Gardening, Drowning and Writing

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

—-George R. R. Martin

 

How we see ourselves creatively has always been a fascinating topic for me.  So when I found this excerpt from on interview Martin did, I knew right away which camp I belonged.  I saw the black and white of it.  The explicitness vs. the ambiguity of thought. And while these two approaches are as vastly different and as deep as the sea, and even though today’s writers would more than likely protest over this simplification to bring attention to the current ego-deflating digital landscape they’re forced to face after that last word is written (Kick-Ass Twitter Ninjas, SEO Wizards)—when it comes to creating, the starting point is the same for all. At the beginning.

For a writer it’s with a blank sheet of paper. For an artist, an empty canvas, for a sculptor, a lump of clay and for a novice literary gardener who hadn’t a clue what she was doing… it was nothing more than the dirt beneath her feet. That and vision, I thought when my ex-husband and I first bought the house of our dreams. A house which, by the way, didn’t start out in that blissful condition of completeness nor the small runway strip of garden trailing up the walkway. Both needed loving hands to resuscitate them back to life and a healthy sense of humor which I obviously must have had gazing beyond the rusted pipes, the chipped ceilings, the rotted roof, the leaking swimming pool and the forest of weeks flourishing about—because I didn’t turn and run.

In no time at all I threw myself into the world of gardening. I learned its lingo. I adopted its blueprints, its perfectionisms in order to replicate what Home and Garden and Pinterest promised me. I even suited up in the requisite attire—wide-brimmed Aunt Bee hat, Nitrile gloves and all—just to demonstrate my newfound devotion. But devotion wasn’t enough. As plants began dying left and right, I realized no matter how quickly I wanted my garden to transform, it was a process. A learning curve. And ridiculously expensive.

I was by no means dripping in money. My ex-husband and I had used all our savings as a down payment, so you can imagine the toll it took. But, back then I was stupid and undeterred. Back then my knees didn’t pop like the Tin Man’s. I wanted Monet’s garden. I wanted the best and the most beautiful garden on the block, no matter the price tag. Like I said…I was stupid.

Monet's garden

Days after work and weekends when I wasn’t shuttling the children to and from soccer practice and various playdates that opened up that extra window of time for me to work in my little private Idaho, I weeded. Up to my eyeballs in compost, I dug. I batted away flies that wanted a piece of me for lunch while watering my charges under a brutal ninety-degree Floridian sun.

Weeks turned into months and months turned into years. And as the periwinkles took flight, as the pansies danced their way up to my front door, as the bougainvilleas exploded in purpley-purples up their filigree ladder, I continued to work the garden. Almost every day. Not because I had to anymore, but because I wanted to be surrounded by the comforting silence that had blossomed into a better marriage than the one I had.

At a time when I’d hoped my life would take that much needed uphill turn—the fate Gods had different plans for me. So it was there, in the garden I allowed myself to sink into myself. To reach that sacrosanct place of wounded splendor where judgment, broken hearts, crumbling marriages, failing businesses, crying babies and monsters did not exist.

Even for a little while.

Eventually I sold the house. It was not something I wanted to do. However circumstances and obligations after a very lengthy divorce, told me I had to. And the idea that all that work and love I put in would be replaced by someone else’s vision, only made the separation that much harder to accept.

Yes, I was moving away, but not moving on. That would take a little bit longer.

The decision to write was never a conscious one nor did it come then. It came about a few years later, out of need. The kind of need that feels like drowning with arms and legs flailing against a silent blue terror. And I knew…just knew…if I didn’t at least try to give voice to this feeling, I would be lost.

Why one writes I believe is a question answered differently by everyone. To become famous, to affect change, to alter the course of humanity, to heal those bleeding wounds, to record our stories are the foundations for every work of art.

“We also write to heighten our own awareness of life,” said Anais Nin. “We write to lure and enchant and console others. We write to serenade our lovers. We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely.”

And if we don’t write…

“You are going to feel like hell,” Anne Lamott recently said, “if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart—your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it’s why you were born.”

They say those authors we read are those influences that tell us who we are, that help to define us as writers. Well if that’s true, (and I believe it is) I only hope a little of Anais Nin and Anne Lamott rubs off on me in one shape form or another.

In my wildest dreams I never imagined myself a gardener.  Nor a writer.  And much like gardening, a writer’s life is a lonely one.   We’re left to our own devices, endless hours at a time. Creating worlds in which we sit day after day, sometimes struggling for the words to come, sometimes not. Typing and trashing, sulking and laughing, drinking lots and lots of coffee, committed and bound—we’re a unique tribe. It’s so goddamn hard to bare all that you are to a sea of nameless faces without wanting to curl up in a ball and die. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to give up. How many times I’ve wanted to scream at the air like a motherfucker! The truth is it’s so many…I’ve stopped counting. And yet, without fail, every morning, even before the sun shows its face, I come back to that same masochistic white screen.

The one that’s whispering ever so sweetly: okay Lauren honey….pull up a chair. And let’s get crackin’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: art print by Claude Monet: Garden/Vetheuil

 

 

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Shedding Skins and This Process of Becoming

It’s another hot day. A hot Florida day, I might add, which would be bearable, even pleasurable I suppose if I were on a beach somewhere. But…I’m not. I’m sitting on a park bench beneath a canopy of shady Cypress trees writing these lines as quickly and as intently as possible while my granddaughter Meghan sleeps undisturbed in her carriage, a few inches away.

Every few seconds my eyes lift to check on her. Such a lovely creature, my thoughts and chest swells with pride as I take in those soft rolls of baby fat lacing about her naked arms and legs making me instantly forget how tired I really am.

My world is now this world. That of a baby, their every whimper is the only call to which I beckon, leaving me ragged come the end of every day with no time to devote to anything else. Let alone me.

Interestingly enough it does however afford me a great deal of time to think. To ruminate about the universe, about myself, who I am, and all those changes, those wonderful, scary, difficult-to-digest events that have brought me here. To this particular place, to this particular moment.

“Life is a process of becoming,” said the wonderfully lyrical author Anais Nin, “a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.”

I’ve always believed that nothing is without purpose. It takes many lifetimes, many dramatic transformations to get to where we need to be. And by sitting still we’ll never get there.

Had I been a different person, had I not approached life in the manner I did, taking a vacation from one life to start another, packing up, leaving all behind, re-inventing myself over and over in search of a new life, love, until something spectacular finally emerged, would I be here at all?

I gaze into the carriage. Would she?

In the beginning everything was an adventure. But then again, I was still naïve, barely twenty-one and fresh from suburbia where an exciting night to me consisted of locking lips with my boyfriend under the bleechers. What did I know?

So with college behind me, I threw my dreams to the wind and made my way to New York City. That seventeen-square mile piece of bustling real estate where the worlds of finance, fashion, and food collided. And to every single girl everywhere: Utopia. Yes, I had arrived. In no time at all I blended into the scenery, I’d assimilated into the part of that fast-talking, fast-walking working girl. From the top of my Chanel beret to the bottom of platform shoes, the pieces of my plan quickly began to fall into place like pennies from heaven. I partied at The Bottom Line, I shopped on Canal Street, I spent summers at the Hamptons and winters in Vermont and for a long time in my mind, things were good. I took pleasure in this life I’d created, even the quiet, consistent things that moved my daily world. The homeless man grounded to the sidewalk, the boots crunching in the snow, the typewriter at my desk, the coffee cup, the stack of yesterday’s newspapers.

But then like everything else that time touches, sharpening those imbalances of what we refuse to see, the luster began to fade.  My individual slice of the apple didn’t look so shiny to me anymore.  And by then feeling slightly whittled away by years and a blur of romantic liaisons not worth mentioning, I found myself in an older and somewhat wiser position with my sneakers back on and running.  Running and running as fast as I could, thousands of miles away to Guadalajara, Mexico where I next fell into the arms of Mr. Medical Student, who eventually broke my heart as it’s never been broken before.

By the time I landed in Miami, the place where tacos weren’t the only thing on the menu, I was 26 and my Nikes and emotional fiber were already showing signs of wear and tear.  I tried to view this next stop as a fresh start, but it was difficult in the face of my surroundings which stated loud and clear just how badly things were turning out for me.   The reality of constantly reinventing myself had sunk in…but good.  And while I’d allowed my life to breeze by with the giddiness of discovering the world and growing up as only I believed I should, I could also see that by continuing down this road like rootless tumbleweed with nothing to show for all my troubles, what I wanted to achieve from life, might not be what I was going to get.

So I did the unthinkable:  I hung up my sneakers.

sneakers3

And over the next thirty years I got married to Mr. Bicycle Man, had two children, added a catalog of professional hats to my resume until the next blow.  One so big it knocked the shit out of me.  Divorce.   Oh yes…I saw that one coming a mile down the road but instead of acknowledging its imminent arrival I pretended it was happening to some other lucky couple.  At least for a little while anyway, given the weight of running a household, a business and grieving the loss of a beloved sister all within that same fragile space of human wreckage.

I remember sobbing a lot in those days.  I remember mourning the passage of my youth slipping through my fingers like a mist.  And that sudden prospect of facing life alone with two small children to care for, never felt more devastating.

Yes, I was fairly certain that if a rock bottom existed, I was there.

The truth was I’d suffered through ten years of a loveless marriage.  I’d sacrificed my sense of self-worth all for the sake of a plan, a dream.  A silly dream that anticipated the life I wanted: a house to have a family in, a husband to grow old with.  That was the vision I’d created for myself as a girl.  And as the years passed, when those things didn’t materialize, I began to feel the dream also starting to leave me like the sun setting in the distance and did the only thing I could: I brought those things to me.  I forced a life that in reality wasn’t mine, for no other reason that I took without feeling the love that should have been there, before all else.

At the end of the day, I paid dearly for that dream. Of this I had little doubt.  And once the karma gods saw fit to forgive my transgressions I began to grow in unexpected ways, bolder ways, vowing never to short-change myself ever again.  Those days of turning myself inside/out like some ridiculous human pretzel in order to please someone else, were over.  And from that point forward the manta became: to thine own self be true.  No matter how lonely, how harsh the world around me became.

For all this confidence, the credit was not mine alone.  Looking back, had it not been for the wonderful support system of friends and family I had in place, I know things could have easily gone in a whole different direction for me at that precipice in time. Those compassionate faces helped me stand back up, find that footing I’d so foolishly misplaced along the way and made me realize that I still had a whole life in front of me to live.

Yes, I was lucky in that respect. I had people in my corner who cared.

I also just turned fifty-five. An age when most people viewed their empty nest as the perfect time to take actions like fixing up the house or selling it, finding a new hobby, or investing smarter with thoughts of retirement versus traipsing off somewhere they didn’t know another soul and starting all over again.

Over the years I didn’t really talk much about why I picked myself up like that and just left, other than to say I was looking for something more than what I had.  In those early years of taking vacations from life to life, I wasn’t sure I could articulate that type of searching to anyone, even if I wanted to.  But the truth was I think I was simply running away from the person I was in the hope of becoming someone better.

Yes, that was me six years ago. Runaway mother and bad daughter with a one-way ticket in hand at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport bound for LA, sneakers on, an apartment already lined up in Santa Monica and ready for anything. And why shouldn’t I be?  I was heading to the entertainment capital of the world, the place where glitz, glam and bling oozed from every nook and cranny, where unbelievably it never rained, no one ever grew old and darned if I could figure…you could always find a bar open when you needed it.

Suddenly as if shedding a layer of skin, I felt alive again.  Exhilarated by what I saw, what I did, every sense was on overdrive.  My days were spent exploring while my nights were spent eating, drinking and forgetting that I was no longer twenty-five.  Shops and restaurants weren’t simply shops and restaurants to me. They were Spago, Gucci and Louis Vuitton all rolled up in this magnificent experience as though an affirmation that the decision I made to trade in a life of balmy weather and bad hair days that left me looking like Sideshow Bob’s sister for one of sleek do’s and the certainty that my next date would be with someone that didn’t remind me of my grandfather, was by far the easiest—if not the best—I’d ever made!

I knew there was life after menopause.  I also knew dating, once over a particular mile-marker, was a whole different animal.  No more braving the bar scene or any scenario similar to that where I’d be surrounded by a sea of perky-busted twenty/thirty somethings with not a hint of cellulite or wrinkle anywhere.  That was not my idea of fun or anyone else’s for that matter endowed with more brains than chutzpa!

No, if romance was in the cards for me, well, then, it would just have to come find me.  In my new environment I suddenly found myself playing catch-up with all those things I used to feel passionately about:  painting, writing, visiting all of LA’s museums, art galleries as well as attending the theatre as much as my pocketbook would allow.  It seemed as if all at once my world felt full.  So full in fact I didn’t even notice that the dinner dates and coffee dates that were once an almost weekly affair had slowly dwindled down to a big fat zero.

The strange thing was in all those years of searching, not once did I give up on the idea of love.  But I couldn’t help but think somehow it had given up on me.  I’d already invested more years than I cared to discuss in pursuit of it and despite its elusiveness, I somehow still found myself plodding along, perhaps though a bit more sluggishly in search of this mythical Holy Grail that might or might not even exist, believing should I find it, all those missing pieces of my life would finally, miraculously fall into place.

What I didn’t realize was that they already had.  But not in any way I ever envisioned.

My daughter became pregnant. She was alone and three thousand miles away. Without a doubt I felt blind-sided by the news. Gobsmacked! The idea of grandparenthood suddenly thrust into my lap like hot coal was about as alien a thought to me as living on the moon. I hadn’t even joined AARP yet…for Christ’s sake.

No, no, no! I definitely did not want to be this person, this grandmother person, I kept telling myself repeatedly, frantically until I heard nothing else except the gentle, creaking sound of one door closing and another opening.

Six years ago I hopped on a plane. Continuing this extraordinary process of becoming in search of that perfect life, that perfect man and that perfect home. A quest that had taken me from one end of the map to another, one lifetime to another. But somewhere in all my searching, all my wearing out of leather soles and door mats I failed to grasp what I should have known right from the start:  that home is only a word, that four walls are just that—four walls—and what matters most in life and in love, is what’s contained within.

Yes, that’s the good stuff!

Some people always seem to know exactly where they’re going, while others take forever to figure it all out. Perhaps I’m one of those that fall somewhere in the middle. And even though my long vacation stints are now officially over, my running shoes tossed away, as I stare at this remarkable sleeping bundle, licking her lips getting ready to wake, I’m here with open arms for whatever falls into them next. Because I know life is always going to be a surprise. A wonderful surprise. Even for those wayward dreamers like me.

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: Just Joe on Flickr

 

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Who am I Without My Sister? A Look At Love and Loss

“I don’t believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.”

— Maya Angelou

 

This is true of all our relationships. You have to put in the hard work if you feel it’s something worth having.  No question about it.  But unlike the remarkable and sometimes not-so-remarkable array of people who come into our lives—the lovers, the husbands, the wives, the friends—we don’t get the luxury of hand-picking our siblings, the very same people who in time will either become our greatest ally or our fiercest enemy.

It is a tightrope.  A never-ending dance between choosing battles and making those necessary concessions in order to get beyond what might seem now like nothing more than petty differences, but then an argument worth the bloodletting.

Yes, they push our buttons.  Yes, they point out our mistakes, our frailties, keeping us cast in roles we’d sooner forget or hoped we’d grown out of, given all that we’ve done and the great distance it’s taken us to get there.  But our siblings are also our champions, our keepers of our childhood, our witnesses, our partners in crime, our press agents, our safety nets, and our non-denominational confessors who not only see us at our best, but our worst and still manage to love us anyway.

My sister and I shared more than parentage.  We shared a history of moments.  Two years and two months apart we were quite an opposite duo.  She was the peacekeeper in the family, the good daughter who wore black shiny shoes and crinoline dresses while I was the thorn in everyone’s side, the bad seed strutting around in purple sneakers and frayed jeans very happy to knock her block every chance I got.  Which as it turned out was quite often and never more triumphantly sweet, considering she had a few years and definitely a few pounds over me.  Being the older sister I suspect she automatically assumed that title gave her certain unalienable rights to do with me as she willed.  However I didn’t quite see it that way.  Oh yes, we argued, we tangled, all the time in fact.  Because that’s what sisters do.

And the funny thing is…as much as I wanted to wring her neck, in that same breath I always knew she was my world and I was hers. I knew this to be a lifetime companionship that I’d never get anywhere else, from anyone else.  And together we were a force.  One so powerful standing outside the touch of time shoulder-to-shoulder like granite against the world that the only thing that could possibly cut short this indomitable feeling we had, was death.  The ultimate disconnect.   That tangible never-again thing that happens to you when you want to tell her something and immediately reach for the phone and it dawns on you like a brick to the head she’s not there.  The sound of her voice, the look on her face will never again be yours to behold.

Mari 1

Over the past twenty-seven years I’ve thought a lot about this religion of siblinghood.  From the moment my sister died to this, the whole of it has become a curious obsession, a fraternity which I wanted absolutely no part of.  And yet, like most things beyond our control, I was inducted nevertheless.

Since my sister’s death, nothing has ever been the same. I have never been the same. How could I?   I lost my compass, my identity, my alignment to all that I held sacred.  I imagine most people tend to believe when we lose a sibling that relationship no longer needs the care it was once afforded, because it no longer exists.  Like a root or a flower it too dies.  But the truth is our siblings will always be our siblings.  Even when the discernible part of our equation vanishes, that golden thread of “mutuality” we were born with somehow manages to survive beyond those borders familiar and maybe not so familiar.

I loved my sister, dearly.  I miss her very much—still.  And admittedly not a single day goes by where thoughts of her don’t drift in, unannounced.  Sometimes I weep at those thoughts, sometimes I smile.  That’s just the way it is.  I know in my heart she’ll always be there but I also can’t help feeling somehow like an orphan, cheated by time.  Time where all those big things and little things that collectively embody a lifetime of dreams—the trips to faraway destinations, the shopping sprees to stores yet unconquered, the children, the grandchildren—she will never know, I will never get to share.

That is what I mourn.  The passage of time and a life, her life, unfinished.

As human beings, as siblings, the richest moment we experience together is the moment we’re in.  Everything else has either already happened or not yet ordained.  But at one time or another we will have to suffer this life alone. And within that state of suffering we have the option of denying or accepting.  Of hating the world or embracing all that was given.  Of withering or growing.  And every moment we spend trying to decide in which direction we’re headed is a moment toward a better understanding of ourselves and how this tapestry of life wraps around us.  Fibers that are intertwined in such a way, that with time and with love can and will grow stronger.

All this I’m saying to you now, I’ve said to myself a thousand times.  If for no other reason than to remind myself that life is a double-edged sword, a myriad of things filled with such great beauty and such great sorrow and you cannot have one without the other.

It’s a package deal.  Oh yes, I know this truth better than most as it’s the same truth that drives me from one day to the next as I struggle along getting this compass of mine re-aligned, fusing my presence of being back into my life and the lives of those I love.  It’s work.  Something that doesn’t simply happen overnight.  But it’s worth it.  Love is always worth it.

So the next time your sibling calls and you feel like there’s something more pressing to do, such as answering your emails or watering the lawn and you want to hang up…I say…don’t.  I say spend the time, do the hard work and by all means embrace the moment.

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