B.F.F.

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It’s my best friend’s birthday today. (No, my best friend was not Adolph Hitler although my kids do think we were contemporaries.)

I met my best friend at the beginning of eighth grade. I was a small, insecure teenage girl who was new to town and the intimidating junior high in which I found myself. She was tall and blond with sparkling blue eyes and a ready smile. Finding ourselves in every single class that eighth grade year, we became fast friends.

Over the years we shared secret crushes, had numerous sleepovers, and spent many of our high school weekends inexplicably dressed in 50s costumes. I was from a family of 13 while she had only her mom, dad, and one brother. We spent many hours in her quiet house, where she annihilated me at the game Stratego.

We stayed friends through college, rooming together freshman year. Our only real arguments were over what music to play on her record player. She favored Aerosmith and Peter Frampton while I enjoyed Elton John and Linda Ronstadt. And even though we pledged different sororities, we still managed to keep in touch.

We have had one major falling out over these past several decades. When we were in our mid-twenties, she became involved in a romantic relationship, and I felt left out of her life. Out of spite, I failed to inform her when my path took me on a move out of state. I’m still ashamed of being so unkind. But true to form, my best friend forgave me, and we reconnected. She even went so far as to visit me during my short sojourn in Florida in the mid-80s.

My best friend has stood up at my wedding, and we have traded photos and stories of our children and our married lives. Time and distance haven’t really changed much about how we relate to each other and how easy it is to be in each other’s presence. At our 40-year high school reunion a couple of years ago, it was almost as if we were still roaming the halls together and gossiping about boys.

So happy birthday to my best friend! You know who you are. I predict that we truly will remain Best Friends Forever.

 

 

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A New Hope

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IMG_1605Over the years, my piano teacher and I have become friends. B. has always been generous – bringing cards and treats at holidays, making cakes for various occasions. We celebrate each other’s birthdays. I have known B. for over ten years.

So when B. was diagnosed with cancer last August, I was upset and concerned. With no family of her own and no means of financial support when she isn’t teaching, it was going to be a struggle for B.

Over the past six months, B. has endured grueling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She has trouble eating and drinking, and she has been in hospital or nursing home care for the better part of these past six months.  Two weeks ago, as the hospital got ready to discharge B., I was extremely concerned. She had been so frail, and I was worried that she would not be able to care for herself all alone in her apartment.

About a year ago, B. gave me an orchid plant. A lover of these notoriously finicky flowers, B. instructed me to care for the plant by putting a few ice cubes in the soil, letting them slowly water the roots. The orchid bloomed for a time and then went dormant. For the rest of the year, the plant’s large green leaves stayed glossy and alive. But the stem remained bare. Then in February, I noticed the roots climbing over the side of the pot, so I replanted the orchid in a slightly larger pot. Sure enough, large buds began to form. And just last week, the first blossom opened up in all its purple glory.

At home in her apartment, B. is also starting to get better. She is eating and drinking on her own, her hair has come back, and the color has returned to her face. As she regains her strength, I see glimpses of the fiercely intelligent and independent musician and opera singer she once was. I showed her a photo of the blossoming orchid she had given me so long ago. We agreed it is a sign of hope.

As Easter approaches, we celebrate resurrection. And I feel hopeful for B. and the new life that seems to be slowly unfurling for her. And I pray for all those struggling that they find a new hope in this Easter season.

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

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Tomorrow is a favorite holiday for Irish-Americans and, well, just about everyone else: St. Patrick’s Day. In Chicago, the river will be dyed an unnatural shade of green, and a big parade will course down (ironically) Columbus Drive to the wild cheers of the Chi-town throngs. Hardier partiers will start their pub crawl at an ungodly hour, and green beer will flow.

Being Irish has always been an enjoyable part of my life. My Dad loved to sing old Irish songs, some of which are very plaintive and touching. So did my red-haired Uncle Jim, who favored the  funnier ones, such as “Who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” I myself loved to listen to and create funny limericks, thought to be named for an old Irish song, “Will You Come Up to Limerick?” (Of course, I was never privy to the bawdier versions of these poems.) And Irish tales of leprechauns and banshees and other magical lore from the Emerald Isle were endlessly fascinating to me.

On St. Patrick’s Day, our Catholic school took a holiday, and we would wear our kelly green sweaters. My mom would make corned beef and cabbage, the traditional Irish-American fare, for dinner. If St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday, the Catholic Church would even give us a dispensation from going meatless on Lenten Fridays. One year my parents even braved the crowds downtown and took us to see the parade.

As I got older, I delved into the history of Ireland and learned that being Irish certainly did not come with a pot of gold. The story of my ancestors was one of privation and persecution. A particular story I read in English class, “The Sniper,” made a big impression on me. It’s a story about the sectarian war in Northern Ireland, and the reveal at the end of the story is that the sniper ends up being killed by his own brother. It  is a metaphor for the tragedy of civil war and the age-old enmity between brethren.

I also learned to appreciate both the beauties and the struggles of being Irish from reading Frank McCourt’s trilogy of memoirs, beginning with his Pulitzer-prize winning book Angela’s Ashes. His memoirs are filled with laughter amidst the sadness, which is a very Irish way of looking at the world.

I think that’s what I love about being Irish most of all. It’s an irrepressible zest for life coexisting with a maudlin sense of doom. The Irish are drinkers, dreamers, story-tellers, and poets, singers and dancers and revelers. That’s the side of being Irish we celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day.

And it’s in that spirit that I say, Erin Go Bragh! Ireland Forever!

You’ve Been Bullied, Charlie Brown

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The other night I watched back-to-back Charlie Brown Valentine’s Day specials. It had been years since I had watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with my kids, and I was in the mood for a bit of nostalgia. Imagine my surprise when I found myself slightly disturbed by the stories in “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown” and “A Charlie Brown Valentine.”

The gist of the plot in “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown” is that Charlie never gets any valentines from friends or classmates. He sits forlornly by his mailbox waiting for the impossible: that someone will like him enough to send him a heart-shaped missive. I’ve always known, of course, that the whole persona of Charlie Brown from Charles M. Schultz’s comic strip and TV specials is that of an unpopular loser. His classmates openly make fun of his attempts to direct a Christmas play and his choice of a spindly little tree that is like a kindred spirit to Charlie. He’s clumsy and glum and never seems to catch a break.

But something in these Valentine’s Day specials really struck me as hard and mean-spirited. First of all, from today’s perspective, it is horrifying that kids would be allowed to bring to school valentines for some, but not all, of the children in their classes. Charlie stands there empty-handed while Schroeder publicly hands out all the valentines. Of course, there are none for Charlie Brown.

On top of the humiliation regularly heaped upon Charlie Brown in these cartoons, the other kids are openly hostile to each other. When Charlie’s little sister Sally pesters Linus about getting candy or a card from him, he shouts at her and tells her he’s not getting her anything. Ditto with the exasperated Schroeder dealing with the ever-persistent Lucy. Even Charlie himself is no Galahad as he spurns the advances of both Marcie and Peppermint Patty in “A Charlie Brown Valentine.”

The world of Charlie Brown is perhaps meant to signify the meanness of adults as seen through the eyes of children. Or maybe modern society has evolved into insisting that children treat each other better, at least on the surface. Imagine a modern elementary school that would allow kids to openly exclude another child from a valentine or an invitation to a birthday party. Maybe we have turned into a kinder, gentler society after all.

My sense of nostalgia definitely was not awakened as I watched the lovelorn world of a Charlie Brown Valentine’s Day special. When you really think about these stories, an apter title for them all would be “You’re a loser, Charlie Brown.” Next time I’m in the mood for nostalgia, I’ll pick something more wholesome, such as “Psycho.”

60 Years Young

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IMG_1530Yesterday I celebrated the milestone of turning 60. In honor of the birthday I share with the great Martin Luther King, Jr., it snowed about six inches in Chicago. As I shoveled the cold, fluffy stuff in my driveway, I felt grateful that I am still fit and healthy enough to do so as I head into my seventh decade of life. Yikes!

The thing is, I still feel young. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a sense of disconnect between my inner self and the aging face I see in the mirror. For one thing, I can vividly remember things from my childhood, such as playing running bases in the backyard, buying lemon jungles from the Good Humor man, and doing third grade phonics with Mrs. Walsh. Milestones such as high school graduation and my first job don’t seem that far in the past.

Emotionally, of course I’ve changed. I’m a little wiser and less susceptible to peer pressure. But I still have my insecurities, my need to be liked, and my fear of change. And while it’s true that my idea of fun nowadays is a night in with a good movie or book, I’ve never exactly been a party animal. I think that, as they age, people don’t so much change as they become a more mellow version of themselves.

The best thing about getting older has been the deepening of my relationships with my family and friends. My kids are almost all adults now, and it is so gratifying to have meaningful conversations with them. My husband and I have a comfort level with each other that was not there in the early years. I have close relationships with my mom and siblings. And I am surrounded by good friends who make me laugh and let me know I am loved just the way I am.

Just yesterday, a group of friends surprised me at a birthday lunch organized by my beloved older daughter. It gave me such a warm feeling on a cold and snowy day to share a glass of wine, a meal, and great conversation with some of my favorite women in the world.

If this is what turning 60 feels like, I’m glad to say that as of yesterday, I’m 60 years young!

 

Re-Entry

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After a prolonged time in outer space, astronauts have major physiological adjustments to make upon re-entry to Earth. The effects of lessened gravity make simple actions such as speaking and walking difficult once the astronaut feels the effects of Earth’s gravitational pull. Astronauts returning from the International Space Station spend weeks being tested and monitored to be sure they recover their health and stamina.

While the post-holiday stress of re-entering regular life can’t quite compare, I couldn’t help being reminded of astronauts’ ordeal as I returned from the holidays and a wonderful vacation in Hawaii.

With a four-hour time change, I am still suffering a small degree of jet lag. I can’t go to bed at night but must arise at what feels like the crack of dawn to see my daughter off to school. And speaking of school, it is hard getting back in our day to day routines after two weeks of holiday feasting, family togetherness, and fun. When my kids are on vacation, I too feel a certain license and tend to let certain everyday tasks go by the wayside. Facing the piles of paperwork and general disarray in my house has been fatiguing.

Re-entry after the Christmas holidays is especially painful to me because there is nothing that depresses me more than taking down the decorations, especially the Christmas tree. Not only is it a tedious task that somehow falls to me alone every year, but it saddens me to let the merriment of the season go. The January to April winter slog is long and sometimes disheartening. I want my jolly back.

By next week, we will have settled back into a normal routine. My sleep patterns will stabilize, and I will be in a rhythm set by my daughter’s school and sports schedules. The holidays will be a distant but pleasant memory. To ease my adjustment, I have started a new program of yoga that I hope will calm me and help banish the blues of gloomy winter days.

Despite the pain of re-entry, my life is pretty wonderful. As soon as I get my sea legs back, I intend to enjoy it to the full.

The Aloha Spirit

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IMG_2959For my upcoming 60th birthday, I wanted above all else to go on a vacation with my family. As the kids have grown, it has become increasingly difficult to have them all in one place. So a logical time to gather my crew was over the Christmas holidays. The logical place? Paradise, a.k.a. the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Kauai and my hometown of Chicago could not be more different. The most obvious difference, especially at this time of year, is the climate. When we landed at Lihue Airport, it was a balmy 70 degrees, as opposed to the single digit temperatures that had descended on Chicago and, indeed, much of the mainland. Winter in Chicago is cold and bleak whereas the seasons on Kauai are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Everywhere we looked was a profusion of color: velvety green mountains, bright green shrubs and trees, pink and red and orange and yellow flowers. Our hotel even hosted a couple of friendly parrots and a host of noisy chickens that wandered the grounds.

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But the differences don’t stop there. Chicago is a big and somewhat impersonal city. People are in a hurry, perpetually hurtling from one activity to another. In Kauai – and all of Hawaii, really – there is a relaxed and unhurried vibe. Not for nothing are Hawaiians known for the “hang loose” gesture that implies there’s plenty of time, no need to rush. Whether driving around the island in bumper to bumper traffic, being waited on at a restaurant, or interacting with salespeople at shops, tourists need to cultivate a more easygoing temperament to match the Hawaiian way.

The Hawaiian word aloha represents the spirit of the islands. Aloha means both “hello” and “goodbye,” but most importantly, it means “love.” From the moment we landed on Hawaiian soil, we were greeted with this aloha spirit. Hotel staff greeted us by placing leis around our necks. “Aloha” constantly came out of people’s lips as they would pass us by. Smiles and friendliness were the norm and not the exception.

Another word that is important to Hawaiian culture is ohana, which means “family.” My favorite part of our Hawaiian vacation was not the fresh fish, the mai tais, or the spectacular views. It was the feeling of being surrounded by my family. We had adventures together hiking, rafting along the exotic Na Pali coast, and snorkeling in the pristine blue waters. But my favorite times were those spent together, on beach chairs just lying companionably next to each other and comparing notes about the books we were reading or the music on our iPhones. Or the relaxed dinners where we reminisced about vacations past and shared our “bests” and “worsts” of the present one.

Too soon it was time to part ways and go back to work and school in various parts of the country and the world. But my memories of this milestone birthday will always be ones filled with aloha for my ohana – and for the Hawaiian spirit that I hope will linger into a New Year in a less heavenly clime.