What We Knew and What We Didn’t

The following piece was an assignment for a class I’m taking at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. We were asked to write from the close third person point of view where the narrator seems to be looking over the character’s shoulder and is not omniscient. Tension is heightened because the reader knows what’s coming but the characters don’t.

In honor of the 14th anniversary today, I’m sharing this exercise with you. I hope you’ll remember with me the shock and uncertainty of that day and ponder all we now know – or maybe still don’t know – about what 9/11 means to each of us and to our country.

After fifteen years on the labor and delivery deck, Marjorie had earned the perk of working the 11 am to 7 pm shift. She loved it because she got off at a reasonable hour to have dinner with friends and she got enough of a morning to get lots done. On September 11, 2001, her mid-day shift meant she was able to be home for delivery of the rug she had sent out to be cleaned.

The carpet guy rang the doorbell just after 9:00 am, exactly as the company had scheduled. Marjorie was already a little miffed because this delivery day was a week past the date the cleaning company had originally promised. Her parents were flying in to visit in a couple of days and she wanted her living room back in order. Why couldn’t you count on the world to be dependable any more? At least this guy was on time.

The tall, sinewy man with a buzz cut went right to it and unrolled the room-sized rug with a single flip. After the last wrinkle was smoothed out, he straightened up with the surprising grace of a yogi.

“So, what I think is we’re under attack. This is war. Who knows where they’re going to hit next,” he said.

“Excuse me? What?”

“The planes flying into those buildings in New York. Haven’t you had the TV on? I was just at my last house and the lady there was watching CNN. You should turn it on.”

The first image on the screen was of the South Tower imploding inside an enormous grey column of billowing smoke and dust. The announcer’s voice was measured, reporting just the facts that they could confirm or see from news helicopters. Marjorie reminded herself to slow her breathing, trying to take it all in and not panic. She had patients waiting for her at the hospital, colleagues needing to be relieved. She had to continue to move through her morning to get to work.

Who knew what was about to happen, what city would be the next target? She thought of the important military installations in Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain and all. Massive numbers of casualties could quickly overwhelm their health care facilities and overflow to the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver where she worked. She was on the hospital’s list of personnel with SUVs who were available to be called in for a disaster in any weather. All those years on a high risk labor and delivery deck had taught her to be ready for anything, babies or moms going south in a nanosecond. She had a reputation for being calm in the face of volatile life or death situations.

Thankful once again that there were scrubs waiting for her at the hospital, she watched the coverage as long as she could, skipped her shower, ran a brush through her hair and headed in.

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Struggling with the Downside of Atheism

Being an atheist has some significant drawbacks in this culture, especially in times like now when a dear friend is suffering a life-threatening illness. Most people aren’t public about not believing in God, so I often feel alone, on the outside of a caring community of believers who offer great comfort to each other. Painful social stigmas are attached to nonbelievers in some circles and I’ve certainly experienced that. But when it feels worst are in times of peril or sorrow when my Christian or other religious friends deal with their helpless feelings by invoking the power of their god through prayer. I don’t have that option.

I don’t pray. I don’t believe that there is a Higher Power to pray to. And if there were, I don’t believe he/she/it would be persuaded by people asking him/her/it for favors. What, does someone get to recover their health and live because enough people prayed for them, or the right people, the anointed, prayed for them? I hear my religious friends urge everyone to pray for someone as if one more person would be the deciding vote. How could anyone believe in an omnipotent god who decides people’s fate like that? Sorry, I’m not trying to judge. I’m honestly not able to understand that. And, yeah, I’m upset. And scared.

Don’t get me wrong. I think prayer is a good thing, not because it causes a god to do something but because of what it does for the one praying. It focuses their heart on someone who needs support and that’s of real value. Most people believe their god works through ordinary people so prayer means friends are paying attention to the person in need and that is very powerful, regardless of whether you believe in a god that will do something miraculous or not. I honestly hope the believers in my friend’s circle of support will continue praying.

My spiritual life centers around gratitude and mindfulness. I’ve always wished there were a box at the end of the choices – Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu – that said Grateful. Gratitude for an atheist is admittedly ironic since there’s no belief in someone to be grateful to. I just am grateful, to my core, as a default place I always return, and that works for me. In this instance, I am grateful for this friend, for her care and love for me across more than a decade. The spiritual path I try to walk is mindfulness. I learn, time and again, that there is room in my heart for all emotions, including sorrow and fear, hopelessness and powerlessness. Negative emotions (“upset. And scared.”) do not have to be fought with and defeated or relieved in some way. They just are. They exist right alongside love and joy and hope. For me, to be human is to accept and live inside the full continuum of human feelings.

I still struggle with what to say when others are saying “I’ll be praying for you.” My daughter has taught me the Quaker phrase “holding you in the light” which I love. I often say “I’m holding you in my heart”, pretty much the same thing. I don’t believe in a Higher Power and certainly don’t have any influence with one if I’m wrong about that. All I’ve got to offer are my compassion and acts of support. All I have is my love.

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A Kick in My Writerly Rump

From Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column in The Rumpus, reprinted in Tiny, Beautiful Things:

"Be brave. Write what’s true for you. Write what you think. Write about what confuses you and compels you. Write about the crazy, hard, and beautiful. Write what scares you. Write what makes you laugh and write what makes you weep. Write what makes you feel ashamed or proud. Writing is risk and revelation. There’s no need to show up at the party if you’re only going to stand around with your hands in your pockets and stare at the drapes."

Stay tuned.

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“Older Ladies”

This is an absolutely true, spot-on reminder of how to celebrate and embrace our older bodies. I, for one, plan to play this delightful music video daily for a while. Check it out and consider doing the same – the least you’ll get is your broadest smile!


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For Josh, Duncan, David, Malcolm, Lee and Phil

Today I celebrate you six magnificent men who father my beloved grandchildren. When I think of how you love them, what I see is their faces and your love in all its forms reflected there.

The full-on glee when you’re blowing raspberries into their soft baby bellies or roughhousing with them down on the floor;
The intense concentration when you’re teaching them something they want to learn, to work a chunky wooden puzzle or take the ready position in right field;
The beam of pride when you’ve praised them for that first terrifying swing all the way across the monkey bars or the enormous accomplishment that is graduating high school;
The small nod and quick, acknowledging smile when you’ve cheered their soccer goal or all out effort in a swim race;
The wide-eyed wonder as you’re explaining how to flip a pancake or where India is on a map;
The way their faces soften and quiet from tears of terror or pain or anger as you hold their small heads against your broad shoulders, patting them gently on the back for as long as it takes;
The explosion of joy when they run to greet you at the door, “Daddy’s home!”

It happens every day, in countless ways, many of which you may not see but we, their mothers and grandparents, we see. How you play with them, teach them, support them, comfort them and love them. But most of all, how you model for them how to be a parent and how to be a human being. For all these reasons, I love you and thank you, today and every day.

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David Seawell’s Tribute to Tom McCoy

My son David writes a blog of which I am extraordinarily proud at http://bustedclutch.com. Here is a sample that I hope encourages you to become a follower. Tom and I would love that.

He Was Here

For Thomas McCoy

He was here in the room the day I was born.547281_10151420780697017_357538899_n

He was here for my first play in high school, and my last performance in college. He was here the night I met a girl, and here the day I married her. He was here, here with me.

He was here when I found writing. He greeted my words like he would greet my kids, with love and pride and laughs. He nurtured them. Corrected and chided them when they were lazy or overly cute. He sat with them and cared for them, and showed me how to do the same. When fear or doubt made me run away to law, or to being busy, or just away, he gently reminded me of responsibility, and teasingly reassured me of my capacity to fulfill it. I write at all because when I wrote he was here, here with me.

He was here and pointed me to Conrad’s Preface, DeLillo’s Noise, and Kafka’s Hunger. His gifts, for every occasion, were words of his own. Full tender words of humor and depth. Words that showed how beautiful he was here. Here with us.

He was here that night I needed him most. Hours earlier and hundreds of miles away, I doubled over from the thought of losing him before I could say goodbye. After three years of being sick, his body fell out from under him. The pain, and the medicine, and the pain from the medicine closed in on his hospital bed. He fought through all that awful with jokes and tears, and he was here when I pushed through the hospital, and gave him the only words I had, “Tom, I’m here.”

Today, he is not anywhere, not anymore. He is not in days or places, just words. He is here.

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The Thankfulness of Anticipation

Recently I have been faced with two friends threatened by despair, one from a horrific diagnosis and the other an impending divorce. Turning inward, I searched for words, any meager words of solace and support, and found only a familiar, powerless emptiness. Then I remembered that a writer I revere had just the words of hope and healing I had been looking for.  I sent both of them this quote from Barbara Kingsolver in “High Tide in Tuscon”:

In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.

One of those friends told me she had shared the quote with her family and they were putting it into practice together. Once again I marveled at the power of art flowing from the artist to me, then through me to the next concentric circle out, and on and on.

Last week I watched Daniel Day Lewis animate the complex, tortured, noble life of Abraham Lincoln with a brilliance I can hardly comprehend. On a continuum of my interests, movies would be in the cluster at one end while historical anything would be as far away as possible on the other. I am grateful for Lewis’ portrayal that allowed me to access all the interwoven threads of the amazing tapestry of that man’s life and heroism as no college history course (which I consistently avoided), battlefield visit (as interesting to me as sitting down and watching its grass grow) or nonfiction Civil War  bestseller (so many books, so little time and none for these) ever could.

In this my favorite season, a time of thankfulness for the universe of gifts that enrich our lives, I want to remember the artists who work courageously every day, never giving up, to bring to us their works of beauty, insight, power, hope, comfort and joy. I’m sure it’s because I struggle to use my far lesser talents in service to these same goals, but I am keenly aware of their talent and effort this time of year. When I’m a little down, I try to remind myself that at that very moment there are artists all over the world working on creations that some time in the near future will bring me pleasure, reassurance, understanding, and appreciation for all that is best in life. Some time today, one or many of my artist/heroes will find that germ of a new creative idea, see the world from an exciting new angle, break through a paralyzing barrier, allow a character to make a surprising transformation, hear at last the perfect harmony, or write the words that perfectly express the humanity in all of us.

New books, films, paintings, photographs, poems, music, even wearable art, recipes and blog posts, are lined up in the creative pipeline. Anticipating the joy of receiving them fills me with thankfulness.

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