just shut up

I was walking Lily around the pond recently and I ran into someone I don’t really know. We’ve breathed the same air on a few occasions but we’ve never exchanged more than pleasantries, if that. We’ve gone to concerts together as part of a group. We’ve had dinner together in a pub with a mutual friend. She’s close to someone I hung out with for a bit but there’s nothing there.

She was with a man and she introduced the two of us. No one said anything so I started in. I don’t even remember what I said but once I got going I couldn’t stop. I know she said something about not being chatty or outgoing and I said, of course, that I’m overly both. I think I opined that staying silent is safer. Silent people are either intimidating or boring. She’s the former. I talked myself into a twisted pretzel and walked away horrified and embarrassed.

Yesterday I walked into the better of the two neighborhood thrift stores with Lily. I’ve been cutting her hair and she looks a little silly. A young child lying on his father gestured toward her. They were comfortably nestled into a soft chair, probably waiting for someone. I asked the man if his son would like to pat her. He lay plastered to his dad, cozy but a little apprehensive. No, but thank you, he said. I asked how old his son was. Two. He was a big boy. “My kids were so skinny!” I said, wanting to say something about never having that heavy chubby weight on me but you can’t say chubby without possibly offending someone. I tried to talk my way around what would normally come out of my mouth and suddenly found myself saying “You have a perfectly squeezable package!”

I walked away. Holy fuck. Did I really say that? Oh my god. I went into the back room and composed myself after some cringing and laughter and walked out a few minutes later.

Why can’t I just shut up?

Because talking is too handy. It’s how I get by.

what I learned

Our trip was hard because of the fighting. My children were fighting with each other and I was fighting with one of them too. “We can just pack up and leave today! This just isn’t fun. It isn’t worth spending all this money if we’re just going to fight!” I yelled.

I DON’T CARE.

I HATE YOU.

I get so tangled up when this shit happens. I blame my child. I don’t get what’s so hard about just listening to and following a few rules. Don’t push each other into passersby. Don’t whack your umbrellas at each other and smack me or, worse, a stranger in the process.

I forget everything I’ve learned when I’m outside the walls of our house. When we’re out and about there’s no ability to say “I don’t like it when you talk to me like that. I’m going into another room.” When I’m stuck on a tiny cobblestone street with a wild beast I become a wild beast.

Getting home brought relief. We all have our own spaces. We all have things to do. We stopped fighting or, rather, the fights didn’t last for more than a minute or two. We got back to normal. Boring old predictable normal.

This past Saturday I woke up stir-crazy and a little lonely, a comedown after being away. I’ve been fantasizing for almost a year about picking a new and different location every few weeks and having mini adventures. The idea is to choose a destination (a beach, a waterfall, a small quaint town) with the added draw of a great ice cream store, donut shop, or any treat that might get my children motivated and interested. I decided we’d go to a nearby beach and look at the water. Maybe collect shells while walking along the shore. I did a little research and settled on Revere Beach because of a “hidden gem” of a pizza shop right on the main drag across from the water. I am driven by food and I’m particularly fond of small cheap hole-in-the-wall establishments. Ralphie and I love pizza. I promised Violet french fries and ice cream.

“We could have a picnic!” Violet said with excitement when I told my kids what we were going to do. Then they flagged and whined and said there was no way they were going out. I almost crawled back in to bed but I didn’t. We got in the car and off we went. The beach was empty and beautiful. The sky was blue and the clouds were fluffy and low.

IMG_9520

We bought pizza, french fries and chocolate milk and ate in the car because the wind was blowing sand onto our food. We played frisbee and collected shells. We took a long walk and Violet put her naked feet in the cold water. We laughed. We didn’t fight.

IMG_9508

Now I know what works: large uncrowded open spaces. Nothing annoying comes out of my mouth. No “Don’t….” or “Stop!” Just freedom and fun. No fighting. Nothing to fight about.

We got ice cream and went home. It was a good day.

 

IMG_9538

a family vacation

Sitting in this room I often dream of adventures I can take with my kids now that the three of us can actually get out of the house and GO places. It’s easier now. Maybe it’s time for a trip somewhere completely different, I thought. Spring break was coming up and our normal destination – my mom’s house – wasn’t a possibility because she was going out of town. What about visiting Paula in Tampa? She was off to London and the flights were crazy expensive anyway. What about an Air BnB on Cape Cod? Catherine and her boys had a great time in March when they stayed in one despite the chilly weather. I looked at a bunch. Everything was too pricey and too close to home to make it very exciting. Drat. Iceland? Yikes on the cost to fly there. Then I remembered the pull I feel whenever we drive to New York and the road forks: left for New York and right for Montreal. Montreal!

A quick web search told me that April is part of the “shoulder” season when hotels are cheaper and the city’s attractions aren’t overrun by tourists. I chose a small and darling hotel in the old port section and booked several nights.

I’ve read that it’s as important to have something to look forward to as it is to have the experience, if not more. We badly needed an adventure  after our dreadful winter but my brand of anxiety comes with panic associated with doing anything out of the ordinary. For the weeks leading up to the trip I wondered who the hell I was trying to fool when I planned this. Just my kids and me? No other grown ups? A completely unfamiliar place? When I couldn’t find my passport I was relieved to have a good excuse to back out but then there it was in a drawer.

I had been trying to wean myself off of Ativan last fall but it didn’t go well. I did it on my own with no doctor’s supervision and the panic that came with the withdrawal was worse than any I’ve known. I decided I’d go back to taking it as needed for the time being. I’ll do it right the next time.

I practice deep breathing when I remember. I am taking much longer walks with our dog. I’m even doing biofeedback, which has been proven to help with anxiety, but I’m not quite there yet. If taking medication means I’m not chained to a small and predictable geographic location it’s worth it. If it means my kids’ lives aren’t tiny because of my panic it’s really worth it.

The day we left I felt a wave of calm. Not a shred of fear, just excitement. We drove all the way to Montreal without incident. I hadn’t thought to print out directions because I have my iPhone to guide me but once we passed through customs we had no service. Somehow we made it to the old port section and drove around for half an hour until Ralphie noticed our hotel. “Mom, there it is!” Violet found us a public parking lot and saved us a heap over what we would have spent on the hotel’s valet parking.

Montreal is lovely. The trip was lovely. The only thing that sucked was how much we fought. Gone were the quick recoveries of late. Gone was my ability to keep myself from getting angry at every little thing. It rained daily and my kids wanted umbrellas. I bought them each their own with the warning that I’d toss them if they used them as weapons. The whole first day they jousted on the narrow sidewalks as I reminded them over and over that there were other people trying to walk too. They hate being told what to do. I hate having to remind them that they are not the only beings on the planet.

We got through and we even had fun. As we were driving home I tried to figure out what the hell had gone wrong with all the fighting and then it dawned on me. Duh. We had no downtime and no escape from each other. We were together in the same space for 24 hours a day without a single break. This was a running monologue I was having with my kids until Violet piped in. “Except the shower!” She and I had each taken plenty of them.

I cried when we entered Boston. This is not my home! These are not my people! I wanted to turn around but when we got home spring had sprung, the magnolias had blossomed and everything was beautiful.

fits and starts

Okay, mostly fits but some starts too.

The winter has been too long, too cold, and much too snowy. Vast mounds of snow and ice line our streets. Both front and back bumpers are hanging off our car after three months of smashing into snow banks to cram the brute into the narrow opening of our driveway. Crash goes the front bumper into the heap on the right of our driveway. Crash goes our rear bumper into the heap just across the street. Crash, bump, bang, slide, skip, spin, crash and finally come to a stop, settled into place against yet another heap o’ snow. Forget K-turns. This is a 20-point turn of tire-spinning madness. Open the door and slither slowly to the sidewalk, snow-skimming on one side, filthy salty car-nudging on the other.

One kid loves to play in the snow and the other stays inside playing with Lego weekend after weekend and for much of the February break. Our dog is patient. I walk her twice a day in this cold and that’s one walk shy of what she needs. None of us is thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

I have no ability to focus. Thoughts slip through my brain instantly leaving no trace of their existence two seconds later. Nothing stays put. I worry that I’ve got early onset dementia. It’s scary. I cry to my mother who really doesn’t need one more thing to worry about. She assures me it’s normal. She is forgetful too. I make lists for myself to show to my therapist:

  • Delivery mix up. I had been working on prints for a neighbor for several weeks. When I finally delivered them I went to the wrong house. I saw the dog at the door and wondered why she was visiting the next door neighbors. That’s strange I thought. They aren’t even friendly with each other yet. Only when the dog’s owner came to the door did I realize it was the wrong house. Wrong dog. Wrong house. “Early onset…” I say as I apologize to the woman for my mistake. “Me too.” she says.
  • Boots. I’m walking our dog at night and my boots feel weird. My gait is off. My pajama bottoms come untucked on one leg and I tuck them back in. Twenty minutes later as we make our way home through the snow I realize I am wearing one boot each from two different pairs. One is 4 inches higher up my leg than the other and also a full size smaller. One is snug and one is loose and it took me almost half an hour to realize what was going on. It’s easy enough to slip into the wrong boots when they’re all aclutter at the bottom of the stairs but still. It’s upsetting.
  • Print orders. I have many print orders to fill from my large portrait commission. It’s enjoyable and predictable work and I’m proud of myself for keeping track of everything via a spreadsheet. Even with all the information I need right in front of me I send invoices for the wrong item to people and print the photographs at the opposite orientation than we had settled on.
  • Words. I am constantly switching my words. It’s either using one that starts with the same sound and has the same number of syllables (though I just typed sentences – case in point) or there’s a little switcheroo in my brain. I say garage instead of yard. Brain scrambles yard and garage because they’re both found often before the word “sale” and god knows I love a yard sale. It’s embarrassing though mostly it happens in front of my kids who glory in pointing it all out. They say it’s only worrisome if you don’t catch your mistakes. I almost never do.

It’s troubling. It’s no fun. I lie in bed with thoughts swirling around my brain like a swarm of hornets. Is my IQ lower than ever? Am I stupid? Am I starting to show signs of dementia? Is it from years of drinking heavily as a teenager? Is it the years of drinking heavily as an adult? I don’t drink much these days but have the others bouts of it caught up with me? Is it the anti-anxiety medication I took regularly for years? Why am I so forgetful? Is it my addiction to the computer? I am as addicted as they come. It gives so much but it also taketh away. It gets in the way. “Let me just finish…” I say to my kids when they want to play with me. It’s hard to unglue my ass from this chair. I’m always awaiting the next juicy tidbit of news or funny or informative thing on Facebook or maybe an email requesting my photographic services. I spend hours reading reviews of LED light bulbs. Weeks are wasted online-stalking the all-clad pot I suddenly absolutely have to have after seeing it in Abby and Gordon’s kitchen. I want it but shouldn’t spend the money right now so I visit it over and over.

It all pulls me in and doesn’t let me go. I let it. I’m weak and put up no fight.

I have a new therapist who I started seeing this past fall when the panic attacks returned. She assures me that I am just extremely distracted and it has nothing to do with dementia. Stress can cause this she says. “I don’t feel stressed!” I protest and then find myself talking about the crushing weight of still not making much of a living five years after losing my job. I dredge up the contents of those five years and remember that I didn’t put work at the top of my list because there were far more important things to take care of like stabilizing my family. If I think about what we’ve accomplished here I am okay. Work comes next. It is okay. I need to tell myself that over and over. It will get better. It will happen. It’s okay.

But still. The brain. What the hell? Do I have undiagnosed ADD? Even if I did I wouldn’t take the medication so why bother with the testing? Would reading help? I haven’t read a book in ages. I read the paper online and, as I said, many a review but I have not held an actual book in my hands and read for the pure pleasure of it in far too long. I started reading short stories a few weeks ago and I’ve managed an hour a day ever since. At night the three of us lie in bed together reading. I am setting a good example and exercising my underused brain at the same time. It should help.

I realized I have almost zero contact with other adults now that my portrait commission is finished. I may have lunch with a friend every two weeks or so but that’s it. The dog walking crowd has been as shut in as we are so there are no pleasantries exchanged while scooping up shit or throwing a damp and slimy tennis ball. I am feeling the effects of cabin fever. I have too little going on.

A few weeks ago I agreed to be part of a focus group at a local hospital. The purpose of the meeting was to find out how patients would want information about breast density presented to them after having a mammogram. A new law has been passed requiring doctors to inform women with dense breast tissue that they have a higher incidence of breast cancer than women with less dense breasts. For the first time in ages I had plenty to say. I was part of a lively conversation! I was articulate! I was one of the more vocal participants and I left feeling helpful and satisfied. I was able to focus! I didn’t jumble my words!

I see a name pop up on someone’s Facebook post and a face flicks in front of my brain. It’s almost always the wrong Lauren or the wrong person with a common last name. Multiple friends with the same name but only one slot in my head for that name. I stop after the first syllable and move on. It’s time to reprogram myself. It isn’t coming naturally but I’m not giving up. I think it’s all about slowing down. If I don’t read the name, the date, the sentence or the paragraph slowly and deliberately my brain will rush in and flood me with bad data.

I go too fast. I rush everywhere I go. I rush myself and I rush my kids as they scramble up the snow mountains pretending they’re Cherokee chiefs or peace keepers. “I found some flint! Let’s make weapons!” one shouts. The other slides down the hill, snow crashing onto the only well-shoveled patch of sidewalk. I have to dig my nails into my palms to keep myself from telling them to hurry up or yelling at them for messing up the sidewalk. What’s the rush? They’re having fun. They’re playing. They’re outside. This is their childhood for goodness sake. Dinner can wait. Bedtime can wait. Let them be.

I am consciously trying to go more slowly. It’s a struggle but I have to slow down. Breathe. Think. Read. Write. Walk. S L O W down.

Today is the first day I’ve written anything in a long time. It feels hopeful to be productive and I know it’s because I had a plan for this afternoon. When I have too little going on I get nothing done. If I have something cutting into the vast expanse of day it all works a little better. I had a job scheduled today at 2 pm and it gave me just the right balance. I did a little organizing in the morning, wrote a little something and then took a shower to get ready for my photo session. It isn’t a shapeless day, it’s a day with something fun scheduled. A family photo shoot with a large and friendly family about a mile away. Their house is spacious, airy and uncluttered. I was headed there instead of shooting here as I normally do. I just texted the woman to say I’d be ten minutes late. It turns out I’m two weeks early. I skipped over the part of the text message that read “Friday, March 27th” and somehow slotted the job for today. Slow down. I may have started but I still have a long way to go.

 

 

 

a doctor’s appointment

You’re pushing 175 pounds and that’s just too much for your frame. “How have you managed to gain over ten pounds in a month?” your doctor asks. It’s three days before Christmas at your yearly check up. Hmmm, you think. Baked potatoes with 3 tablespoons of butter each (three at a sitting, at least) along with cheese and sour cream. Kale on the side for health. Key lime pies; tiramisu; ice cream sandwiches; ice cream sundaes; pasta with sauce, gobs of butter and 1/4 pound of parmesan. Those pesky burritos your daughter recently started eating, only good oozing with sour cream, slathered with cheese and you like broken tortilla chips inside for variety of texture. You eat your own and finish hers. “It turns out rice and beans aren’t that good for you. Too many carbohydrates.” she says. Shit. You were so proud to be eating this with your child. Beans? Really? As a vegetarian what else is there?

No wonder your new Levi’s weren’t making their way across the great expanse of stomach. You thought it was because you were drying them in the drier but no.

Your doctor says there’s a new initiative at the health center to set goals with patients. Losing some weight should be one of them. Clearly, yes, but not until after the holidays, you say. You have plans to make a couple of gingerbread houses with your kids on Christmas and you know you won’t be able to resist the thin crisp little cookies you’ll make out of the excess dough. You know there will be tasty buttery treats at your mom’s house and trips to restaurants while you’re staying at an inn with your kids.

You discuss the crushing panic attacks that have taken root in your body over the past few months. You’ve been weaning yourself off the Ativan and Clonipin you’ve been taking daily for over six years. There’s a recent study linking Alzheimer’s with benzodiazepine use and you want out. Your doctor agrees that going off the drugs is an excellent idea. These recent attacks are rougher and stronger than ever and they don’t come with a warning. None of your old tricks are working. It used to be just thinking back on what had been roiling around in your brain before the attack helped. Name it and it disappears. Not this round. There’s too much in your head.

It used to be you were unable to watch the news or read the paper. Your skin was too thin. Knowing too much made you feel like you’d just explode nervous breakdown style. You didn’t have any padding. No room for anything extra. The panic was more manageable because it was contained to your own small life and immediate environs. Now you’ve got a responsibility to be informed so you read the paper. You’re stronger and more grounded than you’ve ever been. You read it and read it and read it and sometimes it’s all just too much. A journalist is beheaded. Just the word beheaded is enough. And it keeps happening. Innocent journalists. Innocent black boys and men murdered by police and the police getting away with it. Good guys not winning. Bad guys abound. Girls kidnapped and raped. Families split apart. Death. Fear. Hate. Ignorance. Violence. Environmental disaster. People with guns shooting up schools and malls and movie theaters. And the unrelenting sorrow for so many strangers and for so many of the people you love who suffer.

Maybe not a good time to wean you both say, with the holidays coming up. But start  breathing. Start slowly. Carry the pills but try not to take them unless you absolutely have to.

You’ve always got them with you. Last month a lovely neighbor gave you three tickets to see the Nutcracker. You generally avoid crowds and suddenly you’ve got a little paranoia of bombs and kidnappers as you drive into the city. You get to the Opera House and your kids are bursting with excitement. They are actually on the edges of their seats. You feel the first wave of panic. You reach for the bottle but it isn’t in your pocket. It isn’t in your pocketbook either. You are stuck. You sit in your chair gripped with intense and paralyzing fear. You dig your nails into the velvet on the armrests. You don’t let go. Your mind races with ideas of what you might do but none will work. Sometimes talking on the phone helps but that’s not an option. There’s nothing. You start breathing deeply, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Nothing. You keep breathing but you’re deep in your panic. You don’t want your kids to know so you smile at them when they turn to look at you. You don’t stop the breathing exercises and then suddenly, fifteen minutes later, you are calm. Calm in the way of an Ativan. A lovely wave of calm. You feel great. You can enjoy the dance and, even better, you get to watch your children enjoy themselves so thoroughly. You can look up and around at the beauty and opulence. You made it through. Deep breathing will be your new best friend.

Exercise has been shown to be more effective for reducing stress, anxiety and depression than therapy and pharmaceuticals combined. It’s the New Year. You’ve got your goals set with your doctor just in time: breathe, exercise, eat less and keep moving forward. It’s already working. She will be proud.

 

 

holidread

You stay away at Christmas because Thanksgiving was hard. You did too much sleeping. You hid upstairs in bed and it’s no good for you or your kids and everyone else got mad at you. Never again you say.

You make a plan. Christmas at home, just the three of you, followed by two nights away at an inn and then on to see your family. Christmas at your mother’s in shifts seems sensible. Your mother, her sister and her son, and Catherine and her family on Christmas day. Your brother and his girls for a few days after Christmas. By the time you and your kids show up the house would be calm. No fear of staying too long because vacation is going to end soon. Every group has a chance to enjoy being there without being overrun by too many.

When you told your mom you had booked two nights at the inn she suggested you add a third. You go ahead and do it since this is part of your Christmas present from her. The inn was lovely. A sense of community found in the small outdoor hot tub. The preponderance of 8, 9 and 10 year olds and their interesting middle-aged parents. The huge bathroom with the claw foot tub. Your sister and one of her boys even came for two nights. The museum across the street was just right for your children. It was magical watching their  reactions to the art and installations. The kids had fun and so did the grown ups. It was heaven.

You arrive at your mother’s house and no one was there but her. You have dinner in the yellow restaurant and your daughter clings to her nana, happily burying her head in her chest. It feels good to watch your children have their nana to themselves and to listen to them tell her all about their trip. They need this special time with her like they need food and sleep. You stay awake all day, even watching a movie with everyone crammed into the small side room the next night. You are not hiding behind your laptop and you are not in bed. You know you’ve done it all just right.

It’s the third day. It’s the morning of New Year’s Eve and your mom’s best friend is coming over. You like him these days and it no longer feels like everything he says comes with a barb. You even enjoy his company. He surprises you with a box wrapped in Christmas paper. Last year you had gotten him a present but there was nothing in return so you didn’t bother to shop for him this year. As you open the box you wish you had something for him. Paper and more paper. “Did you give me an empty box?” you joke. At the bottom of the box are three tiny twist off samples of medicine for people with smoke, mold and animal allergies.

Your son has asthma. He is allergic to smoke and animals and he has been very sick at his nana’s in the past. You feel a little miffed by the joke present but you say nothing. You walk away. As you head upstairs your sister calls up to you. You suspect she’s going to tell you not to take it personally – that’s just Chuck. You tell her to go away. You can keep it together until someone notices there’s something wrong - it’s always like that – and you’d prefer this small hurt to remain private. It had all been so nice. No warning that one crappy gesture could undo you like this but there you have it.

You sneak out and have coffee with a friend. You recover. You head back and get cozy on the sofa. Your mother asks you if you’re going to be okay because otherwise it will ruin  Christmas. No one talks to you the rest of the day as you cloister yourself off, dog at your side, in bed. They’re mad at you for leaving your kids with them without asking. You thought they’d understand.

Maybe you’ll package up some dog shit in a nice box and leave it on someone’s doorstep on your way out of town with a little note. Maybe you’ll empty a chocolate sampler and shape fresh shit into the little plastic molds and top each off with a nut or a cherry, or better yet, make shit truffles covered in real chocolate and dusted with cocoa powder. Maybe you’ll put shit in a paper bag and light it on fire, ringing the doorbell before racing to the car. Maybe not.

my violet

I would be remiss if I didn’t write a piece about my daughter and how she has blossomed. It was hard for so long. She was in distress. I was too. It was as if the umbilical cord were never cut. Her hurt was mine and my moods were hers. Years into it I realized she wouldn’t survive if I didn’t get stronger and make some changes.

I wrote about her here and on Facebook. Some, but certainly not all, of our struggles were public. I worried that it wasn’t fair of me to do but this forum, and the feedback from the people who read what I write, along with the act of writing, was part of what changed my parenting, and helped her in return. I think the good outweighs the bad in this instance.

I forget the annoying psycho-jargon her school therapist used a few years ago when she announced what the problem was but it boiled down to our relationship being broken. “Mom-blame” is what someone said to me, rolling their eyes, when I told them what she had said but sometimes it’s true; I was to blame. But it’s never that simple or pat. Life isn’t always easy. We don’t always have access to our best selves. Sometimes we’re hollow. The rotten thing my kids have to deal with is that there isn’t another parent to take over when I’ve gone flat.

I am not good at multitasking. I can do one thing at a time and only one thing. I can’t cook dinner in a messy kitchen. I can’t pay the necessary attention to the cars and trucks whizzing past when there’s screaming in the car. I’m not a good friend when I have nothing extra. I couldn’t be a good parent when the stressors were too high. One calmed down and then another. Catherine isn’t sick. A not-quite-right relationship ended. More photography work brings fewer financial worries. In the midst of these things, years in the making, has been the struggle to become a parent I am proud of being. I am there. I like who I am to my children. I don’t react strongly to every little thing. I am able to both live in and enjoy the moment. I love being with my children and no longer long for time alone. The three of us are happy.

My Violet is her own separate self. When I get in a bad mood she can shake it off instead of allowing it to envelop her in a pointy black shroud. She is no longer terrified if I’m sad or angry. I no longer see her as an extension of myself, destined for similar mistakes and experiences. She trusts me and my love for her. I am finally worthy of her trust.

Screaming is no longer the norm in our house but the other night I got angry. Ralphie waited until bedtime on a Sunday night to tell me he had more homework. He’s in an advanced work class and it’s too much for him. The work is hard, the homework overwhelming and he’s missing recess and gym as punishment for not being organized and handing his work in late. He’s understandably stressed. He cried for fifteen minutes after I yelled at him.

I left him sobbing in a heap and went to bed frustrated. This is a boy who has to let it all out before we can make repairs. Violet came in and asked me to take some deep breaths. She told me to think about bunnies and rainbows. Then she said “You’re going to quit the job you don’t enjoy. You’re going to make enough money so we can go on fun vacations. Remember how much we all love each other and how much fun we have. I want you to think about who we love and who loves us…” and so on. She may not always answer when I speak but it’s clear that she listens. Her guided meditation calmed me down. Ralphie calmed down too and went to bed. Getting his work done the next morning did the trick.

Violet is a mother’s helper to a family a block away. One evening a week for an hour she plays with three little girls under the age of three while the parents go about their chores. She draws with the girls. They dance. Before I pick her up she reads them a book and she ends each visit with three big spinning hugs. She’s making money. She’s a responsible and lovely person. She has good friends. Nice kids who I like very much. She’s generous and shares the goodies I put in her lunch with the posse of friends she sits with in the cafeteria. She’s happy and calm and knows she’s well-loved. Gone are the cries of “You don’t love me.” Gone are the tantrums and upset. After years of being the snarly-haired mismatched girl she brushes her hair every day and has her very own sense of style. She is as solid and lovely a person as I can hope to know. She is my favorite girl in the world.

Uncle John

Last night I fell asleep with my kids again at 8 pm. It has been happening all week, maybe even all year. I usually wake up sometime between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am and get a little work done. Load the dishwasher and turn it on. Answer emails. Check Facebook. I often need a tiny bite of a sleeping pill to get back to sleep.

In the midst of last night’s insomnia I realized I hadn’t heard from my uncle John all week. I thought I had better email him and tell him he’s fallen down on the job. Where were my articles, the few off-color jokes and the occasional pictures of wildlife his wife Margaret takes on their property of vultures, lizards and spiders? I’d do it in the morning.

Usually I’ll see five, then ten, then as many as twenty seven emails from him each night a few times a week. They’re almost all New York Times articles he forwards on to me, my brother and a few other relatives I don’t know. Sometimes I get excited when I see new emails. Maybe it’s a job offer. Maybe there’s an unexpected email from a long lost friend in there. Usually they’re all from John. I roll my eyes a little and then give them a good scan. Sometimes I mark them all as read, thinking I’ll get back to them. Sometimes I delete the ones I know I won’t read (a vegetarian doesn’t need a chicken recipe, for instance) and sometimes I open a whole bunch of them in different tabs to read one after another. He sends me a lot of interesting stuff I’d never have happened upon otherwise.

He used to call a lot but I could almost never talk. My kids make it hard to talk on the phone and with John I need a solid uninterrupted hour. He fills me in on family tidbits both present and historical. He talks about things he’s read or heard on NPR. He asks after my sisters and my mother and listens to me talk about my kids and whatever is going on in our lives. I rarely have that hour. When my children were younger and would actually sleep during car trips I’d call him when we were driving to New York. He is a good listener and a champion of anyone’s struggles. He’s a tireless optimist and I’ve never heard him complain. Not once.

Thirty eight years ago when he was just 27, he dove off a boat into what turned out to be very shallow water and broke his neck and his back. He became a quadriplegic and slowly adjusted to life in a wheelchair with complete dependence on others. He married the nurse who had cared for him for so many months (a year?) in the hospital. He lived in Richmond, VA and my grandparents on my dad’s side lived in Princeton, NJ above their his and hers antique shops on Nassau Street. They left Princeton and moved to Richmond to take care of John. They’re long dead.

John loves to eat but somehow I never manage to send him anything yummy. I feel guilty and bad that I don’t call him more. I know he just wants to talk and keep in touch with those he loves. It is his life. I discovered, just recently, that he has been bedridden for thirteen years. Thirteen years in one room in bed with his phone, his computer, his radio and Margaret somewhere nearby cooking or tending to the vultures. Friends visit and call. Margaret takes long walks. She keeps bees and grows food. A long series of dogs and cats have kept them company over the years. Nimrod. Bones. Those are the names I remember.

I loved a few pictures of the vultures that spend summers in their driveway and wrote to John and Margaret a month ago to say as much. In the process I discovered that I could fill them in on what’s going on here and ask after them via email and not have to worry about not having the time to talk. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? I wrote to him last month: “I am sorry I am such a lousy correspondent. I realize I make every small thing into a huge thing and I am slowly learning to take deeper breaths and let go of things that don’t matter. You are an excellent teacher for that. You never complain. You seem to make the very best out of your life and I often think of you and I am amazed. Even though you don’t know it, you are quite a role model for me.” I meant it. He has had a life not many could imagine enjoying but he does. He has lived a full and fulfilling life in one room. It’s nothing short of extraordinary.

This morning my brother walked into our house and called for me. “I’m in the bathroom!” I yelled back. When I entered the kitchen he was crying. “I have some bad news.” I couldn’t imagine what he’d know that I wouldn’t have already heard. “Uncle John died.” It turns out that he had been in the hospital most of the week with an infection. Then he was better, no fever or anything, but he died just like that with no warning. My brother Ralph and John talked all the time for hours on end. John was wonderful to Ralph and Ralph was wonderful right back. His loss is more acute than mine. They had a real friendship.

I called Margaret after I heard the news and we talked for almost an hour. I don’t think I’ve ever had her on the phone for more than 30 or 45 seconds. “I’ll just get John for you…” is all I’ve ever gotten out of her in the past. We had our first real conversation this morning. We talked about things I never imagined we’d discuss and it was a huge surprise how easily and openly we spoke. She’s smart and incredibly attuned to, well, life. She’s strong and she will be okay. As my brother said, she has the practicality of the farm girl she grew up as, she’s an intellectual, and she’s someone who won’t take any shit from anyone. No one will take advantage of her as she ages. She will have cats and dogs, visits from vultures and bees to tend.

I am sad for Margaret and Ralph and everyone else who really knew John but I am most sorry for John himself. Margaret told me that he had two wishes. One was to be cremated, which will happen after they find the cause of death. The other was that he wanted to be revived if his heart ever stopped. In a family filled with people who’ve told me of their DNR wishes this surprised me and kind of broke my heart at the same time. When I imagine his life in bed with no control over any part of his body other than his mind I expect he’d be happy to be done with it all. But he wasn’t. Not in the least.

His heart did stop and the doctors tried and tried to revive him but there was nothing they could do. I am sorry, John, that you won’t smell Margaret’s pumpkin bread baking this fall or get to enjoy any longer all that you did so thoroughly. Rest in Peace. I will miss your emails and your voice on my answering machine. I already do.

a good place

I don’t like to write when things are going badly these days but this minute, this very minute, it feels as if we’re finally in a cozy and safe place. I can’t remember ever feeling this grounded. Never before have I felt absolute confidence in who is surrounding us. Never before have I had such hope.

I had wished for a fairy godmother for all of us and we found Terry. So he’s a godfather. It’s just as good. He’s the now retired minister from the UU church where I have a tiny part-time job. My kids adored him from the second they laid eyes on him, and I have as well. He’s generous and kind. He’s thoughtful and chatty. Most of all, he’s incredibly silly and fun. He comes over for dinner and afterwards my kids snuggle against him for movie night.

We lost our in-home therapist a while back. Though we were in a good place as a family, I missed the support for myself. If I’m good they’re good and I need reminders. I called to ask if it were possible to get someone new and a few months later two young women were assigned to us; a lead and one in training. They’re half my age and don’t yet have children of their own but no matter. The one in training is quiet so I don’t know her yet but the lead is whip smart. We took to her immediately. They have ideas and techniques to slowly draw a child out and they have subtle ways of helping us with self-esteem without being preachy or annoying. They’ll hang out with any combination of us every Tuesday night; we can all wander in and out as we please. On Mondays they’ll come to me. I asked what on earth our diagnosis is to have insurance cover all of this. Nothing, she said. “You just need support.”

Ralphie has had a Big Brother for a few months now. He’s quiet and maybe a little scared of me (he’s often late and I may have come across as overly fierce about that) but Ralphie enjoys their time together tremendously. They’ve gone to see the Red Sox, spent an afternoon at the Museum of Science, gone out to kick a soccer ball around and today they’re headed to the Museum of Fine Arts. They always get pizza and ice cream.

Violet’s Big Sister match came through two weeks ago and today they’re on their first outing. We all had to endure a long and boring pledge-giving, read aloud introduction with the match coordinator in the evening after a long day of camp and Violet retreated to her room mid-meeting. She wanted someone younger, she said, but I reminded her that she specifically asked for someone my age. I coaxed her out and once we were done with the signing, reading and discussing, M and V headed outside for ten minutes to plan their first day together. They both came back with radiant smiles. “Violet is FAST!” said M. Violet had challenged her to a race and had won. This morning when M arrived I had been sitting on the porch and Violet was still upstairs. M told me when they went downstairs after the meeting Violet had wanted to show her something. Violet had stuffed a whole lot of purple blossoms from our butterfly bush up her nose. Once M was watching, she exhaled and pushed them all out. M had thought it was hysterical. I would have talked about the dangers of breathing one in. Aspirating. I go too far. I am boring.

M is calm, patient, and soft-spoken. She’s sporty. She gardens. I am lazy, out-spoken and not always calm. Our raised bed is currently a sea of weeds with a few onions that reseeded themselves from last year’s crop that never grew. Violet loves to plant and they are spending the afternoon in M’s two public garden plots. She just sent me photographs of Violet digging and watering and then sitting at an outdoor cafe in front of a lovely bowl of ice cream.

I’ve waited for two years for a large portrait commission to come through. Once I had thoroughly given up on it happening it did. I am making individual portraits of +/- 100 people at a large prestigious medical school. The people I photograph will come from all walks of life and will encompass all professions from security guards to surgeons. I spent three days photographing about a third of them a few weeks ago, accompanied by two of the women who are facilitating the project. I didn’t have an assistant and I have a bum shoulder so they helped me lug my equipment from the garage to the room we were using. We made a good team. It was fabulous to have the camaraderie I don’t get working alone. “You’re so good with them!” they said. “You’re nice to everyone.” I am, mostly. The third day another woman working on this project, one who had been a little chilly during our first meeting, came by for a few hours. She said, over and over, how happy she was to be witnessing the day. She gave me a giant hug when we were done.

I haven’t felt like my best self in ages and I had forgotten there was such a person. Those three days reminded me that I am much more than an under-employed artist and perhaps the world’s worst admin. I’m also more than a mom. It feels good and it’s just what I needed. They’re loving the portraits I’ve done so far.

Our house threw up on itself again but we are slowly teasing out our separate spaces. Violet’s own room is complete as of yesterday, just in time for their ninth birthday next week. Ralphie will have to endure my bed in what will be his room while mine is built. He’s a good sport about it. It’s enough to have a door to close now and again. The zero-season porch (freezing in the winter and scorching in the heat) will become my room. It will be a cozy little space big enough for a bed and bureau. I don’t need more than that.

Lily is by my side sleeping on the mail. The house is quiet. I am done writing and will start to clean. My kids will be home soon.

vanity

Last year I loved both of my children’s teachers. I wanted to give them something special for an end-of-year thank you so I offered them each a photo session. Neither took me up on it. Ditto for a “specials” teacher who seemed quirky enough to love the idea. I saw her this morning and reminded her that the offer still stands, one year later. She does so much and I’d love to give her something more meaningful than a gift certificate. “Can you do something about these?” she asked, gesturing to nonexistent jowls. I told her she will never be as young or as beautiful as she is today. Who gives a shit about the jowls.

I am attempting to stop fretting over my less than stellar body parts. I’ve got enough food to make my stomach fat. There’s extra room in there from my twin pregnancy. These are luxuries. If I wanted to badly enough I could do something about it. That’s a luxury too. When I stop eating bad things (GOOD things) I lose weight. That’s kind of great.

Pictures I hated of myself have become beautiful. Just wait ten years and take a look at the ones of yourself that you pick apart now. You’ll see. The amount of time we all waste worrying about our looks is crazy. Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t because I’m not. Not that I don’t, because I do, but I am on a kick to appreciate what I have right here and right now. The lyrics from “I Got Life” from the movie Hair come to mind:

I got my hair
I got my head
I got my brains
I got my ears
I got my eyes
I got my nose
I got my mouth
I got my teeth

I got my tongue
I got my chin
I got my neck
I got my tits
I got my heart
I got my soul
I got my back
I got my ass

I got my arms
I got my hands
I got my fingers
Got my legs
I got my feet
I got my toes
I got my liver
Got my blood

I’ve told everyone who has dabbed hot wax on my face not to touch the inner edges of my brows. When I was a teenager I used Nair and accidentally removed way too much hair from that spot. I had these sad little half brows starting mid eye and I decidedly looked like a piggie. A crap boyfriend reached across the table at some diner in Allston twenty five years ago and plucked out a hair that was growing mid-brow. I never forgave him for that. That was my decision, not his. I am protective of my brows. They need tending, as they’re unruly and straight – no lovely arch for me – and I don’t care if they’re thin or thick as long as they’re tidy. They’re the only tidy thing about me.

A month or so ago my friend waxed my brows and took hair away from that spot before I could stop her. I glanced in the mirror on my way out and left depressed. It took all of thirty seconds to shake it off by remembering that my sister has only one breast.

Yesterday I helped with a fundraiser my mother had for a friend who needs money to pay for hospice care at home. Many people who came have or have had cancer. They looked great. Even the ones with wispy bits of hair just growing in from chemo looked wonderful. Even the older man with the oxygen tank was elegant and handsome like my grandfather when he was gaunt and sick. People were radiant. They were alive. They were happy. It was a sight to behold.

The other day I asked Ralphie’s teacher if she would allow me to photograph her and her family as a present for her caring about my son when things were going badly. He loves her and he has had a great year thanks to her. I told her I’ve had a hard time convincing others to take me up on the offer but it is what I can best give. She said yes without hesitation. She didn’t say anything about her hair or her weight, or anything negative at all, unlike the preponderance of women I’ve photographed, myself included. She was smiling so much at the prospect of the photographs that she said her face hurt. That’s how I want to live. I can’t wait to get her here. I know the photographs will be beautiful. I aspire to be as happy in my skin as she seems to be in hers. It’s coming. I can feel it.

today’s happiness

Today’s happiness brought by a morning with no fighting. A morning I didn’t have to physically dress my child. A morning brought by (finally) coming up with a schedule of fifteen minute increments, each designated with an action, approved by all, and the stove’s timer.

7:30 – 7:45: play time
7:45 – 8:00: get dressed
8:00 – 8:15: eat breakfast
8:15: get in the car and head to school

I unplugged the internet so none of us would get swallowed up. I told my kids that if they completed their tasks early that block would revert to play. It was so simple and it worked. They got dressed and they ate and they played. We got to school on time. I wasn’t yelled at for rushing them. I will keep it up. I had my own schedule and I stuck to it. Half the time I’m the one goofing off and our mornings can be hell.

I looked at myself in the rearview mirror after my kids got out of the car. My wild and wooly brow would necessitate a call to the salon. I looked to the right and saw my friend walking to work. She sculpts the unruly and unwanted fur on many a human in our neighborhood. She hopped in the car for a ride and I made an appt. with her as we chatted. She can now book appointments on her iPhone for the salon. How handy. I asked after her brother-in-law who has leukemia. He has been in the hospital for six weeks. He hasn’t been able to see his four year old son once in all that time. She told me he gets to go home for a week. How lovely. The coffee shop down the street from their home in Brooklyn hosted a bone marrow drive and he now has a match. This morning’s happiness brought on by good news. The fact that a complete stranger would donate bone marrow to a person in need renews one’s faith in humanity. Not that I ever lost it, but still. It made me weep with joy and hope.

I love this friend. She is open and good-natured and chatty. She is also gorgeous. She stays afloat and remains upbeat when things are shit. She is sturdy and strong and nice to be around. She looked back into our car as she was closing the door and noticed a book “Bone”, which Violet is reading, on the floor in a sea of trash and smiled. “I love the mess of your car.” she said, and I believed her. I don’t let many people into my car. It’s embarrassing. It’s littered and filthy and this past weekend my mom said it smelled like a barn. A year or two ago on a very rainy day I gave a ride to a dad I saw getting soaked after I had dropped my kids off at school. I shoved the stuff off the passenger seat and he got in. I weakly apologized for the mess. After a few minutes he said “It’s not so much that your car is messy, because it is, as it is the striking variety of things you have in here.” I looked around and saw a toothbrush, a headless barbie, a single pink plastic princess sandal and god knows what all. He was right. It is a crazy person’s car. But I’m not crazy.

I got to work and saw the older guy who carries around bottles hanging out by the door. His cigarette butts often litter the steps to the church. One of his eyes wanders and he yells a lot. His hair was surprisingly clean and blowing wildly in the breeze. I’ve never spoken to him and I usually hold my breath when I pass him, just in case. I suppose I wrote him off  but this morning I asked him if he needed anything. He was surprised by my question. “What do you mean?” he asked. I said I wanted to know if he was hungry because I had some food. Did I have any coffee, he asked. I gave him money to get some. Happiness brought by having money to spare and a little kindness as well. Sometimes the latter is in short supply.

 

music

I used to have music on all the time. All the time. Nine years ago when I managed, finally, to get pregnant my appetite for it died just like that. Gone, too, were the late nights out seeing bands. That part of my life came crashing to an end. It had been, along with my job, my entire social existence and a large part of my identity.

An era ended and a new one began with two little beings to take care of. Ups and downs and downs and ups and inside outs. Crazy times and sane times. Awful times and scary times and fabulous times and all the dreary and boring or simply content days in between. But no music to speak of.

The few albums I listened to over and over again, when the stress of being fired slowly and tortuously was high, still make the rounds to calm and ground me when I need that in album form. I like some of the pop stuff my kids like. I secretly love the theme song to Frozen when my kids belt it out. Who doesn’t?  But when I buy records they fall flat. Nothing sticks. Nothing gets under my skin.

And I don’t want a boyfriend. Still. I can’t see it in my mind so it won’t happen. I remain without crush. I remain without that fizz of excitement when you see someone and you just know. It isn’t out there right now for me and may never be. I don’t think about it too much except to wonder why I care so little.

And then there’s the fact that I am fifty, or, um, fifty one. I sit in no man’s land. Under-employed, under-friended and under-inspired. Not young but not old. I live in a body I don’t recognize. A body I don’t know how to dress. I am of an age that looks silly in things I am sometimes still drawn to; clothing for the younger set. How do I dress this body? How do I fix her hair? What should she be wearing? What will make her feel alive? What will make her feel good? I just don’t know.

How do I diet? How do I stop with the key lime pies? How do I eat less pasta? How do I say no to that half stick of butter on said pasta? What about those delicious and cold glass bottles of Mexican Coca Cola made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup? How do I not drive down to the seven-eleven to buy a bunch when I need to make it through the late afternoon until bedtime? I don’t like tea. I don’t want coffee. I want coke. And key lime pie. And attention.

So if I want attention, and not just for the appealing retro sneakers I’ve been buying myself in bright orange and a deep blue, I have to make some changes. I have to eat less. I have to look in the mirror and feel good about who and what I see. I have to take long walks. I have to exercise. I have to try.

My pursuits are solitary. I photograph and I write. I take care of my kids. I take care of our dog. I work in a tiny office eight hours a week and am thrilled when my friends are there working too, but the overlap is sporadic at best. When the folks from the Food Pantry use the space every two weeks I am buoyed by their company for a moment or two. It’s lonely still.

A week or two ago I bought a dress and then I bought some very pretty sandals with nice stacked heels. I can’t usually walk in anything but flats but these are just right. They are a lovely pale grayish blue with eyelets cut into the leather. I needed something to wear that fit and looked good on this body. This body that has eaten less pasta and no key lime pie for two weeks in anticipation of a small opening I had last night. The weather cooperated and many friends came. I felt pretty. I think I looked good. I wore two small pony tails. Fuck the age shit; I like the pony tails and they get my hair out of my face. I wore new mascara too.

One of my favorite bands from two decades ago has a new record out and I bought it. It has been playing all morning and it’s delivering. I’ve started to have the same fantasies I’d have at their shows years ago. He will notice me. He will want me. Something will happen. Things will change. The drudgery will be gone.

Ha. The concert is sold out. Others feeling just like me with better planning skills bought all the tickets. A bunch of 40-50 somethings rocking out like no one’s business. I want a part of it. I want to feel the movement of the crowd. I want to watch the sweat pour off the singer’s face and soak his shirt. I want to be in the front. I want them to play all my favorite songs so I’ll know all the words. I want to feel something different from what I feel right now.

My sister can’t listen to music because she can’t handle the passion it inspires. It gets her too fired up. It makes her want to do bad things. I understand. It’s happening to me.

bob

I’ve called him Bob and I’ve outed him as Joel. He was our family therapist. He left the agency he had been working for a few weeks ago and we had our final session during his last week. His biggest gift was not the time he spent with my children, it was the time he spent with me. He taught me, in the kindest way possible, how to get much closer to who I aspired to be as a parent. He never finger-pointed or blamed. He guided me in such a way that I discovered what I was doing wrong, slowly but surely, seemingly on my own. I am now a consistently calmer and more rational parent than I’d ever dreamed I’d be. He did so much for us on those Monday mornings sitting in the brown chair listening to me and gently making suggestions.

As we stood at the door on his last night, I thanked him for what he had done for us and marveled at the fact that he was able to keep our in home therapy –  something meant to last 3 – 4 months at most – going for a year and a half. His parting words were “I realized the best way to support your children was to support their mom.” Yessir. Exactly. It took a while, 18 months to be exact, but here we are in a much better place. I wish all parents in need had this kind of support available to them.

oh dear: for my mom part 2

I’ve always been known to be brutally honest. It amuses me when I hear myself described this way because I don’t see it as being out of the ordinary or bad. If I were to receive a diagnosis I’m sure there’d be something about social unawareness/awkwardness. I don’t think I fall “on the spectrum” but my synapses certainly don’t all connect as they should. I’m one of those people who lack a filter. I realize that I am horribly sensitive and terrifically insensitive at the same time. I simply don’t see the harm in honesty but I know it’s there. I’ve been told, and I’ve certainly felt its sting more than once – even tonight when my daughter told me my teeth were yellow.

When I write I can be more careful than when I talk, so I’d rather write. I can blurt and delete and that’s preferable. Write. Write. Write. Delete. Delete. Delete. Delete. Delete. I try to be careful in what I write but my version of careful still seems to fall south of my intentions.

I wrote about my mom recently. I was trying to explain how things went from bad to good in our relationship over the course of the last thirty years, along with an apology for the one-sided way in which I’ve told my little stories. I mixed in some seventies nostalgia and it got muddled.

I read it to my mother as I worked on it. “Wait a day.” she said. Then I wrote some more and called her an hour later, and then again a little while after that. She listened to me read it out loud each time and then suddenly told me it was done and to put it up online. She said it was great. I posted it. Many people loved it but a few days later I realized that my mother’s friends were completely quiet about the piece and I knew I had failed to do what I had intended.

A couple of people have hinted that I had pumped her up and knocked her down at a ratio of 1:1. Ugh. If a person had been reading all along and had the uncluttered steel-trap memory of a two year old then they’d have known that I was bringing up stuff I’d already written about, but this time with an attempt to see my mother’s side of things. As a standalone piece or a first read I can see how it didn’t quite cut it. Crap.

I asked my mom about it. “Well, you could put in something about our relationship now.” she said, though without any complaining or guilt-inducing tone. She isn’t like that. “You could put in what you like about me or why you’re proud of me.”

Yes, I can. My mom is more generous than anyone I know. She shares what she has with all of her kids and with strangers alike. She has helped us buy houses and cars. She helped me with the massive expense associated with infertility and I have my beautiful twins to thank her for. They are my life. Without her help both financially and emotionally I would not have my children, nor would I have made it through some of the harder times my children and I have faced as a family of three.

She comes to visit her grown children when we are in hell (and we are all in hell with some frequency) and she loves us and she loves our children.

She listens to people. She reads what they write. She helps them. She answers emails and fan mail. She’s a good friend. I’ve heard tell that she’s an amazing teacher. She leaves insanely enormous tips.

She has certainly lived through more than her share of hell and here she stands: strong, independent, incredibly well-loved and respected. By me! And by many more.

We’ve both had to work hard to get to where we are now. We’ve both had to overcome hurt feelings and chilly receptions over the years with each other. We’re not so good at talking about all that but we don’t have to. I don’t think either one of us likes staring too long under a rock.

We are friendly and we are friends. She’s the one person I can count on to laugh at the things I find funny. Most people don’t find my humor funny at all. Most of my jokes land with a great big thud. So when I have some hysterical tidbit stored up it’s such a treat to get her on the phone and hear her howl with laughter. I know what will make her laugh.