Several weeks ago I underwent major surgery, which left me healthier than before but also with six to eight weeks of recovery time. Here at the five-week mark, I have consumed more popsicles than imaginable, formed an unhealthy attachment to Pinterest, read nearly all of Augusten Burroughs’ books (thank you for clueing me in, Leslie Griswold!), and become officially addicted to a plethora of reality television shows (the names of which shall remain secret in order to spare myself any undue embarrassment).
One program I hadn’t seen until this afternoon was called “Ten Things That Make Me Happy,” which highlighted two celebrities’ ten favorite things. Sooo, being that I am a sucker for lists—as well as things that make me happy—I thought I would give it a whirl. As I am currently under doctor ordered house arrest, I looked right here within the confines of my home. Of course, I instantly found at least thirty – forty things that make me happy, but I trimmed the list down to ten…for today.
I am not an official Buddhist (Catholic by birth actually, “spiritual” if I had to classify myself, though I cringe that it’s become almost cliché to say so), but I have read scores of Buddhist writings throughout the years and gleaned much wisdom from their words. I have also always adored statues of Buddha. Quite simply, they make me smile and feel comfort and peace—even Buddha would be happy about that.
Dandelions on my wall
This corner of my bedroom A figurine bought on the Amalfi coast.
Giraffe painted by my mother.
My books Solace. Learning. Adventure. Calm. Joy.
Mary statues One of the only things from my Catholic upbringing that still offers me peace and comfort rather than issue and conflict.
An old rusty red teapot My mother always placed this in her flower garden back home in North Salem. Now it sits on my balcony and conjures up happy memories of bluebells, iris, and fireflies.
If you have never stopped at a Big Boy (“Home of the Original Double Decker”) on a road trip through America’s back highways, woods, and truck stops, you have quite simply missed out. My Big Boy figure (many more in storage) instantly takes me back to many a happy summer drives to Grandma’s house in the backwoods of Elk County, Pennsylvania.
An unexpected gift There is no blessing greater than an unexpected gift from someone. Large or small, such a random act of kindness instantly lifts one’s spirits and spreads love. This original painting is one of my most special possessions, a gift given to me randomly one afternoon in Asbury Park by someone just as special. It hangs on my wall and continues to make me very, very happy.
I’ve been a bit grumpy over the past few days. I guess it could be early menopause setting in or the blazing heat and humidity. Perhaps the vast wasteland of summer television programming or the annoying bumper to bumper shore traffic around here. When I give this a good, long ponder, though, I realize my crankiness comes down to none of these things. It dawns on me that I am completely out of sorts because of smoke. Cigarette smoke.
I have never been a big fan of the stuff. As a kid, each Sunday morning, I was squooshed into the back seat of our family Buick like a breakfast sausage with my younger sister, Emily, for the weekly drive to my grandfather’s house. It took longer to back out of the short driveway than it did for my parents to light up. Down the treacherous curves of Sunset Drive, up past the rushing dam in Croton Falls, then miles around each of the reservoirs, up and down the hills all the way to Peekskill, which was at least 45 minutes away, my mother and father would smoke, smoke, and smoke. And then smoke. With the windows pulled up. And then, like clockwork, I would collapse out of the car once we had arrived and politely deposit a slushy pile of whatever I had eaten for breakfast slap-dab on the sidewalk. No wonder my grandfather never seemed ebullient over the Buick’s arrival.
The minute Em and I were old enough to catch on to the hazards of smoking, we would kneel and writhe at our parents’ feet, begging them to stop the nasty habit immediately. “You’ll leave us orphans!” we would cry, beating our breasts, flailing our arms, all as they sipped their gin martinis and smoked a couple of cigarettes before dinner. When that didn’t work, we tried threatening them with an even harsher guilt. “Murderers! You will kill us with your second-hand smoke! Have you no shame?!” I’m pretty sure that one only prompted them to smoke like chimneys before shooing us off to bed.
And then one day, out of the blue, my father was no longer smoking. We never watched him suffer an arduous struggle to kick the habit. He never hired a hypnotist, for example, nor checked out library books on beating the nicotine monster. We never spotted suspicious packs of gum or arm patches. One day he smoked. One day he didn’t. That was it. (Em and I didn’t ask a lot of questions in those days.)
My mother was another story. I would sweat myself to sleep picturing her lungs turning into charred hunks of roast beef as depicted in TV commercials and magazine advertisements. Thankfully this was before today’s even more graphic commercials showing actual lung surgeries, a lone orphan crying in a crowd, or a toothless man talking through a vibrating contraption held to his throat. Years after college and into our own lives and careers, Em and I would visit my parents in their new retirement home, which smelled beautifully of new lumber and paint, fresh, plush carpeting. At long last, my mother and her cigarettes seemed to have parted ways. Not wanting to smell up her new castle, we figured. And then, Em and I would sniff a trace of cigarette smoke on her blue blazer or in her frosted hair or spot a faint line of ashes on a paint can in the garage. Aha! Like two detectives, we would agonize over where she might be hiding her packs of killer sticks. Lift the toolbox lid, poke through cobwebby boxes in the garage, peek behind rows of toiletries, piles of washcloths. Nothing was beyond our prying eyes in search of the hidden cigarettes. Alas, to no avail. My mother would remain a closeted smoker, at least for a year or two longer, doing her best to mask her charade with a variety of perfumes, air freshening sprays, and breath mints.
It’s not that I don’t get the allure of cigarette smoke. As someone raised on old movies, I can’t imagine them not including heavy-duty smoking. I mean, just think about To Have and Have Not. The absolute finest scene in that movie (and most other movies ever made) is when Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart flirt over a match and cigarettes. They even went on to marry and live happily ever after in real life. Well, until Bogey died of throat cancer, that is. What about in Rear Window, when Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly peer across the courtyard into the darkened window, where only the orange glow of the killer’s cigarette is visible. And let’s not forget Gene Tierney, Cary Grant, or Bette Davis, let alone Sean Connery as 007.
Even more recent classics have been made greater thanks to cigarette smoke. Think: In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close’s maniacal character lighting her cigarette while luring Michael Douglas into her psychotic web. The poor schnook never knew what hit him. And what about Sharon Stone lighting up during the interrogation scene of Basic Instinct. Yes, that scene.
Not to mention television. Cigarette sales have undoubtedly skyrocketed thanks to Mad Men, the series about the advertising world of Madison Avenue during the 50s and 60s that paints smoking into one glamorous portrait. And anyone like me who has obsessed over Helen Mirren as the chain-smoking alcoholic Jane Tennyson in Prime Suspect has also probably been left with a sudden overwhelming urge for not only a glass of scotch but an evening’s supply of ciggies.
In fact, I wish I were smoking right now. After all, I am writing. Shouldn’t I be smoking? (And drinking scotch, but that’s for another story.) My obsession for writers certainly helps me appreciate cigarette smoke’s allure. Look up any of the greats (Ernest Hemingway, JD Salinger, Ayn Rand, John Steinbeck, Daphne Du Maurier, Anaïs Nin, Truman Capote, you get the idea), and you will immediately spy photograph after photograph of the geniuses smoking. At a typewriter, in an armchair, on a cliff’s edge, no matter. All swarmed in swirls of smoke.
Confession: I have tried smoking cigarettes. Many times. Behind the old shed at Grandma’s house, where my mother, Em, and I would visit every summer, for example, my sister (otherwise known as my poor unfortunate sidekick) and I once rolled corn silk into toilet paper and struck it with a match—only to watch a wad of toilet paper go up in flames. During one phase of college, including a semester in England, I smoked quite regularly (if one vanilla-flavored Chelsea or clove cigarette every other weekend or so counts as regularity). And then there was a short-lived stint of smoking while I was a copy editor at a women’s magazine years ago in New York. I suppose I thought I would give off a more sophisticated air to the higher-ups, show them what a real writer looked like. My ploy halted abruptly one evening, when an after-work gathering of too many margaritas and cigarettes turned into an all-too-familiar slushy pile in my backpack on a train back home to Westchester.
No, cigarettes just aren’t for me, but it is really the smoke of these devilish things that bothers me most. A blustering summer storm the other night is what started me musing on the subject in the first place. Thunder roared and shook the walls of my apartment. Lightning crackled and lit up my bedroom, where I had just sprawled out on newly fluffed pillows with an engrossing mystery novel. Torrential gusts of rain slapped my balcony and the sidewalks below. As the storm slowed, the comforting scent of electric air and warm rain wafted through my open windows. I felt cozy and at peace, filled with gratitude for one of my favorite things about summer. I inhaled, took a deeper breath, and then…CHOKED. In streamed a long spiral of cigarette smoke from the neighbor below. What the –?! A perfectly serene moment ruined. Now instead of enjoying the scent of a summer evening, I was coughing into my pillowcase. Peace, cozy, gratitude? Puff! Poof! Gone!
Just for the record, I am the same person who sighs loudly, obnoxiously even, on the beach, should a stranger position his or her blanket near mine and proceed to smoke a cigarette. Every single time, without question, the smoke veers directly toward me, as if on a mission to obstruct my enjoyment of the sea and salty air. And just today, as I was driving excitedly toward the library, happy to be healthy on such a gorgeous summer morning, enjoying the cooler air with the windows rolled down, what happened? You guessed it. The driver in front of me decided to smoke a cigarette with her windows down too. Not only smoke it, but relish it, revel in the blasted thing. Unable to pass, I was forced to follow her as she drove about two miles an hour and exhaled the smoke, which, of course, made a beeline for my open window and nostrils. I’m not sure she noticed me yelling, “For cryin’ out loud!” out the window like a maniac, hair flying, sunglasses steaming over, but eventually she did flick the butt onto the road.
I guess I wouldn’t mind cigarette smoke if it smelled more like swirls of strawberry ice cream or autumn leaves or grape soda bubbles instead of, well, cigarette smoke. I don’t care if people want to smoke. I suppose I just wish they wouldn’t do it near me. In the meantime, this grump is going back to her bedroom to read another gripping novel long into the night—windows open wide, candles and incense standing by.
Spring peeked her head out today from behind one of the dreariest winters I can remember, reminding me of the sunnier days ahead and the simple things in each day for which I can be grateful. Here are the bits of beauty I found today:
First – there was this beautiful Bon Iver song “Holocene,” which has been haunting me for months. Magnificent….
Then I discovered unexpected flowers blooming in a potted tree on my outdoor balcony!
I’ve been reading a lot of Rumi lately and read more today….(Read some Rumi if you have not done so already, if you have ever loved someone with all your heart, if you have ever loved with guts and glory but still failed miserably, if you possess even the tiniest bit of soul, if you are living for Spring, if you pray by the ocean, if you are looking for Grace, if you could use some wisdom in your life, if you are desperate for Summer to arrive so you can dive deep down into the waves)
from “Where Everything is Music”
Stop the words now. Open the window in the center of your chest, and let the spirits fly in and out.
from “Flutes for Dancing”
We will drink all this wine tonight because it’s Spring. It is. It’s a growing sea. We’re clouds over the sea, or flecks of matter in the ocean when the ocean seems lit from within. I know I’m drunk when I start this ocean talk.
from “Dissolver of Sugar”
Pale sunlight, pale the wall. Love moves away. The light changes. I need more grace than I thought.
My sister, Emily, texted me a photo of this amazingly cool and intricate doodle she just created. Such artistry can only spring from the soul.
What bits of beauty will tomorrow bring?……
Atticus and Scout Finch. Nick Carraway. Mrs. Dalloway. Lucy Snowe. Holden Caulfield. Huck Finn. Paddington. Corduroy, Curious George. Amelia Bedelia, Nancy Drew, Lisbeth Salander. The list goes on and on. I have been collecting favorite literary characters since I was a tiny little reader, curling up on a deck chair under the big turquoise vinyl umbrella or wrapped in my favorite afghan at night, escaping into some adventure with these new friends of mine. Just when I thought my list might have reached its end, however, there she was, jumping out at me from the page, an unexpected find like a shiny new penny on a sidewalk: Olive Kitteridge, the heroine (or anti-heroine, perhaps, depending on your perspective) of Elizabeth Strout’s novel of the same name.
I loathed Olive (yes, we are on a first-name basis after traveling thirteen chapters together) at first meeting. Critical and chronically grumpy, she snapped at her husband, Henry, one too many times for my liking. Henry, on the other hand, struck me as quietly honorable, tolerating Olive’s outbursts and criticisms with a gentle patience, love and loyalty. I felt myself rooting for him, even empathizing with his becoming distracted by a young female assistant.
Upon meeting Olive for a second time, however, I felt my heart slowly soften. It’s a simple scene really. Seagulls squawking above an incoming tide. A car parked at the marina. Olive climbing in to the passenger seat speaking with the man behind the wheel. A rifle wrapped in a blanket in the back. In her clipped, no-nonsense manner, she mentions that her father shot himself. And I realize by the end of this vignette that she is more wise and soulful than I’d realized, for she has just, quite intentionally, prevented this man from doing the same.
Though my feelings for Olive fluctuated from story to story, I cannot deny that she completely captivated me. With every turn of the page, I wanted to know more about this seemingly simple yet complicated woman. One minute she is stealing a loafer and bra from her new daughter-in-law while the next she is showing profound compassion toward a local anorexic girl. At her son’s own wedding, she shows up in a tent of a dress she has sewn out of green gauzy muslin covered in a print of big red geraniums. Everyone turns their nose up at it. “I don’t give a hoot what you think!” Olive seems to scream in return. God love her for that.
From an unexpected adventure in a hospital emergency room one evening to a blouse splotched with butterscotch syrup, Olive blusters her way through life with a fierce feistiness all her own. Critical, judgmental, impatient, temperamental, she is Olive and nobody else. Completely flawed like the best of us, she also reveals incredible glimmers of love and generosity. A bundle of defenses, she also suffers shots of searing hurt. Moments of profound loss, loneliness, or painful realization, such as when she crumples in angry incredulity over the fact that her adult son does not view her as the idyllic mother she has believed herself to be—yet continues to call and reach out to him regularly. (And, kudos, by the way, to Christopher for finally finding the chutzpah to speak honestly to her.)
Bravo also to Olive, who may not drastically change by the end of the story but who certainly learns some lessons, takes up walking, eats her Dunkin’ Donuts doughnut holes each morning, and continues to speak her mind with “the passions and prejudices of a peasant” (whether to blaspheme a certain Republican cowboy, cocaine-addicted president or parents who take issue with their child being gay).
At my book club meeting the other night, our tiny, friendly circle discussed Olive for over an hour. We also discussed our own mothers, relationships (failed and successful), friendships, children, fears, old aunts, alcoholic fathers, and the question, “Would you want Olive as a friend?” Most of us winced at the idea. And yet…none of us will walk away from her easily. She dished out the most poignant, gritty, painful, human parts of life imaginable and left us reacting, thinking, feeling. We mentioned re-reading the book in another year or two. I, for one, can’t wait.
So the storm has passed, and Hurricane Irene has blown back to sea from whence she came. I drove this morning to the nearby shore, anxious to reunite with my ocean, my sands, my boards. Prohibited to enter the area while Irene twirled through town, I worried about the devastation I might see. This, after all, has become sacred ground for me—my church pew, my meditation room, my workout space.
Thankfully Irene’s damage was minimal, swirls of sand piled up on the boardwalk, some flooding in a restaurant, lost power in a couple of the shops. Not much had changed, and yet it felt different. Electric. Buzzing. More alive. Stronger than ever.
Joggers thumped past, bicyclists whirred by, others walked along like me. Bustling boardwalk staff lugged their tables and goods back outside, hosed down their awnings, shoveled off the sand drifts. Posters tattered at their edges hung on defiantly to advertise an upcoming beer festival, concert, and roller derby. There were no heart-shaped pieces of sea glass or stones on the beach today, only broken shells and flecks of seaweed strewn through the drenched sand. But the sunshine beat down, and the waves crashed gently against the rattled shore.
And then it dawned on me. Something I already knew, deeply, viscerally, but had shoved aside….
We go on. Life goes on.
We suffer, we ache, we wander and search aimlessly. We play our guts out and fall short. We discover a beautiful shell, and its sharp edge nicks our finger. We stumble on an uneven board. We aim the dart but miss the balloon. We glare at the stars and wonder if we should curl up in a corner, give it all up, disappear. We stare down a blank wall, overwhelmed by the empty space. We choke on a buffet of what-if’s and what-now’s. We love our hearts out and lose.
The storm takes a chunk of summer, and us, along with her. We feel tattered and torn, sad and lost, frayed around the edges. And then, just like the ocean waves and boardwalk, we pick ourselves up, shake the sand off, and slowly put one flip flop in front of the other. A cool breeze brushes our face and we suddenly feel comforted by the thought of pumpkins, football, roller derby, and sweaters. And we go on. Perhaps not too changed on the outside, but very different indeed. Electric, buzzing, more alive. Somehow stronger after the storm.
Forty-eight years ago today my parents married each other on a sweltering day out on Long Island. 1963. The year Coca-Cola introduced Tab, the first James Bond film, Dr. No, played in US theaters, Martin Luther King, Jr., bellowed his dreams from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and two ordinary people promised to stick it out with each other through life’s ups and downs, thick and thin. Pretty extraordinary, now that I think of it. Of course much has happened in the near fifty years since my mother and father vowed “I do.” Tab is now easier to find on cool, retro T-shirts than in grocery stores, 007 has shaken and stirred the screen through a montage of fashions and bombshells, and the march toward equal rights for everyone plods slowly on.
Today, though, I think about the things my parents have experienced in forty-eight years of marriage as the world has buzzed and hurtled through time around them: Losses, gains. Births, deaths. New houses, old houses. Lost jobs, new jobs. Snow blizzards, blackouts, train rides, bus rides. Shore vacations, business trips, postcards, souvenirs. Home improvement projects (or, well, disasters). Drive-in movies, jazz concerts, dinner parties, cocktail parties. Christmas trees, flower gardens. Briefcases, suitcases. Oh yea, and then there’s my sister and me. Not to mention the highway of things their marriage has weathered that I don’t have a clue about, the private ebbs and flows of a relationship known only to the two partners themselves.
I’m no expert, mind you. I have been blessed by deep, true love, though have walked solo through most of my years. Perhaps there’s some greater reason for that, perhaps not. I have both excelled and failed miserably in matters of love, and yet my heart beats on and open. I’d like to think I will say, “I do” one day, but perhaps it’s not in my cards. So what makes them so damn lucky, I suddenly ask myself, a bit bewildered as I ponder these two shrinking, elderly people I’ve known my whole life.
But perhaps that’s it right there. It isn’t luck at all, is it. It’s hard work, brutal, bone-wrenching, blood-sweat-and-tears work. It’s commitment to something you may want to walk away from more times than not. Sometimes it’s listening and acknowledging more than speaking. It’s saying you accept each other’s differences and actually meaning it. Often it’s laughing when you’d prefer to cry. It’s holding the other, when you’d rather be holding a beer, a remote control, a book, or just about anything else at that moment. It’s biting your tongue when you’d prefer to scream, “You’re a f***ing @#*(&!” but giving each other some slack when the harsh words do slip out. It’s giving each other the freedom to go off into private space for a while but reveling in each other when you return.
I watch them closely when I visit. My father’s face still burrowed in a newspaper or crossword puzzle. My mom quietly brushing water colors onto a canvas at the kitchen counter, yelling out, “Jim!” when their separation in different rooms becomes too much for her. My father’s classic eye-roll and pursed lips, then “What?!” I watch the world overwhelm them at times…miniscule cell phone buttons, computer error messages, customer service representatives answering their panicked calls from India or God-knows-where-else.
As their visitor, I no longer need to witness the rip-roaring fights of yesteryear; perhaps those have faded like the paint on their walls. They bicker and pick, interrupt and pout. But they also sneak each other little love pats in the kitchen as my mother continues to spread whatever he wants on a sandwich after all these years. My father chews slowly, swallows carefully now, nodding occasionally as my mother chatters nonstop through lunch. My mother pores holes into her magazine as my father repeats the same story over and over again until most people listening would scream. They still take their annual September vacation to the Jersey Shore, though they could go any day of the week all year-long. And at the end of each day, my father takes his bicycle cruiser for a spin around their gated community while my mother mixes their watered-down martinis. They meet up on their cozy matching sofas to talk about the whomever’s and what-not’s of the day—never before toasting each other as they have from the start: “Je t’aime.” Simply love, though nothing simple about it.