We Do Language

Chloe Anthony (Toni) Morrison Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities Princeton University Princeton, New Jersey photo: © Timothy Greenfield-SandersWe die.

That may be the meaning of life.

But we do language.

That may be the measure of our lives.

Toni Morrison


mary-oliver It is a serious thing

just to be alive

on this fresh morning

in the broken world.

Mary Oliver


madeleine_lengle

The great thing about getting older is

that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.

Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007)


angelouI’ve learned that

people will forget what you said,

people will forget what you did,

but people will never forget

how you made them feel

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

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Loss

Couldn’t write today, so this post comes from my files… It was written about two years ago, when I was given LOSS as a writing start.

Probably the ‘purest’ loss experience in my life is still my sister Amy. The void that was left behind was so new, so absolute, so complete. She was there, so very there, and I’m tempted to say, ‘there for me’ although there was no conscious giving by her to me. But she was reliably there.

Wake up, Amy is there to cuddle, to touch and smell and care for… Come home from school and she was there, to cuddle, touch, smell and care for. It didn’t matter if I felt alone at school, if I was feeling lost, lonely or ‘other’ when I was out in the world. Amy was there for me. It didn’t matter if my mother was tense or unhappy, if the atmosphere at home seemed airless and tight, Amy was there to hold.

I didn’t have to work to please her, to constantly strive, trying to be ‘good’, or smart or helpful or edit my thoughts and hide my feelings. I was not on display, to be judged and measured and, inevitably feel inferior. Amy was there for me.

So the hollow space that I experienced when she was gone seemed huge and then it seemed to be expanding. In a way, the rest of my life, which really was my life and had been, but was held together by the safety of Amy being there, it all drifted away, quietly shattered and disappeared. Without that comfort zone, the pressure built: adolescence, academics, family drama and I shuffled along in it and through it. Pretense was the norm, so I got fairly proficient as a pretender. Took my performance cues from any voice that spoke, from Seventeen Magazine to my hater grandfather.

nixonI heard no inner voice until the day Richard Nixon’s helicopter landed in our high school soccer field. That was a seismic shift and another story. But the big, big hole that losing Amy created has been replicated with each significant loss over the years. My hope now is that I can be there for myself, to keep the void from expanding each time, because the struggle to get back to a solid form is exhausting.

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Mourning, Gratitude

turtle-tanAh, the hoopla of Thanksgiving: family, a traditional meal, football games and the official start of the Holiday season. The shopping frenzy of Black Friday has become as iconic as the images of turkeys and Pilgrim hats. That’s not to mention Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

Being grateful for our blessings should be a given, everyday. I wince a bit thinking how much the idea of giving thanks has been relegated to this single day. As the ‘good will to men[sic], peace on earth’ message appears each year in December and is not in evidence in July or March. My cynical self notes the many un-peaceful actions that so often arise during the stressful weeks leading up to the gift giving celebrations.

I am especially aware of the mourning that our national holiday neglects to mention, but which is at the core of the Thanksgiving ‘story’. It is vitally important that we honor the millions of indigenous people, here in this country (and all over the world) who’ve been systematically murdered and displaced. In addition to supporting the activists at Standing Rock and other protests, I’ve embarked on some self-education.

Here is the link to a Native American Indian website that I recommend. I was fascinated, as a girl, by the stories of the Lenni Lenape people who originally lived in what is now northern New Jersey. My hometown of Hackensack is one of dozens of local place names that derived from the language of this Algonquin tribe. This site brings together a wealth of information and links to more information about North and South American indigenous peoples.

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Shaping

My plan was to write about shaping and living my life, as in this quote from Pearl Cleage:

My mother’s passing was so important to my own realization that I was a grown woman. I understood then that there was nobody to stand between me and the shaping and living of my own life.

But then there was something I felt that I needed to deal with first.  Then I thought that I would not post this because it is too raw and personal.  Then I said: what the heck.ike2

The year is 1959. Imagine that. It’s the final year of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term as President and still very much the 50’s. No Kennedys in the White House. No race to the moon. I am only seven, so if there is activity in the movement for civil rights, I don’t know about it. I barely see the news and in first grade, we don’t discuss current affairs.walter My childhood life is circumscribed, but seems okay, if I don’t focus on certain things at home. I can watch the mouse-clubMickey Mouse Club on TV and pretend that I inhabit that heartwarming and imaginary world.

My maternal grandmother is spending a lot of time with us in NJ, because my grandfather is in Europe for his job. She refuses to fly in an airplane, so they live apart for many months at a time. I suspect that suited both of them. He was a dapper, worldly man and by all accounts, he thoroughly enjoyed his traveling adventures. She did not have a domestic bone in her body, so the relief of not having to make and maintain a home for him was, I suspect, quite pronounced. I will never know how having her mother around so much was for my mother, but since they never seemed cozy close, I suspect it was a strain.

So Nanna, as we call her, is essentially living with us, for a week or so at a time. Then someone will drive her back to her apartment for a week or so and then back she will come. Because she is so often with us, she has become a patient of our family doctor. What her ailments are, I do not know. Dr. P. has been our backyard neighbor all my life, with his office on the first floor of his home. He has just recently moved his practice into a new high-rise apartment building a few blocks away.

Nanna goes to see the doctor at least once a week and I go along with her. Whatever. I don’t suspect anything the first time they weigh me, but when they begin to track my weight on a weekly basis, I am a little confused. What’s up? Neither my sister nor my brother is being measured. Then, one day, Dr. P. who is a very large man, sits me down to explain. Nanna sits across the room, nodding approvingly.

The problem is that my size is wrong and unacceptable. He passes judgment, invoking all of his power as a medical man, to tell me that I am five pounds overweight and this is a crisis. Soon, he tells me, boys will start to pay attention to girls and I will be rejected, unwanted, because of my size. This sentence of doom is passed on to me as if by an oracle. This is my future: to be unwanted, ignored, unchosen.

I’d like to say that I didn’t get it, that I didn’t understand these dire predictions. On some level that’s true, since I wasn’t yet thinking of a future need for boy approval. But part of the message came in loud and clear, with every weekly weigh-in and with the change in my treatment at home. I was not okay. How I looked was not okay. My appearance was what really mattered, not my behavior, not my thoughtfulness, friendliness, kindness, sense of humor, intelligence or any other aspect of me. It was all about how I looked. My value, my worth was measured by a scale and tape measure. And they were telling me that as a little girl I was failing.

So, what does this have to do with the topic of shaping? Well, this was pivotal for me, this moment and the years that followed. In the bosom of my family I was repeatedly reminded that as a girl, what was most important was that I be attractive to boys. Doctor, parents and grandparents shaped me, with their attitudes, into a girl and then a woman who was stifling her own anger at the same time she was trying to live up to their expectations.

The ability to shape shift, to change my sense of self, did not really open up until my mother died, as Cleage notes in her essay. By that time, my rage at their ignorance and cruelty had been bottled up for decades, with occasional minor eruptions. After she was gone, there was only my father, who never stopped his misogynistic rants, never imagined questioning the belief that female value is based on appearance.

Yes, there are echoes of the revolting attitude and statements of PEOTOS here. Yes, I am angry. The cutting edge of that anger has been essential in my ability to begin “shaping and living my own life.”

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Breaking the Contract

“…Break[ing] the contract you signed when you were three years old, promising not to ever, ever tell the truth, promising your family secrets would go with you to the grave.”                                           Annie Lamott

Breaking the promise not to tell secrets. Breaking open the entire, so-often-toxic idea of secrets. Transparency has become a buzzword in the public sphere over the last couple of decades. Not that it has gone very well in that sphere, of course. The nature of the beast, public life, seems to include secrecy and behind-the-scenes manipulations in every public arena, from politics to business. But that’s not where I am going with this commentary. I’ll leave that to others who are more knowledgeable about those worlds. Mainly white men and those who have chosen to study and infiltrate those realms… women and people of color, for instance. Although learning a bit about those machinations intrigues me, I’m definitely not willing to invest my time to gain a thorough understanding.   jersey-girl

I am and have always been, perhaps by necessity, more interested in the secrecy and lack of transparency in the private sphere. My personal analysis is that white men, white Anglo Saxon men, men in general, have shaped the rules of secrecy in our personal lives in much the same way as in the world at large. ‘Protecting their power’ and control is one way to frame it. Of course there are widespread cultural differences of degree, but I feel comfortable asserting that this dynamic exists. I was raised in a culture that was rigorously shaped by WASP men and gender roles were fairly rigid. Men did not talk about feelings and if women needed or chose to, it must be kept out of sight. Hush, hush. No good would come of airing one’s emotions, much less troubles; that was the nearly iron clad rule.

On the most tragic level, this injunction forced women to suffer rape, sexual assault and abuse in silence. The victim-blaming and victim-shaming standards held sway for centuries and despite some advances in my lifetime, still hold women in a cage of secrecy. Trauma of any kind was something to be kept private, in spite of the obvious harm this caused to generally blameless humans, even or especially children.

Here we go…

If you have already seen something I’ve written about this, please forgive the repetition. goldtreeWhen my mother gave birth to a Downs Syndrome child in 1963, my baby sister’s very existence was kept a secret. When she died a little over a year later, the (dare I say, natural) need to mourn her death was truncated**, denied by the fact that if people did not know she had lived, how was grieving to take place? I was eleven years old. The package of secrecy and denial was tightly wrapped in a final (and I do mean final) injunction: we were never to speak of her again. The rare times that a spark of self-preservation leapt from my inner self and I spoke her name or referred to her life and our loss, I was smacked down quite vigorously.

There are chronologically earlier, and equally painful, examples in my family of the denial of reality by use of secrecy and others that came later in my childhood. They continued right through to the day I confronted my 84-year-old father about his excessive alcohol use. (The Alcoholics Anonymous program states that only the addict/alcoholic can take on that label and I agree, so I do not refer to him as such.) I confronted him and told him I had taken away his car keys. I named it, his drinking, a secret that had been protected by the family code of silence for my entire life. By naming it (and taking away those keys) I took away some of his power. He was furious, cursing me and trying to hit me with his cane, telling my mother that I did not belong in the family.

Those who know me, I think, would describe me as discreet, someone who can be trusted with confidential information; a compassionate listener, a kind and sensitive person. I also love surprises and will go to great lengths to assist in the planning of happy surprises. But do not come to me with a secret that is being held in order to protect someone who has power or that has the potential to harm someone less powerful. Mainly due to my early experiences, I’ve become a vigilante against toxic secrecy, down to my very core. I will not abide by the code of silence. I am committed to breaking that dreadfully coerced promise whenever I can.

** Truncated: ORIGIN late 15th cent. (as a verb): from Latin truncat- ‘maimed,’ from the verb truncare

I had no idea that truncated was also a mathematical term; I always pictured a tree trunk, like this:    5b3fopm8f7gsmkq7ovdd12xm7dlsjbclzjqimcqa1nlrx5wsughsjrwdgqwhihsc2lmds128 nablopomo_badge_2016

Breaking, Shaping, Becoming

Over the last six months, I have been slowing reading and absorbing a fascinating book, edited by Meredith Maran: Why We Write About Ourselves, Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature. I found the title very intriguing; the volume includes authors whose work I have read, and many I have met for the first time, but whose books I have begun to seek out. The pieces are short and filled with insights, some of which seem to be answers to questions that I hadn’t known I wanted to ask.

Perhaps because the Big Family Holidays are almost upon us, my family of origin, 1particularly my mother, has been showing up recently, in memory. Thanksgivings were pretty miserable when I was a girl and in my mind, the turkey was to blame. She could never cook it to my father’s liking, so I remember a scene every November. I once thoughtlessly suggested that he should cook it, but that crazy idea was met with unequivocal rejection, by both of them. So, the holiday continued to be thick with stress and tension; there was usually an explosion of some sort. We would go to the high school football game, but the cozy concepts of family and thankfulness just weren’t part of the day, at least not for me.

In any event, there are a few passages from Maran’s book that I want to share. The first comes from Pearl Cleage, a prolific novelist, playwright, poet and memoirist. She is an author I am delighted to have ‘met’ and I encourage you to take a look at her work. She says:

My mother’s passing was so important to my own realization that I was a grown woman. I understood then that there was nobody to stand between me and the shaping and living of my own life.

It has been more than eight years since my mother died and the impact of her death on my life has trickled into my existence, a little at a time. Maybe seeping is a better word, because it seems that I don’t notice a shift until it is well underway. I’ve gotten used to that sensation and in fact quite comfortable with it. I don’t need dramatic epiphanies. I will settle for what my dear friend P calls epiphanettes; a lovely and useful concept.

The well-known and popular writer Annie Lamott is the source of the next two quotes:

I like to write about the process of healing, of developing, of growing up, of becoming who we were born to be instead of who we always agreed to be.

blue-leavesOh my, yes. The constricting suit of clothes, (straitjacket or suit of armor?) that I agreed to wear, the girl and woman who I agreed to be, the script I numbly read, the denial of who I was born to be… That feeling of enforced agreement and the loss of authentic self casts its shadow on so many of my youthful memories. And now, that gift, that lift, that comes when someone offers the words, simple words, to describe an internal emotional state that has always seemed inexplicable. Lamott goes on to say:

With memoirs, you break the contract you signed when you were three years old, promising not to ever, ever tell the truth, promising your family secrets would go with you to the grave.

Breaking the contractual agreement “… not to ever, ever tell the truth…”, “…shaping and living my own life…” and “becoming who [I was] born to be…”.

Yep, that’s the story I’m living and writing.    nablopomo_badge_2016

Wandering

Searching for something to write about for the blog today, I scrolled futilely through dozens of old pieces of writing. I thought ‘maybe I can just recycle something or maybe I’ll be ‘inspired’… But nothing pops for me. Too many pieces that are examinations of past miseries and I want to be done with that stuff, in the same way I do not want to dwell on the results of the election. Gotta move on somehow.    trails1

Another batch of the old writing, which I find more interesting, relates to my long-standing project of collecting Food Life Stories. I must say that ‘long-standing’ is an apt description, because it seems that the endeavor has been standing still for months. Months which add up to years.

A conversation with friends at supper last night rekindled my excitement about conducting the interviews and gathering these stories. But I still don’t know how I can use the raw, first person data I’ve accumulated.      I need a writing coach!         Wait, I am a writing coach. Physician, heal thyself.

I think I’ve returned to the topic of time. I’ve already acknowledged that managing money was never a strength of mine.   Many years spent reading what writers have to say about writing has underscored the fact that it takes commitment and sacrifice to write. I have echoed this simple fact endlessly during four decades of teaching writing and coaching writers. To cop a line from the Declaration of Independence… I hold this truth to be self-evident…

Perhaps I am stuck on the sacrifice, as much as the commitment. To give up time with friends and family seems impossible. To deny my desires to read, cook, garden, nap or (now) draw can seem equally difficult. So, once again I conclude that I am not really a writer. And I trash myself and my aspirations.

Yeah, how’s that working out for you, CJ?        nablopomo_badge_2016

Well, its not.

Stepping Stones

Stones are quiet.  I love stones, an affection I have always linked to the contented hours I spent as a girl sitting atop an old stone wall in Vermont.  There is safety in stones.  I trust stones.

Almost fifteen years ago, as I turned fifty, I decided that I wanted to put a small Zen garden in the back corner of our yard, behind my vegetable patch.  The unmistakable irony is thatpath-to-tree1 the commuter rail trains pass by about twenty feet away.  Nonetheless, that was my plan, but the dream remained a dream.  Until this week, when the stones arrived and the work began…

The path starts at the entrance to my redesigned vegetable garden.  (Elevated beds have made gardening a joy once again.)  The path will continue up into the corner, leading eventually to a small stone bench beside the little weeping cherry tree, planted about ten years ago.  There will be three standing stones,  bamboo (in above ground boxes, I’ve heard the cautions about bamboo spread), other plantings and eventually a small statue.

The dream lives on and dreams take time to manifest.  So, something good did happen this week.  Here are a couple photos taken by my darling daughter (whose talented arborist boyfriend is installing the stones…)

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Time

The rhythmic drumbeat of the opening has always sounded like a ticking clock, which is probably not coincidental. The Chambers Brothers 1967 hit Time Has Come Today was playing in my mind this morning… Tick tock tick tock, its election day.  i-voted

It was followed by the 1976 hit by the Steve Miller Band, entitled Fly Like an Eagle, which contains the mesmerizing opening line: ”Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future…” Well, the future is here, now.

Then the earworm of old music shifted to the more hopeful lyric “Time is on my side, yes it is…” Ah, the Rolling Stones from 1964, the earliest of the three songs. I am sixty-four-years-old, raised with mores** of the 1950s, solidly in the middle of the Boomer generation and the second wave of feminism. I feel honored to have lived in this country during Barak Obama’s presidency. And I am ready for our first woman President, hopeful that time is indeed on our side.

My mother died suddenly in the late spring of 2008, so she never knew Barak Obama as POTUS or the magnificent Michele Obama as FLOTUS. I am pretty sure that she would have admired them both, because she truly valued civility, intelligence and taking the high road. Besides, she had been secretly voting for Democrats for decades, subterfuge of the 1950s housewife, to cancel the vote of a Republican husband. She would have been delighted to vote for HRC today.

That Republican husband, my father, lived on, through the first five years of the Obama presidency. The best I can say to soften his sometimes-ugly bigotry is that its foundation was (willful?) ignorance. He was more vocally racist in his comments about black newscasters than about the President; his misogyny was so deeply rooted in white male privilege that it was hardly personal, although it irritated and injured me personally. In brief, he would have loved DT and I suspect our already strained father-daughter relationship might have collapsed during this campaign, unless I had been able to summon up extraordinary tolerance. Well, I am grateful that I didn’t have to go down that road. Three years since his passing, I am able to occasionally have a pleasant memory of him. Eighteen months of trumpisms might have soured me beyond recall.

So, thoughts of my parents on this Election Day 2016… I have not been able to take a truly deep breathe (and release it) for weeks. I hope tonight that I can do so.

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**Mores: the essential or characteristic customs and conventions of a community

Thyme

thyme I am not punning, although I do enjoy puns. Yesterday’s post was drafted the day before, since I knew that I would be spending a full day involved in funereal affairs. Wish I could share some of the stories, but I believe it is best not to broadcast family business, especially when it is dicey.

Last night I was too depleted to fully register my exhaustion. Today I am body tired, brain tired, bone tired, heart tired, tired to my core. Tired and sore, actually. I think the sore can be traced to the effort it took to ‘hold it together’. The muscular tightness required to behave ‘like a lady’ in circumstances that cried out for extreme name-calling and the release of minor physical assault. Okay, that is enough.

So today, I spent some quiet time sifting through my thyme. A bundle of the herb, which I harvested a few weeks ago, is now fully dried. The fragrant and delicious leaves must be separated from the tiny twigs. It is at once pains-taking and soothing. I only do a small portion at a time, building a little nest of discarded twigs beside my winnowing basket. The connection with the tiny-leafed thyme growing in my summer garden and the winter soups, stews and roasted chicken that will receive large pinches of these leaves brings me pleasure. This is time well spent.

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