gifts of the pen

Many years ago, I worked at the New York Public Library as a Planned Giving Officer. My job was to work closely with older patrons and speak with them about how they planned to distribute their estate upon death. Would they consider bequeathing all or part of it to the future of the Library? Every morning on the subway, my boss would read the obituary section of the Times, and if he walked in particularly perky we knew a big donor had died. We would spend the morning reflecting on memories of the person, laughing and sharing stories, but would also be eager to get their Will and see what the Library had gained with their demise. It was a fascinating and slightly morbid job.

The greatest upside of the job, was building relationships with elder New Yorkers and creating wonderful behind the scenes tours of collections ranging from the Lincoln Center Library’s dance video collection to tours of former library caretaker living quarters, tucked into 4th floor attics. On these tours, ladies from 65 to 80 would take my arm and, with a twinkle in their eye, tell me about the New York they lived “when I was your age … oh, how I wish I’d known what I know now … I would’ve taken it all.” For me, I couldn’t imagine how they could’ve have taken more. These were women who had thrived, usually happily single, in the greatest city on earth, in a time when the world was filled with $5 off-broadway shows and Coney Island freak shows and white gloves with pillbox hats, dancing every night of the week, and rooms filled with the sound of electric typewriters creating a new world that we can only romanticize. It was magical.

The most magical memory, however, came on a Spring day when we went to visit the home of one of our favorite patrons. She attended almost every event since I had joined the library, but I had not seen her for a couple months. While she was a delight to interact with, she didn’t care for phone calls- even asking that we only sent correspondence to her. We abided her wishes and hoped we’d see her in Spring- once the winter’s cold lifted and events once more became well attended. However, when the season changed only a letter regarding her Will probate turned up- all of her belonging were to be given to the library.

To get to her 5th floor post-War apartment building in Riverdale, we took the 1 to the end of the line and walked through a neighborhood none of us had previously visited. The building super took us to her apartment and we entered a perfect time capsule. She’d lived alone in a pristine, one-bedroom, one-bath spot that she’d bought, on an English teacher’s salary, 50 years before. The carpet was a deep rusty red, windows were large and looked out onto trees. The kitchen had very little in terms of dry goods or cooking implements. A four piece dish set that looked to have been bought in celebration of owning her own place fifty years before sat in a cabinet. There was a simple cast iron skillet and a couple pots on the stove. And there were books, so many books. Books filled the remaining kitchen cabinets. And her living room shelves- Tall bookcases, stacked two deep, some books had two copies- a lovingly worn, well read copy, next to a pristine first edition- wrapped in archival plastic. In one corner of her living room, there was a comfortable, but not too comfortable, wingback chair with a wool blanket neatly folded over the left arm and a small table to the right topped with a good light that had an easy pull switch. Her bedroom held a perfectly made twin bed and a stunning, mid-Century writing table with a manual typewriter centered just so and a cane back chair. Also, another good lamp, more book cases, a single four drawer dresser and 2 file cabinets.

We quickly knew we had been bequeathed a treasure trove. The next week, we returned with two collections librarians and a mini-van. After looking through the small apartment for 10 minutes, one of the librarians gleefully announced, “We are going to need a bigger truck!” As it goes, people love donating their well-loved collections to the NYPL and while the books are valuable to their owners, they are rarely valuable to the library. This collection, however, was not only impressive in its size and quality, but also uniqueness. We found things like first editions signed by Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye and lesser known titles and cookbooks signed by Julia Childs, but clearly never cooked from, a shame but also a gift. Stashed on the top shelf of her entry closet, was a stack of hundred year old coffee table art books filled with Kama Sutra paintings. Like the cookbooks, they appeared to, sadly, not have been referenced much, but they existed and would reside at the main New York Public Library.

But all of that glory aside, what I wanted to know was, “What was in the file cabinets?” I opened the first drawer and my heart skipped. There were hundreds, likely thousands, of letters corresponding to dates neatly printed on the front of the drawers.

While collections librarians sorted through books, deciding what they would keep and what would be offered up for sale to The Strand bookstore, I sat at her little writing table and I read letters, so many letters. Each a story shared, each representing a mailbox opened and a letter excitedly read to learn the response to a question or the extension of a story started in a previous letter. Her sister had been a librarian who lived in central Harlem and they wrote letters every week, sometimes daily and many were posted with “morning” and “afternoon” mail service- meaning one would write before work and the other would reply after work. Often they would write to agree to meet for lunch and exchange books or finalize plans to catch an off-Broadway play together. The letters spanned decades. The letters were filled with heated debates about books, frustrations about students, or conversations about City politics- the subway or parks. But really, they were heartbeats of two sisters who clearly loved each other as deeply as they loved their City.

Letter writing is a life of loving shared in the simplest way.

We are filled with Facebook and texts and emails now. I miss the feel of a letter and, while I’ve let dozens of letters go, I am so glad I have lugged around a box of treasured letters that span the decade of my twenties. They are a permanence of the impermanence of shared memory.

Writing is a magical practice and pen to ink is a gift of the heart that matches no other. Letters tip into the heart of the receiver- you’ve taken time to sit down and construct a gift of your thoughts.

Do this for me, for yourself, for someone you love. This week, take 15 minutes and write a letter. It will be found in 5, 10, 20 years and freshly cherished.

image from The Australian

only the raven

“What is that? Is someone trying to break the glass?,” I ask with a slight panic.
With his usual calm, Tim says, “No, it’s just the raven fighting his reflection.”

I step out of the room where we are editing video to look for the raven. A two-story plate glass wall opens to a wide preserve of ancient oak trees surrounding a large pond. The pond, once full from a deep natural source, is half empty under the strain of new development encroaching on the area. Offices stretch from either side of the glass wall, all opening to the same grand view, while hallways and studio spaces line the windowless front exterior wall of thick Texas limestone. It is a beautiful space, designed in a such a way that seems the employees’ happiness may have actually been taken into consideration when it was created so many years ago. It is the first time I’ve been in the building that Tim has worked in for over twenty years. As I look across the expanse of trees and wide sky I consider that space has surely done some part in shaping his calm and measured personality.

The banging shatters my thoughts and I see the raven is standing near the door that is cut into the glass wall. His enormous body reflecting purple-black prisms as he struts, large head jutting side to side, pausing momentarily to punctuate his stubbornness before he resumes his assault on the imagined nemesis. Banging his huge beak into the glass and cawing with increased intensity, the sound reverberates shockwaves of noise through the empty building.

“It’s horrible. What do we do?,” asks my daughter.
“I’ll go down in a bit and scare him off,” Tim says while finishing his work without pause.

On the late Sunday afternoon, we are using a deserted conference room to film her half of a scene for the much anticipated annual fifth-grade play. During this unprecedented period of COVID-19 lockdowns, the play is to be produced by assembling the video work submitted by each of the kids (and their cooperative parents). All of the scenes will be joined with technological prowess or a split screen and a good dose of humor. As the saying goes, “the show must go on.” As we finish our work and re-set the room, the banging continues every minute or so, my daughter worries aloud that the sound is so bad she is afraid the bird will hurt himself.

“No, he does this regularly. There are usually just more people to stop him.”

As we head downstairs the huge raven I saw strutting in front of the glass wall seems even bigger. He cocks his head at our arrival and bangs the glass once more. We get close and he seems unfazed, banging again. Tim opens the door, and the bird seems to step forward.

“Get out of here!,” he says as he waves his arms at the bird. After a moment of consideration, the bird chooses to take flight, huge wingspan spreading and one flap pulling him to the top of a nearby oak.

“That was crazy!,” my daughter says, “Can’t he tell he’s not hurting anyone but himself?”
“He does it almost everyday, so it seems he can’t,” Tim responds.

Later, I think about that bird. Ravens are considered one of the smartest animals- their logic ranking upwards with chimpanzees and dolphins- yet we heard and watched that majestic avian repeatedly bang against its reflection in physical and vocal fight against a great foe believed to be encroaching his territory when, in truth, he was acting as his own worst enemy.

How often are we our own worst enemy? How often do we do that very same thing: Fight our own reflection? Other people see in us so much, but we look into ourselves and only see the lesser, the negative and beat down what could be great. We see the flaws and imperfections and peck at ourselves- keeping our lives small when the only thing to lose is greater experience and possibility. Why do we fight ourselves and sabotage, or not even consider, paths that could lead to more?

I am not talking just about goals and success outside of ourselves, but the inner peace we all deserve. We bang our heads against toxic relationships, bad jobs, and hold onto grievances rather than cutting loose or letting go. Our fears often cut off our dreams because it is much safer to stay in your head than take action and risk rejection or potential failure. Why strive for greatness when “good enough” will get it done?

I go to sleep thinking about that bird and myself. I consider, what are the glass walls in my life? What is it that I time and time again find myself banging up against, trying to beat down, only to realize that it is my own stubbornness and fears that I am fighting?

When I wake, that damn bird is still with me, but it occurs to me, “Maybe he was not fighting his shadow.” Maybe that bird understands more than we are seeing.

Maybe he was trying to shatter the glass or open the wall so as to enter and exit freely- the way the two-leggers do. They bring out food and, on hot days, a cool breeze follows them out of their cave. In winter, it is warm in their cave. They leave every sixth and seventh day, but food remains inside, as does material for nesting and shiny trinkets sit on the planks that they sit behind. Maybe that raven is being the smart bird he is known to be. Perhaps he is not fighting himself, but stubbornly banging down the obstacle that stands between him and a plethora of possibilities.

“Oh,” he ponders, “What a glorious day it will be when I break into their cave.”

memory of an aunt

She kept a tidy, minimalist apartment with only the necessities: a simple two person settee, wingback reading chair, side table for library books and her readers, dining table and four chairs, and two extra chairs on either side of a small roll-top desk. In her bedroom, there was a full-size bed and simple chest of drawers, upon which sat a jewelry box lined in purple to house her well-organized adornments- the only pizzazz she allowed herself. In the kitchen, there was a basic set of pots and pans, along with a beautiful four-cup china teapot set she’d acquired on travel group trip to China many years before. For dining, she had she never added to her wedding glassware or china and, like her deceased husband, never did she need replace it.

As she sipped from a delicate etched glass, I would gaze at the scene with awe. In our home there was nothing that perfectly simple. It called to me. How could a drinking glass be art? But there it was, art in the simplest action of one’s day. During lunch, she sipped from the glass and the afternoon sun would glance against the etchings and toss newborn stars across her wall. The Children- my sister and I- were only allowed to drink from the two jam jars she had long ago put aside for our use. It never occurred to me I would one day, in her home, drink from anything besides a jam jar. So on the day she presented me with 12 ounces of icy, orange spiced tea in a glass that birthed stars I was speechless.

She made no comment about the change, simply presented me the glass and gave my shoulder a squeeze. When I was done, I carried my rite of passage to the kitchen without word- washed, rinsed, towel dried and returned the glass to its assigned cabinet. I knew I had done well by this unspoken leveling up, when the next morning I was given juice from a short, delicate green milk glass that she kept well out of reach. My younger sister began to object to not being included in this passage and I stuck my tongue out at her. She took a deep breath that would have turned into a blustery argument at home, but Charlotte simply said, “That’s enough out of the two of you,” and the fight was over. She loved us both so completely and evenly that we never felt the need to compete in her presence. Besides, she wouldn’t have it. Grown folks didn’t behave that way and neither would her nieces.

creating place

I am not a woman who wants to stay in one spot- who nests and is comforted by constant routine. I would much rather be traveling and moving- experiencing this world and all that is has to teach. If I had my druthers, I would travel near constantly- setting up in a place for three or six months to soak up the sounds, taste and histories. I would record as much as I could before moving on to gather new stories and share new experiences from another place chosen by the muses’ whisper in my ear or random spin of a globe I found gathering dust on the shelf of a diner. There would be no set agenda in my wanderings. My ambitions only to talk to people; finding my way into kitchens and learning about food customs; spending days listening to the oldest residents share how the place had changed. Days structured only by mornings filled with writing, afternoons of found conversations, and evenings of processing what had occurred would guide me through this world.

For now though, and forever, I am a mother. I co-parent my child so for eighteen years I will likely stay in one city and the change I crave must be found in different ways. My child and I travel when we can and that is a joy for both of us on so many levels that I never considered. Watching her take in the world is an adventure in and of itself, for my child has shown, from her earliest days, the gypsy blood of her mother shares a strong channel to her heart as well. A wanderer even in her own body, she moves constantly, fidgeting even when sitting still- locked into dreams of travel as she watches National Geographic videos or learning about the world through avenues such as Vox and Now This. Her access to “what’s out there” is beyond what my imagination could handle at her age of eleven. More beautiful is that she has let it be known the videos are not enough- she wants to experience those places. She tells me she wants to find a job that will let her be on the road, but before that she wants to start working as soon as possible so she can save money for travel and buy a “short bus.” She will convert the bus for living and travel that she will do for at least a year before having to get a job after college.

She has told me, “Mama, I want the kind of exciting life you have had, but even more.”

The world is our heart, but for now, here we sit wings clipped by COVID-19. Not by conscious choice, we have both stopped talking about where we want to travel or what new adventures we can go on over the next long weekend. She will be dancing around the house and occasionally just groans really loudly and growls, “I want to go somewhere!” I will ask her where and there is no real answer, “Just anywhere. I need to travel.” I will tell her I understand the feeling and it is hard to be unable to move, but we know that it’s safer for the present. Then we dive back into cooking or reading or writing- searching out microcosms to explore within our confined space.

She often lays on the couch- staring into space, fidgeting with a pillow. When I ask what she’s thinking, the reply is, “Nothing, why do you aways ask me. I’m just sitting here.” I see she is a tween finding her own thoughts and I must patiently wait to be let in. So I am learning to wait. On other days she lays staring, fidgeting, and will let me into her thoughts, “Mama, how much money do you think people spend on sales tax in their lives?,” which leads to a conversation on tax percentages and the fact that our nation has many socialist values, even in the midst of declaring we are capitalist society, and how there is a variance to all political structures. Then she tells me how many tax dollars Trump has spent on putting up his personal guests in his hotels and she wants to know if he’d go to jail if we did ever get to look at his tax records. On another day, she wants to understand why kindergarten isn’t called grade one, because it is really school, so maybe it should be called grade zero because that’s the start of the number line. Her mind is a fertile field of adventures in questions and possibilities.

++

We are about to move from a house-share situation into a 624-square foot cottage, situated on a steep hill, with a back porch built of stone blocks, and a yard full of more weeds and rocks than workable soil. I didn’t find this cottage, my daughter did. After days, no weeks, of pouring over real estate listings. She had shared dozens of properties with me and we had long conversations about why different houses could be wrong or right for us. One day, I finally told her the timing was too far out and I couldn’t handle discussing more houses, I was exhausted by the discussions of “what if.” But she kept up the search. She came to me the next day.

“Mama, can you just look at this one house? It’s new and $100 dollars below our budget.” I moaned in her general direction.
“Make it quick, kid.”

The cottage was so sweet. Built in 1958, clean lines, renovated to reveal high ceilings that followed the roofline, painted white throughout, beautiful hardwood floors and so many windows. Also, very close to the junior high she will attend in fall- hopefully with real-life classrooms and teacher interactions and all the activities she needs to keep her active mind and body engaged. We decided to drive by and look in the windows- after being stuck in our house for weeks, it was at least something to do. The yard was huge and totally unkept. The cottage was so very small, not a grand space to be filled, but a respite to return to at the end of the day. It has so much potential to be an oasis. I wished we needed it at the start of May, but we couldn’t move until the first of June. As we walked to our car, a man came toward us.

“Can I help you with anything?”

I told him we were just looking in the windows of the place- it was for lease. He said, “I know, I am the owner. You want to look inside?” We did. It was perfect. He was delightful and loved that she was about to attend the school down the road- that we wanted a place for at least three years. I told him it seemed perfect, but the timing was wrong. We wouldn’t be ready to move for another six weeks. He said he would talk to his wife and maybe it could work. That weekend we signed a lease. We could move at the end of May and he was okay with me working on the yard in the weeks between. It will be a place we can create adventures even when we can’t travel.

++

Gardening is about creating an oasis- a place to travel into other spaces without leaving the place you are rooted. Within the oasis, a garden grows and with time, you work with the land to create a space that will cycle through its own replenishment. With time and attention, additions of food and scraps that have broken down into nutrient rich compost, you turn dusty rocky soil into fertile planting beds. With gardening, you go nowhere physically, but create new worlds that are always evolving in place.

At this new space, we have be given the opportunity to start building our oasis before we actually move-in and building have we begun. At the front of the cottage, every time I turn over the soil, my shovel hits rock after rock. I am collecting the rocks, stacking them aside, making more room in the ground for rich soil to build itself. The rocks will become edges and we will paint them to make bright markers amidst the plants- warnings that things are growing there so please don’t mow them down. With time, I hope there will be nothing left to consider mowing. We will put in herbs and butterfly beauties and rains will come. Water will seep into soil and plant roots will stretch into the gaps and push into new space. With time, turning over the dirt, adding the nutrients, and water, the earth will call new insects and grubs will know it is a place they can breed and they will add to the land as well. With time, there will be new deep, rich soil in which to grow more and varied plants. We will see new butterflies and more birds, maybe a possum will drink from the saucer of a potted flower. We will eat the foods that grow and reserve a few of their seeds- allowing them to dry and wait out the season before the next season sees them set into the ground. Then, as we give back to the earth, we will ask, in return for our work as her custodians, for another season of growth.

We will read together and learn about herbs for food and healing. What does this part of Texas grow without interference? What do those plants have to share with us? What plants can handle the harsh conditions we have here? What are we willing to nurture and protect because it has a valuable property, but might not appreciate the intense heat that beats our summers down? What is not native, but grows around the world in climates like ours? Where can we travel in the garden we grow?

Like our travels, the oasis we create will not have a set agenda or borders. There will be a few “must do” plants, such as citronella and basils and squashes, but others will be experiments and some are both. The Hill Country okra seeds I just planted is one such experiment. I’ve planted it in front of my bedroom window, not just because it is a great producer, but because it grows tall enough that it will act as a cover for the bottom half of my window. By the end of summer, I hope to look out and see it’s bold flowers and purple streaked pods of green. I will say “thank-you” as I pick them, chop them, and braise them with tomato sauce and thyme taken from another corner of the yard- that spot that could erode, but will become stronger for the roots of the herb. Our little oasis won’t be everything we need, but as I envision what it can be I am not so anxious to find new destinations. As I walk around the yard that is three or four times larger than the little house, I envision the plants taking root, and can almost hear laughter from friends gathered to eat on the back porch- there is no room inside for a large table. Cool breezes rolling down the steep hill that cocoons the back of the property will ease us into staying for another glass of tea and just one more story. In all of this, maybe, just a little bit, I can see a side of me that might be okay with staying in one place for longer than a season.

walking through a bookstore in new york city-
it becomes

a little apartment- most of a room in new york city
walking through a bookstore-
— I just need to be there
she’ll come when she wants to —

i sleep in a big chair- surrounded by books and travel knickknacks and the window opens to the brooklyn bridge if you stand on tiptoe and crane just so to the right.

i am on a desert that becomes a pier. it’s the middle-east … so many people and children trading what seems to be sand blocks for wares. one boy only accepts food for his wares.
“You are smart,” I say and he smiles.

i walk on the pier that had been the desert.

i see a girl that looks like my daughter- she wears a dress with cherries and walks with wolves. she is younger than today, we lock eyes and I wonder how she’s changed.

tarpon jump in slow motion over the head of a man that stands at the end of the pier. he hooks the tail of the tarpon and they both go into the water- I hope the tarpon pulls free and the man drowns.

an old lady holds an orange house cat. it has had surgery and wears a monocle to protect its healing eye. you can see its brain and the universe through the lens.

the school receptionist, her neck deeply tan and wrinkled, sits on a bench on the pier holding a baby.
— I couldn’t believe it happened, so I’m starting again —

lingering lo mein

Around the corner from my place in Bushwick there was a walk-up Chinese spot. They had a thin noodle lo mein the likes of which I have never found again. In the early months of my pregnancy I ate it about three times a week. I knew I had become a regular when the ever present kids would stay and giggle when I walked up, no longer running to the back of the shop. As I approached the counter, their mom would shout my order to the kitchen and then rhetorically question, “That’s it, yes?,” while ringing up the same $5.34 total each visit brought.

Now I have been back in Austin for over a decade and about a year ago I ventured into a little Chinese take-away spot I had passed for years, never stopping because, “How good could it be?” Silly me, those are always the best places for what you need in comfort food. No pretense- simply offering their food. No need to boast, they are consistent and semi-friendly and close. I have to say, their lo mein isn’t the same as my beloved Bushwick version with its angel hair noodles and slivers of veggies and ginger. Like any past love, none will match it but there will be space in the heart’s memory for new and different love. The new lo mein is chunkier all around, using wide noodles that are not magically light, but more fulfilling in their balance of chew and crunch. The vegetables have a wonderful smokiness, more variety, and there’s always enough for two. It is a new comfort food that I look forward to.

My daughter never got to try my Bushwick lo mein. We went back to find it, but the building that the walk-up counter was tucked into had succumbed to the push of gentrification. An overpriced, metallic apartment building now stands in place of giggling children and summer sidewalk chalk. While that experience can only be shared with her through the romance of memory, I am happy knowing part of her childhood memory will be getting dinner from this new spot. One day, Wok ‘N Express will be part of her cache of stories- her favorite childhood lo mein and how no one else’s will ever be quite the same.

holiday blues

My 7th Christmas was greeted by the death of the man I knew as my Dad. He had gone into to see the doctor for a flight physical, had a major heart attack and never came home. There was no goodbye, just an open casket and a mortician who forgot to sew Dad’s eyes into sleeping position. I saw his bright blue eyes and decided he wasn’t really gone. So long as I didn’t say goodbye, he would come home. As long as you don’t say goodbye, everything will be okay.

After that, each year, the holidays washed over me with a renewed sense of loss and sadness. I have lots of snapshot memories of moments during the holiday season, but no set memory until I was 19. I walked into my shop, joking around with my shipmates, carrying a letter from the woman I had begun to call my stepmom- my blood father, Ken’s, wife. As we laughed, I opened her letter and pulled out an obituary. My grandfather had died two weeks before and now I learned Ken was also dead. I was just getting to know him without my mother’s jealousy overshadowing our relationship. In fact, I had cancelled a visit, while I was home on leave to see my dying grandfather, because she was being overbearing. Ken had told me he understood- family is complicated- and we talked of plans to spend a week together during the next summer. He failed to mention his terminal diagnosis of throat cancer- thanks in no small part to a 2-pack a day habit.

I leaned against the lockers, everything was spinning as I slid to the floor in tears. The annual holiday blues had already hit that year and now another was gone without a goodbye. I was so far from anything that felt like me.

My boss said, “What the hell happened?,” and I handed him the envelope. He read it, handed it back, “Go clean yourself up. You can’t get home, so you best get to work.” I did as he said and the next hours were spent methodically ratcheting bolts off a tailpipe- there were 96 and I was small enough to do the job with the engine still in the plane. It was a job I hated, but a godsend because tears could silently stream down my face and no one would know.

Many years passed before the next holiday death. My marriage of  9 years ended on December 19, 2013 and three years later my grandmother would die on the morning of December 19, 2016. We weren’t close and were often at odds. I accepted I did not have a “grandmotherly” grandma. Stories from my mother and her siblings, made me grateful I never had to live under her roof. That being said, I sat with her that Saturday and spent a couple hours doing what I could to make her more comfortable. I rubbed her once strong legs that resembled the bark of a dying tree, and combed her hair because I knew she liked to be pampered. I dampened a cloth with her favorite root beer and placed it to her dry, cracked lips. I told her I knew we were never close, but she is why I was here. She birthed my mom and for that I would always appreciate her life. Both the passing of my marriage and my grandmother were truly more of a relief than deep sadness. Those losses were filled with a grief for the hope of the worlds they represented more than the the actual relationships.

For so many years, I used a big emotional shovel to push through each day of December and it didn’t get much easier. Over the last decade, my daughter’s uninhibited joy has helped, but the days can still drag. All that said, we are in another December and this year is finally a bit better. I am in a place that is the end of an incredibly purifying couple of years. The whole mythology of being burnt down so a phoenix can rise- yeah, that shit is painful. I can’t describe it in only a few words, but suffice it to say it might be an emotional grease burn that has been lanced, come close to healing, then reinfected, finally scarred over, and the scar is finally nearing a healed state. Yeah. That pretty much sums it up.

At the beginning of the month, my daughter caught me crying. She put her hand on my shoulder and asked, “Mama, why are the holidays so bad for grown-ups? Everything is so beautiful, but grown-ups are sad and mad.” I told her that lots of things happen in life and, at least or me, some really big, emotional things have all happened during the holidays so when the lights go up my heart gets heavy. She sighed, “But that all happened then. Now we have each other and the holidays are magic.” With that, I promised her I would find the magic again.

This month has been spectacular. The first Christmas I can recall being truly happy. We put up a big tree, I hosted a Solstice dinner, will go to Christmas Eve midnight mass with friends and spend Christmas with family I love. I’ve said a lot of prayers and a few final goodbyes. I opened my heart to greater forgiveness and the true possibility of new love. I have no idea what is in store for the next year, for we are only promised today. There may be more loss or there may be only good things, but I do know I’ve done the work and I have the support and tools to hold the course, whatever that course might be.

precious packages

I was going to Monday night breathing yoga, but a friend stopped by. She’s nearing three weeks tardy and said hello with all too familiar pain in the area of my silent womb. Thus far, the labor of releasing this cycle’s underutilized life force has only needed two precautionary Tylenol pain killers, but 30 minutes can take me from being at the gym to hardly able to drive, white knuckle pain and nausea.

I’ve dreaded this first day of my cycle since one morning during the summer of my 12th year. That day, I woke to bloodied legs under my nightgown, intense pain in my lower back followed by searing pain behind my pubic bone. From that cycle on, it was a pain I would endure nearly every month for decades. On rare occasion, the pain would be low enough to only take a couple pain pills, though I would be braced in fear that a greater pain was waiting to release in my body. But that was to be my future. On that first morning, thanks to my mother’s thorough explanation of puberty and sexuality, I poured a really hot bath and took some painkillers. Then I hid in my room, as is not unusual for a 12-year-old, and my absence went unnoticed by my widowed, single mom who left me and my sister mostly unattended. 

It was 1987 and, while my mother ran an industrial photography business out of our garage, we kept ourselves alive on canned ravioli, pb&j and sweet tea for most of the summer. I successfully hid my fresh source of hell called womanhood from her for the months of that summer and well into sixth grade. She was a woman with a huge heart, but near zero empathy, and even less sense of confidentiality. I labored through early cycles in silent pain rather than experience her announcing my period had arrived to the entire extended family over a Sunday meal at my grandparents. My fear of such a social humiliation pushed me to endure pain so deep I would hallucinate in the tiny upstairs bathroom I shared with my sister. Its pink tile becoming a giant womb that I was most certain I would die and be reborn within. In fact, I was being reborn during those first months. 

The months turned into years and somehow my one piece of ‘luck’ was that my cycles would begin at dawn on Saturdays so I managed to avoid the pain falling on school days. In the spring of sixth grade, on one of those ‘lucky’ Saturday afternoons, having washed down pain meds with a glass of wine, as I’d watched her do, my mother found me asleep on the bathroom floor. She woke me up and asked why the hell I was sleeping in my bathroom when I had a perfectly good bed. I told her I didn’t know and she said that wasn’t a good enough answer. Finally, I admitted I’d started my period, had taken a hot bath and pain meds- but omitted the fact of drinking wine- and fell asleep on the floor because I thought I might vomit. She asked why I hadn’t told her I’d started my cycle. I simply told her I figured I could manage it on my own. She told me I should take fewer pills and have some wine to help the pain, but otherwise seemed satisfied with my answer. She got me to Planned Parenthood as quickly as possible so I could get on birth control to help the pain. 

Within days I heard her on the phone with my grandmother telling her that I had started my cycle and was now on birth control to help with the pain. There was a long pause and then she replied, “Mother, she’s barely 13 and as far as I can tell she doesn’t even like boys yet. She’s not like we were. She likes airplanes. God help us with that one.” 

The next weekend we would go my grandparents’ ranch for Easter Sunday. When we arrived, my favorite uncle was getting out of his truck. As I ran to hug him he put his arms out and said, “Well look at you! I hear you are a young lady now and, look at that, you are even getting some sunflowers there.” It was as if I’d turned into a show animal and, at the time I wasn’t sure why, but I stopped dead in my tracks, crossed my arms over my developing chest and avoided him for the next thirty-five years- until he died. It was a devastating breech of trust for my mother to say anything to anyone, but for him to announce the changes in my body was a second violation of my young body and psyche by a man. I would speak to no one about either until I was well into my 30s. Even though I logically knew they were in the wrong, I felt my body had caused their actions so I was also at fault. 

Unlike avoiding my uncle, the pain of laboring through mensuration continued and couldn’t be avoided. I feared being off birth control would make it even worse. I wouldn’t figure out for more than a decade that BC did little for my cramps but increased my near constant low level- hidden with a cynical smile- depression. The fact that it was a major contributor to my depression wouldn’t really click until after I birthed my child. All told, through my pre-pregnancy, birthing, and nursing years I was off BC for almost three years. When I got back on it, I witnessed an immediate shift to my mood that made me recognize the connection between depression and BC in my body. 

For decades, menstruation was merely a function of my physiology meant to be managed and controlled. There was no celebration and I feared for the pain it brought to me every month. I saw menstruation as a responsibility to protect my body. I saw that puberty changed my body and created notice from men that I was not yet ready for, though I was told I should appreciate. I was not taught to deflect or develop healthy boundaries, but rather encouraged to take advantage men who my mother saw as useful, but foolish, tools. 

Now, at 44, I have gone through much therapy and recognize what I was denied in not being able to celebrate the onset of my womanhood, much less every other aspect of being woman and the healthy beauty that can contain with great abundance. Having experienced pregnancy and a first wave of peri-menopause I am learning that there are so many celebrations to womanhood and I will embrace every one that I have remaining in my body over the next untold years.

So tonight, rather than go to yoga and possibly get hit by a wave of pain, I went to the grocery store and bought a lovely brie cheese, crackers and a decent bottle of wine. I thanked my body for continuing to have strength and life force. I said goodbye to the egg that was not even able to drop into my womb, but reabsorbed by my body. I enjoyed my crackers and cheese with some apple and a glass of wine. I wrote and I prayed a small thanks that my pain has continued to be absent this cycle. Now, every cycle I have is simply my hormones moving through their schedule. My body’s fallopian tubes were removed, so my monthly seed releasing life-force is truly only for my own creative power. There is no chance of life begetting life, yet I feel more vital than I ever have. 

With each cycle, the change fever may return and my cycles will be become less often until they completely fade. There was a time I prayed that change would happen terrifically, aberrantly early in my life, but now I feel a slight melancholy for the end of the monthly shedding of life-force. Though its end will lead to a new and beautiful, different stage it is one that I’ve only just learned to appreciate and honor. 

I suppose the ancient beauty lies in that every woman holds this life-force and my future years can be used as a vehicle to teach the next generations to love themselves. To fully honor the creativity, power, and life-force each beautiful sister holds within her body. Whether or not they ever choose to carry life- by growing a human- within their body, each woman holds the seeds of life. In those seeds- those two beautiful packages of seeds we are each born with- there is a power and joy that will never go unfulfilled but hold the energy to fill your heart, soul, and body with a life-force that can be unstoppable if you simply open your heart to yourself.

sweet moments

Help giving“Help giving” by BournemouthBC is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


As we talked, I finished the coffee mom had poured for me. I could feel its warmth on my hands. The mug nestled close and becoming a memory of a beautiful day. It was Día de Muertos and we talked of the people who had passed. Her parents and brother, buried in the small family cemetery just across her pasture, I am certain were listening to us. I caught her up on my daughter’s week of school and we chatted about my sister who lives in another state. She told me about the book on tape she’s listening to- reading at night has become hard on her eyes. There was no strife, just love and simple conversation. In these days where she often mentions lapses of memory or joints hurting, it was lovely to simply have a time with no concerns. Those moments are always sacred, but I know will be more so as the next years pass us by.

first kiss

Both wary from broken hearts, and protective of our space, and time, we were feral cats licking wounds with no desire to acquire more. After months of talking via texts and some flirting with the idea of a fling, then retreating into hiding, then peaking out from our respective hollows, we finally sat with each other. For an hour we sat close, watching musicians make magic. Then another night with music and our familiar, comfortable walls. On the 2nd night there was a feeble attempt at a kiss followed later by a teasing conversation … was it a kiss and what if it was. Then back to days of long text conversations about writing and the weight of words and friendships and how to speak to children and protecting of the weak. Then we met again.

As we parted from an evening of talking with friends and eating tacos, he swatted me on the ass and smiled, saying that it was good to spend time together. Then, he leaned down and, as sudden yet complete as every experience we had shared, our first kiss came and went. I think he held my waist, I know my hand found the nape of his neck and we kissed twice. Then we scurried away to our cars.

But there was nothing to be denied. It was a proper kiss and we immediately created space.

Fully distracted by the unexpected kiss, I drove to get groceries. As I walked into the store, I noticed, he was arriving as well. Hoping to avoid him, because I still felt his stubble against my face and I didn’t want to feel it as badly as I wanted to feel it more, I rushed into the store. He caught up with me and asked if I was just going to ignore him. I told him that he seemed to be an ass man so I just figured he’d like walking behind me. Or I tried to say those words, but the surprise of him there, and the feel of my skin ever so slightly and happily abraded by his stubble, made it so I couldn’t quite find my voice and he could not hear me. I had to repeat myself, twice. Finally, he heard and quipped back, “It’s not a bad view, even if you’re shy about it,” but he was wrong.

I grabbed orange juice and stuttered back that I was not shy. He winked and said he was going to get his groceries.
“Ok. Fine. See you around.”
“See you around.”

And I tried to focus. The store was bright and I needed my glasses, but all the input made my eyes hurt and I had to make choices so I could feed myself and my never-full child, but I kept feeling him against me. I tried to focus. I told myself, “I need eggs and tuna and …” My mind wandered, his lips had found mine and “I need olives …” and he swatted my ass. No one had been that bold in longer than I could recall and strawberries went in my basket because it was summer and, in summer, every trip to the store meant strawberries.

I stood in a too long line at midnight. I texted him.

“This place is a madhouse”
“I shouldn’t have left.”
“You shouldn’t have and I wasn’t shy. You flustered me.
The kiss and seeing you in the store.
It was good. I don’t get flustered.
I like that you made me feel something I was not prepared for.”

Later I ate the strawberries while I wondered what his lips would taste like on a summer morning.