Quality Quality of Life

IMG_1351

[“Wellness Ambassador,” RiteAid pharmacy]

Having just finished Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, heartily recommended, I’ve been giving that “what matters” some thought.

It’s been an excellent week to be asking this question: I’ve been out of town a lot lately so am looking at my home and my life with the eye of the returning traveler. And it’s one of those crunch times when too many important things must happen within a couple of days of one another. And I’ve been both sick and a little jet-lagged so am not really bringing my A game to my extra-long-because I’ve-been-out-out-town To Do list. So need to cull, prioritize. And, of course, the earthquake in Nepal and the headlines re Baltimore—and the headlines about those headlines—both weight heavy on my heart and ask me to look at my life, my choices from a larger, tragic perspective.

What matters? (And will be accessible as I age.)  Here are my Top 4:

1. Silent worship/opening myself to Spirit. Dare I confess that only because I’d agreed to meet someone after mid-week worship at my Quaker meeting yesterday morning* did I find myself sitting in silence with handful of people? (I guess I do.) After about ten minutes I was asking myself, “How come I don’t come here every week?”

2. Spending dedicated, unobstructed, no-distractions time with the people I love. Duh.

3. Nature–even the urban version I see and hear through my kitchen window. The wind through my wind chimes, watching clouds or a sparrow at my bird feeder matter. They feed me.

4. Writing. If I am not working on/mulling/stewing over a writing project I get very, very crabby. (And, strangely, anxious, too. Not sure why that is).  Good to know, right?

What would be Your Top 4?

 

* Don’t get the wrong idea; we did not discuss spiritual matters. But rather how to self-promote now that I’ve just finished a book. Hmmm.

Out of the Blue

IMG_0776

 

[Harvard Square; reflected]

Sometimes it’s challenging to live in this part of the world. Like my son-in-law noted the first time he took the T—known as the subway in his NYC—”too many students!”

Sometimes it’s challenging to be perpetually surrounded by young men and women. Sometimes I get impatient. Sometimes I feel invisible. Or irrelevant. Sometimes I just get tired of college students.

But last night, walking under a smeary, bright, three-quarter moon, something happened. I’d just left myQuaker meeting when one person didn’t show up for a meeting I’d attended. And had spent much of the meeting both absorbed in why we were there and pretty sure that missing person was AWOL because I’d again forgotten to notify her that we were meeting and feeling really, really, really bad. Again. (Did I mention I’d done this to her once before?) And angry at myself. And old.  (I make stupid mistakes SOO much more than I used to.)

As I walked across a broad, paved expanse of open space in front of Harvard’s Science Building, out of the blue a young man on a bike rode diagonally past me. (If I was going from a 6 to 12 direction on a clock face, the Science Building at 9, his route was from 10 to 4.) He rode, knees high and lost in thought, his hands in his pockets.

And I remembered how great it was as a kid to “Hey, Ma, no hands!” I remembered how riding my bike had been my first taste of autonomy; what an absolute thrill that was. I remembered being a kid. And, despite my anger and guilt, I remembered to be grateful.

PS: Turns out I did NOT mess up. Doubled gratitude!

 

“. . . Hallelujah by and by”

IMG_1104

At the beginning of yoga class began last week, our teacher invited us to say a little about transitions and how that might be playing out in our lives. Although each of us had something different to contribute, that summer had ended and fall had begun was definitely a common theme.

It was a wonderful, varied, invigorating class so when it came time for savasana, I gratefully sank into “corpse pose,” the traditional ending to every yoga class, with every muscle in my body relaxed and my eyes closed.

Well, almost every muscle. Because as I lay there on my mat, aware of only my breath and the quiet, a set of hands firmly but gently pushed my shoulders against  the mat as if to say: “You’re still holding onto some tension, there. Here! Let me help you release it.” And then, almost as though there had been a second pair of hands it happened so fast, a folded blanket perfectly cradled my head.

Here’s the thing: While I knew it had been Annie, my teacher, who’d performed these kindnesses, I had the eyes-shut-tight vision that, indeed, I was on my death bed and that someone, a daughter, perhaps, had eased my burdens and calmed my mind as I moved towards The Big Transition: my death.

Does that sound morbid? It hasn’t felt so. All week I’ve been grateful to be reminded that my remaining years on this precious earth, like the hairs on my head, are numbered.

 

 

 

 

 

“Does anyone ever realize life?”

IMG_1054

As I overhead a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident remark in July, at the height of her Canadian resort-town’s summer season: “Any day now we’ll all be talking about the polar vortex again!”

Sigh.

This glorious summer is coming to an end. Farmers’ market peaches are mealy and sad, now, for instance. Did I truly appreciate every peach I ate in July, in August? I wonder. And remember, as I always do when I ask this Did I Truly Appreciate XYZ question, that precious, poignant moment at the end of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town:

EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

I remember the first time I saw Our Town—sitting beside my mother at a small and shabby community theater in Lynchburg, Virginia. I was fifteen or sixteen. I remember, hearing the Stage Manager’s answer, promising to myself that night: “will! I will always live my life, ‘every minute,’ with intention, with gratitude, with focus.” (If I’d known the word “mindfulness” I would have added it to my mental list. But I hadn’t. Not at that age. And not in segregated, conservative, sleepy Lynchburg.)

But I haven’t.

 

Waiting

IMG_0874 copy 2

 

Outside my kitchen door, a fledgling robin sits on the deck railing. Downy, helpless, utterly quiet, the baby bird waits so quietly, so still, I would not have even seen it had not its red-breasted father—a flash of ochre on a gray day in a gray backyard—suddenly appeared. With a worm.  No doubt aware of the potentially dangerous human just inches away, the father-child feeding is efficient and soundless. Off Dad flies. The fledging waits.

I, too, wait. “Final Draft 4” (?!) of Welling Up* sent off to my wise and thoughtful writing coach, told to take as much time as she needed, like that patient fledgling, I await her comments and suggestions with complete trust.

Inwardly, however, I am a mess. The focus of so much of my consciousness both awake and asleep, my creative and ever-plotting, ever-sifting brain now set on “Pause,” I am anxious and obsessive.

So I could learn a lot from that tiny, quiet creature.

Simply I am here. Simply snow falls. [Issa]

* For two thousand years, as the role of women shifts in Western culture, so does the story told of Mary Magdalene. Set in Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Welling Up offers another version of this evolving tale. My novel begins on Easter of 1997, ends at Christmas of that same year, and centers on the emerging love and trust between redhead Jewell McCormick, a formerly-homeless homecare worker, and her favorite client, Rocco Pellegrino, an elderly, wheelchair-bound Red Sox fan.

All (American) Women

IMG_0837

Raised by Republicans, I was no Red Diaper Baby Feminist nor, having grown up in the complacent suburbs of the 50s, can claim an early awareness of social injustice. And yet from an early age—at least this is how I remember it—I knew that being a woman  mattered. I can remember in junior high, maybe at UU Sunday school, discussing a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt or Eisenhower or . . . to the effect that American women were this country’s greatest untapped resource and, being eleven or twelve, thinking, “Yup! True. And when I get old enough, I’ll be a part of the tapping. I’ll be a part of Something Amazing!”

And I am. Although It’s taken way, way longer than I’d imagined when in junior high. And at that age and easeful time of my life, how could I have possibly imagined the power, the rage, the unspeakable cruelty of sexism? (Writing this, I realize that that the young, cosseted, idealistic eleven-year-old me still lives and breathes, sometimes. She’s the me so bewildered by horrific headlines: “How can this* be?”)

I see this Something Amazing every day: in the paradigm-shifting work of Michelle Alexander and Mothers Out Front, in the voices of Elizabeth Warren**, Rachel Maddow, Annie Hoffman, my yoga teacher, my strong, realized granddaughters.

And I see it in the faces, the smiles and nods of the women I pass by everyday, women from all over the world, women of all ages and ethnicities and classes and sexual persuasions, women in flowing robes and tight jeans and Birkenstocks. Not everyone, of course. But—and this may be Just Me—I see Sisterhood. I see silent acknowledgement of “Yup.”, a female version of a secret handshake.

Yup.

* For example

** This link’s worth watching on SO many levels, particularly the “Looking great!” comment. Really? You went there? “How can this be?”

“What Happened [to the women’s movement]?”

IMG_0718

 

[Still-life in front of  a Union Square storefront]

Thursday evening I attended a showing of Catherine Russo’s documentary, “A Moment in Her Story: Stories from the Boston Women’s Movement” at the Cambridge Public Library. When the lights came up, everyone in the 99% female audience, individually or in twos and threes, asked the same question: “What happened?” What happened to the vibrant, collective, in-your face movement depicted in Russo’s film? Why are we STILL fighting for freedom of choice? Wy are women STILL so disproportionally represented in politics, as movers and shakers in the arts, etc.* Why, why, why, after all this time, did Sheryl Sandberg STILL HAVE TO write Lean In? Huh?

Here’s my 2 cents—or, rather, my Susan B. Anthony dollar coin:

1. “Complacency:” (Those quotation marks indicate irony. Lots of irony) This complacency, the same kind of lazy and facile reasoning that declares “Racism is no longer an issue because, heh, Obama’s president.” says: “Women no longer burn their bras because, heh, women are doing pretty well these days: they wear pants, now, abortion is legal—although, in places like Texas, access is tricky—and, heh, look at Angela Merkel and Hillary!”

2. Actually, the beat goes on: (It’s just not Evening News worthy, anymore). For example, if you go to the “Her Story” link and click on the trailer, at 4:11 you’ll see a group picture of the women who created Our Bodies Ourselves back in the day. The incredibly important work of The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective continues. (Some of you will recognize one woman in that group picture—my dear friend Wendy Sanford.) And let’s not  forget Mothers Out Front, a women’s mobilization re climate change!

3. 9/11: It’s next-to-impossible to analyze one’s own era; we live it, we breathe it. But every time I see a woman driving an SUV I’m  reminded that I live at a time in history marked by pervasive fear. “Women want to feel safe,” SUV makers tell us. (How sad that auto makers, like politicians and the media, use women’s and men’s sense of vulnerability to their own ends.) How that plays out regarding women I only sense. Stay tuned.

4. Sexism, like the poor and racism and homophobia and anti-semitism, will always be with us. There’s always gonna be haters.

* Judy Chicago spoke at Harvard a couple of weeks ago and, not surprisingly, had lots to depressing things to say about the art scene these days.

All Kinds of Love

IMG_0023

[A neglected yet wondrous front yard in Cambridge, MA; January 31, 2013]

No paperwhites this year. My pretty, blue-and-white Chinese bowl, ceremoniously filled with smooth, small stones, water, and five or six bulbs on New Year’s Day and then placed on the piano, remains in the basement. My ninety-year old mother, preoccupied by her move into assisted living, didn’t distribute carefully bundled bulbs at Christmas to her children and grandchildren. Didn’t even mention them.

So, naively, I walked to Tagg’s last night, a locally-owned, new-style version of a country store. Hardware and upscale kitchenware and small appliances and nifty umbrellas that don’t collapse in heavy winds and garden supplies? Yup; Tagg’s got them. Paperwhites? Seems you’re supposed to buy paperwhites in November! Oh.

As my daughters would say: “A First -World Problem.” I get that. Believe me, as I sit here, warm and dry and safe, I know that the lack of paperwhites is not a big deal, okay?

And I get this: my mother’s no longer able to mother me; not really. And I get that although I’m a mother and grandmother and much loved, I will always long for that mothering. I’m too much a Quaker to whine about this. Just sad.

But, hey. There’s all kinds of love. At least four, according to the Bible: Storge, the familial love that once upon a time drove my mother to her version of Tagg’s to buy paperwhites; Eros (Yum); Philia (so very present in the halls of Congress these days, right?); and my personal favorite: Agape.

I will always remember my Wow! Does Everybody Know About This But Me? reaction when I first learned about all-loving, unconditional agape, that love that passeth all understanding. Pretty sure I was going through another divorce at the time. Pretty sure I was singin’ “When Will I Be Loved?” a lot. (BTW: did you know that Phil Everly, who died last week, wrote that song after he’d split up from his brother?)

And, hey: the wonder of a precious, living thing unfolds every Monday in my living room when I get to spend several hours with my granddaughter.

I mean, c’mon!

 

 

 

 

 

E Pluribus Unum

IMG_0579

 

[  Kenny Irwin creations, Palm Springs, CA]

Although, more and more, my spiritual practice is about the Here and Now, I’ve spent the last couple of days looking at my 2013. Yes. Reading my journal.

What has struck me is this: the story I’ve been telling myself about this past year isn’t what I’d carefully recorded! I’ve glossed over several key—and sometimes painful—events, completely forgotten others that, in fact, had demanded enormous energy and dedication. (My work on an ad hoc committee at my Quaker meeting, which met weekly/sometimes twice a week for much of the spring and early summer, for example.)

Humbling. And illuminating.

Yet this is also true: The story I’ve been telling myself is what I’ve crafted from all the bits and pieces I’d carefully recorded. My aging and forgetful and biochemically-upbeat and cheerful mind has arranged and edited those bits and pieces so as to tell an upbeat and cheerful narrative.

We all do that. We all make meaning based on who we are and what we’re about.  I’m remembering how, last week, my seven-year-old grandson, Dmitri, and four-year-old granddaughter, Ruby, made meaning of the rooms and rooms and glass case after glass case of stuff at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Of all the stuffed animals—and there were thousands of them—they gazed at, in a sense, that afternoon boiled down to this:

Dmitri’s museum was the large, stuffed animal whose stuffing was leaking through the vertical seam down the animal’s backside.

Ruby’s museum was the pigmy shrew, probably the smallest and cutest mammal in the whole place!

A related observation about that excursion: The Museum, for the most part, is strictly Old School, i.e., not interactive. Yet Dmitri and Ruby loved walking through room after room, willy-nilly looking at whatever struck their fancy. Just like I did in the museums of my childhood. Seemingly, these 21st-century children didn’t need to push buttons or walk through a giant-sized simulation to be awed by the wonder and beauty and incredible variety of what surrounded them. Creation. Mystery. Something Greater than Themselves.

Making meaning is moment by moment selection and, sometimes, what we’re making meaning of can be experienced by simply standing, drop-jawed, perhaps, and quietly  taking in whatever’s in front of us. The present, precious moment. The Here and Now.

Can We Smile? Interact? Acknowledge One Another’s Humanity?

IMG_0502

 

[A pic from this year’s Honk—which is ALL about takin’ interactions to the streets!]

I’m missing intercourse—in the 19th-century sense of the word. I’m missing eye-to-eye sidewalk interactions as I walk. (And I walk a lot!) Those brief yet vital moments when two strangers pass each other and lift chins or smile or even say “Nice day,” or “How ’bout those Sox?”

How ironic. At a venerable age, when I am no longer in the slightest danger of being misinterpreted if I smile or say hello to another adult, my friendly, only-connect gestures go un-noticed, as men and women and even children stare at their I-phones as they stumble along. It’s sad, really, to see someone “walking” (more like zombie lurching, really) down a busy sidewalk, totally engrossed in whatever they’re viewing on the tiny screen in their hand when suddenly, for whatever reason, they look up. Such befuddled, dazed, “What the—?” confusion—”Oh, right, I’m actually in the middle of Davis Square!”—breaks my heart.

A moment of paranoia: Walking past a Brooklyn subway station I-phone ad recently, I noticed that someone had carefully written in large, block letters, “Your new master.” It is a little scary, isn’t it? This massive zombiefication? MIllions of people lurching along, under the sway of—what? Not the here and now, obviously. Not the living and breathing reality of the moment, whether precious or fraught, they’re experiencing. Yikes.

For us empty-handed folks, as has always been true in New England (a region historically not celebrated for its warmth and friendliness—even before I-phones), there’s always the weather as an interaction-with-strangers starter. “Cold/hot enough for ya?” remains an accepted opening remark around here. Which, unfortunately, amplifies another challenge of the Here and Now: How to answer that seemingly innocuous question? When the actual, real, True answer is along the lines of: “Are you kidding me? This unusually hot day in the middle of November’s scaring the bejesus out of me! I’m guessing it scares you, too, huh?”

Interesting times, huh?

 

 

“A Sort of Salvation”

IMG_0532

 

[A Palm Springs, CA decorator’s store window]

 

Yesterday was my 69th birthday. And although I’d just gotten back from a wonderful, restful, super-fun vacation and received many, many generous, thoughtful gifts and sweet phone calls and cards (several hand-made) and e-mails, my natal day was a little hard. Jet lag and probably coming down with something and lingering doubts re my decision to no longer write for First Day Press and, after sorting a week’s worth of mail, to pick up the latest issue of The New Yorker and to absolutely, gut-wrenchingly KNOW that I don’t have enough time left to reach the writing achievement of an Alice Munro or an Adam Gopnik—can you understand why it was a little hard?

But as the late afternoon sun began to fade, I received another gift: a visitation from my Muse. Just like William Stafford’s experience,my Muse reminded me that I have my own way of looking at things. Unlike Stafford’s drama queen, however, my Muse chose to gently,  lovingly fill me. No belled-forth voice, no buzzing glasses; no. Just a sense of Light deep within me and a small, still voice whispering: “Keep pluggin’.”

* When I Met My Muse

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off–they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

Buttonin’ Up

IMG_0491

 

Ah, fall. Vibrant foliage, crisp apples, scarlet and amber mums on porch steps, unearthing a forgotten sweater, that first whiff of smoke from a neighbor’s wood stove. And, every Columbus Day weekend here in Somerville: Honk! The best street festival evah.

This year, Honk! served as the backdrop for an even more important event: My husband David’s 70th birthday! Our children and their children and one sib and her family came from all over the country to celebrate this milestone. Saturday night, 20 of us ate barbecue in our recently spruced up carriage house—the all-summer-long, major construction project of The Birthday Boy. There was meh pecan pie with whipped cream and candles. Like our guest of honor: lowkey. (And because several family members were sick and couldn’t come, a little subdued, too.)

He didn’t plan it this way but the carriage house rehab, which required daily hefting of 60-pound bags of concrete, was an excellent way to launch the next decade.  Apparently, having worked so long and hard all summer and into the fall, David’s more strong and resilient than ever!