Monday, July 20, 2009

Return from the Beach

I am returned from a week at the beach! It was a beautiful week, and for the first couple of days I thought repeatedly of Edna St. Vincent Millay, "I am too long away from water. I have a need for water near." The adjustment to beach living was gradual; the mind is so accustomed to all the schedules and demands of the day that it kept asking "what am I supposed to be doing?"

Even with the two boys with me (my first vacation as a single parent - but I had plenty of support from family) there was time for daydreaming, for reading a couple months' worth of magazines, for writing several times a day and for taking naps. In the midst of the other 27 people on this family vacation there was still time just to be alone, and to process all the change, the loss and the new beginnings that have comprised my life this year.

It was lovely to sit on the beach, to watch the kids of all ages playing. There were dolphins, startlingly close to shore one day. A pair of pelicans flew by. Most days the weather was absolutely perfect, and I have a tan! This is remarkable because I never tan; for me it is a good one. It won't last - I told my neighbor "don't blink or you'll miss it" because it will fade quickly. He said, "ahh, one of those Irish tans - they usually come off in the shower." Too true, sadly.

The brain is sluggish, having accustomed itself to warm sand, the rhythm of the surf and lazy beach conversations. Apart from Millay, I was thinking of the opening pages of Fortune's Rocks, describing Olympia's arrival on the shore after a long Boston winter. I couldn't quite recall the words, but the purely sensual experience that Anita Shreve captures in her prose:
Her feet, as she makes slow progress, create slight and scandalous indentations in the sand. Her dress, which is a peach silk, turns, when she steps into the water, a translucent sepia. The air is hot, but the water on her skin is frigid; the contrast makes her shiver.
It is time to get back to work, but it was a joy to have the break. It becomes apparent how much you've relaxed when you come back to real life and balk at having to consider all the things that usually occupy the mind, instead of ignoring it all to go sit in the sun.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Poems for Fun

Last year I was reading Best American Poetry 2005 and discovered "Hate Poem" by Julie Sheenan. I don't know that it will ever be a classic, but I absolutely love it. I keep a printed copy on my desk at work. You can find the whole thing at, though it is slightly different from the version that appeared in BAP. When I'm furious with the incompetence or indifference of a colleague, I meditate on a line from this poem, such as "A closed window is both a closed window and an obvious symbol of how I hate you". I shared it with a friend at work who is not a poetry fan but is open-minded enough to have taken a look. We laugh over it when something gets our goat at work or at home. The poem succeeds in riding that crest of petulance of the nth degree, where it is exactly how you feel and yet you know you are being ridiculous.

So maybe I haven't yet convinced my friend to love poetry in general, but she has at least commented that she had no idea the poetry can be so real, so current and fun. I started telling her about one of Ntozake Shange's poems from her 1978 collection, Nappy Edges but that one was a little too racy for the office. Maybe when we're out having a drink sometime...

I hadn't thought I would write at all today. A panic attack seemed imminent this morning as I looked at everything that needs to get done NOW. I asked some friends to pray for me, and have been calm and even steadily working through the piles. A few minutes for a quick post suddenly seemed doable, and thought I would make a plug for poetry in general. It's a fairly private passion; it is daunting to try sharing something that is part of your most basic energy only to watch people's eyes glaze over. It's not for everybody and I know that, but it is amazing when someone else taps into a little bit of the excitement. Every now and then I will share a poem or fragment of a poem that might be a pleasant surprise to non-lovers of poetry.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


The surly mood has dissipated. It waned into weepiness yesterday afternoon, and a good night's sleep seemed to help it all just go away. Now I am frantically trying to get things done before vacation, both at work and at home. Work is tying up the last of the open enrollment paperwork that is spread all over my office and running some of the billing reports.

I took the van for an overdue oil change this morning and, as I expected, the brakes need changing, too. Sigh. Fortunately, I was holding some money aside for anything that needed to be done for the van. I will be glad to know it's done before making the drive down to the beach.

So, I got a ride from the mechanic to a bus stop and caught the bus in. I have a friend from work dropping me off to the shop this afternoon and my sister agreed to pick up the boys from day camp... so those bases are covered! I still need to get a prescription filled, replace the boys' lost & broken goggles for swimming, get to the grocery store and PACK. It will all get done somehow, and it will be so worth it.

The family email exchange is picking up speed as we all get ready. My brothers are bringing guitars and music. I love when people sit around after dinner, play and sing and just relax. I hope they are open to my kids wanting to learn a little - one of our next door neighbors played with my kids a couple of times. He was playing blues guitar & singing, while the older son played a recorder (and actually kept up with the key changes without help) and Peanut "drummed" with a pen on a glass. It doesn't sound impressive, but they really kept up and it was a joy to see them being part of the music.

Also one of my brothers is bringing a glove for the older son (who really needs a nickname here - we call him Bunny at home but he will hardly want to be posted that way), who is interested in playing baseball. We want to test out his level of interest before investing in a good glove, and this is a perfect opportunity. He is fortunate to have aunts and uncles who are more sports oriented than I am, or he might never learn the basics of the various games. Someone started organizing the kids for soccer and baseball at lunch recess at school this year, which piqued his interest.

In the midst of all this, we signed the final round of papers for the divorce last night. I am glad it is done, but sad that things are what they are. It is good, actually, to be so busy as there is less time to brood about that and about other things. Speaking of busy, I have to get back to work!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


I'm surly today. What a great word - it sounds like it feels. I love words like that, and love them in other languages, too. When my host brother from Ecuador, Carlos once visited my home for a week, my dad was in rare form: picture Archie Bunker, only crankier. Carlos said the word for my dad in Spanish would be cascarabias. The exact translation wasn't necessary, though I imagine that it is close to cantankerous or just plain cranky. Maybe cascarabias suits me today, too.

I wasn't going to post but in the usual morning avoidance of getting started on work (all the more overwhelming because I'm getting ready to be out on vacation next week), I took a peek at That woman cracks me up. I lightened up enough to think I'll get past the surliness, eventually.

This morning I exercised restraint when I wanted to verbally flay my ten year old (haven't yet thought of a good nickname to use for him in posting). I was already running late - before getting up I dreamt that I was going to a doctor to ask why I can't get up in the mornings - when I dropped the boys off at day camp. A few minutes later, the kid called my cell to say he'd left his backpack in the van. This is the same kid who'd deliberately punched his little brother in the back earlier in the morning, and pretty much started the day with a visible chip on his shoulder. I turned around and drove back with the bag. By the look on his face, I would say he knew he had pushed me to the limit for one morning.

The urge to viciousness scares me. Usually, it's associated with certain regular hormonal changes which is probably the case today. I could have been completely nuts - I felt like flinging the final papers to be signed for our divorce at the ex, just to lash out at someone. Nice, huh? I can only say I'm glad that I very rarely give in to that degree of meanness.

It is tempting, but I can't agree with Calvin, from Calvin & Hobbes, saying "Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around." I am trying to redirect myself instead. The Mozart concerto on the radio helped, a little. Email greetings from friends help some, too, especially the ones that remind me of some of the serious stuff others are going through. It's good to get the focus off myself. A good laugh always helps a lot. When all else fails, there's bad language:

Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer. --Mark Twain

And then, there's always writing.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Banana Boats, Baseball and Camp

This morning's small gift of joy was the Banana Boat Song on the radio, when I was driving in to work. The first time I heard the song was when Harry Belafonte guest starred on the Muppet Show (I know, I'm dating myself). There's the well-known and well-worn "De-O" but when I hear it now, what stands out is the smoothness of Mr. Belafonte's voice and the almost spiritual background chorus ("daylight come and me wan' go home..."). With a little more knowledge than I used to have of choral singing, I can pick out bits that I love: the bass voices that converge and make the dashboard vibrate, and the different notes making up a chord. But I still picture muppets on the end of the boat.

Last night I enjoyed a rare opportunity to attend a Phillies game. I had a pair of tickets for a corporate suite, and took a friend who could explain subtler points of the sport that I would have missed. What a game! The Phillies skunked the Reds 22-1, a game that was easy even for a novice to watch and enjoy, especially sitting just above the Phillies dugout. In the past, the few times I'd been to a game generally involved the nosebleed seats. It's not nearly the same, and I have just enough fear of heights to have thought a lot then about different possibilities for falling. Still, I have a very vivid childhood memory of Mike Schmidt hitting a grand slam in Veterans Stadium!

So, those are two good things in the present that also triggered memories of past joys. I wonder how I might describe the way experiences converge, like music does, to my children. I have spent most of the past several days coaching my Peanut through the grief involved with the end of a week at an amazing camp for kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders. He struggles to accept or to forget or to move around the thought that he won't see those friends again for a whole year. Kids with Asperger's typically focus on the negative and tend to perseverate (remain excessively focused) on an idea, both of which have come into play and made it difficult for him to cope. I'm working on coaching him through it and trying to organize some sort of reunion picnic for the campers at the end of this summer - something positive and a much easier wait time.

It is so hard to let good things end, and I relate to his insistence that he just can't stand it. Some day the memory of camp, the memory of (hopefully) reuniting with his fellow campers and of returning to the camp will all be part of a comprehensive camp experience. He is so fortunate to have had the opportunity to go (I don't remind him of this when he is crying because he wants to go back, knowing it won't help). I remind him that every day it gets a little easier to keep going, and try to teach him to trust that there can be more of a good thing, even if you can't see it right now. And, somehow, the past and the present will come together to amplify the joy.

You don't look back along memory but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing ever goes away. -- Margaret Atwood

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Letting Go

The heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.
-- Stanly Kunitz, "The Testing Tree"

I found this quote on the frontispiece to the Marvelous Adventures of Edward Tulane, a book I bought for my kids last year. Like many of the best children's books it is a good read for adults, too. I won't spoil it by telling the story, but I recommend reading it. The author, Kate DiCamilo, also wrote the Tale of Despereaux.

It is a story of growing through loss, not only growing but becoming at home with the idea of loss. Elizabeth Bishop was not merely ironic when she wrote that "the art of losing isn't hard to master." It is our natural inclination to fight against loss, clinging desperately to what we have and know.

Often, it isn't the loss itself that overpowers us but the fear that comes with it, the fear that nothing else will ever be so good as what we have right now or what we planned to have, or the fear that somehow I as a human being am lacking and will experience nothing but continual losses. In learning to be my own best friend, I realized that I can let go and be all right. Sure, I still struggle against it, and sometimes life needs to take a circumstance or a person from my path because I am not that good at letting go (yet; I am getting better).

I can weather even grief so sharp that there are moments when all I can think is "Breathe in. Breathe out." My picture of the future is gone and I am not sure yet how to make the new picture. Somehow, I had developed an aberrative coping mechanism, that if I was hard enough on myself either things would get better faster or wouldn't hurt so much. So, I got very, very good at being hard on myself. "No wonder things have gone this way... if I wasn't so stupid... it will never get better." I am not sure how the belief developed -it may be too easy to say that it was in my upbringing. I notice, for example, that my son who has Asperger's has an inborn perfectionism which frequently makes him painfully hard on himself. It matters less how it developed than what can done about it now.

In the relationship I have with myself now, derogatory thoughts make no sense. The good news is that I don't even have to stop myself from "going there." New thought patterns aren't yet in place (that's why I just manage to remind myself to breathe), but the destructive ones are just gone. Without the savage self-injury the real hurt is bearable. Not fun but bearable, and clean. I can feel it and keep breathing, and even have genuine joy in the day.

Incidentally, I found that Kunitz is a poet I like. You never know what you can learn from children's books.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

10 Days and Counting

In ten days, I will be heading to Bethany
Beach, DE with my boys for a family
vacation. We will be in the house pictured to the right, with several of my siblings and their kids. The rest of the sibs and my mom will be in a house next door (total for both houses, over the course of the week: 28 people). The vacations would never happen for the boys & me without the generosity of my mom.

The planning - the email exchanges with my sisters, about rooming preferences and schedules and the lists -is almost as much fun as the actual trip for me! So far, the room assignments are pretty well ironed out. There is a schedule for kitchen clean up duty, separate from the cooking schedule which allows for a couple free nights to eat out. We've decided that my 11-year old niece will be the best suited at overseeing the clean up; she was amazing on the last group vac!

This morning I had an email reply from Pam, my older niece. We will be collaborating on a dinner, along with her boyfriend who makes the amazing Italian tomato sauce. The rest of the menu and shopping needs to finalized, but it is looking like a great meal.

Now that we're getting closer to the actual date, it is getting exciting! One brother and his wife will come down from Michigan, and their son from NYC. The rest of us are fairly local, the farthest being in Maryland. Sure, it is a lot of people to have all together for a whole week, but we do pretty well with respecting each other's privacy and things. The spread of ages make it fun: there is approximately a 15 year difference between my oldest brother and my one younger brother, between the younger brother and the oldest niece, and between the oldest and youngest of the nieces & nephews. There's a whole range of interests, careers and life experiences and friendships that broach those differences.

There'll be great dinners together, impromptu music played after dinner, sun and the ocean and walks with the kids to the ice cream shop. I can pretty much count on NOT going to the ER this time, which is an improvement over previous years (I'm crossing my fingers that no injuries or serious illnesses make a liar out of me). AND no ten-hour drive like when we went to the Outer Banks. Sure, there will be some irritations, but nothing that can't be managed. In a crowd this big it is easy to move in and out of smaller circles, and maintain an equilibrium.