What Nadia Wanted

Her name was not Nadia which means hope or desire. She was named for a mythical bird whose feet never touch the ground. Her privacy is important, though, so Nadia it is and, like her given name, it fits her.

She did hope. She did desire. And her feet never touched the ground for the entire hour I knew her.

Bird_of_Paradise_flower

My husband and she began talking in the line at Phillipe’s one Sunday afternoon while I secured a table. We were there to grab a French Dip before a Lakers game. She too was there to buy a sandwich but seemed a little confused by the options.

I saw them laugh. Then I saw my husband point and begin to describe the choices — I know this because even though I couldn’t hear them, his hands described the shape of the bread, the dipping of the bread, and the layering of lamb or beef. He is eloquent with his hands.

She smiled up at him. I wasn’t jealous because as attractive as she was – with her swirl of auburn hair, eyes the color of rain-soaked cypress bark, and a lush Ava Gardner mouth – I was only fifteen feet away. And she was in a wheelchair. The gleaming motorized chair made it safe to admire her, easy to be happy that she’d found my husband to help her. Easy to assume lots of things that turned out to be wrong.

He glanced up to look for me and I waved. I knew we would be having company for lunch. I saw him lean down and carefully take her wallet. He plucked out some bills, handed them to the cashier, and returned the change and the wallet to Nadia who had trouble holding onto it. Then he picked up a tray with three sandwiches and she followed him to the table I’d found.

Minutes later any notions that we were being charitable skulked away. Nadia wasn’t interested in making us feel good about ourselves. She was only mildly interested in the sandwich my husband cut up and set before her. She wanted more. Much more.

“You have a good man,” she said after we’d established that we were the same age, she was married with three grown children, had emigrated to Los Angeles years before, had recently earned a degree in social work, and had muscular dystrophy. Her condition was another reason her sandwich lay between us mostly untouched. The mechanics of lifting a piece to her mouth and then swallowing without difficulty were arduous and time-consuming. She could eat it later; now she wanted to talk. She fixed her beautiful eyes on me and leaned closer.

“Are you in love with him?”

I didn’t have to think but I did have a mouthful of lamb sandwich. “Yes,” I told her as soon as I’d swallowed.

“What does it feel like?” she asked.

At this point, my husband disappeared from my peripheral vision. I don’t know if he left the table or simply leaned back to give her, and himself, the illusion of privacy.

“What does love feel like you mean?” I asked her.

Nadia’s fingers wiggled dismissively on the arm rests of her chair. “Not family love, not friendship. What does it feel like to kiss romantically, to want to go to bed with a man?”

What words to use? As I struggled to answer her, she told me that her husband was much older. They’d been engaged when she was thirteen, married when she was fifteen. “I ran away when my parents first arranged the engagement.” She loved school and wanted to finish. Agreements were reached and she married at fifteen. Three children were born, two sons and a daughter. All left their country at different times and gathered in a hotel before making their way to the United States. In that hotel, she fell the first time. The diagnosis came shortly after. Over the years, her disease progressively worsened until she could do little for herself and depended on her husband, her children, the caregivers who came every day to help her bathe, dress, and eat. Her husband worked nights and slept during the days. He was home as she spoke, she said, sleeping.

“I am lucky. He has been good to me. He never left me,” she said in the way someone recites a prayer they have said so often they no longer hear the words. “But it is not love. It is not romantic love.”

Her caregiver, she told me, was divorced and had had three boyfriends in the time she’d known her. There was always something dramatic, something romantic going on for this woman.

“I want that,” Nadia said. “I am not too old.”

No, she wasn’t.

Nadia wore the evidence of love bestowed. Caring, experienced hands had styled her hair, traced her eyebrows with pencil, colored her eyelids with the right shade of shadow and not too much of it. I thought of the daughter who she said visited her often and worried whenever her mother left the house and how Nadia had managed to leave the house anyway, to get a degree in social work, to ride a bus from a nearby city to Phillipe’s just to taste a sandwich she’d heard about on television. I thought of how easily she had engaged my husband and how naturally it came about that she joined us for a meal. She attracted people. It was not surprising when she told me that she had attracted a man in one of her classes.

“We talked all the time. We both knew there was something there but he said to me that going any further was pointless. It was impossible.”

For anyone else those moments might have been idle flirtation, a chance at a few dates, or even the beginning of a love affair that would soar, or crash and burn. For Nadia it was a whiff of what she wanted and believed she would never have.

I decided not to say what she so clearly understood and had probably heard before: that she was fortunate to have a loving family, that there were deeper kinds of love, possibly better love, that love born in desire and passion can sometimes leave us emptier than when we started. I didn’t say that love — any kind of love — was a crap shoot, a matter of luck as much as anything and that even people without a debilitating disease can wander their whole lives and never really find it.

Nadia wasn’t asking to be told what she already knew. She wasn’t asking for guarantees. She just wanted to the chance to try it herself. Failing that, she wanted to know from another woman what it felt like to be passionately kissed, to be held by a lover. With the directness of someone who knew there wasn’t much time for niceties, she asked me, a stranger she would never again see, to tell her.

I did my best.

The Mother My Daughter Is

From Betsy: This is the first time I’ve re-blogged anything but this piece by Jan Wilberg broke my heart in a good way. I wanted to share it. Here’s to mothers, daughters, honesty, love. And to being glad.

Red's Wrap

Mom and baby

I like to say I knew her when.

I knew her when her bangs were cut straight across with sewing scissors because the idea of spending real money on a haircut for a kid seemed outlandish to me.

I knew her when she would dangle upside down from a metal bar at the playground, do a flip and land on her feet on the concrete while I covered my eyes and waited for the absence of crying.

I knew her when she would sit across from me, a single mom with a single daughter, while we ate dinners made with a lot of macaroni and tomato soup.

I knew her when she would do her homework in the bathroom while I sat in the tub so paralyzed by distress and depression that I could only go to work, make dinner, and hide in the tub every night drinking wine and…

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Lunch With Friends

IMG_0322I ate some old friends for lunch today.

It’s the only way to get rid of them. They keep coming back like relatives you miss until they come and stay for months, or the chatty kind of people you try to evade at parties but just can’t. Everywhere you turn, there they are, all bright, happy, and softhearted — the kind you just can’t say no to — and they know it.

I’m talking about nasturtiums. I planted a few one year – I don’t know when. It doesn’t matter. If you say yes to a packet of nasturtium seeds, you will be living with the results for the rest of your life and beyond. The generations springing from that one packet will thrive long after you’re gone.

The term ‘invasive’ does not begin to describe the goings on among the nasturtiums in my backyard. These guys have no respect for boundaries, they sprout, climb, spill over the retaining wall, and completely smother the diedes I planted to add a little structure, a little class to the place.

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Nasturtiums thrive on neglect which is, as it happens, is the cornerstone of my gardening strategy. Then, just when they’re really getting out of hand, they do something charming, like blossom. First a yellow one, then an orange, sometimes a red. They hide among the leaves and then peek out like flirts until one morning you wake up and the whole tangle is ablaze. It’s kind of like a slow-motion floral fireworks display that marks the coming and going of spring here in California. Plus, they hide the weeds.

How can you hate that?

I don’t really. I’m just not comfortable with what they tell visitors about my gardening habits. Clearly the nasturtiums are in control of the landscape, not me. But I tell people I planted them for food. Each blossom harbors a sweet, juicy burst which somehow goes perfectly with the peppery petals. Harvest happens when I let the dog out or when I feel like making a salad.

So, for a few months every year, I let them have their way. The first leaves sprout in December or January and they just sort of poke along, getting bigger and greener. The blossoms start to appear in March and by the end of April or early May, they explode into color. I eat as many as I can and then yank them out.

They don’t care. They always come back.

Lunch:

I added my friends to a salad of greens, fennel, goat cheese and toasted pignoli nuts. Chop up the stems too – they are delicious!

Lunch with my friends

Lunch with my friends

PS: Turns out there are all kinds of ways to use these babies. Here some of the ones I found. If you try any, let me know how they turned out!

Nasturtium pesto!

http://bloomsandfood.com/2012/05/31/nasturtium-pesto-lower-food-miles-version-recipe/

http://www.rootsimple.com/2011/05/nasturtium-flower-and-pistachio-pesto-a-story-in-pictures/

Soup!

http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/miscellaneous/fetch-recipe.php?rid=misc-potato-nasturtium-leaf-soup

Lots of other ways to eat ’em
http://www.yummly.com/recipes/nasturtium

Urge to Purge


Above: Four minutes of fun in Bettina’s Minimalist Kitchen, “The White Box” (In English with subtitles).

The urge to purge seems to be running through my network of friends and family like the cold that’s been making the rounds. Last week, I was flat on my back with just enough energy to watch the entire first season of Shameless (British version) but everyone else, apparently, was seized with the desire to jettison dead weight.

A friend from New York, returning from more than a year in India, found that all those boxes he’d put into storage were filled with things he didn’t need or want. A couple who enthrall us with stories about their decades of traveling the globe by bike, foot, or by any means available, pitched nearly all of the Kodachrome slides documenting those trips into the dumpster last week. I’ve found no fewer than 100 blog posts about spring cleaning, de-cluttering and in Sunday’s New York Times an entrepreneur proclaimed the benefits of downsizing with a zeal that almost made me want to get up, get dressed, and throw some stuff away.

I’m guessing I score 6.5 on the scale from 1 to 10 where 1 equals extreme hoarder and 10 equals Bettina, the minimalist decorator in Absolutely Fabulous who believes a stove just clutters the kitchen. My score is undoubtedly influenced by my mother, a woman who believes that one of the best ways to work out solutions to life’s problems is to clean a closet, something she’s more than happy to do for her children whenever she visits.

But that’s a post for another time. Today, it’s about the stuff that has survived my mother, the twenty-six moves I’ve made since I was seventeen, and our recent efforts to downsize. They’ve become companions of sorts, the kind that tell me more than I sometimes want to know about the person I used to be and have become.

Embarrassing but true: I still have the shreds of a blanket I’ve owned since I was ten years old, itself a replacement for the “bankie” that preceded it. Somewhere in the garage there is a box with a pair of denim overalls that I wore when I was seventeen and the soft cotton maroon shirt I liked to wear under it. I own a pair of faded blue short-shorts that I could, in my twenties, wear without blushing. Ditto for a black Betsey Johnson dress, a tube of shirred lycra that I’ve only ever worn once in public. If I could bottle the feeling I had when I wore it, I’d make millions. I don’t recognize the woman who wore that dress but coming across it in my closet triggers a feeling as warm and dangerous as a secret love. I own a beat-up stethoscope given to me when I was twelve. I carry it in a hat box that also contains an Eisenhower silver dollar, one jade earring from a pair given to me by my mother upon the publication of my first magazine article. And I have a metal file box that contains artifacts from loves that failed. At least I think it does. I haven’t looked inside for years.

"Embarrassing

On the less embarrassing side: I have kept every note, card and letter my husband has ever written to me and when I come upon them, I read each all over again, tracing the arc of our story so far, loving him and loving that we have not, will not fail.

I can trace the growth of my son in the artifacts I find: baby book, drawings, Mother’s Day cards, report cards, diploma, photographs, clippings from Colorado newspapers about his business from its earliest days to now.

In its own padded box, there is a blue and white ceramic jar that contains the fragments of dried rose petals. It belonged to my grandmother and my father tells me the dust could be all that remains of roses given to her by man she loved before he left to die in World War I. I want it to be true.

Shelves Are A Wasteland Without Books

Shelves Are A Wasteland Without Books

Then there are our books. When our realtor advised us to empty our book shelves to provide prospective buyers with a sense of more space, I was incredulous. It was like asking us to bury our best friends, the ones who never let us down no matter how many times we read them,mark them up, or accidentally drench them while reading in the tub. Wouldn’t it look silly to have a lot of book shelves with no books? Not, apparently, in the age of e-readers.

As much as I try to cling to the things that matter, though, they sometimes slip from my grasp. The mate to the jade earring from my mother disappeared years ago. An eccentric and nosy landlord once came into my apartment and “recycled” some papers I had unearthed from storage — everything I had written the age of sixteen to twenty four. A hard drive failed, taking with it two years of correspondence with one of my best friends. He died last year.

These losses did not make me feel lighter or more free in the way, say, tossing out magazines or giving away old but usable clothing can. The things I cherish connect me in some vital way with people I love or times in my life that helped shape who I am now. The losses of these things are sharp reminders that we don’t get to keep anything or anyone we love, no matter how much we want to or how hard we hold on.

Some links to more on things and what they say about the people who carry them:

From Flavorwire:
Children and Their Toys From Around the World

From Sam’s Online Journal:
The Things I’ve Carried

Naked on a Plane

I woke this morning to the rumble of jets overhead, one of the sounds that marks the start of a new day here. It’s one of the perks of living a few miles from the airport but I didn’t think about the noise. I thought about some friends I got naked with for a few hours and never saw again.

And by naked, I mean as revealing as one person can be to another without removing a stitch of clothing.

There was the woman beside me who showed me her post-mastectomy, reconstructed breast and asked, “Would you like to feel it?”

There was the man behind me who told the story of how he walked away from his wife and daughter and never saw them again.

There was the man in first class who loved his wife and still desired her so much after twenty two years and three children he would sit on the floor outside their bathroom so he could see her emerge naked from the shower.

They were strangers on planes. I encountered them only once and in the time we shared, we were as intimate as only strangers could be.

If you are lucky, these moments can and do happen anywhere but I am struck by the number of times I’ve stumbled into these brief intimacies on airplanes. Perhaps when you pack people tightly enough together, the friction rubs some of that protective veneer away whether you want it to or not. There you are, shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-midback, sharing an armrest, breathing the scent of each other’s breath until you know what your rowmate ate for breakfast and how her stomach feels about it. For an hour or twelve or more, you occupy a village enclosed in metal, surrounded by nothing but clouds and sky. I can’t help thinking that I may die with these people. I check the hand of the person next to me and wonder whether it would be the kind of hand I’d want to hold on the way down or if the owner would want to hold mine.

Once I’m airborne, I understand in a visceral way that I control nothing. No one in my plane village does either. We are all in the hands of the pilot, upheld by the laws of physics and engineering and the grace of whatever diety controls the weather. All we can control is what we give and receive.

Like most of my fellow passengers, I work hard to avoid the burden of connection. I burrow into the book I’ve brought, the game on my phone, or the movie in front of me. Sometimes I try to sleep away the hours so that the time folds like a napkin and it feels as though I’ve stepped directly from departure to arrival.

Other times, though, I’ve been ambushed and then seduced by a stranger with something to share. Maybe they are picking up a signal I don’t even know I’m emitting. They may need to talk but more than I realize, I need something too.

When Mary invited me to feel her new breast, right there on the plane somewhere between Greensville, South Carolina and Newark, New Jersey, she taught me something about resilience, fearlessness and joy. (I did and you can read about that moment here).

John, the man who loved and desired his wife was unselfconsciously in love. The cynic in me initially thought that he was reminding himself of his obligations before he got swept up in a mid-flight flirtation. As we chatted, though, it became apparent that he was simply and unselfconsciously sharing, as though he wanted the last words that filled his mouth to be ones of love. As we talked, my own feelings of love and desire for my mate stirred and stretched like children let out to play.

I never knew the name of the man who left his family years before but his dead, matter-of-fact tone echoes now. He had no intention of returning. Ever. In fact, he  was about to leave his current girlfriend; by telling me his story he seemed to be saying, “This is who I am.” I had always wondered what it would be like to just walk out a door and never return. He showed me one reason I am glad I never tried to find out.

With each encounter I fell in love with life a little bit more deeply. Something in me that was closed had opened. I loved these people for giving that to me.

What are your most memorable encounters on a plane or anywhere else? Do you think you made them happen or were they pure serendipity?

God, Love, and Dog Poop

Chloe

Chloe

I took Chloe for a walk not long ago and ran smack into a lesson on boundaries, dog poop, and the love of God.

We had only gone a few steps when my ears picked up the voices of two women who regularly walk by, usually in the late afternoon. They stride down the middle of our street as though it is the yellow brick road and they and their two small dogs are twin versions of Dorothy and Toto. Their laughter precedes them and lingers in the air after they sweep past.

They weren’t laughing on this day though. One of the women peeled off from her companion, words spewing furiously. I caught the words, “he,” “job,” “asshole”  and watched, stunned, as she marched up our driveway to the garbage can against our house’s wall and threw a a loaded bag right into it.

“Hi,” I said, or something like that. Her companion looked at me and smiled so I went on in what I thought was my calm, reasonable, “adult” voice. “Normally, people ask first.”

By this time the poop-tosser was already back down on the road, charging past us. Her friend, made of softer material, hesitated. “I’m sorry, we didn’t know it was your house.”

The tosser, now well ahead, turned and yelled, “For the love of God, it’s a GARBAGE CAN!”

The friend shrugged apologetically and she and her dog scurried to catch up.

I seethed. Chloe tugged on the leash but I was immobilized by astonishment, resentment, embarassment, fury, righteous indignation, a sense of violation and, of all things, denial: Even as I seethed, I was telling myself that this was nothing. It didn’t matter now and wouldn’t even come close to mattering in 100 years when all of us would be dead.

I thought that denial was my maturity showing but really, it was just a ramrod I was using to stuff down all the discomfort that kept churning its way back up. The fact is, I felt trespassed against, ignored, run over by a sleeker, more powerful train.

Then Chloe tugged again and I began to move. The women were out of sight. For the first few steps, I wanted to chase them down to explain just exactly how wrong they were and how right I was. There’s a code, unwritten but nevertheless followed by most of us, involving reciprocity, proximity of garbage can to curb, whether or not the owner of the can is a dog owner and other provisions that my inner lawyer cited with force to my inner judge and jury while my ego clapped and the small sane person inside me rolled her eyes.

But as my small dog kept nosing her way forward, lost in the richness of my neighbor’s lawn – enjoying it fully even though it was not hers or mine – I became aware of my own breath. It was out of sync, pent up. It wanted to get out and just escape all that toxicity. Suddenly, so did I.

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I tried this thing I’ve been practicing for a long time now without consistent success: being mindful of my own breathing. I tried really hard to focus on each breath and let the anger do whatever it wanted to do. Turns out, when I wasn’t stoking my fury with one angry thought after another, it settled down. My chest relaxed and I almost laughed out loud at the thought of myself chasing her down. Perspective returned like grace. Something like forgiveness filled me but also gratitude – grudging perhaps but gratitude nevertheless – for the encounter.

The cans weren’t mine. Taxes pay for them and they are given to us by the city when we move in or are passed on by previous owners when we buy the house. We all pay for them. And those of us who believe in God would probably agree that she does not worry much about whose garbage can receives the poop. Those of us who don’t believe in God probably still believe in love with all its gentleness, strength, excitement, renewal, and demands. For still others of us, God and love are virtually the same and sharing is part of the deal we make no matter where our belief lies.

Whose trash can is it anyway?

Whose trash can is it anyway?

The poop tosser may have been rude but she was probably also suffering that day too judging by the heat of her diatribe and the need she had to spill out her frustration to her friend and to me. In the end, she was a fellow traveler who without realizing it asked me a tough question and then left me alone to wrestle with it:

If I can’t share my garbage can, just what am I prepared to share?

“Next Big Thing” Blog Tour

As I mentioned last week, there’s a viral blog event going around called “The Next Big Thing” in which writers give a glimpse of works in progress by answering a set of questions. I’ve been tagged by two fellow writers. Rae Francoeur is author of the memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair.” Find out about her Next Big Thing. In addition, I’ve been tagged by Matt Coyle, author of the thriller “Yesterday’s Echo,” due out in May. Click here to read more about Matt and his book. I’ve tagged three folks too and you can find out more by clicking on their links at the end of this post.

And for some insight on my “Next Big Thing,” read on.

What is your working title of your book?

Casualties.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I started with an entirely different story, about a woman who leaves. That’s all I had: her name, her face, and her departure. I knew that everything leading up to her departure was rooted in a past I needed to uncover. When I realized that she lost her only child, I realized I was writing one of my about my worst nightmares with the idea that if I could figure out what would happen under the worst conditions for my characters, I might learn something. There is nothing that happens to Ruth, my protagonist, that couldn’t happen to any one of us.

Environmental factors played a role too. I live in San Diego, a nexus for the military, defense industry and civilians. You learn quickly that there are no real boundaries between these groups. Individuals — neighbors, strangers, family members — cross from one to the other as they make difficult decisions and try to do what is right for themselves, their families and the country. What can often be invisible elsewhere in the country is very visible here.

What genre does your book fall under?

I aimed for what editor Amy Einhorn calls, “the sweet spot between literary and commercial.” This is a novel that a book club could sink its teeth into.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

This is fun!

Ruth: Julianne Moore. Helen Hunt. Diane Lane. Cate Blanchett.

Casey: Aaron Eckhart. Dennis Leary. Willem Dafoe. All three are a little too old to play Casey but all of them can play that combination of intelligence, seediness, and heart that would bring Casey to life. I love them all, by the way…

 What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Before single mother and defense industry executive Ruth Nolan can bury her only child, a Marine who has committed suicide, she must choose whether to salvage what remains of the life she has built, or risk it all by helping war-zone contractors harmed by her firm’s negligence.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am seeking representation and have been excited about the initial reception. We’ll see where that leads. I am open to all possibilities.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Too long!!!! The first scenes in what became my first draft are dated 2003. However, what I consider the real first draft happened in 2007 when I tossed out 600 pages. What remained formed the heart of the book that has emerged.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Like Kristin Hannah’s Homefront, Casualties brings to life the cost of war paid by those who fight and those who wait for them, but goes further, delving into the largely invisible world of the defense contractor and the tragedy of military suicides. The story, however, is not a story of war, and the book does not advance a political agenda. Like the novels of Ann Patchett (State of Wonder), or Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior), Casualties keeps the focus on the conflicting desires of its characters and the choices they must make.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My husband was the one who inspired my confidence and challenged me making it possible for me write full time for the past two years. He has never wavered in his confidence in me and I draw strength from that daily.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Ruth’s story is only one of the stories told in this book. When she flees from her California home with her son’s ashes, she encounters amputee and would-be conman Casey McInerney, a veteran of the first Gulf War with his own demons. As they journey across the country, they force each other to face the grief, guilt, and fear that have governed their decisions for longer than either of them realizes. They help each other take the first steps toward making peace with themselves and the ghosts of those they’ve lost.

Now I have some wonderful writers for you to check out. Next week, or very soon, they will be posting answers to questions about their latest projects as part of the Next Big Thing blog tour.

Pamela Hunt, freelance writer and author of “Walking on My Hands,” a blog in which she shares her journey toward “learning to live with grace.” She’ll talk about her novel, a work-in-progress.

Gail Chehab, author of The Echo of Sand” and, most recently, “Simple Gifts.”

Melanie Hooks, screenwriter and freelance writer, will discuss her work-in-progress. (Link to come. Stay tuned!)