Sunday, January 1, 2017

Ouch: An injury memoi

At three I was adorable, alone, smashing glass milk bottles on the front steps of our rather posh London digs. Lots of literary friends, the Amises, the Gales, poets like Larkin, etc. Tons of booze except I was three and according to family legend the drunk Scottish doctor stitched my knee up, one eye open. 

At six in Sandycove, my birthday, across from the 40-foot where that guy cooked his kidneys and Joyce had his tower. I was given my first petticoat and felt obligated to hang upside down to share. Fell and gashed my chin open, several stitches and then back to the party.

In America, 1968 rough year with wild oldest sister and constant catastrophes, fall off the roof, break my arm, appendicitis, lemon pudding/napalm burns all the skin off my leg. I am yelled at for inconveniencing everyone.

Long pause. I am a barista in NYC before coffee shops and I am doored while biking, undiagnosed broken hand. Have baby-72 hours of labor, constant carpal tunnel but I am healthy. Then, bikes-bag caught in wheel, broken elbow, hit speed bump, broken shoulder, fall in Maui, wrist, elbow and finger.

And now this-fall down my mother’s stairs at dawn to return to Chicago-“I think I’m really hurt. We have to leave. Don’t wake up my mother.”
Pilon fracture. Surgery.
I will be off leg for 2-3 months. Son is vaguely sympathetic, tortures me, husband is bewildered and sorry and yells a lot. Cats freaked.
2016 was a heart breaker.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

It's been a while. The election flattened my spirit in so many ways I wondered for the first time in ages whether writing stuff made any difference. Of course it doesn't but what choice do I have? So, I'm teaching English Composition this January at a well regarded Catholic University in Chicago. In order to construct a syllabus I perused a number of other instructor's syllabi and was surprised and frankly dismayed at the number of opinions and judgments masquerading as helpful suggestions contained in these documents. One instructor's syllabus is nearly twenty pages long and advises students that he has other jobs and may not be thinking about their particular issues after class. Is he kidding me? Why would any college freshman care about what some middle-aged pedant was thinking about if it wasn't about her grade?

Seriously, sometimes I wonder whether most of us recall our youth at all. This leads me to a bout of self-examination where I try to remember ever giving my son any useful advice besides he should be kind and not get arrested. Also, I'm pretty sure I suggested he make his bed often and not to go out with depressed girls. He didn't listen to those last two and he has been arrested but he's kind when he isn't making fun of me. My parents had tons of opinions but very little practical advice. I recall being advised about posture, reading, and trying not to be fascinated with sub-par people. Also, they were vehement in their defense of the poor, the disenfranchised and that all humans should be treated equally no matter their race, economic status or religious beliefs. Actually, the last one isn't true because my parents, lapsed Irish Catholics, had a secret aversion for Protestants based on genetic loyalty and a general contempt for organized religion. They also were staunch supporters of eating breakfast and coffee. They loved their coffee-ground from beans, Melitta filter, drip etc. I understand the coffee thing but the Protestant thing is bad. Once I was talking about a potential boyfriend and I saw my parents exchange a look when I mentioned his surname. It occurred to me they would prefer I dated an axe murderer to a Protestant.

Maybe I don't believe in the right things. I once had a student challenge a grade I gave him in Honors English and after listening to him whine for a bit I said I'd give him a better grade. He looked pleased but then he said, "Mrs. Moynahan, you don't care, do you? You think grades are stupid. You just randomly decide that something is an A or a B." It's true, I fear. I'd start out all goal-oriented and clear, 'norming' the essays until I just couldn't read another sentence like, "Macbeth is a tragic hero because he's sad and he isn't afraid of his wife." If someone made me laugh or forced me to think, they usually received a better grade. If any of my ex-students are reading this I will deny everything. Anyway, you knew I was that kind of person. I wanted you to be happy and not to worry too much. The students who get the 20 page syllabus guy will do everything in their power to please him and he'll still think they are unworthy of his great intellect.

People tell me things. The other day a man at the Christmas tree place told me he ran ultra marathons, was 60, had just been married for the first time, his wife was Jamaican and made excellent jerk chicken, he was happy and needed to lose a bit of weight. Then my husband came back with the receipt for our tree. Once a cab driver pulled over and turned around and told me he was sure his wife was cheating on him back in Russia, she had once cheated on him with his younger brother, he didn't like most Americans and I had beautiful eyes. Luke was very little and when the driver burst into tears he was scared so we got another cab. "Mama," Luke said, "everybody tells you things." I told him that was because I was kind and that he shouldn't marry a depressed woman and he should always make his bed. I didn't bring up getting arrested because the previous week I had told him about all the terrible consequences of drug addiction and when I ran out of ideas he looked at me and said, "What's a drug?"

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

How to be Mean

I was listening to a report on Twitter a social media thing I find utterly baffling but occasionally fun when I get compliments and followers. Anyway, the report said that one of the reasons Twitter is less savage than some other social media sites is because of the fact that you have to identify yourself unlike the trolls who go around saying stuff like, "You're Fat" or "I can't believe you know how to breathe" as a helpful comment after someone writes something or posts a picture on the Web. Anonymity is helpful to mean people. But why are they mean? Do they have mean parents? Are they a genetic anomaly?

Remember Slam Books? Unless you're like 50+ I'm sure you don't. Slam Books were these Notebooks that had some one's name on each page or across a double page and people wrote stuff about that person without (mostly) signing their name. This could be a good thing if you had a crush on someone but not such a good thing if you were, like me: mouthy, had an English accent, a mother who cut her bangs crooked, an enormous vocabulary, a habit of having my wrap-around skirts fall off and a default mechanism that made me face off bullies. Other girls, nice, quiet girls, would have sweet comments like "You're so cute" or "I like your hair" or "You're sweet" but my comments were a different sort. "She's so bossy, loud, stuck-up, weird, ugly." 

Although I loved my bad girls heroines-Jo from LITTLE WOMEN, Ann from ANN OF GREEN GABLES, Pippi from PIPPI LONGSTOCKING, I secretly longed to be Amy (blonde, meek), Ann's friend (brunette, sweet) or anyone else but Pippi, the Pirate Queen. But I wasn't. However, I also wasn't mean. I didn't leave hurtful, snide, snarky comments about people. When we had a weird sub I tried to be helpful. If there was a birthday party, I invited my whole class. If someone was upset I'd try to help them.
Amy stealing Laurie from Jo. Mean.

Trump is mean. He talks about weight, looks, physical attributes and disabilities. he teases and mocks and derides. Meaness is a squinty thing, it makes the people who practice meanness seem small and awful. I can be aggressive or tactless although I try not to be. Mean children are just sad. I'm pretty sure their parents hit them which always struck me as super mean because look at the size difference, the psychological power a parent wields. if a big bully hits you there is no shame in defending yourself. But if your mother spanks you, can you bite her on the leg, kick her in the stomach? Probably not.

I was a nice teacher. I may not have always been coherent or organized or even effective but I was always kind, Why? Because life is hard and really, how important is it whether a kid can write a perfect thesis sentence when you make them feel bad? I always tried to find something positive to say or tell a kid I liked their kicks or their jacket or something. Raymond Carver was rumored to be very kind. I think it shows you understand so much you don't have to belittle someone else for their lack of knowledge or talent.

As a book reviewer I always looked for a positive comment except once and I'm still slightly ashamed of that review. The author had been enormously successful but this book wasn't good and it used tons of cliches and false truths to make its point. However,  I didn't need to be quite so bitchy. Luckily I am so unfamous and unimportant it didn't really matter. The author probably didn't read it or if they did they thought, "Who's this catty nobody who didn't like my book?"

Maybe this is all about being the youngest. My oldest sister could be super mean and so could my dad. I adored them both but fear also entered into the relationship. Both of them were genuises. Possibly I'm not smart enough to find my inner meanie. I'm not sure. Still, I think we can all be a little nicer to each other especially to the old, the young, the slow, the lost and the vulnerable.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Stop saying "judgy"

 Me being "judgy" because I spend 17 hours a day sitting zazen.

JUDGE: To regard something as good or bad.

You know what? Being able to tell the difference between good and bad is a positive thing.

Synonyms of JUDGEMENTAL include: critical, censorious, disapproving, disparaging,, that's not so great.

Who made you an authority? Well, no one. But unless you have chosen to remain utterly neutral, to have no sense of kindness or cruelty, don't care about children, old people, animals, and the environment, you'd better step up to the plate. Yes, if you see someone yelling at a confused old person at Walgreens and they are clearly losing their shit, intervene with something soothing yet effective like, "Do you need help?" Who cares if they think you work at Walgreens? Would it kill you to impersonate a low wage worker? This is not "judgy" the new favorite word of people who believe utter obliviousness is their constitutional right. Hey, I get it. I lived in Abu Dhabi for a few months where Good Samaritans are frequently arrested for trying to help someone victimized by an Emirate driving at 100 MPH whose Lamborgini has been dented. I was nearly arrested for pointing out the horrible conditions for the guest workers who weren't Westerners.

Well, this isn't the UAE and we are all equal so maybe consider doing something.

Today in the gym locker room I overheard the following conversation.

Woman #1-Are you pumping?
Woman#2-God yes. All the time. I make so much milk, it's ridiculous!
Woman #1-Best for baby, right?
#2-Yes! I mean, I know he'll never have allergies or be a criminal and he's definitely going to be a genius.
#1-Absolutely. My children were never sick.
#2-My four year old is immune to everything.
#1-Breast feeding is just natural.
#2-Yes, yes it is. Mother who don't are missing so much.

Me-Hey, not to jump in but you understand some women can't breastfeed and if a woman who couldn't breast feed overheard this conversation she would probably feel terrible. My son wouldn't breast feed and I was devastated. I had to have someone help me understand it was about feeding the baby not my breasts. Anyway, I'm sure you meant well.

They didn't mean well.  Also, I'm pretty sure they thought I was an interfering bag.

Walking upstairs I thought to myself, should I have kept quiet? Well, maybe but you know what? That's not how I was taught. I was taught to try and make the world a better place. My mother complained to a manager when the pregnant cashier had no chair, my sister protested the Vietnam war in high school, my father did everything in his power to get a radical African-American Professor tenure because it was the right thing to do.

It isn't "judgy" to tell someone you don't like their behavior. And by the way, judgy isn't even a word. Stop using it. Put it in the same place as impactful. And yes, my family was extremely judgemental.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Happiness is elusive, abstract, glimpsed in the rear view mirror while we continue to move forward, admiring that stunning sunset, yet determined not to pull over. This morning I thought of Cafe Des Artistes a beautiful restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I was lucky enough to have several meals, once with the late Harold Brodkey who told me being a novelist was punishment and another with the British publisher of my second novel who pronounced me talented and adorable which coming from a 60 year-old man who loved my work was nothing but flattering. I was poor, living as a tenant in a rent-controlled apartment but New York City was my neighborhood and I was young, hopeful and strong.
-->  -->
There was a meal, a picnic, with a boyfriend that featured cold roast chicken and fresh bread that I still recall as the best meal I ever had in my life because we were so in love and I was wearing a white sundress and he was planning our future which consisted of lots of sex and lovely meals and adorable children. We parted horribly, tragically, bitterly. I have struggled to get another novel published after the third. I think the British publisher may be dead now given his propensity for rich meals, wine and cigars. Cafe Des Artistes has been shuttered. And yet, my memories serve to remind me to register happiness even if the glimpses are so rare and fleeting.

Twenty-two years ago my only child was born after seventy-two hours of hard, back labor. I remember in the early morning of the third day of pain the thought that while I was relatively young, thirty-five, I had experienced happiness and while I so wanted to be this child's mother, I could accept death without anger. And then he came and opened his sapphire blue eyes and I forgot all that acceptance. Every disappointment was erased in that moment. And last week he graduated from college, mortar board askew in his typical jaunty fashion, my ex-husband and I briefly reunited to see our son receive his diploma.

My third novel received an excellent review in the Sunday New York Times. I opened the page expecting anything else, mediocrity, doubt, derision and was given such encouragement it was almost painful. I remember thinking, don't forget this feeling, hold on to this joy but it was a matter of minutes before I became anxious and also resentful because I felt I had not been supported by my publisher well enough and also people would probably hate me for my success.

I turned fifty-nine this week and am fully aware I can no longer count on my life continuing to change if I don't grasp every opportunity to be happy, to fail, to be afraid and to create. Knowing how lucky I have been to have danced with my best friend in Paris, a friend who died of a brain tumor two years ago, to have published three novels and made my writer father proud, to have mothered an independent, strong, good man, to have known great love, pain, remorse, disappointment and, finally to accept that this life is a good one. When I was little and lonely I read certain books over and over. These included Little Women, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and A Member of the Wedding. Each of these novels was about happiness and great loss, disappointment and failure. But in each there was also hope, faith in love and a belief that life is a miracle. Our breath is taken by the sunset because darkness hovers.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Going back and driving on the right

I started this on my trip to Ireland with my mom two months ago.

Sitting with my mother on a bench at Sandycove yesterday I felt the weight of years passed and also the moment, this moment with her. She has been my best friend and my worst enemy, cheering me on during the darkest days, making hurtful remarks when I was feeling too happy, reminding me of my clay feet when I was trying to soar but then remembering to say something so kind and loving that no one else would be able to equal. And here we are. Driving through awful traffic while she murmurs helpful suggestions that addle my jet-lagged brain even further and then offering anything to help.
I suggested this trip knowing it would not be easy to squire my strong-willed 90 year old mother around Dublin and environs but I also knew it would be in its own way, perfect.

Her mother was hateful, legendary but mean, mean as cat piss as my mother would say. She threw frozen washcloths in my face when I was little, separated from my parents who'd gone to Mexico with my oldest sister for too long. And she was mean to my mother who produced beautiful Thanksgiving dinners and was snubbed for it, never paid attention to my mother's incredible talent as an architect. She told me the whole family was going straight to hell, when I was eight and traumatized by my father's drinking, my sister's scoliosis and my parent's brawling. Yet, she served as a brilliant nurse in WWI in France, bombed in the Dardanelles, brave and unflinchingly a comfort to hundreds of dying young men and later to multiples of women having babies in Boston, suffering from postpartum depression.

Today is two days after Thanksgiving 2015.

Recently I finally read Travelling Mercies by Anne Lamott. I loved it. She can be a little corny but her emphasis on love and forgiveness is needed badly these days. Today I received an email from someone who was very close to my sister Catherine at college, someone I never spoke to who knew our family and its shattering after Catherine was killed. Her voice is lovely but also reminded me vividly of the days, weeks, months and years after Catherine disappeared and I was lost. At 26 I wasn't prepared for the complexity of grief and the way one thing seemed to cascade into another until I wondered whether I would ever wake up without the feeling that something was terribly wrong and I didn't want to open my eyes. Her son waited for his mother to come home while I searched in dark places for an answer to my prayers.

This morning, reading the memories of my sister from her college friend I felt a long forgotten panic. I remembered going to her house and finding clothes she had stolen from me and denied, sitting down in those same clothes sobbing that she could have anything I owned if she would only come back. Cleaning her kitchen and seeing the notes she wrote on the wall by the phone. Recognising that life is so incredibly fragile, short and often wasted in fear, recriminations and shame. Being reminded of that sadness has reminded me how happy I am to be alive, how much I love my friends, my mother, my sister, my niece and nephews, my ex-husband, my dear husband and son. I love life. I hope for peace and healing, for an end to the terror and the shame of violence. But this Thanksgiving I will happily embrace this moment. It's all I have.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Dream of Home

During the summer of 1977-78 I travelled from Dublin to Vienna to Venice, Florence and then Corfu, Athens and onwards to Spain, ending up in Paris. I had a Eurarail Pass, travelers checks earned from movie extra work, a Thomas Cook timetable and until Greece several traveling companions who ended up leaving Corfu as they were impatient and a bit mean and the owner of the taverna where we were staying invited me to remain and suggested they go. The owner, an American named Michael had bought a half share of a taverna located in Vatos. As we boarded the ferry from Brindisi, a couple of fellow backpackers, whispered the name, "Vatos" and then, "ask for Michael". I woke up on the deck of the ferry to witness the mountains of Albania rising out of the mist and found myself feeling a deep sadness and a sense of discombobulation so intense I took out my passport and stared at the photograph to remind me of who I was.

I had been gone from the United States for almost a year, a year where I learned first how to live again, second, how to remember that there could be pure joy in sharing ideas with brilliant professors, Reading ULYSSES while each and every day included a bike ride along the route Leopold Bloom travelled, third, that friendship and love was possible again after losing my best friend to a car crash and my boyfriend to my own insanity and infidelity. Dublin, the west of Ireland, three Norwegian roommates, an unhappy man from Zimbabwe and a girl from Malahide had saved my life. Last year we scattered that girl's ashes into the Irish Sea, her husband, her son, her sisters, her friends and I cast roses after and I thought again, how lucky I was to have met her and deep breath, to be allowed to go on. How I had loved and fought with Gabrielle Reidy who never failed to assure me I must remain alive.

Corfu was a blur of beaches and tavernas and drinking until the ex Vietnam veteran arrived and late one night invited me into the olive groves to lie down next to him, listen to how many he had killed as a Marine machine gunner, listen to his declaration that he would never return to the United States, make love to someone whose pain and sadness and rage had rendered him almost inhuman but oh so handsome, so sad, so perfect for a girl who loved the Heathcliffes of this world, lost, sad, angry men. My father. The Marine had so much blood on his hands, he told me, he would never atone.

After two months of wandering I ended up in Paris with Gabrielle who was selling newspapers outside of the Jeu de Pomme, sharing an attic flat with a miserable girl with an eating disorder so profound she was nearly transparent. We sold our Herald Tribunes like Jean Seberg in Breathless, dumped the left-overs and took our francs to a tiny Vietnamese cafe where we split a bottle of wine and planned our night. Her mother had died that spring, still heartbroken but looking forward. We went to terrible nightclubs, flirted for drinks, danced to Saturday Night Fever and took the metro home, back to back sleeping, happy with just each other. Gabrielle was determined to convince me not to go home.

Home. The United States, New Jersey, Rutgers where I had been so unhappy I drank every day, studied hard because I wanted my parents to leave me alone, wandered around alone because my boyfriend had left me. But I was, as my Irish friends never failed to remind me, an American. I loved and hated my country, so guilty, so heroic, so excessive, so conflicted.

I took the train to gatwick, ignoring the news that told of the discount airline Laker's demise and the week-long line to buy a ticket. I had no choice. I had exactly $100 and no way to contact my parents. I followed the line down the mile that snaked through the airport and joined what turned out to be a cross between a music festival and a mad carnival. We smoked weed, played cards, gave interviews, exchanged personal stories as the night fell and we slept in heaps together.

I walked out of the terminal at Kennedy with my massive backpack, propped myself against a wall and fell asleep. When I woke up my father was standing there, the car at the curb, somehow he knew when and why and how I'd come home.