Change Happens

The Change.

That used to be the euphemism for menopause — from the Greek word pausis (cessation) and the root men-(month). I always thought it should be called womenopause. But, then I never studied old Greek.

When I was young, it was spoken of in hushed tones, usually to provide a reason for what was perceived as a woman’s irrational behavior. PMS, the term that is, didn’t exist back in those days. (I like the Southern version FTS—Fixin’ to Start. Southern English has such poetry to it.)

When I started going through it, they had come up with a new term: perimenopausal—a less poetic way of saying Fixin’ to Change.

I went to a bookstore (you can already see how times have changed since then) to buy books on menopause. I selected three or four. As I stood in line I contemplated how I would explain to the clerk why I was buying so many books on menopause. I’m buying them for a friend. That’s it. I’m buying them for a friend.

But the clerk didn’t ask me why I was buying so many books on menopause. I’m not even sure she noticed the titles of the books.

It wasn’t that I was ashamed of The Change. I was just kind of freaked out about it. “Your daughter became a woman today,” my mother said to my father the day I started my period. I was 12. I had gotten used to the built in another-cycle-has-completed detector. And if that detector was what marked my entry into womanhood, what would life be like without it? I wondered if I would miss it.

As it turned out, I don’t miss it. Periods seem like a distant memory to me now, almost foreign. And it didn’t undo my having become a woman. I still am that—a woman.

I’m glad The Change isn’t spoken of in hushed terms anymore. At least not in the company I keep and the part of the world I live in. I don’t really mind even referring to menopause as Change, I just think calling it The Change is misleading. It makes it sound so terminal.

Life doesn’t stand still. I think that is what I learned from going through That Change. Change happens. All the time.

I did a major yard clean-up yesterday—or maybe I should call it a yard clear-out. The yard had become very disheveled. I got rid of bushes that had become leggy, volunteers that were confused, and suckers from the Mayten trees. I discovered that the lilac bushes in our yard are heirloom lilacs—a variety one doesn’t find anymore. The lilac tree is even more rare. The crew who worked on the yard had never seen one before.

The yard has a whole new look. It still retains a sense of wildness—but now it’s more like the wild woman who runs with the wolves rather than the confused hippy chick.

Fixin’ to change. That’s what’s happening now. I’m fixin’ to change. I think that’s how change happens. Whatever the event that incites The Change, what follows is Fixin’ to Change. Life changes, then, if we’re smart, we learn where to go with The Change.

The parents of the children taken from them at Sandy Hook are doing that now. Their lives certainly changed. They are meeting with members of Congress to let them know how their lives changed. They are taking action.

“Move on,” is the common formula for how to deal with change. It’s wishful thinking that we can just move on. We can’t. We have to spend the time fixin’ to change.

Perhaps that’s the new cycle I have learned to live with—change, and then fixin’ to change.

It’s all very human.

A Minute Away from Snowing

There was a benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid – ever.
Ricky in “American Beauty”

The Bay Area has seasons, but they aren’t as dramatic as other places. It basically moves between winter’s wet and summer’s dry, with a burst of pale pastel blossoms in the spring and a gradual turn of color as the leaves surrender to autumn.

It doesn’t snow here. I have on occasion visited a place where when I went to bed, the world was brown and grey, and when I woke, it sparkled white. The landscape had been transformed. I have experienced the moment when you realize that the silence you hear is the sound of falling snow.

I have never lived with snow, so I don’t know if you can become inured to the magic of it. For me, it is magical.

In the film American Beauty, Ricky shows Jane the most beautiful film he has ever made, a plastic bag blown about by the wind against a backdrop of a brick building and leaves skittering on the ground.

“It was a minute away from snowing,” he says. As he watched the bag dance, he realized, “There was this entire life behind things. . . . There was a benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid – ever.”

I watched the movie on New Years Day. I hadn’t seen it for eleven years, since it first came out. It’s wonderful revisiting a good movie after many years. Time and experience make it seem as if you are watching the film for the first time.

It takes place in a suburban neighborhood. I don’t think it’s so much a comment on the banality of suburbia as it is a story about what happens to us when we feel our life has become banal, when we no longer experience beauty, when we feel we have been banished from beauty.

Please come along with me as I make a leap.

There is much discussion among politicians and political pundits about the American dream. The new Speaker of the House chokes up when he talks about having chased it his whole life. It is too painful to look at school children, he says, because he doesn’t think they will have a shot at the American dream.

The American dream seems to have something to do with making money and keeping it for yourself. That doing that will make you feel secure.

I think that dream formed as a response to the Great Depression that was followed by a war. The generation who came of age during that time, some call it the Greatest Generation, were determined to protect their children from what they suffered, particularly from economic hardship.

I think that suburban growth reflected that dream.

But, that dream was limited, and exclusive. I can’t help but think that the horror of the Concentration Camps branded itself on our collective psyches. I think it showed us what can happen when societies are built on the notion that there is an us and a them, and the very survival of the society requires that the “them” are not quite as human as “us.”

We were the good guys who liberated the death camps, while we made American soldiers ride in cars behind German prisoners of war because those soldiers were black.

We had to look into our own dark shadowy side. Out of that came the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, the independence of the disabled movement, the recognition that homosexuality is not a perversion.

That is the American dream to me — the dream that Martin Luther King spoke of so eloquently in 1963. It is a vision of what can be, rather than what has been. To me, the Constitution provides a framework that says there is no us and them, there is only us before the law.

I’m not sure when the American dream turned into the promise of economic certainty. I saw the owner of the Dallas Cowboys interviewed on 60 Minutes. He is worth two billion dollars, but is worried about losing his fortune, any of it. He is more scared than I am, and I am about two billion dollars away from having two billion dollars.

What concerns me most about the current political climate is that it seems that fear of the other is its rally cry. The new crop of senators and members of congress seem like very young souls whose notion of the future is measured by business quarters, rather than the cycles of nature. They seem to view life as a sentence to be served rather than a story to be lived. They do not seem to see that there is an entire life behind things.

Kevin Spacey, in an interview about American Beauty, says that he thinks it’s a story about how events stir up your life so you can realize that what you have is enough.

“Look Closer” is the subtitle of the movie. If you look closer, you see past the façade. And therein lies the beauty—the life that is messy and uncertain. There is no reason to fear life—ever, even though it is uncertain. Change is the electricity that fills the air, a minute away from snowing.

The Eccentric at the Base of Design

The squirrels and crows are feasting on the persimmons. I can see them through the window of my Writingshed. My high school English teacher, who was also my mentor, either said or quoted a poet (I don’t remember for sure which, and I have to paraphrase):

The persimmon tree in winter proves
That the eccentric is at the base of design.

I have found myself reflecting as the year comes to an end, not just on the past year, but the past decade.

I was supposed to go to my uncle’s ninetieth birthday in January of 2000. I had been looking forward to it, a respite from the craziness of having worked on a Y2K project.

Then I got bronchitis three days before I was to leave. I held out hope until the last minute, but had to call and let my mother know I would not be able to join them in Sequim, Washington for the celebration.

I hung up the phone, and told Tom this felt just like the time when I was seven and couldn’t go see Heidi. It was the Shirley Temple version of it—she was still a bit of an icon for littler girls back in the mid fifties. We were living in Saudi Arabia, the movie was only going to be showing for that one day. I got the flu that morning. My mother poured me ginger ale and I cried, imagining that every little girl in our American community—except me—was trapsing off to see Heidi, and that I would never, ever, get to see it.

This first decade of the twenty-first century has been tumultuous. My mentor, my mother, my mother-in-law, and my father-in-law all died during this ten-year period. My uncle turned 100 in January of this year, then died in June. The Supreme Court decided an election, the world became less safe, more hopeful, and more hateful.

I feel changed by the events—personal and global—of the last decade. I think I learned the art of surrender; that resistance, while not futile, prolongs agony. And, strangely, I learned how empowering surrender can be. It seems to have allowed me to drift with the current of my life when necessary, and then swim with intention when the time is right.

I think what is different for me, about me, is that I have come to appreciate that the eccentric is at the base of design. On that January day in 2000, after telling Tom my story about Shirley Temple and “Heidi,” Tom kissed me on the forehead, I lay down on the couch, wrapped myself in a blanket, picked up the remote and switched on the television, intending to drown my misery in daytime television.

It tuned to AMC, the last station we had watched. At that particular moment they were broadcasting “Heidi”—the Shirley Temple version.

Let Go Before You Think You Should—For Best Results Use Joy

I throw like a girl.

The ball just never gets very far down the field. So when I saw people at the dog park in Mill Valley flinging balls that  arched gracefully into the air and sailed far down the field, I thought, “Well, here is my dog’s salvation.”

I bought one, took it to the dog park, placed the tennis ball in the Chucker’s claw, pulled my arm back and let fly. The ball landed with a thud in front of me.

My dog was not amused.

As a last resort, I read the instructions on the packaging. The secret to graceful flinging was right there in black and white. “Let go before you think you should.”

Oh.

Well, that has deep meaning.

I was going to write a post about a month ago about people advising others to “Just move on,” from a disappointment, betrayal, loss, or trauma. I find that really annoying. Because, truth is, people do move on. They wake up, their feet hit the floor, they go to work, they buy toilet paper, they go to bed, then wake up the next morning and do life all over again.

What doesn’t happen, and what moving on doesn’t accomplish, is resolution. Life after a life-changing event is not the same, and the ground beneath your feet doesn’t get stable just because on the outside, your everyday life looks the same.

This has been a strange decade for me. It included a tremendous amount of loss. People died. People fell out of my life. I had to move away from Mill Valley, which is close to the ocean and sheltered by Mount Tamalpais—a physical place to which I felt spiritually connected—back to my hometown, a physical place to which I feel no spiritual connection.

Returning threw me into the white water rapids of my past. I thought I had calmed those rapids. But really, I had just given myself time to gain the strength I needed to navigate them.

Writing became my way to navigate the rapids. My writing took on a new depth. I learned how to rewrite. I learned how to love rewriting. I discovered that finding the right word, while arduous, was the way through.

I learned about endurance and that I am resilient.

It’s been over a decade since I learned that essential life instruction in the directions written in black and white on the Chucker’s packaging:

“Let go before you think you should.”

I have thought, well, yes, if only I could learn to let go before I think I should. And then it occurred to me just the other day: that’s how we let go. We always let go before we think we should.

We move on, but grief, betrayal, anger, sadness move on with us, and, blindside us when they arise to remind us that something has changed for us. We are not the same as we were before whatever life-changing event pitched us into change.

And then one day, Aeschylus says it’s through the awful grace of God, we manage to find our footing on the path change has put us on. There is no resolution, closure, justice, or erasure of trauma that gets us there. I think it is simply that we realize we are on life’s path and decide it’s the path we want to be on.

Let go before you think you should. I think that might be what faith is to me.

I learned one other life instruction from product directions. It was from a giant bubble wand—one of those big hoops that make long, giant bubbles. Those bubbles look particularly magical to me.

The directions said that you could use any liquid dish detergent, but for best results, use Joy.

Once Upon a Blue Moon

“Once in a blue moon” either means two full moons in the same month or thirteen full moons in the same year.

At one point in history, the moon did appear to be blue, but that was a result of the ash and gases released when Krakatau erupted. Didn’t have anything to do with the moon being made of blue cheese and ever since I saw a rabbit in the moon, I haven’t been able to see the man in the moon.

I don’t know what any of this has to do with my silence, but I haven’t written a blog for close to a month – since my friend George died. After writing about that, I didn’t know what to say. And then I learned that my friend’s eight-year old granddaughter died – killed in a crosswalk in Prague by a truck driver who was distracted by the weight of his own life.

I really didn’t know what to say after that.

The past decade has been top heavy with loss. I’m sure enduring it has made me stronger. But it’s also made me more fragile – leaving me with the skin of a snake that has just slithered out of its old skin.

I’ve been looking at that old skin, wondering what to do now that I’ve shed it. I’m a little scared to see that it is no longer a part of me. I’ve even tried putting it back on, but that’s like pushing string. It just doesn’t work.

So I have to deal with where I am right now. It’s a little bit scary.

My biggest epiphany as I wrote my way into the New Year in my morning pages was that my rage seems to have burned itself out. I just kind of noticed it was gone – the way the lighthouse keeper wakes up at two in the morning and asks “What’s that?” when the fog horn that goes off every hour on the hour doesn’t go off.

I think that for years my rage was my lighthouse, the homing beacon that showed me the way back to myself when the Greek chorus chanted, “You’re too big for your britches, you’re too big for you’re britches, who do you think you are?” over and over ad infinitum.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve sought out that chorus recently, hoping to find some comfort in the familiar. Like a horse running into the burning barn.

But there is no comfort in what was familiar.

Life is more fragile than I ever imagined. I see the photographs and videos of my friend’s eight-year-old granddaughter and wonder how can this be? How can a life force so strong be snuffed out with so little regard for rhyme and reason?

For some reason, it makes seeking the familiar to keep fear at bay a fool’s errand for me. My choice is to accept change as the only thing that is certain.

So here I am with a new chorus waiting for me to cue them up with a new refrain. And I wonder, what will I write?

Once in a blue moon, something rare happens. Life is fragile. I think it’s important to seize those moments.

The Mystic Chords of Memory

I’m a miserable failure at nanowrimo. By today, I should have written 8000 words. But four days into nanowrimo I have no idea how many words I have written, but it doesn’t even come close to 8000.

happy frog

Frog reacting to the number of words I have written for nanowrimo

I settled yesterday for taking Ernest Hemingway’s advice: write until you’re ready to write tomorrow. That’s where I ended up yesterday; with a character showing up in a way I didn’t expect. And now I have to listen to him to find out why he did that.

That’s what will move the story forward for me.

I have tremendous respect for anyone who can do nanowrimo. I don’t have a clue how they can.

But here’s what committing to nanowrimo did for me: it got me to commit to commit.

I haven’t blogged for a while. As those of you who have been following my blog might know, I have spent the last several months rewriting my story. Not the one that will be published, but the story that I want to live.

autumn light2I had a flurry of blogs during that time. Epiphany followed epiphany; it was easy to write. But epiphanies fall all over themselves during a time of change. Eventually, things calm down. Change happens, and daily life becomes more – well daily. That means that the change has taken effect – and it’s time to integrate it.

For me, that means start living the new story.

I heard the phrase “mystic chords of memory,” as “mystic cords of memory.” Thought that it meant the things that hold you to your past – as if they were tentacles. But chords are much different. They do not hold you to your past so much as give it texture. path autumn light

When I hear Crosby, Stills, and Nash I am transported to the place in myself that felt the music when I first heard it close to forty years ago.

When I hear Mahler’s second (I’m listening to it now), I just get transported to a timeless experience of being human, of being resurrected after a period of loss and grief.

Resurrection is a difficult time for me. To rewrite my story, I had to experience a lot of grief. Grief over loss of what I hoped would be; grief over the death of parents and friends; grief over losing family members who were not willing to be with me in my new story, even though the old one was destructive for me. We want to think that family wants the best for us, but sometimes what family wants is for things to stay the same, for everyone to keep their place, regardless of the damage it may cause the spirit.

chairSuch can be the price of change – learning that those you love, might not have a heart large enough to include you.

As painful as grief is, what is equally hard for me is being willing to step back into my life knowing that I will no doubt experience grief again. Knowing that loss is a part of life and that I have to be willing to grab hold as if life will last forever, and then let go when life shows me that its definition of forever is more subtle than mine.

And so, yesterday, when I realized that I was not going to come close to meeting the goals of nanowrimo, I had to look at what I was doing with my new story. Writing it isn’t enough. I have to live it now.

I said I was a miserable failure at nanowrimo. I actually think I’m a cheerful failure at it. I probably won’t reach the 50,000 word goal this month. But, I am using nanowrimo to focus. Focus on getting the first draft of my novel done.

And that is how I am living my new story. I’m committing to committing. I’m committing to letting go of the mystic cords of memory that tethered me to my past, and instead paying attention to the mystic chords of memory – knowing that they provide texture to my life, and that by letting go, the better angels of my nature will touch those chords – and from them will arise a chorus as life-affirming as that in Mahler’s resurrection symphony.

Note: The reference to mystic chords of memory comes from the last paragraph of Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will, by the better angels of our nature.”

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin – pay attention.

And for you who are up to the task – Go nanowrimoers, go!