untapped reservoir of beauty

profile_picture_by_mr_shrimp-d70mwe0Driving into Chicago, I listened to the On Being episode that I managed to download without taking my eyes off the road. It was an interview with Bernard Chazelle, Princeton computer science professor and Bach expert. I’ve never heard of Chazelle and must admit that I don’t think about Bach too often. But he’s a spirited conversationalist and his words got me through the snarled traffic jam that clogs the interstate between Oakbrook and Oak Park. The overhead digital sign had told me 39 minutes to city center, but it seemed to be 29 minutes from one western ‘burb to the next.

I was halfway through the interview, mildly annoyed with the black Lexus that kept darting between lanes, when Chazelle said something that hit me beyond the level of “hmmm… kind of cool.” When I got to the hotel, I listened to this part again and tried to type out his words, though I only managed a close proximation:  “What amazes me is how Bach’s music moves you so much, but it’s just sound waves hitting your ears…and this emotion bubbles up, you start tearing up. What’s going on? You can say, ‘It’s Bach; he’s a genius.’ But no, it’s not so easy. I have to have the ability in my brain to create that emotion. …It’s almost dizzying to realize that when you’re moved like that there must be a reservoir of beauty that mainly goes untapped, but if you can find it with the right spotlight then it’s there, this amazing possibility.”

Yes. That beauty that we all too often don’t let in but that’s there all along. Of course when we see the ocean or a great painting we tap it. Just last month, staring at the Pacific on the beaches of Point Reyes, I was moved to tears several times. But what about my daily walk with the dog? I walk the same blocks again and again with the same dog by my side. Only occasionally will this very familiar scene bring me to tears. Like the sweet drunk guy in a movie, I’m suddenly looking at the same bush and the same trees and the same dog but through a new lens: Wow, it’s sooo beautiful! 

But how to access this reservoir all of the time? I believe this is possible. I want to live there.

In identifying parts of myself — there’s the 10-year old imp who wants to explore, the 6-year old waif who is afraid and darts and hides, the Felix Unger type who scolds me for spending money, etc. — there’s a part I call Mr. Shrimp. He is a walking shrimp with a cane (I know – really weird, but bare with me, this is Inner Psyche Land and just like with Alice, it’s all a bit tripped out). Mr. Shrimp’s role is to be a thin, brittle layer that keeps me from feeling anything too much. He is my exoskeleton, a sheath of protective coating. I understand that Mr. Shrimp is trying to keep me from feeling the really hard stuff, but often I wish he’d take a long vacation to Tahiti (or maybe to Israel where they don’t shellfish and, hence, he’d be safe) and let me dive into the reservoir of beauty buck naked, with no protective sheath. What would that be like?

Walking down Michigan Avenue tonight it was – it always is – too much. It’s such a jangle of high and low – Cartier and Forever 21 rubbing shoulders; women in full minks and high black boots wait for the walk light next to a family in faded jeans and Nikes. Rising above the street are luxurious apartments and hotel rooms, while people with cardboard signs sit on the corners:  “Hello, my name is Amy. Please anything helps. Merry Christmas.”

Mr. Shrimp keeps me from sitting down next to Amy and sobbing. He also keeps me from seeing Amy completely because no doubt there is beauty there that my guilt does not allow me to experience. And what does Amy see? I imagine she’s quite aware of Mr. Shrimp – of thousands of exoskeletons that walk past her each day, protected behind suits and down coats, behind cell phone screens and phalanxes of shopping bags.

The reservoir that Bach opens up is that of our vulnerability. The music inspires awe and reminds us of how simultaneously small we are and yet how grand. Residing in both our simpleness and our greatness is where we open to beauty. It necessitates vulnerability combined with belief in the impossible. As the Irish writer John O’Donohue puts it, “When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.”

Tomorrow and for the final days of this year, I am committed to walking with reverence. I am asking for beauty’s trust. And Mr. Shrimp? He can take the rest of the month off!


What threshold is this?

The threshold of the hot flash. The cusp of fifty. The twinkling horizon of the empty nest.

Is it the threshold of speaking my mind? Of reaching a hand out to others, in strength and soft grace.

Of not giving a damn on one hand and caring more deeply on the other.

Or is it teetering on the edge of a new opportunity so precious and bright that I can’t see it yet?

For months in my mid-40s I felt a figure coming to me as though across the water. A sort of iceberg making its way to my shore.

That was followed by a period when I felt the tug of wings on my back – wings that offered sweet possibility but also weighed me down with the pain of attachment.

I am not sure what the iceberg was; the feeling simply passed. And one day the wings were gone, flown away.

So perhaps this sense of a doorway will also pass without its meaning directly known.

I’ve dropped an anchor deep into the soft belly of this life’s ocean.

I don’t need to go anywhere, but at the same time I offer myself up.

What’s next? What’s next?

Whether I pass quickly or stay here longer, I offer myself up.  Continue reading

into the fog

e6692290a81346434d546efb7c83a6f1-1It’s foggy here this morning. “Jack the Ripper” weather, I always think of it, in part because there’s that sense that anything could be around the corner. I dropped my daughter off at school, the yellow of the school buses and the solid blues and neon oranges of kids’ hoodies seeming to glow a little in the thick, wet air. She was off to her final day of standardized testing – in other words, walking around a corner where she knows just what’s on the other side. Bubble forms and number twos.

She’s a good student, but she doesn’t test well and taking them makes her a bit sick – sick to her stomach, sick with anger, sick with self-doubt. I’ve thought of pulling her from the tests altogether, as right now they only seem to be shooting her in the foot – the scores keeping her out of higher level classes that her grades suggest she can take. I’m not sure if it’s herd mentality or a calculated decision to become comfortable with discomfort, but we’ve decided that she should keep taking them for now.

So she goes and chews spearmint gum, per the guidance counselor’s advice. She tells herself to be curious instead of terrified – even if she’s more the latter. And every day I marvel just a little that the bogey man did not get her – she’s here carving pumpkins and laughing, manhandling her little brother, ordering double chocolate muffins. She’s walked into the fog and though some of it may cling to her, she’s walked through it.

Which is exactly what I hope will happen to my husband who boarded a plane for New York City yesterday afternoon, only to get halfway way there when the news of an Ebola case came blaring through airport televisions, online devices, and word of regular old mouths. He is taking his daughter to the city – the first time she’s been there and only his second. We’ve been excited, making arrangements and finding quirky things for them to do – like a dog Halloween party in Tompkins Square. But now it feels a bit like entering the fog. What is around that subway turnstile? that street in Brooklyn with the bowling alley?

Rationally, I know we are all brushing against unforeseen dangers on a daily basis and this one possesses a tiny iota of risk to two weekend tourists. I’m amazed by how many bikers wearing headphones and simultaneously texting I’ve come close to hitting with my car, only to have them be absolutely clueless that they were even in harm’s way. And as with Bella and the standardized tests, we willingly do things all of the time that we know may not be the best for our higher Self; I am still feeling the effects of the sugar from the ill-chosen oatmeal with maple syrup/orange juice combo I put in my body this morning, for instance.

A needle in a haystack is how the Ebola virus in the US currently feels. The scary part is that we all know there will be more needles and more precautions to safeguard against them. In the meantime, we walk into the fog – board the plane, take the subway, kiss our loved ones goodbye with the absolute intention that they’ll reappear at the end of the day or return after the trip. We maintain faith that while the fog might cling a bit and even dampen us, it won’t kill us.


A bag of a hundred tulip bulbs awaiting freshly dug holes.

Five comforters in need of hand sewing.

Two pie shells plus a bag of half a dozen apples ripe with possibility.

Four parsnips questioning the next step.

One dog to walk.

One performance to attend.

Two shin guards found.

Three window air conditioners to remove and put to rest for the season.

One napping husband.

Three boxes of winter clothes to unfurl, clean, and reconsider.

The weekend unfolds in numbers. Expectations are low.

The tree outside my window holds hundreds of leaves.

Yellowing and falling, they will disappear without anyone counting them,

Without anyone asking: “What’s next?”

I am trying to write a book

I have been trying for a very long time now. It has been out there. Just around the corner. A bit of out of reach. No time. No energy. What was the point again? Who will read it? Publishing is dying. Books are dead. I have to make dinner, go to work, exercise, walk the dog, grocery shop, grocery shop, grocery shop, go to a swim meet, sleep.

I am trying to write a book. And the fact that I haven’t pulled it out from under the magic toadstool or out of the velvet black hat as of yet is a matter of shame and guilt, regret and internal eye rolling. You’ve written three others; just get the damn thing done. Of course I did those without a job and with either no kids or in a different phase of parenting.

Today, I find the document on Dropbox. It takes me a moment; it hasn’t been touched since June. I find where I left off, and for 20 minutes I write. I just write. It’s reminiscent of the afternoon in August when Chris and I floated across a small lake in Wisconsin, holding hands, paddling a little, fluffy clouds overhead, no one around. Just us and the blessedly gnat-free, humidity-free air, the cool green water with its scent of algae and lively muck, the children out of sight back in the cabin doing who knows what. It was the most blessed hour of this entire summer.

When I write, I float. When I write, it all comes back – the ease, the pleasure. And as I read what I’ve put down I think, this is pretty good. Nothing to blow one away. Not the next best thing ever. But writing that deserves to be shared. Writing that  might be of use to others. 

Heavy sigh as I close the file.

I am trying to write a book. Trying.

over the transom

News comes over the transom – an old high school friend has just entered hospice, a neighbor passed in his sleep, a great teacher has left this world. 

Watching Dr. Who last night with the kids – all of us in tears – as The Doctor prepares to “die” before regenerating. He is so sad, so in love with life. His final words are simple and profound, “I don’t want to leave.”

Just now, Tobey is getting ready to ride his bike to school. He came home yesterday and declared it “the best first day of school ever.” He went to bed eager to get up and go the next day.

So it’s the next day and he’s going to ride his bike. The doorbell rings. It’s a little boy who Tobey knows through family friends; “Can Tobey walk to school?” I look back at Tobey, thinking he’ll explain that he’s riding his bike. He doesn’t hesitate – picks up his backpack, gives me a kiss, walks out the door, says, “Hey, man,” in the best bro-friend way, and starts walking with the kid. As they get down the block, I can see Tobey briefly put his arm around the boy’s shoulder. And that’s when I walk into the kitchen, sit down by the pot of eggs I’m boiling, and cry. 

So short. So beautiful. I don’t want to go.


singing toward the inevitable

boatJunior high registration is Tuesday, the ice cream social Thursday. The beginning of the end. I spent this week contacting various teachers of lessons and coaches of sports, setting up the fall schedule. In just two weeks, that will be us rising at 6:30, going to soccer practice and band. That will be us having regular family meals and brushing out teeth in unison at night.

As it’s never broken 100 and hardly gotten into the 90s all summer long, it’s never quite felt like it got going. There is corn now and peaches; I know that we are at this apex moment. And yet my body feels like we’re still warming up, getting ready for the real thing. 

I am trying to remind myself of all of the things that happened that equal summer. There were the multiple drives to Camp Wapsie – first in a pouring rain in June to take the girls and then in a very cool July when I worried if Tobey had enough blankets and sweatshirts. There was the beautiful trip to Chicago with Tobey for film camp. The first night we had noodles at Joy Thai and again and again he stopped to say make an ‘mmmm’ noise and say how incredible they were. He looked at all of the gay guys walking by our cafe table, holding hands, kissing, and proclaimed, “This is a good experience for me.” We went to Blue Man one night and clapped and laughed, as I kept trying to get sideways glances of the nun standing next to me, wondering what she thought of the lengthy riff they do on shaking your booty. We had char burgers and “Kalamata chicken” at the Athenian Room, a restaurant my parents used to go to when they stayed in Lincoln Park. It’s a divey neighborhood spot attached to a bar where you have to go to get your drinks. The fries come floating in a special vinegar herb sauce. Tobey was dubious until he tasted one. Each day, we took the el, walking about six blocks from our rented apartment, getting off one stop later, and then walking another 10 blocks to the old theatre where the camp met. His script was chosen as one of the films to be made.

Earlier in the summer there was the Indigo Girls concert downtown. We were all there, but peeled away until it was just me. I found an old friend of Chris’ who was near the stage and we danced until the amazing encore of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Who knew I needed to dance to that song? At a little studio on the westside of town, there have been dance lessons, Chris and I stuttering our way through rumbas and foxtrots. And a memorable malted milk at Heyn’s with my kids. Last week, there were three nights in an old school cabin on a tiny lake in Luck, Wisconsin with a Monopoly game that never ended, floating on a blow-up air mattress across the lake while holding Chris’ hand, listening to Bella’s playlist that moved effortlessly between John Denver and John Legend, and then boating with Chris’ family on a bigger lake. We took beautiful pictures, all covered in mist from the splatter of the boat’s raucous joy.

I’d take another month, please, kind sir, if you’d give it. I have on my Oliver Twist voice now, and I’m imagining that we might ask earnestly and politely for just a bit more of this glorious, cricket-filled, peaceful time. Room in which to breathe. A few hotter days for bobbing about City Park Pool. 

On the way up to Luck, WI we sang “100 Bottles of Beer.” We sang it all the way through, something I’m not sure I’d ever done. As we got lower, below 50 and then into the 30s and the 20s, I could feel the mood shift in the car. There was a very palpable energy of camaraderie and excitement that we were truly going to see this thing through. It wasn’t going to be like the half-completed Monopoly game or the chore chart idea that never stuck. All together, we were going to get to one. 

As improbable as many of the great moments of our life are, this was one of the highlights of my summer. In a car, in the midst of beautifully rolling corn fields in northern Iowa, all of my family in a rented Chevy mini-van, gleefully singing toward the inevitable.