Monthly Archives: May 2014

Eyes wide open

I’ve been a slave to propinquity for too long.  I drove to work on auto-pilot, my eyes practically unseeing, a CD blaring, singing off-key to the sounds of my college days.

My morning drives inundate me with sensation now: long swathes of verdant parkways; clusters of children at bus stops watched by a sleepy parent; the swift passage of runners and the slower movement of dog-walkers.  My car glides passed all of them, and I find myself distracted, wondering about their stories.

This morning, a light which usually holds steady on green unexpectedly switched to red.  The control only serves pedestrians. I looked to the left; no one.  But to the right, I saw a compact figure step from the curb, leading with a small canvas bag dangling from a narrow shoulder.  His clothes disappeared against the dingy grey of the street’s aging asphalt.  He gazed steadily forward, his head tipped slightly downward following the bend of his back.

He wore his grey hair long and tightly braided, in close-combed rows, the ends of which rested just below his collar.  He seemed ageless, raceless, almost genderless, shrugging gently in his  drab shirt, moving forward in labored motions.  He cleared the intersection, his bag still swaying. He stopped, briefly, on the sidewalk; then disappeared into a door in a wall of a building which I am not sure I’ve ever noticed.  A putty-colored door in a beige building.  I blinked and asked myself if I had even seen someone; if perhaps, I had been dreaming.

A horn honked then, and I continued on my way, still unsure, still wondering.  I drove the rest of the way to work with my eyes wide open, though I could not say what I hoped to see.

Tablefuls of women

My day started around a conference room table at Family Court where a dozen women hashed out the status of a mother, her three daughters, and the child of one of the daughters.  Two men also sat in the meeting but their meagerly tendered words floated out and landed with less impact than dust on snow.  The women led:  Strong women, loud women, women with definite opinions, splendid hairstyles and attitude.  Two lawyers, two social workers, two parent aides, two relative-placement providers, an aunt, the mother and the fifteen-year-old mother/daughter.  We danced the dance, flicked our nails, smoothed our hair, and brought the weight of our collective experience to bear on the little family afloat in a sea of poverty and pain.

Afterward, I took the fifteen-year-old, my client, for Chinese food before bringing her back to her foster placement.  She brightened considerably when she had a bit more air time, talking about the other girls in the home, which chores she liked, and what she did with the dollar-a-day she gets for helping the foster mother clean, cook and garden.  I asked her, “Is it weird walking into a restaurant with somebody who’s clearly your lawyer or some kind of social worker?”  She opened her face to me, full and frank, agreeing, smiling, maybe surprised that I called it out like that.  “Everybody knows,” she admitted.  “I mean, you’re white, for one thing.”  We hadn’t said that outloud; maybe she didn’t think I knew.  We laughed and rose from the two-top at the funny little restaurant on Troost.

At the end of the day, I gathered at a Wellness Table, a meal served at my friend Cindy Cieplik’s house with the deliberate intention of promoting a healthy life, mind, body, spirit and soul.  Ten women, ten stories, around the table we shifted.  We spoke our names, told our tales, passed the plates.  When the meal concluded, we grouped in twos and threes for snaps of the iPhone, Cindy in each cluster with her shining spirit and strong, lithe frame.  She slipped her arm through mine and leaned, close, and in her husky Chicago voice told me, “We need to talk, I mean, I know we’re talking, but, we need to talk, know what I mean?”  I did; I knew exactly what she meant.

My day draws to a close and I am quiet now, alone, thinking about tablefuls of women, feeling the crackle of their energy and the keen, clear resilience in the words which flowed from them.  I drift to sleep, lulled by the lingering cadence of their voices.  They sustain me. I am at peace.

On Broadway, Tuesday morning

As I drove north on Broadway this morning, debating whether to stop for an Americano and an Odwalla bar, I spied a shoe lying in the middle of the street.  I swerved to avoid it for reasons I can’t quite articulate.  While I did so, my eyes strayed across the adjoining lane of traffic to the sight of a man huddled on a bench somewhere between the wide expanse of the roadway curve and an inconspicuous bus stop.

The man wore army fatigues, had long, disheveled hair, and looked thick and cumbersome.  His head rested heavily on his chest; his arms were wrapped around his chest.  I glanced at his feet; two shoes.  I drove past.  I did not stop.

I turned the corner beyond my office and circled back to park.  A cluster of homeless people awaiting the opening of the Neighbor 2 Neighbor soup kitchen parted to let my car through the three-way intersection .  I lifted my hand in thanks; no one responded.

On the sidewalk outside my office building, a wide swathe of litter testified to the weekend’s events.  Beer bottles, soda cups, random crumpled papers; I skirted around the bulk of it to get to the car door so I could retrieve my bag.  As I bent to lift it from the floor of my car, I glanced diagonally, down the block, at the man on the bench.  I saw him rise, shake himself a little as though just awakening, and adjust his bulky clothes.  For a moment, I could see the narrow line of his shoulders, the thinness of his arms, the taut angle of his face.  I swear his eyes met mine, though I doubt either of us could really see that far.  Neither of us moved, neither of us averted our gaze.  But in the next instant, a bus lumbered up Broadway and eased itself between us.

Where to go with it

One  of  reasons that I started this blog involved trying to figure out how to deal with pain — leftover hardship, the pain of each day’s experience, and future suffering:  I believe that the type of “complaining” which I’m trying to forsake stems from all of it.  Like suppressed bubbles, the pain inevitably emerges elsewhere, in the form of sniping and snipping and snapping.

Since I’ve stopped taking narcotics, my physical pain has come back full force.  A friend recently remarked that I seemed “to be suffering less”, even though, knowing me as he does, he could tell I held my body in ways designed to alleviate discomfort.  I smiled.  “Yes,” I confirmed.  “I assure you, I’m in pain.”  We talked of the rest of it, then:  How I feel less anxious, how he sees me as kinder, as more accepting, less judgmental.  I’m  not bragging, folks; I’m blogging.

I’m glad that those who know me well see the genuine change.  But I’m still left with the dilemma:  Where to go with the pain?  What do I do when my legs shift and shudder, just before I have to talk to some unsuspecting soul?  Do I count to ten and walk away, pacing around my office, holding my tongue until I catch hold of the concept that my pain is not her fault?  What do I do with my aching heart, my breaking heart, the unintended consequences of living with that organ on my sleeve?

For years, I’ve let my troubles sour my disposition; and for the last six months, I’ve tried to assume a gentle demeanor regardless of the events which erode my peacefulness.  I see the impact of the changes in my behavior.  I have let myself be more connected to this world by shunning the narcotics which dulled both the physical pain for which they were prescribed and the emotional suffering caused by life’s flotsam and jetsam.  Yet, if I truly embrace that connection, surrender myself to it, there is the inevitable question:  Where do I go with the pain?

I envy the truly clueless, those who wander through life without regard to its complexities.  And while I am envying them, I study them, hoping to borrow some of their unwitting complacency.

The sun has briefly shrugged off the clouds it wears and smiled on my deck.  A rabbit passed just a moment ago, looking at me sitting on my porch, hammering away at this keyboard.  It paid me little more heed, casually and effortlessly hopping across my yard.  I saw its tail twitch as it ducked under the rose bush next door and then it disappeared, its color blending with the underlying mulch as though it had never been there at all.

Sunday morning

My mother had a poem posted on her refrigerator, typed by her on her manual typewriter and secured to the surface with Scotch tape.  She didn’t know the author and attributed it to “Anon”.  But I learned it was an Ogden Nash poem, and carried its words in my heart for mornings such as this one.  Here it is.  Enjoy:



I Didn’t Go To Church Today
I didn’t go to church today,
I trust the Lord to understand.
The surf was swirling blue and white,
The children swirling on the sand.
He knows, He knows how brief my stay,
How brief this spell of summer weather,
He knows when I am said and done
We’ll have plenty of time together.
Ogden Nash






I’ve got a secret.

I can’t lift heavy bags and I don’t like asking people to do it for me unless they’re related to me by blood or marriage.  I could spend hours reading psychology journals, self-help emotion guides, and other people’s blogs to try to figure out why but the truth is, I’ve always assumed it’s either because I don’t want to be helpless or I don’t want to be perceived as helpless.

Or both.

At the grocery store this morning, a gangly cashier took the deli-packed ziplock of sliced meat and started to toss it from one end of the conveyer belt to the other.  I saw the zipper open without benefit of slide and realized the bag had broken.  I asked if we could get it repackaged, in my very best Year Without Complaining voice, trying not to imply any wrongdoing because hey, that would be  complaint, now, wouldn’t it?  He scowled at me and snarled, We don’t keep these bags at the cash register.  At about the same time, the sacker asked if I wanted paper or plastic.

So there I was, caught between a complaint and a helpless spot, wanting my $7/lb bag of sliced rottiserie chicken to be safely ensconced in unbroken baggage and my food to be squarely packed in paper, double, medium weight.  The tall cashier, who didn’t look all that pleased to have a job, was shoveling groceries down the line quickly engulfing the broken bag as though I might forget about it if he worked fast enough.  And I’m thinking:  Is this worth it?  Should I ask again?  Is that complaining?  Is that being petty?  Would he treat his mother like this?  Am I taking this personally when I shouldn’t?

But all I wanted was clean meat safely toted home in a securely zipped Glad-bag.  I asked again.  He stopped working.  We locked eyes.  The sacker held his breath.  We don’t have one here, he spat out, biting each word, barely parting his lips.  I started to wonder if something had gone wrong in his life the instant before I cheerily sang out “good morning” and started unloading my purchases.  The replacement of the broken bag suddenly seemed more important to him than it had to me, in the sense that he just did not want to do it, regardless of how simple a task it might be.

The sacker, who appeared to be about twelve, broke the stalemate.  He nudged an even younger employee and asked him to run to the deli for a re-do.  My cashier grudgingly let loose of the meat and resumed scanning my items, never letting go of my gaze, never smiling, never even relaxing his face.  I wondered about the events of his life; I asked myself what made him so adamant about not making such a tiny problem right for a customer, one who asked nicely, one who even hesitated to ask in the first place fearing just the result that I got.

I asked myself if the very fear that prompted my hesitation spurred his unwillingness.  Did we both fear the risk of human contact?  Did we shy from the obligation that our exchange might raise?  He helps me; I’m indebted; he’s responsible?  That might have been. I contemplated this potential, while I slid my debit card, punched in the PIN and went through the litany of questions allowing me to pay the store without tendering currency.

I thanked him, then, in that Year Without Complaining voice, the nice voice, the one I learned in foster-mother-classes.  I gently took my receipt from his extended hand, and wished him a good day.  He never smiled.  He didn’t speak.  The sacker grabbed a couple of my bags and we headed toward the door.  I sent a little prayer back to the cashier, just in case a good day might still be attainable.  I can only hope.


My father barbecued on summer holidays, standing over the stone fireplace in the backyard.  Some years, I know, we had a round grill, a Weber maybe, or whatever they sold at Sears where my father preferred to shop.  He made hot dogs and hamburgers, which we kids piled on plates with buns, potato chips and whatever semi-healthy side my mother provided.

I didn’t like eating outside as a child.  Nothing about being jammed with eight kids at a picnic table for six spelled “fun” to me.  I didn’t care for hot weather, despised flies, and had no proclivity for balancing a weak paper plate on a knee while clutching a plastic glass filled with a sugary drink.

I’d take my food inside, where even without air conditioning, I felt more comfortable.  I would sit at the breakfast room table alone, a book propped in front of me, munching the burnt skin of a hot dog with perfect contentment.  We might have corn-on-the-cob; if so, I’d smooth a bit of margarine on an ear and delicately nibble its rows, free from my brothers’ jeers and ridicule at the daintiness of my eating.

With everyone else outside, jostling for space at the table or in the folding chairs, the house seemed still and serene.  I could finish several chapters without interruption, while the four boys and whatever older sisters still resided at home argued over the last ear of corn.  I spoke to no one; I sang, maybe, just a bit, off-key.  After a while, I’d hear the wrenching open of the downstairs door, and the thunder of brothers on the basement stairs.  Softer steps followed; my mother, carrying dishes.  I’d hear my father’s gruff voice admonishing the boys to help their mother.

My interlude would end, but the peaceful feeling remained, and carried me into the starlit night, to the porch, to the front yard, where fireflies twinkled and the wind danced in our hair.


On the porch

During the 1970s, my older brothers Mark and Kevin slept in an unfinished room in the basement.  Periodically, they would leave the house during the night through the back door, situated at the far end of that room.  When they did so, they would leave our mother a note, pinned to the door or resting on one of their beds.  The most famous of these said, Mom, Me and Frank went for a walk; we were not kidnapped.  MARK”.

I came down this morning and found a note from my son tucked into the coffee pot.  It invited me to wake him for coffee on the porch before I left for work.  My heart sang.  Have i become my mother?  Gosh, I hope so.  Like his uncles before him, I hope Patrick recognizes both his independence and his inter-dependence; his sameness and his separateness.

We had our coffee on the porch, as the morning rain watered the Mother’s Day vincas.  We talked of things great and small.  Later, as I drove to work, I saw the tiniest glimmer of a rainbow off in the distance.  Perhaps somewhere in the great cosmos, in the wide expanse of collective consciousness, or maybe, just in heaven, my mother Lucille and her youngest son Stephen Patrick gazed down on Patrick and me.  I imagine them side by side, as they often sat on the brick porch back in Jennings, in our old metal lawn chairs, each with a cup of coffee resting on the brick wall in front of them.

And they are smiling.

Mea Culpas

I blew it. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I get a call from my long-time pharmacy that one of my prescriptions can’t be filled because my insurance carrier won’t approve it.  The pharamcist says that it’s likely I’ve been put in a mail-order program and have to opt out.  I called my insurance carrier and was told they had indeed put me in this program and only the company that provides the mail order prescriptions can “opt me out”.  But, hey, I didn’t put myself in it; I don’t have a relationship with the mail-order company; and I don’t have any desire to have that company have any of my personal information.

Thirty minutes later, I’ve raised my voice and used the word “damn” to modify “program”, twice.

After all of that, the fifth person gotten on the line (the first two people that my insurance carrier got on the line “didn’t have authority”) took me out of the program in 30 seconds.  My insurance carrier had said I had to answer a few questions (wrong) and she couldn’t do it (wrong) and that the first person she called could (wrong) and that person’s supervisor could (wrong).

It just hit me the wrong way, ya know?

So, I’m sucking it up and publicly acknowledging my slip.  Oh, you thought my slip was yelling at the carrier Not to EVER put me in ANY program without MY PERMISSION AGAIN…?

No, no. My slip?  Calling a friend of mine who works for that insurance company and complaining to her about it!!!  So, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  To my friend (who knows who she is) — I’m sorry — I know you just work for them, I shouldn’t have burned up your eartime complaining about them!!!!!!!

I’ll do better tomorrow, when I call the supervisor to tell them not to do this to me again.  I will try to remain calm, and I won’t call my friend to grouse afterwards!!!!

Have a good evening, everyone!!!!!

Of faith and hope

Yesterday, a friend told me that I was cynical.  On the heels of that, she told me that she had no faith, though still a little hope.  We were  speaking of people, not the divine; and I had given her a fairly sharp view of humanity which she could rightly characterize as cynical.   We spoke over coffee, after court, two women — mothers, lawyers — who have seen much, survived to middle-age, and raised children in a world both beautiful and cold.

She told me about a woman from another country whose soon-to-be husband came with a pre-nuptial agreement reciting that she would ask nothing of him in the event of divorce regardless of the length of the marriage or their respective circumstances at the time of a future divorce.  My friend refused to be a party to such a scheme, or to give any advice to the woman other than not to sign the document.  She called the lawyer who prepared it and demanded that her name be taken off the document as counsel for the woman.  She sent the woman a letter stating her thoughts in the starkest of terms.  She said to me:  Here they should have been planning their future together, and the whole thing started with his plan to make sure she had nothing if they separated.

She told the woman, “Suppose you have children?  If he doesn’t want to help you, what makes you think he will help the children?”  I could see the outrage on her face, the anger on behalf of that woman and others whom she has counseled. The essential underlying outrage, though, is the loss of faith.  My expressions of cynicism were situational; hers seemed deep and wrenchcing.

I sit here on my deck, waiting the appointed hour to go for yet another medical test, at least three eggs juggling in the whirl of my world about to fall and splatter any moment.  But despite my expressions of disgust after court yesterday, I still expect that — come what may — a peaceful existence awaits me each morning. Last week someone stole the bag that belonged to my mother-in-law Joanna, containing my tablet, docking station, chargers, make-up, glasses and more.  Yesterday, someone else returned that bag to me completely intact.  Not one single thing was missing, damaged or, seemingly, even disturbed.  When I turned the corner of our reception area and saw the bag waiting for me, a surge of something close to joy rushed through me.

I’m glad to have my belongings back, including the tablet on which I now write, and perhaps most especially, Joanna’s bag. Even more, though, I’m glad my faith in humanity got a little salve yesterday.  On the heels of finding my hope ring which I had inexplicably lost again, the return of Joanna’s bag “lightened the weight / of a heavy mood  / and saved some part / of a day I had rued”.  (Frost)  So this is for you, Jeanne.  Have a little faith with that hope.  Namaste.