My Kitchen (and other temporary moments of calm)

(Written pre-pandemic, but still apropos.)

One of the first things I did when I retired a few years ago was to clean my kitchen.  I don’t mean do the dishes and wipe the counters; I mean clean the kitchen.  By the time I was done every expired can of garbanzo beans and the eighteen-year-old canister of peppercorns that I inherited from my mother were where they belonged:  In the trash.  The pantry was actually organized and I could spot every item without moving something else.  The shelves were wiped down, every fork was lined up with its mates in straight formation in the silverware drawer.  The counters were clear — free of appliances, old mail and AARP Magazines. The ceramic tile floors were practically operating-room sterile.  I took a deep breath and inhaled the neatness.  It was ordered and peaceful. It was a sparkling, minimalist’s joy.  It felt good just to stand in it.

Now you might think that I was laying the ground for years of baking and gourmet explorations.  (Finally!)  You might think I was delighting in having time to sauté and parboil and grind rosemary to my heart’s content.  But you would be wrong.  I am not really a kitchen person and cleaning it out was more like tackling the garage mess so you can find the dog crate for a trip to the vet – painful but necessary.   I expected it would stay in this harmonious state henceforth, and I could get on with retirement life.

Yesterday I had company coming so I looked at the kitchen to see how much I needed to clean to make it navigable.  The forks are still more-or-less in formation, but one look at my kitchen and you can see it is not the set for [insert name of any of those cooking shows I do not watch.] On the counter now is a fierce looking dinosaur with glowing green eyes.  He is being charged for his next remote-control adventure.  He sits on top of a Lion’s Roar magazine, with the Dali Lama smiling about the nature of change. 

There is an issue of Ranger Rick on the other counter, open to the article entitled “The Scoop on Wombat Poop.”  A rolling walker replaces one of the chairs at the kitchen bar, and there are two skeins of gray yarn and four yards of dragon fabric all waiting to be moved out to the craft room.  Tupperware and Yoga Journal are sitting next to the microwave, waiting for their respective owners (my daughters) to claim them.  There are bright fuchsia-colored peonies on the glass cutting board.

The grandsons have left their toys and magazines where they can find them when they come in from the school bus on Wednesdays and Fridays.  The walker is necessary for Anne’s oh-so-slow hip fracture recovery, sitting in the kitchen because she still preps the meals.  The flowers were dropped off by a friend who didn’t want the rain to ruin them.  She stayed for a half hour and we caught up on the details of our lives. 

Yoonie behind the peonies

Beyond the peonies is an enormous – practically life sized – unicorn for whom I am knitting a rainbow sweater.  It is too big to live in the kitchen, but I can see it from where I stand next to the green-eyed dinosaur.  My granddaughter is impatient with how long it is taking me to knit the sweater, and she is ready to take Yoonie home. (Believe me, I am ready to send Yoonie home with or without her *$%# sweater.) Sometimes I actually have time to read articles in Lion’s Roar and remember that this moment is all there is.  

“Snapshot of my life,” I thought.  My simple, complicated, child-filled, yarn-ridden, care-giving, glorious, messy life.  My life and my kitchen.  Each is a sparkling maximalist’s joy.  It feels good just to stand in it.

Sweater done, Granddaughter happy


At the beginning of this pandemic friends were telling me that they thought we’d “be holed up for weeks!  Maybe even a couple of months!“ I suggested it would be a year or more.  They scoffed.  I planned.

What to do with the year ahead? As an RP (retired person) I had the luxury of choosing whatever nagging project that I had been putting off for my 40-plus years of gainful employment.  What project would make me feel the most relief?  The answer dropped in front of me like an anvil in an old cartoon:  Finish Mom’s Quilts.

Mom’s been gone for fifteen years, and those quilt tops were sitting in a big bin marked, OCD-ly enough, “Mom’s unfinished Quilts.”  We gave away over half of her fabric stash when she died, and I was left with a couple of totes of 1990’s fabric and eight quilts in various stages of “doneness.”  Some were all finished, just needing the backing and to be quilted.  Some were just hundreds of teeny, tiny geometrical scraps of cloth — with one square completed to give me a hint.  Yes, this was a project worthy of a global pandemic.  I looked heavenward.  “Okay, Mom.  Here we go.”

I pulled them out and looked at the task.  Seeing them all spread out in my sewing room, I decided to ease my way in and start with the ones almost done. I worked my way back to the ones that were in pieces and for which I’d have to make the squares myself.  Low-hanging fruit through major brain teasers, I set my course.

Some were just hundreds of teeny, tiny geometrical scraps of cloth… 

Two or three days a week, week after week, month after quarantine month, I made my way through my mother’s work, finishing each as I thought best.  Sashing here.  Borders there.  Choosing backing for this one, binding for that one.  I learned to hand stitch the bindings.  Sewed squares in upside down and inside out, ripped the stitching out and did it again, right. 

And as I sewed each one – its own little piece of my mother’s life – I talked to her.  What I loved about her.  What was hard.  What I wished we’d had for a relationship, what I treasured in what we did have in a relationship.  I asked what she thought of the fabric.  Asked her to help me find more so I could finish the squares. (And suddenly there it was!! All cut out!)  Told her all the ways she was my hero, and all the ways I admired how she had managed to raise five obstreperous kids and work full time.  We laughed about the years Dad lived with me after she “crossed over.” I owned that I had a lot more sympathy, and congratulated her on her patience in spending almost sixty years with the guy.  We talked about how happy she was in Oshkosh, where she started quilting.  And how hard it was for her those last few years. When I was about six quilts in, I was reading Anatomy of the Spirit, by Caroline Myss.  In describing one of her earliest teachers, she writes this:

…I was in the presence of a good teacher, and a good teacher brings me to attention instantly.

Rachel told me that she was half Russian and half Athabascan and had lived in Alaska long before it became a state.  As she shared, albeit briefly, her background and Athabascan spiritual traditions with me, she changed my life forever.

                “See that blanket on the wall?  That blanket is very special.  In the Athabascan culture, being a blanket-maker or a songwriter or having any occupation is a matter of great honor.  You have to have permission from a songwriter to sing his songs because his songs contain his spirit.  And when you are a blanket-maker, you are forbidden to begin weaving a blanket unless you know you will live long enough to finish it.  If you find out that you need to die” – mind you she said “need to die” – “you must perform a ceremony with someone who will agree to finish the task for you, because you cannot leave one part of your work unfinished before you die.  Otherwise, you leave a part of your spirit behind.

“That blanket was almost finished, when the Great Spirit came in a dream to the woman who was making it and told her to prepare to leave the earth.  She asked the Spirit if she could live long enough to finish the blanket, and the Spirit said yes, she would be given that much more time.  She died two days after finishing that blanket.  Her spirit is in that blanket in a good and powerful way, and it gives me strength.”

Her spirit is in that blanket in a good and powerful way

                I put the book down and cried.  I understood.  My mother’s spirit was in those quilts in a good and powerful way.  I was spending this “time out of time” in the surreal deserted world of COVID-19 freeing my mother’s spirit!  I had chosen the right task, but I hadn’t known why. 

                I have now finished seven of the eight.  I’m in the process of binding number seven, and will bring them home to New York when I travel there this summer, to give them to family members who loved my mom.  Her spirit will be free, and will be present “in a good and powerful way” for each one who has a quilt.  And mine will be free, too, in a way I could never have predicted.

                Blessings, Mom.

                Happy Mother’s Day, 2021.


Waiting Room2-DryBrushEffect-Crop

It is Holy Week, and for the eleventh time I am sitting in a surgical waiting area, lost in my thoughts and feeling a teeny-tiny bit sorry for myself.  Anne, my cherished partner, is – yet again – in surgery and I am hoping she will not surrender to the temptation to leave this “mortal coil” (to which she has no great attachment).  As ever, I am watching for a person in scrubs to come out and “tell me how it went.”  While I know this drill inside and out, I remind myself how much I hate it.

Also as usual, I am trying to be invisible.  I want to wallow in my thoughts.  I want to be the older, bookish woman in the corner whom no one will remember.  (If I committed a crime, they would not be able to describe me.)  Invisibility is my super power, and I revel in the privacy it provides.

That it is Holy Week is an ironic twist that my inner Catholic is toying with– trying to reconcile Anne’s trial and injury to Jesus’s.  Just as I am exploring the metaphorical significance of anesthesia and resurrection, I spot him.  Everything in me becomes wary.  All my introvert, self-pitying cells yell, “Run!”  (In the threat-response world I am a freezer.  I don’t fight.  I don’t flee.  I freeze.  And I freeze now, with my nose deeply in my cell phone, observing him from afar.)  My suspicions are confirmed.  He is indeed a PE.  The dreaded “Predatory Extrovert.”

He works the waiting room like a bad car salesman, striking up a conversation with one person after another, one table at a time. I learn more about him than anyone has a right to know.   I despise PEs.  They go from person to person taking all the attention and energy they can get from one, then move on to the next.  Energy vampires, they deplete a person’s vitality, counting on the norm that no one will be overtly rude.  They tell their story, reap all the sympathy and attention possible, and then move along to do it again.  PEs have a bottomless need to be the center of your interest until you have nothing more to give.  They are immune to social cues that say, “Please.  Not now.”  

I recognize this particular PE. Not specifically, but I know his type.  He looks like the men who show up at our gun violence prevention protests, with their sidearms and assault weapons, and stand too close to us.  They want us to go home.  They want us to shut up.  My body stiffens. My heart beats faster.  I listen without appearing to.  I observe him. 

He looks to be in his late seventies.  He walks with a swagger, his huge USMC belt buckle like a silver license plate under his protruding belly.  He has a beige cowboy hat, walnut colored cowboy boots, and white hair peeking out from the brim of his hat. His jeans are crisply pressed, his blue flannel shirt is clean and wrinkleless. I overhear him – no avoiding it, after all – tell his story several times.  He is from Eastern Washington.  He owns a trucking company over there.  His wife of forty-six years is undergoing her third back surgery.  He was in the Marines.    

Everything confirms my initial perception.    

While he is deluging a family with his story, the receptionist who keeps families updated about their respective patient’s surgery calls into the waiting room, “Mel?  Is there a Mel here for Muriel?”

I look at the PE.  He looks like a “Mel.”  I’m willing to wager an hour’s pay that he’s her guy.  No response.  She repeats her call, “Mel?  Is there a Mel here for Muriel??”  PE continues his outpouring of unrequested info.  I guess I am wrong.  I look around for the real Mel.  No one steps forward.

The receptionist starts going from table to table.  “Mel?  Is there a Mel?”

Finally she asks at the table where PE is loudly telling them how many employees he has.  “Mel?”

“Yes!  That’s me!”  (Aha!)  She pulls PE aside and gives him information on Muriel.  He nods.  His eyebrows knit. He nods again.  Yes, our PE is Mel.  Mel who is here with Muriel.  The family at the table where he was talking quietly get up and leave.  When Mel finishes with the receptionist, he turns back to find his listeners no where in sight.  He goes back to where he has left his coat and computer, adjusts his denim jacket on the back of his chair, checks the computer screen, and looks up to scan the room. 

He is looking my way.  He has run out of audiences.

I mentally go over my options:  Gather my things and head for the elevator.  Throw him a wilting scowl that would signal I was in no mood for chit chat.  Turn my back and start talking to an imaginary friend on my cell phone.  He is coming toward my table where my open book sits next to the deli salad I brought for lunch.  I pop open the clear plastic salad container and pick up a fork to eat.  I hope he is afraid of salad.

“Did you get one for me?” He approaches with a booming, smiling voice.

Again, I go over possible responses.  I heave a great, quiet sigh.  Anne will be in surgery for at least two more hours.  I am going nowhere.  I decide to ground myself and hunker down for the blitz.  I tell myself that this is a prime opportunity to practice kind communication.  I have lots of time, and nothing to lose.  If I wanted opportunities to practice my Bodhisattva* skills, this would be my chance.  I repeat my mantra. 

Do No Harm, but Take No Shit.

He is waiting for my response.  Do no harm, I remind myself.

“No, just this one.”  I say, stabbing a forkful of lettuce and looking in his direction.

He asks what sort of salad it is, and where I purchased it.  Do I know the places to eat around here?  He pulls up a chair at the small table. 


He is a little confused about how to engage me.  I am not smiling.  Not really offering much.  Not unpleasant, but not invitational.  I snag a cherry tomato and dip it in dressing.

“Are you waiting for someone in surgery?” he leans back against the chair, like this is his porch.

This is a surgical waiting area, Cowboy

I think of several sarcastic answers.  No, I’m homeless and it’s warm in here.  No, I’m trying to duck the cops, you?  No, I’m a reporter doing a story on predatory extroverts.

 I look at him evenly.


“Your husband?” he is finding firmer ground.


This stops him.  I am willing to bet my car that he has never heard a woman respond with that word.  He blinks twice.  Weighing whether this is worth the vampiring.  I am the only person remaining in the area. 

He continues. “Me too.”

I nod.  I smile an understanding smile.  Do no harm.

Then he tells me all the things he has told everyone else.  Marines.  Trucking company.  To this one he adds, “Muriel, my wife, always does the payroll.  It’s due tomorrow, so I guess I’ll have to do it myself this time.”

I nod.

“What kind of surgery?” he turns it back to our earlier topic.

“Knee surgery.  Her second.”

“Oh yeah.  I hear that usually goes okay.  Muriel is having her third back surgery.”  Something passes over his face.  I don’t quite catch it.  Fear?  Alarm?  Grief? 

I raise my eyebrows slightly and nod.  “Mm.”  Sympathy.

He looks over at the television playing on low volume into the empty room. A story about US Army veteran Miguel Perez is being shown. The headline crawl reads, “Army Vet Deported to Mexico.” This seems to energize Mel.                                     

What follows is a set of firmly stated opinions, each statement followed by demanding “Do you Agree?!”

He narrows his eyes, “We have GOT to do something about these immigrants! They are taking over, and the law is the law! DO YOU AGREE??”

It’s more of a barking order than a question. I’m startled by it.  I take a breath.

Clearly he expects to hear some version of “Yes! Totally!” from me. I decide instead to give him a slow, thoughtful response. (He might decide to walk away!) 

I have all day.  Take no shit.

“I see this country as a place of safety. I’m a nurse. I work with a lot of immigrants and refugees in public health. They are amazing people with some really terrible stories. I think our laws could use some updating, sure, but I hope we are always a place people want to come. That guy  —  the one they deported –  he served in the army. He put his life on the line for our country.” I watch Mel’s face. He is thinking. I add, “Like you.”

“He pauses for a couple of beats.  He looks at the screen again.  Now a video plays of a local man being handcuffed and led away from a traffic stop.

“A lot of people belong in jail!  DO YOU AGREE??”

Another breath.  “Well, I worked in the jail for some years, and lots of people do belong there, but some of them don’t.  We don’t really know what to do with some of our most vulnerable people.  When they annoy us, we put them in jail.  It’s a hard place to be.”

“You were a nurse in the jail?”


“Here in Seattle?”


He thinks for a moment.  “Were you scared?”

“There were a lot of officers around.  Not as dangerous as you might think.  Hard though.  Lots of inmates who never got a break, really.  Our job was to take care of their health.  I liked working there. Fascinating, really.”

“I bet.”  He seems a little daunted.  Looks down at his hands for a moment, then back to the TV screen.  The “March for Our Lives” kids are shown giving speeches, asking for gun legislation.  Urging their peers to vote.

“Those kids!  What do they know, really?  They need to finish their education before they start raising hell.  I went to school on the GI bill.  Got a master’s degree in business!  I always say, ‘You can’t get enough education!’  DO YOU AGREE??”

By now he knows I am not going to just go along.  He waits, wondering how I will handle this one.  He looks triumphant, as though he has made an irrefutable point. 

I smile.  “Well, school is a great thing for some people.  But to tell you the truth, I wish they would go back to giving kids a choice about taking more trade classes in school.  Not everyone is made for college, and we sure need more people in the trades.  Have you tried to get a plumber lately?  My brother is an electrician, and he would never have done well in a university.  But he is a heck of an electrician.  So, yes, education is a great thing, and I hope we look ahead and help kids prepare for a satisfying life making a living wage.  That seems important to me.”

He settles in his seat a bit.  I prepare for his next pronouncement.

“You’re a nurse?”

I nod

“Last time Muriel had surgery it didn’t go too well.  They took her to ICU after, and they had to put her into a coma so they could put the breathing tube into her.”  He looks down at his lap.  “It was just a couple of days, and then she started doing better.” 

“That sounds pretty scary.”

“The nurses saved her, I think.  I stayed here the whole time.  I watched them work.  They brought her back.”  He doesn’t look up at me.  Still remembering.  That same look that I saw earlier crosses his face, and then comes to rest on it.  A look that says life without Muriel would be very, very empty.

I look over at Mel.  He looks up at me.  I see him for the first time.  An old fellow whose wife, while in good hands, is still in danger.  Like me, he is weighing the thought of life alone.  Of losing the other half of his soul.  It doesn’t play well – in his head or mine.

In that moment something happens.  I feel it in my chest, deep under my breastbone.  A softening.  A shift. 

Always before I’ve dealt with boors and bullies with a one-two punch.  Usually it’s “tolerate and run.”  Sometimes it’s “halt and counter-punch.”  In a magnanimous moment it might be “bless and release.”  But this time it’s different.  I feel warm.  I open up in a subtle wash of kindness.  It feels a teeny-tiny bit like love.

The word “Tenebrae” rises in my mind from eleventh grade catechism.  Latin for “shadows” or “darkness.”   Tenebrae comes at the end of Holy Week.  Just before the crucifixion.  Before the relief and ecstasy of the resurrection.  Mel and I are in tenebrae.  Together.  Two people waiting to hear that our “one” is okay and on the mend.  Two people in a surgical waiting room hoping to hear that life will go on.

Mel wants to know that for a brief moment he is not alone.  That someone hears him.  That someone sees his distress and knows what to do with it.

“Well,” he starts to get up, “That payroll isn’t going to do itself.”  He reaches out to shake my hand, “I hope it all goes well with your wife.”


Sitting Old Man in a Hat, Rembrandt

“Same to you,” I say, looking him in the eyes and holding his hand firmly, without shaking it. 

I turn back to my book, but I don’t see the words.  I think of Muriel and picture her in a hospital bed bathed in healing light.

You can never get enough chances to change your mind.

Do you agree?

*In Buddhism, “kick-ass kindness warrior”

Shut. It. Off.

I’m sitting on a plane headed to Boston. It is leaving a half hour late, but I am enjoying a surprise upgrade to business class from who-knows-where. As I stretch out my legs in the unexpected extra space, I think about the friend who said she’d have “angels watch over you” for the flight.

“Well done!” I think to the angels.

We are at cruising altitude for maybe a half hour when the man in front of me (first class, natch) starts playing a video game with a very loud repeating musical noise.

I thought something very tolerant, like “Jesus fucking goddam Christ. How loud is that that I can hear it over the engine noise??” I lean forward and try to peak at what game he is playing. The noise repeats and repeats. I think, “I’ve set alarms that were less annoying.” I check to see if my noise-canceling headphones are actually working. They are. They do not cancel the noise. I consider tapping him on the shoulder. I lean forward again, trying to see what game it is that is so incessant. He must be racking up the points. I consider calling the flight attendant to ask her to request that he take it down a notch. Then I think about how pandering they are to the first-classers. (“Can I get you another linen napkin? Would you like a fourth scotch?”) I let that thought go. I read for awhile in the short story collection I brought. It distracts me, but not quite enough.

About twenty minutes into this video game audio assault I decide that I will use this as my opportunity to “entertain compassion.” I think of all the reasons he might need this video game. Maybe he is recovering from a great loss. Maybe he is terrified of flying. (That would explain the scotch…). Maybe he is hard of hearing and doesn’t know it is so loud. Maybe it reminds him of his son, with whom he has played the game a million times. Maybe he designs video games and he is really working now. Maybe he fell asleep with the game on.

The other half of my brain says, “Or maybe he is just a horrible, selfish, manspreading jerk who cares nothing for the people who have to listen to that.” I look around wondering why no one asks him to tone it down. Am I the only one annoyed by this joker??

Finally I decide I’ll pay for some of the in-flight WiFi and check my email. I reach down and pull my phone out of my black Bagalinni carryon. The little musical tune that I have been cursing gets louder. Uh oh.

I open the phone case and see that for a half hour this loud annoying misery-tune was my cell alarm. It is the alarm I set for Wednesday evenings to remind me to join the online sangha for our meditation class. I turn the alarm off. It has done its job. It has reminded me that it is not “them.” It is almost always “us.”

As usual, I am the problem, not the other.

I see the angels are still at work. I nod to them, “Well done.”


At the bottom of my post is a link to a lawyer’s story.  Read it. I dare you.

When I was a child in elementary school, we learned about “America” as though it were the promised land. We learned that it was a safe place. A place where anyone in the world could ask to come if they were being threatened, oppressed, terrorized or tortured. We were proud of that – that this was a “safe house” on a global scale. We had laws and procedures that made it possible to determine whether your story was credible, and if it was we would welcome you.

What this lawyer is reporting is the opposite of that. We are no longer a safe place. What we are doing is sending desperate people back to be murdered. It is the equivalent of putting them on trains to gas chambers, only crueler because they came to us in hope. So we yanked their children from them, and pointed them back to the rapists and murderers that drove them here.

APPLYING FOR ASYLUM IS NOT ILLEGAL. Let me repeat that. APPLYING FOR ASYLUM IS NOT ILLEGAL. It is a last act of hope when you have no place where your children are safe. This administration has reframed that act of desperation as an invasion of vermin on our sacred (stolen) land. And it is complete bullshit. It is not the way we have ever handled asylum seekers. It is cruel and unusual.

I spent my whole career safeguarding the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents. We know what trauma does to small ones. We know it changes them forever. We know some of them will never recover. And many of them will hate us. And we will deserve it.

I grew up on the NY/Canadian border, and if I were facing what these people are facing I would do ANYTHING to get my family to safety. I would swim the fucking St. Lawrence River with my grandchildren on my back. Never mind the cold water, the currents, or the fact that I am old and out of shape. I WOULD DELIVER THEM TO SAFETY. I have not one single doubt in my mind about that. If I died in the process I would bring them to a place where they could breathe and recover from their trauma.

How dare we deny this to people turning to us in utter despair?

Any Trump-lovers on my friends list, do not sit there in your whiteness and your comfort and your socialist Medicare and talk to me about how they should have come here legally. They fucking did. It is legal to seek asylum at your immigration hearing. Now we change all the rules and gag the attorneys who would call for fairness. We are stealing their children and sending these heartbroken, anguished people back to certain death. Period. There is no pretty way to smoke-and-mirror me into believing otherwise.

Who gave our government permission to be so hateful? When did greed and power become the driving delusion for so-called Christians? All lives matter? Code for “White Lives Matter.” Pro-life? I call bullshit on you.

I will never accept this. This is NOT the America I studied as a child. It is NOT the America we used to be proud of. If we don’t turn this around and save these children and families, we have lost our souls.

Again: Read this Lawyer’s experience.       I dare you.



Chaos Theory

Chaos is my emotional enemy. Wild, stupid men with nuclear warheads make me nervous. Call me old school. Or snowflake-like. Or simply introverted. Rampant egos with guns in their hands, make me want to hide in the cellar and wait for the storm to pass. Except it doesn’t pass.

Every day this president we have acts like a spoiled kindergartener holding a hand gun, and firing wildly around the classroom. I keep hoping that a grown-up will step in, take the gun, and get him to the school psychologist for an evaluation. We all know what that evaluation will say. That he is a troubled kid, headed for years of incarceration. That if his daddy didn’t own the school, he would be in juvie now, surrounded by armed guards. Yes, even at his tender age. 

A friend of a friend posted this on Facebook yesterday:

“So – here’s the deal the way I see it. He makes chaos and darkness – every day, all day, in every way, wherever he is or has influence. That is the effect he has. And it can drive you nuts, make you cynical, cause despair. The truth does not stop him or his sycophants. They seem impervious to it. So, rather than always taking the bait, what I have found effective as a counter action is to create order whenever I feel his effect coming toward me. Even in small ways – straighten a book on a table; wipe off the counter tops; shift a ring or watch back into position. Be kinder, gentler to the people and things around you. Do anything that moves your world in the opposite direction.”

 I closed my eyes and absorbed the rightness of her comment.

Which led me, of course, to my t-shirt drawer.

It is a mess. It has always been a mess. I have too many shirts crammed in there, and I can never find the one I want to wear. About a year ago, I read about this Japanese way of creating order. It starts with folding things so that they occupy less space. So that you can actually see what you have, and so that you will feel a sense of order when you’re looking for something to wear to Rite-Aid.

I set aside my fears about global warming and withdrawing from the Paris Accord. I sat in my bright, porchy sun room and opened the windows to let in the breeze and the birdsong. I listened to redwing blackbirds, and the neighbor cows, and Roseanne Cash. I dumped all those t-shirts onto a red carpet and started folding. I breathed. 

I folded. I listened. I created a tiny piece of order. I moved on to my long-sleeved t-shirt drawer. And then my pajama drawer. I sat, listening and folding until all of my molecules seemed to be back where they belonged.

Based on the before-and-after results of this experiment, I am making myself a promise. Here it is: I will allow myself exactly twenty minutes of either horror or despair each day. I will consider the people who most suffer as a result of any given horrible and/or discouraging event.

Then I will create order somewhere in my life. I will fold clothes, or write an essay. I will be grateful for my abundant collection of socks, or my granddaughter’s dirty feet tracking over my white carpet. I will dedicate the rest of that day to sowing harmony where someone is creating discord. (Nod to St. Francis.) My weapon might be a vacuum cleaner, my computer keyboard, or my quiet presence in a chemotherapy suite.

Oh, I will still march for peace. I will still wear orange for gun violence prevention. I will continue to vote, and you can count on me to post irritating opinions on Facebook.

But I will sit quietly.

And breathe.

And try to leave my t-shirt drawer and my planet – or those on it – just a little better than I found them that morning.

I will be a rebel warrior.

And you won’t hear a thing.

Words With Dad

I am on the train into Seattle, and it is pouring outside. Rain streaks down the window next to my head, and tears streak down my face as I stare at my cell phone. The woman next to me is sound asleep, slouched against her backpack, and the man across from me is reading on his tablet. The steady, rhythmic thrump, thrump, thrump of the train is loud, so they do not hear me when a sob escapes.

I am looking at the game app, Words with Friends. I am remembering when I installed it on my father’s iPad, and the delight on his face when he looked at it and could read all the letters. He was almost blind with macular degeneration, and the iPad enlarged his life. He could read on the Kindle app, making the font huge in order to see the letters. He could get the daily news or the score on the New York Giant’s game, and by spreading his fingers on the screen he could make the type or photos large enough to make out details. He could email his work buddies – those who were still alive – and receive pictures of the great grandchildren from his grandkids. It was a portal to the world.

And his favorite part of the portal was Words with Friends. He had always been a Scrabble guy, and loved crossword puzzles. He had jumped at the chance to be able to play a word game with the iPad.

And did he love to win! Whenever we played Scrabble, his rule was that whoever lost had to call the winner “Champ” until the next game. I considered getting him a hat with “Champ” embroidered on it so he could feel that way all the time. Knowing how much he loved an “inside edge,” I told him there were anagram apps that let you put in your letters to see what words could be made, his face lit up and he said, “Get me that one, too, would you?”

After I downloaded it, I said, “It’s cheating you know…” He nodded. “Okay, Kid. But I won’t cheat with you.” (We both knew he was lying.)

He lived with us for eight years in the converted garage that was the guest house. He helped Anne, my partner, with the gardens by overseeing the watering of the vegetables, calling himself the “Chief Hydro-Engineer.”

Dad, exercising his duties as “Chief Hydro-Engineer

Nearly deaf, he tuned into CNN and Mariner ball games on his television at high decibel — we could hear the games from our own living room, across the deck from his. And he played Words with Friends with everyone who sent him an invitation. His three daughters and two of my sons-in-law played with him, as well as several of their friends. I can still see him in that oversized La-z-boy recliner, his cat Fiona in his lap, his iPad on the soft arm of the chair. He would visit with me until he heard the Words with Friends ‘ding,’ then conversation stopped while he could look over their play, after which we would resume the exchange . In the summertime, when all the windows were up, whenever I played a high-scoring word, I would hear him yell, “Ouch!” from across the deck.

When he moved to northern New York to live with my brother, it was tough on all of us. Everything in me tensed up seeing him being wheeled toward the plane, the cat carrier on his lap with Fiona in it, and the small travel bag containing his medicine and his iPad wedged in against the carrier. Despite his six-foot-three frame, he looked thin and frail. He had the attendant stop for a moment, and motioned me over. “Thanks for everything, Kid,” he said, reaching up to hug me.

“You’re welcome, Dad,” I said, “Thank you for everything, too.”

“You’re welcome, too,” He’d said.

“Call me when you arrive in Syracuse. I love you,” I kissed him on the cheek, and stood trying unsuccessfully not to cry watching them wheel him onto the jet way. It was the last time I talked to him in person.

Once he was settled, I called him on his cell phone – always an exercise in shouting and patience. I asked him how he wanted to hear from me, and how often. I thought he might want me to call at a predictable time, like Sundays, as I had when Mom was alive.

“Can we talk through the game?” He had asked.

“Chat through the word game?” I shouted.

“Yeah. Would that work?” He yelled back.

“Will it be enough?” It seemed so impersonal.

“Yes. I would like that. We can call when we need to.”

And so it was that a couple of times a week, we would chat through Words with Friends. I learned that my brother had built a ramp into the little house so that Dad could use his scooter to go places. Ogdensburg was his home town, so he knew his way around very well. He would take a lunch that my brother had packed, and head out to the Oswegatchie River, where he had grown up. I could picture him bumping along on his red scooter to the path by the river, and stopping under a tree to eat his sandwich. The smells, the water, kids fishing. He was enjoying it all.

I had always wished for Dad that when his time came it would be painless. That it would not involve tubes and hospitals and doctors whispering to the family. A drawn out hospital stay would have been so hard for him. He had had a lot of physical pain in his life, and I’d always hoped that he wouldn’t have to have more at the end. I set that wish aside as I received little reports on his life, since right then he seemed to be scootering his way through one happy day after another.

From my brother I learned that people would report seeing Dad not only by the river, but out getting groceries, shopping at Kinney Drugs, and generally having the run of the town. I knew it was a measure of independence that he hadn’t had out here in Washington. My eighty-seven year old dad was being spotted all over the ‘burg in his blue fishing hat and white cotton jacket. I was happy for his freedom.

So I was shocked the day I answered the phone and my brother sobbed on the other end, “Dad passed away! He’s gone! He’s here in the chair… I don’t know what to do…”

It was a rare thing for my competent brother to be so beside himself that he couldn’t think. We talked about what should happen. I stayed on the line with him, asking questions. Keeping him company until the paramedics came. Until he could talk in sentences.

“Call me later,” I said as we hung up.

When he called the next day he was calmer. He explained that he had come home to find dad in his chair, slumped over. Already gone.

“It seems so impossible,” I said. “He had just played Words with me a couple of hours before. And he was winning! I can’t believe he would go when he was winning…”

“I know. I can’t believe it either.”

Which brings me back here to the train.

I am looking again at the chat that I had been having with my father a couple of days before he left us.  He was celebrating the final arrival of spring in that cold, northern town:

DocBracy: Free at last, free at last! I scootered for nearly 3 hours today! Yeah! Bob got my scooter working!

SeattleK8: Wow – You must feel like you are out of jail!

DocBracy: That’s a fact. Had lunch down by the river. I went grocery shopping this morning,
and will go again this aft. 

 SeattleK8: Busy boy!

 DocBracy: You bet! Weather like yours, 70s.

 SeattleK8: Wonderful!

In these last several days since he died I keep hearing his voice. It comes at unexpected moments, when I am busy with housework, or sitting and reading. It doesn’t seem like my imagination, it seems more like he is on my internal PA system. Loud. Clear as a bell.

I stare down at my phone again, and read his little message, “Free at last, free at last!”

Distractedly, I check the Words with Friends “Word of the Day.”

I begin to laugh, despite my tears.

Here is the screen shot:

Yes. “PFFT.” A rare word. Today of all days. How did he manage that?

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry, so I am doing some of each. And I hear his voice again. The same phrase that has been interjected at odd moments over the past few days. It is unmistakably his voice. And I am grateful – for ‘PFFT’ and for him, and for his message now.

Yes, definitely his voice,  “You done good, Kid.”

A few last words with Dad.

Comments Heard While Getting Signatures:

I went to the Democratic caucus near my home today, where I had promised to get signatures for a statewide ballot initiative.  The initiative will set up a process where a family or law enforcement can keep guns away from people threatening violence against themselves or others. This is called an “Extreme Risk Protection Order.”*

I have worked in public health most of my career.  As a nurse, I am very clear about why prevention is so important  to reduce avoidable deaths.  This goes for gun deaths, car deaths, SIDS deaths, disease deaths.  We can prevent these things.  We have to try.

For thirty-five years it has been my job to try.

I thought I was prepared to ask people to sign this petition, although I was a little nervous.  I had never been one of those “petition people” you see on street corsigning1491-2ners, in the ferry lot, at the farmer’s market – holding out their clipboard, and asking you to sign as a voter to get something on the ballot. Begging people to sign on to a cause isn’t really my style.  But prevention is.  And preventing a homicidal man from murdering his family – and then himself – seemed like a worthy enough cause.  So I ignored my introvert-self’s pleas and approached people.

I WAS prepared for the ones who said, “absolutely not…” and turned away.  I was prepared for those who said, “I’ll look it up online.”  I was fine with those who heard the gist, and interrupted me mid-sentence to say, “I’m not signing anything like that.”

But I was not prepared for the signers.

Here is a sample of comments from people who took the clipboard and pen without a second thought:

“Hell, yes, I’ll sign this.  My ex held a gun to my son’s head when I said I wanted a divorce.  We had a protection order – what good is that when he’s pointing a rifle at your four-year-old?”

“I’m in a permanent ‘witness protection program’ so I can’t be found.” (When I asked her if she was safe now, she said, “I came all the way to Whidbey Island to be safe.  He can’t find me here.”)  I hope she is right.

“Isn’t this in place now?  Why is it taking so long?”

“I’m a paramedic.  We have to respond to these things…”  (I said, “You guys see so much…”  He said, “Too much. Too often.”)

“I’m gay, and I’m a victim of domestic violence…  It isn’t just straight people who have to worry.”

“Just give me the pen.”

“I’m an emergency medicine doc.  Guns keep us in business, but we’d like to have a lot less business.  Thanks for being out here.”

One woman looked over the summary, looked directly into my eyes, shut her eyes for a moment, looked at me again, and took the pen out of my hand.  She felt all the implications in her body.  No words necessary.

“I’m a nurse, and I work psych.  You have no idea how important this is.”

“I lived in a town where a four-year-old shot his father.  I know this isn’t the same, but I want to sign it anyway.”

“Been there.”

“I’m a mental health counselor.  It’s my job to interview these people.  We need this.”

“My son got a handgun when he turned eighteen.  He shot himself near our home.  His six-year-old brother found him.”

“My sister was killed and we knew he was dangerous.  I’ll sign.”


I found myself saying, “Oh, I can’t imagine.”

Or lightly touching an elbow and nodding.

Or agreeing, “The families know, don’t they?”


These are my neighbors.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really get that many signatures.  I was so busy listening…

But I did get a lot of reasons to keep trying.



*  Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO) allow families and law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if there is documented evidence that an individual is threatening harm to themselves or others by way of dangerous mental illness or a high risk of violent behavior.

November Gratitude, 2015

Frosty Path

It’s Thanksgiving, the day we all remind ourselves of our many blessings, and all the ways we appreciate our lives and the people in them. Some of us use the entire month of November to reprogram our hearts to remember these things consciously. Every day.

I am grateful today to have been raised by grateful parents. They grew up in a time when they were not assured that there would be enough food, warm clothes, or even a place to sleep. This early deprivation did not make them bitter or scared, but it did make them supremely grateful. And mindful.

Mindful is not a word we used back then. Everyone was living their lives and raising their kids the best they could. “Mindfulness” would have been the foolish notion of some distant cousin who traveled after college. In a raucous Irish-Catholic family, it would have been easy to get overwhelmed by the chaos, or discouraged by the constant struggle, but my parents mostly stayed present. Mindful. Mindful that these kids would not always be under their roof. (Though they did try to keep us there…) Mindful that health is not a given, and that tomorrow was not promised to anyone.

My mom was a labor and delivery nurse. She delivered many babies in our small town hospital, waiting for the doctor to arrive. She used to say, “Every healthy baby is a miracle.” She understood all the ways a delivery could go wrong, and all the reasons to celebrate when it didn’t. She baptized sick babies on the sly, when no one was looking. No child was going to Limbo on her watch. She came home every night exhausted and full of purpose. We were not allowed to leave the table without thanking her for the dinner; we had to write thank-you notes to grandparents for gifts, even if we didn’t like the sweater; we said grace before every meal. Her children would be grateful.

When she had cancer surgery in her forties, the doctor told her to go home and “get her affairs in order.” She did come home. She gathered us up and said, “You are probably going to hear rumors about me, but don’t believe them. I’m sick right now, but I’m going to be fine.” After resting a couple of days to recover from the surgery, she got up one morning, did her hair, put on lipstick and went to the A&P grocery store. “Dinner wasn’t going to make itself,” she said. But she didn’t really buy many groceries. She walked up and down the aisles, greeting people, assuring them that she was fine now, making a public appearance to disprove the rumors that she was dying. She came home, collapsed on the couch and said, “That should hold them for awhile.”

She recovered from that cancer and lived thirty-three more years. Not a single day went by that she wasn’t grateful for that particular day, for the chance to be with her family, for the food on her table, and for the love of friends.

My dad was in a car accident at nineteen, tossed onto railroad tracks. The doctors said his spinal cord injury was serious. They had stabilized his spine with a metal rod . (We used to trace the scar on his back. He called it his “thermometer scar.”) They told him he wouldn’t walk again, he would never work, and forget about getting married or having kids. He would probably be bed ridden, if he lived very long.

My mother was one of the many student nurses who helped him recuperate. Dad’s brother, John, arranged a rotating schedule of these students to come over and “walk my brother back and forth” for months after the accident. When my mom graduated and moved to Michigan for a nursing job, Dad saved his money, bought a diamond ring (“I paid five dollars a month on it until it was paid off…”) and hitchhiked – on crutches — to Ypsilanti where he proposed. He worked as a taxi driver, which didn’t require walking. He learned to walk without crutches to surprise her when they got married, and a couple of years later my sister was born. They moved back to northern New York, and settled in Ogdensburg where his mother lived. Where Mom could work at the same hospital where she got her training, and where he could find work at the paper mill.

It never occurred to us to use words like “disabled” or “crippled,” and Dad never complained about the debilitating back pain he experienced all his life. He worked at that paper mill most of his career, and said only how much he loved it, not how hard the work was. He walked the length of that building – probably an acre of space – many times a shift, and worked every double they ever offered him, happy to be able to support his family. He was persistently grateful for the job, and it was a matter of pride that he “never took a dime of disability from the government.” He never failed to appreciate a good meal cooked for him, a Christmas gift (however off the mark), or the chance to hold a grandchild on his lap. He could have been a very bitter man, but he was overwhelmingly grateful for

Wedding Day, 1948 They held hands like this for all of their lives together.

Wedding Day, 1948
They held hands like this for all of their lives together.

the life he had and the many years he had to enjoy it. When we were kids he would come upstairs at night, go into the bedroom and close the door while he changed into pajamas, then open the door and kneel down to say his nightly prayers. He knew we could see him– a tall man at six-feet-four – and he wanted us to see him end the day grateful to God.

So today, on our national day set aside for such things, I am grateful to be born and raised by these two who so deeply understood the blessings of their lives. People ever mindful that each good thing is a tiny piece of grace, and every hard thing is a chance to persevere. People for whom every day was a gift, and every evening a Thanksgiving.

Creativity and My Bra

bra_stacks-454x599There is a website called The FLYLady where you can get help to declutter and organize your house and life. While I am not a “FLYBaby,” as new members are called, a couple of friends had said how helpful the site is, so I went for a look.

Marla Cilley, the creator of the site, has a bunch of rules for neatnik wannabes. They are good, sound suggestions for simplifying life and not overwhelming yourself. One of her rules helped me realize that there is a direct correlation between creativity and my bra.

A mainstay rule is that you must “Get Dressed to Shoes” every day. Her point is that we behave differently with our outside-world clothes than we do in our pajamas. She is a teeny-tiny bit of a drill sergeant about this shoe rule. There are no exceptions, no excuses, no wiggle room for talented procrastinators. In her words, “I don’t want to hear, ‘Well I don’t wear shoes in my house.’ Well you do now, sister! Buy or clean up a pair just for that reason.” Yikes. Just reading that made me want to salute.

I looked at my shoes and thought about which ones I would clean up for indoor wear. Sneakers? (Sbootshe recommends lace-ups because they are harder to take off…) Clarks Mary Janes? Maybe my ruby slipper ballet flats? One look at the shoes next to my kitchen door, and I realized this might not work for me. There were the fluffy slippers I muddied running up to get the mail. The nice white cross trainers that were supposed to be “just for the treadmill,” and now were grass stained and dirty from the day I hopped off the treadmill to see where the grandkids were. No, any pair of shoes on my feet would not be “strictly indoor” for long.

But that get-dressed-and-get-going notion hit a chord. I began to observe myself. On my weekend days – my only time to write – I noticed that as long as I was in my jammies, certain entities held me in trance. Facebook, that sly siren, had magnetic appeal. As did Freecell Solitaire and Words with Friends. I would sit in my recliner on a Saturday morning, iPad in hand, and suddenly it was midafternoon. Wait, what?

I experimented with various middle ground solutions. Sweats? (Still in the recliner…) Business casual? (Made me feel like I needed to find a church…) Yoga Pants? (Caught myself passing a mirror. Um, no.)

So here is what I discovered after exhaustive scientific study of my own weekend dressing habits: If I get dressed as though I were waiting for a repair guy (minimally, bra and underwear, jeans, socks and a comfy shirt) I am ready to roll. My feet are often cold, so the socks are important. (Also, if I step barefoot on anything like a bread crumb or cat whisker, it feels like a boulder or a log. I know, I know. My mom read me “The Princess and the Pea” about eighty thousand times. I get it.) And wearing socks without shoes keeps me grounded, literally. I can walk around and be aware that I am in contact with the floor. With my home. With my writing. With life.

And the bra? Well, I do feel a responsibility to the poor repair guy. No need to traumatize, now is there? And it seems like a little bit of armor. Some support around my heart. Up with the girls, on with the day!

If I am dressed to answer the door, I am dressed to write. I can’t exactly say why it is. I know it’s a psychological trick I have to play on myself in order to sit down at the computer and actually write something. Like setting the time ahead five minutes. I know it’s a trick, but it still works.

I have found my middle ground for writing on the weekends: If I wake up without an alarm, give myself two cups of coffee, and then get dressed for the repair guy, I can write.

So far my bra and I have finished two health books, many blog entries, several scholarly articles, and a novel. We are currently working on a riveting best seller. I think the FLYLady would give me a pass on the shoe commandment. “FLY” stands for Finally Loving Yourself. And so I am. Warm socks, bra and all.