I used to have this book of matches with a polka dot pattern. The Pennsylvania state police gave it to me in 1985, along with my brother’s wallet, when I went to retrieve his personal effects after he was killed in a crash on the turnpike.
Perhaps you’ve heard this story. I’ve been telling it for 33 years. I’m sorry, I can’t seem to help it.
Anyway, Greg was 28 when he died in the passenger seat of a car that his friend drove into the back of a semi on the turnpike. They’d been to a concert. Sting. It was late. Maybe his friend drifted off at the wheel, or maybe he was just inattentive.
The impact ripped off the roof of the car. The undertaker did not let us see Greg’s body. His friend went to jail for a few months.
For years, I had the matchbook and my brother’s old ski pass, and I’d take them out and study them until I realized how reliably they hit “play” on the movie in my head—the violent frames about Greg’s last moments. So I kept the ski pass, imprinted with a picture of his handsome face, but eventually I ditched the garish matchbook in hopes that it would stop triggering the movie.
It’s so easy to get stuck. If you can help it, don’t get stuck THERE.
That’s very difficult. The trouble with mastering recovery after the sudden eradication of a young life is that the heart wants to huddle in the wrong corner.
A wise mourner finds a way to redirect, and to focus on the years of life: the sardonic comments, the brotherly advice about boys, the Foghorn Leghorn imitation. “Fortunately, I keep my feathers numbah’d.”
That’s the goal. However tragic the loss, don’t keep that matchbook any longer than you absolutely must.
When my brother died, I was 24, and I suppose that I did the best I could with my improvisational coping efforts. Years later, a shrink would tell me that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I cocked an eyebrow. That sounded to me like a disservice to soldiers and crime victims, but I couldn’t argue that our family of Catholic introverts had successfully “processed” Greg’s death.
My mother and two living brothers exhibited extraordinary stoicism; my father wept at holiday dinners. I wrote occasional self-indulgent essays that forced readers to bear witness and that tried to make something understandable of it all.
Just like now.
There were, I think, other options. Talking to each other as a family would have helped. We might have discussed the impossible dreadfulness, the worst and most painful parts. But maybe then we could have insisted on embracing the days we all had to share. We might have agreed, out loud, not to be ruined by the ruinous.
I wish I had sought the company of my brother's friends before everyone scattered to their own lives. They had stories I've never heard.
But I was a little too hospitable to the tragedy. The shadow crept in, as it will, but I let it stay, and it shrouded things in gray for years.
The trick is not to do that. The trick is to insist that the aftermath of a sudden, tragic death will—not today or tomorrow, but soon—be a fierce celebration of life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lucy Lange read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” one chapter a day to her third-grade class back in the 1970s. Mrs. Lange had a brunette flip, the tiniest remnant of a childhood lisp, and an endless supply of kindness. She brought Soma puzzles to her classroom and let us work them for rewards of Sweet-Tarts from a bowl on her desk.
And she read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” aloud to us every day until it was done. Did I mention that? As soon as it was over, I wanted her to start again. This was my first experience of book nostalgia. Mrs. Lange was the reason.
In seventh grade, Shelly Buckholz and I spent a week in Old Quebec with our French class. A snowstorm extended our stay an extra couple of days. Cars parked in the shadows of Le Chateau Frontenac were windshield-high in drifts. We wandered the city practicing our Ohio-girl French, which had been taught to us by our gangly duck-footed teacher, who also led us in “Frere Jacques” and other ditties, and who was quietly mocked by some of the boys for being presumed gay. Like Mrs. Lange, he was good-natured and generous, and passed along a sticky appreciation for words and how they morph across cultures.
In high school, Carol Bush told me I could write, and encouraged me to study journalism.
An eccentric old English teacher (he probably wasn’t that old at the time) nudged us through readings so dramatic that we actually understood some of the Shakespeare plays.
A prissy home ec teacher taught us a slick way to measure shortening in a cup of water and pressed the point about the value of a seam-ripper. I will never again make an A-line skirt or a halter top, but because of her I can thread the needle on a sewing machine, and I made Raggedy Ann dolls for my kids for Christmas when they were little.
The Vietnam vet who taught 10th grade business is literally the only reason I know debit from credit.
And in 12th grade, my Spanish teacher did palm readings and promised me I was a “late bloomer.” I sure wasn’t blooming in high school, so I clung to that reading like the last canteen of water on a trek across the Sahara.
I could go on and I’m not even to college yet. But then again, you have your own list of influential teachers, too, right?
Last week, one of the sons of the Republican Party’s presidential nominee played upon that old canard about failing schools and lazy teachers. Applause all around, I imagine — I just read about it after the fact. Even third-hand, the message boils my blood.
My own school career has been in the rearview mirror for a long time now, although I went back to college again in 2009. Still, I know that just as they did in the 70s, teachers work harder than many people making two or three times their salary. They leave imprints on lives for decades. Tap on the skull of someone who has succeeded in some field, and a story springs forth of a teacher who exerted life-changing influence at a critical moment. It’s so common as to be cliché.
Not every teacher is stellar. True then, true now. But the ones who take on education as a calling stay with us forever.
Pretty magical, when you think of it.Read More
Sometimes I remember all the days I've had when wonderful surprises came along, and I think maybe the difference between getting good surprises and bad surprises has something to do with inviting the right guests to the door.
Any good thing can happen, I said tonight. Then I leashed up the dogs and walked into the balm of a summer evening.
A couple of robins flitted around the bird feeder I remembered to fill this morning. Daisy thinks she can catch the robins, but when she missed (again), she lifted her golden snout to the air to catch a scent and pulled hard on the leash. Deer, I figured. She has a nose for deer, and they’re all over the place.
But we never saw a deer tonight.
We did see a neighbor doing work in her backyard.
We saw pachysandra with brown leaves, and I wondered if it was fallout from the recent cicada visit. Because what else kills pachysandra? It's the cockroach of ground cover.
We passed the raccoon carcass that’s been in the street for three days, and I noticed the stench has waned. It was oddly reassuring. There’s a moment with roadkill where part of you believes things will never smell normal again.
In the garden down the street, the daisies and black-eyed susans strained toward the setting sun.
We turned off the main drag and onto a side street. Quiet enveloped us. It was delicious.
At the century home with the big yard, we looked for Arlo the golden retriever, but he must’ve been in for the night.
We passed the house that once had three geriatric dachshunds that used to come tearing out from their doggie door, bouncing across the lawn like little brown beach balls and barking like all holy hell. One day they just weren’t there anymore, and I think about them and smile every time we go by their old place. I don’t know what happened to them, but the story I tell myself is that they moved to Florida with their humans. Though the dogs were very old. Probably the humans were, too. But I’d like to think they’re all enjoying the beach and a fresh bowl of water with ice cubes.
At the house with the invisible fence, the Jack Russell terrier who can’t decide if she likes us or not yapped from the front door. She likes us. She hates us. Likes us. Hates us. Likes hates likes hates. We like her anyway.
A pair of red-headed house finches pretty as cardinals wheeled up to a wire and watched us go by.
And the quiet of the evening tried to calm the noise in my head, but for a moment or two I got distracted making a list of every dumb thing that makes me irritable these days. Politics. Fast food litter. Guns. People who don’t use their turn signals. It’s an interminable list.
Then I stopped that, because I saw a pair of ladies power walking in their compression pants, sort of half-serious about the exercise, and I was happy to know they were there, making our neighborhood feel lively. Which of course it is. Despite the dead raccoon.
Back home, I dropped the leashes just to see Roscoe try to beat Daisy to the door. He never wins.
But he could, of course. You just never know what could happen. Any good thing.