She had never thought of herself as an athlete but when she was 22 she tried to impress a guy by going for a run with him. She hated it. She didn’t tell him that, just smiled every time he looked back at her, like isn’t this fun? Then she started running on her own, still in hopes of impressing him or some other guy in the future. She sees now that’s how God got her out on the trail, God used her young self’s need to impress boys to bring her to something way beyond boys.
Now, tens of thousands of miles later, she sets off, OG (original guy) long forgotten. What was his name anyway? The gentle jog at the start, her feet barely come off of the pavement, her speed slower than many walkers. The tight thighs and achilles slowly warm up, the stab of pain near the big right toe makes her adjust the stride. When she first starts to run her body feels like it was assembled by five year olds doing art with dried pasta tubes, frayed strings slipped through the pieces that clack together. All the right parts but assembled hastily, knee not perfectly lined up with tibia, tendons slapped onto bone. It all rattles a bit, but she knows that will go away. By the end of the first mile, the hardest part by far, the part so few people manage, the blood is flowing, the joints oiled, the pieces now aligned and softened and working together. Like the orchestra members finally stopped warming up and started playing an actual song.
The first mile is where the rational world gets shed, an argument considered and tossed by the side of the road, a worry left on a rock, a limitation dropped in the bushes. It’s where doubt and resistance rise up in front of her and she dodges them, again and again, as her parts remember they belong to the same body and start working together. The rest of life often feels off, with her always adjusting to fit other people’s timing, other people’s needs, other people’s vision for her and the world, but somewhere in that first mile she’s able to shed that self.
The first mile is of the rational world, a running from, but the rest is freedom, a running to. Now her body feels like it was put together by the Gods. Past the first mile is a place where she matches the beat of the earth, where the sun and the wind and the trees cheer her on, where she runs, where she belongs.
As she runs she imagines how to urge the rest of her tribe out, how to summon them past the first mile.
She wants them all to know the magic that waits there.
Past the first mile is where she became a runner, but it is also where she became a Dr., and then a Mrs., and then a mother, and then a writer. And it is where she returns to the self that is none and all of those things, every time she runs.
We are a family of many passions. A family of strongly held opinions, of arguments well-honed in the shower, of confidence that we can transmit our brilliance to the minds of the rest of the family, filled with a certainty that the rest of the family is eager to absorb our wisdom.
Thus, we talk over each other. And during the rare moments we are silent when someone else is speaking, we are not really listening, we are preparing our next brilliant verbalization. We aren’t listening to each other. Not really listening, which is to ‘give one’s attention to a sound.’ We are not doing that, unless you count the way we listen to our own monologues.
Dinner time at our house might as well be the tower of Babel, a cacophony of voices. All transmitting and no receiving, each with our own special style of not listening.
I am The Expert. I read a lot. I think a lot about what I’ve read. I deep dive on topics and thus feel like I am the one who should pontificate. I am bewildered that the family is not hanging on my every well-informed word.
Husband is The Agitator, or as we often call him, the ‘Dadgitator.’ A lifetime spent in locker rooms has turned him into someone always ready with the tease, with the barb, the jab. It is highly entertaining for him and he assumes, despite many assurances to the contrary, that it is as entertaining for me.
Son is The Provocateur. He leans into the shocking, the opposite of whatever he thinks I believe, never missing the chance to get a rise out of me. He laughingly admits he doesn’t even believe a lot of what he says, but he gets me every time.
Daughter is The Reformed, having escaped to college and experienced civil discourse with other people, amazed to discover people might actually listen and then respond to what you said. She is trying to help us mend our ways.
All of us think our way is right, and secretly (or not so secretly) deride the others for their communication style.
Occasionally I pull out my credentials, I taught people how to communicate for a living! Listen to me, I got paid to do this!
This tends to backfire because I only do this when I am in defensive mode, at which point I am no longer following my own good advice. They fight to be the first to point that out. It becomes a source of embarrassment for me and extended humor for Husband and Son.
As is the case with so many other things in my life, I find relief at the ocean. Sounds that won’t agitate, sounds that will soothe. The wind and the waves and the birds. They are just there, just being water, being air, being animals. The birds screech over each other too, but they aren’t trying to convince me of anything. They aren’t mad at me or entertained by me or questioning me. They don’t even notice me. I’m not trying to convince them of anything either. We all just exist together.
The wind and the waves eventually scrub my brain clean.
The emotion fades. The arguments seem silly. The vastness of the ocean brings a calmer mind.
I start to remember the endearing things about my people. The funny things. The kind things. The loving things. Their strengths and lovable quirks. The myriad reasons I love them.
How do we know we are loved? When we feel someone’s eyes really on us. When someone pays attention to us. I’m reminded of a phrase I read years ago, that ‘attention is the magic elixir.’ Attention is the magic elixir that grows love.
And isn’t attention the heart of listening?
And don’t I want my people to feel my love?
More than anything.
From this peaceful remove of the ocean, I decide to be the bigger person, to put aside my perfectly crafted arguments and just listen. Respond to what they say, not just scan for a place to insert my thoughts.
Our brains aren’t always prepared for such a massive shift so I put some parameters on it.
I will do it for short periods of time. Like, try five minutes (which turns out to be TOO LONG). Back it down to three minutes.
I will make a note of the argument I am so compelled to share so I won’t forget it and put it aside. Always a chance later if it is truly worthy. Good arguments don’t evaporate.
I will breathe. Deep breathing, the type that uses the diaphragm, that activates the parasympathetic nervous system so that the agitating and provocations aren’t coded in my body as running from the tiger.
And one last reminder for these moments, a mantra if you will: I can be right or I can be loving. I don’t actually get to see the members of my family for long periods in the day (one works insane hours, one is at school in another state, one is a teenaged boy, so, you know). I’d rather be loving, if I have to choose.
When it comes right down to it, we all just want to be known and loved.
And I’m going to do my best to use the magic elixir of attention to give that to my people. That’s all I really want for them, to feel known and loved.
I’ll just have to take my wondrous, exhaustive, comprehensive wisdom into my next life. Maybe someone will find a use for it there.
I was recently talking to my sister and we realized we both made a big mistake with our teenagers. For good reasons at the time, we both opened up a lunch food budget but now can’t seem to close it. They have all come to expect that they should be able to buy lunch if not every day, a lot of days. We can’t seem to get the genie back in the bottle without being accused of denying our children food.
This made me think about how many things we can’t really go back from. In fact, there are many things I wouldn’t want to go back from. That is a more fun game to play:
Once we bought a pre-owned car, I couldn’t imagine buying new again. I am currently cruising around in a luxury car I could never have justified buying new (not that I care if other people do, I just like to keep extra cash for my TJMaxx visits).
Once I had the idea to put mashed potatoes in the crock pot at Thanksgiving to keep them warm and I never would change that. Mashed potatoes cool off faster than a Kim Kardashian relationship but in the crock pot (after cooking them regular way), they are always tasty warm.
Once I put a topper on my bed I have realized I can’t go back to sleeping without one. Every night I sink into and feel like a princess. One without a pea. Good sleep is the holy grail of the middle aged and I am killing it.
Once we got a Spotify account I can’t imagine going back to CD’s or tapes or records (that is going way back. I’ve used them all! Record player. Tape player. A Walkman. A Discman. An MP3 player). Hear a song you like and immediately it is in your possession. Unlike those days when I kept a tape cued up in the boombox so that if I heard a song I liked I could run to it and hit ‘record.’ None of my songs back then had the opening notes.
Never going back to not running. Fingers crossed my knees hold out because my mood is too dependent on it. I’d like to keep my family around and am not sure that would be possible without the regular brain bath of endorphins that turn my anger/resentment/anxiety knobs down enough to function in polite society.
Never going back to not meditating in the morning. See above, re: smoothing out anxiety/squirrel brain. Even if I need to get up at 4:00 am for a flight, I either get up ten minutes early to calm my brain before I leave or I meditate as soon as I get to the gate at the airport (not possible in the car, too anxious about arrival time. Even though as a Rankin I leave early enough to arrive at the gate with hours to spare – thanks for that legacy of time anxiety Rankin side of the family, I’m talking about you Grandma Rankin who I love forever and ever but yikes the anxiety).
And speaking of airports, I’m not sure I want to ever go back to flying on a plane without a mask, even after the pandemic is over (will that ever happen?). Now that I’ve thought about how I am inhaling the exhalations of a hundred other people for five hours I feel sick at the idea of every going back to that (I don’t buy this ‘recycled air’ business, not every flight could possibly be filtering all the germs out of the air). I imagine germs flying towards my face and skidding to a stop in disappointment when they see my mask, they look at each other and shrug and fly towards someone else.
It is a supreme comfort to me that I will never be forced to go back to high school. The bubbling insecurity, the braces, the pimples, the body shame, the way in which so many other students externalized these same things by bullying any handy target. The uncertain future, the desperate longing to be liked, for a date to the dance, for someone, anyone, to notice something good about me. I can’t even look at pictures of those days without my whole torso knotting up. My husband and I watch our son enjoying high school and shake our heads at each other, what must that be like? We are bewildered. It’s like we gave birth to a unicorn.
Which brings me back to my kids. Even with all the whoops-now-they-expect-that-stuff mistakes, and the stretch marks and the late nights worrying until the garage door goes up and the hemorrhaging food budget, I’m so very grateful there is no going back to life before them.
Thanks to the running and meditating (and other tools in my Holding It Together Parent toolbox) I can just manage to live with my heart walking around outside of my body, because that is what being a parent feels like.
I live a forty five minute drive from the ocean and took my dog for a walk on the beach yesterday and he was so excited by the beach that he pranced around, he zoomed, he darted. He chased the waves and ran into the surf and looked back at me like he couldn’t believe I was allowing this. He sniffed odd long protuberances of seaweed, he nosed and jumped at other dogs. His tail didn’t stop wagging, as if he was trying to get the words out: ‘Wow! Look at this! Look at this! Look at that! Ohmygosh, look over here!’
It was like watching a child on Christmas morning and it was exactly how I feel every time I get that close to the ocean. During the day it is mostly just me and Dash and I talk out loud to him so as I watched him dance his way down the beach I told him, “Same thing bud, I feel the same thing.”
Despite the fact that I was way behind on my To Do list for the day (week, year), in that moment I couldn’t be anything but completely happy. I had a figure-ground reversal, the To Do’s faded into the background, the joy took front and center. I could kind of, for a second, remember that the To Do’s are in service to the joy not the other way around.
Despite meditating every morning, I have a brain that pulls away from the present moment like a hundred pound lab on a leash who sees the dog park in the distance. Over there! That is where the action is! Let’s GO!
I’m currently reading a delightful book called Awakening Joy by James Baraz and he is reminding me, like so many others before him, that writing down things you are grateful for is a way to increase your joy, your ability to enjoy the moment, all the good stuff. I find the little abandoned notebook by my bed purchased for this very practice a year ago. I blow off the dust, open it and see that attempt lasted all of six days. I’m a better person now. I’m ready for this.
Almost two weeks later, remembering more days than not, I notice a certain predictability to my entries. One might even call it a rut. It is abundantly clear that I really love my bed and its smooth sheets. And my family of course. They make the list all the time. As does coffee and tea and cranberry biscotti and lemons. All good things but every so slightly repetitive.
Surely there is more.
And then in shower this morning I was thinking about how many things I take for granted. Which is a kind of back door entrance to finding gratitude.
The most obvious thing that I take for granted was literally hitting me in the head. I was in a warm shower! It made me think about people who lived in past centuries, before indoor plumbing and water heaters, before such a thing as a warm shower existed (or people who live in poverty now). What an absolute luxury that would be! Getting clean could not have been as much fun before someone figured out how to warm up water.
Here I am, in a safe, protected place taking a warm shower and I wonder what that would have felt like to say, Laura Ingalls Wilder (I was obsessed by her books growing up). I remember her describing a weekly bath, they had to heat the water in the fireplace and pour it into a big tin tub and then her dad went first, then her mom, then she and her sister. All in same water. Cooling quickly, no doubt. And here I am, every morning hopping in to the perfect temperature for as long as I want, fresh water, used by nobody else before me.
With good smelling soaps! I wondered who came up with soap and then who thought to scent it?
I never even think about my warm water or my good smelling soap and shampoo. More typically I step into the shower and I think about the HVAC insurance paperwork I need to fill out and getting my son’s senior picture submitted in time and whether I need to take the dog to the vet because he’s been dragging his butt again. I think about whether I’m going to shave my legs (shorts? pants? time available?). Mundane things. Future things. Not even as fun as the dog park but dragging me towards them nonetheless.
But today, I pretended I was from a different century and someone had given me the opportunity to try out this new, only for the very wealthy, thing called a warm shower and I was in heaven. It seemed like a miracle, this warm water raining down on me, these delicious smells rubbing all over my body, the chance to feel clean and warm and safe all at the same time. I sent up a little thank you prayer to all the creatives who came up with the elements I was enjoying.
I thought about how people have probably always wanted a way to clean themselves. Maybe starting in rivers (Cold! Maybe dirty. Maybe full of snakes and other critters nipping at the tender parts.) And then maybe rudimentary tubs with river or lake or rain barrel water. And then whoever figured out aqueducts and sending water different places. And then someone said, ‘hey! This would be so much better if it was warm’ and figured that out. And someone noticed, hmm if I rub this stuff on my body the dirt comes off easier and soap was invented/discovered. And then someone thought to add a good smell to that substance.
I could go research all this, see how true my imagining is, but no matter how it happened, people came up with ideas that added together to create a shower, something that would have been an unimaginable luxury to so many who lived before this was all invented.
And I step in there every morning, not even paying attention.
So yes, gratitude can be accessed by noticing what we take for granted.
Which, once you really start thinking about it, is just about everything.
I look around and realize that almost everything in my life, as mundane as it seems sometimes, is built from the magic of other people’s ideas. People who didn’t chase the wispy floating what-if’s out of their head. People who dreamed and made things and when they didn’t work made something else. Harnessing electricity, coming up with red means stop green means go to keep us all from crashing into each other, combining ingredients into something that makes a pancake, launching a tin can into the air filled with people and bringing them back down safely in another state. Individuals came up with ideas and put their ideas together with other individuals’ ideas and here we are, talking to each other through our watches and eating Toblerone infused blondies.
I have walked around this whole day filled with the happiness of this morning’s shower. All day I have thought about how lucky I am to have that shower in my house, available whenever I want it. It took the sting out of the butt dragging dog and the hour long wait on hold to sort out a medical bill and the ever-deflating what to make for dinner decision.
Tonight’s gratitude list is already taken care of. Warm water on demand. Scented soap. Privacy and safety whenever I need it (it never occurred to me to be grateful to be able to get clean without worrying about snakes but now this is my favorite thing about my shower, it is snake free).
I have a feeling tomorrow’s list is going to come pretty easily too.
Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved playing outside. She delighted in the flowers, in the wet morning grass, in the warmth of the sun playing hide and seek through the trees. She compared rocks and arranged sticks and sniffed every plant in her path. The breeze and the birds and the toads and the squirrels were her playmates. She woke up every day filled with a bubbling anticipation, flinging back the blue and white checked covers on her little single bed tucked in the corner of the little room tucked into the corner of the little red house. She would sing as she pulled on her play clothes, skip down the short hall to the kitchen, make quick work of the breakfast her mother would have waiting for her, and fling open the front door ready for the adventure of the day to begin.
One day, as mothers do, her mother handed her a sentence, and she tucked it into the little basket in her brain. And then the TV handed her another sentence. And the friends in the neighborhood shared the sentences they were carrying around in their brains. And then school started piling her full of paragraphs and chapters and her head got so full it was hard to hold it up. The effort of holding up that head made the adventure of the day a challenge. It was so tiring to peer through all the words in her head, hard to see the shape of a dog in a passing wisp of cloud, for instance.
The world spun past her, for many years. The yellow in the center of a daisy bloomed and faded without her awareness. The hummingbird hovered and dipped and lived and died without her following his path for even a second. The green leaves turned yellow then brown and fell and were replaced by new green leaves which themselves turned yellow then brown and fell all without her knowing.
Well, that part isn’t exactly true. Some part of her knew. Some part of her felt the growing and the blooming and the fading. Some part of her sensed the seasons rise and fall. A faint song played from her heart, threading its way through the dense tangle of ‘shoulds’ and ‘must do’s’ filling her head, a muffled pulse in the background, reminding her of the world she so loved but had mostly forgotten.
And then came a day when some of the words in her head started to fall out. And then some more. And then a day when she noticed that it was easier to carry her head around without so much in it, so she started tossing words and then sentences and then paragraphs.
And the people around her stared in suspicion. Who was she to laugh so easily? Who was she to not answer her phone? Who was she to leave a bed unmade? Who was she to leave a party right after she got there?
Someone called her a witch and she cocked her head to the side, considering. “Maybe,” she said.
Someone called her selfish and she nodded. “Definitely,” she said.
Someone wondered if she might be losing her memory. “I hope so,” she said.
Someone called her a Buddhist. “Could be,” she said.
“You missed your appointment,” someone pointed out. “Whoops,” she said. “I had to see if the squirrels would get that bird feeder down.”
She waited for the obvious question but the person didn’t ask it.
She answered anyway. “Those rascals did it! Had a real feast.”
“There’s a way to prevent that,” the person said.
“Why would I prevent something so entertaining?” she said, wide eyed and laughing.
Someone commented that she might be obsolescent. “Big word,” she said. “I think I threw that one out.” She looked at the commenter, kindness and light shining from eyes as clear as a cloudless sky. “I must not have needed it anymore.”
I just came back from the baseball version of the Bachelor, or more accurately, Bachelor in Paradise (since there are multiple people on both sides trying to hook up). Granted, it was almost all men so there were no bikinis (thank God), and the setting was the University of San Diego baseball stadium instead of a beach, and the actual name of the show was the Area Code Games, a five day tournament organized by MLB scouts to showcase the best high school baseball players in the country. As the wife of a college baseball coach I’ve been scheduling our vacations around these games for years so when our son got invited to play for the A’s team this year I was excited to actually attend myself and see what all the hoopla is about.
Like Bachelor in Paradise (BIP), everyone there was looking for a connection. Players looking to be recruited or drafted, coaches looking to recruit players, scouts looking to draft players in next year’s MLB draft, agents looking to ‘advise’ players.
The physical attractiveness so crucial to BIP replaced by hard hit balls and 95 mph fastballs. The flirty personalities of BIP replaced by hustle and energy on the field.
Both are situations where the social rules are a little different. Where it is completely normal to walk up to someone you’ve never met and introduce yourself and say where you coach/work/play and get some information on what that person is looking for. It is expected even. It is disappointing if you don’t meet someone new.
The jockeying for the best players is like the competition for the prettiest woman or the studliest guy on BIP. The quieter ones are not completely invisible but maybe take a little longer to be noticed, college scouts knowing what player they could or couldn’t get.
The thing that struck me the most, walking around the event, is that the place was buzzing with wanting. Everyone goes to BIP wanting romance, wanting to find their person and likewise, everyone at the Area Code games wanted something. Wanted it a lot. Coaches and scouts and agents wanted players, players want to be drafted and/or recruited to college, parents want their sons’ dreams to be fulfilled.
Parents really want their sons’ dreams fulfilled.
First, because, you know, we love them.
Second, because we have invested a lot by this point in time. A lot of money on travel ball (the cost of the team, the flights, the hotels, the rental cars, the food on the road), on hitting lessons, on pitching coaches, on bats and gloves and elbow protectors and more bats. A lot of time driving to Lathrop or Glendale or Alpharetta, a lot of time sitting on stadium benches with no back support, a lot of time scrubbing that damn red dirt out of the pants in the hotel bathtub. All of that time and money is time and money not spent on other things. So yes, we are invested.
And this tournament is the big one, the place where the most coaches and scouts have converged at one time. Hard not to want something out of that. Hard not to want, at the very least, your son to show his abilities so that he isn’t disappointed. Every at bat, every ball coming his way in the field, breath held. At least that is how it was for me. I wanted him to enjoy the experience and I knew if he made mistakes that he doesn’t normally make, it would disappoint him.
In retrospect I think it was actually easier for him than me. He went into the weekend focused on appreciating the experience itself, not obsessed with what he could get out of it. He fairly successfully managed to ignore the fact that scouts and coaches were watching. He focused on enjoying playing on a team where every player had such a high level of skill. He reveled in it. He felt at home in it. He made friendships with his teammates and longs to play more with them. Every night he talked about how much fun he was having, how much he wanted to win with those guys not just show off his skills. So in the end, although he did make connections with coaches and scouts, the connection that fulfilled him in the moment, was being part of that team.
He is still uncommitted, still figuring out the best fit for college, and of course we all want that next step for him. It’s okay to want, but I am so happy to realize that the Area Code games were already a success for him because by ignoring the pressure to show well he played well and ended up just loving the actual playing of the game.
And I realize, that is what I actually want for him. Something he already has.
So here I am again, one of the luckiest people in the world, because I just got to go watch the team my husband coaches, Stanford, in the College World Series. It’s 2021, pandemic restrictions have mostly lifted, and I got an insider’s view. It did not disappoint. People, I am living the life.
There are so many things I could say about Omaha and the College World Series and here are five of them.
1. Omaha is a lot
Lots of brick
Lots of good outdoor eating places
Lots of places to drink and lots of people in the places doing just that.
Lots of steak. A steakhouse on every corner, which was a bonus for our very carnivorous family. Steak is one of the few things we all eat (our family has Keto, gluten and dairy free, anti-inflammatory, and muscle building among our dietary demands….steak fulfills us all). I read that cows outnumber people 4:1 in Nebraska but that statistic was from before the College World Series and I suspect, after the carnage I saw while there, that the number is now closer to 2:1. My family alone took out a couple of cows, at least.
2. Omaha is not enough.
Not enough mufflers – apparently mufflers are optional in Omaha. The traffic is always loud. I’d put it at maybe 70% of cars and trucks were missing their mufflers or straight piped and all of them went past our hotel during the day (no biggie) and most of the night (biggie).
Not enough places serving food after 11:30. Which normally is not something I would ever discover except that my daughter got in late and needed food (you should see her, she should not miss a meal, she’s slim and also part of the muscle building contingent). We walked into multiple bars and finally got directed to Eat The Worm which thankfully makes tacos ‘til the wee hours. While we waited I enjoyed seeing what the young ones are wearing these days to bars (not much, but what was there was creatively arranged).
Not enough time to see the Omaha zoo. That place is my favorite zoo ever. From the puffins and penguins to the desert dome to the monkey house, it was like visiting several continents in an afternoon. Next time I will make sure I visit at least twice. I’m going to skip all the snakes next time though. So. Many. Snakes.
Not enough coffee shops – I’m just kidding, possibly the only thing in Omaha that outnumbers steak houses is coffee shops.
If you are a baseball obsessed, coffee loving, steak eating, out-late-drinking kind of person, book your trip right now. Extra bonus, the airport is less than 4 miles from the city. Within an hour (at most) of landing you can be eating a steak and drinking your first beer.
3. Omaha is close enough to Mississippi that the famous Big E made an appearance.
Because Mississippi State was also in the CWS I got to see Everett Kennard, aka Big E (see Lessons from Starkville). Big E drove our team around Mississippi State when Stanford played them two years ago in a regional. He is an icon. He gets around. I get the feeling that once you are on his list, you are on his list. If you are in the area, he will find you to say hello. This is my second Big E sighting this summer (I saw his bus on Assembly Street in Columbia SC when I went to help my daughter move out of her dorm, I texted him, and we met up at a Gamecocks vs Bulldogs game). Here in Omaha he found me in our hotel lobby, his big ole bus parked out front. People lined up to say hello to him. At the Stanford hotel, in Omaha Nebraska, Big E from Starkville Mississippi was the one people wanted to say hello to. As it should be.
4. It is fun to be part of a tribe.
Most of the people I saw in Omaha were there for the College World Series and everyone there for the CWS wears their team colors. Every day. Like swarms of birds, red coming at you from this group, orange from another. It is very tribal. Like a civilized tribal war where in the streets we are friendly, but in the arena we will be fiercely opposed to each other. It is so arbitrary, your son could have ended up at the orange school not the red one, and you’d be cheering just as intently for that team.
The woman at the car rental counter recommended we visit Hollywood Candy in the Old Market section of Omaha, and it was astonishing. Way more than candy (although more than enough candy to give every cow in the state a bucket full), Hollywood Candy is a fascinating meander through halls of troll collections, vinyl record collections, Pez dispenser collections, Hollywood memorabilia, and old cool fifties furniture, including an entire diner set up with authentic chrome edged tables and red shiny leather seats, a place where you can buy an ice cream.
So I’m wandering through there, quite happily floating along on the incredible smell of candy being made right in that moment, and I keep seeing a guy in an NC State shirt. I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Tarheels are not NC State fans (strike one). NC State had already beaten Stanford at the CWS putting them into the elimination bracket (strike two). But we were not in the arena, and he seemed to be enjoying Hollywood Candy as much as me, so I overlook the NC State connection and say something like “This place is amazing, right?” and he nods enthusiastically and says “Check out the pinball machines back there!” and points behind him. “You can’t play them, but they are so cool.”
And just like that, we are not tribes, we are humans who can appreciate homemade candy and juke boxes with REO Speedwagon on them and pinball machines.
5. TD Ameritrade Park is our century’s version of the Colosseum.
It is not actual gladiators fighting to the death in the stadium, but it feels that dramatic. We don’t admit it, but there is a bloodlust that we carry in there, along with our clear bag and our digital tickets. The tribal feeling takes back over, and our hearts beat just for our boys (I know they are young men, I just can’t help but call them our boys). I send my husband a lot of ‘step on their neck’ texts. Half embarrassed by that, half proud (okay more like 30% embarrassed, 70% proud).
Late in the Stanford versus Vanderbilt game on Wednesday, an elimination game (someone is going home), the intensity of the energy in that park got to ridiculous levels. I sat there wondering how these boys were handling that. How in the world did the players stay focused? How were they not bouncing up and down with all the adrenaline pouring through their bodies? High energy, high stakes, every pitch and swing seemingly meaningful, on a national broadcast, a bid at history.
I have lots of coping skills I’ve developed over the years. I’m a psychologist for crying out loud. I’ve got plenty of calming tricks up my sleeve. I’ve got decades of perspective on life, and yet I was vibrating so hard with the energy of the moment that I could barely stay in my skin. So I can’t even imagine how the players kept such poise. How Mathews got the team so far, and Palisch got them farther, and then how Beck’s precision of pitches made the batters look inept (on social media they said he was pitching like a ninja and he was). It was breathtaking to watch that team, out there in the bloodiest arena, focused and baseball ready, over and over.
Stanford had scratched out a 5-4 lead going into the ninth with Vanderbilt as the home team. Beck was striking batters out like he was facing a 12U B team. And then, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, with two strikes, with the guys in the dugout hanging one leg over the rail to jump over to celebrate – a walk. A couple of hits, the game tied. A runner ends up on third and a pitch over the catcher’s head, game over. He’s never done that. Never thrown a pitch like that. Hard to describe how unlikely this scenario was with him pitching. It was like something else took over the game, out of his control.
Just felt like this was not meant to be, but holy shit did it hurt.
It is so entertaining, watching sports, watching baseball, watching this particular baseball team. Our whole body feels it. Our mirror neurons light up and tell us we are experiencing all the drama, but our executive thinking is there too, reminding us that we are safe, we are at enough of a remove that we won’t get hurt. Like watching a scary movie. We get to have the experience and be safe from the experience at the same time. When you are a spectator you get to have your cake and eat it too (or have your beer and drink it too, pick your favorite). All of the fun, none of the risk.
These boys will replay the whole game in their minds many times in their lives, each asking if he could have done more. They will always feel that loss in their bones. That game is in their DNA now.
And maybe that makes them the lucky ones.
They will be more deeply moved by experiencing it directly. They are the ones who showed up and got knocked down and then got up from the ground. As their lives go on they will have a frame of reference for pain and they will see that you can come back from despair. It seems impossible and then it happens. When life hits them in the gut in the future, a divorce, a job loss, something even worse, they will know how to stand back up and find a way to keep living.
Did these players do their best in every moment of that game? Yes. There was no unmotivated player. No one half-hearted. No one not trying, with every ounce of his being, to do what he had been practicing for years.
Shame had no place on that field. If there was shame in that stadium it came from spectators. If there was any shame, it came from those who sit and take the pleasure in watching the drama and then criticize those who provided it. The shame is not in striking out. It’s not in leaving runners in scoring position. It’s not in hitting a batter or walking a batter or throwing a wild pitch.
Brené Brown has written extensively about this and uses this Theodore Roosevelt quote:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
I saw Beck the next morning, sitting in the lobby reading the social media criticisms of himself out loud. Coaches and friends around him smiling with him. Laughing at the cowards who sit and snipe from their couch. The ones who have never dared greatly, who live lives of quiet (or not so quiet) desperation. I’m glad he can find the humor in people who have never been in the arena criticizing him. But I also hope he lets himself feel all of it, the searing disappointment, the triumph of his whole year, the immense amount of love pouring towards him.
That is a hero. Someone who lets himself feel it all and comes out the other side. Not hiding. Not ashamed. Someone who dared greatly. Someone who got in the arena.
Primacy and Recency are the ideas that we tend to remember things that happen first and things that happen last (e.g., if asked to remember presidents people come up with George Washington and the current president). And in sports, Recency takes over, people often remembering only the very end.
Which is a mistake.
We have the whole thing to remember. The whole glorious, unexpected (by some) amazing season. Stanford was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 (with only 11 teams playing baseball, they were picked to finish 9th out of 11 teams….) and they ended up the last Pac-12 team standing, they ended up fifth in the CWS. In 2020 they started the year 5-11 before the pandemic closed it all down, they didn’t have fall practice this year, they got together as a team only in February, they were subject to the strictest COVID restrictions, and what did they do? They just kept winning. Series after series. Regional. Super-Regional. CWS.
That’s what I will remember. Not the ending. I will remember the season in every glorious up and down. The absolute awe I have at these young men, bloodied and dusty in the fucking arena.
Last night the Stanford vs UC Irvine baseball game started at 6:00 so it was light and warm-ish and breezy. Perfect Northern California weather for this Sunday game in the Regional of the NCAA tournament. The stadium was at its full allowed capacity of 25% which doesn’t sound like a lot of people but everyone there was cheering hard for their team so it was plenty loud. The crowd was mostly made up of family members, after all. At some point the sun dropped behind Hoover tower, bringing a pleasantly shifting sky, pale blue to pinkish to lavender to darker lavender to darker blue to the blue that’s almost black and finally, black. With the blazing lights encircling the field the black looked deeply black, like we-are-the-only-people-in-the-world black, like the field was the world, nothing beyond its edges.
Stanford took the lead 4-2 in the 4th inning. A progression of Stanford pitchers fought to hold that lead, the Stanford batters fought to try to add to it. It was still 4-2 heading into the bottom of the 8th inning. When Irvine came up to bat (they were the home team in an arcane decision process of who gets to be home versus visitor) the field of dreams feel to the place started to fray.
The 8th inning turned into a time warp nightmare, when a third out feels ever out of reach. Walks, hits, bad hops, erratic umpiring, two balls bouncing off the pitcher into unplayable spots, it got bleak.
And it got quiet on the Stanford side of the stands.
In this double elimination tournament, Stanford was still undefeated, and had won their first two games of the weekend without a lot of drama (unless you count the good kind of drama, the kind where your catcher hits two grand slams in a single game). Winning this Sunday night game against UC Irvine meant a trip to a Super Regional. There was a cautious hopefulness to the crowd, a held excitement.
So when the Anteaters scored six runs in the 8th inning to take an 8-4 lead, hopefulness turned to despair. It sounds silly to even write that. A baseball game causing despair? But that is how it feels when the fickle baseball gods turn against you. You have let yourself care, you only realize how deeply you have let yourself care when the prize is all of a sudden not sitting in your lap but sitting in the laps of those obnoxious fans on the other side (obnoxious only because they are cheering against your boys. And have very shrill screams. Presumably they are all very nice people and want their team to win with as much desperation as you want your team to win. Which is a whole different blog post).
I could feel the collective pain of the Stanford fans as the inning unfolded. The deflation of knowing that one last at bat might not do the trick. The pain of watching an inning that seemed like it might never end.
One of the people with me said, ‘I can’t take this, I might leave.’ He didn’t but I understand. It is hard to watch hope get stolen by the other side.
I looked around and noticed other people weren’t as patient, they were leaving. In the middle of the 8th inning.
There were so few tickets available and so many people wanted them, and people were leaving. Before the game was over.
Right, the whole stolen hope thing. The disappointment was too much to bear for some. Watching it fall apart live, in front of your eyes, hard to not want to look away.
So I calmed myself, pulled my attention back to the place where I remember why I am there watching in the first place.
To see stories unfold, to see drama, to see one player after another come up to bat and go one on one with the pitcher. To see split second dives at balls, to see years of practice and training get used. To see young men willing to get in the arena, as Theodore Roosevelt would say. We wouldn’t watch a movie that had no ups and downs, we watch to see the characters go down and then come up. We wouldn’t watch a movie where characters just drive sedately across the country with nothing happening. We watch to see things happen.
So we better be ready to see bad things happen. The downs that make the eventual ups so valuable.
Are we really only going to stay when the team is on the ups?
Is that how life works?
Baseball is a microcosm, between the white lines, of all that happens in life. All the ‘unfair’ stuff or the bad luck is how life works.
How do we deal with it? That is the question.
Do we let that keyhole strike zone take over our brain and fall apart or do we adjust and find a way to nibble around it?
Do we obsess about that bobbled grounder for the next four innings, causing yet another error or do we flush it and give laser attention to the next moment?
Do we stop parenting when our child is troubled? Do we leave our spouse at the first tough stretch of road? Do we leave the stands when our team is struggling?
How do we find a way to stay present, in the face of unraveling, in the face of giving up the lead, in the face of the end of the season?
Escape is of course a human reaction to suffering. We all escape, with scrolling or eating or drinking or spending or sleeping too much. And when you escape, you are rewarded in that moment because the stress/anxiety/tension goes down. But what you lose out on when you escape is even more valuable – you lose the chance to discover you can handle the stress/anxiety/tension. You lose the chance to grow, and know yourself as someone strong.
So I stayed until the end. And I let myself feel it all, the despair, the frustration, the questioning, can we get it back in time? What will tomorrow night bring? The road is much harder now. It would have been easier to win it all tonight.
Staying present pays longer dividends than escape. Because the win might not be on the field, but whenever you stay present, the whole way through something, the win is in your soul. You stayed the course. You stuck it out. You finished the game and walked out, still a human being with a beating heart and people to love tomorrow. You stay through the bitter end because you love these players unconditionally and you love the players unconditionally because you love the game unconditionally.
Because the game is life.
And the only way to get through this world with any sanity is to love life unconditionally.
The ups and the downs.
So now, as I write this, it’s Monday. The last game is tonight. And I’m feeling good about tonight, because tonight just brings more life.
I wouldn’t mind if Stanford won, though.
UPDATE: STANFORD WON 11-8. Although Stanford led the whole game UC Irvine never went away and the tension never decreased. Every pitch crucial, every out hard won. It was a game full of glorious ups and downs but this time ended on the up.
If helping my daughter move into her freshman dorm last fall was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy lands among the adorable munchkins, pretty flowers, and lovely Glenda the Good Witch, helping her move out was like being trapped in the forest with the Wicked Witch’s scary monkeys. The move in was full of anticipation, excitement, new packages of cute bedding and desk supplies. The move out was a scramble of ‘summer is here, finals are over, grab Toto and get me out of here.’
When parents buy so much ‘just in case,’ and students have to move every single item out of their dorm rooms and apartments, guess what happens?
Lots and lots of trash.
My daughter’s university instructed students that they had twenty-four hours after their last final to move out of their dorm, which spread the move outs across four to five days. My daughter, due to a late exam schedule, ended up on the last of the move out days. I arrived early to help and so had the chance to witness, on a daily basis, huge amounts of trash in the parking lot trash area, every day for four days. In the morning the many bins would be empty, by nightfall they would overflow. The next morning, empty again, only to overflow again by night. Every day.
It reminded me how much we over accumulate, only to throw it out as we rush on to the next thing.
My daughter was impatient with me, exhausted by studying for finals, disinterested in what happened to 80% of the stuff in her room. And in dorms, it all has to go. Every last hook and towel.
We stuffed bags and piles in the car, recycled all the Hint empties, threw out trash like everyone else. Staring at the dumpsters, seeing the fans and shoe shelves and discarded mattress toppers I was disturbed by the waste.
Until I saw an older man with a pickup truck pull up beside the pile and start going through it. I went over and chatted with him. He goes through it all, takes out the stuff still usable, and sells it at flea markets. It made me so happy, that at least some of the stuff won’t go to waste, that a man willing to go through trash can make some money off of it. It seemed a good solution all around.
I did see a notice that some of the dorms were collecting the extras and donating them somewhere, good for them. But I also saw in the exit frenzy that people got to the point that they just wanted to be done so they tossed everything that didn’t fit in the car or truck and peeled rubber out of there.
Of course it is important to be able to move on.
Of course it is useful to clean out stuff you don’t need anymore.
But the contrast between the move in, full of building something new, and the move out, full of throwing things away, hit me.
The move in was so emotional for me. Looking back at it I see that it felt like a final panicked rush to provide everything she might ever need. A pressured feeling that my parenting time clock was almost up and I better stuff everything she might ever need into those bags right now.
I realize that at move in she was focused on the mountain she was about to climb, I was focused on building her base camp. And I over-furnished it.
Looking at the piles of trash, I know I wasn’t the only one.
Maybe what was getting thrown out was all the stuff parents thought their students needed. Maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe that is what college is about anyway. A daughter figuring out on her own what she herself needs and doesn’t need.
Like every other aspect of sending your child to college it was costly, but wow, lesson learned.
Imagine a boy who loved baseball from the moment his fingers could close around the handle of a little plastic bat.
Imagine him hitting balls over the backyard fence from the time he was two.
Imagine the boy growing up with great friends in a happy place. All they do is play sports together, all they dream of is continuing to play sports together.
Imagine that the boy’s dad coaches baseball and the boy loves learning from his dad.
Imagine this boy gets to watch college players, gets to go to the College World Series with his dad’s team, gets stars in his eyes at the thought of playing at that level. He’s seen it, he knows what is possible. He wants it.
Imagine this boy decides to work hard to get to that dream, and to do so with all his sports loving buddies.
Now imagine telling the boy, right after middle school, that he is moving and won’t get to play sports with his friends in high school. His biggest dream so far.
Imagine a summer of despair and resentment and slammed doors in your new house.
Imagine the boy joins the football team, makes some friends, begins to raise his head at the dinner table once in a while. A glimmer of possibility that life is not completely over.
Imagine the freshman boy’s excitement at baseball season coming, a sport that will give him a chance to shine at this new high school.
Imagine the boy breaking his ankle right before his first baseball season in this new high school.
Imagine the boy going to every single practice anyway, so he’d be ready if his ankle healed before the season was over. On a scooter, then crutches, then a boot, out there every day.
Imagine that this boy learns more in one year about resilience than he ever thought he’d have to. Not knowing that resilience would be tested even more the following year.
Imagine the boy is a sophomore and he has made the Varsity baseball team. And he’s made friends. He now has another group of friends who he loves playing sports with.
Now imagine this sophomore year of baseball starts out great, and then a few weeks in, gets cancelled because of a pandemic.
For the second year in a row, dreams dashed.
Imagine an extroverted teenager who only wants to be with friends and play sports, stuck at home with his parents, facing a screen all day long for classes.
He finds a way to keep his grades up. He finds a way to connect with friends online (hello gaming). He doesn’t complain.
Imagine that the boy is worried about keeping his baseball skills up with no games and no practice and not even allowed to go play catch with a friend.
He convinces his parents to buy a pull-up cage for the backyard, and then weights and a squat rack for the garage. He keeps building his strength.
He is not allowed in any baseball field to practice, so he goes to a nearby park and spends hours throwing a ball off a wall to hone his fielding skills. He goes to another park with his dad to play catch to work on his throwing skills. He hits off a tee into a net in the backyard to work on his hitting skills.
That is, he adapts. He is flexible, he continues to try.
The resilience he has had to grow is both heartbreaking and reassuring.
Imagine that the boy is a junior and finds out there will be a baseball season after all. His work is going to pay off! His following all the rules of lockdown is going to be worth something.
Imagine that season starts, he and his team, his friends, are in heaven. They are playing hard and well.
Because this is not only one boy’s story. Every boy on his team has a story. Every athlete at this high school has a story.
THEN, imagine that the administrators of the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League decide there will be no playoffs.
There will be no gold ring to grab at.
There will be no goal to this season.
Every spring athlete denied the chance to let his or her story unfold.
There is no doubt that this pandemic has hit every part of our lives, hard. There are so many things that have been cancelled or ruined. There are so many hard decisions, hard things to implement. Leadership at every level has struggled with how to adapt.
But do you know what is hard to imagine?
How these administrators have expected the students to show this adaptability, and yet do not seem to expect adaptability from themselves.
Because we get it. At the beginning of the year, decisions about sports had to be made. High school leagues had to make choices (stick with just spring sports? Fit in all three seasons in shortened form? Etc.). There were not easy answers. I’d like to think they made the best choices they could with the information they had at the time. I understand there are complicated issues here, issues of being fair to all sports perhaps? Is it fair to punish sports that have a chance to try to balance out sports that didn’t? But things have changed. CDC guidelines changed. Vaccinations arrived. More became possible. So when the board decided to stick with the plan of no Central Coast Section playoffs for Santa Clara Valley Athletic League this spring (and SCVAL only) parents and athletes were understandably outraged.
Imagine you were told that CCS district playoffs were going forward with a normal schedule but your league Principals voted to not allow teams in you league to participate when the other seven league Principals voted to allow their teams to participate.
The students adapted. Remarkably. Heroically.
The administrators did not.
Imagine if the administrators could look at the data in front of them now, look at the human beings in front of them now, and in a show of respect for all the adapting the student athletes have shown, adapt.
Imagine looking at this face, and telling this boy, ‘for no good reason, everything you will work for over the next fifteen years will be disregarded because the people charged with helping you develop will give up.’
I don’t want to imagine that.
I don’t think it is too late to imagine something better.
I was sitting on our back deck, enjoying a beautiful spring morning when my son came out and asked me to sew a button on his baseball jersey. This was obviously a great time to teach him how to sew a button on his baseball jersey and I dug out a needle and thread. I showed him how to thread the needle and make a knot. We realized we needed scissors and both went inside to look for them (scissors travel around our house, never landing in the same place twice). When we got back to the table the threaded needle was gone. Son and I looked around, mystified. It wasn’t on the ground, it wasn’t on the table where we’d left it. I happened to look over at Dash, our white lab, sitting there in his favorite sun spot, and he was licking his chops, like he was finishing a tasty treat.
Panic. He ate the needle. I was sure of it. He eats everything, never bothering to waste time differentiating the edible from the inedible.
I ran over to him, cursing, and pried open his mouth. I ran my hand around his mouth, nothing. I pushed my hand farther and farther still, and partway down his throat found the needle, sideways. Eased it out and commenced adrenaline rush weakness.
It sounds gross and potentially dangerous. It was gross, all wet and mushy and uncomfortable to have my hand so far inside my dog. It was not dangerous because I’ve had to pull things out of Dash’s mouth before and he’s never once tried to bite me. Sometimes I think he knows when he’s gotten himself into trouble and is relieved I am around to get him out of it. Other times, like today, I doubt he could be that smart. He just swallowed a needle, after all. Hardly a qualifier for Mensa.
And this is what pet ownership is. You go where you never thought you could go. And you don’t even hesitate.
This is also what parenting is, which it turns out was a good preparation for owning Dash.
Cringe warning, I’m about to give some graphic examples of how gross things can get when we have kids and pets. Or at least how gross things can get when I have kids and pets.
Story number one.
Once when my son was maybe four years old we were sitting watching TV in that short sweet spot between bath time, and bed. He may have said something about not feeling well. And then he started throwing up. My immediate instinct was to protect the couch (there was no chance of getting him to the bathroom to finish the job, not without messing up lots of carpet on the way). So I stuck my hands out in a sort of cup and he threw up into them. Into my hands. My bare hands. Some of it got on my jeans. He finished, we made our way to the bathroom where I dumped the vomit in the toilet, washed my hands and helped him wash out his mouth. As I leaned towards him, I bumped against him. He looked down at my wet jeans and said, “what is that?”
I said, “you threw up on me, that is vomit.”
He said, “Eeww! Get that away from me!”
The gratitude can be astounding.
I stand by my instinct, though. This was my second child and I had parented long enough by then to know I’d rather wash my hands and jeans than the couch and the carpet. It’s an economy of time and effort, that’s all.
Story number two
Another time Husband and I were sitting on the couch (lot of couch sitting in this family, I’m not going to lie) watching TV and our son was playing with our dog Beau behind the couch. Son was probably two or three at the most. Son comes toddling around the couch, giggling. He thrusted his finger into Husband’s face and said “What’s this!?”
Son waves his finger so close Husband can barely see it. “Ask your mother,” Husband said, eyes fixed on a baseball game in the bottom of the ninth inning, tied up at 3-3.
Son waves finger at me, I notice it has something brown on it. Did he find some chocolate? Dip into the paints?
“What’s this?” Son repeats.
“I don’t know, where did you get it?” I ask.
“Beau’s hiney,” answers Son, whereby Husband leaps off the couch and runs to the bathroom screaming, “Oh my God, that touched my mouth!”
I fell on my side, spread out on the couch, almost unable to breathe I was laughing so hard. Maybe I had just the slightest bit of anger at Husband that night because I remember being so ridiculously pleased that Son had touched his mouth with a finger straight out of our dog’s butt. Eventually I helped Son clean his finger and delivered a lesson on not putting fingers into the dog’s hiney.
Story number three
When Daughter was a baby we got a call that some dear friends were on their way over to meet her. Husband and I both went upstairs to change her diaper and put on the adorable outfit said friends had bought her (I loved doing that, making sure people saw the baby in the thing they gave her, you can afford that kind of attention to detail when you only have one child). I had her on the changing table in her room, Husband beside me, chatting about how happy we were to see these friends. They were an older couple, in fact he lived with them for a couple of years and you couldn’t meet nicer people.
Daughter’s diaper was off, and with one hand I held both her feet up to expose her butt for a wipe when it happened. Anyone who has had a baby knows that at times the poop occurs with such explosive force that it shoots up and out of the diaper and along the back of their clothes. Like a volcano erupted within a onesie.
This time the explosion happened without the retaining effect of clothing. The stream of liquid poop shot out of her with such force it arced in the air and landed in the hall outside of her room. It was a rainbow of shit. It seemed completely improbable that a baby that little could produce such a force but there it was.
After a moment of stunned silence Husband and I both started laughing and the laughing grew to such a force of hysteria mixed with a weird pride at her launch angle that it filled the room. The laughter was so physical, my stomach tightening, my head becoming light that I was bent over, holding on to the changing table with one hand and my Daughter with the other so she wouldn’t roll off. Husband had to prop himself against the wall, holding his stomach, tears running down his face. We could not stop laughing, despite knowing the clean up was going to be hideously involved, as the hall was carpeted in off white carpet (not my choice, it was there when we moved in).
Daughter was just lying there staring at us in bewilderment. Who were these hyenas? What was this noise that seemed never ending? We eventually settled down enough to finish the diaper change job, do a quick clean up on the carpet, throw on some carpet cleaner to soak, and greet our guests as if there wasn’t a hazmat situation upstairs during their visit.
Diapers and dogs, plunging toilets, killing snakes and rats, throwing out the mold covered mystery Tupperware in the back of the refrigerator, the opportunities for experiencing the grosser side of life endlessly present themselves. There are some that are so gross I can’t bring myself to write about them (but I did them). Suffice to say that the treatment for a dog’s leaky anal gland . . . . never mind. Some things are just too much to even talk about.
But we do them.
We do them because we love them and we can’t leave them hurting or dirty or sick.
I have been astounded at how much I have been willing to do for my loved ones and my pets. Way beyond what the young me would have ever believed.
But I have also found there is one line I don’t think I can cross.
I told Husband that I will do almost anything for him as we age, but I will not change his diapers, if it gets to that point. We’ll have to hire someone. I told him start saving now for that person because I really won’t. I will trim your nose and ear hair, no problem. I will look at any mole on any spot of your body. I will sit beside you while you throw up if you want me to (he would never, so that’s an easy offer). But my poop clean up is now reserved for dogs only. Everyone else is on their own.
That was supposed to be the end of the piece.
But it isn’t, because I know if it comes to that, I will do it.
It was a sunny Saturday morning in Mitchell park, an expanse of grass and picnic areas and play structures and courts for pickleball and tennis and basketball. Tucked into a neighborhood in Palo Alto the park is green and spacious, dotted with sculptures, bordered by a beautiful newish library and a manicured little league field. Its span more than accommodates all the people doing what people do on days off, walking, playing, eating, swinging.
I was on a run, grooving to my music, in my head winning one argument after another with people I’ve never even talked to. I shuffled past a protest organized on a long section of grass, not really seeing what the protest was for.
I’ve been alive long enough to witness a lot of injustices. I’ve lived in Berkeley so I’ve encountered my share of protests. I’ve participated in a few. These days there are so many issues to care about, but our brains can only take so much anguish at one time. Our eyes learn to slide past protests when we have seen too many, when our brainpan can’t fit one more travesty.
My eyes slid past this one, until they didn’t.
I stopped, turned around, went back. What was it that pierced my insular trance?
There were maybe ten protesters standing in a carefully spaced grid of rows and columns, all facing the same direction.
Just standing, staring straight ahead.
Not looking around.
Not making eye contact.
Not shifting around or fidgeting.
In a world of constant movement and stimulation it was the stillness that got my attention.
Without words they were speaking, using their motionless bodies to say this is the issue that we care about right now. In this moment, in this place, nothing means more. Getting closer I found a sign and a little table with a petition on it in protest of the Chinese Communist Party.
Like the sculptures scattered through the park they stood. A moment of immobility while all around them children played soccer and people danced in an outdoor hip hop class and couples held hands and dads chased toddlers and moms worked on their large Philz coffees.
A refusal to participate in life, for the moment, as a way to point to injustice on the other side of the world.
It turns out I had room in my brain for one more injustice. Maybe caring about injustice expands, like love expands. Like a parent with one child relieved to discover that there is more than enough love for the second child too. Plenty to go around. Love growing without limits.
I signed their petition.
I went back to my run but their stillness stuck with me. Several weeks later it still is with me. In a world of twenty-four hours a day ‘news’ cycles, of a fire hose of stimulation coming at us almost constantly, interrupted by phone and computer notifications all day long, I found myself almost jealous of their one-pointed attention. One issue. Standing still until people noticed.
It’s got me thinking. What is my one-point issue? What would I stop everything else for to stand still while the world continued its business around me?
It has been five years since the world lost Mazi Maghsoodnia in a tragic car accident. I imagine that simultaneously feels like a moment and like a century to his family. I was thinking about this upcoming anniversary and by chance happened to watch an incredible movie that spoke to the grief of losing someone. It has been out for a while but for the first time I watched Coco, the Pixar/Disney movie about the Mexican holiday of Dia de Muertos, the day of the dead. In this tradition, once a year the living invite the souls of those who have passed to come back in hopes of feeling a sense of connection with them again. In Coco the main character, Miguel, learns that the only way there is a chance of the souls coming back is if the living keep the dead alive in their memories. In the movie the biggest heartbreak is not that someone has died, it is when the person who died is no longer remembered.
If you are one of the few, like me, who haven’t seen Coco yet I highly recommend it, but have some Kleenex handy because you’ll cry. You’ll also have this very odd sensation of feeling your heart slipping out of its protected vault in your chest to come sit beside you on the couch, and snuggle with the hearts of the people you are watching with because theirs slipped out too. Don’t be surprised if those hearts dance around the room together, remembering what it is like to be connected, remembering that this connecting of hearts is the thing in life that truly matters.
Mazi could never be one of the souls in the afterlife who is wasting away out of being forgotten. Right now, in this time of Mazi Remembrance, I am imagining the hearts of all those who loved him slipping out of chests and snuggling with each other and dancing together to celebrate him and the joy he brought. I imagine him right there in the middle of it all, still beloved, still dancing.
I’ve put all the stories I wrote about Mazi onto this one post for anyone who wants to spend a little time keeping his memory alive.
(originally posted March 21, 2016)
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” – Lao Tzu
Sometimes breaking the law is the right thing to do.
Growing up, in my east coast town, angry teenagers looking for a way to express themselves would climb the water tower and paint something on it. This weekend a band of suburban moms did the California version of a water tower, triumphing over barbed wire and steep hills to paint the big rock that looms over our town.
Six broken hearted angry middle aged women climbed a hill (several hills actually, it was like the Sound of Music out there. If the Sound of Music was set in Northern California, at night, eerily lit by a bunch of PGE lights that surround our community sinkhole.) We slogged through a mini river, prayed that the cows were off in another pasture, sopping the bottom of our yoga pants, climbing ferociously up STEEP grade hills, sliding uncontrollably down the back side of the hills, backpacks filled with spray paint and light beer. We became goat-like despite wearing Nike Free runs that were a poor choice of tool for the task. With head lamps borrowed from our boy scout sons we levered ourselves like lithe mountain climbers (which we are not but our mission made us into) to paint the town rock. A rock that is normally commandeered by high school students and the occasional crazed swim dad pod (you know who you are, M).
Do you know why this set of suburban moms met at 10:15 pm (yes, I said pm, as in at night) to commit this mayhem? A group of women who for the most part would have already been asleep, if not raging at their teens/tweens to be asleep? A group of moms who, at least half of them would never consider breaking a rule (the other half long out of practice at breaking rules)? They, we, were out there out of the desperate love for a man who changed all of our lives before leaving this earth too **** (insert your own swear word here) early. MAZI. Mazi Maghsoodnia. The Man. The Man who could get a bunch of law abiding moms (not a few of whom have anxiety issues) off their butts and out of their houses to climb what felt like a mountain to spray paint his name on a rock. In the dark.
We scrambled around the bottom and sides and top of the rock, one of us even hung off the top of the rock, with two people desperately grasping the back of her sweatshirt, to write the name MAZI on this rock.
And to add a soccer ball and a heart because, well, Mazi.
We were so desperate to make this work we took advice from teenagers.
Yes, we asked our teenage children what they knew about making the rock message stand out and, yes, hold on here, we listened.
And we were told how to access the hills and trail to the rock. And we were told to ‘make the letters BIG’ and we did.
After reconvening on the side street where we had parked our cars we drove into the gas station at the bottom of the hill to yell confirmations to each other like we were the Seals team that just took out Bin Laden. We yelled and gave each other thumbs up as we looked up at the dim hillside with a big rock on top that clearly, even in the dark night, said “MAZI.” The man we all loved and admired and appreciated and missed.
Mazi. You are perhaps the only person who could get this group of women out past 8:00, and not only out of their houses but climbing steep wet hills, with paint! At 12:30 we were all still texting each other in excitement, sharing pictures, imagining what you might have made of this.
You are gone but the powerful passion for life that you brought to everyone around you lives on in all the lives you touched. It fueled us all that crazy hill-climbing night, made us greedy to live large in your name. Thank you for inspiring that kind of fiery joy.
I know God has already blessed you, I know God has blessed us with knowing you, I only hope that God blesses those left behind with some ways to get along until they are with you again. With you again to play your beloved soccer, watch you dance with your beloved family, to once again stand in the light that was so uniquely yours. God bless and hold you for us all.
Mazi Belongs to the World
(originally posted March 28, 2016)
It turns out I have more to say about Mazi. I thought I had done my bit with my first blog post trying to capture the experience of painting ‘Mazi’ on the town rock and then going on about the business of private grieving, but it isn’t over. I can’t stop thinking about him and the fact that he is gone from this form of interaction (I suspect there are other forms, beyond this earthly existence, but not knowing for sure I feel sad right now).
I don’t what the exact definition of something online going ‘viral’ is, but I know that my blog post about Mazi has gotten way more traffic than I usually get.
It has been read over 1600 times.
It has been read in 32 countries.
I know this is not due to my writing skill because up until the Mazi post my readers were in the high single digits at most (I was so under the radar my own mother didn’t know I had a blog).
Mazi knew a lot of people.
The 14th Dalai Lama said, “One family can influence another, then another, then ten, one hundred, one thousand more, and the whole of society will benefit.” It is as if he was talking about Mazi Maghsoodnia. The family he and Lida created is the best way to understand what a great man he was. They are his legacy, are loving and generous and full of life and fun and dancing, just like their dad. Mazi greeted everyone with a hug and a smile that made you know the world was going to be okay and his family is doing the same thing.
In the midst of the most painful experience of their lives they are doing this.
This family influence, this love, is literally spread throughout the world – I know this when I look at the map of where the blog piece was read. Everywhere from Iceland to Kenya to the Phillipines there are people who shine brighter from knowing Mazi.
I have had people contact me to ask where the rock is so they can go see it. I got a message from one person who reported her family ate dinner at one of the restaurants below the hill so that they could look up at Mazi on the rock while they ate.
It is as if we all want to be close to him again and are using the rock as a proxy.
Eventually someone will paint their own message on that rock and I’m already angry at them. Angry at those self-centered insensitive teenagers (see that? They don’t even know who they are yet and I have already made them villains. Excuse my reaction to teenagers. I have one. A new one. And maybe like baby rattlesnakes the new ones have the most venom?).
I started planning another bit of midnight mischief to take up a little sign to post by the rock. Something explaining who Mazi is and asking these future delinquents to paint the smaller rock to the left, the one we left alone (you can only carry so much paint up those hills). I keep driving past the rock to make sure the bright white ‘Mazi’ on its red background is still there.
And then it hit me, even once it is painted over Mazi will still be there.
No one strips the paint off the rock before painting it, they just paint over it. So he will be there, forever one of the layers of the history of this town. Just like he will be for the rest of our lives, there, inside us when we do something kind, feel God’s love shine through. As Antoine Saint-Exupéry said in The Little Prince ‘what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ And the essential Mazi will never go away.
When I look at the map of people reading about and remembering him I know that just like his name is forever preserved on the rock, the name Mazi Maghsoodnia is forever written on the world.
Mazi and the Meaning of Team
(originally posted April 13, 2016)
Glennon Doyle wrote that “compassion is not your pain in my heart. That’s pity. Pity helps no one. No, compassion is your pain in my heart and back out through my hands. Feelings are just energy. Eventually we have to make something with them.” (If you haven’t checked out Glennon’s blog do it as soon as you are done reading this http://momastery.com/blog/).
I was sitting there feeling the pain in my heart of losing Mazi Maghsoodnia and I hadn’t done anything with that. We so often don’t. We talk to each other and repeat, over and over, ‘I can’t believe it.’ Talking is helpful, and then, as Glennon said, you need to go beyond the pain in your heart.
So when Quinn S. called me one night and asked me if I wanted to go up to the town rock and ‘paint away the pain’ (so eloquently said, Quinn) it felt like the right thing. And then more pain came back out through my hands when I wrote a couple blog posts about the experience. But I wasn’t the only one making something with the pain and it feels like it is time to reveal the other Sisters of the Rock.
Amy, on the far right, came up with the idea to paint the town rock in Mazi’s honor. This wouldn’t have happened without her brilliant idea.
Quinn, second from right with the devilish grin, organized the entire op, including the 7-11 run for tall-boys. This wouldn’t have happened without her desire to do something with her pain.
Christie, in the middle, outlined the letters (beautifully big! You can see them from way far away) and created the soccer ball (repeatedly checking a picture on her phone, while we all worried the police would see the light).
Prab, second from left, filled every spot with paint, soldiered over the top and bottom making sure nothing was left uncovered.
Karen, on the far left is the one who had two people holding on to her sweatshirt as she hung over the top of the ‘M’ to get the top of the letter just right.
I’m the historian, taking the picture and struggling to put words to how the pain is coming back out through our hands. (Apologies for the blurry picture but it was late. And dark. And we are perhaps, like Barbara Walters, enhanced by a bit of a blur to a photo. Plus we can deny participation if anyone tries to make trouble for us.)
Those of us with blond hair woke up to pink bangs, the red paint that stuck on our hands ending up somehow in our hair (I liked it, wished it had lasted longer). We also woke up to blackened pillows because we used eye black to paint ‘mazi’ on one side of our faces and a heart on the other.
Each time I write a blog post about Mazi my husband reminds me that I haven’t actually mentioned how we know Mazi. So, third time’s a charm, Mazi was my son’s Eclipse soccer coach along with Miguel Camacho (aka ‘the Soccer Whisperer’). Mazi and Miguel were a great team. The whisperer and the vocal cheerleader. The loud positive and the quiet positive.
This U12 soccer team was a team that took its time coming together. When you put kids from different towns together it takes a while to gel, and this team was no exception. When you play soccer for an organization that, gasp, values kids playing multiple sports, it takes even longer to get to know everyone, because they weren’t all always there at practices, or even games.
Mazi and Miguel worked their magic and the team started to play well together. And they won a few games. And lost a few games.
It was all fun but they had never won a tournament.
And then, in August of 2015, Eclipse played in the Copper Select tournament in San Ramon against the mighty Mt. Diablo Arsenal. In retrospect I wish had been taking notes, wish I had a more fact based description of that tournament (but then again, it was never my goal to be a sports reporter). What I know is that the Eclipse team that weekend somehow kept winning. What I know is that Mazi’s whole family was there to watch Nader and Mazi. What I know is that, against the odds, the Eclipse team ended up in the FINAL GAME!
I remember hearing the whispers up and down the sideline as that final game started, Arsenal usually creamed their opponents. They always scored a bunch. They were unbeatable.
The game was the most intense I had ever seen our team play. Every kick, every pass was contested by both sides. Our kids played with a fever we had never seen. They played like the future of the world hung in the balance, like if they lost, nuclear bombs were going to start going off in the parking lot and continue going off all over the planet. They played like they would lose their phones and video games forever if they lost. They were sweating, they were running until they were breathless, they were sticking a foot in where they couldn’t make a steal. They were dogging the other team, hanging close to their defender/offender and doing whatever came to mind to win that moment.
Mt. Diablo Arsenal shot many many times on our goal and somehow, the ball never went in. We could hear the parents on the other team exclaiming in disbelief, like a spell had been put on our goal protecting it. The ball hit off of the cross bar, the side bar, off the tip of our goalie’s finger, off the side of our other goalie’s toe. And our defenders seem to literally be giving pieces of themselves to every ball and defense. Everybody watching knew there was something special going on. No one wanted to say that, no one wanted to jinx it, but it was special.
So often in these kinds of battles parents along the sidelines start to be snipey at the other team’s parents. But this didn’t happen. There was a grudging respect because the game was that good. We were all yelling for our team but when the other team did something good there was an appreciation for that.
The game, improbably, unbelievably, against all odds, was tied at zero at the end of regulation. It is hard to describe what a triumph even that was. It shouldn’t have happened. It had never happened before against this team (and never has again, and we’ve played them multiple times). But there it was.
And with the waning daylight they went straight to penalty kicks.
My son was the goalie who would be receiving the penalty kicks in the biggest game of his life, the biggest game of his team’s career. Knowing he was a reluctant goalie at best, I had to fight off the urge to run across the field and snag him and take off for the parking lot at a fast run, worried what a loss might feel like to him. And then, I saw someone standing in front of him, hands on his shoulders, leaning in and talking. I saw my son’s head nodding. I saw him nod again. Even from a distance I saw his shoulders relax. It wasn’t Miguel. It wasn’t Mazi. It was Kian. Mazi’s older son, a guy who knew something about being a goalie. I would later learn that Kian gave him calm instructions. Told him to watch the hips of the the player as he kicked, know which way the ball was going to go, know which way to dive. Made him believe he could do it. Made him trust himself and his team. Kian wasn’t a coach on this team but, like a Maghsoodnia, jumped in to do what he knew to do. Quietly, calmly, he gave my son confidence.
Parents on both sides were yelling, grabbing each other, looking to the heavens for help. Each kick and goal or save resulted in gasps and screams. There was no heartbeat that was calm at that point. No player, no coach, no parent. Well, maybe Miguel, the Soccer Whisperer was calm, but the rest of us were shaking with adrenaline.
Back and forth it went until we were tied.
Each team had one last chance. Eclipse kicked and scored to put us one ahead. And then it was up to us to defend one last kick to win.
“Watch the hips,” Kian had said and he did. He stuck his hands out as the ball shot toward him, and the ball flicked up and away from the goal.
Eclipse had won.
The first tournament win for this group.
The most exciting, ecstatic dancing (and we know Mazi can dance), the dog pile, the screaming, it was, in that fading twilight, a pure joy.
Who was to know that the fading twilight also described Mazi?
Maybe that intense joy spoke of an awareness, in some subconscious part of all of us, that this win meant something more. Looking back it feels like maybe it was a gift, a perfect day for the Maghsoodnia’s to keep in their memory bank. Because Lida was there to watch Nader, Auveen was there, Mazi was there, Kian was there and helped coach. And one of the best pictures ever is this one: Kian and Auveen with Nader on their shoulders, their parents there to share in the joy.
The feeling of team, it is so special. We all desperately strive for winning, for great performances, for great stats for ourselves and then our kids. But maybe what we are really looking for, with all this sports hoopla, is to feel like part of something. Maybe this is the real trophy, to feel part of a team.
Isn’t this what family actually means, that you belong to something? Someone has your back, someone cares about you, someone is working with you to make life better. My husband coaches for a living and it is the thing he strives for the most, to give his players this feeling of being a family. Of a brotherhood that goes deeper than batting average or wins and losses. When you feel that connection to others you realize how much more you can achieve than if you were just working on your own.
People may think that winning makes you feel like a team, but it more often works the other way around, when you are a team, a true team, that is when you start winning. We all felt it at that tournament, this team that Mazi and Miguel created. Those boys were playing like they were brothers and their brothers’ lives were on the line. It infected the sidelines, the parents all felt connected too. There’s nothing like a rush of adrenaline and a wild hug after a penalty kick goal to bring people together. We weren’t just hugging the people we knew best, we were all hugging everyone. It was such a shared joy.
This concept of shared joy, it is just so Mazi.
I am deeply grateful that my son got to be part of Mazi’s Eclipse team, and that I got to be part of the team that painted Mazi’s rock. We called ourselves ‘Sisters of the Rock,’ and I’ll tell you this, you didn’t have to be one of the people up there that night to belong to this team. There are many more Sisters out there, and Brothers too. Which is another way of saying that Mazi left a worldwide family, and that family will take care of its own.
(Originally posted March 20, 2017)
What kind of parents invite their 13 year old sons to join them in a little illegal spray painting? And encourage gang signs? Late.On a school night. Aren’t we supposed to be lecturing them against that type of behavior?
Mothers who miss Mazi Maghsoodnia, that’s who. Mothers who one year ago climbed this same damp, dark hill to let the world know that a great man was going to be missed. And mothers who understand that the pain of missing Mazi has barely begun and his family still needs reminders of the community who love them and will not let Mazi be forgotten. This time it seemed right to bring our sons, the boys from his soccer team, along.
We painted up our faces and commenced operation Mazi.
The moon was so bright, yet the trail still so dark. Hiking single file along the narrow cow path left us fighting for who would bring up the rear, because even before stepping over the broken barbed wire fence we saw an animal we were sure was a mountain lion. This is how much we love Mazi, we went anyway. The last two of us in the line held hands the whole way, sure each rustle behind us signaled the launch of a pouncing wild animal.
We slipped and climbed and shushed the boys and finally made it to the top of the rock (did I mention how steep those hills are? Like, a foot slips and you hear pebbles go tumbling, tumbling, tumbling down towards the sinkhole). Even though the moon was so bright the rock and surrounding hill seemed darker than last year, which of course it was. The sinkhole below the hill is still there but the lights that blazed through the night last year are gone (maybe it just isn’t in the Moraga budget to illuminate a sinkhole for a whole year. It clearly isn’t in the budget to fix it quickly).
The boys were ecstatic to be out late, on a school night, spray painting, for crying out loud. The moms tried not to ruin the fun by pointing out that they were doing this cool delinquent-like thing with . . . theirmoms.
Excited to begin their tagging careers the boys quickly pulled the tops off of the spray paint cans only to find that at least half of them lost the nozzles upon opening. Just try to find a 5 millimeter nozzle on a dark, grassy hillside (hint, can’t be done, you’d have better luck finding $10 front row seats to Hamilton).
We heard laughter float up the hill and looked down to see a couple of figures moving carefully up the path. It was Lida, Auveen, Kian and Nader coming to join us, arriving full of smiles and jokes. “Mom, are you talking in Farsi? While scaling the cliff?”
13 year old boys are at an interesting stage of life, simultaneously enjoying and rejecting the nurturing of their mothers. Some of the moms on this trip get at most 3 syllables at a time out of their sons these days, but this night was like stepping outside of time and stage of life. We all worked together, we talked, we laughed, and traditions were passed down from moms to sons, like the cliff hanging.
The only way to get the top of the letters painted correctly is for someone to hang out over the top of the rock, and the only way to do that with any degree of safety is for one or more people to hold onto the cliff hanger. Here is last year’s cliff hanger passing the tradition along to her son (with a mask for good measure, isn’t it just like a mom to take her son spray painting and yet insist he wear a mask?????).
The tradition of getting the soccer ball painted just right.
The tradition of an adult beverage toast was not passed along to the sons. We aren’t that depraved. They will have to discover Fireball all on their own, hopefully far in the future, in their own dark field like the rest of us did.
A new tradition of initials added to the bottom.
A new tradition of including Lida, Auveen, Kian, and Nauder. Last year we painted the rock for them, this year we painted it with them and that felt just right.
A new tradition of a prayer, right after the Fireball (or was it before?).
A new tradition of a gang sign in Mazi’s honor (hand pointed downward with an “M” of middle three fingers).
Perhaps the most important tradition to pass down. An ancient tradition of gathering around a family in grief.
I want to write about grief but am finding it hard. I have not been struck with this level of loss, so my imagination fails me when I try to truly understand what Mazi’s family has gone through this past year. I feel the urge to focus on how well they have coped (they have) to allow myself to step back from looking into that abyss of pain that they still face every single day. My mind flinches when I try to think about what it must be like for Lida to wake up in the middle of the night alone. My mind rushes to reassure itself with images of her smiling and hugging us all up on the hill. See? My mind says to itself. She is okay, she must be, she’s hugging and smiling and laughing.
Even while part of me knows she must still have very dark moments.
Even while a part of me feels helpless to do anything about those moments.
It feels cowardly, like a failure of compassion, to hide from the pain, so I try again to put myself in their shoes. I try to imagine what it must be like to wake up and face the knowledge all over again, every single day. And again the sadness drives me towards trying to find something reassuring. Perhaps there is a deeper richness to life once something like this happens? Perhaps Mazi was needed on the angels soccer team? Perhaps they are stronger people now? Surely there is some meaning to this.
We all want to know that the Maghsoodnias are doing okay because we care about them, but also because we would like to believe you can survive tragedy. It is too hard to imagine the long days and nights of pain so we would like to cut to the end of the movie, the laughing, smiling family who have triumphed, who have remade their world into something good again. And people do survive, but are altered so profoundly that it is a whole different world that they are now living in. A world where the presence of the one lost has to be created in new ways, ways that will, inevitably, sometimes heartbreakingly, fall short of what they used to have.
I read Kian’s exquisite FB post about meeting his dad in his dreams. I look at the picture of Mazi’s headstone that Lida sent me, surrounded by flowers, bright sunlight shining off of it. I see a hint of the ways that they are remaking their world and it is, as Glennon Doyle would say, ‘brutiful’ (brutal and beautiful all at once).
The painful moments will exist no matter how much other love and joy comes to their lives. Those moments are part of the landscape now. Part of our job as a community is to not pretend those moments out of existence. To be ready with the happy hug but also with the courage to acknowledge the pain that will never completely go away. To hold hands and stand vigil in the dark night so that no one has to feel completely alone.
So the trip up the hill this time was a way to circle around the Maghsoodnias and allow all the messy feelings to coexist, joy in the presence of grief, beautiful memories in the face of great loss, connection alongside loneliness. To say we understand that joy and grief may stay forever intertwined for them. What we tried to offer is what the poet David Whyte calls solace.
“Solace is not an evasion, nor a cure for our suffering, nor a made up state of mind. Solace is a direct seeing and participation; a celebration of the beautiful coming and going, appearance and disappearance of which we have always been a part. Solace is not meant to be an answer, but an invitation, through the door of pain and difficulty, to the depth of suffering and simultaneous beauty in the world that the strategic mind by itself cannot grasp nor make sense of.”
Mazi’s Gang did something hard and scary in the darkness of night, our only illumination the full and luminous moon. Instead of the blazing warmth of the sun he used to be, maybe Mazi is now more like the moon, a steady, encircling presence, not always visible, but with luck, revealing himself as an incandescent glow in a dark night. And what we discovered was that the brightness of that moon was, in the end, more than enough light to get the job done.
The Maziar Cup
(originally posted June 26, 2017)
This past Sunday I got a chance to attend the second Maziar Cup, a soccer tournament created to remember Mazi Maghsoodnia, who was lost to the earth community March 13, 2016. It was a gorgeous day, sunny but with a breeze and a hint of cool that made it just perfect for soccer. It was on a hill, which, being closer to the sky, was just right, somehow feeling closer to Mazi to me (I don’t know why this image of heaven being above us lingers, but it does). There were the occasional high floating clouds, which seemed almost like otherworldly observers. Like soccer players on the other side were hanging out up there with Mazi, like he was elbowing them, ‘look! That was Auveen who crossed it so perfectly!’
There were athletes of every age playing with such a fierce intensity that my knees cringed at every twist and fall. Only the young bend and don’t break, and these competitors weren’t all young. There were young men and a little bit older men and men a little bit older than that, and women and girls, and they were all having fun, and no one gave anyone an easy time of it.
I wonder if Mazi was there watching, moving among his friends, slipping around his family, smiling and adding his kick to make a ball go just a little harder. I wonder if the breeze that kept lifting Lida’s hair was Mazi’s touch. I wonder if he stood in awe looking at his family, all of them broken hearted and thriving. I wonder if he saw how Nader has grown, and how he and the other boys not quite big enough to join in the fierce competition on the field found an unused net and started up their own half field game, taking turns in the goal. I wonder if he saw Ollie the diabetic dog hunt down any sliver of shade, standing in the shadows of spectators as his eyes kept track of Lida. I wonder if he heard Auveen tease Kian for taking off on his trip too soon. Did he love the shirts with his name on the back?
Did he love the shirts with his name on the front?
Who knows why someone is gone too early? Maybe it’s just random. Maybe there is a reason. Maybe all we can do is hold each other’s hands and share the memories about the one that is gone.
In the end it was a gathering of people with a common interest in an uncommon man. A man who was, so clearly, so abundantly, loved. And isn’t that what we’d all like, in the end, when we leave? To be loved and remembered. Like the Raymond Carver words:
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
Looking around at the people gathered at the Cup, at the rich network of friends and family spending their day honoring him, I have no doubt Mazi would answer, “I did.”
I recently saw a Twitter thread started by a writer that posed the question ‘who was the first person who encouraged you to write, who said, hey you are good at this you should pursue it?’ and it was a fascinating read. I did not have a quick answer to that question.
I remember wanting to write almost as soon as I learned to read. I wrote little stories and illustrated them and lived very happily among the Wild Things. I must have showed those stories to people but I don’t remember much about their reactions. Probably something along the lines of the ‘I love those colors!’ kinds of comments you say to five year-olds when they bring home yet another finger painting from preschool.
I wonder, did I never actually say it out loud? Never say I was thinking of being a writer for a career? But surely my actions, writing and reading and writing, surely that signaled the desire.
I went off to college, a premed major. LOTS of people praised that choice, lots of encouragement when you say you want to be a doctor. At college discovered I could pretty easily double major in Biology and English. I couldn’t believe I got college credit to read books and write papers about them, it was so easy it seemed like a scam. I got all A’s in my English classes and not all A’s in the rest of my classes.
And sophomore year I won a writing award. I didn’t even know there was one, just got a letter in the mail after I returned home that I had won the Bucknell Prize for Women for excellence in English composition and literature.
I had gotten lots of good specific feedback on papers but that is the first time I felt encouraged in any significant way to write beyond class assignments, and I don’t even know how I got picked. There is no face to attach to that encouragement. I’m going to pretend it was Professor Michael Payne who singled me out, I took every class he taught. If he had offered a class called Old White Male Authors Pontificate on Their Prostates, I would have taken it, he was that magnificent of a teacher.
The award was presented at convocation when school started again. My boyfriend did not come me watch me receive it. He was majoring in civil engineering and fraternity hijinks. No encouragement for artsy-fartsy types in that group.
I’m pretty sure I heard a lot of ‘what job do you get with an English major’ type comments from my family and my friends at college (it’s a fair question), and when I decided I didn’t want to go to med school I switched to psychology. I ended up in graduate school for that, and it turned out to be a worthy career, full of interest and challenge.
Flannery O’Connor said about writing, ‘I lent some stories to a country lady who lives down the road from me, and when she returned them, she said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do,” and I thought to myself that that was right; when you write stories, you have to be content to start exactly there—showing how some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.”
Psychology gave me a deeper understanding of how (and why) some folks will do in spite of everything. And it made me even more curious, and that is never a bad thing for a writer.
There is a lot of failure in writing, it can be a lonely process where you are faced, time after time, with falling short, no one to blame but yourself. It occurs to me that I lucked out, that I would not have handled a writing career well as a young woman, as someone in my twenties with too few failures under my belt. Or maybe more accurately, too few triumphs over failure. A soft and privileged person, I was then.
I’m not sure I handle failure well even now, but psychology and age brought me some gifts. I have way more fortitude, more resilience tricks up my sleeve, a thicker skin, and enough failures to know there rarely is such thing as an end. There is the beginning of things and the middle. The end is just the beginning of something else. A rejected manuscript is not an end, it has many more lives to live. It can be submitted to someone else. It can be revised. It can serve as the footstool that lifts you up enough to write the next story, better. It can show you that the rejected story was the thing you needed to create in order to get to the thing that you wanted to create.
The past few years I’ve had people encouraging me to write and I deeply appreciate them, but I have realized that the person who encouraged me the most, from the beginning up until this very minute, was the wild little girl in love with words.
I’ve read so many books on how to calm one’s brain, on meditation, psychology, self-help, brain structure. I studied it, got several degrees in it, taught it, have been paid to lead people through it. There is a big area of my brain devoted to the understanding of how to calm oneself.
Funny thing though, having the knowledge doesn’t translate into calm. You have to actually do the things.
I read once that if a psychologist was presented with two doors, one labeled ‘heaven’ and the other labeled ‘lecture about heaven’ the psychologist would choose the one labeled ‘lecture about heaven.’ We so often prefer to analyze something instead of just experiencing it.
I meditate every morning and sometimes the calm lasts as long as through breakfast. Nothing left of it by lunch and usually I just plow on through with the day. But today, for a few moments in the middle of the day I walked the walk. Well, I breathed the breath might be a better way to say it.
Put my phone in another room.
Did some deep breathing, the kind where your stomach moves in and out, not your chest.
Intentionally put my attention towards little good things. A cool breeze through the window at night. The birds tweeting to wake me up. Good coffee. My dog following me around the house all day. An unexpected compliment from one of the teenagers in my house. (“Mom, mirrors are weird. When I see your face in the mirror I see wrinkles around your mouth, but when I look straight at you, no wrinkles.”)
It was, for the moment, a comfy-cozy-smooth moment of peace. It was, for the moment, enough.
There is a belief around my house that the magic elixir to a good night’s sleep is the right pillow, that one exists somewhere, an enchanted amalgam of height, weight, shape, and materials. Legend says it will smooth the way to a restful night, restoring all mental and physical functioning while you snooze. Assuming of course one remembers the melatonin a half hour before bed. And keeps the TV volume down low enough that the one who didn’t want to watch TV at all could still fall asleep. And if you don’t have to pee too many times in the night.
But I digress.
In his search for the holy grail of neck support Husband has tried soft pillows, hard pillows, memory foam pillows, hollowed out pillows, a rolled up towel, a thicker rolled up towel, a thinner rolled up towel, and sleeping on the floor. This has been going on for years. I’m mildly entertained by it, and periodically check in on the effectiveness of the most recent contestant.
Recently Son started complaining of neck and back soreness in the morning, presumably (in my non-expert opinion) related to the newly installed squat rack in our garage (a lot of weight lifting going on out there, usually accompanied by grunts and pounding rap music, it’s like, as my friend Ann likes to say, our very own prison yard). Son being such a mini-me to his dad (their baby pictures are distinguishable only due to dad’s being printed on Kodak paper) Son is sure the right pillow will cure it. He asks for a different pillow and the second generation holy grail quest commences.
My own search is over, I found my pillow groove a couple of years ago. A mid-weight memory foam, molded pillow, the kind that has a minor dip in the middle and a lightweight regulation size pillow for my knee pillow (if you are over 40 and don’t use a knee pillow, who even are you?). This combination sends me to the land of dreamy dreams and back again unscathed, neck and back aligned like a twenty-something yoga teacher.
This is how much I love my son. I gave him my pillow to try. From his collection he traded me back a pillow that was similar, a lighter version of the dip in the middle but less memory foamey. That one worked for me too (supporting my claim to most adaptable in this family, at least as far as pillows go). I’m no princess and the pea, like people who shall remain unnamed.
The other night Husband looked around his side of the bed and started frowning. What happened to all his pillows? He is now down to a little knee pillow (that used to be my knee pillow until I decided I needed more heft and size and traded up).
“How did I end up with only this little knee pillow?” he looks at me, bewildered and then accusing. “Where is my pillow? I used to have at least three good pillows and now I have this.”
He flings the little knee pillow (that started life as a couch decoration and was already flattened before it transitioned to knee pillow status, if we are being honest) towards me. “How am I supposed to sleep on that?”
I shrugged, amused at the thought of him sleeping on the little pillow. “That used to be mine. I haven’t used it for a while. I don’t know how you have it.”
I looked at his area of the bed. “What about your towels?”
“They aren’t working.” He looks closer at my pillow and before I can stop him, he grabs it, pulls the pillow case loose and stares at me with full on accusation now. “This is MINE!”
I snatch the pillow back from him. “No, this is mine now. I traded Son for it.”
I pull the pillow tight to my chest. “I’m not giving it up. My back feels fine when I wake up in the morning. My neck feels fantastic. I’m not giving it up.” Who would give back the holy grail, I ask you?
“That wasn’t his to give!” Husband is incredulous. Laughing, but incredulous.
We both charge into Son’s bedroom, interrupting his gaming.
“What the –?” Son says, “What do you want? I’m playing. It’s late!” Son manages to convey outrage and disgust without even a flicker of a look away from his game, his fingers clicking wildly on his keyboard. (Apologies to his future spouse, he has reached Jedi level skills in the art of discussion without eye contact.)
We ignore him and start flipping covers around on his bed to find all the pillows. There are at least eight, most of them castoffs from the holy grail search. I triumphantly find my old pillow and brandish it to husband. “See! I told you. I traded this for my pillow.”
Did I mention yet how funny this all was to Husband and me? And how absolutely not funny it was to Son?
“It wasn’t his to give you!” Husband insists again, gasping to get the words out through his laughter. “I wasn’t done with that pillow.”
“Get out,” Son says, still laser focused on his game.
“I’m taking the pillow,” Husband says, grabbing my old pillow. I was laughing too hard to stop him.
“No! I need that to sleep!” Son says, head never moving. “What’s wrong with you two? It’s 11:30, go away.” Like it’s the worst thing ever to have two parents who can be so entertained by a carousel of pillows.
We shuffle out, giggling, clutching our pillows, me with my stolen pillow, Husband with a flattened castoff.
Here’s the thing. I said I’m the most adaptable, but I was really happy with my current pillow set up. I didn’t want to adapt, again. My back and neck were just fine. Why mess with that? Why take the chance of two people misaligned when you could just have one?
“Let me help you roll your towels up again,” I offered, head resting comfortably on the pillow Husband graciously did not insist on reclaiming.
“Hrmff,” Husband said, neck propped up by a towel and the old little knee pillow. I noticed that the volume on the TV was set extra high that night, but it seemed a moment made for adaptability so I let it go.
Our lives can get crazy so fast and in the hustle to work and take care of your family and yourself and your house and your pets it is easy to forget what is really important. This quote reminds me to be still and being still reminds me what is truly of value to me. The picture is of Lake Tahoe in winter and I took it a couple of years ago while out on a dock with a dear friend, Karen Coane. Not much of higher value than a friend. Not too many things more worthy of your attention, your time, or your heart, than a friend.
I’m sitting at my desk in the bay window at the front of our house, looking at the tree across the street. We’ve lived here almost three years and this is the first time I’ve really looked at that tree. It is winter and the leaves are all off it except for some clumps in two different V’s that look like nests. The morning sun, coming from the south, is shining so brightly on the whole left side of the tree, lighting up every branch, outlining them like a half halo. I’m enjoying this beauty, this light on the ever dividing smaller branches and then I realize something else.
Many of the branches, especially the ever-smaller ones, bend towards the left.
They grew towards the sun! It makes the tree seem even more alive, like it has a preference, a longing for the sun, like I long for God, like I bend towards love when I allow myself to perceive it. I can imagine a cell dividing as a tender little branch grows and it feels warmth in one direction and cold in another so it unfolds itself near the warmth. And then the next division does the same thing, cell by cell building towards light and warmth.
These days of pandemic fatigue and political unrest keep my brain always whirring, unpleasantly. But as I look at the tree, watch the sun shift around its branches, imagine the imperceptible but continual reaching of new growth toward the sun, the whirring slows, stops.
I am reminded of a quote from the novelist James Caroll:
“We spend most of our time and energy in a kind of horizontal thinking. We move along the surface of things… [but] there are times when we stop. We sit still. We lose ourselves in a pile of leaves or its memory. We listen and breezes from a whole other world begin to whisper.”
I watch the birds, moving in and out of the sun in the tree as they peck at its trunk for bugs. I watch an elderly man and woman shuffle by, masked up, heads facing forward as if they don’t see me sitting here in my bay window staring out at them. I see the man slip his hand into his wife’s hand as she takes an unsteady step.
Today, the breezes are whispering that we are all bending towards love.
I’ve been thinking about New Year’s resolutions and how quickly they get broken. For example, who, starting dry January, could have predicted a Jan 6 insurrection? I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions because I don’t think there is anything magical about that day and in fact I think making a resolution and failing can make things feel even worse than you felt before you tried. That said, I think there are lots of things that are worth trying to change and I deeply believe change is possible. I also think that that some changes are really hard to make and might take many, many tries. And how sometimes the thing that really allows us to eventually do the thing or break the habit is grace, being welcomed back for yet another attempt.
Not long ago I took this picture walking at the Baylands Nature Preserve, a protected marshland along the bottom side of the San Francisco Bay. It was just a normal day, the sun dropping in the sky over the Santa Cruz mountains like it does every day. It was dazzling, like someone tossed a handful of diamonds and fairy dust across the water. If it isn’t cloudy, this is what you can see any day of the year. Looking at it filled something in me. Even looking at the picture fills something in me.
Which is a good thing because this year has torn more than a few holes in me. Most days I can’t keep up with mending or filling them. But this day, looking over the water, watching the peaceful ducks who had no concept of politics or pandemics, I felt full.
Most of us are just hanging on, waiting for those moments that soften the jagged edges of this year. Realistically, moments are all I can get these days. I don’t expect long hours of peace, let alone days of it. Not yet, anyway.
But I’m finding that if I get myself out into nature, even if it is just walking in my neighborhood, I can remember that great W.B. Yeats quote: The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.
Craig and Karen Coane have hosted a Christmas caroling party for over a decade. They have the perfect house for entertaining, open floor plan, cool back deck and back yard, a stunning kitchen. Everyone brings food, mostly crockpots of chili, every variation you can imagine. It is festive and fun and everyone is chatting and enjoying each other and then Craig tunes up his guitar and starts the caroling practice. People are slow to stop talking to each other but eventually we are all pulled in to the music. And then it is time to head out into the neighborhood. I’ve noticed that over the years, more and more people forego the caroling part of the caroling party, lagging behind inside, enjoying the warmth and the food and the good conversation. This year, of course, it didn’t happen. But last year, it did. Last year, it had rained on and off all day and it was dark and foggy outside. Their beautiful house felt even more cozy. Fewer people than usual headed out to sing.
Karen sent a messenger inside to remind people that this was a caroling party, after all. Someone grabbed the microphone and shamed everyone into heading out to sing. We love Craig so much that we all went. The first house or two had people welcoming us. Then we hit a run of houses with babies sleeping, the parents at the door wide eyed in their pleas for silence. And then some houses where no one answered the door. And then a couple more welcoming folks. We sang, chatted on the way to the next house, sang again. The fog gave an eerie look to the world, everything fuzzy, all sharp edges gone.
Eventually, we got to a house we go to every year, one towards the end of the route. There is an old couple who live there, they are slow to open the door but the festive wreath and the porch lights signal they are home and we should wait. Eventually the door opens to reveal them in their robes, beaming and happy to see us. Last year when the door finally opened it was only the man. He told us that his wife had passed away in June. And then tears started to slide down his face.
The group went silent. The laughing and chatting that had accompanied the whole trip stopped. While the rest of us stood tongue-tied, Craig seamlessly shifted from gregarious to compassionate. In a soft voice he told the man he was so sorry to hear that. The man talked about how much they looked forward to the caroling. How much his wife had looked forward to it. And Craig offered more kind words, shifting the whole group into a supportive mood. And then we sang Silent Night. Everyone cried. Even the man as he sang along, his face crumpled in grief, his voice cracking, tears streaming. Even the pack of sixteen-year-old boys who, surprisingly, were still along, still singing, seemingly forgetting for this one night that singing carols is uncool.
For the length of that song we were with that man in his grief. I’d like to think it offered him some company in his sadness, a lessening, for a second, of his profound loneliness. I loved every person in that group in that moment. I felt connected to every person, to the man, to life itself in all its gifts and losses. Singing with that man was a reminder of what life is really about, being truly present with each other in all the parts of life. I will never sing Silent Night again without thinking of that man and that night. I’m not sure I’ll ever sing it again without tears.
Craig has been a musician his whole life. He brings the music wherever he goes. He has a relentless cheery outlook. Without being the least pushy, he inspires people to enjoy life, to sing even if they have no great voice, to dance even with poor moves. Even people who don’t know him are pulled into his charisma, as evidenced by the bartender at the Field of Dreams in Manteca who said ‘you do you Boo!’ to him, as evidenced by the ski resort employee who sold him lift tickets and said, ‘here you go, Craig-a-licious.’ People are drawn to him and it is fun to watch.
Although he is an accomplished musician, it wasn’t Craig’s skill with music that made this moment – it was his skill with people. He inspired us to get out and sing, which brought us to the very place we were most needed. And he responded with compassion and tenderness to a heartbroken man. He turned an awkward situation into a holy one.
This year in particular we are all in need of a holy moment. My family just watched a Christmas Eve church service online. The songs were beautiful, the message was meaningful but the separation and distance of not physically being in church left me a little cold. And then the last song of the program was Silent Night and I was transported back to that foggy, damp night singing to the grieving old man. And just like that, the magic of Christmas found its way back to me. We will find a way to love each other despite distancing and illness and political divides. We will find it, through music, through empathy, through the mundane conversation, through extending extra grace, through taking turns being the ones to find a path to empathy. It might come in singing a song, or it might come from telling the checkout girl you like her pink hair, or it might come from showing understanding to a misbehaving teen instead of anger. It will come from looking for moments of grace, of that I’m sure. It will come from allowing fate to find us, which requires an openness that isn’t the default option for some of us.
I believe that fate found Craig that night, inspired him in the exact way to comfort the old man. I believe fate can still find us all, in big ways and in small ones. I believe love and inspiration is still here, looking for us. It could find me today, or you. It isn’t gone from the world. It’s just waiting for an opening.
I would like to take a moment and thank you for your long and esteemed service. This by no means suggest I am retiring you, as you have not faltered in your assistance in any way over your over thirty years with me. No, this is just a mid-career recognition of all you do for me, and my family. Consider this a written version of a Lucite commendation plaque.
Yes, you were quite pricey but there were those who told me you would be worth it, and they were correct. The long duration of your time with me has turned the high initial cost (a $240 frying pan???) into literally pennies a day. You are reliable and beautiful, the work horses of my kitchen. You are solid and so well made I would call you well crafted. You have withstood over thirty years of use without thinning or getting dented. Amazingly, the non-stick surface is still non-stick. The stainless steel still shines.
Of course, I have done my part. I have hand washed you every time I have used you. No harsh and indiscriminate dishwasher for you. You get a sudsy soak in a lovely bath, no scratchy scrubbers just gentle sponging, followed by a soft toweling off before you are returned to your private drawer. I would never ask you to cohabitate with the cheap fly-by-night Teflon pans that get switched out every year or so when their Teflon inevitably wears away. You are royalty and should not rest next to the hoi polloi.
My lovely pans, you have withstood my fondness for new trends, outlasted the cast iron, the sous vide, the crockpot, the Dutch oven, the air fryer. Sure, I still use all those things, but not with the day in and day out regularity of you. My All-Clad, you are secure in yourself, never jealous of the other cookery. You know I depend on you, like foundation garments or toothpaste. Daily in your value. Not showy, just quietly reliable, my own private Jeeves.
You joined my family in Pennsylvania and have moved with me from PA to NC to Palo Alto to Thousand Oaks to Berkeley to Moraga and back to Palo Alto. In a way, you are my posse. Always with me, always got my back, never judgmental. Of course, I had to do some serious training with family members who joined me after you. Made sure they knew how to care for you properly. Assured them that you, like me, are worth the extra effort.
In your shiny containment I’ve made pot stickers and fettucine Alfredo and Béarnaise sauce and Veal Piccata and custard and too many other recipes to count. And you show up and do the job right every time. Any mistakes have been mine, a failure to set the timer, too little stirring, a poor choice of recipe.
These days cooking is a challenge, living in a house with four different ‘diets’ (we have gluten and dairy free, Keto, anti-inflammatory, and muscle building among other requirements) and there are often nights that I am in despair of finding something everyone can eat. Sometimes I despair of finding something anyone can eat. But with you, my sturdy companions, at my side, the magic of cooking still has the chance to grab me again, the wonder at how a set of ingredients can come together into something so much more than the pieces. Within your faithful help, the alchemy of cooking turns hard dry rice, stinky onion, and chicken broth into a delicious risotto. It turns a tough cut of meat into a tender stew. You, frying pan, sauce pan, small and large pots, you have been my partners in providing sustenance. Even when the thing I cooked is not received well, when the noses turn up, the faces grimace in distaste, it is never your fault. You did your part. I imagine you will soldier on, doing your part, for many more years to come. This is just a mid-career thank you, an acknowledgement of a partnership that never causes me problems, never disagrees with me, never misunderstands me, never criticizes my sometimes poor choices. I turn on the gas, set you to your task, and you do it.
Thank you for helping me nourish my family, because in the end, cooking is that. A chance to give my time and effort to literally keeping my loved ones alive. A chance to tempt the palate, please a picky eater, fill an empty stomach, warm a tired heart.
With you, my lovely All-Clad at my side, I feel richly equipped for the task.
No one feels grown up inside, not completely. I mean, maybe the Dalai Lama or Helen Mirren or Barack Obama, maybe, but I bet even those people don’t feel that way all the time.
I didn’t know this when I was younger. I thought there would be a finish line to childhood. A clear demarcation between child and grown up. Like you graduate high school or college, and you are given your grown up card, along with the instruction manual for adult life.
When I was thirty, one of my rotations on internship was Hospital Based Home Care, where I was sent to work with a woman who was eighty-five, in a wheel-chair and depressed. When I asked her why she was feeling low she said she would look in the mirror and be surprised, every time, by the old woman looking back at her. It didn’t feel like her. I asked her how old she felt inside. She said thirty-five. She said she had never felt over thirty-five and it felt disorienting to see herself in the mirror.
I started asking people how old they feel inside. Not many people say anything over forty. I started trying to find people who found ways to live as the age they feel, rather than the age they looked. If you try, you can do it too. Haven’t you met an octogenarian who is more full of life and energy than a twenty-something? The old woman in the park doing tai chi, so at ease with herself and the world, versus the wah wah wah girl at the table next to you at Towne and Country, so tired with her low battery phone and her badly made boba tea.
I think my view of being a grown- up, all serious and responsible, was too limited a view and maybe that was the problem with my eighty-five year old client too. Maybe true growth is to take on the parts of being grown up that matter, keeping promises, fulfilling responsibilities, treating people well, but also keep the parts of youth that make life worth living. Keep the fun, the open mind, the pure enjoyment of simple things like playing, moving your body, laughing with friends.
As I get older, and then even older, I am more drawn to energy over appearance, noticing it, sitting down beside it, relieved adulthood is not really about the age. I’m feeling more able to see the essence of people and when I can’t see it I ask, “How old do you feel inside?”
I like singular sounds, non-human sounds, the natural sounds. The spit of the Keurig finishing making a cup of coffee. The birds twittering around the feeder. The clink of the dog’s tags as he follows me room to room. I like the breeze rattling the umbrella on the patio, and really love the fountain in the backyard. I could listen to water moving all day, every day, and never get tired of it. Moving water is company without intrusion.
These are the sounds that calm my brain.
Calming my brain is not the same thing as filling my heart.
I have lived with people for a long time now, married 24 years, with two kids who’ve been around for 18 and 16, years respectively. These people fill up my heart, over and over. I would choose them at any price.
That said, they make a lot of noise.
First thing in the morning.
My husband never met a TV he didn’t want to turn on and leave on. In fact, I think he is secretly puzzled by the off button. Like, who would need that? And he likes TV’s, we have them in more rooms than I feel comfortable telling the number of. And when he is in the house, they are all on.
My son never met a door he didn’t want to slam shut. And rap music is not designed to be played at a low soothing volume. Door slam! ‘Where’s my laptop?’ the outraged 16 year old demands, as if my most secret entertainment is to hide it from him, as if I waited until he went to bed at 2 am, snuck in, found it, and slipped it under his clean laundry knowing he’d never look there, tip toeing back to bed chortling with glee.
My phone buzzes with a text from my daughter, newly installed in her college dorm on the east coast. I don’t respond quickly enough, and it rings this time.
So, the soundtrack of my day starts with noise. It starts with the overstimulating, overproduced TV feed of sports and ‘news’ and entertainment soundbites, even when I try to ignore them. The soundtrack starts with other people and their sounds, asking me for things, complaining when they’ve misplaced something. And then, blessedly, they’d all be off, to work or school and the TV’s would all be turned off (I love the off button) and the sound of the fountain would rise to prominence again. For many hours.
Back to the small sounds, the non-human ones. The restful silence of a house with no other human energies swirling.
Do you have the patience to wait, Till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving, Till the right action arises by itself? -Lao Tzu
My mud only settles when I am alone for a big chunk of time. Without other people’s noises.
This soundtrack of silence, which is so central to my well-being, disappeared in March. When Shelter in Place happened, the clamor was no longer bookends to the day, confined to morning and evening, but instead present all day long. All. Day. Long. Clamor. Cacophony. Chaos in my brain. TV’s on. Doors slamming. Food requests. Zoom meeting interruption melt downs.
The soundtrack was literally a SOUNDtrack. Sounds, sounds, sounds. Too much. So, I increased my time out of the house, longer runs, longer walks with the dog, longer bike rides. I instituted a ‘carffice’ (car office) in a local nature preserve, until it got too hot.
And then the air quality made even the outdoor escape impossible.
It felt ungrateful, as someone who took so long to find someone worthy of marriage, as someone who struggled for so long to have kids. I desperately wanted these people in my life. I love them beyond reason. As someone who finally got everything she wanted, how could I be resentful of them for their noise?
During this pandemic I’m grateful for so much, that jobs have not been lost in our family, that we are all healthy, that I am not quarantining with small children (I truly hope God has a special reward planned for you parents surviving with young children, I believe you are Fast-tracking to Nirvana). It seems silly to complain, it’s just that a break from other people’s noises feels vital for my brain’s functioning, and the breaks have been miniscule, if that, for many months.
I’m reminded of the research lab I worked in back in my twenties, studying stress induced depression. To test the theory that control over a stressor is what determines whether you get depressed or not, the researcher did yoked-rats experiments. Two separate cages, each rat with a wheel to run on, each rat hooked up to electrodes and experiencing the same amount of random electrical shock. The difference is that one rat could turn off the shock by running on the wheel, which he would figure out pretty quickly in a series of trials. When this first rat turned off the shock he turned it off for both rats (thus, they were yoked together). The second rat could try anything but nothing would turn off the shock because it was the first rat in charge of stopping the shocks for both of them. The rats got the exact same amount of shocks, but one had control over stopping it and the other didn’t. Like riding in a car with someone blasting their music. Fun for them, maybe not so much for you.
The rat with control did not get depressed, The rat with no control did.
I realized I was too yoked to other people’s noises. We were all hearing the same noises but I had little control over them.
The answer, not a perfect one, but a good enough one, came surprisingly, in adding more noise. I rearranged our TV room to squeeze in a desk. I put a sign on the door, ‘WRITING!’ and I turned on music to drown out the other noises in the house. I found a playlist of movie soundtracks, adding a literal soundtrack to my life. Fight fire with fire, fight noise with noise. Themes from Gladiator and Star Wars and Harry Potter brought a sense of nobility to my work. It insulated me, and resurrected a sense of control over the noise, my fingers on the playlist, my choice of volume.
It’s working okay, most days. But I will be ever so grateful when the day comes that I am working at home, alone, accompanied only by the sounds of the birds and the fountain and the snoring of the dog. When my mud can truly settle, when the right action can arise by itself.
When I was little I loved our trips to visit Grandma Rankin at her little red brick house in Cheswick, Pennsylvania. After the giggles at her referring to our dad as “Kenny” (he was Ken to everyone else) and some sweet tea out of her ‘icebox’ I’d slip into her tiny backyard.
I’d go first to the bed of mint growing in the corner. I loved fiddling with the mint, brushing my hands through it to pick up the scent, crushing a leaf or two to really get the smell on me, sticking a couple leaves in a pocket. I liked the wildness of the bed of mint, the way it seemed to spread at will, disobeying the straight line of hard edging that was supposed to define the bed as separate from the grass. I like how every time we came the mint had spread farther along the back fence.
Grandma would sort of toss up her hands and say something about how she really should get to tidying that garden but I know she preferred it that way too. Everything in her house was immaculate and neatly lined up and had it’s own place. She cleaned obsessively. She had the shiniest kitchen floor, the most sparkling windows, a living room of rectangles so perfectly aligned she might have used a protractor on them each morning. She went to Catholic mass every morning. She slept in a hairnet on a silk pillow to keep her ‘set’ neat all week.
Grandma followed all the rules and I think she enjoyed letting this one area of her life have its own way. A narrow little backyard with runaway mint and unruly geraniums and an apple tree that dropped apples all over the long grass underneath. One side of the backyard was a thicket of high bushes hanging with overgrown ivy, like it hid a portal to the secret garden or the Narnia. That backyard was where the wild part of her lived, the quiet rebel.
It wasn’t neglected, that back yard. It was protected.
Maybe that was why grandma was so good at making me feel seen and loved. She saw my little unkempt self, the parts not yet civilized, and she loved those parts too. I like to think she could see how I shared her fondness for that backyard, like a secret handshake, something understood between us before I even knew what that thing was. Everyone else saw her obsessively neat and clean house, but I saw that backyard, knew it was okay to have unruly parts, okay to spread past the edges, okay to leave your apples on the ground for the squirrels to chew on.
The parts of me that are not curated or precise or civilized, those turned out to be my favorite parts. I feel like she’s happy those parts have survived, knows she had something to do with that. She died years ago but among the many gifts Grandma left me is the way crushed mint smells like love.
The house I grew up in had a large screened-in porch looking over the backyard. It was like an outdoor great room, on one side a long dining table, on the other side a white wicker couch and chairs with thick cushions covered in a white polka dotted kelly green fabric. It wasn’t the most comfortable piece of furniture in the house, not even in the top three, but it was my favorite. Ask me about summer growing up in western Pennsylvania and my first memory is not the tightness of chlorine dried skin or the one week at the beach or sunburns or running home when the last bit of light faded from the sky at night.
The first, the favorite, memory is that couch and the hours I lay on it reading, a book propped on my stomach, my head smushing the pale yellow accent pillows at one end, my feet propped against the wicker arm along the other end since it wasn’t long enough for a full stretch out. A bowl of fruit on the (also wicker) coffee table beside me.
The very best times on that couch were when it was pouring rain. Soothingly loud, drowning out any bickering from inside the house, background for whatever world I had disappeared into. The rain pulled nature around me like a quilt, an insulation, a cocoon. Like a companion, that rain, like a comforting grandmother humming, ‘I’m here, you’re loved, I’m here, you’re safe, go ahead and sail off to far away lands, for right now I’ll keep the world out, I’ll keep you both tethered and adrift.’