This is Marriage. This is 18. This is Life.

We had planned a quiet anniversary celebration, since the school board transformed what used to be a summer night into a school night a few years ago.

Our first anniversary was a trip with friends to Hawaii.

Our third was a walk to a park with our baby in a stroller.

Our fourth through seventeenth…well, who can recall the details? A few dinners, a few nights with sick children, a few vacations, a search through my mind’s records would likely reveal.

But our eighteenth anniversary will be remembered as the day we got our first puppies. Two.

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Officially I have lost my mind.

After years of saying no, I felt ready for a dog. A single dog. We discussed this in May, decided to wait until the end of summer, when travels were done. And then today our friend brought over four puppies for us to choose from.

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The cuteness was the problem. How to choose? Add to that so many voices– the friend giving them away, my mother-in-law, my sons, my nieces, even my husband — insisting that a single dog would be lonely without a companion.

I tried using the rational mind: “Most people we know with dogs have just one dog.” And “My mental health is more important than the dog’s mental health.” But the rational mind does not always win. Because, remember, the cuteness.

When it was time for the woman with the puppies to go, pressure was applied. But it didn’t take that much. And now we have two dogs.

And so an 18th anniversary becomes trip to the pet store for supplies. Becomes friends coming over to see the new puppies. Becomes nieces coming back and back again to cradle the pups. Becomes an uncle coming to visit. Becomes my sons trying out names and playing with them and cleaning up after them, and feeding them and getting pillows for their bedtime crate. Become my incredulous parents popping by to wish us a happy anniversary. Becomes an impromptu barbeque, and opening a bottle of champagne and Martinelli’s cider, which had been cooling in the refrigerator since last year.

If ever there is a time to uncork some celebration, this is it. This is 18 years of marriage. Kids. Family. Friends. Blessings abounding. And, now, dogs.

This is life: Full and overflowing, throwing some caution to the wind, saying yes.

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Watching Olympics is more fun in a group.
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Let’s hope this lasts all night…?

 

 

 

 

Carolyn See: The Audacity of Creativity, Generosity, and Persistence

For a moment, I want to put aside all news related to grand-scale pain and death, and reflect on one single candle blown out yesterday, not by terrorism or war or weapon, but by cancer.

I want to pay tribute to author, teacher, inspirer, Carolyn See.

Thirty years ago I read her novel Golden Days. I was so young, I didn’t know anything about her, didn’t know that she was the queen of Literature of California, or even that she lived near my town. I knew only that her descriptions — like how it felt to drive on lazy, meandering Sunset Boulevard — would embed in my brain until they became my own world view.

Twenty years later, I was a mother of two young boys, timidly daring to spend free time writing, though not brave enough to call myself a writer. I came across another book of hers, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers

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Carolyn See helped me believe in my idea to write, edit and publish my first book. Her words helped me squash the inner voice that said I was an impostor, wannabe, dilettante. She spoke directly to me, and every other would-be writer hanging onto her advice, saying: Go For It. Cultivate Your Own Literary Life. She invited us in, but advised us that we’d have to push the door open and walk through by our own efforts. It wouldn’t be opened for us.

She commanded two essential ingredients: Write 1,000 words, and one charming note, five days a week. (Her daughter, novelist Lisa See, in the anthology What My Mother Gave Me, described this lesson as her mother’s gift to her.)

The thousand words a day I understood. But that “charming note” seemed so awkward. Who would I write? What would I say? “Hi, I really liked your book. Have a nice day.” How would that help me make a literary life?

I decided to trust her, and tried it. Once. Ten years ago, I wrote a note to Carolyn See herself. (I imagine she got a lot of those from people like me who couldn’t think of who else to write a note to.) I wouldn’t have remembered writing this note, but it turns out I never sent it. It appeared on my desk last week, unaddressed, except for her name.

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I opened it this morning after reading of her passing.

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I took her message to heart, and through years of writing, rewriting, abandoning, returning, and committing to the end goal, I became an author. In the words on the book jacket, “Carolyn See is not only a wonderful writer — she’s a wonderful writer who wants you to be a wonderful writer as well.” The audacity of generosity.

Dear Lisa, and dear Clara, your mother surely gave you many gifts, but I wanted to publicly thank her for the gift she gave me – allowing me to believe that the writing life was open to me, and so many others, simply if we wanted it.

We cannot always know where our inspiration or role models will come from, or to know what piece of advice will stick with us and make the difference years later. In a world whose grand trends can some days fill me with despair, I find solace today in zooming in, on focusing on one creative, original, and generous life lived.

How to Conquer Death

 

We time-traveled to 1991 last week. It was our 25th college reunion, and it filled my well. For a bubble of time, my husband and I and many friends reverted to being occupied primarily with having fun together – asking what we want to do next, dancing, staying up too late, eating cheesesteaks at 3am.

In the week leading up to it, trivialities crossed my mind: What will I wear? Is there time for a facial? How can I have a pimple in a wrinkle?

Christopher’s wiser thought: “I’m so grateful we are still here and healthy, and able to see so many friends who are still here and healthy.” Yes, that.

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As we reveled, our younger son and his grandparents binge-watched one of their favorite shows on the Smithsonian channel: Air Disasters. By the time we were flying home from the reunion weekend, he was well-acquainted with the aviation science behind a dozen different crashes. We thought of each of them during the abnormally shaky take-off, and mid-flight bumpiness.

I can’t be the only one who things about life and death in those instances. Death scares me. And I hate that scared feeling. It’s the second worst part of dying, I’d venture. In those terrifying moments, I talk myself through why I should not be afraid. It comes down to gratitude for my life so far.

Let’s start with loving parents and a protective playmate in my sister. Ample resources for food, shelter, and ballet lessons. Good teachers in good, safe schools. A mostly unscathed adolescence, with enough social pain to help me guide my children through their bumps and bruises. Glorious teenage friends, and yes we did own the world for a time. I had letdowns, and silver linings, and learned that you can’t always tell the difference between a blessing and a curse in the moment.

I had the grace to choose a career I wanted, and to make friends who continue to inspire me. I had the brilliant luck of finding Christopher, the love, the caring, the tenderness, the support, the babies.

Oh, the beautiful delicious babies, so big now.

There are many things still to do, many more words to write, hugs to hold onto. I’m greedy for more more more. But even if I live to be 120 years old, it may never be enough.

So I try to remember this:

If we are souls incarnate, and if souls are mysterious energies spinning around in the universe, this one universe in a hundred thousand, and if we get to land on Earth for a while, in the midst of millions of galaxies, in all of creation, then we ought not complain when the ride is over. We have to try to be grateful we had the ride at all. It’s like going to Kauai: You’re sad when you leave, but you were lucky to have been there at all.

I turn my head and look out the wide glass doors of my house to the trumpet vines beginning to cover the trampoline. The blessed beauty of chlorophyll, of greenest leaves and caterpillar temptation. The radical genius of hot coffee and sweet cinnamon dough. The miracles of being:  A kiss. Soft skin warm. Baby faces and little-boy-bellies, blossoming young men. Tickles that still yield laughter. Oh rapture.

 

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Lesson from the check-out line: Spread Joy

This time my prophet appeared in the form of a Trader Joe’s cashier.

Let’s call him AJ. He was chatting with the cute young woman in front of me, and their conversation continued after she had paid and her groceries were bagged.

I felt aggravation bubbling up. I took a deep, patient breath. I decided to notice the sweetness in their conversation, to wonder if this moment would be the one they would tell their future children about — how Daddy handed Mommy his phone number on a bent and dusty business card.

They finished talking after about 10 seconds, probably less, and he began ringing up my purchases. I was proud of myself for not wasting energy on harrumphing. He was one of those “How are you? I’m great, I’m super, what a blessed day” type of guys. As he started ringing up my purchases, he offered up his personal M.O.: “I wake up in the morning and decide ‘Today going to be great.’ No matter what happens, you have to decide that.” He explained, as he bagged my frozen taquitos and smoked mozzarella, that with this attitude, even if he has a car accident, it won’t ruin his day. It’s just part of his day.

His attitude dovetailed with my new resolution to laugh more. To lighten up. I tend toward the serious. Even my gratitude is serious – for the absence of all the baaaaad things that can happen. My motivation for the new attitude is my kids; I want their idea of me to be fun and laughing, not worried and cranky. I have precious few years left to imprint their childhood memories.

This happy-gas effort has been working, though it takes some mindfulness to counter my default “serious” outlook.

Let’s be clear, I have nothing against seriousness – it is requisite for significant social change. I mean, we have to presume that America’s Abolitionists, Suffragettes, and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were serious people, who were never heard to utter, “Let’s not worry about equal rights! Turn up the music and pass the cupcakes!” Seriousness of purpose has a place. But I don’t have to be so serious all the time.

The day after AJ, I heard the same message at Torah study. Even though the weekly portion was about skin eruptions. 

I will spare you the gorey details and cut to the chase. Rabbi Amy Bernstein showed us a little rabbi trick she had learned, because rabbis like to play with language and meaning. She took the Hebrew word for blemish, moved its letters around, and turned it into the Hebrew word for joy. Whether you see a blemish or joy, she suggested, depends on your perspective.

Joy blooms when you look for it. The sages knew it. AJ knew it. And, just like certain skin eruptions, joy can spread to people around you, be they your kids, your spouse, or the lady in the check-out line.

Be careful. It’s catching.

 

A Walk in the Woods, aka The Reset Button

If ever a political junkie needed to get clean and sober, now is the time.

I’m addicted to watching the tragi-comedy of the election cycle on CNN/FOX/MSNBC, and it’s taking its toll on my mental health. Sure, it has helped my exercise routine: the horror show helps me stay on the elliptical for an otherwise interminable 30 minutes. But last night I had to apologize to the lady on a recumbent bike next to me for my loud grunted outbursts while reading the closed captioning of Donald Trump’s “press conference” — where reporters aren’t miked, his “answers” are how much everyone loves him, how “amazing” everything is, and how much he loves everyone. BLARGHFF!!!

That stuff poisons my soul. It piles up in stress and disgust and unease. Today I recognized that my spirit needed a work-out that could not be found on a machine in front of a screen, a fix that only the calm of nature could provide.

I needed to take a walk.

“Go outside,” my baby group leader counseled us fifteen years ago, as we exhausted new mothers expressed bafflement with babies who couldn’t be consoled. “Stepping outside is like a reset button for a baby.” It worked. And it works for grown humans, too.

I needed mountains and trees. I needed to run, panting until my chest hurt. So I went to my local State Park. When my shoes touched dirt paths that were still drying out from a recent downpour, I felt my reset button pressed. So simple.

The outside worked its magic. It created space for me to feel gratitude.

Gratitude for purple flowers popping up in patches along the path.

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Gratitude for rotting logs with peeling bark.

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Gratitude for vines climbing a tree.

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Gratitude for a burst of yellow when the path emerged from shade into sun.

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Gratitude for the bend in the path, that concealed where it would lead.

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Gratitude, even, for the discomfort that had pushed me to get here. The reset let my mind roam. I thought about words I might write. Sights triggered happiness-boosting memories of earlier hikes here, playing hooky from pre-school, and leaf races in the creek.

When it was time to walk home, I came across something special and temporary – a “Yarn Bombing” in honor of Women’s History Month: a bold explosion of beauty, color, creativity, whimsy, fun, collaboration, generosity, education, history, values and remembrance, created by local artist/writer/actress/activist/mom/craft-goddess Michelle Villemaire. Each tree honors a different woman in history, from Sally Ride to Sacagawea. And each blanket will be donated to the Downtown Women’s Center when the installation is over.

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IMG_7947And who did I happen to see? Michelle herself, fastening a blanket around a “Little Free Library.” Community wrapped in community.

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Michelle Villemaire poses with the “Rose Gilbert” tree — honoring the late high school teacher Rose Gilbert, with roses knitted by Pali High students

All this goodness came from getting myself outside: out of my house and my car and my TV and my Facebook feed and my head.

But I’m not naive. I know things are not always as simple as “a walk makes everything better.” Problems get thorny. Days get dark.

But the premise holds true: there is always a reset button, there is always a clean slate to be had. It begins with a step outside, a deep inhale of fresh new air, a cleansing exhale, and another step forward. Maybe alone, maybe holding someone’s hand, maybe a little of both. One foot at a time, one step after the other. We can’t know how our journey will unfold, we can see just enough to take our next step. We walk forward, and sometimes beautiful surprises pop up to greet us on our way home.

I wanted to tell you.

I’ve been wanting to tell you some things, but I haven’t had enough time or patience to give them their due, to connect them in a coherent story. So they sit in my head, unsaid. Sometimes I’m too busy living my life to write about it. Not writing makes me grumpy. It’s a physical need, to process through words, to wonder. But things move fast, and writing requires stillness.

So I wanted to tell you some things and it may not be perfect.

I wanted to tell you that we’re not too old to play. I nag my kids to go outside and they turn it around, ask me to play Capture the Flag. I have to force myself say yes. Lo and behold, despite myself, I have fun.

I wanted to tell you that my 15 1/2 year old niece joined in last time and was as into it as any of us.

I wanted to say how fast they, and we, grow up. My sister pulled into the driveway to pick up this teenage girl who had been screaming with abandon, “Get the flag!! Get the flag!!” My sister moved to the passenger seat, and my niece took her place behind the wheel. I watched her drive away.

I wanted to tell you to keep playing, as long as you can, even though our bodies can’t keep up with our spirits. A couple of weeks ago my husband’s softball team learned that bitter lesson three-fold, with a broken leg, a torn Achilles, and a fractured finger. Yet wary teammates will return to the field, weighing real risk against real fun.

My Dad plays football every Sunday with the same group of guys. Football is for him like writing is for me. It fills his well. Last week a player came out of the game feeling sick. Tight chest and nausea. My Dad rushed his friend to the hospital a few blocks away, where he had a heart attack in the waiting room, surrounded and saved by paramedics, thank God.

I wanted to tell you so much more, to unravel the string of words that is knotted in my heart and head. I wanted to tell you to play while you can, that there’s not enough time not to play. There’s not enough time for perfection.

I wanted to tell you I appreciate you.

And it’s time for the next thing…