Day Three: Foundations

I am writing this from Whole Foods in Hadley. I just came from the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, where I heard my friend and Big Yellow writer Ruth Lehrer read from her new novel Being Fishkill. This book started on my red couch, and it’s now a thing of beauty and in

spiration. I cannot wait to read it, and I plan to give it to several worthy folk for Christmas. Tom and I have a date night, and we are going to see Ladybird, which, according to its preview, shares some similar elements with Fishkill I can’t believe how lucky I am to get this afternoon/evening of culture. And speaking of which, I’ll make this a trifecta: last night I finished one of the best novels I’ve ever read: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (it won the National Book Award in 2011). I’ll write more on these tomorrow.

Now that the trees are down, the beautiful red maple feels like queen of the yard. Every time I look out my kitchen window, I see her giant Y, a big Yes.

Can you see the Y?

The ground is cold. There have been robberies in our neighborhood, so we are keeping all the doors locked. This is one of my favorite times of year, even with the light fading. I love to walk by the river with my dog, my kids and my friends and see the land so clearly, now that the leaves are down. Her contours. The river is still flowing. Everything is dying back, but it is still, essentially, alive.

I have three beta readers for The Big Idea. Two of them have given me extensive feedback, but I want to corner them and sit them down and interrogate them about every single sentence they highlit, or every chapter they suggest I cut. I want this process to be over, and I want it never to end. I want to keep working on this book for the rest of my life, and I want to move on and write something else. But I want most of all to get it right, and it is still not quite right.

Today, the backhoe is idle, with its long claw extended like a tired brontosaurus. Next week, they will dig the foundation, and, I am guessing, dig trenches in our yard to lay the pipes for the sewer and electrical systems. There is so much to do at the earliest stages of any project. When one is building a house, that lesson could not be more cogent. We are wrestling with the question of how much steel to put in the foundation. Our contractor says less. Our engineer says more. I will have more to say about this tomorrow, after I have seen Ladybird, I think.

Why I Am Not Going To Eat Tofu for 365 Days in a Row

As I stroll merrily through menopause, my daughter has become a vegetarian. She is eleven. She is at an age and stage in which morality is crystal clear. She has been hearing about Climate Change since her parents came home from their first post-baby date (Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth.) When she was two months old, her parents bought a VW diesel Jetta which they ran on biodiesel, until the fuel dealer went MIA. The year she was two, she ate only local food. She grew up being dragged around to CSOs, knows all her favorite alt-brands at our food co-op, and marched in last year’s women’s march. She sings Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs, and comes with me to vote every election day. Nowadays, as soon as I turn the key in my van she says, “Mama, put away your phone! Drive! You’re wasting gas!” And when I fantasize about flying somewhere exotic, like, um, Virginia, she snaps, “That’ll destroy our carbon footprint for the year.” So it shouldn’t have come as any kind of surprise that she doesn’t want to eat meat.

I, on the other hand, have had my own lifelong issues with food that have led me to what most would consider an extremely rigid food plan. I haven’t eaten flour or sugar in almost 20 years; I don’t eat processed food at all; I eat copious amounts of vegetables (nearly two pounds a day–and that’s a recent decrease), healthy fats, low-carb fruits, and nuts. But I do eat meat. All kinds of meat. We’re talking bacon, people. Sugar-free paleo, but still. We’re talking grass-fed burgers, the occasional slow-cooker pulled pork, roast duck on Thanksgiving (saving those drippings in which to cook my eggs the next day for breakfast), and closest to my heart, my mother’s recipe for roast chicken. I have tried to be vegetarian at various points in my life. Suffice it to say, it didn’t work. My blood sugar is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, I have had to give up such healthy foods such as lentils, carrots and apples, as their natural sugars affect me adversely. I love the way I eat. No one is asking me to change it.

But given the seeming epidemic of cancer surrounding us (in my own life, at least ten of my nearest and dearest are diagnosed), I am always on the lookout for the healthiest meal plan available. There is something else nagging at me. I am very good at taking care of my own nutritional needs, but I have been quite laissez-faire when it comes to the rest of my family. Peanut butter and jelly every day? Ok, that’s fine. Mac and Cheese more than three nights a week? Great. Easy and cheap. Just give me my salmon and veggies and don’t complain. My daughter’s new consciousness has raised my own, and so I was toying with the idea of going vegetarian for a year. Everyone who loves me (Judy, Tom, even my daughter) tells me that that’s crazy. I limit myself enough around food, and I don’t need yet another way to obsess about it. Still, I argued, I would like to be a better Mama Bear and bring some mindfulness to menu planning that has so long eluded me. And maybe the estrogens in tofu would be good for my hormonally-challenged body.

I haven’t written for this blog in a committed way since London. My last (please, God) draft of The Big Idea is about to go to the agent, and after it’s done, I will need to turn my attention  to writing songs for our next album.

Writing a blog on a daily basis helps me to know who I am. I write, therefore I think. Working on this novel, I forget who I am. I lose touch with myself, and get myself confused with the characters I am writing. I missed the boat on both NaNoWriMo and 30 Poems in November, but here we are at Day 15 of this Noble Month. Something inside me is urging me back to a daily writing practice, and so I am going to try to write every day again. Yes, it’s better to have a focus––say, a food blog called Tofu365 in which the author tries out a different tofu recipe every day for a year. But, like I said, I have good friends who love me, and they all pursed their lips and shook their heads when I pitched this idea.

So instead, I am going to just show up and report and see where the writing and my life take me. There is, for one thing, the story of the barn to tell.

 

 

Bloodwork

On the last day of my period,
The doctor calls to tell me I am in menopause
I put down the phone, feel the lump in the back of my throat,
Close my eyes. I will tell no one, I think
And then: I need to write about this.

My second mother-in-law would not have approved.

I suspected something was up a week ago when I woke up, heart a disco, drenched in sweat, Bedclothes banished.
I, historically hysterically cold.
Thus the bloodwork. Thus the doctor.

Last week before bed,
armed with a tall glass of water,
I started to read the article in the New Yorker about Hillary’s book
and I got so angry I had to put the magazine down.
“I am tired of hearing about Hillary,” my sleepy husband said.
“That’s why I am angry,” I said. But I let him sleep.

My first mother-in-law, upon turning 60 announced,
“I am now officially invisible. I walk down the street and no one, no one, looks at me.”
We all have primal fears. Some are afraid of being noticed; some are afraid of public speaking; some are afraid of being called on, or of disagreeing or of taking a stand.

I am afraid of becoming invisible.

My doctor—a woman my age—said, “What is the point of this?
You had a hot flash,
You are fifty
What about perimenopause do you not understand?
What are you going to do with the information the bloodwork gives you?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’ll just…have it.”

November 8. 9/11. The day my first husband disappeared.
These days are cloaked and choked in shock and violence,
Trauma so painful to focus on that we look away.
I had to put the New Yorker down when they wrote how Hillary took a nap on election night
And woke up to find that Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania had all turned red.
She was going to wear white when she gave her victory speech
under a glass ceiling that was going to be broken.

We are tired of hearing about Hillary, say the Bernie Bros, who are my friends again.
And rivers of rage converge as if I am Pittsburgh
A man is strong and angry, and we call him powerful
A woman is strong and angry and we call her hormonal
Or nasty
Or manipulative
If she is young, she is a bitch
If she is old, she is a witch
I am not tired of Hillary.
I am parched for her leadership
After nine months of drought,
I have no tears left

Why did I want the numbers the bloodwork gave me?
What can they tell me that I don’t already know?
There are age spots on my hands.
I can’t open a pickle jar without a tool, or my daughter’s help.
I need glasses to read.
Soon I will need hearing aids.
But I can feel.
I can think.
I can sing.
I can do a huckle-buckle and make my kids laugh.
I can bathe my dog.
I can teach kids to sing.
I can find a new chord to play on the guitar.
I can hear an argument and change my mind;
or I can hear an argument and counter it with reason and kindness.
I can determine how to be of service to a friend.
I can plant some dogwoods in my backyard.
I can hold my children, still, and smell the tops of their heads.

Maybe this next half-century will be about seeing rather than being seen.

 

I woke last night
At the disco again
But this time, I heard the voices of my friends.
Felt their hands reaching
To pull me to the other side of the dance floor.
It’s better over here, they say.
Drier. Funnier. More solid. Trust us.
So I listened to the beat
Of my heart
And I swear it was beating the name
Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto
I closed my eyes and let it rock me
Until I was boogying with my friends
And I let it rock me
Back to sleep.

I dedicate this tattoo
To both my mothers-in-law.

Oct. 2, 2017

Day 5 I’ve Got to Admit It’s Getting Better

Yes! Things are looking up. It helps immensely to have our friends from Northampton with us. They are cheery, intrepid travelers, eager and enthusiastic. These are qualities lacking in some of us these days, speaking mostly for myself. The drug I’m on for shingles makes me dizzy in the am and very lethargic. Caffeine helps! And there are Starbucks on every corner, natch. The shingles seems better today. There are still new pox forming, but the old ones are getting purple and scabbing over. Luvly.

Lots of people recommended I read White Teeth, the Zadie Smith break-through novel from 2000. It’s a fantastic way to experience London, a hilarious cultural romp so far. I am reading and also listening on Audible. The narrator (Jenny Sterlin) is incredible, doing all the accents very well. In the mornings, I go for a run up a steep steep hill to a park, wind around and enjoy the view of the Shard. There should be a picture of that here, but there is not, alas. Instead, a pic of the park itself, where my family goes to play football. See how I said “football” instead of the “s” word?

We tromped along Oxford Street and felt like we were in New York, somewhere near Times Square, perhaps. The kids loved it. Grown-ups yearned for Swinging London’s Carnaby Street and instead got served up corporate America, which is Corporate Everywhere now, I guess. One thing I keep thinking is that the English took over the world in the name of commerce, and to some extent succeeded. The British Empire was about creating wealth for the wealthy and comfort for the British. I don’t know quite what other values were valued. Decency? “Christianity?” But what did they mean by that?

 

Our intention was to go to the British Museum at some point, but instead we ended up hanging out outside of it, looking dolefully at the huge crowds and retiring instead to a luscious bookstore called The London Review and having tea. (Mostly what we do here is stop for sugar and caffeine). My kids invented a younger sister for the trip. Her name is Rose (I get to call her Rosie, cuz I’m her mama). She had brown wavy hair, green eyes and is left handed. She is six, and her favorite book is War and Peace. We made sure to keep our “eye” on her as we made our way through the crowds. I was reminded, by Rosie, to buy a copy of the translation of War and Peace that came out in 2008, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonksky. I had read this behemoth in 2005, and I am ashamed to say I now barely remember it. So I am going to try to read a page a day. To Rosie.

I booked train tickets to Liverpool for Monday. Yes, of course I did. You didn’t really think I wouldn’t, did you? After all those years of torturing my parents? The joke is going to be that the kids will hate it! The Magical History Tour was all booked up, but no matter–it would have been too much to spend all day on the train and then get on a bus. We’re going to the Beatles Museum. I love how you don’t even need a printer in this day and age. Just show them your iPhone! Tomorrow we’re going to Abbey Road to get our photo taken on the crosswalk.

 

Big London Trip Day  One: Leaving the States

 

Here I am on a giant two-decker plane, squashed at the end of a bank of four seats with my daughter asleep on my shoulder, my husband reading next to her, and my son watching Boss Baby at the other end of the row. I arrived at the plane with an assortment of travel pillows and accoutrements attached to my backpack, giving me the look of a Sharper Image-thieving hobo. Said pillows were for my aching lower back. Why the aching lower back? So glad you asked!

My lower back started aching the day I arrived home from my Adirondacks writing retreat on July 2. There, I was finishing the latest draft of my novel The Big Idea, something I have been working on for the past 5 months (previous drafts being written since 2005…) Trying to take a day off this endeavor on not be a manic workaholic (who, me?) on July 4, I accompanied my family to Chesterfield Gorge, where I was embarrassingly lethargic and miserable. “My left leg feels as though it’s climbed a gigantic mountain,” I told Tom. “And my lower back feels like I’ve pulled out my S-I joint.”

Five days later, at the New Bedford Folk Festival, I seemed to develop poison ivy. Strange to get it so long after exposure, but I was pretty sure I saw some in Chesterfield, though I’d tried valiantly to avoid it, of course.

On the Monday after the festival, I plunged into another week-long writing retreat, this one at my house. I stuck to a boot-camp-like schedule: rising at 5:30 to meditate, going for a run at 6, getting the house clean, the lunch prepped and the kids off to camp by the time my retreat started every day at 9am. I worked and wrote all day, then spent the hours between the end of retreat and dinnertime going to a variety of body workers to try to re-align my S-I joint, all the while slathering the PI in calamine lotions. Neither situation got any better, and my checking account grew as cranky as my back. What was particularly weird and annoying was that the location of the PI was in the same spots that ached. This, I reasoned, was because I must have rubbed Hudson, my puppy, right after he rolled in some backyard PI and then massaged my back and left thigh because they hurt.

Yes, I also scratched the poison ivy.

Finally, it was Sunday, and I got worried that my PI needed steroids. I wanted to get a script before I left for Europe on Monday, so I called my PCP. He said it was protocol to examine all rashes in person. Thank God. Because when I went in on Sunday afternoon, my doc practically laughed me out of the office.

“That is a textbook case of shingles, my dear,” he said, pointing to the line of what I’d thought was poison ivy along the very spot on my lower back that hurt the most. “And that is where it starts: the spine. From there, it spreads only to one side of the body. in your case, down your left leg.”

In a way, it is a relief to know that I haven’t destroyed my back. When I thought this was a pulled S-I joint, each bodyworker had some advice for me, usually about posture and exercise. I went around sucking in my gut, re-aligning my shoulders, making sure not to sleep on my stomach, etc. I felt guilty for pretty much everything I did; mostly of course for the fact that I am writing a novel, which is the major source of all maternal guilt for me at the moment. Now I feel like I have a reprieve from the governor on this. When you have a communicable disease, mostly no one blames you, including yourself. Of course, I did see on WebMD that the reason most adults get shingles (a reappearance of the dormant chicken pox virus) is that their immune system is straining under unusually stressful circumstances. But for now, I can accept that I won’t be sleeping tonight. Who sleeps on a red-eye anyway?

To be continued…