Sunday, July 25, 2010

Grief, Again

June was hard. You can call grief an understandably human reaction of dismay to the onset of irreversible change, and let me tell you, this summer, my life it is a-changin'.

After losing Phil, on the first day of June, then a few days later absorbing the awful blow of Katy Maguire's death, we got the news that two dear friends planned to separate.

Then another change arrived. It may have been nowhere near as big and painful as that trinity of loss, but the dissolution of the Silicon Valley Moms Group dealt another blow. The SVM Group included over 400 writers across twelve regional sites, including one in Chicago. I wrote forty-nine pieces for the Chicago Moms Blog over the last two and a half years, including two pieces, "Clutter, An Appreciation (See Footnote 1)" and "Bedtime Stories" that were picked up for syndication by the McClatchy-Tribune news service. But the writing support and exposure was only a small part of what makes the loss of this online community painful.

Last weekend I talked with a woman who was one of my mother's friends forty years ago when they were both young mothers of young children. She told me stories about our old neighborhood in LaGrange. "There were fifty-seven kids on Dover Street," Cele said. "You could step out on the stoop and there was always someone to talk to, someone to watch the kids for five minutes while you put something in the oven."

The Silicon Valley Moms Group blogs were a neighborhood of sorts, perhaps without the spontaneous childcare, but with all the divergent voices and personalities you'd find on any residential street. You could witness or take part in communal laughter, encouragement, pain, even the occasional argument, only they took place at the keyboards rather than over the fences. It's the comments that I'll miss, the feedback from readers that would make a post written in isolation transform into a conversation.

Fortunately, three writers and editors from the old group have formed a new collaborative Chicago mom blog where I'll be contributing. You can read many of the former writers from the old Chicago Moms Blog and get your fix for community here at The Chicago Moms. My first post, "Their Marriage," is up and it's lovely to begin the conversations again.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sobriety, Day 365

One of my children bumps me out of my sixth hour of sleep by landing on my hip. I won't kid you; even sober, I can react to such a hard interruption with no patience and words too rough for a first grader. But this morning feels like a celebration, one full year's circle from another early morning after another very different night out. I can hear birds singing, like they probably did that last July morning. A breeze comes through the open window and cools my face. My eyes may feel sore and my mouth parched, but the self-loathing, splitting head and scary night-before memories of a hangover are a distant memory. The distance of more than one year.

I'm going to go ahead and make this announcement with pride, even if quitting alcohol has been one of the easier things I've ever done. Huge respect for our sisters and brothers working to extract themselves from the claws of addiction. Respect.

I absolutely have an addictive personality. Coffee, online chess games, boyfriends - I've been impaled on the hook of each one. But alcohol, after some college-era mistakes, was little more than an enhancement for the food, a way to socialize, join in the fun, cool the throat. Or so I thought. When did I realize my over-sensitive susceptibility to depressants? When did I realize my husband and I fought more viciously than usual when we had both had had a few - and that I would go running after those fights rather than running from them? When did it dawn on me that the regrets that loom largest in my memory were usually executed under the influence?

In the language of addiction programs, the answer to those questions is called a Moment of Clarity. To be perfectly honest, other than a particularly rough day after a night out with friends, my impetus to quit drinking last summer was mostly based on a desire to cut out calories. The revelations about how breaking up with wine could improve my life only came later (and are now gladly shared with friends, whether they ask or not.)

But, oh how sweetly limey and tinkly iced looked Randy's margarita last night - and the Reader's recommendation of best in the city only increased the pull. I had to look away from the ice cubes floating in a sea of pale green circled by a reef of chunky salt and list all the reasons Not To.

One, I was wearing my big girl heels (Twenty bucks at Payless, thank you very much) and a fall off those four inch skyscrapers could mean a threat to the daily runs and endorphin doses that are getting me by these days. Two, I wanted to sing tonight - had the whole set list planned - and I take my karaoke very seriously. I needed my wits for each unfamiliar line popping up on the screen, each tricky key shift. Three, Randy and I were talking plans for our ten-year anniversary. I wanted to keep riding our smooth wave of camaraderie and shared quiet joy, not feel the prickle of irritation in the back of my head and the bolus of a fight rising in my chest. Four, my friend's husband's band was playing in Wrigleyville at ten o'clock, a time that used to feel like many hard hours past sweet bedtime after I had had a couple of soporific beers.

Four reasons enough to go with iced tea. And four reasons the night turned out delicious. The karaoke set, particularly, played to a sparse room of barflies, felt like a dream come true.

"Every since I was eleven or so, I've wanted to be a torch singer in a bar," I told Randy after "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" was met with warmth from the regulars.

Where did I find and when did I fall in love with the vision of a tiny spotlight on a velvet curtain, the sound of a tinkly piano and quiet applause, me in a tight dress, emotive arm in the charged air? Was it Judy Garland's epic "The Man Who Got Away?" Some act from "That's Entertainment?" Barry Manilow's "Starting Again?" Photos of Billie Holiday? No matter. My turns at the microphone tap in to some deep roots of exhibitionism, nostalgia, desire and irony that I feel no need to apologize for. If cheap wood paneling and Blackhawks posters have taken the place of the velvet, if the piano comes from a CD and skips occasionally, if prerecorded cheers at the end of the track sometimes need to fill in the spaces between the few sparse claps, I'm still living the fantasy.

I never said I was any good. "When the drunk guy at the end of the bar is giving you the cue to come in, you know it's time to practice a little more," I told Randy after the surprisingly difficult syncopation of "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town." If Autotune had an iPhone application, I'd be first in line.

All was redeemed, however, during "Because The Night," which nestled sweetly in my range and was rewarded with a held aloft lighter and screams from a couple of wasted chicks. "Patti Smith is one of my best friends," yelled one in my ear as she hugged me afterwards. "I worked with her at blah blah blah! She's awesome! But she can be a real pain in the ass!" Which was worth everything.

Randy's happy to sit and drink and record videos of my performances on his phone. He's the perfect groupie, amiable to my new song ideas ("Ooo! 'China Girl!' I could do David Bowie!" "Hm. Iggy Pop did a version of that song.") and tactful when I bomb. He loves that I love the shabby old tavern CND now at least as much as he always has.

"We're getting more yin and yang," I said somewhere last night, probably after we got out of The Real Jane Martin's show at Common Ground, a set of ingeniously arranged and beautifully sung '80's covers that immediately charmed off Randy's initial touch of skepticism and blew us both away.

"The meat lover and the vegetarian. The drinker and the abstainer." What I was saying was the symbols of opposition in Chinese culture work in tandem. What I was saying was I love him and I believe he understood.

Photo courtesy annrkiszt via Creative Commons.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Grief, Part Two

Oh, I can't even write this. I can hardly say it - the words are so wrong. Katy Maguire died. Her heart broke and now the hearts of those who loved her are cracked open. I'm moving through a fog of magical thinking that still insists I will see her again, hear her big laugh and feel her light and warmth, like a beautiful sun here on earth.

A magic more benevolent than my stricken denials followed our friend Katy everywhere. A few summers back, my brother Ron and I ran into her and her beloved daughter Erin on Sheridan Road. We were all riding bikes, Katy and Erin having survived the rock and water balloon missiles from west side kids as they crossed the neighborhoods on their way to the lakefront from Oak Park. Katy laughed as she us told the story of their journey, laughed big as she always did and you had to laugh with her. Meeting her and Erin on the street may have been just another coincidence in a city full of chance meetings, but like everything Katy touched, it had the air of a magical gift.

At one of her memorials, someone described Katy as a modern day pirate who discovered treasure everywhere and shared it with everyone. Perfect, but you also have to picture her as her brother Mike described her, "always coming in the door dressed like a Himalayan Sherpa with a Chihuahua falling out of her purse." I met Katy through work - you can see an example of her film editing here. A short film she made about her son Patrick won awards when Katy was getting her degree at Columbia College; filmmaker D.P. Carlson featured her in his documentary Chicago Filmmakers on the Chicago River.

The memories fly thick as a flock of birds - dancing on the table at one of Katy's raucous parties after the bride-to-be modeled her new lingerie; serene moments in Katy's garden, an Eden of fern grove, goldfish pool, shady arbor for chess games, great swaths of iris, phlox, rose. Katy imitating her daughter Erin's review of the movie Dragonheart: "Dwagons ah ah fwiends!"

And there was a glorious July day with Katy and Erin and my eight-month old Mia on the beach at Lakeside, Michigan. After sunning and swimming in the sparkle water, Katy grilled veggie dogs while Mia and I rinsed off the sand in their clawfoot tub. Was that the day Erin told me her mom was her best friend? I held my sad little baby girl, who couldn't get comfortable and who would cry the entire hellish Skyway ride home in July third fireworks traffic, and I thought I want that kind of relationship with my daughter.

I had made Katy a pie that day, probably blueberry or raspberry peach, brought it up to the little lakehouse under the trees, but my karmic debt to her remains insurmountably high. She gave and gave and gave. Brought our new little family dinner when Mia was four days old. "I love the way babies cry 'la-la-la,'" she told us, holding Mia in her arms. Two years before that, the summer Randy and I got married, when I was too busy constructing hundreds of flipbook invitations to think about my garden, Katie had showed up at my door with armfuls of orphaned marigolds. With the touch of a loving mother, she planted the seedlings, fed and watered them and promised they would grow. They did, exploded actually, into a gorgeous backdrop for our wedding portraits. And she always modeled for me a kind of mothering I wanted to imitate - one that combined fierce protection with tender and gentle love.

Katy raised Erin and Erin's big brother Patrick with the quiet heroics required of a single mom. Patrick was born with health complications when Katy was twenty-one; Erin is the age now that her mother had her. Patrick now studies environmental sciences and social policy; Erin is studying film, like her mother.

Katy's large and loving family held a memorial for her in Gilson Park on one of the beautiful Saturdays this summer has given us. I rode my bike down to the park, wept at the photos, hugged Patrick and Erin wet from the waves of Lake Michigan, sang the songs, wept more at the heartfelt tributes. At the invitation of Katy's sister, we all raised our hands and called out a thank you to Katy for everything she gave us. It was a beautiful day. When the grief in my chest swelled too heavy to bear, I could look overhead to leaves blowing wild in the wind, look away to the iris blue sky you could see over the harbor and think how much Katy would have reveled in this beauty.

Here is a tribute from one of Katy's yoga friends: