WALKING HER HOME

Adrift. That’s the word that floated into my teary vision as I sat in my car outside the facility my mother has resided in for the past seven years. These after-visit pauses have become part of my ritual in the past few months.

There is always someplace else I need to be, fitting in my mother’s care and comfort as I do between the over-arching needs of my autistic daughter and the other pieces of my life’s work. I just can’t seem to rush off the way I used to, though. I need these little islands of time and quiet to process the latest iterations of mum’s decline. The downhill roll has picked up speed, it seems, as she moves ever closer to the time she’ll leave her body.

My mother and I have talked about dying, death, and the afterwards for decades, beginning when I was a teenager. Sometimes in snippets, sometimes in long, deep conversations, we’d discuss some new perspective one of us had gained through a book, a life shift, or our individual growth. We share more than a few overlapping beliefs about the life of the soul. It’s a sturdy connection between us, a deep comfort during this time where so much is tenuous.

Mum’s body is weakening. At 93, cancer and several peripheral conditions seem to be simultaneously consuming her from within. Her cognition is variable, too—sometimes sharp and clear, her signature intelligence and humor intact and vibrant. Other times—more frequently by the week now,—she is confused, delusional. The combined body-mind decline makes it exponentially harder for her to complete simple tasks like getting dressed and staying hydrated. She chafes against what is happening, has told many in her web of family and friends that she’s lived long enough, has no intention of reaching her 94th birthday. At least once a week, we’ll have some iteration of this verbal volley:

Mum: This isn’t the way I planned for things to go.

Me: I know, but we don’t get to choose.

Mum: Yeah, but this is taking too long.

At which point one or both of us will manage a wry sigh.

Mum has been traveling a great deal lately. She’ll relay her trips to me and my siblings when we call or visit.

I’m exhausted. I was in England last night.

Oh? Where in England?

At the palace.

or

I was up in Maine with so-and-so. I had to sleep on the uncomfortable bed in the cabin. We couldn’t get back here until today. I am sooo tired.

Several times, she’s been upset, almost frantic, wondering where we (her four children) all are and what she is going to cook for our supper. There has also been frequent mention of a baby that she needs to take care of. She isn’t sure whose baby it is, only that the child is in her charge.

My late father has shown up a few times, too. Though they were divorced in 1976, his appearances seem benign, even welcome.

She will often be at least partially aware that she is describing an illusion, but each feels very real to her. I think she is straddling different dimensions, moving almost fluidly between them. I’ve said as much, and if the cloud cover in her brain is minimal that day, she’ll agree, or say maybe, but it’s not fun.

These past ten months or so have been all colors of challenging, fascinating, sad, beautiful, and draining. I’ve been aching to get some of it down on paper. Time, and concern for her privacy, have kept me from trying. A few weeks ago, though, when she was quite lucid, I told her that I want to write about it. I don’t want to be disrespectful, I said. I don’t want to intrude on your inner life or claim it. I just want to write about my experience of it, of moving through this with you. Her answer astonished me. How can it be disrespectful? she said. It’s what is happening.

Recently, she misplaced her lower dentures. Logic led me to look behind her bed, which is where I found them. She was amazed at this, and exclaimed that it must be my fairies that told me where to look. (I do often ask the angels for help when something is missing, and while I didn’t call on them that particular day, she remembered this.)

Mum: What do your fairies say today?

Me: They say ……. they say it is a honor and a privilege to help walk someone home.

And so it is. Only those that predecease their parents avoid this bittersweet reckoning, these fraught goodbyes that will render us orphans. It is gut-wrenching, but if that’s my experience I know my dear mother is living it one hundredfold stronger. I’m grateful to be there to help ease her way. When I’m wrung out and not sure how I can keep rising to the dual caregiving of daughter and mother, the fairies will be there to remind me— it is a honor and a privilege to help walk someone home.

What Do You Know?

What do we know for sure? I find myself wondering, lately, if we mostly hold the beliefs that suit our ease.

For some, self-contempt can provide a kind of familiarity which becomes belief. For others, there is ease in what’s left after all the anger—which is really a mutation of pain—gets bored and leaves, or burns away. Some find their peace in caring for others. Some may see truth in the days that offer little resistance to their status quo. Most of us may host a little of each of these.

Here’s a piece of what I know.

The dresser in my bedroom chafes at being called mine, or ours. It doesn’t relate to our words bureau, chest of drawers, or, for that matter, dresser. It prefers to be called proprietor. For this I hold deep respect, just as this proprietor holds my property.

I suspect the clothing and jewelry held therein does not necessarily enjoy being called those words we use for them. I’ve no way of knowing this, for I don’t have a conversational relationship with them. Well, except for the pyramid pendant that belonged to my mother.

Everything is sentient, but everything doesn’t always choose to be perceived that way. That is my experience, and therefore it is fact in my world. I feel no urge to lay that belief on you, though.

My daughter’s ways of being defy most norms. Manners are a great challenge for her. If anxiety and compulsion press her towards your nose, looking for the relief that a single light touch seems to bring, your negative reaction can send her spiraling into a small terror. She will remember you and that moment forever. Years from now she may be able to recite the day and date that you recoiled from her attempted touch. She will be repeating any comments you made, in a pretty good approximation of your volume and tone, into her tape recorder and into the air. She will scrawl about this in many a scribbly journal. She will not like you. Progress means she didn’t vomit when you said NO.

My daughter, a grown woman by any age standard, remains delightfully child-like in the ways she reacts to the world around her. She knows the colors of every song you could play for her. She struggles to understand that you don’t have such a skill. She sings when the urge strikes her, audience or no.

In the past few years, she is increasingly able to relate the experiences of her past. This can be…

Quite wonderful;
On 4/7/16 you started having gooey oyster. (Her words for my soft hair).

Enlightening:
The reason I cried on the bagnadahl grass girl Teletubby Wednesday is because the rice had cold texture. (No, I can’t tell you exactly what this means, but she clearly did not like the rice on that day!)

Horrifying:
“Mommy XYZ dragged me and pushed me and screamed at me.” XYZ was a teacher she had when she was under 10 years old.
“Mommy why XYZ said I hate you?” Daughter does not know how to lie, so I have no doubt this happened to her. “I didn’t have the words to tell you back then.” These particular deeply upsetting revelations led to my first two dozen attempts to introduce the word *abuse* into the teaching moments about how others should treat us.

I do not question what my daughter knows for sure, just as I wouldn’t second guess your right to name your own knowing. You don’t need to hear the proprietor speak in order to believe that I do. It’s the free sharing of our individual lived experiences—which includes deep listening—the alchemy of honesty and curiosity and respect, that seems to prod the important conversations. Rich fodder for growth.

–Melinda Coppola

Accepting Autism

Ten years ago, April was designated Autism Awareness month. April 2 is World Autism Awareness day. There has been a movement towards renaming both of these, replacing awareness with acceptance .

Robert Frost wrote,” Always fall in love with what you’re asked to accept. Take what is given, and make it over your way. My aim in life has always been to hold my own with whatever’s going. Not against: with.”

I don’t know many people who fight against the reality of autism. On the contrary, I know dozens of folks who have grasped their circumstances with both hands and shaped them into something meaningful, useful and beautiful. Affected individuals have found ways to educate non-autistic folk and improve the lives of others on the spectrum. Parents of children with the diagnosis have created organizations to assist with creative housing solutions, adapt recreational activities, and push legislation to protect our vulnerable loved ones from abuse and neglect.

I wrote the below poem four years ago. Today seems an appropriate time to share it once again.

Autism Awareness month is April,
World Autism Awareness Day, April 2
and, in case the day lacks color,
(as if any day with Autism in it could be dull),
the mysterious Namers-of-Days-and-months
have painted it a medium sort of blue.
I wonder who decided this;
and how it was chosen,
this perfectly ordinary second day,
and weighted with a long middle
moniker, like a fish
plucked out of the ocean,
tagged and thrown back
into what used to be
a perfectly ordinary fourth month.
And why a color? Why this one?
Does Autism look like blue
to outsiders?
Pondering this, I roll up my sleeves,
prep the tub for her,
the one who turned my life on its ear,
she who makes me laugh,
she who wears me out,
she who is a master of repetition,
she who defies reduction,
who is multi-colored, many-hued.
She who is unaware of your awareness,
who, if asked, would mutter “ Not interesting”,
she who needs help with a bath
but can take a thing
and spell it backwards,
report to the air/no one in particular
how many redundant vowels it contains,
and how her lunch reminds her
of Home on the Range.
She who hears songs in color,
who does not stay in her bed all night,
who is frightened of beads with holes,
she who knows if there’s a day to be aware of
it’s the fourth Friday in February,
which is called Ate Baby Kate, and that means bad,
and therefore must be worried about
many months in advance,
she who can sing whole CDs in order,
she who tells me thirty times a day
that I’m a girl ( in case I forget)
She who needs more than I have
who gives more than I need
who has more than you think,
who is more, so much more,
than you give her credit for.
And so, dear you-who-aren’t-aware,
please allow me to set the record straight.
Autism is multi-colored,
and awareness is every single day,
and no blue second day of any fourth month
will ever matter more
than your interest, your kindness, your respect,
your willingness to help us challenge
a world that would reduce anyone
to an assumption
or a label
in one color
on one day
within one month.

–Melinda Coppola

Notes from a Parallel Universe

I’ve written a fair amount about life with my adult child. As I plod ever so slowly towards creating a book about the journey, it occurs to me that the pace at which I’m working on that is in sync with the overall pace and rhythm of our life together. Bink will turn 28 this weekend. I’m not one to fixate on the differences between her development and that of a “typical” young adult, but the anniversary of her birth seems to stir things up for me. From that churn this poem arose.

The View from Here

You say
you just caught glimpses
of your child
as he sped past toddlerhood,
towards those labels
that mean everything
and nothing: child, tween,
teen, young adult.

Glimpses, you say,
as if it all tornadoed past you
while I stood stupefied,
hands in pockets,
by the side of some dusty cow path,
a perpetual look of dull
surprise on my unremarkable face.

Truth is,
over here our lives
are nothing like that.

We have plodded along
like turtles in the too-hot sun,
she and I,

pausing every few feet
to rest, to allow her
a few attempts at integrating
the latest sensory assault,

which could have been a wind
shaking the branches too fast,
or the distant sound
of a jake brake on a downhill semi
from a highway half a mile away.

Her needs are special,
which means our shimmy
is your slow dance,
our milestones
seem like simple addition
to your kid’s calculus.

I’m used to it,
adept at appreciating
the kinds of beauty
that decorate this life
that chose me, and her.

It’s not the pace of it all
that leaves me sweaty
and gasping for breath.

It’s my head spinning
as your children date
and learn to drive,
go to college,
get married,
have babies,
buy a house,

flying so far from your nest
you can’t squint enough
to make out the tiny dot
their bodies make
as they soar onward,
commanding the skies.

–Melinda Coppola

When all this is over…

WHEN THIS IS OVER

Bring bread,
chewy and warm,
wrapped in that red
checkered tablecloth
that always sings
picnic,

which is short for
happy family,
easy friendships,
peace and plenty
in our town
state
country
planet.

We never went on one,
a picnic,
not once in all our
together years

even though we had that red
checkered cloth,
and enough love
and hope
and time.

Bring bread, baby,
while we can still bake
and chew,
while we can still be
alive together,

while earth still
hosts the wheat, the rye,
the farmer, so trusting,
sowing seeds.

–Melinda Coppola

Brown Girl Hair Has Left the Building

Bink loves girl hair. For the uninitiated, this translates to long straight hair hanging down, on a female of any age. Preferably, the hair should be visible equally on the right and left sides of her head.

I’ve had long brown hair for 25 of my daughter’s 27 years. At one point, it grazed the small of my back. Bink loves reaching for a lock of my hair, especially when she gets up in the morning, when we part and reconnect during the day, when she is feeling anxious, and before she goes to sleep. Brown Girl Hair has even become my sometime moniker. Superguy has been known to refer to me as BGH (for short) in his texted or emailed communications with Bink, or when he addresses me in a birthday card.

In addition to being Brown Girl Hair, I’ve also been identified as Gooey Oyster. That means soft, smooth, silky hair in Bink’s world. Through no fault of mine, she loves raw oysters. And, to her sensibilities they are smooth and silky soft, like my hair. So she’s used the Gooey Oyster identifier along with Brown Girl Hair for some time.

Bink would prefer my hair down all the time, but my life is rather active. When I am cooking, cleaning, exercising, teaching (or doing) Yoga, caring for the cats and many of my other miscellaneous occupations, it is much easier and more practical to tuck it all up into a quick bun. This has led Bink to write, “You are not bread.” on napkins and leave them around the house for me to see, or to record into her tape player, ”Mom should not have a bun because she is not bread.”

We have been known to negotiate. “Hair down?” she’ll ask. “I’m cooking,” I’ll respond, perhaps for the fifth time. “Hair down at 4:40?” she’ll say, with an edge of faint hysteria in her voice. “I’ll put my hair down at 5 o’clock.” And so on.

I’ve loved hosting long hair at many points in my life, and other times I’ve tolerated it. Snarls happen easily, and the high-quality conditioner and combing in the shower precedes the two hour drying process. No hair dryer, except for the bangs. I’ve no time or patience for the tedium of all that hand-held noise, and it’s not good for the hair, either. There’s also the impracticality of having my long—albeit soft and shiny, gooey oysteresque—locks hang down and hinder my free vision or motion. Worse yet, it can inadvertently get dipped into a pool of mystery goo on a counter, or catch some errant cat food as I bend to clean up after our messy felines. Sometimes, I’ve found myself feeling tired of the process required to maintain all that girl hair.

I’ve broached the topic of Cutting It many times with Bink, who has reacted with a variety of expressions of displeasure, anxiety, and horror. When asked what she loves about her Mom, Bink will inevitably say, ”Her brown girl hair/gooey oyster.” I’ve often joked that, if I cut my hair short, my daughter would be in the market for a new mom.

She grows older, though, as do I. Signs of flexibility and maturity have been showing themselves in the past few years, particularly as Superguy and I push the envelope more. We are, after all, in the service of helping her become more independent, given that there will come a day when she will have to live without us. (Deep, heavy sigh inserted here. Topic of another blog post, or another fifty of them.)

I’ll be fifty-nine in a few months. I’m keen on decluttering my calendar and my environment. I have never been more aware of the need to make room for the things that really matter, like good health, and quality time with beings I love, and for the book that needs to gestate inside me. A new yen to Cut It Off began to make itself known in the past month or so.

Cue new consult with Superguy and Bink. “No,” she said. “Not above the shoulders,” said he. I reminded them gently that, despite evidence to the contrary, my hair belongs to me. And I was ready to cut it.

“It won’t be super short,” I assure them. “But I am getting it cut. I will let you know when it is going to happen, and everything will be OK.” And, you know what? It was.

A few days later, just before Christmas, I walked into a hair salon I’d never been to and plopped down my 25% off coupon. I told the lovely lady wielding the scary looking scissors that I was ready for a change. “But, not too short. And, I’m not a high maintenance type. I’m not going to put products into my hair and spend time in front of the mirror blow drying my mane into submission. And, I still need to be able to put it back, or up.” And then I let go. Kind of.

That afternoon, I picked up Bink from her day program wearing my new ‘do. She’d been warned, and after her name was called she peeked anxiously around the corner to assess the damage. Then she trundled towards me and put her hand up to touch my shiny, freshly-blown-out hair that would probably not look that stylish again until or unless I visited a salon.

“It’s still Gooey Oyster,” she said, and my heart got all melt-y and began to drip big blobs of love and appreciation all over the Pergo floor. My girl was doing her best to find a positive in this situation that she’d been dreading for years. Though Superguy and a few select others would have some sense of what a big deal this was and is, only I knew the true magnitude of that moment in the lobby of her day program. It could so easily have gone a different way; and it didn’t, because she is amazing and wonderful and she is growing and changing and she defies expectations more often than I probably give her credit for.

Bink is used to it now. She informs me at least daily, ”You’re not girl hair but you’re still gooey oyster!” Only twice has she wondered aloud if I’ll ever have girl hair again.

I do feel inclined to tell you, reader, that my hair is not actually short in anyone’s estimation except Bink’s. I had about six inches cut off, which leaves me with layers that end below shoulder level. It’s easier to manage this length, for sure, but I also feel benefits beyond shorter drying time and fewer tangles.

Bink’s willingness to bend and her ability to adjust to this big modification of one of her major comfort items leaves me feeling hopeful and proud, and lighter in more ways than one.

–Melinda Coppola

My Daughter, the Foodie

The Pies by Bink

Bink loves food. In fact, her relationship with it goes far beyond what tastes good and satisfies her hunger. She loves looking at cookbooks, finding recipes on the computer, and watching cooking shows. The painting subject she selects for her weekly art class is often something edible. The paintings on our walls at home, and the stacked finished canvases along the baseboard in the living room, depict pies, ice cream sundaes, candy apples, oysters, brie cheese, jars of pickles, and other things that make her mouth water.

She enjoys cooking and baking. Although she needs the substantial assistance of another adult and takes frequent breaks, her enthusiasm about picking recipes and helping to make them is always high.

One of my favorite observations about this love affair Bink has with food is the photography it’s generated. The girl takes pictures of everything she eats, or finds appealing. That “everything” means every rendition. If she tastes her own meal or snack and finds it lacking, she has learned to say, sometimes, that it needs more salt, or sweet, or some vinegar. Once the missing taste is added, she’ll take another picture. The food on her plate may look exactly the same as it did a few moments before, but to her it is quite new.

A definite omnivore, my daughter wouldn’t dream of eating pedestrian fare like hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, or chicken nuggets. I certainly have no problem with her avoidance of those foods, and I do celebrate her widening palate. When she was three years old, she went through a phase where she would eat only blueberries and dry Cheerios. Neither is on her Yes list now. So, what does she eat?

Bink is attracted to the spicy, the sweet, the pungent, and the pickled. In her relatively short life, she’s enjoyed an enormous variety of comestibles that you’ve likely never granted transport across your own lips. She once had Ostrich Carpaccio with her father when she was about ten years old. She loved it, as she has also relished occasional octopus, eel, braised rabbit, many kinds of lamb, a rainbow of pickled plant life, anchovies prepared a number of ways, and a small variety of dried spiced crickets. She salivates at the thought of raw oysters and enjoys Teriyaki seaweed and ostrich jerky as a snack, when available. Very, very few of those things have made it onto my plate.
Most ethnic foods are yesses, especially Indian, Moroccan, and Japanese. She also loves many of the Korean delicacies her dear Aunt Young makes for her. Think homemade Kkaennip Jangajji (pickled Perilla leaves) and Japchae ( spicy glass noodles with vegetables).
Over the years, I’ve honed my cooking skills to suit her palate. Eggplant, bell peppers, smoked duck, goat cheese, and the above-mentioned lamb, are generally high on my own list of Will Not Eat. Still, I can handily transform them into dishes with an Indian, Chinese, or Japanese twist for my gourmet daughter.

Bink takes her lunch to her day program most days, and we plan those lunches together. On Saturdays, she’ll decide what she’d like to have for her lunches during the following week. We shop for the ingredients on Sundays, and cook more or less together most Sunday afternoons. Bink favors warm lunches, so typically she’ll take a lidded ceramic container of soup or stew, along with a side of something pickled or some sticky rice chips, and water. Yesterday morning, however, we had to cobble together a cold lunch, as her day program was headed to Newport, Rhode Island, wouldn’t be back in time for her to heat her lunch. She and I managed with anchovy fillets, some of my recent batch of zucchini pickles, Kalamata olives, and some coconut sticky rice chips, each of those foods nestled into a little Tupperware container. The beverage is always water, which makes it easier.

One of Bink’s quirks is that her food preferences can turn on a dime. When she requests something, it can come from memory, or from perusing cookbooks and The Food Channel. Sometimes, she’ll get very excited at one of my (or our) creations, and will eat it with gusto until it’s gone. Other times, she’ll enjoy it once or twice, and then I’ll get a text during a weekday, or she’ll announce at dinner or breakfast,” I’m tired of ______ (that thing that took two hours to make). ”

On rare occasions, we can negotiate a way to doctor the taste of the food with a seasoning or sauce, and she might deign to try it again. Often, though, she will not touch said food again, at least for a few months. So, we might end up with a container of some very spicy eggplant, or a soup that tastes and smells like strong fish sauce. I really don’t like to waste food, but Superguy and I just don’t have the stomach for some of Bink’s choices. We do know a few hardy souls who enjoy some of these things, so we can share some of the cast-offs as well as the excess from my more successful creations.

I’m well aware of how fortunate we are to be able to offer this quirky gourmet a variety of things she enjoys. It’s important to me that she eat as well rounded a diet as possible, and I have come to enjoy a little adventure in my cooking. Also, not all of her preferences are expensive or unusual. She likes particular pizza from certain places, and she’ll sometimes enjoy garlic bread and simple vegetable soups. Raw carrots are in occasional favor at the moment. She really likes sweets and baked goods, though she limits them to once a day and generally writes four NO TREAT days into her wall calendar. That last one is a story for another time.

Next month, Bink will turn twenty seven. Some kind friends, a family with a wonderful adult son who is also on the spectrum, have invited us out to dinner to celebrate in a few weeks. Bink is already anticipating an order of creamy raita, with just the right amount of tamarind and mint sauces mixed in, to savor with her Peshwari naan. She’ll probably share an appetizer of vegetable Samosas with me. Then there’ll be some kind of spicy lamb dish, and perhaps she’ll have a little of whatever curried vegetable there is to share. For dessert, she will be delighted with some cardamom scented Kheer (Indian rice pudding) or sweet sticky balls of rosewater infused Gulab Jamun.

Truth: Just now, on this Wednesday midday as I sat editing this piece for the blog, Bink called me from her program. That doesn’t happen too often, and usually it means Something Is Wrong. What was today’s message? “ I’m tired of the lemon risotto. Lunch I want balsamic mushroom barley soup tomorrow.” And so it is. Would anyone like a serving of perfectly good parmesan infused lemon risotto?

–Melinda Coppola

The Melting Popsicles by Bink

WALKING


At twelve, thirteen,
fourteen months,
when most children
begin to walk,
or make a show
of pulling their soft
wobbly bodies
to stand,

you were content
to sit and rub
the carpet, watch
the fibers grow fuzz
beneath hands
you didn’t seem to know
belonged to you.

A plump child you were,
with flesh-ringed legs
and arms,
at least three chins.

As you grew
stronger, my arms
did, too,
carrying you
room to room,
holding you
while you screamed
inconsolably,
and turned away
from others,

while you recoiled
at sights and sounds,
textures, certain clothes,
and any kind of shoe.

We didn’t know about autism,
not yet,
but I quickly learned
what brought you comfort.

When you were at peace
I could be, too.

I wonder
if you recall,
as I do,
when you were sixteen, eighteen,
twenty months
plopped on the grass,

making a study,
it seemed,
of the individual green blades,
your fat hands
brushing the tops of them
over and over,
your face some mix
of stern concentration
and happy fascination,

sweet reprieve from the screaming,
relief for my strong
but tired arms.

And still you grew,
and rebuffed
my attempts
to hold you up by the armpits,
sing walking songs
show you videos
of babies toddling happily
from toy to toy.

It was this,
the not walking,
that brought my questions
to doctors,
to Early Intervention,

that began the parade
of specialists and therapies
I never dreamed
would become our norm.

It was a blur in many ways,
that time,
but I recall when
you took your first,
tentative steps.

You were two
years two months,
finally ready
to trust your feet
against the hardness of the earth,

to step forward
into the blur of delight
and confusion
and newness
and noise.

–Melinda Coppola

Kind or Write?


I’ve been finding it challenging to encapsulate life with my daughter, Bink, lately. Hard to shape words for the page and even for casual conversation with friends, many of whom have their own experiences with parenting and/or caring for people they love who have special needs.

It’s not for lack of material. Bink continues to surprise me at times, wear me out at others. She delights while calling forth all my mental, emotional, sometimes physical resources, in almost equal measure. She’s growing incrementally towards greater confidence. She’s opening up, revisiting some foods she’d dropped from her odd gastronomic repertoire, talking of trying some activities like skiing; these are things that are, in my world, a very big deal.

There is so much I want to share, and yet I’ve been noticing more guard rails hugging the road I walk and ride while parenting her. Sometimes my own hands show the callouses that tell me I’m on the work crew, building those stout metal fences with what might be a thought of safekeeping. But what is there to keep safe? I’m aware of maintaining some privacy for her and for our family. That’s the why for the blog names I’ve given daughter and husband, and the way I don’t show many pictures of her.

Maybe that’s part of the tension. As she grows, so do her talents. I’m biased, but she has a range of them that almost beg to be shared. She sings beautifully, and has a huge memory vault of songs going back to even the little tunes I made up for her five or six months after she was born. I want to record her and share some of that melodious magic with you. She is developing into quite an artist, and as our walls that display some of her work
beg for mercy, the canvases stack up along the baseboards. She wants it all framed and hung, you see.

She has been horseback riding for over a year, an activity that Superguy and I shared some pessimism about when she began. Knowing her as we do, we figured the combination of a good bit verbal instruction (which can overwhelm her), the smell of the barn and paddocks, and the physical challenges of maintaining good posture and engaging core and leg muscles for thirty minutes would culminate in a short-lived equestrienne experience. Between us we probably gave it four weeks. I’m thrilled she has proven us wrong!

I’ve talked with Bink about recording some of her singing and sharing it, and she said that would be OK. I know she’d be fine with gaining a few more admirers for her paintings, too. And there is just so much life, so much that is funny and sad and fascinating in our day-to-day. It all wants to be written, whether read by fifty or by three. And yet.

I’m fortunate to have a few handfuls of writer friends, gained mostly from some fabulous online groups and communities. Our blocks are a common theme. There seem to be endless reasons to stop writing, or at least to stop posting what one writes. Sylvia Plath wrote that self-doubt is the worst enemy to creativity, and I’d have to concur that one ranks pretty high on the list. Not surprising, right? We all have an inner critic, and s/he can be very compelling, and nasty.

And then there’s the prickly issue of other people. I think most writers are introverts, and some of us are, umm, kind of sensitive. Working on thickening our skin, perhaps, but tender in places. A casual, well meant, and possibly quite constructive comment, or an innocent question, from a family member or close friend that reads our work, can send some of us into the claws of inner critic, the alpha bitch. “ See? Your writing sucks,” she’ll hiss. The effect? Shutdown.

There are, also, the other other people. The ones who have had a big impact in not-so-positive ways. For Bink,
some of these people and her interactions with them can take up a great deal of her headspace. Her mind seems to be full of what I can only describe as files. They go back to her infancy (and even before, but that’s a subject for another day).

Once a file from a certain part of her life is open, the things that happened during that time period get played out over and over. I mean this rather literally. Unfortunately, a lot of her recall involves unpleasant scenes and comments. She loves her old-fashioned tape recorder, and she can regurgitate the exact comments people made, in a good imitation of tone, volume and inflection the way she experienced them. She can even recall the date and day of the week these things were said, or done. She scrawls in her journal about these things, too, and creates lists of questions for me to answer the way I think the particular person would answer them.

Bink doesn’t record the sounds and events of her past for the benefit of an audience. Save the aforementioned lists of questions for me to answer, she doesn’t seek a reaction from me or Superguy. In fact, she seems a bit taken aback when we suggest that it may not be the best thing for her to perseverate endlessly on the things people did or said that upset her. She might respond with, “ I’m just trying to understand it.” Or, “ I like to hear the voices.” or even “ It’s important to me.”

As you might imagine, it can be jarring and also enlightening to hear the things a few certain people said to Bink, sometimes decades ago. She doesn’t know how to lie, so there is no doubt these things were actually said. Some of them are appalling. I can only hope they were not actually yelled, and that the loud volume she recalls and imitates is a result of her sensitive nervous system and wiring.

Bink opens new files every five or six months, and re-opens old, familiar ones more often. There is always more to learn from her well-organized memories. Mostly, the people who star in these spoken or written negative memories are not actively in her life anymore. That’s probably a good thing for them because I’d have questions and some sharp words for them.

What does this have to do with my difficulty writing about Bink of late? Well, it’s a delicate thing, to either include or extricate the parts about her obsessions with unpleasant ghosts. I think it’s very unlikely that any of them read my work, but one never knows.

I’m a big fan of Metta, the practice of loving kindness meditation. It has saved me, at times, from becoming entangled in sticky globs of anger or fear or bitterness towards a person or people or happenings that seem to have hurt or wronged me, or Bink. There is a process to the practice, a form and shape that starts and ends in the heart center. It begins by directing deeply loving attention first to the Self. Next, there is a gradually expanding circle of invitees, beginning with the loved ones, then the liked ones, then the neutral people, and finally the people (or circumstances) who challenge us the most. Yup, the practice is to open the doors to the most tender and loving place inside. Once the guests arrive, we make them comfortable, and then proceed with blessing them with happiness and peace. It’s not an easy practice, but it can shift the entire energetic relationship we have with life.

Therein lies my answer, I suppose. I can write about Bink’s thorny memories, or my own. I can poem about anything, include anyone. I just need to be willing to accept reactions, and remember to bless each person and circumstance, present or past, who have crossed paths with Bink, or with me. Thank them for the lessons and wish them an honest well-being. And, just maybe, Bink’s opened files, her very vocal recitations and hastily penned recounting of less than pleasant things, can serve as reminder that love can indeed be greater than fear, and the choice to forgive is the very best gift we could give ourselves and each other.

If you’ve read all the way to the end of this run-on piece, terrific! And if you haven’t, that’s fine, too. I’ve just written about not being able to write about Bink. Surely, that counts as writing about her, which means it’s time for tea.

“I write to discover what I know.”
–Flannery O’Connor

PS: Bless you. I forgive you. Be well.

Pentimento

pentimento
noun
pen·ti·men·to | \ ˌpen-tə-ˈmen-(ˌ)tō
Definition of pentimento
A reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist

The canvas: my face in the mirror, fifty eight years familiar with this world.

Five or six, roaming like the free-range child I was, I caught the sharp end of a rock that soared from an older brother’s slingshot. He didn’t mean it, don’t think he aimed at me, but the impact was hard, and the flesh below my left eye tore, and years later my mother said,” We probably should have gotten you stitches there.”

It’s faint now, a sleeping crescent moon at the top of my cheek. Grace that it didn’t hit my eye, methinks. Pure grace.

Pentimento.

Seven years old, my neighborhood friend
Chrissy rammed a big branch end into the tender space between my nose and my lips, that little grooved path that caps my cupid’s bow.

I’ve since learned its name is philtrum, and no hard feelings, but the game we were playing tattooed a constellation of broken blood vessels across my upper lip, and dotting towards the tip of my nose.

Pentimento.

At twenty nine I had some of that lasered away. Safe for the pale philtrum, not so for the tender lip herself, and so I carry the permanent memory of that day as some big red blotches across my lip. Lipstick never covers it completely.

Pentimento.

Teenaged and beyond, the blackheads landed on my nose and built whole neighborhoods there, and some pimple friends moved in to join them. An anxious one I was, and I discovered the simultaneous relief and delight of squeezing all those things.

So many years later, I can find a few little craters, and small dark lines that seem to drag one pore into another. Not enough so you’d notice, but my nose reminds me I lived through those times. And survived.

Pentimento.

At forty five the crinkling started. The skin at the outer corners of my eyes led the way.

Vertical lines across my forehead came a little later. Layering and playing with texture and color, nature gently added grooves. There are smile lines, and the little cupped channels below my eyes that trace the outlines of darker circles there.

Pentimento.

Sometime between then and fifty, one side of my mouth shifted downwards. It has the oddest effect, like half of each lip is larger, and the drooping side disappears into itself. Sometimes, I paint on lipliner to even it all out.

Pentimento.

Around fifty I began to notice that the skin was slowing way down. Once pressed and imprinted with pillow or a hand propping chin or cheek, she wasn’t so quick to plump back into her former texture and shape. Sometimes I carry the pillow lines until lunch, and I’m an early riser.

Pentimento.

The eyebrows have thinned. Some come in white, and there is a vacant patch in the thickest part of the right one. Sometimes, I pencil in some dark to seed that bare spot. Often, I don’t. The white hairs? I usually thank them for visiting before plucking them away.

Pentimento.

There are some random dark splotches over the cheeks, above the lip.. They call them age spots, I call them places of interest. I don’t cover these, though I wonder, sometimes, how many more will arrive, and if I’ll care.

Pentimento.

Face as canvas, and the mirror shows me the privilege of a longer life than many are given. On close inspection I find layer upon layer of sad and happy, hurt and scared, content and growing wiser. I find hope and despair, and lots of letting go, and a glaze of peace on top of it all.