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.

apples

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.

heather

The end of the innocence.  Photo: nytimes.com

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Adventure is calling …

“Let me fall if I must fall. The one I become will catch me.” 

A year ago, I purchased a black and white postcard in a bookstore in downtown Rhinebeck, N.Y. The postcard features a photograph of a woman in a dress, holding a parasol and balancing on a tightrope between two rows of hedges. The image resonated with me and felt like the perfect metaphor for my life at the time. Just weeks before, I had taken the GRE, which stands for Worst Test Ever. It was the first major step I took toward my dream of becoming a mental health counselor. That entire year felt like a balancing act, teetering between the past and the future, my grief and my healing. Many times, during that difficult year, I felt stuck in my grief, like I was sinking into a deep pool of wet, heavy mud. But when I saw that black and white postcard that afternoon, I also saw lightness in the way the woman balanced her body on the tight rope, and her gentle determination. The photograph gave me hope that I would once again find the lightness in my own body and reach the other side of the tightrope.

Well, I have reached the other side of that tightrope. Tomorrow is my first day of grad school. This journey that I embarked on a year ago is actually freaking happening. I am in shock every day that my dreams are being realized. Along the way, so many of my loved ones were cheering me on, supporting me, believing in me, confident that everything would work out. It’s also been a nerve wracking and scary experience to take on. I left my job just two weeks ago. The night before I gave my notice, I printed my resignation letter, walked into the living room, and joined my husband on the couch with the letter in my hand. I started to sob. “I am freaking out. Majorly freaking out,” I sobbed. “You should be,” he said. “It’s a huge deal.” Yes, it is a huge deal. But I never second guessed one second of this journey. The closer I got, the more I realized how much I wanted it.


Every step of the way, I was shocked and surprised when I’d make it to the next level. After I took the GRE, it was like doors just started opening for me. I applied to two nationally ranked schools and got into both. My Life Coach instructor kept telling me last year that my dream was just “three clicks away.” I laughed and told her she made it sound so easy. “Because it is,” she answered. I listened to her advice and I wrote the words “You’re just three clicks away” in black Sharpie on a post-it note tacked to my computer at home and at work. Doing that simple task made my goal seem attainable. The day that I realized that there were no more clicks, that I had arrived at my goal, I smiled as I removed the sticky note from my computer, balled it up in my hands and tossed it in the garbage.


I’ve wanted to be a counselor for a long time. It’s one of those things that I feel has always been in the back of my head. I’ve always had a heart for people and helping others. As early as grade school, I remember my girlfriends passing me notes in class, writing to me like I was an advice columnist: “Dear Carla.” They had questions about boys, friends, their parents divorcing. In high school, I volunteered a lot through the Future Homemakers of America (FHA) and spent time in psychiatric hospitals and assisted living centers singing carols, serving food or just having a friendly conversation with the residents.

By the time I was a sophomore in college, I became depressed, partly due to the stress I was under. I was a full-time student working 25 hours a week and writing for two on campus publications and in a relationship. I was overwhelmed and extremely unhappy—numb even. I don’t remember how I ended up at the counseling center at my college, but my counselor, Alice, saved me from a really difficult time in my life. The other day I was rummaging around in our guest closet when I found a piece I wrote about my struggle with depression for my Creative Non-Fiction class sophomore year. I sat down in the middle of the closet and read the entire thing. I remembered going through a tough time, but re-reading my own words made me realize how much pain I was in. I couldn’t help but cry reading it.

Since Alice, I’ve seen four counselors throughout the peaks and valleys of my life. And I can honestly say because of them, and because of the work I put into growing and learning about myself, I am the best version of myself. I believe so strongly in the power of counseling, and how it can transform lives the way that it has mine.


Last year, my heart felt called to do this work. Writing will forever and always be my first love, but I have never in my life felt so pulled to do something like this. At times, it has felt like there has been some outside force pushing me, guiding me down this path. When I would talk about my dream with my friends or family, I would start crying; that’s how badly I wanted it. After my first interview at my top choice school, I called my husband and best friend and bawled over the phone, blabbering about how I didn’t do well and feared I didn’t get in. A few days later, my acceptance letter popped up in my inbox. I was on my lunch break, casually checking my email while shoveling food in my mouth. My whole body started to tremble and I burst into tears, re-reading the letter over and over to make sure it was true. It really wasn’t a dream.

During the last two days, I’ve been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.” In chapter 5, “Bouncing Forward,” she writes about “post-traumatic growth,” positive outcomes that follow loss. I wasn’t familiar with this phrase, but as I read the chapter I began to realize that grad school is my positive outcome from my trauma. That experience, that loss, changed me forever. Months after it happened, my eyes started to open. I found myself re-examining my priorities and redefining what really matters. I longed for a job that would fulfill me and impact the lives of others. I felt a deep need to help people heal and grow.

Sandberg writes that in the past psychologists defined two possible outcomes of trauma: a person either struggled (developed PTSD, depression, anxiety), or they were resilient. But now, there is a third outcome, bouncing forward, Sandberg writes. Seeing new possibilities is one of the forms that post-traumatic growth can take. The chapter goes on to share a dozen anecdotes about people who have experienced an incredible loss, and recovered by re-imagining their life and “adding more love and beauty to the world.” That’s how I see this change in my life. More love. More beauty. A better world.

“It’s like you’re going through a portal. You can’t go back. You’re going to change. The question is how.” That’s a quote from Jeff Huber whose story is told in the chapter. He lost his wife to cancer, quit his job, and became CEO of a company that detects early cancer—despite warnings from loved ones not to make any big decisions or changes after losing his wife. Jeff’s words made me pause on the page. Last year felt exactly like walking through a portal. I came out on the other side a changed person. Now I’m using that experience to fuel my dreams and, I hope, help others who have undergone similar experiences of loss and trauma.


My department orientation was last week. I got to meet the rest of the future counselors in my cohort, and reconnect with those I met during the interview process. I was on an adrenaline rush all day. I still couldn’t believe I was there, that this was happening, that these professors saw my potential and welcomed me into this program and this profession. I can’t believe this is my life.

When I recapped the day to my husband, I told him how I had this comforting feeling the whole time that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. “I found my place,” I told him. “I found my people.” It took me 37 years to get there, but the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

###

 

 

 

Sidewalk samba

sun pic

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?

astrid gilbreto

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.

giselerio-olympics-opening-_webf

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.

bigfoot shadow.jpg

patio addy

Sidewalk samba

sun pic

Ardmore morning.

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.

24xp-rockettes-2-master675

Career goals. Photo credit: The NY Times

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?

astrid gilbreto

The sound of summer.

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

Ardmore was made for summer porch sitting – at least this week.

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.

giselerio-olympics-opening-_webf

When she walks, she’s like a samba.  Photo credit: NBC Olympics

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.

bigfoot shadow.jpg

Bigfoot was here.

patio addy

My affair with summer is over but I’ll always have our song in my heart.

Last words

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Image by PorterBriggs.com.

That was grief, I say to myself. It makes us dark and a little crazy.”

Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour

I cried when I finished reading The Bright Hour. I suppose a lot of folks will, too. I mean, come on, a beautiful and vibrant mother of two dying from breast cancer at 39 is the stuff Lifetime tear-jerkers are made of. Oh, and no spoiler alert needed here – the full title of Riggs’ book is The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying.

Before you even turn over the cover you know how this story ends. That’s not why I cried. I cried because there would be no more beautiful words to read.

Nina Riggs was one hell of a writer.

nina scooter

Nina smiles.  Photo courtesy of John Duberstein.

I first read her words in a Modern Love column in the New York Times last September. Her piece was entitled When a Couch is More Than a Couch and she stood me still with her words – her luminescent and lyrical words – as she wrote about her obsessive search for the perfect living room couch while propped up in her bed weak from the venom of metastatic breast cancer.

modern love

How a couch became a book. Illustration by Brian Rea.

She writes of being able to let go of a lot of things – like plans – but she cannot figure out how to let go of mothering her two young boys.

“So maybe I don’t try to figure it out. Maybe I just aim to get the couch right: strong bones, high-quality leather, something earthy and animal and real. A surface that knows something of what it was to be alive, that warms to our touch and cools in our absence.”

I read many parts of this piece and her book out loud – just to myself – so that I could hear the words – lovely and melancholy at the same time – like wind chimes in the distance on a breezy summer night. You are soothed but a little unsettled by the storm you sense is coming. You linger in the sound, savoring a moment that has already passed.

It’s funny. I genuinely loathe summer but something about Nina’s writing reminded me of the best parts of it. If you could capture her writing in a photograph – an old school photograph taken with a real camera like my father’s Argus 35 mm, I think the image revealed would be a mason jar filled with fireflies. The darkroom illuminated by her prose.

cameratwo

Capturing Nina.

One of my favorite passages in The Bright Hour – and there are many – my copy is drenched in yellow highlighting – is the chapter entitled What Death Is. Nina writes about her father taking her youngest son, Benny, on a ride on his motorcycle. She has decidedly mixed emotions about allowing this saying “this is objectively not a prudent idea – or possibly even legal one. It’s something else completely: perilous and fantastic.”

highlights

My copy glows in the dark.

Her father tells her about a time that he could tell Benny was falling asleep on the back of the bike – he could feel his grip slacken around his waist. He gently jostled his grandson and told him that he had to stay awake to hold on. Benny says, “But it sure felt good.”

“I think of this feeling sometimes – and I can imagine that sort of letting go: warm, dangerous, seductive. What if this is what death is: The engine beneath you steady; those that hold you strong; the sun warm?

I think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to fall into that, to loosen the grip at the waist, let gravity and fate take over – like a thought so good you can’t stop having it.”

Wind chimes…

There’s also a brilliant tiny chapter, Say Please, that will make you never hear that word quite the same way again. She makes a list for her boys about why “please” is so important:

“Because the s in please is the sweetest sound, like steam rising after a summer shower, like a baby whispering in his bed.

Because you are human, and it is your nature to ask for more.

Because want, need – those unlit cul-de-sacs – are too perilous unadorned.”

Those sentences remind me of fresh peaches. Sweet and juicy, their stickiness hard to shake.

peaches

I want a bushel of Nina’s writing.

Nina is never precious with her words and has a wicked good sense of humor, no doubt reflective of her New England roots and I laughed out loud in several places such as her description of a “twentysomething-year-old grief counselor with a handshake like a silk scarf.” You know this handshake. Gross.

Nina’s mother, Jan, died 18 months before her daughter after living with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, for several years. She is in the shadows of almost every page of The Bright Hour – keeping watch over her daughter’s pilgrimage. Having lost my own mother an unfathomable 15 years ago, I had to remind myself to breathe at some of the passages Nina shares about her mom – like when her mother, after a failed clinical trial, declares that she does not want to do any more treatment.

“My mom: my map, my Sistine Chapel, my Lonely Planet, my beautiful ruin, my volcano.”

It’s hard to imagine how Nina was able to complete her memoir while living and dying and all the noisy in-between. I know she was inspired by the philosopher Michel de Montaigne – she references his writing several times in the book – but maybe she also heard the muse of the Swiss philosopher, Amiel, who advised to “Work while you still have the light.”

The Bright Hour is saturated in light and a reverent clarity that perhaps only limited time can give.

I never met Nina and I’ve felt a little like a cyberstalker since I read that Modern Love piece. I Googled her to find everything she had ever written and started following her on Twitter.

That’s how I knew she had entered Hospice care in late February. Her final tweet sounds like a Patty Griffin ballad – a little sad, a little hopeful. The kind of song that makes you want to have a slow beer with a good friend.

Dispatch from Hospice: they have morphine, open doors, a Cook Out down the road, allow dogs. John’s playing Springsteen. It’s gonna be ok.

Nina died before the sun came up on February 26th and this week, The Bright Hour reached Number 14 on the New York Time’s Best Sellers list and was selected as an Editors’ Choice.

I’m not sure even Nina would have the words for all this surreality but if she did you can bet that they would surely slay me.

ny times list.jpg

Go Nina! Photo courtesy of Marysue Rucci.