I know exactly nothing about Buddhism, but my friend Jill does. That’s her beautiful daughter in the photo up there, standing next to former American Ballet Theatre principal ballerina Julie Kent, perhaps a little star struck. Dukkha, she explained, is the Buddhist concept of suffering, with an asterisk: it’s thought to have been mistranslated as actual suffering, when what it really means is thinking you’re suffering when you’re only inconvenienced or slightly unsatisfied. Like getting the grocery cart with the bockety wheel on it, and now you’ll spend the next half hour fighting the grocery cart around the store.
Annoying, perhaps, but suffering? You still have the privilege of browsing well stocked shelves of food which you will buy and then go home and enjoy, a privilege most Americans take for granted, anyway. You probably won’t spend too much time worrying about whether you’ve gotten the nutrients you needed today, while somewhere on the globe there’s no clean water to drink.
The Buddhists, Jill went on, maintain we add ‘extra’ to our dukkha by imagining our lives would finally be perfect if only we could accomplish <missing thing>. We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we?
In fact I’ve honed it to a lustrous sheen over the last five years of transition. There were plenty of sleepless nights at first, and no small amount of hand wringing and nail biting and wondering what would happen if and when the bank account was empty: these are the things that spawn action. There was genuine anguish to be sure, but probably never actual suffering. And my own landscape now is downright pastoral by comparison, a green hill dotted by black-faced sheep, and the occasional bockety wheel to keep me honest.
Seems that beautiful little ballerina up there, my erstwhile Knoxville Ballet School student, is North Carolina bound, finally getting her wish to enroll in full-time residential ballet school. I could not be happier nor prouder. It’s no small thing: Celia sailed over the talent hurdle, clearing it easily, the academic one a mere formality (quoting my beloved mentor: you can’t be dumb and dance). She has leapt into the world of pre-professional ballet training: the rest is up to her.
Hat tip to her devoted parents, who are moving heaven and earth (and experiencing no small amount of dukkha) to make this happen for their daughter, who by all accounts is giddy, as anybody in those pointe shoes would be.
Her mom explained the ‘extra’ she’s added to her own dukkha in all this is wishing she and her family had moved from Tennessee to North Carolina a few years ago, when they were actually considering it. But because this is an exercise in futility, she continued, she’s moving past it. She went on to list all the positives of this exciting new development, bockety wheels be damned.
There is food in the pantry and a dog dreaming on the floor—in Tennessee and in Vermont—and soon a Knoxville girl will enjoy complete classical ballet immersion in North Carolina: that’s close enough to paradise.
Live your life, live your life, live your life.—Maurice Sendak
It’s Mother’s Day, a Hallmark-y holiday. Flowers will be dispensed, brunches eaten, and everywhere priests will stand at the pulpit and spin out sermons on the importance of mothers for the umpteenth time; they’ll repeat them next month but insert the word “fathers.”
I had a call from my twenty-something man-child early, early this morning—a video chat, because that’s how it’s done these days. He couldn’t sleep last night, he said. He is carless at the moment, and so he had spent hours looking at ads on craigslist. He was so tired he could lick the walls, he told me, but still could not fall asleep this morning. I said I had no idea what that expression means and we both giggled. And anyway, he went on, if I fall asleep now I’ll be wide awake at ten tonight. It’s no good. I just need to go find food.
Off you go, then, I told him.
Happy mother’s day—I love you, he said.
We’ll probably chat a couple more times before the day is over, unless he sleeps it away.
We are thick as thieves in spite of some mountains and valleys between us. He has figured out with impressive exactitude the instant I’m likely to pull into the driveway on weekdays—it’s almost like he can sense it somehow, even when my schedule is a little off. The phone on the passenger seat next to me lights up and chirps its familiar chirp, the one that says Hey-from-a-thousand-miles, pick up already.
And we are thick as thieves now in spite of the uncertain landscape five years ago, when I lived alone for a final difficult year in our big, old, Tudor Revival-style house in Knoxville, the house where he grew up, and where our family was coming unglued before our eyes. When the new world order emerged at the start of that year, I explained to my then-teenager he needed to go and live with his dad in a neighborhood just down the road, for so many complicated reasons: I tried to make them clear. It was late, I was tucked into bed (still on my side of it, the other side only recently empty); he was sitting cross-legged at the foot of it practically on my feet, like he might have done when he was five. We had a hard conversation.
During those long, empty nights the Blackberry sometimes chirped on my nightstand and often at odd hours. It was never bad news, just a heads up at an inappropriate moment: hey mom, I’m coming over to the house to get <thing>. <Person> is with me, but he’ll wait in the car so the dog won’t freak out.
Soon the car—his late grandparents’ Caddy that was his for the time being—would idle in the driveway just below the master bedroom window, and not long after I’d smell the stink, the secondhand tobacco smoke he now carried around with him on his clothing and person, and hear the death-rattle cough in a kid too young to sound so old. No telling where he had been nor where he was going in the late-night or pre-dawn hours. There was so much profound sadness wrapped up in these occasions I can still feel it now. (And I will forever associate the Blackberry ringtone with it.)
A few years earlier there was still a palpable tether between us. MOM! came crackling from a high-again low-again adolescent male voice, often followed by Where is my—, more a demand than a question.
And before that: Mommy! I need—, always delivered with a sense of urgency. I could not have imagined a time would come when I’d simply have to give in to worry and grief about the life choices this child was making; I could feel my bones beginning to age.
A day many years earlier found me sitting comfortably cross-legged on the floor with a toddler in my lap, in a playroom loft that would delight any child—a long, narrow, cocoon-like room with sloping cornmeal yellow walls meeting its flat ceiling, walls that follow the contours of the steeply pitched roof on the other side of it, a room warmed by the radiant heat in the slate roof tiles, a Hobbit-like space proportioned and cheerfully outfitted for a little person. The toddler surveys the raised highway we’ve built from an exquisite wood block set my Uncle Stan sent us, Matchbox cars in mid-commute, a few highway tragedies piled below it, while across town some cars are parked in front of the ice cream parlor, blissfully unaware of the carnage.
Our minuscule village is awash in the dappled sunlight filtering through tall trees just outside the big window on the gable end of the house. The toddler has a pacifier in his mouth—a “binky,” which he’s sucking furiously—loudly—deep in thought with furrowed brow, clutching a second binky in his tiny toddler hand which is lifted to rub against the tip of his nose. It is an endearing habit he will retain for a long time. If one of three big dogs happens to saunter through the room and upset the highway, the toddler will bellow gleefully at the calamity.
Meanwhile he tumbles out of my lap to improve some bit of highway infrastructure, muttering an observation through the binky still held tightly in his teeth in language sometimes only I can understand. Standing in the checkout line of a big box retailer a cheeky old woman will soon lecture me about allowing the little boy on my hip to suck on one of those things, they’re terrible for teeth, she should know, her husband’s a dentist. For once words will not escape me: I’ll square my shoulders and quip, Well you and he should be thankful for ignorant moms like me who send generations of business your way.
My child is clean-scrubbed; I’ve plunked him into a soapy bath for a half-hour of calming water play after his sticky, spinach-y lunch, which he was wearing on his face and in his hair a little earlier. Freshly dressed in a stretchy cotton outfit that smells of Dreft, he’ll sit in my lap again while I rock him in the sunny yellow bedroom three steps down from the Matchbox highway loft. Town improvements must wait until we’ve gone exploring with the Wild Things, supplying words for wordless pages—howling at the moon, swinging through the trees, tromping through the woods. There might be a nap set to sweet Celtic lullabies, but I know this child: he will fight sleep and probably win.
The irony of this does not escape me after our earlier conversation today. I was not “finished” with this young man when I left Tennessee for good. But I was also weary—nay, exhausted—and ineffective as a parent near the end: there were not enough restorative naps, for him or for me, to fix our big problems. I was powerless to put him in the tub, or to wash the stale cigarette smoke out of his skin and hair, or scrub the filth under his nails: he had to do it for himself, or not.
Parenting never ends. And sometimes I think I’ve been most effective as a long-distance mom: being available only at the end of an electronic device is a game changer, after all, and underscores the reality that I’m more than a door mat, or a lunch fixer, a changer of diapers, or a supplier of spare change, even though I have been all of those things and continue to be some of them. For too long these things defined most of me while I allowed what remained of me to languish. The day I opened the doors of my small ballet school in Knoxville a wise friend observed, Not a moment too soon. But really, that day actually came several years too late—putting my life on the back burner helped nobody.
The only piece of advice I ever give any new mom is simply this: being a good parent to your child is profoundly important, but never more important than being a good steward to yourself. We finally do what we can for our children, and sometimes that has to be enough.
Find someone who looks like they need a friend, and be that person’s friend: it was my mama’s mandate to me on the first day of third grade, a tall order for an eight-year-old kid at a new school, but the outcome for me that year was a tight friendship with a sweet, third-generation Scot. It lasted until her circumstances prompted a relocation with relatives in Louisiana, but we enjoyed months of camaraderie before that day arrived, and I’m glad I knew her.
The simple be-a-friend exercise earned me a number of meaningful connections I might otherwise have missed through the years; when I became a parent I repeated this mandate to my own child, who internalized it well and continues to practice it himself, and with far more aplomb than I ever possessed, all the more remarkable in his case because he’s been on the receiving end of exclusion too often in his young life. Or maybe that explains it.
Exclusion. Nobody likes feeling left out. This morning I checked my news feeds on the ‘net and found little beyond a collective hue and cry centered around that theme writ large: the exclusion of people seeking refuge in our great land.
Anybody who knows me at all understands how I hate jumping into the political fray. I eschew conflict, most especially political conflict. One afternoon last week I listened to the late Mary Tyler Moore explain in a 1995 interview how she grew up in a repressed family bereft of conflict because unpleasant things were simply never discussed—they were just there, and nobody talked about them;she went on to describe how she borrowed some of her own mother’s real-life proclivities to play the role of Beth Jarrett in the movie Ordinary People.
I confess I own some of that. Talking openly about conflict is risky, because it lays open the possibility of controversy, which can be downright ugly. Speaking out about deeply held convictions puts us at risk of estrangement from the people we love and admire and call our friends. And that is why I eschew conflict, at least I think it is.
I still cleave to the notion, however naive, that we have far more in common with each other than not. And anyway, I don’t think the world needs to know our opinions about everything, as social media suggests it does—including the opinions of the delusional, the unhinged, or simply the misinformed among us.
Misinformed. Never mind fake news: last week a colleague linked me a poorly written HuffPost article about an exercise trend that draws inspiration from the ballet world. The writer got a few facts about classical ballet dead wrong, and not surprisingly; people outside the ballet world who try to report on it get it wrong more often than not. A few hours earlier I’d watched a news clip showing moments from a professional ballet company in their daily morning class. Seems nice enough, positive marketing for ballet. But I cringe every time a reporter stands there nodding her head knowingly while the ballet rep explains something, and then attempts to “translate” what they’re saying for the audience, distilling it I suppose so everybody can understand. But they rarely synthesize the facts correctly; something important is usually lost in the translation, and the reporter’s comments often perpetuate the misconceptions floating round in the public mind’s eye to begin with.
That’s just ballet. What of the story of an entire ethnic group? Or a faith tradition? Or a profound world event, for example the Holocaust, or the tragedy that is Syria?
In first grade a favorite rainy day activity was sitting in a circle where one kid whispered something—a word or phrase—into the next kid’s ear, who then whispered it into the next kid’s ear, and so on, until finally the last person had to say it aloud. It was never anything close to what the first person said, so the phrase “Lego blocks” emerged instead as “dirty socks” or some other thing that set off the first grader giggle box in everybody. Nobody was disparate in that classroom setting: we were all one, each of us united in this fun game that demonstrated how simple it is for a thing to be lost in translation. Nor were we desperate.
Desperate. How desperate must be a person or family to willingly risk everything—everything, including their lives—to leave their familiar homeland for a better life elsewhere? Surely each of us has imagined ourselves in that person’s shoes and felt anguish at the prospect of wearing them.
When my son visited me during the holidays a couple of years ago he brought with him a close friend, a young man of Palestinian descent whose family has owned a beloved East Tennessee eatery for decades. One night during their visit Handsome Chef Boyfriend prepared Yorkshire pudding for us and explained to my son and his friend all about this favorite food in the context of his own family. Then he asked my son’s friend about his family’s culinary traditions, which spawned a beautiful conversation that went on for some time. Earlier my son—who is of Mexican descent—and his friend encountered some scorn on the sidewalk when they were shopping one town over, based solely on the somewhat “ethnic” appearance of each of them. They’re both Americans.
My son is a funny and irreverent guy; he is also fiercely loyal. He handed back the scorn, which was deserved.
We’ll never all “just get along;” the size and scope of our problems can never be reduced to the silly word just. But we owe it to ourselves not to be misinformed, lest we risk isolation that finally ruins us. The mandate to find somebody who needs a friend and be that person’s friend has never felt more timely.
Knoxville’s downtown Market Square once held an imposing masonry building that served as a center for thriving commerce, including a beloved farmer’s market that purveyed meat, poultry, dairy, produce, and flowers trucked in from the city’s rural outskirts. A 14-year-old boy set it ablaze lighting a cigarette in the late 1950s, goes the story, gutting most of the building and sparking a controversy that would persist ‘til the city finally demolished what remained of it in 1960.
So ended an institution that began in 1854, and which never fully recovered. Sure, the square was revitalized in recent years in the same way so many downtowns have undergone renewal, but the demolition of that building marked the end of an era. Nowadays there’s an outdoor farmer’s market a couple of days a week during the season, set against the backdrop of hipster shops and restaurants that dot the square; for better or worse, life goes on.
There is no formula for grief: everybody grieves uniquely, and that is the truth. I’ve written about it before, how I wiped away the fog from my mirror after horrific losses: family, home, my hard-won business—some of them gone instantly, the rest in a matter of weeks or months. Loss takes no prisoners: it surely knocked the wind out of me, leaving me coughing and sputtering, blue in the face, bent double with my hands on my knees.
After what seemed an eternity I drew in a long breath and stood erect again, but sifting through smoldering ruins for surviving bits found only unpleasant epiphanies to keep me company. Your life has been a train wreck for years, they jeered. Worse still, they continued, you’ve become ugly; there is much work to do, and it’s getting late.
Loss continued to follow me down a new path. It persisted in the shadows behind me for a thousand miles, across time and space, and stubbornly insinuated itself in horrifying ways. What choice does one have, except to soldier on?
And just when I imagined I might not survive, there was hope, in the guise of a beautiful outstretched hand that insisted otherwise. I was more fortunate than most.
How much can the human spirit bear before it’s damaged for good, though? This question has troubled me all week while East Tennessee burned, with stories of unrelenting devastation and human suffering unfolding all around. It’s an epic tragedy long familiar to others, but this time struck close to home: the foothills and mountains where my ancestors settled a century and a half ago—is everything gone now? The kitschy hamlet where my family vacationed in the summers lay in ruins, its citizenry shell-shocked, livelihoods snatched away in minutes, wildlife and livestock wiped out, officials standing dumbfounded before the press to tick off names of the missing and the dead. We will rebuild, they insist while volunteers pour in. I know this refrain, and it is exhausting—the ruins will smolder for a long time, forever for some.
Monumental losses still haunt me like the drone of bagpipes, always there no matter how ardently one wishes to silence them, even in the subconscious: but then life’s melody unfolds on top of the drone, sometimes majestic in its tenor, rich with texture and beauty and joy, and occasionally hope.
Tragedy defies reason always, discriminates never. But every exhausted, beleaguered life in this world needs hope, because the alternative is unthinkable. And life will go on.
In 1999 the Portuguese virtuosa Maria Joao Pires famously sat at the piano with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, conductor Riccardo Chailly at the podium, awaiting the first bar of the piano concerto she expected to play for this lunchtime concert. Imagine her surprise when the orchestra began playing a different piece of music—the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor—instead of what she had come prepared to play. That moment is captured on video, the sick feeling in her gut written all over her face, which she places in the palm of her hand as the reality of this horrible epiphany slowly unfolds before a crowd of expectant concertgoers. There are only a couple of minutes of music before the piano begins. As the concerto continues, Chailly surmises what has happened, there is an exchange between the two of them, she insists she had something else in her calendar, she is not sure she can do this without preparation. There are a few reassuring words from Chailly, as he continues to move his baton without missing a beat, a smile on his face: the proverbial band plays on.
I can only guess this must be akin to how Warden felt this week in his new digs: surprise! We are the wrong people in the wrong house, these new rules and routines are wrong, wrong, wrong: this bowl is unfamiliar, this collar, this leash—a leash!—nothing is right.
Meanwhile, we’ve smiled and continued to move the baton to the time signature of life in this family. And how has Warden responded to this? Like a boss, that’s how.
The last week has been one of discovery for Warden and for us (living with a dog is in my muscle memory but unpracticed; it is awakening now with lighting speed). Warden regarded us with suspicion in the beginning, most especially one adolescent human who is a part-timer here. This is not just about displacement, I think, but is a character trait of the breed: shepherds are discriminating. Now at the start of our second week together I think I can fairly say he has imprinted on me, regards the tall chef with equal parts affection and suspicion (although hand-fed pieces of succulent baked chicken and beautifully seared salmon must be considered in this assessment). We’ll see how things go with the adolescent later today.
Mother Nature has not been especially helpful in this trial-by-fire week: first time since I’ve lived in Vermont we’ve had snowfall in October, only here in the valley-ish area where we live it was more of an icy, bone-chilling mess with high winds thrown in for good measure. Did we shrink from this hellish weather? Heck no. Warden discovered the neighborhood park with me this week on a day that left us soaked through and muddy, ditto the back seat of the Subi; second time around it was not so awful outside.
And yesterday we had a bigger adventure at this place, which is a bit further afield from home, but happens to be very close to work, where I expect Warden will go with me most days eventually. (Baby steps.) So there was a lot of trust building and plenty of fun to be had yesterday, with one tired dog and a couple of worn-out humans at the end of it all. Warden is champing at the bit to play off-leash; for now he will remain tethered, and stay that way ’til we know beyond the shadow of a doubt the trust is firmly established.
There was adventure to be had at home this week, too. Fun fact about this tiny house: there are skylights.
Who knew? Also, it is possible to lock yourself in the bathroom without opposable thumbs; the best time to do this is right after ralphing up kibble eaten with too much gusto, and whilst HCB is phoning to announce he is stuck in an October snow storm behind several disabled vehicles on the mountain between the bakery and home. (I explained I had to go because the dog was locked in the bathroom and there was a pile of vomit on the floor, sorry you’re stuck on the mountain—good luck with that.) And also the basement is questionable; best to bark at it occasionally for good measure, which you can do conveniently whilst slurping and dribbling.
I think it is fair to say we had a good first week together. It ended peacefully, and last night, as Warden snuggled on the sofa between the two humans, this happened:
As for Ms. Pires, she played that concerto bumper to bumper without missing a note, the consummate professional. I’ve had the great privilege of hearing the Concertgebouw Orchestra live in concert—I’m such a huge fan I frankly would not care about unrehearsed Mozart or muffed notes. I’m also a huge fan of Warden-the-Shepherd. Here’s a short clip of that Pires concert, with some narrative by Maestro Chailly; he is talking about the Mozart, and about Pires, but may as well be talking about us. Take a peek at 2:48—it is the perfect musical metaphor for Warden’s quiet start to life in his new family.
No, really. It was. Friday was a grey day, Friday afternoon brought wave after wave of gully washers to Southern Vermont and New Hampshire, and Friday night the heavens opened up and Zeus hurled mighty lightning bolts down upon us. Prediction: Handsome Chef Boyfriend will look over the top of his glasses when he reads this and ask, Why couldn’t you just say “it stormed?”
Because it’s funner to say it my way, that’s why, and you should stick to making compotes and port wine reductions, and let me sauté the words.
Friday was a truly awful day to be on the road, which is what we were; it was the kind of day where the sun seems never to rise completely, where it feels dark by four, even though the time hasn’t yet changed, and a shroud of fog hides everything beyond the immediate horizon. Friday night was worse still. I might add some language about the mighty rolling thunder, and also the broken reading glasses, the “good” pair, which snapped when I yanked them out of my bag to read my phone in the dark as text messages and Facebook messages and emails poured in. But that would be a different kind of descriptive language, of the sort that exploded from my mouth when my glasses broke. (Rest assured I was not driving while intexticated. I drove the daytime leg of our six roundtrip hours in the car with my devices safely tucked away, and HCB drove the after-dark part of them, because he knows I lack confidence in my nighttime vision, especially in unknown territory, and most especially on dark and stormy nights.) Suffice it to say, no dark and stormy night could impede our plans, not on this day for which we had waited so long.
On Friday we welcomed a new torrent of joy into our family, one Warden-the-Shepherd. Officially, he is “Warden vom Traumhof, by Goliath v Traumhof and out of Emerald v Traumhof,” says so on his adoption contract. I still can’t wrap my head around the pedigreed part of this pooch, although I have read and studied it some through my new reading glasses after the Dark and Stormy reading glasses incident, but I will say he is related to this amazing blogger’s Princess Blaze and Marshal Dillon Dingle: I believe Marshal Dillon and Warden are half-brothers, if I understand all these blood lines correctly. Which I think means we are all family now, so I am sure they’ll be fine if we drop in on their fabulous new digs up in Maine for a few days.
All our friends and family have been clamoring for pictures, which I have promised, but fell short of the mark on Friday. This was owing in part to the weather (I can’t replace my one “good” camera like I can my reading glasses), but also the general mayhem that met us when we arrived at Warden’s house, which I can only describe as a great crescendo of many, many enthusiastic German Shepherd Dogs who are busy announcing and greeting the newcomers but also reminding each other who gets to greet first and who should be put in his place while all this greeting is going on, to say nothing of the chorus of shepherd voices from the training center across the driveway and down the hill; imagine if you will. So I only grabbed a few fair-to-middlin’ iPhone photos, and some pretty dang blurry ones with the Nikon, blurry in part because of the low light and shutter speed (still learning, friends), but also because my subject would not hold still. But I love it when my “mistake” turns out interesting, like the head-shaking-teeth-showing image that seemed a perfect masthead photo for “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Here is the irony: Warden is one of the most agreeable, friendly German Shepherd Dogs I’ve encountered ever, one trait among many that drew us to him, and why his human believed he might be a perfect fit for us. In all the chaos that met us at the front door, Warden was there, too, but did not bark once—did not so much as growl—just tried to fight his way forward to inspect us, intercepted by a pretty girl named Prada and a grand dame named Charlotte. At least, I think it was Charlotte—there was a lot of tail wagging confusion and a few fierce reprimands, and Charlotte was clearly not one to suffer fools gladly. Plus, a couple of females are in season, which had Warden all excited for anybody in a skirt, including Charlotte, who is a mature gal whose time for all that is long past, and who mainly rolled her eyes in disgust at this whole spectacle.
Warden is a special dog and I knew leaving the nurturing fold of his family, both human and doggish, would be difficult for everyone. But once on the road after our longish visit he proved an easy travel companion; we stopped for strong coffee soon after we struck out for home, at the precise moment the storm unleashed its greatest fury on us (or, in the worst part of the storm, if you prefer); the car shook with every clap of thunder, but Warden seemed unimpressed. I took this as a good omen, dark and stormy nights be damned.
I know everybody’s champing at the bit for endearing dog stories and photos, closeups and action shots. They will come in good time, although I can assure you the notorious German Shepherd head tilt is alive and well in this dog. For now, we must give him room to settle in and learn to be part of our family, and to embrace a lifestyle completely unlike the only one he has known thus far.
The sun is shining brightly this morning and there is a contented dog in twitching, snoring REM sleep at my feet, a beautiful condition for which I’ve waited too long. Soon the images will come into much sharper focus.
The great, big exciting thing that was happening yesterday, the colossal event that was to be the subject of this post (and which many friends and readers have already surmised from various spoilers I’ve sprinkled in the cybersphere), is on hold ‘til this coming Friday. At least, we hope it happens Friday. Nature interfered with our plans, pliant schedules grew less forgiving, a couple of expectations required a tweak here and there, and that is that, dammit. It’s merely another reminder how unimportant is one’s own agenda, no matter how stridently one wishes to position it at the center of the universe.
Patience. It’s a virtue my parents urged me to improve in myself time and again as a child, so did my grandparents, so did my teachers. At some point in the development of my young noggin I suspected there might be a problem in this particular department, as the echoing of that one word indicated. One afternoon when mom was pregnant with my brother she farmed me out to an elderly couple down the street who said they’d be glad to keep me company for the day. Off I went with a Christmas ornament decorating kit tucked under my arm; I was seven and giddy about this change of scenery. I can’t recall a single thing about the day, not one minuscule detail, save this: the woman quipped, “She needs to be more patient,” when she handed me off to my mama later that afternoon.
Four years earlier three generations of self-assured women had observed the same flaw emerging me, only it caused notable damage on one occasion in particular. These three women—my mom, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother—had taken me to see The Sound of Music, a movie for which there had been a big buildup: I was excited down to my socks. We stood in line for tickets, waiting, waiting, w…a…i…t…i…n…g. The boy in line ahead of us was not moving quickly enough to my way of thinking, or at all, really. I decided he needed help if we were ever to get inside the theatre, and so I did the sensible thing: I kicked him. I meant him no malice, but decided a gentle reminder to GO was in order, really just a thoughtful poke in the calf. The way my mom tells the story now, the kick was more of a stomp that scraped the back of his leg, painfully; she had seen the wheels turning and so had my grandmother, each of them going for an armpit, not quick enough on the draw. Impatience, 1; toddler, zip.
I did not grow out of this habit, the impatience, that is—I have not kicked anybody in a while (have wanted to, plenty). In my early twenties I bought my first car, a ’76 Olds Cutlass Supreme; it was a thing of beauty in powder blue with a white vinyl top and coordinating blue crushed velour interior. It came from my parents’ next-door neighbors (also older folk), who had driven it gently mostly, but it sported a sizeable dent on one side and its transmission leaked. Still, it was a bullet-proof car, reliable transportation whose problems were nothing I could not handle on a college-kid budget; I kept a case of transmission fluid and a funnel in the trunk and topped it off every time I got gas. The car served me well except in ice and snow, when I occasionally put it in a ditch (not my fault: rear wheel drive, no snow tires). But one hot Southern day while it sat and baked in an asphalt driveway its interior rear view mirror fell off.
This was a car made in an era when GM routinely attached accessories and trim with cheap glue, a low point in the history of the American auto industry if you ask me. Anyway. I bought an epoxy repair kit, the kind where you mix the sticky substance from two tiny tubes, et voilà! Heavy-duty adhesive in a flash. I followed the instructions diligently and all was well until I got to the part where you were supposed to hold the thing being glued (rear view mirror) to the other thing (front windshield), and wait. Suffice it to say the epoxy’s performance fell short of my expectations and a person better schooled in patience had to step in and finish the job for me. Impatience, 25,385; college kid, zip.
When Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I first met we talked endlessly about cuisine; we still do—it’s a passion I share with him. I once opined to him it takes a real gift to create exceptional cuisine, high art on a plate—a gift I had observed in him time and again. Maybe, he said, but mainly it takes the P-word: patience.
Dammit, dammit, dammit. It has been lobbed around these parts often, the P-word. So HCB joins the pantheon of folk who have felt it incumbent on themselves to point out this character flaw in me, and often.
It’s okay, all you patient ones in the universe, I’ve got this, at least this time. I live in Vermont now, where it takes forever for the snow to finally melt in the spring, where it takes forever to drive anywhere (because the destination is always far, far away), where it takes forever for your car to warm up in the morning because it was Below Zero during the night. This impatient person has waited three years for this milestone event—what’s one more week? And anyway, I’ve been called worse things. Like the time in second grade when my mama was summoned to school for an urgent conference with my teacher who said I was an instigator. Really.
Let me tell you something about instigators, gentle reader: instigators know how to get the job done.
There has been a German Shepherd-shaped hole in my heart since I lost my beloved Clarence-the-Canine to Degenerative Myelopathy in January of 2014; the intervening years have marked the longest dogless period in my adult life. Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyrfriend and I attended the annual pilgrimage at the New Skete monastery in nearby Cambridge, NY. The monks are renowned for their German Shepherd breeding and training programs, among other works and projects; the New Skete nuns are as celebrated for their exquisite cheesecake, made right down the road. New Skete is celebrating fifty years.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the oldest in the world, a branch of the Catholic church steeped in rich liturgical tradition. I especially love the spiritual connection these monks in particular have drawn with their German Shepherd Dogs, one that began with the first dog, Kyr, whose passing left a profound spiritual void, inspiring the New Skete GSD program that exists today. That spiritual connection I have always felt—with shepherds and other dogs—though find difficult to articulate. The monk who demonstrated obedience with his GSD at the pilgrimmage spoke frankly about this in a way that resonated so strongly with me.
We finished our New Skete afternoon at the evening vigil and healing service. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, tower bells traditionally call believers to worship with changing and distinctive patterns throughout the day. The three largest bells in the tower at New Skete were cast at a foundry in Troy, NY, the smaller set of twelve tuned bells at the Taylor Bell Company in England during WWII. The numerous wood bell towers in the Carpathian mountains of Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia inspired the post and beam tower here. The ringing of the bells is a beautiful and powerful way to make an announcement—they say unequivocally, stop what you’re doing and come.
It has been a long time since I’ve been so moved: liturgy that engages every sense has always felt the most meaningful to me and is why I still appreciate so much in my own Episcopal tradition. Divine music in a space that is acoustically alive, elevated language, engaging and vibrant visual art, incense that draws you right to the moment, but also periods of silence and reflection—all these were there at the New Skete vigil.
Near the end of the service I found myself standing before a priest who imposed the cross on my forehead with a tiny brush dipped in holy oil; as I turned to go he stopped me and asked for each hand, where he marked another cross on the back of each—”so that your hands may do good works,” he said. I have not stopped thinking about those words.
I wish for you the same peace I felt at New Skete yesterday, and may your hands do good works.
In a recent interview comedian-writer-actor-director Mike Birbiglia spoke of becoming a new dad on the heels of a work project, how he timed things in a way he thought he could stay in control, and then—like all brand new babies do—his infant daughter completely upended his best-laid plans while she successfully upstaged him. He’s a funny guy. The bond between mother and child is like no other, of course, and he artfully described it as the beautiful thing it is. And then added he was just kind of there, this third wheel whose main job was to go get coffee.
He described this life-changing event as an interruption. That’s a perfect word to remind you you’re not in control, even with the best-laid plans.
I can trump his interruption story. My own child was handed to me in a grocery store parking lot a few moments after my (now ex-) husband and I had decided it would not happen at all, with about a half-hour’s notice. It’s the truth—you can’t make up this stuff, as they say. We had been trying to adopt for a while through conventional channels, and then were put in touch with a local woman whose life had taken some unexpected turns—interruptions, if you will—that now made it impossible for her to parent a new baby. The connection was through a friend of a friend, more or less, an employee of one of my husband’s clients who was trying to help in this crazy eleventh-hour search for adoptive parents. It is the kind of thing that never happens—a healthy infant landing in your lap—but happened to us in a Kroger parking lot in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The day before that our priest had visited the infant’s beautiful young mother in her hospital room at her request. And the day before that we had visited her, less than 24 hours after our son was born. I sat in the rocking chair by her bed and gently rocked the tiny newborn—hers and ours—as he slept, unaware of the events unfolding around him, while the young woman spoke softly to us. She gave us some phone numbers before we left; hospital staff said the child could not be discharged directly to us, even though we had made an agreement with his mother.
The next day we called her room to finalize our plans only to find she and the child had checked out and were gone. The first number she gave us had been disconnected. We dialed the second number—the mother’s sister and her husband’s; they were not up to speed on the situation and declined to speak with us. We assumed there had been a change of heart and this beautiful boy had slipped through our fingers.
And then hours later on that cold Monday in March our phone rang, an edgy male voice urging us to meet him in a nearby parking lot so we could finally take our new baby home. The whole thing felt sketchy. We had been warned about this man, the baby’s dad, how he might attempt to extort money to support his drug and alcohol habits. While we drove our attorney advised us by phone of the legality of what we were doing (it was legal) but cautioned us about offering any kind of assistance to this man or the baby’s mama (pick up child in parking lot, okay, offer money in exchange for child, not okay). We’ll sort it out later, she told us; you can pay the portion of her hospital bills not covered by insurance, for counseling if she wants it, and offer some temporary living assistance to her. That’s it.
It was the longest 20-minute car ride ever.
The couple was waiting for us as promised, the first thing to go right all day. The exchange was tearful, emotionally charged, really terrible and joyous all at once. The baby’s daddy cradled him for a moment against his idling car’s steering wheel, delivering some unknown message to him while his mother quietly wept in the front seat. We stood between the two cars and watched.
In the end the infant child’s father never asked anything of us except to be good parents to his son.
It was the most loving and selfless action the young couple could have taken, people around us would say later—it was meant to be. But that sentiment, well intentioned as it is, diminishes this monumental thing, the surrendering of a human child, to a silly T-shirt slogan. I could never begin to understand this mother’s agony—nobody who had not lived it themselves could (many years later we would learn a family member near and dear to us in fact had lived it). But standing in that parking lot and bearing witness to what was happening, I felt it now on her behalf like a sucker punch to the gut.
And in the midst of this huge life-changing moment a wisp of strange humor: tucked away in the corner of the grocery store strip mall was a popular eatery, a cafeteria frequented by octogenarians going to and from their starchy 5 o’clock suppers with canes and walkers in tow, now observing an affluent young couple in a Volvo being handed a baby by another young couple in a borrowed clunker. Moments later the pair would peel out of the parking lot throwing up a plume of white smoke in their wake, the whole world’s attention (canes, walkers, and all) now diverted to them. The scene had all the makings of a grotesque cartoon.
Meanwhile the infant continued to sleep. In fact, he slept quietly on the ride home and for a long time afterwards before he finally had something to say.
Home, where our house was in disarray after the busy weekend, dishes piled high in the kitchen sink, dog hair from three inquisitive Siberian Huskies everywhere, an unmade bed, laundry in the basement. And now a new baby.
That’s some kind of interruption. I settled into the beauty of motherhood and my husband brought me coffee.
There have been many more interruptions in the intervening years, and there is also this: if you think your life will begin in earnest after you regain control in the wake of an interruption, not only are you dead wrong, you’ll miss living your life. My life with my new infant will truly begin when the house is spotless (wrong). My life will resume only when this ungodly and untimely retina disease finally goes into remission (wrong). My life ended with my marriage (really wrong). In the face of losing my job and financial security, my life can never mean anything except panic and hard labor from now on (probably wrong).
It’s tough to wrap your head around when you’re a control freak as I am but it’s the truth: navigating the interruptions—that’s life. I wish Mike Birbiglia and his new family a lifetime of beautiful interruptions.
Annie Lennox urged me to pick up my feet and pick up the pace through sweaty ear buds, her lyrics suffused with emotions: love, loss, loneliness, joy, she knows each of them intimately, she sings. A perfect Vermont Saturday morning was the only other motivation I needed to run: success is measured in hot cheeks, eyes burning with salt, a soaked-through shirt, and happy delirium. It’s possible there is no better feeling.
But the day did indeed get better, as if that were possible: an afternoon in Massachusetts under a cerulean sky, lunch of prosciutto and mozzarella on ciabatta (barbecue and collard greens for Handsome Chef Boyfriend), a suspended moment on Pontoosuc Lake’s shore where water sparkled an early summer greeting and windmills waved hello from a distant hilltop, frozen concoctions at a roadside dive the afternoon’s finale on the way home, where we collapsed content on the sofa with a nail-biter on the telly. Plucking chunks of ripe cantaloupe from a plastic tub, licking juice from our fingers and playing footsie with our toes: life does not get better than this. It was a day beyond reproach end to end, the kind of day that explodes with so much guilty pleasure it almost feels wrong.
When I lived in Denver for a few years in my very early twenties a passel of ballet friends and I routinely found weekend fun at gay nightclubs: they had the best dance music hands down (the perfect antidote for classical ballet), the best deejays, and truly superb entertainment. There were bouncers who sized you up at the door, and if you did not set off the hostility meter you were welcomed.
I remember one club in particular for its phenomenal drag queens, where for a small cover charge you could catch an amazing show staged by people who had spent hundreds on costuming and hair and makeup, lip syncing the songs on the charts at the time: the music of British invasion techno bands, and healthy doses of Chaka Khan, Madonna, and Tina Turner—the likenesses were spot on.
I had a good friend who deejayed at that club, a young violinist in the Denver Symphony who enjoyed this work purely as an avocation—he was passionate about getting the technical aspects just right, measuring beats per minute, knowing how to line up dance tracks in a way that made perfect sense. I went to that club as much to see him as I did the shows because he let me climb the ladder up into the sound booth and sit there with him while he showed me the tools of the trade. I was duly impressed, and also had a spectacular view of the stage below.
I never once imagined I was in any kind of danger in that club, or any of the others, and the fact is my young friends and I, and the other club patrons and performers, were probably pretty safe. At least from the kind of violence Orlando saw last weekend and which seems so much a part of the landscape now it’s exhausting to feel the pain when the news stories break.
But fear and loathing and intolerance were certainly there in Denver in the early 1980s. A short time after I moved from Colorado back to my home state of Tennessee I learned my violinist friend had been lured from the club by a man feigning interest in him, but who then beat him to a pulp and left him for dead. He spent some time fighting for his life in the ICU before eventually making a full recovery, lucky to be alive.
I have no cure for intolerance, fear, hate, oppression, or marginalization, but I know this: they leave their calling card at every single scene of carnage. And they absolutely detest love, can’t bear the sight of it.
I ache for the 49 people in Orlando, and so many more, who never again will see a sparkling lake or indulge in an ice cream on a sunny day. We owe it to them, and the people who went before them, and those who will go after them, to love, over a prosciutto sandwich, or a tub of cantaloupe, or however love insinuates itself in your life.
The adult luna moth lives for only one week. She has no mouth—her sole purpose is to reproduce. For this reason she has come to symbolize love. A beautiful specimen visited us early last week, a reminder: Be good. Don’t judge. Bury your fears. Say something nice to someone who needs to hear it, starting now, because your time here is short. Just, love.