Her House

Up with the sun squinting through the trees,
then out on the road heading east
as the light rises over frozen lakes and ponds
and further still above marshland and waterway,
until, at the hour of my birth—
that first separation of mother from child
and child from womb—
I arrive—
at the great expanse of the sea,
feeling beside her bitter, jagged coast,
grief and homecoming, clarity and release,
while suddenly understanding:

I will dwell in her house, forever, forever and ever.
As it was in the Beginning,
is now and ever shall be.
World without end.

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On the murder of journalists

Deep in our bones, every writer knows what it is to be annihilated for our words. Experienced first at home, and later in the world, it is a cost we are compelled to pay. A vocation cannot be silenced. Words live on.

https://twitter.com/amnesty/status/1056833440396574720/video/1

Lila & Fran

Lila & Fran

“Are you worried I’m not going short enough?”

“Huh?” I say, surprised to find my friend leaning in beside me with scissors in her hand.

I look down to the inches in my lap and to those on the floor around me. I rarely come to her chair with much of an agenda. I rely on her sense of style and more importantly on her sense–of me. “I’m not worried.”

We had already decided that this would be my “winter hat haircut” so I’d been daydreaming. It was the day before my birthday and I often come that week or even on the day itself, and then again at the turning point of each season.

“You’re the most spiritual person I know,” my friend once said. “Every day is a ritual for you.”

I would have never guessed that she was religious. “You say evangelical like it’s a bad word,” she told me.

I thanked her for letting me know.

“I feel safe with you,” she said, and I felt safer with her for taking the risk that so few women do.

Female friendships don’t come easy to me or they come easy but I’m not easy in them. This may be because I have seven sisters, and I am the oldest. And an introvert. There are already so many ways not to be enough.

Friends who go the distance let it be easy.

This friend and I are beach friends. We often meet up at the pond–by chance–with our picnic baskets and wine or margaritas or cold beers. We share a devotion to the water, to the greenery beside it, to sipping spirits as the sun sets on the gift of another day.

After the summer, we part ways. I go into hibernation and she continues to socialize–seeing more friends in some weeks than I could manage in a year.

We met back when our kids were preschoolers. That winter we were assigned to the same committee for a fundraising event. We discovered that we both gave our all to the job. But it was the evening of the event when she stole my heart, and not for her talents with the table, but for her offer to pour me something stronger in my tea cup.

That gave me the nerve to ask: “What do you do?”

I had been wondering this all year. While the rest of us looked like we were practically dressed in our pajamas (and Birkenstocks) when we dropped our kids off to school, she always looked like she was heading to a party.

One afternoon when we arrived to pick up  our kids she asked “Do you want to come over for lunch?” Instead of their crust, she fixed us up a grownup meal while the kids went off to play. There were grapes on my plate, and a salad!, and something new–a sandwich that she pressed on a grill. She called it a panini.

“Would you like a glass of wine,” she asked, and I almost swooned as she opened a bottle and took down two stemmed glasses instead of plastic ones or canning jars.

But things got serious after that.

“Do you play golf?” she asked, as she sat down beside me. My heart sank.

I didn’t know then that I hated golf or I suppose I knew but I didn’t know why.

“I’m going to put the dryer over your head,” she says, leaning in beside me again.

I watch as she puts the scissors down on the tray, and pulls the portable dryer over to my chair, lowering it over my head. The sound of the dryer takes me back, not just to when our highschoolers were preschoolers, but futher still.

She hands me a glass of sparkling water, and I arrive in my grandmother’s bedroom.

The ocean air streams through a set of tall windows, the last of which stands beside her own beauty salon recliner with an overhead hair dryer. The dryer means that we don’t have to wear wirey curlers to bed.

She was the age I am now, when my youngest uncle married a woman who was a hair dresser, and to my surprise she let her new daughter in law cut her hair.

My grandmother received a feathery soft layered cut with bangs. I thought she looked beautiful. And cool!

The thing was, her new hair style required a blow dryer and a round brush which my immensely competent grandmother never used before.

“Would you like to do it for me?” she asked, after washing her hair for the first time since the cut.

I looked at her sitting there beside her bedroom vanity sink and I felt as if I was about to be knighted by the Queen.

She had bestowed other privileges on me in the months since I had become a teen. One evening after a large extended family dinner, she told her grandchildren that it was time for us to head down to the gameroom, but then she added: “Kelly Ann can stay.”

Breathless, I remained still, and attempted to remain proud even when I realized that staying meant helping the grown women with  the dishes.

More recently, I had been invited to participate in the preparations for an event she was hosting for my father to re-introduce him to the community as a partner in my grandfather’s practice. Though I still had to return to New York to finish my highschool exams, the rest of my family had relocated to the shore ahead of me so that my father could begin work.

Shish ke-babs were on the menu and I had been assigned the green peppers. With a sharp knife in hand, my pride faltered once again when I took in the mound of them on the table.

I am only just realizing my ambivalence toward green peppers as akin to my feelings for golf, coming as they did together around the accident.

“Do you need more sparkling water,” my friend asks as she lifts the dryer and checks my curls, then lowers it back over my head again.

I take my place behind my nana, facing the gilded mirror, beneath which sits the ceramic swan that was once a wedding favor filled with jordan almonds and was now employed as a cutip holder.

I do not remember if I did a good job with the blow dryer and the round brush, or if it got stuck in her hair like it often got stuck in mine. I’d never been very good with hair. Pictures of me at 14 are painful.

But the thrill I felt to stand behind her is what remains, as was the thrill I felt about finally taking my place beside her in the very same town in less than a month’s time after such a long wait–a decade that brought me to Philadelphia for my father’s medical degree to his internship in New Port News, to his residency in Denver and finally his service at West Point.

I had literally dreamed of this return for the entirety of my young life.

I looked down to see my hair, swept up in a silver pile.

I can’t blame the accident for my feelings about golf, not entirely. I had taken lessons the year before, and I had found it terribly boring.

“I don’t play,” I told my friend, as I took a sip of wine, but I didn’t tell her about the accident. It had been twenty-five years, and it would be another ten before I began to write back into the pain that I had frozen inside.

The thing is my friend reminds me of my grandmother. They share the same joie de vivre and a love of French things. And something else. My friend has another friend who reminds me of my Auntie Fran, who was my nana’s very best friend. These two friends are giddy together like Lila and Fran were, ike the way they must have been as they set out on that trip, crossing that bridge on their way to the golf match where they were to serve as the first women officials.

My father flew back to the base in a friend’s tiny plane to give me the news.

We flew back together for the funerals.

“Do you want to take a look,” my friend asks, as she lifts the dryer from my head and hands me a mirror.

“No thanks,” I say, “I trust you.”

what the soul knows

I grew up on the Atlantic, a beach girl. It wasn’t until I was pregnant that I came to appreciate the marsh.

Just after the miscarriage, I abandoned my people at the sea, but on my way out the narrow strip of land that connects the island to the mainland, I pulled over to commune with the verdant greens of the marshland before heading for the mountains.

A Blue Heron looked back at me.

It was my mother who taught me to notice the signs.

I miscarried a second time in the mountains, conceived that child in a rancher beside a pasture filled with cows who woke us early each morning and filled the place with flies.

That ski house was ours “until the snow flies,” and it’s the smell of camphor that I remember most about it, and blood splattered on the ceilings.

“Just one more,” I prodded Casey. “It’s the last one.” It never was.

That place sat above a brook, and there was a brook beside the next place too, only sweeter–the brook and our small farmhouse beside it, caressing one another through winter and into spring, summer into fall and around and around again for 7 years that changed everything.

I conceived both sons in that house. Labored with them there, the second delivered in the tiny bathroom with the gabled dormer; the first transported to the nearest hospital over Hogback Mountain where a novice EMT attempted an IV in my right hand over the bumpy road.

The road from the farmhouse to the highway ran along the mighty Deerfield River which opened into the great Harriman Reservoir. Once or twice, Casey and I rode horseback alongside it, and often rode bikes with a trailer pulling kids.

The boys grew up in a timber-frame the next town over that they helped build just above Neringa Pond.

After a rain, you can hear the Whetstone move through the dam from their bedrooms, and I spend many a morning on the dock between the pond and the brook, letting my attachments go with the rushing water, or at its other end, where the Whetstone sits in meadow-like repose.

“Lay me down beside still waters,” comes to me when I commune with the silence there.

It’s a line from my Nana’s favorite Psalm, read at her graveside.

She was the one who brought me from the beach to her people’s place beside the Indian River Bay.

I never understood what she saw in it. There was no boardwalk. No ice cream trucks. No umbrellas. Nothing but sky and water and marsh and not another soul in sight no matter which direction you looked.

This past April I returned to the place for the first time since the accident. 40 years has transformed 42 wooded acres into more than a dozen waterfront homes with a similarly crowded view no matter which direction you turn, except to face the water.

I had to squint my eyes to feel what I’d once felt there, what I hadn’t known I’d found there.

Instead of joy, I felt distressed to see our old boathouse standing, and a dock in the same place where I stood alone as a girl with the entire world before me.

There are some things that cannot be taught.

There are some things that take time to realize.

There are some things only the soul knows.

yoga & the page

The world looks so much better after a glass of yoga.

Last night, I had the realization, deep in my belly, after placing clean clothes on Aidan’s empty bed, that he won’t be living with us anymore, which is to say that we won’t be a family ever again, not in the way we have been–for a QUARTER of a CENTURY–which is a stunning turn after the thousands of days spent tending to children under our roof.

This morning, waking with the light, in the generous absence of parenting (Aidan is away at camp), I realized something else–my summer flow:

Pour the tea, morning pages, set an intention for writing (continue cycling through the alphabet–3 days for each letter; I’m up to “O,” which reminds me of the game Aidan still likes to play, ie. WIN on long car rides), draw a page from the book, then begin working on it–writing, planning, shaping; followed by a light breakfast, and a short drive to town for yoga.

I was on the mat when it came to me, along with tears that I hadn’t realized were seeping: This could be the rhythm–MY rhythm–without kids in the home.

As I returned upright from Supta Baddha Konasana, I mentally cataloged the flow so that I wouldn’t forget:

steep the tea, Tulsi Rose (my go-to since Menopause after a lifetime with mint)
morning pages practice
intention
art
writing
exercise
breakfast
income-bearing work

It was 2012 when yoga offered a spine to a year of radical change. It wasn’t so much that yoga gave rise to the change, but allowed for it, supported it, made it sustainable, ie. I had my own back.

That year-long study to earn my teaching certificate ushered me into writing about my deepest loss, to facing the arousal of death brought on by approaching 50, to taking an NGO spot at the annual Commission of the Status of Women at the United Nations (my late grandmother’s unrealized dream), to making the decision to leave international work in order to devote more of me to art–specifically to shaping a memoir along the bone of an accident that took so much more than 4 lives.

I expected to celebrate publication alongside my 50th, even made a soft plan to release the book (and sign copies) when the Cape May – Lewes Ferry celebrated its 50th too since it figures prominently in my story.

Another year passed.

I set to studying the art of a long life, Ayurveda, the sister science to yoga. Another year.

I deepened into the chakras–the interface of body and spirit. Another year.

I shifted into more practical directions, apprenticing with leading authors. Years.

I turn 55 at the end of this one, the same age Lila was when she climbed the bridge in a Thunderbird and never made it to the other side.

If I can finish before I reach the same age, I will have done what?

Protected myself?

There is some game being played that I don’t totally understand, hearkening back to when it was only miles that separated me from my grandmother, instead of states of being, though two-thousand miles is like a death for a 7-year-old, which must be why strangers had to rip me from Lila’s arms and put me on that plane, and slap me across the face so that the pilot could take off, taking me from the Atlantic to the Rockies where I’d wait out a sentence of 4 years.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4…

If I can make it into the house before 0, she won’t die; we all won’t die; I won’t die.

3, 2, 1…

But if I finish the book, doesn’t that mean she dies all over again?

If not abject despair, trauma gives rise to magical thinking, and it was as a girl of 14 that I placed my grandmother, safely, in a rehabilitation center where she could recuperate from the accident that *almost* took her life.

I was the only one that knew she was there and she remained there, for decades, until that year that yoga allowed me to write into that which one should never bear.

Retrospect is so romantic, like those who miss caring for newborns, memories absent of the toll of sleepless nights, and a spouse who lets you down, but still expects sex, from a body which has surrendered itself to grow, deliver and sustain new life.

There’s something I’m needing in this new year, something to support me in this great transition of releasing motherhood, a role that was foisted onto me as a small child, the oldest of 8 siblings, and dozens of cousins, alcoholism and tragedy.

Fly, little Kelly, fly, and wasn’t it flying that I planned to do as I came of age in my twenties like my father and grandfather before me; only in tending others, 25 came too soon, and with it my sense of mortality which prohibited suspension in the sky.

I await instructions.

(photo: when a writer reheats pizza)

Productive like a peach or a field of poppies

When asked if my time on the Cape has been productive, I pause.

16 days holed up in a basement apartment with a small dog and a singular purpose.

If that doesn’t produce results, I should give up, right?

But first, let me be sure of the meaning of this word:

And second, let me consider enlarging my understanding of what it means to “achieve results.”

At the end of the first week, for instance, I described all that I’d discovered in the neighborhood:

the lila tree

At the end of the second week, I catalogued the diet of a writing retreat:

recipe for a writing retreat

And, now on the eve of my return home, I’d like to list some additional markers of this extended stay:

3 loads of laundry
3 rolls of toilet paper

2 grocery runs
3 to-go pizza dinners
5 microwave meals
a half-dozen seafood meals
2 breakfasts out
1 absurdly expensive and mediocre (but perfect) lunch on the water
several cafe’s
one trip to Boston (Museum of Fine Arts)
a day at the beach
several exploratory drives
daily walks (woods, marsh, ocean)

3 shampoos
2 leg shaves
3 vacuumings of dog hair

But writing, you ask?

Not so much.

But wait, we can’t throw our arms up in despair!
Because I didn’t actually come on this writing retreat to write.

I have thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand words already.
I am a copious producer of words!
My mouth was taped in the third grade by pretty Mrs. Campbell.
I have more blogs than my mother had children.

Let me see how many I can round up:

Oh wait, I forgot this one:

I’ve always had plenty to say.
(This is the age with the tape.)

I did not come on this journey to speak so much as to listen.

Not so much to create as to thresh.

Not so much to gather as to sort.

No so much to be productive, as to distill.

To be still.

To ask:

What is the story I am trying to tell
and how do I want to tell it?

So while I can’t say that my time has been productive, I can say, without a doubt, that it has been been fruitful

producing good or helpful results

Though I would define fruitful in more sensual terms.

Like the shape of a peach.
The round weight of it in your hand.
Its soft fuzz against your lips.
Juice dribbling down your chin.

Or like the orange poppies here dancing in the sea breeze…

Which is to say that I am writing this post as an act of self love.
As an insistence on recognition and celebration, even in the absence of productivity.
Even in the presences of bags and boxes of writing materials, many of which did not come to bear on this journey despite the careful selection and packing and hauling and unpacking and hauling and the copious amounts of time available in which to delve into them…

In times of anxiety, and particularly in transition, and especially at ending points, I am prone to hide from the immensity of my feelings (those in the present and those stirred up from the past), by deriding myself, by cataloguing all the ways  I fell short, or the situation fell short, or others fell short. (My parents were good teachers in this regard.)

But since I have recently decided to welcome any thought of a problem as an invitation, I welcome this problem of derision, and I accept the invitation to notice how much is churned up on this eve of my departure. This Sagittarius full moon culmination after a Taurus new moon beginning.

Yesterday, I walked the long stretch of sand at low tide and felt as if I had arrived at the edge of the world where the planet curves.

I walked.

And I walked.

And I walked.

Until I reached water.

And then I kept on walking…

recipe for a writing retreat

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writing retreat

noun

eating, sleeping, walking, talking, thinking–revolving around one axis

eg. 14 days in a friend’s apartment on the Cape with a dog named Buster

MENU:

65% dark chocolate bar with chrystallized ginger,

a single sleeve of toasted coconut cookie thins

a container of pistachio butter crunch toffee (finished in the first week)

2 bags of black licorice chews (one for each week)

Endless cups of herbal tea, a half-dozen green teas, one mug of Earl Grey, 2 chais

3 lattes (the most notable of the personal excesses)

4 glasses of wine, 3 beers, 1 Mojito

1 bag of kettle-cooked Himilayan-salted potato chips (primarily consumed on the drive)

2 sticky buns, 1 muffin, 1 full service afternoon tea

(also shrimp, scallops, crab, fish; a handful of salads; half a cucumber; large doses of asparagus; an entire container of micro-greens; and 2 jars of Trader Joes peaches without added sugar.)

*also one entire jar of dog biscuits
(that one’s on buster)
also, daily walks implied (ie. demanded)


results:

an opening & closing setting settled upon

3 distinct story threads revealed

a strategic plan for outlining each thread

distillation of purpose

*bonus: a new friend
(See Week I: the lila tree)