On the morn of my 49th birthday

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I want to tell you something, but you probably won’t want to read it.

No one wants to.  It’s not a pretty flower or a puffy heart.

Recently, you-know-who has been standing in the corner over there, watching.  I don’t want him to be there, but he has been, so ever-present in the lives of my family as of late.  Even my husband Mike has commented on his recent ricochet around us – its seven degrees of separation.  The 50-something dad of my daughter’s friend hit & killed by a car on Bailey & Washington, just  short walk from our home; Mike’s engineering colleague and his teen son in Kalamazoo (“I didn’t know him at all, but still!  They made an announcement at work,  You hear about these shootings all the time, but god . . );  then, my mother’s friend Barbara drowning on remote Easter Island.

all in one week.

My beautiful daughter Katie, as a 5 year old,  once whispered to me, as I lay beside her after bedtime stories:  “Oh, mama!  I can’t wait to go to heaven!  Won’t it be wonderful?”   I assured her that yes, of course heaven would be would be wonderful, but that I hoped she’d stay a long time here with me and her dad and her big brother Ben.

I don’t know what happens when you die.  I wonder about it a lot though.

I know my mother does too, especially now, after losing one of her best friends, who was more like a sister than friend.  My heart aches thinking of it.

Such is the threaded placental connection of mother to daughter (and to son) to mother – each feeling the other’s suffering and joy  like waves racing between shores.

In some ways, I am many stone skips ahead of my mother, having danced with death a while already, for a decade now if you can believe it.  You do that when a nurse calls you while you are at work and tells you the doctor needs to see you about your test results.  And then it’s an early spring day in March, with your husband beside you, in hard plastic chairs “I’m sorry” the doctor says telling you news your heart already knew. And you do that dance – when your oncologist guides you from the treatment room to her office “here let me show you”  as though you were her work colleague, to look over her shoulder at graphs on her computer of  5-year mortality rates for various treatment combinations.

To be honest, this wasn’t what I intended to write this morning.  Not at all. Not even close. Yet, sometimes the page calls us to be brave, and speak of things others might be afraid to.  For example,  I was afraid to write the word “cancer” here.  I thought by writing it, I would be wooing it back somehow.  My grandmother Gloria wouldn’t say the word “cancer”.  Wouldn’t allow its utterance in her home. That was how afraid of death she was.  (She also would not stand for any picture of a bird in home – these  harbingers of Death – she thought, always so superstitious)

To be human is to be afraid and not to know.
To be brave (and to have faith) is to walk forward anyway, with your raw heart open, and sometimes to share what is inside it, without understanding why.

Sometimes I write

 

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Sometimes I write because my heart is too full and the desire to set beauty on the page feels like a song rising up, unrehearsed.

Gratitude.

Last night, I stood among faces I knew from long ago, the ones that filled my high school classrooms, sifted through halls, this colorful blur of velour and Jordache jeans, standing tall, yet awkward, spinning combination locks right-left-right, hip-checking grey/green lockers closed, arms laden with textbooks, covered in brown paper, scribbled with hearts.

I remember you. You touched my life, whether or not you knew you did.

We were tumbled together like this haphazard mix of pretty aquarium stones – not because we chose one other, but because we lived in the same small town, for the same 4 years – the town with the pretty white church on the long triangle of lawn, where each June, all would gather to eat strawberries, this annual Festival marking the close of one school year and  the beginning of summer –  something delicious to mark time passing – so sweetly, juicily, stickily.

Yet, our town seemed split across by railway tracks, this jagged old scar, littered and gravelly, overgrown.  On one side, there were these white Quaker stones sitting low, almost invisible in the block-wide field where the town clock once stood and the giant Sycamore, shedding its papery brown/white bark.

These remembered lives.  This litter of Life passing.

It is gratitude I feel for having grown beside you  – during years I was not yet the woman I am now (and still becoming), but the seed of her, I’m guessing.

Thank you for nurturing me while also toughening and strengthening me, through times marked by struggle, mostly the hidden kind.  I didn’t know then, what I know now.  That none of us felt like we fit in.  Even the cheerleaders, even those who lived in wedding-cake mansions on Chester Avenue, even football players who scared us with big bellowing voices, even the field hockey beauties, in their black and gold skirts, and pony tails swinging – no one felt at ease, as though she belonged.

How I wish I knew that back then.  How I wish I did.

Yet, perhaps that is the way it must be.  Perhaps we aren’t to know those things, when we are young and not yet fully-grown. Perhaps the discomfort is necessary and crucial for our lives’ unfolding.

Honestly, I don’t know.

Yet tonight, having returned safely to my home, here in Chicago, my heart full – to have been welcomed back, embraced again, by those I knew growing up – to have danced and laughed and eaten cake with them – all that remains is gratitude – this overwhelming gratitude that unlocks my voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dreams

44265065_sIn my dreams, I keep seeing the back of my first wedding gown.

It is as though I am lifting up the dress’s train and billowing it out, for my younger self, who is walking away from me, toward music and fanfare and beauty and hope . . . breathless and sure and happy.

My focus, though, is not on her.

It is on the dress itself and particularly on these 2 pieces of thick raw silk,  that drape down its sides, like fondant ribbons, starting at the center of the waist and fanning out alongside the ball gown’s lace train

At their very edge and end point of the ribbon, I can see a cluster of tiny embroidered lace butterflies,  an afterthought almost, like a grace note, pulled across the floor, part of this journey forward

My heart and head can’t seem to let go of this image, mostly because I had forgotten this detail of the gown I found and fell in love with as a 25 year old.

And here I am discovering it again in a dream almost 25 years later – a butterfly . . .

Most people who know me, also know that butterflies are a kind of sacred symbol for me.  When I see them I know I need to stop and pay attention – that there is something important I need to learn.

Yet right now I can’t discern what the lesson is.

All I can do is wonder at it.

To Yellowstone and back

Last week, Mike and I journeyed by car to Yellowstone National Park and back.

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Over the course of this (crazy) 6 day road trip through Illinois-Wisconsin-Minnesota-North Dakota-Montana-Wyoming-South Dakota-Iowa-Minnesota-Wisconsin-Illinois  I experienced so much fear:  fear of heights, fear of being lost, fear of driving, fear of going too fast, fear of losing control, fear of predators (specifically grizzly bears), fear of dying, fear of losing my job, fear of being of being dependent, fear of falling, fear of not knowing where I was, fear of having made a mistake,  fear of failure, fear of  being vulnerable, fear of the earth exploding, fear of falling through brittle rock that looked like moon crust, fear of running out of fuel, fear of falling, fear of falling, fear of falling some more . . ..

In Yellowstone, we were so high up that sometimes we didn’t know how high we were until suddenly a meadow on a road we were travelling gave way to a cliff then was back to meadow  in less than 5 minutes . . . nothing in Yellowstone was constant or made sense.  It was disorienting-ly beautiful , in what I imagine would be a Jurassic Park kind of way.

When we paid our entrance fee at the Roosevelt Arch, which is the North Entrance, the ranger enclosed a yellow slip of paper about bears.  I remember seeing the phrase: “your safety in the Park is not guaranteed”

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As we drove the 80-mile distance across the park (that I didn’t know was an active  super volcano)  tracing roads with steep grades and switchbacks – from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt to Canyon Village and back again-  I held on to a handle in the car, leaning my body in toward my husband, away from the cliff face, as though the silver metal of our Volvo would protect me and my weight could shift the car away from the caldera’s edge.  How crazy is that? and yet, I did it and closed my eyes pretending the precipice not there.

The emotions I felt at the end of each day in the Park were gratitude and awe.

On the drive home to Chicago from Yellowstone, however, I experienced the kind of acute anxiety you are prescribed medicine for (or maybe even are hospitalized for.)  It began as I started my share of that day’s driving (2 hours of the 10 we planned). We were somewhere in Wyoming or maybe it was Montana – some state where there was a posted speed limit of 80 miles per hour.  I remember the hills on the highway all seemed the same brownish color and you couldn’t see over them, even after you’d crested them – it seemed they went on forever, twisting and turning into the horizon.   (There is a certainty of death crashing at that speed, isn’t there? I kept thinking this thought over and over – driving my own cumulative and compounded fear over its edge:  heart pounding, stomach tightening, leg muscles shaking, ribs aching, eyes darting, head clouding, voice shaking, words scrambling . . .

I felt so ashamed and weak as I braked too quickly at the exit ramp, pulling off the highway and stopping the car several feet from the curb so Mike could take over driving again.   

Fear is sometimes legitimate.  Sometimes danger is present – even in those moments when our breath catches at the beauty of a canyon or at the myriad of colors in a geo-thermal pool, thousands of degrees hot.    It is present in a field of alpine flowers where bison graze in the distance and a ranger has posted a note that there is bear activity due to a carcass on the trail you are walking on even as the June air is sweet and birds are calling with flute-like songs, and the breeze is the sound of kites catching –  against your ears – all so soothing and easing and meditative.

Sometimes danger is there, deceiving us.

Most times, though, it isn’t.