The Shift

I grew up on the New Madrid Fault, in a town where most of the seismic activity happens 3 to 15 miles below the surface.  The shifts in the earth virtually unnoticeable.

This past weekend, I went home to see my family and to spend time with old friends and celebrate.  It felt like the earth had shifted.  I looked at each person, each friend, anew; my immediate family, noticeably smaller. My mom had 8 brothers and sisters, and now I’m thinking, “where did everyone go?”

I have aunts and uncles and cousins.  I have 2 younger brothers, and those brothers have children.  Most everyone lives within about a 5 mile radius. And yet I saw no one in my mother’s family.  Not one person.  I spent my family day — which was lovely and fun and totally relaxed — at my stepbrother’s house with my stepfamily.  At one point I asked my sister-in-law, when was the last time you saw my brothers??  “A year and half,” she said, “at least.” images The New Madrid Fault line has always seemed illusory.  When I was little, my grandmother claimed she could see the shifts when her bric-a-brac moved, when she went to dust and could see that her small religious statues of Mary and the baby Jesus and souvenirs from relatives of vacations (she herself never took) had moved.  The upset of the fragile and hard dust line.  This weekend I did not go to my mother’s grave.  Did not buy fresh flowers.  Did not even buy fake ones.  Did not go and stand in the cemetery off the highway in the churchyard by the church.

new_madrid_ufo-300x200 The New Madrid Fault is one of the most active fault lines in the United States.  In 1811 and 1812, there was a quake so strong the Mississippi River ran backwards.  Backwards!  Who could imagine such a thing?

A year and half ago, one of my best friends died suddenly.  Here today, not here tomorrow.  Chris was the glue that held all of our friends —- turning 50 this year — together.  This past weekend he would have been at every single gathering.  He probably would have arranged most of them, would have arranged *us*. My grandmother said she knew when there had been movement, when the tectonic plates had shifted.  I felt my friend Chris’s absence, our shift.  We, my oldest friends and I, are not as kind as we once were.  Or maybe we are just older, harder, more immoveable.  Where is this going?  What do I know about tectonic plates, about the future?

It is strange how the loss of one person — the loss of just one beating heart — can shift so many lives.  When we study the New Madrid Fault, when we study the movement then and the movement to come, we and our scientists are puzzled.  Who knows what’s coming?  I remember my mother.  My grandmother.  My friend Chris.  My extended family.  I think about all of us back then, about who we all were before the plates shifted.  The almost imperceptible movement of fragile lines of dust.  How one person gone missing shifts all of our lives.


* comments are off *

It Never Happens the Way We Think It Will Happen

imagesI am walking my dog when it happens. The woman does not see me. The woman does not see my dog. The woman points her car my way and guns it, and when I see she doesn’t see me—doesn’t see my bright blue shirt nor my arm waving ‘hello neighbor’ in the air nor my big yellow lab standing at the side of her driveway—I dive to my right and the bumper of her car clips my hip and I tumble down and over the newly-mowed grass of her lawn and the next thing I know I’m lying there, just lying there, pushing to get up and looking at my dog looking down at me with her tail wagging, wagging wagging wagging. The dog licks my hand. We are alive, the dog seems to say. We are okay.

For the last decade I’ve been walking my dogs in a downtown neighborhood, and at least once a week I hear myself screaming, “It’s called a fucking STOP sign!” at some giant SUV with a mom driving her kids to school (coffee in one hand, cell phone in the other), certain that one day this composite character of a mom is going on take me out. And yet it is not until today, this day of me tumbling on the grass, focused on a wagging tail, when I feel the constant anticipation in me. When I start to think about how much time and angst and exactitude and energy I spend laying out blueprints that say: This. Yes this. Surely this is how it is going to happen.

I do not think of myself as a worrier, an anticipator of disaster. In fact, in my fantasy mind of who I am, I am the opposite of this. I am the positive thinker. I am the dreamer. I am the Annie song ‘Tomorrow’. I am the woman who banks on today and hopes all good things for the next, the lighthearted comforter patting shoulders and holding hands, telling those panicking around me, “Relax, really, it will be what it will be. It will all be fine.” I remember telling my mother this when she was dying. “Don’t worry,” I said over and over again. “I’m okay. I’ll be okay. And I will take care of everything.” One night while my mother was sleeping, I was on the phone with a friend whose mother had died the year before. “Watch her feet,” she warned. “We all die from the ground up. If you think your mom is getting close, check her feet. If the bottoms are turning any shade of blue, be ready to call people, to say your goodbyes.” For the next many days I was a vigilant, albeit sneaky, foot-checker, wafting sheets at the end of my mother’s bed when I was sure no one was around. I imagined the possible shades of blue. I imagined the time I would have with her at the end, the people I would call and in what order I would call them, and how fast they would all get there and how we would surround my mother in a giant circle while she passed on.

Of course that’s not how it happened. It was noon on a Sunday. I was sitting there alone with my mother when her breaths became shallow and sporadic, sometimes gasping. She scared me. I backed away and leaned against the other bed in the room. At some point a nurse came in, put her stethoscope to my mother’s chest, listened, waited. Minutes passed. I moved closer. The nurse told me to sit down, though I remained standing. The nurse turned off the beeping machines. Silence. Out in the hall I called my brothers. “Mom’s gone,” I said, “can you come over?” One brother said he would see me later. The other brother said, “Why would I come now if she’s already gone?” I called her husband. No answer. So I stopped calling people. I walked back to my mother’s room and, standing in the doorway, saw that the nurse had pulled away the sheet.

Maybe this is the story. It never happens the way we think it will happen. I am 36 years old. I am 36 and alone with my dead mother and I am wearing the soft purple shirt she gave me that I only pretended to like and that I will put in the trash at my hotel and I am staring at, taking inventory even, of my mother’s naked body, at her open, thick-looking eyes, her shoulders her breasts her stomach her hips her knees, the palms of her hands, open and still. The nurse comes back. I never even make it all the way to her feet.

All that I time I wasted in the planning, in the imagining. All that time, wasted.

I think about the conversations I have in my head that I never end up having with another human being. The constant inner-planning. The scenario staging. My fear of the ever-dreaded surprise. When I was growing up there was no such thing as a good surprise. Lack of planning, lack of proper and thorough anticipation meant falling off a cliff. Surprise meant moving towns or changing schools or the child support check showing up late or wondering if I could afford school lunch. As an adult there is still no such thing as a good surprise, and yet I still refuse to see myself as that person, as the worry wart (what a horrible name), the multi-scenario imaginer of events that I so very often am.

I recall another story told by the friend whose mother had died with blue feet. She and her sister are sitting on either side of their mother’s bed, each of them holding one of their mother’s hands, and as their mother takes her last breath the sister slides Mom’s wedding rings right off and onto her own finger, admiring it, watching it sparkle, then looks at my friend and says, “It’s mine. Mom always wanted me to have it.”

How, I think, could my friend have ever imagined her mother’s last breath would happen like this?

Within minutes of my being knocked to the ground, the woman is out of her car, hand over her mouth in shock, apologizing and sobbing hysterically. I am hugging and comforting her. “It’s okay,” I repeat as I rub her back, “and I’m okay. I really am. I’m okay, see? I’m sorry this happened too, but here we are.” I gesture to my dog, my yellow lab at the end of her leash, panting and smiling, wagging her big yellow tail. “See, we are all okay.”

Eventually I let go and turn to brush grass clippings and leaves from my sweatpants. I check to see if there are any rips or tears, and there are not. I rub the bottom of my leg and feel a hot stinging sensation, a burning, down the side of my calf. But I don’t pull up my pants leg because I don’t want to scare her, to worry her.

Days later, I will be thankful for emails I sent within the hour because once I get over the shock of getting hit by the car, the terror of what it feels like to see a car barreling straight for me, I can barely imagine it. No matter how many times I try to reconstruct the stage, I can’t do it. I am mostly blank. I have what think is a road burn on my lower leg, but it is healing and will probably not even leave a scar. My ass aches a little where her bumper knocked me to the grass, but mostly I feel fine.

More days pass. I simply feel lucky.

The woman calls and tells me she has a confession: she never saw me at all. Never saw me, even though it was 9:30 in the morning on a bright sunny day and I was wearing a blue shirt and waving ‘hello’ and walking a big yellow dog. Unlike me, she never imagined this could happen. She tells me she only stopped because she heard a thud, and it was only when she saw me lying in the grass with my dog that she realized what had just happened. I listen quietly, but what I feel is enraged … not at her, but at her lovely lack of forethought. This is what normal people are like, I think, and this is what I envy: the luxury of true spontaneity. The lack of expectation of impending disaster.  How comforting it must be to never imagine and imagine and imagine such an event. The lack of worry and anticipation. The lack of mentally creating and dreading what-might-be.

I think back on all the energy and time I’ve spent imagining such a thing, all the times I’ve screamed at some mom driving her kids to school, imagining a very real someone running me right over, “It’s called a fucking STOP sign!” and I pause. I want to scream, but what’s the point? Maybe it never happens the way we think it will happen. I think about the time I was alone with my mother, and time wasted. I remember my mother’s last day on this earth, my purple shirt, her exposed body lying atop a white sheet, and yet what I remember most clearly, most vividly, are my mother’s hands. Her open, unassuming hands.

Is It Mother’s Day … again??



I swear these Hallmark-holidays creep up so quickly, so quietly, it feels like someone’s hiding in the thick, peaceful woods and sneaking up on me with a load of curare darts.

The other day I felt such a surge of rage on a stroll through Walgreen’s and their onslaught of Mom Cards — cards I no longer need to panic over buying (the right one) or mailing (way early so as to be On Time!) — so that as I stand in line waiting for a prescription to be filled all I can think about is that giant bank of sweet, colorful cards and what I really want to do is walk over all nonchalantly-like with my basket of waterproof, every-size Bandaids and hormones and Neosporin and Advil and knock down the whole damned display, ala that killer from No Country For Old Men, and then walk right on out and down the sidewalk and pretend it wasn’t me.

But today.

IMG_2127Today it’s the Friday before the Sunday of Mother’s Day and what I’m remembering is how funny my mom was.  How sharp.  Sarcastic and witty and irreverent she would fall down laughing — and scared of getting caught, too, like me — if we knocked down the Walgreens card display.  It’s sad for me to realize that hardly anyone I know now, 13 years after her death, knows my mom that way.  Not most of my friends.  Not my husband nor my kids.  When I got married, when she met my kids, she was already sick.  And even though she would live another 5 to 6 years, she was so tired, so beyond exhausted, so not herself.

One of the incredible things my mother left me was a book of memories, one of those silly things most people don’t bother to fill out, where there’s a question for every day of the year.  And so this Mother’s Day, to keep me from knocking over the Walgreens display, I’m going to share a few of my favorite answers to those questions:

What do you remember about your first day of school?  I cried!  I did not want to go!

Tell me about how you first knew my father (note:  I don’t know my father).  I thought he was gorgeous.  Our first date we just rode around and talked.  He was very good-looking.  Witty and fun to be with and a very good lover.  

Share a memory about a power outage.  We had power outages all the time.  Especially in the summer.  Dad would get drunk and he’d turn off the power!

What did you want to be when you grew up?  An airline stewardess.  But I was too tall.

Tell about some advice your mother gave you.  (she left his page, hilariously, blank)


And on that note, I’m sending an extra dose of love to all of you who have lost your mothers.  It never gets easier, it just gets different.

This year, I’m saying cheers to the end of curare-dart season, and to the end of that haunting, ridiculous Walgreens display.

Today I’m remembering my incredible mother.  My mother who raised me mostly on her own.  What a talent you were; what a quick wit; what an overwhelming loss.  I miss you so so much.

On The Porch


I first read Herman Wouk’s THE WINDS OF WAR about 15 years ago, and I loved it.

I loved it so much that the minute I finished its 900 pages I picked up its sequel, WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, and polished off its 900 pages too.

But 15 years ago I was not yet hooked on World War II history or its literature; I had only been to Europe for work, which is to say I had not seen much, if anything, of Italy or France or Germany or England or Poland; I had not yet signed up for a class called simply “The Holocaust”; I was about to sign up for my first college French class, where I would stay for 4 years; 15 years ago I had not yet been to Auschwitz, nor had I read any of the 34 books on my shelf about Hitler’s rise to power, the Nazi machine, or accounts by Jewish survivors.  As I sit here this first of May 2015, re-reading one of my favorite sprawling sagas, I wonder, “How could I have loved this historical novel so much when I knew so little about what’s in it?”

Sitting here on the porch with my same old broken-in 15 year old copy of THE WINDS OF WAR, I realize it was this book — this very book — that set me on my path.  So often I hear someone say the words, “I don’t read,” and yet as I sit here I wonder:  what would I have studied, where would I have traveled, whom might I have not met, what books would I have bought instead, what would I have learned, who would I even be if I had not started right here?


Tell me about a book that set you on your path.

Oh! You Pretty Things


This is officially my favorite author interview, ever. And it doesn’t hurt that Shanna Mahin‘s new novel is one of those books you can’t stop reading, your nose pressed up hard against the bulletproof and yet fragile glass called “Holllywood.”

Originally posted on Betsy Lerner:

Author Photos 005OhPrettyCover

Remember when I was blogging every day and this beautiful creature left the most amazing comments on the suck of life, the agony of writing, the sporn of love and then just us chickens traded missives about calories and other counts. Well GIVE IT UP FORShanna Mahin who has crossed over into the even purer agony of being a published author with her first novel, Oh You Pretty Things.  Only look at our girl all Elvis Costello meets Michelle Williams with that super sexy smart look.  I couldn’t be happier for you Shanna. Congrats. Yes, I’d love a comp. Hello??

And now, a little Q&A with the AUTHOR:

How old were you when you started writing.

I can’t remember when I started writing. I really can’t. I also can’t remember a single birthday party from my childhood (surely I had at least one?), half the men I slept…

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The Desk


This is my new writing desk.  I ordered this desk two months ago.  It finally arrived in a giant, heavy, cardboard box and needing assembly, for my new, empty until today, writing room.

As small as this seems in the grand scheme of all things, it’s huge for me.

For the last 9 years I’ve been writing on either the dining room table (taking my computer down and storing it during holidays when I needed the table) or in a spare room on a bedside table barely big enough for the computer and keyboard and where I used the bed behind me as my credenza (which I also had to pack up and put away when we had houseguests).

Now I have a desk.  A desk!  A real desk.  With 2 skinny drawers for pens and notes and old photos and plain M&Ms.  And my new desk is in a tiny basement closet-like room with a door that closes to work in.  To write in.  To think in.  To escape in.  To connect in.  To be in.

And, maybe just as importantly??, a place for our sweet and elderly Handsome to crawl under and keep my feet warm while I work.




Do you have a room of your own, or a room you’re dreaming years for?


Paris, Missouri


9780525427209_BettyvilleDear readers:

If you are not yet reading BETTYVILLE, and if you are not yet madly in love with its author George Hodgman, you are in for such a treat.  I’m going to be so sad when this book is over, and how often, really, do any of us say that about a book?

George Hodgman leaves his New York publishing life and heads to Missouri for his mother’s 91st birthday, and never makes it back.  BETTYVILLE is about growing up and getting older, for the both the mother and the son, and the reversal that happens when it’s time to take care of our elderly parents.  It’s about loss and love and mothers and sons and how small town life — really small, as in a thousand people small — can end up being exactly the kind of community you’ve always craved even after you moved far away to New York City to escape and live your big life.  I knew when I read sentences like this, in the first few pages, I would be hooked:

“I am an unlikely guardian.  A month ago I thought the Medicare doughnut hole was a breakfast special for seniors.  I am a care inflictor.”

“I am probably going to have to stay here in Missouri and become a horse whisperer….  Turns out I’m a person who needs people.  I hate that.”

You can listen to George Hodgman’s NPR interview with Terry Gross here, and you should because he is so incredibly charming you’ll want to read his book AND give him a giant hug and take him home with you.  Or visit him in Paris, Missouri.