MY MISTER ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD

I’m now living in a kind of neighborhood that I thought only existed on the Mister Rogers TV show. For instance, years ago, when I moved to Connecticut, I walked over to my immediate neighbor on the right to introduce myself. I guess she must have seen me come up her driveway, because she met me outside her back door, standing there with her arms crossed over her chest, prison matron-like. She barked, “What do you want?”

I backed up a step, put my hands up in surrender and stammered, “I…we just moved in and…I just…wanted to say hello.”

“Well, we didn’t have any trouble with the people who lived in your house, so I hope we don’t have any trouble with you.”

“Uhuh. Well, nice meeting you,” I said with probably a touch of sarcasm as I backed carefully onto the road. That was my only attempt to get to know my neighbors. I decided to wait for someone to come to me, but nobody brought an apple pie to my door. Though I lived there over 30 years, I never learned the names of the people nearby.

Then I moved to my little complex in Florida. As I was unpacking the car, a woman walked up the driveway. “Welcome to Pinebrook,” she said with a big smile. How nice. We chatted for a bit. She invited me over to her villa for tea where she gave me restaurant tips and explained how things worked with the board of directors, etc.

When I left in the late spring to go home to sell my house, she offered to look after my villa. She even collected my mail and called me if something looked important. I’d tell her to go ahead and open it, and she would fax it to me if necessary. Actually, she helped me out for two whole summers before I became a full-time resident. She refused any kind of payment.

The people in this honest-to-god neighborhood are kind and helpful and not at all gossipy or nosy. One day when I was in the pool, I told a woman that I was thinking of buying a bike even though I had not been on one in longer than most people on earth have been alive. “You can have mine!” she said brightly. “I don’t use it any more. I’m never going to ride again.”

“Really? Well, only if you let me pay for it!”

“No! Don’t be silly. Saves me the trouble of taking it to the thrift store.”

So, I took her bike. It was a little rusty, like me, but worked fine—like me. So, though scared to death at first, I began enjoying it and then loving it. I feel twelve years old as I ride up and down my little street. Second childhood has arrived, and it’s fun.

Yesterday, I was swimming alone in the pool. A man came up to the fence and asked, “Did you lose these?” He was holding up a sheet of postage stamps. “I found them here by the mail boxes.”

“No.” I stopped for a moment.

“See anyone else come by while you were swimming?”

“Yes,” I said. “Fran and Joan came by for their mail.” I know people now. I learned their dogs’ names first—like Gizmo, Adelaide, Tucker, Aspen. But I didn’t know this man who was a new owner. He introduced himself, “Hi. I’m Darren. My wife’s name is Cathy.”

“Oh, yes. Lovely woman!” I called out as I dogpaddled in place. “Met her at breakfast this morning!” She had sent out a group email, and six of us managed to roll out of bed to get to a restaurant by 7:30 am. We’re going to do it again next month (a little later, so a few more might show up.)  

He left to go see if one of the women I had mentioned had lost the stamps. I continued to swim marveling that he didn’t do a “finders/keepers” and take them. They were, after all, just lying on the sidewalk.

I swam on feeling utterly blessed to be living here. I thought about a few weeks before when some women put together a buffet for Fran’s visiting family and friends after the funeral of her husband who died suddenly.  I made some quiche and soup to take. It felt good to do something so, well, neighborly.

I got out of the pool, and as I was drying off, noticed my purse and remembered that I, too, had stopped at the mailboxes. Uh oh. I looked inside for the new stamps that I had bought.  When I couldn’t find them, I laughed, phoned Darren and left a message, “Well, if there is just one missing, they may be mine after all!”

Later, as I was making dinner, I heard a knock on the door. It was Cathy, bringing me the stamps. Mr. Rogers would have approved.

 Early this morning, while I was riding back and forth on my little street, I saw Peggy, the woman who had given me the bike, walking down the driveway in her nightgown to collect the newspaper (no need for shyness here. It is a cul-de-sac and we’re all friends). I stopped and thanked her again. She smiled. She has the kind of sweet face that takes a lifetime of goodness to mold. “So glad you’re enjoying it,” she said. We chatted a bit about how much we love living here.

I rode on singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…” and wished everyone lived in a Mister Rogers neighborhood too.

 

TALKING TO SMOKERS

How does one have a conversation with  smokers about their addiction? It’s really hard. Just a mere mention of someone’s addiction, any addiction, is dangerous. When you stick your neck out, you can get your head verbally guillotined. I know. My sister would get so angry if I said anything about her smoking. Occasionally, I would dare to gently broach the subject with her, but she would tell me to shut up. There was no overcoming her resistance.

She continued to smoke right up through her long decline and horrible death by lung cancer.

I get very upset seeing people smoke because so many of my family and friends have died from cigarette-related diseases: lung cancer, throat cancer, heart attacks. Cigarettes have broken my heart many times, so I am far from dispassionate about the issue.

I KNOW how hard it is to give up cigarettes. I managed to do it in 1971 after smoking for years. It was one of the toughest things I ever did. Cold turkey. No patches back then. For me, the physical withdrawal was easier to get over than the emotional attachment I had to them.

Cigarettes deaden us even before they actually kill us. They create a dull haze that smothers sensations and emotions. When I stepped out from behind that smoke screen, I unleashed a lot of fire inside me.  But, in facing my feelings, I became more fully and completely alive. It was excruciatingly difficult, but oh so worth it.  It helped me to quit when I woke up to the fact that I was being completely controlled by that addiction. That little white stick had me by the short hairs. I got really mad about that. Then it occurred to me to quit for the same reasons I started: that I would be more sophisticated, glamorous, and fashionable—but as an ex-smoker.

Some people are lucky. Once they decide to quit, they just do. My mother and my aunt were like that. I wasn’t. When I finally managed to give them up, I knew how dangerous it was to toy with this addiction, so I vowed never to touch one again, or to allow myself to be lured by that insidious thought, “Oh, just one won’t hurt.” I have known people who, after giving up cigarettes for years, pick one up, smoke it, and get hooked all over again.

A very dear friend of mine is a long-time smoker. She has many reasons why she doesn’t want to give them up—like, “I’m too old. I’ll get fat.” When she said, “And, besides, I love smoking.” I wanted to scream, “I LOVED SMOKING TOO! NOBODY GIVES UP SMOKING BECAUSE THEY HATE IT!!!!!” But I didn’t. I managed to say that quietly.

Horribly, she keeps on smoking in spite of the fact that she suffers from COPD, a lung disease caused by cigarette smoking. It is so severe that she has been visited by EMT crews five or six times over the recent years. Suddenly, she will slip into a terrifying state of being unable to breathe, becoming so weak she can’t even call for help. Fortunately, she wears a panic button around her neck. She pushes it, responders come and rush her to the hospital where doctors and nurses fix her up enough to send her home.

After these frightening episodes, she gives up cigarettes until she gets over her fright, and then starts right in smoking again. It makes me weep. One might ask, “How could she keep on smoking?”  Like my sister, smoking doesn’t make her a bad person. She’s a lovely, generous, intelligent woman. She has just been cruelly snared into one of the most powerful addictions on earth. Unfortunately, like my sister, she has made it quite clear to me that she doesn’t want to talk about it.

Yesterday I got an email from her. She was in the hospital again. She had had another COPD episode. How awful. I phoned her when she got home and managed to say quietly, “Barbara. Is there anything you can do to prevent these attacks?”

“Well, I could give up cigarettes, I suppose.”

The topic was opened. I continued carefully. “You know I love you. I would do anything in the world to support you to give up cigarettes.” We were able to talk about it for a bit. I told her that the way I finally was able to give them up on the fourth try was to understand how evil cigarettes are and that everything about them is a lie.

Of course, she knew that the advertisements years ago lied: “We’re going to make you more attractive and glamourous. You’ll be sexy. Every man (or woman) will find you irresistible. You will be sophisticated if you smoke. Start smoking now.” We had all believed that back then. We had seen doctors recommending certain brands. She might even have glimpsed the ad with Ronald Reagan smilingly holding up packs of Chesterfields or heard  the ridiculous nonsense that menthol cigarettes would be better for you. We had both started smoking before learning that every one of those advertisements was a dastardly lie. It took some time, but the truth was finally exposed that cigarette smoking had led to and would continue to lead to the deaths of untold millions.

Even though, eventually, companies were forced to stop those advertisements and print warnings on packs, smokers continued to smoke, because, by then, we were all addicted. The lying ads were gone, but those demonic little white sticks continued the lies in their own way: “Hey! Don’t worry. You’re not going to die from me. Really. I’m your best friend, I’m there when no one else is. I lift your mood when you’re feeling down. I calm you when you’re upset or excited. I’m always there for you. I make you feel better in every way, don’t I? And isn’t it great that I help you keep your weight down? Mmmmm. You love smoking me, don’t you? Let’s relax and hang out together. I’m your go-to good feeling. Don’t worry about that cough. Grab a light. Inhale deeply, because, baby, you NEED me. And, like the song says, ‘You belong to me.’”

Of course, no one hears that soft, seductive voice, because it is too buried in our addicted brain where we are also oblivious to the fact that we have become co-conspirators with cigarette companies in the mission of our murder. We sink into a hideous death while they get rich. Our loss doesn’t matter because there are always more potential addicts. Here’s their latest policy: “We’ll give cigarettes to children in poor countries. Eventually, they’ll pay for them even if they don’t have food. It’s an entirely new, money-making market!” The whole business is so ghastly, it’s beyond comprehension, really.

I told my dear friend that she must view cigarettes as so awful and nasty that she will not even touch one. She must hate them and see them for exactly what they are. I emphasized again how much cigarettes lie to us in order to trap us into this hideous addiction.

And then an idea occurred to me based on what I knew about her. “Barbara,” I said, “Cigarettes lie to you in the same way Donald Trump does. Think of them that way.”

She laughed. “No one could hate Donald Trump more than I do.”

“Fine!” I said, “You need to hate cigarettes even more than you hate him and his lying ways.”

Listen. If I thought she loathed Hillary Clinton as much as she does Trump, I’d encourage her to use that. I don’t care. It’s way beyond politics for me. I just hope that stirred her to action.

Later, I met some friends for dinner. I told them how despairing I was that I was about to lose yet another person I loved to cigarettes. They commiserated and I was gently distracted by other topics and delicious food.

When we left, I saw a woman standing in front of my car smoking a fucking cigarette. She was lovely—blond, well-dressed, but standing there alone, puffing away. I guess my one glass of wine had stripped away the few inhibitions I have left at my age. I walked right up to her, looked into her blue eyes and said with as much tenderness as I could muster, “You have to stop smoking.”

She looked a bit startled and said, “Nobody has ever said that to me before.”

We talked some more. And, then to my horror, she said that three health professionals had told her that she was too old to stop. “That’s crazy.” I said. “Every day you don’t smoke, your body heals. It’s that simple.” Then, on impulse I went through my spiel about how cigarettes lie to you–“like Trump,” I blurted out daringly, having no idea what her politics were. But it perked her up. She declared with vehemence, “How could any intelligent woman with any sense at all have voted for him!”

I didn’t get derailed and countered with, “How could any intelligent woman with any sense at all continue to smoke?” She sighed, nodded, put out her cigarette and left. Who knows? Maybe I made a difference. Maybe if smokers were approached by strangers who said quietly, “You need to stop smoking.” Maybe….someday, there would be a tobacco-free world. What a beautiful dream.

THE THRILL OF CLOUDS

The strands of tropical storm Alberto raced around the sky like the skirts of twirling Sufi dancers. Overhead, charcoal-colored clouds close to the ground sprinted by with breathtaking speed. Above them, lighter gray shapes rolled by more slowly. Occasionally there were breaks in both that exposed the blue sky high above delicately laced with wispy, seemingly-unmoving dots of white.

I watched it all from a comfy chair in a sheltered niche in my courtyard where the warm, humid tropical wind was flinging about the fronds of my pygmy palm. As I sipped my morning tea, I found it all so dramatic and thrilling that I had trouble just being with such wild energy. So I tried to capture it on video. Soon I gave up, knowing I could not include the whole panorama: the sensation of the wet tropical air, the hawks playing in the currents under the clouds, nor the connection I felt with the little brown lizard sitting quietly on the bricks with his head up, also looking at the sky.

Relaxing back on the soft cushions of my swivel rocking chair, I surrendered to the exciting intensity of the morning. I could imagine myself one of those birds with unflapping wings gliding and wheeling effortlessly above.

Eventually, the call of breakfast brought me back to earth. I watched my egg boil and marveled at the miraculous nature of water. It cooks my food and freezes to preserve it. Amazing.

My stomach satiated, I decided to trim my dwarf bougainvillea in the little garden area. As I had learned, plants grow in warm, humid Florida like nothing I had ever seen in the northeast. Just as I got hot and sweaty snipping away at the stems, the clouds graciously cooled me down with light sprinkles of gentle rain. But, when they decided I’d had enough, they unleashed a tropical downpour that sent me scurrying inside. I was done anyway.

After I dried off, nature upped her game with an impressive thunderstorm, so I tucked into an episode of Stranger Things—which I thought best to do during daytime to ward off weird dreams at night.  Accompanied by the rumble of thunder and torrential rain on the roof, a young girl floated in salt water on my computer screen. Somehow that water enabled her to slip into a terrifying world of monsters. It mercifully ended along with the storm outside.

The sun came out. I went for a swim in my salt water pool. Happily, I was not suddenly transported to a dark world of slimy stuff. Instead, above me, in a sky of richer blue than I ever remember seeing, mountainous forms of puffy white floated by serenely. I think I heard a hint of harp music from angels lolling about on top of them. I swam for an hour in the miraculous element that wonderfully enables me to defy gravity. Amazing!

That evening, I ventured to the beach at sunset. It was obvious that Alberto, out beyond the horizon, was churning up the usually calm Gulf into an imitation of Atlantic rough seas. The booming sound and sight of crashing waves on the shore was exhilarating.

A gangly, pre-teen black boy caught my eye. Sitting in the water’s edge, he was wearing clothes rather than a bathing suit, but he didn’t seem to care. He had not reached the age of self-consciousness. At first the boy let the water wash over him just a little. Then he jumped up and walked further into the surf where a breaking wave knocked him down. He loved it. I worried a bit that he would get caught in undertow, but his big strong father was standing nearby keeping a close eye on him.

It seemed as if the energy of the sea increased the boy’s own high spirits. He began running along the sand as if unable to contain his bliss. He did flips. He tumbled and rolled in the water and laughed when a wave crashed on top of him. He was like a young puppy scampering wildly just for the sheer pleasure of it and need to move. His joy was contagious. I laughed with him.

Ah, water! Yes, it can do fearsome damage. Too much or too little is not a good thing, but it serves us in so many miraculous ways. What a blessing. I know I will take it for granted again, but just for this Walt Whitmanesque moment, I celebrate it. Amazing!

 

 

Radio Interview with Marie Stanich LaBrosse

I post this radio interview in the hopes that some young actor, in the beginnings of a career, will benefit from listening to the ploits and exploits of an aging actress. I learned something valuable years ago when I tuned into a Horton Foote interview as I was driving my car. His advice: “If you’re an artist, live simply. Live frugally. When you make money, save it. Create an FU Fund that will enable you to say NO.”

I took that to heart right then and there and lived well but prudently, learning to sew, cut my own hair, and even mow my lawn. Being thrifty enabled me to say NO to doing any more commercials after I admitted to myself that I hated auditioning for and doing them. My agents despaired when I turned down plays or film roles that I did not like but I kept my NO. Oh, I lapsed once or twice saying YES when I really should have said NO and paid for it in the coin of depression. As a result, over the years I carved out a career of which I am proud, and I worked with some of the great people and talents in show business. I hope that this radio interview will inspire and help some fellow actor out there somewhere. 

Even if you’re not an actor, please feel free to listen if you wish. Perhaps you’re like a friend of mine who has great difficulty going to sleep but finds the human voice a soothing soporific. To you, god bless and sleep well.

Here are the links:

E. Katherine Kerr Part 1

E. Katherine Kerr Part 2

A FAIRY TALE

Once upon a time, Little Elaine was very sad, and life seemed to be an awful thing. Sometimes, she wished she had never been born.

One night a terrible nightmare woke her up. When she opened her eyes, she saw a beautiful fairy lighting up the room with magical, pink light. The lovely being held a wand and wore a sparkling, diaphanous pink and gold and purple gown that wafted prettily around her as she floated through the air.

The small child sat up amazed and delighted when the spirit sat next to her and took one of her hands in her own. The touch felt warm and comforting to Little Elaine, who looked up full of wonder into the spirit’s blue, gentle eyes. “Are you my fairy godmother?” she asked hopefully.

“Yes, I am, darling girl,” the fairy said in a musical, soft voice. “And I’ve come tonight because I thought this would be a good time to tell you about your wonderful future.”

“Am I ever going to be happy?” the little girl said with eyes brimming over with tears.

“Oh, yes!” the fairy said quickly. “You are going to have an amazing life. You’ll be an actress in lots of plays and some films. Best of all, you’ll meet and know many, many wonderful people. You’ll go on exciting adventures to countries like England and France and China and many other places. You’ll have oodles of pets that you’ll love dearly. And you will become a teacher, and that will fill you with joy. And you will live for a long, long time—much longer than you can possibly imagine right now. And then, you will live in Florida, and…”

The little girl squealed with excitement. “Live there?! Not just go there at Christmas to see Grandpa and Grandma?!”

“The Fairy Godmother nodded. “That’s right. And when you are older, you will have your own lovely little home not far from the beach.”

“Oooooh,” The little girl wiggled happily. “I love the beach!”

“And there will be a pool right across from your new home that you will have almost always all to yourself.”

“Really, really, really?!” Little Elaine asked in breathless wonder.

“I promise. And it will be heated to a lovely, warm temperature, so you won’t turn blue like you do now when you go swimming in the cold one in the park.”

The little girl reached out and hugged the fairy godmother. “Oh, that sounds wonderful!”

The fairy godmother kissed her on the forehead, “Now go to sleep. Tomorrow you won’t remember anything I’ve told you.”

The little girl frowned. “That’s no good. I want to remember it tomorrow when I wake up. I’m mad at you.”

The fairy godmother reached out and stroked the little girl’s head. “I’ll tell you what. Sometime in the year 2018, I’ll come back and remind you, okay?”

The little girl stuck out her lower lip. “That’s too many years from now! I can’t even count how many. It’s way too long.”

The Fairy Godmother laughed gently, “It will be here sooner than you would ever believe possible. Now go to sleep, darling.” She waved her wand. The little girl’s eyes dropped shut.

And with that, the beautiful Fairy Godmother disappeared in a puff of sparkles.

Many, many years later, in fact, in the spring of 2018, an older woman woke in the middle of the night from a dream about reuniting with pets who had died many years ago. She felt very sad.

When she opened her eyes, she was startled to see a pink light filling the room. She sat up and gasped at the vision of a beautiful fairy in the doorway. “Oh my God!”

“Don’t be afraid, Katherine. I like the name you chose for yourself, by the way. Better for you than Elaine.”

The woman pressed herself against the back of the bed, open-mouthed and speechless.

The fairy laughed with a merry tinkling sound. “Interesting how much less afraid children are of magic, isn’t it?”

Katherine clutched at the covers. “What do you want? Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“I promised I’d come back. So here I am. Don’t you recognize me?”

Katherine’s eyes blinked quickly as a vague memory emerged from the recesses of her mind. “Oh! Yes! I do! You’re my fairy godmother!”

“That’s right,” The fairy floated over to the bed. “Remember what I told you?”

Flashing memories of that night long ago made Katherine sit up erect. “Yes! Yes!” she swept her gray hair back off her sleepy face as she recalled everything the fairy had said those many years ago. “I had totally forgotten!”

The fairy sat on the bed and crossed her legs. “So, it’s all turned out the way I said it would, hasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Katherine frowned suddenly, with the same expression she once had as a child. “But, you didn’t tell me about all the heartaches and losses and challenges I would have along the way!”

“Well, no,” the fairy smiled gently and reached for Katherine’s hand. “But you got through them, didn’t you? With a lot of help, of course. And all of them have made you stronger, wiser, and more compassionate, haven’t they?” Katherine was surprised to see the fairy’s eyes fill with tears as she whispered, “But, I know. Life can be very hard and very scary sometimes.”

The compassion Katherine felt emanating from this lovely spirit made her own eyes fill with tears. They looked deeply at one another for a moment, then the fairy patted Katherine’s hand gently and sat back, “But let’s remember the good things now. That’s why I’m here—to remind you.”

Katherine nodded, fluffed her pillow and sat up more comfortably. “You’re right. And truthfully, I am deeply grateful for all the wonderful things I have had and have, but….” Katherine hesitated. “Let me ask you—are you here because I’m dying?”

The fairy threw back her head and laughed. The sound rang like bells. “Oh, death, death, death. You all worry so much about that.”

Katherine sat up and hugged her knees. “Well, then, tell me about death and what comes after.”

“Of course,” the fairy said.

And so, until the sky turned light enough to silhouette the branches of the oak tree outside the window, Katherine’s fairy godmother answered all her questions about life and death. Then Katherine fell asleep.

The next morning as she drank her cup of tea, Katherine felt very peaceful even though she could not remember anything the fairy had told her.
****
Has your fairy godmother revisited you yet to remind you that all the wonderful things she once told you about your life have come true? Or does she need to?

The Stuff of Life

Is it me or is life getting more complicated?

It seems that every day there is something I must do to forestall entropy and chaos. Not just laundry, grocery shopping, meals, and personal hygiene…but THINGS!  Seems there are constant computer, phone, and program updates that require time and fussing with.

 

Here’s what I did yesterday:

  1. Activated updated credit card.
  2. Put new light bulb in the cabinet.
  3. Paid home insurance.
  4. Put new clapper in a toilet.
  5. Re-subscribed to theater tickets.
  6. Ordered new filter for fridge.
  7. Changed all the clocks from (or to?) Daylight Savings

That’s just one day. Not hard. Not serious. But collateral time-wasting. Like, I will have to go on every website where I use my credit card to update that information. And then put in the new filter when it arrives.  And, of course, it sounds easy to go around the house and change the clocks, but the digital clock next to my bed that I really like is old and has developed one minor flaw. It can only change hours but not minutes. So I have to set an alarm to just a minute before the hour to quickly unplug the clock, plug it back in, and then rapidly reset the hour. And so, I did and have done for years.

That’s not my only struggle with time shifting. I also had to go on YouTube and find out how to change the time on my little waterproof watch that has four mysterious buttons only the Chinese understand. I found an excellent video by a very knowledgeable little girl of single digit years. She also cleared up for me which buttons to push to get out of a 24-hour system that I had been stuck in since the last time I changed the damn thing. Ah, dealing with stuff. It’s neverending!

I try to simplify. I took the time to go on www.catalogchoice.org and filled out forms to eliminate catalogues that junk up my mailbox. (If anyone knows how to get Red Plum to stop sending me crap, let me know. It didn’t work.) Robo calls ring on my phone. I never answer a number I don’t recognize. And I block them assiduously. But telemarketers just get new phone numbers and keep calling and punching little holes in my peace. Do they believe that I am ever going to answer their frigging phone calls?

The problem is, I seem to have acquired so many more gadgets in my life—like the water filter in the refrigerator. It’s nice to have. The water tastes great and is probably healthier, but it has to be changed every year. Now, that’s not difficult, but it seems like there are gazillions of things that need periodic attention. No wonder there are best-selling books about decluttering. No wonder people are moving into tiny coffin-sized houses. I have certainly downsized, but I seem to have acquired more stuff in the process—like the garage door opener which I have already had to replace along with my cell phone last week.

The problem is: I love all my gadgets. It’s great having a computer and a cell phone and an air conditioner. I can’t imagine living without them. So, I guess keeping them in working order is the price I have to pay.

Uh oh. My cell phone just dinged. A reminder. Time for the yearly change of batteries in all the smoke alarms. I’d better stop complaining and get on with it.  But how am I going to replace the one way up high on my living room ceiling? I’ll have to get out a very tall ladder. Hope I don’t fall. I don’t want my obit to read that I died changing batteries in my smoke alarms.  Well. Wish me luck. Maintenance can be dangerous. And good luck to you, too, with all your stuff.

The Poet in the Coffee Shop

The handsome poet turned to me, “You believe in sanity, don’t you?” His smile was a kind of smirk. We were sitting in Le Figaro café at MacDougal and Bleecker Street in New York City drinking Constant Comment tea.

I frowned. What a question. My mouth dropped open in shock. I felt as if I had been intellectually slapped. Well, I was in my mid-twenties and new to Greenwich Village. He was a brooding, blue-eyed, thirty year old. I wanted to impress him, but I had been minted in middle-class Indiana in the mid-fifties. I was a good girl with no sophistication. I had never even heard of Constant Comment tea. Was I stupid to “believe in sanity?” Is that something one actually believes in anyway? All I said to him was, “Uh, yeah. Don’t you?”

But I never forgot that moment or that question. Now more than 50 years later, I’m still pondering it.   I think there’s a shit load of insanity going on right now. Do I still believe in sanity? Yes. But what is it?  

Well, after many years of living, here’s my answer to that gorgeous but smug poet: 

To me, sanity is being present in one’s body, owning all one’s feelings without projecting them onto anyone or anything else.

Insanity is not being present and lashing out of anger or hurt or fear.

Sanity is telling the truth simply and directly without attack.

Insanity is lying.

Based on what I believe sanity is, I have no choice but to declare our present President insane.

Christmas Redux

December 25. 1942. Bing Crosby is singing White Christmas on the radio. The world is at war and we’re losing. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor just over a year ago. England is in imminent danger of being conquered and destroyed by the Nazis. It’s a perilous time.

I am five years old. My family is gathered in the big room at my Uncle Harry and Aunt Vera’s lovely home in Indianapolis. Everyone is there—except Daddy.  No one talks about it. We are opening presents from a pile under the big tree with multi-colored lights. Most of them are for us kids: me, my sister, Eloise, nine years old and my older cousins: Bill and Harry Junior. I am the youngest.

My father, John Francis Kerr, is not there because he died only four months ago. He was an Army doctor, but he wasn’t killed overseas in war. His shocking death had been from an unexpected, freak accident involving a train. I love him with all my heart. I miss him. I want him here.

I look around at the smiling faces and feel as if something is crushing me. The weight of the despair in the room falls on me. I believe I am the only one feeling sad. I have not developed the adult “skill” to cover up my emotions.

I open the present I am given and say thank you as I am trained to do. I feel terrible, but I don’t have a name for it—those names will come later: grief, devastation. I’m not sick. The scar on my stomach from the emergency appendectomy four months ago has healed, though it will remain visible for years. I cannot relate to the laughter and talk through the misery I feel. I know something is terribly wrong, but I don’t know what it is. I am not thinking about how Daddy took me to the hospital and then died five days later. I do not connect those traumatic events consciously in my young mind. I don’t have a clue how deep the scar on my psyche is. All I know is I feel bad—very, very bad and I miss Daddy very, very much. But no one else seems to because they aren’t saying it.

December 25, 1943. Bing Crosby is now singing the heart-wrenching “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams” for all the missing sons and husbands fighting this brutal war. The Allies are still losing an ever-widening, terrifying battle. The family is again at my uncle’s house. I am now six years old and overwhelmed by the same, mysterious and terrible feelings of a year ago. I do not know the cause any more than I did last Christmas. But now I judge myself because I cannot “cheer up” as my mother urges me to do so impatiently. Presents don’t make me feel better.

An inescapable depression at Christmas is becoming established. Every year, I begin to dread the Holidays. I feel like an alien—that I don’t belong in my world.. Like clockwork, I start getting the flu every year that I later call the Christmas Crud. No doubt it was my body’s attempt to bypass the Holly Jolly time. It took years and a lot of personal dredging to understand why I felt so bad come December. Now I no longer get the flu or become deeply depressed, but shadows and sadness still arise in a kind of Pavlovian response to what used to be called Xmas.

December 2017. I sit in a parking lot talking on the phone with a long-time friend who has seen me through those old feelings year after year when they resurfaced.  I feel compassion rather than judgment for my depression now.

I look out at the neon signs and Christmas lights twinkling in the early dark Florida sky. But what I see in my mind’s eye is that first Christmas after Daddy’s death. I can envision the Christmas tree over in the left corner of the room and all the people gathered in a circle.

In that long-gone room were my father’s three older siblings: Uncle Harry, Uncle Paul, and Aunt Louise. Daddy had been a surprise baby, born 11 years after Louise. He was the darling of the family, spoiled and adored. How painful his death must have been for them all. His mother and father, my Grandma and Grandpa Kerr never recovered from that blow to their hearts. Then there was my mother and my sister, whose lives, like mine, were ripped apart and changed forever. The entire room was filled with pain and grief.

As I sit in my car, my heart goes out to them in their attempt to cover up their own grief for the sake of us children—for making such a valiant effort to be in the Christmas spirit.

I talk with my friend as tears roll down my face. I am weeping for my family. I know now that as a child, I not only felt my own enormous grief, terror, and loss, but theirs as well—even though they tried so hard to cover it up with  smiles. What else could they have done, I wonder. How else could they have behaved?

Were they wrong? Were they just a part of the culture of the times? I don’t know what I would do as an adult in that situation. What does a family do now at the holidays when faced with a terrible loss that affects them all? What do you do?  I would love to hear.

Me and Irma Part Two

“What’s $15,000 compared to your life!” Marilyn waved her arms. “Let’s fly outta here! The highways are clogged with cars and there’s no gas!”  It was true. A quarter of Florida had hit the roads to outrun Irma. Marilyn looked like a scared three-year old. Normally a take-charge kinda woman, she couldn ’t take charge of Irma.

I said, “Let me go out and see if I can get your hurricane shutters closed.”

Marilyn grabbed the phone to find more charter flights with money-grubbing pilots. I went onto her beautiful screened-in lanai with pool and pulled on the folded metal panels. They wouldn’t budge. Some kind of stripping blocked the track. I couldn’t dig it out with my finger. Marilyn came outside and said excitedly. “I have found someone who will fly us to Atlanta for $10,000 each.”

I didn’t respond. “Look at this. There’s something stuck in the track here, so I can’t close the shutters.”

“I’ll call Cal across the street. He’s been really helpful.”

She went back inside while I continued unsuccessfully to close more shutters. Cal arrived, assessed the situation, left, and returned quickly with a crow bar. He was a cheerful, laid-back guy. It was good to have him around.  He pried the strips out of the tracks easily. “These are just decorative. You don’t even need them.”

The shutters pulled together smoothly, but required keys to lock them shut. Marilyn frantically searched through her new house, but couldn’t find any that fit. She made more anxious phone calls. Finally, her realtor located the former owner and called back to tell her where to look for them. She came outside waving a little Ziplock bag of keys triumphantly.  We tested them. They worked.

Cal went back to his home across the street. Having achieved something, Marilyn was calmer and looked more like the can-do woman she is. She decided she would stay.

I said, “Hey. You live in a concrete, built-to-code house with great hurricane shutters. This solid building is not going blow over. It’s the shacks with tin roofs in the islands that collapse in the wind. Stop watching the weather channel so much alone, please. We’re not going to die.”

Actually, I wasn’t so sure of that, because I had no idea what would happen if there was a huge storm surge like the one that flooded Houston during Harvey. But since I knew diddly squat about it all, I thought it best not to bring up that subject at the moment. Personally, I believed if anything was going to kill me, it was going to be fright. People said that hurricanes sound like freight trains running over you. I’m very sound sensitive and jump at the least little unexpected noise.  New York City drove me crazy with wailing sirens and the subway tunnels’ clanging banging metal-screeching assaults to my ears. So, I believed there was a good chance I would just drop dead from the sound of the wind. But, I didn’t mention that to Marilyn either.

She invited me and our mutual friends, Jeff and Trudie. to come to her house to ride out the storm. Since none of us had shutters, we all accepted. I certainly didn’t want to be alone.

Back home, I brought up the NOAA website on my computer screen and frowned at the sight of Irma’s cone edging closer. Sighing, I looked up at my windows. They’re supposed to be hurricane resistant, but that seemed wimpy now—like wearing a water-resistant watch on a scuba dive. I envisioned the glass breaking and rain and wind pouring in.

So, though exhausted from all the stress and preparations, I began carrying as much as I could into a long walk-in closet and a windowless bathroom: rugs, chairs, lamps, pictures, cushions, coffee table, end tables— everything I could lift. I was amazed at how much I could fit into those spaces.

When I finished, my living room was nearly empty. The outside courtyard was already bare. The whole place looked as if no one lived in it.

I had done everything I could to be ready for the very, very worst.

There was nothing left to do, so I made oatmeal/chocolate chip cookies and two quiches to take to Irma’s Party.

Next day I drove to Marilyn’s house with a carload of stuff. Cal had kindly arranged with his snow-bird neighbors to put my car in their empty garage. The only catch was, I wouldn’t be able to get it out if there was a loss of power because the heavily barred garage door couldn’t be lifted manually. Oh, well. Worry about that later (if I was still alive).

Jeff and Trudie put their filled-to-the-brim car in Marilyn’s two-car garage, and we settled in to wait for Monster Irma. I suggested we pace ourselves and not watch the Weather Channel a lot. Everyone agreed. I was relieved not to have to put up with those highly-energized voices and scary visuals.

We chatted and ate and launched into a prolonged period of texting and Facebooking our worried  friends up north. I was amazed how many people queried, “Are you going to be safe?”  How the hell did I know? But, it was heartwarming to be in their thoughts.

A kind of giddiness set in. Cal texted me: “Don’t go out in the wind. It could rip your clothes off.”

I wrote back, “Thanks for the tip. I’ll be sure to take them off before I go outside.”

We talked calmly, but no one was up for games. Anxiety predominated. When I admitted my fear of the noise of a hurricane, Trudie came out of her bedroom with a box of earplugs that she said were “the best in the world.” She had them on hand because of her husband’s snoring. She showed me how they molded deep into the ear to create a nearly soundproof seal.  I was deeply grateful and relieved.

As dusk approached, Marilyn, Trudie, and I stepped through a still partially-opened shutter and looked up the darkening sky. Ominous, purple clouds roiled above. An already stiff breeze was whipping the palm fronds around wildly. A palpably weird feeling hung in the air perhaps from the drop in pressure. We stood silent and grim for a moment. Then impulsively, I threw my arms up and shouted, “Irma!  Calm. The. Fuck. Down!”  We laughed, but they held me responsible for making that happen. It was a burden I wished I could fulfill.

We locked the last hurricane shutter, closed all the doors and went inside to look at the Weather Channel. The devastation in the Islands was terrible and sobering. Irma lashed at the Florida Keys as a deadly Category 4 storm.

At 4:30 Irma hit Naples 90 miles south of us.  We figured she would get to us in about 5 hours.

At 6 pm the power went out. We scrambled for flashlights and received updates about the hurricane via texts. Amazingly, as each hour passed, Irma actually did calm the fuck down, diminishing from a Category four to a three to a two as she neared us.

At 9 pm, because Irma had weakened so much, Trudie and Jeff went to rest in their bedroom. Marilyn and I hung out in hers and spoke of how terrifying the build-up to this moment had been.  At some point Irma must have arrived but barely rattled the shutters around us.  I had forgotten about the ear plugs as she feebly tapped to enter. We didn’t let her in. We didn’t have to.

Suddenly, it became eerily still outside as Puny Irma peered down at us through her empty, gargoyle eye. As we sat in the absolute stillness, I admitted that when Irma was at her worst, I had almost welcomed dying because then at least I wouldn’t have to go through another hurricane or face the terrible aftermath that was expected.

Marilyn then confessed in a whisper, “You know, I was so sure I was going to die, I only paid the minimum on my credit card.”

I burst out laughing.. Marilyn, relieved of guilt, joined me. We laughed so hard I thought we would never stop.

Me and Irma

September 11, 2017. 10 pm. The power is out. Ugly Irma is on her way. It’s too late to go to a shelter. They’re full. Nothing to do but wait. We sit in the dark talking by flashlight. Trudie and Jeff and I are at Marilyn’s house to ride out the storm: New to Florida and newly friends, none of us have ever been in a hurricane. We have stumbled our way through preparations and planning to this moment.

Each day since September 1 had become increasingly intense as Irma grew to a record-breaking monster in size and strength. A Category 5, four hundred miles wide with sustained winds at 185 miles per hour, she was predicted to flatten, rip out, and destroy Florida from the Gulf to the Atlantic. The newscasters declared her to be the worst storm ever to hit the state. We were about to be devastated.

From the beginning, I hadn’t a clue what to do—whether to go or stay. Undecided, I Googled How to Prepare for a Hurricane, copied the lists, and began taking action. I went to Publix to get the recommended 5 gallons of water per person. The atmosphere in the store was a kind of subdued hysteria, as if people were trying to control their panic. The shelves that normally held water were empty. But at the head of the aisle, a young employee was passing out gallons of water from great stacks as fast as he could. A woman piled her cart with so many my eyebrows raised. She saw me and hissed, “I have kids!” I took three gallons and decided not to buy a lot of food. I could survive on protein powder if need be. I waited in line behind a shopper who had so many canned goods, she could have fed an army. The check-out clerk was whizzing items passed the thing that beeped and smiled gently when she handed the buyer a long, long receipt.

Every day I went online to look at the NOAA Hurricane Center’s website to get their latest reports. I did not watch the Weather Channel. Personally, I think TV presenters just scare the hell out of us so we’ll keep watching. I didn’t want my growing anxiety to be pumped up by fear-inspiring newscasters. The factual information on my computer screen was scary enough as I watched wind speed go up and the graphic hurricane cone edge closer.

In my total inexperience, I had no real plan in place. The one thing I knew was that I didn’t want to go through this hurricane by myself. I considered several options: get in the car and drive up north, go to one of my friends’ houses in mid-Florida or the east coast, or simply stay here. A most surprising and generous offer to ride out the hurricane came from a lovely woman I had only previously spoken with for 15 minutes in CVS.  During that conversation, she invited me on a tour of Ringling College where she was in charge of programming. We had discussed the possibility of my teaching there. When we cancelled the next week due to Irma’s impending arrival, she invited me to shelter from the storm at her house with her, her husband, and a friend “you will like.” We would play charades. I was deeply moved by her generous offer and was seriously considering it.

Another Florida friend phoned to urge me to leave. She was frantically packing her car and leaving her rented house to drive up north. A psychic had told her she had to leave NOW!  As a homeowner, I wasn’t so ready to pack up and flee.

It seems as if life presents one opportunity after another to face up to terror. I have heard FEAR as an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. But, for me, it’s more like Future Events Appear Ruinous—like standing off stage opening night on Broadway, or listening for the doctor’s phone call, or staring at graphics of a big mother of an approaching hurricane. There were way too many days of that. Waiting was hard.

During that time, it helped to be active, but when I wasn’t—especially in the middle of the night—fearful thoughts about what was coming were almost impossible to resist. I did my best to be present with the sensations that were whirling around my body. It was a roller coaster in and out of shaky fear and calm. Given that dying in a massive hurricane was looking like a possibility, I rewrote my will, had it witnessed, and put other important papers in an in-case-I-die waterproof packet to wear around my neck if a storm surge swept me away. Hurricane Harvey’s disastrous floods in Texas were fresh in my mind. The instruction to residents to write their social security numbers with indelible ink on their arms haunted me.

On September 8 Irma’s cone moved west on the NOAA website. Now, it looked as if she was in a direct line right over my house at a whopping 155 miles per hour. By the time I thought it was a good idea to leave, it was a bad idea. A quarter of Florida’s inhabitants had jumped in their cars and were fleeing north. The highways were packed. Gas stations were running out of gas.

Marilyn,  who had only just bought a house and moved here three months ago, phoned me. Evidently, she had been watching the Weather Channel way too much and was in a clear panic. “Katherine! We’ve got to get out of here! I’ve found a guy who will fly us up to DC. It will cost us $15,000 each, but it’s worth it! Come on. Pack your bag and let’s go!”

I wasn’t going to give that kind of money to some greedy bastard. And what would I do in DC? Go up to the White House and ask them to put me up for a couple of nights? But I said, “Okay. First, let me come over and help you see if your hurricane shutters work.”  She had them, but had never tested them. “You’ll need to secure your house.”

When I got there, she grabbed me by the forearms. “Let’s go!  I’ll pay for you! Really! We have GOT TO GET OUT OF HERE!”

(to be continued)