Heart & Soul

I was a girl. There was a party. My grandfather sat down at the piano, already our hero. Who knew he could play! Who knew Heart & Soul had two parts! I sat down beside him on the bench and he showed me how. We played together, grandfather and granddaughter.

Didn’t this song stream over the radio just as I was writing about him today.

“Hi, Poppop!” I call out.

Those twinkling eyes. His height. His kindness. The way everybody loved him. EVERYBODY, except perhaps my grandmother at times. How he’d hurt her. How being female hurt her. How his life and light blossomed. How hers dimmed. How I adored them both. But saw in her, despite the increasing slurring, and the absence of societal mark, the greater power, the indomitable strength, the wind, the water, the earth, beneath his feet, our feet, as he smiled and wooed and flipped our pancakes into silver dollars, while she, who once held so much promise–French & Chinese at Rutgers–grew bitter with neglect.

A leading role came at 55, a tragedy, her dramatic exit.

And although his eyes did twinkle from time to time, he never stood as tall.

With her, half the man was gone.

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TRANS-GENESIS

I’d like to go back in time and talk to myself about longevity. About the gift of organs, for instance, like the liver and the skin.

“A hangover doesn’t just steal a day,” I’d say, “There’s a hidden surcharge, like an insurance hike after a speeding ticket.”

And what of the adrenals.

Sure, I could burn the candle at both ends in my youth, but what if I knew then these overextensions came with a cost—tapping my immune system and reaching into the future to compromise resiliency.

And what of emotions. I was praised for not letting them get in the way of productivity and responsibilities then, but now I sit across from the therapist processing all that pain because encrusted, it blocks the flow of joy today.

Shouldn’t our early Ed & elementary & high school & college curricula be infused with the study of Anatomy & Physiology, Psychology & Consciousness so that the systems of our bodies might be revered, protected and nourished rather than neglected and abused?

Because neither the Earth or ourselves are commodities to be spent, but gifts to be treasured.

Imagine if, each life, like each body of water, flourished with respect.

~

What if we prayed not just Mother-Father God, but child God, Sister-Brother, Daughter-Son God and even great-great grandbaby God?

What if we prayed Water-Sun-Air-Fire God, Soil God, firefly-mosquito-tick God, traffic-shooting-gardener God, immigrant-racist-misogynist God?

What if Our Father wasn’t in the sky but in Everything, 360 multi-dimensional degrees of Creation–Dear Mother/Father/Daughter/Son/Great-great grandbaby…

How would we love? How would we care? What would we ignore? Who would we hate?

Midnight. Imbolc.


I was 18 when I began keeping vigil with all that was lost; which is to say, I began writing.

My youngest is 18 now.

His older brother was home this afternoon for a quick half-hour, just in time to hop in the car with his father and head south to my husband’s family home 300 miles away.

I waved from the mudroom as they pulled down the driveway and then Aidan and I turned to empty the dishwasher. As I was bent over the silverware it hit me. “All three of you share something I don’t,” I said.

Home.

Turns out, it’s hard to give your kids something you never had, and not for the obvious reasons.

While it’s been healing to offer the kind of upbringing I needed, it’s also surprisingly painful, especially now that they’re the age I was when there was hardly a home or parents to turn toward.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about moving. Far away. By myself. Like the time I lived in London or the time I backpacked through Europe or the time I went out to the Rockies. At 18 and 23, my boys are like bookends of the age I was then. It must be time.

Integrity is one of several paths. It distinguishes itself from the others because it is the right path, and the only one upon which you will never get lost.

I came across this passage in a framed print at the second-hand store years ago, and slowly it wove itself into our family fabric, especially as my boys entered adolecence and I asked them to recite it again and again.

I leaned into that instruction myself, intuitively, 30 years earlier, after a miscarriage, as I prepared to leave my first teaching position. A colleague remarked on my diligence with the end of the year paperwork. “Why bother,” she said. “You’re leaving for Vermont.”

It was something I would hear echoed, again and again, each time I left a job, a rental, a relationship.

Integrity.

Ending well.

Tonight I looked for jobs across the ocean.

What must it be like to have a home to which you can return? I wondered this as my older son sat beside me on the stairs before he left with his father. “I’ll be leaving right away when we get back on Sunday,” he said.

I marveled at how he could “drop-in” to the familiar sights and sounds and smells of a lifetime, and then be on his way again, securely rooted and released, without any need to grasp or hold on or catalogue the memories before they vanished.

The restlessness I feel inside is almost unbearable.
UPROOT, it says, UPROOT!

I don’t want a house or a husband or a community.

But I’ve cultivated a lifetime of tools that enable me to stay with what hurts and what is uncomfortable and what makes me want to run.

Writing. Breath. Music. Dance. Meditation. Spiritual texts. Self-compassion.

“Observing desire without acting on it enlarges our freedom to choose,” writes Tara Brach, in Radical Acceptance.

Freedom is on the horizon.
Especially with January behind us.

The Multi-Colored Womb

A Thousand Voices – Donald Saaf – 2011

Winter brings the return of the dream state, or maybe it’s too much or not enough or my broken-up sleep that explains the day to day watery-immersion of otherworldliness.

Last week, I dreamt of a womb-like container, belonging to another. She placed it on the shelf beside my single bed and then she turned to leave the dormitory-like space as it began to fill with others claiming beds and counters.

I never saw her face, but I continued to marvel at what she left behind–a multi-colored, beautifully-beaded container which served as a water bottle.

Each time I left my bed, however, I was consumed with frustration, because yet another new arrival made claims on the bed that was already mine.

One man, in fact, went so far as to lift my mattress off the frame and take it to the other side of the room–the men’s side, I suppose.

I crossed the space between us and protested. “This isn’t how it works,” I explained. “My things were already there.”

Apparently, the unspoken rules of the Kripalu assistant dormitory (of which I was readily practiced) didn’t apply here.

But where was here anyway? I looked around at rows and rows of beds that I hadn’t noticed before as the space approached full occupancy.

Were we some type of refugee?

I retrieved my mattress, but then wondered if perhaps others needed it more, and then I caught sight of the beautiful container again and smiled, making a mental note to find one for myself.

Days later, that beaded womb bled through my waking hours, speaking a language that I couldn’t quite understand.

Waking between the worlds like this, especially in the dark, wintry months, is welcome, even while it is disorienting (or perhaps because it is), leaving me bobbing in a soupy sea–reality flooded with dreams—where the constellation upon which I’ve relied no longer directs the course, forcing me to find new markers, inside and in other realms, obscured from reality’s view.

Epiphany

 

Without a single resolution or plan, I find some surprising changes afoot for 2019:

1. After 7 years, I’ve changed daybooks.

2. After storing the same old wrinkled & ragged sheets in a large bin, I splurged on a handful of new packs of tissue paper for next year’s holiday wrapping.

3. After putting so many things on the diagonal when our nest emptied this past August–bookshelves, cabinets and even the kitchen island–I’ve reoriented the house back to perpendicular lines while simultaneously opening up the entryway.

4. After asking my husband to sleep elsewhere for the first time in 30+ years, perhaps to better fill the empty nest throughout the fall, I haven’t asked in weeks. (Of course, the house has been full for the holidays.)

5. After an absence of several years that boded badly for our finances, I’ve re-engaged in household budgeting.

6. After serving as the chief travel-lover/cheerleader/insistent-persistor in our partnership, my husband has signed on to chaperone a highschool trip to ITALY entirely of his own accord.

7. After suffering through the fall with Giardia (and the ensuing recovery), dropping an entire clothes size, I feel weary, but also born again.

Christmas Heartbreak

If not the sobriety of Menopause (2 years this past Thanksgiving), then the house guest for whom the holiday was a foreigner, or perhaps the alchemy of both together accounted for the way Christmas was tilted, like a snow globe, and shook loose of all of its accoutrements–gifts & food & music & ritual–until it was seen, if not for the first time, then at least anew.

The build-up.
The expectations.
The arbitrariness.
The absurdity.
The excess.
The holy?

One could say, as many do, that it’s the absence of the Christ Child that hollows out the holiday like a cheap, chocolate Easter Bunny.

But what of our rich personal traditions, steeped in soul and meaning?

Each Christmas Eve we read aloud the Nativity story, and each Christmas Morning, we read this stunning excerpt from Little Women:

Jo was the first to wake in the gray dawn of Christmas morning. No stockings hung at the fireplace, and for a moment she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was crammed so full of goodies. Then she remembered her mother’s promise and, slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book. She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey. She woke Meg with a Merry Christmas, and bade her see what was under her pillow. A green-covered book appeared, with the same picture inside, and a few words written by their mother, which made their one present very precious in their eyes. Presently Beth and Amy woke to rummage and find their little books also, one dove-colored, the other blue, and all sat looking at and talking about them, while the east grew rosy with the coming day.

“While the east grew rosy with the coming day!” Gush!!! And each and every Day in December we read from the National WIldlife Treasury…

December may be the last page on our calendar, but it belongs to no single year… ruled less by time than by age-old traditions…

But is reading meaning?
What of the heart?

My late mother’s birthday is Christmas Day, as was my great Aunt Doll’s.
Certainly, that’s enough heart for a single day.

Let your heart be light…

My youngest, and his maternal and paternal grandfathers before him, dismiss the traditions of faith as if religion is a personal affront to their God-given, white-male sovereignty, and at least in my son’s defense, this is accompanied by an abiding passion for all things scientific.

Lesser beings, like myself, of smaller minds and opportunity, oftentimes rely upon magic and soul. Alas, my capacity for the former, carefully attended since childhood, is almost extinguished, for which I can barely muster concern which in itself is alarming.

At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them…(Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express) 

First thing Christmas morning, my youngest led his older brother in a brief yoga practice, sounding through the chakras, the two of them flanking me on my mat in front of my bedroom balcony doors as the sun rose above the trees in the East–their Warrior Threes on each side of my Balanced Tree–a morning practice to better prepare ourselves for the extraordinary self-connection required of the day’s togetherness; which on sons’ part was no doubt an effort to humor their mother so that the gift-giving could commence sooner.

Having sped through the chakras with a pose for each one, they left the room, encouraging me along, while moments later my youngest returned with his old, golden & gem clad, Egyptology book in hand.

“Eylem pulled this off the shelf,” he explained, “Look at this,” he said, pointing to an excerpt from the Book of the Dead, beneath an illustration of Horus which read:

My heart, my mother, my heart, my mother, my heart, my coming into being! May there be nothing to resist me at my judgment… may there be no parting of thee from me in the presence of him who keeps the scales!

He went on to explain that at death the heart is weighed. And only if it is lighter than a feather may the dead pass on to “heaven.”

Let your heart be light…

It’s not just the heartbreak of my mother’s absence, or the Christmas Eve fire that destroyed a neighbor’s home, or the tsunami on the Sundra Straits of Indonesia sweeping away a pop band while it performed for concert goers on the beach, or even the impending separation between two lovers in my livingroom, star-crossed by timing and culture and place of birth (not to mention visas) or the heartbreak of disappointing yourself, like my youngest, in your first semester away at school, it was the revelation that came with the lightening of my own heart as we sat around the fire on Christmas Eve, while the Gospel of Luke was read aloud with a Turkish accent, followed by the spontaneous singing of carols, giving rise to bouts of laughter, particularly my own, which led my oldest to posit that his mother must be very, very tired, or the moment earlier in the day just before we left to skate on the Retreat Meadows when I stepped toward my husband’s in an embrace, not weary, but full of love, which is how I realized how very tight and parsimonious I’ve let my heart become.

ps: best ever illustrated book of the Gospel of Luke/nativity story, Julie Vivas (of Australia):

Christmas Anger

Because anger never came easy to me, or because I’d never seen it expressed by my mother and so I too learned to hold it in, I suddenly find myself attuned to it, in all its subtleties, and as such, it’s blossomed, especially after Menopause, which deftly set it (and other such vicissitudes of nice, sweet & pretty) free.

“Anger is sad’s bodyguard,” I’ve heard said, or: “Fear is the root of all anger,” but doesn’t that imply that anger has no value in and of itself?

I recall the beauty of a pure encounter. I was 37, with a new infant, a dead mother, a physically present but otherwise absent spouse, and a dilapidated farmhouse atop a mountain filled with in-laws.

The anger arose spontaneously (following a grievous transgression) was almost blissful, uncontaminated as it was by thought which is not to say that it was expressed mindlessly, like outrage, but instead, it burned clean, and was received, and something else, just as potent—it was released—without the festering of anger swallowed or anger dealt cuttingly on the sly.

“Choose discomfort over resentment.”

This is from Brené Brown best said with her Texas twang.
It was my motto last year, and it is also the intention I hold in relationship to my grown children.

“Parenting without resentment may be too ambitious a goal,” my therapist cautions.

In recent years, as the onslaught of hormones rocked me further and further from the shore of self-containment, I began to notice the very moment anger appeared.

Turns out it comes a lot at Christmastime, that time of year when I’m supposed to be all cookies and aprons and good cheer.

Tired is a huge trigger for me, and is a very close friend to overextended. Sick is another trigger, especially once I’m on the mend.

“If you don’t meet your expectations, lower them.”

A teacher of mine, Megha Nancy Buttenheim, spoke these words, and I suppose I’ve been at this lowering for the better half of my life while spending the first half (and apparently previous lifetimes) unconsciously driven.

Like any recovery, it’s one day at a time.

I am so ANGRY.
I am glad no one is home.

At 55 (wow, that’s such a huge number all of the sudden), anger is compounded by the awareness and understanding that arises with age and awakening (and with the election of a misogynist and the electrification of the #metoo movement, so very necessary and centuries too late.)

Nowhere is the gender differential experienced more acutely than during the holidays as our invisible work–caring for homes and families and communities and corporations–is exponentially magnified by the season of giving.

I love giving. I truly do. I enjoy the exchange of energy that gifts bring. That baking provides. That volunteering offers.

“Whenever we reach within and ask how we can delight each other physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, we are on Holy ground,” wrote my friend Michele Morgan Doucette.

But I am so angry. I am so tired. Not just angry and tired in this moment (recovering from the effects of a particularly protracted recovery), but angry for all the ways my mother was tired—she, who would bake cookies for every floor of the hospital (cut-out cookies and fudge and almond bark) while continuing to do the books for my dad’s practice, and caring for our home, and their six children, while Christmas shopping for all of us, including her 7 younger siblings and their families, and my father’s four younger siblings and their families, not to mention neighbors and friends and my father’s colleagues, along with hand-written (and addressed) Christmas cards sent far and wide to all the places we’d lived before.

My dark-haired, dark-eyed mother would arrive on Christmas Day, totally spent, a shell of herself, an absence glaringly magnified by the fact that it was her birthday.

WHERE ARE YOU? I wanted to scream.

Instead, I learned how to make a turkey dinner with all the fixings, her favorite. I bought her flowers, not just on her birthday, but year round. And breakfast in bed too. Eggs Benedict was her favorite. I wrote her cards–from every place I traveled, brought her presents. On Christmas Eve, I would stop by after Midnight Mass to be the first to wish her a Happy Birthday, catching her at that sacred hour when all the kids (and my father) were asleep, and she was most alive, on her knes in the livingroom wrappin.

Sometimes, I stayed on to help. Once, I let her continue alone after my boyfriend and I finished putting together the multi-storied Barbie Dream House at 2 am.

The Magic of Christmas.

I judged my mother for everything. For her vacancy. For not speaking up to my father. For not demanding help. For not claiming some time for indulgence on her own fucking birthday. For not taking time to at least buy something nice for herself. For being so disorganized that she’d save wrapping for Christmas Eve. For disappearing. For being tired. For drinking so much coffee and eating so much sugar. For never reaching her dreams. For never wanting anything.

I judged her and I carried her, and even though I did it all differently, her burdens became mine.

(Here come the tears.

“Anger is sad’s bodyguard.”)

On our very last Christmas together before our family imploded (and reconfigured), and just afater I finished exams, I took my father’s credit card and squeezed in a shopping spree so that my mother might have new things on Christmas Day, too. That silk blouse. Those velours pants. The hair clip. The gold chain. Right down to the stockings and boots.

It wasn’t enough. Or it was too late. Or it was too much and my claiming awakened her own.

Relatives blamed me, blamed her for listening to me.

“Tell Dad you need time for yourself,” I demanded as I watched her disappear.

She left my father in the New Year, but not directly. She went out the side door. With another man. Barely a man. 20. The best friend of my boyfriend. (I expect she wanted the youth she never had. The youth I had.)

Later she left all of us with the bottle.

Finally, after ten years sober, her departure was final. Cancer. Just 2 years older than I am now. Her body riddled with guilt and regret.

My mother was a kind, gentle soul caught in the crossfire of what it is to be female, to grow up poor, to want more but not know how to claim it, to never know that you are deserving/worthy, just as you are.

I appreciated my mother and always told her so. But now I’d like to tell her something else. I’d like to gather her in my arms and say:

None of this was your fault.

~

(Note: For the longest time, I loved this photo, holding onto it and “the way we were,” and then one Christmas, I dropped it, and the glass shattered, and I realized then that I’d hated it, hated it for the way it made me feel sad.

Just now, I’m beginning to see it differently, something new creeping around the edges, two women, one 18, the other 39, saying, however imperfectly:

We’re here too.)