the fear of falling

Three college friends and I recently went to Colorado on vacation. What a glorious four-day adventure it was. It seems we’re forming a pattern of vacationing together every five years; although I’d love to go more often, every five years seems like a realistic plan.
 It’s tough to pick a favorite part of the trip—laughing until I peed my pants (twice!) ranks up there—but I think I liked the camaraderie of physical exertion best. I met these friends on my college rowing team (Go Dawgs!), so our initial bonding had been over sweat, blisters, and bookoo spandex. Nearly two decades after first befriending these gals, it was a blast to experience together the discomfort of sun-burned lips, labored thin-air breathing, the excitement and trepidation of free-climbing down rocky ledges, and even the indignity of peeing in one’s pants.

Hiking gave us time to tell stories. A highlight among them was my friend Sherry’s story within a story: a few months ago her StoryCorps story  about her parents attending a regatta aired on Atlanta NPR. [And remember that time my family was in a Cheerios commercial? I guess I didn’t talk much about it because none of them knew.]

Fear is a curious thing. Facing our fears on the trip got us discussing fight v. flight. I told the story about the time I jumped off 27 waterfalls when I was in the Dominican Republic a few years ago. That story begins, as my stories so often do, with my blissful ignorance about what was to come. Indeed, I count that drive to the falls and walk up the falls to be the single best part of the trip. What came next, however, was not. After being handed a helmet and then hiking two hours up a steep slope, you’d think I would have fully taken in what was coming next, but it took standing at the first precipice to acknowledge and then panic about my impending demise. Oh yes, we were jumping DOWN TWENTY-SEVEN WATERFALLS.

Everyone in our travel party (except Nate, who knew my secret because I kept begging him to save me through pursed lips) thought I had the best time. And how did I achieve this facade? I’ll tell you it is not because I’m the best fibber ever. Rather, it is because I kept sprinting ahead of the group—knocking people over if necessary—so I could jump first. After I stood at the first edge, I realized going first was the only way in the world I could get the gumption to jump!

I never did really enjoy the thrill of falling and getting water up my nose, but despite my protestations, I did survive. I can’t quite explain what came next, but ever since that trip, I’ve taken any opportunity I can to jump off of or climb down the edge of high places. It’s like I’ve unleashed some deeply hidden badass who steps up and takes over my body when presented an opportunity to experience heights.

[I hope I am expressing the extent to which my acrophobia had ruled me prior to this point in my life. When I was a kid, my dad would take me to houses he was building, and if there was a second floor landing, I would skim across the wall opposite it like one of those fish suckers on an aquarium. Even as an adult, if I climb to the top of a large escalator, I make a weird shiver sound and motion at the thought of falling down the escalator. Not that I ever have, mind you, but what iffffffff?!???]

Here’s where it gets really weird. Over time, these exposures to heights have put an end to my fear. I’d heard of exposure therapy, but before my personal experience, I never quite bought it. Fear of heights, like any phobia, seemed like such a visceral reaction that I couldn’t imagine ever getting past the shaking, sweating, and racing pulse. And yet.

Let’s be clear: I’m not going sky diving any time soon. But I’m still happy about how far I’ve come. Next stop, public speaking? I’ve been telling people for nearly a year that I want to conquer my fear of speaking to a large group, but I have yet to pull the trigger. Yes, I tried out for Listen to Your Mother, but I also had other chances to step up on other stages and didn’t. But now that I’ve seen that I actually can nearly annihilate a fear, what’s stopping me from tackling another?

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

That lovely quote is by Brené Brown, of vulnerability research fame (aka The Best Ted Talk Ever). I pulled my head out from under a rock to learn about her via an interview with Liz Gilbert on the Big Magic podcast, which I just looked up again and is actually called “Magic Lessons.” So that’s what I plan to do: I will put myself out there and {gulp} let myself be seen, even though just typing that sentence scares me. For me, figurative falling is even more frightening than the literal kind. Unless I’m wearing bright pink knee-high socks, then I’m good.

too soon

Yesterday I listened to the most recent This American Life. Titled “Too Soon,” the episode covered the topic of how, when reviewing our past, we must decide whether we are ready—or may ever be ready—to evaluate who we once were. The topic rang very true for me, as I was at that time digging through my old hope chest full of clippings, photos, journals, and accomplishments.

This trunk is an inadvertent time capsule; I know the age and provenance of the material contained within because when Nate and I moved to DC a decade ago, my dad stored this trunk in his attic for the day in the future I’d have the space for it. At the time, I had no idea we would live in DC then Boston for five years each, with a short jaunt across the pond wedged in the middle of that journey. All the while we were unable to transport this heavy chest. Now that we’ve moved south again, I am finally reunited with this relic of the past, which affords me the rare glory and horror of reviewing the treasures all at once rather than after gradual edits and inclusions.

One pile was particularly cringeworthy. Glancing at the essay at the top of the stack, I sat down, or rather crumpled, at the sight of it. Perched on a pile of shoes in the corner of a crowded room that I was supposed to be unpacking, I began reading the essay with a mixture of trepidation and disgust. It was from a series of mass emails—remember those?—I’d sent to friends just prior to the discovery of blogging.

 This particular essay was titled, “Life is a Journey…blah, blah, blah.” What we always hear these days about the Internet is that it makes what we say permanent. But what I find interesting is it also renders it ever more erasable as well. Long ago I deleted any blog post written in the vein of this shitty material, yet there are steaming piles of it in my hope chest, printed or scribbled in the pre-Internet days.

All I could think as my eyes scanned the paper was, I am an asshole. [Or at least, I was at one time. I might still be, but it’s much harder to judge current assholery than it is to scorn the past.] It’s not all bad; there are glimmers of sincerity, such as this golden nugget: “I am thankful beyond belief that Nathan and I have the same goals and are enthusiastic about living and visiting the same places.” Aww. I am so glad to be able to report the same gratitude a decade later.

Buried in this trunk are snippets of adoration and humiliation courtesy of friends and boyfriends I can barely remember the names of. These events I can easily laugh at now because I’m so distant from the girl I was that I gaze back at her with only love and empathy. So maybe there is something to the notion that it is too soon to judge or make sense of the recent past. If I bury these artifacts again, it is with the kind of cautious optimism that comes with saving any piece of ourselves for review later—it’s the hope that some day, we will be nicer to ourselves than we are now.

Me & Nate x-mas
Look at those babies. Oh! Sweet nuthin’.

you do not have to be good

I miss you. I just had to come here to tell you that.

I am also going to share a poem, which is typically more Lindsey’s thing than mine (and I am grateful to her for all the poetry she shares). I am posting this poem because I have read it every day since hearing Mary Oliver read it in an episode of On Being. You should listen to that interview right now, as a matter of fact. But before you do that, let me tell you why I’m reading it every day. Moving—perhaps especially, moving at the end of the school year—has a way of bringing up many emotions. The two most prominent, and least helpful, are rage and anxiety (or in terms of the five emotions of Inside Out, anger and fear), but nostalgia, joy, and sadness bubble up too now and again. This poem, tho.

 

 

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

(Author’s note: photo is by my cousin Alice, the farmer in Portugal whose photos I am always sharing, especially the birds)

hasty pudding

Vivi’s intense brown eyes are trained on me like you would stare at a mosquito about to land on your arm, unblinking, not wanting to miss the point of contact of her words. She has just reminded me she likes the white grits best. A stranger—well, let’s just say it, a Yankee—might not catch her meaning, but I do. This is a talk I usually enjoying having, at these times when she picks up on my special otherness, my Southernness, and wants to prove that she understands me.

Feeling her gaze, I glance up, my view obscured by my bare legs bent at odd angles ahead of me as I lie propped in her small bunk. Just beyond my feet is the crook of her mostly-naked body, which attempts to reach as much of the cool evening air coming through her bedroom window as possible. It is June in Boston, a month that cannot decide from day to day whether to be summer or winter. Forget about spring, we seem to have lost that season amidst the snow. Strands of her sweaty hair are stuck together and stand almost straight up, giving her brown bob a flock-of-seagulls look. At a newly seven years old, she is only beginning to see her nakedness as something to shield; she picks a private stall at the YMCA to change for swimming. But she still lets me see her, for now.

There is no mistaking her look of determination, but I pretend not to have understood the urgency of her message. I want to finish this chapter. Flipping forward a few pages, I see we’re almost there. Laura is describing preparations for the big dance at Grandpa’s house, during which Ma serves the family warm hasty pudding with maple syrup drizzled on top. Vivi’s declaration of love for white grits came just after my explanation—an answer to the latest question in her constant stream of curiosity—that hasty pudding is made from the yellow grits commonly found here in New England. This exchange set off her flash of recognition, a connection she now proudly makes to my previously elusive personhood beyond that of MOM, hand wiper and meal maker extraordinaire.

Though I long to join my husband on the couch downstairs—where a cold cocktail and a few minutes of relaxed conversation await, when I will probably tell him about this interchange—I am also keenly aware of the longing I once held for this moment. The simple act of reading The Little House in the Big Woods contains a lifetime of waiting and wanting, but as with most things in life, it was the process of getting here that merited the most excitement. Even after having prayed for this time as a hopeful mom-to-be, now that it is here, I am pained to admit I sometimes find myself wishing it away, the pale ghost of romantic desire now tinged with a colorful reality of exhaustion and impatience.

Instead of finishing the chapter, I shut the book. She sits up in anticipation of reigniting our old ritual, a time we used to refer to as “Talk about it,” our private chats unencumbered back then by the little sister who now sits on the floor in front of us, planning tomorrow’s outfit. “I like the white grits best too,” I say, finally, “but I’m learning to like the yellow ones.” She smiles, secure that whoever I might have been in the past, wherever I might rather be right now, I’m hers for a bit longer. I smile too, glad for one more day where she wants to be mine.

Update: A friend kindly pointed out that based on my love of recipes and wont of posting them here often, she assumed I’d include a recipe for hasty pudding and was a touch disappointed not to find one. How right she is! There’s only one problem: I’ve never made hasty pudding. But I reckon it’s the same as making grits, and I’m happy to tell you how I make mine. Within this recipe are the three keys to make perfect grits every time (for grit jokes, see: My Cousin Vinny): 1. milk 2. butter 3. slow. SLOW.

As for where you can buy white grits, my favorite place is Logan Turnpike (where, I might add, they DO sell yellow grits, I just don’t happen to like ’em much), which sells them online as well as at their mill close to Blairsville, Georgia. Bob’s Red Mill also sells them.

Self-Respecting Southern Creamy Grits
serves 4

Ingredients:
2 c. water
1 c. grits (yellow or white)
1 1/4 c. whole milk
1/4 c. butter (plus more for serving)
1 tsp. salt
pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Boil water and salt. Add grits slowly, whisking as you go, and let it return to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium low, and cook for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is incorporated.
2. Stir in milk and butter, reduce heat to very low, and cook for another 10-15 minutes until creamy and smooth.
3. Top each bowl/plate of grits with its own butter. Down south we don’t normally drizzle with maple syrup, but shoot, I can’t see that being a bad thing. Give it a shot!

try this at home: make yogurt

My friend Kristen tweeted about yogurt the other day, which got me chatting, again, about making my own. Making yogurt is my most beloved soap box kitchen topic of all time, next to my general obsession with supporting local farmers. She said she wanted to make her own, so I decided to revisit the topic again here (I grabbed a post from last year and spit-shined it for y’all).

A quick aside: Are you listening to the Happier podcast? It’s by Gretchen Rubin and guest-stars her sister, and it’s a fun way to get an inspirational boost to establishing better habits. They open with a “Try this at home” segment that I love, so my post title is a nod to their show because this post felt very advice-y along those lines.

Back to yogurt. The first time I made yogurt, it was after reaching a tipping point of friends cheering me on and reading the Urban Farm Handbook, which I recommend checking out if you like to tinker with local food. A year into my experimentation, my favorite food radio show the Splendid Table covered yogurt-making, and since then I’ve perfected my technique.

Warning: you will lose some milk in this learning process, but if you look at it as just that—a process—you will likely lose less sleep about how the finished product turns out. The longer I make it, the closer I get to 100% success. Virtually the only thing that ever goes wrong now is that I forget I’ve made a batch and leave it in the cooler too long, but you’re probably less of a space cadet than me, so you’re good. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes!

p.s. Don’t forget to stick a piece of key lime pie on it every now and then.

 

homemade yogurt
makes 2 quarts
Ingredients:
  1. 2 QT (1/2 gallon) whole milk (NOT ultra-pasteurized; see notes below directions)
  2. 1/4 c. (4 Tbs.) plain yogurt with active cultures, at room temp. (NOT containing pectin; see notes)
Tools:
  1. large heavy-bottomed pot
  2. thermometer
  3. two clean quart Ball jars or three clean spaghetti jars (sterilization isn’t necessarily, washed in the dishwasher is fine)
  4. whisk
  5. 2 c. liquid measuring cup
  6. igloo cooler
  7. bath towel or blanket
  8. a few rags or dishtowels
  9. oven mitt
Directions:
  1. Remove the starter yogurt from the fridge and let it come to room temperature during the next steps.
  2. Starting with clean jars, place them on top of a rag in your pot. The rag keeps the jars from jangling around enough to annoy you and/or crack. Fill the jars with milk, leaving 1-inch headspace at the top (the yogurt you add later will take up room). Fill the pot three-quarters full with water.
  3. Put the pot on the stove. Add the thermometer to the milk. Heat over medium-low, stirring milk once or twice, until the milk is at least 180ºF, preferably 185ºF. This will take a good hour or so. It is important not to heat the milk too fast, both for the risk of scalding and because fast heating leads to grainy, odd-textured yogurt. You aren’t heating the milk to kill any bad bacteria; the heating process just gives you a thicker yogurt. In fact, the longer you leave it at 185º, the thicker the end product will be, but even if you take it off the heat right away, it should be plenty thick.
  4. When the milk is 185ºF, you can either remove the jars from the pot to a dry dishtowel on the counter, or just turn the heat off and let them cool in the water (option #2 takes longer, but I do it when I’m home all day because it produces the best texture to cool slowly). Cool the milk to 115ºF. (Note: If you use jars, putting them in an ice bath could cause a crack.)
  5. When the milk is 115ºF, pour 1 c. milk into measuring cup and add 2 Tbs. tablespoons of yogurt (for a spaghetti jar, one Tbs. will do the trick). Whisk to combine, then pour milk back into jar and whisk again. Repeat with second jar.
  6. Screw on lids and place the jars in a blanket or towel-lined cooler. Tuck the jars under the towel like a baby taking a snug nap, and leave the jars in the cooler for at least 6 hours; I leave mine for 7-10 hours, depending on what time I notice the cooler sitting there. The longer you leave it, the tangier it will be. Transfer the jars from the cooler to the fridge to cool completely; it will thicken a bit more as it cools.

Notes:

  • Starter yogurt: I have never bought any “yogurt cultures” that are sold specifically for making yogurt at home. I began my batches with commercial plain yogurt (up here we have a delicious brand called Maple Hill Creamery, but Fage works well too). Look for a brand with just milk and active cultures, i.e., no artificial thickeners like pectin. Read the labels. Now I just make sure to save a 1/4 cup of my last yogurt before starting anew. You can also freeze a bit of yogurt as a back-up in case you forget to save it; the freezing process does not kill the active cultures.
  • Milk: Ultra-pasteurization is a process that heats the milk to an extremely high temperature very quickly, which results in a more shelf-stable product. The problem is that the heating process also changes the whey proteins so that yogurt will not set up properly. Simple pasteurization is what you’re looking for. We use whole milk from a local farm; because it doesn’t travel far, it is even cheaper than national brands of organic milk.

#Muse15: Day One

I’m posting this recap a month after attending the Muse & The Marketplace conference, which is good in that I had time to digest what I learned but bad because I’ve probably already forgotten some of it. But better late than never, I suppose! I will publish notes about days two and three in separate posts to prevent further delay.

This year was my first time attending the conference, which is put on by the non-profit writing organization Grub Street. A latecomer to the Boston writing world, I only recently learned about Grub as a resource for writers. Even though I knew I was leaving in a few months, I decided to join as a member anyway, and I plan to check out their online classes once I’m in Atlanta. From all I’ve heard and seen so far, it’s a great organization. The first day of the conference is a blur more than just because so much followed it; it also occurred after I had been up all night at a birth. I missed the first lecture and arrived just in time for the second.

Session 2: “Writing Your Memoir: What to Leave Out,” Kathleen Spivack

Kathleen Spivack was a generous teacher, making me feel at ease right away. She ignored the podium in favor of a chair at our level and immediately asked us to raise our hands if we were working on a memoir. The first shock of the conference was that almost everyone raise their hands but me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised since we were in fact in a class with memoir in the title, but I guess I thought there’d be others like me who were only dancing on the periphery of the idea.

In our first in-class writing exercise, Spivack asked us to ponder a few things about why we write memoir; firstly, “Who am I writing it for?” To figure out what to leave out, she said, you should ask yourself both, “What would I be okay with others reading?” and “What would I write if I could include everything?” and compare the two answers. A writer must be careful in deciding what to leave out because if it’s a central part of the story, the reader will know something is missing. I scribbled the following quote furiously to get it all down, so it might be a partial misquote:

Memoir is a testimony. Think about lifting it beyond the personal. Think of your book as a gift to the world. -Kathleen Spivack, #Muse15

Her final advice was a piece of wisdom I’ve been given before, but it was worth hearing again. “Write an essay version of the book,” she said, “to help organize and give it structure.” I wonder if this is how many books arrive in the world, starting as essays that ignore the writer’s pleas for brevity.

I spent lunch in quiet reflection of all the lessons I had already learned, mulling over the passages of other authors’ books they had been so bold in sharing. I flipped through the list of speakers, growing increasingly bowled over by the overflowing lists of accomplishments. I closed the booklet, took a deep breath, then opened it again from the back and noticed a place for writing thoughts and notes. I decided then to set some intentions for how I wanted the conference to go, since I could see that it would be over in a blink.

Fun exercise in the back of the #Muse2015 booklet: resolutions! No excuses; play like a champion.

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Session 3: “Ask the Editor,” Pamela Dorman

Pamela Dorman’s style was the first thing I noted about her when she began to speak. I would later note the same of many of the speakers, that they were the most comfortable in their skin and wardrobe. I am not sure which came first, the intent or the success, but I choose to believe the old adage that we should “dress for the job we want.”

Another possible reason for my eyes wandering to her wardrobe first is I was in an altered state from the all-nighter birth. I willed my brain to stay awake, but the warm room and lack of caffeine began lulling me to sleep. I eventually had to jump up and go find some coffee so I could enjoy the rest of the lecture instead of nodding off mid-sentence, so I don’t have many notes from this session.

One fun fact I learned was that Dorman started as an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press. She mentioned two books as examples of great works she published in various genres. The first is Kitchens of the Great Midwest, a novel by J Ryan Stradal that is being published this summer, and the second is The Middle Place, a memoir by Kelly Corrigan. She likes publishing books that are “voicy.” If it’s a memoir, it needs to read like fiction; it’s not enough to be a good story. If you really want to be noticed, make the first 25 pages “sparkle,” Dorman said.

 Session 4: “How to Write a Symphonic Conclusion,” Jacquelyn Mitchard

The first thing you should know about a talk about Mitchard is bring a recorder. Her quotable phrases fly by infinitely faster than you can write or type. She lectured with authority and charisma on the topic of ambiguous modern endings; in the 21st century, she says, books just stop instead of ending, as we focus energy instead on clever beginnings. One example I managed to jot was David Foster Wallace’s first sentence ofThe Broom of the System, “Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet…” (incidentally, I stumbled upon this review of the book, which I loved even more because of its spot-on mini-review of Franzen’s The Corrections at the end, which I will not affiliate-link to because it irritated me too much).

Mitchard argued writers should end with purpose, just as they do with beginnings; she offered encouragement, promising writers can be as good at endings if they see them as important. So why are there so few symphonic endings? She postulated writers and readers are both fatigued at the end of a book and have a longing for characters that clouds judgment for how the story should end. Mitchard pointed out that a good ending makes the reader feel smart and included and is generous of heart and mind. Most importantly, a great climax, conclusion, or denouement “…restores the reader to the outside world as though it’s safe to do anything.”

It’s romantic to imagine that writing is like driving in the fog, but good endings only happen if you decide how to end it. -Jacquelyn Mitchard, #Muse15

As many speakers would do throughout the conference, Mitchard reminded us of Ira Glass’ storytelling advice; describe, then reflect. She offered some examples of endings to study:

Mitchard also offered a few endings she was dissatisfied with because of a lack of focus on a good ending: Gone Girl and basically every novel by Cormac McCarthy, who she said—much to the delight of the room—tends to end his novels with random scenes like a man eating an egg.

My favorite part of the session was when Mitchard invited us into her own writing process. She said often an ending will not be working as it is. Instead of fighting it out, she suggested scraping it if it’s not working, saving it elsewhere for later, and starting fresh. She doesn’t believe in prologues or epilogues, which she said tell the reader what to think and how to feel. Of her own characters, she said:

If I left my characters alone, they would open a bag of Doritos and a can of Bud and sit on the couch doing nothing. -Jacquelyn Mitchard, #Muse15

Instead, she said she must intervene and tell them to get up and start acting like people. Contrary to common wisdom, planning doesn’t destroy creativity. Now there’s some food for thought.

Did you attend #Muse15 or read any good recaps elsewhere? Though I’m late to the recap party, I still see an occasional post pop up. I’ll link to some of my favorites in the next post.

read * hear * say * see * eat

read * hear * say * see * eat - heirloom mothering
Part of this article, “10 Simple Words Every Girl Should Learn”

My days of moving and cleaning involve little reading but much listening, so I hope you’ll enjoy some links to interesting podcasts I’ve been into lately.

Read

Hear

  • Snap Judgment has shot to the top of my excitement chart when I log in to download new podcast episodes; I’ve been pondering this short story, Miniature Wife, for weeks
  • On Being is an excellent podcast; recently Krista Tippett interviewed Maria Popova, the creative genius behind Brain Pickings
  • The Longest Shortest Time, a podcast about parenting, is growing on me; try their recent episode, 65 Women and a Baby
  • Design Matters with Debbie Millman is another long-running show I’ve only recently learned about; her interview last year with Dani Shapiro left me jotting many notes on my pad
  • Dear Sugar Episode 12: The Wounded Child Within was one of my favorites so far
  • Two difficult but important interviews with the same writer, Barry Estabrook, who just published a book called Pig Tales about how pigs are treated in America. I recommend listening to both interviews: Fresh Air and Splendid Table
  • Another reason to look forward to moving to Atlanta is to sign up for a paper (yes, paper) newsletter featuring worthy restaurants; it is created by a French woman, who was interviewed for an episode of Gravy, the Southern Foodways Alliance podcast
  • The One You Feed podcast featured an interview with Carol Dweck, a psychologist whose work I’ve been following since I read NurtureShock, about the growth versus fixed mindset.

See

Eat

cutting teeth

When life gets busy, I decide to do things that are unimportant. I’m sure my behavior proves something that Gretchen Rubin would love to analyze, but let’s get back to that later (and I still want to talk to you eventually about her new book!).

Last week’s unimportant thing was actually quite delicious—read: smitten kitchen’s key lime pie—which I happily discovered was extra delicious when atop yogurt and granola for breakfast. My discovery got me thinking—when we open our bed and breakfast some day, we should definitely serve key lime pie with yogurt and granola. So in this case, I suppose you could say my unimportant project turned out to be more important than I originally thought. Redeemed! Plus, pie.

But this week, oh, this week. Let me tell you the very unimportant things I elected to do with my time. First, I organized all the Twitter accounts I follow into lists. In case you don’t use Twitter, you should know that no one is ever going to note or appreciate I did this, nor will I probably ever use the lists I made. But then, THEN, I decided to go back to my old blog and delete some posts that were boring or otherwise not worthy of saving for posterity. I don’t know what to tell you about these activities except getting ready to move brings out odd parts of my personality.

What I can tell you is that while I was on my old blog, I came across a photo of myself that made my eyes go cartoon-buggy. It was of Nate and me, taken in Sweden in 2006, and what I could not stop looking at was my face. It was so different! Now, I would have told you I knew I had aged in the past ten years, but damn. I suppose what future me would probably say to present me about past me to make me feel better is that over the last decade, I have learned useful life skills, am more at peace with myself than I was then, am more productive as a human being, and have stronger relationships and all that. Which is true. But still, my face!

DSC00406
Not that it will mean as much to you to see it, but if I were you, I would probably want to see the picture. We were babies!

Pondering my face changing over time reminds me of something else that’s been on my mind lately. Right before Vivi turned five, she lost her first tooth. Granted, it was a long time coming and happened earlier than usual because of an injury to it, but that experience must have burned in my brain that turning five equals teeth falling out. Charlie will turn five this summer, and of all the changes that have happened lately or I am anticipating will happen soon (the haircuts, kindergarten, gigantic puppy-sized feet, etc.), the change I’m looking forward to least in Charlie is the arrival of big teeth. Perhaps it’s because she’s had these cute little teeth since she was a baby, but losing teeth is the most literal shedding of babyhood I can imagine.

Putting aside my truly awful childhood haircuts for a second (but really, let’s also get back to those at a later date), have a look at the two photos below so you can get an idea of what I’m talking about.

Me_1984
c. 1984. Dimple!
Me_1987
c. 1987. I look like I am wearing chiclets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know, I know. We don’t have to say any more on this topic. But if you see me posting more pictures than a sane human should of their daughter’s mouth, now you’ll at least know why.

IMG_2557

It was after I typed the above title for this post that I recalled a few friends recommending a book with the same title, which I must have stowed away for safe keeping in my brain until now. Here’s part of the synopsis from Amazon:

Cutting Teeth is about the complex dilemmas of early midlife—the vicissitudes of friendship, of romantic and familial love, and of sex. It’s about class tension, status hunger, and the unease of being in possession of life’s greatest bounty while still wondering, is this as good as it gets?

Oh boy. I plan to buy that book soon because that just about says it all, and so much better than I could if I continued rambling on. I don’t wonder if this is as good as it gets because I know it is, and it’s always been enough for me, but I do think moving to a new city sparks a sense of unease. Or maybe unease sparks a move to a new city. Hmm. I wish I had a way to wrap this post up with a tidy ending, but the best I can do for you is say that if you’re going through complex dilemmas of early midlife, why don’t you come sit over here by me and soothe your gums with a glass of whiskey? Cutting teeth is a bitch.

there is still love “After This”: a book review

A note to local Boston readers: Claire Bidwell Smith will be at Brookline Booksmith to talk about her book tonight at 7pm. According to the website, the event is free and open to the public.

It is easier for me to discuss Monty Python than suffering. I know this because when I am suffering and a friend asks me how I am doing, I respond, “I’m not dead yet!”, in my best fake British accent. I often relieve unwanted tension this way, matching a situation with a corresponding Monty Python skit, like a strange tic.

In After This: When Life is Over, Where Do We Go?, Claire Bidwell Smith holds up a mirror to our awkward responses to suffering and death, “…marveling at how much effort we, as a culture, put forth into welcoming a person into the world, and how much we shrink from helping them leave.” I am a birth doula focused on welcoming new life into this world. But the longer I work in this field, the more connected I feel to helping the living depart, and it was this desire that brought me to Smith’s book.

Smith’s lyrical prose is breathtaking and bittersweet, demonstrating a rare Monty Python-esque capacity for bringing to light the truth behind the seemingly absurd, and vice versa. Having lost both her parents by the age of 25, and two of her close friends to illness, her struggles—and her expertise as a grief therapist—lend credibility to her insights about grief and the afterlife.

I read an advanced review copy of After This a few months ago. In the days since, I have spent more time staring off in space than I can recall since adolescence. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his introduction to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, “If a book has one passage with the power to change a person’s life, it should be read and reread.” As my many highlighted passages can attest, After This deserves some quality rereading time.

“There’s a pathway to life enhancement that comes with thinking about death,” Smith tells us. Her permission to ponder death and to dwell on it—even consider it a positive thing—has been a revelatory gift to me. The sublime truth, after all, is that death is a part of life; perhaps Viktor Frankl was right that it is how we handle our response to this fact that dictates the meaning we derive and our capacity to cope with suffering. The topic of the afterlife tends to lean on sentimentality, but Smith pulls off a tone of hope without cliché, neither promising answers nor assuring us that everything happens for a reason. Instead, she offers a gentle, persistent reminder that ignoring the inevitability of loss doesn’t make it any less inevitable.

Smith visits psychic mediums as part of her attempt to grasp the concept of an afterlife. An avid follower of hers on Instagram since I read her excellent memoir, The Rules of Inheritance, I’ve been excited to read about her experiences with mediums ever since I first saw her photos of days spent in Cassadaga, Florida—a community of psychics and Spanish moss. In the book, I find some of the passages about mediums difficult to swallow. But Smith is a clever writer, encouraging thinking from all angles on the subject and offering up her own hesitation early on: “In my mind, [visiting a medium] seems to be a choice that must be born out of desperation.” (I wrote in the margin: Are psychic mediums just the latest magician fad?). She allows the reader to accompany her on an emotional, spiritual journey in which she puts her own social mores aside and approaches the subject of the afterlife with an open mind. I appreciate the candor it must have taken to bring readers along on such a leap of—dare I say—faith?

After attending one particularly enlightening session with a medium, Smith writes, “Maybe she was reading my mind, I think then. But even so, that’s kind of phenomenal, right?” Phenomenal, maybe, but the skeptical part of me is still concerned about the potential to take advantage of such a vulnerable audience. In an article that debunks one of the mediums she visited in her book as a hustler, I read this quote by Harold Houdini: “It is not for us to prove the mediums are dishonest, it is for them to prove that they are honest.”

Putting mediums aside, there are many interviews to love in this book, such as with Dr. BJ Miller, director of the progressive Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, who asks the profound question, “Why wait to be dying to have palliative care?” I agree with Smith’s assertion that, however it is accomplished, “there is something therapeutic in… shared grief, in the desperate desire to connect.” Ultimately, perhaps the why and how of a person’s reconciliation of grief doesn’t matter as long as it is managed in a way that promotes acceptance.

As my own beloved grandmother continues down a treacherous path of Parkinson’s-induced dementia, and I face the possibility that I may not be able to mark the exact moment I have lost her, I am comforted by the notion that I can continue talking to her after she is gone. Whether she is able to receive my communication or not is no longer the point; it is, instead, that our “love never dies.” What a beautiful idea that is.

a good woman is easy to find

I forgot what day it was again today, not once but about seventeen times. Selling your house is like that period of time when you’ve just arrived home with your newborn. Stuff is happening all around you, and you’re still getting just as many loving calls and emails as usual, if not more, but suddenly you can’t remember when and how you used to interact with the outside world—or fold laundry or take a shower, for that matter. Oh, and also, a lot of shit is involved.

Last night I took a long bath, and it was the best decision of my life. Really, I think a long bath will solve most of my problems, if only because I realize in the taking of the bath that I have none. Not any REAL problems, anyway. I lay there in the scalding water until my fingers were way past prunes, and I poked at my scars and softening belly, and eventually I sort of forgot that I am a human with worries and relished in the luxury of the present.

This time, I even cut my toenails in the tub—now you know it all! as my family says—and then went rummaging in my pedicure bag and discovered an unopened sample of Burt’s Bees foot cream with coconut oil. I squirted half the tube onto my palm and slathered that goo all over my feet, then stuffed them into cotton socks. Afterward, I announced to Nate that I will take a bath each night this entire week. “Like an old lady,” he quipped. Damn straight.

But truly, there are some things women over 50 have figured out, and baths are probably on the list. Let’s add foot cream while we’re at it. I am friends with several older women, and I have benefitted from their wisdom countless times, particularly in moments like these when the contents of all my drawers are literally and figuratively being dumped out on the floor.

One of my friends is a professional home stager whom I befriended when she led our church’s auction and I was a volunteer. She was the first person I called when we decided to sell our house, and next to that bath last night, it was my best decision in a long while. She introduced us to our realtor, a gem of a gal, and now these two ladies are doing the heavy lifting of helping us prepare our house for sale. They know all about things I shy away from, like buying things and painting things and moving things from one room to another. You just would not believe the work that can be done with two extra women around. I have WIVES, y’all!

And if that weren’t enough, I got four phone calls and two emails today from friends and family offering support and encouragement to get through what lies ahead. So what I came here to tell you is that just as a good rug really ties a room together, a couple of good women tie your life together. I used to be one of those girls who claimed to find it easier to be friends with men; now that I’m in my mid-thirties, many of those fun but shallow male relationships have faded away to reveal an ocean of female love and support. Women friends are where it’s at. I wish you all the riches their endearment offers. Amen and happy Mother’s Day. xoxo

a good woman is easy to find - heirloom mothering
I love this picture of my grandmother with her eighth baby. Eight children and yet she still managed a fur collar and lipstick and lovely hair. At almost 90, she is still a class act who is full of fantastic advice.