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Friday, June 8, 2018

Are Cardinals REALLY a Sign from Heaven?


We all have our Cardinal stories. Those mystical, serendipitous signs that appear in our lives at such a precise moment that deeming them anything but omens from above, or beyond, or below, as the case may be, would be nothing short of blasphemous.

My spouse’s father, Paul, suffered from congestive heart failure which made living not as much fun as it once was. After my mother-in-law died, he moved to what I view as a cruise-ship-on-land, a beautiful senior community called Blakehurst, right outside of Baltimore. If I could live out my golden years in a place like that, I’d feel like I had died and went to heaven.

Which is exactly what happened to him on Tuesday.

Paul was pretty sick for several months and had moved from his apartment in Blakehurst to a room in the assisted living wing where his daily excitement was a trip to the dining room. But even those excursions too soon became exhausting.

Paul could be gruff. But was easily de-gruffed with humor or talk of his grandchildren. Even though he rolled his eyes at what he deemed their craziness, those brown eyes twinkled as they rolled. He wasn’t one to hand out pats on the back, but  anyone who knew him knew he was so proud of the people his son and daughter had become.

Paul was a strong man. He was of that generation of no-nonsense, hard workers who supported his family, even if it meant going to school at night after working all day. But, he was able to fit things he loved into his life, watching sports, traveling and gardening. He passed the peace of digging in the dirt on to his son as well as the indelible belief that emptying the dishwasher is not a woman’s job.

He was a good man.

And the Cardinals concurred.

I was sitting at the kitchen table when my spouse called from Baltimore to say his father had died. And while I knew it was coming, it was still a punch in the gut. Because there’s no such thing as being prepared to say goodbye to someone you love. Forever.

While on the phone, I looked out the back door at the bird feeder. In that exact moment, two Cardinals dove in tandem across the yard. They swooped in wide arches, back and forth, up and down, over the fence and back, four or five times. And then they were gone.

The Cardinals came for my mother-in-law as well. They did the very same dance ritual the very same day she died, thirteen years ago.

There were no Cardinals when my father died. But, he spreads pennies all over the country for me and my sisters to find. Sometimes, when days are particularly dark, he’ll throw in a dime. And once, completely out of character, he sent me two one-dollar bills on the same day.

My cousin, Jackie, died in December. She was young at heart and full of life and loved by everyone who knew her. And by many who didn’t. Her sister, Wezo, was with her in the end.

“Make sure you open the door when I die, to let my soul out,” Jackie said. “I’ll send you a sign.”

When Jackie took her last breath, Wezo opened the door. And in perfectly playful Jackie fashion, in  bounded two Labradoodles.

Wezo’s son, Trip, had lived for a time in California with Jackie, his Aunt Jax. When he left to pick up his mother at the airport, a route he had driven a zillion times, he inexplicably went the wrong way. He made a U-Turn and found himself behind a car with a license plate that read HAPPY JAX.

Cardinals and Labradoodles and are not uncommon creatures. Dropped coins and vanity license plates are a dime a dozen. And in this big, old world, people die every dang day.

But, when it’s someone you love, it’s your life, your heart, your whole world that changes.

And maybe, we look a little harder for signs from beyond. Maybe we make a little more of coincidences than we should. Maybe we hear stories a little differently than how they were told. Maybe we see things that aren’t really there.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Cardinals really do have it covered.




Friday, May 25, 2018

Insights on Kids and Cataracts


I've always seen things quite clearly.

Just ask my kids.

I can spot a dirty dish across a room long before the mice do. I can extract a driver’s license from couch cushions days before its reported missing. I can derail muddy shoes and paws before they’ve sullied the just-mopped floors. I can see weeds in the garden before they’ve even begun to grow. And I can see half-empty water bottles clogging up landfills before they’re removed from cars, bedrooms, bathrooms and bureau drawers.

But one day, I realized that everything had gotten fuzzy. I didn’t see the dog hair clumped in the corner. I didn’t see the spider crawling across the room. I didn’t see the pee drops on the toilet seat before I sat down.

I’d like to say it was because I had outgrown all those minor annoyances. But, no. The eye doctor had a more scientific explanation.

I had a cataract.

“It could be trauma related,” he said, trying to soothe the blow of being diagnosed with an old person’s affliction.  

“Like the trauma of all three of my children moving back home?” I asked.

“I was thinking of something with a little more blunt force.”

I’ve worn contacts forever. And for years I’ve done the monovision thing. Which means that one eye is corrected for distance, the other for close-up. I was one of those mothers who needed to see things crystal clear at all times. Sometimes, of course, it worked against me. But, mostly, it gave me a one-up on what was going on around me, both near and far.

I put up with the cataract for a while, correcting it with stronger and stronger contacts and more and more pairs of reading glasses. And then finally, enough was enough, and I went under the knife.

I’ve had a zillion, or at least a trillion, surgeries in my life. I’m not scared of doctors or hospitals or getting put to sleep. But, cataract surgery is different. Your eyes are wide open for the whole dang thing.

“Don’t worry,” said the surgeon, who’s as adept at slicing out lenses as I am at folding laundry. “You’ll have a drip to keep you calm through the five-minute procedure.”

“Five whole minutes!” I shrieked. “There’s no amount of valium in the world that could keep me from flipping out when I see a scalpel coming at my eye ball.”

To which he simply chuckled and said, “It’s not a scalpel.”

And because I’m tough, don't like to inconvenience my hard-working spouse, and like to support my local merchants, I took an Uber to the eye removal center that morning. And because they’re really strict about not letting their patients drive under the influence, I had my friend Ann scheduled to pick me up.

As I sat alone in the waiting room with dozens and dozens of other cloudy-visioned old folk, my angst overtook my ability to even play Words with Friends. I watched old patient after old patient disappear beyond the swinging doors, returning 20 minutes later with one eye patched and one arm hanging onto a nurse for dear life.

I checked the so-big-even-the-blindest-could-see clock across the room and saw that it was nearly time for Ann to pick me up. Being one who has an aversion to asking for help, I added fretting about how long my friend would have to wait to my rapidly-intensifying scalpel-induced anxieties.

But with enough pacing and heavy sighing, the front desk eventually realized they had forgotten all about me and sheepishly whisked me through the swinging doors before another old bat knew what usurped her.

“Just a little something to calm you down,” the very kind anesthesiologist said as he jabbed a needle into my vein.

“So I won’t care about the scalpel coming at me?”

“Exactly.”

“Wow, this amazing,” I said ten seconds later, feeling the only kind of Zen I’ve ever known coursing through my body.

“What’s really amazing,” the very kind anesthesiologist deadpanned. “Is that I haven’t put any drugs in your body yet.”

Well, as it turned out, I didn’t see the scalpel coming at me. And the surgery was as short and sweet as they promised. I was released with a patch over my eye and a refusal to be escorted to the waiting room.

“I’ve walked under the influence before,” I quipped.

It’s been almost a month now and my vision is crystal clear again. Just in time for my once-dwindling empty nest to slowly but surely fill to capacity.

But this time around, I’ve chosen not to see the piles of clothes that lie on the basement floor. I’ve chosen not to see the dishes piling up on the kitchen counter. The unmade beds, the rapidly-depleting refrigerator and the random pieces of furniture that appear daily in the various living spaces of my home.

Instead, I’m looking at it through the somewhat cloudy eyes of my children. Who don’t have the foresight or hindsight or insight to see that it’s all going to be just fine.

I reassure the daughter that the best times are yet to come. Even though she’s leaving the most fun place she’s ever lived and returning to her attic bedroom. I remind her that four years ago when she tearfully departed Chapel Hill and headed for New Orleans, she was sure that she’d never, ever have as good of friends or as good of a time as she had in college. But she did. And now, with her creeping ever-closer to old age, I can see clearly that whichever path she takes, she’s going to get where she’s going.

I watch the middle child with a middle-child mother’s eye. I know he would prefer to live just about anywhere but home. In the early morning, I hear his floorboards creak as he dashes to catch the 7:13 into Manhattan for another day of stifled creativity at his desk job. Then, I look at the photos he snaps in his spare time and see that sooner or later, one way or another, he’s going to get the shot he deserves.

I look at the recent college graduate and see my uncertain self behind his beard. I see as his eyes roll in tandem with his exhausted sigh when he reads the indulgent-less father’s chores of the day. I see how a summer on a food truck is much less inspiring than the life he's been living as a philosophy major. But, I can also see that as he inches closer to figuring out the meaning of life, he'll discover that his own is filled with purpose and promise.

I see what's going to happen. There will be move ins and move outs. Good jobs and bad wages. Bad jobs and good wages. Full hearts and heart breaks. And it's all going to be just fine. 

And although, to me, it's crystal clear, for some reason, I keep hearing one of my wise old father's favorite sayings doing backflips in my brain.  

“I see,” said the blind man when he really didn’t see at all.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

What do you Give a Grown Kid for his Birthday?


“It’s your BIRTHDAY on Tuesday!” I texted my youngest son, but not until after his grandmother offhandedly mentioned that she had sent him a card.

Oops. I knew there was something about May 8th that sounded vaguely familiar.

“Do you want a present?” I asked.

I was fully expecting the response I’d gotten for the past dozen years.

“Nah.”

And he always meant it. Leo doesn’t like fuss or fanfare. He doesn’t like stuff. When he played baseball there was always a bat or glove or overpriced personal trainer that sufficed as a present. But we both knew he would have gotten those things birthday or not.

Leo doesn’t like money either. He’d just as soon live in a kibbutz. Or a monastery. Or under the stars in Colorado.

Leo is the only member of the family who's not born in December or February. So, by the time May rolls around every year, we've forgotten how to celebrate. Poor Leo has had to share his birthday with Mother’s Day. With his paternal grandmother’s death day. With baseball tournaments. And final exams.  

Leo was never much of a talker. He kept his thoughts to himself and, as third children so often do, learned to fly under the radar. He grew up in the shadow of his brother and sister and built his entire identity around baseball. It was all he did. And all he cared about.

Or so I thought.

Until we spent eight straight hours in the Old Minivan together.

Four years this very weekend ago, the whole family drove 500 miles down to North Carolina for the daughter's college graduation. In two cars. The plan was that one parent would stay and help pack up the daughter. The other would head home after the graduation party with Leo so he wouldn't miss his game the next day.  I am way better equipped to drive through the night than sort through the daughter's personal possessions, so it was Leo and I who took off together at 9:30 pm.

“You better keep me awake,” I said to the least talkative human I had ever raised.

And he did. He talked. And talked. And talked. A lifetime of talk spewed from his heart. And he hasn’t stopped since.

Before that overnight drive home from Chapel Hill, I lived with the assumption that Leo would play four years of Division I baseball, followed by a short stint in the minor leagues before heading off to CitiField. Or Camden Yards. Heck, I would have even become a Yankees' fan if I had to.

I never let go of that dream. But he did.

I learned in that car ride that Leo wanted more out of life than baseball. That he, gulp, had a creative side. I had long assumed that he and his friends were up to no good all those nights in the eaves of our attic. It never occurred to me that they were making music and shooting videos and writing scripts. And not a bit of it was about baseball. 

Somewhere around milepost 315, Leo made another confession. 

“I don’t know why I never talked to you before.”

Three months later, Leo went off to college and played his Division I baseball. But, after one semester, he gave it up to explore who he was without a glove on his hand. This Sunday, he graduates from Rutgers University. But, even with a degree in Philosophy and a minor in Creative Writing, he's still a long way from unearthing his true purpose in life.

For the past four years Leo and I have been each other's creative crusaders. We share our love for cleverly-crafted words and well-written movie scripts. And sometimes, we even agree on what is genius. We dream of one day sipping cocktails together at the Golden Globes. He knows that I want to write the next Juno. I know that he's more likely to do it than I. And that, while it will be a far cry from Juno, it will be brilliant. 

Leo and I bounce ideas off one another. He reads my stop-and-start again novels. He helps me develop characters. And tells me when he thinks I'm taking the easy way out. I read his screenplays and watch his short films and marvel at the places his young mind goes. And tell him when I think he's taking the hard way through. 

We send each other inspirational texts.

“Bang out a chapter today!”

And motivational quotes from writers like Paulo Coelho:
Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.

And memes that live on refrigerator magnets:


“So, want anything for your birthday?” I texted my last born. 

“Write me something!”

“It would be much easier to give you a thousand dollars!” I responded, knowing full well that he didn't mean that I should write him a blog. 

“$1000 has way less worth.”

Today, my youngest child turns 22. On Sunday, he'll become a full-fledged college graduate. On Monday, his real life begins.

I have no idea where Leo's life journey will lead. Nor, I'm sure, does he. But somewhere along the way, he's going to take that step, intentional or not, that will point him down the path he was meant to take.

And in the meantime, as long as it's legal, no matter where he goes or what he does, I'll continue to be his biggest fan.

Because there's something kind of endearing about knowing that your kid, the very kid who was put on this earth to defy, deny and demoralize you, has more faith in you than you have in yourself.

So, back atcha, kid.

My story is written. I just have to put it to paper. But, yours Leo, yours is yet to be lived.

Write me something, Leo. Write me something really good.





Monday, April 30, 2018

Penelope Makes her Appearance

“OMG! You’re going to be a MOMMA?”

It wasn’t an OMG, now what are you going to do? which would surely have been how I’d have responded to my own daughter under the same circumstances. Most probably followed by,  “And, don’t think for a minute that I’m going to help raise your child.”

Instead, it was an OMG, I am SO excited that you’re going to have a BABY!

And I meant every word of it. But, of course, Liza is not my child. So it was oh, so much easier to be charitable about her condition.

Liza is 22-years-old. She’s an adult. She went to college. She graduated cum laude. She majored in Family and Child Studies. She has a good job. She has a supportive family. She has tons of friends. So, there’s no reason on God’s green earth why she shouldn’t have a baby.

Except that she’s 22-years-old.

But, she’s Liza.

When I was 22, the last thing in the world I wanted was a baby. I was way too selfish, way too wild and just plain way too young to take care of another human. As a matter of fact, it took a dozen more years until I was ready, willing and able to set up house and start a family. And we all know how well that turned out for my poor offspring.

I can’t say I’m surprised that Liza was the first of my kids’ friends to have a baby. After all, she’s been reading and commenting on my blog for years. The blog that parentless youth have little interest in. The one that lays it all out there so honestly that my cousin’s twenty-something year-old daughter said, “You are so MEAN!” The blog with the life stories that a different sort of parent would never admit to having endured.

But Liza, in all her youthful wisdom reads between the lines.

“I know you. You’re happy on the inside,” she said after my rant over an impending onslaught of the offspring.

That’s Liza.

Last Wednesday a picture of the just-born Penelope popped onto my phone. Even I, of self-proclaimed baby neutrality, felt a little tightness in my throat and a pitter-patter in my heart.

“Ms. Betsy. Women are incredible. I still can’t believe my body did that!” she gushed.

“Oh, honey. Giving birth was the easy part. You have no idea how incredible you are about to become.”

Because, dear Liza. From this day forward, your life is no longer your own. You will never come first. Ever. Again.

It will be years and years and years before you eat a meal in peace. Or take a shower without keeping one ear open. Or read a full page of an adult book in one sitting.

And even more years before you will sleep through the night. Because after 2 am feedings comes “I want a drink of water.” And after “I want a drink of water,” comes “I had a bad dream.” And after “I had a bad dream,” comes “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.” And after “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” comes “I forgot to do my science project!” And after “I forgot to do my science project!” comes “I don’t feel good.” And after “I don’t feel good,” comes sleepovers. And parties. And proms. And driver’s licenses. And kids in and out, slamming the backdoor, all night long. And water bottles filled with vodka. And worse.

You will see that babies turn into toddlers who turn into little kids who turn into big kids who turn into teenagers who turn into young adults who know absolutely everything. Except how to change the toilet paper.

You will learn that your adorable little baby who smiles and coos in public can turn on a dime and scream with fury in private. For hours and hours on end.

You’ll sterilize bottles and bosoms and throw away toys that the dog licks. You'll record weights and smiles and how much she ate. You'll use special baby detergents and shampoos and sound machines. At least for the first few weeks.

You’ll teach Penelope the importance of reading. Of learning how to learn. Of how cool it is to be smart. And then worry when she worries too much about her grades.

You’ll teach her tolerance. You’ll instill in her the belief that every person on this planet deserves the same respect. And then you’ll cringe when she falls in with the wrong crowd.

You will feed her breast milk. And organic snacks. And she won’t know what candy tastes like. And then one day, she’ll have that first chicken nugget and won’t eat another vegetable for the next 20 years.

You will take her to playgrounds. And parks. And museums. You will spend time teaching her about your culture. And her father’s. And she’ll still like grilled cheese better than empanadas.

You'll spend hours and hours and hours watching Penelope play softball or soccer or do backflips at  cheerleading competitions. Or all of the above. You’ll watch her struggle. You’ll watch her fail. You’ll applaud her as she wins awards for Most Improved Player. Or Best Personality. And you’ll assure her that those accolades are so much more important than Most Valuable Player.

You’ll learn that it’s no easier to let your daughter cry it out when she’s a teenager (or younger) when her heart is broken for the first time, than it is to let her cry it out as a baby. When you’re trying desperately to get her to sleep through the night. At a year old. Or two.

You will never, as long as you live, ever make a single life decision without considering how it will affect your daughter.  And then, when there are two or (gulp) three kids to consider, your head will spin in perpetuity.

You will find that just when you think you can’t take another minute of whatever it is that is currently annoying you, because yes, even Penelope will eventually annoy you, that she'll move into a new phase. You will wake up one morning and realize that you both slept through the night. Or that she didn’t wet the bed. Or that she went a whole day without whining, or rolling her eyes or eating a chicken nugget. Or that she no longer clings to your leg, or insists on wearing the ragged purple tutu or needs to watch the latest Disney movie for the thousand-and-fifteenth time.

And then, just like that, she’ll move into another phase. The phase you think is the final phase. When she goes off to college. Or gets her first apartment.

And you will cry. But you won’t let her see. Because even though you knew one day you'd have to let her go, you didn't think it would come this soon. 

And when she and her siblings are grown and gone and you can finally sit down and catch up on Shameless, you’ll reflect back on all that you’ve done. And you realize that no matter how hard you tried, you did it all wrong.

But then you look at your daughter. You look at her brothers and sisters. You look at the people they’ve become. You shake your head and wonder how you ever got through it. And how they turned out to be such interesting, adventurous and kind human beings. Which is when, for the first time, you realize that you must have done something right.

And that, my dear, Liza, is the most incredible part of all.  

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Let the Good Times Roll

There’s always one.

That simple statement. That obvious observation. That epitomizing epiphany that encapsulates and validates the reasons why you feel compelled to spend money you don’t have, consume calories you can’t afford and belt out easy listening-lyrics at piano bars with people you don’t know.

And sometimes it’s a conglomeration of uh-duh’s that confirm what you’ve known all along. 

When we turned 40, I gathered a dozen buddies for a Break-from-Babies trip to the Bahamas. At 45, ten of us Made Mischief in Mexico.  At 50 and 55, we were way too busy, way too poor, or way too foolish not to go on an epic excursion. At 60, I said enough is enough, and bullied them back into submission.

Last week, eight of us rallied for a four-day Celebrate Your Sixties sitcom in New Orleans. We all went to Shippensburg State College, a school in the middle of nowhere that once it got rid of us, elevated itself to a university. We all grew up in Pennsylvania and all have our stories of how we ended up at Shippensburg, as well as how, when and why we left. We have long since dispersed and now hail from North Jersey, Atlanta, Nags’ Head, Boston, Denver, Florida and two different towns in Pennsylvania. But, college roots run deep and our friendship has persevered for the last hundred-and-fifty years.

My namesake, Betsy, flew in from Boston. She detoxed every morning on the treadmill, while the rest of us felt that a meandering six-mile trek through town was more than sufficient to count as exercise. As we popped  ibuprofen and Celebrex and multi-vitamins in futile attempts to tame our aching bones, backs, hands and hearts, we collectively marveled how, "at her age," Betsy's knees were still fully intact.

“I run because I still can,” she said, knocking on wood.

When I graduated from college, I took a Trailways bus to Arizona to spend the summer with Ann. We went on tons of side excursions, one of which was to Las Vegas. For Christmas the following year, she presented me with a Golden Nugget silver dollar mounted in a shadowbox. You’ll always have one more silver dollar, she said, just as Gregg Allman had. Ann is generous, is always the first to pick up a tab and refuses to let money rule her life. 

The morning after a 12-hour stint in back-to-back-to-back bars (including, but not limited to, aforementioned piano bar with my new best friend from Charleston), we got to giggling and gasping over crumpled receipts.

“Who cares?” Ann said, sagely. “It’s only money.”

Jeanne gets a kick out of life. But, and note the but, she doesn’t drink. At least not like the rest of us. I may be overestimating if I say she had three drinks in four days. Jeanne laughs loudly. Talks boldly. And remembers every minute of every minute we forget. 

“You sure you don’t want a drink?” we coaxed.

“Nope,” she said, tossing dollar bills into the piano player's tip basket between American Pie and Brown Eyed Girl. “I really don't need one. It’s enough for me just to be with you girls.”

Kathy, on the other hand, knows that liquor licks wounds, warms hearts and wins hospitality awards. She had a bottle of Tito’s, a bottle of Maker’s Mark, limes, lemons, ginger ale and buckets of ice waiting poolside when I finally Ubered my way to the hotel. She upgraded her room to a suite so we’d have a place to pre- or post-game. And was never content to sit in one spot for hours on end.

“There’s just so much to do. So much music to hear,” she said, grabbing Sue and whisking her off to the jazz clubs on Frenchmen Street while the rest of us sat and sat and sat some more listening to background music, eating overpriced cheese platters and drinking copious amounts of wine at Bacchanal, an outdoor bar in the Ninth Ward, filled with kids half our age. And younger.

Sue has long been the friend to whom I turn when I need reassurance. No matter how bad, no matter how wrong. She will always find the light. She will never, ever place blame. Find fault. Or wish away what we’ve got. And so, naturally, I glommed (my new favorite Kathy word) onto her as we zig-zagged our way through the Big Easy.

“You think …?” I started.

“Stop. Relax,” she said, in a completely different tone than the ‘relax’ I get from the daughter. “Everyone is fine. Everyone is having a great time. We always do.”

And we were, indeed, having a great time. So much so, that the next morning I said to my cellmate, Ann, “When I think back to last night, I find myself alternately shaking my head with shame and cracking myself up." 

“That’s what makes it a good night,” she responded wisely.

Speaking of which, the daughter, who has lived in New Orleans for four years, was wise enough not to get too deeply involved with us. We met her amazing roommate, Tonia, at dinner one night and her ultra-lovely friend, Kate, for brunch.  Jill, who can procure a free meal for an entire restaurant when one poor soul has been served raw chicken, is the only one of us with a grandchild. At least that we're aware of. The daughter, mine, not hers, is currently in flux over where to live, what to do and whether life is about to pass her by.

“One thing I’ve found,” Jill said in earnest. “Is that things come at you in the most unexpected ways. Don’t worry about boys or jobs or money. Just let life happen.”

On our last night, after barreling into a fairly subdued restaurant where Kate’s husband was bartending (we identified him from collective memories of wedding pictures on his wife’s iPhone), we hoofed it back to the hotel. Or hobbled, as the case may be. I have aching knees on the best of days, but that was not the best of days. I had awakened to an additional shooting pain down the length of my leg. I thought walking would be the best remedy, but found myself limping along like Tiny Tim. (Not the one who tiptoed through the tulips. The Dickens' one.) I shooed my friends away, assuring them that I wouldn’t get mugged or fall down, or cry, preferring, as always to play the martyr. Peggy, who suffers from Reynaud’s Disease, which means that among other nasty symptoms,  she is always cold, shivered beside me.

“Go, Margaret,” I said. “Honestly. I am fine. Catch up to everyone else.”

“I will never leave you,” she responded.

And, before we knew it, another adventure had come to an end. We said our good-byes with lumps in our throats and promises to do it again soon. And, we will. Because each and every one of us had a really good reason why we should continue to spend money we don't have, consume calories we can't afford and belt out easy-listening lyrics at piano bars with people we don't know.

Because we still can.
Because it’s only money.
Because it’s enough just being with the girls.
Because there’s so much to do. So much music to hear.
Because we know how to have a great time.
Because we shake our heads with shame and crack ourselves up.
Because we never know what life will throw us.
Because we will never limp home alone.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Forever and ever, Amen.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

Mayans, Mormons, Margaritas and Marriages

“Oh, thank God!” Stuart, who we did not yet know as Stuart, effused as Patty and I stepped into line behind him. It was the kind of greeting two 60 year-olds would neither expect, nor deflect, for that matter, coming from a handsome 40-something year-old standing hand-in-hand with a beautiful brunette.  

“We were afraid we were going to be the only two doing this!” he said. “I’m Stuart. This is my wife, Jamie.”

In the middle of exchanging niceties, two twenty-somethings flurried breathlessly into line, donned in bikinis and sarongs. 

“We had to buy Nicole a swimsuit!” Kelly, who we did not yet know as Kelly, revealed. She spoke in South Californian and sported a huge Native American symbol inked on her left thigh. And ear gauges. 

“She missed the bus to the Mayan ruins so I said, ‘Come do this with me!’ So we bought her a swimsuit from one of those Mexican guys for 35 bucks.”

I didn’t even have to look at Patty. We both knew how this story would end. 

When we hit the ports on our annual cruises, Patty and I often book the Most Popular! Most Fun! excursions. We go snorkeling, even though I recoil at the mere thought of a fish swimming betwixt and between my legs. But, I’m a good friend and it’s one of Patty’s pleasures, so I acquiesce, though often swim maskless in the Caribbean Sea to avoid magnification of those brightly-colored, slimy-finned creatures. We’ve done our share of tastings and tours and walking around tourist-made towns buying junk we neither want nor need. 

But sometimes we shake things up a bit. In St. Kitts, we took a rickety ride on a rickety train through defunct sugar plantations with a bunch of senior citizens. In Tortola we went on a motorboat and swam to shore for Painkillers at the Soggy Bottom Bar. In Grand Cayman we rented bicycles and were deposited on deserted seaside trails with nothing more than a ‘See ya in a few hours!’  In Jamaica, we rode a ricketier than the rickety train ski lift up high over the jungle, over the mongooses, to the top of a mountain which we proceeded to zip-line down. Then rode bobsleds like the Olympians do. 

And this year, in Mexico, we went for a Mayan Spiritual Wellness Retreat. There was something so marvelously juxtapositional about the over-the-top over-indulgence of a cruise and “experiencing a holistic day of wellness and spiritual cleanse in Costa Maya” that I simply couldn’t resist. 

So, there we were. With Stuart and Jamie, Nicole and Kelly, being stripped of all our worldly possessions and asked to follow a real-life Shaman through earth, fire, wind and water. 

“Oh, come on! I have to walk around in a bathing suit?” I protested, side-eyeing the forty-year-old, not to mention the twenty-year-old bodies beside me.

“Absolutely no judgment in this group,” said Stuart, bless his heart.

I am a spiritual healer’s worst nightmare. I wriggle. I giggle. I resist. I recoil. And I have never relaxed in my life. But, I am a follower. And so, I followed. 

Right into the room with the purification bath. Looming before me were six deep tubs filled with whatever they fill Mayan baths with. Now, on the best of days, I can’t climb a single stair without shooting pain in my knees. And this, while not the worst of days, was worse than usual as I was nursing an infected, gushing wound on the top of my foot. I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d be able to lower my aching body into this pool of water, if that’s what it was, while keeping one foot out, without landing like a Mayan manatee.

I made it in somehow, some way, without flooding the floor. Patty was next to me on one side, Kelly on the other and we closed our eyes while young Mexican girls poured warm eucalyptus water and healing oils over our bodies and massaged our aching shoulders, craning necks and whirling heads. 

I made it out, somehow, some way, without letting my infected foot hit the bath water that may or may not have been pre-infected from the five, or fifteen previous bathers. One-by-one we were led into the Temazcal by a highly-decorated Shaman who was ours for the keeping.

I have never been in a sauna. Nor have I ever wanted to be. I am claustrophobic and not particularly interested in sweating for sweating’s sake. But I was sure in one now. And I was sure sweating. It was a low, round, palm-fronded sweat lodge with a pit of burning rocks in the center and a bench around the edge where we sat in varying degrees of discomfort. Sir Shaman poured water on the rocks, all the while reminding us that Mother Earth controls everything. And we have no control. Especially of the heat.

Jamie was the first to externally panic. I say externally, because I panicked internally the minute I walked in. And when the Shaman wouldn’t release her, my heart pounded harder. But, Stuart held her hand and got her through. She’d been through way worse. After all, she was a Mormon. But, more on that later. 

I was determined not to attempt escape. First of all, I knew I’d have to fight the Shaman to the ground and secondly, to get out, we had to duck way down and crawl out of a little low door. I still didn’t know everyone well enough to risk them witnessing me wrestle with my bend-resistant knees. And a Shaman.

Patty hung in there surprisingly well. Nicole actually seemed to enjoy herself. And Stuart, well, he was the man in the group, so he couldn’t very well crap out on us. 

We chanted. We shook maracas. We screamed. One at a time. Then in unison. 

And then Kelly, the youngest, the bravest, panicked. Really panicked. But the Shaman told her to breathe through it. She re-panicked. And continued to panic. He propped her up by the door, letting her sniff at the outside air like a dog begging to go out. And then, she just up and bolted. 

A good half-hour later, our spirits were renounced or relinquished as the case may be, and we were finally released. We met Kelly on the other side who was now completely recovered, thanks to mystical medicinal means offered up by the Mayans. 

A cold shower and a clay facial later, we were deposited in yet another bath. This time, a coconut bath. Attendants washed us with herbs and massaged our scalps, all the while wondering why the red-headed lady was dangling her left foot ever-so-slightly above the coconutted water line. 

The final ritual was a massage. Covered head-to-toe in what were presumably laundered towels, we were escorted onto brightly-colored hammocks and gently rocked and rolled from above, then elbowed, kneed and kicked from below.

And then, we were done. Renewed. Refreshed. And ready to throw it all to the wind with endless margaritas, pina coladas, guacamole, ceviche, chips and chicken, all delivered proficiently and prolifically by our personal cabana boy to our personal cabana by the beach. 

“Five kids?” I gasped when Jamie told us the size of her brood. 

“We were Mormons,” Stuart laughed. “Of course we had five kids.”

And, as you might imagine, the conversation progressed from there. 

One day, a few years ago, Stuart and Jamie woke up, looked kind of sideways at each other and said, “Hey! Here’s an idea. Let’s question our cult. Leave our religion. Live our lives!” And then, did just that. Ever since, they’ve been caffeinating and cursing, drinking and dancing, showing skin and shedding inhibitions. Just like the rest of us Present Day Saints.

Nicole, the Florida transplant from Rhode Island, courageously went on the cruise alone. She knew she'd meet a slew of other veterinary technicians onboard for continuing education credits at sea and had already Facebook met her roommate, Kelly. But still. And then to be paired up with the likes of us in Costa Maya on an adventure she never signed up for that culminated in hours and hours of circular conversation talking Mormon with the Mormons and marriage with Kelly.

Kelly, the 23 year-old with the thigh-sized tattoo and the finger-sized holes in her ears. Kelly, who I betrothed to my youngest son in a text. 

“Will you marry Kelly?” I typed mid-Margarita. Without typos, I might add. “She is SO not your type but I love her so much. She’s such a good and genuine person.”

To which he responded, “Bring her back with you. I shall marry her.”

Nothing that afternoon, and I mean nothing, was taboo.

There’s not much I don’t love about this life I live. But one of the things that brings me the very most joy is when I discover unexpected treasures in unexpected people. When I come across humans who are unfiltered and unafraid to answer off-colored questions. Who aren’t afraid to expose their imperfections and immoralities. Who share their sagas and bare their souls knowing that they’ve found a kindred spirit who will embrace them and celebrate them, despite coming from a completely different world. 

Perhaps it was sharing the bizarrest of bizarre experiences. Perhaps it was breathing in the sea air or drinking from the salt-rimmed margaritas, or feeling that Caribbean sun beat down on our backs that kept us one-upping each another with the bizarrieties of our real lives. But, perhaps, we bonded simply because when all was said and drunk, we came to realize that our completely different worlds really aren't so completely different at all. 








Monday, March 26, 2018

Mayans, Mormons and Margaritas

“Oh, thank God!” Stuart, who we did not yet know as Stuart, effused as Patty and I stepped into line behind him. It was the kind of greeting two 60 year-olds would neither expect, nor deflect, for that matter, coming from a handsome 40-something year-old standing hand-in-hand with a beautiful brunette.  

“We were afraid we were going to be the only two doing this!” he said. “I’m Stuart. This is my wife, Jamie.”

In the middle of exchanging niceties, two twenty-somethings flurried breathlessly into line, donned in bikinis and sarongs. 

“We had to buy Nicole a swimsuit!” Kelly, who we did not yet know as Kelly, revealed. She spoke in South Californian and sported a huge Native American symbol inked on her left thigh. And ear gauges. 

“She missed the bus to the Mayan ruins so I said, ‘Come do this with me!’ So we bought her a swimsuit from one of those Mexican guys for 35 bucks.”

I didn’t even have to look at Patty. We both knew how this story would end. 

When we hit the ports on our annual cruises, Patty and I often book the Most Popular! Most Fun! excursions. We go snorkeling, even though I recoil at the mere thought of a fish swimming betwixt and between my legs. But, I’m a good friend and it’s one of Patty’s pleasures, so I acquiesce, though often swim maskless in the Caribbean Sea to avoid magnification of those brightly-colored, slimy-finned creatures. We’ve done our share of tastings and tours and walking around tourist-made towns buying junk we neither want nor need. 

But sometimes we shake things up a bit. In St. Kitts, we took a rickety ride on a rickety train through defunct sugar plantations with a bunch of senior citizens. In Tortola we went on a motorboat and swam to shore for Painkillers at the Soggy Bottom Bar. In Grand Cayman we rented bicycles and were deposited on deserted seaside trails with nothing more than a ‘See ya in a few hours!’  In Jamaica, we rode a ricketier than the rickety train ski lift up high over the jungle, over the mongooses, to the top of a mountain which we proceeded to zip-line down. Then rode bobsleds like the Olympians do. 

And this year, in Mexico, we went for a Mayan Spiritual Wellness Retreat. There was something so marvelously juxtapositional about the over-the-top over-indulgence of a cruise and “experiencing a holistic day of wellness and spiritual cleanse in Costa Maya” that I simply couldn’t resist. 

So, there we were. With Stuart and Jamie, Nicole and Kelly, being stripped of all our worldly possessions and asked to follow a real-life Shaman through earth, fire, wind and water. 

“Oh, come on! I have to walk around in a bathing suit?” I protested, side-eyeing the forty-year-old, not to mention the twenty-year-old bodies beside me.

“Absolutely no judgment in this group,” said Stuart, bless his heart.

I am a spiritual healer’s worst nightmare. I wriggle. I giggle. I resist. I recoil. And I have never relaxed in my life. But, I am a follower. And so, I followed. 

Right into the room with the purification bath. Looming before me were six deep tubs filled with whatever they fill Mayan baths with. Now, on the best of days, I can’t climb a single stair without shooting pain in my knees. And this, while not the worst of days, was worse than usual as I was nursing an infected, gushing wound on the top of my foot. I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d be able to lower my aching body into this pool of water, if that’s what it was, while keeping one foot out, without landing like a Mayan manatee.

I made it in somehow, some way, without flooding the floor. Patty was next to me on one side, Kelly on the other and we closed our eyes while young Mexican girls poured warm eucalyptus water and healing oils over our bodies and massaged our aching shoulders, craning necks and whirling heads. 

I made it out, somehow, some way, without letting my infected foot hit the bath water that may or may not have been pre-infected from the five, or fifteen previous bathers. One-by-one we were led into the Temazcal by a highly-decorated Shaman who was ours for the keeping.

I have never been in a sauna. Nor have I ever wanted to be. I am claustrophobic and not particularly interested in sweating for sweating’s sake. But I was sure in one now. And I was sure sweating. It was a low, round, palm-fronded sweat lodge with a pit of burning rocks in the center and a bench around the edge where we sat in varying degrees of discomfort. Sir Shaman poured water on the rocks, all the while reminding us that Mother Earth controls everything. And we have no control. Especially of the heat.

Jamie was the first to externally panic. I say externally, because I panicked internally the minute I walked in. And when the Shaman wouldn’t release her, my heart pounded harder. But, Stuart held her hand and got her through. She’d been through way worse. After all, she was a Mormon. But, more on that later. 

I was determined not to attempt escape. First of all, I knew I’d have to fight the Shaman to the ground and secondly, to get out, we had to duck way down and crawl out of a little low door. I still didn’t know everyone well enough to risk them witnessing me wrestle with my bend-resistant knees. And a Shaman.

Patty hung in there surprisingly well. Nicole actually seemed to enjoy herself. And Stuart, well, he was the man in the group, so he couldn’t very well crap out on us. 

We chanted. We shook maracas. We screamed. One at a time. Then in unison. 

And then Kelly, the youngest, the bravest, panicked. Really panicked. But the Shaman told her to breathe through it. She re-panicked. And continued to panic. He propped her up by the door, letting her sniff at the outside air like a dog begging to go out. And then, she just up and bolted. 

A good half-hour later, our spirits were renounced or relinquished as the case may be, and we were finally released. We met Kelly on the other side who was now completely recovered, thanks to mystical medicinal means offered up by the Mayans. 

A cold shower and a clay facial later, we were deposited in yet another bath. This time, a coconut bath. Attendants washed us with herbs and massaged our scalps, all the while wondering why the red-headed lady was dangling her left foot ever-so-slightly above the coconutted water line. 

The final ritual was a massage. Covered head-to-toe in what were presumably laundered towels, we were escorted onto brightly-colored hammocks and gently rocked and rolled from above, then elbowed, kneed and kicked from below.

And then, we were done. Renewed. Refreshed. And ready to throw it all to the wind with endless margaritas, pina coladas, guacamole, ceviche, chips and chicken, all delivered proficiently and prolifically by our personal cabana boy to our personal cabana by the beach. 

“Five kids?” I gasped when Jamie told us the size of her brood. 

“We were Mormons,” Stuart laughed. “Of course we had five kids.”

And, as you might imagine, the conversation progressed from there. 

One day, a few years ago, Stuart and Jamie woke up, looked kind of sideways at each other and said, “Hey! Here’s an idea. Let’s question our cult. Leave our religion. Live our lives!” And then, did just that. Ever since, they’ve been caffeinating and cursing, drinking and dancing, showing skin and shedding inhibitions. Just like the rest of us Present Day Saints.

Nicole, the Florida transplant from Rhode Island, courageously went on the cruise alone. She knew she'd meet a slew of other veterinary technicians onboard for continuing education credits at sea and had already Facebook met her roommate, Kelly. But still. And then to be paired up with the likes of us in Costa Maya on an adventure she never signed up for that culminated in hours and hours of circular conversation talking Mormon with the Mormons and marriage with Kelly.

Kelly, the 23 year-old with the thigh-sized tattoo and the finger-sized holes in her ears. Kelly, who I betrothed to my youngest son in a text. 

“Will you marry Kelly?” I typed mid-Margarita. Without typos, I might add. “She is SO not your type but I love her so much. She’s such a good and genuine person.”

To which he responded, “Bring her back with you. I shall marry her.”

Nothing that afternoon, and I mean nothing, was taboo.

There’s not much I don’t love about this life I live. But one of the things that brings me the very most joy is when I discover unexpected treasures in unexpected people. When I come across humans who are unfiltered and unafraid to answer off-colored questions. Who aren’t afraid to expose their imperfections and immoralities. Who share their sagas and bare their souls knowing that they’ve found a kindred spirit who will embrace them and celebrate them, despite coming from a completely different world. 

Perhaps it was sharing the bizarrest of bizarre experiences. Perhaps it was breathing in the sea air or drinking from the salt-rimmed margaritas, or feeling that Caribbean sun beat down on our backs that kept us one-upping each another with the bizarrieties of our real lives. But, perhaps, we bonded simply because when all was said and drunk, we came to realize that our completely different worlds really aren't so completely different at all.