29 Jul 2011, by

Old photos

I am overcome with sadness. Excavating behind the sofa, I find that finally Mother has the last word. I’ve uncovered a cache of the family pictures she carried with her to the retirement home. They’re crudely wrapped in aging newspapers and stuffed into a paper grocery bag. They are testament to the day we packed up her room, on the afternoon after her memorial service that weekend almost twenty years ago.
I wrapped them up that day and took them to New Jersey, and now of course I’ve carried them back. In all that time I guess I never stopped to unwrap them. Why bother? They’d still be there whenever I got where I was going.
Which as it turns out, was back where they started, at the house in Lexington where we lived: three generations, my grandfather, my parents, my sister and I. The pictures do not include my grandfather; when she left this house, though, my mother took with her the photo of her own mother, dead by then more than 40 years. And she took the glamorous diptych of my sister and her son as a teenager … and one of me … and one of Owen as a little boy and one of David as a baby. And one of my father, that handsome, dashing guy she had married back in 1931.
This photo of Daddy, though, is not the young officer she wed in Washington, D.C. He’s older, and looks tired and a little worried – probably wondering why we are spending money on formal photos instead of food or good liquor – but still handsome, even with his receding hairline.
What was this man ever doing in a suit? He was so much more at home in tennis togs, crouching under tropical skies, playing with their little dachshund Gretel. And what was she doing, gazing off into the distance over the photographer’s shoulder with a hauteur that defies the viewer to question her modest sweater or the life she now finds herself in, married to a smart, capable alcoholic, living under her father’s roof, caught between two high-ranking Army officers who happen to be her husband and her father, trying to raise up two headstrong daughters who are much too smart for their own good and must be coaxed and coached to get into the requisite evening gowns and get out there and meet eligible young men.
But there is no picture of Mother in this collection. The photos themselves stand as a reproach – once again, and now almost 20 years after her death, she can still confront me with the anger, contempt and grief I felt from her when she accepted her consignment to that nursing home.
I am so sorry, Mommy – so sorry we couldn’t play out that solution where the dutiful daughter and her silent husband come home to care for the old folks. It just wasn’t happening in the generation you raised. We do what we can. I’ll find a place for the pictures.

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5 Jul 2011, by

True Patriot

On the Fourth, NPR aired people’s ideas of America’s most, well, American music … with the implicit thought of replacing the unsingable “Star Spangled Banner” with its mind-bending lyrics …
I actually like the SSB. I don’t have a problem w/ the fact that most of us probably have to screech or drop down an octave on “land of the freeeee.” And I like the crazy images the anthem conjures up, of a battle long ago, if not so far away.
But as I listened, I suddenly heard it all in a brand new way.
First, it turns out that America’s choice of most American musician is – The Boss. I can totally get down with that. As they discussed it, Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” was blasting in the background.
A friend subsequently and tidily pointed out that a big part of the point of the U.S.A. is and has always been that we are NOT all born here. True! And important – but for me, the song is still about all of us. If we CLAIM the U.S.A., then it is ours. By claiming it as our homeland, we BECOME born here.
That’s not to discount the pain and toil of being an immigrant. In truth, we are ALL immigrants – as I mentioned in OBJECTS OF OUR AFFECTION — except for the “native Americans,” who mostly simply called themselves “the people” in their own languages. And I believe we carry that longing for home, that vague, unarticulated sense of displacement, in our psyches.
Perhaps that is why we find it so difficult to get along. Are we all still separate tribes, deluded into thinking that OUR version of America can, will, and should prevail?
Just a thought, as yoga diva Connie Fernandez used to say as she coaxed us into headstands.
Yeah. What this country really needs about now is to be stood on its head so its brains can readjust themselves, what’s left of them.
But I digress.
Here’s the thing: It would be fine with me if we ensconced Bruce’s music right up there as an alternative beginning to baseball games, in lieu of the national anthem or “God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful.”
But there’s more. Close behind the Boss in people’s appreciation of TRUE national anthems was MARVIN GAYE’s “Star Spangled Banner” in 1983, with homage to Hendrix and Feliciano.
Listening to Gaye, I heard the words in a whole new way:
“Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light … ?”
Can you see – Is the flag even still THERE?
And DOES it still wave – prevail – over the land of the free? ARE we still the land of the free, the home of the brave? Because if we are not – every single one of us – tending our democracy with love and courage, then the experiment has failed.
Gaye, Hendrix, Feliciano – all men of color – slow us down to reveal the metaphor: This national anthem of ours is not about some almost forgotten battle against the Brits in 1814. It’s about US, right NOW.
United we stand. Divided we fall. In a global economy, that is trickier than ever for a single nation, never mind all of humanity, but like it or not, that is our challenge.
United we stand, one tribe, indivisible – NOW.

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So I was talking about how I spent more than an hour sifting through this box of keys that had somehow accumulated on my kitchen counter.

A less than optimal place for the keys, I’ll admit – but then, that meant they did keep getting in the way, and that eventually led me to sort them, on a morning when I had a lot of probably more important stuff to do.

Or what seemed like more important stuff.

But what the keys told me opened doors on more levels than I had any inkling of, when I grumpily dumped them out and started trying to remember why I would have two keys marked “Do Not Duplicate” and a bunch of little bitty ones that look like they’d go to padlocks but don’t fit any of the ones I still have.

The sorting of the keys was in itself a key.

First they told me to quit putting them back in a jumble until “the right time” came to sort them.

They’re are now  in a half-dozen clear plastic baggies with labels like “Other People’s Keys: Return” and “Take to Hardware Store” and “Previous Incarnation” and “Interior But Not to Storage Closet.”  It’s a start.

Sorting brought me face to face with my chronic, cosmic inability to SIMPLY THROW ANYTHING AWAY. Especially anything permanent, like a metal key.

Some folks say we just have to learn to throw away. I partly agree. But I am taking a clump of keys to the hardware store where Quint will tell me what kind of keys they are likely to be and whether they can be recycled.

And meanwhile I had to laugh at myself, the process and the pretty humble result. But – the keys had more to say!

So here it is:

1)      WE ALL HATE TO SORT, AND WITH GOOD REASON.  We hate to sort because it takes time from what we’d rather be doing, at a time when we already have too much work to do and not enough time to play.

2)      But sorting, alas, is too often where downsizing starts.

3)      Sorting is the key to unlocking that downsizing.

4)      And the key to sorting is creating categories.


Does it resonate, this inability to throw away? Then let me encourage you to just take one small category and do the basic  KEEP – RECYCLE – GIVE AWAY – THROW AWAY. You know you’ll be amazed at how encouraging it is. Just one little category.

But the trick is, YOU have to choose the category. Invent it, or whatever you must do. That’s where it starts.


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17 Jun 2011, by


I just spent  a couple of hours going through a pile of keys. House keys, car keys, bike-lock keys, office keys. Keys to gates and storage bins.

I’m sure you know exactly where this story goes: Most of these keys, I have NO IDEA what they unlocked back in their glory days of real utility.

Labeled? Nope, not a chance.

Except for one whole envelope that my sister the archivist sorted through.  Those keys, at least we know they were our mother’s, and that means they go to this house where I live now. They are helpfully labeled “interior lock” and sometimes even “interior lock/closet.” It’s a start.
Then there are he keys from previous incarnations. At this point, I don’t even remember what my son’s car keys to his first, second and third car looked like. Yeah. Maybe some of these are those.

These, those … My point is – well, I have several. First of all, we all have too much stuff. Well, most of us. This is not news.

The news is – I just got it this morning – that SORTING STUFF IS NEITHER WORK NOR PLAY.

That’s why we hate it so much.

Sorting stuff does not pay us. Nor does it further any tasks (a.k.a. work) that WILL eventually pay us. Nor does it fuel anything we are passionate about.

Au contraire, it actually takes time AWAY from the tasks that will pay us either in money or pleasure.

And it eats up valuable time that might otherwise be devoted to playing. Hiking, biking, dancing, surfing … reading, sewing, fixing the car (if you call that play) … or simply lounging around or hanging out with friends.

NONE of this do we get to do while we are sorting. It’s tedious, solitary, time-consuming  …. And did I mention tedious?

And it gets worse. Sorting can also be traumatic, because it almost invariably dredges up the past.

In the case of the keys, it dredged up my life as an editor, where I was able to open doors on levels literal and metaphoric. And the houses where I lived with my son when he was growing up – gone, the houses and the childhood. Can’t tarry there or I’ll never get through the pile.

And my mother. Some of the printing on the keys that are labeled is hers. I probably don’t have to tell you what a mental side trip those provoke?

I have a lot more to say about it all. But for now, what I want to leave you with is this:

You’re not crazy if sorting makes you feel crazy.

Not at all.

And: There are solutions. Every problem holds keys to its solution. To be continued …

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March 18 and 19, at the VIRGINIA FESTIVAL OF THE BOOK … Join me for a panel discussion at Barnes & Noble, 2 p.m. Friday, and a reading at the Green Co. Library, 4 p.m. Saturday.

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12 Feb 2011, by

About The Book

What are Possessions?

Lisa reads in California

What a great reading in North Hollywood (above & below), with many thanks to Jon D’Amore, Georgia Durante and Chef Karl for making it all possible. . . . Turns out West Coast folks do SO have issues with their possessions, and found “Objects of Our Affection” very relevant!

Some photos from this video, with captions, can be found here.

Above video: In a wide-ranging and instructive interview with Bill Kenower, editor-in-chief of Author magazine, Lisa crisply recounts her journalistic past, how the book developed a narrative spine, and the almost mystical moment that led her to write “Objects of Our Affection.”

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Lisa Tracy reading at Perkins Center for the Arts, Moorestown, N.J.

Lisa Tracy at Perkins Center for the Arts, Moorestown, N.J.

Lisa Tracy with crowd at Moonstoon Arts Center, Philadelphia, April 15, 2010

Lisa Tracy shares a laugh with the audience at Moonstone Arts Center in Philadelphia, where she read from "Objects of Our Affection" and signed books on April 15, 2010. For other author appearances, click on the Events link above.

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15 May 2010, by

Letting Go

Could letting go of our stuff be a divorce? For some of us, it’s not far removed. People have cried during readings of OBJECTS. They are often the ones who’ve just had to deal with closing down a parent’s house, sorting all the stuff, throwing out, selling, donating … downsizing plus.

BOY, do I sympathize. This is not easy. It’s not even easy to sort the stuff on your own desk, let alone your parents’ attic.

It’s not a divorce. Put down that idea and step away slowly! It’s a passage; a transformation; it’s sending the kids off to college or to a great job in a new town where they will thrive … in this case, it might be sending the furniture or the tschotschkes off to a new house. It’s OK!

For more ideas about how readers and this author are tackling stuff and memories, go to the bottom of this NEWS page and look for the tiny balloon that says “COMMENTS.” And please, add yours!

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14 May 2010, by


BookWorks is the bookstore par excellence … we had a big turnout despite our day there coinciding with an 11,000-person footrace through the city. INDIES RULE!

Thanks to Betsy, and to Connie and Dick, for their most excellent hospitality. Betsy’s book club turned out in force, and we had a really interesting discussion about the stuff and who’s right now struggling with how to lighten the load.  It’s the stories … write ‘em down, put them somewhere secure … in about 20 years, someone is going to want them!

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