Autumn bleeds into winter and costumed children will soon walk door to door to remind me of the coming months of cold, but I do not want to be reminded. Autumn is a wonderful time of rebirth after hot summers, a chance to sit by the water with a cup of coffee, to walk for miles in the woods, to sit on the deck and read a book with tinkles of wind chimes and whispers of leaves. Amazing things can happen in autumn, things that if not recognized go dormant in the cold of winter, in the white of frozen snow. Nights come sooner and last longer, more time for dreaming and laying curled in a ball under freshly unfurled down blankets.

But autumn reminds you of all of that, says change your sheets, open your windows and find warm spots to think. Finish whatever it was you thought had to be done by November because November is here. November, the last mow of the grass, the last transfer of precious peony bulbs and hostas from one part of your yard to another, the last trips to the grocery of isles stocked with fresh squeezed juices and strawberries from familiar countries. Tomatoes fast become squishy, tasteless reminders of summer’s sandwiches–white bread, mayonnaise and thinly sliced tomatoes. If you were good, really good, you got thick slices on the sandwich. Watermelons anyone would want to eat disappear, as do honeydews and cantaloupes. By November they are replaces with fat, round beets and plastic bags of cranberries from bogs we can see only in our imaginations.

Autumn is school supplies replenished after the initial storm of pencils and paper. It is the time we find sweaters we packed away last year and either blush with remembrance of warm hugs with someone we love or question our judgment over packing them up last spring–they should have been given away! We trade in camisoles for silk long underwear tops that hug our breasts and hips but are hidden beneath layers; our thin tee shirts for heavier, long sleeved tees worn under flannel shirts; our sandals for socks and shoes–Wallabies are back!–or laced boots; our swim suits for longer pants in which to jog around the park with someone who is also starting to run at nearly 60.

It is a time to find classes to take, things to learn, to catch up from everything that was let loose all summer. Master a new piece of technology, write a novel in a month, listen to library lectures, and at the end of the day find a bar with a fireplace and people who are over forty years old. Time to bundle and closet and say goodbye while at the same time finding old friends and familiar sweaters and beloved shoes.

Trees morph from drab green to electric yellow and brown the color of the undersides of tables. Red leaves stand out like blood, like fire, passionate in their last days in the air before falling unceremoniously to the deadened grasses to be ultimately scooped up and sealed in a paper bag left by the curb for a week or two. The smell of a warm fire snaking though a chimney makes even the harsh bags seem more hopeful as they are lined up, leaning against each other as drunks lean against bar stools hoping to be kept erect, waiting for a rebirth of wonder.

But there are these few weeks we label autumn when everything and anything is possible, ripe for squeezing out the last drops of hope and passion and laughter before falling into the white abyss that is winter. Winter chills the bones and the heart and the hope of something better; autumn reminds us there is always something better–a more beautiful color, a more amazing smell, a more familiar pair of socks; the kiss of little lips smeared with chocolate and marshmallows in the darkness, the crackling of firewood, the memory of a cabin or one more dinner outside at a favorite restaurant.

Autumn is slowly bleeding into winter as it does every year, and each time I hate saying good bye to it, hate letting it go.

Wish List

Listening to a book in my car about midlife.  Of course, I am past the traditional midlife point of my 50’s, but am curious about what this woman came up with that I did not do when I was in my 50’s.  Each decade the list changes and becomes more depressing:  when I was in my 20’s and had not yet run a 5k race, no big deal.  But in my 50’s it begins to feel like I will never run a race to the corner (four houses away) much less 5k.  And at 60?  I’d like to be alive five years from now much less run five miles.

There is something wrong with that thinking, though, and I know it.  Why is it I see growing older as simply that: growing older?  Slogans tell me I am growing better and better, but when I am typing and can see the skin on my upper arms air-typing in unison I do not feel better and better.  I feel like I want my body back, the one I rejected for all those years but now see was pretty wonderful.  The one I forgot to take good care of that is now pouting at me from all sides.

Trite thinking, I know.  It is what is inside me that really matters.  Unfortunately, we live in a world where just a few people might not find out what is inside of me because the outside of me does not scream “you think this is great?  Wait till you really get to know me!”

But all that aside, and it really is an aside, there is something very daunting in allowing myself to step over the decade fencing that separates different parts of my life and get on with things.  There are some things I have stored in the back of my mind in the file marked “If I Ever Get Time” I would really like to look at now.  There is now time.

When my children were children they filled my time.  Thinking about them, feeding them, driving them, reading about them reading to them, washing them, teaching them, playing with them, worrying about them.  Now all that is left is worrying about them, and that is not enough to fill anyone’s time.  I have time to clean a house I have no interest in owning much less cleaning.  I have time to do the four hundred pounds of laundry Sam brought home from college and camp.  I have time to work idiotic puzzles justified by research on puzzle-completion and anti-Altheimers.  I have time to wish I drove a different car.  I have time to waste.

Unfortunately, that is the thinking of a 20 year old woman in a 60 year old life.  Of course there is time to waste, but not as much of it as I have been wasting this last year.  The woman who is lecturing me about midlife as I navigate traffic suggests I think about what I want to do, not so much the “where I want to be in five years” kind of want to do, but a broader view of how I want this part of my life to be.  I can waste it, of course, at a computer or driving or drinking endless cups of coffee (also keeps away Altheimer’s, right?).  And in the end, I can die regretful of all the time I wasted.

Or, I can look at other alternatives.

While in the parking lot of the library yesterday, I tried asking myself that question.  You know, the one where you say to yourself “what do I really want in life?” and then say quickly “oh, and I don’t mean things!”  What do I really want?

I can barely make that assessment for dinner planning much less the next however-many years. But there are little things that try to get my attention, those things, when I see them, I push back down with undue force:

I would like to stay alive as long as I can

I would like to write with joy

I would like to fly on a zip line

I would like to take a river boat down the Seine

I would like to meet a grandchild or more

I would like to run no matter how slow

and so on.

Those are the things that always come to mind.  That list people have, the things they check off as they accomplish.  Way too Type-A for me.

What do I want for the rest of my life? Is there an umbrella under which the long list of things stand, under which they would happen so naturally that I would not think to check them off of any list? What brings me joy, really brings me joy I can carry with me for the rest of my life?

And without skipping a beat, when it is allowed to think for just a moment without recrimination my heart whispers “learning. Learning brings me joy.”

As simply as that, it all falls into place: I want to keep learning.  I want to try new things and challenge myself to move just a bit out of my comfort zone and learn. It does not matter what I learn, or how, or where: when I look at everything I have done that has brought me happiness in my life, it has been about learning. I learned to read, to cook, to love; I learned to ride a bike and to skate; I learned how to travel alone and travel with others; I learned kindness and understanding; I learned to cut glass and saw wood and build with them; I learned to quilt and knit and sew.

I think the thing I learned from all of that learning, though, is I love to learn. Not the kind of learning one does in school or reading the Great Books, although that sounds interesting it is not what I think I mean. I want to learn HOW.  That is what I want to do, that is the umbrella under which it all sits. The plan is not about the zip line or the story or even the boat. The real plan is to keep learning for the rest of my life,  to me to grab as much as I can as my brain begins to slow down and before it grinds to a halt, to act with the intention of learning the how and why of what I do.

I will finish listening to the lecture on finding meaning in midlife and probably take away a few very important things. But what I really hope is the next time I feel I need to spent 90 minutes working puzzles on my computer so I do not succumb to brain disease I am able to ask that umbrella-like question “am I learning anything here?” and move on something else.

Then time is on my side.


Lilacs in spring.

There is no smell more delicious, more soothing than fresh lilac.  There is a lilac bush outside my living room window and last night there were buds but no flowers.  Tonight there are flowers and the divine smell they emit barely crawl through the window.  I have my sheet and pillow down here to sleep in the smell of it, wake to the smell of it.  How does it happen, the scent of beautiful living things?  How is it that roots in the ground push forth such exquisite alternatives to winter and grey?  What force is there in the universe that allows for such an amazing life force lasting a mere week and no longer, shorter in bad weather, to make its statement?

My mind can retrieve the smell of lilac from some faraway memory I simply cannot see in my mind: was I a child with lilac growing outside my window?  I don’t think so; outside my window was a water tower air conditioning system that not only neutered the nostrils but made so much noise the crickets, cicadas and water frogs that once sang through the night left for other houses.  A smell from adolescence, a corsage or bouquet?  I don’t think so: the one corsage was a rose, the one bouquet daisies.

I like to believe it is the smell of someone who held me close to them when I was very young, a volunteer who came to the home and rocked babies like me certain hours of the day.  She may have been a woman in her forties whose husband suggested she get out of the fucking house and DO something with herself. Or maybe it was Lillie, the woman who raised me when everyone else was off self-actualizing.  Seems I would remember Lillie’s smell, though.

No idea where it comes from, the memory of the smell of lilacs.  I pick up lilac scented soaps in boutique stores and close my eyes, hope I will breathe in the aroma and feel the same joy lilac bushes in spring give me.  But there is no way to artificially reproduce the smell of spring and hope and sunshine and lilacs.  They are not flowers that thrill me like tulips do; they do not hold up in vases and change their form from closed to opened to drooped in a week as tulips do.  Lilacs cluster together as if frightened of their own shadows, huddling, prepared for something to happen to them. And unfortunately, something does, and much too quickly.

But I went outside at dusk and lowered my face into a cluster of tiny flowers and breathed as deeply as I could.  Tiny petals went into my nostrils, tickled my nose, and with them came the scent of elevation, sensuous touch like a lover’s cool fingertips on warm thighs, delight.  Again and again I breathed it in, my eyes closed, my face relaxed and available to the flowers.  When my lungs were filled I carefully snipped off a few flowers, placed them in a tiny vase of water, and went inside to place them by my bed.

How is it that the smallest things in nature amaze me time after time if I just take a moment to be exactly where I am?  Did I know about this pleasure when I was younger? Perhaps, but I know I took it all for granted as I took everything for granted: love will always grace my life, I will always have waist length hair. the car will always start, there will always be an alternative, the flowers will always blossom.

Yet here I am, sitting on the couch, the lilac serenading me with its scent like a lover’s vows of forever and I cannot get close enough to this very moment.  I want to climb into it and stay forever, infatuated with lilacs, believing I will have love again in my life one day, and taking life moment by moment.

Trifecta of Giving

Santa Claus is a major contributor to Christmas magic.  I long ago gave up trying to understand the excitement over a stranger finding a direct route not covered by my home invasion system in and out of my house at 2 am.  Yes, he leaves toys and joys, but besides the cookies and milk, does he take anything with him when he goes?  The bag of trash at the kitchen door?  The lunch money envelope?  Leftovers from the fridge?  I really do try to let go of all that and enjoy the magic of the season.

To a child, Santa and his cohorts are what it’s all about: a man and his trusty reindeer who defy gravity, the speed of light, and everything else rational to travel around the world in twelve short hours.  Reindeer cool their heels while the jolly man slides down chimneys with bags of toys (including bicycles), and then in a manner never explained in book or song gets back up to the rooftop and flies to over seven billion other homes.  In twelve hours.  I cannot even get from my home to the post office that efficiently.  And he leaves no carbon footprint.

Christmas is meant for children, and the suspension of belief for a few weeks is good for them.  No chimney?  No problem, he’ll find another way in (eek!).  No home?  No problem, he’ll find you at the trailer park or the Grand Floridian.  No responsible caregivers?  No problem, he’ll somehow know exactly what size pajamas you wear and remember you are allergic to peanuts and leave you plain M&Ms.

Couple the cover-up of reality with fairies, elves in a magical workshop, green and red cookies, a red nosed reindeer with hurt feelings, carolers, The Simpsons Christmas Special, and “A Christmas Story” played back-to-back with “It’s a Wonderful Life” for thirty six hours, and you have a child’s idea of some kind of heaven.

This afternoon, I had the honor of entering a KMart in the city to play “Secret Santa.”  Unfortunately, this was not my original idea.  I always dream up much more complicated ways to help children, trust me.  But Secret Santa I was, thanks to an article I read that morning, and when I explained to the customer service representative at the front door why I was there, she smiled and said “oh, goodie!.”

“So, I am not the first person to do this, I guess,”  I say, and leaned over the counter.

“Oh, no.  You are number five today!  I just love this-it’s so exciting!”  She picked up the store phone and called a manager to explain I was there then quickly hung up.   “Just walk to the back of the store and Bob will meet you there.  Have fun!”  She smiled, her earrings blinked little stars, one green and one red, and just like that the wheels were in motion.

Bob in Layaway was a third my age and next to him was another young man helping the three or four people in line with their layaway payments.  Everyone in the line looked tired.  By the time they got here, their children had been home all weekend.  This trip to KMart was probably the first time any of them had been alone in 56 hours.

Bob introduced himself, shook my hand, and produced the computer printout of layaway accounts.  He asked me what I would like to accomplish and I felt that before I answered I had to explain my uncle died last month.  He was my favorite member of our family, a kind and gentle soul who believed there was good in everyone.  Like all of us, my uncle stashed a little cash here and there in some very creative places, and while cleaning out his house I collected it all and put it in an envelope now tucked in my wallet.

Now, Geneen Roth, who lost her money to Bernie Madoff and wrote a great book about women being more responsible about money,  would squeeze her eyes shut and shake her head if she heard me say this. The money felt like “found money,” not really mine, and somehow something totally extra.  Geneen would say it was extra money to pay a bill or buy something for my kids (who are now in their twenties and need absolutely nothing) or fill our cars with gas a few times (bo-oring).

When I read about strangers walking in to KMarts and paying off layaway accounts for people they had never met, I knew exactly what a Secret Santa should be about: not an office exercise where adults secretly give each other fattening foods, or a high school conversation starter (“Who is your Secret Santa?  Oh, I hope mine is Luis–he is so cool!”).  A Secret Santa should be one of Santa’s community action squad paying off  toy bills and making Christmas tolerable for parents and deliciously delightful for children.

I loved it: presents, children, anonymity.  The trifecta of giving!

So Bob and I spent a while finding the right accounts for me, those filled only with children’s toys and bicycles.  Nothing outrageous on the list, no one with more than a couple hundred dollars owed, some with as little as sixty dollars to pay off. Many  accounts included big screen televisions (yeah, right, a gift for the three year old), microwave ovens, and handbags much too large for 40 year old women much less four year old girls.  Bob and I skipped over those and found two family accounts that were all about the children.

He read off from his computer screen such delights as Elmo slippers (do they tickle when they walk?), bicycles, skateboards, scooters, dolls, Legos, board games (Candyland. Ah, Queen Frostine), books, more dolls, and Play Doh.  Good hauls for a Christmas morning brought down a chimney in the middle of the night by a unknown person dressed in red flannel holding a red canvas bag.  Perfect.

So Bob rang in the accounts and let me pay all except one penny of each so the account stayed open.  I counted out the cash and Bob gave me my change, we did it again for the second family.  Bob smiled and asked if he could call them and give them the news.  One look told me he really enjoyed doing this so I said yes. Could he tell them who paid for their Christmas, and I smiled and said “a gentle soul who was loved by his niece and died in November.”  Bob shook my hand again and thanked me.  I thanked him.  One exhausted woman in the layaway line was given a cart with four huge cartons of stuff.  Toys, I hoped, and a six pack of cold beer.

I walked through the store feeling lighter.  My imagination was running wild: what would they do with the extra money Santa just gave them? Pay their heating bills for the month?  Groceries for a Christmas day feast?  A babysitter so they could go to a New Year’s Eve party?

No, I thought, probably not.  Probably they would come back to KMart and buy something special for each other for Christmas, a camera or a ring, a television or a new electric skillet.  It is, for sure, more exciting than heat and electricity.  Spending my extra money on toys was sure more exciting for me than heat and electricity.

I still don’t understand it, adults buying gifts for each other at Christmas. It always seems just a little bit silly: as adults, we no longer believe in Santa Claus.  Why are we gifting?  Maybe we do it to recreate that feeling of “what’s in the package?” so thrilling when we were little and believed in magic.  I liked being a secret santa for a child or two much better than I liked trying to find the perfect gift for some adult I knew.  As I got into my car, I imaged wide-eyed, shrieking, bed-headed pajama-clad children who run in the room Christmas morning to see what Santa brought in the middle of the night. That feeling of believing so much in something so outrageous just can’t be beat.

But that middle of the night thing still bugs me.

My Uncle Sam

My uncle died this week. He died alone in his little townhouse where he had lived alone for the last 30 years. His bacon was cooked, his eggs hard boiled, and his instant cocoa waited for hot water. Marshmallows lay atop the sugary brown powder as if life was just that: marshmallows atop chocolate. A table near the front door was overturned, papers and cards strewn across the floor like mosaic tiles, probably when the paramedics brought in their equipment. A lamp I remember from my childhood was knocked from its perch and landed sideways, its shade dented and leaning to one side as if slightly drunk. Someone made him a ceramic bowl–was it Max or Sam? I cannot remember–that broke as the medics rushed to save a man who had stopped breathing at least an hour before their arrival, based on the eggs in the pan.

The center of the room was cleared of everything, chairs pushed against walls disproportionate for their size. I wondered what the room looked like before the herd of hope blasted through and tried to save my uncle’s life: I had never been in his home before. There was the slight scent of something sweet and near the couch at my feet I found an overturned jar of honey. I bent down and picked it up, dipped my finger in the sweetness and brought it to my lips. My eyes filled with tears once again, and I sat there, alone, and allowed myself to cry. This time there was no audience with me, no small circle of my uncle’s friends and me, his only family member there, at his grave. Just me and the overpowering emptiness of the room, the chairs, and spent honey.

After a while, I leaned against the couch and studied the magnificent oriental rug on the floor. The rug was in my grandmother’s house, in the huge entry hall that welcomed many guests and, I learned recently, her seance attendees. My brother and I rolled on this rug with the dog, my mother walked down the staircase in her wedding dress and stopped on this rug to join her father. In his home, my uncle sat in his leather chair to watch television, his feet holding history on this rug. Now there is a large dollop of honey on the rug and the pictures blur in my head and in my heart to produce tears that now drop onto this old, worn rug.

They are gone, my grandparents and their two sons. I leaned forward and stretched out with my stomach on the rug, painfully aware of the loneliness wrapped around my heart, the acrid smell of wool in my nose, the dust beneath the Chinese television cabinet.

My uncle was very much like George Bailey, tall and lanky, intelligent and self-sacrificing. He was the last in his family to attend college, and returned home to work in his father’s failing laundry business. He stayed with his father to the bitter end of the business and beyond, at his bedside when his father closed his eyes and sighed good-bye. Six months later his mother died in her room as my uncle was reading a car magazine in the kitchen. He never forgave himself for not hearing his mother die, denied the fact her death by stroke while seated in her chair could not have been heard. He thought he should have known, just like anyone would. There is nothing rational about grief or guilt.

The government offered my uncle his way out of Shreveport, Louisiana. He sold his parent’s home and moved into a townhouse in Virginia where he lived quietly, worked loyally, and golfed regularly. Reagan offered federal employees early retirement, and in his early fifties without hesitation my uncle returned to Shreveport. He bought his townhouse just off the extension of the street he knew so well in his childhood, Line Avenue. No wife, no children, no pets, few visitors; my uncle lived a life of pleasant solitude, traveled often, played golf regularly and all over the world, and entered the world of Jewish scholarship, a world he learned to cherish more than the others.

And that was his life, in two paragraphs.

But there is this:

When I was very little, my uncle came to our home in New Orleans and put me on his shoulders, my hands grabbed his ears as his hands held my ankles. This was an experience known to me only because my uncle came to visit and broke the rule of no-fun-lest-you-be-hurt. I thought he was the tallest man I had ever seen, much taller than my father. As I grew older, I noticed my uncle’s eyes, how round they were, how they sat in his head so differently than my own. He brought me gifts and told me stories of the big house on Thora Boulevard and described the things he played with in the attic when he was little.

Whenever I was lucky enough to go to Shreveport to see my grandparents, I waited patiently drawing pictures or playing cards until exactly twelve noon when my grandfather and my uncle came down the driveway for dinner. My grandmother then stood at the bottom of the stairs and yelled at the top of her lungs for each of us, by name, to come down for dinner. I ignored her and barreled out of the side door to meet the men, My uncle, serious as he was before he saw me, smiled his smile and lifted me into the air. He held me by my wrists and swung me in a wide circle (“oh, honey, don’t do that! You might hurt her!”) as I squealed with delight and joy, only slightly dizzy when finally set down and we went in to sit at the table.

My brother sat on one side of my uncle and I of course sat on the other. When asked what I wanted to drink with dinner, I always said I wanted whatever my uncle was having. This was a drink I have never tasted anywhere else: grape juice and lemonade, each from frozen concentrate but with only half the usual amount of water added to the blend. My mouth puckered with the first sip, so sweet and so tart I closed my eyes tightly and swallowed. Someone, probably my grandmother, said “that is so bad for her teeth” but no one was listening, no one was looking anymore because Celia the cook had just brought in the main course.

After lunch everyone went into the sun room and, in good southern style, fell asleep. I sat patiently and waited for them to wake, something I had learned would not happen for over half an hour. My uncle was in his room taking his rest quietly and alone. So I waited outside with my book and sat under a pine tree on a pillowtop of pine needles. Each breath was one of pine and hot air and dense moisture, and as I settled into the bed of needles and into my book I decided this was the heaven I would go to when I died: this big house, the mysterious attic, lemonade and grape juice for every meal, and my uncle’s unqualified love for my brother and me.

Years later as I prepared for my wedding, I stood next to my uncle for a photo at the rehearsal dinner. He was awkward in the beautiful room filled with flowers and people he did not know, and I stood next to him in a blue-green chiffon-like dress. We looked nothing alike, and at six feet tall I loomed over his five feet seven inches, but we both smiled.

To me, he was always the tallest man in the room.

As I took hold of the shovel and held it upside down and took the first bit of soil to sprinkle atop his coffin, I was aware of the yellow pine star of David affixed to the modest pine box. Within that box was the uncle for whom I named my second son, the man who wore hats day in and day out, whose eyes were round and open to the world. In the plain box was the man who had known and accepted me all of my life, was quietly kind and generous and loving to me and my children and there was nothing left to do but toss in the small heap of soil, then another, and another. The sound was deafening. I did not want him to hear it, I did not want to disturb him.

After the service, all I could do was sit on bench surrounded by the sun. I thought of the soft bed of pine needles under the trees and began to cry. I missed them all: my uncles, my grandparents, my father, my friends disappeared, my children grown and on their own. I cried because, on some level, I have begun to accept the fact that people leave: no one stays. The child who waited at the front door for my uncle to come see me, who listened to his stories of his childhood forts in the back yard, the young mother who handed him my sons when they were infants, who sat next to him at restaurants while he ate well done steaks probably could not have withstood the sadness of saying goodbye, of smelling the damp soil heaped upon his coffin, of lying on the floor of his living room and wanting him to walk in the door.

I was once told maturing is measured by the way one deals with death. I am not sure I agree, but each death, each departure reminds me to dip my finger in spilled honey. I will miss him always, and now add his name to a list of people with who I wish I could have one more meal, one more talk, one more afternoon. One more: the chant of the living. Keep living: the message from the dead.