Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Life Well-Lived

Sunday we held a memorial service for my grandfather in the retirement community where he spent his last several years of life. About 140 people showed up to spend two and a half hours listening to and telling stories about the person they knew. It turns out that his generous spirit, contagious smile, enthusiasm for life and infectious personality reached beyond his gene pool and touched hundreds of others. He was remembered as a prankster, a sweetheart, a gentleman, and an inspiration.

For the first time in decades (maybe ever), my grandfather's entire collection of descendants was together. Overwhelmingly female, overwhelmingly possessed of a dry, sometimes raunchy sense of humor, we set out to have a good time. Saturday began with a gathering at the cemetery where we remembered both my grandfather and his wife of 50+ years and put them to rest together in the same urn. The wind howled outside, lightning flashed and the dark grey clouds hovered low in the sky. We huddled together inside the marble shelter that houses the ashes of people of all ages and backgrounds, telling stories of the man we knew - an independent, fiercely determined person who never failed to find the humor in life.

As we retreated to our cars, the first fat drops of rain began to fall. In this part of California thunderstorms are an unusual phenomenon, but a biggie was forecast for Saturday night. As the four of us in the car chatted about the wild weather I caught sight of the rippled mountains ahead of us - stretched above them were the arcs of two of the most gorgeous rainbows I have ever seen.

Saturday night found us, all forty of us, in the back room of Grandpa's favorite restaurant celebrating his life. Bubba ordered a martini with extra olives, Grandpa's favorite, and we toasted him while the great-grandchildren played on the floor, giggling and scooting around underneath the tables.

Following the memorial service and the 21-putt salute (Grandpa was an obsessive golfer), we all trouped over to my aunt's house for a feast of enchiladas and salad. This family is tight-knit, supportive and full of life. We love to eat, tell jokes, reminisce, and be together. The women in this family (my grandfather had four daughters and one son) are strong-willed and independent and have taught their daughters to be the same. Of the grandchildren, only two are boys and the other seven are girls. The men that are part of these women's lives are not easily frightened by smart women and tend to band together in humor. Bubba fits right in. The evening was overwhelmingly full of laughter and only a few tears. This man, this inspiration, this incredible person who is the reason we are all here has much to be proud of. He taught us to love life and live life. That is one mandate we are all willing to follow.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


I have, until now, studiously avoided seeing Michael Moore's film "Sicko." It is the kind of film that makes me ill. The kind of film that I am sure will present me with evidence to confirm what I already believe. The kind of film that I am sure will present others with a lot of food for thought and may cause them to re-examine their own beliefs. The kind of film that will flash in the sky like fireworks on the fourth of July, leave debris behind on the streets for a week or so, and then be swept away without much thought for another year.

I have long championed socialized medicine. I believe that everyone has the right to seek medical treatment and receive it regardless of their socioeconomic status. I don't buy any of that crap that says that the United States has the best healthcare in the world because our system is market-driven. We have an incredibly high infant mortality rate. Our rate of homelessness is directly attributable to our lack of health care and mental health treatment. I could spout statistics. I could present facts, anecdotal evidence, actual interviews. But Michael Moore did that already. He did it with humor and honesty. He did it without ambiguity and by asking questions of people on both sides of the issue. And it hasn't made a damn bit of difference.

I watched 2/3 of the movie "Sicko" last night. I had to turn it off because I couldn't stand to watch anymore. For decades other countries have known that being healthy is a fundamental building block to having a strong society. Other Western countries. Other democratic countries. Other countries with whom the United States is allied. Other countries who look at us in disbelief. What is it going to take for us to admit that we are a society? A collective, connected society? What will it take for the United States to cease being simply a group of individuals interested in their own personal wealth and issues and begin seeing ourselves as part of something bigger? What do we need to do to understand that what hurts some of us hurts us all? I, for one, am not afraid of higher taxes if it means that each and every person in this country will be free to walk in to a clinic and be treated. I am not afraid of spending more of my own money right now so that in ten or fifteen or twenty years our rate of cancers, obesity, diabetes, homelessness and people losing their homes because of catastrophic healthcare costs will diminish.

I am disgusted by the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies who continue to dole out millions of dollars to protect their bottom line. I am not willing to move to another country to get my socialized medicine. This is my home. I want to stay here and make it better. I'm just not sure that will happen in my lifetime. Forgive me for turning off the movie and burying my head in the sand for now. I'm feeling a little discouraged.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Who Knew?

Heart. Head. We have both of them for a reason. It is easy for me to forget that the two are connected at their roots. I tend to use my head for calculations, logical conclusions, reading and writing. My brain goes all day long - consuming most of my energy and time. I engage my heart from time to time throughout the day, reacting to emotional prompts from friends, news items, my daughters, opening it slowly and gingerly as I sit in meditation.

Occasionally I am reminded that ideally, the two pieces of myself ought to work in concert. They are not mutually exclusive, my head and my heart. I am at my most genuine when they exchange energy and ideas freely. For most of my life I listened to stories about my father and believed every one. I was afraid to confront him with these tales that painted him as a selfish, narcissistic macho man for a multitude of reasons: loyalty to my mother, fear of his anger, confusion about where I fit into his life....

As I began building a relationship with my father over the last decade, adult to adult, secure in my independence, I resolved to put aside his past deeds and begin fresh. We respect each other's individuality, have discovered a way to talk frankly about our beliefs and support each other emotionally. I love him deeply and know that he feels the same way about me. Regardless of this newfound friendship, I still believed every story I was ever told about his despicable deeds during my childhood.

As we spoke over the phone yesterday he talked about something we had never discussed before. His perspective came as a shock. He never once got defensive or dismissive as I talked to him about my feelings. He was genuine in his sadness and regret as well as supportive of my need to obtain closure. I spent the evening mulling over the possibility that I had shortchanged myself for years. By not letting my heart communicate with my head I denied myself the potential to ask a different kind of question about the person I knew as my father. I took the words at face value and never asked my heart to weigh in. I don't know if it would have made a difference when I was a child. I do know that from now on my heart's perspective will be worth a lot more. As I assimilated the new information into my brain it felt right. The disconnect between what I had been told and the person I know my father to be became a little less like the Grand Canyon. I've gotta start putting these two entities in the same room together more often. Head. Heart. I've got them both for a reason.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Way Overdue

As I begin to emerge from the disorganization of the past month or so, getting the girls back in to their routines of school and regular bedtimes, making some headway on my book project, injecting some predictability into our lives once again, I am finally able to sit down and begin to fully appreciate my Christmas gift from Bubba.

Before I go any further, I should tell you that Bubba's greatest goal when presenting me with any gift is to see tears. Underneath that red neck of his, he's a sensitive guy (shhh, don't tell him I let on...) and he loves knowing that he's touched me so deeply that I can't temper my response and I start crying. That has backfired at least once. On our tenth wedding anniversary he presented me with a gorgeous ring he'd not been able to afford when he asked me to marry him and I was so appalled that 1) I had nothing for him per our previous agreement not to get anniversary gifts for each other, and 2) he'd spent a significant amount of money on something that served no other purpose than to show me how much he loved me that I punched him. I immediately began sobbing in the middle of the restaurant, too, but first, I punched him. Hard. He knows I have a hard time assessing my own self-worth and receiving gifts like this butt up against my practical side. Nonetheless, he insists on continuing to debunk that myth and remind me how much I mean to him. Obnoxious, huh?

Anyway, back to the story at hand. As many of you may remember from blog posts past, my dearest friend and her children moved to Europe last summer. The girls and I were absolutely devastated. These were the people we shared Easter and Christmas traditions with. These were the special 'chosen' family we opted to spend our free time with. We saw each other multiple times a week, pulled each others' bacon off the fire more than once, called each other in the middle of the night to pinch hit in times of crisis, laughed until we cried, and fully expect to grow old together. There was even one occasion during which we attempted to arrange the lesbian marriage of our two eldest daughters (unfortunately, they both have somewhat strong personalities and will insist on making up their own minds, damn them!). Many sorrowful phone calls and attempts to communicate via webcam have ensued and living without them just up the road has taken some of the shine off of our daily lives.

As I sat in the living room on Christmas morning, one of the children brought me a package to open. I looked at Bubba to see if it was okay with him that I open it now (there is an order to these things, you know) and he got a silly, smug smile on his face. Uh oh. He was proud of his efforts this year. He's shooting for tears. Yup.

He got 'em. I gently removed the wrapping paper along the seams (makes him crazy how long it takes me to open a gift - I'm not a 'rip and tear' kind of gal) to reveal a travel book. The bookmark was an IOU - a plane ticket to Europe. By myself. The note said, "Go spend some time with your best friend. By yourself. I've got things covered here. I love you."

The rest of the family were quite confused as I hurtled myself across the room into his lap and thoroughly soaked his t-shirt with my sobs. Isn't he the best?

Monday, January 14, 2008

No Interpretation Necessary

I am so tired. I've been trying to get to bed earlier and I'm sleeping in more and more, but my sleep is being constantly pelted with annoying dreams - like hailstones in the night. My head is filled with unfinished business. Old friends I haven't seen or thought of in decades. A novel I'm desperately trying to finish. A baseball game that is going into extra innings and it just won't end and I'm biting my nails and sitting on the edge of my seat because I can't leave and go to the really important thing waiting for me until the game is over.

I dream of alternate scenarios. Two nights ago I found myself giving a stranger a tour of Bubba's childhood farm, explaining how his life would have turned out had he decided not to leave this redneck town and go to college. He'd have moved in to the house on his parents' property and worked the land. He'd have married a girl who went to school with him and stayed there, content to use his hands in the earth every day.

I know why these tornadoes of thought are whirling in my head. I get it. What I don't know is what to do with them. Do I 'finish' things? Do I sit with this and see where the next dream takes me? I am finally back to working on the book and enjoying the process. I want to finish the book, but I also want to revel in the sitting at my desk, strawberry candles lit, soothing background music playing, soft light floating down on my hands as they fly across the keyboard. I want to soak in the feeling of doing what I love in the time that is mine - kids at school, dog fed and walked, Bubba off chasing his dream.

I don't like the unsettled feelings, the gravel swirling up from the bottom of the aquarium. I want to glide through the water - a fish not in search of anything but being where I am. But someone keeps stirring up the damn rocks and the crud that pushes its way up into the water is bugging me.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Am I the Only One Who Feels This Way?

There is a familiar philosophical discussion that goes on in our house. I won't say it's an argument, because frankly, neither myself nor Bubba can muster up enough passion on either side to escalate it that far. But it definitely showcases our differences of opinion. Here it is:

I say that context is more important than content when it comes to words. He says not necessarily all the time. For example, in the interest of not having other parents hate me in public, I've refrained from using my 'sailor speech' freely at home so as to not teach my children that these words are appropriate. I've substituted the word "crap" for just about every other 'naughty word' I would normally use except I occasionally use the word "friggin'" for some things (for example, "why is it so friggin' important for you two to fight about who sits next to the dog in the car?").

Bubba hates the word "crap." He has warned our children not to use it and takes exception whenever I utter it within his earshot. Bubba, true to his nickname, is not a shrinking violet. He married me knowing full well I could open my mouth and let fly a blue streak the likes of which would rival the Northern Lights. I think he actually found that amusing, if not attractive in some weird way. Now that we have children, however, there are certain words he despises, "crap" and "fart" being among them.

I tend to believe (and this is the logical argument I used on my mother when she forbade me to say actual curse words as a teenager) that words are nothing less than a collection of letters and pose no threat of their own until they are aimed in a certain way. Enter: context. For example, while it is not appropriate for me to call my brother a sh*thead, I see no reason why I can't be allowed to scream, "SH*T!" upon smashing my toe against the edge of the coffee table. I don't literally mean that there is a pile of excrement lying somewhere near me (although that would likely elicit the same response from me). I am simply using a self-satisfying phrase in order to express myself. Likewise, I probably should not refer to another human being as a dumbf*ck, but when I lock myself out of the car in the middle of the supermarket parking lot and peer inside the windows to see the keys dangling from the ignition, I will likely mutter, "F*ck!" Again, I am not referring to the act of coupling between two people - I am simply expressing my frustration. Bubba doesn't see it the same way. He believes that I ought to show a little restraint and respect for other people in public by not saying what immediately comes to my mind.

On the other hand, I take exception to occasions when Bubba tells our squabbling children to "shut up!" That, I feel is disrespectful and I don't want my children thinking that it is ever okay to talk to other people that way. I also want them to learn that calling people names or making fun of them is not okay. Not that Bubba does that very often, but occasionally he will make some snide remark under his breath say, when we pass a woman who has squeezed herself into a Spandex outfit the likes of which she shouldn't have worn 25 pounds ago, much less today. I think that using language in this way is much more damaging than simply saying those four-letter words we're all taught to avoid.

This discussion is happening more and more often as our eldest daughter finds herself listening to music that occasionally contains one or more of these trigger words. I've asked her to sing along until those particular words come up and then zip her lip to skip right over them. She understands that some of these words are offensive to others in public and, although she doesn't understand exactly what they mean, she is willing to play the game for now. Bubba thinks that I ought to just remove those particular songs from her available repertoire altogether until she is older.

Food for thought, readers. Weigh in with your opinion, please!

By the way, the argument worked brilliantly on my mother. Either I was terrifically convincing or I just managed to wear her down - I tend to believe it was the latter. I have a hard time staying quiet for long.... No, really.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

You Called?

Saturday evening. The red light on the answering machine blinks. There is a new email in my inbox, alerting me to the new voice mail on my line. I am interested to know who called until I see the number. Dad's phone number, a long message, over a minute. I turn away.

We go about the business of putting the kids to bed, nagging about teeth brushing, 'are you sure you'll be warm enough in those jammies? It's supposed to snow tonight', short or long bedtime stories. They are finally settled in, we meet in the hallway tentatively, waiting to see whether anyone will holler for one last drink or hug before we descend the creaking stairs. We are finally settled on the couch and the blinking light reaches across the room toward me, reminding, but I brush it away.

My dreams are filled with frantic pursuits of old friends, decades old friends whom I've not seen or spoken to since high school. I've arranged meetings with them to clear up old misunderstandings. I am late - the car breaks down, my kids need something right now, I have to explain to my family why this is important. I can't get comfortable beneath the down comforter and my specially purchased pillow won't support my busy head tonight. I start awake at 7:30 - wondrous that the girls have slept in, and jostle Bubba - he's got a plane to catch. He smiles quickly and springs out of bed to get ready to go. I am disturbed by my dreams and just want to pull the covers over my head, but I know the shower will wake the girls and start my day, too.

Hours later, the three of us meander down the stairs to greet the animals and find some breakfast. Daddy's long gone - probably already on the airplane by now. As the girls settle in with their hot chocolate and SpongeBob SquarePants on the TV, I find the courage to check the voice mail. I wish I hadn't.

The specialists say there is nothing they can do. They decided, for some reason, to look for more. Dad submitted himself to a colonoscopy which didn't show anything. The next day he feels some pain in his hips and goes back to see why. Three hours later the films show it has spread to his bones. This strong, healthy, vital man who has bounced back from chemotherapy, major surgery, tours in VietNam, divorce, heartbreak. Nothing can be done.

His voice comes through - something about "...the Gerson Institute in San Diego...", raw food diets and special enemas - good survival rate with certain cancers. Maybe it's worth a shot. I wait. I sigh. I wish Bubba were here. I wish I could call my father and listen to his ideas with some enthusiasm. I wish I could call my father and tell him I'm sorry I missed his call last night. I wish I could call my father.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Starting Anew

The seed catalogs started coming in the mail two days after Christmas. One day after my grandfather died. Although I despise shopping in the traditional sense, there is something incredibly appealing about settling in to the couch with a cup of tea and a catalog. Sitting with my girls, each of us armed with a Sharpie, flipping through the pages and scanning the photographs of gloriously colored fruits and vegetables.

My oldest daughter goes slowly, reading the details of whether or not we have to start the seeds indoors or plant them directly into the ground. Frustrated with the snail's pace, my youngest brandishes her pen like a magic wand, circling the ones with the most striking photos regardless of the required growing season or agricultural zone.

We have decided to triple the size of our garden this year. A blue tarp sits in the field, covering decomposing newspaper that is supposed to kill the grass beneath it. I imagine worms and grubs emerging from the depths of the cold soil to munch the sodden paper and turn it into rich soil. It is my job to whittle down the list of seeds to order and plan the calendar. I'll make sure the compost is turned into the ground and gauge the perfect time to plant according to the last frost. I will provide the seeds, row markers, and child-size gloves.

As we sit together, looking over the pages and pages of possibilities I feel the healing begin. Tiny rips begin to knit themselves together within me. Thoughts of spending time with my children, planning ways to enrich this place we call home, planting seeds in the earth with the faith that magic will happen beneath the dirt even though we can't see it, all of these feel warm and hopeful. We will gently push these small things into the soil, nurture them with water and sunlight and care even as we leave them to do what they were designed for. We will be rewarded for our efforts and our care. Possibilities abound.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Many Thanks

Thank you all for your kind words and thoughts over the past couple of weeks. I felt all of your good intentions and loving kindness coming my way and it is much appreciated. I would like to think that I am 'coming down' from the high of the holidays, but the truth is more accurately the opposite. I feel as though I'm emerging from the mole hole I've been in for the last several weeks, slowly and cautiously.

Although I was holding January up in my mind to be a glorious time of calendar freedom, it doesn't seem to be shaping up that way. The fact that the girls started back to school so early (today! yippee!) had me hoping that I was going to find time to write and walk the dog and meditate and take care of myself. Instead I am booking expensive flights for the entire family to a memorial service for my grandfather and frantically making doctor, dentist, orthodontist, and physical therapy appointments before the insurance coverage runs out. The look on the dog's face when he realizes his walk will be seriously truncated this morning mirrors my own forlorn eyes as I pass right by my office with its meditation music and candles and laptop perched on my desk. Instead I am writing this from the kitchen as I wait for return phone calls and instant messages so I can cross some things off my list.

I am buoyed by the thought that there are no after-school activities this week and further raised up with the possibility of next week. The end of the month holds great promise as I'll be bunking with some writing buddies for a few days but I am aware that I need to remember to find some peace in each day as they come for now.

For now, thank you. I love this network of supportive people. I love reading your words, both as comments and in your blogs. I hope to make some time just for me today and begin to locate my center again.

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