10 Things I Learned When I Stopped Buying New

IMG_1142Last fall, I made a quiet decision to stop buying new clothes for four months. When I committed to not buying new in the name of mindful consumption, the fun of finding “new-to-me” clothes turned out to be a blast.

Check out my article about going without to feel more abundant at elephantjournal!



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To Make a Mother Weep

In the kitchen before dawn, my pre-teen daughter

makes two potato chip and maple syrup sandwiches

on artisanal — $5.99 a loaf — sourdough. “My favorite!” she grins.


Who knew? Her plan is to watch

the sunrise from our roof

with her buddy asleep on the mat

next to her bed.


When the sandwiches are done,

he does as he is told and groggily climbs up,

clutching his coat closed in the wind

to join her in her puffy down jacket,

thick and content as a robin,

on the cold metal roof.


He steadies his footing, sandwich bag in hand,

and looks east

as his body is lit

by pink fire climbing the sky.


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My Invitation From Doris Lessing

janeaustenFrustrated about my writing that morning in West Hampstead, London, I smoked a joint and set off to the local library for inspiration. I decided I needed to read yet another book by Doris Lessing. That would jumpstart my work.

I bundled up and went down the hill along Agamemnon Road, NW, and walked by…Doris Lessing.

There she was, her sturdy figure, wide face, wavy salt-and-pepper hair parted down the middle and pulled back into a bun. She was toiling steadily and slowly up the hill from the shops, carrying the morning’s groceries.

In my goofy stupor, I couldn’t say or do anything. I was sure it was her, but then again, I wasn’t sure at all. Flummoxed, I let her go, which was probably a mercy. The hill was steep, the bags heavy – she didn’t need to be subjected to inane gushing.

I continued to the library, got the book – I don’t remember which one – and came home and got straight to work by taking a nap. I was in my 20s, restless, unsure of myself and desperately wanting to be a writer. I had no literary experience, no clue how to get started. When my boyfriend and our flatmate went to work, my job was to stay home and get going with the business of writing. Some days I blew everything off and wandered around the amazing city. Other days, I was able to lasso myself down and write. And soon discovered that I was without purpose or direction. Just deep, vague yearnings that boiled down to something like: “I am here, don’t count me out!”

Running into Lessing on the street flattened me, even more than the pot (a practice that pretty much ended that day). I didn’t take the event quite as divine intervention, but more that maybe the world was watching, lucky me, and that it was time to get my act in gear.

Over time, I learned that in that entire city of millions, Doris Lessing lived further up the hill from our flat and around the corner. I got her address somehow (I believe it was in the phone book) and sent out my message-in-a-bottle fan letter, telling her about that encounter on the street. She responded by sending me a postcard with a painting of Jane Austen, inviting me to tea.

Me. To tea. With Doris Lessing. I sat with that postcard for weeks, frozen with fear. What would I say to her? What would she say to me? She hadn’t yet won the Nobel Prize for literature, but was extremely famous and had won almost everything else in Europe. I was a total lightweight, with vague longings but no ability to complete, to do. She would hate me, or worse, be bored by me. I would say brash, stupid things. I couldn’t even conceive of forging some type of lasting bond as I have now seen many other artists do when confronted with this type of opportunity. Overwhelmed, I let it slide. Unbelievably, I never responded. The world may have been watching but it would have to wait longer before seeing anything from me.

This week after her death, I don’t think about the missed opportunity so much, except as a stupidly missed experience. What did her house look like? Where did she write? Upstairs? Downstairs? Near a window or by a lamp? Did she write on a pad or a typewriter? Did she pay attention to her home, or let it be sloppy as I imagined she would? How much I would now love to just sit with her in her world, her home. Missing all that is the inexcusable part that I may never forgive myself for.

My own career eventually materialized. I found an under-the-table job doing travel writing and running the classified section of a tiny travel weekly aimed at Australian and New Zealand travelers. In due course, unable to stay in the UK, I moved back to the US and on the strength of my travel articles, was hired as a reporter at my hometown paper. Suddenly, I was writing every day. Not deep, reflective, profound literature, but something. I had finally embarked on my varied, confusing, rewarding writing career, which often feels just as complicated as my reaction to a simple invitation to tea.

She no doubt never thought about me again. However, I still have that postcard, the 1810 sketch of Jane by her sister Cassandra. I have looked at it many times over the decades, buoyed by Lessing’s easy offer to someone who was looking for her and found her in the street. In retrospect, just the invitation was enough: I am still responding.


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I’m in Best of the Bonfire

bonfirewinnerbadgeHello All — Just wanted to let you all know that one of my guest posts last year for Kludgy Mom – Menarche and Menopause – has been picked as one of the year’s best in her “Best of Bonfire” series!

My post is about finding myself in the strange position of being a middle-aged mom who is going into menopause while also having a daughter entering puberty.

If you like what you read, please vote for my post. The “best of the best” will be chosen by readers like you.

Feeling very grateful and honored. Please check it out!

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Grandmothers: A Clear, Straightforward, Love

banner_GPC_150x150Today, I’m participating in the Grandmother Power Blogging Campaign, run by Tara Sophia Mohr. All kinds of bloggers are posting inspirational stories about grandmothers and elders — check it out!


I was a college freshman at a giant state university, living on the ninth floor of a 10-story, high-rise dorm at the far corner of the campus. 

My only friend was from my high school. She was one of those women who are instantly likeable to men. As she sparkled and goofed her way through every gathering, she was an instant hit. I was the dumpy, plain friend in tow, and I knew it.

I limped along during that first year, lost, not caring about academics and totally out of place. I wrote a mournful letter to my cousin, who showed it to my grandmother, old, widowed and frail. But her response was direct and absolute: “Tell Cynthia that she is my granddaughter, and there is nothing, not one thing, wrong with her.”

While this may seem to be a run-of-the-mill thing for a grandmother to say, I had not grown up with this kind of thinking, this kind of “you are mine and you are fabulous” thinking — not even from her. I’m not sure anyone had every said anything like that to me ever.

In other situations, I understand this clannish approval could take someone down less healthy paths, like denial or elitism. But for me at that point, having already struggled with illness, depression and coming-of-age traumas, her remark stood out clear and strong above my family’s murky emotional messages. This was a clear waterfall of love from her to me, a re-admittance, to the human race. I qualified. I mattered. And mattering to her meant it was time I should assume I mattered in the world.

That’s what grandmothers, all elders, have the power to do. Their position and perspective places them best to pour unconditional love, approval and understanding to children. And none of us get very far without those things.

I have learned, to my sorrow, that this straightforward giving of love is not so easy for mothers. Moms wear too many hats. We are the one who set boundaries, which by their very nature, don’t feel good. I veto playdates, make the girls clean up, let them know that skimming along on homework just isn’t good enough.

I also get tired, say the wrong thing, laugh at the wrong moment. In moments of weakness, I get selfish about my time, I let my insecurities about their futures show. My love, my intent, gets lost in the myriad daily interactions of family.

As I sadly watch my own tangled messages to my girls, I envy a grandmother’s straight path to her grandchild’s heart. I can only hope my deep love will emerge to my children later from a distance, like an impressionist painting coming into focus.

DSC_8590I have a golden heart pendant that I got from Gran. It could not be a more clichéd message between the generations, and it could not be more beautiful. A little pendant with a flower engraved in it, it has tooth marks on the back, from when she chewed it as a baby. This is my gift from my grandmother that I hope, as tangibly as possible, to pass on to my girls. And if I’m very, very lucky, to my grandchildren.

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An Embarrassment to my Daughter

One of Madam's sophisticated, non-embarrassing socks

Not totally grown up yet….

So the other day I’m driving the girls around from here to there, and we’re listening to a song we all like. I’m waving my arms and bouncing to the music.

Madam B pipes up and says, “That’s why I wish we had tinted windows on the car.”

“So people can’t see me waving my arms?”

“Yeaa-ah!” (Said in a new tone, which is the point of the story: an eyerolling,  duh, oh-my-god-mom-it’s-so-obvious-voice).

Next time I’ll take both hands off the wheel….;-)

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This year, the pull is too strong to resist — all my extra time is going to be on my knees with my fingers in the dirt 🙂

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The Food Machine Is Getting Tired

IMG_2028The other day I was at a gathering of moms that ended in a potluck dinner. Pleased to be there, I soon realized that I had forgotten my fruit-salad contribution to the meal.

Panicking (depending on the group of women you are with, it doesn’t do to forget your contribution), I consulted with the hostess, who quickly told me not to bother. She surveyed the mountains of food already there and said, “We’re all mamas — we make too much. We just want to feed everyone!”

You know what? Not this mom right now, not so much. I’m feeling very unmotherly in the feeding department.  After more than a decade of being the main person to feeding four, Mom’s food pipeline is running out.  I am so ready for other people to fuss over my wellbeing, while I sit around before dinner with a glass of wine.

I’m ready for other people to get agitated when I don’t like some part of my meal. “Oh, you don’t like mushrooms MIXED with your peas. I’ll go back to the kitchen and start over again from scratch!”

Not that I do much of that with my kids any more. I did have a belief when they were very young, influenced by perky parenting magazines, that I should foster a happy dining atmosphere and a love of healthy food. It wasn’t much skin off my nose if I put aside a portion of raw broccoli for the one who doesn’t like cooked broccoli. Broccoli still had to be retrieved out of the refrigerator and cut up.

But after a while, two things happened. My brain began to slow down like an overheated computer. I simply couldn’t keep track of every nuance of who liked what. Secondly, they got older, and even my indulgent mommy self could see that the love of food thing wasn’t working. They wanted ketchup on everything, and they were beginning — gasp — sound like spoiled brats. Enough. It was time for them to graduate to eating everything they were offered without complaint. We’re still working on the complaining part, but these days, it’s more like a news alert.

Then everyone’s health issues stepped in. We discovered one daughter is celiac at about the same time she became a dedicated vegetarian. My menopausal self suddenly discovered I needed to cut out sugar and most carbs.  My husband needed to seriously reduce his red meat intake. The remaining girl responded to the increase in tofu and gluten-free products appearing at the dinner table by upping her ketchup intake

Which gets me back to my potluck. I’m not that jazzed about feeding people. I can’t see how the feeding machine is going to rev back up while everyone is still at home, but I could be wrong.

Maybe my non-celiac daughter will graduate to cooking health foods from her current kick of baking huge wheat-flour-based concoctions with no recipe (delicious 50% of the time!).

Maybe my other daughter will stop looking like I’ve asked her to behead a baby seal when I ask her to chop up sweet peppers for dinner (fiddly little seeds inside).

Maybe my husband will decide he wants to explore cuisines of the world every night as a relaxation tool.

I’m expecting a long wait. The photo at the beginning of this post is a little nest of orange peels I noticed on a bench one day. From a distance (actually, I didn’t have my glasses on), it looked like a lovely little orange rose. Close-up, it was still rather cool and seems to have meaning and weight in reference to this post — something used up that has become something beautiful.

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Pictures of my Heart

Aly Heart 001There are pictures of hearts all over my house, delightful spontaneous outpourings from the girls’ arts explorations. Lopsided heart shapes, scraggly letters staggering along proclaiming love — each one is priceless.

Plenty of them — sigh of relief — are addressed to Mom, but really, if I look at the scraps of paper, cardboard, stones and giftwrap I’ve grabbed and saved over the years, there is something deeper going on. Just like I have storage boxes filled with their early scribbles and mutant-head-with-stick-body drawings, there are now stacks of heart drawings from both girls. As if this was the next developmental stage of visual self-expression.

For the last few years, I hadn’t really thought about their developmental growth in terms of visual arts. Once it was clear in the early grades that their brains and hands were working together well, I stopped thinking about what might come next.

But I’m noticing it now because we are firmly entrenched in a new stage — faces. Proper, serious attempts to draw realistic faces, fretting over the details of eyes and how to draw a nose (followed by vampire teeth and elf ears). They’ve both been doing landscapes for a while, but that has been part of their school work. Trees, horses and bird nests may or may not have come straight out of their heads and hearts. These faces are different. No one has asked them to do it. It’s just when pencil and paper are handy, that’s what they turn their minds to.

Their friends are doing the same, and all the drawings look similar, as if for this age bracket, faces are what their brains need to do next. And most of the faces look the same – big eyes, glamorized lips, more doll-like than human.

I’m glad I saved all the hearts so I can have them to remember their first tangible expressions of love. Personally, I’d be just fine if we all hovered in that stage forever. But I’m jazzed to see what comes next. The refrigerator and the storage boxes are ready and waiting.

Aly bw Face 001

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Lighten Up and Love Deeply



I’ve been following the Little Seal blog for a long time. It is a passionate, beautifully-written chronicle of a mother caring for her terminally-ill child. Even though you’d think as a mother that you can’t bear to read it, you can and do, and you feel grateful afterwards.

Emily Rapps’ son Ronan died here in Santa Fe on February 15, just before his third birthday. He had Tay-Sachs Disease, a genetic disorder which is incurable and always fatal. Emily’s book about the last three years, The Stillpoint of the Turning World,  is coming out this week.

But there’s another reason why I’m blogging about this. Emily has compelling counsel for us all. As she puts it, parenting a child with no future has taught her to stay in the moment. As she watched others stressed by the demands of parenting, she learned the importance of taking it easy because nothing is forever.

It sounds bleak but it isn’t. It is completely uplifting. Emily went on the Today Show talk about this today — here is her video. Also check out her Today Show post. As for me, at this moment, I get to watch my dog sleeping in the sun and the dirty dishes piled in the sink. I am looking forward to picking up my girls in half an hour. Right now. For today.

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