Talking About Feelings

Squam 2005 048

“I sad, miss Mama,” Emilio said to me on a Friday morning, after Adrienne had been away since Tuesday.  I’ve been impressed with Adrienne and Matt’s natural parenting instincts since Emilio was first born, and they’ve enhanced those skills through reading and paying attention to what other parents have to say.  One thing they do is help Emilio recognize his feelings behind difficult behavior, like saying to him, “I know it’s frustrating to you when I say no more videos,” when he fusses as they put away the iPad.

So I felt proud of both Emilio and his parents that Friday morning when he was able to tell me what he was feeling.  Helping a toddler recognize his feelings, and express them, is important regardless of the child’s gender, but it’s particularly encouraging with a boy, given how few cultural messages there are for boys to express feelings.

All of which reminded me of a talk I tried to have about feelings with Sam and two of his friends, more than a decade ago, when they all were about 12.  It was late on a Sunday afternoon in the cottage we were renting for a week on Squam Lake.  All our visitors for the weekend had left and I realized I now had a week ahead with a lot of male energy in a small space — Eric, Sam and his two friends Ben and Mike.  The boys and I were sitting in the living room of the cottage.

“Okay, Guys,” I said.  “Since I’m going to be the only female here all week, let’s practice talking about our feelings.”  The boys looked at me.  “What are you feeling right now?”

After a pause Mike said, “I feel hungry.”

Ben looked puzzled for a moment and then smiled.  “I feel sand between my toes.”

We all had a lot of fun that week.


My Loss Guru

Natalie Schain

After Eric died, his mother Natalie and I grew closer than ever. Our relationship was already a happy story of transformation.  When Eric and I married in 1980, I hadn’t yet converted to Judaism — in fact, that didn’t happen for another 20 years.  Disapproving of Eric’s marriage to a non-Jewish woman, Eric’s Orthodox Jewish parents didn’t come to the wedding.  They’d been unhappy about our relationship for the five years we’d been together — I was divorced (so was Eric), I wasn’t Jewish, I was a feminist who refused to convert to a “patriarchal religion” as I told the Rabbi Eric’s parents arranged for me to meet with prior to the wedding.

For years there was controversy about our attendance at Passover Seders and other family events, and arguments among the aunts and uncles and cousins about how we should be treated.  But over time, and especially as Eric’s parents got to know me better and began experiencing the joy of their first grandchild, Adrienne, their attitude towards Eric and me warmed and softened and then grew close and supportive.  As Adrienne and Sam grew up, visits to Eric’s family were frequent and happy occasions.  When Eric died in 2006, the strong connection between Natalie and me got even stronger.

I would call her several times a week to talk about Eric.  We would relay the dreams we were both having about him, talk about how much we missed him, where we thought he was now, how we could stay connected to him.  Natalie told me stories about Eric as a baby, Eric as a boy, Eric as a teen-ager.  I told her stories about Eric’s jobs and the wonderful sympathy cards I was getting from people who’d known Eric, how much they admired him.

Natalie was devastated and overwhelmed with grief, as I was, but she kept plugging through her daily life, as she had through so much loss.  Her mother died when she was eight, her father when she was a teenager.  She lost her oldest sister in her 50’s and spent close to a decade caring for Eric’s father as he became more and more disabled from MS.  Ray died in 2004, and within 3 years Natalie lost another sister, a brother-in-law, Eric and three of her closest friends.  Then she lost her remaining sister, her sister-in-law, her brother, and many more friends.  When she talked about surviving and moving through grief, she knew what she was talking about.  I called her my Loss Guru.

Now Natalie is gone.  She died early Monday morning, after a year of failing health.  I can’t call her and talk about grief and how to manage the groundlessness of the ever shifting world that includes both joy and pain, loss and gain.  I can’t call her and cheer her up with happy news about her grandchildren and great-grandson.  I can’t call her and listen to her talk about seeing and talking to Eric, because over the past year she’s been in touch with him a lot, a trick I asked her about at one point.  “It’s really interesting that you talk to Eric so much, because he doesn’t exist in this dimension any more.”

“I know,” she said.

“Then how do you talk to him?”

“He calls on a special number,” she said.

Now she’s taken that number with her.

The Clock

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Imagine a 24 hour movie, devoted to an exploration of time, how it’s measured by clocks and watches, how and why people pay attention to its movement, how it flows seamlessly, moment by moment, minute by minute, how people think and talk about time, how it affects our movements and expectations and actions.  That movie is The Clock by Christian Marclay, currently showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“Christian Marclay’s The Clock is a cinematic tour de force that unfolds on the screen in real time through thousands of film excerpts that form a 24-hour montage. Appropriated from the last 100 years of cinema’s rich history, the film clips chronicle the hours and minutes of the 24-hour period, often by displaying a watch or clock. The Clock incorporates scenes of everything from car chases and board rooms to emergency wards, bank heists, trysts, and high-noon shootouts.”

David and I spent an hour and a half watching The Clock during a visit to MOMA on Thursday.  We were entranced, in the showing from just after 11:00 a.m. until 12:30.  The build up to noon through various clips of movies, many showing huge clocks like Big Ben, was as suspenseful as any movie I’ve watched.  The pace of the movie snippets accelerated, the action of the clips was tense, the music strongly paced, and shot after shot of giant clock hands beat time, clicking closer and closer to their perfect vertical alignment, and then it was noon, midday, bells and chimes ringing out the hour.  Then it was 12:01, 12:02, 12:03. . . . . .

We could have stayed in the showing for hours, but time was moving on and there were other things we wanted to do with our day in New York, include seeing the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910 — 1925.  Another excellent show, and particularly captivating for me was the confluence of poetry and painting during the rise of abstract painting in Europe.  The connections between painters, musicians, dancers and writers throughout this period were displayed at the entrance to the exhibit, a web of relationships punctuated by red names, those whose connections touched at least 25 others involved in the rise of abstraction.

Guillaume_Apollinaire_CalligrammeSeveral poets collaborated with visual artists to create cross-genre works of art, including “the first simultaneous book,” a narrative poem about a trip across Russia by Blaise Cendrars printed alongside a painting by Sonia Delaunay-Terk, the paint overrunning the text.  A book of poetry by Guillaume Apollinaire written during his service in World War I included calligrams, poems in which the graphic layout of the poem was as important as the subject, creating an image that expressed the text.  Apollinaire was a master of calligrams, such as his poem in the shape of the Eiffel Tower.

But time marched on, as it does, always and always and over and over, and we had a train to catch to be back on Long Island to take care of Emilio for the evening.  I left with a journal full of ideas, and images of clocks and watches ticking on.

Above Tree Line

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“I’d like to get above tree line once a month,” David said, when I asked him if he had any New Year’s intentions.  I didn’t want to talk about resolutions — too resolute.  Being intentional about making sure we do things that make us happy is another thing altogether.

Hiking up to an open ridge makes both of us happy, so we began making plans earlier this week for a hike up the Crawford Path in the White Mountains to Mt. Pierce today.  We emailed some hiking buddies, got an enthusiastic response, and ended up with 10 people hoping to hike with us.  The weather forecast wasn’t promising, but David and I were willing to do the hike in almost any conditions, short of downpours.

Then the forecast worsened, by 8:00 last night it was raining, and the other hikers started to bail out of the hiking plan.  By the time we went to bed last night, we were down to 5 of us planning to hike.  We got up early this morning and checked a high summit forecast, and looked at the radar.  No rain anywhere in New England and a chance for some breaks in the clouds this afternoon.  So we drank coffee and started packing up to go.  Another set of hikers dropped out via email, and I called the friends who live up north as we drove into the mountains.  They also took a pass, but David and I kept driving.

By the time we got to the trailhead, I knew we’d made the right choice.  Clouds were lifting all around us, and we could see the range to the south of us.  The trail was well-packed powder, making hiking effortless with just microspikes on our boots.  “No rocks, no roots, no bugs,” David and I said to each other, the winter hiking refrain.  As we climbed the snow on the trees thickened, draping the spruce, and the sun began to break through the clouds.

When we got above tree line, the southern slopes of the Presidential range swept off to the north, occasionally threaded with a piece of cloud.  From the summit of Mt. Pierce, we could see the tops of the mountains to our south, dark peaks in a sea of clouds.  With unusually warm and still weather, we were able to take a lunch break on the summit, then walk a bit further up the ridge, just to enjoy the view.

Above tree line for January: done!

Hospice II and III


“How did you get here, Helen?” Natalie asks me.

“I’m not Helen,” I say.  “I’m Grace.  And David is here too.”

“Oh,” Natalie says, nodding, her eyes unfocused.  She’s almost completely blind from macular degeneration.  She has been for years, and now that she’s in Hospice, after a year of disorienting illness and moving around from home to hospital to rehab to home to hospital to rehab, over and over and over, when she has any idea at all who is with her it’s a victory.  “Is this real?” she asks.

“I think it is,” I answer.  “And that’s a really good question,” I say.  “You’ve had so much confusion over the past year, checking in about what’s real and what isn’t makes sense.”

“And we’re happy to help you understand what’s real,” David says, coming over to touch Natalie’s arm.  I’m holding her hand.


“Is this a truck visit?” Natalie asks.  We’re back after two days, having been to New York for Emilio’s birthday party.  We’re on our way back to New Hampshire.

“What’s a truck visit?” David asks.  “People who come on a truck?”

“Yes,” Natalie says.

“We didn’t come on a truck,” David says.

“We’ve been to Emilio’s birthday party,” I say and Natalie puffs out her cheeks.  “Are you making cheeks like Emilio’s?” I ask and she nods.

After I’ve helped her drink some water and eat some soup for lunch I ask, “Are you comfortable?  Do you want me to put your bed back down?”  We’ve raised the head of the bed so she can eat and drink.

“That’s two questions,” she says.

“You’re right,” I say.  “Are you comfortable?”

“You can ask me two questions,” she says.

“Okay.  Are you comfortable?  Do you want me to put your bed back down?”  Natalie nods and I press the button and the bed flattens.