Monday, September 28, 2009

Smith College Class of 1994 Memorial Service

My dearest classmates,

I'm having trouble posting to the Smith94 blog at Graychase.com. While I work to resolve the issue, I'll post here in the hope that you will still find it...What follows is the post I've been trying to get up at the class blog.

We Remember, Class of '94 Memorial Service (2009)

On Friday, May 22nd, 2009, after our Groove is in the Heart Yoga class, members of the class of '94 gathered in a clearing by the pond on the other side of the crew house. We were joined by the parents of Laura Swymer-Clancy '94, who brought four daughters to Smith and have lost two of them far too early.

This is what I read:
"In Memoriam"


Four years ago, I attended the wedding of a dear Smith friend in Mystic, CT. Despite some of us not having seen each other in several years, and despite the many different paths our lives have taken, the Smithies at the wedding embraced one another with jubilation, appreciation, and great affection. We were as familiar to one another then as we were on the last day we sat down together for Sunday Brunch in Cushing House more than a decade earlier.

During the outdoor reception at the Mystic Seaport, I stepped away from the dance floor for a moment and I watched my friends dancing as the sun set into the water behind them. The sky was filled with brilliant swaths of color, the last vestiges of day embraced by the first dark arms of night. In that moment between the bright shining day and the deep velvet night, there was a pause for celebration, a great joining together of colors, a hello and a goodbye all in one. The sky, like the bride and the groom, and my glorious friends dancing beneath it, was gaining something and losing something both.

I wanted to be in that moment forever, but since that was impossible, I reached for a pen so I could write down what I saw.

A few days later, I found the note I’d written on a napkin crumpled at the bottom of my purse. And all it said was this: “Describing my love for these women is like trying to draw the sun with nothing but a crayon.”Even eleven years after moving away from our shared Smith home, words failed to capture the light that dances between us when we come together in any room. Our happiness in one another’s company is almost impossible to describe (particularly if there is music and a meal involved). This, I believe, is the Smith Experience.


We are here today, exactly 15 years after we graduated, to honor that unique connection, the inimitable togetherness that a Smith education affords, and to mark the loss of seven of our classmates:

  • Kimberly Tyler, who passed away 2/11/1991.

  • Linda Miller, who passed away 10/15/1995.

  • Judith Grubbs, who passed away 11/20/2000.

  • Carol Boyer, who passed away 4/17/2001.

  • Laura Swymer-Clancy, who passed away 10/21/2001.

  • Deirdre Flaherty, who passed away 8/12/2004.

  • Jennifer DelVecchio Gustafson, who passed away 8/1/2007.

[At this point, I was overcome with emotion. I gestured for the Reverend Alyssa May ('94) to join me, and she was kind enough--and composed enough--to help me invite the group to offer a moment of silence to these women we have lost.]



After our moment of silence, Lesley Reidy, who was very close with both Laura and Jen, read a poem--Snow Geese by Mary Oliver--and shared some of her memories. She also described some of the ways in which she still actively feels the sweet presence of her good friends in her days, and the ways in which she shares that love and warmth with her children.

Laura's mother, who brought along photos of her daughters, also read a moving poem. And both of Laura's parents shared their appreciation at being able to experience our remembrance of their wonderful daughter. Other friends and classmates shared their grief at losing friends and their gratitude for having known them.

And then I led us into our offering:

Earlier today, I came to this clearing, I said a blessing, and planted seven lilies-of-the-valley, one for each member of our class who has passed away. Lily-of-the-valley is also known as Ladder to Heaven and Our Lady’s Tears. It is said to have magical properties and is used to improve the memory and the mind. When placed in a room, these flowers are supposed to cheer the heart and lift the spirits of anyone present.

It is my hope that these lilies-of-the-valley will grow and thrive in this clearing. So that we can return year after year to this quiet spot and witness their bloom and remember how we were when we were young here and what a special thing we have become a part of.I have filled this watering can with water from Paradise Pond. I invite you now to join me in offering a drink to these lilies we have planted, in recognition of the life that this water gives, and as a symbol of our connection to Smith and t o Smithies, whether they can be here today in body or only in spirit.

As those gathered came up one by one, to offer water to our lilies, I read our benediction:

In this moment between the bright shining day and the deep velvet night, let us pause for celebration, a hello and a goodbye all in one. Even fifteen years after moving away from our shared Smith home, words fail to capture the light that dances between us when we come together. Our happiness in one another’s company is almost impossible to describe (particularly if there is music and a meal involved). This, I suppose, is the Smith Experience.


After the benediction, I thanked everyone for coming. There were hugs and tears and, I think a great deal of joy at our connection--followed up, most appropriately, by music and a meal at our class dinner.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Think...and Vote

My dearest friends,

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, aka, "Super Duper Tuesday," "Giga Tuesday," and "The Tuesday of Destiny."

If you are in one of the 22 states holding primaries and/or caucuses tomorrow, I'm hoping you'll go vote.

If you are in Massachusetts or California, you can vote (I believe) in the primary even if you are registered as an Independent.

If you haven't registered yet, what a great time to do it!

I think you can get a voter registration form at your local post office, or you can visit an online site, such as Rock the Vote to register online or learn how to register in your state. If you get registered, you'll be able to vote in the election this fall--and that's very important.

In general, I don't like to urge people to vote one way or another. I am pro-choice, and this includes politics. I think you should make your own informed choice and act on it--and that it's a private choice that is basically none of my business.

This year, however, I am breaking my mind-your-own-business rule, and I'm sending out this e-mail asking you to give Hillary Clinton your vote tomorrow.

I will keep my plea simple. If you are not currently planning to vote for her, I will only ask you to take a few deep breaths and then give *real* thought to the reasons you have felt resistant to voting for her. Among the reasons I have heard from my (independent or democratic, progressive, intelligent) friends of late:

--"I'm too much of a feminist to vote for her just because she's a woman."
--"I don't like the way she handled her husband's infidelity."
--"She can't win."
--"I won't be able to stand watching FOX news go after her for four
years, if she wins the Presidency."
--"The conservatives hate her too much. I'm sick of divisive politics."
---"It's too much, this Bush-Bush-Clinton-Clinton, thing. It's like Pakistan. It's not healthy."
--"She's not personable."
--"I don't like her."

If any of these are your reasons, I implore you to consider the following:

--We live in a society, which has seen 43 consecutive male Presidents; where the Senate is not even 10% female; where, in essence, our world is governed by men for men. We are not done--not even nearly done--with the fight for equal rights. We barely have one generation
of women who were born after Roe v. Wade and Title IX, and each of those things are in dire jeopardy even as I write this. Our work is not done. It still matters a great deal that women get a seat at the table, that little girls--and especially little boys!--learn that women can be powerful, women can be leaders, women can be EQUAL. Try this, if you don't believe me: find a little girl--or an adolescent--and ask her to name five famous women. If she names anyone
who isn't either fictional or in the entertainment industry, then go ahead and vote for a male candidate.

--How much do you know about the other candidate's marriages? Is the way a candidate chooses to handle his or her spouse's infidelity really and truly the standard of measure you want to use when electing a PRESIDENT? Hillary Clinton is not running for President of the PTA or your senior class. This is much bigger than her marriage. How she handled that painful, embarrassing situation is her own business--and, honestly, if what she's done is honor her vow, even when it felt impossible, isn't that a good quality in a President? If what she's done is found forgiveness instead of hostility, isn't that the kind of leader we want?

--Almost everyone said the NY Giants couldn't win yesterday, and look how that turned out. We thought Bush couldn't win, and he did. Twice. Don't rule Hillary out because you believe she's not electable. Focus on your own ideas about what's important and vote based on that. You
simply cannot know what the American electorate will do in November, so don't give up on anyone based on a fear that they can't win. Give her a chance. She may surprise you.

--If the idea of FOX news coverage of her Presidency bothers you so much, how about you just stop watching FOX news? :-)

--We are a divisive nation. It's time to stick up for what you believe in. Besides, if the people who believe in everything you stand against hate your candidate, then that candidate is doing something right. The small-minded hate-mongers won't love any democrat or progressive,
ever. They hate Obama, too, it's just less politically correct to come out and say so. In short, you can't not vote for the right person just because you fear the ire of the bad guys. They hated Bill Clinton, too, but his Presidency is widely regarded as a whopping success.
Don't let hate win by being afraid of it.

--As for the Bush-Bush-Clinton-Clinton thing...the bad guys stole at least one election--and a lot of people have suffered and died as a result. Voting against Hillary Clinton because sixteen years ago her husband won an election and then another, and then somebody stole one?
It's just bad logic--and unfair, if you ask me. (Which, you didn't, I do realize.) :-) The system is flawed, but the way to fix it is not to reject Hillary Clinton.

--As for the last two complaints, if you've met her and still believe she's not personable, or you still don't like her, then go ahead, vote for someone else. But, if you are basing this on FOX news, or most any other media, just give her the benefit of the doubt and take a moment
to investigate further. Watch this video, for instance. Or listen to her daughter. Or, at the very least, consider the actual value of having a personable President. The idiot running the show right now is known for his folksy, personable nature and he's the worst thing since taxation
without representation. Maybe we'd be better off with someone who comes off as a little more...Presidential.

The last thing I'll say is this: my e-mail is not an anti-Obama message. I gave money to the Obama campaign. He's a great candidate and the implications of having the first African-American President are monumental. I do not wish to get into a debate about which is more important--a woman or a person of color.

This e-mail is an attempt to counteract some of the small-minded foolishness that has seeped like a conservative fog into the minds of even some of the brightest and most progressive among us. If you have said or thought any of the above, I am trying to wake you up, splash
some cold water on your face, and invite you out into the fresh air and sunshine, so that you can make your choice with a clear head. If, after you give it some honest thought, you really and truly believe that someone else deserves your vote, then by all means, vote for another candidate.

In short, I want you to THINK. And I want you to VOTE.

Thank you so much for tolerating my e-mail invasion of perspective. It makes me really uncomfortable to pontificate, but it just feels so important to speak up...

This concludes our broadcast. :-)

Feel free to forward.

With love, both for you and democracy,

Naomi

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Truth About Love: "I'm Too Old For This"

Last night I got the news that a member of my class at Smith had passed away. She was my age, I think—35—and she had a husband and two small children. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, she was pregnant. She started chemo while she was still pregnant and had her daughter a little early so she could start her second round.

My classmate worked at her job as director of development at a nonprofit right up until the day before her daughter was born, very small, but in perfect health. She fought her cancer with chemo. Then radiation. And a mastectomy. In January, she wrote to our class secretary to report that she still had six weeks of daily radiation and then, if that went well, reconstructive surgery. "It hasn't been so bad," she said. "Radiation should be a piece of cake compared to chemo."

"The kids are great," she wrote. "So much fun and getting bigger every day. I just took [my daughter] to the doctors for her second flu shot and she is now 90% for height! She's catching up to her brother and it looks like we'll have two tall kids. So relieved that she's perfectly healthy."

It did not sound as if she had any idea that in just over six months, two months after her daughter's first birthday, she'd be gone. As I understand it, she received the news that her cancer had metastasized to her liver and bones just over one week before she passed away. Until that news came, I think she and her family believed she was getting better.

I didn't know this woman as an undergrad, but as President of the class, I was among the first to be informed, thanks to a friend of my classmate who reached out to our class Secretary. It fell to me to make decisions, and after consulting our class Secretary, I felt it was best to immediately inform the class via e-mail, so that anyone who might want to attend the wake and/or funeral today or tomorrow could do so.

I spent my morning phoning funeral homes and churches and cemeteries to confirm the dates and times I'd been given. When I called the Alumnae House to find out if they had any recommendations or restrictions about protocol, I was told they would have to call me back; no one had ever done such a thing. In the end, the person in charge agreed that this was a special exception and gave me a green light to notify my class via e-mail.

While I didn't know this woman personally, her death has nudged open the door to a cellar full of sadness in my heart. It piles up in there, like the garbage when sanitation workers are on strike. When the door is wedged open, the thick swampy air clogs my lungs and stings my eyes. It makes me irritable. I feel upset, swimming in leachate and dizzy; my chest and my head throb with grief. I wanted to scream today, but I had no place to do so. I wanted to punch and kick and break things, but I had no place to do so. Today was the first time since I left there last fall that I missed the heavy bag that used to hang in the dingy basement of my old apartment.

I know that death happens to everyone; I have always known this. I know that one in four American women will get breast cancer. I know that I am lucky it wasn't me. But my good fortune at having cancer-free breasts is an erstwhile friend; it may have cheered me on some bygone days, but today, I just keep thinking about her children, and her husband, and her friends--and my friends. I keep thinking about her and what it must have been like to realize she would have to say goodbye and leave her children motherless. I think of this and I ache. I feel a sharp pain in my heart, like a nail driven into the flesh between my ribs. My jaw and my brow are sore from holding back tears. I can't let them come or they will drown me. I still wish I could scream.

Everyone dies. I know that I am never too young or too old to be next. I have already lost two friends from college and one from high school (ALS, brain cancer, suicide). At 35, I often feel old. I feel how quickly my reproductive years are slipping down the drain. I know how rapidly my earning years are dying on the vine. I see how quickly my skin is aging in certain spots where I've gotten too much sun. Even my little breasts are beginning to sag. And yet, despite how old I usually feel, when I thought of my classmate getting sick and dying, I felt an awareness of my youth that came on so quickly it made me lose my breath, like the moment you realize how close you came to going over the edge of something or getting hit by a car—snatch! Suck in your breath. That was close. I'm still here. We're so young. So terrifyingly young.

And yet, I've been dating someone who is more than ten years my junior. I was a lesbian in my twenties, so I missed out on this phase—men in their twenties—almost entirely. He's hot. I don't mind saying it. He has an ass more scrumptious than a cupcake. And muscles that make me melt. And yet…he conducts most of our relationship (if you could call it that) via text message or, occasionally, via e-mail. And this makes me feel old. And cranky. Like an old lady fussing about how fast the cars move nowadays. (But seriously--text messages?? YGBKM!)

I probably should have known from the beginning that we weren't a good match. We met in a bar, which is, I'm guessing, not how most love stories with happy endings begin. At the end of the night, he apologized for asking for my number. "I'm sorry to even ask you this…" he said. I found it an odd but endearing approach, so I gave him my card.

It took him a week to get in touch. And instead of calling, he e-mailed and said that he had just realized he'd forgotten to e-mail me. "I just remembered I forgot you," is not exactly romance on caliber with Lloyd Dobler. But I e-mailed back. And gave him my number. And over the course of the next few months, he filled up my cell phone's inbox with flirtatious text messages sent just before closing at whatever bar he was at—a behavior I never rewarded.

Eventually, we made it out for an actual date. He took me for drinks and then karaoke. Unfortunately, I drank too much and couldn't drive home. He drove me home in my car and once we got there, I started vomiting almost immediately. My roommate drove him home. It took three days to recover. It was like I had the flu or food poisoning.

On our second date, I tore my ACL. He invited me to play volleyball with him and some friends. I tried to get out of it. I was just feeling really sad about Calvin. But he convinced me to go. On the last point of the last game, I slipped in the acrylic house paint his friends had used to create lines for the court in their backyard. It'll be at least a year before I'm walking normally, a year of painful, tedious physical therapy and, it seems, reconstructive surgery.

On our third date, a moth flew into my ear and a skunk moved into my basement. On our fourth date, I thought we were going out alone, and then at the last minute, he invited everyone he knew via an Evite to join him as he celebrated his new job. I thought we were having a date; he thought he was having a party.

I've been practicing being more direct and honest in my communication, so I let him know that I had thought we'd be going out alone—on a date--and that I was disappointed by the Evite because I thought he and I had plans. We worked it out—via e-mail—and I joined him and his friends late in the night and had an okay time. It was the last day of the Year of Healing. He stayed over.

The next night he took me to a movie and we spent almost all of that weekend together. It was fun for me to have affection, someone to go to brunch with, a date. I told my friend Megan afterwards that it was such a nice change to date someone who was emotionally and physically available. It's been more than a decade since that happened for me. (In retrospect, this is, of course, an hysterically funny observation because of how wrong I was--LOL!—but, when I said it, I thought it was true; it's how he seemed.)

After our weekend together, though, he disappeared. He didn't call or e-mail. I got proactive and invited him to do something, but he didn't answer my e-mail.

After almost a week, I sent him an e-mail and asked if he had gotten my e-mail inviting him to get together. He said he had. I pointed out that an honorable person would not sleep with a girl and then ignore her for a week. He responded, via e-mail, to say "Acknowledged." But he didn't apologize. Eventually, he sent me a text message, saying he was "sorry, if it seemed like he was blowing me off." I wanted to tell him to go to hell, but I'm practicing reigning in my disappointment and not walloping people over the head with it, especially people who are trying to be nice to me. So, I texted him back and said, "Thanks." And I told him where I was. But, I never heard from him. (He claimed later he never got my text, but honestly, even if he didn't, shouldn't he have followed up?)

After nearly two weeks without seeing him, talking to him, or planning another date, I decided the only thing I really wanted was to know why. I asked him to meet me and he agreed. We sat on a bench overlooking a pond and I asked him to tell me why he disappeared. I told him he could be honest with me. The answer didn't really matter, I just really wanted to know what had happened so I could stop wondering.

He denied that he had disappeared. His defense: "But I texted you!"

I think for anyone my age—perhaps anyone at all—if the phrase "but I texted you" works its way into an important conversation about the future (or past) of your relationship, you can generally assume it's a bad sign. Of course, you might also assume that vomiting, severed ligaments, ambulance rides, insects in your ear, and/or vermin in your basement are bad signs, too. I, on the other hand, soldiered on.

"A text message, in response to my e-mail asking why you'd ignored my first e-mail does not really count as not disappearing," I said, feeling like I was (totally) stating the obvious. "You just seem to have lost interest. And that's fine. That's your choice. But I'd just really like to know why, because you seemed really interested. And you stuck around through all of that crap, all the injuries and debacles, and you gave me the impression you were a good guy, but then, once you'd slept with me, you disappeared. I mean, is this just some sort of clever shtick? You act like a nice guy—totally convincing--you don't make a move until the fifth date, then spend the whole weekend with the girl, before disappearing into the ether?"

"No," he said. "It was not a shtick. I'm an honest person."

"Yeah," I said. "But your saying that isn't helpful. A liar could sit here and say the same thing. It's what you do that really matters. And what you did was disappear."

Eventually, he admitted that he had, in fact, disappeared. He said he had done so because he was easily distracted, his life was busy and (this I had to pull out of him)…he was afraid of my expectations.

"And how do you know what my expectations are, exactly?"

"I don't know…I just assumed that you wanted…"

My left eyebrow shot up toward my brow and I looked at him like he was an abominable idiot. He had never asked what I wanted. I watched as it dawned on him that he could have simply asked me, instead of running away. It was clear that this thought had not occurred to him. He just assumed that I wanted him, really wanted him for some serious relationship. (Is there a text message symbol for "asshole?")

"For the record," I said, "I just wanted to have some fun."

Eventually, he began to realize that I wasn't just complaining about his behavior, I was telling him he'd blown it—completely. He let me know that he wasn't quite ready to lose me yet. And, since I am practicing being reasonable, I made room for the possibility that he could change.

"I'm getting the sense that if I called you, you wouldn't go out with me again," he said.

"Well, that's right," I said. "I don't want to spend my time with people who are indifferent to me. I don't want to sleep with someone who is so easily distracted and forgetful. I want to be around people who say to themselves, 'yaaayyy!' when they're with me. I want to have fun and being neglected isn't fun."

"Well," he said. "I think I'll leave the ball in your court. I'll say that I want to see you again, and if you want to see me, you can call."

"You can do that," I said. "But if you want to see me, you'll have to do better. I don't want you to leave the ball in my court. I want you to do some work. I want you to show me that you value my company. If you want to see me, you'll have to give me something more than a ball in my court."

In the end, we warmed up to one another. We laughed. We moved from the bench to a tree swing further up the hill and gazed out at the moonlight dancing on the water. We swung gently back and forth and as I shifted in my seat to swat at a mosquito, my arm pressed against his and I remembered how delicious his muscles feel, how surprisingly soft his skin is, and how warm I feel when he kisses me.

"I have a good time with you," he said. "Even this conversation has been fun."

I was proud of myself for sticking up for myself, for being direct and honest in my communication, for knowing what I needed and saying so, and for letting him off the hook, rather than masticating him with my self-righteous, indignant, rage. He had remembered why he liked me.

"What would you say if I said I wanted to come home with you tonight," he asked.

"I would say, 'let's go to your house instead,'" I said.

And, so, we did. And he drank wine and I sipped vodka and we laughed, and kissed, and spent a delectable hour breaking my celibacy streak even further and sweating in the heat. It was what I wanted, and at 2am, I kissed him goodbye and went home to my bed.

The next day, he was good to me. "Fuck the two day rule," he said in an e-mail. And he asked me if I was free the next day. I wasn't. I was going away for part of the weekend. He checked in again, while I was gone, via text, to see when I'd be back. I came back a day late and expected that he'd be eager to see me. When I returned, he invited me to a movie via text message, but I was too tired to go—it was something I'd already seen, anyway. I told him I'd meet him for drinks after and he said he'd get back to me after the movie if he was interested. I wanted to sleep with him again. I wanted him to want to sleep with me that night…but I never heard back.

A few days later, we made plans to watch a movie at my place. He slept over. It was okay. I didn't hear from him the next day, the day, it turns out, that my classmate died.

And that brings us to today, with the blazing heat and intolerable humidity and my heart grown so heavy it felt like the only thing keeping it from slipping out of its cage and into my belly was the nail someone drove in through my ribs. I left my best friend three long voice mails. I left a message for my friend and former lover, the one who can always make me laugh, the one who came when Calvin died and when I hurt my knee and couldn't drive to the interview in Connecticut; the one who can make me feel better, the one whose hugs feel more like home than anything I've felt in a very, very long time (a mixed blessing), but he didn't have time to call me back. He sent me some well-intentioned, but not helpful e-mails instead. There was no one else to call and nowhere else to go. I was on my own with this.

I spent the morning taking care of the details around my classmate's death—could we send flowers, can we send an e-mail, what should it say, when should it go, how will it get there, are the dates and times and places for the wake and funeral, reception and interment correct--and then sent an e-mail out to the class. I went to physical therapy. I worked hard. I ran unpleasant errands. I arrived home hungry, angry, and wishing I had someplace to scream. Or someone to hold me.

Instead, I did what I could for myself. I lugged in the groceries, put them away, checked my e-mails, and then took off all my sweaty clothes and settled in with a DVD, a cold drink, an ice pack on my knee, and the A/C in my bedroom on high. Just then, my 24-year old text messaged me, asking me to go see a movie. I said yes, but the late show.

He said okay.

A few minutes later, he called (he actually called!) and said that he wanted to invite some other friends, get a bunch of people to go. He had learned from past experience that it was better to check with me first. I appreciated that he learned, but was disappointed that this was what he wanted.

I told him about my day. About my classmate dying…about my roommate not paying his rent…about my knee being sore and just my general feeling of exhaustion and upset. I started to cry a little—my voice caught--and I told him I felt too tired and vulnerable to deal with getting a group of strangers (to me) coordinated to find seats at what would definitely be a sold out Friday night premiere of "The Bourne Ultimatum." I haven't met his friends and I just wasn't in a space where I felt I could interact socially with strangers. I hesitated…then lied and said I would understand if he wanted to go with a group instead of with me. He said he'd check in with his friends and get back to me.

I got in the shower feeling hot and dirty and sad and sore and heavy and tired. I took a deep breath and then let the cool water wash over me. As I washed my hair, a thought came to me as clean and simple as the milky white suds running down my shoulders. It was more than a thought, it was a knowing: what I want is a person who, upon hearing that I knew someone who died and was heartbroken and tired and vulnerable, would not say, "I'll call my friends and get back to you." What I want is a person who hears that and says, "Do you want me to come over?" I wanted someone to bring me food and maybe a movie or just any kind of good-natured care. I don't need much, but I need that. Or, I want it anyway.

Today, I wanted a chest to rest my head on and the knowledge that the owner of that chest really cared. "I can't sleep with someone who would be that disinterested in what I need," I thought.

As I stepped out of the shower, I sighed. It was a happy relief to know my own bottom line, to understand what I need and want. Knowing is the first step toward getting it. But, it also meant that this young man would not turn out to be the fun summer fling I had hoped he would be. (Bummer.) Being neglected really isn't any fun; I'd have to give up my hope that he could be the source of affection and companionship and laughter I'd been wishing for.

It took him two hours to get back to me. He didn't call me, as he said he would. He canceled our date via text message. "Hey," he wrote. "I'm too tired to do the movie. I'm going to finish Harry Potter and then crash."

My immediate thought: "Asshole." My next thought: "I'm too old for this."

I'm too old to have people break dates via text message. I'm too old to date someone who doesn't even really think of dates as dates, which is why he doesn't need to cancel them with an apology—or a phone call—and why he invites other people to come on them. It was just an idea he had, I think, to see the movie, and when it passed he felt no obligation to factor in my feelings about it at all.

I was angry so I wanted to do something clever, like write back and say, "Don't bother to call me any more," except he never really calls me anyway. Or, better yet, I thought I might use some text message lingo like "U R N ASS" to communicate that I had reached the end of my rope. But I couldn't think what to say in 80 characters or less. I even checked out an online dictionary of text messaging abbreviations. I read through every single one, but aside from BBN (Bye Bye Now) and YGBKM (You've Gotta Be Kidding Me), nothing, apart from the overly cheerful L8RG8R, really even came close to capturing the spirit of what I wanted to say.

Maybe it's because I was born in an era when phones still had cords, but nothing I could think to say via SMS was going to be quite good enough for this. Regardless of my age, my inclination is to communicate. And no matter how fast you type, text messaging just isn't meant for that. It's been five hours and I haven't texted him back. At this point, I guess I probably won't even bother. It turns out that I may not be too young to die of breast cancer—but I am definitely too old for this.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Church Signs: "Coming Home"

Last Tuesday was the 13th anniversary of my graduation from college. I decided to mark the occasion by writing a letter to my closest friends, "coming out" as it were, about my struggles, and asking for their help in finding my way to a life that works.

I have been committed for most of these last thirteen years to hiding my flaws, covering up my mistakes, grinning madly through my misery, and pretending everything is okay. I'm quick to scribble in a silver-colored lining to every cloud, and then lie about its extraordinary virtues. This approach has left me feeling alienated, unprotected, misunderstood, and ashamed—because I am both a liar and a failure.

As part of the Year of Healing, I felt it was time to come clean. To admit to these women I love and respect—and who love and respect me—that I have had a great deal of trouble staying alive. That any happiness they may have perceived, any success, was either short-lived or a false front. I have been afraid to visit with them or talk to them or to keep in touch because I was in so much pain. I was afraid that they would see it.

I decided to write to them to accomplish several things. First, the wise, loving part of my psyche suggested that these are people who would love an opportunity to help, to be included; they are the kind of friends who wish you would turn to them when you need something. So, I wanted to give them that opportunity; I wanted to open the door and invite them into my real life in a meaningful way.

Second, I thought they might actually be able to help. Because sometimes it is hard for us to fully see ourselves, I thought that perhaps one of them would have a vision of me that could work. Perhaps one of them had heard of a program, a book, a workshop, a person, a place, a movie--something that they thought I should experience. Perhaps there is some job they have always thought I would be perfect for. It was an inkling—an intuition—I had, to put this out there to them. I wanted to know what associations they made between me and a life of happiness. What did they see in that picture? How did they connect the dots? I trusted that if I panned through their imaginations, a chunk of gold could emerge.

Writing the letter was satisfying at first. It felt beautiful. I was able to find my words—or they found me. It was good to be reminded that I love writing because I hate (so much) the writing I do for work; and I hate the feeling of not knowing how to direct my skills into a format that earns me a living wage and satisfies my desire for a sense of purpose. But as I got to the second half of the letter, where I was honest about the extent to which my life has been at risk these last thirteen years, it seemed like too much to lay on them.

My third purpose in being forthright with them was so that, if I lost my battle to survive, they would not be totally taken aback. I wanted them to have some sense that it was a possibility, that I'd barely made it so far and that at any moment, I could completely fall through the cracks. I thought that if they were blindsided, it would seem so much more painful and confusing; they might blame themselves and wonder what they could have done to help. The letter was a way of gently, subtly, letting them know the truth, so that if they lost me altogether, it wouldn't come out of the blue.

Once it was finished, I realized this was too much to lay on them. It was depressing and intense, and knowing that I had nearly died so many times these last thirteen years, would sink their ships. It would cause so much concern that instead of offering the twinkling light of connection between things that might work for me, they would call and e-mail with grave concern, and I would be left fielding these calls, instead of following the light they might shine into my future.

So, I revised the letter. I addressed it to my entire class. (As Alumnae Class President, I can write to them all.) Instead of confessing my struggles and bracing my friends for my departure, or asking them for help and guidance, I offered a message to my classmates, a message of respect, encouragement, and compassion. I told them what I had been hoping to hear for all these years. Somehow, by being willing to reach out to my friends, to confess my weaknesses and my problems, I had discovered the truth I had been seeking for myself. I had set off for Oz, but then discovered the answer was right here at home.

Don't get me wrong. I am still struggling: my rent is due this week and I barely have it. I need a roommate, but don't want one and can't find one. I hate my job and have hated it for about thirteen years, so the cumulative drag is substantial. My love-life is a non-starter. (Two weeks ago I told the guy I've been seeing once or twice a month for the last few months that I'd like to see more of him and he said no.)

Yesterday, three days after making a $500 repair to my truck, the driver's side door wouldn't close. It has rusted to the point that the latch has broken off, which I expect is a very expensive thing to fix, since it would require body work. Yesterday, I drove around town with one arm out the window holding my door shut. Since I drive a standard, the other hand was busy shifting and steering. To really make things fantastic, a few weeks ago, my windshield wipers started going crazy every time I turn on my blinker; and if I turn it to the left, the blinker won't turn off after I've completed my turn. I have to do it manually. The cost of fixing the blinker/wiper fiasco is $250. So, for the time being, I will be holding the door shut with my left arm, while I shift, steer, and turn the blinkers (and windshield wipers!) on and off with my right. It's a good thing I'm coordinated.

But, here's the silver lining, and I promise this isn't just me coloring one in so that I can pretend things are better than they are: it's funny.

I mean, instead of feeling freaked out and depressed and suicidal and hopeless and like the bullshit and bad luck will never end, yesterday, as I was driving down the road, broke and single, less than a month from turning 35, with no roommate prospects and uncertain if I'd be able to pay my rent, let alone buy some groceries or a ticket to the movies, my debt growing like a cancer, avoiding thoughts of the tedious, low-paying, work I'm behind on, holding in the door with my left arm, as I attempted to steer, shift, brake, clutch, and turn the wipers off all at once with my remaining appendages, I laughed. I mean, I genuinely laughed. Out loud.

What used to make it not funny was the feeling that it would never end, that this poverty and isolation is life-threatening and there's no way out; it was the feeling that I am alone in my failure. Sure, I started out from a harder place than most, but I went to Smith. I should have parlayed that into something more. There are people living in trailer parks with nothing better than a GED in better financial shape than I'm in. There are people with degrees from community colleges or mediocre state schools who drank their way through school and slept through half their classes with more fulfilling and financially gratifying careers than mine. I have felt like I blew it and that's devastating. I have felt like such a waste of skin and space and education and love. (No wonder I was suicidal.)

But, the process of writing that supportive letter to my class was a little cathartic. I felt more stable and comforted afterwards. It gave me some perspective and access to my own wise, capable parts. And then, on top of that, there was an unexpected influx of letters from my classmates. 443 women received that e-mail. And, so far, about 50 of them have written back, along with some of their parents and friends and friends of friends to whom they forwarded the letter.

They've written some gorgeous e-mails, expressed sentiments that gave me goosebumps, and made me smile or laugh or cry. I have been embraced, and they have embraced one another—and themselves. It turns out, there were a lot of women like me who felt their lives weren't measuring up. Women who were struggling and feeling a little (or a lot) lost and alone. And now, we all feel a little less so.

We all started Smith with a common sense of optimism, determination, and purpose; there is a unity, a solidarity, that we call "the Smith experience." As we have journeyed off on our own courses, we have become increasingly disconnected from that. On the 13th anniversary of our commencement, I reached out and plugged us back in. I didn't have any ruby slippers, but I did have the keys on my keyboard. I clicked them together and said what I think is a modern translation of, "there's no place like home."

I said, "You are not alone." I said it to myself and I said it to them. And they returned the favor.

Below, you can read the original letter and some of the responses I received.

From: Naomi Graychase <graychase@gmail.com>
Date: May 23, 2007 2:00 PM
Subject: Happy Anniversary
To: Alumni <graychase@gmail.com>

My Dearest Classmates,

[I tried to send this note to you yesterday, but a glitch in the e-mail broadcast system prevented it from making it to you. C'est la vie.]

On this day, thirteen years ago, we stood in the blazing sun in black robes and white dresses (or pants suits) and sweated our knockers off while we waited to receive the hard-won diplomas of people who were not us. Then, when all the speeches were over and all the names had been called, we marched, dazedly, onto the grass in front of King and Scales, formed a spiraling circle, and passed our diplomas until we came up with our own.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The next day remains in the Top Ten All-Time Worst Days Ever for me. I hope it does for you, as well. That would mean that you still love and miss one another, and also that your life hasn't really been that bad since you stopped singing gaudeamus igitur twice a year and eating Fisherperson's Platter.

Spring has been cold and slow to come fully into herself this season in Northampton. Ivy Day was chilly and rainy. But nevertheless, last weekend, the town was swarmed with women in white, with name tags and tote bags, and the wistful, determined expressions of people who have returned to a place that will always be familiar and yet somehow never be the same, people who have journeyed through time (and airports) to invite their past to meet their future...people who are trying to find a way to squeeze in one more trip to Herrell's before they catch their shuttle back to Bradley.

I hope that these thirteen years have treated you well; that what you learned at Smith, whether it was to remain open-minded when encountering the unfamiliar--such as grapes paired with brown sugar and sour cream for dessert--or to speak up and think hard about what you believe in, has stayed with you and helped you through every victory and every loss.

We never read in the pages of the Alumnae Quarterly about the other kinds of successes in our lives, the brave and beautiful ways we get ourselves through the bankruptcies, miscarriages, divorces, lay-offs, betrayals, illnesses, and the other ugly struggles that come to all of us eventually. I think that's sort of a shame. I consider these things to be the true successes in life; the moments when we rise up amidst adversity and make brave choices and fight our way through. That's the stuff I really wish we were sharing--not that promotions and vacations and babies aren't fantastic; I love hearing about them. But I'd also love to know more about the creative, enlightened ways that each of you has managed to navigate what has been difficult in your lives. How you got sober or recovered when your business failed or found the courage to drop out of medical school and disappoint your parents or leave your spouse or care for your sick mother or whatever it is that you've done bravely these last thirteen years.

Since we don't currently have a forum for exchanging those stories and ideas, I want to take a moment here, on the 22nd of May, 2007, to pause and to acknowledge that for every one of us who has earned her PhD or published six books or married a dreamboat or landed her dream job or bought her dream home or given birth to brilliant children, there are a lot more of us who got a little lost along the way; who made difficult choices between career and family; who quietly left marriages that weren't working or jobs that weren't right; who lost children, or couldn't have them, or had children who were sick. Some of us fled our homes when Hurricane Katrina hit, some of us fled for other reasons, and some of us are still searching for something that really feels like home. Some of us are sick and some of us are nursing spouses or children or parents who are fighting illnesses they may not defeat. And the courage, intelligence, compassion, and strength that these things take are worth applauding.

I hope that all of you are thriving and happy and healthy, but for those of you who aren't--don't let the Quarterly (or anything else) fool you. You are not alone. Whether you are plagued by ambivalence or something easier to diagnose, there is someone among us who is struggling like you.

In the diploma circle it took more time for some of us to find what we had earned than it did for others. If you are feeling lost, I hope you will hang in there, stay on your feet and keep passing to the right (as it were), and yours will come eventually. And if you are one of the ones that have already found the metaphorical diploma with your name on it, I hope you are whooping with delight and throwing your cap up in the air tonight.

Happy Anniversary.
xxoo
Naomi
--
Naomi Graychase
Alumnae Class President, 1994

Sample Responses:

Dear Naomi,

I am profoundly moved by your anniversary message. Thank you so much
for finding a graceful way to honor the diverse (and often, as you point
out, unspoken) paths we've all taken.

I made a few false starts at Smith and made a few more in the years
following my time there - a Master's in a field that incurred a lot of
debt but few professional prospects; some years spent thinking that my
job experience wasn't sufficient to earn a decent living (so I settled
for being woefully underpaid); time spent doubting, doubting, doubting.

But here I now sit at 36, feeling respected at work, making progress
towards a much more interesting Master's degree, and being exceptionally
content in my family situation and surrounded by friends old and new. I
am reminded again by your message that much of what I learned implicitly
during my time at Smith - speaking my mind in personal relationships,
classroom settings, and conference rooms, being able to interact
respectfully with a diverse group of people - continues to matter a
great deal in how I move through my day-to-day life, and I am grateful
for those implicit lessons.

Most of all, though, as I make plans to travel to the commitment
ceremony of two Smith friends this summer, and as I catch up over email
and phone with other Smith friends, I am reminded of how exceptionally
fortunate I was to be surrounded by so many remarkable women during
those fleeting and confused years, and am secure awed and inspired by
them - and all of us - to this day, in our mistakes and our triumphs.

Warm regards,
Kelley Smith

Naomi,

Your email is spot on, and eerily relevant. I spent the weekend with a
group of Smithies, one of whose husband is battling advanced brain cancer.
She was suffering, she called upon us, and six of us flew in at two weeks
notice from various points around the country to be with her to talk, laugh,
cry, and drink a whole lot of wine. It is an ugly thing which she is
experiencing, but it was so beautiful to see how the Smith sisterhood is
helping to sustain her through her ordeal.

Thank you so much for this fresh take on the thirteen years behind us.

Warm regards,
Melissa (Merten) Belleville '94

Naomi,
I'd like to say thank you for your anniversary wishes. I had two friends email your message to me at work before I even had a chance to find it in my own private email. I guess you could say it spread like wildfire. As I wrote to my friends after I read your words, "I felt a whole hell of a lot closer to the sisterhood of Smith in that moment than I have in a long time. I felt supported and part of a whole...not like I'm out here floundering on my own." I, in fact, cried - in that good, cathartic way. I am blessed with a wonderful life, but still have times of ambivalence, where I think I ought to be more. That perhaps I should be living up to the reputation of Smith. You remind me that I have. In every choice and decision I make (to leave a job, take on debt, leave a relationship), I act as a product of that wonderful environment. I am independent, intelligent, compassionate, and strong (whether I feel it or not). I am right where I should be, right where many of us are. It feels great to be reminded that I am part of a larger whole. That the sort of women Smith produces are exactly like me. I will keep making choices and may even pass to the right on some things until I find exactly what it is I'm looking for. I have no doubts my ribbon-wrapped diploma will arrive. So thank you for your anniversary wishes, I wish you double of the same!
Best regards,
Marcella Davis

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Church Signs: "Welcome Home"

Church Signs: "Welcome Home"

Last week, I met with a former professor of mine from college. He was my major advisor, my favorite professor, and chair of his department for an unprecedented period of time—about a decade longer than is expected. He is gentle, brilliant, accomplished, and beloved by students past and present.

I have always felt respected and appreciated by him, partly because I felt it in his manner, and partly because I knew I'd earned it. I won a very competitive academic prize in the field of my major my junior year; I graduated with Latin honors; I made the dean's list every semester after my first year. I was passionate, dogged, and enthusiastic as a student.

He demonstrated his approval of me in many ways. There were good grades and recommendations, of course. And then, when a few students were selected from our department by this professor to dine with important visitors, I was among them. When the department re-designed its Web site, I was among a handful of alumnae chosen to represent the major. When I needed a place to live in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, he let me stay (for free) in a small apartment in the basement of his home while he and his family were away. Several years ago, when a teaching position opened up in his department—one class, a senior writing seminar—he asked me to apply, even though I was definitely under-qualified.

I have always felt that he considered me to be special and this has meant a great deal to me. It has helped me to push my limits, to maintain confidence in any setting requiring a formidable intellect, and to walk in the world feeling accomplished.

When I was an undergrad, he didn't know what I had come from; but when I applied for the teaching position, I gave him a portion of my manuscript to read, and he discovered the truth of my impoverished rural upbringing. Later, he visited my hometown and told me, "I can't believe you come from here."

My professor and I met up for tea last week at the student center. It had been a few years since we last saw each other and he asked me how things were. I told him I was good, still writing.

He asked if I made enough money. I answered honestly. I told him, "No."

He asked what happened to law school. (A few years ago when I was applying, he had written me a recommendation.) I answered honestly. I told him that I got in to my first choice, UC Davis, a tier one school, but that for a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out. For starters, I couldn't afford it. Two digits of my social security number were transposed on my application for financial aid, and I found myself thrown into a bureaucratic nightmare as I attempted to prove that I was, in fact, an American citizen who qualified for aid. I also lost my in-state residency in California by voting in Northampton. My bank accounts, permanent address, car registration, and worldly belongings were in San Francisco, but I voted in Northampton since I happened to be there during an election, and the State of California considered this to be a relinquishment of my right to claim residency in its state. Although, I still had to pay California income tax…

I didn't mention that I was also carrying a monstrous debt load, and that there was no way for me to pay for law school and meet my living expenses when you factored in the credit card and student loan bills I was paying.

I also told him that, at the time, I felt I had to choose between law and art; I chose art. I wrote a book. I founded a nonprofit organization and obtained 501(c)3 status for it. I began writing and performing poetry.

He asked me if I had an agent. I said, "No."

He asked me what I wanted to do and I told him, with a smile, that I wasn't sure; that I was a bit lost; that I was working on it.

I told him I love studying law and that I still think of applying, but that I just can't pull the trigger. I'm not certain it's what I want to do, at my age. I just paid off my undergraduate loans last year. I don't know if I want to take on another $80,000 in student loan debt or commit to a three-year program I may not enjoy.

He asked if I was partnered. I told him that I wasn't; that my last real relationship ended nearly a decade ago.

I said these things unselfconsciously, almost cheerfully. I am good-natured about my circumstance. I told him that on the plus side, I was free to do anything I wanted because my life wasn't tethered to another's. I was not defensive or self-protective because I trusted him to accept and understand me, to offer guidance, to see my great potential, and perhaps to offer some answers that would help to guide me into the perfect port.

Instead, he said, "Oh…Naomi…" and there was pity in his voice.

He asked more questions about law school, like what my LSAT scores were. I told him. He didn't even pretend to hide his reaction. (They were poor.)

He asked about my dream job. I told him I'd like to be a Supreme Court Justice, or an actor, or that I might like to be a speech writer, but that I wasn't sure how one does that. He shook his head in minor disbelief at the first two ideas, but said that if you want to be a speechwriter, you go to DC for 90 days. You have lunches. You stay on someone's couch. You make connections. You find your way in.

I said I wasn't sure I was willing to do that, just now.

"Do you have health insurance?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "I do now."

"How?" he asked.

"Through the state…through Commonwealth Care…"

Again…the look of pity and concern. He made me feel frightened for my safety. He made me feel old and inadequate. And no matter what I said, the conversation kept turning back to my lack and to what he seemed to see as my failure to reach my potential. He kept coming back to law school. He thought I should apply again, find a way to afford it. He thought I should move to a state with a state law school (Massachusetts doesn't have one) so that I could establish residency, get in, and attend at a lower cost. I told him that was a big commitment and I just wasn't sure it was the right thing for me.

Finally, as a way of defending my lack of willingness to uproot myself and take a brave stab at a new career, I also told him that I have struggled with serious health issues. That there is more at stake for me than simply choosing a new profession. I told him that I was too sick to work for 26 weeks last year; that when one is facing that sort of debilitation, one cannot launch into a new career. One cannot go to Washington, DC, sleep on a couch, and meet people for lunch. Even if one survived that experience and succeeded in landing a job, one couldn't promise one's employer, with any confidence, that one would be able to fulfill one's duties. And what about health insurance? And caregivers? In the Valley, I have found practitioners who I couldn't easily replace in another state. I want to stay near them. And Smith—being near Smith allows me to have affordable access to yoga classes and athletic facilities and other things. It's not the right time for me to pull up my life and move someplace for a high stakes career I'm not sure I want.

I dropped into the conversation that I have been published in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. That I have published more than 300 stories. But this didn't seem to shake his worry.

"You never seemed to me to lack confidence," he said, "but perhaps you have a problem with your self-esteem?" He made this assertion several times. What does one say to this?

"I don't think that's it…" I said, turning up the wattage on my smile, sitting up straighter, trying to broadcast confidence.

Eventually, I turned the conversation back to him, to the state of affairs at Smith. We talked about the massive failings of the current President, the extent to which the faculty, staff, and student body are displeased. It was an enlightening talk. Discouraging, but enlightening.

He ended the conversation abruptly when he realized he was going to be late to meet his wife. I walked with him for a while, then thanked him for his time, wished him well, and headed back across campus to my car. It was dark and damp and the cold bit at my thighs as I clomped my boots on the pavement. I phoned my best friend immediately and left him a distraught voice mail. I didn't think it was possible that I could stand on this campus, walk past the buildings where I had done so well and learned so much, and feel like a failure, but I did.

I nearly cried. I felt a sinkhole open in my gut, a cramping pain gripped my neck and shoulders, a vice clamped down on my temples.

"He pities me," I realized. The sound of his voice saying, "Ohhh…Naomi…" as though I had just been fired or dropped a Faberge egg…it played over and over in my mind. I was nauseous.

In my yoga practice, we learn to value our hearts. We learn to breath into our feelings. The memory of this practice came to me and I breathed into my heart. I breathed into my gut. I breathed into my neck and shoulders and temples. And as I breathed, a new awareness poured into me: he was wrong.

This man who I revered and cared for. This man who had been something of a father—or perhaps good uncle—figure to me. This man who was a brilliant academic. He was wrong about this.

My life is not a failure. There is no reason to worry for me. I am still young and curious. I am still determined and bright and capable. There is no shame in feeling lost, particularly if you are working hard on finding your way. Law school is not the way for me. Not now, not yet. My way is in finding stillness, in getting well. My way is in learning to listen to myself, to value what I bring to the world, to treat myself with loving kindness, always.

My grandfather couldn't read the newspaper. My grandmother de-throated chickens with her bare hands in a factory while her six children waited in the car. My father has a high school diploma (and a strong cadre of skills like masonry and heavy equipment operation). I went to Smith College. I got myself there and I put myself through. I graduated with honors. If I do nothing else with my life, this is enough. This is enough.

And there is no way to quantify all the brave choices, all the rising up that has occurred after terrible falls, all the attempts at self-discovery, all the lives that I have changed by offering compassion, friendship, art, and joy. There is no accounting for Love in my professor's assessment of my success.

I am learning to be at home in my body and my life. I am making peace with my past and my present and my future. I am learning what it means to be me. I have not yet put any new letters before or after my name. But choosing not to enter into a marriage or a graduate program before it is my time—these things are victories, too. In the same way that the silences between notes give music its rhythm, so, too, are the absences in my life an essential part of my song.

And let's not forget that I am grateful simply to be alive. I come from homelessness and poverty, from illiteracy and isolation. I emerged from rural Maine and I became something. I became a woman who is a force for good in the world. I am not making a comfortable living, but I have kept myself alive all by myself. I have forged this existence without the safety of a trust fund or an influential surname or the gift of a free car/home/down payment/education or anything else from my parents.

It took only twenty minutes for all of this to sink in. I walked away from my professor feeling like a failure, depressed and anxious. Twenty minutes later, I stood in the kitchen of my little apartment and I called my best friend again.

"I know who I am," I said. "I know what I am worth. I know what I have done. I have not yet become all that I can be, and this is just as it should be. My professor is wrong about me. He comes from a place where one's value, one's progress can be measured in advanced degrees, in spouses, houses, and income. I do not live in that place. I live in a place where my value comes from my ability to heal, to forgive, to listen. It comes from my ability to love, to learn, to stay alive."

I left that place—the place where my value is immeasurable and does not depend on advanced degrees or spouses or income or accolades--while I was talking to my professor. But after 20 minutes of breathing and thinking, I returned to it again. And when I arrived back in that healthy state of mind, I understood from the deepest most inner parts of my being all the way up to my conscious self, what it means to hear, "Welcome Home."

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Love. And Basketball.

Chapter 19, The Long-Awaited Time of Joy (unpublished)


Your friends will know you better in the first
minute you meet than your acquaintances will
know you in a thousand years.—Richard Bach


Twenty months and one week ago, I turned up at my friend Steven’s annual Bastille Day party. He had forgotten to invite me until just one hour before it began. Perhaps I should have recognized it as an “unvitation,” or perhaps it was an honest mistake. Whatever it was, I felt the sting of it—so I decided to go. I don’t know if it was denial or determination, but two hours later, I arrived fashionably late to celebrate the storming of the Bastille.

I knew no one there, except the host. The mood was quiet, little pockets of people standing in the grass or on the deck drinking Canadian beer and eating off blue, white, and red paper plates. A foursome played boules in the shade. It was one of those stale inbred parties where everyone has known everyone else forever, and the challenge of striking up a conversation with someone new requires way too much initiative to be bothered with.

Steven kissed my cheek when I arrived. His beard scratched my cheek and I remembered how much I hated that feeling. His new girlfriend wrapped her free arm around his waist and thanked me for coming. Steven offered to get me a drink and they walked away.

I took a deep breath, smiled like a maniac, and searched the crowd for someone I knew. As I stood there, lamely, waiting for Steven to return with my drink, a deep chill crawled up my legs, turning my flesh into goosebumps and my feet to stone. I blushed and stiffened. I tried to appear calm as my shoulders rose slowly toward my ears. After a while, I felt the rush of heat in my cheeks seep down into my neck, and I felt the cold climbing up from my ankles to my knees. Finally, hot and cold had collided in my stomach, waking butterflies, birds, and giant bats. It became clear that Steven was not coming back.

There were bodies all around me, with talking heads attached, heads which now and again would turn to smile at me, standing there, alone. But the expression in their eyes never matched the one across their lips. And no one ever spoke to me. My urge to flee, to run crying from the scene, was almost too much to fight. I was a kid being picked last for teams. I was an uninvited guest. But then a cooler in the corner caught my eye, and I stopped waiting for Steven. I slithered through the small crowd and grabbed the slippery brown neck of a Molson.

My beer kept me company. It was my escort, holding my hand, kissing my mouth, reassuring me when I felt I’d be consumed by social terror. It gave me a small sense of purpose, enough to anchor me at the party until it was gone. I moved about the lawn, sipping, smiling, trying to be social. But each pocket of people I tried to join left me feeling that same mix of icy hot discomfort I’d felt when I was abandoned on the deck.

In the end, I gave up trying to join a group. I felt dizzy from the battle, so I decided to sit down until it was time for me to go. I opted for a cheap, white plastic lawn chair next to a surly-looking man who was sitting alone, squinting against the sun. He looked to be in his mid-30s, with very long hair, a pair of retro, mutton chop sideburns, some sort of disheveled t-shirt combination, and no visible interest in me, which I liked. There was no faux friendly smile with him, and when I spoke to him, he spoke back.

I can’t tell you much else about that day that would be honest. I know that we talked about art and writing, about the stagnation that’s so inherent in the town where we live. I know that he took an interest in my work, that he offered to share some of his expertise, and that he gave me his card. I remember that I stayed later than I meant to, that I arrived home just in time to change and be picked up for another party. That’s all I can tell you because everything else is colored now by my tremendous love for this man. I have to be fierce with myself¾vigilant¾to get even these few details about our first meeting right. Because it is almost impossible for me to remember how I saw him before I knew how beautiful he was. My appreciation of him grows with every day, and also flows backward, like sunrise-colored dyes dropped into the waters of my memory, tinting everything that came before.

***

I am a strange and skittish creature. I am full of contradictions and complications. A social butterfly frightened of people. An isolationist with open arms. A confident speaker who apologizes for speaking. A radical lover with traditional desires. I’m difficult to manage, even if you know how. It takes a dedication and comprehension that even I don’t often possess. And when I met Jon, I was an especially tangled-up mess, like knots drowned in buckets and dumped out at sea.

I plunked myself down next to him that day. I took his card home and I wrote him an e-mail. But then I lost my nerve. I got frightened and squeamish. I was afraid of who I was. I didn’t want to see him again. But Jon was not dissuaded. He saw in me a greatness and he was not disturbed. He hung in with me for months, gently reading my anxious ways for what they were. He knew somehow, the struggle I endured. And patiently, bravely, he taught me I could trust his giving heart, and learn to trust my own. He shared with me, by degrees, the exact amount of grace that would not frighten me away or burn me up too fast. He is like a horse whisperer for raw and brilliant girls, and we became good friends.

***

Just about a year after our first Bastille Day meeting, Jon and I discovered that we both liked basketball. Neither of us had played in years, but we decided to play one day last summer, on a steamy August afternoon, on the hoop in my back yard. Now, when people ask if I am any good, Jon tells them that I am the first and only girl to ever beat him in basketball. We take an equal pleasure in this fact.

Our casual games quickly evolved into a ritual. Every Wednesday and Sunday, from 6 to 8 p.m., Jon and I play basketball. We are virtually unstoppable in our pursuit. Blizzards, illnesses, injuries, work, or social commitments¾all of these things get second billing to basketball on Wednesday and Sunday nights. We have been known to play in darkness and in sweltering heat; we have played after rain storms, dodging puddles like defenders; we have played on days when together we have achieved a combined total of only eight hours of sleep. We have each risen, delirious from naps, which followed all-night work sessions, and laced up our sneakers, ready to go to the gym.

Neither Jon nor I practice an organized, widely recognized form of spiritual faith. Jon’s mother is a Christian minister, but he rejects that practice in a fairly wholesale fashion and has devised his own personal method of finding and expressing truth, faith, and guidance. My mother is a Spiritualist, and I accept, honor, and practice daily the metaphysics on which I was raised. I have added to it my own witchy ways of seeking enlightenment, joy, direction, and connection with the power of the Universe.

For Jon and I, basketball is more than a pastime; for us, it is a sacred mission. It is a way to test our bodies and our minds, to engage in battle without launching missiles at foreign civilians, or punching out strangers—or ex-lovers¾in bars. It’s a test of willpower, stamina, intellect, skill, and most of all, devotion. By honoring our commitment to these four hours together each week¾no matter how tired, no matter how busy¾we honor our friendship, we honor ourselves, and we honor our love for the game. Basketball has become our temple, a place where we find our best and truest selves, and put them to the test. It is a place of struggle, and of triumph; a place of ugly exhaustion and beautiful perseverance; a place where, when you fail, you pick yourself up and move on¾and a place where your fiercest opponent is also your strongest supporter.

I’ve had a hard time with my body these last six or seven years. I gained a lot of weight, injured my knee and never fully rehabbed from the surgery. I struggled with depression, a hard New England climate, and with insomnia that left me drained and never well-rested. So over these last eight and a half months of playing basketball with Jon, I have struggled to find my strength and my wind. Jon can play twice as hard for twice as long as me. And on almost every occasion, I find that I am seeing spots, struggling to stand just minutes into our games.

Jon is always patient. He shoots around while I catch my breath. He never harasses or criticizes me. And no matter how weak or how tired I seem, he brings his full strength to our game. He respects me by giving his all every time he faces me on the court. I both love him and hate him for this. I want him to ease off, to cut me some slack sometimes, but he won’t. If I step onto that court and say “let’s play,” I have to be ready to face everything he brings.

Through the process of reconnecting with my athlete-self, my warrior self, I have found what I call, The Love. In those moments when the world is sprinkled with exploding black dots, when my heart is pounding and my chest is heaving, when my muscles have been worked into jelly, I reach down inside myself, way, way, down, and I find in there The Love. It is a power that stands me upright, clears my vision, and marches me back toward him where I will say again, “let’s play.”

He watched me do this once, obviously exhausted, unwilling to cave.

“You have the heart of a champion,” he said.

And he is right. Through our Wednesday and Sunday ritual, I have come to understand how it is that I can fight. When I am tired in the world and in my work, when I am overmatched in my relationships, when fatigue and weakness have drained me, when my vision is no longer clear, I am able now, off the court, to reach inside myself, way, way down, and find The Love that sustains me, The Love that keeps me here.

Jon and I play basketball in the same gymnasium where women’s basketball was invented. The legacy of that gift lives on in me, not just in my persistent jump shot or in my tenacious D, but also in the thrust and lust and willpower that I bring to everything I do. In the contest that wages on that court every Wednesday and Sunday night, Jon and I carry on a tradition of excellence and desire, and it makes us indomitable, both on the court and off.

When Dorothy Ainsworth hung up peach baskets and became the first to put balls into the hands of young women in that gym, she gave them not only a new opportunity for sport, she gave them a way to find Love. When I plunked myself down next to Jon Reed at that Bastille Day party, I opened the way for the arrival of something I had been longing for all my life. I opened the way for true love. And basketball.

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