Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

I’m in the “New Year’s Eve Sucks” camp. It’s a night for either over-paying for a party or sitting home watching a top 100 list on the History Channel. Spoiler alert- the printing press is number 1. There was a time, though, when I was in the “New Year’s Eve Rocks” camp. It was New Year’s Eve 1985 and my father in his blue and white thick wool sweater, black hat and driving gloves synonymous with the enigma that was 1970’s fashion loaded my mother and me into a blue Mercedes s-class coupe to drive from our Brooklyn Heights brownstone to Skytop.
Skytop is a family resort in the Poconos. Its charm comes from tall granite walls, an ice skating rink and cabins lining a woodsy road from the main House. It’s the kind of place where a friendly yellow-blonde lady serves enormous mugs of hot chocolate covered in marshmallow fluff to unsupervised children and children actually play ping pong.
We drove to Skytop in the morning. I was so excited to see open fields of clean snow, I pressed my small hand against the window every few minutes wondering when it would get colder. Once we arrived we learned that there was too much ice to ski. Instead, my father trudged up the steepest hill that serves as the 13th hole of the golf course in summer slamming his boots into the ice to make footprints I could anchor myself into. It was impossible to keep up with his long stride but he waited for me at the top. He sat down on the ice, in his Levis and his sweater, leaned back, put his hands into the air and let out a howling “Whhheeee,” as he slid down the hill. I sat down at the top of the ice, gave myself a little push and followed him flat on my back unable to sit I slid so quickly. At the bottom, he lay on the ground doubled over laughing. Daddy could always make me laugh, despite my non-existent sense of humor. While we probably only went down a few more times, in my memory, we spent the entire day sliding down a hill of ice screaming and laughing. Daddy was one of those adults who laughed like a child.
I love looking at the photos from that trip. They all came from the Kodak disc camera that Santa Claus bought for me that year. There are pictures of my mother and father on a hay ride through frozen woods (how he convinced my mother to do that is a mystery that went with him to the grave), of a man playing piano in the lobby, of my Bride Barbie and her dog, of Daddy in the indoor pool, of Daddy wearing red long johns, and of Daddy sliding down the mountain on his backside, his hands in the air and his enormous grin.
Tonight, in California, after I clink a champagne flute while watching the Times Square Ball drop at 9:00 p.m., I’ll look away as I bite my lip trying not to cry when I hear Auld Lang Syne. Then, I’ll peek at my sleeping daughter. She’s the same age I was when we first went to Skytop. She’ll make a puffy little yawn and roll over in the same way Daddy used to. It will make me smile. Maybe New Year’s Eve doesn’t have to suck.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Children's Grief Awareness Day #CGADHOPE

Today is a day for children who will always feel a little bit alone to feel a tiny bit less so. 76% of children who lost a parent surveyed say they think about the person at least once a day. It can happen at anytime, anywhere. Anything can trigger missing someone - the weather, the sky, a joke, a song, a radio commercial. Grieving kids learn quickly it's not appropriate to say this out loud whenever they remember. It's alienating. So they let it sit on them. Sometimes it's a happy memory. Other times, it crushes their ribs and they can't even breathe.

Unlike people, grief never dies. It becomes a part of ourselves. We are entitled to honor that feeling and, in turn, ourselves. That's why I'm wearing blue today. It's ok to tell a grieving child that you know they are grieving. They may even be pleasantly surprised. After loved ones die, the world keeps turning even if it should have stopped. Taking a moment to recognize that is true empathy.

I am inspired and in awe of the work of the National Alliance for Grieving Children. Even if it's just your jeans, put on something blue today.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Driving Home

I've been toying with a Prologue for the book for a few weeks.  After the careful help of this semester's Creative Non-Fiction class at Stanford, I have an essay, but it's not the prologue yet...

November 2013
The sky turns night in layers. First the white skirt covers the foothills. The orange-pink layer hides behind its mother. Then, the light and dark blue layers lean back, smoking cigarettes.  As my Volvo pushes into the brisk pre-Thanksgiving evening, the yellow moon shines, “I am ill and sad. I see you, I see you not.”
Before I let myself sing, “I see the moon and the moon sees me,” the track turns on the CD to Kath Bloom. She warbles, “There’s a wind that blows in from the North and it says that lovin’ takes course. Come here. Come here.”  Crooning melody slides around me, and then it punches my spine. I cough, closing my eyes just long enough not to kill on the 280.

My father and I listened to music all the time. I still do. Songs have a way of delivering my mind into memories the way that smells do. I think back to our apartment on East End Avenue and a Sunday afternoon listening to the discordant pounding of keys on a piano and Lotte Leyna singing, “Pirate Jenny.” It could be any or all Sunday afternoons when I am six or seven. My flat-ended nose presses against the dirty glass while I watch barges slide up and down the East River. Containers full of iron, oil and nameless goods push upstream, all pulled by the tiny, powerful red and black McAlister tugboats. Before I can cover my ears, Leyna asks the terrifying question, “Kill them now, or later?” Even then, I somehow knew that losing people was inevitable.

Daddy died the day after my eighth birthday. He was 44, a New York trial attorney with an appreciation for abstract art, Bertolt Brecht, steak, Jaguars, Remy Martin, Marlboro Reds, New York, my mother, my sister, and me. There isn’t a day when I don’t feel his absence. Would he be proud of me? Did he like other ice cream flavors besides Hagen Daaz peach? Am I living up to his expectations? What would he think of Mitch McConnell? Would I make him happy? Would he come with me to see a David Sedaris reading? Would he and my mother still be married? Would my daughter remind him of me? At sunset, it’s worse. When someone dies, you never stop waiting for him to come home at the end of the day.

I stop at the end of the exit ramp. Instead of heading home, I make the sharp right heading higher into the foothills.  His absence floats in the car as the music drives me deeper into memory. The stars are silent but their light seems to sway with each bar of music. Sound and light are waves. They move until they hit something and have to change. Do memories move until they hit something and we forget?

Today is one of the worst days. These are days when I imagine him next to me in the passenger seat and watch the tiny hairs on my forearms lift up into the empty pocket of air around me where he should be. I don’t see dead people. I know I carry them into the world just the same.

As I climb higher into the hills, the road narrows and branches creep out into the street. Their twisty fingernails tap my windows and doors, ticking and scratching. I press the gas even harder.  As the gear shifts, my body lurches forward.

I pull over. The seatbelt across my chest cradles the rock sitting on top of my heart. Tonight, it is a smooth river stone, perfect for skipping. My mind wanders again.

I remember standing at the shore at Orient Point. Daddy stands to my left, his Minolta around his neck, blocking my view of the black and white lighthouse protecting the fishing boats from the harbor. “Take your time, find a good smooth one. It should be flat, but not too big – you want one that’ll fly.”
“Like this?”
“No thinner. Try this one.”
I hurl the stone into Long Island Sound. It plunks into the water. The wind on the water turns the ripples’ concentric rings into rhombuses and parallelograms. I pause for a beat, willing the stone to bob up and skip across the brown salt water. Nothing. I find another stone, this one blubs down from the surface faster than the first.

Distracted, I look to my right. The Cross Sound Ferry Service parking lot bustles with departing day-trippers from New England. Their wood-paneled Ford station wagons are loaded with pumpkins, Indian corn, and wine from the North Fork wineries. They’ll serve up harvest supper in Connecticut tomorrow night. The cars load in an order only understood by frequent ferry travelers – weight distribution trumping first come, first served. A man in a red Mercedes complains to a sturdy dockhand who ignores him, waving on a large purple van. “Daddy, he has bad manners.”

“Worry about your own manners.” He raises only one eyebrow. I turn and play with my own eyebrows, holding one down with my index finger, unable to replicate the gesture.

While we’ve watched this Saturday afternoon dance roll on, the sun has moved. Orange and purple-gray clouds hint at evening and the half moon appears white in the eastern sky. One or two stars poke through the blueness. Daddy takes out his camera.  He grumbles, “Bloody slow shutter.” Then, he laughs, “Got it.” The ferry honks three times as the 5:40 Cape Henlopen departs for New London.
“Time to go. Skipping stones is an important skill. You can’t be a kid of you can’t skip stones.”
“Daddy, that’s silly, I can’t skip and I’m a kid.”
He laughs at me and with me, “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go home. Mommy will be worried out of her mind.” I failed stone skipping. How else I have I failed?
Everyday, I work hard in a glass room with a speakerphone. I love my clients and hope they love me. Yet, I still feel like I’m waiting. I press my head onto the steering wheel. My teeth chatter. I grind my molars to stop the movement.  My throat won’t swallow. After a few seconds, my diaphragm gives up and spurts out the air I’d held in. “Who are you?” I ask. In the hills, no one hears me.

I feel unfinished.I put the car back on the road and drive back toward my house. A hot salty tear threatens to blur my vision, sending me careening off the snaking road into a ravine with dried brush and horses. One of the reasons I hate crying has nothing to do with losing control, fearing vulnerability, or being told that no one likes a cry baby. It’s that the physical sensation of crying is horrible. My body heats up. I feel claustrophobic in my own skin. I begin to sweat. This is not polite glowing. A salty stream of sweat stings my invariably slightly sunburned neck, creeping down my chest, where it becomes cold; forcing me to notice that it’s reached my navel. Under my black black suit jacket, a pink monogrammed Brooks Brothers blouse sticks to my back. My “rosy” face becomes purple and the whites of my eyes turn pinkish red. From my nose, hot, clear, liquid runs into my mouth. My pocket pack of Kleenex is buried at the bottom of a not-quite-ostentatious black Prada handbag in the backseat. It is all utterly out of reach.

I remember a clear October day. Mommy is at home packing up the summerhouse. We walk out onto the sand, take off our Reebok sneakers and white tube socks, roll up our jeans, pull up our hoods to block the wind, and run. We run in endless lines of tire tracks left on the sand. Daddy is ahead of me, running toward the jetties, now visible only out in the water. As he runs, his body shrinks and shrinks until, he dissolves into the mist. I panic. Before tears stream from my eyes, I will my legs, scratching against my rolled up Osh-Kosh jeans, to push through the sand as my feet sink further with each step. “Daddy!”
He’s right there in front of me, but I can’t see him obscured by mist, sun and blowing sand.  I reach into the mist, running faster with my arms open, until he runs back to scoop me up into his arms. The smell of a damp un-dyed Irish wool Aran Fisherman’s sweater mixes with cologne and Marlboro smoke to capture the sound of a voice I can no longer recall.
When I was seven, Daddy and I shared a notebook. He bought it for me to write notes for a school project about a Winslow Homer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It became something else entirely. I remember sitting in the back seat of our silver Volvo, the one Daddy said made a part of his soul die every time he drove it, in front of St. Vincent’s hospital in Greenwich Village. Mommy is inside visiting 87-year-old Aunt Katherine and her broken hip. She’ll only be a minute.
“Daddy, write me a letter.”
“A letter?”
“Yes, a letter. Here, use my notebook.”
“I just want you to write me something. So I don’t forget.”
“Ok.” He exhales and I pass the small beige wire-bound notebook between the two front seats. He reaches back, also grabbing the well-chewed pencil placed on top of the notebook. His fingers rub the bite marks but he says nothing to admonish me.
I wait patiently while Willie Nelson sings “City of New Orleans,” on the radio. I sing along, “Good morning America, how are you? Dontcha’ know me, I’m you’re native son?”
He hands me back the notebook. I read his note out loud.
Dear Kate,
This is a letter about my favorites.
My favorite color is blue.
My favorite food is steak.
My favorite car is Jaguar.
My favorite people are you, Mommy and Tracy.

Does anyone need to know any more than that about her father? Probably not. But, it’s not only knowing him that I crave. I still miss him every day and know that there are probably only three or four other people on Earth who think of him at least once every single day. The world has her own people to miss every day. 
The Volvo turns onto my street, up a short curvy hill. The neighbors’ houses are dark and their shades drawn. The only light on the street comes from my headlights pointing towards my night. I don’t know this native son at all. Am I still loved?
I pull into the grainy clay parking spot in front of my house and see the porch light is off. Yellow light from the living room lamp pokes through the cracks in the plantation shutters. I turn off the music. My shoulders fold together as I exhale, my head presses back into the headrest.  And then it comes again, that delicious pain – the absence I know so well.
Once I turn off the ignition and step out into the evening air, I close the door to the almost black car, and lean back onto it. The engine’s vibration whizzes into my spinal column. I remember to breathe in and out and forget to worry about my clothes. My eyes trace the black silhouette of redwoods, up the trunks, past the triangle branches to the point where they become the night sky. I am far from anywhere. There are no sounds. Crickets are asleep. There is little light save the stars.  I’ve always found it curious that there aren’t fireflies West of the Rockies. Their absence, albeit appropriate for a November night, adds to the otherness of this place, halfway up a foothill, on its way to somewhere else. What am I doing here?
Children whose parents die are half-child, half adult. It starts when someone lies to you. For me, the lie was that my father would get better. I was seven and I knew. I don't know how I knew, I just did. They were thirty-seven and they didn't. Or, so I thought at the time. At the time, I thought they were naive or even dumb. A few years later, I thought they were liars. Now, at their age, I realize that they weren't lying to me, they were lying to themselves. The lies we tell ourselves are the most dangerous. And I am the greatest of liars. The time has come to ask the questions, I’ve feared.
Who would we be today? Would we even know each other if I saw him passing on a sidewalk? Would he say that I lived well? He’d say that I was incomplete. I will learn from his siblings, his friends, his co-workers, my mother.
Each interview will begin with, “What was he like?” To a one, they will be responsive, kind and helpful. As much as I wish to know more about my father, finding out more about him will leave me unsatisfied. That is because I want him to know me. That remains impossible.
I look up. The sky above me is covered with stars; my eyes trace the dusty edges of the Milky Way. I see stars above me that shone a billion years ago. What does that say about time? The past is literally with me. What does that say about memory? The images in my mind are merely chemical reactions. I can’t bring myself to go inside. The night air and the illusion of time and truth sit with me a little longer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

If Only vs. Thank You

This post also appears on LinkedIn.

"Just say Thank You, Gilbert!" - What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Jeff Haden shared a piece he wrote for INC. His claim is that no one is rich and no one is happy. He asked people who most us would consider rich and possibly happy if they thought of themselves that way. None of them did. I have a suspicion that most of these people "forget their thank yous,” as my five-year-old daughter puts it.
Instead of looking for people who should be happy and rich, the people Jeff may wish to interview are people who are grateful. Gratitude reminds us of the good in our world. This is the good that surrounds us and the good we create – by choice.
What I noticed the people all had in common was that they were thinking about the next thing, or what they didn't have. I call this “If Only” syndrome. “If Only” are toxic words for the human spirit. "If Only" kills happiness by making us feel powerless and forced to make choices. Those aren't choices; they are self-blackmail.
“Thank You” to others, yourself and whatever higher power you may believe in is like a growth hormone for happiness. "Thank You" inspires us to do more good works and to help others. When we help others, we feel better and richer and happier. And so on until we’re not a nation on anti-depressants. "Thank You" makes the workplace and the world better. It even drives up employee engagement scores.
So here’s my request:
For five days, when you wake up, say “Thank You” for 3 things. Don’t think too hard – you’d be surprised how easy this is. The thank you can be directed at whomever or whatever you wish. Then, have your children do it. It changes your day.
I’ll start:
  1. Thank you for the amazing feeling of sun on my shoulders.
  2. Thank you for my healthy family.
  3. Thank you for time to do what I love.

Let me know how it goes. Respond here with some of your own gratitude or on twitter with #thankyoufor.
Thank you for reading.

photo credit:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Think you chose your career? Better Make Sure

This post also appears on LinkedIn

My husband worked for a leader who started an all-staff by saying that he only wanted people on his team who were, "there by choice." I've always loved that idea - it gave me power. Whenever I had a rough day at the office, I would remind myself, "I am here by choice, when that isn't true anymore, I will leave." But, I was afraid of this power, so I stayed.

So many of us follow paths carved out for us by the expectations of our families, our superiors and ourselves. This path is dangerous because it masquerades as a "a choice." I chose a certain college, a certain career, a certain brand of shoes, a spouse. Life is the sum total of the choices you make, or so I was often told.

In reality, for many of us, life is the result of the choices we didn't make. We took the easy, socially acceptable (not to mention lucrative) path that was offered, but we never took the extra step. The extra step would be to look at what choices aren't explicitly on the table - and conceive of and consider them. Know the whole decision set.

We ask ourselves questions like, "Does this get me to the next step? What will this job/path teach me?" These are valid an important questions but they leave out, "Is this going to make me happy? Will my life, right now, be better for having taken this road?" Too often, the answer is "No." Our collective Puritan work ethic tells us, "pain now, gain later." It is a powerful force.

That is how I found myself, sitting in a beautiful office, at an amazing company, surrounded by crazy-smart people, doing exciting and meaningful work, looking at a picture of my beautiful family, asking myself, "Why does this still feel like it's fake, like I'm waiting for something? I have everything I ever wanted. I chose this." Scratch that. I had everything I thought I should want and it chose me.

So, I sat down and imagined my dream day. It was so clear, yet I was afraid. From the time I was in second grade, I wanted to be a writer. I had to be a writer. Even in my years as an industry consultant, I wrote late at night in hotel rooms. I wrote short stories, bad poetry, short plays, anonymous blogs and memoir. It came so easily.  I needed it.

My dream day was to get up in the morning, take my daughter school and not rush the entire morning. Then, I would exercise. After that, I would write and write. I would eat lunch and go for walks. I would visit museums and remember why Edward Hopper paintings can make me cry in public. I would pick up my daughter from school. We would have unstructured time. I would make real dinners. I would sing my daughter to sleep. When the day was over, I would sip single malt scotch while talking and laughing on the couch with my husband.

I took a deep breath. I said, "I choose to be somewhere else. This is not my choice anymore. I want to use my time in another way. My life is now and my time is more valuable to me than to anyone else." When I resigned from my job a few weeks later, I was actually choosing for the first time in my life. Now my life looks exactly like my dream life, minus the cooking.

When my father died at 44, he had undergone an operation with a very low success rate, but he chose life. One of my father's partners told me that he chose his family. He didn't linger at the office in the evenings to shoot the breeze. He didn't invent work for himself to make himself seem important. He rushed back from business trips on late night flights. He rose to spend Saturdays with my sister and me exploring New York City. It makes so sad to think that I didn't realize the lesson he'd taught me. Happiness doesn't come out of nowhere, you have to help it along and make space for it with the choices you make about your time.

If you were to truly chose your life (not a future life, but right now, this very second) what changes would you make? It takes courage to look freedom in the eye and use it. Only when we use our courage to truly choose for ourselves can we know what it means to be free.

Special Thanks to @MikeGamson of LinkedIn for making me really think about what it means to choose.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Freedom is Useless without Courage

Life is a collection of moments. In some moments we transcend. Our ears hear our daughter's hysterical laughter of childhood, our mouths taste a Chateau Coutet Sauterne for the first time, our eyes see the sky turning blue-pink and we believe in God, if just for a second. These are the moments that make us alive, yet we tend to forget them almost as quickly as we experience them.

There are other moments. In those moments, we are humbled. Our hands wrap Toyotas around telephone poles, our mouths snap an insult at the person across the room, our lizard brains confuse a child who won't put on her flipping socks and shoes already with a cougar about to pounce. In short, we lose control.

Where does true control over the moment, or of life come from?

I think of interview from a few weeks ago. About my father, the person said, "He was honest. He didn't tolerate fools. If he thought you were an idiot, he told you you were an idiot." There's a kind of confidence implied by someone not only unwilling to suffer fools but also willing to tell the fool that they are, in fact, a fool. This is not something I can do, yet. I still have time.

I think the difference was that my father took a leap towards happiness when he met my mother and they started their family. He abandoned the expectations of his family, his church, and himself. He hurt others in the process.

Still, he gave himself the chance for the life he wanted. He chose the life that would make him happy. Once you risk who you and everyone else thinks you are, you begin to let go of what other people think of you. You are free from their expectations (and perhaps your own) to find your own life, in your own way, in your own time.

When I started to write this year, I took a leap towards a life I've always wanted but was simply too afraid to try. Fear governed me.

Back in the corporate world, whenever anyone asked me what I would do when I had enough money, I’d answer, “Move to New Orleans. Buy a B and B in the Garden District and write all afternoon.” Sometimes the B and B was in Quogue, NY. Over the years, I gave up saying that. “I’d be right where I am.” With that one cowardly lie, masquerading as a positive attitude, I reduced myself to living a life I didn't really want to live. The reason I felt like an imposter was not that I believed I was incompetent, it was that I really wanted to be somewhere else entirely.

The girl looking for approval and safety reminded me that I should want to be on that path. For another day, I would wait for that moment when what I want and what I should want become one and the same. And then, I took my own leap toward the life I've always wanted.

Freedom is useless without courage. It took me so long to hear that message, I just wish I'd listened earlier. Then again, the best lessons are often learned the hard way.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Perils of Augustine, Rousseau, Proust and A Fault In Our Stars - all in one week

Last night, I gave into the temptation to wallow. Brian and I watched, The Fault in Our Stars. From the first few minutes in, I found myself shocked at how different the experience of a camera, as a narrator, would make the entire story. My favorite device the author uses is a book within a book, where the characters encounter the phrase, “Pain demands to be felt.” What could be more true? Perhaps, the corollary that “Love demands to be given?”

When I read the book, on a transcontinental SFO to JFK United flight, I didn’t shed a single tear. Although I prefer to pretend otherwise, books and movies make me cry. I have been known to be the really unstable bawling and sniffling chick with the cashmere turtleneck pulled up to her eyes in 7B (more than once). What makes me different than the typical really unstable bawling and sniffling chick with the cashmere turtleneck pulled up to her eyes in 7B is that I am reading something Stiglitz wrote about income inequality and remain happily married.

There I sat, on my blue sofa, in a ratty t-shirt, shocked when the tears streamed down my face. I discovered one of the reasons I hate crying has nothing to do with losing control, fearing vulnerability, or being told that no one likes a cry baby. It’s that the physical sensation of crying is horrible.

My body heats up. I feel claustrophobic in my own skin. I sweat. This is not polite glowing. A salty stream of sweat stings my invariably slightly sunburned neck, creeping down my chest, where it becomes cold,  forcing me to notice that its reached my navel. My “rosy” face becomes purple and the whites of my eyes turn pinkish red. To complete the image, my nose runs a hot, clear, liquid and I never have a tissue.

The reaction I was having was not to watching two star crossed lovers, but to knowing that people die leaving things unfinished.  All those meals never eaten, songs left unsung, chances to choose kindness missed, sunsets unwatched, babies' laughter unheard. Yet, if we are there and eat those meals, sing those songs, watch the sunsets and make the babies laugh, we bring the lost along with us. We never stop loving people when they die. That is our privilege -  to live with their love. That remains. And it gives us hope.

My apologies, I re-read Augustine, Proust and Rousseau for a class over the past week – this can’t continue much longer. I can barely stand myself. God, forgive us our pretentiousness, we know not the boredom it causes.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Listening to Gabriel's Oboe

Today I listened to Gabriel's Oboe over and over. It’s the theme from the film, The Mission. When I made my confirmation, it was required viewing. Rarely does a film pack so many questions into one story. My mother and father saw it the theater. She recalls the two of them walking New York’s streets for hours afterwards. Neither of them had words for it. Instead, they walked in saturated silence.

The story is of a Spanish mission that thrived in the Amazon during Colonial times. It’s success threatened authorities both governmental and clerical.  The powerful never falter in their desire to squash the truly free. It is their greatest fear. When it comes time to defend the mission, two priests fight alongside the native people. One fights by sword, the other by prayer. For both of them, the truly good sought fairness in all things, opening themselves to criticism and ostracism in their quest for right. Often, the free, possessing a power of a different nature, fail. Neither man survived.

I can’t imagine the film without it’s score. Music tells the story through dense emotions, those we never named.  It’s record filled our Upper East Side Apartment for weeks. The opening mimics the first sound after the quiet heard at sunrise. It floats as more instruments join, each creating a different chill and charge. Then, the chorus perfects the pieces, coming just shy of exploding and destroying it. Nuance at its most raw. The build up reminds me of the promise tomorrow brings when today feels wasted. But no effort is ever wasted, no kindness to small to matter. Daddy taught me this. Mommy perfected it.

Music makes visceral memory. Bow over string transports me through time even more than the smell of the beach.  At times, I believed I could smell my father on a wave of sound. When something amazing plays, I still do. Sound wraps around my shoulders. It rests against my back and squeezes my ribs. When I look up, no one is there.

My father’s best friend, Peter, said it best. “We went to a Irish bar on the East Side – a dark, smoky place. We drank and listened to Irish War ballads, not quite like Tommy Clancy. It was the most moving experience I ever had in my life. I’ve searched for years to find that music.” To search is to know you still love.

Before Ellie was born, Brian and I traveled to South East Asia. In Hoi An, a beach town in Vietnam, I woke up before dawn. I sat outside with a camera and watched the world wake up. Fishermen put out to sea in round, wicker boats. A mother held her baby in her lap. They clapped together. The quiet was perfect.  It is in quiet that we build connections with another.

These images and moments are so complete unto themselves; they seem impossible in worlds of noise and glowing screens. But it was this world of moments and images that I inhabited with Daddy. Our time was uninterrupted. When we were together, we belonged in a world entirely of our own making. Only recently did I learn that I can go there whenever I wish, but the ticket is always round-trip and I travel there alone.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Being of the sea and the surf

The metal arm of my beach chair clunks against my back. It's one millimeter from painful. White sand sticks to the sweaty skin on the back of my calves. Only the breeze from the waves cuts through the 97% humid Long Island summer air. Behind the haze, the sun burns longing to reveal a clear periwinkle sky.  It’s a perfect day. It's a day I've seen hundreds of times before, but it never ceases to save me.

I drop the chair and my enormous canvas bag filled with towels, books, sunscreen and the remnants of my daughter's late afternoon snack from yesterday. I remove my obscenely over-priced red coral beaded tunic to reveal an ultra-conservative black skirted swimsuit. My chair squeaks as it unfolds with a little extra push. I flop down onto the chair and open my father's mid-shipman's log. That's why I'm here - to discover someone I lost or never knew. Me.

Whenever I felt awful growing up, the beach was salvation. After anyone died, I found freedom here. My mother brought me here when I couldn't look at other children with their fathers at a camp barbecue. I sat on the roof of a surfboard shack in the 30 degree wind until I could feel nothing else when my high school boyfriend and I finally called it quits.  It’s like leaving the planet for a little while. No one can touch you. 

To find escape, you walk down a long white path of wooden boards through a field of beach grass. Behind you is a beach club with shouting children, a frigid swimming pool and the smell of fat burning on a grill. Ahead of you is white sand, grey-green-blue-ocean and a fuzzy horizon line - the edge of the world. Even though it’s only about 500 steps to the breaking waves, it feels like miles. Once you’re there, in your beach chair, under a blue and white umbrella, reading and re-reading sea-spray damp pages of your book through sunglasses dirtied by fingerprints absorbing fog, you are somewhere else. Alone and comfortably lonely. Here, for just a little while, you are free of everything behind you, free to inhale whatever emotion sits on your chest. There is no judgment, just being.

Daddy and I came to the beach even in the off-season. I remember a clear October day. Mommy was probably stuck packing up the summer house. We went out onto the sand, took off our Reebok sneakers and white tube socks, rolled up our jeans, pulled up our hoods to block the wind, and ran. We ran in endless lines of tire tracks left on the sand. He was ahead of me, running toward the jetties, which are now visible only out in the water. As he ran, his body shrunk and shrunk until, he dissolved into the mist. I panicked. As tears streamed from my eyes, I willed my legs, scratching against my rolled up Osh-Kosh jeans to push through the sand as my feet sank further with each step.

He was right there in front of me, but I couldn’t see him obscured by mist, sun and sand blowing in the wind.  I reached into the mist, running faster with my arms open, until he ran back to scoop me up into his arms. Even then, I knew that loss was the inevitable outcome of life. 

That’s why I’m here, back in this small town on the Atlantic Ocean. I've come and gone, moved from the green woods of the mid-Atlantic, to the jungle heat and bugs of the  Deep South, to the face-splitting cold of the Midwest, to the twilight-at-noon-light of Northern California. But, it is only here, where the surf burns my ankles from the cold, that I am not running away. For as long as I can remember, I felt like a story lived inside me, hidden and unwritten. That story is who I am, who I am meant to be, and how I enter the world.

As I read through his Midshipman's log, five yards from the breaking surf, I know that this is finally real. As I see Ellie, learning to be of the beach and sea, I am finally sure I’ve saved a part of him and carried him into the world for as long as she and I live.