It’s quieter here. Not as many fences to hold up my days. I get up early, yet still can’t seem to get it all done. My morning walks have been exchanged for “grading” and providing students with extensive feedback that they probably aren’t paying attention to. Still, I can’t help it. I want to use this precious time before they move on to high school to help them become better writers. Crazy, I know, but I still think I am in control.
Our Webex class has about 10 regulars. They’re the kids who are doing well, but just want to check-in. Last week, we gave each other tours of our respective environments. On my way to showing them my backyard garden, I think I accidentally filmed my wine collection which I have, up until that uncensored moment, been so careful to keep off-camera.
Cracks are beginning to show.
My gray hair’s been masked by box dye. I used kitchen scissors, snip, snip, to cut a pinking sheers bob. My daughter says I look like Willie Wonka. And she’s right. Ordering groceries online has become troublingly routine. Students virtually drop by my oasis, my refuge, the place that bolsters my spirit. My home is now an open movie set.
As I’ve been trying to re-establish my footing back home at Angel Cove Cottage By the Sea, I find myself nesting. Armed with $100 gift card and $25 in-store credit, I secure my mask and head out the door in time to take advantage of senior hours. Surrounded by a smattering of older gardening enthusiasts like myself, I feel exhilarated embraced by a kaleidoscope of colors and a bounty of vegetational goodies at my local Armstrong.https://www.armstronggarden.com It’s like an all-you-can eat, mimosa-flowing Easter brunch buffet: I just can’t can’t get enough https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6FBfAQ-NDE and buy yellows and whites and pinks and purples and tomatoes and tomatoes and a whole mess of different kinds of tomatoes. And other vegetables like chili peppers and flat leaf parsley and dill and chocolate mint. I could have easily spent hundreds of dollars, that’s how lusty and greedy the greens made me feel. But that’s it about gardening: There’s always more designing and re-purposing and taking out and putting in. Every patch is a little story.
Gardening gives me time to contemplate and feel good about life. After a hour or two of weeding and re-planting, you know–you can literally see–that you have made a tiny patch of Planet Earth better. Neighbors feel good when they walk by…who knows what creative, inspired doors your gardening activity has unlocked for passersby? Maybe they have a sudden urge to be a better ukulele player or start composting kitchen scrapes!
If we all do something to make our world a little better–it could be as simple as saying “Hi” to the little kid who points at the swallowtail suckling on a patch of milkweed or doing something you’ve never done so before, like sharing e a glass of lovely wine my.boissetcollection.com/janet.barker over the backyard fence with a neighbor. In doing something, as opposed to complaining or worrying, you are bringing light to a person who may have been having a crappy day and now isn’t–because of your ACTION! See, I believe it doesn’t take much to proclaim to the world that we care about each other, that we can do better, that when it comes down to it, we all want the same thing: To be loved and valued for who we are irregardless of economic status, geography, race, religion, gender, age, weight, talents or political persuasion. We all feel stress; we’re all scared about the present and the future. But we also know that better days are ahead and each of us has something positive to contribute to the future.
I seem to always end my blogs in the same place: Hope and compassion. That’s how I was raised. By working class parents who survived World War II and came to America from England to give their children–my brother, sister and myself–a better life. They worked hard and shared what little they had with friends and extended family. They never asked for a lot. They were patient, frugal, and saved for a rainy day. And they never said, “No.” They knew their children would likewise pay it forward: It’s an expectation woven into our soul.
I know there are the greedy and the self-centered. But there are more of us: the generous and the kind. It may not always seem like it, especially if you watch “the news”, but if you get out into the garden or your balcony or houseplant terrarium zone, you will start to feel better and become a source of delight for others. Work the soil. Pinch off the dead leaves. Start over. In the garden, there’s no time for nonsense.
First, it’s my birthday. I’ve been on Planet Earth 64 years. I’m in the age bracket that some people think is OK if I die from Covid19. “You’ve lived your life,” they say, “let us live ours.” Yes, it is true I’ve lived more than six chapters. But the deal is, I love my life. I love my grown children and grandchildren. I love working in my garden. I love teaching, writing and creating, music, art, people and traveling. My gawd, this sounds like a Match.com classified ad. The point is, I feel pretty vital. I feel pretty excited. I feel like I have much yet to learn and discover. I mean look at me, I’m blogging! I’m creating a podcast without help from the tech-savvy.
I understand that if you are in your teens or twenties or even your forties, a person who is 64 may seem like a hunched back, decrepit, ready-for-the-grave very old person. But let me tell you about us old people: We want to live as much as you do. The man who looks exactly like Mr. Burns who refuses–out of sheer defiance–not to give me eye contact on my daily walk along the bike path, this man who is battling who-knows-what and can barely walk, he also wants to live or he wouldn’t be out there making his body move. He has something to say. He has something to offer. He has wisdom. He has humor. Just like my friend who is doing her damndest to deal with a dreadful, unwanted heart condition; she has so many adventures yet to experience with her husband and family. What kind of society discounts vital people who may not appear outwardly vital?
It hurts me and other AARP “Modern Maturity” subscribers to think that after all we’ve done and continue to do, that we are expendable in the minds of some members of American society. It feels really crappy, like you want to smash their car windows, yank them them out of their diesel pickups and beat some sense into them. “You little ungrateful monster! I paid for your college!” WHACK! “Your wedding!” WHACK! “Food, shelter and clothing for 24 years!” WHACK! WHACK! How’s that for Rambo Granny, the Movie?
That just took a violent turn.
The point is, it’s my birthday and the birthday of many other people entering a vulnerable era, a time when people are relaxing shelter-in-place rules and decorum. We are happy to be alive. We want to hug. We want to celebrate. We want the protesters and complainers to know that, just like them, we all lust for normalcy. But very smart people who care about the economy and want us to be great for all Americans say we need to go slow. We need to be cautious. We need to listen to science.
I am as suspicious of Big Brother Government as much as anyone. But this is different. The medical experts, the governors who have the impossible job of doing the right thing on behalf of all citizens, have nothing to gain from being overly cautious. Being patient isn’t politically popular. I know I have a newfound respect for the politicians, both Democrat and Republican, who do the right thing when it isn’t popular. That is real leadership.
Back to my birthday. This year I am wiser and more grateful than ever. I have so much to look forward to: retirement, my grandkiddos, travel and all the cliches that this chapter of life has to offer—if I am healthy. God willing, I plan on making this next chapter the best in my life. Because life is a gift that I cherish, even if others don’t.
Yesterday, I had an omen.
Tangled on my kitchen table since January was a favorite necklace I bought right before my birthday last year. It’s a tilted sliver heart threaded on a waxy black string. For the life of me, I couldn’t get it untangled. Today, I looked at it again, sparkling in the morning sun, and decided to give it another shot. And you know what happened? I unraveled the mess. I had a weird feeling that I would, but it took the bright, morning light to illuminate the twists and turns.
I know it goes against all predictions and everything that’s happened so far in 2020, but I have a good feeling about turning 64. Something inside has been unleashed. I think it’s called hope.
This is me on Jet Blue flying over the Grand Canyon. It doesn’t look like it did three years ago on our Spring Break camping trip. It’s magnificent in a different, far-off way. To really appreciate the Canyon’s vast glory, you have to had actually been there, standing along the treacherous edge, breathing the warm blanket air. That’s it, isn’t it? Being there.
Well I’m not. In New York. Any more. I’m here. Southern California. Sitting at my kitchen table, windows open, admiring the translucent blue sky and that non-producing plum tree that I intended to chop down two months ago, that is now laced with miniature Christmas bulb plums etched in the promise of summer.
So much needs my attention: The weeds. The cobwebs. The grand boys’ dusty play kitchen. Piles of dog hair framing every room. The junk I thought would disappear–old bills, piles of fallen leaves, the Tower of Babel garage. The roommate, who fell into a deep and dark depression while I was gone. My pups, who survived, albeit in desperate need of baths and walks to the beach. Which I did this morning. Check.
We walked along the blue ocean that was hushed in the rising sun. A few masked and mask-less runners. A grandpa shuffling with a cane. Doggies and their parents. The absence of that homeless man who sleeps at the side of the Elks Club. Veteran Park’s glorious green, untouched, trash-less carpet grass. The ghost town playground and more surfers than I’ve ever seen along the breakwall less than a mile from where I live.
I wondered if the people I passed were aware that they lived in such beauty? Were they thrilled to stretch their legs, feel the salty breeze and sink their toes in the CLEAN sand and warmish sea? I expected to hear emerging giggles, like my granddaughter’s, and applause, like New Yorkers do for health care workers every evening at 7 p.m. Yeh for Nature! Yeh for us!
I picked up a barnacled muscle shell which, in ordinary times, is ordinary. But to me, the blueish shell reminded me of my own version of a divining rod, that fork stick determiner of Source, which consists of burrowing into familiar sounds, smells and that Tribe I mentioned a couple of blog posts ago.
It is clear from my absence, I was missed. And now, I need to do what I must do: Get the place in order. Help a pour soul outsource his debilitating depression. Open the curtains. Scrub away the bath ring. And be open to the Great Next. A new chapter: The Shift.
Disclaimer: I’m sorry, but I won’t be posting baby photos for a while. It’s just like viewing the Grand Canyon from afar; with no caked-on baby vomit on the shoulder and appreciator of Gma’s off-key Disney musical to muse about, it’s just not the same. It’s missing the narrative.
But I am figuring things out that I will continue to share with you, with your indulgence.
When I descended the staircase to the beach this morning, I thought about the history our shoreline has endured: Fear of possible Japanese attacks during World War II. The old hotel and bathhouse bulldozed due to neglect and disinterest. Food lines that wrapped around distribution centers during the height of the Great Depression. The tall ships that lined the Pier and carried redwood lumber, the bones of Craftsmen bungalows like mine. A little girl in braids and a seersucker bathing suit charging into the waves and into her daddy’s arms while her bundled up, L&M-smoking mom waved adoringly at her chubby, rubber-capped daughter. It is here, at this beach in this exact spot, where love was born. The ghosts are keenly present this new morn of California beach openings. All the worry. All the fretting. Gone. The waves still break and the sun still rises and falls every day.
We are going through all this turmoil for a reason. Maybe it’s so we can all get closer, be real, let go of the crap, and exchange the non-essential for the essential. Hold tight to the core.
Somehow, I don’t know about you, but I got off track. I need to get back to daily prayer and meditation. Stretching. Breathing. Dancing and singing Broadway tunes for no reason other than–it’s fun. I have to stop eating unhealthy stuff and read more. And create art.
Anne Morrow Lindberg’s “Gift From the Sea”, a book that’s inspired me at key points throughout my life, is a beautiful reminder of the importance of stepping off the beaten path to re-discover one’s self. She writes, “When we start at the center of ourselves, we discover something worthwhile extending toward the periphery of the circle. We find again some of the joy in the now, some of the peace in the here, some of the love in me and thee which go to make up the kingdom of heaven on earth. The waves echo behind me…this is only the beginning.”
I am in an adjustment phase. Not good. Not bad. I miss…but not going there. It’s time to light the fire pit, schedule a social distancing wine tasting and celebrate What IZ.
Two months ago tomorrow, I jumped on the red eye from LAX and arrived in the early hours hoping and praying I made it in time to witness the birth of my granddaughter. Fortunately, I arrived in plenty of time–a week before my daughter gave birth to Millie–but wasn’t allowed in the delivery room due to severe restrictions caused by Covid19. My son-in-law gave me the birthing blow by blow details and, as sad as I was that I couldn’t be there to meet Millie in person, I was gratified that all went according to plan and my daughter delivered a healthy 9 pound 4 oz, 22 inches long baby girl.
And here I sit in the dark, in bed, my real red eyes filled with tears knowing that at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning I will leave this world, this chapter, this little person and her parents and I can never, ever replace this magical time.
Magical because I watched the birth of parents, the first smile of a little person, fretting over constipation and colicky throw-ups, lack of sleep, never-ending laundry, shortage of food, toilet paper, sanitizing wipes, adjustment to new schedules, teaching remotely, swapping Millie, swaddling in the dark, singing Disney lullabies and gazing into those eyes that melt away all the sad, all the bad.
It’s time to go home and do the things I need to do. But the world isn’t the same. I’m not the same. I know my way around Katie’s NYC neighborhood now. I walk like a New Yorker with my head down, like I mean business. I’ve learned to adapt to the hot apartment and snow in May. Turns out I don’t need to exclusively eat organic and that off-brand frozen vegetables are actually pretty good. Turns out, after a lot of hemming and hawing, I can focus on what’s important. And let me tell you, it’s not my job. It’s not the guy who’s president. It has nothing to do with anything on TV. My priority? It’s my tribe. It’s my people. It’s those of us with a heartbeat, the ones who care so much about others that they push aside their needs for the sake of others. To be of service.
I remember my mom saying I’d be lucky to have “as many friends as you have fingers on your hand.” I used to get so mad at her for saying that because I thought it was about volume. “I have so many friends, Mom,” I’d say to her, thinking she doesn’t understand. But she was right. Deep, pure relationships are rare. Like the one I have with my youngest daughter. Like the sweet, joyful relationship I have with my grandsons and now, granddaughter. To be loved for just who you are. To hold no grudges. To forgive. Forget. To want nothing but love inspires more love.
I know you get this. You don’t want to leave, but you have to. You don’t want them to ever die, but they have to. You are grateful for your time with them. But it’s never enough. Not 90 years. Not two months. My God, you know how much you’ve been blessed, but you don’t want it to end. You don’t want her to grow up too fast. You want sew a coat with her smell laced in the fabric. You want to feel her heartbeat next to yours and know that, really, you are the only person on the Planet who can stop her crying because, because, you are her grandma. And she knows that. And you know that.
Millie won’t remember these months, being shut in as her adults sleuthed for toilet paper, read the latest death toil and Googled, “When is it safe to travel?” But I will . I will remember that these were the days I fell in love with a little girl who didn’t care how old or fat or poor or Democratic or Republican I was, but how my gushy arms comforted her when her tummy hurt. I will remember that when the world felt like it was going to hell, in a tiny apartment near a roaring train, it rained and snowed and it was Spring.
I was supposed to be gone, but I stayed. JetBlue, like other airlines flying out of JFK, cut flights to once a day. That’s about 40 flights in total leaving New York City. JetBlue contacted me with the bad news that my original flight was changed, so I made some date adjustments and will remain in NYC through Mother’s Day weekend. How wonderful that I can be with my daughter to celebrate her first M.D. with her daughter!
Naturally, I bought some matching T-shirts for the three generation females; they have pastel rainbows across the chest that read, “Once Upon a Time” and for Baby Millie, “And they lived happily ever after.” I think those classic story phrases pretty much sums up everything.
Once upon a Saturday two months ago I landed in New York to share the experience of birth. To meet my granddaughter. To help. To celebrate. To roll up my sleeves and do whatever needed to be done to make this transition to parenting less scary. Accomplished: Check. Above and beyond: Double check. When I leave on Wednesday with my shiny red Mary Poppins bag, I know that I did something earthquake-esque. But still being in the midst of the rumbling, it’s hard to explain. Let me try:
You see, I came here to help. I came here as a worker. I came here knowing I was needed. And wanted. By my daughter. By my son-in-law. By Millie. To have purpose is profound.
As a teacher, I have a purpose.
As the mother of two puppies being cared for by my ex-husband who’s holding down the fort at home, I have purpose.
As a sister and cousin, as a friend, I have purpose.
As a writer, as a former journalist, as a mess-around artist, I have purpose.
And this purpose fills me. Every day I have something important to do. Something important to learn and discover. Like what this two months of isolation and the opposite of isolation as a member of this new family living in a 500 square foot NYC apartment, means. Really means. The Big Picture. The tight shot.
Let me try to untangle the daily tasks–diapering, rocking, burping, emailing students, grading, lesson planning, distant conferencing–from the guts of this story: Love. Every day I fall in love. With this little girl. With my big girl who knows what this forever love thing feels like. With my new role as the elder stateswoman. With the knowledge that every day is precious. And to love every moment. Because, just like Millie, just like this beautiful Spring day in NYC, it’s a new moment.
I realize I have been living in the past or the future. But when you look in a baby’s eyes, you are in The Moment. Nothing else matters. Only now. Babies don’t doubt your love. They trust. They know you are there for them, to love them, to guide them as they greet each milestone. Everything is new. Everything. And you have to help them. You want to help them because it’s the only thing that really matters. Love is the only thing that lasts.
Those intimate, unrehearsed smiles, they mirroring you. When I’m back home in a few days, I’ll take those moments in my pocket and throw them in a pot of soup, in the moist soil beneath the lemon tree, in the glass of LVE rose around the fire pit, and I will savor and rejoice this sauna of lavender love I have been privileged to experience.
Today, Saturday, not Sunday, I have purpose.
Mom used to joke with us (sort of) when she was about to lose it, that she had bats in the belfry. I can understand this expression because the guy upstairs, right above where I’m typing, is “playing” the bongo. He think’s he’s good. He’s not. He thinks it’s OK to torture us with his tinny, brain-slamming percussion. People, it’s not cool to play the bongos publicly when you don’t know how. I’m just sitting here, minding my own business, trying to get a tan, trying to chill out before the week ahead, and this fool-man is making me want to scream, “Shut the f— up!”
I am becoming a New Yorker.
By the time I leave, I will have been here–to the day–officially, two months. Dealing with the heat the building superintendent insists on never turning off, the stoned karaoke neighbors, the 13-year-old boy’s constant tantrums, the red cardinal that comes out each morning and sings for me, the full cycle of blooming tulips and van Gogh neon blue irises, barren trees now bikinied in jeweled green leaves, the 9 pound 4 oz, infant who morphed into size-three months sleepers, the new afternoons iced with butterscotch skies, the turquoise bistro table that holds a bottle of sparkling Boisset wine, my daughter who is healthy, my son-in-law who, God bless him, takes care of Millie at night while he crams for first-year med school exams while encouraging his wife to sleep.
I’ve order two cases of Boisset while shelter-in-place.
I’ve ordered bagels and cream cheese via a delivery service twice and pizza once and now, Thai food. I’ve been on a dozen walks around the block. I wash my hair ever other day. I put on make up twice a week for Zoom calls. I’ve ordered three new shift dresses and leggings because I only packed for a week. I’ve Venmoed grocery $$$ to my daughter three times and have about $12 cash.
I’m still not sleeping through the night. I wake up thinking I hear gun shots. But it’s the rattling vertical blinds shaking in welcomed wind. I’ve watched “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Little Fires Everywhere”, the tiger guy, “Waco”, tons of late night talk shows and have yet to finish the giant book I brought or finished knitting even half of the blanket I naively thought I’d have plenty of time to work on while in New York City.
I’m listing. Yes, I’m aware this is not particularly interesting to read. But I’m trying to add up the equation, make sense of this boxed-in time. Days, weeks, months have passed and now I’m blogging, talking, sharing with strangers. Why? Why do I open the window and stand out on the balcony looking, listening, feeling the day’?
Because I’m alive. Thank God. I didn’t get ill. Because we did the right thing, the safe thing, the wise thing the protestors are now complaining about. Because we trusted the experts we have the luxury of craving fellowship. Our brothers and sisters who lost a loved one don’t have that option. We have been isolated from their grief. Maybe if the protesters got sick or had a loved one die they would be praising not complaining.
So I sit on the balcony and cite statistics and have another glass of wine knowing that I may now just be a real New Yorker. I’ve experienced New York’s seasonal transition from early to mid Spring. I’ve become a fan of these rugged people who “just deal with it” and endure. I think everyone here is Governor Cuomo: Empathetic. Factual. Personable. Do what you gotta do.
I’m not New York-salty like my daughter. But I’m a hell-of-a-lot more appreciative. I really do heart NYC, city of my first granddaughter’s birth, home to America’s true rock stars.
Since my schedule has been twisted and turned and topsy-turveyed I’ve had to completely negotiate the time I journal. Usually, as in, my entire life, I have always journaled first thing in the morning. Especially when I camp. I’m up before everyone else, make the coffee, then hop down to the beach or along the river or sit near the campfire and write. It’s just the best. Me, my mug of steaming coffee, Nature, my thoughts. It’s my way of understanding myself better and opening my heart to the day’s known and unknown opportunities.
But since being in NYC with a new baby in the house, well, as you can imagine, nothing is predictable except nothing is predictable. You never know when the baby will need you or, since I’m remote teaching, when a student might email with questions or when you’ll finish feed-backing and tallying “collected” or “missing” accounts in the grade book. Consequentially, I’ve had to sneak-in journaling which, hipster that I have become, has morphed into “blogging” late at night. Let’s be clear, I’ve never been a night person but my compelling need to figure things out on paper is how I have coped with life since the third grade. These days, I am writing, not at a desk in a room that’s well-lit, but crunched in funny positions on the floor, in bed or standing up at the baby changing table. I don’t write every day, like I used to, because, well, being shut in, there’s not a heck of a lot to write about. I don’t meet new people. I’m watching great shows on TV. I have no time for reading, like I thought I would, and my knitting and art projects are pathetically being neglected. Frankly, I have everything to write about and nothing to write about.
I’m tired of the COVID-19 whining. We all are. We are here. We are coping. It’s not fun. We are finding the blessings. We are grateful for our health. We are grateful for family and friends. We have abundant empathy for those who are suffering and those who are helping us wade through these “dynamic”, “challenging”, “cruel”, “dire”, “heart-breaking”, and the adjectives go on and on, times. We’ve all seen every commercial imaginable that suggests “our” advertisers sincerely care. At Week Seven, we get it. There’s nothing more to write about. Thus, I don’t write as much.
Then there is being a new grandma. Now that I could write about every day: I watch her like I am an artist studying her every breathe, how she spreads her lips into a wide smile, the nature of her coos and gurgles, the predictable way I can make her tiny toes curl and open by gently pinching her heals. I’m curious about what makes my five-week-old granddaughter tick, and who she’s going to be, while training myself to focus on NOW.
The thing that I’ve discovered as a new, and I’d say somewhat reluctant, blogger is that now when I write it’s to an audience of unknowns. When I write in my paper journal, as I have done my entire life, it’s to myself. I write to sort things out. Usually the “things” and my thoughts are incredibly messy and misspelled, like the tangled pink yarn in my backpack awaiting my attention. Here in this space, I’m not naked; I have to wear loungewear.
This is all a round about saying that I’m still trying to figure this blogging thing out. How vulnerable should I be? Does anyone care? Is being truthful with each other in this strange walled world important? Will it make the world better? Is it just more noise and clutter when what we need are more private thoughts? I’m not sure yet. As I said from the start, this is an experiment.
What I do know so far is it’s nice to have a few people who read what I write. That’s really kinda cool. Thank you. It’s encouraging to think that some of my ramblings could have, somehow, in this mountain of information and virtual resources, positively impacted you. Because at the end of the day, connecting with each other–on a real and personal level–is how we change the world for the better. We have to take off the masks, channel our creative spirit, and be little kids again.
So here’s what my scientific experiment has determined: When I write at night I am more melancholy; I try to wrap up the day’s events, be insightful and find the light. When I write first thing in the morning, like I am doing right now, I write from the light’s perspective; I feel the promise of the day.
Let’s see if we can get some dialogue going: What is your best Time to Write? Like me, do you notice a difference in tone and topic? I look forward to hearing from you new virtual friend.