Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hamburger Underwear

On Saturday Benjamin did one of the funniest things I have seen in a long, long time. We went to Fred Segal (for those not in the know, it is a trendy collection of super high-end boutiques where stars and beautiful people shop and hang out.) It is their annual 50% off sale, so folks like us can just about to afford some of the clothes if we really really want them. Jonathan was in the dressing room trying on cool surf trunks and shirts and I came across a pair of super cute hamburger boxers--red, with colorful hamburgers all over them -- and I pulled them out and said, "Try them on!")
They were XL, and far too much to pay for a pair of skivvies, but Benji fell in love with them. Jonathan darted out to find a different size in something and when he opened the dressing room door there was Benji, shoes off, pants off, underwear off, trying to get his legs into the XL hamburger underwear.
We started laughing hysterically. When we told him they were the wrong size (he could have fit one of himself in a leg) he burst into tears. He was devastated. And, alas, there were no hamburger underwear in the children's section. Though we did see Seal...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I Love My Women

I am on the verge, on the precipice, about to send my book proposal out. It is good. It is powerful. I am amazed myself at how powerful it is. It was so powerful I had trouble cutting my women back. I showed my edited interviews to Jonathan and he thought they just went on and on and on. Perhaps that is my curse, as a journalist. I do find every little detail fascinating. I do find it fascinating how a husband's attitude towards his own mother in his childhood (being forced to eat cereal for dinner once his mother went back to work, for example) shapes how he believes and hopes his children will be raised. I realize I will have to cut. I need to sharpen these interviews so each can make ONE powerful point. But I love their narratives, their whole stories, and everything that brought them to where they are today. I think these women are sages, with so much wisdom to share. I want to use it all...

Friday, September 26, 2008

Changing the World

Last night I went to a gathering to meet the new educational director (John Lee) of the Larchmont Charter Schools: the original, and the new one (Larchmont Charter West Hollywood). He is a dynamo. He has done Teach For America, run the California Charter Association, been a teacher and principal in an urban charter school. Now he is here to help us grow into a movement, a chain, a middle school and a high school. He is here to help us find a site, use our volunteer hours effectively, and get lots of grant money for the future. He wants to send his kids to our school.

At the meeting I ran into two old friends from the Los Angeles Times. This morning one wrote to me: i feel like you're part of a Che Guevara-esque movement - and all for your children. so noble and inspiring!

Well, who wouldn't want to be compared to Che. How cool!

And it does feel like a revolution. Not a bloody revolution, but a quiet stealth revolution for good.

But most of all I realized that I am ready for activism. I became a journalist because I believe in activism. The job of a great journalist is to find the problems in society, tell those stories, and help bring about change. At least that is why I became a journalist. But after awhile it is tiring to be a journalist. You are not doing. You are observing. And after years and years you long to be able to state your political party, to declare your affiliations, to shout from the rooftops what you care about, and why. It becomes exhausting to pretend you are unbiased and objective. I never took that pledge, nor believed in it. But what a relief to be able to throw yourself into something wholeheartedly. To be an actor, an agent for change, and not just writing about it.

It feels good.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

You Insult Us, Mr. McCain

This is not a political blog. It is a blog about life. But suddenly politics feels so much like a part of our life. I have watched this campaign cycle and been stunned, time and time again at the arrogance of John McCain and his campaign. It is the same arrogance that brought George Bush to office, but Americans will not fall for this again. They assume we are so stupid. They assume that we do not live, that we do not think, that we cannot see their political calculations, that their method of selling hate, division, anger and Christian superiority will trump Americans' self interest, intelligence, and yes, compassion for each other.

You insult women by picking a woman who is hot, but has less experience than almost any vice presidential candidate in history. Do you think that is the leg up women need?

You insult us by pretending you would be an agent for change, when you have voted for George Bush 90% of the time, and your convention speech was written by the same people and sounded exactly the same.

You insult us by pretending that you care about the average american when nothing you are proposing shows that to be the case: not on health care, not on education, not on taxes, not on wars, not on the economy.

How can this administration ask us to shell out $700 billion dollars for fat cats who have fed off us, eaten away our pensions, encouraged us to take out sub-prime mortgages, and pleaded for absolutely no federal oversight. I have seen their homes in the Hamptons. I have seen their apartments, their money, their magazines, their lives. I am related to some of them. Why are we even thinking of bailing out those who took risks with our money. If I take a risk, no one bails me out. And if they do, you can be sure there are a lot of conditions. Just as these investment banks had many conditions for all the loans they made. Why are we helping out the rich again? Why are we giving money--no strings attached-- to people who don't have to give anything back, who said they did NOT need government help, who complain that if the government limits their obscene, astronomical pay packages, they will not be able to do what they need to do, get the talent they need to get.

And why is John McCain, who has no real economic background, and supports the policies of George Bush, which are what got us here in the first place, pretending he has anything to offer when it comes to discussing the complexities of the Wall Street Bailout. Sure, I know he is best friends with the head of Merrill Lynch, the guy at Fannie Mae. I know he wants to help out his rich friends, and they expect him to. I know he still wants to -- on top of handing these people $700 billion no strings attached, no accountability required -- to give these richest of the rich a tax break. How can he even pretend to be a populist.
And how can he pretend that he is going to Washington for a bipartisan debate on economics, that he really thinks he can make a difference.

He is scared of Barack Obama. He is scared of how old he is. He is scared of how unprepared he is for his debate. He is scared that his Vice Presidentical pick, while hot, is going to flub up her debate. And he should be. Because we can all see what he is trying to do. It hurts to see someone arrogant enough to believe they are pulling one over on you, when their scared motivations are so obvious. I believe Americans--Democrats and Republicans -- will see his arrogance for what it is. Because as much as the Republican party has catered to Americans' desire to have a president they can have a beer with, a down-to-earth anti-intellectual who doesn't use big words, or eat fancy food -- in times of crisis, they still want someone with a brain.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I'm fine. I don't have cancer. My MRI results are in, and according to the MRI my breasts are dense, young, pert and extremely healthy.
But I have learned so much in this journey. Women are told they should get mammograms starting at 40, but the truth is that mammograms rarely pick up tumors in women in their forties. One UCSF physician put the chance of finding a tumor with a mammogram in a woman in her forties as one in a thousand. Ultrasounds help some for younger women. Together you get a better look, but you still can't see much. The mammogram basically works for post menopausal women who do not have dense breasts. Doctors pronounce to me, and all my friends, " Your breasts are dense," as if that is a horrible thing. But women in their forties have dense breasts. That is the way they are made.
If you can't see, but you think something is there, the next step is the MRI. The MRI is great, you can see every little thing. But the test picks up so much you get many false positives--that is things that look like tumors but are not. It turns out the MRI is not flawless either. The MRI must be done at exactly the right time--7-10 days after your period starts--or the hormones will make things look weird. On top of that, despite the astronomical cost of the technology, reading the MRI films is an art. Some people are better at it than others. A top hospital will know when to take the breast MRI and will have someone who specializes in tissue. A smaller hospital will have one person reading all the MRIs-bone, tissue, whatever. It makes a difference.
MRIs cost a lot of money. Insurance does not want to cover it. We cannot afford to do this for every woman. So, in the end, the best test for a woman is to find her own tumor. And to ask a lot of questions.
Today, as I was waiting for my own test results to come in--after drinking, watching too much television, doing african dance, yoga and extra grocery shopping, in an effort to anesthetize myself and not think AT ALL, I met a guy in a park with Benji who turned out to be another dad at Theo's school. Talk turned personal and he said his wife had had breast cancer in the last year. She had found a lump in her breast, and gone to her doc. Her doc referred her to the Tower Imaging Center (where my mammogram was done) for a mammogram and ultrasound. They told her she was fine. A year later she went back and the lump had grown. They said she had cancer. She had to get chemo, radiation and a lumpectomy. If they had found it earlier everything would have been different. She did everything right, and she still got a clean bill of health. I told my "breast specialist" who I met because my doc demanded a second opinion after a "come back in 6 months for another mammogram we found something weird but it is probably benign" from Tower Imaging, and she said, if you find a lump you do an MRI and you stick a needle in. But this woman had gone to a top center, and they didn't.
After hearing this story, and hearing the mistakes made with my own friend, at a top medical center, the scariest thing is that the medical establishment acts like if you get a mammogram and ultrasound and all is clear you are fine. But that is not true. These sophisticated machines are far from accurate for younger women. They may be better than nothing, but all a mammogram really does in a young woman is provide a baseline from which to measure change. Shouldn't women be told that so they can advocate for themselves? I have three friends my age who have had breast cancer. One is dead. Young women are getting breast cancer, shouldn't we be getting more information out there? Shouldn't women know how little these machines really tell you, how important it is to find a top person, and that the person you need to trust the most is yourself. Shouldn't they be told that you must demand more tests, ask lots of obnoxious questions, and never, ever rest until you have done all you can, and researched and advocated for yourself far beyond what you ever deemed necessary.
I need to write about this. This is one thing I can do for the memory of Natalie. Women need to know that they need to fight and demand and ask for second opinions and demand the extra tests, and they need to begin to fight for the insurance to cover them. This is my next battle. My next cause.

Guilt Free Quiet Time for a Mama

1) At an ash-scattering for a dear dear friend.
2) Inside an MRI machine.

A Last Love Letter

Below is the eulogy I read to my friend Natalia on Saturday at her memorial in Stinson Beach. It was a beautiful day. Friends did yoga on the beach to the sound of the waves in the morning. We bought fresh flowers (and huge sunflowers) from an organic farm in Bolinas and filled the room with them. There was a roaring fire, dozens of stories, children, singing and a potluck. There were Soup people, Esalen people, Japan people, UNC people, yoga students, dance people. If only we had done it when she was still alive. This is the last I will write about her for awhile. I am going to stick to the Jewish custom. I will mourn her privately from now on--it is time to move on, and live, with her quietly singing in my heart.

This is our time to come together and share our memories. It is a time to piece together a composite, of this amazing woman we all knew. For me, this is a tremendous comfort. I have been waiting for and craving this day. I have never written a eulogy. I have been blessed to never attend the memorial of someone I loved this much, or someone who died so young. I do not know many of you, and yet I love you because Natalia did. But when I thought about who I was writing this for, who I was addressing this to, again and again I came back to Natalia. This is my love letter to my friend. This is my piece of her story. Nat, I hope you are listening. And Nat, feel free to edit—I know you always do.
I met Natalia 20 years to the month before she died. In many ways we grew up together. We met on a plane on the way to Japan. We were both on the JET program and we ended up sitting next to each other. If Nat were here she would be rolling her eyes, saying, Oh, Hilary, Not this story again! And yet, I feel like it says so much about who she is. So here, I tell it one last time. I had never been to Japan. For me this trip was pure adventure—a jump into the unknown. Natalia, on the other hand, had already lived in Japan, studied there, spoke fluent Japanese, and had had a serious Japanese boyfriend. I had read about three books on Japanese culture, including Shogun, one of my main sources. One of my books commented endlessly on the strange customs of these island people. The Japanese, it said, wrote in kanji—the Chinese letter system. Many words sound the same. So, if you asked what word someone meant, they would pull out their fingers like a pen and scribble the word on their palms, and you would look, as if you could see and say AHHHHH. It was so wacky I could not believe it was true. Japan really was going to be weird. But I got onto the plane. Within the first five minutes Natalia had gotten my life stories, what we had in common, WHO we had in common, where I went to school, and assessed my personality, my prospects and how far I would go in life. You could just feel her mind whizzing, newfound networks forming. I asked her something about Japan and lo and behold, she pulled her finger out like a pen and started writing kanji on her palm—JUST LIKE THE BOOK SAID!!! I was floored. She was the real thing.
Well, all of you who now Natalia know she was a traveler, an adventurer, an intellectual with a restless, curious mind, and a seeker. She was always building communities, inspiring others, and leading people off in directions they never thought they would go. For our little group in Western Japan, at least one of whom is here, she became our fearless leader. Every weekend we would meet in Kyoto, and she would lead us around. She always had an agenda, an adventure, a plan. She could speak Japanese and she loved to organize us. We followed her around like puppies, from temple to temple, bar to bar, bath to bath. Everywhere we went she made friends, American, English and Japanese. She would tease the Japanese, coming up with crazy nicknames that sometimes felt disrespectful, but they LOVED it! They loved her! She was their big, blonde, blue-eyed, fearless, bossy gaijin. Every town wanted one back in the eighties, and her town hit the jackpot! We were all paid to be clowns, to be larger than life, to be funny, strange, good natured. But that was just who Natalia was naturally.
Two weeks ago, on a trip to Big Sur I went on a hike and I tried to remember all the places I had been with Natalia. We never stopped going on adventures. We traveled to Kyoto, and went on crazy hikes. We traveled to a tiny island on the tip of Japan, Yakushima, and hiked through huge rainy forests and slept in lean-tos so packed with Japanese people that one night we had to sleep on our sides with our heads on our pots for pillows. She would just laugh. It was a great story! We traveled through Calcutta, Rajastahn, Varanasi. We traveled with a Kingfisher beer salesman in western India who ferried us around in an old beat-up 1940s British car with the unspoken promise that ONE of the three of us loose western women would sleep with him before the trip was over. He took us to famous Indian honeymoon spots and rowed the three of us around by moonlight like we were all his brides. We trekked through the desert on camels, slept under the stars and had goats milk in our tea for breakfast.
She and I drove across country, from Washington DC to Seattle. We climbed the grand tetons, camped out at a dude ranch (someone she knew, because she always knew someone) got giardia, saw a moose mama and her baby. And we kept having adventures. We hiked Sequoia, Yosemite, Mt. Tam. We got blisters together, had bike accidents together, cried together, laughed together and nursed each other through every break up and boyfriend and sexual encounter from 21-42.
Always we sang. She taught me songs and I taught her songs. We marched up and down mountains, singing Dona Nobis Pacem, the Indigo Girls, the Mamas and the Papas, and Sweet Honey and the Rock. Later she taught my boys songs, songs they still sing.
When her journey turned inward and metaphysical, she tried to take me on those trips, too. She tried to process with me, dance ecstatically with me, do yoga with me and help me find my power animal.
When she got sick I did what I could. I had a newborn and she had cancer, and she heard that breast milk boosted the immune system and helped fight the effects of chemo. So one summer vacation here in Stinson I would give her a milk martini every morning for breakfast. It was weird. But she claimed it made her feel better, and I would have done anything for her.
She was so ambitious. She was so idealistic. She was ambitious for herself and for anyone she respected. We all wanted to change the world, but she was angry, so angry at herself if she was not doing her absolute best, if she could not see that she was making a difference. She was angry at bosses who could have done more, but didn’t, at politicians who never did more, and most often at herself, for not doing more. I read some quote once that said a friend is the person who can hear the song in your heart, even when you yourself have forgotten the turne. For me, because I had known her for so long, she was grounding. She knew what my big dreams were, and chided me when I went off course, and cheerleaded for me when I got back on. She was always asking me to write, write write. I was a reporter, at the Los Angeles Times, and she would write to me from Larkspur, with stories of corruption, environmental destruction, bad people, and tell me to get on it. When I came to see her she would give me investigative projects to carry out for her here in Larkspur. She even toyed briefly with the idea of running for City Council, while she was sick, so she could bring things to the public’s attention. She used her yoga classes to trash George Bush. I wouldn’t have found it relaxing to be in her class, but I loved her for it.

But for me, the real reason Nat was my friend, that I really loved her, is that she was always up for anything. She was always ready to climb a mountain, jump in a hot tub, surf a wave, go out to see a band, eat a huge meal, sing, dance, laugh. She just loved life. She loved life more in her 42 years than most people do in twice as long. She was just alive. Whether she was angry, crying, lecturing, or laughing, she was IN it.

Last fall I came to visit her, and many of her friends were there to talk about her five wishes. How she wanted to be mourned, and memorialized. It was heavy. But I felt honored to be there. She was sick. Really sick. I stayed there that weekend with Melissa. At 9 p.m., after a day of talking about death, medical care, final wishes, when to pull the plug, she rose from her couch and announced she wanted to go see Hot Buttered Rum, her favorite band. So Melissa and I walked her down the boardwalk, bundled her up in scarves and hats, and drove her to Fairfax for beer and live music. She managed to score the best seat in the house, and as the band members came in she flirted and yelled out to them each by name. They all knew her, and she knew every one, and their story. She loved the boys. Especially cute, smart, politically active, musical boys. We stood in this jam-packed bar and rocked out. The set ended and Melissa and I were ready to go home. But not Nat. We stayed, standing and clapping and dancing til the place shut down, at 2 a.m.. That was just Nat.

All she ever really wanted was to be loved. Once in Japan we played this wacky metaphor game. One of the questions was: if this person were a piece of furniture, what would they be. I remember someone said, Nat would be an armchair. She was an armchair. She was big and comfortable and she just took you in and enveloped you. For some people it was overwhelming. I loved it.

I miss her loud belly-chortle and her passionate, enraged outbursts. I miss her tears. I miss her generous soul—she would do anything for a friend, and expected the same in return.

I have lost a friend, a sister, and part of my history. I have lost one of my fellow-travelers, and maybe you only get two or three in life. I have lost someone whose clothes I could wear, who I could call at any time, whose refrigerator was always open to me, and so was her heart.

She was a traveler, a seeker, an idealist, an eater, a musician, an armchair and a lover of natural beauty and young men. She loved celebrities and yoga and Oprah and the New Yorker. She loved life, she clung to it with every ounce of her being until her lungs collapsed, her liver gave out, and she literally had no strength left in her body. That is how much she wanted to live. She went out to dinner two nights before she died and had beer, raw oysters, fries, fried green tomatoes, a lobster roll, and wanted desert. She talked up people at the bar, and just carried her oxygen tank around in her backpack. She never complained.

I read this quote before to some of you, but to me this is what Natalia would say if she were here, just like Henry Miller did before her:
The best way to honor me is to live your own life to the full.

So as we grieve, I ask all of you to put your love of Natalia to something she would have loved. Let her live on in our actions. Do yoga or eat some alfalfa sprouts or kale. Sing to a child, or take a beautiful picture. Make a collage, get naked, soak in a hot tub, buy some recycled toilet paper. Get angry and get out the vote—for Obama of course. Live. Love. Celebrate.

Monday, September 15, 2008


I like to think I am bold, but when it comes to dreams, mine are measly, or utterly unrealistic. They are more comforting fantasies than things I dare to really go after. On Saturday night we went to a meeting at Theo's new school for founding parents. Minutes before the meeting we all received an email. Every single founding parent had contributed to the pledge drive. By the second Saturday of school this group of parents--including my amazing husband -- had raised $175,000. Our charter was only approved in July. I tell you this story because four months earlier, at a fundraising meeting in June, a group of us got together. Mostly I just ate pizza and tried not to roll my eyes. Marya and Jay, the force behind this school, said we needed to raise $200,000 by September. I inwardly scoffed. The number was ridiculous! We didn't have a principal, a charter, or even students, and they wanted to raise $200,000. Larchmont Charter had only raised $175,000 in their previous year's pledge drive and they had about three times as many students. It was Absurd!!! But they were strong, and we all kept our misgivings to ourselves--if any of us had any besides me.
And now, it has come true.
We will reach that goal by the end of September. We have a charter, five teachers, 60 students, a school. People are dying to get in. It is unbelievable. But what is most unbelievable to me is that Marya and Jay set this goal that seemed crazy--and we are literally going to hit it. It is such a lesson in how setting a goal, no matter how outrageoous, over the top or crazy, just the setting of it, makes it VERY likely that it will happen--even if it takes a little longer than you thought, even if you falter along the way, even if there are some days you do not believe in it. It is just amazing.
And everyone at this school has that attitude. You cannot help but be inspired. The principal took the job before the charter was approved. She found our amazing teachers on Craigs List. They interviewed in a Starbucks for a school that had no charter and no students and they left jobs with security and health benefits for a school that did not yet exist.
All of these people took the leap.
There is something overwhelming, and beautiful, about standing in a group of people who made something extraordinary happen. Literally, none of us could have done it alone. And yet, it is a miracle that we did it even all together!

..And last year, at Canyon School, our lead fundraiser, Adeline, stood up at the beginning of the year and said she wanted to raise $45-$50,000. For our little school, that was a LOT of money. We only needed to raise about half that. We had a disagreement halfway through the year. Things didn't go as she wished. And the year drew to a close, through a bunch of unexpected events: a gift of $5,000 from one dad, a new legacy wall established by another mama that raised $36,000, and some fundraisers, we MORE than accomplished her goal. She set our sights high, and we did it! Without even thinking about it anymore. In fact, she was so angry at one point she wanted to stand before the group and say she was being prevented from reaching her goal, and she wanted to remove her name from fundraising. It all worked out fine. But the point is: her biggest gift was laying out that vision!

I need to set some goals...some crazy, absurd, ridiculous ones!!! I need to let them marinate, take root, and grow--because who knows what will happen. I need to dream BIG!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

You Would Have Liked It...

O Natalie, you would have liked your ash scattering. It was a blustery day, changeable and dramatic. There was fog, then sun, then lavendar and shapes of mountains looming over the coast road. I left early from Cambria and popped in a CD you made two years ago. I have listened to it a million times, but this time, burrowing into a tunnel of fog and swerving up Highway One totally alone on a Sunday morning, I heard different things. I heard you sad about your death, and defiant of what people will think of you. I heard you telling me you loved me, no matter what happened, and I heard you wanting all the pain to end. You sent me messages in the music, in the Ben Harper, in the Bonnie Raitt, in the Bob Dylan. But until that day, I couldn't hear them.
Before the ceremony I went to all the places you took me and we loved. I took a pilgrimage with your soul on my shoulder. I went for breakfast at Deetjens and ordered a huge plate of eggs. Do you remember when we went there with Nick? A bald woman, certainly a cancer survivor, sat at a table near me. I saw her watching me, and smiling. What did she see? What did she feel? Could she sense where I was going?
Then I headed up to the Henry Miller Sculpture Garden. I love that place! And I was greeted by a Miller quote that could have been you: "Only by living your own life to the full, can you honor the memory of someone."
I browsed through the bookstore, bought some inspirational posters, found a book of Hafiz poetry and bought it in honor of you, then lay on a big wooden bench under the giant trees and thought about you, and what you meant to me. I felt you there with me.
I headed back down the one to Esalen. O, you would have cried to see what the fires did to your beloved Big Sur. The hill by Julia Pfeiffer was burnt to a crisp. They barely saved Deetjens and Henry Miller. But still, Big Sur is so beautiful. I saw Beth, then Lauren, then your sister and your father.
We went in the back gate, and down to a lawn overlooking the ocean. Chris Price set up an altar on a log. There was incense, candles, words about you that you loved, and all of our favorite pictures. I put up a picture of you holding Benji, with him laughing in your arms. Someone brought sunflowers. We sat on big blankets on the lawn, and Chris Price ran the memorial like a gestalt group. Your father read a prayer: St. Francis prayer. Then we spoke of you. We just offered up spontaneous memories. I liked Lauren and Ama's best. Lauren told of the first time she met you. She saw you on a sofa in the sorority, crying over a boyfriend. She ended up rooming with you the next year--to get the best room in the house, of course--she felt a little trepidation since she had seen the crying fit. She arrived at the sorority house and looked up the stairs and there you were on the landing, staring down and waving, totally naked! So you were always filled with tears and nakedness!
Ama said she was a cryer, too. She told of coming to you late at night at Esalen. She knocked on the door of your yurt, and you and Nick were in bed, and she was crying on the doorstep, and you called her in, and put her in bed between you, and comforted you, as you cried. Both stories are just you. Your essence. Chris Price was so wonderful--letting us celebrate your wonderful qualities, but also not letting us forget your pain, your struggle, your sadness. We laughed at funny Nat stories. Your sister and your father were silent. They did not tell a story, or a memory. But perhaps the more you know, the harder it is to reduce someone to a single anecdote, one story. Even for me, when I think of you the stories just wash over me. There are so many memories. How to pick one?
Your cousin Paul came. He was beautiful, in a suit, with white white teeth. He came to honor you, and for his mother. He brought a letter they had found in his mothers estate. It was a letter to his mother, that you wrote when you first moved to Esalen. It described how you felt you had come "home." How much you loved this place.
So we sat there on the lawn. A dude blew a didjeridoo out over the cliff nearby. Pelicans flew low, right by us. And the sea rose and fell, heaving gently, like it was breathing, then the waves crashed on the rocks. We were at the end of the world. It was so quiet. The world fell away. We were only thinking of you.
Then Chris got the urn of you. We stood in a circle around a planting of rosemary. We sang dona nobis pacem. And we dumped your ashes. We sprinkled them on the rosemary, in the stones, by the trees and threw them over the fence to the ocean. At first none of us touched you. We poured you out of the lid. But then I wanted to touch you. I wanted to have your ashes run through my fingers. It was so strange--I would have thought it would have grossed me out. But I wanted to feel you, one last time.

There was so much. So at the end we all went to the fence with the ashes in our hands, and threw you into the sea. You didn't want to go. You blew back, and we were coated with your ash. It was on our faces, our clothes, in our hair. You were still holding on. Your father was so quiet, so stoic. I hugged him, and told him how much I loved you. It was strange. The only times I saw him show emotion were when I got close, and held him. He trembled. And later, when I came to him and hugged him good-bye, and told him again how much I loved you the tears just flowed out of his eyes and he shook all over. He was still silent.

Then we went and just watched the waves and thought of you. Ama took some of your ashes to the baths, and we went to visit your old house by the art shed. It's a bathroom now. So we paid our respects and all used the bathroom. It is a shrine to art, covered with whimsical mosaics. You would have laughed.

Then we drove to Nepenthe and sat in the sunshine. You were with us. Suddenly the sun came out. And we laughed. And there were wacky characters you would have gotten a kick out of, like Beth's boyfriend, the back up bus driver for the Green Tortoise. It was sunshine and beauty and love.

Lauren said you would have wanted more noise, more wackiness, more rabblerousing. I am sure there will be some of that at your memorial. But this was beautiful. It was the people who loved you most, and it was true to you.

I miss you.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Making Friends

As a parent, there may be almost nothing as agonizing as hoping your child will make friends. Theo has been in school for four days, and every day I ask him if he has made any friends. He is such a seemingly outgoing, confident boy. Other parents have told me of friends their children have already made. But every day I ask Theo and he says, no, no friends yet.
Last night I asked him if there was anyone he WANTED to be friends with. He said there were a few boys he didn't want to be friends with (I guess that's a start...) He said there were two boys he didn't like because they were always jumping up, and getting in front of him when the teacher was talking and he didn't like them very much. So then I asked again if there was anyone he wanted to be friends with. And he said yes. He said there were two boys in the green group (he is in the brown group). He said they are already best friends, and he likes them. I asked him how he knew they were best friends. He said because the day they had to sit in a circle and show their four favorite things (a color, a food, an animal and a game) the one boy helped the other one out. So he knew they were best friends. And he said he wants to be friends with them, too.
For some reason this broke my heart. He looked out, and saw a tiny moment of kindness between two boys--who knows if they are best friends or not -- and all he knew was THEY were the ones he wanted to be friends with.
My boy is sweet. And I guess I forget how gentle. He is so wild. Such a great climber, so confident athletically, and he felt like he ran the playground at Canyon School at the end. He was one of the toughest, fastest boys there. But Jonathan reminded me of how it had taken him a long time to make friends at Canyon. He reminded me that when I was still working, and Theo was at the co-op without us, every day he would come home with sand in his scalp. Until one day a mother approached Jonathan and said, I think you should know the big boys are dumping sand on Theo's head every day. I try to stop it, but you might want to know. Oh, I felt so helpless and so worried. I just kept imagining my sweet boy sitting under the playstructure alone as the big boys dumped buckets of sand on his head and he didn't complain or ever tell us. Now I feel those feelings again.
But he knows what he wants, and I love him for seeking kindess in a friend. Does anything else really matter?

Maybe I'm Wrong

Regarding my last blog: maybe I am wrong. Because no matter what, no matter how estranged, family do pretty much always come through. It is just true.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Friends or Family or Friends ARE Family

The ash scattering makes me think. Who would I want to be at such an intimate gathering? Would it be numbers that mattered? Or people who had seen my soul, and were really true to honoring my memory the way I wanted to be remembered. Natalie was not so close to her family, in the end. Her mother is in a rest home, too sick to come, and her sister, while nearby, was not really part of her life. (Though her sister has come through in EVERY way, more than anyone else, in making her memorial the way she would have wanted.) And her father caused her pain until the end. I don't know why, really, except fathers can do that.
Jonathan said it makes you wonder, what happened to family? How can people be so scattered?
But I feel different, probably more like Natalie. I think friends have saved my life. I am glad I have been able to scatter. My friends saw in me gifts and talents and wondrous things that no one in my family was really interested in, or cared about. My friends believed in me, in ways I did not feel my parents did. My friends were interested in me, cared about me, and were there for me, that for whatever reason, I did not feel like my family was. I have a wonderful family, and they have given all they can to me, and I am grateful for so much. But when it comes to my soul, I feel it did not grow and expand until I found my friends. And, in the end, like Natalie, I think I felt those people are my family.
When I imagine my own ash scattering, and what people might say or do, I feel it is the people who chose me, who loved me for who I am, who just accepted me and celebrated me without disappointment, or the warping view of pride, whose words I would want to honor me. I feel more sure that they would say and remember me as I want to be remembered.
Jonathan thinks that is sad.
But I have lived in a small town, where people never leave, and souls are bent and broken by petty social expectations, family pride, and closed mindedness. It is comforting, in one way, but horribly oppressive in another. I would have been one of the people who left.
I rejoice that in this life, whoever we are born to, we can go out and form our own families. We can find people who think like us, who celebrate us, who aim for similar ideals. Family is wonderful. Mostly, they always come through. But unless you are very very lucky, and highly unusual, that love and commitment will come with a price that friendship perhaps does not bring.
Who knows. Best is to have both. But in my life I think I am like Natalie. My friends (and lover and boys) are the ones who made me feel special and unique and seen. I think they are my family, too.

Ashes to Ashes

In two hours I climb in my car alone and head up to Big Sur to say my final good-bye to Natalie. There will be 11 of us gathered at the creek at Esalen to sprinkle her ashes. I know most of them only marginally, through Natalie. This will not be a reunion of the people of our youth. It will not, as Jonathan pointed out, be a Big Chill moment.

So I am going to look at this as my moving meditation to someone I love. And I am going to make my car into a traveling shrine to everything I can think of that made Natalie happy. I am going to pack my bags and music, and plan my itinerary, as if I were going to meet here there, because I think that would make her happy. I will be a one-woman caravan of love for Natalie. So this is what I am packing. I am driving the little red mini--which she loved, even if she only drove in it once. I am bringing great music that she loved, Bruce Springsteen, the Indigo Girls, a live Lillith Fair recording with The Water is Wide, Pete Seeger, U2, and all the amazing CDs she made for me over the years. They will be my soundtrack. I am wearing a necklace I made out of a fossilized sand dollar that I found with Natalie at the spit at Stinson, on a perfect day we spent together. I'm also wearing a seashell necklace made out of a heart from Stinson. I am bringing the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, that she had me read to her from in her last two days. I want to understand more purely what she believed. I am going to bring my book of Rumi poems, because they gave her great comfort. I am bringing pastels to draw, and a notebook to journal in. She liked doodling and making art. I am wearing a shirt with a big peace sign, and bringing my Bo 4 Bo '08 T-shirt from our favorite T-shirt guy in Bolinas, Buzz. She would have owned one of these if she knew they existed. And she would have demanded that everyone she met on this trip either vote for Obama, or explain why they wouldn't. I am bringing an old Patagonia sweatshirt that is falling apart because the last time I wore it she said, "I like when you wear clothes I have known you in forever." I will drive to Julia Pfeiffer (if it hasn't been burned to the ground) and hike where she showed me, and I will visit the Henry Miller Memorial Library. I will eat pancakes at Deetjens, because we did that and it always felt magical and perfect and happy.

I will walk the beach alone with her tonight in Cambria, and think what she would want me to say about her. I will jump in the water and look for otters. She loved them.

I will drink red wine and eat a big meaty dinner tonight. She would have approved. We were big strong women who loved to eat. And tomorrow I will stand by that creek and let my emotions wash over me. I will celebrate her life in every way I can, and I will cry from missing her. Nat, if you want to speak to me, I am open to you now. Talk to me on the way up the coast, OK? I am listening...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Heading North

On Saturday I head up to Big Sur, where we will sprinkle Natalie's ashes in the creek at Esalen. We are a small group, and we have received special permission to troop onto these sacred grounds in the middle of the day to spend some time thinking and praying for her in one of her favorite places on earth.
I am nervous.
I am nervous about what is going to come out of me as I drive up that winding, rugged coast on my own, and watch the ashes of my friend flow down the river. We spent so much time together there--soaking naked in hot tubs, dancing ecstatically in the halls, making art, walking through the sunflowers, raving on the cliff. I loved the crazy California she introduced me to, there. She always said she went to Big Sur on a family trip when she was 12 years old and spent the rest of her life trying to get back there--not quite certain where it was.
Her father--who felt uncomfortable with her life and her later friends, and will not attend her memorial later this month--will be there. So will her sister and Chris Price, the guru's wife, who spreads calm and beauty and enlightenment to all who lock eyes with her. I have fallen under the spell.
I will drive up the coast on Saturday and spend the night alone in some sad sack motel, thinking too much about her. I will get up early, hike the hills of Big Sur, eat a huge happy breakfast at Deetjens, skim some books at the Henry Miller library, and tap into the energy that made Natalie love the place. Then I will go and sing and tell stories about her, as she drifts down the creek and into the sea.

The Power of Charts

When it comes to my boys, I have found that few things change behavior as effectively, and as fast, as a chart with stickers, and a reward at the end. I know it, and yet each time the power of this exercise astonishes me. Sometimes I agonize--I think, should all behavior be rewarded with some object or experience? Shouldn't some behavior just be expected? And yet, time after time, the lure of the reward gets the boys over the hump into a new habit. Right now we are using a chart to keep Benji in his own bed all night. Sometimes when he goes to bed, as I kiss him good night, he says he doesn't want to do it anymore, he doesn't want the reward--getting to watch Diego one time, or getting to watch Bob the Builder. But at night, when he is groggy with sleep, all I have to say is, "Go back to your room or you won't get a sticker..." and he goes. The other night I heard he and Theo negotiating in the hall. Theo said, "Don't go in there (our room) or you won't get a sticker," and Benji backtracked, and went to bed with Theo instead.
So two weeks ago at a party, another mother who I love, said she no longer uses charts just for the kids. In their family they use charts for everyone. Everyone has goals, columns, and rewards. She said she gets a star if she exercises, cooks a meal from a cookbook (something off the cuff doesn't count.) She also gives herself one for reading a book. In the end she and her husband give each other rewards for their efforts. Some of them are very private. But they make her giggle.
So I started thinking about myself. What do I need on a chart to make me work a little every day. And what reward would make me stick to my plan and form a habit. I want to exercise and cook and read books--but I already do. I love to exercise and I love to cook and I can't stop reading books. Cleaning bores me, and I don't care so much-though I know that would make Jonathan happy (maybe he could put that on my chart). I decided I need a chart to make sure I work a little bit on my book EVERY day. Every day I do something on my book I get a star. The days have to be consecutive. If I break the pattern I have to start over. It doesn't have to be big, but it has to be real. It has to be some writing, or editing, or transcribing, or talking to agents. As for my reward, I will ponder it. A day of surfing? A double feature at the movies by myself? A day of hiking in Santa Barbara with Jonathan? A new dress? A new album? I need to decide before I start so that every time I waver--just like Benji in the middle of the night--I can remind myself that at the end something really good is waiting for me! In the meantime I hope I can form a habit that will stick. Just like my boys.

Comments from Day One

Theo's quote from his first day of kindergarten:

"There wasn't a lot of playing."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

First Day of School at Larchmont Charter West

Today we took Theo to his first day of kindergarten. I swore I wouldn't get emotional. I think he has been ready to go to school for a year. But as we drove him to school, and I walked him past the principal, upstairs, watched him put his tote bag in his new cubby, and walk in and pick his name out of the pile and put it in the "present" column, then walk off to his little table by himself my eyes welled up with tears. I am proud of him, that he is so ready, and he is jumping in. And I am proud of us, that in nine months we did the impossible: we started a new school! It is filled with an amazing principal, an amazing vision, a kick-ass kindergarten teacher, children of every nationality and social class (his table: Theo, Omeed, Ondine and Sasha) and the most super-mod mini furniture I have ever seen. It is a new era.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

My Body, Myself

I am 41 years old. I have the body of an athlete. I am strong, so strong. I am strong like a man and I can walk and run and swim forever. My head has often been weak. My mother told me when I was young, in a moment of despair, that I am all nerves, that I lack a skin, because everything affects me, good and bad. She told me life would be hard for me. That I would have to grow a skin, or I quite simply, would not survive. I have, sort of. I have taken jobs that force me to be stronger, tougher, and more resilient, but value my emotions and empathy as well. Journalism is perfect. And I have been blessed with friends who love my passions, and my emotions. But whatever my mind did, whenever it freaked out or looped, or grew anxious or sad or euphoric, my body always, always came through. It was my steady, reliable, never-failing thing.
And I have pushed it so hard.
And now, at 41, I wonder if it is breaking down. I had an abnormal pap smear--that will probably turn out to be fine, and a breast mammogram and ultrasound that were slightly abnormal, and need follow up. Doctors assure me the chances of anything being wrong are slight, but the tests go on and on and on. And in the end, I will probably not get full clearance--just an admonition to keep an eye on it.
My grandmother on my father's side, who I am most like, died at 54.
I don't want to die.
And I don't want to spend all my new found free time in doctor's offices.
Natalie's death has left me haunted, and scared.
I have had so much. If I did die now I would have been one of the luckiest people.
But I feel like I still have so much left to do.
I guess everyone does.
I guess my mind and body have to switch roles now. Just as my body came through before, as I drove it and drove it and lived on adrenaline for years at a time, now my mind will have to be tough.
I need to train it and calm it and not spread my anxiety to my boys and my husband.
I need to contain my fears because all of society is trained to play on those fears and it could ruin your life.
I need to be grateful for what I have, and fight for the rest.
I can do it.
But it is going to be hard.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Summer's End

It's Labor Day Eve and all weekend I have felt overwhelmingly sad. It is the bittersweetness of knowing that a perfect summer is over. I love summer. And not working has made summer as sweet as childhood. I love corn and watermelon and peaches and sangria. I love hot dogs and hamburgers and fresh blackberries and zucchini. I love going to the beach, I love boogie boarding. I love sunsets and cook outs and drinking wine on a warm summer evening with friends. I love watching children run around outside together at dusk--children who have just met but are best friends by the end of the evening. I love being sandy, showering, and then eating dinner clean and slightly sunburned and so happy. This summer I have loved watching Benji collect feathers on the beach, and create feather labyrinths in the sand. I have loved watching him leap off the edge of the pool and swim to me underwater. I have loved having him boogie board on my back in big waves and scream like he is on the roller coaster of his life and beg and beg for one more ride! I have loved watching Theo learn to boogie board like a master--even if he terrifies half the parents on the beach with his fearlessness. But he holds on and bounces out of the waves like a pro. I have loved watching Theo learn to swim and dive and play chess. I have loved collecting sea shells and rocks until our pockets are so full our pants are falling down. I have loved lazy evenings with Lorenza, sitting under twinkling lights in the backyard and listening to emotional girly music our husbands would never tolerate--pouring our souls out to each other as you only can to friends you have known for a long long time. I loved seeing Diana Ross with Alana and Gina, sitting so close we could practically touch Diana's sparkles. I loved my Wellesley reunion, sleeping with my husband in a narrow dorm bed. I loved skinny dipping in Lake Waban by moonlight and listening to the Tupelos in the Claflin living room. I loved hearing my boys sing the Wellesley reunion songs--uninhibited and proud. I loved tunneling beneath the campus with the former swim team members, and emerging in the greenhouse across campus. I loved our time in the Hamptons--my perfect bike ride out to the beach with Jonathan at sunset. We saw deer and abandoned houses and magical pink and lavendar and blue light. I loved camping in Coronado in Judy and John's backyard and showering by moonlight in the backyard. I loved the LIttle Ranch and floating down the river. I loved going to City Lights and reading Isabel Allende in Marin County. I loved being outside, being strong, being covered with salt and sun and sea. I lost a best friend. But even that came in a deep, beautiful, life-changing and life affirming way. She gave me a gift and I had the time to accept it and be with her and witness the miracle of death. And now summer is over. Tonight. Jonathan says he is not sad because it is always summer in California. And in a way he is right. September and October are the best months of the year in Southern California. But it's not the weather, or even the shortening days...Margie says I am sad because even though we celebrate New Year's in January, the new year really begins with school. And it is true. It is an exciting new stage. We have so much to look forward to. Theo will be in his new school, a kindergartener at last. Benji will be at Canyon all morning long, and is ready to take classes on his own. I will have time of my own again, to write, and move forward on my book. It is all good. They are the signs of lives moving forward, growing, getting better. I am excited. And yet...I am sad. I am sad with the sadness that comes with knowing something perfect has ended.