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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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Impermanent impermanence

So I took the better part of a year to complete the 12 Steps (for codependents).

I thought finishing them would crack my life wide open.

There were days when it did. My hope was enormous. My good feelings became at least as intense and vivid as my bad ones, and they rushed right in.  I felt like everything was about to start fresh – new work, a new single mom’s life, a windfall of new sources of inspiration.

But my life didn’t exactly crack wide open.

The friend that walked me through the 12 steps died. I felt myself stall.  I grieved for her.  I grieved for the person I thought I was supposed to be at 41 (again). I waited for the school year to start. I fretted when it did, inflating myself into human lifeboat for my son’s first grade transition. Meanwhile, several other people I care about have continued to deal with real things, like life-threatening illnesses and debilitating depression. I felt like I had no business worrying about the state of my ordinary things while extraordinarily bad things happened to others.  Other times I felt like my ordinary things are all I should be worrying about, because I’m right here and for now, I am breathing. If the last year or two have taught me nothing else, it’s that being here and breathing are nothing to take for granted.

I joked a lot with people over the last year that I had “a high-maintenance emotional hygiene regimen.” I read my meditation books. I went to my step study. I went to Al-Anon meetings. I started meditating more. I even built myself a better, healthier body.  I’m strong enough to hug you hard and punch you even harder.  (Cue Lifetime Channel for Women movie montage video with inspirational music.)  Give me the chance and I will. (Hug you, I mean. I’m not all that punchy.)

I thought I would write about shifts and struggles and steps and changes here more often, but I’ve been processing a lot of it out in the world, where I’ve grown much better at touching people, looking them in the eye when I tell them that I love them or what they mean to me.  A few of those relationships are a direct or indirect result of this place, or have been deepened by things I’ve shared here, so I’m grateful to it.

A friend asked me if all this work has actually made me happier a few weeks ago. The answer didn’t come to me until a day or two later.

“I used to think happiness was something I might be able to figure out how to sustain, but I realize that’s not possible” I told him. “Now, when I’m unhappy, I can see that I have so many more routes back to happiness than I used to. It’s not as scary to be unhappy anymore.”

My life has cracked wide open. It’s just not what I expected, thank goodness.


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Even kisses

We listened to a sleep meditation recording as he fell asleep last night, hanging on to me like driftwood.  As the faintest snores began to come out of him, I kissed his hair and tried to retract my arm. He grabbed it and kissed me on the wrist.

He always wants us to be even on kisses these days.  If I happen to shortchange him, he’ll yank on my arm, reach his hand toward my face and say “I need three smooches.”

A few nights ago, he walked on my back when I was achy, patting my hair when he was done, asking “is that better?”

I hugged him close and told him yes.

“You take such good care of your mom,” I told him. “Do you ever feel like you’re always taking care of me? Or do you feel like I take care of you?”

He snuggled into me, stuck out one arm and pointed his finger at my shoulder, bouncing it there repeatedly.

“You take care of me,” he whispered.

I was overwhelmed with relief. I just lost a friend who helped keep me steady over the past year and half. I know I have days when I feel awfully alone and uncertain right now. I work hard to take care of myself so I don’t get lost in those feelings. And my son feels loved and safe and taken care of. By me. What more could I ask for?

This morning I took him to the first day of first grade. We walked in to a quiet room with a big circle of children already cross-legged on the floor. He tiptoed in, put a card with his name onto it into the attendance basket, hung up his backpack and sat down with the group, looking around excitedly.

I stood in another part of the room with a couple of other parents who were snapping photographs and taking deep breaths. The joy on my boy’s face threatened to crack him wide open. He was so engaged in the newness of everything – the faces, the classroom, the whole, fresh ritual – that he didn’t see me wave and blow him a kiss goodbye.

My heart tightened a little, then let go with relief as I slipped into the hallway. He wasn’t afraid to be on his own. He wasn’t afraid to leave me on my own either.

And I know he’ll even up the smooch count before the day is through.

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Constructing immortality

I have become an aficionado of science documentaries; a connoisseur of Cosmos, a knower of Nova and a devotee of the Discovery Channel.

Because space remains the iron core of my son’s interests, I’ve been to the edge of the known universe and the inner spaces of the quantum realm hundreds of times (with the help of CGI animation).  For six years, I’ve lived with an almost constant awareness of the infinite without as well as the infinite within.

Thinking about all of that vastness, it is now hard for me to imagine religion at odds with science. My throat gets caught in moments when scientists reflect on things like the stardust that created us, the possibilities that lie within all that we don’t know and how fantastic and improbable humans really are.

A few weeks ago I was watching the Science Channel show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, which routinely takes on big questions that science cannot answer definitively. The season premiere  investigated the possibilities of life after death.

After circulating through heaven-like scenarios, the possibilities of existing without form or blipping into nothingness, one scientist, who had lost his wife to a brain tumor, declared that there is one indisputable form of an afterlife: memory. You and I are each a mosaic, he said, a swarm of finite characteristics and memories and experiences. And a rougher version of us — a portrait made up of thumbnail-sized porcelain shards instead of so many billions of pinpoints— is carried within all of the people that love us.

Having been through recent losses and facing new ones, this thought is like a nice warm bath. I think of all of the people who make up me, the ways that I fashion them into my own design. The first ones are obvious, living and dead. But those people I didn’t know all that well, yet still feel the loss of because of one moment of connection? This gives me permission to let that solitary moment glimmer. Those people I’ve perhaps known too well, who left me feeling damaged? Let me reach for the lotus growing out of all of that muck and flatten its soft petals.  That vulnerable person I just met today? Let me hold on to her, reflect her.

There is so much you are that I can carry. There is so much I can be that you can carry. And chances are that we’ll both do that whether we mean to or not.

When I hear about God, I have a hard time keeping myself from getting tangled up in his long, angry beard.  When I hear about science, I have a hard time keeping myself from turning up my nose at religion. Cynicism has sometimes made me likeable or funny at parties, but truthfully, it’s not nearly as useful as I thought it was.

A little over a year ago, I started putting faith in people, not knowing what they would do with it and not exactly caring anymore. I desperately needed to put faith somewhere. I stopped worrying about where. Now I find that it is alive and breathing all on its own.

I am the haphazard engineer of immortality for others and for myself. A scientist told me so. And these crazy ruins are among the most extraordinary places that I have ever chanced to visit.

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Sometimes grace walks right into (and refinishes) your living room

There I was, trying to get a few things done at my mom’s dining room table, when Melvin arrived to pick up my great-grandmother’s couch. It will be refinished by homeless kids and adults, and Melvin is teaching them his trade. He’s done a few pieces for my mom and every one has been beautiful.

I hadn’t had the chance to speak with him before. It turns out he just got a grant from the city for his work.

His story goes like this: He was 14 and homeless after grandmother passed (his mom died when he was little). A small, older woman asked him if he wanted to learn to cane furniture, but wouldn’t pay him until he got it just right. And he did. Then he learned to rebuild, reupholster and refinish. He worked for her until she passed – fixing, beautifying and delivering old and antique furniture. Now he tears apart broken-down chests of drawers with a group of kids and shows them how to put them back together.

I have been really blessed in the past year to meet more than a few people whose lives have gone from desperate circumstances to surviving, to thriving, who then use their fresh success to help the next person. Melvin lights up with gratitude and hope when he tells you that a gang member handed him his gun, saying “I don’t want to do this anymore. You said I’m a keeper, that you can teach me to do this. So teach me.”

You meet a person like Melvin and you can’t help but want the whole world to open up for him.

Here’s a little video that Angie’s List did about him:

If you read this in Central Ohio and are in the market for some refinishing work (or know anyone who is), check him out at Browsers Welcome.

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Washing away

I was all set to do laundry on New Year’s Day. The baskets were loaded, the darks picked clean of stray white socks. Then I happened upon the superstition that if you do the wash on the first of the year, you may “wash away a loved one” in the process. I slow-cooked my pork and sauerkraut and waited for January 2.

Five people I knew passed in 2010. One man held me as a baby. One death ushered me into 40. Three more friends, acquaintances, members of my extended community, were gone in a grim flipbook of months or moments.

I make weekly visits to a woman who put her hand over my heart and lifted me last year, who has comforted me with Kleenex and new community and wise words like “go home and read everything you can about acceptance.” Now she is on a twisting journey through metastasized stage four pancreatic cancer and even when I see her under the auspices of showing up to help her, it’s me who gets the help.

I take her food stamp card out to pick up sockeye salmon, orange juice and grits. I walk her granddaughter into a doctor’s office where I am met with a raft of love and prayers and good wishes to take back to the little apartment she so loves because it is surrounded by trees and the walls are increasingly papered with get well cards. I learn how little a person can have and still give and give and light up the lives of other people. I relearn the importance of waking up early, holding my son’s face in my hands and telling him how grateful I am that his face is the first one I laid eyes on in 2011. As much as I want to shed the chaos and pain of the past year’s trail of loss, I also want to stay here, present in what it’s given me, for as long as I am.

I’m learning more than I ever imagined at my age about many ways that people get sick. About many ways that people die. About Jedi nutrition tricks, magical thinking and cold, dark, depressed spaces. I’m stretched thin along the hair’s distance between life and death, between health and a hard diagnosis.

In the days before 2010 expired, I found out there are other people I care about who are now doing their own dances with cancer. After learning her own fate, one gave me a strong symbol of her faith for Christmas, a bit of protection, a message that in the midst of fracturing family, certain things are not lost.  I’m wondering if it’s time to lose a few inches of hair again and offer it to cancer.

I couldn’t do the laundry on New Year’s Day. But not exactly because I am afraid of losing another person. I know that I will, and whether that happens in 2011 or 2021 is not in my hands. But there is not one thing, not one person, not one stain from the experiences of this (or any) tour around the sun that I want to see cleansed from my life.

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Growing up, I remember the phone ringing at the butt crack of dawn on every one of my birthdays. Once, as a teenager, I grouched a little at my mother as she came in and nudged me out of sleep to answer it.

“You won’t have this forever,” she warned me, whispering. “You will miss it someday.”

Early this morning I woke up, squeezed my eyes shut and listened for the sound on that phone line – the sound of my grandparents, their voices chipper and full of the rural Ohio upbringing that makes every R sound like a sharp turn while the Gs in ings go awol and yous come out as yas. They always wanted to be the first to wish all of their children and grandchildren Happy Birthday. And mom was right. I miss that. I do.

Today my mom sang to me while Declan held my face and waited to tell me, intently, that on Ni Hao Kai-Lan, the children sometimes travel inside of floaty bubbles. My brother called and sister-in-law called sang while their son punctuated each line with an aggressive “CHA CHA CHA!” Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I’ve already been flooded with messages and I’m starting this day feeling loved and hopeful.

Two things guaranteed that today would be a quiet celebration. First, the biggest fireworks in the city happen downtown, which would be like asking friends to sit in traffic gridlock if I wanted to, say, meet them for dinner.

And then there’s my stepdad, who has passed the point of speaking or eating or doing much in the way of responding to this realm. We’ve been bracing for the impact of his passing for a couple of years, more intensely in recent months, and round-the-clock for the past several days. I’m well past dreading the idea that he could pass away on my birthday. Instead, if I could take some of the good juju and love I’m receiving for this birthday, I’d pour it into the wish that he finds whatever love he needs within himself in order to let go peacefully.

I’ve decided to honeymoon with 40, and celebrate it with a crowd of people that I like soon because I want to and I actually think I deserve to. But today, this is how I want to do it. I want to be mindful and prayerful through the day and to pretend that things are brilliantly exploding in celebration of my future and my stepdad’s past through the evening. I want to meditate on passages and new beginnings and eat crab legs and be hopeful.

Earlier this week, Dec gave me the best possible birthday gift I could have asked for. He’s been reading individual words for a long time, but worried over trying to read a book by himself and often refused to try. I gently reminded him on Monday night that I still learn a lot of new words, and that lots of things that he thinks are easy, like astronomy, are things that many people would consider hard.

He slept on it, and the next morning, started reading some of the Bob Books at the breakfast table as though he’d been doing it all his life. And as silly as those short, confidence-building books are, it’s one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard.

My stepdad’s life has been filled with books and I know that he would be so proud of this. So Declan read “Fun in the Sun,” to his Grandfafa before bed that same day, and I talked out loud about how many books were in the house, how avid a reader his Grandfafa had been. My stepdad tried very hard to say something in response, so I know that he heard and received this gift as well.

So far, 40 is birth and death and new language and hope and memory and a pain in the pit of my stomach. It’s Buddhist mantras wrapped in silver around my thumb as I dive through this zero, sheathed by reminders of our impermanence. It’s a call to live well and let things happen, make things happen, to live by the serenity prayer and be more open, more loving.

This song came up on my iPod on my way to my son’s camp this morning, and it strummed every nerve in my body:  Calling All Angels.

Listen, be well, have a beautiful weekend and if you’re into prayer, say one for my stepdad, ok?

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Tyger, tyger, burning bright

My blogging has been lighter than usual because a couple of weeks ago, I saw my doctor and she told me that my right shoulder is so much lower than my left, she would have thought that I had a severe curvature of the spine. My typing has been slow, my sleep has been poor and and my breaks have been many. Unless today’s snow dump somehow derails it, I’m going in for an evaluation with a physical therapist early this afternoon.

The last couple of months have been a revolving door of reminders about mortality and health. We’ve been second-hand witnesses to the passings of three people, one far too young, the other two simply too young to die. I’ve interviewed young people who know too much about things like homicide and psychological abuse (for projects I am working on). I felt helpless as I stared at images of the fields of bodies in Haiti, keeping the television mostly silent because my boy already spends too many bedtime hours resisting sleep, trying to solve the puzzle of death.

In a little over a week, the Year of the Tiger begins, and it feels far more like a ritual time of reflection and reassessment than January 1st this year. I’m making lists, trying to finish projects and clearing away clutter. I’m ready to do whatever it takes to bring my physical, personal and professional carriage back into alignment. I want to be on the tiger’s side.

And I would be oh so grateful to see her clear our collective house of fire, thieves and ghosts.

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“When did you get to be so old?” was my mother-in-law’s question when I reminded her what my age would be this year. I am, after all, the child bride of her second-to-youngest son, replete with fresh young preschool-aged child. I’m not supposed to be pushing this kind of zero. But I am.

Today begins my staring contest with 40. I’m in the company of a number of my favorite bloggers, which I find oddly comforting in a 21st-century way.

A friend of mine, who just turned 40, told me she had the most trouble with the fact she was leaving her 30s. I’ve loved my 30s too. There’s been some hard personal stuff and way too much bad government, but they beat my 20s with an ugly stick. I plan to soak up this last year as much as I can, while keeping a close eye on the women I know in their 40s, 50s, 60s (and 80s!) who make those places look like such fabulous destinations.

And as my mom reminded me this morning, 39 is the age that Jack Benny liked so much, he stayed there for 41 years.

Jack Benny Vs. Groucho 1955Click here for more amazing videos

Marilyn Monroe on Jack Benny Show 1953Click here for the funniest movie of the week

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