at arthur’s seat

photo (42)
Last week, visiting my oldest on her semester abroad, my kids and I hiked Arthur’s Seat — the hill that looms like a mountain in the middle of Edinburgh. As we hoofed along the leafy path to its periphery, I thought of my last visit there in 1986 — at the close of a post-college year spent living, teaching, eating chips and tripping on cobblestone in the lovely gray eminence nicknamed Auld Reekie.

My sister Lucy had flown in for my last week in Edinburgh, and I brought her up Arthur’s Seat for one last view of that ancient and spooky and perpetually damp city. Heading back down, I almost died. I’m not exaggerating. When I say I almost died, I mean I LITERALLY ALMOST DIED, by which I mean I nearly fell +/- 800 feet down a near-vertical sandy face into a roadway. I’m certain I would have LITERALLY ENTIRELY DIED had Lucy not talked me down from a second height and a steeper one, my own vertiginous panic.

I was scrabbling at the sand and brush — madly, uselessly — after taking a wrong and wrongheaded shortcut down from the summit. For some reason, I won’t even attempt to explain why, I didn’t want to return by the proper footpath. And I wasn’t just scrabbling; I was scrabbling one-handed, as my left hand was busily gripping my precious umbrella. Early on during my year there I had learned not to leave the house without my brollie, and we had bonded, the two of us. We were inseparable. It was my best friend. I refused to leave it behind.

“Ame,” Lucy said. “Ame. Let go of the umbrella.”

No. I wouldn’t. No. I had bought it at a shop off Princes Street, and it was covered with sheep, and I wanted to bring it home with me. No.

“Ame. Let go.”


As my hand and feet slid against the sand and loose brush on the face of Arthur’s Seat, I started shouting. Hyperventilating. Freaking the hell out.

“Ame,” Lucy said again. She sounded calm. Facing the same sheer crag with the same loose dirt, the woman who had struggled for years with the urge to kill herself was relaxed and in control. Hundreds of feet below us, a police car pulled to the side. Two dots emerged and started waving their arms, an unmistakable gesture that said: GO BACK, DUMBASSES. IF YOU DON’T, YOU’LL LITERALLY ENTIRELY DIE.

“Ame. It’s okay. Slow down. Breathe normally.”

I can’t breathe normally.

“You can. You can.”

I tried.

“Now, see that bush? The one up there, by your head? Grab it. Let go of the umbrella and grab it.”

I wouldn’t let go of the umbrella. I wouldn’t.

“Grab it.”

I grabbed it, still clutching the umbrella.

“Ame. Now slowly. Use your other hand to grab that root over there. Pull up.”

I can’t.

“You can.”

I did. In this manner, one root and shrub at a time, she talked me up and away from danger. At the top I thanked her for saving my life, and she laughed. “No, I didn’t.” Yes, she did. She did. We both knew that she did. She saved my life.

Had I only been able to do the same for her six years later, when she swallowed a shitload of meds and curled up on her bed to die. Then she might have joined me on my return to Arthur’s Seat last week. She might have laughed at the summit with her “Little Amys,” a term coined by her shrink for the children he hoped I would have someday — anchors in the world for her to love. When I got married, he wanted me to start popping out babies immediately. He thought they might keep her alive.

A year and a half after Lucy’s suicide, my oldest was born. She never got to meet her Little Amys.

On an impossibly sunny afternoon, no brollie in hand, I emerged from the woods opposite Arthur’s Seat and stood at the base, staring at that same, sandy cliff, while my three miracles horsed around below. I asked them: Did I ever tell you guys the story about hiking Arthur’s Seat with Aunt Lucy? I had, but it was worth telling again. And as I did, it hit me: They wouldn’t be here if Lucy hadn’t talked me down that day. These Little Amys would never have been born. In a way, she had as much to do with their presence on this world as I did. Her role in their lives was just as generous, just as loving, just as real, and no matter that she never mussed their hair or pressed her lips to their foreheads.

I stood there weeping, but only for a moment. The kids asked if I was okay. Yes, yes, I assured them. I’m just grateful. I said a quiet thank-you to Lucy, picturing her bright purply-blue eyes and springy black mass of hair, and then hiked with my children to the summit. Auld Reekie looked as lovely as ever. Heading back down, we stuck to the path.

yes, ma’am

More people have been calling me “ma’am.” I’ve noticed this lately. More people have been offering to help with my groceries. I’ve noticed that lately, too. Of all the milestones and markers ticking off the years – having a colonoscopy, or being called “grandma” by a mouthy kid – this gradual, notable, not-objectionable uptick in the kindness of strangers hits me as the weirdest.

First: Because I’m not that old. I’m only 51! Gimme a break! It’s not like maggots are crawling up my nose! Sheesh! Second: Because, and I say this with some pride, I am actually pretty darned good at carrying groceries. If you saw me unloading my latest supermarket haul from the car and up the porch steps and into my house, gracefully juggling ten bags of Empire Apples and twelve jars of Nutella totaling fifteen tons from each of my mighty hands with their grips of steel, you’d say: “HoooooEEEEEE, girlfriend! You got some serioso muscles on you! Will you carry MY groceries?” Yes. You would say this. And you would not call me “ma’am.”

Third: Whatever age you think I am, I’m not. Inside I’m a 12-year-old. Inside I have always been a 12-year-old, and if you need proof, I point to the previously mentioned megatons of Nutella. At the same time, and this is going to sound well and truly bananas, I have always been an octogenarian, maybe a nonagenarian, possibly even a centenarian. At some point I may actually be an octogenarian, maybe a nonagenarian, possibly a centenarian, and if and when that happens, I give everyone around me express advance formal permission to carry all of my groceries anywhere they like.

But the old lady is in there, and she always has been. The hidden senior buried within me has perked up her lively and opinionated head at regular intervals, such as those moments in my youth when folks around me were super-high or super-drunk or some super-funky-and-adorable combo of both, alternately munching and puking away, and I inexplicably turned down the opportunity to be and do same. Not because I was moral or mighty or opposed to munching, but because I just wanted to go home and drink tea while watching “Magnum P.I.” with a blanket on my lap. I still have this urge, though I no longer watch “Magnum P.I.” Tom Selleck now bugs the crap out of me. But the tea-and-blanket impulse remains.

So maybe this is why young people (HAVE I REALLY STARTED CALLING THEM THAT?) are now addressing me as “ma’am.” It has nothing to do with my actual chronological age. When that kind bagger at the supermarket last week hefted the last of my groceries and asked if I “need help with those,” she wasn’t suggesting I couldn’t carry them myself. Nope. Of course not. She sensed mighty hands and their grips of steel. But she also sensed my urgent wish to sit down and blob with a hot beverage in front of the tube. It wasn’t the gray hair or the baggy smudges under my eyes or the unmistakable fog of exhaustion that tipped her off; it was the spirit of tea within me.

just doin’ my job

photo (41)Every now and then, I threaten to embarrass my children. I don’t often carry through on this threat, although I’ve inadvertently embarrassed them plenty over the years. Which is fine. As their mother, it’s my job to make them cringe on occasion. More than my job, it’s my duty, my métier, my calling. Singing in public once sufficed to embarrass them. Singing behind the wheel at a red light along with some moronic, auto-tuney, overproduced pop song while writhing to the beat in herky-jerkalicious nerd-o-mom convulsions still suffices, although they swear it doesn’t.

They also swear they HAVE NO MEMORY of those many times, recalled quite vividly by moi, when I and/or their late father danced in public. I remember doing so at the Victorian Stroll in downtown Troy one December. Right on Second Street, I think it was. The sight apparently caused the three of them so much physical and psychic pain that they blocked the memory for good, or at least until they undergo hypnotic regression therapy at the age of 50. (I see. . . my mother. . . . shaking her booty. . . near a hairy old man in jingle bells. . . someone, help me. . . )

I haven’t danced in the street in a while. What I do enjoy, on occasion, is expressing a desire to purchase some hideously awful item of clothing, especially shoewear, with the suggestion that I might actually walk around near people in it. I had some fun back in the mid-2000s when I declared an interest in purchasing rocker-bottom sneakers, and I was so convincing in this declaration that my No. 2 daughter howled NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO until her eyes bled. I think. Or something like that. It was a little scary. And then, if I recall correctly, she made me participate in a pagan blood oath with sharp kitchen implements while I throat-sang I PROMISE NOT TO BUY SKECHERS SHAPE-UPS in Tuvan overtones.

I never did buy them. But last week, I was with her when  I saw this awesome pair of Adidas hi-tops, and I mean awesome, all tan and suede and ringed with fringe. Fringe! No fooling! On a pair of sneakers! David Crockett’s own, baby! Who wouldn’t want to wear those things?

Oooooooohhhh, I said as though I meant it (and I’m not saying whether I did). Ooooohhhh, look at these! I want them! I need them! I’m gonna buy them! Yes!

And my No 2. daughter howled NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. I think. Or something like that. Although her eyes didn’t bleed this time. Also, this time she added, just in case I didn’t get the point: MOM. IF YOU BUY THOSE, I WILL BURN THEM.

I didn’t buy them. The shoes had already served their purpose — and I’d already done my job.






not what you think

not a walk in the park

not a walk in the park

Life isn’t what you imagined it would be when you were in your 20s.

You know what I mean? I mean it isn’t some walk in the park. When you’re 21, barely at the post-pimple stage of development, graduating college and brimming with youthful gumption, you look ahead to the next one or five years to a job or traveling or grad school or the Peace Corps. And then you look beyond that and see independence and an apartment and a commute to a work, Starbucks in hand, on the first stage of your directly rocketing arc to career success.

And then you look ahead even further and see love and marriage and a tidy house and a gurgling baby and a bigger job. And then you look ahead and see more gurgling babies and older adorable children and an even bigger job and then, down the line, you envision turning a little gray with your spouse. And then you look ahead and see you and your by-then-silver-fox life-mate schlepping your kids to college, and then you look ahead again and you imagine them graduating college, holy shit, just like you, barely post-pimple and full of youthful gumption, crossing the stage to rousing toots of mediocre Elgar, clutching diplomas in their hands and long, linear, productive, predictable, mistily imagined and neatly cinematic lives occupying their noggins.

But life isn’t like that. It’s not linear and cinematic; it’s a dadaist mess, marked by pain and complication and exhaustion and kinkiness beyond all expectation, and by that I mean not sexually depravity but crookedness, knottiness, twists. The fooking thing never goes in a straight line. The trail is WAY WAY WAY too steep and rocky, gnarled with too many roots and too much dense growth, for a head-on ascent. It’s all switchbacks, stumbles, detours as we make our way through This Bloody Disappointment (we get dizzy, step off the trail) and Those Sucky Losses (stop, dig for tissues, weep) and That Goddamn Illness (we trip, fall down, bleed).

We can’t see all that when we’re 21, and thank God: My trail, so far, has been pocked with grief, and noooooo way would I have wanted to see any of it in advance. Of all the superpowers I might enjoy in some fantasyland comic-verse (flying, for one), I’d never want the gift of prognistication.

This wild path I’m on is also strewn with beauty, and I never saw that coming, either. Though I imagined gurgling babies, I couldn’t have predicted the soul-consuming joys of loving children and the head-exploding awe of watching them grow. Though I imagined falling in love, I couldn’t have predicted the boom-bang-POW! of precipitous passion and the softer, lazier, lovelier conviction that This Guy’s It. I couldn’t have seen all the friends and joys and tiny victories. I couldn’t have seen this blog, for instance, or the book that inspired it; I couldn’t have known that the years following the worst horror I’d ever known, my husband’s suicide, could be so active and fruitful; I couldn’t have anticipated laughter in the strangest settings, light in the darkest, or the way my own sense of self had altered and grown, making me looser, battier, maybe just a little better at being alive. I couldn’t have seen how much I’d have getting older.

No, life isn’t what I expected it would be when I was in my 20s. It’s scarier. Crazier. More mystifying. Harder on the joints. More tiring. More beautiful. And better.

small world

i need to start networking, and soon!

Lately I’ve been hearing about more and more coincidences — head-slapping social flukes that have hit me and other folks my age and older. I mean something more than the usual Smalbany coincidences, which are par for the course in these chummy northern climes; this isn’t just a matter of realizing you and/or your favorite babysitter and/or your cat went to St. Catholics of Catholicism Catholic School with your priest’s uncle’s neighbor’s dentist’s ferret. No. This isn’t that.

I’m talking about geographically wacko coincidences, as in: Hey! That Starbucks barista you met on your visit to the Bering Strait last summer is actually your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s college roommate! Wow! Although, to be honest, I have no idea whether there’s a Starbucks on the Bering Strait, so don’t blame me if you plan your trip over the land bridge and can’t find a Pumpkin Spice Latte. I am merely indulging in poetic license, here.

The point being, this sort of thing happens to me all the time now. I find myself meeting someone new, in some faraway place, and then realizing the two of us share some overlapping personal or professional connection. And I find myself surprised. But lately I’ve started to regard it as S.O.P. for anyone lucky enough to live a decent length of time and know a decent number of people: If you move through life as something other than a miserable, misanthropic, shit-eating crank, you’re bound to collect friends as you go. And those friends, assuming they, too, are something other than miserable, misanthropic, shit-eating cranks, will collect similar numbers of friends as they go. And some of these friends of friends are bound to be your friends, too.

I simply know more people at age 51 than I did when I was younger. Which makes sense. It would be a little odd if we emerged from the birth canal with an iPhone full of contacts. I don’t know about you, but I started out knowing only the inside of my mother’s womb. When I emerged, I met my father and sister. Eventually I was introduced to my father’s Tia Fondina, and as far as I’m aware, I didn’t mark the occasion by howling: OH MY GOD! I MET YOUR OLD FISHMONGER AT THAT TUBA CONVENTION IN NAPLES!!

If I met her now, I might just. Assuming she were alive. And had a fishmonger who played tuba, and assuming I did, too. But it could happen. Because the world gets smaller as the universe expands: it’s a sweet little paradox of human interaction that sprays this life with the light of the next one. When I picture heaven, and it’s hard not to when so many loved ones reside there, I imagine a place where everyone’s a bud, everyone’s blabby, coincidences are rampant (Hey! I know you! You ran the Italian market in my mother’s bridge partner’s accountant’s parish!) and no boundaries exist between known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar, friend and stranger. So if I don’t know your ex-girlfriend now, I will then.