I love a list. It has a beginning and an ending. It’s a certainty. A sure thing. Naturally, then, I love Rob Gordon, a kindred spirit erstwhile hapless record shop owner in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. A compulsive maker of lists which somehow make sense of a world that doesn’t always make sense, Rob’s “top fives” run the gamut of pop culture, eclectic compilations that include his top five episodes of Cheers, top five Elvis Costello songs, the top five musical crimes perpetrated by Stevie Wonder in the 80s and 90s, and the top five “women who don’t live on his street but would be very welcome.”
Like Hornby’s character, I can produce all kinds of top-five lists . . . album covers, fonts, pet peeves, life lessons, things not to say to a teenage daughter, mix tapes (now playlists) for any occasion, places to see and avoid in Phoenix, dive bars, concert venues, ways to get my own way, setlists, pizza toppings, authentic “Irish” bars in Phoenix (there might not be five), hairdressers, Tom Petty concerts, Van Morrison songs, things Nora Ephron said about what not to wear, lipstick shades, handbags, road-trips, playlists for road trips, white lies, excuses not to go out, cocktails involving gin, dramatic entrances, exit strategies, famous people who could play me in a movie, Heaney poems, hashtags, and ways to let someone down easy (mostly myself).
It turns out there are psychological reasons for this love of lists. For instance, there’s the guess-work, the wondering if what I think will be on the list will be there when I click on it, confirming that I was right about something. Apparently, a correct prediction causes the brain to send an extra little shot of dopamine, and that boost makes for a better day.
So today is a good day. I clicked on the email, and there it was – news that this blog has made it to the short list of the 2017 Blog Awards Ireland competition in the Irish Diaspora category. This is not the first time the blog has made it this far. And it’s grand. No really, it is. Look, Randy Newman was nominated for twenty Academy awards and held the record for successive nominations – 14 of them – before finally winning in 2001 for “I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters Inc. Some of the critics attributed his losing streak to the obvious – that all his songs sound a little too much like Randy Newman, of all people.
Then there’s Susan Lucci, Queen of daytime soap operas, who finally won an Emmy after 19 consecutive years of being nominated in the Best Actress category for her portrayal of over-the-top hellcat Erica Kane on “All My Children.” Like Ms. Lucci, I’m happy to be nominated and in the company of others who wrestle with getting the words right and who retreat online to this timeless space, this home away from home. It is a lovely thing to know that there are readers for whom this corner of the blogosphere represents the Irish abroad, and the recognition delights me as does being included on a list with others who have lifted me up and set me down again in this very space.
As much as I have revealed of myself in this virtual space, I know for sure what is not copy, what is not up for public consumption. Cancer was copy – it still is. Some of the business of widowhood has been copy too. But I know what is not. I know what to keep and what to discard. I know how to control it and how to control myself. Most of the time. As public as I have made many of my choices, I know how to keep what is most precious, private. I suppose I have learned how to – as Meryl Streep said of Nora Ephron – ‘achieve a private act.’
I’ve learned how to avoid an ending, and I am very good at the long game. I know what Nora Ephron’s son knows – that closure is overrated. I cannot consider the concept without recalling the first time I realized how much it mattered to other people, in particular, a principal who, following her observation of a lesson I had taught to a class of 5th graders, indicated with grave disappointment, that I had provided “no closure” for my students. I didn’t bother arguing with her because I knew I would be back in my classroom the next day and the next – to continue – not to close – with my students. I think it’s the continuing that matters (along with what I wore along the way).
Continuance – it has a nice ring to it. Keep on keeping on. Howl on.
I am dedicating this post to one of Belfast’s finest musicians, who will forever be on my top-five list and whose final album, Reckless Heart, is currently shortlisted for the Northern Ireland Music Prize In Association With Blue Moon 2017.
I have yet to be disappointed by what happens when my online world collides with its ‘real’ counterpart. Landing on the virtual doorsteps of people in the middle of lives parallel to my own, I have been beautifully blindsided by unexpected coincidences and exchanges of truths that may not otherwise have seen the light of day. In my virtual home, it is easy to pull up a chair and trade ideas and opinions with people I may never meet about why Seamus Heaney will always matter; about the beautiful, bruised Northern Ireland that both scared me and shaped me; about breast cancer and the pain of it, the politics of it and the shiver of fear it brings when it moves in; and, about clearing a path to things that matter most and things that need to be said.
A few summers ago, I got lost in the blogosphere and somehow landed at Lesley Richardson’s blog, where within minutes, I was completely at home, howling with laughter as we traded stories about surviving our adolescence in Northern Ireland long before curly-hair products had been invented. Both of us born in 1963 in neighboring counties, we have much in common – along with the curls, we each have a teenage daughter, we share a love for Seamus Heaney and for Belfast and a need to write. There’s the cancer. Always the cancer. Before posting to her blog, An Unconventional Death, Lesley emailed me and asked me not to read it, afraid that perhaps her searing account of her beloved dad’s death would upset or offend me, given my own diagnosis. I was moved by her sensitivity to my situation, but I read it anyway, and it broke my heart with its unvarnished truth-telling.
On September 11th, Lesley and I talked here about the jolt to our psyches on that grotesque morning in 2001 when it seemed as though the entire world could barely breathe for fear of what might happen next. Our little girls were then just four years old, safe in their preschools on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. When the news tumbled out of New York city, Lesley and I stopped in our tracks, heartsick, the familiar terror we both knew as children of The Troubles, reawakened in us. Blindsided again.We had grown complacent, I suppose, with the Good Friday Agreement and talk of peace and renewal. How could we have so quickly forgotten that anything can happen.Anything. We should have known better.
“Anything can happen.
The tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted
Those overlooked regarded.
~ Seamus Heaney
Did we used to be more resigned to that maxim? I don’t know. Growing up where we did, when we did, we were confounded by the bombs and bullets, the brutality and barbarism on both sides, but at the same time, somehow – and sadly – resigned to it. We held tight to the ordinary rituals, the ones we thought we could control, and we tried not to be afraid that “it” might happen to us. We never fully gave into the fear as we went to our schools and our shops or out to the pub on a Friday night. Had we given into the fear, we would never have left our homes.
For myself, one such routine entailed writing in a diary every day. Unprompted, I could fill page after page with stories, some true, others embellished. Along with now embarrassing angst-filled poetry, bits of social commentary, newspaper clippings, dried red leaves from maple trees on the edges of country roads upstate New York on my first trip to America, concert tickets, letters never sent, and things I wished I had said at the time. There was always plenty of evidence of a life being lived well in spite of the troubles that swirled around and within us.
A young woman, just starting out on my own, I had time and space from which to carve out a tight hour each day to set words down on a page. The world was my oyster. But the business of adult living eventually got in my way, the way it does, and writing in my diary, my once cherished ritual, gave way to more mundane tasks and responsibilities that turned out to be far less important, far more costly, and often not even good for me.
Just when I thought I had my house in order, a breast cancer diagnosis caught me off-guard – with a jolt. And I began to write again, the way I had done in that old diary. For me. I kept it private at first, afraid to hit “publish.” Inexplicably, I felt like I was speaking out of turn or that I would get in trouble for expressing aloud my indignation about the disease that would interrupt my daughter’s adolescence and make me make room in the next ten years for appointments with oncologists.
As I encountered others like me in this online space, I grew bolder and started to set down my story against the more mainstream stories of celebrities who have “conquered” cancer or women who “have it all.” Here, I could lean back rather than Lean In obediently just because all the other women are doing it. I can take stock and trade. I can light the match rather than not burn the bridge that served only to keep me down and in the dark. In this space, if a visitor leaves a comment that is unkind or untrue or defamatory, I can place it in the trashcan, where it belongs. But that has happened only once. This is my home away from home, so I keep writing. For myself. I suppose cancer made a writer out of me.
For Lesley, it was the death of someone she never met, a Russian immigrant who worked on the 97th floor of 2 World Trade Center, that prompted her to start writing for herself. A jolt that helped her find her writer’s voice. Although she has been writing for years and makes a living writing for other people, it was not until she took a Creative Writing Class in September 2002 that she started to write the kind of writing that lays bare those things that matter. I am glad that she did, because it led me to her, and it led her to publish her first novel The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir.
Lesley’s first homework assignment in that class was ostensibly simple – to write a letter. To anyone. About anything. Just a letter. Stuck and not knowing what to write about or to whom, she turned on her TV on the second anniversary of 9.11 and began watching the memorial service. For over two and a half hours, she listened, as the names of almost 3,000 dead were read, and when they got to the last name on the list, Igor Zuckelman, she knew the letter she would write. Her letter to Igor became a tribute to all those who died:
I’ve been wondering, Igor, what you would have made of your death, of all the deaths, and the aftermath of that catastrophic and grotesquely historic couple of hours. I come from a place that has been tarnished by terrorism for over 30 years. My country has lived with death, hatred and evil for almost as long as I can remember, and many of the atrocities we have witnessed have left wounds that for some will never heal. Perhaps the saddest thing that I have learnt from living here is that hate breeds hate, ignorance breeds intolerance and, for those who are locked in their insular beliefs, forgiveness is not an option.
When I read Lesley’s letter to Igor, I knew what to do. I promised to print it out and deliver it to the Healing Field Memorial in Tempe, Arizona, where I would attach it to the flagpole erected there for Igor Zukelman, a flag flying for him along with 2,995 others.
On Wednesday, September 11, 2013, before going to work, I went to the Healing Field. My best friend brought a plastic bag to protect Lesley’s letter from the impending rainstorm and a bit of green ribbon to attach it to the pole. Unlike me, my best friend thinks of everything.
Making our way up the little hill upon which Igor’s flagpole stands, we could not help but look up, uncomfortably aware of the field’s proximity to Sky Harbor Airport and the roar of airplanes above ensuring we will not forget the sound of those planes before they hurtled into the Twin Towers.
Letters and paper flowers, candles aglow in the bright morning, tiny stuffed bears on the grass at the bottom of six flagpoles – I have been cleaved in two by such things before, things left to honor innocent lives snuffed out by terrorism. The tragic lesson learned growing up in Northern Ireland is that terrorism is a horrible equalizer. Babies, children, parents, grandparents, those without names or families or homes or good health – it matters not. In a terrorist attack, they are all “legitimate targets.”
And in this field of healing, flanked by row upon row of flagpoles set five feet apart, we can stretch out our arms and touch two lives at a time, lest we forget what happened on September 11, 2001.
The 9.11 memorial in Tempe, Arizona, is heartbreakingly beautiful, each one of its 2,996 flags signifying a life taken on that horrific autumn morning. There are shows of patriotism and silent prayers for the dead; a mournful “Taps” pierces the air every hour on the hour, and everyone falls silent and still; then bagpipes and then Amazing Grace. Yellow ribbons wrapped around and around those flagpoles encircling the field, represent the valor of those “first responders,” whose duty is to protect and serve those within. Ribbons as blue as that September morning sky wound around flagpoles in the heart of the Field, for the flight crew members who perished. On the grass, for veterans lost that day, pair after pair of combat boots.
In cities here and across the globe, wreaths are laid, bells ring out, and names are rubbed in pencil on cherished scraps of paper. We say their names. We remember them.
I found Igor’s flag and found out that he was born in the Ukraine in 1972. An immigrant like me, he came to America to make a better life for himself and finally landed a job as a computer analyst for the Fiduciary Trust Company. He worked on the 97th floor of 2 World Trade Center. He was married with a three-year-old son, and he had become an American citizen just months before he died.
I said his name and attached Lesley’s letter to the flag pole. Before turning away, a whisper “Godspeed.”
Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
Not you, Nelson Mandela. You went into the world with boldness and made your mark on it. Madiba will ring out forever.
In June of 2013, I wrote of news that you were gravely ill. Reports poured out of Pretoria, South Africa that you were on life support. We held our breath, not wanting to accept that you were frail at 94, ill, and nearing the end of your life. In my mind’s eye, I could see you only at the beginning of your life as Mandela the free man who stepped onto the world’s stage in 1990 after spending 27 years behind bars.
In the darkest days of Apartheid, no one – other than Mandela himself – could have imagined the man in that tiny cell as the future President of his country, that he would one day stand among rock stars and royalty and popes and presidents to advocate for democracy and justice, to inspire a vision of peace that transcended race and creed, that he would matter to so many people and that he would make so many people matter. People like me.
Mandela mattered to me because he represented what could be. Like Martin Luther King‘s dream of what America could be and like the peace once envisioned for Northern Ireland by Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, Mandela’s vision of South Africa as a democratic rainbow-nation inspired the first all-race democratic election, moving more than 17 million black South Africans to vote for the first time. Such a sight to behold, even on a tiny television screen on the other side of the world – a reminder that anything can happen, that Seamus Heaney‘s hope and history can rhyme.
For my 24th birthday not long before I emigrated to the United States, a boyfriend surprised me with a ticket to Paul Simon’sGraceland concert in Dublin. Boisterous and beautiful, the performance sparkles still in my memory as one that transcended the ugliness of apartheid. Simon had been and is still widely criticized for performing in South Africa, but how could I fault him for accepting an invitation from black South African musicians to collaborate on some of the most hopeful and uplifting music ever created. Surely, that glorious music represented the “days of miracle and wonder” that were possible in the heart of Nelson Mandela or, years earlier, in the universal dream of Martin Luther King. In accepting a Grammy award for the album, Simon said of his fellow musicians and friends:
They live under one of the most oppressive regimes on earth today, and still they are able to produce music of great power, nuance and joy, and they have my respect for that.
Simon was also one of the first people Mandela invited to South Africa. I imagine the smile spreading across Mandela’s face, showing he was no longer a prisoner – not merely because the bars had been removed, but because he had left bitterness and rancor behind. Not everyone did. The late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had deemed Mandela a terrorist, speaking for most of her party. I remember well, when the Iron Lady took office, her strident refusal to enforce sanctions on apartheid while much of the world was doing so. Her policy of “constructive engagement” with the country’s white minority government polarized her such that following her death, there were reports of only a few tears shed in South Africa.
As young university students in 1984, we sang along with The Specials urging those who could to “Free Nelson Mandela.” How could we not? His release was a moral imperative; it was the right thing to do against a racist regime. We were young and full of hope for a better future, and it was through that lens that Thatcher and others in her party appeared resolute in their support of white rule which seemed only to prolong Mandela’s imprisonment in that tiny cell.
On the other side of the argument, there were those, including De Klerk, who felt that “Thatcher correctly believed that more could be achieved through constructive engagement with his government than international sanctions and isolation of the South African government.”
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It always does.
When Mandela walked out of jail, a joyous crack was heard all over the world. While enormous challenges lay ahead and even more bloodshed, apartheid would eventually come to an end. Together, De Klerk and Mandela would rise up to be honored with the Nobel Prize for Peace for their shared vision of a South Africa without apartheid, of a democratic nation. Perhaps this would be the example for other countries beleaguered by bigotry and bitterness, proof positive that it is possible to sustain humanity in a world defined by brutal divisiveness.
Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award inspired by fellow Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney’s “From the Republic of Conscience,” was presented to Mandela in 2006. Perfect then that Heaney would be the first to congratulate Mandela thus:
To have written a line about “hope and history rhyming for Mr. Mandela in 1990 is one thing . . . to have the man who made them rhyme accept the Award inspired by my poem is something else again.
At the beginning of the summer of 2013, I imagine Seamus Heaney was vexed over the thought of a world without Mandela. I think we all were. I remember my husband and I talking over coffee about Mandela’s charisma and fortitude, his inestimable influence – the “Madiba magic” that changed the world. We were sad that Mandela’s time with us was coming to an end. I didn’t want to believe it, and turned to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the way I still do in the in-between times.
And then, just six months later, Nelson Mandela was gone. Seamus Heaney was gone. My husband was gone. Gone. Like three shooting stars – startling, beautiful, gone.
When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
It was leukemia that took Nora Ephron from us, a cancer she had kept private in a world that already knew many of the intimate details of her aging neck, her dry skin, the contents of her purse, her small breasts about which she wrote A Few Words, and her weapon of choice against not only the gray hair that grows back with a vengeance every four weeks, but the youth culture in general – hair color. With a quick and daring wit, she regaled us with stories of the indignities visited upon her as she grew older, but she did not tell us about the cancer. Cancer was not up for discussion. For Ephron, cancer was not copy, as her son explains in the HBO documentary about her life:
I think at the end of my mom’s life she believed that everything is not copy,” he says. “That the things you want to keep are not copy. That the people you love are not copy. That what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away, the things that have been taken from you. She saw everything is copy as a means of controlling the story. Once she became ill, the means to control the story was to make it not exist.
Into my fifth decade, it occurs to me that maybe I have always understood the need to control and contain. As much as I have revealed of myself in this virtual space, I know for sure what is not copy. For me, breast cancer was copy. It still is. Some of the business of widowhood is copy too. But I know what is not. I know what to keep and what to discard. I know how to control it and how to control myself – most of the time. I know how to be private. I know how to keep what is precious, private. I know how to – as Meryl Streep says of Ephron – ‘achieve a private act.’ I also know how to avoid an ending, and I’m very good at the long game. I know what Nora Ephron’s son knows – that closure is over-rated. I can’t consider the concept without recalling the first time I realized how much it mattered to other people, following a principal’s evaluation of a lesson I’d taught. In her report, she indicated, with some disappointment, that I had provided “no closure” for my students. I didn’t bother arguing with her, because I knew I would be back in my classroom the next day and the next to continue – not to close – with my students. It is the continuing that matters along with what I wore along the way.
Continuance – it has a nice ring to it.
Like each of the five women in Love, Loss, and What I Wore, Nora and Delia Ephron‘s stage-adaptation of Ilene Beckerman’s book by the same name, I can peer into my wardrobe and hang on the clothes and shoes and handbags and boots that bulge from it, some of the most important moments of my life. Especially the boots. For those dwelling in cooler climes, there is perhaps a 20-day window for honest boot-wearing in Phoenix, Arizona. Seriously. The sunshine is relentless, the heat is “dry,” and I can offer no justification for my growing collection of boots other than still wanting to be more like my idea of a young Carly Simon or Linda Ronstadt. My favorite brown leather boots have a beautiful patina, best worn with the attitude I squeezed into them the morning I was fired by a man who might possibly have been great were it not for the misogyny that diminshed him. Admittedly, it was not the best way to start a day, but how it pleased me to turn on the heel of those well-worn boots and walk away from him. Forever.
Then there are the boots of patchwork leather that my mother gave me; they make me feel like Carly Simon in anticipation of a date with Cat Stevens circa 1971. There are the inappropriate patent leather boots I wore the first time we took our daughter to see the snow, to fall with glee into the sparkling powder, creating her first snow-angel; there are six pairs of black boots that vary only in length even though someone, most likely me, pointed out that each is a distinct shade of black and – this is important – timeless; too, there are the classic Frye boots that I simply could not pass up because they were on sale and at a consignment store; and, the pointy-toed suede knee-high boots purchased from a UK catalog at full over-priced price. They have been reheeled and resoled twice, and they require additional assistance and effort to remove from my tired feet at the end of a long day. I haven’t worn them as much since Ken died, because I know when the time comes to remove them that I will remember exactly how he used to say, “Goddammit baby. Goddammit.” And then I will tell myself there must have been a mistake, that maybe he’s not really dead.
The collection of coats defies explanation, several of them purchased in Ireland and carried back – in an extra suitcase – to the desert southwest where there is rarely the need for a sweater let alone a coat. I suppose coat-wearing allows me to make a statement about how Phoenix won’t stop me from being my own girl, complete with scarf, coat, and even a turtleneck underneath. I have other “signature” coats, one of which I will never wear in public unless Tom Petty calls and asks me to be one of his Heartbreakers. It is more art than coat and belongs only on someone on stage in front of 50,000 fans holding up lighters.
During the Christmas holidays, I always wear the long red coat I bought at Marks and Spencers one year in Belfast. I love the lining that nobody can see – white with tiny red hearts. And I don’t care if it is 80 degrees outside; that coat is a stunner. Against the backdrop of a holiday tree made of a triangle of pots of jolly red poinsettias outside Saks Fifth Avenue at the Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix, it makes me feel a bit like Santa. Or Red Riding Hood.
Along with the boots, and the Bridge vintage leather Gladstone doctor’s bag – which I bought on Ebay and have not been able to open for several years because the brass clasp is broken – hiding in a corner of the closet, are burgundy leather penny loafers, with a penny in each. I haven’t worn them since 1989. I don’t remember why I bought them and don’t know why they are still in my house, but I think it might be because they are reminiscent of the brogues I once wore to school or the tap shoes I wore for Irish dancing. Or maybe I was influenced by the collegiate style of a fifth-grade American girl wearing khakis from the Gap, white socks, and her grandmother’s loafers.
Given where I am today, with nothing to wear to a thing I don’t want to go to later – having already flung on the bed seven summery skirts that are too snug at the waist because of a diet that has deteriorated in recent months (years) and an exercise regimen postponed (abandoned), I feel a bit like Meryl Streep‘s married character getting ready for a clandestine rendezvous in the city with de Niro’s character, also married (but to someone else) in a favorite movie of mine, Falling in Love. For me, in the end, something blue wins; it always does.Even Meryl settles on a blue print blouse. In my case, it will be the blue dress I am wearing in many of the profile pictures on my online spaces. If I run into any of my social media contacts today, they will think I have nothing else to wear. And, they will be right.
Resurrected in her son’s documentary, Ephron is among us once again. Vibrant, funny, and in control. I imagine her striding across a set not unlike The Strand bookstore in the East Village where all her books were almost sold out the morning after her death. In my mind, she is authoritative – and perhaps perceived as mean – as she provides direction to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, while searching for the glasses that are on top of her head. I prefer to think of her laughing with the darlings of Hollywood, surrounded by books, as in the old Jimmy Stewart movie The Shop Around the Corner, charmingly resurrected and rewritten by Ephron and her sister, as the romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail starring, naturally, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Although by many accounts, a cynic with a sharp tongue, I suspect Nora Ephron was a romantic at heart, so it would have been poetic had real life handed her the happy ending like those she crafted in those fail-proof feel-good “chick flicks.” The happy ending would not have been real, and my guess is that Nora Ephron liked to keep it real.
Her contribution to the movies is but a tiny part of her legacy as a writer, but those films are such a big part of the soundtrack to my American life as a woman who immigrated to this country around the time When Harry met Sallywas released. Granted, it is not the most memorable part of the movie, but there is one scene that always makes me laugh and snaps me back to the young woman I used to be, the one who shows up now and again to remind me just how little time there is to become who I am supposed to be. As I have learned, life happens in the twinkling of an eye, and it is for the living. I have learned that too.
In the scene, Meg Ryan’s Sally has just found out that her ex-boyfriend is getting married. In tears, she tells Harry that she is going to be left on the shelf, a spinster, all alone at forty. Mind you, she is barely thirty, with a very cute hair cut that, at the time, I was convinced would work with naturally curly hair like mine. It didn’t. In fact, I carried in my wallet, for several years – maybe a decade – a page from a magazine featuring the many cute haircuts of Meg Ryan. I really did. And, for countless hairdressers rendered clueless and incompetent by the state of my hair, I unfolded that page, as though it were the Shroud of Turin, to politely asked them to give me a Meg Ryan haircut. Not until I turned 50 and found Topher at the aptly named Altered Ego salon, did they ever get it quite right, but that is a story that has been told here before. Too many times, perhaps.
And I’m gonna be 40 . . . someday
Just yesterday I felt the same way. Forty was a lifetime away from eighteen, and by all accounts the deadline for “letting oneself go” and, I suppose, Eileen Fisher. Fifty was sensible and dowdy. Sixty heralded blue rinses for hair – not jeans. Seventy was out of the question, and definitely not a new fifty. Having passed the half-century mark, I’m wondering about what I’ve done and what’s next. With my thirties behind me, my forties too, I am accepting a couple of truths about myself. Some are minor – I do not have sensible hair, and I talk too much. Others are more painful. I should be kinder and more patient. Too, I should stay far away from insecure men in positions of power and recognize earlier those folks who are nice to me only because they need something from me. Like my hair, they perform poorly when the pressure rises.
Being in my fifth decade is a bit like being in IKEA, one of my least favorite places on the planet. A planet itself, IKEA is just too big, with all its “rooms” requiring instructions and assembly and Scandinavian words I find just as intimidating had they fallen from the lips of an errant Viking. I’m worried that I might run out of time to do the things I need to do, not necessarily the kinds of things that might turn up on a “bucket list” but definitely those that will bring me closer to those I love the most. These days, Iknowwho loves me and who loves me not.
Still, none of this self-awareness in any way diminishes how much I resent the aging process in general and the way it just sneaks up on me at the most inopportune times. One minute, I am reading the small print on the back of a shampoo bottle, the next I’m desperately seeking one of the pairs of cheap reading glasses I bought at the carwash or found on a desk, forgotten by some other woman in the same predicament. My hearing isn’t what it used to be either, which I would rather blame on my attendance at very loud concerts over the past forty years than on something as wholly graceless as aging.
About six months before he died, Ken and I went to see Fleetwood Mac in Phoenix. Other than the fact that it was the last concert he saw on this earth and the last time he and I would stay for an encore, I hold on to the moment I caught a white-haired Mick Fleetwood bow out and off stage in his bright red hat, pointed red shoes, and the dangling wooden balls, and Stevie Nicks still spinning in black. Mesmerizing. Just like the white winged dove sings a song. Stevie, at almost seventy. Rock on gold dust woman.
So many beginnings and endings, with more to go . . .
Since Sophie was little, I have saved every drawing, handprint, book report, birthday card, report card, certificate, and, apparently, every receipt from Target. Not in one place, of course. Stuffed in vases and between the pages of books are random letters from the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and her grandparents. There are even pieces of notebook paper that bear only her name in the top right corner. In the spirit of those ever-so-organized professional organizers on documentaries on The Learning Channel, the folks who would direct me to place everything I own on the front yard before organizing it into piles of things that should be stored, displayed, or dumped, I have realized that it is time – theoretically – to tame the paper tiger.
Full of good intentions one day – and for about an hour – I began “organizing.” I made a few folders for my daughter’s school work and special photographs, I threw away those greeting cards that were made not by her but some stranger at Hallmark, I filled a box with books to donate to the local bookstore. While flipping through the pages of a school composition book, I came upon something she had written when she was in elementary school:
I don’t know what or who inspired it. I love the leggy and winking 29 year old, hand on her hip, but I am almost afraid to ask what happened to her. I wonder what Nora Ephron would think of my little girl’s “mountain of life.” I can almost see a wry smile creep across her face as she tells that 50 year old to straighten up for Act Two, to cause some trouble, just as she urged a bunch of Wellesley graduates in her 1996 Commencement Speech – to continue.
Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. Thank you. Good luck. The first act of your life is over. Welcome to the best years of your life . . .