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One potato, two potato

This kid Danny in 2nd grade had the thinnest, straightest dishwater blonde hair, and possibly eczema because frequently there were flakes and red patches on his face.  We didn’t know what to do with him. One day, in line for school lunch, he started to sing. I wish I could remember the song; I can’t remember the song. He crooned, actually.  Some song he loved that had the word “love” in it, numerous times. I got the same feeling listening to him as I got listening to my brother three years later singing his favorite Carpenters song: “Baby, baby, baby, baby, oh, baby.” The feeling was – complicated.  It was about boys, boys being vulnerable. What boy sings about love, what boy sings, “Baby”? Thank goodness there are boys that sing this way.

We didn’t know what to do with Danny.  He wore a blue plaid shirt from Lechmere’s.  He was so overcome by his song he stepped out of the lunch line for a moment.  The line couldn’t contain him. We tittered, me and the other girls in line around him, vaguely repulsed and drawn to him.  Weeks later, one of those girls had a boy-girl party I was invited to but not allowed to attend. After the party, I learned Danny was “going with” Lisa. I wondered if he’d sung at the party.

3rd grade, working on a project about dinosaurs, my mind blown by “66 million years ago”, and “brontosaurus, 33 tons.” I responded, “Gosh,” and when the number was unfathomable, “God!” David Goldstein said I sure said “God” a lot in a manner implying that it was boring that I did so. In my mind, I was swearing: “God damn that’s a big number!” That same year, Barb and I pretended we were Archie and Veronica, Reggie and Betty, kissing with our lips tight and thin, wondering what was so great about this?

Three potato, Four

Fifth grade, Bobbie Simon belted out “We’re on the upward trail” from inside a large cardboard box that the class decorated with construction paper to look like a large jack-o-lantern. We were returning from music class – finger cymbals and singing – and Bobbie ran ahead to get in the pumpkin and sing to make us laugh. Which we did. I think the teacher did, too, and so maybe this time he didn’t get in trouble. Later in the year, he said he’d give me a pony. He wrote this to me in a letter with many misspellings. I didn’t know there were people who couldn’t spell. He enclosed a polaroid picture of a piebald pony that I yearned for.

T_ was boy-crazy in 7th grade. She was music-crazy, too. We called the radio station to vote for “Piano Man” to win best song of the day because she loved it so. She also wanted to see “Jaws” and kiss boys. Sometimes, I wanted to be her.  Other times, not. Seven years later, when she seemed in danger of marrying a man – a perfectly nice man who bought me clams when I visited and let me sleep on their couch – I hoped she wouldn’t. How do we name the bright star we see in each other at 11, 12, 13? How do we say, “Stay true to her. She’s crazy about music and science.  She won’t steer you wrong”?

Five potato, six potato

New York, Mark Shepard, 9th grade, clammy hands (mine), minor piano virtuosity (his). Pale blue eyes and paler skin and a disconnected smile that, if I saw it now on a 15-year-old boy, I’d think trauma, or maybe just run-of-the-mill detachment and entitlement. The magazines I’d read at T_’s house two years earlier instructed girls to “ask questions about him,” “do things that interest him.” Which found me grumpy, biking through forest-lined streets outside our suburban community, resenting the fact that I found myself here, on a bike, which I didn’t enjoy, sweating so my corduroys stuck to my thighs.

10th grade. Albany, Oregon, West Albany High, hiding out in the library at lunchtime, reading Animal Liberation by Peter Singer after bolting my sack lunch.  It was an incomprehensible book to me though I agreed with the politics – and what the hell small-town high school librarian is putting freaking Animal Liberation on the shelves of the West Albany High School library, and why couldn’t she be my friend?

Seven potato, more.

My daughter told me last night that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s heart was found to be calcified when he died. This happens in some cases to our organs. I understand this as a Dorian Gray phenomenon played out in Shelley’s own body. He made babies indiscriminately with various women, most of whom died (the babies, and eventually, the women), yet on he plunged. When finally it was his time to die, and after a grandiose Viking funeral pyre was set beneath his body, his calcified heart remained. The fire could not consume it.  None of his kin wanted it. “We hoped he’d burn and that’d be the end of him. We can’t bear the irony of this so-called heart persisting, impervious to the flame that destroyed every other part of him.”

“Shelley had a hot potato heart,” my daughter said. Garth and I fell upon that phrase.  What a great title for a story! “Whoever writes something first can lay claim to the title,” Garth said.  You see how that went down.

When I die, my heart will burn. It will turn to ash, like my other organs. I have used it. Not as well as I might have; it shied away from some moments that would have grown it. I have loved no better or worse than anyone else, and enough to call this part of me tinder for the flames, ash-to-be that will be as adherent as any ash, and as soft and light as it needs to be to drift on the air. Tenacious and forgettable.

 

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I’ve been awash in grief for nearly a month. Why is not the topic of this writing, and Why in some sense doesn’t really matter.  Rather, along with feeling the grief, I’ve been considering the idea of learning how to grieve.  It seems distinct from simply experiencing grief, and it’s an aspiration that seems simultaneously worthy and confounding.

What’s the difference between learning how to grieve, and simply experiencing grief ? The latter has felt like this: if I were drowning, say, it’s the equivalent of telling myself, “Sure, I’m drowning, but what can I do about it? Best to just pretend I’m not drowning when that’s possible, and notice it when it’s impossible to do otherwise.”

Several days ago, something shifted. Slowly. Cumulatively. I said to someone, “I’m having a hard time,” and they said, “Tell me more.” I said to someone else, “I’ve lost something,” and they asked, “What did you lose?” Little by little, the story of this grief came out, countless people hearing a paragraph here, a chapter there, just a sentence sometimes.

With each facet named, each piece invited or joined by another person, I’ve been learning how to grieve. This is how to grieve: by claiming it, naming it, letting it matter that we feel it, and offering it up. Doing this is initially a selfish act: it helps me to say out loud that it’s there. But it also, I believe, makes more of a world where a person’s grief matters. Today, it’s my grief. Tomorrow, it might be yours.

Yesterday, my 16-year-old son was hurting. Today, we took a walk, had some tea. “Tell me about it,” I said.  And he did.

I told him I was sorry; I told him what I knew about hearts breaking, that a broken heart shows we’re brave enough to care, that sometimes we know we’re living a deep life by the depth of our grief, that the way to embrace living in this open-hearted, broken-hearted, joyful, grief-filled way is by leaning on each other. As I leaned on others. As my son then leaned on me.

That’s how it works.

I haven’t seen a thigh gap in almost 40 years.  I have stretch marks, cellulite, bat-wing arms, saggy jowls, a double chin, an ever-growing belly – and yet…

And yet, today, my body woke up with few aches and pains.  My brain sifted through the contents of the fridge and, with the help of my hands and arms, assembled sandwiches, apple slices, homemade trail mix, and ice water for a hike. We drove to the trailhead and I set my feet on the dusty trail.

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Today, my body carried me up that trail. It sweated to cool me.  It took in the sights.  It found the scents on the air which are so familiar to me from this terrain.  It carried me down to the lake and in.  It felt the silty bottom and found an old rhythm it knows from swimming in the lakes of my past.  It felt the watery cradle, and saw the blue, blue sky, the silvery spires of dead trees still standing, and the luminous green of manzanita still sprouting new growth.

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With a body that can do all this for me, how is it that I am ever tricked by the other list?

 

A neighbor’s black and white cat thinks of our yard as its own. I call him the Hitler cat for the rectangular black patch beneath his nose. He appears to have killed a mouse. The smallest mouse ever. It was under the picnic table where I’m sitting to write, and I only discovered it when I moved the table out of the sun.  There it was, near where my bare feet had been.  I could write at length about What if my feet touched that mouse as I sat writing, my undiscerning toes thinking its tiny claws were simply dried grass? but I prefer not to go down that road.  Instead, I’d like you to know that the small dead mouse looks like a comma.  I never noticed that before, how rodents (all mammals?) curl in on themselves at death.  I don’t plan to touch the mouse.  I’ll warn others away, too, and perhaps Hitler cat will eventually take it and present it to his true owner.

***

A man walked by a few moments ago, pushing a bike and muttering, “Read the Bible, read the Bible.”  I wonder if he’s the same man who yesterday morning stood at the Bench in front of our house and yelled, “Abortion is murder, abortion is murder,” and who, when Garth asked him to keep it down because some people were likely still sleeping, said, “Eff them, I don’t care if they’re still sleeping.  You’re probably one of those liberal Portland baby killers. Abortion is murder, abortion is murder”?  When Garth took his phone out, the guy said, “If you call the police on me, I’ll come back here and kill you.”  Maybe just now this was the same guy coming back looking for Garth, or just looking for the Bench.  He could rest in the shade it offers in this heat, but his illness pushes him forward, pushes words out of him, “Read the Bible…” so he keeps walking.

***

There are birds the size of the smallest of mouses flitting between our aspen and hawthorn and apple trees, chittering to each other. Our  apple tree is lopsided, a dwarf gala  – at least I think it’s a gala – these kinds of particulars escape my mind.  I am surrounded by flora, the names of which I don’t know. How bounteous our gala crop promises to be depends on where I look.  On this branch are clusters of tight-skinned, shiny green apples the size of racquet balls. Apples on another cluster are already mealy-looking, they’re the size of kumquats, the blossom ends dusty and cobwebby.

***

Today, I complained gently to the cashier at Trader Joe’s about the heat.  He said, “Oh, it’s not hot.”

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that we humans don’t get to decide for each other what does or doesn’t constitute discomfort for another.  I can say that this morning, I took a cooling shower to start things off right, and broke a sweat minutes later putting on my clothes for the day. I rest my case.

Both of my kids were born at home.  Kami was the first. For her birth, Garth and I decided to bring our  bed downstairs and set it up on the main floor.  That way, after the birth, I’d have easy access to the kitchen and bathroom rather than having to walk downstairs to use them.

As it turned out, having such a manageable space after Kami was born was ideal. In fact, if I could have turned my home into a one-room cabin where I could see everything and everyone it contained -see it from one place -I would have done it. In the aftermath of my daughter’s birth, the world was suddenly frighteningly vast.  And in giving birth downstairs, we’d sort of cast a spell on that floor of the house; it had become the contained space I longed for.

What did I think would happen if we “broke the spell” and moved the bed back upstairs? Whatever I thought would happen, I didn’t want to find out. At my one-week check-up, my midwife gently asked when I thought we’d move the bed upstairs. I answered vaguely. Really, was there a compelling reason to move upstairs again? The current set-up was so perfect.

I also found it hard to go outside with my new baby. The big-ness of the world was a problem, a threat. Our yard was safe enough, but the rest of the city? Forget it. Too much.

I think of this now as my deeper understanding of my own vulnerability, the kind of understanding that having a child often confers upon us.  And if I was vulnerable, my baby was that a hundredfold.  All that stood between her and disaster was me – flesh and blood and bones.  How could I ever keep her safe when my own intactness could so easily be breached?

Every step back toward normalcy – pushing her in the stroller to the store or to pick Chris up from school or simply to take a walk – was figuratively accompanied by the sound of my whimpering. When the midwife returned for her last visit, the bed was still downstairs. She got firm with me.  “You have to move the bed upstairs.”  I began to cry. “That’s where the bed belongs. Who can help you move it? Can you do that today?”

Kami just turned 18, and today she goes to college. Garth and his brother, Banks, brought the bed back upstairs 17 years and 355 days ago. I don’t want to go back to that time, but it was so comforting having my entire world where I could see it. Now we’re moving through another transition. There’s nothing like having kids to stretch a person, and the world sure is a big place.

Tonight, I hear crickets, or possibly peepers, through a screen window.  There is a memory I always go back to when it is undeniably summer.

When I was eight, we lived in Massachusetts.  In the summertime, it was not unusual for the temperature and humidity to hang out in the 90’s for days, weeks. We lived across the street from the murky town lake in a down-on-its-heels house (valiantly spruced up by my mom).  The house was nothing fancy, but it had a breakfast nook with lots of windows, and thus lots of screens. The breakfast nook was the coolest place to be on a hot summer night.

I’m thinking of this particular night because, though it’s nowhere near as hot now as it was on that summer night 47 years ago, I am up well past my bedtime as I write this.  That was also true of the night I’m remembering.  During the school year, my parents reliably got their children to bed at a decent hour, and even when summertime loosened those rules, we tended not to stay up much past dark.  But on this night, we pushed the bounds further than usual.

It was so hot no one could imagine heading to bed.  It was so hot my normally modest father sat at the breakfast nook table (formica top, vinyl chairs) in his t-shirt and maybe even boxer shorts.  I cannot impress upon you enough how hot it would have needed to be for my dad to be so – under-dressed.  We milled around, restless with the heat, four children ages 3-9, and our parents.  At least while we were upright, the air – such as it was – had a chance to touch most of our surface area.  Once we went to bed, however, any part of us that touched the mattress couldn’t benefit from the measly coolness of night.

The memory is set here, in the breakfast nook.  It is thoroughly dark outside. We have a light on and we hear the smack of moths throwing themselves at the screens in an effort to reach the light.  My mom decides since we are all awake she should cut open a cantaloupe that has been in the refrigerator.  I trail after her into the kitchen.  She cuts open the cantaloupe.  It’s the first time I’ve seen a cantaloupe at this stage of preparation.  I am stunned to see it has a slimy nest of seeds at its center.  How did I not know this before?

My mom neatly spoons out the seeds and cuts the orange flesh into crescents.  She cuts the rind from the fruit, eventually slicing the fruit into smaller edible pieces that still rest on their respective crescent rinds.  In these days, we salt the cantaloupe before we eat it.  We each have our own; we eat the pieces with a fork.  It is the Platonic ideal of refreshing.

That is all.  It is summertime.  The night is hot. There is sweetness and salt.  We are a family.

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Once when I was 13, and another time when I was 26, I had a spiritual experience.  Both times, I was alone and, as the Pentacosts say, I was filled with the spirit.  My senses were alive, and I loved everything they lit upon: at 13, colorful autumn leaves outside my window, the soaring music on my record player (Sweet Surrender by John Denver, if you must know), the feel of my journal and the inky slide of my pen tip, the scratch of my mohair shawl; at 26, the luminous late spring fields north of Corvallis, Oregon, the air blowing through my rolled-down car window, the music on my tape deck, the sound of my own voice singing. My body felt almost too small to contain the beauty of the world.

I think of these times whenever someone asks if I’ve ever felt transported by an experience, or awed, or if I’ve felt a joy that stopped time.

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I thought of these earlier incidents a couple weeks ago while attending a two-day training.  The training was offered by an internationally recognized couples therapist.  At these trainings, six couples sit in a circle with the therapist over the course of two days. Sitting in an outer circle in the same room are therapist observers.  We come to watch the therapist work and to learn more about his approach so we might be of greater service to the couples we see in our own practices.  Quite often, the situation for these couples is dire; they are here as a last-ditch effort to save their relationships.

This was my fourth such training.  In the past, these weekends have exhausted me.  I was buffeted about by the intense feelings in the room: the anger, the anguish, the weariness, the hope. In truth, I think I felt proud of those feelings, as if riding the roller coaster with the clients was proof that I was a caring person, a good therapist.

That’s not what happened this time.  This time, I felt calm.  I felt grounded. As each agonizing drama unfolded in front of me, I thought, I wish the best for them.  Maybe things will change; maybe they won’t.  That’s for them to decide. I wish them well.

This feeling was so unprecedented that at one point I wondered if perhaps I was becoming jaded.  Maybe this feeling signaled the end of my career as a therapist. I still cared, though.  These people were suffering. We have all suffered like this in matters of love. I wished for them less suffering; I wished for this experience to show a clear path toward their suffering less.

Meanwhile, this remarkable, deep equanimity persisted.

It lasted through both days of the training.

I was aware while feeling it that at some point it would end. I tried not to care too much about that; I wanted to savor it and be grateful for its presence now.

It did eventually shift back to my more ordinary way of being in the world. I was curious why it had arrived at all.  The best answer I had was that likely it had something to do with all the yoga I’ve been doing. I wasn’t exactly sure why this might be so, but somehow the yoga explanation made sense to me. Things occur in life when certain conditions come together; doing yoga a lot more was the one obvious condition I’d changed in my life.

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Last Sunday, I woke up early with an anxiety dream.  The plot details were mundane enough, but I woke up feeling guilty and anxious and worthless. I didn’t want to go back to sleep for fear of slipping into the dream again, and I let Garth know I was getting up. He said, Hey, I just had a flying dream. He told me about his dream where, in the midst of great turmoil and violent upheaval all around, he and a group of people were seated in a circle, cross-legged, doing yoga. After awhile, he realized he was able to float above the ground, as high as ten feet. No one else was able to do it and before long he was giving everyone rides.  Someone asked him how we was able to do it, and he said, I don’t know; the Universe is buoying me up.

As the morning wore on, I realized I felt cheated, as if Garth had actually had the experience his dream described, while I was left with the tedium and monotony of common life concerns. I talked about it with him; I shared it with another training group I met with later that day. I brought it up at the dinner table. I hoped if I talked about it with others, I’d overcome it; I’d get on the other side of being jealous of all the flashy ways other people’s spirituality seems to manifest and ultimately I’d embrace my own way. Except “my own way” seemed to entail a smattering of bright moments of equanimity and love separated by years – decades sometimes -of regular life. Honestly, I’d rather be buoyed, I’d rather fly.

I spoke with my wise therapist.  I told her I longed for that calm and equanimity to return. I felt almost ill with not knowing when or if I’d ever experience it again. She asked did it at least make it more bearable to know this feeling existed for me, even when I wasn’t experiencing it in the moment? Her question revealed to me something I hadn’t realized before: I don’t; I don’t know that this experience exists for me whether I am feeling it or not. I am like the child who only knows her blanket is there when it’s in her grasp. If it’s in the drier, it might as well have been wiped from the face of the earth, and reassurances that it still exists somewhere don’t have the desired effect.

Friends of mine might say these moments I’ve described are moments of touching god, of being one with the energy, the chi, of the universe. Dream Garth – who in his waking life would never use language like this – would say I was “buoyed by the Universe.” And they would say I’m not only buoyed at these notable moments, but all through life as well, even when I don’t notice it. Their words cut both ways. It suggests hope for me, but it also highlights a confidence I don’t feel.

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I’ve made several passes at bringing this post to an end. I’m not sure how to – probably because I’m not at the end of this experience. I felt such despair when my equanimity left, and greater despair still when I realized I had no framework that guaranteed its return. Still, as I’ve written several aborted endings to this post, it has brought me into closer contact with the details of my life and the details of the world. And what I find there is this: my life has been enormously blessed; it would not be an exaggeration to say I should be on my knees in gratitude for the rest of my life in thanks for the good that is here. I’d like to be able to say with certainty that my life has been blessed because of some divine river that always flows on my behalf, but I can’t say that right now.

In the meantime, the best image I could find for what equanimity felt like is the one below. It comforts me that even if I never step into that divine stream again, I can step into forests, oceans, and actual streams; I can rest in the expanse of the sky; I can commune with my dear children and husband, with my soulful family and friends. That is the divine stream I can count on, every day.

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