Tuesday, December 25, 2012

death be not proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.

                                                                   John Donne

Andrea died yesterday. 

I learned about it the modern way, a Facebook chat message. It’s strange, even when death is expected it almost always sneaks up on you and shouts “surprise” in your ear.

Andrea was sick, very sick. For more than two decades she lived with the terminal diagnosis of metastasized stage 4 breast cancer. We all tend to say at times such as this: she lost her long battle against etc…etc…and so on. I think of it a little differently.  Andrea didn’t live with cancer, cancer lived with her. Unbidden, it moved into her tissue and slowly began edging her out.

Andrea did not go quietly. Surrender wasn’t in her vocabulary. Not some sweet, new ager she. Andrea was a small, wiry, tough person filled with anger—an anger I believe fueled her life. A life, by the way, which she continued to find ways to enjoy—her music, movies, TV, plays and so on. She knew what she liked, fought with her husband, adored her dogs and didn’t hesitate to express herself, regardless. I know that firsthand. 

Last winter I struggled with a severe respiratory infection that had me coughing up blood and puss, straining to breathe, unable to even croak out a sound. After six weeks, alone and feeling sorry for myself, I made the mistake of posting: I’m sick of being sick on my FB page. Andrea landed on me like a house of bricks. And while I could certainly understand where it came from, I have to admit it didn’t make me feel any better. But that wasn’t her point.

I did not know Andrea before the cancer, but I suspect the disease did not change her nature. This past Fall, she took a belated birthday bus trip into NYC with our mutual friend Diane to see Wicked—only one of two plays she would agree to see. Diane later told me she fought with almost everyone she came in contact with, including the bus driver. She also insisted on walking to the restaurant, regardless of the neuropathy that plagued her legs.

Diane and I just nodded and smiled. Yup, that’s Andrea.

I did get to spend some time with her this summer, a long afternoon relaxing in Diane’s backyard. We just talked until shadows gathered. There wasn’t much left of her body but her mind—and tongue retained their sharpness. She still drove.

I do not believe Andrea “lost her battle” with cancer. I believe she finally decided to leave behind the condemned structure and move on. I’m betting she also has no more need for the anger to fill the spaces the cancer would claim. I choose to think she now has room for joy,

Sorry Andrea, I am not a cynic, so sue me.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Woodstock 2012--back to the garden

Sunday last, decades late and on the fly, I finally made it to Bethel Woods, AKA, Woodstock. Not much more than a whim, on the way back from a weekend visit to my Aunt Sally’s country house, my cousins and I paid a quick visit to the site and museum.

I missed out on the original. By that time I was married with a 6-month-old daughter, living at the Jersey Shore. Like many of my generation—more than will admit—I experienced it second hand via TV. My aunt, however, the very same I just visited, did make it. She responded to urgent calls for help and brought sandwiches to the muddy minions.

The pull of the place took me by surprise—this despite the obvious corporate sensibility of the born-again pastoral concert space. It is lush, green and well-groomed, patrolled by an equally well-groomed staff in green blazers sporting ID’s around their necks.

It was mid-afternoon and folks were already arriving for the evenings (what’s left of the) Grateful Dead concert. My cousin and I shared a chuckle over the gathering of the faux hippies that live to follow.

You can grab a bite to eat, then stroll the store with everything “Woodstock” you can imagine (except the Peanut’s character). But the jewel in the crown is the museum. I kid you not. More than worth the price of admission, I could have stayed for hours.

More than a history of the iconic festival, it recounts the entire story of the 60s, with multi-media displays reaching back to the clean cut American Bandstand days. You can sit in a flower power bus and watch a flick narrated by those who made the cross country trip. You can slouch in a bean bag chair and gaze up at a HUGE panorama of festival films. The very scope of the scene take ones breath away.

Waves of nostalgia washed over me, not only for the times, but for my youth. It’s cliché but true. It was another world, long gone—and yet just a brief millisecond ago, on the edge of my peripheral vision.

How the hell did I get to be a 65-year-old grey haired granny? And how did that naked, tolerant mass of humanity, squirming in the Catskill mud, become the tight-assed, narrow- minded bunch running this country today?

I really thought we were a better lot.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


It’s a bit nippy on the shady side of the street outside No Joes this morning as I sip my brew, aptly named: sledgehammer. This sunny, dry, fall-like weather won’t last. I already see thick clouds closing in—boding a return to the violent summer storms of the past few days.

And that’s okay by me. The storms may be inconvenient, but that doesn’t measure up to REAL summer weather. By that I mean FLORIDA weather. When the worst of the storm hit several days ago, turning the daytime black, with claps of thunder loud enough to shake the dog, I was alone and calm, feeling entirely SAFE. This old Dutch colonial is nothing if not sturdy, with plaster walls so thick you cannot hear from room to room.

At that very moment, my “home” in Sarasota was among the towns being battered and flooded by Tropical Storm Debby. Almost the entire state was underwater and threat of tornadoes, expected to continue for up to five days. Yes, folks, that DAYS, not hours. And it’s a trop storm, not even a hurricane!

As I hung out of my friends cozy couch to wait out the NJ storm, my thoughts flickered to a major drive in leaving the sunshine state in summer—and gratitude washed over me—gratitude for my friend,s generosity of spirit in opening her home to me each summer.

Until I moved to Florida a decade ago, storms were inconvenient, as a journalist there was a bit of a pain, but never were they fearful. As a child growing up on the north shore of Long Island, the hurricanes that reached us were fun times, lit with the glow of candles and flashlights. Of course, it’s easy to be brave in a brick split level under the protection of loving parents. Not having to travel to work also helps.

Unfortunately, I do not live in a condo of brick, or stone, or masonry of any sort. I am one of the other little pigs of story lore, who build—perhaps bought—her house of sticks. Yupper, it’s a 1970s wood condo with a metal roof. The sound of rain bouncing off said roof is enough to drown out the loudest of TV audio.

(An aside: this “house of sticks” is a grand metaphor for me life, eh? Unlike my friends and family who have built their “houses of brick.” Just thought I’d say it before someone like my son pointed it out.)

On the, albeit mild, plus side, Sarasota is considered a relatively secure site, storm wise. Longtime residents crow that the town is a “sacred” place, protected against extreme elements. They point to the area as one the native Indians fled to escape storms in years gone by. In my view however, such arrogance in unfounded, as Sarasota is merely the highest ground around. Note I said highEST which is not all that high. And my particular condo complex is on its crest.

The roads around me flood, but so far, the unit has remained dry. This is particularly fortunate as I no longer have a lick of insurance, sorta going commando.

I try not to think about the wind.

To sum up: Tropical storm there + me here = GRATITUDE

Sunday, June 24, 2012

what now?

Why is freedom so hard to handle?

I sit at a favorite small table at a favorite place, No Joe’s Coffee House, sipping a favorite dark brew. It’s a picture-perfect early summer morning downtown Red Bank, NJ. I am engaged in a favorite pastime, people-watching. Most of me is calm, approaching joy. Yet something tugs at me from the depths of my soul. There is a disquieting sense of emptiness, aimlessness, an essential aloneness that goes beyond loneliness. It gnaws at me, growing, demanding attention.

I recognize this. It is not new and I dread its return.

Once again, I am faced with building a “life”, without the familiar moorings. I have tried—and failed—several times before. And I knew, as I began again on my 65th birthday, this would most likely be my last chance--my last chance to build some kind of meaningful life, with a measure of abundance and a sprinkling of joy.

I am deliberately leaving out here, the underlying financial angst that comes with facing impending old age with no resources and the real chance of homelessness at age 70. There is no doubt creating this so-called-life would be easier without the base-level concern over enough money to survive. But honesty forces me to admit; even a lottery win wouldn’t cure these ills.

Free floating anxiety is kept at bay by writings such as this and list making. I tentatively reach out to family and friends, working to fit into their active lives.

For as long as I can recall, I have marveled at the ease others seem to have with the most ordinary of life’s interactions. When not at work, I would often go for days without human conversation, not counting the occasional store clerk. I envy those my age casually busy with family and grandchildren.

With my children and lone grandchild scattered thousands of miles east and west, our contact is rare and takes extraordinary effort and expense. I remain grateful for them and happy they appear to be leading rich productive lives. No, I don’t seriously consider moving closer to either as neither one needs me hanging on the fringes of their lives.

I have long understood that the lack is in me, but I am at a loss as to what to do about it. Even years of therapy didn’t much help.

I once thought of writing a novel about a woman who spends her time traveling from one family member/friend to another, finding her fulfillment by burrowing inside the lives of others.

Too close for comfort.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

the morning after

I am not a party animal. That surprises many people. Yes, I am outgoing and not a bit shy, befitting a journalist. Yet, even as a child, my parents had to cajole or force me to attend family gatherings. The larger and more formal the event the less attracted was I.

And as I age it’s only gotten worse.

Firstly, I am not comfortable in formal dress. Regardless of my weight or fitness level, clothes and I have never been friends. I feel constricted and downright cranky by the demands of accommodating the female form.

I am also not much of a drinker, so an open bar is no draw.

Although I admire the scene, the effort, the expense, the food, et al, I almost always find myself on the edge of the action, observing. I am the odd-man-out. Nobody knows where to seat me. And I’ve never really had a reliable dancing partner.

At a recent such swanky Bat Mitzvah for my cousin’s daughter, I watched in silent joy—mingled with envy—as my young cousins danced the night away with their own daughters, each on the verge of adolescence. I flashed back to my own younger self, watching my now late parents partner up for dance after dance. They were quite the accomplished pair. Late in the evening, when my dad had enough to drink, I got my turn. We would Lindy around the floor. And that was all she wrote.

The major source of my joy is reconnecting with family and friends. But the throbbing music needed to rev such events makes it next to impossible to engage in any meaningful conversation.

Lucky for me, my Aunt Sally offered to share her room, so I was able to participate in my favorite part of these celebrations—the morning after.

Low key and mellow, these morning-after-breakfasts allow me to really chat up those family and friends that remain. And this was a particularly productive time. The buzz was tangible. Laptops, Facebook, photos, Ancestry.com etc. flew around the intimate gathering. Coming directly from my own family vacation I even had a bunch of those old sepia photos. You know the ones with some folks nobody alive can identify.

And there was no pounding beat and intense DJ to drown out the laughter.

It went a ways to sate my real hunger, not for fancy top-drawer food, but for a visceral infusion of memory—to help fill the void of those I can no longer reach out and touch.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Walkabout—after the storm

We’ve all heard the scientific explanation of why the air is so fine following a storm, washed clean of pollen and charged with friendly ions. But that doesn’t detract from the wonder of it each time you step into a day as glorious as these last two here in Florida.

The crispness calls to mind an early fall day in the northeast, rare here even in winter. Devoid of humidity, the air sparkles, truly reflecting natures colors.

A perfect day for a neighborhood walk. Or perhaps a stroll through the downtown farme’s market—a cornucopia of entrepreneurial creativity, populated by folks and their fashionista small dogs.

T’is a grand day to be alive and walking…