Life like Summer (and a good book) ends

On my second read through the Prodigal Summer, deep in the middle of winter, I began to think that I skipped a chapter or two, particularly as the end came on so quickly. I was so certain that I remembered more to the story that I paged through the entire book, seeking the missed parts.

But that’s all there was.
It was over.
Just like that.

I feel the same way now.

How is summer coming to a close?

I look back at the weeks gone by and still can’t fathom that I have lived a full summer, but here it is: the middle of August (past the middle of August)… leaves turning red, school starting in a week.

Someone has stolen summer! Maybe I can blame it on the schools; or on the tenacious cough my son brought home from camp; or on climate change?

I bet it’s the same with our own endings.

Takes us by surprise.
Comes too soon.

(Even when we see it coming.)

Excavating Old Fears

Small-plane-crashes-into-houseAs the plane approaches, I cringe on the couch beside the vaseline and the box of tissues and the glass of water.

My breath shallows. My stomach clenches. I wait, suspended, until it passes over my apartment.

Planes have been known to crash into homes. I’ve heard it on the news. I think about it every time. Even when I’m in the car.

I also worry about car crashes ever since those kids dashed out in front of us on the bike. I keep the soles of my feet on the dashboard and use them as brakes. Casey doesn’t like it because it leaves foot prints. But he’s the one who hit them. (They were fine.)

Trucks too. Obviously. But that’s been a long, long time. I still hold my breath. I have to pass them as quickly as I can.

I return to my folders. The pile of them. On the coffee table in front of me. Each one holds the contents of a different aspect of planning, labeled with marker: dresses, flowers, photography, reception, gifts, honeymoon. Inside I tuck magazine clippings and make carefully written notes on lined paper, the new recycled kind.

Now that he sees how much work a wedding is, he doesn’t want it. But it’s already in motion. And until he walks through the door after his shift, I’m afraid the phone will ring. That call. That news. That fucking truck.

I roll some more vaseline on my lips.

I have a vaseline stick in my pocket too, and in my purse, and in my car, at my desk at work, and beside my bed, the kitchen table, the office, and in the dining room which isn’t used as a dining room at all but a place where I do the Firm–Levels 1 through 6, a video workout, or Jane Fonda, or the new Sports Illustrated series, of which my favorite is the gentle class with Elle McPherson, that gorgeous model from Australia with the sweet accent, who introduces us to something called yoga, which involves holding her toes.

I don’t know what it is, but I think it has something to do with yogurt. Maybe they’re from the same place.

The first time I had yogurt was when we were visiting my Poppop in the hospital in Boston. It was like ice cream, only sour. Now there’s a TCBY off the island, and I love the white chocolate. It’s the only chocolate I can have without a headache.

Each time I figure out something else that gives me a headache, I give it up: chocolate, alcohol, meats with nitrates like hotdogs, bacon, sausage and ham (my favorite), salad dressings and other prepared foods with preservatives.

It was salad dressing that tipped me off to the preservative connection. Because I thought, this is ridiculous, how can salad give me a headache, so I got up from the table, opened the refrigerator, pulled out the plastic bottle and started reading ingredients.

I’ve been pretty much headache free since. Except weekends.

The counselor who visited work said that I should try Al-Anon. I have no idea how that could help, but it has something to do with how I told her that weekends are really stressful for me, especially Saturdays.

My colleague, the PE teacher, saw me coming out of the tiny room off the back gym where they hid the EAP counselor for the day. “Is everything okay?” he whispered.

“Everything is fine,” I said. “It was free.”

I guess I was the only one who tried it out, and now I feel kind of embarrassed, but I’m glad I did it because Al-Anon changed everything.

3 bikers at the beach

Copyright © Joni James. All rights reserved by artist.
Copyright © Joni James. All rights reserved by artist.

youth on a small bike

her body leans into his
melts into his
the soft surrender of a belly
into a back
her arms wrapped around his waist
his wrists infused with their love

elders on a gourmet bike

she reclines
as far back as she can
into her body
apart from his
upright, proud
neither needing the other
in fully claimed

young & old on a tricycle

his chubby fingers lightly touch
his father’s back
taking in the world around him
certain in the safety
  of being loved

3 days with the sea


Ocean Drive

like a dog, she tilts her head out the window to capture the scent of

clams, seaweed, Coppertone

Olfactory Heaven

Salt Air

waft of the sea

tires on broken shells

mom & pop stands

salt battered roads and fences and siding

dissolving the boundaries that divide us
from the world and each other

Being One in nascent waters

day’s end

the air is so drenched with Her

that The Invention of Wings

curls like taffy

instead of paper

for the dogs

in the early morning and just before night fall

the beach becomes their playground

a dark furred and a light furred one arrive with 3 young people: two men and a lovely woman

fresh with possibility

i see him see me, and I see him:

clearly the geeky sidekick of the other–he who is already everything that he will ever be–towel wrapped snug around this sun-drenched body–diving into the surf, alone, while the geek and the woman run up and down the beach laughing with the abandon of puppies

my guess is that she belongs to the beachy guys, but one day may wonder what her life could have been with the man with the kind heart and glasses, the one wearing the chamois shirt and the cargo pants, not quite capturing the look; but taking time to see a woman, really see her, holding a novel, behind the disguise of middle-age

seize the day

third night of the grain moon

chance of rain,100%


when we saturate ourselves in the sweetness

denied ourselves so long


Grandma Anna Love

I brought home two items from Anna’s place on Anthony Street : a steel tub and a small feather pillow, which my boys later named: Grandma Anna’s pillow.

They also dubbed our morning eggs: Grandma Anna eggs, because of the way my husband makes them just the way she made them; and then there was also: Grandma Anna’s shells, which weren’t actually hers at all, but another woman’s, named Annie, who owns a food line, but the boys refused to honor that distinction.

Anna lived in the Berkshires in an old home looking out at Mount Greylock. I loved to sit at her kitchen table, in front of the big picture window, with a cup of hot tea in our hands, taking in the mountain and talking about our days.

Sometimes we’d take ourselves out back to her Adirondack chairs, and stare across the right-of-way to Mrs. Mente’s majestic Maple as it blazed into Autumn.

“Maybe you’ll never have a baby,” Anna said to me as we soaked up the color around us, “but you have a good husband and good job, and that’s enough.”

It wasn’t enough for me, and Anna lived long enough to meet her great-grandson, but by the time he was old enough to know her, she was rapidly declining in health.

In the year before his birth, Anna was forced to leave the Berkshires to move in with family just after we had relocated to New England ourselves.

I remember the day we packed up Anna’s house. I was very pregnant at the time, and delighted to discover a small feather pillow that no one else claimed. I wasn’t sure how I’d use it, but that first night, I tucked it under my burgeoning belly and it helped me sleep.

Twenty years later, and I still sleep with that pillow, and I’d love to tell Anna about that, and about how my youngest son, who she never met, enjoys a small cup of coffee, with a lot of milk and sugar, just like she made for my husband in her kitchen when he was a boy.

“She likes you already,” he told me the first time we met.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“She made Boston butt,” he said, emphatically. (The last time he brought a girl up to the mountains to meet his grandmother, she had handed him some cash and sent them off to McDonald’s.)

We did get along well, Anna and I. Our conversations picked up with season’s visit… summer, autumn, winter,  spring… talking our way through her long life and into my twenty-something years.

Anna welcomed my family into her home too: my youngest siblings on long weekend getaways; and my sister and her family when they were driving through. There was always tea, and Oreos in the canister, sweet bread in the drawer, and Keilbasa from the German butcher on the stove.

Years later, Anna danced at my wedding, and when we visited her as a married couple, she insisted that we take her bed; which makes me remember of an earlier trip when I asked about sleeping with her grandson.

Grandma Anna's Barrel 9 months pregnant
Grandma Anna’s Barrel
9 months pregnant

It was a couple years into our relationship (and a handful of visits later) when I suggested that Casey simply ask his grandmother if we could share a room so that we didn’t have to sneak out back on those cold Berkshire nights.

He refused, appalled at the impropriety, and so I went ahead and asked myself:

“Anna, how would you feel if Casey and I stayed together in same room?”

To which she replied (with wink): “Don’t do anything, I wouldn’t do.”

Grandma Anna love

(ps. I was 22 when I first met Anna, and then a decade older–and 9 months pregnant–in this photo with my feet soaking in her barrel. Later it became a tub for my boys. And most recently, on my 50th birthday, we stocked Anna’s barrel with bottles of champagne.)

Prescription: the Feminine

cropped-mother-earth-midwifery221 years ago, my new doctor prescribed a summer off to get in touch with my “feminine side.”

I had no idea what that meant, but I was desperate enough to step outside my own understanding.

In misery.

Later she suggested that I take a break from full-time work.

I tried that too.

And still, I did not get pregnant.

What I did get was community: A town called Marlboro. My first pair of Birkenstocks. A taste for hummus. An invitation to a women’s circle. A practice called yoga. An inkling to garden. A return to the slower cycles of nature.

By the New Year, I missed my period; and by the last day of summer school, I was ready to deliver.

What came through me was a boy. Two of them. Five years apart.

What came to me was the reclamation of the feminine:

in softer ways of knowing.

in a gentler orientation toward my days.

in the fierce clarity that comes from inside.

in the strong tide that washes away that which is no longer needed.

20 years later, I’m still discovering Her.

In me.

Around me.

Beside me.

In ALL things.

(note: just as I prepare to publish this piece, a spider drops down in front of my face)

i’ve got (my) back

10351825_10152504996033746_8547168182269551440_nI hurt my back. In a gentle yoga class. During the first pose.

The irony continues…

I carved out the gift of this single yoga class from a busy week spent at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.

The irony doesn’t end there…

I was at Kripalu to assist at a Let Your Yoga Dance teacher training program–where I danced day and night–without a problem. It was only when I stopped, sat down, and reclined, open-hearted, over a delicious set of cushions, that I was hurt.

This irony suggests an invitation more than an injury, doesn’t it?

But a month later, the invitation is still hurting.

Bending over backwards is the mind/body connection that comes to mind.

But wasn’t I bending for myself?

I made a special request to fit that yoga class into a tight schedule. I rushed to make it happen. I couldn’t wait to surrender to it.  And yet, even after I felt the alarming twinge in my lower back, I refused it.

“This posture is great,” I said to my back. “Come on! Enjoy it.”

And when my back continued to complain?

“What’s the point of taking the cushions out now? You’re already hurt.”

So maybe I wasn’t so much bending over backward–for myself–but bending over backward for… busyness?

Assisting at Kripalu had an alarmingly familiar tempo to previous life incarnations; ones that I consciously left behind: from managing a family of origin to managing a restaurant, to managing a classroom and then a succession of non-profits.

Ironically this new role held none of the responsibilities that once weighed me down, and it also included meditation, hugs and organic food.

So what was wrong with me? Hadn’t I made enough progression? Couldn’t I tolerate a few days of intense scheduling given the obvious benefits?

Apparently, No. I arrived to opening night with an impressive fever blister (my first), and shortly after developed a full-blown migraine.

The most outstanding irony in this entire drama is the fact that I didn’t have to be there; and I couldn’t even blame it on money… I was volunteering.

(Kelly. Kelly. Kelly.)

Once I returned home, that silly, gentle-yoga, first-pose, invitation continued, until I was forced to attend to it with a myriad of practitioners: from chiropractic, to massage, to naturopathic.

It only felt worse.

Finally, I succumbed to bringing it where it belonged: the psychotherapist.

With her guidance, I take myself back to the reclining pose on the soft cushions at Kripalu, and realize that I WANT EVEN MORE SPACE, more than this yoga class, more than this mat, more than this open-hearted pose.

This hunger for space has been a constant throughout my life–as the oldest of 8–parentified by alcoholism–orphaned by divorce–driven to exhaustion at work.

But the truth underneath my desperation for space is that I don’t want to give up on anything else to have it.  I want the joy of assisting, the gift of a family, and the delight of professional pursuits.

What I need to learn how to do is this: Occupy the space I need, ALL the space I need, in the midst of it all.

With this realization, the pain in my back grows louder and louder, until I want to crawl out of my skin and become spineless.

The familiar reclining chair in my therapist’s office becomes so uncomfortable that I am forced to move to the floor while she carefully guides my attention to the story behind the pain:

My grandmother appears. Not the one I adored. But the one I abhorred?  Because she was mean? And fat? (obese really.)

Energy moves from my right side to my left side, and then wraps around my belly where this grandmother’s dark and heavy pain is lodged inside of me.

This is where my doctor placed his hands last week to contrast the muscular differentiation between this and my thighs. “Your weaker abdominal muscles may be contributing to the vulnerability of your lower back,” he suggests.

But here’s what I heard:

“You hurt your back because you are fat and lazy and out of shape.”

(Yet another invitation masked as injury/as insult.)

“I don’t want to connect with the energy of this grandmother,” I say to my therapist; but even as I say the words, and realize how afraid I am of this journey, I know that it is my next frontier.

I pick myself up off the floor and climb back into the chair, reconnecting my heart to my lower back; surprised to find that my spine suddenly feels like a source of support again instead of agony.

10301211_10152601746673746_16322046353505728_nMy mind flashes back to Kripalu, to the ritualistic closing of each demanding or vulnerable or evocative Let Your Yoga Dance training session: We circle up, wrap our arms around the bodies touching ours, and take turns whispering into one another’s ear:

“I’ve got your back.”

I stand to say goodbye to my therapist, and I smile as I walk out her door, whispering to myself:

“I’ve got my back.”