The three best things that happened to me yesterday happened before 6:30am: 1) a line in a poem that wouldn’t come right seemed like it would; 2) I thought of a way to return to a writing project that I keep abandoning; and 3) my 4-year old son walked into the kitchen in his penguin pajamas with his armload of sleeping paraphenalia and said, “Hello there, my friend.”
Category Archives: gratitude
For Sir at 74. Simply the best.
When I was a teenager and first allowed to “date,” that meant a boy could enter the first floor of our home and sit on the couch in the family room. My father would sit on the couch in the adjacent living room, keeping us in his direct line of sight. If my “date” and I moved to another part of the family room, my dad would correspondingly move to another part of the living room. It was like a bad chess match.
In high school I had a steady boyfriend who lived a few blocks away. One Sunday, I told my parents I was going to church and drove over to his house instead, leaving the car parked in plain sight in his driveway. My dad, an avid runner, jogged by the house, unbeknownst to me. When I got home, he asked me how church was. “Great!” I said. “Who said the Mass?” “Father David.” “How was the homily?” “Great!” “What was the gospel reading?” “Something from Paul, I think.” And on and on, while my brother and sister sat on the stairs cringing with their hands over their mouths and thinking, “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
In my 20’s I often described my adolescence as “embattled.” I honestly don’t know if it was worse for me or my father.
Everything I know about work, I learned from my dad. I remember his graduation from law school, something he did at night while working at an insurance company during the day. My father’s work ethic (he’s a Super Lawyer, and yes, that’s a real thing) was one of the main things that helped me finish my own dissertation. My work life started with a paper route, which I hated because it required physical activity and waking up early, two things I prefer to avoid. I worked at the public library, the town deli, the local newspaper, a garden center, several restaurants, in many, many offices as a temp, and for several summers, in my dad’s law office, typing letters from a tiny Dictaphone that played his voice in my ear for hours a day. His secretary was 87, had purple hair, chain-smoked, and never treated me like the boss’s daughter. I loved it.
On my way to his office in Union, NJ one morning, my 1973 yellow VW Beetle was rear-ended on an off ramp on the Garden State Parkway. My dad happened to be about a mile behind me, and stopped to help me deal with the other driver, the police and the tow truck. Then he gave me a ride to work. And that’s pretty much how it’s been my whole life: him being there, watching, guiding, helping, and giving me a ride when I’ve been stuck on the side of the road.
At the end of my sophomore year at Villanova, my dad came down to get me. He must have followed my roommate Caryl and me back to New Jersey because she was driving an old VW Rabbit and he was probably afraid we wouldn’t make it the whole way. He paid for each of our tolls on the PA Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. She told me later, “I remember thinking that I wanted to marry someone just like that.”
In the last three years, I’ve been both literally and figuratively run over, plowed into, broken down in traffic, and stuck on the side of the road on a regular basis. Every traumatic, depressing, ridiculous, stupid, hard thing that will have happened in my life so far seems to have happened consecutively in the past three years. Much of it has been my fault. Mile after mile, my dad has been there, reminding me over and over that there is always an end in sight, that legal obstacles can be overcome, family heartbreak endured, basements unflooded, houses sold, depression lifted, persistence rewarded, prayers answered, and that I can, in fact, keep going. And he’s given me more than my fair share of rides.
Recently, I thanked my dad for something he’d done for me and he said, “That’s what friends are for.” My siblings and I were given more than most–family vacations, college educations, weddings, magical Christmases–but we also knew that we worked for what we wanted, and that when we turned 18, my dad was done. We didn’t grow up like little princesses or princes, and I have never once had the feeling that “Mommy and Daddy” would take care of me if something went wrong. That has made my father’s stalwart presence during these past few years of turmoil so unutterably valuable. I don’t even want to imagine where I’d be without him.
My most precious possession is the Roget’s Thesaurus that belonged to my father when he was in college. It’s dusty and some of the pages are falling out. Perhaps someday it will help me find the words to convey all that he means to me.
In lieu of a poem (because he doesn’t read those anyway), here are two of my favorite songs about friendship: Pete Townshend’s “A Friend is a Friend,” and the Beatles, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” In Pete’s famous words, “A friend is a friend, nothing can change that/Arguments, squabbles can’t break the contract/That each of you makes to the death, to the end/Deliver your future into the hands of your friend.”
Happy Birthday, Sir. I hope it’s a good one. You sure deserve it!
For Senior, 73 and just getting better
A close friend often uses the phrase, “the people we’ve been given to love” when he talks about the relationships in his life. He’s mostly talking about his family; his wife of many years, his adult daughters, and he’s often talking about how hard he has to work to be present with whatever is happening in these sometimes difficult relationships. It’s sort of a real-life twist on the lame-ass sentiment that you choose your friends, but you don’t choose your family.
The more mystical among us may believe that we do choose our parents. Regardless, we can’t deny how much we are shaped by our parents, and by the legacies that they themselves carry.
Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. It is no exaggeration to say that as hard as these past two years have been for me, they have been just as hard on her. It is also no exaggeration to say that without her, I might not have survived.
After my nightmarish DUI, when I could barely scrape enough of myself off the floor to pick up the phone, she was the first one who said, “Do you want me to come?” And although she hates to travel alone, and despite the imposition on her life in general, she came. She’d planned to stay for a few days, and she did, driving me to doctors, lawyers, treatment clinics, sitting in waiting rooms, reading on her Nook or knitting. Trying to get me to eat. Trying to tell me how to get the shambles of my life in order.
When it became clear that this was not going to be the work of a few days, she said, “Do you want me to stay?” And even though we were driving each other insane, even though I knew she wanted to go home, I said, “yes.” So she stayed.
We sat on my couch together one evening watching “Bridesmaids” on my crappy laptop which she couldn’t hear, and she kept asking me to repeat each line of the movie. I could hardly bear to be sitting up straight, could hardly tolerate being in my own skin, and I wanted to suffocate her with a couch pillow. When the movie was over, she sat on me, the way Melissa McCarthy sits on Kristen Wiig when she is lying, greasy and depressed, on her mother’s couch, and slaps her around to force her to “fight for her crappy life.” My mother sat on me, in her nightgown, and told me that I had to fight for my life, for the life that was in pieces around me. Crying and laughing and crying, I promised her that I would.
When I was enduring (or more accurately, when my parents and I were enduring) what felt to me like a rather embattled adolescence and early adulthood, there were stretches when we could barely tolerate each other. My father adopted the role of peacemaker, telling me over and over and over that “she only says these things because she loves you. She only does this because she cares.” I wanted to reach through the phone and hit him.
Today, 25 years later, we still have conversations like that every now and then, but I am deeply–down in my bones deeply–aware that she doesn’t only do and say what she does because she loves me. She does it because she is the kind of person who, no matter what, will always come down on the side of the angels. She can’t do it any other way.
After my accident, I asked her not to tell my brother or sister because I was so humiliated. I knew I couldn’t tell them, and I knew I didn’t want them to know. The next day, in the car on the way to yet another appointment she said, “I did something you’re going to be angry about and I’m sorry. But I told your brother and sister about the accident because they are your family and families need to stick together. They want to do anything they can to support you.”
I looked out of my window, still barely able to focus my eyes on anything, and I felt the tears on my cheeks. “Thank you,” I said.
On the side of the angels.
Below is one of my favorite birthday poems, even though it’s not a straight up birthday poem (and even though my mother hates birds). It’s by the 19th-century British poet Christina Rossetti, and I’m sharing it with this post for this reason: my mother’s presence during one of the worst periods of my life made it possible for me to have what this poem describes. A new life, a singing heart, and love. She gave all of this to me once, 48 years ago, and then she gave it all back to me again.
Happy Birthday, Mom.
With all love,
by Christina Rossetti
Through a stroke of incredible good fortune and family kindness, I spent Thanksgiving in Sedona, AZ and it was wonderful. Sedona is supposed to have several energy vortices that generate peace, awareness, and various types of transformation. I’m pretty sure this atmosphere affected even my dad who, of course, does not believe in such nonsense (and, I believe, actually once scoffed out loud at people meditating near one of the vortices), and yet managed to return from one of his trips with a now suspiciously well-worn ochre-toned t-shirt that my mother calls “his Zen shirt.”
In any case, Sedona was just one of the many gifts that have graced my life in the last several months, and that have allowed me again and again to experience the poetry of Psalm 23:5, “My cup overflows with blessings.” So many people have helped me in so many ways over the past 22 months. I am awestruck almost every day by something that reminds me of all of the goodness, sweetness, and love that is and has, quite simply, just been there.
There’s someone in my life right now who is my personal angel Gabriel, only she drives a black tricked out Chrysler 300 and swears a lot. But every word out of her mouth, no matter what she is actually saying, is essentially this: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.” That’s what she’s saying, over and over, all the time. If I could give her to everyone I know for Christmas, I would.
Instead, I’ll share a few of the things she tells me, because a lot of people struggle with holiday crap, and with just crap in general that gets magnified at this time of the year, and passing along her wisdom might help. She says things like, “Yeah, you could do life on your own. You could. But you shouldn’t, and anyway, WHY THE FUCK would you want to??” (I told you she swears a lot). She also says, “Nothing is going to get better until you figure out how to make YOURSELF the love of your own life. Stop caring so much about what everyone else thinks. Because for real? They’re not really thinking about you all that much.”
Often she says, “Whatever bullshit you’re telling yourself about how HARD things are is wrong. Nothing is HARD. It might be uncomfortable, but it’s not actually hard. It’s simple: do the next right thing even when you don’t want to. Even when it makes you uncomfortable. And for God’s sake, look around. Don’t you see all these other people who could use some damn help? Do something for them and stop thinking about yourself.”
When I was in Sedona, I went to the Chapel of the Holy Cross and it was beautiful. As in most Catholic churches, there’s an area where you can light a candle as a way to offer prayers for someone or something. Also, like most (all) Catholic churches, there was a donation box. I didn’t have any cash with me, so I left a sobriety medal instead. I also left a small cross that my mom gave me when my life fell to pieces, because I wanted to give it back, as a way to say thank you for the fact that my life is shaping itself back together in a way that feels miraculous.
I use this word very deliberately because, as my gorgeous, my foul-mouthed angel Gabriel says, “You want to know why your life feels like a freaking miracle, girl? Because IT IS a freaking miracle! After what you did, after what happened to you, if you don’t see that as divine intervention, you trippin’. Everyone who wakes up in the morning and has the sense to be grateful that they woke up at all is a damn miracle!” (She really does swear a lot).
So there is something I want you to know. And I mean you, specifically, reading this right now. At this very moment, there is a candle burning just for you in the Chapel of the Holy Cross in the breathtakingly beautiful red rocks of Sedona, Arizona. Because when I lit one of my candles, I thanked God for every single thing, everything large and small, known and unknown, every spoken and unspoken act of kindness, love and mercy that I’ve received in these past two years. That candle, that light, that flame is there for you. Right now, for whatever you need in whatever way you need it.
American poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.” Sometimes in recovery people say, “You don’t have to believe you’ll get better. We’ll believe it for you until you’re ready to believe it for yourself.” So just in case you need some extra light or warmth, there’s at least one flame out there especially for you. Because that’s how it works. That’s how we make it.
All love, all gratitude, and lots of hope for a joyful holiday,
What We Need is Here (by Wendell Berry)
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
Hello friends, and happy change-of-seasons! A small story for you, and a hope that you will read and perhaps even write in to share your thoughts!
I ride the bus to work with a lady who has a very odd conversational style. She tells me long, tedious, repetitive stories, the subtexts of which are that she is easily overwhelmed by relatively simple things, like how to pay her Comcast bill (mail it and waste a stamp or drive it to the office?), or figuring out how to use the printer at work. Yet the sub-subtext is that she is really trying to stay positive in the face of these tasks, and to pass this positivity on to others.
Often, in the middle of her long stories, she’ll pause and say something totally stunning and totally out of context. For example, we had been talking about some film she was having developed at Walgreens (does anyone actually do this anymore?), and she stopped, looked at me and said, “You are making exactly the right choices you need to be making for yourself at this moment.” I briefly wondered if her eyes were going to roll back in her head or if she would start speaking in tongues, but she just carried on with the film story.
Sometimes her messages aren’t as abrupt, but they still feel a bit like unexpected and useful rays of clarity. A few weeks ago, she was describing, in great detail, where she was going to have her new TV installed (by Comcast), and as we got off the bus to walk to our offices, she said, “Today is going to be a positive day and we will feel good about helping other people!”
A day or two ago, she was relating an experience involving an evening of Scrabble, a person with paranoia, and a disgruntled family member. Then she just stopped and said, “It was like, we were all okay. And…and that was…really nice.”
These odd semi-non-sequiturs are like small, clear bubbles of human truths that rise up from mundane narrations of everyday life, and I appreciate them each time. Yes, I could easily imagine how all of a sudden, in the midst of a game of Scrabble with some only questionably sane people, one might be struck by the feeling that, no matter what, we really are all okay. And not only is that feeling very nice; sometimes, it’s all you need to keep you going.
What small experiences cause you to pause and remember what matters to you? Strange, odd, funny, poignant, moving, simple…whatever they might be…what recent moments have given you perhaps just the briefest glimpse of something that felt real and important. I’d love it so if you cared to share!
In this spirit, today’s poem is by Mary Oliver, from her 2006 book, Thirst. This collection is something of a deviation from previous works, and definitely worth checking out if you’re a Mary Oliver lover. I hope you enjoy it, and, as always, I love hearing from you!
by Mary Oliver
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
For my exquisitely kind family and friends
Perhaps this is true of all poems–perhaps when you read a truly brilliant poem you realize that you didn’t really get it before. Or, more likely, good poems are like life–they reveal more the more that you experience. After all, it was Freud who said, “Wherever I have been, a poet has been there before me.”
I’ve used this poem–“Kindness”– by Naomi Shihab Nye before, but I understand it so differently now. Perhaps it’s a gift of compassion to myself that, instead of feeling stupid and thinking, “How could I not really get it before?” I let myself experience it more fully. For I believe with all my heart that poetry gives you all that the human heart and psyche can truly give, and the more open you are, the more you can take in. Sometimes, when that openness comes from being broken apart, love and light have more room to enter.
The truth is, I didn’t know until recently what the first lines of this poem really meant: “Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.” I had no idea what she was talking about. People who’ve lost loved ones surely did; not me. I do now.
But I also didn’t know what the poet meant by her closing lines:
“Then it is only kindness
that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”
But I do now. I do now. Thank you to everyone who has been so kind to me in the past few weeks.
Below is the full poem. With a heart full of gratitude.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the
Indian in a white poncho lies dead
by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night
with plans and the simple breath
that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness
as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow
as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness
that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Naomi Shihab Nye
In the days following Gabe’s birth, six years ago on November 28th, I listened often to Carrie Newcomer’s CD “Regulars and Refugees.” Gabe is our only winter baby, and lying in bed, holding him, with a clear, clean light coming through the big windows, I listened to that CD over and over. The first song has a character named Gabriel Thomas in it and that is Gabe’s full name. The music on that CD helped me find a part of myself that I recognized again, which was really welcome after the life-exploding event of giving birth to another human being.