Category Archives: Friends

sequel (47/99)

“When you were 15, what did you think you’d be doing now?”

We were at lunch and my co-worker had posed the question as part of a conversation we were having about the pressure to go immediately to a four year college, rather than saving a significant amount of money by taking basic classes elsewhere (such as at a community college) or by pursuing a trade.

I knew my answer immediately.

“I was going to be living in New York City, writing my latest bestselling novel (the first bestseller having been published by the time I was 18, of course) and having a fabulous career.”

(If those words sound familiar, you either knew me when I was 15 or you’ve watched at least the first 15 seconds of my Listen to Your Mother video.)

At 47, the closest I am to living in the Big Apple is the fact that we have an apple tree in our backyard.  In Pittsburgh.  And yes, I have a career, the same one for the past 25 years now and one that I generally like and (in my opinion) am pretty good at.  And I am indeed writing a novel (or a memoir, or a collection of linked stories) — the same one I’ve been writing on and off for years, and which probably won’t be a bestseller because my last name isn’t Kardashian.

Several times this week my younger years have crept into my present. They’re always there, of course — they’re not called one’s formative years for nothing.  I’m sure that has to do with the release of my Listen to Your Mother video since my piece focuses on my teenage years in a significant way. I also spent Tuesday evening in the company of the one and only Judy Blume, who wrote the script for my adolescence and every else’s in the sold out crowd.  (I know, I promised you a post. I’m working on it.)

My girl and I got to the Judy Blume lecture more than 90 minutes early, snagging a good spot in line and seats in the third row. While we waited, I started re-reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret on my Kindle. As I posted on Facebook, there’s only one book to read while waiting for Judy Blume.

Are You There God

(Incidentally, did you know that Judy Blume wrote Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in approximately six weeks?!  It’s true; she told us so herself on Tuesday night.)

So I sat there reading and being transported back in time to my pre-teen self. My girl’s main reason for coming was to “see an icon” (clearly, I’ve taught her well) and to get an autographed copy of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret for HER best friend, who lives in Texas and who she had plans with for today.

Those plans changed due to a death in their family, but we still managed to get the girls together for a quick breakfast at Panera this morning. While the girls sat inside laughing and talking for an hour and catching up, I sat outside on the patio, finishing Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and keeping an eye on the girls without being intrusive on their conversation.

It felt somewhat surreal, watching the bond between my girl and her BFF and reading this pivotal book from when I was almost their age.  I believe books (even ones we’ve read previously) have a way of finding us when we need them most, not unlike how a good friend shows up when we’re struggling.

The themes within Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret of changing bodies, friendships, and questioning the beliefs handed down from one’s parents seem especially resonant for both me and my girl right now.  We’re both dealing with changing dynamics within friendships and while neither real-life story is one that can be told in this space, suffice it to say both have been difficult and painful journeys.

On Tuesday night, I was trying to think of a question for Judy Blume that wasn’t the usual stuff of author Q & A (“how do you get your ideas?”  “what advice do you have for aspiring writers?”). This morning, it occurred to me that I would love to know what Margaret Simon, Nancy Wheeler, Gretchen Potter, and Janie Loomis are up to now at 58 years old. Did Margaret ever find religion or is she still searching?

Sitting at the Panera reading Judy Blume, I was mentally kicking myself for not asking her if she had ever considered writing a sequel of sorts to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

While seeing life come full circle by watching my girl and her friend, I realized that perhaps we didn’t need a sequel to know how their lives turned out.

Life has already written it for us.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #47 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

 

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And Then We Practice (39/99)

On the Road (1)

I’m afraid of saying or writing the wrong thing.

Of using the wrong words.

Of sounding like I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

Of having someone tell me that this something I have no business talking about.

Of offending someone (or several someones) who I care about and who I love.

I’m talking, of course, about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two Black men killed at the hands of police within 24 hours.

Still, I really do feel my words are inadequate, and I worry that they may be misperceived by my friends who care deeply about the issues of racism in this country and by my friends who are in law enforcement.

In such situations, I tend to turn to the words of others.  Or stay silent. It feels … safer.

(Which is a bit ironic and sad, I know.)

But I can’t stay silent because people who I care about are hurting today.

People like my new friend Danielle.

Danielle and her husband have two children who are mixed-race. They’re the most adorable boys.  Her post was the first one I read on Facebook this morning, and she’s given me permission to share it.

“Periodically we stop by or walk my oldest Jack to see the police cars and fire trucks, one [because] like most kids his age he thinks they are cool, and two because I’m trying to keep him safe. We tell them things like… “Boys, someday when you are driving like mommy and daddy do, or if you are just walking around, when you see a police car, if it asks you to stop, always Just say yes sir and keep your hands visible on the steering wheel or still and on your head if you get pulled over or stopped (and then we practice).”

And then we practice.

Let that sink in a moment.

As you do, consider this:

Danielle’s oldest boy is TWO YEARS OLD.

Who is practicing what to do if he gets pulled over.

It should outrage everyone — EVERYONE — that we are living in a world where a 2 year old child needs to practice what to do if he gets pulled over by a police officer.

It certainly outrages me.

Because this precious two year old boy — and his 10 month old brother — should not have this as their reality.

Their parents shouldn’t have conversations like these with their toddlers, as Danielle tells her boys.

“You keep all your car stuff up to date, and you pay the fines. You wear a belt like daddy so your pants don’t sag. You wear clothing that fits you always, and never a hoodie. You keep your teeth white and your body tattoo free. And then you be quiet unless they ask you a question. And you always have your mom and dads phone numbers memorized. Tell any passengers to video your talk completely…. And pray baby boy.” This is what I’m doing with my 2.5 year old and it makes me sick. I’m doing it because I feel I have to, to try to keep my kids remotely prepared and safe.” 

That’s all any of us want to do for our kids.  To keep them safe. And, it goes without saying, alive.

I may not know the right words to say about this horrible injustice, but you know who else doesn’t?

A two year old boy.

The one who is practicing.

 

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #39 of 99 of my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

 

 

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we could all die any day

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (65)

It’s been seven days since the news broke and I’m still listening to Prince at top volume in the car, still singing at the top of my lungs about doves crying and horses running free. I’ve exhausted my inventory of appropriate-for-work purple clothing.

My kids are perplexed at this behavior. “So, when did you become so crazy about Prince?” they half-sneer, their teenage mortification on full display.

We see this attitude frequently, The Husband and I, whenever we give off any indication that we are … well, human.  The eye-rolls when we kiss goodbye in the morning for a few seconds longer than usual with a sly slip of tongue or when we dance in the kitchen when our wedding song shuffles into queue on Spotify. To our offspring, we have no life besides folding laundry and cooking dinner, and despite our assurances to the contrary, we never did. And we certainly have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager. Never were we caught up in the adolescent maelstrom of emotions and hormones and young jungle love.

My attempts at explaining my sudden Prince obsession fall flat with my kids.  Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a passionate Prince fan, I have an appreciation of his music and his artistry.  And, like all of us who came of age in the mid-’80s, Prince’s music is an indelible part of the mixtape of my life.

Which is why, like everyone else, I was shocked upon hearing Prince had died.  Thursday was a surreal day; I wasn’t feeling well and took a sick day from work. By mid-afternoon, I felt well enough to pick up my son from school for a previously-scheduled doctor’s appointment. We were early, for once, with enough time to stop home so I could throw dinner in the crockpot.

“I texted you,” my husband said, greeting me as we walked in the house.  “Prince is dead. Flu-like symptoms, they’re saying.”

I stopped in my tracks.  If anyone knows how possible it is to drop dead of the flu in one’s prime, it’s my family. In 1985, my dad was a relatively healthy father of two teenagers when he got the flu.  Unbeknownst to any of us, the virus was silently and quickly attacking his heart and at 44, he became fourth in line on the transplant list at Philadelphia’s best hospital for when your heart breaks. He died several hours later, having been sick for less than a week.

We could all die any day. 

The aftermath of my father’s death ushered in several confusing and sad years for me.  In college, it was easy to party like it was 1999 because that represented a life we couldn’t fathom from our dorm rooms — Christ, we would be goddamned geriatrics when we turned the century, forty fucking years old.  It felt impossible, far in the future. We made a solemn, beer-buzzed pact: no matter what happened in this life, we’d be together on New Year’s Eve 1999, dancing our lives away.

We weren’t, of course. We became scattered and unknown to each other. Close friends we thought would be in our lives forever went missing, our long conversations now silent.  Instead of partying like it was 1999, we became adults, on edge and hunkered down with emergency cash from the ATM, cases of water and canned goods and duct tape, backups of our financial lives at the ready for Y2K, a moniker that could have been ripped from a Prince album.

Now on this side of 1999, in this strange year when nostalgia becomes more and more clouded with sadness and when we face our own medical crises and wonder just how much of our time and minds are left, our own Judgment Day feels closer than ever. Prince was right; two thousand zero zero really did mean we would be out of time or damn close to it.

I can’t convey all this to my wiser-than-their-years kids when they ask why I’m blasting Prince’s Little Red Corvette in my decidedly uncool red Chevy HHR as I shuttle them around town.  And part of me doesn’t want to.

Let them believe they have all the time in the world.

 

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currently … wrapping up christmas

Christmas Eve - presents

Christmas Eve, 2015

Currently
It’s our last night of our Christmas vacation in Philly. We’ve been here just shy of a week, enjoying a nice balance of seeing family and friends (usually over brunch or dinner) while also having some downtime (usually spent reading or writing).  It’s always impossible to fit in everyone who we’d like to see and all we’d like to do, but I think it worked out well this time.

Tomorrow’s a travel day back to the “Burgh, then I’m off on Tuesday. Whenever possible, I try to give myself a “re-entry day” on the tail end of these trips. It’s back to work on Wednesday — along with one final dentist appointment this year to use up some insurance dollars — before another few remaining vacation days segue into a long weekend.

Christmas Reading

Like FamilyRDear Mr. You

I admit, I’m scrambling to meet my goal of 52 books read in 2015.  Right now, my tally is 47 (much lower than previous years).  This may be attainable if I stick to shorter books, but I’m not sure.

Reading short books was my strategy for this trip.  So far on this vacation, I’ve read one —Like Family by Paolo Giordano. I was so excited to see this one at the library because I loved (but, sadly, didn’t review) his previous novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers.  I really liked this new one, which I breezed through in a few hours (if that). Told in flashback and set in Italy, it’s about a couple who hire a housekeeper, Mrs. A., to help out during a difficult pregnancy and who stays on as a nanny for several years. After Mrs. A. is diagnosed with cancer, she decides to leave the household abruptly. The book, then, is about how she has changed the course of the couple’s marriage and their lives.

Right now I’m reading Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker, which is incredibly well-written and very likely to be on my favorites list. This exactly the reason why I usually don’t post my best-of lists before year’s end; this time of year often brings more opportunities than usual to read and more often than not, something I read while we finish up this trip around the sun surprises and delights me.  Dear Mr. You is going to be that book. The concept is fantastic: it’s structured as a collection of letters that Ms. Parker has written to each of the significant men in her life.

Christmas Not Reading …
For the past few years, I’ve enjoyed spending part of Christmas week with a holiday-themed story. The timing of this needs to be carefully considered and calibrated; I don’t like to start this particular book much before Christmas Eve and I like to be finished by the day after Christmas. This started in 2011 when I reviewed A Clockwork Christmas, a collection of four steampunk tales.

A Christmas Carol was my 2012 selection, followed by The Chimes last year. (I’m not sure what happened in 2013. Maybe A Christmas Carol again, I don’t know.)  I wasn’t impressed with The Chimes, and I was even less enamored with this year’s selection, The Cricket on the Hearth. Slightly less than halfway through this one, there was still no sign of Christmas in Dickens’ long-winded and discombobulated narrative.  This happened to be one of my Classics Club selections, too (although not the one for this most recent spin), so I’ll probably replace it with something.

Christmas Listening …
Between wrapping gifts and a few bouts of insomnia, I’ve been listening to more podcasts than usual. Here are some of the best:

The Writer’s Almanac: “The Meeting” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (12/25/2015)
Such a perfect poem for Christmas when you’re missing someone special.

Burnt Toast: “Someone Put a Diaper on the Turkey” (12/17/2015)
Listeners’ stories of hilarious holiday disasters involving food.

New Yorker Poetry: Ellen Bass Reads Adam Zagajewski (12/16/2015)
Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” resonated with me.

On Being: Martin Sheen: Spirituality of Imagination (12/16/2015)
Fantastic interview with actor and activist Martin Sheen about his spirituality.

“Yeah, the love that I longed for, and I think all of us really long for, is knowing that we are loved. A knowingness about our being that unites us to all of humanity, to all of the universe. That despite ourselves, we are loved. And when you realize that, and you embrace that, you begin to look at everyone else and you can see very clearly who in your vision knows they’re loved and who does not. And that makes all the difference. And I began to give thanks and praise for that love. You know how, so often, people say they go on this journey — and I said it, too — that “I’m looking for God.” But God has already found us, really. We have to look in the spot where we’re least likely to look, and that is within ourselves. And when we find that love, that presence, deep within our own personal being — and it’s not something that you can earn, or something that you can work towards. It’s just a realization of being human, of being alive, of being conscious. And that love is overwhelming. And that is the basic foundation of joy. And we become enviable joyful. And then we see it in others, and we seek to ignite that love in others. You can’t do it. You can’t force someone to realize they’re loved, but you can show them.” – Martin Sheen

The Moth Podcast: Eve Plumb and The Pittsburgh StorySLAM (12/15/2015) 
Eve Plumb (you know her as Jan Brady) is hilarious in this episode of The Moth where she shares stories about her childhood on and off the set of The Brady Bunch, and her relationship with her mother. In another story (not involving Eve Plumb or Jan Brady), a slideshow of photos intended for an audience of two winds up being shown at a family gathering.

Christmas Shopping …
The Husband, The Girl, and I all received some great books for Christmas — and The Girl and I went on a little bit of a shopping spree (thanks to her Christmas cash burning a hole in her pocket) at two local independent bookstores.  I need to wrap up this post, though, and get to bed, so I’ll plan on doing that recap separately.

Anticipating … 
I can’t believe this is the last Sunday Salon/Currently for 2015!  I really like doing these posts (even though they tend to take me forever) and in looking back over my blogging this year, oftentimes they’ve been the only posts I’ve written in a particular week.  I’m hoping to remedy that in 2016.

In addition to the book haul from this week, I have a few other fun posts planned.  Hope your holidays were good ones and that you have a great last week of 2015!

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and i do come home at christmas

“And I do come home at Christmas. We all do, or we all should. We all come home, or ought to come home, for a short holiday–the longer, the better–from the great boarding-school, where we are for ever working at our arithmetical slates, to take, and give a rest. As to going a visiting, where can we not go, if we will; where have we not been, when we would; starting our fancy from our Christmas Tree!

Away into the winter prospect. There are many such upon the tree! On, by low-lying, misty grounds, through fens and fogs, up long hills, winding dark as caverns between thick plantations, almost shutting out the sparkling stars; so, out on broad heights, until we stop at last ….” ~ Charles Dickens

We traveled across the state, over low-lying, misty, foggy hills. Into a brief blue of dawn and the brume of day.

There are sugar cookies waiting. Books for reading.  Dinner plans with friends who are like family. Who are our family.

It is good to be home.

 

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finish line

Clouds - Pittsburgh 12-2-2015One of my college friends died suddenly last night.

Amidst the maelstrom of emotions still swirling since The Husband’s medical situation on Thanksgiving, this loss has me shaken. There are too many similarities. The timing of this. It’s too close.

We hadn’t been in touch for years but that’s the thing with our college — it doesn’t matter if you last spoke to someone yesterday or 25 years ago.  We were there at a time when our school was small enough to know everyone. You became family.

I kept up with him through his twin brother.  After all, if you knew one twin, you knew the other. They were inseparable, always together. They were legendary on a campus where we were so close-knit, connected like family. We all felt like they were our brothers. They just had that way about them.

And now? Well, now it’s impossible to think of a world where they’re not together, confusing the hell out of everyone because they looked and acted so much alike. Jokesters.  Always ready with a smile, a laugh.

They were cross-country runners and in a way, that’s what makes this such a shock. Because it doesn’t seem possible that someone with that kind of endurance, who was a champion competitor, could be taken so quickly and unexpectedly.

Somewhere, there’s a picture of both of them in my high school yearbook, in the background during an invitational meet that my school hosted every autumn.  We would discover this coincidence a few years later. There we are, my friend said, pointing out himself and his brother in grainy black and white. A snapshot in time.

My memories of that time can sometimes seem like that.  An image, a moment, a visage of what we were and hoped to be. A random capture, like the photo I snapped today of the changing clouds that greeted me upon leaving work at the end of this heavy day. A burst of yellow light, a streak of pink. A feathery wisp.

More and more often, that’s what this life seems to be like sometimes.  Fleeting. A flash and a blur. Our finish line around the corner, always just out of sight.

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write the hell out of this life

Daffodil in rain

When it came to writing, Ryan Mooney was among the best.

I wrote about my friend Ryan here, a few days ago in the midst of the unknowing. There are some answers now with the finality that his death brings, but the big question of why will linger always in the chasm that remains with this loss.

Maybe if I had paid more attention to what I didn’t see. Maybe if I had somehow known to reach out at precisely the right moment.

I am not the only one haunted by the what-if’s. I am not the only one who will always wonder why.

Since getting the devastating news earlier this week, I’ve tried – to no avail – to find some Facebook conversations Ryan and I shared, probably a year or so ago. The fluidity of time is a bitch to the psyche; in an online world where everything remains for posterity, the messages we exchanged seem to be gone, vanished – yet I remember them and I will treasure the heartfelt connection they held. We’ve all been in that dark place of betrayal by people who we loved and who we thought loved us.  In our emails back then, I wanted Ryan to understand that I knew exactly where he had been at that low point.

I only wish that I knew where he was in this most recent emotional place.

Most of our all-too-few conversations, though, were about writing. Nearly four years ago, I decided to attend a meeting of the Pittsburgh South Writers Group. It was about 45 minutes from my home and I didn’t know anyone there. I could count on one hand the number of people I knew in Pittsburgh (and that included my husband and two kids). I didn’t have anyone here – besides The Husband – who I would characterize as a friend. All I knew was that, in this new town of mine, more than 325 miles away from Philadelphia and everyone and everything that was familiar to me, I needed to connect with people who appreciated good writing and were dedicated to creating it.

There were some very good writers in the Pittsburgh South Writers Group. Still are. But right away, Ryan stood out to me and several of our peers.  I can’t remember the first piece of his that I read, but I knew immediately he was tremendously talented and a unique voice with incredible potential.  I could see that out of some deep pain came some of the funniest, daring, and amazingly real writing I’d ever read. He was serious about his writing and it showed.

Since his passing, I’ve become friendly with one of Ryan’s friends from the online writing community, LitReactor. Holly captured Ryan’s writing so well with this words in her post, “Gone But Never Forgotten”:

Ryan guarded himself with the fortress of his stories. His narrative was gritty and raw—a badge of honor having survived years of addiction and depression. He protected the chasm of his heart with characters that were as complex as he was. Ryan’s unabashed personality and unflinching honesty about his life revealed itself in every story he crafted. But nestled within sentences was a vulnerability, a tenderness that lived in the marrow of the skeleton of his plots. Ryan’s need for acceptance lived within the viscera of immaculate mechanics and tendons of run-on sentences he loved to use, yet his yearning for self-acceptance was an ending that would never reach fruition. Like an eclipse, such self-doubt shadowed Ryan’s limitless potential as a writer and often obscured his ability to see the effect his writing had on those fortunate enough to read his work.

Ryan was among those who I trusted to provide feedback on my current work-in-progress, a story that I’ve described as being one that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. Currently a novel, it might become a memoir or a collection of linked stories. Ryan knew how deeply personal this story was to me, how potentially controversial, and he treated it with the utmost respect, providing such helpful critiques.

Like Holly, I’ve been thinking also about what words Ryan and I would have shared if we’d had the chance to have another conversation about writing. Out of nowhere, a phrase came to me the other day. An urgent whisper, perhaps.

Write the hell out of this life.

Maybe it’s original, maybe it’s not. Whatever it is, I’d like to think it is some sort of lesson that can be taken from Ryan’s life and his approach to the written word. Because that’s exactly what he did, in every sense. He wrote the hell out of life by writing hard. He put in the time and did the work. He was committed. And with his passing, I think he would expect – no, demand – that his writer friends do the same. To re-commit to our work. To be as good as we possibly can be. And most importantly, to be that friend that others may not always know they need. Perhaps that’s the takeaway I’m looking for. Perhaps it’s part of the solace I need.

Because like so many others,I am heartbroken that Ryan’s story ended the way it did. I’m angry and devastated that we’ll never learn what the next chapter held. He had so much more to give. Speaking for myself, I had so much more to learn from him and so much more feedback I would have loved to have had from him, one of the best critics I knew.

In the wake of his death, I give you “Hardboiled Hell,” one of Ryan’s short stories. It’s classic Ryan, full of edge and the sly wordplay those of us who were privileged to read his work loved and knew so well, and which delighted and surprised us, again and again and again. I hope you will take a minute to read it and think about it. (It’s not quite what it might seem.)

As I re-read his story again a few nights ago, I was struck by the reference to the song “Meet Me In Heaven” by Johnny Cash and written by Roseanne Cash.I don’t know the song, so of course I turned to Google and found this:

We saw houses falling from the sky
Where the mountains lean down to the sand
We saw blackbirds circling ’round an old castle keep
And I stood on the cliff and held your hand
We walked troubles brooding wind swept hills
And we loved and we laughed the pain away
At the end of the journey, when our last song is sung
Will you meet me in Heaven someday
[Chorus] Can’t be sure of how’s it’s going to be
When we walk into the light across the bar
But I’ll know you and you’ll know me
Out there beyond the stars
We’ve seen the secret things revealed by God
And we heard what the angels had to say
Should you go first, or if you follow me
Will you meet me in Heaven someday
Living in a mansion on the streets of gold
At the corner of Grace and Rapture Way
In sweet ecstasy while the ages roll
Will you meet me in Heaven someday
In sweet ecstasy while the ages roll
Will you meet me in Heaven someday

See you there, my friend.

With heartfelt thanks to Holly Bella Toschi for permission to share her words and to Ryan’s mom for allowing me to share her son with you.

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