Monday, October 20, 2014

Scenes of neighborhood city life

The elderly woman walks down the sidewalk, dog leash in hand, ancient dog ten paces behind her (not on the leash). The dog stops, arthritis having halted his progress.

His owner pauses, kicks her leg out (why?) and tosses a dog treat on the ground. The dog ambles forward. Before he gets to the treat the old woman leans over and retrieves it, then tosses it ten feet ahead. The two mosey on, in perpetual but very slow motion.

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I go out to buy a gallon of milk -- a daily event -- and run into three people I know, in succession. We chat about life: one has a troubled teen, one is involved in coordinating a community event, one lives in my building. I get to the store and wait in line. My cashier is Sally, who lives in my building. She tells me how her grandchildren are doing, and asks after my kids. She is pleased that Big Guy is enjoying college, and happy to hear that Snuggler is performing in Romeo & Juliet.

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At church on Sunday the place is full. I look around and idly wonder (yes, I should be paying attention to other things) which nationalities are represented today. I know there are many Latinos and Fhilipinos, plus a few Italian nuns. A few families are present; when we first started going to the chapel, we were the only people with kids. New York is different that way: it's a town full of singles and couples.

The first time I went to a bat mitzvah (a common enough event here), what surprised me most was realizing that disparate people in my life knew one another through synagogue. It had never occurred to me that my good friend from the neighborhood association was friends with the young mom I knew from the playground. I was delighted to discover that the world is connected in ways I never imagined.

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A old woman shuffles, bent in half over her walker. Her sheitl is bent askew, and every third shuffle she pauses to tilt her head sideways to see where she's going. I wonder what life is like with osteoporosis so severe that one cannot ever straighten up, when your view of the world is limited to floors and sidewalks. I am somewhat in awe of her courage, her determination to get out and to the store. It is probably a three-hour affair to buy groceries, maybe more. She is always alone. I hope that when I am her age I have that amount of raw determination. She is an inspiration.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


It seems to take me an inordinately long time to ramp up to the fall schedule. Why this should be, I don't know; I have fewer kids around now, and the ones that I have are (with one exception) self-transporting. To me this clearly says Motivation Issue. But that's boring. I mean, what mom of many doesn't have Motivation Issues?

And then I had to do some new things -- things new to me -- and suddenly I found myself "in the flow" as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say. It's as if my emotional metabolism ramped up by a factor of two or three.

I guess the thing about "new" is that it can fill up your rut to overflowing, lifting you out.

*         *          *         *

That's not the only option, of course. When your rut is overflowing you can always dig it deeper, to accommodate the additional stuff coming in. Not advisable, in my opinion. But people do it.

Sometimes what's familiar (even if it hurts you) is preferred to changing (which is scary). When Big Guy was little I called this "hugging your pet porcupine". A pet porcupine rarely makes you feel better, though.

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Ruts are usually caused by routine: activities, when overdone; thought patterns, when left unchecked; ways of interacting with others that cause failure to thrive.

One of the things I do to keep myself from falling into self-created ruts is to ping my bubble frequently. You know which bubble I mean: the one I create by surrounding myself with like-minded people who suit my tastes and reinforce everything that's most palatable and familiar and non-threatening. I have to fight that bubble pretty actively, much more so now that we inhabit the internet as much as the tangible world.

I do think bubbles lead to ruts, because (assuming the inside surface of a bubble is iridescent, like the outside) they reflect an image of ourselves, slightly warped, back to us. And once the world is all about me... that's a major rut.

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My mother broke her knee yesterday. She fell in a parking lot, which is not the same as falling into a rut. So that's unrelated to the rest of this, except it is pulling on my heart, so I wrote it here. She has been looking forward to a trip to the small town in Illinois where she grew up, looking forward to seeing childhood friends. It's doubtful that will happen now. I am hopeful it will happen later, after the surgery and physical therapy and recovery. I am hopeful that she is not in too much pain. I am hopeful this will not be too great a strain on my father. If you are a praying person, please add Joan and Steve to your prayer list.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


I went to hear Twyla Tharp speak last week. I came away thinking, "That woman is fearless."

I'm sure she's not. She's driven, which is a different thing. When you're driven toward a goal, things that might otherwise feel like sinkholes are easier to see as the bumps in the road they really are. Whatever Twyla Tharp's fears are, she can drive through most of them. And whatever Twyla Tharp's fears are, they seem invisible to me because they aren't the same as mine. We're driven by (and to) different things.

Then again, I think she probably drives faster. And harder.

As the lecture broke up and I was walking toward the door, a student behind me commented to a friend, "It's interesting how differently people of that generation think. We feel our way through, spending time pondering all the possibilities. She sees her goal and just goes toward it."

I doubt that's a generational thing. That's a meet-a-creative-genius thing. Still, the how-I-feel-about-it aspect of life does get overemphasized today. During the Q&A someone asked, "How do you work through the times when you need down time?"

Twyla blinked, as if trying to comprehend this, then said briskly, "I am always working. If I get up and don't feel like working, I work anyway. Because, you know, I might feel like working the next day, and that's what you do if you want to stay in shape."

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Last week I chatted with a woman from my building on the subway. I am not sure exactly what we were talking about. Life, in a general way.

At one point I mentioned that I'd read that a lot of people don't like to rent to actors, because of the perception that their income is unstable. Yet actors are really, really good at scrambling for jobs, and they know how to patchwork a subsistence together. This gives them a huge advantage in times of economic insecurity. You'd probably be better off renting to a resourceful actor than to a middle manager in a big firm, because if the middle manager loses his or her job, it's a crisis. The salaried person often doesn't know how to cope with not having a regular paycheck.

So the question is: does security=steady paycheck? Or does security=ability to scramble and pay the rent if you lose your job?

Is it what you already have that makes you safe... or your resilience and adaptability?

*         *          *         *

The discussion of security led to other things, and at one point my interlocutor paused and said, as if to herself, "I think I have a lower tolerance for discomfort than other people."

Her voice held regret; she clearly felt she'd missed out on important things because she'd moved away from difficulties too quickly. The A Train was not the place for a discussion about how tolerance for discomfort is something one builds rather than carries in one's DNA -- it's work.

But I can think of two things that provide the motivation to do the hard work of overcoming fears:

1) You become so sick-to-death of the limitations your fears impose that you're willing to put in the effort to change, or

2) You are so passionate about something that you plow through the rough stuff because it lies in the way of progress.

Generally speaking, passion for something bigger that yourself is the more compelling path. Just sayin'.

But it's still work.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


My eldest turned 20 last week. It was the first time she wasn't been home for her birthday, her first year of living in another part of the country, on her own.

Back when she left for college, two weeks after turning 16, people plied me with questions about whether or not I thought she was ready. "Ready in what way?" I replied drily, "There are grown men who still aren't ready for college."

I don't thing there's such a thing as ready, at least in the blanket sense. There are always ways in which we're not ready, even when we think we are: those are called blind spots. And there are ways in which we're ready, even when we think we're not: that's fear.

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I was kind of proud of myself this week. I transitioned a print newsletter to an email campaign. This is something I knew I could do, but for a while I found myself balking. Then I realized, "Oh -- I'm afraid because I've never done it before." Having named the fear, I could nod at it and drive on by. 

It's unspoken, unidentified anxieties that have the ability to steer me off course. One of my kids has this Mental Floss t-shirt:

When I can name what is behind a vague sense of unease, I'm more than halfway to pulling out of it. I suspect that being ready to face our fears may be the closest we will ever come to being blanket-level ready.
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The whole idea of being ready for something is kind of odd, if you stop to think about it. It carries with it the assumption that we have (or should have) a choice about when things happen. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don't. 

When we say, "I'm not ready", we often mean:
  • I'm afraid I won't succeed; or
  • I seriously don't like this and don't wanna go through it; or
  • This will be way too much work to be comfortable; or
  • I'm not good enough at this to avoid looking (or feeling) inept.
It could also mean, "I genuinely need additional time to develop the skills to do this," but I suspect that's not usually the case. 

*         *         *          *

I wasn't ready for Eldest to move halfway across the country, in the sense that I was surprised at how hard it was to adapt to the idea that I couldn't hop on a bus and be at her doorstep $25 and five hours later. I'm slowly getting used to it. 

And is Eldest ready to hold down a job, live on her own, and be independent? I daresay she is far more ready than she thought she would be. She likes her job, likes her apartment, likes her town. There are things she is learning -- some because she wants to, and some because she has to -- and that's good. 

Sometimes we're ready. Sometimes we're willing. Sometimes we're able. I'm not convinced that we need all three at the same time to move forward. What we really need is an honest assessment of what's holding us back. Often it's simply fear. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The positives of negative space

In the late 80s and early 90s I worked in marketing, mostly in the money management sector. It was a time when there were few women in that field, and young professionals were continually told to find a mentor. I found this difficult. You see, there were very few people I wanted to emulate. Mostly what I did was look around and note the characteristics I did not want to have. I knew who I didn't want to be long before I had an inkling of who I aspired to become.

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I spent many weekends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a decade later, with my children. The Met has a superb drop-in education program; it's free with admission.

One week the program was in the Greek galleries. In addition to learning about red-figure and black- figure vases, we spent a while in front of a gorgeous funerary statue of a young man, a kouros. The instructor had us walk around the statue, noticing what we liked about it. She then talked about how a sculpture is defined by what's there and what's not. The space between the legs, for example, has its own beauty. The stone which was removed was as significant as what remained.

This idea of negative space enchanted me. We are, in part, defined by who we are not.  We do not get any say in what kind of raw material we begin with, but I can choose to carve away cynicism (or not), to excise self-centeredness (or not), to shave off fear (or not), to chisel out desires for fame, fortune or success (or not).

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And yet there are limits. Some negative space is formed simply by getting knocked around. What could have -- perhaps should have -- been there gets broken off, eroded, cracked, damaged. We don't get to sculpt everything. Though life may not be what it could have been, there is still immense beauty in it. 

When we look at a gorgeous statue that has lost a nose or an arm, what do we fixate on: What is missing, or what is there? 

*          *          *            *

I daresay that much of what we think of as sacrifice, isn't. Most of what we give up for the sake of our children/spouse/friends/strangers is stuff we can easily do without. Often we are actually better off for the lack, since thinking of others ahead of thinking of ourselves tends to smooth out certain bulgy spots in our souls. I think the negative space that is formed from thoughtfulness is more like the silken, clean line delineating the arm or leg of that kouros than like a missing nose.


Saturday, July 12, 2014


The graduation was great, though not your usual event. It's different at a therapeutic school.

I sat in the audience, aware that every single person in the room had known deep suffering: every student, every mom, every dad, every sibling, every relative. I wondered what the cumulative number of suicide attempts had been, the number of days spent in hospitals, the number of tears sobbed, the hours of therapy logged. It was intensely moving to consider how impossibly hard these kids -- and parents -- had worked just to get to a life that approximated what others think of as normal.

If you'd told me four years ago that Big Guy would be a) alive, b) graduating, and c) going to college on a merit scholarship, I probably would have grunted, acknowledging the possibility but assuming nothing.

In the midst of dark times, placing you don't place your hope in a pinprick of light that you can't see at the end of a seemingly infinite and pitch-black tunnel that you don't know how to navigate.

In dark times, hope is about focusing on what you can do now. Hope is choosing not to see all the fears and troubles that might become realities, and instead responding to what is asked of you in this moment. Hope is about how you handle the intense mix of feelings that you would do anything to jettison, but can't. It lies in figuring out what you will do to stay strong and sane and true to what you believe, in deciding who you will be regardless of the outcome.

Hope isn't about what you want, but about the direction you will head even if you don't get what you want.

Another analogy: When your ship is in the midst of a fierce storm, wishing desperately for the clouds will part and a well-lit port will appear isn't hope. You've got work to do, crises to manage, crew to keep safe. Hope is like ballast: the stuff that keeps you on as even a keel as possible. Hope is about your center of gravity.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Problem solving, and moving on

As I shlepped home from Trader Joe's about a month ago -- a huge bag on each shoulder and one slung across my chest -- two subway lines and a five-block walk, I thought, "Next time I need to take a camera and do a blog post about this, because this is such a New York City experience!"

You see, if you have to carry all of your groceries a distance, you shop differently. Heck, you think differently! You plan ahead, and consider bulkiness and weight in addition to nutrition and cost and allergies and what-the-kids-will-eat. You ponder whether it's going to be less crowded if you take the local train downtown to get to the uptown express, or if you should take the uptown local and transfer to the express after a dozen stops (but traverse three flights of stairs.)

The algebra of living in NYC is complex. After a while you get used to it, and it doesn't bother you any more. Much. It's just what you do.

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On Monday I headed to the airport with Eldest, to fly out with her to the small city in the midwest where she'll start work next week. We weighed whether to spend $50 on cab fare (and get to LaGuardia in 40 minutes) or to haul everything on the subway and transfer to a bus and spend $5 (a 90-minute trip). This is the kind of choice car-less people have to make. We opted for mass transit, since there are already a lot of expenses in moving.

Right after we arrived at the airport and got off the bus, I noticed an electrical cord of some sort dragging at the back of the 46-pound suitcase. I stopped to check, and was horrified to discover that the zipper had popped when the bag plopped off the bus.

We stuffed Eldest's belongings back into the suitcase as best we could, and got in line for check-in. I asked the woman managing the line if she could obtain any packing tape, since it was obvious that at 8am we were not going to be able to either buy a new suitcase or make our 9:40am plane unless we somehow patched up what we had. I followed her around until I got her to hand me half a roll of tape. Then I wrapped that sucker of a bag up until it was the ugliest suitcase in the terminal.

We sent the suitcase off on the conveyor belt, accompanied by many prayers. More than half of Eldest's worldly belongings were in there.

It was only after we were at 30,000 feet that it dawned on me that if we hadn't taken the bus, the bag wouldn't have had a big bump and burst before it was tossed in the cargo hold. Sometimes blessings truly do come well-disguised.

The bag made it. It was easy to spot on the luggage carousel, too. And no one else reached to take it, thinking it belonged to them.

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There's more than a bit of culture shock in finding myself in a car-oriented town. Neither Eldest nor I currently drive, so we are dependent upon mass transit. It is a bit of a challenge. We have done a lot of walking, an average of 3-5 miles a day. This is not a terribly unusual amount of walking for either of us; city people walk a lot. (If you ever come to NYC and marvel at how thin people are, this is why. And if you ever come to NYC, bring good walking shoes.)

We have used five different bus routes, thankful that there are buses (though most only run once or twice an hour). We've explored more than a mile in three directions from Eldest's apartment.

We have figured out where to buy groceries when there's no grocery store nearby. We have figured out how Eldest can get to her office, which is a mile from a bus stop.  We have taken a trip to a Target that is miles and miles away. We have ordered heavy things from Amazon Prime so we don't have to carry them. We have found two churches, one of which is only 1.1 miles from home. This is all good. And honestly, I don't know how we would have figured out all this without the kind of logistical training one gets from living in the city.

That said, we've also gotten Eldest a driver's permit, so she can learn to drive.

Tomorrow I fly home. Whatever new challenges head Eldest's way, she'll have to handle in her own way, in a mix of NYC heritage and to-be-acquired Midwest problem solving. It does seem that, transportation aside, life is a lot easier and runs a lot more smoothly here. That means a lot to this mom, since it will mean less stress for my daughter.

Here's to you, kid. I love ya.