Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Finish of Wholly Holy Holes

A big deal for me--I've finished Vanessa's story. This is the first story I have ever written (at least that I can remember). I am falling in love with the writing life. Yay!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Wholly Holy Holes--The Completion (Parts 1, 2, and 3)

Vanessa decided it was time. She wasn’t sure whether to wear a bathing suit or sweatpants, but she was otherwise ready to make her entrance.

The hole had been discovered, actually uncovered, while she was raking her back yard. Just beyond the fence, just before the forscytia bush, and just around where she had thought about moving the hammock, she was shocked to see a hole right in front of her in plain sight. Actually first she was startled, then intrigued, then concerned and then shocked. She knew she was shocked because she heard herself gasp just before she said, “What the hell?”

The hole was three feet wide on all sides and she had no idea how deep. It looked like a perfect circle except it wasn’t. She could see that the bottom looked to be ten or twelve or maybe twenty feet straight down and curved to the left, reachable by ten or twelve or maybe twenty thin iron bars each two feet across that would probably hold anybody’s feet safely.

For three weeks Vanessa had thought and weighed and wondered about the hole. She had no idea why she had not told anyone else about it, except that it was true that it reminded her of the unpleasant memory of a little clubhouse in her back yard when she was eight that she had to share with her brothers and never once did she have it all to herself.

The hole reminded her of the possibility of being lost without getting lost. Vanessa thought maybe that was just what she needed. For ten days after she found the hole, regularly during the day, a few times late late at night, and once just before dawn. she secretly watched from her bedroom window to see if anyone—human or otherwise, approached or entered the hole. Nothing. It was surprising.

Vanessa decided to climb into the hole on the same day she lost her job and four hours later her boyfriend. “You can have one bad thing happen and do ok”, she said to herself, “but two bad things on the same day—you lose your skin when that happens”. When Vanessa lost her skin, she knew from history, it was just a matter of time before she lost her appetite for breakfast, then something worse, and then something really worse.
Since she was skinless, Vanessa felt she had nothing much to lose. She easily arrived at the idea, and then the act, of climbing into the hole, and turning left toward who knew what. She briefly remembered the true story of a drunken stupid man who was found stuck and dead half way down somebody else’s chimney. “What did he think about in that horrid space?” she wondered, since it seemed logical that it probably took him hours to suffocate or affixiate or however else he had died—she couldn’t remember that minor detail.

So Vanessa efficiently used her time without her job and without her boyfriend to select portable items to take with her. First, a flashlight. “No way am I dealing with the unknown without a flashlight”, she reasoned, “After all, I have to see what I’m going to do”

Next, a cell phone. Vanessa wasn’t sure a cell phone would work in a three foot wide and 10, 12 or 20 foot hole, and she wasn’t too sure who she would call, but bottom line, she wasn’t stupid. You had to be able to at least try to reach someone.

Once she decided to pack the little orange knapsack she had bought for the camping trip that never happened, Vanessa’s confidence expanded with each additional item she chose: an orange for the dual purpose of nourishment and makeshift trail droppings, if needed; her red Swiss army pocket knife complete with corkscrew and tiny scissors—“you never know”, she shrugged., Earmuffs and extra pair of socks in the event that it was cold and wet that far below ground. A pen and small notebook to either write a sudden hello or final goodbye.

Vanessa could not recall a time when she had felt so brave. Maybe the day in school when the principal pulled her out of class to tell her that her father had died. That day she was given no warning and no niceties: the principal simply said, “Vanessa, something very bad and very difficult has happened in your family. You need to call your stepmother.”

Since Vanessa had no brothers or sisters, no tender grandmother, no favorite aunt, never a sometimes loyal puppy, she knew the news would be about her father. Since her father tried his best to protect and deflect her from Babette the meanest stepmother, she concluded her father had died.

Probably had a stroke or a sudden heart attack and died. She was unfortunately right, unable to derive any comfort at all from her needle point accuracy.

Part 2

As Vanessa and her backpack provisions climbed downward, slowly, carefully, one step following another—guided in by the ten or twelve or maybe twenty thin iron bars each two feet across that would probably hold anybody’s feet safely—she wondered if she should have told someone—who?—that she was undertaking this mostly courageous journey, into the hole beyond the fence, just before the forsycia bush, and just around where she had thought about moving the hammock, She was mildly surprised she had not left a note, given that her planning had been impulsively and uncharacteristically thorough and practical.

When Vanessa reached the bottom of the hole, she had room to turn around with her arms outstretched, but she did not think to do that. She was slightly jolted by the fact that she had never seen black so very black. Thank god for her flashlight; otherwise she would not have seen the small tunnel to her left, accessible only on her hands and knees and even then the space around her was quite negligiable. “Am I crazy?” she asked herself. “Why am I doing this?” Then she remembered she had lost her job and lost her boyfriend and the hole offered her of the possibility of being lost without getting lost. She remembered the mysterious and brave feeling she experienced—it wrapped around her like the blue fleece blanket she had kept from three summers ago—when she knew that she would get to the bottom of the here-to-fore unknown hole.

Vanessa had crawled approximately six feet—thank god it was only that—when she saw the bag. It lay against the wall looking quite grungy. When she reached out to pick it up she could tell from it was made of burlap. Her flashlight told her it was green burlap, but of course, who could be sure of anything given her present circumstance. It was at that moment—when she held the flashlight to the probable green burlap bag, which was by the way the approximate size of a shoe bag—that Vanessa decided she had ventured far enough. She could not tell how much further this left turn extended—it could be miles for all she knew, although who in their right mind would have a reason to push forward that far and that deep.

With the bag tucked under her left arm, just beneath her left shoulder, Vanessa crawled backwards, inches at a time, until she was again at the bottom of the hole. She looked up briefly and smiled briefly at her accomplishment, which seemed considerable given the present lack of accomplishment in her life, then she and the probable green burlap bag climbed back up the ten or twelve or maybe twenty thin iron bars to the far side of her back yard, where she had started 32 minutes ago.

Vanessa walked back to her house and left the screen door open as she walked into the kitchen, put the kettle on for tea, and sat at the small dining room table with two chairs and an old red tablecloth she had forgotten about until she found it in a bottom drawer while looking for matches. She pulled out the wobbly blue wooden chair and sat down with the burlap bag directly in front of her. It was filthy, so much so it was hard to open the string that was tied in a Boy Scout type knot.

Vanessa could not imagine what she would find inside the green burlap bag. She put the fingers of her right hand in very cautiously, fearing the worse. She was not particularly surprised to find four envelopes, each the same size, each licked shut.

Part 3

Three of the envelopes revealed nothing. The fourth had immature handwriting, large and bold scrawled across its entire width. It said, appropriately or not,” Open this last”.

Vanessa placed the envelopes on her kitchen window and did nothing with them for three weeks. She spent that time catching up on laundry, writing letters to old high school acquaintances, and on one occasion, seeing three movies in one day, something she had not done since she was eleven and needed to bide her time since she had run away from home and could not bring herself to go back until just before dinner. She was recovering from her foray into the hole, not knowing whether she was satisfied or dissatisfied by how it all ended—the small crawlspace and all, the dark damp space that she had only crawled into and crawled out of. Never the less, she had done what she had set out to do. She was proud of that.

That August, Vanessa opened the first envelope. She unfolded a crisp 8 by 11 piece of paper—not the cheap kind she was used to—and hoped for a few seconds that it might be a letter—a long letter—that would both amuse and comfort her. Instead, the letter offered three words on one straight line. The handwriting was similar to the outside of the envelopes, but more mature, so she thought.

She read and reread the first message: “Let it go”.

“Hmmm”, Vanessa said. “That could mean anything. It probably means something.” She kept the so called letter open on her kitchen counter until several weeks later, when the bank called to tell Vanessa that she was now four months behind on her mortgage payments. She was surprised, no, not really surprised, more like defiant, as she heard herself say, “Oh, you can have the house back. I do not have a job, I cannot pay you, I am moving soon, and I don’t care anyway”.

That defiant pronouncement set things in motion. Within days Vanessa had booked her flight and written another set of letters—this time to several college acquaintances and to five first cousins, telling them she had decided to move to the west coast and would be offering her furniture and garage contents to anyone who had an interest. She spent several weeks sorting, compiling, storing and packing until all that was left was one mid size and one oversized suitcase, which she would take with her. In it she had packed only her summer clothes, one complete and one incomplete journal, a half candle left over from that week at the ashram, and a book someone—who, she wondered—had given her called, “the crazy world of cats.”

That Saturday, Vanessa opened the second letter. This time there were four words on one straight line. “Hey,You already know”, it said. Vanessa thought that the handwriting looked even more mature than it did in the first letter, so she decided to accept on the spot that she knew indeed what she already knew. Since she was not entirely sure, however, what that was, she proceeded to pretend, and was pleasantly delighted that no one challenged her to the contrary. Not the bank teller when she closed her accounts, not the mailman who she told him to hold her mail indefinitely, not even her horrible stepmother, who she had finally called after considerable weighing back and forth to simply tell her she would be unavailable until further notice.

Vanessa opened the third letter on September 3rd. The paper was different this time, instead of being crisp and classy, it was thin and lined. “I might as well be back in fifth grade reading this”, she thought, with some disappointment sprinkled in between each word. The handwriting was no longer mature. One line had turned into two, and the message was murky”
If you are reading this, consider yourself lucky” it said. “Lucky Lucky. It’s time”

Vanessa checked her two suitcases at Logan airport, enjoyed a cappuccino at Starbucks Express and boarded her flight for Los Angeles. She had $ 1300 dollars in her wallet and the means to access $ 3000 more if things got bad. She had let it go, she already knew, she was doing it, and she considered herself lucky lucky.

Vanessa sat in seat 21 B along side an educated looking middle age woman who wore a glamorous scarf, carried a laptop, and smiled politely. Fifteen minutes into the flight Vanessa opened the last envelope, The classy paper was back. This time the message was typed. She read the words carefully.
“Enduring peace.” Vanessa smiled. She knew.

Five minutes after that, Vanessa turned to the woman with the glamorous scarf and said as calmly as she could, “Should we hold hands?”

The woman, who’s name was Sue McKay, looked at her quizically for the slightest moment. She had been crying.
“What is your name?”, She gently asked.
“My name is Vanessa”
“Yes, Vanessa, we should hold hands”

Vanessa thought, “This is so different than when the principal told me about my father. This is all so so different than before the hole. Everything changed since then. Everything….Thank you Jesus.!”, Vanessa said.

Seven minutes after she opened the last envelope, at 8:43 am on September 11, Vanessa spilled into a demoral-like sleep, a lot like her surgery for that biopsy. Her last thought before the plane hit the first tower was “Finally. “I’m holding a kind warm hand. This is a good person. This is a mother. Finally. Lucky Lucky me.”

Stella and Stones

It's been a good week.

jb and I lost our beloved Rosie 18 months ago. With little warning symptoms came from nowhere and one horrible morning 14 days later she walked on her own into the vet's office with us afterhours and we "put her to sleep". She trusted us to the end, then sent a golden retriever we did not know to seek us out on Commercial Street in Provincetown the next day and provide a message of comfort from her that was impossible to misinterpret.

jb and I went to the Dakin Animal Shelter last Sunday. There were very few dogs there waiting for adoption: two who were found on the street together and come as a package--an anxious huge black shag named Max, and an easy going pointer who was doing her best to stay calm, and two grey hounds, beautiful, not yet housebroken. And then there was our girl, a mutt by any standard--part german shepard, part coon--black and brown with soulful eyes that did not make contact, and a medical condition called spondylosis. She has a weak vertebrae and came to the shelter, a stray from Sturbridge, in severe pain. She had been there for 8 weeks, probably there so long because she is a special needs dog who will require some care to otherwise enjoy her playful and active life.

We named her Stella. Every day she has become a little more comfortable. She is so well behaved and eager to please that we wonder how and why she became separated from her family. She does not cower (meaning no serious abuse) but she knows not to hang the dinner table and she shook the second morning when she peed in the kitchen because I took too long to let her out. We think Stella is mourning the loss of someone(s) she loved. We know she will grow to love us too, because we will always be kind and appreciative of her--and our lives are fun--but you can't help but wonder from where she has come. I can't bear to think about some little kid who's lost this wonderful dog. She was starving when she was picked up, and then at Dakin for 2 months, so we've decided to simply accept she now belongs with us....

The second reason for this good week is that after sending a portion of my manuscript to my agent, she has called me to say the book is good--she thinks that when it is shopped around a publisher will likely pick it up. This is after three years of spinning in a circle trying to write the book proposal for my more precious book on happiness. I just couldn't get it right. So I made a decision that it turns out was a really good one for me: I put it aside and I started a second book, on a subject I know pretty well, and I finished that book before anyone else could tell me how to write it or what to do or not do.

So now I am writing a book proposal on a book I know intimately and it is much much easier. I am beginning to think of myself as a writer--it is an awesome feeling--and I can almost envision having a book in print. It somehow propels me to think about a future--what I have to say, how it might make a difference, how I might contribute in some real way to a world gone flat. I don't see myself as a political writer, but I am blown away by this president and the state of my country. I have opinions about this....

I end this by clarifying that a good week is no small matter to me. I have a good life but I am not sappy about the trials and tribulations of being human. To quote John Denver (another new interest--who was this guy??), "some days are diamonds, some days are stones".

I've begun to love stones. It makes it all a lot easier.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

A Perfect Day

Yesterday was a perfect day. That means I stayed in the moment from start to finish. No worries about the past or planning for the future.

jb and I started early. We aren't accustomed to having fridays off, especially together. We were on the road uncharacteristically early (the one challenging piece: jb had her stitches removed, which makes her faint). We headed for Boston--since we moved to Western Mass. late last spring, we've been unsure how to see Jess regularly and we miss some (not most) of our old haunts, especially Mr. Sushi, where we salivate over their California Rolls, Shrimp Tempura, and Chicken Teriaki maki. So we decided a month or so ago that we would celebrate our new Fridays off by traveling east every other week.

First, we landed in Coolidge Corner, home of Mr. Sushi. We were too early for lunch so we went to Peets Coffee (best in the world--every morning is a celebration for me when Peets is in the house). I bought two pound of Major Dickenson's.

Next we hit the Paperback Booksmith. I used to go there when I was in college 30 years ago and with the exception of one additional room, just about nothing has changed. I had time to meander from best sellers to interior design (colors for the kitchen-in-rehab), to philosophy and spirituality, to psychology. I ran out of time to find the career section, which I need to get a grip on since I'm writing/finishing my book on Good Work!, but that was for another day.

Mr. Sushi was as usual unbelievable. They know us there now. Sometimes Dennis or another waiter will say, "How is Jessica?", "Jessica" being pronounced with the flair of three distinct syllables Japanese style. It always makes me chuckle. jb and savored every piece of sushi. We quietly moan as we eat. Sometimes I close my eyes...

On to Crate and Barrell to return a little side table that didn't work. This is one of my favorite stores--since I go there maybe twice year, the decor and merchandise is always new and inviting. We picked up a cheese grater for $ 12 because we've just discovered dipping bread in olive oil and grated parmesean cheese. We also bought a reliable toaster--the current one broken by jb's unusual impatience one fine morning.

We stopped at my mother's long enough to assure me that she is doing well. I tend to worry about her these days, so it's always great when I find zero need to stress out about my 90 year old good-person mother trying to hold onto her life.

Finally, we drive to Jess and Mike's house. At 5 pm, the traffic was bad and I hate that, but I had the sense to keep my complaints to myself--I'm thinking negative thoughts shrink from lack of air when they're not said outloud (note to remember that observation for future use).

Jess and Mike were married in September and live in a four bedroom house in a community pretty out-of-the way. What they gave up in location they got back in size. It is amazing that our Jess has a home of her own, with a yard, a spare bedroom, walk-in closet, and a livingroom that appreciates the old furniture that we gave them when we moved to Northhampton.

We don't see these guys enough, but I say that only because we miss them, not because we don't stay in close contact. I'm sure they think they see us enough. Jess and I talk or email regularly. I have no doubt we will always be present for eachother, which is a truly wonderful thing to say and know about this mother and that daughter. jb and I try to available, reliable, interesting and fun--and occasionally unusual--knowing that Jess and Mike, and someday their own family--is the most cherished relationship we will ever have.

We chat with Jess and snuggle with Sadie, a shelter rescue beagle we have grown to love. She is thrilled to see us--running and howling around us--and she patiently lets us kiss her abundantly. Jess is leaving for Tuscany on Thursday for one week of immersion in Florence and the Italian vineyards with her friend Janna. This trip strikes us as unusual for our American girl and we are glad for her.

We three meet Mike at the Sherborn Inn, where collectively we have variations of filet mignon, a cheeseburger and fries, and a nifty little vegetarian dish of squash, risotto, onions, feta, and mushrooms. We talk about Mike's work (a promotion in the world of computer consulting which has so far given him less stress and an earlier ride home) and babies (jb and I are preparing...), about jb's yuk carpal tunnel surgery, and about a few dozen other short topics that range from these average joe boxing tournaments jb and I know nothing about to the unfathomable loss of Dana Reeve.

We three then return to Jess' while Mike drives himself to a Friday night poker game. This man has some fabulous friends--jb and I like them all. We stay at Jess' just long enough to hug Sadie again, catch up on new showerheads, talk colors, and see Mike return with his buddies close behind (the poker game needed a quick new location and their little basement is now the place).

We hug, we leave, we drive 75 minutes home, we walk into this new house that is welcoming just by its simplicity. jb and I sometimes watch reruns of "Sex & the City" at this time of night, but tonight we hit the bed and fall asleep.

As I write this, I am pleased with myself that today I know how to recognize a perfect day. Really, it was an ordinary day--no grand gestures, no high drama, no huge accomplishments. Just a couple of women eating, shopping, seeing family, replacing a toaster.

Tomorrow maybe I will be as observant and appreciative-- or I will be petty and complaining. I am certainly capable of both. But I'm glad I know a good day when I see one.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Little Girl

The little girl left for school every day wearing some derivative of a red plaid dress with a black pattern leather belt that matched her shoes and her folded down bleached white cotton ankle socks.

Every day, usually just before she arrived, and sometimes during recess, she threw up.
Every day she walked back home because she had soiled her dress or socks or coat, and on really bad days, everything.

When the little girl opened the back door and and stepped into the kitchen, her mother was there waiting to hug her and tell her how brave she was.

She helped her little daughter change into a set of fresh clothes that were already laid out on the back of the kitchen chair. W within five minutes, the little girl was on her way back to school, where she was the teacher’s favorite and popular and comical among her peers.

The little girl is now a mother herself. She cannot imagine having the patience to clean vomit and prepare a second set of dress clothes every day. She loves her own daughter, but she cannot imagine this level of enduring patience. When she tells her friends about her childhood nervousness, she holds back tears when she says that her mother’s message—in word and deed—was that she was a courageous and strong little girl, never a shameful or difficult problem.

The little girl who is now an adult knows that this message resonates with her still, and maybe that is why she is able to take risks and engage in life even when she throws up.

Give Yourself a Break.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

If I Were Dying


The muse is Annie Dillard…..

If I were dying tonight,
Lying in my bed with plastic tubes and half-filled bottles
On the small table nearby
and bedpans and oxygen there to diminish any shame,
Perhaps forcing my breaths
with the strength of a desperate parent
who implausibly and frantically lifts two tons
of mangled steel off a broken daughter—
If I were dying tonight and I wished to tell you
What will astonish you,
I would tell you this:

Be sure to notice white flowers in the moonlight,
Because the softened glow is like no other.

Appreciate the lingering scent of garlic on your fingers,
Because healing is possible from that alone.

Tell the truth when it matters least
Because then you will be sure there is another honest person in the world.

Always spend the extra money for dimmers
Because light that builds in intensity and then gently fades is
good for your spirit.

Over and over, ask yourself, “What is the lesson here?”
Because then you will forever be a student and never a victim

Never believe for a moment that the world is going to hell
Because you only need to love outside yourself to know better.

If I were dying tonight, I would tell you all this
Because astonishment is brethren to curiosity,
Which leads to observation,
And dedication,
And then appreciation.

If I were dying tonight, perhaps there would only be minutes,
Perhaps only seconds,
To tell you that I will leave with all the love
I have ever felt, and ever given.
I will take it all with me, tucked under my angel wing—
The accumulation of grace from every breath I have ever taken.

Here’s what’s astonishing: I will also leave all that love behind,
It will be imbedded in my daughter’s stunning light and my partner’s quiet
It will guide my friends and coworkers when the layoff comes.
My brother will remember how I tried to do my share
And Joey will find someone else like me to help him tame his fears.
Even the woman at the grocery store that day I let her go ahead of me—will remember how we were both comforted from that simple act.

If I were dying tonight, I would also tell you
That within, under, because of, and from the little moments
Comes all the wonder and astonishment you could ever hope for.
The little moments that aren’t so little.
I would tell you to let those moments astonish you.
I would tell you this because it is all you need to know.