Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Heart at Sea

Years ago, I went to the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. and saw a collection that had been donated to the school by an old couple who lived in a tiny house in a blue collar community. They had hundreds of great works by modern artists in their home—lining the halls of their 3-bedroom ranch. In boxes. And crates. In the basement, the attic and stuffed into the spare bedrooms. I forget how many millions this collection was worth, but after a lifetime of collecting, this old couple gave the whole thing away.

When I stepped through the entrance, "The Heart at Sea" was the first painting I saw. It was a bit abstract, modern and not my "thing" per se. But I stood in front of it for a long time and became transfixed. The black sea was a tangled mess of angry strokes, turbulent and textured, with the red dash of a heart lost in the mix.

I felt the painting viscerally.

This may well have been the first time I'd had such a reaction to a piece of art, aside from the first time I saw "Le Victoire de la Samothrace" in the Louvre. Seeing that famous sculpture in person took my breath away and I felt as though the wind swept around both me and the robes of the marble figure. I felt the the lift of the wings. Maybe that was my surprise—that rock could have so much life.

And here was a painting, abstract, modern, heavy-handed and black and it almost brought me to tears. At the time, I'd just left my husband of ten years, I was skeletal in my despair and my sense of loss. I stood there a wisp of my former self, not knowing where to go, not knowing who to turn to, completely and utterly alone for the first time in my life. And believe me, I understood that heart at sea.

I'd suffered from panic attacks for the first time since I was a teenager, when I lived with an alcoholic, fretting that she'd drink herself to death and I'd find her cold body with the break of day. Those same palpitations that felt everything like what I suspected a heart attack would feel like, snuck up on me in the night. I crouched on my living room floor at 3 a.m., unable to sleep, preoccupying my hands with cutting up words in magazines and making poetry out of them.

My heart would catch in my throat and flutter, and flutter some more, and not stop. I couldn't catch my breath, and I wondered how long it would take someone to find my body in my empty house. Everyone kept asking me my dieting secret. I'd dropped twenty pounds in two months and no one believed me when I said it was anxiety and stress.

I had a hummingbird heart and it beat a drum in my chest all day and night.

As I stared at that painting, I noticed an oddity of modernity that at first I did not like. There appeared to be a stick of wood stapled to the canvas. I found it out of place and too kitsch-y. It was painted a sloppy yellow. But as I stood and stared, lost in the rumbling sea, and the bleeding, drowning heart—my eye was drawn to that yellow beam of wood.

A beacon in a storm-tossed sea, for a storm-tossed heart.

A way home.

Last night I lay on my bed and thought of you. My heart fluttered and not in that panicky-way, but for joy. I remembered the late night heart palpitations and feeling so lost and unloved I didn't know what I would do. I remembered what it was to be a heart at sea. And for once, I didn't feel lost.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Fazed by Nothing, Awed by Everything

Took this in the middle of writing this blog. MULTI-TASKING!
It's no secret that I've been seeking peace and equanimity my whole life. As a child I used to climb a tree in my yard and hug it to my little body as tightly as I could. Something about the seeming permanence of the tree, the solidity of it, the depth of its roots and the height of its branches—all made me feel safe. What was going on inside my house was definitely not safe. I imagined that the tree was my mother, holding me in the arms of its branches and I was soothed.

So it was that I was seeker from way back. When I hit college I found a deep connection to Buddhism and that helped lend me a certain sense of peace. At least I felt like I had found some answers. When the Buddha said, "Life is suffering," I said, "Hell yeah!" I feel like he got where I was coming from and knew which way to guide me. 

I've also spent a lot of time in therapy. I saw my first therapist at 14 and I've kind of been in therapy, off and on, ever since. I've learned a lot from my therapists. A lot of that has coincided with what Buddhism has taught me. I've learned to not be so attached to my ego—or at least be aware of when my ego is bumping up against itself and/or others.

A lesson I learned in my twenties and thirties was that everything wasn't about me. That blew my mind. As a child who felt abandoned by her parents, I was pretty well convinced that everything was my fault. My mom drank because I was a bad kid. My dad left us because I was a bad kid. You get the idea. Kids are all ego.

But see, you're supposed to let go of that as you get older. If you don't have anyone there to guide you to that knowledge, to support and cradle you in their arms—soothe you—well, you might get stuck there. So I had to pay for that love and knowledge. I think I bought my first therapist's Lexus.

Totally worth it, by the way.

Now that I'm in my forties, I'm continuing to seek solace and peace of mind. My husband and I have found a terrific marriage counselor who complements our work with our individual therapists. Something I've learned from her is that we're always going to annoy each other.

I know. We've paid her a lot of money to learn that.

The thing is, it's okay if we annoy each other. It's not the end of the world. I think I'm the sort of person who can panic over everything. Any disagreement or irritation can be a sign that everything is about to go to hell.

But it's not like that anymore.

Maybe it was like that when I was a little girl who had to escape to the trees. But now I'm a grown woman with a lot of resources. I don't have to be so rattled by every little thing. As I wrote yesterday, if I allow myself to worry over every little thing, I'm ruining a really great time in my life.

This morning, I heard another snippet of wisdom from a different yoga teacher.

"Fazed by nothing, awed by everything."

That's how the yogis live. And that's how the buddhas live too. It's what I've been looking for my whole life. Things are going to go wrong. People will disappoint you. Crap will break in your house. And truly terrible things will happen. But if we can maintain our own inner stability in the face of it all, we can keep our feet planted on the ground. We can trust the deep roots of our own abilities and spirit to persevere. And we can be present enough to enjoy the beautiful moments that are happening all around us, all the time.

Right now, even. In this moment here.

I want to live like that. Fazed by nothing, awed by everything. Hard times will come and go. You will survive them. You'll survive them even when you're quite convinced they'll kill you. I've been hurt so badly I thought I'd never breathe again let alone love again.

And yet here I am.

In love again. In marriage counseling. Still seeing a therapist. Taking an anti-depressant and going to yoga every damn day. Not going to temple enough. Slowly plodding through my first book. But man, I'm putting one foot in front of the other and there have been many times in my life that I honestly didn't think that could happen.

After each heartbreak, each disappointment, each total and complete decimation of the life I once had—I pick myself up and I move on. I make something new. I get stronger and I get better. And now I've got two kids and a husband who fill me with a sense of awe I never thought I'd know.

My knowledge of love has expanded. My faith in it has multiplied. I'm filling up where I once was empty.

When I ride my bike to my therapist this afternoon, I'll ride under the branches of the trees and I'll be awed by the way the September light plays on the leaves. I heard someone once describe this certain quality of light as "God Light." In Buddhism, God is everywhere and everything. I am God. You are God. The tree is God. The light that dapples its leaves is God.

Why wouldn't we be awed by everything when everything is God? Everything is holy. All of it, good, bad and indifferent. Flattened on the floor by heartbreak. Lifted up by new love. Holy. Sitting here right now, writing this blog. Holy. You there, reading it. Holy holy holy.

Now to work on that whole "Fazed by nothing" thing.

Ah well.

I'm a work in progress.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Just Because You Think That Sh*t, Doesn't Mean It's True

Oh lord, it's a yoga selfie.
Part of working from home is having more time to think. Of course that's beneficial to the creative process and allows you to get into the deeper waters of thought and inspiration. But more time to think can also be a bit of a double-edged sword for some of us.

More time to think can also mean you have more time to think crappy thoughts. More time to worry. More time to obsess. More time to doubt yourself. I'm good at all of those things, even with limited time.

I've been trying to keep myself chill by doing yoga every day and by walking and/or biking most places in town. These activities put me in a more peaceful frame of mind. But eventually I have to get back to brass tacks. And it's either working on projects for clients, working on my book, or working around the house for my family. Those are deep wells of possible anxiety.

Plus I just quit my job. My big-deal job. The job that was supposed to be the culmination of 15 years in the advertising industry working my way up slowly and steadily to my "dream job" as a social media manager at one of the major automotive manufacturers. Turns out my dream job wasn't so dreamy for me, personally. Having been in advertising agencies for so many years, it turns out that I'm more suited to working with other creatives than working in a huge corporate machine.

And that's okay.

You don't know what you like until you try it. Right?

But you could see how it might produce some anxiety-laden thoughts after quitting a big deal job to go out on your own. To be your own boss. To drum up your own business and to finish writing that damn book you've been working on for over ten years. There's a lot of pressure to make it all work.

And I don't want to let anyone down.

Most of all my husband, who's supporting me in this major life move.

I find myself spending a lot of time worrying about him and whether he's happy. I find myself worrying about my new clients and wondering whether they're happy. And now that I have more time to spend with my children, I worry more about whether they're happy too.

Sometimes more time is more time to worry. But I heard something really great in my yoga class this morning.

"Just because you think that shit, doesn't mean it's true."

Man, did that message stick. I think sometimes I worry myself into believing something is true. I imagine all sorts of things. I imagine people are disappointed in me. And then it changes the way I feel about myself. It changes the whole tenor of my day. And then it changes the way I treat others. It's like I've created this vortex of doubt and disappointment and then I've shit all over something truly beautiful.

My husband has given me a wonderful opportunity to start my own business and finish my book. Yet I could ruin that gift by worrying it away into something negative. My clients have given me a wonderful opportunity to do the work I love without all the layers of bureaucracy and second-guessing that comes with big agencies and corporations. My children have the wonderful opportunity to have more time with their mom and to have a mom that is less stressed.

I could ruin all of that with my worries. With my self-created worries. Worries that I myself turn into a reality.

Just because I think that shit, doesn't mean it's true.

I needed to hear that today. It took me back to a good place. I find myself joyful. I find myself noticing the way the light plays on the leaves on this terrific September day. The words are flowing out of my fingers. I feel such love for my husband that I want to smother him in a big hug when he gets home. And I can't wait to pick up my daughter and ride her home on the bike while we talk about her day.

These things are true.

These things are good.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Slowing Down for the Creative Brain

Writers need time to think. To ponder. To wander and saunter under the trees and through the grass. Maybe painters too. Hell maybe everybody. I know for me and my writing, if I don't have time to get to that dreamy space where you can retreat into the deep recesses of your dark and poetic mind, the writing isn't going to happen. Sure sometimes I can force it. I mean, heck, if I just force myself to start writing a blog usually something will happen. I'm not saying it will be any good, but there will be words on a page by the time I'm done.

But when I have time to walk under a cope of leaves, when I notice a squirrel skittering across a sidewalk, or I cruise on my bicycle down the street and see the same old man jogging in the same tracksuit he wore yesterday, my mind starts to loosen up a bit. I get in the space where ideas bloom. I remember I do have something to say.

It's hard to get there when you're always in a big damn hurry. I'm not saying it's impossible. Just harder. Working full time at an office, commuting back and forth, white knuckling it through traffic to pick up my kids on time from aftercare, feeding them, helping them with homework, bathing them, doing the laundry, Windexing the counters, running the errands, doing all the things all the time. So many things. So much of the time. It's just not conducive to this. 

This is sitting at a table on the sidewalk downtown. This is me leaving my house because the contractors next door were making a racket. This is me people watching. This is me noticing the breeze in that Honey Locust tree over there. And catching a snippet of conversation as two ladies walk by. This is me thinking that the sound of buses and trucks in downtown Birmingham, Michigan always reminds me of the sound of buses in downtown Gap, France. Maybe it's the idle of the diesel engine? I know it seems like a stretch but that's the way my synapses fire.

And that's the point of all of this. I needed time to allow for this electrical dance inside my brain. That's where the good stuff happens. Funny how keeping us all cooped up inside buildings all day is supposed to keep us productive, yet it prevents our brains from producing anything magical.

And isn't that what creativity is? Magic? The dark hat of my brain. The wizard's wand. Incantations. Sudden flashes of light. I think I'm gonna finish this book after all. I'd like to thank my husband for making this happen. For giving me the space and the freedom to do this thing that required time to get done.

I'm listening to the sound of coins slipping in a parking meter slot and it reminds me of the sound of pay phones. That's a connection that won't even exist any more in Millennial brains. Like the sound of horseshoes clip clopping down the street. The click of the tongue to hurry them on. The smell of leather and dung. The feel of dust from the street in your nose. I could live a thousand lifetimes just sitting here, underneath the trees. Or perhaps write those lifetimes in a book. Or two.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Toe Pinchers and Other Exotic Pets

Grace, fearless before the sea and its sea creatures.
My five-year-old daughter Grace is terrified of bugs. I mean, the horror goes so deep that if she even sees an ant from 10 feet away or a fruit fly in the same domicile, she screams bloody murder.

Because of this total and absolute terror, she has developed an uncanny ability to spot the smallest of insects in the largest of rooms. Grace's eyes scan the horizon upon entry into any new environment. Like sophisticated radar technology known only to one small blond child and the United States Navy, Grace's eyes dart around the perimeter scanning for any discernible creature with multiple legs, wings or hard-shelled body armor. One teeny tiny gnat tucked in the upper quadrants of a cathedral ceiling, and Grace is quick to sound the alarm:


And then she screams and shoots like a bullet out of the room.

My husband and I have marveled at her ability. She's really got a sharp eye, that one. We both wonder if there will be any employable skill that could evolve from this. Jeweler? Microscopic scientist? Atom-splitter?

Recently, we took our little Bug Hunter to South Carolina for a family vacation. We were mainly looking for a place with warm swimming pools and warm ocean waters. Being from Michigan, we were tired of visiting lakes that left our children with blue lips and shivering bodies. We wanted warmth! We wanted sun! We wanted both sandy beaches and chlorine! We wanted it all!

Sure, in the back of my mind, I wondered if South Carolina had bugs like Florida. But we were going to a fancy Golf Resort. This wasn't our usual rustic vacation so I had high hopes. When we unlocked the door to our cottage on stilts, it was immaculate and new. All surfaces were shiny. And so it was that we continued our bug-free existence for many days.

I thought South Carolina was in every way superior to Florida. You had palm trees, warm ocean waters, sandy beaches and … no bugs! Why had I ever even bothered with Florida when South Carolina existed? I couldn't believe my ignorance.

Late one night, around 3:45 a.m., I heard a piercing scream that shook the walls of our cottage and all the palm trees that surrounded it. I stumbled from my room to my daughter's, where I found her pointing at the wall, yelling:


"Grace, you can't keep screaming your head off every time you see a bug," I mumbled and picked her up. "Now where is this bug you're so afraid of…"

"There!" she pointed at the wall and tried to launch herself further away from the wall in question.

I turned to observe what I thought had to be some sort of electrical device or appliance affixed to the wall that I had not previously noticed. It was close to the television set that was attached to the wall, so my weary head surmised that it must be related to the big-screen TV. Perhaps a cable box or the WIFI router?

I scrunched my eyes up and tried to focus in the dark.

It suddenly dawned on me that this was no electrical device.

This was a Volkswagen bus parked on the hotel wall.

I hoofed it out of there, my daughter and I clinging to each other in mutual terror, through the living room and back into my own bed, where I deposited my daughter next to my husband.

"WE HAVE A SITUATION," I announced, loudly, launching him out of the bed.

"What situation? A bug?" He twisted his boxers around his waist and prepared to do battle.

"That, Sir, is no bug."

He sighed as if I was being ridiculous and disappeared into the dark. I waited to hear the THUMP as he crushed the enormous jungle beast into the wall.

Instead, he slid back into bed.

"Listen to me carefully," he began.

My eyes widened in the dark.

"I did not K.I.L.L. I.T." He spelled the words so the small child shivering next to me would not understand.

"Why???" I gasped.

"It's too F.U.C.K.I.N.G. E.N.O.R.M.O.U.S."

"You have to K.I.L.L. I.T.!" I said.

"With what?"

"Your S.H.O.E.?"

"You have got to be kidding me."

"A broom?"

"I'd need an M-80 to K.I.L.L. that thing."

I snickered.

He snickered.

"I saw a fly swatter in the laundry room," he offered.

I snorted.

"Maybe you could C.A.T.C.H. I.T.?"

"With what?!?"

"A C.U.P.?"

"Are you H.I.G.H.?"

"She could keep it as a P.E.T."

"You are S.I.C.K."

"Seriously. What do we tell her?" I said.

"We tell her I K.I.L.L.E.D. it."


"We L.I.E. to her."


Later, as I tried to sleep and not think about the gigantic beast that was living in the room next to me, I noticed the bedroom was lit up by my husband's phone.

"What are you looking at?"

He flashed the screen at me, which was full of enormous black beetle-looking insects.

"It's either a T.O.E. P.I.N.C.H.E.R. or a C.O.C.K.R.O.A.C.H."

"Stop talking to me." I closed my eyes and tried to not think about my bare toes under the thin blanket.

"We'll tell her it's a B.E.E.T.L.E." he said.

"We're certainly not telling her it's called a T.O.E. P.I.N.C.H.E.R. Jesus!"

"Are you talking about the beetle?" a little voice chimed in from the dark.

"No, Baby. We're talking about something else." I said.

"Did Daddy kill it?"

"Yes. Yes he did."

She shivered her little body against mine. And mine shivered back.

The next day, as the full light of morning flooded our room, my husband nudged my elbow. I looked up at him and he pointed at the door wall, along the curtain. An enormous bug sat there and in that moment, deep within me, I felt something die.

My husband lifted his flip flop from the floor and pointed at the bug. I looked down at the sweet little girl nestled against me, sleeping peacefully. I looked back up at my husband nodded. I nodded back.

With a great THWAP! the deed was done and my husband spirited the carcass off, I know not where.

"What was that?" my little angel had opened her eyes.

"It was nothing."

"Did Daddy kill the beetle?"

"Yes. Yes he did."

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Summer Storms: A Reflection on Parenting

My daughter is at the age now where she has nightmares and assorted creatures scare her in the dark.

All of this means that I am jolted awake by the sharp rap tap tap of five-year-old knuckles on my bedroom door, usually around 2 or 3 a.m. Did I mention I have to be at work at 7:30 a.m.?

We forget this part. We parents think we just need to make it through the first few months, six months, year, two years, three. Sleep deprivation only lasts so long. Tantrums have a limited duration. They'll grow out of it and our lives will go back to normal.

But normal never comes.

You find yourself stumbling in the dark to soothe another baby five years later. Only it's the same baby and this time there's thunder and lightening instead of an empty tummy. Sometimes my eleven-year-old son wakes me up in the middle of the night too, but not as often anymore. Sometimes it's just to tell me, "I can't sleep!" Other times it's to vomit 360 degrees all over the hallway walls.

Last night, as I lay on the floor of my daughter's bedroom sleeping on an all-too-thin duvet, a child tucked uncomfortably under my arm and a cat furiously purring behind my knees, I wondered at how she would never remember any of this.

So much of parenting is without credit.

Maybe it's the most selfless form of love? You sacrifice sleep, comfort and barrels of cash for these little beings and you ask nothing in return. I mean, maybe you ask them to make their bed or empty the dishwasher, but does the really even out?

I gave you life!

I comforted you in the middle of the night!

When she's thirteen I'm sure she'll roll her eyes at me and say, "Gawd, Mother!" Or she'll shoot me a dirty look like my eleven-year-old shot me the other day when I wouldn't buy him an Xbox game that was rated M for Mature.

I snuggled that boy in the middle of the night too. When he cried out, I raced to stroke his brow and tell him everything would be okay. I do the same for her now. And neither of them will remember it. Or care. They'll just be annoyed at whatever it is I'm preventing them from doing on any given day.

And it will hurt.

Because I'm the one that comforted you. I took you from the dark and made you safe. How did I become the enemy? It's a hard thing, this parenting. We take them helpless from the womb and it's our job to protect and nurture them.

But then it's also our job to let them go.

In the end, they owe us nothing. They did not ask for life. We willingly gave it. We raised them and loved them to such a degree we think it might kill us. And then they just walk off into the good green earth and don't think much about us anymore.

They have someone else to love.

They have their own life to live.

They'll forget to call.

And it will be right. It will be good. They will function without us and we will have done our job well. 

But oh how we'll miss those nights of thunderstorms and hard floors.A little girl crooked awkwardly under your arms. A cat purring on your leg.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How I Married the Next Door Neighbor

Did I mention that my husband's name is Fred?
Ten years ago I broke up with my ex and moved out. It was a rather hasty event. Imagine me, in a huff, packing up all of my belongings and cramming them into a Jeep Wrangler...including my infant son.

I don't think my friends really believed it was over, over. I'm sure they all thought we would get back together. But this time I was done, done. I'd moved in with a girlfriend (bless her heart) and despite the fact that no one else believed me, I knew it was finished for good this time.

"As god as my witness," I told my girlfriends, a glass of wine raised to the heavens, "I will go out on a date!"

None of them believed me. They rolled their eyes and waited for me to come up with the list of excuses of why I was going to go back to the ex. But I got serious. I went on and resisted the urge to rewrite my profile a dozen times. I browsed through all of the men available to me in my immediate area. I scrolled through photos of smiling faces like I'd scrolled through sale sweaters on J.Crew.

Finally, I found a cute one.

He was tall, he had dark hair and he was handsome. Plus he had an excellent vocabulary and used compound sentences. I clicked the "Wink" button and waited to see what would happen. Normally I would never initiate contact with a man. I like to be found. But I didn't have a profile picture and figured I'd have to throw myself out there if I was going to prove my girlfriends wrong.

Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome responded to my wink.

"You are a smartass," he wrote. "I myself am one of those."

My eyes widened. I'd written a smartassed profile and he'd not only read it, he called me out on it! In my profile I'd mentioned my likes and dislikes. Included in my list of dislikes: "Old ladies."

"I can't stand old people," he wrote. "As a matter of fact, I splayed an old blue hair out on the sidewalk just this afternoon and her cane clattered across the sidewalk."

What was this?

This was new!

This was different!

He was playing my game, singing my song. Soon the emails were firing back and forth, one barb exchanged for another. Each witticism deftly returned, sailing across the internet like a well-placed badminton birdie.

And so it was that FredFromFresno and SpinDoctor510 fell in a deep state of like. Eventually we took our email conversations to the phone, and once on the phone, he asked me out on a real-live date. We discussed the logistics of the date, of course. I lived in Troy, he lived in Birmingham. We decided to meet in Royal Oak. It was convenient for both of us.

"I used to live in Birmingham," I said.

"Oh really? Where?" he asked.


"Downtown where?"

I named the cross streets.

"Where exactly on those streets?"

I named the specific street.

"Where on that street?"

Well this was getting awfully specific.

"SW or NE corner?" he continued.

"I don't do directions! Why does it matter!?!" I laughed.

Finally, I simply told him the names of the neighbors on either side of my ex's house.

"Oh my god!" he said. "You're ___________'s ex!" and he named my ex.

"You know him?"

"I live two doors down!"

We both paused in stunned silence.

"How is it that I never met you?" I was confused.

"I rented out that house and bought a bigger house!"

"And you moved back?"

"Yes, I moved back in after my wife and I separated!"

"So you live two doors down my from my ex?"

"Yes. Yes I do."

More stunned silence between the two of us. This was new.

"Does this mean you don't want to go out with me?" I asked.

"No. I still want to go out with you."

"Well I still want to go out with you too."

"So I'll see you on Thursday?"


"See ya, neighbor."

"Very funny."

I married him five years later. Give or take a few hiccups and missteps. We made a cute baby girl along the way. And now I live two doors down from my son's father. Life is funny. Life is strange. But somehow, it all works out just the way it's supposed to.

And it all started out with a wink and a couple of smartasses.