Owning My Stupidity – Sad but no Regrets

Stupid

In my internal dialogue yesterday, I was primarily engaged with my parents. Both of them were really smart although unfortunately, somewhat underdeveloped because of their difficult, challenging childhoods which impeded what could have been have been richer lives. Despite those issues, each of them uttered truisms I’ve remembered, pondered and considered when I was about to make a move in my life. And I’ve made plenty of moves. Yesterday I could hear my mom saying, “ no one can hurt you as much as you can hurt yourself. Remember that.” I did, mom. And then there was dad. He’d look at me and say, “stop chasing around, you little weasel. Make a plan. Know what you’re doing. You always need one. If it doesn’t work, make another.” Yep. I remember that too. Of course, I heard my own voice too, warning me as I have many times that every commitment, every love is a risk that can be emotionally expensive. No one knows that better than me. I’ve paid many times for making those choices. But I also know you don’t get the goodies without taking chances.

I’ve always been an outdoorsy person. I’m physically active. I feel terrible after sitting around for too long. When the pandemic hit last year, I went for long walks and started daily dance parties with headphones jammed in my ears. As soon as the temperature allowed, I set up residence in my backyard where I spent hours each day, kicking in my kiddie pool, gardening and observing the antics of all the wildlife that visited my little universe. Except for having a kiddie pool for myself, none of this is new. From my earliest childhood years, I was always checking out insects and animals, the trees, the plants, the dirt and the sky. I always had my favorites like the white tussock moth caterpillar. And what midwesterner doesn’t love the brilliant red cardinal?

Photo by Lee Ruth
Carmine, November 2019 – All cardinal photos by me

All the way back to the late ‘70’s, we had nesting cardinals and robins in our yard. Hard to miss because of their remarkable color, especially in winter, with their stark contrast to the white snow, they were just part of the landscape. In the years of working full-time and raising a family, I always noticed them but in that glancing way we all have when we’re busy. Besides, for many years we had two dogs and a couple of cockatiels whose time with us totaled almost thirty years. The kids too had their own pets, a series of guinea pigs, hamsters and parakeets. Life was busy. Every now and then I snapped a photo of a butterfly, bee or bird while documenting my garden, doing my best Thomas Jefferson imitation of recording my relationship with the dirt and its endless possibilities.

I met Carmine, up close and personal, late in 2019, when he decided to have a good look at me by landing on my car windshield. He wasn’t named back then. I saw he and his female partner all the time. They frequented my bird feeders and appeared to be living in my massive upright yews that ran along my back fence. They also hopped around the repurposed climbing structure that Michael had built for our kids which I’d turned into a giant planter for potted plants and climbing flowers, to attract more pollinators and hummingbirds. As I focused my attention toward the outdoors, this cardinal pair increasingly attracted my attention. Their behavior was interesting and in a very short time, I realized that I could distinguish their voices from the bird cacophony that often blares in the backyard. My elderly rescue dog Violet wasn’t much of a companion. Having spent the bulk of her life traveling around as a crated show dog, I’d struggled to establish rapport with her, each moment of eye contact a small victory. My last cockatiel, Daisy had died after a long life. But these cardinals…

I started looking at the female more carefully. Her color was unusual. They were too far away for observation. I decided to order additional bird feeders which I could place closer to my house. I got one which attached to the front door and another which I hung from a shepherd’s hook two feet from my back steps. The cardinals were swift to discover the new food sources. The female, although not as brilliantly colored as the male, was exceptionally beautiful. She was leucistic, commonly defined as having reduced pigmentation, resulting in whitish spots on otherwise solidly colored areas. I was immediately entranced. I named the female Pumpkin and the male Carmine. I also knew I was making a terrible mistake. Counting on wild animals for personal joy is just plain stupid. They are exposed to daily challenges. I’ve had raptors in my yard, surveying the possibilities for their lunches, afternoon snacks and dinners. And the damnable cats. Both the collared ones, who are obviously let loose by owners either unaware or uninterested in the fact that felines are responsible for the deaths of millions of birds in a year, or all the strays I’ve found ambling up my driveway. I knew that by investing myself emotionally in the vulnerable was a big mistake. But although I thought all the rational thoughts and considered everything, I was already a goner. I loved Pumpkin and Carmine.

Pre-mating behavior
Mating

I saw them mate on top of the backyard plant structure. A later, I heard frantic distress calls and ran to my front yard to see a cat lurking under my neighbor’s shrubs where a weak fledgling was ensconced. I chased the cat away and watched in horror as the baby tried to reach its screeching parents and face-planted itself on the sidewalk. I stood over it until somehow it mustered the strength to loft itself into the sheltering bush where its parents perched anxiously. Later, I watched Pumpkin feed the fledgling that had grown bigger than her. You just can’t get more familial than that.

Stranded fledgling
Faceplant

For slightly under two years, Pumpkin and Carmine became part of my daily life. I observed so many interesting behaviors, how they alternated with each other between the bird feeders and the baths, zoomed in and out of their protected bushes and were frequently within inches of each other. I saw them bicker with interlopers of their own species. Carmine is definitely an alpha male who makes himself bigger than his actual size. Both showed extreme alertness. Once when a hawk landed on my fence I saw Carmine make a quick dive for a nearby bush, removing himself as a target from the raptor.

Hawk on the prowl
Carmine heading for shelter
Turning around to keep his eye on the hawk

Last year I was terrified when Pumpkin appeared with all of her tail feathers gone. I read that a cardinal can lose them all as a stress response to who knows what? Thankfully, they all grew back. But let me stop writing to show some of the beauty of these two, particularly the unique Pumpkin.

The last time I saw Pumpkin was June 29th. She and Carmine had each used the bird bath, dried off on the fence and hung out together for a minute or so. Then she took flight.

I noticed her absence right away. Carmine was appearing regularly. I hoped that she was attending to nesting duties but after checking for her morning, afternoon and evening for over two weeks, I’ve reluctantly accepted the fact that she’s dead. I’ll never know what happened to her. Although mated for life, I guess Carmine has already moved on as it is his job to reproduce. He showed up at the feeder with a young female the other day. I’m trying to not hate her.

New girl in town

This morning he was singing beautifully in the backyard.

This afternoon, he was eating at the front feeder.

I am the one who is bereft, as I knew I would be from the beginning of this ill-fated attachment. But I’m not sorry. I won’t forget how these two birds helped me navigate isolation. Everything has a price. I’m paying mine. I’ll always recognize Carmine and his voice. Maybe I won’t get attached to his new partner. It’s hard to say. But I’ll never stop missing beautiful Pumpkin. A girl a bit off the beaten path who wasn’t quite like everyone else. I never figured I could love a wild bird so much. Perhaps I’ll sit down and write the children’s book many of my friends urged me to produce for all the kids out there. We’ll see. In the meantime, I remembered a time when my forlorn son played a Bob Marley and the Wailers tune, “My Woman is Gone,” so many times I thought my head would explode. After that time passed, he composed a lot of his own amusing lyrics to that song. So I mimicked him and wrote a little lament for Pumpkin to that tune. If you know it, sing along.

My Pumpkin is gone, My Pumpkin is gone, My Pumpkin is gone, My Pumpkin is gone.

She flew off one day,

Two weeks ago, give or take a few,

I never dreamed that so soon, without her I would have to do.

My life won’t be the same,

She made me so happy

Now what passed for my joy feels pretty lame.

I will just have to deal.

Oh Pumpkin, you were the best,

So much better

Better than all the rest.

My Pumpkin is gone, Repeat refrain..

Alone May Not Be For You

Wupatki National Monument, Arizona
View of the Painted Desert from Wupatki, Arizona

I remember who was with me when I took these photos in Arizona in September, 2017. No one. I was alone. The first thing that came to my mind after Michael’s death, after my fatigue lifted, was that I needed to travel alone and soon. Instinctively I felt that establishing my independence after being in a relationship for 45 years was paramount for my mental health. I was right. I needed to remind myself that I was capable, competent and strong. I’d spent my life trying to grow myself into that woman, with the support and encouragement from a partner who was all good at living with someone who was his equal. Sometimes he was more sure of me than I was. That’s how I lived before and that’s how I live now. As with most choices, nothing is perfect. But I’ve realized that I was actually on this path I’m walking decades ago, after I graduated from high school. Except for a few close friends, I was basically an imposter, a seemingly sociable outgoing person who was really a loner. A big part of me was distanced from my external self. As I participated in life, I always enjoyed spending time on my own and was basically content with a few friends and family, wanting only to find a true partner with whom I’d share a special connection, a person who fit with me and I with him, like the final pieces of a puzzle. I started the hunt for that person when I left home for college. At eighteen, just a sophomore, I didn’t go home for winter break, staying on the large, mostly empty campus, to see if I had what it took to get me through life, just in case I couldn’t find that person. I was on a serious mission. I came close to finding my person once, and pretended to be close one more time. And then at an early age, the magic happened. I met Michael and found my fit. Looking back, I should’ve been aware that practicing isolation was a strong indicator of my most authentic self. Michael and I were really similar in that way. We were intensely bound together but we each valued our individuality and private space. We spent a lot of time, right next to each other, doing our own things. We never once referred to each other as our better halves. Neither of us was a half. We were each whole. That was part of the magic.

Determined to continue what I’d begun by traveling just a few months after Michael died, the following year I kept with the program. I went to North Carolina with my daughter and her family during the time in which the first anniversary of Michael’s death occurred. But later that summer, I drove off alone to Cincinnati, to watch Roger Federer, my favorite tennis player, play in the Western/Southern Open, the first time I’d been to a professional tennis tournament. Later, I did the bulk of the planning for my 50th high school reunion in Chicago, which happily dovetailed with the Laver Cup, another chance to see Federer in person. Then I had the first of two long-deferred knee replacement surgeries in an attempt to make myself more trip-worthy for the future.

I started 2019 by setting off to Florida early in January to spend an easy relaxed time with old friends who knew Michael and me very well. That visit was buoying and comfortable. Then I had the great pleasure of taking a manic twelve state road trip with my son to the East Coast, a place Michael had visited so often that he never wanted to head that way. A fabulous Paul McCartney show was our first stop. We caught lots of history in Philly and Massachusetts, lounged on the beaches of the Jersey shore, and got through Acadia National Park. An unforgettably great time.

A few months later I was back on the road by myself, this time to Glacier National Park, one of my dream destinations. I followed up that trip with my second knee replacement, feeling grateful to have both done just months apart. What a gamechanger to be pain free. Describing the liberating feeling of doing exactly what you’ve dreamed of, on your own time and your own terms can be summed up in one word – empowerment. I never felt confined by my marriage – if anything the opposite is true. But as an older single woman in this culture, often marginalized and overlooked, seizing opportunities while you’re still able is deeply satisfying. Learning to put myself first was new and rewarding, despite coping with the constant grief for and missing of Michael. I think he would’ve been proud of me.

Glacier National Park
Glacier

My continued relationship with my deceased husband is no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog. I’m not trying to put it behind me, learning to look back with love on our many happy memories. To simply move on. I have moved on. I’ve just taken Michael with me. He wished a different future for me. He told me many times before he died, that he was grateful for what we had, but that he wanted me to have love, intimacy and partnership when he was gone. I’d just stare at him. I was still in our moment. I had no idea what I’d want to do when he was dead. No one was more surprised than me to discover that I would definitively choose to be alone. But of course, given who I always was, this choice was logical, comfortable and right for me. Certainly I wish we’d lived to be old together, in the flesh and not just in my head. That didn’t happen. I know I could never be satisfied with anything less than what we shared. I have my lonely moments but they’re for him. And the fact is, he’s so alive in me that generally I’m just fine. Last year I was lucky enough to get back to Florida before the pandemic shut everything down. I lost out on a big Alaska trip planned for May but given the big picture in this life that’s a small thing. This year in the fall, I’m headed west again, having been lucky enough to stay healthy and be fully vaccinated. Off to Yellowstone.

And Michael, the proverbial gift that keeps on giving, will ensure that he comes with me as his endless surprises continue to appear. I haven’t touched his laptop since 2017 when I did a cursory once over to make sure there was no unfinished business that needed to be addressed. Then I used it for the slideshow I assembled for the public event honoring his life at the end of 2017. After that, it’s just sat here, next to the spot where he sat fooling around with it when he had to retire because of his cancer. We never looked in each other’s computers or shared emails or the like. He had his stuff and I had mine. I knew there were files that had to do with his teaching on his laptop and some music. But I never bothered to explore. A few days ago, as I continue to plow through my massive amount of photos, I ran across some CD’s tucked into one of my photo albums.

I thought that maybe I’d ordered them along with prints but really wasn’t sure. One was labeled 2008 family pictures. My laptop doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive, but his does. So I decided to load these in to see if there was really anything worth saving. Amazingly, after sitting idle for so long, the computer cranked right up, including the flimsy drive. Sure enough, all four CD’s were loaded with pictures, still in good shape and worth transferring to an external hard drive.Then I figured that as long as I’d opened this old machine I might as well look around.

Our grandsons as the background display.

Before long I realized that I was walking through Michael’s mind as he contemplated his death, tried to figure out how to make the best use of what time he had left and how to provide love and sustenance for his family. As we’d sit together at night, him tapping away on his keyboard while I was doing my thing, that’s what was happening. Of course we talked through so many issues. But seeing what he’d created without my knowing until just now felt so incredible.

In the music files, there were two folders called Barnacle 1 and Barnacle 2. I can’t explain the circuitous way one of my nicknames became Barnacle but I knew those had to do with me. When I opened them I just sat here stunned. They were lists of love songs intended to be CD’s he never made. He had made me three which he gave me before he died but he had more on his mind.

He had a file which was photos of us over the years.

Files in my kids’ names with photos and notes are sitting in there. Lists of his projects, some within reason and others outrageous. Instructions and ideas about the scholarship in his name for students who excel in social sciences. I was so overwhelmed by the quantity of material that I finally had to stop looking. His whole persona filled the living room, creative, vibrant, quirky, funny and so loving. I live alone. Yet I remain so accompanied. If I could I’d sink into his arms and never budge. That is impossible. So I’m choosing to live as richly as I can wondering when the next infusion of inspiration and comfort will emerge from a corner. Alone may not be for you. But it’s working for me.

The Intimacy Illusion

Today I’m thinking about intimacy. On this day, July 10th, seven years ago, I shared one of the most intimate moments I think anyone can share with other people. I was at the death bed of one of my dearest friends with his two sons, his daughter-in-law, Michael and my daughter. The day before he died, I’d just returned from my noon swim and was standing in my driveway talking with Michael who’d been working in the yard. Michael had finished 18 chemotherapy treatments earlier that year, after being given a prognosis of two to three months to live after his treatment for metastatic Merkel Cell cancer the previous November. He’d had a scan negative for disease in May but we knew those were only diagnostic for cancers bigger than a centimeter. We were living in that rarified space called remission. He seemed robust. We’d run away immediately after the scan to St. Pete’s Beach to be close to the Gulf of Mexico which we’d always loved. Every moment we got felt precious, even on the crappy days.

Our friend and neighbor for over twenty six years had been ill with a terrible form of leukemia for the previous six years. He’d survived an unimaginable two bone marrow transplants which were performed at the University of Chicago by a team led by an exceptional hematologist/oncologist. When he was recovered enough, he returned home where local doctors would manage him unless he had an emergency. He was struggling with GVHD, graft versus host disease, like so many people who have organs from other bodies introduced to theirs. He took multiple medications and was advised to be extremely cautious about putting himself in environments which harbored fungi, molds and other triggers for a potential dangerous reaction with his delicate alien blood. His wife and daughter were in England at this point, to attend a family wedding and to visit a childhood friend of his wife who was dying of breast cancer. He was home with his youngest son. He looked somewhat fragile and had taken a few falls but was relishing being alive. An avid gardener, I’d worried when I saw him tromping around in his Wellies, mucking in the dirt. He wouldn’t have gotten away with that if his wife was home.

That afternoon as Michael and I stood chatting in the driveway, our friend’s youngest son dashed across the street to tell us that he’d found his father slumped on the floor of his bedroom, unconscious, barely breathing, surrounded by blood and excrement. He’d called an ambulance. We decided I’d go with my friend to the hospital. I took his dad’s cell phone to get the phone number of his doctor in Chicago and climbed in the ambulance. While his son tracked down the rest of his family, I sat in the front of the ambulance, with its sirens blaring, calling out words of comfort to my friend while tracking down his oncologist and sharing the little I knew. The doctor’s tone confirmed that this situation was dire, likely end of life.

When we entered the ER, I was the information provider for the doctors. They drew blood and hooked him up to life-sustaining equipment. When they asked me the names of his chemo meds, my heart sank. He wasn’t on any medication and I knew their queries meant that his immune system was tanked. After dealing with the details of Michael’s blood work for the previous two years, I knew all too well what was happening. Things moved fast. His lungs were filling with fluid and the doctor wanted to intubate him. He struggled against that and I found myself telling him that if he wanted to see his wife and daughter again, he needed to accept the breathing equipment. Reluctantly, he did. I felt like an imposter. How was it that I was making such enormous decisions? The situation felt so wrong. Michael and my daughter showed up soon and then his kids arrived. I sent my family home. I felt like we’d see times like this soon enough in our own family. This felt like a terrible dress rehearsal. The ER was a nightmare. His sons knew how vulnerable their dad was and that he was being exposed to all kinds of people and contagion in that space. Finally, he was taken upstairs to a private intensive care room where I settled in with the kids for what could only be described as a death watch. I talked with his wife, my dear friend, and her daughter, a doctor, as they tried desperately to get home. Their daughter, who was close to being my kid, wanted all the facts. I was heartbroken, telling her the truth.

The night vigil went on for hours. Although I was holding up for those boys, I was mentally down the road, knowing that this situation was going to have long-term negative consequences. As close as we were, our world views on private lives were very different. I believed in airing problems and confronting everything, often much to my family’s dismay, not to mention everyone else. This family was British, down to the stiff upper lips and the hiding of many secrets. When the dust settled, I knew that his wife would suffer terrible guilt at not being home for this ultimate disaster and that my being in her place would come to be an unsustainable breach between us. But that was in the future. Now I did what needed to be done. Early the next morning, Michael and my daughter came back to the hospital. A phone pressed to my friend’s ear was the only way his wife and daughter could say their goodbyes. And then, he was gone. I asked the nurses to retrieve his wedding band and began the awful business of selecting a funeral home as there were no plans in place. The boys sat stunned so I acted. By the end of the day, their family was reunited and off to see my deceased friend at the funeral home one last time. I’d brought food and drinks to their house and later that evening we all were together, grieving. Michael set off fireworks in their backyard, the police came and eventually, we all went to our beds, drained.

FUNERAL PLANNING: YOUR COMPLETE RESOURCE

In the ensuing days, I helped plan the upcoming memorial. My friend was a well-known scientist; there would be a local familial event immediately, followed the next year by a symposium which would include his professional colleagues from around the world. After the first days following his death, I could feel his wife receding from my efforts to discuss everything that happened. I hoped in time, we could really talk. As life moved on, I had my own problems to deal with – Michael’s August scan revealed that his cancer was again visible in three places. I was still available for this family that had been so like my own, but we were engaged in searching for clinical trials and new treatments. In January, Michael was rejected from the study that seemed most hopeful for him. Our oncologist left our hospital and we were dealing with a new one. He started to have pain. In February he had a huge tumor removed from his scalp, one thought to be a cyst. His body was also beginning to hurt.

No one understood the source of his pain until he had a series of MRI’s which showed tumors compressing his spinal cord. He began a new course of radiation and ultimately, a palliative chemo which overwhelmed him. And the cancer kept spreading. By May, I was certain that death was approaching. We tried to get into the clinical trial again. Desperate, in June our new oncologist got an experimental drug off-trial. Michael was hanging by a thread.

In the meantime, I continued to be supportive of my friend and her family as they proceeded through their grief. I talked frequently with this woman with whom I’d walked through fire, but I always felt her hand up in my face whenever I tried to share my feelings about what happened with her husband. As the one year anniversary of his death approached, she was helping her daughter move into a new home in the town where her medical practice was located. I’d run to the pool for a quick bit of exercise before heading back to Michael, who was very fragile. I quickly called her to say I was sure this was a complex moment for her, doing something joyous with her daughter while remembering the events of the year before. Suddenly Michael called and I hung up to speak with him. When I got off, I saw a stunning and harsh text message from my friend, telling me in no uncertain terms that I was not to try discussing her husband’s death with her any more because she was too delicate. She said her kids felt the same way. She told me I could talk about Michael but the rest was off limits. I remember reading it over and over in the locker room, unable to absorb the content. While I stared at it, she sent it again. She was so accustomed to my rapid replies I think she figured I hadn’t received it. I was trying to decide what to say. I was also very angry.

I was in a life and death struggle of my own with Michael. I was repelled by her weakness and self-indulgence. I went home to be with Michael and to carefully decide how I wanted to respond. After a few hours, I wrote to her kids and apologized for checking in with them often if that had increased their pain. Then I wrote her and suggested that perhaps a hiatus was in order as we were both in tough emotional spots. This touched off a series of bruising emails and texts between us. All kinds of repressed conflicts were unearthed as I’d expected since the previous year. She was a person who didn’t believe in therapy and kept her feelings tightly held inside her. My polar opposite. We’d crashed and burned because of the way her husband’s death unfolded. Our kids weighed in. Hers were all in with her, even telling me they didn’t even discuss their dad’s death within their family. The one closest to me suggested that I just apologize and all this would blow over. My kids were trying to be neutral and to support me while protecting this long friendship. That made me mad. I was under incredible stress. I wasn’t going to play to this manipulative weakness. I had Michael to care for, so I withdrew. A few weeks went by. Michael seemed to be slowly turning a corner for the better.

But then my elderly mother fell, broke her hip and was dead within two weeks. Four days after her funeral my dog died. I was hurt, angry and unforgiving. We lived across the street from each other. But our friendship died that summer. Through the experimental treatment, Michael got another reprieve from his cancer for over a year. He was the only person who fully witnessed this entire relationship from start to finish and was my rock in understanding everything.

Today, he’s gone. I still live across from someone who was my intimate friend and yet we haven’t exchanged a word in six years. I don’t miss her. I don’t respect her. What I thought was intimacy was an illusion. For years, what I thought was closeness was merely a reflection of me back at myself. She was never who I thought she was. Or maybe she was when she had stronger people to lean on. I don’t get to know that and I’m no longer interested.

I do believe in lasting intimacy but I think it’s rare. How many people once seemed so close and essential to you that are now barely shadows, if even that? Who knows the whole of you, and who do you know as completely as you might wish to? I guess we humans are equipped to pass through periods of what feels like exquisite connections, only to find them ephemeral and relegated to the past, some perhaps unremembered at all. In the end, I think I’ll be surprised if I can count a dozen genuinely intimate relationships in my life. Actually that might be a lot. I’m still intimate with people who aren’t alive any more, which reduces my number more still. A younger, more romantic me didn’t know how easily people slip away. And maybe that’s a good thing. However would we survive all the disappointment?

The Luxury of Contemplation

What is the best summer fruit? The fragrance of a nectarine gives it an instantaneous bonus when comparing all the choices. Of course peaches also smell heavenly. Should aroma be a consideration when contemplating such things or flavor alone? Blueberries and grapes have only the faintest scents but they are sweet and delicious.

And cherries. Recently I’ve been alternating between the dark purple bing cherries that stain everything with their juice and the rainier cherries, the equally sweet blond comrades of their deeper hued family. In the end, I might select the black raspberries I picked from my own garden, unadulterated by chemicals, still warm from their sun flecked stems. What a peculiar way to spend part of even an hour. Does this really matter? Certainly not to anyone but me. After I’m gone I suppose my kids might bite into a fruit and remember that it was my favorite. I remember that my mom loved strawberries best while it was cherries for my dad. Hardly earth-shattering facts but tiny pieces of a bigger picture, I suppose.

1975 – An arty shot Michael caught of me sitting in our pickup truck in Bull Shoals National Park, Arkansas

I think my expression in this picture taken long ago captures my current state of mind. My brain flits between the overall state of the world, at least as I see it, and the type of navel-gazing typically associated with a focus on the self, contradictory as that may seem. I know that switching between the big picture and the minutiae of my life is a privilege afforded to me by fact that my official work life has ended. So far, I have the means to stay retired. I have uninterrupted hours on my hands. I live by myself with few responsibilities other than the ones I choose. I don’t even have a dog for the first time in 52 years. Working people with schedules, kids and all that comes with that, and poor people, whose sole occupation is survival, aren’t likely to be sitting around ranking summer fruits. Oddly, in this second year of the still roiling, uncontrolled pandemic, I find myself more engaged in these distractions than I was a year ago. When the mandatory lockdown was in place, I knew exactly what I had to do, what I wanted to do. I had goals, wanting to be sure I didn’t squander what I decided was an opportunity in time. Now in this more muddied context of caution and normalcy which isn’t really normal, I’m ranking fruits.

Last year I spent more time outside. With the pool where I’d spent decades of summers closed, I created this little space for myself in my backyard. I practically lived out there. When I had my telephone physical with my doctor, she told me she was concerned because my vitamin D level was getting too high. Not exactly average for a woman of my age. I kicked my feet and danced in the cold water, plugged into headphones and expanding my music library. I studied the backyard critters and made lists of them too. I sharpened up my bird call ID’s and got better at spotting different butterflies and moths. I paid plenty of attention to the news, terrified by the former president’s management of the pandemic, his politics during the campaign and the ominous rumblings of the new and still current Republican strategy – fear tactics, lies and the biggest lie about the “rigged election” constantly inserted into daily life.

My pool

But things are supposed to be better now. I’m back to swimming in my favorite pool. My community was terrific with vaccines. Caution is still a thing but there’s a bit more flexibility in daily life. Democrats own the White House and both houses of Congress. Why can’t I be having a better time? Maybe I’m just a pessimist by nature. That’s partially true. My philosophy has always been to be prepared for the worst and be thrilled when anything better than that happens. Ok, I can’t understand why the majority party doesn’t just roll over these hideous obstructionists who never give an inch when they’re in power. With a conservative Supreme Court and efforts being made across the country to disenfranchise the voters of color who are the critical voting bloc for Democratic success, where’s the aggression we need for a federal override of these state by state racist laws being passed? What am I missing? People tell me to stop paying attention to the news cycle. Why? So I can wake up next year and be stunned by what could be rolling across this country?

Time to go back to the smaller world. I weed and water and deadhead the forlorn faded blossoms. I try to ignore the fact that except for what I’m watering, the ground is bone dry. I wonder about questions for which there are no answers. For example, if a female is born with all the eggs she will ever have, does that principle apply to other less concrete parts of who we are? Was I born with a reservoir filled with love and the capacity for caregiving? Has it gone through its own type of menopause? I feel like I’m mostly tapped out, especially in regard to adding anyone or anything new into my life which could be emotionally expensive. I’m good with what’s already, here except for some occasional annoying days, and I’m saving a space for my son’s potential partner and/or offspring. But I haven’t budged on getting a dog yet. That’s definitely the cerebral part of me dominating the emotional part. I think I’m pretty well-integrated but those two elements are not the same. And how about my deep appreciation and attachment to nature standing shoulder to shoulder with my detestation for squirrels and rabbits who wantonly destroy my hard work that is most definitely not for them? My community, like many others is over-populated by Canada geese. Their excrement and aggressive behavior is problematic for kids and adults as well, trying to share public park space with them. Ultimately, without natural predators, some culling is required to maintain a healthy balance in a managed public setting. People opposed to that are protesting and sending me emails to join them. But I believe there is such a thing as the welfare of the community, and as the meat was going to be donated to a food bank I was fine with that. I can’t pretend that everything gets to run amok and that people always take a back seat to animals. Surely there’s wiggle room in this nature devotion thing. At least there is for me.

Squirrel waiting for me to go inside so it can eat all my bird seed.

I’ve been realizing that I feel more and more like the person I was when I was very young, before getting into my fully committed relationship with Michael. All evidence to the contrary, he was really the sweeter and gentler of the two of us. Rather a naif when I reflect back on our life together. Because he was a tall, well-built guy who could “loom” quite successfully, as well as being quiet by nature, his soft underbelly was wellconcealed from most people. He believed that people were inherently good. I thought he was a sap. He was frequently hurt and disappointed while I was generally suspicious and downright hostile toward humans with low expectations as my baseline. As we built our life together, I modified myself for him which is what partnership requires of successful unions. When the kids came along, I went further, allowing that there was no need to impose my quirky behavior on them as they were developing, which would have been unfair. As time has moved along since his death, I have no obligation to make allowances for his needs any more. Theirs, either. My behavior is more like it was when I was about seventeen, with few filters, less tolerance and an unwillingness to adapt to circumstances just to be polite. My kids can feel the difference. I had a tuneup appointment with my therapist whom I hadn’t seen in two years – she saw the difference too. I can’t say it’s always the easiest thing to be my most natural self. I have a much smaller social life than I once had, but at least it’s authentic. My mom used to say that you leave the world the way you came in, bald and toothless. I don’t know how my behavior fits into that scenario but I do feel younger and more familiar with my inner self than I expected to at my age. I remember Michael saying I was the most singularly unchanged person he ever knew. I took that as a compliment.

This look is about right for where I am now.

I worry about what’s ahead, especially for my kids and grandkids. Our culture is ugly. I never felt in the center of my society but this time feels really dark. I don’t have a sense of a cohesive community. With all the bile about masks and vaccines, misogyny and racism and this undercurrent of rage everywhere, I can’t figure out how things will end. Seems like people want to hunker down in their spaces and ignore everything. That’s not sustainable. I worry for the planet. Every minute that passes without intent toward making deep changes is a wasted minute from where I stand. I make calls. I donate money. I bloviate. And then I go small and manageable again.

I’m getting to my becoming a mom in my blog which is after all, an autobiography for my family. This year my daughter will turn 40 so there’s still writing to be done. My photo organizing project is driving me crazy but I haven’t quit yet. I’m reading three books right now. “Never, Never,” “Arctic Dreams,” and “While Justice Sleeps” by Stacey Abrams. I need to get cracking on my book club selection for this month which is “The Winter of Our Discontent,” by Steinbeck. I don’t understand my book club but my friend who invited me to join it asked me to give it a bit more time before walking away. I think she’s afraid I’m too much a hermit so I said ok. My favorite book of the year is still “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson. I think it should be mandatory reading for all schoolchildren which I imagine wouldn’t go over well with the cancel culture/anti-critical race theory crowd.

I’m worried about friends who are ill and friends who are about to lose family members. I know that this part of my life will be filled with emotional hits. I try imagining how I’ll feel when Paul McCartney dies. I can still feel myself looking at him in the Chicago Amphitheater 57 years ago. And then again at what might have been one of the greatest rock and roll concerts of my life in 2019 when he was older than I am now. And I’ve seen hundreds of concerts. There’s a list of those too, along with my favorite books and movies, including those I’ve seen since Michael died. List after list, favorites after favorites. The luxury of contemplation.

The constant inexplicable love affair with my dead husband endures. As I write this evening, I have a photo across the room, of just his eyes, looking at me with this special look which still stirs me from head to toe. I have taken on a project he always wanted to complete, a list of every song that had a woman’s name in its title. He’d already done so many of his music compilations but he never got to this one. My rule is that I remember the songs by myself-no looking anything up online. So far I’m up to 103 to be alphabetized later. On it goes.

Life on Broadway- Chapter 2 – Part 2 – The De-Stress Road Trip

On October 1st, 1980, Michael and I departed our house on Broadway for a road trip to Colorado. The night before, we’d packed up the ridiculously huge white Ford Country Squire station wagon which we’d inherited from his parents so we could depart at 5:45 a.m. Both of us loved road trips. I think that the way people fit together while traveling is a good indicator of whether relationships will have staying power. Each individual’s idea of relaxation and what vacation means is so unique. By this trip, Michael and I had known each other for nine years, lived together for most of those years and had hit the road multiple times. We were a practically perfect fit as travel partners.

Enormous car

Michael packed for every possible hazard, every kind of weather and every type of recreation. Although he was a failed boy scout, the motto “be prepared” had stuck with him. We were going to stay in lodging part of the time, and would be camping for the remainder. So we were carrying a full load. Setting aside worrying about having babies to indulge ourselves in the glorious fall color of the Rocky Mountains was actually pretty easy. Oddly, we both felt somewhat bereft without our dogs but quickly got used to their absence. We’d never traveled west before and were excited for new scenery. We were headed toward the small town of Redstone, population 94, to stay at an old inn which had once housed miners from the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, a coal enterprise. The year we went, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Redstone Inn

We were driving straight through Kansas to Burlington, Colorado, where we’d spend one night so we could arrive at the inn during daylight hours. As we headed west into Kansas, in the midst of the end of harvest season, Michael’s allergies started driving him crazy. He took his Chlortrimeton antihistamines and passed out while I drove for hours through a flat landscape with cloud formations as the major point of interest until we got to Colorado. We spent that night at a Ramada Inn in Burlington before heading into Redstone the next day.

Getty Images

We drove through Aspen and took part of Route 133 which was decked out in gorgeous yellow aspens and splashes of orange deciduous trees interspersed with deep glowing evergreens. Although my photos have faded after 40 years, I made a valiant attempt to record every aspect of this trip in a little travel journal in which I jotted down notes and expenses. I still have it.

We pulled in to Redstone at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon of October 2nd. The town was tiny, a curious mixture of artsy folks, craft shops and lots of coal miners from a nearby mine site. There seemed to be as many roaming dogs as there were people walking around. We checked in to our room at the Inn. Old-fashioned with no television, no telephone and no radio, a welcoming silence. The bathroom was minute with a toilet that had a pull chain which hung down from a tank mounted on the wall. The lodging price was moderate but when we strolled down to the restaurant for dinner we were astonished by the outrageously expensive menu. We decided to hunt for a grocery store so we could eat our next two dinners in our room. The lesson of being a captive audience for food was one we learned fast. Except for reading, we were each other’s entertainment so we turned in early to be ready for the packed day ahead of us.

Redstone historic downtown

We rose early, ate a hearty breakfast, wrote a few postcards and went for a stroll. Then we hopped into the car to drive through McClure’s Pass, a breathtaking scenic route which was close by. We picked up a hitchhiker, a musician who told us he’d just come from a fantasy week with a woman he hadn’t seen in 9 years who was now a model in Los Angeles. He also knew people from where we lived which was bizarre but also kind of typical for the subculture of people who picked strangers up from the side of the road. We dropped him off at his next highway to return to the Inn, where we’d booked a two hour horseback tour in the mountains with a guide.

McClure’s Pass
Near the Inn

We marched ourselves to the stables, mounted up and began our ascent through the golden woods. I was coping pretty well with my acrophobia, especially considering the steep slopes on the right side of the trail. We were high enough to get a look at Osgood Castle, eventually known as Redstone Castle, built by the first owner of the nearby coal mine.

Unfortunately, with only 15 minutes left on the tour, after enjoying the perfect weather and scenery, my foot got caught on a slender downed aspen branch which got stuck in my stirrup. My horse bolted and bucked and I lost control of my reins. I flew backwards on this narrow path landing smack on my back. The pain was tremendous and shocking, starting with my spine and shooting up to my neck and head which had suffered startling whiplash. The guide was ahead in the lead, followed by Michael and then me. Michael was handling my horse as well as his, while I fumbled around for my brown-tinted glasses that had flown off my face at some point and were now blurred. Although I was in physical agony, I was still conscious enough to understand that the only way down that mountain required me to get back on that animal and ride. I still don’t know how I got in the saddle but I did. Every jouncing step was awful. Back in those days, I was still capable of being embarrassed in front of a stranger so I kept my mouth shut and suffered my way back down. Michael had no clue how I felt. When we reached the stable he dismounted first and came chattering up to me to discuss our adventure. I couldn’t figure out how to get down from the horse and basically fell into him. I started crying in his arms with no clue how I was going to survive the rest of the trip. We limped back to the Inn and I collapsed into bed. He walked into town, returning with a dusty little tube of Ben-Gay which he applied from my head to the base of my spine. Fortunately, we were still smoking weed in those days and had some with us which I smoked until I passed out.

The next day I was unable to move. I sent Michael off to hike, thinking there was no point in both of us having our trip spoiled. He protested but I insisted. So he fed me and went hiking while I lay in bed, reading “High Tide at Gettysburg.” High, indeed. That’s what got me through the day. By the next morning I was able to be mobile so we drove to Glenwood Springs, to a hospital where I was x-rayed and given painkillers and muscle relaxers. Ah youth. I rebounded enough to do laundry with Michael and then hop back into the car to take a trip to Marble, Colorado to see a partial ghost town and old marble quarries. Again the scenery was breathtaking against clear blue skies, with sparkling rivers and lakes surrounded by the gorgeous fall foliage. We’d hoped to go backpacking on Mt. Elbert but opted instead for camping near Telluride.

We arrived in Telluride on the 6th. We found a campsite in the nearby San Juan National Forest. Then we went into town for food. A former mining town, it appeared to be moving into the hands of people I described in my journal as hippie entrepreneurs. I remember the grocery store we chose was carpeted which I thought was utterly absurd. We went back to our campsite where we spent a chilly night by our fire, snuggled into our two-person pup tent with our Coleman lantern for reading and warmth.

From Telluride we moved on to Mesa Verde National Park. We camped there and woke to deer wandering around our campsite, poking around, looking for scraps. Fairly empty in October, we were really thrilled with the quiet, punctuated only by natural sound. We walked through the ruins of Pueblo Indian basket weaving cultures dug into the hillsides, marveling at what life we imagined an average nine hundred years earlier. We did some hiking although I was still pretty sore. I’d also had what we assumed was an allergic response to my pain meds which caused facial swelling. I looked pretty weird but we were having a great time and decided that since I didn’t appear to be dying we were going to forge ahead.

Swollen face

We spent another night in Mesa Verde before packing up and heading for Ouray. The drive between those places was truly beautiful. We switched gears in Ouray, a town both of us really liked. We stayed in a hotel with a jacuzzi in our room, welcome relief for all my aches and pains. That first night in a town that looked really old school western we ate at a fabulous alpine restaurant that dished up wonderful rustic Italian food. That was the first time I tasted Robert Mondavi wine from California, so delicious that I noted it in my journal. The next day we wandered around town taking in picturesque stores and mini-museums. That afternoon we took a 4-wheel drive Jeep ride up to the top of Engineer Mountain, almost 13,000 feet tall, a big challenge for me as we bounced along in the open-sided vehicle, up steep roads and passes. I remember how scared I was sitting next to my smiling fearless partner. But when I recently went through our photos, I laughed to see myself examining rocks all those years ago, several of which are still on display in my dining room.

One of the most daring parts of our trip, at least for me was driving the stretch of road between Ouray and Silverton known as the Million Dollar Highway, a ridiculously switch-backed marvel with no guardrails and jaw-dropping height. I wound up behind the wheel on that fantastic but heart-stopping slab. While Michael slept next to me, I was fairly certain that as I went around a curve with the front end of that massive car, I couldn’t see the rear end which was still in the previous bend. After a short time, Michael woke because I was driving so slowly he thought we’d stopped. All the while, these massive double cab pickup trucks were whipping past me, every one with a loaded gun rack as hunting season was approaching. We made it down to Durango before turning back. Both of us found the Durango area particularly appealing, even fantasizing about the possibility of moving there, although that was a far-fetched vacation fantasy.

As we made our way back north and east, we stopped at another astonishing place, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Spending time in the midst of such overwhelming natural beauty went a long way toward that de-stressing goal that launched our trip. The outdoors is, at least for me, critical in providing a sense of internal balance and perspective. I think we both felt rejuvenated and genuinely refreshed. We made one more stop along Bear Creek before returning home on October 13th to pick up our lives where we’d left them.

In November we went to Chicago to have Thanksgiving with my family. A few weeks later we flew to Florida to see Michael’s parents for the December holidays. I had no idea that sometime in November I’d become pregnant as my doctor had hoped, precluding the need for fertility tests I was expecting in January. I was asymptomatic, one of the lucky women who never felt sick during pregnancy. The due date was in August, 1981. But that’s another story.

December, 1980
December 1980

Booms

Tonight as I sat in my living room, I heard the familiar booms of fireworks, which are the prelude to two more nights of people blowing off what is traditionally celebratory patriotic steam for the 4th of July. The usual parade and subsequent evening events in my community have been canceled again because of the pandemic but are scheduled to return next year. I’ve attended my share of fireworks displays in different cities and even got some photos of them as I rattled my way to Glacier National Park a couple of years ago, right through the window of my train berth.

Frankly, the first thing on my mind tonight was that I was glad I didn’t have to deal with a terrified quivering dog who needed medication to get through the evening. I had plenty of those canines in my life, poor things. More importantly, I can’t think of much to be celebrating at the moment. The news stories of the past week, coupled with the lengthy slog of the past year and a half have worn me out. I know I’m not alone. I suspect that my last nerves aren’t necessarily the same as other people’s hot button issues.

Photo credit – Nicholas Konrad/NYT

I’ve been pretty unhappy with the Supreme Court since its Trumpian shift to the right. They wield immense power over individual freedoms which they claim to revere. And yet, they had no trouble further gutting an already gouged Voting Rights Act, on the premise that they’re ensuring elections free of fraud. That, despite the fact that there has been virtually no evidence of fraud in the 2020 elections after dozens of investigations and lawsuits. Virtually none. Instead, this is a blatantly political move tied to the falsehoods that were promoted about the election before ballots were ever cast. A minority party is using legislative powers at the state level to disenfranchise millions of voters who tipped the scales at the ballot box, to ensure that they can win. Because there’s no other way for them to win. The majority of the electorate has changed and with these scams, backed by SCOTUS, they will make it as difficult as possible to allow American citizens their most essential right – casting a ballot. How does anyone except that scrambling minority feel like celebrating Independence Day and freedom with this blatant effort to deny that which is supposed to make this country the beacon for democracy? When someone can answer this question, maybe I’ll feel less soured on this charade about fraudulent elections.

Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters

How about the Cosby case? There’s the ever-present misogyny on full display in this culture. I’ve read the legal foundation behind his release. But he was convicted. Multiple women came forward and told their outrageously painful stories of what they’d suffered as victims of his sexist, privileged behavior. What message does that release send to other victims, afraid to report the crimes committed against them because the odds are that something like this miscarriage of justice will occur. Sickening. That story was followed up within days, by the one about the highest paid previous year’s Cy Young award winner being placed on administrative leave, after violent domestic and sexual allegations against him by a 27 year old woman seeking an order of protection against him. Just endless and terribly discouraging. Power in its corrupt glory.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Then we have the hardline Republican refusal to investigate the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The whole world watched it in real time on every news outlet on the planet. But as part of the voting fraud scam, this event is being reframed as a benign citizen visit to a beloved Congress. Forced into a unilateral investigation instead of a bi-partisan one, Nancy Pelosi has appointed the renegade Republican Liz Cheney to the investigative body to show fairness. How did Liz Cheney become a left winger? Govtrack.us shows her recent advocacy record as the following:

Ratings from Advocacy Organizations

United States Chamber of Commerce: 82%The Club for Growth: 65%League of Conservation Voters: 1%Human Rights Campaign: 0%Planned Parenthood Action Fund: 0%

Does this look like the record of a liberal to you, out of step with her Republican colleagues? When someone figures this one out, I’ll be here waiting for enlightenment.

Sporting News: Patrick Mahomes, sports world unite to support Sha’Carri Richardson: ‘Just let her run!’

WRITTEN BYJOE RIVERA

ShaCarri-Richardson-061921-Getty-FTR.jpg

Then we have the utter absurdity of banning Richardson, the 100 meter star, from running in the Olympics because marijuana turned up in one of her drug tests. I cannot understand how marijuana, being decriminalized all across the country, can be considered a performance-enhancing drug. On the same list as narcotics, anabolic agents, hormones and steroids? I haven’t checked to see if any alcohol is on the list. This organization needs to retool its rules. Think of the athletes who’ve gotten away with substance abuse for years while they scoop in millions of dollars? Unfair and absurd.

Timothy Clary/Getty Images

Let’s not forget the tax fraud case brewing against Trump Enterprises and Trump’s CFO Allen Weisselberg at the Southern District of New York. I have no doubt that there’s plenty of evidence to send someone away, at least for awhile, in the typically unfair way most white collar criminals serve time. I’d bet that it’ll be tough to get a sycophant like Weisselberg to flip in the most satisfying way – to destroy the financial empire and ruin the Trump economic pipeline. But as in The Godfather, when Frank Pentangeli was willing to die as long as his family was protected, I’d be surprised if The Donald pays for his history of tax evasion which seems to be a genetic trait in his crowd. A real shame if that’s how it turns out.

Pumpkin

All these weighty real world problems make me turn to what always provides relief and solace – nature. But that is the real elephant in the room. All the years of studies and warnings and dire predictions are right up in our faces. My beautiful song birds. Dying in droves with no explanations. We are being advised to remove our bird feeders, bleach them and handle ill or dead birds with gloves and great care. The idea of having to confront these wonderful companions in such a dreadful state is so depressing. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to understand my wayward plants, some of which arrived early, others which are absent and those which are under assault from the encroaching rodent contingent which seems to grow exponentially by day. But let me be clear. The bigger picture dwarfs my tiny concerns. I’m more terrified of the once in a millennium heat dome, as it is characterized by the Weather Channel.

The west is on fire. Crops are withering. Fires are consuming huge amounts of acreage. I read of an entire small town in British Columbia destroyed and abandoned. This natural furnace is not confined to those of us west of the Atlantic. Climate change is having its way across the globe, ready to unleash scourges of hunger, floods and wild weather which will strike unexpectedly. Adding to what is natural is the contribution of the fossil fuel industry. The site of a fire burning in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico was indeed, otherworldly. Straight out of science fiction, yet blazingly real.

Recently there have been reports released which have been classified for decades, a record of the UFO’s which ostensibly have never indicated the presence of intelligent life anywhere else in the universe. I don’t know. I think that if somewhere there are sentient creatures casting their glance in our direction, they’ve decided to bypass this planet and look for better pickings in the vast galaxies beyond our knowledge. Seems like a perfectly reasonable decision to me.

I’m going to hang out in my garden where my biggest problem is the rodents and the japanese beetles trying to denude my beautiful blooms. I suppose everyone has to make a living. Hopefully, I’ll get past my curmudgeonly mood soon. But for the moment, I’m going to ponder all this challenging stuff until I figure out a productive way to have an impact on any of it. At least I’m making a bit of light in this dark world.

Summer Solstice Redux

Today at the pool.

After days of dry weather, the forecast for my town is rain, rain and more rain. Some downpours will be heavy. I’ll be glad, even though it limits my ability to swim outside. After no outdoor pool last summer, I want to make sure I take advantage of every clear day. This morning was dreary and wet. I was close to settling on staying home, but the clouds broke suddenly and I scooted to the pool as fast as I could, hoping for at least twenty minutes of brisk swimming. Only one other person was in the water. I laughed, telling him we were the two smartest people in town. When it’s quiet like today, I drift into these inexplicable, benign semi-fugue states. I’m not disassociated from reality or away from real life. Rather I’m immersed in the myriad of water memories I shared with Michael, who loved being submerged as much as me. When I move through the water I visualize his head, popping up in front of me usually unexpectedly. He liked surprising me. One eye was usually closed in a squint, his hair crazily parted like a geometric patterned fabric and an off-color suggestion his first words to me. I love being in that space. As did my usual even and slow breaststroke, in that daydream, I looked up and gratefully realized I was going to get longer than a twenty minute swim. High above me was sun and a beautiful rainbow which I interpreted as Michael parting the clouds for me. This kind of thinking doesn’t feel anything like my usual firmly attached to the firmament type of mindset. That’s why I like it. If this was baseball I’d call it a change-up pitch. Regardless, I jumped out of the water to snap a few photos before finishing my swim.

I’m not sure how that section of my morning reminded me that I’d failed to acknowledge the summer solstice just scant days earlier. I wanted to have realized that the longest day of the year had gone by and that henceforth, a minute of daylight will disappear until the December solstice appears, the one when darkness prevails. I wish the practice of daylight savings time would be abolished because it makes winter more challenging. So far, none of whoever decides this stuff has taken my opinion under advisement. Thinking that the year is almost half-way over is odd to me. In a sense, I feel like it’s still 2020, pandemic issues far from resolved, political issues unsettled and climate change inexorably marching forward, despite all the clamoring for action, still grossly disregarded. I’ve been recording subtle changes in my yard and garden. Plants which bloomed earlier than in previous years. Cracks in the dirt surrounding my flowers because I don’t water grass. Last year at this time, my black raspberries were just beginning to ripen – this year, I’ve already gorged myself on them and the bushes are going back to sleep.

I caught the last strawberry moon of 2021 quite by accident. I was wandering up to bed in the wee hours of the night. Becoming nocturnal is one of the bad habits I acquired in the last years of Michael’s life. I’m finding it difficult to reverse, to get back to mornings but I’m making efforts to join those people who aren’t working third shift. In any case, as I passed through my dining room toward my back stairs up to the second floor, I thought I’d forgotten to turn off the porch light which was streaming through the windows. Except of course it was the giant strawberry moon which bathed the outdoors in its soft glow. I was glad I snapped a photo and that this milestone didn’t get ignored like the longest day of the year.

Being as aware as I can be for as long as I can be is important to me. I feel like burnout is the dominant state of mind I sense around me these days. I get it. Being on edge for a long time is a huge drain. Circumstances required me to stay hyper vigilant for many years. I was frustrated and angry but I couldn’t put those feelings away, nor do I want to, even when I feel I’m out of gas. The time will come when I can’t be who I am right now. I’m not packing it in until I’m forced. I’m doing what I can that’s within my power. I’ve got a phenology study going on right here in my own yard and garden. I’m studying climate change on a small scale, where I am every day, keeping records of what plants, birds, insects and other animals are doing from season to season, year to year. I have thousands of photos that are time-stamped. I have journals in which I’m keeping records of what I observe. Taken together with the records of other people like me, maybe we can make a little progress against our existential enemy, climate change. Ordinarily, the impetus behind my blog is to leave a biography of family life for my kids and theirs. For others who glean something that resonates with them, I’m pleased for the bonus interest. For today, I’m going back to that missed solstice, to share what’s happened during the advent of summer, since I bade farewell to spring. There have been many steamy days and a few welcome breaks. My perennial pollinator’s garden is filling in nicely and the requisite desired visitors are increasing daily. I’ve got good hiding places for the birds and their fledglings, along with ample food and water sources. I’m doing what I can do. I encourage everyone to do the same. Being this close to the natural world is a win-win deal. Good for the planet, good antidote against burnout. Enjoy.

These leaves look more like fall than summer.

And as the days grow shorter, I’ll be sharing more adventures in my garden. I hope you enjoyed my tribute to the summer solstice.

Taboo Dorothy

Mom convulsed in laughter

Once upon a time, I couldn’t imagine wanting to have another conversation with my mom. I seriously thought we’d covered literally everything, death, sex, religion, politics, family secrets, most taboo topics, about a million times, and many that should have been saved for a point in my life which was much further down the road than when they actually occurred. That’s a polite way of saying that mom didn’t have the kinds of boundaries that should’ve existed between parent and child, especially such a young one as me. I didn’t figure that out for a long time. At the point that I did, when I began litigating these matters with her, it was kind of too late. What she’d told me when I wasn’t ready couldn’t be taken back or erased from my memory. When we argued, she’d always say, “well, maybe it wasn’t the best thing to do, but look at how much smarter and more prepared you are for life than everyone else?” Nice try, mom. In other words, she didn’t really have to feel too guilty about what she’d confided in me, at least about her inappropriate confidences.

Mom with her little sister Gertrude who died when she was ten and Mom, thirteen.

In all fairness, there was no meanness of spirit which motivated my mom to spill all hers’ and others’ beans to me. She had a wretched childhood, a victim of sexual abuse and every other form of emotional domestic abuse. Her parents were ignorant, living in a tiny mental universe, utterly sexist, including my grandmother who, despite being a smart woman, was living under archaic norms which had been practiced for generations in the old country. Both of these women, mom and grandma, who struggled mightily against each other instead of being allies, became much more free when their husbands died, taking their traditional norms with them. Grandma wasn’t as lucky as my mom. Her marriage was a war. Mom was in a genuine love match. But the bruises she and my dad bore from their childhood years colored their life together. Bright as they were, to me they never got too far from their early lives. They huddled together, always more like kids than grownups. Their behavior was instructive – I learned exactly how I didn’t want to be when I got married. Love, yes. But in a partnership that helped both of us become the best versions of ourselves, rather than bring trapped in time.

From that first moment when mom really scared me by hauling up her hospital gown and showing me her vertical abdominal scar from her youthful hysterectomy, I became one of those hyper-aware little kids who always seemed to be thinking like a forty year old. I was frequently scared, but I also had a lot of confidence in my ability to think my way through my feelings. How lucky to have an operative brain. Being the third child out of four also gave me the added advantage of studying the experiences of my older two siblings and figuring out what was working for them and what wasn’t. Mom had significant health issues, the worst of which was ulcerative colitis. Unfortunately, her doctors started her on what would become a lifelong regimen of benzodiazepines, the sedatives which frequently wind up creating addicts. They gave my mom what I’d describe as a dulling of her emotional pain and not much help with her physical issues. She did acquire a kind of drunken courage to express more about her problems than she might otherwise have found in herself without those tongue-loosening drugs. She didn’t like my dad’s family and they didn’t like her. He’d been the man in their family after his father had died when he was eight. His mom and older sister resented his defection when he fell madly in love with my mother at eighteen and after their marriage the following year, watched him move in with mom’s parents. My mom was threatened by their importance to dad and afraid they’d disrupt her life with him. His mother died right before I was born. Mom nursed a grudge against her anyway and was hostile to my aunt. As a kid I grew up hearing every perceived slight and negative behavior about that family. We were mostly distant from them. My dad was silent about his family except on rare occasions. Mom used to refer to them as the quiet, secretive types which in her view was equated with being too uptight and downright threatening. She used to say she’d die without ever having heard a thing from my dad about the inner workings of his family. And that was definitely a negative for her. She was a talker, wanting to discuss everything, to go deep. When my siblings went silent, she hated it. So I talked with mom, although she was unaware that I kept certain topics off-limits, aware that some information was better held back as it would arouse her fierce loyalty which would demonize anyone she perceived as an enemy. A trait which I acquired by learning and perhaps osmosis.

Dad and his mother
Dad’s sister, husband and daughter with our family absent my youngest sister. Mom isn’t too smiley.

During my teens I often took care of mom who was in and out of hospitals. When she was home, she continued to share her thoughts about sex, death and family problems with me on a regular basis. Our family was religious but she really wasn’t. She was like a naughty child, often disrupting holiday rituals, fooling around with us kids and acting rebellious to annoy her parents and my dad. She fought openly with my grandmother all the time and was sneaky about her pill taking with my dad, although he was definitely onto her issues. I remember him flushing lots of pills down the toilet. Many times it was hard to figure out if there were any grownups in our family. Mostly I think not. Dad was mostly one but he was also caged in by his childhood fears which he rarely discussed. Mom was more like a girlfriend than a mother. She was funny, told incredible stories and was quite popular with our friends. As I grew up and questioned our intimate, yet unusual relationship, I figured out that it’s tough to parent when your own role models set dreadful examples of who you never wanted to be. I know I was well-loved but every now and then I wanted to feel like a kid who was being guided, rather than a confidante with ambiguous expectations about how to proceed as an adult.

Mom with my younger sister, her mother and me.

By the time I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had a pretty strong sense of the unusual relationship I’d developed with my parents. We were always close. I knew that personality-wise I was most like my mother, open, talkative and friendly, not reticent, not a believer in silence and secrets. However, I knew that all the exposure I’d been given to all the taboo subjects as a kid weren’t healthy for me and had stolen the innocence I thought children should be entitled to for that brief time when adult life was far away. My mom’s style was stamped on me but I could discern where I never intended to go as a woman and a parent. The strength which she eluded her as young woman, always in an adversarial relationship with a power figure in her life, from her mother to her sister-in-law to my dad, was also a road I was never taking. Fortunately not a victim of intentional abuse myself, I had the advantage of using my cognitive skills first, rather than always being buffeted by emotions. My mom’s childlike loyalty and loving parenting, the opposite of her parents, albeit unsuitable, helped me be stronger and make better decisions than she did.

Mom and me
Mom and Michael early on in my relationship with him

As I moved into my adult life, married and with my own family, my parents moved to where I was living, to be with me as well as my younger sister who’d made her life near me years earlier. With my dad as a buffer, we all continued to be a tight family unit, with him absorbing what continued to be my mom’s most difficult attribute, her inability to sustain boundaries. But he died young, barely three years after moving here with part of that time taken up by both he and mom having cancer, which ultimately took his life. That left mom on her own, for the first time since she was a teenager. Part of her, although devastated by losing my father, was eager to lead life on her own terms, without having to compromise with anyone for the first time ever. But, simultaneously, the structure of having a power figure to resist and to defer to, was by then, an essential part of her emotional fabric, as natural as breathing. Unfortunately, she cast me in that power role. I still remember after my dad had only been gone a scant month, I was helping her with some paperwork. She looked at me and said that I made her feel safe, just like dad had. I felt revulsion and dread, reminding her that I was her child, not her husband. She said she understood but that wasn’t true. And so began twenty-five years of paying the price for all the confused past, when we weren’t just mother and daughter, but a composite of all types of relationships. I should have understood that when my dad, who’d decided to opt out of his cancer treatment, told me first rather than mom, and asked that I make his funeral arrangements. In the flurry of all the stress in that time, I didn’t understand what he knew implicitly, that I was going to be responsible for assuming his role in caring for my mom for the rest of her life. That quiet passage, lost in the grief of the moment, was the signal that the road ahead would be tough.

Mom became an integral part of my daily life. Part of that was normal and expected. I never anticipated that our interactions would devolve into the type she had with her own mother, endless arguments and grievances on a regular basis and mutual resentment. She handed me power I didn’t want and then was angry when I wielded it. I’d transitioned in her mind from girlfriend to a dubious ally, always on the verge of undermining her and not to be fully trusted. Sometimes things were manageable. She was a loving grandmother to my kids. I always thought she was more at ease with children than adults because they were less threatening. She was a kind mother-in-law to Michael, much sweeter by nature than his own mother. I made massive efforts to help her make friends, took her on family trips and smoothed her way forward. When she became less capable of managing on her own, I moved her into my house. Nothing, however, could alter the negative feelings she harbored which were truly more about herself than me. I went to therapy on multiple occasions to sort all this out and even got her to go with me. But there were certain places she just couldn’t go so I focused on what I could change which was myself.

Despite her many physical issues and illnesses, mom lived to be 91 years old. I never walked away from our relationship, something which was quite simply, outside my emotional wheelhouse. I learned to put more distance between us, at least in my head. I tried to ignore her childish behaviors which worsened over time and eventually, I chose to put Michael first when his cancer, coupled with providing her care, got too complicated. I moved her into assisted living. I know she resented me for that choice. I think she most wanted to be a respected matriarch without understanding that you can’t spend a lifetime as child and then assume a different role when you feel like it. As she got old, she started to slide into dementia. Her demeanor turned sweeter and I was grateful that the last year of her life allowed me to feel more peaceable toward her. Even when her mind was slipping she always remembered that Michael was sick. One time when I was visiting her, she told me she’d had an idea. She suggested that if Michael died, we might move in together. I told her we’d already tried that. She laughed and asked if I kicked her out because I hated her guts. An unforgettable moment.

Mom died in 2015 with my sister and I at her bedside. Her last hours were mystifying as she transitioned from irritability into moments when my appeal to her for mothering elicited that longed-for maternal response. I sang to her and she tried too, before slipping into a different space in which she spent hours, staring straight ahead, moving her arm in front of her as if trying to feel her way through mist or fog. I wondered what she saw. When she breathed her last breath, she had a sudden quizzical look which appeared cognitive, very different from my dad’s and Michael’s faces when they died. I’ve always wished I could ask her what she was thinking, dreaming or seeing.

During these ensuing years since her death, I’ve wished that I could talk with her. I’d like to tell her that when she told me she was scared when her father asked her to kiss the face of her dead sister, I never forgot it. And that I didn’t feel that fear when I kissed hers and certainly not Michael’s. I’d like to talk about sex as two grown women and how hard it is to live without that intimacy as a widow. I’d like to tell her how well I now get her never being able to go back and forgive essential betrayals from those who supposedly loved us. I’d like to have those conversations now after having lived longer, rather than when she laid them on me when I was too young. I still feel my mom around me and hear her in my head. I don’t want to emulate her as my own road gets shorter. The thought makes me shudder. I hope I can control that. Taboo Dorothy. Unforgettable.

On The Bad Days

Bad days are part of life. Working through them is a matter of personal choice. When I was young, I thought that being with other people, socializing, sharing my thoughts and feelings, were the best ways to dig my way out of the tough times. As I got older, I found myself turning more often to the natural world for solace and relief. I dig in the dirt – gardening is always a balm for my troubled mind. But I also look up often, endlessly interested in what the sky does with itself, forming clouds that for me are never repetitive or boring. And I love the magic of sunsets, especially those filtered through trees and the ones reflected on bodies of water. My phone’s memory is filled with dozens of these scenes, taken from my porch, my car, from occasional trips along a variety of shorelines. In the recent past, I’ve shared pictures from my garden on this platform. I’ve also posted artworks which have been part of a project that’s helped me through my grief after my husband’s death. After a rough couple of days, I’ve been out and about, looking around for that relief I find outside. I worry for this planet of ours. Climate change is real and is already here. I see it in my ground, in the trees and my plants. I don’t know if I’ll be around to see some of the long-range consequences of this process. I don’t want to be, I’m afraid. But in the meantime, I thought I’d share some of the many moments that frequently soothe my jangled spirits. I hope you enjoy them. 

Life on Broadway – Chapter 1 – 1979

Our home as it looked in the winter of 1978

Some years in your life stand out as those in which you feel you’ve taken a transformative leap, becoming a modified version of the self that existed only months earlier. I’d have to say that 1979 was one of those years for Michael and me. We’d done the mad act of buying an old house, currently being used as three apartments, without ever having seen the first floor. That turned out to be the apartment with the open lease, the one which would be our personal space as we began our venture, not only as homeowners but as landlords. Quite the leap from the almost annual moves we’d made since moving in together in April, 1972. I think we were both stunned by our headlong plunge into a world of responsibilities but we were going forward at a fast pace, as if time had suddenly sped up. The days of feeling like life was moving in slow motion were relegated to history. From then on, we’d be scrambling to keep up with the pace of adulting which had magically become who we were.

We didn’t take too many photos of the house in those days. I suppose we were too stunned by the enormous amount of work to be done. The bathroom and kitchen had their original fixtures from the early 1900’s. A claw foot bathtub, a sink and toilet that were crammed into a six foot square space as the bathrooms had been added well after the house was built, stacked on top of each other to replace the outhouses which were in place from 1893 to 1916. The kitchen sink stood on legs with no cabinet space below it. The only entry into the basement was through cellar doors on the side porch. Lovely golden pine floors had gaudy linoleum glued either to the centers or the trim around the rooms. Guessing what year the walls had last been painted was impossible. The house stood on a double lot which had been mowed but was overgrown with volunteer scrubby trees and bushes. There was simply dirt rather than yard. A hitching post was clutched by a tree that had grown around it.

I found jawbones with teeth in the dirt along with hip joints that appeared to be from cattle. We had five rooms on the first floor. Upstairs there was one two-room apartment and one three-room. The tenants shared a bathroom which was located in the back hallway. We began the herculean task of reclaiming this space filled with good feelings although suffering from years of neglect. We got the floors refinished after yanking up all the linoleum. We stripped wallpaper and started painting. Suddenly there was a salmon-colored room for our books and albums, a blue room next to the bathroom which became our first bedroom and soft whites and beiges for everything else. I think the biggest difference between Michael and me became glaringly clear at this time. I lived at a rather breakneck pace while Michael kind of oozed along, being “mellow.” That may be my most detested word. That’s when he came up with a line he used the rest of our lives – “would you mind removing your feet from my back as you run over me?” I was always in a hurry and could easily tolerate a little imperfection while he was slow, methodical and a perfectionist. So went our lives.

The first few months of the year were sucked into the fixing up vortex that pulls you in when you buy an old home. Still, we managed to get away for weekends, visiting with our friends from college, many of whom had migrated back to Chicago. We visited Brookfield Zoo, went to Cubs’ games, hit the museums along the lakefront and went to our favorite restaurants.

Michael snuck in a white water rafting trip with our friend Brian.

When we were home, we continued to work on improving the house. The yard was a disaster. That reclamation project would take years, adding a garage, digging out unwanted opportunistic foliage and building a fence so our dogs could be in open space.

We were also dealing with our tenants who had the usual issues, dripping faucets, broken appliances and my least favorite, plugged up toilets which required plunging. I can’t figure out how we dealt with all these chores in addition to working full-time, but we were young and energetic. June rolled around and I successfully planned a surprise party for Michael’s 30th birthday. I remember how astonished he was that someone who talked as much as me could fool him, but that verbiage was a great cover for my excellent secret-keeping skills. The old “what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.”

Then July showed up, bringing different challenges. My dad who’d already survived a heart attack, started having severe angina. He was hospitalized and had an angiogram which indicated that he had five blocked arteries. His own father had died of heart disease at age 39, when my dad was only eight years old. At fifty-six he’d already dodged what appeared to be a genetic bullet. A skinny guy, his body produced lots of cholesterol which wasn’t helped by the fact that he’d smoked since he was a kid. Always the healthier of my two parents, he was suddenly faced with a life-threatening situation. My sister and I hustled up to Chicago to support both him and my mom as they confronted a harsh reality, a threat they’d nervously contemplated for years.

Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital, Chicago

I still remember the tension in the cardiac surgical waiting room. Everyone was waiting for a word about a loved one. Sometimes a message was delivered by medical staff. Faces went crestfallen. Others reflected joy but it was muted as all were keenly aware that outcomes would be different from patient to patient. No technology back in those days. People sat with books, magazines, and knitting. Fidgeting was common. No one wanted to leave the room, but despite everything, there was hunger, toilet breaks, and thirst. A timeless room with no windows so there was no sense of the outside world. After long hours, I remember the tall crisp Irish surgeon, Dr. Coogan, coming to speak with us. Dad had survived his five coronary bypasses and Coogan called him a tough old bird. He would be in recovery next and then in the cardiac intensive care unit. Visiting was limited to a half hour twice a day.

Dad, pre-surgery with Mom

When my turn came, I was immediately stunned to see a white coated man with a long gray ponytail, examining my dad’s chart at the foot of his otherworldly bed which was in the center of a mass of tubes and flickering machines. I knew this man. He was a friend from college who went on to be a nurse, and ultimately, to medical school. He was in his residency on the cardiac service. He had given me my first hit of acid when we were juniors at the university. Now he was holding my dad’s chart, in charge of his life, at least in this moment. Stunning and utterly random.

As the days passed, my dad who had never been ill, had negative responses to his medications and developed arrhythmia. We were reassured that this was an expected result, but it was unsettling. In addition, he became rude and made completely out of character lewd remarks. He was temperamental and angry, most particularly when I refused to bring him cigarettes which he referred to as “his things.” My mother was self-medicating and acting out and altogether, I mostly felt a need to flee. The doctor explained that many men behaved like this post-surgically because they were uncertain of their futures and their ability to eventually resume a normal life. I understood these concepts and could feel my dad’s discomfort. But it was a lot to manage. I was 28 years old with my hands full of my own life and too many of my parents’ tribulations. That would remain a consistent theme of my life, the blurry boundaries between who are the kids and who are the grownups in my family. Love was plentiful but roles were awry.

Dad recuperating at home with one of my nieces and their new family dog named Bypass to commemorate Dad’s surgery

Eventually Dad was released to get better at home and my sister and I returned to our lives. Michael was facing a crisis as a new record store was opening just doors away from his campus business. This was a threatening scenario and we spent hours brainstorming about strategies for dealing with the new competition. One day, out of nowhere, my high school boyfriend appeared in town and showed up in my office. He’d left a job to start a rollerblading business in Evanston near Northwestern University and thought opening a site in our university community was a good plan. Within days, Michael’s store was diversifying into the rollerblade rental business which we hoped would help with the new threat to his work stability. Literally within days of that deal, my mom’s health took a precipitous decline. Stuck with ulcerative colitis since she was a young woman, she thought she was facing a colostomy surgery. She also was a candidate for back surgery because of severe spinal stenosis. That turned out to be the one that needed to come first. I used vacation and sick days to head back to Chicago, along with my sister, worried that both my parents were going to collapse from the stress.

Mom made it through as she had through so many previous hospital stays and surgeries. Exhausted from all the racing around, I headed back home. The next event was another pop-up visitor from the past. The lovely blond guy who helped me survive my toxic relationship with Al, the person who preceded Michael, contacted me to complain about his marriage, his work and life in general. For an eyeblink this distraction was a bit of fun, but I was in my marriage forever, so I drew a line, despite an urge to run away from all my hassles for an interlude in unreality. An escape hatch which needed to be ignored. Understanding that was a bad plan made me realize that I was a full-on adult making mature decisions. Life was indeed moving fast.

Golden Dennis from pre-Michael days

In September, Michael and I made a quick trip to Florida. The weather was incredibly oppressive and the area had experienced two hurricanes in a short time, leading to powerful surf, a disappeared beach and intense riptides. I had a two humiliating experiences on that getaway. I was making my way down the steps from the seawall toward what little beach was still evident when a big wave crashed into me, yanking the top of my bathing suit off, right in front of Michael and his dad who laughed uproariously as I struggled to hang on to the railing and cover myself at the same time. The other was going for a swim, not recognizing that I wasn’t able to fight the currents and was being carried further away from my landmarks toward concrete dock supports which extended into the Gulf. I had my head up as I tried to control my trajectory and keep my bearings. Suddenly I felt Michael grab me from behind, like the experienced lifeguard he’d been for three years. He told me I looked like a pathetic puppy who might get lost forever. Not very empowering but I was glad he was there.

We headed back home and back to the house rehab. Michael and a friend rebuilt the front porch and I made my first attempt at gardening. We had friends and family visit us regularly and made another grownup decision. We’d planned a winter trip to the Bahamas but scrapped it to buy a beautiful couch instead. I really loved that couch.

Michael and I began to discuss having kids. He was especially interested in starting a family to build what he’d missed so much in his own family of origin. We needed to draw a few breaths first and attend to that task the following year. So our first year on Broadway reached it’s end. On to the ‘80’s.