Anonymous Gifts and Other Surprises

Many years ago, when my husband and I bought our first home together, it was a magical experience. I had admired the house from afar since I was little, and long before it came to be ours, we would sneak into the screen porch of the dark and empty house and imagine ourselves living in that gorgeous, dusty mid-century behemoth. Its purchase was anything but smooth; after having bid on it for six months to no happy conclusion, I’d ended up trumping an eleventh hour bid from some new party, donning a suit (the one I wore for temp jobs downtown), filling an empty brief case with various books (for heft), swabbing on some very un-me perfume (from a free sample) and walking into the manager’s office at Coldwell Banker insisting that I was prepared to pay cash for that house. I had no such cash to back up my offer. I’d made the offer without benefit of much discussion with my partner, as he was in Japan at the time. I remember a finger on one hand twitching constantly with residual nervousness for many days after I’d made the bluff. A few incredibly stressful weeks later (that in of itself is a story of gifts and other lucky events), we had ourselves a house.

Neither one of us can explain why we did what we did on that first day. At the threshold, Fareed picked me up and carried me into the house. Strangely, he did not put me down right away, but instead carried me down the long front hall, made a right, and deposited me in front of the refrigerator. Everyone knows a good party always convenes in the kitchen, perhaps it was in this spirit that he conveyed me there. There we two stood, facing the fridge head-on. And so naturally, we opened it. There, before us, was a platter upon which stood a bottle of champagne and two champagne flutes. In the center was an envelope on which was written “Welcome to 520”. Immediately our eyes filled with tears. Instantly we realized the love with which the former owners had assembled this gift. After a toast to this magical day, we began looking over the old photographs as we sipped our champagne. Through them we met the family that had lived here for half a century. We saw Christmases in the living room around an enormous tree, we saw the mother and dad – Marcie and Gene – in this very kitchen. We saw children sitting on this very floor. No matter where life may take us now, neither Fareed nor I will ever forget this gift of welcome.

Only a few days after we’d bought the place and had begun camping inside, sorely under-furnished, we received another gift. We’d come home one day to find a massive mound of purple mums in an apple basket on the landing to our front door. A simply stunning arrangement – the kind you admire but quickly pass up as you’d never dare spend that much money on yourself. In it was a card as enigmatic as the delivery itself. It simply said “Blessings on this house.” It was signed “Moon Rain and Storm Cloud”. In the middle of the small card there was a drawing of an eye. Altogether it was very ominous. Obviously, their intentions were good – even perhaps protective. Yet that picture of the eye was slightly disturbing. What was that about? Just what had this house meant to them? What did this house mean to the people in the area? Did folks have a proprietary feeling about the place? It had stood empty over a year. It was a dramatic and distinguished, if not different, looking house. There was no mistaking it, this house had a thing. But a thing that warranted some Native Americans shelling out fifty bucks for a bushel of flowers and offering their unsolicited blessing?? In the end, after sleuthing to the best of our ability in a pre-google world, we gave up and simply offered thanks to our unseen friends for their anonymous gift.

Skip ahead many gifts and many years. I am no longer living in the midst of things. I’m no longer a hostess. My home is no longer a social hub for friends. Now I live alone. Now I live far from the road in a tiny, plain house, devoid of any aesthetic value. I am no longer living in a way that I recognize. I am poor. I go without. Once upon a time, gifts were a nicety, always an expression of love, yes, but mostly they were a genteel thing, a kindness added to an already abundant life. The past few years things have changed. The gifts I’ve received have taken a different form. Some friends, wanting to help, have given me gifts of food and staples – and even money. Given in love, yes, but this is still tricky for me. This is not something I’m accustomed to. Accepting a gift of cash? Is that not crass? In poor taste? This is the voice of a woman who doesn’t understand the true spirit in which the gift is given. A woman who, out of pure need, must soon soon learn to accept it with nothing but sincere thanks given in exchange. (I don’t remember too much about my grandma, but I do remember her telling me that the best way to receive a gift was to say thank you. So simple, so true.) Such gifts have made me cry, made me feel uncomfortable, but in the end, made me feel blessed. They’ve enabled me to warm my house, eat fresh vegetables at supper, pay the electric bill, even move my piano out of storage. These have been life-saving gifts. In my past life I’d never known such generosity in any personal way. I do remember sending five hundred dollars to the Red Cross just after hurricane Katrina. And it too was given in love. So I know how it feels to give. How natural, how important it is that you help others when you’re able. Yet somehow, this seemed different. Gifts of this sort were always anonymous – made through the right channels, legitimate organizations set up for such charity. So when the tables were turned and I became the charity in question, I had to remember how good it had once felt to give of myself, let down the walls of my ego and now learn how to accept. Not always easy, but sometimes essential.

A few weeks ago I sent my divorce attorney an email in which I’d told him that it was in his personal interest that he help me secure a better support settlement; paying him otherwise would take years on my small income. He responded by telling me that he knew my financial situation well; he hadn’t expected to receive payment from me. I was stopped in my tracks. I’d already begun crafting an idea of a payment schedule to him, imagining a tab now in the tens of thousands. Having been absolutely raped by an egotistical, downtown Chicago divorce lawyer early on, I’d come to expect more of the same. I’d sensed something much gentler about this new man, but still and all, he was an attorney, and attorneys are busy, busy people whose time is a very costly thing. When I saw him in person last week, I hugged him in thanks – telling him that I in no way assumed this was a pro bono case, and that I still intended to pay him. While that is true, I’m not sure what that will be. But I will work something out. I will. I mean to make modest monthly payments, and if it doesn’t work to cover much else, I hope he can at least use it to buy some fresh flowers for his wife when he comes home late for the umpteenth time this month.

Just last month, on a rainy December night, Elihu and I arrived home late after I’d played piano at a Christmas party in town. He was to leave for Chicago soon, and as in years past, he lamented his being gone for the holiday, and wondered if Santa would visit him here too (Santa has yet to disappoint in that regard, he needn’t have worried.) Bent over under the rain, we ran to our door to find a couple bags of bird seed in our path. One was a bag of Niger seed. The real stuff – not the second-rate blend you find at the box stores that had been cut with half filler seed, but the real deal. The pricey stuff. At the time, we didn’t get the whole picture. But it was enough to shock me – and to let Elihu know that Santa had remembered him. Of course it was Santa, he told me, because no one else would give real Niger seed! Indeed. No one I knew had the stuff. It was only the next morning after I’d braved the cold to let out the chickens and then returned to the warm kitchen that I did a double take. Huh? Had I seen something unusual on the lawn just now? I looked out the window to see a beautiful iron shepherd’s hook bird feeder holder, complete with three bird feeders. All of them filled. One even held pepper suet to discourage squirrels. What?! I too was pretty close to convinced that we’d been visited by Santa. In the month that’s followed I have asked people, posted on Facebook, even called the local firehouse, all in an effort to learn who this Santa really was. I’d considered putting up a sign of thanks on the roadside, but didn’t want to chance Elihu seeing it. He already knew who’d been here, this was my problem alone. Then yesterday I went to the very boutique where the feeders came from. A store filled with beautiful but pricey bird-related items, it’s not someplace we shop. It’s a place we visit once or twice a year. I had the occasion to stop in as I was buying a bird toy for Elihu’s sister’s birthday. It gave me a chance to query the woman behind the counter. Luckily for me, she did seem to recall the story. She gave me a few hazy suspects. So, be warned, you kind-hearted friends, I just may be on to you. You know who you are. Soon I will too.

Gifts arrive unannounced, anonymously, and also in less than obvious forms. (Take, for example, my surprise divorce and the resulting about-face in my life.) Often, when things go wrong – or appear to be going wrong – Elihu and I remind ourselves that within this immediate disappointment a gift of some sort is surely waiting to be discovered. Perhaps not one that can be recognized immediately, and certainly one that will be harder to receive if one is being all pissy and crabby about how things are not going as they were supposed to, but nonetheless, we’re sure that there is something positive in the mix that will present itself shortly. At least that’s the attitude we try to take (make that I try to take; it’s far more natural and effort-free for Elihu) when plans run aground or take a frustrating turn. I would like to stress – as much for myself as for anyone reading – that to simply consider that there is a joyful outcome hidden within a current upset really does transform the event. It creates hope and possibility. If it changes nothing at a glance, it diminishes the present anguish by offering the potential for something delightful and unexpected yet to happen. It turns a stress-inducing situation into a treasure hunt. You are now on the expectant lookout for a gift. In the form of a serendipitous meeting, a happy conclusion to some other forgotten story, the acquisition of something helpful. Gifts come in many forms. Some much harder to discern than others. Some may even take awhile to present themselves. So keep an eye open. Ya know?

Thank you, all you givers of gifts. Those who have received them are so very grateful.

Cold Lesson

It’s Monday morning. Hm, let’s see, how did this go again? Pipe in the heating system broke last Tuesday night, left for Chicago on Wednesday, court date ran late, so rather than come right home I had to spend Wednesday night in Dekalb, then came back mid-day Thursday and had pipe fixed. Elihu got home from school then in a couple more hours we had a warm house again. Ironically, the next morning we ran out of heating oil and the house began to get cold again. I bought some kerosene and dumped it in. The tank was at 6 inches. Good for a few days – until I could get a proper delivery of oil. All was well and back to normal by Friday evening when Elihu returned home from school.

Then in the middle of the night it began to get cold again. I checked my math; I’d put eight gallons in. At less than 2 gallons a day, it should be fine all weekend, right? What was going on? After putting it off a couple hours, I finally braved the forty degree house temps and went downstairs to the furnace. You see, now I kinda know about these things. I went through all this last spring. In 2010, when Elihu and I made a list of the things we’d learned or accomplished that year, he’d written “Mommy is not afraid of using a saw”. If we’d made such a list for the following year he might have written “Mommy is not afraid to check the furnace”. I don’t like balloons because they pop, but as the mother of a young child I have learned to blow them up anyway. I don’t like furnaces because they deal with contained explosions, but as a lover of a warm house, I have learned how to bleed the air out of the system and restart the pump.

This time however, it is clearly not as simple. You know the way a car over a certain age just starts to need everything in it replaced? First it’s this, then it’s that, then you’re asking yourself whether it might not be wiser in the long run to just buy a new car. I’m kinda there with the various systems of this house. Only thing is, you don’t just trade in your house for a new one that works. Today I will call someone to look at the furnace. I will stand over their shoulder the whole time and ask them to teach me whatever it is that I need to learn how to do to fix this situation should it ever happen again. My guess is it’s the oil filter. And I’m less afraid to poke around and see for myself than I would have been last year. I’m this close to finding a pair of pliers (don’t own a wrench set and so can’t attempt it the correct way) and just wresting the damned bolt off to see what’s going on. But then what? So I have a dirty filter. Can I whack it against the side of the kitchen sink and just put it back in? Or is it that simple? Does it even lift out? Or do I need a new one altogether?

I’ve always marveled at the way so many men just seem to know how things work. They just seem to know that ‘it’s your oil filter, m’am’… So many of em just plain know stuff, as if they were born with it. But you know they weren’t. Now I get it. They’ve been tinkering for years. And I’ve only just started to pay attention, let alone tinker. (Course the only tools I have are some dollar store screwdrivers. I’m not really outfitted to tinker anyway.) Every time something needs fixing, I learn from it. And while it wasn’t enough to get the air out of the oil line this time, whatever it turns out to be, I’ll know about it now. Yep, today I will learn another new thing about how something in my home works. On the third day of living in this forty degree house there is some tiny, hidden gift.

Just gotta get the kid dressed and off to school first. Me, I’m going to get some of my own schooling today too. Home schooling, that is.

Witness to a Divorce

So, am I divorced yet? Did things go well? I don’t mean to be coy, but yes…. and no.

Before I disclose the results, I just have to thank you for helping me. I fairly sailed through my day in a subdued, sober form of good cheer. None of the old, familiar feelings of fear and doubt gained on my spirit. Even as I sat in the historic courtroom, the afternoon sun spilling over the large oak table strewn with piles of documents, I marveled at the sense of peace I felt. Not sure whether it was the intentional, energetic help of yours, the very passage of time since the drama began and my gleaned wisdom and insight since – likely all of it – but I sat there in a state I can’t remember experiencing before. Tranquil, yet poised for action and clear thought. Ready. Ready to speak for myself. Ready to be an individual taking responsibility for her own future. At last I was ready to face the disarming, story-spinning charm of my husband Fareed.

I’d love to share the delight of the day as it unfolded for me, yet I realize that some may want to get to the bottom line without all those extras. For those of you who are mostly interested in the lowdown, please just skip the body of the post and head for the final few paragraphs at the end. I have some images of the past twenty-four hours I want to share, and hope some will remain here with me to bear witness…

Tuesday night, in darkness and freezing rain, I’m flat on my belly under the chicken coop trying to encourage a couple of errant birds to exit their cave and allow Elihu’s waiting arms to deliver them back into safety. With the help of a rake I manage to get our miniature silkie rooster, Felix out. But two remain. I have no choice but to leave them there for the night. I still have to get my son a full ten miles across town on this slippery, foggy evening to my friend’s house for his overnight stay, then I need to return in order to fill out a financial affidavit for court the next day. And I need to leave the house by 5 am latest. Elihu and I make it to Ceres’ house, and as I unzip his suitcase – I discover it’s empty. Of the two identical bags I have, I left the packed one home. A true friend indeed, Ceres follows me back the ten plus miles in her car (after filling my tank up on her dime – too much to understand) and gets the correct and packed suitcase. I’m relieved of having to make another 25 mile journey. Onto the homework.

Luckily, having just prepared for bankruptcy, I’m pretty together with my financial info. After inputting the data my attorney’s asked of me, I punched the lot with holes and inserted them in a three ring binder. I can’t remember feeling so prepared. Faced with such an important day, I just had to write something on the occasion. So I created my post, leaving just four hours for sleep. Seemed I’d gotten into an intoxicating bit of REM sleep when the alarm clock told me it was time to head for the airport. The importance of my quest helped rouse me out of it.

Everything went smoothly. Things don’t always go like that for me. Last time Elihu flew, they had to write information out manually on his ticket in order for us to pass through security. For some reason, the system wouldn’t recognize our reservation. Thankfully, the Albany airport is small, they all know us there, and we made it, even if they were waiting for us to close the plane door. Drama. Sheesh. Fun, but too much is tiring. Thankfully I had NO drama all morning on Wendesday. Crazy. Found a shuttle to the car rental, and was nearly on my way. I had cheerful, serendipitous little encounters with folks all along the way, and enjoyed many personal exchanges that I will keep in my memory as a happy part of that day.

Among the many benefits of travel is the opportunity to meet people, and to become exposed to ways of living other than your own. As chatty as I tend to me, I naturally make an effort to get the story out of the people I talk to, and on that day, the stories flowed. It was so very interesting. I learned a lot. I learned more about the extremes that live side by side. The incomprehensibly massive budgets required of those who must travel professionally, the barely sustaining paychecks of the clerks and workers who make it possible for the travelers to do what they do.

I talked with a clerk at the car rental desk who had two daughters in college and had to make his modest paycheck cover not only their expenses, but his mortgage as well. I met a former restaurant owner who now worked selling magazines and gum and like me, depended upon food stamps to eat. When I thanked the pilot and asked if he enjoyed his job, he told me that he did not. That he made only thirty grand a year as a United pilot, that on his salary he could not afford to pay back the loans for the schooling the job had required. He planned to get out, and open up his own auto body shop instead. He sounded disgusted and fed up, highly motivated to get on with his new life. I met so many others, all hustling, working hard, putting in time at thankless, invisible jobs, all just to make it through. My eyes were opened. I was humbled. And you know what? Every last person I met had a positive spirit about them. Not a one was feeling sorry for themselves, although as I saw it, they had a right to. They shared their stories and we commiserated, but the mood was hopeful. I was inspired.

And doubly inspired, friends, when I saw my bright red, brank-spankin’ new Mini Cooper waiting for me! An older gentleman was getting into a large tank of a car next to me. “Mine’s cuter!” I shouted. “I win!” He laughed and mentioned something about gas consumption, adding to his defeat. Soon I was off onto the Chicago byways as if I’d never been gone. I turned on the radio. Bad Company and then AC/DC pumped me up and ushered me onto 294 South. I laughed at myself. Middle aged gal rocking out in her little red car. Goofy. Nothing rough or rebellious about it. But joyful, that’s for sure. Ok. Checked the presets. No XRT? Geez. Found it on my own and sank into a luxurious bath of some forgotten gem followed by Marty Lennartz signing off and welcoming Terry Hemmert on next. How Chicago can you get? This was starting off right fine. The sun was shining and I was making good time on my way out to the cornfields of Dekalb.

I was surprised how familiar it all was. The drive, the well-loved landmarks (the smiling barn near Bliss Road on 88 to Aurora – know it?). As I drove into Dekalb, strange feelings came over me. Intangible ethers of mood and strange hauntings, like a waking dream, all inspired by the places that I passed. The landscape was so familiar; it felt as if I’d never left. As if I passed these very houses each day of my life. Forgotten memories came alive when I passed the spots on which they occurred; as I neared the library, I remembered my husband’s girlfriend, plump with her pregnancy, waving at me as I passed in our minivan, as she’d mistaken me for my husband – her boyfriend. I was shocked at how much the vision still hurt, how it arrived from nowhere. The sights brought a mix of emotions. So little had changed for the most part in my three years’ absence, yet my own life had changed in just about every way possible. A strange contrast.

I drove down the main drag of town and passed our Cafe building. The business I’d run for two years. One of the straws that piled upon the camel’s back. I dropped in on a place or two, finding some friends gone, others just as I remembered having seen them last. After a quick bite (of real Mexican food, thank you) and a free cup of coffee from Matthew at the House Cafe, I headed north for the courthouse. On the way, I passed my old house. The one in which I’d thought Fareed, Elihu, our new baby and I would pass the next decade together. I spied a big plastic climber and slide near the garden, signs of the little ones that lived there now. I saw Fareed’s big tour bus parked in the huge driveway. The one that pulled into my own driveway a few months ago. This was no longer my home in any way at all. Surprisingly, this sight hurt the least. I had no desire to live there. I was a true visitor now.

When I had passed through security and made my way up the large, central staircase of the Sycamore courthouse, I soon found my attorney, a man I’d met but once almost two years before. We were able to make ourselves comfortable in the large courtroom, as we were over an hour early. He explained that I would sit in the witness’ chair, the one beside the judge, and there I would simply tell my story, at his prompting, answering his questions as best I could in order to complete the picture for the judge. Our goal today was to inform the judge of the circumstances; Elihu was low-vision and had special needs, I worked to the best of my ability around my duties as single mother… all points the judge would need to know if we were to go up against Fareed. Had I not been there, it would have been, after these three long years of court dates, entirely Fareed’s game. Hence my pricey appearance. It was showtime. My attorney told me not to be shy or hesitant; I should make myself clear and speak directly to the judge. I reminded him that I was a performer; I was good on stage.

When Fareed arrived, it was indeed a peculiar feeling to know that he and I were not on the same side. I’d sat beside him so many times before – some times in a court of law, sometimes in heated business negotiations – and each time, whether I agreed with his methods and truthfulness or secretly did not (as was the case many times), as his wife and partner, I showed my support. I had always agreed with Fareed. It’s what a partner does. And I’d seen his craftiness up close; the way he twisted things to his advantage, living in complete belief that it was all justified, no matter how it might seem otherwise. I’d seen him and his father shimmy their way through all sorts of situations, each time the odds seemingly stacked against them, each time with them making out far ahead of the opponent. Now I was that opponent. A small voice cautioned me, but a bigger voice reminded me that I knew how he operated; there’d be no snaking around today. Besides, I had no selfish motives. That just had to count for something.

Some dynamic then began to change. The phenomenon of people being physically in each other’s space, I guess. I softened to see him, and he to see me. After all, were we not two people who’d lived over twenty years together? Made music together? Made love, made memories, made a child together? It is all still there. And so, after a short while, we were discussing the terms, reviewing the sticking points in a measured, even-tempered tone. Where I might have hissed with anger just one year ago, I was able to plainly state my case now. I was not out for blood, for anything unreasonable. I had no savings or retirement, and I needed what was fair. At the very least I needed my money back. Fareed started out adamant. He low-balled me and remained in that stance for a while. Until we spent a few minutes alone in the hall. Before long we two were laughing together. I wonder if my attorney might have thought me crazy. Here I was, in the face of the man who’d put me in poverty, created two other families, and yet I was enjoying a good laugh with him! Was I that deficient of self-esteem? Truly, it felt good to laugh. Before too long, whenever Fareed and I are together, we are laughing. Fucker.

We got down to it after about an hour’s discussion, ultimately removing the need for my taking the stand and presenting my case. I got far less per month than I’d ever thought I would. But it’s open for re-evaluation, should his (or my) situation improve. All in all, not a total loss, harsher than I feel I deserve, but livable. I know how thin Fareed is stretched financially these days and I feel bad for him. I wanted to show some humanity, engender some feelings of support. Hopefully one day he may do the same for me. Many would think I’m nuts to even think so. But regardless, I didn’t want to continue hammering away at him, creating more stress in his world. He’s got it bad enough. I did offer him my advise: don’t have any more kids if you want to get back to your projects, your profession. He laughed it off, but hey, both of his youngest boys were ‘surprises’. I reminded him that once upon a time, Jill had said she wanted six or seven kids. Just sayin.

When we finally sat down across the table across from each other in the courtroom, I remember feeling a sense of tranquility that was new to me. And when we were told to rise and approach the bench I was equally calm. This was it, and finally, there was no fear. I’d lived absolutely steeped in fear my first year in New York. And I admit that every single email from Fareed since has raised my heart rate quite noticeably. Now, my pulse did not even quicken. It was here that a poignant and unforeseen thing happened. As the bailiff called us up, I said aloud, “oh no, are we really going to get divorced now?” and at that moment, it hit us both. Tears sprang up in our eyes, and we instinctively reached for each other’s hand. How cruel, how strange is this divorcing of someone you’ve spent half your life with. But before the sentiment could be fully appreciated by either of us we were made to approach the bench.

I watched the judge, fascinated by his inner process. At each point, he paused, looking at a spot on the desk before him, as he thought the multiple scenarios through. Then, like a speaking textbook, he said the agreement out loud in perfect, unrushed legalese for the record. There were some pauses, as he picked up a book to look up the exact source of a few ancient laws (one of which addressing the question of whether either one of us taking up with same-sex partners would legally be considered ‘conjugal’ relations, thereby nullifying the support – the mood here was playful and we all chuckled over the archaic rulings), yet in spite of his slow, deliberate method in less than a half hour he had finished what had taken nearly four years to accomplish.

So, are we divorced or not? As I understand it (and there may yet be another step as regards the official filing) not until my attorney gets our agreements down on paper in the correct format and presents it to the judge on March 7th and the judge then signs it, are we divorced. Yet with respect to Fareed’s pension, and the share I’m entitled to, our union did come to an end on January 18th.

And the numbers? Are they better? By a little. Elihu and I will still need foodstamps and heating assistance (more to the point, we will still qualify for the aid). I am very grateful that there exists such a system. We may need it awhile yet. The happier news is that my near-ex has agreed to pay me back the money I invested in our first home so many years ago. Plus a little extra. Not a whole lot extra, but enough that if I sock it away (that language sounds like my mom, yikes) and don’t use it up, it might end up being very helpful in my aged years. In that I have no savings or retirement, no other source of future income except that which I earn or have saved, this feels like it makes up a bit up for our situation. Elihu and I will still exist below the national poverty line, but it won’t be quite as dire. We will receive $1,000 a month from Fareed. I’ll make what I can teaching piano lessons, and if I can get this Studio thing going, hopefully I can glean something from that. And who knows, maybe I can self-publish some material and get a little from that as well. Although I’m really not where I’d hoped (and thought I deserved) to be, at least I know exactly where I stand. There is some peace and satisfaction to be had in that.

Our marriage wasn’t actually legal on the day of our ceremony. I take full responsibility; mistaking the marriage certificate for a parking ticket, I couldn’t find it on the day of our wedding in order to have the judge sign it. I had to wrestle with this one as the guests stirred about downstairs in our living room, anxiously awaiting the event. In the end, both Fareed and I agreed that it was the witness of our friends and family that truly made our wedding binding and real. That felt right and true. Legally, we weren’t married for another ten days. And now, it seems we’re in the same place. We went before the judge, stating aloud our intentions, but we won’t have the docs to back that up for a few weeks yet. Strangely inconclusive. Plus it just felt so sad. Those who’ve gone through this know what I mean. All that ceremony in getting married, all that lack of ceremony in getting divorced. Sad.

In the end, we were truly married by the witness of dear friends. And with your witness here again today, I think we can consider both the marriage and the divorce of Fareed and Elizabeth to be concluded. Amen.

Interim Post…

I know I’ve got some splainin to do. It’ll just have to wait for a bit though, as the logistics of life have thrown themselves at me the past few hours since I’ve been home.

When I got back from Chicago yesterday I found my home stone cold. The pipe that had burst late on Tuesday afternoon had indeed turned out to be part of the hot water system that runs throughout the house (I’d thought so but dreaded to have it confirmed). Yikes. A nail, softly laying aside the pipe for nigh on these past forty years had finally etched a tiny fissure in the copper after dozens of seasonal freezes and thaws… I had it fixed last night, but sadly paid overtime for the job. Make that my mother paid overtime for the job. Sigh.

Spent a good part of the day writing my post on the events of Wednesday, but as I wrote I noticed that my usually chilly house was getting just a wee bit more uncomfortable than usual. Had that old familiar feeling. Was I, just perhaps, out of oil? I smiled at the thought. It doesn’t scare me so much anymore. I know the drill. (Ironic, isn’t it, to first have one’s heating system fixed only to then run out of fuel?) I checked the oil level and found indeed, I was out. Did some calculations and learned that I had been far more frugal this year than last, using less than 2 gallons a day. Well and good, Elizabeth, but it don’t count for much if you don’t plan things out in advance. ! And I hadn’t. (Rather than face head-on when it was that I might run out of oil, I’d used the ‘duck and cover’ approach. You know – if you don’t acknowledge it, it won’t happen. ! ). So I got myself $30 worth of kerosene and poured it in. Good til Monday. Somehow, it will be alright. I just know.

So. Kid’s in the bath and I need to give him some attention. Been distracted with the heat, the plumbers, the crap that’s popped up since last night when I got home. Will post the update tomorrow, I promise. Suffice to say I thank you all. I know you helped. Things went well. Some might not agree, but in the end, just to know where I stand is better than the state of limbo I’ve been in these past three years. I’ve wrapped up this era in my life. Even if I still fall well within the government’s definition of poverty, it’s ok. I have a much better sense of peace. The threat of impending drama has dimmed.

I’m divorced, and I’m not divorced, both at the same time. Really. Not quite there even still. But at least now I can see that the speck of light ahead is actually the end of this tunnel, and just the beginning of a whole new run of track.

Graduation Day

Oh would that I could end this. Some tell me to fight, some say get angry, some say take him for all he’s worth. Trouble is, ‘taking’ him for anything at all costs money. I simply don’t have the money to keep up the fight. Justice costs money. Plain and simple. And anyway I don’t like fighting. But I haven’t given up on my quest for equity – not quite yet.

Today I spent money I don’t even have on one round-trip ticket to Chicago in order to conclude this exhausting process. Also today, a pipe in my house burst, filling bucket after bucket and taking the ceiling down with it, yet there’s nothing I can do about it. Insane timing, huh. I shake my head in disbelief and try not to feel sorrier for myself than I do already. I admit I’m slipping a bit today. Here I go, spending more money than I have, stepping out onto the precipice of a frightening life ledge, and my house is springing a leak. Man. Really? Are you kidding? Thankfully, in the end, I do indeed have a good sense of humor. And I know that I’m in a far better place today than I was one year ago today. All in its time and place. Just breathe…

Am I not a good person, with the best, most loving intentions for all? I believe I am. How is it that Fareed can treat me as he does? In November we arrived at a settlement agreement, one in which he agreed to pay me back the money I’d invested in our first home nearly fifteen years ago. At the eleventh hour his father intervened, literally showing up in the courthouse lobby after having consulted his own private attorney, demanding Fareed not sign his own agreement. Perhaps in fear of his father, of the possibility of being disinherited (I can’t believe his father would do that, but then again I can’t believe that Fareed gives his daughter in London more he does Elihu, but there it is) Fareed ended up declining to sign his own offer. Minutes before going before the judge. My attorney said in his some thirty years in this profession he has never seen anyone so ballsy, so crass as Fareed. Wow.

His father insists that I owe him thousands – never mind there’s nothing on paper to that effect, never mind that he gifted Fareed and me money through the years resulting in tax benefits to him. Never mind that he offered his support without hesitation, that he knew intimately how we needed his help to maintain our home, our illusory middle-class life. His son’s lifestyle was a great source of pride for the man; he was able to show his Pakistani family how successful his son had become. A famous jazz guitarist, yes, but look! He has a fine home and a beautiful wife and a son! (Make that three sons…) His father was well pleased with our ‘progress’ and did not hide it. I guess it’s because I left Illinois that the patriarch is so up in arms. He told his son “there has to be a limit to her audacity”. My audacity was a request to receive enough money such that we might afford to heat our house and have enough food to eat. I’ve got balls too, huh.

Ok. I’ve ranted. I’ve indulged and given way to the crap that I so long to share with supportive ears. I really want to be done with this song. I’m so friggin tired of this story. Are we not all outraged? Good! Then let’s finish this thing and move fucking on already. I and many, many others see the blatant inequity. Let’s hope the judge does too. Let’s hope my over-priced airfare pays off tomorrow. Oh friends, really, if you can just think one tiny, kind thought for my progress and success tomorrow, I believe it will help. I mean to end this phase of my life. On Wednesday, as you finish your lunches and head back into your day, I hope you can send a wisp of a kind thought my way. I will be so very grateful.

My divorce is now in its fourth year. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve worked hard. I’m ready to receive my diploma.

Coming Clean

It seems I’ve outed myself. I knew there’d be folks for whom my smoke jones would come as a bit of a surprise, I also knew there’d be those who’d nod to themselves, thinking how they’d been there too… I feel I’m in a netherworld – I jones for that which I disdain. I am, and I am not. At the same time.

I do know what it’s like to pass a decade without even thinking of a cigarette. I also remember a time in the early 90s as a hard-smoking, hard working musician when cigarettes were simply part of the landscape. Yet even then, in the midst of the most decadent time in my life, I would shudder with revulsion at the ‘after smell’ of smokers, out in the real world, away from the proper, cloistered confines of the cigarette.

The other day, at the end of my fruitless and enlightening quest for a smoke I came upon an ironic situation. I’d gone to the town hall in order to clear up some questions regarding a property line. When I joined the assessor at the map, we two mere inches away from each other, I smelled it. She, despite her well-groomed efforts to keep a professional, un-smoking profile at work, was a ‘ten minute break out back by the dumpster’ smoker. The acrid, disgusting scent told me the unmistakable truth. If I couldn’t bum one from the guys at the garage, I could get one from this gal. But then, how would it sound if I said, “Hey, I think you might be a smoker, could I possibly bum one from you?” Seriously. “You kinda stink, but hey, that’s ok, cuz I’m lame too!” I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t want one that badly. Instant perspective. I did shell out two bucks for an enticing color topo map of my neighborhood, but I did not offer it up for a smoke.

I know that tough times leave a human searching for relief, for comfort. Something to take the edge off. I can remember a time in my life when for many years there was simply nothing to take the edge off of. I may have been crazy-busy, over committed professionally, but still, no edge. Now here I am, no overt pressures on me, no relationship to fret over and no professional stress either, yet there’s an uncomfortable edge pushing at me almost each day, worrying me, threatening me, reminding me that I’m not entirely comfortable, at peace.

Yes, it is getting better for me. Much better. But this unresolved divorce and unrelenting poverty still hang over me, coloring my view of things. I’ve seen the sad sacks outside the doors of the social services office, all of them smoking, stinking, smoking. I think “Poor souls, why don’t they just quit? My God, they’re dirt poor already, how can they shell out ten bucks for a pack of cigarettes??”  And then I go home, and realize that I’ve got less than twenty bucks to last the week. I’m feeling that edge again. I can’t do much with twenty bucks, but I can buy a pack of something that will temporarily take the edge away. Even if the feeling is gone almost as soon as it’s procured. Even if. At least. At least it’s something. Something besides that Goddammed edge.

So I understand both sides. At the same time. Fully loaded with all the facts, scientific and emotional. No easy answer. The best one is to distract in the moment of stress, get through it somehow, and congratulate yourself for having made it. Then of course, there’s that edge. Still there. What to do? Humor helps. Yeah, exercise and meditation too. Somehow though, like flossing, it’s easier contemplated than incorporated into one’s routine. At least in the beginning. And I’m still in that neighborhood. Maybe just a bit past the starting line, but truthfully, I feel I’m just getting started on my ‘new’ life just about now. The past three years were a tricky phase of transition, of ground-laying. Now, antidepressants long concluded and cigarettes off the list, I’m ready for the next phase. Ok. But there’s still all this future to deal with. I have be able to negotiate it on my own.

There’s that pushy Mr. Edge to contend with. He’s still here. So I guess I gotta put my shoulder into it now. Get the healthy routines down. Make em second nature. Maybe even throw in a hot bath. I haven’t always been a bath girl, but I have rediscovered them the past couple years. Not always convenient, but still, it might serve to ease the way a bit.

At least it’ll give me another chance at a clean start.


Hookay. I admit it. Today I would like a cigarette. I mean REALLY like a cigarette. Been clean a while. The past three years I’ve been a casual on again, off again smoker. Whenever I feel it’s too much, I just back off. Haven’t bought any in a long time. But I’ve smoked em. New Year’s Eve, after dinner at my friend’s house, on her back deck in the unseasonal forty degree weather, as we listened to the coyotes up on the ridge, their eerie hoots and yowls oh-so close by, we enjoyed a post-meal smoke. That well-placed cigarette hit the spot, I can tell you. And yet it also sounded the ‘too much’ bell somewhere inside. I’d had my fill of indulgence over the holiday, and this cigarette heralded a run of clean living to follow.

It started out well. With my basement cleaned out and a good measure of physical space restored plus aesthetic appeal to help motivate me, I’ve used my treadmill most days. It wasn’t so much part of a New Year’s campaign; I myself never choose to publicly – or privately – proclaim a New Year’s resolution. I am done with the disappointment and the feeling of failure that follows. Instead, I keep some new goals and values at the front of my awareness, encouraging myself to make baby steps towards them. I finally get that as a human, I’m encouraged by tenderness and understanding, and I choose to treat myself with such on the treacherous road to better living. I allow myself failures, and praise myself at small achievements. While it’s perhaps a more realistic approach to self-betterment, it can also provide too lenient a path to casual relapses. Hence today’s search for a cigarette.

I’m not going to buy a pack. I’m fairly broke, and that’s just not right. Can’t do it. Besides – if I did, I’d smoke the whole thing. No. I don’t even want a pack. I just want one. Just one. Ok. I’ve always been able to find just one when I wanted – I know the places to drive past; the homeless guys on the parking lot wall across the street from social services, the ghetto chopper parking lot, the Pakistani-owned gas station, maybe even the working men in their trucks at the local Stewarts shop. Usually, one’s a hit. I always offer a dollar, sometimes they accept, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they even give me ‘one for the road’. Once I even met a very engaging gentleman through my pursuit of a smoke, who I later learned to be a maxillofacial surgeon. I spied him leaving the all night pantry, tapping the bottom of his unopened Marlboro Lights package. After I’d learned more about him, I asked why in hell was a fellow such as he pondering this cigarette, when he’d been months without one? When he, as a doctor, should know intimately the dangers? He too was bothered by an ending relationship, and like me, he too was simply searching for some relief. He’d ended up giving me two, which yes, I did smoke. I often wonder about him. Did he succumb as well? I’d begged him not to, but what a two-faced, flimsy entreat. I was weak, I hope he was not.

This morning I made all the usual stops to procure my fix, but not a one of them panned out. I ended up making some rather desperate attempts at finding one; I asked at the shop where my car’d been worked on. Not one of the men there smoked. Some never even had. Grease under the nails, cute chick auto parts posters on the walls and not a Marlboro between them. I stopped by the other shop in town – greasier and grittier by far – thinking it was done. But no – even Beetle quit six months ago. I heard how he’d shoved gum in his mouth til his cheeks were as big as my head – he wasn’t going to smoke ever again. Even threw his pack out unfinished. Wow. Beetle quit? Geez. Joe gave me a little pep talk – how a pretty girl doesn’t want to go and get all wrinkly… It wasn’t his pitch nor the story of Beetle that really did it for me. After my fruitless yet highly motivated town-wide search I was fairly confident that the universe had intervened. Apparently, today I’d needed some help.

The day is nearly done now. My son sits at my feet, building with his new blocks, singing an improvised, operatic narrative of everything that enters his head. Dinner soon, then to bed where we’ll get down to the really scary parts of Treasure Island. I’m over the hump.

For now, that is.

Sorta Sick

While Elihu was truly sick just two days ago, he is home from school today. Although he’s not super sick, he’s not all well either. We’ve both been a little low energy the past few days – he more than me, plus he’s still got a cough and a bit of a sore throat. I’m not sure I could keep him home as casually if he were in middle school. But if he can still take a day off in third grade without dire consequences to his schooling, I say fine. Besides, the kid’s reading Treasure Island on his own. And he can add in his head quicker than I can. I’m not worried.

As I sit at the mac in my bedroom, cleaning out my inbox and going through to-do lists, he is in the living room, playing with his new Keva planks, snorting, coughing and clearing his throat all the while. (Santa totally scored with that new toy, I should like parents of kids to know: highly recommended by this household.) I’m happy to have him home. It can be tricky actually getting anything done when he stays home from school, but in this moment right now, we’re both fairly content, and that’s a nice way to be.

He comes in to cuddle for a bit. He may not be so high energy today, but he’s cheerful. Realizing that a day like this won’t always be possible for us – that I may come to miss this era all too soon – I’ve ended up deciding my work will just have to wait til tomorrow. Today will be a low-key day. I will still teach; he’ll come along with me later this afternoon, waiting at my mom’s office, drawing birds in the break room and chatting with everyone who stops in, while I visit my students’ home a few blocks away. I’ll come to pick him up, we’ll give mom a ride to her car, then head home for a quiet night.

Tomorrow we’ll start our routines again as usual. But for now, we’re just kinda layin low and enjoying our time-out from the busy world. And that’s good medicine.

161 Years Old

Today, January sixth, is both my mother’s and my father’s birthday. Together, they are one hundred and sixty-one years old. (They share a birthday, yet are seven years apart.) We have nothing planned to celebrate; I think the recent soiree at our house on Monday will essentially have served that purpose. I do think mom’s planning on the two of them going out to a good supper at one of Saratoga’s finer restaurants – but that will likely be tomorrow, as she puts in a full day of work today. I wish I had something special for them, but alas, I don’t. I am going to give each some comfy new pairs of socks. Really, who doesn’t like new socks? And at their age, it’s highly likely that they haven’t been out to purchase any in quite a while. My mother seems to have quit buying new clothes a few decades ago… And my father’s new acquisitions depend upon my mother taking up the charge. So it’s likely neither’s had new socks in quite a while. Although it might seem I’m ‘under-gifting’ them, I believe my modest gifts will be thoroughly enjoyed.

Today is also Epiphany, or the day when the three wise men finally reached the manger and gave baby Jesus their gifts. I’ve always thought this day made much more sense as a gift-giving holiday than the date we celebrate. It’s hard for us Americans to understand that much of the Christian world is celebrating Christmas today. In our family, partly because of mom and dad’s birthday – brother Andrew’s is nearby New Year’s Eve as well – we didn’t think of the season as being completed until this day. In a purely secular way we simply thought of this as the logical conclusion to the season. I like that too. Coming to a screeching halt with the holiday – either the 26th or January 2nd – feels much too abrupt for me. I like to coast down easy after all of it… and I can take down my tree and decorations with much less frustration and a better sense of closure and satisfaction when I do so upon full completion of the anniversary of the events we purport to celebrate. Somehow, it makes me feel in better step with the rest of the world. My life just breathes better when I wait til this day to remove the festive red and green. Good-bye Christmas, thank you for all the spirit you helped us to express. Good-bye New Year’s Day, thank you for restoring our sense of hope.

Happy birthday, my beloved parents. Thank you for all that you’ve helped me to be. I wouldn’t be right here, right now if it weren’t for you. Thanks for teaching me about art, music, nature and everything in between. I love you both so much.

Back at Home

Elihu came home late at night on New Year’s Day. We just missed each other at the airport, and so I lost the opportunity for our picture-perfect reunion, we two running towards each other and into each other’s arms, all smiles, kisses and tearfully happy eyes… Instead, seeing that his flight had been delayed yet again by ten minutes, I’d gone upstairs to see the current art exhibit on the airport’s top floor to kill some time. Unbeknownst to me, he’d already arrived at the gate (?) and had just arrived at the point where we usually meet. The woman from Southwest assigned to accompany him until I got there suggested they go to baggage claim to wait for me. I heard my name over the PA, cryptically requesting that I come to the lower level. Flushed with some adrenaline – I’m never entirely relaxed until my  child is actually in view – I ran to the office and once there, finally saw him.

I knew he would seem taller, older, bigger. That’s always been the case. But this time there was yet again another element of newness; while he was all smiles and kept repeating over and over that he loved me so, he was nontheless different from how he’d been in our reunions of the past. Gone was the tiny child, that small boy, the one who clung to me only, who needed contact with me at all times, who never let go of my hand. Here instead was a gangly kid with giant teeth who came nearly up to my chin – who was talking with me as if we’d just picked our conversation up where we’d left off ten days earlier. As I signed the release form for the woman from the airlines, she remarked that this was the smartest eight year old boy she’d ever met. Of course, it’s sweet of her to say, and it’s always nice to give a compliment, but I sensed something out of the ordinary might have occurred. I looked at Elihu with a question on my face, and laid my index finger to my chin and rolled my eyes up at the ceiling. He put a finger on his chin too and smiled. (This is our reference to the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Scarecrow is suddenly able to recite the Pythagorean theorem upon receipt of his new brain. Once, having referenced it for the umpteenth time, yet unable to actually deliver the line, we looked it up and both memorized it. Apparently, the Scarecrow’s 1939 recitation was not actually correct. While not quite as poetic and flowing, we found an accurate definition and memorized that one instead. Elihu is still able to whip it out at the perfect moment. In this case he did not; we were only making an in joke for ourselves.) I thanked the woman for working on the holiday, and for taking good care of my child before we headed out.

As we walked to the parking garage I asked her what he’d said that impressed her so. “I just told her that you were probably at the art exhibit, upstairs. Then I told her a little about the exhibit they have up there now. She still wouldn’t let us go look. But I knew that’s where you were.” We recounted our favorite installation in the current exhibit, one which features all “seriously funny” works: a guy hangs a car-shaped air freshener on a pine tree, giving the woods that new car smell. We both love the final photograph: a headshot of the man, extremely pleased with the improvement he’s made on the great outdoors. It is, of course, so ludicrous that it’s hilarious. The Albany “International” airport is small and tidy, and one can be in and out in less than five minutes. Karmic justice, perhaps, for all the many hours spent at O’Hare picking up Elihu’s father. ! In short order, we’re in the car and on our way. (Even the half hour spent in the parking garage was free! Gotta love small town life sometimes.)

It was now past midnight as we set out through the rainy night, with not quite an hour’s drive north still ahead. Elihu knew the drive well, but the whole way he just kept asking me how much longer it was. Saying how excited he was to be home. How much he couldn’t wait to see his house, his room… He feels the familiar pitch of the steep hill in front of our house. “Are we here?” he asks. I say nothing. The movements and sounds will answer his question soon enough. Then we begin the long, bumpy driveway to our house and he begins to shriek in anticipation. Finally, finally he is home.

I guess I’m always surprised that Elihu feels so strongly that this is his home. I guess it’s because it was in Dekalb where he, his father and I last lived together as a family. It’s also there, at the Riverhouse, where he now experiences his life with his father and his small brothers. Somehow, I wonder, if he might not feel that place to be equally his home. He doesn’t. In his heart, this small house is his home. In that I didn’t choose this place, in that I’ve spent three years trying to clean it up, in that I came here under extreme duress, I guess I still haven’t fully embraced it as my home. (Those who have known me personally know how very much I loved my lakeside apartment in Chicago, and many know how strongly I felt about the mid-century treasure in Evanston in which I’d hoped to live out my life. Those were both places I loved dearly. This place, not so much.) This house came to me by default, not by choice. However, I believe my deeper feelings about this place have finally begun to change. I’ve made a huge effort to make this place mine, to make it beautiful, comfortable, functional, welcoming. I’ve worked hard to make this home. My son has come to know it as home with a lot less effort than I. But I do think I’m finally catching up.

Yesterday, my brother, mom and dad came over for our belated, Conant Christmas. We enjoyed several hours together. Dad played the piano, we played some games, we ate and drank, opened gifts, told jokes and stories. We watched as Elihu flew his remote controlled birds with great skill around the living room. I was relieved that Andrew came over too, and was calm and reasonable. It seemed he’d read my note to him. (For Christmas, I’d written a letter to Andrew, telling him how I loved him and cared about him, and would accept any blame he felt I deserved. Howsoever he felt, that was his right and business. I also told him that I thought he needed help, that he needed a support group, a counselor, medication. I told him I knew that he could live a real life again, that it wouldn’t be easy, but I knew he could do it. The letter was accompanied by a book about living with hoarding. It was written by a man who himself had been an alcoholic, a hoarder, a seriously dysfunctional human being. I’d had the author sign it to Andrew, hoping that it might add a little weight. If it only prevented Andrew from throwing it away in disgust, if it increased the probability of him reading it in the slightest, the signing had done its job.) Andrew even brought Elihu a chicken calendar. A good start to the New Year. We’d all had a very nice time together.

Each now armed with a cane and moving a bit slower, my mom and dad not only made it over to our house for a nice, long visit, but they were both able to visit our newly refurbished basement as well. While not quite complete (some walls and all ceilings are missing) it was still quite a dramatic change from its earlier state. I think they were both able to see how the place had finally transformed from a dingy rental property into a true home. Later on, as we sat in the living room upstairs, my father remarked how it was hard to believe this was the same place they’d bought years ago. I was glad they approved; it’s still my parents – or more accurately my mother’s current income – who pay the mortgage on this place. I don’t even pay rent. The very least I can do is contribute sweat equity. I remember the dark walnut of the kitchen cabinets with their crazy medieval-themed wrought iron styled pulls. I remember the kitchen’s orange linoleum floor, the avocado green shag of the living room… I look about and now see the warmth of wood floors throughout the house (laminate, yes, but man it’s upped the feel of the place), pale apple green cabinets with white porcelain knobs in the kitchen, a deep, colonial red on the wall in between the home’s two main rooms. Then there’s the piano. And the couch, the rocking chair, the harpsichord. The Christmas tree and the view beyond. Yes, it does look fine. And it feels fine too.

It feels good to be home.