Sandra A. Miller

Writer, Teacher, Treasure Hunter

Dragging My Feet Trying to Slow the Circles Down

Phinny is still in bed. I have no idea how late he was up hanging with friends for the last time in the easy shelter of their high school lives, but today this close-knit group will continue dispersing to faraway cities and states. Baltimore, San Diego, Montreal, Maine.

We are taking Phinny to Trinity College in Hartford. It’s a day we’ve been anticipating since he started school 13 years ago. The one we are in no way ready for.

I can just about remember back to my first day of college orientation in the fall of 1982. With the car packed for the drive to New Jersey, my mother called, “Schatzi! Let’s go!”

“You are not taking the dog!” I shouted.

“Well, what are we supposed to do?” she said, “Leave her here?”

“Yes!”

And there it was, our last fight for a long while, this one over our yappy miniature Schnauzer that my sister and I called “Shitzy.” I remember my anger that, only now, I realize must have come from a deeper place of anxiousness over starting college. Still, I was pissed.

“It’s not okay to bring a dog to the dorm,” I shouted, “and then to a reception at the president’s house.”

“You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” my mother insisted and hurried Shitzy into the car.

Last night I texted Phinny: Don’t stay out too late. Big day tomorrow.

Dad said I can stay out as late as I want, he texted back.

I let it go, determined not to have a Shitzy moment, not on his final night without the pressures and responsibilities that these next years will bring. And while I can’t remember my own last carefree night with my high school friends 35 years ago, I remember when I came back at Thanksgiving that I felt like our house had shrunk.

Most likely that emerged from my skewed perspective of living in a large dorm, but also the sense of my world expanding. Before going to college, I had hardly spent more than a few weeks away from my hometown. I knew almost no non-Catholics and wore a lot of knee-length plaid skirts.

But there I was, meeting my new roommate, Allison, who appeared for orientation in very non-Catholic leopard skin bikini shorts that made my father’s eye pop.

Allison is clearly thrilled to have me as a roommate.

Her boyfriend slept over a few nights, and pretty quickly—even before starting classes—this sheltered young coed learned a lot about life. On the second week when Allison was up jumping rope at 6 a.m., I suggested that we might consider a different living situation, with more compatible people. She darted out of the room to go knock on the door of Sid Vicious, a girl whose roommate had never showed up. They made a good pair.

For the next two years I roomed with Weynabeba, a gorgeous, 4″10″ Ethiopian girl from Geneva that everyone called Baby Weyn.

Happy roommate days with Weyn

She spoke 5 languages, and let me borrow her Benetton sweaters. Sometimes on Friday afternoons, we’d sit in the room smoking thin clove cigarettes she called bidis, and I’d feel like I had entered another world. I had.

And now it’s my son’s turn to find his people, his academic path, his footing on the soccer field. It’s time for his world to expand and for our house to shrink. Please no wild first roommates though.

It’s all as it should be, I suppose, but I never would have predicted this feeling of being gutted. Though you propel your child toward it for so many years, (get good grades, get into college), you suddenly want to, as Joni Mitchell sings, drag your feet and slow the circles down.

You can’t take it, the hollow space in your chest, and time rushing through like a strong wind.

When I go in to wake up Phinny, I look around at his room weeded of his life. I try to determine which books and treasures he’s chosen to bring, as if picking memories that could capture something of these years that he’s loved so much. That we’ve loved so much.

Finally I lean over and tousle his hair, the way I’ve been doing since he was a baby. I try to swallow all of my sadness. “Time to get ready,” I say.

                        *****

His dorm hallways echo. It’s athlete move-in day, so there’s no orientation energy and hype, just a few dozen fit-looking students with their parents dragging in armloads of stuff. We all smile warmly, but there’s not connection yet. His roommate won’t be there for another five days.

We sort out his bed and desk, then make a run to Target, a mile down the road from my childhood home in New Britain. We get him a rug, a wastebasket, and rainbow-colored junk food that I’ve never allowed in the house. He just throws boxes in the cart, clearly aware that I have no power to resist anything he asks for. Not today.

At the food counter I grab him some chicken alfredo. Since I forget to also grab a plastic fork, Phinny has to eat it using my rejected pizza crust as a scoop. Soon we are back in his room assembling and hammering. And then it’s time.

I feel this strange impulse to apologize to my boy for all of the things I didn’t teach him.

We did our best to get you ready, I want to say. I hope it was enough.

Even my parents did their best. In fact Schatzi, who ran yapping up and down the dorm hall on my college move-in day, ended up being a huge hit with all of the nervous new students. Which, in turn, gave me a boost of popularity.

But I don’t say anything to Phinny. I just watch as Mark hugs him and cries. When it’s my turn, I hold him tight.

Finally, Mark and I are preparing to leave through the heavy, institutional door, when Phinny says, “One more,” and pulls the two of us into a hug such as we have never had before. “Thank you,” he whispers.

And that’s when my heart breaks open.

You blink and this is your baby.

Some Love for the Bald Women Going Through Hell

Sisters share a pretzel and some love

When I saw the subject line “Haircut” my lips and eyes did that thing when they tighten to try and keep the feelings from just pouring out. I clicked on the email from my one-year-older sister Betsy, and it was all over. Feelings everywhere.

One and a half years ago Betsy got a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Stage III. Not good.

She was scared, more scared than any 52-year-old woman with two young kids should have to be. It was that scared that hunts you down at 3am on a continent far away, in a foreign country that isn’t your own, no matter how hard you try to make it so. The kind of scared that pokes its sharp finger at your chest and says, Hmm. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with you yet.

2016 was a long year, a crappy year as Betsy slogged through two brutal surgeries and twelve rounds of chemo in a barracks-style hospital in Munich Germany, where she has lived for eighteen years with her husband Robert. In the course of one month cancer took her uterus, her ovaries, her energy, her lust, and her spirited belief that eating like a rabbit and exercising vigorously can immunize a person against dreadful illnesses.

When all of that was gone, cancer came for her thick wavy hair.

I remember the spring afternoon that she face-timed me, bravely modeling her new wig that she’d bought in anticipation of impending baldness. “I feel like I’m wearing a dead squirrel,” she moaned.

We laughed, as we do when our hearts are breaking.

“It looks great,” I promised. “I swear.” But it didn’t. It made her look like our Midge doll from the 70’s with stiff, pop-off interchangeable wigs in odd shades of auburn. It made my sister, the most natural person I know, look disturbingly unnatural.

Betsy hates shopping, make-up, trimmings. She’s never had a pedicure, dyed her hair, or sprayed perfume behind her ears. She hyperventilates in malls. “I can’t stand this place,” she says, and we’re not even halfway across the first floor of Macy’s.

A month before her wedding to Robert in a no-frills lodge on a New Hampshire lake, I told Betsy she had to buy a dress. She tried on two and picked the less expensive one. “It’s fine,” she said, like we were choosing a leg of lamb for dinner, but not even Easter dinner.

On her actual wedding day, I ambushed her with my old veil and some lipstick. “Please don’t make me look fake!” she begged.

“With blush freakin’ rose?” I shouted, as I pinned her in a chair and swiped some color across her protesting mouth.

Sandra tries to fancy up Betsy.

Except for a few Dr. Seuss-like strands in the front that mysteriously never left, Betsy’s hair fell out completely the week after she bought the wig. But baldness, as she explained it, was the least of her problems. With toxic chemicals coursing through her veins, she was really just trying not to die. At which point the baldness became something else: a reminder whenever she looked in the mirror that she was really really sick.

“It’s not even vanity,” she said, biting her lip and squeezing her eyes shut. “In cancer movies, people are always bald right before they die.”

Through the cold, wet Munich spring Betsy covered her head with colorful knit caps that our friend, Diana sent from the States. On her June wedding anniversary, she wore her wig out to dinner, in an effort to embrace life, to feel pretty. It mostly worked, except for the part where it itched and made her feel like someone else.

Betsy and I face-timed every day, and I followed the evolution of her hair situation, especially the meager, albeit hugely meaningful, regrowth between chemo treatments.

“Look!” she’d say putting her scalp right up to the computer camera and brushing her hand across her head. “Fuzz!”

“You’re practically ready for a ponytail,” I’d tell her, and shift my eyes to the small corner screen, where I could check in on my own wavy, light brown locks, always a point of pride for me.

If pressed, even Betsy would have to admit that she had loved her hair and missed it something fierce. It required next to no styling, and certainly no products. Except in middle school when she curled it under like Joanie from Eight is Enough, Betsy had always rocked the wash and wear look.

But, with the help of dark glasses that stood in for eyebrows, she also pulled off bald.

And when her kids wanted to paint her scalp, she threw on an old smock and let them have at her blank canvas of a head with brushes and watercolors.

Betsy gets a paint job

I visited Munich in August, when the diabolical chemo treatments were over. Betsy looked gaunt and tired, a shell of her once vigorous self. But, dammit, she still had her fighting spirit as we kicked around Munich, sometimes biking for 30 minutes to a doctor’s appointment or the English garden for dinner, because—even when she felt like shit—she still never wanted to drive anywhere.

As for her bald head, the wig had migrated to a dusty corner of her bedroom, and she sometimes wore a black cotton cap. But it was hot in the city that summer, and more often than not, she’d yank that cap off of her sweaty head and stuff it in her backpack, not caring that adults stole glances and kids just plain stared.

“Do you feel weird?” I asked her one day on the train, as she sat there not caring a lick about how her head looked.

“It’s who I am right now,” she told me, shrugging. “I feel more like myself this way”

Riding the U-bahn bald

Women are supposed to have hair, or cover up when they don’t, but Betsy wasn’t playing. She wasn’t going to pretend to be anybody but herself.

She also couldn’t pretend away her illness. She had to go through it. And she did, for 18 awful months, but that, too, was coming to an end.

Which is why I did that snorting, laughing, crying thing as I read her “Haircut” email.

On July 14, 2016 I had my last chemo. On July 14, 2017 I made an appointment for a haircut, and today I got it trimmed.

I could remember a lot of huge haircut moments. In 7th grade when I went pixie; in 8th grade when I—disastrously—went perm; my son at two years old dodging the scissors at Super Cuts; my daughter at four strutting out of “John Does Hair” in East Arlington looking like a drunk person had cut a staircase into her blonde bob.

But this one was big. The biggest. Betsy’s hair was back. And, way better than that, so was Betsy.

Haircut!

Star Stung: Lessons Learned from a Night with Sting

Hanging with Sting circa 2005 at the Hiro Ballroom

“Congratulations. You’re one of our winners,” the young woman coolly announced in a call that I had almost ignored from the comfort of my couch cocoon. “We’ll be in touch with details before the red carpet premiere in New York City,” she said, “but that’s all we know right now.”

Well, that’s plenty, I thought as I hung up the phone and fell on my knees. With my forehead pressed to the vinyl floor, I sobbed hard, tears dredged from a dark well of disbelief, and gratitude.

That was 2005 when I was cruising toward a writing career crisis and praying nightly for a meaningful break, or even a sign that signaled me to stay on this creative, but often soul-crushing path.

And there it was—if not a break, at least a crack—especially significant when, with the beaten-down brain of a tired mother, I couldn’t even remember what exactly I had written to win that contest. I only knew that four months earlier I happened upon a stray copy of Glamour Magazine in the children’s section of our suburban Boston library. As the cover model lured me into those glossy pages, my six-year-old son was approaching with yet another armload of picture books about pirates and hamsters.

“Read to your sister for a while, honey,” I told him as I plunked down in an overstuffed chair and began flipping through the magazine, thinking I might find a lipstick that would add some pop to my forty-year-old pout, or, really, anything to make me a better, thinner, happier person. No such products appeared, but I did jot down a link for something that showcased a different kind of wonderful: the Reel Moments Essay Contest in which five winners would have their “real” stories about a life-changing moment turned into short films with “top Hollywood talent.”

That night I poured myself a glass of Chardonnay and typed the stranger-than-fiction tale about meeting my husband, Mark, directly into the online form. After hitting Submit, I forgot about the whole thing, until that phone call.

Then, for the six months following that conversation, I only thought about the whole thing, imagining the possibilities for how a Hollywood film would change my suburban life in which I regularly published articles and essays, but for ages had craved something more substantial—a movie deal. So here, at last, was that chance I thought, especially significant when a few years earlier a reputable Hollywood agency had signed me for a script I’d written, but nothing real—or reel—had materialized. After that rejection, I planned to fully savor this longed-for chance to hang with Hollywood players. I didn’t think it could get more perfect, and then one night a friend called to say she had just seen a segment about my film on Access Hollywood. It turned out that Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, would be directing, and Kerry Washington, pre-Scandal success at the time, had the starring role

“Are you serious,” my husband said when I darted into the family room to tell him. “So Kerry Washington will have played Ray Charles’s wife, Idi Amin’s wife, and mine?”

On December 7, 2005 Mark and I were flown to New York City for three days of pampering and publicity, starting with an appearance on The Today Show. The night before, hyped on adrenaline, I tried without success to relax in our room at the Hudson, a boutique hotel with a bathroom so small that one had to sit sidesaddle on the toilet. Still, I felt like a star as I stared from the plush bed out the window at Manhattan, a place that always struck me as utterly terrifying with so many confident city-dwellers living large in their Central Park suites or SoHo lofts. I’d worked as an editor in Manhattan in my first years out of college but, with my paltry publishing salary, could only envy that tier of well-heeled New Yorkers that hailed cabs to Broadway shows or darted to the Village for dinner with their famous friends. But now, for three days, I was going to be one of them.

“Just a few more rounds,” I begged Mark who’d been quizzing me into those late hours, posing variations of questions Ann Curry might ask the next day on The Today Show. As a writer and teacher, I could confidently address a room of three-dozen or so people, but not, I feared, three million on live television. Hence, the practice—question after question—until Mark plied me with a Tylenol PM just so he could get some sleep.

My strategy mostly worked. Except for the first disorienting question, not too threw much threw me off the next day, not chipper Katie Couric introducing herself in the NBC Green Room beforehand, not Al Roker prepping for his next spot, or Matt Lauer dashing past on a back stairwell as I was being led to the set.

For my segment, I mostly answered Ann Curry’s questions with those well-rehearsed sound bites while Trudie Styler reached over and rubbed my back, as you can see  here.

“You hit it right out of the park,” Mark cheered as I stepped off the sound stage into his arms, and two days of sickening worry drained away. Once outside in Rockefeller Center, Mark and I tumbled into our chauffeured car that whisked us to our next hotel, the UN Millennium, where I raided the gift basket for chocolate (I hadn’t eaten for days), then danced around our three-room, eight-hundred-dollar corner suite above the East River singing, “I love New York!”

And I did. For all the times I’d visited Manhattan, wishing I was enough of a writer to either be asked for an autograph, or at least have an editor wine and dine me at Le Cirque as we signed contracts, I’d only ever been an ordinary tourist, staying in cut-rate hotels, or—in my single days—surfing on couches. And here I was in a flower-filled suite with comped tickets to The Color Purple and a driver named James on call.

“And the best is yet to come,” Mark said, meaning the premiere, still a day away.

“Right?” I said, flopping on the bed and reaching under the gazillion thread-count sheets for my swarthy, dark-eyed psychologist husband, who, unlike me, didn’t crave the spotlight, but was happy to share some of mine. “And I can’t wait to meet Sting,” I cooed.

“Same.”

“And don’t forget,” I reminded him, as I had been for weeks, “I want of picture with Sting and Trudie on the red carpet. That’s your one job at the premiere. Got it?”

“Of course,” Mark promised and wrapped me in his arms.

“Oh, and something else,” I said, cautiously, my voice trying to find that edge of kidding, and not. “Sting and Trudie have a reputation for being sort of open in their marriage. You know, all that tantric stuff. Well, if there’s a chance, and I’m not saying there will be, but if there is, then I think we at least have to consider a little swapping, or whatever they call it. You saw her rubbing my back on The Today Show.”

My husband, who sort of resembles a young Warren Beatty, pulled away to study me. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “A film gets made about our love story, and you want to celebrate by having a fling with another guy?”

“God no, Sweetie!” I said, cozying up again. “Not a fling, one night maybe. And Sting is not another guy. He’s Sting. Frickin’ Sting!”

“No!” Mark said again, this time flipping over. “And it worries me that you’re not even joking.

I looked from the bed through two walls of windows onto the shimmery skyscrapers, pulsing with the energy I craved, so beyond my perfunctory world of half-caf and playdates. I remembered my first trip to the city with three high school friends to see Frank Langella in Dracula on Broadway, and how we’d eaten lunch beforehand at Sardi’s, paying the exorbitant check with crumpled one-dollar bills earned in endless hours of babysitting. We scraped change for the tip from our cheap vinyl purses, worrying that we had left too little, because we had.

I’ll be back someday, I told myself, when the prices don’t feel prohibitive, and I spend the night in a penthouse suite. I grew up in a factory town where we didn’t eat out as a family, or do anything more fabulous than vacation for three days at the Americana Holiday hotel on Cape Cod, with two pools and an orange shag carpet that reeked of disinfectant. All my life I wondered about this. This. What celebrity tasted like. “Of course, I’m joking,” I said to Mark. But, honestly, I’m not sure that I was. While I had never considered cheating on my husband, if Sting proposed that we go to his loft for champagne and yoga poses, I’d have a hell of a time resisting the pull of his star.

The following morning, the five contest winners met for makeovers at Bergdorf Goodman and a shopping spree in Bebe, a clothing store that catered to women who dressed like slutty French Barbie dolls.

“I’m forty-one years old with two kids,” I told the size 2, twenty-something salesclerk as I squeezed my mom butt into a pair of skinny black tuxedo pants. The waist barely cleared my pubic bone, but by repositioning my stomach flab with one hand, I could button the front with the other.

“I can’t wear crazy heels,” I warned. But that didn’t stop the young woman from forcing my feet—wicked stepsister style—into a pair of teetering open-toe black sandals.

“You can put up with anything for one night,” she insisted, hanging huge rhinestone hoops in my ears, like she was trimming the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. “It’s just what you do.”

As Mark and I waited for James to pick us up in front of our hotel that evening, people stared. “Should we know her?” one woman whispered to her date as they hurried past. With my smoky eyes and furry bomber jacket, I looked—and felt—utterly, wonderfully unlike myself.

Later at the Union Square Theater, I clutched Mark’s arm as we posed on the red carpet.

 

Mark and I having a Reel Moment

Then a few photos with Kerry Washington, who was so clearly type-cast when she got the role of me.

Kerry and me

Then Mark arm-wrestled with it’s-too-hot-to-breathe-around-him 90s super model Tyson Beckford who played my ex-boyfriend—a blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavian.

My husband crushes Tyson Beckford in an armwrestling upset.

After taking this photo of Anna Chlumsky of soon-to-be Veep fame, she showed me the hole in the bottom of her cowboy boots (times were clearly tough between big-paying projects).

Then Debi Mazar, who had a small role, came up to chat in her raspy, mob-wife voice, looking super pregnant in a leopard print dress that fit like skin. There were a ton of fun photos, and then, at last, the photo op I’d been anticipating.

It started with Trudie sidling up to me and, in a disorienting few seconds, introducing her husband. That would be Sting. In the next instant, the three of us were strolling together down the red carpet, stopping as the paparazzi shouted out to the rock ‘n’ roll deity—a man whose music I’d been loving since I was thirteen. Sting! Yo Sting! There I was walking the red carpet with one of the brightest stars on the planet and his goddess wife who had directed my movie; and there was Mark, a few feet away, clutching our little point-and-shoot camera. I smiled at him, thinking he would snap the picture, but then Trudie started yoo-hooing to him in her glam British accent. “Mahk. Mahk. Mahk! Come be in the photo with us.

No Mahk, I was thinking. Don’t come be in the photo. Take the photo like you promised me, then come be in the next photo.

“Mahk!” Trudie continued, trying to be lovely and inclusive of my husband who she had met the morning before on the set of the Today Show. “Oh Mahk!”

Instead of snapping the photo, Mahk, suddenly star-struck, glanced around for someone who would take the camera and get a picture of him.

The flashes kept blasting. Sting and Trudie, who could probably manage to stay elegantly posed while perched on a toilet, kept smiling. I, with my eyes shooting daggers into my husband, tried willing him to snap the picture by thinking, Take the fucking photo you fucking idiot or I’m going to fuck Sting into next week!

But the moment vanished. Trudie and Sting continued down the carpet to air kiss Donna Karan. And Mahk never got the picture. As some Glamour handler shuffled me off the carpet, Mark emerged from the crowd, grinning, not realizing what he had done—or rather hadn’t—until we were ushered into the theater. Only then, when tucked into our fifth row VIP seats, did I turn to him and say it. “You didn’t take the picture.

Mark clasped his hand to his mouth. “Oh my God! I’m so sorry.”

“Me, too,” I snipped.

He begged my forgiveness and suggested asking Sting and Trudie if they would pose again after the screening.

“Are you kidding?” I said, my eyes narrowed.

“I feel terrible. I really want to make it up to you—”

“Why didn’t you just take the goddamn photo?” But I knew why, of course. In that moment he was as star stung as I was, his usual balanced outlook blinded by Sting’s halo.

Mark apologized again and sheepishly set his hand on my thigh. I was wearing those ridiculously low cut pants, and if you lifted my sequined Bebe tank top, you would have seen my belly pouting over the waistband. I let Mark’s hand linger there—unclasped—as we watched the short films, with mine, called Wait, screening last. It dramatized our love story: how Mark and I had dated in college, until he broke my heart because of impending distance. He would spend his twenties getting his doctorate, while I moved abroad to teach. Although we lost touch, we never let go of the hope of each other. Then ten years later, (spoiler alert), something a little magical happened.

Sting and Chris Botti’s heartbreaking duet “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” played as the credits rolled, with our family photos creating a pictorial tableau of, truly, the best years of my life.

Not glamorous. Not lived in a penthouse suite. Just real and joyful and hard and good.

As I watched, I took a deep breath and sunk my shoulder against the wool of Mark’s new spiffy blazer. I rubbed my palm on his knuckles and notched my fingers into his. “I don’t want to look back on this night and remember a fight,” I whispered.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I really am.”

“I know,” I said, trying hard to shake off the last shreds of my disappointment. “I get it. Who doesn’t want to be in a photo with Sting?”

Later, at the start of the after party in the Hiro Ballroom in Chelsea, I caught sight of Sting sitting alone, almost relaxing into the moment before the crowd arrived to bestow on him an unceasing stream of attention, requiring that he dispense his energy with extreme caution, preserving what he could of his privacy, as everyone in his sightline craved some piece of his fame. He had a cool, self-protective way, but also an aura that pulsed with layers of wealth, celebrity, and, of course, mad talent.

Though I don’t know how, I mustered the confidence to walk over and sit right down next to him.

“Hello there,” he said.

“Hi.” I felt dry-mouthed and foolish, but kept talking. “I loved your song at the end.”

He nodded. “Yeah, thanks. It worked well with the theme of the film, didn’t it?

Mark who had been at the bar getting us feminine-looking red cocktails, sauntered over. He set down the drinks and extended his hand. They introduced themselves, and I almost laughed when Sting said, “I’m Sting.” I mean, how does he do that with a straight face? Then, in an empty second, Mark—slightly awkward beneath an otherwise confident tone—asked Sting, “Is it okay if I take a photo of the two of you?”

If Sting had hesitated for a moment, I would have had to kill Mark, maybe even on the spot, just to show Sting that it was my jerky husband’s idea and nothing I had put him up to. It would have been messy, but I honestly would have done it, bludgeoned the father of my children with his own point-and-shoot.

But Sting said, “Sure,” and slid closer. Then, with the smooth practice of someone who did this multiple times a day, he tipped his famous blonde head toward mine.

Mark snapped the photo, and then, thank God, knew enough to coolly return the camera to his jacket pocket, as if we didn’t even care about that dumb old picture anyway. Later as walked away from our fifteen minutes with fame, I slipped the camera out of Mark’s pocket and clicked onto the shot. My bare arm brushed against Sting’s. We were bathed in a red glow the color of a bordello.

ROXanne!” Mark sang out. “You don’t have to put on the red light.“           

I could not stop gazing at us, studying the intimate tilt of our heads, our shy smiles, Sting’s weird talisman necklace, and lovely pursed lips that I would never kiss.

“How’s that?” Mark said.

“I guess it’s okay.”

We danced together that night until my four-inch Bebe heels tortured my feet into blistering pain. So, with the party still raging, I called James and asked him to “please pull the car around.” It was a line I’d been waiting my whole life to say.

Before we left, I thought I should say goodbye to Trudie and spotted her chatting with Diane Krueger in the VIP section at the back of the room.

“Celebrities and VIPs only,” the bouncer said when I tried to get past.

“But I wrote one of the films,” I told him. “I am a VIP.”

He raised an eyebrow like, good try,  sweetheart, but no.

Finally, after much pleading and the promise that I’d only be a quick minute, he grudgingly lifted the velvet rope.

I hurried up to Trudie and told her thank you for making such a beautiful film. “Thank you, Sandra,” she said, hugging me, “for telling your romantic story.” And, though I hoped for more, that was it.

I wanted her to say, Look me up when you’re in New York again, or, If you ever get to Tuscany, you must come stay at our villa. Sting and I insisit!

But she didn’t. She just said good-bye, because as soon as that night was over, and my make-up and heels and trimmings were gone, I turned back into a writer-mom from the suburbs that had written an essay about love.

“I’m so hungry,” Mark said as we flopped against each other in the back seat and asked James to take us to any halfway-decent Chinese restaurant. He sped us uptown to a hole-in-the-wall near Times Square. Mark ran in, while I rubbed my crying red feet.

Back in our hotel room, we sat on the bed in plush white bathrobes eating lo mein from take-out containers and clicking through the photos, reviewing every detail of that surreal night surrounded by stars. When we woke up the next morning, New York City was snowing, those huge white flakes that, through our walls of windows, looked like a shaken snow globe from a cheap souvenir shop.

Mark and I threw on some warm clothes and comfortable boots and walked hand-in-hand across town to a diner that we’d heard was good. We ate our eggs and called our kids. Nobody looked at us. It was perfect.

What To Do When You Can’t Power Through

shell on sand

“It’s supposed to be in the nineties today,” Mark warns, as he shoots off to work, leaving me alone at my desk with my fear of sweating to death and, worse, a blank screen.

It’s already mid-July, or should I say it’s only mid-July, in that messy middle of summer, when I can’t yet mourn the speed at which these days of freedom are slipping away, but I can still get mad at myself for wasting the first month (where did June go?), waiting to hear from editors on two big projects and trying to write a beast of a new essay.

When my friend Sue calls to invite me to her Cape house some summer weekend, I moan about my struggles with my current writing project. “I can’t get any traction,” I tell her. “Maybe it’s not what I’m supposed to be working one. Or maybe it just sucks. Maybe I suck.”

“You usually make things happen by powering through,” Sue tells me, recognizing that quality in me, mostly because she has it, too. When we hear the words “probably not” or “I don’t think so”, we never back down. Instead we go sniffing around for the hidden access to that thing we’re being denied. If we can’t find an elegant way in, we pound our fists on the door of our desire, until we either burst it open, or annoy someone else into unlocking it for us. While not always fun, (Mark can vouch for how noisy it gets), it’s usually pretty effective. Until it isn’t.

“But some things you just can’t power through,” Sue reminds me. “There has to be surrender.”

As a kid, powering through was the only thing that worked. My parents offered minimal support for what I wanted, so I learned to be assertive and imaginative with my needs. When my mother nixed an activity that I wanted to try, I saved my money and figured out what bus to take to get there.

Powering through made me independent and tenacious, but it never taught me what to do when force and determination failed. And this summer, trying to power through a stuck writing project—while willing others into fruition—has put me in that vulnerable place of “what now?”

I had just hung up with Sue when my minister friend, Reverend Liz, called (an unusually chatty day for me). When I told her what I’d been thinking about, she described Brené Brown’s concept of “the messy middle.”

It’s where you want to just give up on a situation, but have already invested too much to quit.

It’s the second act in the movie in which the protagonist faces test after test in trying to fulfill her desires, but still keeps stumbling around, unable to find her elusive treasure. It’s the point at which everything feels hopeless. The dark abyss in the heroine’s journey.

It’s the place where I am struggling now, because I can’t power something into existence. My messy middle is me sitting at the base of a locked door in mid-July, my heart cracked and bruised from hurling myself so hard against it. It is the hot pressed hand of summer, keeping me from enjoying a Popsicle and a little happiness.

Useful, right?

So what to do?

Reverend Liz passes on Brene’s advice from her book “Rising Strong.” She says to “reckon” with our emotions, and “rumble” through the stories we are telling ourselves. (I can’t do this. I’m lazy, disorganized, and stupid. Oh, and I suck, too).

Only then, when we let ourselves be vulnerable and allow those feelings to wash through us can we change our story.

It takes hours of feeling like crap, but I finally turn my back on the door I’ve been pummeling all morning and lay down on my office floor. Then I cry, not quite the drenching summer rain that washes the world as bright and clean as Dorothy’s first glimpse of Oz, but still good and cleansing.

When I’m done, I’m done. And my story has changed.

My writing needs a little more time and love. It needs some forgiveness and, yes, a good editor, but only when she is back from vacation and has attention for my words. It also needs to say good-bye to my boy who leaves for college in one month, and a daughter who is wrestling her way into 16. It needs a long swim in Walden Pond when the day is through. It needs some surrender, some summer. And it definitely needs a Popsicle.

Broken Bottles

Look at what old broken bottles can become.

Trove of Gold

I hit the jackpot at Meig’s Point at Hammonasset Beach where the William F. Miller Campground—the largest in the state—is named for my father. Born on farmland that would eventually become part of the park, my dad worked his way up to the position of Director, a job he held until his death in 1984. When I walked the beach yesterday, he sent me these. IMG_2474

Jesus in the Street

When you head out for a walk and God’s son appears on the corner of Brooks and Varnum, you know you’re on the right path. Just pick him up and take him with you everywhere.

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Write Like You’re Giving Birth

“Write from your guts,” I told my creative nonfiction students on the last day of class. “Don’t ignore the pain. Don’t act like it isn’t there and try tiptoeing around it. You have to write your way through your own dark woods.”

I recalled the excruciating experience of back labor when giving birth to my son. His head was positioned against my lower spine as opposed to the normal, on-top-of-the-cervix way, so whenever a contraction came, instead of him pounding down to open said cervix, his head struck my spinal cord, igniting the nerve center in a ripple of unmitigated agony. After twelve hours of useless back labor, I accepted a drug. “Yes-fucking-please.”

Bam! Ka-Pow!

My cervix went into overdrive and, in one hellish, body-wracking hour, blew open to the requisite ten centimeters, which meant it was time to push the baby out.

But instead of pushing, I stopped. I resisted. I clenched at every contraction, stealing myself against the pain that felt like a reckless trucker was driving his semi through my uterus.

“Push into the pain,” the British midwife urged in a high, clipped I know best voice that left no room for compromise. “When it feels the worst, Sandra, that’s when you must push the hardest.” She had Birkenstocks and long gray hair that would have loved a little Miss Clairol. She was kind, smart, and sensible; I wanted to kick her in the face.

“I don’t know what that even means,” I cried between gasps. “How do I push into the pain?” I actually thought that if I argued enough, I could altogether avoid having the baby.

“It means,” she explained, “that when the contraction is at its worst then you must push the hardest. Don’t shirk from the pain.”

I’ll shirk you! I thought as I felt the onset of a killer contraction and longed to rail against it. How to do this? How do you leave your fingers on the burning stove, or step more deeply onto the tack? How does a person embrace her worst fears and invite more? How does she choose a life of writing pain?

“Now!” the midwife, urged. “Push now!”

I shut my eyes and swallowed back my resistance. With my jaw locked, I pushed my hardest—or so I thought—screaming until tears streaked my face. I did that five more times through five more contractions, the pain so unrelenting that I feared I might die. I pushed as if my life depended on it.

When the baby still didn’t come, the midwife, her face betraying alarm as she watched the monitor, reached for a pair of surgical scissors. “We have to get the baby out now!” she announced. No time to numb me, just the sharp snip of raw flesh like an electric shock on my perineum. My child was in danger. His heart rate had plummeted, and, at that point, only I could save him.

And then, my boy.

Write into the pain, I tell my students. Just when you want to write around the Catholic pretense that hides the abuse, or the sight of your mother in a pink bathrobe dead on her bedroom floor, and how that day, for the first time ever, you touched her cheek and forgave everything; just when you want to ignore the acrid taste of blood, the colorless gray of loss, or the married lover whose forbidden lips, if for only a few minutes in the back of his beat-up Honda Civic, answered every prayer you ever whispered from your lonely bed; just when you want to skip a part because it’s too shameful to remember, then you absolutely have to remember it. You have to feel it wracking your body like a baby that will die if you don’t push now. Sit with each scene until it spins through every pain receptor and is ready to pull you down and drag you back and forth through your longest night, again and again and again.

Because I promise you this: if it doesn’t hurt at least a little, you will never birth your best writing.

 

Our Dance With Leonard

The story of our marriage began with a song, ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’

Mark and I were married on a moody August evening in 1997 on the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. At the end of our ceremony, with the sun setting behind us, we recited the lyrics to the Leonard Cohen song “Dance Me to the End of Love,” ending with these lines:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin

Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in

Touch me with your naked hand

Touch me with your glove

Dance me to the end of love

I insisted we leave out the third verse that begins, “Dance me to the children who are asking to be born,” because I feared we’d jinx what I wanted as much as I wanted a life with Mark—to start a family together.

RELATED: A Brief Encounter With Leonard Cohen

Well, nothing got jinxed, and the following year, Mark and I stood on that same rocky coast and introduced our baby boy to the ocean. Two and a half summers later, our daughter was born and we spent our fourth anniversary staggering around at a Rhythm and Roots festival in Rhode Island with an almost 3-year-old and an infant. As we navigated the sticky summer crowd, trying to rally in that halfhearted way exhausted parents do, Mark hit his breaking point, opening an unusual chasm of mean.

“They call this dancing?” he scoffed as we watched the floor fill up with couples doing some cheerful cross between a shuffle and a swing. “This is not good dancing.”

“So what’s ‘good’ dancing?” I countered sharply. Bleary-eyed from being underslept for three years, I was primed for an anniversary fight.

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“Good dancing is what they did at my high school in New Haven,” Mark said. “Those kids could dance.” He nodded at the dozens of earnest couples twirling about. “This is ridiculous.”

In that moment, I didn’t like my husband’s searing judgment of someone else’s joy. I didn’t even like my husband that much. “I’m leaving,” I said, and headed out with the kids, certain that I’d never dance with Mark again.

Mark followed us out, the music filling the void of our pissy silence until we both paused, slightly stunned. One of the groups in a nearby tent was doing a bluegrass take on “Dance Me to the End of Love.” While I had adored that song since its release in 1984 on the “Various Positions” album, I had never ever heard anyone cover it. But there it was, inserting itself into our anniversary anger, reminding us of the words spoken on the shore four years earlier: Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove. Dance me to the end of love.

RELATED: The Last One Carded

“Goddamn Leonard Cohen,” I said.

Mark smiled, “Yeah. He probably expects us to dance, too—the bad way.”

That night, we did dance, on the sand, with all the forgiveness and gratitude that a long marriage requires.

Eight years later, I gave Mark an early anniversary present: tickets to see Leonard Cohen at the Wang Theatre in Boston. We gripped hands as the 78-year-old performer literally danced onto the stage to the angelic strains of that familiar Greek chorus opening: La la. Lalalalalala.

I had wept at concerts before, but never like when—two minutes in—Cohen’s graveled voice was chaffing at a place inside me, one that held my love for Mark and hope that we had a lifetime of dancing ahead, Cohen-style, with the dark juice of passion, the clinging to each other in panic, and kisses that wear down the curtain of time.

Cohen once said he found the song’s seed in learning that in certain death camps a string quartet was forced to play beside the crematoria as prisoners were being killed. If you’re confused about how such an image could turn into a love song, then you don’t understand Cohen’s masterful ability to blur the lines between sex, death, passion, torture and the transcendence of the heart in our blackest moments.

A week ago, at midnight, I lay curled on the bedroom floor in fetal position. “I can’t!” I cried. “I can’t live in a country led by a bigot.” Mark lay on the floor next to me and held me, dancing me through the panic until I was gathered safely in.

Two nights later, we were out with friends when my phone alert told me Leonard Cohen had died at age 82. We raised a glass to him and shared stories of what his songs and lyrics meant to us. Mark and I would remember how we saw him in concert at the Wang a second time on a cold December night in 2012. How his music, whenever we played it, beat like a shared heart.

That night, Mark and I went home to a quiet house and put on “Dance Me to the End of Love.” With our teenagers out with their friends, we danced each other around the living room.

Seeing The World, Not The Wall: Election Lessons From Death Row

A few years ago I profiled death row inmate Damien Echols for a national magazine. After a badly bungled police investigation, Echols, 18 at the time, was sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.

The harrowing details of Echols’s nearly two-decade long ordeal in prison — 10 in solitary confinement — could erode anyone’s faith in our justice system, but that’s not the larger lesson I took away from the hours spent interviewing Echols, 41, who was released in 2011 when new forensic evidence was brought to light.

Echols said one of the most powerful things he did to get released was take his attention off what he didn’t want — dying on death row — and put it on what he did want: his freedom.

“The more you think about something, the greater the chance of it manifesting in your future,” Echols told me. “This is why it’s so important to remain focused on your desires, and not on your fears.”

“If a racecar driver looks at the wall,” Echols said, “he’ll crash into it.”
He used the analogy of a racecar driver who is trained to look at his instrument panel, the other cars, or the finish line, but never the wall. “If a racecar driver looks at the wall,” Echols said, “he’ll crash into it.”

I think of Echols’s words in times of despair when I find myself unable to fixate on anything but the bleakest possible outcome, and I make myself turn away. When my sister went through ovarian cancer last year, I’d peek at the wall now and then, but I wouldn’t let my attention linger there. Ditto for every family or professional problem I’ve faced.

But never have Echols’s words been more meaningful than last week as I spent the early hours of Wednesday morning watching Donald Trump become our next president. Like so many of us, I saw our country driving full speed ahead into a brick wall of bigotry, misogyny, patriarchy and racism.

But here we are, a week later, and it’s time to shift our weary focus. We must now task ourselves with altering what’s in our direct sight-line and see what we want instead of what we fear.

And what is that? What exactly do we want for our great country going forward? What do we hope to see unfold in the next few years?

Since the morning of November 9 I have been making my list:

I see people of every color, creed, race, religion and sexual orientation standing together in solidarity as our highest leaders hear our voices, then go to work in Washington to uphold our freedoms.

I see hydro and solar power plants fueling a nation of vibrant industry.

I see clear oceans, clean air and thriving forests.

I picture food service and childcare workers given respect and a living wage for their good, hard work.

I imagine a country with continued health care for all, and women in full control of their reproductive rights.

We have to get involved and take action. But first we have to see that world, with as much clarity as we have been considering the devastating alternative.
I see police forces cooperatively working with people of color to use restorative justice to keep all cities safe.

Stop talking about what you don’t want and focus on what you do.

When Echols was in prison he refused to consider the possibility that he would never be released, even while standing ankle deep in sewage in solitary confinement with no reason to believe he could change his fate. He simply would not look at the wall.

If we don’t want to live in Trump’s America, we have to be the change we want in the world. We have to get involved and take action. But first we have to see that world, with as much clarity as we have been considering the devastating alternative. We’re going to have to invoke the powers of our imagination to create that reality and spread that vision from coast to coast, from north to south, and the entire heartland in-between. Then we’re going to have to drive like hell to get there.

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