Another day. Another year.

hope-1Time continues on its slithering way. I wish flipping a calendar page could somehow flip the status of life, but all moving from 2020 to 2021 means is another day, a human-invented artifact intended to give meaning to endings and beginnings.

Although there is little worth remembering about 2020 (like 2019, for me 2020 was a year to persevere through), there are things for which I’m grateful: my daughter survived the coronavirus; my son smashed his first semester at UMBC; I’m writing again and had a few small successes in the writing world. I am grateful my mother passed away two years ago so she didn’t have to experience this world. I’m grateful for my dog which makes me get outside several times a day, and that my new home has a private backyard and deck, essential for my emotional survival.  

By nature an introvert, this pandemic has strengthened that tendency, as have the endless zoom calls of work. Circulating conspiracy theories don’t help, either. By evening I’m all talked out, all thought out, all freaked out, and want nothing more than to become the couch potato I never was before. There is an ease to succumbing to slouching before the television, to eating mindlessly through boredom and stress. Life feels like a chapter from Brett Easton Ellis’ LESS THAN ZERO, sans the sex and mind-altering substances. It’s the ennui. The beginning of not giving a damn. Of giving in.

Yet I’ve begun to reach the limits of my introversion; I find myself not only alone but lonely, and settling into dangerous habits. A bitterness streaks through me these past few months, and a hardness I do not like. The political and cultural schisms on top of a global pandemic have made me skittish and mistrusting (though they also helped mobilize me off my butt and into political action). If I visited a shrink she would most likely diagnose PTSD. And why not? Between fears of a novel virus, a profound failure of leadership at all levels, the dismantling of our public health infrastructure, food and toilet paper insecurities, a disregard for science, racial injustice, violence in our cities, weeks upon weeks of fireworks pounding the skies, fears of an autocratic takeover, and the ever-looming possibility of civil war, of course I am fucking traumatized.

Indeed, we’ve all experienced collective trauma. Even though today marks a new year, that trauma will continue. And despite my increasingly entrenched tendencies, I am going to dig deep and choose to hope for a better year. To believe I can find joy and, yes, peace, in this New Year. Which means changing behaviors and thought patterns. Which means reaching out to friends and family members first. Which means joining groups of like-minded individuals on zoom calls. Which means brushing my teeth after dinner and shutting off the television before midnight. Which means parking my doom-scroller device away from my bed. Which means prayer and meditation and expressing gratitude for all the small—and big—things I take for granted: my home; my stocked refrigerator; my utilities; my health; the health of my loved ones; my job; my colleagues; my urban and exurban walks; sunny, windless mornings when I can drink coffee outside; another day; another year.

I choose hope.

May this year treat us all more kindly. Peace…

Grief & Gratitude in the Time of Corona

This Thanksgiving, grief tinges my gratitude. Grief for those who once sat around the table. Grief for those missing their lost ones. Grief for losses tangible and intangible—the physical touches, the smiles now hidden behind masks, the conversations at the coffee machine, the commute. Grief for the monotony of workdays, meals, walks, Netflix. Grief for a lost year. Indeed, the griefs feel endless.

Yet… and yet… deep within this grief flutters something small, a minute ember of hope. The kindling of hope is gratitude, which in turn is the realization of what we have. I find myself thankful for things which, not so long away, I took for granted: a sunny morning, the way candlelight flickers on my tin ceiling, the warm weight of my dog by my side, the unexpected ‘good morning’ text from my daughter, coffee in my wee garden, twenty-four hours without a city shooting, swallows darting over roof decks seeking dinner. Grateful for the man who delivers my groceries, the nurse who swabs my nose, the neighbor who rakes the leaves gathered in the culvert. Grateful for the city skyline which unreels at the harbor’s edge. Grateful for the flaming petals of my pineapple sage, small bees buried in its plumage. Thankful for the health of my children.

So many tiny things overlooked before.

In between the days of numbing zoom calls and technological interruptions, the nights of streaming and doom-scrolling and insomnia, the pervasive brain and heart fogs that make every day last forever and each month pass with the speed of sound, I consider this: perhaps the gift in this pandemic is embracing the gorgeousness of the slight, often unseen, things in each moment.

Peace…

On Mothering…

Carol_WastilaI miss my mother. Back when we were children, on Mother’s Day my sister and I prepared Mom her breakfast in bed. Being kids we were up early; by the time we barged into her bedroom, beaming over our toast and coffee and dandelions plucked from the lawn, mom was likely entering REM sleep. A part-time nurse, she worked nights in the ICU, so those days we didn’t see her much. She received her RN degree; back in the day, the only training needed to be a nurse. She loved her job—her patients, her colleagues, the work itself. Until the field became saturated with surgical approaches and advanced degrees. She left her profession, edged out by a work environment that had gone touchless long before the arrival of our pandemic.

Not effusive with her children, I suspect nursing was one way mom mothered. Mom wasn’t one to take us clothes shopping or for manicures or fancy lunches; she wasn’t one to dedicate a day to baking holiday cookies with her daughters. Mom wasn’t huggy or kissy, and declarations of love were reserved for Christmas Eve card openings and quiet conversations. Many friends had involved moms, and I was jealous of them. Others friends had absent, neglectful, and abusive mothers, which made me grateful for mine.

I grew up vowing if and when I had children, I would involve them in my life. Together, we’d jump in puddles, explore forests, make gingerbread houses, read books, write plays, have tea parties. We would hug.

After being a mother myself to two children, after working full-time through their childhood, I have come to wonder if my mom’s lack of interest in doing things with us was exhaustion. Did years of being the primary breadwinner, working nights in a demanding job, doing all the usual-but-taken-for-granted mom things– grocery shopping, cooking meals, housecleaning, PTA meetings–tired her down to the bones?

Because I know that fatigue. A physical, emotional, and spiritual tiredness that hums through me, day after day, year after year. I wish I could hug my mom, tell her I get it, get her, I appreciate her, and I love her.

Which she must know. Just as I know she loves and loved me. I always knew that.

Mothering is the hardest job. It never ends, even when your children grow into adults and launch their own lives. It’s a job that has only gotten harder, I think; today’s world does not look kindly upon those trying to create calmer, softer, sweeter lives. I wish for all mothers to find some quiet, some space, some time to nurture themselves, today and every day.

Happy Mother’s Day, and peace…

Birthday Musings During a Pandemic

Light_SanJoseI took the day off from work to celebrate my presence on this earth for over fifty-something years. But now the rush to enjoy the time off doing nothing leaves me stymied, almost paralyzed, by what to do. Today is the one good weather day for the next few days so I want to be outside as much as possible. To write. To garden. To just sit.

Today I feel the absence of my parents. My son, off to get a half-dozen donuts, intuitively knows this is how Pop-Pop, my father, would celebrate. My mother would call me this evening, sing happy birthday in her raspy voice. As a child, we would celebrate my parents’ birthdays by traveling to the Outer Banks, where we’d do nothing and everything, let the sound of air and waves and birds and singing sand carry us.

Stuff I took for granted until donuts and songs were no more.

I can still remember days I’ve lived like they were yesterday. Most memories involve the sun: laying on the grass in Chapel Hill as my boyfriend of the time (an expert in William Blake!) snaps headshots; half-sleeping in the hammock in our first Maryland house to the murmur of lawnmowers, radios from passing cars, the gentle buzz of cicadas; light slanting through the patio window onto the living room floor of my first apartment in Chapel Hill, the blue, blue living room rug, our only furniture a beanbag and raft. The sun up North had a different, whiter quality: I remember tea parties on my friends’ Brookline balconies, wandering the Boston Fens, my grandparents’ trailer in Brookfield and how the air always smelled of fresh-mown hay, the coolness of morning belying the hot summer haze that arrived by afternoon. I remember another garden, inspecting broken earth, waiting for asparagus tips to surge through the cracks. The way light and air carry the song of the ocean—in Maine, Hatteras, Dewey Beach, Cape Cod—constant, the earth’s heartbeat.

I long for that song.

Yesterday the season’s first hummingbird touched down on the Miss Kim lilac, then the half-opened pink rose. Mom’s spirit animal, telling me she was thinking of me, checking in on the kids, making sure everything is all right. Is it all right? Other than the sense of the world coming to an end (a bang? A whimper?), we are okay, Mom. We muddle through this new normal as only humans can adjust—one moment at a time. I am relieved you experience the earth’s current crisis from beyond the clouds because this thing would’ve killed you—if not the actual infection but the fear of it.

I am grateful my children are with me. They make me feel less alone than I really am. They have good hearts, and my heart, which has been overfull these past two years, has difficulty expressing the comfort and care they need. They are growing resilience just as I am growing spinach and lettuce and, soon, tomatoes and cucumber and squash.

Today is my birthday. A day like any other. How will I spend it? Musing, I think, and remembering. Grasping at good memories, turning them over like shells collected at ocean’s edge and placing them at my ear to hear their music, expressing my gratitude, and then, returning them to their rightful spots.

Stay well, and peace…

Enduring Christmas

stockings2019I never wanted to be one of those people who endured Christmas. But this year, the days before Christmas felt like a race through quicksand. True, work slammed me for a solid two. Plus, I’ve moved to the City after living in the County, a place so familiar I could drive it in my sleep. But in Federal Hill, I’m still exploring. Where to buy a tree? presents? and will someone please tell me why there isn’t a nearby post-office? And my life’s still in boxes, with most of the Christmas stuff still packed and stored in the Scary Dusty Cellar.

I am, of course, clearing my throat. The above represent mere inconveniences, mere challenges to shipping out the cookies and cards (I did not), getting the presents bought and wrapped (I did, on Christmas Eve), and immersing myself into the spirit of the season (Bah. Humbug.)

Here is the elephant under the tree: This is the first Christmas in 57 Christmases that I haven’t spent with my mother. And the tenth Christmas without my father.

And I miss them terribly—a huge hole in my heart, a hole made larger by the acute understanding Christmas will never be the same.

No more driving to North Carolina to Grandma’s house, one kid riding shotgun, the other in the back napping with the dog. No more making batches of apricot pistachio biscotti ahead of time. No more Cook-Out on arrival (Cheerwine floats, golden hush puppies, oh my). Or cribbage with Mom at the kitchen table while watching Jeopardy after dinner. No more gathering in the living room, all four grand kids (my sister’s two plus my two—they are grand young people now) while Mom sat like a Queen in her recliner, handing out gifts one at a time. No more baked spiral ham and Mom’s mac-n-cheese (the best, she threw in some Velveeta) for Christmas Eve, the kids in the kitchen, the older people in the dining room. No more Christmas Day, a quieter time, the morning spent chatting with Mom in her sewing room and, then, breakfast and more coffee in the kitchen, watching the birds peck at the suet, talking or just sitting there, being.

Just a few traditions I miss. Simple things that mean even more now that I can never experience them again.

But the part I miss most about Christmas is the gathering. The gathering for purpose—to be with loved ones. And this is the quicksand that’s sunk me this season—grief, in many forms, but mostly with this loss of gathering.

At my age it’s hard to start something new, but that is what this Christmas is about: new traditions. I’m not sure what those traditions will look like—I’m still grieving, still unpacking all the boxes in my house and heart—but so far they include old rituals (biscotti and sugar cookies, a live tree, crab cakes for Christmas dinner) and new ones (stockings hung from the fireplace mantel, chili for Christmas Eve, gift-giving on Christmas morning rather than eve). At some point, when I least expected it, the spirit of Christmas crept quietly into my house and decided to stay awhile.

And now, the day after Christmas, I find I have more than endured this year’s festivities—I enjoyed them. Because as long as Christmas includes my children, their loved ones, and my sweet Bella, then it always will be Christmas.

What old traditions have you shed or lost? Which new ones have you adopted?

Peace…

When Life Hands You Lemons… Be Thankful

Yellow Lemon in the handLike many of you, I’ve had a challenging year. A separation, a divorce, two moves, a sick child. A ‘new’ old house which makes me wish Bob Villa made house calls and I’d won the lottery.

My mother died.

Those of you who know me well see how these events have worn me down to my bones. My symptoms of grief and overwhelm include fatigue, irritability, apathy, anxiety bordering on panic’s edge, and (most concerning to me) difficulty in giving a damn—about anyone and anything that extends beyond my narrow perimeter of home and hearth.

I don’t like the new me.

I need a re-do.

This realization came to me last night (actually early this morning, as my neighbor’s car alarm blared through the dark) that I am a lucky person. A fortunate person. Yes, life’s been hard. Life IS hard. I’ve had my fair share of crap. But it’s all in the framing:

Lemon: I left my home and husband of many, many years. It was hard to move to a rental, deal with the landlord from Hell, make a home, not once but twice, for my kids.

Reframe: This was my choice. I learned a LOT. My kids call me home. I breathe easier, on so many levels.

Lemon: My child’s tick-borne illness. What more to say? Any parent with a sick child worries. And worries. And worries.

Reframe: She graduated from high school a year early, is at a nearby university, and she’s doing… good. She is growing, learning, creating her social family. She wears her new independence well, which is the most I want for my children.

Lemon: My new house, a 1900 row house perched on the edge of Federal Hill Park and the Inner Harbor, is a classic money-pit: new roof, rebuilt chimney, HVAC x 2, failed boiler, water damage. As soon as one thing gets fixed, another takes it’s place.

Reframe: I can afford this home and its repairs. Many do not have homes. Many cannot fix their leaking roofs or rotted floors or failed heating systems. Best of all, my son helps me with the physical and emotional demands of caring for this old house.

Lemon: My mother died.

Reframe: Still struggling with this reframe. I miss my mom, every day, especially around dinner time when we’d have our daily chat. I miss my father, too; their marriage was a model few couples achieve. But I’ve come to believe my anger and regret and ennui is grief, not yet manifested. And that is my challenge—to accept and express grief in my loss.

I’m tired of getting sucked down the vortex of negativity. Again, this has been my choice. my early New Year’s resolution: to face life’s challenges, accept them, and work to fix them, without the accompanying stink of pessimism.

So dear friends, please, when you hear me whining about crazy contractors and home-buying remorse, when I provide excuses about why I am not present in your life or haven’t done what I said I would do, when I remind you more of Eeyore than Winnie, please, please, please, whisper “lemon” in my ear. Ground me to gratitude. Because I have so much to be thankful for if only I remain present to my life.

And I’m happy to reciprocate. Because we sure could use a happier universe.

Happy Thanksgiving. And peace…

In Memory

ef7f00c0b73dafc9ef29c5d977e3c1b6IN MEMORY

What separates us from the animals, what separates us from the chaos, is our ability to mourn people we’ve never met ~David Levithan

The day dawns in perfect blue,
shocking canvas of contrast: planes
fly black against far-flung heaven.
Even unbelieving prayer
muttered with quiet breaths
cannot foretell or forestall stains

that gouge ground, splinter sky, stain
steel, scuttle lives, exhale blue.
All implodes in hydraulic breaths
screaming through city and plain:
common words, sacred prayers
lip-synched by animals heaven

sent from hell to create their heaven
marked by a golden crescent—stain
of a singular god and prayer.
Cloaked in polyester blue,
costume of the West, they board planes
inhaling, exhaling, one breath

comingling with all breaths,
lifting as one to make heaven
on earth, to be done, in the plane.
It is foretold, on pages stained
sepia, older than time, blue
ink and red seeping on prayer.

Father, mother, children—pray
ancient songs with soft breaths.
But God cannot hear in this blue
twilight. Sing who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name, thy love stained
by unseen portents. The plane

is a steel-bound casket, the plane
pulses with souls insistent, prey
trembling, flesh and smoke-stained,
metal-wrapped in dragon’s breath.
The meek, the blessed, to heaven
will float ashen to brilliant blue.

Blue sky trailed by white plane flumes
mark a heaven all pray exists;
God’s breath stained by metal and fire.

***

I wrote this sestina over a decade ago, and keep revising and tweaking, yet it remains a mere homage to this day I will never forget. We will never forget. Today, every day, do something positive in honor of all souls who have lost their lives to violence. Peace…

The tragedy of being a mother

rhubarb-pie-ck-630152-xlMother’s Day.

Eh.

A day that stems from commercialism—all those smarmy cards, the overpriced bouquets, the sold-out brunches. Although the sentiment is nice—celebrate our mothers. Celebrate motherhood. Celebrate the often thankless task that comes from being a human with the miraculous ability to procreate.

Here’s my take on motherhood. It’s an honor—a privilege—to care for another human being. My two children are the diamonds that flank my emerald. I would die—and kill—to insure their safety. My task as a mother changes as they age. Their birth entails their feeding and swaddling and changing and burping. By toddler-hood, we give them their first nudges from the nest: bikes with training wheels, kindergarten, play dates. We let them fall, then pick them up and reassure them although life is scary, they will survive.

To those newbie mothers of infants and toddlers, don’t believe anyone who says that children ‘get easier’ once they hit their teens. Yes, there are no dirty diapers and no strollers—teens can feed and clean themselves. But the heart gets involved in unfathomable ways, and your children will break that vessel again and again.

As my heart has broken.

Yet we are lucky, us mothers, because our hearts are as neuroplastic as our brains. Our heartbreaks mend, and sometimes those rents heal to make our hearts–and our relationships with our heartbreakers–ever stronger.

This day, my motherhood rests on a cusp. Both children live with me, both children will move with me to Baltimore. Both children are on the edge of jumping from their nests into college, serious relationships with others, jobs. I am less needed (though, I hope, not less loved).

From the day a child is born, the job of any mother—of any parent—is to move that child to independence. It is a tragedy to be a mother, because just as your child understands you and you understand your child, she is gone, being herself, perhaps being a mother.

So I watch my children from a slightly greater distance than a year ago. A distance that provides objectivity to observe my children as humans, and a distance that also protects my grieving heart.

Today is any other day. I will schlep my youngest child to various places, pick up another from the tire shop. I will grocery shop. I will walk my dog in the rain.

But I will mark this mother thing in one way–I will bake a rhubarb pie. Rhubarb is one thing I love, and that my mother loved (I’ve written about rhubarb and my mom here), and in making that pie I will commemorate myself and my mother for the love and heartache of our jobs.

Peace…

 

Home?

IMG_20190404_132057

My upcoming move to Baltimore overwhelms. There is the usual stress involved in wondering which items to bring, which to pitch, which will need to be purchased anew. There is excitement pondering the future of the garden, what will pop up from the soil, what needs to be pruned out and sawed away. There is the joy–and stress–of change, the excitement of a new palette to make mine. Color wheels and rugs and window coverings to contemplate.

And there is grief. Grief in packing up and leaving a town I’ve lived in for 18 years. The town where I raised both children, and the only town one child has ever known. Lea is filled with sadness; she feels unmoored, no familiar place for her to retreat to: her childhood home, her grandmother’s home, her Nana’s home, even her Aunt Diane’s home—all gone. Which makes me wonder—what is home?

Talking with Lea last night made me realize I also feel unanchored. Rootless. Too much change, especially uncertain change, makes me stressed and irritable. Like my daughter, I have no familiar place to return to, no place to plop my feet up on an ottoman and relax. We humans, like all mammals, have a need to nest. I want to surround myself with familiar comfort and I want that environment to happen instantly in the new house. I want it for my children, and I want it for me.

My mom’s recent death amplifies my sense of homelessness. I will never return to her house for Christmas or Easter. These were the times we traveled to North Carolina (this weekend, now, we should be in the car journeying South), the traffic between DC and Richmond filled with travelers commencing to family and the beach. But there is no family home to travel to, and my children are too old for Easter egg hunts with their cousins. So the grief also is of lost time, past time, of memories that will remain just that—memories.

Meditation helps me understand that home, like my thoughts, exists in past, present, and future. I cannot bring back my former homes except in memory, and I cannot know what my next home will be like next year, week, or day. And each time I find myself worrying and wondering about what home was and what home might be takes me away from what home IS now. This second. And this second.

So I will breathe, accept and let go, and try to embrace my home, whatever and wherever it is, now.

Peace…

POTS and Lyme: Sounds Like a Party

Except it isn’t. lime in a pot 3

In an earlier post, I listed the stressors that keep me from writing, sleeping, sometimes even breathing (because panic rises, a tangible smog, that chokes the space between lungs and throat). The worst is chronic illness. Not my illness, but that of my sweet, smart, talented, creative, and incredible daughter.

Because of her POTS and Lyme (which is often not just one infection but a clusterF*#k of infections), she suffers fatigue so debilitating there are days when her greatest achievement is moving from her upstairs bedroom to the downstairs couch. Her muscles ache. Her brain fogs. She misses school. She misses friends. She misses… a lot.

I could write a book on the impact of illness on her life, but she is the better author of that story. Instead, I will write my story: being a parent to a chronically ill child.

Where to begin?

First, every day is an adventure. I don’t know how to plan my day because my child’s sickness plays a fickle game. Even across the day, fatigue and depression and pain and anxiety ebb and flow. Anxiety is my morning caffeine: is she going to school? Is she going in late? is she going in at all? In turn: am I going to work? Can I go in late? What do I absolutely need to accomplish today? What CAN I accomplish?

Second, helplessness is a new, unwelcome emotion. Friends, you know me–I’m the ‘can do’ girl who works hard to get what I want. Well, I want a healthy, happy, productive daughter. I work hard to make this happen: research, medical appointments, trials of medications and supplements and diets. Not including her primary care physician, she has three physicians. A phlebotomist comes to our home to draw blood for tests. Some symptoms improve, others worsen, new ones pop up.

And there are days when I feel an abject failure because I. Cannot. Fix. Her.

Third, worry thickens my brain. I cannot think. At work, many days I go through the motions. When my head clears, I research her conditions; I have become expert in traditional and alternative treatments for Lyme and POTS. Worry thickens my heart–I am not the friend and colleague and mentor I want to be. I cannot absorb other peoples’ problems, mine overfill my reservoirs. My inability to listen and hear others saddens and frustrates me, and adds to growing guilt I do not give enough. Worry and guilt wake me up too early every morning, and I lie in my bed until the roaring train in my head forces me out.

I write all this not for sympathy but for understanding. Why I am absent. Why I am not proactive in friendships. Why I am so quiet.

I need to do my work, because the only thing I can fix is my reaction to my now. Because I am a ‘can-do’ woman, I need to make sure my oxygen mask is in place so I can be there for both my children, my work and writing, all the people who grace my life. I have a toolbox, with lots of tools, which I have begun to haul out:

  • Exercise: I aim to get over 50,000 steps a week, but that’s not enough; hence, Planet Fitness (I hate to waste money, so I try to go at least once a week). I found a muscle in my upper arm, a real benefit.
  • Meditation: Every day, remember to breathe. Remember to come to my senses.
  • Yoga: Two birds (exercise AND meditation) with one stone.
  • Support: Yeah, I have a therapist. She listens to me vent, helps me strategize. But I need more, so I am looking for someone trained in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) to help me achieve radical acceptance of my every moment.
  • Medication: Nope. Don’t do antidepressants any more. But I do supplement my brain with GABA (for anxiety), and 5-HTP and l-theanine (for depression and sleep and brain fog).

I focus on my health so I can function. So I can live a better quality of life. So I can be compassionate to others, especially my daughter. To respond out of love and not fear, always.

Self-help is so important, even when we’re not challenged but larger-than-normal life. Tell me: what are your oxygen-mask facilitators?

Peace…