“Ambiguous Loss”

[Community Bulletin Board, Somerville Public Library, October, 2015 ]
I’m learning how to live with ambiguous loss. Since Christmas, I’ve been enrolled in a crash course.

I’m learning how to mourn someone I haven’t yet lost.

I’m learning how to mourn what has been lost yet never was.

I’m learning how to live with ambiguity. And both-and. (Early lessons learned : it’s exhausting! And pervasively sad.)

As I learn to live with ongoing stress and grief, I’m learning how to live with the Good Enough. I’m shooting for a C- in this class; maybe a solid B on a really good day.

I’m learning how to go with the flow.

But maybe all of us are living with ambiguous loss. The loss of weather we can recognize. Loss of seasons we remember. Loss of polar caps. Song birds. Clean water where and when we always expected it to be. And yet good ol’ Mother Earth keeps circling the sun, doesn’t she; for many of us—God, not all—life just keeps rolling along; doesn’t it? Maybe the pervasive anger all around us is about our collective, pervasive sadness. But maybe we can’t quite admit to that sadness. It’s SO much easier to be pissed! Our loss isn’t obvious, maybe. Yet we’re all mourning a Mother Earth who, yes, is still here but irrevocably changed.

Tears, Tears*


[Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California]

Back in the day, when I taught in greater-Boston homeless shelters and drove a lot, it sometimes seemed as though Spirit manifested Itself through NPR (WGBH, in particular). Heavy-hearted after a particularly grueling or heart-wrenching session with a troubled student, I’d get in my car, turn on the radio, and lo: one of my favorite pieces of music was being played—and at just my favorite part! Although I knew Spirit didn’t actually work this way, this “personalized programming” happened so often that I allowed myself to take comfort from this gratuitous, wondrous gift.

Last Tuesday: same thing! Only this time it was the New York Times website that offered me just what I longed for at exactly the moment I needed it. I’d just come home after visiting Neville Center, a highly respected long term care facility (what we used to call “a nursing home.”) And, yes, although I liked what I saw and, yes, I could imagine My Loved One** staying there and receiving excellent care, my visit triggered a panoply of emotions—some of which I still cannot name, identify.

Idly I sat at my computer and clicked on Safari/the Times website— just as the word “Live” flashed on the screen and, it turned out, just as President Obama marched towards the podium to give his gun-control speech. Oh, Reader, how I needed to hear that impassioned speech! Our insane gun laws tearing me apart, how I needed to see Obama weep over the lost lives of those children at Sandy Hook. I cried, too.

Until last week I would have declared myself way too old and way too contrary to need an elected official mouthing what I long to hear. That I’d feel I was being played should any politician sing my song. Not true any more, apparently. Apparently the horrific and mean-spirited right-wing rhetoric of these past few months has taken such a toll that Obama’s reasoned speech—well, it gave me hope. And lifted my spirits. On a day when I really, really needed it!

This week, renewed and grateful, I wait to see how Spirit will continue to break through as I shepherd My Loved One’s transition to Neville Center. And lo: it’s already happened in the form of a wise and patient social worker who helped me fill out a “Do Not Resuscitate” Form. (Yikes)

Thank you, Spirit, for all your blessings.


* The first as in crying; the second, the verb meaning to break apart (and rhymes with stairs), as in to tear a piece of paper in half.

** I’m being discreet, here, because a) it seems respectful and b) recently had a nasty phising incident so am reluctant to put much personal info online.

My Mother’s Stollen


[Christmas Morning, 2015]

So many things I could write about, so many things to say: about my mother, who is ninety-two and failing, about my complicated relationship with the original Patricia Wild, about my memories of childhood Christmases and trying to relish my mother’s stollen—but so much I want to say feels private. Like a thought or an insight that comes from that small, still voice within me during the quiet of silent worship but, by its intimate and personal nature, makes clear this thought/insight is not to be shared but is, rather, “bread for home.” Bread sprinkled with powdered sugar or, as was the case with my mother’s stollen, slathered with buttercream icing and filled with red and green candied fruit.

So I will simply say this: This Christmas after opening our stockings we did not eat my mother’s stollen. (She hasn’t baked in years.) Instead we thoroughly enjoyed a “secret stollen recipe passed down from generations of esteemed pastry chefs in the Hamburg region of Germany . . . made with hazelnuts, candied fruit, rum raisins and a sumptuous spice blend,” a specialty of pastry chef Bjoern Boettcher, my oldest daughter’s Brooklyn neighbor.

It was delicious. (Happily, Chef Botcher uses au naturel candied fruit.) And tasted like what I believe my mother, who’d grown up in a German-American family, had yearned to share with her family and neighbors. (Every year at Christmas, our kitchen turned into a Christmas stollen factory!)  Like the angel chimes from my own childhood, a magical memory I wanted to share with my children and have, I have come to think my mother had tasted a stollen a LOT like what we’d enjoyed this year —and wanted to replicate that sweet experience for us. But, busy with child-rearing and keeping up with my father (talk about complicated!), she never had time to do the kind of research a pastry chef eager to make his mark on the culinary world would dedicate to such a quest. So, I’m betting she simply tore a “stollen” recipe out of some fifties women’s magazine because it approximated what she so fondly remembered and, like she had to do in so many ways, Pat Wild Made Do. (Those hated red and green candied fruit? Fifties fare, right?)

I’m hoping Chef Boettcher’s delicious and magical stollen will become a family tradition. But as I’m savoring his sumptuous spice blend, I pray I’ll be able to also taste my mother’s fervency with every bite.


Tastes like Home (sub-set: Tastes Like Christmas)


[Christmas in Palm Springs; 2013]

Yesterday my son-in-law dropped off some cardamon bread he’d made over the weekend; it tasted like home, a “home” I never actually had or known! But some flavors, some smells, some vibes are like that, aren’t they? In some mysterious, deep, wordless way, they just feel right! They somehow remind us of something always there, present, and abiding. Like the first time I experienced a Quaker meeting: I knew I’d come home.

There are ways we can manufacture that deliciousness; we can create traditions that somehow incorporate key elements of that Just Feels Right sense. Like the gingerbread cookies I’ve been making at Christmas for close to 50 years. My four daughters and their children have grown up with these cookies. The smell of them baking in the oven (or putting a couple out on Christmas Eve for Santa) equals home.

I’m willing to bet that no one in my family, living in a time when most people consider soft and chewy more desirable than crunchy/best when dipped into milk or hot chocolate, really loves these cookies. (My “Moist Dark Gingerbread” gets way more raves.) But once upon a time they certainly enjoyed making them. Getting flour all over themselves and the kitchen floor. Using their favorite cookie cutters. ( The moose? Or pig? How ’bout the traditional Christmas chicken?) Inviting friends over to help. Decorating them, too. (For years I insisted on only natural ingredients—raisins, nuts, cranberries, etc.—but have lately gone over to The Dark Side and now use red and green sprinkles.) And since the dough is the consistency of clay, they especially loved, when they were teenagers, creating risqué objets d’art. (You can imagine!)

Yesterday I posted a picture on Facebook of my granddaughter rolling out that sturdy, pliable dough and received several requests for the recipe. But I’m actually reluctant to pass it along for 2 reasons: It’s not soft and chewy. Your family and friends might be disappointed. And it requires—wait for it—8 or 9 cups of flour! (This year, way too busy, I halved the recipe. And still have plenty) My recipe requires hours of baking! Who has time?

Here’s my advice: Do what I did half a century ago. Find a recipe that speaks to you. And feels like home. Better yet, do what I did two minutes ago: google Best Gingerbread Cookies Ever.

Here’s one that sounds really good. And guess what! It’s soft and chewy!



Thanksgiving’s Starting A Little Early This Year*


Earlier tonight I was driving home in the dark and the rain; I was also pretty tired. Tense as I always am under those conditions, I felt myself starting to relax only as I got closer to home.

A couple of blocks from my house, I stopped for a red light and although I could have done a right-on-red, decided to play it cautious—because I worried a bicyclist might cruise past I wouldn’t be able to see. But when the light turned green I assumed that no bicyclist, not even the most reckless, no-helmut-no-lights and clueless, would dare to run a red light on such a night. My foot on the accelerator and ready to go, something caught my eye through the lower, left-hand corner of my rain-splattered windshield: a young woman dressed in entirely in black and shielded by a huge umbrella who’d decided to cross the street against the pedestrian cross-walk sign. And right in front of me. As she passed my headlights she gave me this hangdog, apologetic, please-don’t hate-me look. And then disappeared back into the darkness.

I don’t hate her. I just marvel I didn’t hit her. Home, now, registering how tired I am and how likely it might have been that, so close to home, I could have completely let down my guard, it seems a miracle I saw her. Phew!

So: the Sunday night before Thanksgiving, I begin this holiday week with a heightened sense of gratitude. (What’s the difference between gratitude and thankfulness? Anyone? Anyone?) Which, tonight I take to mean: Don’t take anything for granted. Anything! Clean drinking water. Seat belts. Being able to vote. Toilet paper.

“What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusionary -property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life -don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart -and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it may be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted on their memory.”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956


*I’m posting early, too!

Seen/Scene at Connecticut Muffin

[Manhattan Underpass, Rush Hour, 2015]
Sometimes it’s those brief moments, a random glance out a Brooklyn cafe’s window that can be so telling, right?  Sunday morning sleepily drinking my coffee, I watched a young, tense man walk past and as I idly watched, saw his eyes brighten and a smile transform his caught-up-in-plans-and-worries face. No, I couldn’t see what so charmed him but, given that this was Brooklyn, a haven for hipsters and their offspring, it’s probably a sure bet that he’d spotted a child, a child somehow being adorable, but too short to be seen from where I sat.

Catching sight of his softened, tolerant face, I realized how blessed mixed communities truly are. Before Sunday when talking about mixed I might have meant strictly by ethnicity. But having witnessed that man’s face light up, I must now add: by age, too. A community is all the richer and stronger and more resilient when its citizens are reminded, just strolling down the street or seated on a park bench, that it’s a complex, mixed-up, diverse—and, yes, broken but sometimes adorable—world we’re sharing.

Tomorrow I will visit the assisted living center where my mother lives, a well-appointed, attractive, supportive community of and for old people. And I will remember that young man’s smile.


“Privilege Blinds”


[ Summer Vacation, 2015]

Last week, fifteen members of my family, three generations of us, gathered at a funky, run-down, eight-bedroom house on a lake in Connecticut—fairly easy to get to for those of us based in New England; much harder for those living in, say, Salt Lake City or Louisville, Kentucky. (But they came, anyway.)

On Day 2 my almost three-year-old granddaughter wondered, “Grandma! Is this your new house?”

Her question triggered a childhood memory: I remembered visiting a Cape Cod mansion built by my great-grandfather — where another branch of the Wild family summered. I remember how I much I’d wished it had been my extended family’s commodious summer home; how jealous I was that my blond, tanned, barefoot cousins were so little awed, so nonchalant that this elegant house, its private beach, and the pretty wooden sailboat waiting at the dock were theirs and at their disposal whenever they wanted. “I only tell of sunny hours,” the sundial in the garden in front of that memorable, longed-for house proclaimed. I remember how, despite my covetousness, that inscription intrigued me.

“Oh, little girl,” I wish I could tell that jealous, intrigued mini-me. “You have no idea how privileged you are!”

(She wouldn’t believe me.)










“Progress Is Our Most Important Product”*


[Russian submarine from the Cold War era, Maritime Museum, San Diego, CA]

Saturday I spent some time at FirstBuild, a state-of-the-art machine shop cum high-tech appliance incubator in Louisville, KY run by GE. Talk about a layered experience!

A little background: My beloved father, who died in 2010, worked for GE for many years in war time and peace time, inventing both the butter conditioner (the little box in your refrigerator that keeps butter at its optimum temperature) and the computer used as a machine-gun defense system for the B-29; “the plane that won World War II.” He also sold GE television equipment in the earliest days of TV and as a “Cold War warrior” (and self-labeled “merchant of death”) negotiated contacts between GE and the military. So wandering through GE factories or TV studios some random Saturday to stare, stupefied, at work benches and machinery and dials and gauges and fancy, mysterious equipment, carefully stepping over jumbles of wires as my father excitedly explained The Latest Thing/GE’s newest project was something I did as a kid.

More context: A couple of weeks before, I’d given a talk re Way Opens and my own experiences during the Civil Rights Era to a group of bright, tender middle-school students at Cambridge Friends School. Who were “heavy,” as their teacher put it, Freddie Gray’s death much on their minds. Their collective heaviness stays with me.

So there I was, gobstruck by the cool, nifty appliances in FirstBuild’s showroom and my first look at a 3-D printer and, knowing how much my dad would have loved every single moment, desperately missing him. And aware that despite all this progress, just blocks away people of color were living under pretty much the same conditions as they had during the Jim Crow era.

See what I mean by layered?

* GE’s slogan during the 50s and 60s, i.e. the Civil Rights and Cold War era.


“They Are Our Kids”



[19th Century Young Girl’s Grave, El Campo Santo, San Diego, CA, soon after Dia de Muertos, 2014]

Don’t get me wrong: I love my daughters, I love my grandchildren. I loved sitting in my Quaker meeting this morning watching Meeting children happily search for Easter eggs outside. I love Christmas, I love birthdays, I love making any child happy by buying just the right gift.

Here’s what I don’t love: The disparity between children like my grandchildren and those happy children I watched this morning and the poor children of this country. As a recent “New Yorker” article put it: The American dream is in crisis, [Robert Putnam, author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis] argues, because Americans used to care about other people’s kids and now they only care about their own kids. But, he writes, “America’s poor kids do belong to us and we to them. They are our kids.” 

Here’s what deeply moves me: That on October 31, 2014, someone placed those plastic necklaces and those two dolls on the grave pictured above. A Mexican-American child decorated that child’s grave for Dia de Muertos, I’m guessing.  She swept the dirt, she arranged those bricks as best she could, she threw away—God knows what that child discovered in that gritty, surrounded-by-bars-and restaurants cemetery in the heart of San Diego’s Old Town. That generous child is very likely one of those “poor kids” Putnam wrote about.

My kid. Our kid.


That seventh bee sting



[Side-yard path formerly used as a shortcut until the homeowners erected that fence]

Last night in the moonlight I shoveled a path from my kitchen door to a birdfeeder hanging from a wrought-iron hook attached to our deck railing. And then, beneath the quiet magic of an almost full moon, Jupiter beside it, I filled the feeder with the best birdseed Target sells so, first thing this morning, my neighborhood’s sparrows and juncoes and house finches and cardinals and blue jays and, yes, pesky squirrels (when I’m not keeping watch), could have breakfast.

After the first blizzard dumped two feet of snow, I’d waded through my backyard’s drifts and climbed up the snow-covered steps  to the deck and shoveled the first, such path. But after our second storm and another foot or so, the snow was just too deep to wade through, again. Opening the kitchen door with all that new snow drifted against it? It would only open an inch or so. So I gave up.

Yesterday had been a hard day; I’m going to respect the privacy of a family member and just leave it at that. And just getting around, going about my usual, day-to-day life in a densely populated community under more than three feet of snow? Very challenging, very tiring. (Thank God the Patriots won or folks would be even more cranky!)

So, worn out and blue, I’d opted to lie on the couch under a thick quilt and read.

But then, something pulled me off the couch and into a kitchen drawer to find, yes! A metal, broad-bladed spatula, i.e. a tiny shovel. “I can dig a bit at a time until I can get the door to open wide enough to get a shovel out there,” I reasoned. And I did, scooping the “shoveled” snow into a bowl and dumping it into the sink.

There’s a theory concerning poverty that says that being poor, being oppressed, is like being stung multiple times by bees. A stung person can handle the first two or three stings, can treat the pain, but when the numbers climb—let’s say that sixth bee sting—he or she just gives up. Endures. Tries to ignore painful reality.

And some say that this is true—but not a universal phenomenon. One article I read discussed empowerment as a variable, for example.

First acknowledging that in a very deep way I will never know what it means to be poor and oppressed, I wish to simply acknowledge the power of moonlight. And grace. (Which is all to say, mystery, right?) I do not completely understand what compelled me to do something I, exhausted and depressed, had given up on but am so very, very grateful I could.

So are all the sparrows and juncoes and . . .



What do you see?


This past rainy, rainy Sunday, I had the great joy to visit the Brooklyn Museum in the company of three daughters, three sons-in-law, three grandchildren and one husband. Keeping that large a crowd, two under the age of six, together, engaged and not touching the art–sometimes the adults were as bad as the kids—was a challenge but (mostly) we did fine.

This was my second visit to the museum; I was eager to again experience two features of the museum: that it attracts a diverse crowd (sadly, most of my museum experiences in Boston have been pretty much Whites Only) and, oh, yes, Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party,” pictured above. (Immediately after taking that picture I was gently scolded for using a flash. Oops.)

My Brooklyn-based daughter now takes school-aged kids through the museum every week so at some stops along the way, she would ask family members open-ended questions to further help us to appreciate what we were seeing.

So, inspired by her There Are NO Right or Wrong Answers probing, here are a couple of questions about the above photograph:

What do you notice about the plates?

Why do you suppose, of all thirty-nine places at this dinner party, the photographer chose to feature Virginia Woolf and Georgia O’Keeffe?

Why do you suppose the artists who made the embroidered runners chose those particular colors for those particular women?

Who do you see in the background? Why do you think that woman is carrying that child?



Bit by Bit


[Sign in a plumbing-supply store with a Christmas tree and presents in its front window]


Before Christmas, my husband, grand-daughter and I traded germs ( our two-year-old grand-daughter generously shares an unlimited supply of colds and other ailments from daycare with us) which, filled with Christmas Spirit, I fended off. But those germs finally won—and so I spent yesterday under a thick quilt with Olive Kitteridge. (And Kleenex and cough drops and tall glasses of orange juice.)

This morning, still pretty low-energy, still pretty sick, as I waited for my coffee water to boil I found myself wiping down our utterly filthy kitchen stove. “Ahh, ” I thought, watching myself clean up some of the past week’s spillage we’ve been too busy to attend to, “here’s a tiny bit of my Real Life breaking through my exhaustion,” like the hyacinths and paperwhites in my living room just beginning to reveal themselves. (The bulbs were gifts from a dear friend and a dear daughter.)

Low energy, pretty sick, it’s remarkably easy to think about the past week and to only remember how exhausting Christmas is! All that work! All that family drama! All those delicious holiday treats that left me worn out and debilitated once the sugar-buzz wore off! All that surrounding, worldly tension between Hopeful, Light-Filled, Peace-Loving, Joyful versus Cynical, Violent, Bah Humbug.

How comforting (Get it?) to remember as I lie under that thick quilt that Hope and Light and Peace  and Joy are within me—within all of us—no matter what the season or how we feel. Indeed, like those mysterious and unprepossessing bulbs, these gifts of the Spirit require only something to cling to and a little water:

Last night, as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!

That a spring was breaking out in my heart.

I said: Along which secret aqueduct,

Oh water, are you coming to me,

Water of a new life

That I have never drunk?

                                   [from “Times Alone” by Antonio Machado]