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.

Back Issues

boyatRes

I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness.

I woke up this morning with a stiff back. Rolling out of bed was an uncomfortable process that led to spasms when I stood up. I spent twenty minutes trying to gently stretch and roll out the muscles that were freaking out with only moderate success, all the while considering what might be behind the trouble.

I tend to take any issues with my body personally. I figure that any discomfort is my body’s way of trying to get my attention. I’ve always seen everything that happens within the boundaries of my skin as a deeper problem that is ready to surface and be dealt with. Not necessarily solved, because I don’t think the deeper issues are ever actually solved. But I like to think of my body as a historical record, where every chronic ailment, grouchy joint and old scar is a reflection of the stories I have going on inside me. The same old stories I’ve been telling all my life and a few I’ve never even acknowledged.

I’ve had pain and stiffness in my back muscles since I was in my twenties. I remember going to a massage therapist in 1989 who told me I had knots that would take a lot of work to undo. Today, as I downed ibuprofen and leaned on a hot pad I wondered if my back was finally ready to unclench. My back represents the past and everything I tried to leave behind when I moved to California twenty-five years ago.

My book has resuscitated a lot of the past. The process of writing it has allowed me to forgive my parents and myself for not being perfect, and I’m sure releasing the book is moving a lot of stuck energy in my body. I may always have stiffness in my back but I have a feeling the pain I’m in now will give way in the next few days to relief.

Holiday Overload

xmasatDWChristmas is such an oppressive holiday. I’m a typical non-believer of Protestant heritage meaning I have always celebrated Christmas in a secular way, with little attention to the bible story behind all the hoopla. I can only imagine what it must be like for people who don’t care to celebrate Christmas, and yet are inundated like the rest of us by the ever-increasing crapification of December 25. From Santa hats on flight attendants, cashiers and dogs to the gaudy plastic trees that invade every store, restaurant, bank and office, to the foam reindeer antlers on SUVs-a favorite in my town-it’s inescapable. A mall I unfortunately had to visit over the weekend boasted of their “100 foot tall, white fir with more than 15,000 lights and 10,000 festive ornaments that came from the beautiful landscape of McLeod, California in the Mt. Shasta region to the Americana Mall here in Glendale.”

When I was single in the 1990s I used to ignore Christmas completely. Instead of traveling back to the east coast to be with my family, I opted to save my money, which was scarce, and spend the day alone. While the whole world seemed to be raising glasses and feasting, I would go to the beach with a little picnic, or take a few granola bars on a hike, and enjoy solitude on the quietest day of the year. Christmas is the one day when almost all business shuts down and there is very little traffic. The streets are quiet. I savored those holidays and the message of Christmas that is nearly always forgotten in the hubbub of celebration: Peace.

The holidays bring up a lot for all of us. Nostalgia for the magic we remember as children is often mixed up with sadness and longing for people we miss. When someone is grieving the holidays are stark reminder of who is gone. Oddly, I don’t remember the first Christmas after my mother died. I must have blocked it out. But I know that for many years Christmas was a holiday I wanted nothing to do with.

Now that I have my own family I can no longer get away with ignoring Christmas. We have a tree and there will be presents and stockings and this year I even bought a little paper mache nativity scene from India for our mantel. I thought it would be nice to connect to the original story of Christmas: The tale of a young couple and a baby who travel a long way to find peace amidst a lot of chaos and strife.

The Downswing

beachdrawingSome weeks are harder than others. There is no obvious cause for my funk of the past week but I suspect a combination of events, from the personal to the cosmic, both in and out of my control. I knew I was sliding when I caught myself feeling jealous of other people’s wins, condemning myself as lazy and losing my grip on the scratchy rope of faith I was clinging to.

For me, the challenge of December is to avoid letting the hectic energy of holiday preparations get in the way of enjoying a delicious sip of wine with friends or the excitement of decorating with my kids. And this year I have a few extracurricular responsibilities to add to the end-of-year mayhem so time is in short supply, as is my ability to stay focused on the present.

There are other factors I could blame for the recent slump. This time of year brings more socializing and interactions. Seeing family over the holidays is always fun and interesting but it can be hard too. Even just running into an old friend or an ex seems more likely and those moments can dredge up old stories that sting.

“Am I really uptight?” I asked my husband after seeing an ex-friend who used to say I was. A five second encounter had ignited the old worry and I got sucked right into believing it.

He gave me a wary look, cautiously dipping into the murky waters of my insecurities. “You’re not all that uptight but you’re rigid about some things,” he said with a chuckle, making sure to keep things light. “Sometimes you seem overly concerned with what other people think, and that could be your problem.” He raised an eyebrow at me.

Worrying about how I am seen or judged is an old unhelpful crutch. It comes from not trusting in myself or the world and allows me to play small. It can make me a little afraid, a bit timid, and sometimes reluctant to push myself. When I’m like that, people can feel it. Insecurity feeds on itself and breeds distrust. It’s obviously better to own my imperfect myself and not bother with people’s opinions, but it’s not always easy.

The best remedy I know for my slumps is taking stock. Whatever my mood, and whatever my faults are, in the end I’m just a typical human, trying to control the haphazard stacking of circumstances that I call my life. And it’s ridiculous how easy it is to forget where I am, how far I’ve come and how great life is. I know I’m a broken record but this is the point I always come back to on my long journey around the turntable. Life is good. It’s made up of seemingly insignificant moments strung together. And if I focus on the future, or the past, faults or regrets, all the  little colorful beads of NOW fall through the cracks.

 

Being There

IMG_6982 My kids are old enough now to be full of their own ideas, opinions and experiences, many of which surprise me on a daily basis. Yesterday as we were up north visiting family for the holiday my twelve year old daughter asked if we could go for a walk, just the two of us.

“Something on your mind?” I asked, checking to see if I’d missed an awkward interaction with a relative.

“No I just want to be alone with you,” she said with a sunny smile.

We walked up over the rolling hills that surround her grandparents home and yelled through the wind about life and school, anxieties and hopes. We talked about the year we lived in Vermont and I learned a bit more about how negative her school experience there had been. She was only in fifth grade that year and unable to articulate much of what happened to her while it was going on. We’d had many bedtime discussions after which I told myself it was normal middle school stuff.

Kids are resilient, we say and in some ways it’s true. Kids are good at pretending they are fine, mostly because they often don’t possess the tools to tell us otherwise. We adults are often guilty of pretending we’re fine when we’re not which is how kids learn to do the same. In either case, pretending we’re fine and reminding ourselves that “kids are resilient” are really just a way of avoiding talking about what’s going on. I knew my daughter was suffering that year and I remember trying to get her to tell me what exactly the kids at school were doing that was making her not want to get on the bus every morning. I wanted to be able to fix something that wasn’t fixable. There was no alternative to the local public school and I wasn’t excited about the prospect of home schooling so of course I wanted to believe that a) I could help her or b) that it wasn’t that bad.

She was being bullied and excluded in ways that were so subtle, the kids doing it would never get in trouble. It wasn’t personal. She was just an outsider in a very small town. But for a fifth grader there is no way to take exclusion in stride. All they want is to fit in and there was no chance of that. Her only defense was to learn, over time, that she, not one of her classmates, was in control of her happiness. It was the hardest year of her life and yet she’s the first to admit it made her a stronger person.

Growing up is hard work and the middle school years are full of difficulties. There are many lessons to learn but it’s hard to get to the upside of a trauma if you’re busy ignoring it. It’s certainly easier for kids and adults to pretend things are fine when they aren’t, but our habits of downplaying what our kids are going through because we can’t stand the idea of them suffering doesn’t help them learn from their experiences.

I’m not sure there was more I could have done in Vermont for my daughter. But I do wish I had forced a few more conversations about it, if only to help her understand that I knew how hard it was and that I was there. I hate seeing kids who are going through a rough time in their lives surrounded by adults who assume less attention to the issue is better. I prefer to acknowledge what is happening even when I can’t do anything about it. It may be awkward and the kids themselves may not like the attention to their pain. But at least I’m showing them that it’s better to acknowledge it. We can’t always fix their problems or make them hurt less. But at the very least we should be able to say, “I know this sucks, but I’m here.” When we do that, they have a better chance of doing more than just surviving.

Fiction: Surrender

darkblack“It’s a relief to feel cold again,” she says joining the group, and everyone nods and smiles.

“What a long summer that was,” someone says as she crowds herself in near the window at end of the table.

“Never ending,” says another.

She shivers in her shorts and boots and too thin sweater, not ready to dress for fall quite yet, distrustful of the new weather patterns and glances at the others. Everyone in long sleeves and little booties. She tries and fails to control the shaking in her jaw and arms. It’s not just the cold. It happens all the time in groups and sometimes people notice but mostly they don’t. Her sister always did.

It’s her first time at the new cafe everyone is talking about and she notices the high ceiling of the warehouse structure but all painted white making it clean and light and airy. The group of mothers are trying to organize yet another fundraiser for yet another school and she’s already bored.

She interprets the shaking as some unknown force that wants to come out but can’t. In this case, she thinks, it’s the desire to say ‘Fuck this shit” to all the moms at the table, drinking their coffee, eating their toast, the latest trend in between meal snacks. Toast with peanut butter. Toast with avocado. Really? That’s the snack I make when there’s nothing else and you want me to pay seven bucks for sheer presentation? A sprig of lavender?

She is so tired of helping. Helping the kids, helping her husband, helping the school, the neighborhood, the people who are starving, even the earth has added itself to the list of things she has to try and DO something about. All she wants is to go home, get under the covers, and surrender. Let the shaking take over and let out a torrent of screams and howls, yelling at no one in particular. She imagines a coven of maternal ancestors, all beckoning her to run away, to give up on the chores and her life as a set of legs under a heavy table of others’ needs and run free on the gravel which will tear open her feet. They call her to lick the blood off the rocks and be free, like they are, looking down on it all.
She sees them in the other moms faces too. The long lines of history and genes and that got us into these roles as saviors. Save the dolphins! Save the school! Save the arts! But just a few generations back, there wasn’t this need to do it all with a smile, in high heels and lipstick, which is the part she hates.

She stands up.

“I’m sorry. I have to go,” she says, her voice and hands shaking.

They all look up at her, blank faced.

She gets in her car and screams.