Friday, December 28, 2012

One Voice

I have an old friend who I love dearly. She lives pretty far away, so we do not see each other on a regular basis. But it is one of those friendships where, no matter what happens, no matter how much time and distance separates us, we remain connected in an important and organic way.

Sylvia is a school teacher and the excellent mother of five. Four of these she raised herself, with constant affection and attention. The fifth was conceived over 20 years ago, and given to friends who could not have children of their own. This beautiful daughter has retained constant ties to Sylvia and her four biological siblings over the years.

Sylvia and I were best friends even before we married and had kids. After our oldest sons were born we decided to share a house together so our (then) kids could grow up together like cousins. And we did. Our house in Flushing, Queens became a mecca of activity and toddler fun. My two sons (now 26 and 24) remember that time, and fondly, and recall their Aunt Sylvia with affection. They shared high chairs, changing tables and Raffi videos with Sylvia's kids.

At one point, Sylvia had a raging breast infection. She was nursing her third daughter at the time (a 3-month-old) and could not breastfeed. At the time, I was still nursing my 13-month-old son and had plenty of milk to spare. So, every day, while Syl was sick, I took her baby, and my son and plugged them in together. There is a photo somewhere in the world of this, but (perhaps, thankfully) I do not have it.

So, why am I writing this entry now? Since Sandy Hook, I have been thinking about children, their lives and their needs. I have been thinking about the school system and how those who work within are trying so hard to respond to acts that bely understanding. About vibrant young people, so much like my own kids, who will never get the chance to throw down their own gauntlet to the world.

I am but one voice. The voice of a mother. Of a friend. Of a member of a community.

One voice. Does this help? I do not know.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Saviors in Sleeping Bags

Last night they were everywhere. On the couch, the chairs, the sofa bed, in the upstairs bedrooms, even in the basement.

But this was no heinous infestation. It was was 20 California college students (my daughter included) who had traveled east to spend the first week of their winter break cleaning out houses in Atlantic City which were severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. When they arrived late in the night exhausted from their labors, piling suitcases and shoes wherever, they pretty quickly found their spots, curled up in sleeping bags and went to sleep.

They had spent the past few days pulling up ruined flooring and rotted wallboard, stacking mountains of rubbish at curbs and going back for more, while grateful homeowners and supervising AmeriCorp people directed the action.

This morning, when I came downstairs, most of them were just rising, sweetly sleepy and tousled. A bagel run was made and a large pot of coffee brewed. My two dogs were in heaven for all the attention and petting they got! I listened to their stories -- from their remarkable week in New Jersey, to more familiar renderings of family, pets and passions.

None of them had ever been to New York and they were excited to spend their last day -- today -- sightseeing in Manhattan, guided by their savvy native guide (my daughter).

Then, just as quickly as they had come, they were gone. Off to explore the Big Apple. Off to home and hearth and holiday.

Off to save the world.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Migration of the Wild Parrots

Each year around the beginning of school several separate flocks of wild parrots fly into my neighborhood, perch on the tall ancient Tulip trees which ring the adjacent cul-de-sac and make a musical racket for a week. Then, as suddenly as they arrive, they are gone, wending their way south to the rainforests of South America where they will vacation for the winter.

This annual event is something of an appreciated local mystery. As September rolled around, bringing with it the faintest wisps of autumn air, I and my (then) young kids would walk to the school bus stop. They were scrubbed and shiny in their new sneakers with bright monagrammed L.L. Bean backpacks hanging heavy on their tiny frames while I arrived tousled and flanneled with a second coffee in my hand.

The parrots had already come and we could hear them before turning the corner. “Squawk! Shriek! Chatter! Coo,” were sung in canon. There must have been fifty of them. As do most birds, these colorful carolers especially liked singing in the early morning. “They’re baaaack,” my first-grader son said, smiling, showing the gap where just the previous night a baby tooth had come out traveling along with the summer’s last corn-on-the-cob. His kindergarten brother skipped happily while their baby sister, strapped securely to the carrier on my back drummed my shoulders enthusiastically. We looked up at the trees as we rounded the bend and saw them high up, their wildly bright colors in delightfully sharp contrast to the solid swath of green. Greeting the other kids and moms who were doing some nice chattering of their own, we caught up, compared summers, remarked on how all the kids had gotten so tall and turned to listen to the concert in the trees.

Fast forward nineteen years. Those kids are grown and have made their own migrations. A new flock takes their place each September. That baby on my back is in her third year of college on the west coast. And still the parrots come. They are an even larger group now, it seems. The conventional speculation has always been that this musical migration began as a couple of escaped pets who went feral and multiplied rapidly. Since parrots can have an equal life span to humans, it is likely that some of the shriekers heard this year are the very same birds of years past.

During the recent hurricane, one of those towering Tulip trees came crashing down. There, where the line of green had been for so long unbroken, is now a gap, like the smile of a first-grader missing a tooth. Growing up here on Long Island I have weathered hurricanes before, but I cannot remember a more devastating one than Sandy. How scary it was to hunker down as light flickered and died, hearing the crack and crash of trees in the distance, winds howling, sirens screaming. We woke to havoc and wreckage all around us. That next morning, I took a walk in the eerie morning light to survey the local damage. The downed Tulip lay across the bus stop street like the giant in Jack-and-the-Beanstalk. In the lower trees I could hear the peeps of cardinals and the coos of the mourning doves.

I walked to what had been the very top of the Tulip. “This is where the parrots roosted,” I thought, imagining what it might be like to perch so high up in the sky. I worried that, come next September their ever-growing clan would find overcrowded conditions on the tops of the remaining trees. Or, even more upsetting, might they find better accommodations elsewhere, leaving us entirely? We shall see. For now we clean up, repair and rebuild, move ahead and await their return.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Be Well

I am the middle child. I have one older brother and one younger brother. I am the only girl. My older brother is an architect, working for the New York/New Jersey Port Authority. He has designed subway stations and tunnel air vents. I'm not sure what else. He also wrote a book about breaking into field of architecture. He is a very good writer. But this entry is not about him. It is about my other, younger brother. Seven years my junior, he also is an excellent writer and appropriately so, since he is an English professor by trade. A confirmed bachelor, he is dedicated to his work and married to his beloved house. Eight years ago, this younger brother was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. That previous Christmas, I noticed his hands shaking and his gait unsure. "What is wrong?," I asked him, hoping he would disclose job stress and general winter malaise. But he didn't. "I don't know," he said. Even his voice was tremulous, although that could have been attributed to being confronted with his private mounting fears. "Please," I implored, "go to the doctor and get checked out." Fast forward. Since that notable Christmas, both our parent have died. I was divorced from my husband of 27 years (because I finally came out as gay, but that is a story for a different day) and four-out-of-five of my kids have moved on to college and beyond. I am, thankfully, still healthy, strong and active. My brother, long since diagnosed, soldiers on as best he can. He goes to his neurologist regularly (the same doctor who followed our mother through her progressive Altzheimer's Disease and subsequent death) and consumes a continuous cocktail of powerful drugs to calm, prompt, enhance and regulate his ailing body. He must be careful not to fall in the shower, and must allot extra time in the morning for the simple (to most of us!) task of getting dressed and eating breakfast. Shaking hands and compromised swallowing are ever-present worries. By all accounts, he is doing well. He continues to teach, drive, and go about his life with an impressive amount of grace, energy and courage. We talk on the phone and meet for lunch on a regular basis. And I have come to look forward to his regular parting salutation. "Be well," he always says at the end of a phone call or visit. I am humbled by this. I know it is a habitual response like "see ya," or "take care," but his careful choice of words moves me nevertheless. I am well. He, not so much. Yet his consistent hope is for MY well-being. It is not a small thing and it is not lost on me. "Be well. Be well.."
Right back atcha, bro.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

This Is My Town

Sandy blew through here last week on my birthday. All her hellfire and fury were unleashed on us up and down the northeastern coastline. Her equal-opportunity wrath scourged poor and rich alike, and, especially for the poor, continues to inflict pain in her cold and devastating aftermath. This is my town. It is a sweet Main Street community tucked into a neat little neck of land on the northwestern shores of Long Island. There are massive trees lying on the ground or leaning precariously on power cables, their exposed roots ripped violently from the earth. Lines for gas fill-ups wind down and around the main thoroughfare. Homes without electricity sit dark and dismal in the night. But, as is often the case in storm aftermaths, neighbors come out to greet neighbor, and offers of a hot shower, or a spot by a warm fireplace with a hot bowl of soup abound. In my town, the local high school - itself without power except for the gasoline fueled generators powering a bit of the sprawling cafeteria - became a community mecca where townsfolk could come, re-charge their cell-phones, have a snack, and share war-stories with their neighbors. After power was restored to the town library and the community center, they too became oases of subdued activity. Despite the havoc wreaked with our lives here, one would be hard-pressed to find any loud complainers. As the power gradually returns, and, along with it, a semblance of normal life, the talk one hears is often of a grateful nature. "What we have been is inconvenienced," is the common thought. "While others on the south shore and Staten Island and New Jersey and other places have experienced real tragedy." Today is election day. I drove early to my assigned polling place, which also happens to be my church. The power is still down there, and, for the first time, I voted using a paper ballot. The volunteers, some of whom also have no power at home and were hoping for a bit of warm respite today, were cheerful and helpful nonetheless. Many of them will sit in that cold cavernous room all day without any percolating urns of hot coffee to keep them going. This is my town.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

BMOC. (Badass Mom On Campus)

I am a freshman at my local community college. By the looks of it, I am also the oldest student on campus. Not the oldest PERSON, mind you. There are many professors who trudge about in their khaki and corduroy, pulling their overflowing briefcases along on little wheelie carts and using all the elevators they can find. But I am not like them. I am a freshman and I have a freshman's backpack loaded with a hundred pounds and several hundred dollars-worth of textbooks, notebooks, pens, pencils and a calculator. I park in the far-off student parking lot (teachers get the best spots) and always take the stairs, my cast-iron pack lashed tight to my shoulders. I wear faded jeans and a hoodie and flip flops. I come into class and greet my fellow freshmen - large, often dangerous-looking boys with multiple tattoos and baggy jeans worn so low, they often miss their intended backsides altogether. Girls in skinny jeans and Uggs who flip their long hair around like a vigorous game of tetherball. Always prepared, I share with them pencils, Advil and the answers to last night's math homework. It is an enviable position - like Switzerland. The professors like me because I do my work and participate enthusiastically in class. The kids are amused at having mom (or, in some cases, grandma!) in their class. I am the bridge between two warring factions - the kids, some of whom are only there because they could not get into any other school - and the teachers who are often fed up with such students and make no pretense at hiding their frustration. Now, I have not been in a classroom since 1973. But what I lack in geometry recall, I all but make up for in U.S. History, since I have been alive for much of it. I have a great great aunt who, as a child saw Abraham Lincoln. I remember where I was when President Kennedy was shot. I recall seeing Marilyn Monroe's picture on the front page the day after she died. I am learning a lot and enjoying the journey. In their animated debate at Hofstra University (right next door to here) President Obama mentioned my school by name. The topic was, I believe, gun control, but it somehow veered off into talk about 'educational-opportunities-for-all-Americans' and my college was the chosen reference point. I was excited that the president picked it and proud by association. Later I remember thinking about it and realizing that the 18 and 19-year-olds in my history class were just now joining the ranks of witnesses to the history their children would be studying not so many years from now.
History in hoodies. Yep. That's us.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hair of the Dog

My dog Charlie was rescued a few years ago from my local animal shelter. He is a redheaded, freckled Australian Cattle Dog, a being who needs to herd, corral and dominate. Charlie and I get along famously. There are a few problems with this relationship, however. One: Charlie thinks HE is in charge. Two: He thinks all food is HIS food. Three: His shedding fur is taking over my universe.

Now Charlie has his charming attributes. He is very friendly and has adapted well to this household of "other dogs/cat/teenagers/noise/unpredictability." According to the report from the animal shelter, he was previously owned by an old man who died. I was a volunteer dog trainer at the shelter at the time and I remember Charlie as a severely overweight dog who walked slow and breathed heavily. When the man died, his family (not interested in taking Charlie on themselves) placed him in the care of the shelter. His friendly disposition endeared him to the staff, and he quickly became a favorite among the volunteers. Because of his back story and his weight, he was initially thought to be an old dog. But put on a strict diet and exercise regime by the staff, Charlie quickly lost about 15 pounds. The dog who was at first judged to be an old codger, was rapidly growing younger by the day. The vet pronounced him only about 5 or 6 years old.

This volunteer, who had recently lost her old, beloved Keeshond (also rescued from said shelter) loved Charlie and began to think about adopting him. The other volunteer trainers (an opinionated lot to be sure!) urged me on, knowing I had a soft spot for the older, less cute, unpopular dogs. Charlie has been with me more that three years now. He tests me daily, trying to convince me that it is HE who is in charge of the household. I resist, walking him, correcting him, telling him otherwise.

But in the telling, he has come to know that he is home. He sleeps next to me, waits for me in the bathroom as I shower before work, greets me at the door, and wags and sits on a dime when I give the slightest indication that a walk is being thought of.

Charlie leaves his fur EVERYWHERE. He is not a "no-shedding dog" by any stretch of the imagination. He deposits clumps of his curly red and white fur whenever he decides to lie down, scratch or move about. I brush him. I really do! But the fur keeps coming, in a non-stop surge. I brushed Charlie tonight, a ritual he is fine with (thankfully) and I collected enough fur to make another Charlie.

So tonight we sat together on the deck, me brushing him and him sitting patiently. The fur I took away could stuff a pillow. The torches kept the bugs away and the Christmas lights strung along the eastern fence gave off a festive glow. Fine simple moments on a routine weekday. Charlie doesn't know or care what day it is. He doesn't mind the weather and is happy to have the same dinner over and over(stolen food discounted). He is my friend and my companion, hopefully for many years to come.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Go Ahead. Make My Day.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am delighted that our president has publicly come out to say he endorses same-sex marriage. His wording was careful and deliberate and, yes, more than a little politically motivated. What is getting my ruff up is the condescending attitude of both liberals and conservatives alike. Those who say LGBT folks should be "allowed' to marry, as if they have the authority to grant such privileges. As if this is some sort of benevolent gift they are bestowing upon us. We are not second class citizens and the time for moving to the back of the bus (read 'civil unions should be enough for us') is over. We are not less than anyone. There is no one on earth or in heaven who can dictate who a person loves. I do not understand the fears many people - especially fundamental religious people - have concerning this. What terrible thing will happen if LGBT people marry? Moral decay? Messed-up kids? The end of civilization? I think not. North Carolinans are so paranoid that they are trying to wipe out all possibility for same-sex marriage in their state forever. I do believe they are like the boy with his finger stuck in the dike) (;). There is no holding back the mighty tide and in the end, the flood of fairness will wash over us all in this country, both friend and foe alike. So, I say, "Yay President Obama!" "Yay, Mr. Eastwood!" You have made my day.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

It Gets Better

I feel fortunate to live in a place and time where and when I can live, love, work and play as I choose. Modern urban America is a far better habitat for women (especially GAY women) than, say, Afghanistan or Pakistan. That's not to say life here is perfect. Even in my small hip town outside New York City there are signs of old thinking, acting and re-acting.

"Look at you two ladies, carrying that all by yourselves!", a woman (yes, a fellow woman!*#) said to my partner and me as we carried our kayak down the ramp to the bay for a summer paddle. We smiled. "Don't worry, dear, I know what I'm doing," smirked the refrigerator guy who proceeded to tap into the wrong pipe for the inside-the-door ice and water dispenser. This was AFTER I had accompanied him down the stairs to show him the RIGHT pipe. "Aren't you an intelligent little lady," proclaimed the school district's hired architect who was fielding questions from residents at a school board meeting. And I still receive mail addressed to Mrs. Robert Lay, even though my husband and I have been legally separated for three years. My own name appears nowhere in that title. It's as if I don't exist. Come on now. As the heroine Abeleen, in the bestselling book 'The Help' taught little Mae Mobley, I too am smart, I am kind and I am important. I have made it my business to know how my pipes flow and how my school taxes are spent.

This is not to say straight women cannot know from kayaks and cold water pipes. I think I am just a little more defensive than most, perhaps due to my orientation. I have little patience, no, make that NO patience for chauvinists or condescension.

That said, I am so glad to live here where I can walk down Main Street holding my partner's hand and invite neighbors in for dinner. My partner and I can sit together in church where everyone, old and young, knows us as a couple. It is a great thing to be able to maneuver through entire days without once thinking about how we might appear to others. Our kids belong to their high school's thriving Gay/Straight Alliance where I was surprised to learn, the ratio of gay to straight is approximately even. It is okay to come out there and same-sex couples are welcome at the Prom. Now, I'm not foolish enough to think there is no anguish. It's not perfect by a long shot. But it is better than it was a generation ago, when I was an uncomfortable teenager living without even a name for what I was feeling.

I am 56 now, and out. Happily so. It feels good to live clean and true, even though it took a while. Life can get better.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Faith (or 'The Life of Riley')

(Note: this was prepared as the children's sermon for my local United Methodist Church. The woman in the story is my friend and the church's secretary. And, of course, the star of the story is her dog Riley)

How many of you have a dog?

How many of you have been to an animal shelter like the North Shore Animal League or the North Hempstead Animal Shelter? Did you get your dog from a place like that?

Today’s lesson has a dog in it, but really, it’s about FAITH. Faith is when you know God will make something good happen to you even when everything looks bad.

I’m going to tell you a true story.

Once, a number of years ago, in Florida, a dog was found wandering on the street.
He had been left there by his owner who didn’t want him anymore. The local dog shelter took him in where he got a clean kennel and food every day.

Now that sounds pretty good, except for one thing. This shelter had lots of dogs - too many, in fact. They didn’t have room for them all. Every now and then some nice people would come there and adopt one of the dogs and take them home. But many of them were not adopted. The shelter had to make the very hard decision to put the unadopted dogs to sleep after a while. No one was coming for them and the shelter had no room to keep them.

Now when this particular dog got to the shelter, he looked around and saw that the dogs who were there for a longer while were eventually walked through the big grey door in the back. These dogs did not come out again. He knew what that meant.

Every day, the shelter welcomed visitors who were looking to adopt a pet. They would stop and spend lots of time looking at the noisy dogs, the small cute dogs and the puppies. Our one dog was not like that. He was very big and no longer a cute puppy. He did not bark or cry, but instead waited patiently. ‘I know someone will come for me,’ he thought. ‘I’ll know them when I see them.’

He waited for days. And more days. Dogs all around him got adopted and taken home. New dogs arrived. Each day he was moved closer and closer to the grey door. But still he watched and waited for his special person. Standing still and quiet. Searching everyone’s eyes. ‘Are you the one?’ he asked over and over again.

Finally, on the very afternoon before it was his turn to go through the grey door, a woman came into the kennel area. She passed by all the noisy dogs. She passed by all the cute small dogs. She passed by all the puppies. She was looking for her special dog. “I’ll know him when I see him,” she said to the kennel worker.

Our dog was watching her this whole time. Standing, still and quiet, his eyes never left her face. When she finally reached him, he looked up at her. ‘I knew you would come,’ he said to her in his mind. ‘What took you so long?’ “I came as soon as I could,” she replied. Come on. Let’s go home.”

She clipped on him a brand new blue collar and together they walked out into the Florida sunshine. Our normally quiet dog was so happy that he suddenly turned around and jumped straight up into the air. The woman smiled.

Nine years have passed since that faithful dog went home with that faithful woman.
And today they are here to say hi to all of you.

Pat and Riley, come on in.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Voices Joined, Souls in Sync

I suffer badly from S.A.D. You know, Seasonal Affected Disorder. I am depressed from November through March every year. It's the dark AND the cold that do me in. I love the sun and its warmth spreading over my shoulders, letting me know of its presence at all times. The only footwear I desire to own are flip flops and I want to be buried in board shorts. In another life, I am sure I was a surfer dude. I dream of owning a surf shack and having a beach cruiser as my sole means of transport. My dogs would frolic in the ocean and I would have a vast collection of sea glass.

But I live in the Northeast where winter means gray skies, dirty snow and high heating costs. I am quite fond of the town I live in, though, and that helps. Here, on this lovely Long Island peninsula, there are many things to do during the cold dark months, like local concerts, free library talks and restaurants on the bay where even winter views are beautiful.

Yesterday, one such event took place. It was the annual multi-church/synagogue choir concert at the local nature preserve (once a wealthy person's estate) and MY choir sang in it! Each choir got about 20 minutes and then we ended with a rousing combined chorale of America the Beautiful, the entire packed audience joining in. The music was really good, but even better was the spirit of community that permeated the large and sunny room.

For a couple of hours on a chilly mid-winter Sunday afternoon, brightness and warmth abounded. Friends and neighbors chatted, older folks laughed with young. The gray stone walls of the Preserve mansion seemed to glow a little in the filtered afternoon light as we walked back to our cars, the setting sun promising to come back a little earlier the next day.

They say music is the language of the soul. Yes. Yes I believe it is.