Friday, May 25, 2012

Spitfire and Sassafras: The Girlishness of Me

I’ve a great big confession to share.  I enjoyed being a girl last weekend.  I had an entire weekend of girly fun.  I celebrated my birthday with a girls weekend full of girls.  An extended slumber party of silliness and giggles.   Not one trip to the hardware store, for me that's like rehab, intervention, cold-turkey withdrawal type action.  No home repairs.  No fighting, fisticuffs or fury.  A whole weekend, Imagine that? I dressed up pretty and even showed some, ready? Serious cleavage.  Yes sir-eee Bob! Me and Cleavage took a little walk together. I broke a little free you might say.  I haven't been one for cleavage, much.  I was never so sure how to pull it off, or push 'em up.

When I was nine or ten my mother attempted to indoctrinate me into girlishness or lady-like behavior by instituting a program called You-Are-Wearing-a-Skirt Once-a-Week Day.  Being all sassafras and spitfire, she didn't know what to do with me or how to contain me.   I think I might have been allowed to pick the day between Monday and Wednesday, after that all bets were off.  I was going down and would emerge somehow girly.  Doesn’t that sound like the way girls become girly?   Go figure.  I would have been happy to die in my overalls at that point of my life, I was holding off puberty and I had a stronghold against it.   Imagine what Wednesday looked like?  Hair a nest of knots and recrimination, skirt revealing scabbed and bandaged, bruised, knock knees, shirt attempting to break up the pine board figure.   I had no desire to be girly.  I had an older sister who seemed to be looking into that task in ways that suddenly had no appeal to me.  She had breasts for one (or two) thing(s).  Serious ones. That alone scared the hell out of me.  The fear of breasts and bras stayed on for quite some time (maybe up until about a month ago).  Some girls needed to lie in bed once a month and sometimes even miss school.  They couldn't go swimming either.  Not yet anyway. Girlish? Ladylike?  No thank-you very much! 

I had brothers and a father that occasionally camped.  And got dirty.  They showered and started up again.  The men in my family drank beer and whiskey and laughed raucously.  They did not lie in bed, cramped and moaning.  They joked and provoked and played serious bouts of one-up-man-ship using language and banter. Cut you down to size and watch to see if you could climb back up again and take your place, among men, kind of games.  Skill and timing, words and word play.  Innuendo and satire.  Thrill and excitement filled me when I discovered this way of being.  Early on I acted like a stealthy apprentice and learned the ways of the men in my family.  The women didn’t appear to have much of what I wanted or needed.  Spirited and willful, I developed wit and sharpened my skills.  I grew older and could no longer avoid the growth of hips, the monthly curse and the somewhat modest growth of breasts.  I continued to hone my skills at wit and built a tolerance for drinking grown men under a few tables.  I didn’t dislike being considered one of the guys.  

The men in my family valued me, they egged me on and they rewarded me for being able to keep up or shut it down, sharply.  I believed this would be equally valued beyond my family as I interacted with men in the world.  Occasionally I run into one or another that glimmers and gleams and shines a little when I get to play.  Most often it is not appreciated or understood.  I am out of place in the world of men and I have understood very little in dealing with the vast majority of women.
I had no desire to be one of the girlish girly girls. Except that I imagined that not being one of the girlish girly girls would reveal how great I was.  How different and special and unique. I was a girl but not girly.  To me that meant, I could keep up with the guys.  I could laugh and play and joke and drink.  I could shoot the shit, as it were and stand my ground.  I could do all this and look maybe a bit sexy, if not too girly.  I thought.  I’m not entirely sure if I lost out by not honing the skills of being passive, demure, delicate and perhaps subservient.  See, there I go throwing in negative words for girlishness.  Docile, meek and mild mannered are much more pleasant than subservient, obedient and servile right? 

It’s surely a little late in the game to be struggling with all of this and I am trying to bring it all together and quickly.  I am sharp-witted and can go round for round in innuendo and snark.  Being single and interested and ready to be out in the world again, this often gets misunderstood as wild and even “easy”.   Sure there are other unpleasant words for all this, but they truly offend my not so visible ladylike sensibilities.  And so I don’t get to play much or move much beyond playing. I would love a(as in one) partner that could “play” and see beyond that. 

I’m not very good at following all the rules of the hunt, or dance, or rules of attraction.  It hasn’t come my way often, this mutual attraction.  When it does, woohoo, I want it all yesterday and again a few more times today and the day after that and again.  Who wouldn’t?  Life is short and full of all kinds of unattractive, unpleasant going-ons why not enjoy the sparks and jolts?  That’s what I think anyway.  Not very girlish I suppose.  Passive and patient just feels like repression and forced frustration, is that girlish?  That’s not a dance I learned when I was drinking the boys under the table.  Men, I thought were more into full participation sports and activities.  I guess that’s with other men in a sports arena.

I was a bit embarrassed recently, while not exactly working the cleavage, or at least not purposefully, when a comment was shared about "a nice view".  I hadn't realized I was sharing a view.  I had been working overtime on the gams.  Pencil skirt, heels.  I have been running and biking and had some confidence in the legs, in spite of the scars and melatonin overdrive, the shape and strength was worth a little look-see.  I imagined.  I felt completely foolish afterwards when I recalled how such a view was gleaned.  I was sitting on a bench hunched over as though I was waiting to go up to bat any time soon.  Forearms resting above my knees, hunched over very much like "one of the boys" except I was at work, in a pencil skirt and lose fitting shirt.  Maybe You-Are-Wearing-a-Skirt Once-a-Week Day needed a little more direction.  Oh well.  What the hey?  Battttttttter-Up.  Striiiiiiiiiiike One!

It’s clear I don’t get the rules and I don't like them, as a rule.  I don’t know how to change this.  It might be time to stop trying....... So......Hard.  It might be time to just come to terms with being a girl.  And so I have been shopping for girly things.  Bras.  Lingerie.  Panties.  Lace and lightness.   It’s not so bad it turns out.  I can do this.  I have actually even enjoyed it a bit.  Maybe a little more practice and time will tell if I can quietly, demurely await the arrival of a mannish brute or some such fellow.  

I don’t have to wait in one place though, right?  Tomorrow I hike.  Strong and spirited.  Pack full of warrior and weapons.  Weighted down with frustration and desire.   Releasing my regrets, I will hike. I will climb.  I will climb right up on top...........  Wink-wink. I might wear the black and pink French lace or the lavender satin, which pack goes best, the navy or camo colored?  I’ll pack my daisy-covered water bottle.  I wonder if there is dehydrated quiche at the outpost in Keene? Maybe some big strong man can help carry my.......  Not a chance, this one is mine!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

No Strings Attached

The scenic drive up the Northway stretches from Albany to the Canadian border.  This road could provide a measurable metaphorical guide should I attempt to pay attention.  It could help set the tone, and map out a route towards relaxation and de-stressing.  If I were to pay heed  and follow these opportune guideposts, I might actually find an inner peace, the one I may have lost some time ago.

From Albany to Saratoga, the distance between exits begins to lengthen, fewer distractions appear,  lighter traffic congestion, and a relative calm occurs almost naturally, as I leave everyday life behind.  The expanse between Saratoga and Lake George provides  a haven for those in need of  far-reaching blanket communities and perhaps the last hurrah for tourists and mild-mannered thrill seekers heading to the amusement park. The roadway between Lake George and Schroon Lake welcomes me, and anyone else fortunate enough to be driving here, to the Adirondack Park.  Mountains begin appearing in the distance and suddenly I am driving atop them, over them and between them.  Pines, cedars, birch and maples color the landscape in contrast to the glacial rock formations, slides and burn marks on the sides of imposing mountains.  By the time I drive the last stretch from Schroon Lake to Westport, before veering off toward Essex and Lake Champlain, I am at times alone on the highway or accompanied by a few hardy mountain people and an occasional Canadian. 

This paring down of external commotion brings me closer to my internal stirrings. Excitement and possibility tangle with questioning and perhaps a bit of strife or at least uncertainty.   I am traveling, this time alone.  I have not done so in nearly 26 years.  Been alone, traveled alone, planned alone, with the understanding that this will soon be the norm.  How can this be?   It does not exactly bother me, it is more the unfamiliarity of it.  Of course, the unfamiliar, the unknown creates a certain vulnerability, and with that a little anxiety, or maybe fear.  Stirrings.  Thankfully, I am quieted by the mountains, majestic and certain.   And then I am planning and imagining my next climb.    Gothics? Armstrong?  Allen?  Only 33 to go.  I was hoping to reach my goal of 46 high peaks by my 50th birthday.  Life interfered and I lost time, but I am back on track.  However, with 12 months to go, it is highly unlikely.    Flexibility and kindness will keep me focused, if not a couple years older when I finalize this quest on the peak of Mount Marcy. 

Imagining my hiking plans, keeps the stirring at bay, distracts with gentleness, eagerness.  I am suddenly wishing this was a hiking weekend instead of a work weekend.  I am alone for the first time in 26 years as a preliminary appointment with time alone.  My youngest son, is off to a sporting event that I will join him at in just over 24 hours.  Alone.  24 hours.  I have many plans and a busy schedule.  Meet with a plumber, a contractor, head to the garden center, the hardware store, or mega-warehouse-hardware store for tiles, paint, lighting fixtures. Tear up flooring, install new.  Till the garden and plan and plant.  This preliminary appointment with being alone, is perhaps too large to fathom, or too exciting to pass unremarkably.  I will see this son tomorrow and cheer him on as he races at state championships for crew, as he races toward his own life anew. 

I rise early, as I always do.  I start the garden, and begin ripping up linoleum.  From one task to another and back again.  The linoleum is stubborn and glued.  The work will be more tedious than I had hoped, but it will be done.  The garden, in contrast is easier, but soon bare and wanting for color and form.  The plumber comes, early, a good sign.  Perhaps an omen, a sign for my life alone, falling into place, in order, workable.  Probably not but what the hey?  I can imagine, these are my stirrings after all.  This early visit from the plumber helps me decide to go all out and drive further up the Northway to Plattsburgh, the mega-hardware store.  I can get a lot more accomplished if I have the right tools, and materials.  I’ll need a better scraper for the glue, Oh, and ceiling paint…..  18 hours and counting. 

I gather up everything I need.  Looking at the time, I decide I have time to stop quickly in one more store if I am fast.  I return home to my beautiful cottage in the mountains, near the lake and begin my work.  I stick to it with determination and purpose.  I complete the garden, and fill newly purchased wire flower boxes, a bit more scraping, some soaking and then I will return to clean the floor before installing new tile.   That gives me approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes to….Relax?  I look around, and find the cushion for the chaise lounge.  I grab the bag with the purchase from the last store I quickly ran into and I pull it out,  a bikini…black… string.   I haven’t worn one in, let’s see, about 28 years?  Admittedly, it’s a risk.  28 years in addition to the first 21 have taken their toll.  Maybe it’s not meant to be seen by others, or at least the faint of heart, but that works for me, here, now.  I’m alone and it turns out it’s not really that scary after all.  A few more power-hikes and the bikini might not illicit fear, but I’m not that concerned.  The traffic past my cabin is limited to  a random car or two, an occasional draft horse,  spits and starts of Vermonters desperately trying to make the ferry to Charlotte and beyond.   These Vermont folk go by the slogan “Live Free or Die”.    My bikini clad bod’ is hardly going to slow them down.  Maybe this is just the slogan I need to help gain my inner peace.  One hour and 15 minutes later, I am back on the floor scraping the last of the glue, installing the tiles, cleaning up and taking inventory of what else needs to be done here. 

I fall into bed, exhausted and prepare to arise at 3:30 to pick up my son, who is soundly sleeping in a hotel.  At 5:15 I haphazardly run into the hotel lobby to drive him and his sleepy friend to the lake.  As mist rises from the lake, I imagine it would be a great day for a swim….I won’t have time today, but sooner than I can say itsy bitsy teeny weenie, my son will be off and I will be alone,  no strings attached.   Well, maybe the one or two black ones.    

Maybe not the worst thing to imagine, or ponder or get all stirred up about, this being alone.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bursting with Anticipation- A Mid Spring Day's Dream

I am, for the first time in a very long while, filled with hope and bursting with anticipation.  Bursting.  Really.  It’s getting rather foolish and seeming oddly out of character, I’m sure.  At times, I myself, can’t believe it.  I suppose I can’t believe how incredibly long it has been since I have felt, for lack of a better word, Ready.  Ready for what lies ahead.  Ready for what life offers.  Ready for spring, and then summer.  Ready for exploration and risk-taking.  Mild, and safe of course, within my, well, maybe just beyond my comfort zone.  I feel at times recently, like I was in the right place at the right time.  Or right smack in the middle of Shakespeare’s A  Mid Summer Night's Dream and Puck splashed his love potion my way.  All giddy like and foolish I’m behaving.  Oberon might be enjoying the results for a bit.  Theseus as well.

I’m dancing, lately….  A lot.   Just all out crazy dancing in my studio space that looks out over the Hudson.   While painting or considering where to apply paint on my canvas or paper I just start dancing.  Definitely, painting while dancing.  Risk-taking, painting.  Large and bright.  Stretching and pushing these limits I have put on myself, or permitted others to for far too long.  I even went dancing last weekend with a friend and felt completely free.  No inhibitions.  Not even a slight need for intoxication to kick in to feel uninhibited, I just danced.  Free and dancing, me, surely Puck and Oberon and Theseus are involved.

I have a garden this spring.  It’s bursting.  Bold and bright.  Bulbs and annuals playfully dance in the gentle breezes.  My perennials are starting to come up.  Hope and anticipation has replaced the mourning and sadness that shadowed my garden last spring.  I had the year before, left a garden that had been nurtured, and wrestled and toiled in for over twelve years.  It was grander than the garden I had on two prior locations.  It had gotten to a point of magnificence.  Perennials, bulbs, annuals, self-seeding and reborn.  Lupine, foxglove, cultivated poppies, California poppies, tulips, hyacinth, daffodils, lemon balm, sage, rosemary, begonias, bee balm, bleeding hearts, Solomon’s cross, globe thistle, yarrow, lavender, lily of the valley, calendula, petunias, pansies, roses, so many roses, hibiscus, hostas, magnolia trees, dogwood, lilac, iris and lilies...  so many more.

When I first came to the Hudson Valley, this garden presented itself to me as a challenge.  The “gardener” that had once maintained it, presented himself the first spring we moved in.  A gardener?  I could not even fathom the concept. It was not a luxury we could afford, but the job was daunting.   It was a job I did alone, happily at first, for a time resentfully and then again with great pride and peace.  At times I tended this garden with children.  Occasionally happily they joined, other times annoyed.  Sometimes, it was where I mothered best.  While seemingly focused on weeds and roots, I could pull and struggle while allaying to my children that their struggles were not minor or meaningless.   I used this space to teach and talk and nurture.  They could find me here from 6 am, on if I were not with them on some other pursuit. 

I brought rocks to this garden, mounds and mounds of rocks.  Friends helped or encouraged or took part in secret rock rescue missions.  An old friend  delivered a dump truck full of rocks to this garden for my fortieth birthday, there, in that place that I will never again call home.  It was, one of the best presents I ever received, a dump truck full of rocks.  It took seven years to move the rocks around.  Boulders actually.  These rocks also helped to make the garden a place for teaching.  “Do you know how the great pyramids were built?  I questioned as we made make-shift levers and attempted to move boulders the size of steamer trunks and the weight of Sumo wrestlers.

This garden grew and changed and flourished much like my life, and at times waned, morosely, like my marriage.  Leaving it behind was torment, nevertheless.  This garden was my sanctuary and my refuge.  It was where I wrestled, and wondered and found my way.  It was where I was restored and energized.   It was where I spent much time alone learning who I was and what I might be capable of.  With great confidence and peace I finally left, with children, never to return.

Last year, I had no garden to toil in, but I had much to wrestle and worry and remorse over.  I was not at that time, ready.  Or dancing.  Or anticipating. I was surviving and questioning and dreading.   What had become of so much and what had been left for my children to make sense of?   Slowly, I started accepting and allowing and actively moving forward.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Martyrdom and Maternal Maelstrom: An Béal Babes (The Mouth of Babes)

So as it goes in this great cycle or circle of life, hakuna matata, sort of chillin-out type universe, I was asked at dinner one recent night, between bites of meatloaf, pasta, and broccoli, “Why didn’t you ever sign me up for basketball?”  This coming at the almost tail end of a high school career, didn’t even take me by surprise.   That’s how chillin-out I’ve started to be in at least one realm of life.   He, being of the youngest birth order, is new to this game of  “Oh, how have you failed me, let me count the ways”.  His older siblings, I believe, have a short list that they have started to share, but I think they might be holding out.   Or they are simply divine having been reared by me.   These lists can stretch a good 50-60 years.  I should know, I still like to resort to mine from time to time in the presence of my own mother.  She appreciates it as much as I enjoy being greeted with, “Oh, are you going to prison?  Snicker snicker, teeheeeheee”, referring to a quite chic striped fly away cardigan I wore, that one time, before rolling it into a ball and throwing it in the trunk of my car until today.  It looked quite chic, thank you very much.   After the basketball failing I figured, “What the hell?  I may as well look like a prisoner since I failed my child so deeply by not signing him up for basketball.”

He may have been slightly serious.  My daughter, home for a visit, tried to make sense of his inquiry and also hoped to keep me from going buck-wild mad.  “We’re not Catholic,”  she stated.  He didn’t agree.  He would like very much for me to return to the fold and embrace the reality that I am Catholic, and get all this Irish Catholic behavior in order and accounted for.  He also knows that a large percentage of the CYO team of his early youth was not remotely Catholic even by way of maternal maelstrom.   She was adamant, but gentle.  A gift I don’t possess.  (A gift she reserves for all others, not me, snicker snicker teeehheehee) “It’s true, they only allow 2 non-Catholic players on the team.” She persists.   He was not convinced.  This may or may not be an urban legend.  I am not sure.  I recall other reasons he was not signed up for CYO basketball in his early youth, the religious affiliation defect just one of many.

For starters, there was swim team practice for three children with three different start and end times.  Really.  5:45-7:00, 6:30-8:00, and 6:00-7:45.  Why? The coaches didn’t ever cross-check the roster and notice the vast majority of us were bringing children that were all related and would at numerous points all be in the pool at the same time?  No?  Really?  It didn’t matter to the swim team what your religious affiliation was, although, come to think of it, if you were Catholic, you had the opportunity to go to church on a Saturday evening, most meets took place on Sunday mornings, so the rest of us had to often choose between faith and fitness at every turn.  Friday night practice interfering with non-Christian faiths, hmmmmm?

Back on focus, aside from faith and church school attendance that occurred on those Sunday mornings that we sometimes had to miss for the “team”, and the reality that religious affiliation and sports has more to do with community make-up than a Catholic conspiracy theory, basketball was not offered because raising three children is complicated.  They were involved with:  baseball, crew, babysitting, Irish step dancing (briefly), driving lessons, running, acting, after-school jobs, art club, stage crew, softball, sleepovers, homework, proms, SAT classes, music lessons, voice lessons (briefly), college hunts, and a couple of thousand other activities, give or take.  One minivan and one mother to man the carpooling community caravan, it’s a wonder I didn’t pack them all into the car and drive off the side of the road lest I let one down and not sign up for CYO basketball.

Another reason I missed out on the sign-ups for basketball?  I wasn’t hooked up and on the "A" list of parents and/or children that were recruited for CYO basketball at the age of 7 or 8.  The list of reasons for this lack of recruitment status is long and rather useless at this point in the game.  Maybe I wore prison striped sweaters, maybe I sat at community or school functions either nervously agape or crustily frustrated.   Social graces being a very weak area for me at the onset-which quickly turns into the on-going certainly didn’t help but if you refer back to the list of events and activities they were/are involved in, my social inabilities have not entirely hindered them, well except for the CYO basketball thing.  Perhaps there may have been another time or two, and a run in with me and a coach, maybe one, but if you look at the whole picture, I think we managed ok and then some. 

This normal and accepted way of pointing our fingers at our parents for all of our misgivings, shortfalls, and dastardly outcomes, or simply missing out on the NBA recruitment path, gives me thought.  I wonder if I can turn it around?  Tomorrow night at dinner, London Broil on the grill, salad, and baked potatoes, I am going to slip in a few comments.  “How come you didn’t clean your room carefully in May of  2002 while I was going back to school for my Master’s Degree?  Maybe if you had I would have been able to spend more quality time with you and relaxed enough to be a little more pleasant when your smelly, sticky-fingered, loud friends tore through the house and ate all the food.  Remember that?  What?  You don’t think that happened that way?  Oh yeah, it did.   Oh my God! That really smelly friend, the one that smells like asparagus, when his Mom picked him up I was so angry, I think I gave her the stink-eye or some family curse from Ennistymon.  Yeah, well I didn’t realize she was the CYO treasurer and well, basketball just wasn’t ever going to be on your hit parade.  Why didn’t you just clean your room?  I don’t get it.”  Then, I'll just turn and clear my plate, lightly, gently, but with that sort of pondering head-tilted questioning stance.

I mention the meat and potato dinners because, that’s the hearty stock that the last in the birth order likes to eat.  Manly portions, with basic accompaniments, like duck fat or butter, fresh herbs for seasoning and whole milk.  I indulge, as a mother can.  In a few years he’ll tell his wife or some such partner his heart condition is a result of his crazy mother’s cooking.  He’ll lament and carry on.  He won’t recall that while I admittedly enjoyed the French fries in a local restaurant that were cooked in duck fat that one time, I had no need to reproduce the experience in my own home.   I did not imagine ever purchasing duck fat to butter/fatten? my bread, and while I did purchase it, I never used it.   I like a steak, I like a good steak a great deal but it is not something I eat on a regular basis.   I have however, thoroughly enjoyed preparing Irish stew throughout the past couple of winters and if he has a way to find fault in that, well Pog Ma Thoin1 is all I can say to that.  Of course that won’t win me any more social grace certificates, but it will help me choke back the Anglicized curses and urges to reach the front row seating of martyrdom and maternal maelstrom  any sooner than I am surely heading towards. 

1.  Pog Ma Thoin: Gaelic for "kiss my ass"  Phil Long style: "Kiss my Irish Arse", which is the translation I was raised on.  We were not permitted to curse and adding the r and e and removing the second s covered our arses quite well indeed.