Weights and Measures

IMG_1025

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.

IMG_1097

 

When I Die, I Want to Become a Tomato

IMG_0400When I die, I want to be composted. I’d like to come back as a tomato.

When I tell my family this, they just sniff and look somewhere past my shoulder, as if I’ve just farted.

If they picture it all, they envision a long process, maggots, turning my body with a shovel, watching me swell and liquify and, of course, trying not to breathe because of the smell. None are Buddhists. None have contemplated a corpse. They don’t want to begin with me.

Fine.

Here’s the solution. I first learned of it when I read Mary Roach’s wonderful book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  She went to Sweden where she interviewed Susanne Wiigh-Masak, a pioneer in the field of ecologically sound burial. After years of research and trying, she has formed a company that will essentially freeze-dry a corpse, turn it into fine powder, remove the harmful metals, and allow the family to mix it in the ground where a tree can be planted above it. To see how it’s done, click here.

I’ve been following this for years and the process is not available in the US. So, I’m working on a low-carbon-footprint way to have my body sent to Sweden and turned into a tree.

How, you might ask, did I come up with this topic for today’s post?

Well, I sat down to write a post that would, in a sparkly, witty way list the top ten things I do with my old manuscripts, rough drafts, and all the paper I’m left with even in this day of keyboards, hard drives, and clouds. I could only come up with five:

1) Grocery lists (when enough white space remains)
2) Pocket notes (instead of index cards when I’m taking walks and am struck by A THOUGHT that must not get away)
3) More rough drafts (when only one side of a page has been printed and can be shoved back into the printer)
4) Foot rest (turns out a rejected manuscript, placed beneath my writing table, is just the right height for achieving an ergonomically correct position).

photo 1

5) Worm food.

You read that last one correctly. In my early days as a composter, I invested in set of stacked boxes and a bag of worms so that our kitchen leavings would have a nice place to go and I would have some nice rich worm-generated compost for my gardening. Such as my gardening is.

One of the ingredients for the worm bedding is paper. I’m embarrassed to say that I still have a lot of paper kicking around. Manuscripts, all or part, lie around like bodies in a morgue. Cold, in pieces sometimes, carved up with red lines or black. Stained with whatever I was eating or drinking as I worked.

When I was into vermicomposting, I used to shred my used-up, marked-up pages and put them in the worm bin. And there they’d be, my words clinging to the scraps of paper that each day disintegrated a little more, turned wet and slimy beneath the bodies of worms or brown every time I added coffee grounds, or banana peels, apple cores, food scraps. It’s humbling to see the products of hours of work consumed by worms and microbes. A character’s eyes, or voice sinking into the earth.

Humbling, but also just right. The tree that became paper, becomes worm food, that feeds a tomato, or a tree again.

A proper burial.

That’s all I’m asking for. No ashes. No chemicals. No maggots. No trauma. Just freeze-dried Betsy and a tree. Or a tomato. I’m not fussy.

If you have an innovative use for your rough drafts, or your body, feel free to share!

If you are wondering about the tomato, these are the fruits of our more recent composting labors. Volunteers. Happy accidents. We throw the chunks of compost that are too big or hard for my pots along the sandy stretch of our alley fence and sometimes, beautiful things happen. All by themselves. Not a bad outcome for any of us, right?

photo 3

 

 

The Gift of Found Time

IMG_0868
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
― Annie Dillard

A  little over eight years ago my father’s heart stopped. One minute he was clutching his tennis racquet and waiting for the other doubles team to serve. The next, he was on the floor. His wife, an ex-firefighter and an amazing human being, resuscitated him with the help of friends and a defibrillator installed on the wall of the gym.

Some years before that, my husband took me to Paris. We bought a seven-day metro pass and rode all over the city to see sights and eat food we’d been talking about for months. Then, on the seventh day, the pass expired. After dinner, we took our last ride back to our hotel, packed our bags and wistfully said good night.

The next morning my husband looked at our itinerary and then looked at me. A smile lit up his face.

“We don’t leave until tomorrow.”

For my father, a little more than 2,300 “found” days. For us, one.

I learned as a kid about the concept of “found” fortune. It’s that five-dollar bill in the pocket of last winter’s coat, discovered this winter as you reach for a plastic bag to clean up after the dog. It’s a coin glistening on the asphalt parking lot, a check tucked inside a birthday card from a relative. Unearned, unexpected, a gift.

The question of course is what to do with the windfall.

My husband and I danced down to the metro station, bought a one-day pass each and set out on a completely unscripted day. We got off wherever we wanted. We ate deli in the Jewish section, wandered through the Picasso museum, negotiated the return of my husband’s stolen sunglasses, ate ice cream, walked one more time along the Seine at night. No single thing was particularly romantic or dazzling. Each one added up to a day we’ve never forgotten. The thing we remember most is how time moved slowly, like a river in August. Each minute drifted up to us, sank in, and then passed without urgency. We had no expectations or plans.

Then we came home. Our days rushed at us full of tasks, expectations, plans set in motion, worries, people to care for, deadlines, milestones. The “found” day is a story we tell. It is something we try to recapture when we travel and we do a pretty good job of it, although planning an open day is not quite the same as waking up to the surprise of one. We’ve never managed to stumble on a “found” day at home or work. As I write these words, I wonder why this is.

As for my dad?

I asked him recently how he views the “extra innings” he was granted. We chatted over the phone. His voice in my ear was clear, strong and, as always, a little musical. He always sounds decades younger than the eighty-seven he will turn next month.

“I think about it a lot and how lucky I’ve been. I’m still above the daisies. I am grateful for that.”

We don’t talk about how he has spent his days since “the event.” There are the things I know about: staying engaged in the company he founded with my brother, adopting with his wife two lab-doodles from a rescue organization, walking a few miles every day or working out on a rowing machine in his basement, chopping wood, driving to the dump, practicing jazz on his guitar, swearing at his computer, cooking and eating meals that keep him trim, healthy, and the poster image of the healthy, compliant cardiac patient. He spends time with men who have served in the Marines, as he has. He continues to read as he always has. He has attended funerals of friends and acquaintances. I know there is a boat under construction in his shed, unfinished. I know it bothers him. A lot of things, it turns out, bother him about how he is spending his time.

“I have so many things out there that I have started and haven’t been able to finish and I feel pressured by that and I keep asking myself how I’m going to deal with this.”

“I’m having a huge dialog with myself about some of the things i’ve done since then and not totally happy with myself.”

“I’m taking some time now to sit down and go through all of it in my mind. I am going to be trying to make better decisions.”

A few hours after talking with my father, I am talking to K. who is in tears. The past has got her in its grip and is shaking her in its wolf teeth.

“I’ve made so many bad decisions.” The rest of the thought goes unexpressed: so little time left to alter course.

At 52 she is trying to find her way to the kinds of days she imagines other people enjoy. She wants to work, to love and be loved, to be included in a world that seems closed off to her because of mistakes she has made or decisions she is afraid to make.

The woman who can make me weep with laughter, who can both embarrass and enthrall me with her ability to walk up to total strangers and talk to them as though she’s known them all her life, who has been a rock for others in the face of death, is afraid on this day. She copes with chronic illness. Money is scarce. Too many of the people she has loved or passed significant chunks of time with are dead.

She wants time back. She wants it to wait for her to catch up. She wants to find time.

We talk about my father. We talk about the day my husband and I found in Paris. We talk about the trap of believing that we’ve screwed up so badly that we can’t or don’t deserve to live fully in the day that is right here in front of us. There is the maddening idea that by “saving” time, we can squirrel it away for later.

Then we talk about those brief flashes of insight that come to us when some event that happens in the space of time it takes to hit the brakes and avoid an accident, or find out that we’ve tucked an extra day in Paris, or when some arbitrary set of circumstances — marrying the right woman, playing tennis in one of the few gyms with an AED attached to the wall — forces our eyes open. We discover that time is both precious and unremarkable. It is now. We understand, if only for a little while, that it was there all along, waiting for us to find it.

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