Saturday, March 14, 2015

Remembering Farmer Jim, esquire

Last August I received one of the hardest writing assignments of my short and rather undistinguished career. 

In May, my friend Jim was diagnosed with acute myeloid Leukemia. By August, it seemed he was having more bad days than good. His wife, Kristi, asked me if I could write the obit when the time came. 

"Of course." I told her. Because ... because, of course.

Then I promptly went about life. And Jim and Kristi went about their lives, though now with more intention. They went to more movies, spent long hours together binge-watching TV, visited New York City and saw shows and went sailing in Annapolis. 

"You should just write it now so it's ready when the time comes," people told me. But I couldn't. Because ... because, how?

(Here's a video we put together to celebrate Jim's birthday in February)

Jim and Kristi were among my first friends in York. In fact, I moved to York largely because it would give me the opportunity to live on their beautiful farm. 

Kristi is this sparking bolt of lightening, all energy and ideas and action. She's forever erecting and dismantling and planning and talking and laughing. And Jim's the clearing clouds after the storm, the calm the serenity the reflection. I don't ever think I've met a more balanced pair.

When describing my unique landlords to friends, I always characterized Jim as Farmer Hoggett from "Babe." That strong, steady, knowing voice in the midst of all the chaos. And on the farm, there's always chaos. Horses at your back door, turkeys chasing cars, dogs digging for varmints.

He handled all of it in step, with the eye of a poet. As I was scrolling through his Facebook page a while back, I found this:
"Last night, under a clear sky and a full harvest moon, our Iberia, Duchess of Blue Hound and milk cow extraordinaire, passed away suddenly, joining the other radiant stars and leaving us with glorious memories and a two-week old calf. Today was sadness and triumph, as Bibby the calf learned to drink from a bottle. Now to bed."
Have you ever read a nicer tribute to a cow?

Anyone who's been to Blue Hound can't help but come back. There's a magic to the place, created in no small part by Kristi's kinetic vision and Jim's graciousness. All are welcome, all are family. Just be kind to our animals and the land. 

Farmer Jim helps the girls
get a cow-back ride on Iberia.
Anytime I visited and Jim was around I'd be greeted with a huge smile and those sparkling blue eyes. Life was always good, according to Jim. Even when knee deep in mud with a sick cow, a wayward dog, or a fox sneaking in the chicken coop. 

He never failed to point out the great wealth that surrounded us if we just paused for a second.

Months ago while on the farm, I was down by the pond picking flowers for wedding bouquets. The night was serene, the sun just starting to set. Jim, who was often tired by then, wandered down the hill from the house. "Look between those bushes," he told me, seemingly out of nowhere. So I did, just in time to see a flock of docks landing on the water. The only sound you could hear was the whisper of their wings and the splash of the water. 

It was such a small, perfect moment. A gift.

I got a call Wednesday morning, Jim was gone. I knew even before I picked up the phone I think. Just that strange feeling you get. 

I guess you can't procrastinate forever. 

Here's what I wrote about Jim. It doesn't feel enough. Doesn't convey how highly I regard him and how much we'll all miss him. But I'm guessing no matter what I wrote, Jim would be encouraging. That's just the sort of person he was.

Here goes:

James “Jim” Frederick Maher died peacefully in the arms of his beloved wife, Kristi, at their home in Lewisberry on Thursday, March 12, 2015.

While, last year’s leukemia diagnosis wasn’t the best news, true to his optimism, sense of humor and unyielding pragmatism, Jim committed to living every dang day the best he could, right up to very the end. 

The product of a North-South marriage (his father, John Sloat Fassett Maher hailed from upstate New York while his mother, Eleanor Poindexter Maher was from Mississippi), Jim was born Feb. 2, 1949 in Hartford, Conn. His older brother Buck still hasn’t forgiven Jim for supplanting him as the baby of the family, though Jim would later get a taste of his own medicine when their little brother Tom arrived.

His childhood was split between Hartford, Mississippi and Tennessee, where he attended Christian Brothers High School in Memphis. 

Jim had a propensity for unique hobbies, which started early in life when he collected meat-eating plants as a kid. Throughout his life he was an actor, bathtub vintner, radio announcer, sailor, historian, poet, fisherman, cheese maker, farmer and yogi. 

A reader and a romantic, Jim’s love for J.R.R. Tolkien took him to Middle Earth itself (or at least on location in New Zealand where the movies were filmed). This trip was a bit more satisfying than his other literature-inspired adventure – a train ride across Europe on the Orient Express, which proved far more rustic and rather less elegant and mysterious than he’d envisioned.

While attending Duke University, he ran the college radio station, where he was known for playing good music (not that Top 40 stuff) and for creating a series of fake ads for Mr. Fix-It, a humble handyman who could tackle anything from open-heart surgery to disarming a nuclear bomb. 

His stage career peaked in college when he played Sir Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night.” It was widely rumored that he got the part because of his ability to belch on cue. Later in life he took on the roles of Santa Claus and William Penn to entertain and educate children.

Jim didn’t have much money while attending law school at Temple University, so he had to be creative with gift giving. He once gave his best friend Chris the deed to the Island of Manhattan as a birthday present. Said he got it off an old Indian, whom he figured had pretty good claims to the land; Chris’s wife, Stefani, got the deed for Western Europe. His friends  and family have always appreciated his generosity with laughter. 

Through his career, Jim practiced law in New York City, Wilmington, Del. And Harrisburg, Pa. 

It was in Delaware that he met and married Kristi, who, after seeing Jim run, confessed to have taken up jogging in order to land a date with him. Her persistence paid off (though she hung up her jogging shoes) and the couple wed in New Castle in 1991. This wasn’t the last time Jim found himself roped into one of Kristi’s schemes; her next big idea was moving to Pennsylvania to buy a 72-acre farm. Of course, Jim was happy to follow along, becoming one of those rare breeds of lawyer-farmers you never hear about. His sister Julie says he never wanted a routine sort of life anyway.

In 2013 he retired from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, trading in his suit and trademark bow ties for boots and a cowboy hat. At Blue Hound Farm he birthed calves and kids (goat kids, that is), tucked in turkeys, milked, mowed, mucked, and on occasion, corralled a wayward pig or two. 

There are numerous adjectives that apply to Jim – kind, patient, gracious, sweet, wise and sharp-witted are among them. Maybe the best description for him is gentleman, for he was one in ever sense of the word.

He is survived by his wife of 23 years, Kristi Dimond Maher; sister, Julianne Maher of Pittsburgh; brothers Michael Maher and his wife, Beatrice, of Holland, Mich.; Poindexter “Buck” Maher of New Zealand; and Oren “Thomas” Maher of Knoxville, Tenn.; uncle Theodore Davis of Virginia Beach, Va.; numerous nieces and nephews including Susan (his long-time roller coaster buddy) and Martin Maher of Pittsburgh; and the charter members of Birdy West: Chris, Scott and Warren. 

“It is a great mistake not to stop and enjoy the spring that surrounds us ever so briefly,” Jim wrote last April. He always had a way with words. He appreciated the quiet things – the warm sun on his face, a flock of ducks landing on the pond at dusk and a walk down the lane with his dogs – and he never failed to remind others to pause and admire the wonderful world around them. It is some comfort, then, that each night when we pause to look up at the twinkling stars, we’ll see Jim’s smiling eyes shining back down on us.

Jim donated his body to Hershey Medical Center. Plans for a life celebration are pending. In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to

Friday, March 6, 2015

Why I want my kids to talk to strangers

Photo courtesy of Rachel Elaine/Flickr
The other day Brad took the girls to the pet store. While they were checking out various rodents, a woman came up behind them and began talking to the girls about what the rats.

"Don't talk to strangers," Lily whispered into her sister's ear. Neither acknowledged the woman.

Brad tells me this story and we giggle. I also roll my eyes.

Ever since we read "The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers" Lily is forever correcting me on my own devil-may-care attitude about people I don't know.

She doesn't like that I strike up conversations with people in checkout lines, parks and waiting rooms. She wonders why I say hi to people while out on walks or wave at the cars we pass in my neighborhood. 

"Who are you saying hi to, Mom?" she'll ask. 

"Just one of our neighbors," I respond.

"Who is it? What's their name?" she presses.

"I don't know." I admit.

"You shouldn't talk to strangers, Mom."

I sigh. She's fickle about rules. Like, she'll make allowances for hitting her sister ("But she said she wanted to play dollhouse with me and I just don't want her to play dollhouse with me!") or jumping on the couch ("I'm just dancing!") or splashing water out of the bathtub ("But Mom, Becky the turtle just needed to dive down really fast!"), but if she spots the smallest infraction on the stranger front, she's cuffing me faster than Lennie Briscoe can make a bad joke. 

"Looks like her mother never told her not to talk to strangers," he'd tell Det. Green while they stand over my body, which is lying in aisle nine of the grocery store. (In this episode, I've been canned to death with tomato soup by an angry 18 month old who'd finally cracked under the pressure of being told to, "say hi to the nice lady" one too many times).

Dun Dun!

Where were we?

Oh yes, Lily's fear of strangers. See, I want Lily to talk to strangers. 

I feel like I sound naive or idiotic or controversial for saying that. 

But I do.

I want her to say hi to people. To wave and be friendly. 

I tell her this. "Lily, it's OK to say hi to people when you're with me."

She's skeptical. 

Listen, I don't want to her to be chatting up strangers when I'm not around. I obviously, don't want her to take things from strangers or go anywhere with them. I know she's only 4. Maybe my expectations are too high. 

I tell her she doesn't have to have conversations with anyone, especially if she feels uncomfortable, but it's nice to say, "hello." I want to respect her feelings and intuition, while also fostering her sense of community. 

As I bemoan the state of the world -- all the hatred and misunderstanding -- I've come to realize one of the most important things I can do is to raise kind, empathetic children. This starts in our house as they battle over who gets sit in the pink chair. It starts in our neighborhood as we spend time getting to know our neighbors. And it starts in the grocery store, at the library and at the park when we see strangers and say, hello.

I know it's a small thing. Sometimes that's all a mom can tackle. OK most of the time.

So I celebrated yesterday when I read this column in the Washington Post. I'm not alone!

In it author Tracy Cutchlow starts by writing about recent stories of people calling 911 on parents who are allowing their older children a little independence. She suggests that rather than rushing to call CPS, we start having each other's back. Instead of saying "gotcha" to parents we think are falling short, we look out for their kids. This isn't about ignoring obvious signs of negligence or abuse.  It's about acknowledging that sometimes parenthood is chaotic and overwhelming and that there are a billion different perspectives on raising healthy, well-adjusted children.

Cutchlow offers suggestions for how we can reconstruct the village in which we raise our children.

That starts in our neighborhoods. Talking to other parents when we pick our kids up from school. Attending events in the community. Talking to the people we live near. Teaching our kids that if they're ever alone or scared, they can seek out another woman with children for help. And (my personal favorite) walking more so we can see our neighbors. 

I was reminded of how wonderful it is to have great neighbors this week. Winter Suckfest has put everyone in hibernation mode, but there's nothing like a good snowstorm to bring people out of their houses. 

Yesterday, our neighborhood gave the girls a couple of playmates. It gave me someone to enjoy a cup of coffee with. I exchanged recipes with my neighbor across the street, who also gave the girls a couple of stuffed animals she was trying to find new homes for. I shoveled the driveway, but another neighbor used a borrowed snowblower to clear where we'd been plowed in. 

We are lucky. But I attribute part of that luck to sitting on my front porch and saying "Hello."

We are not little islands in our houses. In our cars. At our desks. In lines or waiting rooms. 

We need each other. And it's better when we have each other's backs.

This is why I want my kids to talk to strangers. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Frosty the Snow Squirrel

Yesterday, the weather was downright balmy in the upper 30s, so I did something I hadn't done in months: took a walk around the neighborhood. 

The girls ate a lot of questionable snow. The dog barked at buses, joggers and a spunky looking shih tzu. I warned the girls about the perils of yellow snow and yelled at the dog. Frequently.

It was like old times.

But NEW old times, because when I strolled by the squirrel lady's house I was thrilled to discover this:


There's even a carrot nose!
And a Frosty sweater!

And, as if new outfits on my favorite stone rodents weren't enough as I completed my old route, what did I discover? More old friends!
Parkly deer. One down.
The Christmas decorations are still out in force at my festive neighbor's. In addition to the deer, there are elves and glittery presents and Santas. It's like a scene out of "Elf." If "Elf" were set at the end of February. During Lent.

Oh quirky neighbors. How I've missed. thee.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My left boob

Photo courtesy of Chris Patako/Flickr

Yesterday, I went to the OBGYN for a long-overdue checkup. While he's poking and prodding me, Dr. Jackson asks about the kids, so I tell him about Lily's busy 4-year-old imagination. I ask about his side gig as a wedding photographer. He's been traveling to San Francisco a lot recently to take pictures for friends. Then he talks about this viewing he had to go to that night. This acquaintance had asked him to take photos of her just after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She wanted some nice pictures while she still had hair. They used one of them for the obit. 

He's examining my left breast as we talk about brain development in children when he frowns. 

 "You have what feels like a cyst here -- ever notice it?" he asks

I shrug and say no. What he says doesn't really register. 

I'm lying there in my "Terms of Endearment" moment and all I can think is, figures it's the left one. That one's always been temperamental. Back in high school, I nicknamed it Bertha. It's always overshadowed the right one like a greedy twin. The cantaloupe next to the clementine, for those who prefer fruit analogies. The wedding cake, next to the pancake, for those who prefer pastry. 

My sisters have long told me I exaggerated the size differential between the two, but even they were impressed after I started nursing Lily. Bertha was its own planet. The right one just a moon. Bertha's lumpy and prone to mastitis. At one point, during one of the most disturbing side affects of pregnancy I experienced (and example of the disgusting but fascinating nature of the human body) I developed a leaky bump under my left armpit. Dr. Jackson informed me it was probably just a breast tissue. Nothing to be worried about since there are milk lines that run into your armpits. 

But I knew the real culprit. It was Bertha, trying to hog up even more space on my body.

Dr. Jackson finishes his examination. I asked him about the possibility of switching birth control to something that didn't result in such catastrophic hormonal mood swings that I felt like a volcano erupting in the middle of a tornado. 

"We can take care of that for you," he says. Then he gets more serious. "About that spot on your left side. I feel confident it's a cyst but we'll want to get that looked at."

Then he tells me about his buddy Dr. Johnson, the surgeon he's referring me to. They go way back. Don't be alarmed that he works in the oncology department, he tells me. That's just where he's housed. He starts typing on the computer, letting me know he wants to make sure I can get in for a mammogram quickly -- just so I'm not left hanging. 

I hear all the words but they sort of bounce off me and scatter on the floor. 

"It's probably just a benign cyst," I tell Brad in the parking lot. "I have to get a mammogram." 

His face gets all somber. 

"It'll be fine," I tell him. "We'll just take this one step at a time."

He gets in his car to go to work. I get in my car and greet Jovie, who's been crying for me in the backseat. It's quiet. I start to pick at all the little pieces. The little breadcrumbs Dr. Jackson laid out.  It's probably just a cyst. 


Then these disconnected thoughts start. Like erratic raindrops at the start of a storm. 

Like how it's probably nothing. But what if it's something?

I think about how this would be just payback for my annual October rants about the creepy commercialization of breast cancer with all the opportunistic pink washers (I mean come on, pink handguns?) 

I remind myself that it's most likely nothing. But then I think about what I would look like bald. I recall all the times I told Brad I was going to shave my head because my hair is too thick and too unruly and how he said it wouldn't be a good look for me. I wonder if I could get a wig made of my own hair before it all came out. 

You are getting ahead of yourself, I tell myself.

I think about our high deductible insurance policy. How expensive things could get. 

I think about how I'm glad I finished my novel. 

You're being overdramatic, I tell myself. Dr. Jackson thinks it's just a cyst. 

Will I have to get a mastectomy? 

I try to remember all relevant parts of "The Emperor of All Maladies," that book about cancer I read last year. Breast cancer is well-funded and treatable. Long-term survival rates are growing. Doctors are able to buy more patients more time. But then cancer is very industrious. You can get rid of it in one place and it could show up in another. It's sneaky like that. Live long enough and cancer will eventually find you.

I start to think this is karma. I've been waiting for the cosmic retribution for my transgressions over the years. Comeuppance for the people I've hurt. Here it is. 

The mind is such a dark little thing.

I'm removed from myself as I observe all these thoughts flying scattershot in my brain. I decide then to write about it. This immediately calms me down a little. Separates me from what's happening to me. I'll be a journalist instead of a patient.

I can laugh about my narcissism and vanity. Overreaction and hypochondria. 

I just need to be calm and rational and take this one step at a time, I think to myself as I prepare, at 33, for my first mammogram.

Twenty-four hours later I'm in the waiting room at the imaging center. The other women are wearing the same snap-front green shirt as me. Most of their faces are more lined, their hair grayer. I smile weakly at another woman who's about my age. What are we doing here?

The technician has a lot of eyeshadow. I notice that. She talks loudly and cheerfully about what's going to happen, how I should stand, where I should place my hands and what she's doing with my breast as she squeezes it between two plates that then squash together like a metal press. I feel like a product on an assembly line as I'm repositioned and stamped again. And again. And again. 

They do an ultrasound, too, of the suspicious area. There's this painting on the ceiling of a lonely sea gull sitting on a cliff overlooking the sea. I stare at it as I wait to find out where I go next.

The technician comes back and tells me I can get dressed and then she'll take me to talk to the radiologist. Once I'm dressed they take me to a smaller waiting room behind a closed door. There's an elderly couple sitting in the room. They look dazed. He asks her if they'd told her anything. She says, no. But that they both knew they didn't take you to this waiting room unless there was bad news. Then she comments about how bleak the bare trees look against the grey winter sky. 

Like a suspense novel, she says.

I don't say anything. 

The radiologist comes for me. 

We get to a dark room where large screens show the pictures they've just taken of my breasts. 

"Want to have a seat so I can tell you the good news?" He asks.

So I sit down. And he tells me he doesn't see anything suspicious on my scans. He tells me he thinks the lump might be because of hormone fluctuations and that I should go back to Dr. Jackson for a followup in six weeks.

I relax.

Then he tells me I have high breast density. There's more tissue than fat in my breast and this can make it a bigger challenge to find cancer because both the tissue and the cancer would appear white on film.

Typical left boob problems.

He hands me a piece of paper that talks about breast density.

He asks me if I have any questions. I'm still dazed. I say no.

"I'll let you take the fast exit for people who have good news," he says and then sends me on my way.

I guess I'll just have to wait another day for the universe to realign itself.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Another existential crisis and a new writing room

Next month it will have been four years sense I left work to stay at home with Lily.

Recently, I've found myself feeling left behind by the women I used to work next to who've continued to pursue careers while raising their children and others. They're getting new jobs, pursuing doctorate degrees and getting published while I continue writing generic web content and picking up the odd features story now and then for my hometown paper. It's none too glamourous. It's becoming less fulfilling. As expected, I still can't have it all.

I tell myself regularly, that freelancing is a means to an end. It was never meant to be a stepping stone in my career as a journalist, but rather a stop gap toward a more stable, happy family. And it has been. I wouldn't go back to the runaround of working full time with kids in day care. For our family (i.e. my sanity), it just wasn't a good fit.

In this past, this blog, writing columns and working on my novel have always been a remedy to these moments of feeling obsolete and unfulfilled. They've given me a sense of purpose and a creative outlet. A way to connect with other moms and artists and people who themselves feel a little adrift in the world.

But I haven't been blogging that much at all. I haven't felt like there are easy stories to share. All the topics I feel like I want to write about -- concerns about how we handle our aging population in our country; racism, modern civil rights and how to raise tolerant, empathetic children; better treatment for drug addicts and the mentally ill; teaching my girls to be strong, self-realized women in the face of unrelenting sexism -- seem too enormous and too controversial. So they sit as unfinished drafts.

As I continue editing yet another draft of my manuscript, marching toward the scary prospect of trying to publish it, I ask myself, then what? What if it nobody wants to publish it? Then what do I do? (You know, after I curled up in a mental cocoon and wept for eternity. It would have to be a mental cocoon because the girls would never allow for an actual cocoon -- they'd need chocolate milk, yogurt pops and their butts wiped from time to time, after all.)

I guess I'd just do it again. I have other stories that could be written. I'd go through the process all over again. That's what real writers, do, right? Groan.

Some days it just seems so futile, right? Like, in the grand scheme of things, if Lily, Jovie and I spent most days snuggling in our pajamas, eating cheese balls and watching "Sesame Street" the world would keep on spinning and the end would come when the end came. Our tiny lives would just be these little cheesy finger smears on the history of the universe. 

Why doesn't Elmo sing a song about that

What's the word on the street? Existentialism. 

Before the various relatives and close friends that make up this site's audience come rushing to my house armed with axes to break down my front door and rescue my girls from philosophical peril, please be reassured that we're all fine here. Seriously. 

We've all bathed (relatively) recently. We all got dressed today. Ate food that wasn't fluorescent orange. Even left the house. And despite the fact that we're entrenched in the endless tundra of Winter Suckfest 2015, we're all in good spirits.

Hey, a directionless SAHM is entitled to have little mental crises from time to time, right? I'm mourning a cat and the end of "Parenthood" while reading "Being Mortal." It's a toxic brew of introspection. I know this too, shall pass.

Before too long, the girls will be in school and I'll (probably) re-enter the (more) professional world in some capacity. And more than likely I'll pine for these days when I had so much freedom.

And anyway, even if I haven't been writing anything that matters a whole lot to me, after (almost) four years of working from home, I finally made myself a home office. 

A couple of weeks ago I turned this strange little wood-paneled room that we called my "Craft Room" (because six years ago when we moved in here, I'd planned to use it as such) into a space I'd actually want to spend time in. Over the years it's been used as space to stow oversized baby gear we'd outgrown (thus allowing me to procrastinate on any long-term family planning decisions) as well as an assortment of items I could use for artsy-type projects I've yet to complete.

Here's a some befores: 

Welcome to the 70s.

Jovie, my little voyeur, looks through this odd little window into the bathroom next door, while I try to decide between Sea Breath, Aqua Glass, Dancing Mist and Grand Hotel Mackinac (I went with the Grand Hotel ... probably for the name alone).
And some afters:

The girls find yet another playroom!
And, because I know you're wondering, more on that doll later.
My new favorite remedy to unsightly clutter --
just stick a curtain over it!
I'm gonna need a lot of curtains.
I bought these poppy decals shortly after we moved in,
with the intention of using them in this room.
 Excited that they've finally gotten the chance to bloom.
Jovie misunderstood when I suggested
she might enjoy devouring a good book.

I'm pretty pleased with the results -- the room's now bright, clean and open for all my creative business. Brad graciously let me paint the desk he had as a kid. Whenever I can get moving on that again. It might lack the novelty of Hemingway's little carriage house, but it beats the kitchen table. 

And maybe it will be the place I start that next novel. One day.

As for my quiet muse in the corner -- the doll was a gift from my dad back years ago. A throwback to when I collected dolls as a kid. She's from the turn of the century and no, she's not haunted.

Finally, I don't know about you, but I could watch this commercial all day. I mean come on, a puppy in a carseat? Adorbs.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Sweet dreams sweet Delaney

Delaney (our cat in the hat). 

A few years back we re-inherited a cat Brad had owned in a previous life. 

Delaney arrived, a ball of long hair and nerves, and holed up in the basement. We thought her self-imposed quarantine would end at some point. That one day, she'd get bored of the dark basement and venture up the stairs to explore the rest of the house. As far as we know, she never made it much farther than the top of the basement steps, always retreating as Snacks came clattering to the steps to greet her. 

For some unexplained reason, Snacks won't go down the basement steps. This is actually great, because we're pretty sure he'd be one to feast on any goodies left in the litter box. 

The dog's reservations about the basement and Delaney's agoraphobia worked out for the delicate ecosystem of our household. Each pet to his or her own habitat. 

But Brad and I wished she'd visit more. Especially after we lost Bart last year, who was always seeking a lap to commandeer. 

Our other cat, Peanut Butter, is a mercurial calico who will tolerate only a few minutes of petting before nipping at your fingers and swiping our hands. 

Delaney, on the other hand, soaked up any affection she could get when we'd go downstairs -- jumping into our laps and purring. Ramming her head into our arms if we stopped petting her. 

The girls were more than happy to lavish attention on Delaney, who was so patient with them. I'd often find the three of them tucked into the tiny bathroom in our basement with the door closed (to prevent the cat's escape). The girls would play next to her and tell her stories and periodically carry her around like a rag doll. When Delaney would tire of their affection, she'd hide out under the futon. Unlike Bart who'd bite the girls for the slightest offense, I didn't have to worry about Delaney. She was tolerant and sweet. 

Which makes the next part so hard.  

"Girls, I need to talk to you about something," I said to Lily and Jovie yesterday. We sat down at the kitchen table, Jovie still red-cheeked and wild-haired from her nap.

"What is it mom?" Lily asked. "What is it?" Her tone said she thinks something good is coming. 

But she was wrong. 

I had to tell them that 14-year-old Delaney -- this cat they adore and seek out every day -- is very sick and that tomorrow (today) dad will take her to the vet and we won't see her anymore because she'll be in heaven with Bart. 

Lily says goodbye.
And Lily got it right away. Right away her mouth turned upside down into the deepest frown and her eyes filled with tears.

"No mom!" she pleaded. "I don't want Delaney to go to heaven. I want her to stay here."

And I agree. We'll miss her so much. But she's just so sick. Half the size she was last summer. Tumors growing in at least three different spots.

Lily wanted to know who's going to pick her up from the vet and take her to heaven. For some reason I didn't have an answer at the tip of my tongue. Shouldn't that be a softball question? 

So I said Poppy, her great-grandfather who doesn't even like cats all that much. But I needed an answer. 

"Does Poppy love Delaney?" Lily asked.

I forced a smile. Poppy will take good care of Delaney because Poppy loves us, I told her as tears started pouring out of my eyes. Jovie buried her head in my shoulder. Lily paused her crying to stare at me, like she was solving a puzzle. 

"Mom, what are you doing?" she said in the voice she uses when I dance at inappropriate times (though anytime is inappropriate in Lily's mind). Then she crawled in front of me and started wiping the tears out of my eyes with both palms over and over. She could hardly keep up with how fast they were falling.

"It's OK mom. I'll take care of you." This only made the crying worse. This time not for the cat or Poppy, but for how fast it's all happening. My curly-headed girl so little and big-hearted. So young, and so wise. 

She loves that cat. And I love that cat because she let my girls love her.

When Brad came home from the vet today with another empty carrier, I gave him a hug.

"I'm trying to figure out why I'm so sad," he said. "I think it's because I'm realizing that I'm getting older." 

I know exactly what he means. I tell him it's OK to be sad and that we're all getting older and that he has plenty of great years left. That we can't see the future so we have to just enjoy our lives right now. Each day that we have.

Exactly as our pets do. So happy for the moment you scratch their belly or lend them a lap to settle in. I'm so grateful for these lessons our pets teach us. We're all better for having loved them, even after we lose them.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Preparing for rejection and praying for success

It's the start of a new year and rather than feeling the hope that accompanies the endless promise of a blank slate, I have this undercurrent of terror that accompanies a blinking cursor on a blank page. 

In 2014 without really intending to, I reached a goal I didn't really think was reachable -- finishing the first draft of my novel. Given the number of people I now know who have done this over and over and over, I suppose it really wasn't all that unreachable the whole time. But given my long history of half-finished projects, well, it really did feel like a long shot.

And now that impossible task is done. More or less. Aside from rewrites and edits suggested by the kind people reading drafts right now, it's time to start looking at the next step. 

Getting it published.

I won't pretend that the whole time I was writing the thing that I was doing it solely for the joy of creation. That the art of stringing words into sentences into narrative was a high-minded artistic pursuit. 

Of course, I imagined how it would look on a bookstore shelf -- face out, of course -- with a really smart sounding title and a dramatic cover art. All wannabe novelists have these fantasies. 

And through the years of picking away at this project, I've found myself balancing on a hair when it comes to managing great expectations and tuning them out so I can barrel forward without fear and self-conscious.

As much as I want writing to be about art and connection, I sometimes find myself sinking into this ugly place of trying to prove myself to a sea of real and imagined skeptics. Feeling stuck, doubting myself, or worse, making choices about what I wrote based on how it would be perceived by others. 

On This American Life the other day Jon Ronson shared about going to his high school reunion and trying to figure out why some of his classmates had pushed him into a lake back when they were 16. Decades later he finds himself still angry about the incident and he reaches out to the people who did it to ask why, but then also reminds them that he's now a best-selling author and makes more money than they do. 

I didn't like that I identified with this feeling he had. Not so much about being bullied -- I was never bullied really -- or that I care about being wealthy or well-known, necessarily. I think more sinister than those things is wanting approval or validation from the people or entities in your life that wouldn't have the first clue that you even still cared. It kind of feels like the definition of pathetic. I'm grateful to Jon Ronson for sharing his story. Given what social, neurotic little beasts we are, I imagine we've all been there at one time or another.

I'm also grateful for Amy Poehler. I'm reading her new book, "Yes Please"* and I'm pretty sure I want to be her best friend. I'm also pretty sure she would not want to be my best friend as she's made it abundantly clear that she doesn't really like strangers and she also has lots of best friends already (friggin' Tina Fey. JK, I want to be her best friend, too). 

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, validation. In one chapter Amy Pohler is writing about the intersection of creativity and her career and she shares this super-relevant gem:

"Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look." 

And lest you think she avoids all the petty, self-absorption the rest of us suffer with, she went on to say she's not great at being ambivalent.

"Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other. Our ego is a monster that loves to sit at the head of the table and I have learned that my ego is just as rude and loud and hungry as everyone else's. It doesn't matter how much you get; you are left wanting more.

"Success is filled with MSG."

I still kind of want some MSG.

If you'll allow me to take a slight detour into Obvioustown, admitting that I'd like to have my book published and then pursuing publication is terrifying. I'm slowly lining up my ducks as we speak (read?) to head down this road -- compiling names of potential agents, drafting query letters, making sure we have large stocks of tissue, wine and ice cream in order to survive the journey. 

I'm also steeled by a long history of rejection, which has numbed me enough to the disappointment that I can charge like the Hulk through the plate glass window of denial. 

Highlights include:

  • The time I was told I could no longer sit at a certain lunch table in seventh grade because I wasn't cool enough (to be fair, I definitely wasn't cool enough)
  • Or the other time in seventh grade when my best friend from sixth invited my sister (but not me) to her birthday party because I wasn't cool enough (I'm pretty sure this had something to do with the "Animaniacs" T-shirt I wore almost daily and the rubber frog named Newton I frequently pulled out of my pocket and had long conversations with.)
  • Being turned down for a staff position at my high school literary magazine. This, as it turns out, seems to be one of those major life events because I ended up joining the newspaper staff instead where I decided I should become a journalist instead of some weirdo, artsy kid with lots of feelings. The literary magazine later accepted a very avant-garde poem I wrote about a Kit Kat bar. 
  • Telling my prom date (in the middle of the high school cafeteria**) that he didn't have to go with me anymore when, after he surprised me with an invitation, he stopped talking to me and avoided all means of communications, indicating to me that clearly, he was no longer interested. In his defense, I was and continue to be an erratic dancer who makes questionable fashion choices -- this evidenced by the fact that at the time I owned more than one pair of corduroy overalls. Then again, he used to try to saw my arm off with a pencil in AP history class and farted on me on more than one occasion. It was probably a win-win that we didn't end up going together.
  • Being turned down for a big job opportunity that I thought I really, really wanted, but in retrospect am way better off not having gotten. And that's not sour grapes. OK, maybe a little sour grapes.
My point is, I can handle rejection. In fact, rejection is the stuff of artistic pursuit. I'm thinking of that scene from "Little Miss Sunshine" where Steve Carell tells Paul Dano that he should sleep until he's 18 because high school is prime suffering years and he'll learn more about himself through suffering than happiness. I believe that -- I am who I am today because I wasn't allowed a seat at that table in seventh grade. I know there's always room for one more.

I'm just not sure I'm ready to handle large quantities of rejection in the middle of Winter Suckfest

For now, I think I'll just embrace my blinking cursor. I have a short story I'm excited to write and another longer ... whatever ... that I want to map out and dig into. So while I'm in the waiting room, I'll revel in the tortuous bliss of filling that blank page. 

One more from Amy: 

"Creativity is connected to your passion, that light inside you that drives you. That joy that comes when you do something you live. That small voice that tells you, 'I like this. Do this again. You are good at it. Keep going.' That is the juicy stuff that lubricates our lives and helps us feel less alone in the world. Your creativity is not a bad boyfriend. It is a really warm older Hispanic lady who has a beautiful laugh and loves to hug. If you are even a little nice to her she will make you feel great and maybe cook you delicious food." 

So come on in sweet muse, mi casa es su casa.

* I could go on and on about how awesome "Yes Please" is. If you are a creative sort, a mom and/or a woman -- read it. Also, I've decided to invite Amy Poehler on my celebrity cruise. She could teach an improv class and a seminar on how to stop apologizing for your existence.

** I feel like I should round out the trifecta of awesome school cafeteria experiences. So I'll share about the time in fourth grade when I spilled a carton of chocolate milk on my pants and had to go to the nurses office for new clothes and overheard the school nurse tell my mother over the phone that even though I said I'd spilled milk on my pants, she thought I'd peed my pants. Needless to say, I didn't care too much for that nurse.