The article that was the hardest to write

Written By: sherridaley - • •

 I love to write.  Not only do I like the process of choosing the best words and putting them into an order that works —  a couple of short choppy sentences when some power is needed, those hard consonants to convey an ugly thought, onomatopoetic words that sound like song – but I also like the way words charge and bounce on the page, the lovely white space I create with short paragraphs, and those adorable little marks of punctuation.

 It’s sick, I know, but it makes me happy, no matter what I’m writing about — until I decided to do what little I could for the families whose sons and daughters were off fighting in Iraq: I decided to write an article about them.  “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  (Milton, On His Blindness)

 A mother myself, I thought about how hard it must be to know your child is in constant danger of being blown up by a roadside bomb or picked off by a sniper, that he or she could come home disfigured, disabled, blind, or permanently terrified.  How do these parents get through the day? 

 I wanted to honor them and the only way I knew how was to write about them, but what I hadn’t expected was the heartbreaking interviewing process.  The parents were proud, scared, patient, brave.  Braver than I could ever be.

 I could manage to get through an hour or so watching a mother’s lips tremble or tears form in her eyes, but when a man cried, I was toast.  After I took a few hasty notes, I’d stumble out to the car and weep.  If my 25-year-old son was in the house when I came home, I’d throw my arms around his waist and press my wet, snotty face into his T-shirt, declaring my limitless love and gratitude for his very existence. 

 The first time he was astonished to suddenly have his arms full of mom, but after while, I’d see him watching me through the front window as I tried to gather my wits about me before coming in the house.  Sometimes he’d come out and get me.  Other times, he would look up, register the red eyes, and say, “Another soldier interview, huh?”

 It was the hardest article I have ever written, but when the piece came out, it was, for me, a beautiful tribute to the men and women, fathers and mothers, whose lives are forever branded by an insufferable sadness; and I was proud. 



Written By: sherridaley - • •

My friend Susan fell in love with a man from India about the same time I fell in love with a man 15 years my junior.  Susan and I breathlessly shared confidences and personal terrors, although I was smug in my conviction that my love with Z. would most certainly outlast her love with M.H.  After all, an age difference is nowhere near as difficult as the cultural and social combat zone an interracial couple has to duck through.

For four months, I was happier than I had been in years.  Z. was mad for me.  We’d meet in the City and have a late dinner and coo at each other over wine at Elaine’s. Then we’d try to drive to his place in Brewster, NY, but invariably, we couldn’t make it home without stopping along the way to make love in the front seat of the car.

In Brewster, we woke early and went to a nearby green market and drank hot cider and fed each other sugar doughnuts.  Then we’d walk around town until we couldn’t stand it anymore and we had to go home and make love again.  For hours, we’d loll around on the carpeting and read poetry and newspapers out loud.  I worshiped his peacefulness. I longed for his balance.

He’d cook, and I’d read.  We bought each other CD’s and tore out magazine articles we thought the other might like.  He wrote poetry; I wrote magazine articles.  It was a match made in heaven.  Secretly, I felt sorry for Susan who was uneasy and worried that it wouldn’t work out with her and M.H.

So imagine my stunned disbelief when Z. – some four months later, at a trendy martini bar in the theatre district – announced that our personalities were too different, that our relationship was getting in the way of his writing.  I was, I don’t know, he said, too overwhelming. The sex was too much, the whole thing was too “edgy”, too — “much.”

I cried way too loud and hard for public and the waitress brought me handfuls of Kleenex and linen napkins and Z. got the check and that was that.

When I got home, I threw up, embarrassed that at my age, more than 50, I was behaving like a schoolgirl. I was spared making those late-night weeping phone calls because he disappeared.  Poof. His phone number no longer worked, my letters were returned to sender, and I had  (barely) too much pride to call his parents in Maryland, who were, I figured, probably nearly my contemporaries.

Time went by.  I got over it. I quit throwing up.  And then he wrote me.  Nearly three years of silence and I get a letter from Elkins, West Virginia, in his crawling, lilting script that edges around the page and dips and floats and becomes little illustrations and blossoms of words.  “I have finally realized what love truly is,” he writes, and my heart fairly bursts. “… even though it may have seemed a one-way street – you giving to me – in time, the great Soothsayer painted yellow rings around the heart and touched love out of love.”

OK. Make what you want out of it.  I thought that it meant after all that time, he had decided that he loved me after all. I wrote him back — to a P.O. Box.  (Red flag? I didn’t see it.) What are you doing in West Virginia? I asked.  I can’t wait to see you!

He wrote me back.  The letter practically oozed out of the envelope, the first few sentences harmless enough — about what he was writing, the peace in the mountains, his connection with the Great Spirit out in the woods where he was living. Sorry it took him so long to write back, but he only goes into town about once a month. Other than that (Here, it starts to get strange.) he lives in a pup tent about 6 miles up the side of a mountain, where he writes his poetry and reads and communes with the Great Spirit. He has given up sex because it stands in the way of the true spiritual love of Nature.  He lives in the woods, celibate, eating trail mix and writing verse about bears and spiderwebs.  For the last three years.

I can’t breathe. I stare at the letter and think I may have made this up. Then, tantamount to slowing down and peering at a highway accident, I write and ask can I come visit.  He says yes.  He knows a nearby bed & breakfast where I can stay. He reminds me that he is celibate.

This is where I should have got professional care, but I don’t. I pack a bag and drive ten (10!) hours to West Virginia. I have at this time officially lost my mind.

All the way there, I am losing confidence, faith, and credibility, in that order. My friends and family back home won’t even talk to me.  I am on a solo mission.  I am going to visit a forest monk, a madman, a poet.  I have no idea.

Z. is waiting for me at the B&B when I arrive, standing outside in his khaki shorts and hiking boots.  He has a full beard and he is thin and sinewy.  I want to throw myself into his arms and bury my face in his neck. I want to make love to him until we both faint, but the space around his body screams, “Don’t touch!”  I stand about 6 inches away, and he takes me into a chaste hug.

I want to get back in the car and drive home, but it is like picking a scab.  I can’t stop.

I put my bag in the room upstairs while he made smalltalk with the proprietor.  Then we take a walk around the sweet little town of Elkins.  As usual, we talk about books and music, philosophers, poetry, things we hate, good food, and the way things smell and taste.  Pretty much things are the same except he lives in the woods and I am normal. I think I am normal. He introduces me to his friends: a calligrapher, a weaver, a restaurant owner, a musician.

I want to die.

He tells me about the Great Spirit and the balance of Earth and Sky.  He tells me he is going to try to live in the woods throughout the winter this year. Before this he rented an old aluminum trailer (no heat, no electricity, no running water).  This year, he thinks he can do it in the pup tent.

I can’t think of a thing to say.

He tells me about the flash flood last year where he lost everything.  He climbed a tree and watched the water tear away his tent and his little gas stove and boxes of books and matches and bags of dried fruit and almonds.  He hiked around afterwards and recovered what he could, dragged it all back.

He is 40 years old. I ask him what his family thinks.  He tells me that they are making peace with it.  I nod.

After dinner, I buy a bottle of wine and retreat to my little room at the B&B with a book.  Z. drives his old beat-up car up the mountain.

In the morning, I decide to leave before he shows up, but Z. is oblivious.  He shows up, all bright and eager to show me his paradise in the woods.  He has brought no one else there. No one.

It takes us nearly an hour to get there, counting the barefoot hike through the grass and moss, and it is beautiful.  Breathtaking. Trees as tall as the sky; moss like thick carpet, thicker than carpet; a pool just bathtub size fed by a clear mountain spring-fed stream; fleshy yellow flowers; low-growing herbs that send up deep fragrance when you step on them. The sun powers through the trees and makes shards of light that cut all the colors into pieces.

In somber contrast, his little tent is dirty and it smells bad.  His bedding is grey, but I still want to pull him in there and make love. He shows me his little stove and box of books.  He says he needs a new flashlight so he can read.

On the way back to the car, we stop at a stream and sit down. Z. recites me a poem that he wrote about a bird and a bear.  I think that if he would touch me on the arm, I would explode into hundreds of pieces of plastic.  Then I think that if he had asked me to stay and sleep in his dirty tent, I would have stayed.

When I got back in the car to drive home, I set my hands at the 10 & 2 position on the steering wheel and decide I will not cry. What the hell was that? I think.  What the hell was that?  Somewhere in Pennsylvania, I stop and buy a bottle of wine which I drink out of a paper cup the rest of the way home. while I keep thinking, what the hell was that?

Susan and M.H. are still together.  They have a terrific relationship.








Best book title ever

Written By: sherridaley - • •


It is awful that we judge books by their covers — and by their titles — but I have been told by people who know things that the title and cover are essential elements when trying to sell a book.  That’s why I knew I had been cleverly duped when I checked out a book called THE TELLING ROOM: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti.

I was, however, happily duped. I was particularly fond of the sheep on the cover, and about 20 pages in, I liked the writing so much that I looked at the back flap to see if he was handsome and single.  Yes, handsome. Not single. He has an admirable writing career, including another book you should read. He is the author of DRIVING MR. ALBERT: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain. He’s got a thing for long, seductive titles with a colon. And he did, in fact, drive across the country with a hunk of Einstein’s grey matter.  Yuck.

Both books are non-fiction, sharing a personal experience that you wish you had shared with him.  His wife must be pissed sometimes, especially when she read his description of the Spanish countryside he visited while researching THE TELLING ROOM. The fields of aching sunflowers, the stretches of empty road, the hauntingly mysterious caves where cheese is aged and men tell their stories. It truly is a story of love and betrayal and revenge, but mostly it is a book which touches all five of the reader’s senses, especially cheese and wine.  I suggest you pour yourself a decent glass of red and cut up some real cheese from a cheese shop (not anything from Stop&Shop!) before you sit down to read.

The characters are richly drawn, and, too, the reader is drawn– into man-hugs and curious tales of familial love, history, friendship, and pain. It’s not a book to be read in a hurry.  You have to taste it.  Like tasting a fine wine or cheese, you need to roll it around on your tongue for a while before swallowing.

And it made me want to go to the tiny village of Guzman and find Ambrosio, the man whose heart was filled and emptied and hardened and healed. But if Paterniti’s description of the countryside surrounding the village is correct, I probably couldn’t find it.


What I found in my old document files …

Written By: sherridaley - • •

Look what I found while deleting old files.  I have no idea why I had any sense of humor back then, but clearly the drugs the doctors prescribed were very good.  It was serendipitous that I should run across this as it’s been five years.  That 5-year cancer thing.  Supposedly cured.  So they say. Who knows?  I just know I couldn’t delete this without posting it.

Incidentally, I never did send it back then.  I must have dozed off.


January 2009

Dear friends,

I have never written one of these Christmas update letters before; I used to write personalized notes to everyone. Granted, sometimes my Christmas cards didn’t get out until April, but  still.

Anyhow, this year is a little different because I have absolutely no idea what I have said to any of my friends over the past year. This is probably partly due to getting old and, frankly, not giving much of a shit anymore; but also because of the amazing mind-numbing prescriptions drugs I have been taking  and have gotten fond of.  These pills, combined with the vats of cheap white wine I have always consumed with admirable constancy, have made 2008 a rather, say, “cottony” year.

That said, here’s an update.

I am still teaching 7th grade in an urban school district where the students have consistently scored so poorly that we have earned the “failing school” label from the federal government.  No one knows that that means. It could be anything from mass firings to closing the school altogether, but we are safe for another year due to a loophole no one I know can adequately explain.  It has to do to what they refer to as a “successful” AYP.  This stands for “adequate yearly progress” although most teachers call it “annual yearly progress” and think nothing of the redundancy.  Basically, this means the kids are still dumb as patio rocks, but have improved a few percentage points from the past year.  I haven’t really seen any improvement.  Just last month, a student held up a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories (appallingly abridged for middle school readers) and asked, “Did he write all this before he died?”

The kids are not as dangerous as they were a few years ago when we were routinely confiscating knives, BB guns, and air pellet weapons, and there were no teacher injuries this year.  This may be explained by the fact that last month, we caught 22 students drinking gin and Gatorade with their lunches in the cafeteria.  Although this was quickly taken care of with suspensions, expulsions and a couple of arrests, the teaching and custodial staffs were quite miffed that we too were not allowed cocktails at lunch and this dour mood had not dissipated  as of the Christmas holiday.

Everything you are reading about the mortgage crisis usually uses Michigan as a poster child, and that is where my brother is.  He is a real estate agent.  Actually, now he drives a truck delivering auto parts parttime, but considering the state of the Big Three automakers, he may soon move here and live in my garage.  At the moment, since mom died and left the house to us, he is living in his half of our inheritance. He promises me that he is not in my half of the house, even though the bathroom is in my half.  As soon as the market improves, we can sell it and I can get the place in Manhattan that I have always wanted. We are both hoping that we will happen while we still remember that we are siblings. I love my brother.

In this sinking economy, my continued employment has been a real source of contentment, especially since Smith got fired by Citicorp last spring.  He spent a couple of months interviewing in NYC at places he had no business qualifying for since he did not attend an Ivy school or grow up with the Hearsts or anything, but he is a great networker, well-met, and handsome, if I do say so myself. 

He was offered a ginormous job in Dubai which he turned down because that was when I got my diagnosis of breast cancer, which I did not handle well and he spent lots of time following me around the hospital while I spent a lot of time keening and swooning. He did damage control when I swore at well-meaning nurse practitioners. (e.g. “Go fuck yourself. I don’t need your help. Can’t you guys just let me DIE, for Christ’s sake?” I was charming.)

After the surgery (a lumpectomy with clean margins… anyone who’s been through this – or knows someone who has – knows that is good news, but I know there are still millions of cancer-ridden white blood cells with tumors on their minds in my bloodstream), the Dubai people came back with an even better offer and Smith left for the Middle East right after all my hair fell out.

Chemo sucks wang. Furthermore, I know other cancer victims who lose weight and become beautiful and wan and ethereal. I,  however, gained ten pounds, and after my eyelashes fell out look like an alien lesbian or giant peach of indeterminate gender.  I worried for months about my runny nose, thinking I had contracted yet another allergy, until my brother noticed that I do not have any nose hairs. In case you do not know this, nose hairs are what makes boogers possible, and boogers handily catch snot before it runs out on your upper lip.  Only a family member would think to examine the inside of your nostrils for clues as to why you have a runny nose.  For this I am eternally grateful to my brother as I am tired of allergies and I know my nose hairs will grow back, hopefully not long after my eyelashes and eyebrows. Please do not inquire after my pubic hair.

It goes without saying that my lovelife sucks, too. The man I had been seeing off & on for years and who was unquestionably wrong for me in the first place has drifted off my dance card, and quite likely off the planet, having polished his drinking habits into something rare and remarkable.  I should have known not to get involved with a man who had spent 3 months in a mental institution before I met him, but hey.

I am current with my mortgage, and radiation is over although I have another 6 months of milder chemo and my hair is growing back.  I got a new kitten I named Kimo (get it?) and she is adorable.

I am going to visit Smith in Dubai in February and then he is coming home with me for a visit. I am surrounded by friends who love me and have carried me through my diagnosis, treatment, and evil moods. My literary agent has hired an editor to help me write another book, even though we haven’t sold it yet.  People believe in me, and I am, inexplicably, happy.  I wish I had my hair back, though.

Happy new year.  Be happy.  You have hair.

Books to put on your “Must Read” list

Written By: sherridaley - • •

I have never read two books in a row with characters who did something so mind-bogglingly unforgivable that I had a hard believing they could live with themselves.  In Apology by Jon Pineda, fourteen-year-old Mario destroys an entire family with a single toss of a football, runs away, and in a remarkable example of restraint and almost despicable self-defense, keeps his mouth shut while the world of the people he supposedly loves falls apart around him.

He’s not a bad boy.  You know that up front.  Who wouldn’t dare somebody’s stupid sister to jump across a hole in the ground of a construction site?  It’s not the childish game of I-dare-you that caused me to go away shaking my head every time I set down the book; it was his silence and then his resolve to make something out of himself, as though that would make up for what he had done and what he had allowed to happen by not telling the truth.

Not that he lied. He didn’t.  He just didn’t come forward with the truth when others were incapable of defending themselves or doing anything except apologize.  Mario’s apology came twenty years too late to be of any good. It was as though he thought that his good work as a pediatric heart surgeon would make up for everything.

I don’t think it did, and although there was very little in the book to tell me what the other characters in the book felt, I don’t think it worked for them, either.  But what could they do?  What was done was done.

In Ghost Moths by Michele Forbes, it was Katherine’s stunning selfishness that I had a hard time stomaching.  I loved the passion that consumed her — I have always been a big fan of passion — and I understand a woman choosing stability and constancy over passion. Her dilemma intrigued me but her choices were slapdash and silly and thoughtless.

She was cruel in her carelessness, and that I could not forgive, no matter what a good wife and mother she became, and a readers would be hard put to find fault with her as a mother. Backyard fairs, and castles made of sheets over clotheslines, and games for the back seat of the car on long trips. She couldn’t be better.

But like Mario, she held onto her secrets.  Unlike Mario, keeping silent did not make things worse. Frankly, they couldn’t get any worse, and when things unravel at the end of the book, I felt like she deserved it.  Her husband had secrets, too. She will never be forgiven, and he won’t be, either — too late for that.

It appeared that Mario got off scott-free. Not so much Katherine.  It’s been a long time since I have read a book I enjoyed as much as these two, setting them down, still wondering about the characters and wishing I knew just a little more.



Yoga and the fear of blindness, not to mention the ’60s.

Written By: sherridaley - • •

 Chapter One:  Yoga

I was lying on my back preparing for urdhva dhanurasana.  I had just positioned my hands alongside my head, or thereabouts, and was settling in for the push when I glanced up at the ceiling lights.

Shimmery rainbows circled each bulb like the ghostly rings around the moon before a snow.  I was marveling at them, postponing the backbend, when I realized that there was something slightly wrong with my depth perception, as though I had lost vision in one eye.

I closed my right eye, and the rainbows went away.

I closed my left eye, and the rainbows came back.

I decided I was imagining things and pushed up into my backbend. I was concentrating on straightening my arms, trying to squelch the feelings of envy and resentment toward the younger girls who were inching their feet closer to their hands, and those who had one slender leg in the air, and the ones who could rest on their forearms. I hated them.  That I could actually push myself up into a basic backbend was a hell of an accomplishment for me.  It took me years to get this far.  This line of thinking made me forget, momentarily, about the rainbow rings around the light bulbs.

Then I lowered down to the floor and looked up at the ceiling again.  The rainbows were still there, only they were foggy now.

I closed my eyes.  I had two more urdhva dhanurasanas to go.  Ihate backbends. I hate Camel, I hate Cobra; I hate Bow.  I really hate Bow. I hate Bow more than anything.

I took my own sweet time preparing for the second backbend, wiggling my hips into position, straightening my feet.  When I pushed up, the whole class was probably already up, been up for a while, but I do most of my yoga with my eyes closed. I am trying to find inner peace.  I cannot be distracted from my search for inner peace.

By the time we were ready for the third urdhva dhanurasana, I had forgotten about the rainbows.  I was thinking about breakfast pizza.

“Come gently to a seated position.”  Donna’s voice floated above our noses, coaxing us out of shavasana.  “And place your hands in prayer position at your heart.”  The room was sweetly quiet; I luxuriated in it, full of peace, and silent while the others lowed like cows. I listen to them Om.  I never Om, but I like it.  While they Om, I usually roll up my mat under my knees so I can make a quick get-away.  I know it is totally not in the spirit of yoga, but I want to be the first one out so I can get my iced coffee and breakfast pizza, and Morgan can take my money and square things away with me before everyone else gets to the coffee shop.  Then I can take my time and watch the others wait patiently, yoga-like, for their orders to be filled.

It was 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning and I had the entire day ahead of me with absolutely no obligations, no place to be, no time schedule, no errands to run, not even any books to return to the library.  But I couldn’t stay there.  Everyone else had places to go.  They came and got their lattes and their chai tea and cranberry muffins, and the women squealed when they saw other women they knew, the men drank their coffee while picking their sweaty T-shirts away from their wet chests,  and then within 15 minutes, they all grabbed their rolled-up mats and disappeared because they had someplace to go and something to do.

So I kind of pretended I did, too, and took my coffee in a to-go cup. 

The protestors on the bridge in Westport bothered me a lot.  I passed them every Saturday morning after yoga class.  They milled about on both sides of the road with their signs and sandwich boards calling for an end to the war in Iraq.  “Bring them home!” their signs demanded.  “Stop the killing!” their signs begged. “Honk if you want to end the war!”

I leaned on the horn and they held up their fingers in the peace sign and I started to cry.  What, was it the memory of Viet Nam?  Was it gratitude that Smith wasn’t there?  Was it the hopelessness of it all, knowing that their commitment to their protest, rain or shine, for nearly three years, wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans?

They were all over 50 at least, some over 80. In the sleet, the cold, the wind. No matter what.  One man wore a uniform splashed with medals.  His hair was grey and his posture was proud and military. He held a sign that said, “No more war!”  There were no young people there.  Never.

I should be there, too, I knew, instead of displaying myself in self-congratulatory postures hoping for inner peace. They were making a pitch for world peace.  I was selfish and I was ashamed of myself, but I never, during the years that the protestors showed up in sunshine and shitty weather on that bridge, did I ever show up and join them, hold up a sign, and tell the world that I hated the war in Iraq; and I did hate the war.  But apparently not enough to hold up a sign and make my position public.

I was very ashamed of myself.

At home, the gardens were aching for attention.  The hosta were bitten down to the quick by deer who  regularly strolled through the yard at dawn, and the forget-me-nots had made a mess of their space.  The forsythia had forced the lilacs to grow to gargantuan heights looking for sun, and poison ivy lurked under the quince, trying to hide from me.  I poured myself a glass of wine and walked the property with it, but I didn’t do any gardening.  I thought about  the protestors and my right eye.

The following Saturday, I dutifully reported to yoga class.   The year before I was determined to master the tripod headstand and I did.  I could lift up gracefully into that pose and remain there, peaceful and fulfilled like a real yogi.  This year, I was working on the handstand.

“Let’s all find a wall.”  Tracy stepped out of our way and clasped her hands to the front of her chest like an enthusiastic priest at communion.   People dragged their mats to the edges of the room.  I felt myself shrinking.  I knew other women could blossom into a handstand like ballerinas. Some of the men threw themselves up against the wall with purpose and courage, while others thrust their legs in the air hippo-like, sweating and failing two or three times before Tracy came and grabbed their ankles and shoved their feet against the wall.

I positioned myself dog-like and focused on where the floor met the wall.  I took long breaths and tried to center myself, whatever that means.   Then I shoved my legs up. I threw my legs up. Well, I threw my right leg up.  My left leg refused to follow.  Fuck, I thought, returning to my humbling down dog position. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. 

This is not a yoga-like attitude.  I closed my eyes.  Fuck, I thought.  No, I thought.  Breathe, I thought. Calm down. 

From somewhere, a peace grew. In the dark behind my eyes, I knew that both legs would go up and, magically, they did.  My heels met the wall and my arms, victorious, held strong.  I kept my eyes closed, luxuriating in success.

After a few seconds, I released onto my mat and folded into child’s pose.  Damn, I’m good.

Donna’s voice rang out like a bell.  “Let’s find our way onto our backs,” she said.

Urdhva dhanurasana.  I rolled over clumsily and spread my arms out in submission. Then I opened my eyes – and the rainbows glimmered around the ceiling lights again.  I closed my right eye: no rainbows.  I closed my left eye: rainbows.  This was not good.  I closed both eyes and directed my thoughts into my peaceful heart, where a small still voice said, “You are going blind.”

No, I’m not, I told my heart, and braced up into Bridge Pose.  I settled my hands by my head and breathed up into my first backbend.  I felt strong.  I counted to five.  OK, other girls were still up when I let myself down, but hey. 

Then I opened my eyes.  Now the room was full of fog.