Sunday, March 14, 2010


With all my responsibilities here, I don't get very far from home these days, but that doesn't mean I don't travel. The other day I set my timer and went for a walk.

I saw an overweight man on a too-small bike, dressed in floral shorts and a tank top. He looked at me darkly as he passed. Did he know it was forty degrees outside? Did he know I was wondering if he might be dangerous? Feeling ashamed, I looked away.

I saw the white faced golden retriever who always stumbles off her stoop to warn us off when we pass. This time the owner came out to apologize. “No, no!” I said, stopping her. “I love that dog! He reminds me of the old dogs who have passed through my life, proud protectors to the end." Then I told her about Jade who protected us until she couldn't walk. No, longer. By the time I walked away, we both had tears in our eyes--me for what was, her for what was to come.

I saw the tallest pine tree in the neighborhood standing against a grey sky, and I heard Sebastian’s voice. “Big tree!” he says and points when he rolls by it in his stroller. Before Sebastian, I passed that tree hundreds of times but never really looked at it. Now I marvel. Big tree!

I saw empty houses, dressed up to create the impression they were still occupied. Shades closed, a telltale light in the window that never goes out. I wonder if they’re foreclosures; I wonder where the occupants went; and I wonder who will come to live in them.

I saw a cool pattern made by pine cones and needles and curly beach grass on the gournd. I studied it for a while until I spotted someone behind the shades watching me. She was looking at me the way I looked at the heavy man on the little bike. I waved and moved along.

I passed the house where a man committed suicide a decade ago. Though I don’t know the family, we heard that he hung himself in the garden shed when his wife filed for divorce. As I passed, I looked at the shed--an innocuous structure like so many in the neibhorhood. Like my own. There was a man raking leaves in the front yard. He smiled and said hello, And then a woman called out to him from the side porch where she was smoking a cigarette. She greeted me, too, though somewhat warily.

I saw a teenaged boy in a Volkswagen who waved and gave me a smile that can only be described as sweet. Repaying the debt, I waved enthusiastically at the next two cars that passed. One waved back--returning my ebullience in kind. The other driver looked as if I’d caught him off guard. Maybe he waved at the next person.

I thought about not taking the wooded path Star loves on the way home. Maybe I’d encounter the man on the bike again. I wondered how loud I’d have to scream to be heard. I took the path anyway, silently apologizing to the man in the floral shorts for my assumptions.

Emerging from the woods, I passed the house where a good friend once lived. Several years before he developed pancreatic cancer, I saw an ambulance approaching his house, and I raced down the street, heart thumping. A moment later, my friend emerged to redirect the ambulance and to reassure me. Wrong address! We both laughed as if it were a great joke. As if it would always be so.

The school bus pulled and a girl who used to stop to talk and pet the dog when she was younger decamped. I remembered the time she came to the door and asked if she could make a chalk hopscotch in front of our house. I went outside and played with her, recovering my old joy in the game. Now fourteen, weighed down with her heavy backpack and the even more burdensome weight of the self in adolescence, she looked down when she passed me and Star. We did not intrude on her private brooding.

I came home and checked my timer: All that in twenty-six minutes and 29 seconds.

Sunday, March 07, 2010


doorway, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

If you're a writer and you haven't read the 10 Rules for Writing Fiction series on the Guardian, then get yourself over there and suck up a powerful dose of inspiration, practical advice and writerly wisdom.

Since the masters covered that subject quite thoroughly, I decided to post my ten rules for life:

1. Develop a healthy respect for everything you don't know. It's a lot.

2. Don't allow yourself to be bored. It's an insult to life, and rumor has it, life doesn't tolerate insults. As Elmore Leonard's famously advised writers, "Leave out the part that people skip."

3. Don't sit down too much. That could increase your mortality, too. If you're not moving, mentally, spiritually, or physically, your body just might think you're already dead.

4. Who was the guy who limited his rules to 3: KINDNESS, KINDNESS, KINDNESS? Whoever he was, he was right. And the guy who said, "Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle?" He was pretty smart, too.

5. Do the work that's in front of you every day as if it mattered--whether it's painting a picture or washing the floor, or caring for a difficult elderly person. It does.

6. If you were lazy or unkind, dishonest or impatient--don't languish in guilt, but don't accept it as the best you can do either. Find creative ways to make amends to whomever endured your lesser self (even if it's yourself.)

7. Remind the people around you and the trees and your own cells that life is good: sing, dance, praise, and laugh as often as you can. And when you can't, be silent.

8. This is something my grandfather's generation knew well: get some fresh air every day. Open windows, breathe deep, and stand up straight while you're at it.

9. Mind your own business. It's more profound than you think.

10. Follow your own rules. Ah, now that's the hard one, isn't it?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


beach chairs in winter, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

It all started when a tooth was broken nearly to the root by an anesthesia tube during surgery. Since I'd been avoiding my dentist for something like five years, I considered us officially broken-up and chose a new one from the phone book. He insisted on a full set of X-rays.

After studying them, my new dentist regarded me grimly. "What we have here is a pattern of neglect," he said, and paused dramatically. "If something doesn't change, you're going to face some serious consequences."

While I was pondering the profundity of that, he added the clincher: "Problems don't fix themselves, you know. Something has to be done."

"A pattern of neglect?" I repeated. "Really?" Suddenly I felt as if I were talking to a therapist instead of a dentist. It was as if he'd peered into my disorganized closets, passed the house with the neglected garden, and the trim that needs painting. Then he looked deeper and saw my unfinished algebra assignments from eighth grade, the college papers cranked out during frenzied all-nighters the day after they were due, the sinful number of cantaloupes and grapefruits I bought at the supermarket, and forgot to eat. And what about all the mounted of good intentions I never quite acted upon? Clearly, the pattern of neglect stretched back to elementary school and probably beyond. In diapers, I was probably vowing to quit the pacifier and be more outgoing...tomorrow. .

Of course, I had all kinds of sound reasons why I've avoided the dentist: no dental insurance...serious health issues that took precedence...the daunting cost of all the root canals and crowns my ex- dentist told me I needed all those years ago...genetically bad teeth from my father's side of the family... And did I mention my lack of dental insurance?

"It's up to you," he said. Then he shrugged and left the room. Apparently, he'd seen my type before.

But I left the office with a commitment to do something this time, and a phrase buzzing in my ear: pattern of neglect, pattern of neglect, pattern of neglect.

I raced home and called my best friend, and then my cousin and my daughter, and told them excitedly that my dentist had just diagnosed what's wrong with my life: It's a chronic condition called Pattern of Neglect. And what's more, there's a cure: Give up the delusional concept that problems solve themselves and do something!

Since none of the people I called happen to suffer from my condition this revelation didn't have the same impact on them as it did on me.

In spite of my friends' and family's doubts, I insisted there was hope for me. I could stop thinking, pondering and dreaming so much and become a master of problem solving, however belatedly. A woman of action!

Well, that was six months ago, and this week, I finally have an appointment to see an oral surgeon about an implant to replace my broken tooth. The twenty thousand dollar treatment plan outlined by the dentist has still not been implemented, and my closet still needs to be cleaned, but not one cantaloupe has died in my crisper in months, the revisions to my new novel are just about complete....and so far nothing hurts in my mouth. Who knows? Maybe problems do solve themselves.