turns on the slide

This past Wednesday, I celebrated the day I was born 54 years ago in Booth Memorial Hospital, Queens. That actually happened. Then, this coming Tuesday, I’ll mark the sixth anniversary of my husband’s death (more accurately, it will mark me).  That happened, too. What also happened: I grew up in a singular family, married a singular man, buried my parents, buried my sister, had three babies, bought a house, kissed my children on their first days of school, watched them grow up and up and up and up, wrote books, wrote for newspapers, loved my husband, grieved my husband, wrote another book and kept on living.

And it’s all a blur. I never expected it to be a blur, but who does? Long, long ago, while chatting with an older, wiser colleague in the hallway, she shot me a comprehending glance and said: “You’re at such happy stage in your life. You have a wonderful husband, and your kids are small. Enjoy this.” I thanked her, assured her, then walked away thinking: ‘Stage’? You mean, this moment in my life won’t go on forever? 

Of course I knew it wasn’t permanent. Of course I knew my kids would grow, and I knew that either my husband or I would weep at the other’s grave. But now that I’ve wept at his, I can’t help but look back with shock at the abruptness of the change from then to now, the lickety-splitness of it all, the belated comprehension that even a marathon will feel like a sprint in hindsight.

But still. It was real. It is real. Every inch of it. The fact that something or someone’s behind me doesn’t diminish its presence or lessen its impact; it doesn’t make anything any less treasured or miraculous or true. My husband is real. Our wedding is real. Those nights at home when he wrestled on the floor with our kids: real. The love we felt and made: real. Those trips to Cape Cod, freezing our bodily bits and pieces in the ocean at Coast Guard Beach: real.

Everyone I’ve ever loved, whether they’re alive or dead, in my life or not: real. My best friend from college, her insight, her humor, her calm, all gifts to the world until it lost her: real. Every laugh I’ve shared with a friend: real. Every late-night conversation that bled into dawn: real. Every kiss I’ve kissed, every blush I’ve blushed: real. Every embrace that felt like eternity: real.

The days I shared with my parents and sister: real. The Scrabble we played by the fireplace, the fireflies we chased by the lake: real. The Chopin my sister played at the piano: real. The Bach my mother played on the violin: real. The Franck they performed together, with little bumbling Amy turning pages: real.

That fat Maine coon I had as a kid: real. The purple banana bike: real. That time I went sledding on ice and crashed and flipped and landed on my head and didn’t die and didn’t tell my parents, oh good God, no: real. The boy I had a crush on whose paintbox I smeared: real. The other boy I had a crush on whose stomach I punched: real. The best friend from grade school with the big barn and the big heart and the big hands: real.

That long, steel slide I rode on the playground in first grade, then stood in line and rode again, then again, then again, because I never wanted it to end, not even in January, not even when the air pinched my chest and the metal bit my butt: real.

Every turn on the slide is real. Every moment now past. Every job I held. Ever book I wrote and re-wrote and re-re-re-wrote. This moment right now, as I bang out a fresh sentence in a blog post? A turn on the slide, and look, it’s over now. Every blip and burp in life, whether a brief interlude or a lengthy stage, is a turn on the slide. My two-decade marriage was a turn on the slide. Our years as a young family of five were a turn on the slide. The phase I’m in right now, a late middle age filled friends and family and music and beautiful, striving, impossibly spirited older children, is yet another turn on the slide. Every tune I scratch out on my fiddle with pals is a turn on the slide, each one a little swinging morsel of forever.

Everything is. Every breath, every laugh, every moment spent learning at work or at home. If I’m lucky, and all my bodily bits and pieces continue to function properly, I’ll take many more turns on the slide before the cosmic kitchen timer rings for me. I have no idea how many, or what sort, or where they’ll take me. My only plan is to savor them.

 

 

holy moly

Growing up in an atheist-agnostic household, I learned that love, kindness and generosity were the only working gospels, and I learned that they do indeed work. But only if you choose to love, and you choose to be kind and giving,  and you choose to set aside judgment of others and bend to help when they’re down. I also learned that people of faith don’t exactly have a lock on these gospels, a truism demonstrated by generous atheists and ruthless believers since the dawn of the frontal lobe.

So, no, whenever we happen across some homeless pandhandler slumped against a wall, looking despairing and exhausted and famished,  we don’t need religion to tell us what to do: Love. Give. Don’t judge. Bend down to help. We don’t necessarily need God in those moments. But here’s what hit me the other day: God needs us.

Let me explain.

Rewind to late last week, when I happened across this fine piece of 1 Corinthians during my regular bedtime bible-flip:

This got me thinking. It got me thinking, because A) like 99.9999999999999 percent of the population, I struggle with self-acceptance; and B) “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam,” is one of my all-time favorite literary quotations, right up there with “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too?” (And do you suppose that’s the first time anyone has crammed Popeye, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson into the same 68-word sentence?)

It got me thinking, too, because lately I’ve been dwelling on the problem of hate and discrimination — the tendency to demonize people, declare them sinners or define Them against Us. As though we weren’t all Us! As though we weren’t all Them! As though we weren’t all struggling with this beautiful but oh-so-pissy business of being alive and imperfect, frustrated with our own shortcomings and irked by the flaws of others.

I’m especially baffled by self-proclaimed Christians who do the demonizing. I wonder which bible they’ve been reading. Certainly not the one on MY night table, the one where Jesus tells us to feed the poor and help the stranger and not judge and not hate and sing kumbayah around a campfire while making daisy necklaces. There must be some other, Exxtreme Edition Bible where jujitsu Jeez-Us rips off his shirt to reveal his bleeding pecs and then instructs his disciples in the rules of Fight Club.

So I read that snippet from 1 Corinthians the other night, and I thought: hmmmm. I yam what I yam by the grace of God. God made me this way. God made you that way. God made everyone every which way, even the most annoying people in the most annoying ways, and if you believe in God, you gotta believe God did this for a reason — some divine reason we can never divine. Then I thought: Holy moly! Wait a sec. Maybe God made us all in this crazy patchwork of singular personalities and predilections and shortcomings because God needs us to be different! God needs you. God needs me. God needs us.  

God needs us to be our most essential selves. Our best selves. Our selves most engaged in life, most available and willing to pitch in. I was already chewing hard on this when, on Sunday, I heard a terrifically insightful homily on the Holy Trinity (Father Richard Vosko, St. Vincent de Paul, tip o’ the hat to both) and the importance of being present in moments when we’re called to help.

The Trinity is something that Catholics accept while quietly and simultaneously fearing that non-Catholics regard us as wacko polytheists slathering ourselves in oil under the full moon. But this time, the God-in-three-persons paradigm kicked me in the teeth (and in the best way!) as I realized, a mere 27 years after converting, that all three guises are present in us at every moment: the God who made us; the God who talks to us; the God who came here, suffered and showed us how to love.

So, okay, let’s say I run across some homeless panhandler on some hot summer morning. In that moment, Creator is present in the panhandler, in me, in the sunshine, in the air. The Holy Spirit is present in the still, small voice that says: That poor guy is hungry. Go buy him a sandwich. And as I hand him the sandwich, each of us is Jesus — the hurting and the helper, both. On some other occasion, he might bend to help me.

I yam what I yam. He is what he is. We are what we are. God needs us.

 

 

 

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

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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.

 

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: He 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 ass of time

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Warning: The following post is even more potty-mouthed and -minded than usual, and I say that as the woman who writes for a blog called “Figuring Shit Out.” I’m not sure whether this ranks as more or less fecally fixated than my post about digging literal crap out of a hole in the basement, but either way, I want you to be prepared.

Some years are such lovely and charming visitors, and I’m sooooo sorry to see them go. Some years I’m like, “Yo hot stuff, why such a hurry to leave? Sit back and stay a while, mrrrroww.” Other years I barely notice the boring old thing has arrived before it’s gone. And still other years, fed up to the point of wide-eyed, wild-haired, fang-baring, nostril-flaring exasperation, I spit in its face and howl: GET THE EFF OUT OF MY HOUSE, YOU GIANT POOPY ASS.

As it happens, about a month ago I wrote a really, truly, phantasmagorically terrible year-end poem on this very rectal-specific, annus-as-anus theme. I did. I even read it aloud at a party. The whoooole thing. Yep. And most importantly, people kept talking to me afterward! Would you like me to quote said fanny-poem at length right here? You wouldn’t? Well, tough. My blog, babycakes. My. Blog.

I titled it “The Ass of Time.” No, I’m not kidding. It begins:

Twelve months ago — a little less — we watched the last year pass
A new one loomed as clean and bright as yonder baby’s ass. . .

What do you think so far? Isn’t that a lovely image? New Year = infant tuckus? No? I beg to diffah.

And so we leapt into the fray, our broadswords sharp and shiny,
Inspired by the infant year and its resplendent heiny.
We bravely trundled forward, hope aglow in our hearts —
We kept the faith in that baby, waving off the stench of its farts.

Okay, so I badly screwed up the meter on that one. Give me a pass. I told you it was terrible.

The year and its butt had other ideas — in November we gave up the faith —
Those gastrointestines had the last say, and took a big crap on the eighth.

In all seriousness, of which I am at times capable of feigning, I am at peace with the year about to leave us. For personal as well as political reasons, it wasn’t always easy. But it’s over! Over over over over over. No going back. No warping the space-time continuum to undo what was done and do what was undone. Minutes and weeks and months only progress in the one measly direction, THANKEE GOD. If they didn’t, and we had the capacity to rewind to some precise retro-moment and tinker away at the past, we’d be stuck in yesterday and blind to tomorrow. We would never ever ever come back, and if we did, the present would be nothing but a perpetually tweaked disappointment.

Besides, 2016 had plenty of upsides. Yes! Upsides! I count them on my fingers and toes and many tiny arm hairs. Top o’ the list: My three blessed offspring. My large, loving family. All the old friends who stood by me; all the new friends I met through gypsy jazz; all the jams I attended, all the solos I attempted, all the music that swirled and swung and plucked and scratched around me.

All the laughs I shared with coworkers under dim fluorescent light. All the sci-fi I watched with my son (“Stranger Things”!), cuddling our two crazy kittens. All the books I read that changed me: Svetlana Alexievich’s “Voices from Chernobyl,” John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” All the trips I took. All the walks I walked in my chummy neighborhood. All the chit-chat I swapped at Stewart’s with guys named Al and Al.

All the meals around warm, happy tables with so many family members in so many places, so many of them who entered my life long after I was born.

And you know what? The time itself was a gift. Time always is. The time that passed means that I sucked in air and expelled it for another 12 months, and that’s a good thing. So I look back at the departing giant butt of 2016 and feel an awe at living, just living, nothing more than living, and at the chance to love that comes with being alive. Isn’t that all we have? The year gave me plentiful occasions to live and to love, and if — on some days, fighting some pain — I screwed up at one or both, it wasn’t for lack of trying. At least I didn’t shrink from the life or the love. At least I didn’t cede the trying, or the day.

On that note, as we bid the big backside adieu, I leave you with the last two stanzas of my craptacular bit of comic verse in rhyming iambic tetrameter. May it not ruin your mood, or your year.

So years will come, and years will go, but one thing’s sure to say:
A shitty year now nears its close, its end (two days) away.
A new one waits ahead of us, its tush sits on the horizon,
We tweet and text our gloom and dread, our overages aiding Verizon.

And all we have, in months ahead that pile into years
Is laughter, tunes and poesy to stave off snot and tears.
The fundament will soon depart, the year’s behind behind us.
This year’s ass is leaving soon. But next year’s sure will find us.

Happy 2017, y’all!

the-ass-of-time

words matter

I’ve been thinking a lot about words. Of course I always am, but lately I’ve been thinking about how devalued words are these days, how ignored and slighted and spat-upon. And I’ve decided that it’s a problem of acute market disequilibrium.

See, I took (and almost failed) exactly one economics course in college, and I remember exactly one significant concept: supply and demand! Yes! I learned that! The more stuff there is around to sell, THE LESS PEOPLE ARE WILLING TO PAY FOR IT. And if you really start to flood the market with the stuff? They’ll be willing to pay even less. They will laugh in your face at its wretched undesirability.  They will decide to buy little piles of beaver dung wrapped up as party favors instead. In other words, THEY WILL TOTALLY STOP GIVING A SHIT ABOUT YOUR STUFF. plunger

This is where we are with words. There’s a glut. They’re everywhere all around us all the time, and we bat at them like gnats. No one takes them seriously any longer in this post-truth, post-knowledge, post-learning, post-evidence, post-reality age. We are living in a new and strange dimension where facts are dismissed as beside the fact, where tweets blat and rage, where fake news gets shared reflexively while real news struggles for a hearing. Truths are now transient. Challenged, they shimmer into nothingness. They and the words that express them no longer matter as they once did.

This is what I have to say about that: Words matter. Words are real. Words have weight. Words spring from the mind, enter the world and linger there, changing us. Spoken, they alter the speaker and listener both. Written, they bridge miles of earth and understanding between writer and reader, building fortresses of imagination no less tangible for lacking mass. Words create and destroy. Words spark love, sow hate, stir resentment, inspire hope, instill fear. Words hold power, bearing the authority and currency of poets and prophets and God. In the beginning was the Word, yes? I read that somewhere. But what about the end? Where will words be then?

Words build nations. Sway nations. Fell them.

It’s words that got us into this crazy mess, and words will get us out. But ONLY IF WE TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY.  Only if we value them. Only if we stop treating them like some party-size bag of cheapo tortilla chips that we bought at Wal-Mart that day and then stuffed into The Cabinet of Neglect (which every kitchen has) and never thought of again, much less ate.

Just to prevent the punsters among us from going there first, no, I’m not suggesting that we eat our words. But I am suggesting that we treat them with a little more respect. Listen to them. Weigh them. Hold them for a moment in our palm and consider their heft. If they’re hollow and shallow and convey only lies, we discard them. If they bear truths – even unwanted truths, even the hardest and most painful to grasp – we must tighten our grip and carry them to safety. We owe it to them, and to ourselves.

we’re not dead yet

sunset-taconic-pic

Last night, stricken and and sickened by the election results, I stayed up into the wee hours texting and emailing people I love. I just wanted to tell them that they matter to me, that I’m grateful for them, that I’m glad they’re in my life and I love them, I love them, I love them. I blasted off of a few more of these little missives in the morning. Probably I missed a few people, as I was groggy and hurried. If so, I’m sorry. I’m glad you’re in my life. And I love you, I love you, I love you.

Saying this was all that mattered last night and this morning. It’s all that matters any night or morning. But it matters especially in the aftermath of loss, and the events of yesterday surely mark a big one for those of us longing and planning for a different outcome. When I snapped open my eyes today and remembered, I felt cuffed hard by the unreality of it, the injury to the universe and upheaval to the laws that govern it. Oh, shit, I thought. How did this happen? How will we move on?  And as I did, I recalled a similar cosmic bafflement — a sense of a world suddenly re-ordered — each time I woke after the death of a loved one.

Grief isn’t about the distant past. It’s about the absent future, the timeline disrupted, the dreams unrealized and memories not made. To bury a loved one is to bury your hopes and plans and visions. Your relationship. Your own sense of self. Your idea of life, its possibilities, its narrative. And this what 60,000,000 Americans are mourning today: our idea of a country that renounces fear and hatred in one fell swoop on one swell night, then moves boldly on.

That never happened. That future is gone. But we will move on, after a fashion. Another future will take its place, and we can’t stop trying to make it better and bend each sunset into sunrise. Life is hope and hope is work and work means getting up out of bed in the morning, not curling up under the covers and reliving our pain.

As my dad told me the day my husband died, “You’re life isn’t over.” He was right. It wasn’t. But my life had changed irrevocably, and I had to change along with it: I’m not dead yet, I told myself, quoting Monty Python. Neither is this beautiful, resilient, powerfully misguided and deeply divided country of ours. We’re not dead yet. Our life isn’t over. We’ll figure this out. But in the meantime, let’s hold other close and say I love you, I love you, I love you.

 

five

This past Monday marked five years since two cops appeared at my door to say that my beautiful, brilliant husband had leapt to his death from a roof near our home. Every year, I try not to dwell on the anniversary of Chris’s suicide. Every year, I fail. chris-in-fedora

At work I hit my deadlines, chit-chatting with colleagues and making my plans for the week, all while carrying the weight of the day inside me. I didn’t want to feel it. Don’t go there, I told myself. I wanted Monday to be normal, the week to be normal, my whole life to be normal.

It isn’t, of course. But whose is? And who doesn’t carry around a pocketful of dates that throb with consequence and pain?

In remembering Chris, I try to focus on the joyous markers and all their many blessings: his birthday, our wedding day, the births of our three children. I try to dwell with gratitude on his life and lingering gifts. I want to remember the light and love in his eyes, the way he laughed and kissed and cracked a grin. The fedoras he used to wear, the bike rides he used to take: I want to remember those, too.

But even when I try hard not to focus on the anniversary of his suicide, it focuses on me.  The 26th of September licks at me like the flickering tongue of a snake.  I think of Chris’s profound sadness, the changes that overtook him in the months before his death and the rupture in the universe — the outrageous, senseless, gaping violation of it –that sucked him away. I think of the long day that followed. An endless day. A day that still feels like yesterday. A day that always will.

And yet a lot has happened in the five years since he died. More life, more love, more loss. I’ve traveled to Ecuador, Edinburgh, Jamaica, Yosemite. Watched one daughter graduate high school, another graduate college. Marveled at a son who turned 16, filled with strength and kindness. Wrote a book about grief. Told a story for “The Moth.” Did a Tedx talk. Buried my second mother and my best friend. Held my baby grandniece — Chris’s baby grandniece, the most perfect creature you’ve ever seen, born to parents who wed on Chris’s birthday. Laughed.

I got laid off from one paper and hired back by another. Started this crazy blog. Took up jazz fiddle. Shoved the piano into the living room (alone). Contemplated getting a tattoo (still contemplating). Adopted two kittens. Made new friends. Turned 49, then 50, then 51, then 52, then 53.

So here I am, a little older and grayer, a little creakier, a little more arthritic in my knees and lower back, but not yet as old or gray or creaky or arthritic as I’ll be tomorrow. In another two years I’ll be 55, Chris’s age when he died. Yet more life will have passed, then more life, then more.

I believe in the eternity of the human soul. I believe in the solidity of human love. I believe that souls are love, and eternity is solid, and no one who spends his life embracing and lifting others is ever truly gone. I’ll see Chris again, of that I’m sure. But not right now. Not right here. My job is to be in this world, going about the business of living with whatever faith and relish I can muster.

So, no, I didn’t want to dwell on the anniversary of his death. But dwell indeed I did, all through Monday and the week that followed, thinking about the permanence of a moment and the transience of a life. Five years are forever. Five years are gone. How strange, that I lived five years without him.