21 January, 2011


I have recommitted to blogging once a week. I miss the act of writing and I long for that emotional stretch that comes with thinking about what to write and then sitting down and, Wham! Letting it rip.

Here goes.

I have taken these 2 1/2 months to finish up projects (including my big annual conference -- this time in Athens) and then help my bulldogs recover from surgery. During that time, I let the brain operate on a low simmer, and I tried not to sabotage or judge whatever was going on in there. I am learning to practice the art of the float: letting thoughts float by, not judging them as they pass. 

And here is what I want to write about tonight. The art of living a simpler life. We read about it. It's a bumper sticker. It's a tee-shirt. It's an Oprah thing, maybe. "I'm learning to live the simple life," says some unbelievably successful person who has checked out of life in the fast lane (or at least on weekends) and is now the proud owner of hundreds of acres of land in a place like Mendocino or Taos. 

Hey, what the hell do I know? Maybe that IS living a simple life. 

Here's what I know about my simple life. It is not simple!  In fact, there is absolutely NOTHING simple about it. Simplifying does not mean stripping something down to absolutely nothing but the most base concepts -- a life that lacks nuance and complexity. A life of string beans and composting and one handbag. Okay, that is NOT me. When I say simple I most definitely do not mean the total and political rejection of all things material. I wear Christian Dior boots. And I LOVE them. 

For me, what it means is learning to live a life that is simply about my priorities and my values. Simple means it's clear. Simple means organized according to principles that make sense to ME. See the difference? My priorities and values are simple, once they are articulated. So, for the record, here they are:

1. Authenticity: No matter how difficult, I am who I am. And I own my story. And that is what I bring to the world. I am enough. 

2. Generosity: Live in gratitude. Be thankful. Say thank you. Mean it.

3. Compassion: No judgment. The antidote to shame.

4. Love: And in the end, the love we take is equal to the love we make. Thank you, John and Paul.

5. Curiosity: Wanting to know what it is like to stand in THOSE shoes. Understanding and believing and accepting that different is different, not wrong, not less.

6. Humor: And we start by laughing at ourselves. Kindly. Compassionately. Fully.

7. Connection: Because ultimately it is all about connection. E.M. Forster said, Just Connect. He was right. Everything else will fall into place once we connect with just one other person on this watery globe.

Does any of this have to do with my yoga practice, I wonder? I believe the answer is yes. I am getting deeper and deeper into the yogic way of life -- appreciating that single breath, followed by the next breath, followed by a series of connected breaths. All meaning life. I remember my mother and how she was at the very end of her life: it came down to the breath. One day she was breathing and then she stopped. And then life stopped. It is about the breath. We breathe and we are alive. It is fundamental. It is often unconscious. With yoga, we are aware of the breath. We use it for the energy-giving it provides: the prana. We live with our breath. 

I struggle to keep it all present. I hear about friends who are making hundreds of thousands of dollars consulting with this organization or doing this project and I instantly think, OMG, I should be doing that. I should be earning that. I should "positioning myself" for this or that. But the truth is that one of my key strengths is that I am one person: the same person at work as I am at play. There is no "consultant's persona" with me. And the opportunities that most interest and fulfill me are the ones where my real personality is fully present and there's a shared sense of fun, intelligence, creativity and compassion.

And when I start to struggle, I think about the word "simply" and all that it implies. Simply living a life that feels right and honest and real to me means doing good work. It also means making time for friends. Being a great friend. Being a devoted mother to my bulldogs. Taking time to learn something new every day. Taking time to say thank you every day. Practicing yoga. Breathing. Believing in the power of imagination and living in gratitude. Believing in love. Dancing. Dreaming. Breathing. Simply breathing. Until there is no more breath.

I told a friend today that I no longer describe myself as a consultant. I'm NOT a consultant. I am simply me. Simply. I am a collection of skills and stories and beliefs. I am living according to a set of principles and beliefs and working hard at remaining true to what really matters to me. 

This is a time of great discovery. I am grateful to be alive and aware. Simply. 

03 November, 2010

Getting smart, finally

A few weeks ago, I flew out to Chicago for an overnight. I had been invited to watch a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah was doing a program on the 40th anniversary of the film "Love Story" and her guests were Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal. I got to go because I answered a question on Oprah.com: "Do you remember the film 'Love Story'?" 

I didn't keep a copy of what I wrote but the basic idea was this: OF COURSE I remember the film "Love Story!" 

Truth be told, I said, I fell in love with everything about that film. The characters, the idea of love, the snotty Ivy League banter. Jennifer Cavelleri's blue peacoat and her black tights and her knitted woolen caps. That luscious Francis Lai score -- the hint of tragedy, the snow frolic in Harvard Yard, the beautiful but ultimately heartbreaking skate 'round Central Park before heading to the hospital for a dignified and tidy farewell.

More than anything else -- and I'm certain I wrote this in my impassioned and jet-lagged response to Oprah's producers' question -- I fell in love with all that I dreamed might be possible in my own life.

So, going to the reunion show in Chicago was meaningful. I loved listening to Ali MacGraw, in particular. She spoke openly of the lessons in her own life and of the pain and disappointments she has worked through. She talked about Bob Evans and Steve McQueen. Santa Fe. Yoga. Animal rights. Plastic surgery. Getting older. Finally getting smart.

Ali is smart. And mighty interesting. 

You know what she said that was REALLY smart and REALLY interesting? She said that she finally figured out that relationships only work if you show up as who you really are and NOT as you think the other person wants you to be. 

The role of Authenticity, caps mine. Being who you are. Knowing who you are. And being comfortable enough to say, Hey, this is who I am.

Now fast forward a few weeks to last weekend. After a 29-year hiatus, I had a reunion with my three roommates from my senior year in college. (Cornell, by the way. Not Harvard. Big Red, not Crimson. Harvard gave me the early rejection treatment, as I called it, since I applied for early decision and got the two thumbs down in December.) 

We met in North Adams, MA, in the Berkshires. Kind of a midway point of sorts for our various locations. We combined our reunion with a trip to nearby Williamstown, a visit to MassMOCA and lots of talking and reminiscing. 

There's a lot I could write about what it's like to revisit your college years from the vantage point of age fifty one. But it's too much. Too much for a blog, anyway. 

I'll just focus on one thing. I realized this past weekend that I never liked being at Cornell. I didn't hate it. But I didn't love it. I didn't find what I was looking for. 

I went to Cornell in 1977 thinking I was certain to meet my intended Ollie Barrett the Fourth. I didn't. I became infatuated with a drug dealer instead -- a guy with a lopsided grin, a lucky streak and a zipper that never closed. He did not fall in love with me. But he let me write a few of his papers and he stole my bicycle.

I also went to Cornell thinking I was on the path to success. I thought life was about garnering achievements and honors. That, as in "Love Story", you set out for Harvard (or, as Cavafy rightly said in my case, you set out for Ithaca...) and you keep going. Fellowships, awards, kudos. On and on and on. 

In recent years, I've felt that I have failed somehow. That I "just" do international marketing and it isn't very impressive. It isn't law or medicine or teaching at the university level. It isn't much of an achievement, I've thought to myself.

Well, I'm changing my mind these days.  I'm revising what it means to be smart. And to succeed. To be proud. To achieve.

The things I'm proudest of achieving have nothing to do with fellowships or grants or promotions or anything like that. 

I'm proudest of being a friend.

I'm proudest of being brave enough to be in therapy. 

I'm proudest of being generous and not needing to tell anyone about it. 

I'm proudest of being vulnerable.

And I'm proudest of being able to say that FOR ME being real includes coloring my hair, wearing make-up, dressing fashionably. Yes, all of that is part of me, just as loving the ballet and the theater is part of me, and singing is part of me, and reading is part of me, and a love of journalism is part of me, and loving language and word games and insisting that spelling and grammar are incredibly important are all part of me. Those are all parts of me. I don't want or need to change them for anyone.

As I drove away this past weekend, I thought about who I was back then and who I am now. Some people say that their college years were their happiest. OMG. Not me. I would never say that. What I would say, instead, is what I said in therapy this week: that I am happiest right now. That these are the halcyon days. That who I am now is the person I have been destined to be. Not perfect. Oh god no. Not the one with the most impressive credentials. Nope. Not that either. But the person who is comfortable -- happy, even -- in my own skin. 

That makes me feel smart. 

Smart enough, for example,  to know that "Love means never having to say you're sorry" is a ridiculous thing to say. And wrong. You know what I think? I think love means saying you're sorry when you are, and meaning it. And wearing red lipstick. And getting Botox. And treating yourself to Christian Dior boots 'cause you love 'em and they're too beautiful to live without. 

That is what is possible in my own life. Preppie.

19 September, 2010

Things that still were

Last night I flew to Geneva, non-stop out of Newark. The flight departed at six o'clock pm and was due into Geneva at 0730 this morning. I always struggle on flights like that because I simply cannot make my body go to sleep at the hour it thinks it should be watching "Jeopardy." 

Add to this the fact that Continental Airlines offered only "family-friendly entertainment" and it made for a long night. 

And, final nail in the coffin was my much-lamented and much-tormented admission that the new Jonathan Franzen book, which started out with such promise, is silly and I don't give a toss about the characters.

So, while my seat mate slept, I sat in the darkness, leaned back those two to three inches that coach class allows, and cleared my mind. I concentrated on one breath at a time. I worked at pushing away the day-to-day monkey chatter that fills my head. And I waited for a deeper thought to come my way. Something to ponder at this end of Yom Kippur.

After a while I realized why this scene felt so familiar. I used to travel back and forth to London for eight years, and every time I would leave my family there would be some new, difficult change to process. And that got me to thinking about something much deeper, something much more painful and important than the e-mail I need to send when I land. 

Here's an unedited, stream-of-consciousness exploration of what I considered last night from the vantage point of 37,000 feet above the Atlantic. 

This is about things that still were. 

When I left for London in January 1998, I had two parents. My father was dying, but he was alive. Very much so, in fact. His body was failing him but his mind was intact. Sharp. My mother was healthy, and she was in charge of my father's care. That seems incredible to me now, these twelve years on. My mother changed the bags of peritoneal solution; each one weighed 10 pounds. She bathed my father. She cooked all of his meals. She watched the Yankees play and talked strategy with my father. 

My father still read The New York Times everyday. He played bridge. By the time I moved, he had stopped driving, but he would still go out to lunch with his buddies. A hot pastrami sandwich, corned beef, whatever. By that point, his kidneys were so far gone that his doctors told him to go ahead and eat whatever he wanted. "I'm a goner. I've been cleared to eat Starbucks ice cream," he told me. And there was joy in that simple act. And there was still something of a life being lived.

My parents still lived in our old house on King Philip Drive. They ate dinner in the den and watched TV, and my mother invited guests to dinner on a fairly regular basis. She still cooked great meals; she hadn't yet forgotten how to make her famous apple pie or her noodle kugel. 

My bulldog Melvin was still alive in those days. When I left for London, Melvin Selwyn went to live with my parents. My father thought he'd hit the lottery. Another bulldog! Melvin was a wonderful companion to my parents. 

In those days, I would fly home from London, craving the old world I'd known. Wanting to sleep in my old twin bed that felt too small and strangely crooked. Wanting my father to grill me on current affairs and my knowledge of the world. Each time, the fantasy of what it would be like would be slightly more tarnished; small changes, some bigger changes. And I felt is was all so unfair. Why couldn't everything just stay the way it was, at least until I was done with my London life and was ready to come home and deal with all of this?

During my visit in May (1998), my mother asked me to "babysit" for my father so she could run some errands. I remember being shocked by this idea. I had imagined that we would sit and watch a movie together on the VCR, as we'd always done. Or maybe go to the club for lunch. But by then my father's dialysis schedule had changed and he needed an extra treatment in the morning and an extra in the late afternoon, as well as all night on the machine. 

That day, while my mother was getting groceries and running to the post office, my father was hooked up to his machine and had an accident -- in his pants and all over his chair. He was mortified. Beyond mortified. I cleaned him up, and the only thing I said to him was, "Dad, this really sucks for you." Later, my mother thanked me for having the courage to be honest with him. He wasn't the kind of person who wanted to hear how these things happen and it would all be alright. It wasn't. I was wiping my father's ass and cleaning him up. And this is not the natural order of things, at least until illness or old age or both set in.

My father died that December. I had been gone just about one year. Melvin died the following spring. His death hit me like an oncoming train. I struggled with the guilt of knowing I'd deserted my beloved Mel and with the pain of knowing that with his death an entire part of my life was now gone forever. Melvin's death was like losing my father all over again. Pain, pain. 

After my father's death, my mother lived alone for the first time in her life. She was 73 years old. She had married at 21, leaving her parents' house for a life with my father. Two years later, my mother started showing the early signs of Alzheimer's. Although she wasn't officially diagnosed until 2004, when she was unable to draw a clock and really had no idea what year it was or who was in the Oval Office, although she had of course voted Democrat. One year later, in 2005, we moved my mother into an assisted living community. She resisted it for one day and then, after vomiting all morning, she literally gave up; she succumbed to the inevitable and let her body -- and her mind -- go free. 

My mother died in May. Nearly five months ago.

Has it really only been 12 years since everything started coming undone? It feels like so much more time has passed since I had what I had back then: parents, a family house, a place to go and people to be with on the holidays, a sense of being part of something so essential that I never considered that a time would come when I would be without it. 

And then, as I felt the tears well up, I realized something else on that flight last night. I realized that I am still here. That despite all of it -- all that pain of all that loss -- I am alive. I am a witness to lives lived, and I am alive in my own life. I am still working out some issues with my parents and my childhood; that work goes on, as does loving them and honoring them. I can visit West Hartford and see my old house without falling to pieces. Instead, I look at it and think, Wow. That's where I grew tall. That's where I learned and came to believe much of what I hold true, even today -- and even in spite of questioning and rejecting, too. 

I arrived in Geneva feeling connected to myself. I am not simply spinning through this life, bouncing from experience to experience. I am part of what came before me and part of what I was when I had parents and was someone's daughter. Knowing, feeling, that I am more than a dot in the universe; I am part of a line that twists and turns, from Jewish Sepharad and the diaspora, from the shtetls of the Tsar's Russia where my father's family lived, to Hartford, Connecticut and then outward into a world and a path of my own choosing. 

Last night that path took me over an ocean and next Saturday it will bring me back. My path is one that criss-crosses and wanders. But, I know in my bones that my path has roots and it will always lead me home, wherever that is at any given point in time. 

I am no less than I ever was. I am just a solo traveler, remembering and honoring what I once had, what I miss and what I know I will never really lose.

31 August, 2010


I'm waging a battle against menopause. And what an adversary menopause is proving itself to be. 

In the past three months, I have gained 20 pounds. Not because I'm eating too much. Or, rather, not because I'm eating any more than I was eating four months ago -- the halcyon days when my jeans fit and my gait felt spry, not ungainly.  Not because I've been drinking too much, either. But "simply" because my hormones are staging a riot as I turn that bend and head for age fifty-two.

And, of course, as if the weight gain isn't bad enough, there are other attendant signs of the big M's advance, including but not limited to: headaches and exhaustion, and, in the runner-up position to the weight gain, chin hair. Another few months of this and I'll look like Kevin from Top Chef. Or worse yet, my late Aunt Marion.

So I've consulted an ayurvedic doctor I used to see regularly in London. And, on his advice, I'm following a strict detox plan: no caffeine, no alcohol, no wheat, no sugar, no dairy. Portions comprise 3.5 oz -- that is, postage stamp-sized -- squares of proteins cooked without fat. Salad, surprisingly, is neither unlimited nor dressed. Water and herbal tea are the only beverages allowed, and the former is to be consumed in copious quantities. No artificial anything -- sweeteners, fake food (like those Weight Watcher dessert squares of yore -- the "German Chocolate Cake" contained the same chemical compounds as panty hose), diet sodas. Healthy food only. But not much of it. 

The idea is that the detox will help kick-start my metabolism so that, after six or seven weeks of this, I'll have lost the offending 20 pounds and be physically ready to start re-introducing foods without worrying about piling the weight back on. 

I am determined. I will not simply throw my arms up in defeat and resign myself to the ravages of menopause. Because I hate the thought of it. Because I prefer the idea -- fantasy?? -- that I'm running my life. That I'm calling the shots. Not my hormones.

No, I will not go gentle into that good night. 

But fear not. Today's post is not about dieting, or portion control. We have Oprah for that. And it's not even about the dreaded march of menopause. Yawn. No, today's post is about hunger. And what it brings up.

In my middle class life, I have rarely experienced hunger and only then on a strictly volunteer basis. With this detox, I've now spent the past six days in an ongoing state of what I'll call non-satiation. Actively hungry between meals and only slightly better after eating the meager portions I've prepared. 

Millions of people experience far worse than this every day and, critically, for the entirety of their short, unhappy lives. I know that what I am experiencing -- exploring -- is a gift: the luxury of a  privileged standard of living. That's my life, that's my starting point. I will never know what it's like to live in Haiti or in flood-devastated Pakistan. Reality? I can't even imagine it. And, as a writer, the only thing I can possibly write about is what I can imagine. 

Against that backdrop, here's my experience of hunger. 

My stomach growls and I want something to eat. I realize, with surprise, that I dread this sensation. I actively dread it, yes. I do not want to feel hungry. So I probe deeper. Why not? What's loaded about the hunger issue? 

Hunger stokes the memories of being a young girl -- eight, nine, ten, twelve -- studying at The School of the Hartford Ballet and being told, repeatedly and cruelly, that I was "fat and ugly." Verbatim quote. I went on my first diet at age eight. I got home from ballet school and announced to my parents that I was going on a diet. My parents said nothing; my mother bought me Light 'n Lively Diet Yoghurt. I fantasized about anorexia. I longed to be too thin but to rally, valiantly, heroically, to dance the Waltz of the Flowers. 

Hunger has always been dangerous. Being hungry meant the last veil -- the last vestige of protection -- was gone and I was vulnerable to anything. Unprotected. At risk, even. Feeling like there is no one there who is going to comfort me, hold me, protect me, acknowledge me. My parents weren't affectionate people, either with us or with each other, at least publicly. As children, we weren't touched or rocked. I have no memory of sitting on a lap or being carried any place. I have no memory of being hugged. Ever.

Yet I knew my mother loved me. She poured that love into her meals. 

I read a piece by Joyce Maynard yesterday about the love she experienced when she ate one of her mother's pies. Yes! That's it, I thought. The love was in the flakiness. The love was in the buttery deliciousness. The love was in the fruit, baked to perfection and topped with a sugary rich topping. All made from scratch, all turned out and crimped and buffed to say, in one concrete moment of confection, I love you. Even if the only way I can show you is through this pie or this cake or this meal. And even if I turn around and tell you that you need to watch your weight and should walk away from every table feeling like you could certainly manage another bite or two. A love of mixed messages, perhaps, but love nonetheless.

Hunger means there isn't enough. Hunger means an absence of love. Hunger means alone. 

I'm hungry as I write this. Peckish. But I am also at peace, finally. I understand more than I did as a child. I forgive and I love and I express anger, and I feel deep compassion. I make choices now that feel more like my own, rather than my parents' or, god forbid, than that sadistic, twisted fuck who ran the ballet school. 

And maybe that's why menopause doesn't really stand a chance against this Don Quixote: I'll tilt away at this windmill because nothing and no one is going to make me give up all that hard-fought self-awareness and say, Okay, you win. Blow me up, give me a beard, pound my head, put me in a bad mood for the next six years. 

Menopause, consider yourself warned.

19 August, 2010

The Omission

(Top) Myron Elias (circa 1918)
(Bottom) Victoria Tinney Elias (circa 1935)
Tonight I want to write about empathy. About finding it. About embracing it. 

But first a family story. Actually a "family" story, with inverted commas,  because some of the people I'm going to write about are not related to me and are therefore most decidedly NOT my family. 

This is a story about my mother. My mother was born in 1925 in New York City. Her parents were ridiculously wealthy young people -- the Sephardic answer to Fitzgerald's careless Gatsbys. They sang and danced and drank and probably had outrageously passionate sex. They were gorgeous, both of them. Dark, mysterious, glamorous Victoria (my mother's mother) and sensual, handsome hedonist Myron (my grandfather). My grandfather's father put the glass in the Chrysler Building; Victoria's father was a Ziegfeld Follie, pulling down over a thou a week back in 1912. Imagine it. 

They married. They went out dancing. They had two kids, my aunt Marion and then my mother. Shortly thereafter, probably around 1930,  Victoria and Myron decided to call it quits. Victoria took the kids and relocated to Beverly Hills, where Mama Edna (Victoria's mother) was nursing her wounds after the demise of her fifth marriage. Myron stayed in NY and later moved to Connecticut. They told their daughters, seven and five at the time, that "Daddy will be coming to California soon." 

In those days, people regularly lied to their children. No one talked about abandonment or the effects of promising that a parent would be there soon, knowing full well he/she wouldn't. Couldn't. Because he was now supervising a glass job in Connecticut and was falling in love with someone else. 

Victoria met a man named Elliot out in California and fell in love. 

Great. Both of my biological grandparents were now safely in love with other people and ready for divorce. 

Except Victoria got pregnant. In 1936. By a man who was not her husband. She was carrying Elliot's child. So she made arrangements.

Victoria Tinney Elias, my grandmother, died on 23 May, 1936 of complications from an illegal abortion. She was 36 years old. Beautiful, glamorous, elegant. She died on my mother's 11th birthday.

My mother and her sister Marion were sent East to live with Myron. But don't rush to conclusions here. Don't mistakenly think that my grandfather came out to California, as Prince Charles went to Paris to reclaim Diana Spencer's mangled body. No. He arranged for a virtual stranger to accompany my mother and her sister on the five day journey from Los Angeles to Hartford. My mother never saw her maternal grandmother again. Or any other relatives from that side of the family. At least not for many years. That was it. Done. 

My mother arrived in Hartford sometime in early June, 1936. She was eleven years old. She had lost her mother roughly one week earlier. She hadn't seen her father in six years. And there he was, standing at the train platform, ready to greet his girls. By his side....his new wife, Roz. And Roz's daughter, my "aunt" Judy. (There is some question as to whether they married before or after Carol and Marion arrived in Hartford. Either way, my mother got a "new" mother within a very short time of losing her own.)

I wish I could say that it got better from there. That my mother found the love and attention and care that she so obviously needed. That her father rose to the occasion. That her family environment gave her what she must have needed. But that is not what happened. Roz took one look at Marion and apparently hated her. The feeling was mutual. So that was the first battlefield. Roz took one look at my mother and apparently adored her. My mother was beautiful, easy-going, no fuss. Judy and Marion hated each other from the start. World War III on the domestic front. 

So there was my poor mother, book-ended by sisters who hated each other. She was adored by her new mother because she was pretty (that's how my mother saw it) and because, as my mother told us many times, "I never made waves." Waves? She never even made the slightest ripple. My mother was willing to stuff the emotions away and pretend that she wasn't really hurting inside and wasn't really frightened and lonely and very, very, very, VERY angry. 

Over the years, my mother learned to call Roz her mother.  And she learned to love her. For her part, Roz adored my mother and doted on her; she threw her a huge, elegant wedding with dogwood in April and a satin gown from New York City.  When Roz and Mike (as Myron was known) moved to Palm Springs, my mother would go and visit, and she really enjoyed herself. They had fun together.

When my mother died this past May, I wrote the obituary. I followed a template, asking for the names of the deceased's biological parents. I wrote that my mother was the daughter of Victoria Tinney Elias and Myron Elias. I completely forgot to write Roz into the obituary. It was an oversight. Probably understandable when I think about the fact that I was writing the piece in a state of grief. 

This past Friday, after not speaking to us for more than three months (since the day of my mother's funeral), Judy called and left a long and vicious message on my voice mail. I won't record the details here; she was venomous and vicious and crass. Her language was coarse. She clearly believed -- without ever asking me what really happened -- that my sisters and I had intentionally left out all reference to Roz. She brought up events from the 1940's, monies paid, monies not paid, attention paid, attention not paid, dining room sets and wedding bills. She insulted my sisters with words that should never be repeated, and she told me she was "ashamed" of me. 

I listened to her vitriol. Then I played the message for my sister Betsy, and then for my psychiatrist. I played it for my younger nephew, who couldn't believe a "relative" could speak in such a tone or with such language to someone she claimed to love. I told my sister Ruth about the call. And we all agreed: Done. Finito. Basta. Punto y Aparte.

And like that a family becomes smaller. 

And like that I suddenly felt a surge of empathy for my mother. 

My god, what she endured. What a lonely, silent hell it must have been for her, growing up in a household where her father was a weak-willed man who would never stand up to his new wife and never insist that his daughters have contact with their real mother's side of the family. Where her biological sister descended into psychosis and ended up as domestic help to wealthy NYC families. Where her step-sister secretly resented the attention my mother received and grew angrier and angrier with each passing day. "I was the step-daughter in that house, as far as Mother was concerned," said Judy in her message.

My mother found her way. She found my father, another victim of a loveless household. They married and never looked back. I see this all now from a new vantage point. With empathy, with love, I begin to see what she overcame and what she managed to give. I've concentrated for so long on what I didn't get that I have missed something very important: that my mother gave the love she could. The love she knew how to give.

I am humbled by the knowledge of what my mother survived. We are frail, we human beings, and we are mighty and capable of amazing things. We do the best we can. Tonight I understand that that is all we can ask for in another person. It is a lot. 

I know one other thing. I never meant to leave Roz out of the obituary. She was my grandmother, as far as I was concerned. We didn't see Roz and Poppa (as we called them) very often, but they were our grandparents, no questions asked. 

But...I believe my unconscious self wrote down Victoria's name for a reason. As I puzzle through my mother's life -- and therefore my own -- I am keeping sight of that thin line: the one that stretches from Victoria through to Carol and now to me. In that obituary, I was identifying my mother, really naming and acknowledging her. Seeing my mother as a child, as a daughter, as a woman. As a person.

It is late, Mom, and I understand a lot more. The journey continues.

12 August, 2010

Caring for Diamond

I've spent the last 48 hours caring for my older bulldog, Diamond. She just underwent some fairly gruesome hip surgery and must now learn to walk again. Diego, the 6-month old puppy, was neutered on the same day (no, not a 2-for-the-price-of-1 sale at the vet's clinic) and has gone to stay with his breeders for a little while so that I can focus on getting Diamond back onto her four feet.

Diamond cannot walk right now. She can barely stand. I have to carry her in and out of the house; she weighs nearly 60 pounds. I admit it's pretty difficult. I've moved an air mattress into the dining room and set up my computer and a side lamp, as well, so that I can be with Diamond 24/7. The only time I leave the house is when my sister comes over to give me time to go to the grocery store or run an errand. It's going to be like this for at least another week.

And I don't mind at all.

Because I love her. Unconditionally, totally and completely. And she loves me back in the same ways. Lucky.

Ah, lucky. The trick word of our vernacular. Lucky seven. Lucky lady. Lucky in love.

I have never been "lucky in love". I use the inverted commas there because I recognize the fantasy in such an expression. As if love -- borne of a healthy, mutually respectful relationship -- has anything to do with luck.

So when I say that I have never been lucky in love, what I really mean is that I have never truly been in love. And been loved in return. I have had many relationships. Not one of them has been about love. They've been about sex or neediness or fear of being alone, or just fear. One was about the need to control something. Someone. Me.

I know why this is, at long last. Because up until very recently (and we're talking about a time so contemporary that I can probably put a date on it, if pressed) I did not value myself. I looked at my strengths and saw them as nothing special. Anyone could learn to do __________, I would say to myself. Fill in the blank: moderate discussions, speak in front of 400 people, cook sumptuous meals, write the history of Rome in verse. I couldn't -- wouldn't -- allow myself to see any aspect of myself as special. So why should someone else? Or, better yet, how could someone else?

Now I think I have some things that make me who I am. They're mine and therefore they are special -- to me. And they will be special to the person who falls in love with me. Just as what is special and unique about that person will be special to me. We won't be perfect. I don't think I'll love every single thing about that person. Christ, that would be boring! Actually, that would be infatuation. And infatuation ain't love. I'm wise enough now to know the difference. I'm also wise enough, I think, to know that infatuation feels so inspiring and so amazing that it's hard to give it up in favor of the less glamorous, less exciting, less encompassing but ultimately more real love.

I'm writing about love as if I know all about it. And yet I said earlier that I've never been in love. Or been loved. But that's not entirely true.

And that brings me back to Diamond and Diego. My two bulldogs. In caring for Diamond, in lifting her and in waking at three in the morning to make her a scrambled egg and bottle feed her some water, squirting it into her mouth with one hand and petting her velvety head with the other, I am experiencing love. And she returns that love one thousand million trillion gazillion times over.

This is surely what it would have been like to have had a child. Sure, slightly less complicated (especially during the teen years). But, still. I have friends who detest being around children. I have other friends who love to bury their noses into the backs of babies' necks and smell the freshly powdered scent of innocence and purity. Me, I like children. I love being around all that curiosity, all that wonderment, all that openness. When people say (or assume) that I made a wise choice not having children, I'm never quite sure what to reply. It wasn't a choice per se. At least it didn't feel like a choice. It was more that I somehow always knew that if I had a child I wanted that child to come from love. I don't pass judgment on those who have children under other circumstances; it's just the way I wanted it.

Can the dogs be my children? In some ways, yes. And in other ways, obviously not. But what my companions are for me is connection. And love.

Caring for Diamond is an expression of love. It's a way of being able to return the love that she gives me everyday. And, as the days pass, the same is true for Diego, as well. Theirs may not be all the love I want in my life, but it is special. Very. And it makes my life special, too. Very.

31 July, 2010


A few weeks ago I wrote about a woman who died in a horrific house fire. Today, as I write, her only child -- her daughter -- is getting married. She is walking down the aisle as I write these words: a beautiful young woman, 27 years old, in the gown she miraculously did not stow at her mother's house. It's possibly the nicest July day on record: blue skies, sun, warm temperatures with a breeze. Tonight, the guests will need light jackets. It's a perfect day.


There is no mother of the bride. And the mother of the groom is in the middle of chemotheraphy and had to miss the rehearsal dinner in order to save her strength for the day today.

Sometimes we wring our hands and ask, Why does this have to happen? Why couldn't things just be perfect...for a little while? Why can't we orchestrate things so that we can have happy times and, when we're feeling strong and in the emotional state to handle it, let in a supersized batch of the bad stuff and get it over with in one fell swoop? Why can't we compartmentalize life so that things feel better?

'Cause we can't. 'Cause we cannot dis-integrate what naturally belongs together. And life, I am starting to see, is an integrated experience, where sorrow sits alongside joy, and brides walk down the aisles and ache from the longing for their mothers, and people die and life goes on and someone honks their horn at you when you're daydreaming in the car and jolts you back on to the road.

'Cause that's how it works.

During the Passover seder we are instructed to give from our cornucopia of plenty to the stranger who has nothing, not even a table at which to sit. A strange pairing: plenty and paucity. Opposites.

Joy and grief. Gratefulness and bitterness. Happiness and sorrow. Pick your pair.

It helps me to think about the integration of feelings. I've spent the past four and a half years in therapy talking with my psychiatrist about the anger I feel towards my parents. And then the segue direct into the conversation about the guilt these feelings produce. How can I talk that way about my parents? Didn't they do the best they could? Didn't they love to the best of their abilities? Why the fuck am I so angry? I shouldn't be, I hear myself say.

Now that my parents are gone, I'm finally starting to get some clarity. Some might say, Oh, too late now. But no, never too late for understanding. Never too late for insight. And, never too late for love.

I love my parents. And I am angry at some of the things they did and didn't do. My father told me once that I am too fat to be attractive and therefore, being unattractive, I am never going to get married and I'll always be alone and I'll never share my life with anyone and always be unhappy. That was a horrible and stupid thing to say. I can finally look at that situation and say, Dad, you were wrong. I love you and you were wrong. I love you and I wish you hadn't said that. I love you and I wish you hadn't thought that. I love you and you weren't perfect. For the record, either am I.

My mother never hugged me, never kissed me, never touched me. She never held me when I cried. She never threw her arm around my shoulder and hugged me to her in solidarity or in love. My mother was physically as cold as stone. She never uttered the words "I love you" until she was a prisoner of her Alzheimer's.

(The irony. Alzheimer's is a horrible disease, no question. But it allowed my mother to let go of her fears and to tell us she loved us and even to kiss the nurses goodnight. I could cry at the thought of it. Alzheimer's also gave my mother the gift of insight. Free of the censor that would have silenced such feelings, my mother decided that her friends back in West Hartford, were, by and large, mean and selfish people who never respected her or treated her kindly. So they weren't invited to her funeral. Wow. Talk about clarity.)

Yes, I love my mother and I wish she had been demonstrative. I love her and I wish she had been affectionate. I love her
and I wish she could have allowed herself to tell me that she loved me, too.

I am learning that these complicated feelings are the signs of health. Expressing them feels a bit "out there" -- I am exposing myself in boldly naked prose -- but that's what I set out to do with my writing. To be honest in all that I do. And that honesty becomes possible when the dis-integration stops. Or to be more clear, authenticity exists with integration; in the absence of integration, there can be no authenticity. Compartmentalization keeps myths in business.

I started by writing about a beautiful bride. It is probably one of the happiest days of her life today. And yet it is probably one of the saddest. Both statements are true.

When we live our lives in the knowledge that two opposing feelings can be legitimate, we open ourselves up to much richer, fuller, more authentic and more fulfilling lives.

I am grateful for all that I have in my life
and I am lonely for more today. Both are true. I am both.

it's okay.

23 July, 2010


"She had had to hide feelings for so many months that her expression now changed dramatically, and her relief and happiness were obvious. It was if all her inner joy which had nearly been extinguished, had suddenly been rekindled." Laura Esquivel, "Como Agua Para Chocolate"

In Turkish, a language I do not speak (YET), the word sofra means dining table, table where food is set or, more generally, a spread of food on a dining table. It's a bit like picnic. A time for sharing not only food but also stories and travelers' tales.

This week, while enjoying a leisurely stay-cation, I decided to make a sofra for my friends Kate & Bob and my sister Betsy. I love to cook, especially when I'm not in a hurry, and I believe in the power of slow food preparation (and consumption!). There's an essential and sensual truth to cooking. I love it.

A big part of the joy lies in selecting the ingredients. Some of my favorites, in no particular order: Vanilla beans from Madagascar, long, plump and spicy sweet. Bunches of fresh mint and basil, still dripping water. French feta cheese (and a shout out here to the amazing Sevan Bakery, THE Armenian grocery in Watertown, MA), creamy and salty, just a perfect near-white block of loveliness. Olive oil. Oh, that grassy, rich elixir, redolent of warmer climes. Sesame seeds, dill, Urfa pepper, pistachios, apricots and dates. Lamb -- organic, sweet and tender. Garlic. Banana peppers. Cilantro. Native tomatoes, soft and pulpy and full of juice.

I could write about this stuff forever.

There is something so incredibly pleasing about the fragrance and the spice and the limitless sense of possibility in those ingredients. The culinary vistas that open up before me when I select the ingredients are the stuff of fantasy. When I cook, I feel like it's all possible! Like driving to an airport and choosing an unplanned destination just 'cause it appeals in that moment. It's about serendipity. It's about instinct. It's about whimsical leaps of faith.

It's about passion.

And, it's about memory. Food as memory. Nostalgia. Integration of past experiences into present.

I felt that day as if I were somehow able to channel not only my wonderful trips to Turkey but also my months in Italy, my years in London, my life in New York, my very first dinner party, my first kiss, my first glass of champagne, my childhood. My mother. Again, and unwittingly, I realized the strength of that connection: my mother was an excellent cook, a natural in the kitchen. She gave me the confidence to try. I remembered this as I cooked.

My mother and I were not especially close. She had a horrendous childhood and she learned to close herself off and to remain at a distance from anything potentially powerful. She was physically unapproachable. Sarcastic. It was very hard to know my mother. I'm not sure I ever did. What I know is that she was far more complicated than she ever let on.

People who knew my parents always say I'm exactly like my father. And they're right in lots of ways: our curiosity, our thirst for learning, our love of linguistics and word play. I can plot points along the genetic continuum from my father to myself.

But, as I learn more and more each day, my mother gave me many of the things that make me who I am, as well. Her passion for cooking -- something about my mother that was cited not only in our eulogy but also in her obituary and in every condolence card we received -- was an expression of her love. And a gift she passed on.

What I understand now is that sometimes we are only able to appreciate some gifts after we have experienced sorrow. That with grief comes deep potential for joy. That even-keel can never be anything more than what its name promises: comfortable but ultimately flat.

Got the gift, Mom. Tesekur ederem. (That's thank you very much in Turkish.)

18 July, 2010

Zuckerman and Shafak

This past week I listened to two TED talks -- back to back -- and they really made me stop and think. The first was by Harvard's Ethan Zuckerman on the value of connecting -- hearing voices, not all like-minded, from around the world. The second was by Elif Shafak, the Turkish writer, on how listening to stories widens the imagination and allows us to leap over cultural walls.

I don't believe in coincidence. Sure, I listen to TED talks all the time. They're fascinating and I always learn something. But this time there was a deep resonance for me, and the one-two punch of Zuckerman's modern-day take on Forster's "Just connect!" and Shafak's idea that imagination is the suitcase we carry with us, well, they made for a potent cocktail whose lingering effect is still with me.

Connecting. Hearing other voices, other perspectives. Stories. Telling and listening. Crossing cultural barriers, not with treaties or legislation or declarations, but with stories told and heard.

Those ideas thrill me.

I am sitting in my life, learning (teaching myself -- the genuine article in home schooling circles) to sit quietly and listen. Really, really listen. This is way harder for me than it sounds. As you might know from my previous posting, I have never before taken the route of letting the path become known. I have never before committed myself to Tolstoy's wise words: Things will shape themselves. I have never before surrendered. I've planned, strategized and organized.

(There's nothing wrong with that approach. But it has led me to make intellectual, logical choices, and it has widened rather than narrowed that gap between my authentic Amy self and this version of myself that I present to the world. Now I am committed to minimizing that distance, shrinking it down so that there is only one skin and it's the one I live in all the time.)

So, after listening to the two talks I felt excited. Not because I've suddenly come up with some great new business idea. Not because I suddenly know what it is I'm meant to do next. Nope.

The excitement, which remains palpable, grows from the fact that out of the muddiness of my self-imposed silence, I'm beginning to pick up sounds: noise, input in uniquely clear and discernible frequencies. Here's what I mean. Just sitting and trying to surrender has so far felt scary, unknown, chaotic. Hence the muddiness. Like a big black hole. I have been unable to pick up one clear story line, one clear idea. The lone flute? Lost in a gigantic wall of sound.

But something has shifted. I listened to Zuckerman and Shafak -- an odd pairing if ever there were one -- and I heard the words connect and stories. And I felt like I was hearing those words either for the first time or definitely in a whole new way.

Not very long ago, I asked my mother to tell me about myself as a baby/very young child. I asked this because the only things I knew about myself from the pre-memory period were that I was unplanned, I hated sleeping, I got sick a lot and I once threw a dog turd across the living room. Surely, I suspected, there was more to it...

My mother, who was already deep into Alzheimer's, surprised me with her answer. "You loved stories," she said, with uncensored authority. "You loved to hear them and you learned how to tell them at a really young age."

That was a remarkable observation. I held it then, and I hold it now, as a gift from my mother. In her condition, she was beyond trying to flatter. She had no agenda when she said what she said. She was simply reporting something she remembered from a distant past -- the only time period for which my mother was still a reliable witness.

Where does any of this lead me? I have no idea. There will be no neat and tidy conclusion to this posting, no narrative arc that brings it back around to the opening premise. What I know is that I'm homing in on connecting and telling stories. Not sure what that means in less abstract terms. But I'm certain this isn't about intellectual curiosity alone; it is deeper than that.

Connections and stories. Those are the only two clues I have to go on at this point. There will be more.

I am learning to listen.

I will hear the clues.

Here are the links for those who might want to listen:

15 July, 2010

Purposefully Lost

For a very long time now -- not my full 51 years, but some period of time dating back to fourth or fifth grade, perhaps -- I have built a reputation around some key attributes: grounded, organized, dependable, logical, funny, smart and determined. I've received birthday cards showing a business woman in a suit, with heels and a laptop, sitting on a beach towel in the sand and still working. I've defined myself in those terms: driven, I guess; aiming for something, ticking off accomplishments like grocery items.

But I am not that person. I don't know if I'm not that person anymore or if I'm not that person because I've never been that person in the first place.

What I know is that I am decidedly NOT that person at this point in my life. Now.

Now, I am lost.

And here's the key: I am lost because I intentionally tossed aside all those characteristics and goals and assumptions, and now I'm standing naked and somewhat embarrassed and most decidedly unsure.

I can't say this is "just" because my mother died. Or "just" because I'm alone in the world with no parents and no safety net. Or "just" because I work for myself and it's possible that I will have no clients come January 2011.

I think it's more fundamental -- and more complicated, at the same time -- than that. I think it's about willingness. I have reached a stage in my life where I am willing, however uncomfortably, to say aloud (to myself, to others), that I am looking for something really, really and truly, authentic, and that something is me. Not all the characteristics and goals that other people ascribe to Amy Selwyn. But really and truly me.

My psychiatrist tells me, smiling, that he knows I want to break out of where I am now -- geographically, psychologically, logistically -- and do something different. And, he adds, it will become clear to me at some point and then I'll go do it. The key, he says, and I believe him (I REALLY REALLY do and I REALLY REALLY wish I didn't), is that I must sit with all the discomfort and the jealousies and the uncertainties and the wondering. Just sit. Sit until the path becomes clear.

In the past, I have picked a point --- a personal and/or professional Northern Star --- and I've aimed for it no matter what. My father died and I kept going. My heart got trampled on and I kept going. I got demoted and I kept going, certain and comfortable and undeterred.

So now I'm resisting the urge to pick a point. It would feel so much better, I can tell you that, if I could simply say to myself, Right, Amy, next stop is a $350,000 per year position based on the West Coast and a 10-year plan toward retirement. I could do that. Oh, there would be obstacles, of course. But they would be logistical, practical obstacles. And I'd find a way through them.

Instead, I'm looking at the nighttime sky and saying, Wow, a lot of stars. A lot of possible Northern Stars. I'm not going to fix my sights on any of them. I'm going to admire those stars from my little piece of earth, and I'm going to let an inner voice finally have its say. That inner voice is the voice that hasn't been mastered digitally in Dolby sound by engineers; it hasn't been influenced and perfected by other peoples' dreams and ideals. That's probably why it's a soft, elusive and childlike voice. And it's damned hard to hear it.

Today I find myself wishing I could change course. So much easier to just give up and go back to a much more driven lifestyle. To be that person who stands on the beach in panty hose and checks e-mail.

But there's no turning back once you commit to letting yourself get lost.

I am lost. Purposefully lost. And that is the only state of being that will allow genuine and authentic change. It sucks, that's the truth of it. But it will get better. In time.

In the meantime, I admire the stars, but make no claim.

08 July, 2010


From the small library of the Ibrahim Pasha Hotel in Istanbul, a glass of red wine and some pistachios on the low table in front of me, a vase of pungent lilies nearby, Paolo Conte on the sound system and light rain and cool air in the streets of Sultanahmet.


One of my favorite places in the world. Sensuous, exotic, surprising. Welcoming but also unknowable -- my favorite kind of relationship.

Tomorrow I board a Turkish Airlines flight back to New York. My adventure wraps and, just like in the movies, the scene fades and the suspended reality edges back into the picture. Home, dogs, work, groceries, meal prep, bills, therapy, lawn care, health insurance, car maintenance, Spanish lessons, lots of Facebook postings, talks with my sister, Netflix, Amazon.com deliveries. The realities of a nice life. But also, perhaps, a life that fails to maximize serendipity.

That's what is so special about travel: the serendipity. The fact that you wake up in the morning, eat strange cheese and have absolutely no clue what is going to happen next: what you'll do, what you'll find on the way to the Forum, who you'll run into or strike up a conservation with or spot across a half-empty Turkish coffee house. Unpredictable and therefore exciting.

That's the kind of life I love. (Do I live it or do I just crave it? I dunno. Perhaps a bit of both, which is a lot better than exclusively the latter.) A life in which things turn on a dime. You stop in for a donut and end up living in a foreign country. Unpredictable, unconventional, possible. I learn the most from these adventures. Serendipity is an inspiring teacher.

Here are some of the serendipitous moments for me over the last two weeks.

1. Driving with my friends Gulya and Ilgar in Baku. We are pulled over by a policeman. Why? No reason at all. We aren't speeding. Ilgar's Mercedes is in fine nick. Gulya tells me to make sure the policeman hears me speaking English. Ilgar explains that I am an American journalist, part of the press corps in Baku for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit. It's a big lie, of course, but the policeman is sufficiently spooked to stare for a moment, then let us pass. No bribe required. Had I not been there, Ilgar and Gulya tell me, cash would definitely have had to pass hands. Simply because that's the way it is. Note to self: be grateful this is not a regular occurrence in my life. Be grateful. Do not take for granted the freedoms I enjoy. And be aware that this is not the case for everyone. And, above all, improvise!

2. A nighttime walk in old Baku (the old city...leitmotif here...I love old cities) with one of the world's great storytellers, Fuad Akhundov. Ghosts of Russian spies, Azeri oil barons and Armenian merchants follow us from house to house, as Fuad reveals the city's secrets. He shows me the magic that is a port city at the other end of my world and, more importantly, a gateway to trade routes and destinations. We end the night in a half-restored garden, two turn-of-a-century wisteria trees stubbornly pushing their way up onto balconies and beyond in a romantic nod to one man's love for his saddened wife. Stories, I am reminded, bring lives to life. And everyone has one. Some people have many. Just have to remember to ask. And listen.

3. Crossing the lobby of the Ibrahim Pasha Hotel and seeing one of the dozen or so people I know in all of Turkey. Mehmet Yildiz. He is just sitting there, as if anticipating that I will be in Istanbul and it is normal that he should be waiting for me. My friend Asha and I had intended to go to the fish market for dinner. At Mehmet's insistence, we go left instead of right and make our way to his brother Hamza's carpet shop, just off the Hippodrome. We have a private showing of carpets. I buy an Usak and Asha buys two kilims. Then we head to the shop's top floor and eat a Turkish sofra (a picnic of sorts -- eaten on the floor, food scooped up with Turkish bread) with our friends. We drink red wine. Mehmet plays the saz, a long necked Turkish guitar. We say goodnight, laugh at the improbability of the scene, and agree to meet the next day at the Grand Bazaar after our morning at the Istanbul Culinary Institute. We promise to bring Mehmet samples of our cooking. The lesson here? Well, pretty obvious, really. Sometimes you need to take a left when you were certain you were going to hang that right. And see where the road takes you.

If I can integrate the memories, I'll add to my life that key spice: the one that makes it interesting and surprising and hard but worth it. And that ingredient is curiosity. Grateful for freedoms and not afraid to use them, willing to wing it, eager to hear other peoples' stories and to share, and willing to take what feels like a wrong turn and commit to the choice.

I head home. Wiser, perhaps. Poorer, no question. And curiouser and curiouser, oh yes.

28 June, 2010

From Gate 6, JFK

I am getting ready to leave for Baku, Azerbaijan. (To those who aren't sure where that is, here are the rough coordinates: Go past Iran and keep going 'til you are very nearly to Armenia, then land with the Caspian to your left.) I'm excited about the trip and also nervous, which feels about right.

I am flying Turkish Airlines to Istanbul and then changing for another Turkish flight from Istanbul to Baku. My flight is completely full and -- rough estimate here -- 90 percent of the passengers are Turkish. Maybe it's more like 95 percent.

At check-in, I watched as a young man, probably 22 or so, kissed and hugged his parents. The line snaked its way to the security area where only passengers are allowed. The young man and his parents began to cry. I don't speak Turkish but I don't have to in order to know what they were saying: I love you, be safe, I'll miss you, I love you, be safe, I'll miss you.

A stunningly beautiful woman to my left, held a fat, beautiful, little brown baby in her arms and waved and blew kisses to relatives or friends seeing her off. She was crying.

This isn't an unusual airport scene, especially not in a place like New York, where families unite and part every minute of the day.

What strikes me, as I watch this scene, is the obvious point: at the end of the day, we are the same. We want the same things. We want our loved ones to be safe. We want to love and be loved. We want to feel that hug and that kiss and we want to know that we will have opportunities ahead -- in the future -- to see one another again.

I am nearly moved to tears by this simple thought. It could be the fact that simple thoughts are among the most profound. That with each passing day I am more and more aware of my humanity and my frailty and my strength. Every day miracles move me. Every day gifts.

Now, at the gate, I look around. I see that, so far, I am the only blond on the flight. And I am the only woman without a head scarf. We are 375 or so people traveling to Istanbul. I am Jewish; most of my fellow travelers are Muslims. We are the passengers of TK 0002. We want the same thing: a safe flight, a smooth ride, a quiet and clean neighbor who doesn't smell or snore too loudly or fart. A baby that sleeps. A safe landing. And, of course, the certainty of safe return to those we leave behind.

Taken like this, it all seems so simple. Peaceful co-existence, if not friendship, seems possible.

As I write this, a group of students performs a song at the gate next to mine. They are traveling to Uzbekistan. Two of the girls wear head scarves; two wear short shorts. Their voices are high and delightfully and unabashedly off-key. I nearly cry for the innocence. Others around me, including (funny enough) the gorgeous woman with the happy brown baby, smile and clap for the students. We smile at one another.

Is it me or is there a possibility for connection in nearly everything? I leave for a new experience, excited by the possibilities this experience will yield. I am grateful for the newly awakened appreciation for what is possible. And what is front of me.

[My next posting will be from Baku!]

26 June, 2010

Leaving for Home

Tomorrow I leave for a 2-week trip (part business, part pleasure). I'm excited by the prospect of getting to Azerbaijan and delighted that I'll be getting back to Istanbul, which is one of my favorite cities in the entire world.

So right now I should be all packed and bubbling over with anticipation. But I'm not. Instead, I'm full of dread. I'm generally like this before a big trip.

My dogs, Diamond and Diego, will be going to their babysitter's house for the two weeks. They're leaving tonight. In fact, I'm waiting for Andrea (the babysitter) to appear any minute now.

Saying goodbye to my two bulldogs is incredibly difficult for me. I usually cry, especially when Diamond (the 6-year old) turns from Andrea and attempts to come back to the house, certain in the knowledge that her rightful spot is with me. She looks at me with those beautiful, soulful brown eyes and she seeks the reassurance: that I will be back, that I will not forget her, that I will not abandon her, that I will not replace her.

(For his part, Diego, the puppy, trots along happily, willing to go along with the program no matter what it is. He's the kid I always pretended to be, but never really was, not on the inside.)

With a lump in my throat as I write this tonight, I think about the idea of Home. What is home? Where is home?

For the first 18 years of my life, Home was West Hartford, Connecticut. Home was my parents and my sisters and our dog. We lived in the same house for the entire time; my parents never moved. We ate dinner in our dining room (my mother was very proud of that).

Then I went to college and, later, graduate school. And still West Hartford was home. Still that same house on King Philip Drive: white, with aluminum siding and black shutters. A red door.

Then my father got sick. Home was that same house but with some modifications. Now we had dialysis equipment in the guest bedroom and bags of peritoneal solution in the pink bathroom my sisters and I had shared growing up. There was a funny, sweet, sickly smell in certain parts of the house -- the odor of disease, that faint whiff of something medicinal and antiseptic.

My father died in December 1998. My mother remained in that same house. I had moved to London by then and, still, when I thought about "going Home" it was that house that I imagined. My father's ghost graced us, a funny spirit who was loved and remembered and missed. Always.

And then my mother started getting lost driving to a friend's house. She bought fava beans at the store when I'd asked her for a vanilla bean. She didn't always remember to shower. She bought food and shoved it -- literally, shoved it -- into the already crammed freezer. She stopped cooking and lived on prepared egg salad and tuna fish sandwiches. This was a woman who had once worked her way through a significant portion (the bread and poultry sections, anyway) of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I came and went, back and forth from London to West Hartford. And my house -- and all that it represented, all that it meant -- was still there. Yes, things had changed. Yes, it was different. But I would lie there in my twin bed in my yellow bedroom and I would feel anchored. Connected. I belonged to a story and that story started with Home.

Summer 2004. My mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She's unable to draw a clock. She has no idea what decade we're in. She can't remember the name of the president. When reminded, however, she is quick to tell the gerontologist, "I hate Bush. He's an asshole." The doctor recommends assisted living.

My sisters were enthusiastic; I was less so. I thought we should look at nurses and aides and even 'round the clock care. "Mom's going to want to be in West Hartford," I argued. "This has been her Home for over 65 years." But in the end it just wasn't practical. None of us had settled anywhere near West Hartford and most of my mother's friends wanted nothing to do with her anymore. "She shows up early for bridge games and it's very annoying," we were told. She had become a nuisance. One friend "thoughtfully" suggested we try and get my mother a volunteer job shelving books at the library. Subtext for please get her out of my life; she's frightening me.

In October 2005, we moved my mother to an assisted living community here in New Hampshire. And I made the decision to return to the States and to move to New Hampshire, as well. I wanted to help my sister Betsy. I wanted to be here to bear witness to my mother's final journey. I say this but I'm not sure that's all there is to it. I think I also wanted to find Home again and I suspect I needed to step out of the life I was living in order to so.

So is New Hampshire now my home? I don't think so but I don't know.

I can't say that I love my life here.
I work for myself and I'm alone nearly all day -- no meetings, no lunches, no drinks after work, nothing. I find it lonely. And I find it hard. I miss meeting people from all over the world. That doesn't happen all that often here. I find it boring and I miss theater and foreign films and public transit. I really do.

And yet.

Now that my mother has died and her journey is complete I could move back to New York. Or back to London. Or just about anyplace I want. And something stops me. I'm starting to believe that I'm not looking for a new address or a change of zip code. What I want -- and what I've wanted all along, ever since I lost West Hartford and lost my childhood to time -- is Home.

Now I know that when I left London, I left for Home.

I haven't found what it is I'm looking for yet. I don't think I will find it. No, what I think is that I will create it. I will build my Home, not find it. Building a Home is a metaphor for building a life and living it. Really living it.

I look down at Diamond and Diego and I know why it hurts so much to leave them. It hurts because they are part of the Home I am building -- the life I am making -- and I am going to miss them very, very much. I will come back full of enthusiasm for and stories about Azerbaijan and Turkey. Of course. And I will be thrilled that I had this opportunity.

When I land at Logan on 10 July, I can't say that I'll feel like I'm Home. No, I don't think I will feel that way. But, here's a starting point: when Andrea (the babysitter) brings the "kids" back later that day, the circle will feel more complete than it did without them. That is connection. And that is the starting point for the place I call Home.

24 June, 2010

148,920 Moments

Today was an ordinary day.

That's how I would characterize it. Not an especially memorable 16-hour stretch. Nothing wonderful happened, nothing awful happened. Just a laundry list of everyday normal activities. A momentary work crisis that got resolved. A potential new project that may or may not come through. A pedicure.

It strikes me, as I sit here at my dining room table, that the overwhelming percentage of the time spent on earth comprises ordinary days.

Let's say, for example, that I live to be 85 years old and that I die with my faculties intact. And let's say further that each day is approximately 16 hours long. I'm now 51. That means 34 more years x 16 hours = 198,560 hours of ordinary day-ness.

But let's go one step further and say, wait, some of those hours will be extraordinary: moments of extreme joy, moments of anguish, et cetera. So, let's make it easy and say, Right, 198,560 hours x 75% of the time = 148,920 hours of ordinary day-ness.

What an amazing thought.

That's a helluva lot of time, I'm thinking. And that's time that is spent doing every day, not especially memorable things. The kind of stuff I'm unlikely to look back on at the very end of my life and say, Wow, yes, I did that.

But what if I could learn to do that? What if I could learn to look at each day -- and each activity within the day -- as something special just for the sake of existing?

What I mean is this: What if I turn this whole thing around and say, Wow, my life comprises hundreds of thousands of hours of all kinds of moments and it is therefore complex and interesting and full?

What if I can get to that?

Better question: How can I get to that? How can I enjoy moments as they unfold and keep the unpleasant times in perspective, realizing they're temporary or they're normal or they're just a new reality that has to be dealt with?

I don't have the answer. What I have is the question. That seems like such a great place to start.

I'm committing to something tonight. At random points throughout the day, I'm going to stop and notice what I'm really doing. I'm going to acknowledge what that moment is about. It might be crappy (I'm paying a parking ticket); it might be fun (I'm singing along to "Company" while driving and I'm hitting all of Elaine Stritch's notes). No judgments. Just an acknowledgment.

An awareness. Being alive to some of those 148,920 moments I might very well have ahead of me.

So here's a start. I'm writing a blog. I'm writing. I love writing. I am making time in my life right now to write. I'm telling my truth. This is one of my moments.

23 June, 2010

180 Degrees

Someone I know died this morning in a freak accident: she had a gas leak and her house exploded. I don't know this woman well. I know her daughter and her future son-in-law, but only slightly. I won't be rushing to her daughter's house to comfort or to do any of the things we do when someone dies, because I wasn't that close.

I am a mourner from a distance.

My heart breaks for this woman's daughter. The what if's, the if only's, the hundreds of thousands of times she will play and replay the scenarios, looking for clues, looking for answers. In my case, it was easier. My mother was 83 years old and had suffered from Alzheimer's for six years. So I didn't need to spend time thinking about what might have been had some key element to the story been different.

This death was senseless and cruel. Tragic. I don't know how her daughter will ever come to accept what has happened to her mother. How long will it be before she forgets the explosion for five minutes? For ten minutes? Until she's able to watch a football game? Go
shopping for a dress? Go away for a weekend with her husband? Get through a week without thinking about this every second of every minute of every hour of every day?

No, no sense can be made of this.

A couple of hours after I heard about the explosion, I received news of another sort. A close friend called to say that a difficult relationship in his life is starting to get a little easier and his faith in the human spirit -- and in friendship -- is being restored. He sounded happier than I've heard him in a while.

I am struck by the two extremes that presented themselves to me in the course of a very typical, very average morning: grief and agony, joy and faith. These are the twin towers of our lives, very often standing at some level of distance from every day life; speaking for myself, I live mostly in the in-between bit -- that stretch of relative okay-ness that is neither pain and suffering nor delight and wonder. I go to the dry cleaner and I have a pleasant chat. I buy arctic char because they've run out of swordfish. I chat with my neighbor about lawn maintenance. And this is all good. Oh yes, very good.

Life turns on a dime. It's that old line: Stop in for a jelly donut and end up living in a foreign country. We make plans (and God laughs). We think ahead.

And then something stops us in our tracks. It can be grief, it can be joy. It stops us and makes us live in that moment, right in the here and now. I am reminded of this so often lately that I wonder if someone in the universe is trying to tell me something.

And the answer to that query is: Yes. Someone is trying to tell me something. And that someone is me. I am telling myself to pay attention. To look up. To be.

In this moment, I am devastated for this poor woman and her family. And I am happy for my dear friend and his peace. Feeling both ends of the spectrum and believing I am more alive in the moment for allowing myself to do so.

A smart therapist of mine from New York once told me that I lived my life in that very safe range of roughly 60 to 75 degrees on a 180-degree line. She said I would be more fulfilled -- but less safe -- if I broadened my experience to reach as far to the right and as far to the left as possible on the spectrum of full emotional experience.

Today, I am feeling 180 degrees in all its wonder, complexity and difficulty.