Books, Religion and Politics: Discuss

Gathering at our annual Maine retreat

In the book group only four years, I’m a newcomer.  There are ten of us in total, though we’re never all there at the same time.  All accomplished professionals, some are in their second or third careers, and two have recently retired.

Politics is the fuel for this particular group’s engine, and infuses most conversations. From our launching off point on the merits of a particular book,  we move into deeper waters.  How does class, ethnicity and gender influence writing, art?  Invariably, politics and religion get tossed into the mix, and we take up social policy and public perception.

The discussions are honest and incisive, humorous and filled with humanity.  We challenge and occasionally suprise each other (and ourselves) with an unexpected insight or admission.  As is the practice with my women’s softball team, there’s no apologizing…we’re a collection of strong-minded women who aren’t threatened by differences of opinion.

We’re a pretty independent lot, and though we all enjoy close connections with family and community, there’s blessedly little focus on our roles as caregivers and nurturers in our conversations.  We talk, eat well, drink wine, and talk some more.  We’ve traveled together, gone kayaking and walked miles of beach. We’ve supported each other through surgeries and family deaths,  celebrated new grandchildren and career shifts.

Driving home after last night’s meeting,  I felt a wave of gratitude – to Nancy, who invited me into the group; and to these women I now consider friends.   It’s a welcome relief to put aside social conventions and speak frankly – and sometimes raunchily – about  things that really matter.  No delicate sensibilities in this group, no fear of offending.

With age, I find myself being more direct and less ‘social worky’.  There’s something about being honest that I suspect requires some maturity…meaning that I don’t need you to agree with me in order to feel legitimate.  Speaking my opinion also calls for a little humility…while I don’t need to dress it up to make it palatable for anyone else, I realize it’s not the only or the final truth.  There are limits to my understanding, after all.

Where and with whom do you dare to be heard – and to listen – without fear? What does it take?

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O, Suburbia!


When it came time for us to buy rather than rent,  it was clear that my ex-husband and I  couldn’t afford city prices.  With our small down payment and nonprofit incomes, we had a lot more options in the ‘burbs.  Having lived in Harvard Square for six years, though, the spectre of suburban blandness and uniformity made me a little uneasy.  So, on the eve of our move to this small town,  I warned my ex, “Just don’t think I’m spending Saturday nights at the mall!”

Actually, I grew up in the suburbs. A small town, to be more accurate, where I learned to fish and build a lean-to by the time I was seven. 

I was utterly unprepared for my family’s move to the city when I was ten.  I secretly grieved for my simpler life climbing the Brown’s apple tree or picking low-bush blueberries to put in my morning cereal.

It took me years to learn to navigate my way in a tougher, hipper, faster world.  But by the time I got through college and grad school,  I’d acquired a certain grittiness and sophistication.  Living outside Harvard Square, I saw all the latest indie and foreign films, frequented bookstores and cafes, and splurged on season tickets to the symphony and theatre. 

To be honest, I was actually relieved when we decided to look for a home outside the city. By that time, the noise, crime and congestion had become tiresome, and I wanted to be part of a community. 

I know, the suburbs suffer from a bad reputation. Like most generalizations, though, it’s based as much on misinformed prejudice as it is on actual experience or fact.  We suburbanites are not a homogeneous group who speak with one voice. We have soul.

Here are some things I’ve found in my 18 years of living in the ‘burbs:  

  • Many creative, artistic and yes – enlightened individuals live in the suburbs.  They teach, learn, and show their work in local arts venues and community centers.
  • Not all suburbanites like to shop at the mall. A lot of us prefer to support local businesses along ‘Main Street.’
  • We get to see deer, foxes, cormorants and herons up close.  Skunks, too, but still…
  • Our neighbors exchange cupcakes and power tools, help out with cat-sitting and resume-writing.
  • Some of us – shh! – even leave our doors unlocked during the daytime.

 Okay, here’s my gross generalization: city folks can take themselves a little too seriously.   I know; I’ve heard the comments, or more accurately, the tone. In certain circles, living in either the city or the country are the only authentic choices.  To suggest that you are considering a move to the suburbs  implies that you have pretty much given up on life. 

Hence my fear of turning into a Stepford-type wife as we prepared to leave Cambridge.  As it turns out, I am probably more authentic than ever, here in the Land of Ash.  I collect my mail from the mailbox in my bare feet and pick blueberries for my cereal.  I meet with a savvy and informed group of suburban women to discuss literature, politics, and life.  I still drive into the city to catch an art exhibit or share a meal with friends during Restaurant Week. 

Although I don’t spend Saturday nights at the mall,  I’ve been to Home Depot a couple of times. Far as I know, my soul is intact.  

To the old story of the Country Mouse and the Town Mouse I’d like to add a third cousin, the Suburban Mouse. She doesn’t have to choose, but gets the best of all worlds. And at a more reasonable price.

Here’s a gallery of some local images from this summer.

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Toxify Me

In one week I’ll get my first botox treatment. Yipee!

This is what my neck feels like most of the time.


That’s caused by dystonia. I’ve had it for many years now, but it was only diagnosed less than a year ago.  It causes my neck to twist to the side, my shoulder to shrug up, and my head to bob disconcertingly when I turn. 

My brother Mark’s response when I talked with him about the likelihood of a genetic component: “Sure. Don’t you remember Nonni? She was just like a popcorn machine!”  The other obvious -and equally flattering – comparison, of course, is to a bobblehead. 

As you can imagine, this adds a whole new level of fun and adventure to dating in your fifties.  The slight head twisting down and to the side actually works in my favor, since it gives me the appearance an engaged listener  (just check your nonverbal language guides).  

We dystoniacs do have some sensory tricks to reduce the symptoms as well, and one of my favorites is putting my hand to my chin, again emphasizing the mood of thoughtful attention.  Depending upon where I am at any given time – say, on a lakeside picnic with a new date, this trick can look, well, odd.

At times over the years, I imagined that if only I could get medication injected right into my neck, I would get some relief from pain.  Neck rubs (and my former husband gave me literally hundreds) helped temporarily, but the muscle contractions always set back in within hours.  Professional  massage can occasionally last for a couple of days, but try to tell your benefits company you need it for therapeutic reasons, and you can hear the snorting through the phone.

So, when I found out that botox injections were in fact the treatment of choice for this condition, I saw a movement disorders specialist as soon as I could. And then had to wait to see the recommended botox specialist.  And wait some more. Apparently, since you’re sticking poison into your muscles, you really want someone with experience to do it, even if you have to wait for what seems like an insanely long time.  

The insanely long wait is finally – almost – over.  I’ll admit to a bit of nervousness…the doctors have to tell you about every potentional side effect, however remote the risk. New friends I’ve made through the Dystonia Foundation have given lots of support and reassurance, though, so I’ll be pretty calm going in. 

My friends have jokingly asked about whether I can request to have anything else done while I’m there, like my frown lines (or, as I’m told they’re referred to, the ‘elevens’).   My friend Amy asked my doctor whether some extra botox injections could outfit me with Angelina Jolie lips, and got a quick response. “Nah. That’s something else that you don’t want…filler!

I’m trying to keep my expectations realistic, since I understand it takes days to start to experience the benefits, and it can take a couple of treatments to determine the exact dosage and injection sites best suited for my individual needs.  If it works, I’ll go back about every 14 weeks for the ‘fix’.   I’d say fingers crossed, but I’ve got enough body parts going in the wrong direction already.

I hope to be able to post a photo of a different tree in a few weeks, maybe not perfectly straight, but at least knot-free.  Wish me luck!

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The Color of Fresh Air

I picked up my 10 year-old visitor on Friday afternoon.  Our initial meeting was a bit awkward – me, holding up a welcome sign and Starr looking tired and a little lost.

She surprises me with her questions on the way home. Passing a cemetery, “when do people write what’s on the markers?”  and “Are there shootings in your neighborhood?” I surprised myself with what I share with her. That 5th grade (which she’s entering in September) was my favorite  – because I had a wonderful teacher, because we studied poetry, and because I got glasses and could finally see clearly. 

She marvels at my dishwasher and automatic garage door opener, and I wonder at her grace and self-possession, well beyond her ten years. 

The cats sleep with Starr her first night. Pets are wonderful ice-breakers.  

On our first full day, we head up to Bobby’s Ranch for a trail ride. Starr is wide-eyed at all the animals. “It looks like a real farm,” and then, “It smells like one, too.”

A lot more new experiences for Starr…first drive-in movie, mini-golf, lake swimming and lobster dinner.  Also her first menstrual period.  Starr, embarrassed, speaks with her mom on the phone, then hands the phone over to let her mom, Aisha, tell me the news.  Aisha says she wishes she could be there for the occasion of Starr’s first period, and I do too, though I do my best to fill in.  

My niece spends a few days with us, and we three develop shared rituals. Afternoons are spent splashing in the local reservoir and eating cookies. The girls demonstrate their athletic abilities while I take pictures.  At the end of the day, I upload the photos onto the laptop, and Starr posts them on twitter.   On the evening before my niece goes back home, we sit on the hill and watch the sky light up from an electrical storm so far in the distance we can’t hear even a rumble. 

While sitting in traffic yesterday, Starr told me she read somwhere online about a way to change your eye color. “You just light a candle in the color you want your eyes to be, and concentrate (but not too hard), and your eyes will change to that color.”  Starr wants to buy a blue candle, or at least a lighter shade brown.

There are many things I’ve wanted to change about myself over the years, but never my  blue eyes and blonde hair. They’re part of the ‘free pass’ I’ve relied on to gain access to opportunities and to avoid having to explain or justify myself in the world.                          So, in response to Starr, I  clarify that eye color comes from genes and not candles, but  trying to convince her that her  beautifully dark brown eyes are perfect just the way they are feels a little disingenuous.  

Today is our last day together, and we talk about staying in touch through twitter.  Starr has logged her memories in the journal she brought with her, and is glueing some of her photos onto the pages.  She mentions that she’s heard other kids come back to visit again, and she hopes she can, too. I tell her I’m looking forward to it.  This has been a week of firsts for me, too, and I’m grateful for the gift of Fresh Air this ten year-old girl has brought to my life. 

Starr’s farewell gift, a painting, is hanging on my fridge to dry. It’s riotously colorful, with glitter glue, sparkles and markers.  I tell Starr that it makes me happy to look at it, and she nods. “Oh yeah,” she answers, singsong, “you gotta have color.”

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At the bar, I worked up the courage to tell my friends about my recent diagnosis. They paused, asked what it meant and listened to my brief explanation.  “Oh”, Harry said. “I thought it had something to do with breaking up with Tony.”

This condition is, literally, a pain in the neck.  Although I’ve had it for years, I was only recently diagnosed by a specialist I was seeing for a related condition. When he said, “you have dystonia”, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and reflexively replied “No, I don’t.” 

Months later, I’m looking forward to my first botox treatment, which will prevent those misfirings that cause my muscles to contract so painfully.  It’s a relatively rare condition, so there aren’t a lot of people I can commiserate with, the way I could with friends during the menopausal hot flash era.  I checked out the dystonia online support forum, and initially flinched at urgings to ‘keep a positive attitude’; worse were suggestions for new-age treatment approaches and even reliance on prayer. 

These days I’m especially grateful for those friends I don’t have to protect, the ones who know it sucks and will say so. Sometimes with a clever twist, like Harry, and sometimes by giving me permission to be honest, like Katie. “You know what your problem is? You don’t whine enough. You got to start whining more!”   

I know I need to learn to live with this, and I also know it could be worse.  It could, for example, be a pain in the ass. But it’s my brain. The same brain that makes me so smart and perceptive and creative also makes my hands shake, my neck twist, and my jaw clench. I feel somewhat like the stag in the Aesop’s Fable, whose prized antlers were, in the end, his greatest liability.

Movement disorders tend to frighten us, and why not?  They represent loss of control over our basic bodily functions.  As I learn more about dystonia and my related movement disorders I’m encountering parallel challenges. The first is acknowledging and accepting the impact of these disorders on my life. The second, as important as the first, is claiming those things over which I do have control, and making choices to improve the quality of my life.

I’m beginning to suspect, too, that along with the losses may come a greater sense of freedom.  It might be a relief not to have to maintain that persona of competence and independence.  It’s humbling – in a good way – to acknowledge that I need help and to allow other people to share the gifts they have to offer.

If you haven’t heard of it before, check out the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation.  They do a good job explaining the different types of dystonia, and promote and support important research work.

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Independence Day

It’s actually Friday the 13th, and yet what’s been the central theme of the day is independence, which I both require and resent.   It started with an 11th hour decision to cancel a scheduled mortgage refinancing, which involved tough negotiations with bankers, attorneys, and a mortgage broker.  I didn’t shrink from any of it, yet when a separate bank employee flagged me down to request a Tax ID for my father (who died four years ago), I crumpled.

Later, I strolled down to the hardware store to pick out a saw.  Not a handy sort, I was intimidated by the task before me. In order for the trash company to haul away my 8-foot stepladder, I first had to cut it in half to regulation size. The receptionist at the waste removal office was matter of fact. “Can’t you just get one of your neighbors to do it?” That would involve asking for help, something I’m loath to do.

As I was halfway through the project, my neighbor showed up and offered to help me out.  What he actually said was that my technique was scaring him.  I have to say I felt pretty accomplished when I was done, though Ken was less impressed. “You call that a workout?”  

I had been feeling a little sorry for myself at points throughout the day.  If I’d been in a relationship, there’d be someone to pitch in, share in the decision-making, lend support.  Or maybe not.  After agreeing to my ex-husband’s request to adopt a dog, I was the one who attended Buster’s weekly obedience classes.  I purchased my last car on my own when my then-boyfriend didn’t want to venture out on a cold December evening.  

And despite being currently single, I’m really not alone with everything. Amy actually came with me into my last doctor’s visit, bringing both comfort and laughter. When my father had to be placed in a nursing home after a stroke, dear Katie helped  clean out his cluttered apartment. Over the next two and a half years until my father’s death,  I was able to count on my brother and sister in law’s consistent involvement in every aspect of his care.

When I hopped online tonight, I saw a facebook photo of a friend and her beau settling in for Friday evening cocktails, a comfy ritual marking the beginning of their weekend together.  A pang of wistfulness swept over me.  But then, with just myself to please, I indulged in a  peanut butter sandwich (on sourdough) and a smoothie. And left the dishes in the sink while I fiddled with my camera and delved into my newest Haruki Murakami novel. Ahh, independence.

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A Blog Welcome

To paraphrase my mother, it’s not the things you worry about that end up being life’s greatest challenges.  What she didn’t say is that the challenges you do face also hold the potential to help you discover who you are.

When I passed the age at which my mother had her first heart attack, I was able to relax a little.  I’d dodged that particularly nasty genetic bullet.  Now in my mid-fifties, I’m having to confront the limitations imposed by a different type of chronic condition.

After repeated – and unsuccessful – attempts to outpace my movement disorders, I’m starting to accept and make accommodations.  Which, paradoxically, will allow me to realize my remaining potential to create and connect with purpose.  A specialist I just saw commented on the tremendous level of energy I’ve expended in trying to suppress my symptoms.  I’ve started to imagine how I’d rather spend that precious energy…

Recently,  I’ve been reminded of the power of writing, which I expect will help me better navigate the paradoxes I’m living with  –  working productively while beginning to prepare for the gradual transition to retirement ; dating and living alone; continuing to be creatively engaged with life, and slowing down my pace.

This is a time to lean into the questions, listen to hunches and explore dreams.  Having been stripped of the illusion that I’ve got plenty of time,  I’m starting to be more deliberate in how I choose to spend my time, energy and attention.  This is a journal of sorts, written primarily to help illuminate my way going forward, but if you happen to stumble upon it in your blog travels, I hope it offers you an insight, some comfort, or maybe a laugh.

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