As I write this, Daniel P. Richardson — one of the most loving, giving, charismatic, profanely truth-talking, monumentally interesting and utterly unforgettable people I’ve ever known and ever will — is in his last days. His blood cancer finally brought his numbers too low, and he stopped the transfusions that had been keeping him alive. So he’s home right now, welcoming friends and family who arrive for one last moment or two with this indelible human being.

My kids call him “Pop-Pop.” I call him my second father, the friend and former headmaster who took over after I lost my parents and sister in a two-year span. His wise and beautiful wife, Pat, was “Nana” to my kids and a second mother to me. I can barely articulate just how much they and their brood have given us over the years. I can barely imagine this world without him.

Not barely. I can’t articulate it. I can’t imagine. But as Dan told me during my own moments with him — probably final — just this morning, it’ll be okay. I will, too. He held my hand as he said this: “You’ll be okay.” He knows how much I love him, he knows how much I’ll miss him, he knows how much his time on this earth and in my life have meant to me and always will, and he knows none of that will ever change.

For the last several months, I’ve tried to give something back by helping him with his memoir: “Surprised: A Richardson Story.” He was in a rush, knowing he would die from myelodysplastic syndrome and determined to get his life on paper before he left us. About a year ago, he started writing it; by early March, he’d finished it; over the next several months, we whipped the manuscript into shape and published it on Lulu.com; at the end of July, we celebrated its release.

Then, a week later, Dan nearly died of sepsis and plunged into delirium. It took him months to recover and emerge from rehab, and when he did, he decided to write a new chapter to tack onto the end of his book. An “addendum,” he called it: His thoughts on almost dying of one disease and surely, gradually, inevitably inching toward death from another. I again agreed to help him, recording long conversations and doing my best to inhabit his thoughts before assembling his final reflection on life, death and love.

In January, I finished it. He gave it the stamp of approval, but asked me to hold off on publishing the newly revised book until he returned from a winter trip to Key West with Margaret, his loving partner and a rock to us all.

When he got back, his numbers plunged, and he stopped treatment. On Friday I drove out to see him. On Saturday morning, I asked if he had anything more to say in his book, any final words about his final days. And he did: a handful of plain, beautiful sentences about family and friends. I added them to the end — an addendum to the addendum — then uploaded the revised book to Lulu and hit “publish” once again.

Below are excerpts from Dan’s “Thoughts on Dying.” Typing this now from my kitchen in Albany, I still can’t believe he’s about to leave us. I still can’t comprehend either the bottomless nature of love or the fathomless nature of loss, or how we can’t know one without risking the other.

Thank you, Dan. You are a blessing forever. Such insufficient words for all that you’ve given me and my kids, but that’s all I can manage right now. It’s okay. I’ll be okay. I love you.

Addendum: Thoughts on Dying 

Excerpts from “Surprised: A Richardson Story,” By Daniel P. Richardson. Lulu Press.

I thought I was finished with this book. I was finished with this book. But a week after my family celebrated its release — along with Betsy’s birthday — with a party at Margaret’s house, I almost died from sepsis. And I found I had more to say.

But while I wanted to churn out one last chapter, I didn’t want to write it. I’m on pain meds, I don’t have the energy any longer, and I’m nearing death from MDS. So Amy is writing this for me. She interviewed me, recording multiple conversations over the course of a four-day weekend, and then she pieced together my thoughts in my voice — or as close to my voice as she could get. What you’re now reading is Amy channeling Dan, assembling my final reflections and messages that I want to convey to those I love.

Maybe you’ll get something out of it, maybe you won’t. But for what it’s worth, this is how it feels to live while dying.


. . . .I was already dying of MDS when, on Aug. 6, 2019, I got a staph infection that settled in my lower back, prompting indescribable spasms of pain. My bone marrow was already malfunctioning, failing to generate blood cells and stave off infection. I was already in the end stages of a fatal disease. This is what happens with MDS: While you’re getting sicker, you can still do a lot. You can still walk and talk and drive and go see movies and drink. You can still live while you’re coping. But you just start slowing down, and then you wind up giving up time each week to getting blood transfusions to keep you going — and at some point, for most people, that gets overwhelming. You make a decision to stop.

And the odds catch up with you. You wind up with internal bleeding of some sort — due to the scarcity of platelets. Or your heart stops.

Or, one day, you get an infection.

Mine should have killed me. I was in my X5, driving back from an appointment with a high-powered blood specialist, when I got slammed with back pain. I got home, made it upstairs and went to bed. But the pain was too great. I was in such agony, way beyond anything I’d ever felt — and I’ve had half a dozen major operations on my body, so I knew pain, or thought I did. Heart-valve replacement. Knee replacement. Surgery on my back, which led to the insertion of the metal plate that got infected. But in that brief period before I went black, all but disappearing from the face of the Earth, I experienced a pain that I had never before experienced, anticipated or even thought was possible. And I wound up in intensive care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Three weeks later, I woke up confused. I didn’t know where I was, or what was going on around me. I was in a strange place. I had some family around me. People were telling me I’d been sick, but I didn’t understand them, and even if I could, I didn’t believe them. My back hurt badly, and I resented the pain, the loss of mobility, the way I was being slowed down and restricted by whatever was going on. I was angry, loopy and combative. I fought everything, which was complete bullshit on my part, because I was weak. I lashed out at people, spending that whole time in the hospital getting pissed off. I didn’t know where I was or what was going on. I was completely out of it; according to my own pet theory, this was a protective device in response to the pain. But I knew that an awful lot of my family was around, Margaret was around, and I was in a hospital — a serious hospital — surrounded by people telling me to do things I didn’t want to do. They were treating me like a little baby, and I hated it.

They wanted to keep me there. They wanted me to do therapies I didn’t want for reasons I didn’t comprehend. But then, slowly, I realized it was good for me. One woman came in and played memory games with me, and she became key in my rehabilitation. Someone else helped me with my legs and my knees and movement, and I realized I needed him, too. I grasped that I’d been very close to death, and no, I couldn’t really get out of bed. I couldn’t get out of the chair that I slept in. I couldn’t move. I gradually came to understand how ill I’d been, and how much work was required in getting me back in a position to enjoy life. I was loopy and uncomprehending, not realizing just how sick I’d been.

Over time I became less loopy, and I started hearing stories of everything I’d done and said in the midst of all that loopiness. How I kept hitting the nurses’ button, thinking I was in a hotel. How I just wanted to “have a glass of wine and head upstairs to bed.” How I kept trying to yank out all my tubes and get up, and how furious I became at folks who wouldn’t let me. How I howled at Susi, steam coming out of my ears like a Looney Tunes character: I love you dearly, but get the fuck out of my way! I am getting out of this bed!

Apparently I was good at being Mt. Vesuvius.

Amy told me this story: In the ICU, surrounded by family, I asked about the “executive committee” that had made the decision to trap me there. Why? What the hell was that about? Who the hell were they, anyway?

“We’re the executive committee,” she replied. “We love you and want you to be well.”

“Well,” I said, “the executive committee can kiss my ass.”

Through all of this, the television in the hospital room was off and on, and politics — as always — was in the air. The president’s face must have come up in conversation or on the tube, because I’m told I likened him to Voldemort: “I know who it is, and I will not say his name.”

Everyone says I made the nurses laugh.


. . . I live in the present — because I have to. It’s not as though I have any choice. I have this moment, and that’s about all I can count on. Amy asked me whether it’s freeing, in a way, and I haven’t given that much thought. I suppose you could make the case. I know I’m in a position that’s unlike anyone else’s in the family right now. And in a strange way, I’m grateful.

The part of my life with Pat was spectacular. We had our problems, but it was wonderfully happy, and I haven’t lost that reward I felt from living with her. Now I’m getting another reward from Margaret. I’m getting a reward from the kids. I’m getting a reward from so many others. I don’t have that kind of classical regret that people have as they look back on their lives, because my life is so rich right now. I think of Betsy, who’s so close to Margaret — to her, she’s become a symbol of maternal caring. She’ll call me up on the phone and say, “Is Margaret there?”

Betsy is a gift. Margaret is a gift. Pat’s still a gift. Death doesn’t change any of that.

The simplest way to explain this, for me, is that old age is no longer encroaching on my life; it’s taking it over. My body is worn out. It no longer has the resilience to effect a cure. But I’m still fortunate, because the discomfort is nowhere near as bad as it could be, and through it all I remain surrounded by loving, caring people who feel that loving and caring reciprocated right back. I don’t want to dwell on my illnesses, on the fairly constant but bearable pain, or on the limitations in what I can do each day. I sleep odd hours — sometimes for long stretches, other times hardly at all — and deal with mildly morbid thoughts all the time. I also require aid and help from those living around and with me.

While I’m long past the point of hoping for a miracle, I’m thankful that communication is easy and love is plentiful. This is the contradiction I’m living out right now: I know the diseases are there, I know they won’t be getting better, and I know they’ll continue to cause pain and discomfort — but at the same time, I have these wonderful people around me. Randy, who’s become my caretaker, reminds me with his steady and giving presence just how fortunate I am. So do all the other loved ones in my life.

I keep myself busy imagining how and when this will all end. Based on past histories, I figure it shouldn’t be too bad — except for my departure from the nests of the people I love. The final gong could easily be a stroke or some other, sudden breakdown, though I damn well hope it isn’t another bout of sepsis. That was the worst pain I’d ever experienced, and I’d rather not go through that again.

Still, I am prepared to die. I am prepared because I know I’m dying, I know there’s nothing I can do to stop it, I know it’s logically the only thing that’s going to happen. There’s no way it’s not. I accept that, so there’s no element of surprise in it for me. But there is something else. There’s one thing I feel, and again, I’m going to use words that have been used for millennia. I have a fear of the unknown.

When you get right down to it, that’s what it is. Right now I don’t have any fear of death itself. I don’t feel that I’m going to be in horrible pain when I die. I could be, but the odds are that drugs will take care of that. That’s not the unknown I’m worried about. Instead, it’s one of those questions I can’t answer.

What’s gonna happen to me?

When I heard Pat’s last breath, it was sort of a little gasp. What was that? What happens right then? Are your lights out completely? Are you done? I think so. But I don’t know. I probably won’t ever know.

I really don’t believe in an afterlife per se. But as far as I am concerned, there is one, and I’m looking at part of it right now. Right here. My family is my afterlife, and I don’t just mean my blood relatives — I mean everyone I’ve had an effect on. Nils is the afterlife for me. Amy and Connie are the afterlife for me. Betsy and Randy and Danny, all of my grandkids, everyone I love — they’re all are the afterlife for me. If you have an impact on somebody, you have an afterlife: That is something I believe in, and it comforts me. For better or for worse, no one can take this afterlife away.


. . . . Randy says I seem mostly at peace with all of these gonnas, and to a certain degree I am. I’ve worried about the last one — What’s gonna happen to the people I love? — because families are families, and people are human, and there’s been some stress here and there as I’ve done my best to resolve matters before I die. But I feel I’ve done a pretty good job communicating with everybody, and I believe that the discussions we’ve had have helped. In fact, they’ve been pretty spectacular. Lifesaving, in a way. And everybody deserves some credit for them. I know the family wants to carry on and carry out my legacy, whatever that may be.

But I want them to know that we’ve done the best we could under the circumstances, and while far from perfect, it’s pretty god-damned good. That’s been my hope more than anything else: to have peace and love and good fortune follow my time here on Earth. And if the whole thing can end without any tension, and I think it will, that’s all I ever wanted. I want the family to continue. I want everyone to stick together. Randy says no one will replace me — not him, not Danny, not anybody. They’ll “cobble things together” and find new ways of being together as a family, he says. Maybe Betsy will be the new center of gravity, the loving magnet, and everyone will gather around her.

Maybe he’s right, though I do think “cobbling together” is a little extreme. I know it’ll be different without me. It’ll be different. But they’ll still have each other. I’ll still be a part of their lives in some way.

And they’ll still laugh. Ultimately, that’s all I want. Whenever there’s anything like this — anything tough, any illness, any other struggle or cause of tension — I want them to come together and laugh.

I’m about to leave, so listen to me, please. This is what matters to me.

Do you hear what I’m saying? I want you to laugh.


Just a few more sentences. I took one last trip – to Key West, with Margaret – and I am now in my last days. When I decided to stop treatment and go into palliative care, the doctor asked me what I wanted from the final stretch.

I had three words for him: “family and friends.”

I’m surrounded by both.


the circle

I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. 

-Martin Luther King

Not long ago, an image flashed into my brain that I just couldn’t shake. I kept coming back to it, wrestling with its implications, wondering if I’d finally found a way to illustrate — to myself, at least — my understanding of love and God, my confusion and dismay at the hateful partitions that divide us, my own imperfect faith and my stumbling movement forward in my efforts to do right. Then today at Mass, the King quote popped up in a visiting pastor’s homily on love, and the image flashed in my mind again, almost cinematic in its scope and detail.

This is it:

We are all in a circle as wide as humanity itself. Imagine a field with tall grass and a shadow of mountains ringing the horizon. Imagine a light breeze with a scent of earth. And imagine, at the center, the wellspring of all love in the universe. Some of us call this center God; some of us call it goodness, or kindness, or the guiding principles of life. The name we give it doesn’t matter. But it’s the same beaming nucleus for us all, the same source and impulse to love that warms us and draws us forward.

We spend our lives walking toward the middle, or we should. To our right and to our left are our loved ones, holding hands as we take each hesitant step. Beyond them are those we know not quite as well, maybe love a little less. Beyond them are those we don’t know but see as equals. Farthest away, on the other side of this colossal circle, are those we might not even recognize as human: We can’t see their faces, after all. We can’t see the light reflected in their features — the warmth in their eyes, the gentleness in their bodies as they lean to help their neighbors. So we judge them. Fear them. Demonize them as the Other.

Only when we walk toward the center of the circle, pulled by love, does the distance between us shrink and we see their faces in the light. The closer we get, the clearer they become, and those faraway masses cease to be strangers. We see the fullness of their humanity and wonder why we failed to see it before, why we thought they were different, why we judged and feared and demonized.

I made a fumbling stab at expressing all of this after church, when I spoke to the visitor who’d delivered the remarks quoting King: the Rev. Daniel Carson of the First Reformed Church in Schenectady. I found him, thanked him, told him my story, told him about my image of the circle, told him I’d grown up in an atheistic/agnostic family and converted to Catholicism 30 years ago this spring. Told him, too, that I’d never understood the urge to erect so many walls. We’re all in this together. We’re all following the same light.

Believing in God means believing in love —  but saying we love is one thing. Moving toward it is critical, and not only because we long to be closer to the source; because it brings us closer to each other. Sometimes we lose sight of the love that binds and beckons, and we fail, we fall, we turn away. But as Martin Luther King reminded us — reminds us, still, from his place at the center of the cosmos — we can always turn back.

Because the love is there. It’s real. No matter what we call it, it calls to us at our places in the circle. And we walk.

(Stock image from dreamstime.com)


i truly don’t care

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

Oh, simple thing, where have you gone?

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

This could be the end of everything

So why don’t we go

Somewhere only we know?

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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


It is. And I truly don’t.

Thank you, Mama.



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

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


My father was 56 when I was born.

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

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

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

Mind. Blown.


My husband wasn’t quite 56 when he died.

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

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

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


This Thursday marks the anniversary of his suicide.

Eight years.

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

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

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

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

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


love is easy

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

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

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

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

Hate ISN’T easy.

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

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

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

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

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

in praise of losers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

the question

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

Me: Hey.

Them: Hey.

Me: Here’s my milk card.

Them: Thanks.

Me: How’s your day going?

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

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

And wouldn’t you know it, people answer.

Me: How’s your day going?

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


Me: How’s your day going?

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


Me: How’s your day going?

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


Me: How’s your day going?

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

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

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

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

Me: How’s your day going?

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

Me: You don’t want to know.

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

Me: Ha ha ha! That must be it!

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

Me: Totally!

Lady: Yes, totally!

Me: May your day improve!

Lady: Yours, too!

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

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


rain rain, go the !$#@ away

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just not tonight.

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

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

Cue the ark jokes.


talking to the darkness

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

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

I know. Weird.

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

“You wanna move in with me, Ame?”

Yes, I said.

“Yes?!” she replied, startled.


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

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

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

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

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



most people are good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most people are good.