once upon a time

mama and fiddle
I don’t have much to say tonight (a rarity), but I feel compelled to post this publicity photo of my mother, Jeanne Frances Mitchell. I have no idea when it was taken, who took it, which violin it is and why she’s assuming such an artfully monocular pose. Perhaps the photographer doubled as an opthamologist, and she was taking an eye exam. (HE: “Okay, so put the violin over your left eye, now, and read the fourth line.” SHE: “L . . . F — no wait, P! . . . E. . . “)

Otherwise, I just look at this photo and think: Holy shit, Mama was gorgeous. I mean, I knew this already, I’ve known it my whole life, but I’m reminded of it every time I run across some new-to-me old pic from the distant past. I found this one last night while rummaging through a box of my sister’s papers, which includes family documents and ephemera that I forgot about or, in this case, did not know exist.

Its pleasing aesthetic worth offsets one of the other items I discovered: a terrible, terrible poem that I wrote at God knows what age and that my sister saved for God knows what reason. (Was she planning to blackmail me some day?) She also saved one of the better poems I wrote, a four-page bit of comic verse that I gave to her as a Christmas present one year, so I suppose I should forgive her for saving this sad and smelly piece of caca, too. It’s called “Lost in the Corridors of Forever” (WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?) and it opens thusly:

Once upon a time,
I see, there was and is a place
Where I see myself right now and then
Among the willows, vines and roses,
Searching for tomorrow.

First of all: there is nooooo need for a coma after “see.” Typing that caused me excruciating psychic and physical pain. Secondly: “Once upon a time”? Thirdly: This poem is shit! Shit shit shit shit shit! I don’t care that it’s old enough to classify as juvenilia, and that the handwriting looks all loopy and florid and possibly of junior-high origin; I’m making no excuses. I don’t care how young I was when I wrote it. It’s shit. You know how the name of my blog and related book (obligatory link here) is “Figuring Shit Out”? Well, this here is not worth any sort of figuring at all. This is deserving only of a nice, assertive flush with a melodramatic flourish of the hand.

I’m only going to plague you with one more stanza. But be warned. It’s even worse.

Once upon a time,
I hear the birds whose song has died,
The owls mournful coo, and the wolf
serenading the moon,
Amidst a timeless quest for endings.

I told you it was worse.   This time, typing “owls” without the possessive apostrophe caused me excruciating psychic and physical pain. Typing the WHOLE BIT caused me excruciating psychic and physical pain. And so, instead of doing the logical thing and amy with bracestorching it on a ceremonial bonfire alongside that horrific photo of myself with crooked hair and squinting eyes and a brilliantly ugly polo shirt with horizontal stripes, I’ve instead decided to share the worst bits of this dreadful poesy AND re-post said horrific photo righty-herey in this very public forum. Looking at it now, I’m thinking I was probably around that crooked-hair stage of life when I wrote the damn poem.

Well. I tried. And I grew a bit. With both the hair and the writing. Both are less crooked now.

I close with an apology, because I said up top that I didn’t have much to say tonight — and then I wound up talking about this. So let there be order in the universe. Let us all scroll above and feast our eyes on that beautiful lady that I was blessed to call my mom, and then let’s call it a day before I type out another stanza starts with “Once upon a time. . . ”





things unseen

36th floor
Periodically, someone suggests that my faith is a comfort to me, and I find myself explaining that, no, it isn’t. And I wonder why. I wonder whether I would feel any differently about anything that’s happened to me so far in this rather eventful life of mine had I experienced it from an angle of atheism — an outlook I last took as a kid. By the time I’d reached my teenage years, I believed in Someone. By the time I graduated high school, I was generically Christian. In my 20s, I felt bound for Catholicism, finally converting in the spring of 1990.

I am not sure, at any point, whether my faith gave me comfort. It gave me a way of seeing the world, maybe, a practiced mode of regarding both the good and the ill. The world was of God, and so was I; that I saw. I also saw that it, and I, were flawed, that everyone is, that all are capable of wreaking horror and beauty both, that tragedy can strike any little life at any time, and that none of us, no matter how closely we look, can ever understand why. Understanding why means understanding the mind of God, and we can’t understand that. We can’t even understand each other. If that were possible, I could crawl inside your brain case and peer outside, blinking at the suddenly altered perspective and suddenly changed light, seeing and thinking and feeling all that you see and think and feel.

But I can’t do that. I can try to do that, and the trying amounts to empathy; and the empathy amounts to love. Maybe that’s all we can manage, the love. Maybe that’s all we can know of God, too. Maybe that’s all we need to.

When I look out from my shortish vantage of an aging mother with whitish hair, I see everything I don’t and can’t possibly know. That’s what my faith gives me: a grasp on the vastness of God’s creation, not just the cosmos, with its order and forces and distant, starry masses, but everything betwixt and beyond it — something darker and less-knowable than even the dark matter and energy that fill most of the universe. From this great Unknown and Unseen comes the joy of loving and the grief of losing, for neither has logic in the known and seen. What I know most of all, in loving God, is the realization that I don’t know anything at all, really. But God does. That’s the essence of my faith, and it doesn’t make burying a loved one any easier. It doesn’t give me comfort. It gives me a posture of alertness, a reason to pay attention, a way to face the agonies and the ecstasies of life so I can move on to the next one. I see so little when I open my eyes. All I can know is that I can’t.


Just a few weeks after my oldest was born, exhausted by sleepless nights but ecstatic with newborn-baby-love, I phoned my mother.

Mama!, I blurted. Mama! I didn’t realize you loved me so much!

“Well, yes,” she replied in her matter-of-fact way. “So now you know.”

Now I know, Mama. Thank you for loving me this way. I had no idea.bebe biancolli

“You wouldn’t. You can’t. No one can know what it means to love a child until they have one.”

And my mother, being both wise and blunt, left it at that. She knew that I had finally gotten the point. And I’m still getting it; I’m still thanking her, though she’s now unreachable by phone; every pang of love I feel for my children takes me back to Mama’s love for hers.

“The umbilical cord is stretching,” she used to say. “It never actually breaks. Just stretches.”

It took me a while to get that one, too. Then I left my baby in a crib the first time. It stretched. Then I left her, howling, with a sitter. It stretched. Then I took her to pre-K, mussing and kissing her sweet head before leaving the room. How it stretched! Then grade school, then middle school, then high school, then a gap year in Ecuador, then college.


It’s been the same with all three babies. If you do your job right as a parent, they leave you. What a plain and unavoidable paradox that is, and how important. Today, hugging my second daughter goodbye at the airport as she flew off on her latest great adventure, I felt a tugging at my belly that almost ripped me in two.

But I knew it wouldn’t. I knew the cord, made from the bracing yet bendable steel of maternal love, would neither snap nor wound us. It can’t; it can only strengthen both mother and child, taxing my midriff but tightening our bond. And it will never break.

mama dancing

ups and downs

I used to be afraid of heights. No, that’s not entirely accurate. I am STILL afraid of heights, an immovable fact that I faced at Sentinel Dome at Yosemite this past May. That last, bald, steep approach to the top had me on all fours, frozen with terror, quaking in my li’l Bean hiking booties and bleating/weeping/borderline puking I CAN’T DO IT I CAN’T DO IT I CAN’T DO IT while all three children and a kind young man advised me otherwise. “Yes, you can,” he said. “Just stand up. It’s not that steep.”

He was right. It wasn’t. My fear had the better of me. That happens, sometimes, with heights. So it’s a little weird to admit it, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE roller coasters, the old wooden ones especially, the Comet at Great Escape most of all. I did not always love them. I used to freeze and quake and bleat and weep and borderline puke just at the thought. But 12 or 13 years ago, as I was staring 40 in the face, I decided I didn’t want to shut down and turn all old-biddy-cautious as I got older. I decided I wanted to BE BOLD AND STRONG AND HOWL AT THE MOON, or at least ride on roller coasters occasionally.

The next time we visited the Great Escape as a family, I observed the masses of people who rode the Comet. They stood in line, some of them looking a little nervous; they climbed into the cars; the attendant lowered bars across their laps; they fastened their seat belts; they rode the Comet screaming, laughing and raising their hands; and they returned with their structural integrity intact, most of them looking happy, some of them looking sick, none of them looking dead. This was my key observation: NO ONE DIED. Even the people who had looked a little nervous at the outset didn’t die! And wouldn’t they be the first to, you know, fall off? I would be.

I then observed people riding the two newer coasters with loop-de-loops, the Boomerang and Steamin’ Demon. Same deal. No one died. Given that those amusements actually flip people upside down, freeing them of their loose change and dental work, you’d think there might be a greater chance of fatal outcomes. But nope. None that I observed. NO BLOODY CORPSES ANYWHERE.

This is when it hit me: Most people riding roller coasters don’t die. Granted, some do; I know that tragedy strikes on occasion. One or two people expire per year in coaster accidents nationwide. But millions more don’t. And those millions climb on and buckle up precisely because they know they have a good chance of not-dying. This confidence in not-dying emboldens them. They ENJOY THEIR FEAR. They laugh in the face of death, because, you know, it probably won’t happen! Probably! I love that word! Yes!

Once I realized this, I laughed, too. I, too, felt emboldened. I could ride the roller coaster and be scared bloody freaking shitless, but that wasn’t a bad thing. That was a FUN THING! I could scream my until my face turned blue and distended to blimp-like proportions, hitting high E’s unreachable by earthbound larynges (and yes, I looked it up, that’s the plural for larynx)! Best of all: I could embarrass my children! Hurray!

Okay, so I had brainwashed myself into doing something not-so-wise. But what the hell. Don’t you get tired of being wise, sometimes? And isn’t laughing in the face of death what all of us are forced to do every day, all day long, ANYWAY?

It’s not as though This Life Thing we’re engaged in has any other, better outcome. We’re sort of toast. According to the latest statistics, each of us has a 100 percent chance of dying. I awake each morning and thank God for another day, and I go to bed each night thanking God I made it. The bar is low: if I’m alive, and my loved ones are, too, and I didn’t hurt or kill someone accidentally or on purpose in the preceding hours, coolness. Mission accomplished, baby.

So why not take the ride? Why not say: Okay, right, I probably won’t die today? Though of course it could happen. I could die sitting at home and getting clocked in the head by a dislodged window A/C. Instead, I’ll climb onto this barf-inducing coaster of life. I’ll get nervous going up and howl going down, turning fear into laughter and death into a fine excuse for living. I don’t know what else to do with it. You got any better ideas, call me.

Finally, I append a photo I snapped from my most recent visit to the Great Escape with a combo of offspring. It’s only from the Flying Trapeze, a pretty tame swing ride, but even I’m not stupid enough to whip out my iPhone on the Comet.