A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Friday, May 26, 2017

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Ann and I have been working with our neighbors Sue and Robin recently to have a fence built between our yards. The people who owned their home, the house next door, when we moved here in 1996 had the current fence built by someone who didn’t know much about building fences but didn’t charge much. It was never a lovely fence and has deteriorated over the decades, particularly where squirrels have chewed the top.

It would be nice to leave the space open, without a fence. After all, the yards’ gardens are lovely, and it would be easier to visit one another that way. However, each couple plans to get a dog, so we need a fence. The posts are already in, and in a few weeks we’ll have the boards.

As we’ve been working towards this fence, I’ve been thinking about Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,”  that ends repeating its most famous line, “‘Good fences make good neighbors.'” Though critics differ in their poetic analyses of this poem, all agree that this last line does not summarize Frost’s thinking on the subject of fences and walls. Frost is at the very least questioning the value of walls and using this last line ironically, though there’s some disagreement about exactly what Frost means to say.

It seems to me that Frost criticizes the kind of thinking that builds walls, the kind of thinking that derives from a darkness that is “Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” There’s a “savage” quality to such thinking.

Though Frost wrote the poem in 1915, his reading to the Russians in 1962, the year following the beginnings of the Berlin Wall, suggests political implications. The poem begins, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It seems to me that Frost is aligned with that “Something.”

We used this first line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” on the front of our church bulletin when a group of us organized a service to share our experiences from a trip to learn about the border and immigration issues at the El Paso, USA/Juarez, Mexico border.

I feel sure that Frost would similarly criticize the thinking behind the U.S./Mexico wall. Writer Alexander Nazaryan argues that Trump should read the poem, but I suspect, if anything, he’d skim to the last line and announce on Twitter that the great American poet Robert Frost agrees with him about the border. “So glad.”

Much of what we learned at the border was painful, and fears of Trump’s leadership deepen the pain, but we saw hope in quiet fighters for justice who devote their lives to supporting vulnerable neighbors on both sides of the border.

I realize my writing has often been amusing, even about difficult subjects like my brain tumors and disabilities, but I haven’t been funny since Trump’s election. I do not find humor in the pain he causes. However, I am beginning to see hope again, and my funny bone is healing. I’ll write about that next time.

For now, let’s in all seriousness challenge the idea that good fences make good neighbors. Let’s wonder with the poet what we are walling in and walling out. Let’s create hope.

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.