Happiness

I think it was Thoreau who said the secret to happiness is spending 4 hours a day in nature. My neighbor up north has a degree in French literature but spent his working life as a postal carrier because he loved being outdoors every day. Tom was like that. His brother joked at the funeral that whenever Tom took a new job he insisted on a “wind clause”. This basically meant that he would come to work unless there was exceptionally good wind and then he would be sailing. He knew the value to his soul of being outside and he almost always found a way to make that happen—even after marrying a couch potato.

I recently came across one of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts books from the 60s entitled Happiness is…. Each page shows another definition of happiness and the one that spoke loudest to me shows Sally standing next to a calendar with a date circled and is captioned “Happiness is having something to look forward to.” That premise has ruled my adult life and never more so than now when one of the biggest things looming is not happy—the anniversary of Tom’s death. I have lightness and fun packed in around that date like foam peanuts cushioning a Waterford vase. First comes the reunion of what Elissa calls our Mother-Daughter (no daughters) Book Club (no books). In other words all the moms still like each other and just want to get together to eat and talk and probably drink. That will be BIG fun and soon after my extended family will gather to celebrate my sister’s 70th birthday and then there will be a trip to Florida and then the Oscars telecast (guilty pleasure) and then the Broadway Bound kids doing their Fiddler on the Roof production and then Alyssa will go to state solo and ensemble and my siblings will meet up in Vegas and then Alyssa will turn 16 and in June will go off to Alaska for her final year of summer camp and I will meet up somewhere somehow with The Compton 6—friends from my freshman hall — for our 40th college reunion. YIKES!!

I come from a culture of busy. It’s what we do best, it’s what we saw growing up, it is our comfort zone and also our happy place. I’ve stopped fighting it. I was miffed at my best friend years ago because she just didn’t seem to have time for me and she unapologetically explained that she was happiest when very very busy and that wasn’t going to change so please just accept it. I suspect Tom felt the same way when he met me and likely got a similar answer when he raised the issue. My sister’s kids joke that her offer to babysit “anytime” isn’t worth the air it floated in on as they have to book her weeks in advance to find an open spot on her calendar. She is involved in more organizations and activities than I’d have the patience to type here, but she loves every one of them and wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel the same about my calendar. It does not need to be crammed full, but I do need a steady stream of upcoming events that I anticipate with glee.

Accepting others as they are does not come naturally to me. It is a work in progress and I hope I am progressing. It took me many decades just to fully absorb that not everyone thinks the way I do nor are they on one long quest to become more like me—fast, decisive, efficient. It turns out some people don’t value those qualities at all and prefer gentle, kind, quiet folks. Go figure. So the point here is that to me happiness is lots of great stuff on the calendar, to others it might be a calendar page that is 100% blank and will allow them to improvise whatever kind of day they want or need right then. That’s why Schultz put so many pages in the Happiness book.  A Beethoven Sonata might ring Schroeder’s bell but for Snoopy it’s a Red Baron chapter and for Charlie Brown just sitting next to the little red-haired girl.

February 13 will still be the anniversary of Tom’s death. That doesn’t change just because we will spend it in an airport. But he was a guy who knew how to be happy and he is watching me try to channel that every day. I will keep finding good things to look forward to —and will also get outside more, sweetheart—even in winter. Promise.

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Annie

I was so preoccupied with grieving Tom that I have only now taken time to try to process the unexpected death of my friend, Annie. She was only 55. We met when our oldest kids became great friends in a Sunday school class at the Methodist church in Leland. I’m still not sure how that all came about since we don’t live there and they do, but it was back in the days when my girls’ dad had a job where he worked at home and on the weekends he wanted to get out of Dodge. He flew a small airplane so getting up north and back in a weekend was pretty do-able. I remember worrying that this travel schedule made it hard for Franny to have play dates or hang with friends at home on the weekends, but she was still in kindergarten and having an up north friend she really liked seemed a fair trade. The two little girls were both small and blond and freckled and I took to calling them Frick and Frack. They played happily together for HOURS and one time spent an entire day at the beach creating tiny fairy houses. They also wrote and illustrated stories which I still have somewhere.

Annie struck me as a hippie at heart. She was an artist and nature lover and ran the sort of lovingly disheveled house that looked like fun. She was a person of deep faith and after a while found that the Methodists were just not speaking to her. She went Christian Science on me and although I loved her still it was never really the same after losing the natural weekly connection of being together at church. And my daughter was pretty much done with Sunday School without her true-blue buddy. We continued to try to get the girls together but after a couple years their friendship faded. Annie’s daughter had plenty of local friends and mine didn’t. Being church friends had kept them on an even playing field but outside that setting it was just harder.

Franny did go for a sleepover once and came back with reports of a huge parental row. Annie even called me to apologize. I assured her that nothing short of flying crockery would even register on our stress-o-meter which I (naively) thought at the time was true. It turns out, of course, that my daughter had picked up on every single fault line in her parents’ marriage and I suspect Annie’s daughter did too. I could never put Annie together with her husband. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like him (always seemed shifty and withdrawn whereas she was open, warm and loving) but that he didn’t seem to appreciate—or even like—her. I couldn’t even feign surprise when she told me over coffee one day that he had left her for someone decades younger. I found the lowest blow to be that she discovered this only when he was forced to resign from the local school board as he and Boopsy were moving out of the district.

When Tom got sick Annie pressed a copy of Mary Baker Eddy into his hand and would occasionally send me something similarly Christian Science-y or say stuff about him actually being whole and perfect—even as I watched his body be ravaged. I still loved her, but needed to create some distance from her belief system. Maybe she was already sick during this time—it seems now that she must have been—and maybe all the CS platitudes were as much for her ears as mine. In any case, she never told me she was sick (I’m not entirely sure CS folks ever acknowledge illness) and the first I knew of her death was an email from a Leland friend, followed much later by a maddeningly vague newspaper story about her life with almost no information about her death. I was still trying to piece together the story when another article came out announcing a “celebration of life” which turned out to be her ex-husband selling off all the inventory from her tiny jewelry store under the guise of raising money for their children—one a college graduate and the other a high school senior who it seemed to me could be supported by his gainfully employed father. I went to the event, but because of my coming and goings from town Annie and I didn’t really have any mutual friends so there wasn’t anyone I could run up to and say, “WHAT!?!?! Annie would HATE this!!” The icky ex-husband playing the needy father of motherless children while literally sitting at the strong box where jewelry sale proceeds were being stored. I couldn’t leave fast enough.

There wasn’t anything I would have wanted to buy anyway. Tom had found a perfect Petoskey stone several years earlier, split it, polished it and drilled holes in it and taken it to Annie to make me a pair of earrings. Before I knew this I had told him that I didn’t always love her creations and admired some other local jewelry more. He didn’t seem bothered by this in the least. Maybe he just trusted his own great taste as he had told Annie exactly how he wanted the earrings designed— the half oval stones free to dangle in their setting and her signature silver swirl covering the holes as he felt he’d made them too big. She executed perfectly. With both the designer and artist now gone from my life I treasure these earrings more than I can say.

I loved Annie because she was real—all love and rainbows until a topic she felt passionate about (the environment, Republicans, her ex-husband) came up and then she could chew you a new one in seconds flat.  Still the overall effect was radiance. When I first told her about meeting Tom and how completely gobsmacked smitten I was with this handsome carpenter she reached across the table, took my hands, looked into my eyes and said, “Mary, JESUS was a carpenter.” He and the girls and I had a few laughs about that over the years as he was not quite the perfect man, but pretty darn close!

So all I can really conclude about losing Annie is this: Don’t take friends for granted. Stay in touch and ask how they are. (Maybe if they have been diagnosed with breast cancer you’ll be able to persuade them to seek treatment, even if they ARE Christian Scientists!) Spend time with them when you have the chance. Stop making excuses for not reaching out—too busy, too tired, too hard to schedule, blah, blah, blah. The people you most hope to get close to, see lots of, plan fun outings with just as SOON as ______________  (fill in the blank—you retire? your kids are grown? you move closer?) just may not be there anymore. Seriously. Do it now while you can.

 

OLD

My Broadway Bound class started Saturday. I had a little rush of interested BOYS (scarce as hen’s teeth in my theater world) so I let them all in even though we were sold out and now I have 35 kids, when my usual target is 24 and my stretched to the gills number is 32. As I said to one mom—I might as well have kept teaching grade school in Detroit! Because we are doing Fiddler on the Roof—a show they don’t know, their parents don’t know and a few grandparents don’t either—I felt the need to give more background than normal. We even got into pogroms. This history lesson likely made them antsy. They were there to sing and dance, not listen to me blah, blah, blah about religious persecution.

I say all this to make myself feel better about what happened next. I told them I needed a little old couple to do one song from the show. I asked if they could please try to recruit their grandparents.  I said I needed old people with personality. They brainstormed some ideas, mostly grandparents who would be PERFECT if only they didn’t live 5 states away, and then one earnest little girl looked me right in the eye and said, “Why don’t you just do it yourself?” I managed to chuckle and resist the powerful urge to choke her while screaming, “Because I, my darling, am not OLD!!! I am still 18 on the inside. Can you not SEE that!?!?!?!”

I just read Dick Van Dyke’s latest memoir which includes a conversation with Carl Reiner. Dick is now 90 and Carl is 93. They both talked about the daily shock of seeing old people in their mirrors. How does this happen!?! How can the age of our faces be so completely disconnected to the age of our spirits?

I wrote a poem a few years ago entitled 58.

58

This is the year my left knee stopped turning sideways and my teeth started costing $2,000 each to repair.

I’m adding this to my list of questions for God:

Why do our bodies fall apart just when our souls are coming together?

 

Nothing so very new here. The saying has been around forever that youth is wasted on the young. Maybe I don’t feel too old now because I never felt very young then. I was way too careful, responsible, cautious and fearful to really cut loose and enjoy all that energy and stamina and strong young body. Jeez! What a waste!

But there are things to be grateful for.  I am 61 and have only a handful of gray hairs—confined so far to my temples, where I can pull them out if they bother me. I have a 50 year-old friend who is likely going to need a new knee and another in his mid-60s already on his second. Most of my parts are working and out of sheer stubbornness I manage to both read and drive without glasses.

And after all, age really is relative. When I taught 2nd grade in Detroit I took advantage of my birthday to motivate the kids to work on multi-digit subtraction. They were dying to know how old I was so I put up the current year and then my birth year and told them to figure it out. The correct answer was 44 and when my brightest student had solved the problem he shouted out “DANG! She OLD! My granny ain’t even THAT old!” Sadly, he was right.

When I got pregnant at 45 I was sent for genetic counseling. I was put in a conference room with other “high risk” mothers and shown a power point on birth defects. The most memorable slide showed the risks of giving birth to a Downs Syndrome baby. The risks were very low in one’s 20s, increasing steadily into the 30s and shooting straight up in the 40s until age 44 where the graph stopped altogether. My risk was apparently so high it couldn’t even be charted! When I cried to my kindly OB he said, “Oh, don’t worry. At your age you’ll never go full term anyway.” He was sending me home to wait around to miscarry. And yet 15 years later my beautiful Alyssa plays a mean clarinet and takes AP classes and plays tennis and makes me laugh every day.

When I teach kids their first Beethoven piece I tell them that he may be the most famous composer in the world but that he is also really, really, super-duper, very very very DEAD. They think that’s funny, but one day a little girl asked with great sincerity if I had known him personally. I conceded that he had been my prom date but that now we were just Facebook friends. Since nobody has ever figured out who the Elise was of Fur Elise fame I am just going to start claiming that he wrote it for me and changed the name to protect my privacy.

So I guess I don’t really care if the kids think I could play Golde or date Beethoven or be the big sister of their grannys. I can still roll around on the ground with toddlers and touch my palms to the floor in yoga and make it (slowly) up the big incline on my favorite Leelanau bike route so screw age. It’s just a number and I prefer words—like active, happy, healing, fun, sunshine, all-expense-paid-trip or power ball winner. My 50s were my best decade so far and what are the odds of that? Maybe in the next decade this old coot will actually learn to paint and write a book and get better at music and maybe even accept that French nouns have genders (le livre, la table—ridiculous!).

DANG! She not done yet!

White People Losses

My sister and I just had one of our not infrequent mourning sessions for Borders. How DARE they go out of business?!?! How could they DO this to us? Didn’t they know how important they were to us and millions of others? Why did they have to expand so quickly, mismanage the growth and flame out? Could we have stopped it by buying even MORE books?

We had a routine that was completely ruined when Borders closed. We would each drive about 25 minutes, meet for lunch at TGI Fridays (pecan crusted chicken), solve the world’s problems and our own and then walk across the street to wile away the afternoon at Borders. We browsed, we read, we got a cup of cappuccino, we traded reviews of new fiction or went our separate ways into the music or gift sections. When they went out of business we had to find a whole new place for lunch. It was too sad looking at the empty building.

I did not grow up in Detroit, but I have heard many similar stories about the flagship JL Hudson store downtown on Woodward. Families would make a day of it, taking a bus downtown, little girls in crinolines and white gloves, having lunch in the Hudson restaurant and shopping and sightseeing. For those of us growing up in other parts of Michigan our hallowed department store was called Jacobson’s. I longed for clothes from there as a girl (our budget was more in the Sears column), I worked there a few summers and Christmas vacations in college and I shopped there as much as possible when I got a real job with a real paycheck. I will never forget the time I needed a fast gift for my husband’s niece—a girl I had never connected with despite my best efforts. I called the Miss J shop, gave them her age and address and my price range and said “Pick whatever you think might work. Wrap it, send it and charge my credit card.” I still don’t know what they sent, but it was the only time I ever got a thank you note from this kid. I miss Jacobson’s with heartfelt longing.

I can already see the eye roll when my 15 year-old reads this. Missing upscale retail establishments of yore would be the ultimate in what she calls White People Problems (as in “Oh no! I burned the kale quinoa casserole!!”) but it still makes me sad and that’s my right. My mom’s favorite saying was “I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.” Whenever I felt I was over the top in whining to my therapist I would quote my mom as an example of how I just needed to buck up. Her response was always—but you still didn’t have any shoes!! In other words, our losses are our losses no matter what anyone else thinks about how worthy they are of sorrow. If Naomi can melt down over fuse beads, I can mourn Borders and Tom and the fact that I no longer have a pre-schooler to pick up and take to the park for a picnic. Change is hard and it is ok to take time to remember what we used to have and feel sad.

So if you are reading this and are mourning anything you’ve been afraid to admit—go ahead. Tell us! (I’ll send over some burned casserole to cheer you up.)

Being Alive

I think Stephen Sondheim might be the greatest lyricist of all time. He learned at the knee of Oscar Hammerstein and his first big job when he was just a Broadway puppy was “West Side Story”. If I had to pick a single song that sums up life for me it would be Bobby’s solo from the Sondheim show “Company”. He is a single guy in New York in the 70’s and has a gaggle of married friends trying desperately to pair him up with someone. He wants to find the right person and sings:

Somebody hold me too close.
Somebody hurt me too deep.
Somebody sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
Being alive.

Somebody need me too much.
Somebody know me too well.
Somebody pull me up short,
And put me through hell,
And give me support,
For being alive.
Make me alive.
Make me alive.

Make me confused.
Mock me with praise.
Let me be used.
Vary my days.

But alone,
Is alone,
Not alive.

Somebody crowd me with love.
Somebody force me to care.
Somebody let me come through,
I’ll always be there,
As frightened as you,
To help us survive,
Being alive.
Being alive.
Being alive!

I remember my children’s father turning to me at one point when our eldest was a toddler and saying, “I’m not enjoying this.” I think I either burst out laughing or screamed at him, saying “REALLY? Who IS?!?!” There is not so much to enjoy about certain stages of the toddler and teen years. You gotta hold on for the better times ahead and relish each sweet moment you can find during the storm (which might be confined to watching them while they sleep.) But I had to remind myself that I was the one who wanted kids. I was the one who could not imagine a life alone or in a childless couple. All that bumping up against other people was my definition of LIFE—of being alive.

There were times when Tom wanted to be with me too much. When I needed space. Although he was a human furnace and kept me warm as toast all night in bed, he also got up more often than a pregnant woman and usually disturbed my sleep. He burned a lot of calories in a day working as a trim carpenter and the slap-dash soup and toasted cheese meals I used to make for the girls and me just weren’t enough to fill him up. I was occasionally resentful at having to plan actual meals that included some big hunk of protein for our resident he-man. I find NY Times crossword puzzles relaxing (at least the M-W editions) and was not keen when he started looking over my shoulder and offering help. It was MY thing and I didn’t really want it to become OURS, but in the end it did and later it was our saving grace during the long hours of waiting at the oncologist’s office.

One of the saddest days of my life was in 1987 when I stepped into the shower the morning after my first husband left me and discovered the shower head was exactly where I had left it the day before. There was no longer any need to readjust it after use by my 6’2” husband. In fact every single item in the house was EXACTLY as I had left it that morning when I went to work. I sobbed at the isolation, the loneliness of never again having my life, my stuff, my shower head collide with the desires, the shape, the needs of another human being. I was it. It did not seem nearly enough.

Circumstances dictated that my youngest daughter wound up living with me full time just 5 months after Tom died. She has sweetly said that she is so grateful to have someone to eat dinner with each night. I feel the same. It is almost as if the universe delivered her as some not insignificant comforter in Tom’s absence. Although she is a teenager, she is an especially nice one and I enjoy her company so much when she makes the brief forays from her room to request food or rides or money or hugs. Now I remember to feel grateful for all the times she helps me feel alive—by needing me or ruining my sleep or hurting me with the occasional cutting remark or even sometimes crowding me with love when I have a long to do list.

Life is about being in relationship with PEOPLE—loving them, being frustrated by them, getting hurt by them and only when we are do we feel truly alive. Extroverts get that instinctively. Introverts have to work a little harder because people exhaust them. Still, we need them and even want them with all their flaws and messy complications. That’s what Being Alive is all about.

13. Birthday

Oct. 23, 2015. One year ago today I was celebrating my 60th birthday with my husband Tom and my true-blue and decades-long friends Jill (best thing I took out of marriage number 2—besides my kids) and Marcia (best thing I took out of marriage number one and that includes the cottage) and their main squeezes in New York, seeing Broadway shows and having a wonderful birthday dinner at a cool Brooklyn restaurant with a name like Hair of the Dog or something animal like. All I know is we sat at a round table, had great food and drinks and talked and laughed and asked the waiter to take a picture that didn’t really turn out which makes me especially sad because it was the last time we were all together. By New Year’s Tom was too sick to travel and by February he was dead.

We didn’t have that many birthdays together and we didn’t make a big deal out of them. It was actually harder missing him on October 1st which would have been the 5th anniversary of our first date and the 2nd anniversary of our wedding. By our first anniversary he was already diagnosed and in chemo with an uncertain but none too cheerful prognosis. I wrote him a poem because any other gift seemed useless:

I Don’t Want to Lose You (a poem for our 1st anniversary)

I don’t want to lose you.

It took me so long to find you—

For God or the universe or the happy Internet genies to send your handsome face to my ancient computer and change my life forever.

Maybe these four years should be enough, maybe they will have to be.

I am not ungrateful, quite the opposite. I am thankful every day

for the chance to know you, to love you, to hold you and laugh with you—

for the lessons in love and life I have learned at your side,

for the inexpressible comfort of being thoroughly known, completely understood and loved anyway,

for the safety and happiness that come with knowing that your warm embrace has my back, both literally and figuratively.

But I am greedy.  I want more and more and more.

More adventures, more bike rides, more lazy beach days, more family dinners, more band-at-the-cottage weekends, more crosswords, more trips, more kisses, more YOU.

I want you forever—to the end of our days,

‘til Alyssa has babies and Franny makes her first million,

‘til they take away our drivers’ licenses and put us in a home.

That’s my movie. No edits. No rewrites.

But for now I will take my cues from you and wake up each day so happy to be living this crazy life holding hands with my strong, kind, handsome, warm and loving husband—the best partner any girl could ever hope for.

I love you, sweetheart.

Happy Anniversary!

 

So here I am—61, without my sweet husband. I have a huge and beautiful mum plant on my front stoop from a book club friend and former piano mom, flowers on my dining room table from the aforementioned Jill, roses from my sister from the Sweet Lorraine’s lunch she treated me to, cards and texts and emails and a huge hug from my 15 year-old. I am off to a Women’s Retreat at a new church I’ve been attending. I don’t think I will know a soul but that’s ok. Seems like a good time for new beginnings.

I know Katherine Heigl (she was Izzie on Grey’s Anatomy) is supposed to be an on-set Hollywood nightmare—DIVA supreme—but I will always remember reading an interview where she spoke of her brother’s untimely death and said that of course her family was devastated, but they never once, not one member, said that this tragedy meant that life was not worth living. She said life is ALWAYS worth living and living well.  I know of no one who would echo that sentiment more than Tom. He squeezed every drop of juice out of his 64 years and I think he will be cheering from heaven if I find a way to do the same. Here I go…….

Cherished

When I was in 7th grade I had a huge crush on a handsome “bad” boy. My actual boyfriend was a good boy I had known since grade school, who was athletic, smart and popular. I had waited years for him to think I was worthy of him and although I didn’t feel much, I liked the status of “going with” him—which in middle school meant my friends told his friends I liked him and his friends reported back that the deal was sealed. Still, bad boy asked me to slow dance at a sock hop. The song was Cherish. I have no clue who the band was but I can still recite most of the words:  “Cherish is the word I use to describe, all the feeling that I have hiding here for you inside…..” That was it. I was in love. It would be immoral to be the girlfriend of one boy while in love with another so I sent word through my friends that good boy and I were over. Alas, bad boy was not really boyfriend material, but we did continue to talk on the phone and flirt incessantly for the next 6 years before finally sharing one chaste little kiss.

Still, the concept of being cherished was planted. I wasn’t sure what it would feel like but I was pretty sure I didn’t have it in marriage number 1 (although my chronically unfaithful husband admired me, encouraged me in career pursuits and in many ways was my number 1 fan) and most decidedly did not have it in marriage number 2 where the overriding emotion was distain bordering on loathing. My sister kept telling me I deserved to be CHERISHED and said she was positive that one day I would be. She had spoken to God repeatedly about this issue and was confident he was on the case.

And then along came Tom. There are more wonderful traits to relate about this man than anyone would have the patience to read, but for today let’s just focus on his ability to make me feel absolutely, totally and completely loved and accepted; the way he would look at me like I was the best and most special person in the universe and he couldn’t believe I was his. He would cook for me, bring an extra sweater or jacket on every outing in case I got cold, pack a bag for me to take to the beach, get on my side of the bed on cold nights to pre-heat it before I got in (no, I’m not making this up), listen to me rant endlessly about life woes and then make the one spot-on observation that caused everything to fall into place. He wanted nothing more than to be in my presence—whether hiking, biking, kayaking, sitting by the fire or in a pew at church. He never let a day go by without kissing me, holding my hand and telling me he loved me. Maybe it was the fact that he never had kids of his own, but I knew I was the most important person in his life and that he would do anything for me—except, as it turned out—grow old by my side.

None of the things my children complained loudly about seemed to register with him. In four and a half years together he never once mentioned my dreadful housekeeping, my marginal cooking, my morning breath or the 20 lbs. I needed to drop. Not once. When I visited the psychic after Tom’s death she said, “You know how no matter how much you love someone there are just things about them that really annoy you? Well, there wasn’t ANYTHING about you that annoyed him. He loved everything about you.” I don’t see how that is even possible. Maybe some people are just less easily annoyed than others –kind of like the varying pain thresholds. It is true that Tom was an extremely kind man who always saw the good and believed the best about others, so maybe I just plain hit the jackpot.

I was speaking of him to a woman who had also lost her husband to illness. I described the feeling of being cherished and her eyes lit up—“Yes, that’s the word,” she said. “Cherished.” She is now in a second marriage that sounds very happy, as are many other people I know. Others may not be completely happy but have security, stability, what someone recently characterized as “a solid relationship.” That all sounds pretty appealing to me as I look toward the next 20-40 years (my mom lived to 97!) as a single woman. But I am so grateful that for one sweet, all-too-brief, period in my life I got to experience first-hand what they were singing about in 7th grade—I was cherished.