Ok, I need to vent.  So if you’re not up for that today, I understand.  Go find something uplifting to do, take a walk outside, do something nice for a friend, get some exercise or read poetry or pat a dog.  Give a fiver to that homeless vet flying a sign at the rotary on your way home.  Use your God given talent, whatever it may be, with purpose and for good.  But my God given talent is words, and I believe that God, as I understand her/him/it, does not want me to bite my tongue and sit on my hands. If you don’t want to read a rant, I get it; move on, with my blessing.  63EA0416-C331-43E9-BA48-F0CDEDA1C8B9_w650_r0_s

I’m tired of saying I’m tired, aren’t you?  Tired of yet again, being told what I need to do is pray for grieving family members and school children who lost their son or daughter, brother or sister, niece or nephew,  best friend or classmate or teacher to another preventable mass shooting.  Tired of feeling helpless to enact laws or even talk about legislation that might protect children from gun violence in school.  Tired of hearing weary reporters describe yet another troubled, angry lost soul who took out his misery on innocents; tired of reading about the beautiful “angels” lost too soon; tired of candlelight vigils and church services and gutless, morally bankrupt politicians and pundits pulling long faces on Fox News or CNN, expressing regret about this or that tragedy, telling me to “pray,” and then steadfastly refusing to do jack shit about it.  Tired of waking up to headlines like “Fatal Rampage Lasted Just Minutes,” “Alleged Shooter Had History of Violence,” “Killer Armed with Multiple Weapons, Rounds of Ammo.”  Or increasingly, leads like this one from this morning’s New York Times: “Gunfire Erupts at a School. Leaders Offer Prayers. Children Are Buried. Repeat.”

I’m most enervated by these stories: “A Look at the Victims of the XYZ Massacre,” accompanied by pictures of fresh-faced children with sparkling eyes in cheerleader uniforms or first grade play costumes; with band instruments; hugging a friend; playing ball.  They are gap-toothed kindergartners, or teenagers– awkward nerds or glowing athletes or self-conscious selfie poseurs–all enshrined with words like “beautiful soul,” “leader,” “compassionate,” “amazing,” and, to me, one of the most heartbreaking adjectives of all: “promising.”  All that potential, the motherlove and fatherly devotion, all the family sacrifices and compromises made in the name of raising a beloved child, the soccer games and swim meets, music and dance recitals, the TV shows and best friends and bake sales and family squabbles that mark a son or daughter’s life—we parents live out these rituals with a profound faith in our children’s fruition into adult lives.  The president’s speechwriter yesterday actually did an okay job of noting the awful truth of that broken promise.

Here’s a headline from today’s paper to crack you in half: “A Mother Weeps for her Angel: ‘I Hope She Didn’t Die for Nothing.’”

Here’s a cruel reality.  She probably did.

How long will we continue to send our empty prayers to God, who must receive them at this point with disbelief: “What do you expect ME to do about it?”  Without our voices, God is voiceless, without our hands to do her work in the world, she sits paralyzed. Is she supposed to stop school shootings with well-timed bolts of lightning?  Why do we expect God to act when we do not?  Why should he comfort us in the face of our self-created paralysis? We’ve been granted free will, not a free pass to kick everything back to the guy upstairs.

Let’s look at Scripture on the subject:

In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.   James 2:17

James has a lot to say about faith and action: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”  “Be doers of the word, not merely hearers.”  (James 2:14 – :20)

Yet our leaders consistently invoke our prayers, as if that’s enough.  It’s NOT.  And I am so effing sick of their empty hypocrisy.  The President yesterday spoke directly to America’s children, assuring them they are loved, they need not be afraid, they have “people who will do anything to protect” them.  This is a lie.  What he won’t do to protect them is have a rational conversation about gun violence and its threat to public safety in our country.  Explain to me why it’s reasonable that any seventeen year old can buy an assault weapon, let alone a kid with a history of discipline issues and emotional disturbance.  Explain to me why my individual second amendment right to bear arms should be completely unfettered by any compromises for the public good, such as universal background checks or limits on how much ammo I can buy in a given year. I’m not proposing we take away anyone’s guns.  I am suggesting we should be able to have an adult dialogue about laws that seriously weigh our collective public safety against individual rights to bear an arsenal, and that some trade off acknowledging this tension is worth pursuing.  Otherwise, the rights of the Nikolas Cruzes and Stephen Paddocks of our country will continually trump the foundational rights of the rest of our “angels” –the freedom to go to school and survive is a fundamental example of the pursuit of life and liberty, isn’t it?    Explain to me how we are going to deal with the “scourge” of mental health in our country when the White House has yet to appoint a science advisor, when budget proposals slash funding from sciences, from the NIH, from the CDC, and when congressional leaders and the White House continually seek to unravel the Affordable Care Act, which requires insurers to cover behavioral health.  How are middle class or poor families to deal with the exorbitant costs of mental health diagnosis and treatment without insurance to help defray those expenses?  Explain to me why our society denigrates teachers, suggesting as a CLASS they are overpaid, underperforming, and lazy, when so many are in fact such dedicated professionals that they will literally take a bullet for their students. They show up for work every day, dedicated to providing the best education they can in circumstances that are too often underfunded, misunderstood, and increasingly, dangerous for them and for their students; they pay for Kleenex and school supplies out of their own salaries while the Ann Coulters of the world vilify them as useless, socialist government employees.

Certain news outlets would suggest that my views are typically hysterical, hand-wringing, sky-is-falling liberal attacks on the second amendment.  Tell that to the parents of dead students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida or Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.  I suggest those parents are subject to all these “typical” emotions and worse right now, and that a response that insists on the urgency of dealing with gun violence as a public health crisis is in fact a.) the only rational one in the face of yet another senseless mass shooting, b.) the best way to honor their earth-shattering loss, and c.) an act of sacrificial empathy.  If that’s being a snowflake, I proudly melt.  Offering our prayers is too easy: the parents of Parkland, Sandy Hook, Littleton, and so many other towns, will suffer from the agony born of our inaction for the rest of their lives.  We owe them our deepest apology, the most hand-wringing, heartfelt, sky-IS-falling commitment to collective responsibility for remediating this uniquely American dysfunction.

This post is me putting my faith into action.  In the coming days, I’ll be combatting my sense of impotence and hopelessness by sending legislators photos and biographies of children killed by people wielding not simply untreated mental illness (yes, I agree, no question, this too must be addressed), but GUNS.  Perhaps I’ll write mock news stories about lawmakers’ kids to goose their imaginations along: “Ex-student kills 15 in deadly rampage at exclusive Maryland private school.  Baron Trump among the fallen.  A weeping Melania Trump said, ‘We are broken. He was our angel.  I hope his death wasn’t for nothing.’”  I’m no fan of the President, but I wouldn’t wish that pain on him or his family in a million years.  No parent should have to bear it.

When our son Nate was a freshman at Lincoln-Sudbury High School, an affluent and high-ranking suburban high school, a boy was stabbed to death in a bathroom early one morning by a troubled student.  Nate was already at school, buses and carpools had arrived and the day was starting.  The boy who died, James Alenson, was a 15 year old freshman. His obituary describes how he had worked at an organic farm and wanted to be a Counselor in Training at his summer camp.  He loved the Patriots and comedy, he was beloved by his parents and siblings.  He hadn’t known his attacker at all.  We will never know what might have happened if James’ murderer had brought an assault rifle to school that morning instead of a knife, but sadly, we can guess.   So don’t tell me mental illness is the only culprit in mass school shootings or that guns don’t kill more people.

From today’s Boston Globe:

An aunt, Lindsay Fontana, wrote on Facebook: ‘‘I had to tell my 8-year-old daughters that their sweet cousin Cara was killed in the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday. We are absolutely gutted.’’

‘‘While your thoughts are appreciated, I beg you to DO SOMETHING,’’ she wrote. ‘‘This should not have happened to our niece Cara and it cannot happen to other people’s families.’’

We can start to do something by changing the dialogue from one about second amendment rights to a discussion of gun violence as a public health crisis.  For inspiration, see Nicholas Kristoff’s excellent piece:  How to Reduce Shootings

Thanks, New Yorker, for sending this email to me just now:

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 5.27.13 PM












IMG_0683It was easy to feel sorry for myself on the first morning of our retreat, as melted butter light poured onto the bamboo floor of the jungle house.  The faces of my co-retreatants around the orientation circle were open and relaxed.  My head felt woozy, congestion oozing silently behind the bridge of my nose, my sinuses throbbing and packed.  I had booked the trip last June, while still uncoiling from the shock of a personal crisis. My intent was to give myself a gift of pleasure and joy, among friends, to dance and recharge, refilling my well of spirit, love, and vitality, drained by months of worry and instability.  That first day, I found it hard to stay present to the glory of this place with the exotic name, Xinalani, fighting the sunken feeling of a heavy cold and the press of new anxiety, another crisis on the home front, more chaos, out-of-the-blue.  It’s been that kind of year for so many of us. I had to sit out a couple of songs to rest, which isn’t like me.

The trip here was a blur. Not surprisingly given the stress of the prior week, I’d come down with a cold. A sore throat came on sharply as a papercut Thursday night while I was packing; it blossomed into a stupefying head cold by pre-dawn Saturday morning when the cab picked me up for the airport.  At Logan, I was still deeply engaged in difficulties at home, parrying texts and firing off emails, my mind flickering from the bag drop to the phone to the security guard who raised an eyebrow in irritation and spoke to me as if explaining TSA pre-check etiquette to an inattentive child. “Your passport, ma’am,” she grumbled pointedly, probably for not for the first time, as I juggled phone, boarding pass, passport, my reading glasses.   I stopped for Kleenex and cough drops at Hudson News and nearly left my wallet sitting by the gum and candy bars. “Lady, lady, don’t forget,” the cashier called after me.    One of the friends I was traveling with met us at the gate.  “Oh, boy, you look thumped,” she said.


Yet cold and crisis be damned, I was on my way to Xinalani, this idyllic spot, where I now write from my gently swinging hammock.  When words fail to come, I look out, through the rough-hewn posts of our balcony, painted mustard brown and lashed into place by coiled rope, at the distant ocean.  There are humpback whales out there, and bottlenose dolphins.  We crossed over to Xinalani from Puerto Vallarta on a shuttle skiff.  Two humpback whales breached not thirty yards off our port side, their knotty spines arcing gracefully through the water and disappearing like an old-fashioned roller coaster into the depths before – wait for it! – the fluke appeared, a high-five from an ancient world.  “Ahhhh!!” we all squealed in childlike awe.  We see the whales again from the balcony of our casita, announced by a spurt as they surface, and also at lunchtime, where we can trace their movements by spying glasslike patches on the sea surface where the water grows still before a sudden spout heralds their arrival.  Awesome, in the purest sense of that overused word.  At dinner one night, a woman in our group I’ve just met, Megan, an expedition leader on Alaskan nature cruises, tells us about the time she led a group of kayakers in a glacial bay paddle.  A pod of humpbacks was “bubble net feeding,” a collaborative fishing technique where whales circle around under the surface, using air bubbles to corral their meal. Megan was only yards away when several humpbacks emerged, headfirst like synchronized swimmers, mouths open to drink in the fish.  She froze, not daring to move in the face of this massive coordination.  Such prodigious things happen below the surface.  They take us by surprise.

There is little about Xinalani and this long-awaited respite that is anything less than awesome.  The people, I gotta say, these women who dance and celebrate, who live with intention and courage, compassion and humor, they are my tribe. They are intellectual and curious, artistic and activist. Young Amy is a twenty-something farmer from Virginia, “dragged” along with her mother, yet still so open and interested.  She eschews cellphones and the web; she is wise beyond her years. Grownup Amy tells us sadly of her impending divorce the Tuesday after we return: it’s the right thing, perhaps many years overdue, but still, it’s bittersweet. How could it be otherwise, after thirty-plus years? Kayla is a hospice nurse with two young children at home—she used to be a tour guide in Mexico and she’s a killer salsa dancer.  We celebrate her fortieth birthday on Wednesday by singing Happy Birthday to her forty times.  Alanna just sold her flower shop in British Columbia and is moving with her husband and eight-year-old son to become a rural lavender farmer. She sometimes sits out a song to watch the rest of us dancing, moved, her eyes brimming.  Kay is a seventy-eight-year-old college professor; we talk about Jane Austen and the Brontes one day at lunch, and she tells me she still loves to teach.  Kyra from Colorado (our group numbers two Kiras) is a smoky voiced veterinarian from Boulder.  We sit on the beach after dinner one night while she discreetly smokes a cigarette, and she describes her complicated family life, a father married five times, a wonderful step-mother (wife number two, I believe) who raised all the children as if they were her own, two siblings lost to untimely deaths.   Robyn and I laugh like college girls in our shared casita; Lisa and I salsa together, loose-hipped and grinning. We tease our pal Massachusetts-Kira about doing homework for her online course in her palatial room, and she glows in response. Every woman I meet in our group is beautiful, thoughtful, vulnerable and strong.

The place itself is magical:  Good Lord, I have to think, what an extraordinary planet you have gifted to us.  Rippling mountains tufted green with jungle flora plunge to the Pacific, the beach dotted with surf-smoothed boulders, the water aqua and clear.  It feels like a bazillion steps up the hill to our tree-house room, set on posts into the mountainside. “Fuck,” Robyn mutters that first afternoon when we arrive, dog-tired after ten hours in transit, as we follow two resort employees up the switchback staircases, our over-packed suitcases bouncing jauntily on their shoulders.  But we grow used to the climb.  Jungle birds screech and caw, waves murmur far below, washing the shore with a variety of sounds, from soft shush-shushing to muted slaps to thundering cracks as water smacks the rocks.  I sleep luxuriously well, in my cocoon bed, gauzy white linens on all four sides, the ocean’s distant susurrus a gentle lullaby. A generous swig of Nyquil seals the deal.

I don’t know what I did in this life, or any other, to possibly deserve such an experience, recuperating from a strained year in this luxury, fed three lush meals a day, offered facials and massages, cooking classes and hikes, sipping a Corona overlooking the local “cascada,” falling asleep in a nest-like bed with curtains drawn against any little bugs that might dare to disrupt my rest.  I dance, I perform sun salutations, I laugh with my friends, old and new.  I feel myself recovering some lost equilibrium, a hibiscus unfurling in a time-lapse image, minute by minute.  I am so very fortunate, and grateful.

On our last evening at Xinalani, our leaders Al, Vickie and Jill design a lovely closing ritual in the meditation hut.  It sits at one of the highest points on the property, an open-air pavilion with soaring views across the jungle treetops out to the sea.  We are ringed in a circle.  One by one, each woman steps into the circle and works her way around, stopping in front of each of us to receive a word describing something about her that inspires us.  It’s intimate, and we speak softly, but some of the words float into the air, audible on the evening breeze: “beautiful,” “brave,” “spunky,” “healer,” “graceful.”  It’s touching, looking someone in the eyes, mind searching for a pearl to give her: “sister,” “beloved,” “kickass’.” My turn comes and I am moved by the ways in which I am seen by my peers.   Afterwards, we dress in white and clamber down the hundreds of steps for dinner on the beach, followed by salsa lessons in the bar with a Cuban dance instructor named Jiadri.  He is spindly and tall, with beautiful skin the color of dark chocolate and hips that gyrate faster than Vitamix blades.  In heavily-spiced English, he teaches us to count the salsa beats, impressed by how quickly we “pretty womans” pick up the rhythm.  Apparently, no one has told him we are on a dance retreat.  He punctuates the steps with a little jingle: instead of “One, Two, Three (and) Five, Six, Seven (and),” he says, “ Sexy, Sexy. Sexy, Sexy. Sexy, Sexy, All the time.”  We laugh and dance, sipping through straws from a communal margarita in a giant glass that reminds me of the Scorpion bowls at Trader Vic’s in New York when I was in high school.  The poker-faced students on yoga retreat sharing the resort this week sit on the sidelines, looking askance at our unruly enthusiasm.  We have not been without incident:  one of our group leaders is stricken with Montezuma’s revenge early in the week, a friend from Massachusetts leaves ahead of schedule with a sciatica flare-up, another breaks a bone in her foot disembarking from a boat and is carried up and down the resort stairs by the young Mexican bartenders and busmen.  Yet we are, for the most part, happy and relaxed.  We all needed this “me-treat” so badly.

On the flight home, I think of words for everyone in my various families:  my Xinalani Nia tribe, sisters and goddesses, warm, sage, compassionate, exquisite.  For my father: generous and protective; for my mother, overcoming and devoted.  For my sister-in-law:  loyal, indefatigable, resourceful.  For my younger brother: insightful, intrepid, open-hearted.  (Also: heroic.)  I could go on and on:  John, my heart and soulmate, visionary and profound; Nate, brainy, sensitive, free-thinking; Lucy, creative, brilliant, gorgeous; Mia, intelligent, passionate, sparkling with music.  And my older brother:  witty, caring, beloved friend of so many people.   These words dance around my heart, holding hands sometimes, breaking off into solo motions at others, wafting on the forgiving breeze of a universe that inextricably mingles beauty and heartache, snowstorms and beaches, good years and tough ones, loving it all.



Aw, Grow Up!

UnknownI would like our leaders in Washington to know:  I am so  over the blame-game you play.  You remind me of five-year-olds who, when confronted about how mommy’s cellphone got into the toilet with the toy boats, absurdly escalate their denials: “She did it!” “No, he did it!” “NO, SHE DID IT.” “NO, HE DID, HE DID!”  “No, Chloe did it, Mom!”  (Chloe being the dog.) It’s surreal, and I see right through you.  As a mom, I would say to the kids, all of them, even when I knew one of them might bear more responsibility than the other: “Time out!  Go to your rooms.  You can come out when you have an idea for how to make this better.” Sometimes, the time out was as much for me as for them, because my temper was close to boiling over, and I too needed some space to cool down.  “Mommy has just thisssss much rope left,” I’d tell them, holding my thumb and forefinger about an inch apart.

Inevitably, someone would emerge sheepishly from their room with a sincere apology, even if that little someone was not the primary “guilty” party.  Why?  Because she (or he) understood that our relationship was as important as mommy’s waterlogged cellphone or chipped wedding bowl. Hugs outweighed pride.  I’d still be stuck with the broken whatever it was, but all sides, myself included, had learned something valuable about relationship, honesty, self-control, and taking responsibility for our share in a difficult dynamic.  Skills sorely lacking in Congress.

It pains me to observe that our elected officials lack the basic relationship savvy and character development of five-year-olds.  Continually, pathologically.  Sadly, we see no “mommy” equivalent here.  The President (our titular father figure?  Gadzooks!) is more temperamental than an overtired three-year-old who doesn’t get his way in the grocery store. We’ve all seen it, the harried, embarrassed young mom with a preschooler wailing about Fruit Loops, throwing kiwis and broccoli out of the cart.  “Stop that, Donnie,” says his exhausted mother, ineffectually. Donnie throws an avocado at her, shrieks “No!!!!  I WANT FRUIT LOOPS”.  She winces, smiles at you, mortified.  Who knows, Donnie could be a perfectly decent kid, maybe he insists all insects be gently escorted outdoors rather than splatted with a newspaper on the kitchen counter.  But all you’ve ever seen when you run into them at the market is Donnie in full-on meltdown brat-dom.  It’s hard to like the kid.   Then there’s the media, prone to childish exaggeration,  often meeting our President toe-to-toe in hysteria.  A “bombogenesis” is about to “pound” New England.  (Read:  there’s going to be a big snowstorm.  Like, really big.  We New Englanders are pretty used to them.)  Headlines overflow with portentous, adversarial verbs like “looms,” “blasts,” “accuses,” “targets,” “pummels,” “explodes.”  Don’t get me wrong:  I  believe we are living in dangerous times.  But I don’t think that intensifying our rhetoric helps.  No one ever got released because the hostage negotiator and the kidnapper were hurling insults at one another.

Some of this agitated language is doubtlessly caused by the fact that our President is a trigger-happy Tweeter with a short fuse. His stock-in-trade is pugilistic wordplay:  He was once quoted as saying that “truthful hyperbole” is his favored communication strategy. That’s a pretty sophisticated construct, when you think about it.  Hyperbole, per Google dictionary, is “exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.” In other words, lies of degree, kind of.  But truthful hyperbole?  Isn’t that an oxymoron?  Technically, yes, but it’s also sort of brilliant.   I believe DJT to mean: you exaggerate, embellish or distort the facts, but emotionally, you’re telling “the truth.”  (The tactic has a history of ill-use by a number of authoritarian regimes, as was rightly pointed out this week by Senator Jeff Flake in his speech defending the press on the senate floor.  There IS an adult in the room, except none of the kids are listening….)  The President’s base is totally with him on the whole truthful hyperbole thing. If you are willing to listen to them, they say that his extreme irreverence and hostility towards virtually everyone who doesn’t agree with him is exactly why they voted for him.  Many of them report they don’t really expect him to build an actual wall, it’s a cypher for precisely what his Administration is doing:  rounding up “others” and indiscriminately escorting them out the door.  Here’s both a factual and an emotional reality in US history:  The dominant voices in power have consistently subjugated or erased minority rights, from indigenous Native Americans to African slaves to World War II era Japanese-Americans to the contemporary excoriation of Mexican, Haitian, Salvadoran, African, Muslim and any other immigrants not from Norway.   Choleric, arm-flapping President Trump is his base’s cathartic, bull-in-the-china shop, tear-the-whole-thing-down mascot and this to them is a good thing; he accurately represents both their emotional state—angry, hopeless, fearful, antagonistic towards a mainstream culture that is out of sync with their values or daily lives—and their political agenda, which has been quashed by liberals, the courts, media, professional football players, Hollywood, Washington, late night comedians, etc.  Not even POTUS’ supporters uniformly endorse his tweets or outbursts, but most of them adore his policies and his bluntness.  And who am I to say the feelings of such folks are wrong, to deny the emotional underpinnings of their animus towards people like me–white, educated, affluent, elite—who embrace marriage equality and champion diversity, blathering on about the science behind human-driven climate change when their livelihood depends on coal mines.  My issues feel alien to their mores, tone-deaf to their needs.  What will not help them or me, in this instance, is to solidify in our opposition, to go off and consume those media sources that most inflame our self-righteousness, slinging put-downs at each other based upon caricatures.  Like our Congressmen and women and Senators do.  As our President does.  There’s little out there for us, in the culture, to help us all act like grownups, exercising self-control and patience, listening with care to our opponents.  It’s a quandary, how to productively advocate, to stand and speak with clarity, to listen with an open mind and yet respond with moral authenticity when all the preschoolers in the joint are in full-bore, sugar-overloaded, nap-deprived, turn-losing, hair-pulling, name-calling havoc.  And you’re just little you, one person, a teacher or an artist, an executive, a grandmother, a soldier, doctor, truckdriver, business owner, a teenager or college student. What difference can you make, while your leaders are busy launching toys at each other in the sandbox?

Don’t these people work for us?  Don’t we pay their salaries?  Shouldn’t they at least make a good faith effort to do their jobs, to demonstrate basic efforts at teamwork and compromise, like the rest of us have to do in our work and relationships?

My husband John and I both subscribe to daily email meditations from the Franciscan Priest and Christian mystic Richard Rohr.  I don’t read them as consistently as John does, and often he’ll flag one for me that he thinks is particularly compelling.  He sent me a piece yesterday morning that was complex and beautiful.  Just what I needed after listening to the news in the car, with Republicans and Democrats petulantly deflecting blame for the (dare I say it?) looming government shut-down, representatives from each side flatly refusing to accept a scintilla of responsibility for the impasse.  I’ll include the link at the end of this post in case you’re inclined to read the entire meditation, but here’s a nugget I find particularly helpful:

  1. God is One and for all.
  2. God is not subject to any group ownership or personal manipulation.
  3. God is available as a free gift, not through any sacrificial system (which only strengthens the ego).
  4. God needs no victims and creates no victims, but false religion always does.

Jesus suffers in solidarity with all humanity. He refuses to project his suffering elsewhere or blame others.

That boldface type is mine: Think about how the world might look if each one of us refused to project our suffering elsewhere or blame others.  That’s a tall order.  Yet it’s what we teach our children when they’re young.  And perhaps, what we each need to relearn in this moment of hostility.

How many times did I sit with Nate and Lucy at the kitchen table, helping them untangle the threads of blame for a childhood disagreement?

“He took my book!”

“She wrecked my fort!”

“Well, he wouldn’t let me play in his ugly fort!”

“Well, she wouldn’t let me look at her stupid book!”

Underneath the finger-pointing was a clear desire on the part of both children, brother and sister, for connection and unity, for a shared experience.  He just wanted to read her book, because she loved it and he loved her, and because when she was reading it, she was ignoring him and his really awesome fort.  And she totally wanted to play with him in the fort but was pissed that he took her book – honestly, he did build the coolest sofa cushion structures, and besides, she adored him. So first of all, they were, hello, children. Their bickering was developmentally appropriate.  As kids, they lacked the skill or maturity to express or even to identify their need for each other, while also navigating the complexity of being separate individuals, the tension of rivalry and jealously even in the presence of deep attachment. What they had going for them was love, family connection, and adults to help them understand why they were so upset with the other, to teach them how their own behavior only worsened the situation, hurting their relationship and often resulting in the loss of the very thing they wanted:  the book, the fort, the play, the closeness. Many times, the solution to their tiffs was a win for both: Why don’t you go read the book together in the fort?  Why don’t we order half cheese, half pepperoni?

Regardless of our “side” in the national dysfunction, book or fort, I believe we all want a functioning government. That’s a win-win.  We all miss a civil society.  Also win-win.  We all crave mutual respect even in the face of passionate disagreement.  We need to culvitate the maturity to seek compromise over mere victory, and to accept our own, individual responsibility for the brokenness of our discourse.

God is One and for all.  So let’s stop pointing fingers and help each other fish the cellphone out of the toilet before it’s too late.

More food for thought:  Richard Rohr’s meditation on developing a personal relationship with God.


Here’s to you, Phil

Double-Stuf-Oreos-2My uncle, Phil Ottley, turns eighty today.  I haven’t seen him since my mom, his sister, celebrated her eightieth birthday, two years ago, at a big shindig on Long Island. Phil and his wife Glenna threw it down and came.  When I say “threw it down,” I mean they traveled from afar:  they have homes in Idaho and Florida, and when they are not in residence either place, they are traveling in between in their motor home, with an energetic yellow lab to keep them on their toes.  Phil would not have missed Mom’s eightieth celebration for all the salt in the sea. Family is everything to him – he, Glenna and their kids are close-knit and funny, they share a love of sarcasm, racquet sports and skiing, dogs, cabins, boats, and the outdoors.  They are huggers and belly-laughers; in their presence, wine, wisecracks and witticims flow generously.  They are deeply loyal to our “Ottley” clan.

Phil has a special place in my heart.  I learned a lot about family from him, mostly that the people you love the best are the ones you can tease the most mercilessly, as long as you are willing to get as good as you give.  Phil is a top-of-the-class tease.  I’ve always been hyper-sensitive; my husband John despairs that you just cannot rib me—I take everything so personally.  If I can be messed with it all, it’s thanks in part to Phil.

I spent a couple of vacations in my early teens with Phil, Glenna and their kids, my cousins Lalyn, Heidi and Gray.  I’m a few years older than Lalyn, their eldest, so ostensibly I was along as a mother’s helper, at least that’s how I remember it.  I certainly don’t recall being called on to do much beyond setting a table or maybe helping pack a picnic basket.  Perhaps I just distracted the kids so Glenna and Phil could catch their breath in those intense years when it feels like your three children are the cast of an entire three ring circus.  My first vacation with Phil & Co. was a two-week trip to Nantucket, back when his family still lived in Greenwich, and he was a dissatisfied executive at John Deere, itching for a wider horizon.  We stayed out past Wauwinet at a little group of unfussy, weathered shingle cottages sprinkled in a semi-circle around a central lawn.  I think I remember a barbecue, and maybe a volleyball court, definitely there were sandy paths worn in the grass from cottage to cottage. We drove out to Great Point in their Chevvy Blazer for nighttime bonfire picnics, the huge tires digging deep grooves into the sand. Our trunk bucked and swayed like a drunken donkey as we drove in the ruts across the beach, and whoever got to ride in  the “way back” laughed and laughed, tossed with the coolers and beach chairs like picnic salad.   We’d meet up with other four-wheeling families driving their Jeeps and GMC Jimmys out to the point–SUVs were for off-roading back then, not Costco trips.  The parents would drink beer and wine; the kids roasted marshmallows and played endless games of Go Fish and War with worn decks of cards dulled by sand and dotted with little glops of dried ketchup.   On that trip, I was also Phil’s partner for crack-of-dawn bluefishing expeditions.  It was hard to interest Glenna or the kids in the early morning fishing runs while I was there to be Phil’s companion/victim, although I’m sure they all had many tours out to the point with him at other times.  He’d implore and cajole, saying they’d be missing the best part of the day, the sunrise, the cold, the thrill of casting your line out over the waves before the rest of the world was even cutting the coffee cake.  But no go. Glenna was a great sport who went along with his whims ninety percent of the time, but this wasn’t one of them.  So he’d turn to me and say, “Hol, we’re goin’ fishin’ tomorrow morning.  Be ready to rise and shine at four-thirty.”  Those who know me will laugh at the image of me weilding a fishing pole anywhere ever, let alone at four-thirty a.m., but I was flattered to be noticed.  Life at home was fraught.  My parent’s marriage was strained, my older brother was agitated and acting out.  My little brother was seven years younger, funny and original, but only six, so he stood a bit to the side in our family drama.  The nanny whisked him away in her Datsun hatchback at the slightest whiff of conflict.  They spent a lot of time in that little car, zipping off to the park or the library.  When I was at home, I tried to fly below the radar, spending whole days reading or playing the little electric tabletop organ in my room. Or I’d go off to friends’ houses, where perhaps the parents also fought, or drank too much, or yelled at their kids, but since they weren’t my parents, it felt like a haven.  So when my Uncle Phil insisted I bundle up and head out in the truck before daybreak to the point, helping him schlep the rods, the cooler and the bait box divided into sections for the different lures, I was pretty happy.  I have never asked him or Glenna why they brought me along on that trip, or my mom for that matter.  But I’ve always felt it was a great kindness to a niece who felt lost in her own crumbling family, and that, on some level, Phil recognized this.  I wasn’t an obvious choice to tag along with my sportier cousins: The only thing quick about me was my mind.  I was bookish and plump, not active or outdoorsy, the kind of sensitive young teen who occasionally got homesick at sleepovers. Yet I didn’t feel homesick staying with them.

The next summer, when I was fourteen, I joined the Ottleys for another trip—my National Lampoon vacation correlate—as we traveled from Denver to Los Angeles by way of British Columbia and the Pac Northwest in a motor home.  Phil was ready to shuck the corporate world.  He’d fought the good fight, but he just wasn’t a clock-punching, office job kind of guy, and suburban Connecticut life on him was an ill-fitting suit and tie.  He and Glenna decided to reinvent themselves, to head out West in search of a lifestyle that was expansive, fun, adventurous—like them.  They didn’t know exactly where they should move, just that they wanted to find a place that was beautiful and growing, with good skiing and great people, somewhere Phil could start a new career as a developer and general contractor.  Maybe Vail?  Or Jackson Hole?  Possibly Sun Valley or somewhere in Washington State.  Who knew?  What better way to find out than to load your wife, three kids, and teenage niece into a jumbo size Grumman motor home and literally drive off into the sunset, in search of home.

What a time we had.  In southern Wyoming, we parked in strip mall parking lots.  My bed was a pull-down cot that during the day stowed away above the driver’s seat, so by necessity, I was last to bed and first to rise.  One night, in Laramie, I think, Glenna shook me gently, urgently awake.  “Get up, Holly!  We need to leave.” My five-year old cousin, Gray, had developed a torrential nosebleed that could not be stanched.  We sped off to the ER in our jammies, my cousins Lalyn and Heidi still asleep in their beds.

In Jackson, Wyoming, we were briefly joined by our grandmother, who arrived in her patent leather Ferragamo pumps with little bows on them, clutching a boxy, matching handbag containing her cigarettes and gold lighter.  Her one concession to being “out West” was a London Fog trench coat for the cool evenings.  When we visited Yellowstone Park, she stood outside the Grunt smoking, her bold pink lipstick branding the filters, while we walked the fifty or so yards from the parking lot to view Old Faithful. Her adventure-loving son seemed a mystery to her. Or perhaps he was just like his father, my grandfather, who died when Phil was only eleven or twelve; maybe Phil’s boundless energy and hijinks made her miss her first husband.  But give Grammie credit:  she came along for the ride, sitting at the four-seater table in the motor home doing needlepoint as the Sawtooth mountain range flashed distantly outside the window.

When we got to Glacier National Park, Phil set up the tent for me and my oldest cousin, Lalyn, so we could spend a night in the fresh air instead of cooped up in the Grumman, aka the “Grunt.” Its lack of pickup was so severe that every mountain range we crossed was an arduous crawl of uncertainty, like an exhausted marathoner, only the whole race course is Heartbreak Hill.  In our tent, we had a copy of the bestseller, “Night of the Grizzlies,” along with a couple of flashlights in case we needed to venture out to pee.  We curled up to read: The book was the true story of a rogue killer grizzly who had, in separate incidents, killed two young women staying at the very campground where our tent was pitched.  The first chapter graphically relayed tales of the big boy methodically slashing and clawing his way through dumpsters, cabins, tents, even a car door, to get to his victims. He was a bear with an axe to grind.  I was terrified, convinced that every rustle and snap outside our tent all night long was this insatiable creature, ready to slice us to ribbons if we so much as hiccupped.  I barely slept a wink.  At breakfast, Phil asked us, with a twinkle in his eye:  “How was your night, girls?  Hear any bears?”

In Banff, we stayed at a remote campground embedded in an exquisite fir forest.  On the compound, there was a little general store for emergency purchases like eggs or coffee, milk or matches, and we went in to pick up a few groceries. I seem to remember we were always running out of toilet paper (also, always emptying the Grunt’s septic tank.)  I can’t remember if I was alone or we all went in together, but I do recall standing in line waiting to pay behind a family of spent-looking hikers buying candy bars for dinner, no ubiquitous protein bars in 1974.   A TV burbled in the background.  When we got to the counter and paid in US dollars, the cashier—in my memory he was wearing a plaid flannel shirt and a wool hat, but this was August, so my mind must be conflating him with SNL’s Bob and Doug McKenzie– cocked his head towards the black and white TV, its picture flickering and fuzzy below rabbit ear antennae.  “Your president is resigning,” he said.  There was Nixon on the screen, seated at a desk flanked by flags, reading a speech from a sheaf of papers in his hands.

Phil liked to tease me on that trip about my habit of sneak eating.  I was an emotional eater, still am, and I used to steal into the Grunt in search of Oreos when everyone was outside preoccupied with cooking or tent-pitching.  I thought I was being devilishly stealthy, in that magical-thinking way of the eating-disordered: if no one saw me actually chewing and swallowing, then it never really happened, right?    But Phil wasn’t going to let it go: “Rustle, rustle, like a little squirrel looking for nuts,” he’d say, chortling, when I emerged from a trip to the pantry.  It felt simultaneously awful and liberating, to be called out for my shame-filled fixes, always with a chuckle and a hug. It normalized something that I felt was so defective about me, brought it into the light. I was mortified, and oddly, relieved.  At home, it felt like such issues either stayed in shadow or were met with nearly operatic dispair.

Which isn’t to say Phil didn’t have his own issues or struggles, that his family was all sweetness and light. They squabbled like any other brood, and sometimes the teasing was just plain infuriating.  Phil went through bouts of not eating enough and drinking too much.  My last lengthy stay with them was when I was twenty, during my “year off” from college.  After my sophomore year, I was burned-out, a bit lost in my sense of purpose and identity.  I spent the fall selling “dinnah-wayah” at Fortunoff’s department store in Syosset, Long Island, eventually saving enough money to buy my first car, a red Honda civic sedan with plush seats and a dashboard cassette player that was my pride and joy.  In January, I drove cross country, intending to visit a friend I met in summerstock theater that summer who lived in San Francisco and take acting classes with her.  “On the way,” I stopped to visit the Ottleys at their home in Ketchum, and stayed through June.  I lived with them for my first month there, helping my cousin Heidi with her French homework, or on my knees organizing Gray’s voluminous Lego collection so we could vacuum his room. In their lovely loft guest bedroom, I spent two weeks reading obsessively: “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “East of Eden,” “Duncton Wood,” sweeping stories I would never encounter in a Princeton lit class—a tonic for my academic malaise.  I’d sit up with Phil after Glenna and the kids had gone to bed while he nursed a bottle of Taylor white wine, and we talked about my grandmother, his childhood with my mom, skiing, the history of Ketchum, and the Sun Valley ski resort gossip of the day.  He celebrated my arrival in Sun Valley by escorting me, a nervous and novice skier, to the top of Mt. Baldy and insisting that I’d be just fine—there was, after all, no way but down.  I’ll never forget the name of the trail I fell on, ”yard sale” style, skis and poles littered on the slope above and below me: Blue Grouse.  It was a blue cruiser that nonetheless felt like the Matterhorn to me.   I watched, dejected, as my cousins, aunt and uncle, all beautiful, fluid skiers, carved lovely arcs away from me down the mountain. After a long, bargaining conversation with God, I picked my way carefully to the bottom, where Phil et al were waiting for me, leaning casually on their poles, more at home on these slopes than I was anywhere on earth, at that time. Phil smiled cheerfully and said “At long last. Ready to go again?”   Shortly thereafter, he and Glenna took a trip back east for a week or so, visiting my cousin Lalyn at boarding school as well as some East Coast friends and relatives. I stayed at the house, cooking dinner for Heidi and Gray, driving them in the family SUV to and from school, ski practice, friends’ houses, feeding the dog, then back to my lair in the loft to read some more.  After I decided to stay longer in Ketchum, I moved out to my own place, but I’d still stop over for dinner every week, just to check in.  It was home away from home, for sure.

So happy birthday, Phil, and many happy returns. This post has been my toast to you. Thanks for being my fun, encouraging, needling, humor-filled, supportive, and only occasionally really irritating uncle, for teaching me how to tie on a bluefish lure, not to fight the fall line, how to take a joke.  I have forgotten the former, but the latter two skills have served me well.  Next time I see you, the Oreos are on me.  Love you.


Two years ago at my mom’s 80th birthday: Uncle Phil & Aunt Glenna, with daughters Lalyn (the blonde with the attitude) and Heidi and their husbands, although not in that order!

Heart in mouth…

%gt7lkoJQ2uw5Aw9B2DPwgI sometimes listen to the morning news on NPR on my way to teaching my 8:30 a.m. Nia class.  Today, the anchors gingerly navigated reports of the West Wing venom du jour, this time the diction of our intemperate President more foul-mouthed and lowbrow than usual, even for him.  Were she alive today, my maternal grandmother would fix him with an icy glare and announce: “young man, we are going to wash your mouth out with soap.”  A nanny of ours once made me do this when I was six or seven years old.   I can’t imagine what I possibly could have said to earn such discipline, since I didn’t know any curse word stronger than “darn.”  I still remember the taste of the lather on my tongue; little flakes of soap in my teeth; the ensuing gag reflex. Continue reading “Heart in mouth…”

Blog, Meet Holiday Letter

IMG_0461Another writer asked me recently what gave me the chutzpah to attempt writing a novel.  Her implication being: “I mean, you could try a story first.” Fair point.   I’ve wondered myself, as I flounder around in the weeds of chapter thirteen, whither goest all this verbiage, whether there is a story in there trying to claw its way to the light. I have an outline, but for the most part, I’m winging it, following the lead of some inner gyroscope calibrated to the characters’ caprices.  Last week I set up a spreadsheet to keep track of back stories, events, details. It’s a lot. How on earth did Tolstoy survive without Scrivener or Excel?  I understand the subtext of my friend’s question: There is a kind of wide-eyed naiveté (or wild-eyed mania) to plunging into long-form fiction with zero experience or training.

The simplest answer is that I found both the confidence and the thirst to attempt a larger scale narrative courtesy of our annual Christmas letter.  I am going to cast false modesty to the wind and proclaim from the rooftops:  I was once Queen of the high concept holiday card message.   I have written our annual letter in the form of David Letterman-style top 10 lists (remember him?!), true or false questionnaires, annual family statistics, dramatic dialogues, a theater company program.  The year Nate was a junior in high school, our family news was delivered as a series of SAT-style questions; at the time, we were immersed in the inflated importance of standardized tests. (Can you hear the thwap-thwap-thwap of the helicopter parent hovering backstage?)   To celebrate my 50th birthday, we took a family trip to Rome; the news that year came in an Italian menu,  l’antipasto, il primo, il segunda, il contorno, il dolce.  There was a Kania family news crossword puzzle, I regret to say. If you remained my friend after that obnoxiously interactive gambit, I am eternally grateful for your patience.  I’m hoping most people just tossed it in the trash rather than actually attempting to a. answer the questions or b. decipher the answer key on the back.  Daunted by my own cleverness, one year I sent the news as a job listing: “Seeking Copywriter to create Christmas card insert for Massachusetts family of five.  Need to devise wholly original format, year-after-year, communicating mundane family news in fresh, readable way.”  No one applied.

I’ve taken a couple of years off from any substantive attempt at a holiday missive, largely aided by the fact that Shutterfly lets you print limited text in the card, a game-changing advancement in epistolary brevity (the phrase “game-changing advancement in epistolary brevity” would never fit, for example).  As a result, we all are sending and receiving far fewer multipage TMI holiday tomes detailing a beloved aunt’s botched gallbladder surgery (swear to God, one Christmas letter we received years ago went into granular detail on this topic) or grade school graduations.  I’ve taken the time to develop other writerly muscles, namely, this blog, which began as a dare from my inner frustrated writer to my fraidy-cat, perfectionist self, one winter morning after John and I had gone on a meditation walk in the woods. As frozen pine needles crunched underfoot and our breath frosted the air, words tumbled unbidden into my mind: “Do the thing that scares you the most. That’s where the growth is.”  And that “thing” was to commit to writing and publishing immediately.  I felt compelled: The universe had just come calling for me, and I had bloody well better answer the door.  Hence,  Feel free to browse the archives if you’re interested in watching me pedal around on my training wheels.

I’m still standing on that threshold, trying to answer the call to face down fear and self-doubt, now with a novel. It’s called “Shebang!,”a breezy yet barbed tragi-comedy of start-up social media, menopause, millennials and feminism in the Trump era, which seemed like an original idea a year ago when I began writing it.  (If only truth wouldn’t keep being SO MUCH STRANGER than fiction.)  Every writing session is a dance with the demons of uncertainty. I don’t know where I am going, which is daunting for someone who organizes the spices alphabetically by flavor, sweet, savory, international, digestive. I gird myself–literally, I’ve gained ten pounds–with snacks for the journey, I procrastinate (damn you, youtube), I bite my nails, I pace.  This last year has been like that for a lot of you, too, a hard slog. Whatever your stance on the news of the day, it’s hard not to feel abused by repeated ­whap-whaps of anger, uncertainty and chaos.  The key thing I’ve learned from my writing life is that no matter what, I have to show up and keep trying.  Sometimes it flows and sometimes it doesn’t.  On occasion, I laugh out loud. The work itself is almost always better than I think it is in the moment of creating it.   But whether the prose is good, bad, or indifferent, the act of writing is my commitment to hope and growth. I remain steadfastly grateful for my many blessings–health, dance, friends, humor, kids, readers, courage, words, music, doctors and nurses, hospitals and therapists, pets, home. Despite a dreary year of relentless challenges for me and many people close to me, and even though tempers are short and our national discourse is rude and mean-spirited, I am determined to lead with love.

My holiday season/everyday wish for all of you, dear readers and friends, is that you keep showing up and trying in your life, whatever its challenges, wherever you fall on the timeline of cradle to grave.  To quote the poet Mary Oliver: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I hope it will be something amazing.  I know it can be.

Now here, without further ado, in less than 140 (to 280) characters because I know how busy you are and you know I couldn’t resist, is the Kania family holiday news for 2017, Twitter-style.

Quantified Comms @QuantComms  What is #authenticity, and why is it important? #leadership #communication    Ask Nate Kania, he works here:  HUGE data analytics.  BEST DATA IN THE UNIVERSE.  U WILL COMMUNICATE BETTER THAN ANY1 ELSE EVER!!

Austin Rowing Club @AustinRowing   Is there a prettier boathouse than @WallerCreekBH?  Nate says NO.  #oldrowersneverdie_theycoach #plustheresabar

Tufts University @ Tufts University  Lucy Kania graduates May ’17, Drama maj, English minor. Phi Beta K, Summa, big class prize, musical theater president, yada yada.  SAD.

Noble and Greenough @Noble_Greenough  We are pleased to announce Lucy Kania is our 2017-18 teaching fellow in costume design.  #shoppingforaliving

Scripps College @scrippscollege   78 and sunny.  AGAIN.  Wish u were here. #SoCalcollege  #Miainparadise

Scripps College @scrippscollege  Meet Admissions Ambassador Mia Kania  ’20, Environmental Analysis major, Music minor, a cappella singer.  Hobbies include knit-flixing, word games, Cheez-Its, Petfinder.


FSG @ FSGtweets  Collective impact, shared value, systems change, diversity, equity & inclusion–Global Managing Director John Kania still fighting the good fight.  #socialchange #doesntgetanyeasier

Holly Kania @hollyhackkan  Pls don’t follow my twitter becuz I signed up on a whim & I never tweet & if u follow me I’ll feel like I have to

Holly Kania @hollyhackkan  & everyone knows the road to hell is paved with tweets.

Westley & Cordelia @going_to_the_dogs   Like the bumper sticker sez:  “Wag more, bark less.”

Holly Kania @hollyhackkan  Why r u still here?  Go frolic!

Heartfelt Holiday Wishes to You and Yours



























Hither and Yon


The past week and a half was a whirlwind.  If I could mark the map of my life with a GPS tracker, there would be a dizzy ribbon stretching from Massachusetts to New York and back and back again, unfurling out to the west coast, coiling from LA to Claremont and back home again.  I realize people travel like this for work all the time, but I am unused to it.  It feels like little molecules of my self are suspended along the way, unable to keep up with my body’s movements.  They’ll catch up eventually, but for a while they lurch in a drunken orbit around me, dissociated.

My travels have been family related, beginning with a visit to my dad in New York to catch up and check in.  Now that my divorced parents are in their eighties, new fissures emerge in our family narrative, and my role as daughter and caregiver spans that breach. Mom and Dad lead separate existences on either side of the Triborough Bridge, close enough that it seems a wasted opportunity to only visit one or the other, but far enough that the details, and the traffic, can be vexing. When your elderly parents are not married to one another, visiting them, caring for them, staying on top of their ups and downs is an a la carte gig.  Where do my own needs fall in this algebraic equation?  How do we solve for Holly?  The solution involves sharpening clarity about my boundaries, getting comfortable with the balance of what I can provide vs. what I cannot, acting from love instead of guilt, and developing skill at discerning the difference.  Also:  chocolate.  And: wine.

My dad is in good health, overall, which means in terms of mind-share, he’s been on the back burner for a couple of months while other family members have taken bigger swigs from my loving cup.  It was good to see him.  We had a couple of nice meals together:  a lunch of elegant salads at the French bistro across the corner from his apartment on 73rd street, and later, take-out Chinese food on tray tables in front of the Yankees-Astros game in his den/bedroom, walls chockful of artifacts from his travels to Asia back when my stepmother was still living.  I caught him on up on the kids’ comings and goings, we traded impressions of a recent family wedding weekend where we’d been seated at different tables both nights and hardly saw each other.  He seemed healthy and upbeat, although I wish he got more exercise.  Also, more variety in his diet of TV and online news.  Dad asked how Mom is doing.  They have recently struck up a phone correspondence, comparing notes on their three fifty-something children. He knows Mom’s partner of forty years died this past spring.  Dad lost both his mother and his wife in the past several years, so he has lived the brutal walk of grief.  He observed that Mom doesn’t sound like herself, which is funny to hear coming from him.  But it was nice of him to enquire; he knows a lot is on me. Mom has told me his perspective is reassuring, which I relay to him, passing a shuttle through a loom, weaving another line.

Sleepless and addled, my mother still feels her partner Jim’s May death like a punch to the gut.  She wonders when it will pass – if ever – and whether at 82 she has the drive to write another chapter.  She is isolated, rattling around in her own head like a loose part, pinging against the margins, constantly aware of her disrepair.  This is grief, we all tell her.  Give it time.  But at her age she wonders, how long will it take?  What portion of her remaining store must she earmark for suffering, then for rebuilding–selling a house, sorting through decades of belongings, perhaps moving to a new state, a more suitable community, one with handrails in the halls and dinner at five in the dining room (neither of which you need right now but you don’t know when you will, only that the day is closer this month than last).   I tried several times over the past few years to engage her and Jim in addressing this awful inevitability:  someone would be left grieving and alone. What was their plan?  He was building a big house of his own design, a gracious residence that I felt would be over-sized for a young family of five.  Jim was a gifted architect, and this was his last hurrah. They planned to move there from Mom’s more modest home in year or so when it was completed.  Jim was suffering from CPD.  At eighty-nine, his hearing was tenuous, his gait shuffled, he breathed shallowly, effortfully, as if he was sucking a thick milkshake through a straw.  I was concerned for them.   Was building this elaborate home a good idea, I asked again when they visited my house a year ago for Thanksgiving.  Mom told me they had his family’s backing for the ambitious venture.  After all, he was the one bearing the burden, financially, artistically, and as project supervisor.  But what about our backing on our mom’s behalf?  I worried she was forestalling decisions about her long-term situation that would affect our ability to be there for her when the need arose.   The question was never really put to us.  The salient unit at issue wasn’t mother and children, but mother and partner. Understandable.  Frustrating.  Complicated.

One of the threads weaving its way through my last week was to scoop up Mom from the service plaza just north of Mamaroneck on the Hutchinson Parkway and bring her to Massachusetts for a short visit.  I’d suggested it about a week or two ago when I knew I’d be in New York seeing Dad. Although it’s hard to rebound from parent to parent in such short order, the efficiency is undeniable.  Mom doesn’t like to travel.  With her tendency towards migraine headaches, it’s no longer practical for her to do a four-hour drive on her own.  Once up in Massachusetts, the hope was to get her some rest, a couple of good meals, dinner with my older brother who lives in Ipswich. If she felt up to it, we planned to tour a continuous care community that my sister-in-law Binni and I checked out over the summer on our reconnaissance tour of “adult prep schools.” Once Mom arrived at my house, her eyes brightened.  She chatted with Lucy at the kitchen table, and bonded with Lucy’s cat, a lap jumper who meows conversationally in a running commentary on feline philosophy. The dogs barked and wagged, annoyingly underfoot.  There’s life here: animals, conversation, cups of tea.  Yes, Mom assured me.  She wants to move to Massachusetts.  “It’s okay, mom, if you want to stay in Long Island,” I told her. “It’s okay if you don’t want to visit these places just yet.”  What we think we want and what feels right don’t always align. But she expressed certainty. She was here, after all, and couldn’t get back up our way until spring because she winters in Florida. “Let’s go visit Carleton Willard,” an assisted living community nearby, she said.  I was glad.  It’s hard, but we need to consider the possibilities.

I decided to drive her there via the back roads in Concord.  In October, Monument Street looks like a page torn from a tourism calendar, rolling vistas unfurling in red, green and gold.  The pavement winds charmingly between woods and farms, quintessential New England.  I wasn’t sure how to navigate to Carleton Willard coming from west of Bedford. I programmed it into Waze, and the app did that irritating thing where it plots the most circuitous route imaginable, but since you’re on unfamiliar ground, you hesitate to overrule. It took over a half an hour to get there when it should have been a twenty-minute drive at most.  As we pulled up the hill towards the main entrance, I could tell mom was already drained.  It’s a quirky facility:  the original revolutionary-era structure augmented by a low, flat brick 80’s addition on one side, and a tasteful, teal-colored 00’s shingle affair on the other.  The effect is rambling and wonky, attractive in its own way, nicely landscaped, but not architecturally cohesive.  Particularly not compared with the five thousand square foot, high-end home with formal courtyard and custom rounded moldings your long-time partner was building for your golden years.

After lunch in their new bistro ( the burger gets five stars–the carmelized onions were delicious), we got a tour, followed by a long sit-down with Carleton Willard’s masterful and empathic marketing director, Peggy.  She is soon to retire after over twenty years.  She could tell Mom was unnerved.  “Everyone always asks ‘why are all the people here so old?’” she reassured us. You couldn’t help but notice the walkers and wheelchairs maneuvering carefully, like city traffic, through the main corridor.  “I can promise you that almost no one who makes the decision to move to a community like ours does so because it’s what they’ve always dreamed of,” said Peggy.  “The reason you do it is sitting right here,” she gestured to me.  “Because you have to make a plan, for your family.” I appreciated this validation. A tidy balance of clear-eyed pragmatism on one hand, and compassionate salesmanship on the other:  nobody wants to admit they are at this life-stage, but nonetheless, this is where you are.  I get it.  Let me help. Peggy will be difficult to replace when she retires.

Despite Peggy’s best efforts, the surprisingly good food, the perfect location, I could tell something about the place stuck irritatingly for mom, like a burr on your pant leg.  There was a lack of fit she hesitated to express. She was willing to plop down her deposit for a spot on the wait list, box checked, duty done, but that would have belied her gut. Over tea back at home, I suggested perhaps we should check out another community, the one my sister-in-law and I felt would appeal to her the most after our summer touring – Fox Hill Village, a cooperative community that’s more formal and luxurious than Carleton Willard, the kind of place where men wear jackets and ties for dinner. Even the convenience store there was elegant.  Fox Hill also had a bit more zing, energetically.  Mom was open to it, even though we didn’t have an appointment and wouldn’t get the full download from Karen, their Peggy-counterpart.  We made a detour down there on Saturday, before delivering Mom to the friend who had come to drive her home.  Diane, the front-desk receptionist, walked us around. It wasn’t her job and she didn’t have to, a kindness more compelling than a color brochure.  An older gentleman noticed us and took obvious interest – my mother may be feeling frail and grief-thumped, but she has always been spectacularly pretty and is no less so for her current stress.  He joked loudly with staff members in an obvious gambit for Mom’s attention.  They bantered back, good-natured, playful.  There was a lively and generous mood to the place, not to mention the physical plant is drop-dead gorgeous and more in line with the aesthetic Mom and Jim preferred.  Something in her shifted.  She could picture herself there, imagine another chapter, in a pretty apartment with a little patio. She might try bridge again or join the hand bell choir.  There would be people to share meals with, her kids popping down for lunch or dinner. Maybe she’d even adopt a cat.  How we get there from here is overwhelming to think about, but the end result could be okay.  Maybe even good.  Possibly very good.

The next day, John went to visit his parents in Connecticut, Lucy was at work, and I had the house to myself.  It was Indian summer warm, so I took my laptop out to the porch, hoping to close out a novel chapter I’ve been wrestling with, one that refuses to end, just keeps spooling into another fragment like a Lernaean Hydra, growing new heads every time I try to cut one off.  Things got cooking and I stumbled onto an unexpectedly gristly plot twist, which is the fun part of writing.  When the land line rang, I ignored it – it could wait.  The only calls we ever get on the home phone anymore are telemarketers. Or one of our parents.  But I had just seen both my parents and John was with his.  Then my cell rang.  Hmmmm, some distant voice wondered in the back of my mind–should I get that?  I was scribbling a scene that takes place, appropriately enough, at the retirement home of the narrator’s father.  It made me laugh.  I ignored the phone.

Ten minutes later, my cell rang again, and since I had to pee anyway, I decided to check it.  Patty, my mom’s Long Island housekeeper slash friend slash caregiver.  Shit.

By Monday afternoon, I was down on Long Island by my mother’s bedside in the telemetry unit at the community hospital, where doctors were trying, with limited success, to diagnose the cause of her sudden onset of symptoms:  aphasia, nausea, light-headedness, confusion, high blood pressure.  Atrial fibrillation throwing off clots, leading to a series of TIAs? A small stroke?  Or just “a really bad migraine,” possibly brought on by stress?  Neither the range of options nor the lack of clarity inspired confidence.  Her pacemaker rules out MRI testing.  Her CAT scans looked normal, but the EEG showed definite left hemisphere glitches, we later found out.  For some reason, no one thought to download the data from her pacemaker, which would confirm or deny the presence of a-fib.  Or perhaps they weren’t able to, for some reason?  The logic of hospitals is perpetually murky to its subjects.

When I arrived, Mom’s eyes were cloudy and she looked at me as if from a distance.  She  ranged from coherent to garbled, sometimes making perfect sense, then lapsing into spoonerisms:  I had mightnares Laturday sight and I wouldn’t cake up. Her cellphone wallpaper (a benign white daisy on a black background) was undecipherable to her, making her think she couldn’t dial calls.  Her roommate cried out, “Help me, help me!”  Courtesy of Patty-the-housekeeper’s charm and extensive local connections, God bless her, we moved Mom to a private room, talked to doctors, did the best we could to understand her condition, which improved markedly with sleep, hydration and the promise of discharge.  By late Tuesday afternoon, she was back home, clear-eyed and articulate, if still a little foggy.  My brother Randy arrived from Ipswich to take over.  I drove home Wednesday.  I had Lucy’s debut show as a paid costume designer to see; I had to pack for my early Friday morning flight to California, get the house in order, retrieve a car from the shop.  Picking up the threads of my own life.


On Friday by lunchtime, I was checking in to the Beverly Hilton, an “Oasis” room that was simultaneously hip and dated, with a sliding door leading out to a fountained interior courtyard that would be lovely, except for the cheesy artificial grass.  You feel the lurch, right, from the dimly lit Long Island hospital corridor, to the plastic glam of Beverly Hills?  I certainly did.  On Friday afternoon, I visited with my brother Welles’ wife Liz and their young kids while he, inconveniently, was on set in New York.  There was a flurry of stories and hide and seek, my four-year old niece Tess making me laugh out loud when she offered to help me wedge “that big booty” in the kids’ tiny pop-up circus tent for a game that I never quite understood (in which I had to growl like a bear from inside the tent while Tess and Sam disappeared outside).  Liz ordered take-out Ramen for the kids, and later take-out Italian for us.  John arrived from a business trip in San Francisco and we drove to Claremont after breakfast on Saturday, the Scripps College campus saturated with sunshine and roses, mountains rising aridly behind a backdrop of white stucco Spanish revival buildings with red tile roofs.  Mia was showering when we arrived, so we drafted into her dorm in the wake of another student. We wandered through the exquisite common spaces:  a vast terra-cotta tiled entry foyer with soaring ceilings and a grand staircase, the upholstered living room with its antique piano, a quaint interior courtyard with a stone-carved well in the center.  Standing on the courtyard lawn we considered the balcony above, trying to pinpoint the French doors to Mia’s second floor double.  One set of doors was festooned with laundry, hanging from the sage green shutters and black wrought iron railing.  I recognized Mia’s plaid shirts, a flowered dress, her red bath towels.  What a luxury of the desert college lifestyle.  Air-dried balcony laundry was not a feature of my New Jersey college years.

A second breakfast with coffee crackled with Mia’s animated recitation of her collegiate life:  classes about the environment and cities and music; acapella and play rehearsals; her job as an admissions tour “ambassador;” her study-abroad application.  To borrow a word from her girlhood friend Chessy, she seems “thrive-y,” vibrant and blooming.  After Mia left for her pre-show call, we checked in to the Doubletree and took a quick shopping trip to Trader Joe’s, stocking up on her favorite Luna bars and dried mango, getting a bottle of Pinot Grigio for the dorm fridge.  We delivered these to her room, leaving congratulatory flowers in a ceramic mug on her desk.  We took in both Saturday performances of “Cabaret,” in which Mia played several roles: a cabaret patron, a German-speaking train conductor, a Kit Kat club dancer.  The timeliness of the musical is disconcerting:  Germany’s slide into nationalism, from there to perverse nativism and racism — how easily evil roots when leaders demonize the “other” and good people look away or make excuses, many turning to escapism.  The parallel to our current political climate is chilling.  The performance, chosen at this time, means to provoke discussion, reflection, perhaps even action.

We grabbed dinner between shows with our daughter, still in full stage makeup, laboriously blinking enormous false eyelashes.  “Ugh,” she said.  “There’s something in my eye.” Dozens of bobby pins pin-curled her long hair close to her skull, better to fit under costume wigs.   She ordered steak as she always does, with béarnaise sauce and truffle fries.  I couldn’t stop marvelling at how beautiful she is, how full of life, so interesting and engaged, a woman coming in to her unique power.  She told us about the backstage drama, the challenges of updating the play while respecting history.  A Jewish friend in the cast was wounded by the revisionism; castmates rallied, outraged, to the young woman’s defense; tense conversations with the director ensued.  Mia’s college experience is exactly as it should be, I thought.  I miss her.

By Sunday morning at seven a.m., after logging in four hours of sleep at the Doubletree, we were back in LA, sitting on the tarmac, hoping to beat bad weather to Boston.  Our plane pitched and rolled precipitously just before landing, yanked out of our approach pattern by air traffic control because of a runway emergency involving a galley fire on an incoming aircraft. We landed at four.  By five-thirty, we were home.

Monday morning, I was still in transit, mentally and spiritually, so my class—the first time I’ve taught in ten days– felt a little disembodied, the opposite of what a teacher wants to transmit in a movement class.  But today, I felt drenched in sensation, the music washing over my skin and into my sinews, swirling in and among the students in a whirlpool of healing movement. I’d be lying to say that I am not greatly and deeply pleased to be back home.  I’m mindful, though, of that old bumper sticker:  “Wherever you go, here you are.”