Watership Down author Richard Adams dies…

One of many great losses this year…Read more about Adams here.

Watership Down was an extremely influential story from my childhood. It anthropomorphized animals, as we are want to do, but held a mirror to the destructive, power-hungry, greedy, and very human ills that we must keep in check to preserve harmony for all creatures.  It also is a poignant reflection on mortality, with a resounding note of resilience-that we can carry on if we challenge the dangerous and dark impulses within our fellow beings for the greater good of all… What more timeless narrative exists than this?

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Sad Bones and Old Wounds: Leaving Home and Going Home

This post is a draft in progress...

***
Death’s a sad Bone; bruised, you’d say,

and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison. -Anne Sexton, "Wanting to Die"

In a studio apartment decorated with all the charms of home, my grandmother sits high on her much coveted bed, with its fluffy pillows, and crisp blue and white flowered quilt. We’d always love to have sleepovers with her just to have the chance to sleep on that bed, soft, high, pillows piled like clouds! Not to mention the cookies…there were always cookies!

Now the bed reigns in this new apartment in a nearly new assisted living facility. It’s clean and bright, with family photos scattered across every surface: the faces of each of her seven grandchildren smiling from school portraits; the faces of her long-gone siblings, at least seven, from family parties and days of their youth in the Bronx. She has outlived most of her family, except for one sister at least ten years her junior now struggling with kidney failure. She has outlived her husband for twenty-one years. She has outlived nieces and nephews, who willed her their savings that is helping to pay for her care, here.

The room has at least six plants on the windowsill, and another in front of the door on a table. There is artwork framed on the walls, some professional, some by my cousins. There are decals of flowers on the wall next to her bed, and the wall near the door as we walk inside. It’s cheery. This room has been her home for the past six months, following a mini-stroke about five months prior to that. The room is in the Memory Care Unit for patients with dementia, or those who like to wander; many residents wear anklets to monitor their location. The doors to this wing are always locked. Only key visitors and staff have the special, ever-changing code to unlock doors to the  main room with its grand fireplace, or the dining rooms, or the other wing where the mailboxes and other sections of the facility. There is a small courtyard near the common area, which allows residents to gather to watch television, or to take in some sun, or to do crafts in the adjoining activities room.

This place smells faintly good with a side of urine, impending death. Mainly, it breathes hope. Of course, many people here do not have family left,  or family nearby to visit them, or to check on their care as often as would be ideal. At our recent visit, my grandmother remarked how lucky she is to have so many people come see her, or call. She had just been released from the hospital after a bout of pneumonia that turned out to be much more.

My aunt and uncle, who now have power of attorney, live fifteen minutes from the assisted living facility. My mother and other uncle, who live in my grandmother’s home, (her primary caregivers) are two and a half hours away when there is not much traffic. I, the oldest grandchild, am about three plus hours away, and a few other cousins in New England are five or six hours away. Still, we are finding ways to manage the distance.

Assisted living costs:  Independence with monitoring, room and board, a meal plan, activities, health services, physical and other related therapies, laundry…all bearing resemblance to college. Only here there are nurses to weigh you and make sure you are taking medication that you might otherwise forget, which then makes you refuse to take it because dementia and other neurological conditions confuse, make you paranoid, distrust authority. After her stroke, grandma often accused us of trying to poison her when suggesting she take her usual blood pressure pills, or later the medicine that was supposed to quell the onset of dementia and paranoia caused by the stroke. She never took it for long, even after all the tests, even after explaining it may have allowed her to remain in her home for a while. Realistically, at 87 the house had become a hazard to her, its stairs, its drafts, its carpeting, its suspect shadows.

After the stroke, we had to deadbolt the doors up high, so she could not wander out into the darkness and get hit by a car or forget her way home.

“You are locking me in like a prisoner!” She’d scream at my mother, or “I can’t go anywhere…you are all trying to kill me!”

She began hiding knives under the couch cushion to protect herself from us. She tried to hit my mother with the broom, or her purse, whatever was handy…

Logically, you recognize that she did not mean it, and it was not her fault for fearing you irrationally. It did not make it hurt any less. I remember when she thought I had turned on her, too, another part of the conspiracy to imprison her. She glared at me, with furious tears, saying, “Not you, too! Why would you do this to me? You are all going to hell.” I said that was fine…I’d go, but that this was to help, not hurt her. I’ll never forget the disbelief on her face.

After the stroke, my grandmother had no sense of time. She would forget immediately when it was, even after you told her only a moment ago, “It’s 4 PM, almost time to start making dinner.”

She’d say to my mother, “Is it time to make dinner? Can I feed the dog now?”

She would ask what time it was again, then look at the clock to be sure we were not trying to trick her.

She’d go to the windows at night, while we were watching television, or after we’d all try to go to bed. We’d find her staring out into the darkness, but she could not understand it was nighttime. She stopped sleeping, so we stopped sleeping. We knew we needed help.

Now that she’s gone, everything must change.

We had had first Christmas without her a few weeks ago. My mother put up the beautiful tree adorned with assorted ornaments, some that still shined from my childhood, others with photos of some of her grandkids as babies, several long-gone pets, and those we gave her for Christmases past. My grandmother loved birds, so lots of cardinals sat perched between the mutli-colored LED lights (which, with a click of a remote could be switched to white, or other twinkle patterns or static glows…she really loved that remote). There were ornaments from my cousin Erin’s world travels, and some funny Disney characters, along with that lady Maxine. My grandma got a kick out of her, and even had a Maxine cookie jar for a time. While the place was fairly decked, it was not as over-the-top as my mom and grandma’s usual holidayness… Later, my mother admitted she did not want to put the tree up but my uncle had asked her to do it. “This will be the last time,” he said.

The house is to go up for sale soon, with legalities that require it. Had my grandmother lived a bit longer and her Medicaid had kicked in, this may not have been the case. I am certain that knowing her home was being forced out of her children’s hands would have devastated her as much as it is devastating all of us, now. My grandparents had been there for forty years, come up from the Bronx and made their way to a better life in this corner lot, split-level ranch with a modest yard, trees, bird baths and squirrel feeders, swings and hammocks, a shed and garden that the family helped build, tend, or tear down over the years.  Their back patio was where my cousin and I had our summer birthday parties. That yard was where we ran through our Donald Duck sprinkler, climbed a mimosa tree, made hair wreaths from weeping willow fronds, went sledding, played in a kiddie pool, or later walked the various rescue dogs we always fell for (even when one bit my grandma and put her in the hospital).

This was first year in a long time when my mother waited for me to come home to make my grandfather’s family’s Hungarian strudel. This was  tradition that we did not do ever year (it’s a lot of work). I remember watching my grandfather making it in the orignal kitchen, with its dark wood-paneling, when I was little. I remember even better my mother making it in one of our old apartments on a small table in the living room, how I would have to help cut and place the dough in greased bowls around the apartment so it could rise: all those colorful correl and pyrex bowls sitting on steam radiators covered with dishtowels. The oven was a tiny, ancient thing that never baked anything evenly…I don’t know how she made it work for all those years before that apartment caught fire from an electrical issue on the other side of the house (we shared the building with the town judge’s law office). I was later away at school, busy trying to determine how to survive and graduate, then teach and graduate again…each end of semester meant longer and longer papers to finish, and all those student papers to grade. Getting home before grades were due was nearly impossible so I was not involved in the strudel except when eating it and stealing some to take back with me.

Still, a few years ago, I asked my mother for the recipe with some notion that as the oldest grandchild (even living in a small apartment with an outdated oven) that I would someday need to make it on my own. I still have her note on the fridge, but the truth is she just wrote a list of ingredients. When I called her out on this she admitted that no one had really written down the recipe…and that my grandparents had also only an old scrap of yellowed list paper specked with crisco and apricot filling, no doubt, with the ingredients on it. So this year, I decided to participate in the making but to primarily write down the directions so the rest of us would have something to follow. After all, as a writer, I was drawn to the task. I also took some videos to add visual guidance and for posterity, which I’m sure my mother would not appreciate. My mother reminded me not to put too much filling on the thin layer of dough as we rolled each onto the flour-and-sugar piled cutting boards. I really like a bit more filling, though, so I added some extra and, to be fair, I have no real idea of how much is too much having not made the stuff in years. We are stubborn in this family, especially me, so no one was surprised at this. As she had predicted, the strudels with extra filling (it really was a slight amount) split and cracked in the oven. Did they taste delicious? You’re darn right they did. Did they look slightly less appealing? Barely, since you cut them into small pieces like little rugelach and sprinkle them with powered sugar. The thing about this strudel is it is nothing like the flakey German or Jewish versions you might know. Those are delicate, sweet, moist. This dough is thick with sour cream and comes out like a dense hybrid of cake and bread, hence you must roll it thinly. It’s a hearty dough for keeping your poor family full, not some frivolous dessert. I ate a lot of strudel this Christmas: for breakfast with my coffee, as a snack between meals, sometimes as dessert or a late night snack watching crappy cable on my grandmother’s couch where she always sat and had her cake or Ritz cackers. I took a bunch of strudel home (traditional apricot, my favorite, and rasberry, a new flavor we had never made) and ate it daily for two weeks, even when I was not that hungry to keep home close.

 

 

 

Flip the Script and Alternative Adoption Narratives

I recently had a conversation with a friend and colleague over lunch about the complicated dynamics of family, which shifted to my adoption and relationship with my biological mother, and then explored adoption/orphan cliches in literature or film, etc. I’m not a scholar on orphan narratives, but it’s easy to see that many of the famous ones by Dickens or Rowling or a Bronte are somewhat reductive and two-dimensional. Child is orphaned and does not belong, is unwanted by the new family even, is a burden, but is able to rise above and beat all odds and become super-human; or, has a secret benefactor and will become rich in ways no one could imagine; or, must be rescued and re-parented by an older spouse or love interest, is morally good, and remains an exemplar for all her suffering. This, of course brought about the many problems with only a few, oversimplified narratives, and the significance of more nuanced representation regarding all aspects of adoption. This topic is not new to many of us whose business is words, or making up stories, or thinking about the way we choose to tell stories: our own or others on their behalf. Implicit in this process is something very revealing about perspective and, therefore, power. Who gets to tell whose story in what way, and why?

Before this devolves into a well-worn rant about all that, let me return to my purpose: to share a few resources on the subject. Lost Daughters is a collection of intelligent women writing their own adoption stories, recommending other readings, and more.  Click here for a short NY Times Blog by one of their authors. They are responsible for a series entitled “Flip the Script,” which does not merely settle only for the well-known, eternally grateful adoptee narrative, but rather explores the confusion, anger, shame, fear, sadness, rejection, loss, etc. surrounding the act of adoption.

My own story is mainly one of gratitude, but also one of struggling with rejection and abandonment in my relationships. You an read a bit about that on this blog and specifically about my adoption in a piece called “Chosen.” I was given a better chance at having a supportive family, an education, and more because my mother placed me for adoption. But my story is also one of the challenging transition into an adulthood relationship with my adopted mother, and the uncharted path of forging a relationship with my biological mother since we first confirmed our genetic connection several years ago.

There really are few to no models for adoptees that portray the process of getting to know their birth-relatives. It’s surreal, messy, and leaves a connection, a burgeoning friendship hanging in the balance between obligation and fear, love and being left behind. Suddenly, there are exciting or awkward or revealing conversations with this all-too similar stranger whose loss you can never repair or repay; a guilt that may gnaw at you; a joy of finally feeling understood, or whole, or like you belong to someone, somewhere but then again, do you? Can an adoptee suddenly belong to the woman and womb from which she was exiled? And what does this mean for the home, the familiar people and places that were already provided for the adoptee?  Must the adoptee make a choice between the two worlds/bodies of nature and nurture, and even if she did would she still float in a sort of limbo, with cautious toes in the water of those muddy wombs? Each protects and provides, and post-reconciliation with the birth family sometimes leads to the sets of parents feeling the pangs of rejection for the first time.

Adoption is labor, and it is love, but at the core of both is loss. Something born must gain independence, and something loved must leave. Is the loss worth what is gained? I hope for many, yes, but how can we know until we listen to their stories for ourselves?

I hope you’ll check out the Lost Daughters and alternative adoption narratives. Acknowledging the complicated emotions and experiences of others is the most compassionate thing we can do. The scared child inside all of us, I think, might agree on at least that, no?

One Poem… Two Versions

I drafted this recently, and it has changed quite a bit, especially in line and stanza breaks. I was working in couplets primarily. I am trying it as a single stanza here to see how it sits. Another version is below…

 

Father

 

You are the way I clench my teeth

without feeling connected–

the bit sticks in my jaw, follows

jugular to pools of fused clavicles;

the way I bite the insides

of my mouth, making maps to you;

or lick and chap my lips:

dry and worn working hands

clapped together, praying for release,

Amen.

***

Father

 

You are the way I clench my teeth

without feeling connected

 

the bit sticks in my jaw, follows

jugular to pools of fused clavicles;

 

the way I bite the insides

of my mouth, making maps to you;

 

or lick and chap my lips:

dry and worn working hands

 

clapped together, praying for release,

Amen.

For Nanny

Missing my Nanny who moved to assisted living today. Her house is still the place where I grew up, the last remaining tie to my childhood self that I have access to, the rooms where I painted, colored, played games that my cousin and I would make up as we went along; it is the place where I began telling stories, and creating fantasies; where I was enamored with nature in the backyard watching the birds she and my grandfather would always feed peanuts to, leave seed for, or the animals my uncle would catch or tame from snakes to hawks; it is a place of family parties in the summer, of too much coffee cake; it is also the place where I’d get to stay in the softest of beds, stay up late, and be spoiled; it is the place where we’d always return after shopping every day; where there are always holiday decorations for every occasion, sometimes all mixed around the house at once; it is the place of too many televisions turned up too loudly, the place where I can always bring my wash, get a full meal, and watch SNL or Law & Order; the place where gardens and cars and dogs and cats and jokes and questionable politics have always resided. Right now my grandmother is probably confused, upset, feeling alone and afraid…but I hope she knows we are all feeling that too in her absence, and that while everything has changed all of what we remember, feel, and hold keeps us fastened to one another, to a love that is a sum of the past but also an ongoing propulsion into tomorrow. I hope that my grandma enjoys something each new day until it becomes familiar, and is as safe and cared for as she has made sure all of us have been for all these years. ❤

Hello, David Bowie…

David Bowie’s passing knocked me back on my way to work this morning, while I was driving mindlessly forward, half asleep in an under-caffeinated allergy haze. This warm winter has been strange enough…and this past year filled with loss and unseasonable change.

I was not a #1 Bowie fan. I suppose I took for granted that he’d always be around, as much of his music and colorful cultural interjections have always been in the background of my life. He was the wild seventies into which I was born; he danced across the TV screens that raised me in the eighties; he echoed through the high school hallways in the nineties as Kurt Cobain crooned his songs to the grunge generation; he was a familiar tune that popped up in the two-thousands when I’d go out to dance with my grad school buddies. There has never been a time without Bowie, and I believe there never will be. His power is too bright.

He was an outcast who became an emblem for individual expression, musical shape shifting, political exploration, gender fluidity, theatricality with artistic depth and substance. Challenging norms, he sought equality, to provide power to those who were marginalized. His ongoing wonderful weirdness will be missed. But think of how lucky we are to have a long and wide-ranging catalogue of his creative and humanistic endeavours. David Bowie has always been and will always be…

“Let’s Dance”

“The Man Who Sold the World” Live at the beeb

David Bowie spoke out about the lack of black artists represented on MTV, from Bitch media

“David Bowie: What I’ve Learned…” from Esquire

 

Tidings of Comfort and Joy: On a New Year

This past year, I survived my first surgery and my millionth break-up; I lost and found both of my mothers again; I felt true support for a few moments, a type of love I could briefly accept, from my now-ex boyfriend of several years; I took several steps backward in physical activity; I stopped coloring my hair, gradually cutting off the detritus; I saw my mother in fear of her life, hospitalized three times, then settle back home in a more grateful place; I heard my grandmother laugh at her own forgetfulness and take cheap shots at all of us under her breath, and I admired her grace; I’ve felt defensive, hurt, and fearful more than usual but was able to push it aside to plough through much of the above.

But at what cost? To be a hurt child afraid of nearly everything takes so much from experience, especially joy. There have been many moments in 2015 that brought great relief, appreciation and gratitude, but rarely proper joy. I think I felt it when Ryan came home in 2014 for the academic year we had mended some things, or were at least willing to put those things aside out of care for each other and to move forward. His transition to school so far South was not easy, so the idea of him coming home to re-evaluate was comforting. While it brought no promise of staying, it brought at least physical proximity and time together to heal.

While he was a great source of patience and kindness to me in many ways throughout the years but especially this summer, when my mother was struggling with health emergencies, and I had my own surgery, things still built up. There was still a residue of resentment when he left, or when I could not pretend fully to feel happy about his departure, or struggles with a disorganized PhD program that seemed to be stringing him, and therefore our relationship along, in terms of how long it would take him to complete his degree. I was and am glad for his pursuit of what he loves, but could not deny that while I was tolerating the long distance (much better this time around, I thought) that it was still daunting.

After my family health crises subsided, all of the stress that I had put aside to confront the details of getting us through it came down hard. I was not easy to talk to or deal with. I felt simply like I needed to fall apart a bit myself finally, once I had the time and space at all to do it. Of course, that did not yield any good results…I felt selfish and demanding, but after a lifetime of taking care of people I really needed some affirmation that someone could maybe take care of me, even if I was being childish, disagreeable, etc. That bit of vulnerability was tough for me to reach and that is rarely the case…and as quickly as I reached out I snapped shut, angry and fearful of being hurt, of all the people I had almost just lost (my grandmother also had surgery, and my biological mother was in a nursing home facing the loss of her leg), all those I had actually lost, and will lose. It turns out, now I have lost Ryan, too, and no doubt due in part to some of that behavior.

I have felt like I was organizing and coordinating, helping and assisting for a long time. It is in my nature, but it can become me too much, and I forget my other selves, and those people close to me who need more than just a two-dimensional version of me. I don’t like admitting it…it seems to be a functional coping mechanism, but it’s not been worth the damage it’s caused in my personal relationships. I thought I could trust Ryan again, and really be fine with the distance and him having an entire life separate from me. That was simply not the truth, no matter how much I loved him, or how good I know he was to me in many ways through my many issues. Still, I thought just staying and trying was support, and would will us through all things, considering all the things we had already willed ourselves through.

We want to believe, and belief is extremely powerful. It can influence our health, change our minds, create our afterlives. But it can also make us try and try and try again when we should know we need to rest, pause, and sit alone with all of our thoughts. Not just the hopeful ones, the familiar ones that we wish to become the truth, but those that can actually bring us to a fulfillment that remains, one that is fully dimensional or real.

Perhaps that is not a life without disappointment (and I doubt that there can be), or one that allows us to perpetuate our illusions of control, or our imagined path, but one that fosters a kind of unremitting joy only born of taking risks (sometimes those risks are small, or may even be taking care of yourself instead of putting others above your health and happiness), being vulnerable and getting hurt, only by all the things we allow ourselves to interact with and sense, not the phantoms of years past when we felt somehow certain that things must finally work out for us, even when they didn’t.

Too often they don’t, but I know how lucky I am to have the friends and family I do to see me through it, who can provide some wisdom and insight from making their own mistakes, but not allow those mistakes to undo their self-worth.

Take risks, and have a joyful 2016!