It’s closing in on the two-year anniversary of my mother’s death: November 2, three days after she turned 75 years old, from the terminal cancer she had been diagnosed with ten weeks earlier.  IMG_8750

The weekend of her funeral, between afternoon and evening visiting hours, my father took the family and close friends out to dinner at a nearby French restaurant that he and my mother had frequented together. I remember much about the meal, which was spectacular, and the company, which was warm and beautiful. It was difficult to return to the funeral home afterward.

Last year my father held what he refers to as a “commemorative celebration of life” on the first anniversary of my mother’s death, at the same French restaurant. This is in vogue now, I guess, commemorating one’s life-after-death as you would a birthday. When someone asked Jan if she was having a celebration-of-life on the first anniversary of Greg’s death, she was taken aback. I don’t blame her. The idea of it is rather new, like formal gowns and limos for eighth-grade graduation, and it takes some getting used to.

Last year I wasn’t emotionally ready to join my family for the first anniversary of my mother’s death.

This year, I am.

Except a few days ago I had to tell my father I can’t make it because our band has a show the night of the 2nd. As I have so many times since moving from Ohio to Wisconsin, I want to be in Cleveland at the same time I want to be in Milwaukee.

Story of my life.

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There are two books in my office: Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties by Wini Breines, and Volume 37 of the literary journal Women’s Studies Quarterly, published in Fall/Winter 2009. It is a special issue titled Mother.

I bought them last year to help learn more about my mother, because after she died, I realized that I really didn’t know that much about her – her hopes, fears, dreams, joys.

At the funeral home, my father had lined up dozens of pictures of my mother in chronological order on tables along one wall.

My mother was a pretty woman, even in her seventies. But I didn’t know what a great dresser she was when she was young. And that she had such a knockout bod. In one picture she’s wearing a Sixties bikini, and she has abs. After four kids! In a shot of her and me on a blanket in a park, there is no mistaking that she was absolutely in love with her baby girl.

Most of the pictures I had never, ever seen before. “Who is this person?” I kept wondering as I looked at the photos for the fifth, tenth, fifteenth times. I tried filling in the blanks of what I knew with what I saw before me.

To the right of my mother’s coffin was a table with photos of her at the end of her life: her last vacation out East; IMG_8761my brother’s wedding, just six months earlier; curled up on the family room sofa, just days before her death.

The very last photo was a medium shot of my mother in the backyard of my childhood home, where my father still lives. I remember being there. She is making a face and giving the camera (the photographer) the finger.

That shot being positioned as the exclamation point of her life was sheer brilliance on my father’s part, and I will always love him for that.

So far I’ve read very little of Mother and Young, White, and Miserable. I don’t think they will help me understand who my mother was. I wish I had pressed her more when she was alive. Knowing what I know now, I would just come out with it: “So what are your hopes, fears, dreams, and joys anyway?”

Not that she would tell me. I know better than that. She has always been, and always will be, an almost complete mystery to me.

The one thing I do know a lot about is our relationship. I am an expert in the effects it had, still has, and probably always will have on me.

IMG_3988I want to be like author Cheryl Strayed, whose own mother died of cancer, and who explores their relationship in her wonderful memoir Wild. I met her last year; in interviews she has said that she considers writing about her mother her life’s work. I don’t know exactly how I will write about my own mother, but I’m happy with the way I’ve started. Like Russell Baker, who writes about his relationship with his mother in Growing Up, anything I write falls flat without her in it. Like Frank McCourt, who wrote about his mother in Angela’s Ashes, I’ve tried writing fiction, but “reality [keeps] intruding.”

So I have decided to throw up my arms and embrace truth—or, as Baker and McCourt state in the 1998 edition of Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser, a version of the truth. Maybe not “the” truth. But my truth.

I don’t necessarily need to know everything about my mom to do this. I know enough. Including that we both are the kind of chicks who give the camera the finger. And have husbands with very good senses of humor.

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The first time I came back here after two months away, I felt kind of embarrassed, the way a person who’s been away that long might feel as he pulls up into his driveway, sees how long his grass has gotten, and knows his neighbors hate him for it.

Since it’s been a while, I’m going to come at you stream-of-consciousness like Stephen Elliott, founding editor of the literary Web site The Rumpus.net, in his “overly personal emails” he calls The Daily Rumpus.

Time to air out the place and tend to the yard.

First, let me say that I was relieved to discover that it’s only been two-ish months since I last published something here. It felt a lot longer than that.

I have excuses: teaching three classes and taking on a huge freelance writing assignment. Between that and performing in several shows, I worked twelve hours every day for seven weeks straight.

One of the classes I taught was new: public speaking. Anyone who has prepped a course for the very first time knows how much work it is. The textbook was about the only thing I read this summer. Although I did also manage to read this wonderful and heartbreaking story: “Shatter My Heart” by Lisa Wells, which Mr. Elliott linked to in one of his emails.

I’ve taught public speaking elsewhere, and one of the things I love about the course is how well students get to know each other throughout the semester by way of everything they reveal in their speeches. How well I get to know them, too.

One of their assignments was a demonstration. One student, an avid gardener, showed us how to start string bean plants. She gave us facts such as two seeds yields one cup of beans, and that if you stake them, the plants will grow right up them like vines.

After she potted two seeds, she gave them to me and told me to keep them in a sunny window. In its early stages, the plant grew rapidly. I would go to school in the morning and when I returned in the afternoon, it would be two inches taller. I am not kidding.

Watching this plant grow has made me miss having a garden. It reminds me of the time my brother, fresh out of Ohio State twenty years ago with horticulture and landscape architecture degrees, landscaped the backyard of my first home. The plants he chose took turns blooming all spring and summer long. We had a small vegetable garden with rich, black-brown soil thanks to humus from our compost heap. White-throated sparrows rested in the viburnum hedge for two weeks each spring on their way to Hudson Bay. They had just one song, which they sang incessantly; its sound made me happy and sad at the same time. I set my micro-cassette recorder in the dining room window and let it roll all day long; I still have the tape.

My bean plant has graduated to a big clay pot; there are several string beans dangling from it; so far I have cut off six. We have a pretty courtyard out back but I didn’t feel right about putting the pot back there. The last time I did that was with the hens-and-chicks from my grandmother’s yard in Pittsburgh, which I had moved to Cleveland and then to Wisconsin. They had been with me for fifteen years, and soon after I moved to downtown Milwaukee and put them in the courtyard, they were gone. The squirrels had eaten them all.

Last Saturday morning I picked up a book for pleasure for the first time in two months and turned to where I had marked Jill Ker Conway’s “Points of Departure,” an essay in the book Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser. Two months ago I had read all but the last two-and-a-half pages of Ker Conway’s essay; I finished it that morning; her brilliance shines through on those last two-and-a-half pages as brightly as it does on the previous fourteen.

I had taken this book with me on trips to Oklahoma City and Seattle, two of the cities I was sent to interview people for the freelance writing assignment. The only time I pulled it out was to show a paragraph from Ker Conway’s essay to a woman I sat next to on the plane from Minneapolis to Seattle. We talked nonstop the entire flight, exchanged business cards, and are now in touch via social media.

These trips, including one to Asheville, North Carolina, were unusual in that on every flight I was seated next to lovely people like Jenny. There was the engineer from Phoenix to Milwaukee. John, the clergyman and counselor from the Asheville area; talking to him was like talking to Greg. The gentleman whose 1,000-page history book tested the boundaries of the seatback pocket. The two young people I was sandwiched between on a crowded flight from Detroit to Milwaukee at the end of a very long day; she and I talked about cameras and photography; he and I worked a New York Times crossword puzzle on his iPad.

The only exception was the young mother traveling with a toddler who sat directly behind us on the flight from Seattle to Phoenix. Every time her child screamed, she screamed louder for him to be quiet. This happened several times during the flight. Maybe she was nervous about flying or being cramped in a small place with her baby, or both.

But even at that, the thing I always remember first about that flight was seeing Mount Rainier, pine trees, snow-capped mountains, a volcano, the Columbia River, the desert, the Grand Canyon, and the iron-ore mountains of Arizona all in one day. I would’ve seen the Aurora Borealis too, but was seated on the wrong side of the plane.

It was my third time in Asheville, second time in Oklahoma City. Cleveland girl Pat drove down from Tulsa, where she lives now, and took me out to dinner. It was my first time ever in Washington State. I could live in Seattle without giving it another second’s thought. The only way I would move away from a large body of water would be to live in or near mountains. Seattle has both. Perfection.

I went to Seattle to interview a young woman with lymphoma. She wasn’t feeling well, but she still wanted to do the interview, so I went to the hospital to talk to her. The only parts of the recorded interview you can hear well are when she wasn’t using an oxygen mask. When I left her room, I burst into tears.

A week later, on July 5th, I texted her with a follow-up question.

“Happy Fourth of July,” I added.

Within minutes her husband texted me back to tell me that she had died. On the Fourth of July.

School ended last week. Tuesday night I had a late-night saxophone lesson. Wednesday our band rehearsed. We had two shows, Thursday night and yesterday. Our urban neighborhood is really quiet today, unusual on a beautiful day. One week ago today and one block from our home, a young woman who had just gotten engaged two days before crossed the street and was hit by a man in an SUV who then took off.

She died that night. The driver was in custody a few days later.

My cat is sleeping next to me as I write. I’m also looking through pictures of the air and water show I took two weeks ago. This morning I harvested two more beans and discovered two more of the pale white and lilac flowers that I know now will turn into beans. Yesterday I had a very civil conversation – and some fun, I have to say – with someone who pissed me off pretty badly a few months ago.

It feels like the old days. I’m glad they’re back.

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UPDATE: The person I’d had a civil conversation with pissed me off badly again a few months later. The relationship is over.

 

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02. June 2013 · 4 comments · Categories: Stories

Granny Waving

John and I spend a lot of time together. A lot. Three years ago when he left his job as an engineer to attend law school, our home became his study space, and suddenly, this freelancer who’d been working at home all alone for twenty-two years had her man underfoot almost 24-7. I recalled words my mother said when my father was first retired: “He’s putting all the dishes and silverware back in the wrong places. God.”

John and I socialize in the same circle of friends, and we are also in a band together. This doesn’t help.

By the time spring break rolled around last month, I was desperate for girl-time. I contacted three of my girlfriends: Karla, who had recently moved back to Milwaukee; Lenore (not her real name; she hates the Internet), whom I met my very first week in Milwaukee; and Martha, who had just started a new job.

Karla and I met for drinks and got caught up quickly. She and her partner had moved out East and they were gone for a few years and the breakup was bad. We talked nonstop, it was like she never left, and it felt fantastic. We talked a lot about music, which we always do. She is my music guru and has turned me on to a lot of great stuff, and I’m realizing just this second that when Greg was alive, he was my music guru, and I miss that so much. I am very lucky to have Karla in that role. She is my go-to gal now.

Lenore and I couldn’t remember the last time we’d seen each other. “Surely we saw each other last year sometime,” she said, but I reminded her that 2012 was my year of living in a cave, the year after my mama died, the year I took off and got closer to my heart and soul than I’d been since I was ten.

“I figured you and John were just huddling in with each other,” said Lenore.

“I was huddling in with myself,” I said.

We do what we always do, which is and will always be a joy to me: I drive down to Lenore’s place and bring the wine and the dessert, and she buys the sushi on her way home from work. We sit out back on the deck and talk and talk and talk. As with Karla, it feels easy, as if we saw each other just yesterday.

Most times we end up in the hot tub. I have been in Lenore’s hot tub on nights so cold my wine turned to slush. This night the weather was a little dicey—it was chilly when I got there, then it stormed and got warm and muggy—tornado weather—so we moved the party into the living room instead of the hot tub. She told me about her latest trip—hiking 180 miles of the Andes Mountains by horseback, starting in Chile and ending up in Argentina. I told her about my year in my cave. We determined that both were great trips. We talked about being at the point in our lives where we want to do more of what we want to do, not what our men want to do, because as women who are now middle-aged, we’d put aside ourselves to make room for more than enough men in our lives, and we just can’t do it anymore. It doesn’t mean we don’t love them. We just love ourselves more now. (I think Samantha said that to Smith on “Sex and the City” a few times.)

Lenore told me she was disappointed in how her son turned out, and that it was her fault because she let him have everything. That her boyfriend wanted to get married and move in, but that she never wanted to get married or live with a man ever again. That even though my mother and I had had a very troubled relationship, I probably wasn’t ready to lose her when I did.

Martha and I still haven’t hooked up. In addition to starting a new job, she moved into a new apartment. When we are able to get together, it will be just like getting together with Karla and Lenore: we’ll pick up exactly where we left off and it will feel easy and effortless and I will bask in every second.

My love for girl-time is probably rooted in the fact that I grew up in a family of mostly men: three brothers, one father, one mother, no sisters. Being in a male-dominated house probably helped me flourish in a male-dominated business (multimedia production) for over two decades. It made me feel equal to men (although there certainly are some men who don’t feel this way). I currently live with a man and two male cats. I have always been surrounded by more male than female energy.

This is why I crave girl-time. Thinking back, my love for girl-time goes way back to the times I spent with my mother and my grandmother when I was a child, when my father piled the six of us into the station wagon and drove us from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, my parents’ hometown, to visit family. My grandparents on both sides lived on the same hilly country road a few miles apart; my father and three brothers would stay with his parents, and my mother and I would stay with hers. My grandmother gave me her bed and fed me meatloaf sandwiches and apple custard squares. We went down the hill to the boulevard, which ran along the Ohio River and train yards and steel mills, and shopped at the fabric store and greenhouse and J. C. Penney together.

Of these times, the best was just sitting around the kitchen table, with its red-and-white-checked tablecloth and cups of instant coffee, the smell of which mixed with the Lemon Joy in the sink and homemade spaghetti sauce on the stove. Birds darted on and off the bird feeder that hung on the giant oak tree just outside the kitchen window.

It was here that I listened to my mother and grandmother gossip about other family members, some of it good-natured, most of it not. They talked about men and sex and the Social Security checks my grandmother cashed and then hid from my grandfather in the stacks of fabric she kept in the spare bedroom she called her sewing room. I should have been more embarrassed than I was when my grandmother told us about the time my grandfather came tapping on her door late one night (they had long been sleeping in separate bedrooms) wanting sex. It was bawdy and delicious and I reveled in it. In addition to inheriting my grandmother’s height and big feet (but, alas, not her big boobs), I inherited her saltiness, and I am grateful for it all.

My mother had her own stories to share, but she was a little stiff around me. I have a feeling she and my grandmother had their own ribald talks after I was sent off to bed. My mother and grandmother shared a closeness my mother and I never had, except for moments here and there. I am glad they had each other, and I hope they have each other right now, wherever they are.

(My heart tells me that, yes, they do.)

On the Myers-Briggs type indicator, I am a “1” on the extrovert scale. This does not mean that I am barely outgoing; it means that when I recharge, being with other people is OK, but I prefer spending time alone. Inside of me, there is a burning desire to go into my cave and spend a day or a week or a year there, and when I come out, I’m ready for the world.

When I need other people to help me recharge, for me there is nothing quite like girl-time. Dot and Jo set me on this path, and today I am extraordinarily lucky not only to have Lenore, Karla, and Martha in Milwaukee, but in Oklahoma I have ex-Cleveland-girl Pat, and in Cleveland I have Jan and Sally. All strong, smart women with whom I can talk about anything, who accept me and love me. No matter what.

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Thanks and love also to Joan, T.L., Tina, and Brandi. 

 

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IMG_5015I haven’t been writing much lately, because in January I started a full-time teaching gig. And then my students and I started lobbing the flu back and forth at each other. Most of us were sick multiple times the first half of the semester.

Through it all, though, they and I have managed to make our way through the course: Pre-College English, a refresher on grammar and writing that prepares first-semester students for their core college English requirements—courses every student, regardless of major, must take in order to graduate.

For the first half of the semester, it is wild in the streets in my classrooms—four this semester. The students are getting the lay of the land, unsure of themselves and of the decision they have made to go to college. They are quick to verbally express their opinions, but when it comes to committing their opinions to paper, they struggle, some more than others. There is something about the blank page that brings the mightiest of my students to their knees.

I tell them that I can relate to all of their anxieties around writing and expression, because I suffer them too, and so does everyone who writes, from the beginning student to the accomplished professional. They never quite believe me though. Just last week one of my students said, “I’m not doing this,” then clenched his teeth. He looked at the computer monitor as if he wanted to vandalize it and steadfastly refused my help. I told him we could talk about it later and left him alone.

This week the log jam has broken and he is forging ahead on the project.

IMG_4522The first half of our semester is dedicated to grammar: parts of speech; mechanics; sentence structure; paragraph structure; diction; voice; flow; writing process; revision; and discourse. We talk incessantly about the connection between reading and writing, how there is a distinct difference between the way we speak and the way we write, and that one of the best ways to learn how to write better is to read more.

I come at my students not as a grammarian but as a writer. I tell them, “The only way you are going to get better at writing is to write.” So we do a lot of it—and reading­—in my classes. Two weeks ago one of my students said, “Ms. Robin is having us write a whole book by the time this semester ends.” Which made me smile.

Where I teach, the Pre-College English course culminates in a five-paragraph argumentative essay project. In class, we talk a lot about arguing for or against an issue—and how it differs from having a verbal altercation with someone. We talk about the logic of the argument, how to write a thesis statement, topic sentences for each one of your body paragraphs that support your thesis, and an introduction and conclusion.

I don’t tell my students what to write about. “It will be a lot easier for you,” I say, “if you write about what you know, have an interest in, feel passionate about.” Whether that passion stems from love or anger, I add.

I tell them to use themselves or someone they know as examples. I show them how they can work cause-and-effect, exemplification, comparison and contrast, description, and narration into their essays. They prepare for this by reading several essays, stories, and speeches throughout the semester, responding to them, and seeing how other people express themselves.

IMG_4489In the five semesters I’ve taught this course, students have written the most cogent and heartfelt essays. One, a musician, made a case for the stagnant state of rap music, balanced by the signs of hope he saw emerging. Others have argued for what makes a good neighbor. Why fast food is good. Why fast food is bad. Gun control. Grandparents. Rape. Abuse. Loss.

The most stunning essay I’ve received to date is one written by a young woman whose baby was killed by her baby’s father. I never pry into my students’ lives, but I do encourage them to go deep if they want to. She wanted to. Her baby’s father, she told me, received a year’s probation for killing their child, and she wanted to argue for why he should have received a stiffer penalty.

Then she told me that her baby was killed just four months before she started school. That her mother had suggested she go to school to get her mind off of things. Every day for the rest of the semester I looked into the eyes of this beautiful child who had lost her own beautiful child just months earlier. She was elegant and intelligent and I will never forget her.

When I set out to write this, my original thought was to write a five-paragraph essay of my own as a show of camaraderie with my current students, who are aggravating over theirs right now. But I see I don’t really have room to do this now. Once again, my own writing has taken a turn, and I find myself at the end of a path I didn’t think I’d be walking.

Maybe I’ll do it another time. For now I will say:

Dear Students,

Congratulations. You have made it to the home stretch. Only three weeks left in the semester. As you make your way through the second and final drafts of your final essay project, continue to apply what you’ve learned, ask for help, stay focused. And hang in there; it will all be over soon.

I also want to thank you for everything you’re giving of yourselves this semester. And for everything you’ve taught me. In three weeks I will be sad to see you go, but I look forward to seeing you again, even if it’s only as we pass each other by in the halls. I especially look forward to seeing you at your graduation.

Have a good, restful break when this is all over. You deserve it.

Ms. Graham

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On one worksheet I give my students, they practice writing simple, compound, and complex sentences. This complex sentence gets the award for being the most vivid this semester: “The dog fell into the river, while the other dog watched.”

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14. March 2013 · 2 comments · Categories: Stories

JAN_GREG_MIRRORThree years ago today Greg, one of my best friends, died of a massive heart attack while teaching a weekend course in another state. One second he was alive. The next he wasn’t.

His wife Jan, also my best friend, called me the morning after it happened. While it was unusual to hear from her this time of the day and week, it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary.

“How are you?” I chirped.

“I have something to tell you,” she said. It wasn’t until she strung these six words together that I realized there was something in her voice I hadn’t ever heard in the thirty years I’d known her.

I braced myself for everything she told me next. That Greg had been in Florida. That she had talked to him the night before about her flying down to join him. That the class had reconvened Sunday morning, that he had had a heart attack, and that they had tried to save him.

“And he died,” she said, through tears.

“What?” I demanded, as if I had just been told a scandalous lie.

We cried. I said I was sorry, over and over again.

“I wanted to make sure I called,” Jan said. “I didn’t want you to find out some other way.”

After we hung up I cried hard every single day for two weeks straight.

Jan_Greg_3Greg was 62 and from Jersey. Vivacious, hilarious, a smart aleck, a real character who loved music, played guitar, wrote songs, skateboarded, and roller-bladed. He saw things about life that not many of us see.

Our friendship began in 1980, when Jan and I worked at Halle’s department store in Cleveland. She was the human resources manager in a branch store. I was a buyer trainee doing a year as a manager in that same store. A group of us  there—Chuck, Cathy, Sheila, Bill, Jan, and I—became friendly and began socializing outside of work. Some of us started dating each other; others of us started bringing around our boyfriends and girlfriends.

The first time I met Greg, we were all going out after work and waiting in the store for him to arrive. I have this fleeting yet vivid picture in my head of Jan leaning against a display case, smiling when he got there and as she introduced him to us. He had the most gray hair I’d ever seen on a young person, although it wasn’t anything close to the solid bright white it would become when he got older.

I don’t remember where we went that first night. But we did find out that he had a master’s degree in philosophy and worked as a janitor in a branch of the Cleveland Public Library because he didn’t live to work, he worked to live and write music and think.

Thenceforth we became a band of brothers and sisters. We took turns throwing costume parties. The best parties. I fell in love with my first husband at one of those parties. We saw live bands in The Flats, saw our first music videos at the Pirate’s Cove, and made our own music videos to Police songs.

Most of us weren’t into pot, but we did drink. Another vivid memory I have is of Greg drinking cheap rosé from one of those glass gallon jugs, which he’d hoist up on his shoulder, wind his mouth around, and chug-a-lug from. At the end of 1981 I married the man I fell in love with at Bill and Cathy’s costume party, and Jan and Greg and everyone else in our group from work were there. Greg and my husband became close friends.

I need more space to describe how dear Jan and Greg became to me over the years, and how dear they are to me today and always will be. It would take five hundred essays to adequately write about my love for them. They are two people who know me well and who loved me anyway, even during certain periods in my life when I acted a fool. They loved me unconditionally, like your mama and daddy should, and I am eternally grateful to them for that.

Jan_Greg_2The irony of our collective young drinking days is that Greg put down the wine jug and went back to school to become a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. Later he also became a relationship counselor. At one particular very low point in my life during which I had no idea who I was anymore, Greg was the first person I called. He told me everything was going to be OK and recommended a colleague for me to talk to.

He recommended books to me. Music. Lots of music. He played his guitar for us on the front porch. We talked and talked and talked. Every time I came over, he and Jan had a bottle of wine for me, even though they themselves had stopped drinking.

One blazing bright sunny day in Stow, Vermont, as I was returning from the ski slopes, my cell phone rang.

“Hello?” I said.

Nothing for a whole three seconds. Then I heard Greg reciting what sounded like a poem. I realized he was reciting—rapping, really—the lines from a song on a Citizen Cope CD, which I’d recommended to him.

While he was ecstatic about Citizen Cope, he was extraordinarily pissed about Sleater Kinney, which he claimed I had also told him to get. I told him, no, I told you that I like them, but you would never like them, so shut up.

After I got divorced and moved to Milwaukee I took a new, uptight-for-no-good-reason boy home to Cleveland for Jan and Greg to meet—one of those situations in which it’s mind-blowing that these people from different phases of your life are together in one room. Greg toyed with him like my cat torments a spider. It was quite naughty and highly entertaining.

When Greg met John they fell instantly in love with each other. “He reminds me of you-know-who,” Greg said, meaning my first husband. The last time we saw Greg alive was Christmas Day 2010. He and John played guitars together that day.

Greg’s funeral was crazy-good. In his casket he had the same silly smirk he did in real life. The line for visiting hours went out the door and around the corner. An extra hour and a half had to be tacked on so that everyone who came to see him could see him.

There was a nasty rainstorm the day of the memorial service but the church was packed. We should all go out like this. We need to live our lives in ways that make people want to come out in the pouring rain and stand in hot, long-ass lines for an hour to see us for the very last time. We just do.

Four months later I went back to Cleveland to stay with Jan. I found out what had happened the day Greg died. That he had gotten his class started on an activity and then took a seat. And that after he sat down he remembered a joke he wanted to tell them. That he sprung up out of his chair and before he could speak another word, he fell to the floor. And that he was probably dead before he hit the floor.

This man who had just celebrated his wife’s birthday a week earlier. Whose doctor had just given him a clean bill of health. Who showed no signs. Alive one second. Gone the next.

IMG_2225On that trip Jan shared Greg’s writings with me. I never knew he wrote anything other than songs. He was an excellent writer of poetry and prose. I read page after page after page with his ashes on my lap. Jan and I went through his CDs. She told me things about him I had never known before. One of which was that he used to run on the treadmill in the basement while listening to club music—club music!—while wearing sunglasses to keep out the basement lights.

She gave me some of his club music. When I hear it on my iPod, it makes me deliriously happy.

I don’t think he is anymore, but in the past week Greg has been around us. There was John’s Star Trek calendar, which John hadn’t gotten around to turning to March yet, which I turned to March for him. It’s on a nail with a head so thick you have to really work to get it through the hole.

Over the weekend it had been turned back to February.

Then our cats were making those I-see-a-ghost looks that cats make. “Hi, Greg,” I said, “are you here?” After which there was the strangest sound next to the coat closet, a sound I have never, ever heard in our apartment before.

The following day, when I returned home from teaching and opened the front door, something about our living room felt different. Whiter. Brighter. Longer. In an altered dimension. As if someone had moved some things or was hiding in a closet.

I set my things down and said, “I love you, Greg.”

And off he went, I like to think, to move on to the next person who knew and loved him, like Santa visiting the dreams of children the night before Christmas.

In the time it has taken me to write this essay about my dear friend, who is every bit with me as he was when he was alive, the dinner hour has come and gone. John has brought me a shot of Irish Mist, which I now raise to Greg.

I love you, Greg.

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IMG_4570It’s been a rough winter here in Milwaukee.

It started out innocuously; with autumn refusing to let go and temperatures so warm the building next door was able to put on a new roof in mid-December.

But two days after the roof was finished, everything changed, and abruptly. Temperatures dropped to twenty degrees, then even further to ten degrees, four degrees, minus eight.

Snow fell. A lot of snow. Lake Michigan resisted freezing for as long as it could, throwing off steam as its warm water equalized with the cold-as-needles air above it. It finally succumbed, forming thick ice that has extended the beach by several yards. Thinner ice that formed beyond the breakwall broke off into sheets that have been flowing north and south along the coast.

It’s been like this for two and a half months now. We Milwaukeeans have been traipsing around in layers under coats and heads wrapped in caps knitted by our grandmas, carrying our dress shoes in Pick ‘n Save bags. Our gloves are filthy, our scarves are stiff from breathing through them, and once we’re inside and take everything off, we do it with the verve of getting out of a straitjacket.

IMG_4557Then there are the viruses. This year I got my flu shot a little later than I’d planned—the beginning of December—despite warnings from my friend Gretchen that they aren’t good for your immune health.

“But the last time I didn’t get it, I got the flu and it rocked my foundation,” I told her. I’ve gotten a flu shot ever since and haven’t been sick.

This year, however, was different. On January 6 when my stomach seized up, in my head I went over everything I’d eaten the past few days, certain that I had food poisoning. I was barely over it by the time I started to teach on the 16.

On January 18 we had a music gig and played to a packed house on Milwaukee’s near west side. At the end of the night I was exhausted. The next day I couldn’t drink enough water.

Then came the sore throat. The exhaustion. The congestion. Memories of The Flu of 2011 made me twitch. I tried to fight it. But couldn’t.

It took a full three weeks to get over what turned out to be influenza. The whole time, I taught four sessions of Pre-College English, all in a row, from 8:30 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon. The faces of all eighty of my students swam before me as I stood in front of the classroom. Utterly exhausted when it was over, I collapsed when I got home.

As my body tried to recover, those of my students began to falter, one by one, not coming to class for a week at a time either to nurse themselves or their children who’d brought bugs home from school.

IMG_4582Several of my students brought their sicknesses into the classroom with them, along with their wet boots and coats and gloves, clutching boxes of Kleenex. I shut the door to begin the day’s lecture. There was sneezing, coughing, clogged voices. One student asked to be excused; when she came back she said she had thrown up. I reopened the door to let the cooties out.

Which didn’t help. A few days after I could finally breathe, my stomach seized up again, so badly this time that I had to cancel one day of classes.

Being sick became my life. No band rehearsals, no socializing, not even with John. I didn’t write or exercise.

One thing I did manage to do well was to eat like crap: potato chips, four-for-a-dollar ramen noodles, Doritos, chocolate milkshakes from McDonald’s.

I complained about it on Facebook, saying, “Eff-erooni, what a winter so far. Flu once, stomach virus twice since January 6. Hard out here for a pimp.”

Several people chimed in, expressing sympathy, others sharing their own tales of misery.

My friend Terri said, “Just think of it as building a wall of immunities while teaching. My daughter is in her fourth year of teaching elementary music and this is the first year she hasn’t been terribly sick.”

The night before, I had lain awake, despairing because I hadn’t been writing. I couldn’t think of anything to write about. My flu-addled brain was freeze-locked. When I woke up the next morning, I was still despairing.

Then Terri said what she said.

It got me thinking about “building a wall of immunities” as we make mistakes in life, many of them over and over again. The more you’re exposed, the more you learn—if you’re lucky—to never make them again.

IMG_4564I think about this when I get to know people my age who are still making the kinds of mistakes that are the hallmark of our twenties and thirties. Not changing patterns that stopped working for them decades ago.

It also makes me think about the people who aren’t good for us who come into our lives over and over and over again. Folks that Dr. Harville Hendrix say we invite into our hearts because they are like our mothers and fathers, with whom we’ve had tenuous childhood relationships that we want to fix.

This is one lesson that’s been difficult for me to learn: allowing people to get close who don’t deserve to be that close. These days, however, my wall of immunities no longer permits it.

My instincts tell me that Terri and Gretchen are spot-on about building immunity to sickness. Because last year I didn’t teach at all, having taken time off time to write.

There were times I didn’t leave our apartment for four days, because I was thinking and being and taking pictures and playing music and writing essays. It was one of the best years of my life.

The irony is that while I traveled from one end of my soul to the other and back, I had unwittingly weakened my ability to chart the real world. As soon as I returned to teaching and the real world, bam!

At the end of influenza, I sat in my hair stylist’s chair, so exhausted I was close to tears, not yet knowing that the following week I would need to buck up again when Round Two of viral gastroenteritis hit. This is the first week I’ve felt halfway strong in two and a half months.

If the flu vaccine I got in December helped at all, it did so in an extraordinarily limited way. Maybe Gretchen is right, maybe flu shots are worthless, and immunity is best built naturally. I don’t know what I’ll do next year.

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Last year I wrote a paean to the end of summer, which was also a paean to the end of nonstop construction in our neighborhood and all the noise that came with it. I looked forward to all the cranes and suburban tough guys and their paint-splattered boom boxes going away for the winter, leaving Milwaukee’s East Side to slip into blissful cocooning.

Which lasted until Monday, December 11, 2012, when ten men started tearing down the roof deck on the building next to ours.

They’d been there on and off throughout the summer and fall, investigating, measuring, repairing here and there, walking the roof hands on hips, bellowing at each other two feet apart. (Why some men do this I will never understand. The sound of it carries like you wouldn’t believe when you’re on top of a tall building. One low whisper and the occupants of the buildings around you will hear it as loudly as if you were in their living rooms.)

“Maybe they’re just taking down the roof deck and then they’ll be gone,” said John, looking out the window.

Our hopes were shot after a crane arrived and began loading buckets and rolls of what looked like white plastic onto the roof. By the end of the day, the deck and all the who-knows-how-many-years of garbage under it was gone and half the roof stripped down to bare wood. The perfectly good deck furniture was also tossed onto the garbage heap.

We were crestfallen. John was in the midst of studying for law school finals. My birthday was the next day and I was looking forward to having a quiet, Zen time of it.

At 7 a.m. on December 12, the ten men, plus ten more, were back on the roof; the other half of it was stripped down to bare wood within two hours. Black debris filled six wheelbarrows several times over. The crane was loaded and unloaded, the men shouted to each other in Spanish. Our cats were wide-eyed and twitchy.

It was clear we were in for the long haul, so I decided to have a little fun with it. I opened our windows and raised the screens so I could get clear shots of everything that was going on and began taking what would turn out to be nine days’ worth of pictures. It took a few days for the first worker to see me, and I didn’t care when he did. Part of me figured that if they were intruding on us, I’d intrude right back. And turn it into a photo-essay on the anatomy of a new roof.

The men and I got to the point at which we started to have bits of conversation when I appeared in our windows.

“When do you think you’ll be done?” I asked one.

“Friday for sure,” he said.

The week passed relatively pleasantly like this. But they were not done on Friday.

“At least we’ll have the weekend off,” said John.

Just when we thought the coast was clear, Saturday evening in the fog and rain, some of the men came up to the roof to clean it, dumping liquid from red bottles and mixing it with the rainwater. One of the men started whistling, the kind of whistling that starts out sounding like a beautiful bird but after a half hour makes you ready for the loony bin.

One of the workers unzipped his pants and took a piss on the new roof, not even trying to hide it. After he finished he took his mop and went to another part of the roof, mixing the soap from the red bottles with the rainwater and shoving it down the drains. Eventually he made it back over to where he’d pissed, nonchalantly swirling it in with the soapy water and into the drain.

Before they left at 9 p.m., he unzipped his pants again, this time facing our kitchen window. He stopped midstream the millisecond he saw me in the window; in the next, he zipped up and ran out of sight.

The next morning—Sunday morning—a crew showed up at 7:30, yelling and laughing and throwing things. A young man in a red Columbia-looking jacket, wearing a Mohawk that looked like the fur along the spine of some wild animal, paced all day on his cell, pausing only to watch the others seal the edges of the new roof and eat junk food.

I took some pictures while he was outside our bathroom window shooting the breeze with a guy who was trying to work. The young man in the Mohawk looked up at me and rolled his eyes.

“Thanks for being here at 7:30 on a Sunday morning,” I said.

“You know I own this company, don’t you?” he said.

“So you’re the one we have to thank,” I said.

“If you don’t like it, call the building owner,” he said. “And close your stupid windows.”

Within an hour after I emailed the management company, the man who turned out to be the real owner of the roofing company arrived. The young man with the Mohawk was on his knees, sealing the roof along with the other workers.

The next day they were officially done and gone. The owner of the roofing company and the owner of the building stayed afterward for debriefing, arms folded, looking serious. The owner of the building next door is also the owner of our building and this is the first time I’ve ever seen him, and I’ve lived here for nine years.

IMG_6927When I started taking pictures of the new roof going in, I thought it would turn out to be an interesting photo-essay. But as I look through the photos, they’re not as interesting as I thought they would be.

Two days after the workers left, temperatures in Milwaukee fell forty degrees and it began to snow, hard. The sudden change in temperature made for some unusual conditions over Lake Michigan, which we can see from our apartment.

Trees turned white. Temperatures dropped even further to single digits, then below zero. The weather over land collided with the weather over the lake, producing some spectacular and unusual winter weather phenomena: stalagmite steam; thick fog; ominous clouds; giant waves; sun reflecting off icy blue water; breathtaking sunrises; ice floes moving up and down the coast.

It’s been going on for so long now—Milwaukee’s had a wonderfully righteous winter this year—that I’ve almost forgotten about the new roof. Mother Nature trumps Man.

The only time I do think about it is when I look out at the lake, which is now framed by a white roof, and I miss the old, innocuous black tar paper roof. We worry about what will happen when the summer sun finally returns to Milwaukee and hits that white expanse.

Look at another photo-essay in which Mother Nature trumps Man. 

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SALLY PHOTOS-5Over the years, many people have come in and out of my life. The ones who are kind remind me that I should be a little less cynical and controlling. The ones who are unkind remind me that I deserve to be treated better.

In a previous essay I wrote about these people who move in and out of our lives, some taking bits of our flesh with them, others leaving us with the most beautiful and unexpected gifts.

This essay is about the people who come into your life and never leave. Who know everything about you and love you in spite of it.

I am lucky to have more than one person like this in my life. There are Ohio girls Jan and Pat, whom I’ve known for thirty-two and twenty-six years respectively. I met Lori the week I moved to Milwaukee – sixteen years now. Greg was my friend for twenty-nine years before he died suddenly in 2010. I’ve come to discover that we’re still friends, just on a different plane now.

The most recent person to come into my life and stay is my husband John. The other day I realized that I’ve known him for ten years now. Ten years! This makes me feel glorious.

Sally is my longest-running friend. We’ve known each other forty-seven years now.

SALLY PHOTOS-9Sally and her parents and two older sisters moved to our town – Strongsville, a Cleveland suburb – from a few towns over. She was the new kid in a classroom of fifth-graders who’d known each other since kindergarten. I don’t remember what attracted us to each other. But her being a rebel-rouser and my being a good-girl probably had something to do with it.

I do remember the first time I went to Sally’s house, so far on the edge of town you could throw a rock from her front porch and it would land in the next county. Her father was Italian and her mother Irish, and even when they just wanted to talk to each other about the weather or what to have for supper, they hollered at each other. They sounded angry but they weren’t. Sally’s sisters hollered too. The sheer frequency and volume of it shocked me, whose family kept things bottled up inside.

SALLY PHOTOS-11I got over it quickly. Sally’s attitude then, and still is, “Whatever,” which she usually punctuates with a dismissive wave of her hand. In junior high, when I started sleeping over at her house, we snuck out of her bedroom window in the middle of the night, picked up Denise at her house, and walked across the street and into the next county to hang out with the Sterrett boys, who were much older than us. We made tents in my backyard, pinning two blankets to my mother’s clothesline, and then pulling out the bottoms and weighing them down with paving stones from the edge of the garden. We pretended to sleep until the middle of the night, when we met up with neighbor boys Bill and Jim and roamed the streets of our housing development.

SALLY PHOTOS-6One of these times my mother whipped open the front door so quickly we saw stars. You never saw four kids run in four different directions so fast in all your life. My mother took to calling Sally “the instigator.”

In high school Sal was voted “Class Clown,” while I earned the more sedate title of “Prettiest Eyes.” We were with each other on Senior Cut Day. We attended two different colleges in Ohio. I don’t know how we managed it because neither of us owned a car, but we did visit each other’s campuses a few times apiece.

After college Sally and I rented an upper flat together. I woke up most mornings to the smell of fresh-brewed coffee and Joni Mitchell on the stereo. Sal’s homemade spaghetti sauce was a staple in our kitchen.

SALLY PHOTOS-7We lived together a year and a half before Sally moved to California to work as a costumer and dresser. I got married. She ran into some trouble with a man and abruptly moved back to Cleveland. She didn’t look like her old self when she first got back.

This all changed when she met Jim. They married, bought a house, bought a second house and became landlords. We spent a lot of time at each other’s homes, and went out to the big clubs in The Flats and the mom-and-pop taverns on every corner in Lakewood. Sally and Jim have been married over twenty years now. I should know exactly how many because I was her matron of honor.

SALLY PHOTOS-1There have been private moments, which I don’t feel comfortable putting here. Times when I veered off course and it affected her, and vice versa. Desperate times when one helped out the other.

There was the family reunion at Sugar Island, which happened at a really bad time in my life, which might have been a really bad time in her life too. We clashed on that trip, had a giant fight, and didn’t talk to each other for five, six years afterward.

During that time I got remarried. Sally’s mother died. (Her father had died some years earlier.) She and her sisters sold the family home and moved their Aunt Muriel, their mother’s sister, into another house. On a trip to Cleveland, I visited Sally for the first time in six years.

It felt like being home. No awkward silences; it doesn’t matter if your lipstick’s on crooked; it certainly doesn’t matter if you’re even wearing lipstick, not with Sal. You know just where to jump in. Your souls are connected, as deep as Earth’s inner core.

SALLY PHOTOS-3If you have this even with one person in your life, protect it with everything you’ve got. Especially if it’s not perfect. It’s not meant to be perfect. That’s the utter beauty of it. Loving one person for ten, twenty, thirty, forty-plus years, because of and in spite of everything, is life’s rarest jewel.

I don’t know what took us so long, but it was Sally who came up with the idea to Skype over the holidays. I was at the beginning stages of coming down with the flu and we agreed to limit our conversation to twenty minutes.

SALLY PHOTOS-10An hour and fifteen minutes later, we were sufficiently caught up on each other’s lives. We picked up where we always did, where we’d last left off, no matter how long ago it was, quickly and effortlessly. We talked about Muriel, who’d died just two weeks earlier. Sally looked off-camera and remarked that her family is getting very small now. She used her iPad to show me her and Jim’s Christmas tree, how she decorated their fireplace mantel, their beloved cat, which she found in a dumpster sixteen years ago, and the river, lined with bare trees now, that runs alongside their backyard.

Watching as Sally walked her iPad around her house reminded me of all the home videos she’s shot over the years. There are no slow pans; she doesn’t linger on any one thing for very long SALLY PHOTOS-8before she’s on the move again. When she sees something that she wants you to see too, she goes to it quickly and you’d better hang on for the ride. There are the continual clicks of the camera as she zooms in and out and tries to focus. There is the ongoing narrative that’s delivered a little too close to the microphone. You hear breathing.

If I ever saw a home video Sally shot that was in focus and didn’t give me the spins, I’d be extraordinarily disappointed. It’s one of her quirks that I adore.

Another is that she both boils and fries her homemade breakfast potatoes in the same pan and it takes two or three hours and you’re about ready to pass out from hunger by the time she puts them on the table.

But they are damn good. So are the eggs, the bacon, the toast, juice, coffee, and conversation. The love. I wouldn’t want any of it any other way.

Jim and Sal will be married twenty-five years this September.

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This is me, circa 2000, climbing at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin. I don’t remember the route name but it was a 5.8 or something like that. Rather difficult.

There was a group of us, tight-knit, who climbed at all the gyms in town: three YMCAs, Adventure Rock, Milwaukee Turners. We took turns driving each other out to Devil’s Lake, and broke off into smaller groups that climbed at gyms in Whitewater and Appleton. Some of us, including me, were climbing instructors at the Y.

It was a good time, but these people have faded from my life, and I haven’t climbed since 2004.

That same year, I was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid, which had slowed my metabolism to a crawl, causing a 20-pound weight gain. In 2004, I also got married, took a new job, and moved to an urban neighborhood where there’s at least one marvelous restaurant or pub on every corner.

By 2006, I had put on 42 pounds. Although most women might be offended by this, for my birthday that year John gave me four personal training sessions at the gym where he, a marathon runner, also worked out. He knew how miserable I’d become. It was one of the most loving things he’s ever done for me.

I worked with my trainer, Lauren, for two years. It was a great experience and we developed a strong friendship, but looking back I can see that I didn’t take the work nearly as seriously as I should have. After our sessions, John would come pick me up and we’d go out for Mexican food. My stamina and muscle tone improved. But I didn’t lose weight.

When I was a climbing instructor at the Y, I also worked out there. In graduate school, I switched over to the university rec center. In 2010, the year after I got my master’s degree, I joined one of those franchise gyms, a seven-minute walk from my home, owned by someone you never see working out there but who occasionally rolls up in a brand-new BMW wearing an expensive suit. When you join this particular franchise gym, your paperwork not only comes from the gym but also from the finance company you pay your monthly fee to.

I got serious about losing those 42 pounds. Started counting calories using an app called Lose It. For two and a half years my new gym and I had a beautiful relationship, with the bonus that one of the trainers there also had a master’s in English and we had a number of robust discussions about literature and writing and teaching. The manager, female and young, was quite professional for her age, a hustler in the good sense of the word who really grew the business.

Everything was fine until sometime last fall, when I couldn’t bring myself to go there anymore. I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Maybe watching people drip sweat all over equipment and not wipe it down. The young woman with the blaring iPod her ear buds can’t contain, who has her choice of every other treadmill in the empty gym but takes the one right next to me. Maybe it was the guy wearing those minimalist Erewhon shoes with toes, who does the same move with a set of barbells an hour and a half straight, dropping the weights from two feet up every time. The one I saw spit on the carpet next to the elliptical machine.

Or maybe it was the attorney who burst into the weight room where three of us were peacefully working out, who dropped to the floor every piece of equipment he touched, continually marked his progress in a notebook that he continually chucked to the floor, and in between practiced a closing argument.

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This month I finally called the manager and told her, “I would like to cancel my membership.”

“How come?” she said.

I told her I wanted to return to my sports.

“Which ones?” she asked.

“Running. Yoga. Climbing. Dancing,” I said.

She didn’t say anything, just made a noise. I got the strong feeling she didn’t believe me.

I put on my running tights and old Nike Storms and headed to the gym to sign my cancellation paperwork. The manager barely looked at me. Checked boxes and drew lines on the form quickly, as if sketching. Pushed it across the desk at me and said, “Fill out the upper half.”

There was no conversation, no friendly banter as I filled out the top half. No “sorry to see you go” or “thank you for being a member for the past two and half years, come back when you’re ready.” I slid the paperwork back, and she handed me a piece of paper from the printer.

“Your receipt,” she said. It was on letterhead from the finance company.

That was it. “Take care,” I said.

“Yep,” she said back.

The trainer with the master’s degree cheerfully said “see you!” as I left. I pushed open the front door of the gym. The sun hit my face.

And I ran. As fast I could.

Along the way I recalled the years 1995 to 2005, when I became the athlete I never really was growing up. I had won two canoe races. Learned to cross-country ski. Downhill-skied in Wisconsin, Upper Michigan, Colorado, Vermont. Backpacked 10 miles. Ran a 15k race without stopping once. Took yoga. Kickboxing. Spinning. Cycled 100 miles in two days. On hills.

And I danced. Oh, the dancing. The first swing dance at the Knights of Columbus on Milwaukee’s south side my girlfriend Lori took me to led me to contra dancing, then Irish set dancing, then Scottish country folk dancing.

During my run I realized that, similar to the road trip I’d taken last fall, what had been keeping me from the gym were all these things I used to be and had forgotten about and wanted back. I needed to more freely move through time and space again.

I still have my copy of Pat Murphy’s Toss the Feathers, which tells you how to dance the Irish sets, which are all danced the same way, no matter where you are in the world. But I can’t find my Climber’s Guide to Devil’s Lake, which makes me kind of sad.

I do have my copy of Devil on the Cross by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, though, which he autographed when I met him in 2006 during grad school. Funny where life takes you sometimes. The detours. Wrong turns. The retracing of steps back to the campfire, whose embers are still burning.

So far I’ve lost 26 of the 42 pounds I started gaining nearly ten years ago. I have no interest in getting down to the weight I was when this all started; 10 or 12 pounds over would be just fine.

Which means only six more to go.

 

Had I seen this in my gym last fall, it would have sent me right over the edge. The person who posted it on YouTube says that when there are three or four empty treadmills in a row, she’ll turn them all on and dance from one to the other.

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No matter where I am in life, I will always look back on 2012 and say,

That was a very good year.

I’d go so far as to say that it’s been the best year of my life, second to 2008, the year I left a job I despised and lived off savings until I started a research assistantship six months later. It was the first time in my life I just “was,” and I grew enormously from the experience.

This year, to my surprise, some fears melted away and my creative self resurfaced. It was the last thing I expected, but today, on the last day of 2012, I feel closer to my true self than I have in decades. There is no happiness quite like getting back to your roots. That is what I will be wishing for you at midnight tonight, dear reader: that you find your way back to your roots. Because nestled in them are some gifts you ought to be using.

2012 taught me good lessons. Here are some:

  • The things I love now are the same things I loved when I was ten years old. Avoiding them for forty years was like trying to hold a beach ball underwater: exhausting. Much easier to relent and be the good things you were meant to be.
  • I no longer care about how much money I make, other than enough to pay my bills. It is more important to do the work I love.
  • I want to live the life of an artist for the rest of my life.
  • It’s okay not to go to Ohio. For the first time in the nearly sixteen years I’ve lived in Wisconsin, I did not travel to Ohio once all year. Although my family and close friends there may not like it, I think they understand that every once in a while you just have to live in your cave.
  • I’d rather have ten people in my life who show their true selves, warts and all—who are sometimes annoying because of those warts—than one person who takes great pains to hide them and then out of the blue tries to mess with my head.
  • It’s not often you can get four people together in a room and all get along, much less eight. In our band, while we don’t always agree with each other, we are clearly eight people who like each other. With the added bonus that we make good music together. This is gold.
  • When you have a chance to reconnect with significant people from your past who still mean a lot to you, take advantage of that opportunity. This includes beloved teachers, old neighbors, lost relatives, and the ex-husband with whom you are still on good terms.
  • Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. When I arrived at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Chicago at the end of February, I never would have believed that by the end of it, I’d start creating a Web site. And that I’d publish personal essays there. And that they’d attract the attention of a New York Times reporter, the family of a man in jail who doesn’t believe he should be there, the family of my first-grade teacher, and readers from all over the place.
  • Take individual people on a case-by-case basis. Generalizations just don’t work.
  • Be careful about who you let into your life. That heart of yours is sacred.
  • You can’t please everyone. Even if you have a good heart. And that’s okay. If you’re a jerk, though, you really should work to please a few more people.
  • Among the best gifts you can receive: an unexpected phone call on your birthday; a note that says “I’m proud of you”; a “Miss you big time” post on your Facebook; a card signed “With much love and respect.” All from people you’ve loved and who’ve loved you for years, warts and all.
  • There is no better man for me in this lifetime than John, and I need to let him know more often than I have been. I don’t ever want to regret not letting him know.

While I’m sad to see 2012 end, it’s all a continuum. So I say to 2013: “Hello there. I look forward to living in you.” Tonight I’ll be lifting my glass to you all. Happy New Year.

Edwin Starr wrote “Oh How Happy” in 1966. The Shades of Blue made it a hit that same year. They broke up in 1970, the same year “War” became a number-one hit for Starr (after scoring big with “25 Miles” in 1968).

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