Day 37: Sunrise

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Thirty-Seven.

I’m nocturnal. Sunrises, for all their poetry and grandeur, have never been my friend. The idea of a sunrise is poignant and representative of all the things Pinterest and aspirational . There is a reason they use photos of sunrises on which to plaster quotes written in pseudo flex-nib calligraphy. I mean, it’s nice and all. But if I’m seeing sunrise, there are only two reasons, and both of them mean that something is generally wrong.

If I am watching the sun rise from the wrong side—meaning not as the dawn of a new day, but rather as the cruel punctuation point on the end of a long battle with insomnia. I don’t welcome the sun when my old friend visits me, when I have been counting down how many hours of sleep I *could* get if I fell asleep NOW… No, the sunrise seems like a mean “haha!” in the face of my bleary, bloodshot eyes, and what will be my inevitable snarling demeanor for the coming sleepless day.

The other reason I would see the sunrise is not as churlish. I might have gotten some sleep, but if I did sleep, and am awake to see the sunrise, it means something went wrong, and I am functioning on very little sleep. Someone or something woke me up, and see above for the demeanor of the day.

Try as I might through all the incarnations of my life, but I have never been able to reset my longterm circadian rhythms. My mother is a natural morning person, and views this (like so many do, oddly) as a morally superior disposition. Even as a child, my creativity and mind would turn on after dark. That’s when I think best, write best, paint best, plan best, figure life out best… see a best pattern? I can impose an outside structure—and have for long stints of time out of adult necessity, but as soon as I again give myself free rein, I revert to staying up until 2 am, and sleeping until 9 am. I don’t need a ton of sleep; sleeping the day away also sits wrong with me. But seven solid hours, just clicked over three or four variations from standard, and I am happy as a pig in mud.

With very few exceptions, I’m perfectly happy to leave the worms to the ridiculously cheerful and morally superior early birds. I’ll be over here with the curtains pulled.

Day 36: Election Day

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Thirty-Six.

Like the majority of America—Electoral College results aside—I sat watching the returns with an aching heart and more than a tiny bit of fear. It’s now been ten months since that day, and it turns out the tiny kernel of fear in my heart was right to be there.

My daughters went with me to vote that morning, and we all wore white, in solidarity with our suffragette ancestors, to cast my vote for the first major female presidential hopeful. Gallons of ink has been spilled since that morning, and there is nothing I can add that would be in any way meaningful beyond the weight of my actual vote. My heart aches for where we are today. I hope the painful lessons America is receiving will be things we will actually learn from, change, and grow.

My days of distancing myself, of claiming I am “not political”, are behind me. #Resist

Day 35: Things in My Bag

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Thirty-Five.

Over the years of my life, the appearances of my bags have changed, and so have the contents. Every bag I have ever carried, from ones that I love to ones that drove me crazy and I couldn’t wait to set down, needed to be periodically dumped out, sorted and culled. As we move through life, we tend to collect things—especially as women, whose clothing is almost always sub-optimal on the pockets.

When I was young, most of the contents of my bag were things given to me by other people—hand me downs. While I may have chosen the outside to be floral patchwork or a floating hippie skirt, I hadn’t yet learned if the things given to me were valuable or were in need of culling. For a long time, one of the things in my bag was the idea that I Didn’t Follow Through on things, that I was Flighty and Unreliable. I lugged these ideas around in my bag for years. Even when I finally thought I had thrown them away, I found little pieces of them broken off and wedged into the seams and hidden places deep at the bottom of the bag.

Another idea that took years to find and clear out was that I wasn’t Valuable Enough Alone. That one was harder, because it was so tiny, but it was everywhere. I would easily dump out and discard other hand-me-downs, but it took years to notice the film Not Good Enough left on everything I threw in my bag.

As I moved through my life and switched out the hippie backpack (whose strap worked well as a generator belt on my Bug on Hwy 1 one summer—add Resourceful and Competent to the bag!) for a leather bag, I added more things I liked and chose myself, instead of just accepting the things other people gave to me. Adding things like Good Communicator, Sensitive to Others’ Feelings, and Excellent at Teaching Concepts gave me great satisfaction and happiness. My bag was somehow lighter, even though it had more in it, when I took an active role in choosing what to carry.

Today, there are still occasional fragments of old ideas that prick my fingers if I reach in carelessly. Some things are much harder to rid of all trace, and I have found that having  gotten rid of some things leaves me much better able to help other people. That’s another things I like in my modern bag: Insight and Helping.

I’ve added some Calm and some Experience to the Fiery Temper, but have learned that getting rid of things that might be detrimental in large doses isn’t wise— that Fire is actually super useful in certain situations, and my life wouldn’t be the same if I believed people when they said it needed to go. That was just about their personal comfort level with the cold. Turns out Fire is a really good addition to Advocacy, Education and also Love…along with so many other things. I just keep it in a special pocket now; it doesn’t spill nearly as often as it did when I was younger.

What’s in your bag?

Day 34: Candy

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Thirty-Four

Our neighborhood was one of those post-WWII neighborhoods that sprung up for all the returning soldiers and their special girls who would soon create the baby boom. By the time I was born and my parents bought our house, those young families were all grandparents, and their modest GI-bill houses had mature trees and large green yards with apricot trees and lush vegetable gardens. Our neighborhood was populated by Freds and Dons who wore suspenders with their trousers, and Connies and Evelyns who wore lose flowered dresses and costume jewelry that was fashionable 30 years before.

Mostly, I remember the old men. They would sit on the milk-delivery cooler next to their side door, or in a lawn chair next to their front door, and wave as the neighborhood children played and rode our bikes. Fred had two giant orange trees in his front yard that he tended meticulously. Don was friendly, but his wife didn’t speak English and his porch smelled like mothballs.  Mr Frietas would go for a slow walk several times a day, with his hat perched high on his head, and butterscotch candies in his pocket for any child who stopped to say hi.

When the mailman, Mac, would drive up in his post WWII-era re-comissioned Jeep, the men would gather and chat. Looking back, of course they were all veterans, and I can see now patterns that were invisible as a child. Mac would turn off his Jeep some days and join one of them on their porch for a sandwich and a Coke. They’d all wave to us scrappy children paying tag or hide-and-seek. Our neighborhood—the safe, happy children laughing and playing, the huge orange trees, the milk-man who still brought us milk form Edelweiss Dairy, the younger families buying the modest homes as the older folks moved to San Diego—were the culmination of what they had fought for, what they had risked their lives for, and the things for which maybe a Coke and a sandwich with another old man on a sunny porch helped them forget together.

I don’t think any of us kids really liked the cellophane-wrapped butterscotch candies Mr. Frietas would offer from his sweater pocket. But I don’t think a single one of us ever turned one down. We may not have understood why, but we always thanked him and shoved them in our own pockets.

Day 33: Halloween

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Thirty-Three.

I don’t particularly like Halloween. There are isolated happy memories from childhood, running down neighborhood streets with our heavy pillow cases amid a pack of girls in 4th grade. A scratchy home-made princess costume that left my neck chafed and raw while I peeled the glued-on sequins from the want my mother must have carefully crafted. A polyester puppy costume with painted white spots that were stiff and made moving uncomfortable…

I never had a store-bought costume in my life. Just as I wanted to trade my homemade bread and peanut butter sandwiches for a mass-produced Ho-Ho, I also wanted a plastic-masked, cheap Halloween costume from a box. It never happened. Years later, when I caved and bought my own child a costume from Costco, I felt the tiniest bit as though I had failed as a mother. But then, I don’t make homemade bread and fruit leather and my kids have absolutely tasted a Ho-Ho. (They don’t like them, ironically.)

I’ve kind of given up on Halloween at this point in my life. I just don’t care. I don’t decorate for it, and I cannot see the appeal of scattered death and debris around my house and yard. The year is dying, and it doesn’t need my help. I like fall. I like the season changing, the leaves turning, and the days getting colder. I even like the idea of All Saints Eve, when we may honor our dead. But I don’t like to glory in the horror.

Frankly, I’m relieved that my kids are too old to trick-or-treat anymore. They can answer the door and hand out candy—a task I am more than happy to pass on to them, while I get out my knitting and start on the Christmas socks.

There will be pumpkins on the porch, and maybe someone will even carve one—it won’t be me. Pumpkin guts gross me out and I don’t care enough to spend the time doing something I find vile. The closest I’ll come to decorating will be some orange lights on the porch. They look homey more than anything, and I like the warm glow they give on the autumn evenings, as we move through the brownish holidays toward the rebirth of light.

Day 32: Beauty

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Thirty-Two.

I think I’m pretty good at finding beauty in the desert. I think I have a solid track record of looking up when it’s hard to look up, and noticing the amazing people, situations and life happening around me. Part of the collected works of this decade-plus long writing experiment I undertook without having a clue what was to come is that I have a record of noticing the beauty.

There is beauty in having nearly every day of Abigail’s life documented, from the tiny pink line on the pregnancy test, through to today, when she trounced in after school, hot and sweaty from PE, and flopped down on the floor with Tiberius before she even yelled up the stairs, “I’m home!”

There is beauty in the journey from that first life changing diagnosis of autism for Bean nearly twelve years ago, and the path we have taken as a family while learning to advocate, navigate, educate, and expand our idea of what love, success, and happiness look like. There is beauty in the nearly fourteen year-old boy who now takes glee in being taller than me, but who still bends down to hug me every morning.

There is beauty in my giant redheaded boy turning into a man, who still has his hero-heart and volunteers his time in the SpEd resource room when he’s not at football practice. There is beauty in how he embodies the best of both his fathers, and of me, and adds his own enormous joie de vive and gentle, goofy sense of humor.

There is beauty in finding a second family at a place in my life I never imagined, and being so welcomed and fitting so perfectly in that family it feels natural and wonderful. There is beauty beyond comprehension in experiencing not just one great love, but being given the graced-filled chance of a second great love. There is beauty in the utter comfort and familiarity of my own mother’s hands, the laughter of my brothers, and the wry humor and friendship of both my father and my step-father, who are the unlikeliest of friends. There is beauty in the space that friendship has given our family.

There is beauty in the grand, giant dog who lays patiently and hopefully at my feet any time I sit down. He follows me faithfully from room to room as I move through my day, and is waiting earnestly with a body wiggling with happiness on my return. Never mind that he slobber and snores like a bulldozer.

There is even beauty to be found in the difficulties my own country is experiencing right now. Things are hard and uncertain and are even scary and legitimately dangerous. There is beauty in people gathering together, deciding what they believe in, and fighting for the ideals of a country they want to live in. There is beauty in the organization of justice, human rights, civil rights, and the branches of the government checking and balancing themselves, even amid the crazy. There is beauty and hope in the notion that old ideas can be discarded and placed in museums were they will become relics, and in the space created, maybe the great leaders of our future might find the room to unfurl their wings and fly.

Day 31: Mourning

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Thirty-One.

Oh sweet Jesus, where do I start with this one? As I type, David’s ashes are in a small, white paper-wrapped box in my antique book cabinet over my right shoulder. The only other person I can remember deeply mourning was my grandma when she died in 1999. The losses I have experienced have been mostly temporal; only two people who I deeply loved have died, and neither of them wanted a funeral or services of any kind.

Because of honoring their wishes, I have come to better understand the need for mourning rituals. While I deeply believe that whatever the wishes the departed, they need to be honored, I can also clearly see the importance of having something to demarcate the before and after for those who go on living. My own children desperately want a permanent place to go an visit their father, and I do not believe that place is in the bookcase in my office.

Having a final resting place somehow places the punctuation on the life.

There is an unfinished-ness to their emotions, to my own emotions, knowing that David does not yet have that wild rose bush (with wicked thorns specifically requested) that he told me he wanted. Our children want to pick a meaningful stone, carved carefully with his names and the dates of his time on earth, and with a quote that he loved. They want to take him flowers and sit and visit with him, and I finally understand the cathartic and healing finality this act places on a life and death.

But how am I mourning? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know what that actually means. I talk to both my grandma and to David when I miss them, and sometimes the loss still hits me in the chest like a claw-hammer. Is that mourning? I miss David’s wit and wisdom and his unparalleled insight into human nature in general, and into our children in particular. They are so lucky to have had him as a father, and I wish I could tell him that and see his face. I miss my grandma’s hands resting on mine, telling me that everything would be okay. I keep a bag of grapes in my freezer, and snack on them like little frozen popsicles, just as she did. The smell of Oil of Olay makes me cry. The sent of Sandalwood and rose does the same. I can close my eyes and feel them near, and then my doubting mind kicks in and I wonder at the meaning of anything.

My faith fails me here.

So I hope. I hope they are close. I hope David can hear me when I sit in the quiet car and talk to him, tears running down my face, like we used to on the phone. When I tell him what the kids are up to—as though he doesn’t know otherwise?—I hope he can help spark my receptive mind to know what’s right for them on any given day. I tell stories of my grandma and her 18K gold necklace that said “Oh Shit” she wore when I was a child. It’s in the genes, I’m afraid, and they laugh. I hope she is close sometimes. I hope she knows how much I love her. I hope David knows what he means to us still. I hope they both have the answers they wanted and needed, and I hope I get to see them again someday.

That’s everything I have; my hope.

Day 30: Road Trip

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Thirty.

We love road trips in my family. Maybe it was because we couldn’t really afford to take fancy airplane vacations. Maybe it was because my dad is a hunter and his idea of a vacation was driving to some remote wilderness and camping. Maybe it was because we lived in one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire world and had access to the entire coast of California. I don’t really know. But we took a lot of road trips.

The most frequent road trip we took was to head south on Interstate 5 and get off on Harbor Blvd in Anaheim. We did it so many times that we knew all the landmarks, trees, street signs, and even just exactly where the Matterhorn would be visible from the freeway. This was my mom’s passion, and she shared it with anyone and everyone.

Our trips to Disneyland from San Francisco were undertaken in our old Volkswagen Vanagon. It was a four-speed manual transmission, had a tape deck, and the air conditioning consisted of shoving open the uncooperative sliding windows in the back. It held my mom, my siblings and several other people, depending on how many of us double-buckled. We even had a folding lawn chair that we could place between and just behind the two front seats where another adult could ride. We may have looked like the Beverly Hillbillies going down the road, but man, did we have fun.

Twice a year, my mom and her sister would have a yard sale with the sole purpose of selling the junk they’d accumulated over the year in order to finance another trip to Disneyland. I honestly don’t even know how many times we made that drive, or how many days of my life has been spent in the Happiest Place on Earth. I could take friends with us, and my cousin Heather (Auntie Heather now to my kids) and Crazy Chicken Annie were almost always with us. We’d stay at the cheapest motel we could find, where the bottom of the pool was so rough it skinned your knees and feet, and we’d crawl through the hole someone else cut in the chain-link fence to create a shortcut into the parking lot, where we would skip to the entrance queues in a race to see who could place their foot inside the park first.

Disneyland wasn’t the juggernaut it is today, and you could still find a super cheap hotel in the parking lot, and still find yourself in an uncrowded park, and you could go for days on end with your pass. There was no California Adventure, and it wasn’t yet the Disneyland Resort, but simply Disneyland, with it’s retro-but-original 1950’s sign poking over the flashing cheap motel signs on Harbor Blvd.

Some of the best memories of my life took place in that van on that stretch of I-5, headed south to Disneyland.

Day 29: Birth Order

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty-Nine.

I was the first born grandchild on both sides of my family. My mother was barely 20 when I was born, and it would be years before I had a cousin, let alone a sibling. For all of my first memories, I was the sole recipient of the love of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and close family friends. That centrality and certainty of that love absolutely formed a foundation for my sense of self.

I had just turned seven when my first brother came along, and I don’t think I took very kindly to being knocked off my perch of Most Important—though I loved him wildly.  It was five years later, on the edge of entering my teens, that my second brother was born. The distance between our births wasn’t planned, but it effected our early relationships in profound ways. The year I graduated from high school, the youngest started Kindergarten.

For years there was a disconnect; it’s hard to relate to siblings at such divergent milestones of development. I was figuring out how to live on my own while my brother was learning to write his name. I was getting married and having my first baby while my other brother was trying to graduate from high school. My relationship with both of them was close, but for a long time I was more of a distant sort of amalgamation of parent-sibling to my youngest brother. It’s not so anymore.

As we have gotten older, the gap between us emotionally has closed but geographically we are scattered further than any of us would like.  Technology allows us to stay connected in ways we couldn’t when we were younger. We talk frequently, and text ridiculous memes and funny pictures of our kids. We are all married and raising our children, we are all navigating the normal routines of adulthood: spouses, school events, parent-teacher conferences, and employment conflicts and resolutions.

When I was 23, my dad added another sibling, a daughter. She and I are literally a generation apart, further than my own mother and me. I haven’t ever really had the chance to know her, and she’s an adult now. There aren’t any bad feelings there—just a sort of vacancy, where I don’t know her at all, other than having the same father, our upbringings share nothing. Perhaps some day that gap will shrink, too.

Day 28: Indulge

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I dropped the ball for a stretch of months, and I guess I wrote a book in those months, so it wasn’t for nothing. But I need to flex my writing muscles again. Instead of avoiding my next book (which I have been doing by painting the dining room, painting a four-foot picture of a roaring bear holding the state of California, and distracting myself with social media) I am finally putting my butt in the chair and starting to write. Again. Round and round the mulberry bush we go…

Resuming the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty-Eight.

In one of my favorite astrology books by Suzanne White, there is a paragraph that has always made me laugh in it’s pinpoint specificity:

“However sweet [she] might be she does have one little fault: she flies into the most impressive rages you will ever see on the planet. For a long time, things will go along smoothly…and you think she is the most pleasant and intelligent and warmhearted soul alive. Then, suddenly, the moment arrives when [she] considers some arbitrary event the limit. What you think is a wounded moose bounding off your living room walls is just [Tracy] having one of [her] moments. Head for the kitchen. Open the fridge and start throwing food. Food is the only cure I know for [her] fury.”

David used to quote this to me, softly laughing as he gingerly handed me an open container of Cherry Garcia and a fork. (Ice cream should always be consumed with a fork, don’t you know?) Jon has learned to bring me cheese along with flowers on anniversaries and holidays.

We need bread and roses. Indulgence is simply part of the weft and weave of a life well-lived. My soul doesn’t thrive in asceticism. Even in my worst years of poverty, when I had food stamps in my wallet and charity provided my very kitchen, I found ways to nourish my soul. I planted sunflower seeds outside my front door, and gloried in the bombastic, heavy-headed bursts during the fall. I splurged on a ridiculous and impractical nail polish that made me smile every time the sun glinted off my golden fingertips. I sewed thrift-store trim and salvaged lace into the dresses I made for Abby. It’s the little things.

Today, my days are more stable than they have been my entire adult life. I find my appreciation for the simple things in life to be enhanced by the sooty fires I was forced to walk though. I don’t really want to wash the stains from my hands, the scars from my skin, because they have made me who I am. While I still absolutely want to win the cheese lottery, it’s also true that the play of green leaves dancing outside and the thready song of the late summer whippoorwill floating in through the open window bring me great joy. In every way possible, I have a room of my own, and that is so much more of an indulgence than I ever dared hope.

And it also means that less and less often is it necessary for someone to fling open the refrigerator and throw Ben & Jerry’s at me. But it still does happen…