“Mom, the reason I don’t like sunshine is that it feels like butter, and I don’t like butter. It even looks like butter at sun coming down time. Look! Butter. Blech”
—-Butter, age 5.
Happy birthday, you crazy little freakball of poetry and love!
“Mommy, I love you more than werewolves, more than the full moon, more than San Francisco, more than the Golden Gate Bridge, more than super tall buildings, more than boats, more than Muni, more than Oakland, more than Berkeley, more than El Cerrito, more than air. And you know what? I bet you love me more than even that.”
Yes. I do.
Writing on the circle of life is trite and cliche, but here I am again, a year later, with another birthday/deathday post.
Last year my friend died on my youngest son’s birthday. The end of one life at 44 and celebration of 4 years for another offered a roller coaster of emotion that forced me into hyperawareness. I took 450 photos at the beach that day, and kept 85. I can recall the physical position of my body for each of those 85, and how many tears or deep breaths followed each.
This year my eldest is having a birthday on the same day we bury my grandmother. The morning included giggles and chess and special treats. The midday involved tears and reciting prayers, hugging and trying to tolerate loved ones. And traffic. Jesus Farnsworth Christ, the traffic. Then laughter and french toast dinner and gifts and a long chapter book.
My brain almost shut down with exhaustion that night, having stimulated every single part of my neuro-cognitive-emotive mind, from memory to emotion to quantum physics and stifled Church giggles. (Seriously, if you tell a group of Irish Catholics that the response to the interstitial prayers is ‘Lord, have mercy,’ you can’t help but laugh when, by the fourth round, they’re all saying, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’ Such is religious Pavlovian response, and I reserve the right to laugh out loud, even at a solemn event, when my brother shrugs and says, ‘Lord, hear our prayer and also have mercy.’)
The nature of life is death. We know this. But there are quite a few days of full-blown glorious life before we reach our eventual death, even if we die, as my friend did, painfully young. The counterbalance to joy is sorrow. And exhaustion. My sorrow on this birthday-deathday was keenest at the point in my reading where I said, “look at all she has left.” Because I was lucky enough to have a grandma whom I adored, meet and love my children. I don’t know that life gets better than that. I really don’t. Accomplishments and glorious food and wondrous sunrises and breathtaking hikes…these pale beside the knowledge that my beloved lived long enough to love what I made. To forgive me my tresspasses as I forgave those who trespassed against me. To offer a sign of peace.
Peace be with you. And also with every single person on this planet, amen. Please. Every single person, forgetting none. Genuine peace. Thank you. Amen.
Of course it’s hard to have a memorial, regardless of circumstance; and it was particularly hard to have a memorial on the day my amazing baby turns Nine. I felt I couldn’t fully mourn because I had a cake to make, a boy to cherish, a life to live. Nobody is fond of death. We rarely talk about it, except when we need a cathartic release of all the stress and pain woven into our daily lives. You can’t cry about a tough meeting, but you can cry about your grandma’s stroke. You can’t cry about the pressures of co-parenting with a person with priorities so completely different you wonder why you ever made it past the first date, but you can cry that your friend died too young, leaving his children irreparably altered. This sorrow, though, is always tempered by the joys of life. Nobody’s death is all of another person’s life. We all have parts of ourselves untouched by even the closest loves. I feel guilty that part of my life are seemingly undisturbed by grandma’s death, just as I feel guilty that parts of my life don’t change just because my children live, thrive, grow, and blossom.
As hard as it is to say goodbye, I loved my grandmother. That’s richer than chocolate mousse. She loved me. That’s sweeter than clean, clear water on a hot day. We told each other we loved and appreciated one another. That’s better than gold. Heck, that’s better than applause. I saw her a few days before her stroke, and brought her a favorite treat that she enjoyed with marked pleasure, despite all her frustrations about not being able to read, walk, or hear as she wanted to. She high-fived my son and told me stories from her time as a young mother, a time when women had to quit their jobs once they married because employers assumed marriage was for childbearing, women were exclusive childrearers, and work was for men. It was a good visit. And it was one of hundreds.
I’d still really like one more talk with her. Or ten. Or maybe one thousand. Yes. One thousand more talk, please.
We are a miracle, my family. Your family is one, too, with all its blemishes and warts and struggles and eases. We are miraculous because of those who came first, who built, and who endured.
My grandmother did these with style and grace.
And so in honor of my dear, sweet grandma, I offer a birthday card. Because life doesn’t stop, even when there is pain, even when there is sorrow. In fact, life becomes more sweet, and I pay even closer attention.
Happy next phase, grandma. May your next eternity be peaceful, restful, exciting, and funny. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, forever.
Happy, happy birthday to my incredible, hilarious, impressive Nine Year Old. May your next 90 years be full of people like your Great Grandma: kind, understanding, resilient, and welcoming. And may you bring some piece of that to the people you meet, as well. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, too, forever.
Peanut, 2006-infinity and beyond.
Every evening as I go to bed, I want the day back to do over. I want to adore my kids more than I do. And I certainly do. But the day gets in the way and I only fawn all over them for moments, not endless hours. I want to pay attention more than I do. Sure, I notice the sights and sounds and smells and am absorbing every day of jasmine and wisteria season. But I want to notice and feel and absorb even more.
I want to laugh more than I do. I want to play more than I do. I want to revel more than I do. I want more from each moment.
While we’re asking for ponies and unicorn tears, I want 30 hours in each day.
I want my babies back. When they were tiny and helpless I devoured every moment. And I was exhausted and impatient and frustrated and raw. So I want that time back to memorize and be less exhausted and completely perfect. I want the highlights reel to be the whole thing.
I feel nostalgia so keenly lately. Deep into my knees, through my spine, up my arms. There’s a sensation just before a child is injured, or just before I’m sure they’ll be injured: an electric shock from my navel to my extremities and back again that levitates me momentarily. And experience that same feeling in coveting rituals from my childhood.
I decided last month that I need to redouble my efforts to create rituals for my kids. My family. Intentional, repeatable events that bespeak our values. More than holiday traditions, I want weekend traditions and weekday traditions. I want to cultivate our community of supporters and I want us to nurture them, too; I want art and music and volunteering and adventures that form the core of who we all are.
I mentioned the 30 hours, right? Those extra minutes are key to some of my plans.
My grandfather would sit every night at the dining table, breathing the cool desert air coming in from the kitchen door, surgically altering grapefruits in preparation for our breakfast. Sometimes in the crackle glazed ombré blue bowls, sometimes rippled white with burgundy flowers, sometimes, I believe, wooden bowls that seemed more like sanded coconut shells than bowls. I only saw him prepare the honeyed, halved grapefruit once, when I was considerably older, but I know for a fact that every night he held a paring knife and carefully excised the membranes from each section of grapefruit.
Each triangle detached carefully along the rind, down one wall, and then the other wall. Dozens of cuts, all around each fruit bite. Then on to the next bowl. Rarely piercing the skin, rarely allowing any pith to adhere to the fruit. Very rarely. We never struggled to get our citrus out of the rind with the bamboo-handled grapefruit spoons.
He split one grapefruit in two when it was just him and grandma. And extra two fruits, four halves, when we visited. At least thrice a year, sometimes more, with each parent in turn, beneficiaries of the brilliantly embracing love that was articulated to their daughter-in-law, my mother, as part of a permanent friendship cemented with, “we are not divorcing you. We rather like you and we love our grandchildren. Please, please: come see us. And always let them come see us.”
Oh, we did. Early mornings playing tennis, picking pecans from the trees. Eating honeyed, cold grapefruit from the bowls kept in the refrigerator overnight, careful not to spill any on the checked blue and white tablecloth, not because they cared about spills, flawless and jovial and kind as they always were, but because spilling mesquite-honey-sweetened grapefruit juice would be a tragic loss in our little lives.
Yes, playing tennis behind the Virgin Mary’s faded back, heat and dogs and lizards and piano and afternoon monsoons and grandma’s favorite blouses and Indian food and slideshows from their latest trip to exotic and wondrous places.
And I ache for those days so intensely it makes my knees weak and my eyes hot.
So last month I started making my family sectioned, chilled, honey drizzled grapefruit every night that I can. I judge myself harshly for not starting sooner. They need rituals. They need to know who we are.
And I got tennis racquets on sale. I try to sneak pecans into all their food so the sweet, dusty taste of the desert gets into their blood. I have little doubt that if I found a faded, chipped Virgin Mary that matched theirs I would buy it.
I make them some of my maternal grandma’s cream of potato soup. They’ve had it before, but now that she’s nearing the end I bought a 10 pound bag of potatoes and lots of cream.
A few months ago we made a version of my paternal grandma’s donuts. I varied the recipe only because I’m not deep frying in my kitchen. Hell no.
And we’re having daily sectioned grapefruit.
I realize I don’t have to do all this myself. How ludicrous. The little things their five grandparents and two great grandparents share with them will form memories, good or bad. I don’t have to force my memories into my children’s DNA. They will make their own.
I’m sure someone will force my children to watch interminable slide shows on a Kodak carousel, projected onto a retractable screen, and that they’ll roll their eyes and submit, only to revise history to adore being exposed to such culture and knowledge. Right? No? Something something YouTube, something something video game? Bah.
I just know someone will teach my children to make grapefruit meringue pie and will let them lick the beaters before feeding the dogs their nightly ice cream. Right? No? Something something premade dough, something something no human food for pets? Humbug.
Well, certainly, someone will teach my boys to play tennis and ride horses and catch horny toads and navigate the slip’n’slide and play gin rummy the proper way and Scrabble with an unabridged dictionary.
Yup. I will. Let the grandparents fill our lives with whatever they value. I’m filling our days with Bob and Anne, Rose and Jack.
Because that, and some fresh air, is what we all need.
“Mommy, I have the best story ever. Wanna hear it?
You and Daddy and me and Peanut were at the playground. And I had a yellow juice in my tummy that I could spray all over. And make people die. And then we collected the bones to use for pretend fighting.”
—-Butterbean, age four years and eleven months
For ninety-nine years my grandmother has been a tough, kind, gentle, funny, fierce, wonderful woman.
For my whole life she’s been my model of forgiveness and unconditional love.
For decades she has missed her husband keenly but has found joy in her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
For years she has been saddened by a body that does less and less of what she wants. Now unable to read, hear, follow television shows, play piano, or walk well, she has still found a reason to see the bright side. She’s the champion of silver linings. Not Pollyannaesque. But genuinely grateful for her lucky and blessed life.
I saw her Monday. She was sleepy after a rough night but she still told good stories. She still fawned all over my son. She perked up comedically for the Acme sourdough cheese roll I brought her. She loves to eat.
Wednesday she had a major stroke. She’s had small strokes before. But this time her left side is useless. Her speech is slurred and swallowing is compromised. She’s very conscious and very pissed.
She’s ninety-nine years old; long-term rehab isn’t in the cards, even if she were cooperative, which, thank heavens, she’s not. Because the only thing that makes being that old any fun is telling people you refuse to do what they tell you.
I am grateful to have her in my life. I’m grateful for the ways in which she has and does bring my family together. I’m grateful I saw her two days ago.
I don’t want this to be her end, not because I hoped she’d live forever, though I did until the last few years showed how threadbare living had become for her. I don’t want this to be her end because this is the wrong ending.
Quickly, silently, napping in the sun in the family room is the right end. Quickly, painlessly on the car ride home from a remarkable family gathering is the right end.
Immobile, unable to eat or talk, unable to do anything well that means something to her? Fighting for a glass of water to be told that good old dashing water isn’t in the cards for you anymore? Thickened water, whatever the fuck that means? That is the wrong story. I want to write her a different story.
How selfish I am. A wonderful woman lives a wonderful life full of love, and I have the audacity to complain about her frailty at age ninety-nine? In a world replete with poverty and hatred, wars, inequality, wide-scale Othering that hastens if not caused deaths all over the globe daily, I have the gall to ask for a different demise for a cheerful, privileged grandma?
Yes. I have that gall. I am that selfish.
She told my mom a year ago that she wanted to read my book. It isn’t done. I told my her it isn’t done. You won’t like it, I said; let me finish it. She can’t read now. She could a few months ago, in the afternoon sunlight with big print. But now not even that.
I need time to make a time machine and go back and finish my book and print it large and give it to her. Ten years ago. Two years ago. Two months ago.
Two days ago.
I’ll go see her in a couple of days when hospice has figured out the details and she’s settled. When I stop gagging over the idea of thickened water. When I have some good stories to tell.
Because she deserves to hear some good stories now. Once she’s done high-fiving my kids.
The past few weeks have spiraled for me, and catching my breath seemed unrealistic. But a friend has given me a new approach to test for a while, and there’s a chance I won’t be struggling, chest-deep in mud much longer.
The panic lately of the mounting lists and tasks and projects and work and solo parenting have felt a lot like I’ve always supposed quicksand would feel: doesn’t matter how often I’m told to stay calm to ensure my survival, I claw and scratch and flail and scream to get to whatever I imagine dry land would be. I do emergencies very well, unless the emergency requires ignoring all the impulses of adrenaline.
Adrenaline feeds most of my days, and has since high school. Adrenaline wakes me with a slap and barks to all my muscles that it’s time to do. Accomplish. Hustle. Adrenaline gets me to each of the days’ moments just on time, if not a few seconds before. Adrenaline tells me not to sleep so I can finish a few more tasks, including daunting tasks that are rarely of the “just a few more minutes” variety.
Lately it takes more and more to elicit that adrenaline. Deadlines don’t impress me; I just parcel out the work and accomplish in bite-sized chunks without any terror. The thought of being late does little; I just walk in slow motion through jello starting a few minutes earlier. The physical need for a run can’t pry me out of my chair. In fact, the only thing that makes me quicken my pace even slightly is sibling bickering. And after years of trying to manage that, I almost don’t care anymore. I have no sympathy for either of those children, who insist on teasing and encroaching and generally menacing each other despite everything I’ve tried thus far.
And this worries me. A lot.
So I cobble together new approaches and find new ways to motivate myself. But I feel I’ve lost my way. I’ve worn myself down to a nub over the past decade, and my to-do list continues to grow while the day seems to shrink. I found an old list from last summer, and 22 of the 49 items on my list from last year are still waiting to be done. Someone joked that I needed shorter lists. Or a way to notice the 25 things I confidently cross of the list every single day.
I don’t know how to do either of those: shorter lists or feeling accomplished. Because everything left on those lists is important. Four journal articles, representing hundreds of hours of work, just languish, needing a few hours of edits each and then the honor of submission. Thousands of photos endured being pared down to dozens, but now need to be uploaded and made into photo albums for the grandparents. FSA forms pace across my desk impatiently, waiting for receipts and explanations and 57-point-checklists before releasing the money I paid almost a year ago. Summer glares at me from almost-full camps and annoyingly-paced flights, and cackles at my inability to commit six months early.
And I’m baffled at myself, since I’ve always self-defined as driven to produce and accomplish…why can’t I focus on the big picture? Where’s the vim? The vigor? I feel as though I’m moving through coagulated blood, slogging, vaguely nauseated, from one task to another. Every non-work task feels like a burden. (I know I’m not depressed because work is still fun.)
So I make schedules of how to tackle the tasks I continually punt. But I’ve honed my efficiency pretty well over the past few decades, and I’m making the most of my time. After accomplishing what I consider the bare minimum each day, there are maybe 15 minutes left.
How the hell do I prep articles for submission to peer-reviewed journals with 15 minutes a day? How do I rework a novel in 15 minute increments? How do I learn the piano, make photo albums, plan summer camp, bake, do yoga, write up a separation agreement, and sell my wedding china on ebay with only 15 minutes a day?
The answer came from a friend after we saw The Theory of Everything this weekend.
She suggested that for everything task I sign up for, I’m choosing something lame over the important things.
Sure, on paper, but, but, but…
She suggested that making myself crazy with tasks to ensure a steady flood of adrenaline short circuits my brain.
Oh, come on….
She suggested that there’s plenty of time to do things later.
Oh, no, no, no, nononononono no. Just saying the words, “There’s plenty of time” made me physically panic. Sweat, twitchy muscles, racing heart.
“But I have to get the photo albums out!”
No. You don’t. There’s plenty of time.
“But the school needs better emergency preparedness and the teachers need reviews and my portfolio needs…”
There’s plenty of time.
“But I need to search Instructables with the kids and find projects for the next time I remember to plan a playdate.”
Please. Stop. There’s plenty of time.
I know that each yes means saying no to myriad things, so by definition the yeses should be to important tasks. I know that each moment is fleeting and that choosing how to spend them needs to feed either my family, my soul, or my work.
I know that intellectually. But my body craves long lists at which I’m failing, so I can adrenalize myself into action.
The problem is that to synthesize that adrenaline, I’m filling all the spaces with tasks that are basically crap. Not the play, the joy, the work. Probably only 40 of 49 things on the list are crap.
That’s a lot of crap, y’all.
My mantra this month is “There’s Plenty of Time.” I shoved all the papers on my desk into a box, sparing the tax documents for a special folder placed in a drawer for next month, and the two handwritten letters from New York friends to whom I want to reply.
Tonight I’m writing a blog post. If I feel like it. If not, there’s plenty of time another day.
I won’t put anything else on the list, because there’s plenty of time to do everything another day.
(I winced as I typed that, and felt twitchy. But I won’t delete it.)
Speaking of things that had to get done today, look at what the world around me did today.
Yep. Jasmine, plum blossoms, and daffodils. That’s what the Bay Area does in February. Overachievers, the lot of ‘em.
According to my boys, the Harry Potter series runs thusly:
Book One: Harry Potter Pees in His Pants
Book Two: Harry Potter Pees in the Great Hall
Book Three: Harry Potter Pukes on His Friends
Book Four: Harry Potter Poops in His Pants
Book Five: Harry Potter Potty Trains
Book Six: Harry Potter Goes to College
Book Seven: [we don’t know]
After years of reading about the benefits of retraining my brain with meditation, after checking out from the library the book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story, and after realizing how hectic my days, thoughts, and to-do list are, I finally tried to meditate.
[this is me: wrought iron vulture that’s lovable to only a quirky few. And the flowers my boys added last week are my hope for meditation: a little sweetening that doesn’t change the vulture as much as give it some soft contrast.]
[Yes, that’s a Halloween pumpkin. From early October. Get over it.]
I wanted to meditate in earnest this time. Not just writing it on a list, not trying to do a teaser session in the four seconds before I fall asleep at night. Rather, actually sitting comfortably in the kitchen after tucking in the boys, closing my eyes, and watching my thoughts without judging them.
It took several minutes to settle. I noticed sounds and tried to let them go, then wanted to get up. I noticed my wanting to get up and tried to let it go, and wanted to write about it. I noticed my desire to write and tried to let it go, and tried to make a mental list of things I should do in addition to write. I noted the compulsion to list how many things I’m not doing. I let the list go. And I breathed. The list came back and I noted that I tend to repeat lists so I can remember them. I noticed how I was forcing breath. I noticed my breath settle.
And then a loud crash lit every nerve in my body on fire with the surety that someone had broken through a window and was going to murder all three of us. I screamed at the absolute top of my volume range and forced my eyes open.
I was just in time to see the cat finish his leap on top of the fridge a few feet from me, creating a cascade of holiday cards and homemade magnets to the floor. Jackass. Abjectly terrified, with a sore throat and adrenaline absolutely shaking every muscle in my body, I thought that, with the murder threat alleviated I had to go check on my son. I had screamed loud enough that I was sure I’d awakened him.
So I ran up the stairs and whispered as I hurried down the hall and into his room, “It’s mommy, honey; I’m sorry about the loud noise.”
“What happened?” he asked.
“The cat jumped on the fridge and scared me. I was trying to rest my thoughts and my brain and he freaked me out.”
“I thought he had jumped on you and scratched you.”
“Nope. I’m okay. Nothing is hurt and nobody is hurt and I’m sorry I woke you.”
“I was awake already. I was trying to figure out who is tricking who in Harry Potter.”
“Who is tricking whom is a good question, buddy. You go to sleep and I’ll go try to meditate again.”
“You should, mom. We do it in school and it’s really nice to connect with your breath.”
There was no way I’d close my eyes again that evening. I had things to do and wasn’t interested in associating meditation with terror.
I’m sure I’ll try it again soon. Maybe not at night. Not in the kitchen. And not with cats nearby.
In his defense, this is what happens to the mediation-murdering cat when he tries to meditate.
I woke up last night in a panic. I’d had a nightmare in which I knew I had exactly two days to move. The current house had to be empty and we had to be somewhere else in 48 hours. But I had no plan, had packed nothing, and knew not where we could go.
I don’t remember many details, but I remember Spouse trying to get me to answer some questions. We had either reconciled or finished all the divorce paperwork—I don’t know which, but something was capital-F Final about our relationship—and he wanted to know what my plans were.
“I don’t even know what state to move to,” I recall keening. In the dream, I couldn’t even process all the possibilities: there were no choices except homelessness and utter hopelessness.
And a cheerful new year to you, too.
The longest I have lived in a house is five years. It was the home Spouse and I bought just before we got married. We painted and decorated and improved. We devoted every moment for 40% of that time to an adorable little Peanut whose presence made love more important than location. And we lost all our equity selling it in 2008.
The second longest I lived in one place was during high school. My mom moved us just before I started freshman year, so I could go to the best public school in the area. When I left for college I’d been in that house exactly four years.
In a few months, I will have been in this current rental for four years. We moved on Butterbean’s first birthday. It’s been a rollercoaster, and I’ve been trying to find a different, less expensive place to live for almost two years. But this is the house both boys have considered home for most of their lives.
I don’t know what the dream is trying to tell me. I don’t believe in dream analysis. I believe the unconscious mind combines the days’ and weeks’ images into a new story which is sometimes enjoyable and sometime terrifying. Either way, it’s fiction. The stress is real, but the story is fiction. And I tried to remember that when I awoke. “Just get a job,” I told my waking self as the homeless/hopeless panic swelled. I assessed the level of light outside and the lack of small children’s voices, and I went back to sleep.
I’ve always somehow thought that moving would solve problems. At last count, I’ve moved 26 times in my life. Feeling uncomfortable? Pack up everything and move. Not sure what you want to be when you grow up? It’s probably the apartment; change it. Scared about money and the future? Get a new address to distract you.
I’m managed this urge, somewhat, as an adult, by rearranging furniture. But the furniture is heavy and I’m less reasonable in my dreams. So it’s time to move.
I thought about this on a long run, the hours when I ditch music and podcasts and children and distractions to just let my thoughts wander. I tried to gauge how my life is going: my parenting and career and status as an engaged citizen and human. And I found a big problem.
The few metrics we have for being successful adults are not useful measures of successful human-ing.
I like data on how I’m doing. Good or bad, I prefer being measured. I’ve always loved tests and grades and competition with metrics, because with numbers I know who I am. Without them, I’m lost. I need to know how badly I suck (or, rarely, how awesome I am) based entirely on extrinsic factors. I’m not kidding and I’m not being hyperbolic. I went through a long spell after college of measuring my worth by the numbers on the scale and my paycheck. I don’t enjoy admitting it, but I feel lost without rankings to give me a sense of success or failure.
The idea that I want to be measured…by grades, by the pound, by test score, by winner’s medal color…is problematic in adulthood, because there are very few quantifiable situations in which I’m compared to others. And I find that I’m failing at those which remain into middle age.
Happiness has no numbers attached to it. Nor does successful parenting, career prowess, or intelligent uses of time. I refuse to be measured by whether my kids eat the food I cook. I won’t look at the scale anymore, nor do I care what size I wear.
So what’s left to measure?
Run pace. (Awful, and getting worse the less sleep I get.)
Bank account. (Sob.)
Number of books finished this year. (No idea. One, maybe?)
Retirement account. (Fetal position.)
Number of friends. (Decent. They’re probably pretending, though.)
Salary. (I’m a consultant and this varies obscenely.)
Current client projects. (It’s December. Everything dries up.)
Books published. (…)
So how do I do I decide what to do if I don’t have a metric on which to base a decision? And if I use money and pages read to determine my worth, I’m a miserable human. But that can’t be true.
I need a calculation. I am ___% a success. I’m pretty sure the number is low. But if it’s not as bad as I assume, maybe I’ll feel better. And I could chart a path for improvement. To get better I should…what? Move? Begin a new career? Get a new job in current career? Find a new roommate? Move to a new geographic location? Cultivate a new hobby? Get back on stage?
I want some way to know if I’m doing okay. Fair to middling? Exceedingly well?
Relative to what? Younger me? Last year’s me? This year’s you? That guy down the street? Across town? Across the country? On the other side of the world? This is a stupid game and I shouldn’t be playing.
My experience of joy and of paralyzing fear, motivation, and sorrow have nothing to do with comparison or scores or rankings. But I feel someone should be showing me numbers. Evaluating. Measuring.
I need a grade. A score. A ranking.
42. It’s the answer to life, the Universe, and everything, right?
Doesn’t feel as though 42 is the answer. So I guess it’s time to fake it until I make it. Or ask what the question is, rather than what the answer is.
My list this year isn’t as long as I’d like it to be, but it’s the day before and I have to call an end to self improvement at some point.
1. Sing loudly at the grocery store, especially when people get too close.
2. Show up to at least one client kickoff meeting in full clown regalia.
3. Send the kids to school with a lunchbox full of popcorn at least once a month.
4. Run, full speed, everywhere in the house.
5. Walk, excruciatingly slowly, when we’re a block from school.
6. Serve guests wine in coffee mugs. Serve kids soup on plates.
8. Speak in meetings only in pig latin.
9. Refuse to finish lists.
‘Tis the time of the year for my annual celebration of hosting mediocrity.
The invitations went out. By email. With no reminder two days before.
This is your casual, heartfelt, and festive but unadorned invitation
to our annual Low Expectations Holiday Party. Come to our house for a
minor-key gathering of joy, adoration, and minimal preparation as we
begin the seasons of Too Much to Do and Too Little Time.
Cheer with us an ambivalent welcome to Hanukkah, Winter Solstice,
Christmas, Kwanzaa, and any other cultural eating and drinking holiday you
Come as you are, with your favorite minimal-prep-time food or drink.
We will be here, without any promises to clean or decorate, but with
warm exclamations of how much we cherish you in our lives.
Guaranteed to be unassuming, but not underwhelming.
RSVP so we know how big a pot of apple cider we need to leave
simmering until you get here.
The day before the party I bought some cheese. I’m not gonna lie: it was good cheese. The kids were fighting and I offered threats and bribes in equal measure so I could select a triple-cream brie, petite basque, herbed goat cheese, and salty mountain gruyere. Later I ate the gruyere and had to serve a cheddar/parmesan blend.
I cleaned the bathroom. Then went for a run.
A few minutes before the party was supposed to begin I surveyed the Martha Stewart scene I had created.
I knew then that we were ready to underwhelm.
I think we exceeded expectations, actually. Hard to disappoint when you promise fair to middling.
I’ll admit it: I moved the candy corn bag off the table. Because good cheese deserves better than that. But I didn’t move the cat toy.
There are many things in my house that shouldn’t be here anymore. Not because I’m a hoarder, though, honestly, I have more of a tendency than I’ll admit on a blog.
But I’m not talking about dozens of unused tchotchkes or decades-old, half-eaten yogurt parfaits. I’m referring to items that represent a time in my life that’s gone; stuff that I should rightfully give to charity so someone else can make a life with my stuff sans the bad memories.
But for various reasons, I hang on to a few key items that both remind me of a painful time in my life and offer me a portal into the future. Not the flux capacitor kind. Just the “hey, I’m okay with the choices I’ve made so I’m moving forward despite not having a DeLorean” kind.
The most obvious, and frequently used items that some people might shed as life progresses, are remnants of my marriage.
But it’s pretty easy to keep winding a gorgeous clock twice a day, marveling that it’s still as compelling to me in its metronomically clicking timekeeping as it was when we found it in a small mountain town on our honeymoon. I don’t need to still be in the marriage to appreciate the clock. Or the memory. Or the joy visitors find when they stumble upon the lovely mechanical creature.
The same goes for the wedding china. The kids and I eat off wedding china every meal, and some nights, the man who helped pick the pattern joins us. Do I want to be cooking several nights a week for four people rather than three? No, gentle reader, I do not. Do I cook meals to be enough for four anyway, and (somewhat) warmly invite the boys’ dad to join us when he comes over? Yes, I do. And whether he’s there or not, the plates are gorgeous.
They’re important to me because they represent grownup decisions that I stand by even if I would now do things differently, given volumes of information and a dozen years’ additional experience. We all know that’s not how decisions work. There is no going back to change history just because you’re older and wiser and in a completely different place mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. I stand by my life and I stand by my wedding china. (Plus, honestly, the stakes are much lower if kids break dishes—they haven’t yet, but I have. It’s not as though the tableware is any indication or harbinger of the health of our marriage. In fact, a dear friend recently broke a crystal wine glass, and it made me quite happy. Really. I use the wedding crystal every day, because we don’t have many fancy things, but the fanciness we do have I like to be part of my daily life. That one broken wine glass reminds me a of joyful, funny evening with people I love, and I’d rather have something momentous like a broken glass cement my gratitude than have a full set of unforgettable wine glasses and boring, forgettable friends.
Maybe I’m blase about using fine china and crystal every day because I don’t care about stuff. Sure, that’s part of it. Maybe I don’t get rid of it because I don’t have many genuinely fancy things and it’d be a shame to ditch them just because I’m not married anymore. The relationship changed and did not survive, and the plates and glasses remain. No need to be weepy and metaphoric about it. They’re plates. And glasses. And maybe that’s because I’m not in pain about the end of my marriage. It was clear the relationship was over. Irreconcilable. Painful to maintain, kinder to dissolve. So sure the plates aren’t a big deal.
But these glasses are.
The family who gave us these researched the best glasses for red wine, my favorite beverage (other than water), and chose these because they look a bit like beakers. We were science nerds together, and I respected and envied their research once I ditched the lab for a career in language. So they bought me carefully crafted nerd goblets to show their attention and care. We all married around the same time, and we supported each other. We had babies around the same time, and we supported each other. And they ditched me, saying I was too much. After fifteen years it finally dawned on them, it seems, that I’m not worth knowing.
But I still use the glasses. I got rid of every other gift they’d given me over the course of our long friendship, but I kept the glasses. Because the glasses are gorgeous. And they’re for red wine and for sparkling water, and I will not let them take from me the joy of red wine in a flawless glass. No, ma’am and sir. I will not. I am worth knowing and I am worth really nice glassware.
I don’t let the kids use those.
One of the items in my house that, by all logic should be tossed straight into the trash, will never leave my possession if I can help it. As with the treasures hand made by my grandfather, and the photos of beloved family and friends, I get weepy about this particularly dear item in the living room.
My penny sculpture is a pile of coins made molten and fused by the Oakland Hills Fire in 1991. I retrieved them from the pile of rubble at the Parkwood Apartments, which had gone from a delightful roommate compromise to an elevated concrete slab of ash and post-apocalyptic barrenness in a matter of hours.
When I repossessed the pennies, I had to sign a waiver stating that, to the best of my knowledge, these were my pennies. I’m going to be honest: I have no idea if these were my pennies. I have no earthly recollection whether I even kept a pile of coins in my bedroom at the time. But the penny sculpture, formed by natural forces and placed by the management company right near a coffee mug that had definitely been mine, claimed me when I saw them.
So I signed for the pennies, thinking, “damn it, there are dozens of fused-coin sculptures around here, and it’s not as though I’m taking one that clearly has a wedding ring or an heirloom necklace melted into it. I’m taking a small, worthless clump of coins that might or might not belong to me because I’m not fully functioning, I’m a bit of a hoarder, and I cannot walk away from this tragedy with just a coffee mug that has a lump of concrete fused to it. I signed my name and bond that I was the rightful owner of the mug, too. I did not take or sign for some corningware that looked familiar. “I don’t want baking dishes,” I thought angrily, “even if they are mine.” A lot of corningware survived intact, and there were distinctive flowered logos on baking dishes with and without fused cement blobs in most of the regions on card tables marked by address with white copy paper and black sharpies.
I didn’t scan through all the items, as some survivors did. There might have been more to claim, I suppose, after the entire community burned to nothing in a 14,000 degree exploding landscape of eucalyptus and oak. But I didn’t care about getting more stuff. I went to the area labeled as our address, grabbed pennies and a mug, and left. Probably sobbing. I threw away the mug away soon after, some time in the beginning of the year of undiagnosed PTSD. I have no memories of that year other than a music class in which the room swam every time I opened my eyes, a smelly and disordered breakfast of seven hardboiled egg whites peeled on the walk to literature class, and a meeting with my counselor in which I asked to drop organic chemistry after two months of trying, desperately, to do homework in a cavernous frat house room.
I don’t keep and cling to and commune with the pennies to rub salt in a wound. I keep the pennies as a “holy fuck, if you made it through that, today is going to be okay” talisman. Because holy fuck. In fact, I should, rightfully, call them the Holy Fuck sculpture, but every time I ask if anyone has seen them, I call them My Pennies. Has anyone seen My Pennies? I moved My Pennies and I can’t find them…Peanut, do you know where My Pennies are? Wedding China Picker Outer, where are My Pennies? Yay! I found My Pennies! They’re just where I left them.
Of course they are just where I left them, placed ceremoniously in front of Foucault’s History of Madness or Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood or the complete works of Faulkner. Or in the bird’s nest I found walking Peanut to school. Nobody is going to move My Pennies. Some objects are too important, both for the past and the future, for anyone to mess with them.