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Twelve years ago, I started working at H., and M. was still alive, At lunchtime I left a message on her voice mail. Later she left me a message, her voice happy and excited, wondering if I had my own office yet. What a cheerleader she was. Hard to believe she's gone. Is Heaven a fairy tale? But Life so amazing and horrible--the miraculousness of human connection in friendship and love, the inevitability of death--can heaven and hell be more unreal? Yet I don't believe in hell. Most people in prison endured childhood abuse; a loving God wouldn't discard them.
"I'm thinking of becoming a vegetarian," Jan said, contemplating food choices in the cafeteria line. We were college freshmen, Northwestern, 1973 or 1974.
"Why?" I never had met anyone who even thought about not eating meat--even though, when I first learned the origin of pork chops and fried chicken as a child, I was shocked.
She looked at me and laughed as though what I'd said was funny. "Because I like animals," she said.
A seed was sown, and a couple of years later, I had a final last whopper with cheese and then stopped eating meat and fish.
Twenty-six years ago, J., my bestfriend and maid of honor, was helping make sure I had something borrowed, something new, something old, and something blue for my wedding the next day. The "new" was a beautiful gold cross J gave me, and I'd wear a blue garter. Not sure what I borrowed, but J. and I spent the evening hunting through pennies, trying to find as old a one as possible, for me to wear in my shoe. We found one from 1928--or was it 1935? Firecrackers probably popped, just like tonight. But now I'm divorced and J. is dead.
What would Jesus do? (Note: I'm not claiming Christianity offers better moral guidance than other religions or value systems.) Just now, I did the opposite. Heading to Dunkin' Donuts to do some writing, I approach a man talking loudly to himself, swaying from side to side on the sidewalk. Scared, I prayed I could pass by without harassment or worse. He held out his palm--it held three quarters--and said something unintelligible, probably asking for money. I said "I'm sorry" and walked by. At the very least, Jesus would have given him money. I should have prayed for courage and compassion.
What happens at Midnight's birthday party? The other guests come. At first, they raise their pointy eyebrows at Honey, as she doesn't fit in. But Witchy introduces Honey as her cousin, and they begin to warm to her. Honey coaxes Midnight out from under the bed (although she wrinkles her nose at the aroma of the sardine treat she gives Midnight). Soon, though, Midnight is cuddling in Honey's lap. And Witchy goes into the bedroom to check on Sparkles, who is whimpering. She asks witch and warlock kids play with Sparkles, and soon they're playing catnip mouse catch with him.
I usually remember birthdays--even when the person born on that date isn't a friend of mine any longer. I remember ex-boyfriend's birthdays as well as my ex-husband's. And I find it interesting when people share birthdays. My favorite cousin--actually, the only cousin with whom I have a family relationship--and my sister's daughter were born on the same day. I had a huge crush on R--and his ex and my ex shared birthdays. What are the odds? Perhaps I remember birthdays because it's fun to link people with their astrological signs--E. definitely was a Leo, and I'm a true Jill-of-all-trades Gemini.
The anniversary of my father's death. He died alone. I'd written in my calendar to call him, but kept postponing it. I wanted to invite him to our library's book sale--he'd love it. But around July 4 I tended to get depressed, as that was my wedding anniversary. I was glad the marriage was over--but sad that I'd never married again, that I was alone. So I indulged in self-pity, didn't call--and then my brother C. called me at work: "I suppose you heard about Dad." Fear gripped me--no! I wanted to invite him to the book sale! Too late.
What are my favorite memories?
- Burger King Sundays with J when T was a little toddler wearing a golden paper crown
- Sox games with T, with T explaining rules of the game
- 7-11 walks with T
- going to Border's with M and T
- long telephone chats with M
- bumping into M at the so-crowded Irish Fest
- going to get shots with best friend ML and her brother in sixth grade
- starting Columbia
- learning I was getting published
- the family girls' weekend
- going to the Brickyard shopping mall with J
What are my dreams-come-true?
- having a son who still wants to plan a road trip with me to Cooperstown and Disney World
- having siblings who like to get together with me for Game Days, who stayed with me the whole time I was in the hospital
- having nieces and nephews I get to take to the Art Institute and spoil
- getting published
- being hired for a job that lets me read and write all day
- having wonderful best friends
- being able to walk miles again
- going back to school for my MFA
There's so much I don't know about my father. I know one of his brothers bullied him. I know he went to law school but never practiced law. I know he fell in love with my mother but soon after I was born, left her for another--the mother of my half siblings. I know he was an alcoholic, that that ruined so many years of his life. I know he was too weak to stand up to his second wife and say, "I am going to be part of D's life!" Yet I know he regretted this weakness bitterly, later.
I wish you could just flick a switch and like somebody who likes you. A. is nice, takes me to a vegetarian restaurant after I casually mention being vegetarian, plays Bruce Springsteen in the car ride home, remembering I'd said I was a Bruce fan, plans to call me today after going out last night. But T. says when I talk to X. on the phone, I have the same resigned attitude I have conversing with a trying relative. But while I enjoy being pursued, so far X. doesn't meet best friend criteria--someone you'd enjoy going to the laundromat with.
What to say in my essay about swimming?
- Back in high school, Title IX not yet in effect, girls got two years of swimming and boys got four. But swimming the only part of gym I loved.
- Fear of the deep end.
- I swim Sunday mornings--but I'm praying!
- My grandmother drowned at Belmont Harbor when my mother three years old.
- For courage, I pretend I'm my sister-in-law S., who swims so gracefully and seems utterly relaxed.
- Little tricks I've learned--the key to endurance is breathing and gulping in air periodically--and it's OK to spit.
Joyful July--I'm a little behind writing about joyful things this month! Today I'm joyful that it was easier to swim laps this morning, and that I'm able to take private lessons at the Y! I'm grateful for the free coffee because of White Sox scoring in the fourth inning at the game on the Fourth, and I'm enjoying the cookies and cream flavoring sweetened with Splenda and enhanced with cream. I'm enjoying the happy fast-beat pop music, and people watching, and being able to type on my Chromebook, and getting to read great submissions by fellow critique group members.
When I first heard of Bastille Day, I was a student at NW and associated the day with fancy French restaurants and students showing airs. But then I read Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities and did a little research and realized that this was far from a nose-up holiday--instead, it represented those who were poor and powerless making a stand against absolute power. Of course, the idealism devolved into terror--but, as Dickens emphasized, the horrors were a reaction to crushing oppression. The storming of the Bastille signaled monarchy's end, the beginning of regular people having a voice.
Witchy has a magical calendar where she writes down her cat Midnight's birthday. What makes the calendar magical? Does she use invisible ink--and why would she? Do crows announce the hours on her clock? Is the calendar a green or orange or purple fluorescent color? Is it a talking calendar that speaks when you write on it? What other dates does Witchy write on her calendar? When is Witchy's birthday? Midnight's is April 15. October 31 is too cliche. Hm, why not March 17? When is Honey's birthday? May 1 sounds good. But I'm having trouble making the calendar witch-like.
What kids' stories can I write next? What would have been a happy, silly story that would have entertained long-ago little me, providing a fun, healthy escape? (Some do suggest writing to the child you once were...) Hm...
- a turtle with magical powers
- a dollhouse that attracts invisible little people
- the cat's reunion
- dolls becoming friends
- doll critical of new home
- cats critical of new kitten (but later becoming friends)
- kids making a very creative recipe that turns out awful
- lemonade stand
- the new kid on the block
- racing squirrels
I hate when I feel too sick to even write 100 words; but maybe that's me being egotistical and wanting to write Shakespearean quality, when writing is really about communication. I like what Brenda Ueland says, that no writing should be so complex that an intelligent seven-year-old wouldn't understand it. Too often I try to "prove" myself. Still, right now my stomach feels horrible, and even chamomile tea isn't helping, so it's hard to think of deep thoughts or witty remarks or interesting stories. So often the body and spirit are in conflict, but I want my spirit to rule!
It's fun using "Write or Die" at Caribou Coffee while sipping tea latte and getting ready to go swimming at the Y. I'm trying to appreciate what I have without worrying about what I may lose--weird arthritis pains are bothersome, but maybe they won't stop me from writing or swimming; my eyes are bad, but maybe they won't worsen so I can't write or take walks. M. took each day at a time--and she had to deal with progressive vision loss. She'd adjust to a loss, then lose more and have to adjust again. Yet she stayed upbeat.
For three weeks, after I started college, guys liked me and asked me on dates. Amazing--me, who'd never ever been on a date before, who'd just suffered silent from-afar crushes. But then my mother showed up one night, screaming for me to come home, cursing, waking up everyone on the floor. My home life no longer secret, and when I asked aunts to help, to call my mother regularly, they refused. Suddenly, no more male attention; I probably projected unhappy, depressing vibes. Why, when we need people most, do we somehow send out signals that say, "Stay away"?
Is it wasting time to warm up by answering emails and checking Facebook before delving into writing and revising picture book stories and essays and novel chapters? Of course, it's all individual, so I guess if it works for me, it's perfectly fine. And there is something so fun about emailing a friend while sitting at Dunkin Donuts and sipping coconut-flavored decaf and hearing folks chat and listening to happy pop music and knowing that although writing is a separate almost lonely thing I can still keep in touch with friends and know what is going on the world.
I go to the free dance class but feel out of place because of my age--the man teaching me is young enough to be my son. Making conversation, he asks, "Do you go out a lot?" Yup, we're in different worlds. Once I was married, then became a single mom, the only dancing I did was at school athletic banquets--and by the time my son was grown, I'd have looked out of place at any "going out" place. But that's OK--I'm so grateful that I was able to have a son; being a mom much more important that "going out."
In the picture, I'm almost twenty years younger; I stare at myself as though a stranger. I really was that young woman, hair curly, thin? Pretty in that picture, dressed up for a fancy work party. Why didn't any men pursue me back then? I compare more recent pictures, wince. I don't mind being no longer pretty--our bodies are a shell, really, our soul and our actions are what matters--still. Will any man ever find me attractive again? Trouble is, men my age look old, just as I look old, and I'm not attracted to old. Yes, I'm shallow. Sigh.
She emails me a picture of my bestfriend and me from twenty years ago. Gulp. J. has been dead almost 16 years now, and though she smiles into the camera, I wonder if she was happy at this party, an anniversary bash for the organization where I worked. I'd been distancing myself, hadn't told her about the guy I had a crush on. J. could be a bit bossy--and I didn't realize the true affection beneath the bossiness. On the way there, she'd said out of the blue to someone, "I'm not her bestfriend." Why didn't I ask her why?
Twenty years ago today I started working at the LH, thrust into a whole new world. I'd worked with blind people and deaf people but with few who were deaf-blind. i'd supervised volunteers, but never been an actual supervisor. My personal life was pure stress--single mom of a two-year-old, petrified my ex would try for and get custody; his family believed spare the belt, spare the child. My little son and I lived in a beehive courtyard apartment building with paper-thin walls and obnoxious neighbors who liked to bang ceilings with broomsticks whenever my son played a bit too loudly.
How does Midnight's party end? One witch, Helinda, pulls out her out-of-tune viola and plays Happy Birthday, and the witches and warlocks and cats all sing and meow along. Midnight opens her presents, and her favorite is the set of chirping balls that magically appear and disappear. (She pretends to like the woolen mittens from Honey and Sparkles.) The cats have fun batting at a pinata in the shape of a giant mouse, and inside are lots of catnip treats in the shape of goldfish. Finally, everybody leaves with goody bags of gummy worms and pumpkin tuna cupcakes.
There's a reason Jane Austen is still beloved. How well she describes a certain type of woman who exudes friendliness while sneaking in snide remarks, ready to emotionally stab you in the back. Ms. Bingley comes to mind, but there are others.
At the mixer, a woman seemed surprised I was wearing gym shoes, later greeting me, laughing, "How are the gym shoes?" When I admitted being bad at mingling, she lectured that thinking that would send out negative vibes. Despite being myself, I left with a guy's business card and a date next weekend. Austen would applaud.
What gifts does Midnight get at her first birthday party? Catnip mice/toads/canaries? A snow globe with meowing music, with flying canaries inside? Lots of catnip treats? A collection of bottle caps to bat about? A set of dirty socks? (She likes to carry them about in her teeth.) A tall scratching post in the shape of a scarecrow? A cat-sized broom with training wings? Balls that jangle when pushed or batted? A soft, cuddly, sardine-scented blanket? A mobile with bats for Midnight to paw at? A huge maze of tunnels for her to crawl through? Catnip caterpillars, turtles, and squirrels?
I sit here at the Starbucks in the hospital lobby, worried about A and F, feeling guilty that it took me so long to visit them here. Busy-ness is a worthless, generic excuse--what about priorities? Of course, it didn't help that I overheard A's son-in-law growling over the phone, "Tell her to stay home!" the first day F was in here. But I need to remember that A needs me, that she considers me as a daughter, a replacement, sort of, for her daughter who died 16 years ago. Well--at least I got to treat A to dinner and dessert.
his last year-and-a-half of my life has been interesting. In March 2013, I had my right knee replaced; in December 2013, my left knee was replaced. Lots of physical therapy and even some occupational therapy--using a cane puts stress on the arms, too. To keep things interesting, I chipped my tooth, had a crown, and began having a tooth ache that wouldn't go away--despite three root canals and an extraction and another crown or two. Turns out, I have trigeminal neuralgia. To make life even more interesting, my eye doctor has noticed that my optic nerve has a temporal slope.
My niece G's birthday. I remember the joy when S. asked me to be their child's godmother. The day of G's birth, a blackout in our neighborhood--I was sitting in the dark when I received J's. call. My favorite memory--showing up at G's ninth birthday party and her face lighting up, seeing me. How fun, our trips to the Art Institute, always starting at the Thorne Miniature Rooms and slowly meandering through ancient art sculptures and then downstairs to the cafeteria, where she's happy she gets to eat dessert first. Fun to spoil nieces and nephews--wish they all were nearby.
Harry Potter's birthday, and J.K. Rowling's. I usually don't enjoy fantasy, finding it hard to relate stories about future times or imaginary countries to my own more prosaic life and dreams. But the Harry Potter books were exceptions--mainly because the characters were very much like real people, and the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione reminded me of the joys of real friendship. What fun when Hermione became Harry and Ron's friend after lying, saying she was to blame for the boys fighting off the trolls, getting herself in trouble and rescuing them. Loved how immediately they became a trio.
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