Sunday, August 27, 2023

This weekend we are guests

my husband and I, at the apartment of our daughter and son-in-law. It is interesting being a guest, how we fit into the rhythm and space of other people's lives. What time they wake up and how they make their coffee. The route where they walk the dog and what we should have for dinner. 

As a guest, I want to be agreeable, flexible, pleasant. But I admit I sometimes feel anxious about what kind of job I am doing. Is my fitful sleep interrupting anyone? Is it weird that I want freshly cut lemons in my water or two cups of coffee before noon? This is my family, but still. I want to be a good guest. 

In the morning while our daughter and son-in-law are at work, my husband and I walk over to the Washington National Cathedral, which is near their neighborhood. We have never visited this place before and it is striking. The steeple, the carved stone. You can go on a self-guided tour of the building, and we decide to head up to the observation deck first. We take our time. Only a handful of other tourists. One of them is holding a dog like a baby against her shoulder. I smile and the dog smiles back. Which gets everyone in our small group laughing. 

I read an article recently that brief interactions with people, even with strangers, maybe especially with strangers, can boost your mental health. I will add brief interactions with dogs to this list. The observation deck of this church is roomy, the windows relatively small, the view shimmery in the heat. Sometimes I feel dizzy looking out from tall buildings. But today I am relaxed. Curious. Open to smiling at more strangers and their dogs. 

After dinner the four of us squeeze up together with our dogs in front of the TV and watch a dumb and yet fun movie. We used to do this a lot with each other. During the height of the pandemic our daughter moved back home and for several months our son-in-law--then, her boyfriend--lived with us too. That was a scary time because who knew what was going to happen and what if we couldn't make it through. 

The worst part of it was how I looked at other people. Or rather, how I didn't. On walks or at quick trips to the grocery store, I averted my eyes, because wasn't everyone a potential virus carrier? And that included me too. How could I live with myself if I got sick and spread this terrible thing to someone else? 

In the lower level of the National Cathedral there are small chapels, mazelike hallways with high arched ceilings. Bodies are interred down here. Helen Keller. Along with her teacher Anne Sullivan. But the one that makes me pause is Matthew Shepherd, who was murdered by a different kind of virus, a hate crime, something scarier in many ways, as it never seems to stop spreading. 

But I want to believe that most of us do our best. We walk respectfully through churches and follow the traffic rules. Pull over to let the ambulance through. And whether we are visiting strangers or family, we try to be good guests.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Notes on Self Shedding

Several years ago, I went through a great purging of stuff from my house. It started small--

I'd taken the books off the bookcase in my office so I could dust, but in the process of filing them back onto the shelves, I realized, for various reasons, that I didn't want some of them anymore. Maybe they were books I read and knew I'd never read again. Or they were books I hadn't read, and had to admit, I would never read. Some were books I hated. I'm thinking of you, Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, the only book in my entire college English major career that I could not finish. Who am I kidding. I could barely get past the first chapter. It's the eighteenth century. It's a novel told entirely in multi-page letters. It's misogynistic and repulsive. But I digress. 

The clearing out of books led to the clearing out of knick-knacks I realized I no longer wanted, and pictures on the walls and carpets and lamps and furniture. In the midst of all of this purging, I discovered the Marie Kondo craze and doubled down on my efforts. If something in my house didn't give me joy, I thanked it for its service (literally. I know. It's silly, but it felt good) and then I carted it off to Goodwill. 

The whole process was amazingly liberating. It also left me with a lot of blank spaces in my house that, for a while, I didn't know how to fill. What things did I want to look at and step across and light my way? 

But even more broadly, how did I want to spend my time, and which people did I want to spend it with? 

These shouldn't have been hard questions to answer, but somehow, they were. 

For the past two years, I've been going through intensive therapy. It started as a way to work through unresolved childhood trauma, but I quickly realized that I had issues in my present that needed addressing, specifically, that the coping mechanisms I'd adopted to make it through and out and beyond--while once, necessary--were no longer helping me. In fact, they were hurting me, and worse, sometimes I was, in turn, hurting the people I love.

But throwing out a toxic pattern in your interpersonal relationships is so many times harder than tossing out dumb, enraging eighteenth century epistolary novels or plastic beaded fruits or a shag carpet. And once you see the toxic pattern for its terrible toxic-ness, how do you actually change it? 

Well. I don't know. But I do know step one. It's telling the truth. 

About what you don't want in your life and what you do. It's finding the grace to forgive yourself for doing what you needed to do to survive.

It's thanking that old self for its service, before letting it go.


Sunday, August 13, 2023


Spur of the moment and some friends walk by and invite us to a yoga class in the neighborhood. This is an informal class that takes place in someone's front yard two minutes away from our house. Apparently, it started during Covid and has been going on every Sunday morning since. My husband and I have nothing planned, so we go, rolling out our mats on the grass still wet with dew. 

Like always when I do yoga, I have a hard time settling my mind. It wants to jump all over the place, hammering out to-do lists and stewing over the worrisome things that happened over the week.

For example, the jury summons I received in the mail the other day... which just so happens to be during the time we’ll be out of town for our son's wedding. I read the list of excuses and none of them seem to apply. Am I out of the country? Am I a non-citizen? No and no. What I'm supposed to do is write a letter, explaining why I must postpone and respectfully asking them to consider my request.  

I write the letter in my head in the middle of the night. I write it again while I'm lying on my yoga mat in the grass. I'm sleepy. Restless from bad dreams and jury duty excuse letter writing. It's my son's wedding! Shouldn't there be a box to check for that? 

Breathe in, the yoga instructor says. I breathe in. Breathe out. I breathe out. I have never done yoga outside before. This early in the morning the humidity hasn't kicked in yet, and there's a lovely breeze. 

I close my eyes and when I open them, there's a plane streaking overheard, a thin cloud behind it bisecting the sky. Our son and his fiancĂ© have asked us to prepare something to say at their wedding, a kind of blessing. I love this idea but I am struggling with it. Me, a writer and big mouth talker, but what if I can't find the right words?  

My mind turns over possible blessings and then it slips back into jury duty excuse letter writing mode. I can hear my husband deep breathing beside me. How have we come to be together, on these mats, on this lawn, our children grown and well and happy, our daughter married to the love of her life, our son about to marry his? 

I don't know. 

But I am so grateful I don't think there is a word that can contain all of my gratitude. The yoga instructor instructs us to clasp our hands in front of our hearts. My mind lets go of itself and for a few blissful moments time stops. 

I open my eyes. The class is over. The day has begun. 

Sunday, August 6, 2023

The mourning dove nest on the back porch

is a whirl of activity. For a few weeks now the mother and father doves have been trading places, parking it over their eggs, and then, their hatched babies, glaring at us whenever we open the door. I've been hurrying the dog along, ducking my head, careful not to make any sudden moves, but yesterday, was apparently the big day,

birds peeking out from the nest, feet on the ledge, ready to tip over at any moment, the cooing parents below on the porch steps, keeping watch, anxiously, I imagined. Which was a problem, because my husband was in the middle of a complicated concrete project at the bottom of the steps. 

I asked him to go around from the front into the backyard and he is the type of man who will do that and I love him for it. Also, he said he would work quietly and avoid the sudden movements and I love him for that too. I have written 658 blogposts over the past decade and very few of them are about him. Each week 

it's a puzzle what I want to write about in this space, the weird things swirling around in my head, whatever is going on in my very small world or in the larger one. Where the oceans are boiling and a scientist recently grew watermelons in Antarctica. What can we do about this, a friend asks me. 

I don't know.

Friday my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary. Oh my God how absurdly young we were on our wedding day and with no idea of the future, our own small world or the larger one. Moments before I walked down the aisle, I panicked. The heat outside and the lack of air conditioning in the church, and I worried I might pass out. 

Someone who meant well dumped a bowl of holy water down the front of my dress, and I was shocked back into my battle-scarred body, the cold water dripping dripping dripping as I teetered up the aisle, too young to understand yet how lucky I was to leave what I was leaving behind, 

and it would be years before I realized how lucky I am to have found the person I was teetering toward. He finished the concrete project and came inside to watch where I was watching from the window. The mourning dove babies taking their time before suddenly fluttering down,

the new family gathering on the flat stones in the herb garden, cooing at each other, I imagine, with relief and love.