Tokyo Love


It’s hard to believe we are almost through our time here. It feels as though each day we are still just arriving, getting over our jet lag, lazily making our way through the streets to be greeted by the onslaught of beauty, order, cleanliness and calm that is Tokyo. I have never been in a city this packed with people that appears to remain so peaceful. There is a relaxed tone to everything, from the well trimmed shrubs and vibrant trees neatly encased in cement squares to the cashier who hands me my change and receipt with two hands, a smile and a bow. The rushing and stress that I associate with life on the streets of a large metropolis seems to be absent. Yes, at rush hour, one feels a definite press of commuters, but even then, most people are moving at a reasonable pace and the frenetic energy I associate with big cities and the resulting rudeness and gruffness is not to be found.

Yesterday we took a tour of Kyoto and hired a car and driver for the job. Mr. Araki, who had lived in San Diego for ten months, was a delightful wellspring of suggestions and animated discussion. “Japan people are rigid, not like Americans. Americans are so frexible!” I’m sure American flexibility is something I ought to appreciate more, but so far, Tokyo has given me a snug feeling of order that fits very well with my temperament.

Araki was right about Japanese rigidity, which may sometimes beget tension, like I saw in the face of a restaurant manager when a photographer, eager to get a picture, mistakenly stepped on some moss in the immense rock garden that ran along the outside of the dining room where we were eating. The manager seemed unable to get over the offense, even after the photographer apologized profusely, bowing a dozen times in deference, and the manager continually bent down over the trod upon spot to lovingly sooth the moss several times as we looked on, slurping up seafood entrails and strange fungi.

The devotion to order and cleanliness is impressive in action. I love the warm wet towels given before meals and the people who stand, often white gloved, at the entrance to a subway platform, a restroom, a department store or any number of places whose sole job seems to be to tell you where to go. They are like traffic cops for people, making sure to keep us flowing in the right direction. Since our arrival I’ve seen men feverishly scrubbing a bench on the subway platform, a woman removing fingerprints from the glass cases in a museum minutes after they were made, and a bathroom attendant, dressed like a french maid keeping the stalls pristine and the sinks furnished with warm towels.

Today was the Autumn Equinox which is a national holiday in Japan. The culture demands a reverence to nature that I wholly approve of and has its roots in the prevailing religion, Shintoism, which is often combined with Buddhism, and is largely based on honoring and praising Mother Nature above all. In Kyoto we visited a few temples and shrines and watched people perform various purification rituals – washing hands and mouths with water, and smudging with incense – in order to enter the places of worship. Like many Eastern religious practices, the rituals are practical measures taken to achieve a certain outcome with different statues and shrines devoted to specific goals like love, money, success or good health. But built into these themes is always the overarching idea of praising nature, the elements or sometimes certain animals in order to live well.

Above all, the thing the Japanese seem to to have mastered is the idea of balance. It takes precedence in everything, from the beautiful gardens to the striking architecture and design, to the way people dress and arrange flowers, to the precious boxes of colorful food arranged just so. We are staying in a very fancy area where the sight of an ill-conceived outfit is rare. The people on the street are not just dressed expensively, as they are on Madison Avenue or Beverly Hills, they manage to have individual style. But it’s not just a matter of being fashionable, though most people are, it is the balance and restraint and just plain good taste in almost everything that has impressed me the most.

Balance is enormously important in how the gardens and plants are tended to. When we visited the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto it was almost ridiculous how perfectly picturesque each view of it was. The greenery surrounding the structure, the pond and trees and mountains behind it, are all designed to frame it like a picture. You couldn’t take a bad photo of it if you tried. Here, nature is not wild and unpredictable as we thought. It is an expression, beautifully balanced and tended to with the utmost care and devotion.

Nothing is perfect and I’m sure there are steep prices paid for all the perfectly harmonious beauty I’ve perceived on this visit. But I will go home in a few days inspired to live my life, tend my garden and get dressed every morning with reverence for the Gods who rule the natural world, and I will strive for the balance and calm that I have witnessed here.

The Anxious Traveler


“I want to live each day for itself like a string of colored beads, and not kill the present by cutting it up in cruel little snippets to fit some desperate architectural draft for a Taj Mahal in the future.”

-Sylvia Plath, from The Journals of Sylvia Plath

I love this line because it captures perfectly the trap I often fall into. I can worry with the best of them, to the point of making myself sick, and if I don’t keep the anxiety in check, the disease can spread. It’s a common affliction among depressives and this story illustrates the problem well.

I’ve talked about this before, but travel always makes me anxious. I’m excited to plan adventures, and I love getting there, but the lead up is always a major challenge for me.

This past weekend was devoted to getting ready for a trip to Tokyo with the girls, to meet Dave for his first show there, a trip we’ve all been excited about for months.

In an effort to keep myself focused I made long to do lists, which were supposed to help me avoid spinning out. But as I obsessively checked off each completed task I was adding more items to the bottom. I packed our bags early so we could spend the day before departure at the park, relaxing with friends in the shade at a birthday party, and avoiding the anxiety.

I don’t have any trouble repressing my stress and ignoring the lists as long as I’m away from them, and the house with its incessant piles of dishes, bills and laundry. But when we got home after the party, the girls and I, the anxiety resumed full force. My sense of humor and ease vanished as I glanced at the clock and counted the hours I had left. My kids are used to the way I am before a trip and were good about taking care of themselves as I ran next door to use my neighbor’s fax machine and struggled to check us in online. I reserved a taxi for the airport and gave the wrong departure time. I called back to fix it and got it wrong again. It took three calls for me to get the taxi reserved for the right time; an obvious indication I was losing my cool.

Our flight wasn’t leaving until the afternoon but I was determined to have everything done before I went to bed the night before. Bags packed except for toothbrushes. Travel documents printed and stapled. Bills paid. Notes to cat sitters written.

Still spinning like a top after the kids were in bed, I decided they needed little journals to write in for the trip. I grabbed paper, folded it in half and stared at the crease, trying to figure out how to bind it. It was midnight as I struggled, kneeling on the floor of the closet with a knitting needle, poking through the stack of paper and binding it with yarn.

In the morning, my twelve year old told me tearfully that she didn’t feel well. She was shivering under her blanket and turned out to have a fever. She was in tears, afraid the trip would have to be cancelled and I too had a moment where I thought the same thing.

Luckily everything was done and I could devote the morning to her. This is the upside of being fanatically organized. I called the on-call nurse associated with our health plan (which could be another post entirely-a saga right out of Blade Runner) and called my husband in Tokyo. We decided not to change our plans and just see what happened. If she was really sick and they wouldn’t let us fly, perhaps they would let us postpone the flight.

Then I did what I’d been planning to do all along which was to breathe. I didn’t blame myself entirely, but I felt there was a correlation between my stress and my daughter’s illness. Like me, she is sensitive and vulnerable, anxious in her own ways, and I knew that if I calmed down it would help her. “Breathe” was the final line on my to do list.

As soon as I lay down to do my breathing meditation I started to release all the struggle. I focused on the earth beneath me. As I began some sadness came out and the next thing I knew I was shaking out all the anxiety and stress, into the floor. I felt the carpet, the cement and the dirt under me like arms gently wrapped around me and I thanked the earth for absorbing my toxic energy. As I deepened into the gratitude I felt for the earth an enormous wave of energy pulsed up through me, like a burst of manna, and I let it rise up into my body and shake me loose, like rocks in a gravel pit. After a whole lot of shaking the energy calmed down and I breathed normally, lay still and listened. Jays were calling outside and the oak leaves were trembling, sharp and brittle in the dry wind.

My meditation practice never fails me. I got up feeling full of love and completely relaxed. I touched the four stones I have situated on our property to give thanks and praise to the elements and to ask for protection on our trip. As I touched the south-facing stone, I heard a scuffle of wings nearby and saw a beautiful band-tailed pigeon a few feet away. (This is a west-coast bird, similar to the rock pigeon that populates every city and town world wide, but different.) It was staring at me and I thought of the dove as a messenger of peace. I thanked him or her for the message and continued my rounds of the property. At the north stone, eyes closed, I felt the near silent cutting of air near my head and turned to see a crow had almost clipped me. A gaggle of them landed on the wires above me, raising their wings and griping at each other.

The earth with all of its expression in the plants and animals offers an instant renewal of faith that I’m safe, that life is good, that the earth that has always supported me will continue to do so as long as I appreciate, honor, and respect her. She responds quickly and forcefully to admiration and gratitude, awe and praise.

I like the word “praise,” and I use it as in “Praise God,” but I praise the earth-God. She is the most benevolent of them all. In Greek mythology the heroes must make offerings and give praise to appease their Gods, who are vain and angry most of the time. Earth is much more benevolent than Zeus or Poseidon ever were. She recycles my sadness (the root of my anxiety), letting me cry into the arms of a tree or on my meditation floor and always returning it with a sense of peace and wonder and love. Never ending love.

We are over the Pacific now and Grace sits beside me, peacefully watching a movie, her fever gone, her sense of excitement for this trip reborn.

The Upside of Doubt

green pool

I am absolutely depleted today, having handed in my manuscript late last night, getting four hours of sleep and still managing the business of being a mother today. I even managed to run a couple of miles and take a nice photo on the trail before crashing.

There is nothing like a deadline to get my ass in gear. I had promised this latest rewrite to my editor in May, then June, July, you get the idea. I would still be promising it to her “soon” if she hadn’t been forced to give me a deadline due to her work schedule. I had one week to get through the last 50 odd pages.

I knew I could do it. I didn’t know how well I could do it in that time frame, but I knew I could get it done and I did. For that I deserve a big high five along with a sizable slice of chocolate cake, because finishing is a big deal. And yes I managed to indulge in my share of celebration. It’s much easier to get caught up in the voices that say its a worthless project that’s not going to go anywhere than it is to actually finish. The self-doubt lets me put off finishing, especially when I get bored with the project and there is no agent or a publisher breathing down my neck. I have an editor for hire who doesn’t really care when I finish, until she does. The Gods must have noticed I needed a push.

Doubt, it turns out is also a great motivator. No matter how hard the voices work to convince me my work is pointless, or of such poor quality I ought to be embarrassed, I can still side with the other part of me, that calm pool at the center that has the will to prove countless thorny voices wrong. It’s doubt that pushes me. I’m never really satisfied as I work because at my core I know I’m a mediocre writer at best. Someone (Who are you? Would you like to buy my book?) may disagree, and like anything else, writing ability is relative. Compared to many writers, folks who have published lots of books, have popular blogs and may make a fine living at it but whose writing I abhor, I feel pretty good. I can turn out decent sentences and dream up images just as well as the next guy. But I more often compare myself to the greatest writers in the world. The masters, Pulitzer Prize winners and the wunderkinds. Compared to Dickens or Shakespeare, Munro or Tartt, I suck noodles.

I came late to writing, which is my fall back excuse. I wasn’t an English major in college, and I never did very well in literature or writing classes. When I was a freshman, my English 101 teacher told me I needed a tutor, which I got and even the tutor gave up on me. Apparently I was a hopeless case, which kept me from writing for a long time.

My college professor had a different opinion, but the beauty of writing is that with practice, any schmuck can improve. A child can string words together, just as they can draw a line. It’s not like singing, where you either have the instrument or you don’t. Or ballet where that instrument’s peak is steep and narrow. Writers only get better with age. Some may do their “best work” at a young age, but most writers, it seems to me, keep going.

I too intend to keep it up. I love writing. I love the craft of it, how you can work a sentence one way and then another, sculpting it, getting a different shape and feeling out of it with every change. And I love fighting the good fight with self-doubt, and all the issues, all the demons it forces me to confront.


janusWe’ve been reading a wonderful book called Classic Myths to Read Aloud by William F. Russel (Three Rivers Press) and learning all about greek and roman gods and goddesses. Having never taken an interest in the classics during my days as a uninspired high school student I was unfamiliar with Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, or as we might say these days, “transitions.”

Today is September 1 and it also happens to be Labor Day, both of which signify the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. There was a period when the school calendar didn’t impact my life and I was just a worker bee who got two weeks of vacation a year if I was lucky, but that was a brief interlude. For the majority of my fifty years I have either been in school, or worked at school, or had kids to bring to school, so this month is always a time of switching gears for me.

I learned that January, my birth month, is named for Janus because it marks the beginning/ending of the calendar year. In the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem meant to rival Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, I learned that Aeneas, the story’s hero, prays to Janus as he leaves Troy with his family and a group of followers to escape death while their city is being destroyed by the Greeks. As they fled in fear, Aeneas’ prayer was meant as a reminder that though they were leaving their home and life as they knew it behind, they were also embarking on a new adventure.

We are all excited around here for the first day of school tomorrow, but I for one am mourning the conclusion of one the most glorious summers I can remember. Our time in Vermont this year was augmented by new friends, a deeper connection to the community and warming up to our responsibilities as Vermont landowners. We had great weather and good times and the kids both grew tremendously in the best sense of the word. I think they are finally appreciating how lucky we are to get to know two such contrasting places as Southern California and Northern Vermont.

I was interested to find out that Janus is also said to be the god of doors and portals, which are symbols I’ve used heavily in my book to signify the effort it takes to communicate when family members erect emotional walls around themselves in the face of disease and death. Annie, the main character, is constantly opening and closing doors, standing in doorways, listening with her ears pressed up against them and wrestling to open the ones that are stuck shut.

I am finishing the final version of the manuscript this week. It has been five years in the works and I am finally in the home stretch. I’ve thought I was there many times before, but this time I’m convinced. Ha! It’s not easy writing a book but finishing is even harder. There is this terrible pull that doesn’t want me to release it from the place of draft into the realm of complete. It’s an awful moment in many ways, uncomfortable and awkward as I fight against my demons and the powerful inertia that would have me keep the book in it’s infant stage. Today, as I struggled to describe an idea not fully formed it occurred to me that writing a book is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s like being trapped in a bad marriage with myself.

As I work to finally complete this project I’m going to say a few prayers to Janus. I’ll let him remind me that it’s time to stop nursing the baby protectively and past due for the adventure of putting this book out into the world and let it forage on its own.


When Stars Align


When we first talked about having a party on the last weekend of our summer in Vermont, it seemed like bad timing. Parties take a lot of energy and I knew I would want to focus on packing up the house and organizing. But it was the only weekend that worked and as it approached people kept asking if they could come visit and before we knew what was happening we had a dozen people staying with us. Then more people showed up unexpectedly and we kept inviting even more and the simple potluck we’d planned was turning out to be a bash.

I did the shopping ahead so all we had to do the day of the party was get the house ready and set up all the food. There was a lot to do but thanks to the many guests staying at the house, it all got done in a few hours. The kids grabbed rakes and got to work on the freshly mowed back yard and when it looked beautiful they lay down on the grass and listened to Paula read from a book of classic myths. We were finished with all the preparations well before party time so a big group of us went down to the lake to swim. The sun was shining and the water was gorgeous and clear. I swam out deep with a few others and said a little prayer to the weather gods not to let it rain on our party since there would never be enough room inside for the throngs we were expecting.

After we got home and everyone showered and dressed, a formidable buzz, our collective anticipation of the party, was building. We’d all worked hard cleaning up the house, lining trash barrels, making runs to the store for ice, forming dozens of hamburger patties with our hands and arranging tables and chairs. Because it was a group effort, there was no stress, and everyone felt invested so that we practically cheered when the first guests, Sofia and Dante, rode up on their bikes. In minutes people started pouring in carrying salads and side dishes, drinks and desserts and before long the tables were full of food, Eric was busy manning the grill and there was no room to walk in the kitchen. Vermonters take their potlucks seriously and the kitchen counters were bursting with freshly picked salads, homemade pickles, and sumptuous pies. Someone brought a huge bowl of blackberries, along with a mountain of whipped cream and broken up bits of chocolate to pour on top.

I was sitting outside talking with a pair of new friends, a wonderful cook and and her boyfriend, when a few members of the Bread and Puppet band started playing their horns. It was a soft melodic tune, not one of their usual raucous songs, and the music colored the early warm stages of twilight with cool colors. It was my favorite moment of the party as it was just getting under way, the jittery fear of “What-if-no-one-comes” long past, but the party still feeling like it was brimming with potential that kept me higher than the hard cider I was drinking.

There was no lull. Every time I turned around there was someone else standing there I wanted to talk to. Kids were running in circles around the yard playing “zombie tag” when my friend Pete tugged at me to witness Frances, my eight year old, on the porch having a serious conversation with Nick, a muck boots and overalls sixty-something with an Abe Lincoln beard.

Pete lit a bonfire just as it was getting dark and the band, now playing more energetically, moved up to the fire.

Much later, after many great conversations and many plates of food, and after giving more than a few guided tours through Dave’s studio, I was back in the kitchen and people were leaving. I don’t think anyone left without expressing thanks and saying “great party!” I never once felt like we’d done anything special except invite a lot of wonderful people we happen to know in this little corner of Vermont.


Summers Away


The exquisite pleasure of swimming across the lake with my friend P. brought up multiple thoughts about summers and how best to spend them as I rhythmically gasped for air, splashing my arms into the chopped surface of the lake and kicking as hard as I could to ward of the cold that was grinding its way into my bones. It was all I could do to keep from freezing, pushing my arms hard into the water, thinking about pleasure and laziness, being in gorgeous places and hanging out with friends in Vermont. I flashed on hikes up Mount Pisgah with the girls, afternoons under a blue sky watching Bread and Puppet performances and late night boat rides with friends, drifting for hours while the kids sang, the adults drank and we watched the moon rise over the hills. Periodically, P. and I would slow down to rest and swim leisurely as we talked, making heart shaped strokes and chatting about people and places, where we felt at home and why. I peppered her with questions about her boyfriend. I was twenty six when she was born but we are swimming partners, and we never let a summer go by without making our trek across the lake.

It’s already late. By mid-August the weather starts to cool down up here and I’ve been waiting all summer for P., who has been traveling. I took a few quick swims after running and relished the cold water, going out far enough to achieve the illusion that I was in the middle of the lake, but knowing I wasn’t even close. I didn’t dare swim across without a partner, though I’ve done it before, because I can get anxious out in the middle by myself, and my husband and kids don’t really like me doing it either.

This morning P. was determined that we should go even though it’s been cold and rainy for days. I was more than game having waited so long but we both procrastinated for a couple of hours, finally finding our nerves around eleven. We jogged the quarter mile down the dirt road to get the blood flowing but the water was still very chilly when I jumped in. It was drizzling. There were a couple of people out in kayaks but otherwise the lake was devoid of other humans. We swam hard as long as we could to get warm but it wasn’t long before we slowed into breast stroke and started talking. The green of the hills around us seemed brighter this year, maybe because the summer was a cool one. The water felt silky against my arms and legs and sweet in my mouth, but the sky was an angry gray. It was windy and the current felt like it was slowing us down because the dock on the other side did not appear to be getting closer.

“It’s weird,” P. said as we swam, “it starts to look like you’re getting close and you get all excited and then it takes a long time to actually get there.” She’s right. It’s very tricky to tell how far you have to go when you’re in the water. The only way I can tell if I’m past the halfway mark is to look back and compare the scale of the cabins on the shore I just left to the ones I’m approaching. It’s impossible to have a sense of time passing. We were definitely getting there, but she was right. The dock didn’t seem to be getting bigger fast enough.

When we finally did reach it we were too cold to get out. We crouched on rocks to rest our muscles and shiver with only our heads above the water. As we sat there panting, the cold was like an enemy gaining on us as our heart rates slowed so we decided to get on with the second leg of our journey. The other side seemed even further away and as we got out deep I suddenly felt panicked about hypothermia. I thought I might be too tired to keep swimming hard enough to stay warm. But with P. there with her gorgeous smile and chatting about whatever, my anxious mind never had a chance to overtake me.

I concentrated the rest of the way on staying warm. Our bodies were spending energy just to keep the heat in our veins, so we swam hard in spurts, enough to keep from freezing without depleting our stores. As we neared our home dock we realized the girls, my kids, were not on the dock with our towels. The thought of getting out with nothing to wrap around us, having to wipe the water off with our hands, was unthinkable. But just as we got within striking distance, they emerged from behind the trees cheering us on. The air was bitter cold on my wet skin and I shivered convulsively as I toweled off and struggled to pull on pants,  and a polar fleece. I noticed my kids were in their pajamas which seemed incredible. To me the air was as cold as a winter’s day but it was only about 62 degrees out. We flitted down the road, high on endorphins, a middle aged and a much younger woman, both in wet clothes with their hair in towel turbans, and two young girls in pajamas. We must have looked a little weird to the one car that drove past us.

Even a long hot shower didn’t manage to eradicate the chill that had settled deep inside but we were exhilarated from the effort, the beauty and the excitement of our swim. “Let’s do it again tomorrow,” P. had grinned as we pulled up onto the dock, the lake dripping onto the aluminum, and I’d said yes.

The C word


I took the kids to a science museum in New Hampshire yesterday and there was an exhibit on seeing inside the body. On one side of the small room was a display of X-rays you could hold up on a light box. Fractured ribs and femurs, and household objects that were harder to recognize.  Frances who is seven was interested in the large films and I explained that they were probably donated by a hospital, and that now most places use digital xrays.

On the other side of the room was a computer set up to explain the many types of imaging they currently use in cancer detection. MRI, CT scan, PET scan, mammography, ultrasound and colonoscopy were all explained with detailed pictures, videos and explanations of how each one works.

We looked at the colonoscopy page for a long time, Frances having remembered that I’d had one a few months ago and that a friend of ours has colon cancer. She asked a lot of questions and was fascinated that a tiny camera had shot the footage of the inside of someone’s you know what.

We also spent a few minutes looking up breast cancer and lymphoma because those are the cancers that her maternal grandmother and great grandmother died from. It gave her an opportunity to ask how my mother had found the lump in her breast and how big it was. We talked about different kinds of cancer and how some can be more easily detected than others.

“Kids get cancer too,” she stated, very matter of fact.

“Yup. They do,” I said hoping not to spend too much time on the subject. Frances frequently throws out the possibility of dying young, which I hate because my mother had the same habit. In an attempt to cap the conversation I said, “Some people live a long time and others don’t.”

“Yup,” she answered, mirroring my tone. “And that’s just the way it is.” I smiled at her.

I’m a big advocate of talking about death with kids, normalizing the subject as much as possible, and it was good to have a very easy exchange with Frances about cancer too. When I was growing up and my mother had cancer, it was still a very uncomfortable subject for people. I remember another mom who I didn’t know very well, whispering to me that her mother had cancer and was now in remission. The fact that she was whispering to me even though there was no one within earshot made me reluctant to ask what remission meant, but it didn’t stop me from dreaming that my mother’s illness would do the same thing, and that she’d still be around when I was old enough to be a mom too.

After my daughter was still born, people would often do that whispering thing. They’d come up close at a party, and in barely audible words tell me that they’d lost a baby once. In both cases the impulse seems to be in the name of keeping the subject quiet around the children, even though I was still a kid when the mom whispered to me about remission.

Cancer has touched my life many times over in my fifty years, but thankfully I know more people who have survived it than have died from it. And I know my chances of getting some form of it are pretty good. It feels more normal to me now. It’s something that happens, it’s not necessarily a death sentence like it once was, and it’s easier for people to talk about it.

A little girl I knew as a child had Leukemia and when she died my mother didn’t even tell me. I found out many years later, I guess when she thought I was old enough. But I wish she had been straightforward with me instead of telling me the girl was very ill when she’d already died. It would have been a good conversation to have. For both of us.

Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit

rabbitI used to say three rabbits on the first of the month, before saying anything else that day, if I could remember to do it. I was a superstitious kid and took every opportunity to make a wish or bestow good luck on myself.

I ran into a rabbit yesterday, just as I was entering our house in Vermont. All I saw at first was a an animal, bigger than a mouse but smaller than a raccoon, flash across the shed floor. I couldn’t see it in the dim light among the recycling bins and the rakes so I waited, unsure what it was. Someone’s cat? A fox?

A moment later this handsome rabbit hopped out from behind some old boxes and stared in my direction long enough for me to grab my phone before running off.

I took it as an obvious sign. I have run across many rabbits (literally crossing paths as I run) already this summer, so when this one was right at the front door, I knew it was for a reason.

I was born in the year of the rabbit and rabbit people are meant to be gentle and kind but also fearful. I immediately thought of fear, and timidity and wondered, have I been acting out of fear lately? Have I been too timid? Is this a signal to take a risk or play it safe?

For a real rabbit, I think of fear as a defensive mechanism. Maybe cautious is a better word for the instinct to flee, and maybe the human idea of fear isn’t something we can transfer to animals. I’m sure rabbits feel some kind of fear but whether it’s like human fear, I have no idea. But it made me consider how I use caution and fear as a way of avoiding discomfort, and as a stalling tactic.

The part of my life where I see the most fear is my career. I am not afraid of love or pain or even dying. But somehow I have always been very timid about my work life. Pursuing my career as an artist or writer or whatever has been a series of baby steps, and not a lot of risk taking.

When I was younger I felt ashamed that I wasn’t comfortable putting myself out there. I loved making stuff but I wasn’t any good at promoting it or sending it to people or even just being very assertive socially. I just wanted to make stuff without having to sell it to anyone.

I’m much more confident now and I do my best to get my books published and my art out into the world. I’m willing to work hard at it. But I have to admit, I have to push through a lot of resistance and discomfort to really go for it.

This week I’ve been seriously procrastinating from finishing a drawing of a bobcat from a photograph that I took. I read that bobcat’s main source of food is rabbits, and I saw this bobcat while I was running, back in Pasadena in June. Like rabbits, and maybe those of us born under rabbit’s sign, bobcats are good at hiding, but they’re also stealthy predators and ruthless killers. That cat was trying to tell me something too. Maybe, for me, it’s all about balancing the two. I can be as kind and gentle as a rabbit, but I ought to be more strategic and aggressive in my pursuits.

Rabbits don’t seem to like attention any more than bobcats or reclusive artist-types, but this rabbit didn’t seem that timid. He knew I was there, waiting for him to come out and he went for it, staring me down for a good long moment before taking off. The young bobcat I saw in June did the same thing. It was like they were saying, we don’t like being exposed any more than you do, but a little attention is okay, see?

I am almost finished with my book, so this is the time to step up and get my work seen and heard. Get the drawing finished. Keep working diligently on the book and start gearing up for the next phase of getting that big baby published. The rabbit and the bobcat are essentially reminders that staying safe is just one way to live. And it’s not really the best way. Not for me.

In Memorium

FrancesinPineForestOur home in Vermont is on a road called Cemetery Loop which makes me happy because I have always loved cemeteries. Even better, the reason for the name is a beautiful historic place with stones dating back to the earliest settlers of this region in the 1600s. My kids and I love wandering among the grave markers, reading the names and dates, imagining the lives of the people long gone whose granite stones still stand. Many are for young children. Some markers are nameless, like the one that reads, simply, “Mother,” instead of the mother’s name. I wonder if this woman was just known to all as “Mother” or if her role was considered by her family more important than her name. It’s fascinating to think about what life was like up in this rural area back then when just a few families forged a new community. I like to remind my kids that people had to walk great distances along these same roads to reach one another. People still walk of course, but for the first few generations of settlers, horses were a great luxury used mostly for farming and not personal transport, unless someone was too old or infirm to make the journey. People walked for miles in the worst weather to visit, to help, to aid and to work.

My other favorite “resting place” up here is the incredible pine forest of Bread and Puppet Theater. B and P is a small theatrical company based here in Glover Vt that has been operational since 1964. Celebrating fifty years this summer, B and P has had many performers, puppeteers and musicians pass away over the years. Each puppeteer or friend of the theater who has died has a small house or structure built in the woods that is decorated with things that relate to their loves and talents.

After their weekend shows, audience members often wander through the pine forest and usually there are a lot of kids running through it, laughing and playing among the memorials. It draws people in and encourages contemplation beneath the towering pines that make it feel almost as if you are in a giant fort. I wish I could post pictures of all of them because there are so many that are heart breakingly beautiful. All are simple, understated symbols of the pure love that Bread and Puppet Theater is built on.

I love graveyards for their historical value and for carving out places reserved for honoring the dead. But the Bread and Puppet pine forest and all the memorials that stand under those trees is in many ways a more practical way to pay tribute. All the materials used will eventually biodegrade and there are no bodies buried there. Just the markers stand, built of wood and scraps of metal, maintained lovingly but with the understanding that they will eventually rot along with the memories of the people that were part of something, long after it’s gone.


baby treeI have this nagging feeling all the time, that I have more to do. I can only get away from it in moments, when I meditate or run usually, and I guess when I’m accomplishing a task on the never ending TO DO list.

In college I had a boyfriend who didn’t understand the acute need I had to always be working. I had trouble lazing around on a Saturday morning or going out to a late lunch with him because I knew it was costing me work time. I had a lot of studying to do, but more than that I had a lot of art to make. He accused me of being a workaholic when I would grow uneasy during our long dates cooking dinner or watching a movie at his place. I was racked with anxiety about the time I was wasting.

That was a long time ago and I’ve learned to deal with my work anxiety but it has never gone away. I have never been one of those people that can sit around doing nothing. Even reading for more than an hour is hard for me. I am a big advocate of relaxing, but for me it is always a conscious act. I make time to sit in the woods or dangle my feet in the lake. My favorite way to relax here in Vermont is sitting on the porch at sunset, but I usually have paper and pencil with me and after a few minutes of sitting and listening and watching, I’m back to doing.

Most of my life I have not questioned the origins of this habit, especially as it was reflected in all my female role models. My mother rarely sat down unless she was reading a book and that was serious business for her. She loved to read but it was always a task, never just pure pleasure. She didn’t waste her time with trashy novels or mysteries or even magazines. She would decide on a difficult subject or an enormous biography and then plow through it.

My step-mother, who raised me from the time I was a teenager, was similar but different. She busied herself with the garden at the summer house or with the apartment and all of its lustrous plants in the city. She worked full-time and played tennis frequently so her leisure was limited. She would “rest” sometimes on weekends, which usually meant laying down in her room with a book and the door closed, but when she was up on her feet, she was busy. No doubt her mother and both my grandmothers were the same.

The energy of busy-ness in both of my mothers had a kinetic fury to do do do. The only time I saw either of them really relax was at parties, at the beach or, briefly, at dinner every night. And that’s just how I am. But only recently have I realized that anxiety, and in particular anxious workaholism, is a side effect of grief. Many people who’ve lost a parent or someone close in their youth have this habit of constantly doing.

Grief is such an interesting process that seems to unravel over decades. It’s amazing to me how much of my life has been colored by it. Not that my life would have been some perfectly balanced existence if Mom hadn’t died. And not that a lot of people, grief or no grief don’t suffer from anxiety. But I think the relationship between losing someone and feeling this pressure to accomplish as much as possible is fascinating. It’s like this subconscious effort to fix. Like if I manage to DO enough, to get everything done, to get it all finished, that somehow I’ll find peace. I’ll outrun the sadness that is always at the edge. God knows after almost 40 years living this way I’ve learned it’s not the way to go. Yes I accomplish a lot. But the best moments in my life are the ones when I remember to stop.