Since our family tragedy, my mind has a tendency to race when I drive. Let’s put it this way, the average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day, but when I’m driving, 15 minutes or more down the road, probably a day’s worth of thoughts burst into my brain that amount to something likened to a hefty slice of the milky way.
I am beyond grateful that my daughter moved closer to home last August. So is she, because at the beginning of the month, as the world heralded in 2023, my daughter and her friends went on a long weekend escape, and I drove over 40-minute stretches one way for four days in a row to spend the day with her two fur baby rescue cats.
In my mind, the coming new year simply reinforced how the world continues to move on. In the revelers’ mental “crystal balls” they foresaw job promotions, reunions, trips, graduations and so many bright future possibilities. Over three years ago, I was part of this group. Now, I lack a crystal ball and determination. All I know is that it amounts to another lost year without my son. Another year in which I will strain a little bit harder to recall his deep voice, his silly smile, the way he glowed and his thick eyelashes fluttered when I assured him of his impending millionaire status by the time he turned 40.
Another year … another year … was my highway song this past New Year’s weekend.
“Did you stay up until midnight?” My daughter asked me in a text on the morning of January 1st.
I didn’t have the heart to inform her that, no, I was unloading laundry from the dryer at around midnight, trying to erase killer thoughts and staying to myself because I didn’t want to hinder anyone’s festive mood.
New Year’s Day evening rolled around, and I came home from the fur babies after a particularly disturbing exchange of “highway talk.” I sulked, sad and silent until I picked up my phone and saw an IM from my cousin in Ukraine, wishing me Happy New Year.
At first, I thought she contacted me for the sole reason of informing me of the arrival of the package. In actuality, she simply sent a wish: Happy New Year, my dear family.
No strings attached to her greeting. She didn’t receive the package, but she still cared enough to take the time out of her war-savaged world to wish me a happy New Year.
Now, I found something else to worry about. The package. Was it lost? Stolen? I mean, there is a war going on after all.
On January 2, I received the following IM:
I received your package today. I can’t express the joy of my children!!! I am very grateful to you for so many things!!! Everything is very good. one jacket was small for my son, and the boots were small for my daughter, everything else fit!!! I sincerely thank you, your friends. this is a very big help for me
Suddenly, 2023 came into full view by examining one sugar cube out of the big, bad bowl of unknowns.
Was I feeling better? Yes and no. I do best when I don’t judge ANY of my feelings, because my feelings remind me that I am a human being, a work in progress. Off or on the highway, it’s important for me to recognize the gravity of a situation and work through my feelings in order to move forward. NOTE: “Move forward” in this case does not mean “let go” of the grief because, as others have noted: we grieve because we love. (How lucky is that? LOL!) Moving forward, in this case, means to step through each day and be true to myself by allowing my feelings — whatever they are and for however long they exist. I consciously worked on this process for nearly 40 years, and what I’ve most definitely learned is that no one feeling will last forever (at least in my case). In addition, each and every time I sit with whatever feeling I am experiencing, I am stronger and more confident. The more I build myself up in this way, the less I have to tear others down. I am at peace in the world.
Feeling good all the time, FOR ME, is toxic positivity. It doesn’t work. I tried it in my early 20s and failed miserably. I remember when at 25 years old, I was out of control and a mess of emotions, because I always stuffed them behind a happy face. I couldn’t differentiate one emotion from another. How could I when I erased all my so-called negative feelings? My first newfound emotion was utter rage. (It makes sense to me now, because how else was I going to feel after having my identity robbed?) The day arrived when a mentor advised, “Embrace it. Embrace the rage.”
At first, I thought she was crazy. Then I decided I would try it. Day after day, I locked myself in the safety of my car and just hollered and screamed. That was my way to embrace the unwelcomed turbulence in my mind and before I knew it, it diminished in size and lost its demonic proportions. In other ways, over many years, I proceeded to deal and integrate other feelings and emotions. I embraced the pain. Embraced the sadness. Embraced the sorrow. Embraced everything else.
Before long, I could breathe normally again, and even learned to embrace the joy and the laughter, which I had felt guilty over. Suddenly I realized I could embrace the newness of a situation. Embrace the familiarity of old sheets, newly washed and calling for my tired body.
Mind you, embracing all this messy stuff wasn’t accomplished in a chronological or logical sense. I remember a lot of laughter while experiencing some of the most challenging, pent up feelings.
I consider myself fortunate in so many ways. Since I was 25, I learned how to embrace my messiness, because “my healers” embraced me during the process. I was never too messy to not be loved.
Maybe during the 1980s, folks were more in tune with their emotions. These days it seems no one wants to hear a sour puss or a sad puss or someone who isn’t happy and a great success through and through. Maybe it started with the inception of Fakebook when we lost our personal intimacy and human humility. Anyway, I’ve lost most of my early “healers” who loved every single bit of “the messy” I presented. I am grateful for their legacy, because it carries me and keeps me in balance.
“It’s okay,” I tell myself as I embrace what feels like but really isn’t the lowest of lowly emotions.
“It’s okay,” I tell myself when I feel I “shouldn’t” feel joy at a given moment, like when my grand fur babies are purring alongside me. “It’s okay,” I tell June, the deaf fur baby who chewed up my slippers. I can empathize with her anxiety. (Later, I found out it was Gemi who did it!)
“It’s okay,” I reiterate. (Before the tragedy I wouldn’t have been so understanding.)
I don’t need a crystal ball to see if it’s going to be another year of trials and tribulations, haunting memories and sorrow. It’s going to be up and down and all around, and with each passing day, I grow a day closer to the raw truth of my death. Even if I could have a crystal ball, I’d resist. Through it all, those wise owls that were once in my life gifted me with the priceless notion of faith. It’s made me into a big, bad mama, and I’ll take the ride flying solo, ‘cause I CAN, damn it. This is what I have learned. It is my proud culture pumping in my blood. In essence, I’m a born coward, yet biting the bullet, closing my eyes, taking baby steps into the landmine of life. I can do it, I can do it.Here I go, watch me.
One of my blogger buddies shared that self-motivation is tough and, obviously, that’s what it takes to blog on a regular basis. It’s even harder when there appears to be a lack of interest in the blog your write and, as a result, no or sparse comments. I can relate to why she feels that way. It can be scary to reveal your thoughts with the world. In return, it’s discouraging to feel like you’re not heard and people don’t listen to what you have to say.
Occasionally, I look at other blogs and marvel (with green eyes) over the thousands of followers and dozens of comments that each post attracts.
This concept is along the same lines as when my son, an adolescent at the time, cried out in defeat, “I’ll never be famous.”
No, he wouldn’t be famous. Not in the same vein as Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers. The reality is most of us are not famous or achieve an influencer status. Most of us just are. A close friend of mine, Father Francis Canavan from Fordham University, who passed in 2000, always taught me that being content with our mundane lives is a tough call for our ego to reconcile with. In our world of constant social media distractions, it is easy to feel we are missing out on the great life that everyone else is “Fakebooking” at the given moment.
We live in a society that celebrates beauty and success and encourages us to chase after it at all costs. Couple this phenomenon with an innate desire to be better, do better, and have more. It makes sense that when you tune into almost any news outlet for five minutes or less, it seems everything publicized is a punch fueled with greed, power and a lot of plastic surgery thrown in.
Don’t get me wrong, if these superficial things are floating someone’s boat, I’m all for it, but if outside impressions affect the silent majority, the “armchair onlooker,” to suffer in an unhealthy “I’m-a-nothing-compared-to-them” way, then the reaction can turn into toxicity and hurt them or, in its extreme, motivate them to turn against others or to resort to self-harm.
Of course, the antidote for ego deflation is to “live in the spiritual.” How? Who knows really what floats someone’s boat?
What provided me with some insight was watching a documentary on Mother Teresa this past Christmas Eve. I learned many things about this incredible woman, but the one that resonates with me is that she lived for 50 years, 50 YEARS feeling abandoned by God.
This state of abandonment is called “The Dark Night of the Soul,” and in Mother Teresa’s case, “The” night stayed with her for a total of 18,250 nights to be exact.
How did she forever change the world in such a profoundly positive way when she herself lived in despair? Certainly she did NOT allow herself to be guided by her dark feelings. She was, however, candid and wrote down her dark feelings and shared them to her own personal God and to a priest, who was also her mentor. Service, of course, was the glue in her life and later exulted her to a sainthood status.
Who, of course, would come close to exemplifying Mother Teresa? Certainly NOT me. After watching that wonderful documentary, I must say, my walk is lighter in my heavy-paired shoes. My faith is stronger and my hope is greater. In essence, I have a deeper understanding of how we really do matter in our own little ways.
And to that end, my son mattered to me. He mattered to Whitney, whom I spoke to on Christmas night. He mattered to a handful of incredible people who really loved him not only for his “worldly” facade (which was incredible!), but for the riches he left in all our hearts: his bright, inquisitive mind; compassionate heart and courage to go on for at least 16 years more than he could bear.
And, the same goes for my little, mundane life that I like so much in its own little way, because what elevates it to greatness is not my recent writing awards (although I am proud of them!), but of the special few people in my life who really, really love me. Who really, really matter to me.
A few of my friends, actually all of us, are aging faster than lightening. There is no other holier, loving gesture to me than looping my arm into a friend’s arm. Recently, for instance, my friend Camille and I were going into a Polish deli and, literally, strolled in arm and arm as if we were children, carefree; FREE AGAIN to just be the way we ARE.
“Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” — Mother Teresa
Camille did not need pierogies and, actually, doesn’t like them, but insisted that we go to a Polish deli she found on the internet a few days before the holiday, so I could get pierogies for Christmas Eve dinner, because the ones I hold dear to my heart “have to have pierogies for Christmas Eve,” and the Ukrainian church was too busy to make them this year due to the war. Pierogie is a type of food that originated in Eastern Europe and is now popular in the United States. It consists of a dough shell with a mixture of mashed potatoes, cheese, onions, and sometimes meat inside.
A few days after my deli visit, on Christmas Eve after church, the next one I strolled arm-in-arm-arm with was my friend Anna from childhood, who is having knee problems these days. She has been struggling with medical issues. It was hard to see her like this, and it felt good to be by her side during this tough time. It was good for both of us. Just for a moment, we were kids again in the same church where we were raised; laughing as we once did, standing on the same floor that has anchored us through these many years.
Now, in this rather fragmented blog post that will probably not attract many comments 🤣, what I’m trying to convey is that, in my opinion, it isn’t the NUMBERS and FAME of my blog so much that counts as it is those few special blog buddies that I’ve developed relationships with — from Preema and Anand in India to Judy in California and Alec in England and Ana and L. Hale and Cindy and Kathy and … wow … with such a tribe, I can go on and on, but I hope you know who you are. You, members of my blogging community, are the ones who truly matter, not thousands of nameless people who deep down really don’t care and wouldn’t go out of their way to buy pierogies for me, if given the chance on Christmas.
And, you see, that’s love. It’s the meaning BEHIND the words and thoughts. The people who love me this year, really, really were there on Christmas (symbolic of Christmases past). First and foremost, I name my daughter who goes to church for me most of all. (And I go mostly to honor my parents and to see Anna, my childhood friend.) The love also spun through the gifts I received: from Anne in New Mexico with her woolly socks that she probably went on a long, pain-in-the-butt peirogi kind of hunt to find, and my friend Michelle with her thoughtful “pain-in-the-butt pierogi kind of hunt” gifts and the same goes for my friend Hope, my daughter and the kid’s godmother and my fiance, who even took the time to wrap his gifts this year, and others who took the time because I matter in their lives. And, they, of course, matter to me and that’s why instead of scoping out something I like to eat, I’d rather go on my pain-in-the-butt pierogi kind of hunts for them.
So, at the end of the pierogi trail, as it turns out, the pierogies from the Polish deli that Camille and I found were not nearly as good as the pierogies from the Ukrainian church, but it’s the thought that counts.
And that’s what I want every single buddy blogger in the community to know: YOU MATTER TO ME. YOUR THOUGHTS COUNT! You fuel my steps throughout each year and get me out of my all mighty, egotistical self so I can manage to think of YOU and some of the things that surround your lives that I see as quite monumental and not at all mundane.
I wish all of you, dear blogger buddies, a wonderful New Year, filled with people who love you enough to take the time to find and buy you pierogies (even if they aren’t the best-tasting ones!) because the love behind the pain-in-the-butt pierogi hunt without fail brings home the prize. The batch may not be the best food you’ve ever tasted, but I promise, the meal will last a lifetime in your memory.
Last week, I promised to share another story this week about “Hope” and faith. My friend Hope, as I previously mentioned, also tops my angel list. She lives in the town next to ours and is a full-time working mother, dedicated wife and mom to three children ranging in ages from five to thirteen, or somewhere in that range. Since they grow up so fast it’s difficult to keep track!
She’s a professional social worker. Her dedication to service goes beyond the bounds of her profession and into her personal life as well. Her name “Hope” suits her. She is one person I know I can count on. Over three years ago, for instance, she, along with her husband and three children, were among a handful of people who participated in the walk my daughter and I organized to raise money for charity in honor of my son. Then at the end of the walk, we were a few hundred dollars short of our goal, and Hope donated the amount that pushed us forward to reach our goal. She showed me how joy could share a seat in a roomful of sorrow.
Anyway, about six weeks ago, I received an IM from my cousin Olya in Ukrainie, which, if you haven’t heard, is fighting a war against Russia, “hello dear Stacey…how are you? sorry for reaching out, but I want to ask if you can help me. I need clothes for the children and for myself. shoes, jackets, something. maybe someone can give some of their children’s clothes, maybe there is any help for Ukrainians in America. I don’t know if it’s expensive for you to send the parcel to Ukraine. but I’m just asking, I’m sorry if something is wrong. it’s very difficult now, it’s all very expensive for me.”
“.… there is not enough money for everything. if it is expensive to send me a parcel. then I will understand .. sorry for bothering you. thank you for the answer, hugs)”
Over these last three years, for no particular reason other than I am a fervent reader and love history, I’ve read a number of books pertaining to World War II. When Olya contacted me, I was reading the award-winning novel The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. The novel, which has been made into a movie, takes place first in 1939 when the Nazis invaded France. Below are a few highlights of the book’s description:
“ In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.“
“… The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France — a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.”
At times I found the novel to be utterly intense (especially when it started to hit one o’clock in the morning!), and I forced myself to detach, albeit temporarily, and gave the novel a rest. Of course, the characters kept me company throughout the day, because I couldn’t stop thinking about them and how they were forced to face the atrocities of war.
Even if I wasn’t reading a war-related novel that made me more empathetic than I am, I’ve adhered to a set of practices and principles in my life and one of them states that I am responsible – when ANYONE, ANYWHERE reaches out for help.
Why? Because for well over three decades, I’ve been given examples to follow by some of the most incredible people, all ages and from all walks of life. They do not preach (please spare me!) but teach by example. Like Buddha (meaning awakened one or enlightened one), they are people of honor who are conscious of their actions. I always felt that my Big, Bad THANK YOU to these Big, Bad Buddhas was to fill their unmeasurable shoes and match their qualities as best as I possibly could.
SO, the goal formed, Mission: Pack and Ship Parcel to Ukraine to Sweet Cousin. The first challenge was to find out WHERE do I go to ship a package to Ukraine? It was brought to my attention that the senior center in my town was shipping packages to Ukraine. So that took care of that.
Next step was to figure out sizing, EUR versus U.S. At this point, the kid’s Godmother, Pat, my daughter and fiance were involved and we each turned up contradictory sizing research. Then things started to look clearer when Godmother Pat went to the shoe store and found (how simple!) that the boxes all have both EUR and U.S. sizes printed on them. She also bought a few pairs of shoes while she was there to add to a snowsuit and pants I ordered. How exciting finally to view the makings of a parcel, although we sure had a long way to go! And, I still had different clothes size charts to contend with.
Hope entered the picture when during a fierce rainstorm, she sent me a text message informing me that her electricity went out. I texted her back, “Hope electricity ⚡️ goes on soon. My poor cousin in Ukraine loses a lot too due to war….”
After a text message exchange, I told her about the parcel in the works and she replied,“I’d be happy to buy warm gear for the kids and adults if u have sizes.”
SIZES! Oh, boy! The clothes size dilemma restarted! In addition, I reiterated that she did not have to purchase new clothes because used clothes were perfectly acceptable and, actually, my cousin’s initial request.
Hope wrote, “Of course we want to help! U don’t think she’d want new clothes? I know she’s concerned about cost but we want them to have what they need ….”
In the interim, back to the drawing board, I tried to figure out the correct sizes. I contacted my cousin again, trying to convert sizes with her … we were getting closer to figuring out the right sizes for her family: My cousin; her husband who is working in Poland; her teenage son and her three and a half year old daughter.
Finally, it seemed we deduced the correct sizes, and I felt as if we hit the jackpot!
Hope shot me a text, “Boxes are on the way to ur house … hopefully both within the week.”
I thanked her and she said, “Happy to contribute! I can’t imagine not being able to keep my kids warm and well!”
While I was waiting for Hope’s deliveries, I ordered a few other things on our end, and the parcel was looking good.
Then Hope’s packages arrived and it resembled an early Christmas! I couldn’t believe the quality of the down jackets she ordered; plus, jars of vitamins and socks, socks, socks, not to mention a few toddler toys thrown in.
When I saw all the items, I couldn’t help but hear Whitney and Bradley’s faith-filled voices of affirmation and faith … “We’re already here.” That was the message through and through. I barely had to ask Hope for help and there she was already there, as was her track record.
Does it get more Christmas-y than this?
The story continues!
I ended up packing THREE different packages (I admire people who work in mail rooms) and delivered them to our town’s senior center only to discover that they weren’t sending packages to individual homes. Instead, they send donations to Ukraine as a common relief effort.
From there, I went to the post office, which was conveniently located near the senior center. I could ask, right? Mary, at the post office, weighed one of my three boxes just for the heck of it, and it turned out shipping charges totaled $150. Wow. By the time everything was calculated, I was looking at about $500 — if not more.
Fortunately, come to find out, the Ukrainian church where I’m a parishioner, ships packages every week. I didn’t know this information because I haven’t been actively attending services. Anyway, the people involved are a husband-wife team who volunteer to send packages to anyone residing in Ukraine. The priest gave me the contact information. I called the man, and he instructed me to come to the rectory at noon on the upcoming Sunday, and I followed his instructions.
After I arrived, the man and I decided that in order to save money, he would break up the contents of my three boxes and load them into one huge box that happened to be available in the small room that doubled as a mail room. I watched the man work diligently. He had huge hands, cracked fingernails and rough skin that only a man who works hard labor can claim. He said very little and reminded me so much of my father who passed away in 2000. In fact, he shares the same first name as my dad, Myron.
When the process was completed, the entire package cost what one package would have cost if I had sent it via the U.S. mail. In addition, the package’s expected delivery to my cousin is approximately two weeks.
When I returned home, I informed my cousin that her package was on its way. She responded, “I am sincerely grateful to you, and to everyone who helped you …. I am happy that I have a family, even though it is so far away. Thank you for your support in such a difficult time for us. Peace be with you and God’s blessings.”
I replied, “We are SO HAPPY to have all of you! Love you very much!!!”
In this case, expounding on what I wrote in my last blog post, “Family IS DNA (but still not necessarily just DNA)!”
We can all be a part of one Big, Bag Buddha Bunch, not divided by distance or culture, only united in the small time we have on earth.
As the year draws to a close, it is important to remember that there are only so many Christmases* on the calendar of life. This year, let’s shine forth our best Buddha.
Merry Christmas to all!
щасливого Різдва (Happy Holidays!) as we say in Ukrainian! Or, Христос народився! – Christ is born! In which we respond, Славімо його! (Let us Glorify Him!)
*Hanukkah; Kwanzaa … and whatever holiday you celebrate!
Probably the worst A-hole (excuse my expletive) topping my endless list, is Aunt, I’ll call her, “Jody.” “Aunt Jody” is my ex-husband’s mother’s sister who is semi-retired in Tennessee. Over three years ago around this time of year, my grief-stricken daughter and I discovered that Aunt Jody lived within the vicinity of my son’s last home in Kentucky.
Our plan was to fly into Nashville, sort through my deceased son’s belongings, attend his memorial service and drive his car back to my home in Connecticut. In light of the circumstances and to express solidarity, my ex-husband willingly offered us her contact information.
I sent Aunt Jody a text inviting her to my deceased son’s memorial service that was slated to be held at his place of employment during the week we were in Kentucky. I informed her that we understood if she was unable to attend and, in this case, would be grateful to meet her for a quick cup of coffee in order to connect.
The sole reason I contacted Aunt Jody was that I wanted to affirm to my daughter that she had roots. I have always maintained that strong roots bore healthy growth. From day one, that’s all I wanted for both my children: roots, family, a sense of belonging. However, as it transpired, both my children had minimal contact with their extended families. Ironically, one of the attractions that drew me to my then husband was his big, boisterous family that spanned the northeast and the midwest of the United States. I couldn’t wait to experience how it felt to be part of something so large. When my ex-husband’s grandparents, then in their eighties, and since long deceased, traveled from Michigan to Connecticut to attend our wedding in 1991, it reinforced everything I had ever dreamed of: unconditional love. After all, I was the one who wanted no less than six kids. To me the more family, the more love … and you can never have enough love, can you?
Anyway, over the years, my own family mostly died off and those who lived remained generally uninvolved. On the other hand, my ex-husband, as well as his family, totally abandoned my children at the end of 2010. In my ex’s case, he had suffered a mental breakdown. As far as the rest of his family, although there was no particular reason or a dramatic blow up, I inferred that they did not want an added burden or any drama in their lives. I get it – at least I tried to understand. (Over the years as I grew to know them, I thought up names that described them perfectly, Ice Queens and Ice Kings.)
There I was — my usual naive self — emailing invitations, calling, sending a note via U.S. mail to Aunt Jody. No response. So I kept at it. Finally, about a week prior to our dreaded trip to KY, I was in the car with my daughter and my phone lit up with her text message and I read it out loud.
“.… I thought the whole thing over and I don’t feel we really ever had any contact with each other before and I don’t see a reason for us to start that now …. “
“What else would you expect?” My daughter immediately responded. My daughter is a mental health professional, but the pain that sliced through her voice also tore through me.
What else would I expect? I’d expect her to sound as if she shared the same DNA as my daughter’s. I’d expect her to extend herself during the worst, most excruciating time of our lives. I’d expect her to empathize and to act on her so-called Christian principles and meet up with us to give us a hug in our sorrow. It is in sorrow we find strength. I’d expect her to represent the deeper meaning of Christmas. I did not even have the heart to reveal the outcome of his aunt’s response to my ex-husband; he never asked, because we, generally, do not communicate.
It may sound like it, but division is NOT the end of this story. Shortly after receiving the rejection in the text message from Aunt Jody, my daughter and I arrived in Nashville. While the world awaited Christmas, less than a week away, we held onto each other tight, painful and alone, separated by the incommunicable language of grief.
At the airport we rented a car and drove to our hotel in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The following day, we, out-of-town strangers, parked and exited our car on an empty road less than a block away from the sheriff’s department in a small town located about an hour outside of Nashville. We were early, and we defeated our unwillingness by dragging our feet toward the main entrance to begin the process of collecting my son’s remaining tangibles.
“I hope Whitney and Bradley get here,” I said to my daughter, my voice trembling, a sharp, bitter wind making me feel as if my tear-filled eyes would freeze. They were my son’s friends and co-workers who found my 26-year-old son dying in the closet and unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate him. The same young age as my son, they learned firsthand how trauma could fold into a day that started out as an ordinary Tuesday in which your thoughts already paint inside the lines the fun colors of the upcoming weekend. They were the couple whom we spoke to since the traumatic day unfolded, a month before. They had promised to meet us at the sheriff’s office.
What happened next was something really out of a movie. Two figures intercepted our route. “We’re already here.”
We’re already here. And there they stood before us: Whitney and Bradley; bringing us warmth like two hot mugs of cocoa on an unforgivingly frigid December day would. We embraced in a manner only family could.
Fast forward to today. I’ve been to the icy and snow covered barren place where no human being should roam and, especially when I’m feeling vulnerable, it’s always easy to take a mind trip and be sucked into a destination that freezes my heart and soul.
Instead, I’ve consciously trained myself to choose a detour. It is signaled by remembering Whitney and Bradley’s angelic, booming voices, “We’re already here.”
From there, I may still have the weight of the black hole over me, but I see my big feet making little strides to shuffle forward to the next right thing on the list.
Three Christmases ago, Whitney and Bradley gifted us with a Christmas miracle: From the time they said “We’re already here,” to the time we left, they never abandoned us and, instead, met every single one of our requests.
Now, let me say, I have an Angel list that counters my A-hole list. At the top of the list, of course, is Whitney and Bradley. I have others on the “A list.” Some of them are reading this blog post right at this minute! Every year at this time, I work hard to focus on my list, teeming with Angels that give me the faith to carry on.
Next week, I will share another story that I hope gives you hope in a world that sometimes can seem as if it’s being overrun by A-holes. It is the story of hope, and the main character’s real name IS Hope, and she also instills a faith in me that reminds me of the Christmas miracle that Whitney and Bradley bestowed on us, teaching us the significance of family and being fully present and available — as my daughter said when she was around seven years old and already understanding the environment around her, “Family isn’t just DNA.”
… Beans, beans, beautiful beans … this year, I hosted Thanksgiving Day dinner and beginning on the Sunday prior to the holiday, my kitchen was not only filled with the aroma of pinto beans, tomatoes, chili powder, cumin and a few other ingredients to create a streaming, steaming array of delicious pots of chili, but also an improvised melody of my singing – beans, beans, beautiful beans to a tune similar to “Skip to My Lou.”
If you live outside of Canada or America, you might not be aware that Thanksgiving’s traditional main dishes of roast turkey and/or baked ham are complemented by common, seasonal side dishes, such as stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, green beans, cornbread, squash, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce and for dessert, pumpkin pie. To serve chili on the holiday table is something akin to ladling out simmering chicken noodle soup on a hot summer’s day – it doesn’t quite fit.
The first Thanksgiving feast between the native Wampanoag and English settlers, Pilgrims, was in the fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It’s likely it consisted of venison, fowl (geese and duck), corn, nuts and shellfish. The modern dish we know as chili, also known as chili con carne (chili with meat), comes much later on in American history. “It does appear to have roots in the American West, particularly the State of Texas. An old legend holds that immigrants from the Canary Islands brought a recipe for chili with them when they settled San Antonio in the early 1700s.”
Enough of the history lesson.
“Chili is not supposed to be part of the meal,” my fiance, a pure traditionalist engaged to a pure non-traditionalist, commented with a slightly bemused expression after he realized that my dinner plan was to serve three different versions of chili: spicy hot, mild and vegetarian.
“Well, it is now,” I replied and went back to cooking.
My sister-friend Anne gave me the idea of making chili for Thanksgiving after she sent me a large-sized ziploc bag of dried pinto beans from New Mexico, the state in which she resides, in the care package she sent this past November. They’ve been one of the consistent, individually wrapped gifts that she’s sent in her thoughtful parcels over these last three years. Sometimes she pens notes about the background information of each gift. For instance, she always writes that she travels forty-five minutes one-way to a farm (I don’t remember its name, but it’s a long German-sounding name) to purchase the dried pinto beans. That’s Anne. She packs every little bean of life with a mammoth punch of love.
There’s typically a separate package in each delivery marked “Stacy and Alex” for me and my daughter, as there was this year. Last month we unwrapped two silver angels, a small and large one, inside the recycled brown bag wrapping. Her accompanying note said they caught her view at one of her favorite greenhouses, and they had our names written all over it. All I can say is when you enter my living room, the focal point is the large silver-toned angel in the center of the fireplace’s mantle.
Anne might live across the country, but her creative powerhouse fuels our spirit and reminds us of the good in the world. In fact, in proximity to the silver-toned angel is a gold and pink-colored, three-inch acrylic dragonfly that she sent in her first package, a Christmas package, the tragic year in which we lost our North Star, Alex’s brother and my son. Sorrow blacked out our holiday, and Alex and I were unable to exchange any gifts. Anne’s individually wrapped goodies arrived via first-class mailing service. Inside, she paired the dragonfly with a blue-colored butterfly. On the attached note she explained that a dragonfly represents change, transformation and an understanding of the deeper meaning of life. The butterfly, on the other hand, she noted meant “hope.” To this day when I see the dragonfly in my living room, as well as the butterfly where I placed it in my garage, they give me a sense of faith.
In that particular holiday package were, of course, a large-sized ziploc bag of her “famous” beans .… Beans, beans, beautiful beans ….
Now, let me say one more thing about the darn New Mexico beans. You gotta soak them for days. And slow cook them for hours and hours and hours. Otherwise, they are crunchy. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to eating. I don’t want my beans to have the texture of potato chips. They really are a nuisance to cook. But in the end, it’s so worth it. The process reminds me of how unconditional love can be inconvenient. In the end, though, the chili made with the pinto beans are yummy each and every time, which may or may not be the result of the unconditional time and devotion you give to a human being. Either way, after undergoing the cooking challenge, I’m a better, more disciplined person because my behavior is a reflection of me. One thing certain after the beans are FINALLY cooked, the chili made, my exhausted self looks in the reflection of the mirror and says, “Damn, that was a good job. Stand tall. Stand proud.”
Additionally, in the package this year was a cutting of her fresh organic sage, direct from her garden. I added it to my TRADITIONAL stuffing, and EVERYONE said it was the best stuffing they ever tasted – and it was, thanks to Anne. So, this past Thanksgiving, Anne visited in her own special way, every time I served delicious stuffing and chili.
Almost every night, holidays included, I light one of my candles in Anne’s honor. I started the tradition after she kicked off the ritual for me and my family a little over three years ago during our tragic time. Although we live on opposite sides of the United States, she always feels close by like a woolly blanket.
Don’t kid yourself, love CAN be bought as long as it’s given unconditionally – gift wrap optional.
So, what’s the ins and outs of making a great chili bean recipe? A lot of patience if you get dried pinto beans from some faraway farm in New Mexico! No matter what you prefer, add a little cube of unsweetened baking chocolate. It balances out the spices in the dish and makes it rich and satisfying, much like a lifelong friendship.
Mild, Non-Vegetarian Chili 🌶️ made with Beautiful New Mexico Pinto Beans
(you can substitute your own dried or canned beans)
Dried or canned pinto beans, about a pound or a pound and a half, depending on how many beans you prefer in your chili
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil; or non-stick cooking spray
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large sweet white onion, diced
2 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
3 small cans of tomato sauce
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 to 4 bay leaves, use less if they are large bay leaves
1 teaspoon parsley
1/4 teaspoon black pepper or cayenne pepper to taste
Squeeze of lime
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
a dash of pickle juice if you have a jar of pickles on hand (you heard it right!)
Unsweetened baking chocolate, 2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate baking bar
2 cans of evaporated milk
1 carton beef broth (you will use about half of it)
1 to 3 pounds of ground beef (depending on your preference)
Salt to taste
If you are using dried pinto beans, soak overnight in water with bay leaves. (With New Mexico bean, I soak them for a minimum of THREE nights and then quick boil before using them in the slow cooker.)
Place oil in a large skillet (I use my cast iron pan) and set to medium-high heat. When the oil glistens, add onions and cook for 2-3 minutes. Next, add garlic and cook for another minute.
Add spices and stir often so they won’t burn.
Turn up the heat to medium and add meat and brown. Once the meat is brown, stir in beans along with bay leaves. Cool. Add to slow cooker. Top with tomato sauce. After tomato sauce is emptied from cans, pour evaporated milk into tomato cans, swirl the liquid around and pour into slow cooker (I don’t waste anything.) Add beef broth as needed to keep chili moist but not too watery, and chocolate and stir, stir, stir. Squeeze the lime juice, add balsamic vinegar and, if you are a super creative cook adventurer, pickle juice. Slow cook at least eight hours. Freezes PERFECTLY, so you can enjoy it during the winter months; it will surely warm you up like a wooly blanket of friendship.
While my sister-friend, Anne, who lives in New Mexico, was walking home from the park yesterday, she sent me this photo and she wrote, “… My ocean view. Horizon makes me feel it’s the ocean.”
Anne’s mom was my Godmother, one of the most loving influences in my life. Our families knew each other long before I was born.
Now, for sure, the horizon in the photo DOES resemble a realistic ocean scene even though the shot was taken “deep” in the desert. It is so typical of Anne’s character to find possibility in the impossibility. Needless to say, she’s a positive person, and every season in her life, she stirs up a fresh batch of homemade lemonade that tastes like sunshine. It is the perfect antidote to winter blues and helps lift most emotional downward spirals.
Of course, there’s a prerequisite, though, to making lemonade out of lemons – you need a desire first. Then you act on the motivation, and that’s where faith comes in to help carry out the goal.
No matter what difficulties Anne encountered in life, she always kept her eyes on the horizon to help level her out and not sway too far from walking an even course. In fact, whenever I found myself in Anne’s company, we rarely stared at a new batch of lemons. Instead, we rolled up our sleeves, sliced and squeezed the pulp. In the end, no matter how hot and barren our lives may have felt, we clinked our glasses before we experienced a refreshing taste of lemonade. The sensation invigorated our spirits and gave us the strength to carry forward. Today, whenever, I need a lift, I reach for her treasured lemonade recipe.
“Yes, Anne.” I wrote her back after she shared her photo, “I see your ocean view horizon, and it’s beautiful, full of life and wonder. Cheers to a future of endless possibilities!”
… Maybe I’ll visit Anne and ‘the ocean in New Mexico’ firsthand. We can walk together from the park while we finish the last drops of lemonade from our insulated tumblers, and search for angel figures and heart shapes in the clouds that can be seen, even when the weather is bad, by those who know how to look.”
Last Saturday, November 19, marked the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. Each year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention honors the day by helping to organize large and small events at different venues around the world. The events connect people who are survivors of suicide loss with mental health professionals, and provide a safe, empowering, empathetic and educational space that supports and exemplifies the value of storytelling and shared experiences.
This year, two-hundred and seventy-one events took place at different sites not only in the United States, but also in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Russia, Scotland, Taiwan and South Africa.
The International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year, which, if you think about it, can be viewed as an oxymoron. How can this day, centered around grieving parents, spouses, children and those affected by suicide, be in such close proximity to a holiday that celebrates blessings? What sort of “blessings” can there conceivably be when it involves heartbreaking, unexplained losses, and deaths associated with widespread societal stigmas that oftentimes are hidden below the underbelly of silence and shame?
If we examine Thanksgiving Day itself, one definition of it is “an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Americans generally believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people.”
Conversely, since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have organized the National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day. “To us, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, because we remember the millions of our ancestors who were murdered by uninvited European colonists, such as the Pilgrims. Today, we and many Indigenous people around the country say, ‘No Thanks, No Giving.'”
After experiencing our own personal tragedy nine days before Thanksgiving Day of 2019, our personal day of mourning helped me stand, as never before, in solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters. “Solidarity” is commonly defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action.” Ever since our family’s post-tragedy during that “first” Thanksgiving in 2019, each year afterward, I not only acknowledge a feeling of sadness, but I consciously act differently. I make it a point NOT to stuff myself and over-indulge on food, drink or merriment. By nightfall, I direct my eyes at the endless blanket of stars in the night. To me, each star represents those people around the world who have or, at that very minute are, through circumstances beyond their control, forced to leave the comfort of their homes and homelands. In addition, I think about those, now and through history, unjustly serving time in brick and mortar prisons and those trapped in minds of mental illness.
So, anyway, last weekend, five days before this year’s Thanksgiving Day, I feared that attending a suicide loss survivors conference at the Noroton PresbyterianChurch could plummet me to the depths of despair.
Coincidentally, the previous week, I watched an incredible movie, Mission: JOY, “a film that shares the humor and wisdom of two of the world’s most beloved icons, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”
The movie kicked off a four-day summit based on Joy. The theme on day two was “The Inseparability of Joy and Sorrow.” In a segment entitled, “Inciting Joy: A Poet’s Perspective with Ross Gay,” Mr. Gay elucidates a number of definitions pertaining to joy. Most apropos for this blog post, he explains that joy “emanates from the tethers between us when we hold each other through our sorrows.”
He continues saying that the definition not only pertains to the concept of grief associated with death, but with other losses as well. The common thread, he says is that “We’re all heartbroken, all of us, and all of us are in the process of dying, as is everything we love.”
Between the conference I attended and, now, heading into Thanksgiving week, I’ve felt a sense of interconnectedness that Mr. Gay refers to, and I’ve realized how our stories of our shared humanity can land us in a place of belonging, a place, symbolically, that is home. This helping of “comfort food,” BTW, is the complete opposite of my typical “There’s no place for me to go” frame of mind.
The Dalai Lama, in fact, in the movie, mentions a Tibetan saying, “Wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”
I will tell you the moment I felt I was “home” at the survivors conference: when I sat in a circle of about fifteen people at the church that donated their facility for the event. It was the moment Michelle Peters, area director of the Connecticut American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, welcomed the group, her throat constricting as she tried to suppress the tears in her eyes.
It was apparent that the sorrow was not only her own. It signaled Ubuntu in its purest form. Ubuntu means “I am, because you are.” It is derived from an ancient African word meaning “humanity to others” and describes connectedness, compassion and oneness.
(Again, quite coincidentally, the theme on the last day of the four-day summit based on Joy was “Interconnection & Ubuntu.”)
In other words, although Michelle did not know us, nor our stories, there were no strangers in the room. She knew our hearts and the depth of our sorrow.
I am because you are.
From the onset of the conference, Michelle set a “Thanksgiving” table in the affluent town of Darien, CT, and we sat and spent the bulk of our time sharing tears and sorrow, anger, disgust, rage, stories, more tears and sorrow and more stories and even laughter, all connected to the heart of the soul, the heart of Ubuntu, where our genders, skin color, ages, backgrounds, political affiliations, IQ’s and all the labels were set on fire, ablaze in solidarity. We held each other in our sorrows, and in the process, joy and thanksgiving filled the day.
“Marshall Matters,” January 18, 1993 to November 19, 2019
My wish for each and every single one of you in my blogging community is that you find a renewed purpose, a fearless sense of thanksgiving to enable you to embrace the sorrow in your personal brokenness, and keep the faith that your brokenness will not break you, but allow the light and spirit of Ubuntu to shine through the cracks.
My dear friend, Bob, has been a practicing Buddhist for most of his life. He is now in his 70s. I’ve known Bob for nearly 38 years, and he is one of the influential “zen men” in my life. We met up last week, and we exchanged our usual dialogue.
“How are you, Bob?”
“How’s everything going, Bob?”
His enthusiasm nearly knocks me over each and every time. It’s as if his every living breath is channeled into his exclamation, and it never fails to wake me up in my own life. Bob is like my buzzing alarm clock awakening me to my stagnant state, to my captivity in my own head’s prison built on fear, falsehoods and frailties that feed me at the given moment.
It never fails. Bob signals me to realize that I’ve been stuck in my head. I’ve missed the day gone by, including the entire car ride that brought me to visit with Bob in the first place. I’ve missed the trees outside. The front door I just swung opened, and the fluorescent lights in dim room. The minute I notice the rosy patches of Bob’s cheeks that glow and resemble the human heart, I almost feel as if I’ve exhaled for the first time in a long time.
At the end of our zen-centric conversation when I am about ready to leave, we always say, “I love you,” and embrace gently, as we have for 38 years.
I move toward the door. The hardwood taps under the rubber soles of my ankle boots. As I swing open the door, my hand feels the glossy coat on the freshly painted wood that is flecked with grains of lint in its texture, reminding me of the imperfection in perfection. My insights give me the faith to keep up the journey as I recall the miniscule part I play in the “GREAT!” scheme of life, because I have escaped my tiny mind long enough to inspect the vast universe directly under my nose.
Butterfly season is winding down. When I go outside to pick tomatoes in the garden, even on the high-temperature days, I feel a lack of warmth in the air, and it’s not only because we are headed into autumn. I search around the perimeter of the yard as if I am a grammar school kid waiting for my neighborhood buddy to meet up and play.
In my case, I await the “Painted Lady,” but she has disappeared. I suppose she already migrated south to Mexico, although I wish she stayed around just a little longer. I had become accustomed to my daily garden visitor. I’ve never really paid much attention to butterflies until I met this one. She was fearless. A few times when she orbited near my face, she startled me. Each time I went outside, I began to long for her peaceful presence. Her delicious tangerine-colored body made me yearn for a ripe summer fruit. The white spots and black markings on her wings drew me in further. It was as if I were stalled from my daily routine and, instead, standing inside an art gallery, meditating on a painting’s technique and imagery. Her appearance awakened my senses as if they were young and keen again.
One day in mid-July, I had a sudden feeling of recognition at the sight of her. “Is that you, Beach Lady?”
Could the Painted Lady possibly be a reincarnation of the Beach Lady, an extraordinary woman I met in the early 2000s during my travel writing days?
You see, I was working on a story about Amelia Island in Florida and was introduced to MaVynee Betsch. In the same year she was born, 1935, her great-grandfather, A.L. (Abraham Lincoln) Lewis, one of the seven co-founders of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and Florida’s first Black millionaire, bought the American Beach property on Amelia Island.
As racial segregation and oppression escalated across the United States, A.L. purchased what, thanks predominately to Mavynee’s influence, today is designated as a Florida Heritage Landmark. His vision was to create a beach resort to benefit his company’s executives and also use as a sales incentive for his employees. What’s more, he opened up American Beach to the Black population. In essence, it was a safe haven for the marginalized population to experience sun, respite and fun.
I only spent a weekend with A.L.’s great-granddaughter, but the environmental activist reinforced my views of the preservation of our natural resources. She, too, inspired me to believe that positive outcomes were possible. After all, she had spent a core of her life fighting to preserve and protect a historically African-American beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast. She additionally provided me with enough food for thought to help fill my insatiable appetite for American history.
When I first met the Beach Lady, as she was lovingly called, she lived predominately in a trailer on the property where she was as much a fixture as the land she loved, a diamond by the sea. The most unique diamond that I can imagine. Actually, she preferred to wear shell and beach stone-themed jewelry, and when she walked, she rattled.
Whenever I picture her crease-less face with her hair packed on the top of her head like a solid soup tureen and free falling dreadlocks down past her ankles, I first remember her sandy, bare feet. Her dark toes were full of the contrasting light-colored American Beach sand. The little shells wrapped around her ankles were as distinct as the bold orangy colors that draped her body. Her statement was loud and clear in the many button pins, including political and pro-vegetarianism, attached to her hair and clothing. Her ageless-aging process was an example that builds me up as I now watch liver spots form near the palms of my hands. When, for example, I dare to go against convention and wear my rose tinted, lizard-patterned boots that shout “totally inappropriate for my age,” the Beach Lady’s legacy fuels every step in my soles.
Her six-foot height along with her over foot-long nails curling from her fingers on one hand matched her big, beautiful personality. Everything about her was as natural as the sun, sea and sky. For over 20 years, she allowed her hair to grow without touching up the grays or cutting any of it. Some of her tresses, in fact, measured over seven-feet long. Her stretched-to-the sky fingernails proved the point that things could have natural, healthy growth without any meat protein.
“All I want is to be reincarnated into a butterfly,” she announced to me on numerous occasions.
A few years later, I learned that the Beach Lady died from cancer at the age of 70 in 2005. She was posthumously honored as an Unsung Hero of Compassion by the Dalai Lama in the same year.
So nearly twenty years after meeting her in person, I suddenly see a bright and beautiful butterfly greeting me at every turn. Is it possibly her in a new form front and center in my backyard? Did she get her wish? If anyone should have been granted everything she wished for, it was MaVynee Betsch.
All summer long, every time I spotted the butterfly, I couldn’t help but inquire out load, “Is that you, Beach Lady?”
Whether it really was the Beach Lady reincarnated into a butterfly or my pure imagination or not, the Painted Lady gave me a little faith to realize that when we are beaten down to soil level proportions, sometimes all we need is a flutter of hope to defy gravity.
The following post contains content that may be disturbing to some readers
I always took my coffee with an extra shot of Half-and-Half cream. Black, like a charcoal-colored suit for a funeral, that was my friend Alan’s after-dinner preference. Careful to sip our coffees gently without burning our lips, we swept the bread crumbs left over from our meal onto the floor. The scattered morsels did a good job to assimilate into the pistachio cream-hued speckled design on the linoleum table. It was the waitress’s oversight. We never voiced our complaints and, instead, acted graciously to compensate for our extended coffee hour that stretched into six or more cups as the night wore on. During each passing hour, we were well aware that there was a strong probability that another party was anxious to secure a proper nicotine fix at one of the few tables that we claimed in the roped off, “limited smoking” section of Athena Diner.
I met Alan through one of my dearest girlfriends in the fall on 1984, a turning point in my life. Many Friday or Saturday nights through the end of the 80s, she and I, and at least a handful of other friends and colleagues, gathered at a local club to hear Alan play the drums in his band at the time. We were the band’s proud sober groupies that channeled Bengal tigers with our roars, while we tore up the dance floor.
The diner was not only where we went to feed our stomachs. It was where we went to feed our minds and souls. Diner talk was honest talk, undiluted, untainted and presented in purest form without mincing or sweetening words. “I really don’t know if he likes me,” I said one night to Alan. “I mean, he hasn’t asked me out on a date. At first I thought he was shy. Now I’m wondering if he likes me more than just platonically, but he’s taking his time asking me out,” I added to further clarify the situation involving a fellow co-worker, who symbolized my non-love life perfectly at the time.
I fed my platonic friend across the table each detail as if I were feeding krill to the unending appetite of a blue whale. His head tilted down until his linear nose came into full view, and I pictured a fish lunging into water. Alan listened, sometimes for thirty-minute spans. Perhaps it was because I was 12 years younger than he was, and I represented the sister he never had. He also lost his mother through illness when he was an adolescent. His father was, at the time I knew him, frail and riddled with numerous medical problems. His brother, like most of my peers back then, ran important lives that required their full attention, which left Alan as his father’s primary caretaker.
When I finished my incessant chatter, Alan, like a fish jumping out of water, would tilt his head back up toward the buzzing florescent light. Then would look deep into my eyes.
“He’s either, A: Scared to ask you out. B: Not interested. C: Not interested D: Not interested.”
Deep inside I already knew my work colleague was, as simple as A-B-C-D, not interested. Fortunately,Alan was the kind of guy who could soften any dagger.
When he said “You’ll be okay.” I believed him.
He played his drums with the same special touch. Furthermore, he used the same kind of talent when he worked his day job, employed as a professional house painter.
He was a darn good musician in the same way I was a darn good writer, which was my side gig. We were both Good, but not GREAT in the sense that we weren’t stand-out creative types enough to pave the road to stardom. We did corner the market with the courage we possessed. The courage to look within, and it helped us settle with and accept our compromised, lonely and longing lot in life.
As far as I know, Alan had one love in his life. Her name was Regina. She was slim and sensible, a “trust- fund baby” who grew up within an elite circle of investment bankers. Alan felt he was inferior to her from the very start. To that end, he relished every let-me-pinch-myself-now moment that he spent in her company. Eight months after the couple met, she dumped the tall, lanky, t-shirt- and jean-loving Alan for a man with a medium height and build, who owned his own brokerage firm in New York City, and regardless if it was a holiday, weekend or weekday, he preferred to dress in a pinstripe suit.
When the focus turned off my non-existent love life, the floor turned to Alan ruminating about Regina. Regina this and Regina that. I think it was a solid seven years, before he finally threw the anchor she had on him into the high seas of sanity and never mentioned her name again. As far as I knew, too, he never dated anyone after Regina.
I was in my twenties during the window of time when all the kids I graduated from high school with turned into bona fide adults: getting married, having kids, securing mortgages and car loans. Alan and I, on the other hand, were deemed nonconformists, and for that reason, we were loners. We worked day jobs, dreamed big, but love interests and big-time opportunities seemed to by-pass us and, instead, land on others around us.
Our relationship was one hundred percent platonic – as long as I avoided wearing red shoes. I found this out one night when I appeared at the Athena dressed in red sneakers with white laces. Alan’s glossy eyes twinkled like flickering Christmas tree light bulbs. He could barely murmur a word and acted like a love-struck teen.
“What the heck is up?” I questioned, partially astounded, but yet tinged with anxiety and fear.”
“I fall in love with women who wear red shoes. Any style of red shoes. Any kind of woman. Old. Young. Fat. Thin. Beautiful. Ugly. Girl-next-door types.”
Girl-next-door types? I loved Alan but not in any romantic sense. It stands to reason that I did a bee line swiftly tapping the floor tiles on my way out the diner’s door through the vestibule and into the parking lot, only to point the car north and drive home.
From that day forward, I never wore a red pair of shoes and, to this day, Alan’s starry eyes superimpose any real, photographed or rendered image that I encounter over a red pair of shoes.
No matter how much daily heartbreak and disappointment we shared during our regular weekly conversations, Alan’s comic side lightened the load with his impersonations of the people we knew. When he laughed, he closed his eyes tight and all these lines formed on his face, making it look like soft rock crumbling all at once.
Through our musings, we tried to understand ourselves in relation to the world. One unforgettable night, Alan taught me a lesson that I have carried like an extra dose of bone marrow.
That night, I was particularly loud and self-absorbed, chewing over the injustices at my workplace and in the family that I had been estranged from.
“See this,” Alan announced. In the air with his hand, he drew an elongated rectangular shape, bigger than our linoleum table at Athena. “Imagine the size of this table. Think of how much bigger the diner is. Now, imagine how big this town is, especially in comparison to the diner. Now, imagine the size of the state with millions of people. Imagine the tri-state area, and add the millions of additional people. New York City alone has over seven million people. Now imagine the entire United States. All the continents. The entire world with a population somewhere over seven billion. Billion. Masses and masses of people, not to mention all the animals and living creatures. Billions and billions of living creatures. Imagine?”
Each time Alan made his point, each new sentence forced my anxiety level to crank up a notch. I found myself breathless by the time he I heard him say, Imagine?
“Now,” his voice receded like the tide away from the shore. “Where are you?”
Where am I?
After I left the diner that night with a full stomach as well as a gross amount of food for thought, I pondered over just how insignificant and small I was in the scheme of things, realizing that I was only one grain of sand (as Alan also described) among the endless bodies of ocean. From that time forward, the intensity of my life, my needs, my wishes and desires deflated. I became less stressful. Less self-serving. I started to listen more and talk less. For the first time in my life, I took comfort nesting in a back seat of life. I realized that in the same way the desert triumphs in the process of erosion, so does a person’s being when it rewilds to its peaceful place of belonging — humility.
Some nights when I met up with Alan at our diner table, other friends joined us.
Usually, the latecomer in the group, everyone laughed after I arrived, because I elucidated my preferences for whom I wanted to sit next to in the group at the table by chanting: “AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL-AL.”
Between Alan and me, there was no superficial talk. Nor did we argue about politics (I never had an inkling as to his political affiliation) or converse about religion (he was non-religious). Nope, we just bonded, heart to heart and our doubled strength helped us survive an endless string of lonely nights and isolated days that in the strongest sunlight could be inked out with indigo ink. “The Sound of Silence” was our theme song, as it is for so many who fight through the battlefields of depression.
Alan, though, like faith on an endless skewer, bridged me through. He helped me trust that not all men were beasts and the possibilities of putting one foot in front of the other grew not only stronger, but I learned to walk a graceful step through life — no matter how I ached.
Day by day. Week by week. Month by month. Year by year. Even though we saw less and less of one another, we got through.
Alan went on and etched out an extraordinary retail management career for himself. After I married in 1991, it wasn’t until I saw the video a few weeks after our wedding that I realized Alan sang a song alongside another friend during our wedding reception. Today, I don’t remember what song it was, but at the time we got married, Alan’s band had fallen apart, so I thought he wanted to leave me a song for old time’s sake, and it was like a personal gift to me.
As our family grew, I saw Alan less frequently, but around 2012, I called him out of the blue during a family crisis. At the time, my 22-year-old son had plummeted into one of the worst states of depression in his history. Who, but Alan, who lived through so many years fighting the same foe, I thought, could help me save my son.
Upon requesting Alan’s help, I was shocked over his response. “No one can help him if he doesn’t help himself. He’s an adult now.”
Fortunately, my dear friends, Effrim and Kathy, flew to my aid and, to make a long story short, the four of us ended up laughing together that night over life’s hardship and, in essence, we turned the horrible experience into comedy gold.
From that day on, Alan and I were lukewarm to one another. I forgave him for not answering my pleas, but, understandably, I felt hurt, disappointed and, in some respects, betrayed.
Fast forward 2018 when I met up with Alan again. He had just recovered after a difficult battle of fighting a rare cancer illness and was miraculously in remission. I was relieved and happy that, from all accounts, he was healthy and getting his life back on track. After that meeting, we again lost contact with one another.
At the end of August this year, three days after my birthday, I learned from mutual friends, Alan had died by suicide two weeks earlier. He had poured an emollient over himself and lit himself on fire in a public park. By the time the police arrived, he was burned beyond recognition. It took nearly two weeks for the coroner to identify him, one of my first male friends who taught me about unconditional love.
As far as I see it, there are two groups of people in life. Actually, three. The first group lives a pretty straightforward, smooth life. The second group lives through hardships, such as divorce, bankruptcy and foreclosure. The third group, that’s my circle. We, at least for most of us, don’t want tragedy to define us, but even though we have somehow impossibly survived it, it continues to follow us around like our shadow self. When we see the latest breaking news headlines of horrific crimes and atrocities, like the terrible war in Ukraine, we are the ones who do not “imagine” the horrific circumstances and consequences. We are brave. We are honest. We live a life of far-reaching sight – and accept the reality – as unreal as it may seem. We are the consumers who see a brand of mountain water named “Liquid Death” in the local drug store’s fridge and nearly hyperventilate, anxiously fleeing the aisle, knowing the founders are likely not former POWs of any war or have they experienced first-hand a serious crime or injustice that strips you from the life you once fit into like a soft moccasin. In addition, “Death Saves” hats are not our form of comical marketing merchandise. Instead, this kind of marketing makes our hearts heavy, and we view it as irreverent trash that kills our landfill further.
We are the tiny circle of people who are much too keenly aware of how it is to sit down at the diner’s table together and relish everyday pleasures like a hot cup of full-bodied coffee, only to be detonated by a cruel bomb that robs your “good” life – full of worries, feuds and foibles – away for good.
After I heard the news about Alan, and after I dealt with a surge of emotions, involving regret, guilt, anger and, of course, inconsolable sorrow, in my own personal way, I came face-to-face with why Alan did not come when I beseeched him to come and help me during our family crisis. Day in and day out, he had his own daily crisis to deal with. His own personal demon.
I had tried to draw water from an “empty well.” In other words, he was depleted. Shockingly, I realized that if he had tried to help my son, it may have led him to his own demise much sooner. When it came down to it, he could name his demons, but not face them. He spent years running from them, until, in the end, they literally inflamed him.
Even though I had in the past forgiven Alan, I really, really forgave him this time, because I was able to see the bigger picture, even though it horrified me. I understood.
I went outside and sat in a far corner of the yard in the stark dark night, allowing the memories and thousands of tears to tear me. There was nothing left to do or say, only be at peace with living tragedy after tragedy, thereby creating a tragic life.
“It sucks.” That’s the way I see it, as my therapist says to me so many times.
What I am left acutely aware of is that living through a tragic life makes me keenly sensitive to the fact that circumstance is on the outside and virtues, such as humility and courage, are seeded inside by the honorable, honest people who have influenced me. People like Alan, who, when they are at their best warrior places in their lives, leave me everlasting impressions and mellow tunes to follow with every stride I take on the battleground.
Good night, my beloved friend. Rest now. At last. I love you from the bottom of my heart that you so long ago helped mend with your sweet words and melody. Wherever you are, I hope you and everyone dances to infinity in a pair of red shoes.
“Light must come from inside. You cannot ask the darkness to leave; you must turn on the light.” –Sogyal Rinpoche