i truly don’t care

A couple days ago, standing in line at a Walgreens, I heard a song that I literally forgot existed: “Somewhere Only We Go,” a super-sappy-dippy-drippy 2004 tune by the English rock band Keane that I’m guessing you forgot existed, too. There is no reason in particular to remember it. Why my brain felt the need to stow away its lyrics in a lockbox for retrieval 15 years later, I can’t say. But as I stood there, my previously dormant Top-40 neurons aroused and pinging with excitement, I began to sing the song. Like, out loud. In a pharmacy on New Scotland Avenue. Because what the hell.

Oh, simple thing, where have you gone?

I’m getting old, and I need something to rely on. . . . 

This could be the end of everything

So why don’t we go

Somewhere only we know?

And as I sang, the young woman in front of me twirled around and shot me a look of startled, eyebrow-spazzing incredulity. There was no mistaking its meaning. It said: DOES THIS PERSON REALIZE SHE’S SINGING A SHITTY POP SONG ALOUD IN LINE AT WALGREEN’S, AND IF SO, WHY DOESN’T SHE STOP.

The look contained no question mark, because she did not request or expect an answer. She simply needed to confirm with her eyes what her ears had already told her: that the singing ditz behind her didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone else thought.

Next up in the pharmacy-radio queue was Steve Winwood’s “When You See a Chance,” and yup, I sang that, too. What can I say. It was a long line.

RUN-ON SENTENCE ALERT, 1:

All of this reminded me of a little incident from the late 1970s (mentioned briefly in my first crazy memoir, House of Holy Fools) when, sitting with my fearless mama Jeanne at a Chinese restaurant in Connecticut, we ran out of tea – and then, after trying and failing to snag the attention of a waitress, and trying failing again, and trying and failing AGAIN, and truly not caring what anyone else thought, including her mortified teenage daughter with a mouth plagued by braces and a face plagued by bangs, she hefted the empty pot over her head and kept it there, holding it aloft and smiling benignly as strangers turned and stared and the aforementioned daughter cringed until her face broke and shrank as far under the table as geometry and anatomy allowed.

Mama, stop!  the suffering teen whispered. Mama, please! Mama! Don’t! Mama!

My mother smiled again. She really didn’t give a rat’s ass. (What does that expression even mean?Are rodent butts something people normally gift?) Hers was the placid mien of a strong woman who had been through the wars and emerged with the secret to living. “Someday,” she told me, “you’ll stop caring what people think of you.”

And I thought: NO WAY, OH MOTHER OF MINE. I WILL NOT.

But she was right. It took me quite a few years to get there — plus a war or two of my own — but I did, finally, reach a point of truly not caring when strangers turn and stare. Giving birth three times in a large teaching hospital surrounded by 12 doctors, 19 med students, 37 nurses, 69 random passersby and a 100-person Greek chorus probably helped. But my husband’s suicide sealed it: So long as I’m alive and well, and the people I love are, too, nothing else really matters. Make a boob of myself in public? Sing like a dork at Walgreens? What the hell do I care?

RUN-ON SENTENCE ALERT, 2:

And all of that reminds of another little incident, not too long ago, when someone informed me with great and sober authority that my sunglasses were “goofy,” a piece of breaking news uttered as though A) I hadn’t realized my sunglasses were goofy when I purchased them; B) I didn’t enjoy and celebrate their goofiness each time I wore them; C) I were not, myself, profoundly goofy by nature; D) goofiness is somehow something to be avoided; E) more serious-minded sunglasses would vault me to a higher social status, tax bracket and station of influence in the echoing halls of power; and F) I gave a rat’s ass.

I didn’t say any of that at the time. I wish I had. I also wish I’d said: COME ON, HUMAN! HAVE SOME FUN! THROW CAUTION TO THE WIND! WEAR GOOFY SUNGLASSES! SING YOUR WAY TO THE CHECKOUT COUNTER IN THE SKY! LIFE IS TOO DAMNED SHORT TO CARE WHAT PEOPLE THINK!

It is. And I truly don’t.

Thank you, Mama.

 

fifty-six

A few days ago, I turned 56. BREAKING NEWS! STOP THE PRESSES! A late-middle-aged lady turns more aged!

For most people, this is not a significant milestone — just yet another boring farty number in the progressive levels of boring fartiness on the road to old age. But for me? It’s a mind-blower for multiple reasons.

First:

My father was 56 when I was born.

Were he alive today, he’d be 112. I REPEAT, 112. He was born in 1907, which, I know now thanks to the oracle of Google, predates the Model T by a year. More than half a century later, I punched and squeezed my way out of the birth canal. You are allowed to be amazed. I am dumbfounded. He had a baby! At my age now! Can I imagine doing that? No. No, I cannot. I REPEAT, NO.

And yet when I look at this charcoal drawing of Daddy in his mid-to-late 50s, I see a man radiating zesty charisma. I see so much, too, that mirrors my own face: The gray hair. The dark eyes. THE EYEBROWS. I’d like to think I resemble him when I laugh.

He lived to 85, dying before the birth of my three children and all the loving wonders that they brought. He missed all of that, and I’m now twice the age I was when I buried him. I’ve lived as long on this earth in his absence as I did before he left me.

Mind. Blown.

Second:

My husband wasn’t quite 56 when he died.

Which means I’ve now hit an age that Chris never reached. Again I am dumbfounded. It reminds me of the day I turned 32, overtaking my big sister Lucy four years after her death. How is this supposed to work? I wondered then. How am I supposed to live and grow old without her up ahead, showing me how it’s done?

I am now the older sister. I am now the older spouse.

When Chris died, I wondered again how I would do it. How I would forge ahead in grief and hope. What it would mean to stumble through the thickets without him. Were he alive today, he’d be 63. I look at his image and see the the old sparkle in his eyes, the humor, the kindness, the smarts, and I imagine how he might have aged. The gray hair a little whiter, for sure. A few more wrinkles on that handsome mug. But what else would be there? What else would I see and take for granted? What new eccentricity or experience would be etched in that smile, in those eyes?

Third:

This Thursday marks the anniversary of his suicide.

Eight years.

Eight years filled with laughter and anguish and joy, with new friends and new life and new love and new music and new adventures and the everyday, ongoing, God-almighty miracle of watching my children thrive and turn into adults. Eight years of remembering Chris. Eight years of wondering why he died and what might have been had he lived instead. Eight years of accepting, in blessed moments of clarity and surrender, that I can’t and won’t know, ever. That knowing is impossible.

Eight years of saying: I loved him. I love him still. I always will. I grieved his death. I grieve him still. I always will.

Eight years of living in spite of it. Eight years of knowing he’d want me to. Eight years of sensing that love begets love, that life begets life, that getting older is always a gift, and that those who know this best are the mourners and the mourned.

So here I am, a little older. Wiser, maybe. Creakier in the knees. Living and loving as best I can with dear kids, dear friends, dear family, a dear man to hold, an interesting job, a fiddle in my hand and a heart that still pumps blood.

Chris died at 55. I’m 56, a milepost he never reached. I have to believe he’s celebrating.

 

love is easy

A few Sundays ago, my beau and I were strolling through the hayfields of the Falcon Ridge Folk Fest when we ran across this bumper sticker. It annoyed me, though at first I wasn’t sure why. It said, as you already know if you saw the image above and you’re one of the 12 surviving people who still read cursive: HATE IS EASY; LOVE TAKES COURAGE.

I looked at it and thought, wrong wrong wrong wrong WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG.

“No way,” I said aloud. “Love is easy.”

Given the horrors of El Paso and Dayton, hate was on my mind. I’ve never understood it. Never. A) because it misses the entire point of being alive; B) because every piece of secular and sacred wisdom in the history of humankind has warned against its evils; and C) because it seems to take so much effort. Hating always struck me as far too labor-intensive, requiring the Hater to devise some convoluted rationale and then spend every waking and sleeping hour feeding it, elaborating upon it, obsessing over it. The stockpiling of weapons? The warehousing of anger? The elaborately penned screeds to justify its atrocities?

Hate ISN’T easy.

And love isn’t necessarily the refusal to hate, either. Love is more than the binary opposite of loathing. It’s something else. It’s a mindful open state that requires an act of surrender. It’s unlocking a window and throwing up the sash, and then, in microseconds that can amass into years, a determination to stand there and feel the warmth or the chill, hear the birds or the traffic, see the sun or the stars. Nothing is simpler than this blessed acquiescence to the beauties of life.

For proof, just watch this video of my batshit cat during a recent heat wave. Does this look difficult to you? Does he look oppressed? Okay, so I’m inserting a cat video into my blog post for no other reason than I WANT TO INSERT A CAT VIDEO INTO MY BLOG POST, and if you don’t feel like watching it, your loss. I won’t judge you if just skip below to continue with my aimless philosophical cud-chewing.

Anyway, thinking back on the Philosophy of the Bumper: I decided it was only half-wrong. Yes, love is an act of surrender. Yes, love is an opening to the world. But that act of surrender indeed takes courage, and that opening to the world takes strength. It takes a willingness to be pierced and affected. A willingness to accept, and be accepted, and to work. A rejection of passivity and an active commitment, a fixedness, a constancy, that can look like foolishness but feel like the holiest of missions.

Those who refuse to open themselves and those who shut the window at the first blast of bad weather are shorting themselves, maybe even “protecting” themselves. But they are not taking the easy road. They’re taking the hard one.

Love may take courage, but it’s easy. Any questions about this? Ask my cat.

in praise of losers

Okay, I’m tired of this. I’m tired of the misunderstanding, the vilification, the attacks. I’m tired of certain people on certain social-media platforms at certain stupid hours of the morning who wield the word “loser” as though it’s an insult or an accusation. As though there’s something wrong with losing. As though losers have some reason to feel ashamed.

Let me tell you something: It isn’t. It isn’t. We don’t.

Yes, “we.” I include myself in that category. I am a LOSER AND PROUD, dammit. There would be no charity, no sacrifice, without losing. There would be no Christianity without losing (JESUS, HELLO? ARE YOU WINNING YET?). There would be no room in this world for anything but arrogance and ambition and “triumph,” or some narrowly defined misconception that means vanquishing every last soul who disagrees with you.

There would be no humility without losing. There would be no humor. There would be no love. Thank God I’m a loser! I’d be miserable and cheerless as anything but! It’s a fusty old maxim, and I roll my eyes as I type it, but it’s true: No love without loss. No way of opening ourselves to the ecstasy of one without risking the anguish of the other. Everyone who loves long enough and well enough to bury a dear one is a loser, and every loser is a witness to all that matters in this life. Don’t listen to the winners. They don’t know.

Everyone who makes a decision based on something besides money: loser. Everyone who works a low-paying job because it’s interesting or it’s necessary or it helps someone else: loser. Everyone who pursues an art as a calling, not as a quest for celebrity: loser. Everyone who uses up their sick days to care for an aging parent or a child or themselves: loser.

Losers have stick-to-it-ive-ness. Losers have strength. Losers have courage. That homeless guy slumped on the corner, asking for money? That soul wrestling with depression and anxiety, somehow making it through another day? That person in a wheelchair, navigating steps and inclines and obstacles and potholes the rest of us barely notice? They are fearlessness personified.

At some juncture in this life, everyone encounters loss. If you don’t, you’re not wholly human. You haven’t fully lived. Or you have, but you can’t really acknowledge it — because you aren’t entirely aware, stuck on this wrong notion that losing is somehow a bad thing, somehow an ignominious deviation from the norm, somehow something to be mocked. (You want to have some fun? Google “loser” and “stock photos,” and see what pops up in the results.)

Losing IS the norm. Losers R Us! Losers Rule! (No, wait. . . ) Like so many of my fellow losers, I’ve loved, I’ve lost, I’ve lost some more and I’ve loved in spite of it. I’m not wealthy, not powerful, not chauffeured around on a gilded glide through life, just some schmo in a shrinking industry who bought a used Corolla last week and was PUMPED, PUMPED to drive it off the lot — which makes me the textbook definition of a loser.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

the question

Lately, I’m not sure why, I’ve been asking cashiers and other folks how their day is going. Nothing more complicated than that, just:

Me: Hey.

Them: Hey.

Me: Here’s my milk card.

Them: Thanks.

Me: How’s your day going?

I started doing this because “How are you?” was feeling insufficient. Because everyone says that without expecting or even wanting an answer, using it instead as a blandly interrogative substitute for “hello” that translates as I ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR PRESENCE, RANDOM PERSON, BUT NOT IN ANY WAY THAT IMPLIES I MIGHT ACTUALLY GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOU. We all say this knowing that’s what it means, but we say it anyway. We feel like the social order demands we say SOMETHING, we make SOME lame effort at congeniality and politeness to strangers, at least those strangers who aren’t ignoring us and listening to some twee alt-folk band on their ear buds or air pods or whatever latest New Thing has been meticulously engineered to deafen us.

But, I dunno, saying “How are you?” without meaning it always depressed me, maybe because I ask questions for a living and genuinely look forward to the answer. And so, instead, I began asking people about their day. It was an easy switch, only two added syllables and no real alteration in meaning — just another way of saying the same thing, but in a manner that suggested I might actually want to hear a reply.

And wouldn’t you know it, people answer.

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Busy! So many folks coming in today to stock up for (Name Religious or Secular Holiday)!

-or-

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Went really fast! Almost over! I’m outta here in (checks clock) 18 minutes and 36 seconds! Then I’m getting a puppy!

-or-

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Oooooh, man, this woman was just in here yelling. Right here. At all of us. I’m like, I don’t even know why. I tell you, sometimes people are CRAZY.

-or-

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Long. Really long. Really, really, really, really long. (Blinks slowly.) Long.

I love these little interactions. They’re brief but meaningful in a way that doesn’t suggest the start of a lifelong relationship (OH MY GOD YOU ARE THE ONE) but merely a simple human interaction between two nobodies who cross paths in the course of a day and briefly become somebodies to each other. And that’s not nothing. I fact, sometimes it’s a lot.

Not so long ago, in a city not so far away, I was having a really crappy day. No we need to go into it in any great detail; it stank, I was feeling sorry for myself, and that’s about it.

I had discharged copious amounts of snot into my pillow when, fed up with this scenario, I went out for a walk. A long walk. Five miles, in all. In the middle of it I paused outside a used bookstore, thumbed through a $1 copy of “Othello” (OH YAH, SO THIS’LL CHEER ME UP) and brought it inside to purchase. As the lady at the register rang me up, I popped out with my usual question.

Me: How’s your day going?

Lady: You don’t want to know. (Pause.) How’s your day going?

Me: You don’t want to know.

Lady: You, too?? (Shakes head.) It seems like everyone I talk to is having an awful day! There must be something going on astrologically to explain it! Because it’s a total shitstorm! Ha ha ha!

Me: Ha ha ha! That must be it!

Lady: Yes, that must be it! Ha ha ha!

Me: Totally!

Lady: Yes, totally!

Me: May your day improve!

Lady: Yours, too!

And in fact, it already had. Just by exchanging shitstorm confessions with a stranger at a bookstore — just by hearing the term “shitstorm” uttered in a bookstore — my mood had taken a turn for the better. I felt marginally less crappy, marginally more human, and so, I’m guessing, did she.

So I have to ask: How’s your day going?

 

rain rain, go the !$#@ away

It’s been quite a while since I last posted on this bananas little blog, and I’d planned, for my momentous return, to compose some heady and meaningful rumination on something that merits capitalization, such as Life or Brokenness or the Nature of Grief or the Connective Fabric of Humanity That Links Us all, or maybe just that time a guy in Manhattan’s Fashion District (which also merits capitalization) chased after me on a bicycle saying, “You have big legs! I like big legs! You have big legs!” Or something along those lines. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, just to complete the mental picture? I was wearing electric-blue tights.

Anyway, I had other plans for this blog post. These plans have gone on for a month at least, and for some reason I never realized them. (Excuses: Many. Explanations: Few.)

Then, while I was planning, it started to rain. And rain. And rain. Then it started to rain some more. Then it continued to rain, which became a source of whining and eye-rolling for all who live in these afflicted parts. Then people started making ark jokes, which are never a good thing and always a sign of intense meteorological despair, and while I did not indulge, I wanted to.

And then the temperature dropped. And dropped. And dropped. Then it dropped some more. And then, this past Sunday, after a glorious respite in the form of a brilliantly sunny and comparatively warm Saturday, it FLIPPETY-SNOOKING RAINED AGAIN, and the temperature dropped again, and I found myself TURNING ON THE HEAT IN MY BANANA-SMUCKING HOUSE! In the middle of May! Which ought to be be illegal and most definitely runs afoul of the laws governing the universe, because it’s just wrong, my people. We should all sign a petition. I’ve spent the last six months turning up the heat and then — here’s the really tragic part — paying large bills to National Grid for the gas. Shocking! Such an outrage! Who ever heard of such a thing!

Today: more of same. Rain. Chilliness. Ugh. Blecch. Eww. Snow was actually forecast for the hillier parts of the region, and while it didn’t get quite that cold in Albany itself, I did wear tights (no, NOT electric blue) under my pants to work this morning, which depressed the FRECKLE-SPUNKING BEWHOZITS OUT OF ME. Sorry, I seem to be swearing a lot tonight.

I realize, as I type this, that I’m being ridiculous. I know how lucky we are to live in a part of the world with a superfluity of water. I know that the lushness of the region — the green hills and grassy lawns, the thick sweep of trees lining our streets — would shrivel to brown without the rain. I know we live in a region with four (count ’em) seasons, none of which follows a script. I know all that. At times I celebrate it.

Just not tonight.

Not long ago, I was discussing the joys of the weather around here with someone from Texas, and I made some remark about how much *fun* we have kvetching about it. My theory: New Yorkers, a notoriously cranky lot, actually enjoy complaining; it’s when we’re happiest. If you live around here, you know that nothing makes us more cheerful than complaining about the weather. We’re at our best, our purest, our most centered and fulfilled, when we’re crabbing to our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, our mail carriers and our dental hygienists about the snow or the rain or the cold and the ice or the heat and humidity or none of that or all of that or everything at once. Complaining about the weather gives us purpose. It’s our undeniable, deeply provincial raison d’être, the bonding agent that unites us all — whether we’re hunched over the Honda with an ice scraper or flipping on the sump-pump after a downpour. We live for weather. We love to hate it. We hurl profanities in its direction.

And so, as I shake my fist at the cosmos and hurl profanities at the chill, I am content to say: GO FART IN A FRISBEE, RAIN.

Cue the ark jokes.

 

talking to the darkness

I don’t know when I started praying. I suppose it must have been around the time that I started believing in God, but I don’t know when that happened, either.

Around age 13, I think. A couple years following my parents’ catastrophic near-misses with death (my dad’s suicide attempt and coma, my mother’s heart and kidney failure). Sometime after the night Mama shot up in bed while drowning in her own lungs and shouted: “I HAVEN’T BEEN GOOD TO GOD!” Which sorta kinda surprised her, given the fact that she didn’t actually believe in God at the time. Which prompted her to start questioning who This God Person was and exploring how she felt about same. Which prompted me and my sister Lucy to start exploring with her. Which meant that over time, following our separate paths at separate places, each of us converted to Catholicism.

I know. Weird.

I remember how it felt to not believe. I remember how it felt to lie in bed at night, pondering a life with no afterlife, talking to myself and to the darkness without believing that anyone might listen. But as my faith in a Something Else and Somewhere Else took hold within me, I kept on talking to the darkness.

Whatever system of belief we claim, whether God or reason or nothing, every single one of us comes from darkness. We rocket into the light through the spasms of childbirth, and we land on this spinning ball alone. If we’re lucky, we’re lifted and loved by our parents. They hear our cries of hunger and dismay. They hear our laughter, laughing with us. They intuit our needs and meet them with attentiveness and patience. They know us. And who among us doesn’t long to be known? As adults we still long to be known — to find that one person who gets us, hears us, sees our brokenness and doesn’t run away.

The urge to pray is nothing more or less than the urge to be known. To be heard and understood. To be accepted, not rejected, for who we are. If you proved to me today that there is no God, I wouldn’t stop praying. It wouldn’t make a difference. I would still speak to the darkness, because forming words and uttering them aloud or in silence helps me understand my role in this world and the ineffable gifts that surround me.

Praying for the people I love reminds me to love them — reminds me that I’m not the only one fumbling through this life. Whether it helps them, I have no idea. I prayed for my sister; she took her own life. I prayed for my husband; he took his own life. God often says no. Why? Again, I have noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo idea.

And yet.

One evening in 1988, I was working a late-cops shift in the Canton bureau of the Watertown Daily Times, and I was exhausted. I’d been working 60+ hours a week for the last several months. And I was worried like hell about Lucy, who was struggling with suicidality and a complex array of psychological and neurological issues.

She was in Cambridge, Mass. I was in the North Country, a six-hour drive away. Not exactly next door.

She called that night, distraught. Weeping. Expressing self-loathing and fear. There was only so much I could say — I love you, Luce, you’ll get through this, Luce, you’re not shit, Luce — and nothing I could do. When she hung up I turned off the office lights, drew the curtains, locked the door and dropped to my knees. I cried and prayed and prayed and cried and prayed and prayed and prayed, talking into the darkness and asking God to let me know if I should quit my job and move to Cambridge. Then I cried and prayed some more. Please, God, please. Please tell me what to do. Please. 

After about 10 minutes of this, I got up. Flicked on the lights. Opened the curtains and unlocked the door. And the phone rang again. It was Lucy, calmer now, telling me one of her roommates was moving out soon.

“You wanna move in with me, Ame?”

Yes, I said.

“Yes?!” she replied, startled.

Yes.

I regard that phone call as a miracle. It was a miracle not because God cured Lucy of her ills — not because I rescued her — but because I spent the next three years living with my sister, loving her, laughing with her, crying with her, visiting her in the hospital and simply being with her. I moved out in 1991, the summer I got married. Less than a year later, she was gone from this world.

The 27th anniversary of her death was this past Friday. I reflected, as always, on her beauty and brilliance. Her goodness. Her goofball eccentricity and wit. And I recalled, as always, that phone call inviting me to Cambridge.

Was it a direct answer to my prayers? I don’t know. I think so. Would it be any less of a miracle if it weren’t? I prayed to God that night in 1988 because I loved Lucy. Because I feared for her life. Because I needed to tell Someone in the murk of that rough moment that I loved her and feared for her life. Because I wanted to be heard and understood in my own pain.

And so, answering the phone just a few minutes later, I listened to her voice and felt compelled — by God? by love? does it matter? — to say yes.

Yes. I said yes. Thank God, I said yes.

 

 

most people are good

My mom used to say it, now I have to say it: Most people are good. Especially in this day and age, when so many of us are at each other’s throats for so many reasons, it’s worth saying it again and again and again. Most people are good. As folks online spew invective reducing whole demographic groups to something subhuman, and all you want to do is spew invective back, it needs to be repeated like a holy mantra. Most people are good. Most people are good. Most people are good.

I was reminded of this one morning not too long ago, when, clearing out of a recent snowstorm, I looked up and saw a city plow headed my way. I had just finished shoveling the driveway. Now I’d have to re-shovel it. No getting to work on time today. Great! I said to myself with wilting sarcasm. Maybe I’ll throw out my back in the process, too!

Sure enough, the plow chugged past, dumping a nice fresh ridge of crappy icy wintry detritus along my driveway and, even better, blocking my car. I dug in and started clearing it, reminding myself that A) I live in a city; B) I’m grateful the city plows its streets; and C) given A and B, wasn’t I kind of an unappreciative urban a-hole for feeling anything but gratitude toward the guy steering the plow? I hadn’t gotten too far with either my crap-clearing or my internal remonstrative soliloquizing when the plow, hitting the dead end, turned and headed back toward me.

I stopped shoveling. Looked up. Gave him a li’l wave — not big, not both arms, but not sarcastic, either. An actual, non-snotty, thanks-for-doing-your-job wave. A little smile thrown in. And lo and behold, the driver of the plow proceeded to steer the vehicle my way, quickly and miraculously clearing the pile of crap from my driveway that he had previously desposited. Inwardly I screamed HOLY HOLY SHIT THAT IS THE KINDEST THING ANYONE HAS EVER DONE FOR ANYONE ELSE IN THE HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE. Outwardly I waved again — with both arms this time, one hand clutching the shovel — and yelled THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU as the plow-man chugged away.

It was a little thing that meant a lot. Most people are good. I was reminded of all the times neighborhood snow angels have cleared my sidewalk after a storm. Most people are good. I thought of all the friends and neighbors who brought casseroles to my house after my husband died. Most people are good. I thought of the woman who ran to my side last winter when I slipped and fell on the ice. Most people are good. I thought of all the folks who’ve held doors open for me, all the folks who’ve waved me ahead of them in traffic, all the folks who’ve fielded some stooooopid question of mine at the bank or at the auto mechanic’s or on the phone with Verizon and answered with patience and kindness. Most people are good.

These are little things, little moments, little passing nods to my humanity and theirs. Such gestures aren’t monumental acts of charity or self-sacrifice. They can’t be deducted from our taxes or trumpeted before a mob of fans. They don’t translate into anything approaching sainthood or celebrity. They aren’t anything major; they’re small and mundane. But that’s why they matter. That’s why they sustain us. Because, in the thick of all that whirls around us, amid all the everyday stressors and endless striving and crackpot news cycles that divide and distress and demonize the Other, it’s those tiny sparks of decency or cheer that remind us we’re all connected and help us clear the crap from our lives.

I don’t know the snow-plow driver who came down my street that morning. I barely even saw his face. I don’t know his name. I don’t know his politics. I don’t know a damn thing about him.  All I know is, he saw me, steered his truck toward me and shoved a pile of icy crap out of my driveway. And you know what? That’s enough.

Most people are good. 

 

 

listen, papa: let priests marry

So Pope Francis has called for an “all-out battle” against clerical sex abuse — no specifics on what the battle would entail, but it’s a start. As a lowly Catholic laywoman who’s all but voiceless in the church, I urge Il Papa and everyone with a say in the hierarchy to consider the following:

Let priests marry.

Maybe not all of them will want to; maybe some will choose to take a vow of celibacy. If they’re called to it, they should. When news of the scourge first broke in the early 2000s, a lot of people questioned whether the vow itself was the problem — whether a life of sexual abstinence inevitably led its practitioners toward a twisted and criminal dark side. I didn’t believe that then. I don’t now.

But I do believe we would all be better off in a church with married priests. To me, the problem with the church then, the problem with the church now, and the problem with the church’s history of covering up abuse and shuffling around the molesting clerics all boils down to this: No one in the hierarchy is a parent.

If parents had been in charge? No way in hell all of those monstrous priests would have been reassigned. The bulk would have been fired, defrocked, excommunicated, busted, brought up on charges and kicked on their asses into prison. There would have been some small sense of moral reckoning, not this lingering, decades-long suspicion that too many higher-ups in the Catholic Church just didn’t get it and never would.

Part of the problem has always been the boys-club element, the No Girls Allowed, and I’m with everyone who calls for women in the priesthood. The novelist Alice McDermott has a brilliant piece in The New York Times  advocating for same. “For the male leaders of the Catholic Church, the lives of women and children become secondary to the concerns of the more worthy, the more powerful, the more essential person — the male person, themselves,” she writes. “The Catholic Church needs to correct this moral error.”

And I agree. Wholeheartedly. Had women occupied the Vatican, the bishoprics and the rectories around the world, there’s a chance that at least some of those outrages might not have occurred. There’s also a chance that abusive priests might have been reported to the police.

But I also feel that this isn’t a man/woman issue. This is a life/love issue. It’s a matter of engagement in one of life’s most mundane and sacred mysteries — raising children — and the ferocious love engendered by it. How can an institution comprehend the divine if it isn’t fully human? Wouldn’t the church be wiser and more loving if a few of the folks in charge truly understood what it means to be a father or a mother?

Parents know that nothing matters more than a child’s well being. Parents know their mission on earth is to protect them. Parents know the madness of loving a child, the joy of loving a child, the fierceness of loving a child, the single-mindedness of loving child, the frustration of loving a child, the incomprehensible, inexplicable, sublime and mind-altering hugeness of loving a child.

I’ve been Catholic for almost 29 years now. Despite the church’s problems and my various disagreements with it, I still attend weekly Mass. I still receive the Eucharist, which inspired me to convert in the first place. But I never felt closer to God than I did when giving birth. I never felt more at one with the body of Christ or the sisterhood of humanity, and I never felt more humbled and awed. My kids are now 25, 23 and 18. I’m still awed. My love for them still brings me closer to God.

When they were little, I always told them this: There’ll be married priests in my lifetime, women priests in yours. I still sticking with my prediction, but I’m 55 now, and I’d rather not push it.

Married priests now, Papa. Please.

totally bonkers

Last night, I did something I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d do: I shared the stage with world-class musicians at the Linda.

I am not a world-class musician. I am a humble late-comer to the music of Django Reinhardt and its community of practitioners and fanatics spanning the globe. But at the age of 55 I find myself playing in a gypsy-jazz band, and we found ourselves invited to take part in a benefit for WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio with a slate of fabulous swing acts: Zack Cohen, the Hot Club of Saratoga, the global superstar Stephane Wrembel.

My band, Hot Tuesday, played a brief opening set and then joined the gods onstage for a closing jam. I couldn’t believe it. This is not something I ever anticipated. But then again, nothing about my life in the last seven years is anything I ever anticipated, as I am well past the point of anticipating anything.

After my husband’s death, I stopped trying to predict a single damn thing about life. I take nothing for granted. Each and every triumph, no matter how small, is a cause for celebration.

Example 1: The Linda.

Example 2: The toilet seat in my upstairs bathroom.

I installed a new one last weekend, letting out a whoop of victory upon completion. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!, I yelled, pumping my fist in the air. Then I threw back my head and laughed. Then I did backflips across the bathroom floor. Then I flexed my biceps so hard that my shirt ripped.

This is where I reside: at a place of EXTREMELY small ambitions. At least when it comes to things like:

A) My house, in particular my plumbing, in particular anything involving sewage;
B) My car, in particular anything involving expensive repairs;
C) My quest for world domination; and
D) My knees.

In all regards, I count my blessings and take what comes. If I harbor any ambitions at this point, it’s to get through the day without catastrophe. To be as happy as I can be, fumbling along with gratitude. To love. To not hurt. To savor the present.

It’s a funny thing about life. We start it without harboring any ambitions whatsoever, just content to cry and pee and poop and gurgle and and suck and then cry and pee and poop some more and spit up projectile milky vomitus onto our parents’ shoulders (YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!).

As we mature, our goals evolve. We stop puking on adults and instead start sitting in their classrooms and conforming to their rules. We begin to form and pursue dreams. As the disappointments rack up, we revisit and reconsider those dreams. Maybe we won’t actually scale Everest by 30, cure cancer by 35 and retire a billionaire at 40. Maybe we’ll just go for a few day hikes in the Catskills and find our bliss selling crafts on Etsy. Who knows?

To me, this is life — the Who knows? Forget about the stuff we envision in our youth; it’s the stuff that we don’t envision, the sudden twists, gradual turns and bombshell revelations that boot us into a chapter of living we never saw coming and couldn’t have. I couldn’t have foreseen Chris’s suicide in 2011. I couldn’t have known I’d be facing these years without him, fixing the crap that breaks at home and filling the void with music.

If you’d told 30-year-old me that I’d be playing in a gypsy-jazz band in my fifties, I’d have replied WHAT THE HELL IS GYPSY JAZZ and then said you were totally bonkers. If you’d told 45-year-old me the same thing, I’d have understood the musical term but said you were totally bonkers. If you’d told 50-year-old me, at which point I’d taken maybe a year of jazz lessons, I’d have muttered Ohhhhkayyyyyyyyy righhhhhht and then said you were totally bonkers.

But here I am. There I was last night, squinting into the lights, scratching away with my band mates and wrapped up in the crazy ecstasy of swing. How did I get there? How did this happen? Who knows?

Totally bonkers.