Wednesday, January 11, 2012


I’ve taken to measuring things. I was going to say, not things in general but generally, I do. Measure most things. Like the length of my steps, to see if they’re even. The twists of a water bottle cap or an apple stem. I count. I count going down a flight of stairs, but not up. Flossing my teeth, I count the swipes. I set the volume on even numbers, unless it’s close to 15 and then I prefer 15 over 14 or 16. I measure the distance between the wall and my yoga mat, the coffee table books and the edge of the coffee table and I will get back in my car and park again if I’m not safely inside the lines.

The newest thing I’ve taken to measuring is much trickier. There are no tangible guides. It’s more gut guess work. I guess I’d say I’ve taken to measuring pain.

So you can get an idea of where my pain might measure up, I will tell you this. In the last year, both my brother and sister died sudden tragic deaths, less than eight months apart. Surviving these tragedies is my pain. And every pain I come in contact with rubs up against mine.

Listening to a podcast of This American Life, a blind man tells me about taking his baby for a walk on a bustling crowded city sidewalk. Reading in the New Yorker, a father discovers a tumor in his 9 month old baby’s brain.

I find solace in reading a book about a boy whose father dies in one of the twin towers. I didn’t lose my spouse. I am not about to die. I am not blind.

Hearing about my friend’s mother going through radiation is MORE.
Hearing about my friend’s little boy with seizures is MORE.
Hearing about my friend’s grandfather with Alzheimer’s is MORE.

Hearing about pains that measure as more than mine feels fine. In fact, those pains seem to soothe. It’s the ones that feel less that hurt. They jab at my eyes and make me crinkle my face and tense up my forehead. They stab at my lungs making it hard to take a breath. Really? I’m supposed to care about that?

Before you stop reading, please be assured that my pain is wrapped in a healthy layer of guilt. I know a person’s experience is relative. I know each bears burdens that no one else could possibly see or understand. I know that connected to the disappointing audition, disastrous haircut, ass-hole boyfriend, nagging mother-in-law, there is usually more.

And, believe me, I know that before my brother and sister died (young and hopeful with spouses and books by their beds and best friends and to-do-lists and dreams) I knew nothing of this measure of pain. Nor would I wish this upon my worst enemy, as they say. Which I now know they really mean.

And I now know MORE. And I can’t know less.

So here’s where I feel others measure – my progress. I am told (not in so many words, but sometimes) that I am stronger than this, that I seem like I’m doing so much better than I was, that I am lucky I am married, that I am growing so much through this terrible tragedy. And that, in time, it will be better, I will be better. Which I truly truly truly want to believe.

So I begin measuring time. The distance between the present and the phone call in the middle of the night. I measure the time between that phone call and the next phone call in the middle of the night. I count. I count sympathy cards and Facebook posts and voicemails and missed days of work. I note how many days (and then weeks) since I last checked in with my nephew or my sister-in-law. I note how many days (and then weeks) since anyone checked in with me.

As last year becomes two years ago and two year becomes ten, who will tell me where my pain is supposed to be? There is an expectation (most of which is self generated, some of which is not) that the pain will become less and the ______ will become more. Much more. But what is the _____? And what if it doesn’t become? More or less?

Thursday, January 05, 2012


I’m sitting at the top of the Micheltorena stairs with my smart phone in my hand, thumbing through text messages and emails. Down the stairs I see, near the spot where the family of raccoons likes to cross, a man standing, looking toward the embankment where I know an orange tabby cat often climbs. He is talking to himself. When I say this, I don’t mean I can hear him or that he is muttering under his breath. I mean, he is talking to himself with his hands. Not sign language exactly, more like pointing fingers, fluttering hands, swooshing arms. I am overhearing, none-the-less, a conversation. Yet, similar to someone speaking quietly at a distance, I can’t make out the meaning. I can’t tell if the orange tabby is his audience or if he is talking to the trees.

I don’t want to startle him, or worse, appear to be eaves dropping, although that is precisely what I’m doing, so I clear my throat and fake cough. Then it occurs to me that he can’t hear me one way or the other, so I lift my hand and scratch my head, find some invisible cobweb to brush away from my face, scooch a little from one side of the step to the other, hoping to be caught in his sight line.

He sees me (likely thinks I’m crazy) and returns his attention to the trees, painting the air, shaping things unseen.

Eventually, he turns and starts up the stairs, stopping a few steps from me. His round weather worn face is home to soft eyes and a sweet smile, with cheeks that pull into a kind, if not mischievous, grin.

I quickly wave and offer a half smile, the kind of wave and smile that are more farewell than hello. But he stops and starts to talk to me. With a flurry of fingers, he points down the stairs and asks, I think, what I’ve seen down there. I say, “I’ve seen the orange tabby. And a skunk. And a family of raccoons and a coyote, once.” I look at him to see if I’ve guessed his question correctly. He just smiles and spreads his arms wide. “You went flying?” I ask. He doesn’t answer. Duh, bird, I think, but feel too awkward to offer. More gestures, more flapping, more tapping. His mouth makes small shapes, definitely not syllables or sounds.

When he points across the street, puts his palms together, and lays his head on his hands, I say triumphantly, “Sleep! Yes! I sleep over there!” He smiles again, not confirming or denying my guess. A few seconds later I say out of nowhere, “It’s nice to meet you!” He smiles back. More digits dancing. More guesses. More smiles offering me encouragement for my attempts. He seems to expect nothing more than I try to understand. And I do try, drawing on the bit of sign language I learned in high school, and charades, and the deep belief that we are meant to meet strangers on the stairs and have some kind of human connection no matter what makes us different.

I finally stop guessing and just smile back. He walks up the few steps between us and, as he passes me, pats my shoulder. I reach up and pat his hand back.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

There Are Things

There are things you leave behind when you move across country that you don’t think you’ll need. Like books you read once but can’t remember. Like old nail polish. And a garage sale fondu set.

There are things you leave behind that you know you’re going to miss. Like your favorite sushi restaurant, crispy fall weather, riding the el train, Monday morning coffee with your best friend.

And then there are things you misplace. Things you know you packed. Things you tucked away in some labeled box and likely unpacked and put somewhere safe but after a couple months of living in the new apartment you just can’t seem to find. Like the silver spoon ring your Mom bought you in eighth grade or the last of your lavender bath salts.

Some of these misplaced things you don’t think to look for until you need them. Like the thin black belt you wear with your interview slacks, an extra ink cartridge, your therapist’s cell number, a seam ripper.

Yet some of these things are so big and so precious, you can’t imagine misplacing them. They’re substantial. They take up space. They’re things you have for a long time, things you protect and nourish and spill blood over and assume you’ll have forever.

Say you misplace one of those big precious things somewhere between Chicago and Los Angeles. You can’t be sure you had it when you left but you know you’d never leave without it. The last place you remember seeing it was in a coffee shop on Lincoln Avenue where they serve savory crepes, at the wooden table that tips when people pass by.

You’ve carried this big precious thing with you for years now. You love it. Even though it gets pretty heavy and sometimes it seems impossible to hold onto. But you know it was unmistakably present when you left the coffee shop on Lincoln Avenue that day, before the hazy week of packing and errands and making your way through your list of ‘lasts’ and, for now, goodbyes.

People who see it assume it’s a big sturdy thing. And for the most part, it is, but there’s one edge that is terribly fragile and gets chipped and can cut. So, surely, you packed it in the car with you, to keep it safe, instead of trusting those hasty movers to haul it across time zones. You wonder if it fell out at one of the Midwestern rest stops and rolled under the car.

Or more likely you absentmindedly left it somewhere. Because you’re new in town. Because there are so many interstates and farmers markets and bills. Because you are tired. Because you are distracted by palm trees and laundry and medication. Because sometimes you look as impossible to yourself as sunshine on swimming pools in the middle of November. Because you’re allergic to dairy.

When the ‘becauses’ run out you decide to go look for it. You check in every coffee shop, coffee house, church, yoga studio, and cafĂ© you go to in LA. You talk about it. A lot. You spill more blood. You meditate and make deals with the Universe (or God specifically, in case it will help). You smoke and exercise until you hurt yourself and detox and drive to the ocean and try to finish that knitting project and buy things you can’t afford and throw things away to make more space and you eat and scour the apartment, pull things down from your carefully organized shelves, get the key to the storage unit, get the boxes out from under the bed, get down on your knees, shake your head and your spirit and check all the places you’ve checked a dozen times, wondering if the big precious thing is worth all this mess and fuss and heartache.

And somewhere around two in the morning, you finally stop, worn weary, and sit down at your kitchen table. You sit in one chair and then the next and then the next. You still can't believe one wooden table could be so different from all the rest.