Sunday, December 27, 2009

On Memory

(The view from my daughter's rented condo)

For years, my mother has been telling us about a movie that had a great impact on her in high school. Her older sister saw it first; and when she got home, she crawled into bed with my mother and spilled the entire story, bringing it to vivid life in the darkness. Somehow it encapsulated all the fears, the fragile dreams, and the dazzling romance they must have felt coming of age in a time of war.

The older sister was gorgeous and confident; my mother was shy and unaware of her own emerging beauty. She didn't care that her sister had spoiled the ending. Mom scraped together the money for a bus ticket to Boston to see the movie the very next day.

With the advent of DVDs, my mother has often asked if anyone could find Waterloo Bridge. Every now and then I check the SAVED section of my queue on Netflix to see if it's available, but the release date always remains tantalizingly unknown. Just out of reach. Sort of like the past itself.

Then, this month for my mother's birthday, my incredibly thoughtful daughter tracked down the video. The first week Mom watched it twice a day.

However, privately she confessed disappointment. She still loved the story and Vivien Leigh; Robert Taylor was as handsome as he ever was; but the movie didn't have the same resonance it had when she'd first seen it at sixteen.

"I just don't feel things the way I used to," she said, looking stunned by the discovery.

But that didn't keep her from slipping into her room, pulling down the shades and lying on her bed to watch it one more time. And it didn't keep her from repeating the story about her sister every time she emerged from her private theatre.

Of course, I eventually realized it wasn't the movie she loved so much. It was the memory of a sister's attention; it was their shared youthful longings captured in tangible celluloid.

And I also realized how important it is to make an effort to listen with respect and interest to my mother's repetitive stories. Not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it's also the smart thing to do.

When I do, I occasionally see the forest gleaming through the trees. And sometimes I even see my own life a little more clearly. Just today I was wondering if I feel things as vividly as I used to.

The answer, of course, is no.

And yes.

And even more vividly than ever.

Just as it is for my mother.

Monday, September 21, 2009


This is how huge home is: it's deep enough to contain cats with shimmering eyes, a wild array of colors, invisible mountains of mistakes, and even higher peaks of grace, flowers, music, an amazingly comfortable bed (unlike my twisted plank of misery in the hospital) the laptop where I dream my crazy dreams--and yes, miracle of miracles, my family.

Two days ago, I was discharged after my seventh major surgery in two years. It seems incredible and I don't want to shout too loudly and risk offending the gods, but this time, I believe it's really over. Yep. O.V.E.R.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder how I got through it all. But then I turn to my side and the answer becomes clear. I absolutely couldn't have done it without THIS man (seen with grandson Sebastian.)

ted and sebastian

Mine was the kind of experience that tries love in myriad ways, often shattering it, sometimes strengthening it, but always altering it. In my case, well, let me offer this story: Last night when I was falling asleep in my room 9in my amazingly comfy bed) Ted slipped in beside me, and handed me one of the earbuds to his Ipod. Then he popped the other in his own ear and played this song while the darkness spun around us. For us, it wasn't so much about "taking our blue jeans off"--at least not now--but about about facing, and ultimately savoring the night.

Now I don't want to brag. (After all, I've already a risked offending the capricious gods of fate once in this post.) But tonight I'm feeling like the luckiest woman alive.

Love and blessings to all of you who have supported me through this long ordeal.

Thursday, August 06, 2009


the gift, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

The other night we watched DOUBT, a movie that was far too ambiguous for my taste. Not that ambiguity doesn't have an important place in serious art, but when you're talking about the sexual abuse of a child, there's not much grey area. It either happened or it didn't. In this film, I didn't know who to believe; and worse, I didn't think the writers or the director knew either. Maybe that was the point, but if so, I wasn't buying.

Still, I found some of the sermons delivered by Philip Seymour Hoffman's character interesting--especially the one in which he resigns his position. Though life often feels static, though we imagine our world as solid and reliable, he says, there is a great wind behind us invisibly pushing us forward. Whether we know it or not, whether we like it not, our lives are all about moving, leaving, changing.

The great wind has propelled me into many startling places in the last couple of years--some that I call good, and some that I label bad. But unlike the moral quesions in Doubt, most of them are neither. They just are; and they must be met accordingly. After my sixth major surgery last August, I found recovery elusive. Cleaning the kitchen, taking a short walk exhausted me or left me in pain. My surgeon recently told me this was normal. The disease and the treatment I had were a full out assault on my body. I needed to be patient with myself and with the Great Wind. (Okay, she didn't say that exactly, but that was what I heard.)

Meanwhile, the Great Wind brought other changes, too. Babies arrived and stretched my heart in ways I never imagined. My mother experienced a precipitous mental decline and was forced to move in with us. Children came home and left and came home again. I fell in love with a group of characters in my new novel, and wept over the fates that I held in my hand, but could not change. Not if I were to tell the kind of truth that's so important in fiction.

The other day my beautiful, strong, intelligent mother leaned a fragile frame on her walker, and wept because for the first time ever, she was confused about who I was. What could I do but hug her, and cry with her, and tell her that it was okay? That we had no choice but to go with it, wherever it was leading us. So far that's what we're doing. It's a ragged journey, a hidden path, but we're trying to follow it as best we can.

And meanwhile I continue to sing badly and often. I sing in the morning, and I sing in the dark when I have insomnia (which is often.) I sing to my year-old grandson, Sebastian, who seems to regard my much maligned voice and the many melodies I've collected as some kind of miracle. In the past month, I've looked up and sung ALL the songs that you suggested--from The Log Roller's Waltz to Amazing Grace. Sebastian loves them all, but his favorite is still "The Hokey Pokey."

This week I started singing In the Sun which Chris Martin from Coldplay and Michael Stipe from R.E.M recorded for Hurricane Katrina Relief. But I prefer the original version, performed by the the man who wrote it, Joseph Arthur. "It's too religious," my kids say when they hear me belting it out as I clean the kitchen or come in from a walk (both of which I now do on a regular basis.) But to me, it's an ode to simple good will, the best and truest religion of all.

In Friend News:

Susan Hendersonn of LitPark, one of the most generous writers and human beings I've ever met, proved the power of good karma, not to mention incredible talent and tenacity, when she sold her first novel, The Ruby Cup, to Harper Perennial.

Jessica Keener recently started a fabulous and insightful blog about the meaning and power of home: Confessions of a Hermit Crab.

And last month my blueberry pie baking partner, Susan Messer, published Grand River and Joy, a powerful and timely debut novel that takes on race relations, the Detroit riots, and the landscape of the human hearth. Visit her Web site to learn more about the novel, and maybe even see a photo of this year's pie. (I'm baking mine for the family lobster bake tomorrow. More on that soon...)

Meanwhile, if anyone has any more song suggestions, Sebastian and I are listening.

Monday, June 15, 2009


erased, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

This weekend Ted and started Andrew Weil's EIGHT WEEKS TO OPTIMUM HEALTH. We've been interested in the program for a long time, but weren't inspired to actually DO till it was recommended on Tim Ferris's (always interesting) blog. Week one is pretty simple. You eat broccoli and fish once during the week (which we do anyway), walk five times (ditto) and breathe consciously, i.e. meditate, for five minutes a day (Now that's an area I need to work on). Oh, and you also buy yourself flowers. Not too onerous, even for a habitual resolution breaker like me.

Keeping with the program, we' d started off on an energetic hike through the woods when we wandered into an old cemetery. Well, that was it for the walk. How could we not be stopped by history, by the stories cut in stone, and the infinite mystery they left behind? At times, those who occupied "our" world n seem like a distant rumor, but in the cemetery, they reclaim their names, their sacred alliances and beliefs , the tragedies that swept through their lives, and their own own ultimate release from them. In the shaded serenity of the cemetery, I was reminded of something I'd recently read by Anthony de Mello: "All mystics, no matter what their theology, are unanimous on one point: that all is well, all is well."

flora, age 3

Though the oldest "occupants" were born in the eighteenth century, the first stone we came upon was that of FLORA, AGE 3. Flora as been dead long enough that lichen and decay have begun to erode the three-word biography recorded on her stone, but not so long ago that some living person doesn't still remember her or at least her story. I paused for a minute to wonder who.

soldier of the revolution

We found soldiers from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the graves of young women (who had presumably died in childbirth) and were buried with their infants, and far too many markers for young children. Though their lives ended long ago, my heart still clenched when I encountered JOSEPH who lived for one year, four months, and eleven days, and for the family who numbered his days. However, I was also surprised by the number of nonagenarians the cemetery contained. It seemed that those who survived the perils of youth-- war and childbearing, and lived long enough to build up an immunity to the contagious diseases that claimed so many frequently achieved a ripe old age. Then again, neither the soldier and Christian patriarch above, nor the Temperance advocate below could have imagined a time when fish were less than abundant off the coast of Cape Cod, or when concerns about mercury or other contaminants made people afraid to eat them. Natural wholesome food, a life of vigorous activity, strong community and spirituality weren't something you had to read a book or make a resolution to acquire.

wine is a mocker

In addition to walking and eating broccoli and breathing (always a plus) I've been trying to learn a new song every week. As I've said here before, my voice has been known to scare cats and startle babies, but I still think Pete Seeger was right when he emphasized the importance of singing. For everyone. Even off-key divas like me.

He said it better than I can:

"Songs are funny things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons. Penetrate hard shells. I always believed that the right song at the right moment could change history."

To that end, I have begun my quest for the right song. This week it was this one. Sing it and remember that all is well. All is well.

Any suggestions for next week?

Sunday, March 08, 2009


cotuit, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

“The world belongs to the energetic.” For several years, I had this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson taped inside a cabinet door. It didn’t say much about the kind of person I am (the kind who plans to undertake all kinds of ambitious projects...right after I have a cup of tea and think about it.) But it spoke volumes about the kind I’ve always wanted to be. (In high school, they’re described as “vivacious.”)

Eventually the quote inside my cabinet yellowed and the tape curled and disinegrated, but my optimism remained undaunted. One of these days, I would live the Emersonian ideal. I would stop reading books about how to stop procrastinating, and become a woman of action. I would spend less time reading poetry and more time cleaning the closet! Directing my own films! Opening a soup kitchen! The dreams varied, but the battle cry remained the same. I would!

Then a couple of weeks ago, I was reading the “Vows” column in the New York Times (a wedding column that doesn’t tell doesn’t focus on the the ceremony or the accomplishments of the couple but on their story.) In this particular installment, the new husband described his wife as someone who was “firing on all twelve cylinders.” The phrase hit the same “inspiration nerve” that Emerson had touched years ago. Immediately, I leaped up from the couch and began to sprint around the house like the bride in “Vows” would have done if she suddenly found herself inhabiting my life.

“What’s wrong with Mom?” my son, Jake, wondered.

“Don’t worry; she’ll get over it soon,” Ted said confidently.

Hmmph...I snorted, attacking the closet. I’d show him. Shortly thereafter, my body reminded me of its problems (those complications from complications I wrote about earlier) and I collapsed on the couch. Time for a cup of tea to contemplate the 12 cylinder lifestyle I would soon adopt...I might be a lttle tired today, but tomorrow? I would get up at five. I would channel the vivacious girls from high school and the souped-up bride from "Vows"...I could already hear those cylinders gearing up in the distance.

If we’re limited by the past or by fate or the more mysterious aspects of our DNA, I I guess that means I’ll always a four-cylinder economy vehicle, never the muscle car that owns the road (and according to Emerson, the world.) But I haven’t quite accepted that yet.

walking, mar 7, 2009

So about a month ago, I somehow wandered into a blog called Thirty Minutes A Day on Foot in which the writer chronicles his daily walks. What inspired me was that he didn’t just walk, he explored. I leaped off the couch (yes, I do that regularly) but only after I’d left a comment, proclaiming myself his first disciple.

Now I suppose if I were firing on all 12 cylinders, the next step would have involved putting on my shoes, or something radical like that. But instead, I spent a month thinking of the places I would explore, the friends, family members and animals who might accompany me. Should I buy a pedometer first? A birding book maybe? Obviously, this wasn’t something I could jump into without some serious planning. (Cue the tea kettle.)


It took a month, but yesterday my daughter and the hint-of-spring weather, inspired me to make good on the plan. I went at my own pace, allowing my daughter and the dog to alternately walk and jog ahead of me at theirs, and I spent 32 minutes on foot exploring a new area. Like the source of my inspiration, I timed myself; also like him, I counted “stranger hellos” which strikes me as a significant thing to measure. (We got two.) And I paid attention in new ways. Though I’m not much of a naturalist, in that I don’t know the names of more than the garden variety birds or plants, I was inspired to find things out.

beer tasting

I discovered, for instance, that the body of water at the end of the road we followed was called Cotuit Bay, that ivy blooms in snow, and that there’s such a thing as a beer tasting. (Who says I’m not a naturalist?) Of course, if I really was one of the energetic people who own the world, I might have even come back and checked it out. But as it was, I just went home and thought about it.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Great Depression Image 15, originally uploaded by Don Iannone.

A few years ago, my son Gabe gave me a book about the Great Depression by Robert Mcelvaine. I enjoy history, but there was something, well, depressing, about the photograph on the cover. Several times I put it on my bedside table, intending to read it, but inevitably it drifted to the bottom of the stack. Fiction felt more compelling, more relevant. Hah.

Then we started hearing the threats from the politicians, the talk show radio show dudes (both the reasonably sane and the completely off the rails.) If we didn't do this or that, we wouldn't just face something like that depressing photograph depicted. We'd find ourselves in midst of something far worse. Imaginations ran rampant--at least, mine did. I picked up the book with the grainy photograph on the cover and read, transfixed.

Last November, the Boston Globe ran a story about what Depression 2 might look like. In their vision of the economic apocalypse, unemployed familes would move into overcrowded houses where the unemployed multitude would spend their days huddled up behind the blue light of the TV screen eating cheap processed food. It sounded kind of like staying home from school sick in the sixties. I could almost picture the folding TV trays and taste the chicken noodle soup. It was both a comforting scenario, and well--depressing. (Couldn't they at least have envisioned us reading?) Surprisingly, lot of readers reacted with outrage: A respected newspaper openly speculating on how the economic crisis might play out? How tacky! Are they trying to ruin our day? Create panic maybe? Depress consumerism?

I, for one, think we should talk about it. In fact, there has never been a more important time to share our fears (generally they lose power when brought into the open air) to share our ideas...and especially to share our HOPE.

So here's my dos pesos:

I think President Obama is grappling seriously and thoughtfully with the problem, and I'm thankful to have such an intelligent, steady leader...but I also believe that this train left the station a long time ago. The best we can do now is to slow it down, hope the damage isn't as bad as it looks like it might be, and get as many people off the tracks as possible.

I believe the way we live our lives is going to change--maybe in small, temporary ways, but more likely, the transformation will test us in ways we've never been tried before.

I believe that almost nothing is all bad or all good and I don't say that glibly. I believe that sometimes, the deeper you have to dig to find the bliss, the stronger you grow. I believe that we'll stop being simply consumers, and start becoming citizens; that one day soon, we'll walk outside and see, really see the neighbors we've been ignoring all these years. I believe that we'll plant more vegetables and less grass. And yes, I believe that absent more expensive entertainment, people will READ more.

Don't get me wrong; I don't romanticize poverty. I've been poor myself, but I have no illusions: being poor in good times is a helluva lot different than it is in the not so good ones. The suffering that's already begun for many families and individuals is real and immense. My mother grew up in a large family in the Great Depression. Though her father always retained a job, they still lost their house, and were forced to cram into a tenement apartment, to help out unemployed relatives. My mother shared a small bedroom with three sisters; one brother slept on the couch in the winter and in a tent in the summer (with a bunch of other boys in a kind of Spanky and Our Gang atmosphere. ) Another brother was forced to sleep in a crib in his parents room till he was six because there was nowhere else to put him.

She remembers the deplorable condition of the charity hospital where her uncle was dying of diabetes in the pre-insulin days, and how her parents wept when they saw him there, surrounded by flies. But the next day her mother returned to the hospital and brought her brother-in-law back to the crowded apartment where she cared for him for the rest of his life.

She remembers how everything was used, stretched, saved to make their meals, but when a hobo came to the door to beg dinner, there was always enough to share.

However, the Depression didn't affect everyone in the same way; and it was those obvious class divisions, the shame associated with poverty, that seemed to leave the deepest scars. Some children who went to school with my mother had bicycles and new clothes and maids to clean their homes. She never forgot the humiliation of staying behind in the classroom with two other poor children because her parents didn't have a dime to give her for the field trip.

And here's the irony. My mother recalls the Depression as the "worst time ever;" but I have never heard anyone speak more fondly of their early years than my mother and her siblings. Their's wasn't just a happy childhood; it was a profoundly happy one.

Eventually, the uncle who was forced to sleep in a crib till he was six won a scholarship to Harvard and went on to become an important man in the world. At his retirement party, he spoke movingly about the foundation his life had been built on: the discipline to meet challenges head-on, humility, and the true source of that profoundly happy childhood: love.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

GRATITUDE...SARDINES...AND a health update

sardine bento(u), originally uploaded by chotda.

What happened to my blog? I wanted to write...I thought about writing. Almost every day I thought about writing. But instead I lurked on other blogs...I took naps...I read exalted literature and watched trashy TV shows...I told myself I would do it tomorrow...Maybe. There were so many good things to read elsewhere and I had no story to tell. I drifted back to sleep.

But in the end, or in the middle, where we are now, there was no way I could leave my blog frozen forever on the Horrible and the Miserable. After five months of looking at that dispiriting title, I figured it was about time to change the subject. I could talk about something else. Anything else. Sardines, for instance.

But before we get to that, the health update. The good news is that, nurtured by family and friends, by those of you who were kind enough to check in on me, by exalted reading and trashy TV (and sometimes the reverse) I’m still here. Since my surgery, every (Horrible Miserable) week I’ve spent waitng for a biopsy report ended in the blissful words we cancer survivors live for (often literally): benign, clean, negative. (Who ever thought negative could be such a beautiful word?)

The bad news is that even in an first-rate hospital, with a well-regarded surgeon, I suffered some egregious complications during my cancer surgery. Complications that have led to five more major operations. A year of johnnies, and IVs, and far too much jello--which I never liked, even when I was five. And in the end, or in the middle, where I am now, nothing worked. In the end, each surgery left me little more screwed-up than I was before.

The motto of my story? Stay out of hospitals... Unless they wrap up a sweet smelling baby and hand it to you when you leave...which used to be the reason I visited those institutions...Or you need them to save your life...which I did this time.

So okay, maybe there is no motto. Or maybe the motto is just BE GRATEFUL. I am. Every single day.

Now for the change of subject: sardines! Sardines in salad and sardines mixed with chili sauce. Sardines on rye with mustard or sardines mashed with avocado and garlic...I spent my life saying NO to the little bony omega 3 laden fish, only to find out that I love them.

What have you learned to love recently?