i try

i try
I’ve always been a screw-up. Always always always. And when I say “screw-up” I mean NOT a malicious and narcissistic sower of evil who sets out on a path of Wrongness and pursues it single-mindedly. I mean a well-intentioned doofus (in the worst instances, dumbass) who aims not high but modestly and somehow, much of the time, misses anyway. As a kid I was always running and stumbling. I still am.  I was always forgetting things. I still do. I was always losing shit — my temper, my equilibrium, my #$%@! car keys — that all these decades later I’m still trying to find. And I was always inadvertently baffling and hurting and disappointing people, not from ill intent but all of the stumbling, the forgetting, the losing.

So it goes. I try. I screw up. I TRY. I SCREW UP. And then, just for good measure, I TRY AND SCREW UP SOME MORE.

Over time, two women helped me find peace. One was Mother Teresa, whose observation that God “does not require that we be successful — only that we be faithful” struck me as some kind of radically liberating bombshell. The other was my own Mother Jeanne. “Did you do your best?” Mama’d ask whenever I tried and failed, often when I was caked in mucous during the aftermath. That’s all she ever asked of me. That’s all that ever mattered to her. The trying.

Mama was a violinist, and, like every working musician who ever lived, she gave private lessons to a rotating assortment of students young and old. One day, on a trip to the grocery store, she also gave them buttons. I don’t remember what prompted this shopping expedition to downtown New Preston, Conn., though she was probably ferrying them to or from a recital and had routed us all into Zinick’s for a treat. For whatever reason, there we were, a few of her younger students and I, when Mama spied a basket full of little round pins with positive messages by the cash register. This was the 70s, and smiley faces were everywhere.

Mama combed through the basket and plucked out buttons for her students. I only remember one of them. It said I TRY in big white letters against a black background, and she handed it to the kid who possessed the worst tin ear in the history of Mama’s music lessons, possibly of all time. He accepted it with a smile.

I have no idea whether he went home later and wept into his “$6 Million Man” pillowcase, but for me, at least, it was a memorable and positive lesson. She hadn’t handed him a button that said NUMBER ONE, or YAY FOR ME, or I RULE AND THE REST OF YOU SUCK, HA HA HA. She wasn’t telling him he was a Jascha Heifetz mini-me waiting to happen. She was affirming his effort. She was acknowledging he’d done his best. And that’s not nothing; in fact, it’s just about everything. In this success-obsessed society, it takes courage to hit the wrong notes and keep playing. It takes faith to fall flat and get up. But there’s no other way to keep moving.

So I try. I screw up. That’s life. Amen. And to hell with the car keys, anyway.

death, laughter and sufjan stevens


Are you familiar with the music of Sufjan Stevens? No? Well, let me tell you something: It is beautiful and strange, deeply spiritual and just as deeply morbid. And I love it. But then, I love ALL that fun stuff. Beauty! Strangeness! Spirituality! Morbidity! Aren’t those the four classical elements? Forget fire-water-air-earth, which always struck me as insufficient, anyway. There was never any mention of chocolate.

But back to Sufjan. My kind of boy. He played the Palace on Wednesday night, cranking through the entirety of his latest album — “Carrie & Lowell,” a tribute to his late mother — plus a sampling of older music. Lots of grief and death. Lots of weird, airy poetry. All of it was beautiful, strange, spiritual and morbid, performed with a mesmerizing light show against a backdrop of projections on tall, pointed screens resembling the stained-glass windows of a cathedral.

It felt like church, only more so. People actually talk in church. For the first 45 minutes of Stevens’ performance, no one said a word. Including Stevens.

Finally, he spoke: “Thank you.” And then, for the next 10 minutes, he unleashed an exquisitely calm Soliloquy of Death itemizing his every childhood memory of a deceased person, animal or plant since age 7. He began with his 97-year-old great-grandmother — dolled up in her coffin like a “homecoming queen” with an odd, matronly air about her — and went on to include a terminally ill cactus, a rat with tumors and an aunt who died of a broken heart. It was bizarre. It was brilliant. It went on forever. At some point during this deadpan (what else would it be) litany of the dead, I started laughing uncontrollably and just couldn’t stop. I wasn’t the only one, but I was probably the loudest.

I think I may have offended the people sitting in front of me. If so, I would like to issue an apology.  Also, an explanation: When it’s not reducing me to cataracts of saline, death cracks me the fart up. Laughing at death is my way of coping with its omnipotence, its omnipresence, its ruthless unpredictability; it’s like some viciously fickle feudal lord holding sway over the bumpkins. I hate that it strikes without warning or pity. I hate that it can’t be swayed. It’s tried hard and repeatedly to ruin my life, and it’s come close. But it didn’t. It couldn’t. I wouldn’t let it. That’s the only control I have over its power: to keep living, and laughing, in spite of it.

Losing someone you love is no funny business.  No ha-ha’s anywhere in the moment that doorbell rings. Yet the absurdity of everything that follows — from the dolled-up weirdness of the embalming to all those surreal exchanges with the funeral people, the money people, the government people, the lawyer people, the people people — puts a darkly comic spin on the aftermath. Sooner rather than later, you start laughing at it all because you have no choice. And then you just keep laughing. Because, really, what the hell! Death doesn’t go away, and neither does the comedy surrounding it. May as well laugh at the damn thing.

So, yeah, I guess I guffawed a little too loudly for the prayerful atmosphere of a Sufjan concert. But I suspect Stevens himself would understand, given his familiarity with the topic and his quiet insistence in talking about it. As he observes incontestably on one of his latest songs, “We’re all gonna die.” Sure are.

So maybe, on some level, he’s laughing, too. Beautifully. Strangely. Spiritually.

the gardener

I am not a gardener. My mother was. My husband was. Both of them tried to convert me with noble attempts at prestidigitation that aimed to turn my black thumb green, but they never worked. Rest assured, I love flora of all varieties. I enjoy being in their company, basking in all their delicate and aromatic glory. But I’ve always had a certain way with plants: I kill them.

When I was a kid, Mama gave me pretty little impatiens in a pretty little pot. They died. Arriving in college, I received some plant or other (I don’t remember what) as a welcoming gesture on freshman move-in day. It died. My late husband often gave me living things from the vegetable kingdom, but after witnessing several slow deaths under my care, he stopped relying on me to actually keep them alive. He knew that anything requiring air and water for sustenance would need to acquire them from someone besides me, because even when I supplied them in a timely manner, my well-intended ministrations went somehow horribly awry.

Of the 15 or so houseplants Chris tended indoors, I’ve managed to keep eight of them alive. Although I grieve for the seven dead ones, the survivors remain my eight little miracles. Don’t ask me how I’ve done it. I water them now and then. I plead with them not to whither. I blow them kisses and dance the flamenco. At times I’ve been known to engage in human sacrifice just to appease them. Don’t scoff; it works.

Meanwhile, Chris’s gardens — and they’ll always be his gardens — are still out there, still obeying the cycle of life despite my floricidal nature. After he died, some lovely neighbors weeded when they saw the need or planted when they saw a gap. Bless them forever for it, but I knew I had to do something on my own. And so, the first spring after his death, I made a go at weeding and pruning and raking and watering, and I marveled at the way life sprouted from the dirt around me. How’d that happen? What’d I do? Something right? Nah. Must have been the flamenco.

On Sunday, barely a week after the last of the dismal, dirty snow chunks melted away in my front yard, I threw on a pair of shorts and started raking the garden. There, beneath a cover of dead leaves, I spied a spray of crocuses: lavender, hopeful and sweet. It was good to see them again. These graceful wee harbingers of warmth, yellow nosing from their middles, are a perennial reminder of the ephemeral Chris. Each spring, they return — and each spring, I stand there on my tiny patch of lawn, marveling at the beauty and the stubbornness of life, tossing up a whispered “thanks” to my late husband. They’re a gift. So was he.

i found it

mine, all mine!

mine, all mine!

One of our longstanding Easter traditions is the egg hunt. This is true of many families with children. Only problem is, I no longer have children in the sense of having “children,” i.e., beings of great youth, smallness, inexperience and pliability in the face of random parental dictates. I still have children in the sense of having self-ambulatory, independent offspring, two of them recognized by the state as adults, but I no longer have the sort that holds still for diapering.

Anyway. The egg hunt. My youngest is now 14, and I wasn’t sure he’d be up for the usual race around the brown grass and bushes in our back yard, but I didn’t want to disappoint the fellow, either. I wanted to give him the option. So the day before Easter I bought those cheapo plastic eggs and the only remaining seasonal bagged candy left on the shelves, i.e., little malted milk balls and tiny ovoid butterfingers.

Easter day, while I was cooking and cleaning and screaming and flinging cast iron pans around the kitchen, I asked my daughter Jeanne to fill the aforementioned eggs with the aforementioned candy. She’s an adult, so I knew she was capable of this complex task. And not only was she capable, she came back to me about 10 minutes later with a startling innovation: “Mom,” she said, “this year, let’s do an egg hunt for the grown-ups.” She pointed out, and wisely so, that her dutiful teenage brother probably didn’t want to search for eggs while 13 other people watched. “He’s too old for that. So we’ll hide them. You guys can hunt for them,” and by “you guys” she meant all available relatives who fall within the boomer demographic and had not taken part in an actual, valid, run-around-the-lawn Easter-egg hunt for several parched decades of sad paschal deprivation.

When the time came, the grown-ups were beckoned into the back yard, front yard, street and sidewalk, where my clever young progeny had squirreled away shiny plastic vessels in devilishly sneaky hidey-holes. I’ve always been terrible at such things and only found two eggs, both thanks to my son and his theatrically resonant throat-clearing. (“MOM. AHEM. AHEM,” he said, bouncing on the cracked plastic base of a basketball hoop. “MOM! MOM! AHEM! MOOOOM!” At that third AHEM and fourth MOM, I noticed the egg within.)

The candy, once I cracked it open and sampled it, was awful. But the real pleasure lay in watching everyone scatter across the grass and the pavement, peeking under bike helmets, poking noses gingerly in bushes, all of us old farts behaving for all the world like the eager children we once were — and, I guess, still are. My three offspring followed us around, laughing at the spectacle of middle-aged hunters and huntresses in pursuit of precious booty. At the end we clutched our plunder to our chests, grinning. We’d found it. The kids had given us the freedom to be kids again.

tonight at the table

On this blustery Holy Saturday, sun fighting with clouds, warmth fighting with wind, I’m thinking about what a holy human mess I am. How I always was and always will be. And why, 25 years ago, I became Catholic at the Easter Vigil service in a now-shuttered parish in Cambridge, Mass.

I became Catholic not because of the Church, a human structure built on faith but prone to error. I became Catholic because I’m prone to error, too, and because of that, I need the Eucharist. I became Catholic because I believed in God — something I started doing as a kid — and because I believed in Christ — something I started doing a teenager — and because I had come to believe that the Eucharist was the singular, unchanged, inclusive and binding force between Jesus and every messy child of God born before and since.

The Lord’s supper drew me. It’s not that I felt worthy of it; I felt as unworthy as anyone. But I was convinced that the gift of Jesus, by Jesus, at the table with Jesus, was meant to make things right for all of us, whether we choose to pull up a chair or not. “Christ died for the ungodly,” Paul wrote. Also: “In Christ there is no East or West.” Or gay or straight or poor or rich or imprisoned or free or black or brown or white.

How easy to forget this in our passion for pushing away anyone who doesn’t fit our notion of right, normal, acceptable, traditional, perfect. I’m baffled and angered by the behavior and beliefs of Christians who cast others as Other, as though Jesus ever left anyone out. As though any kind of Other wasn’t loved by him. As though any of us is anything but.

I don’t think much about sin, but I know we’re all full of oddities and imperfections, and I’m pretty sure that God made us that way. He’s the omniscient one, right? He knows this about us. He knows we’re odd. I’m also pretty sure we aren’t expected to be perfect, however one might define such a thing. We’re called to try our best, to aim a little higher and love a little better, to offer a hand when someone stumbles and hold on gratefully whenever that someone’s us. This is the body of Christ, the literal and metaphoric corpus at the the table, the grip of love and unity designed to heal us all.

Christ was perfect; that’s enough. We’re not, so he is on our behalf. He represents! God sent us Jesus to handle that end of things, to be faultless because we can’t be, to be the ideal love that shows the way. Jesus came because we’re broken, not because we’re whole. He’ll be there tonight at the table. Twenty-five years later, so will I.
tree sky