May 2, 2017

May 2, 2017
Mary with collage and clutter

Monday, May 15, 2017


Yesterday was Mother’s Day, so I sent my mother a card and called to say Happy Mother’s Day on my way to a WNBA basketball game. These expressions weren't much in the way of thanks, really, but how could I adequately thank her for cleaning up all that spit up and diaper changes; for my middle school years (all of them), for being by me when I married and divorced my husband; for calling as soon as she received my coming out letter to say, “I will always love you,” and then flying across the country to meet the woman I’d fallen in love with (my partner Ann: I'm pretty sure Mom loves her more 21 years later than she did at the time); for sleeping on the plastic mattress next to my hospital bed as I recovered from neurosurgery (and for making me settle back into my bed when I tried to release myself from all the tubes in the Intensive Care Unit because “my bed was tilting 90 degrees", and "I did not think that was a good idea in a hospital”), and for so many more moments of kindness and generosity through my 53 years.

There’s no way to say thank you, as Billy Collins amusingly notes in his poem, “The Lanyard,” my favorite Mother’s Day poem. 

I admire every mother, not just my own. I admire the ones who have persevered as well as those who, by so many accounts, have not been model mothers but have given their best.

I can’t imagine the patience and self-sacrifice it must take. If you’re a mother, how do you do it? Don’t worry, I don’t imagine you’re perfect. I just believe you’re amazing.

Since my earliest days, I remember thinking that I was supposed to want to be a mother: there were all those baby dolls (some whose hair would grow long if you pulled it, some who would drink water and spit up or pee.) The girls I knew wanted to practice motherhood with their dolls, but the job never looked that fun to me. I'd rather throw a ball or swing. 

I cut the hair off the doll whose hair grew, and realized pretty early that I was different than other kids. (I was also not at all interested in Barbie and Ken. Maybe Barbie and Julie would have been more interesting.)

All my life I had unexplained physical symptoms (fatigue, imbalance, blacking out), and at 43, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. My surgeon guessed that I was born with this slow growing tumor, and, so perhaps from early on I just decided I didn’t want what I didn’t think I could have. Or maybe I just looked at what my mom and other moms did and decided I didn’t want that for myself.

What I thought I remembered for sure was watching a Carol Burnett episode when I was a teenager and her explaining childbirth to men. I very clearly remember her saying, “Giving birth is like blowing a bowling ball out of your left nostril.” I looked on the innerwebs to confirm this quotation, but I can’t find anywhere that anyone said that. According to Mr. Google, Burnettsaid,Giving birth is like taking your lower lip and forcing it over your head.” Whatever she said, as my big-haired, skinny teenage self sat on that red woven couch in my living room in Raleigh, NC, I determined that I would never have children.

I wavered from this decision at times through the years and considered adoption at one point, but mostly I’ve been glad about this decision. When I taught high school students, I marveled at the moms who taught teenagers all day and then went home to their own teens at night. Once I had neurosurgery, radiation, and disabilities, I was especially glad that I didn’t have kids relying on me. How do mothers with disabilities and disease do it?

Ann and I hope to get a puppy next month (a cavapoo) and we’ve been reading books and preparing our home and yard for this little one, but we don’t plan to send her to middle school or to pay for college. We’ll never have to teach her to wear a bra or remind her to wear deodorant.

Some women I admire wax poetic about motherhood:

I believe them that this experience is powerful and heart-opening. However, as I looked on Brainyquote for inspiring motherhood quotations, I found amidst them an ad for getting rid of “Super Lice.” Like just plain lice wouldn’t be bad enough. 

Perhaps I’ll experience this joy in my next life, should I have one. For now, I just feel grateful to all of you moms who give birth to so many fascinating persons that I get to love and enjoy and then go to my quiet home to hold my partner’s hand.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Play on

Wednesday night, my partner Ann and I went to Seattle’s Moore Theater to see and hear the Americana, blue-grassish Old Crow Medicine Show.

This was the first time we’d been to the Moore since the Poetry on Buses 2016 celebration. At that celebration, I loved the diversity of skin colors and languages, but Wednesday night’s auditorium was packed with 1600 mostly white people. However, the crowd was impressively age-diverse. I sat with my cane, snow-capped Ann beside me, in the folding chairs that required neither climbing up stairs nor over others. In the row a few feet in front of us, young ones stretched their legs to step over the backs of chairs so that they didn’t have to ask others to get up (an inconvenience both for those who struggle with balance and those who were texting or taking selfies.)

This concert celebrated fifty years since Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, and Old Crow played songs from the album. They opened the show with “Rainy Day Women #12 & #25” (better known as “Everybody must get stoned.” The seven musicians play an awesome variety of strings, keys, and drums, and sing melodiously, so that their sound pops. I find them more musical than Dylan, but their ebullience overwhelmed Dylan’s simplicity, so I like Dylan’s version of this song better.

Ketch Secor, the band’s lead vocalist, remembered the band’s first trip to Seattle, when the band played on the curb. Like most performers here, he waxed poetic about how beautiful the city is, with its waters and mountains and farmer’s market, but he was also quite funny when he quipped in the same sentences about the city’s less charming but very real aspects: the smell of pee in its alleys as an indication of our ridiculously large homeless population. He claims he saw a man peeing out of a bus window, but I doubt it. Still, the image works for the city, especially if the peeing-man bus also spit out a Rolex-wearing man. 

The whole night was fun. Ann and I (and everyone else there, it seemed) drank our India Pale Ale from adult sippy cups, which the Moore sold so that we could take our drinks into the concert (and they could make an extra three bucks per imbiber). Band members moved around the stage playing different instruments all night, some members playing three or four throughout the night. One guy even soft-shoed.

They closed their encore with “Wagon Wheel, ” a song where Dylan wrote the chorus and 25 years later Secor wrote the verses. It’s a fabulous song (first recorded by Old Crow  and in 2013 by Darius Rucker or you can even hear them together.)
Being from Raleigh, I always imagine a Raleigh crowd when Old Crow sings, “If I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free.” (Probably a roar like at my first concert at UNC when James Taylor sang, “Gone to Carolina in myMind.”)

However, the song reminds me not of famous singers, but of my friend Pam’s 50th birthday musical jam yurt. (“How crunchy,” I can hear my niece Isabella say.) Even though we can’t sing our way out of a bag (maybe a NC way of talkin’), Ann and I were invited to this jam session as people who love Pam and love to be an audience to good music.

I love Pam and Allyson when they sing together, and I also love their friend Jeremy’s energy in this song. Jeremy is an English professor, but not too typical, I’m guessing. He plays the banjo and throws his head forward and back as he sings out, stomping his foot—stomping his whole body, really.

I could write more (of course, "If music be the food of love, play on" comes to mind from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night), but I think I’ll leave you now so we can both listen to some good music. In this way, we’ll be together even when we’re not. 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

the letting go—

Last week, I posted a blog entry called “Letting Go.” This entry continues last week’s, so if you haven’t yet, you may want to read that entry before reading this one. I'm thinking of the deaths of people I have loved. As they say at the auctions, "fair warning." 

When I wrote last week’s entry, I was thinking of the various ways we need to let go of things, skills, talents, and hobbies as we age. I started to write, “particularly if we’re dealing with serious disease,” but then I thought of all the decisions throughout our lives that require us to let go: the decision to live a mainstream life, or not; the decision to or not to follow a career or to have children or… the list goes on. Maybe this letting go is really just growing up.

Since the post, I keep thinking of Emily Dickinson’s poem, which I wasn’t thinking about when I wrote the entry, not consciously anyway. The poem ends with the title of my last entry: letting go. It’s one of my favorites, a poem about the feeling of surviving the death of someone we love:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes – 
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs – 
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’ 
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’? 

The Feet, mechanical, go round – 
A Wooden way 
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought – 
Regardless grown, 
A Quartz contentment, like a stone – 

This is the Hour of Lead – 
Remembered, if outlived, 
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow – 
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

One of the many things I love about this poem is the last phrase, which like so many of her last phrases can be read simultaneously in two opposing ways: Is she writing of letting go of life as she lets go of this pain or is she letting go of the person who is gone? Or maybe it’s both. Perhaps Dickinson is saying that in order to let go of the pain’s intensity, we need to die a little ourselves as we allow this person to go.

Though I’ve lost friends into “death’s dateless night”, I’ve not lost a family member. I don’t know that pain, but just thinking of it makes my breath freeze in my chest.

I’m practiced with loss, but I haven’t experienced this fundamental kind of loss. My partner Ann and I have sometimes talked about attachment, about how we’re not so attached to things but are very attached to one another. I can’t imagine losing her and surviving the pain. Nor anyone in my family.

I don’t think there’s a way to prepare. I think when the time comes, whoever’s time it is (even if it’s mine), I’ll just have to survive it by going through it. Maybe I’ll write to heal, as I do now. Maybe I’ll read. Maybe I’ll pray or sit in silence. In the wake of my brain tumors, I love connected with others who are experiencing life-changing health conditions, so I suppose I’ll seek the wisdom of those of you who have experienced the letting go before me. If that’s you, and I know it’s many of you, you are deep in my heart.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Letting Go

Friday, a giant heavy box arrived in Seattle, WA, from Raleigh, NC, via FedEx. The box was tall and narrow. It must have weighted 30 pounds. In it was a project that I made in eighth grade, a collage of 36 photos and a few words shellacked on a round piece of wood. My original idea, or the idea that my teacher had recommended, had been to create a tabletop that might eventually grow legs. That never happened.

As my parents prepare to move from the home they’ve lived in for 45 years, Mom is cleaning out the house I grew up in and mailed me this memorabilia.

It’s interesting to look at this relic from my childhood and to see how I presented myself in the eighth grade. There are baby photos of me, a photo of me in red, white, and blue on July 4, 1976, at a bicentennial party, a photo of skinny me waterskiing, and a photo of red-headed me with our dog Tripper. Other than a small photo of my pen pal Cory McAllister from Indianapolis (I wonder what she’s up to now), all of the photos are of family: cousins, my parents (including my mom in that sexy red dress, her thin arm around my slightly greying father), my siblings (Sister Jen when I dressed her up as a clown and Little Brother Matt when I dressed him up as an old man), and our cocker spaniels, Sparky and Tripper. Other than the photos, there’s a four leaf clover, now pale with its 40 years, the cut-out words of the summer camp I went to as a child, “life…”, “sailing”, and “Coke”, the last the effects of marketing, I’m sure. I never really liked Coke much. I preferred milk. (and there you have it: a glimpse at my oddity.)

When Mom told me she was mailing this treasure, I remembered how heavy it was and asked her to give it to Goodwill or recycle it. She said, “You can give it to Goodwill or recycle it, but I’m mailing it to you.”

I took her at her word, so when it arrived, I first showed Ann and our friend Ellen around the collage, then brainstormed with them how we might recycle it. When I told Mom on the phone that I was planning to recycle it, she seemed surprised and hurt. I would do almost anything not to make my mom feel bad—she has been there for me for a lifetime, and I want to be there for her, too. I felt bad, but really, what would I do with it? I tend to create cluttered spaces (aka my desk), but I try to follow my mom's and partner Ann's examples and tidy up. 

I have seen homes cluttered by not letting go. Our 97 year-old neighbor, Annabella, has so many papers and photos cluttering her floors that it’s hard for me to visit. When I went to visit last week, I had to hold on to the walls so that I didn’t slip on my way in and through. When I got to the dining room where she was sitting, she said, “Sit wherever you can find a place.” All the chairs were covered with stuff, so I just sat on the stuff in one of them.

My Grandmother Matthews, also a child during the Depression, hoarded things as well, and after she died, Mom went through her things, old newspaper page by painstaking page: with a savings bond tucked between the papers from time to time.

My mom, in contrast, has spent her days after my siblings and I moved out cleaning out the house, one closet at a time. When we were young, she always wanted us to make our beds and clean our rooms, which I thought was silly because they’d just get mussed again. (Thus, there was the year when I slept on top of the bed so that I didn’t have to make it. Finally, Mom just started shutting the door down the hallway to our rooms, a section of the house Mom called “the zoo.” )

Mom likes things tidy. She’s no hoarder, but she did save my siblings’ and my papers, projects, report cards, and so forth. She shepherded me and my siblings through our early years, so these school projects may track her progress as much as ours. As she and my dad prepare to move from this home they built and have lived in for 46 years, reducing their space from 5000 square feet to 2000, there are some treasures she cannot abide to part with. So I guess she’s sending them to us. (She sent me some china, too, which my partner Ann and I are delighted to have.)

It’s hard to let go. Since my brain tumors, I’ve had more practice letting go than many people my age. I’ve let go of my career, my driver’s license, hiking in the mountains, traveling in technologically developing places, and walking or talking easily. I’ve let go of an even smile and single vision. I’ve let go of cooking and gardening.

The fact that I can list the things I’ve let go may mean that I haven’t really let them go. I still feel their loss. Sometimes, I find the losses in my dreams: walking easily beside Ann without holding on to her or a cane; teaching, always teaching (though Ann tells me I usually speak like Charlie Brown’s teacher, one night I said quite clearly, “The point of learning is to understand.”) I neither drive nor cook in my dreams: apparently, those chores I’ve let go.

If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you know that I embrace the life I still have, and I feel lucky to live a second life in this one. Still, I mourn the life that is no more.

As I age in the second half of a century, and many of my friends are older or sicker than I am, I also mourn the lives of friends who have passed: one church friend died a week ago, and yesterday was the first anniversary of another’s death.

Thinking about these passings and others on Sunday, I listed to Dr Geoff Warburton’s TED talk on grief. These lines struck me: “You need to embrace everything that grief brings you…. You need to feel that emotional abyss. You need to let that abyss swallow you…. It may feel that in that abyss, a part of you is dying, and maybe a part of you needs to die in order to live…. Right in the center of that abyss, in that silence, you’ll find your liberation.” Warbutton, who lost a brother, is talking about the abyss after the death of someone we love.

In addition to loss after death, I think of so many other losses. For example, I think of my losses since brain tumors. As I’m becoming increasingly involved with immigrants and refugees, I think also of the grief of too many people living in violence and poverty, too many people whom our country’s not welcoming.

Yesterday, at a re-launch of the sanctuary movement in Seattle, a movement that works towards safety and kindness towards immigrants and refugees, a minister quoted a woman seeking refuge whom she knew in Denver, Colorado. Ana, the wife of Arturo, husband and father under threat of deportation said, “You do not know how strong you are until you do not have another option.”

For me, this learning about myself in this time of loss has been a gift of my brain tumors. But loss has not been a gift in a perfume-y, tidily wrapped and red-bowed package. It has been a hard gift, a gift that I've accepted only because I haven't had another option. I believe the tumors have enriched my life, but that doesn’t mean I’ve liked these losses or I’d choose them.

Sunday at the end of church, I stood to give a welcome to newcomers as well as old-timers, as I and the other lay leader often do. I hadn’t planned to do this week’s welcome, so I hadn’t planned and just started talking when I stood up, hoping I would go in an appropriate direction.

I spoke to what was in my heart, and what was in my heart was the ache of so many people around me who were having to let go. Behind me sat a man whose partner died just a week ago. 

The minister had talked in her sermon about beauty and miracles, and the sun outside shone at last, so I was simultaneously feeling the ache of loss and the ache of wonder.

When I said, “Perhaps you came to church aching today,” several people made intense eye contact. Several have talked with me since. They and I seem to have connected in this aching space: both aching with loss and aching with beauty. Perhaps you connect here, too. Welcome.