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Saturday, June 9, 2018

Depression's Fame

Anthony Bourdain.
Kate Spade.
Robin Williams.

Famous.  Successful.  Beloved.  Depressed.

They represented so much of what I love about life- food, style, humor. They showcased themselves on a grand scale, brought artistry into my  'not so grand scale'  life, and enriched it without ever knowing me.  Sure, it made them rich but it made me rich too - rich in appreciating how they saw life's beauty.

Their suicides are crushing.  

Why, oh why, does it happen?  For now,  social media spikes with suicide prevention information and reminders of how we are all loved and needed in this unrelenting, difficult world.  Information about depression floods media coverage.  In their isolated deaths, these artists offer one more universal gift: awareness.

Of course famous folks are not inoculated from depression.  We all carry it.  We all struggle with it.  The weight of it unevenly fractures our thoughts.  Most of all it isolates even the most exposed of us. And that is what makes it so frightening.

The subtext of their singular deaths is, if it can happen to them, with all of their resources, then it can happen to anyone.  Indeed.

As my grandmother would say, everyone puts their pants on the same way every day.

Their fame makes them known to us in a way that is, after all, unnatural.  It is false connection which strangely reassures us.  Let's face it - we work years on cultivating personal relationships, enduring the pitfalls of connection as well as the rewards.  We invest in and love our families and friends with ardor knowing it is a challenge.  But, as a dear friend would always point out, when you consider the alternative, there is no other choice.   

So why do we allow famous strangers to inhabit this sacred life space? I think they help fill a universal desire to feel nourished, beautiful, happy.  Their positive offerings to the world resonate via their notoriety and fuel their own life's purpose.  It can be the quintessential win/win because we each get something from the experience.  

This is what makes their suicides so jarring.  If we are supposedly winning in the give and take of talent, how can this happen?  don't pretend to know the answer, but I am strangely grateful for the reminder these humans leave behind:  depression is everyone's demon.  Whatever tools we need to keep it from taking the steering wheel of our lives must be readily accessible.  Depression doesn't care if we are loved or not.  Depression just wants the steering wheel.  

Depression has taken my steering wheel countless times and in differing degrees: after an unspeakable betrayal by an old flame, after a house fire, after the death of a younger, robust friend, after my daughter turned 17, after motherhood felt anemic.  Sometimes I walked out of it.  Most times I crawled out with help. 

I don't think we can eradicate it.  Authors (and goddesses) Anne Lamott and Elizabeth Gilbert each reinforce the belief that we need to learn to live with depression.  Their non-fiction writing is one of my go-to strategies. They have taught me that depression gets a seat at our emotional table along with the more desirable guests of kindness, joy, empathy.  (sort of like Trump at the G7 meeting, but I digress.)

Depression gets a voice but not the microphone.
Our very human work is to love without rules, without fear, and to listen. To reassure everyone that they matter.   I don't know that I do any of these really well.  But I am thankful for the unbalanced, unfair, excruciating reminder these deaths blast home, yet again.

I'd love to kick depression's ass.  I will settle for shoving it into the trunk, muffling its voice, and taking the goddamn keys.  

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. 1-800-273-8255

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Book Lady

The front license plate on my car reads "Peace  Love  Books."  The order of importance often changes but the trilogy's intrinsic value remains steady:  I wish for peace, I insist on love, and I cherish books.

License plate
When I read that Dolly Parton was recently at the Library of Congress to celebrate the delivery of her Imagination Library's 100th million book, I felt all three of these imperatives. Her program has put children ages birth to 5 and books together since 1995. This amazing milestone shows how Dolly leads with love.  

Dolly's impact was minimal in my world until a few years ago when my friend Susan asked if I would join her to see a concert at the Mann Center in Philadelphia.  Such an invitation would usually have a 99% acceptance rate by me.  But, I had to pause when she noted who was performing: Dolly Parton.  

Hmmmm.  Country music was not atop my list of preferred music genres.  I knew only two of Dolly's songs:  "Jolene" and "9 to 5." (And yes, I knew she wrote/sang "I Will Always Love You" but it is the more infamous Whitney Houston version I kept on my playlist.) I tried to let Susan down gently.  

As a lifelong Dolly fan, Susan would not back down.  She grew up in Missouri listening to Dolly's albums at home.  The music not only helped her navigate the pain of a challenging childhood, its message offered motivation for what one can achieve through persistence regardless of your life's circumstances.  She was not going to be pushed aside by my glib indifference. 

Susan persisted.  I am forever grateful that she did.

The evening held so many satisfying moments:  Dolly's pitch perfect voice, her self-aware humor, her musicianship (she played at least 8 different instruments) her deep catalog of songs, her homespun sincerity, her laughter  - oh the list is long.  The wide age range of her audience also reinforced her vast, enduring appeal.  

Scenes from Dolly Parton in concert at the Mann Center
.Philadelphia, PA June 2016
But what slowly, endearingly drew me in was the overwhelming warmth and kindness this petite bedazzled country girl sent out across the audience from the  moment her stiletto heels walked into the spotlight until she waved her final goodnight y'all.  

Dolly's glamorous exterior makes it hard turn away. I realized it is an intentional ploy to catch our attention.  Once she has it, she is masterful in keeping it with her profound talent and unbridled love.  In that large concert venue, she managed to spread her love to each of us (even skeptical me.)  I cried at the sheer tonnage of its impact. 

This month, Dolly did it again when she sat in front of pre-schoolers and read to them in our nation's library.  She made headlines for her impressive non-musical efforts to ensure young children have consistent access to books.  She continues to lead with love. 

What began as a county wide effort in her rural Tennessee home has grown into this magnificent national outreach where she is called The Book Lady.  Dolly affirms her role by working with local libraries, government agencies, and other non-profits to put the world into children's hands to help set them up to become lifelong readers.  "I think that if you read it can give you wings to fly,"  Dolly noted to reporters at the DC event.    

It was much too easy for me to dismiss Dolly as some glittery country singer before I saw her in concert.   I sadly believed her overdone look made her unimportant. Her Imagination Library's amazing multi-million book moment reinforced what a fool my pre-concert self had been to judge this amazing book by her cover. 

On this International Women's Day, it is a joy to celebrate Dolly.  

Link to the 100th million book event at the Library of Congress:

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Things I Learned in 2017...

On my random trip down memory lane in 2017, I learned...

*The walk to and from 1st and 2nd grade recess often results in the best of little ones' comments and conversations and hand holding.  It is a deliciously mixed meditation.

*I aspire to the creativity I see in Instagram stories. Oh heck, I aspire to all creativity.

*Felting is fun.

*A baby's entrance into a room makes everyone's vocal range go up an octave. 

*Seeing my daughters experience possibility spurs me on to do the same. It's harder than it looks.

*America's underbelly holds the keys for now; America's saner self has the power to change that.

*A 9-person writer's workshop is some pretty sacred space that I thought I had no business entering.  I was wrong.

*In the last 24 hours, Sonos, Alexa, and Spotify came into my life. Yes, I am late to the party. 

*People named Alexa must need a name change in order to sanely live in a home with Alexa voice service.

*Wedding officiating is a gift to the officiant.

*In this year of musical legends passing on, seeing John Prine and Roger Waters perform at Newport Folk Festival filled up my heart and tear ducts.

* Women are lit up. We must stay lit!

*A total solar eclipse is a HUGE event that takes us way beyond ourselves and, somewhere in all of it, our star souls are revealed.  

*Being able to see and hear family in South Africa and Hawaii while sitting in Pennsylvania is the finest Christmas gift.

*The Force continues to be strong with Star Wars. 

*This quote from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society set me back on my heels b/c it takes a platitude and turns it into a harder truth: "Life goes on.  "What nonsense, I thought, of course it doesn't.  It's death that goes on."

*And speaking of platitudes, while I understand the kind intention within offering "thoughts and prayers," we must become better at saying what we really feel behind those words instead of slipping into safe phrases.  We owe the grief stricken at least that.

*Dule Hill is first a song and dance guy! Who knew?!?!

*Parents and children who are in pain have much to teach me.

*No matter who we've become, childhood friends know our unfiltered selves.  

*Music is a powerful connector  (I know, I say some version of this every year) so I will end with this video of folks inspired by the Tony award winning show - Dear Evan Hansen. It is gorgeous and reassuring.

As my lovely friend Eileen H. often remarks, "thanks for riding along" with me as I indulge myself and post (albeit infrequently) on this blog.  I appreciate the company! Wishing all a safe, satisfying, empowering 2018! 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Man Hug


Picture two men greeting each other with a platonic hug instead of a handshake.  You see it often between brothers, fathers and sons, good friends.  It's a natural extension of oneself, yet, I think it's less common than seeing women hug each other. Additionally, "man hugs" have an extra feature - the pat, pat, pat. 

I've noticed once men embrace they follow up with multiple pats on the back. These pats usually are offered in threes (sometimes twos.) There's a sort of symmetry to them.  Man hugs show intimacy in that they include an embrace, but the moment is quick, followed by the staccato of pats.  Women, on the other hand, are prone to hug each other sans pat.  

There's no science here, just simple observation.  And, of course, this is not a universally male trait, but I've seen it enough to wonder about it. 

It interests me because I question why the pat trio is common.  Gender wise, I think men use the handshake greeting more than women.  No harm in its use but it is definitely a rung or two down on the physical intimacy ladder.  So, when men hug each other, I believe it is a deliberate decision.  

Why the pat, pat, pat finale?  Is it a way to naturally countdown the end to the embrace so there's no awkward lingering? Is it a way of emphasizing the embrace, like what an exclamation point does for the end of a sentence?  Is it an acquired habit or, as I noted earlier, a conscious choice? Or is it something else?

We see athletes ardently bang each other on the heads, shoulders, backs and arms in glorious teammate celebration affirming "good job" in the heat of the moment.   And when I see football players grab the face guards or hit the helmets of their fellow players, I wince a little wondering if it hurts even though they are given as positive non-verbal "atta-boys."  But when men greet or part from each other, the pat, pat, pat marks the end. 

I love to see men hug one another.  When asked about their hug style, a few male friends sort of smiled and shrugged off any explanation.  Is it a thoughtless yet learned style? This seems plausible since we perform so many little acts daily on automatic pilot.  For example, one routine that gnaws at me is wondering if I remembered to close the garage door.  Every darn day I turn out of my driveway to go to work and every darn day the question pops up seconds later - did I close the garage door?  I have yet to discover that I did not, but I put the car in reverse, every darn day, to check and be sure.  I've taught myself this ridiculous ritual.  

Hugging is its own ritual. Do the multiple pats give the hug an appropriate place to land?  Do men think about just hugging other men, plain and simple?   

Once we breach the walls of personal space, some new rules or habits come into play. I wonder not only how we arrive at these criteria but if they are universal?  I imagine culture has a significant role.   For example, two men greeting in Japan will bow in respectful posture, but in Italy, they will embrace fervently.  Both display what is learned to be acceptable.  

If a friend has been struggling with something acute or feels broken by life's eroding drumbeat, or conversely is celebrating,  I find I linger with my hug and I squeeze with a little pressure around the shoulders.  It's a way to emphasize the connection; to say, without words, I am with you. I would hope men feel that freedom when hugging other men, but I don't know. The triple pat could be a way to break then repair the temporarily ruptured personal space.

Even sound comes into play when the triple pat is used.  With men,you can hear it across a room. It has resonance.  I think it is an audible gesture equal to my silent squeezing of someone's shoulders.  

But I am concerned that it is more of an exit strategy - an announcement that the hug is over.  Of course the hug must end, but do men feel comfortable letting the hug dissolve softly?  That's the bigger question for me -if intimacy implies softness, is there room for a hug to be enough if it is offered like a whisper?  The pure act of gentle touch can be enough unamplified.   

Instead of being a stop, go, red light, green light proposition, I'd like to see all of us yield to hugs so our intimate connection lingers.  Let's replace the triple pat with another threesome - a three second, uninterrupted hug.  

The following videos were made following separate but related tragic events in Stockholm, Paris and Manchester involving terrorism.  The intention is equal and beautiful.  I watched them once for the profound emotional connection and then again, to offer context to my man-hug premise.  See what you think. I send lingering hugs to you all. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

Our Star Man - Mr. Max

There is no other person I am thinking more of today than my brother, Joe - aka Mr. Max. 

He is in a state park in Glendo, Wyoming chasing his sixth total solar eclipse and to say he is energized by this event is a massive understatement.  Joe's email address begins with "Starman" and he writes a blog "Starman Astrology Update" which details astrological events and how planetary patterns influence our lives. (See his link at the end of this post.)  He offers individualized astrological consultations using birth charts. His brand new first grandchild, Logan, will refer to Joe with this moniker - Grandpop Starman. My brother's unofficial nom de plume - Mr. Max - sums up his approach to doing anything - always to the maximum degree.  He can be exhausting.  

Joe has been star struck for most of his life. At five years old he received a telescope for Christmas and his love of astronomy was lit. Astrology followed with bottomless enthusiasm for understanding the relationship that the star/planetary movements have on our lives from our birth.  I admit I understand little of when the moon is in the seventh house or the intricacies of Mercury Retrograde, but I admire the passion with which Joe follows the wider, wondrous universe in which we float along. The airless maw of space is where he gets the greatest oxygen. It's his heartbeat - his avocation.

I am the youngest of four siblings and my two brothers are closest to me in age.  I figured out early on in life to use whatever means necessary to attach myself to all of their shenanigans because that was the epicenter of fun.  They tolerated, taunted, and spoiled me equally.   They taught me how to dance, let me play with their army and Matchbox toys, took me to play nickel pinball in Atlantic City's old Funcade on the boardwalk, and introduced love for music into my life when the 1960's exploded with it.  

Whether or not it has been wholly true, I have always felt they see a large part of their sibling roles to be in service to their little sister - me. 

When Joe took off for college he was a reliable pen pal.  He understood how sad I was to see him leave home. Each letter he wrote to me included a couple of one dollar bills.   That gesture made such a deep imprint into my 12 year old brain.  Brothers were the guys who would always take care of you regardless if they lived at home or away.  

After he was married for several years, I made it clear as often as possible that I was growing impatient to become an aunt for the first time.  Ever the teaser, Joe would call me a pismire - an ant.  Of course I had to look up the word and hated its existence.  My "aunt" wish was eventually granted with the arrival of Beth and Catie, two magnificent nieces.  

Joe's well earned and somewhat predictable life as a husband, father and CPA was punctuated by his love of photography, travel, growing succulent plants, along with stargazing, chasing planetary events, meteor showers, and any other space related happenings which always seemed to take place in the godforsaken hours of the night instead of the more civilized pre-midnight hours!  He has consistently been undaunted by the energy and planning it takes to maximize seeing some celestial wonder. 

He eventually left his marriage and life as a CPA to follow his star filled heart's desire and after several years of living elsewhere in the US and in Australia he moved to Hawaii 17 years ago.  My brother Vincent was first to move to the island of Maui in 1978, so seeing Joe follow to the Big Island in 2000 confused and confounded me.  It caused a protracted riff in our relationship because I was profoundly sad for my nieces and for my family. Most of all, I felt abandoned even though I had a family of my own. Our sibling relationship seemed cheated. 

Sibling Selfie 2014 - Joe, Vincent and me
Joe reached out consistently in those years but it took me a long time to come around and accept his choices.  I am grateful we were granted the time to circle back.  Joe was here last week to meet his new grandson and his thoughtful energy delighted us. There was LOTS of eclipse talk as he recalled seeing total eclipses in Chile, Japan, Hawaii, Syracuse, New York. More importantly, we chatted about the move to his next home in South Africa this week. A new continent awaits him. In keeping with his eclipse fervor, Mr. Max does little halfway. 

We have been texting and chatting wildly as he joins the throngs within the path of totality in the western US. Early this AM he called to say he had crossed into Wyoming's path of totality with clear skies. He shared his sunrise on this moon shadow day.  The state's population size is expected to double for the 2-1/2 minute show. I truly could not be happier for him.

In a lovely twist of fate, his daughters, Beth (who is visiting from her home in Oahu), Catie and grandson, Logan are spending "partial eclipse" day with me and my daughter, Ali in the Philly suburbs.  Regardless of what the weather conditions are here, we are content knowing the star man is gazing in the path of totality.  For those few precious minutes, all is right with the sun, moon, and stars and, of course, with Mr. Max.  

Here is the link to Joe's blog: 
(Thanks to Joe for use of his blog photos -little sister privilege is alive and well!)

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Cos

I feel like someone being interviewed on the local news after a neighbor is arrested for a particularly violent crime: "I just don't get it. He was a good neighbor who made us all laugh.  I can't believe this is the same person."

Bill Cosby's work (and his local roots) made him feel known, trusted.  His alleged deviant behavior in which over 60 women - 60!! - accused him of drugging them and subsequently either assaulting, harassing, or abusing them, brings one word to mind - power.  

Power is used to get whatever results the person wielding it wants.  Cosby's power was on trial this month and it proved successful in the result of a judge declaring a mistrial after jurors could not come to a consensus about his innocence or guilt of sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004.

I believe the power within his popularity and mega success kept the other 59 women silent for so long that they ran out of time to charge him with a crime. Let's face it - who the heck is going to go after Cliff Huxtable's twisted alter ego?  

Cosby's 1965 television show, "I Spy," in which he co-starred with the late Robert Culp, was my introduction to the actor/comedian.  The popular show is what spurred my folks to buy Cosby's album "I Started Out as a Child" in the mid-sixties.  I listened to it often as a pre-teen and teen.  It made me laugh even after hearing it over and over when every joke, turn of phrase, and funny voice became predictable.  One line that stuck was his description of neighborhood friend Rudy, who could run so fast in his new sneakers that he could, "stop on a dime (pause) and give you nine cents change."  It tore me up every time. 

Now I am torn up with knowing the private side of Cosby.  Understanding that he has not been proven guilty or innocent, it has been telling to read some comments offered by some of the 7 men and 5 women jurors.  Questions about Ms. Constand's "waiting so long" to take him to court rings a familiar tone in re-victimizing the accuser.  A male juror noted that Cosby's 2005 deposition in which he "openly admitted he gave the pills"  to women. The juror continued, "he was very, very honest.  He was believable.  She (Ms. Constand) was not."

Cosby's ludicrous, abusive behavior was believable, yet not convictible. That's some power.

And when it came to keeping the lines blurred between his adored Dr. Huxtable character and the real Bill Cosby, Cosby plucked his youngest television daughter, Keisha Knight Pulliam, now 38 years old,  to escort him into court (as opposed to one of his real life daughters.)  That is bald faced showmanship.   

His use of another Cosby character - Fat Albert - and his signature greeting of "Hey! Hey! Hey!" as he entered the Norristown PA courtroom was as tasteless as the sweaters he wore on The Cosby Show.  Yet supporters supped it up.  It reassured something familiar instead of the real, abusive behavior on trial.  

Why do we lionize people?  No one is 100 percent good all the time - no one. Why do we allow ourselves to be bamboozled by what we want to believe instead of what we are shown to be true?  Why do we hand over our power of discernment so we can feel more comfortable with what is being served up?

If someone would have told my 1986 self about the abusive Bill Cosby, I would have fought the notion as preposterous. This protective phenomenon could be called being "Huxtabled."

Even Cosby's efforts to call out young black men to hoist up their pants in his now famous 2004 speech at an NAACP event launched a newfound podium for him to decry the black community's failure to raise its children properly.  Cosby spoke unapologetically for the next decade about black behavior. His remarks, now ironic, are painfully inauthentic. The adage "empty barrels make the most noise" comes to mind.  Or in the case of the make believe Dr. Huxtable, the proverb "physician, heal thyself" is apropos. 

In his NY Times article about the Cosby trial, author Wesley Morris concludes with sentiments that capture how I feel: "Mr. Cosby's courthouse behavior acknowledged an additional trial: the one going on in our hearts.  I don't need a jury to know that this trial has worn mine out.  For at least a half an hour, "The Cosby Show" kept at bay the tide of bad news from the outside world while never skimping on the glories and hassles of being alive.  The show became an oasis we needed.  But real trouble has intruded.  And now the oasis is condemned."

The only power that matters is the one that informs us to always hold two things simultaneously: being skeptical while being impressed.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Love is a Verb

I work in an elementary school.  A few months ago a favorite younger student who bursts into every moment with exhausting clarity impulsively kissed his best buddy on the cheek during lunch.  The buddy wasn't sure about this and told me and a few other adults.

We followed the predictable path of talking with each child, having them talk to each other and explain how they saw/felt about what had happened, giving consequences etc.  But the delicious part came when the kissy boy offered his reason for smooching his friend. "I love him!" 

I confirmed that loving our friends is a good thing, but we shouldn't kiss them in school (keep hands and lips to ourselves.)  He went back to his seat for ten seconds and bounced back up with a eureka moment. "I know why I love so much!" he shrieked in discovery. "It's because my birthday is Valentine's Day!" 

I defy a judge or jury to convict after that solid elementary argument.

We may not need to have February 14th as our birthday to express love.  We are free to express it anytime, anywhere.  Yet this day holds so much weight or baggage depending on where you sit with its meaning. 

My twenty something self used to wretch at the thought of people getting engaged on Valentine's Day (some even punctuating the saccharin with a heart shaped engagement ring - don't get me started.)   So when my husband popped the question on 2/14/89, what did I do?  I dove into the deep end of Valentine's Day.  Suddenly, it became a top ten best "holiday." 

It moved from the list of obligation days which includes New Year's Eve, Mothers Day AND Father's Day, to a revered moment in time.  After 27 1/2 years of marriage, it continues to thrill and vex me.  It always gives me cause for reflection.  

Writer Sarah Hepola offered a gorgeous commentary at the end of NPR's Fresh Air show yesterday with a piece about honoring love that goes past this red heart February day.

In it she notes that the lilt of new love is unsustainable especially when we are bombarded with messages of giggly, bubbly, cute love when we are younger.  It's a start for certain, but she notes, "the majority of life is not spent with weak knees or's only the beginning."  Enduring love is work.  It can be exhausting.  It is often confusing.  And it is often worth it.                                  

Ms. Hepola shares, "Back in ancient times people would never have married for love. They considered it too unstable.  They married for money.  They married for land."   It was a most pragmatic proposition.  My romantic self growls at the prospect but, gosh, that formula seems easier to figure out.

In her closing thoughts, Ms. Hepola celebrates the variety of love she finds herself surrounded by in connecting with friends and family in all types of circumstances - not just the champagne popping times.  She quotes writer Olivia Laing from her novel The Lonely City:  "Loneliness, longing does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is living."

Love is a verb. Living means action in all of its colors.  Bubblegum pink and cloudy gray serve our senses nobly and distinctly as we take on each day.   My wish for all this day is to acknowledge love in its active state because that is, I believe, how we experience our true lives.   

Love is a verb.  Feel it less. Live it more.