I Art, Or Am I?

Years of writing about aging–and what  Judith Peres calls the “vicissitudes of aging” — taught me that age as a number, a construct, a device. With a degree in math and a poet’s sensibilities, I have cruised through time, thinking that it did not quite apply to me. Or to anyone, really. We would all somehow carry on along this blue planet, our mortal coil. Despite sorrows and losses, we could hold each other up, and forever was one more convenient imaginary number. I could split that, too….

My body differs and jolts me with its own realities. It contains time, no matter how I count it. These bones are no longer 18, nor these eyes, no matter what BuzzFeed or some Facebook quiz calculates of my vision. 

Watercolor Pencil: Testing my Hand

Ditto for my hearing: my grandmother was right when she urged me to “turn down that caterwauling.” I have said something similar when one-too-many Kendrick Lamar tunes has blasted through some speaker in my house.

Even Bruce Springsteen is my father’s age. And when I refrain from Dancing in the Dark in my orchestra seats at the Walter Kerr theater come November, my Verified Seats will be in the handicapped area, thanks (I guess?) to several autoimmune conditions that flare at strange times and make walking and breathing a challenge.

Bruce, RFK, August 1985

HOWEVER, I am the daughter and granddaughter and descendant of so many strong women (and men, but it is the women I knew best) who gave up homes, families, opportunities…for reasons I cannot presume to know, but assume must have been to better their lives.  Have I done the same? Not often enough, but I pray and hope and think that I have raised strong people.

And I, too, persist, though I no longer think I will last so long as my paternal grandmother, whom my kids knew as Meme, who lived into her nineties. Or some of my mother’s relatives, who managed the same. They had some grit that I have scattered elsewhere in the course of this living. Perhaps I will gather it again.

Whatever or wherever that grit is, I am now beyond half done this life, for that is how the years add up. And the blues may be simply knowing that I have so much yet to learn, and yet not done. I am not ever going to be ready red hats and purple sparkles. More like my hero, Bonnie Raitt, whose website has this to say of her newest album, Dig in Deep:

 … Bonnie Raitt continues to personify what it means to stay creative, adventurous, and daring over the course of a legendary career. “I’m feeling pretty charged, and the band and I are at the top of our game,” she says. “This period of my life is more exciting and vital than I was expecting, and for that I’m really grateful. At this point, I have a lot less to prove and hey, if you’re not going to ‘Dig In Deep’ now, what’s the point?”

Bonnie Raitt Owns the Stage in DC, July 2017

How can I feel half done here, with so much yet to do? For instance, how will I roam around Annapolis on 9/19 for the SketchCrawl when I’ve just learned to draw?  My mother, artist  Mary Lynch, works five days each week in her studio at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. What some people call a Muse she has described as a monkey on her back. She says she has no time to waste. She and Bonnie Raitt are about he same age, too. Like Bonnie, my mother is not playing a game, she’s not dabbling. She digs deep and creates objects that have not ever been made before.

Still Life with Fruit

For my 55th birthday, she gave me a portable easel, which Ian, my 15-year old, set up for me just last night. I have watched it most of the day, and worked at a small watercolor for a friend.

Portable Easel Awaits Artist

How to paint something large, when I have only learned to do small things? There is only today. Only these hands. This moment. Here I go. What will you learn, old friends and new? What’s stopping you? What motivates you? I’d love to know. Share your ideas in the comments. Let’s go. 

My Son Turns 27, and I’m Twice His Age (Again)!

The worst advice I ever received about becoming a parent–a response to my worries at never having cared for a newborn or toddler–was that I would always be one step ahead of my children. When my eldest son, Conor, arrived, he immediately proved this advice to be wrong.

Happy Birthday, Conor! (Your hair looks great!)

His father and I knew nothing about babies,  and we definitely did not believe Dr. Spock, when he wrote to listen to ourselves, that we were the experts: We did not know how to put on the cloth diapers delivered by a service my great-aunt had given us. (The diaper delivery man was perplexed when there were only 7 dirty diapers after Week One, and just a few the following week…for a colicky baby, cloth diapers were perfect burping cloths, floor cleaners, shoe polishers, and more. When hundreds of diapers fell from a closet, my grandmother nearly choked on laughter).

St. Joseph’s Day Baby

Tony and I did not know whether the tape on disposable diapers went in front or back. We were unprepared for the fact that babies do not sleep all night, or that a colicky baby would test our sanity and our patience. Thanks to the family who were present almost daily–my Irish twin, Michele, and her then-fiance, Andy; my mom and grandmothers, the three Marys, and my great aunt Anna–we survived. In fact, my dining room became a lunchtime gathering place, replacing the HoJo on Route 1, where we’d met for lunch forever.

At the time, I had just left a writing job because when the baby arrived early, I was a few weeks shy of maternity leave. (It galls me that this issue is still an issue, and that most working parents do not have paid leave, and cannot afford the unpaid leave of the Family & Medical Leave Act. Thanks to tireless advocates like my friend, Valerie Young, of the Caring Economy Campaign.

Dad, flummoxed by my resignation, said, “Motherhood is the one job you’ll never be able to quit.” He was right: 27 years later, and I am still at it.

Still going….

As a new mother, I jealously guarded time spent with Conor, who was the most beautiful, precious, wonderful creature ever made. His red hair was a great surprise–as was colic, which set in after a week at home.

Grandmom Hourihan, Easter 1990 (no doubt telling me even then that I was just right)

When exhaustion struck me, my Grandmom Hourihan (Gram) would let herself in before breakfast, take the baby from my bed, then sit with him for hours
in a wicker chair. How she loved him! She taught him to talk at 9 months, then looked after him for a few years. His favorite book was What Do People Do All Day, which he was happy to read over and over again. It drove me nuts–but not my Gram.

My Grandmom Lynch (Meme to my children) came on her days off from the nursing home where she worked, bundling him up for long walks through the neighborhood, or holding him and singing, The Tennessee Waltz, while he took a rare nap.

Meme was visiting one day and agreed to watch my batch of kids; Conor was 12 or 13, and I knew he would help out. A few hours later, I came home to find Meme on the couch with an ice pack on her knee, and Conor sitting anxiously beside her. He was wearing a skateboard helmet, and a lacrosse stick was on the floor. I looked at Meme and asked what had happened.

“He asked me to come play ball with him, but I shouldn’t have tried to run,” she said. I pointed out that perhaps her helmet-wearing days were a thing of the past.

The point of these memories is this: Becoming a mother did not mean I’d receive, as if from the stars, instructions for the job. Any notion that I’d stay one-step ahead of him began to unravel the day his young cousins taught him to climb the stairs. He’s a bright person, with a quick mind and sharp wit. By the time he was four, he was lengths ahead of me.

Just for today, I am twice his age, just as I was when he was born. That will not happen again. And at last I know the only advice for anyone is this: Trust your heart. And be kind. For all that I expected to teach him about this life, he was my first teacher in what it means to love unconditionally, opening my heart until I sometimes thought it would break. He taught me all kinds of things I’d never heard of: the Navajo Codetalkers and geography, that I should read David Foster Wallace and–most of all–stop worrying about him and his  siblings.

Conor is in his second year as a volunteer for a literacy program, which matches community volunteers with elementary-school children who are unable to read, or read at grade level. Through his role as a coordinator at one school, he has forged his way to work with meaning and compassion. It is a great way to travel in this world.

Keywords: first-time mother, new parents, parenting, birthday, aging

The Miracle In Front Of You: Raymond Barfield On Practicing Medicine With Compassion

THE SUN INTERVIEW 

by JANICE LYNCH SCHUSTER

I first met physician Raymond Barfield in 2009 in Tunisia, where doctors and other health professionals had gathered to talk about how to improve care for people with cancer and HIV/AIDS. I heard Barfield speak eloquently of the need to bridge the worlds of medicine and the spirit. On the trip home to the U.S., during a layover in the Paris airport, I spotted Barfield hunched over a notebook and writing in longhand. He told me he was working on a novel and that he also wrote poetry and played guitar. I remember thinking, Isn’t healing the sick enough for one lifetime? Honestly I may have just felt jealous.

After the conference Barfield and I kept in touch. A few years ago I developed a painful condition called burning mouth syndrome, and he has assisted me in my struggle to find a treatment that works, often reminding me that art can help the healing process. He encourages me to see the beauty of the everyday, something he does in his own life, not only in his daily practice as a doctor who cares for children living with cancer and other serious illnesses, but also as a musician and writer.

Read the rest of the excerpt here. And even better, buy a hard copy if you can–subscribe! It is one of the best magazines around. I’ve been a subscriber for years–maybe 20 or more? I first read it in the mid-1980s while having a drink across the street from Guilford College.  Meeting Ray, reading The Sun, graduating from Guilford have all been transformative time in my life.

key words: Raymond Barfield, children with cancer, spirituality and health, compassionate care, medical education, medical training, World Health Organization, Duke University, pediatric oncology, palliative care, empathy in training

 

Got Springsteen Tickets for DC? What did that cost you?

Since I first heard him sing at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD, I’ve been addicted to the music–and shows–of Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band. I don’t think I’ve missed a show in the DC area since first seeing him on the Darkness tour in 1978 at the Capital Centre in Landover, and a few years later, for the original River tour, 1980, Cap Centre, while I was home from college. I’ve seen him at FedEx field, and the MCI Center, now Verizon, and at RFK for Born in the USA. I made it to Vote For Change shows, and the show at Nats Stadium. The last time I saw him, my father, sister and I drove to Raleigh, NC, to catch him at an arena near Durham.

It also happens that I have been writing about him in The Washington Post since 1992, when my first letter to the editor appeared in that paper.

Fuddy-duddyhood? At 30?!

Fuddy-duddyhood? At 30?!

That same year–in fact, just a few months later, I wrote another letter, this one bemoaning some writer’s statement and the genius of Bob Dylan would far outlast that of Bruce Springsteen. I begged to differ (and, in the process, really irritated my 23-year old brother, but hey, he didn’t know!).

Bruce in the History Books

Bruce in the History Books

I have written a few times about how hard it has become for an ordinary person with an ordinary computer to buy tickets. Once, it was about the 2007 Magic tour, and the Post ran my letter, bemoaning the seats members of Congress gobbled up and sold as fundraisers.

Seventh-Street Freeze-Out, But Congress Partied On

Seventh-Street Freeze-Out, But Congress Partied On

And the last time I couldn’t buy tickets (The 2010 Wrecking Ball tour) I wrote about it for the Post’s Local Opinions, suggesting that the bots and StubHubs of the world had taken over the joy of live rock shows. Oddly enough, this story became the basis for an article about an act–the BOSS Act–that was under consideration as a way to stop the bots. In 2012, something similar happened, and I appeared as a guest on the radio program, Culture Shocks with Barry Lynn to talk about the issue of being able to get concert tickets, and how the bots keep winning.

I try to think of why I love the man and the music so much, and can guess at many elements–my own 1970s adolescence and the recession, where we all seemed stuck forever in a moment of time. The voice and the music, full of muted sexuality and longing and love. I wrote about that show for a blog called The Light in Darkness. Even now, 46 years later (how did that happen?), I am transformed when I watch Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform.

Great seats for 2014 show in Raleigh, NC

Great seats for 2014 show in Raleigh, NC

The truth is that a Springsteen show is about as close as I get to church anymore, standing in a packed arena, fists pumping and singing along with Bruce and the crowd. I am often there with my sister and my father, and I am always happy when the 73-year old jumps to his feet and belts  out “Born to Run” with the rest of us, house lights up, as if he, too, were 18 again. In fact, at 73, he is a cancer survivor, and I always hope to get in one more show with my Dad and my sister. Nothing can compare to that joy.

Dad knows every word

Anyone up for a trade? I can’t afford the $600 the scalpers are after, but I’ll pay face value, or trade you–I can draw a little work of art, featuring whatever it is YOU love most about Bruce Springsteen.

The time Springsteen goes on tour, how about skipping Ticketmaster altogether? I, for one, would be quite happy to camp out in the Verizon parking garage and wait for tickets to go on sale in person for my city’s shows. That, at least, would seem fair–not only to fans, but to the artists, who are also ripped-off by scalpers.

At 53, I’m quite adept at dancing in the dark, but man, living in the future ain’t what it used to be.

Key words: buying tickets for Springsteen, how to beat Stub Hub, camping out for tickets, child of the 1970s recession

 

This Year’s Resolution? Create Healing

For all my years on the planet, 52, there are still times when experience is no teacher—or when futility seems to be my master. Nowhere is this more true than in my annual list of New Year’s resolutions. (It is a relief to know that I am not alone in this one.) Many of us share the idea that with an annual tick-tock-bank, we can fashion ourselves anew by resolving to achieve certain goals.

Full text of the article, which originally ran via Disruptive Women in Healthcare, is here.

Still Waiting on a Dream: Veterans are Veterans All Year Long

As a native Washingtonian and lifelong fan of Bruce Springsteen, I was disappointed in the way the irony of his all-acoustic set flew over the heads of many who sat in or tuned in for Tuesday night’s HBO broadcast, Concert for Valor. In the early 80s, Ronald Reagan and his crowd tried to appropriate Born in the USA as an anthem for a campaign that also promised us that it was “morning again in America.

Musician Bruce Springsteen performs during The Concert for Valor on the National Mall on Veterans' Day in Washington

Back then, Springsteen and his fans reacted quickly to put a stop to such use. The song was anything but Springsteen’s rendition of America the Beautiful.  When Springsteen sings, “Born down in a dead man’s town/the first kick I took was when I hit the ground,” he is not telling the story of purple mountains’ majesty.

The song, nearly 40 years on, rings true today, even in the lines where the “VA man” retorts, “son, don’t you understand?”

Apparently not, judging from the Twitter feeds that paid homage to Springsteen and his performance Tuesday. In today’s America, we don’t shame our veterans as we did after the Vietnam war, but we surely, as a nation, ignore what becomes of (mostly) young people sent to repeated and seemingly endless rounds of battle.

To be sure we admire their service, their bravery, and their sacrifice. When we see video montages of happy soldiers and Marines reunited with their families, we shed are grateful tears. For 95 percent of us, the wars in far-away places are far from our lives and our experiences.

We expressed the requisite outrage over recent VA scandals, and admired the struggles of wounded warriors who, like the amazing Master Sergeant Cedric King, find the will to flourish within and despite their maimed bodies. For the most part, though, we don’t see that too many of our veterans come home with a “fire still raging within”, and a war that plays out for years in brains injured by bomb blasts.  We do not march in noisy crowds demanding that more of our tax dollars be directed to veterans and their families. Instead, we elect Republicans who are now beating the drums of war against ISIS.

Meanwhile, the veterans we laud and thank are really just symbols of the people we ignore and avoid. Record numbers of young veterans will now live with chronic pain syndromes for the rest of their lives. At the same time, we support policies that are barriers to accessing pain relief treatments, both traditional and complementary.

We give a handful of folding chairs to veterans on the Mall and seats in our sports venues, while we have no shelter for the thousands of veterans who are now homeless. And while we go on holding our national versions of bake sales for our national defense, we withhold funds that would provide meaningful training and education to veterans trying to rebuild their lives and find their purpose.

Bruce Springsteen, a man who recently pointed to Flannery O’Connor’s writing as having made him the man he is, knows irony.  When he opened with Promised Land as a prayer for active-duty military and veterans, Springsteen knew just what he was doing. For those lost to injury, poverty, addiction, pain, and suicide, we have yet to build a promised land.

“Mr. I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man/and I believe in the promised land,” the Boss sings. So do I—and so do the men and women who volunteer their lives for the sake of our freedom. To them, freedom is not just another song lyric—but it is often still just a word to those who come home and vanish under our lip service.

 

key words: Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA, Concert for Valor, veterans, homelessness, pain, addiction