Ba De Ya, Dancing in September

 

IMG_6223I love going for walks on the winding, hilly streets of my new neighborhood.  The people I’ve met since we’ve moved, just one month ago, have been incredibly welcoming, and so familiar, perhaps because it’s a homecoming for me: I’ve moved one town over from my hometown.  The lady in my first Bikram Yoga class who promised to call the ambulance for me in case I disintegrated; the woman from down the street who dropped off a box of cookies from a local bakery and a much-needed bottle of wine—I guess I’m old enough, now, to recognize the friendly faces, to pay attention to the eyes that are open and kind.

We’ve made a date with my Dad, Pop-Pop: open invitation for dinner every Wednesday night.  That feels good.  He’s cooked up countless amounts of eggs and bacon for me through the years, and now I can return the favor.  How great is it that my father can stop-by when he wants to, that he can regularly look over his glasses across the dinner table at my daughters like he used to do with me, that he can take a post-meal nap (still at the table) while we clean up.

My girls are playing soccer—Lexi scored a goal in Game #2 and is now sleeping with her soccer ball.  Same kind of kids here as in Annapolis—they name their teams the “Lightning Cheetahs” and the “Neon Tigers,” just like they do in Maryland.  The transition has seemed a little more seamless for Lexi, my first grader.  Caroline, in third grade, wrote in her journal about how she misses her Annapolis buddies, how she wishes that someone in her new school knew her well enough to call her by a nickname.  She was “Care” to Gianna.  She felt at ease with Alice.  She and Owen have been friends all of their lives.  She wonders if she will ever feel that comfort again.  She does—I am not exaggerating—think hard on this topic of what is familiar and what is not.  We’ve had many late-night discussions: some girls in her grade talk about iCarly, but Caroline doesn’t watch iCarly; some girls wear Under Armour, but Caroline doesn’t wear Under Armour; some girls are on travel soccer, but Caroline is still getting the basics down through the community league.

It takes time, I say, and I know it’s true for me as well.

I’ve written about our old house.  I’ve written about my Annapolis friends: I miss them.  I miss the ease of immediate jokes, the assurance and comfort you get merely because you’ve spent so much time with people.  It takes time.

We have a couch in our den, but in our living room, all we have so far are boxes ½-unpacked, bookcases ½-filled with picture frames, photo albums, candles, and coasters.  The only thing substantial in my new living room is my old baby grand piano, the one that my dear dad had professionally moved last week from his house to mine.  It belonged to my mother’s mother, a music teacher.  Many, many years ago the same piano was professionally moved from her home in Chicago to ours.

Talk about familiar.  Talk about comfort.  It was crazy—I sat on that bench, sifted through some old sheet music, put my fingers on the keys and banged out “The Spinning Song” like I’d been playing it every day for the last 25 years.  I had not played that song in 25 years.

The girls danced wildly and giggled in my otherwise empty living room to “The Spinning Song.”  Mark that as one of my first memories in the new house.  I’ll wear that like a favorite jacket when I’m 75 years old.

Our new house: it’s wonderful.  A little cape cod with a lot of charm.  There’s brick surrounding the stove in the kitchen—I swear it’s going to make me a better cook.  The girls climb a “secret passageway” into our snug of a den then sneak into their yellow bedroom—they’ve made a reading nook near the big window where one of the many tilts in the ceiling leans comfortably in.  Lots of light during the day, but I find any reason I can to go outside at night to breathe in the fresh air and look up at the stars I can see between the tops of the tall trees.  We’re surrounded by a solid amount of suburban darkness here…the stars really shine.

I’ve slipped a couple of times down the few steps that lead into the garage—the wood is smooth and slick in well-trodden places.  And the sink in the upstairs bathroom is situated in such a way that when I wash my face, the water trickles annoyingly down my elbows.  I need to work on my approach.  Though I love the kitchen granite, the counter is slightly uneven—any water on the counter tends to end up on my shirt or on the floor.  So that’s the way it’s gonna be, new house—we’re going to have to get to know each other.  I’ll figure out where to step in the girls’ room so the floor doesn’t creak.  I’ll get there.  In time.

Mary Kate, one of my favorite friends from growing up, lives .3 miles from me.  My sister-in-law and I jumped in the car and went to Pottery Barn outlet in Lancaster yesterday (I scored two discounted rugs and a print!). We saw my niece score a goal under the lights at her high school last week.  My brother was on the sidelines at both my girls’ soccer games on Saturday.  Another favorite, Raquel, has already had the family over for a bbq.  We babysat the adorable one, my tw0-year old niece.  My mother-in-law babysat the girls.  So nice.  Easy.

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As I’ve been known to do, I was listening to NPR this morning.  I had a hurried drive to the elementary school because after I watched the girls board their bus, when I sat down to write at my computer, I found Caroline’s homework folder on my desk.  This was the folder I was supposed to have slid in her backpack the night before.  Our routine is far from familiar at this point—we haven’t secured a homework spot or a place for filing floods of paper, so stuff gets lost.  I drove to deliver the folder and on the way back I heard a segment on the radio about the song September, by Earth Wind and Fire.

That’s the song to hear.  The first familiar notes from the horns and percussion and I’m back in high school listening to Mary Kate’s basement jukebox.   My brother, Dan, is squirreled away in his room, listening to the LP.  There’s Raquel in her wedding dress and everyone’s on the dance floor.

I know that song.

But then, I did not know until today that the co-songwriter was a Jewish woman (who went on to write the theme song for Friends).  Allee Willis described first walking into the studio and hearing the introduction of the song and thinking, “Dear God, please let this be what they want me to write, because it was obviously the happiest-sounding song in the world.”  It’s a great segment (find it online!), but the part that stuck for me was that fact that Maurice White, the leader of Earth Wind and Fire, had included the lyrics “Ba De Ya” from the start, and despite Willis’s pleadings, he never let those non-words go.  After a month of trying to persuade White to make that phrase into real lyrics, Willis asked, “What the (bleep) does Ba De Ya mean?  And Maurice White responded, “Who the (bleep) cares?”

The “21st night of September,” the date featured in the song, is apparently as significant as ba de ya.  It’s the number that best fit the groove.  It’s any other day.  It’s not laden with meaning.  It’s light.  It’s cyclical.  It comes around again.

The song is happy, memorable, easy, and comfortable.

Pick a day.  Any day.  It’s the same as it was.  It’s the stars that are always there.  It’s the soccer field piled with kids.  It’s a late-night worry about friendship but it’s an eager, refreshed kid in the morning.  It’s the welcoming neighbor, the forever friends in many towns.  It’s the end of summer and the coolness and freshness of an early autumn evening.

Pick a day.  Pick a neighborhood.  Pick a time.  It’s not laden with meaning–it’s just a blessing.  It’s the familiar but also the wonderful potential of what is to come.


Gotta Getaway

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Girls’ weekend.  Ok, we’re in our 40’s, but what’s affirming about calling it “Middle-Aged Women’s Weekend”?

I just visited with some high school friends: Raquel, Kristen, and Amy.  Haven’t done so in over five years, which is understandable since we all have young-ish children, but five years since we’ve been together?  And that wasn’t even all of us.  My husband, Dave (God bless him) insisted I go. Dave isn’t great, either, about getting together with his high school or college buddies.  There’s a fraction of “home-body” in the both of us, plus he’s running his own company, plus everybody’s busy, plus we look forward to Friday movie nights with our daughters, plus, our daughters are at the age, still, where they like us: I anticipate going on more girls’ weekends when my own girls don’t want to have anything to do with me.

But I applaud the getaway gangs, both men and women, who religiously find a way to meet, once or twice a year.  It could be anywhere: antiquing in Lancaster, sidling up to a green river in Chicago, eating 8-dollar hotdogs at Fenway, skeet shooting at Man Camp on the Eastern Shore.  It could be a day and half-a-night spent in somebody’s kitchen.  Does not matter.

My friends and I picked New York, which, frankly, was not my first choice, only because I’ve had a bit of a rough winter.  The season stuck around too long and for various reasons, I have been feeling more like Jack Nicholson near the end of The Shining than Julie Andrews at the start of The Sound of Music, so the thought of 24-hours in one of the most frenetic cities in the world seemed daunting.  If there was some “recovering” to do, I thought sipping tea in New Hope might have been a better antidote.  But, the majority ruled—that, and we happened upon really good tickets to see Tony Award winning Kinky Boots.

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I’ve written about singing in a band in my post, On Seeing and Songwriting.  I was in my early 30’s at the time, and our first real “gig” was at Raquel’s baby shower.  She and I both lived in DC, but our lives were very different.  Example: one weekend, Raquel and I went to the mall together.  I bought knee-high rubber boots at EMS for my trip to watch whales off the coast of a temperate rain forest in British Columbia.  She bought a breast pump—probably not at EMS, but at the time, I didn’t know what the hell kind of a store I was in.  All I knew was that I was anxious to get out of there. (In hindsight, it was probably a Babies R Us.)

The band: I sang and played keyboards, Joey was drummer, Dave (a different Dave than eventual husband Dave) on lead guitar, Matt on bass.  We were so fresh and innovative, and unorganized, that we didn’t have a name, so a part of the fun Raquel’s guests had was providing us with suggestions.  I remember a “fan” throwing out “The Fireflies” as a name option.  Additional contributions from sarcastic friend of band bass guitarist: The Butterflies, The Puppy Dogs, The Rainbows.

We came up with “Blue Route” eventually: Joey was from Ridley and I was from Radnor, two towns in Philly connected by I-476, known to locals as the Blue Route.  I liked what the name evoked: movement, travel, going places, but also a taste of home and familiarity.  Throw in the internal rhyme effect, and you got yourself a sub-par, gender-neutral band name.

Blue Route played together for about three years.  About eight years after we’d finished, we had a band reunion and took a picture of all the Blue Route babies sitting on Joey’s front porch.  By then, the entire band had definitely gone places: Babies R Us, Home Depot, and to see various doctors for lower back issues, cholesterol checks, eye exams, etc.

Despite our best efforts, there was not and will never be a Behind the Music episode airing the nitty-gritty details. We didn’t travel quite that far.

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But, the band came up as one of many topics of discussion this past weekend in NYC.  I recalled the time when Raquel, still pregnant, was teary-eyed at the Grog and Tankard (a now defunct DC music venue), when Blue Route played our second “gig”—in an actual bar.  She was proud of me because I’d forgotten momentarily about the 2300 breakups I’d endured; I’d forgotten that any chance of happiness had forever slipped through my piano-playing fingers.  Instead, I decided to do what I liked to do, which, funnily, made me happy, and because Raquel was a good, hormonal friend, this made her cry.

My high school friends and I sat in the lobby of a shwank New York City hotel, remembering teen years and twenties.  We mentioned a few embarrassing, regrettable moments (anyone who knew any of us back then can just mentally fill in the blanks here–there’s no one right answer).  These were the moments that brought on the loudest laughter, the cleansing kind.

We talked about out children and some of the ways in which they are becoming what we never were–irish dancers, soccer players, early-instagrammers–but how we also, both comfortably and uncomfortably,  see within them glimpses of what we are.  We measured the good and the bad of some of what we recognized as parents (and of children of aging parents), and we marveled about the years we spent not seeing a thing except for what was right there in front of us, blissfully unconcerned about what came next.

We remembered high school differently, more humbly, in a way, but in other ways, too–with more confidence and compassion, caring less about what people think about us, and more about the people themselves: How is her health?  How is his marriage?  Can you imagine?  What ever happened to . . . ?

We did some sitting and talking this weekend, but, true to form, we did some drinking and eating, too: spent required time in an Irish pub, toasted our getaway with excellent margaritas at Toloache in Midtown.  We haggled in a street market, hit the trinket shops, bought tschotcke for the kids, burned insufficient calories walking and people-watching on the crammed streets.

We sat in the hotel lobby after seeing a wonderfully vibrant show about the who-cares of gender, about acceptance and color and vitality, and after a long day of living, we yawned, watched college basketball, realized the time, that there were drives ahead of us the next day, and we took the elevator up to our hotel rooms.  These were clean rooms, ones clear of beautiful, sleeping children, rooms without lacrosse sticks or size-12 t-shirts flung on the floor, snore-free rooms.  None of us slept all that well.

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The tiny trip away, for me, was big.  It was a renewed introduction to the larger world.  Yes, we are older, we have worries, we are well aware of what can potentially come next.  We’ve lost parents; we have friends who are sick and may not get better.

But for now, we are here, still facing what’s ahead even if it’s not all bunnies and rainbows.  All the more reason to do this: to get ourselves back together again and again and again.

For me, the trip away provoked unvoiced musing that we may not be who we once believed we would be as mothers, or wives, or career women; that we may not be who we once thought we would be, if, in high school, we even took the time to think about it at all.  But, for me, it was also palpably and naturally medicinal to know that five or twenty-five years later, my friends are still the same.  Actually, they are better.

Though life is inevitable (sometimes intolerable) movement, whenever and wherever we choose to come together with our friends, we ground each other solidly—right there on the spot.  And that momentary grounding just sweetens the taste of home, as we eventually move on again, making our way, enjoying our respective car-rides back, each of us comfortably alone, listening to what we want to on the radio.

I spent some time on I-476, listening to the old band’s demo.  After a few hours, I pulled into the drive.

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How to Stop Tilting at Windmills

 

“About a month after she got sick, Lyla looked at Kacky, she said, ‘Mommy, how come you’re not running anymore?’  Kacky said, ‘Well, we’re busy, things change.’  Lyla said to her, ‘Mommy, I want you to run.’ She knows how important it is, it’s the one thing her mom loves and she saw her mom giving it up.  We’ve all made an effort to run with Kacky whenever she can run:  if it’s not during the day, we’ll run at night, we’ll run at 6 a.m. Of course Kacky would have wanted to be at the Ragnar with us, but knowing we were all doing this made her feel so much better, that we didn’t give it up,” Kim said.

Passage taken from the Wilton Patch article: http://wilton.patch.com/articles/running-with-wind-at-their-backs-and-lyla-in-their-hearts?ncid=newsltuspatc00000001

 

There are people with more money, with water views.  There are skinny women, proclaiming war against carbohydrates. 

There are mothers of preschoolers within earshot at the coffee shop, exasperated, comparing the US education system to India’s–We are way behind!–choosing the kindergarten paths which they believe will lead their children directly to the Ivy League. 

There is politics, name-calling, immediate judgement when we meet a republican, when we meet a democrat

There are people who like your kid.  There are people who don’t. 

Your new refrigerator drawer doesn’t hold as many vegetables as your old one.  No matter how many roofers come, dragging ladders behind them, clattering a while on top of your house, when it rains hard, new ceiling marks appear.

The bannister jets out in such a way that once more, in trying to avoid its reach, you scrape the laundry basket against that same wall leading into the basement, and you will again. 

You are anxious.  You are worried. You are behind.  You are disconnected.  It is raining again. 

Stop tilting at windmills.

When my dad came home as a kid, complaining about a friend who’d done him wrong or something else equally as trivial, my Grandma Regan would tell him–you’re tilting at windmills.  Now that he’s a college professor and teaches Cervantes’ Don Quixote, he knows the reference, but at the time he said to his mother, “Huh?”

She explained further: he was fighting monsters that were not there. 

Don Quixote jousted with windmills, believing them to be giants.  He created imaginary enemies.

There is a little girl named Lyla.  She is the five-year old daughter of my dear friend Kim’s dear friend.  Lyla is fighting stage IV neoroblastoma.  Cancer, a real enemy.  The monster that seems to be everywhere these days–invading and disrupting lives of friends, of neighbors, of children. 

It’s hard–at least for me–when I hear the word “cancer” not to feel defeated already, like a madman, armed with rusty weapons, setting out on top of some old horse on an already-determined adventure.  Cancer took my mom.  It is ugly and powerful.

But, my friend Kim reminded me today about the power of love and community. 

She and her friends ran the Ragnar Relay in Cape Cod in honor of little Lyla.  Theirs was an all-women team from Wilton and because of the power of community, five other women’s teams from Wilton ran in honor of Lyla. 

There are fundraisers.  There are events. 

Please, take a look at Lyla’s web page: http://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/lyla-theoharides/54837

There are real battles to win.


Friends at Every Age

 

The girls and I have been reading a lot of Magic Tree House lately.  And the Clementine series:  Sara Pennypacker’s writing is smart and fun; plus if Marla Frazee wanted to sketch something in tattoo ink on my arm, I’d let her—she’s that good of an illustrator. 

But we went retro this week with The Secret Garden, a retold version of the original—more suitable for younger readers. 

Once the girls were introduced to Mary Lennox, her nice friend Dickon, and her surly cousin Colin, they could not get enough.   We usually read at night before bed, but when they came home from school on Monday, immediately post-snack they wanted to plant it on the couch to finish up the story.   They wondered if Colin’s father would ever return.  They worried the garden would be discovered.

I felt like I’d set two friends up on a blind date and was so pleased with myself because they had really hit it off.

It got me thinking about how I reacted to the same tale as a kid, how much I liked Mary even though she was a bit of a pill at the start of the story. 

And it got me thinking about other characters I had the chance to know while I was growing up.   I wondered if and when my girls would meet them–and when and if they did, would they even get along?

Even so, I’m working on a list.  A list of potential friends for Caroline and Lexi.  If school or neighborhood buddies ever get them down, they have resources—they can reach out to me, of course, but when I become entirely un-cool and my girls only want to be with their peers, they’ve got solid options. 

And these kids aren’t going to post something mean about them on Facebook. 

  •  Age 5: Heidi, Christopher Robin
  • Age 6: Elouise, Laura Ingalls
  • Age 7: Alice in Wonderland ( 7.5 exactly)
  • Age 8: Lucy Pevensie (Narnia)
  • Age 9: Pippie Longstocking
  • Age 10: Mary Lennox
  • Age 11: Anne of Green Gables
  • Age 12: Huck Finn, Jim Hawkins (Treasure Island)
  • Age 13: Anne Frank (13 when given her diary)
  • In high school, about 14: Meg Murray (Wrinkle in Time)
  • Age 15: Jo (Little Women)
  • Age 16: Phinneas (Separate Peace)
  • Age 17: Holden Caulfield
  • Age 18: Nancy Drew (16 in earlier versions) and Jane Eyre (when she gets to Thornfield)
  • Age 20: Elizabeth Bennett

 

Which characters would be on your list?

 


Dear Neighbors, Dear Friends

“Old friends, old friends, sat on their park bench like bookends.”

Simon and Garfunkel

 

There is a bench on Main Street in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire where I used to live, and on it is inscribed, “Sit, and tarry for a while.”  I would do that sometimes, right smack in the middle of a busy day.  I figured it would be rude not to.  I love the word “tarry”–I hear it with a British accent.  It allows for procrastination and meditation, but it sounds important and better, like most words do pronounced with a British accent. 

Dave, the girls, and I tarried this past Sunday on our back porch for several hours, enjoying the fall weather in the company of good friends.  Dave didn’t organize his office.  I didn’t get to the grocery store; I therefore didn’t make dinner, but the girls and their buddies made ‘soup’ out of mud, rose petals, and the sad looking basil remaining in my porch pots.  Caroline and Lexi were smudged little urchins by evening. 

That’s one of the perks of living where we do.  Impromptu gatherings pop-up like spring crocuses.  This was especially the case when our kids were small and parents were just as itchy to get outside post-naps. 

Houses here are close together.  Neighbors know how often I shake out area rugs.  They hear how infrequently I vacuum.  There’s not a lot to hide.  Our kids expect to see a handful of their friends each day—are disappointed when they don’t.  They treat the neighborhood gang like siblings, for better or worse.  Lexi and her pal Bianca have daily battles.  Yesterday’s:  Lexi demanded to pretend that they were friends who lived next door to each other while Bianca insisted on pretending that they lived driving distance away.   It almost came to fisticuffs until Bianca’s mom suggested that they live next door and then drive to another friend’s house.   I thought maybe a nice, easy, slow Sunday drive to the matinee, way, way far across town. 

It’s a little like commune living.

My dad was in town visiting last weekend, and one neighbor Chris popped in to say ‘hey’ to him—it was 9 in the morning; I was drinking coffee, still in my pajamas.  Chris reminds me of Kramer on Seinfeld—he’s not crazy, but he’s tall and seems to suddenly appear in our doorway.  His hair is tamer than Kramer’s because Chris gets his cut once a quarter at Glow—I know this for the same reason that I know how many times Susanne’s son Hayden wakes up in the middle of the night, or what Near East Rice Pilaf costs at Giant, or what handy man to use for water-heater replacement.  I know this for the same reason that my neighbors know I’m afraid of flying, that Dave’s allergic to black beans, and that it took us 7 months to decide on what refrigerator to buy. 

The playground is so close I can carry home two toddlers, two sippy cups, a soccer ball and one pair of discarded socks without dropping anything or having to stop for breath.  No surprise, the playground is where much of the communing takes place.  If it is raining or snowing, we often meet indoors, share meals, letting the kids loose on a variety of basements.  There have been memorable gatherings—like the January morning in 2010 when about 20 of us shoved our kids in boots, trudged several houses down through a foot of snow for brunch at the Blackburns.   We left well after dinner.   Or the time when a few of the little ones pretended a bag of fertilizer was a bag of flower seeds and planted a garden in our basement.   

But most days have blended into others as we’ve watched newborns become toddlers become bus-riders, and we’ve all witnessed it together, disbelievingly.  Sometimes it’s a group happy hour; sometimes it’s several conversations at once; sometimes it’s tired grown-ups checking cell phones.  There have been topples and tantrums, impressive clutch grabs from parents who turn just in time to catch a two-year-old diving from the wobbly bridge. 

We’ve got ear infections, dogs with torn ACLs, our own sledding hill, crazy uncle stories, restaurant recommendations, job woes, comparative shopping.   We commiserate, share recipes, talk sports, and expose our worst and our best parenting moments.   We get some air.

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There’s always a next, though, and much of the Old Guard has found a new place—in Severna Park, Riva, Edgewater, Atlanta, Philly.   The Woodsons leave for Connecticut next week. 

I teach my kids to say “please” and “thank you” and to wash hands before dinner and pick up the clothes on their bedroom floor, but teaching good bye is a hec of a thing.   So I will revert to “thank you”—to all of the Old Guard.  I miss you.  I will miss you.  It’s been so nice, this time we’ve spent tarrying for a while.

 

 


Caroline and Owen (Happy Birthday, Jordan!)

So Caroline’s engaged. Which is cool.

She seems a little young—she’s five—but, they say when it’s right, you just know.

He’s unemployed. He’s in school part-time. If she takes his name, she’ll be Caroline Blackburn.

He comes from a great family. In fact, I didn’t even hear from Caroline that she was getting married. Her fiancé’s mother, Jordan, sent me an email. Apparently, Owen popped the question while they were in kids’ club at the gym. Caroline said “yes,” that it would be “fun,” but that she doesn’t want to have babies because she doesn’t like getting shots. Read the rest of this entry »


Counting Colors

“Cerulean”: Caroline’s go-to blue Crayola crayon.

“Cerulean”: From Latin caeruleus “blue, blue-green,” perhaps dissimilated from caelulum, diminutive of caelum “heaven, sky.”

“I had trouble sleeping last night, Mommy. So I counted the colors of the rainbow; then I counted the letters of the alphabet, and then I said, aaagh, I’m just tired.” Must be the engineering gene from her father’s side— Caroline’s got a knack for numbers. My head hits the pillow and churns in the way of an English major’s; sleeping comes second to sifting through the stories of the day. But I appreciate the cut and dry of numbers and am glad Caroline has found them. Mathematics, for me, is crazy Mrs. Carrazone jumping on tables singing of vectors, planes, and angles of inclination. It’s an 8 a.m. class in college I didn’t get too very often. It sometimes involves counting on my fingers. I joke with Dave that sooner not later, he’ll need to help the girls with their math homework.

For now I’m okay with shapes and sorting. Read the rest of this entry »


Mad Skills

We just completed our first photo shoot as family. We’ve seen the sun shining on the changing leaves maybe once on a Sunday this fall, but today was the day—we finagled good weather on a weekend. The colors were stunning. Caroline posed like a professional, which was a tad alarming since she has surely acquired a relaxed relationship with the camera by celestial means. Neither Dave nor I take to cameras with anything resembling ease, but Caroline was a natural, and Lexi, naturally, had no interest in looking at anything but the pine needles blanketing the path. We wouldn’t have been out there by a dilapidated barn in the middle of a Maryland field, had it not been for baby Oliver, our painfully cute soon-to-be-one-year-old neighbor. Dave and I saw black and white photos of Oliver, and even though Oliver himself is picture perfect, we could not believe how well the shots highlighted his adorableness. “Did Liz take these?”

“Yes, she’s great,” said Mom-of-Oliver (named Corrie), which now leads me to a thoroughly researched, earth-shatteringly thought-provoking thesis: Some moms got mad skills. But, who would know it when all we talk about are these darn kids????

It could not have been raining heavier last Thursday when Caroline, Lexi and Mom-of-Caroline and Lexi (that would be me), struck out on our own, two of us donning matching Hello Kitty rain boots, and three wearing gear appropriate for the temperate rain forest in which we’re apparently now residing. After exactly 1 and ½ minutes of complete dousing, we arrived at the house of Mom-of-Hayden (named Susanne) for playgroup. She had been all worked up about hosting because some of our kids are toddlers. She worried that Hayden—a wee babe—might not have the appropriate toys to keep the three-year-olds entertained. Hanging like monkeys on newly cleaned drapery, oddly enough, kept the kids happy and the moms refilling the wine glasses. We attempted conversations, as three-year-olds pin-balled across the living room, tripping over two-year-olds with babies cushioning their falls. “So, how was New York?” Mom-of-Charlotte and Jacqueline (named Lee) screamed to me from across the room.

“Oh it was—hey, Caroline, leave Austin alone.”

“But we’re having fun!”

“Well, no, actually, I don’t think Austin is having fun. You’re cackling in his ear. Step away. Anyway, what I was saying?”

Mom-of-Hayden had baked some serious banana bread, and because fruit is good for me, I was well into my third piece when Mom-of-Owen and Cameron (named Jordan) released into the air a few words about her own pending trip to NYC. Something about a girls’ weekend and something about—well, I didn’t catch the rest as aforementioned toddlers speed-skated into the kitchen to discover that the unique spill proof system on the DrinkMoreWater water cooler was not, in fact, spill proof. Zamboni required. And a quick exit. “Sorry, Susanne. We’ve been a little cooped up.” It’s not only that I want to have a complete conversation with friends in the neighborhood, but I’d like to do so without a child pole-dancing around my legs. And that banana bread. Susanne makes a mean banana bread. What other magical foods of hers might I sample, if only we had more time?

The following Monday, I had just finished consulting the treadmill about three slices of banana bread and had then taken the girls to the playground, when Mom-of-Owen and Cameron drove by. I asked her how she did in the race she’d run over the weekend. “Did you win it?” I joked.

“Well, actually, yea, I did,” she said. “First in my age group.”

“What???!!!” I didn’t know she was a runner. “What was your time?” She told me. “That’s a 7 minute mile! I had no idea!”

“I ran track in high school,” she said as Owen began his sit-down-strike against the Subaru safety feature that prevents a complete window roll down. He couldn’t get a clear visual of Caroline and Lexi, so he gave us all a clear audio. “Gotta run!” said his mom. “Owen’s tired.”

And so am I—of sometimes feeling that I know more about my friend’s parenting strategies than I know about my friends. Jordan and I spend at least 42 hours a week together and I was pretty secure in the knowledge that she was a volleyball player. For all I know, Robyn is recognized in other circles for her translations of Petrarchan sonnets from Italian into English. Cheryl may have swum the 50 meter free in the 2000 Olympics. Though it is helpful at times to discuss potty training techniques or vent about a child’s penchant for cheap-shotting the neighbor’s Chihuahua, it is helpful also to talk about other things. That’s how I made friends in the past. That’s how, presumably, I’ll make friends in the future. I must continue to practice basic social etiquette. When I meet someone, I must avoid asking how old her child is in months.

Caroline, Lexi, and I made it to story time at the mall a few months back. The woman reading was soliciting audience participation as she paged through a cutesy animal tale. “What does a cow say?” All of the mothers looked lovingly at their little ones, saying, “Moooooooo.” There was lot of “Meowwwwwing” and “Oinking” going on between respective parents and children. Pottery Barn Kids is a bit cleaner than my house and is a short walk to Starbucks, but other than that, I might as well have been in my own home since I was only interacting with my own children. Oftentimes it really is hard to communicate with other mothers because I get worried that my kid is going to fall off a chair, disappear, or –god forbid—yell out “QUACK!” when the reader asks what an elephant says. So I was trumpeting emotively into Lexi’s face when, suddenly, beside me, a mother who’d been sitting quietly with her infant throughout most of the reading, made the most realistic elephant noise I have ever heard from a non-elephant. It was miraculous. It was exquisite. I cannot over-emphasize how remarkable this elephant sound was. All I wanted to do at that moment was congratulate her. I would have asked her, “Is there a class for that?” I would have insisted that we become friends, but in an instant, the woman reading was closing up shop and doling out stickers. In an instant, Lexi was yelling “QUACK!” while falling off of her chair, as Caroline disappeared into a sea of pink pastel kitchen utensils. In an instant, the elephant mom was gone.

Staying home with Caroline and Lexi can be lonely work. I have been known to lose my sense of humor, especially after three full days of rain. I’ve lost my sense of self on occasion during the last three years, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. People often say that this time is short—when your kids are young—and that the rest of your life will happen soon enough. Believe me, I’ve waited a long time to have these gorgeous girls, and I refuse to rush into any next stage, but I’d like to avoid pushing the pause button altogether. It’s possible to raise and love your kids, while also maintaining past friendships and creating new ones. It’s possible for a mother of three to bake muffins for a new friend when that new friend has a child in the hospital. It’s possible to hire a sitter and then spend a couple of hours talking to someone about all the cool jobs she’s had—all the wonderful places she’s traveled. It’s possible to raise two rowdy boys during the week and then win a fun run on the weekend. It’s possible to drive carpool on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then, in your few free moments, take beautiful photographs. Mad Skills.


Thinking about Krista

Thursday, June 11

Caroline is in her pajamas on her bed, crawling at me with a lovely little grin on her face. She’s cupped her right hand and attached it to the side of her mouth, and she’s coming in towards my left ear for the whisper, “Tomorrow, Mommy…we can go to the pool. If you’re a good girl. And then we can get ice cream.” She is so sincere. Her warm breath puffs and tickles my ear, but my whole body reacts, like she’s blessing me, curing me. I close my eyes—this is the first time Caroline has whispered in my ear. Afterwards, I sit on the rocking chair, telling her the story she wants to hear; then I wait, as I do sometimes, watching her fall asleep.

I can’t get out of the rocking chair; I’m tired. Mr. Potato head’s arm lies under Caroline’s hamper unattached to his body—he’s a casualty in her colorfully cluttered room, like Oz’s wicked witch beneath the fallen house. Nobody’s safe when my little munchkins are running around, but they’re both asleep now, and it’s quiet. I’ve noticed that toddlers are noisy. While I’d like to say that their noise is like music, there’s actually a lot of whining, crying, and shrieking going on in and around my head these days, and it can be tiresome and loud. Carol Gilligan writes about girls in the school years needing to find their voices. I’ll have to cross that bridge, but for now my girls have theirs intact, often at high volume. So I sit and think about the day: what made me laugh, what didn’t, what I got around to doing, what I didn’t, what I probably won’t get around to doing tomorrow.

Then there’s Krista. She learned she had a slow growing tumor in her brain, just after delivering her first child, Anna Mae. I see Krista in the neighborhood. In fact, our kitchen window looks out at her front door. I think of her in the morning when I drink my coffee; I think of her at night when I close the curtains on the day, heading to sleep with the bold assumption that I’ll be waking up, doing it all over again the next day. And I’m thinking of her now as I sit in the rocker.

She’s going in tomorrow for brain surgery. She could die, or she could live, and there’s much that could happen in between. I picture her tonight in her house—the same as mine—in her child’s bedroom, sitting on a rocking chair, watching her baby fall asleep. Would this be the last time? How does she allow herself to think that way? How does she avoid it? And how do I as a bystander, a passerby, do more than pray and wish deeply that Krista will be here for Anna Mae when Anna Mae first learns to whisper in an ear?

Wednesday, June 17

Krista has survived surgery and grueling post-surgery complications. 70% of her tumor is now gone. She will learn in some time what that means for the long term, but she’ll be home with her daughter by the end of the week. Anna Mae, bring on the noise!

Krista, welcome home. May that first whisper be yours.


On Seeing and Songwriting

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about my ex-boyfriend. I imagined losing 10 lbs and then running into him at the grocery store. I would meet his wife and understand with other-worldly clarity what the word “fine” meant. She’d be wearing a pale pink sweater that bulged at the waist and she’d greet me with a limp handshake. He could have hair—or not. Really, it had always been her that I’d worried about. He could still talk in that low, comfortable voice, but she needed to squeak a bit. Even though he had been decidedly self-absorbed and awful, I got hung up still on the unknown of her: Who was this woman who was better than I?

“Regan you need to get over it.” My friend Joey nicknamed everyone; I felt privileged but a little left out since he merely called me by my last name. He called himself “Erdessy,” a play on his last name “Ersek,” and often referred to himself in the third person: “Erdessy needs a beer.” We were Philly transplants sitting in the Zoo Bar across the street from the Washington DC National Zoo. I always thought Joey should have stuck out more in DC, but he assimilated fairly well: He dated attorneys; he stomached the steak sandwiches; he frequented sporting events but just didn’t root, root, root for the home team. He loved the Zoo Bar because it was dark, small, and a bit grimy. “Something Philly about it,” he would say—likely those gorillas across the way.

“Get over it? That’s a problem,” I sighed. Joey asked why and my response was immediate: “Because I don’t know what to do next.” But in fact, I had been thinking about how pathetically I’d been handling the latest break up. I was not the sap that I made myself out to be because I managed to keep friends, read books, and go to work. I wasn’t incapacitated. I had always been quick to laugh at myself; in fact, this latest chapter in my life seemed to fit right in with what I’d been teaching my high school English students. It struck me as I progressed through the American Literature program that I was in the company of some classic nut ball 30-year olds, single and troubled about it: Nick Carraway, following Gatsby around in a West Egg haze; Blanche Dubois seeking the kindness of strangers; and Emily Grierson from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” poisoning her ex and then cozying up to his corpse each night. Considering the post-30 crowd in our curriculum, I’d been handling my situation fairly well. But—it was time for a change.

“What you do next,” Joey said, “is what you wanted to do this time last year, before you met that bozo Frank.” I smiled, thrilled Joey had remembered and that he was still interested. “We start the band.”

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If I could compare this marriage of drummer (Joey), lead guitarist (Dave), bass player (Matt), and singer/keyboardist (me), to a marriage between husband and wife, and then compare the process of naming the band to naming a newborn, finding a name that fit those involved in the marriage was almost a deal breaker. We would have found good reason to annul since we obviously were not going to be able to work together on even the most basic of tasks. The DC residents (Dave and Matt) ultimately caved when we came up with Blue Route, named after a Philadelphia highway. We had less trouble deciding on a song list since together we really didn’t like too many of the same songs. Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks, the Replacements, the Police all provided us with our first set.

We convinced Joey’s housemate Dan that we would be able to practice in the attic without making too much noise. Dan owned the house, so in exchange for the space, we as a group, well, we did nothing. The onus was on Joey, who mowed the lawn without prompting and kept the kitchen a little cleaner. The guys were upwards 30 as well, so they had dispensable cash flow, but none of us liked the idea of spending 20 to 40 bucks per hour renting a practice space. That would have been another deal breaker. The attic arrangement bought us some time and the four of us had dispensable time since none of us were married or even dating anyone seriously. As a result, we spent at least two days a week together as a band for almost three years.

I always felt a little self conscious saying the word “gig” as it applied to our performances. When I think of “gig,” I think of stoners in the high school cafeteria talking about their weekend plans: “Dude, coming to our gig on Saturday?” The same applies to even the word “band”—I feel the need to prolong the /a/ sound like I’m Sean Penn in Fast Times. Even after three years, I didn’t take myself seriously as a “band” member, but, that’s likely the reason why I look back on those years as being perfectly successful—no record label; maybe 25 “gigs”; and an aborted attempt at recording. But a lot happened in those three years, and in retrospect, being a rock star was one of the most stabilizing things I could have done. The Zoo Bar encounter was at the millennium’s shift. Basic math lands 9/11 right smack in the middle of those three years. In July 2001, one of my closest college friends died in a motorcycle accident. Exactly a year after his death, I lost my mother to cancer. Throw in the memories of Bozo Frank and you’ve got yourself some potentially expensive therapy bills. Though I bought another keyboard and several rock star outfits (I didn’t go leather when I could have—and now, post-babies, it’s too late!), Blue Route put us in the black not the red. And the only couch-time spent was on break in Dan’s attic, eating Doritos and checking Phillies’ scores.

*************

The Blue Route song list turned from covers to originals as the “band” practiced and gelled and discovered its sound. For me, inspiration to write songs has always come from a need to put voice to feeling; otherwise feeling threatens to debilitate. Sadness, grief, and uncertainty all seem to get the phones buzzing (contentment deadens the lines), so I was a prolific songwriter during the Blue Route years. Now, I’ve been married happily for four years and in that time, though I’ve produced no songs, my husband Dave and I have produced the two most beautiful girls I’ve ever known. For now— playgrounds and play dates. Soon enough— I’ll challenge myself to get back to playing the piano without angst as inspiration.

“After You” was one such song— inspired by the break from Bozo Frank. I fired it out in one sitting; the lyrics and melody came easily and (thankfully) at the same time. I had recently read a song writing guide and had decided to pay closer attention to the structure: Though the initial outpouring of words can be liberating, listeners need a pattern, a clear link from point A to points B and C. It’s the song writer’s duty to make it easy for the listener, unless of course, the songwriter is Bob Dylan, in which case, he can do whatever he wants. “After You” was a simple song, word-playing with the title phrase. Three verses, a bridge, a chorus, just a few chords, catchy in a Tom Petty kind of way, if I may. With a friend’s help, I managed to record “After You” along with a few other songs, and on a whim, I sent the disc to the Songwriters Association of Washington (SAW) writing contest—deadline August, winners announced in November. Like Bozo Frank, SAW never called.

And that was fine. Blue Route would do something fun with “After You” and the fans would love it. More originals surfaced. We managed to garner crowds because we all had friends and co-workers who needed to get out more. We mustn’t have sounded too bad, because they came back to hear us play at Staccato, the Metro Café, Tommy Joes, Whitlows, IOTA, and the Grog and Tankard.

**************

My parents came to one of the Grog shows. At the time, my mother didn’t know she had cancer. She was too busy losing her vision to Macular Degeneration. The irony was not lost on me, the fact that my mother—the one who misses nothing—couldn’t see. She had the wet and wicked kind of the disease, where the blood vessels grow and leak into the retina, causing straight lines to look wavy. Other things potentially happen: doorways look lopsided; close objects seem further away; intensity of colors fade, but whatever the symptom, the result in my mom’s case was complete loss of central vision. When she was at our “gig,” though, she took it all in, every thud of the bass.

She and I never spoke about my lyrics, though a loving parent would have recognized upon one listen how sad her songwriting daughter must have been. Years before I’d ever stepped foot inside the Grog and Tankard, after an earlier break-up had stunned me, my mom wrote me a letter suggesting that I refocus my attention. Concentrating on the sadness can be addictive, she wrote. The best way to beat it is to look up and out. She must have known that songwriting and then performing was my way of doing just that. She didn’t have to actually see me on stage at the Grog; she could hear me muscling through my disappointment. It strikes me now that I saw about as much as she did that night, under the watchful glare of a hundred people and some serious stage lighting. I was looking up and out, refocusing my attention from staring faces and bright lights. And she was right—I was happy.

When our family went to the beach, months before the Grog show, my mother allowed that she could still see the ocean and the stars, each so vast that her peripheral vision could accommodate. Months after the Grog show, I drove up to Philly from DC for a surprise visit. Periphery is okay when you’re looking at the stars and the ocean, but not when you’re dying of cancer trying to see your own daughter from a hospital bed. I felt small, invisible, like nothing. But the way she looked at me, just the same—the way she held my hand as she bragged to the nurse about her “beautiful daughter”—that both broke and mended me. And there was her portable disc player by her bedside; she told me she’d been listening to my cd.

Seven years since her death and I still stew in the sadness. I have to stop myself from looking too deeply in and too far down when I miss her, when I wish she’d met my husband and my girls, when I wish she hadn’t lost her sight before she died. It is hard for me to come to terms with that last one, to find a silver lining. But my dad, my siblings, and I were all so muddled and worn when she was sick—my mom never liked to see us sad.

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What does it take to see what’s important, or feel it if our eyes aren’t clear? How do we look directly, with genuine appreciation and deserved wonder at what is in front of us every single day? Straight lines blur and colors lose vibrancy when I wallow, when I get anxious about what I don’t have or what I haven’t done.

One November night, years ago, I walked into the Clarendon Grill, a music venue in Virginia. The Songwriter’s Association of Washington was holding the 16th Annual Mid-Atlantic Song Contest Awards Ceremony. First and Second Places were allotted in every category: Country, Folk, Children’s, R and B, Jazz, Pop, Rock, Gospel, etc. Some winners were going to play that evening. It was a Sunday night; I didn’t have much going on, and I wanted to see what I was up against, as a songwriter who’d just started to call herself a songwriter. Who were these people that could structure and sing? Who were these writers that were better than I?

I hadn’t ever been to a bar alone before. I didn’t even order a beer. I grabbed a glass of water, sat on a stool in a quiet part of the room and started to flip through the program that I’d picked up at the door. For kicks I went to the page—Adult Contemporary. I’d submitted three of my songs under that category just months earlier. Geez, I thought, not only is there a First Place and a Second Place, but there’s a slew of Finalists…I counted them, 8…and another slew of Honorable Mentions…I counted them, 8—and there it was in writing, the last on the page: “After You—Katie Regan, DC”.

SAW never did call, but in early December, I received in the mail an Honorable Mention certificate—the same kind of certificate I got when I finished my sailing class at summer camp, on that rough paper, the writing a bit raised. I still have it somewhere, but I can grab from memory that moment in the Clarendon Grill a lot faster than I can put my hands on a piece of paper. I smiled–fine, alone, and smug as hell to be 18th on a list. I bought myself a beer and took a good look around, ready to let those songwriters make my life a little easier, singing me through to points B and C.