Thursday, December 31, 2015

Winter Solstice

Four o'clock in the morning, December 22, I woke moments before the alarm. Dressed in the dark, soft-footed past Randy sleeping and past the girls' closed bedroom doors. Drove to Katy's in the dark and told her about my dream: I overslept until eleven, woke to sunshine and complained to Randy, "Why didn't you wake me!"

Cool air, wet streets, fuzzy orange streetlights punched through the slate gray of the morning. Links Hall Constellation faces the viaduct on Western Avenue. I saw a House production of Peter Pan here years ago. We piled our blankets and pillows on the white floor. Virginia joined us; this is her fourteenth or so solstice celebration with Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang. Hushed whispers and yawns. White votive candles flickering. Two drum sets, scattered djembe and other hand drums. Hamid and Michael entered, sat before us and at first there was silence. Then, with a flickering of fingers on the taut surface of drum skin, the bath of sound began.

There were jazzy patterns and back and forth playfulness, Hamid and Michael improvising and experimenting with their riffs on the bells and drum sets. It helped to be able to sit crossed leg, yoga style with a strong straight back, or be able to lie down, ears covered, and sink into the muffled waves of sound. The best part was early on, beats on the soft hand drums, a pattern clicked in and the two drummers sustained it, unafraid to repeat and repeat the chanting groove and I swayed and rocked within it, part of the music.

Shimmering cymbals ebbed and flowed from the beats of soft mallets, hand-held by the drummers to vibrate in mid-air, then dampened against their knees. As the last gleam of sound faded away, I opened my eyes to the glow of a gray dawn from the windows behind us.

A burst of diesel exhaust greeted us through the morning air as we left Constellation for hot chocolate and apple handpies from a food truck waiting outside. "That smell reminds me of morning in Europe," said Katie. "Berlin and it's my semester abroad and I'm going to meet friends at a bar. No worries in all the world. I was happy."

I could remember that feeling -- not the one she had in Berlin, but the one she was enjoying now: nostalgia tinged with joy instead of sadness, recognition of a beautiful connection to a beloved memory. I remember, but in this dim season, my emotions are muted.

It's been a challenge, taking on a full time job at the same time that I volunteered to lead both Mia and Nora's scout troops and also manage the leaders of the five towns in our district. You know I love a challenge, though, and I'm constantly lifted knowing the work I do teaching and leading young girls and boys is grounded in good.

I'm patient with myself now because I know this low mood will pass, I know I'll revive in the spring, I know great things are ahead. Even though the news is often atrocious, the Republican mind spins seemingly without logic or compassion and my phone rang with a sad message from my brother the day after Christmas, I know that relief is waiting up ahead.

Here's what Joanna Newsom tells me:  

The moment of your greatest joy sustains: 
not ax nor hammer, 
tumor, tremor, 
can take it away, and it remains. 
It remains.

Nora is practicing this week for a performance of The Little Mermaid; she works on a Jamaican accent for her role as Sebastian the Crab with a voice somewhere between Russia and New Orleans. Mia is preparing for her social dance class with some trepidation lessened by the thrill of new dresses that make her look at herself in the mirror in a new way. I will fly to Philadelphia over my spring break to take care of my beautiful grand-niece. The girls will go with their father to someplace warm on their week that doesn't coincide with mine. I'll miss them but I'm also happy for them and Randy has promised to take them someplace I have already seen. With his kindnesses and my persistent belief in light (it's a kind of faith, isn't it?) and our daughters' constant delightfulness, with the hope of our first woman president (!!) and a restoration of sanity in the national conversation, I move on, wishing you and yours a happy new year.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Divers," from the album of the same name

Words, music, vocals, harp, piano, mellotron, guitaret by Joanna Newsom; video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; artwork by Kim Keever

A diver is my love
(and I am his, if I am not deceived),
who takes one breath above, for every hour below the sea;
who gave to me a jewel
worth twice this woman's life (but would cost her less
than laying at low tide,
to see her true love phosphoresce).

And in an infinite regress:
Tell me, why is the pain of birth
lighter borne than the pain of death?
I ain't saying that I loved you first,
but I loved you best.

I know we must abide
each by the rules that bind us here:
the divers, and the sailors, and the women on the pier.
But how do you choose your form?
How do you choose your name? How do you choose your life?
How do you choose the time you must exhale,
and kick, and rise?

And in an infinite capsize:
Like a bull tearing down the coast,
double hulls bearing double masts—
I don't know if you loved me most, but you loved me last.

Recall the word you gave:
to count your way across the depths of this arid world,
where you would yoke the waves,
and lay a bed of shining pearls!
I dream it every night:
the ringing of the pail,
the motes of sand dislodged,
the shucking, quick and bright;
the twinned and cast-off shells reveal a single heart of white.

And in an infinite backslide:
Ancient border, sink past the West,
like a sword at the bearer's fall.
I can't claim that I knew you best,
but did you know me at all?

A woman is alive!
A woman is alive;
you do not take her for a sign in nacre on a stone,
alone, unfaceted and fine.
And never will I wed.
I'll hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life,
and ever hold my breath,
till I may be the diver's wife.

See how the infinite divides:
and the divers are not to blame
for the rift, spanning distant shores.
You don't know my name,
but I know yours.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Punto Lobos

It's Halloween and it feels like the last day of light and color before November's wind sucks the life out of me and leaves the world black and white. I've been trying to breathe deep of the remaining mild days and save my strength for the hard work ahead. The last two months have been a honeymoon with my new job; the girls have adapted well to Mommy working and the school seems so warm and nurturing to students and new employees alike. Every day I jump out of bed excited and gird my loins for the challenges ahead, donning my good luck charms. A gold necklace from Mia, a gold bracelet from Nora and my wedding ring from Randy. 

There's another ring I put on the opposite hand, a special piece whose silver is wearing away to reveal the copper beneath. It is adorned with a small faceted black stone and I touch and turn it frequently as I work, remembering the day in January that Randy found it on the hill over Punto Lobos. 

We were hiking together, in Mexico, the girls left behind with Aunt Joan for this special 50th birthday weekend trip. High on the cliff over the beach where no one swims outside the town of Todos Santos. A working beach for fisherman who spend the day pulling the day's catch up out of the sea in their small open craft called "pangas," then approach the beach and wait out the killer waves, wait for the safe moment to gun their boats straight up onto the hard pack sand. They clean and cut their fish right there on the beach, next to the boats. No harbor, no piers. The boats are carried in and out of the water by hand. On a good day, a fisherman will profit between $18 and $30 (300 - 500 pesos.)

Now this beach is gone and the fisherman have no place to work. Tres Santos is a mega-development planned for this site and the desert around Todos, with goals to build luxury condos and single family homes, hotels, shopping districts, a farm and more, funded by the Black Creek Capital Group of Denver. The first phase of the project leveled the mangrove that once bound this beach. The result is a barren plateau. Rain drainage from the worksite (that would normally be absorbed by the sponge-like protection of the natural mangrove) flooded the single sand road that gives access to the beach. The company next built a seawall, banned in many seaside communities for their contribution to erosion and sure enough, a late summer storm swept away most of the beach and the waves now strike the wall. Most of the yellow sand in the picture above is gone and the waterline is right up to the dun-colored construction site in the upper right. The fishermen only have a narrow space to launch their boats. In a desperate attempt to stop more erosion, Tres Santos dumped tons of rocks in front of the seawall. The incessant Pacific waves have spread the rocks across what was once a pristine beach. The new rocks are damaging the propellers and engines of the fishermen's boats.

 A new propeller is 18,000 pesos or $1100, a new transmission is 78,000 pesos or $4700. 

Yesterday the fishermen had had enough and began a peaceful protest to block the single road to the beach and get answers from the company that was ruining their livelihood. Tres Santos sent a couple of security guards with no knowledge of Spanish to photograph the men.

What makes the situation even more insane is that Tres Santos is marketing itself as a "green" project in partnership with the village. Here is video from a promotional event in New York in April to gun up investors for the project. Hotelier Chip Conley, head cheerleader of the project, reads an old story of a traditional fisherman urged to give up his traditional ways by a clueless MBA.

The tragic irony and hypocrisy here are staggering. A rich white man with an MBA who cannot see himself as the clueless butt of his own story. Real fishermen with real families are suffering because of the incompetence of Chip Conley and the businessmen of Black Creek and Tres Santos. The "Three Saints" of Tres Santos are greed, exploitation and destruction of the earth.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My Favorite Moments of Summer, 2015

1.  Mia at peace, our first morning in Saugatuck. Before breakfast (we would drive through the rain to find gooey rolls from Kismet Bakery and farm stand peaches) we climbed down the sixty-five steep beach stairs to the narrow strip of beach below our rental cottage. The water was cold against our calves, then comfortable, then irresistible. I stripped to my undies, checked the empty beach north and south and threw off the rest. Waded into the welcoming liquid, sank completely under. Mia joined me and we laughed and peed and bobbed. The morning was still and eerie. Thunder boomed like strange unseen artillery from the west without any answering flash of lightning. A light gray bank of storm cloud approached us in a line as straight as geometry though the darker gray morning sky. Mia's head and shoulders rising up out of the gentle swells, her slicked back hair, her dear survivor's face, so more precious, even more precious to me after her hard year, her strong dark eyebrows, her complicated smile with its tiny dash of scar from a second grade gym accident, my dear dear oldest daughter, soon to be thirteen, lit with the strange diffused overcast light and with that oncoming angle of storm behind her, I had to take a picture.

"I wish I had my camera," I told her and instead put my hands together, the thumb of one hand meeting the first finger of the other to frame her in the rectangle I made. Click. To remember our morning forever.

2. Nora in action, again, this time with Randy, poolside, at Fox Lake. We're entertaining friends, I'm floating (again) weightless in the warm water, glorying in the blissful weightlessness, spinning around just because I can when Randy's music mix switches into Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off." Nora jumps out of the pool, runs to the side by the speaker and starts to shimmy and shake to the beat. Randy joins her and their duet is funky, fast, funny and fearless. I stared, mesmerized, enchanted, terribly moved.

Nora is still a child for a few more moments, her voice still a piping lilt, her waist still thick and sturdy. Her eyes are still huge in her dear head that is proportionally large for her body. I still need to bow down to bring my face close to hers and that sacred bend to childhood and to this, this happy, sad, delicious, carefree, troubled, rainbow-squid-hat wearing little one is the most holy thing I can do in my life.

3. Back in Saugatuck (it really is My Happy Place, along with Todos Santos, Montana, and the California coast or is it wherever Sally and Erik are that I am so content?) before a hike in the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, I sat on the top step of the aforementioned sixty-five and ate a slice of Erik's homemade bread slathered with Kismet butter and Sally's strawberry preserves. That is all, a perfect moment but my persnickety self insists that I admit the entire truth which is less flattering and a combination of the breakfast bread and the sparky moment an hour or so after as later on that hike a man I had never met, a friend of Sally and Erik's, an editor of a Chicago poetry journal, told me he read We All Fall Down and I flushed with confused pleasure. What? How? Sally? He was very kind and his compliments were a shot in the arm. I send out these dispatches into the ether and it blows me away whenever I hear from strangers, "I read your blog."

With gratitude,

Sunday, August 23, 2015

New Job

Here's a story that I performed this week on stage at Second City Sunday Morning Stories. The audience was awesome and gave me a really nice reception although I was a little shook because I couldn't see anyone behind the bright lights. I know that's a typical reaction to being onstage for the first time, but it startled me nonetheless. I have changed the student names, but they really are wonderful to work with, frustrating and funny and silly and unpredictable and I so love working in a school again.

I started a new job this week. I'm a paraprofessional in a local high school Humanities department, a Parapro. I help out in two freshman Reading and English classrooms; I make copies; I take attendance; I tutor; I supervise the study hall. I'm a para. I para-lotta hats.

It's been thirteen years since I've been in front of a classroom. I tell people I'm going back to work, but that feels weird. Because I have been working for the past thirteen years. I've been wiping shit off baby asses and keeping little tiny people alive and fed and clothed and clean and packing about two thousand sack lunches and doing laundry, mountains upon mountain ranges of laundry. And wrangling Brownie troops and volunteering to dress up as the Plastic Bag monster for Earth Day at the elementary school. I put on this jumpsuit with layers and layers of plastic grocery bags attached with safety pins, there was even a cute little plastic bag chapeau and I roared into the cafeteria "I am the Plastic Bag Monster! I live for a million years! Chicago has banned me forever!"

And it was fun, but it was work, too.

But now I'm getting a paycheck and hanging out with a lot more grownups, yay. But today I really want to tell you about the kids. Because you gotta love the kids. If you don't, don't work in a school.

They just crack me up. There's this kid in Study Hall on Tuesday, it's a silent study hall and I turn and catch him like this, waving his arms in the air like he's trying to crack up his friends on the other side of the room. And he freezes with his arms up, I stare at him and he's just stuck there like maybe I won't notice? or he doesn't know what else to do? and he kind of shrugs, like, "Eh, you caught me, what can I do?"

And then there's Dion, in 7th period who's so antsy he can't sit still and he's doesn't so much sit in his chair as inhabit it. He's contorts himself around it, his knee under his hip on the seat of the chair and his other knee's on the ground and two of the legs of the chair are off the ground and he's grabbing onto his desk in front of him for dear life because he'll fall if he doesn’t hang on while we're reading the story in the copy packet. That I copied. I'm a para.

But the story in the copy packet goes on and really, it's this funny story called "Becoming Henry Lee" about a Korean kid who tries to sound more white by watching a VHS copy of Roots and imitating the plantation owners accents, I know, it's ridiculous and funny but my students, these kids, these fourteen year olds whose reading level is three or four and six years behind, they can't read dialect very well and it's going over their head and it's 7th period and they're fading fast so my friend Kerry, who's teaching the class, she says, "Okay, we're all gonna stand up and clap. C'mon, get up." And she starts clapping and I'm "okay" and I start clapping and you know when you're a teacher you know these things can go south really easy.

The kids are staring at you like you're an idiot and you've lost them. And when you've lost them, it doesn't matter what you say, they won't do it, they'll talk over you and walk right out of the room, they'll eat you up, chew you real good and spit you out on the floor. It's really hard to come back from that. But in for a dime, in for a dollar. So here we are, we're two middle-aged white ladies clapping in front of a room of adolescents. And Thank God, Angel stands up, because he's such a sweetheart, he'll do anything the teachers tell him and then Eric stands up, because he's always up for something different and then we start cheering each time another kid stands up and then we start calling the sitters out by name and poor little Mulan who is this shy quiet delicate little thing, I call her name and I say, "You can do it!" and she smiles for like the first time all period and she stands up and they're doing it, even hard case Ralph until only Marika, sleepy defiant apathetic Marika is left and we gather around her chair and chant and clap, "Mar-i-ka! Mar-i-ka!" and she says "no no" and flops her head down. And then she does it. She changes her mind and hauls herself to her feet.

She stands up and we're all standing there, clapping for each other, for no other reason than we're here in school and it's the middle of August and their Chicago friends are still at the pool and reading is really hard for some people but we're doing it together and every kid needs a standing ovation once in a while.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


I took my old paperback copy of Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard with me to California, my go-to book in times of stress and trouble and yes, joy, too. Its account of mountain trekking, nature observation in the Himalaya of Nepal and the tenets of Zen Buddhism helped me in the aftermath of our friend Jerry Smith's suicide last year and it helped me again on this challenge to go see my dear brother.

First stop, LA. To offset my guilt for this solo trip that mom-guilt colors as an indulgence, I take the $1 bus from LAX to Venice and walk the rest of the way to my hotel. One dollar, people! So what if I need to ask a bunch of people where to catch it and take a shuttle and then stand on the side of the road while the sun is setting and I'm not sure I'm in the right place? The bus cost one dollar!

The next morning on my rented bike from Venice Beach to Will Rogers Beach, the heat rose up in waves over the warm sand but the wind chill off the ocean cooled my skin, a delicious sensation. I could ride all day.

At Temescal Gateway Park in Pacific Palisades, I climbed a log across a dry creek, scrambled under low bushes on my hands and knees up a steep hillside, and met people running on the trail that had me huffing and puffing and stopping every few minutes to rest. "Is this a loop?" I asked every walker I met and yes, yes, it was, up to epic views of the city and the coastline, then down, down to a dry waterfall, oaks and butterflies, tiny lizards and sketching art day camp kids.

The ocean was my reward, a soup of seaweed, long brown strands and stringy red puffballs. I laughed with the family next to me in the surf, laughed at the intoxicating sensation of surging cold water on hot skin.
Venice garden along the canal

The bike ride, the canyon hike, a walk along the charming Venice canals and a trip to the Getty were all for me. My second day in LA, I took the bus (did I mention it's only a dollar?) and walked to MPG, a rental car company with an all green fleet and picked up my hybrid Speck for the drive to Bakersfield.

There may have been times I've taken a break from the kids and I'm running out the door and nearly laughing with relief once I'm in car but this time... six days felt long. It was hard but I knew the girls were with their dad and aunt and uncle and cousins and every time I felt out of place I would remember to breathe and think, "This is exactly where I am supposed to be right now." It helped.

Oilfields outside Bakersfield

I met my brother for dinner on Tuesday. I was so happy to see him; he'd just got a haircut and he was all neat in his work clothes. He looked healthy. "This is my brother!" I told the hostess. "We haven't seen each other in a couple of years!" At the Getty I'd found a gift for him, a simple compass on a chain. When I took it out of my bag, he said, "No Cindy, you keep that," and pulled out his phone to show me an app with super precise longitude and latitude and something like the density or chemical makeup of the ground under the California Pizza Kitchen we were sitting in, I'm not sure. We laughed at how cool it was.

He's saving for retirement. I'm proud of him.

I drove the next day to Sequoia National Park and spent the day hiking, navigating hairpin turns at 10 mph, breathing deep the spicy clean air given off by the largest trees on earth, awestruck, moved, grateful, unable to stop grinning.


Those grey gashes in the bottom of the valley are the road


The sun broke out on my way out of the park and down into the Central Valley via 198. Gold sun-baked hillsides above deep green lemon groves.

And then the turn off to go back into the Sierra Nevada to my brother's tiny town:

Another breathtaking drive to Lake Isabella at twilight via 155 through Woody. My brother's house sits on the narrow terrace of a steep hillside. He has cut a row of even stumps to line the dropoff at the edge of the driveway and fashioned a homemade table under the trees. He has two dogs, a black Lab and a German Shepard. They are friendly and gentle omega dogs, refusing to go with me for a walk, standing firm next to my alpha brother no matter how he urges them to follow me. I check in to a tiny and cute motor lodge at the bottom of the hill. The office guy sees I like tea and has his daughter leave me Sleepytime teabags to steep in my room.

The mountains are beautiful up here. John Ford shot scenes for Stagecoach right down the street at Tillie Creek, I am freaked to discover at the tiny historical society in the touristy town of Kernville. I spend the day hiking in the Sequoia National Forest. Another day of wonder. I leave the trail and follow the long lines of fallen trees up a hill: I find a flake of fallen tree bark that could be a flattened infant griffon. Centered between a fallen yet still green-needled fir branch and the same branch now brown and dead is a blue jay feather.

Can you see the griffon's eye, his snout?
I've wondered before, in Montana, how it is that our cruel natural world can transform into the most hospitable of environments, every stone a step for a boot, every fallen log a resting place. I know there is no design, no benefit for anything but ourselves in these woods, but this reforming of the world into a welcoming place happens nevertheless. Thank you, tree; thank you, soft yielding mulch under my feet.

And yet, and yet, as I am wary of the patterns and purposes that religion and my brother find in randomness and coincidences, I know that our minds' work is to create meaning, and nature abhors a vacuum of sense so their organizing efforts is a kind of natural occurrence too.

On the drive back down the twisty Kern River Canyon, I stop to soak my happy toes in fast flowing river water that is both sparkling and brown. This is snowmelt from the unseen Mount Whitney, highest peak in the contiguous U.S., why is it not freezing? It feels so perfect on my hot feet and they are soft after the splashing.

Cairns on Dome Rock
The wind has carved grooves into this dead stump that seems to have grown up out of the granite.

On Saturday, we took a long drive around Lake Isabella. My brother had me pull the car over to show me a strange old stone box half buried in the hillside. The door was long gone but you could see where the hinges had been and there was a little metal shelf inside. A mystery, my brother thought it might have been a storage place for gold from the area mines. He had brought along his pickax and other prospecting tools and hacked out shiny rocks from the glittering veins of mica in the cliffs. The rocks fell away in thin sheets. The shine was beautiful in the bright California mountain sunshine. "I've got the gold rush!" I said and laughed. I did. It really was thrilling.

We had breakfast at the tiny regional airport next to the lake with a campground and little cafe.

"There's one of the type of plane our parents died in," he says as we're crossing the parking lot. It's a small craft, two windows on each side, the back ones hung with a diminutive set of curtains. Hard to believe you could fit four passengers and enough luggage for a week in the Bahamas.

"A Mooney executive. You can recognize it by the distinct tail. It looks like it was put on backwards." And it does. We stare for a moment, clear-eyed, interested. Such is the strange way you have of looking at the world when there's a loss so big in your life that you can't remember a time without the hole in your heart.

The waitress who brings us our oatmeal with blueberries refills coffee for the other tables and answers a squawk from the walkie talkie behind the counter. It's a pilot waiting to take off and she gives the all clear. "I check out the campsites, too," she laughs. "I wear a lot of hats around here."

The Kern River at sunset. Beautiful long sloping saddleback ridge over Kernville at the upper left.
We were both tired and irritated by the afternoon so I took a inner tube ride down some fun and mild rapids on the Kern. Happy Fourth of July parties spray me with water guns but it only feels cool and good. I still have not had enough of this water so on the way back to the motel, I pull off on an unmarked road and bushwack down to the riverside. I've got my new river shoes on and I wade into the cool current.

Matthiessen writes:

The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself; the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no "meaning," they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.

On Sunday I hike up the hill to my brother's house. The dogs greet me silently. Ron is sleeping to the sound of a portable fan, but he wakes and we say goodbye with love.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole

It's June, the month when light-filled hours flood us with fizzy serene energy, the month that answers the question I ask every May: "How on earth could spring get any more lovely?"

Father's Day was bright and beautiful, love pouring out all around, fun games of bocce and bowling, high white clouds overhead as we left Pinstripes. "Do you like the sky we ordered?" and he did, as well as the customized pair of Converse and the cake with "SuperHero Dad" in red and blue icing. Randy seemed very happy and I was content, because I wanted his special day to be as good as mine was.

On Mother's Day, I had wanted so much and I got it all. A yummy brunch, time with the girls and Randy, time alone to visit the memorial trees planted for my family in LaGrange. In the morning, we took the girls to see the latest Chicago Children's Theater production and their rock 'n roll Alice in Wonderland hit all the right thematic notes for our spring season.

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are cerebral books composed by a mathematician, challenging to many kids for whom the puns, wordplay and absurdity fly over their heads. This production chose to find the heart in the source material by interpreting the Jabberwocky as a monster who howls all your self-doubts and fears. "Ugly! Clumsy! Stupid!" screams the monster and its destruction is both as simple a task and as epic a battle as convincing yourself the lies are not real.

Anthony Lane in June The New Yorker writes on a new book about Lewis CarrollConversations about what is real, what is possible, and how rubbery the rules that govern such distinctions turn out to be abound in the tales of Alice. Yet they are sold as children’s books, and rightly so. A philosopher will ask how the identity of the self can be preserved amid the ceaseless flux of experience, but a child—especially a child who is growing so fast that she suddenly fills an entire room—will ask more urgently, as Alice does, “Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.” Children, viewed from one angle, are philosophy in motion.

And Andrew Solomon, in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

The University of Michigan's Arnold Sameroff is a developmental psychiatrist who believes everything in the world is a variable in every experiment; all events are over-determined; nothing can be understood except by knowing all of the mysteries of God's creation. Sameroff would suggest that though people have certain complaints in common, they have individual experiences, with individual constellations of complaints and individual networks of causes. "You know, there are these single-gene hypotheses," he says. "Either you have the gene or you don't, and those are very attractive to our quick-fix society. But it's never going to work."

We are down the rabbit hole as of late. Curiouser and curiouser. Logic and proportion have fallen something something. Little girls eat a bit of cake and grow so fast they seem to soar toward the ceiling. I'm actually looking forward to junior high (can you imagine?) as a respite from the challenges of middle school. Skewed sensitivities, hormonic (surely the opposite of harmonic! #dontcallmeshirley #canthelpit #sorrynotsorry) behavior, all facets of the strange way-place that is pre-adolescence.

And I'm off to California tomorrow to see my brother Ron. Traveling without the girls or Randy feels Off, but Necessary. Sometimes my own Jabberwock lurks.

Breathe. Breathe. There is a wise mind within all of us; it knows our capabilities and the truth of the world.

Last night at dinner, we had rode our bikes to Nick's which is one of my very favorite summer family things we do, last night at Nick's Nora said, "I'll miss you! I wish you could come to Fox Lake with us," and I sank a degree before my Alice chimed in, "She's going to see her brother. Daddy will see his sister and Mom will see her brother. It's the right thing to do."

My dear fighter, my Alice lost in the mazes and riddles of her age and her own unique self, my dear dear daughter bringing symmetry, sense and peace to me, gifts I so much want to be able to return again to her. Breathe. Breathe. Let us all breathe.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Spinster by Kate Bolick

The meme of the day is Mad Men's Peggy Olsen, walking down the halls of mega-ad-corp McCain-Erickson, arriving at her new job three days late, probably hungover from the rounds of vermouth the night before, a cigarette tilted on her smiling lip, an erotic antique Japanese print under one arm. A triumphant entrance for this character who over seven seasons has weathered many of the outrageous challenges single working women faced in mid-century New York.

An apt image for our From Left to Write virtual book club day discussing Kate Bolick's celebration of the autonomous life and accomplished women of history who have desired and delighted in their independence, with or without solitude: Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own.

I spent much of my single life alone, but not lonely. At the time, living by myself seemed the most obvious choice, if it seemed like I had any choice at all. When I received the notice from the small mid-western liberal arts college where I was to spend my freshman year that I would be living in a single room, I was content. Even when I saw the pocket size of my bedroom, even when I saw that mine was the only one of its kind in the building because the similarly configured rooms on the other floors had been converted into ironing closets, I did not mind. I liked hiking up to the empty fourth floor attic to find my own private bathroom. I liked the cozy way the head of my bed hit one wall and the foot was tucked against the other.

I spent another year and a half of college in single bedrooms, then rented my own apartment for grad school in Iowa City. I loved that first apartment, the dark wood trim framing the doors and windows, the plaster walls with a picture rail to hang my art posters,  the hardwood floors and big windows facing east, south and west. When I first moved to Chicago at twenty-six, it didn't dawn on me to seek out a roommate until a couple of years later when my cousin found herself in need of a space at the same time I was trying to get out of a bad lease. Sally was the most amiable of roommates and I was sad when she moved to Atlanta with her new beau, whom she would eventually marry.

I married too, at thirty-five, which is seven years older than the national average for women. Yet it did not feel like a delayed decision. Marriage was not on my radar as a young woman; college, grad school and career were my first concerns. No relationship until Randy suited me or had any potential, not that I was even thinking in those terms. Marriage seemed such a throwback, a state unnecessary to the common sense of everyday feminism. My four closest friends were happily childless (and remain so to this day) and busy with fascinating and engrossing work. Who needed Joni Mitchell's "piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tied and true?"

Randy and I lived together happily for seven years and could have continued in that way, but we both wanted children. And although my dear boyfriend offered to give me what I wanted, and although I could not care less about what other people thought, the idea of being an unmarried mother made those imaginary children seem entirely "mine" rather than "ours." So fifteen years ago this July we tied the knot. Two cute little girls arrived soon after.

Does this mean I am not a spinster? Could I still have a spinster's heart within a close and loving family? A heart that is grateful for time to read and write and that adores refreshing solitude, yet also one that courts an emotional self-sufficiency that makes me reluctant to pick up the phone or ask for advice or help. Bolick points out that her spinster life is "teeming with people: family, friends, colleagues." It's a privileged life in many ways, a life of great confidence, one I admire and perhaps envy at times. But there is only one reality, there are no other possible worlds accessible to us except in the imagination, and my full and happy house is my most beloved home.

This post was inspired by Kate Bolick's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own. The publisher provided me with a copy at no obligation. You can read more responses to Bolick's book at From Left to Write.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Burma Bridge

The girl sat on a tiny wooden platform thirty feet over our heads, her feet dangling in space, her hands gripping the edge as if she was in mortal peril.

Over the last forty minutes, she had barely moved.

A patient woman camp counselor crouched behind her, encouraging the girl gently. When there was a pause in the cheers and cajoles of the girls below, you could hear a few words of their conversation.

"...feel like I'm being pushed..."

"You're not being pushed. I'm not pushing you. You can do this. Put your hands on the rope and lean forward."

That's all the girl needed to do, move her hands from the sides of the platform, lean over the edge and drop into space. The zipline attached to the harness around her waist and legs would keep her safe as she flew through the morning air. Her entire troop had already done as much, screaming with joy as they swung away from us through a path cut through the forest.

The spring leaves in the trees around us were tiny slips of gold not yet able to cover the hard truth of the bare branches. The spring air was cool and fresh; the sky was clear. I walked on frost on the grass on the way to the fire circle to light our breakfast campfire that morning.

The girl had already braved a shaky ladder, pulled herself onto the "Catwalk," a telephone pole tilted at a forty-five degree angle and shuffled her way up that skinny wooden tightrope with only the help of a taut rope attached to the safety harness around her waist. But once she sat down on that platform, no wider than a coffee table, her mind had taken over her body and her fears had her paralyzed.

"Your challenge, your choice," was the mantra the counselors told us yesterday on the rock climbing tower as the girls strapped on these same safety harnesses and donned their helmets. A reassurance that the girls owned their experience and could elect to do as much or as little as they wanted. A counselor would always be on the end of the rope attached to each girl's harness, pulling them taut, keeping them safe.

But none of the counselors was talking about an escape route today. They were talking about how jumping was like "ripping off a band aid," best if done quick. They were calling out advice about not thinking. About how completely safe the rigging was, about how much fun she would have. They murmured to each other at one point about lunch, but the only edge that brought us closer to was the one of bumming out, so no more about that.

"Ten! Nine! Eight!" yelled the girl's troop from below.

"Girls, girls, that's enough. Let her do her own countdown!"

The sixth graders and junior high girls waiting below, including my own twelve year old and her troop, were patient, surprisingly patient, with this girl who had thrown a wrench in the works of this day, during the last hour before we were to go home after a camp overnight. Most of them had already tried and conquered the "Burma Bridge," a tightrope with waist-high ropes on either side to grip as they inched across. I watched with awe and some horror, whispering to my co-leader, "How is this fun? Nobody crosses bridges like that in Burma for fun!"

"I know!" said Emily. "They cross them so they won't die in the raging waters on their three hour walk to school!"

Now the bridge had been crossed and there was not much to do but wait and listen to the kind bearded counselor call out encouragement from down the path where he waited with his step ladder to take the girls down once they finished their flight.

"You can do it! Just lean forward! It will be so much fun!"

And we clapped and cheered some more.

I hadn't expected the high ropes course to be so emotionally moving. But it was beautiful to see the girls so encouraging and kind to the one trapped by her own fears. And so heart bursting to see my own daughter's face transform from yesterday's miserable and pale-as-a-sheet at the base of the rock climbing tower to a pink-cheeked grin of success after her Burma crossing today. And so awesome to hear that the next day, Monday morning, when the frightened girl who had held up everyone's fun asked Mia in class, "Are you mad at me?" my daughter gave her the only possible and a completely sincere answer, "No, of course not!"

Because the girl astonished us all with a sudden swift fall off the platform into the swinging flying exhilaration of the zip line. The line sang as she traveled its length, then bounced back, losing momentum, into a slow triumphant stop and the rescue of bearded guy with his step ladder.

We screamed, we cheered, we jumped up and down. I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it.

Here's to all of you facing fears of your own, and to me doing the same. Good luck with your leap of trust and please wish me the same.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

All The World's A Stage: Eric Larson's Dead Wake

Two hours to curtain, my hair in curlers, still need to glob on my stage makeup and cross off handfuls of other nagging to-do tasks, why on earth am I reading a book about the Lusitania?

You remember, the Liverpool-bound ocean liner full of American passengers whose sinking by a Nazi submarine cast the U.S. into World War I? (All you Downton Abbey fans will remember this tragedy starting all the series' heir-finding plot machinations during the show's premiere.)

Eric Larson, author of Devil in the White City, has penned a new account of the disaster that brings alive the parallel stories of a prowling German U-20 submarine and an English civilian ship laden with families on deck and munitions below.

Why was I adding more tension in my life during the craziest weeks of Variety Show when our cast of dozens had daily practices late into the night and seven performances in six days? I was already nervous, why was I biting my nails over cork-filled life vests and stealthy periscopes?

Because perspective, that's why.

I don't indulge in disaster narratives for the gory titillation, for the schadenfreude, for the visceral horrors or the relief of being at a safe readerly distance. As I read Dead Wake, as I read last month's Left to Write book club choice Trapped Under the Sea, when I read (and reread) Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, it's mostly about the good writing, the art of the storytelling. But what sticks with me is the way these books reveal how thin is the veil between normal everyday life and unexpected death.

No one escapes tragedy, after all. Some disasters are more quiet than others, but none of us is immune.

All the frenzy of preparations for a show with a cast and crew of over one hundred excited amateurs, all the thousands of creative decisions involved, all the nerves, the drumming hearts, the feats of strength to overcome shyness and stage fright, all is a wisp, an echo, a memory already. Such is all theater and such is all of our ephemeral lives.

These bleak truths don't dampen the pleasures of good company and good work. Instead, the fleetness of our time together makes every moment more precious. I have been very lucky. I am very happy.

This post was inspired by Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, a thrilling account of the luxury ocean liner and the U-boat that attacked and sank it one hundred years ago May 7. Join From Left to Write on March 26th as we discuss Dead Wake. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Two, Count' Em, Two! Shows!

So excited and grateful for a happy lucky coincy-dinks! I'm in the cast of TWO shows this spring!

Listen to Your Mother

A few weeks back I took some time out from our elementary school Variety Show rehearsals to polish and practice one of my mothering essays and one bright Saturday, shlepped my pages down to Chicago, my girls in tow for good luck, to audition for the 2015 Chicago Listen to Your Mother show.

Trying to ignore the sweat under my arms and the gentle "no thanks" I received two years ago, I took a deep breath and read my story for producers Tracey Becker and Melisa Wells.
What's Listen to Your Mother?

"Listen To Your Mother is a reading series that celebrates mothering by giving voice to motherhood in all of its complexity, diversity, and humor. The show expanded to 32 cities in 2014 and raised over $26,000 for local causes, bringing the project total to over 1000 stories shared and $50,000 in charitable giving since its inception." 

I made it! Squee!!  

The Sunday before Mother's Day my castmates and I will be on stage at the gorgeous Athenaeum Theater on Southport in Chicago, reading essays on the theme of motherhood, hopefully making you laugh, remember, reflect, and be inspired.

The show is May 3 at 2:00. Tickets are on sale now at early bird pricing through March 15. Ten percent of the gross ticket proceeds will benefit The Red Pump Project, a nonprofit organization raising awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls. Come see us!

Here's a link to the LTYM Youtube channel where you can see dozens of stories from previous shows.

The McKenzie Variety Show

In the days left before March 10, scores of parents and teacher from McKenzie Elementary will be singing, dancing, skitting and playing our hearts out to bring the 39th Variety Show to the stage. I'm directing two numbers this year, including one song that I wrote, and singing in two more. I'm loving every single moment.

Directing is so fun, especially with a game cast that nods when I tell them about my crazy choreography ideas.

Trust falls? No problem! Throw a big Handi-wipes container back and forth across the stage? Can do! Throw two? You got it!

I love my cast.

The little kids' happy and awed faces are a thrill to behold, but now, during rehearsals is almost a better time. Now, before we've had any audience reaction, now when I'm still imagining a flawless final product, now when I still have delusions of Busby Berkley, now before my imagination knocks up against my own two left feet.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Massachusetts: A Post for the From Left to Write Book Club

Thirty miles north of Boston, a tiny fishing town with the poetic name Manchester-by-the-Sea clings to the rocky coastline of Cape Ann. After graduate school in Iowa, I lived there with a writer boyfriend and our chocolate lab, on a lonely street facing the ocean.

We first arrived at Kettle Cove at low tide. All I saw was an expanse of slippery wet rock and abandoned seaweed. Yards out from the rocky beach, piles of treacherous boulders were draped with wide strips of shiny blackish-green kelp. I would later learn the name of the seaweed: bladderwrack. Where was the ocean?

"Tide's out," Paul explained.

The house was ninety years old. The wind had weathered its cedar shingles facing the water a pale gray; the three other sides of the house retained their rich brown color.

Behind the house stretched a salt marsh, its sun-dried grasses blown into sheets and planes like the tousled hair of a sleepy towheaded boy.

The wind never stopped singing. On stormy days, it beat the house.

The oil heater in the basement would start up with a "Whomp!" that sounded like a fireball launching behind the walls.

I found at job at a diner in downtown Manchester, but waitressing was harder and more exhausting than I had imagined. Each weeknight left me feeling tired and discouraged about this job I'd found, a job that wasn't the kind that graduates with master's degrees were supposed to pursue or enjoy. But I did like it. I liked writing down orders and putting plates down in front of hungry people. There was pride when I told Paul about the con artist whose "change for a twenty" trick I saw right through.

"I just slammed the register door shut and he left. I wanted to tell him, hey, man, I've seen Paper Moon!"

An end of the shift one Thursday. I counted my tips next to the register. Less than twenty dollars that night, but that was the price for avoiding Saturday morning rush. I did that shift only once. Every table was full, stayed full. I had been so deep in the weeds I didn't notice new customers slipping into booths, trying not to touch their predecessors' breakfast ruins and cash piles left to cover the damage. They waited patiently for me to notice them and clear the table, but my spinning head and inability to carry more than two plates at a time forced them, at patience's end and hunger's insistence, to wave me down and call me "Waitress!"

Two regulars were the only ones left that night at the counter, an empty seat between them. The Sweet Old Man and he round-bellied lobster fisherman whom Paul and I called "The Grun-Grun Guy" because we couldn't understand half of what he said. Effie, the chubby Greek owner and her husband John had already taken Grandma Ya Ya home; only John Jr. was left in back, scraping the grill. Ten to eight. Almost time to go.

"Can I take your plate?" I asked Sweet Man, reaching.

"No, I'm still working on it," he said. A cube of sandwich corner sat on his plate.

"Oh, sorry, take your time."

I turned to Grun-Grun Guy, hunched over the remains of his lobster dinner. At $14.95, it was the most expensive item on the menu, which meant my tip cup might top twenty bucks that night after all.

"Some more coffee?"

"Run!" He laughed rough and deep. "Ran a rot-rot not shot, Shandy!"

"Yeah!" I said, topping off his mug. I liked Grun-Grun Guy. He never asked for decaf after seven o'clock and yesterday, somewhere east of Gloucester, he very likely could have been the fisherman who caught that lobster he was eating.

"What are you doing waiting tables, Cindy girl?" asked Sweet Man, pushing his now empty plate towards me.

He was just trying to be nice, making conversation before we all had to leave and the lights went out. I could feel that positive smile I hated to wear sneaking up into my cheeks.

"Oh, this part-time shift is perfect for me. I'm doing interviews in the city in the morning and then I get to come here and see you at 4:00!"

I went in back, dropped his plate and my smile in the giant stainless sink. My inner forearms were red and scabbed from too much time in dishwater. I needed to see a dermatologist.

Back home, Lady greeted me at the sliding door. I could smell the metallic tang of Paul's aerated medicine.

"Hi Sweetheart!" I said to my eager darling. She hopped her two front feet off the floor in welcome. I scratched Lady's soft ears and that place she loved at the top of her tail. She opened her mouth in a floppy-tongued smile.

Paul's voice continued to speak in the other room, too soft to be addressed to me. Dark stretched outside the windows in every direction.

Grabbing a soft triangle from the pizza box John Jr. had pressed in my hands as I left the diner, I went into the living room, threw Paul a glance over my cheese. He sat cross-legged in his armchair in the dim corner by the stairs, the phone receiver next to his ear. Listening. He tipped up his chin at me and mouthed something I couldn't understand. I sat down on the rug in front of the television, flipped it on, then turned down the sound. My favorite show still had thirtysomething minutes left.

On the screen Elliot and Nancy hashed over their marriage while behind me Paul muttered some soft goodbyes into the phone and moved to the couch. When the commercials came on, I turned to look at him looking at me.


"How was work?"

"Slow. That old lobster fisherman came in. I can't understand a word that guy says. There's pizza." I wiped my fingers on my pants.

"Gives me heartburn. Uh." He tilted his head back and cleared his throat.

"Who was on the phone?" I asked while his eyes were off me.


"The phone. Who was on the phone."

"Oh. Uh, the bus driver."

"From Iowa? Why is she calling here?"

"We're still friends." He said this steady and very sure.

"Wait, shh. I want to see this." I reached up to turn up the volume.

"I wrote a song today."


"It's called Because of a Woman.' Kind of a Dylan tribute. You know, just like 'Just Like a Woman,' ha ha!"

"What's because of a woman?"

"The blues. You know, did you ever hear of a guy drinking because his buddy went away? It's always because of a woman." He giggled. "Unless he's gay."


"I worked on the article for Yankee. But I think the guy I'm writing the profile about is a scammer. He's trying to get press for saving this park, but he's developing a housing complex right across the street. Won't that just raise the property values?"

"Paul, my show is on. I have one show. One show. Can I please watch this please?"

Weekend mornings Lady woke me as she usually did, with low and whiney, nearly human moans. Desperate with her need. Standing next to the bed, her face even with mine. She tilted her head sideways, caught my eye and then bowed down low with expectation. If I didn't stop ignoring her, in a moment she would leap a couple of inches off the ground and bark a raspy hesitant chop. Paul slept on.

I whispered the song Paul had made up for her. "Attention and praise, attention and praise, we will give you attention and praise!" An apology for making her wait.

The sun's angle said Late or so. We were far enough into the fall that its slanting light would resemble morning almost all day until a moment near dusk when all at once the hour felt ruined, the precious declining light nearly wasted. It was the first autumn I wouldn't be a student. I could hear an echo of Rod Stewart's mournful rasp. "It's late September and I really should be back at school." No reason to wake up early, no ringing alarm clock like the one Paul had thrown out my window in Iowa City. I'd laughed so hard when he did that, laughed at its diminishing song as it flew away and its affronted final "ping!" as it hit the ground. And laughed again, outside, in my robe and bare feet in the wet spring grass, picking it up and meeting the eye of a passing undergrad couple. And again, when I told Paul about the way the boy and girl had seen me in my robe, picking up the injured clock, and in their smiles, I could see they understood the entire story in a moment.

I pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt over my pajama top. Creaking stairs. Lady's red leash on the doorknob of the back door.

The wind and its fresh salt smell hit me at the door. Lady whirled in circles, grabbing at the leash with her teeth. She growled low in her throat, got a grip on the leash and shook it with her strong head. She hated that thing. "Jealous!" we teased her when she insisted on leading herself, carrying the leash in her teeth at a self-possessed spot between her collar and the loop I held in my hand.

Bright sun. Another brilliant day. Gulls. Sparkles on the water. The tide had filled the bay and hid the rocks under a placid surface.

On the rocky beach, as nearly every morning, some invisible and industrious walker had left neat piles of balanced round rocks, cairns for us to wonder at and Lady to sniff. Paul was convinced the builder was a witch, casting evil spells to foil us.

Lady plunged ahead, fighting my hold, to reach a stretch of gravel just past the neighbor's driveway where she shat most mornings. She crouched and arched her back among the ossified remains of the last few days.

Business over, we walked on, following the curve of the road that circled Kettle Cove.

Paul and I were playing at domesticity. We were a strange little family, rattling in a big drafty house, on a street with only four homes between stretches of marsh and wood. Lady was our wordless child, our wounded darling. The vet's offhand remark, "Her brain is the size of a walnut," stung like an insult.

At the Shaw's Grocery in Ipswitch, we topped our shopping cart with groceries, gawked at the eight dollar bottle of macadamia nuts and hoped to spot John Updike. I prepared Paul's inhaled medicine twice a day and fattened him up with slices of fried ham and a pot roast boiled with cloves and bay I had seen on a cooking show. I was regularly watching TV for the first time since high school. After getting an advanced degree in media without owning a TV, I was seduced by the Mooney's clunky set. Paul and I started watching Jeopardy at 5:30 every day, first yelling out the answers, then competing for the answers, then keeping score against each other. Paul began to cut out and color triangular victory pennants out of typing paper for each of his wins and tape them to the door jamb and the mantle of the never-used fireplace. He balanced on a sofa arm to tape his triumphant papers to the ceiling and the railing of the staircase.

Lady was in heat. For ten awful days she bled on the dun-shaded linoleum floor in the kitchen because Paul insisted we wait to get her fixed. He wanted to breed her for profit.

We woke one winter night to the sounds of howly whines from the front yard. It was the eerie middle of the night and thick snow had made our yard strange with drifts that covered the striped buoys hanging on the fence and the denuded wild rose bushes. Lady's scent had attracted three dogs we'd never seen, all the way from God know where: a German Shepard, a mutty thing and a ghostly all-white husky. We could see them sitting in the snow, light from the kitchen falling on them as they sat patiently, staring at the house. Lady went crazy, leaping and scratching against the glass doors, crashing like a deer in the underbrush.

One gale-force night, the pine tree in the back yard fell over, its roots and a fringy skirt of turf still attached to the trunk. We propped her back upright, like she was a clumsy but cheerful and resilient grandma.

A lone seal sunned himself one day on a bare rock in the cove. He was as shiny and brown as the seaweed around him. Once, an ethereal swan floated in the bay.

Lady ecstatically rolled in piles of dead seagull bone piles.

"My brothers are coming this weekend," Paul announced one Friday in September.

"Oh, God. The place is a mess. Why are they coming?"

"It's their house too. And."



"Come on! I'm going to have to clean up for them and feed them and clean up after they leave!"

"They told Ma they were pissed that we were living here. That it wasn't fair."

I did not ask, "So what if it's unfair? So what? Are they coming to enact revenge?" Nor did I wonder yet why Paul chose to tell me things like this. When I had asked him earlier in the summer to explain his vague claim, "They don't like you," he offered nothing more specific than a shrug.

A rusty winch began to crank, pulling from the depths an enormous chain, dripping with seaweed and hung with wet clocks.

The boys arrived from Leominster. David was solid and heavy, taciturn. Kevin had longer and lighter hair than David's, which was as black as Paul's. Other than that, the three bore little resemblance to each other.

"Nice jacket," said Kevin to me when the boys arrived, in a tone I could not read as sarcasm or sincerity and with that, the niceties were over. The brothers spoke with Paul in a hostile code and made no eye contact with me. My plan to win them over with smiles and questions about their interests revealed itself as so much fluff. Worst of all, Lady adored Kevin, throwing herself over and over into the surf to retrieve the stick he hurled with an excess of enthusiasm. He laughed when she lost sight of the floating target and paddled in circles.

Clanking, ticking spirals of ancient links made soft with algae wound round and round.

"We're going to Egg Rock," Paul told me. He helped his brothers pull the fishing boat and its outboard motor out of the garage and down to the beach. Lady and I watched from the rocks as they climbed on and David pushed off. The engine caught and they headed for the mouth of the cove. Lady's ears perked up as they motored away, she paced and whined as the boat picked up speed, then with a sudden bolt, she tumbled into the water after them.

"Lady! NO!" I yelled. The boat kept receding, Lady's determined head making a tiny wake behind her as I screamed and jumped and waved. Their engine shifted down. Had they already seen her and teased her by gunning away? The boat swung around to meet her and the boys pulled her aboard. They roared out of the cove until late afternoon.

The cranking stilled for a couple of precious hours.

Kevin had dropped out of high school that year, not from bad grades, but boredom, Paul had told me, with some pride. But he had also told me David was gay and I was never sure which of his stories were true. "David is gay, David is gay," he sang.

The boys would spend Saturday night on two of the three single beds in the back bedroom. The never-made mattresses and crushed box springs rattled on their shaky bedframes when you sat on them. No headboard or baseboard, just unsteady steel frames on wheels. No other furniture in the room.

On Sunday the five of us walked along Ocean Street toward White Beach. The road gently curved around the cove.

"Let me walk Lady," Kevin asked me, reaching out for her leash.

"Okay, but hold on to her, she'll run off."

"No, she'll follow us." He unsnapped the leash from her collar and pocketed it. My cruelly fickle girl looked up at his face and trotted along at his side.

Something nearing the surface. The chain paused in its work. Links drip.

We reached the curve of the curbless road where a drainage tunnel ran under the road to allow the tide in and out of the salt marsh that stretched behind the houses on Ocean Street. At low tide you could walk through the tunnel and barely get your feet wet. But we never did, you would have to scramble over uneven and slippery rocks to reach the tunnel from the beach, and the grassy sides from the road were steep.

That morning was high tide. The beach had all but disappeared under gray waves. Ocean water rushed through the tunnel in a furious torrent, nearly filling its corregated aluminum sides as the current poured through to the acres of spongy salt marsh beyond.

"Watch this," said Kevin.

He picked up a stick and before I knew what was happening, held it to Lady's face, then threw it in the racing water. It whipped away in the current. He didn't even need to call, "Fetch!" Lady knew what to do. She flew into the air, landed in the water with a splash, went completely under and emerged just as the water pulled her into the tunnel and out of our sight.

"Lady!" I screamed.

"I didn't think she would really go for it!"

The chain slipped its mooring and spun like wild. Without thinking, I slid down the bank and splashed into the water. It was waist-high and very cold.

As the water passed the barrier of my shoes, jeans, the complimented barn jacket and sweatshirt underneath and reached my skin, I caught a glimpse of Lady's head, silhouetted against the semi-circle of light above the water at the end of the tunnel. Then she was through, had reached the daylight on the other side of the road. I couldn't move. Every muscle was working to keep upright on the slick round rocks under my feet and against the push of the current on my legs. I was barely balancing, pressing against the furious current that was propelling me into the tunnel. David reached out from the bank.

Someone ran over the road to check on Lady and yelled back, "She's okay!"

By the time I hauled my cold legs one by one back to the grassy bank, Lady had pulled herself into the grass of the salt marsh and crossed the road with Kevin back to the ocean side. She swirled around the legs of the boys, her tail happy, while they hauled me out of the water. She shook herself in a fast-motion blur of animation, all flying drops and shaking. The boys yelled out and dodged the flung wet.

"What were you doing?" they yelled once I was onto the bank. "What were you thinking!"

I yelled the same words back at Kevin, and, "She could have drowned!"

"She was fine!"

Paul laughed until he cried. "Lady was still swimming after the stick!" Admiration at her fearlessness, tears at her obliviousness.

After they left, I could not find my green barn jacket that Kevin had liked.

I worked freelance as a production assistant on shoots for a fast food restaurant chain, for car dealerships, a Boston drug store. I quit Effie's when I got a two month gig editing sound effects for a PBS documentary about the making of the Trans-Continental Railroad. Frustration clawed at me. On days we weren't working, Paul and I hid from the mailman. We were ashamed to let that hard-working, honestly employed grown-up catch up in our bathrobes at noon.

Finding a teaching certification program at nearby Northeastern University, making the phone calls to discover I needed my transcripts assessed, typing up and sending transcript letters to William Jewell and Notre Dame exhausted me and took weeks of time. By the time I got the assessment letter back from Northeastern, the word "Deficiencies" glared at me. I would need at least two more full semesters to begin their program.

Manchester ended quickly; the relationship, not quickly enough.

Paul's parents said we had to move out; they found a paying tenant. We packed our things into our two cars one Saturday morning, headed out who knows where, stopped for breakfast at the Denny's on Route 1 in Saugus. We fought over money, left the restaurant, fought more. He pushed me to the ground.

I sat sobbing on the curb. Cotton batting filled my ears as I sat in shock. My knee was bleeding.

The whole scene was unbearably sordid: the Denny's parking lot, the car piled full of hastily packed boxes, the flapping remains of the Sunday newspaper he had thrown, my weeping as Paul slammed the car doors taking Lady out of my car and moving her into his, the strangers who stared as they passed on the way to their happy cars. How could I share this with anyone? Who could I tell?

Although I had not lost consciousness, I woke up as I pulled myself up from the curb. I woke into a world where not everything gets fixed, where wrongs are allowed and people grow old.

I tried calling home from a pay phone next to the highway. I was all ready to come home, everything was in my car, but when I called Kansas City, no one was home. So I stayed. I stayed six more months, then Uncle Phil flew out and helped me move back to Kansas City. "There are no jobs out east," I said.

This post was inspired by Trapped Under The Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness by Neil Swidey, a staff writer for Boston Globe Magazine. Swidey's harrowing, exhaustively researched book tells the true story of five men sent into a dark, airless, miles-long tunnel below the ocean to do a nearly impossible job that would help clean the once dirtiest harbor in America. Join From Left to Write on February 19th as we discuss Trapped Under the Sea. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Youth of Old Age

I love January. Sweep away the Christmas sweets; break out the citrus and kale. Clear out the mess of tinsel and enjoy the bare tree for one last day. Back to the gym, back to feeling clean and spent instead of stuffed and indulged.

And there are two particular special days in this month: little Nora turned ten, enjoying the last bit of childhood before adolescence sneaks in and steals away her squeaky voice and chubby cheeks. And I turned fifty today. No regrets, remember? It's a day of joy. I am enjoying a privilege not given to all.

Victor Hugo called fifty "the youth of old age" and Randy and I kicked up our heels like kids in Mexico to celebrate last weekend. I sobbed as we drove away from the girls the first morning and I missed them more painfully than I had anticipated. But the sun was a balm and dancing in the town square and hiking in the hills worked their healing magic.

"I'm gonna live every day until I die" sang the rock star at the Todos Santos Music Fest and if that isn't the best idea ever, I don't know what is.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year

I love a happy accident so when I turned on the car radio today on the way to the forest preserve and heard Edith Piaf's "Je ne regrette rien" I had to smile because "No regrets" was the resolution I had written down on a big pad of scratch paper not an hour earlier.

(Nora wrote "Butts" as her resolution, and then added it again and again all over the paper. Like most moms, I am so often the straight man in the family joke. Don't mind it today; we had a fun party last night with dear friends until late and I'm tired today, taking the path of least resistance, just grateful for an easy recovery day.)

In the car I smiled at the thrilling sound of Piaf's trill and then I had to cry some because, you know, emotion.

For a very long time I did not share the sentiment of this beautiful old song, willfully misunderstanding, perhaps, when I complained, "how can anyone live without regrets? Everyone does stuff that they are sorry for!"

Today I am embracing it fully. The perception shift is about acceptance and forgiveness and extending the courtesy to myself as well as others. We all make mistakes and I will continue to bumble and stumble through this life, world willing, in 2015 hopefully with a softer view, a gentler touch.

Happy New Year, dear readers. Warmest wishes for a healthy and happy 2015. Much love.