Make a List

“She got a lot done.” That’s what it will say on my headstone when I die and the reason I got a lot done is that I made To Do lists all my life.

This is today’s list on the left. I made it at 2am perched on the bathtub’s edge when sleep once again eluded me.

A person’s list can be puzzling to others: My list sometimes says “Remove nails” which sounds like a terrible sort of torture, pulling someones toenails out of their nailbeds I know but actually refers to taking off the polish.

The personal care items appear at the top of most day’s lists but soon give way to the larger projects, like this lofty goal penciled in on list for the weekend. “Edit book,” it could have said because I’ve decided to take one of my audio books and release it as a black-and-white-hold-it-right-there-in-your-hands document that people can read and look back . I’ve already picked out my assistant editor who will watch the most glaring errors from the script that I used in recording the thing. Though just 17, this person is only one I know under 75 who uses the words “shall” and “will” correctly. Plus the young have good eyes, and their bottoms don’t get as tired from sitting as the bottoms of us old folks. Never mind that a young person practically has a laptop sewn to his thighs most of the time. Easy money!

Here’s what Annie Dillard wrote on the subject of lists and they schedules they give rise to:

“A schedule is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order…. a haven set into the wreck of time. It is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living…”

I love that idea, that a schedule makes the scaffolding that holds us aloft even when we think we might tumble from the great heights at which we balance in this precarious life.

Remember that so when trouble does come you will have your list: “Bathe, 7am” it will say. “Fold wash 8:00” and on as you make your way through even the hardest days, when you file for unemployment, say, or wake to remember your diagnosis. My young grandfather wrote this in his journal just hours after his wife and unborn daughter died of a raging infection:

This morning I will go to Undertaker Feeney’s and choose my darling’s narrow room. Now I will lie down on the couch now and watch the blackest day of my life dawn, though the sun comes up brightly and the birds sing in the window. How will I keep sane?

He kept sane the way we all do: by drawing up a little plan and putting one foot in front of the other. And savoring the sweet moments, and laughing as much as you can.

Go to Bed!

I slept until 8:30 these last two days. 8:30! It scared me to death.

I know John Updike preferred getting up later than everyone else – he liked to let others arrange the world before he stepped down into it he used to say – but you sure won’t catch us nervous types doing that. WE want to arrange the world, thanks very much. Aren’t we the ones responsible for making the sun rise every day? You know we are.

I was only able to sleep so late because at 4am both days I got up and worked for an hour; just woke up at 4:00 on my own, wrote madly for a spell and fell back in the bed at 5:00, there to sleep like the dead.

I’m doing too much, I know, but I’ve always done too much. Tonight I have to go to Parents Night at the high school, even though my own last kid graduated back in’ 02, but the second I get home I’m hitting the hay.

Because tomorrow I’m taking 12 strangers to lunch.

After bringing them on a walking tour of my town.

In the pouring rain, poor lambs.

Then I’m helping out at a dinner for 60 at 5:00, and after that, at around 9:00, I’m picking up a dining room table from a house in one town and delivering it to a house in another town.

Being my kind of person really can wear you down, and I’ve noticed I look pretty wrecked along about now. Me and this poor guy, who looks so much older than he did in the year 2000, whew! Remind me never to become President.

Enough with the ‘Old’ Talk

myself am not old; just my insides are ha ha. The day my mother died, I was walking her to the car to bring her to the big birthday party arranged in her honor, when she turned to me and said, “I feel like a bride!”

Go figure huh? You just never know. I could die today or I could live another 40 years. People born in 2012 could reach the age of 150 I read last week – by which time they WILL have pantyhose for the upper arms! 

I’ve done a kind of Theme-of-theiWeek thing  from time to time here on this blog, like when I had that Name That Celebrity contest back in March, or with last week’s talk of Fashion, or now with the subject of Aging two days in a row.

It happens this way: You get rolling and the ideas pop and the yarn spools out and you get thinking ‘Snip it off now and you’ll have yarn for tomorrow!’ Or, to use another domestic art, “Keep back a bit of yeast today and you’ll have bread for another day!’ It’s comforting  to have someplace to start the next day. It is for me especially, because I’m determined to make good on my promise to write here every day no matter what. It’s my gift, this ability to write with  honesty. I just want to give it and not worry about who might be there to receive it.

I can tell you there’s peace in that outlook. It’s very calming to just be able to love the world without worrying whether the world will love you back. I probably learned this when I realized what a big chunk of the audience at any author talk I gave was just there trying to get in out of the cold; just trying to get off their feet awhile. It was OK by me. They made great audience members.

So really I don’t worry much about what I will write here next. Annie Dillard said it about doing any first draft: the problem is how to set yourself spinning. But once you do, you can keep on spinning for a good long time I have come to see, since really, spinning is just talking, freely and unselfconsciously. Ask a question of the guy next to you in line at the Post Office and you’ll see: He’ll spin like a top. We all will, given the chance.


Old in a World Full of Youngsters

I am an old person, in Nature’s eyes anyway, and the old are ever mystified. My groom and I: constantly mystified.We’re mystified by the packaging our razors come in. We need to enlist the help of our young people to crack them open.  We’re mystified too by the activities of these young people, who can watch television without a television and play live card games with people in other countries.

We are mystified and we’re frequently in pain: After raking all day, David walks into the house looking like a human andiron. Just that bent and bow-legged. After doing God knows what, I wake one day with a sensation in my back of a knife soaked in acid and plunged in deep.

This was just last weekend. It felt as if a rib had tilted like that one rogue slat in a set of Venetian blinds and was digging into my lungs. I couldn’t sit or recline or breathe without feeling stabbed. I prowled the house all weekend, vacuuming, washing windows, even refinishing the top of an old coffee table.

By Sunday afternoon, though, I was a wreck, and so began licking up painkillers the way an anteater licks up ants. I swallowed aspirin at 2pm, Excedrin at 6:00, Advil at 10:00. No relief. At midnight I threw down a couple of fingers of whiskey, hoping that would knock me out but no dice there either. Finally, rummaging around in the guest bathroom I came upon some expired Percocet from who knows what painful procedure, fired one down, and found relief at last at 3 a.m….

Relief that was gone with the morning dew.

So, the second my chiropractor’s office opened at 8 a.m., I called. He saw me just hours later, asked many good questions and told me to get myself to Prompt Care right away, just in case one of my organs was about to explode. 

Then, he did an adjustment on me. He pinged at my sad little skeleton like a man tuning a piano. He pinged and he thought. He pinged and he listened.

And finally he sent me home with instructions to ice the area, 20 minutes on, two hours off, for the next 24 hours – which I did. And it worked. And I was CURED.

But the story would not be complete if I did not also relate what happened mid-way through the regimen, the morning after I saw the chiropractor and before my appointment with Prompt Care: 

I went to the freezer to get the last of the bright-blue icepacks, whose fellows, all thawed now, still lay about on the floor around my bed.

But this icepack with its array of purplish-blue cells held in a thick Zip-Lock bag did not look like the other icepacks.

“Some new kind I guess,” is all I thought and took it to the couch where I wedged it against my back and commenced writing busily away on my laptop – until about 30 minutes in, when I realized that this was no icepack at all. This was a bag filled with Jell-O shots, many tiny cuplets of blueberry-flavored vodka, long since stashed in our freezer by the aforementioned young people.

What can I say? By the time I’d finished the day’s second shower, this one to quell my distinctly boozy aura, I had passed through Mystification to arrive in the land of Acceptance.

Which frankly isn’t a bad dwelling-place at all for an old person in a world full of youngsters.

Eggshells

This whole wearing-your-clothes-backwards thing: I was doing it 20 years ago and people would say “Oh you’re like Kriss Kross!” and I’d think Seriously? I’m like an early 90s rap group? Then one day about ten years ago I ran into a former student of mine named Michael Dwyer who immediately noticed the backwards-facing top I had on and said I was well within an old tradition among us Irish. He said “they do that  to ward off fairies.”

And now just this week comes this email from him about eggshells:

“According to my grandmother the custom began in the 1840s during the Great Hunger, when millions of Irish were starving in ditches and millions more were fleeing to America in Coffin Ships. Whole families, entire villages, were abandoning land they had lived on for centuries – since the Middle Ages, if not longer, so long that they were intimate with their world in a way we can no longer imagine. Not just the land itself, the trees and hills and waterways, but the things that lived in it – the leprechauns and the kelpies and the Sidhe. Out of a combination of respect and caution, these enchanted peoples were called ‘the Gentlefolk’, ‘the Good People’, or ‘the Gentry’ – because it’s best to be polite to forces you don’t understand.

“And in the same way that they had developed a relationship with the land, some  families developed such strong relationships with these “gentry” that when the Famine forced a family to emigrate, a few decided to go with them. And that was what saved the Irish in America. As bad as things were for the refugees here, they would have been much, much worse without their luck and magic.

“The trouble was, my grandmother said,  the Gentlefolk didn’t like it here. They wanted to go home to Ireland. They couldn’t return as they came, of course; the ships were strictly one way. But they weren’t dependent on ships and for centuries had been making serviceable boats from eggshells.

Because they could do magic.

“They would lurk unseen in the corners of our kitchens, and whenever someone cracked an egg and discarded the shell they would claim it, and fashion a boat, and sail back to Ireland.  But if enough of them did this, the luck they brought with them would vanish.

So, my grandmother said, it was up to us to stop them. Every time we cracked an egg, we had to crush it before we threw it away, because a crushed shell was unfit for a boat.

I was young when she told me this, maybe six or seven years old. And from that time on it was my job to crush the eggshells. Any time we used an egg – at breakfast, after Easter, whenever we baked a cake – I would crush the shell and rinse my hands in the sink.

“But over the years questions arose.  First I wondered how we could make a difference, just the two of us, when there were so many people using eggs every day and not crushing shells? Because, explained my grandmother, most people didn’t count. Magic has rules, and even the Good People can’t ignore them:  If they want to make a boat that will take them to Ireland, the eggshell has to be broken by Irish hands.

So each time I crushed a shell I did it not only for myself but for her and my Uncle John and for my parents and my brothers and sisters, and that’s a lot of people.

Fair enough, I thought. But soon I had another worry, because if the Good People hated it here and wanted to go home, wouldn’t they be angry with me for preventing them?

“Oh no, said my grandmother, not at all  Because if I worked to keep them here it showed that I believed in them, that I understood how important they were.

“The only reason they want to leave, she said, is because no one in this country believes. No one greets them or asks their pardon or leaves them gifts. When I crushed an eggshell I did all of those things, as if I were saying “Please don’t go. We need you.” Doing that, I made them happy.

 “So I crushed eggshells, and continued to even as a jaded teen, bored and angry and believing in faeries all the same. I crush them to this day, and always will.”

Interesting story about broken eggs eh?

….and who it to say it doesn’t carry truth? 

Free at Last

What’s wrong with wearing odd thing on your head like I was saying yesterday? My big sister and I wore sweaters on our heads as veils every time we put on the big Baby Jesus pageant in the upstairs hallway. She was always Mary and I was always Joseph. Well a short, pudgy version of Joseph, that good sport of a guy, forever befuddled-looking in the religious art, forever stuck wearing brown.

It helped that our mom had lots of brown – she looked great in the color – and that the great aunts had lots of blue, blue being the total signature color of the BVM. (Even her eye shadow was blue they used to say around Nazareth.)

It really is fun to customize your clothes like the Catholic-school girls have been doing since Day One. And when you get to a certain age you can go all out. At the end of her life my aunt was wearing her clip-on earrings at the top of her shirt collars just because she liked the way they looked.

I myself have taken to wearing my tops backwards and it’s really workin’ for me I have to say. Spill something down the front of your top and all you have to do is swing it right around and poof the stain is gone from sight, as far as I’m concerned.

Also as the pointiest-breasted pupil in my 7th grade class….



….I’ll admit that I’m also sick to death of my own cleavage, here in a world where you practically can’t buy a top that doesn’t have a deeply scooped neck. So there again I spin ‘em around backwards, having first delicately picked the label off with an X-acto knife and EVERYONE IS FOOLED ! 
I wear high-necked bathing suits even, Spandex right to the clavicles, They’re hard to find. yes, but you really really can’t be wearing a bathing suit backwards. I’d rather go swimming looking like this:

than like this:

Yes I have to to search hard for the high-neck suits but it’s worth it. This was me at the beach this past summer (and look! I finally get to wear blue!)

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(I got the wind-machine think goin’ to blow back my hair  🙂 ) 

Buried Alive

Grey Gardens boy: I bet I’ve watched both the HBO dramatization and the original documentary about that sad old story a dozen times. There’s something so haunting about the relationship between Edie the elder and her daughter. Poor Edie Jr., 40 years after this picture was taken, walking around with one skirt functioning as a head scarf to hide her baldness and a second upside-down skirt pinned around her torso. Poor both of them, hiding in that bewitched Sleeping Beauty castle of a house, holed up in a single room on bare filthy mattresses surrounded with cat waste. It’s like some nightmare about the future that could fill you with stark terror as you slept.

At one point in the documentary the two are talking of marriage and Edie Jr.’s unmarried state, she who said she could have married any number of men if she hadn’t been prevented by her various dark forces including her abandoning father; could even have married Joe Kennedy and been First Lady like her beautiful cousin Jacqueline. That abandoning father and husband, that Phelan Beale:  listen to what gets said about him by the two and about marriage in general. This is what I copied down from the 1974 documentary and not HBO’s re-creation. It’s Edie Jr. speaking first, in that hoity-toity accent she assumes when she dwells on lost glories.

“My father believed in ruining his children’s lives,” she says. Then, in an odd non-sequitur, “He wanted me to get a Masters Degree.”

“You were scared of your father,” says Edie Senior who with her wispy hair and her ruined partly nude  body seems much more down-to earth. Back to Edie Jr now: 

“He said the only thing to BE was a professional woman. He did say that, didn’t he, mother? He didn’t want me to get married.”

And the mother says, “I don’t think it’s important for people to get married. I don’t believe that at all. Don’t you want some of this butter pecan?[eating ice cream straight from the carton] “Mmmmm!”

“If you can’t get a man to propose to you you might as well be dead,” says Edie Jr. “These women who don’t marry, what are they proving? I think it’s disgusting! They have to go around with dogs or other women… It’s disgusting!”

But dogs are lovely!” says her mother. “I’ll take a dog any day!” She could have been saying all that in this shot here:

Only the whole time neither is looking at the other, or at the camera. The surviving Maysles brothers says in the commentary on the Grey gardens DVD that they often didn’t seem to be even thinking about what they were saying much less listening to each other. It harrows me. When people get marooned and sealed away as the old and the forgotten often do: the thought just harrows me.


 the real Maysles with their real subjects

and below here, the real Edie I think, and not Drew Barrymore playing her