Sunday, August 14, 2016

Take me to the sea: A poem for our mothers

This is a week of bittersweet milestones, dates on which we may celebrate and grieve simultaneously. My mother, Carol, would have turned 67 this week. My mother-in-law, Kathleen, would have turned 75 just a few days later. We took one Mom's ashes to the sea 19 years ago; we'll take one Mom's ashes to the sea in a few weeks. We'll celebrate their legacies of love, family, resilience, and laughter; but we will always grieve the empty spaces that won't fill in. They've both gone too soon.

Happy asked me recently why we take the remains of our loved ones to the ocean when they die. He and I were floating on boogie boards in the North Atlantic at the time, near a sheltered beach called Kettle Cove, a serene and lovely Maine-poastcard beach. My first response was, "Because that's what they wanted." 

He was quiet, plaintive, mulling it over. "But why?" 

I thought of my mother, my grandmother and grandfather, so many childhood memories that floated on water. I thought of my mother-in-law, who reminded me any time I felt nerves, "Go to my ocean, Tori, you'll feel better. My ocean will never harm you." 

When I looked at my son's sweet face, carefree and buoyed on the sea, the true significance struck: Water surrounds us. Water sustains us. Water makes us. Water is life. 

And water is eternal. The water around us now is the water that's been around us for ages. It cycles. Forever and ever, sea to sky to rain to earth and back again. 

This refrain sounded in my mind, and I repeated it for Happy: "All the water in the world is all the water in the world." We smiled thinking of our mothers and grandmothers keeping us afloat at that very moment, soon to be watching us from a cloud high above and washing back to earth to feed the apple trees...then do it all over again. 

We take them to the sea to be free, my love, as I hope you'll take me someday. First we cry. Then we drift. We sip water and regain our strength; we nurture one another. We grow. We love. Over and over again.


Take me to the sea: A poem for our mothers

Take me to the sea, my child,
Release me to the deep
Where I will be
Forever free.
Floating pulsing surging love
In the cycle of water
And life without end.

All the water in the world is all the water in the world.
I will float on the tides,
Weightless
Evaporate into the clouds
Fearless
Then soar above you on a breeze
Finally free.

You’ll see me blinking
Past sun and moon
Shimmer of stars
Until I rain down
Gentle cooling soaking love
To wash away your pain
To feed the earth and float on again.

All the water in the world is all the water in the world.
So I am all around you now,
Gratefully.
You will know peace, my child,
Eventually.
Now I am the sea, the sea is me.
And I am free.



Friday, August 12, 2016

Kayak mind drift

My mind drifts across Scarborough Marsh. No to do list. No schedule to keep. No children chattering. I’m alone. Sunshine on my face. Wind in my hair. Nothing between me and the sea but a bright red plastic shell. Nothing to focus on but this paddle in my hands.


Paddle left. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull the water with your waist. Suck in your tummy. Paddle right. Keep your back straight. Push your feet into the foot wells. Paddle left. Paddle right. Oh we’re moving now. Into the wind. Over the chop. Paddle right. Cross the current. Paddle left. Use your back, not just your arms. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull. Pull. Pull. Pull.


The tide is coming up. There’s more wind today than usual. The bow of the boat bounces over the choppy waves. My hat blows off. The laminated map on a lanyard around my neck whips my cheeks. Why do they give me this map anyway? It’s not like there’s much more than some twisting branches of water between marsh grass, a bridge, the sea. I can’t see beyond the next bend anyway. But I suppose we never really can.


Is that an egret or a heron? Long curved neck over the marsh grass, gracefully stalking her lunch.  I float closer. I won’t reach for my camera. Don’t want to startle her. Silence. Air. Ripples. She checks me, dives her yellow-speer beak into the water, comes up with a fish and flies off. All in one motion. But she doesn’t go far. She’s just as aware of me as I am of her. We’re both curious.


My right hand dips into the water. Cool and smooth. What’s on the bottom? Smile thinking of my mom jumping off a dock into thigh-high seaweed to pull me to shore on my first solo sailing venture. She loved me so much she'd walk through even that muck to pull me in!

I flash back to Great South Bay. I’m 7 years old, stowed in the hold of Grampa’s 22-foot sailboat with Nate; we’re nervously slurping salt from our life jacket straps while the adults scamper and yell on deck. We have to stay out of their way until we’re away from the dock. Once under way, I crawl out the hatch onto the bow, lie on my stomach with my arms overboard. My fingers rip through the water. Cool and smooth. Sun-kissed and mesmerized. Loved and protected. No worries on the bay.


Now I’m on the Sunfish with my Mom, about 12 years old. Just before I started to dislike her so fiercely, just before we fought like cats daily. She’s teaching me to sail the little 2-person boat; I’m once again nervously sucking the salt-water life jacket straps, hanging on every instruction. The rest of the family -- Dad, Nate, baby Robyn -- is on Grampa’s boat nearby, keeping watch on us as we tack across to the beach.


Mom never looked so young as she did that afternoon, so happy with me. I glimpse the girl she once was -- sun-tanned and squinting, cut-off denim shorts revealing those gorgeous long legs, confidence in her abilities to read the wind and waves. She’s beautiful. I’m awed. She shifts her position in the cockpit, hands me the rudder and sail line. She smiles and says, “You know what to do. Feel the wind.” And like that, I’m sailing.


She wants to teach me to handle a capsize -- an important and early lesson to learn on a small boat -- plus it’s hot. We want to cool off. So we flip the Sunfish on its side. We’re laughing as we right it, totally in control floating on the gentle wake of a passing speedboat. Suddenly, a splash from nearby. Dad has jumped off Grampa’s boat! He’s swimming toward us. He’s not a strong swimmer, anxious about open water. But he thinks we’re in trouble and doesn’t even consider his water worry.


Dad would be anxious about me now, too, out here alone on a kayak with no one around but a snowy egret and some sleek black cormorants. I wish I could convince him to try this with me when he visits next week. I know, though, it would not be relaxing for him. He’d do it. He’d do anything for me, for any of us. Yet he’d be worried the whole time. “Once your kids are adults,” he once told me, “You worry exponentially more.”


Not today, though. It’s just me and this marsh today. These crystal bay memories. These birds. Paddle left. Paddle right. Paddle left. The wind is at my back now, but my hat is long gone. Surely the spots on my face will darken now, the creases around my eyes will deepen as I squint into the sun. Ha! That doesn't matter now. Paddle right. Cross the current. Paddle left. Relax your grip. Keep your center. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull. Pull. Pull. Pull.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The battle for blueberries . . . and compromise

I completely lost my shiz this morning. I'm not proud of it, but shiz got lost.

The morning started casually enough. "Hey guys! " I smiled as I walked down the stairs on this gorgeous August-in-Maine Saturday, "We're going blueberry picking today! And to a new lake!" Both children, sitting on the sofa with overflowing bowls of Cheerios, sighed and rolled their eyes. They stomped around the house. The little one even started crying. WTF?

They actually got mad at me about the prospect of doing fun things. This happens often, in fact, and I shouldn't have been surprised. But that made me even madder. I was so pissed, I couldn't find adult words -- just yelled my own childish nonsense like "I just want to do fun things with you! Is that too much?" and "fine, then I'll pick blueberries alone!" -- and I sent Happy to his room because I didn't know what else to do. I fumed and fussed. I even said the F-word (and the image of Zippy's big blue eyes, wide with shock to hear me speak -- no yell -- that word will never leave my mind). Ugly mom moment.

Know what they were upset about? What they really wanted to do? Watch YouTube videos of other kids playing video games and building Legos; go to Target to spend their allowance (which, let's face it, is actually my money because they don't do too much to earn it) on the video games and Legos featured in the YouTube videos; come home and play video games all afternoon.

This. Kills. Me. Chunks of my soul screech and cry every time I realize that my children, people made from my love and DNA, would rather stay indoors staring at a television on a beautiful weekend day than do unique, once-a-year sorts of outdoor things. How is it possible? How have I screwed up so badly with them? We live in Maine, for Chrissakes. Go outside! People would (and do) spend thousands of dollars for these experiences you have right beyond your doorstep. How are you so ungrateful and spoiled so rotten?

Blueberry picking at Winslow Farm in Falmouth
Once I spewed all my rageyness and everyone was sufficiently teary-eyed, it hit me: These kids spend every weekday outside all summer long. They go to a fabulous day camp that takes them to all the best spots in the Maine/New Hampshire area. Trips every day. Lots of fun things. Meanwhile, I spend every day all summer in a dark office gazing out the window at the lunatics at the bus shell. So while I'm dreaming of blueberry picking, they're probably dreaming of sitting still for a while out of the sun.

Also, I am an outside person. I prefer outside to in; I become grumpy and sad and short-tempered if I don't get at least an hour of outside time every day. Don't even get me started on shopping malls; I would rather ride to the dentist on my bike through a hurricane than spend a gorgeous Saturday (or any day, really) at the mall. And video games! I would rather scrub bathroom grout with a toothbrush than play video games. I can't sit still very long without going bonkers, either; they really can. My kids might be more like my husband, who prefers malls to woodsy trails, TV-watching to cloud-gazing.

Besides, Maine is their home now, their Everyday. Of course they take it for granted! I grew up in New Jersey, crowded, hot, far away from blueberry picking and lobster shacks on a rocky coast. I dreamed of living here because of the amazing vacations we took when I was a kid -- and frankly, almost two years post-relocation, I often pinch myself and say aloud "This is your life, baby, not a vacation from it."

Outlet Beach on Sabbathday Lake...not bad
We live here, so we don't really need to cram in so much to every weekend. I know. We could probably all use more concentrated chill time. I know I push too hard to make every day awesome. And I realize that my definition of an awesome day may be different than theirs.

Once we all cooled off and dried tears this morning, and after I apologized for the hundredth time for saying the F-word, Honey made giant soothing egg sandwiches, and we looked at the forecast. We came to a compromise: A chance of showers and thunderstorms in the forecast means we give blueberries and lake time a try, but if at any point it thunders or rains, we will come home so you can go to Target and then play video games.

Know what happened? The sky stayed blue. Puffy, picture-postcard clouds floated by, but it never rained. We picked six pints of organic high bush blueberries, while the kids smiled and said things like "This is BERRY fun!" and "Oh, how I wish my mouth was a vacuum!" Then we went to a secluded sandy beach on a lovely little lake, where we floated on inner tubes, jumped cannonballs off the pontoon dock, and ate a grease-dripping-down-your-chin delicious snack-shack lunch. Everyone smiled dozily as we polished off our ice cream scoops and piled back into the car at the end of the day, blissed-out and beaming.

And right now, as I type, a sun-tanned boy snuggles next to me playing Lego Star Wars on the Playstation, while his dad and big brother troll the mall for new toys and back-to-school clothes. I just laid out two pints of blueberries to freeze, and when I sign off here, I'll find a killer blueberry pie recipe online. Life is good in this house, despite the morning blow-up.

Sometimes Mama knows a thing or two about how to spend a Saturday. And sometimes she needs to take a breath and think like a kid. We all know, too, there will be plenty of time for indoor chill time come November.
Lakeside lunch 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

"When they go low, we go high"

I've had a hard time collecting my thoughts this summer. Writing has been harder than usual. The world has been harder than usual. I don't have to recap every instance of violence, hatred, and anger that's taken place this summer...this year...by now it's part of our wounded national psyche. 

In the midst of it, my husband's mother died. She has been my mother for 20 years, my children's grandmother. And she has been my friend, someone I often turned to when things didn't make sense. For two weeks I walked through this very hard world wondering why it just didn't stop for a few days. Just stop! I needed to sit still and grieve, I needed time to remember happier moments with her and time to talk with my kids about very big concepts like hospice care, death, heaven. 

Yet even in those weeks, more instances of violence, hatred, anger filled the news, cycled endlessly through social media, office conversation, personal correspondence. Just stop, world. STOP. As I drove home from my in-laws' house, feeling numb and sad, I turned on NPR. News of the Dallas shootings broke and I muttered aloud, "When will the asteroids come?" My son looked across the front seat at me with wide, scared eyes.

Asteroids, people. I was wishing for asteroids. And my child heard me.

We were walking around a crowded festival when news of the Orlando shooting broke in June. As the headline scrolled across my phone, for the first time in a very long time, I felt fear. Deep, halting fear. I looked at my sons walking next to me on a bright, beautiful summer day...and wondered how I can possibly keep them safe in this world. There is so much anger. Seething. Fuming. Boiling. And no matter who you talk to, what words you choose, you're likely to set someone off. 

Current discourse patterns send the message that this is okay, that accusing and blaming are more effective than listening. People voice their outrage from behind a keyboard, quickly and without forethought. Often we just re-post words written by someone else. We're all trying to be the first to out-snark each other --- or worse, to actually wound with our words. We rarely allow others to explain their views before we jump all over them. "I am right, you are wrong, therefore you are my enemy," has become the norm. Which snowballs the anger, which powers the blame and hate. And it's scary. Scarier to me even than asteroids.

I started to curl up, turned away from social media and TV and into my books for self-preservation. I kept opening my journal to write, but eked out only a couple lines at a time (when have I ever been at a loss for words?!). 

But in the deep quiet Monday night, I turned on the television for company, just as Michelle Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. Now, if you're my friend or have read this blog in the past, you know how much I admire Michelle Obama; she's the reason I changed my mind in 2008 and voted for her husband. This evening as always, she stood tall and spoke slowly, with conviction and powerful language -- not naming names, but deliberately pointing to the issues weighing on my heart. "We have a family motto," she said. "When they go low, we go high." 

Yes. Yes. YES. Something clicked in my head. Tears spilled over my cheeks. Goosebumps stood on my arms. 

I remembered to hope. 

Hope is a powerful thing, y'all. It's not really a feeling, and it's more than pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. Hope is belief. It's expectation of better things. It's faith that things will be better. Hope is the older sister of Courage, the daughter of Love and the granddaughter of Grace. She holds our hand and pulls us forward even when the shadows loom large. 

I want to be a hoper, not an asteroid-wisher. I want to be a model of peace, a level-headed speaker of truth, a good listener who values opinions before shutting them down. I want to focus my eyes on hope for this country that I love, hope that my friends and neighbors can find a way to communicate thoughtfully and respectfully. I want to work for social justice, use my voice and my privilege to make change for those whose voices are muffled. I want to give hugs freely. I do not want to dwell in negativity nor give anger a place in my heart. I choose to go high. 

I don't usually go for "do it for our children" lines in political speeches. I mean, yes, I love my children and want the world to be better for them. Of course I do. But often that line of rhetoric codes just another fear tactic. In her speech, though, Mrs. Obama spoke of a country in which her daughters -- black girls who play on the lawn of the White House --  might take it for granted that a woman could be President of the United States. Those words washed over me like a cool wave on a desert island. I realized that even I have never pictured a woman in the White House, although I have long hoped for it. 

There are a lot of things wrong with America right now. But hope is what's right. I choose hope over fear, love over hate, and action over complicity. I choose to go high.


Happy on Honey's shoulders at our first Obama rally.
Mayfair Diner, Philadelphia, October 2008.






Friday, April 8, 2016

Family living class

"I have never heard anyone say 'vagina' so many times in one hour!"

So begins my 5th-grade son's dinner-table recount of his first Family Living class. (By the way, since I was a 5th grader I have giggled at this colloquialism for sex ed lite. What the heck does it mean, really?)

"And we talked about arm pit hair and how boys get all...um, excited... easier," he continues. I don't even know what he means by that last bit nor where to take the conversation from there, so I just keep spooning rice pilaf  into my mouth and let him continue. "It was mostly vagina, vagina, vagina. She said BABIES come out of vaginas, Mom... but I know I didn't."

Such confidence! It's true that neither of my kids came out of a vagina -- they were C-section births -- but I'm not entirely sure if his statement is motivated by personal history or denial of the entire how-babies-come-out story. But mostly I'm giggling and fighting the urge to tell him we really found him hatching from a giant alien meteorite in the park. I sense Honey fighting this same urge. 

Quite suddenly I realize the wide-eyed, anxious, very smart kindergartener is staring right in my face, hanging on every word. So I probably should tread lightly through this minefield, keep the jokes to myself. (Can you imagine that call from the school guidance counselor? Babies come from meteorites! And now all the 5-year-olds are asking very difficult questions!) Uh oh. 

Here's where my head is at this very moment, as I struggle with my giggle urge: Be cool, Mom. Don't shut this down, Mom. This is the relationship you want to have with your boys, to be able to talk about anything and everything honestly and openly. Don't mess it up with dumb jokes!

But also I don't really want my 5-year-old to know all about the birds and the bees just now. It's bad enough he already knows most of the major swear words. Can't we keep some things mysterious for a little while longer?

So I'm reeling a bit in my clumsy, fumbling where's-the-mom-manual way. I don't know what to do. Then I hear a voice from the opposite side of the table, humming a slow, low tune. It sounds like an anthem, actually, but I can't place it...until I tune in my ears and realize it's Honey singing the word "vagina" repeatedly to the tune of the Flight of the Valkyries.

I laugh so hard I spit rice pilaf. 

Then a tiny 5-year-old voice to my left chirps up: "Oh man, Happy, I can't wait until you learn about penises!"