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Divorce, Family, Guest Posts, motherhood

Coda

October 20, 2019
affair

By Erin Branning

It was the day after Mother’s Day that Myles, my then twelve-year-old son, started questioning me. The night before, he’d gone to dinner with my husband alone – I forget now why I agreed to this on Mother’s Day – and the next afternoon on the drive home from school the questions began. “Mom, tell me what really happened, tell me the real reason you and Dad are getting divorced.”

“We told you,” I answered, praying to god the questions would stop, reciting the lines that the therapist had given us.

“The adjustment of your dad being back in Chicago after working in New York has been difficult.”

“We’ve tried very hard to work things out, but we can’t.”

“We love you and we promise to make this as painless for you as possible.”

My husband and I had agreed there was no reason for our children to know the specific conditions of the dissolution of our marriage. They’d simply know that things had been bad and now they were going to be better. This was the only truth they needed to know. This was what I told myself, what the therapist had said and what I thought my husband felt as well.

But all the things that sounded so good in the therapist’s office now sounded ridiculous and hollow. They weren’t answers and Myles knew it. He wouldn’t stop probing, wanted specifics. I stayed to the script. This went on for a few days until my husband called me a few minutes after I’d dropped the children off at school.

“I told Myles the truth at dinner the other night,” he said.

“The truth?” An emptiness, a pit, opened up below my heart.

“I told him you’ve been having an affair and I was willing to forgive you, but you had decided to choose him over our family.”

“You told him what?” I felt lightheaded, like the ground had given way. I gripped the steering wheel and pulled over.

“That you’re having an affair and that’s why we’re getting divorced. And I’m going to tell the other kids too. There’s been enough lying.”

Our other children were ten, seven and three.

“The therapist said not to tell them. You promised me you wouldn’t.”

“A marriage is a promise to stay faithful. I wouldn’t bring up promises if I were you.”

***

The truth was this: A few weeks earlier, while I was out at breakfast with our four children, he went through my computer and found texts and emails with a man who had become the love of my life, the person I could not imagine living without.  Matt was my chiropractor but his methods encompassed everything – the full range of body, mind and soul. We connected on music initially – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy—and then books. At some point I realized every book I had read over the past year that wasn’t required as part of my MFA program, was recommended by him.

During the winter, Matt and I, who had always confined our communication to his office, slipped into texting. A lot. First daily, then a few times a day, then hundreds. It was a numinous relationship, one therapist said. Numinous – spiritual, divine. Of course, it was meant to be. Never mind the fact that at the time my husband discovered our correspondence, we had not done so much as kissed.

The texting made it all too easy – the distance and time to be witty and use innuendo, to share thoughts, photos, articles, music. An entire consciousness can be sent through a phone. Of course, I couldn’t just delete the messages as they came, I had to save them by sending them to myself. I needed proof of what was happening. My inability to let things go into the ether was ultimately how my husband found out about our emotional affair. Since my divorce, I’ve had friends tell me about phone flirtations because they know I won’t judge. I have a hard time telling them to walk away. For me, my virtual relationship with Matt was a lifeline – what ultimately what got me out of something I’d been very unhappy in for a very long time.

In the weeks leading up to Chris’s and my separation, when I was in the throes of my texting with Matt, Myles played “Layla” on repeat in the car. I wondered if he was reading my mind, if he knew what was going on with me and if that was why he constantly played a song about an affair, about longing, about forbidden love, about betrayal.

When I used to hear stories of people cheating on their spouses I would think: how awful; if you can’t stay faithful, don’t stay married, and certainly don’t have kids. What I used to think about Eric Clapton and “Layla” was that he was a terrible person for falling in love with his friend’s wife. But when Myles played that song I thought, what incredible art. Clapton knew.

***

So why didn’t I leave earlier if it was so bad?  We had four kids, a full life, lots of friends. I adored his family. He had a high-profile job that “needed” a wife. How could I abandon him? Marriage was supposed to be hard and I wasn’t trying hard enough. I always thought I should be able to do better and my husband constantly told me so. For years, I thought the despair I was feeling was because of my own failing at love.

I never told anyone how suffocated I felt. My husband told everyone how much he loved me, all the time. But behind closed doors he loved me so much I couldn’t see friends if he was in town, couldn’t speak on the phone if he was home, couldn’t have male friends. When we moved to Beijing for his job, he asked me why I was making friends – wasn’t he enough? I read old journals. Five years before, as the movers were packing up our apartment in Beijing for a move to Tokyo, I had written – I don’t know if I can move to Tokyo with him.

I told my children and friends that I wasn’t leaving my marriage for Matt. I said falling in love with someone else was just the final thing beating me over the head telling me to leave – something I’d felt I had to do for a long time but been too scared to. And I wonder whether I let the marriage end as it did so that he wouldn’t be blamed, so that he could look like the “better person” and whether I was performing a service I had done for most of our marriage -protecting him at the expense of myself.

***

So, the narrative of our divorce became this: I was solely responsible for the end of our marriage because I had an affair. Chris told the children and anyone else who would listen that he was the victim and I was the victimizer. I imagined my children thinking of me kissing this man, wasn’t sure if they imagined sex too. At twelve, Myles certainly might have been, but I didn’t know about the others. I told them nothing physical had happened when their dad found our texts, but what did this mean to them? To them, their mother had fallen in love with another man while married to their father and wasn’t able to stop it, couldn’t walk away, was reckless with their lives and her own. In committing infidelity, emotional or otherwise, I’d lost all standing, not just as a wife, but as a person – especially as a mother.

And, while I felt shame standing in front of my children, I also felt relief. The worst thing I could have imagined had happened – my husband telling my children I’d had an affair – and yet, I was oddly okay. It clarified everything; I knew couldn’t go back. Every day I steeled myself for the children’s questions: What did Dad do to you that’s worse than cheating? Why do you want a divorce if he wants to forgive you? Why don’t you love Dad anymore? In my best moments I would say: I’m not going to talk badly about your dad.  And in my worst moments: God help you if you think this is the worst thing that could ever happen to you.

***

One afternoon in July, two months after Chris and I had separated, Myles and I were driving to a Jay-Z/Beyonce concert.

Shortly into the drive he looked up from his phone and said, “You’re not wearing that to the concert, are you?”

I was wearing a black motorcycle jacket that I’d recently bought, edgy, unlike anything I’d worn before I left Chris.

“You look stupid. Take it off.”

“I’m wearing it. I like it.”

“I’m not going into the concert with you then.”

“Look at me and apologize right now,” I said.

“Apologize for what? I’m allowed to have an opinion.” He said this, looking down at his phone.

And I suddenly felt overwhelming rage – rage that this night with my son already felt ruined, rage at my own impotence in the face of my son’s anger, and rage at the fact that I knew this argument wasn’t about my jacket. We were sitting at a stoplight and I ripped his phone out of his hands.

“Give it back!” he shouted at me.

“Not until you apologize.”

“You know the family is ashamed of you, right? You know that Dad’s family hates you and that even your own mom sent Dad an email saying how you made her sick.” He screamed at me, his face red now and contorted in pain. His words came at me:

Nothing is worse than what you did.

You’re a cheater.  

A liar.

I hate you.

And without even thinking, in my own blind rage, I slapped him. His hand went immediately to his face and he looked at me, shocked. “And now you hit me? Good job. Wait until I tell Dad.”

And I started to cry and knew I couldn’t take it back, couldn’t take anything back I’d done to hurt him. The agony on his face in that moment – my heart breaks every time I think of it.

***

Recently, Myles, now seventeen, and I were walking down Michigan Avenue and passed by Lowry’s Prime Rib.

“That’s where your dad and I met,” I said. I remembered what I’d been like that day – so young and hopeful, filled with the excitement of new love.

“What would you say to yourself now if you saw your younger self standing there with him?” he asked. I understood what he was really asking. He wanted to know if my marriage to his father had been a mistake, if I’d take it back if I could. The relationship with Matt had been short-lived, did I think that I’d broken up my family for nothing?

“I would say that you’re going to have a full life together for many years and many adventures. And have four amazing children.”

I wanted to add, “and it won’t be forever and that’s okay.” I wanted to tell him what I’d come to feel – that what I’d done was extremely painful and difficult, but that that didn’t mean it was wrong. I wanted to say I’d struggled and was still struggling to know who I was and what I wanted and how to love, but that didn’t make me bad. I wanted to say what is rarely acknowledged, that as humans – even as adults, even as mothers – we are all just figuring it out.

But that moment in front of Lowry’s I couldn’t say it was okay. I felt his pain and that of his siblings and knew that for them our divorce might never be okay. I felt overwhelmed and heartbroken by what we all had lost. So I said, “and it won’t be forever and I’m so sorry for that.”

He nodded and said, “I know Mom, its okay.”

I turned to look at him, tears threatening to spill down my face, and hugged him.

***

Layla has a coda – a piano solo that contains a shift, a calmness and peace in contrast to the rest of the song that precedes it. Not long ago, I asked Myles how that coda made him feel. He said it was like rebirth. New life.

Erin Branning holds an MFA from Northwestern and lives in Chicago with her four children. She is working on her first novel.

 

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Family, Guest Posts

Family Table

October 13, 2019
table

By Kat Read

This was my family table: I’d open the glove compartment and peel a small stack of paper napkins off the pile wedged inside. I’d layer them over one another on the open door and then reach into the paper bag, extract the packets of ketchup, usually three or four. I’d squeeze the foil packets onto the napkins, scraping down from the outside with my fingers pressed together. I’d jostle the fries loose onto the tray. Then I’d take the salt shaker that we kept in the glove compartment and sprinkle more salt onto the fries – we really like salt, my mom and I – and I’d hand her a fry, crisp and kissed with ketchup.

My dad did most of the cooking in our house when I was little, but he died suddenly when I was fourteen. My mom has never liked to cook. “Cooking was never an interest of mine,” she’ll say to me now, but I know that’s not the whole story. After he died, it felt ridiculous to sit and eat an elaborate dinner at our big empty dining room table, like we were performing in a play that no one was watching. Here we are, sitting down to dinner, bravely carrying on. My mom was exhausted. She worked full time, took care of me, took care of our house, all while trying to figure out how to live the rest of her life without her husband. Cooking dinner was just not a priority. I covered the table with my schoolwork and we mostly ate prepared foods and fast food.

We drove an hour and a half together in the car each day, and we’d spend the time talking about my classes, her work, our friendships. We made jokes and we listened to music and sometimes we’d stop for fries. We had our dose of family togetherness in the car, so most nights when we got home, we’d retreat to separate corners of the house. My mom would eat a frozen dinner in the kitchen and I’d sit alone in front of the tiny TV in the living room. Sometimes, I’d make myself a paper plate of nachos: a pile of Tostitos chips and pre-grated cheese melted in the microwave, the whole thing sprinkled liberally with Kosher salt that we kept in a little Pyrex bowl next to the stove. I’d peel the chips off one by one and sink into a crunchy fatty salty bliss. When I was done, I’d head into the kitchen, say hi to my mom, and wipe the plate down with a paper towel before sliding it back into its spot above the microwave. Even now, I love to make a huge plate of nachos and devour them all by myself, luxuriating in solitude.

Is that sad? I don’t know. Sometimes I think it must be, especially when I hear other people talk about their food memories from growing up. We didn’t have shelves of sauce-spattered cookbooks. I didn’t learn to cook from my mom. We didn’t sit down together at seven o’clock sharp every night for a family meal.

And yet: sometimes, we would stop at Whole Foods on the way home from school. She’d helm the cart while I skittered around the store looking at the cheeses and the fruits and the sushi. We always ended up buying the same stuff: a baguette, a slab of good butter, a jug of grapefruit juice, and two cannoli with little chocolate chips studding the ends. We’d eat the cannoli before we left the parking lot.

When we got home, we’d pour two huge glasses of juice and sit on the couch. We’d tear off chunks of bread with our hands and punch the cold butter into the crevices with the tip of a knife. We’d sit beside each other and giggle and chat and watch other people cook on America’s Test Kitchen.

I still crave the pairing sometimes, the fattiness of the butter and the acidity of the juice. It is strange and unexpected, like the life we had to make together after my dad died. But we made it work, sitting side by side, facing forward.

Kat Read is a writer in GrubStreet’s Essay Incubator program, an intensive writing course based in Boston, MA. She recently published an essay on the intersection of therapy and writing on the Brevity Blog and an essay in Coastin’, a weekly arts magazine. Kat works as a fundraiser at GrubStreet and lives with her husband and their dog in Cambridge, MA.

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Family, Guest Posts, Making Shit Happen

Clearing A Landing Pad

July 29, 2019
landing

By Sarah Clayville

The clutter had won, and it wasn’t the first time.

My children and I live in a small ranch house in the sweet center of Pennsylvania. Our bedrooms are within inches of each other, and it’s an easy to race from the kitchen to the bathroom in one breath. Fewer rooms should mean less cleaning, right? Modest living and all? Yet I found myself smack dab in the middle of our family room wondering how I had managed to get there without breaking an ankle tripping over my son’s tennis sneakers or my daughter’s dolls laying askew. The scene recreated a World War II photo. In fact, we were in a war – with our things.

“Ten-minute cleanup. Let’s go,” I chirped, singing the chorus of our nightly family theme song.

The three of us scattered and tossed everything we could reach into bins and baskets. The floor was temporarily clear, but no one felt satisfied or relaxed. We all silently acknowledged the looming truth. The next day those nefarious piles of junk would be lurking, and we’d inevitably need something from the bottom of the stacks, forcing us to dislodge the mess and face our enemy anew.

I realized that this game of tug of war, both with my children and with the mess, offered no resolution other than momentary band-aids and alternating cajoling and crisis. The clutter had learned to pull the ultimate gremlin trick of multiplying. And the disorder was never resolved. I’d love to say that I’m going to teach you to become a de-cluttering wizard who finds the strength to discard half of your possessions and sequester the other half to their proper spots. But I’m not that wizard. Instead I’m a lowly apprentice who collects odds and ends because some day I firmly believe I will use them. And my children follow suit, preserving the confetti that springs from small toys or tickets stubs that could later populate a collage or school project.

And so, we found ourselves at an impasse one night when the clutter had won, everyone was grumpy, and I realized that I had to approach things differently. For myself. And for them. As a parent, nothing is quite so soul-crushing as the realization that your faults may have subtly attached themselves to your children. I retired to my bedroom, determined to beat the weight of things while avoiding sacrificing nostalgic pieces we cherished. I settled into my desk where the pens were neatly arranged by height and extra pushpins aligned to form stars and faces on my bulletin board. Sitting in this uncluttered and orderly space allowed me to tune out dirty dishes in the sink or the toilet paper roll the dog had chewed into modern art behind one of the sofas. These several feet by several feet saved me. They made a landing pad where I could touch down and breathe. And while I knew that there was no way the three of us could attain this ultimate zen space in every room, every day, I had a revelation.

We could create several landing pads in several rooms that helped us forgive the mess elsewhere.

Let’s be honest. Life is messy more often than not. Mess can even be joyful, yet emotionally draining. But landing pads would be sacred and clear. This revelation felt obvious and intuitive, but I’d never considered the strategy before. Studying my desk, I ran my hands across the wood and felt a tactile rush. I knew this game plan would be a hard sell to a teenager and a tween, especially for the eight-year-old who took pride in amassing the world’s largest collection of Barbies that all looked identical, but the analogy made sense to me. A landing pad was all anyone needed to touch down and breathe.

I’d be lying if I said it was easy. I’d also be lying if I said the process and the results didn’t change our lives.

First, we collectively decided on a few places in a few rooms. The family room sofa which tended to be everyone’s go-to nest and the space between the sofa and the television became our first landing pad. It didn’t worry us if the journey there was a little messy, but sitting down and looking ahead felt easy. Unburdened. The dining table was next, a notorious magnet for afterschool drops or weekend stacks of laundry, papers, and art projects. I translated the bigger goals into simpler statements. Modest motions. Gone were the diatribes of the importance of organization. Instead, I would run my hand from one side of the table to the other.

“We should always be able to just do this,” I said.

I even caught my children mimicking my gesture from time to time, a physical meditation as if it was clearing from our brains the cobwebs that had gathered during the day. It didn’t matter as much that the kitchen sink wasn’t empty. We had our landing pads. And soon they spread, to corners of bedrooms that became safe spots. Once, my daughter moved her things away from the dog’s bed, concerned that she wasn’t letting him enjoy his own landing pad, too.

Parenting all too often teeters on unrealistic expectations promoted by social media and our own pressure on ourselves. Add to it thousands of planners and gurus telling us that we can manage it all, balance it all, attend to it all, when not all of us can divide ourselves that way. Nor do we want to. I find myself ending each day in one of those landing zones. My favorite is still in my bedroom at my desk. There is room for tea and a magazine, pens and a notebook. Often I run my hand across the empty surface and recognize that, with the comfort of my own personal landing pad, taking off the next morning is oh so much easier.

Sarah Clayville’s work has appeared both online and in print in several dozen journals including The Threepenny Review, Mothers Always Write, and Central PA Magazine. She is a teacher and freelance editor as well as a literary editor for several journals. Sarah’s writing focuses on surviving both big and small bumps that life often throws at us.

 

Family, Guest Posts, Yoga

Yoga

May 16, 2019
father

By Rob Norman

I drove up to my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan after a very long hiatus.  I cruised along once-familiar roads and arrived at the brick-paved Wealthy Street, which back in my early days, at least in that part of town, was anything but wealthy. I stopped and looked for my father Larry’s warehouse that I had worked at for many years of my youth.  I found it, now quite clean and professional in appearance, in the center of a fully gentrified neighborhood.

The building was now occupied with a yoga studio called “From the Heart.” I walked in and checked it out.  I made plans to take a class the next morning.

I was in town to try and find one of my brothers, Steven.  Not only had we grown up in the same house, but we had slept in the same bedroom.  He had written me via text (he would not speak over the phone to me or any other family member) that his girlfriend of over three decades, Cathy, was now sick with cancer and off and on in the hospital.  I came up to Michigan to see what was happening.

Steven spent much of his days driving his bike around town, frequented the library, and God knows what else.  He had always lived at the fringe of society, never able to gain purchase on any semblance of a normal life.  As with our father, as far as I know, he never sought much-needed medical or psychiatric help and was in constant denial as to the severity of his problem.  When my mother was alive, she never seemed to know what to do to help him.  She would provide him food from the Temple Emanuel food bank where she volunteered and gave him cash whenever others gave her money. Time moved on and now he was in his late 60’s, still just as trapped as ever. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts, The Body

Her Skin, My Skin

March 29, 2019
skin

By Niyati Evers

My mother discovered she was ill a few months after I was born. The way the story was told to me many years later, my mother had sat down in her favorite lounge chair in our living room and by the time she got up, the entire chair was covered in blood and poop. She’d been too ill to look after me, too sick to breastfeed me, too weak to hold me in her arms. A few months after my birth, while my mother was in and out of the hospital and my father was working full time to provide for our family, it was my Nana who mostly took care of me.

My older brother and sister were teenagers by the time my mother died. I was the toddler who’d been left behind. A toddler with the same dark hair and the same light blue eyes as the daughter Nana had lost. Because Nana had been my surrogate mum so soon after I’d been born, when Nana lost her husband and her only child, I was all Nana had left in the world. Nana lived to be with me and I lived to be with Nana.

There was a short gravel road that led from our backyard to Nana’s back garden, so short it only took a minute to walk from our house to Nana’s. I spent time with Nana almost every day of the week but each time I went to see her I was so overcome with excitement I did not walk but ran as fast as I could. Even if I stumbled and fell and my knees were covered in little gravel stones I just got right back up and I didn’t cry because I knew that in just a few seconds I’d be back with Nana. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts

Spinning: A Love Letter About Genetics, Written to My Son While He Played in the Swimming Pool

January 30, 2019
pool

By Amie Reilly

“Watch me, watch me” you yelled and in my head I started singing that pop song that came out a few years ago, the one you learned at summer camp and then taught yourself to play on the saxophone. The song wormed its way into my ears, sloshing around the same way water does after I swim.

You were spinning somersaults in the pool. Holding your nose while you did it, trying to do two in a row. I watched you (watched you, watched you), and counted your flips on one hand, the seconds you were underwater on the other. I still fear for your life the way I did when you were inside me, a fear that loomed larger after you were born and your skin stretched translucent over your skull.

There is a part of me that wishes you would stay above the water, where boy lungs belong. “I’m gonna try for three now,” you said. Your thumb and the knuckle of your pointer finger were still pinching your nose closed, the rest of your curled fingers blocked your smile. I used my hand to shield that old fool sun from my eyes. When you came up for air I clapped. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts

The Colors of Her Life

December 10, 2018
musicals

By Mackenzie Kiera

Lights.

You share two things with your dead grandmother: death and musicals. That’s all you have in common. Had. Since becoming pregnant, you’ve been thinking about her more and more. The weight of her disease falls on you, coils around your heart, tightens and reminds you of your own mortality.

You remember her easiest when you sit with Papa’s cologne bottle in the corner of your bathroom and inhale the dark pine scent—him, you miss. He was the grandparent you visited and called and loved. You were the granddaughter he doted on, bought ice cream for, took to UCLA to see Shakespeare, picked you up from school if you were sick and Mom couldn’t get you.

Her? She was in the background with rules. Things you couldn’t play with. Cabinets you weren’t allowed to open, soft drinks that were hers and hers alone. She always had dark chocolate ice-cream bars, salted potatoes chips, baby carrots and ripe, cherry tomatoes. String cheese. Tiny sandwiches. You’d watch as she spread the mayo on her sourdough bread thinly, gave it some lettuce, turkey and a slice of white precut cheese. Things she could just grab and never binge on, but sometimes she would just need something. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts

What Reminds Us of Our Mothers

July 30, 2018
mothers

By Amie Newman

What reminds us of our mothers? What do we see, smell, think, hear that tilts us towards knowing? As adults we barely recall – or want to recall. For me, it’s Patti Smith. Her beautiful plain-ness strikes me like the dark murky mix of my mother’s turmoiled young adulthood. Young parenthood between two worlds. Poetic in its sadness. In its realness. Poetic in its young destructiveness.

Yet not without a maternal expression of love. Not without the desire to love, to be present. To be a poet. For my mother, as a young woman, through song. For Patti through song. To express the unexpressed yet deeply felt.

My mother searched for release in a man. In many men. The only place she thought she could find it. The only place her world allowed her to search.

Patti pushed through. Patti found herself and immersed herself afraid and real. Dipped full-bodied into the beauty of truth and pain and brilliance. Patti Smith is strong and smart and deep like my mother.

My mother is not her true self. Or maybe she is more of herself. But she doesn’t know who she is as she did not know decades ago as she did not know years ago as she’s never known. She’s lost herself to a society that told her she was not good enough, human enough, really, man enough — to be worthy.

What reminds me of my mother? The smell of cigarettes in bed, long fingernails and wet cheeks. Depression and laughter. Books and a tamped passion never fulfilled. What reminds me of my mother? Me, in my untamed emotion. Me, in my battles with my body. Me, in my love of people. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Mother Knits Me A Sweater

June 13, 2018
sweater

By Sara Chansarkar

I miss Father as my sister lights the candles on my birthday cake which is sitting in a stainless steel plate on the scratched glass-top coffee table at my parents’ house in India. My birthday is the 24th of December and I visit around this time every year because it is also my son’s winter break from school.

After I blow the candles and cut the cake, Ammi lays a gift − neatly wrapped by my sister − in my lap. I carefully open the gift, plucking the tape off gently, so that the wrapping paper can be reused. It is a finch-pink sweater, soft and warm, with shiny buttons adorning the front.

My lips and hands start trembling, unable to cope with the happiness. Ammi hugs me, runs her hand over my head, and dabs her eyes with her dupatta.

As I sniffle, my sister narrates the tale of the sweater: Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts, sisters

M45

June 4, 2018
sky

By Katie Duane

The first time I saw them was last winter,  just before dawn, outside of a yellow house with green shutters, not too far from Lake Ontario. It was cold, too early to be up, the sky a deep indigo when they registered at the edge of my vision. They floated perhaps thirty degrees above the horizon, a small cocoon of glittering lights, trapezoidal, a collapsed version of the Big Dipper.

Pleiades, I said aloud, not having realized that I already knew their name.

I drove to school that morning craning my neck skyward, trying to find them overhead while navigating the slippery darkness. I spent my free periods learning about the Pleiades instead of preparing for classes. I learned that the visible members of this cluster are called B-type main sequence stars. I learned that they are young stars, and that they won’t live very long because of their mass, because of how much hydrogen they must burn in order to sustain themselves. They are extremely luminous and hot and blue—it had not been the sky that gave them their color. In some ancient cultures, the ability to see more than six made one a good candidate to be a hunter.

But truthfully I didn’t really think much about the Pleiades after that first day I saw them. I took note of their place in the sky each morning when I got into my car, until they disappeared into the light of spring. I had no use for stars—my life seemed permanently stalled out. Nothing worked, despite repeated attempts to fix various parts, to restart, or reignite. I’d never had a harder time finding people I could connect with. I had not painted or written a poem in years. I spent every evening alone, watching reruns of my favorite TV shows. I had memorized all the lines—they were people I could predict, people I liked, people who would always be there. I spent most of my evenings with them. I spent every Tuesday from four to five with my therapist, weekends trying to make friends in real life, and once a month I’d drive an hour-and-a-half west to see the people I loved most in this world: my family. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts

Hallmark

January 28, 2018
hallmark

By Sheila Grace Stuewe

I darted into my neighborhood Hallmark store and held my breath. To my left stood an endcap stacked with plastic potpourri bags. Who’d buy that? Someone with a sewer back up? Homes should smell of pancakes on Sunday morning as mine once did, not like chemically altered flowers.

Past the dust-catching collectibles—statues, candles, and ornaments—to the rack of Father’s Day cards, I sped. I didn’t know why I had an urge to send Dad a card. In September, he’d reached the three-quarters of a century mark. He wasn’t going to live forever even with his Prussian peasant genes—stocky, sturdy, stubborn, and seemingly impervious to the effects of decades-long alcohol abuse. And I needed to stop exhuming what may or may not have happened forty years ago.

Standing in the middle of the dad-of-the-year aisle, I felt my throat close—an allergic reaction to that artificial scent? I coughed. I tried to swallow. I rifled through my purse for a bubble gum ball (the only kind I’ll chew—no mint for me). I popped it into my mouth. As my teeth bit through its hard surface, a burst of cherry—red, tart, yet much sweeter than the real thing—my childhood favorite. If only I were on a swing in Marquette Park, Dad pushing me higher, me leaning all the way back, my legs soaring in the air. Instead, surrounded by doodads and sentimentality, I wondered if I’d find a card I could send my father. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts

Finding Home

December 24, 2017
school

By Kathleen Siddell

The air conditioning hummed white noise throughout our 15th floor apartment. My boys zoomed cars on the slick marble floor. “We’re going to move back to Connecticut,” I announced to everyone and no one. One cannot make such an announcement to a four and five year old who are busy driving in an imaginary world. I asked them to put down their toys and sit with me on the couch.

“We’re going to be moving from Singapore back to Connecticut.” I tried to read their faces.

“Oh, to our home country,” my five year said. “Jens’ home country is Denmark.”

“Connecticut is where we go for Christmas, right?” My four year was trying to read my face.

“Yes.”

“So it will be snowing,” they cheered.

In the next few weeks, I fielded many questions about the logistics of toys traveling halfway around the world (what if they get broken), the realities of seasons (it won’t snow in July), and the abstract concept of time (will we live there forever).

I didn’t grow up traveling to faraway lands. My parents always chose the roads well traveled. When we left our Southern Connecticut home, we’d drive up I-95 through New Haven, cross through Rhode Island and land in Southern Massachusetts to “the homeland.” (My mother’s homeland, to be exact.) “Going West” meant a trip to my other grandparents, up I-91, through Hartford, landing in Springfield. Once a year we’d make our way up the familiar eastern route out to the elbow of Massachusetts on Cape Cod.

My parents always kept several maps in our coffee table drawers. None of these tangled roads reached further than the New England states. Even then, I could find our usual spots by the way the map folded, almost instinctively, into well-worn creases. Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine made up the untouched, barren abyss of places we might go.

I liked to unfold the maps and spread them out on the floor. I’d trace my finger along the snaking highways and byways and guess how long it might take to cross each state border all the way to the grey of Canada. I liked to read the names of towns I’d never visit. The web of lines, colors and various symbols felt like a secret key, even if I had no idea what it might open.

For almost the entirety of their lives, my kids had lived in Asia. My husband and I struggled to know when was the right time to tell them we would be moving. I spent weeks worrying how to answer questions about when they might see their friends again, what their new school would be like and what would happen to our Singapore home. Those questions never came. Instead, I packed my unspoken worries and the memories my kids were too little to carry.

We settled back in Connecticut like leaves drifting through an autumn sky. We landed softly but I was unsure if we’d till back into the soil or blow away to another season.

We found a preschool for my youngest that appealed to my belief that preschool shouldn’t be much like school. They placed a heavy emphasis on nature so when we were invited to an outdoor ceremony for the Winter Solstice, I wasn’t surprised.

While the kids prepared inside, the parents stood in two parallel lines. We stretched our arms overhead and joined them with the hands across the aisle to make a human tunnel. Barren trees clawed into the dusk.

Our children emerged from the glow at the entryway to the school, each carrying lit lanterns. They followed a path around the yard, illuminated by even more lanterns, crunching their way through leaves and under our arms. The teachers recited poems.

It was all deeply symbolic I’m sure — darkness, lightness, and the slumber of life in the coming winter — but I was too focused on the cold air and impending inferno. The early winter chill rippled down my spine into my limbs while candle flames bounced. I seemed to be the only one ready to shout, “Four year olds walking with fire?! We’re all going to go up in a blaze of tragic irony!” We didn’t.

Our parting gift was a bulb, to be planted as a reminder of life that returns in Spring. As we walked hand in hand to the car, my boy and I talked about planting it. I thought we might put it in the pot that boasted a wig of disintegrating mums.

I intended to, but the bulb sat, slowly dying on our kitchen sill, as good intentions are wont to do. For a while, I thought the hearty bulb might still blossom even after all the weeks that passed. Then one day, in a rare fit of Marie Kondo organizing, I rolled the bulb, slightly brown with peeling skin, around my palm. Did it bring me joy? It did not.

My son has never asked about it. If this should bring me comforting reassurance or a questionable lack of attachment, I am not certain. At 4 years old, how can I know if a more nomadic life will suit my son or if he’ll want to feel rooted.

By all measures, a nomadic life is not one that should appeal to me.

“China? Who the hell would want to go to China?” My grandfather’s voice echoed from behind his newspaper.

My mother’s friend was planning a once in a lifetime trip to China. I think what followed was a conversation about how long, expensive, useless, tiring, inconvenient such a trip would be. What if you couldn’t communicate? What if you didn’t like the food? What if you got lost?

Even though she had not lived in Massachusetts for decades, in her distinct Boston accent, she often talked of places outside of the greater Boston area as foreign lands. There was the dismay of ordering a lobster roll only to have it appear warm and buttered, the wonder of touring Pennsylvania Dutch country or the confusion when asking if someone was going “down Maine.” Whether her attachment was more for old New England or for a bygone era, I was never really sure. The two seemed to easily conflated for her.

My grandmother instilled much of this kind of nostalgic thinking. As a young girl, my grandmother had outlived all her siblings and became an unplanned only child. As a result she was completely devoted to her parents. Whether she felt grateful or burdened or some combination of both, she never said. For me, this legacy manifest into a deep attachment to staying close to home. The measure between love for family was directly proportional to distance one strayed from home. Closeness begets closeness.

These are the legends I use to navigate the map of my family’s history.

My parents are delighted to have us living back in Connecticut. We visit them on a Saturday morning. They live a few towns away, in the same house where I grew up.

My eldest loves that our regular FaceTime calls have been replaced with regular visits to their house. He asks if we can move into their neighborhood. He loves riding his bike up and down our winding driveway and running outside in our suburban playground. When prodded he says that he misses living in Asia, but without saying it, I know he is happy here. I know it in the same way I know, without him saying, he still fears dark rooms and too much attention.

Sitting in my parent’s living room, I’m struck by how small this house I know so well feels. The rocking chair I once wasn’t able to rock with my feet, the shelves that once seemed so high, the room itself feels like a miniature version of where I grew up. Im unable to settle snuggly here.

My kids find the familiar yellow Lego carrying case. It clicks open to reveal a sea of battered mini bricks. These relics from the past dot my parent’s raised ranch. “You played with these when you were little?” I can’t tell if my son is more surprised that I was little, or that we have the same toys. “I wish we had these flowers in our Lego cases,” he whines. I remember building miniature houses, making sure the colors were evenly matched and the windows were symmetrical. The flowers were always the last detail.

My parents planted. I flew.

I was 20 when I first traveled abroad to France. While most of my peers were in their junior year, I was a senior. Shy and uncertain, I had listened to friends talk about their study abroad trips in a way that made me feel not only like I could do it, but like I had to do it. It was the first time I’d associated risk with reward.

My parents drove me to Newark airport. We wandered the international departure gate and filled the mindless noise with more noise. We used small words to try to quell big emotions. I’d never been that far from home. On the wings of a Boeing 767, I flew into the cloudy unknown.

“You are very quiet,” my host father said at dinner one nights, “do you not like it here?” My French was not good enough to explain that he was right, and he was wrong.

I walked barefoot in the cool grass of a Parisian park, saw a bullet hole in the wall of a cement building in East Berlin, and breathed the thick air in the Sistine Chapel feeling that though billions of molecules separated me and Michelangelo, we are all connected.

I wrote letters to my parents and grandparents. Partly I wanted to assure them that flying across the ocean hadn’t severed any familial ties. Partly I wanted them to know It was precisely because I had gotten lost, had trouble communicating and sometimes didn’t love the food that made me love the experience.

Distance hadn’t pulled me away, it helped to give me perspective so that I could see myself more clearly. Six months later, I flew back feeling like home is everywhere and nowhere.

I met my parents at the arrival gate amid halls decked in holiday greens and reds. “You look different,” my mom said. I was 21 and just beginning to understand traveling was an inevitable character trait. I’m sure I shrugged sheepishly though I wish I had responded, “so do you.” It was the first time I’d see my parents as the North Star.

Traveling hadn’t made me feel lost, it made me feel found.

We’re entering the Spring thaw — one last icy cool breath in before a warm exhale out. There will be no sturdy stems sprouting from buried buds in our pots (still prickly with dead stems). Instead, in this seasonal shift, new worries sprout. I worry I would have killed the bud from that December ceremony regardless, but I didn’t even give it a chance. I worry that my reluctance to plant it is a not-so-subtle metaphor. I worry that my oldest son will never want to leave. I worry that I will never want to stay. I worry we might not share the same view of the world.

And yet the earth softens, like it’s made to do.

It is in the softness of Spring that I watch my son playing on a grassy field with his friends. We are at a birthday party. The host gives us a small gift to thank us for coming. My son holds it up. It looks like a plant without soil. It is tagged with instructions on how to care for an “air plant.” The instructions are minimal: once a week submerge in water for 15 minutes.

It’s growing long and sturdy, with leaves like thick blades of grass. It currently sits in a small jar where the skinny green fingers reach upward.

I think back to that December ceremony. I can still feel the way my son’s tiny fingers intertwined with mine, rooting us together with the North Star shining above.

Kathleen Siddell is a teacher and writer living (for now) in Connecticut. She and her family have returned from Asia but are feeling ready for the next adventure. You can find her drowning in the Twitterverse @kathleensiddell.

We are proud to have founded the Aleksander Fund. To learn more or to donate please click here. To sign up for On being Human Tuscany Sep 5-18, 2018 please email jenniferpastiloffyoga@gmail.com.

 

Join Jen at her On Being Human workshop in upcoming cities such as NYC, Ojai, Tampa, Ft Worth and more by clicking the image above.

 

Join Jen at Kripalu in The Berkshires of Massachusetts for her annual On Being Human retreat there by clicking the picture above. March 2-4, 2018.

 

Family, Guest Posts

Through the Sand: A Driving Lesson From Dubai

July 7, 2017

By Kathryn Streeter

I posed a million-dirham ($272,260.72 in today’s US dollar) question: “Do the children of Dubai play in sandboxes?” Our family, newly transplanted from the Washington, DC area where sandboxes had provided our children with hours of fun in earlier years, mulled over this question the summer we moved temporarily to the desert metropolis of Dubai. Even with all of Dubai’s development, if one catapulted high enough above the impressive skyline, Dubai seemed not too unlike one massive sandbox with ribbons of various roads lying thickly near the coast and rapidly thinning out in numbers the further away from the sandbox’s edge of the Arabian Sea, until only interminable sand remained.

The subject of driving, however, quickly claimed our attention as it rapidly morphed to the level of top priority. This critical arena of living required quick-study because learning this new turf involved navigating Dubai’s roads, roads which often betrayed the foundation they were laid upon: sand.

From our company apartment’s location, we easily realized that we were isolated without a car. As urbanites, we had associated walking with city living. Going to a coffeeshop or grocery didn’t require a car. Walking the kids to school? No problem. Bike trails and sidewalks connected neighborhoods and ultimately, people. Not so in Dubai, where pedestrians were merely walking to their cars, that in and of itself often life-threatening because Dubai was built with cars, not people, in mind. Continue Reading…

Adoption, Family, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Living the Mother

December 28, 2016

By Anne Heffron

My mother asked for me to read Mary Oliver’s poem When Death Comes at her funeral. I cried when I got to the last stanzas, not because they rang true, but because I felt devastated that, even from the grave, my mother wasn’t telling the truth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

 

This is the story I grew up with: after my mother had gone to Smith, she’d gone to New York and had gotten a job as a fact checker for Reader’s Digest. She listened to Kennedy give his “ask not what your country can do for you speech” and was inspired to do something she felt would help the world, and so she joined the Peace Corps and went to Nigeria. Shortly after arriving, she wrote a post card to a friend that described the conditions of Ibadan:

Dear Bobbo: Don’t be furious at getting a postcard. I promise a letter next time. I wanted you to see the incredible and fascinating city we were in. With all the training we had, we really were not prepared for the squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions rampant both in the city and in the bush. We had no idea what “underdeveloped” meant. It really is a revelation and after we got over the initial horrified shock, a very rewarding experience. Everyone except us lives in the streets, cooks in the streets, sells in the streets, and even goes to the bathroom in the streets. Please write. Marge. P.S. We are excessively cut off from the rest of the world.

 

The next day there was an uprising because my mother had dropped the card instead of getting it into the mailbox, and a Nigerian student had found it. The Nigerians protested the Americans and my young mother almost brought down her beloved President’s cherished organization.

My mother was sent into hiding and then flown home where my father met her at the airport and asked her to marry him. And so supposedly that was her happily ever after moment.

Continue Reading…

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