Fiction: Sleepless in Vermont

nara

Yoshitomo Nara: cosmic girl-open eyes closed eyes

2 a.m. January 15, 1997

Can’t sleep. The moon is throwing it’s annoyingly beautiful long shadows across the room, which never happened back home, but here, nature has a way of inserting itself into every moment of my life. Sometimes, I like it. I like watching the patterns the sun makes through the trees riding the bus to school. And last summer a hummingbird let me rescue it. It was caught in the shed, banging its beak against the window pane and I stood there with my finger outstretched, speaking softly to calm him as I watched his increasingly frenetic attempts to penetrate the glass and offered to carry him to the open door just on the other side of the shed which he had apparently no way to find on his own. Eventually he landed on my finger, exhausted and gripped my skin with his tight claws. When I reached the doorway and showed him the great expanse of open air, trees and light he didn’t take off. Instead, he looked at me, and waited. It wasn’t until I stepped out onto the gravel where we park the cars and wiggled my finger that he seemed to find the strength or maybe the courage to fly. He flew up and went straight to the bird feeder for a long sip. I was glad that Susan put it up and kept it filled. Then he flew right back to me, hovered in front of my face for a long moment before heading up to the maples. That moment made me very happy and I think of it often in these cold winter days that end so abruptly. The moon shadows only wash across my floor with their luminescent beauty in winter but somehow they always make me sad.

I tried getting back to the dream that woke me up, but couldn’t. Mom was still alive and we were talking our usual wordless way. In the dream I was in bed, visualizing her in the hospital, her body like a thinning approximation of the vibrant life it once held. The persistent beep of the heart monitor and the wary rhythm of the respirator were going and I remembered, this time, how important they had seemed back then; the only indicators the body they were attached to was a living human being. But even though she was brain dead, at least that was how Dad always put it, she and I had no problem communicating.

In the dream, it was just like it had been in real life. The conversation began with the slow reenactment of the accident. It was as if our minds were one, plugging into the scene, the complex layering of sound. Sharp crack of glass shattering; metal screeching in hollow cries; and the deadening dull thud of impact crushing her instantly, a strange cry as her body reacted, the near extinguishing of her soul until it was tied to her body by a fine filament, no stronger than a human hair. In those days I thought she needed to start there because it was her last moment as a full human being. But in the dream there was another reason, an important piece of the puzzle. But now I don’t remember what it was.

 

New Normal

WelcomeToFuture

I can think of three times in my life when I have felt I might float away. One was the day I got married. Another was giving birth to my daughter Keirnan, and the third was just the other night.

I was lucky enough to be asked to talk about my work and how I deal with grief to a group of women. Some of them had experienced childbearing losses while others were there to support their friends. I had planned to talk about my book, Dancing with the Midwives, and how writing it got me through the grieving process so miraculously. But instead, I ended up talking about the idea of normalizing grief, death and illness.

As I started to speak I noticed a few things were happening to me physically. First of all I was extremely warm. I had been sweating all evening and had already changed my shirt twice, even though everyone else felt the room was a little cool. I felt a very slight tremble throughout my body as I spoke, particularly in my jaw and hands. It was a bit bizarre, to feel that much energy swirling around, literally making me feel as if it was lifting me out of my seat, while trying to talk. In order to stay present I gripped a large piece of black tourmaline, known for its grounding properties, and kept my eyes on the floor. The sensations were not unpleasant or all that strange because I knew that for me, it’s normal to feel that way when I’m in the midst of a life-changing event. Exactly how talking about my book might change my life is unclear. But then again, I had no idea what I was in for when I got married or had Keirnan either.

I had not exactly planned what I would say and I had about fifteen minutes so I just said what came to mind. I talked about being a kid when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and how my parents tried to keep our lives “normal” by not talking too much about it. Their choice made it easier to ignore her illness, but it made the shock of her death much harder. I felt she never said goodbye to me, and that they had kept me in the dark.

The truth is, my parents did try to talk to me about what was happening, but I wouldn’t listen. They were not experts in grief and they didn’t consult a therapist the way many people today probably would. But if they had, I think a therapist would have encouraged them to gently push me to talk about my mother’s illness before she died, to be realistic about her prospects of survival and to try and talk about what might happen after she died.

The normalcy of death and illness was something my parents took for granted. They grew up in the nineteen thirties and forties, they both knew many people who died, including their own parents. So for them, death was normal but it wasn’t supposed to be talked about. You were expected to grieve for a short time in private. This model doesn’t fit our society today and it didn’t fit back in the nineteen-seventies either. I had hardly experienced death when my mother died. I thought everyone lived to be an old man like my grandfather.

Today, the task of normalizing grief can be accomplished simply by communicating openly about it. We can still grieve in private, but we need to ignore the impulse to keep our feelings a secret, or hide them from our loved ones, colleagues and children, or the idea that we must “move on” quickly, as though grief is a short-lived project. We need to create spaces and places like the one I had the opportunity to be a part of, where people come together to talk about their experiences, to share their grief, to express it and to be heard. This is the new normal. Or at least it should be.

Now that I am middle aged and cancer seems to be everywhere, many more people around me are dealing with grief and facing illnesses more frequently. But child-bearing grief still makes most people very uncomfortable. If you have not experienced that kind of loss, you might feel unable to deal with it, or support those who are going through it. We can all help, by talking and being open, not just among adults but with our children, by speaking honestly about what happened when a friend or a relative becomes ill or dies suddenly. We need to learn to talk about it as if it’s normal, because it is.

Fiction: President’s Day

FrancesJump.sm

Finley has lost her sock under the bed. I crouch down, hands and knees against the hardwood, to see it. It’s there, pink and fluffy, all the way at the other end, where king-size bed meets wall. There is also a brown smudge. Long, and straight. “What the heck is that?” I say aloud.

“What?” she asks.

“Never mind.”

I go to the kitchen and put water on for tea. Pull out the mixing bowl and start cracking eggs. I promised them crepes and I don’t go back on these sorts of promises, though I should. Finley has a cough, and a temperature. We are staying home on this President’s day though we are all disappointed to miss the birthday party with the George Washington impersonator. Last year it was Abe Lincoln and he was wonderful. Gave a satirized Gettysburg Address in full costume and the seven and eight year old crowd was surprisingly rapt. They loved it.

How much flour?

I’ve made crepes a hundred times but I can never remember how much flour to how many eggs. The recipe is on my computer which is by the king-size bed. It’s on the floor, next to the bed where I leave it most of the time. I look under the bed again at the long dark streak. Yuck. It’s cat poop. Yesterday there was a smear of poop in the hallway and I had looked around for more when I cleaned it, but not under the bed. But for the last few nights I have smelled cat poop as I go to bed. Maybe this mess has been there for days, right under my nose.

I push the bed away from the wall and there is the long straight smudge of shit. I can’t imagine how the cat managed it. There is no room under the bed for the maneuver that would create such a mark. I head back to the kitchen to get gloves, towels and cleaner. The butter is sizzling in the pan. I  forgot that I started the pans. Why would I do that before the batter is made? I turn off the burners. The water is boiling. I pour the tea. The eggs are sitting in the bowl. Flour and milk are on the counter. How much? Where is my computer? Whoops. Forgot to get it.

The bed startles me, pushed up that way against the dresser. I have to go around it to get the computer. There is the smudge. I will deal with that later. Why is my life such  a mess? Why can’t I get it together?

2 cups of flour. 2 cups of milk. 5 eggs. I mix the batter. I start the pans. I will clean up cat shit later. Focus on one thing. Focus.

“Mommie! I’m hungry!”

“I’m working on it Fin!”

 

 

 

Dance Dance Dance

deerdrawingsm pigeon.sm

This week I am preparing for a show and feverishly combing through my manuscript for typos. I am busy! But I have also been thinking a lot about how dancing is my next move.

Just before a show, I always have feelings of dread that the work isn’t good enough. It’s just my brain doing its retarded dance, the one about how I’m not a very good artist or writer (or singer or dancer for that matter). Since I have been through this many times I know all I have to do is have a dance-off with my thoughts and win. Just keep pushing forward, trusting there are reasons I am doing things the way I do them, and that even if the work is only for my benefit that’s still good enough. Step-step-twirl.

My show is about exchanging with nature. I am drawing animals that I have run into in ways that hint at the stories behind the sightings. I want the show to inspire people to think about nature in a way that is more about communication than observation. When I sent out the invitation a few friends immediately wanted to share their own encounters with wild animals, which means the idea is working. I have had long back and forth emails about our neighbors the raccoons, bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions, and how cool it is that we get to see these creatures on rare occasions.

Thinking about exchange has me thinking about dancing. When I talk about exchanging with nature, it’s really more than hiking, camping and gardening. It’s about being open. Being aware that there is an ongoing conversation with the world around me that is constantly shaping my life. Recently I’ve been hearing the word dance everywhere I turn. I heard a story about a guy with chronic back problems (like me) who cured himself by dancing. An astrologer told me years ago I needed to make dance a priority. I have recently been invited to see a lot of dance performances and every time I see people dancing on stage I know it’s time for me to dance. I have been exercising a lot the last few years, but dancing is different. Its about letting your body and mind go at the same time. It requires making dozens of quick decisions based on somatic feelings and senses and committing to them. It’s about freedom, permission, and not worrying if I am good enough to be doing it.

On Sunday my daughter Frances and I put on our favorite music and danced around the house until we were sweating. I tried to completely let loose, the way she does. When she said, “Mom! You’re going crazy!” I knew I was doing okay. I am trying to convince her to take dance classes with me, but even if she won’t, I am going to start doing it on my own. Right after my show. I’m so excited!

 

Fiction: Mrs. Calderone

buzzards.sm

Water is good. Rain is good. Clean and clear are good.

She remembers these things, looking out the window at the broken stubble that was once a lush lawn. Brown. Dry. Dusty. Trash accumulates at the edges. Plastic discs that line the tops of paper cups that people drink something from. Pop? Is that the word? She can’t remember. Can’t remember who she is. Where she is. She anchors herself in thoughts. Clear observations stem the tide of memories that make her nervous because they don’t fit.

She takes a drink. Water is good.

She wants to ask a question but it keeps eluding her, a shimmery thought, out of reach. Something about her daughter, whose name she can’t recall. She knows she has a daughter because she comes to visit most days and says, “I am your daughter” and she remembers her face. And she remembers the feeling of having a daughter. But she can’t find the word. The question she wants to ask.

The nurse comes over and arranges the shawl around her shoulders.

“Feeling all right Mrs. Calderone?” the nurse asks. She hates how they call her that. It’s an unfamiliar name. Her name was much prettier. A flower maybe or something that made you think of flowers. Calderone makes her afraid. It makes her think of a man and getting punched. She looks out the window again, at the dry trash, not answering. She has to stay on track, sifting for the question she had about her daughter. She wonders if the question could be answered by her daughter and if she’s coming today.

That’s it. She yells it out, before it disappears.

“Is she coming today?”

The nurse, already across the room turns, slightly startled.

“Who?”

“My daughter! Is she coming today?”

Cupcakes and Ladybugs

GandFBlowCandles

The best part about celebrating my daughter Keirnan’s birthday was almost forgetting to. I had programmed the day into my phone a while ago, after missing it for the past few years. It would just pass by without my thinking about it. Sometimes I would ask Dave, “When IS Keirnan’s birthday?” and he would always remember it. January 25, 2005. I finally punched it in to my list of family dates.

Yesterday, which was the 25th, I was driving with Frances who is eight now, and my phone alerted me with the ominous church bell sound. “How old would she be?” Frances asked. “Nine,” I replied, not thinking very hard. 2005…2015. “Ten!” Oh my God it’s been ten years. How the hell did that happen?

Of course it makes sense. Keirnan was still born a year and nine months before Frances came. I don’t feel badly about having forgotten her day in the past. I only remember my mother’s birthday every few years now. It’s a sign that she has taken her rightful place in my memories, bringing up feelings of love and sadness, not piercing pain. Time really is the best healer.

Still, a tear was working its way up and out of the corner of my eye as I thought about the impact Keirnan has had on my family. How Frances, sitting beside me might not have been born and my books, certainly would not have been written.

“Mom there’s a ladybug on my window!” Frances was pointing to a little black and red dot on the outside of the car and I was making a left turn, trying not to be distracted by the synchronicity. I immediately thought of the second story in the book about Keirnan, where I discover a deformed ladybug on my leg. Frances hit the button to make the window go down and the ladybug was riding down with it. “Frances! Put it back up!” I was afraid the tiny beetle would be demolished. We both watched as she scrambled against the force of the window meeting the rubber at the bottom, but by the time Frances had reached for the button again, the window was down and the ladybug, undeterred, was waltzing inside. We laughed hard as we watched her crawl down the door panel, relieved not to have killed her.

When we got home I spent the rest of the day in the kitchen making a delicious dinner, and Frances and I made an enormous batch of cupcakes that would easily feed all of our neighbors. It felt good to celebrate the girls’ missing sister, just like we used to in the early months and years of her absence. Ten years goes too fast, but we had a lovely party, just the four of us, lighting candles and blowing them out.

 

Missing Person

EmptyBench

Apologizing, I say: I didn’t know him

Say it to myself, to others

To avoid any obligation

of doing something

People are meditating, praying

Memorializing the man (I say) I didn’t know

 

Actually I did

Because I listened

When he read

And he heard me too

We told our stories

Gave away the most recessed secrets

 

Sometimes we sang

Matt sang more than anyone

He sounded professional

Even over the phone

So I did know him. Matt Ahern

I just never shook his hand

 

In the days after he kept

Popping in

Like, Oh yea. That happened.

My mind trying to grip his slippery nonexistence

Because we never met

It was hard to remember

 

A long time ago, my friend died suddenly

A young artist

Much too young

She broke a thousand hearts

Made us fear death anew

Our own, and being forgotten

 

But we don’t forget

Those

who, unlike the rest of us living,

are suddenly plucked

Carelessly, as a slender flower in a child’s fat fingers

They become Big

 

A skiing accident put Wendy in a coma

For weeks hundreds prayed, calling in for updates

Her tenuous hold on life became

A big balloon we stared at, hoping

But on the eve of her thirtieth birthday

She floated up instead

 

Wendy taught me to love her absence and

The fleeting texture of flesh and blood, dirt and water

Like Matt, she used to Pop in, unexpected

Reminding me she was there

Here

As much as I am

in any moment

 

Fiction: The Red Fox

foxy

“I trust Jesus,” June said as she crossed the stream, balancing on a log that was serving as a makeshift bridge. I followed, my arms stretched out to the sides, hoping that trusting my own footing would keep me dry.

We hiked up Eaton Canyon, new friends that day. We had met on a church retreat in Ojai. June was from New Mexico, but she’d grown up in London and sported an adorable accent, which was her most endearing feature. She was visiting Los Angeles, thinking about moving, and had called me up asking if she could sleep on my couch. I assumed she wanted to be closer to Jason, and the church. Lots of people who met Jason on retreats ended up moving to Los Angeles.

It had rained a lot that winter, years ago now, and the streams we had to cross were high. It would have been okay if we fell in but we didn’t want to ruin our shoes, especially on the way up. June had never been to the waterfall. She had heard about it and asked if I would take her. I hadn’t been there in a while but I knew the way so it was surprising that she ended up in front, with me following behind, watching her scramble over rocks along the path in her acid washed jeans. She was sort of provincial for a pseudo-European. She was cute with sparkling blue eyes and round features that made her look like a plush doll, especially the way her curly hair framed her plump cheeks. But she had no style. She wasn’t very coordinated or athletic either, but she wasn’t afraid.

“I trust Jesus!” she said it every time she had to balance on a log to cross the stream and it annoyed me. Why did she have to proclaim it? Was she trying to prove that she was more of a believer than me or was that just my own shit? I told myself not to be so critical.

When we reached the waterfall she just smiled. I was waiting for her to say, “Wow!” or “This is amazing!” but instead she just walked around the sandy area in front of the spot where the water fell in a surprisingly narrow gush, as if she had known exactly what to expect. I liked June. I admired her. But that knowingness about her made me resent her. She acted as if she really did trust everything and everyone and it made me uneasy. There were a lot of people like that at church, over zealous types who tried too hard to prove they were closer to Jesus or Jason than the rest of us. I didn’t want June to be one of those. I liked her. I wanted us to be friends. And I had to admit, I was jealous of her confidence.

“Let’s pray,” she said, sitting on a rock and closing her eyes.

That night we went to church together. When we got there a big crowd was waiting outside on the steps to be let in, as usual. That was just how they did it. A couple hundred people stood around outside being friendly and then at precisely six o’clock they opened the doors and we all flooded in like fans going to a rock show.

Inside the church it was dark and there were smoke machines going. I couldn’t stand the music, but I know that’s because I’m a music snob. I was in a real rock band in the nineties and toured and everything. So I can’t stand the Christian rock thing but I love Jason. He’s the reason any of us go to his church. He’s amazing.

I lost sight of June as soon as we got inside. We hadn’t planned where we would sit so I went to my usual area towards the back in the center. I liked being able to see but I didn’t want the music blaring in my ears. I kept scanning the room, looking for June and I finally saw her up near the stage talking to Adam. Adam is Jason’s right hand man. Of course, I thought. She’s going to try and say hi to Jason before the sermon starts.

The music was already going and I stood in the pews trying to get into the mood. I was next to a woman who had three adorable kids with her, all of them clapping along with everyone else. I noticed that the mother looked like she didn’t want to be there and I felt sorry for her when I noticed her husband on the other side of her, clapping like a maniac. Sometimes I really didn’t feel like I fit in at church, but only until Jason gets up and starts talking.

It was a good sermon that night, about compassion and how Jesus taught us that compassion is the only way we can save ourselves, and the world, but even though I was listening intently I couldn’t get out of my head and stop comparing myself to June.

I love the church because it saved me when I was really screwed up. I feel close to Jason because I know I can ask for his guidance anytime on his website and he’ll give it to me. He’ll get me back on track. When he hugs me during retreats and smaller gatherings I can feel his love. He’s like the sun. But I can’t stand how women flirt with him so openly, all under the guise of following him, or Jesus, or both. Maybe they can’t help it. But June just got here. She shouldn’t be that forward.

I didn’t see June again until she jogged up behind me as I was heading back to my car.

“I’m getting a ride home with Jason and Molly. They have an extra room I can stay in for a while until I figure out a place to live. Can I grab my things? They’re in the backseat.”

“Yea of course,” I said hugging her goodbye. As I drove back to Silver Lake along Hollywood Boulevard I couldn’t help feeling upset. How did she get in with Jason so quickly? Were they old friends?

The next week she called me.

“I went up to Eaton Canyon again,” she said, sounding excited. “I prayed at the same spot and guess what happened.”

“What?” I was afraid she was going to say Jesus spoke to her and I was going to have to go along with it.

“I opened my eyes and I was staring at a fox.”

“A fox?” I wasn’t sure I had heard her right. I’d never seen a fox in Los Angeles.

“Yes! A beautiful little red fox! It was amazing! And you know what he said?”

“He spoke to you?” I wasn’t hiding my skepticism.

“Well, yea.” She said this as if animals spoke to her all the time. “He told me to go back to New Mexico. To my old church.”

“Really? Are you going?”

“Definitely. I’ve been staying with Jason and it’s getting weird.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s been flirting with me, right in front of Molly.”

“That is weird.” Somehow she had convinced me a fox had spoken but I didn’t believe Jason would have flirted with her. Jason’s the epitome of truth and honesty. Besides, he has three children, a son at Harvard, a daughter at Stanford and another one in high school at Marlboro. He’s obviously crazy about Molly, his gorgeous successful businesswoman wife who looks perfect in whatever she wears. Jason always gives her credit for the church’s success. There was no way Jason would jeopardize his marriage for flaky, frumpy June.

“Yea so I’m leaving. Thanks for letting me stay with you.”

“Sure. Anytime,” I said, and I meant it. “Did you really see a fox?” I had to ask. I knew that whatever happened with Jason, she was lying. I wasn’t jealous of her relationship with him anymore. But I was envious of her encounter with nature, which I trusted more than Jason or Jesus, combined.

“Of course I did. Why would I make that up?”

Winter World

FrancesinSnow2015 will be the year that I:

1. Get enough sleep

2. Publish another book

3. Write a lot of fiction on this blog

What does the picture above have to do with my New Year’s resolutions? Nothing, except that I took it today as I watched my intrepid daughter Frances braving 40 mile an hour winds and temperatures in the teens just to have some fun.

2015 is going to be the year I get uncomfortable.

I am proud to have written 52 posts last year, and the year before, but I’m getting a little bored. It’s time to try some new things and stop playing it safe. I’m going to post some very rough drafts of story ideas that have been pushing and shoving like a pair of unruly middle school boys in my head. I have no idea what will come out or what the next book will be, but I hope some of the stories that are trying to get my attention will be fun to read. Or at least fun to write.

I’m excited.

Patience

Imagine this:

After years of trying different careers you finally decide on the one you want. You set your sites on your ultimate dream job. The one you feel you were born to do. But in order to qualify you have to go through a special training that will last nine months. And in order to do the training you have to go through a lottery.

By some miracle your number is called and you are set to start. Miraculously all your friends have winning numbers too and you’re going to do the training together. You are thrilled.

Finally you get the call. It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for: the first day of your new career. But when you arrive something happens. People greet you with strange looks. There’s a sudden change of plans. You’re not getting the position you wanted. Instead, your new assignment is going to be painful, grueling and humiliating.

You’re told that you “might” still be able to get the job you want eventually. When you ask how long it will be they say, “as long as it takes,” but you have no idea what that means. All you know is the life you thought you’d have has slipped through your fingers. All your friends are going on without you and you may never get the chance to join them. You’re told that once you finish the mysterious task, you have to start the whole process over again. Sadly, your chances of winning the lottery again aren’t as good because your job, which you have no idea how to do, will make you doubt yourself. It will make you wonder if you even have the qualifications you thought you had. It will make you believe that all your friends deserve something you don’t.

Worse yet, you are forced to watch your friends in their new careers while they are unable to see you in yours. They have no idea how hard you’re working. They greet you politely but they don’t know anything about your job and they don’t want to know. You almost have the feeling your friends are afraid of you. Afraid of catching your fate.

*

Recently I spoke to a woman who just had a still birth. She described feeling overwhelmingly confused, which made perfect sense. During pregnancy, the body and mind are aligned toward the goal of birth. When the baby dies, the mind experiences disappointment on a scale previously unimaginable, but the body doesn’t. It keeps going in the same direction like a slow moving barge. The breasts produce milk, just like they would if the baby was alive to drink it. And like all things bodily, the change in direction takes patience to move through.

To me, this is one of the most difficult yet fascinating aspects of grief. That fissure between the mind and body, as painful suffering works its way from consciousness down to the bones. It takes time to grieve. It takes weeks and months for the body to absorb what the mind is reeling over. When I finally gave in and realized my new job, the one I hadn’t signed up for, was actually rewarding me with wisdom, that was when my grief started to settle in.

The woman I spoke to wanted to know how long it took me to get pregnant again and I heard in her voice the same intense desire I remember having. She wanted to skip over the horrendous task of grieving her child and get back to what she really wanted. A live birth. A living baby.

Part of me wished I could wave a magic wand and spare her the grief she is in for, but I also knew that she was already past the point of going back to who she was before her son died. And I told her that the biggest lesson he will be teaching her is patience.