Sunday Sentence: Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein

“And so today I dare you to do the thing you don’t think you’re ready to do.” Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein

img_20160911_115655021

I love reading them, so now I’ve joined the #SundaySentence party started by David Abrams over at the Quivering Pen and on Twitter. It’s not a review. It’s not a story. It’s just one sentence I read this week, presented “out of context and without comment” that hit me where I live. Do with it what you will.

How We Spend Our Days: Elizabeth Marro

Source: How We Spend Our Days: Elizabeth Marro

For fourteen years, this dog has witnessed every word I’ve written or struggled to write.  When Cynthia Newberry Martin invited me to write about one of my days on her blog, Catching Days, Chloe guided me one last time, this time with her absence.  I share it here in her honor. To read, click the link above.

Gifts For and From the Dead

IMG_0571

You may see the usual Halloween suspects on Halloween night – zombies, witches, the cast of characters from Game of Thrones. I’m betting you won’t see anyone dressed up as Eric Hill. Or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Never mind Peter Matthieson, Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, Daniel Keyes or Joan Rivers.

Well, maybe Joan Rivers.

No matter, I saw them all today in the Ocean Beach branch of the San Diego Public Library artfully arranged among food, drink, paper flowers, candles, and skulls. They were honored in an imaginative ofrenda put together by one of our librarians, Jan Kregers.  She’d put it together to honor authors who died this year, evoking the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead on Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead. On that day, family members — ancestors — are honored, remembered, offered their favorite foods. Each offering has a meaning. For a brief time those who still live and those who are gone reach across the divide for a while in memory, stories, lessons learned, laughter shared.

IMG_0567

Seeing these writers together brought their passing home to me in a way that was both sad and joyful. There was a sense of discovery when I learned that Eric Hill was behind all those “Spot” books. When I looked at the photograph of Daniel Keyes, I remembered the first time I read Flowers for Algernon” years ago and how the story and sadness stayed with me for days and how I went back and read it again. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favorite writers of all time as is Nadine Gordimer. There they both were, their faces framed in magenta, yellow, and lime green paper petals. It was kind of magical, really. And joyful because as sad as losing them was, they each left so much behind: memories, stories, lessons, laughter — and we can enjoy all them any day just by picking up one of their books.

If you were to do your own writer’s ofrenda, which authors would be on it?

Here are some more views of the ofrenda assembled by Jan Kreger:

IMG_0584

 

IMG_0557

IMG_0545

 

IMG_0575

 

IMG_0558

IMG_0564

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to an Unknown Soldier

IMG_2139

Dear One,

I may have seen you a few years ago in the months before you left for war, walking with a child in your arms or crowded into a small fast car with others like you, music blaring, tattoos fresh. I may see you this week as we both wait for our food orders at the local Baja Fresh.

I have probably been close enough to shake your hand but I never have.

I see your face reflected in the photographs lined up in the obituary pages of our newspaper each week.

I see your eyes looking out of each one but you remain unknown to me.

I may have seen your mother’s face yesterday in the grocery store as she shopped for one less mouth to feed at the family gathering, or your sister’s face when she placed a vase of flowers at your grave in the national cemetery near my home.

I saw them but never knew.

When I was a 21-year-old newspaper reporter, my first job assignment was to cover the Memorial Day Parade in Rockport, Massachusetts. I snapped photographs of men with creased faces in uniforms brushed clean as they placed wreaths, spoke words and then went silent as they remembered you.

I saw all this too and could not know what was in their memories or their hearts.

I can never know. I only know a life that comes with never having had to face the choices you have made or that were made for you.

It has been all too easy not to know you.

I have lived all my life behind the shield created for me by my age, luck, family, timing, the country into which I was born. In this country now, there are those who go to war and those who can remain behind. Those who know what it costs and those of us who believe we know, who try to imagine but can’t. We’ve never been there. We’ve never lost a child or a husband or a mother or a sister or a brother or a friend to enemy fire. There are those who, inspired by attacks like the ones on 9/11, rushed to join and to help and put their lives at risk. There are those of us who, made afraid by these same attacks, let you. We asked it, maybe not out loud but with our actions, or our inaction.

In every generation, in every country of the world, there have been people like you and people like me. There have been warriors who die instantly from their wounds on the battlefield and those who die years later of injuries no one can see or understand. There have been families who have had to face sudden and devastating loss and those who witness the loss of their loved one as it plays out over months and years. There are those who never know what happened to the ones they have lost.

IMG_2157

And then there are people like me who lose sight of all these casualties simply because we can. We can lose ourselves in our dreams, our plans, in Memorial Day sales, and food and in the families who have not been altered forever by war.

I learned this week that a moment of silence has long been part of a the right way to observe Memorial Day. At  3 p.m., all across the country, people will be silent and will acknowledge you and honor you or simply fall silent and let themselves feel that your death is our loss. Today, at 3 p.m. Pacific time, I will be thinking of you and I will be thinking of those you faced and fought who have also suffered and died.

I still won’t know you but I will wish I had. And I hope that taking that moment will lead me to a deeper acknowledgment of what I ask of you and to give more to you and to those who love you.

IMG_2140

The photos above were taken yesterday at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego where thousands of military men and women and their families have been buried for more than a hundred years.

Here is a link to some numbers that I will be thinking about when I am silent today at  3 p.m: US War Deaths

Reconstruction Day

On Good Friday last year, my step-daughter checked into the hospital for the second phase of post-mastectomy reconstruction. As we packed to go help her through the recovery, I found myself pondering the word, “reconstruction” as if I’d never heard it before.27288_10151213158720924_692673827_n

Reconstruction is what people do after tsunamis, floods, fires, and wars. Builders in New York and New Jersey can’t keep up with the demand to put back what Hurricane Sandy took.

It is a short leap from “reconstruction” to other “re” words: Restore. Revisit. Reword. Reinvent. Replace. Remove. Remodel. Renew. Hope lives in these “re” words. I too have at times clung to them like a drowning person hugs a hunk of driftwood. Revise. Retrench. Remarry.

But does any amount of rebuilding truly replace what is gone? The answer is no, of course not, though, years ago, I believed that attaching “re” to the front of a verb meant I could erase a mistake or some damage I had done to myself or others. In order for “re” to work, you have to incorporate bits and pieces from the past even if they are not wood and brick, flesh and bone. Sometimes the only things left to work with are lessons learned or memories shared.

My stepdaughter and her husband have been caught in a storm for the past seven years. It took their child. Then it took her uterus, her breasts, several lymph nodes and countless ounces of bodily fluids or bits of flesh required for medical tests. It attacked the economy, their livelihoods, drained their savings and stripped away any illusion that life was fair.

They don’t go on about it but we know that rebuilding is painful. There are daily reminders of what has been lost: bills, surgical scars, chronic pain, pink ribbons crossed in solidarity with other women and pink roses planted to remember their little girl. Each day is an anniversary of what might have been.

Still, there she was last year on Good Friday, heading into surgery to continue the reconstruction of her breasts. There he was, telling her a joke to make her laugh and then holding her against his chest and telling her how much he loved her. It was impossible to see that surgery as anything but an act of faith, if not in the future, then in themselves and in each other and in that one moment.

It’s been nearly a year since then. In that year, there has been a shift in the tides. Things are still not easy for these two we love but the cancer is gone and they celebrate that. He has completed a Master’s degree while working a full time job. She works on her art and at her job with a wellness center that specializes in helping people with pain and with problems like autism. We are often mystified but delighted by the running jokes and movie references that  crack them up on days when there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about.

Without ever saying it, they remind us every day that while the instinct to rebuild or restore may be in our DNA, acting on it is a conscious decision that takes courage. Rebuilding is an integral part of the healing process, not an attempt to conceal the pain or damage. They remind us that true healing doesn’t mean that the pain goes away or that things will be “good as new.” It means understanding that nothing is permanent and then choosing to really live, right now, in the best way possible.

For them, for all of us, every day is reconstruction day,  an opportunity to begin again. And again. And again.

252602_10150191600695924_3977993_n

Welcome

IMG_0763

The man in this picture once told me something I have never forgotten. “Don’t be afraid to say no to people when you have to, but don’t say no to yourself.”

He said this just after he hired me as a reporter for a paper called the Gloucester Daily Times, the daily that served Cape Ann, an island about 40 miles north of Boston and a world unto itself. I must have looked confused or maybe he just wanted to be sure I understood because he went on.

“There are going to be days when you’re heading home and you’re tired, or you’re on your way to cover a story and you’re running late. That’s when you’ll see something out of the ordinary, maybe a group of people gathering unexpectedly, a fire engine rushing by, a child or an animal doing something that everyone would like to see. These are opportunities. You can stop, find out more, take that picture and make your page that much better. Or, you can keep going. That’s saying no.”

He was talking about the job, of course. I was 21 and Peter Watson was doing one of the things he did best: mentor. He offered his experience and insight but then let you decide whether to use it or not. I confess there were times when I did not. Shame still flickers when I recall hearing a story idea from one of my readers and then forgetting it until I ran into her again, when it was too late. And on a glorious summer day, I shot one funny, beautiful, or telling photo after another, only to find I had forgotten to reload my Canon AE1 after my last deadline. [Digitals were still in the distance at that point.]

The lessons were painful but effective. In saying no to those opportunities, I let him down, made life more difficult for my editors and everyone else who had to put out the paper. And the residents of Rockport, who opened their pages every day to Page two found less than they would have if I had seized the moment or had been prepared for the lucky photo op that came my way.

It was the regret, though, that lingered. This is what Peter was trying to tell me. You don’t get those opportunities back. I was haunted for longer than you would expect by the missed opportunities because the ones I had the sense to grab taught me so much.

Peter and his beautiful family remained in the center of my life even after I left the Cape and, eventually, journalism. No matter what I was doing, though, opportunities came, often disguised as inconveniences or things that seemed outside my comfort zone or simply things I thought could wait: jobs, love, a cup of coffee with a person I’d just met, writing. Writing always fell aside. The urge to put off, avoid, give into fear or fatigue has continued to reside in me like a virus, ready to flare.

Peter died on November 24. The last time I saw him was in May. We’d said our farewells inside the house but he called to me and I waited while he walked toward me. It was not an easy walk. His balance was compromised by the tumor in his brain and he was very tired. But he took one step after the other. He put his arms around me and hugged me, harder and longer than he ever had before. He said, “Good bye, old friend.”

We talked often and I planned to see him again but it didn’t happen that way. I am so grateful to him. He could have stood in the doorway and waved, pretended that this moment was like any other but he didn’t. He acted on whatever instinct made him come to me and say that good bye.

A week after he died, when the grief was raw, the month of December looked completely different than the one I had planned. There was a eulogy to write, a trip east to plan. Family was coming, there were errands, gifts and for a time it seemed overwhelming. That was when another friend I have known and cherished for most of our lives, Rae Francoeur, got in touch with a proposal. She knew I’d finished my novel and was submitting it to agents. She told me that if I had my blog up and running, she could “tag” me in something called The Next Big Thing Blog Tour. The problem: I had to have my blog up and running in time for the new year.

I could say no. For over a year, my blog has been languishing on my hard drive and in drafts on WordPress. What would a few more weeks matter? Then came the echoes of Peter’s words.

This time, I know there is no one I will be letting down if I don’t do it. The world is not waiting breathlessly for another writer or another blog. But I also know that regrets sharpen with every year that passes. The opportunities to connect, to grow, to try something new, don’t always come when we want them but they come. I can say not now and tell myself there will be other moments like this one. Or I can say yes and see what happens.

Yes.

Check in next week for the “Next Big Thing Blog  Tour.”