blinded by the light

the moth program

Life is one huge story — really long, really weird and flecked with beauty. Its hugeness, weirdness and beauties hit me again last night, as I took the stage at the Egg to tell my tale of F.S.O. before a crowd of a thousand at “Lost and Found: The Moth in Albany.” Although, to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t see these thousand people, having been blinded by the light, wrapped up like a douche when I was rollin’ in the night, or whatever Manfred Mann was trying and failing miserably to enunciate back in 1976. (Whipped up like a mousse? Decked out in chartreuse? )

Not seeing the audience was a blessing, it turned out. I’d been told, by the lovely People of the Moth and my equally lovely fellow storytellers, that rehearsal can often prove more nerve-wracking than the actual performance. So when the full-on tectonic body wobbles overtook me during my run-through Friday night, shaking off my cool air of imperturbility along with sizable chunks of past dental work (Hey! I know that filling! That’s from 1997!), I was told not to worry about it. This meant the performance would go well. They said that. I tried to believe them. I did. Then I started shaking again, and I spat out a crown from 2002.

But just before speaking, as I stepped up to the microphone and faced those blinding, douche-wrapping lights, a brief, blessed thought streaked through my adrenaline-spazzed brain: It didn’t matter whether the performance went well! This was a story! This was my story, mine and my children’s, two of them seated among the unseen thousand, and it had already brought enormous gifts my way.

On Friday I had already met with a group of extraordinary storytellers — my old friend Steve and my new friends Mike, Lynn and Shannon — on this path to the mike. At rehearsal I had already heard their stories, glimpsed their broken inner parts and marveled at their pluck. I had already felt, once again, the warmth that comes from moving outward after a chilling loss — making new connections, gleaning new insights, finding new ways to feel alive.

And already, my world was bigger.

Stories do this. They give. Telling them, hearing them, grasping the commonalities between them — it’s all healing, and it can only happen when we strip away our layers of defense and bare our mushy human middles with other people. Whether we bare and share them over cups of tea around a kitchen table or in public, blinking before a crowd, matters less than the willingness to cough them up and spit them out at all.

I’m grateful for the chance to spit them out at the Egg. I’m grateful but fuddled, as always, by the bizarre and magical calculus that tosses up joy in the aftermath of loss. Had my husband not committed suicide, I would not have written about it. I would not have told a story about it. I would not have met the people I met this weekend. I would not have shared moments of reflection, resilience and laughter with friends old and new.

It doesn’t make sense. It never will. But then again, neither does Manfred Mann.

no thinking allowed

Fed up with the cold and holed up inside, I was blathering on the horn with my dad. I blathered about This and That and The Other Thing, and whether This and That and The Other Thing would turn into More Complicated Things, which would then turn into Worse Things and then Worser and Worstest Things, and whether I should stop these Worstest Things from happening before they’d even started.

My dad listened quietly. He’s good at that. When he talks, he talks like nobody’s business — full-on streams of no-shit truthiness — but when he’s not talking, he just clams up and waits while I Blah Blah Blah. He’s done this the whole time I’ve known him, which is pushing 37 years now. (I met him not as a newborn, when I wasn’t yet monologuing, but as a banged and squinty 13-year-old.)

At one point, I paused mid-blather for an inhalation of oxygen and exhalation of carbon dioxide. My dad used this life-maintaining instinct to save me from myself.

“Stop thinking so much, Ames,” he said. “You’re over-thinking everything.”

He was right. I’d been over-analyzing everything, training my high-powered telescoping lens onto every little dust bunny in every little corner of my mind; if only I trained this same critical hyper-zoom on actual dust bunnies, my home might land on the cover of House Beautiful. But the problem: After he said this, I started over-thinking my tendency to over-think everything, leading me into a vast, churning sinkhole of useless solipsism. I became like some sad and deathly pallid Dostoevsky protagonist, except I hadn’t murdered a pawn broker and wasn’t exiled to Siberia, although this ass-freezing Albany winter just might count as such.

Sometimes I wish I could stop thinking altogether. Wouldn’t that be handy! If only I had the cognitive ability of, say, a gallon of milk, I could idle away my time in silent refrigeration without spending one single millisecond worrying about it. I wouldn’t be in a hurry to go anywhere, or do anything, or solve any problems, and when my dad called me on the phone, I’d be like, “Yeah, dude, so I’m in here chillin’ with the Chobanis,” and then he’d be like, “Sounds good, Ames,” and then I’d be like, “And the kosher dills just moved in, and they’re excellent company,” and he’d be like, “Can I come and visit?”

Except there wouldn’t be room for visitors in my fridge. And, lacking sentience, I wouldn’t be having conversations with anyone, my splendiferous non-blood dad included.

So this morning, I aired out my head and went for a walk. That helped, and here’s why: it forced me to a) deposit a shitload of checks that had been piling up; and b) chat with neighbors. One of the mundane, not-so-minor joys about living in the same house for 20 years is the accumulation of time and people — and the widening sense of connection that goes along with them. It always pulls me out of myself and into the world at large.

On my short walk I swapped hellos with the mailman, the young dad, the smiling guy who offered me leaf bags last fall. The bank tellers, the old friend from church, the sweet neighbors’ kid working a shift at Stewart’s. The mom of two who, driving buy, rolled down her window to talk. The woman looking in on her elderly parents. The neighbor scraping slush off the sidewalk.

Seeing him, I grabbed a shovel and began to scrape my own. Spring is coming. The Worstest of winter is over — and with it, my over-thinking. I think.

i grok ‘bouleversant’

I have a new word. I love new words! I love old words too, especially the ones I’ve been using since my saggy-diaper days (“eat,” “poop,” “clap” — love those). But few things make me happier than stumbling across some hitherto-unfamiliar-to-me linguistic nugget, and this is a good one: “bouleversant,” a French adjective with no direct translation but a whole load of meaning that I’ll get to in a minute. And my brother Randy didn’t even coin this one. Instead, “bouleversant” comes to me from John, an erudite and personable young man I met at the Al Ham Birthday Party, 2014 Edition.

You’ll be wondering what the Al Ham Birthday Party is. Or maybe you won’t be; if I hadn’t gone to Hamilton College I really wouldn’t give a damn about it, but I did go there, and I do have many warm memories of the place, and so I care enough about Alexander Hamilton’s annual Albany-area shindig to attend it every other year or so with my friend Jane. We graduated five years apart.

Jane and I started attending these little fetes about 10 or so years ago, back when we were, let’s see, roughly a decade younger than we are now and thus fell into that cozy alumni mid-range between the really young and really old farts. We were moderate farts. But this year, the pair of us realized that we had in fact become much older farts than most everyone else noshing on crabcakes at the Midtown Tap and Tea Room.

My method of coping was to pigeon-hole John, a history major who aced the Al Ham birthday quiz and, it turned out, hadn’t yet graduated. He was beyond doubt the youngest fart there. We chatted about campus life, and some wacky Hamilton lingo from the 80s (“tool” meant not an A-hole but a hard-grinding, carrel-dwelling denizen of the library), and his love of and facility with French.

Somehow — I don’t remember how, as my fartness is more advanced than it once was — that aforementioned word came up in conversation. John defined it as intensely beautiful, intensely emotional, intensely sad; from what I gather, something classifies as “bouleversant” if it wipes you out, leaving you spent but transformed. He offered “Schindler’s List” as an example of one such film.

I grok this word. I can’t pronounce it, and I’d have a hard time sneaking it past editors (whaddaya mean, I can’t use indefinable words in a foreign language?!), but it captures the paradoxically beautiful whammy of life at its most extreme. How often great art hurts; how often I dissolve into a puddle at the Barber Adagio, and that’s as it should be. There’s no point in listening if I’m not, right?

what i have

After any loss, we fixate on the absent. I do this. I did this on Monday, when I first got the news that Pam had died. I’ve done it every moment since. I’m doing it now. I’ll do it tomorrow, zeroing in on everyone I ever lost.

They’re all there, gathered around a blazing fire pit in some grand backyard, having a high old time without me: My best friend. My husband. My sister. My father. My mother. My second mother. And so on. And so on. And so on.

But I can’t always focus on the departed, no matter how dear they are. I need to tally up my blessings here and now. And not just the good things; I have to include the annoying things, the meh things, even the bad things. Because when life shakes out in the end, whenever that end may be, the good and the bad will have muddied and merged, and we won’t know the difference — or we won’t care.

So, just for a moment, I’ll aim to be grateful for everything that put me here, keeps me here, makes me Amy, makes me sane.

What do I have?

I have my three children, indelible, spirited, compassionate and brave.

I have my family, so large and so loving, whether related by blood or not.

I have my friends: each of them individually; all of them as a whole; the possibility of new ones tomorrow.

I have a bad habit of apologizing too much for everything.

I have a foul mouth. You’re shocked by this revelation. I can tell. Sorry. Continue reading


Tonight I have too much to say and no right words to say it: I just lost my best friend, Pam, one of the brightest gifts in the long arc of blessings that illumined my way. She helped me through my husband’s death. She helped me through my sister’s death, becoming my sister, too. She was the sweetest, humblest, kindest, funniest person I knew, with the most infectious laugh, and the thought of moving forward without her boggles my mind and breaks my heart.

But I know I will move forward. Because I know she’ll be helping me and everyone she loved and loves still. I know she’ll be laughing with me, though I won’t hear her wild giggles again until I’m a cranky old fusspot and I die in my sleep and she finds me in the crowd at the pearly gates, eyes crinkling, sidling up with some wacky story of some weird guy in the line ahead of me. Someday we’re going to double over again with laughter, and heaven’s occupants won’t know how to handle it. We’ll make too much noise. They’ll have to send us back.

I just saw her a little over a month ago — and sure enough, after eating subpar sushi on a Saturday night, we fell into a bout of laughter that left us with aching bellies. “Amesadoodle,” she used to say. “Amesadoodle, wait’ll you hear this. I have a funny story to tell you.”

She always did. She will again. I’ll be waiting for it.

So tonight, in Pam’s memory, I’m asking you — whoever you are, be you friend, family or random stranger — to call up the person in your life with whom you laugh the most radiantly and contagiously. And let it rip, the both of you.

‘good afternoon, wicked thighs’

photo (1)

Tracking back my blessings on Friday got me thinking about Wykeham Rise, the wee girls’ arts school in Washington, Conn., where my mom taught music and I learned to make pinch pots while singing “Caro mio ben” (although not simultaneously) when I wasn’t combing my hair at oblique angles and squinting through my bangs. Now closed, Wykeham had about 85 kids, tops. Most everyone was an artist or musician or actor of some sort, and those who weren’t might as well have been, because we were all so gloriously and floridly eccentric.

I loved that place. No one cared that I was a nerdy introvert with clanging dental hardware; I was a Wykeham Chickham as much as anyone, and before long, nurtured and valued at a school where my voice seemed to matter, where people seemed to care, I became less introverted. Though no less nerdy. And still prone to squinting. And, for the record, a space. 

The teachers at Wykeham were as eccentric as the kids.  One of them, a Mr. David I Forgot His Last Name, sketched the portrait above.  I was being spacey at the time. He felt Continue reading

An inexplicable chain of gifts

On this, the day after Thanksgiving, I’m grateful that my father quit working one month shy of his pension. I was a peanut. He’d been a newspaperman for almost 40 years, and he’d burned out.

One month. He just couldn’t bring himself. He refused.

The financial insecurity that followed — combined with other health complications, mental and physical — forced my mother to earn a regular paycheck. She was a concert violinist of some global renown, but accolades were more easily earned than money. So she took a job  teaching chamber music at an itsy-bitsy arts school, a move that shaped my life, and continues to shape it, in fruitful and miraculous ways. It led to an inexplicable chain of gifts that I could not have predicted but I see and celebrate now, the crick in my neck a small price to pay for looking backwards.

At that school I met the family who became my own after I lost my parents and sister. From that family came my love of soccer. From my love of soccer came my decision to attend Hamilton. At Hamilton I met my best friend. Because of my best friend, I went to work for a paper in the North Country. Her parents lived there; and it was there, in Thanksgiving of 1987, where I ate a pumpkin peanut butter soup that I taste still.

Because of that job in the North Country, I met my husband, Chris. He had worked for the same paper. Had some of the same friends. Through him I made more friends, and more friends, and more — some of the people I love most in this world. Through him I met and married into the tender, loving, gracious family with whom, just yesterday, I shared turkey and turnips and laughter and pie.

With Chris I made our three children. With Chris I made a life. So much of the good in this life we once shared — and the life I now have without him — came from that one, irrational, mysterious decision made by my father 40-some years ago. It made no sense then, and it doesn’t now. But I’m overjoyed he made it.

Be grateful you’re not driving behind me this Thanksgiving

I have the world’s worst sense of direction. I mean this literally. On this entire spinning planet, no one has a pisser-poorer sense of direction than I do. You know that old biddy in the ‘93 Chevy Lumina you got stuck behind on the drive to the supermarket the other day? The one who blinked left for a block and a half and then, you know, TURNED FREAKING RIGHT, forcing you to swerve left to avoid smashing into the Lumina, causing thousands in property damage, ramping up your insurance payments and possibly injuring the poor fragile dear in the process, thereby plunging you into years of guilt and expensive coping mechanisms?

Her. I’m her. I am a somewhat younger, though no less grayer, version of the old blinking-tail-light biddy that every driver hates. Only I’m worse.

Example A: Continue reading