What It Takes to be Seven (Again)

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Here’s what it takes to be 7 and 11 and 18 and 25 and 37 and on and on, all at the same time; to be none of those ages and all of them; to be just the soul you were at any age, experiencing the world with senses only and no nonsense; to be curious with no Google: Go outside to a quiet place with trees.

That’s it.

The Church of Showing Up

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When I was about eleven, I noticed that my best friend’s mother kneeled in the pew each Sunday instead of queuing up for Holy Communion with the other parishioners. Her first husband had dropped dead years before, leaving her a single mother with four kids. Her second husband was a divorced non-Catholic, so they had been unable to marry in the church. She thus was forbidden from receiving the sacrament of Communion, although she was expected to show up each week. And kneel in shame.

Even as a kid, I understood that church dogma was at odds with its purported raison d’etre. Still, it took three more decades of struggle before I could peacefully relinquish Catholicism. Today, about the nicest thing I can say about the church as an entity is that it is unworthy of its followers.

But now it’s the Christmas season, and, like many former Catholics, I feel nostalgic for a version of the church that never existed. I carry around the indelible imprint of the Apostle’s Creed as well as a longing for a regular, reverent, and ritual-rich place of communion with seekers led by people of wisdom. In addition, my better church would contain:
No petty politics. 
No tithing.
No committees.
No proselytizing.
No shaming.
No faith-killing hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, I’m in the wind. My little hothouse flower of a soul is unlikely ever to find what it seeks in organized religion, yet the promise of the first Christmas still resonates with possibility. I’ve given up on the “organized,” but not on faith.

Spiritual homelessness aside, I hold myself accountable for trying to figure out what it means to be good. I believe it’s solid practice to show up somewhere regularly to say “what a beautiful place this is” and “please give me a hand, will you?” and “God, forgive me for being such an ass.”

Sometimes that “somewhere” is on a pedestrian path in the park. Sometimes it’s a red light on Mayfield Road behind a bumper with a hippie “co-exist” sticker.

Then, too, we need to do well by one other. We should see each other more often—truly. Face to face, palm to palm, and with open and curious hearts. The lazy, introverted part of me would vote almost every time to stay home and watch Law & Order reruns. But the clock is ticking, our time together is short, and there may be ways we can feed each other, right? OK. I’m in. (Probably.)

So for now, for me, that's church. The Church of Doing My Best to Show Up.

I’m a newcomer. None of the prayers are automatic, none of the songs are completely familiar. But I'm going to try to sing along just the same.


The 37 Stages of Making a Drawing

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1) I have a half-baked idea for a drawing.
2) I will bake it!
3) I am drawing. It has possibilities! 
4) Still drawing. Something kind of cool is happening but I will probably ruin it. 
5) I think it needs a LOT there, but that might ruin it. 
6) Remember the successful artist who reminded me that I'm not practicing brain surgery? What is the consequence of a bad drawing? No one dies! 
7) The consequence is I could ruin it; despair. 
8) Well, hell, I'm going to make it really dark there anyway. Damn the torpedoes!
9) Hey, that worked. (Flap arms to air out flop sweat.) 
10) Keep going, though. 
11) I'd be better with better supplies. (Note to self: Trip to the art supplies store this weekend.) 
12) Is it done? I think it's done. 
13) It is absolutely NOT done, for cryin' out loud. Draw more.
14) NOW is it done? 
15) It could be done-ish.
16) Looks pretty good. I'll show spouse.
17) Spouse loves! Says it's done!
18) Hmmn. Spouse is not an artist. Approval does not count. 
19) But do I love it? 
20) It's literally the best thing I've ever done. Not just drawing. IN. MY. LIFE. 
21) I'll post it to social media. 
22) (20 minutes later) I wonder how it looks on my phone? 
23) Looks pri-tee good! I am a GENIUS! I cannot stand my bad self! I am too sexy for my pencils! Hahahah.
24) (90 minutes later) Wonder how it looks now that I haven't looked at it in 90 minutes? 
25) Looks good! Well, looks OK. I probably should have refined that spot. 
26) (2.5 hours later) I wonder how it looks now. (Pause to look.) God, it's such a cliche. It's a Me Cliche. It looks like everything else I have every done. Wrong. It looks like everything I have done wrong. Not just in art, but in my life. It looks like a big suitcase filled with mistakes and existential failure.
27) Why does God make us want to create art and then give us limited skills? (Note to self: must re-watch "Amadeus." Was Salieri's existence a waste of a life?)
28) I should delete it so no one else can see it. 
29) Don't be stupid. 
30) Not stupid. It is the worst thing I have ever drawn. 
31) I think I will make a mental inventory of all my terrible work. 
32) (three hours later) I am the worst person who ever lived. Except the fascists.
33) But I still want to draw. 
34) But I have no ideas. 
35) I will think of one
36) I have a half-baked idea. 
37) I will bake it.

Book review: NInth Street Women

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My book review of Mary Gabriel’s wonderful new history, Ninth Street Women, was published in the Washington Post. You can read it here.

Smuggle Back Your Soul

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Your honey-do list for Tuesday has been handed to you for weeks now by everyone with a social media account and a certain political bent. “VOTE!” they say.

And vote you should. Well, probably. To be honest, before “VOTE!” should come “INFORM YOURSELF!!” Too many people skip that part. 

But for the sake of argument, let’s say we all go out on Tuesday and honor the incredible gift that is our flawed democracy by casting informed votes that we hope against hope will actually and honestly be tabulated.

Now what do we do? What happens when we wake up Wednesday and the blue wave hasn’t arrived or wasn’t as impressive as we wished? What if we instead meet further evidence of the unraveling of the republic? This is THE outcome to plan for, because Wednesday will arrive.

I don’t know about you but I’m getting too old to flush an entire day—let alone two more years—in mourning. So I’m wondering: What’s your plan?

Mine is to stay sane and happyish. (It’s always a delicate balance between these ears, so happyish is a reasonable goal.) For me, the means to sanity and happyish are community, service, fierce pursuit of joy, and protecting my own humanity. 

Community: I have groups of friends who are writers and artists and thinkers who collectively lift my soul in such a way that they become a distinct geography, a place to which I must return in order to feel like myself. Even with the difficulties that go along with group dynamics, the best communities supply us with sustenance we just can’t get on our own. 

Service: I do one officially service-y thing by volunteering at a rescue organization for birds of prey. To call it “service” is a slap in the face to people who work at soup kitchens and reading centers and cancer wards. I volunteer so I can be close to wild animals. That’s pretty selfish. But I DO help get things done when I’m there, and the animals DO benefit, and—more to the point—it’s an exercise in empathy, which is what animates all spiritual practices. 

We can also be of service on an hour-by-hour basis, as a holistic approach to life, through how we engage with people and the natural world. I’ll work on that one. It will help if I think of my fellow humans as featherless birds. 

Fierce pursuit of joy: We need to remember to regularly fling ourselves hard at what feels good. Ride a horse, if that’s your thing. Walk through woods, listen to the music you slow danced to in high school. Last month at the raptor center, I stuck my hand into a container of mealworms and felt a rush of delight at the wriggling at the bottom of the bag. Such a surprise! 

We must smuggle our souls back from the thieves. Hold close to wonder. 

And humanity: My new rule is that I’m allowed to demonize the despots, but only occasionally, not as a staple of my thought-diet. And I’m forbidden from demonizing real humans in my personal world unless I see a pitchfork and horns under a tarp in their trunk. This one can take some work. 

But after spending years now trying to understand how otherwise good people can support ideas and politicians I find abhorrent, here’s what I know: It’s not understandable. I won’t “win” them. They don’t want to understand me as much as I want to understand them. That’s part of how we’re different.

Still. I love them or not based on how they treat others and me. So, sorry, Don, Mitch, Brett. I might be an asshole, but you won’t turn me into that kind of asshole. I won't discard friends based on politics. I won’t do it.

That’s it. That’s my plan. And I will employ it even if we get a blue wave, because I remember the joy I felt when Barack Obama won in 2008; and I remember eight years of struggle and setbacks that followed.

There is so much work to be done, civically, culturally, and personally. We need to preserve our hearts for the trip ahead.

Why words matter

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I wandered into a Facebook argument the other day about the Associated Press Style Book authorities having loosened the long-held prohibition against the word "over" to mean "more than."

Argue among yourselves over whether the more relaxed but less specific "over" should be permitted. I jumped into the Facebook debate at the point where one of the participants asked "Why does anyone even care about this?"

It was a useful moment. It reminded me of the good fortune of having once been an impressionable young journalist lapping up edicts from more experienced writers and editors. These lessons sometimes arrived laden with literalism, but mostly they were useful. I was taught, decades ago, to be wary of adverbs. I still am.

We were advised to think about language. With that thinking came sensitivity; with sensitivity came the ability to take pleasure in nuance and clarity and, most of all, logic. This is why some of us balk when a prevalent bit of linguistic sloppiness carries nonstandard usage across the finish line. As far as I'm concerned, "regardless" and "irregardless" cannot both be correct, nor can "literally" mean "figuratively." Oh well. They're all supposedly acceptable now.

We learned the mechanics of written language and some of us tried for the poetry of it, too. We developed an ear for a well-turned metaphor and came to spot the garishness of a poorly chosen one.

We thought about these things when we were reading and writing, and came to admire those rare smiths who can deliver precision encased in something fresh. I follow an Instagram guy who posts pictures of dogs with accompanying, often hilarious, street-language text. When he wants to say "wait a minute," it's "wayment." That slays me. And when I first came across Bilbo Baggins feeling "like butter scraped over too much bread," all I could do was sigh with delight and recognition.

All of this is to say that concern for dictionaries and thesauri and Associated Press usage pronouncements makes life richer for some of us.

I tend to prefer "more than" to "over" in most cases, but what I really care about is the caring itself.

Over and out.

Just Curious

I saw my old friends  Julie  and  Eva  this weekend. They ask a lot of questions. I mean, just in normal conversation, they ask a LOT of questions. It's like listening to two people who both speak, say, Icelandic, going back and forth with rare and beautiful fluency. I can kind of keep up, but they're definitely ahead of me this way.  Maybe it's a professional side effect. We all met in college as baby journalists, then became actual journalists, where we got paid to be nosy. Julie switched gears to become a nurse, but that is also a question-asking profession.  In any case, Julie and Eva are both naturally, deliciously inquisitive, and when I'm around them, awash in their questions of each other and of me, I remember the rare beauty of curiosity. I can't help but wonder whether the mess we find ourselves in today, what with the hating and all, couldn't be alleviated if more of us treated curiosity like a sacred duty.  Of course, this requires suspending our own ever-so-alluring stories and opinions. But the payoff! Curiosity feeds empathy and collaboration and wisdom and creativity. It prunes the ego and nips at narcissism. There might even be a damned funny story on the other end of that line.  So, sure. Journalists need to be curious, but so do good nurses and inspired artists and fair judges and effective politicians. And lovers and friends and parents. When curiosity gets forgotten, other things begin to fail.  Shutting up now. I'd love you to tell me something about you that I don't know.Anything; any category of thing. Maybe there's something you'd tell people if only they asked. Well, I'm asking.  Just 'cause.  Just curious.

I saw my old friends Julie and Eva this weekend. They ask a lot of questions. I mean, just in normal conversation, they ask a LOT of questions. It's like listening to two people who both speak, say, Icelandic, going back and forth with rare and beautiful fluency. I can kind of keep up, but they're definitely ahead of me this way.

Maybe it's a professional side effect. We all met in college as baby journalists, then became actual journalists, where we got paid to be nosy. Julie switched gears to become a nurse, but that is also a question-asking profession.

In any case, Julie and Eva are both naturally, deliciously inquisitive, and when I'm around them, awash in their questions of each other and of me, I remember the rare beauty of curiosity. I can't help but wonder whether the mess we find ourselves in today, what with the hating and all, couldn't be alleviated if more of us treated curiosity like a sacred duty.

Of course, this requires suspending our own ever-so-alluring stories and opinions. But the payoff! Curiosity feeds empathy and collaboration and wisdom and creativity. It prunes the ego and nips at narcissism. There might even be a damned funny story on the other end of that line.

So, sure. Journalists need to be curious, but so do good nurses and inspired artists and fair judges and effective politicians. And lovers and friends and parents. When curiosity gets forgotten, other things begin to fail.

Shutting up now. I'd love you to tell me something about you that I don't know.Anything; any category of thing. Maybe there's something you'd tell people if only they asked. Well, I'm asking.

Just 'cause.

Just curious.

Joy Wallet

It's a balmy and autumnally beautiful day. I've got dogs and a cat and two of my favorite humans right here with me. I have a hedgehog asleep after a night of hedgehog antics (I believe she plays poker, but she always tidies up, so I can't be sure).   Some of my friends are sending me funny text messages. My friends are smarter than I deserve. Well, wait, no. They're just as smart as I deserve.   I bought the Bagster, which is a dumpster in a bag, so I can offload household debris before My husband’s lifelong friend comes to visit this week, and before I go visit two of my almost-lifelong friends. The Bagster is full, and someone will come and haul it away this week, and then my house will be a little less messy and a little lighter, for fall. Beautiful fall.  My brother Eric is running the Chicago marathon and raised money for Special Olympics in memory of our brother Greg, who also raised money for Special Olympics. I am proud of them both.  My house is full of books and paint supplies.   I know how to get to the arboretum.  My head swims with scenes involving flowers and dancing bears.  Tomorrow I will go back to work, and it is in a place that I love and believe in.   I have a joy wallet, and it's so thick it hardly folds.  The man wants to know "What's in your wallet?"  I say joy, and there will be no stealing.

It's a balmy and autumnally beautiful day. I've got dogs and a cat and two of my favorite humans right here with me. I have a hedgehog asleep after a night of hedgehog antics (I believe she plays poker, but she always tidies up, so I can't be sure).

Some of my friends are sending me funny text messages. My friends are smarter than I deserve. Well, wait, no. They're just as smart as I deserve.

I bought the Bagster, which is a dumpster in a bag, so I can offload household debris before My husband’s lifelong friend comes to visit this week, and before I go visit two of my almost-lifelong friends. The Bagster is full, and someone will come and haul it away this week, and then my house will be a little less messy and a little lighter, for fall. Beautiful fall.

My brother Eric is running the Chicago marathon and raised money for Special Olympics in memory of our brother Greg, who also raised money for Special Olympics. I am proud of them both.

My house is full of books and paint supplies.

I know how to get to the arboretum.

My head swims with scenes involving flowers and dancing bears.

Tomorrow I will go back to work, and it is in a place that I love and believe in.

I have a joy wallet, and it's so thick it hardly folds.
The man wants to know "What's in your wallet?"
I say joy, and there will be no stealing.

Flying beyond rage

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The drive from east to west across the Interstate 480 Bridge in Valley View flicks a switch in my phobic mind. My heart freezes at the sensation of the land falling away in my peripheral vision while cars around me zoom across too many lanes.

For years, I tried to vanquish this anxiety with logic, to no avail. There was a time that I couldn’t bring myself to drive that span at all, or, ironically, only if I had a friend on the phone to talk me over the bridge. These days I can do it alone, thanks to a trick I play on myself.

On the approach to the bridge, I imagine I'm an eagle, soaring above the highway, confident in my flying expertise. It’s lovely, being an eagle, what with the power in my wings and the pink light shimmering on the horizon.

Once across the bridge, I’m back in my Scion, tail feathers tucked neatly against the seat.  There may be no cure-all for fear—I have researched for decades to ease my discomfort in airplanes, elevators, and overcrowded rooms—but there’s one thing I know. Problems that prove impervious to logic can sometimes be trounced by imagination. 

Beginning in November 2016, fear gave way to rage in my psyche. It would be wrong to blame this affliction solely on politics. I’m probably genetically inclined to be annoyed. My mother was one of the most good-natured human beings on the planet, but Dad—well, he suffered mightily from demons of judgment and anger. When I was 17, he became red-faced with rage upon learning that I hadn’t saved any of the money I had earned at a part-time job. “Calm down, Bill,” my mother whispered. “You’ll have a heart attack.”

The family rage gene is weaker in me, but it has come alive in the era of 45. Sure, I have known hours of happiness and joy and love, but anger is always flickering in the corner.

Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps not.

The following is a partial list of things I allow to chronically offend me in regard to the state of our nation: the unfairness of the wealthy making the rules for everyone else; churchgoers supporting a serial pussy-grabbing womanizer; the trashing of our educational system; the trashing of environmental protections; the trashing of scientists and journalists; the trashing of basic human consideration. 

I worry these grievances as if they were teeth rotting beneath my tongue. I tell myself stories about my wicked fellow citizens who see things so differently than I do. Some of the stories are true. Some are false.

It has taken a while to understand that there are actual differences in how we perceive our shared world. My conservative friend Ted and I are like two people looking at the striped dress on the Web. I see blue and black. He actually sees white and gold; he isn’t just saying so to be obstinate.

One of the narratives on repeat in my head says Republican voters are mean, insular, under-educated tightwads. Inconveniently for my logic, Ted is kind, curious, well read and generous. Neither, for that matter, were my aforementioned parents, both of whom died when Donald Trump was just a garish millionaire stiffing contractors on his bills.

This is not to discount the importance of facts, or to create false equivalencies. If there were a way to objectively measure the ill deeds of, say, the Clintons against those of the Don, there would be an actual winner and loser. I also believe I know which would be which. Until that metric is found, any one of us brings only our singular and flawed vision to the assessment.

And still.

The other day, in the wake of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings with Christine Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s voice droned through the speakers on the TV at my house, and I became a hydrant of profanity. My husband asked me calmly, “Are you all right?”

Carlo shares my politics but not the self-torture.

No, I said. I do not feel all right. I’m not just furious; I’m exhausted by my own rage. I’m tired of my brain’s homing instinct. Over and over it marches to the ugliest vistas, the ones littered with the detritus of Americans’ most destructive actions.

I think and think and think, trying to figure out what to do with myself. Where is the logic that will persuade the other side? Where is the reason that will save me from the noise between my ears? Better yet, where is the crucible that can melt my fury into something useful?

Then it hits me: There is none. In the face of all that offends me, I can only act and direct my attention with purpose. Read, vote, turn toward beauty. Commit kindness. Notice kindness. Listen to the poem. Despite my nature, there is no obsessing my way to a better disposition. This doesn't mean not getting angry. It just means getting up to leave after I've done all the anger I can do.

So if you see me, feel free to remind me to walk away from Facebook for a while to read a  novel or to wrestle with my dog. Or to imagine the beating of my wings long enough to get me over the bridge.