Weights and Measures

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Since January 1, I’ve walked 153 miles, more or less. I’ve lost ten pounds. I’ve consumed an average of 55 grams of fat a day that account for roughly  30% of 1,440 calories net, per day. I’ve lost the tips of three different fingers on my left hand to knives wielded by my right.

I lost a friend.

I’ve caught a single cold that lasted for 10 days, driven 262 miles to the UCLA campus in Los Angeles by myself to spend two days with over 200 women writers at BinderCon. I’ve read seven books and bought or borrowed 10 more.

I didn’t lose my friend, she died. Every time I look across the yard separating ours from hers, I expect to see her shoving her walker along the edge of her retaining wall where she planted fennel, a plant that was supposed to be a yellow tomato, and ran her hands through the dirt which anchored blooms planted by her daughter-in-law.

I am not walking to lose weight and I am not restricting fat in order to fit into a pair of jeans. The walking project was planned before an unexplained, out-of-the-blue bout of pancreatitis in December altered my dietary habits. The kitchen accidents, one every ten days over the past thirty days leave me mystified and make it really hard to wash the dog. And my hair.

Once, I watched through the window over my kitchen sink while my friend stepped out onto her upstairs porch and bowed to the morning sun. Her long wet hair spilled forward in a shimmer of white gold.

Counting does not come easily to me. I tend to think in round numbers, approximations. I never know how many gallons of gas our car holds, or how many people live in our city, or any of the other numbers that many people note and retrieve.

I don’t remember how many minutes I stood at my sink, watching my friend shake her hair, then brush it, then twist it into the bun she wore every day that I knew her.

When I set the goal for my walking project — 800 miles for the year or a bit more than 15 miles a week — it dawned on me that I had no idea how many steps it took to get from my house to the cliffs or from the cliffs to town. I had even less idea of how many miles I could walk in an hour. I needed tools. I started with the pedometer I gave my husband a couple of Christmases ago. Now I have two apps on my iPod Touch that help me track my steps and miles. I have another app that tracks my caloric intake. We returned from our last trip to Costco with a sleek scale that is see-through and flashes my weight to the tenth of a pound in brilliant blue digits. The old scale, it turns out, was fine but that needle wavered too much. We were constantly fiddling with it to make sure it read “0” before stepping on.

I count with the fervor of a convert. I count everything, even when I know the numbers will tell me I failed to meet my objective. My weekly mileage is closer to ten miles and most of the miles I have walked have been in January, February, and March. I count with optimism. The year is only one quarter over and I’ve already walked far more than I ever would have if I hadn’t set the goal in the first place. I count the fat grams convinced that keeping the count low will ward off a recurrence of the pancreatitis and a return to the far more restrictive diet of boullion, tea, water, and other see-through liquids.

When I first started drinking tea with my friend, I had two dogs and she had one husband. After she became a widow, we visited more often. I would walk over at “the usual time” once or twice a month with my  terriers and we would sit in her backyard or at her dining room table, sip, and talk. We talked about our gardens, our children, her frustrations with the insurance industry, and we took turns tossing a ball for the dogs. Then the dog who loved the ball the best died. My friend gave me tea. She held my hand. We sat in her backyard sometimes not saying much of anything.

No matter how closely I believe I am keeping track, some numbers slip away from me. I can never remember how many steps equals a mile according to these apps I have. I can never be sure they are telling me the truth because they each say something a little different. Sometimes I guess at the calories and fat of the various foods I am eating because the app I use for that doesn’t have the exact thing its database. More and more, I test the limits of my tolerance. After all, the pancreatitis didn’t kill me and more and more it appears to be a fluke that will not repeat itself.

It’s becoming clear that recalling the numbers is not the same as remembering the sights that greet me as I walk, or the laughter over a meal I shared with my family without obsessing about what might happen. The number of books by my bed is meaningless when I am deep inside the world of each one.

I forget when my friend stopped making stars at Christmas. I forget when she started to let me make the tea for us. I forget how many times I meant to call her but let the moment pass.

I remember her laugh. I remember being enfolded in her large, welcoming arms. I remember the warmth of her cheek against mine each time we greeted each other and each time we said goodbye.

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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.

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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

Welcome

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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.”