50 Things about Mimi

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Sunday night, Mother’s Evening, a friend shared a post she read on Salon. It was written by a surviving daughter about her mother who had died when the writer was 25. I was struck by the seemingly enormous task of writing 50 fifty FIFTY! things about my own mother, in ways which did not repeat themselves from things I’ve shared here (likely impossible). I would also like to do my very best to keep things positive, because as we all know mother / daughter relationships can be storied. Mine was no different in that I suppose.

God did not give me daughters. There is a reason for that.

Yesterday morning, I watched the penultimate episode of Mad Men. The scene when Sally reads a letter from her mother (whom she always called Betty) was so lovely, especially that she signed the letter “Love, Mom.” Betty and Sally were a bit like me and Mom. But I was Betty and mom was Sally. But one thing I heard a lot about myself from my mom was that she knew I would make it. In much the same way, Betty tells Sally that she knows she doesn’t have to worry about her anymore because Sally moves to the beat of her own drum.

I’ll not bore you again with our history, but we were two souls who intersected for 45 years and I know we loved one another deeply.

So, off the cuff and mostly positive if not striving for it and it’s likely you’ve read a couple of these before if you’ve read anything I’ve written about Mom…

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Mom always had a glass of water by her bedside. It was never a cup. Never plastic. Always a glass and it was always, amazingly, filled.

She did not understand electronics. I think in some very primitive Irish way, she suspected they were instruments of faeries and pixies.

She loved her Polaroid camera.

She loved photo booths. Alone, with her kids, with my dad. She loved the capture of a moment, staged or organic. She loved to remember.

She would listen to Caruso at very odd hours at a concert-hall volume.

Her self-applied hair colorings were inventive. I distinctly remember a purple time and a green time. (Keeping things positive.)

She had cheekbones and a facial serenity which belied her inner consternations. She often was looking into the middle distance.

When she was a child, her left? eye / pupil was damaged, horribly, by a classmate and his pencil tip. She would recount that story with bravery and bittersweetness. I don’t know if she could see out of that eye; she said it was often difficult. I remember looking into that eye, she would never tell me not to, and feel pain in my body at the thought of the injury.

She never said a really mean or critical thing about anyone she knew socially. She was always very positive and sincere. I remember one person who was particularly unattractive, in more than a physical way, and she said, “He’s very smart.” 

She loved roller coasters. Again! Again!

As an obsessive, she had collections of things: books, audio tapes, handbags, clothing… much of it never opened. I see that in myself, to a very small degree: just having something, and it reminds me of her a little.

She would take my drawings of flowers and vases, pulled from those tiny little spiral notebooks, and she’d nudge them between the frame and her vanity mirror, alongside singular or folded frames from photo booths. 

She loved a Reuben. Pickle on the side. The musher the better. She was all about the sauerkraut. I see the allure of the Reuben but I prefer its cousin, a grilled ham & cheese on seeded deli rye. Pickle mandatory. 

Rosaries. Rosaries were practically everywhere — not out in the open, that would be too weird, too “ethnic” (my assumption, not hers); she had them in drawers and on bookshelves, tucked away. In a coat pocket. In a teacup on a shelf. In the spoon compartment. In the ashtray. I never saw her use one though.

Sometimes I would encounter a filled glass of water in a cabinet. And it would spill all over me. Sometimes I would encounter a glass of water in the refrigerator. I remember asking about putting a pitcher of water in the fridge and having it that way, but she didn’t like it cold. She just wanted to “keep it fresh.” 

She had her own climate with her mother, who was lovely, but psychologically encumbered to a degree that she made my mother look like the trapeze girl at the circus.

Speaking of the circus, Mom was a majorette, in her all-girl’s high school. I can see her now in her felt wool skirt twirling her baton and marching in her little boots. I remember finding one of her half-dozen batons in her closet in our Canada house and running downstairs with it to try it. At first she was all, “Where did you get that…?” but she relaxed. It was safe, she was safe. She loved to watch me, and she gave me tips. “Here, like this…” she’d say and she’d take the baton, and show me how to twirl it between her fingers, running it up one side and then flipping her hand and coming back for more… “like this… just … you know … start here … ” the sun glinting off the rifled, chrome finish and one of her hands on her hip while her feet gently marched in place, feathery footfalls, just to keep a tempo. I’d end up sitting down, dazzled by her trancelike state as she twirled it and tossed it up in the air, spinning to catch it, as easily as breathing. “Now you try!” I passed. I suppose at some point in my life I took her talent with the baton as an affront, showing off, but as I type this, I recall it with awe and pride.

At Sherks’ Hardware in Canada (which sold everything, not just hose nozzles and 3-in-One oil), I got a hula hoop the next week. I was better at that. She was terrible at it. I remember coaching her, “Here, like this…” We laughed.

She loved the Canada house. Loved the sound of rain on the roof and the click-click-click of the squirrels running over the eaves. She would cry when branches were cut from the tall sugar maples because they were breaching the roof. She liked the idea of being in a forest, hidden, secluded and quiet. She rests eternally beneath a sugar maple now in Crittenden, NY.

She would cook coffee on the stove in a pot. Just pour the grounds right in the pot and let the water boil and then just pour the liquid, deftly, into her M. A. Hadley mug.

IMG_4857 I think she took milk in it. 

She was one of those moms who could peel an apple with a knife; I still can’t do that. Her hands were like a surgeon’s.

She would capture a moment or a phrase and plug it into a cartoon in a breath. Her sense of humor and observation skills were keen; in my jaded years, I used to think she was just projecting, but I do believe she was acutely aware of her own issues and used the cartoons as a vehicle for releasing them. Some people make lists, my mother did too, but she also made cartoons. I think she was acutely aware of the ephemera of the human condition.

She would bound around the Canada house at times quoting Moliére or Shakespeare or Wilde, usually their funnier stuff. In moments of strife, I’m pretty sure she would quote them too, but I tried to hit the road.

She had favorite things to wear: a green and orange “bumble bee” dress her sister-in-law made her. 

  

Her Dr. Scholl’s sandals. I remember begging her for a pair for myself, but that never happened. She said they didn’t make them for kids, but I saw them … (keeping it positive…)

She would wear five static gold choker necklaces at a time. If you gave her jewelry, and it was valuable, it went on and never came off. If it was plastic or you made it at camp, she wore it, but it would end up in the jewelry box on her vanity. I see this in myself now; and I suspect it’s for a similar reason: the gold and silver are durable, they will last and be able to withstand daily domestic life. Those cute little plastic beads strung together with elastic won’t. There’s a part of me which wants to preserve those pieces, I think that was her angle too.

Family. Family Family Family. She was a master triangulator. I can feel her now, at times, nudging me to go one way or another. To be softer. She hated rifts. She hated divorces. They tore her apart, in ways I’ll never understand. I think watching her brothers go through theirs and the damage it did to the entire extended family network was galvanizing for her. She would never ever divorce. Never.

She was an absolutely terrible driver. Just … the worst. I think the first accident in modern times in Northern Virginia — when the vehicle in front which was rear-ended was blamed for the accident — was hers. She did NOT understand turning lanes… coming from a city, they just didn’t exist. They proliferate suburbia.

She hated suburbia. She just did. She liked the energy of a city, even a small town. I watch Mad Men, she’s a contemporary of Betty Draper’s, when Betty moved to the suburbs, a part of her died. In 1980s suburbia, Mom never fit in. I wish I were older, maybe 18 or so when we’d moved here, maybe I could have tooled around with her.

Pens. Pens were everywhere. Notepads too.

Kleenex in the pocket. Balled up. Unused for the most part, save for a lipstick kiss. Standard Mom issue. Smelled like leather, wool, Chanel No. 5 and dust.

Lipstick. Never left the house without lipstick. The one time I encountered her without it was at my younger niece’s 2nd birthday. Mom look positively ashen without it. I went through her purse and asked if I could put it on her. She brightened at the offer. I’ll never forget putting it on her. Her lipsticks were always flattened. Mine are pointed. We always joked about that: how hers were blunted and mine were not, “How did you do that?” we’d ask each other.

Cashmere. Every season was the reason.

Upper lip sweat. I remember it so clearly. She would be be drawing or cooking or sitting or reading. Sweat would form on her upper lip. She never brushed it off.

Skin. Her skin was beautiful. She had a car accident in the 70s and had to go to the ER. She needed stitches on her lower lip. She was devastated by the news and the scarring. After a few years, you could barely see it, but she knew. Lipstick helped her deal with that.

Egg nog. Duck lips. My mother had an egg allergy but loved egg nog. You couldn’t stop her. Mom had a streak in her: if she found out that something was tasty or delicious or good for you: she took it all at once. She encountered someone’s egg nog, I want to say “Giant brand” from a store down here and she drank an entire quart. Her face swelled up and her lips reminded me of the lips on Daffy Duck’s girlfriend, “Daphne.” She would get so mad when I said that to her, but I was terrified she’d never be OK again, so I think it was my humor kicking in to save the day and to keep me from coming unglued.

Bike rides. She had an old 3-speed “Why would you want anything more?” bike with a wicker basket. It had a bell on it. She would ride that around, again, free as a bird. 

As the mother in the Salon article, Mom, too, liked to stay for the credits. I don’t remember watching movies in a theater with her, but on TV, she would wait for the credits. “It’s THOSE PEOPLE who make the film, Maaallly,” she would say to me. “They’re the most important.”

“I’m doing yoga,” she would say, lying on her back on our olive green wool living room carpet with one leg elevated straight up at 90˚ and the other leg on the ground. Knowing what I knew of yoga in the 70s: turbans, contortions, the Maharishi and the Beatles, I suspected it was just another Momism. Little did I know then, but I do now, she was doing yoga. She was.

Local was better. Mom loved the idea of Broadway, but preferred local genius. She directed many plays benefiting Buffalo’s charities. She was a volunteer who knew her strengths. I have apparently followed in her footsteps that way. Mom was not and I am not a baker. Bakers are great people, we just aren’t them.

If you could buy it at a Hallmark store, it should stay there. Mom was all about the handmade, unique, “esoteric” being one of her favorite words. “Provincial” and “providential” were others.

She used to say that “symmetry was overrated.” I have come to understand symmetry as balance. I feel I have a better handle on what she really meant but didn’t know she was saying. Balance was hard for her, maintaining a rhythm, equal footing; I suspect so because she felt uneasy about it, internal conflicts and all. I don’t know if she strove for balance, ever.

“Cool it, Mimsy!” was one of her favorite phrases for me. She borrowed it from Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suites” — look it up, it suits me.

“Piffle” was another word of Mom’s. It’s perfect, actually.

My father bought me a long red cashmere overcoat. My brother bought me a red wool hat to go with it. She would call me “the raging pimento” when I would be off somewhere. Usually in a huff, I guess. I feel like red was her favorite color. It had to be a blue, cool red though. Nothing hot. Not “cherry” red, that was too common for her.

Bangles. Mom wore bangles like how the Kardashians wear false eyelashes. Her collection grew after her mother died. She took those on as well along with her monogrammed and cuff bracelets. Sometimes those danced along her forearm with a rogue pink or taupe rubber band, perfect for the impromptu hair bun.

She never did pony tails. Always did hair buns. I remember putting her hair, it was very thick hair, in pig tails and pony tails once. She indulged me, but when I saw her, it never felt right. She wasn’t athletic, so pony tails were out; she wasn’t coquettish either. I remember her saying that pig tails on a grown woman always seemed forced, raw. Unless the woman was a hippie or a farmer. Or in a play.

Linen napkins. If there was one available, Mom was using it.

She loved nature. Trees, birds, clouds, torrential rain and then a clear sky. She loved the unpredictability of nature. I dare say she preferred it to people.

She was cool to animals. I blame her mother for that. She loved cats though and we had many as children. She resoundingly did not like dogs. She was bitten as a child. The dog we had as a family, Toby, was a mess. He was untrained and just having him made her twitchy, I’m sure of it. But she knew I loved them and that when we had “big news!” as a newly married couple, we told her and my father to welcome their new grand-puppy, Maggie, she probably wanted to stab me. But Maggie was sweet and trained and she grew to like her. She even trusted her with my kids. My dogs, as you know, like anyone with a chip. I remember many times, how Murphy often would sit by mom, even if she didn’t have food. I think he enjoyed her mellowness as she entered her twilight.

She would chirp and squeal with delight at anything we did; I used to think she was unhinged. I didn’t understand such huge reactions to what I considered to be just something I got to become good at. “DO IT AGAIN!” She would cheer. I wouldn’t. I don’t regret that; she was in her space. I see my own kids astound me with their intelligence, reserve, kindness, humor and talents and I cheer once and then gush later. This is theirs, not mine.

She used to chew her milk. I never understood it and the sound of the compression of her jaw sent shivers down my spine as a child. 

Her favorite stroke was the butterfly. She used to swim it, laconically and loudly, in Lake Erie lake outside my cousin’s house in her star-spangled Speedo swimsuit. Her hair coming loose and wild from her bun, like tentacles. 

She said to me often, “When you’re a mother, you’ll understand.” I used to think she was nuts. Now I know she was right.

I loved seeing that sweet message at the bottom of her mug of hot cocoa. She used salt, butter and brown sugar in it.

I loved seeing that sweet message at the bottom of her mug of hot cocoa. She used salt, butter and brown sugar in it.

Gratefully, I could go on. That was nice.

Mom, know that you are remembered. Your most favorite thing of all to do, to remember. I remember you. I miss you, I wish I could undo a whole bunch of stuff I said and did, but I don’t dare ask anymore.

Thank you.

Motherhood. Mother’s Day. Memoir.

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Mother’s day is looming. I’m not a fan. Never really have been and it doesn’t have much to do with my eccentric and exciting upbringing as much as those who know me (and what I’ve written about it) would think.

It’s because it is false. It just rings false to me. The expectations… OMAIGAAAD, the expectations. Poor little kids, gathering all their pennies from their coin banks, asking dad or older sibs to take them to the CVS or the grocer to buy a box of chocolates, a necklace, or make a card or buy a card.

Due to some childhood stuff (my mom had her internal conflicts), I know that some of my dislike stems from not feeling as though I could please her, so yes, there’s that. But the other part is that it’s gone from a random assortment of reasons to honor moms (which in my mind sounds as though Mother’s Day has an identity crisis — shocker — going on) to an all-out blitz of over commercialized nonsense basically saying that if you don’t buy your mother a castle in St. Moritz, you’re an asshole.

Apparently the day exists because the daughter (Anna) of a Civil War peace and public health activist and care giver to wounded soldiers wanted to honor her mom, a woman named Ann Jarvis. The first celebration was in 1905, even though it wasn’t really established as we know it now (with back-to-back Sales and Storewide Blow Outs!) until 1908. Woodrow Wilson signed its proclamation, naming the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, in 1914. So last year was the 100th anniversary of the presidential proclamation… does that mean all the previous ones were moot?

Great. Now we’re all stuck wondering if we’re a) doing enough to be honored; and b) wondering if our degree or honor is high enough… I mean c’mon, how can I compete with a Civil War peace and health activist? They didn’t even have penicillin then. I’d have to move out to the woods and hope a band of wounded forlorn hunters with rabid nationalistic bents travels across my compound and that all cellular coverage is dead.

It’s hopeless.

How would you have liked to have lived during the first Mother’s Day? Can you imagine…  back in 1908…

Sissy Calhoun, whispering behind her fan to Minerva Simmons: Did you hear about Anna? She’s honoring her mother… AGAIN… it’s been three years since she died, can’t she just let it go? My mother’s all over me about not honoring her… ‘What? Is it not enough that I simply cooked and cleaned after you for all these years?! I have to go and be an activist TOO?!’ she hisses at me. I can’t take it. My needlepoint is never detailed just so. My churned butter is always runny. I can’t seem to do enough.

Minerva, picking up a napkin she let drop on the floor: I know, right?

Here’s the deal: be nice to your mom as much as you can. If my mom were still here, I’d struggle with the day, I know I would. I struggled when she was alive. Now I struggle that she’s gone. There were some years that all I could do was just send her a card, the burden to perform for her and fill her voids was immense, as was the feverish desire of hers for me to just ‘let it all go…’ whatever I was nursing emotionally, at the time.

She used to call me, often, and just sit there on the line, not saying anything. It was maddening. She would listen for sounds in my background, of the boys chattering, the TV shows or music or of our bustling household with a dog and friends of the boys running in and out. She would just hang there…

I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t “hold” that space for her.

After about 10 minutes of this … experience … I could take no more. “Mom, this is looney. Don’t you want to talk to them? Or me?”

“No. I just like hearing you all going about your day. I imagine how things are. Plates on the counter or a shoe in the hall. A backpack spilled on the floor. My own mother used to do this, just call me and hang on the phone and not say anything. I used to be like you are, thinking she was a little nuts, and she’d say what I end up saying now, ‘I just want to listen. To hear you all…'”

Sigh. (I know I’m going to do the same… my kids are growing up too fast. And I constantly MARVEL at their talents and how they’ve grown and matured. The poor dears… they’re really in for it with me when they leave. Must. Fight. Urge… to call and Listen. On. Phone…)

My mother would often sit in a chair and not say a word, but just observe us. She’d watch us and now I get it, to a certain extent, because she was an artist. If she’d just said something at the time, I wouldn’t have thought she was such a weirdo. If she’d just said something along the lines of, “I’m remembering this so I can draw it later…” (and she’d create a killer rendition of it, in her style), then I know I’d get it. I know I’d be less hostile and secretive.

She used to audio-record us. Major holidays especially. She had a tape recorder with her positioned under a linen napkin (she disliked paper napkins) and it used to unhinge us. She didn’t care. There was always something about Mom which insisted upon reliving the moment, a fear (almost manic and mortal) of moving into a future “space.”

I remember several instances of not really knowing about the recording going on, even though it would’ve happened a previous dinner and we’d discovered it then. It was like my “naiveté and total trust” vat was never ending. But she’d be caught when the tape inevitably ran out and that >CLUCK!< of the machine gave her away… She used 90-minute tapes too, so we’d sit at that table for 45 minutes, easy, as we got older. The tape had to be ejected and the machine had to be reset to begin recording on the other side… it was like an invasion of privacy. I bet when tape recorders were reengineered to have “auto-reverse” it was like Christmas for her. She never knew about MP3 recorders.

On all of those occasions, I remember feeling deeply violated by her recordings and then equally shamed by her for feeling that way. She would dismiss it, telling me I over-reacted. Telling us all that we were wrong to wish she’d not done that. That our protests of her recording us cast a pall on the evenings and we never felt “safe” anymore. That she was recording these moments for history and we’d be sorry one day when there were none. I don’t know if those moments of anger were ever recorded. Mom had a keen talent for revisionist history. I also want to say that she never participated in the regular table banter either, just sat at the table as though she was watching a ping-pong tournament. Once those moments were revealed and felt as though they were repeating, they created a rut in me. I never felt “safe” again having dinner there.

There was no point in protesting. She did it for years. Never really stopped. I’m not sure if she ever listened to the tapes or just kept an archive (which is a stretch, as she was not terribly organized). I have no interest in hearing those tapes. I resent them. She cheated — if she wasn’t present enough to enjoy the moment as it happened, she didn’t get to cheat by recording it and playing it again out of context. Maybe she did it when she would make her “listening” calls.

Knowing what I know now about her inner conflicts, I am remembering that many times she was medicated during those dinners.

This is hard. I really didn’t plan on writing about this. It just sort of happened.

I remember my older brother sending cards every Mother’s Day with a giant “MOM” written across the front of the envelope and our street address immediately below in smaller scrawl. It was always fun for me to see those envelopes in the mailbox. I remember thinking how fun that would be for me to do something similar after I moved away, sending her a card like that and waiting for it to be received.

She never liked to open the envelopes. She barely ever used gifts I gave her. I remember one Mother’s Day when I gave her an avocado and some fancy designer salsa so she could enjoy guacamole — I gave her food so she’d have to eat it or let it perish. I remember being at the house one day, years later, and seeing the salsa jar, dusty, still sealed. I have no idea about the avocado. She loved them, so I’m hopeful she ate it. I asked her about it, why the jar was still sealed, and she said it was not the same jar… that she ate the first one… maybe. She got mad at me for being mad and wondering. Sometimes there was no way to “win” a conversation with her.

I’m trying to remember some fun moments with Mom, because I know they happened. It’s the least I owe her, to remember her on Mother’s Day “week” in a soft rose light.

One of my fondest memories of Mom was when my father would travel for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions for his job. She and I would take his blank check (big mistake, Dad) and go to the grocery store and we’d practically empty the place. Mom’s favorite cheese was Saga bleu on those little rice crackers. She loved Coca-Cola (I never liked it), and we’d take two carts through the store. I liked Oreos and mint chocolate chip ice cream. She liked freeze dried coffee. I liked tea. I liked fruit. She liked chocolates. I liked Cap’n Crunch. She liked granola. I loved fresh roast beef. She loved to make pasta sauces. Some of her best were just the simplest: olive oil, garlic, black olives and tomatoes cooked to an oily reduction which clung to the pasta, the combination of starch and oil created a heavenly experience.

The shopping bills then… they were not INSANE, but they were a lot for just three people (me, Mom and my younger brother). But we didn’t want to shop again later in the week and Dad left us only one check. It was twice a summer every four years. There was no way around it for my father. We were going to shop. It felt as though bringing in those grocery bags, “double bag with paper, please!” (she would always ask) was a daylong sojourn.

I drove to the store in our little 1981 Honda Civic 1500 DX hatchback. It was a manual 5-speed. She definitely couldn’t drive stick and we had another car, but she didn’t or couldn’t drive then. Either her license was suspended or she simply never renewed. She was not a good driver. She was deeply anxious behind the wheel, completely lacking the calm confidence my aunts often displayed when they cruised around town.

My poor mother … all the demons in her head.

I have her to thank for being here. She brought me into this world and left me still wondering what the hell was going on. Will anyone ever have it figured out? I think not. And I think as a child, a human on this planet, it’s natural to expect our parents to have all the answers. It’s sort of mind blowing when you have your first of many experiences of your parent saying “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT ________.” It’s as though they’ve somehow fallen from Grace. I suppose it’s one of the reasons I, as a mother myself, often say to my own team, “Look, this is my first May 5, 2015 too… so give me some space here as I try to figure this out…” I think with my mother, she must’ve come from a world where mistakes and ignorance were simply disallowed. So when that happens: we lie and cover up and obfuscate and hide and snarl when confronted.

A few months ago, while looking for something at their house, I discovered her Virginia driver’s license from 1981. She was surprisingly cheerful in the image, but I’ve never known my mother to have a bad photo of her when she knows the shutter’s clicking. She was all smiley, full of optimism and excitement. I looked for a fake line or dead eyes in the image (inasmuch as municipal IDs allow details) but could find none.

I remember the first time I discovered her paperwork for a part-time job near the Virginia house. It was so odd, to see her handwriting on a government form. I had never known her to “have a job.” It seemed almost as though it were a rejection of her life as it was at the time — that she was going to bust out! and work at that shoe store and Make Big Things Happen!

But it wasn’t meant to be. She stayed there for a while, I remember that. But I also remember her (and have found notes relating such) working an angle with some of her co-workers to branch out, do their own thing, be their own bosses and start their own lines of handbags and shoes. Mom hated the idea of convention, that a “boss” was waiting at the end of the shift to initial her time card.

Who can blame her?

Those were really hard days. She was so manic and distracted and wild-eyed. Desperate-seeming to get away and redefine ____ in her life. I remember searching for her “in there” in her body… hoping she would reveal herself in a way that was relatable, that I could hook into or hold onto. Her sign was Gemini.

There’s no doubt to me that I loved her. In the way I could. In the way God gave us to one another with all our preferences and expectations and baggage. And she loved me, in her way.

As Mother’s Day approaches, I think actively of my children, less of my mother. Have I served them? Has my honesty been too much? In my quest to be the “anti-Mimi” I have lost sight of who I can be instead of who I avoid. That’s my wish for this coming Mother’s Day — to make good on it for 2016 and to begin to discover or maybe even embrace, as this next year unfolds, who I am instead of who I’m not.

So if your mom is still around, give her a pat on the back and a kiss on the cheek for me. Raising you was not easy — regardless of whether you were a “good kid” or not — we mothers (even in the best of chemical circumstances) have so much stuff swirling around in our noggins: carpool, lunch, our menses schedule, medicine dosage, vaccine schedules, our medical appointments, your well-check appointments, music lessons, menopause, school test schedules, summer plans, vacation booking, shedding a few pounds — always!, oil changes for the car, mortgage payment, car repairs, walking the dog / aardvark  / rabbit … that you’ve really no clue. If you’re a man or a growing male, just … make us dinner on Sunday and don’t give us shit if we decide to feed the kids cold cereal when you travel.

Thank you.

On Suffering #Nepal #Baltimore #Ahimsa #Silence #hellonearth

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My youngest son woke up this morning like a rocket. Today his class is taking a field trip to a natural landmark about two hours away.

I said to him, “You should go on field trips more often; you’re so ready to face the day!”

He said back to me, “I just like the idea of getting away from the regular. I’m excited to be on a charter bus, and use the bathroom if I want when the bus is rolling along. I’m excited to sit with my friends or read a book or play ‘yellow car’ or ‘alphabet signs’ on the trip.”

“Yes, it’s nice to change things up.” I agreed.

“I am sad for the world, Mom,” he said. “Finnegan and I got into a fight last night; I couldn’t take the news. I went to grab the remote and I accidentally scratched him and then he got mad and put his hands on me… It was scary, but it was my fault. I should have just walked away.”

“WHAT? Where was I when this happened?”

“Teaching yoga,” he said.

“Oh. Dad was with the dogs?”

“Yes. We stopped almost right away, but I know we are both sad about Baltimore and the earthquake and the drones…”

He is eleven.

When I was eleven, I don’t think I knew who was president.

Let’s see… it was 1939 …

Earlier on that day, my older two came through the door from school very concerned about the riots in Baltimore. Confused, angry, and scared. Their sadness turned to apathy which turned to antipathy not long after watching CNN.

“This solves nothing. This isn’t about equality. It’s about violence. It’s about intimidation,” one of them said.

“It’s scary and it’s wrong. It’s also mis-channeled rage. This is also completely missing the point,” the other added.

The words and fear and sadness and fear fear fear were flying at me. I was overwhelmed with how to tone them down, how to get them to feel safer. How to get myself to feel safer.

I had just spent the afternoon watching “The Road” on video — a movie adaptation based on a beloved book of the same title by Cormac McCarthy. The Road is about a post-apocalyptic America. It’s also a love letter from McCarthy to his son. It’s about “keeping the fire” and “being the good guys, not the bad guys.” The world envisioned by McCarthy’s words is not a world I want to live in; the world envisioned by the director of the film, John Hellcoat, is gray, smoky, dark, fiery, inhumane, dirty, gritty, smelly, dead and terrifying. I don’t think anyone wants to live there.

I decided that silence was the answer. Only silence can tell us what we need. So I asked them to turn off the TV, the screens and to open the door and listen to the birds and hear the breeze rustle through the newly sprouted leaves. To look around themselves and to see what we have left — to appreciate it and to be grateful for it because as we woke up to on Saturday, it can be snapped apart like it was in Nepal, vaporized by earth; or it can be destroyed by choice as what we’ve seen far too frequently in Baltimore, Ferguson, the Bronx, North Charleston… and that’s what happens to make the headlines.

I often say to my sons that I don’t believe in hell. I believe that we can do a fine job right here by our little ol’ selves creating hell in our minds, on earth and in our thoughts. There’s no reason to fear an afterlife — what could possibly be worse than the sadness and fear we inflict on ourselves and project upon others –wittingly or not– on a daily basis?

So last night, I dedicated my yoga class to Nepal and Baltimore and all the corners of the world — privately held internally because we are all suffering at one moment or another and publicly known — because stopping, breathing, listening and putting our hands to our heart, and our heads to our heart, and praying and intending peace and compassion — FOR THE SELF FIRST as well as for the world — is to me, the only way to stop this train of suffering.

It absolutely must begin within. If you harbor dark thoughts and feelings toward yourself, there is NO WAY you can authentically extend compassion and peace for anyone else. It’s just not possible.

It’s in the mirror. The answer to all of this is in the mirror. Love yourself, accept yourself, and then you can share that with the world in thought, humor, deed, and spirit. It’s the first tenet of yoga: Ahimsa. Ahimsa means non-violence, which means it must absolutely begin in you. You don’t have to be a yogi to do this. You just have to be aware, sentient, and humane.

You’ll drive a little softer, speak a little kinder, smile a bit wider, laugh a little longer and love more sincerely.

Thank you.

Fiction from a Walk — “Jake’s Bet”

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Welcome to the new and completely unpredictable feature on this blog wherein I take a photo of something I see on a walk with the dogs and write a piece of fiction about it. I hope it is less than bad.

Today’s image: a bolo tie in the church parking lot.

Let’s begin, shall we…..?

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Desdemona peeled out of the Charleston Baptist Church, singing “So long, succccckkkkaaaaaahhhssss!!!!!” between cackles, which eventually trailed off about a tenth of a mile down the road. It was hedging on dusk, and she had just dumped the losers in the parking lot after a crushing afternoon of strip poker.

These were sons of bankers, a US senator, prominent real estate moguls, a Calhoun (!), and the great great grandson of a plantation owner. A few generations’ pride worth of landed gentry. The men she abandoned, were humiliated, slightly inebriated and in a condition most unbefitting persons of their caliber: they were naked. Utterly and completely. And shivering from sunburn.

To Desdemona McLeod, it wasn’t about winnin’ the money, honey. Although y’all know it always sweetens any deal, it was about vengeance. Despite her own impressive lineage in the Charleston tradition, y’all, she was a woman, and simply put, women don’t play cards. Desdemona played cards, just as her aunties taught her, and their aunties taught them. This was a well-kept “secret” (lie of convenience and complicity) dating all the way back to the 1740s with her most famous relative, Marianna McLeod. Of course, this bein’ the south, it was hush-hush.

People loved to play cards with the McLeods, but no one talks about losing at cards. Especially to a woman, so most losses were relegated to the muted conversations behind the wood sheds or the alley ways along the Battery.

Desdemona didn’t see the fun in that.

“Winnin’ at cards ain’t no fun if I can’t boast about it. What’s the point?” she would huff to her daddy later at the house.

“Winnin’ Dessie. Just plain winnin‘…. It’s a matter of principle too: people don’t take a shine to humiliation. One of the rules of bein’ a card-playin’ McLeod is that we pride ourselves on winnin’ kindly. That means we just take the jackpot and quietly end the game. No need gettin’ anyone’s public pride involved in it…” he trailed off, counting her take.

“To borrow from Scarlett O’Hara, ‘fiddle-dee-dee’ Daddy. That’s just plain ol’ stupid.”

Daddy took off his glasses and stopped counting.

“This is an impressive lot you’ve won here, darlin, absolutely. What keeps this train goin’ is the gentlemanly nature of our relationship with all the players. They all want to be winnin’ over a McLeod, an’ some do. But we play by a simple yet established — y’heah me?– system: we don’t boast … Sixteen thousand four-hunnert n sixty-six … and an West Point ring, poor Perry, and a classic Rolex with sapphire lens crystal. No bad, my dear, not bad a’tall…. That’s what keeps ’em comin’ back, Dessie. We win kindly.” After he organized all the take, he sat up, deposited the funds and the jewelry in the massive vault behind the false door in the wall.

Returning to his daughter who was now in a slump, Daddy rubbed his temples and took a seat in a cognac tanned vintage overstuffed leather club chair; the classic “I have arrived” chair, but in the case of the McLeods, the chair arrived after the family, the chair was the one saying “I have arrived.” He smiled warmly at Desdemona as he sat back, closing his eyes and still smiling. Daddy placed his hands behind his tousled head of blond hair as he propped his legs up on the matching ottoman and released a satisfied sigh.

“Then I reckon I might’ve overdone it, Daddy.”

Opening one eye, Daddy stole a peek at Des. She was biting her lower lip and had perched herself nervously at the edge of her seat. The sun coming in from the tall library windows alongside the room was low; dust motes flickered in the shafts of dappled light which escaped the leaves on the magnolias outside. The summer sun was setting. Daddy noticed that Desdemona was ashamed, but peculiarly animated.

“Come again, deah?”

“We didn’t play here. I also didn’t drink along with them. That’s because of the rules, there was no other woman with me, so I didn’t drink, Daddy. But they did. A lot. Uncle Mitch’s mash, in particular, was a favored drink among the boys. That an’ bourbon…. It was so funny… Jakey Ravenel was the only one left with anything on — his ‘good luck’ black bolo tie… I remember telling him that even if I won it, I didn’t want anything to do with it… they make my stomach turn; ‘There’s no place for a bolo tie in South Carolina,’ I remember tellin’ him… He kept rambling about it because of his Texas uncle… ‘Not an uncle by blood…’ his brother Jimmy reminded him…”

“Where did you play, Des? I’m sure I want to know…” Daddy’s eyes were both open now. The horn-rimmed glasses were back on. The legs were off the ottoman, both feel firmly planted into the cherry hardwood floor beneath the chair. One hand was smoothing his hair and the other elbow was pressing into a thigh, leaning forward in the chair.

“At Lou’s. Off Penny’s Creek down near Wadmal —”

“Down near Wadmalaw Island. You went all the way near Wadmalaw… Did you cross route 700?…”

This was critical.

Desdemona put up her hand, “Just a sec, Daddy. Let me think….”

“Did you cross route 700? Did you go anywhere near Johns Island? Did you leave the county?” he asked, hotly.

“Maybe. But we weren’t playin’ yet. See. We were getting a bite to eat because the boys needed food, so I stopped for a bite. I told them it would be my treat because the next meal they’d need they wouldn’t have the money for… It was hot today…. But no. We didn’t play yet.”

She knew where this was going. She let her ego get the best of her. Des was prone to getting ahead of herself. In all her 23 years, in her fledgling first year of law school, she didn’t care for the details. She just wanted to get in the courtroom. Her family was convinced she’d make a better law enforcement officer than a law interpreter. “Nope. No playin’ cards … least not by me … anywheres near Johns Island.”

“But you drove.” Daddy reminded her.

“Yes, but I can’t play and drive. That’d be crazy. Nope. No cards played by me in the truck while we were on Johns Island.”

Daddy finished law school. Head of his class. UVA. Had an established, prominent and ethical law practice in town and did a ton of pro bono work. To him, it was about the advocacy more than the paycheck. “Sometimes people just get stuck in a bad way and they need help. That’s why I’m here.” was printed on back of his business cards.

“Did anyone play cards in the truck while you were on Johns Island, darlin’?” he asked.

She shifted in her seat. “That I can’t rightly say.”

Meanwhile, back at the church parking lot, the heap of prominent-familied, ruby-skinned, men fell asleep under a palmetto tree on the soft-ish, rounded and warm landscape pebbles and a sun bleached pool towel stolen off a clothesline not too far off in the distance. In the southern sky, a crescent moon was on the rise, reminiscent of the South Carolina flag. Save for the silhouette of the many moons below, it was a lovely picture.

A rejected black bolo tie rested in the setting sun all by its lonesome. Come tomorrow, Sunday morning, early attendees were in for a surprise of God’s creation.

i'd leave it in the parking lot too...

i’d leave it in the parking lot too… (not a very good picture at all; the dogs were in the way and they’re not very smart…)

Thank you.