As we put the front pages to bed. With the war raging on in our heads. I could write a swath of humanity off ’cause of something that I just read. But I don’t want to fight fire with fire. And I don’t want to preach to the choir. So whether you’re laughing or crying, if you’re doing your best to be kind, this land is as much yours as mine. Chris Thile, “I Made this for You”
When my dad fell, we were at a turnpike rest-stop. He leaned, propped against a trashcan. I thought then he looked like a marionette, momentarily set aside. My sister Paula and I couldn’t hold him up–it seems funny that we tried. He sunk to the floor, vaguely responsive to our questions, his voice not even his own.
Strangers got him onto a chair; Dad came to and I ran away–to get him an orange juice but also to feel less dizzy. The rest-stop manager brought my father a bagel and a cream cheese packet I couldn’t open. The EMTs came through the main doors, and after some convincing, my dad agreed to go out on a stretcher through those same doors. Paula and I followed a stranger in his truck through the rain and dark into a hospital parking lot in the middle of Pennsylvania.
Doctors had to get to know my father: the complicated relationship between his heart, his lungs, his stubbornly Irish head, and the rest of his body–all parts now 80 years old.
I’d walk the 5th floor hallways, just days before the national election, and sometimes sit in an empty waiting room: the corner television mute but flashing dark screens, bold words, stern faces, bomb explosions. My college-philosophy-professor father reminded the nurses that the Eagles had already played the Steelers this season–did they recall the score? Still they forgave him (and stuck him with needles). All good souls: doctors, nurses, snack shop attendants, volunteer greeters, locals visiting loved ones.
Dad, Paula, and I waited hours for portable oxygen tanks to arrive as the room got smaller. We had nothing left to say. I could not warm up. I dreaded the long drive back. The Blue Bloods marathon no longer entertained. One of the nurses, Nancy, covered me with a blanket just out of the dryer while I lay curled and spent on the other bed in Dad’s small room. Nancy brought us three milkshakes: chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Eventually, finally, Nancy helped wheel my dad into the elevator, out to the parking lot into another dark night. She hugged us each goodbye.
Home, and the electoral map of Pennsylvania covered itself in red. I thought of Nancy, the warmth of the blanket. The kind strangers.
The radio today: a threatened climate agreement, a rise in hate-driven crimes, cabinet appointees. In the days, weeks, months following 9/11, a friend’s father could not bear to listen to the radio, so he played cds in the car and learned a new language. For me, it will be Spanish.
My father, forced into comparative, spent days in a suburban Philadelphia hospital. During one visit, I turned into his room and met a harp. Behind the harp was a volunteer. My Dad named Dan sat in his hospital gown, eating a sandwich, humming along to Danny Boy, The Water is Wide, Over the Rainbow, and Moon River.
The moon is as close as it has been in 70 years. Maybe it’s made us all a bit crazy. I wake my daughters at 5:00 to see this super moon. They will be my age when its light is as bright again. We snuggle in bed afterwards to wait for dawn. The youngest takes my hand and says, “Can I calm you?” She has me clench my fists and curl my toes, like I’m grabbing a pencil. She speaks slowly like the voice she’s heard in a yoga class, about the soft breezes and the wide open sea.
And she drifts off to sleep.
“The past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together.” Walt Whitman
“And as the moon rose higher, the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor’s eyes–a fresh, green breast of the new world.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
Summer. It’s a slip of a season, what with mid-June school dismissal and pre-Labor Day reentry. By the time we’re comfortable with the swim team schedule, it seems we’ve only just reintroduced ourselves to the families from other area schools (the families we only see at the swim club), when suddenly we’re packing cars for August get-aways then scrounging drawers for soccer socks.
Before summer sinks further into the rearview, before backyard maples turn blazing red, I’d like to spend some writing time on Martin’s Dam. A swim club, yes, one exclusive enough to require a waiting list, an initiation fee, and an annual kick-in-the-checkbook, but also, a spot established in 1924 as an old-time swimming hole that has not since lost its old-time charm. A place where my husband, Dave, and I grew up, where my kids are now growing up, and where many families also honor that generational pull. I imagine even the spiders now stringing webs in the bathroom stalls descend from spiders there when I was in braces and bangs, running around in a striped Speedo.
We topped off our summer at Martin’s Dam on the Sunday after Labor Day; Dave, our two daughters, and I stayed until closing. Lexi and Caroline, ages 9 and 10, along with a handful of other die-hard pool rats, helped to pack away the chairs and umbrellas, and as a reward, were allowed to jump off of the lifeguard’s stand a few times each. We ate our final summer pizza. At dusk, from up in the wooded picnic area, we watched the pool lights click on; we saw some of the other faithfuls reading in the dimming light; we heard the clumsy clunk of the diving boards, the echoing pleas from the guards to “walk!” . . . an occasional whistle blast. The energy was more charged as compared to other evenings: a result, I imagine, of all of us knowing that the end was near.
But, after dinner, just before the 8 pm count-down, the four of us jumped into the pool again–cool air, warm water–and every trace of urgency vanished.
Nighttime is peace at the center of the pool: voices muffle and drift, muscles relax, mind empties, the lights from under the water flicker and glow. I look up at the trees surrounding, giants swaying and sounding in the breeze. What is past them is sky. I know it’s the same sky everywhere, but the way the trees circle and lift my gaze beyond to all that blue-black promise: it’s a telescope shot to the profound, to Whitman’s Kosmos.
An easy, upward glance, the inessential is gone, and it’s not so hard to imagine a time when the Algonquin and Iroquois inhabited this same area, or when a Welshman named Lavis first arrived, 30 years before William Penn received his land grant. Or the late-1700’s when Henry Zook owned his dam; when Richard and Hannah Martin purchased it from him in the 1840’s, or when their son James sold it to the Lower Merion Water Company fifty years later.
A man named Park envisioned the property as a swim club as early as 1906, but the “Martin’s Dam Club” was not officially formed until five men, including T. Magill Patterson, held the club’s first meeting in Patterson’s South Wayne home.
Patterson’s daughter, Emma, wrote for the Suburban and Wayne Times in the 1950’s. Her “Your Town and My Town” columns are available for all to read thanks to the archiving of the Radnor Historical Society. In one piece, she recalls being a little girl in her house on Midland Avenue, her dad telling her to be quiet so he and Stanton C. Kelton, Humber B. Powell, Joseph F. Stockwell, and Paul L. Lewis could stretch out this idea that Patterson and Lewis had as they “sat together on a log over at the Dam one day.” This idea of a “good old swimming hole.”
Emma Patterson’s columns serve as a reassuring reminder that we on the Mainline, though we may feel continually driven towards the future, are obviously and undeniably ever-connected to the past, if we just open our eyes to it.
There’s record of Sally Martin, daughter of Richard and Hannah, the family the Dam is named after, recalling for her own daughter tales of riding her horse from her property all of the way to Wayne to teach school, along such lonely stretches of road, “she carried a pistol with her always.”
My girls and I drive this same “lonely stretch” every day to swim practice, wheels turning beneath us. To think streams of water once flowed freely down these very roads, turning the wheels of various mills throughout the years. Water once powered every industry–cotton mills, paper mills, powder mills. Logs became lumber, which was weathered then sold until there was “no more walnut to be had.” Martin’s mill, once a grist mill, was leased for several years to make spools, bobbins, and croquet sets.
Suddenly the word “mill” yawns, stretches, and comes alive off of the area map. Though I’d never been to “Mill Park,” when I realized just this weekend that I needed to get Lexi there for a soccer clinic, I slowed as we neared the field, making note of the tiny creeks along the way, wondering if their story may have been different back then. Maybe those small strips of water once set in motion something great.
Even the street signs, through fading aluminum, send bright, clear reminders that families lived out their lives here long before we arrived. Mrs. Dewitt Pugh bought a property off of Croton once owned by Abner Hughes. Names on these rectangular signs we drive by each day: metal envelopes addressed to the past.
Fresh springs ran into Martin’s Dam, once it was up-and-running as a “restricted club for swimming and other sports.” The water was cold in parts, but pure. There was a main dock, called the “Old Ladies’ Dock” and another called “Stockwell’s Landing,” named because it was one of the founder’s favorite places to enter the water. There were diving boards, floats, a long rope to swing out, lifeguard stands, and the baby area, called the “Duck Pond.”
When I was a child, Martin’s Dam–a pool by then–also had its own sections and characters. My parents were more a part of the tennis scene. I remember them dressed in whites for mixed doubles, my dad even then relaying stories of his greatness on the court (on any court, really), and my mom hardly letting on that she was a solid player. They rarely swam, but I can tell you even today where certain parents used to sit around the pool.
The big day as a little kid? Scoring the “Frog” and acquiring complete access to the big pool. Kids were otherwise relegated to the middle or baby pools, both sizable and acceptable options, but what a day when mom sewed on that Frog patch (when moms knew how to sew)!
Mrs. O’Brien was at the front desk, and Danny Reichert walked the side of the pool, his booming voice sounding swim-coach commands. There were swim and dive meets, Olympic hopefuls and contenders, water ballet routines to Genesis songs, Seventeen magazines, and Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil (not sunscreen, mind you).
My best friend was on the swim team while I was more of a lounge-chair swimmer. Freedom was when we could stay at the pool on our own, and that we would do, for entire days, several summers in a row, when we weren’t working our teenage jobs. We’d hang poolside in the morning, eat a quick bologna sandwich in the picnic area, then hustle up the hill for tennis team.
Today, there is a garden named for Mrs. O’Brien, a club house named for Danny. There is the Frog but I haven’t noticed any children wearing the patch. Martin’s Dam still has its characters. The Heysers whose children once swam on the team, drive around in their golf cart–I was offered a ride down the hill once and felt like royalty. There are front-desk workers and ever-present managers chatting with members, checking pH levels, counseling lifeguards.
Though I didn’t grow up a team swimmer, I’ve become a swim-team mom, my girls committed to the cherished program: Coaches Ruth and Phil and all of the wonderful assistants, abundant learning, camaraderie, Donut Days, lengthy meets, spirited cheers.
My daughters still run up the hill to play tennis.
People consistently sit in particular sections; fit athletes come at certain times on certain days to swim laps; grandparents walk and talk, sharing those same lanes.
Kids still fish in the pond, wear tennis whites, play ping-pong. There’s that same crew of middle school boys: they materialize on the first day instantly tanned, all arms-and-legs skinny, and it seems they don’t leave until September. There’s that other pack of boys who’ve grown a foot since the year before, the ones now actively avoiding the girls they used to not see but are now pretending not to see. The girls who now dance in packs at DJ nights, or put braids in the hair of the little girls who openly adore them.
Same stories, different faces; a different time, but in many ways the same.
Some consider Martin’s Dam to be too simple, too rustic. A squirrel did eat half of my daughter’s birthday cake.
But these days, there is distraction, so much of the inessential yanking our attention away from what should be easy to experience–trees, wind, water, sky.
A swim club, obviously, is not essential; it is a gift of old-time fun for our children. It is the blessed present that will soon become their past. But it is their place now.
It is his place, too, the young man sitting quietly reading his book, and it is hers, the little girl splashing and laughing in the baby pool. It is also his, the tennis player with the grey in his hair, the brace on his knee.
And this place is hers–the elderly woman, arriving each evening, slowly coming down the path, leaning heavily on her cane, working for every step until she carries herself carefully down the pool stairs. Then smiling she goes, back and forth, back and forth, moving smoothly in the darkness as the water shimmers around her.
“It is time for easy dreaming, a time when the present merges into the past until the scene as it once was becomes almost more real to the mind’s eye than the scene as it now is.”
Emma Patterson on Martin’s Dam June 27, 1952
I was sitting under a pool umbrella today, trying to connect with wifi or do whatever was necessary to pair my iPad with my portable keyboard, so I could write. It’s been weeks since I’ve given myself writing time, and today was going to be that day. But without a functioning keyboard, I am nothing. Right when I was at what I considered to be the pinnacle of frustration, a large shadow flew into my periphery–great, I thought, let’s just add a dive-bombing dragonfly to the mix, that’ll help me relax and reflect. I looked up quickly to fend off the hornet, the winged lizard, whatever dark beast was lurking, only to find a yellow monarch resting on the umbrella, then ducking itself into the shade, softly circling, sharing some space with me for a while.
Yesterday I was at it again in our front yard flower bed, either reviving or killing the Salvia … tbd. I was dead-heading daisies, watering a newly-planted shrub, when I looked up to see two yellow finches landing nearby on a tired looking azalea. They stayed for a spell, then jetted off towards the bird-feeders to see what the squirrels might have left behind.
Poolside computer glitch and pesky squirrels: these are Main Line problems. I live in a Philadelphia suburban town and really, most of my problems are of the “Main Line” variety: I’m forced to stay at the pool for long stretches at a time because my kids aren’t old enough to be there by themselves yet. I watch my daughters get exercise all day but can’t fit in a workout. I may not make it to Wegmans to buy my gluten free granola in time for breakfast the following day. I have an aching “tennis” left elbow (I’ve only played tennis twice this year), I think from the way I’ve awkwardly and repeatedly been reaching for the seat-belt in the Subaru, where I’ve been spending much of my time. In fact, I’ve been so busy schlepping my girls around to swim team/tennis/water ballet, that I haven’t been able to buy the garden bench and Adirondack chairs I’ve been hoping to find cheap somewhere in Lancaster. In other words, I’ve been so busy sitting on my tush in a car, that I can’t find the time to buy more things to fit my tush into.
As I remove my tongue from my cheek, I tell you I’m lucky to spend all of this summer time with my girls. But I also have access to a metaphorical magnifying glass, and through this lens I see them, in microscopic detail, attempting to meet friends, keep friends, navigate the social landscape. It can be hard to watch at times. School is easier, at least on me.
And of course there’s real world trouble. There’s Donald Trump. Or whatever it is you fear. There are post-mass shooting reactionary gun purchases . . . there are mass shootings, for God’s sake. There’s an Amendment aged out of context, closed minds, lines drawn, this soap box I’d rather not be standing on.
When I see a yellow finch, I think of my mom. She was a bit of a birder–I remember her keeping books and a pair of binoculars on the wicker stool in the kitchen. She died fourteen years ago, on July 13, so this day, this month, has since become a more difficult one for me to traverse. It’s easier, obviously, as accumulating years cushion the fall, but still, this is loss. I see a finch and I get a little something back.
We all have such losses, in one way or another. We’re older: sadness is inevitable and happiness sometimes takes on a more mystical quality. I find I really have to home in on it. When we’re busy like we are, it takes effort to attend to our dreams, to plan vacations, contact old friends, be creative. It takes focus to stop, open my ears and really hear Lexi’s laughter. It is a necessary shift in attention: from my iPhone to Caroline’s request to play Monopoly.
My mom once told me to look up and out. She said when you’re looking down and in, you’re missing things, possibly wallowing, certainly not opening yourself up to new connections, different viewpoints, or brighter perspectives. I hope I’ve made it perfectly clear that in relation to just about anyone, I’m doing fine. I wish the rest of the world had my “problems,” imagine if that were the case.
But no matter who we are, we have days when we need nudging and reminding. My mom used to offer her opinions sitting at our kitchen table, or we’d share time and talk and quiet in her favorite space, the screened-in porch. I miss that space, that time, but here I am in this time, and the sun’s out.
The shadow of the butterfly was big only because the sun’s light was coming down on it in such a way.
If we look up, we may just see something beautiful.
Here is something I wrote back in 2009 about my then neighbor, Krista Ronai:
Krista died on April 21 of this year. I didn’t know her well, but we spent a little time together before she moved to Chicago, not long after she was diagnosed: she introduced me to Cake Batter ice cream, for which I will forever be grateful. She and her husband, Jason, and their baby, Anna, came to our swim club one day, and Krista snapped a photo of my daughter that I have framed in my living room. It was a capture: a two-year-old Lexi dumping a bucket of water on her head, great big grin, droplets everywhere, a still shot that seems to move just the same.
Krista was strikingly pretty: angular face, dark hair, kind eyes. From my outsider’s point-of-view, she was a wondrous example: mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, gentle, kind, strong, faithful, funny. While she knew she would not live a long life, she looked to be doing her very best at living. I am so sorry that she is gone.
Peace, Krista. To you and your family.
When I think of you, I will try harder to live, a simple debt to pay. As often as I can, I will fill the bucket to the brim . . . and then let it fly!
Krista’s Memorial Fund: https://www.youcaring.com/jason-ronai-krista-s-chosen-charities-and-organizations-559375
Holy cow I haven’t written in a while.
I blame winter: my go-to scapegoat, my personal patsy, my fall-guy. Damn season comes around every year–despite my protestations–and doesn’t it just stay for several months?
We didn’t even get entirely dumped on with snow this winter; no crazy ice-storms and subsequent sans-electricity-for-a-week tumult; no need for a generator or trip to Bali. My family got outside, did some sledding, survived the bus-stop mornings with nary a complaint from the girls. I’m the only winter whiner, and I really do try to keep it on the down-low, but winter is a drag for me, especially as it drags on after the holidays. My college friend Jen used to say February was her least favorite month–not only the dark and the freeze, but the misery, as a young, single person, of enduring a month that also gives us Valentines Day and the Sports Illustrated swim suit issue. No disrespect to TS Eliot, but February can be cruel. I like my April.
April is Easter hope and residual March Madness (Go Cats!). April is oodles of color–the eye-smacking yellow at every turn: buttercups, daffodils, forsythia. The pink and white of cherry blossoms and magnolias, hanging roadside like soft chandeliers. The red buds on our front yard Japanese maple and peony: signs of living everywhere.
It’s not that I haven’t lived this winter. But it sometimes feels as if I haven’t moved after a winter has come and finally gone. Even if I hit the gym regularly or go out for crisp walks, I can’t help but feel sedentary, stiff, uninspired.
Over Spring Break we went with friends to the Franklin Institute to see, among many other things, the Pixar Exhibit, which I loved. My favorites were the informational kiosks entitled “Working at Pixar” scattered throughout the two floors. You’d press a button and learn about the woman who’s job it was to add movement to Joy’s dress in Inside Out; press another button and see the guy who made and explains the physics behind the red of Lightning McQueen and the brown, muted rust of Mater.
Press another button and there’s this smart gentleman who developed and is attempting to describe the rendering equation. Let’s see if I got this right: a similar method, called the Monte Carlo, which simulated how atomic particles get scattered inside a bomb, was originally developed for the hydrogen bomb project. But our kind, smart friend at Pixar used his theory for how light is scattered to create awesome-looking, happiness-inducing movies. How’d I do? And how ’bout our kind, smart friend?
So we left the Pixar Exhibit and went to the Brain Exhibit where I couldn’t get over this visual of the brain of a three-year old–neurons connecting like crazy because of all of the new things this child is learning. Next to that was a visual of the brain of a twenty year old, and there were shockingly far fewer lines, A LOT more white area. What? I get that the twenty year old’s already learned to walk and talk, so she isn’t experiencing substantial newness, but dear God, she’s only twenty?! If she’s got that much space, imagine the oceans of white in my brain. Do I have any neurons left? And if so, can they find each other?
Dave and I had planned a day-trip with the girls to New York City for the following day. The recent Brussels’s bombings got me worrying that maybe we shouldn’t go. To think, now, it’s a roll of dice just to hop on a commuter train from Trenton. It kept me up a lot of the night.
But we went, and standing in line for cheap Broadway tickets, we serendipitously ran into my sister-in-law and two of my nieces. They’d chosen just that day to also drive from Philly to Trenton, take the train in, and see a show. We spent the entire day with them: Ellen’s Stardust Cafe, where our waiter, Dave, sang a beautiful “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables. Rockefeller Center for a short spell before going to see Finding Neverland, which was magical and made me cry. We hit the three-story M & M store, then we all walked to and through a tiny chunk of Central Park. Caroline noticed, “Mommy, there are people kissing everywhere (icky face)” but there were also people rock climbing, children swinging, big dudes doing aerial flips over a circle drawn in dirt. All that activity made us hungry, so we of course grabbed NY slices at a pizza joint, then stopped into the Marriott Marquis for Shirley Temples before heading back to Penn Station.
Cousins nibbled on M&M’s and giggled with cousins the entire train ride back: lips chapped from the grinning, eyes puffed with exhaustion. I hadn’t seen my girls that happy for that many consecutive hours . . . I don’t think ever.
“Nothing happens until something moves.” Einstein. I saw this quotation on a wall entering Sir Isaac’s Loft at the Franklin Institute. My friend Ashley saw it as well, separately, but brought it up to me while we were watching our kids running around in this playground of chain reactions, pulleys, and prisms: Lexi lifting her own body weight; the other kids transfixed by the gigantic kinetic sculpture, watching balls travel along tracks. So this is how energy transfers.
Nothing happens until something moves. It’s a simple statement that spoke to both of us, probably for different reasons. We didn’t get into it, really. We just acknowledged its truth.
For me, it’s time to get moving and keep the balls rolling throughout next winter, too, because God-willing, it will come again. We can’t let darkness or fear immobilize us. We have to ride the train. Go somewhere. Keep learning, keep writing and creating. Strive for kind and smart. Energy will transfer and neurons will connect. At any age. In any and every one of life’s seasons.
It’s late. The girls are asleep. I hear the chime of my husband’s phone texting, its fairy wand ring-tone signaling Fantasy Football smack-talk or point updates about the week’s match-ups. Poor Caroline got a stomach bug just hours after Christmas, so we’ve been home-bound all the next day. I’m feeling every bit of every meal, cookie, and drink I’ve consumed in the last three weeks. Yet I cannot stop eating the treats dropped off by neighbors, the leftovers, the pecan cookies the girls and I made, the ones we doused in powdered sugar. (Today I didn’t even bother with a plate–I stood over the tin, pig over trough, sugar exploding, no thought of a napkin.)
It’s been raining for days. Tonight was the third time this week I had to run out in a good pour to unplug the flood-light highlighting our browned Christmas wreath, because the one time I failed to do this, all of our lights fizzed out in an apocalyptic shower of darkness.
This is just to say, it flattens me, every year, how epic is the lead up to Christmas, and how quickly is the return to the ordinary: Fantasy Football, stomach bugs, the need to wear pants with elastic at the waist, the rain.
It strikes me that as a parent, I have higher expectations for Christmas Day than I ever had as a child. The lead-up is an immense logistical operation. All you have to do as a kid is anticipate. As an adult, you’re party-planning, list-making, budgeting and bargain-shopping, playing out scenarios (will X be upset if she doesn’t get Y but Z gets Q?).
And there’s this added component of social media–one person posts on Facebook that she’s always finished her shopping by December 1 so she and her family can slow down and appreciate the real magic of the holiday season. Another person posts on Instagram how many cookies she’s made, how artfully she’s decorated her home. On the day itself, I log in to see sharp-dressed families, smiling children in Santa hats, a sparkling tree or even blue, sparkling water backdrops with friends in the foreground, posing in bathing suits and somehow tanned, toned bodies.
Such a strange, voyeuristic position I find myself in–witness to other people’s celebrations and traditions. Wonderful, I guess, but also distracting and potentially disheartening. I successfully navigate the holiday maze, without too much stress and worry, but with all of the technological TMI surrounding me, I sometimes find myself questioning the traditions my family and I are living-out: Are we doing enough? How will my children remember this time?
When I was a kid, the traditions seemed to have come pre-established. I can’t remember a Christmas Eve when Dad did not read the story of the birth of Jesus. We’d sit in the living room, listening to his deep voice, watching his big Irish eyes visit the book then slowly scan the room; we’d gaze at the familiar, painted drawings of Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. In the background rang the “angel candle” that we’d light once a year: four thin, brass, angels chiming, turning round and round from the heat of the four candles burning beneath them. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding until the story was finished.
It used to be called Midnight Mass, and that’s the time we used to go. The magic of being up so late–the sheer exhaustion, being cold to my bones on the drive home, shivering, probably in the front seat of the station wagon and probably not strapped into a seatbelt, leaning into my mom for warmth. Waking up in the morning, desperate for my older siblings to also be awake. That pile of presents under and around the tree–how did it all get there?–but we opened stockings first. Then we ate breakfast (halves of grapefruits, sausages, donuts from the Farmers Market) and THEN, finally, we saw to that pile of presents under the tree.
The lead-up to Christmas, too, was distinctive, especially baking particular cookies, and most especially listening to certain music as we decorated the tree, which we all would do together. Luciano Pavarotti’s Christmas Favorites with the Vienna boys’ choir: “Oh Holy Night” and “Panis Angelicus” thundering from turntable speakers. The tree wasn’t finished until my brother Matt hung the 7 1/2-pound clay turtle-dinosaur ornament that he made in grade school.
This Christmas, Caroline was sad because the white turtleneck sweater I gave her was short at the waist. Lexi was sad because Caroline got a whiteboard and she didn’t. With many, many, yet-unwrapped presents still available for Lexi’s attention, she moped a bit, got a little quiet. That’s when I started to get a little cranky. I held back the mean Mom look, and she soon moved on: genuinely smiling as she opened the Gel Pen Kit, the Magic Eight-Ball, the books about Ranger, the time-traveling golden retriever.
With Pop-Pop’s money, Dave and I bought the girls a colorful rug for the basement: they’ve been playing “school” lately, and we thought this would be a great way to spruce up the area. It wasn’t even late morning when the bickering proved to be too much. Caroline refused to share rug space with Lexi, so she held her rug-ground while Lexi took her plastic bin full of new gel pens and name tags and relocated her own classroom upstairs.
On our Christmas morning, “Miss “Regan” stubbornly lesson-planned upstairs while “Miss Patterson” inconsolably cried downstairs.
After having gotten considerably less sleep than my children did on Christmas Eve, I did not have the patience baby Jesus would have appreciated. So in trying to teach Caroline about perspective, I shuffled myself down the basement steps holding her Santa present–a light-up globe. I plugged the earth into an outlet encased in concrete. I flipped on the light and the whole world shone before her. I gave it a spin, pointing to anywhere but Devon, Pennsylvania, saying, you just received more in a morning than most children in the world receive in their entire lives. Then I shuffled myself back upstairs.
While this felt like a teaching moment that would have worked in a situation comedy or an after-school special, Caroline and I both found this to be an ineffective teaching moment in real-life. She continued to sob until she stopped. I showered and pretended like it never happened, in the way of my Irish ancestors, because we had to get to Grandma and Grandpa Lenehans to open more presents.
We had a great holiday with family. After mass on Christmas Eve, my sister-in-law hosted a dinner, which she has always done (tradition). We Yankee-Swapped presents (wine glasses, again). Dad read to all of his grandkids and then gave all of his “ladies” (my sister, my sister-in-laws, and me) our own little boxes from Farnan’s Jewelers (tradition…glorious tradition!).
On Christmas Day at Grandma and Grandpa Lenehans, we opened gifts while drinking these absinthe concoctions, new to me when I married Dave (deliriously good Lenehan-Family tradition). And for dinner we had beef, Yorkshire pudding (tradition I love) and tomato aspic (tradition I attempted to like when I was new to the family, but at this point, there’s just no pretending, I can’t get my head around the aspic, it’s awful). More cousin time. Lots of laughter.
Traditions. They are here. And they are also evolving. My kids will remember places we go, things we do, and probably, how my girls remember their childhood Christmases will not be exactly as I am attempting to craft their childhood Christmases.
We tried something new this year: an Advent Calendar of good deeds and family activities. In theory, this is an appropriate season for slowing down, being kind to others, focusing on family. But school still takes up a chunk of each day in December. Then there’s homework, and basketball practice, and piano lessons, and dinner prep, and birthday parties, and the hours and days in this advent season filled up.
As the kids sleep, I hover a bit in the area of self-evaluation, rating my Christmas Season Mom Performance (CSMP?): Not only did I get frustrated with my kids on Christmas morning, but we also didn’t complete every day’s Advent assignments. We didn’t make the sugar cookies. No trip to Longwood Gardens.
But I linger there for only a little while.
Because I remember the cookies we did make together, the time with the family decorating the tree, introducing the girls to Grandma Regan’s Luciano Pavarotti. I remember backstage at the Nutcracker, thanks to Aunt Anne–the girls dressed in their Grandma Lenehan-made red dresses, sitting in the box seats at the Academy of Music. I think about decorating our shed with big, colored lights, then walking around the neighborhood, only our second Christmas here, seeing how the neighbors we are still getting to know have decorated their homes.
And I situate myself into the comfortable place of calm and relief.
There’s still time. Time to give away coats that are too small, to repackage unused toys, to candy-cane-bomb a parking lot, to bake cookies and bring them to the firehouse. There’s still time to be kind, to do right, to be together. There’s time to tackle the 1000-piece puzzle, to turn the lights down low, light a candle, and sing.
Yes, this Christmas Day has come and gone. But there are more days–how’s that for a miracle.
And this night, silent but for the occasional trill of a cell phone, this night, too, is holy.
I was just doing something ridiculous. Actually, at present, I still am because I’m sitting upright in an uncomfortable chair, in my daughters’ room, waiting for my oldest to fall asleep. I’ve made her a promise that I’ll stay because these nights, she just feels better when I’m there. I don’t mind. I usually read, or jot down some to-do’s for the next day, or in the case of tonight, I try to figure out what the hell I can do to change the world.
That’s the ridiculous part: I actually just Googled “How Can I Change The World” because I’m tired of living passively in this one, specifically in this area of the world, where people are killing people with guns. Every day.
I care very little about politics and shame on me for admitting it, shame on me for not being more connected. But I lived in the DC area for a long time and tired of the back and forth, the jargon, the same old story. I call myself a “democrat” but what I am is an educator, someone who has taught a lot of kids in a variety of classrooms. I like kids: kids in Fort Green, Brooklyn, kids in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, kids in McLean, Virginia, in Annapolis, Maryland, in LA and DC. I can say with assurance that there have been incredible students in every school I’ve ever taught–bright, funny, poetic, emotional, loving, curious, driven, hopeful, the list goes on. I’ve taught in both private and public schools. Politics aside, EVERYTHING aside: color of skin, socio-economics, religion, race, sexual orientation, age, ethics, upbringing, your God, my God, what does it matter.
What matters–every single child.
I’m a fairly laid-back mother, I think. I worry about the usual stuff: my daughters making friends, doing well in school, feeling confident. I worry about money, about keeping my family healthy. We went to see The Good Dinosaur on Saturday, and I wondered what I would do if a gunman entered the theater. Would I shove the girls under the seats and cover them? Would I rush at the shooter?
You know, the same worries my mother had for me, and her mother for her.
I was raised in a middle-to-upper class family, in a quaint town; I went through a great public school system. No doubt I’m writing this from a position of privilege, so I’m sure my perspective is somehow flawed and misguided. Probably naive. Or entitled. Or something, but the irony is, from this upright seat in this darkened room, with two beautiful girls breathing peacefully in front of me, I feel powerless.
Perhaps I’m missing something–perhaps a different perspective would help me understand our inaction here in America. I’m sure someone from the NRA can sit me down and explain to me why we here in America cannot keep each other safe from gun violence. Perhaps a politician can explain to me why she is more concerned about shutting down the opposing party than she is about getting ahold of the gun laws.
Politicians have to change gun laws because citizens have to be as safe as possible. This is a priority. A no-brainer. National security. This disregard for human life: children murdered at school. A mother dead today instead of Christmas shopping. A father just gone.
“Was it indiscriminate rage?” “Radicalism?” We figure it out–we identify the killers and the reasons why. We bury the dead. And then it happens again.
I understand that this has been happening for a long time. I taught in areas of the country where the children were primarily Black and Latino, where guns were killing primarily Black and Latino people. Tragedy is tragedy–when I take the time to process an incident, when I imagine a family torn apart, it devastates me.
But all the more devastating is when a story hits the news and I am numb to it.
I understand the guns aren’t doing the killing, that people are. But I cannot understand why we in America make weapons so easily accessible while we so sparingly provide our children with decent educations in comfortable schools. An education can open up a person’s mind; a real chance can stop a person from picking up a gun in the first place.
We love our children. We want for them what is best. Any parent I’ve ever met feels this way. We want to protect our sons and our daughters–each one of us does. A dad approaches a coach on the sideline; a mom stays up at night reviewing math problems; a dad checks for the bike helmet; a mom studies ingredients on food labels; a grandmother takes over when a mother has to work two jobs. We have epi-pens and car-seats and driver’s permits and water filters and dentists and doctors and braces and glasses and swimming lessons and classrooms upon classrooms upon classrooms.
We make promises: that we will be there at night when they have trouble sleeping.
Why can’t we assure our children of this–that we will work together to make their world as safe as possible. That we will do all that we can do.
And why can’t we then just do it?
My daughters, Caroline and Lexi, sat on either side of me, in-hand their homemade “We Love JT!” posters, rolled but otherwise ready to wave during the encore. The surrounding crowd was settling in, and there he was, nine rows directly ahead of us on stage at Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He opened with “Wandering,” which happened to be exactly what my mind was doing at the time.
WHAT CAN I POSSIBLY SAY TO HIM? Your music has meant so much to me through the years . . . I’m your biggest fan (everyone he meets is his biggest fan) . . . I sing and write songs and . . .
You’d think it would have been easy just to kick back and enjoy a James Taylor concert, but it was hard to kick the nerves, that niggling feeling that I was about to be called on in front of the whole class and not know the answer.
I must have looked like I felt because at one point, my sister-in-law, Anne, tapped me on the shoulder from two seats over, trying to calm me down: “Don’t worry!” she laughed. “It’s a handshake and a photo-opp—you’ll be fine!”
I had been to many of his concerts before: the first, my very first of any concert, at Villanova University, and, I don’t know, maybe ten more shows before that July evening. I would see him play regularly at the Mann Music Center and Wolf Trap; I saw him in Charlottesville, Telluride, in his Berkshires. I’d been in the sweet seats—first row, even—and I’d sat way back on the grass, hardly catching a glimpse except on the big screen, just taking it all in: the latest songs, the classics, the blanket and the bucket-of-beer, the occasional audience member screaming, “I love you, James!”
A JT concert is more than just James and his guitar (though, I do love just James and his guitar). He tells stories, fills us in about when and where he wrote particular songs (“Mexico” in a bathroom that had great acoustics; “Sweet Baby James” on the road to meet his nephew). He’s funny and smart and humble, always giving deserving credit to the wonder band he assembles around him. I remember Don Grolnick playing beautifully on the piano. At every show, I’ve loved the fun of the horn section, the blend of the vocalists, who’ve been with James forever. Arnold McCuller took the vocal reins at the end of “Shower the People”—I think it was at Merriweather Post—and it started to rain; he’s that good.
In the studio, too, James keeps impressive company. Read any album’s little liner notes and you’ll read big names: David Grisman, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, Art Garfunkel, Yo Yo Ma, Sting, etc. I wonder sometimes about the collaboration process: did James actually suggest something to Joni Mitchell, like, “Do that ethereal thing,” before she banged out stunning vocals for “Long Ago and Far Away”? I imagine you just let Branford Marsalis go. Does one edit Carole King as she unloads signature, brilliant piano track after piano track all over the album Mudslide Slim? Whatever the process, James Taylor is no dummy about surrounding himself with artists.
My older sister, Paula, introduced me to his music. Our family was road-tripping from Philadelphia to visit our grandma in Chicago, and Paula had squirreled herself away as best she could in the back seat of our station wagon, crammed between three siblings, listening on headphones through a tape recorder to a cassette of JT. I can see the black and white close-up of his face, which may have been the draw (at even an early age, I knew good looks); for whatever reason, Paula let me listen. “Smiling Face” and “Handy Man” were easy hooks, and like everyone else in 1977, I sang along. But a couple of years later, when I hit the age of insecurity, adolescence, when we turn to something to get us through, I took music, especially James Taylor’s music, and I ran.
I became a bit of a JT snob. Not only did I sprint to purchase each album, like Flag and Dad Loves His Work from the late 70’s on, but I went back to the older stuff: Walking Man, Gorilla, In the Pocket. My brother Dan and I would joke that while normal fans yell out for Greatest Hits during the encore, we could scream for “One Morning in May” or some other more obscure song, one that only crazed fans would know.
I never do yell out for anything, by the way, but I always take note of the less popular songs he’s playing, sing along to every word, and then call my siblings after the show to report the set list.
As will happen, life got a different kind of busy when I grew older and when I had children, but as my husband, two daughters, and I were settling into our new home after a move from Maryland to Pennsylvania, I made taking my girls to a James Taylor concert a priority. Lexi and Caroline, at ages 7 and 9, had not yet been to anyone’s concert. Taylor Swift, yes, they love her, but JT is the foundation: he had to be their introduction. I wanted for them the classic summertime show.
Facebook allows me to think that I am “friends” with James Taylor, so when I got notice from the fan page about his tour, I logged on to get information about the pre-public sales. The day came to purchase; I sat at the computer on a Tuesday at 10:00 a.m., discovered how expensive the tickets were, that the closest he was playing was an hour away in Atlantic City or Hershey, let go a grumpy sigh and gave up. Before exiting the site, however, I noticed a spot to “Email James” and I shot out a mini-cyber-complaint, writing simply that I was disappointed and wondered what had happened to the big venue, affordable JT experience. I’d like to emphasize how uncharacteristic this was (I’m more of a stewer) and also ironic, as I was being the squeaky wheel James sings about. I let it fly and that was it. I knew I’d never hear back from anyone.
I heard back that day. His assistant took the time to explain that because his album was released later than expected, they’d had conflicts scheduling the usual “shed” venues, but that he played those arenas last year and would certainly do so again. I was more than satisfied. What a cool exchange: I had received an email from JT’s assistant!
Her email the following day, was just a smidgeon cooler: “James would like to offer you four tickets to the Hershey Show.”
Now, Reader, please don’t go troubling James for tickets. Since I’ve had time to reflect, the only reasonable explanation as to my good fortune is Karma. Mystic powers were at play. Somehow his assistant knew.
What she did not know is that I’ve actually never really wanted to meet James Taylor. The dream has always been to sing back-up harmony to his song “Millworker.” (There is no harmony track on his record, but what I add when singing in the car or at home, while dusting the living room, is excellent.) Yes, if I shared a stage with him, I’d likely have to meet him, but we’d be singing, so I wouldn’t actually have to talk to him.
Which takes us back to the start of all this. Not only did I get four tickets, but when we arrived at the Box Office, the lady behind the window looked at me funny, informing me that the reason she couldn’t initially find my tickets was because I was “with the band.” She handed me an envelope that had more in it that just four flat tickets: it had depth, some padding. I felt flushed and a rush of nausea as I pulled out four backstage passes. I said aloud to no one, “What am I going to say to him?”
My nine year old rubbed my back and said, “Mom, I got this.”
Unreal to me, still, is that after the show, we were led down a hallway to James Taylor’s dressing room. We were not amidst a crowd of people clamoring for a photo. Instead, we shared the room with a little girl and her parents.
I’d noticed this little girl sitting near us during the concert. She looked to be about the age of my daughters, same size and spunk, but no ponytails or soccer ribbons; she was bald, I imagined because of the effects of cancer treatment. Throughout the show I would see her cuddled and smiling and singing with her parents, who looked to be about my age.
The only other person in the dressing room was James Taylor. He gave us probably fifteen minutes of his time, nearing midnight, after he’d played over two hours and given up his intermission to sign autographs on stage.
What I said to James Taylor, and what, in retrospect, I may have wanted to say to him, did not necessarily coincide. It’s blurry, now. He asked me how I knew his assistant, which caught me off-guard because I don’t know his assistant, so at the start, I had to explain to my idol that though I am not a complainer, I complained. I fumbled around trying to find my good self, while my two big-eyed daughters stood looking cute and deliriously tired.
And there in the corner of the room, another mom smiled. And another daughter leaned, cushioned and nearly asleep, in her father’s arms. I felt heavy-hearted but also acutely aware that this was a moment for my family, as well.
James told Caroline and Lexi that he saw from the stage the hand-drawn posters they’d held up at the end of the show. “I never know how I connect with the audience, but seeing those made me happy up there. Why don’t you let me sign them?” And he did, with a sharpie that he took a while to locate.
As he looked for his pen, I managed to tell him about my siblings and me–how we exchange phone calls after his concerts, how we listen for the hits not necessarily considered his “greatest.” Anne asked him which of his songs he felt were those songs that night—“Well,” he said, “I haven’t played ‘I Will Follow’ in a long time.”
“And ‘Me and My Guitar’—I’ve never heard you play that,” I added, as if I were having a casual conversation with a regular person. We chatted about his assistant’s potential plan to have fans list their favorite songs. I thought then about machine-gun listing my favorites. But I also thought, this man, this lyrical magician, this songwriting icon, who loses pens, wears a baseball hat, says “y’all,” and strategizes with his assistant about connecting on social media. He may just be a regular person. And he may be just as tired as the rest of us.
He handed my girls their respective autographed posters. We gathered for a photo. He shook our hands, and before we walked out, James Taylor thanked my daughters for making his concert their first.
WHAT CAN I POSSIBLY SAY TO HIM?
It’s funny how much that mattered to me. I wanted him to like me. I wanted to make an impression.
I could have asked James Taylor about his writing process, his musical influences. I could have broken into “Millworker” there on the spot (that would have made an impression). My daughters were interested in his children, their ages and hobbies. My sister-in-law wished she’d mentioned that she had eaten at his brother’s restaurant in Martha’s Vineyard. But after all of the post-game “we should have said” analysis, we couldn’t color the time with too much regret. This was a gift, after all, a shared experience, a story we will always tell.
And though the conversation has already begun to take on different shapes and shades, the songs are still right here.
We like a song because we can sing it, because it tells a story, it evokes a memory. Because of the lyrics, the melody, for its tempo, the way it moves us, the way it allows us to be still. We put a song away for years, and like a book, we pick it up again and experience it differently. Or, we experience it exactly as we did when we were younger, and that is why we like a song.
We like a song for its humor, the tip-tat of its hi-hat, its soaring violins, its blues influence, its spiritual quality, the easy way it lets us harmonize, where it takes us or what it takes us from.
I won’t tell you JT has written a bad song: I’m a horrible critic and can’t be trusted. But, in a recent Rolling Stone article, JT presented “My Life in Fifteen Songs.” I figure, if he can narrow down to some of the most significant, so can I.
James Taylor has covered two songs in particular that bring to mind great memories. The first: I sang “How Sweet it Is” at my friend Rachel’s wedding to a spirited audience and an appreciative bride-and-groom. It was a blast of carefree and happy, at what happened to be a sad time in my life. The second: on a trip to Ireland, during a song swap at a friend’s family reunion, two brothers together—each in his 80’s—had valiantly attempted “Danny Boy.” They’d taken some time to reach that infamous high note, but they got there, sort of, and after a lot of laughter, it was time for the “yanks” to sing. I went with “You’ve Got a Friend,” and everyone in the room knew the words.
Covers aside, here’s an attempt at my own list. Fifteen of my favorite James Taylor songs (the list may change tomorrow):
- “Millworker”: with or without harmony, it’s a beauty.
- “Blossom”: the first song of his I learned to play on the piano. Yearbook quote as a high school senior. That song.
- “Love has Brought Me Around”: the traveling bass, the energy, the message.
- “Don’t Be Sad Cause Your Sun is Down”: Stevie Wonder harmonica greatness, but besides that, one solid, feel-good tune.
- “Fading Away”: I sometimes wake up singing it, even if I haven’t heard it in years.
- “Nobody But You”: favorite line is “What you gonna do with folks like that?” as it applies, well, to everything.
- “I Will Follow”: his self-described love anthem. Yes indeed.
- “Up on the Roof” (Ok, one cover): I know he didn’t write it, but he sure did sing it. And at age 11, so did I, loudly and often.
- “Don’t Let me be Lonely”: I learned the opening measures on the piano and felt like a goddess. This. Is. A. Great. Song.
- “Only for Me”: the story he tells.
- “Another Day”: two minutes and 19 seconds. It’s hope. The way it builds and builds then hits the title lyric and is gone, just like a day.
- “Like Everyone She Knows”: familiar JT guitar riffs to start, and one of his only songs I felt could have been written about me.
- I listened to the album October Road during the summer my mom was dying. I would wake each morning to the gentle piano of “Caroline I See You.” (I remember that summer being at my parents’ home, dancing in the kitchen to “Whenever You’re Ready,” wondering how I could be dancing, but so grateful that I was.)
- “You Can Close Your Eyes”: through the years, I’ve sung this at bedtime to my girls,
- and “You and I Again,” we now all sing together.
To process heartache and loss, or big-big love, or any of the emotions that may otherwise choke us if we cannot somehow voice a response—sometimes there’s just no explaining or reacting, but on a different, higher, artistic level. Paint a picture. Take a photo. Ski a slope.
I imagine I would have found songwriting—or writing would have found me—without James Taylor, but there’s no denying his influence. I’m grateful, maybe most of all, for the accessibility of his music because eventually I began to make my own way through my own writing. His was an invitation—be an artist, be a human, sing, play, write it down. And though, initially, you may be writing for only you, perhaps if you share what you’ve created, you will touch the lives of some other folks along the way.
I wish I would have thanked him.
Maybe I did.
IF YOU’VE MADE IT THROUGH THIS PIECE, THEN SURELY YOU HAVE TIME TO CONSIDER MAKING A DONATION TO ALEX’S LEMONADE STAND FOUNDATION: http://www.alexslemonade.org/
Help make a difference for children with cancer.
It was May 31st; I was just back from a two-night Girl Scout camping trip, sleep-deprived and saturated in fats. It was time to unload the car then shower off the bug spray, the sunblock, the sugary scent of melted marshmallows, the itch of tall grass, the squeak of water balloons, the dried sweat, and the repetitive ring of campfire songs.
I couldn’t have felt more out of shape. It’d been almost a year of gym-sampling; new to the area, I’d taken advantage of five-day-passes and free classes up and down the Main Line, but the jig was up, and frankly, all of this non-committing hadn’t loosened my shorts any.
I had signed up for the Summer Shred Challenge–a program offered by a local studio, Purenergy. I would take 20 classes in 21 days. The program offered discounted rates and a Facebook Group page, a nice, low-key vehicle for nutritional tips, recipes, commiserating and cheering on. It was time. I was ready. The Shredding would start the following day.
Nothing was going to stop me.
Then my dad broke his fibula. I made it to my first yoga class in the morning and took him to the orthopedic doctor in the afternoon. He was casted and told that he could not put any weight on his leg, that he would need plenty of rest. It would be difficult for him to navigate the stairs in his home, so after some deliberation, my dad agreed to move in with us for a while. We set him up downstairs in the guest room, across from his own bathroom, just a wheelchair spin down the hallway to our dining room.
Caroline said we were eating better now that Pop-Pop was living with us.
Dad was an easy house-mate. There were times when things got a little clubby (my husband works from home), when there were groceries to be bought or there was laundry to be folded. There were moments when I just couldn’t leave. I had responsibilities. There was too much to do. So with gentle voice and tender, daughterly care, I’d dutifully put cereal and fresh blueberries in a bowl for my Dad and say, “I gotta go Shred.”
Nothing was going to stop me.
Not even a particularly intense Bootcamp class with Brenda. I had just manipulated my body down in push-up position when I noticed that everyone else around me was already up jumping jacks. I repeatedly tossed a bulky medicine ball skyward praying I’d catch it with my hands not my forehead.
It all went surprisingly well, until afterwards, when I checked my phone. The text from my husband read: “made 11:30 appt. think I have a hernia.”
And he did. Surgery scheduled in a few-week’s time because his doctor was heading to China for vacation. Dave crouched around holding his stomach a lot, functioning at about 64%, talking about intestines. It was okay. We made it to bbq’s and block parties.
Thing is, Dave is one of those husbands who actually does stuff around the house. He often cleans the dishes; he takes out the trash and recycling. He’s the one who keeps the lawn trimmed. And well, when Fun Dad isn’t feeling so fun, it isn’t all that much fun for his two daughters, but I could be fun, too!? I could pick up 36% familial obligation and still make it to the gym, right? Sure, the kitchen floor wasn’t sweeping itself, but a girl’s gotta do what a girls’s gotta do: so, I continued to Shred.
I was unstoppable, trying all sorts of new classes. Zone-boxing I loved: at one point I was doing sit ups with my ankles wrapped around the punching bag feeling every bit of a female raw-eggs-in-a-blender Rocky. I was rowing, aligning, working tris and bis and thighs. With the help of a skateboard, I found myself in a movable plank in Body Shred. Regina in Power Yoga used the terms wringing and rinsing: I liked it. I was that hot, twisted towel, purging myself of toxins and all thoughts negative. Vinyasa with Lisa. Yin stillness with Dawn.
Vicky was suspiciously good-humored as she taught spin class, smilingly doubling my biking miles. She was entirely too happy to be a convincingly hard-core instructor until she convincingly set my abdomens on fire in her Mad Abs post-spin segment.
I’d check the Purenergy schedule the night before like it was my job then sign in electronically for the class d’jour. I was eating better. Feeling better. I was 16 classes in, two days behind, and there were four days left, so I took two classes in one day. Downward dog and flippin’ it. Tabata-notta-problem. I opted to rush out of there, rather than further stretch, because I had a picnic to attend at my girls’ school.
Nothing was going to stop me.
Until later that day, I took the girls to swim practice, sat and chatted with my new friend Ashley about living-room paint colors and bedside sconces, then after an hour, I couldn’t get out of my chair. A fierce pain shot down my back, so fierce, in fact, that I thought I might vomit right there on my new friend Ashley.
In that moment, I understood with other-worldly clarity how important it is to take enough time to stretch post-exercise.
At the start, all I could do comfortably was stand. Putting pants on was a bit of a challenge, but the rest of the day, I was okay, as long as I stood the whole time. Dave and I shuffled around like two Fred Sanfords–he, holding his front, and I, holding my back. On Father’s Day, at a family gathering, I told my brother that I finished the Shred, two-classes shy of the goal. Ever the support, he said, “So you failed.”
As I sit in the hospital, waiting for Dave to recover, I manage to cross my legs and see that the polish on my toes is fading. I know with confidence that I will soon be able to reach down to spruce up the color.
Dad, Dave and I, everyone here, trying our best, living the lives we’ve been given.
Things break and bust and wrench and bend, but a lot of times, things get better. Something is bound to stop us. But, with luck, with time, with work, with whatever it takes, we start again.
I’ve still yet to try Purenergy’s Aerial Yoga–they even offer a family class. It’ll happen. Soon, we’re all gonna fly.
Even though the chippering birds have been waking me up early in the morning, I have my windows open; screens are in place, keeping out bugs but letting in the sounds and slight breezes of spring. Last week I woke in the middle of the night, air was whooshing into the bedroom–the surrounding trees playing catch with wind, their young leaves anxious to get a move-on, to show their stuff.
We moved here in August, so this is still our first go-around. Summer was a blur; fall felt crisply short and strange; winter was as it always is for me–a slog and then a wonder that we all made it through.
Spring continues to prove itself my favorite season, and I’ve so enjoyed the awakening here in this house. It’s still an introduction (Oh, so the peony by the front porch is pink! ). Much is popping up: hostas in back, lemonade stands in front. My head is clearing as neighbors become friends, as weekend schedules fill.
I’ve always had this uncanny ability to meet excellent people. I buzz towards good folk like a fly to sticky paper, and I don’t even have to try that hard. It’s part genetic: my parents attract clever and funny friends. It must be a big part Irish luck. I have this collection of All-Stars I can call or text or write, and on-demand, they make me laugh, ease my mind, whatever the call is for.
So it hasn’t really surprised me that I’ve been both salsa dancing and rock climbing recently. New friends celebrated birthdays with style, and I have benefitted. Pre-school teacher by day/Salsa master by evening (his name may have been Marco?), the instructor came to Tracie’s house, having just taught a group of nuns the night before. He lined us up and showed us the steps: 1 2 3 5 6 7. We paused on 4 and 8, saying the numbers in our head.
As for rock climbing, our guy Chris explained the basics with patience and humor: the figure 8 knot, the importance of the belay–providing slack and braking–the need for communication. The climber must tell her belay that she’s ready to climb and belayer needs to make it clear she’s heard and she is ready–Climb On. By the end of an hour lesson, chalky-pointy shoes stepped (in my case, hesitantly) up a wall, with thin, piano-fingers leading the way.
My mom used to have an expression, “You can hang by your toes for that long,” which would come into play when I was uncertain about something–some event I was dreading, maybe an oral report or a weekend away. It was obviously not true that I could hang by toes or fingertips for any extended period of time, but inevitable survival was her point.
I think of it now not only because of my stint as rock climber, but after surviving, almost, a year in a new house. Hell, surviving the months before the move: selling a home, finding another, saying “goodbye” to wonderful friends, transitioning two little girls. Getting through, one season at a time and arriving here, at Spring. I can’t say I’ve come out unscathed or completely in tact (neither have the girls or Dave), but if my mom were to have said I could hang by my toes throughout this process, I would have flat-out denied it.
She would have been right, though. I did feel like I was teetering and slipping through this year and last. The unknown pulled at my confidence, this worry, oftentimes subconscious and deeply hidden, that I was possibly harming my children. That somehow this was not all going to work out.
These insecurities and emotions are common–they don’t go away–but happily, now, spring has brought steps that I can follow, pauses, time to say the numbers in my head, slack so I can move but assurance of a strong hold.
Everyone told me that it would take a year, that I’d need to go through each season. The girls will go back to school in the fall, and the place will truly be theirs. Our house will become our home as we match paint colors to rooms, discover where we’re spending the most time, choose fabric and just the right spot for a refurbished chair.
I’ve been keeping watch on what’s growing in our yard, where the sun hits the longest, where the deer like to feed. I have planted forget-me-nots, feather reed grass, salvia and Queen Anne’s lace, golden yarrow and angel blush.
I get down on my knees in the dirt and distraction dissolves into the task at hand: this bleeding heart, it needs a space, a place to settle in. I dig the hole, scatter fresh soil, then pat, pat, pat.
What is grounding me, what is my comfort, my belay, is that I get to be here, rebuilding a routine. In this garden: the watering, the watching for blooms, the removing heads, the tending, the fading and the blooming again. What is grounding me is the miraculous, that which appears next: the fuller flowers, the density, the depth and height. It all becomes much more than what was there was before.