The Flip Side of Usual

Quote and still photo – Schindler’s List

I don’t want to be overly dramatic. Likening what is essentially just an unusual crappy day for me to the substance of Schindler’s List is ridiculous and pretty dreadful. But it’s not the subject of the movie that I’m thinking about today. That line, “The list is life,” just stayed with me over the years. As a chronic list maker, literally addicted to churning out lists by the dozen, I was wrangling with the “why” of them this morning. Instead of waking with my usual even keel, I was in a wretched mood. A welcome gray day, with the promise of rain in our droughty summer, felt like a good thing, even though I’m not sure a bunch of my plants which never showed up, or those which have bloomed as if the effort has been more than they can handle, seem lost for this year. Have we arrived in the new climate world which will worsen from this point going forward? Seems that way. Last year I was living in monarch heaven. They were making a comeback.

This year, only one of my fifteen milkweed plants blossomed, while the others look anemic. My tithonia, a beautiful and popular orange sunflower, popular with monarchs has two blossoms on it. I saw a couple of them a week ago, flying over my yard. Today one finally landed, so high up on an upright yew, I could barely see it.

My young little dog becomes a quivering, panting mess at the sound of thunder, requiring constant contact to feel safe. But the welcome rain means no swimming which I depend on heavily for some endorphin relief. I’m just angry about too much stuff. Ordinarily, I’m able to be okay, coping as a single in a couples’ world. But on a day like today, especially when thinking of the long-term marriages I know well that I think are simply matters of convenience, I just want to scream about how unfair life can be, that my life partnership was better in every way, more loyal, trusting, loving and sexy. Not very nice, but who cares? I want to be with Michael for some comfort, contact, love and relief. Tough luck for me. So on this unusual grumpy, selfish day, I started thinking about all my lists, the ones I’ve made and the ones I want to make, like which songs I want played at my death, and which of my favorite women singers had the most bell-like voices, and which were my number one songs from my favorite groups, and which were the best concerts I’ve ever seen, and on and on and on. In the midst of my spinning, grouchy mind, all I could think of was these stupid lists and who cares about any of this anyway? Then I remembered that I’d addressed my list obsession some time back, before the pandemic. Suddenly it occurred to me that, increasingly, over time, my lists represented the fact that I was truly living, beyond all the rotten world issues surrounding me, beyond Michael’s death, like a validation between me and me. I remembered that line from Schindler’s List. The lists are life. So I dug up that meditation from three years ago, which kind of tamped down today’s lousy mood. Trying to get back to the usual, to the more even place from which I try to operate daily, I re-read that meditation. Here it is, from September 19th, 2019. (Before Covid)

List of friends from my 1963 diary

I started making lists when I was about twelve. I know this because I have them. Mostly the lists were about people. People I liked, people I had crushes on, people I hated. The lists changed frequently, sometimes almost daily. Often there were ties for first, second and even third place. When my friend Fern and I spent hours on the phone at night, reading each other our diary entries, we’d sometimes make lists together. We had enemies lists which often included politicians we heard our parents discussing. I’m trying to remember what we had against Ben Adamowski but that’s slipped away.

I get it now – I was always less than thrilled with Chicago prosecutors

We had favorite athletes lists and music lists, teachers lists and of course, lists of our peers and family members. We changed popular song lyrics to reflect our current passions and we had so much fun singing them, especially the ones that were Beatles songs. I still find myself substituting our adjusted lyrics when a tune pops up in one of my playlists. You’d never have known that either one of us had a care in the world. But of course we did. My lists got more complicated as time passed. There were the standard lists that were more like timetables, when work needed to be done, birthdays and events needed to be remembered, the stuff of calendars. But I had lots of other lists too. In my attempt to keep my priorities straight, I managed to write lists for a wide variety of topics. I had self-improvement lists, lists of books to read and movies to see, lists of subjects to become knowledgeable about, lists of places to see and goals to accomplish.

You don’t want to make my “permanent list.”

I have a list I call “the permanent list.” That’s the one that has unforgivable words or actions that I’ll never forget or forgive until either my brain or breath goes. Not a desirable place for the perpetrators. Right now I have a list of nicknames Michael called me. I also have a list of his terrible jokes and funny quotes that are part of our family’s vernacular. I have lists of birds and butterflies that have visited my garden. I have lists that are so obtuse I can’t recall what the various words are doing on the same page. The habit of list-making is a part of me which I suspect will go on until I don’t. After years of waking up and thinking of the day ahead, asking myself what I should think about first, I figure this was a pretty rational response to the flood of thoughts that’s my typical response to opening my eyes. I suspect that some of my dreams are my subconscious attempts to keep sorting through the ever burgeoning thoughts stacked in my head. My sister says she doesn’t think I really sleep at all, rather that I’m thinking with my eyes closed. Some people hoard stuff. I hoard words, ideas and feelings. I’m aware that the sorting by list is ineffectual at times. For now, it’s become clear to me that I can’t anticipate how long it may take, if ever, to always remember that Michael is dead. I mean, I know that he is. But when ambling through my days, there are countless times when I expect him to walk through the door. If I feel like ignoring a text, I always think, wait, it might be Michael. I’ve called my son his name periodically. Today I was in a bookstore and saw a thick shiny book on the history of GTO’s and walked straight over to it, thinking I’d buy it for him and how much he’d love it.

These moments are fleeting but real. If I don’t like my dreams when he and I are arguing, it sours my day. When I have a good dream about him, I wake up and acknowledge the feeling before going back to sleep. And I’m still writing the letters that represent our constant dialogue over so many years. I can’t list myself out of these deeply ingrained habits that had to do with our life together. Although not quite a complete germophobe, I don’t expect that I’ll ever be without a small container of hand sanitizer in my purse.

When he was immunocompromised, I was determined not to let him get sick. I sprayed surfaces with Lysol and suspiciously counted the number of times people near us touched their mouths and noses, and then put their hands on common surfaces. Whatever I could control I did control. Endless hand washing and hyper-awareness. Good luck getting rid of that. I know it’s a peculiar preoccupation to watch people spreading their contagion around but it’s just normal to me now. I forgive myself. I try not to be angry about all that he’s missed and that we’ll miss together. That’s a terrible place to be. I only allow myself those thoughts for short moments. I think my quality of life would truly be pathetic if I got stuck in those mean, jealous places. The list habit comes in handy during those times. I can think of about a zillion things that should supersede that negativity. Right now, I’m in the midst of other people’s hardships. I’m knowing more and more sick people and I have one very dear friend who’s in hospice awaiting her death. That’s at the top of all my lists now, along with the knowledge that as I’m aging, I’ll face more and more of those sad times. My dad always used to say that if you’re lucky enough to survive to age 70, sometimes you can just cruise along for awhile. He never got there. Neither did Michael or my favorite brother-in-law. All lost at age 67. I’m past that age now. I wonder when my turn will come to face my own demise. I don’t know if I’d think about it as much as I do except for how many early deaths I experienced. Nah, I probably would. I always expected to just keel over one day like a tree felled in a wood. I certainly didn’t expect to be around longer than Michael, who came from a family where everyone routinely lived into their 90’s. I think we’ve all been led to believe that’s possible for the majority of people but I don’t think that’s right. For every octogenarian, there are dozens of people who’ve already checked out.

Photo – Getty images

I’m in the middle of three history classes this semester which are jamming huge swaths of time into 8 weekly hour and a half sessions. I come out of those classes dizzied by the compression of geologic time and long-gone civilizations that can be glanced over and set aside before tackling thousands more years. You realize how teeny you really are when looking at the world in these abbreviated segments. It’s fascinating stuff, but absent a time machine, wrapping your mind around the brevity of our lives on a comparative scale is pretty daunting. And kind of comforting at the same time. It’s only Wednesday and this week, I’ve considered the pre-Scottish elders and the Bog people alongside the Greeks and the Babylonians. We’ve looked at art and religious rituals, at least insofar as archaeologists have theorized about them and shared with us. I’ve been in ice ages and ridden tectonic plates and recognized that the Scottish oceanside rocks are basically the same as Maine’s because they used to be connected. All quite dazzling ideas that stimulate me to make more lists of things to explore, knowing full well there isn’t enough time for me in this universe to get through even a twentieth of what I’m writing down. But the habit is there and so I do it.

I-stock photo

Lately, because a cell phone makes it so easy to photograph anything, I’ve begun supplementing my lists with pictures to illustrate them. I have a photo of every place I’ve ever lived in but one, that one missing only because it was demolished a long time ago. I have my butterfly and bird photos to go with their documentation as yard visitors. I keep having my storage on my phone fill up because I’m recording everything. Maybe there’s a gene for this need to list and illustrate. It’s so much a part of me that I’m lucky to have plenty of my own long-ago writing, along with pictures of me in so many moments with Michael and my family, including really intimate ones. Ah, the days of the self-developing Polaroids. I was compelled to record. I think my daughter is like me. A record keeper. Maybe it’s a coping skill, a way to not be overwhelmed by the complexity of our lives. We certainly have more than our share of angst right now and I think lots of people feel the stress. So I’ll keep trying to organize everything and try not to forget what’s important. I guess I could have worse habits. Carrying a little bottle of Purell isn’t that bad.

Post-script – Written months before the pandemic, I had no idea at the time that all my efforts to keep Michael alive would be so well-suited to contending with the past few years. Life is full of unexpected twists. And as my mood shifted back to my less heinous state, wouldn’t you know that I caught a shot of a monarch in my garden, at last.

Good Thoughts

Mom

When your life is unfettered by the requirements of work, of caring for a family, of having a mandatory inflexible schedule, your mind is free to wander. Years ago, I think I aspired to be the Bloom character in Ulysses, wandering the streets of his city and thinking in sentences that could be ten or even twenty pages long. Stream of consciousness is fun. I usually wake up with some thought in my head and ultimately the combination of music, swimming and life in the garden carries me into unexpected corners of my brain.

This morning, before I went swimming, the first thing I did was feed my one and only fish. I had aquariums most of my adult life, and cockatiels too. Now I’m down to one small tank with a tetra that’s survived all the others and has grown quite large. I know I’ll feel bereft when it dies, although I haven’t worked hard to keep a pristine environment but rather a murky algae-laden solution. Anyway it’s worked so far. Next, I checked my garden, my birdbaths and feeders. My eyes are always scanning the outdoors for something interesting or different or even the familiar. I suddenly realized that basically, I was doing the exact same behaviors I did as a five year old. I would eat my breakfast, feed the fish if my brother let me, and then mom would give me a jar for collecting all the potential finds of the day. She made air-holes in the lids, I’d stuff them with leaves and twigs and then scour my block for caterpillars, grasshoppers, four-leafed clovers and whatever else caught my eye. I always had filthy feet back then and my dad called me the horrible racist nickname, Chief Blackfoot, as he scrubbed their bottoms with a hot soapy washcloth. I started laughing when I realized what a circuitous journey life can be, me still tramping around on my self-assigned missions.

Mom, who wasn’t exactly interested in letting her kids take risks, gave me a gift back then, my outdoor freedom, one which has lasted my whole life. Maybe she was glad I knew how to keep myself busy. She certainly didn’t see my interests as a sign that maybe a career in biology was ahead of me. I think she thought, within the limits of her imagination at that time, that I was a bright young girl who would grow up and get married just as she had. In our later years together, she told me I should upend my life, go to medical school, become a psychologist, anything other than the more mundane lifestyle she’d thought was my fate. But I wasn’t unhappy. She just felt guilty that she hadn’t encouraged me to aspire to something she hadn’t foreseen. Mom was a fun-loving kid disguised as an adult, but she evolved over the years. We were more peers during our life than a typical mom and child, but despite the mentoring parts I missed, she could be an awful lot of fun. Her life was tough but she had a positive spirit which I believe is the key trait I inherited from her. She loved music, dancing and popular culture, keeping up with the times and being open to new things. In my upbeat, expansive morning mood, more rare these days in light of so much dark news, I remembered the time she and I drove around in my car so I could play her the powerful Amy Winehouse album, Back to Black. Not the average musical choice for an 83 year old. That was a special moment. I decided to spend the rest of the day thinking about and doing all good things, sometimes tough for me to accomplish when I’m busy worrying about the state of the world.

Danny and me
David and me
Me and Rich

I went from thoughts of mom to remembering the confusing time of the late ‘60’s to the early 70’s. Although I was moving smoothly into radical political activism, on the personal level, I was conservative, cautious, scared and uncertain. As the third kid in my family, with a significant gap in our ages, I had the advantage of watching the dramas of my older brother and sister play out in their love lives. They had lots of pain and crises, none of which looked very appealing to me. So I remained careful and was, according to an old commonly used phrase, pure as the driven snow. Rich was my high school boyfriend, who remained with me through my freshman year of college. He never pushed my boundaries. Danny was a lifetime crush with whom I occasionally dabbled in flirtation, which meant occasional handholding and a kiss or two. David and I had been good friends since second grade. As a sophomore, I was on my own until I fell in love with Al, beginning a tormented relationship which he was way too young to handle. As we grew more serious we had frequent breakups and reunions which made us both miserable. I was nineteen years old and in those days of “free love,” was convinced I’d be alone forever, the last virgin on the planet. So I decided to cross that sexual rubicon, with someone who wasn’t torturing me with all this push-pull behavior, who actually liked me so I could just join the rest of the “free love” human race. I was that psychologically damaged. Over the next couple of months, I approached each one of them with my proposition. And despite being regular young men with normal urges, each one turned me down. Independently, each refused, out of respect for me and our childhood friendships that accompanied us into this quasi-adult time. At the time, I was annoyed and disappointed. Later I was filled with gratitude that no one let me make a regrettable mistake or a mess of my emotional well-being. I’ve always remembered how fragile I was back then, how I overcame that state and how lucky I was to have friends who refused to take advantage of my vulnerability. I hadn’t thought about those days in a long while. All these years later, I’m still in fairly regular contact with Rich and Danny, no embarrassing regrets a part of our shared history. Was it the times or more? No matter. What a good thing.

When I finished swimming, the air was cooler than it had been after weeks of blistering heat. I decided to take a stroll, wanting a respite from the daily struggle to keep my garden alive. So instead of going home to grapple with hoses and sprinklers, I walked through our local arboretum which I hadn’t visited since spring when the trees were laden with cherry blossoms. The effects of the drought were evident in the small lake there, but the rest of the area was being irrigated, looking lush and beautiful. Having a natural refuge nearby is another good thing for which I’m grateful.

When I went home, I explored the garden for awhile and was pleased to see the pollinators showing up to feast on the plants I’ve been struggling to maintain. I remembered how I found my way to realizing that if I couldn’t solve all the huge problems in this world, the least I could do was to reach out my hands and fix whatever was within my reach. I’m doing my bit for conservation right here in my backyard. And that is also another good thing.

Later that day, I spoke on the phone to my oldest friend who still lives in our hometown of Chicago. My grandson came over to my house to talk about his thoughts for his upcoming school year as a first year middle school student, and to watch a movie which he thought might make a fun weekly event. He’ll be twelve in August. I’ve been recording Jeopardy games and I watched a couple, pleased that my brain still works fast enough to retrieve so many random facts from my brain. I listened to my 31 year old air conditioning unit crank and was grateful for how amazing it is to have a functioning piece of equipment that’s given such steady service. I read the bulk of a really fascinating book, ate the sweet cherries which are my favorite summer treat, and watched a few episodes of a really entertaining television series called “The Bear,” which takes place in Chicago and evokes powerful memories of home. Sometime during that evening, my mind wandered to a time when I was crazy enough to climb on the back of Michael’s Triumph motorcycle, not a helmet in sight, and blaze down the highway for two hours to spend a weekend with friends. Mostly we were just with each other. Flying through the wind, glued together like that was an amazing feeling, even though I was far too cowardly to do it again later in life when my risk-taking tolerance had decreased substantially. All in all, it was a smallish day, when for virtually all of it, my mind felt nothing but good. I recommend periodic moments like this for anyone lucky enough to grab one.

Splendid Isolation And A Bit of Empathy

Our family -Spring – 1989 -Photo for Michael’s campaign brochure – Credit – Carol E.
Me, my mom and my sister – May, 1989 after mom’s mastectomy
My dad, my daughter and me -August 1st, 1989 – dad’s 67th and last birthday – Gone September 25th, 1989
Mid-August 1989 – Electrical storm sends a huge tree through our new roof – the day after Michael’s back surgery.
Michael, at that time, the earliest patient released after a laminectomy at that time – one and a half days post-surgery.

Back in 1989, I was really busy. I was juggling a lot, from cancers and death, to election campaigns and a husband who couldn’t get out of his bed for weeks at a time, to a couple of kids, pets, and a job. I don’t think it’s a big surprise that I missed a few musical releases, one of which was Warren Zevon’s Splendid Isolation. I didn’t actually know he was the creative force behind this song until a few years ago when I discovered Pete Yorn’s music, and as is typical of me, went for his whole catalog. Splendid Isolation resonated with me, as I’ve had more than my share of its message in my head throughout my life, with a few rare exceptions, most particularly Michael. Have a look at the lyrics.

I want to live alone in the desert
I want to be like Georgia O’Keefe
I want to live on the Upper East Side
And never go down in the street
Michael Jackson in Disneyland
Don’t have to share it with nobody else
Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand
And lead me through the world of self
Splendid isolation
I don’t need no one
Splendid isolation

Don’t want to wake up with on one beside me
Don’t want to take up with nobody new
Don’t want nobody coming by without calling first
Don’t want nothing to do with you

I’m putting tinfoil up on the windows
Lying down in the dark to dream
I don’t want to see their faces
I don’t want to hear them scream
Splendid isolation
I don’t need no one
Splendid isolation
Splendid isolation
I don’t need no one
Splendid isolation

Don’t want to wake up with no one beside me
Don’t want to take up with nobody new
Don’t want nobody coming by without calling first
Don’t want nothing to do with you

Warren Zevon – photo – Rolling Stone
Pete Yorn – Photo by me, taken during Instagram live feed in 2020

I think that except for my younger sister and my friend Joanne, who met me in college and with whom I worked for most of my adult life, there are few people left alive who would recognize the truth of me in those words. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was dying to get away from the social expectations of my young life. I was very good at negotiating the ins and outs of all the unwritten rules of being accepted. But I made sure that I was still me, granted with an acceptable social presence, but one I intended to dump as soon as I went to college. I was on the young side, after having skipped a year of elementary school, turning 17 in May of 1968 and heading to the university that September. And I immediately went my own way. Virtually all my high school friends went through sorority rush that fall, even Fern, my oldest and oddest life companion. I stood on the street corner, watching the girls march by, from big house to big house, waiting to see who would send them a bid so they could join this club which would provide a foundation for their college years. I wanted nothing to do with clubs. I did all that stuff in high school and wanted to be free from groups. I always had an aversion to running with a pack.

My senior year in high school

Maybe it seems strange that a person with significant social skills can have such hermit tendencies. But I always did. I thought of myself as an extroverted introvert. I could always do what so many shy, anxious people find daunting or even terrifying. But that doesn’t mean I always liked my particular talent. A lot of it was like performance art. I was usually deep in thought, elsewhere in my mind, and somewhat separate from the people with whom I was currently interacting. I thought that a lot of people seemed perfectly content to skim the surface of life. I wasn’t. I kept wanting to go deeper which was often a solitary journey. I wore people out and didn’t much care, although I was often lonely. I didn’t want to meet their expectations, only my own. The other dissonant piece of this picture was my empathy. I’ve done a lot of reading about this ability to really feel another person’s feelings, rather than simply having sympathy for them. I think empathy is in my genetic makeup. Growing up, I felt like I spent as much time in other people’s shoes as I did in my own. Michael used to say that the worst part of being married to me was that as long as I knew that someone, somewhere, was having a problem, I would be unhappy. I never quite experienced what I thought was an even exchange of this type of understanding. I always seemed to be just on the edge of a real meeting of the minds, only to be disappointed when the other person veered off in a direction that was quite different than where I thought we were going. By the time I was eighteen, I felt jaded and had low expectations for true partnership. Real empathy isn’t about trying to steer someone away from their feelings. It’s about hanging in there with them until they choose their next steps. When they’re ready, you can help. But you can’t push them into places that are more convenient to your way of thinking than theirs. I have journals filled with disappointments and despair about being misunderstood forever. I appeared connected but I was more like an observer, watching myself participate in an unsatisfactory life. Would anyone ever truly “get” me? I was only authentic in a few places, unwilling to trust even the people who ostensibly were my friends. Mostly I was globally empathetic but getting shut down in the up close and personal relationships.

All that changed when I met Michael. To this day, I am baffled by our immediate connection and tremendous similarities. Oddly, we operated quite differently. As I often said, by that tender age of 20, I was leading my life from the inside out, not looking for validation from others. Michael, whose childhood was colder and less loving than mine, was out there proving himself to the world. But our private life together was what I’d always wished for, an absolutely unconditional acceptance of all of me, not just the convenient parts. And I returned that to him. In fact, he filled the most significant desire I had, to be authentic and whole with another person. As a result, I adapted to his need for more external connections than I wanted, a houseful of people with our kids’ friends always welcome and a social life for us, much of which I could do without. In our years together, I walked away from some people with whom he shared time, ultimately preferring to do my own thing. My friend Joanne would stroll into my office and say, “are you eliminating anyone today?” For Michael, I hung on to some relationships that he wanted more than I did. He was the most important person in my life and you do things for that person. My kids said that when he died, he took all my filters with him. There’s some truth to that but more accurately, without him to worry over and to love, I reverted back to my younger, loner self. Someone knocking on my door, uninvited? I couldn’t stand those intrusions. Shallow, phony conversations? I’d rather read a book. Of the people I let fall away, I can’t say that I miss one of them.

Michael’s part of the closet

When a spouse dies, even after years of knowing death is basically inevitable, there are huge adjustments to be made. Most of my friends are still married. I’ve read about the health risks, both physical and mental to a widow like me, especially one who has zero interest in new companionship. So I addressed those concerns. I set up regular massages for myself, usually on the same day as a haircut to get enough physical contact. I swim five days a week and have acquaintances and a few friends I speak with regularly. I’ve taken lots of interesting classes. I got appointed to a city commission on historic buildings and joined a book club. But I’m still not a group person so those experiments ended. I’ve traveled, alone and with my family. Then the pandemic came along. I found that I adapted pretty well to the isolation. I still saw my family who live close, and eventually found the way to see a few people in a safe setting. But ironically, during this odd time, my blood pressure dropped significantly, to the point where I was able to reduce my medication by 75%. I spent a lot of time in my garden as weather permitted and began doing some serious backyard science and photography. I have lots of hobbies. In general, as I go through my last years, I feel fairly lucky that so far my health is decent and that I’m completely independent. I miss Michael every day and night. He’s the undercurrent humming inside me. When any of that changes, I don’t know how I’ll react. But for now, except for endless Covid and a bit more money for travel, I’m ok.

I’ve got these two great kids. I think that my transition to the self I was before they existed has been a challenge for them. They’re in the midst of their young lives, busy with work, partners, kids and friends. And me, although I try not to be a load as my mother was for me, for a long 25 years that were tough and burdensome. I think that maybe one of life’s hardest tasks for kids is recognizing their parents for who they are as individuals rather than the people who raised them. My parents always acted like kids with me so I never had a big transition with them. What I think is my best life doesn’t always look that way to my children. I’d like the empathy that I described above, in which they just hang with me where I am and stop trying to suggest what they think would be better for me. Progress on this is fits and starts. My pragmatic daughter is seeing me a bit more clearly these days and I’m trying to help my son get used to this “me.” For myself, I am “me,” but it’s harder for them to accept. After all, they’re still coping with missing their dad who we all thought would be alive as long as his parents, well into their 90’s.

Life is so unpredictable. Michael used to say that the first person he’d mourn was himself. He didn’t have anyone close to him die and he never had the role of caregiver. I’ve thought often of what would’ve happened if our roles had been reversed, if I’d been the one with the lethal cancer who died before my time. We always used to tell each other that if we lived to be 100, it still wouldn’t have been enough time to share between us. But in truth, would he have had the endurance to take care of me to the end of my life? Caregiving is really rugged. Would he have opted for staying single after I died or would it have been too hard for him? He told me he thought I should be partnered again. But we were, after all, so different in a few key ways. I do know that he would have done his best and that he made remarkable efforts and so many comforting gestures that sustain me in his absence. Maybe things worked out the way that was the easiest for all of us, although that will forever be hard to swallow.

So here I am, in my splendid isolation, with my few real friends and my family, looking for some genuine empathy. Not too big an ask. I don’t think.

Yes. It Was Real.

Minimalism. I embrace the concept but I pretty much stink at practicing what it means. I am a walking contradiction. On one hand, I’m not much of a materialist. I live in an old house, drive an old car and have mostly old clothes. I do try to wear sturdy supportive shoes, having never forgotten my parents’ admonitions about getting only one pair of feet that have to last a lifetime, and that I should take good care of them. Same for teeth. No old toothbrushes for me – but the worn ones are good for cleaning small spaces.

Despite my indifference to stuff, and multiple attempts to pare down my belongings over the past half dozen years, my house remains pretty packed. I still have loads of photos, books and greeting cards which are stuffed into storage bins, packed into folders and stacked on shelves. I think I was supposed to be a curator or an archivist or maybe just a plain historian. I imagine these urges are connected to the fact that I have very few tokens of my early life. Some photos, a few letters, my school report cards. But I wish I had more, things that might fill in the holes in what is still my fairly prodigious memory. As parents are wont to do, I made every effort to save close to a complete historical record for my kids. I used to jam all their school papers into their backpacks, setting each one aside to be replaced by the next for the upcoming year. Each year I wrote them a letter on their birthdays until they were 18, when I turned them over for their perusal of forgotten incidents. I’m doing the same thing for both my grandsons. For my kids, both strivers and multi-talented successes, musically, academically and athletically, I kept every scrap of publicity about them, each getting an athletic scrapbook, programs from their concerts and award ceremonies, and on their 30th birthdays, a memory book with letters from former teachers, classmates and family members, sharing all the reasons they were cherished by those people. I made a memory book like that for my father for his 65th birthday and one for Michael for his 50th. I think it’s kind of funny that no one has made one for me, but in truth, since I started keeping a journal at age 12, I’ve kind of been making them for myself. Effectively, this blog serves the purpose of providing information for my family after I’m no longer around to do it, describing my own personal history which runs parallel to theirs.

But lately, I’ve been thinking there’s more to my motives than I’d previously considered. In my seemingly never-ending process of re-sorting the hundreds of photographs I removed from albums when I was assembling the slideshow that was part of the event honoring Michael’s life, I ran across a photo of my three year old son, riding his Big Wheel down the sidewalk in front of our house. Michael’s adored big red Chevy truck was parked at the curb in the picture. I know it was 1990 because he bought it brand-new that year. Finances were tricky – we wound up having his music store make the purchase which we paid off monthly, as you would a bank or a finance company, but with a more favorable interest rate. Wheeling and dealing was our motto. You can dimly see our old recycling buckets, the ones our city passed out to residents when we had to separate glass, paper and the like, instead of our current bins, now on wheels, no separation required. Oh how Michael loved that truck, in his favorite color, cherry red. At least he did until it rusted out, way too early in its life, even thought it was garage-kept and treated like a baby. In any event, as often happens in my head, a few truck-related memories came to mind as I looked at that photo. I remembered that when he brought it up to our multi-family Michigan trip every summer, all the kids, normally belted into their seats, got to clamber into the truck-bed for the short one block drive down the hill to the Driftwood, the souvenir and ice cream shop that drew a crowd every night in those days. I also remembered a time when Michael parked the truck toward the end of our driveway which slopes downward to our street. Mr. Absent-minded forgot to put the gearshift in park. After exiting the cab, we heard an odd gravelly noise and turned to watch as it slowly backed itself into our busy street, angled itself slightly and winding up across the avenue, backed into our neighbor’s driveway as if it was actually supposed to be there. We laughed in our post-terror relief, grateful to have not killed anyone or wrecked the truck. My son, who is in town these days, was nearby while I was reminiscing about this event. I asked him if he remembered the episode. He had no clue what I was talking about. So I think the only person left with that vision is me, although I’m not sure if my daughter, who might have been away at college at the time, recalls it. Lots of memories are like that as people vanish from our lives, leaving us with the vision that will disappear when our time is up. I think my keeping concrete records of what’s transpired is a way of making those delicate memories tangible and hard to forget.

But memory is a complicated issue. I remember having so many talks with my mother, whose memory stayed powerful until the end of her ‘80’s, in which she would complain that my older sister had multiple memories that didn’t match hers. She would say that she had no idea where these stories came from, as she had no inkling about them at all. I always discussed these discrepancies in a couple of different ways. First, I think everyone knows that memories can be selective, with what is so important and significant to one person, not making a blip on the radar screen of the person standing right beside them. There’s also false memory syndrome, believed to be a result of a brain injury or some personal trauma, in which a fabricated memory takes hold in a person’s mind and stubbornly resists removal despite significant evidence to the contrary. I remember driving my son and one of his oldest friends in the car one day while they were having a conversation about an incident in which my kid made a hard choice about participating in a social event that excluded his buddy. Except to my astonishment, that friend had reversed their roles in his recall of the story, with himself as the hero in the tale. Even with my validation of my son’s version, his friend stubbornly refused to let go of his revised tale. I was amazed by that episode of deeply remembered false facts. In light of all these possible memory tricks, there’s the issue about how the passage of time, in which characters in our personal histories are no longer alive to help us reinforce shared experiences from long ago. Mostly an age-related phenomenon, I sometimes wonder if my recall is fact-based or if my desire or my need of these memories is my own creation, possibly embellished by wishful thinking. What was real? The mind is capable of interesting tricks, even if that’s an unpleasant concept. Sometimes, as more years pass since Michael’s death, I have moments when I wonder if I’m generating the power of our relationship all by myself. Moments like that make me feel terrible, wondering what’s genuine and what’s a creation of my imagination. Which brings me back to my habit of hanging on to stuff.

Michael’s computers

After over 5 years, I’ve still held on to Michael’s laptops which are so old they still operate with Windows 7, software no longer supported by the manufacturer. When he died, I was able to unload most of Michael’s clothes really fast, except for a few items I’d saved intentionally. I knew they weren’t him so it was easy to let them go. I remember my mom taking years to accomplish that task. Dad’s clothes hung in her closet for a long time. But the computers felt different. Looking inside them to see what needed to be saved felt so much more like an invasion of his privacy, which both of us felt was our personal right despite our long relationship. Michael had given me a list of all his passwords before he died, but going into those computers took me a very long time. I’d dealt with certain accounts and other businessy kinds of things but got out of there fairly quickly. On the second round of having a peek inside, I found a couple of files under one of Michael’s crazy nicknames for me, Barnacle. Don’t ask where that one came from – I gave up on all his weird ideas long ago. When I explored them, I found they were downloaded songs, some familiar ones that meant something to us and others I didn’t know. Those were attributable to the fact that in the 27 years before he became a teacher, while he was in that store, he listened to more obscure music than I ever did, exploring every album that came through the store and selecting his favorites, which often included a one-hit wonder before the group faded away. I was fascinated by these playlists. At the time of his worst prognosis, he’d made me three wonderful CD’s called Love Songs for The Lovely Renee. Because he lived so much longer than anticipated, he gave those to me while he was still alive and well, a wonderful, emotional and sustaining gift I’ll have forever.

I was desperate to get those new playlists off that computer. I searched around his software and found an old-school CD creator program called Roxio and for the first time ever, I burned two CD’s and photographed the playlists to make sure I got the names of the songs and groups unfamiliar to me. The only problem was that I no longer had a CD drive on my computer so I couldn’t tell if I’d succeeded in getting them or not.

Last week, a friend suggested that I buy an external CD/DVD hard drive to plug into my computer. I ordered that and finally felt ready to recycle those computers after figuring out how to remove their motherboards in case I’d missed any information that could come back as a problem. I dropped them off and felt that I’d made one of those final steps in paring down the things to which I’d been clinging. Back home, I plugged in that external hard drive, and optimistically, slid one of those CD’s in to see if it worked. A success. I only made it to song five before I had to turn it off, overcome by emotion.

Michael was my refuge. I used to dream of him having a zipper in his chest that I could undo so I could slip inside for a rest from the world around me. I’d always ask him to hug me tighter and he’d reply that if he hugged me any tighter, I’d be behind him. I remember how stunned I was when I found the photos above which perfectly illustrated my feelings, feelings that I now sustain on my own. And there are those moments that with his continued absence, have made me wonder if everything I feel is real. Finding that music at the moment when I was ready to get rid of that hardware certainly validated my feelings. While he sat clicking away on his keyboard near me in our living room, he was busy planning my sustenance for my future. A remarkable gift. Yes. It was all real. Lucky me.

Exquisite Grief

Stop Saying “I’m Sorry for Your Loss” – Photo Pixabay – Psychology Today

I generally spend a portion of every day thinking about Michael. Usually there’s no warning about when that will happen. Occasionally a song provides the stimulus. More often, I’m pondering something or other and I just really, really want to talk to him. So far, after over five years, nothing has slaked that thirst for sharing my thoughts and ideas with him. I can talk to other people, but I rarely feel the sense of truly unloading what burdens my mind that I did after speaking with him. I suppose if I mention this to someone, they might respond with sorry for your loss. That phrase might be in my top 5 of hated comments. Michael’s corporeal being is gone. But the rest of him is so alive and vibrant in me. I struggle with his physical absence but he is not lost. I don’t know the history of that phrase, but it feels so dismissive. Like a cut and run comment that someone can say, rather than really connecting to the more painful realities that could be mentioned. Everyone wants to get done with grief. So many psychologists and doctors and anybodys have tackled the subject. One book says there were five stages, another, seven, then who knows how many, laid out in order. Boom, boom, boom. Get through the program and move along.

Albert, love number one.

That really isn’t how grief works. Life is about accumulating all kinds of grief, as different as the socks in a drawer, as small as a toothpick, as big as a jackhammer. Grief is a pinprick or a gaping hole. Grief can be silent or screaming its head off. An amoeba or skyscraper. Even if you think you get past it, it lurks at the molecular level in your cells. Grief causes mutations in the mind and body. Some of them manifest physically and some of them are forever hidden. Grief is raw and ugly, radiant and exquisite. Grief is nothing and everything.

Dennis, love number two.

Grief can begin early in life, depending on the randomness of where and when you are born and to whom. Sometimes a dreadful calamitous situation is the backdrop for the grief that begins with true cognition of those circumstances, although for some, with no other real frames of reference, grief and life are one and the same. For luckier people, there are longer innocent times untouched by deep sadness. I think I felt grief twice as a young child. The first time, I was five, when so filled with love for a pet chameleon, I accidentally hugged it to death, the poor thing suffocating in my hands. The second time was when I was seven and my family moved from Sioux City, Iowa to Chicago. Our neighbors came outside to wave goodbye as we drove away, including Robin, the boy I’d loved since I could remember. Of course those episodes are glancing blows of grief compared to the big picture of my life. But yet they’re still part of me, unforgotten after all these decades.

My brother Fred and my cousin Iris

My older brother and sister had a much harder time with that move than me. They were older by over five and eight years, those tougher adolescent years so fraught with difficult adjustments and personal changes than those of a little girl. Our apartment was small. The conflicts and worries they had were an undercurrent I always felt. My brother was impulsive and angry while my sister was depressed. By the time I was twelve, Fred had imploded over a lost relationship and enlisted in the Air Force for four years. My sister was remote and silent. Then shortly after my 13th birthday, on the day I graduated from eighth grade, my baby cousin Iris died from a common respiratory infection. That was the beginning of real grief, her unfair death, my siblings’ obvious disturbances, and an overall sense of life’s uncertainty which expedited my growing up fast.

My high school years were complicated. My parents were struggling with finances, my grandparents and my siblings. After my freshman year, although I was interested in learning, I became a mediocre student. I was more interested in understanding people, relationships, and the complex issues of the ‘60’s. For the most part I passed for normal. I had a social life and classic crushes, one in particular that I hoped would turn into something more serious by the time we got older. But that was a pipedream. The real world was exploding with race issues and the Vietnam War. When I went off to college in the fall of 1968, I was maintaining a relationship with a boyfriend who was always more of a platonic friend than a romantic one, no clue as to what my future goals were, and a pretty jaded attitude regarding how much the social world was about skimming the surface of life. I felt disconnected and out of place. I knew I didn’t want to continue in the lifestyle which many of my classmates who were joining me at the same school appeared to be comfortable in, an extension of our high school behavior. I was alienated. Before my freshman year ended, one of my cousins committed suicide and my grandfather died. An attempt to live with my oldest friend blew up within the first two months of college. Thankfully, that relationship was salvaged.

By the next fall, I’d developed an invisible armor to shield myself while I launched into a more experimental lifestyle. Within a short time, I met love #1. I was pretty guarded initially, using mostly my executive mental function out of caution, before committing myself to the relationship. After a bumpy 10 months, I was all in. I thought I’d found my life partner despite explosive breakups and reconciliations. I figured that time and maturation would solve those issues and doggedly pursued my vision of our future at the same time my self-confidence and self-esteem were gradually eroding. My political interests kept me going and I had some good friends but I’d say that I was as mentally unhealthy then as I’ve ever been in my life. During a long breakup, I met love #2. Someone I’d known for years, he suddenly found me to be the most fascinating person alive, a welcome relief from the boomeranging emotions with love #1. I really cared about this person but along with everyone else, he came with the baggage of being a pretty boy who was susceptible to flattery. I realized that love was one thing while trust was another matter entirely. For almost three years I swung up and back between these two people, more in love with #1 and sadly, unable to fully engage with #2. I learned plenty about grief during those years as I thought that I was destined to be alone forever, unable to sustain real partnership. Then in the summer of 1971, when I was single and just doing my own thing, I met Michael at the wild hippie wedding where sone inexplicable magic psychic connection instantly happened in a span of a few hours. Forever mystifying, I have never understood exactly how that transpired. I had no physical attraction to him initially – I’m not sure our physical beings had much to do with our entwining at all. Regardless, I was immediately changed. I had a lot of despair back then and was profoundly wounded, innocence destroyed. But the friendship that began with Michael was like a magic elixir which was amazingly restorative. An unevenness accompanied my healing, but despite intermittently falling back into defensive postures, our meeting of emotions and our minds was unlike anything else I’d ever felt. After 8 months, that powerful friendship took on the added dimensions of love, both the romance and the physical kind. We were never apart after that, throughout the forty-five years until his death.

My oldest friend, Fern

Despite my joy and good fortune during my life with Michael, grief was always close by. Another cousin and my oldest friend Fern, killed themselves within a year of each other. My father died the following year. My grandmother died, too as did my closest uncle. Some years later, when Michael was already ill, my brother, my mother and the dog of my heart died, all within three months of each other. Dennis, love #2, committed suicide when he was only 52, a tragedy I’ve never understood. As people age, we all see the companions of parts of our lives vanish. What does not is the grief and pain that are woven into our internal tapestries, staying with us forever.

Julie

Along the way, over the years, many more friends and family have died. From my nuclear family, only my younger sister and I are left. A few years ago, my brilliant friend Julie died. I saw her a few times before cancer overtook her and we had long talks about life and the “deep debris” we humans carry with us as the years go by. I was able to discuss what I refer to as the exquisite grief I have for Michael. I know that for some people, recovery means some type of closure and often the seeking of a new partnership as balm going forward. I didn’t know how I’d feel about any of that before Michael died. But I do know now.

A friend of mine recently told me she thought I have a sunny disposition. I think that’s right. I’ve never been a dark and depressed person and I’m not now. Even in the immediate time after Michael’s death, I wasn’t those things. Mostly I was mad that he died too young when we wanted more years together. I’m still mad and greedy even though it’s useless and isn’t part of the grief resolution profile. I don’t care. I’ve moved forward. I’m in my life. I’m thankfully still independent. But I’ve taken Michael along with me, during my daily life and on my solitary travels to places I wish we could’ve seen together. I don’t want a new companion. I’ve already had the best possible marriage. So I’m doing my thing, accompanied by this marvelous memory that is three-dimensional and such a comfort. My gift and my curse. I go to the movies and remember how until the end of our time together, we were always draped over each other in the theater. I still sense it in the darkness. I can conjure the feelings from the countless mornings from before, when I wake, still on my side of the bed, the body pillow behind me being a moderate substitute for the body I wish was still there. But I can again elicit the comfort from so many years of profound intimacy that my natural strength remains augmented by its still palpable presence. I find my whole process utterly unanticipated and surprising. I also love that “forever” apparently is real in certain contexts. I feel similarly about Fern and my parents who live on in me, along with a dog or too who were something beyond special. This is my exquisite grief, simultaneously painful, beautiful and sustaining. Don’t be sorry for my loss. Like I said, it’s not exactly what people may think. At least not for me.

Coping With The Enormity of it All

Photo – NASA
Photo – NASA
Photo – NASA
Photo – NASA

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the recent stunning images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope and released by NASA yesterday and today. The birth of stars, and images portraying gaseous peaks seven light years high, from parts of the universe 7600 light years away? I read the words over and over but the concepts are too big to grasp. But there is more big news. I juxtapose those mindbending ideas over the reality of the fires blazing through Yosemite, threatening the giant sequoias in the Mariposa section. One of two hundred 2000 year old trees, The Grizzly Giant, has been wrapped in a sprinkler system to try to save it from the advancing flames. I get the sequoias better than the universe because I’ve seen them, not in Yosemite, but in Sequoia National Park. The power and majesty of these cathedrals of limbs and leaves changes the way you perceive life and time. That they can be lost, in our fiery planet, while somewhere, a zillion miles away, a remarkable device is recording inexplicable space activity is overwhelming in its enormity.

The Grizzly Giant in 1865.Credit…Carleton E Watkins/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images
The Grizzly Giant, a sequoia tree, has been threatened by the Washburn fire, which has torn through more than 3,000 acres of brush and timber in the southern part of Yosemite National Park.Credit…Tracy Barbutes/Reuters
Michael and me in Sequoia, 2007
Sequoia, 2007
Sequoia, 2007
Sequoia, 2007

But today, seemingly like every day in these strange times, I watched the January 6th House Committee hearing about what to me, is the absolute truth, that a modern coup was planned by a ragtag coalition of quasi-militias and hate groups at the behest of Donald Trump in his effort to retain the presidency. Witness after witness who include his family, his lawyers and advisors, stated that there was never any proof to substantiate his claim that the 2020 election was rigged, dirty, illegal. What is remarkable is that this fabrication still has legs in our society. Millions of people believe this lie which has been unilaterally debunked in multiple courts by Trump appointees, judges who have tossed out every phony lawsuit brought to defend this preposterous lie. How can this be? I was alive and watching during Watergate when a similar set of hearings undid the Nixon scams and wound up with the arrests and jailing of his most powerful allies. This is a different country now, not simply because there are deep divisions in the culture as much as there are alternative facts that people fervently believe. As all about them, the reality of powerful threats to democracy, to the basic tenets of our fragile freedoms being undone, from their bodies, to their voting rights and who knows what’s next legally, along with the reality of climate change which will effectively damage their very lives. Like in mass hysteria, the desire to believe that Covid has ended is instead allowing a sneaky virus that could have potentially been squelched multiple mutations ago, to go on its merry way, retooling itself for another surge. All the deaths, the long-haulers, the mass mental fatigue and the uncertainty are set aside for “normal,” whatever that means.

Photo – Newsweek

I’ve been trying to make my way through the enormity of it all. Sometimes while out in the world, the air feels like it is palpably vibrating with uncertainty and discomfort. I think lots of people feel uncomfortable, frustrated and depressed. I have my go-to anti-stressors like swimming, gardening or a good book. But the bigger picture is always lurking in the background. Recently I started thinking about my education. I was lucky enough to get one, in decent schools which provided me with a strong foundation from my earliest years. In truth, being a rebellious sort with parents too pre-occupied and inexperienced to notice that my performance as a student started lagging not long after my freshman year in high school, I did well enough to get myself into college. And despite the fact that the social issues of my younger days, like women’s rights, civil rights, the environment and the Vietnam war were more interesting to me than school, I read voraciously and got a solid education under my belt. Mostly I learned to think, to evaluate and to not believe everything I heard or read without analysis. Many of those same issues of my youth are unfortunately still on the table. Have the generations subsequent to mine gotten lost somewhere in that their educational preparation for making sense of the world is inadequate? Does the propensity to learn strictly for a career at the end of schooling, more common these days than it was when I was young, mean that all these huge issues are more than people can manage without retreating into their corners and ignoring the pressure of it all? I don’t know. One of my dearest friends and I have talked frequently about the benefits of a liberal arts education. Is that a thing of the past? Maybe I’m a relic. I looked up some definitions of that type of schooling which evolved over a couple of thousand years. Just to illustrate my point, here’s a sample definition. I think it sounds more practical than esoteric, especially considering this moment in history.

By collegeappguru

A liberal arts education offers an expansive intellectual grounding in all kinds of humanistic inquiry. By exploring issues, ideas and methods across the humanities and the arts, and the natural and social sciences, you will learn to read critically, write cogently and think broadly. These skills will elevate your conversations in the classroom and strengthen your social and cultural analysis; they will cultivate the tools necessary to allow you to navigate the world’s most complex issues. Princeton University Undergraduate Admissions.

I think those sound like worthy goals but maybe I’m just antiquated.

Speed reading device circa 1964

When I was in elementary school, a certain amount of my time was spent in the library, reading books with a device like this one above, which was attached to my book. Starting at a relatively low rate of speed, a dark screen eventually dropped down over the page, the goal being to read ahead of it. The catch was that you had to retain and comprehend what you’d read, so a short test was given afterwards to make sure you weren’t just fooling around. I really liked this game. By nature, I’m more likely to enjoy competing with myself than with anyone else. Eventually I got so fast that I could easily beat that falling screen unti l it was obsolete for me. I started thinking about this the other day when I was watching “Jeopardy.” That ability to read fast comes in handy when you’re at the end of the question before almost anyone else. Years ago, friends gave Michael and me a computer “Jeopardy” game. He was so frustrated that I was already answering before he was finished reading, that he just hit the answer button immediately, thereby blocking me from answering. Part of our family lore. But speed isn’t the main point here.

Photo – Wikimedia

The point is that early on in life, I was being taught to think and to think fast. I was expected to retain what I was learning and to apply my knowledge to understanding the world from a broad standpoint. I think that foundation of believing I was capable of thinking my way through what the world put in front of me has helped me survive as a person capable of seeing the big picture, at least the parts within my mental capacity. I’m always looking for connections and comparisons and solutions. What else can you hang on to in these dizzying times? I worry when I see how easy it is to sell lies to people. How does that get fixed? I feel like I’m watching the fall of the Roman Empire. The cataclysm will be televised. Surely there must be something better than this.

Sanctuary Mysteries in a Changing World

Michael in his vegetable and herb garden – 2015 when he was too weak to plant. A miraculous targeted cancer therapy helped him survive almost 2 more years.
Me and my grandson in 2017. Michael had a few months to live. I’d already begun the conversion of his food garden into one for pollinators.
Michael’s old Adirondack chair, still out in the garden.
Michael’s former vegetable garden, early spring – 2022.

Back in the spring of 2017, after 39 years of building a spot of paradise in our backyard, Michael and I both grudgingly realized that his cancer progressed to the point of no return. Life had pretty much guaranteed that he wouldn’t be around that summer to immerse himself in planting the food part of the garden which produced tomatoes, peppers, basil and cilantro, among many other goodies. He was a canner who kept us stocked through the fall and winter with tomato sauce for pasta, tomato sauce for his pizzas, pesto for so many dishes and maybe the world’s tastiest salsa. The cucumbers became multiple types of pickles. I wasn’t that person and knew I never would be. Already mourning the coming loss of my partner since age 20, the thought of trying to cope with that big space staring me in the face was too much. Before he died, I covered it with dark cloth sheathing and mulch. That summer after his death, while I worked on his memorial for December, I was outside, digging holes in that ground and designing a habitat for pollinators and nesting birds. Essence of Michael emerged from the earth like an intoxicant. Still a work in progress, it’s come a long way. His perennial herbs are a comfort when they reappear every spring.

Michael’s ashes are in a beautiful wooden box on a white sideboard table in our dining room. For years when we were young, he joked about wanting a Viking funeral, his body laid out on a beautifully decorated boat, cast off the shore and then set aflame by someone who could send an arcing fiery arrow over the bow. I would point out that as we didn’t live near any body of water, logistics, not to mention finances, would seriously interfere with his romantic vision. Later, though, when things got more serious, we both realized that our garden, where we’d worked side by side for so many years, creating a haven, our refuge, would be the best place for us. So when my life ends, our kids know that after my cremation, they should mix our ashes together, and spread them in the garden that’s brought us so much pleasure and peace. During these past five years and especially since the pandemic, I’ve labored out there for hours, feeling close to Michael as somehow his spirit still emanates from the ground.

Aside from these romantic scenarios, I’ve always been somewhat of a nerdy science type. As I planted my choices for attracting winged visitors, I was always mindful of the threat of climate change. For years, I’ve kept a garden journal listing every plant I’d placed in the ground, whether it returned every year, or when it disappeared. Initially I started taking photos of my flowers just for my pleasure, and then to post them on social media. Eventually I recognized the changes which appeared to be connected to increasingly higher temperatures for longer periods of time. Sometimes there were delays in blooms due to colder weather, or only foliage appeared, the buds burned off by frost. My friend Brian, who’s a conservation biologist, told me I was practicing phenology, the study of small-scale climate change on plants and animals. And indeed I was. A both fascinating and unnerving project. The past two years, side by side, have been particularly disturbing.

Spring, 2022

Last summer was very dry. I remember being really disappointed in the output of a number of my plants, watering constantly, and losing the bulk of a plum tree that I’d somehow missed when trying to soak my big yard. This spring was cold, wet and delayed. I felt as if the plants were arriving in slow motion as I stared at foliage but no flowers. Finally in May there was a burst of activity that lasted a glorious couple of weeks.

But in what almost felt like an overnight change, the pleasant May temperatures switched to a dry heat, heat which eventually became blazing and intolerable. Frantic to save my plants, I ignored everything grass, everything but my plants and young trees. Day after day, I stood outside pouring water toward the roots, just hoping to keep as many as possible alive. I did a pretty thorough job, often wondering if I was going to dehydrate myself as fast as my grass was drying out. The ground around my flower beds was hard as rock with deep cracks in the dirt, right next to flourishing flower beds. At least partially flourishing. Some plants had tight little buds that looked like the effort to open was just too big an ask. Others looked perky for awhile before drooping by the end of the day.

Deep fissures in the ground next to my gooseneck loosestrife
The full view of the loosestrife right next to the dried ground

I noticed that a hydrangea plant in my front yard, the type that changes from pink to purple to blue, which in the past, has only mustered a few blooms all season, had multiple flowers, more than I’d get in months, all with the deep blue color more common toward the end of summer. Has the taxing weather changed the nitrogen content of my soil? I have no idea.

This year
This year
Last year

I decided to look back at last year’s June to July photos to compare with this year’s. The first things I noticed were what’s missing. A glorious hydrangea that bloomed all last summer hasn’t a single blossom.

This year’s hydrangea
Last year’s hydrangea – 1
Last year’s hydrangea – 2
Last year’s hydrangea – 3

Then I moved on to other plant comparisons.

This year’s yellow shasta daisies
Last year’s yellow shasta daisies
North fence hosta – this year
North fence hosta – last year
View toward the west fence – this year
View toward the west fence – last year
Last year’s astilbe – a no-show this year.

More differences, both subtle and blatant, are visible to me. My poor ferns that get a bit of sun are almost completely brown. My pink obedient plants are tall but flower-less, at least so far. The rodent population has markedly increased with voles, shrews, countless squirrels and rabbits denuding the tomato plants and lopping barely-opened day lilies to the ground without even a polite half-nibble left behind. Just decapitations. But perhaps the most disappointing part of this summer is how few butterflies have shown up in this supposed sanctuary for pollinators. I’ve had some bees and wasps, along with some greedy milkweed bugs who ate the first blooms on the only plant that’s flowered so far.

Swamp milkweed
Milkweed bugs galore

I’ve seen only one monarch this year, along with one Eastern tiger swallowtail. Compared to last year, it’s a lepidoptera desert.

This year’s one swallowtail
This year’s monarch.

I have no idea what’s coming nor do I know if these odd seasons are what to expect going forward. I do know that somehow I’ll have to adapt. Will I be planting palm trees here one day? Succulent plants as perennials? I have no clue. For now, I’m missing the way my yard looked last year, when it was all aflutter in June and July.

As I wrote this, long absent rain began to fall. Is it enough to turn things around this summer? I think more is expected tomorrow. As usual I’m reminded that we do our best to live in our moments. I’m going to do that with hope for a sudden influx of flowers and fliers.

Independence Day, 2022

Independence Day, Lubec, Maine 2020

I chose the photo above as a reflection of my ambivalence about the Fourth of July. I ran across it accidentally as I was musing over how to describe my feelings about this day. I haven’t been a big fan of this holiday in many years, but this one in particular has been one of the most challenging as democracy teeters in the balance in my deeply divided country. Lubec, Maine is one of my dear friend and her husband’s favorite towns in the U.S. Right now he’s struggling with two different metastatic cancers and will begin aggressive treatment this week. Somehow the dissonance between, holiday, celebration, fear and despair got summed up for me in this photo.

Back in the summer of 1968, I was a seventeen year old high school graduate, working downtown in the Chicago Loop. When the Democratic convention took place in late August, the city was already a powder keg of raw divisions. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy earlier that year sparked intense emotions as people took sides about race, war and sexism. I was trying to find my way through all of it. Was I a patriot? When I disagreed with my government and people called out, “love it or leave it,” I wanted to stand my ground. Who said my views made me a potential expatriate? I had my right of free speech like everyone else. Or did I? I began college that fall and along the way, rapidly developed points of view that put me on the fringe of mainstream culture. I well remember the dualism of that vibrant, energetic time. I experienced a simultaneous sensation of being both in and out of different worlds that undulated around each other, with occasional extreme intersections and divergences. I’m glad I grew up in that era. I was optimistic and active. I was certainly aware that lots of people didn’t agree with my views but after Watergate, in which “the system” seemed to work, I had hope that ultimately, the dark side of politics and the injustices of our “isms” might ultimately hold majority sway and that life would improve for many.

As my political street smarts developed, I recognized that for the bulk of my life, I would live in the minority. The political world on any level besides the local one was a disappointing cesspool of insiders, lobbyists and big money. The aspirations of the “founding fathers,” so dated, and wavelengths away from modern society, may have sounded aspirational, but in truth, excluded women and minorities and fell short of anticipating the sea changes that would alter the world as they knew it. For many, the eighteen century was still alive. For me and millions of others, it was increasingly irrelevant, except for the idealistic tenets which don’t exist in practice. The best example I can draw is that for some, a mandated mask and tight gun control laws trample their individual freedoms, while their view that life begins at conception means they can force any female, even a young child to carry a pregnancy to term, whether she wants it or not. I can think of nothing that will reconcile me to that contradiction. So, Independence Day. When I was young, I spent years lighting sparklers and those snakes that shriveled into ash, going to parades, barbecues and fireworks until finally, I wore out. Except for this monolithically titled moment being an occasion to gather with my family and a few friends, the 4th was just a day off work.

Today I woke earlier than usual and watered my thirsty garden. I made a quick trip to the grocery store to get celery for making my famous potato salad, for decades a staple at family events, but for years now, a dish relegated to where most of my dishes are, in the unmade pile. I hoped I’d remember how I did it, but that muscle memory came rolling back and as I assembled my ingredients, I was positive it smelled just like my mom and Michael. I’m definitely getting unexpected sensations as I age, this one in the synesthesia category in which one sense behaves like another. It’s like those people who can taste or smell music. What’s interesting about this is that my sense of smell has been significantly altered by having Covid in 2020. So why this powerful scent? Wondering about it set me off on one of my scientific mental meanderings, the ones with no answers. This one was about how much microbial exchange happened between me and my mom, and me and Michael, wondering if certain microbes linger in one another’s bodies like the bits of baby boy’s DNA that have been discovered in their mother’s brains. I’m never going to know everything I’m sure has an answer somewhere out there in the universe.

The next thing I knew, my phone started blowing up with news blurbs. On the 4th of July, that most American of days, the most American event had occurred, a mass shooting, this time in Highland Park, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago, and the place where Michael grew up. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been to Highland Park. He lived on a big corner lot on Summit Avenue, with a lawn that stretched out forever. My boss, his high school classmate, lived there too back then. I knew which neighborhood grocery store was the best, which ice cream shop Michael could go to for a milkshake after school because his parents pre-paid them. I knew where he played tennis, where he bought his fancy clothes from his friend’s dad’s store, and where you could eat the best Chicago hot dog. I could easily visualize its downtown, not simply because of having gone there but because it was featured in films like Risky Business and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I have lots of old friends from my South Shore neighborhood days who now live there. At one point, Michael’s dad was its mayor. What a sad event to mark Independence Day. For an inner city kid like me, those suburbs like Highland Park were bastions of safety. Michael and I weren’t ever suburbanites, but there’s certainly a nostalgia for those places which were considered neighborhoods where kids could walk to school without being shot at random. Is there any place like that in this country today? I don’t think so.

As I’d driven to the grocery store this morning, I noticed that the couple of homeless men who live between our local Starbuck’s and an empty gas station had moved some bedding and lawn chairs into their little protected space. They’re always there, panhandling, waving to drivers going by, holding up their signs asking for help. I heard that Starbuck’s has an open bathroom policy which means you don’t need to be a customer to use them. I know there’s always been a sector of the population that’s out on the street, but the juxtaposition of that homeless mini-community, with the random attack on a wealthy suburb’s holiday parade, just felt so symbolic of the multitude of issues facing this country today. Not exactly a backdrop for celebration, at least to me.

Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet captured this from video on the morning of July 4, 2022, at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park. People begin running after they hear gunshots.
| Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

Terrified parade-goers fled Highland Park’s Fourth of July parade after shots were fired, leaving behind their belongings as they sought safety.
| Lynn Sweet/ Sun-Times

In one small-world twist of irony, one of the Highland Park stories that rolled into my phone was written by a woman who lived in my dorm in 1969. She’d had a crush on my current boyfriend and managed to get my room key, lock me inside, and run down to the lobby to flirt with him until I banged loudly enough for someone to hear me and get me out. Those were the days when males weren’t allowed on the girls’ dorm floors. I knew she’d become a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and for some years would see her as a pundit on CNN. When I saw her byline, I thought back and realized she might’ve lived there or was perhaps close enough to get the story. That turned out to be accurate – she was at the parade when the shooting began. Small sad world.

I spoke to several friends with contacts in Highland Park and then joined my family for our afternoon barbecue. The weather was oppressively hot which is consistent with most 4th’s of July’s. After a few hours, I went home to be with my scared little dog on her first Independence Day. I haven’t had one of those animals who become severely unnerved by all the booming sounds of fireworks in almost 40 years. I wrapped her in a scarf and held her in my lap all evening, until finally, all the noise stopped. That is, except for the noise in my head as I contemplated life in the USA on this Independence Day.

The Cancer Club

My haven

For one hour, five days a week, weather permitting, I am happily paddling up and back in this beautiful pool. Since I started swimming there in the ‘70’s, it’s undergone major remodeling. But it sits in a depression below street level, is surrounded by a lovely park and when staring up at the sky on a cloudy day, is as close to paradise as I can get. Michael and I swam there a lot together when we were young and later, we brought our kids into that space. When I’m alone, I become quite meditative and often feel as close to him as I can get in the terrestrial universe. Most days, I see the “regulars,” people who also find their peace swimming laps, from the fast ones to the slow. Today I saw a woman who’s a friend of a friend, climbing into my lane from the opposite end of the pool. I hadn’t seen her since last year. I was trying to think of her name when we met in the center of the lane. She greeted me by name. I instantly felt her stress, literally emanating from her entire body. From past conversations, I remembered that her husband has had severe arthritic issues which profoundly impaired his movement. As his health declined, she was also shepherding her elderly parents through their declines and ultimate deaths. She was the ultimate caregiver for all of them. During the past year, her husband had been confined to a wheelchair and developed a terrible cough. For five weeks, he was treated for pneumonia. While at an appointment with a pulmonologist, he coughed so hard that he bled. The pulmonologist grabbed a hematologist and between them, thought his vitals were so bad that they admitted him to the oncology floor in the hospital. After a myriad of tests, they diagnosed a dreadful form of leukemia which was beyond their scope of treatment. They transported him to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis where he stayed for a few months.

Diana, as I soon recalled, remembered all that I went through during Michael’s five years with cancer. In the midst of her story about her husband, she told me that his brother was in the middle of his own issues with Merkel Cell carcinoma, the same disease as Michael’s. Long ago, back in 1989, the year both my parents were diagnosed with cancer, I’d vowed that whenever I was confronted with someone in the midst of the dreaded “C” word experience, that I’d always go toward them, instead of trying to make a polite but hasty retreat away from the challenging illness that can strike anyone at any time. Despite all the progress that’s been made in the past fifty years with targeted therapies and longer life options, cancer will still claim thousands of lives, often after trying the same old chemotherapies and radiation treatments that will simply fail. Always an awkward subject, at some point, even those closest to people in these end of life scenarios, will back away, draw boundary lines when the pain and anguish are too much, leaving patients and their loved ones feeling isolated and alien. That’s what Diana was pouring out to me in the pool, her distance from her friends who were supposed to be her allies, how the pandemic had made a tough situation feel virtually impossible. As I’d decided, I held my ground for this poor woman whose words were rushing geyser-like at me, with often no time for even the smallest response. I realized that not much I could say would matter. She instinctively knew that we were in the “Cancer Club,” and that made us friends, even for an hour. I did manage to ask her one question. Would she be able to forgive herself for those times when she was so completely spent that she wished her well-loved husband’s life would just end, that all this torture would be over? She was able to accept that query and understood that all caregivers whose bodies and minds reach a cracking point, eventually get to that unfathomable place, where the only release is the most awful thing imaginable. She answered, “I hope so. I’d better be.” And that was the end of today’s meeting of the Club.

Me in my pool in the ‘70’s, Michael’s leg on the lounge, taking the photo

I thought a lot today when I left my normally peaceful space. I’m years down the road from Diana’s dark times. I still see Michael’s face in front of me when I glide through the water. Mostly it fills me with desire instead of sadness. An odd but joyous feeling. Diana and her husband have no children and she is alienated from her only sibling. I have my kids nearby, along with two grandchildren. I’m expecting another in November. None of that is the same as an adored life partner but it helps a lot. My younger sister lives in the same town as me, another bonus. I’ve been in a dark mood lately, a combination of the repeal of Roe, our disgusting Supreme Court, three of whose justices lied under oath during their confirmation hearings, and the endless lies of the former president and his cult whose minds are closed to reality. I’ve been hiding under my own version of Frodo Baggin’s invisibility cloak. Mine isn’t woven by magic elves. I’m draped in music, old music from joyful times, from my South Side days of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples, Marvin Gaye and Al Green, to the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Entwined with them are The Allman Brothers, CTA, The Grateful Dead, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Pure Prairie League. These were the groups which played in the darkened bedrooms I shared with Michael, candles dripping down wine bottles as we lay entwined and sweaty, utterly consumed by each other. Yes there were protests, and the war and the politics, but none of that felt as dark as now, with our planet on fire and old white men trying to blast us back decades, destroying our progress.

I water and water and water my parched garden, managing to wrest my struggling flowers through the dry air and blistering sun. I read my books, and play fetch with my dog and check in with my friends, fewer in number now than the old days, which makes sense as I am less tolerant of people who drain rather than sustain me. And I pay attention to the world because I am, as always, my politics.

But today I was reminded that I will always be a member of the “Cancer Club.” I was the advocate extraordinare, for my parents and my Michael. For years I’ve met with patients and their families, sometimes only once, sometimes for longer, to provide a safe place and advice for any question. Today I held an important place for a suffering fellow caregiver. Maybe there will be more of that with her as the summer progresses. Perhaps one day, I’ll need to support myself in my own time of need. When you join, The Club is forever. I’m glad I’ve stayed true to that commitment. Even when it hurts and sneaks itself under my invisibility cloak.

My Perennial State of Rage – Another Awful Day



When I was a child, I had no idea that my gender gave me a lesser legal status than that of a male. I was a tough little kid, a smart little kid. I have no idea why my dad, my political mentor, taught me that I should always assert my intelligence and to never compromise my principles if I was sure they were right. He certainly was no feminist. He was over-protective and limited all three of his daughters in our autonomy by refusing to help us get driver’s licenses, unlike my older brother who got his as soon as he was eligible. I think he didn’t quite anticipate that under his tutelage, by the time I was a teenager in the ‘60’s, I was moving further and further into left-wing politics. I was paying attention to the struggles of the civil rights movement, was anti-Vietnam, pro-ERA and pro-choice. Off to college at seventeen, I spent those years as an activist, especially eager to stop being viewed as less than a full person in the patriarchal culture which had defined U.S. history since its inception. I was angry. Often and vocally. When Roe v. Wade was passed on January 22nd,   1973, I, along with many women, felt that at long last, government had been kicked out of our bodies, a good start to crashing through the infamous glass ceiling that treated us as lesser than males in this country. We had our male allies. My dad was somewhat bewildered that he’d helped create my fervent activism. Michael, my partner, was with me from the beginning, one of the most feminist men I ever knew.


Today, January 24th, 2022, the day that the Supreme Court chose to strike down Roe v. Wade, overturning women’s rights to maintain control over their own bodies in the most fundamental, essential way, I have been burning with hot anger all day. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans support this basic right, all over this country women will be deprived of their choice in bearing a child, even in cases of rape and incest. The meddling of government in these decisions is the patriarchy re-asserting itself into private lives in the most invasive manner possible. A court representing the minority opinion of the population has criminalized a fundamental human right at a time when wearing a mask was a rallying point for those defending their individual freedoms. In a time when people can stroll through public places armed to the teeth, what a woman chooses in the privacy of her home is now a criminal offense. As I sat here seething, I remembered a blog I wrote back in 2018, when I was also furious about what I was expecting from the morally bankrupt Trump administration. After looking it over, I decided it was worth another read. I don’t think I could state things any better tonight than I did four years ago.

Throughout my life with Michael, my rage was a frequent topic of conversation between us. He worried about my health. He also couldn’t understand how rage was my first line response to virtually any situation that I thought was unjust or morally reprehensible. Me neither. When I read an article or see a news story that rubs me the wrong way, I’m immediately furious. I can’t stand anything that smacks of unfair. And I start expressing myself right away, often with inflammatory statements or snide jabs. The frustration is unbearable for me. I’ve been living angry for as long as I can remember. Here we are, he wearing his history hat, standing in front of one of the icons of this country.97DD26D1-8D19-4863-8BAF-741558A4B8A1

When he was alive, things were easier. He oozed some inexplicable sedative effect through his skin and when I was next to him, I eventually was able to defuse my all-consuming heat and function in a more reasonable frame of mind. But he’s not here now. So I have to find other ways to stop myself from spontaneously combusting.A386E783-0492-49CC-8B4B-AC375E9BF589

I’ve visited this topic before on this site. I was devastated by Donald Trump’s election. Although not a devoted Hilary follower, I was looking forward to experiencing life with the first woman president. The future under her administration looked reasonable, if not the most perfect fit for some of my fringe views. Certainly she looked great compared to the ringmaster buffoonery of her opponent.4CAA0F64-32E4-463D-B8CE-ADCA0B3F7F6D

As I thought back on all my historical knowledge, all I heard were the echoes of fascist voices of the past. And watching those white supremacist haters come into the light was truly terrifying, although not surprising to me. There have always been groups meeting in the shadows and committing hate crimes. Trump’s presidency empowered their emergence into the light.FC450D5C-792E-4C73-A992-CD3FCF7DEECF

And while I struggled to give Michael his dying wishes, to have one last good day, to end his life in our home, I was stewing away with anger at the injustice of seemingly everything, watching Trump rapidly dismantling as many of Obama’s signature accomplishments as he could. Worrying constantly about the potential for a nuclear disaster, the denial of climate change and the rolling back of protections for clean air and water. The shocking racist attitudes and the incendiary commentary. I remember watching him say, look at my African-American over there during some speech and thinking, we’re in a time tunnel heading backwards at breakneck speed. Young black men are unsafe on our streets. An absolute horror. Lynching in the modern age.  My list of furies could go on for pages but that’s not where I want to go with this piece.3D89C3C5-FB37-4FFE-BE05-E81E1BCE71D5I know what I believe and I can  back it up with historical reference. Today, I pondered the calamitous recent decisions of the sitting Supreme Court and what they will potentially do, especially if the smug hypocrite Mitch McConnell, who blocked an Obama appointee with glee, turns on his own argument and pushes a candidate through before the midterms.  I went to my bedroom, my safe place where Michael’s presence feels particularly strong. I started scanning my bookshelves where the ones I love best remain, even after purging our library as I try to go minimalist. I found my beliefs there. The sham being perpetrated on Trump followers does not change what is real.8C6F9547-340F-4C6D-AAF9-ACF4E7E75915

1) Trump is a racist. He is advocating returning to a time when whites dominated people of color. His attitude toward Hispanic people and Muslim people is appalling. The courts are curtailing voting rights, letting gerrymandering fall where it may and making it impossible for fair representation.  He is reflective of the thieves who came to this country and wrested it from Native Americans. The white people who came here committed genocide and stole land. The survivors of that devastation were robbed of their culture and forced to be trained as knockoffs of their conquerors. Read a book. I think of the weary Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and share a few of his thoughts below.

“We did not know there were other people besides the Indian until about one hundred winters ago, when some men with white faces came to our country.”

Chief Joseph

2) As a country, we are moving toward oligarchy. The enormous economic gap between the 1% and everyone else grows larger every day. Trump admires and meets with dictators. He declares himself the only person who can make America great again. He is anti-labor and pro-ownership. That attitude is blatantly clear. Just listen to his speeches about what NFL owners should do to their players. Read some labor history.  Yeah, I know all about the bad stuff associated with some unions. But you don’t scrap what made livable conditions for millions of people, unionists who bled for a reasonable work day, a fair wage and to not be owned by their company. Read about it. And think.

3) What about women’s struggles? Second class citizens since this country was conceived. Already there have been hard fought battles for fair pay, equal  treatment under the law and control over their own bodies. And still, the struggle continues. Consider the #metoo movement. Still necessary in the 21st century. With an even more conservative Supreme Court, women’s rights, still far from just, are again in the sights of the patriarchy which as Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated, has kept its foot on women’s necks. My youth was spent watching friends who chose to have abortions leave this country or take terrible risks trying to get one here. I myself would never have wanted an abortion for a baby conceived while in a relationship. But had I been assaulted or alone, I might have thought differently. No matter what the circumstances, I can’t imagine trying to interfere with a woman’s right to choose. Now Roe v. Wade can again be in the crosshairs of those who believe they can dictate individual rights based on their own beliefs. The founders’ intent was to create a society of tolerance. Now, if you’re not in a certain religious or political club,  you run the risk of having your beliefs rammed down your throat. I can only imagine what those people who wrote the constitution would think of how it’s been twisted for the convenience of a privileged minority. And how do I even begin to imagine the fragility of the LGBTQ community which daily stares down prejudice and hatred?E150DD41-9266-4AF0-AE53-600A2789430AI think it’s everyone’s responsibility to speak out about what’s going on in this dystopian new culture in which more government employees have been fired, charged with crimes and cheated the American public in what is basically the blink of an eye. I share a quote from George Washington which still rings true today. 8BDAB139-A860-46F6-AFA7-2F29C5FFB443.jpeg

I intend to stay vocal and loud. I intend to share my views with the people who ostensibly represent my interests in Washington. I will sign petitions, donate money to worthy organizations and march when my knees can manage it. I will not be quiet because times feel desperate. These times require people to dig deep and not let themselves be cowed by all the media noise. I don’t choose to lose my personal power and strength to this crowd of bullies. I watched my husband have his life stolen by cancer. He tried to thwart that bully every step of the way for over five years. Certainly, when I can see what’s right in front of me, I would be a coward to just let it all happen while I stand mute, watching these dreadful changes which will affect my children and grandchildren’s lives. Nope. I refuse. If you don’t like what I have to stay, exercise your right and don’t read my posts. I’m in charge of this space.

Four years ago. And look where we are today. Getting my marching shoes ready.