Mother Heart

I am not a religious person.

I don’t got to church or temple or mosque. I don’t pray or bend a knee to Goddess or God. But after nearly fourteen years of motherhood I have come to believe in something, something fierce and  powerful and universal. Something outside of me, completely out of my control. Maybe it is Mary, or Hera, or Gaia. I don’t know the answer to those kind of questions. I only know that I’ve felt it. I’ve been wrapped up in it, been at one with it, some Jedi force of motherhood–birthed of something primal and fierce.

It would be poetic to say this connection to some universal mother’s heart is born of having had the lullaby of another’s heartbeat tied to your own for nine months, but I don’t think that’s true. There are mothers who did not physically bear or carry their children who know exactly what I’m talking about, and of course there are fathers, whose hearts rend and tear and rip as sure as any mother’s.

Yet there is something uniquely feminine and mysterious about the moon and the Earth and birth and the way it is all knotted together in this unknowable universe. There is something uniquely feminine in this great, universal beat of motherhood.

Maybe the drum beat thrum is tied to the planet or to the tides, like the blood that flows each month or the way that waves lap and play upon the shore. Maybe the gargantuan beat is held in place by the gravity of our own selves, hanging as pregnant as a full moon, ripe and heavy. It doesn’t matter. Through everything, it beats steady and strong.

Through mist or magic, or maybe even just the mundane, when you love a child, your own heart joins the chorus, picking up the tempo.

And so you go, until another mother’s heart suffers the unimaginable. When that happens, that central heart which sets our beat slows in mourning. It grows heavy.

Today I learned the son of an old playground friend had died. It was the kind of news where you do a double take, a triple, when you are sure you have misread or misunderstood. Because of course it makes no sense, no sense at all to lose a child, a child who was not ill or sick, a child who you’d only seen smiling and happy.

In what order of the universe is that ever acceptable?

And for the briefest of seconds you imagine the unimaginable–and in that split second of time, you can feel the splinter of another mother’s heart, in tandem with her grief, in solidarity with her loss. As my friend mourns her son, the heart of every other mother she knows weighs a little bit heavier, and the hearts of all the mothers those mothers know. And so on, and so on.

Perhaps that is why women keen and wail as they bury their dead. A dirge, not only for the dying, but for the living as well, a mourning song to lose yourself in, or to hide within while you put the pieces of your heart back together. Or a message, coded in grief: our hearts are breaking with you. Let us take the weight and bear it, even for just the space between a heartbeat or two.

A collective bleeding, a collective beating. That collective is why so many women, so many mothers, are affected so strongly by the pain and suffering of any child, their own, but the children of others they know and love, the children of strangers, who are in pain, the children of faraway countries who hurt. Because somehow, even though we didn’t bring those children to the breast, didn’t swaddle them against our heart, didn’t love them with the same ferocity and tiger’s growl of their parents–we feel it, because we have all imagined it. We have all had nightmares, shuttered our minds against the unimaginable.

When the unthinkable happens to someone we know, to a child we know, we are forced to confront it.

Let the Mother heart take over, my friend. Let the collective beat of all those motherhood hearts carry you through while you pause, while you put yours back together.

Let us provide cover for you while you need it.

I’m not religious. I don’t got to church or temple. I do not pray, not to any recognized Goddess or God. But I bow down to that great beating heart of humanity, of motherhood.

I know there are those of you who do. And if you do, please spare a thought, a moment, a prayer or a word for a family who is grieving. Who is suffering the unimaginable.

 

For Deb

 

 

 

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Both Sides Now

Death and LifeYesterday, as competitors in the Ironman Challenge raced past our apartment, pushing their bodies to the limit of endurance, I was slowly cycling toward an afternoon meant to celebrate the life of a woman who endured in a different way, who pushed her body to a different limit.

I knew about her long before we met. When she first got sick, she was the center of a buzz of activity: meals were cooked and delivered, the dog walked, company provided, magazines collected. I’ve seen this hive at work before, women swooping in and taking a slice of another woman’s burden as her own. It amazes me every time, and makes me grateful to be a part of this womanhood.

Over time, as her illness ebbed and flowed I met her in person, but it was through these pages she got to know me, and I her. Somehow these words and sentences reached out and connected us in the way that stories have been connecting humans since the beginning of time. Our shared experiences became the thread that tied us together. The knots were newer and looser than the ones which connected her to others, but no matter. Once tied, you’re forever knotted into the fabric of a life, no matter how loosely.

Recently her body reached its limit. All those binds and ties and knots were teased apart and released, but not before they came together one final time to weave a rich and colorful tapestry. Yesterday was meant to be a celebration of that tapestry–of that life–and I was honored to be included.

Yet as her husband talked to us about her wishes after death, I felt sightly fraudulent. Surely all of these people knew her so much better than I had, surely they were more deserving of this celebration. He continued, shifting between Danish and English, and I caught the song playing in the background.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
from up and down, and still somehow
it’s cloud illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds at all.

It’s impossible for me to associate Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now with anything other than the moment Emma Thompson faces the truth of her husband’s infidelity in Love, Actually. It’s one of those snapshots of everyday life which make you question if love–and fear and happiness and anger–all the emotions that boil and bubble together to make a life, are worth the pain of loss. The soundtrack to that scene is part funeral dirge, part broken heart. It is mournful, haunting, and rueful, the warble of a woman who has seen, lived, loved. And lost.

We’re allowed merely a glimpse of pain before the character swipes at her eyes, straightens the bed sheet, and throws open the door with a forced smile. Endurance of a completely different kind than those athletes hurtling toward a finish line.

Those sixty or so seconds of music and emotion get me every, single time. Yesterday was no exception.

Yet the day was not about mourning a death, but celebrating a life. There was food and wine, music, bright colors and funny quotes. No one seemed to be weighed down by the mantle of her death, what there was instead, present in every breath, was life. Hers, and ours, and in that moment, the culmination of the two.

Both sides now. Life and death, before and after, with and without.

At the end of the afternoon I cycled back home. The athletes were still going, doggedly pedaling by, pushing their bodies to the max. Most of them had a literal marathon still in front of them. It is a stamina I don’t possess, but then perhaps, none of us realize the strength we have until we are tested. Endurance, after all, comes in many forms.

fly free

To swipe at your eyes, straighten your bed sheets, and throw open the door to the unknown.

Is it worth it? How can it not be? I hope that when she threw open that last door it was not with a forced smile, but with the knowledge that her life, though ended, will still live on in the knots of ours., in the stories we tell to connect to one another.

I hope that as she crossed that finish line, the promise of both sides beckoned.

Fly free, Trish. May you look at clouds from both sides now.

 

F Words

From an old Golden Girl to an up and coming one
From an old Golden Girl to an up and coming one

Next week my sister turns 40. I would cackle with glee and do an evil little leprechaun dance except for that fact that she’s my younger sister and her turning 40 means that I’m well over 40.

Schadenfreude, have you met my good friend irony?

The internet abounds–it practically explodes–with advice about turning 40. What to look forward to, what to expect when you’re expecting middle age, how to enjoy the last uptick of the hill before you’re over it. Somewhere out there is probably a recommended soundtrack featuring The Smiths and Tears for Fears. But you know. It’s my sister this time. As big sister I’m supposed to lead the way, forge a path, lay the foundation and other carpentry metaphors. I’m supposed to tell her the truth about being 40.

At 44, I feel like I’m on the cusp of being an expert 40-something. As a writer, I’m rarely at a loss for words. With that in mind dear sistah…here’s what you have to look forward to.

Your 40s are Fearless

As you take your first tentative steps into your 40s, you may notice you suddenly have more time to stop and smell the roses. Some of that may be because your finances are in better shape or your retirement plan is doing well giving you a bit more leisure time in the garden to cultivate those roses. But a lot of it is because you stop worrying so much about shit that doesn’t matter. Bending down over those roses, with your gut hanging over your pants, you are probably going to realize that you no longer care if the girls and the boys lining your garden path are gossiping about your camel-toe or making fun of your muffin top. Remember all that time you used to spend worrying about what other people thought? You are going to find yourself with a lot more space in your head freed up from caring. You will fearlessly cavort down your path in your too-tight jeans. Wedgie be damned.

Your 40s are Forgetful

For the love of Pete, what did I need in here??
For the love of Pete, what did I need in here??

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to warn you that a lot of that free time is going to be spent trying to figure out if you’ve forgotten something important. A child, an appointment for surgery, your best friend’s birthday, to put shoes on. You will stand in front of the refrigerator, the cupboard, the door to the basement frantically wondering if it is normal for you to forget what sent you there five minutes before. You will happily spend whole afternoons in your garden remembering only at bedtime that there was some soul sucking meeting regarding your kid or your retirement plan that you plumb forgot. A word of advice: don’t pick at the contents of the fridge or the pantry while you’re desperately trying to remember what you went there for because the next ‘f’ is for flab.

Your 40s are spent Fighting Fat

Remember how you used to cut out bread for a week or do an extra spin class, have a few salads and you’d fit back into your jeans? Well, you can forget about all that the same way you’ve forgotten your kid at the bus stop. All of a sudden, seemingly overnight, there’s a spare tire here and a few bingo wings there and you start understanding why Nana preferred elasticized pants. The kicker? Even though you mostly don’t care about what other people think, this one’s hard to let go of. So you’ll spend the first year of your forties thinking, oh, that won’t happen to me, the next saying, shit it’s happening to me, the next one trying to come up with everything else it could be, (lupus? cancer? the water??) and the next reconciling yourself to the fact that it is indeed, as your wise, slightly older sister told you, age. Perhaps by the time you reach 50 you don’t care about that either. I’ll let you know in a few years.

Your 40s are about Flashes

As in hot, as in rage, as in that’s how quick it was between moods and the last time you plucked that stubborn chin hair. Flash as in, no way am I going to do that with my boobs because they’re down by my belt. Flash as in, I can’t believe how quickly the time doth fly. Get used to roller coaster emotions, sleeping with the windows open and getting pissed off when the indicator on your car blinks too loudly. Get ready to think its April when it’s really August. Get ready to want to rip someone’s head off and eat their beating heart in front of them to show them how loudly they’re chewing. Get ready to start thinking that global warming is a very, very, very personal thing.

Oh God.
Oh God.

Your 40s are going to be about Friends and Family and the Future

Your forties are all about realizing what and who is important. It’s a time to streamline, to clean out your closet, purge your Facebook friend list and shed dead weight, whether that weight comes in the form of toxic friendships or dead-end jobs or stuck in the mud relationships. It’s no coincidence that by the time you hit 40, you look around and realize that statistically speaking, more than half of your life is behind you. The good news? You’ve come a long way baby, but you’ve still got a long way to go. The time is ripe to make a change. You’re young enough to still grab life by the balls, even if you have to stick your head in the freezer and you don’t remember why you were at the freezer to begin with.

So almost welcome to your 40s, baby sis. You’re going to love it, I promise. So ice the cake, light the candles and say a different kind of ‘f’ word to what you’re leaving behind. Your 40s called and they’re going to be fantastic.

Love being in your 40s? Share it!

Oh, The Places You’ll Go! An Expat Commencement Address

graduation-hats1Many of you are familiar with Dr. Suess’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go. Since its publication in 1990, it has become the go-to gift for wave after wave of matriculated seniors stepping forth into the great, wide world. Wise words–that rhyme– wrapped and tied with a bow. Meant for children of all ages, it is filled with whimsical advice on navigating this great adventure we call LIFE. Who needs cash or a new MacBook Air when you can have a book full of nonsense rhyme urging you to make your own way in the world, right? Well, most of us as it turns out.

Congratulations! 
Today is your day. 
You’re off to Great Places! 
You’re off and away!

For most of us, the caps and gowns that signified graduation have long been shelved. The last strains of Pomp and Circumstance have faded into memory. (That’s Land of Hope and Glory to you Brits). Decades have passed since most of us tossed mortar boards high into the air and said our goodbyes to those hallowed halls. But the idea of endings and beginnings, of closing out one chapter of our lives before we begin the next, of ups and downs, of resilience and fortitude—those ideas apply to us throughout our lives. For those of you ‘graduating’ into your next posting, those rhyming words seemed worth sharing.

You have brains in your head. 
You have feet in your shoes 
You can steer yourself 
any direction you choose.

You’re on your own. And you know what you know. 

And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.leavingrec1

Whether it was by choice or circumstance, job or chance, an itch to move on or a call back home, for many of you, it is time to say good-bye. Maybe the comforts of back-home are just around the corner or maybe you’ll be dipping your toes into yet another new culture, another new language, another new set of experiences. Near or far, home or away, there is excitement ahead, there are new challenges to tackle and new places to see.

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!

There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.

The problem of course is that when you go, by default you are also leaving; leaving something, some place, some one or ones behind. For every one of you taking your first step on the next part of your journey, there are two or three or even more of us who will stay behind, filling the gaps left in your absence. Each of you has brought something to our collective experience, something special or unique. Perhaps it is a way of looking at life, or the way you tell a joke. Perhaps it is your ability to cut to the chase or the way you have a kind word for everyone. Some of you have a smile that brightens any room; others are always there with a helping hand. There are those of you who volunteer: your time, your ear, your expertise. Some of you have taken on the responsibility of teaching our children. Some are larger than life, while others prefer to stay on the sidelines. Cheerleaders and jocks, leaders and peacemakers, teachers, moms, dads. Friends. Some have shared a talent or taught a skill or provided a service. Perhaps your magic lay in your ability to make a newcomer feel welcome, to share your experience or knowledge; to be welcoming, to be a friend. All of those special, one of a kind traits that each of you brought to this crazy, collective experience mixed and melded with everyone else’s to make something ordinary into something extra-ordinary.

Come August, when the frenzy of year-end has subsided, when the excitement of summer vacations and holidays are starting to fade, when those of us remaining return with fresh notebooks and squeaky soled new shoes, your absence will be noted. You will be missed for who you are as individuals, but also because you have been part of the experience, part of the whole. We have not all crossed paths with one another, but for every me there are two or three others who, come August, will be a little bit lost, a little bit lacking, a little bit lonely without you here. We will think of you and wonder how you are settling; if you are finding it easy or difficult, if you are adjusting, if you’ve gotten hung up on a prickle-y perch. We will remember back to our own beginnings, when we were concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other to get to the next day, when we were struggling in the supermarket or swallowing our shyness to make friends on the playground. Many of you will find it easy. Some won’t. But all of you will triumph in that resilient way that we have come to expect of our expat brethren.

On and on you will hike oh-places-youll-go
and I know you’ll hike far 
and face up to your problems 
whatever they are. 

You’ll get mixed up, of course, 
as you already know. 
You’ll get mixed up 
with many strange birds as you go. 
So be sure when you step. 
Step with care and great tact 
and remember that Life’s 
a Great Balancing Act. 
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. 
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

Before you know it, the school year will in full swing and you’ll be navigating those foreign streets like a pro. You’ll reconnect with old friends or you will make new ones. You will bring your unique something to a new table, a new setting, a new place you call home, whether it’s for forever or only for the next few years. Most importantly that something will be just as valued there as is was here.  How do I know? Dr. Suess told me so:

And will you succeed? 
Yes! You will, indeed! 
(98 and 3 / 4 percent guaranteed.)

KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!

As hard as it is to say good-bye, know that your friendship and contributions and place in our whole, our right now, will remain only yours. There will be new faces come August, faces and families who we will accept with open arms, who will add something new, something of their own to our upside down world. But they will never replace the YOUS that YOU are.

So… 
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray 
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea, 
you’re off to Great Places! 
Today is your day! 
Your mountain is waiting. 
So…get on your way! 

 

The above was a piece I wrote and read aloud to those in my expat community who are moving on. Sometimes the simple words of Dr. Suess say it better than the most eloquent of speeches. That of course didn’t stop me from writing one….

To LM, HB, and SH, you leave big shoes to fill. x