In The Middle of The Night

I couldn’t sleep last night, and this could be for any numbers of reasons with the top one being: I have shit to do. It’s important to note that I’m on vacation, but when you’re a writer (or a person cursed with a desire to be always observing, absorbing, interpreting, dissecting) there’s no such thing as being totally “on vacation.”

Trust me: I relax. I meditate, do yoga, run, talk to my dog, read, crack up with friends, etc., and my dial does have a low setting but it never goes entirely off. It hums even at rest. This is irritating at times for me and often for my friends. I pay such close attention that I can be exhausting to be around. That’s a fact, but this blog post isn’t intended to be an exploration of all that’s amok with my internal structure, but rather to talk about what happens in the middle of the night when sleep is not one pillow flip away.

I tried for a while to deep breathe myself to sleep, but this method is only about 30% successful for me. I drank water. I peed. I straightened the covers. Then I turned to the thing we’re definitely not supposed to do and shouldn’t even have on our nightstands: I lit up my iPhone.

This is my typical “I can’t sleep” routine. I play Words With Friends if I have any games stacked up. I check email. And then ultimately I turn to Facebook, the real sleep killer. Last night’s/this morning’s Facebook feed was full of great stuff. First I read a sad National Geographic article about how dark it’s getting in North Korea and why. There was a satellite image to accompany the article and it stunned me wide awake. It wasn’t even a long article, but full of current and historical information that made me realize how goddamn lucky I am. We are, all of us, extraordinarily lucky.

Then I watched a friend’s video of Ethiopian dancing and I thought of that friend who I’ve known for over twenty years now and the good work he’s doing in Africa. I thought about how lucky I am to know so many fine people and how even though I don’t regularly see a fraction of the folks I love, we’re able to stay technologically connected to one another and this is so much better than nothing. We can all knock the crap out of Facebook and Twitter and egregious selfies, but I’ll be honest here: I really like it.

For some reason the Ethiopian dancing made me think of the evolution of dance, and that led to me cracking up alone over Jimmy Fallon and Will Smith’s “The Evolution of Hip Hop” skit from Fallon’s first night hosting The Tonight Show. I did not started thinking about evolution (it was approximately 4:00 am, people), but I did toggle over to YouTube to watch Judson Laipply’s “Evolution of Dance” video and all I could think was: how can I get a date with this guy?

The past month (not even a full thirty consecutive days) have been spring-loaded with boyfriends past. Not the ghosts of them: the real deal. I’ve had conversations, interactions and time-suspended lunches that have stretched my already over-thinking brain and over-feeling heart to mega proportion. It’s been consistently more than I’ve thought I could handle, and then the universe hands me another one, and each feels like a simultaneous punch and kiss.

I went to the gym yesterday at the really nice club here in Florida, and while I worked out on a machine that threatened to launch me like a cat on a treadmill I watched Dr. Wayne Dyer talk about his new book I Can See Clearly Now, and I was (literally) holding on for dear life (nice metaphor) when I heard him say, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I guess I’m ready, because ready or not here they are.

Last night I had a unique opportunity to spend an evening with two of my ex-boyfriends at one dinner table. One is from college who, up until last spring, I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years, and the other from the not too distant past. The latter had his wife with him and a couple of their good friends. I think a few years ago (hell, last year) I might’ve felt incredibly anxious about such an interaction. I used to worry far too much what people think of me, and I’m beyond grateful to have shed that unnecessary skin. It was exhausting.

It was fun. We talked, laughed, everyone got along. At the end of the night I exchanged information with people who’d been strangers a few hours earlier. (One of my favorite things ever.) Sure it made me think about where I’ve been and where I’ve been-been, but it didn’t really make me think so much about where I’m going. More than ever, as I cruise the home stretch toward forty: I’m really fucking happy in the moment, this moment, this one second that is all I have to really worry about. Will I take another breath? Yes. Oh good. Proceed as usual. This is a new skin, much softer and less armor-like than the last, and while I’m still adjusting to the fit it isn’t something I’m interested in sending to the Goodwill. Like ever.

But the moments of not sleeping when you desperately want to be are uncomfortable, and so what’s a girl to do but watch Oscar acceptance speeches and weep? Jared? Lupita? OMG. These people give me so much hope. The grace and eloquence with which they spoke last night was enough to get me upright and writing.

Leto said: “You have an opportunity when you stand on this stage. You can make it all about yourself, or you can hold up a mirror and shine a light.” He told a beautiful story about his mother, who he brought as his date, and he didn’t make his speech political so much as he made it global. In addition to a huge heart, he also seems to have an excellent sense of humor, and to say he’s easy on the eyes has to be one of the bigger time understatements ever. (Apparently he’s dating June Squib so I won’t even ask…)

And while I’m on the subject of crushes: Lupita. The second line of Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance speech drilled me, “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is due to so much pain in someone else’s.” Wow. Her authenticity and gratitude are nearly palpable, and the best part: they’re available to every one of us.

Another thing available to all of us even when sleep isn’t: dreaming. Both Jared and Lupita spoke of dreaming, and I love their words:

“When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every child, no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” (Lupita)

“To all the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight, in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela, I want to say we are here, and as you struggle to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible, we’re thinking of you tonight.” (Jared)

I believe in dreams and also in silver linings. They’re sometimes hidden in the relationship that didn’t work out or the people we don’t talk to but should. They’re even in the fact that I missed a good night’s sleep but was rewarded with watching the sun rise over The Everglades. I took it through a screen, but you get the idea. Good Morning, Friends.


She was So Young to Die

Two days ago my friend Dian asked me to the prom. Ok, it was the Westminster Dog Show but it felt like she’d asked me to attend the quintessential rite of passage event with her. She asked me the day before to go to Madison Square Garden with her to watch the Best in Show judging, but of course it was sold out. It’s prom, for crying out loud.

We decided to do what we thought would be settling, and that was to do to the piers where the judging and benching happens. “How bad could it be?” we asked each other, and figuring the $25 tickets were worth a gamble so we went for it. At the very least we’d get together and have a good lunch and catch up. 

Dian is the mother of Caraline, one of my childhood partners-in-crime and one of my favorite rediscoveries of adulthood. Dian still lives in Trumbull, where Caraline and I grew up, but has friends who share their uptown apartment with her, and so I met her on the 49th floor. I’d been up high in NYC before, but never so far north, up on 102nd St. in Spanish Harlem. It was so bright up there it was damn hard to see, but goodness it was nice to get a lift on my perspective. And who doesn’t love an up-high view of Central Park?


 Dian suggested we just sit for a moment (smart gal), but then it was time to go “see the dogs” though we really had no idea what we were going to see. I wanted to look for my friend’s mother who’d be at the Golden Retriever judging, and when we walked in that’s exactly what was going on but the ring was mobbed and it was hard to see anything.

Other than the fact that I attended Dian’s 70th birthday party last summer, I hadn’t seen her since (I’m guestimating) 1990, and we’d never had to navigate anything together but that didn’t matter at the dog show. We trusted our instincts and landed next to a Leonberger, the first of many show dogs we got to snuggle. We even got stickers to wear on our sweaters all day that said, “I met a Leonberger.” {we wore them through dinner.}

Yes. Lunch got bypassed. At one point I inhaled a croissant and Di had an iced tea, but we basically did the dog show equivalent of “shop ‘til you drop.” I’m telling you: the benches are where it’s at.

I learned that there are only six benched dog shows in the United States. At an unbenched show
the dogs only have to be present for judging. At a benched show the dogs have to stay on an assigned “bench” for judges, spectators and other breeders can meet the dogs. I guess that technically it’s to look at bite and gait and coat color, but temperament is a big factor for judging, and the temperament of the dogs at Westminster is (obviously) exemplary.

A few of the handlers were hyped up, but the judging was more than half over by the time Dian and I arrived, and the sense of calm in there was downright serene. It was an unbelievable experience to be in a space with thousands of dogs and feel so calm.

Di and I did the rounds, and we even went through a few rows twice. We pet, hugged, and talked to dogs. We said “congratulations” and “better luck next time.” I cradled the beautiful face of a Great Pyrenees in my hands, and an exhausted Anatolian Shepherd threw her sleepy head against my chest. It was so awesome. If tickets were available we could’ve spent close to $200 to go to MSG for the “big event,” but because that wasn’t an option, we spent $25 for a much more intimate experience with the dogs, their owners, and their handlers.

It was incredible  seeing the dogs up close, but it was equally awesome getting to talk to their humans some of whom were so exhausted they were sleeping in kennels or up against the dogs. It was also an excellent lesson in finding out that sometimes not getting what you want is the best gift of all. 

Here are some of the visual highlights:








Dian treated to a great dinner at Becco, and on the way there I stopped to take a photo of the house where my great-grandmother wad born. Mimi (my grandmother) often talks about the light-filled house with big rooms where her mother was born, and describes it as being on 48th Street and 8th Avenue, behind the firehouse.

I took a picture to show her what it looks like now, which I’m realizing is not a particularly effective exercise. The old firehouse has a new façade, and the house where her mother was born is now surrounded by chrome and glass high-rises. There’s a Thai restaurant downstairs, clearly something newer to the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood than what existed in the decades bridging the 1800s and 1900s when the neighborhood was home to working-class Irish-Americans.

Mimi has been looking for her mother lately, and last night was no exception. Maureen had gone to bed and I was watching the end of the dog show on television and writing an explanation/apology email to a friend (that’s a whole other story, though it’s shaping up to be a good one) when Mimi came upstairs.

It was 10:30—and odd hour for Mimi to surface—but there she was, looking for her mother. “Where’s Nanny?” she asked me, “Is she sleeping?” My emotions were tapped out, but I guess this is what it’s like to be a mother—you give when you have nothing left—and I said, “No, Maureen is sleeping in that bedroom.” There was a moment of confusion because Mimi clearly thought she was talking to Maureen.

I asked if she was hungry and she said yes, so I gave her a banana and a cup of Pellegrino and we went to the living room to catch the Best in Show event. And then my grandmother came back. “Oh! You went to the dog show today! How was it? You must’ve had the best time.”

Just like that we were having a conversation. So I told her all about my day and she told me how sad she’d been all day after hearing that Shirley Temple had died. She talked about how fun it was as a kid to go down to the Sharona Theatre (sp) on 9th Avenue with ten cents to see a Shirley Temple movie. She talked about laughing and about the escape that Shirley Temple gave everyone during the depression.

She was pleased to report that there was never any “naughty talk” about Shirley Temple and she didn’t get involved with any “smart guys.” She said it was sad when she disappeared from the movies, but good to know she was living her life like a regular person. “So young,” Mimi said, “She was so young to die.”

I reminded Mimi that Shirley Temple was eighty-five, five years younger than she is, and she said, “I know, she was so young to die.”

After that Mimi made a quick exit. She thanked me for being a great hostess, and said “Thank you for being so good to me. I love you. I hope you have some sweet dreams.”






A Year and A Day

I have a love-hate with the iPhoto feature that shows only the photos from the Last 12 Months. Love is scrolling to the top for a visual wake-up call that reminds, “Look. See. You’ve come so far.” Hate is “Hold up, yo. Where’d last year go?”

Up until the turn of the year from oh-thirteen to oh-fourteen I could look at my Last 12 Months and still see my life in Missoula, even if it was just the tail end of a good, long run. Then, in the first few days of January I could no longer see my life in Missoula, but the images of my leaving of Missoula remained.

Friday marked the anniversary of the day I left, and was the last day these pictures were in the Last 12 Months folder.



Now, within a short span of time (short enough to be measured in hours) my life in Missoula has vanished from my iPhoto past year’s record. The oldest photos right now are of me saying goodbye to my friend Sam, in Jackson, and then there are photos from the road, followed by the ones of my car with an elk splattered on the windshield and hood. Some things are better forgotten, except they’re not because then we’d also lose the lessons and what a shame it would be to lose the opportunity to learn. 

And so it goes as a year peels away. What’s here today is tomorrow a year and a day away. 

January 3rd also marks the anniversary of both a departure and a fresh start for my dear Missoula friend, Mikey Heinbach. As it turns out that was the day after he lost his job and the day he decided to get sober. Not everyone does a bang-up job the first time around, but Mikey’s a real success story. You can read his store HERE, and I’d encourage it if you need a story of faith today or any day. 

Beneath Mikey’s you can also see the incredible support and comments from his friends and supporters, many of them in Missoula. And then, if you still don’t know, you can ask me why it was hard to leave a place I love, a place that gives great hugs. Yes, I’m anthropomorphizing, but Missoula really is a city that has human characteristics, its hug giving just one of them.

At times the hug of a close-knit town can feel like a net that says “Don’t worry we’re not going to let you fall. Trust us.” But it can also feel a bit like a noose. It’s a real yin-yang type of place, that Missoula, with a duality that’s deep-rooted.

There’s so much space in Montana, but sometimes it felt, to me, like there wasn’t enough to bounce off of. Living now in The City affords me more to bounce off of than any person could ever need in her entire lifetime, but here something else is lacking. Here you have to stay alert, pay attention. A person can’t just space out and go for a walk, and today I’d give just about any-any-anything to be able to hike up my beloved Waterworks Hill. I look this picture five (gasp!) years ago, on New Year’s Eve 2008. (The reason there’s nobody on the trail is because it was quite a few degrees below zero.)


When I first lived in Missoula there was a billboard-sized peace sign on top of the hill, and because i lived underneath it I used it to navigate my way home.

The thing is: I loved my life in Missoula and the people I met there are hands down the best I’ve met anywhere ever. If I ever live somewhere again and have friends half as good I’ll consider myself blessed. But despite that, when i was there I often wanted to go where nobody knew my name. I craved anonymity in a fierce way. When I left it felt like I was breaking up with the town I loved, not because of lack of love, but because we just weren’t as right for each other as we’d once been.

There were times I thought maybe we just needed to restructure our relationship. Or maybe we needed better boundaries. Or maybe just a little space, because no one person (place) can be everything to another. Then i realized maybe it wasn’t Missoula; maybe it was me. Maybe it was me in Missoula. 

We parted on good terms. I changed my driver’s license and plates, but still have a bank account and a storage unit there. It chokes me up in a weird way to think about giving up those things, but that could be because I’m currently in a lengthy limbo, which my friend Emily gently reminds me is not a destination. My Missoula roots are timeless, but like most breakups that don’t end with a circle reconciliation: I’ve (kinda) moved on. I’m not even in a committed relationship with another place, but still: I’ve moved on.

{But what I wouldn’t give to be there for an hour or two on a Sunday morning…..}

I first moved to Missoula as a twenty-six year old divorcée, which was not exactly how I’d pictured it. I was young enough to reclaim my twenties (I couldn’t have picked a better place for that task!), but too young to realize that my favorite parts of my life would be the ones that missed the mark and went off the grid.

I love planning, but as it turns out the best stuff is what happens in between everything you’ve planned, in the accidental gaps where there’s just enough space for a little magic to happen. And where does this magic happen: in the places where we pause and breathe. If anyone—even the world’s best psychic or astrologer—had suggested that I’d be living in NYC (under one roof!) with my mother and grandmother I’d have suggested that person throw in the towel on clairvoyance and sign up for some vocational school classes ASAP. I wouldn’t even have explained it like crazy, I’d just have simply said, “There’s no way that would work.”

Now, the situation here is far from perfect, so far that it’s at the top of the list of most frustrating scenarios I’ve ever been involved with. The end is only occasionally in sight, and it’s a squirrely little thing that moves toward and away as it fancies. Some days are better than others, but the fact that we get along enough that no blood’s been shed is nothing short of a miracle.

I’d have bet good money against us, and I’m 33.333% of us.


I lost my footing on Friday, and not just because of Winter Storm Hercules that dumped a lot of snow on a city that has nowhere to put it. Highways shutdown and airports closed—lives were affected in big ways. Lives were lost. At least sixteen people died as a result of Hercules, including a woman with Alzheimer’s who wandered away from her house. I just kind of lost my mind.

It was 100% unsafe for my grandmother to go out, yet Mimi gets antsy when she’s trapped inside the house so we were stuck with a lose-lose situation. When Mimi’s restless she asks more of the same questions with greater frequency. Her general confusion is heightened and her tears more frequent. Her anxiety skyrockets and you can’t be a part of our household and not be affected.

To have all three of us confined in the house on a snow day under the best of circumstances could be dicey, but a few other issues left me on the brink of implosion so I took one for the team and headed for the streets. Many sections of the sidewalks were unshoveled or only partially cleared because I’m not kidding when I say this city has nowhere to put the snow, and more than a couple inches cripples the place. I think we got around eight.

Despite the single digit temps and frigid wind, I doubled-down on my down, wore a thick hat, two pairs of gloves and a scarf that I wrapped around my face. I figured tears frozen to my face would only complicate my situation. I didn’t think about where I was going, I just went, and this was probably a good thing since I wasn’t exactly in an optimal position for decision-making. Somehow, instead of going to a neighborhood that I like, I went to a place called Jackson Heights.

A few weeks ago I went to Jackson Heights to meet someone who might’ve helped me navigate my healthcare options, but it was a frustrating bust and I hated almost everything about that day including the crux moment when I decided to walk home instead of getting on the subway. In the process of walking home from Jackson Heights I discovered what it felt like to be in a real-life version of Epcot where several ethnicities are represented on every single block. On many of those blocks I didn’t see another white person. I didn’t hear English.

NYC men aren’t known for their restraint, but in Jackson Heights they get right up in your face to call you precioso or caliente. The women are pushy too. One woman touched my eyebrows and attempted to drag me into a hole-in-the-wall salon for what I could only imagine (based on the dragger’s permanently surprised face) would have been a complete violation of my eyebrows. When I dug my heels in and used the sharpness of an affected Spanish accent to make my “No!” sound more serious, she effectively questioned my decision by raising one of her penciled eyebrows at me.

I said “no gracias” to a manicure when another over-coiffed women made it clear without words that I was either blind or stupid not to do something about my naked nubs, and although her price fell with every curt “no,” eventually our eyes locked in a moment of understanding and she let me go. For the rest of the walk home I kept my pace determined and my eyes locked and loaded.

That’s the thing about international travel, or a day in Jackson Heights, or communicating with animals: so much is said through gestures. It’s what’s critically missing in email, texting, and virtual communication, and why we need to take extra care with those modes.

Actions can be louder than words and words can be louder than actions and sometimes we’re wrong. And as much as my mother might disagree, I love to be wrong. I love to have my beliefs flipped inside out. I’m tickled to discover a new way of looking at something.

I’m living in Sunnyside, which this New York magazine article lists as reason #11 to love NYC because it has cuisines from twenty-seven countries and five continents within a seven-block stretch of Queens Boulevard.  It’s remarkable. While I may not be living in a bubble over here, Jackson Heights offers a completely elevated level of multicultural. I struggled to get a cup of coffee (despite knowing enough Spanish to do so), and even though I said no to azucar when asked how many I got enough in my cup to make my eyeballs twitch.

After my first trip to Jackson Heights I swore thought I’d never go back. It happened to be a rainy day, and by the time I got home my cotton pants had absorbed water nearly to the knee. They’d grown so heavy that I had to keep one hand on them to keep them from falling right off, so with one hand on my waistband and one on my umbrella I was quite a sight hobbling through Jackson Heights, though nobody noticed. It’s the kind of place where you can sing out loud and half walk-half dance as if you’re a backup dancer or in a Prancersize exercise video and nobody notices. They’re certainly not going to notice if you’re gimping your way down the street.

I wrung my pants out in the bathroom sink when I got home, and the water that filled it was nearly black. NYC’s streets are filthy—this is not a secret—but I think there’s extra soot and grim in Jackson Heights where the trains run overhead on an elevated track that’s open, like a roller coaster, to the ground below. Residue from the trains (including but not limited to steel dust from the tracks and asbestos particles from brake linings) falls to street level where we wear, breath and probably eat it.

So, yes the “real” Epcot even has its version of a monorail except the whole thing is far more exhilarating. At first it’s scary when a train flies by because you can’t hear the voice of a person standing a foot in front of you or the music blasting out of your earbuds. It’s hard not to imagine that at some point the track’s going to fall from the sky, but like all of the sensory onslaughts that NYC offers: you get used to it.Image

After that day I considered a tongue-in-cheek Facebook post about how anyone craving an international vacation—but lacking time or cash—could just take a trip to Jackson Heights. When ready to repatriate to the United Stated, explorers could travel via Woodside (which was originally an Irish neighborhood, and still resembles Ireland in places) into Sunnyside, which after Queens’ 2-legit-2-quit Epcot, feels like a quaint, serene New England village.


 That night, under my covers and hiding from the world, I was positive that I’d never go back. But despite the fact that I’ve done considerable research in this department, I never cease to be amazed by the power of a perspective change, and yesterday that’s exactly what I needed. I needed to step outside my comfort zone in order to step back into myself. I could’ve gone anywhere, but I chose my nemesis.

I could’ve walked in the direction of my yoga studio in Astoria, or to the shops and restaurants in Hunter’s Point, which are right up my alley. I could’ve walked myself right across the 59th Street Bridge to Manhattan, or down to the East River for a view of Manhattan. (This was taken in September, but the view is good any time of day or night.)


But I wasn’t looking for up my alley, and I wasn’t looking for my comfort zone. I needed an experience that would transport me out of myself for a while, and so I chose the place that almost undid me a couple of weeks earlier. I wanted to see if I might find something different there, which was of course to find something different within. I questioned my questionable judgment, but figured that the worst that could happen was that it was a flop and I’d move on the Plan B, C, D etc.

The first thing that happened—before I was even out of my neighborhood—was that I started to laugh. It’s well founded that moving the body is important for mental health, and something I’ve known about myself since I discovered track in seventh grade. I wrote about it during the dark ages of September 2012 when I ran despite unhealthy air quality in Missoula as a result of forest fires.

As I walked into “Epcot”  I turned off my music, and I found that listening to the multitude of languages allowed me a mental vacation. Instead of focusing on my interior dialogue, I heard the unfamiliar words but focused on nothing in particular. I quieted. I found the pause. My laugh turned from a nervous response over entering into the unknown into a genuine chuckle. Just to play it safe, I kept walking.

All in all, I probably walked close to two hundred blocks on Friday, yet I could’ve walked a hundred more. The unfamiliar parts of the world—even the ones that are close by— ignite my curiosity and sense of discovery, and allow me to recharge and restore.

Or maybe it doesn’t so much matter where I walked, what I heard, or what I saw. Maybe I was ripe for a perspective shift, and the physical movement and change of scenery enabled me to tap into what was already inside me.

Just because time is trimming the past off my Last 12 Months photo folder doesn’t mean it’s gone. Not even close. Those pictures are like shadows. They’re there, they just don’t exist without the light.

Here’s a picture of me and Lucky in shadows almost a year ago on a rural road in New Mexico, and then another of us yesterday reflected again the side of a grocery store.



Here are a few more photos of some of the sights of Jackson Heights: 1) An Indian fabric store; location Noted, 2) Kababs and phone cards: one stop shopping, 3) I don’t think so….., 4) Discoteca, 5) Where to buy those white shoes from “Vacation,” 6) The mannequin has dance moves, 7) These kids are ready to party too…, 8) A few “everything stores,” 9) Pink Horse, 10) Hitting Lucid on the way home; lucid is one of my favorite words….What a perfect reintegration station.













Making My Day

Yesterday started with a phone call from a good friend with what she described as an odd favor. “I realize you may not be sending Christmas cards,” she said, “But I’m gonna need you to send us one.” She didn’t say ASAP, but with Christmas less than a week away it was implied.

I love that she didn’t ask. I love that she just said “I’m gonna need.” I mean, I just love this so much.

“My kid checks the mailbox everyday,” she continued, “Looking for the picture of you and Lucky. She thinks every day is the day, and our wall of photos of loved ones won’t be complete until we get that picture of you and Luck….So….about that picture…”

I love this sort of start to a day, especially a day when I’m working under one of my (rigid) self-imposed deadlines, though apparently not quite rigid enough…

I can’t believe I’ve been writing this book for almost a year, and in case anyone’s lost count the number is four. I am currently “finishing” this book for the fourth time. This would be enough to make the sanest person loopy, and coupled with the fact that I’m living with my mother and taking care of my grandmother who suffers from dementia (and who one of her best friends describes as “tough as nails” and she doesn’t mean just physically) is leaving me just a bit threadbare in the nerves department. {Santa?}

So after the phone call I got on the subway where a man played “Amazing Grace” on his accordion, and then, a few serendipitous moments later I’d transported myself to my new favorite home away from home for some hair pulling writing.

Delightful as that space is for writing, after three hours it was time to change venue. I walked and people watched with a hot lemon-ginger drink in hand. I stopped for more writing and a bowl of ridiculously good wild black cod miso soup. (When my sister introduced me to this restaurant (souen on east 6th) a couple months ago I was so excited about the wild black cod, which she found hilarious because who gets so excited about something so specific? Who gets so excited about cod? Answer: her big sister.)

I had salted vanilla and black sesame vegan ice cream. Then I walked some more. Sat in a tea shop. Wrote. Edited. More hair pulling, more face scrunching. Applied some lipstick because it never, ever hurts.

Walked. Bought something for my mother. Bought something for myself. Saw a lot of things to buy “later.”

Decided that the fancy uptown department stores are fine for what they are, but they’re too garish for me and they have nothing (NOTHING!) on the lower Manhattan store windows.

I walked into a delightful shop called The Shape of Lies (because I couldn’t not walk in) and the owner informed me, “Everything in here is made in NYC!” So, Um, yeah, hell yeah I’m going to buy something. I love my new hoops. I didn’t need earrings, but told Peggy I needed some “winter earrings” that go better with scarves than danglies do. My new heirloom hoops were made by an artist named Sophie (my fave) who describes herself as a gypsy, and her work as “primitive modern.” LOVE.

I’ve mailed my young friend her photo , and I can wait to feel
the love when she pins me to the family wall of love. I make your day, you make mine, repeat: I think this is the secret of life.

What follows are some pictures from my wanderings around yesterday. I’m writing this from the subway as I head back downtown for more. More writing, more pictures, more accidental discoveries that make my day.

What makes yours?













I (may be starting to) Love New York

I spent the better part of yesterday writing in a coffee shop on Avenue A in the East Village. In the front it’s an eco-general store called Sustainable NYC, and in the back it’s a coffee shop. The coffee area has a terrific seating area that feels more small-town than big-city, and the barista reminded me of an old friend.

I was covered with snow when I got there, so I hung my coat and hat to dry, and assessed the space, which had everything I need for writing: a sturdy table, a solid bench, and ambient light. Add to that a three-prong outlet right behind my knees, speedy wifi and a gal willing to keep me in chai lattes (then cups of coffee and a peanut butter and banana sandwich) and I was ready to throw it in park.


There was nobody sitting back there, so I stretched out, and it was a  great place to work except for one thing: I was freezing. There was a draft from the window behind me and the front door was being repaired, which on a damp day was kind of a nightmare. But I loved the space so much and didn’t want to leave, so I did the only think I could: I bought an Eco-Flash Dance sweatshirt. It’s pink. I love it.

But this isn’t even the story I want to tell: the story I want to tell is about how I wound up on the west edge of Alphabet City.

I met John online (through a writing forum) in 1997. Joyce Maynard’s Domestic Affairs Discussion Forum predated Facebook, but created a similar type of sharing/virtual conversation. Many of the contributors in that space became a bit like family, and Joyce nurtured (and sometimes scolded!) us like a mother. Joyce and I became so close, in fact, that she officiated my first wedding. But digression is my curse, and that is definitely a different story…

John and I recently reconnected on Facebook, again thanks to Joyce, and it’s been fun rekindling our old friendship. Life moves so fast, but then it snaps and rewinds on us when we’re not expecting it. College students from the mid-1990s and earlier: Remember microfilm breaking free from the reel? FWAAAAp! Start over…..

New York City moves so quickly, so close-up, and sometimes when I’m walking or running on the street a song plays through my headphones and suddenly I’m in a music video shot with low-angles and time-lapses and other techniques used to depict both tension and tranquility. The truth is, I’ve felt like this before—the seeing myself from outside—but my soundtrack varies depending on my backdrop. Move over Gillian Welch, I’m in Lady Gaga territory now….

Because, as Brene Brown says, the most powerful words we can hear when we’re struggling are “me too,” I asked my Facebook friends the following: “How often do you feel like you’re in a music video? What’s your soundtrack?”

The answers rolled in and were fun, but John, who lived in Brooklyn in the 1970s, and who hung out in the East Village on days off, sparked a conversation. His song was “Waiting on a Friend” by the Rolling Stones, and he told me he used to go down to St. Mark’s place and eat a bagel on the  very stoop where the Stones filmed that video. I love that song, and sent that exact video to a friend a few months ago when she needed a pick-me-up, telling her, “Have yourself a morning dance party.”

John went deeper down memory lane and I gladly joined him. I mentioned Union Square, and he launched into a story about how he and his wife used to go to a restaurant called Z—a casual Greek place—and that it was where he and his wife discussed that they we were going to get married. He said “It was so obvious to us that there was no proposal…just a discussion.”

I love this.

There’s so much power is knowing and trusting, yet so many of us second-guess our way through life and then are disappointed (and sometimes angry) when things “don’t work out” and we wish we’d trusted our gut. I’m realizing that if I’m asking a lot of questions there’s often a reason, and if I’m looking to other people to answer my questions I should be doubly leery. In truth I think there’s usually only one question to ask: how does this make my heart feel?

When John and his to-be wife had “the discussion” he was eating moussaka, and I love that he remembers this.  Thirty-six years later he’s still married, still loves moussaka, and still misses NYC. I told John that my parents used to take me to a restaurant called Z when I was little, and thirty-six years ago I was three. He mentioned the eyes of the little Greek kids, and it goosebumped us both to think maybe we were there at the same time. It’s not impossible; nothing is impossible.

Knowing I’m in New York right now taking care of my grandmother, John asked me to take a picture of 96-98 St. Mark’s Place, and of course I said yes. It was snowing yesterday, and though it was beautiful coming down the streets were a slushy mess. I’m currently working on a deadline for this book, and a just-for-fun fieldtrip on a messy day shouldn’t have been on my activities list, but I had faith that a walk to St. Mark’s place would land me in the perfect spot to write.

When John gave me the address I didn’t realize it was one of my favorite blocks in the city: St. Mark’s between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. It’s across the street from East Village Books—a dusty old shop you step down to enter—and a few houses down from Manhattan’s oldest tattoo shop that advertises both cappuccinos and tattoos, and yes I’ve wanted to go in there for some of each. Yesterday I finally went in, but didn’t get anything—not yet anyway—though when I pull the trigger I think that will be the spot.



John wrote the address as 96-98, which I discovered are two separate buildings. I took photos of both, and when I got to the coffee shop and pulled up the video I confirmed it was filmed on the stoop of 96 St. Mark’s Place, though 98’s stoop is less bunked up with trash cans. I love them both.



Here’s that video. (That’s Peter Tosh on the stoop):

96 had a Rolling Stones video shot in it’s doorway, but 98 has this on it’s right hip:Image

And this at its belly:


Just up the street they have this together:


I think I’m starting to love New York…..

Lena and David: Alone Together At Last


Lena Dunham and David Sedaris were adorable together last night in their one-night show ”Alone Together At Last.” Zadie Smith was the surprise introducer (not sure who backed out), and there was a joke about the three of them living under the stairs at the New Yorker together. When Lena arrived at the podium she said, “Isn’t she pretty?” and later in the performance David joked that when Lena called Zadie from a cab on her way to the show she offered her $20 to do the intro, and that he was surprised when she actually took it from him in the dressing room.

These are funny people, but as we know they’re also quite serious. They manage to infuse serious topics like suicide, sex, and sibling rivalry with enough wit to cut the edge but with a safe distance from cloying and predictable. Zadie spoke of the “ferocious honesty” that distinguishes both writers, and their Carnegie Hall performance didn’t disappoint.

Lena started with a joke about how scared she felt on stage without her “shield of nudity,” and she talked a lot about nudity but not until she’d finished talking about stage fright, and I loved it because the one time I stood on a stage and told a story I did the same exact thing: I talked about what I was scared about instead of launching into my story while my heart beat in my toes.

Lena read some new essays (from her forthcoming book that sold for $3.5 MILLION dollars…), and said before beginning, “If I mess up a word let’s just be comfortable with that,” and then, before a sold-out audience, on a stage known for outstanding acoustics, a writer started reading. This is amazing in itself, isn’t it?

Lena’s opening essay was called “Sex Scenes, Nude Scenes and Publicly Sharing Your Body.” She told us about how her mother invented the nude selfie, and went into great detail about her mother’s process and costuming.  She talked about the nude sex scenes in Girls and how most professional actors have canned responses like, “It’s no big deal,” or “It’s like being in bed with your brother,” and she said “Because no one has ever accused me of being professional or an actor I’m going to tell you the truth.” The audience screamed and laughed, and when we stopped she did just that.

Then Lena introduced her idol, David Sedaris, and he was the cutest thing ever arriving on the stage in a pink shirt and what looked to be a vintage Liberty of London tie. (It looks an awful lot like one I recently found in my grandfather’s tie collection that spans multiple generations.) He’s on a forty-city tour (he’s a writer, not a rockstar; how awesome.), and he’s ridiculously comfortable on stage, which is good because he started by reading a story that was recently published in the New Yorker about his sister’s suicide and he seemed to need no preparation beyond a sip of water to tell his family’s tough truth.

It’s the kind of essay (read it here if you missed it) that makes writers limp with envy. He does one of the smartest, bravest things you can do: he tells us up front, in the very first sentence what this essay is about and he’s not coy, not even for a hot second, when he begins, “In late May of this year, a few weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday, my youngest sister, Tiffany, committed suicide.”

And then, because he’s David Sedaris, he made us laugh just about a dozen sentences later. He tells us extraordinary details that make us cry and reflect, then he says something that makes people pitch forward and back in their seats because their bodies just can’t contain the force of their laughter.

The essay, “Now We Are Five,” is over four thousand words, yet I don’t think he lost anyone’s attention on the roller coaster ride of emotion and insight. I’ve read the thing from to back twice to myself and once aloud to my mother, and STILL, I was gripped. If you’re not a fan of David Sedaris but are for some reason reading this, please go buy one of his books immediately. Holidays on Ice would be a seasonally appropriate choice, and you can read an excerpt here in an essay called “SantaLand Diaries” about when he was an elf at Macy’s.

Lena and David flip-flopped a few more times on the stage, and at the end Lena asked the audience, “How good is he at reading?” and his response was, “How good is she at thinking.” Planned or not, it was friggin’ adorable.

My mother and I could see every bit of how adorable they were and the subtle expressions on their faces as they read because we were lucky to have front row seats. We had them because I only learned about the show last Thursday, and also because even if I’d heard about the show before the tickets went on sale in early September it’s unlikely I’d have bought them because I’d have told you it was pretty unlikely I’d still be here at the end of November.

But life is funny like that.

If not downright hilarious, life is definitely surprising. That’s one of the themes that wound through Lena and David’s stories last night. Lena said that when we enter into relationships we’re making “a basic human promise to be decent,” but it doesn’t always work out that well. David took us on his family’s summer vacation just a month after his sister’s suicide and he brought us to beach-towel conversations with his siblings and his solo bike rides alone. He was brave to admit that he hadn’t talked to his sister Tiffany in eight years, not since their last falling out, and though he was often near her town and despite his father’s encouragement: he hadn’t reached out.

While talking about her nude sex scenes, Lena said something about bravery, “It’s not brave if it doesn’t scare you.” Lena and David push boundaries, and this I like. I also liked sitting so close to two of my writing idols. Here’s a picture of them, together, on that beautiful stage:



Nothing to Hide (A Magic Show)

I’m not sure who else leaves a magic show willing to marry a guy who doesn’t know her name and who’s just played mind tricks on her for an hour, but that’s what happened to me yesterday. My affections leaned toward Helder, the smaller guy from Portugal, although Derek was more overtly funny. Maybe it was Helder’s red glasses or his incredible, expressive face or the way, when he was handing out cards for audience participation (though he wasn’t offering to me), and I said, “I want one,” he winked and said two magical words that everyone loves to hear: of course.

Yes, my heart went aflutter over their sleight-of-hand manipulations, illusions and the way they seamlessly wove comedy into the magic show without being too phony, precious or contrived. I liked how Helder and Derek’s rags-to-riches stories—two stories that became one—are incorporated right into the show, and how that’s exactly their point: life is really just series of happenstance. Everything we do and everyone we see, every yes and every no somehow lead us all to this. To right here, right now.

I went to the show with my boarding school friends, Melissa and Vanessa, and it was my idea but I didn’t feel too much pressure because I was backed by a great review from The New York Times. The review’s titled, “Playing With a Full Deck, and Your Head” and although a person can’t believe everything she reads in The Times, I consider it one of the more reliable news sources. (Reliable is sometimes what you want to hear.)

But The Times didn’t lie, and “Nothing to Hide” absolutely plays with your head. I mean….if you let it, but not everyone does, not everyone can, not everyone wants to. Director Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D. for those of you racking your brains) says, “There seem to be two ways to watch live magic performances: Either you try to figure out the method and must know how it’s done, or you simply enjoy it for what it’s worth and give in to the mystery of it all.” (from Playbill.)

I can be gullible, but I don’t consider mysef a total pushover. I challenge rules and protocol and depending on the day I question a lot of what I see, but when an experience makes me feel something all bets are off. Between the  laughs, gasps, and smirks, “Nothing to Hide” made me feel things.

Vanessa and I hooted and laughed our asses off, while Melissa kept a keen eye on the scene. She saw “sleeve magic” and wrists and fingers that seemed to have extra joints and reachability, and while she thought it was cool enough, she wasn’t wowed though I think she appreciated it for what it is: a show.

Any way you slice it: I loved that magic show. I shook hands with and thanked the performers in the post-show receiving line, then walked away but went back to have my card signed, then back a-gain, with Vanessa, for a picture.


There’s a humility and gentleness to “Nothing to Hide.” Derek and Helder talk about how unusual it is in the days of IMAX, iPad, special effects and constant stimulation to even conceive of getting a group of people to spend both their money and time being tricked by two guys on a stage with a few decks of cards. But is it that we’re tricked or that we’re transported, because who can’t use a little escape from reality? The value of an hour-long, midtown vacation is greater in a time when it’s so easy to Google, “How did he do that?” and more often than not to be rewarded with a YouTube video showing exactly how the deal/trick/deception goes down.

Helder and Derek capitalize on our (human) shortcomings in their performance. They ask us, “Is this enough?” and even as they give us more and more proof we’re questioning not only what we’re seeing (or not seeing), but also why enough is never enough. They rile us up so that we’re shouting “No!” even as they’re doing everything they can to build our trust. The joke’s on us. Enough is never enough, even, as Derek said, “When your mind’s been blown out your ass.”

And then we laugh. Or most of us do…

The New York Times review starts with the author looking at the card he got during the show and kept as a memento—in his case, the five of hearts. As I reread the review this morning I had to run to my purse and pull out my playbill to confirm the name of the card stuck inside: the five of hearts.


The five of hearts in the review and in my purse is obviously not part of Helder and Derek’s magic schtick, though the show was full of coincidences just like this. The kinds of things that make a person wonder, “What are the chances?” The kind of things that make you wonder, and isn’t that what the modern world lacks: Wonder, that beautiful marriage of admiration and surprise.

“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.” –Ray Bradbury

Despite the fact that half the audience is shaking their heads and looking for the deception in every trick, Derek reminds us that we go to magic shows to remember that we “live in a world beyond what we know.” His goal as a magician is that his performances encourage people to “ask themselves deeper questions,” and I’d say he can consider himself a success.

The routine examines issues like how altered context influences meaning, and how preconception changes experiences even as they continue to evolve. Sometimes, as in this show, it’s hard to keep up with the shifts and changes. One minute you know something you didn’t know but if you’d known it then you wouldn’t have thought what you did but now you do….so.

A friend of mine was married to—and subsequently divorced from—a man who grew up in a funhouse. It was the kind of place that promises visitors the opportunity to experience an alternate energy field, distorted perceptions, and the peculiar behavior of gravity. This House of Mystery sounds like a fun place to pass an hour, but live there? Yeah, my friend hadn’t though about what it would be like to be married to a guy who grew up with distorted perceptions, wobbly floors and daily anomalies as his norm.

Distorted perceptions. It feels both judgey and assuming to even say it, because it implies “I’m right and you’re wrong.” I think it’s bad-mannered for one person to tell another that what he sees isn’t what he sees, and even more to presume you know how another person feels. But in a world riddled with airbrushing, lip-synching and Ponzi-scheming we’re just not sure who or what to trust even (or especially) when we see it with out own eyes. Ever have a bad dream that sticks with you all day?

In a lot of cases we’ve forgotten how to trust our guts, and we don’t even know how to really trust ourselves. My world these days has been complicated, but I’m pretty solid on trusting myself. I might even say that’s one of my skills, though it took a good girlfriend to point it out to me a few years ago, “Jaime Stathis knows how to take care of herself,” she said right to Jaime Stathis. It was funny, but it also made me think and feel.

I think that trusting yourself and taking care of yourself are dependent on each other, but if a person only has one half of the equation that’s okay. Stick with it and the other will come. I’m in this spot in life where I’m doing what I need to because I want to but also because I have to. There’s need, want and have all in one sentence, except that makes it seem much tidier than it is.

Walking away is always a choice, but it’s not one that’s on my menu. On the other hand, trust in each present moment is the daily special and what will undoubtedly get us through this. The other things that will get us through are love and support, both of/with each other and from the outside. I could’ve done without the family hate mail of the last week, but I’m here to tell the truth not to win people over. You either see things through a similar lens or you’re looking through the big end of the telescope. I’m not invested in making anyone see my point of view, and it’s not for lack of caring it’s just that my fryer is full of different fish.

The Village Voice write-up of Nothing to Hide says that, “They want to make magic that means something—magic that, like art or poetry, relates to the real world.” So simple, so complicated, and what most creative people want. My writing is real; it’s not magic and it’s not even close. There’s no trickery and nothing fancy. In fact, I try to lay it out as simply as possible. I’m not trying to deceive, I just describe my experiences in detail.

One part of my family doesn’t like my truth-telling, and I received a blunt suggestion to write about happy times with my grandmother, which I’ve done plenty of, but in the process of caring for her I’ve learned some things that indicate she wasn’t as happy as she let on. In a sense: she tricked us. I know it stings, but it’s important to remember that her tricks weren’t nefarious—they were simply about self-preservation. I can only imagine how exhausting it was to expend so much energy making people believe she was happy and carefree, while at night she drew on her bedsheets and tucked garbage into closets.

She’s old and I think it’s time she get some respite from the exhausting job of pretending, and with me does. She cries, tells me she’s mixed up, and then she asks me not to tell anyone. In a way I’m going against her confidence, but I know she’s not suffering further by my telling of the truth. I think if she could wrap her head around it she’d be happy that I’m trying to alleviate suffering for others by writing about the too-common struggle of being afraid to show the world yourself unmasked.

A few years ago I saw a therapist who said that none of us should feel we have to “explain ourselves like crazy.” It took me awhile to get it, and in some cases I’m still a work-in-progress. I’m not here doing magic for the 50% of my audience that thinks I’m selfish or a jerk or a liar. I’m not here to make friends, or win over relatives or convince nonbelievers of anything: I’m just here to tell the truth as I see it. I’m not going to try to explain myself to a cousin who said, “Don’t bother answering me. I don’t care what you think.” {insert door slamming sound}

I don’t know exactly how many people from that section of my family are angry about what I’ve written, but I understand that they’re more comfortable when others see things from their perspective and that they believe there’s safety in numbers.

Names were named, “What does so-and-so think?” at the time of the interrogation, but my mother and I didn’t have those answers. Some of the people who thought I was “wrong” kept it to themselves, and some who believe in me hadn’t gotten around to telling me. I wasn’t keeping score like this is game of tic-tac-toe.

This is so not about a score; it’s about being human. One way to feel completely human is to laugh and connect, and after a day of laughs and tricks with old girlfriends I came home to a package from someone I think of as an uncle although he’s Mimi’s cousin. Jimmy’s son Michael was close like a son to my grandfather, but he died in 9/11 in his civilian clothes after he boarded Engine 33 at his East Village firehouse although he was off-duty.

Jimmy and I’ve become closer in the past few years, and although he has a big family of his own, he always finds the time to send me notes of encouragement and care packages with books, hats, candy and scratch-off tickets. My family is big on scratch-offs. In the early days of my blog he wrote to me almost every time I posted to support me and cheer me on. After I eulogized my grandfather Jimmy’s wife Barbara grabbed me in the church vestibule and told me that I’m “Our family’s version of Anne Lamott.” She she said it as if this was a good thing and not something to be afraid of, and it was absolutely one of the best writing compliments I’ve ever received.

Jimmy’s package contained a beautiful note where he said how much he loves his cousin (Mimi) and how my blog post was “one of the most loving and moving pieces of literature” he’s ever read. {These are generous folks…} He also enclosed a book by Maureen Corrigan “Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books.” Jimmy knows this is a book I’d love, but it also happens that the author lived in the same building where Jimmy was raised which is exactly two blocks from where I sit now.

But Jimmy’s P.S. was the best: 

I knew Frank McCourt before he wrote Angela’s Ashes and he got some reaction from his family— don’t let it upset you.

Thanks, Jimmy. Case closed. Tonight I’m going to lose myself in a book. And maybe a little magic.

“Sing your song. Dance your dance. Tell your tale.”

Last week a video went around of Ash Beckham’s TEDx talk about how she responds to kids who want to know if she’s a boy or if she’s a girl. She explains that it’s confusing because her hair is short and she wears boys’ clothes, but that she is, in fact, a girl. She breaks it down: “You know how sometimes you like to wear a pink dress and sometimes you like to wear your comfy jammies? I’m more of a comfy jammies kind of girl….”

If you missed that video, here it is: Coming Out of Your Closet.

Ash’s talk wasn’t about gender, pink dresses, or jammies. It wasn’t even about homophobia or about coming out of “the” closet. It’s about the fact that we all have closets, but “We are bigger than our closets and a closet is no place for a person to truly live.”

She says that a closet is really just a hard conversation, and that we can’t compare our “hard” with anyone else’s. “Hard is not relative. Hard is hard.” In my case right now, hard is taking care of my grandmother who suffers from both hoarding and dementia, and for some people hard is the fact that I’m talking about it.

My honesty’s been met with minimal resistance, though I know that vulnerability and honesty make some people uncomfortable. But I also know this: other people’s discomfort has nothing to do with me. I’ve done a lot of work learning how to accept and own my truth, and though it was hard I’m coasting down the other side of a life spent minimizing my truth for the sake of other people’s happiness, which is basically an Acela train to frustration and unhappiness. That way of living does nothing to foster authentic connection between people.

Over the years I’ve also learned a few things about truth in writing, with my favorite being that “The more intimate and personal the detail, the more universal the story becomes.” {That’s me quoting myself. I wrote that when I was just starting to become a braver writer, and the blog post it came from is here: WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES.

Laura Munson (a writing mentor and role model of mine) is a courageous writer who wrote a book about her marriage falling apart and her reaction to it. Before she had a book she published an essay in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, and you can read that here: “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.”

Laura told me (as she will anyone who asks her) that a person can write about anything if she writes with compassion. It’s true. I wrote with compassion about my experiences taking care of and cleaning up after my grandmother, and I was rewarded with an overwhelmingly positive response. People wrote to me and said, “Me too.” They wrote and asked, “Why didn’t you ask for help?” “When can I come?” and “How can I help?” I didn’t have any good answers except that asking for help is scary, it makes us vulnerable, and we worry about meeting resistance.

Friends wrote and called to make sure I’m okay, to offer respite, and to commend me for both my willingness to do this hard work and my grit in talking about it. Some readers forwarded my post to friends and family who work with the elderly as nurses and therapists, and then those people reached out and offered their support. Some of these people were strangers until suddenly they weren’t, and I wept with gratitude for those hands and hearts extended in my direction. It was intense, but it felt good to allow people in to my world. I was validated and shored up by people who might not even know me if they passed me on the street.

Other folks were less thrilled. Some asked my mother if she’s mad at me for flinging open our closet doors, but she wasn’t. My mother is the person most worried about the contents of my memoir-in-progress, yet when she’s been questioned about my two recent blog posts she did something incredible: she defended me. My mother acknowledged that she’d be the first person to call me out if I’d written anything that wasn’t true, but that I’d written only the truth and that she was proud. If you know my mother you know that she adores me but doesn’t let me get away with much.

There’s a built in liability befriending a writer (in particular a nonfiction writer), but for some people there’s an overlap that is not a choice, and that’s with family. A family member called my mother to express his anger over my sharing of our family’s stories. He couldn’t believe that my mother wasn’t mad and was even more dumbfounded that she wasn’t trying to stop me. Some of the stories I told are old ones but I told them not as a rant, but as reference points to my present situation. My present situation caring for my grandmother and the ensuing story does not happen to be this angry person’s story. As far as I can see his hand has not stretched out in my direction.

I listened patiently as my mother recounted the hard conversation she had where I was pummeled for telling the truth, a truth that is also hers. She’s glad I’m telling the story because she knows how lonely it can be inside a closet, but for my mother there was an additional element to the hard conversation and her hackles went up: someone was attacking her baby.

I’ve hit the pause button on my life to help my family of three, and although I wouldn’t have it any other way it’s not without sacrifice. Unfortunately the angry family member failed to recognize either my benevolence or my hard work. He made my grandmother’s story about him and criticized my content for one reason: my truth made him uncomfortable.

My mother brought up as an analogy Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, a Pulitzer Prize winning tragicomic memoir (um…thanks, mom….) that is basically required reading for Irish-American New Yorkers. Of course he’d read it, but didn’t see the connection, and said to my mother, “That’s different; that book is about his family.” My mother said, “Yes. And?….”

He responded, “The difference is that Jaime is writing about my family.”

Oh. My. God.

“It’s her family too,” my mother said, because after that what else is there?

In Angela’s Ashes McCourt wrote, “Sing your song. Dance your dance. Tell your tale.” Certainly there were plenty of people who opposed his truth telling, but it didn’t stop the book from being crazy successful and widely received by those who also believe that closets are no place to live. McCourt had fairly late in life success, but taught writing and gave his students the best advice: that they are their own best material.

Our stories do not exist alone, and they intersect with the stories of the people whose lives coexist with ours either as a result of biology or through choice. In my recent “brave post” I mention my mother minimally (it’s really a story about my grandmother) and the only thing that could be considered a slight toward my mother is when I mention that I summon the courage she lacks. But what I said is true and she knows it. Any shame she might have for not being strong enough to do this on her own pales in comparison to her gratitude for my strength to put into motion a plan where there previously existed only a downward spiral. My mother has never been in denial about my grandmother’s illnesses, she just wasn’t able to step back and see the way through (and eventually out of) it.

Even if my mother denied my truth, would that make my observations of my experience off limits? (If you say yes you can private message me and so we can talk about it. Or we can talk about it here. Your call.) It’s just like what Ash Beckham says about hard: we can’t compare our hard to someone else’s hard just as we can’t compare our truth to someone else’s. It just depends on which side of the fence you’re on, and I happen to be on the dirty side.

I like the dirty side of the fence just as much as I abhor living in a closet. I know that mental illness can be an uphill battle, and I also know that not talking about mental illness doesn’t make it go away. I’ve done some research in books and in real life (too much, probably), and I’m 100% certain that not talking about it makes it worse. Silence can be deadly. If you don’t believe me ask anyone who’s lost someone to suicide, depression, addiction, or a combination. Ask someone if silence helped when they worried about whether a loved one was going to use or while they waited for someone to show up alive after they’d disappeared. In silence.

After my blog post last week a few people shared an article with me that was published in Slate. The title is “Nobody Brings Dinner When Your Daughter is an Addict.” It’s amazing. Please read it.

Sure it’s hard for people to ask how it’s going with my grandmother, but the brave ones do, and many tell me about their struggles. One friend wrote about her fear of talking about her family’s mental illness and thanked me for my honesty. She said, “I hope someone is bringing you dinner,” which is just as good as someone actually doing it and the perfect antidote to the stones being thrown by people who aren’t offering anything but fear dressed in a thin veil of judgment.

I’m not wavering on my position to tell the truth nor have I even considered backpedaling out of it. Here’s why: for all the people who aren’t hearing what I have to say there’s a hundred who are, and that number has the potential to grow exponentially as one says to another, “Read this; It might help.”

I’m not delusional in thinking the sharing of my story can change the world, but I know that real change happens one person at a time and that I’ve helped more than a few. One said that enabling is a “lonely place to live,” and another told me about her experience with family mental illness and “trying to minimizing the consequences of her behavior and picking up the pieces of her actions.”

What we’re saying to each other is “We’re in this together; I’ve got your back,” and this more than counterbalances the haters. Dr. Brené Brown says, “Don’t try to win over the haters; you are not a jackass whisperer.”

Brené Brown’s been on my hotlist for a couple of years, and in her now famous TED talk on shame she said this:

If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.

She also said,

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive….“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

If that’s not gorgeous i don’t know what is.

Closet’s are not as safe as people think. Sounds, words and thoughts can creep in there, and those dark places aren’t as hermetically sealed from the light as the closet-dwellers believe them to be. I don’t know what makes people think closets are safe. It could be shame, guilt or some other emotion masquerading as anger.

Denial is the first stage of grief, and it’s followed by anger. We circle through denial, anger, bargaining and depression until we eventually reach the blissful place of acceptance. Sometimes a person gets to acceptance then takes another lap through the list because life isn’t always (or ever) as easy as having a checklist. The path to acceptance isn’t always (or ever) linear.

Truth challenges. It stretches. It pushes limits of comfort and safety. I know that some family members aren’t angry, but are instead sad about what I’ve written about my grandmother. It is sad, but sadness can’t erase reality. You know what helps? Yeah: empathy.

My mother and I are in this together and we’re in deep. The best part—because I’m a silver-lining kind of girl—is that my mother and I are cooperating and working together in a way we never have before. We’re living under one roof and barely fighting because we have something bigger to deal with than the pettier stuff that’s ruled us for too long. The woman who’s been most afraid of my truth is actually embracing it, and that’s a beautiful thing in the midst of a messy situation. But here’s the thing: I wish it wasn’t necessary for my mother to defend me.

There’s a very good chance that the (closet-living) people who need to be reading this aren’t. Maybe they’ve written me off, maybe they don’t care, or maybe my presence hasn’t even reached their closets’ radar. I have no control over that, just as they have no control over what I write. I also have no control over any debriefings my mother might receive over my actions, but if anyone has a problem with me it would behoove them to talk to me about it directly otherwise it just might get my Irish up.

The “angry relative” interrogated my mother, and asked her if I’d interviewed my grandmother and then wrote about what she’d told me in confidence. It was nothing like that. My grandmother and I have conversations like we’ve always had, and like a lot of the best conversations they happen spontaneously. My grandmother’s concept of time and reality is altered now, but occasionally she’s able to really be in the present and I cherish those moments.

Maybe it was sitting in a kitchen where generations of our family’s women have prepped and cooked meals. Maybe the cup of tea steaming in front of her triggered something. Maybe the act of peeling of an orange sparked a memory. It’s impossible to know what triggers my grandmother’s reminiscing at this point, though I know that when she’s ready to talk I’m ready to listen.

We value our time together, and when it’s just the two of us she opens up more than in a group because in a group she tends to space out. It could be because she can’t hear everything or because she can’t keep up with the pace. When it’s just the two of us in a quiet room talking directly to each other our hearts engage with each other’s more specifically.

Our conversations and sharing make her happy, and the other night after our good, honest talk she made up a little song and sang it to me, “I’m so happy I could dance all night.” We danced a little then I helped her into some cozy pajamas, because it’s life’s simple acts that are the most challenging to her these days. I poured her a glass of milk, got her into her recliner with a blanket and turned on the television. My Mimi is definitely a comfy jammies kind of girl.

Speak Easy

Mimi and I had dinner alone last night because Maureen went out with her cousins. Before I’d even served her she slipped me sixty bucks and said, “I’m not trying to be sneaky, but you don’t have to tell Mommy about this.” Bless her heart: she thinks I’m nineteen.

Mimi doesn’t really like food anymore, or not nearly so much as she likes treats: Mallomars, Oreos, Haagen Dazs. She picks at her food, and fills up on cookies between meals when we’re not looking. But every once in a while I nail it, and last night was one of those times.

She even ate the raw beet, carrot, broccoli, cabbage slaw that I wasn’t even going to put on her plate until she commented that it looked good. After dinner she asked for “crackers” (her word for cookie), and I told her we didn’t have any. A few days ago I told her no more cookies until she goes to the doctor (I found paperwork stuffed in a drawer that says she’s diabetic), and I talked her into a few clementines to satisfy her (pretty much insatiable) sweet-tooth.

While we peeled, sectioned and ate those miniature oranges we satiated something else: we talked.

We talked about her father, Pete, who was “Smart–so smart he was stupid!” Pete had a couple taxicabs that his father bought him, but was usually found drinking down on 8th Avenue. “He’d let someone else drive his cab. He’d drink, he’d gamble, he’d forget to bring money home to his family.” She told me about Pete coming home with “his load on” and how Nanny would squirrel him to bed to sleep it off.

“Nanny was so good,” Mimi said at least a dozen times while we talked. We talked about her three sisters too, and how much she misses them. I asked if she dreams about them and she said, “Sometimes I wake up thinking about them, but I stop myself. It louses up my head too much. If I start I have to stop myself.”

We also talked about how it was the bootlegging that got Mimi’s father Pete in trouble. They lived on the fourth floor and the ladies on the first, second and third floors would invite him in for shots of bootleg booze from their bathtubs on his way upstairs. “He’d be LIT by the time he got to us!”

“Nanny had to talk to those ladies,” Mimi said, she’d tell them to “Give him a bowl of soup instead! He can’t handle his liquor!”

Nanny eventually got tired of Pete’s baloney, and he rented a furnished room downtown though he kept showing up like a homing pigeon on the Upper West Side. Pete’s parents took care of Nanny and the five children financially, since Pete’s money never made it home, but Mimi told me that Nanny felt “that meant she also had to take care of Pete,” which she grew tired of.

Craving self-sufficiency, Nanny went to work cleaning the (Art Deco, pre-tower) Hearst Building and the YMCA on Central Park West, and my grandmother quit school to take care of the younger kids. Mimi was fifteen but in the 8th grade; she’d already been held back once for “not having enough days,” and her older sister stayed in school because “Alice was smart.”

“They told me ‘you’re smart in other ways, Catherine,’ ” Mimi said as I swallowed tears (though I’ve heard the story before) because how does a family decide which kids get to stay in school and which don’t? I can’t imagine how hard that conversation was, or if they even had it or what it might do to a kid’s self esteem.

She’s acknowledged that a lot of things didn’t get talked about “back then.” She said Nanny kept a lot from the kids, but Pete was “pretty horrible to her.” I’m bold now because if I don’t ask these questions now I may never get answers, “Did he hit her?”

“Only once,” Mimi said, “And I called the cops.” She told me about running down the street to the telephone and ratting out her father, who went to jail. I asked if you called 911 back then, and she thought for a minute then said, “No, you just picked up and the operator was on the line and you asked for the police station.”

When Pete got out of jail he told young Catherine that she should be ashamed of herself for getting her father thrown in the slammer. “You hit my mother,” Mimi told him, and that was the end of that.

We also talked about my grandfather, Joe. He’s been dead for two years and Mimi is saying all sorts of things l haven’t heard before with the most shocking being, “Poppy had girlfriends. Loads of girlfriends.”

Say what?!?!

Yeah. It’s come up offhandedly a few times now, but since we were alone sucking the juice out of sweet oranges I decided to ask a few questions: Were they real girlfriends or just ladies who were friends? Did you know them? Did you care?

She told me they were real girlfriends. She said sometimes he’d come home extra late from the bar (that he owned), but only a couple times did she make a fuss about it. Occasionally he’d take one of his girlfriends for a drive on a Sunday, and she didn’t really care except when a neighbor pointed out that she’d seen Poppy in the driveway with his girlfriend; as if Mimi needed someone pointing out what she already knew. I told her that must have been embarrassing.

She said that only once did she go into the bar and make a fuss. A bunch of the ladies “who hang around in bars” were lined up for him and she marched in there, called him down to the end of the bar and said, “If you play in the mud, Joey, you’re gonna get shit on your sneakers.” {I don’t know if my grandfather ever owned a pair of sneakers, but I’m sure the point was taken.}

Mimi told me that Poppy didn’t deny his girlfriends, and neither did he say “but you’re the one I come home to.” Instead he said, “Remember: you’re the one going shopping tomorrow.”

And shop she did. We’d go to Bloomingdales where she’d buy me the entire Esprit collection (among other things) and then send the boxes COD to the bar. One time she bought me a cotton crew-neck sweater in every color and every size because they were on sale. That rainbow sat on the top shelf of my closet for the seven years it took to cycle through the sizes.

Maybe this is how the hoarding started. Poppy had girlfriends and Mimi worried that if he left her she’d be poor again, so she stocked up.

Mimi told me she thought about leaving him, but stayed for one reason: the money. There’s so little shame at this late stage of her life. It’s enlightening, refreshing, and about goddamn time.

I’ve always known that my grandfather and great-grandfather were bar owners, but had never really thought about what they did before that or what they did during prohibition. I just found paperwork letting me know that my great-grandfather had an automobile repair shop on W.64th street, which was news to me, but last night I got more news: they had a speakeasy.

Well of course they did. And of course I knew nothing about it until now. Goodness I wish I could talk to my Poppy again. I wish he’d known he could speak easy to me.

Here are two pictures of my Pop behind the bar that his parents opened after Prohibition. In the first one he’s seventeen years old. The man on the left is the cook. In the second one he’s twenty-eight and apparently has something to say.




When our evening was winding down Mimi asked for crackers again, and I ran down to the corner for her. She deserves it.


Sometimes as I’m walking down the street I’ll catch a scent that reminds me of my grandmother. It’s not the aroma of a flowery perfume or a roast in the oven or the cinnamon sugar of fresh-baked pastries: it’s a sour smell. It’s garbage.

The smells surprise me. They emerge from restaurants’ grease traps, from musty, piss-soaked sections of concrete, from dank subway platforms. The volatile molecules seep out of confined airshafts or from one of New York City’s many manholes that try, but fail, to contain an underbelly overflowing with waste.

My olfactory memory engages where my grandmother’s arrests, her deficit a result of mental health issues that include dementia and OCD, both undiagnosed due to an irrational fear of doctors, both also an expression of her disorders.

The grandmother I know now is not the grandmother I’ve always known. That woman: she’s gone. Throughout my childhood my grandmother taught me many lessons that I took as truth, but only now am I questioning the validity of what she preached and modeled. She told me not to take on anyone’s problems as my own, to let life’s baloney roll off my back and, as one of her favorite songs instructs, to “Smile though your heart is breaking.”

My heart breaks for my grandmother’s lifetime of stifled emotions and for her belief that a smile is a permanent Band-Aid. It’s challenging to keep smiling as I clean up my grandmother’s life’s accumulation, as the stories my family has told disintegrate like the dust that covers her cherished collections.

I am an only child of an only child, which means there are exactly two of us to care for and clean up after my grandmother. My mother and I have spent the past five weeks sorting, donating, and disposing of the results of my grandmother’s hoarding, but walking into her house it’s impossible to tell a single thing has been removed let alone a dumpster’s worth. It looks like the woman who lives there is destitute and without anyone who cares about her, though both couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a fine line between choice and disease.

A couple decades ago my grandmother tore up the floor in her kitchen and hall exposing several layers of the previous generations’ style choices, leaving behind the heavy ridges of rigor mortis-like glue. In the hall is a tower of tile that’s been waiting to be installed for twenty years, though for my grandmother it’s “never the right time.”

Only one of the tiles has been used though not for its intended purpose; she’s used it to cover a gaping hole in her bathroom window where a pane of glass is missing. I don’t know what happened to the window, but because my grandmother has a temper it’s not out of the question that she put her fist through it. This isn’t something she’d share with us though she’d smile, look us in the eye and deny it. She’ll do anything to preserve her façade.

Her kitchen only has hot water, several light switches are taped over, and most of the house’s wall outlets are inaccessible. Those that can be reached are overloaded with tangles of outdated extension cords that snarl in corners and run like track marks across the parquet floors.

There are two broken televisions, furniture you couldn’t give away, and orphaned lampshades stacked like miniature versions of Pisa. There are enough envelopes, blank greeting cards and paper clips to open a small office supply store. My mother has shredded a dozen thirty-gallon bags worth of bank statements and tax documents from the last century, and we’ve recycled just as many bags of long-expired coupons, cancelled envelopes and discount-store circulars.

As my mother and I remove the garbage—dozens of blown out light bulbs, a plastic whiskey barrel full of mop handles and curtain rods—we reveal additional disasters and it becomes clear: my grandmother’s house is crumbling under the weight of what it’s been carrying. It’s trying to take my grandmother with it.

Until recently you had to shimmy sideways to get from one end of the apartment to the other. Because it’s unsafe, my mother and I have threatened to call the fire department or insurance company and my grandmother responds by slamming a door in my mother’s face or telling me to pack my bags if I’m there to bust her chops. My grandmother’s lost her ability to reason, but one truth is as clear as it ever was: she doesn’t want anyone coming inside her house.

She has enough sets of fine china, sterling silver flatware from Tiffany, and glassware (for everything from apertifs to digestifs) to host dozens of guests, but there’s a catch: she doesn’t entertain. She never has. I can count the number of people she’ll invite into her home on one hand, and it’s been so long since anyone has been allowed inside for so much as a simple repair that what was once a home has deteriorated into a hovel.

My grandmother has resolutely denied anyone the opportunity to clean for her, but with the courage my mother lacks I matched my grandmother’s fierceness and finally said, “I am not going to let you die in that filthy apartment.” It started as a threat, but then there I was in a mask and rubber gloves, stuffing two black contractor bags full of moldy clothes from her bathtub. I worked for four hours in that bathroom, but she didn’t seem to notice or more likely she didn’t want to talk about it.

Last Sunday my mother took my grandmother to visit relatives, and I stayed behind to tackle the bedroom. I started by bagging up and dragging out most of the items belonging to people who no longer have a pulse. It seemed cruel, but we just can’t keep it all. What got us into this mess is not what will get us out. I repeat that like a mantra.

I found hundreds of crumpled and balled up knee-high stockings, dozens of crocheted doilies, and seventeen curtains still tagged and wrapped in plastic. I unearthed enough ace bandages for a professional ball team, at least six sets of slippers, and a mint-condition abdominal exercise machine (my grandmother is almost ninety).

I discovered a box of hundreds of laminated prayer cards for every funeral she’s been to and some that she hasn’t, and just as many keys to long-defunct locks, some of which opened doors that never even belonged to our family. I found stacks of restaurant napkins because how else is she supposed to get the rolls home?

I dug out yellowed newspaper cutouts on depression, anxiety and the danger of emotional attachments to things.

A cedar trunk and several Rubbermaid bins held enough bed linens to outfit several families, and I bagged most of them for Goodwill. My grandmother sleeps in my deceased grandfather’s old, broken down recliner in what should be her dining room, but I kept a few sets of sheets in case she ever changes her mind. Erring toward hope, I decided to freshen up the recently cleared off bed.

I pulled back the musty comforter and sheets, and saw that my grandmother had used a ballpoint pen to draw faces and write words on the fitted sheet. I crawled onto the bed and kneeled over her art for closer inspection. Some of the faces had hair, some sported sideways smiles, and some had a straight line where a mouth would be.

She signed her autograph a few times, and in black Sharpie penned a note to me, “Hi Jaime,” she wrote, “Hope all is well with you, Love ya,” and next to it a simple, “Hi Jaime” in perfect cursive. With an impossible lump in my throat I stripped those sheets off the bed.

I’ve always loved that verb for changing a bed: strip. I exposed it; I made it naked. It felt wrong—stripping my grandmother of her secrets—but someone has to do it and the job’s defaulted to me. The bare mattress was deplorable. Its satin cover has vertical splits, and a ruptured side seam exposed the inner foam and wire. Even without a body sleeping on it the mattress came undone from the weight of what’s been piled on it for years.

I located a mattress cover, a set of soft, clean sheets and a heavy, brocade coverlet that my parents bought on their honeymoon in Greece. I pulled the linens taut, tucked tight hospital corners and jammed clumpy pillows into cases and decorative shams. I made it beautiful. I made that bed as if it matters, as if it might make a difference.

When I finished I stood back, admired my work and burst into tears. When I’m doing this work with my mother I try to keep it together, but alone I let it rip. I sobbed and worried about how much of my grandmother’s turmoil is inside me, and I wondered, as I often do, why we’re so culturally adverse to showing our true feelings. And I don’t mean just my family, though we seem to have a bad case of it.

My cleaning is not going to mend my grandmother’s brain or heart, but yet I continue. I dig through the rubble and scrub surfaces in part because it needs to get done, but also because an organized exterior might calm some of the agitation that percolates inside her. I have faith and hope in that possibility, but I do this work for a different reason: I do it for love.

On some level I’m doing this work more for me than for anything or anyone else. I do it because loving someone when it’s difficult is one of life’s greatest challenges and rewards.

We have a responsibility to care for our young and our old, and often the work is terrible. I have to tell my grandmother, “You wore that yesterday. You can’t wear it today.” I don’t mention the previous days because she can’t remember those. I have to tell her when she wets her pants and needs to change, and then I have to take the soiled garments and bag them because if I don’t she’ll squirrel them away. It’s degrading for her, but I do it with as much compassion and grace as possible and I’m constantly amazed at what we’re capable of when choice is removed from the equation.

I like a plan, but my mother and I were so far out of our depths that drowning pushed in, so I hired two geriatric care consultants to come assess the situation and help us devise a strategy. The five of us sat around my mother’s dining room table—actually, my grandmother stood, too lathered to sit—and we didn’t make much progress because all my grandmother wanted to talk about was how furious she was at me for inviting strangers into our private business. I assured her I did it out of love, and she said, “If this is the way you show love I’d rather you hate me.”

She asked me who died and left me boss, told me I should be ashamed of myself, and ordered me to leave her the hell alone. The emotions passed, and within minutes she’d forgotten her anger and agreed with the consultants who told her how lucky she is to have a granddaughter who cares so much. I told my grandmother I was confused because minutes earlier she’d told me to pack my bags. At the end of my rope I asked, “Which is it?”

“I love you when you’re not giving me a hard time,” she said laughing, and my reply shocked me, “Are you telling me that your love is conditional?” The underlying causes of OCD and compulsive hoarding are immense, but among them are a fear of not being loved and a desire to receive love through control. With the added attraction of dementia, my grandmother’s well-honed defenses are down and her natural inclinations are up. To say the situation is dicey is an understatement.

One of the phrases my grandmother has always used to diffuse a situation is one she still employs regularly, “Everything is under control, baby. Don’t you worry.” For most of my life I’ve believed everything my grandmother’s told me, but those days are over. I’m no longer buying; I just can’t. It’s not helping and it isn’t the path that will guide us out of this mess.

I’ve realized that the more out of control things are the more adamantly she’ll try to convince me that they’re not. The more she smiles in the midst of chaos, the more I prepare for the bottom dropping out. I actually feel encouraged when she cries, because although it’s sad, she’s expressing her emotions without resorting to rage or compulsions. This is good. I think she’s as tired of the worn-out stories and excuses as I am.

Each day new truths manifest from the dregs, and the path is clearing. I see that it’s the truth that will get us out. Well, that and smiling.

My House is Built on Words



I recently unpacked into drawers and onto hangers for the first time since June, so I guess you could say I’m in transition. But is that a place you can be, and if so how long can you stay there? And why do we say we’re “in” something when the implication is that it’s temporary: in a pickle, in transition, in love.

Oops. I wasn’t expecting that, so we’ll call it a “plot twist” and circle back to being in transition. I ripped this off Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook page earlier this week and just love it. Imagine if we all threw our hands in the air and yelled “plot twist” when we got into something we weren’t expecting?


I went from winter at eight thousand feet in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo to instant summer when I arrived in Southwest Florida in the middle of April. Unlike Montana, there’s never a chance of snow in April, My or June and it got consistently hotter until I left just after the official start of Summer.

It was a hot, muggy summer as I did loops around the northeast where my things stayed mostly in my car and I shuttled bags in and out of friends houses in smaller bags or by the armful when one of my bags served double duty as a hamper.

I met a lot of friends of friends this summer, and was asked the usual, “Where are you from?” Sometimes I answered “Connecticut,” where I spent my childhood, and sometimes I answered “Missoula,” which is where, I said, “I grew up” (or tried to grow up). Sometimes I even said “New York,” because that’s where my family is from, and even though I went to school in Connecticut I no longer have any family there. My roots are in New York City. Sometimes my answers were very long.

“But…I mean…” they stammered, “Where do you live now?” My answers ran the gamut from a shocking “nowhere” to “see that Subaru over there?” This is what the car looked like at the end of the summer:


My car was four years old when I bought it in January 2008 and had just enough miles for the kinks to have been worked out. There was (and still is) a salad-plate sized dent near the gas tank so I didn’t have to cry over inflicting her first war-wound. I liked the champagne color and the “cold weather package,” which includes heated leather seats, heated windshield wipers, and heated mirrors, but the real “package” that sold me wasn’t one offered by a manufacturer: it was what I called my “getaway package” and consisted of an expedition size Thule box and a U-Haul hitch.

At the time I was only half a year back from my experience living abroad in Honduras, and not nearly straightened out regarding the experience, but I’m a forward-thinking gal, and I was already thinking of my next adventure. Less than two years later my getaway car came in handy for a WY/OR/CA trip during which time the Thule doubled as a closet/garage/storage unit when it wasn’t mobile.

We* took our show off the road (*we meaning me, Lucky, and the getaway car) for a whopping sixteen months, and during that time the Thule was barren and functioned mostly as a way to identify my car in Misssoula parking lots where approximately 7/10 cars are Subarus. Other than the fact that I can’t drive through some car washes or park in garages when given the opportunity, I love my getaway car, and it proved indispensable during my past three months as a true peripatetic. 

{NOTE: I love the word peripatetic and just learned it. It’s fascinating to discover a word that describes you and wonder where that word has been hiding all your life.}

Over the summer I parked on driveways made of crushed shells, on pea gravel, on mud, on city streets. On sand. I applied deodorant, tweezed eyebrows, q-tipped ears and road-tested outfits in every driveway I’ve parked in overnight and even in a few pit stops. I gained experience as a contortionist because you think there’s plenty of room in your front seat until your try to change your pants around a steering wheel.

My getaway car needs a name ASAP. As of this minute I’m going to start calling her Agnes, after my great-grandmother. Agnes also happens to be my mother’s middle name and a name she loathes; I’ll see if I can turn it around for her.

All summer Agnes carried a cooler, a tote of books, a Vitamix blender, a box of “kitchen” items and my “stuff,” which includes a handsome, leggy boy who likes (and deserves) to stretch out on his bed.


One suitcase held the majority of my clothes with separate bags for underwear, athletic wear, and shoes. There was a “cold weather bag” but that stayed in the “upstairs” during the months when I thought it would never cool off (pretty much all of June, July and August), though my arrival in Maine coincided with the arrival of September and all of a sudden my clothes required some major shifting.

Like everyone living a few dozen latitudinal lines away from the equator, I had to reorganize my clothes for a change of season. This didn’t mean moving the out of season items to a different closet or to the garage or to under-bed bins; it meant a shift in real estate within Agnes. The flip-flops went up, and the boots came down. I located wool and down and discontinued strapless and linen. Agnes got a seasonal facelift. 

It might sound a little complicated, but really: it’s so simple. When people have remarked, “I don’t know how you’ve been able to live like this,” what they’re really saying is, “I can’t imagine myself living with so little.” I’ve realized I have so much more than I need.

I’d started thinking of a minimalist lifestyle before I moved into my car, and as I prepped for this adventure I wrote about the items taking up the most space in my storage unit: my books.

You see: my house is built on words.

This topic was 100% Emily and at first I thought “what house?” then I got it and felt like a fool for not “getting it” sooner.

I find books irresistible, and because books are made of words linked together: I also love words. Words don’t even have to be in books for me to love them. I love that we can use them for precision or we can just use them. Yesterday my friend Caraline called to check on me and sent this in a post-conversation text message:


But not everyone cares about words. Not everyone minds the distinction between fewer and less or bring and take, and not everyone builds houses on words though some of us start early. Here I am, 2 ½ years old, in  bed with a pile of books: my little house of words.


Emily has a deed with her name on it and I have, well, you know what I have (AGNES!) but our inner houses are built on the words we read, the words we write, and words spoken. Because we’re writers we also allow white space in our homes for the words unwritten, unread, unspoken.

Emily writes beautiful prose, but first she’s a poet. I imagine her house of words is a bit modern with tall ceilings and lots of light. The light comes from windows and also from stylish, European fixtures that cast bright beams and fabulous shadows. Reclaimed elements show scratches, dings and evidence of life lived, but are integrated into Em’s space with modern pieces molded from polished steel and concrete. Her walls are interesting colors you can’t identify. Is that green? Is that purple? Em giggles when you ask about the color, and offers you a cup of soup. 

My house looks different. It’s old and may smell a bit musty. The basement could be interesting but you might need to bring your own light. There’s an inviting front porch, but watch your step and make yourself comfortable but watch where you sit; that might be wet, here’s a towel. The windows are plentiful but shadowed by eaves. Many are leaded and stained glass—my favorites—and run from floor to ceiling. Some are so heavy they require four hands and a solid heave while some barely close and never latch. There are front stairs and back stairs and small rooms tucked here and there. The third floor feels like a tree house. Or a dog house. It’s unlikely you’ll get out without a little dog hair on you. 

i ended the summer under the harvest moon in Stonington, Maine (as far east as I’ve ever been!), but as the season turned from summer to fall I was in Concord, MA visiting the kind of friends you want to claim as family. Suzanne took me all over the place visiting Concord’s historical treasures, but the one that made the biggest impression was the Orchard House, where the Alcott family lived and where Louisa May wrote LITTLE WOMEN.

I learned that Louisa was a self-described “literary spinster,” and “happy to paddle her own canoe.” The semi-autobiographical novel says that her father went to war, though in reality it was Louisa. An early feminist, she didn’t want to have a husband in the book, but her publisher insisted, so she created one who was smart, on the older side, and a little rotund. She thought this was funny.

The Alcotts encouraged the arts with all their girls, and Bronson Alcott’s philosophy school started in the Orchard House, so the girls were raised with the Transcendentalists—Emerson and Thoreau—in their living room, and learned to be careful observers of both nature and themselves.

May was encouraged to draw—even on the walls!—and Papa Alcott built Louisa a writing desk at a time when it was inappropriate for a girl to have a desk of her own. I watched a video in which an actress portraying Louisa May gives advice: Read the best books to improve style, get physical activity, allow your stories to simmer by doing housework and gardening, don’t write at fourteen-hour stretches (as she did), and keep a journal because you never know what life experience will inspire you. At the end of the tour this girl without a home bought her second coffee table book of the summer: Annie Leibovitz’s PILGRIMAGE. It just seemed right to do.

{NOTE: I saw “Pilgrimage” back in March at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe with Emily, my Striped Shirt Review collaborator, when this segment of my journey was well underway but still yet to reveal its full purpose. You can read my account of that visit HERE, and Emily’s HERE. We hadn’t yet started to blog on the same topic, but the idea incubated with these April Fool’s Day posts…. }

I was at the end of my rope in Concord with a book so close to but not quite fully cooked, and my immediate future looming large. The future I reference here is NOT the future of publishing a book, but rather the future of temporarily moving in with my mother and grandmother to help with my grandmother’s care and figure out the next steps so everyone can be happy and safe. I say “happy and safe” as if these are easy things to accomplish like covering greys or going to yoga or changing a lock. 

As Suzanne took me around Concord I met lots of her friends, and felt like coming up with something to say other than “nowhere” or “in my car” when asked where I live. One day, in response to the question, I spontaneously bent my elbows and wrists, tucked my fingertips into my armpits, and then slid my fingers down to mid-thigh. “Here.” I said. “I live here.”

“Oh! In Concord?” they asked, either oblivious to my gesticulation or uncomfortable with it. “No,” I clarified with a foot stomp. “Right here. Wherever I am. This body is my home. I’m at home in this body.”

I shocked myself, but tried it out a few more times and it felt good. It’s like this: we can define ourselves by what we have, by where we work, or by our addresses or we can start on a more elemental level: we can start with ourselves.

Here are a few more pictures of me when I was two and three years old: in bed with a pile of books, working on my balance, loving animals, checking out the horizon. Some things change, and some things sure don’t.







“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

(The) Potential (of No)

Emily and I decided on “potential” as our topic about two weeks ago, and she streamlined it into “The Potential of No.” I wasn’t sold on the “no” part at first, but have had a lot of time to think about it, and to be honest I’m not sure I’ve come up with much. But here’s what I have: there’s as much potential in no as there is in yes.

It sounds so cliché. So plagiarized. So familiar, right? Didn’t someone come up with this already? Well, I’m sort of guessing not, since a Google search for “the potential of no” came up with a odd sampling of results, none of which speak to what I’ve been thinking, which is this: a no is sometimes a yes.

There’s as much power in saying no to something as there is in saying yes, because, like my last post about the many variations on light and dark, we can’t know one unless we know the other. It’s like knowing what you don’t want is practically as clear (and in some cases more straightforward) than knowing what you do.

I want to believe that the book I’ve been busting a nut over writing has potential, but that sure is vague. Yes, I want it to have the potential to succeed when so many books don’t. I mean, I want people to buy it, read it, and if I’m lucky, think about it. I want it to have the potential to make a difference in someone’s life, though I know that at the heart of the matter it’s made a difference in one life—mine—and that potential alone just may be enough.

(SIDEBAR: On the topic of enough….Dr. Brene Brown says the two most dangerous words we can say are “not enough.” I honestly think that if everyone in the world watched this there would be an epic shift in how we treat ourselves, and therefore others. Here’s THE LINK to a four-minute, life-changing video.

As an adjective, potential is a win-win situation, defined as having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future. I say win-win because everything has the potential “to become or develop into something,” but I’ll add a kicker: it might not be what we wanted or intended and even worse, it might not be when we begged/pleaded/bargained for it. But it will be something. It might even be (gasp!) failure, though failure too has the potential to…..ok, you know the story by now.

Perhaps this is why we often attach adjectives to potential as a noun, as in unlimited potential, undeveloped potential. It’s why the word itself has as many positive connotations as it does negative, because one thing leads to another to another to another to another. I’m not a scientist, but this is all about about inertia, kids.

Too often (by me) the word potential is followed by “for disaster.”


This is not a photo of Lucky looking out at the water that I forgot to crop the chair out of; this is a picture of a chair-colored caterpillar. Now I know, the caterpillar is perhaps the most overused symbol of potential that we have, and I know I preceded the photo by talking about disaster, and what in the world is so disastrous about a caterpillar? Nothing, obviously. I’m not bound for the institution…YET…But I’m sitting here thinking about the intense book editing I have ahead of me the next few days and about potential and there’s a friggin’ caterpillar there to remind me that it too is in the middle.

{Trust me: when you start thinking about potential you can’t stop.}

But the potential for disaster part is really about the fact that the camouflaged caterpillar reminds me that this is about the time of night when the porcupines come out and start acting like they own the place. Given the fact that I have a rascal of a dog, I am, as they saying, flirting with the potential for disaster. I should could go out to the garage and try to locate a pair of pliers just in case, or at least make sure I know where the emergency vet is though even though I already know it’s a good ninety minutes away. I’m alone, and that could be a long drive for the two of us so really I should must do whatever I need to in order to avoid this potential for disaster. 

I got used to being alone last winter in New Mexico, and now, with modern conveniences such as telephone and Internet, I’m technically much less alone than I was then. So I’m comfortable leaving room for more allowing, though even then I allowed Luck to gallivant at night even when I knew he was running with the coyotes and there was a damn-good possibility he’d eventually encounter something he couldn’t handle. But he didn’t, so I won. Or I lost for the needless worrying. Hmmm….

Even when I wasn’t alone—when I was with friends in Rhode Island—Lucky gave me a run for my money and once stayed out all night. So now, in Maine, somewhere between those two scenarios, I’m pondering what to allow, because the more I allow the more potential there is for the dog to potentially get quilled.

So I don’t allow him off the deck after dark, but I do allow him to stay on the deck when I go inside for tea or to use the bathroom. So there’s a risk there, but he might confuse my absence with permission. Am I allowing life to develop (which it will anyway regardless of my fight) or am I risking the potential for disaster? Is there a difference?

But here’s the thing on a bigger scale: when we deduct allowing (and not just the risky kind) we diminish the possibility of potential.

And allowing, I think, is where it’s at.

A few days ago I went for a run on a trail that made me feel like I was in the Blair Witch Project. This was not an out-and-back trail, nor was it on an open hillside (like my daily hiking/running trail in Missoula), nor was it along the ocean or following the double yellow line. It was a serpentine mess in there that required keeping a constant eye on trail blazes. In this case the blazes were either white or yellow—two different trails snaking around—and all I really wanted was to not think. I just wanted to move without having to pay attention or keep track of anything. Really what I was doing was earning another lobster roll, but that’s a different story…

In the thick woods you can convince yourself that you’re lost and have completely misplaced the trail you were just standing on because all you see in front of you is an enormous slab of rock. But if you turn your eyes up and scan the trees the blazes are there to guide you. Finding the blazes on the trees gives a person the confidence to keep going; not finding them can be paralyzing. Knowing where to look and keeping calm is key. There’s so much potential for a situation to turn either way, and here’s the sucker punch: it’s kind of more-or-less totally our responsibility.


But really, the potential for the upside of potential—the getting found instead of staying lost, the triumph instead of disaster—boils down to this something simple and elementary: pay attention.

I went on a boat trip this morning to Monhegan Island. It was supposed to be a beautiful, ninety-degree day, but at 8:00 am it was cool and foggy. I wore jeans and a long sleeved shirt with a vest, knee socks and sneakers on my feet. I packed a down jacket and knit cap, but also shorts, a t-shirt, and a brimmed hat. I packed sandals and a rain slicker. Yes, all this for an eight-hour excursion.

I used every single thing I brought with me. I was prepared for the potential that the weather forecast was correct, but more than that I was prepared for the potential for change, and if I had to set my heart on believing in one thing in the world it might be in the potential for change.

Now, I’m back at the house generously loaned to me for writing, and I’m sitting on the deck. The temperature is still hovering around eighty though the sun is down, and that caterpillar is still giving me the stink eye. I’m starting, again, to think of the potential for disaster.

I’ve given myself a tremendous gift lately of time, and with that time I’ve been able to allow my life to unfold. I plan some things in advance, but most I leave to chance. This would not work for everyone, but it seems to be working for me though it isn’t without intense, incredible (personal) responsibility.

I’ve given myself the task of not only writing a book, but also of rewriting it, now for the second time. That’s three times for the non-mathematicians out there. That’s a lot. Trust me. It means, in practical terms, that no matter what else I’ve been doing, I’ve also been constantly, incessantly thinking about writing. You should see all the text messages and voice memos I send to myself; it’s  b a n a n a s.

But sometimes I say no to writing. I give myself permission to go on a boat ride or to read the great book I can hardly put down. When I go out for my nightly lobster roll I might, instead of bringing a notebook to the picnic table, just simply sit and observe. I allow the potential to strike up a conversation with a stranger or see something I might otherwise have missed

So. As it turns out, we can’t talk about potential if we don’t also talk about permission.

I addition to three seasons worth of outfits, I also packed my iPad in my backpack today for the day-trip to Monhegan Island. I planned to find a nice spot to sit and write. I planned to write this blog post there, instead of tonight. But I never took the iPad out of my bag, and only even considered taking it out one time. I walked, took pictures and talked to people. I learned about a not-to-be-missed country fair that I’m now going to hit next Friday morning before I head south.

Near the end of the day I was walking back toward the ferry dock and I saw this huge cocoon. I have no idea what insect larvae hatches in that beast, but I found the mass impressive:


I wasn’t sure how I felt about this blog post about potential being driven by the metaphor of the caterpillar, and now, the cocoon, impressive in size or not. But in the midst of the writing, I decided to play it safe, and I went to the garage to take a look around for a pair of pliers just in case, and on the way there I saw in the driveway a beautiful, dead butterfly. I wasn’t sure it was dead at first; it looked too perfect.

So I found the pliers, put in a load of wash and came back out. Still there, still dead. So I did what any normal person would do: I brought in inside, put it on a piece of paper, and took a photo of it.


I did not make this up. Honest. I swear I didn’t spend the day looking for the caterpillar, cocoon, and dead butterfly just so I could find some way to talk about potential, but there they were for me to see. For me to pay attention to. It’s a confirmation that, as always, what happens in real life is better than anything we can imagine.

And by the way, locating the pliers was simple, though I doubt I’ll need them. But I’ll tell you what I’m not going to do right now: as impressive as it is, I’m not going to go take pictures of the lightening that’s going on outside. Instead I’m going to do this: I’m going to give myself permission to get in bed and read. The sun will rise tomorrow on a new day filled, as always, with potential.