Thursday, January 21, 2010

Love, Light and Dark

Death ripped something open in me when I was 15 years old, and about 85% of my adult personality bloomed right out of it like a freaking Greek myth or something. I could feel it actually happening. Really.

Yes, it was my grandmother’s death, which may seem ordinary enough. But let me tell you, this wasn’t your typical central-casting grandmother. She was a painter, a spiritual poet, a humanitarian, and a big flaming liberal of a grandmother before “liberal” was an insult. She taught racial tolerance to school children in pre-MLK Philadelphia. She traveled through pre-war Europe on an art scholarship. She and my grandfather got a visit from the FBI during the McCarthy years. I don’t ever remember her baking cookies, but I do remember going to see Ralph Nader with her when I was about three or so. (Well, mostly I remember being bored beyond human comprehension. Still pretty cool, though, in retrospect.)

For most of my life, I just knew her as this wonderful grandma who made us paper dolls out of matte board and took us to the beach. She had this incredible capacity for joy and saw beauty everywhere. She used to stop us in our tracks to point it out: see how the light reflects on the insect’s wings? She was full of laughter and taught us to take joy in our mistakes. She lavished praise on us, just like the parenting books tell you you’re not supposed to do. But I loved it. I don’t ever remember anyone else but her calling me “beautiful” and “stunning” until years later when I started having boyfriends.

At 15, I was only just beginning to recognize what an exceptional woman she really was. One night, right before Christmas and at the height of our PBS station’s pledge drive, my mom and I were watching motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia give one of his talks. (Remember Leo Buscaglia?) That’s just like Grandma, I remember thinking. It was amazing. Here was this venerable, bearded fellow speaking so eloquently about love to a packed, adoring audience – popular enough to be run during pledge week, for goodness sakes – but to me, it sounded just like my grandmother.

“She would love this. I’m going to buy his book for her for Christmas,” I told my mom, and she thought it was a great idea. So we went to Waldenbooks at the mall that week and picked out a copy of Living, Loving, and Learning. And I felt so proud, realizing that my grandmother and I were on the brink of an adult relationship with each other.

There’s no writing workshop in the world that would let me get away with this next part. It’s cruel and formulaic to the point of being trite. But I swear, it really happened this way: Four days after I gave her that book for Christmas, she died. Heart attack. It was completely unexpected. Words fail.

The grown-ups were crying. I remember it was unseasonably warm for December, and the rain poured down. (Foreshadowing of Seattle, perhaps?) I remember feeling stunned and dark the whole time, drinking it all in but keeping my thoughts to myself. A plain casket, closed. That was her in there. How could that be?

We weren’t religious, but it’s amazing what you can come up with on your own when faced with death for the first time. I decided, first of all, that someday I would have a daughter and name her after my grandmother (which – remarkably – did actually happen 22 years later, almost to the day). And I decided that I would keep her spirit alive by trying to be like her. I would seek beauty and joy everywhere; I would keep fighting for justice in my own quiet way. The Leo Buscaglia book would be my guide.

Yes. Mere days after giving it to her for Christmas, I got the book back. So I read, read, and re-read until I somehow displaced all my jumbled existential despair and raw teen passion onto its author. It’s strange, thinking of it now, but I actually kept this writer in my thoughts more consciously than the grandmother I was grieving for. Walking in the fields near my parents’ house, feeling simultaneously empty and full, I yearned for him. Actual him. Not sexually, I don’t think. But not like a family member, either. There was an intensity to it that felt like love.

Had I made him into a guru of sorts? Did I want to sit at his feet and walk in his wise, benevolent shadow; a spoke in love with its wheel? I wondered: Was this the way religious people felt about their deities? Not the ideal sacred way you’re supposed to feel, but maybe something closer to Godspell’s “Day By Day”: that intangible yet total love that is so complete, joyful, and even fierce at times but can’t ever be attained or held. It’s not reverence, it’s not lust, it’s not apprenticeship, it’s not even love, really. It’s a bit of a mix of all those things and not quite any of those things.

I wrote to him once. He’d been the guest on some morning talk show and I scribbled his address down on a scrap of wrapping paper. After sitting on it anxiously for a few weeks, I finally sat down and wrote him the most banal little straight-margined letter that barely scratched the surface of my real feelings. I don’t think I even mentioned my grandmother. He or his office wrote me back, a warm and polite little response.

Eventually the whole thing started to feel embarrassing. I let go of my conscious attachment to the guy. But it was still there, inspiring me to pursue whatever unconventional, charismatic person happened to cross my path. I could carry the spirit of my grandmother, but I didn’t want to have to do it alone. I thought I needed someone to show me the way. Or maybe just someone to share it with who would understand.

Of course, unconventionality and charisma don’t always come from a heart of pure love and self-actualization, as I’d naively believed. Turns out there’s a whole lot of insecurity flying around there, too. They were either impossible to hold onto or they clung too tight. Most of them, to their credit, didn’t want to be followed. Their charisma was something of a coping device; they were just as uncertain as anybody else. But there were a few who absolutely craved an audience. They needed to be followed, but one special little follower like me would never truly be enough.

It was fun while it lasted, but gradually I gave up my pursuit of The Charismatic. Faced with a string of failed relationships and feeling out of step with the mainstream, I came to see myself as the Carrie Fisher to everyone else’s Meg Ryan. Something in me got tamed. The wild impulse to devote myself to The Charismatic simply turned into the desire to occasionally sleep with them. And not even that, really. Somewhere along the line, my attention shifted to The Aloof; the moon to The Charismatic’s sun; the vampire to their werewolf. (Yes, yes, a Twilight reference. We’re talking about female coming-of-age, aren’t we?)

In fact, I married the vampire. Or, at least, I married the geeky Gen-X version of him. He is cool and pale, almost supernaturally smart, barely eats, stays out of the sun. And when we met, he was a college instructor / rock critic getting ready to move to Seattle. Not sure how a wiggle-puppy like me even dates someone like that, let alone marries him, but it happened. (In all fairness, the guy’s got a warm side, too.)

Looking back on it all, I’m left feeling a little confused. Am I light or dark? Sun or moon? I’ve regarded myself as dark/bitter/cynical for so long, but there’s no denying my roots, my very spirit, soaked in innocent hug-seeking sun. Every once in a while I’ll come across someone who viscerally reminds me of the old Buscaglia days and it’s like a freaking magnet or something. I want to just . . . run to them. But I don’t.

And what about my grandmother? Am I keeping her spirit alive? Well . . . yes, I think. Not perfectly. Not always. But I do still stop and notice beauty in unexpected places. I do take joy in small moments and try to pass it along to anyone who might be willing to listen. And there’s my Little Girl, of course. Her namesake.

Those kids. That’s where my real sunshine is these days. They’re authentically charismatic and effusive and just so . . . present. They have no agenda; they simply love more than anyone could humanly possibly love. It’s what they do. And I can shine that love right back at them with reckless abandon. At least for now. I’m sure we’ll reach a point when they’ll be embarrassed by it, setting down paths of their own. All the more reason to enjoy it while I can, I suppose.

Saturday, January 9, 2010



I started making New Year’s resolutions about 15 years ago – the first time in my life when the calendar, and not the school year, marked a new beginning. I’d been living in Philadelphia for a few months, friendless and floundering around in various temp jobs, trying to get my feet on the ground. And just in case that wasn’t enough, I was also recovering from my second surgery to remove some big fat ovarian cysts.

“If you were married, I’d tell you to have your kids now,” my (male) doctor had said. Peachy. I didn’t even know if I wanted kids in those days, and being married seemed about as likely as taking flight. I’d had some casual boyfriends that year, all of whom would have left a boyfriend-shaped hole in the wall if I’d mentioned marriage, kids, or ovaries to them. I didn’t know what I wanted, exactly, but I knew things had to get better than this.

So I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote my first-ever list of resolutions. Some of them read like Stuart Smalley’s “Daily Affirmations” (“Find the potential for joy in each day”); some of them were practical and frank (“Know there are always alternatives. Do not marry or even couple out of desperation”). Cheesy or not, it was exactly what I needed to hear at the time, and writing the words myself somehow felt more powerful than reading them on a kitten poster or even hearing them from a friend over coffee. Scribbling away at my table, I was feeling more hopeful already.

And thus, a single-girl tradition was born. Not every year was as bleak as that first one, but every year had its own brand of absurdity and bad dates and pathos. There were jobs that drove me crazy. There were friends who were mostly just passing through. There were boyfriends I loved way too much, and boyfriends I wished I’d loved more (and plenty of unrequited crushes in between). My life was such a work-in-progress in those days, beginning a new year at Point A with very little idea where I’d be by the end. Each year required a fresh batch of strength and survival skills.

So, I’d make resolutions. They were mostly your basic “push out the jive, bring in the love” rhetoric with little variation from year to year. I’d resolve to stay healthy and be strong; to bring more energy and enthusiasm to my job; not to worry and hurt so easily; to seize the day. Some years I included more ambitious resolutions about branching out into the community (find a hiking group, a book club, etc). Funny how those were the ones I rarely kept.

One notable change is how, after a few years of solid self-focus, the resolutions expanded to include other people. One year, for example, I resolved to be a better friend to the important people in my life. Another year, I resolved to keep working on adult friendships with my family. And since Mr. Black came along, there’s always been a resolution to give him my full appreciation.

Yes, the single-girl tradition survived couplehood. Well, pretty much. Our first New Year’s together was right before I moved to Seattle to be with him, so resolutions were a no-brainer. The year after that, though, I didn’t do them at all. We’d been living together for nearly a year by then, and going through a major stretch of growing pains. That’s the thing about long-term relationships. You hit a rough patch and you have to either plow your way through it or retreat. I was journaling a lot during that time, but New Year’s came and went without mention on the pages.

I started doing resolutions again for the next couple of years, but it was more for the sake of the ritual than anything else. We were engaged, and then in the first year of marriage. Aside from some frustrations with my job, I was feeling incredibly happy, lucky, and . . . well . . . resolved, I guess. My world was blissfully smaller, more manageable, and full of easy joy.

And then everything kind of came full circle that next year. I’d had two early miscarriages and was on the verge of a third one as the new year began. It’s funny how all those years of single-girl struggle really laid the foundation for something like that. Losing a pregnancy isn’t really like losing a boyfriend, but the survival skill set is remarkably similar. While it's an actual tangible loss in one sense, it's really about the loss of hopes and dreams; the loss of an ideal. I never thought I'd feel that way again, but there I was. My list of resolutions was as long and affirmationy as it was that first year in Philly. Here are just a few:

1. Trust your own strength, smartness, and lovability. Go on. Trust it.

2. Recognize that Mr. Black is every bit as complex, reflective, fearful, and loving as you are. He is not your rock. He is your partner on this path, every bit as vulnerable as you are, needing you as much as you need him. Communicate your needs, fears, etc. Hear his.

3. Fill every moment with something good – a thought, a song, a memory, an experience, a hug.

4. In short . . . please be happy. Be at peace. You need these challenges in your life, and you can meet them. Someday we will know how this all ends. But we can be happy before we know.

Sure enough, the following year I replaced my New Year’s resolutions with a giant “to do” list to get ready for the new baby. And in the years that followed? If I made any resolutions, I didn’t bother to write them down. I think I had one about doing more yoga one year.

Too busy and active with “real life” for introspection? Or too mired in motherhood minutiae to focus on myself? No, I don’t really see it either way. It’s funny . . .when I was digging up all these old resolutions in the first place, I flipped through a journal from 1995 and then another from 2007 back-to-back. 1995: Analyzing the pros and cons of pursuing a particular guy. 2007: Making lists of everything I ate and how much blood was in the baby’s diapers, trying to track down the culprit (it was dairy).

And I had to ask myself: Are those two preoccupations so different? Relationship woes, diaper contents. Mr. Black says it’s only the difference between metaphorical and literal shit. Crass, but true (although the relationship stuff makes for more interesting reading).

Anyway. It’s all just a big navel gaze, I suppose. But since this is just some chick’s blog and not the front page of or anything, I’m hoping you’ll forgive me the indulgence. And who knows, maybe turning all this introspection outward will do some good somehow, shining my little Stuart-Smalleyesque light of wisdom on the Internets. You never know.

So, for 2010 I’m starting up the resolution tradition again. These are a little more succinct than in past years, but they say all they need to say:

1. Do the work

2. Be present for my children

3. Trust myself

4. Be mindful of my body and take good care of it

5. Simply enjoy that life is good right now and do more of the things that help make it good

6. Let it be

Or, as they say in Wuzzleburg:

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