Turn it up to 11: A note to my son on his birthday

IMG_2763Today, sweet boy, you are eleven years old – slipping securely into your second decade like an ace. It’s an interesting number that people who like woo things like to watch for on clocks, apparently because events linked to the time 11:11 appear more often than can be explained by chance or coincidence. In Basque, hamaika (“eleven”) has the double meaning of “infinite,” which is a concept being your mom has helped me understand infinitely better, (pretty much).

Eleven. The interval of an octave and a fourth. There are 11 players on a soccer team and 11 guns in a salute to brigadier generals. The eleventh hour is the last opportunity to get something done, and while it may be ill-advised, the truth is that plenty of ingenious and worthwhile things have actually been accomplished during that short span. Messier Object Number Eleven is also known as “The Wild Duck Cluster,” which sounds like something worth seeing. Sunspots last approximately 11 years, and I surely don’t need to tell you a thing about the Apollo 11 mission. It’s the fifth smallest prime number.  It’s also the atomic number of sodium, so maybe you’ll start acting a little bit salty this year, or at least stop face-palming when I let a swear word fly. Canadians seem to especially think 11 is an awesome number. The coin version of the Canadian dollar bill – the loonie – is an 11-sided hendecagon, the maple leaf on their flag has eleven points and clocks featured on Canadian paper money show the time as 11 o’clock.

You are still one of the most deeply learning-driven people I have ever met. This week, you set the Greek alphabet to the Roman alphabet song melody so that you could memorize it. Your purpose for doing this was apparently unknown, even to you, but memorize it you did. In the past year, you re-learned to solve a Rubik’s Cube at increasing speeds, then graduated to the 4 X 4 and 5 x 5. We also started running – you want us to do a 5K together this summer. You are so supportive when I run out of breath, offering me water and encouraging shoulder squeezes, you are so brave and good-humored when you struggle yourself.

During this orbit, you found a passion that rivals your inborn love for astronomy and physics – the piano. What started as a 30-day trial last June escalated into a near obsession by the time the school year arrived. I told you I would keep paying for lessons as long as I didn’t have to bug you to practice. Instead, I ended up feeling conflicted every time I had to urge you to remove your fingers from those keys so you could get some sleep or go to school. The Tetris theme was originally burned into my brain in college playing on a friend’s old Mac Classic computer. Now I hear it in my head, so many times, played by you.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the celestial and quantum have in any way vacated your soul. You were Carl Sagan for Halloween, reciting fragments of the Pale Blue Dot speech as you collected your candy. When we went to see Neil deGrasse Tyson give his splashy Power Point talk, you basically smiled your whole face off for nearly three hours.

We are approaching a time in your life when everything feels a little tougher for me to write about, think about and feel confident about seeing you through. As Buddhists (you still call yourself one too), we believe that every individual has his or her own unique path. There is no time in life that I can think of when this is more obvious than it is during adolescence. Pretty much anyone with a pulse feels a pang of heartbreak just thinking about this bardo period between childhood and adulthood, the ripening uncertainty of all things. Or, to put it more simply, like your cousin once told me, “I’m in puberty now, so that pretty much sucks.”

We’ve had our share of uncertainty and in-between-ness this year, too. Columbus Karma Thesgum Choling, our dharma home since you were a zygote, was burned to the ground by an arsonist in January. I remember rocking and nursing the tiniest you in the back of the shrine room. You circled the coffee table in the basement over and over and over again as a toddler while we listened to dharma talks through a speaker. You and I both took refuge on that dais, where we were also blessed by many teachers. This place, which helped us find peace through some very difficult times, met such a violent end. It’s still hard to process, to not feel attached to what it was and how it felt to be there, even though our faith teaches us non-attachment.

We are also looking at other changes in our lives. We are looking at transforming our family structure to include a person who truly loves us both. This is so many things – happy and scary, sad and wonderful, uncertain but promising. I love the way your heart is completely open to Larry, and the ways that you express it. I love that you’ll lay down for a nap with him and his dogs after a long museum afternoon and sometimes choose to hold his hand instead of mine when we’re walking. You have a lot of adults in your life who love you and help you feel safe and accepted as you are. I feel so grateful you have one more.

You visited Chicago for the first time last summer – Larry’s hometown – where the two of you helped each other through fears about the scary rise to the top of the Sears (Willis) Tower and you slid down the Picasso sculpture with other children late at night. You have frequently visited the elder care colony for the deaf  here, where his mother now lives. Your sweet willingness to learn and try to speak ASL brightened the days of residents enough that they gave you your own deaf name – a letter D that moves down the side of the face in a gentle wave, like your hair.

You are becoming a superbly graceful person – in some ways unlike anyone I’ve ever known. This past weekend, you were the recipient of a poop sandwich when a friend over-promised his birthday party invites, chose to have it at a corporate chain with a limited guest list capacity, and you became one of the sacrificial lambs. You put on a brave face and told him that you understood his decision, but you were wounded and sad enough to have to let me in on what happened the day you knew so many of your friends would be spending time together without you. I was upset for you, upset that it was maybe even your propensity for kindness and understanding that helped make you a candidate for exclusion. You didn’t tell me or any adult what was happening.

“Someone in the class had to get hurt,” you told me. “I wouldn’t wish this on someone else just so I could feel better.”

I tried to find fun things to do for the day to try and take the sting out of your heart. We went to see “The Wind Rises” by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Gibli on the big screen. It was wistful and a true-ish love story about a Japanese airplane designer and his tragically serendipitous relationship with his wife, who had Tuberculosis. You, thorough reader of every John Green novel there is, didn’t mind the subject. Afterwards, we went to a vintage arcade so you could experience video game life as I first knew it, before the age of responsive controls.

I kept joking about your mom not being as exciting as a pack of 11-year-old boys, but hoping we could have a good day. Truthfully, I may have felt more shaken up than you.

After filling up on a Pho dinner – your favorite – we came home and you put your arms around me as soon as we got out of the car.

“I’m still sad that I’m not with my friends today,” you told me. “But I’m not sad that I got to spend the day with you.”

IMG_1905Then later, as I kissed and hugged you goodnight, you grinned widely and said:

“Thanks for trying to cheer me up by taking me to the movie with the lung hemorrhaging and everything.”

Declan, raising you and watching you become this ever more interesting, complex and kind human being is the great joy of my life.  The other night we were talking and I mentioned how happy I am that Larry has become one of my very best friends, what a secure feeling that is.

“So he’s your best friend and your romantic partner,” you said, smiling. “That’s healthy.”

You paused for a moment, smiled a second smile and said “and then one of your other best friends in the world is your son.”

It’s true.

I love you infinity.
Happy birthday, sweet child,


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A note to my boy, who is ten today

Chasing pigeons in lower Manhattan.Dear Declan,

Now you are ten. Declan’s first decade is a wrap.

Ten. Like all of your fingers or all of your toes, like the first syllable of your name. It’s the number of inkblots in the Rorschach test, the percentage you are supposed to tithe or take down to weaken an army, the atomic number of neon, the minimum number of players on a baseball field during play, the Wheel of Fortune card in a tarot deck.

It’s a powerful base number that can take you to infinite places, like the Eames’ film, Powers of Ten, that you used to watch over and over and over again when you were three. You loved it so dearly that you wanted to go to the Chicago lakeside to lay yourself down exactly where the man in the movie did, maybe thinking that it was a place where you could travel to the farthest reaches of the universe and the depths of the microverse.

“Ten is the number that allows all the numbers above it to exist because it’s the first use of zero,” you told me the other day. We had your birthday party cake decorated with 1+100 zeroes – a googol – because it is ten to the power of ten to the power of ten, and it was named 100 years ago (10 X 10).

You are an initiate into the double digits, a place I hope that you’ll remain vibrant and healthy for the next 89 years. You seem like a guy who could still hold his own well in the triple digits too.

Age nine has been eventful. You liked impersonating Rene Magritte’s “Son of Man” by holding apples and balls in front of your face and demanding that I snap a picture. You researched dark energy and dark matter. You learned to knit. You met Michio Kaku and nearly jumped out of your skin with excitement. You were a neuron for Halloween.

You asked to take refuge, the formal step of becoming Buddhist last summer, and did so with a lama who had taken refuge in Tibet when he was nine. The refuge name you were given means “glorious wisdom,” Karma Sherab Palzang but Lama Karma kept calling you “Chocolate” to see if you’d answer to it. And sweet you did every time.

I gave you a sign that says “I want to have adventures with you” for your room, and I’m happy that we still do. We do things like wake up early and drive around in our pajamas to see a lunar eclipse. We walked all over Manhattan together last August, exploring Battery Park, Chinatown, Little Italy, SOHO, The Skyscraper Museum. I let you play in the fountain in Washington Square Park on a steamy day. You emerged after a good hour, soaked and joyful. “God knows I loved that,” you said as we took back to the sidewalk.

You fell in love with the Met, the way I was as a kid. When you walked into the room with the Temple of Dendur, which you last saw at age 5, you said “THIS is where this room is! I have had so many dreams in here!”

You wake up the morning and ask me things like whether or not I know how George Washington really died, or if I realized that chocolate chip cookies and plastic were both invented by accident. I never know how the day is going to begin. I am happy that certain things seem to be outside of your purview. The other day, you told me someone had knocked you down at the roller rink and when I asked, startled “on purpose?” You replied within a beat, “of course not!”

I met Larry. And eventually so did you. (Plus his dogs, Walter and Leelu.) Your first impression of him was “he’s funny and he’s kind.” But what I most remember is that when I told you that he made me feel safe and loved, you hugged me so hard. You put your hand on my face sweetly and said “I think this is important for you.”

We celebrated your birthday on Sunday with so many of your friends at the bowling alley, which – of course we did, because the game has 10 pins and ten frames. You have this beautiful exuberance for all things and people. I loved the way some of your friends talked to you, how excited they were about presents that had gotten you or the cards they had picked out specially.

There was nothing in particular you asked for on your birthday today. You decided you wanted to give something instead – ten inches of your hair to Locks of Love. Your hair is beautiful and has been such a signifier of you as a person – this boy who hasn’t cared about being called a girl, this unfazed, self-possessed individual who I admire so, so deeply. You are such a dynamic and lovely person, Declan. And as earnest and delightful as you are, you’re also goofy and funny as heck.

It’s so exciting to wake up every day and find out more about who you are, who you want to become.

I love you so much my sweet boy,


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A note to my boy, who is NINE today

spaceboyDear Declan,

Now we begin your tenth orbit around the sun. It’s the last year that your age will be identified with a single digit, the closing of your time as a primary student, the beginning of who knows what? You are an ennead of enchanted and perplexing years. Everything is possible.

Nine is beautiful and mysterious. A stitch in time is said to save it, and isn’t that the truth? Dante said there are nine rings of hell, while Tolkien wrote of nine rings of power. There are nine consciousnesses in Buddhism, nine months in human gestation, nine innings in a regulation game of baseball, nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court and nine squares on each side of the Rubik’s cube that you are so enamored with these days. Mathematically, it’s a square number, a composite number, a lucky number, a Motzkin number, an exponential factorial and a bunch of other things you seem to be really interested in. It’s the atomic number of Fluorine, which is some pretty scary, toxic stuff. I know, because I once read to you about it at bedtime by your request and thought to myself “if this isn’t a mother’s love, what is?”

When I was pregnant with you I drank water from the Castalian spring on Mount Parnassus in Greece, the consecrated ground of Apollo and the nine muses. Everyone who knows you knows that you have the inspiration of Urania, the muse of astronomy. But those who know you best know that poetry, dancing, music, theater and history give you joy as well. I suspect you will draw encouragement from all nine muses in time, my sweet, sweet boy.

When I asked you what you remembered best from this past year, it was mostly about the world around you. It was things like the confirmation of new element 115, temporarily called “Ununpentium,” which made you dance all over the house when you heard the news. Or the steps toward a unified theory of everything humanity made when it was announced that the signatures of gravitational waves were detected by a team of scientists led by your religion teacher’s brother.

You remember the conversations you have been lucky enough to have with OSU astronomers and physicists and the day you surprised math professors when you discovered a new configuration in their circle-packing game. And that you finally saw meteors one night in Woodstock last August, as one after another streaked the sky.

I remember a lot of things, too. Like the way you thought you’d need my help when you tried ice skating for the first time, but got out there on your own and felt so fast. Last summer we wandered through Manhattan together for the fourth summer in a row and you lit up on the rocks of Central Park, a place so familiar and comfortable to you now. We laid down on the floor of the Guggenheim to look at James Turrell’s installation and the American Museum of Natural History to stare up at the blue whale. I hope we can lay down on the floor of the Louvre or the Uffizi together someday.

I remember when you shook Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s hand sweetly and gently last fall and smiled with your whole head. We took a couple of containers full of nightcrawlers home from his teaching for a “life release” practice and buried them outside of my bedroom window, liberating them from their sentence as fish bait. Almost every creature from the bug world makes you uneasy, but for days after, you spoke to them through the glass.

“I hope you have a good life now, worms,” you told them. “I hope the soil is rich. You’re free!”

You were a d-brane from M-theory for Halloween, which had you lamenting the lack of physicists in the neighborhood on beggar’s night. You researched the possibility of warp drive for your project at the school Interest Fair. Right now, you are learning to knit from a woman who deeply impressed you with her hyperbolic plane made of yarn.

At Christmastime, you were cast as “the voice of God” in a school play and projected your lines like a pro, then sang “Away in a Manger” all by yourself in front of a church packed with people. You are so brave. You made a special book to give to friends and family that you named “Declan’s theories and other things he likes to think about.”

And when it comes to wisdom you are no slouch. Once, when I asked you about how you respond to children at school in a conflict, you were thoughtful about it.

“I try to let people be who they are and hope that they shape themselves into someone kind,” you said, pausing for a moment. “Unless they’re sociopaths.”

Your humor isn’t bad either. You reenacted the birth of the universe as you cracked a glow stick into action one night. As its blue light emerged, you waved it around and said “hey mom – do you know what chemical element is in this thing?” I said I did not.

“It’s hilarium! Because it’s a glow schtick.”

You look out for me. When I took you to see the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game, I flinched during the violent parts, so you covered my eyes. I was roller skating too fast for your liking a few weeks ago. “You could get really, really hurt,” you said, and insisted that I slow down and hold your hand for a few laps.

You say thank you in unexpected moments. You try not to take things for granted.

Parenting becomes less and less about the choices I make for you every year. I try to put you in the best places that I can find to feed your thoughtful and curious spirit, but you are making your world happen, finding your own confidence, discovering and expressing your own feelings and convictions. It’s such an honor to witness your becoming.

A friend of mine told me he could see my imprint on you. “You circle all around him like a field of (William) Blake’s angels,” he told me. “He knows, absolutely, that he is loved. It’s safe for him to become who he is.”

God I hope that’s true, now and always.

I know that being your mom has helped me become kinder to my imperfect self, less afraid and more accepting of the life I have, even when it hasn’t gone the way I thought it should. I believe that might make anyone better at loving others.

I love you so, so much Declan and I couldn’t be prouder of how you you are.

Love \infty


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An interdimensional mother-son story


Juniper’s Big Adventure

By Declan and his mom

Declan and I wrote this together by hand, passing the notebook back and forth, each taking a turn at contributing a line or two. He’s excited to share it. We hope you like it. 

Once upon a time, there was a jackal named Juniper, and he loved to bark at birds.

One day a toucan named Alfonso Frederico la Vesta visited him, carrying a mysterious briefcase.

Juniper attacked, as usual.

Alfonso Frederico la Vesta bopped Juniper on the head with his briefcase, which exploded into 100,000 pieces of glitter and 600 silver balloons.

Juniper hadn’t a ghost of an idea what was happening. He ran away.

The balloons followed him. The glitter swirled into a massive shiny funnel cloud.

After a while, the funnel cloud reached and picked up the jackal. He flew up into the sky and bounced on top of the funnel cloud like Super Mario™ for 317 miles. Then the funnel cloud flattened and lowered down to the ground.

Juniper landed in a strange place that had a chocolate marsh and trees that were made of staple guns and jigsaws.  They started to grow rapidly as the jackal came down.

Out of nowhere, a glowy castle emerged from the chocolate marsh. It had a moat that was made of liquid rainbow Skittles™. If you tried to swim across, the castle would catapult TNT jawbreakers, which exploded in a hot gooey mess. The castle seemed to enjoy targeting a particularly cranky bunny rabbit that was practicing ballet on the other side of the moat.

Juniper fell onto his bottom in awe, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. His eyes rolled back into his head for a moment.

A drawbridge made of Jolly Rancher™ candy dropped in front of Juniper that seemed to be just for him. As he walked into the castle, a giant Burple* monster with polka dots — which actually turned out to be UFO warp engines that were friendly — appeared.

One of the UFOs approached Juniper. The warp engine smiled at him, stuck out its tongue and licked the jackal on the nose, giving him the ability to make the moment become marshmallows. These marshmallows had tritanium in them, which made you fit and healthy.

“Wow, the present moment sure is sticky,” said Juniper. “But I feel like a million pronghorn bucks that have eaten unicorn milk that was impregnated by an interdimensional creature.**  Thanks!!!”

And so he went into the 2, 248th dimension, where everything flew by pooping rainbows from dimension zero.

“I feel kind of hungry for a pork chop,” thought Juniper.

Just at that moment, a cardboard foot flew into his mouth, but it tasted like lemonade.

“Delicious!” he thought.

Then Willy Wonka™ appeared and handed Juniper an infinite, updated version of his meal gum. He chomped it in his jaws and tasted the most delicious pork chop with applesauce that he had ever tasted. There was also steamed broccoli, a glass of high-pulp, fresh squeezed, not-from-concentrate orange juice and rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream.  He turned the shape of each food, but quickly sprang back into jackal form.

He decided to make a video/life portal to the Cookieverse™. He was so full of rhubarb pie, having just been rhubarb pie, that he simply gazed at the cookies lovingly.

Reluctantly (although he knew he could come back), he went out of there and onto television.

Whoosh! Juniper felt his body flicker. Suddenly he was transported onto the bridge of the USS Enterprise-E, next to Lieutenant Commander Data. He blinked and looked down and saw that he was wearing a red Starfleet shirt from the original series.  They were searching for the Borg.

“I wonder if this means I am nothing more than an incidental character – an infinitesimal membrane – in the universe…?” thought Juniper.


* A color that only exists in alternate dimensions.

** The unicorn milk is what was impregnated here, not the unicorn.

The collage/illustration is also a TZT & Declan collaboration.

P.S. Declan was very enthusiastic about writing this story, so please feel free to share it or leave him a comment if you are at all inclined.

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A note to my boy, who is eight today

decsweetDear Declan,

You are 8 today.  Eight.

Eight is the atomic number of oxygen.  There are eight spokes on the Wheel of Dharma, which symbolize the interdependent principles on the path to self-liberation.  It’s the billiard ball that you don’t want to sink, the number of drivers required in every Mario Kart race and the second magic number in nuclear physics (I don’t really know what that means, but you probably will soon).

Kick eight on its side and you have the infinity symbol, which suits you, my boy.  There seems to be no end to the things you already know and continually thirst to understand. I can hardly imagine what you will teach me in the future. Your mind is limitless.

Infinity is one of our favorite words. We make the symbol with our hands. It’s how much we say we love each other every day. At the classroom doorway or snuggled up at bedtime, we whisper to each other: I love you infinity.

Every year, when I write you one of these letters for your birthday, I seem to tell you how much you love babies and dogs. You still do. Sometimes when we can’t get rid of a particularly scary thought, we spend time looking at Cute Overload, where there are babies and dogs. And baby dogs. Baby pigs too. Hedgehogs, even.

I also always seem to tell you how kind you are. And you still are. To your Giga, to other kids – to everyone, really – but especially to your mom. You bolt in my direction and fling your arms around my waist like you haven’t seen me in weeks every time that I pick you up from school. If I shed a tear in your presence, your arms are wrapped around my neck in under a second. You invent secret handshakes for us. And you still blow kisses to me from the back seat. When you sang at a concert two weeks ago, they told everyone it was time to stop waving at their parents. You beamed right in my direction and winked at me instead.

Some great things have happened during your eighth tour around the sun. We drove to Alabama and joined my dad (you call him Papa), for Space Camp, a place where grown men who hold day jobs as accountants or computer technicians can safely wear flight suits without an iota of shame. We did space shuttle and International Space Station simulations, launched rockets and nearly had a heart attack watching your grandfather spin inside of a geodesic human eggbeater contraption.

Last November I took you with me, like I always do, as I exercised my right to vote at the early voting center. I snapped an image of you with a voting sticker on your palm, which landed – by way of an old college friend – in the hands of an ABC news producer. The day after the election, your sweet face moved slowly across the screen during Good Morning America. When I told you that four million people watch that show, your face went pale. But all of your color returned when you told your friends at school what had happened. They made you feel like four million bucks.

We’ve done some empirical research together, like trying to figure out whether Dr. John or Tom Waits has a “growlier” voice.  And we talked about all kinds of song lyrics at length because nary a word can get past you. It can get pretty tricky at times. Trying to explain the meaning of your grandmother’s “ART SLUT” mug felt particularly tricky. But we seem to have agreed that there are no bad words just bad ways to use them – particularly if it’s to inflict pain on another – so “stupid” and “jerk” are as bad as any.

You also played a lot of Minecraft. And you spoke a lot of Minecraft to in-the-know peers as well as several confused elders. You speak Mario, too, but a lot of adults understand that.

You grew our your hair out like a medieval knight, which seems to have made one gown-up after another believe that you are a girl. But it doesn’t seem to bother you. One winter afternoon, a barista in a Downtown coffeeshop brought you a cup of hot chocolate and referred to us as “ladies.”

“I am a boy,” you told him clearly, looking him in the eye. Then, seeing his face begin to redden, you quickly added: “It’s okay. I’m not upset.”

“I admire that attitude!” He said to you, giving you a big thumbs up.

We had some down moments too, but our struggles were much more ordinary than the string of deaths and losses we experienced when you were five and six. When I asked you about things that you felt had been important about being seven the other day, you told me that you don’t have as many fears as you used to. You’ve been working on those.

The other night I shared some of my fears with you. One of them is how scared I get sometimes that I’m not doing a good enough job at being your mom.

You grabbed my hand and pulled it to your heart. “You shouldn’t,” you told me sternly.  “You are.”

The librarian at your school stopped me one day to tell me about a report you had done about birds. There was a question on a worksheet about mother birds and their young.

“If mother birds are like my mother,” you had told her, “then they must protect their babies.  My mom always does everything she can to protect me and make me safe.”

Declan, somewhere in the time since you made me a mom, I began to learn and really understand that we always have the power within us to make others feel good or valued or heard or seen, and that actively practicing living that way always elevates us.  We always have the power to make people feel bad, too, but that’s easy, especially if we’re careless, and that usually ends up hurting us more than anyone else.

Love and kindness are things I have to practice to do well, but you make them seem effortless.  You are a tender, gentle soul. Even when you’re whirling and jumping and seem not to be paying attention, I find that you pick up more detail about those around you than most people.  You don’t ask for much, materially speaking. Your most formal, serious requests to me have been for time and attention. You are grateful for what you have.

You make me feel like being your mom is something I’m pretty good at. Whenever my life gets rough or painful, I see how loved you feel and I feel like a success.

I love you infinity, my sweet, sweet son.



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Today is yes

Forget-me-notsHe said he was a corporate lawyer, born in Bolivia and that I probably wouldn’t like his politics. He looked like he was 12. It was late. I danced with him anyway.

“You let yourself fall when I dipped you,” he told me. “That means you are open to life. You don’t care what anyone thinks about you.”

That’s not true everyday. But thank goodness there are days that it is. Thank goodness someone pulled me onto dance floor and dipped me and let me know: Here you are. See? You are being that person you’ve wanted to be.

Sometimes you find yourself unexpectedly watching a voluptuous burlesque dancer swing tiny torches from her breasts that make little circles of fire in the air while the band plays Happy Birthday. The next night you’re singing the entire White Album, pressed up against people you don’t know while waving to the ones you do. A twenty-something woman from China keeps hugging you and smiling as you wonder whether the best song ever written is “Dear Prudence” or “Helter Skelter.” She says she wants to text you. “Hi!” says your phone. “Yellow Submarine!” That’s the last time you hear from her.

Sometimes you’re accidentally listening to an ‘80s cover band that’s opening for your friend’s band, and joy and shame collide inside of you when you hear songs by Simple Minds and Animotion and remember every lyric. You joke about that feeling with a woman standing next to you by the bathroom mirror who says “no, no, no… there is no shame. But I hate that it shows everybody exactly how old I am.”

“Meh,” you reply. “Me too. We’re not that old.”

Just as you are almost out the door, she yells after you, for no apparent reason “You are really beautiful!”

“Thank you!” you yell back. “So are you.”

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a study in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, to become an expert at something. Now 42, after a childhood with a typewriter and 20 years of writing career behind me, I have undoubtedly accumulated enough time to call myself a master she-hack, a highly qualified assembler of printed characters, a capable wordswoman. But so practiced in living with self-trust, I am not.

This midlife single life is a little bit brutal. You think that practicing kindness and patience will yield you some easy companionship. It might for a little while. Or it might just give someone else the space to be wildly selfish with or unintentionally cruel to you. Wasting time is a greater concern than it used to be. The landscape requires a kind of detachment you’ve never had to cultivate before, that truthfully, you don’t exactly want to cultivate because you’ve come to like your wide-open heart. You know that you know yourself better than you did the last time you were out here.

I’m playing the long game these days. I want to reach that expert level of self-respect by practicing 10,000 hours trusting my own instincts; 10,000 hours being kinder to myself; 10,000 hours of traversing the thorny landscape without letting it shut me down, no matter how often it might draw blood; 10,000 hours of not letting myself feel threatened by any social situation; 10,000 hours of being kind to others traveling on this same nasty terrain, just because I can; 10,000 hours giving myself a break because all of this is practice.

10,000 hours of letting myself fall. Not into another person, but into myself.

10,000 hours being yes.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any –lifted from the no
of all nothing– human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

– ee cummings

Today is yes.

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Are you okay?

“People help you, or you help them, and when we offer and receive help, we take in each other.
And then we are saved.”
– Anne Lamott

I sat alone in my car at a red light on a busy east side street a few weeks ago.

Feeling tired, I dropped my face into my hands and rested there for several seconds. When I looked back up, there was still a red light and a minivan next to me with a man with a blonde combover in the driver’s seat. He was aggressively waving his arms at me.

When he saw he had my attention, he mouthed the words “Are you okay?” with a point of his index finger and the universal OK sign, followed with a big mime-like raise of his eyebrows.

I think I looked at him dully for about a second before smiling a little and nodding in a way that was probably also more Marcel Marceau than natural human. I might have even given him a thumbs-up sign.  As he nodded back, smiled and pulled away, I felt strangely grateful for his concern. His out-of-nowhere, stoplight, blue minivan concern for some woman in an old Toyota resting her face in her hands.

The last three years have taught me more than I ever expected to know about the kindness of strangers — not to mention other people I might have been acquainted with, but had no way of knowing I could trust. At some point, when things were oppressively difficult in my life, I just started answering the question “how are you?” honestly all the time. I was not okay. I was hanging out with death and deadly illnesses and divorce and the effects of others’ addictions while trying my best to be a halfway decent mom.

But when I told people some piece of that information, I was amazed to find that I wasn’t exposed or embarrassed or humiliated. I was helped and encouraged. They held up a mirror and let me know that I didn’t appear to be as wounded as I felt. They told me I was a good mother or a good person. They rose to meet my honesty with their own. Sometimes they told me things that were braver than I ever imagined, making my own truths less scary and alien. I was saved. Over and over, I was given faith and hope in the primordial goodness of people.

As I made my way home from the minivan man, I drove past the Grill and Skillet – the dictionary definition of a greasy spoon. And I remembered another time in the spring of 2010, when someone asked me if I was okay on a day when I definitely was not.

“Let me take you for a coffee,” she said.

She was a woman of few means, but she was wealthy and generous with wisdom, and she liked to make a big production of treating people to the delights she could afford. She bought me that coffee and some toast at the Grill & Skillet, while she munched on four pieces of bacon.

“I’m skipping all the ordinary calories and just going straight for the devil today,” she told me. Then, eyeballing my jailhouse snack, “You’re a cheap date. Are you sure you don’t want anything else?”

All I genuinely wanted was some of peacefulness she seemed to possess, her natural ability to be true to herself. I don’t remember what her exact words were to me that day, but if I had to venture a guess, it was probably something like “you need to think about acceptance, baby, about accepting things as they are. It will free you.”

Every time I spent a few moments with her, I could feel a deep turning in my life, away from self-created obstacles and emotional storms.

And I remember watching her, usually moving slowly because of a tumor in her leg, dragging a heavy, quilted bag of self-help and meditation books and paper worksheets on things like identifying emotions that she felt would be useful to others. If you were in need, she would probably make you wait a little while. She might have to take care of something for herself first, like getting a drink of water or a snack – often something that seemed quite trivial compared to the desperately catastrophic things you were feeling. But then she would turn towards you, become present with you, and you were enveloped in the safety of her wisdom, usually ending with a hug that was equally, spectacularly enveloping. There was no telling whether you would be lifted for moments or days – that would depend on you – but you would be lifted.

Best of all, you would witness the grace she received for herself by helping you. As she sensed you lightening, she would lean back and smile. “I have an affinity for people like you,” she would say. “We have experienced the same kinds of pain, so know that I mean it when I tell you that I love you and I love to be of service to you.”

You were not a burden. Your willingness to share and trust actually gave her something too. Not only had you unburdened yourself to someone safe, you had been useful to that person.

After the Newtown killings and the apocalypse that wasn’t, Facebook, my email, phone calls and friends on the street have made me feel like we’re becoming a nation of blue minivan combover men and toast-buying women. “Are you okay?” we ask each other in the wake of fallen children, heroic educators and jokes about the world’s demise. Because no matter how much news fasting, meditation or other exercise in equanimity that you practice, there’s little or no getting around feeling a tragedy like this one, feeling the insanity of any human being treating the world like there is no tomorrow.

I keep returning to the notion that we are never as helpless as we think. Two weekends ago, I heard a wise teacher say “Love and compassion are never in vain. They are never useless. They are never powerless.”

And that’s the lesson from my friend that has remained with me most powerfully, a year and a half after her passing. (The lesson that the minivan man and a drive down Main Street brought back to my attention.) She showed me that when you take good, consistent care of yourself, helping or caring for others is not only not a burden, it’s a blessing.  You take that sip of water first. You say “I’ll call you back after I take a nap.” You eat a sandwich. You swim or meditate or pray or spend time petting your dog. You do what it takes to make sure your center is as strong and balanced as it can be today.

Then you walk toward that next person you see hurting, preferably without any expectation that they are even ready or willing to accept anything you have to offer.

“What can I do to help you?” you ask.

If the answer is “nothing,” you accept that.

If the answer is something you consider, then realize that you can’t give them, you tell them that directly.

But there is often something you can do. Sometimes just the question “what  can I do to help you?” is a greater gift than you might imagine. It may be days, weeks or years before you realize that you actually helped someone. You may never know you helped them.

You do it anyway. And you are saved.

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A note to my boy, who is seven today

Dear Declan,

You are seven today.

Seven sounds magical when you say it out loud: Seven. Declan is Seven. We can look at the Pleiades and assign a year of your life to each sister. Or one year to every day of the week. Or one to each note on the musical scale. Or to each color in the visible light spectrum. You are seven, my baby. You are everywhere.

And you are magical. You do magic tricks with cards and bags and handkerchiefs and coins. You practice and practice your sleight of hand and then perform for people who ooh and aah. You almost always want to share the secret of each trick, prompting your audiences to say things like “a magician should never reveal his secrets” (especially when your audiences include adults).

But you have a different idea, which goes a little something like this: Everything worth knowing is worth sharing. Truthfully, I can think of little that is more magical than the way you still constantly, enthusiastically learn and then share what you’ve learned, like a treasure hunter who enjoys the gems and fine metals he uncovers best when he can give them all away. Abracadabra.

And there is always more that you want to know. You come home from a day’s work of doing long multiplication at school and ask me how to multiply using Pi so that you can compute the circumference of a circle. I try to do it longhand with decimal points on paper only to find out from the calculator that I have no idea what I’m doing.

“That’s okay mom,” you say to me, patting me on the shoulder. “You’re just a little tired. You’ll figure it out after you think about it a while.”

I wear a meteorite on a necklace that you gave me for Valentine’s Day. It’s the ultimate reminder of my boy and his infinite love for the universe. You laugh when I interrogate it about what part of the galaxy it is from.

“It can’t be that far,” you tell me. “It has to be from this solar system. But who knows? Maybe as far as the Kuiper belt.”

You’ve always been kind-hearted. And lately it feels like kindness has become not only something you do, but something you have come to believe in. One day after school, you told me that a friend of yours had been crying, so you crouched down next to him and put your hand on his back. A teacher saw this and said “you are a very kind person, Declan.” You couldn’t wait to tell me that an adult had called you kind. It made you glow with pride.

Sometimes friends of mine see how often you smile in pictures and ask me “is he ever unhappy?” And certainly, you can be, and I try to give you the room to be, because unhappiness is an important thing to feel sometimes. But it is surprisingly rare for you. You’re so excited about the experience of being alive.

You love babies. You smile your face off whenever you’re around one. You touch them gently on the feet and look them in the eyes to make them laugh. You also love dogs. Sometimes you lie down next to Arrow to see things from his perspective. You think about what it must be like to be him.

Anyone who knows you and me knows that you are the love of my life. And for the time being, I am still yours. I’ve done a lot of crying in the past few months because I miss people who have died. You wipe the tears off of my face as you let me tell you something about why I loved whomever I am missing. Then you hug me so tight that it’s hard for me to stay sad. When I think about what a loving, perceptive son I have, all I can feel is grateful.

We talked in the car one night this spring, about all of the feelings that grief can bring, how those feelings aren’t always the most obvious ones.

“I know mom,” you told me from the back seat. “Anger can mask sadness.”

The last time you saw your nanny alive in March, you held her hand and her gaze so sweetly. “Good lookin’,” she said to you, examining your face. “You have beautiful blue eyes.”

When I was your age, I remember being irrationally afraid that my grandmother’s broken wrist might be contagious. You, not yet seven, knew more than a lot of adults about what death really looks like, and you stood there holding your nanny’s hand. I would have given you the space to be afraid. But you knew that she was dying and you stood there, smiling calmly and gently at her for minutes and minutes at a time, giving her such comfort and joy.

I hope that I can become more like you.

At the funeral, you wiped the tears off of your daddy’s face. And mine. You got to hug your beautiful half-sister for the very first time. You were surrounded by people who loved you. You were completely overwhelmed. Especially by the thought of a boy losing his mother, like your daddy and his brothers just did. That night you hugged me so hard I thought you might bruise my neck and you whispered I just can’t imagine not having you, mom.

A few mornings later, we walked into your classroom. A small rainbow was reflected on the ground. You scooped up the colorful light with your hands and rubbed it all over my face.

“Is that for good luck?” I asked.

“No, it’s to keep you safe,” you told me.

Declan, I am so far inside of your heart, it’s a wonder that you don’t hear my voice every time that it beats. I don’t take credit for your intelligence or your kindness – you arrived here with those things.  But I see how loved you feel, how confident and secure you are, how much room you have to become yourself, and I know that I have something to do with that, which makes me proud.

It makes me cry, too. Really good tears. Big happiness is also important to feel sometimes. And you’ve given me a lot of that.

I woke up this morning and wrapped you up in my arms and said “happy birthday my sweet boy! You are seven!”

“I know. It’s so exciting,” you told me.

It is.

(Insert our secret greeting/goodbye here, including one kiss on your hand that goes to infinity.)

I love you to pieces, my son.



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You rite baby, you rite

While listening to the new Dr. John record in the car the other evening, Declan and I had the following conversation:

Declan: Mom, who is this? I feel like I’ve heard this voice before.

Me: It’s Dr. John.

Declan: That doesn’t sound right. Did you play him on this iPod before?

Me: I don’t think so. But… well, there’s a lot of Tom Waits.

Declan: Is his voice all… scratchy like this?

Me: Yeah, kinda gravelly…

Declan: What’s gravelly?

Me: Low and scratchy, I guess. Like he has gravel in his voice.

Declan: Oh yeah, it’s Tom Waits I’m thinking of.

Me: You are a pretty hip six-year-old, trying to tell the difference between those two voices. You met Dr. John, you know.

Declan: I did?

Me: He played your uncle’s festival one year.

Declan: Why did I meet him? What did he say? I don’t remember that. Did you meet him?

Me: We all met him. We ate lunch together. You were a baby. Your dad had him sign a book for you.

Declan: I haven’t seen that.

Me: I’ll ask him to look for it.

Yeah, what he said.

What we were listening to:

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I am dead people

The news was bad for dogs last week. Apparently, dragons hate them, so the new Chinese year is predicted to be a rough one for people like myself, born in the year of the metal canine. The year of the tiger shredded me to the bone, as the world’s largest predators are wont to do, and last year’s bunny wasn’t exactly cuddly, so threats from a dragon were not what I wanted to hear.

I generally don’t put much stock in horoscopes unless they are good and I happen to need something to believe in. Still… crappy predictions have a way at nagging at you. So I was grateful when I opened up Free Will Astrology a couple of days after the dragon commenced, in which Rob Brezny advised my other astrological self – the moonchild — to “go in quest of… a useful and beautiful blessing bequeathed to you by the departed spirit of someone you love or admire.”

I happen to be in possession of many useful blessings bequeathed to me by beloved and departed spirits, but lately, I’ve found myself forgetting them too easily and too often. The death toll of people I am connected to who have passed away in the last two years cranked up to 11 in January – some have been family, a couple were personal mentors, others have been friends, dear ones to my near and dear ones and acquaintances that I used to have warm conversations with out in the world.

Multiple funerals have a way of making the deaths that you hear about in passing – the ones that used to be abstract – more vivid. I hadn’t been keeping count, but when the number jumped from eight to ten during the same week in October, it started to feel enormous and it rarely let up since. I let the number consume me, paralyzing me like the sitting ghost, slowly eclipsing the memories of the very individuals I miss.

When grief takes up residence in your life, it’s a cunning shape-shifter. Once its immediate deep fog, harsh lights and wild cactus needles retreat, life starts to become less ouchy. Then it reemerges in sudden fits and vibrations. It’s in the handwritten note you had forgotten about and find under the front seat of the car; in the smell of an old bottle of Jean Naté body splash; in hearing the corny joke that no one else would laugh at with you except the person you can’t share it with anymore.

But the latter is also the better part of grief. You might get caught crying while holding a bottle of Maraschino cherries at the supermarket because Shirley Temples make you think of big dinners with now-dead relatives, wearing wide lapels and odd-shaped sideburns without a trace of irony. But that glass urn of fruit and disgusting red dye also tells you that those people are still with you, making funny faces at your seven-year-old self. They are your emotional DNA.

The number ten, closely followed by eleven, cut me off from that better part of grief. I started filling myself with sad, self-involved stories. I pulled the covers over my face because I’m 41, not 81, and since my life doesn’t resemble Jim Carroll’s, I felt there should be no way I know that many dead people. I told myself that the universe doesn’t want me to be happy, doesn’t want to let me feel any of the lightness that I’m longing for. I obsessed over things that I thought could yank me into some kind of joy, or at least some strong feelings that were not grief.

On the day I read the horoscope that suggested I quest for my blessings, I knew where I could go. A spiritual mentor of mine died last summer, but the support group she ran for families of addicts and alcoholics did not. I arrived late, but my entrance invited silent warmth from several familiar faces that I’ve grown to love.

The only chair open was in the spot where I best remember her looking upon everyone in the room, telling it like it was. I sat down in the lap of her memory and felt what it was like when she taught me that the tighter you throw your arms around the things that you imagine will make you happy, the more likely you are to strangle them in the process. And the more likely you are to overlook better things out there for you – the things you never imagined. The other people in the room remembered more lessons, some that I knew, and others that I didn’t and was glad to hear. Our mentor was with us, exceptionally present, stronger and more beautiful as we sat in the space she carved out for us together.

A lot of the best things in the world are plentiful, a friend reminded me recently. Water. Oxygen. Life… from the endless microbial stuff we can’t see to dolphins to the people that irritate us in traffic. And death.

“Death is everywhere. There’s an awful lot of it in the universe,” she said. “So there must be a lot of good reasons for it.”

Death inhabits us just like life does. Our cells prove it over and over every second. I don’t want to run from big numbers anymore. I want to swallow them, let these dead people camp out under my skin, help me with the living part. Today I want to love my son with the force and acceptance my aunt had for her two boys. I want to practice the ease and gentleness three men I used to talk to out in the world always had with people in social situations, in a way I’ve never been good at, but always admired. I want to pass on the kindness and guidance to others that two strong women so generously gave to me.

Look out death, we’re starting something new.

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Smooching infinity since 2005.