Over the years I’ve taken hundreds – thousands, probably – of photographs of windows. I used to take days off from work in Boston and photograph all of the windows of the older buildings in Back Bay, the Financial District and at MIT. They give me a sense of place, I think, because once I have them I never know what to do with them, but they each have a story, real or imagined, and I suppose my intention was that sooner or later I would get around to writing it.
It was the middle of summer vacation at the end of an afternoon at Long Nook Beach in Truro. The sun cast long shadows and golden light on the low tide. Everyone was meandering in the surf and the tide pools and I was doing some meandering of my own up and down the beach, keeping everyone in sight, soaking up the final warmth of sun and letting the coolish water wash over my sunburned feet. Long Nook is not a good shell beach, and with boxes and boxed of Outer Banks shells languishing in my attic I had given up collecting all but the most unique shells.
Over the years my husband has always brought me bits of translucent beach glass in lovely hues of green, white brown and the rare red or blue; with the advent of recycling collecting the bits of colored glass has become more of a challenge. It is trash turned treasure. At first I saw it as litter spat back by the sea, but now I am charmed by the weathered surface of a shard of old Sprite bottle or the rare bit of cranberry glass. And on that day in 2006, the amber lenses of my sunglasses made the green tones in everything pop out, and, with no beach glass in sight, I began to pick up the greenest pebbles and drop them into the deep pockets of my hiking shorts.
After a long spell of patrolling the beach, squinting at the surf to watch everyone swim, it felt nice to hang my head, let the sun warm the back of my neck, look down and wait for something pretty to catch my eye.
In those days, and sometimes now, vacations could be exhausting. Even though it is good to get out of the stale routines of home life, breaking that rhythm creates the sort of tension with which I am often uncomfortable. There are too many choices and five people to keep happy, and they all have expectations and needs that I am compelled to meet. Most of the time I am exhilarated by the challenge, but there are moments when it rankles.
And so, with everyone happily occupied I allowed my mind to float with my eyes as I followed the tiny streams pulling the salt water back to the sea. I thought about my own childhood vacations of Midwestern swimming pools and city museums, about my Iowa born and bred father and his passion for the sea, about the gift of the Edward Hopper’s light on these steep toasted dunes, about my mixed and intense feelings about the Cape. And with each new train of thought, a pebble made its way into my pocket. I considered that afternoon as it might form itself as memory in my children’s minds, about how it conjured all of the best things about childhood for my husband, whose very soul is fueled by salt air and sand between the toes, my desire to provide a hundred more days just like it to all of them and whether that might somehow assure that they are happy and fulfilled ten or twenty years on.
My pockets were getting full and heavy. I mused if I would be able to get up the narrow path to the parking lot with such a load in my pockets and a heavy beach bag and cooler. I worried how much longer I could carry around all of the stories without collapsing under their collective weight. I asked myself if writing them down would make me feel better or worse.
And in 2009 I finally have my answer.
It seems that most people
At the beach
But I have known
For a long time
That the beach
Is where dreams go to die
The wind and the water
When the tangle of thought
Is too tight
The beach is where I find them
That is where
I feel rage
And it dissipates in the wind
As I try to walk it off
No one will see how deep it runs in me
It has more broken things than whole ones
It sweeps what is fragile
And dumps the remains back
Days weeks years
Refuse to treasure
Treasure to refuse
An unpublished op/ed from 2006. Times have changed.
We learned to live with autism as a disorder, now we need to learn to live with it as a cause
I went shopping today after I dropped my children off at school. It was a tough morning; they were crabby, bickering all the way. So it was with relief and happiness that I went to do some errands on a gorgeous spring day. Our lives have been busy – we were all home for April vacation– so it was nice to meander through the store alone after a week full of kids, movies and too many French fries. When I got to the check-out counter, the gentleman at the register offered the woman in front of me a chance “to donate to a good cause.” I was ready to give, I thought, there’s always a worthy cause and I always give something: cancer research, Jerry’s kids, food banks, whatever. Except this time I saw the puzzle piece logo and I froze – the cause was mine. Here it was, a nationwide chain raising money for Autism research. I felt validated, elated, and profoundly ambivalent.
We have been shouting in the darkness about the autism epidemic for so many years that, now that the lights are on and someone is listening, I found myself startled and blinking. Suddenly, I felt exposed and vulnerable. It isn’t as though other causes have not touched our lives; we gave for cancer research before and after family members were taken by that disease. But it is hard to overcome that protective instinct that makes you want to shield your family from the scrutiny that comes with autism and its misunderstood history. It was almost easier to be the underdog because then we could keep it on a small scale; we could band together as parents and help our kids within our communities, and life would go on.
Autism affects families in vastly different ways, and so to have our son’s autism, which we have worked for years to make a positive force in our lives, become, by association, a full-fledged fundraising behemoth, perhaps we should expect to feel conflicted. Autism-the-cause does not describe my son or our family; autism-the-cause does not begin to touch the beauty and humor he has brought to our lives; autism-the-cause does not make us better or worse as parents but it does expose our family to a more public kind of attention, and more opportunities for understanding – and misunderstandings, as well.
And there’s a cynical side to it – now that autism has affected so many families of people in high places, autism is the cause du jour, just another ribbon, bracelet, or bumper magnet. No one really wants to be a bumper magnet – soldiers at war, people with cancer and aids, people with autism. Even as it raises awareness, which is a good thing, those magnets seem to me like a flip and cursory nod to issues so serious I would just as soon not see it on the back of a vehicle. But expressing that sort of vitriol about something an innocuous as a magnet is a kind of denial, too, that maybe things are not so dire that we need autism to be a cause.
But we do. Autism is a lifelong disorder for those who are disabled by it; they need assistance in communicating with and interpreting the larger world.
So, in spite of my reticence and thanks to the Herculean efforts of many, many people, autism has emerged as a full-fledged cause, and deservedly so. Money is desperately needed to research the current epidemic and to develop therapies and educational programs for this growing population of people disabled to varying degrees with varying outcomes.
On a morning when autism was, for once, not demanding most of my attention, it popped up and snagged me when all I really want to do is find a new book bag for my daughter. Now, just as I got used to autism grabbing my attention in the form of an 11-year old boy, I will get used to it grabbing my attention at the check-out counter. It is an adjustment I am happy and grateful to make.
What to make of middle aged silences?
It seems that more and more of the conversations we do have are mere circles around the ones we should have. We have built strong and study scaffolding around each other in a sincere effort to support on another, noting our foibles and weaknesses. It is a respectful but tense silence, at least on my side, for I harbor a fear that I am going about things all wrong without a forum in which to sift through the contents my fertile and overactive imagination.
Some would say that that is what therapists are for, and in the wee hours and I lay worrying about the course of my life I think this might be true. But my time with therapists has been explaining rather than learning; and so far I have never left an appointment knowing once ounce more than when I walked in – all I have done is clarify my own position with myself. That is useful but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Friends are better if you can find them and make time for them.
Writing is even better.
I have spent an inordinate amount of time convincing myself that I am not an angry person, but there is no question that I am driven more strongly and specifically by anger than anything, even love. Perhaps it is time to embrace it, harness it, turn it into something practical. I have waited long enough for the moment when these things will come out, and if process the old things maybe it will improve my ability to cope with the present.
I know that this is in some ways the opposite of what I have learned with cognitive behavioral therapy, but I think there is room for both approaches. Mere acceptance of all things past is not possible for me, but accepting that those moments are over and that I cannot carry or assign blame for them seems like the right thing to do. And allowing myself to be paralyzed in the present because of the past is absolutely something that I need to overcome, and that is what brings me to the keyboard today.
How much of the past am I injecting into today’s silences, and hoq much am I projecting my own worries into other’s quiet? Plenty. But let me also add that women, for the most part, are faced with the questions of middle age head on and from the inside out. You can actually hear the doors slamming inside your own body and that is a process that screams for attention. The shifting tides of hormones require that we look at our choices and come to peace with them.
Men, on the other hand, have an entirely different set of circumstances. They harbor the illusion that they have the option to start over, that they can rend and discard the fabric of their lives and begin again. Women only think in terms of a new weave, of mending and patching, of adding new yarn and fabric. Of course there are new beginnings for both sexes, but this process that begins in your 40s is so much more concrete for women because the impetus comes from within; you can change or implode or explode. For men, it is all external. From the male perspective – and this is a sweeping generalization, to be sure – women, by all evidence, are going insane, the children are no longer cute and adoring, and the job market is narrowing. Retirement is no longer what parents do. They are trapped, and so they set about acquiring as much stuff as possible to show that they are, by some measure, successful. This is often in direct contradiction with the women’s desire to simplify their lives as they become overwhelmed with the job of caring for the stuff their husbands and kids are bringing home. But with the arrival of each new toy the women harbor a hope that this proves that he is not preparing to start over; that the convertible is fine so long as the only girl in the passenger seat is your teen aged daughter.
And then, like sunshine breaking through clouds, there are moments of surprise, where one of us makes an observation that reaches the other in an unexpected way. Like the man devoted to punk rock sharing a moment of opera that he heard on the radio. This man who never showed interest in that art form but who has a keen appreciation for excellence in any shape, has an understanding of the unique gifts that people are blessed with and can make something extraordinary. These are the moments that tell me I am in the right place, that those flashes of beauty, devotion, and revelation will find me no matter how far out to sea it feels like I am. That is where the person transcends gender and souls speak, and we recall and know what it is to fall in love more deeply than ever.
Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between deference and giving in. Deference is more noble, more willingly practiced; giving in is done indulgently sometime grudgingly, it indicates that your idea was better but that you don’t want to fight or have already conceded defeat. Witnessing children duke it out shows that we learn giving in long before we learn deference; some people clearly never learn it at all, and they are the ones that keep score. So I am learning how to make those distinctions and chronicle things with blame and giving and sniping; I want the subjects of my stories to be treated with deference and still be true – to couch the sometimes chronic pain in terms that have no hint of score settling but really of story telling – I want people who are textured and earthy with ragged edges and inconsistencies and bad grammar. I will fight the urge to put gauze over the lens. With every short story I read I see the beauty in this economy of detail, and know that I will have to write a lot to pare it all down into something compact, tasty; weighty and still digestible.
I don’t even read much Updike – too flinty masculine New England for me, but the world he paints is so recognizable it almost hurts. Not almost – it does hurt, physically. I think all I can muster at this moment is my despair that the writing life is not one that I can survive within or survive without. I suspect I cannot chronicle this life, birth these stories without unimaginable pain. And yet the weight of the pregnancy is becoming unbearable, and I know that in time something good will happen if I will only allow it.
The eighth anniversary of September 11 brings cloudy skies, and rightly so. Unlike that blindingly clear day, everything is murky now. We are mired in a jobless recovery from a recession that snuck up on us, an no one seem to really know how to fix health care, and everyone is cranky about it. We expected that September 11 would change the way we live radically, instantaneously, but it didn’t – instead it visited upon us a long, slow, steep decline that we still fail to comprehend.
I remember calling my mother in Saint Louis as the towers burned. ‘I have been waiting for something like this to happen my whole life,” I said. “That’s terrible,” she replied. “People are jumping out of the buildings.” “I don’t mean that,” I tried to explain, “I mean that this is a defining moment for my generation. I always heard about Pearl Harbor, about the assassinations, about events that everyone else remembers happening with a sense of manifest destiny. And with that came an identity, a place in history that shaped how you look at the world in the space of a moment. Everything that happens from this moment on will be thought of in terms of before and after this day.”
I still believe that. September 11 set George Bush on a course for disaster but in a more roundabout way it set Barack Obama on a course for victory. If Bush (and so many others complicit in the march to war and financial ruin) had not been so terribly wrong, people never could have made the leap of faith that brought Obama forward. But where that leap of faith will take us remains to be seen. Will his eloquent hopes lead us to a sustainable future? Can one man cure a crippled legislature?
I think the mentality that there were terrorists at the gate created by September 11 allowed bankers to gamble and regulators to turn a blind eye. Like the 1920s after World War I, a war that was decimating a generation provided all the rationale required to pursue the high life. The post 9/11 world allowed the government and media to hype the beauty of having it now just at the moment that the generation who saw the danger in that philosophy was fading away. No one was willing to say no to anything except personal responsibility. Who knew what the future would bring; why wait when you can Buy It Now, just like on eBay.
And still, for every one of us that has reacted in fear and denial there are so many who have been humbled, who have worked to understand our responsibility to act thoughtfully. It is that appreciation, that sense that if we try to listen we can come to an honest conclusion about what is right for us, that brought us to the conclusion that is Barack Obama. We have so much history to overcome in this process. Not just racism but the politics of money, legislative and judicial inertia, and party organizations that no longer make any sense. Many a good public servant has fallen prey to the duplicitousness of friends and enemies alike.
September 11, the wars, and the Crash of 2008 robbed us of what little trust we had manage to recoup after Watergate and Viet Nam. Restoring it is a tall order for one man, but we have done more with less.