A Letter to my Daughter on Life, Love and Growing Pains

Mermaid

 

To My Beautiful Daughter,

You will be the hero of your own story. ..

Your best friend will be the hero of her story. Your teachers, coaches, boyfriends and rivals will all play the lead role in their own adventures too.  We are heroes among heroes, all of us living out our call to adventure. That is the most brilliant and the most confusing part of life. Our villains aren’t always villainous, and while we might accept that there are dragons to slay, it’s harder to admit that once in a while we become someone else’s dragon (which doesn’t feel very heroic). At some point, wonderful as you are, you will love a worthy person or two who will not find it in their heart to love you back. How can the hero not be loved by all? If you are anything like your mother, you will occasionally rage at heaven for such injustices. Isn’t the journey hard enough?

The truth is that your heart will be broken. It will hurt like hell, you will swear never to do it again, but I hope you will. I am 41 years old, and I’m still capable of a broken heart. I wouldn’t have it any other way. My heart breakers have been some of my best teachers. That doesn’t mean they were all at their best. Some were wonderful but just not right, others were real shits. I’ve been lied to, fooled, had a man claim he was my friend only to leave right when I needed a friend the most. I spent a long time trying to discover why, until I realized that what matters is the lessons in myself they gave to me. I have been a fool for love. Astoundingly foolish. Silly. Obsessed. Shy. Frightened. Blind…but if I’d never been any of the above, I wouldn’t have discovered that I am also sexy, smart, funny…and abundantly willing to take a risk. I love a great adventure, and I will dust myself off (eventually) when I fall. Remember when you lose someone who was special to you that their leaving doesn’t mean they weren’t a gift. Remember that no quality can be special in someone else unless it was special to you first and foremost. Let them go and pray they find everything they are looking for.

You will break hearts too. You will be someone else’s lesson.  There are times in my life when I have not been at my best. I’ve been wonderful but just not right, and I’ve been a real shit. At some point in your life, you have to take a look at that part of the journey as well. I have lied, and I have fooled, and I have left a man right when he needed a friend the most. Those were also lessons in myself.

All it takes is one look at you to realize how short I’ve fallen in my definition of love. It isn’t simply that I would give up my own life for you. At the end of the day, that’s as biological as it is spiritual in nature. The amazing and incomprehensible part is the unconditional gift you have given me. Yes, I know we fight, but I know I can be unreasonable, nutty, tired, a failure or a success, and you will still love me and count on me. Of all my gifts, that is the most rare and precious.

I won’t lie to you. This life, this growing up can be painful. Do you know what else hurt like hell? The day you were born. Opening a body up, stretching it to its extreme in order to birth a brand new person is unavoidably painful. I can’t think of anything more symbolic of every new stage in life. Our hardest and most painful days are the days we stretch and open. The natural process of a new creation. There is a moment in childbirth when a woman doubts her ability to make it to the end. That moment is called transition, and it is an age old sign that the last phase has come. A baby is about to be born. Those moments in life when you are sure you can’t do it anymore…wait, and remember that it is a sure sign that the miracle is about to happen. Trust me, it will be worth it.

Be the midwife to your own life. See your pain as your ability to create something beautiful and new and never seen before. Remember that love is as much about letting go as it is about holding dear. Life is a great adventure. Sometimes you have to fall in order to discover the path to the top. In love and life, take the risk and say what you mean. You don’t have to live with anyone else’s regrets but your own.

And always, above all else, always remember that this strange and wayward soul you picked as your mother loves you with all her heart.

Love,

Mom

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Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station Dancers: Morgan Yates and Ross Warpinski Choreography: Angie Flanagan Photo: Tim Josephs
Grand Central Station
Dancers: Morgan Yates and Ross Warpinski
Choreography: Angie Flanagan
Photo: Tim Josephs

Step down
Into the caves of modern man
Weave through the blur of impatient colors
Stand in the marbled gleam of negative space
Inside the hurried devotion to the iron god

There
Beneath the clock
Two almost lovers stood like living art
She took the fabric of his shirt
Pulled him to her
Wished him back through time

He kissed her
Will we meet again?
He asked her
We always meet
She said
Meeting isn’t the hard part

There
Where time moves forward
Lovers part like the Red Sea
The miracle of discovery
The intangible goodbye
Woven through the blur of impatient colors
Lost in the gleaming marble of negative space

But the clock remains
Held hostage by a thousand parting words
Words that whisper along shining walls
That trip down stairs
Through the tunnels to the hidden tracks

There
Always there
Beneath the clock

Words
Mingled in the echo
The rhythm of anonymous life
In the caves of modern man
Two lovers like living art

There
She let him go
Let him fall in devotion to the iron god
But if we do meet again
She said
If we meet again
I will make you dance

Every time I am in Grand Central Station, I am touched by the little stories, the comings and goings, right there in that moment inside the hurry to get someplace else.  Photo:
Every time I am in Grand Central Station, I am touched by the little stories… the meetings and the partings… right there in that moment inside the hurry to get someplace else.

The Higg’s Boson, Cosmic Fire and Friendship

Find Your Story

Fates Gathering the Stars by Elihu Vedder, 1887

World War II on the Eastern Front. Ice storms rage around Nazi troops as they press through a forest outside Leningrad. Nestled within this scene of bitter cold and the mounting tension of combat, Lake Ladoga waits still, pure and remarkably unfrozen in spite of temperatures that dip below freezing. Battle erupts, soldiers clash, and the forest bursts into a wildfire. Soviet horses escape their stable, leap through the flames and dive into Lake Ladoga.

The next day, Italian war correspondent Curzio Malaparte walks out onto Lake Ladoga and finds himself surrounded by macabre ice sculptures of dead horses in their final gesture as the lake instantly froze around them. Finnish soldiers play on the horses like toys until the ice cracks in April, and the final moments of the horses of Lake Ladoga disappear below the surface.

Curzio Malaparte wrote about the horses of Lake Ladoga in his autobiographical…

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Finding Words

Enfant_écrivant-Henriette_Browne

 

No words today. Nothing but the wonder. I hope I find an answer soon. I have a story I want to tell, but I want to use real words that mean the same outside of me as they do in my heart.

Where is the profound? Where is the dangerous? Where can I find a Joan of Arc or a Guinevere or a Madam Bovary…where are our beautifully flawed female characters who set out on a quest to find themselves but don’t end up with failure as grand as their dreams?

I wonder how we can send a robot to explore Mars, but can’t seem to do more that skim the surface of the people we touch. Why do we measure each other in commodities and usefulness?

I wonder because even brave sacrifice can lead to weakness.

I wonder because I keep playing out the same old human stories, and I have yet to come to one ending that is uniquely mine. How can I endow a character with anything more than I am able to give myself in my own life?

I wonder about the ache of standing between personal happiness and the happiness of the people I love. When both can’t be met, which one answers the real meaning of life?

I wonder about the times I’ve fallen through trap doors in my choices and glimpsed life as it might have been. How I came back changed, like a child who returns home an adult but is expected to wear those same clothes of her younger self. They don’t fit anymore, but she wears them because she loves everyone too much to stop playing the child.

I wonder why most of us walk around like actors costumed in our own bodies while the real characters inside us live unseen. What a shame when life is short and none of us know what kind of chances we’re offered after we take our last breath.

But how to say it? How to find the words?

Words, words, libraries and kindles and an internet full of words but they do us no good because most of them are so safely vacuous we don’t even remember what was said. I’m right back where I started, searching for words that won’t come up empty. I hope I find them soon. I have a story to tell, but why? No words today. Nothing but the wonder.

The Keeper’s House

red mermaid

Chapter 1

The ocean inhaled. It rose toward a pale half moon that hung heavy and low in the dark sky. A line of foaming waves rolled back from the shore like a beckoning hand. The lighthouse pulsed in rhythmic beams of illumination.

One long.

Two short.

One long.

Smooth, wet sand sprang to life under the beacon’s ray. A small bit of white appeared, half buried in the distance. It winked at me in the light, and I sighed. Another of the ocean’s tiny temptations. There was no way to resist.

I ran toward it, and the hair on my neck stood upright, making me aware of the pull of the tide. I snatched the small white shell from the sand and held my breath. The wave rolled against me and soaked the edge of my nightgown. Same as always, salt water burned my skin. The burning hurt, but it also hummed with a pulsing temptation. My mind went out to the dark depths of the ocean, cold and terrifying.

It would steal me away.

Maybe I wanted it to.

I lifted the edge of my nightgown and ran back to the beach, splashing through the surf as fast as I could to the safety of dry land. The heaving ocean was pearlescent under the low moon and the beacon, glittering like a fairy world full of beauty and remorseless power. I loved it as much as I feared it.

The shell felt cool in my hand. I wiped a clump of sand from its center with the wet edge of my nightgown and held it to my ear. Da said that no matter how far a shell traveled from the sea, it would always carry the song of the waves inside. Sam said it was nothing more than air.

Sam.

I looked back toward the horizon. He was right on the other side of it, only a few miles out on the mainland, sleeping and dreaming of who knew what. I wondered, not for the first time, if he ever thought of me as I thought of him in the times between our seeing each other. Surely he had better things to think of, his mainland friends and school and plans for the world.

A seal cried out long and low. I shivered.

The keeper’s house stood on a hill overlooking the ocean. Although the windows looked dark and empty compared to the wide expanse of moonlight at my back, there was a warmth within that drew me across the beach and up the old wood steps. I climbed in through my bedroom window and dropped the shell with the rest of my collection on the little shelf Da made me for my birthday. Without bothering to light the kerosene lamp, I fished for my clothes on the dark floor of my room, slipped on an old work shirt, a hand-me-down from Sam, and then my usual overalls.

I sat on the edge of my bed and fought the need to sleep. I couldn’t stand to go into my lonely dreams, always the same, of the cold endless water. Not again.

Da said there was a big battle that raged in the sky every dawn and dusk. Night fought Day and Day battled Night and every clash must be to the death. The victor got to cut loose the sky, so when Day won, he would take his sword and cut off the dark to make room for the Sun.

Sam said there wasn’t any truth in that. He said the Earth turned in a circle around the Sun and that’s what made it night or day.

When I told Da Sam’s scientific version of Night and Day, he said I wasn’t really listening if I couldn’t see for myself that they were one and the same tale. Something dies so that something else can be born, over and over again in a circle. Night and Day didn’t really have to carry swords to make that true.

It was a long wait, but sword or not, Day won his struggle yet again. The sky glowed faintly, and a golden halo appeared along the edge of the world. I stepped out of our long, low stone house. The old wooden door, rough under my fingers, was so familiar and real that it was easy to put the night behind me. Chickens and goats in the yard chattered and griped for food. Across the yard, the red lighthouse door was open, and so was the door to the supply shed that stood next to the lighthouse. Yellow light glowed inside the shed, and Da’s shadow moved from one side to the other.  I gave the baby goat a quick kiss on the nose and then ran to help him. Da met me at the door. A deep, sorrowful moan filled the air. I stopped and held my breath.

“Just the seals, Nula. Same as always. They are sure to be holding court on the far side of the island,” Da said.

“I know,” And I did know, because in all my sixteen years I had heard the sound many times, “But it does take the heart across you to hear them.”

Da turned away from me, back to his work. “Aye,” he said softly, almost like he was answering himself. “They do take the heart across you.”

Da’s accent was thick with Irish. It rose and fell like the albatross when he hunts. It set him even further apart from the flat, nasal New Englanders who lived a few miles west of our island.

I grabbed a metal pail from the shelf behind me, threw a scoop of soap flakes and a handful of rags in the bottom and ran back up the hill to the house. I filled the bucket with rainwater collected in the cistern and turned back toward the lighthouse.

I lugged the frothing, soapy water to the red door as fast as I could without spilling. Da hovered above me as he wound up the spiral staircase with the heavy five gallon oil can. It made a dull metallic chime as it hit the stairs between each of his steps. The last nine steps were the only straight ones, but they were much narrower than the rest. It was hard for Da to get his large shoulders through, even without the oil can. He grunted and grumbled in Gaelic, both of us pretending I couldn’t understand the foreign curses.

I dropped my pail on the plank floor of the lantern room and wrung the rags out to attack the windows. Before I put the rag to glass, I greeted the vast water below me, as I had every morning of my life.

Unlike the dark world of my dreams, in daylight the sea from my bird’s eye view was vibrant and ever changing.  Sometimes the sea consumes her color in her own emotion. Tranquil blue for a day when she is happy with the world she is wrapped around, or frustrated gray when she rages and threatens to destroy the fragile beings in her embrace.

But days like this one were the best, when the sea let her colors spread out the way they wanted. Sparkling light blues and greens where the water was deep, with little white caps of foam that came and went along the surface. Just below me was my favorite. Dark granite rocks reached from the base of the lighthouse into the sea like the arthritic hand of an old woman. I loved the way waves churned and sprayed between those gnarled fingers. Nathanial and Sam brought four bottles of green olives to us once. They were the closest I ever came to tasting the color of the water that danced within our rocky shore.

The glass lens of the beacon reflected the ocean’s green hues. It took up most of the space in the lantern room and turned slow and sure, like a woman who knows her new clothes are worth a good look. It was hard to believe men had built something so beautiful and exacting, as fine-looking as it was life-saving. To think that a human mind had made up such a thing, to know a human hand put it all together, well, I was in awe of it. Even just to wash the windows made me proud of my little part. The man who invented that lens died before he knew he’d changed the world. I thought that was sad, but Da said when you put your mind or your sweat into something long enough, it became a part of you and you of it. He could think of no finer bit of immortality than to live on as a piece of the beacon that brought men home.

I went back out to the yard to collect eggs while Da rewound the clockwork. With four eggs in my apron pocket, I climbed back up to the house and cracked them into an iron skillet. When they began to sizzle, I stirred the pot of oats and started water to boil for coffee.

The old door moaned when Da pushed it open and stepped inside. He pulled off his cap and dropped it next to him at the table. I flipped the eggs out of the pan onto plates and then took my place across from Da. The pock marked oak table smelled of linseed oil. The only sound in the room was the scraping of our forks against our plates and the dull ring of my spoon as I swirled goat’s milk into my coffee. It was a silent room, but it wasn’t uncomfortable to sit quiet with Da. I pulled back the empty chair where I had stashed a book, thumbing through to the page where I left off.

“You went through that one fast.” Da said.

“Oh, it was an easy read,” I shrugged. “Sam borrowed it from Mrs. O’Malley for me. I have to give it back when they come today.”

Da stood up with his plate and mug. He took them to wash in a bucket of water on the counter.

I turned back to my page, where the mermaid lamented, “…Oh if he could only know that! I have given away my voice forever, to be with him.” I snorted. She might have thought that through better.

“What book is this?” Da leaned over my shoulder.

The Little Mermaid and Other Tales.” It’s by Hans Christian Anderson. I think he’s Danish. Mrs. O’Malley thought I might like it.”

“I wasn’t aware that the Danish were so humorous.”

“Oh, it’s just a bit dramatic is all. It’s about a little mermaid who wants to be human so that she can love a prince and have an immortal soul.”

“What becomes of her?”

I was surprised Da was so interested in my story.

“Well, I haven’t quite finished, but it doesn’t look good for her. A sea witch took her voice in exchange for legs so she isn’t really able to tell the prince she’s the one who saved him. He thinks another girl did. If he marries someone else, the Little Mermaid will die and fade away into sea foam.”

“Sea foam?” Da patted his breast pocket in search of his tobacco pouch and looked out the window. “Is that really the worst of fates?”

“She won’t have an immortal soul.”

“There is a great deal of soul in the ocean if you ask me.” I felt Da over my shoulder scanning the words on the page.

“Not a bad little tale.” He patted my shoulder. “You still won’t go to the school? I could handle things here on my own.”

“Oh, no you couldn’t Da. Besides, I like how things are. I don’t want to go off to school at my age. Sam brings me anything interesting.”

“You shouldn’t have to lean on him for your learning.”

“I don’t lean on him, Da, I just trust him to sort through the boring stuff for me.” I smiled up at him, but he didn’t smile back.

“There is more to life than you can experience on this little island.”

“I know that.” I held up my book and waved it in front of him. “I’ve read it in plenty of books, but I’m still quite content to give myself time.”

Da patted me on the shoulder. “Time,” he said with a grunt.

I turned back to my book and thought nothing more of it. I had time in abundance. What did it matter to me?

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