Advent 5: Dress Up

Nancy Pelosi is the glory of old.

She is the white suit, high heels, red lipstick glory of old. She is the I know what I believe and what I have to do glory of old. She is the I’ve got the votes or I wouldn’t be doing this glory of old. She is the “Don’t mess with me” glory of old.

I’m no Nancy Pelosi. I don’t have a white suit or red lipstick but I do sometimes count votes and I’m working on saying “Don’t mess with me” but in a more subtle way since I think people might erupt in laughter if I said it like she did. “Don’t mess with me.” Oh my. How fine. How very, very luscious.

Book Thief

Tonight my dog, Swirl, went into my office, picked up a 406 page library book entitled, “An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back,” and carried it back to his bed. When I discovered this, the book was open and Swirl had a chapter in his mouth. I grabbed it just in time.

He didn’t take “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which was laying well within his reach on my bedside table and I was glad for that but puzzled. Going after the library book required so much more effort.

I took “One Hundred Years of Solitude” from my brother’s house in Texas. It was on a shelf with several mysteries and photographs of him and his wife when they were young. There was a bookmark in the book about fifty pages in and I figured that either he or his wife had reached the same point everybody does with this book. They can’t keep it straight, they can’t follow, they can’t believe, they can’t cope and it’s because they have no patience.

I know this because I tried reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude” about a hundred years ago because everyone smart was reading it and I wanted to be in that club. But I quickly became weak and discouraged and the book got lost somewhere.

Then I saw the book on my brother’s shelf and thought, ah, my second chance! I knew he wouldn’t mind. He is beyond the point of reading books now so I tucked it in my backpack and started reading it on the plane home. The window seat at dusk, then dark, the little light above haloing me, blurring the other passengers, alone and suspended in air is the way to read this book.

I am on page 99 but in no hurry to finish. There aren’t other books in the queue. This is my only book right now. It kind of requires that kind of exclusive commitment. Getting to page 458 could take me months, years even. But I don’t care. I have patience now. And the illusion of having all the time in the world, a notion as fantastical as Marquez’ story.

Rendered Mute Friday Round-Up

I’ve spent a week at the You Need to Stop Kidding Yourself Rodeo and it hasn’t been all that much fun. I went from wearing my age like Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors to shaking the layers of dust off the gray tattered cape that is my current life. I believe they call this a mood swing. Age is both a blessing and a pisser.

A big full service, 12-pump, fancy dancy gas station that had sushi, for Christ’s sake, had no fucking donuts today. I had been thinking about a cup of coffee and a donut for miles on the freeway. I could feel that donut in my hand, the anticipation was that physical, tactile. We stopped, went in. I got my coffee, extra hot, extra cream, and then searched for donuts but no, there were no donuts because, as the lady said, “the hunters bought them all.” And she pointed to the little fruit pies. As if.

Before he became very ill and unable to drive, my older brother, bought himself a maroon Cadillac. I went out to his garage to see it. There it was in its glowing deep red glory and I wondered if he’d had a chance to hand wax it like we’d waxed his MG together when I was a kid. I went back in the house to show him pictures of my old Thunderbird which I hand wax. And we bonded over that – cars – as only people who spent a lot of time around Detroit do. Cars were what we wore.

I am rendered mute by the overwhelmingness of the passage of time. There were times visiting my older brother last week, sick as he was, that I nearly choked on the bricks of time in my throat, the disbelief being so enormous, my recollection of him as a young man, shirtless, washing his car in our driveway, the sun blazing, all so vivid and real. In the bathroom, I’d study my face in the mirror, try to smooth the lines away with my hands, and realize this is where we are right now. This is where we are.

There is joy. It’s around here some place. It’ll turn up. It’s like when you know you lost your necklace somewhere in the house. You’re going to find it at some point, so no need to panic. I miss my necklace, that’s for sure, but it’s here somewhere, under a cushion or a stack of papers. It will just appear one day, out of the blue, and I’ll forget I ever lost it. That’s how it works with joy. I know this. It’s not my first rodeo.


I pushed the button for the 14th floor, the tower suite. I got off the elevator and looked down at my feet. I was barefoot. This seemed crazy to me although I often go barefoot, not to meetings, though, never before had I been barefoot at a meeting. 

I considered leaving but decided that no one would notice my bare feet. Later, during my meeting with the very powerful 14th floor dwellers, I realized I was wearing my pajamas. They were my up-north flannel pajamas, pajamas that had already served time in the big city and had been relegated to cabin wear. They were reversible, tan on one side with brown stripes on the other, and the stripes had somehow bled through to create a curious abstract design on the tan side. They were also snug, which I thought gave me a tailored look, the bottoms fell right at the ankle.

No one seemed to notice that I was wearing pajamas so I decided to shrug it off. In a heart-stopping moment, it came to me that I’d neither washed my face nor brushed my teeth, my mother’s admonition to always be neat and clean blanketing me with shame, but I nodded politely when the 14th floor dwellers asked me to sample their new prosciutto. It was then I realized their business must include meat.

I drove my convertible to my next stop. There, the new adoptive parents of six children greeted me at the door and ushered me into their many kids’ bedroom which was filled floor to ceiling with bunk beds. It made my heart sing that all six children were barefoot and pajama-clad and I was flooded by a sense of belonging rare for a social worker. Next the parents showed me to a second bedroom, also crammed with bunk beds. “You have too many beds,” I advised them. “It will lead to excessive sleeping.” But they had already nodded off and weren’t listening.


I pulled back the blue curtain above our bed and saw the stars collecting in the southern sky. We had gone to bed early, having drunk too much beer and then rum, following the news from Texas that my brother’s lung disease was rapidly worsening and that he may not have long to live. It was so urgent, my niece messaged, that I should call him, but the device I need to use to make phone calls wasn’t charged so we decided that I should send a Facebook message which my nephew would read to him.

All this transpired while my husband and I sat in a local bar waiting for a pizza. I tried to put into words what my brother had meant to me as a child, our having grown apart in the so many years since, but everything I wrote sounded used and glossy so I erased the words, over and over again. I wanted to thank him for taking care of me as a little girl, the baby of the family, while my father worked all day at Sears and then played in dance bands at night for extra money and my mother spent her days ironing and privately nursing her bottomless depression. My father’s absence and my mother’s preoccupation bonded me to my brother who was nine years older and always vigilant about them and me, watchful for when he needed to step in, when he should swoop me off the backyard swing and put me on the bar of his bike, saying “Hold on to the handlebars, Red!” Off we’d go with his friends, sailing down the hills of our town to the Fish Hatchery. He never explained why his five-year old sister was coming along and his friends never asked. I was safe and happy with my brother.

I tried to say that to my brother. I tried to thank him for those rides and all the times he made me feel special and loved but I just said, “Thank you for saving me. I love you.”

In the dark, I reached for the phone off the high night stand. There was no message from my niece. My brother must still be alive, I thought. Unless my niece had fallen asleep and decided to wait until morning to tell me. There was no way of knowing. He was across the country, further away if you count the years we hadn’t seen each other. I blamed the situation for my vivid dream, my wandering around office buildings and people’s homes barefoot and in pajamas. I took it to mean I was nearly naked and unprepared for everything that was happening and I rolled over then to stare at my husband’s back.


Tonight, there were messages back in forth between me and my niece. I sent an essay I’d written about my brother years ago describing how, when I was about 6 or 7, he convinced me there were elves who had parties every night under the bush in our front yard. He’d take me by the hand, tell me to be quiet so as not to scare away the elves, and then point to the tiny footprints where the elves had all been gathered seconds before. “Oh Red! We scared them away!” he’d say and then we’d go looking again the next night and the next. It was years before I realized the footprints were the impressions made by his fingers in the soft earth. He always called me Red or Short Pants. That was how I signed the message I sent him the night before. Short Pants.

I didn’t ask my niece if she had read the elves essay to my brother. It wasn’t my place to decide what he should hear and what he shouldn’t. It was her decision, so maybe she read it to him, maybe she didn’t. It is a little late to try to be close to your brother, I told myself. You’ve had years for that and you let the years pass by. But then it hit me that we were still close, despite the time and the distance, because we’d grown up together, he had raised me in so many ways. He carried me on his shoulders when I was a little girl, not just for fun, but to keep me safe from deep water. That is what we had connecting us – his valor and my trust – and that was golden. Then and now. Golden.

Hygge Friday Round-Up

Hygge (hue-guh) is the art of wintering gracefully. It’s about making the ordinary lovely and warm but in small everyday ways, intentional but undetectable. It’s a Danish thing. I have a Danish friend whose name is Marcia. She takes hygge with her wherever she goes in that she is always warm and unhurried, glad for the company she has, so everyone around her feels like they’re special and glowing. I want my house to be like that this winter. So that is what this girl remembers about being here.

This week I feel like I have a protest sign tattooed on my forehead. Everywhere I go, I’m pissed off about something and I feel myself slipping into one of those old crank types that attends every public meeting taking furious notes with a chewed-up pencil and yelling “Point of order!” all the time. I was a guest speaker in a graduate class on nonprofits this week talking about activism and community organizing and I told the students that you can’t have everyone hating you at the same time. I might have come close this week.

Our next dog’s name is Punchy. I think we are punchy for getting another dog. It’s ridiculous and an overreach but much like our entire lives have been so we are oddly comfortable with the idea. Punchy is a 10-year old Alaskan Husky, a sled dog currently living at Nature’s Kennel, Swirl’s old hometown. Like Swirl, he probably doesn’t have a clue about living inside, going up and down stairs or walking on a leash, but we know he will be sweet and simple and stoic, also like Swirl. Two retired sled dogs – what on earth could possibly be better?

I love winter. I love weather and snow and cold. But I say this before winter starts its terrible habit of beating the shit out of me, before I’m breathless from shoveling, or picking myself up off the ice after falling. Right now, I love winter. I walked through Lake Park near our house this morning, alone, just me and Swirl, and felt as lucky to be alive as I have ever felt. It might be fleeting but it is true, as true as life can be.

I am all about being an honest elder. I am unabashedly old. I don’t deny, pretend, shrug off. I’m this. I wear my age like Joseph’s coat of many colors, it keeps me warm and glorious. And increasingly I realize that I am protected by the fact that I have nothing to lose. Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose. Precious and sweet and powerful it is, this being old.

A Hard Fall

A lot of people dying. That’s what’s happening.

Death is happening. The word “hospice” seems to be on everybody’s lips. “She’s in hospice.” “He’s in hospice.” This is code for it won’t be long. It’s a signal, the yellow light shining before it turns red and everything stops. The rocket ship is on the launch pad, my friends, and the countdown is about to begin.

What do you do when someone is in hospice? Do you make amends? Do you say, “Hey, I heard you are in hospice. Can we talk about our relationship? That seems peculiar since one person in the dyad is in hospice and not likely to be pondering relationship issues, the other is just struggling to get off the hook before the hook disappears.

It has been a week of unpleasant reckoning.

It would be easier if there wasn’t this rush to the exit that seems to be happening with people I know. It would be easier to handle if it was just one person and then several months or years later another, but it hasn’t been like that. There seems to be a bit of a pile up.

I want to go to the dog park with my dog. That is my answer to all this hospice business. I want it to be cold and maybe a little rainy. I want the sky to be gray and thick. I want to wear boots and thick socks, pull my hood up over my head. I want to smile at other people and dogs but not speak. I want to be outside.

Yesterday I was at a funeral that was a combination of Unitarian and Buddhist ritual. It was purposeful and serene. I watched the people in the pews in front of me relax their shoulders, seeming to fall into the pool of tranquility and patience offered, and so I tried to let go of the things keeping me from serenity so I could be like them. But all I could think about was finding my friend who was the widow of the man who had died (who had been in hospice) and letting her know I had come. Representation is so important to me, showing up, being present, so that was my priority. I couldn’t sink into serenity like the others. It wasn’t possible.

After the funeral, at dinner with friends, I learned that someone else was in hospice. This made three for the week. This was someone I had known well for a long time, who had been a close friend of mine, but whom I had not seen in years. Yes, she was in hospice now. So there was that. I carried that small, burning fact out of the restaurant in my pocket.

We went from dinner to the symphony where we sat in the back row listening to music I can’t name but which involved four French horns playing parts that sounded like husbands mourning their wives. On the way out, we shuffled behind a thousand old people, readying themselves for the rain outside, and I wanted to sprint past them, push my way through the revolving door, and walk arm in arm with my husband, our paces matching all the way back to our car.

Head Spinning

A few nights ago, I searched for old boyfriends on social media.

I found one from when I was 19. When I met him, he was a few years older than me, had just returned from Vietnam, and had his jaw wired shut as the result of a car accident. He was also my college roommate’s boyfriend. She told me to look him up when I visited his town. So I did.

I ended up telling my roommate what had happened, that perhaps I had overinterpreted her suggestion that I look him up. It was one of the most low-down things I’ve ever done – both messing around with her boyfriend and then telling her about it. Even though I’d only known her a year, she had been a true friend who had helped me through a very difficult time. Still, our friendship wasn’t strong enough to withstand a guy. That happened a lot then. It probably still does.

Because he has a public profile on Facebook, I was able to read his posts and see his face. I remembered him as thin with dark hair and eyes, very close-mouthed, not surprisingly. He was sarcastic and funny. He loved music. I heard Otis Redding the first time on his stereo.

We never fell in love. We just hung out. He tried to teach me to smoke marijuana but I was a drinker and didn’t get the point about pot. He got the point, though, and was almost constantly high. It made him mellow which I appreciated at the time because not much else in my life was. But the relationship went nowhere and, one day, another roommate of mine casually mentioned that she’d just gotten back from a motorcycle ride with him. So that was that.

He is an old man now. His hair is white and sparse but he still has a moustache and something of a beard. His Facebook posts make him seem still sarcastic and funny, self-deprecating, skeptical about the world. I gleaned that he had owned a bookstore for many years and was a published writer. He had been married a long time, lived in a house that required firewood, and had two sons who checked in on him during last winter’s polar vortex.

I considered messaging him. To just say, Hey, Hi, it’s Jan, remember me? And then tell him that I was kind of literary, too, married, successful, a pillar of the community. We could be two 70-somethings shaking our heads and rolling our eyes in different states, oh, weren’t we the interesting pair back then in the roaring sixties. But I didn’t. Of course, there was always the possibility that he wouldn’t remember, which would be mortifying and put me in the terrible position of trying to find something notable about myself that would jog his memory and, besides, maybe he has dementia, who can tell? So I scrolled on by.

It was too weird, all of it. I moved on to being preoccupied with the mind-blowing nature of the massive passage of time. Fifty-two years, that’s how much time has elapsed since I’d last seen this man’s face and, I have to say, I barely recognized him. Or myself, for that matter. It’s a trip.