Empty Nest

Tomorrow it will be two weeks since I dropped off the last of our three children at college. Phew. I did it! It’s a good feeling.

When I mention that I have three children in college, people are impressed. I can only compare it to the year when I had three children under three years old — all in diapers. Then, it was: “How do you do it? I mean, all the sleepless nights?!?” Now, it’s it: “How do you do it? Financially? Who can afford it?”

Well, the financial part is a source of pride. Almost my entire adult life I have squirreled away every bonus and every tax refund for my kids’ 529 accounts — the savings account earmarked for kids’ college. So they do receive scholarships but we have also saved some money.

My goal is to have the kids graduate without any debt. Not that it killed me, but I had students loans until I was about 35. And that $121 a month to Sallie Mae all those years definitely felt like I was paying alimony for a marriage I didn’t enjoy consummating.

In any case, the “how do you do it?” question is more profound for me on an emotional level. My darlings, as I refer to my children — inspired by the Darling children in Peter Pan books, have been in the front and center of my mind and heart for 21 years. Just about every decision I have made these last two decades, I have wondered: How does this impact the kids? And now, suddenly, I can let my mind be free from some decisions.

So here’s an example: Chris and I are shopping in Trader Joe’s the other day and we are in the frozen pizza department. I reach for the Pizza Margherita — not that anyone really LOVES that kind of pizza, but it satisfies the vegetarians among my darlings. It is the least common denominator. It’s fine.

“Hey, we can get that fancy French one!” I realize. We can get that one with the bits of ham and caramelized onions. So good (if you’re not a vegetarian). Chris especially enjoys that our clean up after dinner is done in half the time.

Another new discovery: we can make our own television selections. We have one television. And I often had to share my time with XBOX times. Now, Rachel Maddow and MSNBC can hold court. There’s no one waiting to use the television.

But our home is quieter. It’s lonelier. It’s less dynamic. There’s no coming and going. Yes, it’s tidier, but it’s got less soul. I guess we’ll get used to it. And we won’t be alone for long. School breaks and summers will fill the nest again. Pizza Margherita will be back on the menu.

One more thing: the reality is that when you live in New York City, many people love to visit. And we love to host family and friends. I’m not turning my place over to itinerant couch-surfers or AirBnB guests (likely, illegal in NYC), but I’m open to the next chapter. And I’m proud of my darlings, heading off to college.

I’m not alone. So many of my friends are in the same position. And one thing I know for sure:  although they are not nearby, they are loved and they know they are loved. And home is really where the heart is — not only where the XBox is played.

my girls off to school
First day of their Senior year (last year)
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Families with Parkinson’s Disease

people coverThere they are again. Staring at me as my nails dry at Susie’s Salon on 72nd Street. Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan on the cover of People magazine. I wish I didn’t resent their affection for one another and their airbrushed pictures of life with Parkinson’s.

Despite being married to an actor with Parkinson’s, I never felt our Coudal-Jones family and the Pollan-Fox family had all that much in common. They seem to have an ease with the disease. Maybe I am just jealous.

Maybe it’s the money. While Chris and I have done well financially, given that we are artists living in New York, we never had an endless stream of cash for the support of caregivers or chefs or whatever the heck very rich people spend their money on.

I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. For self pity is a hole I could fall into and never climb out of it. (Or to paraphrase Cheryl Strayed, ‘self pity is a street that you don’t want to park on.’) Let’s face it, Jones and Fox, like all people with Parkinson’s, have had different trajectories with the disease.

I feel compelled to emphasize the positive after reading this article (or any time really). Chris is going strong after his diagnosis 15 or 16 years ago. However, he is definitely slowing down. This makes me sad. There are times when he gets stuck and cannot move. Times when he shakes and cannot stop. There are times that he drools or hums incessantly. And God help me, I find some of these major physical shifts so disheartening. I am more impatient than Tracy Pollan. I try to stay positive.

The other thing I resent and again, God I wish I did not resent this, is the way that Tracy Pollan gave up her career. According to the recent article, Pollan was the bright one, the steady and hard working actor while Fox was the goofball. Why did she give up her work? Oh, to raise the children. Right. Right.

Well, I raised the children and I worked too. Sometimes, several jobs. And don’t get me wrong, I have always loved my work. My work has given me a purpose and a value, not to mention tuition money for the kids. Is it my feminism or my work ethic or simply my jealousy that wishes that Pollan would’ve been a film producer or continued to do her acting thing, too? She seems to have been a professional caregiver. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Her work was unpaid, but likely, she continued to work hard. It’s hard work to make caregiving look this easy.

But back to my story. It does not have to synch and jibe with any other wife who has a husband with Parkinson’s. I do not have to be on the cover of People. I just have to be me. And Chris can be Chris. And our kids can be who they are. Likewise, the Pollan-Fox fam can be themselves. We all deal with it in our ways. And the one-day-at-a-time way of dealing with life never fails. Letting go of comparing ourselves with others also seems failproof. So I will let it go and find a way to gratitude.

Just one last wish: that for once, someone famous who is struggling with a chronic illness like Parkinson’s, would say is, “It ain’t always easy.” That’s it. I don’t need their family money or their love for one another (okay, well, maybe a little). And I must pause for a minute to admit here that I do appreciate their quest for a cure. They work hard on that. And they have leveraged their celebrity for a good — no, a great — cause.

Every so often, though, I long to hear, “We have struggled with this.” Okay, then give it a beat and continue, “But we’re still here. We’re still trying to make our best lives. We’re still going to work. We’re still trying to love one another and be loved.” Because, no one is perfect — not enough the smiling couple on the cover of the magazine — but we are all trying. And every family has its struggles and its stories. And every story could go deeper and everyone edits their lives for the sake of word count, print space or how they appear on social media.

Let me forgive Michael and Tracy a little and acknowledge, on behalf of all families with a chronic illness like Parkinson’s, “It ain’t always easy.” But thank you for continuing to show up.

Be real. Be loving. Be patient.

Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.

— Cheryl Strayed

Writing Weekend

Jostled by the Amtrak, I was heading home from the Adirondacks. It was the first time I offered one of these long writing weekends, I called my biz partner Kelly, “This is what I was put on this earth to do. I have found my purpose. It went so well.”

Yes, of course, I’ve felt this way, at other times, as a parent, writer, and teacher. But this calling — to be a writing workshop leader (facilitator? guru?) was different. I immediately felt gratification and somehow I knew by doing it, I’d changed the world for good. This was needed then.

It is needed now. Especially with the world of late. The news never seems good. For a few days next weekend, I’m looking forward to ditching my social media habit and my daily gnawing worry for the state of the union.

I need to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I need to figure out who I am and what I think and how I feel. I need to express and share this vision — small or large. About relationships or about the nation. About my peace with the past or my intentions for the future. About tuning in to the present moment — the sound of a loon calling or the lake splashing against the dock.

There are  spots still available. You are most welcome to join. Especially if, like me, you need time away to get your head, your heart, or your life together.

We are a smart, creative, compassionate group right now. Register for the Adirondack Writing Weekend here. glenburnie

Breakfast or Make Up?

Given my finite time and energy every morning, I ask myself, should I put on make up or have breakfast? Some questions I never ask myself: should I help my kids find their backpacks? Or help Chris out of bed? I always do those things when asked — and even when not asked.

And this is why I feel an anticipatory loss thinking about about my girls going to college (or gap year or whatever they decide to do) next year. Because my kids are my front and center and they have been the reason for just about every decision I have made for the last 21 years. I am always asking myself, How does this — whatever this is — impact my kids?

And incidentally, I know I should wear make up AND have breakfast. But if you’re a working mom, maybe you can relate. Our time is finite. So we help our children find their backpacks. And we help our loved one out of bed. And then, if we’re lucky, we grab an apple or swipe our lips with lipstick as we head on out the front door.

stamina
This was in the hallway of one of my favorite schools on the Day of the Girl! Inspiring.

Travel the World in NYC

I received my press credentials for this weekend’s New York Times Travel Show at the Javits Center. I love this event. I love the expansiveness and beauty and diversity of the world. I have been three times — I’ve learned something new each time.

I have been blown away – I see myself climbing Machu Pichu, snorkeling with sharks, parachuting from a plane. In fact, last time, I did mountain climb, not only on a climbing wall but through Virtual Reality goggles, which, honestly, made me queasy.

My kids, my mother, and my niece have joined me. They, too, loved sampling the free snacks, snatching the give-aways, and taking in all of the vibrant colors. One time, my kids and I actually went scuba diving at the Travel Show. I’m not kidding.

This year I intend to attend more lectures and discussions. Last year or the year before, I attended one on how to travel in luxury — on a budget. I love travel.

Last month’s trip to Italy totally ignited my wanderlust. My motto is ‘Travel begets travel.’

The world is full of color, jewels, food, gifts, adventure. On a cold New York City morning in January, you may not be able to travel the world, but you can get out of bed and travel to the Javits Center.

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One Day, One Week, One Month of Happiness

You want to be happy but there’s so many chores to do.

For one moment, put your happiness first.

The other day, I bought myself a really cute pink party dress from Talbots. Once, as a preteen, reading Young Miss, an article said: ‘In order to be popular, do not wear a new outfit right after you get it. Wait at least a week.’

I have internalized this advice and have for more than 40 years tucked away my treasures in the pursuit of popularity. But WHY???

There is another truth: Don’t hide your light (or pretty pink dress) under a bushel. I am wearing the dress today.

Also, to increase my happiness quotient, the other night I went to the 52nd Street Project. I saw plays written by 10-year olds, performed by top-notch adult theater professionals, like Bill Kamp and Edie Falco. Going out to the theater makes me so happy. But especially because I like hanging out with my friend Joanna.

So for today’s happiness advice, I suggest you:

  • Do something nice for yourself
  • Wear something new
  • Go to the theater
  • Meet up with a friend
  • Admire the creativity of children
  • Plan something fun

Tomorrow the girls and I leave for almost two weeks in Italy — Milan, Ravenna, Bologna, Florence, Rome. Looking forward to this trip has made me happy.

http://www.art-vangogh.com/

Goodness to the Rescue

Today is my twin daughters’ 18th birthday. I am focusing on the good.

I have had so many good things in my life — good people, good work, good communities. And yet the world, and this country especially, is full of so many challenges. We have a lot of work to do. We have to lay down our arms. We have to keep building on and remembering to look for the common good. Our constitution guarantees that we promote the “general welfare.” Let’s promote each other, rather than tear each other down.

Yes, we humans probably each have an innate desire to show off. Maybe we once needed this to survive — a social evolutionary tactic to ensure that human existence persisted. But we need to make sure our neighbors persist too. We need to look out for our fellow human beings, even and especially, if and when we disagree with them.

We latch onto this myth that the accumulation of great wealth — of things — will make us happy. That ‘things’ will make us good or loved or better. This is not true. It is not the things in my life that bring great joy or deep meaning. But the people — children, family, extended family, friends, colleagues — that truly matter.

I have always tried to be good. I am sure that I suffer from some sort of Good Girl Syndrome. However, I would rather be good, look for the good in life and in the lives of those around me, than see only the bad. I know this world is difficult for young women today. This is a tough time in the U.S. to turn 18 — there are so many admitted predators leading institutions, including the commander in chief. But there are also great and good people all around — leading our families, schools, churches, faith communities, cities, states. They are persisting, not just for their own sake, but for the common welfare.
I am not giving up on the good.

Now that my daughters are 18, they can no longer threaten to sue me and go to court for emancipation, as they like to tease.

Seriously, I am reminding my girls to persist for the sake of good. Truly, the future is female. Let’s celebrate the ascendancy of good girls and good women everywhere. Happy Birthday! May our goodness and greatness dominate the world!