Hot Days in My Mind’s Eye

It all makes sense, in a strange sort of way. The nebulous feeling; cloudlike and hanging about in the air.

Is it the pandemic? Is it the fear of constant shortage; today it is baby food, but what about tomorrow?

Is it that all the children have stayed inside for two years and now don’t know how to go outside, how to play, how to think for themselves or learn? Is it the overdependence on testing over knowledge?

Is it the fast pace of it all; Googling answers takes no time. There iss no thrill of the chase of discovery anymore. There iss too much available at the push of a button, and all the while it grows hotter and hotter outside.

I look out my window at my front garden and my front porch. Both are beautifully dotted with plants; some are in pots. My front garden is full of roses and irises and a few trees; some loofahs grow on the fence.

Yesterday it was 90 degrees in Maine; almost as warm there as here. I don’t think that has ever happened: 90 degrees in May.

I remember the winter, when I was young and more recently, and watching Frenchman’s Bay in Maine freeze over with a skin of ice; I loved watching the short and stubby icebergs form on the beach over the course of each winter; they are blue against the black-grey of the beaches. I wonder if by the time I am 60 they will be smaller, or maybe they won’t exist at all.

I remember learning about hot and cold molecules in elementary school; cold molecules are slow while hot ones move around quickly and bounce against each other like a pinball game. Is that what is happening now? The heat is rising, both physically and socio-politically, so we are bouncing against each other, rapid-fire, without any understanding of why?

An 18-year old shot and killed ten people today, in upstate New York, because he was afraid that black people will replace white people In America as its dominant culture. He is 18; his life hasn’t even started yet and it is already over, alongside the people who he murdered. He must have learned this on the internet. How is it that the internet impacts young people so differently than we who grew up without it?

The air is still today; there is no wind.

In a couple of weeks, we go to England to sprinkle my dad’s ashes in the River Dart under the Saxon Bridge and toast his spirit as it truly becomes part of the Earth that birthed him all those years ago, in 1939.

I said to my students on Friday: Lord help the teachers of the future. I am every day battling the internet for their attention. I am battling videos, texts, and Snaps; I cannot compete with the sheer size of the moving energy of the internet and its entertainment.

Will we get rid of jobs and money like in Star Trek? Perhaps, but not for a long, long time. War continues to rage in Ukraine and so many people here in the United States can’t go to the doctor, can’t read at an 8th-grade level, and can’t afford to buy a car. The United States is confusing and terrifying; why is there a baby formula shortage and why can’t people, in this situation, make their own babies’ food?

We are losing our ability to solve our own problems. Meanwhile, the temperature outside grows hotter, a problem that we feel that we cannot solve. Entertainment grabs us and holds us for mere moments that stretch to hours, days, and years. Distraction is everywhere.

Why can we not mourn quietly? Why can we not process into spaces of acceptance so that we can change what we can, accept what we cannot, and understand the wisdom to know the difference?

I missed my Dad the other day; I was sitting at ACC graduation and his face appeared in my mind’s eye; he was old like he looked just before he died. That was it: just his face. I smiled.

This is how it is, how it will be, always, forever, for as long as it is to be.

Meditations on Friendship

I have had a friend for almost twenty years who I met in the jewelry studio in Mexico, in San Miguel, in 2004, when I was a jewelry student and she was on break from art school in Philadelphia. She is from San Miguel and was visiting her mom and her friend, Billy, the teacher of the school. We met and went out to a mezcal bar and talked about talismans and teachers. We hung out for a few days and then she went back to Philly. A year or so later, I happened to be in Philly for a boyfriend’s brother’s wedding, and we saw each other again, cementing our friendship. About two years after that, I moved to Philly, seeking a geographical solution to divorce. We ended up living together in a crooked house in Point Breeze, owned by a crooked landlord in a neighborhood in the transition of gentrification that we now know became common in all big American cities.

We had our ups and downs. I am not the perfect roommate, and neither was she, but there were signs of something bigger, even then. Breaking down into uncontrollable tears, rages, and benders became not common, but predictable; if something hard happened, one of those would, too. Threats were common (“if you do this again, then I will move out”), but so were treats of dinners out or massages at the spa where she worked. There was a lot of back-and-forth, up-and-down. Then came Halloween of that year. We went to an amazing party in downtown Philly hosted by the eccentric owner of an eccentric jewelry store, and there were costumes and drag queens and performances and swingers and so much booze it could make your head spin. We went with two other friends and were having a great time until I couldn’t find my friend, and then did find her, smooching a fireman in a thong. There were men all around her, and I realized how drunk she was. My other friend who had come with us said to me, “we need to get her out of there”, and he went to go convince her to stumble off with us, and we went home. She spent the next day in her room and the adjacent bathroom, sicker with drink than anyone I had ever seen or heard before. Shortly thereafter, she got fired from the spa for hostile behavior toward a coworker and abruptly left Philly for points South.

We remained friends for a time until I made the stupid mistake of dating her brother (a dumb move never to be repeated). After that inevitably fell apart due to me not being ready for an actual relationship and him not being ready for an actual relationship as well, she was, understandably, very mad at me. A few years later, I heard from her, asking if we could be friends again. I had just moved back to Austin, where her cousin lives, and she was thinking of moving there, too. I was excited to hear from her and I still felt bad for dating her brother. She moved to Austin in the fall of the same year I did, and we began hanging out all the time again. It took a while for the same strange behaviors to begin again: the comments, the asides, the tone.

She and I and another friend went to Mexico for a week in the spring of 2018 and stayed at her mom’s gorgeous ranch outside San Miguel. During the trip, we made a lot of delicious food and drank a lot of tequila (Bloody Marias, mostly), and took walks. It was during this trip that I saw the same behaviors that she did to me aimed at her mother; I was confused as I thought she just treated me that way. At that time, I didn’t know that it happened to a lot of people. One night I was talking with her mom in the kitchen, and she came in to say that she hated the cabinets in one of the houses on the property and her mom said something flippant like, “well I had them made because I needed them, so……” and my friend responded, “well when you die, I will rip them off the wall!” and stormed out. I apologized for my friend to her own mother, blaming all the tequila.

After a couple of years, I became engaged to my husband, and my friend took me wedding dress shopping. We found the perfect non-wedding wedding dress in a small boutique in Austin. She did the flowers for the wedding and made a beautiful curtain of flowers with lights that hung behind us as we performed the ceremony. That was 2019, and life changed so rapidly after that as we moved Cody’s grandma in with us, she died the next fall, and then of course COVID started early in 2020. We saw each other fairly frequently during the early COVID times, always outside as she was very COVID-averse. I began to feel something was off then. The friend group was changing and the people around were seemingly much more affluent than what I was used to; I felt I didn’t belong. I noticed, every time I hung out with my friend and her boyfriend, that she was treating him the same way as me and her mother; she was abusive and embarrassing much of the time.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. I talked to other friends about it and they told me just to not worry, but to find new friends because friendship isn’t supposed to feel so odd. I felt every time that I was around her, that I was going to do something to upset her and then would have to deal with her wrath in some way. Last summer I went out for dinner with her and another friend and she said that she wished all of her friends weren’t 40 with kids and that she just needed to meet new friends. At a party last summer, she alienated another friend after the friend responded negatively to having her daughters jumped on by the dog. The clock was ticking.

I couldn’t figure out what was going on, except our “friendship”, if that is what it was at that time, felt terrible all the time. Every conversation was strained and I didn’t know how to make it better. She went to Mexico at the end of the summer and texted me tons of photos of her trip, telling me how much I needed to get back to Mexico (I agree, btw). I asked her to let me know when she got back, but she didn’t. I called her and texted with no response. I left her a message asking if she was ok, telling her I was a little worried and didn’t understand.

A week or two later I received a response that she needed space from our relationship. I was blindsided and also shocked because the language she used this time was almost exactly the same as the last time we had split, all those years before, after I dated her brother. I felt very sad and did not understand what had happened. I wrote her a text saying that this was a pattern in our relationship that I didn’t like and that I hoped she can find peace in her life. I received no response. I sent her a book and an email. No response.

The reason why I am adding this chapter to my Odes to Grief is that this friend is the person in the closest proximity to my friend who has cancer. This friend provides the sick friend with food almost every day, and the sick friend even lives at this friend’s cousin’s house, in the garage apartment. It is all very connected; this issue was one I was worried about when the friend cut me off without explanation. I wrote her an email saying that our social lives are so interconnected and with taking care of our sick friend, could we be cordial and see each other and would it be ok? She responded that I should never contact her again.

Like I said above, for a long time, I thought that this friend only treated me like this; I thought I had done something wrong and somehow deserved the treatment. It has taken me a long time to realize that true friendships have a core value of mutually assumed forgiveness (because we are all human). Because of how I grew up, I oftentimes assume that I have done something wrong. This is something I am working on. Over the years, I began to see that my friend treats a lot of people this way; she is an equal opportunity offender in terms of abusing people who love her. I do not know if she knows how to love others. She knows how to buy presents, host parties, and take trips, but she doesn’t know how to talk about feelings and fears or own up to her part of disagreements. She becomes hostile and full of rage or she just leaves.

The connection to the Odes of Grief is complicated, because, like I said above, this friend (I suppose, ex-friend) is the closest to my friend with cancer. She is the gatekeeper in some ways, or at least, wishes to be. She has actively excluded me and one other friend and is in the process of doing the same to a third. When our sick friend was hospitalized in the early part of this year, my ex-friend made no effort to communicate with those of us who she had decided to “write off” (a term used the other day by yet another friend trying to understand how she could help). It is fine for people to “write people off” if that is what they need to do, but when you all are part of a web of support for a friend who is dying, this is where the issues arise. One person can’t get the power to decide who knows what is going on, and who doesn’t.

The other issue in this scenario is that the sick friend (probably) has no idea that this is all happening around her and behind the scenes. But as the process of “writing people off” becomes more expansive, most likely because the stress of the situation is increasing, it is inevitable that the sick friend will begin to notice or know something. One of my concerns and guiding ideas in this process of taking care of my sick friend is that I don’t add stress to her life. I don’t want to do anything that makes her worry; the idea that she would worry that a lot of her friends are fighting feels juvenile and unnecessary.

When people die, things get weird. I already know this. I have already written about this here. I think the challenge of being around people who are dying is that, until you have done it, you don’t know how you will react. Add to that that each relationship with a dying person is unique and then you may know a little bit about how you deal with the death of loved ones, but again, until it happens, you don’t know the specific manifestation of the death of that one person. Hopefully, people have done their own work enough to know themselves; I know also that this is a false assumption.

My friend who has “written me off” (if you can’t tell, I really hate that expression. I feel like I am a line item on a ledger somewhere or something) has not done a lot of her own work. She has a hard time talking about emotions or things that are frightening. She has a hard time taking responsibility for her behaviors of hostility, rage, and manipulation. The last time we talked, she was blaming it on her childhood, which I think was a step forward. I hope there have been some other steps since. I think one of the reasons she is cutting people off is because she is having a hard time facing the situation and facing the people within the situation and she has to at least interact with the life of our dying friend so cutting people off is easier. That is my assumption, and could be totally wrong. Since she won’t speak to me, I cannot know.

The other night, I had a good chat with another friend, our Switzerland-like friend who lives out of state. Switzerland she is because of her out-of-stateness, her personality, and then as a major bonus, she is a doctor who did her residency with geriatric patients. In this mix, there are three of us who have taken care of dying people: this friend, myself, and my friend Kris, our sick friend’s oldest friend and the one who first took care of her when she was first exhibiting symptoms of cancer fourteen years ago. I am not using names here because I find that people don’t like to have my analyses of them outed on the internet, so please excuse any confusion. Let’s call the Switzerland friend Suzy. Suzy and I spoke at length about the importance of prioritizing our sick friend’s care, and smoothing over any factions or ill will that may exist in the group. This is my core belief as well. The issue between me and my ex friend is not relevant to us being able to be a caring support team for our sick friend. Maybe we will heal our relationship and maybe not; that doesn’t actually matter in this context. Suzy is a new friend of my ex friend and perhaps their relationship is different than other relationships I have witnessed with this ex friend; after all, they met at different times of each other’s lives, in different places. I have hope.

The end to this long piece of writing is to close with hope. I believe that we all, and I mean we as the collective human “we”, can set aside our egos when we need to take care of people in need. I see it all the time, I have years of evidence to support my claim of this ability of our species. I believe one of the root causes of my divorce from my friend came from the fact that she has no responsibilities, no career or job, no one that depends on her or that she helps. She is blessed with wealth and so does not have the worries of most people. She has no children, so does not have that anchor. She does not need to work, so she doesn’t. She has nothing holding her in her own life, so it is natural to drift and find purchase on certain things. She has found purchase with our sick friend; it is clear to all of us that she is holding on to our friend desperately and doing everything that she can to help. Unfortunately, she is anxious and afraid and is striking out at other people who just want to do the same thing in collaboration with her.

My hope is that we can abandon ego, all ye who enter here. We are heading into a tunnel. It is up to us how we reappear on the other side.

IT’s been a while since I have written, and I apologize for that. Mostly, I apologize to my future self who is going to look back on this and say, “goddammit, why didn’t you write it ALL down, all the time, every moment?”. But such is grief. It is, to me, a fundamentally arresting force. It is also uncontrollable.

I am in the end stages of becoming certified to become an assistant principal; I am excited and intimidated about it all. I know where I want to be an assistant principal, but of course there is no guarantee that I will get exactly what I want. I am in the midst of trusting the universe and understanding I will end up where I am supposed to be. I had a vision tonight, whilst watching the end of “October Sky” (one of my favorite science nerd movies), of myself standing in front of my school as an assistant principal. I was wearing a blazer, of course, and a smile. And I realized that my dad would be so proud of me and it is a son of a bitch that I won’t be able to talk to him about it. I will only be able to thank him for it all. I remembered him teaching me my multiplication tables when I was 4-5 years old in my bedroom. He bought a poster with them and tacked it to my bedroom door.

My best friend (I am lucky to have several, but I speak of one here) who has cancer is in the midst of her own process; today she was told that she can stop taking chemo if she wants to and just take pain medicine and ride out her cancer. Apparently, it has spread to her bones now so it is pretty much everywhere, in small amounts, and she is having gnarly side effects from her chemo drugs. When we talked, I said to go for a lot of walks til the answer comes. She said she hopes the answer comes when we are eating lobster in Maine in June! I will always remember her perspective and her ability to make me laugh.

Another best friend texted today. He is also going through a huge loss, although not one that wrestles with death, but is grief nonetheless. He is on a six-month break from his husband, and told me today that he realizes he took his relationship for granted. I think this is inevitable in long-term relationships and, I think, in marriage especially. You aren’t supposed to take the other person for granted per se, but they committed to staying around with you in front of God and the law and your family and everyone, so I think everyone must take their spouse for granted at times. I suppose we only realize this, though, when they are gone.

My friend who has cancer has always taught me to be present with life and with death. That is her greatest gift to me. I learned so much about my relationship with my dad after he died. It turns out that it wasn’t what I thought it was. It wasn’t a bad relationship at all; in fact, it was one of my most consistent and valued relationships. I just let the baggage overwhelm the present beauty and the truth of it all. I miss talking to him so much it about makes me crazy sometimes. Just like my friend who is realizing he took his relationship for granted; I wonder if he is realizing that the relationship he thought he had wasn’t the one he actually had. How does that work, how do we confuse ourselves so?

My last note for tonight is about how crying makes you dehydrated and that makes me frustrated as I cry a lot and therefore, am dehydrated a lot. That in combination with living in a very sunny, dry place, makes me always thirsty, and then my anxiety takes over and wonders why I am always thirsty and if people notice how many times I go to the bathroom per day. I wonder if the anxiety that has definitely been triggered by grief is a permanent thing, or like everything else, will pass and change inevitably over time?

It is dark and quiet. I am reading a good book. Tomorrow is a new day. Love.

Let Everything Happen to You: Beauty and Terror

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59

Today I reflect on a day. A day that is part of a week, which is part of a long, but short, month. February. February. No month can drag on quite like it; the month that is the bridge between winter and spring. The month that has so few days, but so many of them are grey, cold, and icy.

Life feels interminable in February.

But! Tomorrow is its last day.

Reflections on loss for February:

I felt myself for the first time since October last week. I felt that I was actually a good teacher who was engaged with her students, her curriculum, and her process. I thought of this yesterday as I was driving into Austin, on a flyover between US Highway 290 and I35 North to meet a friend for brunch. I thought of a photo of me and my dad in west Texas in 1983 or so. I am wearing pink corduroy overalls, and he is wearing a cowboy hat. Neither outfit makes sense, and yet it does in this image. I am sitting on a shelf, and he is looking at me. I thought of showing this to the students and telling them about this realization of last week, and I started to cry.

Fort Davis, Texas, 1983 – Two lost English people

These tears were different. These tears are acceptance tears, and tears of peace. These are tears that come with the realization that he is gone and he did a lot of amazing things for me and was a complicated person who made a lot of bad decisions. These tears are also an acknowledgment that my relationship with him was not the relationship I thought we had when he was alive. I was always mad at him, disappointed in him, judgemental of his behavior, questioning why he did all the things he did. In death, I realized how much I talked to him. I would call him, randomly, all the time, and talk for about 5-6 minutes each time. Then he would say something like, “well this must be costing you a fortune!” to get off the phone.

The hardest thing about death, for me, as the obviously loquacious person that I am, is that I can never speak to my lost friends again.

Sometimes, at night, I go outside and sit on a hard surface and talk to my friend Meredith. I have no idea why it has to be a rock or a road or a sidewalk. I look up into the sky, into the stars, and talk to her until I hear her laughing at me. She always laughed at me, with me, she always thought I was the best person, the most knowledgeable about education and school, and she was always one of my best friends. At 52, she counted on me, and I was only in my twenties. She laughed at the absurdity of it all, she wrote me all the time (all of her emails are saved of course). She died back in 2011. When she was dying, she complained about the British being imperialists who tried to take over the world. This was clearly aimed at me. She also told me, over and over again, how much she loved her children.

Today I thought about my Dad, and I visited my friend Patty who is my quilting friend and the mom of one of my best friends, Ann. Patty recently was diagnosed with cancer as well, although they caught it early and everyone is very hopeful. I had to see her today and give her a hug and a kiss and we went through bins of fabric that she had inherited from a friend’s grandmother who just went into a residential home for people with dementia. I went through tubs and tubs of fabric and I watched her and her daughter play fight about her inability to use the Costco website.

Afterward, I drove up the highway, on my way home, to see my friend who tomorrow goes in for the first dose of her last possible chemotherapy. First of the last. We talked and ate cheese and walked and chatted with Sarah, her friend and owner of the big house, and ate spicy Thai food with Marie that made all of our lips burn but was delicious. We laughed and talked about weddings and old friends. She said she thinks tomorrow will be fine and is not worried.

Earlier, I found Marie in the road as she was on the phone with me. We are dealing with a hard situation in this mix which I will enumerate later, but today we drove to the UT Campus and sat on the steps of the Texas Memorial Museum in the sunshine and talked about losing our friend, and what we want for her and for our friendships. Marie is so strong and wise it is daily amazing to me. She was born across from a special star, I am sure, and inherits this wisdom and palpable love from her mother, Ruth. We talked about how maybe we will take care of her in Denton, at Marie’s house, and she will be comfortable. I don’t want her to be in any pain or any worry.

Such a strange time on this Earth. In one place on its surface, there is a war brewing. In another, there is hateful rhetoric spewing from a small man in a wood-paneled office in downtown Austin. In another, my friend is celebrating her 5th anniversary with her sweet boyfriend in New Jersey. In another, my friend is planning her first restaurant. In yet another, I sit at a table, in the dark, typing away, as my husband eats dinner 4 hours north in Grapevine.

We are all part of this world, and yet are alone and floating within it at any given moment. Some of us read poetry, and some of us listen to music. Some of us ride horses, drive trucks, sing, or dance. Some play sports, some walk in the woods. Some watch television. Some sleep. Some watch the sunrise, some the sunset. Every day the sun rises in the east and sets in the west; I see it rise through the boughs of my 200-year-old post oak tree when I walk home from my early morning walk with my dog.

The light changes each day; as I get older, I notice how each day is different. I never noticed that when I was younger.

Tonight, I looked at the lighted windows of my friend’s apartment while I talked to my friend Marie in the street. I looked at the silhouetted branches of trees, the muted colors of the curtains, the outline of lamps. I thought about her sitting up there, facing all of this. I thought of all the things we have done together and all that I have learned from her; I thought of the time she had a steroid reaction and I drove full-speed through tiny Texas coastal towns in our friend Jenny’s brokedown car, and how we had to get out on the side of the road and pee and how I ran into a hospital yelling, “HELP ME MY FRIEND HAS CANCER” only to be looked at strangely by all present. I thought about being on the jetties in the wind, about hearing her story, about going to the Barbican in London, and her chastising me for always having horrible shoes to walk around in. I thought about her laughing, laughing, laughing.

I hear my dad’s voice in my head, but the sound of it is fading. I will always be able to see his face and to remember my memories of him, and I hope I will always recall his distinctive voice. But I don’t know. All I can hear of Meredith now is her laugh, and the one time she told me “it was a really great wedding” after my first wedding, which she paid for.

Hugs to you and yours wherever you are in our strange world. xx P

When People Die, Take Nothing Personally because Things are About to Get Weird

There is a lot of conversation about our culture’s fear around death, and how that fear stops us from actually talking about it in meaningful ways that would, perhaps, make the process that we all go through less scary. I can tell you that this is something I want, and is one of the reasons for the shift in this blog. This desire on my part to write about it, my interactions with the journey of people dying, is critical to my own processing of my grief around my dad’s death and the illness of one of my best friends. BUT, I must admit before starting, that things get REALLY WEIRD when people die. People react from a base, animal level. People get scared. People get angry. The last three sentences get combined into grief bombs. So, if you can, remember the four agreements:

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (get it right now if you don’t have it)

As my dad was dying, my mom transformed quickly into someone strange and foreign to me. Traditionally, my mom is a cool person, and I mean that in a temperature-personality way. She isn’t cold, but also isn’t warm. I think this comes from her years of experiences, and taking care of a sick person for 15 years. When my dad was diagnosed with the word “cancer” in August (it took over a month to get an actual diagnosis due to COVID and the fact that they live in a rural part of a rural state where there are few hospitals), my mom was very caring toward him. She showed him a lot of care and consideration. She thought he was behaving oddly, especially crying all the time, but she seemed to roll with it with more love than perhaps she had had before. Part of her, I suppose, knew or suspected that something was different this time.

Then there was the day they met with the oncologist and received an actual diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma, the lung cancer you get after a lifetime of smoking. Instead of going home like they thought they would, after the appointment they admitted my dad to the hospital for tests. He never left the hospital. There were days when he was mostly normal. At that time, I had come back to Texas and was here for about a week and a half. I talked to him every day.The first few days he would say, “I don’t know why I am still here! I suppose they have to wait for the results of all these damned tests!”. Then his voice changed and he became extremely breathless and hoarse. He could barely talk, or didn’t want to. It didn’t matter; by then I called him a few times a day and we would talk for about a minute or two at a time.

Then there was the strange day, the one I will never forget or ever understand. At that time, the doctors chose not to tell him he was terminal and there was no treatment. I felt that this was wrong, my brother agreed, and finally our mom did, too. It was Tuesday, and earlier in the day a doctor had told him about the diagnosis, told him straight, no bullshit. I called him that afternoon and he was perfectly clear. He wasn’t wheezing, wasn’t hoarse, and he didn’t want to get off the phone in 1- 2 minutes. He told me a lot. He told me that he knew he was going to die, and that is was all right. He told me that he had had a good life. He kept repeating how we had to take care of our mom. I told him: of course we will take care of her! But remember she is really good at taking care of herself: she will be fine! He said, “no no no you must take care of her”. I told him that we would.

In retrospect, he knew something that day. It is said that sometimes, as people die, they perk up, become super clear, and seem as if nothing is wrong with them: the disease fades. No one knows why. I found this to be true with my father, but not true with Cody’s grandma or my friend Meredith. Meredith was on so much medication by her last few days that perhaps that explains it. Cody’s grandma just stopped talking during the last week of her life and would only nod or shake her head if I asked her something. Dying is a process we know a little bit about, but not alot.

The next morning, I called the hospital and my mom answered. I said, “oh hi! I didn’t expect you to be there.” She told me that something had happened, that my dad was unconscious and on oxygen and machines and tubes, and they did not know exactly why. Later when I talked to his palliative care nurse, she told me that his pain was so severe that she thought once she finally got his levels correct, his body shut down a little bit. At that time, she told me to wait til the next day to decide to come back to Maine, but after talking to my brother that night, I was on a plane the next morning.

I told you that my mom was so caring and considerate of my dad in the 5 weeks before the last week of his life. When I arrived to Maine for that second visit, she felt strange to me. She felt hostile and angry. She took our her hostility and anger on me. Nothing I said would come without a comment. I felt I could not win, and that she only liked my brother. When the three of us were together, she would be closer to him, physically and emotionally, and be mean to me. At first I took this personally as I was grieving, too. I was losing someone as well. I felt that she was acting like she used to act toward my dad when he was healthier. She was famously passive-aggressive and hostile to him almost all the time.

One day the three of us were walking on the Shore Path, one of my favorite walks in Bar Harbor. We were talking about family and old family photos as my brother and I had been going through them. She was telling us about a photo she wanted to find with our cousin as a little boy. At the same time, our cousin and his mom were going through a hard moment in their often difficult relationship, and I made a comment about his mom being a really tough person to have as a mother. I received another harsh comment and I said, “I love you but I cannot win with you! I cannot say anything to you right now!”

And then stuff got weird. My mom started screaming. She was crying. She flailed her arms in the air. She kept saying “I can’t do this right now! This has been 15 bloody years of this!”. She spoke in a way that sounded strange: deep and guttural and pure pain. It was pain pouring out of her, out of her mouth, out of her hands and arms, out of her heart and mind. Screaming, shrieking, flailing. I didn’t know what to do. I said, “it’s ok, it’s ok, I just need you to calm down. Just calm down please”. She walked away from me and left me on the Shore Path. I called my husband who told me to remember that her husband was dying.

As the child, it was very hard for me to remember this in moments. In moments of calm clarity, later in the evening with my friends, in a calm space in which we could talk about it, it all made sense. In those moments of intensity, of loss, fear, powerlessness, mystery, and confusion, it all gets muddied. This is a lesson for all of us.

It took me days to not take the things my mom was saying and doing personally. It took another talk with my husband and one with my brother. It took some reading and researching grief online to understand she had shifted her feelings onto the person next closest to her: me. I am the firstborn, the baby who arrived when they were happy and in love. I am the baby born in England, in their sweet house in Haslemere. I am the daughter. I look like my father, and I am so much like him emotionally and psychologically.

I would love to know why death brings up these feelings of intense, base, emotional madness. I would like to know if women feel it more than men; perhaps it is just felt differently. I wonder if there is a way to not feel these feelings of panicked loss, or if this is part of each of our own understandings of what it means to die ourselves, and to lose our loved ones.

It is a mystery. I know only one thing: I am not afraid of death, either my own or my loved ones’. The loss of death, which for me means I cannot talk to the person anymore, makes me profoundly sad and yet, with time, I can come to accept it. It is a mystery.

Gardening – A Personal History

When I was a little girl, my mom and her best friend (our neighbor, Shari,) would send all the kids outside on summer days to thin the carrots. We were taught at a very young age how to thin carrots, and lettuce, and basil plants. We would sit for what felt like forever, but which most likely was about 15 minutes. I remember looking down at rows of tiny, fernlike plants in perfect lines in the dirt, figuring out which ones to pluck, and which ones to leave alone. 

 

During those same years, we would be wicked children and steal Shari’s lavender flowers and run up into the woods to our fort, which we had built out of scrap wood and plastic sheeting. We covered it with pine boughs for camouflage, and built a lookout up in a tree. Erica and I decided that it smelled terrible, due to the combination of Maine rain and the plastic sheeting, and we would make air freshener by smashing the lavender flowers in an old saucer on the floor of the fort. I remember desperately wanting to live up there, thinking it was a place in which all four of us could finally be free, but never having the guts to do so. 

 

When we were kids, in Maine, in the summer, the only time of the year when it is warm-ish in Maine, we were sent out of the house after breakfast and asked to only come back for dinner. We were not allowed to come into the house during the day, as the moms were busy making bread and jam and, probably, watching some television. In those days, we climbed trees, made canoes and kayaks into playgrounds, and took said canoes and kayaks out into the ocean, always wearing life jackets and staying close to shore, because even we knew that the ocean, given a chance, will kill you with its cold temperatures and hidden currents. We knew that each year people died in the ocean for failing to understand its power. If you respected the ocean, however, and stayed close to shore, you could scoot along the ironstone rocks over to the MDI Biological Laboratory and open up the fish cages on the docks, gazing down at the tiny sharks and horseshoe crabs, sea urchins and hundreds of starfish. We would gaze down at these creatures for as long as we could until we were spotted and chased back into the canoe by wary, and kid-weary, graduate students. 

 

These stories, I hope, provide the background for why, even as I now live in Texas, that I interact with and build my garden each and every day. I started gardening in the early 2000s when I worked at Whole Foods and would bring home dying plants from the 5 cent shelf. I lived in an old house in the French Place neighborhood, just east of Hyde Park, that had a beautiful front yard just perfect for a first garden. I remember the neighborhood cats would always mess with my plants, and at the time, I did not yet understand the interesting role of a housecat in the garden. (Hint: they think you made it for them). My first real garden was in the Hudson Valley of New York in 2006, when I somehow ended up living in Croton-on-Hudson and spent a few days before I had a job digging out a 30-by-10 foot space in the sun at the top of a hill for a garden. I remember digging and scraping, gazing down at the Croton River, with the Hudson River beyond, and a giant tree at the river’s edge in which lived baby eagles. It was glorious. The rest of the property was consumed by Kudzu, which, if you have never seen, you should Google. There were two rose bushes, which I hacked down to nubs in early March, and then thought I had killed, only to watch them leap into action come April; they exploded with blossoms. In the garden, I planted all the basics and watched my first corn crop grow sky-high, trapping a family of woodchucks one at a time, and releasing them in the park across the river. 

 

Today, my garden is bigger than ever. My husband and I bought a 5-acre parcel with an old house on it about 3 years ago, and we steadily carve it, sculpt it, hack away at it with each passing week. When we bought the place, the house was shrouded on three sides by overgrown hackberry and yaupon trees, and you couldn’t even see the giant brick barns. Most of the property was also overgrown with hackberry, but now, there are trails through 1.5 acres of it. We discovered a giant, old, rambling post oak that was buttressed to the point of being choked by hackberry and mesquite. We chopped those down, cleared the site, and got married underneath it. This year, it roared back into beauteous growth and is covered with healthy, green leaves. 

 

What is the magic of gardening? Is it the soil itself, the rhythm and ritual of planting seeds and transplanting plants from one pot to another? Is it the mystery of spring when plants, hidden for months, peep out of the ground and then, seemingly in an instant, are three feet high and rising toward to ever stronger sun? Is it planting tomato plants and then noticing the baby, green tomatoes hanging on to every stem? Is it the sound of the wind, and the songs of birds, and the whisper of shifting branches? Is it wild thunderstorms that shake the house but don’t rattle the tiniest of seedlings, somehow holding on to their spot of the good earth? It is all these things, and more. It is planting wildflower seeds, afraid that none will sprout because they are notoriously finicky, and then having 5 appear! It is the first return of hummingbirds and listening to them fight over the feeder, and watching their ruby-throated gem-quality magic feeding on the geraniums by the kitchen window. It is the butterflies feeding on sap, and your puppy chasing them on the wind. It is the orchard, once dormant and cold, unfurling with green leaves, and the trees growing taller each day. 

 

I say to myself each year that I must spend 20 minutes a day in the garden, and I usually make that happen. Sometimes I plant, sometimes I weed, and sometimes I just wander. On especially lovely days, I just listen to the birds and the bees and the trees. So many trees. When I was a little girl in Maine, we used to listen to the locust trees along the driveway creak in the wind, and were always afraid they would crash down! And they never did; they bent, but never broke, not yet, anyway. 

 

There are so many lessons in gardening and being out of doors. Those lessons are patience and calm, tolerance, beauty, an appreciation of color, and soft sounds. Nothing beats the sound of wind running through grasses that are waist-high, or the feeling of the sun on your shoulders or face on a summer day, or the cool crisp chill on your shins in the mornings of spring. I check my bees each morning, taking them food, and telling them of the weather. Sometimes, on those mornings, it is yet still cool, crisp, almost cold as the dew touches my feet. 
If I could recommend gardening, and I do, to everyone, I would say remember the first line of “Desiderata” – “GO PLACIDLY amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence”. All the answers are there; in this world of ours, when we all are able to move so fast, it is a wonderful thing to do something intentionally that is so slow, so colorful, so practical, so beautiful, so calming. I hope you have a wonderful day in your garden.

 

Date: 28 April 2020

Cases: 3,116,398

United States: 1,012,582

Deaths: 217,153

Mortality Rate: 6.968%

United States Mortality Rate: 5.888%

Let Me Tell You About My Day

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Today I was given a task: something new and novel after 7 days of nothing, of stewing, of worrying and brooding. Here we were: back to work. I was asked to call every student in my 2nd period and try to talk to them and their parents. I started off the day in my seemingly neverending quest for flour, but that is another story. Flourless, I began the phone calls at about 10am.

I have this theory about education; the theory is that public education, but K-12 education in general, gets a bad rap in the press, but in reality, people love their local schools. I spent hours today talking to kids and their parents. I spent time laughing and listening and commiserating and checking that they were all mostly ok. I listened to moms so worried their kids were going to miss out, to a dad who said his son was very sad to miss school (a revelation since I didn’t know he liked it at all), to a student who told me, in his typically friendly and nonchalant way, that everything was all right and he understood what he needs to do next week.

The calls took hours: much longer than I thought they would. Even though at times I became tired, I was thankful to reach out and talk to each and every one of those people. Sometimes, I took the calls outside on the patio when I needed some sunshine, and sometimes I just sat at my kitchen table and laughed and laughed with fellow moms of teenagers. One mom told me that I am the first teacher who has ever given her child a B and she likes me for it because it taught him to work harder. One mom said she was so worried about her three girls that she felt panicked but would do her best to make sure they walked over to pick up free breakfast and lunch and did their work for school. Her daughter, fellow nervous spirit, is so worried that she doesn’t have enough hours for NJHS (she has 46 out of the required 10) and that we wouldn’t be able to host the fundraiser for the cafeteria manager who has breast cancer.  I asked a dad of a student who wants to be in Early College High School that he talk to his extremely gifted child about the importance of being flexible and open in the face of uncertainty. As I write, another child’s father just called because he received my message earlier and wanted to check about the plans for next week.

I teach in a district with 87% poverty. Let that roll around in your brain a bit. There are all sorts of assumptions about students who come from under-resourced environments. Data says they don’t achieve, that they don’t have the grit of their wealthier peers, and some folks even say that they are un-teachable. With these attitudes come years of classist and racist prejudice that are unfounded; I have done this for 14 years and I have very rarely found a parent who does not want the best for their child. Even those two moms I can remember saying so were only speaking out of their own pain, anxiety, and fear.

I started today by looking at news that said we are facing 30% unemployment. This afternoon, I spoke to a dad who clearly was very worried about getting food for his wife and himself, and was relieved to hear that there are free meals available for his children. When I listen to parts of the daily press briefings, it is abundantly clear to me that the people in government have no idea what a dollar costs. They don’t know the price of a gallon of milk, or the choices parents have to make between eating themselves and getting food for their children. When I think about these things a lot, I become very angry.

I ended today by speaking to so many parents and students; the majority of my students said they missed being in school. The majority of their parents were very carefully listening to exactly what they needed to do to connect their child with the academic expectations of their teachers. All the people I spoke with were kind and said they were doing fine and that it was important that resources went to people who really need them.

In other words, I had a very positive, human experience. No matter how angry our government’s response (or rather, lack of response) makes me, I have to remember that in order to move through this experience, whatever it will be when we get to a place of reflection upon it, will depend on the actions of each other. We will listen and laugh, and cry, and find solutions, together. We will remember that each of us is trying her or his best and that each person cares so much it is incomprehensible and indescribable.

With love and appreciation tonight, I am going to go and eat chicken and rice, and not worry about the fact that I still can’t find flour.

Date: 23 March 2020

Cases – 378,679

Deaths – 16,508

Mortality Rate – 4.359%

Transitions and Transformations…

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I love old maps, don’t you? Can you see Elgin up there near the top?

The other day I drove in my burgundy Ford F-150 pickup truck to downtown Bastrop. I love driving the truck down the country roads of Bastrop County: they are wide and open and go past field after field after field. I see cows and trucks and tractors, enormous circular bales of hay, old cars and trucks, houses, trailers and water towers. I have always valued driving time as thinking time; the only time this is not true for me is when I am stuck in terrible traffic and then I just feel frustrated and defeated! But country driving always gives me a sense of clarity, distance, perspective and tends to be a generative process in the ideas department.

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Bastrop County Courthouse in 1930

The Bastrop County Courthouse (and Jail it turns out) is a beautiful, old building in the center of town. There were lots of people standing around the entrance, waiting for their docket times I suppose. I walked up the center sidewalk and noticed that a petrified tree stands to the right, sparkling in the sunlight. I asked a man where the County Clerk’s office was, and he pointed me to a small, carved pine door that looked more like a cuckoo-clock facade than an office entrance, but enter I did and found myself in room after room of age-old filing cabinets, lining the walls. The ladies sitting at desks were very kind, and I had my businesses (the farm and the jewelry studio) filed in no time, stamped, and, I suppose, entered into one of those large files along the walls.

The wind had been blowing as I got back into the truck, and I always take the spirit of the wind as a woman communicating something each time she blows and whistles about. Most of the time, I take her message to be one of, “get used to change” or, when she is especially vociferous, “a change is a-comin’!”. I try to look up and breathe in the wind, as if I will glean something else from the scent, or temperature, or force of it.

As I have gotten older, I am committed to understanding that the only constant in this life is change, and that we can fight it, or not. I choose not, and for this I can be considered flighty. My mother calls me a willo’-the-wisp, and I don’t think that either categorization is quite right. Do I follow the river of my life, ever-attempting to stay in the boat? Yes. Do I run from idea to idea? No. Perhaps I used to, but doesn’t everyone, in one way or another, do that in their days of youthful indiscretions and blindness? I would say so, even to people who think that they had it all figured out in their twenties and did things “the right way”. Those folks make me laugh a bit.

The herb farm has begun, I think that is what the wind was telling me, and upon its wings I will be carried forward. It is amazing to be able to dream an idea into reality. I am very lucky to be in my boat on this great river, and I hope I am able to continue my journey for years to come. Today is a short musing on transitions and transformations: I am also lucky to have the grounding force of a little brick house in Elgin and a very sweet man to have dinner with in the evenings. It helps this Goldberry take stock of the beauty of the day, and the understanding that tomorrow may be very different. The clarity of the present is, perhaps, all we really have.

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Wind from the Sea, Andrew Wyeth 1947

Inspiration

 

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Here, I watch the sunset over the neighbor’s barn 

Over the last month, 29 new people have started following this blog. Since I have not regularly posted to the blog in almost three years, and am rather a fair-weather blog friend these days, I am taking this as a sign from the universe and the second nod of inspiration to get to it again! A few weeks ago, my mother’s best friend Jean also asked me: “what is happening these days with your writing?”.

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A bridge in Hogeye, Texas…a few miles from my new home

Challenge accepted, and with gratitude, as I have discovered, in the in-between times, that writing is a way that I understand my own experiences, my meandering wander through this game of life, and, most useful, it helps me remember the things that happened. I was happy to hear from a friend yesterday (and she is younger than me!) that she is now depending on her 4 year-old to help her remember new peoples’ names and the details of the day. Memory is funny: it’s like there is only so much space in there and so many little things get deleted. Perhaps it’s a survival skill.

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Chinaberry blossoms: this year, I felt like I had never seen them before. Maybe I hadn’t.

The same friend also inspired me yesterday by carving out a writing nook in her home. My house is quite small, so there is not a space for this as such, but I have taken the “dining room” (sounds quite fancy but it is really just a small, lovely room with two windows that looks out into the garden and is a pass-through to the living room) as the sewing room and so decided, yesterday, that it will also be the “writing nook” starting, well, today. In this room, along with the two lovely windows, is my sewing machine, the sweet hutch my lover surprised me with a while back (it houses all the fabric, the patterns and the sparkly things in the two lighted cabinets), a nice round brown wooden table, two brass candlesticks, four chairs, a wool rug with a hole at one end, and me.

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The sewing/dining room now writing nook

As I look out of the windows, I can see a windy crepe-myrtle tree and in it, a pair of cardinals. Mama usually shows up first and then is quickly chased by her partner, Red Papa. They are very sweet and chubby these days, no doubt from all the birdseed and everything else around the large yard. There are so many trees: trees in trees! In fact, in the center of the crepe myrtle is a small pecan. There is debate in the house about which goes. I vote for the pecan, as I love the crepe myrtles so much and a pecan there is too close to the house. There is also a blue ceramic birdbath that the doves love, and the grackles like to land in and splash everyone else. Beyond this scene is a white driveway shining in the early summer sun (when did it get so HOT?) and beyond that, the ever-expanding garden fence, a greenhouse, vegetable patches, and many flowers just beginning their pretty journey with us here at the new house in Elgin.

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The house with its first flower patch – now teeming with tiny flowers of myriad variety. I am sitting in front of those two full-sized windows near the back of the house in this photo. The small window is the window over the kitchen sink!

Paciencia, Paciencia is starting a new step in the journey it seems! I am leaving my current school in a few weeks and have transferred to the small middle school here in town. I will still teach the same things; the making of things, the drawing of things, the thinking of things, and the feeling better about ourselves way of things, but I will be able to bike to school on my wonderful bicycle, rather than sit on a highway in my wonderful car. My life is circling around me, the wagons of inspiration hugging a bit closer: more time for art, for garden, for writing. Here we are. Thanks for being along.

20180416_191831Is there anything as beautiful as a tomato and pepper patch in the afternoon light?

Heart Shapes

I have been being a snoop today. I like being a snoop, and am one of those people who is guilty of looking in peoples’ medicine cabinets and awkwardly moving around homes at parties gazing intently at curios and especially, photographs.

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“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Brené Brown

 

This is what I did today; in the somewhat vain attempt at unpacking, I found myself snooping in one of Cody’s boxes that is full of old photo albums. Two baby books filled with sweet notes from his mother and photos in that classic 1970s sienna tone. The photos are of a blonde baby who looks remarkably like two of his nephews, Paul and Dominic. There is also a scrapbook of his first three years, filled with more photos and birthday cards. Then there are a few more photo albums. Two are of old family photos that range from baby Cody to teenage Cody, photos of his parents and grandparents. His mom had brown hair then, blonde now, cut in that poofy 70s/80s style that I think all of our moms wore. There are photos of his father cradling him as a newborn, in the exact same way that he later cradled his own son when River was born in 2004. In those photos, you actually couldn’t tell but for the age of the photographs that the man in the frame is his father and not Cody, for when River was born, Cody cut his hair short and clean in the same style as his father’s when he was born. Little Cody peeks out of photos, holding fish on fishing lines, dressed up in terrible Halloween costumes, sitting next to his father and mother and grandmother, posing on the trunk of a very old, silver Honda Civic. His father so young, and Cody so small: the family resemblance between the two is so strong. They share brows and shoulders, height and lankiness. Later, Teenage Cody begins to look as he does now: very tall, thin, with long-lashed eyes. Those long lashes show up in one photo from when he must have been about two.

There are also photo albums from later life, from when he moved to Austin in 1998. Cody out with friends, on the road to Albuquerque and Amarillo, and photos of the highways in between. Photos of him in Amsterdam with an old girlfriend who looks very sweet and very 90s in her baggy pants and oversized t-shirts. There is a photo of Cody from when he was building his first tattoo shop, when he was 25, and he looks almost exactly as he does today: glasses, beard and mustache, t-shirt, jeans, tattoos from tip to tail.

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Living with someone versus dating them and spending nights at each other’s houses is so different: all the cards are out on the table. All of each other’s strange little behaviors are on full display for each other to eke out over time; learn to tolerate, appreciate, and love. Cody puts a paper towel under the french press every morning while he makes coffee and it makes me crazy because it makes no sense. He apologizes almost constantly, seemingly just for moving around. I keep telling him he doesn’t have to do that. I wonder what things he notices about me that bug him, but he appreciates because they are mine, all the same.

In a set of the photographs, I saw the houses he lived in a tpwn in rural Louisiana, when he was learning to tattoo. There are photos of his first tattoo on an orange. There are photos of his Uncle and Aunt’s house, surrounded by potted plants and 5 gallon buckets of soil. This photo shows me why he collects so many plants and 5-gallon buckets of soil. This behavior of his ties back to the past, gives him some sense of continuity of time, perhaps. There is a photo of him in front of the school bus he lived in during his time in Louisiana, dressed up in the same leather coat he wears when it is cold, in front of a cook-fire. Cody loves cooking on an open fire. There are photos of his grandparents camp house in Center, Texas: an old, white trailer with a deck in the front. There are photos of the back porch with his mom and dad and grandmother. Little did I know that by looking at those photos on a quiet, rainy day in July (thanks be for the rain!) that I would learn so much about the man who I thought I knew the most about: the man who has become my best friend and my companion in this life.

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A few years ago, during the time when I was at the beginning of my “nervy b”, as I like to call it, I culled through hundreds of photos, scanning some and throwing away the rest. I used to have two photo albums but I don’t know where they are anymore. In some ways, during that time, I chose, albeit with a frame of mind that had a distinct lack of clarity, to literally throw out much of my past evidence. Today, I realized the sadness in that is that not that the things are gone, and neither the memories, but the signposts are no longer. Perhaps we hold on to objects not just because they are precious but because they help us re-establish that continuity of time in our own lives. Perhaps if I still had those photographs, I could remember better the times in my young life when I was friends with a boy named Eric, son of my mom’s best friend Pat. We used to do things all the time, dress up, ride horses, be really silly. Eric now has schizophrenia and lives in Florida: I wonder if he remembers anything from that time, at all?

I got rid of almost everything I owned, sold it to strangers and left it on a street in Philadelphia to be combed over by neighbors from countries near and far. I used to have a bag of my great-grandmother’s hand-made lace. Where is it now? Not that it matters much, really. I suppose I am mulling over my own rejection of my continuity of time. At that moment, in the years between 2012-2014, I was so ashamed of myself and my decisions that I threw all evidence of it away. No wedding photos, and all evidence of Steve is gone except a box from China his father once gave to me. Even my wedding ring is gone, and I stuffed my wedding dress into a trash can on the back porch of that house in Philadelphia.

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Here I am, today, in 2016, going through boxes of my own and of Cody’s, as we piece together a new life in a funky house in Dripping Springs, Texas. I grew really sad during my perusal of photographs today, realizing that whatever I had that was like these objects before me, I had destroyed in mad, sad intention. It’s true that my parents have a treasure trove of photographs, so I need not really worry about that specifically, but it’s like I am looking back at these last few years and wondering about putting together the events in a chain that makes sense and represents my memories. I suppose that is what this writing project is all about: a memoir, the establishment of the story after many years have passed.

I love Cody for many reasons, but one of the main ones is his ability to recognize his own painful life events and hold on the positives. He has a very good sense of perspective and being present. He isn’t perfect, and neither am I. This morning I hung a bamboo shade of his on the window in the living room. It has a giant batik of butterflies on it, and it used to hang in the front window of his first tattoo shop on Burleson Road in south Austin. I remember staring at it during the hours of talking and tattooing that were the beginning of our long-standing friendship. And now it hangs in our house: the home we are building together, doing our best, muddling through, baring it all to each other, every day, and every night.

“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.”
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

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