The mohair shawl

November 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Very Long Blogs | 1 Comment
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I haven’t written for a long time. So I promised myself I would use the old writing exercise of starting with whatever my eyes fell upon. I am sitting in Barker Hall, listening to Rachel’s weekly orchestra rehearsal, surrounded by my stuff: the bag holding our dinners and water bottles, my pack, my purse, two down jackets (it is supposed to snow tonight as we drive home and it’s COLD) and all my winter weather accessories. So what is the lucky theme for the evening and today’s blog post subject? Drum roll! A dollop of suspense. And the winner is…

My SCARF!

It’s nothing special, actually. I got it two or three years ago when Sierra Trading Post ran one of its specials (this occurs almost daily, but somehow it always feels like an extra bargain – call me a sucker). It is half silk, half cashmere, hence the key word: warm. But also another key, yet less desirable word: itchy. Around my neck. What makes me continue to wear it is its versatility, and of course the previously mentioned and most important quality. It is a thin and pleasantly drapey woven fabric, and though I think of it as a scarf, it actually has the dimensions of a shawl. I have worn it in many a chilly room over the past two winters, around my neck, around my shoulders and torso, or over my legs as a lap blanket.

Pause buttons “on”. Please do not worry. I am already as bored as you are. Let me take this opportunity to acknowledge my gratitude to you for having enough faith in me to have hung in this far! Let me also tell you that the reason I chose this topic was twofold. Number one, as a writer, I wanted to keep the bargain I had made with myself, and literally the place my glance landed was on the fringe of said scarf. Number two, and from here on, more relevantly, the instant I contemplated the subject of “scarf”, my mind jumped to a significant shawl from my early twenties, a gift from a significant friend, and amazingly, almost a twin to a gift from a different friend the same year.

It was back in the years when I was still oblivious to being Jewish and was celebrating Christmas. Most importantly, I was enjoying the holiday in a new way because I was earning enough money to buy some nice presents for people. I don’t know which was the more fun – the selection process, proudly spending my own hard-earned money, or actually handing each over to its intended recipient. And of course, I was on the receiving end at the same time.

This particular year – I must have been nineteen or in my early twenties – I don’t remember much aside from these two gifts. As I said before, the shawls were almost identical. Both were made of mohair. One is a little on the orange side of red, and the other leans more toward the fuchsia side. The pinker one was woven, and sold in an artisan collection. The rust one was also handmade, but by my friend herself, crocheted, I think.

One interesting detail is that up until then, I had never, ever worn a shawl, not once in my entire life. When I opened the first (I do not recall in what order they came to me), I remember being surprised by it. Of course I expressed my thanks (and I hope I was gracious.) But somewhere in there I remember a twinge of discomfort. Something on the order of “Oh! Does this go with who I am?” There was a lick of fear being fanned as I laid eyes on this gift, as if I was being asked, invited almost, to explore a new flavor of personality within myself. I had a vague image of the kind of person who would wear a shawl, and I did not think of myself as that kind of a person.

I was able to put these thoughts aside until the second friend presented me with the second, eerily similar gift. Let us hope that I was just as polite, just as gracious in my thanks. But now you know that I was socked with a second dose of this discomfiting stirring. Was my understanding of myself somehow askew? “This is not who I am!” I wanted to announce, as not just one, but two of my close friends chose to give me the same uncharacteristic, lovely, and somehow intimate gift.

As I was wont to do back then, I chose the rigid and narrow way. I put the shawls away and never wore them. I was about to write “and never touched them” but that would not be accurate. I did touch them. Every so often I would pull one or the other – or both – off the shelf and say to myself, “So-and-so GAVE this to me.” It is difficult to express to you all the meaning in that phrase. What I can tell you is that it meant a great deal to me that both friends went out of their way to pick out/hand-make this shawl. I felt somehow caressed or cared for by both friends. Even if I never wore either one, I felt warmer, as if I understood that both friends could see something in me that needed the warmth, the holding, and the beauty.

It was my friend Mary Jean who had crocheted the burnt orange, using a variegated yarn with mohair and maybe some other fibers spun together. We had first met when we were nine years old, in a beginning violin class in a summer music program. Mary was learning to play not only the violin but the flute as well, a fact which impressed all of us no end. I’m not sure how she worked out the logistics of attending both classes, and I do believe that eventually flute won out. I had not known Mary before, but my best friend from school knew her from church, which made her all the more significant to me (even if the dual instruments status hadn’t already won my admiration.)

Mary and I attended different elementary schools, went on to attend different junior high schools, and continued to run into each other at summer music events. We came together in high school and though we had some of the same friends and occasionally hung out in the same crowd, we were headed in different directions. Mary was a gifted art student, and I was continuing along a musical path. She must have been in the audience for some of my shows with my band, as I know she enjoyed my music. (And by the way, it was one of my bandmates who was later to give me the other shawl.) But all through those years we were not close friends.

Finally, after my band had split up and we were both college students, Mary and I both got a job at the same restaurant. We started off bussing tables, being too young at first to wait tables in a place that served liquor. We both served as hostesses, greeting customers and seating them at their tables, later we both trained as cashiers, and then, once twenty-one, we continued up the ranks into waitress and cocktail waitress, where the real money was.

I want to stop here to make something clear. Lest it seem that I am headed in the direction of romanticizing an old friendship, I should inform you that in many ways Mary Jean drove me crazy. We became roommates for some period of time, I can’t remember how long, and I thought I would end up doing something mean, she was so annoying so often. She would greet me every single time with great flourish and waving arms, crying delightedly, “Carla, Carla!” Never, never did she say my name once. (Look, now she’s even got me doing it, just thinking about her.) I was a moody person back then, and her effusiveness made me dizzy, and I do not mean that in a good way.

But in some ways she was so very good for dark, moody, lost me. I remember one day we went to the big city together, 45 minutes away, and visited, among other places, the art museum. I had never quite seen art the way she helped me see it that day. And for our excursion I borrowed a piece of clothing from her, a skirt, that somehow made me feel beautiful in a way I had never before felt. Fashionable, attractive, and graceful. I suddenly realized I could feel like that all the time if I could dress – and see myself – with a little more flair. As I just now wrote that, it makes me wonder if that was before or after I had received the shawl from her.

We also talked occasionally, that kind of girlfriend talk that just happens if you are there for the right kind of opening in the right kind of moment. She was caring and loving, and there was an air of a certain kind of wistful sweetness all through her that almost made you want to cry. She was quite beautiful. And her artwork was beautiful, with a flourish. You could almost get drunk on Mary Jean. And then you got sobered back up by the quirks that could drive you to distraction.

She ended up marrying someone I didn’t know well, a waiter at the restaurant where we worked. We drifted apart. I don’t know how long they remained married, and then they ended up divorcing. A few years passed. The next time I saw her was at our tenth high school reunion, so we were both 28.

She arrived on the arm of a new husband named Scott, a sweetheart of a guy. And with some news. She took me aside to tell me that she had spent the last year battling lung cancer. She had been sick in the winter, thought it was bronchitis since that was going around until one night she had trouble breathing and began to cough up blood. Scott took her to the ER. She told me that she spent that night in the hospital certain that she would die before morning. But she didn’t. Then came months of treatment. Her hair, which looked like regular Mary to me, was gone – this was a wig. It was good news for the time being, as she was in remission. She and Scott were living in California, and had come to town just for the reunion.

For the next year we continued to stay in touch, through letters and an occasional phone call. The cancer returned. She returned to chemo, which sickened and weakened her. It was her artwork that motivated her to get out of bed some days, and she poured herself into it, as much of herself as there was left. I wrote to her late that winter to tell her that I was going to be driving to California in June. One morning in early spring the phone rang. It was Mary.

“When are you coming?” she asked. I gave her the exact date. She hesitated. “I don’t know if I’ll still be here.” My mind spun. Here? Where was she planning to go? It took a moment for the meaning of her words to sink in. We talked for a few more minutes, though I have no recollection of what we said in that part of the conversation, and then she told me she needed to hang up so she could rest. Breathing took immense effort.

At the end of phone conversations, there are all the normal ways of saying good-by, but suddenly none of them seemed adequate. I was 29 or 30 years old and had never had to deal with anything like this before. “Mary,” I said, “I don’t know what to say.”

“I know. And it’s okay.”

And it was. Suddenly annoying and crazy Mary was the wisest person in the world, and it was safe to be exactly how I was in that moment. I felt a great sense of comfort in the face of such utterly cracked-open-honest permission to admit my helplessness. The conversation closed and I hung up the phone, feeling strangely calm. One minute later the phone rang again. “Carla? I believe I might still be here. Call when you get close.”

The night before I was to arrive, I called her number from my motel room. Her husband answered. He spoke to me as if I already knew, and once again my mind reeled until I grasped the meaning of his words. She had urged him to go for a walk the day before. He left her with the hospice caretaker, and while he was out, she was able to let go. The hospice worker told him that often a person cannot bear to give up while surrounded by loved ones, an understanding that offered comfort to him when he came back and was flooded with remorse for having abandoned her. As he talked, I had the sense that he just needed to tell it all to someone, and I was certainly glad to be that someone. But I was also filled with regret that I had come that close to seeing her and then missed by only two days.

Two or three winters ago, some 35 years after Mary crocheted me the shawl, I took it from my closet shelf and put it on. After that, on various occasions, I rotated the other one into my wardrobe, and began to let the Sierra Trading Post scarf slip down around my shoulders. I even added a fourth to my collection, imported from Spain (purchased at a huge bargain from STP.) I don’t know what possessed me, or why, but it suddenly felt just right to wrap myself in the folds of a shawl. I now dress with more of a flair, and find that I like feeling fashionable and attractive. I can still hear Mary’s voice calling me, “Carla, Carla!” These many years later, it makes me laugh instead of gritting my teeth. I can still see her smile. And I am forever grateful for each of the gifts that she gave me, grateful that her life touched mine, and especially grateful for that moment of raw and perfect honesty on the phone, and how deeply connected I felt to her in that crystallized point of time. It is my hope that I can offer that kind of safety and some touch of beauty and sweetness to my friends, at least occasionally, and that I can be honest and true with my fellows in the grittiest, most basic way, when it really counts.  Thank you, thank you, Mary Jean.

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Letters to heaven and back

April 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 1 Comment
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It’s not that I have been spinning my wheels lately, by any means.  I am one week into a two-week break from school, a much needed respite, and as has been my pattern in the past, it takes a bit of time to let down before I finally feel the current that has been coursing through me, presumably all along.  I have been tending too many fires to be able to pay attention during these recent school-centered months.

Almost exactly two years ago my father, whom my brothers and I called Peter (his insistence, not ours), was diagnosed with colon cancer.  From the diagnosis to his death was six weeks.  Evidently, he had been very sick for some time.  We will never know how much they could guess at the time of his colonoscopy, but the prognosis of surgery followed by chemo turned out to be laughable.

My father and I had a difficult turn in our relationship about thirteen years ago, and though we were able to regain our footing and forge a cautious path together after that, we never returned to the closeness we had had before.  I know he felt hurt by me, and angry at my choices.  I regret that he took my choices personally, choices that Dan and I made for ourselves and our children, conscientiously and mindfully.  And I in turn felt hurt by the fact that his belief system was more precious to him than his only daughter.

Today on Facebook, I came across the status posted by an old friend of mine.  In it, she refers to a book, Letters from the Goddess, that I hadn’t realized she had written.  I followed the link and read the first several pages, into the second chapter.  In it, she guides the reader through a journaling technique to access one’s inner “small, still voice” which of course holds much wisdom.  Like Dorothy, we find out it has been there for us all the time.  So I jumped in and tried it.

My father’s mother, Frances, and aunt Elda (his father’s sister) were exceedingly dear to me.  They lived together after Elda’s husband Mito died, sometime in the 1960s, up until Franny’s death in 1980.  I lived with them in Oaxaca, Mexico, in the summers of 1968 and 1969, and visited them a few times in the 70s in their home in Los Angeles.  After Franny died, Elda went to live with her own younger sister Laure, until she passed away just over a year later, much like a bereaved spouse.

So I wrote to them today.  Okay, their answer was not what I expected – I admit that I wanted magic and line-‘em-up guidance, and that’s not what I got.  But I could hear Franny’s light laughter and see Elda’s smile and hear her wonderful French/Ladino/whatever-else accent, and I felt the power of their love.  And when they brought my father into their answer (were they speaking as one or was only one of them talking?) my tears did begin to flow.  And I have to tell you, I have hardly cried since his death.  All along I have held to my view that my bigger loss, the real loss, took place eleven years earlier.

But lately I have been noticing more and more little links to him in my days:  my growing resemblance to him, his strong will (stubbornness to the death, really), his many decades of being self-employed (just one example of how he followed his own path), his love of writing and his tendency to encourage others to pick up the pen or laptop, his habit of speaking his mind.  The rosebush he and my mother gave me for my birthday a month before his diagnosis is planted in our garden, courtesy of Dan’s green thumb.  All the years he drove me to my recitals and competitions and Girl Scout camping trips are reflected in the present as Dan and I chauffeur Rachel around.  He worshipped his cup of coffee the way Dan does (though Dan drinks decaf).  Ditto on his being a handyman around the house.  (Thank God.)

I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised to see that I have once again fallen into an old and not-so-constructive habit:  thinking I’m supposed to know what to do with my life right now.  I don’t have to know the big picture – it is not possible for me to have a broad enough perspective.  Let it be enough to keep to my daily rituals and stay focused on what lies in front of me:  lesson plans to prepare, practicing for my violin lesson and upcoming folk and baroque concerts, parent volunteer work at school, the vast myriad of motherly tasks that crop up, both predictable and in the realm of spontaneous.  Years ago, Sue Bender’s book, Plain and Simple, introduced to me the concept of making the ordinary moments of my day sacred by bringing my full attention and intention to them.  I know I feel better when I take that as my task, rather than the god-territory of understanding it all.  As they say, it’s all in the details.

And if you want to read it, here is my letter to my grandmother and great-aunt from an hour ago, and then what came to me as a response.

Dear Franny and Elda,

I am hoping that you really are here somewhere, available to me in this moment.  Up until now, whenever I have spoken or cried out to you, perhaps I have not listened hard enough or long enough (or quietly enough) to hear you.  Today an old friend of mine shared her experience of learning to pray to some appendage or aspect or single face of God, and how she has received answers.  It encouraged me to address you now in this way.  I can hear your voices, both of you, in my mind.  I have been praying – again – every morning for several weeks, to something that is in all probability more like magic than God-like, and am feeling now little and lost, and disconnected.  Or rather, I am beginning to reconnect, and part of what I am feeling is grief and the still-dammed-up tears that probably crave permission to flow.

I feel the deepest yearning to make something of my life right now.  Chloe has embarked, as you know if you are indeed here (or there), and does not need me in the same way.  Rachel does not allow me to be with her the way Chloe did.  Not bad, just different.  And I think part of what I need (want?) is to find a new standing with Dan, my sweet and generous husband and travel (read:  “life’s path”) companion.  So I have been following a daily prayer practice.  I truly believe I receive guidance, probably all the time, but I am really struggling to recognize it these days.

Earlier this afternoon it occurred to me to ask myself this question:  What has been put in my path lately?  And the answer came to me immediately:  music.  And later more of an answer:  music and collaboration.  Suddenly I am working harder and more, with more people, on more arenas, all around music.  This is good, no?

Then why do I feel afraid?  And what is expected of me?  What shall I do?

Dearest Carla,

Answer me this:  Why do you mourn?  Why do you run?  Your words are of the lost, but you are not of the lost.  This is only a part of your life, not the whole.  This is what you need right now.

Peter is in the green branches that blow in this gentle breeze.  He has not left you.  He is not gone.  He loved the spring and he loves it still.  Let him in.

The school of leavings

September 4, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 2 Comments
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I played music for a bat mitzvah service this morning, a very sweet occasion.  At the very end, right before the closing song, a passage written by Albert Einstein in 1954 was read:

“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space.  We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest.  A kind of optical delusion of consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.  We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”

An optical delusion of consciousness.  What a powerful and apt term!  I sat through the whole service teary-eyed and choked up – rites of passage always do that to me anyway, no doubt enhanced today by the freshness of Chloe’s leaving – and those words showed up as a lifeline, a rope to grab hold of to lead me out of my soggy puddle.  What is my life – your life, anybody’s life – but a meandering path of leavings, and of moving forward even when we want to hold on?

The day Dan and I began to try to conceive, I was thunderstruck by the realization that we had stepped onto the escalator of letting go.  Could we control whether or not we hit the jackpot (so to speak) this ovulatory cycle?  Never.  We had no say over any of it, speed nor date of conception, the nature of the pregnancy, the first miscarriage, the grieving process, how many months more of trying for the next, the nature of the next pregnancy… Obviously, I could go on for years with this list.  And once Chloe was born, and later Rachel, I had no control over the next set of variables.  Each step of developmental progress was another departure – from my body, from our arms and laps, from babyhood and soft sweet cheeks and wide open eyes and clinging, eager hands and ramrod posture and adorable outfits to everything that comes with every single stage of growing up.  I had pictured parenthood as the act of welcoming someone into the world.  What a surprise to learn I had it backwards!  Our children were welcoming us to a whole new curriculum of lessons to be learned.

I know I have not been the best of students in that school, though neither have I been the worst.  When I could not go by my own experience, I looked for others who could teach me.  I learned about being a gentle parent from three unlikely couples, namely, the parents of Frances and Gloria, in all the Priscilla Mary Warner children’s books; of Arthur and D. W., in the PBS series inspired by author Marc Brown; and of Ramona in Beverly Cleary’s classics.  They were great models for me in the area of love, patience, maturity, and understanding.  But their stories show little to nothing of the slow parade of good-byes that lie ahead.  Like Dorothy in the land of Oz, I had to find them for myself.

They did not come on the expected days, like the first morning of kindergarten or even the first time Chloe drove Rachel to their dance school and Dan and I were left waving on the porch, the air oddly sucked out of our lungs.  I felt it more when Chloe would come home from a play date a little farther away from my understanding, a new cockiness in her voice.  Or when Rachel suddenly didn’t need a good-night kiss and hug anymore.  Then who am I?  What am I now?

If I am first and foremost the one who brought them into the world and sustained them with the milk my body produced for them, I stand alone and separate, as Einstein observed.  But if I remember that I too navigated my path away from my mother and father into the world that was awaiting me, they join me as two more children in a long line, and we join all families.  All mothers and fathers were once children, following the drive to leave their parents, forever moving forward.  I can now turn with compassion toward my own parents, who must have grieved my moving out at age 19, though I didn’t notice at the time.  It was not my job to notice them!  I was joining the world – for myself, I thought at the time.  Now I know better.  The baby bird leaves the nest and flies off, to grow big enough to build another.  It is the way of the universe.  I will never know whether the mother and father bird shed tiny tears in their abandoned circle of twigs, but I know it is the same set of impulses, even if I use words to try to understand it all, and they do not ponder but only act. 

I am thankful to be swept up in the fast and fierce winds that meet my face as I hurtle helplessly forward in time.  It is comforting to me to be part of the very nature of things.  That in itself frees me (for the moment) from the prison of separateness and personal agenda.  And by the way, Einstein wrote that magnificent paragraph the year I was born.

Dorm news, the nature of grieving, and a lesson in exponents

August 7, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 8 Comments
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Yesterday, after several tense weeks, Chloe finally received the email announcing her freshman roommate and her dorm assignment.  Now she has one more tangible piece of the year ahead that she can place in the puzzle before her.  Only somewhat tangible, however.  She found her roommate on Facebook and sent a message along with a friend request.  The latter was granted, but as of eighteen hours later, there is no return message.  Okay, the girl is apparently at Disneyland right now, and was up late last night.  We assume she friended Chloe on her iPhone and went to bed.  As Chloe pointed out, it’s simultaneously fun and creepy to fb-stalk someone.  But we were happy to see that she plays violin and also likes the Beatles and Jason Mraz, so it can’t be bad!  We’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that Chloe will move closer to the top of her list after she leaves the Magic Kingdom.  And then they can talk about who will bring the mini-fridge and other domestic details.

For me the new degree of reality brings up a mass of tangled feelings and then the typical aftermath of thoughts, trying to sort it all out.  Last night Dan and I joined friends for dinner and Chloe stayed home and had friends over for dinner and a movie.  As we were seated in the Ethiopian restaurant, I had a sudden rush of awareness:  tonight we are here and Chloe is at home, but in a few weeks, when we return home from anywhere we go, she won’t be there.  After I rescued my stomach from the basement beneath my chair, I knew one thing for certain.  This is no different from any other kind of grieving.  There’s the over-the-top wallop of the loss itself, and then there’s the waves that hit you in any random moment, with no warning.  I haven’t even had the wallop yet.  These must be prelude-waves.

Before Chloe, I had a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage.  Dan and I were overcome with sorrow, and then, of course – what else can you do? – we began to carry on with our lives.  Two months after the miscarriage, I walked into the backstage dressing room of a concert hall and spontaneously burst into tears.  Until I set foot in the dressing room, it had not dawned on me that months beforehand, I had pictured myself doing that concert in a maternity dress.  Over the coming months, I came to understand that we walk through grief by mourning each micro-component of the whole.  Every moment, every face, every thread that is attached to what we lost has to be met and felt. 

It’s all around me.  Last week Dan and I went to see “The Kids Are All Right” which had received good reviews and didn’t look too heavy.  Little did we know that (and I don’t think it will ruin anything for any of you who have not seen it if I include this – but if you want to, you can skip this paragraph) the movie includes a main character who has recently graduated from high school and has only a few weeks left before she leaves for college.  The parting scene shows her arriving on campus, dumping her stuff in her dorm room, saying good-by to her family and watching them drive off without her.  Okay, was it really necessary for us to watch this right now? 

And a few nights later I was at a party where Chloe was to play background music with a friend.  I was chatting with another guest who is ahead of me by a few years.  As if to refresh my memory of the movie I already wished I hadn’t just seen, she described her own experience of driving her daughter across several states, helping her unload into her dorm room, and saying good-by.  “And then,” she continued, “I got into my car and began the drive home.  I must have sobbed for two solid hours!  And I was all alone.  Or wait – was my mother with me for that trip…?”  Oh great.  I hope I remember that Dan is driving home with me someday years from now, when I am telling my story to some fragile wisp, trembling before me.  Assuming we don’t have an accident, driving on the interstate while sobbing.  Perhaps we’ll stay on the side roads for the first part of the journey.

I know, I know, I know.  Yes, it’s hard.  Yes, it’s wonderful.  Yes, it’s necessary – and right.  And I have lots to do in the seventeen days between now and our departure.  And there is nothing to fix.  There is no one dying.  Heaven knows, I am well aware of the difference between my 80-year-old father passing away a year ago and my 18-year-old daughter embarking on the next chapter of her life’s adventures.  And I am not alone.  Dan and Rachel are moving through it in their own ways.  I guess it’s also true to say that our family foursome is moving through it as a whole as well. 

I remember that after Chloe was born, I figured out that adding a baby to a couple doesn’t just make three.  It’s closer to exponential because you have to add the dynamics of all the relationships.  So to begin with there were three relationships:  Dan and his relationship with himself, my relationship with him, and my relationship with myself.  Adding Chloe gave us four more – hers with herself, that between each of us with her, and the threesome.  Adding Rachel gave us a myriad more, because it wasn’t just Rachel herself and Rachel with each of us.  There were now “the girls”, “the kids”, “the grown-ups”, etc.  Even though Chloe is not a “member” of each of those relationships, it affects all of them.

Everyone tells me that our relationships with Chloe will continue, but they will change, and I do believe that.  It helps me to remember that our family has ridden the shockwaves of past transitions, and it has always been for the better.  So yes, this is uncomfortable, and each of us has an occasional moment of squirming, flailing and/or writhing, but we are in it together, even as we are each negotiating an individual set of bumps and turns.  I feel mighty fortunate to have such a strong set-up.  In this moment, bolstered by what has just come clearer to me, I know we’ll all be okay.  What is it they say – the only constant is change?

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