my mother’s bach

Lately I’ve been listening to Mama.

I mean her music. Specifically, her Bach: a performance of the Partita No. 2 in D minor from a 1984 concert in New Milford, Conn., preserved — sort of — on wobbly cassette. Very wobbly cassette. Give it a listen:

 

I dug it up for an upcoming podcast on pioneering female violinists being prepared by Elfenworks Productions. Asked for recordings of her, I set about unearthing some of the cleaner old tapes from the stash in my attic. They’re all from her little Connecticut concerts in the 1980s, and they’re hissy, fuzzy, incomplete. One of them — the Bach — awes me while it breaks my heart. The awe comes from her artistry and impact, from the immediacy and modernity of her playing, and from her stunning proximity in the room after all this time. She died in ’94 but lives in the fullness of her music, her voice on the violin as recognizable to me as her laughter or her speech. For the first 15 minutes or so, listening feels like visiting with her. Mama, I say aloud. Mama.

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Check out the critic’s blurb at the top. Who’s that guy? Biancolli?

Then the heartbreak sets in. There, the final stretch of Bach’s towering masterwork, smack in the middle of the stunning, celebrated, intricate “Chaconne,” the tape begins to stretch and yaw and teeter. I howl NOOOOOOO and swear loudly in ways Mama would not approve. But I remember that recital. I remember that piece. I remember her poring over the urtext, its pages spread on the dining-room table, as she determined the precise bowings and fingerings and emphases to bring out Bach’s intent.

In performance, she didn’t pussyfoot around; she played with fire and spit and a brilliant, muscular fearlessness. She was a force. Her music was a revelation. It remains forceful and revelatory, even decades later and warped by sagging tape. The ravages of time and aging technology were not her fault,  just as the premature end to her career was not her fault. It was fate’s fault. Sexism’s fault. The fault of a million little things that might have gone her way, but didn’t.

The Dutch label that signed her to a contract folded shortly before releasing her first recording. Then she became a mother, a move that many women have paid for with their careers. She took a small break from her international tours — from her recitals at Carnegie Hall, from her solo stints with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy — to bring two little girls into the world. When she wanted to return to concertizing, she learned from Ormandy that the global stage had room for just one female violinist. Someone had taken her spot while she was away. Door shut. End of story.

But it wasn’t, really. Mama was never bitter: That’s simply how it was for women who set out as soloists. And she never stopped playing, never stopped reaching for the elusive musical ideal, instead bringing it to little rural audiences. She taught, worked at her music, grew with it, never lost an ounce of creative drive. The music meant no less to her than it had at the height of her career. It became no less in her hands.  What a vibrato she had. What a soaring tone. There was a power and a poetry to her work at the fiddle — and a personality behind it — that informed everything she played. She was both Romantic and Baroque, utterly expressive and yet utterly unsentimental. She never uttered a false word or played a false note — even in the wobbly heartbreak of that “Chaconne.”

I hear in Mama’s Bach all the strength and truth and love in my mother’s voice, all the authenticity and authority in it, the way her faced used to flush and her muscles used to knot and her small, strong, fleet, exquisitely careful hands revealed all that the music had to say.

I listen, and I miss her.

 

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!

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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.

the wrong pants

This morning, listening to my voicemail following a week off from work, I  found a message from an irate reader who was deeply ticked off by a Times Union reprint of a melancholic blog post I wrote after the election. Apparently it was too melancholic for her taste. Apparently I am too much of a crybaby and just need to get over it. And apparently she was concerned for my maturation and developmental welfare, because  she instructed me, loudly, to “PUT YOUR BIG-GIRL PANTS ON.” Yes, she said this phrase in all-caps. I’m also certain she hyphenated it, because otherwise she’d be telling me to put my big GIRL pants on, and she must know that I already own plenty of those.

In any case, I found her voicemail altogether amusing and entirely old news, because A) I am indeed a crybaby; B); I have a hard time getting over anything, and by anything I mean anything; and C) I DON’T OWN ANY BIG-GIRL PANTS AND NEVER HAVE, FRIENDS. Never will, either. NEVER EVER EVER.

I have always had a problem with pants. In short: I always owned THE WRONG ONES. This means I always wore THE WRONG ONES. My life is a long, sad narrative of bad trousers, misguided jeans, ill-fitting shorts, ludicrous crop pants and miserable, idiotic slacks.

You want proof? Sorry, I don’t have photos of my 1985 culottes. Or the striped purple elephant pants that I wore in a delusional state through most of high school. Or the mustard-colored highwaters that I wore to work for the longest time until I noticed a large bleach splotch on the crotch and realized, what’s more, THAT THEY WERE BUTT-UGLY.

I do, however, have a photo of the purple paisley harem pants that I wore when I met my purple-paisley-harem-pantslate husband’s family in 1990. It was Christmas.  I was madly in love with this Chris guy. I wanted to impress his parents and siblings, and so of course I showed up to meet them all in PURPLE PAISLEY HAREM PANTS. These were not big-girl pants. These were not medium-sized-girl pants. I would argue that they did not classify as tiny-girl pants, because even an infant would rip off her diaper and crap all over the things rather than let her idiot mama dress her that way in public. They were, in short, THE WRONG PANTS.

But being lovely, classy, gracious people, my future in-laws never said a peep about the egregious swaths of billowing polyester that cinched around my ankles and made my short, stubby legs look even shorter and stubbier. Not until I mentioned them years later. And they still didn’t say anything. But by then I had  moved on to yet new frontiers of pants stupidity, including the tragic pair of bell-bottomed jeans that I wore long past their expiration date and — even wronger —  the lamentable orange corduroys with the saggy ass and worn-out knees THAT I STILL OWN AND WEAR TO THIS DAY, occasionally over my blue leopard-print pajama bottoms, although not to work, and did I just admit to that in public?

And I haven’t even gotten to the lilac khakis I’ve been squeezing into the last couple of summers. Ooooh, I love those things. Those are seriously NOT big-girl pants. Nope. I won’t be pulling those on to appease any ticked-off readers, that’s for sure. They’ll never grow up. Neither will I.

 

 

 

we’re not dead yet

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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.

 

trump-towering among them

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UPDATE:

I first published this post back in July, after the Republican National Convention. I’m re-publishing it now because I am struck even more by the parallels between Lewis’ vision and today. The idea of a frothing, autocratic demagogue with militias behind him is no mere fiction; the thought of a newly elected president muscling through a racist agenda, fomenting unrest and tossing his enemies behind bars is no mere phantasm. Can you imagine what Lewis would say, were he alive and watching this sick pageant before us? He’d be aghast.

And yet I keep recalling my mother’s words after the Soviet Union fell. “Democracy is messy,” she observed. “I don’t think the Russians realize how messy it is.” She had faith in that messiness. She believed devoutly in our ability, as a nation, to make mistakes and recover from them. The great gift of democracy is the authority it gives us to make those mistakes. It grants us the power to do the right thing, yes, but it also gives us the power to do the wrong thing, and it is in that power — to screw up, sometimes spectacularly — where we prove ourselves as Americans. The genius of this radically inclusive system,  and the never-ending terror of it, lie in our own fallibility and potential for electoral fiascoes. It lies in our humanity, in our brokenness, in our best intentions curbed by our worst impulses.

And it lies in our resilience. Our stubbornness. Our innate, star-spangled, mulish optimism, which pushes us onward and upward through the muck. Since when do Americans give up on anything? Since when do we give up on each other?

Below, then, is my original post from this past summer. Read it and vote. And remember: Whoever wins on Tuesday, and whatever holy chaos results, we damn well need to get through it together. The mess is ours. The mess is us. God bless America.

***

ORIGINAL POST:

“Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man.

Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man . . . . But he was the Common Man twenty times magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.”

***

Buzz Windrip, in case you hadn’t met him, is the fascist demagogue in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satire “It Can’t Happen Here,” which pundits have sometimes invoked in the long months since Donald Drumpf first rose to prominence in this election, and then rose and rose again. It is not the world’s greatest novel, being overwritten, under-realized and saddled with way too much dated lingo for 21st-century eyeballs. Also, Buzz is not an exact fictional counterpart; for one thing, he runs as a Democrat.

But as the Republican National Convention concluded last week, I kept thinking about Lewis’s vision — and his characterization of a power-crazed, racist incendiary who runs for president with the support of a hoodwinked populace.

Windrip isn’t an Everyman, but he does a good job faking it for the disaffected, underserved, frustrated masses. He’s both one of them and a cut far above them, someone who claims the power and the wherewithal to make promises he has no intention of fulfilling: among them, a $5,000 guaranteed income. This is where the parallels with Drumpf pique and scare the bejesus out of me, because, just like Windrip, this cheap Narcissus has bamboozled his supporters into believing that he cares about them. He doesn’t. This is what he cares about: Donald Drumpf.

In “It Can’t Happen Here,” apologists and toadies fall into line, assuming Windrip will moderate once elected, but of course he doesn’t. He creates a militia. He tosses Supreme Court justices in prison. He takes over the media. He establishes concentration camps for dissenters. And so on. I am not saying any of that will happen if Drumpf is elected; I’m not saying we’re doomed to endure a real-world version of an 81-year-old novel. But we need to pay attention. We need to be vigilant about this democracy of ours. We need to tell ourselves it can happen here, or we’ll be lazy about ensuring that it won’t.

the trap

p-trap-sink-drain-pipe-6Last weekend, in the unending and ever-lovin’ spirit of Figuring Shit Out, I replaced the “J-bend” trap on my upstairs sink and then, as an encore, fixed a recalcitrant clog. The damn thing just wouldn’t drain, and when I tried to snake it, I popped a hole in the rusty bend that I then patched pronto with potent plumbing-repair putty, and yes, the excess alliteration in that phrase makes me very, very happy.

I knew the patch wouldn’t hold forever, so I had to replace the pipe. And I had to unclog the sink while I was at it. Hmmmm, I thought, crossing my arms in a reflective pose as a thought bubble formed above my head.

This was a simple job. I could see it was a simple job. I knew, if I called the plumber, that he would fix it within nanoseconds, do a little disco-dance across the bathroom floor and then charge me the cost of a small yacht, possibly a big one. So I figured, heck! I can do this! I have the power! I can do the disco-dance myself!

I’d be lying if I said part of this decision wasn’t motivated by pride. Being a white-haired widow, a single mom, a flying-solo femme and a stubborn dame, I often insist on doing things alone that I could easily and logically outsource to someone much more knowledgeable and capable than I. But I dunno.  I guess I have something to prove. I guess, being a white-haired widow, a single mom, a flying-solo femme and a stubborn dame, I live in fear of not being able to do things alone. And honestly, sometimes I have to; sometimes things require fixing at odd hours; sometimes, when the literal shit hits the fan and lands in my basement, and I have no choice but to grab a shovel and cope on my own.

So I bought a j-bend. I read the directions — thank God for directions! Then I bought thread tape to seal it — thank God for thread tape! Then, realizing I didn’t actually own a pipe wrench large enough for the pipe in question, I bought one of those, too, admiring its size and heft, the way it fit in my hand and enhanced my womanly strength and made me want to chew and spit chaw into a Dixie cup. I felt curiously empowered. I decided, once again crossing my arms in a reflective pose, that it would be my weapon of choice in the event of a zombiepocalypse, which, okay, might require some additional and creative F.S.O. But nothing I can’t handle.

The plumbing job was ridiculously easy.  It took whole seconds rather than nanoseconds, but it still merited a few nifty disco moves in celebration, and I felt profoundly relieved that I hadn’t bothered to call the plumber. A trickier task was unclogging the the pipe beneath the strainer, which had rusted into the sink and demanded intensive grappling with assorted tools, one of which slashed the knuckle of my left index finger in a moment of violent carnage that I failed to notice until gushing whorls of my own blood appeared in the water. (WHAT’S ALL THAT RED SHIT?, I wondered.)

Bleeding, I yanked out the strainer. I snaked the pipe. I hauled from its depths a blob of Tangled Hair and Other Revolting Sink Gunk (THORSG) that did not make me vomit but made me grateful, once again, that I hadn’t called the plumber. I bandaged my wounded knuckle. I replaced the strainer with a plastic one less likely to rust and gather future clots of THORSG. And I did a few more funky disco moves, but not for long, and only in my mind.

Later, I wondered about my propensity for stupidity and my thick-headed insistence on self-reliance. True, this time I didn’t need to call a plumber, but I certainly could have rung up a neighbor for help, and I certainly might have avoided the bloodbath in my sink. Several friends have offered to help with such things. But part of widowhood is the inevitable psychic push-back against the universe that put me in this spot. It’s the OH, YEAH? impulse, the urge to mouth off at the Powers That Be with bitchy outbursts of SO I’M ALONE, HUH? and YOU THINK THIS’LL BREAK ME? as well as the deeply satisfying, utterly childish I’LL SHOW YOU! PPPLLLLLL!!

Yep. I showed them, all right. I fixed the sink all by myself. Hurray for me. Pppllllll.

This is its own kind of trap, of course, and it accrues its own kind of THORSG. There’s a difference between being alone and being isolated, between independence and obstinacy, between acceptance of my current state and the rigid insistence on remaining in it. I’m alone now; refusing to reach out will only ensure I stay that way. And believe me, I don’t want to.

Still, when the zombiepocalypse arrives, self-reliance will have its day. You’ll find me on the porch steps with my pipe wrench, hefting its weight and spitting my chaw. I’ll be armed. I’ll be ready. Watch out, the widow is coming.

 

 

dear men

Dear Men,

You might not know this, but a woman you love was groped. Maybe she was fondled in the breasts. Maybe the crotch. Maybe she was kissed when and where she didn’t want to be kissed. Maybe some coach said something sexual about her body. Maybe her privates were grabbed by her friend’s creepy uncle in a barn. Maybe a total stranger squeezed her tit while she was hustling through a crowd in Times Square. Maybe some pallid thug flashed her. Maybe a self-styled playa sent her a shot of his erect penis via Facebook message.

But whatever happened, she was violated. As a kid, as a teenager, as a woman: she was violated. And not just one woman you know was violated. Many women you know were violated. More than you ever realized.

You don’t know about it because they never told you. Maybe they never told anyone. Maybe they were too embarrassed. Maybe men have always been so dominant in our culture, in our families, in our day-to-day interactions, that we automatically diminish our selves, our points of view, our feelings of worth. We are less than men. We’ve been less than men for so long that we struggle to explain why we’re not. When a man tells us that we’re being pushy, whiny, bitchy or defensive, we have a hard time saying: No, I’m only being human. I’m only being as much me as you’re being you. And when a man grabs us somewhere he shouldn’t, somewhere that’s ours, we have a hard time saying: No, I’m more than an object. Your object. Your idea of who and what I am.

What we should do: Kick the asshole in the nutsack, then tell everyone in shouting distance.

What we usually do: Curl into a ball, feeling dirty and flushed with shame.

Right now, dear men, I want you to try something. I want you to imagine that some woman you love, possibly several, at some point in her life had good reason to kick a man hard. But didn’t. Then carried it with her, all of it — the violation, the icky-sticky embarrassment and gnawing anger, the unleashed, phantom kick — for decades.

Picture it. The whole thing. What happened to her then. What happens to her now every time she learns it happened to someone else. And the next time some repellent pig brags about groping a woman, then dismisses it as “locker room” talk, don’t laugh. Don’t brush it off. Don’t ignore every story that comes out in the aftermath, including the latest allegations from violated women who sat quiet for years.

And for God’s sake, men. Don’t vote for him.

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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.

riding the waves

News flash: I ate a fish sandwich in Michigan this weekend.

I had just given a talk at a suicide awareness event on the wide and beautiful shores of Lake Huron, and afterward, feeling reflective, I’d gone back to my bed-and-breakfast to do some writing. But the day was too beautiful, the lure of late summer too sweet, and my itchy Self was too restless to sit still. Self wanted to go for a walk in that state park up the road. Then maybe go for a swim. Then go into the town of Caseville to top off the tank with gasoline. Then get a sandwich. Then see if I could find a pocket of halfway-decent cell service and call my sister-in-law to wish her a happy birthday.

Self said: Let’s do it, girlfriend. Come on. Get up off your ass.

I replied: Okay. But I should probably bring a raincoat.

Self said: No, dummy, you don’t need a raincoat.

So I drove to the state park, parked my little blue rental car and set off for my walk, passing many happy campers along the way. As I walked, it began to rain. Then it began to rain some more. Then some more. Soon I was soaked through.

Self said: You’re already wet. Why don’t you go for that swim, chica?blue-ocean-waves

I thought this was a fine idea, so I crossed the road to the beach. From the top of the stairs, I could see a little group of teenagers frolicking in the waves under a threatening sky. It rained harder. The wind kicked up. I thought: Dark clouds. That’s not good. Self then accused me of being a lame-ass gutless sissy, so what was I to do? I had no choice but to strip off my shorts and t-shirt and swim out into the cresting water.

That’s when I started thinking deep thoughts. Which I should never, ever do. Normally when it happens, I call my brother Danny, but A) I didn’t have my phone on me, and B) I was swimming.

I thought: Waves. Yes. This is my fate. I am lashed and tossed by the fickle undulations of life. Alone!

I thought: I am capable. I am strong. I can ride each wave as it swells. Alone!

I thought: Perhaps I am called to drift thusly on this peaking sea of happenstance and hardship. Alone! Alone! Alone!

At which point Self interrupted, howling: WOULD YOU PLEASE SHUT UP WITH THE WHINY EXISTENTIALIST GARBAGE? IT’S SO CLICHÉ!

Self continued: ALSO, DID YOU SERIOUSLY JUST USE THE WORD “THUSLY”?

Self concluded thusly: IF I WANTED TO HEAR SHITTY POETRY, I’D WRITE SOME MYSELF AND PERFORM IT AT A SLAM!

Which woke me from my reverie. I suddenly realized that the wind had whipped into something shy of gale-like force, the rain was horizontal, and my shorts were flying down the beach as though escaping years of torment under my regime. I do not believe I was ever in any actual danger. Not in the sense of, you know, dying. Nevertheless, I had clearly incurred the wrath of God and/or Nature, and I raced out of that lake as fast as my flapping middle-aged-lady limbs could muster. After retrieving my liberated shorts, I dressed my wet Self in my wet clothes and drove my little blue rental into Caseville to get gasoline and a sandwich.

There I found a tiny two-pump station, the kind that requires you to go inside, speak to a human being and pay for your gas before you pump it. I was saturated. My long hair was in a crazed Medusa tangle. I went in, grabbed a bottle of water, brought it up to the counter and asked for 10 bucks’ worth of gas.

The man at checkout gave me a deeply questioning look. As if to say: WTF?

Umm, I went for a walk, I said. And it started to rain. And, umm, I swam.

The man’s questioning look gave way to shock. “YOU WENT SWIMMING?!!,” he asked. “IN THIS?!??”

Umm, yes.

ALONE?!?!?!?!?”

Yes, I said. Alone.

There were a few teenagers down there too, I quickly added, as though this were the equivalent of being guarded by a squad of muscular Navy SEALS.

He gave me a look of concern cut with bafflement. And in that moment, I saw myself as he saw me: as a slightly unhinged eccentric dripping the contents of Lake Huron onto the floor, shorts splotched with sand, hair spazzed in a wild gray nimbus.

Self remarked: You look sooooo together right now.

I replied: Thanks!

And in that moment, I remembered to ask about the sandwich. Where to get one?

“Well,” said the man, “if I weren’t working, I’d tell you to come to my house, and I’d make you one.” He smiled. It didn’t quite erase the bafflement and concern, but it came close.

I smiled back. We chit-chatted some more. I told him I was there to give a talk, though I didn’t say what or where or for whom. For some reason he responded to this news with a horrified DON’T TELL ME YOU’RE A PSYCHOLOGIST, and when I said “no,” he gave me a cheerful fist-bump. I said goodbye, pumped my 10 bucks’ worth of gas, then went off to buy a fried pollock sandwich with a cup of broccoli soup.

Self and I ate them both. I called my sister-in-law to wish her a happy birthday, and I didn’t feel alone. No bad poetry resulted.