Sunday, June 30, 2013


We are no longer in the doldrums around here. Not at all.

(I know, Readers. You weren't born yesterday. You've been through this before. Tomorrow I might cry on your collective shoulders, right?)

Anyway, tonight we are happy. First piece of good news? Benjy is starting his residential school next week. Yes!! It worked out. So many people spent so much time striving to make this happen. Not just Lars and me. A whole team of folks who want Benjy to succeed. Who will do whatever it takes to keep him learning and active and give him the community he has never, ever had. Man, I LOVE those people.

It's like my boy has ten parents, all of whom are determined to make his life better. How lucky is that?

Let me tell you, we take NOTHING for granted.

So next week there will be kids in his life (I am afraid to say "friends" in case I jinx it). And horses. Sheep. Chickens. Cats. A couple of 3-D printers and other tech stuff I don't understand. A swimming pool. Ropes course. Did I say cats? I see that I did, but cats deserve a second mention. There is going to be school as well, but what can you do? Oh, and three favorite sports: archery, tennis, and ULTIMATE FRISBEE.

So there you have it.

I wonder if I will be lonely without him. I assume I will be. But then again, so much will open up for us. For me, especially. My life has been on hold for so many years now. Not on hold, exactly, but it's been a life of triaging crises and driving to hospitals. Dispensing medications. Holding my boy and trying not to weep with him. Weeping with him anyway.

It's been a life of writing whenever possible. In waiting rooms and emergency rooms and latelatelate at night while my whole house slumbered, even the dog. A life of not reading. (What a loss. There was a time when reading was all I did. I miss it.) Of trying to remember I had another child. (I hope she will forgive my relative neglect. Maybe she'll write a memoir about my crappy parenting when she grows up.)

Now I can begin to think about me. How I'll fill my time without Ben to fill it for me. I'm not going back to academia. I'm thinking things through, though. You'll be the first to know when I figure it out.

In the meantime I have a piece coming out in a couple of weeks in a wonderful online journal, Literary Mama. This essay marked the moment I switched from writing fiction to writing creative non-fiction -- my very first attempt at writing about our lives, Benjy's and mine. It's completely out of date at this point. I think I started it shortly after that first time he begged me to help him end his life (2009??). His first hospitalization came after that, and so did this essay about the mental illness in our lives. I will link to it when it goes live on the site.

I found out the essay I sold to O, the Oprah Magazine will come out in October. That has been a loooong wait! Just did a big revision on that one, and sent the photo editor some pics, so it's really happening. For a while I thought they might kill it.

There are a couple of other publications in the works, as usual. And there is a fluffy hound with his paw on my knee. And there are no more hermit crabs in this house anymore, which makes me both glad and sad. (A story for another day.)

And now I am finished with non-sequiturs and going to bed.

Good night, friends!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

On Saskia and Singing

I'm sneaking in a little update on Saskia, who does not wish to be the subject of my blog posts.

We dropped her off yesterday at her summer opera program at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts.

Such a coup she got in. Such a chance (I hope it is not the last such chance we are able to wrangle her) for intensive study of her art, surrounded by kids who get her, who share her passion.

Such a beautiful place that school is.

Such a beautiful country she will visit as part of this program. (Italy, Readers, Italy!!)

Such a voice. I am waiting for the day she feels less burdened by praise, less like someone undeserving of her gift. Less embarrassed by our utter joy in her.

I am waiting until she allows me to post a video (or audio recording) of her performing. I hope that day comes soon, because I can't stand the wait. I know it is TOTALLY NOT COOL to brag about your kids, but man, I just want the world to hear her.

Fifteen-and-a-half years old, and this summer she is singing Fiordiligi in Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte. (A scene, not the whole shebang, but wow.)

This is the duet, "Prendero quel brunettino," that she'll sing with another girl as part of her scene:

(NOT Saskia, just in case you were wondering.)
So that's my Saskia post. Stay tuned, because I'm hoping after these three weeks she will allow me to show her off a little more.

That Wilfred Owen Sure is Obscure!

It was pointed out to me this morning (by a practiced reader of poetry of all shapes, vintages, and sizes) that the poem I included in my last post was kind of obscure.

It sure was! That's how you know it's good. ;)

But seriously, the gist is all you need. And the gist is simply this:

People who are dead to feeling might seem blessed, because they get to avoid the worst kinds of hurt. (In the context of WWI, the terror of those relentless, screaming bombs; the writhing agony of fallen comrades, etc. In our own context -- well, you name it.)

But people who are dead to feeling are really cursed, not only because they miss out on intense joy as well as intense pain (you can't drop one without dropping the other), but also because they lose the greatest chance life gives us human beings -- the chance to walk in other people's shoes. To love and to be loved. To recognize the gift of life, because we also know the sadness of loss.

That, Readers, is all.

Friday, June 21, 2013

My Day Has Come, Just Like Dad Said it Would

My heart is very full tonight, full of all kinds of feelings. Joy. Confusion. Warmth. A little bit of angst. Tonight is a good night, actually. And I think that lots of feelings bumping up against each other in your chest is better than no feelings in your chest at all. I know it is.

Have you heard of Wilfred Owen? He was a WWI poet, a Brit. He was barely grown-up when he died in the mud in France. He kept a journal on him in the trenches before he died, and in that journal he wrote the most wonderful poems.

Wilfred Owen knew a thing or two about feelings. This is his poem "Insensibility." I hope you don't mind me posting the entire thing...

Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.
And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on armies’ decimation.
Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood forever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.
Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.
We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones;
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.

I think Shylock means the same thing when he says this, upon hearing that his daughter Jessica traded the ring his dead wife Leah gave him for a monkey:

"I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys."

A wilderness of monkeys. Yes.

Sometimes I think what makes Benjy so sick is trying to locate the ring within the wilderness of monkeys. How do you figure out the value of things when your world is more fixated on capuchins and cappuccinos than on pain and joy and hunger and beauty and all the various, mixed up aspects of human experience? When money trumps everything, and there are little bitty burnt-up five-year-old girls living down the hall from you in the psych ward and you can't do anything about it?

My father used to say to me, back when I was a forlorn girl, "Your day will come." I have made this remark to Benjy on occasion, but of course he does not believe it. I didn't, either.

But funnily enough, my day has come.  I had thought it came years ago. When I was an ambitious grad student, the type of overachiever I admire but no longer really comprehend.

These days, if I manage to take a shower and cross three items off my to-do list I have achieved at quite a high level.

I have no problem with this. And also, I realize that my day hadn't come at all back when I was winning fellowships and securing grants and writing books. It's only just come now, in the thick of middle age.  Just think: I am peaking at fifty, right when I've reached the apex of underachievement. (Yes, that sentence is of dubious logic. So what?)

You know why this is my time? Because whether or not I shower every day, whether I sit and stare into space or work all day as an ersatz chauffeur or clean the kitchen four times or write an amazing essay or blog or don't blog, I have people all over the world -- folks who live right nearby and folks who live so far away their seasons are all topsy-turvy -- who care about me. I have come into a very big inheritance, and it has to do with feelings and people and connections and the beauty of kind gestures and of brief emails that say, "Hey, I've got your back."
It has to do with generosities born of swelling empathy and a desire to touch people's lives. (***You know who you are. I don't, but I hope you realize the impact of what you did today. What can I say, but THANK YOU? Thank you for reminding me that life and family and friends and community are all gifts.***) 

You know, people have gathered round our small  family these past years -- each year more difficult than the previous one -- and offered us succor, and love, and made us laugh. Proffered rides (and vacations) to Saskia when we couldn't. Cooked us meals. Given to us in the ways that made most sense to them. (All ways make sense to us.)

Some of these people we have been lucky enough to have in our lives are paid for what they do, and some are not. No matter. All of you do what you do with open and full hearts.

My happiest days, apart from the days when my entire family is content and thriving, are the days when I am able to give back. I do what I can, when I can. In ways that make sense to me and to those to whom I pay it forward.

Wilfred Owen had it right. I think Shylock did, too. It's better to feel richly, even when it hurts, than to feel nothing. You don't trade the ring your dead mother gave to your suffering father for a monkey.

That is just not cool.

The good news is, this world is full of folks who would never do that. We don't hear about them much; they do their good work quietly. But they're out there. I know, because a whole lot of them have touched our lives.

How lucky we are!

Hello, Sleepless Nights. Again.

So, the sleepless nights have returned with a vengeance. I thought I was done with all that.

I thought we were on the brink of all kinds of good stuff. Maybe we are, maybe we aren't.

I have never been a fan of ambiguity except in literature. In life, it sucks.

Here's what we know: Benjy is languishing in the step-down (non-locked) psych unit of the hospital. He has now been there longer than anyone else. Kids come and they go. Ben stays.
He said to me the other day, "I have been here longer than anyone now."

I said with a smile, "You are the elder statesman of the CBAT."

He said (without smiling), "I guess I struggle more than anyone else."

That broke my heart. I tried to explain to him that right now the hospital is a placeholder until he can start his new school. So he doesn't have to sit home in sad isolation, filling the emptiness with food and video games.

That, Readers, is the path to Hell. Trust me, it is.

I tried to tell him how much the hospital staff love him. They truly do. They are anticipating his departure with sorrow, but also with joy, They want him, and they want him gone. For his own sake.

And this beautiful thing we thought we had lined up? Well, it may be. But now we see that it may not.

Words were spoken to several of us in the past couple of weeks -- to me, social workers, SPED administrator -- that strongly suggested this placement was a go. We all assumed things would move fast. I thought by end of this weekend he would be settled in this place he is DYING to be in, He LOVED it when he visited. So did we.

And we believed he did an awesome job at his visit there early this week. It was overwhelming to be sure, but he was just his sweet, good self, and apart from not making much eye contact (hell-o, Asperger's!) he acquitted himself quite well.

At least that's what we thought. And we are quite aware when the opposite happens. We are no deluded parents,

But suddenly there's this radio silence. All attempts at contact are failing. And we heard something from someone (but not, as far as I know, a decision maker) that made me run for the white wine last night -- a remedy I have not attempted since my GI tract blew up in January. I took a few gulps of 3-Buck Chuck and wished I hadn't.

It may still work out. I pray it does, because if it doesn't another long slog begins. And I have no idea how we'll all survive it. I am not speaking metaphorically, either.

But look, here's a dose of perspective. A couple of weeks ago a little girl entered the psych unit. She must be about five. Benjy told us about her.

"Her whole right side is broken and bandaged. Do you think she fell off a horse?"

Uh, I thought. Not likely.

One day some of the bandages came off. I saw her, I saw her exposed hand and arm. I saw there were still plenty of bandages left. And I gasped.

Because half of this tiny child's body has been burned.

Benjy realized it too, as soon as those bandages came off.

He whispered to me, "Do you think she tried to commit suicide?"

And I paused and squeezed my eyes shut. Then I looked at his sweet, concerned face and I said, "No, Honey. I don't think that's what happened."

Because five-year-old girls don't typically self-immolate. At least, not intentionally.

I asked Ben once if she ever has visitors -- parents, friends, whatever,

He said no, not as far as he knows.

That is the saddest story I have encountered through six intimacies with the psych ward. That one just fucking kills me.

I want Benjy to have a home that works for him. And a school where he can learn and grow. But most of all I want him happy and safe. I just WANT him. I want to keep him forever and ever, until I am no more. And then I want him to go on until he can slip gently into that good night.

I don't think that's asking too much, do you?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Big Change on the Horizon

We're living in a sort of Best of Times/Worst of Times maelstrom around here. The turmoil is mostly of the emotional sort.

Four human lives and one canine life are about to change in some big ways. (The crustacean lives will pretty much continue as is, since I am generally the one who makes sure they get what they need to continue their humble existence in our house.)

I am buffeted by mixed emotions, but overall I think the winds are driving us in the right direction. Benjy's life is about to expand in some pretty neat ways.

Monday we get to introduce him to the school where he will be living and learning (and having fun) starting ASAP.

I truly never thought it would come to this, Benjy not with me. I'm scared and I'm elated. Because a lot of the things we would like to give him but cannot are things he will have on a daily or weekly basis now. Including friends who don't drift in and out of his life. And animals of various types. And STRUCTURE. And cool outdoor sports and activities. And a 3-D printer as well as other cool tech stuff. And baby quails. (What???? you say. And I say, Yes. Quails. More on that soon.)

We hope he will be able to learn there, too, and experience the joy that can come of acquiring knowledge.

Maybe he will take up violin again. Maybe he will fall in love with horses, like I did at his age. Maybe he will catch (and release) a whopping big fish at the fishing pond on campus.

Maybe he will enjoy the new expansiveness in his life.

He knows this is going to happen. He gets it, and is on board. But he's scared, too, even though he doesn't really say it.

I will have to figure out how to fill the hole created by his absence. After a month or so he will come home every other weekend. and in-between we will be able to visit him. He will be an hour and a half away from us, which on the one hand feels like he'll be living on the moon, and on the other is really not bad at all.

This may be Benjy's last chance for happiness and success. Readers, beam us some of those warm wishes or prayers or other kind thoughts you are so good at sending our way. I know I can count on your well-wishes, my friends. That means the world to me.

Oh, and Happy Father's Day to anyone celebrating it tomorrow!! I wish all of you fair weather and loving people in their lives, tomorrow and always.

On Sisters and Pupcakes

This litter of puppies was made with love by my brilliant, beautiful, all-around amazing sister-in-law, Jo. She is one of the most devoted mothers I have ever known. (She works at a paid job, too, so I would not be surprised if she stayed up all night to get these made for my nephew’s birthday party last week.)

Jo is the person I want to become when I grow up.

Whenever a birthday or Halloween came around, I was always the mom who drove to Stop and Shop and said to my kids, “Which [toxic green/blue/red advertisement for a toy/TV show/movie] cake would you like?” And then I pulled out my debit card and financed the whole gruesome venture.

I was also the mom who hauled my kids to iParty five hours before trick-or-treating began to browse the severely depleted costume inventory. Usually what was left were the size 2x cow costume and the over-sexed Alice in Wonderland get-up. I actually bought the skanky Alice costume for Saskia a few years ago, because what else was I going to do at that late date?

That was the year I was not even long-listed for the MOTY award.

The one time I tried to be crafty was back in 1989. I was living in a Victorian house on the North Shore of Boston with my first husband and I decided it would be nice to have a curtain panel over the beautiful beveled glass on our oaken front door. (Gorgeous door but not so private.) Plus I decided I should buy some fabric and do it myself.

Not smart.

I bought a yard or two of lace. (I know, I know. Cut me some slack, it was a long time ago.) I had nowhere to actually lay it down so I could get a good look at it and decide what to do next, so I put in on our bed. And I turned on the radio, because the Metropolitan opera was simulcasting The Marriage of Figaro, which is really a non-negotiable indulgence.

So I listened and sang (badly) and looked over this piece of lace and decided it needed to be hemmed round or it would fray. And it also needed pockets, top and bottom, for the rods that would hold it in place.

So far so good.

As I would be creating this masterpiece by hand (obviously no sewing machine resided with us in the Victorian house, although an antique spinning wheel did. I know, cut me some more slack, it was the eighties and HGTV had not been invented yet). I let the lace lie on the bed and stitched those hems right there, all the while singing (badly) along with Figaro and the gang. And when I was all done I gazed with admiration at my handiwork. A bit crooked and irregular to be sure, but there seemed to be something akin to hems all round, and pockets top and bottom.

Then I went to pick it up so I could examine the fruits of my efforts more closely. And I couldn’t.

I had sewn that damned piece of lace right onto the bedspread.

I screamed, and for a few minutes I wept. Then I un-sewed the whole stupid thing, and after the Met simulcast ended I drove to Kmart and bought one pre-made. It did not really fit because it was supposed to be a kitchen curtain. It had fruits woven into the lace. Man, was that thing ugly.

My biological sister was crafty. And I was always determined to be what she wasn’t. (Someday I will write about our largely unhappy – null is maybe the better word -- sisterhood.) My mother is also what I would call crafty. She is someone I would like to emulate. She’s a pretty cool mom and grandmother.

But I STILL have no interest in knitting and needlepoint and stuff like that. I blame it on my single-minded focus, when I was younger (before I’d been humbled a thousand times over), on becoming a famous scholar and writer. That huswifery stuff was at best a distraction.

I love my sister-in-law (but I really just consider her my sister, apologies to HER real sister Down Under, who is also a total sweetheart) because she is nuts enough to spend half the night frosting puppies for her kids after a long day’s work. And I love her because she loves me back.

Jo, you ROCK. I'm waiting to see what you whip up for the next birthday!


Sunday, June 9, 2013

You Have To Watch This!!

I'm so grateful I woke up to find this in my inbox this morning. How utterly beautiful and affirming.

(Don't be fooled by the opening words...)

Have a lovely, sunny day, Readers! (If it's gray where you are, this clip will make things brighter!)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Shame and Joy

Funny how shame and joy often travel in pairs. At least, they do in my life.

Yesterday I wrote a post that was beneath me. Only I didn't know it until someone I love gently told me so. And then I was ashamed, and I was also flummoxed. I thought, "What the hell was I thinking when I wrote that?"

The answer is, I wasn't. I was panicking, and I was feeling very sorry for myself and my boy and my whole family. The former is a fairly common occurrence in my life. The latter, not so much. I can't let it be or I will just come undone. And that would not be pretty.

I deleted that post last night. Then I tossed around all night worrying about whether I am just a crappy person. And also about what was going to happen at 11 this morning.

What happened at 11 is that Benjy's hospital case manager and I met with him in the "living room" on his psych unit to tell him how his life is going to change in a couple of weeks.

I believe, in my heart of hearts, it will change for the better. But I did not know what he would think. and I did not know if this talk would hurt like hell or feel good, or whether we both would cry.

The case manager and I told him he will be going to a new school, and that he will live at that school. That it won't be forever, and that after he starts there he will no longer be lonely and sad, and that he will have lots of structure in his life and all kinds of wonderful things to do that Lars and I cannot provide for him.

Such as archery and tennis and fishing and boating and snowboarding and work with animals, and therapeutic horseback riding. And possibly haying (??) and ice-fishing. And overall, an expansive new world.

Not to mention, friends and friends and friends, and they will  be kids like him so they will get him, and he will get them.

We are going to choose between two schools and then he will go for an interview and hopefully in a couple of weeks he will finally find his place in this world.

God I will miss him. I told him today that he will be living somewhere else because we love him so much. And he got that. He did.

He seemed shocked for a moment, and it looked like he might cry. But he didn't. He said he was okay. And after I told him all about the new things that would be entering his life he said, "Thank you. Thank you for doing this for me."

And I held him and tried hard not to cry. He said, "Can I stay at my new school until I graduate?"

And I said, "One day at a time."

I didn't even mention that one of the two schools is engaged in repopulating a certain kind of quail, and every year during the season when quails lay their eggs they raise over a hundred chicks.

I couldn't tell him because the decision is not yet made -- but if and when I do he will go nuts.

Long-time readers of this blog know that Benjy LOOOOVES birds.

Anyway, the grace and maturity with which he accepted the coming change -- a HUGE one -- was stunning. It made me happy, really happy. And he was happy, too. I took him out for a celebratory lunch. And to Target to buy some much-needed shorts and PJs and a board game to play in the evenings with the other kids on his unit. He was with me until Lars came home, and after the two of them played some Frisbee we drove him back to Boston. To his now-home. And soon enough we will be driving him to another home.

But after the first month we will have him weekends if he wants to be here. And if not we will spend a lot of time in Connecticut or New Hampshire, wherever he ends up.

And let me just say this: none of this would be happening if it weren't for all the amazing folks who have devoted time and energy to helping Ben. Social workers and doctors and special ed administrators. And friends. Huge shout out to our district's SPED team, who responded to Benjy's need with compassion and without hesitation. These are pretty amazing folks.

Tonight I think I will sleep well. I hope so. Tomorrow's another day, and we'll see what it brings.