Sunday Sentence: Leaving Tinkertown by Tanya Ward Goodman

“I feel my own place in the world dissolving in the tide of Dad’s forgetting.” – Tanya Ward Goodman, Leaving Tinkertown

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Her father was a an artist, a collector, a carnival man who was “with it.” She was his “best kid.” When he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she and all who loved him began to lose him memory by memory. Over and over I am struck by the grace of Tanya Ward Goodman’s prose and her honesty.

I love reading them, so now I’m joining 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 commentary.

One Thing

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 “He never knew when it was coming.”

I learned last week that there is one thing about me my husband would change if he could.

Not the size of my breasts.

Not my inability to control myself around a bag of corn chips.

Not the way I start reading his library books before he is finished with them, or try to kiss him when I am still wet from the shower, or my lax attitude towards filling the car’s gas tank. He wouldn’t make me younger, older, or smarter, or funnier — which is saying something because I never get his jokes and can’t remember punch lines.

He would, though, put me in a coma, open up my cranium, and reach deep into my brain to find the switch that is responsible for my sneeze so he could disarm it.

My sneeze, he says, shrieks through him like a three-second hurricane, leaves him shuddering, makes him wonder about me in ways that, if I let myself think about it, might find disturbing.

So I don’t.

I do, however, make an effort now. I not only cover, I run from the room. I try to keep the sneeze all in my nose so when it detonates the only sound he hears is my whimpering as my sinuses implode.

This is a public service message. The marriage you save may be your own.

At least I do not sound like a chicken. Here is a chicken sneezing:

By the way, did you know that…

Sneezing does NOT stop your heart (although it may bring the hearts of those nearby to a screeching halt)?

You can sneeze at 100 miles per hour?

People can’t sneeze in their sleep but some sneeze when they pluck their eyebrows?

For these and other fun facts about the big Ah-Choo click here.

 

 

 

 

 

Life Happens

“It was amazing how you could get so far from where you’d planned, and yet find it was exactly were you needed to be.” (Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye)

What we won't remember

What we won’t remember

If things had been going according to plan, I’d be writing this post from Switzerland, on the last leg of a three-week trip that was to begin with a flight into Zurich, take us through the Alps and into Italy before ending in Geneva.

It was a trip planned with love and care by a husband who can stretch airline miles, find the best deals, and uncover the splurges that make for the kind of memories that shine through the years like slivers of gold at the bottom of a creek.

The kind of trip very fortunate people can plan.

Then, as some like to say, life happened, or as others put it, shit happened. Within forty-eight hours of our departure, a stomach virus hit us both, a loved one was in a frightening car accident, and even though we told ourselves we’d be fine and our kids told us they’d be fine, my husband looked at me hours before we were to board the plane and said, “I just don’t think this feels right.”

We canceled. Our Cairn terrier, who had been watching the packing with growing concern, relaxed. So, for a few days, did we.

Then another loved one got some troubling news and we planned a new trip, one that took us to Burbank where we spent time with him in doctor’s waiting rooms, labs, and keeping him company while he waited for the results of scans and biopsies. The results came. They weren’t what any of us wanted to hear.

When we look back at this time, we will probably remember the shock, and the pain that followed, but we will also remember how we all gathered the night of the day we got the bad news. We will see the meal our kids, still recovering from the car accident, prepared for their uncle and us. We will see the loved faces around the table as we passed the food, poured the wine, shared old familiar stories. We will drink in the laughter that bubbled through our uncertainty and both anchored and lifted us. We will remember how grateful we felt to have each other and to be with each other instead of thousands of miles away.

It is the kind of moment, and memory, that truly fortunate people can have.

Drinking Lessons

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The distiller and I are sitting across from each other in the swelter of a Denver June afternoon, three tiny unlabeled bottles of bourbon lined up before us. He pours from one into a scratched goblet that will serve as a snifter, lifts it to his nose, and then offers it to me like a teacher holding out a piece of chalk.

My turn.

Our classroom is the backyard of the rented house that he shares with his girlfriend, his Bassett hound, a cat, and a roommate to help pay the rent while he gets his business off the ground. He is showing me how to taste the spirit in which he has invested thousands of hours and dollars that he has scraped to earn, borrow, or finance at vertiginous rates on credit cards. As with wine, there is the “nosing,” the swirling, the chewing, the spitting, but the step that follows the first taste is the one that gets my full attention.

“Warm it,” he instructs. “Cup the glass in your hands, like this. Bring it in close, hold it next to your heart.”

The moment feels as fragile as the glass in my palm. I know from experience that one false move can shatter it.

I swirl and swish. While my nose strains to pick up notes of oak, the judge who lives inside me inhales a whiff of old anxieties. The distiller is my son. There is the matter of the credit cards, the nagging concern about the business he’s chosen given his past, complicated relationship with alcohol, the kinds of things mothers are supposed to worry about. I have a list of those things. It seems to write itself during the long stretches between our visits, it unfurls in my brain after our phone calls which often leave me with more questions than they answer. The details of his days are lost to me and so I fill in the blanks with pictures patched together from casual references, the sudden silences when I ask a question that goes too far, or assumptions based on the boy I knew who lived with me for sixteen years. It’s my job to worry, I used to tell him with a smile meant to smooth things over between us.

But I’m no longer sure what my job is when it comes to him. I weigh the fear in my heart as the glass warms in my palm. I’m tired of this worry. It seems to have outlived its usefulness which, I am beginning to understand, was only useful to me. I believed it tethered us but in fact it has been driving us apart for years. It has never stopped anything bad from happening. It has never helped anything good happen. And right now I am sitting in the sun occupying a moment with a person I have loved his whole life and I want to savor it. All of it.

I take a sip. The bourbon settles on my tongue and begins to release its history layer by layer. He talks about the charring of oak barrels, the differences between this and whiskey aged in peat but I’m letting the warmth sink into me. I’m thinking about how competent he seems, how intensely serious he is about what he is doing, how undeterred he has been since he started down this road, and of how little he wants or needs the things I used to provide.

It occurs to me that this moment is the distillation of every one that had has led up to it beginning with the moment he slithered out of my body and began to breathe on his own. It holds the echoes of the social worker who tried to convince me at eighteen to give him up to older parents who were ready in ways I could not be. It grew from the doubt and fear of being responsible for a person’s life along with the determination to hold on to him and prove her wrong. It contains the ache I felt when, sixteen years later, I realized I needed to find him a safe place to finish growing up even if it was over two thousand miles away. In this moment are the lessons I’ve learned and relearned in the nearly sixteen years since then about what I can control and what I can’t and that being his mother means, ultimately, letting him go.

The fact is, he’s done fine. He’s done better than fine even with some false starts and some painful setbacks that I sometimes knew of but other times discovered after his wounds had healed and the lessons they taught, absorbed.

The glass in my hand flashes in the sun and seems to expose my worry for what it is: a reflex and something I need to fill spaces left empty by my job, by the writing I haven’t started yet, by the need to define myself to others according to his successes and failures. I have been afraid that if I stop worrying, I will be letting him go. If I let him go, I will lose him.

This realization opens inside me like a window and before I can do much about it, the fear slips out. I am left with my son, his eyes shining with enthusiasm and some surprise — I haven’t interrupted him once since we sat down. I am left in this moment full of sun and promise and a kind of stillness we have never shared before.

In the five years since that visit, he’s moved from that backyard to Grand Junction. The distillery thrives and so does he. We’ve had more moments since then. Some perfect, some not. Keepers, all. But here is the one that I summon up when I come home and begin to wonder again how to be a mother of a grown and still-growing human being:

We are driving to the tiny Grand Junction airport after one more visit that in the old days I would have complained was too short. The hot breath of the high desert blows through his truck windows and surrounds us. There is so much I want to say but I don’t trust myself to speak when we are about to leave each other for another long absence. My son reaches over and closes his hand around mine. His palm is rough against my skin, his grip gentle and unhurried. I say nothing. I don’t think about when he’ll have to let go. I taste the moment fully, breathe it in. I hold it close to my heart.

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If you find yourself thirsty for more information about this bourbon and other fine spirits, here’s a video and a link to the site for Peach Street Distillers.

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.

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Seduction by Artichoke

Source: By MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

Source: By MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

There are the hearts you draw on Valentine cards, the chocolate ones, and the very useful muscle that is sending oxygen to your cells as you read this.

Then there is the tender, sweet meat protected by the thorny leaves of the artichoke. The heart of the choke, or the “toots” as my husband’s family calls it, is the promise that lies at the center of the spiky green globes.

You don’t just pluck this fruit and eat it, you have to work your way in. You have to find a way to render the leaves pliable so they release their essence. You have to peel each one and suck it dry, prove your worthiness.

Eating an artichoke is not a casual decision. It is a commitment. You engage with fingers, tongue and taste buds. It is not for the naive or inexperienced. When my mother introduced her children to this exotic food, she refused to let us have more than a few leaves of steamed chokes until we proved we could scrape every scrap of flesh from them. Then we progressed to the heart which she would scrape clean and carve into five small morsels, one for each of us. The tips of our fingers were slippery with melted butter and I can still remember the sweetness of my first taste.

My husband, though, revealed the true nature of the artichoke to me. He is polite but dismissive about the steamed choke. His way to the heart requires patience, a sharp knife, and tough fingertips which turn black as he prepares the artichokes for one of two final steps, each involving olive oil, garlic, lemon, herbs, a dash of marsala. Then, depending on their size, or his mood, they simmer in all of that until the juice has found its way into each crevice and has turned what is left of the leaves to petals of flavor. Or, he sautees them until they are crispy blossoms that give way to lemon, garlic and then the sudden fleeting sweetness of the “toots” before heading down the hatch to make room for another.

Artichokes helped us to fall even more deeply in love during one Christmas week in Rome. A long walk brought us into the Trastevere neighborhood and to Al Fontanone, then a small place with solid tables, carafes of good wine, and a waiter who informed us that artichokes, “carciofi,” were in season. We could have ours “alla Romana”, “alla Giudia” or both. Both. We peeled the slippery leaves from the chokes prepared “alla Romana” and shared them. We crunched down on the leaves of the ones prepapred “all Giudia” and smiled into each other’s eyes. We went back for more. Twice.

Inspired by this and by the lessons learned in his grandmother’s kitchen, my love has  been cooking them ever since. Sometimes he manages to combine the smoothness of the “Roman style” with the crispyness of the “Jewish style” into one sensous eating experience which makes me realize how lucky I am that I found a man who knows the way to my heart and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

For a look at what it takes, watch this video of my love at work. You can listen to Andrea Bocelli sing Romanza while you watch.

Prepping The Chokes

Or, for another perspective, read Neruda’s “Ode to An Artichoke” via Edible Gardens Point Loma. 

Finally, here’s a look at just one version of the finished product. To the cook: un milione di baci! To all: Happy Valentine’s Day!

Hearts laid bare, ready to eat

Hearts laid bare, ready to eat

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?

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.”