the nerve blocker wore off last night, he was in pain, like tears at the corners of his eyes pain, the kind no prescription can touch. His girlfriend spent the day and night, taking such good care of him. She has a light touch and a gentle humor, and she's really endeared herself to me. She knows a bit about physiology herself, as she's a personal trainer. My son is really quite fascinated by the medical aspects of all this, and he's wondered aloud if maybe he should go back to school to be a physician's assistant or a nurse practitioner (but not a doctor, he said, as we binge watched the interns on Gray's Anatomy study for their boards).

He doesn't love school but he does love medicine. But what he's really interested in is trauma medicine, which is why he says being a paramedic-firefighter might be perfect. "As a paramedic you do everything doctors do in a crisis, but you do it while going 40 miles an hour in the back of an ambulance," he likes to say. He's also said that when everything is falling apart and the world is going to hell, he wants to be the one who can jump into the fray and help to fix things. His dad took the photo of him when he was just waking up after surgery, still a little loopy. I got permission to post it. I didn't worry about how the procedure would go, because my husband was there, and he's such a good man in a pinch. He has such a steady presence, he gives you the feeling that nothing can go too wrong while he's on the scene. Maybe that's what inspires our son to want to be the go-to man in a crisis.

The injury that led to this surgery might have felt like a disaster to me, but to our boy, I suspect it's an opportunity for first-hand research. And the pain is much less this morning. When he keeps the leg still, it's more like a throbbing ache now. Today, he'll be able to adjust the brace and bend the knee 30 degrees. He also ordered ergonomic crutches, which should arrive today—more anatomical research, with a bit of technology thrown in. This boy can tell us everything that is happening inside his knee, and he does. Like how when he gets up and walks on the crutches, the blood rushes to the area and brings nutrients, so that's good, but it also causes swelling and kills muscles, because apparently blood is toxic to the body. "Think about it," he said, "why do people die from internal bleeding? The thing that keeps us alive is also toxic to our insides." If some doctor reads this and it's not quite right, it's on me. I'm sure he said it right, and maybe I garbled it.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Last night in New Hampshire

Trump's response: "We're going to be looking at that and a lot of different things."

All my life I have wondered how the Nazi regime happened. I have asked myself again and again, how did it come to power, did no one see what was coming? Watching Trump now, sensing the tenor of the times, I have a persistent feeling that it crept into the mainstream in much the same way. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Light spilling in

I have two chapters, maybe three, and an epilogue left to write to complete a first draft of the book I'm working on. Some parts are really good but I'm not so sure about other parts. Hopefully I'll be able to suss that out in round two.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


In a parallel universe, this little girl is still cartwheeling in my house, and this little boy is still launching himself off the dining room table, convinced he can fly. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Before and after

On this day, so indelible in history, I'm remembering all the people grieving and displaced by events rippling out before and after that crystal blue morning in September fourteen years ago today.

My husband, who grew up on an island, asked with great sincerity, "Why would people climb with their children into a boat that is already overloaded? They know it's going to capsize. How desperate must they be that they can't wait for the next boat?" He was speaking of the Syrian refugees who perished at sea, who washed up on beaches, the perfect child face down on the sand, looking as if he was merely sleeping. Hundreds of thousands of those who made it across the open water are now pouring into Germany and Sweden and other countries that have opened their arms. It is a stunning display of humanity in the face of a stunning display of inhumanity.

Right after the man asked the question about boats, which was rhetorical really, I went to Sabine's blog Interim Arrangements, and she had posted an excerpt of this poem by the Kenyan-born poet Warsan Shire. It answered the boat question with heartrending precision. On this day, with the so-called Freedom Tower now complete, and with thanks to Sabine, I'm reprinting Warsan Shire's poem here.


no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Warsan Shire is a writer, poet, editor and teacher. Born in Kenya in 1988 and raised in London to Somali parents, she has read her work extensively as an internationally touring poet. In 2014 she was appointed the first Young Poet Laureate for London. Her first book Teaching my Mother How to Give Birth was published by Flipped Eye in 2012. (From her website bio)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Showing up

I wonder if the wind just wants to
sit still sometimes 
and watch the world pass by 

If smoke was born knowing how to rise 
If rainbows get shy back stage 
not sure if their colors match right

—Naima Penniman

I promised I'd stop hiding out. And so, when my dear friends Elizabeth and Michael from our Life Magazine days called last week to say they were going to be in town from Austin, Texas  and could we get together, I said yes. Elizabeth and I were reporters together, and her husband, Michael, was a photographer, and he and I were often paired on assignments. When I walked into the diner where we met for breakfast this morning, I had a flashback, seeing Michael sitting there, as if we were in some town in the middle of the country on assignment. Next to him was Elizabeth, one-third of our wild trio of reporters, who got up to all kinds of mischief back in the day.

It really felt as if no time had passed. We could have sat all day catching up, but they're in town for a memorial service this afternoon so we had to watch the time. I'm so glad they never gave up on me. Elizabeth has come to town and called me at least five times to try get together, and now we finally have, and of course, all the fear of judgment ("She got so fat") is unfounded, the years fall away, and it is only your friend you see.

We took a selfie to mark the occasion. What I particularly love about it is that you can see Michael's calculating eye as he sets up the picture. Here's a photo he took of me when we were on an assignment in Fort Wayne, Indiana when I was 26. We were in the airport coffee shop waiting for our flight back to New York. The sun came up and slipped through the blinds and Michael reached for his camera. Good times.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Jigsaw Puzzle

Our son left early yesterday morning for a trip with friends, the usual end of summer adventure the camp crew takes together. This year they're going to Texas—Dallas and Austin—some 8 of them, American and British, friends who've lived together in the woods for several summers and known each other for years.

The man and I were having a quiet Labor Day, no barbecues or other plans, as practically all our family has left New York City, they've moved away or took flight from this life, and we're the last outpost. Most of our friends were also having a quiet day, and here in our apartment, I went from the lake scene jigsaw puzzle I have going on the dining table, to my book project and back again.

A jigsaw puzzle! Now there's a strategy for calming a chattering brain. It's a fairly complicated puzzle, 1000 pieces, and I can sit staring at that thing and trying pieces for hours at a time. My mother loved jigsaw puzzles, so I feel her at my shoulder as I work on it. It puts me in an almost a meditative state, keeping my husband company as he watches football or tennis or the nature channel on TV. And when I go back to my book project, I find I do a lot less sitting and staring at the screen, as if connections were being made in the background of thought as I put the puzzle pieces together.

In the afternoon, my man suggested we go for a drive to the Palisades lookouts, just to get out into the day. It was lovely and peaceful, walking around, sitting on benches, people watching, snapping pictures of the magnificent Hudson River, chatting and just being together. Being married to this man is like having a constant playmate.

Yesterday was also my late great Aunt Winnie's birthday. She would have been 97. I called my Aunt Grace, the only fully coherent sister still with us, and she said, "I think of those three (Winnie, Gloria and Maisy) and their troubles are over and I know if I just lay down and closed my eyes, my troubles would be over too." She said this in connection with her younger sister Beulah last week being diagnosed with Parkinson's, which both Winnie and my mother Gloria also had, and she was worried she'd get it too. I reminded her that my mom didn't start showing symptoms until she was 91, and Grace was only 89. And perhaps she wouldn't get it at all. Maybe, like Maisy, she was just too ornery. That made her laugh.

The hardest thing about Parkinson's, I told my husband later, was the mask effect it produces as the facial muscles lose their ability to move and articulate. As my mother's expression grew more fixed and more vacant, I realized the degree to which I had always vibed on the her richly expressive face, the wry lift at the corners of her lips, the crinkle around her eyes, the skeptic's gaze, the great warmth of the whole expression. I didn't realize till I was telling my husband this that the so-called mask was what had been toughest of all for me to bear. The dementia I could deal with, especially since hers came with elaborate stories, but the mask more than anything told me I was losing my mother and that part of her was already gone.

I didn't mean to veer into sad. I'm actually not sad writing this. Doing the jigsaw puzzle, I'm remembering my mom as she was for almost the entirety of my life, her lively intelligence and quick wit, her patience and wisdom, her superb company.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Pop ups

This morning my son work me up by coming into our room with his phone playing the Whitney Houston song "I will always love you." He waved the music around my head till I opened my eyes, then he bent and kissed my forehead and nuzzled his cheek on mine and said, "I love you, Mama!" He was a happy boy and I was smiling too.

Then, still not getting out of bed, though it was already close to nine, I turned over and began reading the Washington Post on my Kindle. I tapped on a story about Germany welcoming some 100,000 refugees from Syria, Africa and Asia, with Germans greeting them at the station with hot food and warm clothes and places to stay in their own homes. Tears brimmed as I read it. The story estimated that before this is over, Germany will have given sanctuary to some 800,000 refugees, the only country in the European Union to throw open its doors.

October, our family's big birthday month is coming up. Our son wants a ukelele for his birthday. "I'm going to be homebound after my knee surgery so I figure I might as well learn something," he said. "And I've always loved the sound of a ukelele."

We're going to be upstate for my husband's birthday, as it will coincide with our daughter's night to run her own real live open-to-the-public pop up restaurant, soup to nuts, from deciding on a theme and a name and a cuisine, to menu planning and front and back of house management. It's for her Restaurant Ops class. The other students in the class will be her staff for that week. Every student takes a turn during the semester. Her partner is her suite mate from freshman year and fellow hotelie. They long ago planned to team up on this required course. We will be among their happy patrons. And we're staying at that bed and breakfast we love. It's been discovered and we can now only get a room there in the off-season (as in not on move-in our move-out weekends or graduation.) I think we'll try absinthe again at their elegant zinc-top living room bar.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Us two

We clash so much, this boy and me, and yet we are so much the same. We had a big skirmish in the middle of Home Goods on Tuesday, when he became highly offended over something I said as a joke. At least I thought it was a joke. He did not. We are fine again, but we couldn't help noting ruefully that had his dad been with us, the tiff would never have happened. His dad would have told us both to "knock it off."

I love and adore my son and am grateful that after our verbal skirmishes, we are usually able to talk about it and clear the air. A therapist told me this is a very good sign. I am also glad he has his sister to go to when I am driving him crazy. I could go to her, too, when he is driving me crazy. She always seems to understand, and is a gifted mediator, but I know it's not fair to make her our referee. So I go to my husband instead, who just sighs and says, "You two."

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The presidential race reality show

I feel like I have ADD lately, which is affecting my ability to write thoughtfully here, but I guess it's okay to skate the surface sometimes on your own blog. I think I just need a break from all the catastrophic thinking that swirls through my brain constantly. Not that it's stopped swirling, but for the moment, I've stopped trying to decipher what it all means. Maybe this is how you live in the moment.

In that spirit, here are some opinions—really more like impressions since I've barely been paying attention—about the current crop of presidential hopefuls.

Donald Trump—I'm convinced he's there for his own ego, masterfully manipulated by Bill Clinton into entering the race, and now he is happily causing chaos in the other GOP campaigns like a fat kid splashing in a mini backyard pool. He's turned the whole presidential race into an over-the-top reality show, complete with helicopter rides at the fair. He's a truly scary dude, though, if you listen to the things he actually says, and when he kicked Latino journalist Jorge Ramos out of his press conference in Iowa, and then one of his entourage told Ramos to go back to his country, even though Ramos is a U.S. citizen, well, I was just done with the bloviating blow-hard candidate. Again.

Jeb Bush—He looks either bored or pained whenever he flashes across my TV screen, as if he's thinking, Do I really have to do this? How on earth did I get myself into this? But when he starts talking I feel as if I'm back in the Dubya years, and his brother is still prattling on about the various wars in the Middle East he started for the greater glory of oil, and the Chaneys and the Wolfowitzes of the party are just licking their lips with glee that they'll get to walk back onto center stage soon. Um, no.

Dr. Ben Carson—I used to absolutely adore this man. I was inspired by his story of overcoming poverty, going from a child in special ed to the top of his class once he got a library card, and then going on to become a world class neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins who performed the first ever successful separation of twins conjoined at the brain. I even made my son write a paper about him in middle school; I though he was a role model every little black boy should know. But then. The man got into politics. Good Lord, why? He opposed Obama's health care plan saying it took us back to slavery or some absurd statement like that. And then he started sprouting his views and with dismay I thought, Oh Ben, I never really knew you. And now he's tied for the lead with Trump in Iowa. What?!

John Kasich—He said some things in the first GOP debate that surprised me, in that he's a Republican who seems to think it's our collective responsibility to take care of the poor, and while he doesn't personally agree with marriage equality, it's the law of the land, and he respects that, and if his daughter were to come home tomorrow and tell him she was gay, he would love her the same as ever, what parent wouldn't? Pretty revolutionary stuff coming from the right.

As for the rest of the GOP field, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and the whole 32-member carnival of right-wingers angling for the crown, one word: Yawn.

Hilary Clinton—Of everyone in this field right now, I would probably vote for her, but I'm just not excited about it. Why is that?

Bernie Sanders—I know I should be more revved up about him, too. His politics are progressive right down the line and he's not running a scorched earth campaign in which he tries to bury his opponents. He's all about lifting up the poor and securing the middle class and getting billionaires to pay their due. I'm impressed with what I've heard in passing. But so far I haven't been inspired to take a closer look. I'm bored. Maybe it's still too early in the cycle.

Joe Biden—You know, I'm not mad at Uncle Joe. With him, you know exactly what you're getting, and that's not a bad thing. He's a heart-on-his-sleeve resilient sort, by nature cheerful, even though he's certainly had his share of personal tragedies. If he runs, he just might give ole Hilary a run for her money. Stay tuned.

One thing I do know, the excitement I felt going to the polls in the last two presidential elections will not be there this time around. None of these candidates are a patch on this guy, and I'm sure going to  miss him when his term ends. But I hear he might be coming to my neighborhood, possibly taking a faculty position at Columbia. How cool would it be to walk down the street and see the man himself? It could happen.

Who's your leading candidate at the moment? Or are you trying to sleep through the noise?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Do places like this really exist?

Who lives in these idylls?
I want to go there.