Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmas snow and solstice simmerings

Has this fall been darker than previous years? Maybe. But probably not. Fall is fall, after all. You know by now, just by reading my last few posts, it's not been an easy year.I've been sad.  I've been scared. I've been angry. The world doesn't make much sense to me when I consider what's outside the walls of my own home, and sometimes even things inside my home don't make much sense. And every time someone asks, "So, you ready for Christmas?" as if they're looking for me to fall apart into a pile of frazzled nerves and broken promises, I feel my shoulders creeping closer to my ears. What the heck does that mean, really, to be ready for Christmas?

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, our kids, our loved ones, don't we, around this time of year? I've felt an acute aversion in 2016 to the barrage of ads on television, to the glut of promotional emails in my inbox, to the manic holiday songs in every public space. I pushed back against my dad's daily texts asking about gift ideas for my husband and kids. I felt panicky watching the pile of gifts grow taller and taller as Honey wrapped them. Why so much focus on stuff? Where do we stash all of it, once the packaging comes off? How does any of this frantic, forced holiday frenzy push out the darkness? 

It doesn't. 

Something happened this past weekend, though, that I feel I need to share: Early on Saturday -- the Saturday before Christmas, the day that the marketers tell us is our Last Chance, hurry to the stores now before time runs out and Christmas is ruined! --  I found peace in a snow storm. There was a distinct moment in which I felt something move, like a switch flipped inside me, and I actually felt Christmasy. I think it was joy.

The snow was that perfectly beautiful, magical, fluffy kind: small flakes that whisper as they fall to earth, then breeze away with the movement of your hand. I could almost make out each individual pattern on each individual flake, like they each their own message to whisper.The whole world outside seemed clean, quiet, still. I sipped my coffee and simply watched the snow fall. Later, in the morning, I noticed people giggling and smiling at one another in the grocery market parking lot, even while clearing snow off their cars. Smiling in a snow storm, can you imagine? Then I dropped Zippy off for a play date and his excitement to be with a friend nearly moved me to tears - oh, to be 6 in a Christmas snow!

When we came home, the boys played outside until their cheeks turned red-purple and they collapsed on the living room floor in layers of scarves and hats and sweaty silliness. We sipped cocoa and giggled over silly iMovies that Happy made. We mixed salt dough for a craft project, and our friends came over in the afternoon. We played with Hess trucks, cut out salt dough ornaments, listened to my personal holiday playlist (the John Denver and the Muppets album "A Christmas Together" is everything), and simply hunkered down as the snow fell outside. So warm. So safe. So simple.

I remembered that joy is a deep-down thing; happiness and sadness come and go, but joy remains intact. Even in darkness! Joy can bubble up. Joy can be an unexpected gift. If you're open to receiving it. 

Tomorrow is winter solstice. It will be darker than all the days before. But... inch by inch, minute by minute, the light will increase through the next six months. Light comes back. It always does. Each and every morning. In every season, no matter how dark.

This morning I talked with the boys about ways to welcome the solstice together. They looked confused at my mention of darkness and candles and sunrises. Until I reminded them of our own beliefs around Jesus as the light of the world: "The people walking in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine upon them." There's a reason we celebrate the birth of Christ during the darkest time of the year. We light candles on Christmas Eve to remind us of His light, to make space for it. We put twinkle lights on our Christmas tree as a reminder of happiness and joy. Heck, even the tree itself is a symbol of the cycle of life, the evergreen promise. 

On this winter solstice night, we will light candles while we bake cookies and watch a favorite Christmas show. Then we'll bundle up before bedtime and walk into our deep, dark backyard, where we will look up at Orion cartwheeling through the heavens. I will think of my sister, who celebrates earth and sky and soul and magic, and who first taught me these things when she was just a wee one in our own backyard on solstice a quarter-century ago. And I will let go of the darkness that has been in my heart for the past few months. I will make space for light and joy.

And tomorrow, as I walk to work, I'll say good morning to those amazing, enduring ducks who don't seem to notice how cold it is on Back Cove. They keep swimming as they always do, season to season, year to year. Then I'll put my face to the sunrise and I'll sing. I don't know what song yet, but I'm sure some tune will come.

I'll be ready for Christmas, too. In case you ask. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What now?

“Mommy, where will we move to after Donald Trump drops the big atomic bomb to start World War 3? I don’t want to have to move again. And when will Zahir be sent back to Somalia? I don’t want him to go because he just got here and he gives really good hugs.”

These are the words Zippy spoke on Wednesday evening, after spending post-election day in school with a bunch of other 6-year-olds who have huge, scary questions on their minds. Their teacher, whom I adore, shut down all the post-election conversation. I wish she hadn’t done that. I wish she’d taken the opportunity to tell those kids the simple truth: You are safe here, our country is strong and the Constitution will hold, we adults will protect you.

But maybe Zippy’s teacher, like me, doesn’t truly feel that way right now. Maybe she is uncertain about our safety - or our ability to keep our loved ones safe. And maybe she, too, wonders if our country, this great American experiment, truly is strong enough to weather the monsoon of ugliness rained on us throughout the election season. Maybe she is struggling, as I am, with her own scary questions: What will happen to my healthcare? Will they really throw out the Paris Accord? Will the next Supreme Court nominee overturn and negate my rights to make decisions about my own body? Does half of our country honestly believe that banning - or removing - immigrants will solve any problems? Are there people walking by me every day who harbor violent feelings toward gays, people of color, Muslims, Jews, and even women? Even worse, are there people I love who believe in the ideology of supremacy and hatred that has driven DJT’s campaign? And have I been complicit in this outcome?

I started writing a couple weeks ago, in an attempt to get ahead of the election, about the soul searching I’ve been doing over the last year. I ditched all of those writing efforts because some of it has been too painful to even articulate. What I’ve discovered this year about myself and about our country is that neither of us are what I thought we were. Until recently, I have been relatively content with status quo, as long as it didn’t affect me negatively. I have walked blithely through life unaware that some of my friends don’t feel safe because of the color of their skin or because of their sexuality or gender identity. I have never contemplated what it must feel like to live in a poor, rural area in which the one and only industry has closed down, where I see no other options; I have never thought what it must feel like to not only see no real future for myself or my children because I’ve been left on the sidelines by my school, my community, and my government. I have not acknowledged the many layers of institutional racism that exist because those layers didn't harm me or my children. When I witnessed bigotry, even though I felt shock and horror, I wrote it off as "that one time" or "that one person." I have been confident that I can do anything I set my mind to, and in times that I have been financially stressed, I have always known that there were people around me who could help. I have always had health insurance, and dental insurance, and a refrigerator full of food. This is my privilege as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle class woman in America. And I have wrestled with this word, this concept of privilege, for months. (I’m embarrassed to admit that, too, that it’s only been months, not years or decades of wrestling.)

On Wednesday morning, when I realized that DJT had been elected, I sat on the edge of my bed and wept. I didn’t know how to tell my children that this vulgar, hate-filled man had been elected by our friends and neighbors to be the leader of our country. And I took this election outcome personally: We elected a misogynist, an accused sexual predator, to be President of the United States over a wildly qualified, intelligent woman. I walked through the entire day feeling numb and empty, eyes leaking without warning. I felt deep, hollow grief. And I felt fear. What comes next?

I realized today that most of these tears may be a release of the emotional stress of this awful campaign. I know now, as well, that sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option. One thing a year of self-reflection and despicable rhetoric will do is force you to discover what you truly value and what you truly will stand for - or against. So this is what I told Zippy last night when he asked me about World War 3 and the possibility of his young friend being tossed out of the country. “My number one job is to keep you safe, and I will do everything I can, every single day, to protect you. We are not going anywhere because we love our home, we love our country. And I will not let anyone send Zahir away.”

These promises are true and absolute. There’s a problem, though: I’m not an activist. At least not in a stand-up-with-a-megaphone or tie-myself-to-a-tank sense. As my dear friend wrote in a text message yesterday, “I’m not really a freedom fighter and I’m afraid I’ll let the whole team down.” So many of us feel that way this week.

What I am, or at least what I aspire to be, is an active agent of peace. I have spent all day today thinking about what that means, what that could look like, how that feels, and I’ve come up with some ideas that I believe can work for me. I’ll list them below, in no specific order, and I ask that you share any additional ideas you have, too. (I am sure I won’t be able to do all of these things, and neither will you, but we have to think big and bold and stretchy right now, because we don’t really know what’s coming.)

  • I can donate money to organizations that are under threat, such as Planned Parenthood, or any number of environmental groups.
  • I can find out what’s happening in my community, stay connected to local activists and politics.
  • I can show up to peace rallies and solidarity events to share loving energy.
  • I can volunteer with youth organizations, especially those that provide support for new Mainers.
  • I can write for websites or publications that support activist organizations.
  • I can write emails and make phone calls to my state Representatives and Senators.
  • I can phone bank or canvass for initiatives I believe in.
  • I can actively seek people of color to write books in my 9-to-5 job.
  • I can volunteer as an escort at Planned Parenthood.
  • I can offer the spare room in my house to anyone who feels they need safe shelter.
  • I can offer meals at my table to anyone who needs to rest while they’re out canvassing or doing things I’m not bold enough to attempt.
  • I can stay vigilant and step up for people who are taunted or bullied on the street.
  • I can support nonprofits that work in rural schools.
  • I can work in my ed-publishing world to put good PD in the hands of teachers in rural schools.
  • I can encourage smart, kind, progressive people I know to run for public office - then support them along the way.
  • I can have face-to-face conversations with people who have opposing political views, and work hard on my listening skills.
  • I can ask “how can I help?” more often.
  • I can mediate between people who don’t see eye to eye.
  • I can do more research on an issue before popping off an alarmist blog or article on social media. And on the flip side, I can share responsible journalism at every opportunity.
  • I can pray for our new President and elected representatives.
  • I can raise emotionally intelligent, kind, feminist boys - and invite their friends into our home, too.

This week - this year - has been painful, no doubt. And I have every confidence that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I am not going to use words like reconciliation or unity right now because those are code for complacency. Yet I know, regardless of who we voted for this week, we all have talents and passions and convictions, and we can be freedom fighters or activists or agents of peace or whatever we need to be for our children, our friends, our country. Most important, let’s be love. Let’s be courage. Let's be strength. Let’s be hope. Let’s turn our privilege into active participation in this big old messy democracy, and let’s fix it.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Home for Aged Women

Evergreen Cemetery glows orange, gold, magenta. He’s brought me here because he knows I hate to be stuck inside on this gift of a day. Pristine blue sky, the hint of chill that whispers winter in your ear, the slight whiff of earthy decay from the blanket of leaves on the path. I’ve been sick. A painful rash broke across my right leg last week -- shingles, my body’s loud-and-clear response to months of unusually high stress. Relax, she tells me, sleep, recover.  But my husband knows my longing for outside air, so he bundled me and the boys into the car and drove me here to witness nature’s show. He’s been taking care of me -- and them -- for three days and I sense his fatigue; he’s not used to bearing the brunt of our day-to-day routine. What happens if I ever get truly ill? I push it from my mind. This gesture, helping me experience a perfect day, is pure love and I’ll cherish it.

We’ve arrived at my favorite memorial and I shuffle out of the car to pay my respects. A woman stands alone under a bright yellow tree. She’s gazing at the two-and-a-half neat rows of gravestones; names with dates as far back in history as 1887. A simple granite obelisk stands in its midst displaying the words Home for Aged Women, In Memoriam. I approach silently yet feel I should speak softly before I startle her. “This spot strikes me every time,” I whisper. “And hard.”

She nods. Still silent. Wipes at her eye, sniffles. Instinctively, I reach out my hand. Comfort. She accepts my hand in hers without looking at my face. Condolence. We don’t really need to see one another any more than we already have. Care.

A few moments pass without sound, only breath and touch. Two strangers paying respect to 48 other strangers. Women like us - sisters, mothers, friends, neighbors - who died in an indigents’ home. They each paid $50 to live out their last days in the Home for Aged Women, and the Home buried them in these simple graves. Only the names and dates of death mark most of the grave stones. No birth dates noted. No “wife of” nor family buried nearby. Did someone bring them lemon tea when they were weak or feverish? Did church parishioners check in on Sundays? Were they friends to one another, playing Scrabble or finishing the daily crossword together? Did someone hold their hands and simply breathe like this at the end? I hope so.

“Who takes care of them now?” the woman asks, pointing to the manicured perennials beside each stone. Hostas, black-eyed susans, mums. Small pebbles have been placed atop a handful of gravestones. A few even have cut flowers browning on them. Someone cares even now, yes. Good. Someone cares.

The stranger lets go of my hand, smiles sheepishly, walks on, but her question still hangs in the air. I linger and check over my shoulder. My beautiful young family waits in the car. He brings me tea when I’m chilly, rubs my feet when I’m tired. I don’t ever have to ask. Surely he’ll hold my hand at the end. Surely.

I’m tired. Just this small bit of activity has worn out my healing body. But the late-day October sun feels so good on my face. I run my hand along the edge of a headstone, trace the lichen clinging to the indent of the name: Martha Fernald, died July 10, 1887, age 79 yrs. Anna Webster. Flora M. Baker. Mabel L. Wilson. Bertha G. Owen. Ada V. Burt. Jane B. Skillings. On and on. So many women resting here with me. I long to know their stories. I lie down and whisper mine into the mossy earth, then roll on my back to gaze up a

t the colossal great-grandmother pine tree. She reaches her embracing limbs over us all. Her branches sway and sing, remember me remember you remember me remember you remember me.

[First published in The Turns of the Wheel zines Samhain issue, October 2016]

Friday, October 7, 2016

Boardwalk ghosts

Our empty, rainy October boardwalk
“Imagine this, buddy, in the middle of summer, especially near the Fourth of July. Wall to wall people, just sort of moving in and out of each other. Flashing lights. Loud music. Screams from Morey’s Pier, laughter on the swirly rides. Oh...and the food...ice cream, funnel cake, fudge, cheese steaks, pizza, fries...the smells alone would drive you nuts!” 

It’s 5:00 on the evening before his Nana’s funeral, and we’re standing in a windy drizzle on an empty Wildwood boardwalk. My mind has flashed back to the summer of 1991, when I spent a week here with my best friend. Wicked sunburn. Tandem bike adventures. Water slides. Thrill rides. A ground-shaking thunderstorm. Friendship bracelets. College guys taking showers outside. Ice cream and VCR movies every night.

Back in the here-and-now I’m trying to explain to Zippy what this place is like when it’s not October. He’s been to Rehoboth and Ocean City and Old Orchard Beach, but none of those come anywhere close to Wildwood in peak season. Here the boardwalk stretches for miles and the roller coasters dwarf the ones he's seen in Disney World and Story Land. I can see his eyes and brain trying to fill in the blanks left behind by gated game kiosks and store fronts, the still and silent tilt-a-whirl and locked-tight food stands. 

Summer in Wildwood! 
“Uncle Jack worked at these game kiosks when he was a teenager, and Nana would follow him everywhere, all over the boardwalk and to the bay when he went fishing,” I tell him. “Nana was much younger than Jack. He called her Pinky because she always wore pink. Maybe also because she was sunburned. She’d sneak behind the games and he’d let her play for free sometimes.” Nana smiled with each retelling of these stories, usually working a tattered napkin in her hand after a family meal. She cherished these memories of her brother, her boardwalk, her ocean. 

“Why did Nana follow him everywhere?” Zippy asks. 

“Because she loved him so much and wanted to be with him always.”

“Like me and Happy?” 

“Yep. Uncle Jack watched out for Nana like Happy watches out for you,” I explain. “And Nana probably bugged him sometimes, too.”

“Yeah, probably. What does Uncle Jack look like now?” Zippy asks, and I realize he’s never met his great-uncle. 

“Hmm. Like the man version of Nana, actually.” I smile at how clever I am, but also because it’s true. They look just alike, speak with the same inflections, even walk with a similar tilt and shuffle.

“Does he have blue eyes like Nana?”

“Yep, and like you,” I reply.

Nana's and Uncle Jack's boardwalk
Zippy is silent, looking around the boardwalk. We’re walking in the opposite direction now, heading back toward the pizza place to meet up with his cousins. I’m feeling nostalgic. My inner Jersey Girl is beaming. I’ve never been much of a boardwalk person, but you have to admit: Wildwood is like nothing else. I make a pact with myself that we'll bring them back here in the summer, and soon.

“Mama,” Zippy whispers. He’s holding tight to my hand as we lean into the drizzle and wind. “I would be really sad if Happy died like Nana did.” We stop walking and I squat down to his eye level. I have no words. He wraps his arms around my neck, and we just hold each other. A seagull stops a few feet away, cocks its head to the side, susses us out.

“I know, baby. Happy is your best friend. And you’re his.” There is nothing else to say. 

“Uncle Jack must be so sad today,” he says in his matter-of-fact tone. 

I stand up and he leans his head against my belly. I hear him sniffle, but I think it’s mostly because of the wind and rain, not tears. He’s empathizing but still so pragmatic. We walk toward the pizza place, the last remaining light on the boardwalk. Zippy's holding my hand, then bouncing to Happy, then skipping a little between us both. I can't see much of anything now because of the rain droplets on my glasses, but "watch the tram-car, please" repeats from the corner of my brain. One of the many ghosts accompanying us now. I swear I can smell cotton candy, too.

Zippy stops so abruplty I almost trip over him. His face tilts up at me, he juts his arms up over his head like he's trying to catch the wind. 

“I think me and little-kid Nana would have had fun here.” 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Summer in Maine is...

  • Tank tops by day, hoodies by night 
  • Air so rich with strawberry smells that you stop smack in the middle of the Monument Square farmers market and giggle; the "tomato bar" in late August elicits the same response
  • Arms stained tie-dye red-purple-orange from the popcicles you slurp on the front porch; the house won't cool down until the sun sets 
  • Slow weekend mornings -- cold brew coffee, a book, a blanket, a patch of grass overlooking the sailboat-dotted harbor
  • Gigantic 10-story cruise ships, teeming streets, no parking spaces, buskers on every corner, impossibly long restaurant waits, a people-watching bonanza
  • Seagulls brazenly eyeing your fries as you pick apart lobsters the rocks at Two Lights Lobster Shark, laughing as the butter and salt water ooze down our forearms
  • Clouds that build and blow through a deep blue sky, mirrored in the lake we're floating on; reach your head back far enough, and it's easy to lose the distinction between water and sky.
  • Acrid charcoal-roasting meaty smells from all directions while you roast marshmallows and swat bugs around the backyard fire pit (some skunky weed-smoking smells around, too)
  • A house full of loved ones, visiting for long stretches of time...but never long enough
  • Kayak afternoons on the Scarborough Marsh, sunburn and solitude, cormorants perched on the directional sign like paid employees of the Audubon Society
  • Day drinking on the Maine Brew Bus, soaking in the local craft brew culture but quickly realizing that you haven't been so drunk at 2:30 in the afternoon in, oh, 20 years
  • Humidity so thick and enduring the back towels never really dry out
  • Hermit crabs skittering over your toes at Kettle Cove; try not to giggle when covered in tiny crab feet
  • Seaside sunset picnic with colors so rich you can't even speak...a moon that rises in cartoon-huge proportion over the sea...then mosquitoes that swarm so fast you have to spring to the car
  • White chocolate lavender ice cream at Bayley's, kids dancing on the patio, smiling sweetly thinking "we live in Vacationland!"

Every summer, around Memorial Day, we make a poster like this one to remind us of all the epic, action-packed, super-fun we plan to have in the few brief weeks between June and September. This summer was one for the books, for sure, in good and bad ways. I'm smiling now as I realize that we managed to do just about everything on this year's Summer Fun poster, as well as some stuff we hadn't really counted on. And now it's time to draft the Fall/Winter Fun poster...