FLAME, keeper of the

CANDLEMy cousin Bobby died last week. It was expected after a long illness, so it shouldn’t have thrown me like it did when I got the call. But my heart sank to a very sad place that I didn’t get there to see him.

I had thought about packing up and heading south a few months ago, when I learned he was sick, and then again earlier this summer, when balmy sunny weather made me restless to blow town.

But things piled up as they always do. I got busy and have been going through a lot. And then, as I learned the other day, best intentions are one thing, but if you miss your opportunity, well, you have missed out.

Bobby was related to me on my mother’s side, a romantic, intriguing family of Virginians I hardly know. She came north to work and met and married my father. She stayed in touch with her folks, but her acclimation was to the north, and she made her real life here.

Still, the affinity I feel with her people is strong, forged by the mysterious strain of southern blood that also runs through me.

It’s been a good lesson the last couple of days. Everyone has a tendency to plot a course for a better time, but the question is this: does that time ever arrive?

I have been at a crossroads of choices for months, which all depend on one thing that just refuses to occur. The frustration is indescribable and I fight every minute of every day not to succumb to it.

I take refuge in my relationships, which range from fabulously wonderful to challenging all at once. These are the components that make each of us who we are, and I welcome them.

Showing the people I love what they mean to me — in the here and now — has been my mantra this year. When it comes down to it, I feel it’s all we have. But then comes a total fail, like what happened with my cousin, and I know I still have a lot to learn.

At my wedding, my brother described me in his toast as the keeper of the flame, the one who tends the family fire and holds things together. Lately, though, my role has changed: the only flame I can feed seems to be the one burning within me.

I have to focus on what make sense to me as I work to open up that stubborn path. I am mindful of how this fiery passion for life can be shared with others, and I offer it freely.

Still, as circumstances made clear last week, life isn’t often tied up with a bow. It flows forward consistently, yes, but you have to make a choice, and then accept the accompanying consequences: are you with it, or aren’t you?

Both answers involve risk. But, as I ask myself a lot, doesn’t it make sense to do what makes the ride worthwhile?

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FOR granted

My father, who is a week shy of his 88th birthday, has always been a quiet man. My mother used to reminisce, annoyed, about parties at which he would stand silently in a corner while she attempted to draw him into a conversation. The engineer in him has always been happiest puttering around his workshop, chasing the answer to a puzzle or conducting surgery on a recalcitrant small appliance. Thoughtful and methodical, he has always approached a problem with an analytical mind and a patience that was not a genetic trait passed on to his only daughter.

sun shining through autumn leaves

Dreamstime

For a while now, I have watched that meticulous mind slipping – his thought process slowed, easily overwhelmed by too much information, flummoxed by elusive dates and origins and stories. Determined to organize, categorize, grasp, he will ask repeatedly for information he has already received multiple times. I imagine that it frustrates him as much as it does me.

Three weeks ago, his body uncharacteristically followed the path his mind had blazed, one moment upright and supportive, the next, horizontal and helpless. The emergency room doctor sounded the death knell for his left hip, and before I could book a flight, he was in and out of surgery in a hospital OR not an hour’s drive from the small farming community where he grew up and the university where he met and fell in love with my mother.

I am certainly not the first child to watch a parent fail, and my mother’s demise was long and difficult. My parents, God love them, didn’t expect that I would surrender my life to help with her care; that was my dad’s job, and he did it with the same patience, dedication and love with which he approached any challenge.

My father, though, has been different. Rarely ill during the majority of his life, he still drives, golfs, volunteers, dines out, sings in the church choir and regularly walks the hills of his neighborhood. He doesn’t look a day over 75. But he’s due soon for cataract surgery, and a series of too-frequent infections has added a specialist to his appointment schedule. Still, he’s always been independent, and I haven’t had to worry much. Until now.

How does one treat a parent who suffers a seismic life shift? As I tried last week to help him ease back into life at home, I wavered – between taking care of him and prodding him to do more without my help. I have ridden the emotional roller coaster along with him, sensitive to his ebbing optimism, alert for the signs of depression that flare up as the day wears on and he wears down. Along this bumpy road, we have been immeasurably blessed by the support of friends, family, neighbors and strangers – the dozens of doctors, EMTs, nurses, techs, physical therapists, aides and others who have cared for him and reassured me. In many ways, this could have been so much worse.

Saturday – the beds remade, the refrigerator stocked, the neighbors on alert – I packed my suitcase and headed home, exhausted, tears stinging my eyes. He’s so much better, physically, but his surgical scar hides new wounds that lie below the surface. It could go either way – he could rally and reach out, or regress and recede – but either way, it’s largely out of my hands. To watch – powerless, worried and eight states away – feels like the most painful thing I have ever done. But he has chosen his life, and I have chosen mine.

For far too long, I have taken his hardiness for granted, behaving as though he really will live forever. And so his change in fortune last month became mine, as well. At some point, most of us will face our own frailties, our own mortality. His current malaise, I pray, will be temporary. But it foretells of frailties and pain – physical and emotional – still to come. And as the assumption I make becomes one of inevitability, I can only hope that we both can accept that with grace and with love.

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FOLLOWING UP

BUTERFLYI can hardly believe it has been a year since my life reared up last summer and smacked me in the face.

Wake up! it shouted at my dreary routine. You call this living?

Well, OK. Obviously, no one really said that. But you may remember me writing about it then, and periodically over the winter, describing how it felt to emerge one day from the fog that had surrounded my life only to learn I had lost the sense of who I was, and what I wanted to do.

It wasn’t like misplacing my wallet. I wasn’t sure I even remembered how to be happy, which sounds a little pathetic. But I have learned over this year that the dumbing down of hopes and dreams is pretty common. Some people I know are feeling the same thing.

It’s nothing we do deliberately, mired as we are in work and marriage and kids and bills. And, somewhere in there, life somehow shifts from being the tender treasure it is to a heavy load of mortgages, orthodontia, and taxes on the rise. Everyone and everything else comes first.

Lucky is the person who can keep it all in stride and remain true to self. I’m just glad for the wake-up call.

Twelve months ago I was a different person. Then, I had a routine with few choices and no exit. Now, I am redrawing my roadmap. Then, I felt empty and somewhat hopeless. Today, I allow myself to feel deeply, to enjoy the simple pleasures all around me, and to think freely and take risks.

I have learned to remind myself that joy and contentment are not waiting around the corner or down the road, they are with me already, in the here and now, if I will only open my eyes to see them.

Take something that happened the other day. I was talking with a friend when a sudden tidal wave of emotion overtook me. In fact, it was so strong I was almost unable to speak, and I struggled with it as we said our eventual goodbyes.

I was confused as I tried to figure it out. What the hell was wrong with me?

Nothing, I realized later, as I thought about it some more. I wasn’t fighting tears because I was sad, or hormonal, or for any other reason I can come up with. I was overcome because I was happy. In that moment. In life. Just in general. I felt something big. So, I cried.

Learning to navigate this good, perplexing, unpredictable life of mine is a challenge, but I am finding now that it fits me well.

Rediscovering yourself is a hard, cathartic job. Still, if I had to choose between then and now, I would take the “now” me. Not just because change forced a path, but because I am so very eager to see where it leads me.

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FULL exposure

Thursday, my hedges came down.

I could feel the panic rising in my chest starting Wednesday evening, when I found out the tree guys were coming the next day to cut down two rows of the massive cedar stumpshedges that have shielded me from the road – and the world that travels along it — for the four years I’ve been in my house.

I’ve known for a while that they needed to go: they’ve been mostly ignored for far more years than I’ve owned this place. They were unwieldy, ugly, overgrown and unhealthy – useless as sound barrier and incomplete as screen. They cut me off from my neighbors and impeded the view at the stop sign on the opposite corner. But as soon as I made the decision to get rid of them – a full year ago – I knew that this was about more than sight lines.

The hedges were a living metaphor for the emotional walls I’ve built and maintained for most of my life. Walls that kept me safe, to be sure, but also hidden, separated from the life I watched passing me by. All day Thursday, I tried to suppress a quiet terror that I would get home and, without the comforting shelter of the cedars, feel totally, emotionally exposed. I also knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I was doing the right thing: those trees represented my old life, barely hanging on and making its last stand.

The barriers we erect keep out pain and judgment, prying eyes and probing questions. They also turn away trust and friendship, love and connection. The hedges were entwined with so many decisions I’ve made in my life that have kept the real me hidden from all but my closest friends.

Cutting down the hedges is my coming out moment, but it’s about the core of my being, not my sexuality. Here I am, world, with every flaw exposed, every fault magnified, for you to judge. My daily habits and the weeds in my lawn and choice of deck furniture out there in front, for all to see.

It’s already starting to be OK, though, and as my new landscaping takes shape along with my new life, it will soon be far better. This was a step I had to take to reclaim myself, but it’s felt like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. “Wow!” Michele texted when I sent her a photo of the wide open view from my front door. “That’s like getting a Brazilian wax – all gone!!!” Still, by Friday evening, I found that much of the vulnerability had receded, as I tended my garden, washed winter’s dirt off the side of my house, and joined the human, home-owning race.

Instead of a wall of cedars, flowering trees and ornamental grasses and perennials will soften and grace a small fence with an arbor and a wood partition at the edge of the deck, offering some privacy. And amidst it all, a gate will open to a new walkway that leads to my front door, offering a more direct way in.

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FIRST FLOWER

FIRSTLILYI have to thank an unlikely lush, green friend by the porch door for teaching me a lesson today.

King Lily, as I call it, is a tall, prolific plant that is the first of its kind in that garden to bloom each year. I love it so much I wait patiently, expectantly, all June.

The vigil ended yesterday as the first amazing orange flower emerged from a cluster of buds. I was so happy I meant to go get my phone for a picture, but I got sidetracked, and forgot.

Until this morning, when I raced outside to find the bloom curled and dying.

Day lilies are notoriously cruel to the people who love them, because they arrive magnificently in a sweeping moment, and then, just as quickly, are gone.

Twenty-four hours makes such a difference in the garden – and in life.

I’ve been writing about a young filmmaker whose movie, called “One Day,” just won the Cannes Film Festival. It depicts the lives of two very different men and how something one of them does for the other is life-changing.

What it comes down to is the moment, and if you’re smart, you are in it. Hesitate, and you are soon out of luck, wasting your time thinking and analyzing and considering and obsessing. You wait? You lose. End of story.

I was talking with a friend the other day who is struggling with some stuff. My advice was to let the heart lead the way. The harder job, though, is to listen to it.

That’s what I’m trying to remember, whether in big decisions that involve more risk, or in little ones, like capturing a flower’s image before it fades. I’m not always successful, believe me.

Today was tough. I was so crushed by stress coming at me from all sides I couldn’t summon up instinct, trust, or heart – or much of anything helpful at all.

But then I noticed that King Lily has another flower ready to bloom. And there are a handful of buds behind that one. So, I may have missed my moment yesterday, and today wasn’t so great, but tomorrow has all the potential to be better.

I am taking deep breaths and shaking it all off, thankful there’s always another chance to get it right if I just listen to what I know to be true, and act.

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FINAL frontiers

Several months ago, in a local retail store in search of the perfect “hang on – there’s a miracle coming” card for a worry-worn friend, I rotated the store’s standing display to find a column of “you can do it, girl” magnets. My soul wanted one. And so very soon, after painstaking consideration, I was the proud owner of “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?”– a 3-inch-by-3-inch hot-pink-on-black magic square that promptly found a home on a vacant space on my freezer door.

It taunted me from for months from its chilly white perch, which is of course why I had bought it. At first, I would be startled to see it, as though brought back to Earth from a distracted daydream. Always, it made me squirm, because it seemed that I was indeed waiting for … what? That pink-and-black question gnawed at the back of my psyche: What aren’t you doing?!? Get moving, dammit!

I noticed it again yesterday, and smiled. It has lost its power to challenge, to bring me up short. Slowly, I have found my voice. I realized that I could move before I knew where I was going. I found something new that made me say “yes” without a moment’s thought or hesitation. Something scared me, but I did it anyway.

I’m not entirely sure what triggered this momentous shift. But gradually, steadily, the rivulets of bad decisions and good therapists, unhealthy relationships and unspoken objections, moments of self-doubt and self-affirmation – all merged into a rushing river that buoyed me, carrying me along into a new normal. In this re-discovered place, I speak up for what I need. My heart says, “Yes!” all the time. I reach out and find a friendly fellow traveler, wrap my verbal gut reaction in wry humor and am met with the priceless gift of spontaneous laughter. I reserve judgment. I recognize the vortex and step away. I scale the wall, and I am free.

In this season of transitions, I leave behind a long and difficult phase of my life and step out onto a new stage. Still ahead are goals and challenges to be met and conquered: to make a living in a way that allows me live more fully, to calm my mind and re-learn how to sleep, to find a partner. But I think I finally have the essentials under control. The rest will come.

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FATHER’S day

FATHERAND DAUGHTERIt felt like the world stopped spinning the day my father died. It was 4:51 a.m. on a cool summer morning at just that moment when the bottomless black of night begins to brighten – the time when spirits, if they are there, seem close by.

The family had gathered days before yet my dad was hanging on, unwilling to say goodbye. During my shift that night his suffering was unbearable, so I leaned in, as I held his hand, to whisper that it was OK to let go.

I kissed him a last time with such tenderness the tears burned as they fell. A short while later I realized in the sudden silence that he was gone. Then, filled with panic at such finality, I fought back the urge to beg him to return.

You would think that after 17 years it would get easier, but sometimes I’m still at loose ends. Life changes so abruptly when a parent dies, no matter how old you are, and many families fall apart.

Our relationship could be difficult, being two faces of the same coin, as they say. But “A Good Man” was etched on his gravestone for a reason. In the end, loving fully and being loved is all that matters.

My memories these days seem to ebb and flow with the seasons as I raise kids of my own. My dad’s stamp is on everything I love, from fresh cut grass to burning leaves. I feel close to him under big starry skies and when I see people with ice cream cones. I imitate his exuberance when I win at sports or cards and jump and dance with abandon.

Father’s Day is a lovely time to salute the dads of the world, but for me it is also a bit of a struggle. I’m happy to help the kids celebrate my husband. But in my mind, it is about my dad, and a time when I was a girl who still had parents.

Joni Mitchell was right when she said you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. But short of getting the time back, which of course you can’t, I’m finding that the memories – bittersweet as they are — help keep such precious times alive.

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FAITH, leap of

NEWROSEI have a rose bush out back that I really love. It belonged to my mother. When she died, I brought it from her house and planted it here, by the corner of the barn.

It’s a prominent place I pass multiple times a day whether I’m walking the dog or just wandering in my gardens, alone with my thoughts.

The flowers on this plant are the perfect shade of pink, and the cascades of blossoms produced from June to November lift me with their beauty. I can’t help but think of my mother each time I see it, rendering it a sort of touchstone, really, to someone so far from my reach.

Because it is so special, I was brokenhearted last summer when my rose began to die, as first its leaves fell off, and then the flowers just stopped coming. I turned the soil over and over, and pulled weeds from the base as soon as they appeared, thinking maybe that was the key.

When I saw that it wasn’t, I resorted to a mega dose of Miracle Grow, even though my yard work is organic. Something had to bring this beauty back. I was depending on it.

Well, needless to say, nothing worked. And last weekend, as I walked by the dead plant for the thousandth time this spring, I decided it was time to give in. I found my rose clippers and cut the dead branches off one by one, carefully avoiding thorns, until all that was left was a small stalk with two maroon and green leaves near the roots.

I left it there, just unable to pull the rose up completely if there might be hope. I decided to wait – and see.

Since then, it has rained and rained in this soggy corner near Cape Cod and I have slogged blindly by that part of the yard without paying much attention, if any. Until today, when the skies cleared, and I saw that the stalk had grown, and sprouted leaves. And from that has come one miraculous pink bud about to bloom, and six small others.

I’m telling this story, because I realized this morning that this saga with the rose is a mirror of my life right now as I work to get past what no longer flourishes and focus on the possibility in the things that do.

Trust has played a big role in all this, bringing to mind a line I read recently that said sometimes the only mode of transportation available to you in life is to take a leap of faith.

If that’s the case, judging from my rose, I know I am ready to jump, more secure all the time in the belief that – like these tender new buds — something beautiful is ready to bloom.

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FEET?, Where are your

MARYBY MMM61, Guest Blogger

Where are your feet? It’s another way of saying, “what are you feeling in this moment?”

I had to ask myself this question this morning. When I last wrote for this blog, my teenage daughter had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was consumed with just getting her whatever help she needed and I was angry that she would suffer from the illness that has shaped so much of my life.

Since I last wrote, I have come to think of mental illness as one would think of an addiction. It doesn’t go away, but you can be in recovery from it. Life can and does get better if you are vigilant about treating the illness. But before recovery comes acceptance. I needed to accept that I was mentally ill.

My daughter needs to accept her illness. She’s railing against it. She does not want this. She cooperates. She takes her medicine and she goes to therapy. She is trying. It’s just too much for her to take in. She continues to struggle with symptoms that disrupt her life and medications that cloud her thinking. The stigma of mental illness weighs heavily on her.

So where are my feet? I have not fully accepted her illness, either. I want to fix it. I want to fix everything for her. I want her to have friends again. I want her to excel at academics again. I want her to stop hiding in her room and find the courage to leave the house more often. I want the voices to really be gone and her thoughts to stop racing. I want her to be able to complete a simple science assignment and be able to sit through an English class without pacing the room. I want her to make it through a full day at school. I want her to go back to the karate she loved.

My feet are somewhere between hope and heartache. Most days the heartache is a physical sensation. It’s a raw sore in the center of my chest that just doesn’t go away. I hold onto hope as my lifeline, as I know recovery is possible. I know she will learn to do all kinds of things again. Mental illness is not a death sentence: It is a challenge.

Acceptance brings peace. If I can accept her illness and this recovery process, I’ll find some peace. Then I can plant my feet in the present moment, acknowledge my feelings, and respond to her with love and wisdom.

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FLOW, going with the

FLOWLately, I have had a love/hate relationship with the word submit, which I can tell you, as a writer of 25 years, has not been allowed into my personal vocabulary much.

Yes, I submit to my editor every time I hit “send” on a story, yet in my own life I have been unwilling to give over control.

The very nature of the definition is cause for chills to someone not wired, as Webster says, to yield or surrender to the will or authority of another. Especially not for someone who is personally and publicly defined as competitive, strong-willed, independent, driven, and resourceful.

Stubborn might have a place in there too, but I’m not going to be the one to say that. For the most part, though, they are all good words defining someone who gets the job done. So, isn’t submission really another word for weak?

Well, I used to think so, but as the months have passed I have come to learn that things aren’t always as they seem. Some self-discovery has dawned gently in warm, fuzzy “aha” moments. Other realizations have snuck up like raiders in the night swinging two-by-fours.

What I know about myself is this: In the past, I steamrolled forward to get results, a byproduct of my profession and my personality. Decades of my life have been spent in virtual exhaustion – achieving, handling, controlling, and pushing ever forward.

It reminds me of that old joke, “I just flew in from Denver, and boy, are my arms tired!”

Recently, I began to let go of the control, realizing through a series of personal changes that the only thing I can control is me. I have found, over time, that no amount of pushing and handling can make all things go my way or bring about desired ends, so why waste the energy?

The fact is – to me at least – a lot of life is out of human control. You can reach for God, or the universe, or something else that makes sense to you, to adjust and accept this odd state of being.

I am finding the act of letting go to be strangely comforting. You mean, I don’t have to make things perfect? I don’t have to fix every relationship and solve every problem? Why didn’t anyone tell me sooner?

I am sitting back more and trusting that what is meant to come to me will, in its own time. It feels nebulous, frustrating, scary, exciting and sad, all at once.

This doesn’t mean that I’m not trying, or charting my own path. But it is freeing me up to actually enjoy my life in the day-to-day, and live it like I mean it.

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