not even past

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I love the sounds of late-summer nights. As I write this, I’m sitting on my porch in the city of Albany, listening to the endless trill of crickets as a fan whirs above me and moths smack, kamikaze-style, against the light. Thanks to my late husband, who had a fine streak of whimsy in him, the ceiling is sky blue and dotted with clouds. He painted it when the kids were wee, and I’ll never paint it over. To me it means family, and childhood, and picture books, and love. It means warmth, even in the midst of winter.

But sitting out here on a muggy August night, I feel close to my own childhood on a lake in Connecticut. Most every night I would step out onto the porch and hear that same, thrumming chorus of crickets. And the peepers! I loved those beautiful frogs, considered them my pals and even wrote a little poem about them — for the record, one of my least-bad efforts at adolescent versifying. It’s short. So short I can remember it in full, which rather shocks me, given the unmemorable nature of my teenage poetic output and the unreliable nature of my memory banks. It goes like this:

I love the peepers
My sweet froggy souls
As they sing their sweet hearts out
Through mud, gnats and night

They always sang loudest from the tiny creek that trickled beside the house. I would walk past them and down the hill to the lake below, where I dangled my feet from a stone fence above the sand. There I would watch, at peace for a lovely, lasting moment, as bugs dappled the dark water and the distant whine of cars echoed from the opposite shore.

Sometimes my cat Peter, a fine old gentleman with a cracked “meow,” would mosey down and say hello, and we would sit there, we two, contemplating the universe as a soft breeze played across the water. I loved doing that. Doing nothing in the lazy warmth of a summer evening. Just thinking, drinking it all in, looking up at the stars or the haze of a moon, hearing the bark of a neighbor’s dog or the plash and chug of a slow boat creeping back home through the dark.

Those were my late-summer nights. I still have them somewhere, lodged in the back of my mind and the start of my life, keeping me tethered to a long ago that never really left me. As Faulkner once observed, and I am constantly repeating, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Not tonight, as the crickets hum and a dog barks in the distance. Not tonight, and not ever.

 

 

trump-towering among them

IMG_4264“Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man.

Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man . . . . But he was the Common Man twenty times magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.”

***

Buzz Windrip, in case you hadn’t met him, is the fascist demagogue in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satire “It Can’t Happen Here,” which pundits have sometimes invoked in the long months since Donald Trump first rose to prominence in this election, and then rose and rose again. It is not the world’s greatest novel, being overwritten, under-realized and saddled with way too much dated lingo for 21st-century eyeballs. Also, Buzz is not an exact fictional counterpart; for one thing, he runs as a Democrat.

But as the Republican National Convention concluded last week, I kept thinking about Lewis’s vision — and his characterization of a power-crazed, racist incendiary who runs for president with the support of a hoodwinked populace.

Windrip isn’t an Everyman, but he does a good job faking it for the disaffected, underserved, frustrated masses. He’s both one of them and a cut far above them, someone who claims the power and the wherewithal to make promises he has no intention of fulfilling: among them, a $5,000 guaranteed income. This is where the parallels with Trump pique and scare the bejesus out of me, because, just like Windrip, this cheap Narcissus has hoodwinked his supporters into believing that he cares about them. He doesn’t. This is what he cares about: Donald Trump.

In “It Can’t Happen Here,” apologists and toadies fall into line, assuming Windrip will moderate once elected, but of course he doesn’t. He creates a militia. He tosses Supreme Court justices in prison. He takes over the media. He establishes concentration camps for dissenters. And so on. I am not saying any of that will happen if Trump is elected; I’m not saying we’re doomed to endure a real-world version of an 81-year-old novel. But we need to pay attention. We need to be vigilant about this democracy of ours. We need to tell ourselves it can happen here, or we’ll be lazy about ensuring that it won’t.

the gifts that live

Today would have been our silver. Twenty-five years ago, Chris and I got hitched at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Washington, Conn., a pretty stone church that my mother liked to call Our Lady of Perpetual Motion.

Three priests presided. Music was provided by one violinist (my mom), one trumpet player, two organists and a gospel choir. A friend snapped photos. My brother-in-law ferried us in Chris’s old Corolla to the reception, which was held in a church basement down the road that we rented for 60 bucks. The meal was pot luck. I’m not kidding. Pot luck. For entertainment, a buddy of ours played guitar. Stout-hearted friends took control of the kitchen, and washed, and washed, and washed.

I think of that day and wonder how we did it. How we managed to fall in love so wildly, so quickly, with such conviction. Four months after our first date, we got engaged. Again I’m not kidding. Four months. Six months after that, we were married. Who does that? How did we know it would stick?

I think of that day and marvel that Chris and I were ever so young. That so many now gone were still alive: my parents, Chris’s parents, my sister Lucy, my best friend Pam. And Chris! How alive he was. How his heart rumbled inside his chest. The man stood so straight he almost fell backward. He hugged me so hard I almost cracked. He smiled with his mouth, his eyes, his whole sturdy person, rocking on his heels with the rhythm of delight.

I think of that day and swell with gratitude. Chris gave me so much. He gives me so much still, his gifts growing with love long past his death. He gave me our three beautiful children. His dear, kind sisters and brothers, their husbands and wives. My three fine nephews. My new great-niece, an angel born three weeks ago.

Chris gave me my home: Had I not married a reporter for the Times Union, I wouldn’t have moved to Albany. He gave me all of my life here. All of my friends and coworkers. All of my neighbors. He gave me the Adirondacks. Camping. Stewart’s Ice Cream. Downhill skiing, which I would never have tried without him.

He gave me the lingering effects of his green thumb. The apple tree at the front of my house. The gardens, front and back. The spider plants, upstairs and down.FullSizeRender

Most of all, he gave me his love and all its light. That lingers, too. He gave me faith in the long-term bond between two people. He gave me an understanding of love as a deep, enduring and sacramental fact, as a truth forged together but greater than the both of us, as something worth fighting for every minute — because the minutes, if we honored them properly, could amass into decades.

And so they did. Twenty years I had with my good, strong, loving, constant husband, a brilliant man whose giant heart roared with the joy of living. He died, but his gift goes on forever.

whiteness

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Like everyone else in the country, I can’t stop thinking about last week’s events. I can’t stop trying to figure out a way to comprehend them — first the senseless deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, then the senseless deaths of Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael J. Smith, Lorne Ahrens and Michael Krol. Somehow, we’re compelled to make sense of the senseless. We know we can’t, but we also know we have to try. We have to talk. We have to figure out some way to discuss race and injustice, guns and hatred, police and people of color, fear and sacrifice, and the abrupt, outrageous victimhood of everyone who dies at the end of a barrel in these inflamed and disunited states where we now live.

But how do we start? How do we even talk about race when anthropologists tell us it’s a social construct? When our best selves believe that it shouldn’t even matter? Well, here’s how white people can kick things off: by admitting that it does.

Like most Caucasians, I never thought much about being white. Whiteness always struck me as a negative state, a bleached racial canvas defined by what it wasn’t. As a kid I knew I wasn’t black or brown, and I knew that people identified by their blackness or brownness suffered terrible prejudice — but what this meant in terms of my own whiteness, I couldn’t tell you. I knew that my dad was Italian, my mom was English-Scottish-French-German, and I was a mash of both. But white? That meant nothing to me. My parents discussed racism with me and my sister in the language of sweeping moral imperatives and prohibitions: Treat everyone the same. Never use racial epithets or tell racist or ethnic jokes. Speak out when someone else does. But they never spoke to us about being white. If, as they assured us, everyone’s alike, then why bother parsing the differences? There weren’t any, right?

So when Justin Timberlake took heat for tweeting out a tone-deaf “We’re the same” in response to Jesse Williams’ remarks at the BET Awards, I cringed. He was no more oblivious than most well-meaning white folk, all of us adamantly believing and repeating the standard line on race that our well-meaning white parents taught us: That there is no difference. That we’re all alike. That we’re all brothers and sisters. That we’re all born and made of the same essential human stuff.

And so we are. In the eyes of our Creator, there is no difference. But it isn’t the Creator’s eyes (which are, at this point, weeping) that are causing the problem. It’s our eyes, the eyes of society, the eyes that see and pass judgment on a black man with a broken tail light and a license to carry a gun, the eyes that narrow with fear at the guy in the hoodie running an errand, the eyes that regard a brown boy with suspicion when a white one is viewed with confidence and calm.

This is where my parents were wrong. This is what has taken me, your Typical Clueless White Person, far too long to understand: Not everyone is the same. My whiteness means that I’ve never had to worry when I send my teenage son to fetch milk or ice cream in the evening, because his whiteness protects him after dark. My whiteness means that I’ve never had to sit him down for the talk that mothers give their black sons about safety on the streets and dealings with police.

My whiteness means that in every conversation I’ve ever had about race and the failures of our justice system, in everything I’ve ever read about mass incarceration and economic imbalance and the pernicious effects of institutionalized racism, in all of my sympathetic, heartfelt, horrified responses to same, I have never asked how I play into it. How I might be privileged, complicit and complacent. What my whiteness means. Which is, in its way, proof of just how privileged, complicit and complacent I’ve been. I still don’t know what it means, but I know that it means something, and I know that I have to question this something to change the status quo. And maybe that’s a start.

So as we grieve and object to the taking of lives last week, all of us — the whole spectrum of Americans — can hope and pray that more lives aren’t taken in reply. We have to, because we can’t let violence become the conversation. We need to talk, and we need to listen. We need to figure this out together.

handy

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I had a little epiphany the other day. Someone was chit-chatting casually with my son, and in the course of this casual chit-chat asked him if Mom was “handy.” He confirmed that indeed Mom is.  When I heard this, I was tickled pink. I was BEYOND tickled pink. I was tickled rose sunsets and bubblegum-flamingos-in-pointe-shoes. I was tickled despite the fact that my late husband, who had worked in carpentry and construction for many years before switching to journalism, HATED HATED HATED the word “handy,” considering it an infantile reduction of his skills.

But I don’t deceive myself. I have no skills. When it comes to repairing things, jury-rigging things, piecing things together and persuading things to fit and function inside my house, I am exercising neither art nor aptitude. Instead I am exercising my inborn propensity for Repairman Avoidance. I am being the stubborn white-haired lady who might not believe she can fix a damn thing but is damn well going to try, anyway.

When the basement trap clogged and overflowed with toilet unmentionables, and I couldn’t reach the Sewage Dude immediately, I went down with a shovel and started to dig out. It was late at night, and it was disgusting. But you know what? As I shoveled and gagged and shoveled and gagged and shoveled and gagged and gagged, I felt a crazed pride welling within me, as in: Yee-haw! I am one sick motha! I can shovel shit! Yes, I can!

The next day, Sewage Dude arrived. Standing by as his finished the job, I engaged him in casual chit-chat.

Me: Soooooo. . . ummm. . . when my husband died, I wrote a book about it afterward called Figuring Shit Out.

Sewage Dude: Really.

Me: Yeah. And this would have been a great chapter.

(Sewage Dude laughs.)

Afterward, it occurred to me that shoveling shit was something my mother would have done — and might have done, for all I know. I think a lot about Mama, a tough, wise, loving lady whose stick-to-it-iveness carried the family after Daddy lost his short-term memory. Exercising her own inborn propensity for Repairman Avoidance, she fixed furniture, plumbing, windows. She painted the downstairs. She built a shower upstairs. When the cushions died, she took apart the living-room sofa and rebuilt it as a simple wood settee. She repaired hings, jury-rigged things, pieced things together and persuaded things to fit and function inside her  house.

I’d always admired this about her, but I’d always assumed her handiness was innate, not acquired. I assumed it was something she’d brought to her marriage that I didn’t bring to mine. But when my son called me handy, the revelation finally hit me: I was just like Mama! Mama was just like me! She hadn’t started out with a hammer in one small fist and a paint can in the other. Life had turned her into a jury-rigger and handy-woman, a stubborn white-haired lady who did what she could to patch things together. She she became what she needed to become. She fixed what broke. She figured shit out, and showed me the way.

 

 

 

that word again

baby fistI’ve been thinking about love in the last few days, itching and twitching with excitement as I awaited the arrival of a new and blessed human into the clan. She finally came, this great niece of mine with her mop of hair and splendid howling maw, and she’s perfect. She’s gorgeous, of course, but that’s not what I mean. I mean she’s perfect in the way that all babies are perfect, as an emblem and ambassador of all that we long for in this life.

She isn’t merely loved. She’s love embodied. I haven’t had a chance to meet her yet and hold her in my arms, but I already love her and know her as love. I already know that she’s a gift, not just to her parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and great uncles and great aunts and cousins, but to the world. To everyone else. To all of us here, groping through the everyday with faith that it will lead us somewhere with light and meaning.

Love is a verb and an abstract noun. But it’s also a substance, a thing made tangible and real by living, touching and giving of one another — a thing that sparks to life in the arms of our beloved and grows with each new embrace. We rock our babies, and they become toddlers. We kiss our toddlers, and they become schoolchildren. We hug our schoolchildren, and they go on to high school, then college, then jobs, then marriage, then children and grandchildren of their own, making yet more love out of yet more love in an endless, fractal branching of fertility and hope.

My own three babies, no longer small, are the proof and stuff of love. So was my late husband, this new little girl’s Great Uncle Chris, who made our children with me. So was my late sister Lucy, whose death prompted us to have kids sooner than we’d planned. So are all we love who leave too soon, who cease to be present in this world but never cease to be real, because love never ceases to be real. How could it?

This is the lesson in every baby: that nothing, nothing, nothing is more real than love. Not time. Not loss and pain. Not life itself. That first holy moment cradling a child lasts forever. It is forever. People call parental love unconditional, but it’s more than love without condition; it’s love without end. All love is. All babies are, this one included. She’s love, and she’s loved. And all is right with the world.

the voice i need

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Every now and then, when I’m desperate to hear the voice of someone who knows me and loves me enough to give me the shit I so desperately need, I call my brother Danny. And he swears at me.

He provided this service earlier this week. I was navel-gazing and perseverating in THE worst possible way, fretting over various Conversations with various People who said various Things expressing various forms of Dissatisfaction and passing various forms of Judgment on me that, okay, I shouldn’t have internalized, because I  knew deep down that these same Things were fundamentally and unequivocally Wrong. But I’m fundamentally and unequivocally human, so I internalized every last Thing and filed it away for safekeeping. The other day, I retrieved those Things. I replayed them in my tired little brain, then shrugged into a hairshirt and started beating myself with a stick, preparing for A) A life of misery and loneliness; B) Byzantine sainthood; or C) Both, and doesn’t that sound like fun!

I was in the throes of such self-flagellation when it hit me: I’d better call Danny so he can tell me to shut the eff up. And I did. I called him. He answered, bless his soul. I gave him the low-down on the Things I had internalized, on my overwrought psyche and on my subsequent plan to remove myself to a cave in the desert of Osrhoene for a life of ascetic reflection and self-denial. It’ll be great! I’ll take a vow of silence and live on beetles!, I told him, or something along those lines. And Danny, interrupting me, said:

“NOW WAY! EFF YOU, AMES! NO! NO! NO! NO WAY! NO!”

Then he said it again.

“NO! NO! EFF YOU, AMY! NO WAY! NO WAY! NO! NO! NO! NO!”

And again.

“NO WAY! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! EFF YOU! NO!”

At this point, I was laughing so hard I could barely hear him, but he kept going.

“NO! NO! NO! NO WAY! NO! EFF YOU, AMY! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! EFF YOU! EFF YOU! NO! NO WAY!”

And so on. He kept yelling at me. I kept laughing. By the end of this loving tirade I was shedding tears of joy and relief, because my brother had said exactly what I needed to hear at the exact moment I needed to hear it. He then went on to say more things I needed to hear, compassionate things, insightful things, uplifting and affirming things, things so different from the Things I’d heard before and have had such a hard time forgetting.  I thanked him for that, and for making me laugh.

What struck me, both in the midst of this conversation and in the days afterward, was just how necessary it is — for all of us, in this beautiful mess of a world — to have people in our lives who’ll yell at us when we most need it. We need people to shake us from our funks and give us shit. We need voices noisy enough to shout us down with love. I have those voices in my life, the voices of relatives and friends who’ll say what has to be said and say it with frankness and force. I know where to turn for what I need. The other day, I needed EFF YOUs and NO NO NO NO NOs, so I turned to Danny. He gave me the love I needed, and it was loud as hell. Thank you, brother.

trump, and our job as ants

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Today, heading out on one of my periodic hoofs around the neighborhood, I found this on the sidewalk: a mob of ants clotting around an earthworm. I leaned over for a moment, considering the industry and anonymity of the army at work, wondering why We Humans can’t join forces and shoulder away — for storage, safekeeping or disposal — whatever blessed gifts or toxic burdens come our way. Donald Trump and his hateful and divisive rhetoric sprang to mind. Surely, if we all came together, we could solve that nagging problem. How about everyone who’d rather not see him as our 45th President just assemble on a square of pavement at his feet and peacefully, diligently, carry him off the sidewalk?

I considered the logistics of this as I pressed on with my afternoon constitutional. In short order I passed a black man in a skull cap, swapping quick hellos. A few minutes later, inside a pharmacy, a young woman with a South-Asian accent chit-chatted agreeably as she rang up my chocolate and greeting cards. She smiled. I smiled. Nice gal.

Down the street, I encountered two men leaving an Orthodox shtiebel, deep in conversation in some language I didn’t immediately recognize (Yiddish? Russian?).  I said hi. They looked up, nodded quickly but politely, then returned to their discourse, walking lightly in heavy black suits on this far-too-muggy Sabbath.

Barely half a block down the street, I stopped and tried on a leather jacket (sleeves too long) at a yard sale, gassing a bit with the African-American family gathered out front.

On the rest of my stroll home, I passed a new Mormon church and my old Catholic church, lately transformed into a hip media company. I exchanged smiles, greetings and pleasantries with an Italian friend at an import store, a black woman who accidentally knocked into me with her Stewart’s bag — she apologized profusely, and I assured her I survived — and an old white fellow that I scared the bejesus out of when I walked up beside him and bleated out hello.

“Ahhh!,” he yelped, laughing. “You startled me!”

My turn to apologize profusely. He grinned and regained his bearing, and as he did, I thought: We are a horde of ants going about our business together, aren’t we? This rainbow bunch of people milling around my neighborhood, my country and my cosmos are living, bustling proof that no one is in it alone, that all of us share the burden and shoulder the weight of everyday life. Much of the time, from our microscopic solipsistic egotistical perspectives, we’re focused on our own tiny errands, our own tiny selves — and we only see the differences between us, the variations in skin, religion, party, perspective and language that build fear and walls. We like to think we’re all that different, but we’re not.

What would the ants think, if they could? If you could pluck one from the crowd and stick a microphone in its face, what would it say? Would it see only differences? Would it go on a bigoted rant against its neighbors? Would it claim superiority based on the length of its antennae and the sharpness of its mandibles? Would it express stubborn individualism? Small-minded parochialism? Lockstep partisanism? Would it gripe, “Dude, the other ants don’t pull their weight. They complain too much. Takers.” Would it go on social media to bully, insult, demonize (hashtag #LoserAnts)?

Okay, so I’m reading way too much into a worm. But still. If all of us are ants already, then the Trump thing is straightforward business, isn’t it? We should give it a shot. We’re all in it together. We can carry him off the sidewalk, I’m sure.

 

 

 

Barry Manilow, meet my sister Betsy


Barry, meet your biggest fan: my sister Betsy. She’s developmentally disabled, but there is nothing incomplete about her. She is beautiful and wise and whole, full of insight and joy, compassion for all and passion for all that she loves: her family; butterflies; the color purple; jigsaw puzzles; word searches; rocks; animals; nature shows; and you, you, you.

She first fell in love with you at age 6, maybe 7. It might have been “Could It Be Magic.” Whatever the song, “I fell in love with him and became his fan immediately.” Aside from owning, and memorizing, every CD you ever recorded, she has books, posters, photos, you name it.

I asked her what she loves so much about her Barry. Her reply:

“I like the way he sings, and I think he is handsome. I like everything about him. I like his eyes, nose, and hair. I like the way he dresses — very fancy clothes. I love the way he plays piano. I like it when he sings with the piano, and when he does not. . . . His music makes me happy and cheers me up when I am sad. I think he is sexy—I was disappointed when he got married, as I dreamed he would marry me.”

If you want to know just how happy you make her, watch the video.

Betsy is 49 and works at a bakery. She hasn’t been my sister the whole time (I’m a latecomer to the family), but I could not love her more. I could not admire her more. Betsy is the person I want to be: caring, honest, accepting, warm, with a delight in everyday pleasures and a willingness to take things as they come. She has a shy smile, a gutsy laugh and a great sense of humor.

In short, you need to know her. Why?

1) It would make her life.
2) It would make her life.
3) Everyone should know Betsy. She’s one of the sweetest, dearest, kindest, purest souls to ever walk the earth. To be with her is to be happy, because her loving nature and joy in living are both infectious.
4) It would make her life.

“I do love him to death, for sure,” she told me, adding: “I would like to meet Barry Manilow, if you can do that, Amy.”

So Barry, meet Betsy. If this finds you – if enough people share this, snagging your attention – then please contact me, and I’ll put you in touch with her.

You won’t regret it, I promise. It would make your life, too.

 

the view from here

view from hadley

Today, for Mother’s Day, my two youngest and I hiked up Hadley in the lower Adirondacks. It’s not a big mountain, not a long hike, not at all difficult or dangerous. But it was enough of an expedition to make us feel as though we’d gotten out into fresh air and sunshine, and it was enough of an exertion to work up a decent sweat. It was also plenty windy. At the summit, buffeted by wild, chilly gusts, we stayed just long enough to snap a few photos and peer up the fire tower (nope, no climbing that, not today, not without flying away like gum wrappers in the wind) before skedaddling back down the trail.

We last hiked Hadley as a family of five several years ago, back when my youngest was wee, my oldest was home and my husband was still among the living. To say I recalled him — and the family we once were — as I hoofed up and down today is to state the obvious. Of course I remembered him. I see him everywhere we ever went together. And of course I remembered our children in their younger days. How could I not? Being a parent means seeing children with eyes that view the past as well as the present, flashing back through earlier incarnations (baby, toddler, kindergartner, middle schooler) while regarding the fully formed creatures before us with love, admiration, worry, gratitude and something close to shock. How the heck did that happen?

My oldest daughter couldn’t hike with us today, because she’s about to graduate from college. That statement is so outrageous, I have to re-type it in all caps. SHE’S ABOUT TO GRADUATE FROM COLLEGE. How the heck did that happen? My younger daughter just came back from volunteering in Australia. How the heck did that happen? How the heck is my son about to finish his second year of high school? How the heck did I give birth to three such colossally spirited, resilient, interesting, good, compassionate, loving, intrepid souls?

It’s a mystery, just as every gift is a mystery. So is every loss. God only knows why anything happens to anybody, and I mean that literally.  All I know is this: I loved their father. Because I loved their father, these three people sprang into being. Because they sprang into being, the mother I am sprang into being. Every fumbling step I’ve made through parenthood sprang into being, too. Every decision I’ve made. Every mistake. Every moment of pain, frustration, insight, joy. Every piece of who I am now, who they are now, who they might be next week or next month or next year. All of that transcends time, transcends space, transcends any comprehension of the cosmos as finite or linear or in any way confined by my puny capacity to understand it.

My kids embody all of that. They give shape and sense to things too misty to grasp: the love of God, the looping movement of days, the sense of blindly hiking through a thickening fog to an unknown summit. I can’t and don’t know squat, really. Who does? What can we know in this life beyond the value of the people walking beside us?

Looking out from the top of Hadley, I saw the rolling peaks, the bundling clouds, the elbowing curves of the Great Sacandaga Lake.

Looking over at my children, I saw love.