A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

The purge I discussed in ontological detail awhile back? Well, it came to fruition with the Epic Tag Sale.

After an ignominious semi-rain out on Saturday and Sunday, Monday dawned beautifully and full of promise. It took me 2 ½ hours to get everything out and set up, but by nine I was (almost) ready for the first customers who began wandering by. The town I live in has a Memorial Day parade every year. Even though it no longer goes past my house (more’s the pity), I knew there would be some significant traffic through town as people parked and walked to prime viewing real estate.

So this blog is about some of the wonderful people who stopped to buy, or just to look, or just to talk. Or a combination of the three.

Deirdre was my first customer. A tall, soft-spoken woman of about 65 or 70 who speaks with a German accent and walks with a cane, Deirdre came before I was done putting everything out. She meticulously examined every item I put on display, some seemingly insignificant and yet oddly specific. A never-before-opened oral hygiene tool, price still affixed, being sold at a 500% reduction. She bought that – clever shopper. Picture frames. Just a few. Small ones. A basket. She looked at all 10 of the baskets on display and selected one she said was “just the right size.” Deirdre lives across the street, she told me. I had not seen her before, a fact that bothered me more and more as we talked. Why had I not noticed her? Where she lives is a big house divided into apartments, and she has the one in back on the first floor, she explained. When she talked, she looked right into my eyes. She thought about what she wanted to say and often paused for a long time between words. This is a quality I admire. I don’t have it.

Deirdre bought about $6.00 worth of wares and said she would come back. She did. The second time she collected some more, carefully selected items. She looked at a clock radio and asked, “Can I just use this as a radio? You know, for some music around?” I ended up throwing that in for free. “You are my best customer,” I told her. “Repeat business is worth something.”

She returned three times, and on the third visit, she asked about a man’s suede jacket hanging on a ladder in the driveway. Someone had just looked at it a few minutes before and rejected it for a tiny hole the size of a pin head on one sleeve. I told Deirdre I would reduce the price from $10.00 to $7.00. She tried it on. Her face lit up. “It fits perfectly,” she said, grinning.

I knew, because of where she lives, because of how carefully she shopped, that Deirdre is alone, lives on a fixed, very low income, and that she is lonely, smart, a lovely person. Okay, I did not know all that because of where she lives or how she shopped, but I knew it. Each time she walked across the street to me, I greeted her warmly by name. I wanted her to know she was a person to me. That I had seen her. Finally.

After her last purchase, she went home to put it away and returned one more time. She told me she was going to the church thrift shop down the street. I said, “Well thank you for shopping here first!” She explained that she was not going there to shop, but to work. As a volunteer, helping the women sort, sell, organize, display. Deirdre explained, “I see things as they come in and sometimes get some great stuff!”

After 25 years in this town, I have not once stepped into that thrift store. Frugal shopper that I am, this fact speaks volumes. Deirdre shopped at my tag sale because she a. has no car and b. can’t afford to go to Walmart or Macy’s or Sears. Deirdre is in danger of becoming invisible. I don’t want that to happen.

Another lady who touched my heart was a young Latino mother who walked by with her three daughters. She approached my tables in the warmest part of the day. The sun was high and the maples in my front yard made gently moving patterns across her face. As she looked at clothes, her three exquisite children ages 4, 6 and 8, examined the stuffed animals in a big box, the art supplies, the bright red binoculars my son used to take when we’d go on hikes.

The lovely young mother did not speak much. Her children occasionally spoke to her, very softly. I helped the girl with the binoculars figure out which end to look through. Her sister crouched down to look at sheets of stickers in a box mainly filled with markers. She examined a stack of size 6 shorts with care and picked out a pair for $2.00. Her daughters did not beg; they did not fuss; they did not pull on her arm. They smiled up at me, waited patiently, respectfully handled things and put them back where they had been.

Mama examined the contents of her purse. She did calculations. She looked at the price on the binoculars. $5.00. “You can have that for $3.00,” I said, knowing she would not ask. She raised one eyebrow and tucked it into her arm where a pink Yankee’s hat (50¢) and the shorts already were. Her middle daughter had never left the box of like-new stuffed animals. When she saw her mother was wrapping things up, she pulled away from the box with intense will power. As she neared us, her mother looked down at her with the affectionate understanding of all mothers. She took the child’s hand and walked with her back to the box. The little girl pulled out a horse, legs dangling adorably. I chimed in: “All stuffed animals are $2.00.” Mama must have said something, because they came back to me, horse still clutched in the little girl’s hand. I totaled up their merchandise –$7.50 for shorts, hat, binoculars and horse.

Meanwhile, the oldest girl was without a purchase. She was still looking at the stickers. I said, “Can you hand me that box?” She picked up the Rubbermaid bin full of markers and stickers and handed it to me. I put the lid on and handed it back to her. “On the house.” Four black haired beauties walked back down the street, so quiet, so careful, and so satisfied.

A red mini-van pulled up to the curb and started to discharge passengers. A boy around 12, a mom, a dad, and three mentally handicapped adults, two women and a man. I quickly came to realize that they all lived together in the family’s home, which doubled as a supervised living situation for the three residents.

Like machines, the parents started to look through the offerings. Meanwhile, their son homed in on two ten pound weights selling for $5.00. I later found out that he is small for his age, and not 12 at all but 15 and in high school. He clearly has aspirations to bulk up and these barbells are going to be part of that plan.

The three residents look around too. Well, not the man. He stood apart, arms crossed over his chest, a smile fixed to his face. He seemed uninterested in shopping, but wanted to ask me questions. Do I live here? Alone? Do I have kids? Do I have dogs? Do I have cats? Is there a garden? “David always wants to know everything,” the mother explained, as she picked up a ski helmet and asked, “I wonder if we could use this for a bike helmet?”

Meanwhile, she had dispatched her husband to run home for money. As she found  things she wanted – two hand-soap dispensers, a teapot, a framed print – she handed them to me to hold onto. A pile grew on the chair I brought out to sit on but never had a chance to sit on.

One of the disabled adult women had a very hard time articulating. Her speech was tough to understand but she did a wonderful job conveying meaning with her mobile face. She selected some lapis earrings, “For mah maw.” I confirmed: “A gift for your mother?” She nodded, looking directly into my eyes.

The house mother, moving efficiently and with tremendous focus, rifled through the clothes hanging on a line strung across the yard. She plucked out a pair of black and white capris and told the woman who wanted the earrings, “If these don’t fit me, they’re yours. How’s that?”

The smiling gentleman asked, “How long have you lived here?” For the past five minutes, the other woman had been clipping hair clips from a basket into her very short hair. She also kept picking up a reversible hand mirror and looking at herself in it, first on one side, then on the other, magnifying, side. She returned to it again and again.

All of my men’s clothing was sold except for one very nice collared Dean Martin style shirt (I don’t know how else to explain it). The boy, the one who wants to grow, tried it on over his tee shirt. “How do I look?” he asked all of us. The boy paused, awaiting his mother’s brisk approval. It goes on the chair, too.

They continued to shop till dad returned, at which point I bagged up their purchases (two paper shopping bags full), and gave them the total: “$31.00.” Suddenly dad looked at a  wooden jewelry box, the one holding the remnants of the jewelry for sale. “Is this for sale?” I tell him it is, for $1.00. It was pretty beat up. He counted out dimes and quarters for this final purchase, and corrals his troops.

Just before she climbed into the car, the woman drawn to the mirror returned and picked it up off the table. “I will pay for this with my own money.” I held out my hand saying something encouraging. She gave me a dollar. “This,” she said, to be sure I understood, “is my own money.”

There were many more. The woman, visiting a friend for the weekend, whose eyes lit up when she noticed my goddess necklace. “There are more of us goddess worshippers around than you would think,” she confided. The independent but slightly slow young man who bought two men’s shirts, asking first to be sure, “These are for fall or winter, right?” A young girl and her boyfriend who stopped by and bought only three things. Three impractical things. An earth friendly bumper sticker, and two buttons, one of which clearly states that no apologies will be offered for sarcasm.

The people who stopped by my sale moved me and delighted me. Some wanted to share their stories. Others quietly shopped, paid and slipped away. The beds went. The table. At least 30 stuffed animals, released by my daughter at long last. Into other lives to enrich or satisfy or fill a hole or become a gift. And I am the lighter for it.



tag sale

The Moving Industry Scam

I’m not an investigative reporter. I am just one person with a story to tell. Here it is.

I had never used a moving company before, until this past December.

Labor intensive as self-moving is, there is something comforting about being in control. If anything breaks, well, I have only myself to blame. Last fall, I made a long move sans professionals with nary a broken wine stem. I had friends to help and had been budgeting for the move for some time. Stressful, yes. Traumatic, no.

I had planned on spending a year down south during a teaching sabbatical. That plan tanked and I abruptly found myself needing to extricate myself from a home, a city, a state, and quickly. It was the Christmas season, which was a bit of a complication. And this time I had no support system—I’d left them all behind in New York. What to do?

To provide some context: I was shattered emotionally, tenuous financially, drained physically and psychically and did I mention it was Christmas? My kids were 1500 miles away. Enough said. Add to this the draining away of some pretty lofty hopes and dreams, the ignominious crashing of a love affair both ancient and new, and the desperate need to get away from a place where I had never found purchase and was decidedly not wanted.

About a week before Christmas, between bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, I searched the web for info about moving companies and began making inquiries. I received prompt and eager return calls from efficient sales personnel. I filled out inventories of belongings. I confided my need to get out fast. (My first mistake?) I was clearly a vulnerable customer prime for the sting.

I found out that some companies charge by space, some by weight. Of course, both of these calculations are virtually impossible to make over the phone. So we practiced the fine art of approximating.

The price quotes started rolling in. The very high numbers scared me. After all, this had to go on my credit card. The lower numbers got me calling back. I found one salesman who seemed like a real person. Dave was thoughtful and reassuring. He helped me make an itemized list of every object I had to move and a guesstimate of the number of boxes. His price quote was less heinous than many. Except for the uncertainty of the boxes, I knew for a fact we had not missed a single thing on our list. Based on my inventory, Dave was fairly confident that he could estimate the amount of square footage needed in the truck for my stuff. He admitted it would not be exactly perfect, but did not anticipate any big shocks when the final price was given, on the day of the move.

I started collecting boxes. Craig’s list was a great source of free boxes as people who had just moved were trying to get rid of the stuff. I also became friends with the liquor store guys, making nightly forays into their back room and divesting them of what, from their point of view was trash, and to me was a penny earned.

On Christmas Eve day, I started packing. Frantic as I was, I managed to label every box and wrap every piece of pottery with care. By the end of Christmas day, I was fully boxed up and in a state of heightened anxiety and depression that translated to single-minded focus on the tasks left to do. When I ran out of tasks, I made some up. Then I took a three hour walk and waited for bedtime.

The next day, the movers arrived, on time. Their head honcho, Val, swept through the apartment eyeballing the situation. He said, “Okay, you have 12 more boxes than you said you’d have. Looking around, this looks like yadda yadda square feet.” (I can’t remember numbers to save my life.) He whipped out his calculator and gave me the bottom line. “That means your estimate was off by $950.00. But we’ll do the best we can to keep that down. My guys are great.” As he spoke, his “guys” were already wrapping my couch in plastic.

I had started to cry (so embarrassing to remember this) when Val said, ‘$950.00.’ That was another third again on top of Dave’s estimate, which, to my current budget and pessimistic frame of mind, was beyond reason already.

I called Dave, the salesman, and left a message on his voicemail. I explained, haltingly, about Val’s calculations and wondered, angrily, how Dave could have screwed up so badly? I remember choking out the words, “I’m stuck now. I fly out tomorrow, my stuff is in boxes and I have no recourse.” I still had not figured out that this was, of course, business-as-usual. I did not hear back from Dave. At least not that day.

As the hours crawled on, I experienced for the first time what it is like to be moved by people who not only don’t care about me one bit, but don’t know me from Eve. I was just that morning’s job.

I think I threw them for a loop when, in a full-on state of panic, I started crossing things off my list of what I was taking. Since there was someone else living in the apartment too, I could leave things without difficulty. Aside from the fact that I was parting with my belongings. It felt like my life had become nothing but partings and leave-takings and this was all too much. Deciding to leave the rocking chair in which I’d nursed my babies—that was a tear jerker. It took up so much space, though. Maybe ditching it would pare down the cost. Two book shelves – leave them. A telephone table. A coffee table. These things struck me as taking up a lot of square inches and I thought, “I’ll get that damned estimate back down if I have to leave my left leg here.”

At the end of the day, after the semi-guilt-ridden men took my denuded Christmas tree to the dumpster for me, Val came to me with a big smile on his face. “Well, after packing the truck nice and tight, I have your final price.” And he gave me a number $675.00 less than what he’d quoted me at nine that morning.

My relief was enormous. It seemed like a gift. I even thanked him. I gag a little now, remembering. “Oh, good,” I breathed. “Good thing I was able to leave some stuff behind.”

He did not comment on that. We finalized our affairs. I signed some more papers. I said goodbye and spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how to cauterize my tear ducts.

Cut to the chase. Never mind about the rest of the move. I moved.

My credit card balance swelled. I washed up on the shores of home and crawled to dry land. I regained my equilibrium one day at a time and, mostly, managed to put on a brave face.

One day, about three weeks after all my stuff had been squeezed into a storage unit, I was sitting in a local coffee bar when my phone rang. It was Dave. Remember Dave?

Turns out he is a person after all. I’d been right about that, at least.

“Vanessa, I wanted to call you now that I don’t work for that moving company any more. I felt so bad that day you called me. What a mess.” Dave explained to me that he had only been working there a month when he and I first spoke to plan my move. He’d gotten the job through his girlfriend’s father, and it took him awhile to get the lay of the land. To realize there was a nasty subplot. The subplot is: bait, lure, gouge. The bait is a lowball estimate that gets the customer interested. Not so lowball as to sound fishy, but low enough. Then once you have the signed contract and the downpayment, continue to be very customer-friendly and available until the day of the move itself. Then be “away from your desk.” The part about the driver giving an extra high “re-estimate” of cost is part of the strategy, built in to the plan all along.

I’d actually figured as much. And it had worked perfectly on me. The $950.00 extra was so scary that I was actually HAPPY that the final cost was only $300.00 higher than the estimate. I honestly think that, had I not ditched so many pieces of furniture, the final numbers would have come in around $500.00 higher, but even Val could not justify that.

Dave corroborated all my vague paranoid speculations. Apparently, not many people end up reporting their moving estimate frustrations the way I did. My overwrought mental state and complete isolation (who did I have to talk to about this but Dave, after all?) meant I called him that morning and left him that garbled, choked, angry, petrified voicemail. And, being a person, he followed up.

What he found out was just how cold-blooded the whole operation was. The drivers are part of the overall plan, and know how to use the oh-so-effective scare tactics. That’s when Dave quit.

He quit the job and I respect him for it. And he called me back, eventually, to apologize and validate my feelings. So that’s the good part.

The bad part is – I feel a profound lack of trust when it comes to industries like the moving business. (And I know for a fact that not all movers are unscrupulous, but I’ve been, officially, burned.) They have their customers in a double bind no matter what. (Someday I’ll write about when I went through the wringer with the funeral home industry – talk about having vulnerable clients who can’t exactly say, “Never mind; I won’t put my loved one to rest after all, you big bully.”)

But with luck I can translate the vulnerability of not trusting into something else. Learning how to be strong when weak. How to see clearly through tears. How to recognize choices instead of roadblocks. How to find the lessons within every hurtful experience and then, let the hurt go.

At this point, she's seen it all.

At this point, she’s seen it all.

Grief, Love, and the Prayer Arrow

I ripped my life apart last year. Then I put it together so it looked very very different. Then I ripped it apart again. What does that feel like? Picture a surgical incision that goes from your breastbone to your pubic bone, and through every inch of muscle you’ve got. Now imagine that it heals… partly. And that’s when you rip it open again, and this time you tear it a little past the original scar. That line—stapled and trying to heal—becomes a line of demarcation between one hopeful sorrow and the next.

But as with any deeply felt pain, sometimes things go numb around the edges. The pain is deep and resonant below the surface. The edges of the wound, the patches where the staples clamp the surface closed over the ugly mess—loses something. A scab ripped open one too many times forms a tingly scar that can feel detached from the reality of actual flesh.

What is that? Nature’s way of letting us dissociate from trauma, anguish, sorrow, hurt? Survival instinct meets biology. When it comes to heart pain, survival instinct meets psychology. The result is similar.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped being okay with the numbness. Don’t get me wrong, I am anything but a detached person. I let everything in. But maybe that’s why so many scabs have formed making little places of forgetting. Little places of denial. Little gaps in the skin of me.

To be whole, I need to attend to myself. I need to rub arnica on the dark places, vitamin E on the scars. Breathe the repressed darkness up to the surface where it can float away. Get me some loving—from me and the world.

I recently participated in a wonderful exercise in which everyone created a prayer arrow. To do this, we each had to decide on something that we wanted to manifest. Something we wanted to bring about, move into, recognize, accept, be, create… you get the drift.

How to decide? What, I wondered, is holding me back the most? In light of recent events, I knew instinctively that what I had to move toward was this: believing that I am loved and worthy of love.

I suspect far too many of us have a belief that we are not loved, not loveable. Well—that is a limiting belief and it sure does hold us back. So Cat, the shaman working with all of us that evening, had us write all the beliefs that were keeping us from realizing whatever it is we had decided to bring into our lives. The thing is, we had to write them on an arrow. An arrow about 2 feet long with the circumference of a pencil. She handed out the “sacred Sharpies” and with them we managed to write, using very small letters, a shit ton of limiting beliefs. We all wrote on those darned arrows for a long time. I glanced around the room to see the group of 7, men and women, balancing their blue or yellow or green arrows across their knees and earnestly confiding to those symbolic, primitive weapons the darkest of self-obliterating, self-denying, self-limiting, self-effacing beliefs.

One at a time, when we were finished, Cat had us stand inside our circle and take turns facing her. We were to break our arrow. Breaking it, as we moved toward what we wanted to bring into being, we would symbolically and literally shatter the limiting beliefs written on our arrow.

The catch: we had to break the arrows with our throats. That little hollow where the skin seems delicately draped over space. Underneath that hollow is our life blood pulsing visibly and vulnerably beneath the surface.

Cat put the feathered end of the arrow against a wooden board. When it was my turn, I did what had been done by the woman before me. I placed the tip of the arrow in that hollow. Using deep breaths and great conviction, being chanted into power by my group-mates, and looking into Cat’s warm, somewhat bemused, smiling eyes, on the count of three, I walked forward against the resistance of the arrow.

I felt it dig, briefly, into my flesh, pushing against me. But then, I pushed against it. It met with the resistance of my breath-tautened throat, and the board held by Cat. The arrow shattered and I did not.

There is such power in ceremony. Doing ceremony in community with beloved friends is transforming. But doing it in a room of (mostly) strangers is liberating and transforming. The energy grew in that space until all the arrows were broken. Some tears brimmed, many hearts pounded.

What does this have to do with the wounds and scabs of pain, grief and denial? Something about the fact that I put an arrow to my throat and did not receive a wound. Something about being fully conscious of the dark pathetic part of me that could not ever manage to believe in myself enough to see the love right in front of my face. And admitting it to the arrow and the people with me in that room. Something about making a conscious decision to heal, instead of waiting for years to notice that, wow, I wasn’t healing. Healing from whatever crap I allowed into my dark places 40, 30, 20, 10 years ago or yesterday.

I wrapped the pieces of my arrow with yarn; white and purple were the colors I chose. Under a waxing, gibbous moon, I planted the arrow, along with my prayers, into the earth.

My prayer arrow.

My prayer arrow.

The Purge

25 years’ worth of stuff. No, I under-exaggerate. Over 50 years’ worth of stuff. Because I am still holding on to… way too much. A baby blanket used on newborn me. My first teddy bear, now creaky and rusty jointed and leaking his innards. Loose photos that never made it into an album or a frame. Vintage dresses I used to wear when I waited tables in a dark and smoky bistro in Charlottesville, VA. Old batting gloves that have not fit either of my children in at least ten years. A variety of dust-coated flower vases I don’t use. Why don’t I use them? I use the other 7 vases I have that I actually like. How many napkin rings does a person who does not use napkin rings really need? Why did I keep four small paint smocks in a drawer for 15 years after the last time my children and their playmates fit into them? I am grappling with these and other questions with a lot less angst than you might think.

So I started this whole thing out saying, “I am still holding on to way too much.” Make that “I was holding on to way too much.” Getting rid of my stuff is a kickass metaphor for getting rid of the shit clogging my chakras, the energetic holds on my heart, mind and spirit, the past that interrupts my present and screws with my future. Etc.

Context: A tumultuous year included two moves during which it dawned on me that I might have a bit of a stuff-burden. Now, I may, in fact, have way less in the way of material possessions than many Americans, but what defines “too much” for me might not be what it is for someone else. Clearly, having anything at all to put into a home with more than one room is a lot more than most people in this world possess. But, regardless of any judgment on how much is enough or not enough or too much, for a bunch of reasons, when I moved the first and second times in 2012, I was not in any condition to make purgative decisions when the rest of my life was in such flux/emotional turmoil/confusion as I coped with a series of over-the-top versions of joy/grief/ecstasy/terror/heartbreak/hope/misery.

But a funny thing happened. Due to circumstances within my control (but that’s another story), I lived for 5 months with 98% of my belongings in a storage unit. Nester, homemaker, keeper of stuff that I am, I was living out of 4 boxes and two suitcases. Period.

As the months went on and I lived with this pared down collection of the necessities of life, a lesson of great importance seeped into my underneath consciousness. A lesson I am putting to good use now. If I can be comfortable out of 4 boxes and 2 suitcases, I can release some of the crap collecting cobwebs in that storage unit.

A friend of mine recently wrote a blog about just this topic. I was in the midst (and still am) of my purge, and it rang my chimes. (Here’s a link: http://healthybeing.com/environment-is-everything/ ) The items piling up in boxes on the porch look like objects, feel like objects, collect dust like objects, but they represent – they are – energy. A static, clumping, blocking, curdling kind of energy that gets in my way, even when I don’t realize it.

I remember one summer when my son was about 15, I decided to tackle the basement (aka cellar) of my house. It was a dark, dank mess of a place containing a washer, dryer, freezer, furnace… the usual, plus a lot of other, well, mysterious crap. I borrowed a pick-up truck. My son, Win, and I hauled junk for hours, up from the cave into the light. As the truck filled, I’d schlep it up to a nearby town where there was a dump. A for-profit garbage place that had a cave of its own into which I deposited my unwanted stuff.

A very pale young fellow who may never have seen the light of day spent his working hours unloading other people’s unwanted items from their trucks and cars and tossing them into inexplicable piles, according to his own sense of order, inside the cavernous space.

Each time I entered the confines of this sprawling compound of garbage, my truck would be weighed. (They got an empty weight when I first arrived.) At the end of the day, when I went in to pay for the privilege of giving my rejected items (old doors, rusty pumps, decrepit shelving, an ancient crib that was from the previous owner of my house and so on), the woman behind the counter told me the total weight of the day’s many hauls: just over one ton. One TON. Win and I had carried one TON of SHIT out of our basement. How had we ever lived with one unneeded, unwanted TON cluttering up the energy of our home?

I feel the same way now. But this time, the things I’m releasing are perfectly good. They are useable. Meaningful in the world, to someone. But not me. Not any more. I won’t haul it to the dumping ground. I will offer it to the Memorial Day shoppers who cruise tag sales in the New England springtime. I will put prices like 25¢ and $1.00 on decent items. Polished up, washed, shiny and like new, or not so like new, these things will find a place of positive energy in the world. They will feather someone else’s nest. Maybe a young person getting her own apartment. Or a divorced father starting over. It doesn’t matter.

I release you, stuff. I clear my space, feng my shui, open the pores of my environment. Feels damn good.

The Bed Lesson: Remember Who You Are

I have a new bed. Off to the bed store I went, driven by pain and blessed with an IRS check that had some flexibility within its digits. Going to Metro Mattress, New York State’s own bedding outlet, turned out to be an educational experience. (Most things in life are educational experiences of one kind or another, I find.)

I learned many things, one of which was that I could actually afford a memory foam mattress since a market glut has driven prices down from the heady heights. But the upbeat and overqualified store manager, who graduated from college with a double major in biochem and business 8 years ago and somehow wanted me to know it, taught me a thing or two about memory foam. As I lay on a floor model bed, rolling around to feel the embrace of the magic foam, he sagely informed me: “Memory foam is called that, not because it remembers your shape. Memory foam remembers its own shape, and goes back to it every time. Guaranteed for 20 years.”

Makes sense. You don’t want your bed to have a giant imprint of your body in it. But I guess a lot of people don’t get that at first, what with the name “memory foam” and all—they get confused.

Three nights so far in my new bed and I’m loving it. I woke up in the middle of the night last night (not from pain, but because of a cat settling on my chest and drooling on my chin), and realized something very cool. At two a.m. it even seemed profound.

I realized that memory foam is how I want to be. It always knows who it is. It remembers itself. It is true to its nature. Aligned with its core being.

As a human being, I also want to remember who you are. The figurative “you”—the people in my life. I want to notice, see, hear and remember you, of course. But what is harder for me is remembering me.

For one thing, I don’t remember my life. Huge swatches of life—seemingly erased from my memory banks. I’ll go to alumni weekends and hang out with elementary and high school classmates, and someone will say, “Vanessa, remember when Mrs. Southwell….” And I’ll listen and respond: “No.” They are often surprised that I don’t have such a shocking, fun, important, humorous event at my fingertips, in my mental filing cabinet. Entire years, gone. Details—huge, significant, life altering details—missing. My theory is that a few significant traumas trained my mind to delete things to avoid retraumatizing via memory. The problem is, my subconscious is very sloppy when in erase-mode and errs on the side of getting rid of too much. I guess it figures it won’t miss anything really awful that way. But the good stuff gets lost too.

But there’s more to this memory foam lesson than retaining the details of my life, though one of the resolutions I made this year was to retrain my brain to hold on to more.  There’s also that self-knowledge I think everyone would say is important to possess. But so many people don’t. It is not so easy. We all know someone about whom we might say, “She is so wise at understanding people, but gosh, why can’t she see how messed up she is?”

Remembering our true selves is easier sometimes than others. When I am feeling very threatened, uneasy, out of sync with myself or my life, I tend to ignore the signs. I forget to remember who I am.

All the good people in the world, me included, behave well. We behave in accordance with our principles and sure, that is part of remembering ourselves. But that hard look. That close look. The inward look that is akin to sitting in a room flooded with natural light and looking at your own face in a magnifying mirror. That kind of look. Where you see the sags and wrinkles, and the beauty too. (Why is it so hard to see the beauty through the flaws?)

Remembering who I am is about being able to admit that I am worthy, loving, independent, smart, talented, committed, brave, hardworking, loyal, honest, funny, insightful and capable of great joy. Easy to write down a list of adjectives, but harder to really live every day in possession of that glorious self.

Remembering who I am is also about seeing the darker truths, some of which exist in direct opposition to my strengths. That I am fragile, controlling, needy, insecure, shy, compulsive, obsessive, anxious, feel unworthy, mask my true feelings from others and am capable of going into the dark and not finding my way out. And the list goes on. None of these things is what I want to believe about myself.  I have spent much of my life in denial of them. On the other hand, I am very willing to censure myself when it is UNwarranted. The compulsive apologies. The faux self-blame: “I’m an idiot,” “I’m a jerk,” “It’s all my fault,” “I’ll take care of it.”

It’s okay to not be to blame. It doesn’t always have to be up to me. It’s also okay to be weak or scared – these are not faults. It is okay to be good, brave, and loveable – these are not faults either. And besides, it’s okay to have faults! When we are jerks, let’s say it! Accept responsibility and take action to better ourselves. But let’s not say we’re jerks when we are just being human.

With any luck, by the time I remember how to remember who I am all the time, it will be guaranteed for more than 20 years.

The Voice Inside My Head

I got an email from myself yesterday. It was written from my iPhone in the middle of the night when apparently I woke up with an idea I did not want to forget. Here’s what I wrote (typos corrected): “Inner knowing. Big decisions. Hearing the voice. And trusting it. When you go too long ignoring it, when you finally hear it, maybe it’s off balance.”

I think if I’d woken up fully, then and there, I might have been able to channel what the heck it was I wanted to get across. But I’m going to tackle this one anyway, two days later and in the early morning light, surrounded by unpacked boxes.

My inner-knowing radar may need calibration. I am having a hard time trusting myself these days. Why? Because a year and a half ago, in the middle of my seemingly normal life, I salted my own fields, retreated, repatriated elsewhere, retreated again, and am still picking up the pieces of my heart, mind, life….

At first, my choices—all the dramatic and insistent maneuvers of the last year and a half—were made with the certain knowledge that I was doing the right thing. That feeling faded to the point that now, no matter which direction I take, it seems fraught with confusion and doubt.

In an effort to protect the innocent, I will skip over a lot of the gory details. I will focus, instead, on something that, both literally and metaphorically, defines much of my life over the last year.


Some history. As a younger woman, living in Charlottesville, VA, I moved a lot. I could handle it. I had enough stuff to fit into an efficiency apartment, small cottage or two pick-up trucks (usually one, making two trips). Each new place was a new nest I’d feather, efficiently and cozily, knowing I could unfeather it quickly if the need arose.

Then I divested, moved back to New York to attend grad school. I lived in a room at the top of a friend’s brownstone. Monastic and luxurious at the same time. I knew what I was doing.

When I got married, suddenly the moveable feast that was my life became something more settled. With that came security, steadiness and 25 years in one house. A lovely house more than 100 years old, filled with the joyful objects of family: framed photos, a favorite omelet pan, walls of books, a collection of tablecloths and napkins. That kind of thing.  Nothing about the choice to buy a home 40 minutes from work, at the crest of a housing boom, in a rural town (I’m a city girl remember) seemed uncertain. It was right and I knew it. My life was right and I knew it.

Fast forward. When did all that certainty turn into such a pretense of certainty? But the thing about pretense is that the pretender does not know she’s pretending…. I became my role. I was the method actor of all time. Talk to my friends. They were convinced by my performance. (Well, most of them. Okay, well maybe not, but lots of people were.)

Sometimes the universe (or my inner voice) tries so hard to get my attention and I just power through life, ignoring the signs. So one day I found myself moving out of the house of 25 years. Moving out of the marriage. Moving. Like the Tin Man, once my rusty joints were oiled, I careened wildly, leaving quite a wake.

After my daughter was firmly ensconced back at college, I looked around the home I’d made so lovingly for so long, and was ready (wasn’t I?) to leave it. I started to pack. Box after box. When I left, my estranged husband was to move back in and take possession. Did I let the grief of it all penetrate my plan-addled mind? Did I allow for one minute my inner knowing to communicate with my inner idiot long enough to wake me up so that I could, at the very least, process what was happening?

I packed. I loaded. I moved far far away for my sabbatical year. (Yes, it seemed a good idea to take a break from my job of 25 years at the same time I left my marriage of 26 years. Not to mention my home. Where was my inner knowing? I just don’t know.)

Well, things did not work out. I did not make it a year. By Christmas I was packing again. (There is a lot of story I’m leaving out here; can you tell?) But the point is, I had been so sure. The trauma of changing gears so soon again after the first move was great. Many insistent dreams were showing their true colors as fantasy, idealism, delusion. But, with every box I packed on Christmas Eve, my inner voice was clear.

Or was it?

At this point, the sight of a box taped shut with my handwriting on it— “Kitchen/serving platters,” “framed photos,” “books,” “sweaters and lampshade”—creates a visceral reaction in me. Sorrow, panic, comfort, doubt, curiosity and a glimmer of hope all swirl around and make me nauseated.

Now, I’m moving again. Unpacking. Again. I have made a decision based on the advice given to me by my heart, my head, my hopes and what remains, essentially, an optimistic outlook. But I cry a lot. I don’t trust myself any more.

After so many years of dishonoring the inner voice, I decided to do whatever the inner voice said, without question. Neither approach worked that well. Is there more than one inner voice? Is one my friend and one a saboteur? How to tell them apart?

All that being said, I know that I have a deep well of wisdom within me. We all do. I am the only potential saboteur here. I am the only one who can block the voice from reaching me.

A friend of mine recently said, “You may not trust yourself, but I trust you. I trust that whatever you do it is for your highest good.” I needed to hear that.

This year, my highest good has been served, apparently, by uprooting myself, repeatedly. By humbling myself as I learned at last how insecure I really am; how much my pretense of certainty was a tool of survival but not a path for growth. Okay, inner knowing– I’m ready to listen.


Define Family

Below is a piece from my archives. Something I wrote several years ago about a summer several years before that. 

Summer 2000.  We’re on vacation in Chincoteague, VA.  Me, my husband, Dan, our two children, and Grandma (Dan’s mom and the best mother-in-law in the world).  Grandma is a given. We never vacate without her.

One day, we get a call from Dan’s dad, Frank.  He and his girlfriend of 20 years, Patty, are heading down for a couple days to visit with us.  This is great! Grandpa and Grandma have been divorced for a quarter century but, in that inimitable way that 1/84th of divorced couples are able to, they have remained friends.  The quarter century they were married was enough to ensure a lasting bond between two people who share three children, political and religious ideals and a lot of memories.

Then we get another call, from Pam.  Okay, now Pam is my stepmother, only she is not married to my dad. Not any more. She and he were married to one another throughout my childhood.  Fifteen of my formative years, she was there every summer and holiday break when I left New York and made my way to the wilderness of northwest PA to be with that part of my family.  She is the mother of my two sisters. She is the one who taught me how to play Scrabble, how to make a meatball and that it is important to spend summers having fun instead of brushing up on my math skills, as my other (biological) maternal unit hoped I would be doing.

So Pam calls. Pam has been married to Paul for years now, and he’s cool too.  They are in Virginia and want to stop by Chincoteague for a couple days.  This is great! It’ll be a party.

And it is. My children, Win and Maggie, ages 10 and 7 at this point, don’t bat an eye when they come out to the screened in deck that afternoon to see this conglomeration of … well, family members… all sitting around drinking cold beer and discussing the upcoming election (Gore vs. Bush).

Paul (my ex-stepmother’s husband, also defined as my half-sisters’ step-father) is as interested in history and philosophy as my husband is, and both my in-laws have advanced degrees in history. They could talk all night.  Patty, my father-in-law’s girlfriend (you could think of her as my husband’s nearly-step-mother) is a people person with a lifetime of stories to tell of her years as a manager of a group home, ski bum and attendant on a transcontinental train). She and Pam (you remember who she is?) get along great and converse enthusiastically.  Pam has a PhD in psycho-educational processes.  The group dynamics are surely not lost on her. Nor on me. I sit back and watch.

Later we go to dinner and sit at a huge round table overlooking the inlet.  The kids mingle among these loved people, taking turns visiting around the table, sitting on a variety of laps or challenging yet another willing victim to a quick game of hangman.

Later still, back on the deck, we light candles and split into teams for a rousing game of Cranium, the ultimate party game.  The teams are an excellent mishmash.  First team: Win, his grandma and Paul.  (Paul: Win’s mom’s dad’s ex-wife’s husband, right? Win knows him as “Paul.” Paul is cool.)  Paul sculpts a strand of DNA out of play-doh and Win guesses correctly. Cheers all around. Another team: Dan, my husband, Pam, my ex-step-mom and Patty, Dan’s dad’s … remember?  Whatever.  It’s all silly and wonderful. Maggie, Grandpa and I make up the third team. The teams work.  It all works, somehow.

You hear a lot of talk about modern families (two moms or two dads), merged families (the Brady Bunch), his ‘n’ her families (divorced with step-siblings dangling all over the family tree) and the nicely vague term, non-traditional families. Traditional is a word like normal. It can be so easily misunderstood or misinterpreted.  Traditional family is as varied as family tradition. If the tradition in your family is to eat cheesecake at two a.m. on the first Tuesday of the month, that may be as sacrosanct as any time worn, culturally approved ritual.

The only thing that is, perhaps, universally traditional about the concept of “family” is the connection forged by love, loyalty and responsibility.  Looking around that screened-in porch, seeing those familiar faces in the candlelight, I saw my family.  “These are people I love,” I may have thought then (being prone to mushy, well-phrased thoughts). The porch and the evening itself were as full as my heart at that moment. Full of this hodgepodge of exceptional people glued together into a family.

This has nothing to do with the events in the blog but is a big extended family gathering....

This has nothing to do with the events in the blog but is a big extended family gathering….

The Broken Pause Button

Negative space, I remember from high school art class, is the space between the stuff of this world. In a painting, the shapes between objects are created by negative space. I figure the world of sound has its own negative space—the quiet between the noise. The pause.

Of course, there is rarely utter quiet. Unless you are hermetically sealed in an isolation chamber, you will hear the traffic below, the bird or cricket speaking, the low frequency buzzing of the lights, the fridge, the neighbor’s TV, the thump of the bass line from a radio zipping by on a midnight joyride.

Right now, I sit alone in a kitchen. The dryer hums rhythmically in the next room. I hear a high pitched buzz from somewhere in the room and can’t pin it down. My stomach just rumbled, almost drowning out the rest.  But in my world, this is the equivalent of silence.

I worked most of my career in a school, where silence is rare. A lively classroom is about dialogue and sharing, singing, asking questions, excited “Eureka” outbursts, and the muted conversation of collaborating learners. As a teacher, I had to learn to pause, though. Even when asked a direct question, if I paused, a lightbulb often went on for the student. If I’d spoken immediately, I might have derailed that moment, and prevented a neural connection from forming. When I asked a question, I would force myself to pause long enough, and teach others to resist filling the silence, so that thinking could happen.

But it’s not just thinking that takes place in the pause. It’s breathing. Expanding. Sometimes the pause lets us practice the oh-so-difficult non-thought.

My mind is virtually always full of buzz, like this “quiet” house. But in that blissful moment of waking, when my mind is momentarily unaware of much at all except the sensation of lightening from unconsciousness to consciousness, I sometimes don’t know where I am. I forget the ache in my heart. I don’t miss anything, or long for anything. I don’t feel burdened by tasks. I am anxiety free.

I wonder how long it is in actual time before the thoughts pop in. For me, it is such a minute fraction of a second that it is incredible that I even notice the empty pause at the beginning of my waking day. It is infinitesimally brief. I guess this is what meditation is supposed to gain for us. An extension of that moment. The ability to push the pause button on the soundtrack inside our heads.

Thoughts and utterances need to sit in the back seat and let mommy drive. The unbidden thought, “How can I make my deadline?” (Negative programming.) “Am I doing the right thing?” (Fear.) “Did that deposit clear yet?” (Anxiety.) “How will I get that stain out of my sweater?” (Busywork.)

The unbidden words, “I’m sorry.” (But I didn’t do anything.) “I’ll do it!” (Control freak volunteer.) “Do you really want to wear those shoes with that skirt?” (Judge and jury.)

Where’s the pause button?

Mine broke.

Daughter into Mother

When my first child was born in early May of 1990, about a week before Mother’s Day, I had not thought a lot about that designated day-for-honoring-mothers for some years, due to the agonizing relationship I had with my schizophrenic mom. Since long before I’d married, my mother had often been absent entirely from my life, living in her car, and, when she lost that, in homeless shelters and the occasional mental hospital. If I was lucky, I knew where she was. Or—if I was unlucky, depending on how you look at it. When she was out of my world, I worried incessantly. When she was in it, she was a gorgon, haunting every cranny of my mind and heart with the brilliant venom of her love.

Needless to say, on Mother’s Day, I tried not to dwell on the sadness of having no one to send a sappy card to, or take out to dinner.

When I was little, Mother’s Day was mostly about me walking the one block up West 86th Street to Broadway to buy a huge bouquet of daisies with my own money, and delivering them to her. I occasionally wondered if daisies were really her favorite or if she had just said that so I could afford to buy her flowers. At her memorial service, I had the biggest bouquet of the sunny things on display as virtually the only “decoration.” The following summer, when I scattered my mother’s ashes in Buckeye Lake, Ohio, I found out from her best childhood friend that daisies truly were her best loved “friendly” flower, and had been all her life. A woman bent on grandeur and elegance never shook off her attachment to the simplest, truest of everyday flowers.

We sprinkled black-eyed Susans into the lake with her remains, as those were the only daisy-ish blooms we could find that day. I think of that now, on Mother’s Day, with flowers and blossoms filling the air with thick, enchanting smells. The simplicity of daisies and the eternity that is the tie between a mother and child, for good or ill. Suppress it all I want, Mother’s Day, daisies, and all the moments when a woman in middle years might call her elderly mom to share lives—they bring back the empty place where my mother resided most of my life, before and after her death.

Fast forward to yesterday. Mother’s Day 2013. 23 years and one week from my first Mother’s Day with roles changed. Where I became the mother, and began to undo the tangled persona of being my mother’s daughter. The untangling continued, through the years, as motherhood defined me in a way that daughterhood never could. Being the mother of my son, and then my daughter, fit my soul. Can’t think of another way to say it at the moment.

Now my children are grown. They are the whole people they have always been, through this lifetime and all the ones that came before. They fill their own spaces in this universe, with the exactness with which water fills the ocean. They flow, they breathe, they love, they expand, they laugh and cry and create. They are people. I take no credit. I feel only gratitude.

My mother knew very little gratitude for anything, and she could only see me as something she made, a reflection of her, the jewel on her crown. Thus, I could only let her down, being only human.

My children have never let me down. I don’t see how they could. As long as they are themselves, I can enjoy their becoming and their being. Something I do every day with wonder and, yup, gratitude.

My mother with my father and me back when everything seemed possible.

My mother with my father and me back when everything seemed possible.

Me with my children. Anything is possible.

Me with my children. Anything is possible.

In Honor of the Crone

Have you read about the grandmothers in India? The ones who were taught to build, install and repair solar lighting systems, and put together solar lanterns, water heaters and cookers? When a college got the idea to teach undergrads how to do the work in order to bring light to villages in India, the youngsters (men) absconded to the big cities to make money. So someone brilliant had the idea to empower elder women from local communities, knowing they would do the right thing. And they have. So far they have brought light to almost 10,000 households in India. Subsequently, the Indian grandmothers taught elder women from other countries. These solar engineers—elder women all—have brought solar power to 45,000 households in 64 developing countries. If you want to read more about it, check out Tara Sophia Mohr’s blog Link to Mohr’s blog. It was Tara who inspired me to follow this thread today.

Women in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s are in a powerful stage of life. In ancient traditions, goddess centered or otherwise non-Christian, this elder woman was called the crone, and was deeply revered as the holder of truth, wisdom and love. Linked to the new moon, the dark phase, she holds secret knowledge and can teach the spiritual mysteries.

If you think about your favorite elder woman, grandmother or not—wise and loving, with the endless patience to share with you all she has to teach—that is the crone. The word has been co-opted by a western, patriarchal mythology that turned the crone into a feared destroyer. Picture Hansel and Gretel’s witch. She epitomizes what is actually a quite modern view of the “terrible crone.” In fact, the crone has lived a life full of loving, birthing, tending, creating, giving, thinking, solving, planning, worshiping, guiding, and supporting. As the people of India realize—she is a resource to be tapped, not a feared monster nor a disposable commodity to be tossed away.

The women I know are reclaiming the word, honoring their passage from mother to crone with ceremony, reverence, appreciation and awe. And we are talking about some very sexy, savvy crones. The dark moon goddess is still sexual, seductive, enticing in her wisdom and authority. What has she to fear? She understands the world better than she ever has. She understands herself and is stepping into her power.

The sexy white-haired man—CEO, senator, diplomat, author. You know him, right? Well, his counterpart is not a little old lady sitting in a rocking chair or pulling cookies out of the oven. No. His equal, his match is the sexy crone—CEO, senator, diplomat, author. Artist, dancer, healer, teacher. Whatever she is, she is the holder of the moon energy, the silver light that flows into us all.

So here’s to our crones. Think of that woman—the one you will never forget. The one whose presence can inspire, calm, empower, teach and move you. If you are lucky enough to have a powerful crone in your life, sit at her feet every chance you get. Dance with her, drum with her, drink with her, pray with her, listen to her, touch her. And if she is not with you any more, she is probably somewhere nearby, guiding you in one way or another. Perhaps simply through the inspiration she provides by having lived. Or maybe there is more to it than that. Only you can know.

Jane Fonda is 75

Jane Fonda is 75

Betty White is 91

Betty White is 91

Hillary Clinton is 65

Hillary Clinton is 65

Ruth Bador Ginsberg is 80

Ruth Bador Ginsberg is 80

Maya Angelou is 85

Maya Angelou is 85