Doohickey and Other Forms of Intelli-talk

There’s a scene in When Harry Met Sally, I’m pretty sure, where Harry and Sally are on the phone planning to meet. They’re in a hurry and one of them says something along the lines of: “So let’s meet at the place near that thing,” and the other is like, “Yeah okay, bye.” They know. The whole point is that their intimacy is such that they “get” what each other means even when what is spoken is entirely devoid of content.

When I was growing up, my step-mother used words like “majigger” to indicate the particular thingamabob she wanted me to fetch from the place upstairs where it was usually kept. I usually knew what she meant, which led me to understand on a very fundamental level that, in families, at least, specificity is not necessary when haste, distraction and intimacy all come together to make the need for words obsolete. At least temporarily.

“Can you bring me the thingamabob from the closet when you come back?” – called to a family member getting up for a snack.

“Where is that damned whosiewhatist I got last summer at that place? Remember? Where the hell did I put it?” – angrily muttered to anyone within earshot while tearing the house apart.

“Did you get the stuff like you said?” –asked when a husband/wife/mother/sibling/child walks in the door after doing errands.

All of these seem obvious and clear in the moment.

I have always had a little bit of a delay when it comes to recalling nouns in particular. I found out not too many years ago that the human brain stores words of different parts of speech in different sections of the brain. That blew my mind. I mean, why wouldn’t words all hang out in the same place, neatly alphabetized in little file boxes? Why would we keep adjectives in one corner and nouns in another, with adverbs and pronouns, verbs and conjunctions all squirreled away in their own little hidey holes? But it makes me think maybe I have a little problem in the noun-storage space in this brain of mine. I usually think of it, but have been known to make random replacements, such as asking someone to get the milk out of the telephone or put the gloves away in the fridge or answer the doorknob when it rings.  But in any case, the convenience of doohickey, majigger, thingamabob and whatchamacallit has not gone unnoticed in my daily life.

And I’m a word person, in the end. I love words. I teach words. I write words and read words and have a close, romantic relationship with them. I do love the convenience of intelli-talk and also…there is nothing sexier than when you say: “Do you remember that thing we saw at the place when we were doing that thing and then the guy showed us the whatchamacallit that you bought for me and I cried?” and your significant other answers, “Oh yes, honey. How could I forget that?”

The Genius of Community

In Walter Isaacson’s book Einstein: His Life and Universe it’s not clear to me which part of the mind-blowing story of Albert Einstein is the most mind blowing. I know how difficult it is to rethink my own inner universe, throw out entrenched ideas and preconceptions and false realities in order to usher in something closer to the truth, knowing all the time that the truth may elude me until I die, and maybe even beyond that. And that’s just one middle class, middle aged white woman. So how did Einstein have the chutzpah, brainpower and vision to do all that for the ACTUAL universe? He didn’t just blow his own mind, he blew everybody’s minds. And with a few exceptions, people loved him for it.

But as fun as it would be to draw analogies straight down the line between Einstein’s breakthroughs in theoretical physics and the path to understanding one’s self, it would be forced and silly and not that revealing.

But there is something about his process that keeps coming back to me. Einstein was a loner in many ways, in that he worked for large stretches of time in solitude, doing thought experiments and re-seeing everything from atoms to distant stars in a totally unique way. But he always came out of his genius cave to interact with others. He had genius friends –tons of them—who could pretty much keep up with him when he’d run his cool ideas past them. They’d sit around, or ride the trolleys, or write letters, discussing and debating and sharing. A lot of the time, when Einstein did that, he came up with even better ideas about his ideas. He understood something in a new way or figured out what the roadblock was that had been pestering him. He had lots of “aha” moments when he was by himself, but it seems pretty clear that he had lots of “aha” moments when he was in profound communication and dialogue with other people. I don’t think he would have gone as far, realized as much, redirected our understanding of the universe as completely, had he kept to himself.

I find this fact comforting and validating and not at all surprising. I guess I could have assumed that someone of Einstein’s capabilities might not need a sounding board the way normal (non-scary-genius) people do. But I would have been wrong, as it turned out. He did need it, and so do we.

As both a former student and educator, I always got such a kick out of the way the sparks fly in a classroom where people are talking. A lively dialogue will take everyone to that “new place” in their learning far faster, and more thoroughly, than reading, listening or memorizing will. Even Einstein would admit that reading, listening and even some pesky memorizing are all important pieces too, but those things do not a mind create. Without playing mental catch with someone, it’s just not the same.

My son learned a lot about pitching from throwing a rubber ball at the chimney outside, on which he drew a square out of chalk. He’d go out there all by himself and throw it and throw it and throw it till his accuracy was incredible. But what made him a damned good baseball player was … yeah, you get the picture. Playing baseball. With other people.

Community is so irreplaceable and joyful. A bunch of people sitting around a table drinking wine and discussing politics. Close friends exploring spiritual beliefs gathered together under a full moon on a summer’s night. Parents with their children having dinner together and letting the topics of life unfold among them. Kids leaning forward at their desks as they listen and wait their turn to share an insight or epiphany, and then as they sit there, someone else says something and inside their head, everything gets notched up another level. The hand that was raised suddenly reaches five inches higher and the look of ecstatic awareness on the face of that student is unmatchable. An idea looks like pure joy on the face of someone in the process of thinking. Or learning. Which go together, don’t they?

I get nervous about distance learning, and on-line courses, and the ways education is adjusting to trends, financial reality and the needs of the consumer. The community of the classroom is such a big thing to lose. The very fact that we don’t live within a few blocks of our extended families, to share and pass down the wisdom of the generations that way, as people used to do, saddens me. Where was the red tent when I needed it? When I think of all that I had to reinvent and figure out for myself about being a woman, being a wife, being a mother, taking care of myself, seeking fulfillment, and juggling the things we all juggle, it’s a shame. Will my wisdom be lost among the interstates and computer wires that have replaced, in many ways, the connective tissue of community?

Being connected to other people is one of the best things about being a person and that connection gives me a chance to tap into my genius self. I learn so much about life through the example and sharing of others, and about myself by bouncing me off of people and letting them bounce themselves off of me. We need time to ferment in solitude and a chance to bounce and share. There are times in our lives when we have less time to ourselves, and other times when we have fewer chances to connect with others. It’s a balancing act. Einstein had to figure it out. We all do.



Summer vs. Autumn – an Irrefutable Argument in Favor of the Latter

So what is it about the summer that I just don’t love as much as the season that comes next—despite a beach vacation, garden vegetables, music festivals, more time with family and all the glories of the hot season? And don’t get me wrong. I’m big on all the clichés of summer. I love the smell of cut grass. I mean, who doesn’t? And fresh herbs outside my window? I could bathe in basil and wear marjoram perfume and never tire. The long days of light are magical, especially when I eat dinner at nine and still have time to go for a walk before the sky is all-the-way black. But there is something about the fall that gets me every time.

Let’s start with the practical issues. Like sweat vs. a cold nose. Give me a cold nose over pointless perspiration any time. (Pointless means you don’t exercise one iota and you are sopping wet.) I’ve never loved the sticky season. But as I’ve matured my body no longer can cool itself off. My internal thermostats behave randomly and hormonally, capricious and difficult in the extreme.

If the autumn weather proves nippy, however, the clever application of a cozy sweater, a throw blanket or a fleece robe and fuzzy slippers does the trick. Snap.  Additional warming items include: cats draped across various body parts, a fire in the firepit, hot tea with honey and warm milk, flannel lined jeans, the company of a man who smolders at a high temperature. And so forth.

More practical concerns. Body image. Though fairly comfortable with my physical self in many ways, I am not a big fan of flaunting certain aspects of my imperfection.  So I sort of HATE skimpy, low cut, sleeveless shirts that expose soft upper arms and the non-perfect neck.

The clothes of autumn are glorious. The layers of autumn include camisoles and gauzy shirts and flowing sweaters and silky scarves. In fact, a gorgeous pashmina strategically draped around the previously-mentioned neck does wonders for my sense of style and self-worth.

Take a hike in the summer and pray for death halfway to the summit. Take a hike in the fall and stand like a goddess at the top, pleasantly warm from exertion, glowing with health (not streaming with ghastly sweat), and the freshly picked apples are still cool in your pack. Sit reading a book in the summer and you either have to go into the air conditioning (which sucks) or you can’t turn the pages because they are damp with humidity, or you start to blister. Sit outside with a good book on a fall day, blanket over your lap, fleece zipped up tidily, and you can enjoy the sun for all it has to offer, instead of taking out a restraining order on it.

But to hell with all these profoundly practical reasons to love autumn. I am sure you are convinced already. But the real beauty of this season is its power to embody both endings and beginnings with grace. The rebirthing that takes place in the springtime is exquisite indeed. But it is the poignancy of autumn— things dying off while so much feels brand new. Even the flowers that bloom or simply linger deep into the season, like the cheerful mum or the effusive hydrangea, are eloquent reminders that goodbye must happen. The cooling of the air is the cooling that precedes every death. From abundant garden to heavy harvest to blackened stalks in mere weeks. The blanket of fallen leaves tries to warm the embittered soil of the final days, only to succumb at last to winds, rakes, bonfires and compost heaps.

During all this, the children return to school. People of all ages return to classrooms in elementary schools, high schools, colleges across the country and progress another year, another grade, which is about growth, anticipation, and blossoming. As the windows darken earlier and earlier in the day, minds re-engage.

I realize I am not objective, having been a teacher for so long. But I think a lot of folks would admit that they sense a reawakening with the start of school and the commencement of autumn. Lounging, poolside beer drinkers become coffee sipping multi-taskers, hanging their professional jackets on the backs of their professional desk chairs in offices across the nation. Sluggish baristas or grocery baggers become intellectually dynamic college juniors discussing the structure of philosophical argument, co-authoring physics papers with their professors or writing erudite rants about social anthropology’s latest theories. Tiny children in tiny sweatshirts explore the edges of playgrounds across the nation, searching for a stick in the shape of the letter Y, or maybe L. They are truly thrilled to be a step closer to the Promised Land called reading.

All this happens – eyes opening a little wider – as the Earth shuts its eyes for the impending winter. It is glorious!

A demonstration of 3 of the warming techniques mentioned--blanket, cozy slipper and cats.

A demonstration of 3 of the warming techniques mentioned–blanket, cozy slipper and cats.



And Then There’s Me

I’m up at 2 a.m. Exhausted after a gratifying day of hauling suitcases and boxes from two cars into my daughter’s brand new on-campus apartment as she begins her junior year at college. But I can’t sleep. The coffee I drank at 8 p.m. so I could stay awake on the highway is doing its job all too well. The highway is far behind me but the coffee is the gift that keeps on giving.

Instead of lying in bed cursing the goddess of caffeine, I will use this gift of time. Moments stolen from the 24 hours of a typical day. Moments when I can do something for me.

The day was beautiful and mostly about her, my daughter. It was about her and that is as it should be. It was also about us and the bond we are so lucky to share. A joyful day full of simple expressions of love. Unpacking, talking, planning, laughing.

But for me it was also a strange anniversary, and I cannot help remembering last year at this time and how different it all was. When I dropped her off on Labor Day weekend 2012, I was in the middle of a serious upheaval and only a few weeks away from the start of a huge adventure of my own. I had taken a leave of absence from my job, and was setting out to learn how I fit into the new world I had made. A world where I was no longer married, and, for a year at least, no longer a teacher. A world full of an unknown, untested passion and new love. A business I was going to try to support myself with. I was leaving literally everything I knew behind me for things all new.

That move-in day was a normal, if exciting, stepping stone in the life of my second born who was also creating her own world and her place in it. I was painfully aware that my pursuit of a life different from the one she had always known me to live was an excruciating upheaval for her and she was scared, angry, and sad. And yet she, too, was venturing out. She wanted me to stay in place, and be there, familiar and close. But it was not to be.

As full as I am of the mother-urge and as natural as that role has always been for me, the last year of my life has taken me deep inside myself. Truly an epic journey into what I needed, wanted, craved, and even feared. I never forgot my children, gave up my responsibility to them or altered so much as a molecule of my love for them, but I let myself sit in the front row of my own life for the first time, maybe ever.

My children (my college age daughter plus my son who lives in Vermont), adults now themselves, faced a world in which the mother was, for once, distracted by a life of her own. Tumult and change, divorce and distance, love and sorrow, anguish and renewal. Do our children automatically believe these to be the provenance of the young? Certainly having the truth—that there is no age limit on… well, anything, really—smack them upside the head is a cold splash of water for kids cradled in a world eternally made safe and warm for them.

Today’s college return was much less fraught than last year’s. Last year our goodbye had many faultlines of uncertainty. When would we see each other again? Instead of my being within a car ride for a lunch date or a visit home, I would be over a thousand miles away. My daughter felt abandoned. As much as I was compelled from within to do this thing, I also felt very sad, and very guilty. Mama was being unpredictable. Mama was taking chances. Mama was adventuring. What was happening to the predictable world?

We expect our children to be unpredictable, take chances, adventure. When my son ventured off to Rome or to ski in the Alps with people we barely knew, we were simply excited for him. Thrilled that he could experience such a thing. When my daughter threw herself into a first love that ended in agonizing hurt, I ached for her all the time knowing that, hoping that, she would heal. As much as I bite my proverbial fingernails at the crazy uncertainty of their lives, I know it to be right and suitable and healthy.

But it was (and I understand this) very difficult for my children to see me veering off the path I had been on so long. Reinventing myself and the future that might be out there for me. Throwing caution to the winds and trusting the universe—just as they do. Trusting life to give me what I need, whether joy, suffering, or simply a lesson to be learned.

I wish I could say that all my risks paid off. That my leap of faith was justified by a joyful happy ending. But no. In crucial ways, I crashed and burned. Yeah, pretty much. The balloon of hope pricked by the needle of harsh truth. A big fat lot of harsh truth.

My business was a gratifyingly successful endeavor, considering it was just the first year. But in the realm of the heart, I was, at least temporarily, road kill.

But you know, I can only hope that the lesson for my children is not: “Oh, well, of course it ended badly. Whenever a woman her age stirs the pot or tries something so unexpected, it is bound to fail. It’s good she’s back and come to her senses.”

Because I have not come to my senses. Not a bit. I am devoted to my choices and the path I am standing on right this minute, tonight, in the black hours before dawn, caffeine coursing through my system. I have learned more in a year about me, them, life, love, art, courage, pain, beginnings, endings, failure, success, attachment, clarity, heartbreak, independence, fear, passion, forgiveness, trust, anger, and humility than I had learned in the twenty preceding years. Though I have regrets, I regret nothing.

I want my children to love me because of—and in spite of—the fact that I had the guts to blow up my life (and, to an extent, theirs) and reconfigure it in a way that seems much more like life. They did know, have known, still know and know again that no matter what happens, they are the golden threads that tie my heart to this lifetime of mine. Nothing can come between me and them—not even me. Not even them. But they live for them. I live for me and them. “Don’t forget me,” my learning reminds me.

So today was a beautiful day. A young woman stirs herself back into the rich syrup that is college life. I return to the ongoing journey that is an examined life. I miss her. And then there’s me.

maggie and me