Lullaby.

Dear friends,

www.pinterest.com

I’ve been quiet for some time now, leaving this space empty of my reflections even as I’ve missed the solitude offered by writing and the friendships nurtured in this forum.

I had surgery two days before Christmas. It was nothing very serious, an ailment common to women my age, but it sucked the wind out of my sails in a surprisingly fierce way and I’m only now beginning to lengthen my stride.

While recovering at home for two and a half weeks, I did little more than sleep, watch television and read. Mr. Mom kindly fussed over me and many friends sent greetings (and flowers and chocolates!), but I’m exiting the experience with a new appreciation for the fortitude required of aging. No wonder, I thought to myself many times, that old folks fail after surgery. The isolation is real and discouragement easily sets in when both mobility and workaday distractions are in short supply. To be honest, I had a bit of a frightening glimpse of my future. (And while it may be, God willing, two decades my future, it’s still sobering to have tasted the bitter pill of senescence.)

Once my doc gave me the thumbs up, I rushed back into the world at something very close to full speed. I’m running again, a lick faster than I was before surgery just because I’m determined to beat back the crone that seeks to claim me. I’m traveling quite a bit for my job (three weeks in a row this month). I’m filling my weekends with quilting and classes and dinner parties and decorating projects, all in an effort, I think, to deny my age.

But I’ve also sat in the stillness quite a bit, too. And the most surprising revelation of my quietude is that my parents weren’t crazy after all. I think of my mother in the last 10 years of her life and, for the first time, I understand her.

I understand her heightened indecision and her anxieties and her sudden tears and her longing for more time with loved ones. I understand her careful step and her anxious questions and sleepless nights and seemingly endless need for reassurance. I understand the lines of her face, pulled downward by gravity but also by apprehension as the uncertainty of her adult children’s futures weighed heavily on her. I understand her heart, so eager, so full, so ready to give its all even as her energy lapsed.

And I wonder what it would have been like to have had this understanding in her presence? To have held her hand as one who knows, rather than as one whose love is strong but whose discernment is impaired by the ego and impatience of middle age?

I don’t dare ask why because that is a fool’s errand, but I do wonder, and then hope my ponderings lead to at least a snippet of hard-earned wisdom I might share.

In the mean time, I sit with her. In my meditations. In my dreams. In the quiet of my mind. I hold her hand. I tell her I love her and miss her. I tell her how wise she was. I marvel at her courage and generosity. I ask her about my children in the hope she’ll reassure me as she did when they were babies and I was the most tentative of mothers.

I write her name, Colleen, in every corner of my heart and sing the song of her devotion as my lullaby, trusting her love to lull me through this night.

With gratitude {for understanding that is better late than never},

Joan, who’s looking forward to Spring and every form of rebirth that goes with it

 

 

 

The Magpie Manifesto.

Dear friends,

breathenoticelove

Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s a sign of the times, but some days I am tempted to jump headlong into the pit of existential despair and allow myself to be swallowed by irrevocable disheartenment.

I know. Not exactly the maxim of the Gratitude Girl.

This week I was grievously buffeted by the news around me. One corporate leader is going to jail for 28 years for knowingly selling tainted peanuts that sickened and killed people; one corporate leader admitted his auto company created an emissions system meant to defraud consumers and evade environmental regulations; one corporate leader defended his “market based” rationale for buying a life-saving drug then increasing the price 5000%. Meanwhile, many of our presidential candidates are appealing to the basest human instincts, including an exclusionary, belittling, deceitful and winner-takes-all doctrine. And if that wasn’t enough to discourage us, millions of human lives are at stake as Middle East conflicts continue to escalate and those seeking refuge are literally washing ashore.

Really, how does a tender and seeking soul find its way in the midst of all this?

The other night, Mr. Mom and I discussed at length the Syrian crisis. Mr. Mom said he’d be willing to “adopt” a refugee family, where adoption means bringing them into our home and sponsoring them financially. He asked if I would be willing and I said yes, but our conversation went nowhere because how does one do that, anyway? I even spent some time researching the topic, seeking out online information and resources about the United State’s program to accept (in my opinion, far too few) refugees. I found no path for taking concrete action beyond contributing to various charitable organizations, which seems like my reflexive action far too often when I am moved by the need around me. I work in philanthropy so I will never disparage the role it plays in improving our world, but so often I’m yearning to do more than write a check or endorse a cause but am somehow stopped short of translating my passion and my compassion into something that feels more like direct action.

Yesterday I heard a newscaster say one of the Pope’s messages during his US visit will be to encourage others to “serve people instead of ideas.” This hit in me the gut in a way only a moral authority can provoke. I’m not Catholic and I’ve never looked to the Pontiff for guidance, but I’ve found Pope Francis to be the kind of leader our world desperately needs. His words made me ask myself how many times have I served ideas instead of people? (Maybe just as importantly, how many times have I reduced people into mere ideas, especially people I think represent ideas I find distasteful?) How have I actually, tangibly served people beyond my family, friends and colleagues? Honest answers elude me, as does the conviction that I am one person who can make a difference in the midst of so much human suffering.

In times like these, I look inward. I examine the roughest clods of my intentions, determined to unearth bits of beauty and grace that only the divine can inspire. I seek solace in what I know to be the kindness and love that live within all of us. I face myself and the universe with a tenderness that is both terrifying and necessary to take another step, to wake tomorrow, to confront the world and my place in it with hope as my shield against the outrage and cynicism that dog us all.

Many times I reiterate – sometimes to myself, sometimes to others – my values. Doing so sometimes makes me chuckle as I think I sound a little like Aibileen Clark in “The Help.” “You is kind, you is smart, you is important,” I mentally shout to myself and to the unseen broken hearts around me. Inevitably, I end up meditating on the two pieces of wisdom I find most centering: the Buddha’s “Do no harm” and Jesus’ “Do unto others.” I wonder if earnestness counts in the face of human frailty as conspicuous as my own as I seek a path lit by altruism and look for even a single hand I can hold along the way.

I don’t pretend to have answers, dear friends. Some days I ache with the knowledge that my time is short, my focus too self-serving, and my reach barely beyond my nose. I struggle to find substance in the paucity of my effort. Some days I even shake my fist at my God-given sentience, an existential ingrate prone to irritation by the spiritual chafing of an examined, some might say privileged, life.

And then, just when the despair threatens to swamp me, I somehow quiet. I remind myself to trust in all that is larger than me. I let go of the corporal and rest in the discarnate, in the mystical psalm that connects you and I to each other and sings the praise of a love that is universal and unending, even as I struggle to understand it. I offer three words of encouragement, to myself first, then to whoever is closest.

Breathe. Notice. Love.

Breathe. Why do I forget this simple instruction, which is the easiest way to reboot, to extend myself a kindness?

Notice. I will not sleepwalk through this day. I will take note. I will acknowledge. I will honor that from which some turn away. I will praise and affirm those who inspire it; I will grieve for and hold those who need it. If nothing else, I will bear witness.

Love. Because that is the beginning. And that is the end.

With gratitude {for three simple words, the best I can do in these times},

Joan, who got some very good news yesterday and so is reminded the sun will come out tomorrow

More yummy. Less yucky.

Dear friends,

lasagna (1)

I’ve been away from this space for a while. Life after loss is always an interesting hokey pokey. One step forward, one step backwards, a little sideways shimmy and start over again.

A few weeks ago I was feeling particularly dull and lethargic and — not knowing if my symptoms were the result of grief’s natural progression or some bad habits I picked up during my father’s illness and death — I decided to make some healthy changes.

First, I gave up soda pop. Now the truth is I hadn’t been a pop drinker for more than a decade, but between May 1 and August 1, the desire for something comforting on long road trips to Oklahoma found me guzzling it almost daily. Most people lose weight when they’re under stress, but I put on 5 pounds over the summer and I’m certain it was the many, many cans of 7-Up I drank. Fortunately, I didn’t have much trouble snapping out of my delirium and giving it up.

Second, I recommitted myself to fitness. My running was severely curtailed during my father’s illness for a million excuses, some legitimate, some not. But beyond the running, I’ve been feeling unusually weak, as if getting myself up off the floor is a major chore. One night while talking in bed, Mr. Mom and I decided to start going to the gym together for weight training. Maybe we’re both feeling old or maybe we needed the mutual encouragement and support, but we’re almost three weeks into a new regimen that has put some pep into both our steps.

Finally, after a year of vegetarian eating, I’ve gone vegan. For at least the last six months, I’ve been noticing an increase in GI difficulties. I won’t get too graphic except to say giving up meat solved my acid reflux but I’ve still been suffering from a variety of stomach difficulties with symptoms that lead me to conclude I might have Irritable Bowel Syndrome. A friend of mine told me about a book called Clean Gut. Written by a cardiologist, the book’s recommendations helped my friend feel better than ever. (Side benefit: she lost 20 pounds.)

The basic premise is that our gut is the center of our health and vitality and we can solve many of our own problems by being far more thoughtful about what we put into it. The book recommends a very strict diet called a “cleanse” for 21 days. (By strict, I mean no sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol, and no caffeine, with some other restrictions related to starchy, sugary whole foods like corn, potatoes and fruit.) After the 21 days, which is essentially a re-boot of your GI system, you reintroduce common “trigger” foods, such as gluten and dairy, one at a time and test your reaction to them. If you have a strong reaction, you need to eliminate the food from your diet. If you have a mild or moderate reaction, you need to limit your exposure.

I have long wondered if I have a gluten or dairy sensitivity, so following the book’s advice made sense to me. Beyond that, it gave me a framework for taking matters into my own hands and solving my own problems, hopefully without a visit to the doctor’s office or a prescription for medicine.

I’m only 7 days into the cleanse but I can already feel a big difference. I feel like the mental fog is slowly lifting. I’m not yet back to my old self, but I’ve blown away some mental cobwebs and I feel more awake and focused. More importantly, my stomach feels a WHOLE lot better. I don’t want to say too much too soon as I plan to write a post detailing the whole experience at the end of the 28-day cycle but, suffice to say, it works. And I’m excited about the possibilities.

In the mean time, here’s a really good recipe I developed this weekend for a gluten-free, dairy-free lasagna pictured above. (The Caesar Salad is vegan and is from The Kind Diet, another good book recommended by a colleague.)

For anyone who followed me from Mayberry Magpie, you may remember I have a killer Classic Lasagna recipe that I perfected over many years. It includes lots of meat and cheese, along with a white sauce, and it’s so good I’ve never found a better lasagna (and I’ve tried many at every restaurant imaginable). I have to admit the idea of any lasagna beside my classic recipe left me more than a little uninterested. But I promise this one is good and I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. My tastebuds are as picky as they come and this dish left me completely, utterly happy to have eaten it. Even Mr. Mom said “I don’t care what you call this, it tastes good.”

Best of all, my gut was happy. No sleepy, no sicky, no burpy is a great way to end a meal, especially one that thoroughly satisfies, especially with a dish that usually sits heavy on the gut or induces a long nap.

Enjoy!

With gratitude {for friends and good books},

Joan, who purposely avoided telling you about the tragic treadmill accident she had on a recent trip to the gym, except to say if anyone had recorded it she would be a viral internet sensation (and she still has the bruises and deep scabs to prove it)

***

Joan’s NEW AND IMPROVED Lasagna

1 batch Red Sauce (see below)

1 batch Cashew Risotto (see below)

2 very large or several small zucchini, sliced and roasted (see below)

2 cups packed fresh spinach

Olive oil

Fresh parsley, chopped

Italian seasoning

Salt and pepper to taste

For the Red Sauce:

1/4 cup olive oil

6 oz. wine (I prefer dry red, but sweet white is good too)

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 large cloves minced fresh garlic

2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes

1 TBLS sugar

3/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp dried Italian Seasonings

Cracked black pepper to taste (I like a lot, probably close to 1 TBLS)

Heat olive oil in large, heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat (I prefer cast iron). Add onion and garlic and cook until onions are translucent. Add wine and stir and continue to cook until at least half of the wine has evaporated.

Add tomatoes and seasonings and cover; bring to a boil, then stir well again and reduce heat to low. Simmer with lid on for as long as you can; preferably an hour but 20 minutes will do in a pinch, stirring occasionally and adding a bit of water if sauce needs thinning after a long simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. If too acidic, add a bit more sugar.

For the Zucchini:

While the red sauce is simmering, prepare your zucchini. Wash well, trim off ends, and slice lengthwise as thin as you can (1/4” works well, but you can go thicker if you have difficulty. Just don’t slice them very thick.) The key here is to slice your zucchini to resemble lasagna noodles, long and not too thick.

Brush both sides with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put on a baking sheet. Roast in a 400 degree oven for at least 20 minutes. The goal is to sweat out much of the water and get the zucchini at least halfway cooked. It’s okay to leave them in longer and let them get browned in spots. The brown bits taste really good. I have gone for as long as 40 minutes before depending on thickness. By the way, you can prepare the zucchini ahead if you like. They’ll be fine at room temperature for several hours or in the fridge for 3 days. If you happen to be grilling, you can also grill the zucchini and save it for this and other recipes.

For the Cashew Ricotta (from The Simple Veganista):

1 1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked

1/2 cup water

Juice of 1 large lemon or 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

1 garlic clove

Dash of onion powder

Salt & cracked pepper, to taste

Soak the cashews for at least two hours in a bowl of water, covering the cashews with about an inch of water as they will puff up a bit.

Drain cashews and place all remaining ingredients into a blender or food processor, blend scraping down sides as needed until creamy. Taste for flavors adding any additional ingredients. Some like a salty ricotta so feel free to add as much salt as you want.

Store in refrigerator in an air tight container for an hour or two as this will stiffen the mixture a bit. You can also just prepare your dish with it straight away without refrigeration if needed.

Makes approximately 2 cups. Stores in refrigerator for up to a week.

Assembly:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 11”X14” deep dish with olive oil or Pam and layer ingredients in the following order: red sauce, zucchini noodles, spinach leaves, cashew ricotta, a sprinkle of Italian seasonings and chopped parsley. Repeat the layers as many times as you like, reserving enough red sauce to end with it.

If you find the cashew ricotta difficult to spread, just drop dollops of it around the dish and use a spatula to flatten it out and spread it around. Don’t worry if you move the spinach around a bit, just do your best to spread the ricotta around so it’s not in big clumps.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes until bubbly and edges are turning brown. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting.

Preparation Notes: I know it looks like a lot of work, but I made this from start to finish in about an hour (not including final baking time). You can always use sauce in a jar to speed things up, but try the homemade sometime. It really is worth 20-30 minutes of your time. We stopped buying sauce in a jar 10 years ago and have never looked back. Both Mr. Mom and I can make this sauce from memory in no time, and we use it for pizza, spaghetti, baked ziti – all our Italian recipes. You can double or triple the recipe and freeze extras for convenience.

And the zucchini and cashew ricotta can be made in advance, too. If you have everything on hand, you could layer this recipe up and have it in the oven in about 10 minutes.

If you are not gluten sensitive, you could add regular or whole wheat lasagna noodles in your layers and make this more of a classic veggie lasagna. But I’m avoiding gluten right now so that’s why I substituted zucchini for lasagna noodles. The great thing is that I didn’t even miss the wheat noodles – plus this recipe offers the added benefit of not sitting heavy on your stomach or making you sleepy afterwards!

PS: I forgot to mention — yes, the red sauce has a tablespoon of white sugar in it. That’s because it’s a recipe from my pre-clean eating days. I think all red sauces need just a bit of sweetener to balance the acidity. If you’re sensitive to sugar, replace it with your favorite alternative . . . Stevia, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave juice, the choice is yours.

In memory.

Dear friends,

Bob Crenshaw Army

My father passed on Sunday, just nine short weeks after I learned he had brain cancer. Ever since I got the phone call Sunday morning just after 4:00 am, time has slowed down. Hours last days, and days last weeks, and I remember every little thing I thought I had forgotten. I’m in that odd space where grief seems like lead in my limbs and gravity threatens to crush me until the tiniest kind word or gesture lifts me up in unexpected ways and my heart swells again and I think “Maybe I won’t die of heaviness after all.”

We buried him yesterday and because I have an unnatural and acute fear of anyone I love suffering from a bad eulogy, I wrote my father’s. I’m sharing it here because talking about him and writing about him is comforting. Glennon Melton says when someone suffers a loss, gather up all your brave and rush in. You don’t have to know what to say or what to do, you just have to show up. I’ve been amazed at the people who have shown up, with texts and phone calls and emails and cards and gifts and — in the case of Mr. Mom — more kindnesses and favors than you can possibly imagine.

I needed your brave and I thank you for it.

With gratitude {for kindnesses from near and far},

Joan-Marie, daughter of Robert, son of Marie, family of an Indian Territory town that will always be home

My Father’s Eulogy

I want to begin by saying – strange as it sounds – how happy I am to be here today. This place, this cemetery, means so much to me. I feel like I grew up here and I’m certain my cousins know what I’m talking about. For my grandmother Marie, my great Aunt Hazel, my Aunt Mary, my cousin Big Betty (not to be confused with my cousin Betty Marie) and her sister Virginia, this place meant so much to them that they visited often and they dragged us kids along. “Let’s go to the cemetery” someone would say and off we’d go! I remember doing cartwheels and playing chase with my cousins while the adults did whatever it was they did here and so it never seemed like a sad place to me. When we had a family reunion at my house in 2009, three or four generations of us loaded up in cars and came here after our dinner. I have a photo of Daddy from that day standing near this spot. For the five years I lived in this town as an adult, I even used to run through here at 5:30 am, morning after morning, never once deterred by the thought of running through a pitch black cemetery alone. My family is buried here and the family of my lifelong friends are buried here and so there is something profoundly intimate and comforting about coming to this place today to honor my father. I want to thank all of you for being here to honor him as well.

A few weeks ago when I found out Daddy was sick, I wrote an essay titled “Questions for my Dying Father.” In it, I reflected on all the things I don’t know about him, all the things we didn’t talk about, like his service in World War II or, of course, his wives. I mentioned that I knew what his favorite steak was but not all the places he had worked — and I wondered how I had failed to learn such important details of my father’s long life.

A friend of mine emailed me not long after I posted my essay. Carolyn is a fundraiser for a facility that provides long-term care and aging services, so my friend has an informed perspective on the needs of elderly patients and their families. She reassured me by writing “Knowing your Dad’s favorite steak is infinitely more important than the stuff of life’s resume. The rib-eye is what matters and I’m glad you are there for him.”

It was such a kind and thoughtful thing to say to a daughter who spent far more time away from her father than with him. And it helped me move on from what I don’t know to what I do.

What I know about my father is that he was one of a kind. Everybody who knew him knew that. Highly intelligent and well spoken, he had the ability to command the attention of others whenever he wanted. He could cut to the chase like no one I know, and I suspect his directness complicated his life at times but you always knew where you stood with Bob. By the way, I have a reputation for candor and directness, too, so there’s no question whose daughter I am.

He enjoyed solitude and he spent a lot of his time there. I often wondered about the paradox of a man who married so many times yet liked to be alone as much as he did. The demands of solitude include being comfortable with your own thoughts and abilities and Daddy was clearly confident enough to sail his own ship. I think there is a unique valor required to stand alone, to swim against the tide, and I’ve always admired his sturdy self-reliance and willingness to – as he put it – “call his own shots.”

He was eternally optimistic. His love for gambling is proof of that. In fact, I think his willingness to put down his money and bet it all is a sign of immense idealism. Nobody would call Bob a pragmatist, he of the grand gestures and generous spirit. He told me not long before he died that he often loaned money to his friends and neighbors. Now I had always known that if you needed money, Bob was the man to see. Of his neighbors, he told me “Sometimes they pay me back and sometimes they don’t.” He could tell you in a heartbeat how much he was owed and by whom, and yet he never seemed to be keeping a tab beyond the dollars and cents of this life. For someone who was never rich, he shared in abundance.

When I was in fifth grade, I made straight As my first semester. He told me if I kept it up, if I made straight As all year, he would give me a hundred dollar bill. I spent months pouring through the Sears and Roebuck catalog at my grandmother’s house, making lists of what I would spend my money on. In 1972 you could buy a lot with a hundred dollars and I mentally spent my money 20 times over with various lists of goodies to be purchased. I earned the grades and Daddy paid up, of course, but I think he knew it wasn’t the hundred dollars that was the gift. But rather — the months of anticipation of a hundred dollars is where the real fun is. After all, he played the lotto up until the end of his life and he always said if he hit big, he’d share it all with his family.

Despite his generosity and candor, he could also be circumspect. I was looking through some old files the other day and I found a letter from my mother to me in 1988 when I lived in Boston. She had been writing me and begging me to move home but in this particular letter she wrote “I talked to your father today. He told me not to pressure you and to let you make up your own mind.” Then she told me that if I did decide to move home, he had already figured out three different plans for moving my household halfway across the country. That was just like Daddy: he understood the virtue of self-determination but could make you a plan like nobody’s business when needed.

Most things in this life that are wonderful or extravagant or refined, I learned about from my father. I ate my first lobster with him. I had my first room service meal with him, and I thought it was so fancy that our dinner came on china plates topped with silver domes on a rolling cart. I remember sitting at his kitchen table with him and eating steamed artichokes with drawn butter. He taught me how to eat the soft flesh of the artichoke petal with my front teeth. He made a terrific crab salad and avocado dip. I usually say I got my cooking skills from my mother but I know I got my taste from my father. He took me to restaurants with starched white tablecloths and crystal chandeliers. Once, when my mother offered to take me and my grandmother out for a hamburger, I protested saying “I want to go to a place like Daddy would take me. I want to go to a restaurant with atmosphere.” To this day I judge a restaurant by my father’s high standard.

My friend Carolyn has a philosophy about parenting. She says one parent brings the tree and one brings the ornaments and a child needs both to make Christmas out of her life. There’s no doubt that Daddy brought the decoration, the sparkle, to the life of his youngest daughter.

I love him and I will miss him.

Life and the ephemeral meaning I seek to ascribe to it.

Dear friends,

0

Source: torufukuda.com

I’ve had the oddest week. Not so much a week as an off-key symphony of gasps and stumbles and indignations and re-opened wounds and thoughts about my life and the ephemeral meaning I seek to ascribe to it.

I made a Facebook post on Tuesday about how awful my day was and felt immediately guilty. Because, you know, the Ukraine. If the cultural and socio-economic gnashing of teeth and splitting of skulls we’ve come to know as geopolitics doesn’t incite guilt in you, I’ve also got examples close to home.

One friend’s father is dying of organ failure. He put off seeking medical attention because he couldn’t afford it. Another friend’s mother is gravely ill with an unexpected, often fatal illness, the kind that blindsides the loved ones of otherwise healthy people who end up dead in less than 48 hours. My friends’ blushed faces, their tears, their cracked voices and halting logic overrun by emotion remind me of 2010, the Year I Lost My Mother. I cry for them and I cry for me, knowing their wounds are fresh and will take years to heal and, even then, the scar tissue will occasionally bind them until they wince with pain at unexpected moments.

On the day I cursed life, many of my Facebook friends darted out from behind the social network curtain to send me cheer, to commiserate, to remind me of both happier and sadder days. And so I watch the curious parade of status updates — a recipe, a birthday celebration, “prayer warriors” bound by cause and faith, political rants, happy babies, vacations, and sporting events — and I think to myself that the world spins with or without my participation, without the injured or dying or dead and with no regard for either the gleeful or the grieving. This makes me feel at once small and enormous. I am inconsequential, as are my moods, and yet the world, the glorious, infuriating, life-sustaining and soul-sucking world continues to spin around me, spinning so fast that I am compelled to stand perfectly still, like the spindle in a centrifuge, unswerving, observant, disquisitive about the meaning of my Week of Crap until a kind of willing equanimity washes over me, the immensity of which swells my heart with reconciliation for my mysterious earthly journey.

And I think we’re all just plodding — hopeful tramps looking for the slightest evidence of grace in the next soul we meet, so we can shake a hand, offer a word, compare notes, and head on down the road, none the wiser but maybe a wee bit closer to the divine that lives in all of us.

With gratitude {for a week that reminded me of a Jackson Browne song, perhaps a little less harmonious but just as lyrical},

Joan, who’ll get up and do it again, Amen

The teary thing.

Dear friends,

So I told you the other day I had a million things running through my mind, and this is the third thing that is falling onto the page, one I never guessed I would share.

You see, I was reading Momastery the other day and I stumbled across this post from a year ago. I was reading Glennon’s story about Anna’s story, about death and fear and courage, and I cried and cried. And all the crying prompted half of the million-bazillion thoughts racing through my mind until I pushed them away because, geeeeeez, who needs a downer first thing in the morning? And despite the teary start to that day, my week turned out pretty darn great (a hard project completed, a financial reward, a lovely surprise from my oldest child).

And so by Friday, you know, I went to bed feeling happy. I closed my eyes and one sentence, 13 words that began with “When I was nine years old . . .” popped into my head. Just popped into my head and announced that I needed to rise. And so I crawled out of bed well after midnight and found my laptop in the dark and opened a blank document and filled it with a story that spilled out fully formed in a matter of minutes, 1,226 words that were born out of Glennon’s story about Anna’s story.

My story seems heavy, but don’t take it that way. Because I feel a lightness, a peace, an unshakable confidence in the power of love. One minute I was afraid and the next I wasn’t and I just sorta thought well, huh, this is different. And two years later, Glennon inspired me to dig deep and write it down.

With gratitude {for all the real Superheroes of the world, also known as Mothers},

Joan, who also has an unshakable confidence in the power of telling our stories

Witness

When I was nine years old, my maternal grandfather died in our bathroom. He had been on the toilet and something happened. I’m not sure what, something with his heart I think. I was in the living room engrossed in The Waltons when I heard my mother yelling for help.

There was no one to help. My maternal grandmother had suffered a stroke a few months earlier and was still recovering. She sat lame and mute on the sofa while I sat frozen nearby, both of us listening to my mother’s pleas.

“Please help me! Please call someone!” my mother frantically pleaded.  This was before the days of 9-1-1. I have little memory of making the call other than fumbling with the phone. I don’t even recall who I phoned – the Fire Department maybe – because soon enough they showed up. A long time later, two men in uniforms took my grandfather out on a gurney, a black drape over his body. It was late and very dark outside and I remember sitting under the harsh overhead light in our living room and staring out our front door, which had been propped open by the firemen and seemed like the portal to a darkness I would fear for a very long time.

The next day my mother sent me to stay with my widowed paternal grandmother who lived an hour away.  I loved my Gram but she was even older than my grandfather and as soon as evening rolled around, I became anxious. If something happened to Gram, I knew I would bear witness to her passing all alone. I don’t recall how I coped through the first night or two, but as the days passed on, I started inventing reasons to invite younger adults over or spend our evenings anywhere but alone together in my Gram’s house. I was terrified of being alone with old people after dark for a very long time.

Two years later, my brother died in his sleep at age 26. He was married and – for reasons I don’t to this day understand – his wife called my mother on the phone to tell her. Once again, my disabled grandmother sat mute and I sat frozen in our living room on an early Saturday morning as my mother absorbed the loss of her son over the phone amidst the din of Looney Tunes on our hulking console television.

I will never forget my mother’s wailing. She rushed to the bathroom and lost her bowels and vomited violently and screamed and retched like nothing I had ever seen. I cried and screamed, too, begging her to stop. She couldn’t stop.  I left the bathroom and went to my bedroom and shut the door. I have no memory of who tended to my mother – or my grandmother, for that matter — on that day.

A few years later, my grandmother, who had been failing for so many years, finally died at home, too. I was away at summer camp. My father – who I rarely saw — arrived unannounced in the middle of the night to retrieve me. All I could think of was “Thank god I got to miss this one.” My father had been drinking, and as he drove dangerously fast for more than two hours over the narrow and curving two-lane road back to my mother’s home, I recall wondering if death by automobile accident was preferable to other options.

And so, by the time I was a teenager, I had grown to fear death like no other occurrence, no matter how it arrived. I had been witness to its ravages, on the souls departed and the souls remaining, poor souls wounded and grieving, mute and wailing, young and old. I figured I might do anything to sidestep its grasp, from siding with God or bargaining with the Devil, to living healthy so as to delay its arrival as long as possible, to closing off my heart so that if it claimed another loved one, I wouldn’t feel it, wouldn’t fall into a shock, wouldn’t retch until my bones crumbled into a dust that choked me from the inside out.

***

It was Winston Churchill, I think, who said the only thing to fear is fear itself.  I got it, the very first time I heard those words in school. The fear could kill you too, he knew and I knew, more slowly, more deliberately than any real threat. Because despite the shock of losing three family members at such a young age, the rest of my adolescence and young adulthood were free of death or even hardship of most sorts, except the kind you carry around in your heart that you don’t want to hold and yet can’t release because even fear becomes an old friend after so long, a friend just waiting for you to turn your head so he can strangle you.

It’s funny to me how adult coping mechanisms are so similar to youthful ones, the bargains, the distractions, the rationalizations, easily conjured in age-appropriate expressions. I watched as family members fell prey to the kind of distractions that came in a bottle, or a needle, or a capsule and vowed to find another path. Mine became a particularly astringent kind of stoicism that bent to neither pleasure nor pain, a furious sobriety that could just as easily choke you from the inside out.

And then I had babies and the whole world changed.  I hid under my wings two beautiful and miraculous creatures, rendered so perfectly, so wholly sublime I thought my heart might burst like the Grinch’s from growing three sizes too big in an instant.  And oh my god I panicked. I remembered my mother and I panicked. Most people didn’t see it, but my husband sensed it, the way I fretted excessively over every fever, every cut, every potentially injurious speck that invaded their realm. When they lived through all their childhood illnesses and seemed to be safe and thriving, I invented nightmares to torture myself until I awoke in a fright because remember how I said fear can be an old friend and I seemed to need one in the midst of so much happiness that I worried couldn’t last.

***

Not long before my mother died, I held her hand and we cried together in a dark hospital room. We didn’t talk much, just a few words. We were staring down death together, as we had those times before, but this day calmly and quietly. She said she’d had a good life and she wasn’t afraid. Strangely, I wasn’t afraid either, for the first time. How had I blamed her all those years for frightening me so, and yet this time, she was leading me, helping me through it? Did she know, had she planned for this last gift to me of peace and courage? Her silhouette was so small, so frail, but she was a medal of bravery, burnished by life’s hard edges, glowing in the distant light from outside the door of her hospital room. We were looking from the dark into the light, a literal antonym of the portal etched in my memory on the first night I met death at age nine.  It was as if she was saying, “See, you can do it.  You can feel it and endure it.”

And I finally, wondrously came to understand that crazy retching love is not the thing to fear, not the thing that crushes you in the face of unimaginable loss, but the thing that sustains you and substantiates you and buoys your injured soul across the Sea of Healing until you are able to swim alone again.

My mother taught me that. It just took me many years to understand the lesson.

Grappling with gratitude.

Dear friends,

I’ve been away for a few days.

Not away from home, but certainly away from my senses. From what I hold dear, including gratitude.

You see, Mr. Mom and I got some bad news earlier this week. As you might guess, it’s related to our mountain dispute. We’ve been trying to get our heads around this latest development, to understand our options — if there even are any — and what comes next. Frankly, though, we feel like we’ve been sucker punched and it’s hard to think straight when you’ve had the wind knocked out of you. The judge’s latest ruling unleashed a tsunami of heartache and regret and frustration and grief — and we’re standing dazed and battered on the shore while the remnants of our dream drift out to sea.

I’m not trying to be dramatic and I’m certainly not trying to foreshadow the conclusion to my weekly story — if I even get that far. Right now, I just feel silly and stupid and embarrassed about the whole thing. When I started telling the story in installments, I thought it would be cathartic. And, honestly, we thought we saw a light at the end of the tunnel and we believed the story would have a happy ending. (I foolishly thought I had a “keep your chin up, folks” story to tell. And how perfect is that for a gratitude blog?)  As things have unfolded in recent weeks, however, it’s hard to believe in the happy ending and it’s doubly difficult to keep writing a narrative that looks as if it’s about to break our hearts.

So the last few days I’ve swallowed hard and thought a lot about gratitude. I said at the outset of this blog that I aspired to cultivate gratitude in my life — to reflect on it and savor it and spread it. And in a way, I feel like I’m cutting and running on my promise to myself and to my readers if I can’t muster the courage or the fortitude to finish the story and to unearth something, anything from this experience to be grateful for.

Here’s the truth as I know it today: If you ever think you know what’s next in your life, you’re delusional. And if you ever think you have any control over it, you’re certifiably insane.  The business guru Peter Drucker said “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” I think Peter Drucker is full of BS. Life happens, and sometimes life sucks and sometimes it breaks your heart and sometimes it flattens you.

It seems to me the real test is — can you get back up? Can you walk through the rest of your days without a 10-pound stone of sorrow and regret in your pocket? Can you uncover something positive to dwell on, can you heal your heart, can you redeem your faith in this life?

That’s what I’m focused on right now. I’ll let you know how it goes.

With gratitude {for a partner whose admirable composure and stability has made a very difficult week bearable},

Joan

PS: I have a few more installments of our story already written. I’ll continue to publish them on Mondays until I run out of installments or run out of words.  In the mean time, I’m taking a little blogging break. Kate and I are headed out for New York City and I can think of no more restorative activity than mother-daughter bonding in the Big Apple. However, at a time when I’m grappling with gratitude, I can say without reservation that you, dear readers, are a source of support and encouragement and friendship for which I’m immensely thankful.

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

Dear friends,

Now that both my children are older, both driving, both moving about the world in ways I no longer see and supervise, I find myself confronting a new kind of parental anxiety.

Hold on? Let go?

Of course, it’s not that easy. It’s never that easy. It’s always the degrees in life that get you.

A young child in our community died recently, of a sudden illness. Our school sent parents a note about contagious diseases and proper precautions, although we all know there’s never proper anything that makes us feel better in these situations. Our entire community grieved over this unimaginable loss, and all parents who hear this kind of story feel a sharp pang of fear in knowing it could have been their child. Could have been their loss.

Sunday afternoon I tripped across this mother’s story. She lost her 12-year-old son last year in an accident in a creek on a rainy day. Not long after I finished reading the story, Parker came home after spending the night at a friend’s house. He popped in long enough to say he was going to grab his swimsuit and return to the friend’s house to swim in the creek behind his house.

“Okay,” Mr. Mom said.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said.

Obviously, reading a story about a 12-year-old boy dying in a creek on a rainy day right before my 16-year-old announces his attention to go swimming in one after a day of heavy rain makes me worry. But even if I hadn’t read the story, I probably would have asked the same questions: Who will you be with? How deep and wide is the creek? Don’t you think it’s too cold and too early in the year to be swimming?

And the hardest questions of all: To what degree do I assert my concern, both with Mr. Mom and Parker, and do I allow their judgment to override my fear?

In the end, Parker went swimming. And he came home safe two hours later. Upon questioning, he said the water was not running fast. It was deep (perhaps 10 feet he estimated, which doesn’t make it a “creek” in my book) and cold. It was also fun, he said, in the same voice Mr. Mom had privately described to me what he considered reasonable boyhood adventures after Parker left with his swimsuit.

Mr. Mom lived through what I would describe as a largely unsafe adolescence. I lived through a very tame one. How I reconcile our varying degrees of parental comfort based on very different experiences is another one of those questions I struggle with.

My comfort level is further eroded because my brother died in his early 20s due to complications from a motorcycle accident. I was 11 when I watched my mother lose her only son, so I’ve spent a lifetime fearing that kind of grief more than anything.

If you are a person of great faith, I suppose you look to the Lord for comfort and answers. If you are a person of little or no faith, I suppose both are hard to come by. If you are a person in the middle, like so many are, I imagine you swing between divine purpose and pointless longing for what can’t be undone depending on the tenor of your grief on that day and hour.

To his credit, Mr. Mom has always been respectful of my concerns, even if he thinks I’m being overprotective. He usually starts on one end of the spectrum and I start on the other, and so far we’ve managed to grope our way to the middle. Or what feels like middle ground to the two of us.

At some point, I guess, all parents have to learn to reasonably judge their child’s strengths, frailties, attraction to risk, and ability to self-manage among peers in uncertain circumstances. I always judge more conservatively than Mr. Mom. I guess I’ve gotten comfortable with him tugging me his direction a little.

Some days, though, when you read of the tragic loss of others, you never get comfortable.

Until the child, who will always be your child no matter his age, walks in the door.

With gratitude {for two kids who have so far escaped serious injury and their mother’s worrying},

Joan, who comes from a long line of worrywarts but has managed to release some of her irrational fears, arachnophobia and batophobia nothwithstanding