About Carla Panciera

Author of One of the Cimalores (poetry; Cider Press, 2005); No Day, No Dusk, No Love (poetry; Bordighera Press 2010); Bewildered (short stories; University of Massachusetts Press, 2014). Teacher, Ipswich High School.

July Feasting

mom with pieSaturday, July 1

Overcast and muggy. After a few days of cemetery walks, I return to my old route, Beach Street and Wells. Construction everywhere — grooved pavements, raised manhole covers, bump signs — but empty of noise, workers’ holiday weekends off to an early start.

In my mother’s front yard, four squirrels, one chipmunk, a few doves, and a rabbit gather around the feeders, the squirrels thwarted by Uncle Charlie’s device: A water cooler milk jug with its bottom cut out taped by its neck to the pole. Now, my mother doesn’t order us up several times a day to bang on the screen and yell at the animal. When I step onto the lawn, the creatures scurry across the yard, the doves explode toward the telephone wires.

My mother is waiting for me with her Sharpie and her pad of paper.

“Let’s make a list of what we need for the kids,” she says. My family is due on Monday. They have voted on strawberry rhubarb squares over apple. “We’ll get stuff to make grinders. Make sure you get the cooked salami. And the iceburg. Nevermind that you think it tastes like water. People like it, that’s all.”

Her latest lesson is in how to choose the best watermelon. “You have to pick it up and look underneath. If it’s yellow, that’s the one to get.”

At Stop and Shop, I lift melon after melon, the crate of them so deep I start to worry I’ll have to climb in to deliver her the elusive best choice. Finally, she’s satisfied. I insist on going to the other end of the store to get frozen peas and milk.

“You pick the tomatoes,” I say. “And get Greg his juice.”

Greg is her acupuncturist whose only fee for home visits is a few bottles of Kombucha tea. She likes to stock up on his gifts. Also, these errands will keep her busy enough for me to get to the deli without her. She likes to see the coldcuts up close, will shove her carriage through the waiting crowds and push her face up to the glass so she can make out prices. I like seeing her do this, the way she can offend and be oblivious about offending, but shopping, her favorite pastime, wears her out now. I’m hoping I’ve been subtle enough about her assignments so that she doesn’t guess my motives.

Home, I unload the groceries in a quiet house so unlike the weekdays when the door opens and closes all day, visitors passing through. I miss those interruptions now, miss my children and Dennis. I look forward to their noise this weekend.

When I finally sit down, my mother is working on her word searches. I thumb through the book I’m reading. I look up and she’s looking at me, smiling.

“This is nice,” she says.

“What is?” I say.

“This,” she says. “Just the two of us.”

July 2

My sister Patty cuts the rhubarb and the strawberries for the squares.

“Let me see what you’re doing there.” My mother wheels her walker over and picks up some of the slices. “You can make them a little bigger.”

She measures out the ingredients for the crust but lets Patty mix it.

“Your turn,” my sister says, handing me the rolling pin. My mother supervises.

In all the years she’s made pies, I have never observed her, have only come home as a child to a cookie-sheet sized apple square still warm on the top of the oven, and, on the counter, wrapped in wax paper, a few cinnamon sticks made with the leftover dough. My kids have watched plenty of times so that, when I came home as an adult, I’d find them all covered in flour: my mom, my preschoolers, the dogs, every horizontal surface of my house.

In later years, when the girls stepped off the school bus, Apphia says they could smell the pie from the driveway even with all the windows closed.

Once I assemble my amateur version of her crust, my mother patches holes and spreads milk over the crust with her fingertips.

By the time it’s done cooking, smoke billows out of the oven where the juice has spilled over, and we sit in a smoky fog smelling burnt sugar.

July 7

A rainy day. Mom naps after our busy weekend. My nephew Jason invites my sister Patty and me me over for a cookout. My mother is too tired to go. Instead, my sister Barbara Ann and her husband Bill bring over burgers from the 99 (my mother calls it The 99 House) and stay until Patty and I return. When I come in, I join them at the table where Barbara Ann wonders what went wrong with the potato salad she made from my mother’s recipe for a different cookout that weekend.

“Did you use olive oil?” my mother asks. Her nemesis is olive oil.

“I used canola.”

“Well, I use corn oil, but, anyway, you didn’t use enough.” She tastes a spoonful. “And not enough oregano, either. Look, when you’re only using one spice, you have to use a lot of it.”

“Okay,” Barbara Ann says. “I wasn’t sure how much to use.”

“More salt, too,” my mother says.

I say, “Basically, you did everything wrong.”

We laugh. A few minutes pass. My mother says: “And when you cut your peppers, you have to cut them in thin strips.”

Finally, she says, “Look. Next time, just  boil the potatoes and bring them over here. I’ll show you what to do.”

July 14

A squirrel perches on the birdfeeder. An Einstein who has, at last, broken the code. That water bottle provides no barrier to him. My brother Billy and his wife Caroline are here from Canada. Billy scares the squirrel away and then observes the thief’s method as he returns: He jumps onto the top of the water bottle, springs immediately to the feeder dish and clings there until he can pull himself up. When I leave for my walk, Billy has the water bottle on the lawn, spraying it with Pam.

By the time I return, the squirrel has been run over in the middle of the street. A pair of watchful crows strut on the neighbor’s lawn.

“Well,” I say when I come in, “we gave that squirrel his last supper.”

Everyone peers out at the roadkill. “Fed the crows, too,” my mother says.

July 17

I clean out mom’s fridge while she watches the news. Another result of all these caretakers: my niece Amy-Jo leaves the mozzarella and tomato slices she used to make my mom lunch when she stayed a few days ago; Billy leaves the pepper he didn’t use for the lasagna he made for us before he left; Barbara Ann’s potato salad is still in there; my yogurt; my kids’ take out leftovers. And then there is the excess I’ve learned to associate with my mother: 3 jars of hotdog relish; 9 jars of jam (including 3 strawberry); old sauce in cottage cheese containers; olives, olives, and more olives.

July 18

Mom is very tired today. She asks for an extra Xanax. She tells me that Joe, the hospice nurse, told her to listen to her body. Above all else, he said, your body will tell you what’s happening.

“Well,” my mother says, “my body tells me things are changing.”

“What things?”

“I’m tired all the time,” she says. “That’s the cancer.”

There is no debilitating pain, though. We’re doing it so far. We are not allowing her to suffer.

“Everyone is treating me differently, too,” she tells me. “Joe asks different questions. The social worker repeats them. Like they’ve spoken to one another.”

“That’s what’s good about the team,” I say. “They do talk. They know better then how to help you.”

“Even Dr. Vanasse ( she says Dr. Vanessa) said she’ll see me in two months. Two months. Usually she wants to see me every four weeks.”

This seems like good news to me, but my mother insists a change is a change. “Well, it’s good, right?” I say. “That you can still go to her? That you aren’t housebound?”

“When I can’t go to her anymore, then she’ll really know things are different,” my mother says.

She falls asleep for several hours. I work on an essay I’m writing about one of my father’s famous cows, even steal outside to call Barbara Ann to see what she remembers about the animal that she and my uncle drove to Cornell for surgery on a cancerous eye. Why didn’t I ask my father these questions? What am I not remembering to ask my mother?

“All I remember,” Barbara Ann says, “is that she didn’t make it home again.”

I’m sitting on the front steps, my presence keeping the birds at a distance. Beside me in their mulch beds, the tomato plants thrive, but don’t flower yet. I fill the watering can and soak them before my mother can remind me.

Once she wakes up, she is mad at me for letting her sleep this long.

“You must have needed it,” I say. You and your changing body.

She winces as she gets out of her chair. “Well,” she says, “I’m hungry. I think I’ll make us some pasta cece. How does that sound?”

Tomatoes, Part I: Planting

June 28, 2017

A beautiful day. Cool breeze and full sun. I get my mother a Dunkins coffee and a Boston cream donut. She has some pain but doesn’t want to take an oxycodone.

“I don’t like the way it makes me feel,” she says.

At full volume, she watches the news. The Tice family is still looking for their son Austin, a reporter, who disappeared five years ago in Syria. His mother does most of the talking, the father deferring to her.

Mitch McConnell is trying to revise the latest health care plan. My mother sputters whenever he’s on. “He’s trying to railroad something through,” she says. “But he can’t do it, the bastard.”

I perch on her old bed that we’ve dragged into the living room opposite her hospital bed, so that we can sleep with her at night. While she sits in her recliner eating her donut, I catch up on this journal. Also, I remind her and remind her and remind her to mute the commercials.

“Mom,” I say, “if we’re going to make it two weeks together, I can’t listen to commercials at full volume all day.”

She says what she always says, “I don’t even hear them.”

When hospice comes to give her a bath, I walk the usual three miles wondering why I have take such an ugly route when there are so many beautiful places to walk here. There is construction at the intersection of Wells and Beach, on Elm Street just past Moore’s Mill, and at the intersection of Wells and East Ave. Why so much paving three days before this huge holiday in a beach town? You could ask that every year here, it seems.

My mother has decided to dress in jeans and a t-shirt and seems very alert when I get home.

“What about the pain?” I say.

“I want to go to Job Lot and see if they still have tomato plants,” she says. 

It’s so late for tomatoes, I think, but she doesn’t get dressed in actual clothes every day. Her wrist aches, but she ignores it, wincing only if she forgets, reaching for her pocketbook, trying to get up from her chair.

The plants are outside the store. If they weren’t on a table, it would be hard to distinguish them from roadside weeds. Field daisies. Day lilies. Clematis in boxes. Leaning on her carriage, my mother scans the collection until she spots the tomatoes.

“Pick out the best three,” she says, and then she heads into the store. A few months ago during one of our trips, she had picked up some long sleeved t-shirts from a sales rack and had carried them around with her. When she met up with me, she held one up: “Five dollars.”

My mother lost her most of her vision over twenty years ago. Now, she squinted at the shirt’s design — a scene of snowflakes and pointsettias.

“Is this a Christmas shirt?” she asked, and I had nodded, frozen in the shampoo aisle where I loaded my cart with organic hair products. Do we buy a Christmas shirt? A shirt to wear 6 months from now? I wondered. Hopeful.

She shrugged, handed it to me. “I won’t get it then,” she said. “I’m going to look at the spices.”

Lunch is shepherd’s pie for her, but she requests extra peas. She eats it in front of the Young and the Restless. I take my grilled cheese upstairs and bang away at the memoir I’m supposed to be working on, trying to figure out how much is okay to make up if I’m certain it happened something like the way I’ve written it down.

When I hear sauce pans banging downstairs, I know her soaps are over. She’ll be ferrying pots back and forth from the cupboard to the counter via her walker. She wants to make pasta for dinner and to eat the stuffed eggplant my sister Jeannie took out of the freezer yesterday. When she was cleaning the freezer, Jeannie also threw out the parsley my mother had frozen in cubes.

“They throw things away and don’t even ask me,” she says.

I go outside where she and I potted parsley earlier in the spring and clip some sprigs.

Marilyn, who my mother calls the Reikis [sic] lady, calls for an unscheduled treatment. 

“I happen to have some time today,” she says.

My mother is Marilyn’s only Reiki client right now. She sometimes sees two or three at a time, but not now. I know what has happened to those other people.

I go outside, take the phone with me so they are not interrupted. My mother doesn’t like that I do take the phone. My mother who has never let the message machine take a call for her.

In the mulch between her shrubbery, I trim the dead stalks of tulips and daffodils and Easter lilies my mother has planted here from gifts her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren bring her. It has never mattered to her where things grow, only that they do.

From the birdfeeders she insists we keep filled, creatures scatter as I work. I make a dish around the tomatoes so the water can soak in. Although I hadn’t noticed it before, now I see that one plant is an heirloom. I separate it from the others so we’ll know the difference. Inside, if my mother has pain, Marilyn will help her and she’ll sleep.

These plants, scraggly, pot-bound, will be fine. Things just grow here. They always have. They will.

 

_________ Steps to Writing Your Novel

black-hole-star-sucking

Black Holes are pretty to look at anyway.

 

  1. Stay at work late doing work that is due but that you a) have not been given time to complete, and b) are not getting paid for.
  2. Stop in the parking lot to hug a former student and to hear about her semester in Copenhagen, her journey to Barcelona with other kids you know, her most recent internship applications, her brother’s (also a former student) recent success with a documentary that will appear on the Discovery Channel. When she asks what you what’s new with you, respond truthfully: Nothing.
  3. Refuse to dwell on that answer.
  4. Get gas and wait patiently for the attendant to check his text messages even though the window is down and you’re freezing because you have an attendant and that’s why you come here and that kind of laziness on your part deserves some small punishment.
  5. Go to the library and read every fiction title in the talking book section. Choose none.
  6. Wonder, one more time, why every talking book library you’ve ever perused has so many copies of books by Alexander McCall Smith.
  7. Read every non-fiction title in the talking book section. Choose two that you find on the second to last shelf.
  8. Drive home in silence.
  9. Sit in the driveway reading texts from your boss that make no sense and that you could read tomorrow with exactly the same conclusion.
  10. Vent in a group text that makes no sense about the email that makes no sense.
  11. Head inside and contemplate that uneven granite pavers, though picturesque, aren’t entirely navigable post-blizzard.
  12. Say, Hello! Hello! Hello! and, just because no one answers, do not assume no one is home.
  13. Unpack your lunch box.
  14. Discover a loaded dishwasher.
  15. Unload it.
  16. Make tea that you oversteep.
  17. Pet the dog. Finally. Pet the poor, goddamned dog.
  18. When one daughter does come down the stairs, attempt to discover where everyone else is despite the fact that she doesn’t know.
  19. Name everyone individually just so you’re clear: She knows where no one is.
  20. Agree to take her and a friend to work in a few minutes.
  21. Peel an orange. Eat it.
  22. Forget about your tea until it gets cool.
  23. Microwave it.
  24. Answer your phone when your husband calls to tell you he’s on his way home and has stopped at several roadside stands (there is a foot of snow on the ground) and no one is selling any eggs.
  25. Feel grateful when he says, “I’ll take Justina to work. You can stay home and write.”
  26. and when he says he will stop at the grocery store and buy a few things including, perhaps, eggs that aren’t frozen solid.
  27. Go in search of a seat that isn’t covered with cat hair.
  28. Consider it might be easier to find a time in the day when Law and Order reruns are not playing.
  29. Think about how you’ve never actually seen an entire issue.
  30. Give up and get the vacuum.
  31. Run the vacuum over the furniture uselessly and ignore the noise it’s making.
  32. Pull out the filters and wash them, instead.
  33. Insert new filters.
  34. Wonder why the microwave keeps beeping and worry that it’s broken, too.
  35. Run the vacuum and continue to ignore the noise it’s making until it is clear that the reason it’s making a noise is that it’s broken and there is no way it will pick up any hair.
  36. Feed the cats even though you’re aggravated about the hair.
  37. Feed the dogs too even though they’re no help in that department, either.
  38. Go upstairs where the comforter is not only full of cat hair but is also dirty because yesterday one cat got stuck in the (not-used-in-recent-history) bread oven which is now used to store old newspapers and kindling.
  39. Put the comforter in the wash.
  40. Wonder what happened to your tea.
  41. When your second daughter comes home and asks, “What’s for dinner?” suggest a few things and then instruct her to get the frozen sauce out of the freezer while you put water on for pasta.
  42. Answer the following text from your husband who is still shopping: Brocollini?
  43. Answer your daughter’s boyfriend when he asks if you have any meat (meat you buy only for him since no one else eats meat here).
  44. Answer him when he holds up the chicken apple sausages and says, “Do these actually have apple in them?
  45. Answer the phone and speak with your niece’s daughter who has never called before. She’s bored and wants to tell you about The Martian starring Matt Damon who looks like her Dad.
  46. Consider this and decide: She’s right. Her dad does look like Matt Damon.
  47. Go back upstairs.
  48. Tuck in your husband’s side of the bed where he tears the sheets out.
  49. Remember: Have to go to my mom’s this weekend. Need to pack.
  50. Pack.
  51. Take the computer out of the case.
  52. Try for the 1000th time since you’ve lived here to plug something into an outlet that is sixty years old and can’t accommodate a three prong.
  53. Don’t even consider trying to find an adapter.
  54. Sigh. Wish you had tea.
  55. Think: Wait. Didn’t I make tea?
  56. Answer a text from your third (and last) daughter: “What’s for dinner?”
  57. Tell her.
  58. Answer another text where she says: “Who is picking me up from work?”
  59. Call your husband and ask him to pick her up on his way home.
  60. Turn on your computer.
  61. Wait a long time for it to warm up.
  62. Say hello to your husband and daughter when they get home.
  63. Say thank you when your husband says, “I also got bread for garlic bread.”
  64. Make the garlic bread. You can’t expect them to have pasta without garlic bread. They love garlic bread. You love garlic bread.
  65. Hug your middle daughter. She still lets you.
  66. Find the grated cheese no one else can find.
  67. Put away the blueberries people ate while they were waiting for the pasta to cook.
  68. Eat standing up.
  69. Take a break to flip a water bottle so your daughter can videotape you doing it and send it to your other niece’s son.
  70. Clean up from dinner.
  71. Unclog vacuum.
  72. Vacuum.
  73. Unpack couch covers — the latest attempt (after buying a cat bed they don’t use, the Furminator, a special attachment to the vacuum) to get rid of cat hair.
  74. This reminds you: Put the comforter in the dryer.
  75. This reminds you of that book, If you give a mouse a cookie.
  76. This reminds you that you thought your kids would always be little so you should go ahead and vacuum something while they were busy painting at the table and singing Good Night Irene.
  77. There’s no going back now to whatever it was you were doing.
  78. Meanwhile, the cats have gotten into the shipping box and they are very fun to watch. Mesmerizing, really. Like Fiona, the preemie hippo at the Cincinnati zoo who has almost single-handedly gotten you through the first 100 days of the apocalypse.
  79. When your daughter and her boyfriend go to the diner for pie, order banana cream even though you’re full.
  80. If it’s too late to dig into that novel especially when you’re distracting by cats hiding inside the box and outside under the flaps and you’re anticipating pie, write something else.
  81. Keep writing even when your husband calls from the kitchen: “Is this your tea in the microwave?”

 

The Blog Formerly Known As

nj_coopershawk04

I may rename this blog All the Things I Refuse to Speak About. Last week (this one, too), it was politics. This week it is my mother’s cancer.

Instead:

The bird-of-the-week (I haven’t forgotten you, junco. You have kept me company these difficult days in Westerly at one of several of my mother’s feeders), is the Cooper’s Hawk.

Christmastime, she sat in the neighbors’ tree eyeing the buffet outside my mother’s kitchen windows. Didn’t take long for the place to lose all its customers.

I pointed her out one day to my mother who could only make out a dark spot in the leafless branches.

“Is that what happened to all the birds?” she asked. “Next time your brother comes, I’m going to tell him to bring his gun.”

Before I could manage my surprise, she looked at me and smiled, leaning on her walker. “Just kidding,” she said. “But I wish the damned thing would go someplace.”

Go someplace. That’s one of her phrases. When you ask her who her favorite child is. When my husband Dennis says he can’t wait to come talk to her about the Pats returning to the Superbowl next year. When anyone suggests she might benefit from a hearing aid.

And maybe what she would have said to the Cooper’s Hawk once it got bold enough to sit on the hedges outside her front window where my brother installed another feeder that she can see from her recliner. We had drawn the shades so the morning sun didn’t hit her in the eyes and a wing flashed in the slit of light. It cast more shadow than a measly sparrow or one of her omnipresent house finches. When I lifted the shade, the feeder was deserted, but minutes later, the hawk landed, fixing its yellow eye on this side of the glass.

“My god,” I said. “There it is.” An arm’s length away.

Before my mother could see it, the bird vanished. But I witnessed it: the way the creature staked out her territory. The way she made it clear: trespass at your own risk. But trespass.

What is there to say about a February where it is 60 degrees? Yes, when I head downhill each morning for my walk, the wind comes off the river and makes me zip my jacket all the way up, but by the time I’ve turned the corner onto one end of Beach Street or the next, I’ve peeled off mittens and bared my neck to the unseasonable weather.

Fifty four years after I was born right down the street at the Westerly Hospital, I have discovered whole neighborhoods I didn’t know existed. Babcock Street, for example, the kind of eclectic neighborhood contractors have made rare. An American foursquare next door to a 1950’s ranch, across the street from a stone bungalow, a few feet from a modern monstrosity whose garage dwarfs the home’s narrow entrance. This is the kind of neighborhood, I think, that kids could ride bikes around. The kind of neighborhood that fills a schoolbus up and inspires block parties. Except I don’t really see kids riding bikes now or overcrowded busstops or block parties. Instead, for the last two mornings, it has been one man walking a big white shepherd mix and me wondering what it would be like to live in a house different from the one Dennis and I bought over twenty years ago because it reminded me so much of the house I grew up in.

imag0029

That house. This past week, my brother-in-law Bill sent me a memory stick with dozens of pictures of the farm which I promptly posted on Facebook.  This morning, my cousin Rob shook his head. “Those farm pictures,” he said. Now that was a neighborhood. A neighborhood in which we escaped many things that could have killed us.

My brother told a story about crawling into the Harvestore silo to dislodge whatever clogged up the works. “I crawled in with a tool to hack away at the lump of silage gumming stuff up and Tum (our father) held my feet in case he had to pull me out of there in a hurry. There was 6 tons of silage over my head somewhere.”

In one photo, one our fourteen year old hired hands drives the David Brown tractor while my nephew Michael perches on the fender except he’s leaning down, looking over the treads and the hired hand, no doubt thrilled with his job, hurtles along over potholes and tire ruts.imag0088

We climbed the 40 foot ladder outside the Big Jim silo on a dare. Jumped barn roof to barn roof, a pack of kids in flip flops.

My brother, my cousin and I shared stories of corn trucks whose brakes gave out in busy intersections or pick-ups whose homemade sides rattled along the Interstate from the shifting weight of the thousand pound yearling bull in its bed, or the pliers pinched onto where other vehicles had gear shifts, or the rotting floorboards through which the highway’s lane lines flashed, or the passenger side doors that flew open when you turned a corner with your four year old passenger, unbuckled, in the seat.

Bulls broke free of their stalls. Cows charged, foolish with the first warm day of the year. Hurricanes knocked silos over. Equipment churned and chugged and stalled and lurched with us at the helm or as passengers. Skittish heifers kicked off their machines and we felt the air whoosh by our cheekbones. We ice skated on ponds that weren’t necessarily frozen solid, smoked in the hayloft, rode standing up in the beds of trucks with no tailgates.

Good times.

Hawk, you would not have scared us. We were very young and, no doubt, exhausted by the work behind us and the work ahead. We had no idea what to fear.

 

That was a long time ago.

Surry on Down

dark-eyed-junco-in-snow

Please imagine: red berries.

Dark eyed juncos. Those are my favorite birds this winter. They’re dressed right for the white background. They’re not really posing, in my heart of hearts I know this, but they do perch in the branches of some kind of shrub that has only red berries this time of year. This is the kind of calendar photo my friend Miriam would roll her eyes at, the kind where she would have to say to me: It’s a little cheesy, don’t you think? because, on my own, it would not occur to me. I like the Fifth Dimension, too. This makes my friend Karyn roll her eyes, but when “One Less Bell to Answer” plays at Market Basket — a much more rare occurrence than seeing one of ten thousand juncos at the feeder — I can’t help it: I sing.

I’m telling you this so I don’t discuss politics. I know you haven’t been sleeping at night so for your entertainment, I’m going to go on about the kinds of things that might induce drowsiness. Trust me. You are safe here.

In the mid-nineties, I had a student named Jennifer (I had several Jennifers then, sometimes in the same class; in my return to the classroom, I don’t think I’ve had any). This Jennifer sat in the back row and was a bright kid in a lovely but totally unmotivated class of seniors. She never asked why Shakespeare was written in Old English, for example. She volunteered to read poems aloud. She could correctly pronounce the word bosom. One day, I told the class that, if they were ever stranded on a tundra and could only eat polar bear, they should never eat the liver. Too much concentrated Vitamin A. Jennifer said, “Now I know why you remind me of Mr. Luther.” Mr. Luther was a beloved science teacher, iconic. I was still a young teacher unused to this kind of praise. I got that feeling peacocks must feel just before they flex that tail, but then Jennifer added: “You’re both so full of useless information. I mean that in a good way.”

For example, I’ve never forgotten the Islets of Langerhans from freshman biology class at Westerly High School. TWICE I’ve scored with that answer on a Jeopardy question. (On the other hand, in Pictionary, when I was asked to draw Europe, I put it slightly north and east of Maine. (And my partner guessed it immediately.))

While we’re on the subject of high school. Turns out, you never do need to know anything about trigonometry to make a go of it in life.

Dogs in TJ Maxx. Dogs sitting behind me in a basketball game. In Paris in 1992 (here, if I sound like a world traveler, you must accept that as an alternative fact), dogs went to cafes where, at least, they breathed cleaner air than those of us head-level with the mushroom clouds of cigarette smoke. But I remember thinking: ew. I grew up on a farm where animals were, you know, animals. Dogs in restaurants, especially in places with no real pooper scooper laws? This was a cultural leap for which I was unprepared.

But now, stateside, I’ve stood in line at cafes with dogs. They’ve run over my carefully unpacked picnic at the outdoor jazz concert on the Rowley Common. They’ve burst into my house, dashed up my stairs, scarfed down the catfood and torn out my screens. They’ve ridden around in carts someone is going to put clothes (maybe even food) into later. And everyone, everyone who considers themselves a dog lover, now considers me intolerant. I prefer to think my tolerance has limits. I have dogs. I’ve seen what they eat and what they lick. I’ve seen what they do when they have problems with their anal glands. They have anal glands. However, today, for example, when I’m done with this, I am going to bring them to the beach and let them chase the waves and then they are getting baths at the dogwash. On the way home, we are stopping to buy marrow bones and their organic, grain free food. But tomorrow, when I go to CVS to buy toothpaste or to the 99 with my mother (she calls it the 99 House), Bella and Izzy will be left home on their brand new dog bed that I am buying today at TJ Maxx also without them.

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Just to be clear: This photo is not from today, but these are my dogs and this is where we’re headed.

If, however, my cats would travel, I would strap on the Babybjorn and be off to Symphony Hall, Restaurant Week, and Nordstrom’s.

Last thing: Today on my walk, I saw three deer at the edge of the woods. When they saw me, they leapt through the snow. Deer leaping through the snow. Made me hum a little “Stoned Cold Picnic” all the way home.

Sweet Dreams.

 

How to Survive Student Teaching or How I Met Rob

In the graduate education program: one mooch of a future math teacher who ate whatever food we brought for our own lunches and then said he’d help us with our computer logo if we paid him twenty bucks; one aspiring middle school history teacher who opened a can of tuna during each class. Once, at an otherwise pleasant dinner, he discovered I was twenty-six and single. “Aren’t you worried,” he asked, “that at your age you’ll be so settled in your ways, it will be impossible to find someone to marry you?” One sweet man who spent a few minutes in the chaos that can be a high school classroom and decided to return to the legal profession. Other assorted characters who believed what the university promised: One year for your teaching masters.

In exchange for tuition, I worked as a program assistant with one other woman. The professor in charge of the graduate education department (I’ll call her Dr. Jane), called frequently to say she wouldn’t be in — left us alone to deal with people who hadn’t gotten into the oversubscribed required courses and now had to be told those courses wouldn’t run again until next fall. For anyone doing the math, that’s longer than one year. Any student who had a question about transfer credits, tuition reimbursement, scheduling issues; any professor who needed a different classroom space, a salary adjustment, Dianne and I had one reply: As soon as Dr. Jane comes in, we’ll let her know.

Even on course registration day, Dr. Jane didn’t make it in. Instead, Dianne and I attempted to schedule a few dozen people into overloaded courses via a paper and pen registration system that was the technological equivalent of an abacus. So many angry people. So many demands we could not meet.

We had no control over this mess of a graduate program, of course, but Dianne and I were the (worried, creased, sickly green) faces of it. The only break we took was to run back to the cubicle to call Dr. Jane’s voicemail and ask, again, “When will you be here?”

And so, Rob at first seemed invisible. Uncomplaining. Unassuming. Capable of finding suitable courses. Lucky enough to be able to register for them. It was one of those times in my life when I thought: Thank GOD for people who demand nothing from me.

One night, the graduate students met at a Chinese restaurant. The Tuna Man, the Nice Man, The Mooch, and Rob who, it turned out, with a little alcohol in him, was very funny. Silly even. Irreverent. Hmm, I thought. Wish I could get to know him a little better.

We were assigned to student teach together at Boston College High School, part quality Jesuit education; part 1950’s sitcom where the men call all the women “dear”; part Lord of the Flies. Rob, who had been teaching in a Catholic school for a few years, quickly assimilated. For his doting cooperating teacher, he ran off reams of papers, suggested viable and rigorous additions to the curriculum, covered classes at the last minute in the seamless way only true veterans could. Each afternoon, he climbed into his one door gold TransAm and headed off to lifeguard at a local pool.

Meanwhile, I struggled. When I reported a boy’s rude behavior to the Dean of Discipline, the Dean said, “Do you suppose he has a crush on you?”  My students insisted I needed to add some pastels to my wardrobe. My cooperating teacher left campus completely. And by left completely, I mean he retreated to his home several miles away to write more episodes of The Love Boat and to leave me in a Piggy-like position where, at any moment, I felt someone would surely crush my metaphorical glasses.

Rob’s response to my crisis: Cadbury chocolate bars, mostly melted, in the front seat of the Trans Am. He’d throw open the driver’s side door during a mutual free period, scooch me over and then climb in himself as I unwrapped the foil.

“I can’t do it,” I would say, licking my fingers. “I mean it.”

“Here,” he would say, “Have more.”

Eventually, we got invited out for drinks with the faculty at Amrhein’s Restaurant in Southie. We had a class later that night: Something about the psychology of education. By the time we strolled in, we had all kinds of theories about human behavior.

The next time we received the invitation to join them, Rob had to work at the pool.

“Call in sick,” I said.

And he admitted: “I’ve never done that.”

This called for a serious intervention. “Rob,” I said, “Please. I need you.”

The Trans Am bit the dust just before we finished student teaching, but we had gotten jobs — minor miracles for English and history teachers — and this allowed Rob to buy a new car, one in which a neighborhood cat immediately climbed in to have sex with multiple partners. For the end of the year party, I left a bag of clothes in his backseat and smelled like cat semen for the duration of the celebration.

When we got lonely in our adult lives, we grabbed a bunch of beach towels from the lost and found at yet another pool where Rob lifeguarded part-time, and brought home two puppies from a horsefarm in Dover. Our dogs were the only ones who were not blind or suffering from severe tremors and we had no idea how to be pet owners, but Rob had recently begun dating a veterinarian and this seemed like a good enough plan to us.

We have more than fifty years combined experience in the classroom now, but being together with a bottle of anything still makes us as silly as that night many years ago when we first sat next to each other in the Chinese restaurant.

Rob saved me once, long ago. And his friendship has saved me several times since: When my father died, my mother said, “You take good care of her when she gets back to Boston.” She had no idea that she had just given an assignment to the world’s most conscientious student. We spent every Friday night of 1991 together because of that. For my birthday, he took me to restaurants that he claimed were just around the corner. My birthday is in January. An hour into our trek, my limbs frozen, we would still be laughing, heads down to resist the windchill. Our dogs grew old and died six weeks apart. Our relationships changed. We moved several times. We found new jobs.

We don’t see each other as often these days. But sometime this weekend, I’ll hear from him. It’s the beginning of the school year: he hasn’t missed one yet. We’ll complain about colleagues or schedules or mandates like DDM’s, MCAS, the new eval process, the mooches and kind men and Lord of the Flies characters still hovering in the halls of certain institutions. We’ll remind one another how many years (not many now) we have until we retire.

Rob, I’ll say. Remember all the chocolate you had to feed me?

He’ll say, You know I didn’t miss a day of teaching last year, don’t you? That never, not once did I call in sick.

And I’ll be thinking: We definitely need to spend more time together.

 

I’m Back

i'm backWhat I did not do on my summer vacation: too much thinking.

Thus, trying to write new fiction: impossible.

Trying to revise fiction (my favorite part of the process): impossible.

Meaningful conversation: impossible.

Being alone, driving long distances, showering, retrieving words like washing machine, errand, looking around me at the room/the burnt lawn/the neighbor compulsively deadheading: impossible.

I never have been able to meditate because I don’t get the clearing your mind stuff. I didn’t get it, that is, until this summer. Or maybe since there was nothing to clear, this was not a fair test.  

Not thinking left me with the following:

  1. Making and unmaking and remaking mosaic stepping stones while listening to a novel with earbuds in
  2. Watching everything on ID Discovery
  3. Reading headlines only of the upcoming election (oh, and FiveThirtyEight’s Chance of winning stats)
  4. Babytalking to Enzo, my cat
  5. Sleeping
  6. Watching my other cat, Minx, watch fish videos on YouTube

Things that made thinking lethal:

  1. The 2016 election
  2. The fact that my oldest daughter will be leaving to attend college in August

Finally, in late July, I went to a poetry reading given by a new acquaintance to celebrate the publication of her new collection  (a book I will highly recommend to you while I’m at it, even if you are on the kind of non-thinking hiatus I have been on. Buy The Uncanny Valley by Jennifer Martelli and find out how to hear her read, too.). To get to such an event, I have to summon the kind of courage I used to call upon to jump into a quarry (okay, I only did that once but I’m still exhausted from the effort). Since those days are (blissfully) behind me, I now use those resources only to usher me into potentially awkward social situations. Jennifer was gracious, welcoming. But me in a room of people I don’t know. That’s what I’m talking about.

You will, it turns out, be required to shove yourself into these situations throughout your life. Go on out there, my mother has told me in various versions of the phrase, and make some friends, you strange girl. Many times in my life, my friends might have said: Take a chance. Get involved. Join a playgroup. That kind of stuff. The option is, after all, sitting home and either thinking or vacuuming places that will never been exposed to light. Because, let’s face it, this is one of those goddamned new chapters. The world might be ready for the President of the United States to be a woman, but you aren’t quite ready for your kids to be grown up, for the house to echo around you as you babble to a completely disinterested cat and compulsively check to see if the new season of Project Runway has started yet. There are things looming that you don’t want to mull in your usual strange-girl fashion.

But poetry. Once again, it elbowed me. Wake up, poetry says, as if it’s sitting beside you during an interminable dinner party full of talk about obscure zoning laws and tips on how to improve your golf game. But poetry wants you to know: Finally something worthwhile is being said. Remember, poetry says, how nice it is to be able to think? To feel? To rush headlong into something besides housecleaning? Sit up now. Take note for Christ’s sake. Get your sleeve out of your bouillabaisse.

Hearing Jennifer read, remembering what powerful words can do –how could I not venture back, slowly, slowly to the world of thinkers worrying, spinning theories, wittily reacting, conjecturing, reflecting, remembering (oh god, remembering), shouting across the room, curling up in a ball on the sofa and listening, probing the universe, in all its bleakness and light?

 

So Long, Seniors: Twenty Years of Goodbyes

1222044_news__students_throw_mortarboards_-_july_14__-large_transth3h5bemkyhxfkdcxjgxv7c8h33cqspnmpifi37zqx8How impossible summer seemed when I was a kid. Climbing off the bus on the last day, heading down the lane towards our house, I couldn’t believe another year had ended and that what stretched before me were nights and nights and days and days of no school. That kind of freedom paralyzed me. Along our lane, laurel bloomed, deer flies swarmed, the brook ran, invisible beneath the skunk cabbage. In the pastures, cows found shade. In the fields, corn sprouted flimsy as new grass. Unlike my own children, I had no camps to attend, no friends with pools in which to float away my afternoons. We had no vacations planned; no jobs off the farm awaited me. I had a calf to get ready for fair season. My father would no doubt need someone to rake hay or finish milking so he could bale hay before the rain started.

But the list of things that would disappear for a few weeks: homework, early mornings, lunch table awkwardness, rote practice with long division and sentence diagramming — my God. What to do with the kind of joy I felt?

Today is the first day of summer vacation, too. Twenty years of teaching are behind me. I still look forward to summer, but not with the same joy, nor with the same paralysis, either. For someone who hated school as much as I did, the only surprise for me now is how much I love teaching. And how much, in so many ways, I dread June.

My friend Blake graduated from UNH the year before I did. During the final few weeks of his time there, we gathered, probably at a table beneath the low ceiling of the Catnip Pub, and Blake talked about what it felt like to be finishing up. “It’s not that I worry about seeing all of you,” he said. “I know we’ll keep in touch, but I’ll miss all those other people you pass on campus every day: the guy who lived across from you freshman year or the kids from the study groups we had for anatomy. I’ll miss the community, you know what I mean?” We said we did, but we didn’t. Not really. Not until it happened to us: that all those people who had been part of our world were suddenly in places that we were not. And for teachers, it happens at the end of every year.

We’ll come visit, they say, and they do. Always wonderful to see them (even if they’re off to South Africa and Prague and Barcelona for a year abroad or to Thailand for an internship or to China to teach poetry and I am exactly where they left me a few years before). But I no longer see them in context. They aren’t the students who gather in front of my desk during directed study anymore to show me pictures of the puppy they’re getting or to collaborate on a giant list entitled: Why Florida Brings the USA Down. They will never gather at the door just before the bell and show me how they intend to dance at the prom that night. We won’t meet to discuss “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been” or to do Friday read-arounds from our weekly writing warm ups. They aren’t in the class that makes more allusions to pop culture than literature or the one that randomly brings in cakes to share. Those communities have dispersed permanently. They’ve joined other groups, and I have, too.

Oh sure, we re-connect on social media. That’s a modern day bonus. Some of my former students are in their 40’s now, but in their faces, I still catch a glimpse of the teenagers they used to be and I remember stepping in between one of them and a kid who arrived outside my classroom door to fight him about some long-forgotten girl, or getting my car rear-ended by one when we were out looking for prom venues and laughing so hard, I couldn’t get out to examine the (minor) damage, or hearing one of them tell me about the girl he’d asked to the prom who, all these years later, is his wife.

These memories are fun, but they are also the reason why I refuse to look at yearbooks: Because they seem to capture all the hope teenagers have that they are on the cusp of becoming who we were really meant to be, that life will only get better. That optimism, that naivete, is my undoing. I can’t explain it anymore than I can explain my aversion to the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. Perhaps it’s that, at least in the case of yearbooks, I don’t like knowing what’s ahead when once upon a time, we were all filled with such promise.

Sometimes, I think I see my former students in the halls. A familiar posture. A similar profile. A hair color. A shirt I recognize. But no. They won’t be here again peering into their lockers or climbing the stairs to the science pod. They have moved on, exactly as we are all meant to do.

This year, my own daughter’s image might haunt the halls of her high school, a community she also left this June with the attendant pomp and circumstance. She is so excited for what’s ahead, so ready to be done with high school. And I? I’ll be here, of course, exactly where she left me except in a very different world.

One. Again.

635962114968686569-thinkstockphotos-516497930At my mother’s house, the usual busy-ness when we are there: Nana at the table with two great grandchildren, one grandchild playing Scrabble. Another granddaughter stops by for leftover meatballs and cavatelli. My sister is upstairs making soup for another sister who just broke her leg and is hospitalized. Dennis has taken Justina to the local sporting goods store to buy sneakers. Beatrice says she’s going on a run.

“How long will you be gone?” I ask. She tells me. “Leave the earbuds out,” I say, but she probably has them in already.

I’m looking on my phone to see if quin is an acceptable word (it is!?) when the Amber alert comes in. A twenty-one year old woman missing in Kingston, RI. Kingston is twenty minutes away. This woman, another woman, some poor mother’s beautiful daughter, has been gone for two days. My daughter is out running, wearing the earbuds I’ve asked her not to, ticking off the miles on her GPS watch, marking her way along unfamiliar routes but not paying attention to anything important. This is no ordinary day out there for one family, while here my mother, my sisters, my children and nieces and nephews carry on as if the bottom has not fallen out of someone else’s carefully constructed universe.

I borrow my sister’s car, guessing at Beatrice’s route. The road stretches out, ominous in its ordinariness. Women are not safe out here. Don’t tell me the odds are against a woman being attacked in a town like this. Quote all the statistics you want. Here’s the only number that matters: One. I remember Linda.

We were ten years old that summer. Along the mostly residential Route 1, we walked to the Dunn’s Corners Volunteer Firemen’s Carnival. On a stretch beside a tract of cedar swamp, we played games of chance for a dime, took our first ride on something called the Round-Up. At a prize-every-time booth, run by an old man who might or might not have been a firemen, I rolled balls into chutes trying to win stuffed dogs. He let me have several chances for free. The next night, I returned to his game. When my mother found the plastic poodle consolation prizes hanging around my bedpost the next morning and asked how they’d gotten there, I told her.

“A stranger let you play his game for free?” she said.

I thought it was a great coup. Fearless. Stupid.

“Well, be careful,” she said. It’s what most mothers in Westerly, RI, in 1973 would have said. The next night, I went back, my friends and I laughing at my mother’s warning.

Three months later, I climbed off the bus. My friend’s older sister sat outside their house, leaves turning colors around us, the air still warm, and motioned us over.

“Linda Robinson is missing,” she said. “She never made it home from the YMCA last night.”

Linda was thirteen. She lived a few miles away from downtown where the YMCA was. Her younger sister attended the same elementary school we did.

Someone along a dark stretch of road had heard her scream, had found her schoolbooks scattered across his lawn.

To reach my house, I had to leave the noise of Franklin Street ‘s traffic, of the kids outside playing kickball, raking leaves. Our lane was a quarter mile stretch bordered on one side by the back of a shopping center and on the other, by a stretch of woods. I stood at the top and studied — from what seemed like an insurmountable distance — the white block of my house where my mother would be watching her afternoon soap operas, behind which my father would be filling the pit silo with the final truckfulls of corn silage.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been afraid to traverse that lonely stretch; I was a child with an active and fearful imagination. But it was the first time that I understood: bad things really can happen here. A thirteen year old girl was missing in Westerly, RI. Someone had been responsible for that.

Young girls should be able to walk home alone in the dark. Young women should be able to go out for a three mile run at any time of the day or night. We should be able to park our cars and not think about it, to sleep on a hot night with our windows open. Bikeriding to school, showing up for our lifeguard shift at a local pond, lying in our sleeping bag at a slumber party in a friend’s basement, closing up shop after a long day at work. None of these situations should put us in jeopardy. None of these things should separate mothers from their daughters. But they do.

Instead of a Mother’s Day gift this year, I asked my daughters to take a self-defense course with me. They would rather have gotten me a plant and done our usual picnic, but they agreed. We took twelve hours’ worth of classes with officers from the Ipswich Police Department. These concluded with us participating in three scenarios where we had to fight against a perpetrator. These were police officers dressed in protective clothing, men who had taught us what we would need to do to defend ourselves, “perpetrators” who, no matter how ineffectual our resistance, would let us go, and yet we were terrified. For the duration of the two hour class, my hands shook. When it was over and they asked us to talk about our experience, I could barely say what I wanted to: that, as scary as it had been to work through these exercises with them, I felt empowered by all the women who had not had the benefit of this kind of training. The countless victims who had had no idea and perhaps no chance to fight back. How could I not learn to fight? Even Linda Robinson, thirteen, had fought back, but in the end, she had been no match for a man so intent on doing her harm.

When I reached the end of East Avenue and saw the flash of Beatrice’s neon singlet, I wish I could say I felt better. There she was, my beautiful girl, my life’s work, healthy and present, only a few steps from home. But finding her and following her back(discreetly since she doesn’t appreciate my vigilance), only reassured me for today. She has a long life ahead. So many miles to travel.

When I pulled into the driveway behind her, she rolled her eyes. Not again, that expression said. Yes, again, I thought. Again and again and again. My paranoia and her disregard. A mother’s fear and daughter’s assurance that she will be okay. Most of them will be, after all. There’s that idea on which to cling.

Inside the house, her cousins erupted at the table at Nana claiming yet another double word score. Justina showed her her new running shoes. My mother reminded us that we’d need to get to the restaurant early if we all wanted to sit together. Her aunt finished the soup that will help our sister heal. What could possibly be wrong in the world?

 

Just Remember Who Loved You First

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI shouldn’t have checked his answering machine. But the point was: I felt the need to and that impulse alone should be enough for someone to say, You know what? I’m sure there are healthier relationships in which to find oneself. He had taken a part time job at a bar down the beach for the summer, a job he didn’t need at a place where we never went. Sometimes on weekends, the only time we long-distance lovers could be together, he worked by choice. His mother’s voice, his sister’s. A guy from the gym and then the beep that changed everything: A woman’s voice that asked him to meet “us” at the bar. You know, her tone implied, as usual. That’s it. She sounded very casual, a woman used to calling this number and keeping him informed of plans. A woman who didn’t need to leave her name.

That’s the black and white betrayal of relationships. Things are okay, even if they’re not great, and then they are very, very bad. Cloudy but dry, and then torrential, unremitting, mold-inducing, apocalyptic, Biblical.

You’re twenty-three, still a stupid kid. You have a shitty job, an apartment that smells like the cabbage the woman next door cooks nightly, an apartment you’ve furnished from the stuff your sister gave you once she was through with her orange plaid phase. You cruise around in a light blue Chevy Citation, belting out Whitney Houston songs. A boyfriend, even one who might be cheating on you, is a necessary distraction, but it doesn’t remove the nausea you feel when you have what you consider irrefutable proof of his infidelity that he will still refute.

Fast forward thirty years (30?!?). At least as far as my husband is concerned, my competition is reduced to any track meet on some obscure television channel only we subscribe to, any new listing on letsrun.com of road race times, and a cat whose name is Enzo, but who Dennis calls Young Man. None of my husband’s attachments, by the way, inspire that seasick feeling, none inspire the cartoon image of a woman flailing wildly about as she falls blindly down a black hole.

But that doesn’t mean I am through with feeling betrayed. These days, it’s my teenagers who I catch cheating.

Valentine’s Day, for example. Sure, Beatrice remembered to buy me a little token gift. Thoughtful even though she went out specifically that morning to get it. It didn’t take the kind of forethought it required for her to take, print, and frame a picture for her boyfriend or to write all the cheesy notes she wrote him on the candy she bought him (another Reeses why I think you’re cute, etc). But in this flush of a first infatuation, she didn’t forget me. EXCEPT at dinner that night when the boyfriend’s mother (who I have never met) served her brussel sprouts. And Beatrice ate them.

“What do you mean, you ate brussel sprouts?” I say, fighting back the tears.

Since September, her father had been toting bowls of them into the house and I had been roasting them, urging our daughters to try these organic, heirloom, grown-with-dad’s-love-and-devotion pearls. But no. This is the kind of sacrifice, it appears, that she’ll only make for another family.

It was a painful reminder of Apphia and the cocktail wieners. Okay, we’re vegetarians, but we had decided that, if one of our children wanted to eat meat, we’d be fine with that. So, at a Christmas party at my sister-in-law’s, when Apphia asked to try a pig in a blanket, I said (indulgently, I thought): of course. Seven or eight pigs later, Apphia sat beside me on the couch as we got ready for the Yankee Swap.

“Mom,” she said, “I need to tell you something.”

That’s the thing about cheaters. They think clearing their conscious is preferable to preserving their loyal loved one’s equilibrium.

“I eat hot dogs all the time.”

“But how?” I said. “Where?”

These were the days before she straightened her hair so it was all ringlets. Ringlets!! “You know how I always want to buy the mac and cheese for school lunch? Well, they serve mini hot dogs, too. Sometimes, I’m too full to eat the ronis.” Ringlets AND ronis. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Justina would no sooner eat brussel sprouts and hot dogs than she would put her screen down and/or take no for an answer. Finally, I thought, someone deserving of my trust. Until, of course, I discovered the Poland Springs bottle. And then another one. And then a third. In the age of no answering machines, there are still clues left behind, and here was my youngest daughter, a child raised in a house of filtered tap water and reusable bottles, a house that refused to stock up on cases of plastic bottles destined to be strewn, mostly FULL, about the unsuspecting planet because, god forbid, you couldn’t remember if that was your bottle only a sip was missing from or your sister’s!

“We don’t use these,” I said. You and me. All of us on this particular, highly endangered, but still very green branch, of the family tree. Remember, I wanted to say, reading on my bed before you fell asleep every night? Remember how we used to set up a picnic in the wagon on the first great day of spring and eat outside? Remember Mrs. Doubtfire? Stellaluna? High ponytails? Webkinz? “Where are they coming from?”

She regarded me with the nonchalance of a serial offender before revealing the name of her source: “Kayla. She brings me one from her house every morning.”

The world tilted out from under me then. The world weighted down with its landfills, its soccer field trash receptacles overflowing with the non-biodegradable refuse of a generation who believes itself to be one gulp away from certain death by dehydration.

So there they were: the three daughters I thought I knew running around behind my back with other families, other experiences.

My love affair with the temporary bouncer didn’t survive, of course, but it didn’t have to. What choice do I have now, however, but to forgive my daughters for the ways in which they have hurt me? These days, every quiet moment in this big house seems a mark of their disloyalty. How could they pack up their Little Pet Shop toys, their mini kitchen, their costume box, and leave me here in this house so devoid of plastic and High School Musical songs? How could they do what every other mother’s children do and grow up so fast?

And, in the face of these betrayals, what else can I do but try to heal, take an art class, get a couple more cats?