Sunday, April 29, 2018

Awful April





An awful year. Monstrous Trump, his legions and all their damage and disasters. Randy's mother died in October. Aunt Ruth in the hospital twice. My brother Ron lost his job in California last week. Mia struggling.

It's been a good year. Randy's mother's second great-grandchild was born last month. Aunt Ruth came home from assisted care on Saturday and first thing, says Jeanne, had one of the hydrangea cupcakes I sent to welcome her home. My brilliant brother is thinking about moving to Stanford. His granddaughter Carolyn, our parents' first great-grandchild, is the most beautiful two-year-old in the history of the world. Mia slept in Wednesday morning and I took off work; she woke at noon and went straight to work on the Mali project that had had her in panicked tears the night before. 

Mantras: Radical acceptance. Compassion. Loving kindness. Deep breaths, count backwards slowly from four.

It snowed this month and we all complained, of course, but I still thought it pretty. And fitting.

Here's a new idea I just made up: polypolarity. How about multitudinous dysfunctional states of being beyond bipolar's two opposing moods? Countless spiky moods, each harsh in their own way. A spherical world of porcupine spikes, plateaus and variable canyons.

All happy families. Each unhappy family.

I scribble on a Post It at work: Everything I am, all my faults, my fears, doubts, anxieties, mental pains, guilt, I have chosen. I chose to blame all these failings on my broken family, to place them down within that well, to believe that is their origin story. Because by doing this, the act is an acceptance of the primary foundation of family. Family is everything, I have chosen to believe and embrace, even to my detriment. I could have gone another way, of course. Before my children there was another way.

The boy, a junior, who surprised me in his interview for the National Honor Society at Gordon Tech sometime in the 90's. "Family comes first," he said, when asked about his priorities. "Then school, then baseball." 

It does? I wondered. I was a single working woman living with her boyfriend in Chicago. I could ignore where I came from, dive into work, go out with work friends on Friday, spend Saturdays at debate tournaments, Sundays grading. There was the Music Box and on Thursday night, Friends and ER. That could have been a peaceful life. Perhaps.

But there is power in accepting, power in the choice.

Sharon Olds, in her poem "Sleep Suite" reflecting on a perfect moment of peace when her two "nearly-grown" children sleep near her in a hotel room: "it is broken, the killership of my family, it is stopped within me."

There is power in deciding to accept everything, every God damned thing, as perfect.

Except, that is, for the things I can change.


I've been reading this damn His Dark Materials series for a damn year or more, I keep putting it aside and returning to its classic YA fantasy goodness, the witches and gypsies and alternate-London and every person has a literal spirit animal to keep them company. There are zeppelins and a kingdom of ferocious polar bears and a world where elephant people have evolved to use the local seedpods as wheels under their diamond shaped torso-chassis, wonderful! One of the young heroes, a boy from Oxford, finds the Subtle Knife with which he can cut holes in the air and hence move between worlds to escape peril.

It was good walking for the first part of their journey. The sun was warm, but the pines and the rhododendrons kept the worst of the heat off their shoulders, and the air was fresh and clear. The ground was rocky, but the rocks were thick with moss and pine needles, and the slopes they climbed were not precipitous. Will found himself relishing the exercise. The days he had spent on the boat, the enforced rest, had built up his strength. When he had come across Iorek, he had been at the very last of it. He didn't know that, but the bear did.

And as soon as they were alone, Will showed Iorek how the other edge of the knife worked. He opened a world where a tropical rain forest steamed and dripped, and where vapors laden with heavy scent drifted out into the thin mountain air. Iorek watched closely, and touched the edge of the window with his paw, and sniffed at it, and stepped through into the hot, moist air to look around in silence. The monkey shrieks and birdcalls, the insect scrapings and frog croakings, and the incessant drip-drip of condensing moisture sounded very loud to Will, outside it.

I know why I am not galloping through the book, although my colleague who also loves the series says she finished it quickly in eighth grade. It's so immediately immersive -- one sentence will do to hook me in, plunge me into its universe. Will peeking into another world -- it's the very act of reading, of course. This book itself is the subtle knife working on me and I dissolve into it, the world falls away and I am safe again, for a moment, from this awful year.

Friday, March 16, 2018

A Childhood Revisited. And Revisited Again


I make meatloaf. I recite hymns. Five days back in my Kansas City childhood home to care for Aunt Ruth and I am transported back and forward, beyond the vegetarian and secular truths of my current life to another realm where childhood and adulthood mix.

i am the child, I am the mother, I am helpless with love and need for her, I am calm and capable of seeing that loss and death are inevitable. I am questioning child, care-giving mother.

If this, the fourth month of her 94th year is the end of her time with us, I should feel nothing but gratitude. But when is it ever that simple?

"I had a dream last night," she says one early morning. "I was walking with Fred Astaire. And what was I doing with Robert Mitchum?" We giggle together.

After dark, after I make dinner and clean up, after we replace Ruth's IV tubing and bag (always a tense task but Jeanne takes the lead and thrives on telling me what to do), after making sure Ruth is settled for the night and I've texted good nights to Randy and the girls, I take a walk in the late winter night. The Cooley's house across the street has a long blacktop driveway where I played games while waiting for the schoolbus with Nancy and Todd and Laura and Todd. There by the Redlin's elms is the high school bustop where Glen Sands kissed me. Three blocks away the cornfields began and less than a mile after that paved 119th Street dwindled to the west to a one lane dirt track in the early 80's. I was a junior and I biked with a paperback of Wuthering Heights to the new housing development south of Barstow School to sit on a rock on a cold windy hill and try to read. Those fields, that rock, that dirt road, are gone, transformed to the unrecognizable.

Every inch of this home is painted with remembrance. Jeanne says, "I could walk through this house in the pitch dark and know everything," She's been here most of her life. It's a haunted house neat as a pin, with cobwebs I clean up with the Swiffer.

Five days in Kansas City and I am rejuvenated. The Missouri sunshine blasts down on me through the south facing window as I wash the lunch dishes and my winter blues are blown away. Fifty is nothing, barely life begun. I can dance and run and see and I have two full-cheeked teenagers to keep me on my toes.

Ruth and I talk Queen Victoria and Mary Queen of Scots and Meagan Markle and the simple muslin dress Marie Antoinette wore for her portrait. Ruth listens to Sue Grafton's V is for Vengeance and we can hear the measured and relentless voice of the audio book through the baby monitors we put in Jeanne's rooms at the other side of the house.

"Spirit of God, descend upon my heart" is the hymn Ruth wants to practice with me. a poem begging for escape from the despair of doubt.

...make me love Thee as I ought to love.
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.

I don't mind repeating prayers in this house, Chanting and repetition from memory deep as the bone can be my therapy today. I'll do yoga tomorrow.

None of the care she needs is actually work, even cleaning the blue tiles of the 1950's bathroom is a kind of pleasure. I want to do this for her and five days is not enough. Ruth's blindness and her own need for order keep this house compartmentalized and sorted. "Look in the second drawer on the left hand side of the china bureau in the dining room." "The graham crackers are behind the cereal boxes in the cabinet over the stove." She has memorized the house.

On my last morning, I make the decaf and some toast with her preferred margarine and jam, a small plastic cup of diced peaches, a half mug of protein drink. We listen to NPR and talk about the indicted Missouri governor. I have to go. I don't want to go. The girls need me. I have to go.

Coming back to Kansas City over the years has been often painful, pulling me back into the ruts of grief. Agony and the mundane are layered and tangled here. Here is the neighbor's house where lived the two sons who were maimed in the car accident in 1976. Here is the bedroom I shared with Nancy. Here are Christopher's basketball trophies. Here is the light-filled sitting room, once a bedroom painted a deep blue, where I cried alone, wretched as I've ever been, in the dark. Here is the breakfast room where Mia blew out her first candle. Here is the backyard where we played. I am child, I am adult.

The facts don't change. And remembering how I fall back into those ruts can fill me with dread. But on this trip, there was another transformation of the way I look back.

Alice Munro has a story "What is Remembered" from her collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage that I keep returning to, continually amazed at the way the words speak my truth. Munro found a way to express the way the past changes for a woman as she grows older and I've clung to these paragraphs like a Christian may cling to her bible, looking for and finding answers. When I first read these words seventeen years ago, they were about remembering and re-remembering an old love; now, back in our home in Wilmette, I go back to my edition again and a different line hooks me this time: "There was another sort of life she could have had--which was not to say she would have preferred it. It was probably because of her age (something she was always forgetting to take account of) and because of the cold thin air she breathed since Pierre's death, that she could think of that other sort of life simply as a kind of research which had its own pitfalls and achievements."

I go back to the deckle edged book after a sweet reunion with my girls. I read again, then take a long shower and the realization roils me, lifts and buoys and frees me.

You think you know what happened to you and how you feel about it. You think you know yourself and then.

Ruth will continue to transform in my mind and heart. She will be the imperfect mother, my daughters' Grandma, my aunt, my caregiver, my distant relative, my close confidant, the woman I cannot forgive, the woman I love the most, on and on, changing, never known, always her own mystery. Part of this is her own caginess, her iron strong self-control and part of this was our family culture of secrecy and stifling of most emotion, even when it was most damaging, hiding shame and joy. Even when she leaves us, as she must, she will never be defined.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Becoming Witchy


Photo from Eyes As Big As Plates


Crows greet me on still mornings. My favorite bird stays aloof on windy days but will break a still and silent dawn with dear intelligent calls. They roost on the dead thin sticks at the top of our ancient maple, the craggy, ungainly maple whose feet host the fairy garden, whose suckers sprout straight up out of the knotholes, whose massive branches crushed our neighbor's fence one time, his lawn furniture another. Was that the same storm that felled both? Am I mis-remembering? Did I ever tell you about the thrill of the time three crows (is three a murder?) chased a predator hawk down the canyon of our street?

My brain grows clouds. It's aging, that old slow slayer, and I grow more witchy by the day. "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" asks Glinda and Dorothy the innocent replies indignantly, "Why, I'm not a witch at all! Witches are old and ugly!" Glinda giggles.

Lots to giggle about, right, Roz Chaz and Carrie Fisher and Nora Ephron and Julia Sweeney? Thanks for the laughs (and you too, Tiffany Haddish, although you are far far too many years away from joining our coven but we do appreciate your magic.) We cackle at the absurdity -- we were young and now grow old! How strange!

I'm right on the threshold. Balancing between fetching fecundity and stylish sterility. I could still make a baby, maybe. Maybe last month I could've conceived. Made a wrinkly pink old man baby without speech or smiles who stares and takes long slow blinks. Open eyes, closed, open, closed. Is he napping? we'd wonder. No, that's just Smith's long languid slow-motion blinking. Taking his own sweet time. Smitty. My late little love. My disaster baby.

My hair thins; my long face grows more horsey. My hairline starts to grow in unfamiliar patterns. I discover to my horrid fascination that it is not hair growing at my hairline; those are hairs!

The pads of fat that buoy the eyeballs of the young and make them big as cartoons have left me so I compensate with eyeliner, trying for illusion, making a mess. I love my single white eyebrow hair. It's my unicorn.

I read an article of aging beauty tips. Did you know wearing a ponytail is like an instant facelift?! It pulls back all that extra skin and reels back the years! A double elastic band may be necessary.

Because it's all about beauty, right? Some of us, like amazing Aunt Ruth, keep our wits and just lose the tautness.

I straddle the stick. I don't give a shit.

But I have the secret. I know what the young girls don't. Come here, don't be afraid, come closer, I'll whisper it in your ear if you dare to approach this chin, this neck, these beads of eyes in their wrinkled nests: "It doesn't matter." It really doesn't. Your beauty was never your power, just the window dressing for the real secret -- you could make life if you so chose. You are a goddess.

But now I've lost it? Oh no, I cackle with glee, no, that's what makes this age all the more delicious -- another secret revealed -- I STILL have the magic, the power to create life. Maybe not in my womb, but hey, eyes up here! in my mind. See my little baby Smith? Here he is, in my arms. And while he may have pushed his way out my fingers instead of through my bruised yoni yet still he is right here, now, doing that slow blinky thing we love.

*****

The last day of this month one hundred or so of us will descend on Springfield to fight the forces of mendacity, greed and evil that keep our country awash in guns. We will try as hard as possible to be good mahouts, to draw back and control the charging elephants of our rage. I will put on my lipstick, try to act civilized and not scream. I may succeed at that, if nothing else. But I have to at least try.

*****

The girls and Randy make me a beautiful birthday with flowers and streamers and tissue paper blossoms and a gorgeous Alliance Bakery cake. Mia can browse Amazon's recommendations now so she has curated the table of special gifts - I pause in the middle of unwrapping Annie Leibovitz's new album and say, "I just want to stay here forever. Can it be my birthday forever?"

A small rectangular box, weighted from within. I can smell the sweet perfume of the wax, "I love candles!" Then I see the label, "Home Sweet Home" and the outline of a state. The unmistakable squishy shape of Missouri. Mia has bought me a candle to remember Missouri by.

"Oh," I say, mood on the floor. She doesn't know; she has no idea. I am surprised to discover it. How does my oldest not know how painful it is for me to go back to Missouri? How hard the idea of it is?

"You don't know! I guess I've hid my feelings! Do you know how hard it is for me to go to Kansas City? I mean, Grandma's there and Aunt Jeanne and Chloe and your cousin Becky and her kids..."

Of course she doesn't know. I've been hard-selling trips back there for years, working hard to build happy memories for them -- they need to remember a loving grandmother, cousins. It's one of my most important jobs, forging that relationship. And hiding my pain.

But now I'm witchy. The gloves are off. This story is no longer abridged for young readers.

"Mom!" they cry out with disbelief, laughing at my cruelty. "I can't believe you're insulting her candle! It's a birthday present!"

We live in honesty now. The chicks can take care of themselves and I will only reward them with the hard pointy truth.

*****

Ruth went into the hospital last night with abdominal pain. I'll fly out Saturday and hopefully get the chance to tell her again, thank you for being my mom.






Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ten Jaw-Dropping Moments from The Crown, Season Two



If Season One of the Netflix series The Crown explored the question of how a vibrant young woman like Elizabeth Windsor could willingly revert into the emotionless cipher required of the constitutional monarch Queen Elizabeth II, then Season Two's central query seems to be what does that cipher look like while working at her day job?

Here are ten or so moments from the current season that blew me away:

1. The music made it. As Elizabeth's sister Princess Margaret straddled a motorcycle and held on for dear life to her new love Tony Armstrong-Jones in Episode 7 ("Matrimonium"), gorgeous strings played over the image and I was hypnotized.

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What was this haunting composition? Written for the show? The nifty music-identifying app Shazam gave me the identity of the piece: Max Richter's re-imagining of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Richter has conjured up a sound that straddles antiquity and modernity; much like this show that makes us think about the current moment while looking backward at the same time. What are the limits and responsibilities of power? Does always looking forward allow the past to damn us? Does a leader serve if she also rules?






2. Another indelible use of music:  Heralding the moment Elizabeth's hairdresser unveils her iconic short and permed hairdo, that helmet we all know so well, with Handel's coronation anthem "Zadok the Priest?" Brilliant. Which leads us to...


3. Phillip's hilarious reaction to the queen's short 'do: "I thought you were hoping for more children from me."

Bah hahah! It's the second funniest moment of the season. And the first...


4. Laughing at Jackie Kennedy! In the show's most audacious episode, "Dear Mrs. Kennedy," the American president and First Lady bumble through their introduction to the queen. "Did they not read the protocol?" wonders the astounded royal secretary after wincing at Jackie's earnest greeting, "Your Grace."

Later, Elizabeth learns from Princess Margaret in a moment of high bitchery that the president's wife bad-mouthed Buckingham Palace and the queen herself. Elizabeth hosts the first lady again, this time at the imposing Windsor Castle and with her guard up. Literally. Poor Jackie faces a near phalanx of mounted cavalry as she enters the palace. The juxtaposition of democracy's representative in her cloth coat with the centuries of British tradition put our usually revered first lady of Camelot in a strange place of ridicule. As much as I enjoyed laughing the woman off her pedestal, the episode quickly reversed again to plunge us into the pathos of her tragedy.


5. Jewels that look like jewels. Crowns. Gorgeous gowns, sumptuous suits. The hats. Margaret's chic updo by Vidal "Baboon" Sassoon. Castles that look like castles. A set that replicates royal yacht Britannia staterooms on a stormy sea, complete with swaying hangers on a coat rack.


6. The reversals of our conception of Prince Phillip. The meaning of the note, "Remember you always have a family" transforms across Episode 1, "Misadventure," from a scolding to a blessed reassurance of abiding faith. The repeated chorus, "His sisters married Nazis" ... switches into an even more tragic key, if you can believe it, when we meet the loving sister herself in "Paterfamilias."

Actually, reversals is the name of the game this entire season, a constant theme of expectation turned on its ear in revealing ways. An outspoken critic of the young queen is punched in the face and the puncher is cheered for his chivalry. Then the gentleman is revealed to be a far-right white supremacist and our presuppositions about the critic are turned up-side-down. Philip seems to be a dodgy philandered, then SPOILER ALERT, a moving speech about devotion in the last episode of the season leaves us rewinding ambiguous prior scenes again, unsure whether he ever actually cheated on Elizabeth at all.



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7. SEX! It is rare in this series (although there is such a suggestive intimacy about the way Elizabeth and Phillip's separate beds openly face each other across the divide) which makes the Tony Armstrong-Jones scenes with former love Jacqui Chan all the more wow in their raw heat.


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8. Nazi collusion with the abdicated king! Geez Louise! Seriously, finding out in Episode 6 ("Vergangenheit" translates to "The Past") that the queen's abdicated uncle Edward VIII had planned with the Nazis to retake the crown by force from his brother King George VI was the most amazing realization of "how did I not know this piece of history!?"


9. Fond memories of another miniseries. Actor Adrian Lukas (whom I last saw as George Wickam in the 1995 BBC's Pride and Prejudice, BEST ADAPTATION EVER) shows up as the Vice-Admiral on Phillip's world tour and the two have a powerplay that ends deliciously. Did you recognize the Queen Mother actress Victoria Hamiliton as another character from Pride and Prejudice? Hamilton played the young Mrs. Forster, wife to Colonial Forster, whose lax supervision allowed Lydia Bennet to run off with... wait for it...Wickam!


10. Claire Foy's steely portrayal. The 34 year old actress's transformation from hesitant girl to "I am strong, you know" in the final episode is a work of restrained art. Goodbye Claire! Can't wait to see who succeeds you! 


11. Remembering that this young woman we see in curlers is the epically historic Her Majesty Elizabeth II, Elizabeth Regina, the namesake of Elizabeth I,  patron of Shakespeare, commander of the Armada, Ruler of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, Realms, Territories and the Commonwealth. England's goddess. Glorious Gloriana. Many bio-pics contrast the reluctance behind the public face that the famous wear, but Elizabeth here seems to understand and accepts the heavy burden she bears, even when she confesses she never wanted it. "She has a seemingly impossible job," says Lord Altrincham. "She has to be ordinary and extraordinary. Touched by divinity yet one of us."


12. Royal photograher Cecil Beaton's quoting poetry as as he poses his royal subjects (ha ha, see what I did there) for posterity. The themes of public display and public fiction are reiterated over and over in the series. Beaton's gorgeous formal photos perpetuated a royal family image of fairy tale perfection in the first years of Elizabeth's rule. We will see how this image changes in season 3.

Last season ended with Beaton's voice reciting William Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Sonnet:

 HAIL, Virgin Queen! o'er many an envious bar
          Triumphant, snatched from many a treacherous wile!
          All hail, sage Lady, whom a grateful Isle
          Hath blest, respiring from that dismal war
          Stilled by thy voice! But quickly from afar
          Defiance breathes with more malignant aim;
          And alien storms with home-bred ferments claim
          Portentous fellowship. Her silver car,
          By sleepless prudence ruled, glides slowly on;
          Unhurt by violence, from menaced taint                      10
          Emerging pure, and seemingly more bright:
          Ah! wherefore yields it to a foul constraint
          Black as the clouds its beams dispersed, while shone,
          By men and angels blest, the glorious light?


Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" is the inspiration when posing Prince Phillip for the photograph commemorating his ascension from Duke to Prince, a moment that is a death of sorts, an end to Philip's old role.

For this is he
Was great by land as thou by sea;        90
His foes were thine; he kept us free;
O give him welcome, this is he
Worthy of our gorgeous rites,
And worthy to be laid by thee;
For this is England’s greatest son

And in the final episode of the season, to commemorate the baptism of Elizabeth and Philip's third child, Andrew, Beaton quotes from Shakespeare's Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

























Saturday, December 30, 2017

Recently Read, 2017

She was a stray after all. A stray not only in its plantation meaning—orphaned, with no one to look after her—but in every other sphere as well. Somewhere, years ago, she had stepped off the path of life and could no longer find her way back to the family of people.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad


"But Dab is gone--you know how long he's gone for? The whole rest of his life and my life, too.  I been crying for me bein by myself, too. Dab and I...Dab and I..." Tree could not finish. She had no words to describe how alone together they had been. How she loved her brother!

Virginia Hamilton, Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush


I watch Fo'ty Ounce help Mrs. Pearl. People around here don't have much, but they help each other out best they can. It's this strange, dysfunctional-as-hell family, but it's still a family. More than I realized until recently.
     "Starr!" Nana calls from the front door. People two streets over probably hear her like they heard Fo'ty Ounce. "Your momma said hurry up. You gotta get ready. Hey, Pearl!"
     Mrs. Pearl shields her eyes and looks our way. "Hey, Adele! Haven't seen you in a while. You all right?"
     "Hanging in there, girl. You got that flowerbed looking good! I'm coming over later to get some of that Birds of Paradise."
     "All right."
     "You no gon' say hey to me Adele?" Fo'ty Ounce asks. When he talks, it jumbled together like one long word.
     "Hell nah, you old fool," Nana says. The door slams behind her.
     Daddy, Uncle Carlos, and I crack up.

Angie Thomas, The Hate You Give


Insofar as our children resemble us, they are our most precious admirers, and insofar as they differ, they can be our most vehement detractors. From the beginning, we tempt them into imitation of us and long for what may be life's most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values. Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.

Andrew Solomon, Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity


"What is truth?" Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that make you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.

During his campaign, the president claimed on a Russian propaganda outlet that American "media has been unbelievably dishonest." He banned many reporters from his rallies, and regularly elicited hatred of journalists from the public. Like the leaders of authoritarian regimes, he promised to suppress freedom of speech by laws that would prevent criticism. Like Hitler, the president used the word lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking, and presented journalism as a campaign against himself.

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century


Thursday, November 30, 2017

You Are Safe In My Heart



You know that song you hate? That overplayed pop hit? That cloying twangy country ballad? That golden oldie that makes your cringe? That song is somebody's truth.

I'm outing myself: I LOVE "My Heart Will Go On." I have stopped resisting all calls to taste and caution and I've given in to its perfect expression. I'm swept away with gratitude. Play this at my memorial service, cuz I'll be humming it at yours.