I Never Saw My Mother Cry

It is not strictly true that I never saw my mother cry. My grandfather, her father, died when I was 7 years old. It was before we had a telephone but someone came from somewhere in the night to tell us, and we rode through the dark in the black Chevy coupe to the town five miles away where a telephone operator was waiting in a building only slightly larger than my walk-in closet. She connected Mom to a relative to find out about the when and how. It was the final checking out of his heart, which had had one foot on the other side of the door for years. I had never seen him upright.

My mother cried on the drive home. I saw the hunch of her back and heard her quiet sobs.

Our farm was isolated and we were a family isolated from each other within it – and with such bound up emotions that expressing any feeling was, literally, unheard of. Who knew what expressing anger or affection might do? Everything could fly – not fall, but fly – apart at the speed of Iowa lightning. Only remnants of us might ever be found.

So far as I ever knew, inside the house when it was only us, my father was mute. If he wanted the salt passed, he pointed and crooked his finger. It was up to my mother and brother to maintain any conversation. I was silent, making plans to get out even as I passed the salt. Maybe especially as I was passing the salt.

LIFE magazine with its photos and ads of sophisticated people arrived from another world. By adolescence, I imagined myself in an off-the-shoulder black sheath stepping out after dinner from a luxury hotel to my waiting car. It may have been a leap of vision from “slopping” the pigs with garbage and “picking” eggs from the hen house to dining at the Jockey Club, but it was not a disconnect. I knew there was a line from here to there and it was only a question of time and intent.

I can make this a sad story, but sadness isn’t the point. I am long over it, and my parents turned into love bugs in their 70’s. My father, especially. He became a sentimental, story-telling, loving, hugging, funny, talkative love bug. I still don’t understand.

But my point is: Crying and laughter are the natural responses to life. As we have the gift of laughter, so we have the gift of tears. Humans are outfitted for crying in gratitude, joy, frustration, anger, sympathy, and sorrow. Most of us need to cry more than we do.

I am at this moment on the train from NYC to my home in DC. I am wearing jeans and a light blue denim shirt with sandals and a studded leather belt – and, with great nonchalance, a long string of very nice pearls. Never have had an off-the-shoulder sheath. Too predictable.

New York had more people in two blocks of sidewalk than lived in that small town of my childhood and every third person was on their smart phone, including me – texting the singer-songwriter arrived from Nashville and on his way to the apartment, emailing the Ambassador about lunch the next day, fielding emails, and making arrangements for a birthday dinner for the singer-songwriter at a restaurant overlooking Central Park after champagne at the Ritz.

I have learned to cry, and I cried in NYC. I thought of my mother, who died at age 96 exactly six months ago, and I thought of my brother and my father, whom she and I buried. We loved each other and learned to say it.

I thought of my grandchildren as I looked at their collection of rocks from NYC streets (yes) on the windowsill over the Hudson River.

I have learned to cry for new friends and old, for genius presenting itself wildly in front of me, for people flawed and people nearly perfect, for the pain in the world beyond imagining, and for the people in Central Park with their dogs, children, Frisbees, family reunions, and picnics.

I have learned to cry because life is beyond knowing and because that is the ultimate gift.

In NYC I thought of many things to write about, and took many photos with that telephone in my jean’s pocket, but there wasn’t time to write or post photos. Walking a straight line while drunk with life was the best I managed to do.

On leaving this morning, I cleaned the apartment a little, remembered people who have been there with me and without me, saluted the beneficent fates and the ex-husband whose being made the apartment a gift that remained after the devastation was over, and I closed the door.

At the elevator, I knew what I needed to write as I suddenly understood the connection between my easy call these days to tears, especially in the presence of beauty, and my mother. A farm child during the Great Depression, selling apples on the street corner, she stopped crying. But she learned to laugh and to love.

I understood that we all need to cry as well as to laugh and to love. We need to see tears as the expression when words fail us. For many of us, tears may be as close as we come to being poets.


Neither crone nor cougar

Humor has two homes – pain and happiness. Great happiness. Happiness that is secure to the point of silliness. But even that happiness has to have in it the spice of pain to give it tang. Otherwise it is Disney with plastic gravitas, angel food cake without strawberries, sensible shoes in brown, and blandness masquerading as naiveté.

IMG_1952The question is: when you are a woman of a certain age, what are you? Society is still figuring this out even as we women of that age are living it.

We are, in fact, changing the paradigm. We are no longer crones, though we have immense wisdom. Scary wisdom. Be afraid.

And, sorry, but those of us who are in shape are not all cougars. You may be attracted to us, to your immense bafflement, but we don’t wear leopard skin Spanx and most of us are not trying to seduce boys. If they get seduced, it’s their own problem, not ours. We’re interested in lovers who are not afraid of us and who know the depths of love because they have depth in themselves. Otherwise stay away.

Being “a certain age” is a no-woman’s land of just being who we are. A tad unfair. Teenagers have prescribed roles, millennials have prescribed roles, young parents have prescribed roles, people of middle-age have their prescribed crises, and then there are women 60 and over.

We have made it through marriages, divorces, betrayals, illnesses, children, disappointments, poverty, prejudice, injuries, and successes. We have made it through being beautiful and being ugly. We have made it through seeing that the world will not be devoid of pain – ours and others – in our lifetimes. We have made it through seeing what our work has or has not done to change the world for the better.

We have forgotten more people and more lovers and more crises than any other group, and we savor beauty and remember EXACTLY what and who we should remember. When my granddaughter at 4 years of age sings out “Let It Go,” she has no idea that we say this to ourselves every single day. Every time we look in the mirror, every time we feel pain, every time we want to cry. We let the tears come, and then the laughter. We KNOW how to “let it go.”

photo 9And one day we stop worrying that we don’t have role models except Gloria S. and Tina T. and Elizabeth (Warren), and a few others … oh, wait, there is a list! Yes, of course, and each is uniquely herself.

And we are suddenly able to be goofy in the face of what is and what was – and not because we mumble to ourselves or don’t know any better. No, it’s because we do know. We have learned how important “goofy” is. It is freedom not to be a crone, not to be a cougar, but to be magnificently ourselves.

Here’s looking at you, kid.



Storage Capacity: an unfolding

My storage capacity is overflowing. Before anything new can come in it seems something else must go out. Or I have to go to systems control and obtain more capacity, a mysterious process that comes from the clouds.

Should some of my archives be deleted? There may be useful material embedded next to what is now trash.

It would be easy to decide what is other people’s trash – anything having to do with hate or belittlement of themselves or others. It’s not so easy to decide what is one’s own trash.

Oh, that’s a sweet memory even if it makes me sad. Oh, and that resentment surely has protective value in case I am ever again in that exact same situation in that way with that kind of person.

And what about that glorious moment of vanity when I and my world were young? Wasn’t that fun and wasn’t I spectacular?

But I don’t want to review everything in order to select what can stay and what should go. It doesn’t seem efficient or the point.

Yes, I understand my processing has slowed down here and there, and that I have a few software glitches, but I have workarounds. My operating system is basically sound. There are ways that it is more sensitive and responsive and discerning than ever before. It’s just that it is so full, and has started self-deleting, people’s names especially.

For decades I could increase my storage capacity by changing my perception of what I am capable of, expanding my emotional depth, and allowing breakage of my perceived reality so that a larger reality could replace the smaller one – so that my storage held more beauty, more pain, more compassion, and more nuanced and complex truths.

But is there a time when the sheer epic size of the myriad facets of being alive among other humans and animals and plants and songs and wars and love and art calls for compressed data rather than enhanced data, for haiku rather than saga, for the porcelain vase rather than the pieta, for a sonata rather than Wagner?

I see in the vase a world with history, passion, intent, and occasional breakage. I hear in a single flute as deep a message as that of a full symphony. I experience in a gesture such life that I am in danger of being overwhelmed by a chaos of many gestures – more evidence of a capacity at its limit or of a system operating at its fullest?

I can no longer process war, I can no longer process violence, I can no longer process guns and the other ways we kill each other. I can hardly process the face of another mother or father or child in anguish, though I certainly try. There are reasons we watch cat videos. They are manageable.

We are, I see unfolding as I write, all going through our lives with overloaded storage capacities. Files on love and peace, and how to have both, are submerged under files on survival, distraction, ambition, and voluntary ignorance. Love doesn’t get enough hits.

But love is there if we use our search engine – and with time, many of us search for it. With time, we know the universe is incomprehensible. With time we know the ranges of morality, we know life is a tragicomedy, we know every child needs protection and opportunity. We know one unnecessary death is a tragedy. We know that hundreds and thousands of unnecessary deaths is NOT a statistic. It is hundreds and thousands of tragedies.

We are humans, not computers. Blood runs through our veins and irrationality enlivens our visions.

In the vase I see the world. In the haiku I hear the millions. In the touch of my grandchild’s cheek I feel the precious lives of all children. It is enough to fill me.



Some people place you in their side pocket among their keys and billfold to take out only when you are useful to them, without care if you have been scratched, rumpled, or torn.

Others in their breast pocket, more tenderly, to be taken out like a small shiny object, perhaps of use as a secret talisman, or to be shown as borrowed i.d. to gain them entry into someone else’s esteem.

Still others place you in a purse, back pack, or computer bag jostled among their history of ticket stubs, old lipsticks, used tissues, and aging agendas to be rediscovered by happenstance when they search for someone else’s business card.

There are no pockets in someone’s heart. To be there your host had to have been willing to feel your essence and let it pervade their own. When that happens, your perfume will linger forever. If they let you know depends on who they are, what they understand of beauty and rarity, and how they tend love.

The Nature of Love

When I lived in a radical religious commune in New York State, the nature of love was our koan. It seemed important. The overarching mantras in the air were God is Love, God is One, Love is All. Somehow the nitty gritty of good and evil, the daily in your face of what to do when a rat breached the flour bins, was ignored. Was the rat a “not God”? Were we supposed to set up a separate feeder for the rat to show OUR love? Well, we were pretty bananas, but not that bananas.

It was further complicated by the language issue. The “old family,” mostly young Jews from NYC with advanced degrees who had been with the leader since he sat in silence in Central Park, spoke in sign language, lyrical hand and arm movements original to the group. (I refuse to say “cult.”)

Not only were we a quiet people but we were an earnest people wishing full immersion in the Love that is God that is One that is All. As such, negative forms of speech were frowned upon. Spoken language could get quite contorted if you felt someone was slacking off in the kitchen or garden or on a building project – and sign language only allowed for beauty. “No” did not exist.

I never learned more than a few sign words, having arrived late and leaving after a half year, but I, too, longed for full immersion. My previous experiences placed me immediately in a certain category of seeker. I arrived older than most and jump-started.

No drugs were allowed, sex was discouraged, and couples frowned up (though there were several). Besides manual labor, we sang, danced, and meditated – those words are not adequate! – and I learned unanticipated skills such as how to walk through woods in blanketed darkness, how to sleep on snow at -30 degrees to escape singing and dancing, and how to give gifts fully and without attachment. The last has stood me in good stead.

I also had (albeit concise) conversations with Hindu gurus who visited me in dream states and who had, well, died decades before. I’d never heard of them and they came without summons, and it was intense, and sometimes amusing. But that’s a different blog, and it would make most readers think I was a nutcase, and it doesn’t really matter because what matters is: do you love well?

Loving well is the life lesson, the work that separates wannabes from pilgrims.

Love, like light, is both substance and wave.

Love is the substance of action. It is getting off your bum and making someone’s life better.

Love is the wave of essence. You were born out of this essence. It is your true home and self.

And THERE’S the rub. In our physical bodies and unique minds we seldom experience the pure essence of love, let alone Love as All. In linear time and space, we strive nonstop to position ourselves anew in a world of clash and clang and rivalry and fear and striving to be something more, or larger, or stronger, or safer, or more attractive.

I don’t know that there is a way around this, at least not an easy one. God may be All, but our daily “all” is fractured and sieved and chopped and filtered. We perceive and navigate an infinite number of tidbits, thinking if we reassemble them and ourselves, life will be better. And if we rearrange well, it is usually true. Good housekeeping has value. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and all that. Such work allows for progress in the conditions of life on this earth. It is where the dynamic between good and evil is defined and enacted. It is, at its best, Love as action, Love in action.

At the commune the numbers soared when the temperatures rose. The summer I was there one visitor was an astrophysicist who never looked at the stars.

Let me back up. That summer the family was in a sort of peril as the leader renounced a decade of Hindu “God is All” for Born Again Christianity with its split world of good and evil. It turned out that someone had given the leader (well, “Freedom” was his name and he wasn’t actually “worshipped” in case you are worried) a transistor radio. Alone in his yurt, he listened to Christian radio. My guess is he was vulnerable from living off canned white asparagus for several years.

On re-entry from a decade in the stratosphere of “Love is All” he split into three personalities – God, Freedom, and the insurance salesman he had been earlier. They had different voices and talked to each other. One night at meditation, listening to their dialogue – monologue? – we started giggling. I would say the “game was up” but it wasn’t remotely like that. We provided a safe place over the next months while he reconstituted. For the most part, love prevailed, including his leaving the land, and the commune becoming a Zen center.

But before he left, Freedom asked the astrophysicist if he ever looked at the stars, and he had to say “no.” It was not where he was looking for truth.

What are twinkly lights compared with abstract mathematical theory? What gets us to essence beyond definition, form, and formula? Can we open to answers in the silence instead of the clang and clatter? What is the role of awe?

If we cannot comprehend the universe, is it no wonder we cannot comprehend the immensity of Love with our limited minds, our containerizing minds, our judgmental minds?

Can we lay down the reins and, like an old horse, find our way back home?



Delirium: a man, a dog, a girl, opera, food poisoning, and me


We will start this recitative with a link to “Wysteria” (Dan Fogelberg) sung by singer-songwriter Joshua Payne, my houseguest this past week, because the word “delirium” is going through my head to the tune of his “Wysteria.” It occupies my mind so thoroughly that other words fling around it like confetti. I am recovering from food poisoning. Calamari.

I told Joshua at the time, “These aren’t as good as usual.” I weigh five pounds less than I did three days ago. I will try to write clearly if not coherently.

He and I continued our intense discussion over that fated dinner – at a favorite restaurant, alas – about the musical (opera, perhaps?) he is writing and that we had worked on together throughout the day. He called our conversation “sparring.” I felt it as a battle of voices trying to trump one another where I was the guaranteed loser – he is a trained opera baritone. I tried to convince myself that I might learn a new skill in counterpoint to the “deep listening” we advocated at the non-profit I founded. I didn’t succeed in either convincing myself or gaining the skill though the final result of my internal debate remains to be seen. I can imagine situations where sheer timbre force could have value.

When the conversation changed direction – a maneuver of mine – he quoted Bible verses from Corinthians and Samuels about, yes, the Jews were promised Israel, but God reversed that because the Jews weren’t being good enough. So the promise of land had been valid only for a certain time. Joshua would supply me with as many verses as I wanted.

However, the mere mention of Corinthians made my stomach start to turn and I asked him to stop. He looked baffled.

Finally I took his hand and said, “Really, you must stop now,” which he did with a surprised look while I launched into the closest thing to a rant I’ve done in years. It was on how much I dislike religions – ALL religions – and Bible-driven mentalities, and the damage done by people who think they are superior and chosen and right, and how religion stopped people from thinking clearly about reality and goodness and humanity right in front of them in real time. I had no idea I felt quite that strongly about it.

Joshua was brought up under fundamentalist Christianity, brutal and violent on the one hand and redemptive and beautiful on the other. He is the child of pastors (albeit musical ones) in Arkansas and has come to some kind of terms with it, even really likes the Old Testament.

I, however, when trying to initiate upchucking around 2:00 am, only had to think “Corinthians” for the “upchuck” button to be pushed.

[Please continue to listen to “delirium” sung so sweetly in the way Joshua sings “Wysteria.”]

My anti-religion rant wasn’t my first outburst. Mid-week, exhausted and taut, I snapped at the person dearest to me, shocking us both. I snapped about something I had planned for years to explain gently, carefully, as a trait that hurt me. So much for gentleness! (We have worked our way through this and she is stocking me with Gingerale and some godawful thing called “vitamin water” that comes in magenta and cobalt blue.)

I also contacted a former lover about seeing him finally, but reneged it perfunctorily and abruptly a day or two later in a flash of hurt and pique.

Yup, it’s been quite a week. The cost of being surrounded by genius and beauty and harshness? The cost of having my lovely controlled life disturbed? Disturbed?!! Hell!!

photo 10It began with my dog Phoenix, a standard poodle. In addition to having an opera-trained voice of a baritone angel, Joshua is a dog whisperer – though I never actually saw him whisper – and Phoenix needed training.

Phoenix jumped on people, Phoenix went ballistic over deliverymen and  trucks driven by deliverymen or garbagemen, Phoenix became crazed around leaf blowers, Phoenix barked at other dogs, and in my neighborhood there are a lot of deliveries, a lot of dogs, and a lot of leaf blowers.

photo 3Besides, Joshua was charming when I met him in NYC six weeks ago, so I invited him to my home to take care of the dog situation and we would work on his musical in the process. (I was once a playwright. Joshua likes my work.) What could go wrong?

Well, first off, Joshua couldn’t figure out the deal with Phoenix, couldn’t decode him. Why wasn’t he packing with us/him/me? It is one thing to know your dog is disobedient. It is another to know he prefers other people to you and that what affection he has for you is as a free agent. We now know Phoenix’s chosen pack – his hierarchical ranking, and affection, order – is 1) the man he stays with when I’m away, 2) the man who did construction in my house the first two years of his life, 3) my 4-year-old granddaughter, and then probably me. Joshua came to occupy a unique separate place.

Before we finished, eight different people were here for training with “my” dog and Joshua had to “take down” Phoenix twice. The first time wasn’t too bad and I saw it. (On the second day of training, Phoenix skulked under the piano and growled and showed teeth when I tried to get him out.)

Joshua said from the beginning there would be a rebellion around day 4, and there was. This second and final “take down,” which I luckily did not see, was the real deal and ended with the two bonded as spent fighters in each other’s clutches on the grass in nearby woods. After that, my dog began to sleep with Joshua who called him “my warrior brother” and wanted to take him back to Nashville with him.

Phoenix no longer jumps on people and does not bark at deliverymen, their trucks, other dogs, or leaf blowers. He walks in perfect “heel” and “stays” where he is supposed to, though he cheats a little on “stay” with me. We’re working on it.

My dog, who prefers others more than me (yes, I’m still adjusting to this truth I already knew, hence the repetition), seems both relieved of his self-imposed job description of Protector Against All Things, i.e. some things are our friends – and bored from the new quiet in the house. (I am grieved and guilty at not being strong enough to walk him and so wish Joshua were still here for him. The sight of Joshua walking long-haired and barefoot through my fancy area of DC with Phoenix on a loose leash prancing at his side was a sight to behold. He even walked in peace between two leaf blowers like they were playing a duet just for him.)

So, in a week’s time I faced the truth of my dog’s allegiance, had a non-stop revolving door of people and training, affronted people I love, was sleep deprived, drank too much wine, offered food continuously, and had a musical genius either caressing me 24/7 with his music (piano, guitar, voice) and/or poetry, or challenging me front on, or embracing with glee (and our mutual goosebumps) my ideas for his musical – or regaling me with his childhood which reinforced any stereotype I’ve ever had about the South. In sum, I lost control of my life as I gained control of my dog. And then I got food poisoning.

Just one snippet: Past midnight once again. Mucho wine. I’m immobile, and can only watch as he meticulously cleans up the dinner dishes, scrubs my stove, triple-wipes the countertops with Windex while telling me how the junior high school principal broke his vertebrae with a canoe (?) paddle for chewing gum in school. What does one do with this?

My 4 1/2-year-old granddaughter in all her sweetness was the contretemps, determined to learn how to control Phoenix through simple commands and hugs. He wants to obey her. You see his heart expand. You see him listen and wait.

photo 5

When Joshua left two days ago, Phoenix was reluctant to watch. But it’s important as part of the pack to explain to your animal that you are leaving but that you will return. You can’t just disappear.

So Joshua spoke to Phoenix, and then he spoke to Josie. I watched, sick and in pajamas, knowing that I too was part of the pack, even if not the preferred leader.

photo 6


After Joshua left, Josie sat with Phoenix for a long time, petting him and explaining that Joshua would be back. When a visitor came later, Phoenix did not jump on her. Well, he considered it and I gave the “NIE” command and he sat and waited to be petted. If not his #1, I did get his willing cooperation.

I wouldn’t have missed this week for anything, . . .

. . . and now the musical includes a key character based on Josie’s great great great (more?) grandfather, sheriff of Dodge City. How good is this?

photo 9