Beating the Thanksgiving Rush

The cool thing about having a chronic illness, I’m learning, is that when you feel good, you feel really, really good. When rheumatoid arthritis snuck up on me a few years ago, I had some pretty bad months. Pre-RA, my joints and muscles have carried me through a couple of (very slow) marathons and even a few triathlons (ditto the very slow), but when inflammatory arthritis first struck, I couldn’t walk up the stairs without feeling like I needed to rest. My hands were used to doing things like playing  the piano and knitting crooked scarves, and for a while, I couldn’t reliably tie a shoe or open a drawer. I remember one morning when my school was about to have a lock-down drill and I had to ask our head of school, who was the only person nearby, to help me close the blinds in my classroom.

I was lucky, though. These sorts of diseases run rampant in my family, and when my nephew was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis as a toddler some thirty-odd years ago, my sister Judy decided to become a rheumatologist. (Note to any teenagers reading: you don’t have to figure it all out in high school. The path appears. Life emerges as you say yes and no.)  Long before I ever made it to a doctor, Judy had diagnosed my stiff, swollen hands over the phone. I didn’t have to go through years of wondering what was wrong as so many people do before getting started on a treatment plan that works.

The other thing that was cool about getting inflammatory arthritis when I did is that it’s what my brother Paul had. For about a year before he died, we bonded over my painful joints. He called whenever I had a doctor’s appointment, he told me what to expect, he told me I was normal when I talked about being tired. And I started to understand what he’d experienced, not always having good care, cringing when well-meaning strangers pumped his hand. I think about Paul every time someone gives my hand a particularly aggressive shake.

I wasn’t planning to wander down memory lane thinking about my siblings today. I was just going to talk about gratitude, like everyone does as Thanksgiving approaches. This was going to be a totally cliche post–life is good, give thanks!–which I might just still be able to pull off if I work at it.

Here’s the point. Yesterday I went to a “barre-fit” class at my gym. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. I used to do yoga, and I haven’t been able to keep that up. The few times I’ve tried, I’ve been frustrated at my inability to put much weight on my hands and wrists in downward dog, or to transition from a pose on the mat to standing without lumbering up like a stale marshmallow version of my former self.

So I went to “barre-fit” yesterday with some trepidation. (And yes, I know exactly what that word sounds like if you say it quickly! Not for nothing I teach teenagers.) I also went with some hope.

True confession. When I watch Dancing with the Stars (and no, the fact that I watch Dancing with the Stars is not the confession–I think I’ve admitted that here before), I imagine the season when they invite ordinary people to apply for a “normal person” slot.  And yeah, judge me if you want, but I want that slot.

Every year when they announce the stars, Fred jokes that he’s never heard of any of them. He calls them has-beens. I don’t care who they are. They agree to get vulnerable and to learn to feel things with their bodies in public, and I’m hooked.  I’m a “never has been” and I want to have to learn to dance a pasa doble before millions of cheering and jeering fans. I don’t know what’s wrong with me; I’m just telling you what’s true.

So, the sister who I admire for going to medical school when she was forty is the same sister who kept me from becoming the dancer I’m sure I was meant to become. “You don’t need to take ballet lessons,” I distinctly remember my mother saying. “You’ll just quit like your sisters did.” Perhaps Meg and Clare are also to blame here, but Judy is the one who ditched her ballet slippers under a tree in Elm Leaf park and pretended she’d lost them. (A pretense she maintained until my father’s liver cancer was well underway. When she finally came clean, it was too late for my career as an untrained ballerina to take off.)

Anyway, I’m just delusional enough to believe that there is still a path. Someday, Dancing with the Stars is going to call me, and God damn, I plan to be ready.

So. Barre-fit, or barf-it, or whatever you want to call it. I plie-d, I dipped, I put my feet in first position and held my arms out to my sides with intention, and holy Batman, what do you know, today I feel good. Sure, tiny muscles buried in the flab in my thighs hurt, but my feet, that have been screaming at me for about two years, feel like living things again, not clunky two by fours with nails in them. I’m hooked. I am getting my body ready for the day when Dancing with the Stars announces their “Every-woman” season. You heard it here first.

Now, back to that gratitude thing. Right now, as we speak, my church is welcoming a family from Angola to live in the rooms at the end of the hall. They are seeking asylum, and I’m a part of a community that believes we should welcome the stranger for real, not just metaphorically.

I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful for Judy who hated dancing and still blames her bunions on her toe-shoes, and for Saint Clare, the peacemaker, and for Pat, who kept his compass pointed home. And for Meg and Paul who left too soon. And for a lazy Sunday afternoon when Fred’s in Lubbock, and I’m cooking soup (again) and listening to the folk station on Amazon prime. Oh, and for Aurora and Cali, the granddaughters who just last weekend said, we’re choreographing Cali’s contemporary solo, will you help us? And for Luke, the grandson who in sixth grade can get through a Monday NYT crossword puzzle and likes doing them with me, and for Noah and Marissa who are making music in the youth symphony in Lubbock right now while I’m writing, and for Freddy and Cherisse who created all these grandkids, and for Fred, who opted in and has kept standing here next to me for some twenty-five plus years.

I didn’t even mention the friends, or the extended family, or the fact that my body feels flexible and energetic right now, or that the world’s most ridiculous dog is waking from his deep nap on the couch, shaking his head, nudging my knee with his nose. Let’s go for a walk, he’s saying, let’s prance, let’s throw a ball.

In her poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here“, Joy Harjo writes, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.” Every now and then, I think, it really is that simple.

Rusty doesn’t have time for poetry. He’s tapping my leg with his paw, losing patience. I close my laptop, dance up to meet him. It’s a good day to wag our tails. It’s a good day to go for a walk and kick up golden leaves. It’s a good day to give thanks for breathing in and out, for living in a body that can play.

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Things that Move, Things that Stand Still

One morning in July, Rusty nudged me out of bed at 6:30, amazed as always to have woken into another wondrous day. There were squirrels to see, bunnies to yearn for, birds to bark at. His whole body was wagging. How could I still be in bed?

I pulled on shorts and a t-shirt, slid my flip-flops on, and out we went into what passes for Eden. The air was cool, a good twenty degrees below the nineties we’d reach later in the day, and everything was moving.

Cottonwood fluff landed on my eyelashes; finches and cowbirds danced and dipped and dove. Trees quivered, a dotted line of ants marched crumbs across the sidewalk, and neighbors on their way to work waved from their cars. Rusty, beside himself in the brand new world, could hardly keep his paws on the ground.

At the far end of the street, high up in the cottonwood by the mailboxes, the neighborhood hawks are raising another family. The eggs have hatched and the birds are staying close; this morning one watches from the wall at the top of the hill while the other flies low overhead, gripping a doomed lizard. Tiny bits of bone and feather and fur litter the ground under the nest.

I was starting to think that maybe I would write about motion when I started noticing things that were standing still. I looked at the mesa, the Sandias tugging the sun over the crest, the thick trunk of the cottonwood I leaned on while Rusty sniffed and pawed at the ancient earth.

That was a few months ago. These days Rusty is sleeping later. Summer’s bright promise slid into golden fall, and I keep sorting the world into two piles: things that move, things that stay still.

I’m in my seventeenth year of teaching high school. I started in 2001, just before the Twin Towers came down. I was driving to work when I started hearing the story on NPR. When I reached my classroom, students were already crying. I remember saying something stupid, something to suggest that when we learned all the facts, things would somehow be ok, less terrifying than they seemed in those early hours and days of not knowing. Of course, that wasn’t true.

That day provided some of my earliest lessons in how to be a teacher. Understand that you don’t have what they need. Hold a space where they can cry. Try to be just a little bit stronger than they are, unless it’s one of those moments when they need to know it’s ok to be weak. Be grateful for structure; in a chaotic day, it can help to head off to chemistry class just because it’s 9:35.

Because I started teaching at this precise historical moment, my life divides neatly into before and after, just as in so many ways, the story of this country does. Because I started teaching at this precise historical moment, my work as a teacher has always been tied to my hopes and fears for the world.

Seventeen years isn’t as long as some things. It’s shorter than the time my sister Meg has been dead. It’s shorter than the number of years I’ve been married. It’s shorter than the number of years my parents lived on Marvle Valley Drive.

It’s longer than the lives of the students I am teaching now. When I started my life as a teacher, most of my students weren’t born. The students I taught in those magical early years are married, have children, lament on Facebook that they feel old.

My current and recently past students are in motion. They grow, they graduate, they move away, they come back. “How are you?” they ask me when they stop by on winter break. “What’s new?” Fine, I tell them. Nothing much, I tell them. I am still here. Some of them, I know, find this comforting, this returning to your past and finding your old teachers still mucking around in it.

Last week  The Birds of Chicago spent the week in residence at my school, making music for and with us. These people who tour over two hundred days a year taught classes, made us laugh, and yanked our hearts right out of our chests. We laughed and cried together while our hearts flopped around on the outside like fish at play in this crazy new thing called air. On Thursday morning after they played with our jazz band, I found myself talking to a colleague. “I want to go back and make every decision differently,” I heard myself say. Then the day took off as the days in a school always do, and I didn’t give it much more thought.

Do you know how, when you pray or meditate every day, answers to questions you haven’t even figured out how to ask appear fully formed in your head? Well, I haven’t been meditating every day, but I have been trying to write most days and to take a few deep, intentional breaths now and then, and, wham, somewhere mid-afternoon the answer to a question I didn’t know I’d asked popped into my head. “Do nothing safe,” it shouted, as though it was afraid I wouldn’t hear.

What the hell, universe? I’m fifty-three and ten twelfths years old. I’m healthy-ish, but that’s because I’ve got good health insurance that pays for one of those expensive drugs that flowy-haired women on horseback advertise on tv. I live in a beautiful, paid-for home in a marriage that works pretty well most days. I can afford to take violin lessons with my granddaughter and pay for the gym membership that keeps my joints moving. Sure, it would be nice to have a bigger number in my 401K, but I can’t really think of a different number that would make me stop thinking that. My only real gripe is that, when I read that the average age of menopause was fifty-one, I took it as a promise. That hasn’t really panned out for me.

So what’s up with envying people who spend two hundred days a year on the road, and what does the universe mean when it tells me to “do nothing safe”?

The next day I’m talking with my friend Nina who tells me about her friend the successful entrepreneur. His motto is “Think short term and rely on good luck.” It sounds like a prophecy, so I write it on a notecard and tack it to the bulletin board in my classroom. It’s terrible advice for teenagers, but I can’t bring myself to take it down.

So. October is sweeping the floors, getting ready to close up shop. November is dusting off the shelves, hanging the grand opening signs. I hear the cranes have come back. I haven’t seen them yet, but I believe they are here. The sycamore in the back yard is gold and going bare. The plum in the front is still green and going red. Some things are moving. Some things are standing still.

The problem is that I can’t figure out which one I am doing. On any given day I love my work. I love standing like a ledge, or a rock, or a launchpad in my students’ lives. On any given day I’m background noise or a faint breeze. On any given day I support or chastise or applaud while my heart swims out beyond my body and back again, over and over.

Those early lessons about teaching still hold. Just this week I’ve had students who needed strong, and students who needed to know it was ok to be weak. Just this week, I’ve held a place for them to cry. Just this week, I’ve realized for the millionth time that I don’t have what they need.

The problem is, lately I can’t figure out whether I’m living out my calling or avoiding it. Something is moving in me, stretching at my seams.

Maybe it’s just my body’s stubborn refusal to quit producing eggs, or all this Halloween candy, or another chronic illness come to swell my joints. Whatever it is, when it reveals itself, I hope I’m paying attention. I hope I will remember to do nothing safe. I hope I will remember to think short-term and rely on good luck.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, you might want to check out The Birds of Chicago.

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An Open Letter to Fear

Dear Fear,

 Cute how that rhymes, isn’t it?

 I know we’ve been together for a long time (see Marvle Valley Drive, circa 1977, babysitting, running home at night while Mr. Pierson looked on to make sure I wasn’t kidnapped and buried alive on our quiet suburban street), but there are some things I just have to say to you. This morning I was the pianist in my “Loose at Nine” ensemble at St. Michaels. I was the pianist because we are “loose” at the nine o’clock service, so this cool group of really good musicians is willing to let me learn how to play with them, as if I were a real musician.

That’s you right there, isn’t it? That little voice telling me I’m not really one of them, that I’m not capable of doing this thing I work hard at and love to do?

My sister tells me that I had a stomach ache every morning before kindergarten, and that she always had to walk me places. (“Walk Heather to the birthday party;” “Walk Heather to the bus stop,” she remembers.) That was you, too, wasn’t it?

We’ve known each other a long time, Fear, so I feel like I can be honest. There was that time when my sister died. My parents were sobbing in the parking lot of the funeral home, and my mother’s hair was orange, and I realized I could never let myself love someone as much as they loved my sister. You were good, Fear. That decision not to have kids stuck. I learned to keep some distance in my relationships, curling you up like bubble wrap around my heart.

That is, until I became a teacher. Then I started loving kids with abandon. I thought I had kept myself safe—they weren’t my kids; I was just loving them from afar. Disinterestedly, you might say. I thought you’d done me a favor.

You know what happened next. One of them died, and it was terrifying. Everything in me screamed “Retreat!” It took many good friends, a few priests, and an awesome therapist to tempt me to stand up to you again. You were pissed off about that, weren’t you?

And of course you came back; you’re a seducer. You make people think they are being responsible when they listen to you. It’s good to be afraid, you whisper. You hide behind virtues like “caution” and “responsibility.” Fear is the grown up thing, you tease us. You keep us from driving recklessly down a snowy highway, from opening our doors to strangers.

I’ve been watching you, though, and I think I’m finally on to you. Let me tell you what it’s like to play the piano. When I sit on the bench behind the other musicians and in front of the whole congregation, sometimes my heart starts pounding. Sometimes my hands get sweaty, and sometimes they even shake. Then my mind leaps in, taunting me. It says things like, “Really, you think you can do this? Shouldn’t you let someone who actually knows what they’re doing play?” Those are the nice things. I don’t know why I haven’t broken up with you before now.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. When you show up, my body gets small. My arms don’t want to stretch across the keyboard. I don’t want to move my whole hand from a C chord to a G minor seventh. I try to press the keys quietly, to speak without actually speaking, to sing without making the air move. It’s a disaster every time. I crash and bang and clang and make sounds that are simultaneously timid and clashing and ugly.  

It doesn’t work. The only way to make music, I’m learning, is to be bold. To wave my arms wildly. To press down on the keys with everything I’ve got pent up in my heart. To be open to every odd sound that might come out of me and to recognize all of it as praise.

Because here’s the thing, Fear. You know we’re not really talking about playing the piano. Let me cut to the quick.  You are killing people. Everyone is closing their arms and closing their hearts and wrapping themselves in bubble wrap—no, in body armor—because you keep telling us we’re in danger. You keep telling us that the cautious thing, the moral thing, the just thing, is to buy more guns, to thicken our armor, to shoot first. And the thing is, people keep dying.

One of my old students posted on Facebook that he’s terrified. He’s a young black man and he’s right to fear that the world tilts toward hurting him and the people he loves. Everyone’s hurting everyone, and, Fear, let’s get serious, it’s your fault.

You’ve got so many people working for you, and they’ve got the microphone. Immigrants are scary! Black people are scary! Muslims are scary! Hillary Clinton is scary! This is what they keep yelling, and they are so loud that people are listening. Another of my old students, who used to mimic shooting geese while I read Wordsworth outside under a post-9/11 sky, recently wrote a serious, evenhanded explanation of why he needs to carry a gun. He will be there, he wrote, to protect me and the other shoppers at Walmart or Costco when someone else pulls out their AK47. We should be afraid, was his subtext, of all those other people buying bologna and tampons and popsicles and of those politicians (you know which one I really mean) who want to take our guns away. Reading his words made me feel sadder, not safer.

And what about this, Fear? Not long ago I realized that every single time I’ve gotten in a car as an adult I’ve locked the doors. Sometimes I’ve done it hurriedly, even frantically. I know that there are carjackings in the world and I don’t mean to make light of them, but I realized that I’ve never ever ever had a person rush to my car and try to get in. It’s never mattered (“yet” I can hear you whispering) whether or not my doors were locked, but I lock them every time.

You’re an abuser, Fear, and I’m done with you. Until you stop pointing fingers, nothing is going to get better. People who have no business dying are going to keep dying.

I know we’ve been down this road together before, and I can hear you laughing at me again. But I am stronger than I used to be, and I know some things I didn’t used to know. I know that when my old student said he was terrified, he said it out loud. He said it to anyone who was listening. He opened his arms wide over the whole keyboard and spit it in your face. The people who responded to him didn’t say, “You are brave,” or “You are courageous” or “You are strong.” That would be playing your game.

What they said was “I love you.” What they did was open their arms instead of closing them. What they did was take off their body armor and stand vulnerable with this young man before the powers of hate.

In her poem “For Black Women Who Are Afraid,” Toi Derrecotte tells the woman “who has to be so careful” to “write the poem about being afraid to write.” 

What I’m really trying to say is fuck you, Fear. You’ve overplayed your hand. Any day now, we’re all going to bare our vulnerable hearts. We’re going to open our arms wide and make bold music. Listen closely to the back beat. I want you to hear us laughing.

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Simple

I think the grandchildren are playing a survival game. Things have gotten quieter than they were a few hours ago, when stuffed animals were flying from the loft into the family room, and ten legs were running up the stairs and down the stairs in random, urgent patterns. The cousins (five of them, aged nine through eleven) are together for a few days, and imaginations are flying. I’m cooking a pot roast and pouring a glass of wine.

I never know quite what the kids are playing. One year, all their games involved paper airplanes. They made hundreds of them. They taped long strings to the fuselage and launched their planes from the top of the stairs into the family room, over and over and over again. Like tiny fishermen, they would reel each plane back in, only to launch it again. For months we were finding airplanes all over the house: behind the piano, under the washing machine, slipped between a picture frame and the wall.

Now the movement up and down the stairs has gotten quieter. They tiptoe and hug the walls. The dogs, who failed to dial back their exuberance on the kids’ schedule, have been banished from play land. Circuit, my stepdaughter’s lab, has the good sense to fall asleep across the bottom of the stairs where the kids have to climb over him every time they go by. Rusty, never one to take no for an answer, still wants to play. He wanders from adult to adult, tapping us with his paw, nudging us with his nose, trying to get us to behave more like the children. We let him down. Eventually he gives up, falling asleep with his head on my feet, his body angled into the middle of the room like a minute hand. Many hours from now the last cousin will follow his example; the public imaginings of the day will give way to the private play of the night.

After the Texas cousins have gone home and the locals have headed across town, I find artifacts. Once I pulled a crayoned short story called “Spy Dogs and the Cats Jewel” from the trash. I kept it because the curly-haired seven-year-old author ended her story by throwing a cat into a boiling cauldron. Not to worry, though! It turned into a diamond! Judging by the exclamation points, the author thought this was a happy ending.

This afternoon, cleaning up after the maelstrom has blown through, I find three little scraps of loose-leaf paper. One says “Food” and includes a picture of a pizza. Another scrap says “Water,” illustrated by a half-full glass. I’m thinking about how easy it is to fill your needs when you’re living in single digits. I toy with the idea of making my own paper slips. “More retirement savings” I might write on one, next to a pile of money, or “more hours in the day,” drawing a clock with extra numbers. Mine lack the kids’ simplicity. Water, food. They know how to cut to the chase. “Dark chocolate,” I think. That’s better.

Snow falls in Albuquerque all day and I’m still thinking about those scraps of paper as I head out into the cold evening with Rusty. I like to pretend Rusty is checking on the neighborhood, locking the doors before we all call it a night. I don’t mean to suggest he’d make a good guard dog. If anything were amiss, Rusty would be the guy in sunglasses angling away from it, talking into the side of his paw. “Chief, I’m picking up something suspicious by the hydrant. Could be that coyote again. You might want to send Coconut to check it out.” Then he’d plant his feet, point dramatically with his nose, and refuse to take another step until I agreed to cross the street, putting some distance between us and whatever danger might be lurking.

Tonight there isn’t much to see. The clouds have cleared off to make way for a dim spray of stars. Outside the Griswold’s, giant blow-up Rudolph is having a tough time. His little engine is whirring away, but his front legs, which have looked a little wobbly all winter, have buckled beneath him, and his nose has become a red smudge glow on the snow. I feel like I should prop him up, or ring the doorbell until someone comes to see what’s wrong, or shoot him to put him out of his misery. Up the hill, green and red lights on a huge wall flash an aggressive “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

We’re meandering, here, Rusty and I. I’m thinking about how many times we have walked this circle around our neighborhood. 2015 was one of those years that you get to the end of, take a deep breath, and say, ok, off you go, year. Bring on a new one. It wasn’t that it was terrible, it was just one of those years that wouldn’t let you get complacent. I’m not even talking about the way the problems of the world kept clamoring to be seen and heard and acted upon. I’m taking 2015 personally. I mean Fred’s fall on the ice in February, his broken ankle, my mother’s death, my brother’s heart and liver problems, and the way my own body started trying to get my attention, way back in June, hinting that something new was underway.

I was standing up to my chest in the ocean outside my good friend’s condo in Cocoa Beach. I was laughing as the waves knocked me around. For just a moment I forgot to keep an eye out for sharks or tsunamis or rogue lightning from a storm ginning up ten miles out to sea. I was casually eyeing a big swell moving in on me. Should I swim out to meet it and dive under? Turn my back and let it surf me in toward shore? Where’s it going to break?

In that moment, one of those sentences that demands my attention, as if it were written in contrails on the horizon, came to me. Trouble will come, the Atlantic sky said. Pelicans were diving for fish and kids were playing with sand pails on the beach behind me. Fred was a few yards down the shore, walking in the shallow surf. Trouble will come, the world said to me again, and I found myself oddly flooded with peace. It wasn’t a warning; it was permission to let down my guard. Of course trouble will come. No need to keep an eye out for it. Worry disappeared like a bubble of salt air and everything made sense. For one eternal minute, bobbing in the swells, I was Buddha. I was at home in a perfect, broken, glorious world.

In the next instant, I realized why Sidhartha waited for enlightenment resting under a banyan tree instead of bouncing in the Indian Ocean. A huge wave I didn’t see coming somersaulted me into the sand. I surfaced with scraped knees, sputtering saltwater, hearing Fred laughing behind me on the shore.

And then the summer wore on and trouble came. The more yoga I did, the tighter my body tensed. The more walking I did, the more I found myself out of breath as I crested a tiny hill I’ve been walking and running up for years. The more sleep I got, the more midday naps I needed. As fall came and school started, I pulled a muscle in my back. Then my hands started swelling. Then my feet and legs swelled to where I couldn’t always get my shoes on. Pain became as normal as lack of pain has always been. In June I was kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding in the Banana River. In October, I couldn’t open the blinds in my classroom without asking a friend for help. Fred and I joked that I had closed the decade gap between our ages and then some; all of a sudden I was fifty-one going on eighty-four.

When I go to a new doctor, it always takes forever to fill out the family history paperwork. I need a box that says “all of the above.” Heart disease, check. Liver cancer, check. Diabetes, check. Alzheimers, check. When I was younger, I used to think that if I could just get out of my twenties without contracting a chronic illness, I would be home free. One day this fall while I was still trying to convince my doctor that something wasn’t right, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. It was the way I was holding my arms—the line from my elbow through my wrists to my fingers was a line I’d seen before. These weren’t my arms, they were my brother’s, who has been living with psoriatic arthritis for most of his life. They were my nephew’s arms; he was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis when he was three.

It turns out my autoimmune system is just like the rest of me, good at imagining trouble where there isn’t any. The story of my last six months is the story of losing my pass in the “Gets to Take her Health for Granted” club. It’s the story of watching my body surprise me, not with its ability to run another mile or balance in tree pose, but with my inability to close my fingers together into a fist, or to put on a shoe over a swollen foot. It’s the story of heating pads and fingers that turn white in the cold and joints that swell and drugs that work or don’t as they swim mysteriously through my blood. It’s a story of uncertainty, of learning to say “I can’t,” and of learning, for the millionth or so time, that I am not in control.

So I’m ok with sending 2015 on its way. I’m back in the house, tucked under my Steelers’ snuggy. I’m sitting on the couch with my laptop on my lap and Rusty’s head on my hip, my elbow resting just behind his ears. I’m thinking about Robert Hass’s poem “Faint Music” that begins with the line, “Maybe you need to write a poem about grace.”

Trouble, I’m starting to understand, is the guest you aren’t supposed to prepare for. He’s the guest that just shows up, and you either let him in gracefully or try to pretend you aren’t home. I’m trying to be a decent host to this idea that my body has a plan of its own. I’m trying to be grateful that my immune system did its job well for my first fifty-one years. I am grateful that chronic means something I’m going to live with for a long time, not something that is trying to kill me any time soon.

I couldn’t bring myself to throw the grandkids’ scraps of paper away. I left them on the kitchen counter for a few days, and then I brought them upstairs and set them on my desk. I fanned them out this morning, set them by my coffee cup when I sat down to write.

The third scrap of paper has a picture of a test tube. Inside, a blue ink liquid boils while bubbles float above. The word on this one says “Cure.”

Leave it to the kids to provide perspective. Water, food, and a cure. Bring on 2016. It looks like I have everything I need.

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Fogdog

There was a moment earlier this summer when I decided I was going to post an essay on my blog every Thursday. That was six or seven Thursdays ago, and if you’re reading this, you know how that worked out for me.

So when I woke up the other morning at 5:00, a good hour and a half before my alarm was planning to go off, it seemed like a sign. Go write an essay, the quiet dark outside seemed to be telling me. So there I was, trying to figure out the world again while Rusty and Fred slept peacefully down the hall. When I don’t write, it’s like not doing the laundry. I find myself staring at a giant pile and trying to remember how to sort it out. That’s where I am now: I’m staring at a summer’s worth of thinking and hoping I end up with all the socks in the same load.

I’ll start here. Sunday morning, my friend Margo said, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” I’m imagining a pain train. It travels around the world whistling sadness according to some undecipherable schedule. When it shows up at your house, you have to get on and go where it takes you. You never know when you’ll get off or what strange country you might find yourself in or who you’ll be travelling with. Some years, it seems like you don’t even get to unpack your bags before you hear that mournful whistle approaching out of the distance.

The essay I was trying to write all summer wasn’t about pain, though. It was about those days when the train seems to be coming right at you, and then veers off. It started like this:

Not long after my mother’s funeral this past May, my brother called me from the ICU. “Well, I passed away,” he said.

You can see why I had a hard time writing the next sentence, right?

Here’s what was strange, though. In those seconds when I was trying to figure out what to say, I felt myself stepping up onto the train. I believed, it turns out, that my brother could actually call me himself to tell me he had died. In addition to grief I felt wonder. Sort of, “So this, too, is how the world is.”

Before that phone call, I’d been trying to write a different essay. That one began with the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage rights, the Confederate flag slipping down the pole, and the President singing Amazing Grace at Clementa Pinckney’s funeral. I was moved by the reactions of the men standing right behind the President. As he started to sing, a few of them seemed almost to laugh. It felt like they, too, might have been having that moment—“This too,” in the midst of all this suffering, “is how the world is.”

Both of those essay beginnings kept rattling around in my head while I tried to figure out what my point was. I stapled them together and read a draft to Fred back in mid-July. “What’s your point?” he said.

“Beats me,” I told him, and went back to not finishing it.

Then a few weeks ago we took the grandkids to see Inside Out. In the movie, where emotions are brought to life as characters inside the main character’s head, Joy is something of a jerk. She’s determined that the little girl they inhabit needs to stay happy.

I have to admit, I was on Joy’s side for most of the movie. It didn’t occur to me to question her self-righteous grasping at happiness. I admit it–I was routing for her even as she drew a tiny chalk circle and told Sadness to stay inside it and stop messing everything up (“Well, that’s kind of mean, but it’s for the best,” I remember thinking.) It took me as long as it took this pushy cartoon character in what is ostensibly a kid’s movie to realize that things wouldn’t stop falling apart until perky little Joy stopped denying Sadness. (For the record if you’ve seen the movie, I also didn’t see Bing Bong’s sacrifice coming. “But you knew he was going to—“ Cali, the seventh grader said. No, actually, No. I didn’t. I believed that Bing Bong and Joy would soar together to the top of the mountain, that “this too, is how the world is.” Even after Joy reached the top alone, I still thought he’d come back in the end somehow. Can you see why sadness throws me for a loop every time? This is why I like mindless romantic comedies and get frustrated if I read too much Ian McEwan.) And if you haven’t seen the movie, I’m sorry that none of that made any sense.

As neither of those essays seemed to be finding its way, I started a bunch of others. One of them had me thinking about a few years I spent not so long ago trying to figure out the world. In my mind then, the world was either a scary wilderness, full of booby-traps waiting to snap and clamp their ragged jaws around my ankle, or a beautiful wonderland, full of love, and mystery, and joy. The answer mattered. Choose A and the right response is to hunker down, close up, keep your heart safe. Choose B and you peel back your skin and let everything in. Neither choice appealed to me. Option A felt like defeat, and Option B felt reckless.

Back then in 2011 when even my priest suggested I should see a therapist, I finally went. As luck would have it, the woman I finally chose from all the little slips of paper friends and colleagues had been handing me (my priest wasn’t the only one who thought I needed someone to talk to) was also a nun.

I think it was Pope Francis who said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” When I learned my therapist was a nun, I relaxed. She’ll pray for me, I thought, and then she’ll guide me through the work. I expected both to help. Over time, Sr. Therapist (she doesn’t know—or perhaps didn’t know until just now–that I call her that in my head), taught me to understand the world in terms of both/and. Yes, it’s scary and terrifying and might jump up and rip your heart out at any moment. And yes, it’s beautiful and wonderful and breathtaking.

I still have to resist the urge to ricochet from joy to sadness. I still want to send sadness to stand in that little chalk circle and leave me alone. But just today, one of my friends who knows me as well as anyone does listened to something I said and commented, “That was so realistic of you!”

Somewhere in the midst of all these half-written essays, my iPad told me that the word of the day was “fogdog: a bright spot that sometimes appears in a fog bank.” The Free Dictionary described it as, “A bright or clear spot that appears in breaking fog,” adding, “it accompanies fog as a dog accompanies its owner.” So, no “sometimes” in that definition. The fog and the fogdog jog along together. The OED adds that “On the banks of Newfoundland… fogdogs are considered precursors of clearer weather.” Cool, isn’t it?

When my brother and I stopped laughing, I thanked him for calling me with the news himself. Most people, I told him, leave that job to someone else. (And just in case you are like me, and find yourself able to believe in the unbelievable, I’ll clarify—my brother is alive and well and wearing a defibrillator vest in Pittsburgh.)

So there’s where the summer went. With each piece of scary news, I kept chanting both/and and trying not to slingshot between extremes. Last week before I messed up my back, I was doing yoga. I was standing in Warrior Two, and the voice on my iPad told me to trust my legs, to lean back farther, to feel my chest open. I did what the voice told me. I felt my legs pushing against the planet, and I felt the planet pushing back, holding me up. I’ve got you, it said. The pose went on and on and on and my quads started shaking. For a minute I felt something like panic, and then I felt something like peace.

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Rilke Meets the Little Red Hen

First, someone had to run down to the basement and get the big, blue-speckled pot from the shelf under the stairs. This person was the Little Red Hen, whose job was simply to say “I will!” any time my father said, “Who will help me get the pot from the basement?” or “Who will get the flour from the pantry?” or “Who will grease the loaf pans?”

The Little Red Hen, if you remember the children’s story, grew her own wheat and baked her own bread while the lamb and the pig and the cat sat around saying “Not I!” every time the hen asked who would help. It was a true story. We had a cat then, and I can’t remember even one time when Fluffy helped bake the bread.

After you got the pot from the basement, you had to get the black scale with the big round dial from the hearth in the family room. You probably had to move a bowl of walnuts out of the way. Then, my father would weigh the big blue pot, set the scale to the new zero, and start pouring clouds of flour. My father made so much bread at one time that it was easier to weigh the ingredients than measure them. In retrospect, it might just be that he thought it would be more fun. He was an engineer.

Let’s leave my father in the kitchen baking bread circa 1970 for a minute.

On New Year’s morning this year, Fred went to the grocery store, and when he came back I was sitting with my laptop at the kitchen table. I had pumpkin bread in the oven and I was writing about this line from Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend”:

“I have my dead and I have let them go and was amazed to see them so contented, so at home in being dead, so cheerful, so unlike their reputation.”

I’ve always loved that sentence. I was working on this essay and thinking about just how many dead I have. I was making a list, tearing up a little, and when I told Fred what I was working on, he said, “That’s life.”

I knew what he meant. Growing up in a huge Roman Catholic family, if you learn anything (well, anything other than that you shouldn’t have sex) it’s that people die all the time. Out of the blue, a relative I barely knew would die, and normal life would stop to dance around the ritual. My mother would send flowers. We would put on school clothes and go to the funeral home. At some point, we would end up at an aunt’s house eating ham and potato salad that a neighbor had brought by. If we stayed at the funeral home until it was closing, we would kneel in the hall while one of the men led the rosary. (I liked this part. The ritual reciting of the words made me feel ancient and alive.)

Today, though, the Little Red Hen isn’t reciting Our Fathers and Hail Marys in strings of sorrowful mysteries. Today she’s standing ready to say, “I will!” while her father checks the notes in the 1946 Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book. On page 116 in the recipe for WHITE BREAD: Straight-Dough Method, where the cookbook says “6 cups of all-purpose sifted flour,” my mother has penciled in, “5# 10oz flour” and then, maybe as the family grew, “7# 6 oz,” and finally, “8 ½+ # in mixing pot” (which I’m assuming is the blue speckled pot, since I’m the last kid and the recipe stopped growing). Where the Woman’s Home Companion says “milk, scalded, 2 cups” my mother has penciled in “8.” 2 ½ teaspoons of salt has been replaced with “10” and later simplified to “1/4 cup.” My father baked a lot of bread.

Back in my kitchen in 2015, I am taking pumpkin bread out of the oven and thinking about another line from Rilke. I read “Archaic Torso of Apollo” when I was nineteen, not long after I had left Pennsylvania for the first time. I’ve never understood the poem. The speaker is looking at a headless statue of Apollo that bursts with life. After a series of striking descriptions, Rilke says this: “for here there is no place/that does not see you. You must change your/ life.”

What the hell, Rilke? The urgency of the lines, which Mark Doty describes perfectly as “winging out of nowhere,” hit me hard at nineteen and has never left.

Meanwhile, back on Marvle Valley Drive, yeast are swimming to life in a pot of warm sugar water. I’m swimming, too, across ideas, and decades, and time zones. I can’t make this essay stay put. I’m more than seven hundred words in and I still haven’t mentioned that Friday afternoon in November. I was driving a bus full of kids back to Albuquerque from Santa Fe. I was driving straight into the sun, which was leaning hard into the horizon.

I was disoriented. You think of driving from Santa Fe to Albuquerque as heading south. What was the sun doing directly in front of me rather than off to my right? (Off to my right, by the way, I was looking through one of those school bus doors that folds opens with a metal rod. Just being on a school bus makes me think of book bags, and knee socks, and rolling down Irishtown Road to drop off some boy the driver called Buddy right in front of his house. It was kindergarten in Pittsburgh. It was raining.)

I was trying to figure out how I was driving due west on I-25 South when a sentence “winged out of nowhere” into my head. “Things are changing in me, and I do not know where or to what end.” (What the hell, Rilke?) The sentence followed me home. It climbed into bed with me. It stuck around through the holidays.

I would have happily traded it for the Little Red Hen’s eager “I will!” when it was time to knead the dough. She loved that moment when the dough would start to breathe back against her hands; when she’d realize that this pile of flour and salt and water was alive.

It would be dark by the time my father’s bread finally came out of the oven. We cut it hot and slathered melting butter on slice after slice after slice. We were all there then: Pat, Judy, Paul, Meg, Clare, and me, crowded around the kitchen table in our pajamas, breaking bread.

To paraphrase the title of an Ann Patchett book, this is the story of a happy childhood. I am the youngest of six kids. Eight if you count the two babies who didn’t live, one on either side of me. Most of my siblings are alive. Some of them, I think, read these essays. A few years ago, my Uncle Larry, the youngest of my father’s siblings, sent me a Christmas card. “We’re the cabooses,” he said. I love that image: the littlest sibling chugging along behind the big kids, trying to catch up, trying not to get left behind as they round that bend off in the distance before I get there.

In Albuquerque Fred is putting the groceries away and I tell him I have finally figured out how to write an essay about something other than dying. “But those are your best ones,” he says.

So one more thing. I am thinking about Ann Patchett because not that long ago one of my friends sent me an email about her book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Elizabeth said, “It’s a collection of short stories, basically about becoming/being a writer, and it makes me think of you. Her voice reminds me of your writing, and I love her writing.”

She lent me the book, and I loved it, and I loved that she said it reminded her of me, and then, about a month later, she died. It wasn’t a surprise; she had been outliving pancreatic cancer with matter-of-fact grace and gusto for two years. Lately when we were playing music together in her home, she would say things like, “You should play this at my memorial.” This weekend, we will.

Then about a week ago, my friend Jacqui from first grade sent me an email asking me if I had read Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. “Her voice is so much like yours… that I thought I was proofing a book for you the whole time that I read it,” she said.

Sometimes everything feels like a sign.

January has come and gone. That sentence from the bus is still following me around. I keep meaning to write a letter to Ann Patchett. Those of us who are still here are off on yet another wild loop around the sun.

I want to say that it’s good to be here, and that maybe it’s ok to move on. Something, I don’t know what, is going to happen next. And even though my friend Deena thinks I might have a clue “what this messy life means,” that’s pretty much everything I know.

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Riding the Brakes

IMG_1313Remember how Wile E. Coyote keeps running straight ahead for a few feet after he’s left the cliff edge behind? That’s how I fell off a horse named Omega in 1994 and got this long scar that runs from my palm, halfway up my left forearm. I could clear the jump until the second that I realized I couldn’t clear the jump; that’s when Omega put his head down and I tumbled over it into the soft dirt of the arena.

That’s how I come down the big human roller coaster hill on the bike trail: certain I can’t do it. My friend Tammy flies ahead, working out her own downhill demons while I lag behind. The bumpy pavement surprises me. Going up, I moved slowly enough not to notice how rough it is. Coming down, though, it jars my head in my helmet, just the encouragement I need to tighten my hands and squeeze the brakes.

This fear of speed is nothing new. When I turned forty, I went skiing for only the second time in my life. My friend took off for the big-girl slopes while I signed up for a lesson. All around me, little kids in parkas bounced and hopped and swerved down the hill like an avalanche of gumballs.  I picked my way through them (by which I mean I went straight and hoped they wouldn’t knock me over), intent on mastering the snowplow.

Even as a kid, I picked the slow route. There were two ways to sled-ride from the top of Marvle Valley Drive to the bottom. The first was to sally through the yards, each one connected to the next by a small hill, a mostly flat front yard, and a driveway. (Some of those driveways, like ours, were red-dog in those days, so they slowed you down nicely!) The second way was to fly right down the steep road and hope there were no cars coming down Dashwood when you reached the bottom and careened across the street into the Buckley’s front yard. I don’t have to tell you which route I took, do I?

Earlier this summer I thought I could think my way out of some of my fears. Here’s one of the things I tried:

(A Partial List of) Things I’m Afraid Of:

Spiders in the shower
Moving (or playing music) fast
Touching dead things
Buildings/Bridges/tunnels collapsing
Car accidents
Heights
Talking politics with people I’m related to
Flying

Then I made this list.

(A Partial List of) Things I’m Not Afraid Of:

Public speaking
Taking up the violin in my forties
Leaving well-paying jobs that don’t feed my heart
Signing up for a triathlon when I’m out of shape
Getting my shoes dirty
Lizards
Talking politics with people I’m not related to

I thought maybe I could figure out why I’m not afraid of the things on the second list and apply that logic to talk myself out of being afraid of the things on the first.

Then I watched my grand-daughter ride the Cliff-Hanger at Uncle Cliff’s. The ride lifts you 120 feet into the air and then drops you straight down.  At nine, Aurora is terrified to speak to most people, but she’ll shinny straight to the top of the rope at the gym, and she loves thrill rides. Her tiny feet dangle over the edge and she smiles her own cryptic Mona Lisa smile as she ascends into the sky and plummets down.

Where does fear come from, anyway? How come I got heights, Aurora got speaking, and my husband got water?

Just before school started, I spent a day with teenagers at a ropes course deep in the Manzano Mountains. My group of about two-dozen ninth graders was standing at the base of a tall pole capped by a tiny platform. The two girls who had volunteered to go first were suited up in harnesses and helmets. The first girl climbed straight up the pole and maneuvered easily onto the platform, some thirty feet in the air. The second girl also flew to the top; then she struggled a bit to climb onto the platform with her friend.

As an onlooker, I stand below, halfway hoping they will chicken out before I have to watch them leap from the platform, aiming for the tiny trapeze dangling nearly out of reach in front of them.

Of course they don’t chicken out. As they begin their count to three (one-two-three-jump, is the sequence the course director has drilled them on), I can hear the extra air in the voice of the girl who is afraid. I want to beg them not to jump, but that’s not the point of this morning, so instead I hope their belayers know what they are doing, that they got enough sleep last night, that they didn’t fight with their wives this morning. I hope the ropes hold and that the kids have put their harnesses on right, and by the time I’ve gone through this litany of fears, before I even have time to get to the end of The Memorare, my go-to incantation when I’m afraid, these two beautiful children have leapt into the sky and are dangling high above the ground, swaying and laughing in the cool, piney air.

At this point, as the (attentive) belayers gently lower the (safely harnessed) girls to the ground, a line from Kurt Vonnegut starts following me around.

If you’ve never had a quote follow you around, it’s just as you’d imagine it. Really. A little thought bubble pokes its way out of your shoulder and hovers in the air just beyond your left ear, sometimes for weeks, until you finally take those words into your life and figure out why they are haunting you. This one says, Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

I realize I’m not going to be able to think my way out of my fears. When I first got married, I remember being a little bit afraid every time my husband left the house; for some reason, he seemed newly fragile. I wanted to follow him into the world each day and see him safely home. At some point, I forgot that fear is something that most people try to overcome; I set a generous place for it at the table. I was grateful to it for keeping my feet on solid ground. I was comfortable with the way it manifested in my stomach, in the shake in my voice, in a coldness in my hands. I even learned to feed it, imagining plane crashes, tunnels caving in, and other disasters on demand. I had decided, as I wrote in a poem, “to try like hell to stay alive.”

For a long time I wasn’t aware that I had donned a life-jacket, but even now it seems a not completely unreasonable reaction to the world.

The quote bubble hanging by my ear is getting annoying, so I finally pull Slaughterhouse Five off the shelf to refresh my memory. I’m not thrilled when I realize my quote is an epitaph Billy Pilgrim imagines for himself. In the book, it’s etched on a picture of a tombstone.

It’s not the quote I’d pick to sum up my life today, although I think it describes the world I spent a long time trying to live in.  It’s not too far off; I could live with, “It was beautiful and it hurt,” or “It was so beautiful that it hurt.” Or maybe if I’m writing my epitaph, I should keep the line I wrote one grade school Halloween: “Here lies Heather, under the weather.”

That still makes me smile.

There’s no rest when the first two girls are safe on the ground. The next pair is already clipped in to their harnesses and starting up the pole.

I’m thinking that maybe you have to let the world toss you around a little. I’m thinking that next time I ride down the bumpy bike trail, I might try to wait a few seconds before I start squeezing the brakes. I’m thinking about that moment just after you run over the edge of the cliff, before you realize you will have to fall. I’m thinking that that’s the space, out there for those few seconds in clear air where everything is beautiful, in which we live our lives.

Recently I got an email from an old friend who has been on her own journey out of loss into love. I’ve known Jacqui since the first day of first grade, and she has been telling me that we should go for a hot air balloon ride when we turn fifty.

I wouldn’t want her to read this essay and think I have decided I want to go for that ride. It’s fair to say, though, that lately I’ve been wondering what’s out there, just over the edge.

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Fathers

Shortly after Fred finally convinced my father-in-law to drive one of those little motorized carts around the grocery store, they went shopping one Sunday morning. Peter liked to clip coupons and travel from store to store to get the best deals. A typical Sunday morning might include buying green grapes at Smiths, toilet paper at Albertsons, tomatoes at Walmart, and frozen fish sticks at Skaggs Alpha Beta (anyone else remember Skaggs?).

On this fine spring morning, Fred had wandered a few aisles ahead. I picture him checking the dates on loaves of bread while Peter rolls through the pasta aisle. (The first time I ever ate dinner at my then-future-in-laws’ house we had spaghetti and peas and pickles, but that’s probably a detail for a different story.)

The store was fairly quiet that morning, and Fred wasn’t paying much attention to anything as he checked the bread for the best dates. Suddenly, he heard a popping noise, like the sound a jar of pickles makes when you first twist the lid and break the seal. Then he heard a louder splat, and then another, and then the morning crescendoed into a crazy cacophony of popping, splatting, crashing, and breaking glass.

I imagine that Fred looked up from the bread at this point. He may have had time to think, “That sounds like an old man driving an electric cart into a pyramid of Ragu jars at the end of an aisle,” but I can’t be sure about that.

What I do know is that Peter’s khaki pants were splashed red to his knees when he wheeled around the corner. “I didn’t do it,” he said to Fred, and then,  “Let’s get out of here.”

I imagine the slow-motion getaway scene. Peter rolls through the checkout line with three boxes of American Beauty thin spaghetti, six cans of tuna, two coupons, and perhaps curiously to an observant checker, no spaghetti sauce.

Peter was a man who fed his neighbor’s dalmatian hot dogs over the wall; who stopped eating meat and wearing leather when he was six years old in 1923; and whose normal way of being with most people could best be described as irascible. He was also a man who loved talk radio, filled our closet with over one hundred juice jars full of water in preparation for Y2K, cooked steak and eggs for our dogs, and, in a mystery we still haven’t solved, decided not to wear underwear for the final few weeks of his life. Oh, and in what I like to think of as a testament to his good judgment, he liked me.

If you remember Statler and Waldorf, the two grumpy old hecklers in the balcony on the Muppet Show, you can get a rough sketch of Peter. For a similar rough sketch of my father, I’d point you toward Bob Newhart, when he was still a psychiatrist, not later when he bought the inn.

My father was more reserved than Peter, more inclined to walk around the house singing “Danny Boy” or “Bicycle Built for Two,” and more likely to laugh so hard he couldn’t breathe. It’s harder to find one story that lays him bare, that illuminates him the way the crashing Ragu bottles spotlight Peter.

A collage then.

Any one of hundreds of mornings: My father sits at the table eating breakfast. He is fully dressed. Something flashes in the trees. He sets down his teacup, puts the New York Times crossword puzzle aside (unless it’s Monday, because that one is too easy to bother doing), and grabs the bird book to identify a new red bird in the backyard.  Maybe it’s the pileated woodpecker at last!

I’m in high school: I drive my father to work on a summer morning if I want to use the car. As we walk through the Pennsylvania grass he points out how each drop of dew sifts sunlight into colors. Engineer father teaches indifferent daughter about prisms; poet daughter thinks about ways of seeing the world.

Baking bread: I don’t know if my father baked homemade bread once a month or once a year, but if Alzheimer’s takes everything else, I expect I will wander in search of the house on Marvle Valley filled with the yeasty smell of rising dough. He didn’t measure his ingredients with cup measures; he weighed out pounds of flour on an old kitchen scale that usually sat on the hearth in the family room under a big bowl of unshelled nuts. Late in the evening, as the loaves finally came out of the oven, we’d all sit around the kitchen table, melting hot butter onto slice after slice after slice of crusty white bread.

Liver cancer: When my father was battling the liver cancer that would eventually take his life, he was determined to keep laughing. He bought old radio shows on CDs, watched the Pink Panther, read and re-read The Importance of Being Earnest, and one day we went online together and ordered the giant book of New Yorker cartoons.

There’s a collage. I could look from any number of other angles and choose different moments, but if I’m honest, I’ve been stalling. There is a story that is tugging at me, a story that illuminates. Right before the meal my family referred to even as it happened as The Last Supper, we had a family meeting. My father was too ill to continue to care for himself and my mother; my mother had taken her first few steps on her long walk with Alzheimer’s; my siblings and I were spread across the country; and the house was too big. Decisions had to be made.

At one point in the conversation, my father broke down. I can’t pretend to understand everything he was feeling in that moment: gratitude and pride as his children rallied around, sadness at the thought of leaving, perhaps something like fear of the unknown.

But there was more, and I’m having trouble coming at it directly.

This might help. Today, my husband and I met with a financial advisor to talk about retirement planning. The first man we met greeted me as “Dr. O’Shea” and I introduced him to my husband, Fred Gordon. When the financial advisor introduced us, carefully and accurately to his colleague, an older man, the colleague shook my husband’s hand, called him Dr. O’Shea, smiled at me, and said “It’s nice to meet you, Miss.”

For all the years I can remember, a poem my mother had clipped out of a magazine hung on the refrigerator. “I don’t think my apron’s a red badge of shame” is the line I remember reading hundreds of times during what people might call my “formative years.” At the same time, I can remember my father telling me, in what must have been the early 1970s, that I could grow up to be an astronaut if that’s what I wanted to be.

Like many women my age, I grew up with one foot in a traditional world, where parents stayed married, women stayed home, and family roles were clear, and another foot in a changing world, that taught me to value independence and self-reliance and to be on guard against being cast into roles that would limit me.

The night of the last supper, I glimpsed my parents’ world for the first time, not from my usual standpoint as a woman who wanted and didn’t want to be like my mother, but from the eyes of my father. I saw the pain it caused him to have to stop protecting my mother before she stopped needing to be protected, to walk away from her out of this world instead of taking her with him. I saw that, as he contemplated his own death, the only thing he cared about was making sure my mother would have everything she needed.

I had a visceral sense that evening of having been not just loved, but carried, without ever knowing it, through the world on my father’s shoulders. I glimpsed for just a moment the way all those “family men” of my father’s generation subsumed themselves to the needs of their wives and children.

It’s likely that everyone but me has known this all along. The first time I saw Yellowstone, I stood in front of a boiling pond the color of sky and phlox and sun and leaves. Steam rose like spirits, and I was overwhelmed. So much beauty had been waiting in the world all this time, and I hadn’t known it was there.

That’s what I want to say about fathers this mid-June. It turns out my father and Peter did have a few things in common. They both carried those responsibilities so gracefully that it was easy not to notice they were doing it. They both also died way too soon.

Reading The Importance of Being Earnest, my father would laugh until he couldn’t breathe when Lady Bracknell declaimed,  “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

When Peter came in from grocery shopping that Sunday morning, I asked him what had happened to his pants.

“Nothing,” he said.

From far, far away, in a world beyond talk radio, I can hear my father laughing.

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Marrow

I found the dead robin in the loft in front of the wine cellar a few weeks before my uncle died. I had come upstairs to get a sauvignon blanc, not to contemplate mortality, yet there she lay, still and harmless as a kicked-off shoe. She didn’t have a mark on her, which made me certain that my golden retriever not only hadn’t brought her in to the house, but didn’t even know she was here.

We make up myths to explain the inexplicable, so here’s mine: The bird walked in through the doggy door one quiet morning when no one was home. She might have been dizzy, having flown into a window. She might have seen the dog walk through the wall and been curious. She might have grown tired of a crow pestering her or maybe she just wanted some shade.

Inside, she wandered around the house for a while, flapping up through open space, gaining altitude. There are thirty-two windows in my house. Seeing sky in so many places, she got confused. At last she decided the only way out was through the glass door at the eastern end of the loft. She soared into air gone strangely solid, staggered back a few feet, and died.

My husband wasn’t home when I found her, so I pulled a baby gate across the doorway to the loft to keep death in and the dog out, and went downstairs, wineless.

I am afraid of dead things.  More precisely, I’m afraid of dead things in my house. Outside, in the world, I’m curious about the oddly tilted neck of the goose in the ditch, the hollowed out beaver on the trail, the fossilized lizard in the fountain. But here, inside my house, I’m totally freaked out.

Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but late last summer, wild things kept coming inside. We have a doggy-door that’s covered by a simple flap of carpet. For fifteen years, other than the time the neighbor’s jack russell terrier sauntered in while we were eating spaghetti, sensing correctly that my father-in-law would share his supper, and the time a squirrel peeked in but ran when I yelled “no,” and the time the beagles threw a party for a big black cat, it has served as a surprisingly sufficient barrier to keep the outside world outside.

Last August when the first mouse came in, I saw him slant-wise. He was there and not there, felt more than seen. I was just about to remind my husband of that time in the old house when a giant centipede skittered across the tile when the mouse made a run for it.

Mouse removal isn’t the sort of thing either of us is good at. Over the next twenty minutes, we managed to chase him out from behind the love-seat, around the room, and into the piano, where none of our ill-chosen tools (broom, dustpan, salad tongs, pancake flipper) proved useful either for catching him or scaring him out of the house. Finally, he escaped into another room where we lost his trail.

The next day, I did what I always do when I’m confronted with wild things I don’t understand. I went to my school to ask a science teacher, and came home on a kill mission. It turns out someone has actually built a better mousetrap, so after almost losing a few fingers to an old wooden one, I went to Home Depot and bought six little white plastic traps. Lined up on the kitchen counter, my weapons looked more like a row of tiny toilets than an arsenal.

Fred was on his way out of town, so after I smeared the traps with peanut butter and set them around the baseboards, he knocked on the neighbor’s door to arrange my disposal crew. Chuck, the neighbor, rolled his eyes. I know this because he rolled his eyes again when I rang his doorbell the next morning to ask him to throw my dead mouse away, and yet again when I recoiled as he tried to hand me the used mousetrap, sans mouse.

Two more mice came in alive and went out dead. While I grew efficient at trap placement, I never was able to throw the dead mouse away or to reuse a trap that had killed a mouse.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m afraid to touch these dead things. It isn’t about anything rational, and it’s not a superficial squeamishness. It’s deeper than that, more intractable; it’s monsters in the closet, trolls under the bridge. I know that if I hadn’t had a neighbor willing to throw the mouse away, I would have closed that bedroom door, sealed the opening beneath it with a towel, and left the carcass there until my husband got home. I am terrified to feel the weight of death in my hands.

Like so many other fears, naming it doesn’t make it go away. To understand isn’t necessarily to overcome. I keep tugging on the thread of this fear, trying to unravel the string back to a source. Today it leads me to a photo: a four-year old stands by a rosebush, reaching toward it. In one memory of this picture, an older brother is chasing me around the yard. In another, I’ve just put down the hose, which, I’m told, I would hold for hours, mesmerized by the flow of water.

Something about that little girl’s expression makes me think she was both living in that moment and already writing its story, that she was not just laughing at the water flowing from the hose, but capturing it, wondering about it, and preparing herself to report back to anyone who would listen that water comes out of a hose and turns into a rosebush.

Kafka explains this little girl to me when he says, “I have never understood how it is possible for almost everyone who writes to objectify his sufferings in the very midst of undergoing them.” He might have substituted “joys” or “loves” for “sufferings” if he had lived a happier life. I don’t know when I first realized I had a job in the world, that it would be my place not just to be, but to observe and to tell, to “objectify [my] experience” even as I was busy living it, but when I look at that little girl, I think she knew.

It’s dangerous, though. What if there are things you are afraid to know, like the weight and warmth of a dead bird in your hand? What if you are unwilling to go near the things that disturb you, like small dead animals in your home? What if you are too small, and the world is too big, and you decide to keep your art at a distance? What if you keep objectifying without writing?

Since art is how you were built to live, you end up, without ever planning it, keeping your whole life at a distance. You develop a limp, one foot walking on the path leading you to write, to be who you are built to be, one stepping safely on the same path you think everyone else is on. Your massage therapist confirms it: one leg has grown shorter than the other, one hipbone tilts awry.

It turns out this is an essay about art. We make up myths to explain the inexplicable, to help us tell the truth about the world. I have been trying to explain to myself why for so many years I lived without being claimed by writing. That objectivity that I mastered young lets you zoom out, live at a distance, while writing, if you do it, pulls you back in to the marrow. Kafka called a “non-writing writer” a “monster courting insanity.” Perhaps he meant a woman who might just begin screaming if she has to touch a dead robin by the wine cellar.

I don’t know if I have figured anything out here, or if I have said anything that will help anyone else figure anything out. I’d like to think I have. I do know that when Fred got home, it took him about twenty seconds to don a work glove, pick up the dead robin, and toss her in the trash outside.

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Rhythm

I woke up this morning imagining my basil plant’s to-do list:

Six fifteen:  Slowly stretch toward the window as the first sun comes in (bow pose in basil-yoga).

Seven ten:  Breakfast; suck water from soil into stems.

Seven fifty: Disperse water throughout leaves.

Eight thirty to six pm:  Begin replacing two leaves snipped last night for a stir-fry. Goal: three centimeters of new growth today.

Periodically throughout day: Sift scent into the room as leaves are riffled. Goal: minimum of eight wafts.

I grew up in the “time management” school of living; I took my first time-management class in my early twenties. There I learned to keep one (and only one) calendar, to sort my to-do list into A B and C priorities, to transfer those to-do list items into time-slots on my calendar, and to update my list at the end of each day. I even learned to cross off items if I’d carried them forward for five days without completing them (they’ll show up as A-items if they ever become important) and to schedule unscheduled time for emergencies into each day. I liked it when people said things like “If you need to get something done, ask a busy person,” and then asked me.

Recently I was imagining the week I’d mapped out in my head, every hour carefully accounted for, my stress mounting as I portioned too many tasks into those scarce slots. I was sure I had already said no to everything I could say no to. Everything left, work, writing, exercise, laundry, playing piano, playing violin, and so on, was an A. The challenge, I thought, was one of mapping. I simply had to arrange my life into a schedule, a definitive route through time, and then exert discipline to follow the map. I wanted a routine.

Someone (the internet would like it to be the Buddha but can’t commit) once said, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” That’s what happened when a good friend interrupted my stress-fest to ask, “What if you thought in terms of rhythm instead of routine?”

Oh. I’ve always liked the word circadian. Now that I’m thinking about rhythm I realize that built in to my biology is a rhythm that takes its cues from the world. I pretend I’m “managing my time,” but without any awareness on my part, my body has been responding to the waxing and waning of light for forty-nine years. Rhythm was here before my to-do list. Rhythm preceded my calendar. I didn’t have to learn how to live my days according to a rhythm, I just had to stop trying not to.

A few months ago a preschool music teacher came to my school to show teenagers how to help little kids access music. We played clapping games, made noises that sounded like rain and thunder, and chanted rhymes while waving our arms, touching our heads, and hopping on the beat. We turned our bodies into rhythm instruments and talked about the innate nature of rhythm. I started noticing the pulse of my breathing when I sang or ran, the beat of my steps and the swing of my arms as I walked across campus or around my kitchen.

When I started paying attention to the rhythm of my days instead of hunting for the perfect routine, I freed myself from those slots. I realized I didn’t have to schedule “play violin for an hour” to actually play the violin.  Once the slots weren’t full of things I had to do, I was free to do what I most wanted or needed to do in every moment. All of the other moments, and the anxiety embedded in them, receded before the power of the present. All of a sudden, every day was vacation.

Lately, two women I like and admire have been commenting on my seeming ability to “have a life” in addition to “having a job.” They say this, I think, because I started a blog, because I play mandolin with friends on Sunday afternoons, perhaps because I seem (at least sometimes!) to get enough sleep. Almost every morning, I get up at five and write.  Sometimes when I get home from work, I play the violin for two hours. Sometimes I play the piano. Sometimes I get obsessed over whether anyone is commenting on my blog and check it a hundred times before dinner. Sometimes I cook, or grade papers, or play the slipper game with the dog.

I don’t write many things down any more. I still have a to-do list, but there isn’t much on it. Really, if it were something I “have” to do, why on earth would I forget to do it? I’m learning to trust that the important things will rise to the surface, shine, and catch my attention if I just show up to see them. I still find myself setting goals or trying to make long-term plans, but I’m learning to notice those moments and resist them, to get up and go for a run when I feel the urge to sit down and map out an exercise routine.

I like being a time-management heretic, living into rhythm instead of following a routine. A few nights ago I found myself outside in the mountains under the stars with a group of teenagers. We were marveling at how many stars we could see once we’d cleared the clutter of city lights. Claire, a bagpiper, was leading us in a march under the stars. Earlier she’d asked what sort of a walk we wanted. She’d been debating a six-eight or a four-four cadence, explaining how our steps would inevitably echo the rhythm of her piping. As she piped into the darkness, our steps responded, the stars held their patterns, curious animals wondered at this new noise in the world, and I felt as simple as that little pot of basil on my kitchen table.

Here’s what I’ve learned since I stopped trying to manage time. Routine starts in scarcity, with a finite number of hours in a day. Rhythm dances in abundance. There aren’t any slots when you are living in the river. The current (call it life, call it light, call it God) tugs at you, the sun snags a path, and you follow it like a sunflower across long afternoons. Basil plants push out new leaves because that is what basil plants do.  Your body already knows how to delight in the world. Time takes deep breaths and grows wide downstream.

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