the arms of love

Like most everyone else with a smartphone, I try to unglue myself from it periodically — mute the ringer, shut the whole thing off for a couple hours or maybe even leave the damned pernicious addictive isolating gizmo in the car for the day. When I revive or retrieve said DPAI gizmo after a sabbatical, I look down and inevitably find text messages. Many, many text messages. One day, in one thread alone, I found 148.

No. That wasn’t a typo. Yes. One thread, 148 messages. ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-EIGHT. But it wasn’t just any thread. It was my extended Richardson family thread, and let me tell you, those babies are EPIC, full of personality and opinion and politics and joshing and photos and memes and videos and articles and emojis and all sorts of crack-me-up exchanges, with room for occasional stumbles and fumbles that resolve with love and humor. We talk about everything, and by everything I mean EVERY LAST THING, including things not normally discussed at length in family iPhone threads. Recently, the conversation veered from the smoke emitting from someone’s aged Civic to the banana pudding at a bakery on the Upper West Side to disco roller-skating and tube socks of the 1970s, and please don’t ask me to explain exactly how that happened.

Twelve people are on the thread these days, although that number’s been known to vary. Not everyone’s on it. If everyone were on it, I would check my phone after a few hours away and find not 148 messages but 1,480. This is a large clan. Each time I turn around, it’s larger, a chimeric formation of vital, interesting, profoundly decent and loving people. Some are related by blood. Some are related by marriage. And some, like me, are related by the miracle of blessed happenstance.

The Richardsons are my Family Part Two, the peeps who took over after I lost my Family Part One.  I sometimes (often) confuse people by referring to “my late father Louis” in one breath and “my dad Dan, who lives in Vermont” in another, at which point I can see little thought bubbles forming over their heads (WAIT WAIT WAIT AMY’S FATHER IS DEAD? ALIVE? DEAD? ALIVE? AND HE HAS TWO NAMES? WTF?) and I launch into a blathery genealogical disquisition explaining precisely how I came to have two fathers, one living and one gone; two mothers, both of them gone; an extra batch of truly awesome siblings; and a mass of similarly awesome satellite relatives whose exact relationships would require several more long, heaving Faulknerian sentences to explain in full.

I met the nuclear core of Richardsons 40 years ago this spring, when Dan was wrapping up his first year as headmaster at the wee girls’ arts school where my mother ran the music department. I was 13, an awkward nerd with dreadful bangs, clanging oral hardware and older parents always teetering on medical catastrophe. But Mama was wise. She saw and comprehended. Egged on by her, I fell in with this young and energetic brood: Dan and his wife, Pat. Jenny, their eccentric black lab. Their kids Danny, Randy, Betsy. Nils, their first add-on/bonus kid. They were clearly prone to such add-on/bonuses, picking up friends who became family through the mystical alchemy of time and love and laughter. Somehow, they wound up adopting people (plus dogs, but that’s another story), and I was lucky to be among the adoptees. When my childhood family died, that sealed it. “Consider my parents yours,” Danny wrote.

I’m always quoting that moment — in my writing, in my conversation, in my mind. It was so giving, so perceptive and complete. Isn’t that what family does? Give us precisely what we need precisely when we need it, whether a hug or a harsh correction? In this case I needed family itself, and so they gave of themselves. The gift alone was proof of its authenticity. It has proved itself, over and over, in all the years that followed, through the births of my children and the death of my husband and every spasm of life besides. Their arms stretched to embrace us, and we stretched back.

This past Easter weekend, a bundle of extended Richardsons gathered in Vermont for a wedding: Danny’s middle son, Cooper, and his beloved Olivia. We all laughed and ate and laughed and talked and laughed and danced and laughed, and somewhere between the eating and talking and dancing and laughing, we found a quiet moment to reflect with gratitude on what we shared as a family. There, sitting amid a Sunday feast at my brother Randy’s house, I marveled at the accidental genius that brought this group together, at the love exemplified by Dan and Pat as they opened their hearts to stragglers like me, at the love that still abides in that beautiful and ever-expanding assemblage of characters.

On Wednesday, I met Cooper and Olivia at that bakery on the Upper West Side. They were in Manhattan for a quick trip; so, as it turned out, was I. We ordered a mini banana cream pie, a kind of pudding ne plus ultra, and ate and laughed and talked and laughed and laughed. I texted photos of the empty pie dish and the happy couple to our fellow Richardsons, who erupted with joy in the thread.

Hugging the newlyweds goodbye, I thought: I could not have guessed, as a nerdy 13-year-old, that my life would expand to include these two beautiful young people. And so many others. So many arms of love.

This isn’t the family I was born into. That family, my Biancolli family, went on too soon to their glorious Elsewhere. But that loving family gave me this one before they left, and it’s a gift of endless proportions. It goes on and on and on and on, just like the text thread. Only longer. And better. And richer, with or without the pudding.

the love that lucy taught me

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow night, on April 5, 1992, I lost my sister Lucy to suicide.  She was 31, I was 28, and I vowed forever after that I would live my life for two.

Twenty-five years ago on Thursday morning, I rose and learned the news. I never knew at what hour, exactly, she’d swallowed a mess of useless psych meds and curled up on her bed with a stuffed bear to wait. Probably it happened before midnight. I had returned late from a few days away, and I was feeling exhausted and nauseated and achy. But the answering machine was blinking that night, so I pressed “play.”

Two messages, both from Lucy. I hadn’t told her I’d be away. Those were the days before cell phones. She had no way of reaching me. No way of even knowing I was out of town.

In the first message, left around 8 p.m., she was desperate. Sobbing. Pleading with me to pick up. Ame Ame Ame Ame. Please. Please be there. Please. Ame Ame Ame.

Oh, my God, I said. Oh my God, oh my God.

And then the second message played. She left it, I think, around 10 p.m., and she sounded perfectly normal. Am fine now, Ame! Don’t worry about me. Everything’s okay. Sorry about the earlier call. No need to phone. Feeling much better. I love you!

So I went to bed. I didn’t try calling her back. Because she was okay, right?

The next morning, the phone rang early. I lay in bed and let the caller leave a message. A few minutes later, I listened to it: an old family friend asking me to call him as soon as I woke. It was important, he said. It had to do with Lucy, he said. Please call, he said.

I knew immediately that she was dead. I called my friend and got his son. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I asked him if Lucy had killed herself. “Yes,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” I told him I was sorry he had to bear the news. I said this because no one should ever have to bear that news. I thanked him, and hung up.

I thought of Lucy’s second message. She’d left it, I was sure, after resolving to die. She’d left it because she didn’t want me to try calling her back and then worry through the night. She wanted me to get a good night’s rest before learning my sister was dead. It was so caring of her. So typical. So Lucy.

I held my husband and called my mother. She told me Lucy had OD’d. And I said, Mama. Mama. Mama.

“Oh, honey,” Mama said. “The poor thing. She’s not suffering any longer.”

No. No, you’re right, Mama. She’s not. That’s true. She’s not.

“Poor, sweet Lucy.”

Poor, sweet Lucy.

She was the sweetest person. The bravest person. The smartest person. The wisest, the goofiest, the most credulous and curious and radiant — a small, beautiful, interesting, interested, fiercely true human being who played Chopin as though she knew him and greeted the world with wonder despite her pain.

Burdened with unyielding psychiatric problems, she had spent too many years of her life bouncing from psych hospital to psych hospital and useless meds to useless meds and wrong diagnosis to wrong diagnosis, settling finally on temporal lobe epilepsy with a complex array of psychological issues on the side. The upshot: She was suicidal. Pretty much all the time, she was suicidal. Even when she put on a sunny face for friends, she was suicidal. Even when she was busy talking me through my latest silly man-woe, she was suicidal. She was almost never not suicidal.

She had tried once before, swallowing earlier fistfuls of those useless meds and awaking from a coma with a renewed appetite for living. I’ve written about that before. I’ve written sundry other blog posts describing our sisterly adventures, like that time I damn-near died hiking with her on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and then that time we both damn-near died in a car crash. I also wrote about her in my first memoir, House of Holy Fools; it’s a safe bet I’ll be writing about her again. How can I not?

Even after 25 years, I miss her. I’m spilling a few tears as I write this, proof that you never really “get over” the death of a loved one, you just make your path through life around it. You take all that you learned from your absent treasure —  all that they showed you, all that they shared with you, all of the life and love between you — and you wrap it around your shoulders and chest like a blanket against the cold. That’s my Lucy. She warms me still. She shows me how to live and love and always will.

She lived the way we all should live: without fear, restraint, self-consciousness, selfishness, small-mindedness, duplicity, cruelty or guile. She loved the way we all should love: with her whole being. She faced this world the way we all should face it: squarely. She embraced it in its fullness despite her own mysterious torment, and she lived life as though she meant it, as though it mattered, as though it harbored miracles. It was never easy for her, but she stuck it out as long as she could with as much joy as she could. And when she couldn’t, just before dying, just because she couldn’t take a breath on this earth without loving, she made one last phone call so her kid sister could get some sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

hope versus optimism

I passed this sign on a New York sidewalk. “Have hope,” it said in scrawly black chalk on an orange wooden trapezoid. “Have hope,” it said under three upright ichthys symbols, perhaps meant to denote Jesus, perhaps just the author’s need to embellish. “Have hope,” it said to no one in particular and everyone who passed.

“Have hope,” it said to me.

I am always telling myself to have hope. I need it. I know I need it. By knowing and saying I need it, I claim it and make it mine. Hope is in my hands. It isn’t always easy to carry, just as faith isn’t always easy, just as life isn’t always easy. But hope is a function of the one and a fuel for the other. Hope drives me. Hope is the promise of a new wave cresting beyond my sight. Hope is the forward tick of present into future, no matter what that future brings. What it brings could be everything or nothing. What it brings could soothe me or slay me. But what it brings is immaterial. Hope is simply the promise of bringing, and I cannot live without that promise. I cannot live without that hope.

Optimism, on the other hand: I can and do live without that. Despite appearances and occasional accusations to the contrary, I am no optimist. Not about myself, anyway, although my brother swears I am about everyone else (and yes, he’s usually swearing). But no. If I were an optimist, I would look to the distant, cresting wave and expect it to bring me a golden yacht filled with chocolate cupcakes and hot men in tiny clothing poised to do my bidding. Instead, I half- or three-quarters expect that next wave to arrive with a slimy tangle of toxic flotsam, gag me with seaweed, grab me around the ankles and drag me and/or multiple people I love out to sea. Because, frankly, that’s exactly what’s happened with numerous previous waves. The hot men with cupcakes have yet to arrive.

In other words, life has schooled me in the fine art of pessimism. But it’s also schooled me in hope. Each death and departure has taught me three simultaneously lessons: that loving means losing; that losing hurts like holy hell; and that, even as we hurt, life blunders onward indefatigably, pushing us forward with an obdurate insistence known as hope. The hope lies in the pushing. The hope lies in the obduracy. The hope lies in the peculiar human need to search for meaning in the darkness, to find some poetry in the pain, to land in our stumbling upon some little joy or corrective insight that makes all that happens to us just a little less senseless.

Hope isn’t optimism. It isn’t faith in a happy ending; it’s faith in an ending that matters, that bears weight, that limns what it means to be human. Hope is the engine of narrative. Hope is a creative fugue. Hope is the unreason driving every book, every symphony, every artwork. Hope is the thrust and yaw of sex, an urge in search of an outcome. Hope is every grieving, lonely soul who ever turned from a burial site and smiled at a baby. Hope is the baby. Hope is the tongue of a lover, reaching around a mouth in search of home. Hope is the reaching. Hope is the search. Hope is the blood lapping inside us, the lungs swelling within us, the heart beating even as it breaks. Hope knows that death is on its way, but hope is the life we live in spite of it. So, yes. As the sign says:

Have hope.

humanity in a snowstorm

I have to admit it: I love snowstorms. I was thinking about this today while driving through one such not-quite-cataclysmic weather event, because of course when I’m behind the wheel I HATE HATE HATE snowstorms. Driving to work I hated them less than I did driving home, because there were fewer jerkheads on the road this morning than their were in mid-afternoon. Actually, I only counted one outright jerkhead, a guy who passed me into oncoming traffic and put all of our lives at risk. Thanks, pal.

But everyone else I encountered today supported all my many reasons for loving snowstorms. How so? Well, aside from being pretty and fetching in the most charming, Christmas-cardiest sense, and aside from giving both Young People and Older People with Remaining Knee Cartilage joy in the form of skiing and/or sledding and/or debilitating neck injuries, snowstorms also equalize everything and everyone in sight. They are the great leveler of humanity. It DOESN’T MATTER where you live, what you do for a living, how old you are, which gender you most closely identify with, which gender you most closely snuggle with, how often and neatly you clip your nose hairs, what color your skin and/or pancreas is, which name you call God in prayer and which candidate you voted for in the last election.

All that matters is the snow. You get stuck in it? Someone pushes you out. Someone else gets stuck in it? You help push them out. You don’t roll down your window, shout, “HEY, DUMBASS, DID YOU VOTE FOR TRUMP OR CLINTON IN NOVEMBER?” and then decide whether to assist them based on their answer. I’ve expounded before on the Theory of Northern Cities, i.e., my conviction that snow-plagued residents judge their neighbors less on their private lives than on their public habits in shoveling (or not) their sidewalks after a storm. But I chewed on this a little more than usual today, and not only because THE kindest young man with THE widest smile driving THE biggest snow plow pulled up next to me in the parking lot at work and offered to plow a path out to the street.

I thought about it because I’ve been haunted, lately, by all the partisan vitriol spewing from all sides around the internet and the country. People pretending refugees aren’t people. People talking about “other people’s babies.” People saying certain people will get what they deserve if they lose their health insurance, even if they die. People judging people. People dehumanizing and demonizing people. People forgetting that people are people, screwy and complicated and oblivious to their own hypocrisies —  and trying to get to work and back, even in a storm.

On the drive home, I passed one car after another in distress: buried, spun out, wedged in a snowbank, spinning its wheels, looking aimless and bereft in the middle of an intersection. But the drivers weren’t bereft. Every single one of them was surrounded by helpers. People digging, people pushing, people attaching rope from one car to another to haul that sucker out. I rolled down my window repeatedly to offer aid, but no one needed it, not until the woman standing on the side of the road — she really did look bereft — accepted a ride to a bus stop a mile away. Her name was Vivian. She worked at a nearby hotel. We talked about this weird March blizzard and wondered how many inches we’d get. I told her I was grateful for my snow tires. I think she was, too.

I know nothing else about that woman — not how she voted, not how she prays, not whom she loves. It’s a safe bet no one knew anything about anyone else they helped on the road today, either.  And it’s a safe bet no one cared.

woman walks into a sandwich shop

sad-smiley-bread

Someday last week, somewhere in the mid-Hudson Valley, I had a bizarre exchange with a total stranger. This happens to me on occasion. You’d think, by now, I’d be used to it.

But this last time was different.  This last time haunted me: the woman, her meltdown, the two young men in the shop with us that day.

She was somehow so vulnerable in the extremis of her pain, somehow so broken in her rage. The fellow who accompanied her called her by name in his efforts to calm her, but I won’t repeat it here. I won’t identify the sandwich shop where the incident took place, and I won’t specify the locale. It happened. It truly happened. Let’s leave it at that.

It happened when I walked in to buy two subs. The shop was empty except for one employee, a young man with brown skin, a gentle manner and a light accent of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin. I gave him my order: Two sandwiches, please. Turkey, bacon, lettuce, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, red peppers, ranch.

As he assembled them, the young woman in question entered with her companion. The employee spoke with them, took their order, then turned back to me to finish and ring me up.

“I’m really thirsty,” the young woman declared with sudden urgency. “Can I have a cup?”

He looked up. “I’m sorry?”

“A cup,” she said. “A cup. A cup.”

“A cup? What kind of a — ”

“A CUP,” she repeated. “A CUP? Do you know what A CUP is? Have you never heard of A CUP?”

Saying nothing, he reached for a large paper soda cup.

“Are you the only person working here today? Is anyone else here?”

Still saying nothing, he handed her the cup. This failed to placate her. She started shouting.

“I said, IS ANYONE ELSE WORKING HERE TODAY, OR IS IT JUST YOU? Are you alone here? Are you IT? Is NO ONE ELSE HERE?”

That’s when I said: Hey. Hey. Give the guy a break. He just didn’t know what kind of cup you wanted.

Startled to hear from an outsider, she shot me a glance filled with acid.

She said: Mind your own business!

I said: If you’re rude to someone in front of me, it is my business. This is a public place. The guy just works here. Leave him alone.

She said: You’re not my mother! My mother is dead! Mind your own business!

What I should have said: I’m sorry your mother is gone, but you still have no right to treat this guy badly.

What I actually said: I have a dead mother, too. And my dead mother taught me to speak up when I hear someone being treated with disrespect.

Immediately I recognized this as a mistake. I should not have countered her Dead Mother with my Dead Mother, as Dead Mothers, once invoked, have a way of ramping up any conversation. And it did indeed ramp up. The young woman went completely ballistic, flailing her arms, shouting, spewing F-word upon F-word upon F-word while I howled CALM DOWN CALM DOWN CALM DOWN and made repeated “time-out” gestures like some ineffectual and somewhat desperate hockey referee.

I thought: Shit! What did I do?! She’s totally lost it!

I thought: Shit! How can I stop this?!

Then I thought: Shit! What IS it with me and total strangers!?!

Meanwhile, the young man with her —  friend, boyfriend or brother, I have no idea — looked pained and exhausted, as though he’d been through this way too many times before. He spoke her name tenderly, knowingly, urging her to leave. “Let’s go. Come on, let’s go, let’s go,” he said, and I felt an instant flood of sympathy.

But she kept at it. More flailing and shouting. More F-words.  I don’t recall the exact substance of her complaints, but the gist of it was unhinged, toxic outrage at being judged — by the world, by anyone, by me. I had no right. How dare I. She didn’t need this. Who was I to say. Et cetera.

Only when she slammed the paper soda cup onto the floor did I realize it was filled with ice. For a split second, the four of us — we two ladies, the employee, the friend — paused and stared as the scattered cubes shushed across the floor. Then the young fellow took the woman by the arm, uttered one more urgent “come on,” and they were gone.

That’s when another woman entered the store. “What happened?,” she asked, picking up the cup. We told her. She asked if I was all right. Yes, I said, and we all looked down at my shaking hands.

“Do you want me to call the police?” asked the employee.

No, I said.

“Are you sure?”

Yes, I said. I thought: That would ruin her day and maybe her life. And she didn’t hurt me. She didn’t even touch me. She only swore and fell apart.

I regarded the young sandwich-builder before me. He was utterly poised, calm and quiet. Not a peep from him throughout the whole ordeal. Not a flash of anger.

I said: I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

I said: I didn’t mean to create such a scene — to do this to you in your workplace. I only meant to tell her she shouldn’t be rude to you.

Again I said: I’m so sorry.

He shook his head. “I work here, so I couldn’t really say anything. It’s my job,” he said, and I felt an instant flood of sympathy for him, too. I wondered how often customers were rude to him for indiscernible reasons, and how often he stifled the urge to talk back.

Then he shot me a look of quiet bafflement and sorrow. “Some people,” he said, shaking his head once more. “Some people just don’t respect their elders.”

At that I almost burst out laughing. The kid was talking about me. I was an elder. Of course! The white-haired lady assailed with F-bombs by the obstreperous youngster!  In his country and culture of origin, such a scene would be unthinkable and appalling — far worse than the woman’s rudeness to him was her rudeness to me, at least in this young man’s view.

I wanted to hug him. Instead I asked his name. I said thank you, goodbye and God bless you. And I left with my turkey sandwiches.

Afterward, I replayed the episode over and over in my mind. I wondered what had motivated the woman’s short fuse and incivility. Was it the man’s race? His (presumed) religion or immigration status? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and maybe I was, too. Maybe this woman had had an absolutely, positively shitty day. Maybe she’d been fired from her job, ditched by her boyfriend or — who knows —  ripped to a million little pieces by a total stranger in public. Maybe her mother had, in fact, just died.

I don’t know. But I know she isn’t having an easy time of things, whoever she is, and I also know her name. I know the sandwich man’s name. In a strange way I can’t quite understand, much less explain, I feel a bond with them both, having shared a moment of plain, painful, unfiltered humanity that was stripped of all protective layers. In that one volatile moment, we were naked together. Defenseless. And in our defenselessness lay an odd sort of intimacy.

Sometimes I think this is the challenge and calling of life: to witness each other at our worst, and to do our best regardless.

So I feel close to those people that day. I always will.  Once total strangers, they’re known to me now.  They mean something. They matter. I can’t shake them off, I don’t expect to shake them off, and I won’t try.

But I am never, ever, ever setting foot in that sandwich shop again.

 

stab that valentine

broken_heart_2Tonight I address the masses of people who will not be receiving roses and chocolates from their hotties on Valentine’s Day. Nor will they be giving roses and chocolates to their hotties on Valentine’s Day. Why? Because they resist commercialized holidays as a matter of principle? Because they HATE HATE HATE roses and chocolate? Because they’d rather celebrate the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia? Why, no. Because they happen to be hottie-deprived this Valentine’s Day.

To each such person I say: YOU ARE NOT ALONE IN YOUR DEPRIVATION.

I have a few other things to say, too.

First: YOU DO NOT SUCK. Nope. You don’t. This hottie-less state in which you find yourself is NOT your fault, it does NOT mean you’re a loser, it does NOT mean the universe is out to get you, and it does NOT mean you’ll be wholly and permanently hottie-deprived for the next 30 to 80 years. It just means you’re not shopping at CVS for stupid-ass cards.

Second: YOU CAN PURCHASE (AND THEN EAT) YOUR OWN SUPPLY OF CHOCOLATE. I do this all the the time. It is very, very easy. Trust me on this one.

Third: YOU CAN (AND PROBABLY SHOULD) AVOID FACEBOOK ON VALENTINE’S DAY. That way, you won’t have to swear at all the couples who post adorable photos of themselves. But if you do go on Facebook, and if you do swear at all those couples, the good news is: They won’t hear you! I promise! Trust me on this one, too!

Fourth: YOU DON’T ACTUALLY WANT ROSES. No, really. You don’t. They’re sooooo overrated. They wilt and die after only a few days, for God’s sake, and they don’t smell THAT good. Plus, they have thorns.

Fifth: YOU HAVE A HEART. A big one. It’s a miracle inside your chest. It thumps and thumps and thumps, flushing blood to your most distant appendages and filling your essence with all that it means to be human.

Sixth: THAT SAID, WOULDN’T IT BE FUN TO STAB ALL THOSE STUPID-ASS CARDS AT CVS? It would. You know it would. The moment you saw the dreadfully cheesy piece of clip art attached to this post, you thought, Watch out, Hallmark aisle! I’m comin’ to getcha! Dwell on that thought for a moment, and let it fill you with power.

Seventh: “THE NOTEBOOK” WAS A TERRIBLE MOVIE. I’m just throwing that out there. Blecch.

Eighth: YOU LOVE. Your capacity to do so has not been diminished by your current lack o’ hottie. Maybe you’re not showering someone with those aforementioned stupid-ass cards this Valentine’s Day, but that doesn’t mean that you have any less to give.

Ninth: YOU ARE LOVED. You are! I don’t even know you, and YOU ARE! By more people than you realize. Just by being present in this world. Just by being you. Just by living and barreling through life for as long as you have.

Tenth: YOU ARE FINE AND STRONG ALL BY YOURSELF. Whatever your struggle, wherever you’re headed, whoever haunts you from your past, you don’t need a hottie to affirm your goodness, your beauty or your place in the world. Maybe you’ll find one someday. But even if you don’t, you are a complete and functional human specimen unto yourself, awright?And always will be.

So shut up. Don’t argue with me. Just get through the day, stay off Facebook, give yourself some credit — and stab that valentine, baby. It’ll all be over soon.

it’s the best story pitch, the best, everyone thinks so

Press releases! As an arts writer for the Times Union, I get a million of them a day. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. I get 796,321 of them a day, of which I manage to read only 239,547, principally because 431,446 of them get quarantined and classified as spam. And so, inevitably, stuff gets missed. Whenever a publicist asks sheepishly if I mind being approached a second time with a reminder email or a phone call, I reply OH GOD YES PLEASE ALWAYS I BEG OF YOU THANK YOU BLESS YOU. The squeaky wheel gets the grease!, I always add, laughing. They laugh, too. But this is dead serious business, trying to get a journalist’s attention.

Thus it was with unchecked dread, pitched anxiety and no small sense of cosmic ironic payback that I composed a press release pimping myself out for interviews. The reason: A story I told for “The Moth” is being published in a new collection coming in March. Plenty of other (MUCH, MUCH, MUCH BIGGER) names are also included in the collection, including Tig Nataro, Louis CK and John Turturro, and any self-respecting reporter or editor in his or her right mind would naturally seek out an interview with any of those people before ringing up some random regional-arts-writer-cum-suicide-memoirist (AND WHAT A FUN COMBO THAT IS) based in Smalbany, New York.

But what the heck, right? Maybe I could drum up a few more sales for my book (INSERT SHAMELESS LINK TO ‘FIGURING SHIT OUT’ AMAZON PAGE RIGHTY HERE). I mean, maybe not;  the thing was published more than two years ago, which might as well be 2,000 in the literary cosmos. (“Hi, would you like a copy of my recent book? The Emperor Tiberius loved it!”) But, ya know. Squeaky wheel gets the grease.

So here goes. With no further ado, I present my first-ever stab at a press release. (And, yes. I sent it.)

Greetings, journalist! I’m one, too, so I know how this works: The chance of your responding to a cold email hovers somewhere between 2 and 5 percent. The chance of your actually writing a story on the topic being pitched is roughly .08 percent. That said. . .  

 I’m an author and speaker on suicide loss. I’m also one of the 45 folks whose stories for “The Moth Radio Hour” were selected for a new collection coming March 21 from Crown ArchetypeThe Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown. The link: https://themoth.org/ooks/allthesewonders
 
My story, “The Weight of a Ring,” tells of my navigation through widowhood following the 2011 suicide of my husband, author Christopher D Ringwald. If you’re curious, and you have 11 minutes and 11 seconds to spare, it’s right here: https://themoth.org/stories/the-weight-of-a-ring
 
If you have a little more time on your hands (not too much more — it’s short), I’d be happy to send you a copy of my book, Figuring Shit Out: Love, Laughter, Suicide and Survival, released in 2014 by Behler Publications. It tells of the rough year following Chris’s death, and it’s a fast, raw read, full of MAJOR EMOTIONAL OUTBURSTS IN ALL CAPS and plentiful foul language. That link: http://amzn.to/2kuY1qi.
 
And now, to reward you for making it this far, I present several more links: 
 
*My blog, which also features MAJOR EMOTIONAL OUTBURSTS IN ALL CAPS and occasional foul language: figuringshitout.net
 
*My TEDx talk, “You’re Still Here: Living After Suicide,” in which I repeatedly exhale loudly: http://bit.ly/2kvQ294.
 
*An interview with me in Widows & Widowers magazine, in which I discuss the term “shit magnet”: http://bit.ly/2eN7HpB
 
*My author’s bio: http://amzn.to/2k5yMdg
 
*Some links to my current work as an arts writer and columnist for the Times Union in Albany, NY: http://bit.ly/2jh2KXn
 
*Some links from my former life as a Hearst movie critic: http://bit.ly/2k6KgLp
 
*Finally, the Amazon page for my late husband, who wrote authoritative, erudite, poetic books on faith and addiction: http://amzn.to/2jzend3
 
Aaaaaand that’s about it. If you’re interested in my book, just let me know, and I’ll mail or email you one at warp speed. I am also available for interviews, be they short and sweet or long and prolix. I am capable of either.  
 
Thank you for reading my email to the end! We both survived! Good luck clearing the thickets of your inbox, and may you have a lovely day. 
 
Best regards,
 
Amy Biancolli 

 

 

fear, love and the jesus i follow

I can’t stop thinking about Jesus. No, this isn’t normal. Yes, I’m a churchgoing Catholic, but I am not that holy. Lately, however, I’ve been envisioning my Lord and savior slumped in the kitchen over his iPhone as he scrolls through the news: xenophobia, Islamophobia, fear of the immigrant, fear of the Other, loathing of all, so much of it fomented by those who call themselves Christian. And as he reads, he’s yanking at his hair and yelling, DIDN’T THEY LISTEN TO ANYTHING I SAID?!?!

Backtrack a week or so to my participation in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where I met this guy holding a sign intended to bring people to Christ. We didn’t exchange names, so I’ll just call him The Evangelist. He was hefting a sign emblazoned with scripture: “Jesus Said ‘Unless A Man is Born Again He Can Not See the Kingdom of God.’ John 3:3.”

jesus-signHmmm, I thought. That won’t do. That won’t persuade anyone to leave their nets and follow Him. Not in this crowd.

So I went up to the guy.

ME: Hey, there.

THE EVANGELIST: Hello.

ME: I’m a Christian. A Catholic. And it’s good you’re here. But I gotta tell you, you won’t be making a lot of converts with that sign today.

THE EVANGELIST: ??

ME: The translation. You should have used a different translation. One that doesn’t use the word “man.” Especially today. (Gesturing at the crowd.) Here. Now. At the Women’s March.

THE EVANGELIST: ??

ME: I’m just saying you might want to find a Sharpie and scratch out the word “man.” Replace it with “person.” Or add “woman.” Or something. Because you’re at the WOMEN’S MARCH, right? Which is about including people, not leaving anyone out. And the translation you’re using leaves people out.

THE EVANGELIST: I’m sorry you were offended.

ME: No no no! I’m not offended! I’m trying to do you a favor. I told you, I’m a Christian. But the thing about Christ: His didn’t leave anyone out. His message was meant for everyone, right? Isn’t that the point? Everyone? So, look, if you can just find a Sharpie, and. . .

THE EVANGELIST: I’m sorry you were offended.

And that was that. I gave up.

Afterward, I wondered about these habits of exclusion, small and large — not just the one guy, with his one sign, but all the myriad ways that people of faith can wall off entire populations. When my fellow Christians do it,  it drives me bonkers. Jesus was really, really, REALLY clear about this: He came as a messenger, as a reconciler, as a literal, physical embodiment of God’s love — and he came for every last one of us broken people. We’re all broken. We’re all loved. We’re called to love each other in our brokenness. It’s that simple.

And yet this simple truth gets twisted in service to — what? Self-righteousness? Tribalism? Nationalism? Fear? Consider Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Neither Jew nor Gentile. Nor Muslim. Nor refugee. Nor Mexican.  Nor anyone or anything else.

Or consider the parable of the good Samaritan, the stranger who came to the aid of a beaten traveler. Imagine how unlikely — outrageous — that story must have seemed when Jesus first told it. Samaritans and Jews did not get along. They did not chit-chat about football and kids over the backyard fence. In fact, they loathed one another. But that was exactly the point: human boundaries and prejudices don’t matter, in the end. Anyone who helps and carries another is a good neighbor. Jesus razed barriers. He didn’t build them.

I’m no theologian, and I’m certainly no saint. But the Jesus I follow calls me to love, not hate. To include, not exclude. To see the light in others, not deny it or ignore it or disparage it as darkness.

Jesus didn’t wall people off. Christians shouldn’t, either.

the roar of a million, marching

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Every now and then, like the roar of a massive land animal, the crowd erupted in a wave of sound. You could call it cheering, but that word fails to capture the magnitude of the effect, the choral layering of voices or the way it broke like surf across downtown Washington during the Million Women March.

The first time I heard the Roar erupting from the distance, I thought it was jets soaring through opaque gray skies. But then it swelled, surging forward, passing through this giant clot of bodies like the rhythmic rise-and-fall of an audience wave in a crowded arena.

Did 500,000 people congregate the streets of D.C. to rally and march? Less? More? A National Guardsman near the Washington Monument told me “more than a million” showed up. If you’re counting the Mall alone, the smaller number makes sense. But if you’re including the sum of humanity gathered on Independence Avenue and a spiraling, sprawling network of nearby streets, the larger numbers sound almost conservative. Let’s put it this way: If the Million Women March didn’t actually draw a million people, I can’t imagine what a million people looks like. img_1608

It wasn’t just crowded. Along Independence it was wall-to-wall pedestrian gridlock with no room to move, just arms and legs and stomachs and buttocks crammed up against one another with a spontaneous and unwanted intimacy (oooh, nice! an armpit in my face!) that most everyone tolerated with astonishing calm. Everyone, children included, seemed to realize we were all stuck together as one, so why fight it? There were no strangers in that crowd, a diverse mash of humanity from all points on every conceivable spectrum of age, ethnicity, sexual identity, religion, gender.

That morning I’d taken a mobbed metro downtown alongside my sister-in-law, her husband, two of his sisters and one of their wives. I had hoped to connect later on with my oldest daughter and her pop-pop, but I bailed on both plans. Then, when I got separated from my clan, I bailed on trying to find them. I would not locate anyone in this thick and quivering mass of people.

Instead, I abandoned myself to the wisdom of the throng, inching along in whichever direction the people nearest me happened to move. Oh, the person ahead is moving west on Independence? So will I. Oh, we’re crossing 14th, now? Okay, whatever, that sounds good. The inching felt organic. It felt like the langorous twitches of a single colossal creature, or maybe a colony composed of many smaller organisms. I thought, this is what it feels like to be part of a coral reef. And as the ocean flowed around us, we bent to follow it.

Some people sat in trees. Some stood on garbage cans. Many hefted homemade signs emblazoned with creative and amusing slogans — anti-Trump, pro-woman, pro-immigrant, some of them employing profanity, quite a few of them sporting artful renderings of male as well as female anatomy. Among my favorites: “I FART IN YOUR GENERAL DIRECTION,” quoting Monty Python; “Women of Earth Unite,” which had a nice, sci-fi ring to it; “TRUMP EATS PIZZA WITH A FORK,” a damning accusation; and, even more damning for those of us who care about music, “TRUMP LIKES NICKELBACK.” Shudder. img_1643

The most striking poster I saw all day was the portrait of an orange-haired figure grabbing Lady Liberty’s crotch. The sweetest one stated, with fetching simplicity, “MY MOM IS MY HERO.” I told the young man that I liked his sign. “Thanks,” he replied. “I like my mom.”

It was that kind of day, marked with brief conversations (“I flew in from Seattle/Missouri/California!”), briefer admonitions (“watch out for the curb!”) and helping hands. Marchers assisted a woman having a panic attack in the crowd. On a metro platform that morning, a man collapsed — and was quickly attended by two nurses and a doctor, all three women in bright pink “pussy hats.”

16142854_1647466748597112_7802995905091003187_nFrom the time I first heard about the Million Women March, it seemed larger than politics. It seemed more than a sum of its many particulate issues and complaints against Donald Trump. As a mother of two daughters and a son, and as a human being who views the rights of one as the rights of all, I knew I had to be there. I had to get my body down to the masses assembling in D.C.

At some point in the midst of the morning rally along Independence, as speakers bleated out barely audible bits of rhetoric (“this is the upside of the downside,” I heard Steinem say, and that’s about it), word got out that the march itself had been officially canceled. Too many people. Now way for us to move toward the White House, because the entire way was already clogged. But the mass of bodies had other ideas. It marched anyway, the thick clutch of arms and legs and stomachs and buttocks finally giving a little, breathing a little, chanting a lot:

“We want a leader! Not a creepy tweeter!

“We’re women! We’re loud! We’re nasty! We’re proud!

“Show me what democracy looks like! / This is what democracy looks like!”

The mass wound its way toward the White House. But it didn’t stop there. It kept going, bleeding out into the artery of connecting streets. At the intersection of H Street and Vermont Ave I finally dropped, pooped, onto a concrete block and started chatting with a similarly knackered woman and her daughter. They were from Oregon, it turned out. We talked about the day, the thick crowds, the sense of a giant creature moving as one. The Roar. And as we chatted, I glance across the street and saw a statue of Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish general who helped defeat the British at the Battle of Saratoga.

Kosciusko. A foreigner who aided the American Revolution. It seemed apt.

So maybe the Million Women March drew a million people; maybe it didn’t. Maybe it was the start of a new revolution; maybe it wasn’t. But as a member of the swarm in Washington, as witness to a vast, variegated gaggle united in hope and human kinship, I will say this: It felt like history.
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how to say ‘i love you’

img_1424A childhood friend of mine dug this up in a stack of family papers: proof that even as kid, I had NOOOOO gift for subtlety whatsoever. It’s also proof that the couriers of the US Postal Service will not be swayed by snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night nor the blockish scrawl of a 6-year-old in love.

Aside from the minimal but emphatic punctuation (“I LOVE you and I hope you LOVE me Paul I hope you liked my note Amy Biancolli!“) what strikes me most about this note is its bluntness. I’ve always had the urge to blurt out exactly what’s on my mind, social etiquette and self-respect be damned. And when it comes to googly-eyed romantic proclamations, blurting has been the least of my issues.

Paul — and yes, he okayed this public exposure — was not quite the first in a long line of males that I admired and so informed. Number one was Alex, the kid whose paintbox I smeared in pre-K. THAT went over well. Next came Paul. Then, in 3rd grade, I got a crush on a boy and as a result felt it necessary to sucker-punch him on the playground, with unsatisfactory but predictable results.

For some years thereafter I adopted a more nuanced approach and expressed my desires by gazing dreamily at crushees from a distance, be it across an eighth grade science lab or the all-night reading room at the Hamilton College library. This approach bore no fruit whatsoever. Since then, I’ve declared undying love via snail mail, email, phone conversations and in stilted interpersonal tete-a-tetes that nauseate me with anxiety to this day, and I have enjoyed subsequent degrees of romantic success/soul-crushing failure as a result.

My late husband and I first swapped “I love you’s” on a darkened Northampton side street on one of the happiest nights of our lives. Then it became one of the most painful when Chris, giddy with joy, bent over with laughter and I bent over too, thinking I might kiss him on the top of his head but instead colliding with his face as he snapped suddenly upright. I am trying to remember if in fact I broke his nose. It’s possible I did. If so, the incident ranks up there with Playground Boy.

I am not sure what tack I’ll take the next time I fall in love. Probably I’ll go easy on the guy. Maybe I’ll write an eighteen-word letter and send it to his parents’ house. At the very least, I’ll try not to punch him in the stomach or mess with his paintbox, at any rate not before the first date. But say ‘I love you,’ then break his nose for emphasis? It’s been known to happen.