Final drafts

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Lenten Roses. Photo by Anne Cassity.

“None of this was supposed to happen.”  Nina Riggs

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Nina Riggs

Modern Love has long been my favorite weekly read in The New York Times. For the uninitiated, it is a series of essays submitted by readers that focus on all aspects of contemporary relationships. Some of them are funny but most of them crack my heart wide open and a few of them simply gut me.

Such was the case with two essays written by Nina Riggs and Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Nina’s piece appeared in September of last year and Amy’s was published just a few weeks ago. I don’t know if these two writers knew each other – Nina lived in Greensboro, NC and Amy was a longtime resident of Chicago. I do know that their lives are inextricably connected by the most morbid of coincidences.

You see, Amy died on Monday from ovarian cancer – the same day as Nina’s memorial service. Nina died on February 26th, after a two-year Armageddon with breast cancer.

I never met either of these women yet I am haunted by their deaths. Amy was 51 and Nina was 39.

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Amy Krouse Rosenthal

“So many plans instantly went poof.” ~ Amy Krouse Rosenthal

I have reread both of their Modern Love columns several times in the last couple of days and beyond the unfathomable reality of dying at such hideously young ages, I am fixated on how much these two women would have liked each other.

They are both mothers – and I am deliberate in using that tense. My own mother has been gone for almost 15 years now but I am still aware of her mothering. I am still a daughter and I still need to be mothered. No, I can’t take her to brunch on Mother’s Day but I do strongly feel her presence in my life.

I desperately hope that the children Nina and Amy leave behind feel that, too. Nina has two boys – ages 10 and 7. Amy has three children – 20, 22 and 24 years old. I can only quote my wise friend Jennifer once again, “Cancer is an asshole.”

These children still have their fathers – who from the cheap seats appear to be kind and good men who share the blessing of marrying well. They are also well-loved by their wives.

“I have been married to the most extraordinary man for 26 years. I was planning on at least another 26 together.” ~ Amy

Amy’s Modern Love essay was about, of all things, trying to find a new wife for her husband. It was, in essence, one last love letter to her husband written with humor and grace and a blindingly bright love. And it pretty much broke the internet.

Oh, and she finished the essay on Valentine’s Day. It was published 10 days before she died. I bet even Amy would think that plot was overwritten. Real life is like that I guess.

“Within 10 minutes of meeting John at a summer job at 21, I had already mentally signed on for life – although I waited at least a week to tell him that.” ~ Nina

Nina’s essay was about a couch – if a couch was a metaphor for life and family and home. She is desperately searching online for the perfect couch for her family – “An expansive bench that fits all of us. Something that will hold us through everything that lies ahead – the loving, collapsing and nuzzling. The dying, the grieving.”

I don’t know if she ever found her couch but she certainly found her voice – a voice brimming with emotional clarity and lyrical humor as she lived until she died. Her memoir, The Bright Hour, will be published posthumously in June by Simon & Schuster.

I know, I know. If it were a movie you’d say it was too over the top.

I pre-ordered Nina’s book on Amazon the day I learned that she had entered Hospice care. It felt like the only hopeful thing to do.

I’m grateful that Nina and Amy’s words are just a click away for eternity for it is only through their writing that I know them.

And I want more.

This was one of Nina’s final posts on Facebook – a few days before she died:

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.

Her post reads like a great short story to me – or better yet, a prayer for the living.

May it be so.

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A work in progress

final first birthday

That’s me partying like it’s 1957.

I’m turning 60 later this month. There, I said it.

I know what you’re thinking. “Gee, you don’t look it.”

Work with me here.

The ever wise and wicked funny Anne Lamott wrote a marvelous Facebook post last year about turning 61. She said she thought she was only 47 and then she checked the paperwork. I get it. I don’t know how I got here so fast.

Most folks have a bit of angst about such a milestone birthday and the universe has certainly conspired to humble me as I approach the Big One. Funny, I can remember when 40 was the Big One. At least I think I can remember.

Anyway, my year began with losing my job as the leader of a local AIDS service organization. Now that will do wonders for your self-esteem, especially if you are kicked to the curb as ungracefully as I was. After 11 years of heartfelt service, my office was packed up for me and delivered to my home in four FedEx boxes. Ouch.

toy box

I’ve always favored thinking outside the box.

My dear wife has a charming saying she uses in delicate situations: “Now that will hurt your feelings.” That about covers it.

Along with my job, I also temporarily lost faith in what I always thought I knew about loyalty and integrity. That was a terribly distasteful feeling but I’m grateful for the many good and kind people who reached out to remind me that these virtues are still alive and well.

I’m not sure I ever thought much about turning 60 but when I did, I guess I assumed I’d be at the peak of my career, not starting a new one. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. You see, I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer. I was 26 before I got my ears pierced, 48 before I got my first tattoo (yes, I have more than one) and 57 before I was a bride. Oh, and I was in my mid-thirties before I came out. True story, but when I did come out, I came out loud and proud.

I guess you could say that I’m the slow and steady type and I think that served me well for a very long time but there’s no getting around the reality that I feel the meter running these days. I lost two friends in January – both to cancer – and one of them was only 54. And my oldest friend on earth – we met in the 4th grade – survived a brutal battle with Stage IV tongue cancer before she turned 60 in April.

You can eye-roll a cliché like “Life is not a dress rehearsal” but it’s true. It’s show time and I plan on making the most of my second act. And now that my bleak career midwinter is behind me, most days I’m very excited about what’s next and on my very best days, I’m even grateful for this opportunity to reinvent myself at such a seasoned age.

A handful of my friends have already retired or are counting down the days but an early retirement was never in the cards for me – not too many careers in non-profit afford you that luxury. And the truth is that I don’t want to retire. Maybe if I won the lottery (which I never play) I suppose I would not work and move to the coast of Maine where I would write the next great American novel. Okay, maybe I have thought about it a few times. (Note to self: Buy lottery ticket.)

One of my favorite books, which was turned into a surprisingly good movie, is The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. It’s about a rather sullen man who writes travel guides for reluctant business travelers. Imagine Rick Steves not enjoying travel and writing his guidebooks. It’s a delightful premise for a story.accidental tourist no 2

I think I’ve had an accidental career – actually a few of them – and while I very much enjoyed each of them, I’ve never been particularly strategic with my choices. My first career was in retail management as a buyer and then division manager for a department store chain. This was when the economy was booming and the mall was the hub of civilization. “Going to the mall” was pretty much a part of everyone’s weekend vernacular. Yes, kids, there really was a time when people shopped at the mall, in the dark ages before Amazon Prime.

I loved the energy of retail – every day was different. And I loved the seasons, most especially Christmas. You can’t be in retail and survive it if you don’t get excited about the holiday season. I especially enjoyed assisting the husbands who came in on Christmas Eve looking like a deer in the headlights. You could smell the fear – they needed a gift for their wife and the clock was ticking. They were easy prey for an overpriced sale. And they were clueless. Many of them didn’t even know what size their wife wore and they always asked with desperation, “She can exchange this if she doesn’t like it, right?”

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Retail could be a real circus during the holidays.

There are so many women out there who have me to thank for the upgrade on their Christmas gifts in the eighties. You’re welcome.

My two stores were in Charlottesville, VA – still the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived – and I got to know a lot of my customers personally. It may sound a little Lake Wobegonish but it felt really good when Mrs. Shifflett came in to buy a dress for her daughter’s wedding and asked me for help. (Oh, you cynics. I don’t eat meat, either, but I know a good burger when I see one.)

I feel like I got to work in the Golden Age of Retail and I was fortunate when the fall came to be able to transition to a new career in fundraising. A friend of mine from retail was working for the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) in Washington, DC and told me about a brand new position in planned giving. I had no idea what that even meant but I was lucky that their program was just getting off the ground and my track record as a good salesperson was enough to get me in the door.

To my utter amazement, I got the job and thoroughly enjoyed my eight years on staff there. PVA was the first time I was out at work and I was received incredibly warmly by the veterans’ community. Those guys loved me and I loved them back. God, they were funny and disarmingly optimistic. And they drank like the sailors many of them had been.

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Veterans Day, Arlington National Cemetery, circa 1996. So proud to be an American.

I learned so much –  about science and heart – getting to know so many wonderful people in the spinal cord injured community and I can tell you that not a day goes by that I don’t have a moment where I am intentionally grateful for my mobility. That was PVA’s gift to me.

Those good folks also kindled my patriotism in ways that have remained with me over the years. I think of my time there every Veterans Day – on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

If my time at PVA taught me about sacrifice and courage, my time at my last job taught me a lot about stigma and poverty and how they are the natural enemies of HIV prevention. My position also gave me a front row seat to magnificent acts of generosity and compassion – some large ones that came with checks with lots of zeros and some small ones that came in cases of green beans from Costco. All of them mattered.

thp good times

Fighting the good fight at my last job.

It is an extraordinary thing to spend your work days with passionate people who share a vision and  my time there broke my heart wide open in remarkable ways that will inform the rest of my life. And it has ruined me for ever just working for a paycheck.

Nope, I need a side order of a mission statement, even if it’s just one of my own making.

The upside to a forced sabbatical has been the luxury of time to do a lot of pondering about my past and my future. I’ve thought a lot about my parents. Certainly losing them both just a few months apart from each other in my mid-forties was the watershed event of my life. Their deaths, or rather how I handled their deaths, changed the course of my life.

I came across a line in a book recently that stood me still. One of the characters, who has lost a son, explains that he and his wife will often not speak to each other for hours at a time because, “We’ve learned that grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.” I know now that I tried to escape the deafening din of my own grief in destructive ways and it cost me a great deal. I deeply hurt a few of the people who I held most dear and that can never be undone. And, of course, I hurt myself in ways that only I can fully know.

This has led me to thinking a lot about regrets and for the record, I don’t really buy it when people say they don’t have any. It’s an arrogant reflection on life. I have 1,001 small ones – that I didn’t learn to play the piano, the tragic dress I wore to my senior prom (picture Laura Ingalls in polyester organza) and my early insistence that John Edwards was not a cheater.

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Me and my high school doppelgänger, 1973.

But it’s the big ones that I stumble through like thickets at 2:00 AM. I’m not ready for a full confession on those but I will say that I regret saying no more than I regret saying yes. I need to remember this.

I was actually feeling pretty good about myself at 60 until I listened to Bill Clinton’s 42 minute recitation of Hillary’s resume at the Democratic National Convention last week. As I brushed my teeth before going to bed that night, I was afraid to look in the mirror for fear of seeing the reflection of a sloth. Oh well, I still believe in a place called Hope.

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That’s me in the mirror. #ImWithHer

I’ll be in California for my actual birthday visiting my younger (damn her) sister. I couldn’t imagine not celebrating this birthday with her. I love her beyond measure and no one knows me as well and deeply as she does. We share an emotional GPS that alerts us when the other is off course in any way. It is an indomitable connection that has kept me tethered to this world in my darkest storms.

SISTERS final

Sisters, Sisters. There were never such devoted sisters.

My sister is known for her extravagance and I’m a little nervous about what she might pull out for this celebration. Sissy, if you’re reading this now, I was just kidding about the Tom Ford sunglasses. Sort of.

I didn’t want a big party. I never want a big party. And I most certainly NEVER want a surprise party. And so I will have a sushi (my fav) dinner out with my wife and my sister. The icing on my birthday cake is that my best friend from college will join us the weekend before my birthday for some revelry. She turned 60 in June and is anxious to have me join her in this new bracket so I’m approaching it like signing up for a very exclusive wine club.

dinner party

I’ve always preferred the more intimate dinner party.

She just sent me the loveliest email that might just be my wish when I blow out my candles. She wrote, “I’m hoping our time might have a magic slow quality to it.” I’m hoping the rest of my life has this quality.

It makes me happy when I just think about looking at those three beautiful faces all in one place for a few precious days.

addy and cj

Me and my best friend from college before hair products were invented, circa 1981.

Sometimes I imagine a soundtrack for my life when I’m processing things in my head.Who needs Pokemon Go when you have an overactive imagination? Lately, I’ve been hearing this Iris Dement song – My Life.  

My life, it’s half the way traveled

And still I have not found my way out of this night

My life, it’s tangled in wishes

And so many things that just never turned out right 

But I gave joy to my mother and I made my lover smile

And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting

And I can make it seem better for a while 

It is an achingly beautiful song and if you ask me, it’s a pretty damn good resume, too.

 

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I’m embracing 60 with joy.

 

(All photos property of Addison Ore)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do You Hear the People Sing?

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Faces of kind strangers – that’s where my mind went racing after I learned of the horrible attacks on Paris last Friday.

I immediately thought of the robust older woman behind the Metro ticket window who reminded us of a character from The Triplets of Belleville and teased us about our spotty French as she helped us figure out our route to Versailles; the handsome young waiter who cheerfully and patiently translated an entire menu into English for us; the two little girls gleefully running around on a perfect Saturday in the Tuileries Garden; and the owner of the patisserie who smiled sweetly and playfully told us that she would speak English to us if we spoke French to her.

So many kind faces under attack.

Yes, yes, all lives matter but I have to be quite honest, this feels more personal to me than some of the other acts of terrorism across the world. Just last week I posted about my magical trip to Paris six weeks ago. It was my valentine to the City of Light. It was a bright and joyful post written before 129 faces were brutally erased. I could not write that post today.

I was grateful on Friday evening that my wife and I had made plans earlier in the week for a movie and dinner with dear friends. Otherwise, I’m sure we would have been glued to the television all evening. As it was, when our movie ended I checked my phone for an update on the situation and was so touched to have a handful of text messages from family and friends telling me that they were thinking of us and were grateful that we were home and safe.

I couldn’t help but wonder if those faces that had touched us were home safe, too. I felt afraid for them and heartbroken that their beautiful city had been attacked.

These global tragedies seem to bring out the best and the worst on Facebook. I find comfort in mass mourning on a public forum – like an ancient wailing wall. “Pray for Paris” was the overwhelming trending message on all social media Friday night.

peace for paris

This Instagram post went viral after the attacks on Paris.

And then, of course, before the blood stains were dry, came the blaming for the attacks. Pick one, pick two – Obama, Bush, Cheney, religion, Muslims, always the Muslims.

Why are we so afraid of intentional silence? Why can’t we be comfortable creating a space to ask ourselves some hard questions before spewing out empty answers?

I suppose it is fear because, deep down, we know we don’t have the answers.

I know I found a balm, as I so often do, in the words of others much wiser than me.

Saturday morning, I saw the author Anne Lamott’s post pop up in my feed. I felt better before I even read a word of it. If you’ve never read her stuff, leave this post and go straight to Amazon to download one of her books. I mean it. Go. You will thank me later.

On Facebook she writes in a rambling and raw stream of consciousness that makes you feel like she’s drinking coffee with you at your kitchen table in her bathrobe. Here’s an excerpt from her post on Saturday:

We’re at the beginning of human and personal evolution. Whole parts of the world don’t even think women are people.

So after an appropriate time of being stunned, in despair, we show up. Maybe we ask God for help. We do the next right thing. We buy or cook a bunch of food for the local homeless. We return phone calls, library books, smiles. We make eye contact with others, and we go to the market and flirt with old or scary unusual people who seem lonely. This is a blessed sacrament. Tom Weston taught me decades ago that in the face of human tragedy, we go around the neighborhood and pick up litter, even though there will be more tomorrow. It is another blessed sacraments. We take the action and the insight will follow: that we are basically powerless, but we are not helpless.

I have no answers but know one last thing that is true: More will be revealed. And that what is true is that all is change. Things are much wilder, weirder, richer, and more profound than I am comfortable with. The paradox is that in the reality of this, we discover that in the smallest moments of amazement, at our own crabby stamina, at kindness, to lonely people who worry us, and attention, at weeping willow turning from green to gold to red, and amazement, we will be saved.

Amen.

I have been deeply moved and inspired by the resilience of the French people, so brave and adamant in vowing to retain their way of life, their precious joie de vivre. Yesterday, Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine, responded to the attacks with a provocative cover of a bullet-ridden man drinking a glass of champagne. The cover translates from the French: “They have weapons. Fuck them. We have champagne.”

charlie hebdo

This is not to imply that their reaction is at all cavalier. They are in deep mourning and carrying a grief that cannot be contained in the graves of the dead.

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Love > Terror

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