Random thoughts from an animal-loving French prof / mom of three on things she finds beautiful, funny, sad, or strange.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Christmas Music Blues

I fling the hymnal angrily to the floor, thankful to be the only one home. At least I won't have to hide my tears. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Humph. I have rather another word in mind for "Hark," also ending in "k" but nowhere near so lofty. I'm crossing into blasphemy. I don't care.

This is not an episode of Wesley-induced rage, although I suspect that I am far from the first or only church musician to be frustrated by the musical stylings of our dear Charles.

Nor is it my usual irritation with the unholy greed that marks what is supposedly the Christmas season in the West.

It isn't even the mental and emotional gymnastics required to shepherd a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder through the holidays. Yeah, it's a little awkward and a whole lot messy, and yeah, I sometimes forget my lines, but I mostly know those scripts by heart.

It's another holiday memory slideshow, four bleak snapshots looping relentlessly in my mind:

  • Implacable questions in a dismal gray office where I hoped for help and instead found pain.
  • Me, huddled on the kitchen floor after the fight that would mark the beginning of the end.
  • A knife raised menacingly in a child's diminutive hand.
  • My father lost in a maze of tubes and wires.

"Maybe" I think, "I can replace this show with music." I bend to retrieve the hymnal, look for Sunday's second hymn. "Rejoice Ye Pure In Heart." You have got to be kidding me. In the face of my psyche's chosen holiday feature film, I'm supposed to rejoice?!?! Then again, I'm not so sure I belong with the "pure in heart." Perhaps that lets me off the hook.

I start again to play. It goes badly. I break the music down, transform it into a mechanical exercise. It goes okay.

"Take Time to be Holy" is a passable success. I decide not to overthink the implications of this for my current mood and turn instead to "Joy to the World." I can play the heck out of this one. I proceed to do just that. Until... 
Well then. Apparently, the sorrows are supposed to stop growing. I'm not convinced. And something else in this verse nags at me too: the blessings. Apparently they are still flowing. I sit on my hands and think. As dark as things have been, there have been moments of light. Not the light at the end of the tunnel. Not the candle on the cold, dark, winter's night. More like a sense of light, dimly perceived through a scrim or screen. Kind of a lot like this image, repurposed from Ann Patchett's "My Year of No Shopping": "a thick coat of Vaseline smeared on glass: We can see some shapes out there, light and dark..."

That's what it's like in my head these days. I've already listed dark shapes, the ones my mind insists it most clearly sees. I failed to mention, though, that a) my mind likes to trick my brain, and b) each dark shape has its opposite in light. It's hard to see through the Vaseline. But if I take a tissue and wipe it away, I remember and I see. I see that I left that office and found some help. The fights are over, their instigator gone. The knife is safely in its block. My father is free of tubes and wires. 

The shape of hope can be difficult to discern. That doesn't mean it isn't there.

Anyone got a tissue?

Monday, October 23, 2017


Nellie her first year home
It all started with an ad in the paper.

Well, not really. It all started when we brought the girls home. They hadn't been here long before we realized every kid really should get to grow up with a dog. I was a vaguely known entity in the local animal rescue community, had helped re-home a few before, so I imagined one would come our way. And one probably would've, but then I saw this ad:

Female black lab mix free to good home. Has shots. Spayed.

Ads like this bother me. First of all, I don't like to think of any creature being rejected. Secondly, "free" animals around here are all too often sacrificed to fights. Combine all that with an early childhood spent with labs, and you can guess what happened next. I made the call, and we haven't looked back since.

Until now.

Nellie is...was...to my kids what my dog, Misty, was to me. Misty was not a lab, but rather an Australian Shepherd we got when I was young, sometime after Barnaby, who was a lab, was lost to complications of Parvo. Despite her fear of cows (admittedly not a great feature in a herding dog on a beef farm!) and one entirely too-close call with a passing car, Misty lived a long, full life. She was smart, funny, and occasionally brave – at least when it came to defending her red pick-up truck! Most of all, she was my constant companion, a girl's best friend. More than one chapter of my life closed when, during my senior year of college, she finally crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

My kids had that with Nellie. My son, a high school freshman, has never known family life without her. My oldest is a junior in college, their sister a senior in high school. Like me and Misty, they've literally grown up together.

Nellie going gray
The only thing is, Nellie being a dog and all, she didn't just grow up – in fact, one could argue that is the one thing that didn't happen in her fourteen years! She grew old. The seizures she'd always suffered lessened, but she lost a third of her teeth. Her heart, the physical one, began to fail, even as the other, the heart of love, continued to beat strong. On the last day, the one we'd feared for months yet never could imagine, she got up, had a snack, and stretched out for a nap. It was a morning like any other, except this time, she didn't wake.

I've said before that it is hard enough to lose a pet, that it's a thousand times worse to see your kids losing one too. I imagine most of my readers know such pain entirely too well. So rather than dwell on it, I thought I'd share a few snapshots that reveal Nellie as she is was, show why we loved love her so:

  • Whining from inside her crate at our lion-maned cat as, dangling from the top, he taunted her.
  • Stealing a bologna sandwich and swallowing it whole.
  • Standing at the back door barking, usually around midnight, her hair –and mine!– standing on end.
  • Basking in the admiration of friends, strangers, and passers-by: "Look! There's a dog at Niagara Falls, and it's smiling!"
  • Taking off hell-bent into the woods, hot on Cooper's and later Roxie's tail, even if we suspect she rarely knew what she was chasing.
    Nellie and Roxie
  • Sheepishly belly-crawling back into our yard after sneaking off for a bite or two of new-lain horse apple or stinking fresh green cow pie.
  • Getting skunked, and good, right smack in the face.
  • Looking at me mournfully through yet another round of wormer – she never could quit those pasture snacks!
  • Curling by my feet as I slept fitfully on the couch, keeping vigil through another night of illness, usually hers, sometimes the kids' or mine.
  • Leaning on my knee, gazing up goofily with her snaggle tooth and her bugged-out eyes.
  • Snoring. Clicking toenails. Clandestine crunching of cat food. It's way too quiet now.

I know this post needs some kind of end, but I've had about enough of things coming to an end here in black cat land, so let's just say to be continued. We'll catch the rest when we meet again, somewhere across the Rainbow Bridge.

Friday, October 13, 2017

My Uncle Doug

"It makes me so happy that you call him that," my grandmother said.

"What?" I asked, confused. I don't remember what I'd said, only that I truly was perplexed. It was just another ordinary conversation, and I had mentioned my uncle Doug.

"That you refer to him as your uncle."

"Well, he is, isn't he?!" I replied, now more irritated than confused.

I don't know what we said or did next. I only remember how I felt. But now that two or three decades have passed, I have some idea of what she meant. After all, I can't count the times I've heard some version of "oh... you're the mom." Blood relations are a given. Other ones are not.

Except in my family, they were. My grandparents were all about fostering and adoption, long before it was in the news, long before it was "a thing." Doug, he was one of the foster kids. For the longest time, I didn't know, or didn't know I knew. To me, he was a beloved uncle, someone to make me laugh and give me sweets. Sure, I knew his last name was Mason, that he wasn't blessed with the Dennis neck –or lack thereof– but it never occurred to me that for some people, that might matter. Not, that is, until I adopted three kids of my own. Our family's "normal" is still, for far too many people, strange.

This sense of family has been much on my mind lately, partly because I'm trying to write a book about my son, partly thanks to my work with the ATN blog, where every week I get to share other families' stories. This week, though, it's almost entirely because, well, Uncle Doug died, and with him, a piece of my family's collective heart. I know he's better off now, enjoying a long-deserved rest after a life filled with his infectious smile, but also hard work and many sorrows. I can see him rough-housing with his dog, Jake, laughing with his wife, my aunt Joan, and their daughter, Donna, two beautiful souls he lost far too soon. Plus there's my grandparents. How good it must be for all of them to be together. I miss my kids after only a day. They'd been apart for years.

Still, it hurts, the pain made worse by the fact that I can't get to the funeral, won't be able to say a proper goodbye. Maybe this will work instead:

Thank you, Uncle Doug, for loving me and my kids, not like we were your own, but because we were. Goodbye for now. Someday we'll meet again.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Facing the mess as me

We all have so much we mean to do.

I, for example, mean to put up a new post on the ATN blog every Tuesday night. Last spring, I started to hit my rhythm, and last summer, I was really getting it done. I felt productive and accomplished. Things were good.

Then the school year started.

Day 1 was good.
Day 2 was good.
Days 3, 4, and an unspecified number after that, not so much.

My oldest found out apartment living isn't the cakewalk to independence she thought it would be.

My middle suffered a compound dislocation in "the small finger" of her dominant hand. In case you didn't know (I didn't), compound dislocation, sans fracture, is a thing.

My youngest struggled mightily with the transition to high school, and in one of his verbal assaults, said all he could to hurt me. It worked.

I'm seeing those closest to me suffer from cancer, injury, heartache. I used to live in Houston. I have friends in Puerto Rico. And can we talk for a minute about India, the place where 75% of my household was born? In the midst of all the horror here, this was largely missed:

Bringing things back – literally – to the home front, this marks the first time since August that we've had three homemade meals in a week. Yes, we are lucky to be eating at all. And yes, plenty of families eat but never cook. It might seem like no big thing, but for us, not cooking and eating at home is a big, fat, hairy deal. (Garfield anyone?)

So here we are, Wednesday night. Still no ATN blog. Yes, the bloggers do the writing, but the managing, the editing, the layout? That takes time. Time I feel like I don't have. I'm behind on another deadline, this one fixed, and I have three more looming just after that. Combine all that with work stress, and just a few hours ago, I only wanted to go fetal and cry. That or run away to the beach.

Going fetal and crying, though, that's not much like me. There's nothing wrong with them, mind you. They're just not me. Escaping to the beach is me, but there's these pesky little obstacles in the way–I think they're called mountains. If I was going to find me, I was going to have to look here at home. So I sent a few rather sassy texts to my closest friends. That helped. I rustled up ingredients and cooked tonight's meal. That helped a little more. As we ate, we chatted and watched our kitten play. That definitely helped. By the time we opened the M&Ms, I felt like someone I could recognize as me. So much so that I opened my laptop to write.

Are the deadlines still there? Yep. The struggles of a working, single mom of 3? Likewise. All the disease and disaster, pain and death? Check, check, check, and check. None of that is likely to go away any time soon. And yet. For the way I've spent this evening, my regrets are exactly none. The bad stuff is going to come. At least this way, I can face it all as me.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

My Home in the World

In her stunning memoir, In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri describes what was for her the painful duality of growing up between lands (India and the United States), languages (Bengali and English), and loves (family and writing). As her reflections unfold, she shows us that a third way, a way out of that pain, is possible. For her, that path is Italian, a language that opens up heretofore unknown, untried parts of her mind, body, and soul. Through Italian, she charts a way forward, one in which duality could become a good, desirable thing: "It's not possible to become another writer, but it might be possible to become two."

I cannot say enough how much I loved this book. I love it like I love Jane Austen, like I love that first morning cup of coffee, like I love those rare shining moments when my pen translates my thoughts on the very first try. Her writing is finely wrought, worthy of a life richly lived. It also helped give new shape to my response when, for approximately the 1000th time, someone asked me a version of the tired question, "how did you end up here?"

On the one hand, I can kind of see their point. I'm a Yankee born and bred; unlike many Americans, I am multilingual by choice, and I've lived in nearly a dozen different places from small-town America to Houston to Versailles (yes, yes, that Versailles). Given that, I guess I can kind of see why some might wonder that I am so happy to call this corner of Appalachia home.

On the other hand, I don't get it at all. Yes, I've called 3 countries, 5 states, 11 cities "home." I've left...and, more importantly, found...a piece of my soul in every single place. Why, then, should I only lay claim to one? There is a version of my best self basking on the terrasse of a Mediterranean café, another so ensconced in a book that I found myself unexpectedly snowed in (true story!). I can suit up and speak at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, or I can throw on jeans, boots, and flannel to share my musings with a herd of Hereford cows.

I am all these selves and more. They come from a lot of different places and taken together, sometimes those selves and places don't make a lot of sense. Do yours? I didn't think so. And yet. They're yours, right? Your places helped create you, just as Lahiri's form part of her and mine are shaping me. They morph and meld, grow and change, yet ultimately, remain ours. Ours to carry wherever we go. Ours to keep within our hearts, the true home where all our best selves live.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Fireflies and stars

Sometimes it's hard to tell stars and fireflies apart, especially if your vision's clouded. Yes, I know that fireflies usually glow green and dart about and that their light appears to be a whole lot closer, namely because it is. But if you take your glasses off to have a good old-fashioned cry, as I did a couple weeks ago, well, it's pretty easy to confuse them. Not that this confusion is necessarily a bad thing – after all, what I saw through tear-rimmed lashes was a glorious blur of twinkling lights.

And Lord knows I needed both glory and light that late spring night. I'd been butting heads with one of my kids, watching something eat away at her before my eyes, and it didn't seem like there was anything I could do. If anything, in fact, I kept making things worse, which is about as bad a feeling as a mama can ever have. So yeah, I needed light that night, and plenty of it. I sat on my front porch praying for guidance, praying for help and a sense of hope. I got my answer in the form of fireflies and stars.

As I sat there watching, my tears slowly dried. Then I got to thinking about what stars and fireflies really are. Fireflies are awesome and all, but, truth be told, they're bugs. Black, wiggly, six-legged, flying bugs. As for stars, well, they're balls of heat and gas and nuclear reactions. Look too closely at either and you risk losing the sense of beauty and wonder they instill (unless, perhaps, you happen to be some sort of entomologist or astronomer, which I'm not).

I think it might be kind of the same with our relationships, family and all the rest. If we look too closely, we might lose the forest for the trees. Yes, we should keep on looking, and yes, we need to give those we love the full extent of our attention and care. Just don't get hung up on the details. Focus too much on atoms and antennae, and you'll miss out on the glow. Stay watchful, but as you do, don't forget to cherish the miracle of this other life which for some incredible reason, you are blessed enough to share.

Step back.

Look again.

Firefly or a star?

Does it matter?

Hold it loosely.

Let it shine.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Great-Aunt Jean and Grandma Ruth

my great-aunt Jean
My great-aunt Jean died this week. It's a loss for all of us, including my mom. She had a special connection with Jean, and not just because Jean brightened and warmed the world for everyone she met. And it's not that my mom didn't have a great mom of her own –she did–, but Jean gave her something too, something no one else could, or did. This post is in honor of all the Jeans, the women who, perhaps unbeknownst to them, helped our moms raise the rest of us up into the men and women we are today.

For me, one of those women is my father's mom, Grandma Ruth. For a long time, she was "just" Grandma to me, but as our family got more complicated, the addition of her first name made it easier to keep everyone straight. I often worry that Grandma died without knowing the influence she had on my life, partly because I hadn't yet lived enough of that life to understand it myself. I didn't realize that all the things that make me, well, me, they have to come from someone, and one of those someones is her. She's been on my mind a lot lately, and Mother's Day seems a good time to give credit where credit is due.
Me with the women who made me: Grandma Ruth, Mom, and Grandma Florence
(more about Grandma Florence in a future post...) 
Here are three of Grandma Ruth's gifts to me:

1) She showed me I can be my own person. Be a Democrat in a red Republican sea. Cheer on the Red Sox when just about everyone else is wearing Yankee blue. Camp in an Argosy when other travelers are towing an Airstream. If you're more a writer than a farmer's wife, so be it. She actually got to live the dream of seeing her name in print.

2) Music, reading, writing, art. She loved all these things, and judging by a girlhood diary, she loved them her whole life through. We even loved and loathed some of the same things. We found ourselves baffled by modern art, transported by soaring arias. Little Women is the book that defined our lives. We cried when Beth died, admired Marmie's and Meg's steadfast motherly devotion, frowned at Amy's frivolity, and most all, wanted not-so-secretly to be Jo. I, like Jo, like my grandmother, have filled diary after diary and now, however tentatively, I too am trying to make my way in the writerly world.

Grandma Ruth with three of her boys, my uncle Doug, my uncle Steve, and my dad
3) I never thought that families had to look or be any one particular way. Her father left their family in a time when such things weren't really done. I imagine that led to a different, harder life than the one she once dreamed of and deserved. Yet she grew her family all the same, through birth, foster care, and adoption. She wanted to be Jo March so much that she literally filled her house with boys. I parted ways with her there, certain I had at least one daughter out there in the world (turns out I have two!), but I kept the idea that families can be born not just of blood, but also shared experiences, lives built in community, and above all, love. I may not have grasped it at the time, but my desire to expand my own family through adoption surely had its roots in her example.

Grandma Ruth with my girls
I could talk about so many other things I shared with Grandma Ruth. Shared loathings: migraines, fear of heights, how computer solitaire won't let you cheat. Shared loves: key lime pie, coffee, black labs and white-faced cows. And yet, we used to butt heads so bad. Sooooo bad. I was young and foolish and so let myself be impatient, selfish, even unkind, sure she could never understand the person I was and wanted to become. It's hard to admit that, much less put it into words, yet here I am, following her lead to do just that. I don't know if they read blogs in heaven, but if they do, Grandma Ruth, this one's for you.
PS Much to my children's chagrin, I am constantly going on about how people are so busy photographing their lives that they forget to live. But apparently I got so busy living that I forgot to snap one photograph: a picture of Grandma with my son. So when you finish reading, please grab your camera or your phone and get that picture you always meant to take. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Where are you from?

It's been a while since I've posted, and in a sense, you still have to wait, for the words of this post are not my own. Then again, can we really say that words belong to anyone? It seems to me they somehow belong at once to no one and to everyone. Anyway. I say these words aren't mine because this short but evocative piece comes from another writer, Isabelle Flükiger of Switzerland. I loved it so much that I've been wanting to share it, but many of my readers and social media followers don't speak French. So... I translated it. If you want to read it in the original French, however, please do by following the link below the photo. The original is always better!

The Place You're From

The place you're from is like your family. You didn't choose it. You might sometimes be ashamed of it, but it's like your mother: only you can criticize. It's where you learned your first lessons, when to speak and when to remain silent, when to laugh and what to do. It shaped your customs: Coca cola and apple pie, states' rights and the Electoral College.* You might not always agree, but it's ingrained in you. You carry this baggage with you in the world. It's your point of reference, how you make sense of things. The country you're from is like your family: you start out being part of it; it ends up being part of you.

*Here the French text makes reference to very specifically Swiss foods and institutions. It was fun thinking of equivalents in American English! Also, I know "pays" literally means "country," but it just didn't feel right to me here...

Monday, February 20, 2017

Please don't yell at me

I mean it.

Don't yell at me.

Don't tell me I don't care enough.

Don't tell me I care too much.

Don't tell me that I don't know or don't understand. It's true that I don't always understand, but at least I'm trying to know.

I know that children are the victims of policies they didn't create and cannot begin to understand. I know because my own daughters, already cleared for immigration, were held at the the border (briefly, thank God) when they were 6 and 3. Six. And. Three.

I also know that other people are scared. There were more Islamist extremist attacks in France in the 1990s than there are today. I know all too well that feeling of hypervigilance, that jumping at every unexpected sight and sound. I was there.

I know that we blow apart mountains and poison streams and leave miners to cope with incurable disease, all in the name of prosperity. After all, I live in Appalachia.

I also know how it looks when those in power leave a place to die, take away the only high-paying jobs, put nothing in their place. Remember, I live in Appalachia.

I'm trying to get it, truly I am. It's just that yelling at me doesn't help. It's not driving me further to the left or further to the right. It's not even driving me to the center. It's driving me out of the conversation altogether, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone.

"Fine," the angry ones might say, "Go."

"Fine," I want to say back, "I will."

There's just one problem: if there is no place for us here, then where?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Black cat has a double life

A new post for this blog is in the works. However, as some of you may remember, I've accepted a second blogging gig as well. So if you're wondering what's going on, visit me at ATN:  http://blog.attachmenttraumanetwork.org/unanswerable-questions/ where you can read all about what happened when I read Saroo Brierly's A Long Way Home. Never heard of it? It's the basis for the new film, Lion, which I'm going to see today.

Meanwhile, happy reading. The black cat will before you know it. Promise.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The other woman at the table

The first time they sat down together was not a happy one. Yes, they were seated at the sturdy old table that had made its way from her grandparents' kitchen to her own, the table that knew generations of joy and love. Of course it had seen its fair share of tears and hurts as well, and on that chilly afternoon, it had to absorb a whole lot more. This was not, I repeat, a happy occasion.

Maybe if she'd been less frightened, she would have been able to see the other woman clearly. But she was frightened, the kind of fear that feels like certain soul death. In that state, how was she supposed to see anything other than another one of them, the ones who seemed bent on destroying families? Talk about intolerable pain. Talk about an enemy.

Nearly a decade later, the two women sat down again, this time at the other woman's table. It was a frigid day, colder even than the first, but this time warmed, both by plates of hot lasagna and the spark of recognition that ignites when two people truly meet. Their words traveled from their childhoods to France, then on into the mountains, raising children and building houses along the way. Both could pass on Coke, but coffee? They'd rather die than live without it, just as long as it's black. They're both daddy's girls who find themselves alternately amused, chagrined, and flattered that they now sound exactly like their moms. Their grandmothers were the best bakers in the world, and both women have spent hours days trying to recreate those treats. Each has been forced to lead when she'd rather be hiding backstage, and life has dealt them both hands that sometimes, honestly, they'd rather not have to play. Yet here they are, playing those hands anyway, because, well, that's just what they do.

What changed, you ask? Simply this: one moved beyond her fear and learned to play with, not against, the other.