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Paper Girl

An organizer I once hired in desperation told me that everyone has a collection, and mine happens to be paper.

I confess to being a “piler” too. I have stacks of books and magazines on my dresser, by my bedside, and underneath the table in a basket. I usually only attack these piles when, like Herbert in the Miss Piggle Wiggle story who never picks up his toys, I can’t get to what I need because of all the stuff in the way. My hairbrush might be hidden under layers of paper I’ve amassed — in-progress writings, half-read magazines, blank pads for scribbling lists or brilliant ideas. Just paper, paper, paper.

I treasure it, I realize. My children’s once-in-a-lifetime-snapshots-of-a-moment-in-time crayon drawings. My oh-so-precious journals and notebooks from the past that should probably stay there. Old calendars with gorgeous pictures, inspirational quotes, and a year’s worth of living chronicled in its small squares.

Paper may be passe, but it’s so much more to me.

Yes, I am capable of throwing out and often do, but I know I keep things I shouldn’t. It’s just so hard. Jettisoning all of the Disney World buttons our family got while celebrating my recent birthday feels like I’m dismissing the specialness of the trip. Imprinted with each of our names, they’re little signs made to be saved. Maybe my children want these! I need to remember to ask! So, the buttons sit, waiting patiently on my dresser for the verdict on their fate.

I love and dread walking into a bookstore. Like a dieter in a bakery, I am tempted. Row upon row of sweet delights. Who can resist?

The magazine rack in the grocery store line always beckons, but I usually manage to put the publication back before buying. I’m one of those people you see reading and holding the magazine with one hand while blindly placing items on the belt with the other.

“M’am, can you push your cart up, please?”

“Oh!” I say, looking up and hurriedly stuffing “Allure” back in the wrong rack. What was the name of that Editor’s-Pick lipstick again?

Paper for me means information, inspiration, emotion. If I throw it away, I might lose what lured me in the first place. I think, when I’m old and forced to slow down, to sit and contemplate, I can take solace in sifting through all that paper, all those memories. Maybe then, and only then, will I throw them out.

We yearn to capture experience, to own it, absorb it into our bones. I remember when I was 12 and my cousin Margaret, a poet, took me to visit our aunt in Washington, D.C. After the trip, she wrote a poem titled “Smithsonian Album” that describes much of what we saw and did.

Contained in a slim volume on my bookshelf, the poem is an ode to our time together, presented and preserved on (naturally) paper. Yet only now, decades later, do I see that the poem also touches on  — almost casually, like a flip of the hair — that impossible yearning in all of us. The ending:

Save?
What will you save?
The gusty afternoon
a bit of laughter
the pin-prick of aching feet.
And what of “relief”
and Joan Miro
what of Rodin, abstract
the green mall
the water buffalo?

All these picture postcards–
learn to keep them
learn to let them go.

(Reprinted with permission from Margaret Boothe Baddour. Click on title above or here to see full poem.)

The front of a Mother's Day card my daughter made. She has no idea what an accurate depiction of it really is.

The front of a Mother’s Day card that my daughter made — an unwittingly accurate depiction of what my world sounds like.

 

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Happy ‘Do’ Year

Resolution. The word of the new year, the word of now. We are resolving to start anew, set a goal — lose those pounds, finish that project, clear out the clutter. There are so many resolutions.

But what of this word “resolution”? What does it mean? One definition is “a firm decision to do or not to do something.” It’s a word of doing, not one of thinking, or musing, or considering. As Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old who finally succeeded on her fifth try to swim from Cuba to Florida, said in her recent TED talk (quoting Socrates): “To be is to do.”

“Resolution” also brings to my mind, at least, the idea of re-solution. Re-solving. The idea of “again.”  Maybe we start an entirely new project, but more than likely we find ourselves staring discontentedly at a familiar picture. Often our impulse is to throw it out and start over completely, but more than likely all we really need to do is add a smidge of color here, take away a shadow there, paint over a few drips. A tweaking.

I know I do this in my own life — I often think I need to wipe the slate clean, approach life with a “whole new attitude,” go for the sea change. I think, I should cook family meals every single night! I should write for an hour every single day! I should take up piano lessons again! Naturally, that’s a setup for failure. Not to mention it just makes me want to go watch “Modern Family.” Besides, what if we actually did achieve these things? Would that really bring us ultimate happiness — or whatever it is we think we’re looking for?

What I’m starting to realize, unexciting as it may be, is that I just need to do things a little differently. Shift slightly. Decide to turn on the oven a couple of times a week. Sit down at the piano instead of walking past it. Bother to craft a good email. Baby steps.

Our resolutions relate to issues we face again and again. And there’s nothing wrong with resolving to “solve” them again and again. That’s really what life is about. Usually, we don’t have a bunch of new problems. We have old ones that are still there. And most of the time, there’s no solution. Instead, it’s a daily struggle. That’s why in disciplines like yoga, or music, or writing — in just about everything — the word “practice” is used. We practice at life. And we do it every day, every hour, every minute. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make better.

As the author Eckert Tolle suggests, “Die to the past every moment.”  No matter what has happened in the past, all we truly have is the present. All we have is Now. Every moment presents a chance to “do” and “do” again. All year long, all life long

The keys await… (Maybe if they were cleaner I'd be more likely to play them.)

The keys await… (Maybe if they were cleaner I’d be more likely to play them!)

The F-words

There are a lot of F-words associated with turning 50. First, let’s take the obvious one: F*ck. As in, “F*ck, is this really happening to me?” That thought first flickered in my mind after I turned 49 and started the countdown to the next birthday. Essentially, I had a year to wrap my head around “50.” By the time my birthday came around a couple a weeks ago, I’d been 50 for ages. No big deal.

A second but more important variation of the F-word is the phrase “F*ck it” — the rallying cry of the “50” crowd. It’s basically a license to say you’re going to do what you want to do, regardless of what others think. Yes, there’s a bit of the “When I’m an old woman I shall wear purple” in this. But the truth is, the older you get, the more you become comfortable with being yourself. And if yourself has always wanted to take dance lessons or act in a play or jump out of an airplane, turning 50 is a great excuse to do it.

As it happens, myself decided to go to Disney World. It wasn’t exactly something I’d been dreaming about, but it was something my husband and I had been wanting to check off the family-pilgrimages list for some time, and the timing was right.

Fortunately, I had the “f*ck-it” part down when I told friends what I was doing for my birthday. Many of them looked at me with either incredulity or laughter and quickly followed up with raised-eyebrow comments like, “Who’s idea was that?” or “I can’t think of any place I’d rather go less,” or just a simple, “That sounds awful.”

I have to admit that a part of me completely agreed. Did I really want to spend my 50th birthday tackling crowds and riding roller coasters? But ultimately, I loved the idea of having a memorable trip as a family on my birthday. In fact, “Family” is one of the most important F-words of 50. How could I hit such a milestone and not celebrate with my family?

Furthermore, those two days at Disney embodied another F-word, one that I plan to experience a lot in the future: Fun. It’s impossible to go to Disney World — and the nearby Universal theme park — without having a great time. Not only is it fun to see your own kids having so much fun (my son rode every thrill ride in every theme park, many times over — I think he counted 32 altogether), but you can’t help buying in to the whole schlocky deal. You “ooh” and “aah” at the constantly-changing colors of the lighted Disney castle, you find your competitive mojo during the Toy Story target-shooting ride, you actually choose to go on the Everest Expedition roller coaster three (yes, three) times. There’s a reason, you realize, why people return to Disney again and again: It’s la-la land.

That said, there were a couple of times I took one for the team. At Universal, my daughter really wanted to ride the insane, inversion-filled Hulk roller coaster, insisting she would only go with me. And I really didn’t want to go, preferring to keep my head on my neck. Finally, against my better judgment, I acquiesced, shutting my eyes the entire ride while being jerked left and right, turned upside down and corkscrewed around — hitting, I later learned, 4 G’s. After I got off the ride, and indeed for a few days afterward, I felt like my brain had been split apart and rearranged and the new formation wasn’t quite complete; a few cells were still rattling around in my head, looking for a place to land.

This leads me to another turning-50 F-word: Fuzzy. After two days in Orlando, it was how I was feeling. Unfortunately, my mind has gotten a little fuzzier as I’ve gotten older, and I find myself forgetting incidental things like my good friends’ names and restaurants I’ve recently visited. But, I’m attributing that to the multi-tasking brain we women are so good at nurturing, so I’m going to forget about it (which will be easy.)

Speaking of good friends, I would not be exaggerating to say “Friendship” is the ultimate F-word of 50. My friends provide me with comfort, laughter, commiseration and wisdom. They are the ones I’ve celebrated with as many of us hit five decades together this year, and they’re who I hope to be hanging out with for years to come. My friends help me realize how rich life at 50 really is.

And, they all are associated with the final, impossible-to-ignore F-word: the overused “Fabulous.” It’s hard to quibble with this one, as celebrating oneself as fabulous is certainly in order on any birthday. But there’s an underlying ring of desperation here, as in, “Even though you’re now officially old, you’re also fabulous! Really, you are!” No one says “You’re 20 and fabulous!”

But the flip side is that you can look at yourself amid all the “50 is the new [fill in blank]” comments everyone makes these days and say, “You know, I don’t look that bad and I feel pretty good. And mostly, I’m happy with myself. I’m still learning, trying to be a better parent, a better wife, a better friend — to myself and others. All, in all, I think I’ll stick with what I’ve got.”

So, I say, bring on the fabulousness. Bring on the fun. Bring it all on — and while you’re at it, maybe add a few highlights to cover the gray.

Or maybe not. F*ck it.

The Hulk roller coaster at Universal - with 7 inversions. Yes, I rode this.

The Hulk roller coaster at Universal – with 7 inversions. I rode this, eyes closed.

Van is Still the Man

My husband says when we were dating many years ago as 20-somethings in DC, I informed him, “People in Washington don’t dance.”  I’d love to dispute it, but I know in my then too-cool-for-school-and-beyond mode this was my excuse for not dancing.

I have always been a bit self-conscious when it comes to dancing and marvel at those who can let loose — and look good doing it. I see my son practicing moves in front of the mirror now and think, good for you. I was even too cool for that, back in the day. Oh, I remember dancing in front of the wall of windows in our den when I was a kid, admiring the reflection of my show-bizzy tap and jazz steps, but that was me trying to emulate Ginger Rogers in the movies, not Britney Spears on the dance floor.

So my husband might find it interesting — and my kids mortifying — to hear what happened the other morning when I met up with two friends walking dogs in the neighborhood park. “Tess” was holding an iphone up to her ear, trying to hear Neil Young’s “Til the Morning Comes” that “Dana” was playing. Loving any excuse to hear music or get a recommendation, I leaned in and listened too. Then Dana insisted on playing a Van Morrison song, and for the next 20 or so minutes, we proceeded to walk our dogs around the park, playing music from our iphones and reminiscing about favorite songs from the ‘70s and beyond. Maxine Nightingale’s upbeat “Get Right Back” took us right back, as did the intensity of Kate Bush (“Wuthering Heights”) and Tori Amos (“Cornflake Girl,” from the ’90s).

Eventually, having trouble downloading a song from YouTube, Dana directed us back to her car parked on the street so she could play a CD on her stereo. It all started off benignly enough. We stood on the leafy sidewalk, the car doors flung open, and listened to Morrison’s meditative “Whenever God Shines His Light.” Then she played Elton John’s folky “Captain Fantastic and Brown Dirt Cowboy,” which I’d never heard. We were in the mellow singer-songwriter era, hanging out as though at a tiny tailgate party, although the tunes emanating from the auto were so loud that we glanced around for annoyed neighbors.

“Wow, those are some powerful speakers,” Tess remarked. We laughed and looked at each with raised eyebrows.

Suddenly, Dana ducked into the car and cranked up the disco-y “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk, and before you could say Studio 54, the three of us were shaking our hips and waving our hands overhead. We boogied on down and showed off our moves as Tess demonstrated a line dance I suspect was her version of the once-ubiquitous “Bus Stop.” (Boy, am I aging myself here.) By now, the dogs had plunked themselves down on the bricks, gazing up at us like kids waiting for their parents to stop socializing at the soccer game.

We ended our impromptu dance party with vows to do it again soon (the Dog-Walking Dance Club?), and I left feeling energized and thankful for my just-nutty-enough friends who could cut loose on a weekday morning amid the towering trees and passing cars. I went home and immediately put on Van Morrison, downloading a few favorite songs I reveled in during college days.

I thought about how it’s so easy to stay wedded to routine, to never veer from the familiar path, to conform to your own notions of yourself. Who could have predicted that when I stepped out on a little jaunt with my dog that morning I would wind up dancing in the streets?

No surprise, Van says it best:

      “When it’s not always raining there’ll be days like this
      When there’s no one complaining there’ll be days like this
      When everything falls into place like the flick of a switch
      Well my mama told me there’ll be days like this.”
Love these fall days like this...

Love fall days like this…

Music Extra: Two Van songs below!

Tears II: Beyond Sweat

I say I don’t cry often, but then I think about the times I do cry, and it’s mostly when I’m moved by something, not sad about something, and then I think to myself, I actually cry a lot. And in that context, I love crying.

This past Sunday, a friend I’ll call Joan and I ran the 10K race that was part of the Marine Corps Marathon. We weren’t into putting a lot of pressure on ourselves (at least not overtly — that would ruin the “fun”), so therefore hadn’t talked much about the race until that week. We casually agreed that after we finished the race we would find our friend who was running the marathon for the first time and cheer her on.

But I confess that at the end of the 10K, which started on the Mall and ended in Arlington, I was mostly thinking about going home. Not only was I sweaty and getting cold, but it was also my son’s 13th birthday. I was feeling a bit guilty for not being there. Furthermore, how were we going to find our friend along that 26.2-mile route that extended up into Virginia? How would we get there? Once there, how long would we have to wait to see her? Did I mention I was cold? And that I’d ditched my hat before walking out of the house?

Then there was the issue of ultimately getting home. Most of the surrounding streets were closed because of the marathon, and I live more than a few blocks from a metro station. I’d just run 6.2 miles, after all. Instead of shrugging at the idea of more walking, I was balking.

Fortunately there was a Starbucks near the 10K finish line, which is practically where the line to order started. As we waited for a precious latte from surely the most profitable Starbucks on the planet that day, Joan repeatedly dialed our friend’s husband, who wasn’t answering.

Finally, as we started slurping down our hard-won hot drinks, he called. We should go back down to the Mall and catch her around mile 18. Easy, we thought. The Metro was across the street.

Except I was reliving memories from two years ago of large masses of people crowding the Metro entrance. It had been so menacing that my friends and I immediately retreated and started walking across Key Bridge. As Joan and I approached the turnstiles and joined the blob moving slowly down the escalators, I started to sweat again. “Um, I don’t like this,” I murmured, and Joan shot me a serious look. “Are you claustrophobic?”

“Um, uh, just a little…. I’ll be fine.” I forced myself to keep going, to push down dark thoughts of trampling crowds and being trapped underground and just shuffle forward. Once we reached the platform, the crowds thinned and I breathed a bit easier. But then the train arrived, and the blob moved toward the small opening of the doors, and I had this panicky sense of flowing over the top of the funnel — we’re not going to make it! I tried to draft off Joan, who subtly but deliberately pushed her way forward and around others simultaneously. Suddenly, we’d stepped through the doors. We were on the train.

“Wow, that was impressive,” I said.

“I lived in New York. I’ve learned a few tricks.”

On the train we miraculously found ourselves standing right next to one of only two other 10K runners on our “team” — I spied his t-shirt sporting “Team Swab-a-Cheek,”  a nonprofit which helps find matches for bone marrow donation.  We introduced ourselves and laughed in amazement that among 30,000 runners, we ended up right next to each other on the Metro. [Plug: Go get your cheek swabbed and possibly save a life. It’s simple: http://www.swabacheek.org]

In a few short stops, we found ourselves at the Smithsonian. We made our way to a spot along the route at the Mall, and waited for the husband somewhere in front of us to alert us to our friend’s impending arrival.

In the meantime, we watched. I realized I was not prepared for the show that was playing right before me, for the sheer humanness that was parading by. For the sweat and determination on the faces, the ease with which so many seemed to run, as though they had just begun and hadn’t covered 17 miles, 9.2 more to go…. For the costumes, the clown wig, the full-body green suit. For the signs, the flags, the strollers — a marathoner pushing a child in a stroller! For the cheers of the crowd, the urging on, the “you can do it!” screams around us.

I was not prepared for show of heart. Most moving were those who’d lost a limb or were disabled in some way. The amputee hand-cycling on the recumbent bike flew past me so quickly I barely had time to register what I saw. Fallen comrades’ and lost loved ones’ photos were plastered on passing t-shirts. Panting, out-of-shape runners with causes scribbled on their faces trotted by.

Eventually, we spied our friend approaching, looking energetic with her earbuds in, as we waved and yelled loudly. Suddenly she turned toward us, arms rising up overhead, a wide smile brightening her face. She later said seeing us for that fleeting moment got her through the rest of the race.

The whole scene got to me in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Being there amid that crowd of marathoners and cheerleaders, inspired by their strength, will and determination  — it was beyond words. Tears would have to do.

Most amazing marathoners

Most-amazing marathoners

 

Music Extra!  Great and not-obvious song from my running playlist (“tears” in lyrics!):

“Engine to Turn,” by Tift Merritt. Check it out, below.

Tears I

It’s a cliche to say that crying will get you what you want, but by damned, it sure works for my kids. There’s nothing worse than seeing your child cry. The little mouth starts to quiver, and then the face reddens and eyes water, and before you know it, that gymnastics class that occurs right at the most inconvenient time, during dinner and rush hour, becomes a happy reality for your 10-year-old budding Nadia Comaneci.

What is it about tears? They say “trauma,” “crisis,” “pain.”  Crying is the “there” in “Don’t go there.” I rarely cry — well, except during bad TV and commercials. No, I rarely cry over my own experiences. But the few times I have — in 20 years of marriage I recall a doozy of an argument or two that ended in tears — I almost always end up the victor.

Once I discovered this, I confess to having tried to conjure up tears a couple of times in “disagreements” with my husband just to get to the win, but found that’s harder to do than it looks. I haven’t gone as far as to think of something really sad — I guess that’s what actors do — but now that I’m writing this, even admitting this, it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

I’m wondering if my kids are onto this idea as well.

More next week…

No tears here, just a kid being a kid.

No tears here, just a kid being a kid.

Aside

Postscript

In the previous post I described spending many hours making a photo album for my father’s 87th birthday. We presented it to him last weekend during a big family celebration. All in all, it was a huge success. But there was one small glitch that ultimately presented itself as an opportunity for me (once again) to “deal” with imperfection — and my own temper. Not that I expect perfection and niceness all the time, but considering all the effort I’d put into the album, this instance was, in retrospect, pretty, um … funny. (Apologies in advance to my husband, who is an amazing person and not only managed to spend the entire weekend with my family, but actually seemed to enjoy it.)

Here’s the scene: It is lunchtime Friday and my parents have just arrived at the hotel. Since our kids are swimming in the pool and not ready to eat yet, my husband decides to have lunch with my parents in the cafe. Toward the end of this meal, my daughter and I, dry and dressed by now, decide to join them. As I settle into the extra seat at the table, there are smiles and hugs and happiness all around. Then someone — maybe my mother — says something about how my husband has just let my father read what I wrote about him that week — including the part at the beginning where I say we are surprising him with a photo album for his birthday.

As my parents express appreciation for what is essentially a tribute to my father’s values and even temperament, especially as a parent, I can barely keep a lid on my own temper. I just look straight across the table at my husband, as my parents on either side glow and say nice things, none of which I hear because of the steam shooting out of my ears.

I give the “laser look” to my husband, trying not to be too obvious to my dad, seated at my right, so it probably looks like I have a weird tick of smiling to my right, then turning to glare straight ahead at my husband, then smiling right, glaring ahead, smiling, glaring …

My husband throws me a quizzical look like, What is wrong with you?? As my parents chit-chat, I mouth to him, “It was a SURPRISE”… I do that, demonstrably, a couple of more times, as I see it dawning on him what has happened.

“Sorry,” he mouths back.

I am fuming. How could anyone be so mindless? He let my dad read it?? ARGHHHHH!!!

But there is literally nothing I can do except sit there, simmering, try to slap a smile on my face and change the subject. And, of course, talk only to my parents for about 10 minutes and not so much as glance at my husband.

Finally, I shoot him a look, and he looks right back. I can tell I am going to have to suck this one up. His mistake comes from a good place, after all, and my father is behaving as though nothing has happened and he has not just been informed that the family gathering this weekend is essentially for him and that furthermore, there is a surprise gift we all conspired to keep secret from him for weeks.

I keep up light conversation, but inside am still incredulous. I mean, what??? I am going to need some time to calm down. I know this is my husband being sweet, supportive, loving — it’s all good!! Right?? Except I am pissed.

We rise from the table and my mother, also in on the secret, murmurs to me, “Don’t worry, I don’t even think he got it.”

Yeah, right.

My husband and I speak briefly and I say something not very conciliatory like, “I can’t believe you did that,” and then we all walk out of the restaurant. Yeah, I am really proud of my generous and understanding behavior. I know I need to just shake it off and move on.

It takes about a day — in the workout room on the elliptical machine I realize that I’m still ruminating over The Big Slip — but I eventually calm down and am even able to tell myself that maybe it’s a good thing my dad knows about the album. He doesn’t love the limelight, and perhaps this has given him a little time to prepare.

When we finally present him with the album two nights later, he appears to express genuine surprise. And delight.

And my husband and I don’t talk about it again. Oh, there is one moment on the car ride home, when he turns to me out of the blue and says, “By the way, your dad didn’t know anything about the album. It was a complete surprise.”

I say nothing for a few seconds. Tiny vapors waft from my ears. I look back at him.

“Maybe you’re right.”

A dip in the pool might have cooled my temper...

A dip in the pool might have cooled my temper…