Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

mary’zine #49: April/May 2011

April 28, 2011

if I had a hammer…

A couple of years ago, a church here in town had a sign out front at Easter time that read, “We use duct tape, God used nails.”

Now the sign reads, “We tried to use nails, but he got loose.”

Is this not the essence of vulgarity? (“morally crude”; “lacking in cultivation, perception, or taste”). The Easter bunny has more dignity.

Happy Spring!

but first… say good-bye to winter

Its being April already—almost May!—I thought I had overshot the winter window for writing about wet, cold weather. But we had snow on the 15th, and again on the 19th and 20th, so we’re still in its thrall. As I write this, it’s 46 degrees and I have a window open. The snow is gone, for now. I watch every day for signs that the buds will come out on the trees soon, and flare green.

The House Was Quiet on a Winter Afternoon

 Someone was reading in the back,

two travelers had gone somewhere,

maybe to Chicago,


a boy was out walking, muffled up,

alert on the frozen creek,

a sauce was simmering on the stove.


Birds outside at the feeder

threw themselves softly

from branch to branch.


Suddenly I did not want my life

to be any different.

I was where I needed to be.


The birds swirled in the dusk.

The boy came back from the creek.

The dead were holding us up

the way the ice held him,

helping us breathe the way

air helps snowflakes swirl and fall.


And the sadness felt just right,

like a still and moving wave

on which the sun shone brilliantly.

 —David Young

(Reprinted with permission of the author)

you don’t need a weatherman…

My sister Barb called one evening in early March to ask if my “hatches were battened down”: We were due to get hit by a big winter storm within the next 6 or 7 hours. “Oh?” I asked, only vaguely aware of the thing called “weather” taking place outside my cozy homestead.

About a year after I moved back to my hometown, she had called with another weather warning, this time about a tornado that was whirling and dervishing its way across northern Wisconsin and the U.P. I took her seriously and ended up in the downstairs bathroom, sitting in the tub on a comforter (wishing I’d brought a book), two cats closed in with me along with their litter box, food and water. I had my radio tuned to the weather channel, and the ominous, staticky voice (as if carried on radio waves from a ship on a distant ocean) kept announcing at-risk counties and specific deadlines (8:15 to 8:45) past which you could breathe a sigh of relief, assuming the tornado had not already whisked you and your pets and lawn furniture above the tree line. Luther was pretty copacetic—he’s a born follower—but Brutus was literally climbing the walls. At one point, sensing movement above my head, I looked up to see him hanging straight down, by his claws, from a swinging cabinet door. Hang in there, baby! So we hung in there until the weatherman announced the all-clear. I vowed never to be led down this bad-weather path again by my well-meaning sister.

But in this case, it was just snow on the way, predictable and fluffy. I had an hour before Van’s IGA closed, so I ran (drove) down there, delightedly rationalizing to myself that though I had plenty of “real” food on hand… egg salad, fresh bread, penne with Italian sausage, tomatoes, and cream (which I had cooked myself, personally!), and broccoli… if I couldn’t get out of my driveway the next day I would be seriously bereft of snacks. I knew, in the rational part of my brain, that it wasn’t going to be a huge deal, my nephew would plow me out and I could surely last 24-48 hours without potato chips, but the reptilian brain that’s addicted to said thin slices of spud and sea salt took the weather warning ball and ran (drove) with it. I stalked the aisles of the little store, assessing the best bang for my buck: Ruffles, Doritos, chocolate chip cookies? I needed eggs anyway, so I got those, and, in the spirit of “gettin’ while the gettin’s good,” picked up some breakfast sausage too, because I didn’t want to be caught without a source of protein. I took a stroll past the freezer section, eyed the Mackinac Island Fudge ice cream, but kept on walking, proud of this minor act of restraint.

I’m reminded of Anne Lamott describing her desperate purchases of alcohol back in the day. For better or worse, I’m my mother’s daughter more than my Irish alcoholic father’s. In my refrigerator are a few bottles of Bud Light and some raspberry-flavored Smirnoff that I bought longer ago than I can remember, plus a half bottle of gin in a cupboard that a houseguest left behind. It never occurs to me to drink any of them.

So… I slept for a few hours, and when I woke up the snow was coming down in droves, the poor birds were pecking around, trying to unearth (unsnow) the seeds and nuts they remembered from yesterday, and mourning doves were lined up on the fence, quite content, it seemed, to be sitting in a fluffy downfall, knowing that spring was near despite all evidence to the contrary. I don’t envy them their need to scavenge in harsh conditions, but, Ah, the beauty of flight, to live above it all.

The snow fell and the storm passed. Was it too soon to hope for signs of spring?

Yes, it was. Father Snow—or is it Mother who covers us with those cold but beautiful blankets?—was not done with us yet. Two and a half days after “the first day of spring”—an impractical joke that is played on us Midwesterners every year—we got the worst storm I’ve seen here, a total white-out. And it was the oddest thing: The temperature had been hovering just above to just below freezing, so Nature split the difference and brought us loud cracking thunder just as the snowish-rain or rainish-snow began to fall. For the next 36 hours it sounded like all hell had broken loose, as blinding blowing gusts of snow flung themselves against the windows, creating intricate crystal-doily designs.

In the daylight hours, I watched the birdfeeders blowing back and forth from white-thick branches, the little birds holding on to the perches for dear life and the bigger ones hunched together in the trees, feathers ruffling like petticoats in the wind. I felt especially bad for the one cardinal that comes around in the wintertime, contrasting gloriously red against the driven snow, because it has no one to be of a feather with. The squirrels are plentiful, but it’s hard to make out their relationships: no coats of a different color, and when we think they’re playing?… chasing one another up and down the tree trunks? No, it’s life and death, a Masterpiece Theatre of drama with a plot that’s impossible to follow. Is it brother versus brother out there, like in the Civil War? Are all the womensquirrelfolk back in some hidey-hole, keeping the home fires burning? Is it a tragic story?… or just one of the many quirks of Mother Nature, who put large populations of incompatible creatures on the earth and then made them compete for limited resources?

I was snowbound for an entire day, and when I woke up the morning after that, the sun was shining on the white wonder windless winter land. The birds were back in force, pecking holes in the snow so they could feast on the fat seeds that lay beneath. I stood at one of my upstairs windows and spotted a mixed flight of birds—united in their birdiness regardless of feather identification—rise up and flee en masse. That usually means they have seen me peeking through the blinds, but this time, right at eye level, I saw a small hawk sitting imperiously in the birch tree, its head swiveling and eyes beadily scanning for prey. It either didn’t notice me or wasn’t bothered—human-behind-glass, big deal. I watched the beautiful creature until it swooped down and through my yard and disappeared from sight.

I know that, to truly appreciate Nature, I’m supposed to be out there getting cold and wet and buffeted by the harsh wind, being One With It All. Maybe this is hubris, but I feel like we’re already One. I may be like a small Russian doll inside my house-within-a-bigger-Doll, seemingly uninvolved, unexposed, a creature intent on her own comfort, abstractly appreciating but not truly interacting with that which is “outside” me. But in a larger sense, none of it is outside, it’s all inside me, all the feeling that comes through sight and sound and caring-about and caring-for those innocent winged and fluffy-tailed ones that feast on my largess. I am practically bursting with involvement, my heart exposed, they are not background to my life, they and Brutus and Luther, my cats, are integral to my life, as are the sad-dog, sad-cat, sad-elephant or -horse pictures in magazines. They have a physical existence apart from me (especially the ones on paper), but I take them into my heart—no, they are already there, we coexist in our animalness, our together-on-this-earth-ness, our depth of love and hopeless signaling to or fleeing from one another, like birds of a different feather but One flightless shared soul.

changes in l’attitude…

In every pot of ointment soon appears a fly. Your good fortune lies in not needing to forget it or deny it. In every situation hides some creative chance.—Sidney Cox

Lately, the family seams are being stretched a bit. I blame the Republicans and my brother-in-law, not necessarily in that order. During the huge protests in Madison about the rights of public sector workers, there was a mostly unvoiced but palpable tension between the unionized retired teacher (sister Barb) and the nonunionized, still-working factory worker (sister K). Every night on the news, shills for the GOP hammered home the fiction—and the contradiction—that teachers are the New Elite who (a) think they’re better than their family members and neighbors who work in grocery stores and factories—as if Republicans were siding with the “true” working class—but (b) engage in “class warfare” against the poor, misunderstood plutocrats and fat cats. I have to hand it to those guys: They can twist words, and they know just whose neck to twist them around. Bankers are extolled as a class that “performs a wonderful service and creates jobs”—and does it for measly millions in bonuses and golden parachutes. Much is made of teachers working short days and having summers off. But everyone who knows a teacher knows that they rarely have an evening or weekend free of grading papers, planning ways to keep their students interested in class, or dealing with demanding parents. Barb spent at least half of each summer planning for the coming school year because the administrators kept giving her new classes to teach. She was as dedicated to her work and the kids in her charge as anyone I’ve ever known.

Nothing much was said around the family hearth (TV) on Friday nights, but it wasn’t too hard to see what was going on. K muttered that the protesters “couldn’t live there” (the state capitol in Madison) and offered up a coworker’s opinion that they could try Gov. Walker’s budget plan for a year or so, and if it didn’t help the economy, they could go back. Barb and I exclaimed in unison, “They never go back!!” Her statement assumed that the Republicans were just trying to do their best to help everyone get through the hard times. Her naivety was alarming. So there was bad (or at least slightly tainted) blood bubbling just under the surface, but both Barb and I were afraid to push it. K and my nephew believe that unions “do nothing for you but take your money,” so it was strange that they envied other union members who supposedly make too much. There’s not a lot of rationality when the non-college-going members of the family start spouting off. And I’m not being snarky, it’s just a fact that if your information comes only from the local TV news, you’re at the mercy of any well-coiffed reader of a teleprompter. According to one Green Bay news anchor, the teachers were not protesting but merely complaining. Words matter.

In other Wisconsin news, the lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, opined that if gay people are allowed to get married, people will surely want to marry their furniture. (I must have missed those marches.) “Can I marry this table,” she asks, “or this, you know, clock?” I would love to see this, by the way. Right now you can marry a serial killer or a drunk you just met in a bar as long as you have opposing genitalia. But if you want stable relationships, I can think of worse combinations than a guy and a table. (Two guys and a table would, of course, be outlawed.) Inanimate polyamory is another possibility: “And the dish ran away with the spoon” (but two forks? no way!).

A week after this mostly silent, thin-lipped brouhaha, I was uncharacteristically looking forward to seeing my peeps, downing a burger or two or a fish fry, watching some harmless crime shows, and hopefully having a few laughs. When I arrived, everyone else was already there, doing the usual comparison shopping between fast food places: “What are you in the mood for?” “I don’t know, what are you going to get?” Right off the bat I felt uneasy, I don’t know why—like I didn’t belong there. It could be because my nephew’s girlfriend always acknowledges (if you can call it that) my arrival by flicking her eyes over me and then looking away. OK, so she’s “nobody” in the grand scheme of things, but it’s annoying.

A new plan had been announced for Friday nights; now we were each supposed to pay for our own food, rather than take turns paying for everyone. I’m sure this had to do with my questioning MP (brother-in-law, a.k.a. blood-in-law) last week about paying only for his own food, so that (it seemed to me) he never had to spend a penny on anyone else. The “plan” is changed often, because my sister K is all about streamlining; she once suggested that we all eat before we get there, and I suggested that it would be even more efficient if we didn’t get together at all. Gosh, do you think my smart-ass self could be part of the problem?

After we ate our greasy portions of meat or fish, we checked to see what shows they had recorded during the week: not much, because there had been a lot of reruns. It was decided that we would watch “NCIS.”

It’s MP’s “job” (prerogative) to handle the remote… which becomes a problem when he falls asleep, which he does every week. When awake, he fast-forwards through the commercials, or mutes them if we’re watching live TV, but tonight he has to be nudged awake. So he hits the fast-forward button and apparently falls back asleep, because the rest of the show goes whizzing by, way beyond the one commercial break. “You went too far!,” my sisters cry. So he rewinds and then goes practically all the way back to the beginning. “Oh no! We’ve seen this part already!” I make one of my trademark, only slightly barbed, observations: “Maybe someone who doesn’t fall asleep should keep the remote.” He stops the show in the part we already saw (and it wasn’t that good the first time) and stomps out of the room, his usual way of expressing his annoyance with one of us “girls.” Barb hands the remote to K, thinking she can take over, and K says, grimly, “I don’t know how to use it.” And then she adds, “You shouldn’t mess with the guy who runs the TV.” That’s a criticism of me, for stating the obvious and not being willing to enable the man of the house in his delusions of grandeur. She’s quiet for the rest of the evening, and MP never comes back out, so I decide to leave early. Barb gets up to go too. Her approach to MP is not to let him know that he gets to her, so she calls out, “Good night, MP,” as she always does, and I don’t say anything because my attitude is—not to put too fine a point on it—“Fuck ‘im.” If K stood up to him once in a while, he wouldn’t be able to get away with that prima don act. But her attitude has always been that it’s better not to challenge him so as to “keep the peace.” An uneasy peace, if you ask me—if it’s any kind of peace at all.

I’ve been dealing with this situation for 6 and a half years now, with greater or lesser degrees of success…. trying to use humor to deflect his moods… keeping my mouth shut when he makes disgusting remarks about brothers of another color… trying, for the sake of my sister, not to cause a scene. But I know that this is just the “wages of family”—like the wages of sin—not death, but endless cycles of compromise and drama and rebellion, from each according to her ability to cope, to each according to his place in the family dynamic.

This straw having shattered the camel’s aching back, we all realized that something had to change. We agreed to “play it by ear,” and it was understood that we wouldn’t be getting together in the same configuration for a few weeks. The following Friday, Barb and I happily ate at The Landing, dining high on the hog, or at least the chicken—cacciatore and marsala—for a change. We entertained thoughts of future rendezvous at the local medium-to-high-end restaurants in the area: Table 6, Little Nugget Golf Club, Riverside Country Club. If we include Green Bay as a destination, the possibilities are, if not endless, at least more appetizing than the round of fast food places we usually have to choose from.

The following Friday sounded promising, as K, Barb and I were planning a sisters’ breakfast out and shopping. We arranged to meet at Schloegel’s at 8:00 a.m. I got there a bit early and waited in the Jeep for them to arrive… and soon, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but… MP. K had thought he was working that day, but he wasn’t, so she told him he “could come with if [he] didn’t want to be alone.” It felt bizarre to be sitting together in a restaurant so early in the day, especially when we had been expecting a laugh-fest sister-clatch. After breakfast (for which MP paid—reflecting generosity, or his assertion of control?) MP drove us to Peshtigo and Marinette to buy a recliner for Barb and miscellaneous necessities at Shopko and Penney’s for her and K.

I actually ended up buying some beautiful dining room chairs, so the day wasn’t a complete loss. MP stayed in the truck at each store, which I’m sure put pressure on my sisters to hurry through their browsings and purchasings. Oddly, I sat in the truck with him for much of the time, because my legs hurt and I didn’t need anything in particular. He was perfectly amenable; I actually feel very comfortable with him most of the time—it just seemed like he was exerting his control over K (indeed, all of us) by impinging on our sisterly fun.

Is this what being close to someone means—knowing their limitations, their ego-boosting delusions and self-serving grottiness, as well as you know your own? Being able to predict their reactions, their facial expressions, down to the last word and grimace, so that disappointment and a sickening sense of predictability surge up and crush the breath out of you the moment you clap eyes on them, before anyone’s uttered a word?  —Sophie Hannah

As family dramas go, ours is no Downstairs, Downstairs. Or maybe that’s exactly what it is. The complaints are petty, secrecy is prized, and self-awareness is “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.” Conflict is expressed in veiled glances, cold silence, and premature departures. For all my fancy talk and psychological sophistication, I’m as primitive as anyone else. I’d like to find a way to achieve harmony with my bloods and blood-in-law without exposing all the messy differences between us. I want them to be a book I’ve already read and can put down with satisfaction as I sip my glass of wine and perhaps take an aspirin for the slight headache caused by my intense concentration. One of my favorite memories* of college life was being alone in the apartment one night while my roommates were away; I finished reading Katharine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, heated up a can of tomato soup, and then went out for a long walk in the snowy, silent night. I enjoyed the feeling of being immersed in a drama that did not, strictly speaking, involve me… except as an engrossed but disinterested reader in a position to write several pages about it for Dr. Burhans. Literature allowed me to enter into relationships that distracted me from my own life and then to withdraw at The End. With one’s real-life relationships, there seems to be no End. (My mother died 20 years ago, and yet my blood still boils at certain memories of her.)

*I know, it’s pathetic: a favorite memory of college life is a night alone with a book? Welcome to my world.

Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’… for a little while. —Jeff Bridges, singing in “Crazy Heart”

Yes, news flash: Real relationship is messy, and family relationships may be the messiest of all. The bond that holds us together is stronger than preference or delight; friends may float away if there’s a falling out, but there’s no floating and plenty of falling from the family tree—it’s all guts and no glory, unbreakable but no easier for all that.

The uneasy peace lasts for a few weeks. Barb and I have our Pleasant Valley Fridays, but there’s no clear sense of how things are supposed to change or who’s supposed to make the first move. Finally, we’re invited back, but I’m clear that I don’t want to simply revert to the same routine. There’s talk of going out for Easter brunch, if we can find a good one. Barb keeps me informed of all the news by e-mail, since my sleeping schedule is so erratic that it’s “better not to call.” (I got them to stop “dropping by” years ago.) So that’s a buffer that I cherish.

Then there are two strange occurrences. Though I’ve been grumbling about various annoying aspects of MP, I’m reading the New Yorker one day and come upon an article about a book he’s been waiting to come out for 3 years. In fact, the article is about how everyone has been waiting for it for 3 years: George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons. I cut the article out and mail it to him with a note signed “Love,” along with money for Josh’s last snowplowing of my driveway. It’s not that I decided to make up with him or anything, it was action first, and feeling followed.

Then, within a day of my attempt at rapprochement, MP becomes ill in the middle of the night and is taken by ambulance to Green Bay. It is feared that he has spinal meningitis. Barb e-mails me the news, and I call K to offer to drive her down to the hospital. She thanks me but later passes the news along, through Barb, that my nephew is going to drive her. I had not talked to her since our pseudo sister visit, but there is no hint of discomfort or caution. I have already made a gesture of peace to MP, which he will get when he returns home from the hospital, and the offer of a ride to K is not even a gesture, it’s just plain, down-home assurance: “I’m here if you need me.” Fortunately, MP didn’t have meningitis, it was an infection from a badly administered tetanus shot. The VA works in mysterious ways.

The following Friday, we all took our usual places on couch and recliners, and it was as if nothing had changed—and not in a good way. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I guess I’m still waiting for my creative chance.

Finally, we come to some good news. I underwent a screening for calcium in my heart arteries, and to my amazement, I scored 0%! The nurse couldn’t believe it either; she said she’d trade with me if she could. She went on and on about how great it was, exclaiming, “You’re going to live a long, long time!” And I kid you not, my first thought was, “Oh shit.” She followed that up with, “You’d better get your retirement money together!” Again, “Oh shit.” She was so enthusiastic on my behalf that it made me go all quiet and just nod and nod with a fake half-smile, even though I was thrilled also. Excitable people wear me out. After spending half an hour lecturing me about heart attacks and blocked arteries, etc. (Why? I’m obviously invincible, cardio-wise), she helped me on with my coat, complimented me on it, shook my hand, and walked me partway down the hall to be sure I found the right exit. I half expected her to ask if she could see me again.

I like when I hear something in passing, at random, a peep or a croak almost beyond my awareness, a peripheral vision of the ear. And it sounds so simple, obvious, what-else-is-new, and yet it sums up an essential fact of my being. This happened one day when I was listening to a podcast by the comedian Marc Maron ( It was a simple statement that overeating isn’t about food, it’s about anxiety. Obvious, right? But it struck me, and stuck with me. Later in the day, I was thinking about how Barb was going to drive her son down to the Green Bay airport so he could return to Texas. And I had a familiar feeling of anxiety about her driving in possibly treacherous conditions. And suddenly I connected that feeling to my longtime dread, my constant wondering of, Who’s going to die next? When will the next tragedy strike? My grandmother, with whom I was very close, died when I was 4; my little brother died of leukemia when I was 6; and my father became incapacitated by multiple sclerosis when I was 7; it was as if he had died, because he came home after several months in the VA hospital so changed (physically and mentally) that he didn’t seem like my father at all. For the next few years I could hardly bear to let my mother out of my sight, because for all I knew, this was simply what happened: People died—in droves—dropped like flies—consecutively checked out every couple of years, and the next to go was surely my mother. When she would go down the basement to change a fuse, I would practically hold my breath, picturing her standing in the water that had spilled over from the wringer washer and being struck down by fuse lightning. Of course, there were many other scenarios, infinite ways in which death could come again.

I just thought of this, how my father, who was able to walk with a cane for a few years after his initial diagnosis, was eventually confined to his recliner and a wheelchair. His anxiety (and anger) expressed itself in the same way mine did, but a little more vocally. My mother worked at Montgomery Ward for a while, and he would listen to the radio when she went to work, and if he heard about a car accident happening in town, he would immediately think it was her, and he would get all agitated and call her at work to find out if she was all right. He was also extremely jealous (hey, me too!) and would accuse her of resting her breasts on the card table during our Scrabble games with their “handicapped” friends, supposedly as a way of enticing Vince, who had a milder version of MS. But my dad had an autoimmune disease, what was my excuse? Just growing up in that household, observing how the world seemed to work, how fears and frustrations combined to construct a personality, a point of view? I’ve always assumed that I took my cues from my mother, her passive-aggressive response to a life of hardship and enforced care giving for a man she had wanted to divorce before his illness… not that my circumstances were similar, but I surely adopted another of her defense/attack ploys: eating. Being an observant sponge, I took bits from Mom and bits from Dad and created my own chef’s blend of anger, anxiety, and food substitution.

life is short: eat the Doritos first

I was a skinny kid and adolescent; I weighed only 112 in college. So it wasn’t obvious that I had a thing about food. But I remember, as a teenager, lying on the couch watching “Perry Mason,” and a character saying, “I was so upset, I couldn’t eat.” And I thought, “There’s no way I wouldn’t be able to eat.” And that has proved to be true.

I went to NutriSystem the first time when I weighed 148. And everyone there exclaimed that I didn’t look like I needed to lose weight, but I was trying to nip myself in the bud. I got down to 117, prompting one of my friends to say I looked like a concentration camp victim. Now she’s lecturing me the other way. Of course, the weight slowly piled back on, like snow flakes that look so insubstantial drifting in the air but build up on the ground in minutes. The diet industry will never go away, because the process is stacked against you, like the odds in a casino. You deprive yourself for the period of the diet, and when you’re done and feel invincibly thin, a mouthful of the simplest food tastes like manna: a piece of toast with a bit of butter: heaven! But it’s not long before your taste buds long for Mexican food, or Chinese. And at first it seems you’re getting away with it, because your new pounds come on so slowly, like those snowflakes again. (Is every pound unique, I wonder?) The mantra of the diet industry is that you should change your whole way of eating, yeah, duh. But they count on no one being willing or able to do that. And programs like NutriSystem keep offering better and better tasting food (according to them), so you’re still rewarding yourself with food, just temporarily less caloric.

It feels good to be thin, but more important to me is that when I’m thin I look better, thus avoid (that particular) judgment from others—a judgment that is grossly unfair, but that’s human beings for ya. A thin person who eats like a pig with no visible consequences is envied… but an obese one on a perpetual diet is considered lazy and lacking in self-discipline. Nothing stands in the way of the media excoriating Midwesterners (especially), all that stock footage of headless fat people trudging toward their next meal, presumably. Fatness is immoral. Even pedophiles, though reviled, are understood to not be able to help it.

In a side note, you’ve probably noticed that those shots of the overly large on the evening news are all of white people, in some sort of perverse fear of accusing black people of anything… just as “white trash” is a respectable, widely understood term, but it would be unthinkable to refer to “black trash.” I read recently that the term “white trash” is actually an insult to black people, because if you drop the modifier “white,” then all you have is trash. I don’t buy this. “White trash” is an insult to poor white people, an acceptable target. Poor black people are equally (or more) despised, but it would be so impolite to admit it. Do I have to say this explicitly?—that I’m no apologist for racism: my point is that there are lots of ways that racism in this country has turned from rabid to subtle (but still real), and one of those ways is to divert attention from our uncomfortable feelings about race by attacking poor and working class whites for their (often rabider) racism and overall uncouthness, such as having poor taste in clothes and, you know, being fat.

I’ve always felt that I’m “afraid” to be hungry. It’s not that I went hungry as a child, but I have an association with food as a bulwark against… something…. In concrete terms, it seems that it keeps me from feeling sick. There is a sublime sense of security when my belly is full. So I’m thinking about my constant pursuit of food as a sign of my baseline anxiety. I stay up all night most nights, and so there are long, empty hours when I want to eat. The night after I rediscovered the association between anxiety and eating, I got through the night without going downstairs and raiding the freezer for ice cream bars; it wasn’t what I really wanted. What I really wanted was for no one close to me to ever die again.

Anxiety’s doppelgänger is anger. Another duh, I suppose. But sometimes insights catch you flat-footed, telling you something viscerally that you thought you already knew.

I was thinking about anger one day, and this is exactly how the sentence went in my head: “I don’t know why I’m still so hungry, I mean, angry.” Those words are already forever linked by being the only two words in the English language that end in “-gry.” As with the connection between hunger and anxiety, it helped for a few days to focus on my anger whenever I wanted to eat. But the internal forces demanding to be satisfied greatly outweigh (so to speak) those that are willing to face the truth. You can call it laziness, but I think it has more to do with an overwhelming sense that what your “better judgment” is asking you to do is simply impossible.


finally—family fun!

In our hiatus from Friday nights at K&MP’s, Barb and I usually get together to eat good food and watch quality TV or movies. The night before Easter, we ate at Table 6 (or Ta6le Six, as they like to call it—foiling all attempts at alphabetization). We both had versions of pasta carbonara/alfredo, plus salad. I tried a new sauvignon blanc from Germany, and Barb finally found a wine that was sweet enough for her—a Riesling—also from Germany. We passed on dessert. Then we went back to her house to watch 2 episodes of “Nurse Jackie” that she had recorded; “The King’s Speech,” which I had gotten from Netflix; and “Black Swan,” on Movies on Demand. All were excellent except for “BS,” which was compelling but extremely unpleasant to watch. When it was over, I actually wished I hadn’t seen it.

For Easter—a beautiful sunny day (52 degrees but felt like 70)—Barb and I went out to the country to have dinner with her daughter and her husband and two boys. We had ham, cheesy potatoes, jello salad (but good! with cranberries and walnuts), corn, rolls, lemon cake, and pumpkin bread. I ate exactly twice as much as I should have, then took home the equivalent of another 2 meals and repeated the whole experience later that night.

After dinner, we waddled out to the barn to see their newly acquired baby chicks and ducks. I held a little chick for a long time, stroking its soft yellow head and wishing I could take it home with me. (I don’t think the cats would mind, do you?) The chicks are for eventual egg-laying, but the ducks are pets. The 16-year-old named his duck Bruce Willis (no explanation forthcoming), and the 10-year-old named his Sarge. Since that one is a female, my niece asked him why the name? He said, “Women are in the armed forces, and they can be sergeants.” I thought this was hilarious and amazing. He is an extremely intelligent, loveable, creative kid. His older brother got a job for the summer, working as a receptionist in a nursing home. He aced the job interview when he was asked to waylay a resident who was trying to escape out the front door. He went up to her, asked if he could take her hand, and spoke to her so gently that she went with him without a fuss. He too is highly intelligent, an excellent student, and an athlete. And he and his brother are both avid readers! These lovely boys and their gentle, hard-working father contravene my long-held generalizations about males.

It was a beautiful Easter after all.

 Au revoir! Bon appetit!

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine #41: December 2009

December 2, 2009

First, a note about salad. Salad is generally a mixture of leafy greens, cut-up vegetables, and a nice dressing, say, balsamic vinaigrette. Here is what salad is not: broccoli, American cheese cubes, and Miracle Whip. A variation on salad is the fruit salad, an assortment of fresh fruits, perhaps lightly bathed in yogurt or sour cream. Here is what fruit salad is not: canned “fruit cocktail,” tiny marshmallows, and Cool Whip. I think it was last Thanksgiving that my sister Barb offered to bring a fruit salad, and I started salivating at the thought of fresh cantaloupe, strawberries, and grapes. But no, what we got was the can, the Whip, the mallow. There is also the notorious Jello salad—Jell-O brand gelatin with carrots or pineapple suspended in it, which is commonly found in Lutheran church basements and stories from Lake Wobegon. Another mixture that is salad in name only is meat ground up and mixed with Miracle Whip: your chicken salad, your ham salad, your baloney salad. Baloney (or bologna, but according to the online dictionary it’s pronounced the same) salad, in particular, is proof that you can never truly go home again: I have tried to eat it as an adult and could not fathom what made it such a treat way back when.

That is all I have to say about salad. For now.

the micro world

I once told a scientist at my lab a joke I had made up myself. Rather, I wrote it down to get the full effect:

Q: What does a cow say in the micro world?

A: mu. [OK, the joke is ruined; apparently I can’t make a Greek letter here]

He looked at me blankly, totally not getting it: “Micron?” “No,” I gently remonstrated. “Mu!” (the Greek letter “mu” stands for the “micro” in microgram, microliter, etc., when you abbreviate them).

If I were a scientist (a big if), I would not be a star-gazer, I would be a particle-gazer at the Large Hadron Collider in (under) Europe, looking to detect the quirks and quarks, the mesons, yousons, shesons, hesons, glueballs, blueballs, charginos, cashinos, leptons, leprechauns, whathaveyous, and howareyouse. (Guess which of the above are real particles!)

But I am up here observing life at the macro level, where there is plenty of micro action to be had. Some powerful things can happen in the course of a split atom when even the unlikeliest pairings of persons meet. If everything happens in the now, then now is both immediate and eternal, and the smallest spark here, between you and another person, is as significant as the largest forest fire far, far away. The size of the interaction has nothing to do with it: It’s all about love, about hearts, about minds for a moment melding, like a sunbeam on a mirror causing an ant to catch on fire. Wait. That’s something else.

2 cases in point:

(1) Back in 1972, living in southern Maryland, I was a long-haired, army shirt-wearing, Red Wing boot-stomping, hippie dyke librarian, just bursting with contradictions. I was walking into a bank one day, and a man wearing a suit and tie was walking toward me. Instinctively, I held the door for him, and as I continued on my way, he said “Thank you!” in the most wondering, disbelieving voice. I still remember him, so who knows if, how, why, or wherefore his mind was blown by having his preconceptions thrown in his face by a door-holding, war-resisting, ungirlie-girl. But in that moment, at least, there was a slight trembling of the earth as one made-up mind met another in a spontaneous act of ordinary human courtesy.

(2) A few weeks ago, I was at the McDonald’s drive-through (mea culpa), and the boy working the window handed me back my change. I fumbled, or he fumbled—a fumble occurred—and a coin dropped on the ground. The boy looked down, spotted the coin, and thrust himself out the window, head down, legs in the air, and reached down and picked it up. He handed it back to me with a flourish, and I said, admiringly, “Wow, that was going beyond the call.” And he grinned and said thanks… not disbelievingly like the man in the previous story, but genuinely, happily. At that moment we shared complete delight in his physicality and sense of purpose, this gangly 16-year-old and tubby 62-year-old of unlike chromosomes and vastly different life experience.

These times of gently shocking grace are what I live for. Eyes meeting across a room when something is funny. A confidence shared with a grocery clerk—“I bought this wine because I was embarrassed to buy the cheaper kind I like better”—and he says he does the same thing. Bantering at the salad bar with a woman I don’t know, who feels the need to apologize for the large salad she’s assembling, explaining that it’s for her and her husband—and then happening to be in line together at the same check-out, where I say to the clerk, “Look at that huge salad! She claims she’s going to share it”—and the woman laughs and I feel like, maybe I’m not such a misanthrope after all, maybe I could reach out more often instead of taking the easier path of restraint and avoidance.

As befits someone who focuses on the fine print (having once proofread California state tax law for a living), prefers the lake to the ocean, and fantasizes that she will someday understand particle physics (as opposed to the ball-rolling-down-the-board variety [though I wonder about particle board]), it’s no surprise that I’m drawn to the small, the subtle, the hidden, and indeed strive to remain largely hidden myself. Over the past month or so, as I watched and waited for ideas, memories, words or phrases to waft up from my subconscious so they could be plumbed, pummeled, and puréed into a ‘zine, what kept coming up was just that word: hidden. It seems to be my second nature to hide, or maybe I just heard too many times from my mother that I was afraid of everyone when I was a baby. It seems as good an explanation as any… yup… born that way.

I forgot about Halloween this year—forgot to hide with my lights off, hoping not to hear the sound of children in the street. Don’t ring my bell, I’m not home! … and if I were, I’d have nothing for you! … and if I did, I would have eaten it all by now! … and if I hadn’t, I’d be hoarding it against my future late night (probably tonight) snacking. In theory, I wouldn’t mind giving candy to random kids, but I hate to open my door to anyone but the UPS guy. Let the little ones pass me by and head to the many households where huge inflatable plastic pumpkins and ghosts in the yard and lighted skulls on the porch announce their willingness to participate.

Maybe the timing of my birth vis-à-vis Halloween has something to do with this. On my birthday, October 30, I feel like neon, lit from the inside, waiting for someone to notice. Then comes the “real” holiday, the sugar-coated ritual of masked intrusive assaults on strangers in their own homes. My “special” day has come and gone, and now I’m at the whim of anyone who wants to invade my space and take away my candy.

I only realized that I had forgotten to hide when I got an e-mail from a friend in California who wrote that she had gotten only 6 trick-or-treaters. I was relieved, of course—no one had come to my door so, technically, hiding had been unnecessary—but I also felt a little like I do when I discover I’ve left the front door unlocked all night… exposed in retrospect… as if vulnerability crosses all time zones to include the unchangeable past—which makes sense if the now is both now and forever. (This also explains why I can still feel humiliated over long-past mistakes, such as handing out separate sheets of dialogue to each of the actors in my little play in the fifth grade: I realized too late that they needed to know, not only their own lines, but when to say them. I’m one who has trouble seeing the forest for the trees. “Micro” again.)

the friday report

Are you sick of reading my homely homilies from the Life of Mare? I’m still trying to figure out this family thing, making a hash of it at times but still invited back week after week. The place where they have to let you in.

[Reminder: K=younger sister; MP=her husband; Barb=youngest sister]

So we’re back on the scene at the K&MP residence, Friday night, the nearly obligatory get-together of the Almost Oldest Generation (one of us still has a parent), sometimes visited by the young and still-floundering offspring. Nephew 1 is still on the lam, long unaccounted for. Nephew 2 is thinking of moving back home from Texas to be with his kids, but the job outlook here is mostly cloudy and overcast with doubts. StormWatch at 11. Seems his geographical solution was no resolution—wherever he goes, there he is. Nephew 3 is “off the road” but still driving a truck locally, has a new girlfriend, head over heels but with the challenge of joining a ready-made family. He’s happy, though. We all sit back, parked in our recliners or on the couch, as he stands in the doorway relaying the ups and downs of living with his sweetie and her two kids. We wish him well, knowing there’s nothing we can do but be there, recline, listen, nod, laugh, and think that there but for the grace of God go us.

His last love affair was with a married woman, also with two kids, who lived in another state. Drama, thy name is Youth. I look back at my twenties and think, How the hell did I make it this far? I was so far off the social grid that I played third wheel in a lesbian ménage à trois—the second wheel had two little kids and was married to a large macho man. (One of my proudest moments was when he saw me for the first time, glowering at the top of a flight of stairs, wearing my cowboy shirt and shit-kicking boots, and he later claimed that he’d thought I was going to kick his ass. Ha!)

So we commiserate with the lad’s challenges and appreciate that he thinks he’s found the love of his life, and then we wave good-bye and return to our Friday night programmed dramas, our “NCIS”s, “CSI”s, “CBI”s, “FBI”s, “SVU”s, “SUV”s, “ISBN”s, and now I’m just being silly.

Most of the time, on those Friday nights, I feel like I’m soaking in warm bathwater, lulled by the distant murmurs of my kin and by all that is left unsaid. I close my eyes and drift, a small pleasure that I could never have in other company. And I think, This is how I’d like to go out, wrapped in my cocoon, no worries, no demands. I see myself as someone who will always choose comfort over challenge, and yet the scratchy sand in the oyster makes its own demands: The challenge, the making of the pearl, is built-in and inescapable. Once in a while something takes hold of me, I get grit in my eye, and I start to shake inside. The pearl remains hidden, but the oyster gets its panties in a bunch. Mare goes off.

One night, MP mentioned that something was happening with Nephew #3, possibly involving his ex-wife, but he couldn’t tell us about it until after a certain date had passed or a certain action was carried out. I protested, “Who do you think we’re going to tell?” And, “Why bring it up, then?” And, “You always do this!” My frustration wouldn’t rest until it was all out there, hanging in the air like a familial mushroom cloud. I even started to cry. This had to be stuff from the past coming up. It seems I can turn any married or civilly conjoined couple into a parent trap. It’s scary to think that we walk around with the bulk of our emotional responses emanating from a deep well of past fears or hurts…. while focusing on the proximal cause, the easy target, the substitute annoyance. In this case, my reaction may have had something to do with the many years of being treated like a child by the married gurus I had orbited back in the long ago… the tyranny of the two over the one: the manipulation, the lying, the denial of one’s perceptions: “Drop M off before you get to the studio, so no one will think you’re special”; “You’re not taking M’s illness seriously enough—now you stay here with her while I go hiking with my friend”).

It was par for the course (it seemed to me) that K&MP were the keepers of marital and parental secrets, not that I would care if they weren’t dangled in front of me and then quickly withdrawn as if I couldn’t be trusted. There had been another incident, a few months back, when one of them “spilled the beans” about something. “Oh, I wasn’t supposed to tell you that,” says one, and “Oh, I guess you told them,” says the other. Plus, there’s the periodic suggestion that we “eat before coming over,” or in some other way lessen our Friday footprint. And there had been the apple pie caper, when my sister lied to my face and claimed that the apple pie I smelled did not exist. It felt like—K&MP: the co-conspirators; me: the hapless harridan. So the trigger gets pulled, I react, and BAM, it’s high noon at 6 o’clock on a Friday night.

But it was interesting to see the others’ reactions. K was confused but copacetic: “What’s this now?” MP set about trying to fix the situation, i.e., get me to stop crying. Barb, for a while, sat there as if terrified to move or speak, but then she gathered her wits and tried changing the subject to anything, anything at all. Suddenly crying out, “K, is that a new clock on the wall?” and “Oh look, there’s a chickadee at the birdfeeder!” and even, to me, “So what’s new with you? What’s new with Peggy? How’s the weather back there?” K, like the trouper she is, would take each bit of bait that Barb threw out and try to reel in the big fish (or perhaps rubber boot) of emotion and steer us out of dangerous waters. But MP kept bringing us back to the swirling rapids, wanting to resolve my tears and understand my outburst, long past the time when I saw any point in talking about it. That warm bathwater feeling suddenly seemed like my lost Shangri-la.

The hypocrisy, of course, the contradiction, is that I want to be kept in the loop at all times but reserve the right to hide my own damn self. For example, I’m trying to keep this very ‘zine/blog a secret from my family. I can’t face the hurt feelings or, more likely, the passive-aggressive silence if I write something about them that’s less than flattering. But it’s a secret that’s surely doomed to come out of hiding. Both Barb and MP have been known to Google themselves, other family members, and local pedophiles, so it’s only a matter of time before they stumble across me in cyberspace. In fact, Barb said recently that I should write about a particular event in “your next mary‘zine,” which made me wonder if she’s been following it all along. (And why not? I finally remembered that I had told them about it back when I first went online.) So we could be hiding from each other, which wouldn’t surprise me one bit. Stranger things have happened. I recently got an e-mail from an old friend from the early ‘70s who found the blog by accident and read about himself—as an initial, anyway—in a story I had told about him and another man confronting each other in my log cabin, neither of them previously aware of the other’s claim on me. He wrote to correct one part of the story and said that that standoff “may have been [his] finest hour.”

So my hiding place is no hiding place at all. ‘Zines I wrote years ago that were only read by 20 or 30 friends are now instantly searchable, including the town in which my sister teaches (now removed as a tag), and there’s no way to control whatever shit hits the fan.

(Speaking of which, I had very few responses to my shit massacre story in the last issue, but I appreciate the friend who wrote about feeling the same disaster coming on when she was at an awards dinner 20 miles from home. Fortunately, she made it without disgusting incident: “Your shit storm story kept me going all the way home.” I now feel completely vindicated for that oversharing. Sometimes “too much information” is exactly the amount of information you need.)

But back to my crisis at K&MP’s. We were going to Schusslers’ Supper Club that night for MP’s birthday, so that’s what finally broke the emotional stalemate. K and Barb quickly got up and headed for the door, but MP waited while I gathered my wits and my wad of wet Kleenex. As he gestured for me to go ahead of him, he said softly, “You’re all right, you’re all right,” and I was so touched that the tears started flowing again. I stopped him and pulled him aside and said how much I appreciated his willingness to listen to me and not just try to change the subject. It’s really ironic, not only because women are supposed to be the sensitive ones, but because MP himself blusters and curses and acts like a modern-day Archie Bunker a lot of the time. As much as I like to complain about men, I seem to have a soft spot for the ones who act all tough and gruff on the outside but have the proverbial heart of gold.

MP is cut from the same cloth as my father—working class, comes from a large family, regular beatings as a child, low on the social graces scale—but he has mellowed as a result of the love and tireless efforts of my sister, his wife. I’m not trying to make him into a saint, but I respect how far he’s come. And the fact that he thinks I’m both smart and hilarious doesn’t hurt, either.

So we hugged and then happily went off for steaks and margaritas, and a good time was had by all.

the ever-present past

As if to illustrate my theme of “the past never really goes away,” I have a long-time “stalker”—newly emboldened since I moved back to my hometown 5 years ago—a friend from the fifth through seventh grades who seems to have made me into a lifelong project. I’ve written about her before (#13). I can’t say she’s been overly aggressive, but she’s definitely persistent. Over the past 45 years—ever since I left home to go to college—she has continually accosted my sisters to ask if I was ever going to move back here. My sisters would cheerfully tell her, “Probably not!,” but then I defied logic and all odds by doing just that. I’m sure she was in seventh heaven, at least for the first year or two, when she thought that we were about to relive those halcyon days in the Girl Scouts and Girls’ Athletic Association—but when I didn’t call and didn’t call and didn’t call (the local obligatory 3x repeat for emphasis), she must, at the 5-year mark, be starting to get the hint. Or maybe not.

Several years ago, when I was still in California, she sent me pictures from our grade school (!) reunion along with a tea bag to symbolize how much she “missed” me. I had seen her at my mother’s wake, but other than that we’d had no contact since 1964. So now that I’m in town and theoretically available to attend any and all reunions, she can’t let it go. Every time we run into each other—and when she runs into either of my sisters—she brings up the reunion thing and asks if I still live where I live. (She found out from being on the reunion committee. For all I know, she is the reunion committee.) This summer, my sister was selling her jewelry at an art fair in the park near me, and my stalker showed up, interrogated her (again) about where I live and said she wanted me to help her plan the next grade school (!) reunion. Barb explained, as always, that they don’t call or drop in on me because I sleep odd hours, and my stalker’s reaction was that she would stop by and ring my doorbell because I wouldn’t get mad at her. I know it’s hard for some people to keep track of reality, but this is ridiculous.

A few weeks ago, I saw her at the grocery store and veered away from the checkout lines to hide in an aisle that just happened to be the candy aisle. I’m sure there’s no connection between my sudden relational anxiety and my gratuitous purchase of a bag of chocolate-covered peanuts. If I had fled to the next aisle over, do you think I would have dropped a can of sauerkraut in my cart? I think not. When it seemed like enough time had passed, I paid for my groceries and headed for the parking lot. And there she was, right in my path. It was kismet, but not the good kind. She was thrilled to see me, as always, and the usual interrogation ensued: “Do you still live over by the park?” [Yes] “Do you want to be invited to the grade school [!] reunion?” [No] “Why not?” [I don’t want to]. (My verbal skills abandon me in times of stress.) And here was the kicker: “You can’t stay hidden forever,” she says. I was furious, probably because I had indeed just been hiding from her. Looking straight into her eyes set like coal in her snowman-lumpy face, I protest, “I’m not hidden.” She sneers, “Oh, you’re not? Then what are you, busy?” I get in my Jeep and ignore her suddenly amiable “OK, well, take care!”


If I wanted to be cute about it, I could say I had three Thanksgivings this year: one new, one old, and one vicarious.

Since death and divorce decimated the family troops, our holiday get-togethers have devolved to the point where there’s little ritual and very little magic. This Thanksgiving there were only four of us—the three sisters and one grudging male. And, as always, it was all about the food, the ultimate familial glue. For the past couple of years, we have ordered our turkey dinner as takeout: once from Angeli’s supermarket and this year from Schusslers’, our go-to celebration restaurant.

The original plan, concocted by MP, was for us sisters to go somewhere else and leave him home alone to watch the Packer game. So we ordered the food and planned to drop him off his share and then proceed to Barb’s, where we would chow down, chat without fear of reprisal, and guiltlessly watch anything but football. Then MP decided that we would have it at their house after all, and he would go into another room to watch the game. Fine. So the game in question was on in the living room when we arrived at noon. We took our usual positions on couch and recliner and tried extra hard not to disturb The Man. K and Barb, instead of talking loud enough to be heard over the TV, whispered or remained quiet for whole minutes at a time. But Barb is irrepressible, so she gradually raised the volume on her stories about school, and the teachers’ union, and what she’s bought her grandkids for Christmas so far. Whenever we see her, she has a mental list the length of her arm of things to tell. You’d think she lived a global life of epic proportions. Her 2 cats, their sleeping arrangements, their in-one-door-and-out-the-other, their bringing of unidentifiable small prey into the house to leave inedible organs and fur under the dining room table are but one element of her presentation. I am not above sharing the cutesy details of my own cats’ shenanigans, but her lengthy tales render me mute. I’m kind of a lethargic sort anyway, and I’m exhausted by the inexhaustible energy with which she comes up with these little anecdotes, which I know she has told, or will tell, to at least 5 other people, in exactly the same words. So when it’s “my turn” and I get the dreaded question, “So what’s new with you, Mare?” I either croak out a concise, unhelpful “Nothing” or drag up something I hope will be newsworthy, such as, “My godchild got married,” and I try to make a little story out of it, “Well, she and her new husband are stilt-walkers and clowns, sort of, but he’s also a registered nurse, and they paraded through town with their friends and were married in a park by her stepmother, a minister.” And there’s silence (I can’t really blame them), and Barb asks how old she is, “34,” and that’s the end of that. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t know if they’re just not interested in anything outside their world, or I’m so grudging or mysterious in the few things I do share that they’d just as soon not know.

So where was I? Oh yeah, Barb and K have started chatting at normal decibels, so MP gets up and leaves the room, and K looks chastened, like, we all have to tiptoe around The Man’s many moods (I know, I should talk). K leaves the game blaring, only muting the commercials, and I’m sure it’s so she won’t get in trouble for turning it off when he comes back. Not that I really care. I can passively watch helmeted men in tight pants crash into each other, it’s nothing to do with me. Sometimes there’s the long pass that gets caught, and the catcher (I know he’s not called that) does his little victory preen in the end zone. But that doesn’t happen much in this game, because it’s between the Favre-less Packers and the perennially inept Detroit Lions. (How do I even know that much about it?) I amuse myself by picturing the players wearing those Nazi-like motorcycle half-helmets instead of the ones that actually protect their heads, and I chuckle a little bit. Ah, the pleasures of the imagination.

An hour or so later, MP comes back, complaining that he needs to get a bigger TV for the other room, but since K anticipated this, the game is still on and thus he just plops down and continues watching. Of course, all this would have been avoided if he had adhered to his own home-alone plan, but no one mentions that, because silence is golden for children, wives, and sisters-in-law.

Our Thanksgiving dinner, delivered by Schusslers’ that morning, has to be reheated, so that takes up another hour or so, and then K lays it all out on the kitchen table. (We eat in the living room in front of the TV, and no one asks brightly what we’re all thankful for.) I bypass the carrots, vinegary coleslaw, and stuffing, and later regret taking the cranberry/fruit(cocktail?) “salad” because it tastes like nothing I’ve ever eaten, and not in a good way. The “mashed cheddar ranch potatoes” have that instant-right-out-of-the-box aftertaste, and the sliced turkey is kind of dry. K has heated up some canned corn, so I have that, and I do finish the potatoes, though grudgingly. Unlike the usual American Thanksgiving feast, this one leaves me not only not “stuffed” but actually hungry. So I have the one slice of pumpkin pie allotted to me, with a dollop of Cool Whip, and that’s that. MP is surprised when I announce that I thought the meal “sucked,” but my sisters more or less agree with me. Barb takes home some leftovers, but only to gorge her cats on turkey. (The turkey has been ruined for sandwiches because it came with gravy poured all over it.)

I try to perk up a bit as I help K clean up and wash the dishes, because I feel like a slug. Usually, I manage a little hilarity around the proverbial family hearth, but I have nothing to offer this day, and when at 3:00 Barb suggests the three of us go over to her house to watch a movie, all I can think is that I want to go home. Besides, it’s clear that K would only go if MP said she could. But she doesn’t ask, and instead we hang around there some more and watch a taped episode of “CSI: NY.” I take my leave at 5:00, after K and Barb have figured out their schedule for taking care of my cats when I’m gone to the painting intensive in San Francisco. We’re all milling around the kitchen and they’re looking at the calendar, factoring in MP’s knee surgery which will take place while I’m gone, and K says to me as we hug good-bye, “We’ll take good care of your kitties,” and she has such a bright, loving look in her eye, and Barb hugs me too, and MP says Bye, and they watch me leave, I’m in the dark garage and they’re framed together in the bright kitchen light, and I think, wow, it’s really true, I can be myself with these people. I feel a pang because I take them so for granted, but I guess that’s part of the family pact. The place where they have to let you in, and you don’t have to fake engagement when you don’t feel it, though they sure appreciate it when you try.

By that point I’m so tired and sluggish-feeling that I wonder if I’m coming down with something, but after a mere half-hour nap in my comfy chair, I feel much better. I mess around on the computer for a while, checking to see which podcasts have been downloaded, who was interviewed on “Fresh Air” today, yadda yadda, and, as always, I can’t resist checking my “blog stats” at (you’re here!… those of you who are here). It’s intriguing to see which parts of the blog have gotten hits, especially when it’s some years-old issue of the ’zine, and on this night, for some reason, I click on one of them, and I read it again because it’s been a while.

So: it just so happens that the issue is #31, February 2005, about 5 months after I moved back to my hometown. And boy did I wax enthusiastic about the family back then, about winter, about Thanksgiving and Christmas and my New Year’s Day brunch. I had such ambition then, such naive hope for my full immersion in this real-live, new-to-me family.

And yet, the contrast between that happy reunion Thanksgiving—when I had everyone over to my house and even cooked Swedish meatballs and arranged Mackinaw Island fudge in pleasing patterns—and this rather desultory one, empty of kids and grandkids, didn’t really depress me. For some reason I seem to be able to accept the changes that have taken place over the past 5 years that are (a) natural and (b) out of my hands. It’s like I’m getting all mature and seeing “what is” for what it is and not wasting my time and thought-energy by being beaten down by unexpected developments. There is still plenty to be thankful for, plenty of surprises, plenty of everyday delights(cats), plenty of the wholeness of life that doesn’t need to reflect itself as a hologram in every little thing for me to know it’s there, nothing missing, nobody perfect (least of all me), the beat goes on, my cats will be well cared for when I’m gone on my dis-comforting trip through the un-friendly skies, with who-knows-what accidents and resentments to write about later, though I’m pretty sure I will not let any goddamn toilet seat cover cling to my sweaty thighs this time, and I’ll have mysterious, deep, disturbing, fun times while painting and hanging with my non-family family of painters, and I’ll get back home in one piece (knock on wood), and Christmas will happen, and we’ll eat cold cuts and rolls from Sam’s Club, and I’ll beg off early to return home to my beloved cats, and then regular life will start up again and I’ll continue on to the next year gone by, and I’ll have all the time in the world—or not, and that’s OK too.

But I forgot to mention my third, vicarious Thanksgiving, which took place on the brilliant show about a charming vigilante killer, “Dexter.” I watched in horror/fascination as two serial killers played out their pretend family blessings, followed by a smashing fight, flying accusations, and Dexter’s escape to his own unknowing family’s holiday meal, and Dexter’s voiceover wonders how many people at his table, besides him, have deep, dark secrets of their own, and I think… hey… my secrets, my hiding and dissembling aren’t so bad, it’s just the way I am. And my family are who they are, with their own agendas, shame and pride, secrets and long, long stories. I’m thankful for them and for my life, whether I announce it around a holiday table or not. I’m living life maybe not to the fullest, but to the best of my ability.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #16 July 2001

October 12, 2009

red, white, and bah humbug

Are we all quite finished celebrating the Fourth of July? I’ve never seen so much hoopla over a 1-day holiday. Since July 4 fell on a Wednesday this year, people were stringing together makeshift vacations out of two weekends and a “short” week. Richard Nixon made the 3-day weekend possible by moving most federal holidays to Mondays, but 3 days off work has become small potatoes. Mid-week holidays are celebrated for a week, and since no one works on the Friday before a 3- (or 5- or 9-)day weekend, those Fridays are de facto holidays too.

My point, of course, is that someday no one will have to work at all, except me. Signed, The Curmudgeon.

But I predict that in the future, for maximum efficiency, there will be only two holiday seasons, each lasting 6 months—The Holidays (formerly known as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s) and The Fourth (formerly known as Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day). The word “Christmas” will die off altogether, except among a few rabid traditionalists, such as the Pope and Martha Stewart. Everyone else will fakily-multiculturally blandify the winter shopping season as The Holidays, which is pretty much what they do now.

Fourth of July sale—5 days only.

—Petaluma car dealer commercial

The purpose of the two holiday seasons, of course, will be to shop, and children will be taught to sing “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of spending-to-save-the-failing-economy.” During The Holidays, merchants will focus the consumption pitch on the theme of The Spirit (Of Shopping), and during The Fourth they will focus, as they do now, on the theme of Freedom (To Buy) and Independence (To Go Against the Crowd by Buying What Other People Can’t Afford). This year, Old Navy commercials, with patriotic band music playing in the background, extolled this theme in a mock-ironic tone, as if they were poking fun at the commercialization of the holiday—“Support the Red, White, and Blue! Buy Something!”—while at the same time baldly declaring their true intention.

The consolidation of holidays will require that the currently constituted minor holidays be subsumed into the Big Two. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday (when “I Have a Dream Mattresses” will be on sale, if they aren’t already) will take up the tail end of The Holidays, and Gay Pride Day (Week/Month) and Memorial Day, strange bedfellows though they may be, will play an integral role in getting The Fourth under way—Memorial Day will represent the sale of picnic foods, Weber barbeques, and backyard pools, and Gay Pride Day will represent the highly desirable new market of “nontraditional families” (formerly known as queers). The words “gay” and “lesbian” will disappear along with “Christmas,” because they conjure up unpleasant images in the minds of otherwise motivated shoppers. But to encourage the new nontraditional families to get out and buy, there will be one massive annual parade down Market Street to the ocean that will last for days and celebrate the Pride of anyone at all, both nondenominationally and nonsexually-orientationally.

Easter will disappear, because there’s really nothing to buy for it except baskets, colored eggs, and candy, and without the birth of Christ, who needs to celebrate His resurrection? Or it will just be renamed Bunny Day, because there really is a dearth of holidays in the spring, and it’s important to anchor the beginning of The Fourth, just as Macy’s or Sears anchors a mall. The Fourth will have to start getting under way sometime in late March, lest consumers forget their purpose in life. The Fourth will officially end in late September, to give the people who put off their summer vacations until they think everyone else is back at work a chance to get their RV’s and SUV’s and every other kind of V’s out there on the roads, fully equipped with a duplicate of every convenience they have at home. Labor Day will be renamed Labor-Saving Day, the perfect time to shop for household appliances. Then The Holidays will begin again. Actually, The Holidays will never end, and neither will The Fourth. Clearly, what’s in store (so to speak) for us is a total consolidation of all celebratory buying occasions, and America will be renamed Holidayland, and people a hundred years from now will be debating the origins of the name and whether there was ever a time when holidays happened one day at a time. And the scholars and pedants who can still remember that there was once an important date far back in history known as July 4, 1776, will be on hand to bore everyone to death with their nitpicky details about what the US of A was originally meant to be.

But at some point, I’m sure, the pendulum will begin to swing back, and there will be a movement to establish a few Workdays throughout the year, so that people can take a much-deserved break from all that shopping. On Workdays (beginning cautiously with one day a week, probably Wednesday so the weekend can start promptly on Thursday), people will be encouraged to find productive labor in order to beef up their bank accounts so that they can continue the all-important getting and spending that is their—and their magnificent country’s—true purpose.

off to see the wizard

Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.

—Monsanto Corporation’s 1979 advertising slogan

I feel slightly glamorous sitting alone in Dr. P’s tasteful waiting room on a tree-lined street in Menlo Park. The four blank doors that surround me—she shares office space with other practitioners—lead to sanctums sanctorums unknown. I’ve pushed the button next to Dr. P’s name that will cause a light to go on in her office so she’ll know I’ve arrived. Something about that detail intrigues me—the discretion, the quiet signal of a light—a metaphor? enlightenment?—instead of the crass public milieu of a regular doctor’s office, with its coughing patients and gossiping receptionists. I feel like I’ve stepped into a novel, or at least an episode of “The Sopranos.” Dr. P is my new—my first, my only—psychiatrist, and I have come in the hope that modern pharmacology will cure at least some of my woes. J and I have agreed that it’s time for me to try anti-anxiety medication, since nothing else has worked on my clenched-stomach symptom.

While I’m waiting, I study the picture on the wall across from me. It’s a bland, unpeopled rural scene—a large tree in the foreground, and in the background an arched gateway that leads nowhere. I think of Tony Soprano getting pissed off at Dr. Melfi for having a “trick picture” in her waiting room. He accuses her of deliberately putting a picture of a “rotting tree” on the wall as a way to evaluate his mental state. He can’t think of the name of the test—“Horshack,” he finally calls it. She asks if the picture disturbs him, and he says the disturbance is “built in.” I recognize the paranoia of one who has trouble trusting authority figures.

But most of you probably don’t watch “The Sopranos,” so I guess I’ll have to keep my allusions to a minimum. I can’t afford HBO either, but I rented the first season at the video store and got hooked. I finally bought the tapes and watched them all over again. The second and third seasons aren’t out on tape yet, so I’m woefully behind on story development.

Tony Soprano is the bad guy you hate to love; I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love him, but I’m fascinated by him. He’s a complex person and likeable in spite of the mouth on him—“Stick it up your fuckin’ ass” is a typical response—rather than the usual one-dimensional gangster. And there seems to be a hint of redemption to come. His seeing a shrink at all is a sign that he has a hidden inner life. A clinically depressed person must be capable of remorse, of deep feeling. We get to see the world through his eyes, and depending on how you look at it, the show could be an insidious way to get us to sympathize with a cold-blooded killer or a way to believe vicariously in our own redemption. When, after much thought, he calls the police to arrest a child molester instead of having him killed, he gets drunk and rolls giddily on the floor, exclaiming to his wife, “I didn’t hurt nobody.” And we think, “Aha! He doesn’t really want to be a bad guy!” What a hook—lots more interesting than watching guys shoot each other in the street (though they do that too—this is no touchie-feelie fairy tale).

I don’t think the picture in Dr. P’s waiting room is a “Horshack” test—and I don’t think the tree is rotten—but I wonder if I’m about to go through a gateway that leads nowhere. Already, I’m anxious about having to drive so far (55 miles each way) and pay so much—Menlo Park shrinks charge an arm and a leg—guess I can only go twice, ha ha—to tell my life story all over again. The worst thing about having any “illness,” if that’s what this is, is having to talk about it all the time. Or maybe it’s just the opposite—maybe I want to talk about myself all the time, and this gives me the perfect excuse.

Seeing a psychiatrist also feels symbolically like I’m facing an old demon from my past. As a teenager I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and scared myself half to death with the extent to which I identified with the main character, who was a patient in a mental institution. All through my childhood, I was aware of a place in the U.P. called Newberry, where the crazy people went. I don’t remember if anyone ever threatened to send me there. I heard quite a lot about “the poorhouse,” but I’m not sure what gave me the heebie-jeebies about Newberry. One of my cousins did end up there, after spending a cold night in a swamp and freezing both his feet off. I don’t know what his diagnosis was, but I think his father, my uncle, was manic-depressive—clinically depressed, for sure, and I had seen him in a manic state. So in addition to spending the first 40 or so years of my life afraid that I was going to get multiple sclerosis or alcoholism from my father’s genes, I worried sporadically that I might be genetically destined to end up “crazy.” The crazy genes would have come down through my mother, so I was covered on both sides for something bad to happen.

You know, I have a horrible feeling I’m going to end up on my deathbed realizing how much of my life I’ve spent worrying about things that never happened. But it seems to be the way I’m built. Or at least the way I’ve grown, like a tree that twists and turns to accommodate nearby trees or a concrete wall, contorting itself into any shape necessary to sustain its life.


The specter of Newberry popped from the back of my mind to the forefront at the beginning of the eighth grade. For some reason, my mother was supposed to drive me to school on the first day. Most days, I took the bus, and by God, I wish I had taken it that day. School was my haven, my escape from home, but the first day of school was always traumatic—new teachers, new kids, the self-consciousness of showing up in new clothes. I was anxious, getting ready—do I start out wearing the new rust-colored blouse and skirt ensemble, or do I transition in with last year’s poodle skirt and the new pink fuzzy sweater? I had a new little purse, my first, which contained a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, a comb, and a dime in case someone asked me to go out for a Coke. (I had no source of income; a dime was big money; we’re talking 1959.) When it was time to leave and my mother wasn’t ready, I panicked. The thought of walking in late on the first day of school, in front of the whole class, made my stomach churn. But empathy was not my mother’s strong suit. If she wouldn’t bother to stop for a policeman trying to pull her over, she sure didn’t think twice about making me late for school.

At the last possible minute, my mother recruited my cousin John to drive me. He lived right next door and had just got his driver’s license. I avoided John whenever possible, ever since I managed to find an excuse to get out of the back seat at the outdoor drive-in theater where he was trying to get his hands in my pants while my parents watched the movie in the front seat. He had stalked me for months, or years, I don’t remember anymore. I just remember the mental snapshots—precious memories (not)—of specific scenes—his startled face framed in the window when I stood up from my bath—his naked game of “hot dog and bun,” no surprise which part I played—the odd tableau we made by the washtubs in the basement, me with the dribbling hose, him watching, always watching, like a creepy yellow-toothed man out of True Confessions magazine.

I don’t remember the ride to school, I only remember arriving, sliding into my homeroom desk barely on time and out of breath, feeling sick to my stomach. What a close call! I sat there, trying to still my beating heart and calm my stomach. Suddenly, I had the most dreadful thought. What if I got so sick that I had to throw up? In those days, you didn’t just get up out of your chair and waltz out the door—or even run out. I had never before thought of the classroom as confining; it had always been my salvation, my structured haven away from the chaos and unpredictability of home. Suddenly I saw it as a prison. I couldn’t just sit there and throw up at my desk like a second-grader. I’d never live it down, and I was not exactly on the Miss Popular track to begin with. But I also couldn’t run out of the room, with no time even to ask permission to leave. Even if I did, I’d have to come back at some point—feeling humiliated—worse than being late on the first day of school—and then what if it happened again, and again?

I knew enough to know I was creating this dilemma myself. The nervous ride to school with John had been a trigger, but now the fear of vomiting had a hold on me. Now that I saw the truth of how much of a prisoner I really was, I felt doomed. I was a prisoner not only of my teacher, Mr. Ersland, but worse, of my own thought processes. It’s amazing to me now that I put so much trust in my reasoning abilities at age 12 or 13. I knew exactly how I was setting myself up to feel sick, but I couldn’t think of a solution, and therefore, in my still-developing brain, there wasn’t one. Is this why so many teenagers commit suicide? They have an acute knowledge of the bleakness of their situation, without any perspective to see a way out. I think that’s the curse of adolescence. You see the negative so clearly, and it’s not that you’re exaggerating—you see it, and you know it’s real. What you don’t know is that there’s a better world out there than the one you see at home or in school, but it can take many years to show itself. The lucky ones have parents or a teacher or another adult who can see farther than they can. I had no one.

I want that sentence to stand on its own as a factual statement—I had no one—but I realize how melodramatic it sounds, as if I were Princess or Kitten or whichever one of the “Father Knows Best” kids was the tortured teen, and merely had a fight with my best friend or lost my math book or something and forgot how very understanding my wise father and loving mother could be. (As a first-generation TV watcher, I believed in the truth of shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” It was my family that was out of whack.)

But no, I was alone. My mother had been my primary link to human connectedness, and she had pretty much cut that link with the “Why My Mother Deserves To Be Queen for a Day” episode (see mary’zine #3 for the whole brutal story).

So there I was. I couldn’t run out of the classroom even once, even knowing that the nausea would vanish as soon as I was free, out in the hall. I knew that if it happened once, I was done for. And I couldn’t stay and vomit in the classroom; that would be a thousand times worse. Either way, I couldn’t afford to let this feeling get away from me. If I was identified as “having a problem,” the least of it would be the teasing or the shunning by the other kids. All I could think about was Newberry—the nuthouse, the insane asylum. I was absolutely sure, in every fiber of my being, that no adult in my world—not Mr. Ersland, not the principal, not the large, braying guidance counselor, and certainly not my mother—could begin to understand the mental bind I was in. Surely, only a bona fide crazy person would worry about such a thing, would make herself sick for no reason. They would try to “talk sense” into me, those sane adults, and I would never be able to explain myself. They would have no choice but to send me away to Newberry, where someone who could create such a self-torturing mental loop surely belonged.

Of course, I can see now that there was something going on that I had no way to grasp at the time. There was so much inside me that I couldn’t let out—not just in the homeroom but in my whole life, maybe since birth and certainly since my little brother Mike got sick and died—all those unspoken fears, all that anger I couldn’t afford to express toward my narcissistic, preoccupied mother; my disabled, ranting father; my sexually stalking cousin; my cruel male classmates who openly jeered at my pimpled, permanented, four-eyed, tongue-tied self; my teacher with his sarcastic taunts about how little we knew of life’s problems—as I sat there gripping the sides of my desk, staring at the large metal wastebasket to have one still point in my world, willing myself to keep it all inside, the contents of my stomach and the contents of my psyche, was there a difference?

This torture went on for the whole school year, every single day. But each day, the nausea mercifully only lasted for the first period. As soon as I went on to my second period class, I was free of the fear, for some reason, as if surviving the most difficult hour let me off the hook for the rest of the day. And how appropriate, in a way, that my first visit to a psychiatrist would be in search of relief of another stomach symptom—one that may also be caused by everything I hold inside. But now I’m old enough and enough in charge of my life that I can call up the lady shrink myself and seek her diagnosis and her prescription drugs, without the fear that she will cart me off to the Bay Area equivalent of Newberry. Since my horrible, silent, suffering adolescence, I’ve learned to talk about what’s going on inside me, and I’ve learned that there are people out there who will listen and understand. So, no—I am not nostalgic for my lost youth, why do you ask?


When Dr. P finally summons me inside, I give her the nutshell (so to speak) version of my life, and the first story I tell, and the only one I cry about, is the story of my bleak year of nausea in the eighth grade. She takes all my life tragedies in stride, including the molestation—she’s just looking for patterns of anxiety and depression, and I’m sure she’s heard much worse. But it’s weird how you find yourself competing for Worst Childhood or Most Depressing Life when you’re talking to a therapist while, at the same time, you feel so lucky and blessed in your life and, strangely, both are true. It’s almost as if all the bad things happened a long time ago, except, of course, for the sad fact that currently you feel like your upper abdomen is a separate thing, like a deer strapped to the hood of a car, and you want to be dead a good percentage of the time—not to kill yourself, nothing so cruel to your loved ones as that, you’re not desperate—but just to be done with it already, as if your life lately is like that horrible point three-quarters of the way through a rough therapy session (I’m talking about J now) where you can’t believe you looked forward to seeing this person, whom you usually adore but who is now torturing you, which she prefers to call challenging you, with some undeniable truth that you can’t acknowledge and with an impossible request that you can’t see any way of fulfilling, like maybe emitting sounds from deep in your silent chest and she’s looking at you with respect and sympathy as she awaits your decision, are you going to step forward and take the risk to be seen (and heard), or fall back like you’ve been doing all your life, and you glance at the clock and it’s not time to go yet and you think, like Tony Soprano’s mother, I wish the Lord would take me now.

Because I’m so “complicated” (moi?), Dr. P and I have to schedule another appointment for the following week to discuss which serotonin reuptake inhibitor best suits my special needs. She is frankly amazed that I’ve never taken any Prozac-type drugs before, and I tell her all about self-medicating with caffeine, which I would still be perfectly happy to do if only my body hadn’t started rejecting it. Self-medication (or self-sufficiency in general, I suppose) is all well and good up to a point, but then the Being that we are deep down starts making its presence known, sometimes in such a prodding, uncomfortable way that we have to go out in the world, seeking the help (or maybe just the contact) we need, until we get the message and see that we do need other people, that it’s not enough to live on the Island of Self with a tax-deductible home office and relationships by e-mail and a cat whose silence is easily bought with a little tuna-flavored laxative. Strangely, it’s just as scary to think of reaching out now as it was in junior high, because now I have no excuse, I know lots of wonderful people—not just J but the whole alphabet. Time to write the new story of my life from that alphabet instead of going round and round about the past.


After the eighth grade was finally over and I was rid of the sarcastic Mr. Ersland, I spent the summer at Henes Park, alternately working at the concession stand with my father and going swimming. Every now and then, I’d think about the ninth grade coming up and wonder if I was going to go through the whole hideous ordeal again. Sure enough, when the first day of school came, the phobia started right up again. As it happened, my first period class was home ec. There were three rotating sections of home ec—sewing, cooking, and art (!)—and I was starting the year in sewing, which I hated with a passion. Those bobbins, those patterns, those self belts! I had a complete and utter lack of interest or competence in the female world they were trying to prepare me for. On the first day of school, I sat there at my assigned Singer treadle sewing machine and steeled myself for another year—a lifetime—of trying to stay hidden, and contained.

Just then, the principal came in. There were too many girls in sewing class and not enough in art. Who would be willing to transfer? I practically threw myself at the guy. “I’ll go!”

When I walked into the art room, with the easels, the paints, the indefinable feeling of freedom, the implied permission that drawing and painting gave me—I breathed my first free breath in over a year. I was saved.

feng shui this

At Barbara’s surprise 50th birthday party, where a grand time was had by all, we had a lively conversation about clutter. Barbara had bought a book called Clean Up Your Clutter with Feng Shui, and she and her daughter had successfully “decluttered” her house. So everyone started chiming in about how bad it is to have any unnecessary items anywhere in your environment, “blocking energy,” and so forth, and I took the devil’s advocate position against the obsession with orderliness. Like—relax, be free, don’t worry about it. Because in that moment, probably a direct result of the fact that I have Clutter up the Wazoo, it seemed just as enslaving to be afraid to have anything on hand that you don’t absolutely love as it was to be weighed down by unnecessary possessions. Constantly judging what you love, what you don’t love—it seemed to me that patrolling your environment for every unloved scrap of paper was a waste of time, when you could just as well let that scrap of paper sit quietly on your dining room table under the phone book, the fall 1999 dining guide, your sunglasses, and a handful of change, where you just might need it someday.

So I took the position that Clutter can be a source of Creation. Block energy? Why not see it as creating energy, sparking creativity? Who mandated that everything you own has to be only the very most special thing? There’s something so puritanical about that, so anti-life. Why not embrace Abundance and Discovery? If you want to make birthday cards or collages or sculptures, you need working materials. (Granted, this does not really apply to most scraps of paper.) I had the idea to write a book called Love Your Clutter, Love Your Life. It seemed like a valid point of view, and besides, any book that supports people’s hope that they really don’t have to improve their lives is sure to be a best-seller.

I read a very disturbing article a while back (unfortunately, I never save the articles I wish I had) in which a young environmentalist was so despairing about the place of humans on the planet that he said that the space he himself took up would be better off empty. In other words, he felt that just by breathing and using up whatever resources he needed to stay alive, he was harming the planet. He seemed to be speaking for the minimalists who want to “tread lightly” to the point of not existing at all. I think there’s something very, very wrong with this. I say you have as much right to be here as any animal, any plant, any insect. Removing yourself from the picture isn’t going to do the planet any favors.


But as often happens when I take a strong position on something, my argument in favor of clutter was just the last gasp in defense of the status quo, and underneath, something was already beginning to change. In fact, I had already bought three plastic storage boxes to start dismantling my sand tray collection. Anybody have a compelling use for scads of plastic eyeballs, spiders, knives, dinosaurs, soldiers, animals, cars, flowers, and skeletons?

So even as I was arguing the devil’s position, the anti-clutter seed was being planted. When I got home, I started looking around my office, and I reluctantly admitted that something had to be done. I had a totally unusable work table that was piled with wire and metal sculpture materials, tools, stacks of ‘zine copies and correspondence, plastic folders bulging with stickers, and four wire and metal sculptures that had been gathering dust since the first Bush administration. Worse, the area under the table was also crammed full with rolls of wire, metal rods and tie plates, old manuscripts, and a storage box full of God knows what from an earlier attempt to get organized.

The next day I set to work. I had to start somewhere, so I made the difficult decision to dismantle one of the sculptures, which featured a blindfolded girl doll trapped in a Lego tower. (Using the previously disputed feng shui criteria, I had to admit that I did not love this thing.) So I painstakingly took it apart, thus creating even more piles of wire and metal. I had the brilliant idea of hanging the other three sculptures from the ceiling. Two are flimsy but evocative forms of wire “houses” that represented my insecure state of mind when I made them, and one is a flimsy but evocative form of a “church” that, likewise.

I’ve noticed that deciding to get rid of stuff is similar to going on a diet, in the sense that, out of an advance fear of deprivation, I find myself going out and buying more stuff or eating extra food to make up for what I’m going to cut out of my life. Truly, the left brain doesn’t know what the right brain is doing half the time. So, telling myself I needed more containers to help me organize my stuff, I went to Stacks & Stacks and bought some wire baskets for the work table and another bookcase—which I clearly needed, because I only have two other bookcases in my office, along with two long banquet tables, a computer desk, two filing cabinets, several cardboard storage boxes full of old files and memorabilia, a card table, a typing table, another long table for my stereo equipment (two radios, four speakers, a tape player, a CD player, a receiver, and a turntable), and piles of envelopes, file folders, hanging folders, and computer manuals on the floor. My dream books are on the shelf under the computer desk, and all my Krishnamurti books are lined up on the floor under that, pretending they’re on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. There’s also Xerox paper and a box of scrap paper under there. Oh, and there’s an almost-life-size wire skeleton that I constructed with a floor lamp as the spine that stands next to my computer. Also, I have three chairs in the room and a painting board, a huge bulletin board, and lots of pictures and some metal crosses on the walls. And some wire that goes along one whole wall above the big window that’s strung with colorful plastic crosses. And a string of chili pepper lights over my other window. And a “tramp art” matchstick cross Diane gave me on the windowsill. And icon calendars and postcards and photographs, and dried flowers, a family of ceramic cows, a silkscreen poster of Annie Oakley (the real one) shooting at me, and packing materials for absolutely any occasion, including several Fed Ex and Airborne boxes. You want me to tell you I love everything in that room? Maybe not, but I love the effect. When I sit at my command center (the computer), I feel supported and energized by all the color and texture that surrounds me, the sheer energy of my sculptures and paintings, the many wonderful gifts I’ve received, my fabric of things that reflect who I am.

Of course, the bookcase I bought had to be assembled, and miraculously, I managed to glue and nail it together and haul it into place almost the same day I bought it, though the cardboard box it came in, which I flattened out for Pookie to sprawl on, took up half my bedroom floor for several days before I finally cut it up for recycling, and I think the screwdriver, Elmer’s glue, box cutter, and extra nails and screw coverings are still in there somewhere. One of the plastic storage boxes is now full of wire and metal, and it’s half blocking the door to my office because I haven’t gotten around to finding a good place for it. And yet I have made progress.

Turns out I didn’t have that much stuff to put in the new bookcase besides my 41 bound journals, so I happily took a metal interior breadbox off Peggy and Cally’s hands, and it’s on one of the shelves now, with a red and white plaster Jesus standing inside with his hand raised in blessing amid a pile of gold beads. Man, I can decorate.

See? Even as I’m trying to describe the turning over of my new leaf, I’m betraying my delight in stuff. When I “declutter,” I’m working against my Buddha-nature, trying to be someone I’m not and never will be. Give me a sheet of paper with writing on it, and I’ll organize it down to the last comma and full stop. But in the physical world I’m useless. Things dominate me. Stuff happens and then collects around me. There’s probably already a book called Feng Shui for Dummies, but if not, maybe I could write that one. It would have to offer a modified form of organization for people who don’t naturally think that way. For instance, the standard advice to “handle a piece of paper only once”?—can’t do it. Anything that comes in the mail or gets cut out of the newspaper goes on my dining room table, the central collection spot.

You know the Buddhist definition of eternity? As I remember it, a little bird flies to a mountain once every thousand years and takes away one grain of sand. When the mountain is gone, that’s the beginning of eternity. That’s pretty much my method of housekeeping. Every six months or so (I don’t have a thousand years to spare), I’ll be walking by the dining room table and I’ll impulsively pick up a newspaper clipping about, say, identity theft—the proverbial grain of sand—and I’ll carry it upstairs and put it on top of one of my bulging file cabinets, to be filed later. The next time I “fly to the mountain,” another clipping or stray pen or phone number on a slip of paper will make its way upstairs. Thus do I contribute to the birth of eternity in my own small way. I just thought of something. Where does the little bird put the grains of sand it takes away? It must have to make another mountain out of them, at which point some other little bird will have to start taking away those grains of sand. I’m beginning to get the picture. Eternity takes forever to even get to.

In some strange way, I think I feel calmer in the middle of chaos. Halfway through this clean-up project, half of my CDs are piled under my desk, waiting to be taken to the record store for trade-in, and half of my clothes are piled on the bedroom floor, covered with the trash bag they will eventually go in, waiting to be taken to the Salvation Army, and my work table is half cleaned up but still strewn with miscellaneous items I haven’t found a place for—a candy dish full of glow-in-the-dark crucifixes, a friend’s manuscript that I can’t bring myself to toss, several tubes of glue, some rusted metal decorations left over from the birdhouse I made Terry—but I feel quite cheerful about it, as if I’ve projected my inner clutter onto these inanimate objects, which can handle it a lot better than I can.

At first, I was thinking I collect things around me as a way to symbolically stave off death, because disorder can be confused with liveliness. But then I remembered that when my mother was dying and I didn’t know how I would survive the void that seemed to be opening up at my feet, I became compulsive about cleaning out closets and doing crossword puzzles. I knew I was doing what I could to create order out of emotional chaos, even though it was a false order and real chaos. Maybe it works both ways—maybe the continual struggle between creating the chaos and creating the order is just our pitiful attempt to control the uncontrollable. But let’s have a little compassion for ourselves. We deserve to live, to take up space, and to fill our space any way we want to. Love your clutter, clean up your clutter—your choice—but in any case, people—love your life.

p.s. Pookie would say hi, but he’s been grounded for spending too much time on the Internet. Kitty porn.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #33 Summer 2005

July 19, 2009

I’m slouched in my big red comfy armchair, enjoying the luxury of central air conditioning and trying to decide if I should (a) edit the paper on cytomegalovirus that came in last night, (b) take a nap (I’m halfway there, if you really want to know), or (c) eat lunch. Pookie is lying next to the chair in front of the heating—or in this case, cooling—vent. He hasn’t been feeling well, so I’m not sure why he wants to be blasted with cold air, but if any creature knows what it wants, it’s the Poo man.

pookie’s seizures

Pookie has had a rough time of it lately. I took him to a new vet to see what condition his condition was in. He’s been in renal failure for about a year, and lately he’s been having “seizures.” (I think they’re actually more like “episodes of loss of motor control,” but I’ll call them seizures anyway.) I’ll hear a thump! and look to see that he’s fallen over, limbs spazzing, body contorted. I scoop him up and hold him close for a minute or two until the spasms pass and he can get down and wobble off on his own. There’s a definite advantage to being a cat in this situation, because he just goes on with his life, leaving me to worry for the both of us.

The other cats in my family tree go to a clinic in Marinette, but Barb had told me that the best vet there, Dr. V, had recently retired, moved to Green Bay or something. Besides, I wanted to find one in Menominee to cut down on drive time…. specifically, drive time with unhappy mraw-ings from the back seat.
I didn’t have much hope, because Barb and K had both said that the vets over here mostly work on farm animals. Cows? In Menominee? I saw cows and horses every day while driving down the freeway in Marin County, and haven’t seen so much as a chicken here. When I told K this, she exclaimed, “Well, we don’t keep them in town!”—like I’m some hick who lets the pigs sleep in the dining room.

I checked the phone book, and lo and behold, the Bayshore Veterinary Clinic is barely a mile away. I called and made an appointment and brought Pookie in later that day. I hate going to the vet, partly because I’m embarrassed that Pookie’s fur is so matted. I pull clumps off him all the time, but I feel like the little bird that comes once every thousand years to the mountain and takes away one grain of sand, and when the whole mountain is gone, that’s when eternity will begin. When Pookie’s clumps are all gone, eternity will just be finishing up. I once took him to a professional, who got him de-matted all right, but he wouldn’t speak to me for 3 days and I hated to think of what she did to him to keep him from scratching her eyes out.

While we wait for the vet in the examining room, his assistant, a middle-aged woman, is checking Pookie out. I can tell she’s judging me for not having good cat hygiene, because she takes a comb out of a drawer and holds it up like it’s a rare artifact known only to the Rosicrucians, Veterinary Division. “You can get them at Kmart,” she says, helpfully. I say I have one, and she’s all disbelieving, “You DO?” Just then the vet comes in, and guess what? It’s Barb’s Dr. V! He hadn’t gone to Green Bay, he’d only migrated over the bridge. I mention Barb’s name, and he remembers both her and her cat and goes on to regale the assistant with the story of LaMew getting shot in the elbow.

Dr. V goes to work on Pookie, sticking a thermometer up his butt while checking his internal organs (?) by squeezing up under his belly. Pookie’s butt is in the air, his back legs are helplessly straddling Dr’s V’s arm, and his face has a look of complete horror as he realizes he has become Dr. V.’s bitch. While this is happening, the vet assistant is taking the comb and gently wisping it over Pookie’s back, removing approximately one cubic millimeter of fuzz at a time and dropping it carefully into the wastebasket. She has the decency not to say, “See how easy it is?” but this also robs me of the opportunity to counter with: “Yeah, well at home there’s no one to distract him by CRAMMING THINGS UP HIS ASS.”

Dr. V doesn’t know if the “seizures” are related to the renal failure; they could be a sign of “kitty dementia”—uh-oh, me and Ruth Fisher, sisters in bondage to the mentally ill—so he gives me a mixture of amoxicillin and prednisone to squirt into Pookie’s mouth twice a day. Oh joy. Oh frabjous joy.

After a few days on this regimen, Pookie starts vomiting and leaving little piles and dribs and drabs of diarrhea on my nice oatmeal-colored carpet. He’s also listless and unsocial, and I find him curled up in odd corners of the house, like next to the vacuum cleaner (his mortal enemy) in the downstairs bedroom. If I’m around when he has a seizure, I pick him up and press my face against his furry head and try to remember the feeling for when I don’t have him anymore. It occurs to me that I’ve been living in a state of grace for the last few years, since his near-death from a bladder infection, when I hardly cared whether he lived or died. If he had gone to his Maker then, I doubt that I would have felt more than relief. No love = no pain. No wonder so many people go that route. But I was given the gift of his return, along with the blessing and the curse of love, and now it hurts like hell to think we may be coming to the end.

baby robins

But where there is illness and the knowledge of certain death, there is also birth—three little robins on top of a light fixture on my back porch, in this case. Mère and Père Robin take turns bringing the little ones worms, which they drop into the gaping mouths that seem too big for their wobbly, fuzzy little           heads. I’ve never seen a bird family this close up. You haven’t seen beady eyes till you’ve seen a mother bird guarding her babies. And the feeding ritual seems a bit strange. Mère or Père flies up to the nest—the babies have had their heads sticking straight up and their mouths wide open for a good 30 minutes already—and drops a big wad of wriggling worms into one of the mouths (“Here, hold this”) and then takes them back a bit at a time, makes worm mash out of them, and feeds the other big mouths.

But gosh, the kids grow up so fast. One day the strongest of the three babies—its chest starting to fill in with orange tufts—was standing at its full height, flapping its wings like crazy. I hoped against hope that I was about to witness baby’s first flight, but apparently it was just a dress rehearsal. Can you imagine spending the first weeks of your life in a tiny spit-glued grass bowl with two siblings who are getting bigger by the day like you, and Mom comes home every night and squeezes in, too…. and then all of a sudden, you realize… “I’m born to FLY! I’m going to spread my wings and leave this two-bit nest behind!” Can you imagine the relief?  A few days later, the babies were all gone, and I was surprised at how let down I felt. Empty nest syndrome, indeed.

I’m flattered that the robins chose my porch to start their family on. It makes sense, though—I provide quite the little birthing center out there: fresh water, an ample supply of dry food (seeds) and wet food (the aforementioned worms), and, of course, shelter—everything but flying lessons and foot massage. And then there’s the “garden.”

The people I bought the house from had an aboveground swimming pool. So when they moved and took the pool with them, I was left with an unsightly patch of dirt in the lawn. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so K suggested I plant something there. We went to Erik’s Garden Center early one rainy Monday morning because she needed to buy her spring plants anyway. I was a little hesitant, because “Mary Mary quite contrary I may be, but don’t ask me how my garden grows, because it don’t grow shit.” But I was soon excited by all the different colors and types of plants. I ended up buying two hanging baskets of petunias—pink and white for the back porch and purple for the front porch—and, after much deliberation, two broccoli plants and a creeping phlox. (Because I follow my intuition, that’s why.)

K told me what fertilizer to get, we dug up the weeds in the dirt, and she planted the three little plants. Unlike the hard, dry piece of ground next to the patio at my condo in Marin, this dirt is really good, and we dug up many worms. More bisected worms than whole ones, but don’t they regenerate themselves? (Oh, the things I don’t know.) K saw some little maple treelings growing against the foundation of the house and said I should take them out. So I pulled them up by their roots and planted them in the dirt patch also. I never really expected them to live, so I planted them only about 4 feet apart. Could be interesting. Future generations can tell the story of how the hapless old lady who used to live here came to have Siamese-twin maple trees in her yard.

The robins aren’t the only satisfied customers out there. The bird bath is as busy as a public pool, and little birds flutter through the white-barked birch tree mocking the  jays and blackbirds that are too big to dine at the small feeder hanging there. There’s a whole flock of little birds that enjoy taking sponge baths in the 80% of the “garden” that has nothing but dirt in it. They squiggle themselves down and around until they’ve made a cozy indentation and then wriggle all over getting dirt under their wings and all over their bellies. Then they frolic in the broccoli forest or sit on top of the leaves and bite holes in them. I wonder if they’re completely delusional (look! it’s a lake!) or if they’re evolutionarily inclined to want to be covered in dirt.

home girl

One of the happiest outcomes of my moving here, so far, has to do with nephew Josh, K and MP’s younger son. K was having a rummage sale to which a lot of us had contributed our junk, and we were sitting around on lawn chairs in the driveway waiting for customers. Josh was feeling down because his dream of buying a house seemed to be on permanent hold. He and wife Jana lived in a trailer, and there was barely enough room for them to turn around. Even though Josh makes relatively good money as a ship welder, Jana works at Wal-Mart, which, ‘nuff said. They’d been looking at houses, all just out of reach financially, and were starting to think it would never happen.

I had bought MP’s original Ford Model-T running board, which is solid polished wood with a metal inlay. Josh offers to take it out to my Jeep, because it’s hella heavy and he’s a big strong guy. While he does that, I double-check with myself to be clear about what I’m about to do.

As he’s coming back from the Jeep, I go to meet him and say, “Let’s walk.” We walk around the corner, and I ask him exactly how much he needs for a down payment. It’s unclear, because he doesn’t know what they’ll have to pay for a house, what they can get for their trailer, etc. I explain that I don’t want to lend money to family: I don’t want to risk disrupting relationships if for some reason they can’t pay me back. Then I pause significantly and add, “But I’d be willing to give you $5,000.” He’s apparently having a delayed reaction to this news—or doesn’t trust his ears—because he says, “But then I’d have to pay that off, plus my other debts, and….” I stop and put a hand on his arm. “Josh. I’ll give it to you.” He starts to say “Noooo,” but mid-vowel I can tell he’s not going to waste time protesting. He wraps me in a big bear hug. “Thank you, thank you!” “I love you, Josh.” “I love you, Aunt Mary.” Then the music swells, and… wait, there’s no music. But I still feel like I’m in a movie.

This happened on the last day of April. I was surprised at how quickly they found a house they liked and made an offer on it. I guess you’d call it a “fixer-upper,” though they don’t use that term here—fixer-uppers are pretty much what you get. It’s in a pleasant neighborhood in Marinette, centrally located and not too far from K and MP. And it’s on Mary Street! When Josh tells people that I “made it all possible,” I quip that his moving to Mary St. was one of my conditions. I think they know I’m joking. And here’s another twist. When I moved back here last fall, Josh bought me a button that said “Mary is my homegirl.” Are we impressed with these tidbits of synchronicity, or what?

I’m thrilled that I was able to help them out. It feels a lot better than when I donated $1,000 to the Menominee High School scholarship program and found out the scholarship was awarded to the daughter of the financial advisor to the school district.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle having money when so many in the family are living from paycheck to paycheck. I haven’t really figured it out, so I just take it case by case. It’s still awkward to give a sizable gift to someone who can’t afford to reciprocate. I wonder if the saying “It’s better to give than to receive” isn’t the moral lesson we think it is, but rather a simple fact. Giving is a joy—though I realize it’s not everyone’s idea of a good time—but it can feel complicatedly ambivalent to receive: There can be shame that you can’t reciprocate; confusion about whether you’re supposed to try to reciprocate or merely accept the difference in circumstances; and fear that the other person’s generosity is masking an expectation or a form of one-upmanship… like now you owe them, regardless of what they say.

I think the economic disparity between me and other members of the family is still an issue, but I’ve realized that I can’t control anyone else’s feelings, I can only try to be clear about my own. I truly believe that it’s not important how much a gift costs—what’s important is the intention behind it. But we all grew up poor, and that can warp your sense of worth.

welcome to the dollhouse

Speaking of giving, one of the many things I appreciate about my sisters is that when they go rummaging, they’re always on the lookout for things I might like. Mostly, they’ll bring me crystals, crosses… anything different, colorful, or shiny to hang in my big windows. One day Barb called me from my driveway—that’s how she circumvents my request to “call before coming over”—and said they had a surprise for me. I had once mentioned that I’d like to have a dollhouse to make “dioramas” in the little rooms. Well, they had found a metal dollhouse that was exactly like the one I had as a little girl! I couldn’t believe it. I briefly wondered how they knew it was like the one I’d had, but of course!—they had played with it too—one of many hand-me-downs from me, first-born. I was touched that they had ceded it to me instead of one of them claiming it for herself or for a grandchild.

Late one night I felt inspired to do a sand tray (sans sand) with it. At first I was a little intimidated by the emotional baggage represented by this dollhouse. The fact that I was “playing” with it 50-some years later, a few blocks from my then-home, was a little mind-boggling, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a “Twilight Zone” episode with this plot device…. doo-doo-doo-doo…. Woman plays with childhood dollhouse… After she puts all the dolls in it, they come alive and she becomes the doll! OK, Mare, get a grip.

So I started putting things in the rooms. It was physically more difficult than I’d expected, because, man, those rooms are tiny, and I’m so much bigger now. Duh. And I was really self-conscious at first—I was afraid I was going to keep such rational control of the imagery that I wouldn’t be able to forget myself and just let it flow. But sand trays always take you somewhere you didn’t know you were going to go, so I just… went.

In one of the upstairs bedrooms, I put three little pink rocking chairs in a row with a “bomb” in each one. (Me and my sisters?) A baby lay on the floor in front of them, and a red rubber skeleton hand edged into the room. Men (action figures, a.k.a. dolls) were climbing the sides of the house, trying to get in the windows, which have little open squares cut in the metal, so their arms reached through. In the bathroom I put a skeleton on top of a pile of knives. The living room filled up with tangled red wire, with a soft plastic skull stuck in the middle. A rescue squad vehicle sat halfway into the room. Little green soldiers on the outside took aim at the house.

I put a little pink baby on a makeshift bed in the other bedroom, surrounded by empty blue rocking chairs and a couple of skeletons standing like sentries at the front opening. The baby felt like my little brother Mike who died of leukemia. At that point I knew I was emotionally engaged. I put another baby in one of the rocking chairs, with no idea of who it could be. I didn’t worry that I was orchestrating the scene anymore, because my crafty conscious mind had let go. My “story” had been successfully interrupted, and I could do anything.

I put men climbing on the roof and trying to come down the chimney. One man was caught in a kind of metal mesh cage. There were chains hanging off the roof, black and red wire coming out of the chimney, a large skeleton hand, snakes, and an old light bulb filament. I wrapped the house in long strings of white beads. Long black rods poked through windows and bifurcated some of the rooms.

By now, the only room that had nothing in it was the kitchen. My parents weren’t even represented (details, details)… but all my energy was going to my brother. So into the kitchen went a little yellow crib with a baby in it, red and white flowers, a red plastic heart, and gold Christmas ornaments. The feeling of doom from the upstairs rooms (and the roof and the windows and the whole house, actually) was changing, and I felt a deep, unexpected pulsing of joy in my chest. I grabbed a small jointed skeleton with blue rhinestone eyes and laid it on the floor in front of the crib, and the “sand tray” felt somehow complete. It was then that I noticed that the skeleton had lost one of its eyes. My heart skipped a beat… then another. My brother had blue eyes and had to have one removed when he was a year old. I had often painted him with one closed eye and one bright blue one, and the image has always stayed with me.

This is what happens in the creative process. The mind holds on as long as it can, and then it lets go like a tired swimmer slipping under the waves. From the mind’s point of view, all is lost. But the giving in allows the power of the Mystery to take over. And then the mind has the grace to acknowledge and even feel gratitude for that all-embracing force and the surprising gifts it brings.

Actually, the feeling of getting in touch with the creative force, the Mystery, is not limited to “art.” At times I feel strongly—almost supernaturally—touched when I’m out in the neighborhood or even driving and fully take in the green of the big leafy trees, the lush carpets of lawn, the yellow-green light during a half-sunny/half-darkblue-stormcloud daytime thunderstorm. At those moments I feel swathed, or swaddled—held or holding, I hardly know which—by everything that is. I’m all alone and yet so big—amorphous—that there’s nothing and no one outside “me.” Just as when I’m in the creative flow, I’m only another form through which the prism of sensory experience is being filtered.

July 4

On the weekend before the Fourth of July, I asked Barb if she and Brian and Deb and the kids were going to have a cookout down in the park. She consulted Brian, who thought it was “a great idea.” So Barb went and bought most of the food, and Brian got a pork roast to grill for shredded pork sandwiches. I thought it was just going to be the six of us, but when I arrived, Deb’s brother and his girlfriend and their baby, two friends of Brian’s with their kid, Brian’s live-in and visiting kids, Barb’s daughter L and her husband with their two boys, and K and MP were all there. Deb’s nephew Devon, who’s barely 4 years old and small for his age, was making big circles around the park on a tiny motorcycle. MP was helping Brian dig up some dead rose bushes. Women bearing food were streaming into and out of the house like a line of ants.

K thought she should be helping set things up, but I told her we should take advantage of our elder status and sit out on the deck and have a drink. I’m a terrible influence on her.

Before the food was ready, it started raining, so they set everything up in the garage. The smokers stood at the open garage doors smoking and looking out at the rain. The radio was tuned to the oldies’ station, where every song seemed chosen for the weather: … listen to the rhythm of the falling rain… pitter patter pitter patter… oo-oo-ooh…. We sat on folding chairs awkwardly eating hot dogs and deviled eggs and chips and cupcakes on paper plates on our laps and trying to keep track of whose drink was whose. The kids—I think there were nine of them altogether—raced around the garage, weaving in and out among the adults, who were themselves constantly up and down getting food or going into the house or to their cars for something. Food and drink were spilled, napkins distributed, and second helpings helped. When the rain let up, Sarina and Devon went out and threw rocks at the puddles across the road. I went out to watch and realized that when I’m around kids, I constantly think something awful is going to happen—they’ll hit the neighbor’s cat with a rock… they’ll get too close to the road and get run over—and I’ll be left standing there, powerless. (Why this should be is a whole ‘nother story.)

While we were eating in the garage, I felt like a ghost—or close enough to a ghost, socially speaking, not to quibble about whether I was actually alive or dead. I felt like Scrooge watching the world go by without him (The Ghost of Great Auntie Present). None of the middle generation, the late-20- and early-30-somethings, so much as glanced in my direction. And how could I blame them? They have their kids and their houses and their jobs and their future to worry about. Deb’s family is unusually close-knot (ha! Freudian slip—close-knit), and all the brothers and sisters and the parents are in constant touch and routinely babysit each other’s kids and help build each other’s garages, redo bathrooms, whatever needs to be done. They’re like a giant, well-oiled family machine. It struck me that “family” is inclusive by being exclusive. Barb is one of the grandmas and Brian’s mother, but K and I are fairly expendable twigs on that limb of the family tree. I figure my only hope for feeling comfortable in that situation is to get in solid with the kids. Kids’ attention is fickle at best, but if I have enough one-on-one time with them, I’ll at least have a real connection there and not just be Grandma Barb’s peripheral “sister from California,” whose story is rapidly becoming yesterday’s news.

Here I am talking about connection, but I want contradictory things. Time goes on and one adapts, even to a miracle. But I want to retain the “disconnect,” the “synaptic gap,” the cognitive dissonance of wow, can you believe it, between life as I knew it a year or so ago and life as it appears to me now. I want to be immersed in the experience, but I also want to stand a little apart to maintain an awareness of what’s really going on here… what’s the deeper meaning there…. how does the past inform the present or the present redeem the past…  I’m interested in difference—the strange blessings and contradictions of life—and in trying to express what I see.

At one point, Barb says to me, “This is all because of you,” and I think, You mean no one else thought to have a Fourth of July BBQ? Odd, since I hate the Fourth of July! I’d just wanted to eat hot dogs and deviled eggs.

the grand-nieces

As much as I enjoy the grandkids, I’ve resisted babysitting them. As a teenager I hated being responsible for other people’s precious darlings and was beset by paranoid fantasies (if a man comes to the door claiming to be a relative of the parents, do I let him in or run and hide under the bed?). So I told Barb that I would invite the kids over for a sleepover in my attic room sometime, but she’d have to come with. Over the summer, when they’re not in school and their regular babysitter isn’t available, Barb has been watching them one day a week. I’ve taken to dropping by, taking them out to lunch, and playing a game or two until I desperately need to return to my solitary (big red comfy-chaired) existence. On one of the days that Barb was supposed to have the kids, she had an appointment, so I agreed to watch them for the 1 or 2 hours she would be gone. As the time got nearer, I began to regret my decision. I was afraid I’d just sit there in previous-babysitting-trauma-induced paralysis, one eye on the clock, too stiff to talk, let alone be an engaging companion–slash–loving great auntie.

The first 5 or 10 minutes alone with them were pretty much as I’d expected, until I realized that kids inhabit worlds of their own, and there wasn’t anything special I had to do. Sarina suggested playing dominos, so we did. We played the game where you start with double nines and progress through the double eights, double sevens, etc., until you run out of numbers. We had only got through the first couple of sets before both kids were lying face down on their chairs and playing the game from the floor. To give me a domino to play on the table, they had to go through numerous contortions to get the right one on the table and slide it over to me without being able to see. This gave them the giggles, and they kept up a chatterfest under the table about I know not what. At one point, Summer calls up from the floor, “Aunt Mary, look in the drawer.” I was sitting at the end of the table where there’s a small drawer, so I opened it and found the domino Summer had placed there. Gee, talk about resourceful… I guess when you challenge yourself to play dominos on two levels, you have to think on your feet, er, stomach.

When they got bored with that game, Sarina wanted to play Bingo, so she and I did that while Summer made bead bracelets. Bingo lasted about 5 minutes. Sarina won, so I think it was a case of quitting while she was ahead. Then she brought out Chutes and Ladders, which I knew was a famous kid’s game that I must have played before, but for some reason I couldn’t get the hang of it. The kids thought that was hilarious, especially when I tried to move my piece up the chute or down the ladder.

Next, it happened to be less hot than usual that day, so we went outside so they could play on their jungle gym. They showed off all their acrobatic tricks on the swings and with the hanging rings and did cartwheels on the lawn. I know it’s a cliché, but wow, the flexibility in their thin limbs! Their unflagging energy! Part of the jungle gym structure has ladders and a simulated “rock climbing surface” to climb up to a kind of treehouse, so I made a feeble attempt to follow them up while they squealed, backing up to the opposite side of the platform as I grabbed at them while teetering 12 inches off the ground. This led to their christening me the Lava Monster. (Don’t ask me why Lava.) They went running through the yard, and every move I made in their direction evoked genuine—or fake/genuine, if you see the distinction—terror and screams. I did indeed feel monster-like, roaring and occasionally grabbing hold of a passing arm and wondering what a Lava Monster was supposed to do if she caught one of them. Their shrill screams made me drop them pretty quickly anyway, so as to prevent permanent hearing loss (mine).

Finally, the grandma cavalry arrived. Though I hadn’t been having a bad time, by any means, I was grateful for the rescue. Barb was just in time to take us all to lunch at the Downtown Sub Shop in Menominee. On the way, we saw K and MP riding around in their truck, and they joined us for ice cream.

The kids have another “Aunt Mary,” their mother’s sister, so when we were driving back from lunch, Summer said, “There’s our ‘normal’ Aunt Mary’s house,” and Barb cracked up while I howled. “Normal?!” Poor kid just meant “as opposed to ‘Great Aunt Mary’.” Summer had endeared herself to me earlier by saying, “I hate not knowing things.” I really like smart kids. Four-year-old Sarina is smart too, but she’s still illiterate. I’m looking forward to being in their lives for a long time to come.

the flagpole of now

Pookie started feeling better when I stopped giving him the medicine. He still sits on my lap at the computer and watches the screen avidly as the colorful symbols of Alchemy pop up and move around. He still scratches my knees bloody trying to make himself comfortable. We’re taking it one day at a time, or I am. He’s just living.

He’s living, and I’m thinking. In fact, I’ve been thinking about thought. Many years ago, I heard an amazing talk by Krishnamurti in which he said that time, thought, and fear are all one thing. I noticed with Pookie that if I stay completely in the present with what’s actually happening, I don’t have all the anxiety associated with my projections into the future. He’s on my lap now, he’s purring now, he’s scratching my knees bloody now. Anything that I imagine might happen—or worse, believe will happen—is completely unreal, hypothetical. Several years ago, I spent months playing out in my mind the imminent death of my little black cat Radar, who had feline leukemia. As it happened, he died peacefully in his sleep, with his head butted up against a wall, and I had a friend visiting who helped me bury him, quite illegally, in front of my apartment building. I didn’t shed a tear. It was all just what it was.

So here’s how I picture time = thought = fear. We are sitting on a flagpole (whether it’s all the same flagpole or we each have our own is beyond the scope of this discussion). No, I’ll simplify and say I am sitting on a flagpole, which is the present moment, what is. If you think about it, there’s no flagpole “back there” (past) or “up ahead” (future), because it’s always now. I may think about “tomorrow,” but when “tomorrow” comes, it’s today. No way to get off that flagpole unless we’re sent into space and come back 200 years later while aging only 2 weeks on Earth. I don’t even want to get into that.

OK, so I’m sitting on the flagpole of now, and because of evolutionary developments in the brain, I can imagine things that aren’t real, i.e., aren’t happening now, on my flagpole. When we imagine those unreal things, we are extending our reach beyond the flagpole, forward and back, but those extensions are completely imaginary, a product of our brain capacity. Brain development, per se, is a fine thing, because it can be useful to have a memory (of the best season to plant crops, say) and to make reasonable predictions (if I plant corn now, I’ll have some in late summer). And yet, all that is pure speculation; everything that actually happens is happening now. Late summer may never come, capiche?

When we project these speculations into the “past” or the “future,” that is the nature of thought. We can think about what’s happening, but the thought is never the thing itself. Obviously, that’s also the nature of time, because projection in thought, by definition, is in time and not in the present moment.

Here’s the crucial bit, which is what I realized with Pookie. It’s impossible to have fear in the present. We think we do, but really, fear always comes before or after the fact. In the moment, whether it’s confronting a snake on the path or holding the poor cat while the vet “puts him to sleep,” there’s nothing but this flagpole, then this flagpole, then this flagpole (which are all one flagpole, you understand).

(I sure hope my flagpole analogy is holding up, because if not, you’re probably feeling really irritated right about now.)

So…. everything that our brains project (or “remember”) into the air in front of or behind our “flagpole” is the same thing: thought = time = fear.

QED, n’est-ce pas?

Pookie’s having up to three “seizures” a day now. Be in the moment for him, in whatever way feels right to you, would you?

[Mary McKenney]

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