Lost at the maul

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I’ll date myself with this reference, but remember that time you couldn’t find your car in the mall parking lot a few days before Christmas? Yes, kids, there was a time in a suburb far, far away where humans drove to a large shopping complex to purchase things. Anyway, you older species know the feeling I’m talking about – wandering around helplessly certain that your car is in the next row. Only it’s not.

It’s maddening and frustrating and can even make you feel a bit panicky. You just want to find your damn car and go home. Well, that’s how I’ve felt since early Monday morning when I learned of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. I want to stop rambling around lost.

My dear wife and I turned on the Today show at 7 AM as we most often do on weekdays to see the ominous crawl on the screen – BREAKING NEWS. That term has become so overused – especially in the age of Trump where almost every cockamamie tweet is considered BREAKING NEWS. But this BREAKING NEWS was so big that they had to give it a name like a movie title – DEADLY LAS VEGAS SHOOTING – and a dramatic background score – as if the horrific news of someone mowing down innocent folks with an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons at an outdoor concert would not get our attention.

Today show

Matt and Savannah had their game faces on – it was all grim news with no amusing repartee with Al about the weather or Hoda with a feel-good story. This was grisly – the largest modern-day mass shooting in the United States – surpassing last year’s largest modern-day mass shooting in the United States in Orlando.

I watched the first twenty minutes or so of the broadcast and then looked at my phone to check Facebook and Twitter. Before the sun had come up on the dead in Las Vegas, people were already posting rants about stricter gun laws. People always post those types of things after a mass shooting but Monday’s posts seemed different to me – they were angrier and many contained the phrase – “save your thoughts and prayers.” And this was all before I had even brushed my teeth.

Throughout the day I continued to see this sentiment expressed on social media – bag your thoughts and prayers and work for stricter gun control laws. The wrath felt personal to me because I felt like that’s all I had to offer – my own thoughts and prayers – which I pretty much kept to myself all day.

Midmorning, my church sent out an email letting members know that the sanctuary would be open all day if we needed a place to sit and pray and that there would be a Liturgy for the Violence in Las Vegas offered later in the evening. It comforted me to know that there was a place to go to mourn communally. I strongly felt the need to be with others – to be with the living – but then I kept seeing the barrage of posts on social media decrying over and over that “prayer doesn’t change things.”

It made me sad, and honestly, a little mad.

Well, no, prayer can’t change 59 dead and almost 500 wounded. Prayer isn’t a do-over – or a naïve pass on the horrors of this world. Prayer alone doesn’t have the power to change things. God knows, if it did, we’d need a lot more churches. I only know that prayer changes me. For starters – it makes me shut the fuck up – which is no small thing. It makes me be quiet and consider the absurd possibility that I might not know everything. Prayer makes me be still and listen – to myself and the world around me. Sometimes prayer makes me feel better – other times it leaves me empty and confused. I just know that it rarely leaves me unexamined.

I get it – this backlash against the rote sentiments of “thoughts and prayers” – especially when they are offered by the same elected officials who bank roll their campaigns with blood money from the NRA. But for me, there has to be a place for prayers in all of this babel. What is the alternative? The purgatory of never finding my car?

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Photo credit: Jayme Lemons

My friend Kevin is an Episcopal priest and I found a lot of comfort in his Facebook post on Monday. I don’t think he’ll mind me sharing it – I’ll ask for forgiveness if he does.

The moment we decry prayers and remembrances for the dead because those acts won’t change things is the moment the dead, wounded, and their families and friends stop being people and become political objects. Can we at least wait until tomorrow before we strip them of their humanity? Besides, sometimes, mourning and praying have to change us before we are ready to change the world.

Amen, Kevin. Amen.

I’ll no doubt soon return to ranting on Facebook – I find it to be therapeutic – like a cyber wailing wall. And I’ll work on changing the world, too, but today I’m tired and weary and feeling a little hopeless. And I think it’s okay to stay there for a bit.

I also think poetry can be a form of prayer and I often turn to it when I am grieving. Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets and I ran across the poem below that says just about everything I wish I could say in a prayer. I offer it to you simply as nothing more than a map.

Lead

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

 

loon

 

 

 

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For the love of Edie

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Edie Windsor

Preface: I first learned of Edie Windsor when I read her wedding announcement in The New York Times in 2007. Little did I know then that she would become the gay-rights pioneer whose Supreme Court case would eventually lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage. Edie Windsor changed my life and the lives of so many gay Americans and their families. Edie died yesterday at the age of 88 and I hope that if heaven exists, Edie and Thea are once again dancing together.  I honor her life and legacy by posting my column that originally appeared in the Greensboro News & Record on July 5, 2007.

Same-sex commitments worth celebrating

I started getting home delivery of the Sunday New York Times a few years ago. It’s a small luxury that I can afford, and it gives me a thrill on Sunday mornings to see that blue plastic bag at the end of my driveway.

I could try to impress you and tell you that when I tear into the Sunday Times, I read the Opinion pages first. I do read them (sometimes) but only after I’ve devoured the Sunday Styles section and, specifically, the Weddings/Celebrations pages.

Five years ago, the Times started printing reports of same-sex commitment ceremonies. That’s when the paper changed the heading of the pages from “Weddings” to “Weddings/Celebrations.”

Howell Raines, then the executive editor of The Times, explained, “In making this change, we acknowledge the newsworthiness of a growing and visible trend in society toward public celebrations of commitment by gay and lesbian couples – celebrations important to many of our readers, their families and their friends.”

The Times printing gay wedding/celebration announcements was important to me for obvious reasons. Any time gay relationships are treated equally – not for better or worse, not for richer or poorer, but equally – is an affirmation for all gays.

Nick Gottlieb and his partner, Macky Alston, were one of the first gay couples to appear in The Times in 2002. Gottlieb recalls wanting to make a political statement that a gay couple could be just as successful, loving and committed as a straight couple. Gottlieb made his point, but he also got a thrill seeing the picture of himself and his partner in the paper.

“It was really nice to feel held up by your community,” he said. “We were made to feel very important, which is exactly what you want on your wedding day.”

I must confess that reading the gay announcements in The Times is one of my favorite guilty pleasures.

My friend, Andrew, gets The Sunday Times, too. And for the first few years of the announcements, we had a standard Sunday greeting to each other which went like this, “Any good gays in The Times?”

I know. That makes us sound really shallow, but the reality is that to make it into The Times’ wedding pages, you have to pretty much possess three things: rich parents, an Ivy League degree or two or three and an important position that includes the words chief executive, managing partner or vice president in your title.

So, reading The Times’ wedding announcements is really entertainment for me, almost like a good beach book. I scan the pages looking for the gay couples first. There are usually one or two gay announcements each Sunday, and not to sound petty, but you see way more gay men than lesbians.

Maybe that’s why an announcement a few weeks ago immediately caught my eye. It was about two women – two older women – even more of an anomaly.

The first line of the announcement read: Thea Clara Spyer and Edith Schlain Windsor were married in Toronto on Wednesday.

I went on to learn that Dr. Spyer, 75, is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, and Ms. Windsor, 77, is a retired computer systems consultant. Spyer and Windsor met in in 1965 in a restaurant in the West Village.

“Everyone lived in the closet,” Windsor recalled of lesbian life in New York in the 1960s.

Spyer and Windsor went to a friend’s apartment that first night and danced so much that Windsor danced a hole in her stockings. The pair didn’t cross paths again until two years later at a Memorial Day weekend in the Hamptons.

They’ve been together ever since.

My column, not unlike the Times’ Wedding/Celebrations section, is an entertainment vehicle, not the outlet for a political debate about gay marriage.

Maybe we can just agree that many of us – straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender – grow up dreaming of falling in love and spending the rest of our lives with that person.

Thea Spyer and Edith Windsor had that dream.

One of the last lines in their Times announcement revealed that Spyer has become a quadriplegic as a result of advanced multiple sclerosis.

The announcement ends with a sentence more powerful than any argument that I could ever make for gay marriage:

Dr. Spyer had the help of three aides who traveled with her to Canada to officially marry Ms. Windsor, ending an engagement that began in 1967.

I have another confession to make. I almost always cry at weddings.

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Thea and Edie

 

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My wedding day. Thank you, Edie.

The long road home

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Woodlawn.  Photo courtesy of Tom Glass.

Home has been a moving target for me for a long time now – 15 years to be exact. That’s when both of my parents died and grief ran me into a ditch.  Years later, my emotional GPS has been searching for an alternate route home. It’s a bit like that ring toss game at the carnival. Sometimes I get tantalizingly close to it, but I can never quite snag it. But just like that silly game, I always want another chance even though I know it’s most likely rigged.

Well, last weekend I landed the ring. I found home for a few days in a 220-year-old house in the tiny town of Flint Hill, Virginia. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley so I suppose it makes sense that the road home would lead there. The five-hour drive from Winston-Salem to Flint Hill is literally a map of my life – Route 29 North through Lynchburg, where both of my parents were born and raised, on through Charlottesville, where I lived for over a dozen years and spent some of the happiest times of my life.

I know that stretch of road like the back of my own hand – every wrinkle, every vein, every scar. I’ve traveled that highway my entire life and there’s a point shortly after you pass through Madison Heights on the way to Charlottesville that you come over the crest of a small hill and get your first full on view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My heart has always skipped a bit when I get to this spot. Those majestic mountains are in my DNA. “God’s country” as my Dad always said.

Remnants of Hurricane Harvey were chasing us on our drive up last Friday, so my mountains were cloaked in an eerie fog – but I knew they were there. They’ve always been there. This is the road home to me.

My dear wife and I have been spending Labor Day weekend with our friends Phyllis and Tom for the past several years at their country home in Rappahannock County. I met Phyllis 24 years ago when she was my boss at a national non-profit organization in Washington, DC. She was way way up in the management chain and I was a low-level development officer. And she was the most intimidating woman (or man for that matter) I had ever met. I was terrified of her and relieved our paths rarely crossed.

I laugh when I think about those days now. I was such a greenhorn and she was so polished in her tailored suits and high heels. I can’t really trace the timeline of how she became, outside of my mother, the most influential woman in my life. I know she was a mentor and a teacher and in many ways still is. Then somehow, after we both went on to different jobs, she became a dear friend and now is the closest thing I have to a parent – which is kind of funny since she is only seven years older than me. I can’t really explain it but I just know what it feels like. She is the person whose opinion matters most – the person I want to make proud of me – the person I go to for counsel – the person who believes in me unconditionally. I love her beyond measure – although, truthfully, she can still terrify me a little. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I guess I’m always a little fearful of disappointing her and that keeps me on my toes.

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Phyllis and me on my wedding day. I think she was almost as happy as me!

Phyllis married Tom six years ago at their country home, Woodlawn. He is adorable and brilliant – he’s a builder, a painter, a potter and a prolific – if sometimes meandering – story-teller. He is a perfect match for Phyllis and he makes her laugh on a very regular basis. This is a very good thing because Phyllis is a very serious person – that is unless she’s singing and dancing to some of her favorite tunes. She just gets shit done and the world is a better place because of it.

Tom originally discovered Woodlawn over a decade ago when it was a dilapidated abandoned structure in a field in Appomattox County, Virginia. The house was originally constructed in 1797 and Tom had it dismantled, every piece labeled like the biggest IKEA dresser ever, and moved 150 miles to Flint Hill where he lovingly and painstakingly restored it. It is simply amazing.  You can read about it here.

I’m always excited to visit Woodlawn but was even more so this time because my sister from California was back east for a couple of weeks and met us there. Unlike George Costanza, I actually like it when my worlds collide and I love that Phyllis and Tom and my sister have become such good friends. They even pulled off an international surprise together back in May when our trips to Amsterdam overlapped and they showed up at our hotel bar the first night of our journey. The real surprise was that my sister was able to keep a secret for more than an hour.

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Amsterdam. We’re going to go on EVERY vacation with Phyllis and Tom. (They just don’t know it yet.)

I could feel my heart swell as we turned on the long and dramatic approach to Woodlawn and glimpsed the most defining feature of the house – its double chimneys.  My sister met us at the top of the steps. She was, as always, dressed to the nines even though it was a Friday afternoon in the country. That girl’s got style for days. She always has. When she was 12, she memorized my mother’s credit card number for the local department store and used it – lying to the store clerk when they asked if she had her mother’s permission. I would have never been able to pull it off and I’ve often said that if I had half of her chutzpah, I could be anything I wanted to be.

She has a huge and demanding job running several breast cancer centers in Southern California and is constantly on one of her two (ugh) cell phones. She’s utterly glamorous and spends more on cosmetics in a year than I have in 60. We laugh at how very different we are in so many ways. And yet, we are as close as two sisters can be. I speak on the phone with her at least once a day and I was giddy to be in the same time zone – much less house – as her for a long weekend.

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Sisters are everything.

My parents always made coming home special. My dad would meet me at the front door – even in his later years when he was disabled and on a walker. And my mother would stock the kitchen with many of my favorite things. Phyllis does that, too – a case of sparkling water and several good bottles of big red wine. It’s no small thing to be known in these ways.

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Breakfast Souffle. Phyllis is the best cook I know. And I know some very good cooks.

But I really knew I was home later that evening when I went downstairs to the ground floor – the house has four floors – to get something. Sounds carry easily over Woodlawn’s ancient beams and boards and I could hear music playing and laughter and the voices of the people I love. I could hear the clanking of flatware as my sister set the table. It was the sound of family. It was the lyrical sound of the living. I stood very still and listened and let those sounds wash over me like a sacrament.

I was home.

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Window on Woodlawn.

We were bathed in the warmth of candlelight at dinner – my very favorite kind of dinner – long and leisurely where no one is looking at a phone or a watch or a stupid TV. Jesus, why don’t we do that more often? We all ate and drank too much, well, everyone but Phyllis – she has the discipline of a monk and the figure of Helen Mirren. Probably not a coincidence.

We slowly dropped one by one and said our good nights. I went downstairs again to my sister’s room – I could see from under the door that her light was still on. I gently opened the door to find her reading. I climbed into bed with her and I was 15 again and she was eight and we talked softly for what must have been a very long time before I kissed her goodnight. I climbed the stairs to the top floor and found my wife fast asleep with the lights on – she’d left them on for me. Most vampires get more sleep than me but that night, I slept in what must be what heavenly peace feels like.

There’s a special mojo in the air when you’re sleeping under a roof with people you love. It’s almost palpable. It’s like the best sound machine ever – so good you don’t even know it’s on. I was the first one up on Saturday – it was a deliciously cool and rainy day – the kind my sister and I both love. I tiptoed down the creaky staircase and went to sit on the back porch. That’s another ritual of home – the staggered pilgrimage to the kitchen as everyone awakens. I was lost in my thoughts when I heard a tap from the kitchen window – it was Phyllis – smiling and letting me know that the coffee was ready.

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A misty morning at Woodlawn.

I’ve watched enough Hallmark specials to know that a house does not make a home. It’s the people.

I’ve also spent years trying to fill the holes ripped in my soul from too many losses and too many disappointments. Last weekend, I was full in a way that I had not felt in a very long time. You know the feeling – when your heart feels too big for your chest – but not in a tight way. No, in a way that makes you feel whole.

A way that makes you know you are home.

 

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Family.

House fire

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The Downtown Mall in happier times.  Photo: visitcharlottesville.org

I have no memory of my first visit to Charlottesville. I was a baby in my mother’s arms. She would have been in Charlottesville visiting Aunt Lillian – her mother’s older sister. I would visit that home, near the Downtown Mall, many times as a child.

I grew up in Harrisonburg, VA, a small town about an hour from Charlottesville and travelling there always felt exciting – like going to a real city. There have been many trips to Charlottesville since that first one some 60 years ago, including a dozen years that I lived there beginning in the early 80’s. My father and my sister went to college there. My mother took her last breath in a hospital there. Charlottesville has always felt like a second home to me and what happened there on Saturday has broken me.

Disclaimer: This is not a political blog post. If you’ve followed me at all on any social media you most certainly are aware of my leanings. No, this is a personal post – more of a lamentation if you will. I am grieving another loss – the loss of what little innocence remained in my life. Over the past 15 years or so, I have experienced a great deal of loss – my parents, my longtime partner, and a job I dearly loved – that’s just a bit of the inventory. I’ve become comfortable with loss. No, I don’t like it but it feels familiar to me.

When you suffer such loss, you tend to cling tighter to happier times – you grip those memories with white knuckles and you don’t let go because sometimes you feel like your life – or at least your sanity – depends on it. So over the years, my memories of Charlottesville have been a virtual safe house for me. It was a place I could go in my head to feel whole and happy again. I am either blessed or cursed with a wicked memory and I can see my times in Charlottesville like a movie I’ve watched a dozen times.

I can see my dad and me on a sun-dappled October afternoon in Scott Stadium watching UVA play football. I can hear him cheering – more like yelling – and I can feel his big bear hugs after a touchdown. UVA would more often lose than win but my father, ever the eternal optimist, would always put his arm around me as we walked out of the stadium and say, “We’ll get ‘em next time, Adda.”

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Win or lose – a happy place for me and my dad.  Photo: virginiasports.com

I can see my mom at Mother’s Day brunch at the Omni Hotel, dressed so elegantly and relishing being the center of attention as she sipped – more like gulped – her champagne. Good Lord, my mother loved champagne. I can also see her take that last breath at Martha Jefferson Hospital on a blustery cold night in December. That may sound morbid to you, but I don’t intend it that way. My mother was in death as she was in life – a lady – and she exited with courage and grace and that moment is one that I will cherish until my last breath.

I can see my former partner and me at an apple festival. So many apple festivals! I’m not even that wild about apples but those festivals were such pure joy – folks out in sweaters and fleece enjoying the grand weather, eating apple everything, listening to bluegrass music. I wonder now what we possible could have worried about back then.

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A bushel of fun.  Photo: tripsavvy.com

I suppose it was a simpler time everywhere across our nation but Charlottesville is my personal frame of reference for a precious time of great contentment.

That was until Saturday. I don’t care to recap the horror that unfolded in downtown Charlottesville, not far from Aunt Lillian’s house. Heather Heyer, 32, is dead and several people are recovering from injuries. And a beautiful city has been terrorized.

I know what happened in Charlottesville on Saturday is way bigger and far more important than me. It happened to our whole country and the national grief is palpable. I feel it – you feel it. But my grief is also personal and I don’t know where to go with it.

My safe house has been burned to the ground.

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The end of the innocence.  Photo: nytimes.com

Sidewalk samba

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I’m fascinated by the concept of the alter ego – the idea of being the opposite of your “normal” personality. I’ve often said that my alter ego would be a Rockette – it really doesn’t matter which one. I’ve always considered the Rockettes to be the 8th Wonder of the World and well, the costumes, the high kicks, the Christmas Spectacular! I am, at  best, a pedestrian, albeit enthusiastic, dancer. Oh well, a girl can dream.

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This week I’ve been thinking that if my alter ego were a song it would be The Girl from Ipanema, that sexy, seductive Brazilian bossa nova tune. It has long been one of my favorites – the classic Astrud Gilberto version and, of course, the Frank Sinatra rendition. I love the bouncy first lines – “Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking.” You can see her, can’t you?

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Here’s where the alter ego part comes in for me. Tall? I’m 5’7” – not short, but only tall when I’m standing by my friend Jerri who is 4’11” with her boots on. Tan? I am loath to admit that I spent many a summer’s day in my youth baking in the sun with – don’t make me say it…No. Sunscreen. The memory of it actually makes me nauseous but today, I am a ginger vampire and while I don’t actually burst into flames when exposed to the sun, summer sightings of me outdoors are as rare as Big Foot.  Young? Shut up. That leaves lovely. I’m not fishing for compliments here. I have a moderately healthy ego and on my good days I’m pretty okay with the face I see in the mirror – especially in low-wattage.

So back to that girl on the beach. To me the song is much more than just an ode to a beautiful woman – it’s the definitive theme song for summer. It’s a warm breeze, it’s sand under your feet, the beat of the ocean. Just add a cold Brahma beer. It’s the rhythm of summer – sultry and sexy.

Oh, by the way, I hate summer. I think I may have buried the lead here. Let me explain. Even though I was born and raised in Virginia and have lived in North Carolina for over twenty years, I can’t stand summer. Heat and humidity are the bane of my existence as a Southerner – okay, those two things and the NC legislature.

So, you’re probably wondering why I have been waxing sentimental over a summer song for most of this post. Well, a funny thing happened to me this week – this gloriously wonderful week of cool morning temps and low humidity – I fell in love with summer. Our affair has lasted four days. Hey, that’s almost as long as Kim Kardashian’s first marriage. Sadly, the meter is running on this fling – the weekend forecast looks seasonally oppressive.

But oh, how I have savored these days. I’ve taken a long walk each morning through my favorite Winston-Salem community – Ardmore. It’s a charming historic neighborhood distinguished by classic bungalows, sidewalks and lots of big trees.

ardmore porch

I’m not a traditionally outdoorsy person – I don’t camp or anything crazy like that – but I do really enjoy being outside in nature – it’s just not usually possible for me to do that in the summer here in the Dismal Swamp.

But this week I got a Get Out of Summer Free Card and everything was different – my glasses had a new prescription – my vision sharper and more defined. I saw tiny dew drops – glassy bubbles sitting on top of all the yards. My senses were keener – the green, wet smell of freshly cut grass took me back to “helping” my dad mow the lawn with a plastic lawnmower when I was a little girl. I heard the joyful jingling of dog collars sounding like chimes as four-legged creatures enjoyed their morning exercise, too.

I hardly recognized myself. I was outside in late June and I was giddy. I think I could have walked to Greensboro (30 miles). The first day I found myself looking around at the other people I passed – to see if they were noticing it, too. I feared I had just conjured up 43% humidity in my head but they all looked really happy, too. Each subsequent day, I’ve opened the front door and slowly poked my head out like a turtle – was it safe? Day 2, I was pleasantly surprised and by today, I just figured I was being punked – we could not possibly have had four days in a row of a summer that was delightful.

I can’t stand too much of a good thing – it’s a serious character flaw – and I knew this jaunty jig was almost up – so this morning, I hit Girl from Ipanema on my iPhone playlist and I strutted down the sidewalks of Ardmore like Gisele Bundchen on the runway. And for those three minutes, I was tall and tan and young and lovely. And I didn’t hate summer.

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Don’t look for me outside again until sometime in September. In the meantime, I’ll be inside my climate controlled condo practicing my high kicks.

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patio addy