Not Crazy About Halloween But I Am Mad for Cemeteries

IMG_0051Halloween does not thrill me beyond a smiling Jack-O-Lantern and a Butterfinger. The Shining still gives me nightmares after 30 years and my heart aches with empathy at the sound of Charlie Brown saying “I got a rock.” If I never see or hear of another zombie or vampire again it will be just fine with me. But I love cemeteries and I visit them all the time.

Growing up, we used to go to the  cemetery with our Dad to visit the family plot. A beautiful spot overlooking the Cedar River, Greenwood Cemetery in Cedar Falls, Iowa, hasn’t even a whiff of Halloween spookiness to it, at least not for me. It is twentieth century tidy: groomed, pretty linear with elegant but largely unremarkable gravestones, and those fabulous old growth trees that are probably the real reason I love all cemeteries so much. The trees stand like guardian angels. Under their branches is a sanctuary for the living among the dead.

So today is Halloween and earlier this week a blanket of fog curled around our old New England cemetery and this one is made to order for All Hallows Eve. Thus, I am compelled to chronicle my early morning walk among the long departed.

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The morning sun, masquerading as a rising moon, kisses the tops of an 18th century family plot. When I see stones like this so identical and lines up so perfectly I always wonder who designed it and whether they ordered them made all at once. My great grandfather was an undertaker back in Newton, Iowa, but I am woefully uneducated about cemetery protocol. I see research in my future.

IMG_0100This family’s plot didn’t account for nearby trees upsetting their row of markers – not only are they out of line, one grave has only the base left. And this causes me to think that, in the digital age, for some people it’s entirely possible that markers such as these might be the only tangible thing we leave behind.

IMG_0072And then I look up and see that this baby, gone for over 100 years now, is no known to me because I walked by on this day. I am always touched by the nameless children who are so lovingly remembered by their families. Some people – okay, a lot of people – think it’s morbid to visit and speculate in this way but I am intrigued comforted by the directness with which previous generations faced and commemorated death. These days it seems like people will do anything to avoid acknowledging the inevitable. I am grateful for the people in my life – yes, Irish – who are unflinching and (sometimes) celebratory in facing death. I don’t always share the revelry but I deeply appreciate the sentiment and faith that unpin it.

IMG_0118Above, conjoined on the left if you can see it, is something you don’t encounter as often in more modern cemeteries: the roles take precedence over the names. We know that mother and father rest here, but their given names are long obscured by time and weather. It’s also often true that the flags of soldiers are affixed to the telltale star-shaped holders but the names are no longer legible: all we know is that they served.

IMG_0109And then there are the various lines of demarcation between family plots. Chains certainly send an interesting message from the hereafter; there will be no fraternizing with others ghosts for these folks. I would love to eavesdrop on the conversations and circumstances that led to the placement of these chains. There’s a story here for sure.

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I always mean to look up the science behind the stone itself – why is it that Martha Pierce’s 1848 stone is so legible while others that are centuries newer have been wiped clean by the elements? I love everything about this – the color, the use of type, the spacing, even the weathering, it’s all perfect.

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Space is at a premium in the oldest cemeteries (though this town has one that is even older than this, aptly named The Old Burying Ground), and some folks bought space near the storage house. It all adds to the charm, and probably the politics, too.

IMG_0080Finally, there are the colors – the leaves and mosses and vines – and how they complement and define the incredible shapes that show the styles and workmanship of centuries. Modern public spaces value uniformity but history is random and people are finicky even in death (or maybe especially in death). They had one more chance to make their mark, and most of them made it count.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur parents are buried in a National Cemetery in the Midwest and when I visit, the rows of white stones take my breath away with their undulating precision. But then, for a moment, I’m not sure I’m even in the right section and we are lost to each other until I can make their names out and know that I am in the right place after all. There is comfort in knowing their engravings won’t be wiped away and that the whole area will be well-tended, but it makes me all the more determined to remember them in other ways. I am reminded as I look through the photographs that “mother” and “grandmother” are engraved under Mom’s name – I had forgotten that.

I am too far away to make the weekly pilgrimages my father made to his family and I wish now I knew what he was thinking on those days when we looked down at the river, but I know that even though I am walking among strangers, they are both with me (and laughing).

 

I’ve been 51 for a week and…

No, this was not the last piece. But it was the cake.
No, this was not the last piece. But it was the cake.

…I just ate the last piece of my own birthday cake. Thank you, Bliss Bakery, for making a cake that is still good a week later.

…what used to be menopause is now officially menofilibuster.

…I am still learning the exact same lessons I thought I’d already learned when I turned 21, 31, and 41. Old dog, same tricks.

…it is now abundantly clear to me why my sister is always formulating plots about faking her own death

…that memoir I’ve been planning to write would likely have to end with me faking my own death, anyway.

…I’ve finally reconciled myself to the fact that when my mother said (disparagingly) in 1981 that moving to Massachusetts would turn me into a bleeding heart liberal she was mostly right.

…I am still mad at Tim Geithner and Larry Summers for siding with the banks (and don’t tell me they didn’t).

…I will always eat lunch at home standing up, even though I haven’t had to do that for, like, ten years.

…I’m ready to admit I buy my jeans at Chico’s.

…so I would like all of the cash I wasted on gym memberships back now, please, because walking in those Chico’s jeans is not only free, it’s so much better for society at large than doing anything in yoga pants in public.

…my friend Jenny is right – everyone thinks you’re lying when you say you’re fifty because it is too round a number, but everyone will believe you when you tell them you are fifty-one.

Clearly I wasn't going to put 51 candles on my own cake (or anyone else's for that matter).
Clearly I wasn’t going to put 51 candles on my own cake (or anyone else’s for that matter).

 

Two Steps Back: “The Week” is weak.

IMG_7349There are plenty of reasons I haven’t  posted much lately, but it took this little media gift to send me scurrying back to my blog.

The Week arrived in my U. S. Mail box yesterday. That’s right, a magazine with Santa on the cover arrived on January 6, 2014. It’s dated December 27, 2013, so they even published it after Christmas thinking that Santa was the best cover story. It came with a paper cover inviting me to subscribe. A quick glance though this new aggregator revealed that I had read – literally – 95% of all the articles or topics (I missed the crossword, incest in Australia and a piece on Vespas.) None of the pieces – none – contained any news from the past week – and it’s all content that has already appeared on the web. It does turn out to be a good guide to the sites that provide (reasonably) hard, accurate news, but then again all you would need to do is subscribe to the Times and you’d have the news at least within 24 hours of it breaking instead of three weeks late. I love paper, I love type, I love design. Part of me sincerely wants something like this that fills a real because I miss paper, I really do. But I am addicted to immediacy and now I am paid to feed that addiction through social media and journalism, so my complaints are only that.

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The type is too small for the folks who would actually read this publication.

You know, The Week would actually be a great publication for doctor’s offices and nursing homes – for anyone who has limited or no access (or interest in) the Internet. Except the type is too small for anyone over 55.

Grief That is Coming of Age

SONY DSCI found a new diary app call Day One that makes it simple and fun to record moments on my phone and attach a photo. It’s a wonderful, quick way to capture images and events that otherwise get recorded in my many random notebooks. The images get buried in my 30,000+ photo library and the words and pictures seldom come together again in the same way I felt them at the time. All the entries can be downloaded en masse as a PDF on my computer if I ever want to do anything more with it. It’s brilliant.

This morning I was waiting for a child to awaken and took a moment to look at the pouring rain and remember this, the anniversary of our Dad’s death, 21 years ago today. I opened the Day One app and I wrote this:

It set off a chain of events that have influenced every moment since.

It was as though the words typed themselves, without my knowledge or permission. It is absolutely true, though, and even though it may seem like a surprise to me now, I knew even then that something fundamental had changed with Dad’s passing. I felt it on the train home that day, knowing as I stepped off that when I left Cambridge he was alive, and when I arrived in Concord, he was not. When I got to the house I called my brother and told him Dad was gone.

“How could you possibly know?” he asked.

“I just do.”

My brother was in New Jersey, I was in Massachusetts, Dad was in Saint Louis. It didn’t matter. A long chapter in my life, in all of our lives, had closed and we were free to look back and forward in ways that were not possible before that moment. It’s when memories and myths and mysteries all start to form and weave together ways that are different for every person; truth matters for a while but then becomes so complicated and elusive that you give up, only to go looking for it again later.

It happens this way for plenty of people, I’m sure, when they lose someone so influential to them. The absence of the reflected love, hate, or diffidence changes the image in the mirror and adjustments must be made. In my case it marked the start of the transition from being a child to being a parent, and the quick realization that even that traditional and expected path was not as straight or simple as I thought.

Libraries and hard drives the world over are full of the stories behind this revelation – that life seldom is what we expect it might be and what happens to us brings us unheralded joy, pain and wisdom. It just so happens that on this day back in 1992, my life took a turn in a new direction – if it were a movie there would be a map with a prop plane and a dotted line moving across continents with great zigs and zags, still going forward but making its way around the globe again and again, flying repeatedly over that point where the journey began.

A Little Less Preoccupied, A Little More Happy

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Sometimes the preoccupations, joys, and demands of this life – of any life – make friendships seem almost optional – something you can go back to when you have time and space after all obligations are met. I am guilty of back-burnering too many things and people that engage me in a positive way, even within my own house.

I withdraw to my iPad too often, looking for the news or posts that will push me a little further along in advocacy and giving me the illusion of being in touch with people. I am grateful for the ways my online exploits keep me connected to people I love, but sometimes it usurps the ones closer to home. That, my boy would say, is simply too stupid.

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Today, a bunch of little things went wrong but they led me to a place I was clearly meant to go, to see someone I always love to see. I came away with this bracelet as a reminder to be more deliberate about being a little less useful and a little more happy.

Putting Autism in its Place

There's more than one way to get lit
There’s more than one way to get lit

Autism Acceptance Month includes Light it Up Blue day, and people find themselves reminded, pummeled and delighted by blue lights everywhere. It’s hard to know how to feel about the hoopla when we try so hard not to let autism dominate our lives. That’s why I moved my autism posts to their own blog. To be honest, though, those were the posts that got the most hits when I began writing Lettershead back in 2009. Much as it would lovely to be vastly popular and widely read, Lettershead is about trying to keep some perspective and focus on ideas that are not directly informed by autism.

Autism casts a long, blue shadow, however. Sometimes it feels like I spent my early years escaping the shadow of alcoholism only to turn and face autism. It was good preparation, as it turns out. An anxious person by nature, living with an alcoholic taught me to be flexible and to live with a specific kind of uncertainty about what each day would bring. In recent years I discovered that if I replace the word “alcoholic” with “autistic” in the Al-Anon daily meditation book, it works beautifully, if not in exactly the same way.

The most dangerous thing I allow myself to do is look back and see the years in my between alcoholism and autism and idealize them. I think everyone indulges in this during a standard-issue mid-life re-evaluation. We see high school, college, single life, some point in our youth as something that slipped away accidentally rather than as part of a progression to a fuller life. George Bernard Shaw had it right: youth is wasted on the young. What I’ve come to appreciate by looking back is the value of the cumulativeness of my experiences. For all the randomness of my choices, they all seem to have prepared me for the life I have now, unexpected and unpredictable as it is.

Laurie Anderson said in a great interview with the New York Times that she has “zero time for nostalgia,” and that is a phrase I keep in my head because the world is changing so rapidly that I want our kids to know what the world used to be like without getting myself stuck there. In the process of talking about the past it also occurs to me that for all the good experiences we try to create for other people, we have no control over how they see or will remember it. I have no idea what my parents were thinking half of the time they were raising us, but it’s clear to me now that regardless of their intended blueprint, my own memories were built by me and there isn’t a lot they can do about it now. The reality of a large family is that there are as many versions of the truth as there are people. Our children haven’t even left home yet and they are already constructing versions of their childhood that bear little resemblance to the one I thought we gave them.

And autism? It is a changeable, petulant child all on its own. The disorder I learned about in 1998 is unrecognizable to me. I was not a refrigerator mother, my child’s brain is not empty, limited eye contact does not mean a lack of engagement, and we enjoy a level of love and empathy we were told was impossible. It morphs and changes along with the boy, advancing and receding on a schedule known to no one. It’s a cat, a bowl of Jell-O, a dish of mercury, a block of granite. I will follow it, chill it, contain it, haul it around, chip away at it – whatever it takes to deny it center stage. That’s the job, that’s my job, and every day it will change and still be the same. It’s not something I planned for, but I know it’s what I was meant to do.

The ART’s “The Glass Menagerie” – a Southern Velvet Clash of Cultures, Lives, Centuries & People

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Snowstorms and all manner of events tried to sidetrack my visit to the American Repertory Theater’s production of The Glass Menagerie. After much ado I managed to go with one friend and meet another for a 2pm matinee on a snowy Saturday in February. I am not a theater critic – if you want to read a brilliant review of this play Ben Brantley is your man. I’m writing because it created a moment in my life I won’t soon forget. My memory of the play was of Kate Hepburn’s eccentric and rather monstrous Amanda Wakefield and a kind of over-the-top Streetcar Named Desire-ish play – sort of like watching a deep south train wreck in slow motion. I did not reread it or watch the movie again because I wanted to experience it in as new a way as possible – I knew that Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill were all jumbled up in my head and decided I liked it that way. I wanted that trip far into the 20th century where Depression recession and repression could only play out on stage. I went for a glimpse of the past; what I got was a glimpse of the future.

Well. The extraordinary directing, casting, set direction and interpretation of the play made it into something entirely different from what I expected. Cherry Jones portrayed Amanda in a way that showed her as eccentric but primarily a concerned and overwrought single mother of two nearly grown children with vulnerabilities that are all too clear to her. It was a beautifully rendered story that was not played out as it usually is – as a melodrama – but simply as a drama. Funny, poignant, spare, brilliant. It left my heart full, but intact. My companion sat with her hands folded tightly together much of the time, and I knew that the younger child, Laura (a lovely, delicate Celia Keenan-Bolger), was vulnerable in a way that was distinctly familiar to both of us – painfully shy and fixated on her glass menagerie and the music from the victrola. Zach Quinto’s Tom leaves the heaviest subtexts of his character to our own experience and imagination – that his writing is a passion too intense for him to pursue at home and what he escapes to is forbidden in the eyes of Amanda; that is all we need to know. A big surprise for me was Brain J. Smith’s gentleman caller, who comes across more sensitive, earnest and engaging than I ever gave that character credit for. Where once I saw him as obsequious and callous – an Eddie Haskell type or a little creepy, like Michael Moriarty played him  – this performance leaves us knowing that though he may have hurt Laura, he may have helped her, too. We are sorry to see him go but not sorry he came to call.

A word about the set and costumes. Everything is suggested – nothing in this production clobbers you but you are treated to a quiet gasp every now and then by the staging and the props. The dresses, especially, look they are made for paper dolls, with flat surfaces and unfinished trim that give us credit for being able to fill in the details given to us by hands and voices.

The Set
The Set

It was the talkback afterward that did me in. I thought we were going to hear from the director, but all 4 four cast members strode out in their street clothes and sat a few feet in front of us in the center aisle. I don’t even remember what the question was but Cherry Jones started to speak about her view of Amanda as a single mother, displaced from her deep south home and desperately worried about what is to become of her younger child when she’s gone – how she impresses upon her older child the need to assure the younger is cared for not because she is a monster but because she is deeply anxious and thus sometimes too controlling. And then she said she is sure there are mothers out there whose children are disabled who can empathize with Amanda, and she felt it was important to portray her that way. I lowered my head and was completely overcome. I sat there like a fool, wracked with sobs and wishing to God I had come to see it alone. It was one thing to be aware of the subtext, but to have Cherry Jones spell it out four feet away from me was more than I could bear. I was sandwiched between my two companions in the middle of the row – there was no escape. I remain thoroughly mortified.

If I hadn’t had to drive home I would have headed for the nearest martini. I knew my companions well enough to know that, beyond profuse apologies, we would talk about it later. I stood in the lobby waiting for them to get their coats and I was standing alone when Ms. Jones rushed out to usher family members backstage. I was using the moment to collect myself and when she passed me I looked away. I don’t know if she saw my reaction to her remarks or not but it was pretty hard to miss as I was three rows back but directly in her line of sight when she spoke. Collecting myself took not moments but days. Looking back I can feel the layers of insulation I have built around that afternoon, where so many moments of my life met together in a single room and were voiced by a singular, brilliant actor with a stellar ensemble cast.

Ten Signs I Have Clearly Arrived at Middle Age

I always wanted to do what my older brothers and sisters were doing; I couldn’t wait to reach the next milestone. Not any more. Here are just 10 of the  many facets of my rude awakening:

Does she or doesn't she? She doesn't.
Does she or doesn’t she? I don’t.
  • My mid-life crisis began at the same time as the financial crisis in 2008, but only one of them has ended.
  • I’m no longer prematurely gray. It’s just gray. All of it.
  • I used to explain pop culture references to my kids; now they explain them to me.
  • I have two kinds of contact lenses – one bifocal, one regular – but I usually just wear my glasses and squint a lot.
  • I use scissors to open everything. Everything.
  • I now like grapefruit juice and black coffee.
  • At the school play many people assume that I am there as a grandparent.
  • I would rather watch Downton Abbey than Breaking Bad.
  • I fall asleep during the first musical guest on SNL, regardless of who the host is.
  • The sweaters I brought home as keepsakes from my 80-year-old mother in 2003 are starting to look good on me.
Mom and me, 1972
Mom and me, 1972

Oh, yes,  there are wonderful things: children old enough to help out and talk about everything with, decades-old friends and memories, a whole lot of perspective about what matters, not getting carded. While I can’t say the same about myself, I think my mother was at her most beautiful when she was the age I am now. Her life was completely crazy then, I know now, but all I remember from that period was her confidence and style though my nine-year old eyes. And as the years went on she never shrank back, never gave up, always stayed current and engaged with the world.

If she were here today she would be glued to the TV, doing her own analysis and pontificating on the Papal conclave. One of my last memories of her, ten years ago, is of her watching the unfolding scandals in the Church and declaring that a new reformation was afoot – even in hospice she was doing color commentary. She wasn’t always right about everything, of course, but she was always interesting. In practically the same breath as she spoke of the Catholic crisis, she confessed to having a crush on Donald Rumsfeld. I hope I’m saying things like that when I’m eighty.

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