“Mothers and their children are in a category all their own. There’s no bond so strong in the entire world. No love so instantaneous and forgiving.” Gail Tsukiyama, novelist
Prompt: 5 minutes “Stand Alone”
Stand alone. On your own two feet. See what you can do without any others to stop you, to help you, to harm you, to interfere, to suggest other ways. What does your heart say? What is your heart saying to you?
Stand alone. You already do stand alone. But alone with a living God burning brightly inside your very heart chakra, comforting you, guiding you, suggesting ideas that will catapult you to the Highest Version of Yourself that you can imagine. We just don’t often take the time to listen to that part of ourselves. Yes, I believe the Holy Spirit is a part of each of us, so intertwined with every fiber of our being that we can never not be holy. If we listen.
Stand alone. I used to stand alone and mope inside about being alone. Why doesn’t anyone really understand me? I need them to understand me! I cried tears and sobbed guttural wails as I wrestled with the challenges of growing up, maturing, moving from an insecure teenager to an insecure adult, an insecure wife, mother, neighbor, church member, volunteer, over-achiever. Until it all came crashing down on me in the form of what would morph from one day of a swollen throat, fever, body aches worse than the flu, fatigue that slammed me flat to the surface of my water bed and wouldn’t let me go, into the woman I am now. Twenty-five years I’ve lived inside my body alone, alone in houses full of people who cannot understand this bizarre chronic illness. But now I stand alone – secure in Who I Am.
October 26, 2014
Nana’s 79th Birthday
I had an insight this morning: Mom “reaching out” from her 79-year old vantage point, longing to share, impart, connect with the subsequent generations of her family. We roll our eyes, take in some things, but hurriedly, slightly irritated at the incessantness of it all. Some stories some of us have heard a hundred times and we glance at our cell phones or a book from the coffee table as we pass the time at her townhouse. But today I stretch out on the couch, mouth closed, eyes shut, listening as she yearns to impart the old stories to her grown grandchildren. Do they remember? Have they already heard? Are they simply on overload after having looked, obligingly, at the many scrapbooks she got out earlier? It doesn’t matter to Nana, who insists on telling it so the grandson-in-law will also know, the son-in-law, before it’s too late. Before she forgets. Before she is relegated to perfunctory visits without substance. Before she fades into … oblivion, or is no more.
Tears come to me now, sitting right behind my eyelids as I pen these thoughts. One day I will miss this vibrant, opinionated, spunky, wise woman. I have been so blessed to be her daughter. I am so blessed to watch her age with vim and vigor. To hear that she walked the waterfront, did her yoga, went to art class, history class, book club, choir, the Democratic community meeting in her small town. She runs circles around me, and has for a while now.
We take her out for a birthday dinner celebration at an upscale restaurant on the water and she orders a filet mignon, as do I. My husband orders a nice bottle of Pinot Grigio and she chuckles, remarking how she happy she is to be content with her little single serving bottles of Sutter Home, one per night. But she quickly balances that with appreciation for this “good wine.” She is a master at social graces.
She smiles and marvels at the growth of her first great-grandchild, being spoon-fed pureed organic butternut squash in the high chair. The eight month old picks up puffs, pincer style, finding her mouth and squealing with delight. Mom grins and squinches up her nose. “Isn’t she just precious? I can’t get over … “
Happy 79th birthday, Mom. I love you completely. I treasure your stories, your depth, your life. I treasure our connection, your undying support of me and mine, the loving intentions behind your actions, the enthusiastic, lively woman you are and have always been. I’ve walked in your shadow, and I’ve soared while you’ve lifted me up. There is no bond quite like that of a mother and her daughter. Because I’ve been so well-loved, I am able to feel a depth of love for my own that has often made me weep with poignancy, allowed me to coach them through their trials with available attention, to bite my tongue and let them grow on their own when that is called for. Because you have loved so well, you will never really end, Mom. You will live on in the lives of your progeny, even if we forget some of your stories, even if we don’t get to hear them all, even if we don’t get the chance to understand the whole complexity of the life that made you you.
Today we celebrate the loving matriarch of our family as she enters her eightieth year of life. I bow in honor. I smile, tears lurking right behind my eyes as I imagine what it must feel like to be turning 79, what it will feel like when I am unable to punch in your phone number and have a nice long chat. If you have fears, claustrophobic gasps from time to time, please know I kind of understand. Know you are not alone. You can share these feelings with me, or let them pass without remark if acknowledging them is too unsettling. Just know I know. As best I can at 54.
Anne Lamott’s words always speak to me, and so I will share her words from today:
This will not be well written or contain any answers or be very charming. I won’t be able to proof read it It is about times like today when the abyss is visible and we cannot buy cute area rugs at IKEA to truck out the abyss. Our brother Robin fell into it yesterday. We are all staring at the abyss today.
I called my Jesuit friend the day after the shootings in Newtown, stunned, flat, fixated, scared to death: “Is there any meaning in the deaths of twenty 5 and 6 year old children?”
Tom said, “Not yet.”
And there is no meaning in Robin’s death, except as it sheds light on our common humanity, as his life did. But I’ve learned that there can be meaning without things making sense.
Here is what is true: a third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. I sure do. I have both. And you still love me. You help hold me up. I try to help hold you up. Half of the people I love most have both; and so do most of the artists who have changed and redeemed me, given me life. Most of us are still here, healing slowly and imperfectly. Some days are way too long.
And I hate that, I want to say. I would much prefer that God have a magic wand, and not just a raggedy love army of helpers. Mr. Roger’s mother told him when he was a boy, and a tragedy was unfolding that seemed to defy meaning, “Look to the helpers.” That is the secret of life, for Robin’s family, for you and me.
I knew that those children at Sandy Hook were caught in God’s loving maternal arms at the second each crossed over, and the teachers were, too. I believe the shooter was too, another child of God with severe mental illness, because God loves, period. But this is controversial.
I know Robin was caught too, in both the arms of God, and of his mother, Laurie.
I knew them both when I was coming up, in Tiburon. He lived three blocks away on Paradise drive. His family had money; ours didn’t. But we were in the same boat–scared, shy, with terrible self esteem and grandiosity. If you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction, as Robin and I did, life here feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and no idea of what you were supposed to do; how to fit in; how to find a day’s relief from the anxiety, how to keep your beloved alive; how to stay one step ahead of abyss.
We all thought after Newtown that gun control legislation would be passed, but no–not one new law. We think in the aftermath of Robin’s death that there will be consciousness raising about mental health, but I doubt it. The shock and awe will pass, like it did after Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death. Unless…unless we take action. But what? I don’t have a clue. Well, here’s Glenn Close’s astonishing organization to raise awareness and diminish the stigma of mental illness, where you can give OR receive help: http://www.bringchange2mind.org. Go there, OK?
In Newtown, as in all barbarity and suffering, in Robin’s death, on Mount Sinjar, in the Ebola towns, the streets of India’s ghettos, and our own, we see Christ crucified. I don’t mean that in a nice, Christian-y way. I mean that in the most ultimate human and existential way. The temptation is to say, as cute little believers sometimes do, Oh it will all make sense someday. The thing is, it may not. We still sit with scared, dying people; we get the thirsty drinks of water.
This was at theologian Fred Buechner blog today: “It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling.”
Live stories worth telling! Stop hitting the snooze button. Try not to squander your life on meaningless, multi-tasking bullshit. I would shake you and me but Robin is shaking us now.
Get help. I did. Be a resurrection story, in the wild non-denominational sense. I am.
If you need to stop drinking or drugging, I can tell you this: you will be surrounded by arms of love like you have never, not once, imagined. This help will be available twenty/seven. Can you imagine that in this dark scary screwed up world, that I can promise you this? That we will never be closed, if you need us?
Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the
ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.
Depression is a lonely business. It sits behind one’s steady eyes, shaking your faith in yourself, your place in this world, your desire to stay in it. Sometimes it all just seems too much. And when you’ve felt like this more times than you can count, and you’re on the downhill slope of life anyway, and you’re so tired, just so tired of keeping on keeping on, you just might reach for something, anything really. Whatever calls your name while you look for a speck of light in the dark inky world of despair you can’t see as temporary anymore. This time I reach for expensive, brand name Prozac. It keeps me here. This time.
I just finished watching the two-hour Memorial Service for the esteemed Dr. Maya Angelou held at Wake Forest University, thanks to our Time Warner Cable local TV station, Channel 14. I was recording it, planning to go up to the local Wake Forest (the town, not the university) Farmer’s Market, but I could not tear myself away from the screen. I was simply too moved to move.
Cicely Tyson, Bill Clinton, Oprah, Michelle Obama, and others delivered eloquent tributes; singers praised the Lord and moved us to tears; her generous family spoke of sharing their beloved mother, aunt, cousin, grandmother, great-grandmother with the world. Wow. I have nothing to add. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Dr. Maya Angelou, for touching so very many lives. Thanks to her family for sharing this fine lady with the rest of us. Thank you, God, for loaning us the gift of Dr. Maya Angelou for 86 years, and for welcoming her home. May she rest in peace.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was my introduction to the concept of rape. I was mortified. Especially that it could happen to a girl younger than me. And to one who hadn’t even started her period. I was young enough when I read that book not to have started my own, but I knew that milestone was imminent. I was a bit afraid of being a girl then, vulnerable to what I perceived as a violation only possible for females to experience.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was my introduction to the idea that mothers didn’t always take good care of their children. I was mystified. There were wicked stepmothers in fairy tales. There were orphans who never knew their mothers. There were mothers who died in childbirth or when their children were young. But I was naive at that age, presuming all living mothers loved their kids and, therefore, took good care of them. I was mighty glad then that God made grandmothers and that Maya and Bailey had such a wise, kind, respectable one of those to look after them. I worried about them when they were with their mother. I hated that boyfriend that raped Maya, whose death rendered her mute for a while. But I was glad when he was dead. And I was glad she had Bailey. I was glad I had a brother, too. Who knew when we might need each other?
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was my introduction to memoir, the genre I’ve always prefered to write. I’d read biographies. I’d read fiction. But I’d never read a true story that captivated me more, that wove the truth with suspense, that read like fiction. I devoured it. And when I’d finished, I clutched it to my chest and cried, not really even understanding the depth of the emotion I was feeling. I was simply moved to tears. The next day I turned back to page one and started rereading this important book. Any other book would have seemed … petty, inferior, would not have held my attention. I needed to reread this one. The writing was compelling. It affected the way I looked at the world, society, the times in which I was living, and my own white, female life. Maybe Maya Angelou’s classic is why I’ve always preferred writing memoir, having experienced at such an impressionable age, the power her personal narrative had on me, let alone a whole generation.
When I was a college student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I think I might have heard her speak. I know I heard Cicely Tyson, and I think perhaps Maya Angelou spoke there also, both having appeared recently in the TV mini-series, “Roots.” The program had taken the nation by storm, my own white but liberal household included. It was 1977 and I sat in our den on our shag carpet, leaning up against the olive-green corduroy sofa petting my dog, Buttons, while my mother and brother and I sat glued to each episode. Mom had been active in the Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina in the ’60’s and early ’70’s and I would graduate from the famous Little Rock Central High School the following year. I was drawn to the study of the social disparities of the day like a moth to the light. At Chapel Hill, I had access to many fascinating and thought-provoking lecturers, speakers, and professors. Maya Angelou’s childhood in Stamps, Arkansas intrigued me, and her books, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and We Are All Gathered Here, had made indelible impressions on me. If she came to speak in Chapel Hill between 1978 and 1982, I know I was in the audience.
Of course I’ve heard her since in countless interviews on national television, at President Clinton’s inauguration, even on Sesame Street when my kids were young. And, today, on the day of her death, I have been drawn to Facebook posts and internet memorials, unable to work on my own memoir-in-progress that takes place here in North Carolina, the state which has been blessed to claim the amazing Dr. Angelou since 1982. Thanks to Maya, we know why the caged bird sings. Now, even as we mourn, we bless her as we throw open the doors of this earthly cage and release her into the glorious realm of heaven. Rest in peace, Maya Angelou, rest in peace.
July 9, 2013
Prompt: 15 minutes: “supposed to”
She was supposed to get a lot accomplished today, piles of vacation mail littering the kitchen counter, dirty clothes on the laundry room floor, wilting calla lily plants screaming for water from their old pots, long leaves drooping. She turns the pots occasionally, angling them away from sunny windows so they’ll reach out, stretch outward in another way, filling out, not so lopsided from years of inattention save the weekly dousing when she had too much on her mind to cherish every little moment, every little thing.
Life is supposed to last long, keep on going, the canvas unfurling indefinitely, inviting one to pick up brushes full of color and paint your heart’s desire.
But it doesn’t always go that way now, does it? No, sometimes we get so busy we’re like Little Black Sambo running around the tree so fast, fleeing from the tiger, whipping himself into butter he did, I did, we do.
When you are young, it seems like forever between Christmases, you wanting to fit into your mother’s dyed to match green high-heeled pumps, their chunky heels clomp clomp clomping along the hardwood floor, headed for the kitchen where your mother is fixing you and your stuffed friends a tea party.
As a mother, you make a mental note of your daughter’s living in the moment joy while pretending she is all grown up. You snap a picture of her in the netting skirt atop her size 4T jeans, the old burgundy velvet hat that was your grandma’s, the white kid gloves all the ladies wore back then, back when you’re sure time must have passed more slowly. You take the tiny plastic Strawberry Shortcake plates your daughter brings so trustingly to your care for her own “pea darty.” You place equal numbers on each of Cheerios, pretzel sticks, grapes and cheese, knowing she will eat it all, helping out Big Bird, Sally, Ga Ga and Snowy. Life is supposed to be this good and it really is! It really is!!!
Until some days it’s not, it’s just not.
You analyze and debate inside your head what’s missing, what might be if things were even better. If you could be more of yourself in this marriage, if life is supposed to be this conflicted, this painful, this small. You smile at your children during the day, singing soulful lyrics with Amy Grant, Carole King, Carly Simon, as you drive your kids on errands. They learn the words and sing refrains in their little voices, legs kicking, oblivious.
You come to dread 5 pm some days, then weekends, living for Monday mornings, quiet midnight hours when you can fold hot, clean smelling towels fresh from the dryer on the carpet in the hall all by yourself, sometimes weeping. How did it get like this? Surely this is not the way it’s supposed to be, is it? Is it?
That first marriage was supposed to be the only one. They were supposed to live happily ever after. They were supposed to grow old together.
But time can heal old wounds. How nice that finally, they can laugh and break bread together again in their grown daughters’ homes, new partners by their sides, all “one big happy family.” Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be — multiple sets of parents and step parents all together toasting graduations and marriages of their grown up children, reminiscing together about the good memories of the days gone by.
Prompt: 40 minutes: “Older”
June 17, 2013
Older is a loaded word, a plant growing out of its pot, roots bound together in a clump of experience seeking desperately fresh soil, nutrients, water — that life-giving, liquid oxygen.
Older is not for sissies. No, it takes a bit of bravery, or at least the show of “a stiff upper lip” as my dad would say. “Everything’s super,” he says, when I know he must have aches and pains, feelings of grief and loss somewhere down inside that aging body, now a size small.
Older is watching your parents age, Dad shrinking, Mom getting shorter, rounder. Older is watching myself get rounder, wrinklier, heavier, more tired, less patient inside but more patient in front of youth.
Older is the home around me — walls needing paint touch-ups, cobwebs stretching from chair legs to corners, not having moved for months, years.
Older is the dog lying contentedly beside me, an occasional sigh sounding full of resignation perhaps. Or maybe it is just sheer acceptance.
Acceptance. That’s what older requires. Acceptance — of life, people, days gone by, limitations. Really? Or am I just too sleepy this morning to be more upbeat? Maybe older is needing more leisure time to wake up, or maybe it’s having so much leisure time that I don’t “wake up” until the day is well on its way.
Older is sighing when I don’t feel like making the effort to open my eyes, get out of bed, put the pen down, and go on with my day.
Older is knowing you have surgery in less than four days to remove cancer from your body. Older is looking around the house at the accumulation of a lifetime and just not knowing where to begin to sort it all out. I don’t want those I’ll leave behind to have to do it, yet I’m not ready to burn it, shred it, dispose of it just yet — I might live many more years and wish I could find those notes I took when I was in my 30’s, trying to sort through life. I might want to get inside that young woman’s mind again sometime. Words can take me there.
For now, I think I’ll just close my eyes and rest a bit.