Three at Four

 

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“I don’t want to drive back to the house, I want to walk.”  Emilio stood in the driveway with his hands at his sides, declaring his four-year-old determination. Adrienne and Matt were going back to our house for a mid-afternoon rest from the busy cottage we rented on Jenness Pond last week for a big family vacation. Emilio wanted to go with his parents, but he was “sick of the long car ride” (3.3 miles, about 5 minutes) between the two houses. He wanted to walk.

 

“It’s really far, Bud,” Matt said.  “Do you really want to walk that far?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes!”

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll walk with you.”  We went in to the cottage to let everyone know where we were going.  There were lots of questions.  “Emilio is walking back to the house?”  “Do you have a phone with you?”  “Has he ever walked that far?”

David looked at Emilio’s feet.  “Do you have some shoes with you?  Sneakers?  Some socks?”

“No,” Emilio said.  “I’m wearing Crocs.”  As if everyone takes the longest walk of their life so far in Crocs and of couse no one wears socks with Crocs.

Emilio took my hand and we started off with me telling Emilio about the walk across England David and I did three years ago.  When I’d finished the story he asked if we were close to the house yet.  “I’d have to tell about 20 more stories like that before we got to the house,” I said.

“Well, then tell me another story.”

Which I did.  Then he told some stories, we stopped to look at the map on my phone so he could see where we were and where we were going, we walked through a rain shower that was mostly blocked by the canopy of trees above the road, he kept holding my hand and stepped off the road every time a car went by, we found a dead frog and poked at it with a stick, we walked up and down hills and looked at the other ponds we passed, we picked Queen Anne’s lace for him to give Adrienne when we got back to the house.  Once, more than half way, he stopped and said his feet were tired and he needed to rest.  About five seconds later, he started to walk again.

An hour and a half later, we reached the house.  Over three miles by a four year old.  As we walked in to the yard Emilio looked up at me.

“Was that a good walk for you, Mimi?”

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A Beginning

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The rain on the porch roof makes a new sound.  We’ve had gutters installed and now instead of a curtain of drops dripping off the edge of the porch there’s a metallic ping and rush of water flowing down the drain in the corner.  The view out to the yard is clear, coreopsis still blooming, silver-sheened balls of globe thistle getting ready to pop out their tiny purple flowers, uneven and unruly grass, rudbeckia blazing yellow in clumps from the garden to the line of yew bushes, the burn pile for this fall getting lost in the tall weeds and wildflowers of the field.  Summer.

Which this week means a house filling up with children and grandchildren and friends. Sam arrived after we’d all gone to bed last night and we woke up to an assortment of Tennessee hats arranged on a counter in the kitchen.  There are dog food bowls and leashes and a crate lined with blankets and a chair full of dog toys.  Extra shoes and wallets and car keys, laptops on every table.  A stuffed refrigerator that will empty and get stuffed again and empty and get stuffed again and empty and get stuffed and empty.

But I don’t want to go there yet, to the empty.  Right now we’re at the beginning of a week of family gathering and everything is full and messy and rich.  Empty is later.

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Becoming and Being

Chris Sitting On Her Memorial Bench

Chris Sitting On Her Memorial Bench

My sister, who I’ve introduced before through her blog, A Cancer Journey With Chris, is very sick. She hasn’t put up a new post on her blog since April because living with metastatic cancer has become more than a full-time job for her, it’s 24/7, it’s exhausting, it’s the central, all-encompassing reality for her and for those of us who love her, it’s at the point that her illness is a globe of existence we move into when we’re with her because when you’re with someone this close to the end of life, someone trying to make sense of the hard truth that soon the mystery of time is going to become a closed absolute, everything except figuring out the next meal and a trip to the doctor and helping her up and down the stairs and into the bathroom and rubbing her back while she cries drops away.  I know.  I’ve been here before.

In Chris’s last blog post she shared a piece she’d written in a journaling class — “Pay attention to the space you are in but stay open to all the possibilities to come.  It is the small things that matter.  It is the becoming that becomes the being.  Always becoming.  Pay attention to the process; that is who you are.”

The cancer in Chris’s central nervous system is creating pressure on her brain that makes her cognition fluctuate but she’s still working hard at paying attention to the process. Sometimes she can keep track of what’s going on and then she’s sad, because she understands that she may very well have come to the end of her extraordinary span of beating the odds.  Twenty four years ago, when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, her doctors said she had a 10% chance of living five more years.  Two and a half years ago, when the cancer was found in the lining of her spinal column and her brain, her doctors told her to make her final plans.  Soon.

She spent a few months planning her memorial service, talking to her family about what was coming, writing letters to those she loves for them to read after she dies, writing an essay to be read at her service, having a memorial bench installed on the beach in Scituate, Massachusetts where we grew up.  Done getting ready to die, she then spent two years living with a close attention to what brought her joy — family and friends, colors, bright blossoms, the ocean, writing, meditation, movies, qigong.  She was becoming and being. She sat on her bench

I’ve been spending a lot of time with her and am in awe of her remarkable spirit and the full life she’s created in the face of debilitating illness.  Who knows how much time she has left.  I do know that I want to spend as much of that time with her as possible.

Posted in Family, Grief, Moving On | 4 Comments

Predictions

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Emilio on the beach

I get obsessed with weather predictions when I have a vacation coming up and the obsession carries right into the vacation.  Moving from one weather website to the next, I check forecasts compulsively.  Will it rain?  At what time?  How warm will it be?  What will the cloud coverage be at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday?

Last week I spent eight days at Humarock Beach, a long, thin peninsula of ocean-tossed rocks and sand south of Boston.  Surrounded by water — the cold Atlantic to the east and tidal rivers and marshes to the west — there’s no hiding from the weather.  The houses are on ten foot pilings so the ocean can roll right under and across to the marsh on the other side during strong storms, and winter Nor’easters often leave the central road on the northern tip of the peninsula covered with fist-sized rocks.

But as I found out last week, as I find out through all my vacation weather obsessions, forecasts are rarely right if made any more than a couple of days ahead, and the weather really doesn’t matter anyway.  What matters are the uninterrupted hours and shared meals with family, the jumble of four generations putting together dinner and playing games over days instead of just hours, the rhythm of living in the same house with children and grandchildren.

It did rain during our vacation and it was too cold for the beach many of the days we were in Humarock.  When it rained we played games and watched movies and read and talked and cooked and ate.  When it was too cold and windy to sit on the ocean side deck we sat in the sun on the river side, tucked out of the wind and looking over a marsh flooded with high tide or drained to a small ribbon of river snaking through sloped banks of mud.

With so much family gathered — my parents, all three of my sisters, my children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and partners — my phone was much busier than usual with beach and dinner planning texts and phone calls.  At one point as David was driving to the grocery store I was texting with my sister Meg, figuring out what we needed to pick up for dinner.  Somehow, as David and I were talking about a song that was playing, my phone got switched to the microphone for text, and when I looked down to read what Meg had sent I saw a message my phone was ready to send.  The predictive text picked up from the song and our conversation was about as accurate as a weather forecast, and as meaningless when it comes to having a sweet week with my family.

There’s a loser husband in case this homeless replacing the work job pound some loose and this is the song I know the song.

The song of making sure you have time with the people you love most.

 

 

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Triple Silence Broken

 

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“I have a story, but I need someone to write it,” a friend said to me recently. Here’s the story, some details imagined and names changed but the facts are all true.

“I know why Cassie is having such a hard time.” Jean wasn’t surprised by the phone call from her ex-sister-in-law, but she was surprised Alice thought she knew what was wrong with Jean’s daughter.  Cassie had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt, which came after years of struggling with alcohol and drugs.

“You do?”

“My brother molested her,” Alice said and suddenly everything made sense to Jean. She’d been divorced from her husband, Cassie’s father, for over ten years, but during those years when her children came back from visits with him they often had trouble sleeping and behaved erratically. Jean hadn’t known then what she did now about abuse of children, and even with what she knew, she still hadn’t thought something from Cassie’s childhood might be driving her terrifying behavior as a young adult.

“How do you know?”

“Because he molested me,” Alice said. “I’d like to see you to talk about it.”

Jean and Alice agreed to meet and Jean called her best friend Elizabeth to ask her to come along. Jean was anxious and scared, and while she believed Alice and had always gotten along with her, she felt like she needed the support of Elizabeth who she’d known since childhood.

Jean, Alice and Elizabeth met at a dark bar near where they’d all grown up. They ordered drinks and Alice began talking first.

“I’ve never told anyone about Michael, that he molested me when I was a kid. But watching what Cassie’s been through I had to tell you. I see how she’s struggling and recognize the struggles I’ve had. If finally talking about what happened to me can help her, then it’s worth it. And it will help me too.”

Elizabeth watched Jean as she began to cry, then Elizabeth started to cry. “I was molested by my brother too,” Elizabeth said, almost whispering. “I’ve never told anyone either.”

Jean was stunned. “Me too,” she said. “My brother abused me and I never told anyone.”

The three women looked at each other, all in the 40’s, all successful, educated, capable women. Jean and Elizabeth were best friends. They told each other everything. Alice had been part of Jean’s life through her years of marriage to Michael and even since they’d split up. Jean had always considered her a friend, someone she could trust.

But none of them had ever trusted themselves or the world enough to tell each other or anyone else that their brothers had sexually abused them.

Now their silence was broken and together they could figure out how to make their secrets a strength.

This happened years ago. Cassie is fine now, a mother herself. She and Jean work hard to make sure the children are safe.

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Silence

Closeup of woman crying

Huffington Post

I recently stepped back into the world of working to end violence against women.  I was at a meeting in Dallas I helped organize to talk in part about the recently broken sexual violence silence by women who’d been assaulted on college campuses.  Young women have begun telling their stories about being raped on campuses, reporting those rapes, and not only not being heard by administrations, but being silenced.  Reluctance to talk about sexual violence is rampant.  I know, I used to talk about it a lot at work and not much anywhere else.  It’s not a topic of dinner party conversations.

The second time David and I got together — a poetry reading in Portsmouth, dinner first — I let loose my Sexual Assault Rant and he didn’t flinch.  A good sign. My rant consists of strongly worded dismay at the ubiquitous presence of unwanted sexual touch in the lives of women that nobody talks about.  Sexual violence silence.

Well I’m talking about it, right now.  I love research.  I’m well enough known for my collaborations with researchers from when I was working at the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and since, with the brilliant women of Preventions Innovations Research Center, that I’ve been asked to review a paper on the topic of researcher-practitioner collaborations for a top peer-reviewed journal (Violence Against Women) in the field.

So here is some research of my own.  For over a decade I’ve been asking women I meet from all parts of my life if they’ve ever experienced unwanted sexual touch.  Not a chargeable offense necessarily, but some instance of a man touching a sexualized part of your body, uninvited, for his own gratification.  Only one woman has said no.  That’s to hundreds of “Yes.”

It’s certainly not strict quantitative research because I haven’t been keeping track of who I ask, so I’m not sure of my n, the number of women.  But it’s a lot.  And nobody talks about it.  The inability to move around in the world without some man touching your butt or rubbing up against you on a crowded bus or grabbing your breasts is not okay, and yet women all have to live with it.  It’s a fact of life.

In decades of working to end domestic and sexual violence, I saw a significant shift in how people in general talked about domestic violence and how they responded to battered women.  The injustice of blaming the victim began to be accepted and the press started accurately portraying murders of women as domestic violence murders, not “crimes of passion.”  The focus, in large part, shifted to the batterer, the one causing the harm.

The same has not been true of sexual assault.  Think of some of the highly publicized sexual assault media stories in the last decade.  How often has the press included discussion of the victim’s actions and credibility (“why was she in his hotel room?” “why did she get so drunk?” “doesn’t she have mental health issues?”) instead of looking at what the perpetrator did?

It’s a wonder anyone ever does report a sexual assault, given how victims are treated. If we can’t get communities to pay attention to the most egregious sexual assaults, would anyone pay attention to reports of the micro-aggressions of everyday life in which women’s bodies are sexualized targets for the fraction of men who don’t get that boundaries apply to them?

I’m tired of the silence.  I’m going to start telling some stories.  Stay tuned.

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Ferocious Art

8/23/12 -- Cambridge, Massachusetts Popular sidewalk artist and Boston University alumni Sidewalk Sam creating his art in Harvard Square, Cambridge.. Photo by Melody Komyerov for Boston University Photography

8/23/12 — Cambridge, Massachusetts
Popular sidewalk artist and Boston University alumni Sidewalk Sam creating his art in Harvard Square, Cambridge..
Photo by Melody Komyerov for Boston University Photography

“Everything is one pen stroke away from being ugly, or being that which completes the universe.” — Sidewalk Sam

I first met Sidewalk Sam four years ago.  He was one of David’s many friends from an earlier period in his life, most of whom I’d met by then.  Sidewalk and his wife Tina were the last of that set I met, and what a treat it was.

By then Sidewalk Sam, or Bob Guillemin, had been living in a wheelchair for almost 20 years, having been paralyzed from the chest down after falling from his roof.  Being disabled hadn’t at all tempered Bob’s ferocious belief in art as a revolutionary act.  He was so articlate in telling his story and describing his path from a traditional gallery and museum fine art track into creating “art at the feet of the people,” literally on sidewalks, he made me want to interview him and write an article.  For decades in Boston, Sidewalk Sam organized chalk-drawing festivals and public art events that gave everyone a chance to help create large mosaics and murals on the sidewalks and plazas of the city.  I envisioned a piece in The Sun, because Sidewalk Sam, with his story and passion for accessible and experiential art, was exactly the kind of unique individual The Sun portrays.

Now I’m sorry I never got to that writing intention.  Sidewalk Sam died January 26 and his life was celebrated on Sunday during a memorial service.  The sun was high and hot and the yard of Sidewalk Sam’s home with Tina was in bloom, a thick vine of wisteria scenting the air and hanging a lavendar curtain over a corner of a porch.  As I sat on a folding chair in the grass, listening to stories of Bob’s exploits and enthusiams, I saw that the wisteria was also mingled with the leaves at the bottom of a large maple, and burst into a grand spray near the crown of the tree.

Sidewalk would have marveled at the beauty of it, I was sure, even though I didn’t know him well.  But listening to his family and friends speak, I kept hearing about a joyful embrace of the artist in each of us and an unshakable belief in the power of creation in the face of a difficult world.  One of Sidewalk Sam’s best known exhibits was Flush with the Walls, a protest exhibition he staged, along with five other artists, in a men’s restroom at the Boston Museum of Fine Art in June, 1971.  The exhibit drew a good crowd, and over the years Sidewalk drew more and more people to him.

I looked down at the program and Sidewalk Sam’s quote about that one pen stroke.  I vowed to carry away his message — dare to create, be ready to fail and be ready to succeed, witness the beauty in front of you, love your life, and make that next stroke of your pen.  

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