Monday, March 15, 2010

Big Girls

"Washes and razors for foo-foos—for me freckles and a bristling beard." Walt Whitman, Leaves of GrassSong of Myself

As a former journalist, I learned how to slip into and weave through nearly any social situation with relative comfort. After all, that is a skill that a confident writer has: the ability to adapt in any situation in order to gain information from a wide pool of sources. This finesse afforded me the chance to turn down G. Gordon Liddy's offer to have a drink after an interview, to quiz Fabio about his sex life in a very public setting, to ask probing questions of an alleged murderess who confessed to the crime but escaped a first-degree conviction due to multiple personalities. All took place with relative ease.

But I met my match this weekend in a small retail shop that clearly was beyond my comfort level.

Sweet and Sassy.

Sweet and Sassy is a salon and spa franchise geared toward pre-teen girls and their much younger sisters. It is glitter and nail polish. It is pedicures and curls and feather boas. It is fishnet tutus and neon hair extensions and a pink limousine and a catwalk that unfurls from beyond a curtain of silver beads. It is Barbie's Dream World in person.

It is everything counter to my life and my views.

But Kendall was invited to a party, and she desperately pined to go. Thus, I caved and agreed to take her—with great trepidation, indeed.

After I entered the shop, I cannot even say my comfort level was low, for I had no comfort level whatsoever. I had a discomfort level.

I watched as my baby, who’s nearly 5, slipped into a kid’s version of a diva dress. Soon, an over-enthusiastic stylist swept her mid-back blonde mane into an up-do, sprayed it with glitter. Another spread blue shadow across her lids, painted her face with pink, and dolled her pouty lips with colored gloss. Yet another coated her nails in a rainbow of enamel. She was almost like the lion in the Wizard of Oz.

Now a manufactured package, Kendall hesitantly made it halfway down the narrow walkway. Paparazzi moms called: "Work it, girl." Camera rolled, eyelashes batted.

Standing in the shop and watching this emerge , I felt rather dizzy, as if nausea silently crept up my spine and crippled me into a vacuum of discomposure and disbelief. And then, to make it even more pleasurable, Grace asked me if she could try on every version of fake clip-on hair that sprouted from the sides of each display. It was a moment of heavy sighs.

My girls are not foo-foo. Are they?

After the two-hour facade passed, I could not hustle out of there any faster. That night, the glitter and gore washed down the drain, but she proclaimed that she wanted to return, she wanted her own glittery spray, her own sequined shoes of glam. And after bath time, they both wanted their hair ironed and styled.

Gone are the days of footed pajamas. Gone are the days of sippy cups and simple barrettes. Gone are the days of toddler smell. Oh, how I ache for them to remain, perhaps more than their own longing to be Big Girls.

Whitman can keep the bristling beard. All I want is the innocence of untouched freckles.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


This morning, I broke a promise.

I made the vow at 8:20. But within 5 minutes, I hung my head in shame, although guilt swayed to the light side. I simply shrugged off my pledge and headed to California with 8 ounces of addiction—half decaf that I swore I would not touch until he returned with a handful of bagels.

California is the mug my son bought for me when he went to visit relatives with his father at the tender age of 6. His father and I hardly spoke at the time, so the fact that he allowed the boy to bring me a token touched me. And so the mug has stayed with me for the past 20 years. With Shamu on the outside and a twisting hairline crack inside, the mug reminds me of him—of the hurdles we cleared—whenever I select it from my mug anthology.

Why won’t I throw it away, this faded cup that could snap into two with one slight bag on the counter?

Probably for the same reason I won’t throw away the rest of them.

You see, I not only have a coffee problem.

I have mug issues as well.

Nearly every mug in my cabinet holds a special connotation, and while mugs may be given as a last-minute souvenir purchase, they remind me of certain junctures in my life.

California is clearly one of them. Knowing my child was leaving for several weeks with a man who I could barely face pushed my anxiety to its limits. Of course, he would be fine, but he would be beyond my grasp, my blanket of arms. Each one in my collection has a story, a moment, a hook that prevents me from parting with them.

So when I brew a pot of coffee each day, I find myself standing and swaying in front of the cupboard, deciding who will silently join me for the moment, to know that Life is Good, that I will return to the mountain for my tree, that California was long ago and even with cracks, I can always move forward.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Child of the Sun

Writer Katherine Mansfield, short story authoress and diarist, struggled with how she would cope with the tuberculosis that eventually ended her life at the age of 34. As short as her existence was, Mansfield held the belief that everything in life that we really accept undergoes a change. It is up to each of us to embrace change, that we can turn pain into joy, that we can consciously force ourselves to push toward a great love, the love of life.

Mansfield writes:

“Now Katherine, what do you mean by health? And what do you want it for?”

Answer: By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in a close contact with what I love—the earth and the wonders thereof—the sea—the sun. All that we mean when we speak of the external world. I want to enter into it, to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me to be a conscious direct human being. I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be (and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it’s no good--there's only one phrase that will do) a child of the sun. About helping others, about carrying a light and so on, it seems false to say a single word. Let it be at that. A child of the sun
. (October 14, 1922)

Mansfield’s power of mind beautifully demonstrates the belief that we have tremendous control in accepting who we are and channeling that into who we choose to become. Change is always a form of growth, and although some change is highly painful, we evolve through it. Change broadens our scope in life, makes us evaluate each step we’ve taken, each path we have yet to take.

Today noted a tremendous change from the path on which I walked a year ago; back then, I was a fretful applicant seeking change in my career situation, taking a risk at leaving a close-knit family of mentors and friends. But today, in my new school, I sat on the other side of the table, assisting with the interviews of applicants. My chairman gently chided me: “How does it feel to be on the other side?” Very good; damn good, in fact.

This reflection of my own changes lingered as I drove home beneath the wonders of the sky which unleashed furious wind gusts and indignant showers. They didn’t affect me, however, for I felt like a child of the sun on that cloudy hour. I, too, want to be all that I am capable of becoming. And nothing can dampen my collective process of inner growth, the power of my mind, the power of energy that stems from living a positive life.

After I pulled into the garage, I walked in the rain to the mailbox where I noticed the burgeoning sprouts of crocuses and tulips, reaching their arms toward the sky. I stopped to look at them, wondered how strong they’ll be this season, this spring of life, this spring of change.

As Mansfield writes:

“It is to lose oneself more utterly, to love more deeply, to feel oneself part of life—not separate.

“Oh Life! Accept me—make me worthy—teach me.”

We can each be a child of the sun if we so choose to teach ourselves how to sprout from the thawing ground of a cold winter. I do teach others, but foremost, I shall teach myself.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Ray Moment...

There may come a time, a time in everyone's life
Where nothing seems to go your way,
Where nothing seems to turn out right
There may come a time, you just can't seem to find your place
For every door you open, seems like you get two slammed in your face
That's when you need someone, someone that you can call.
And when all your faith is gone
Feels like you can't go on
Let it be me
Let it be me
If it's a friend that you need
Let it be me
Let it be me.

It's a Ray LaMontagne kind of Thursday. And I cannot find any of my CDs.

I confess: I saw someone sing "Trouble" on American Idol, and that rekindled my Ray rush. We'd been on a hiatus for a while. But this "kind of Thursday" truly hit me when I saw that Ray is appearing at the very hip Hangout Beach festival in Alabama along the Gulf Shore in May. And I can't go. Can I? I didn't ask.

But as I secretly pine my getaway tonight, I think back to a sweet-sounding sojourn at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, which I attended with The Man and another couple back in 2001, nine years ago. It was a wonderful experience, especially since we saw B.B. King open for Van Morrison, who we caught two nights in a row. The first concert, in particular, blew my mind because Van has stage fright, sometimes performing with his back to the house. What a gift this was to us, for we had what most people would think were the worst seats in any house: behind the stage.

Well, eat that thought, doubters. For instead, Van faced the four of us, and a handful of others, and sang beautifully, soulfully, deeply--all while turning his back to the rest of the arena. Of course, he pitched a fit that night, chewing out the sound crew for some bobbles. He is a temperamental artist, we learned then and later at a Philadelphia show (which was one of the most frustratingly short and overpriced performances I have ever seen).

So as an escape, I started my dream getaway: back to Nola and her intoxicating hurricanes, back to days of carefree moments and fresh discoveries. The line-up that beckons me? A harmonious brew for the ears: Better Than Ezra, Simon & Garfunkel, George Clinton, Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, Jeff Beck, B.B. King and, of course, Van. If only, if only. If only I had the blithe spirit that seems to float beyond my grasp, the one that thought nothing of just picking up and leaving. I guess age makes us hesitant to take risks, to leave caution on the couch, to stop running up the Visa to sate our euphonious impulses.

Fortunately, he has found some Ray to assuage my appetite, and thus my dream will stop--if just for tonight.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Monday's figurative foray

Tell me why I don’t like Mondays.

Go ahead. I dare you. It’ll be difficult—especially after today.

Today marked a solid way to start the week, mostly because I bathed in the calm waves of an in-service day. Typically, Monday mornings are nightmarish for most professionals, particularly English teachers who need to scurry around, make sure everything is in order for the week, that the scripts are ready for each production, for each show.

But today? Decidedly different.

I used the time to fine-tune my community-based project, to learn about new avenues to help my squirrels improve their interpretive skills, and to sharpen my favorite unit: poetry and literary analysis.

Teaching poetry to 9th grade boys will prove to be a challenge, but I welcome it.

I love word play, the beauty of our vernacular, the specific patois of regions and culture. We are masters of our own language, the owners of their meaning. Sometimes we keep them to ourselves; often we share them with others so that they, too, can soak in their grandeur, how mismatched lyrics perfectly fit in turns of phrase—very naturally, as if this unseemly juxtaposition of words has always been together.

Despite the contradictions, the truth exists. We are each a paradox, waiting to be understood by our audience.

Ah, poetry, I embrace you—now please embrace my squirrels.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Gigi's gift

If you were born on March 5, there is a restless quality to you that is unmistakable, and this can lead you to your share of adventures, but it can also get you into trouble at times! You easily feel stifled and bored by routine, so it is essential that you choose a life path that allows you the freedom to grow and learn. You may move forward prematurely, failing to complete projects you start, until you discover that your talents lie in inspirational, motivational, and other such fields.


Dear Grace,

Today marks your 7th birthday, and it’s been a long journey, my little squirrel.

Out of all of the children to enter our lives, you will by far always be the most challenging, the one who makes a parent question whether she knows what’s best, wonder what to do or where to turn in a desperate moment. Since you were two, you have been shaped by hundreds of hours of therapy—from speech to occupational to behavioral. So many appointments, so many specialists, so few answers.

And now, now that you’re in first grade, we know that our belief in early intervention has been worth our investment of time. I greatly credit Miss Heather, a gregarious spirit who nurtured you in daycare. Your hand-flapping, tip-toe walking and drop in vocabulary prompted her to advise us to have you evaluated.

That was five years ago.

After desperate phone calls and consultations, we received a diagnosis that no parent wants to hear: autism spectrum. Unfortunately, there is no cure, no one to blame, no specific answer to pinpoint. We just had to make the best of a vague discovery, and we have.

And now look at you.

You’ve made great strides from the days of spinning and banging your head in frustration, of losing your ability to speak and turbulent tantrums. As the astrology forecast indicates, there is indeed a restless quality about you, a trait that leads you to constant strife and an overabundance of drama. Perhaps living in a house full of women adds to that. But we know that your disorder is at the root.

Still, your forecast also suggests that you should choose a life path that allows you the freedom to learn and grow. We know that will happen with the continued support. Right now, as you master math and learn to read—even if it’s with the assistance of an aide—we are all so proud of how many hurdles you’ve cleared, for we know many more await.

Just this week, days before the anniversary of your birth, you selected "Splat the Cat," a book from your personal library that we had never read before, and you read it on your own. Flawlessly. All 32 pages. By yourself. Afterward, you radiated like a candle on a dark evening.

For a child who doctors once said would most likely not be able to live independently, you have overcome the odds placed against you. Chances are you will not attend an Ivy League school; you may not even attend a state school. But you will become someone. We know this. We believe this.

You are a creative, intelligent, humorous ball of spunk with a penchant for creating highly detailed books, for singing, for imaginary play. And in this little journey, you have taught me so much about myself—to be patient, to find alternatives, to look at life in new ways, to never settle for less than what we all deserve on this odyssey.

I will always be your advocate, as long as I walk this land. I will always be there for you, to champion your successes, to calm you when you fall short. Know this, especially on your birthday, that you've been inspirational and motivational without even trying. After all, the best gifts of today are the gifts you’ve given me.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Woeful Wednesday

Wednesday unleashed a fury of pain.

After a 14-mile run on Tuesday evening, I wound up with tremendous agony in my right foot, which is sadly plagued with an angry case of plantar fasciitis. Ironically, long-distance running inseminated this PF, and yet I maintain my commitment and plow forward with my training. And after nearly nine months of carrying this discomfort, I’m ready to give birth to it.

The result? By Wednesday morning, I could hardly stand, let alone walk. And to top it off, I had an appointment with my physician to go over the results of my recent testing. Apparently, one section of my heart is angry as well, so I now must head to the cardiologist to find out the source of the problem. Throw in an echocardiogram and a stress test, and there’s just a lot of my plate.

(The only upsides are that my blood pressure and sitting heart rate both remain very low. And I lost a few pounds in the past two weeks without trying. Who knows what’s going on? I surely don’t.)

So between a cantankerous ticker and an enraged trotter, the focus on my projects has temporarily waned. At the moment, so many things seem to be uncertain, even though I clearly know what I want, what I need. And it’s more than Dove dark chocolate with a sage piece of advice.

What bothers me about this situation, however, is that I push my body to the limits, but two crucial parts of it are not cooperating.

For the past few years, my mantra has always been: “Respect the feet.” I have desperately tried: $15 socks, $140 running shoes replaced every 300 miles, stretching, icing, no high heels. In fact, I wear the oddest Keens; pink and grey they are, and odd-looking as well. But they stave off the pain, so fashion simply doesn’t matter.

But as for my heart? I don’t think there is anything more I can do. I don’t smoke, hardly drink. I eat healthy. I work out five, six days a week. My hope is that this is only a temporary problem, that my heart will heal, that I will be able to finish what I set out to do.

And have many more Wednesdays, only without pain.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Riverbed


If you have taken this rubble for my past
raking through it for fragments you could sell
know that I long ago moved on
deeper into the heart of the matter

If you think you can grasp me, think again:
my story flows in more than one direction
a delta springing from the riverbed
with its five fingers spread

~~Adrienne Rich (1989)

Poet Adrienne Rich writes from the soul, often questioning the falsity and destructiveness of societal expectations, a pioneer unafraid to resist the tide so prescribed by the majority. Similarly, I share a conflict that she endured in her past, a roadblock that seems to linger in my conscience almost continuously—that life’s responsibilities often threaten one’s art, one’s growth, one’s self.

Still, with two children and a marriage, Rich pushed forward, attempting to shed light on the deep thoughts and struggles of contemporary woman, a task that seems daunting to some, natural to others. For me, I find this to be a rather natural extension of self. This, perhaps, is due to what I perceive as a vastly complex adulthood, one mottled with a sweeping array of peaks and valleys.

Many of them are rather fulfilling and comforting—relationships with highly introspective, strong women who’ve served as sounding boards and personal mentors. Some are rather fulfilling and crestfallen—relationships with pensive and brooding men who’ve coveted high honors for their writing successes but could not figure out interpersonal skills.

And then there are the pitfalls of nature, life events that have molded me, for better and for worse. It is with pride that I wear this tapestry of affairs—positive, negative, Switzerland—for every moment had made me into the woman I am today.
In the end, however, this expansive reservoir of experiences has allowed me to question the sheep, those who follow paths without ever knowing what awaits us on the other side. Those who follow standard procedure because, well, that’s what good girls and boys do. They fear change, fear letting go, fear riding the bike with the dog in the baby seat and not giving a shiitake mushroom about what the neighbors think.

Several years ago, I was fortunate to hear Rich speak at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, a haven for beatniks, scholars, free thinkers, risk takers. And the clarity and conviction in her voice remains as a haunting image to me. The unblemished articulation, the emphasis on pause, the depth of vernacular that pierces the tongues of those who get it, of those who want to get it and are trying so desperately.

For my story, too, flows in more than one direction. I cannot be totally grasped by anyone, even my best friends, my mentors, my parents, my husband. Myself. For as each day passes, I continue to evolve into the person I was meant to be, the person who has learned to use her own rubble to rebuild a stronger, more focused woman, a more passionate writer, a more loyal soldier to her charge.

So when he tells me that he had 10 meetings in 8 hours, I want to say: Why? Why do we live like this? Why can we not escape the trappings of corporate, the rigid rules of institution, the repressive collar that chokes the sprinting dog in all of us?

I cannot fathom such restrictions in life, people telling me who I should be, how I should be living. That's why I silently howl that I am the starving animal who must run to the riverbed, drink in its springs, satisfy the thirst that lives within. Keep your leash, for I will not even sniff at the collar. You can wear it; you can live it; you can die in it.

Not I. Not I ever, for I move on, deeper to the heart of the matter, the heart of living.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Lone White Wolf of the Great English Prairie

Happy Birthday, old girl.

Today you are 8 in calendar years, 56 in dog. 56. That’s almost as old as the dirt you cherish digging with those long nails, the ones intended to pull rats from deep pockets. Rat dog, some people chide you.

I remember the May afternoon that I drove to rural Berks County, searching for the country house that advertised petite Jack Russells for $250. Once I arrived, the owner unleashed you and your siblings in the living room as your mom and aunt roamed free. It was difficult to choose from the litter of four. Your sisters had those all-white faces with brown ears. You were the only one who wore a mask, but it was brindle, a black-brown blend of mottled hair. Not acceptable for show quality, they said, but I didn’t care. I grew up with hunting dogs—working hounds who roamed the fields.

So I brought you home in a small box, and you cried the entire drive. So much sound for a three-pound pup who took weeks to crawl up one step. We had to keep an eye on you in the backyard, for the red-tailed hawks from the woods of South Mountain often encircled, eyeing you as a potential take-out dinner.

Over the years you grew into a solid addition to our family, proving yourself to be a fiercely loyal companion, a dog who never needs a fence, who obeys the property line, rarely leaves it. You have worn many hats: security guard, lap warmer, pedicurist, vacuum cleaner, wanna-be hunter, running partner. But the best role, by far, has been teacher, and you’ll never realize how grateful we are for that.

For the girl you have mentored relied on you to grow, to communicate, to beat the odds that were once placed before her. And you had no idea.

It’s with Grace that you have proved yourself the most. When her disability stripped her of the freedom to communicate, it was with you that she could speak without words, the pressing of her small face against yours, the sharing of silent conversations. Only locked gazes, smiles, a sweep of your tongue across her cheek, tight neck embraces that you continue to endure.


One of her first words, one of the words she did not lose the year that this impairment snuck up and robbed her of practically all other vocabulary. And with her you have stayed, constant bed companion, constant collaborator. You were--and remain--her savior, the spark that comforts her in most frustrating times.

So today I honor you, our little dog, our Emma: Lone White Wolf of the Great English Prairie who prances through the fields of Bear Swamp. If you only knew how thankful we are to have picked the brindle pup that didn’t need to qualify for Best in Show. You see, our reward is worth much more than any title could bestow.