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Guest Posts, motherhood, No Bullshit Motherhood, parenting

Mothering In Heat

November 13, 2019
heat

By Heather Carreiro 

The dread had consumed me all week. 100 degrees on Sunday, with a heat index of 114 or 115. I’m convinced that climate change is going to boil us all alive, and this record-setting July heat wave had done nothing to assuage my fear. And now the day was here. Morning dawned languidly, the air not yet oppressively hot and humid in our un-air conditioned, 1790s-era New England farmhouse. The five-year-old, aka “the General,” was surprisingly content to watch TV, allowing the husband and I to lie on our separate couch zones like middle-aged beached whales. But soon enough, the dog needed to be walked.

The General felt she was up for this mission, and the three of us, dog, child and mama, set off. The temperature at 9 am was in the 80s, but the air was already soupy with humidity. No sooner had we walked to the next house, than it became apparent that this should have been a solo expedition. I had mistakenly thought we were on a short, hot, but relatively painless jaunt, but the General was in the jungles of ‘Nam. There was wailing. There was swooning. There were loud complaints of sore legs, hot body parts, warnings of imminent collapse from heat stroke. (For someone apparently in the throes of heat exhaustion, she had a powerful wail.) All this, dear reader, after walking barely a quarter mile.

“How,” I snapped, sweaty and irritated, “are you going to make it from the parking lot all the way into the water park [easily a quarter mile], when you can’t even do this?” “Nooooooooooo!” The howl was immediate. “Dadda said we could go to the water park today!! I’m going to the water park! Aaaaaagggghhh!” Before this could end in someone sprawled in tears on the blistering pavement (either one of us, take your pick), I acquiesced. “Fine. But you need to show me you can make it home. Let’s go.”

Somewhat rashly (as husbands are wont), the husband had promised the General earlier in the week that he would take her to the local amusement park’s water park on this day. And come hell or high water (and it felt very much like hell), she was going. At the slightest suggestion of postponing to another, slightly less 113 degree day, there were tears, shouting, and bitter recriminations. No suggestions of air-conditioned movie theaters or cool shopping malls filled with toys and ice cream would entice her. It was decided. They were going.

The husband was pleased that he was giving me a “nice break” (i.e., two hours of grocery shopping) while they bonded. I had concerns. Many concerns. I envisioned the husband on his phone, paying no attention to the General, who, in my overactive Mom Imagination, was then drowned beneath a sea of flailing limbs in the wave pool. Alternately, I imagined the husband passing out from heat stroke while the General frantically searched for someone to help her precious Dadda, terrified and traumatized.

But the only thing I wanted less than my child trudging from parking lot to overcrowded water park in searing, suffocating, third-degree-burn-giving heat with endless Mom-imagined danger looming at every turn was to be home with this child, in this heat, with her throwing a tantrum. Yes, dear reader, I am a horrible mother.

So off they toddled, brimmed hat fastened snugly on her head, sunscreen spackled on her face and body, and the husband loaded up like a Sherpa with water and snacks. I shut the door behind them, said a quick prayer, then readied myself to hang out in the frozen food section of my neighborhood grocery store until they (hopefully) made it back. A half hour later, I was perusing the deli case when I got a text from the husband: “This is a disaster. Taking her to the movies.”

Climate change: 1; The General: 0.

And P.S. – Mom ALWAYS knows best.

Heather Carreiro is a mom of one and corporate writer living in central Connecticut. Her world—and writing—at the moment is largely centered on raising a spirited six-year-old and all it entails: mermaids, glitter, public meltdowns, unexpected philosophical pronouncements, and the occasional turd in the pants.

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Abuse, Guest Posts, Letting Go, Mental Health

Yellow

November 10, 2019
smoking

By Kelly Wallace

I was still in love with my ex when I broke up with him over the phone late at night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Ithaca, NY. It was the first Sunday in June 2017. I was there for my friend’s 20th college reunion. My ex was making me question my sanity. I wasn’t telling my friends what was going on because I was ashamed. We argued for hours. We had tried therapy. It failed.

I had had enough.

According to an article titled “In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship? 5 Steps to Take” on the website Psych Central “…Is it me or him? You feel anxious around him, believing that somehow you can make things right again, you want to feel the love you did when the two of you first got together. Deep down, your biggest fear is that his opinions of you are right..that there really is something wrong with you, and you just may not be loveable the way you are.”

I was enough for myself.

***

We talked for hours in his kitchen and he made me pesto with the basil that was almost dead from his garden box. He referred to his ex, Stephanie, as “shitbag” when he told me about her. She was the mom of one of his students. He taught elementary school band in a suburb of Boston and retired at 40, a few years earlier. She had had her eye on him for a long time. When her daughter was done with band she swooped in. They met for coffee. She was still married. She told him she was divorcing soon. They started dating. Three years of them breaking up and getting back together should have been a red flag.

For me it was an invitation.

It’s August 2018, a little over a year after I have ended things with my ex. I’m on week two of vacation with my mom but take a side trip down to Boston to get away from the 250 sq. ft. cabin we are sharing on Sebago Lake in Maine. Throughout the trip Mom is coughing up a storm. In the morning. At night. It drives me bonkers. She has COPD and sounds like death.

She smoked for 15 years. 3 packs a day until she quit.

***

I am creepy.

On my side trip to Boston away from my Mom and her coughing I take another side trip-to Medway, Massachusetts, a rural town 45 minutes west of Bean town. It’s sleepy, woods, twisty two lane roads and ponds. My ex hated it and left to live in Portland, Oregon where I live. We live. We live on the same block. I don’t talk to him.

He stares at my driveway when friends come to visit and studies their cars. They come to the door saying the same thing over and over: “Did you know your ex was standing in his yard totally staring at me as I parked and got out of the car?”

“Yes.”

It’s beautiful in Medway. On the radio, the Dj asks: “how are you creepy? There’s something trending on Twitter about being creepy.” I think about calling into the radio station to tell them what I am doing but decide to pull over to the side of the road and use my notepad on my phone to write down what the DJ is talking about. This is perfect for a story.

***

My parents divorced almost 35 years ago. Dad is bald, 69 and glasses. He is home resting in Oregon after falling off a ladder and breaking his right shoulder and hip. He texts me: “Boston. My aunt so and so lives there. I haven’t been out that way in a long time.” He has so many aunts I can’t keep them straight.

He was in the hospital for two weeks undergoing intense physical therapy. Sometimes I feel like he is judging me but I don’t know. I don’t know what the what is. There’s something in me that wonders. He has yellow teeth. He’s a lawyer. There are no grey areas. He is black and white. Law and order.

Right before he fell I had a phone reading with a psychic. The psychic, Donna, kept talking about him in the past tense. I corrected her.

“But he’s alive.”

“I hate to tell you this dear, but, I’m talking to him from the other side.”

“What does that mean?”

“He will be passing soon.”

That was a year ago.

According to the AARP, the increased chance of older people dying after hip fractures has long been established in a number of studies. Now a new study has found that breaking other major bones also may lead to higher mortality rates for older adults.

***

My ex was a heavy smoker. When he quit smoking twenty years ago he was living at home in Medway with his parents. He started chewing Nicorette, that terrible gum. His Dad worked for a pharmaceutical company and would bring home bags and bags of it. He became addicted to the gum and then had to wean himself off it.

One day my ex’s dad came home from work and my ex was searching in the couch cushions for a piece of that gum, in case one had fallen out of his pocket.

“Why don’t I just give you a piece of that gum?” His dad said.

“No dad,” he turned an easy chair over and was searching under it. “This is what I need to do to stop chewing that gum.”

According to WebMD, “Most users of nicotine gum…see it as a short-term measure. GlaxoSmithKline, marketers of Nicorette, advises people to “stop using the nicotine gum at the end of 12 weeks,” and to talk to a doctor if they “still feel the need” to use it. But that guideline hasn’t kept some people from chomping on it for many months and even years.

My ex’s childhood home in Medway is two story, purple with a horseshoe driveway and even more rural than I imagined. I drive to the end of the cul-de-sac, put the car in park and look at the front windows. That’s where he was hunting for the Nicorette under the couch. I drive away because I’m creepy. A half mile away there’s a “Stephanie Drive.” His ex’s name. I pull over to write the detail on my notepad. Another perfect idea for the story.

***

My fourteen-year old formerly feral cat, Billie, died two months before that night we broke up on the phone in Ithaca, NY. Billie would go over to my ex’s house on her own and spend time there. I had to get another cat right away. The house felt lonely without her. My ex and I went to Purringtons and he found a tuxedo with a little white star on his head staring out the window at all the people walking by on MLK, Jr. Blvd. I put a hold on the cat with the star on his head, Starboy, and took video of him playing with a Donald Trump catnip toy. My ex was coughing in the background and talking excessively. He was always talking so much with his dull yellow teeth. They were yellow because he smoked for over a decade and never went to the dentist.

I said something to him and sounded annoyed in the video.

According to the website Empowered by Color, “…The color yellow can be anxiety producing as it is fast moving and can cause us to feel agitated.”

My teeth were yellow after a friend committed suicide and I started smoking a pack a day for almost two months. I quit shortly afterward. Cold turkey. No Nicorette gum.

Starboy’s eyes are green.

My ex eventually did quit the gum.

***

The motorcycle cops started going by my house escorting the hearses following closely behind. It became a regular Sunday morning routine along with me reading self-help books with Starboy and his green eyes curled up next to me on the couch. There’s a cemetery nearby. I would tear up as the cars drove by with their flashers. Yellow. Blink. Yellow. Blink. I was determined to be different.

Billie’s eyes were yellow.

My house is green.

***

After she is done coughing Mom goes into the kitchen in our cabin in Maine and rustles plastic bags, pushes buttons on the microwave, talks to herself and clinks spoons while she eats her breakfast. “What are you doing in there old lady?” I wonder. Her ocd and need for order marching her around like a drill Sargent. I get up from reading in bed. She separates crookneck squash from the trash into a plastic bag. It’s not for compost. It’s to keep it from smelling up the regular trash she tells me.

***

I text my best friend back in Portland about the weird food separation. “She’s crazy,” she texts me back. I probably shouldn’t use that term to describe my mom. According to the article, ‘Personal Stories: Don’t Call Me Crazy,’ on the NAMI website…”Mental illness is an illness, even though some choose not to accept it. ‘Crazy’ has been a word to portray those who suffer with mental illness as dangerous, weak, unpredictable, unproductive and incapable of rational behavior or relationships. It is a word used without any serious thought or consideration… It is a word that can be used to criticize an individual or group, keep a stigma in place or, when used in commercials, sell cars, sweets and even peanut butter.”

***

While I drive around Medway I hear my ex in my head telling me I’m crazy. He told me things like, “northeastern women had an edge.” He didn’t need to tell me that. I had spent considerable time on the East Coast. I knew about that edge. I had friends in New York. I had plans to move there at one point. He said I wouldn’t survive in New York because I wasn’t assertive enough.

“Bobby, from Leominster,” The DJ says in his thick Boston accent. “What’s the creepiest thing you have ever done?”

“For a while I was collecting corn snakes,” Bobby from Leominster pauses. “That didn’t really attract the ladies.”

“Ugh,” the DJ says. “That’s pretty weird.”

This is perfect for a story.

***

During my verbal fights with Mom when I was in high school she would say “you’re just like your father.” I didn’t know what it meant except that I was bad. I was always the bad one. I carried a yellow blanket and sucked my thumb until 10. I was the bad one for reporting that Dad’s dad, my paternal grandfather, molested me. My grandparents hid the blanket in their closet. Dad’s silence. The paternal family’s silence made them complicit. The police searched my grandparent’s house and found the blanket.

***

My paternal grandmother allegedly called me “Crazy Kelly.” Whenever we argued my ex called me crazy. After we broke up I wondered what nickname he had come up with for me.

Crazy?

Crazy Shitbag.

***

My ex told me he had a lot of projects he wanted to tackle when he bought his house in Oregon. He wanted to install a new roof himself on the back side of his house. “I don’t want you doing that,” I told him when we were together. I didn’t want him breaking a bone or ending up in the hospital.

A year after we broke up I saw shingles being loaded onto the roof of his house.

I didn’t care if he broke a bone.

He deserved it.

***

I was a smoker for 5 years.

My mom smoked for twenty years.

My ex smoked for 15.

My dad never smoked.

I wasn’t going to end up like any of them.

 

Kelly Wallace developed a writing style that both roots in the moment and peels back the layers of human nature at the Pinewood Table writers group led by award-winning authors Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose. Kelly’s writing honors include publications in VoiceCatcher and Perceptions magazines, fellowships at the Summer Fishtrap Gathering and the Attic Institute, and residencies at Hypatia-in-the-Woods. A graduate of Wells College in Aurora, New York, and an entrepreneur in Portland, Oregon, Kelly avidly photographs odd sights while out driving for her day job. Kelly is an active and recognizable member of the Portland writing community, consistently engaging with hundreds of readers and authors of all genres and levels of writing.

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beauty, Guest Posts, love

The Pleasure Is Mine

November 8, 2019
pleasure

By Sandra A. Miller

It was the summer of my 29th year, a few months ticking down to thirty, when I left my Swedish fiancé. Blue-eyed, fetching, and fluent in five languages, he looked great on paper—and in an Armani suit—but my heart knew better and needed to be free.

After years of indecision, I moved out of our marble-floored apartment in a cushy European banking capital and flew to Boston where I had one friend and no job. I was in recovery from responsible, from a too-soon engagement to the wrong man and a life that left me in a perpetual state of longing for something bigger than a healthy retirement account. Standing alone on the cusp of thirty, I realized that I had plunged headfirst into adulthood and acquisition and had lost pieces of myself in the process. I had to rescue that creative young woman before she was gone, and then I needed to resuscitate her.

I took a cheap studio sublet on the still-ungentrified edge of Boston’s South End. I bought a rusty orange Toyota with a broken muffler as if needing to be loud. Then, after considering expenses and counting my meager savings, I gambled it all for the sake of my soul. I gave myself two months off from being a grown-up—a summer of pure and unapologetic pleasure.

Boston sweltered that July, and I only had a lazy ceiling fan to stir the heat of my apartment. I could lie in bed and smell summer in the city—street tar and Thai basil plants that I set outside my window on the fire escape. After years of living in a country known for rule abiding and wealth, those smells brought me back to my girlhood growing up in a factory town with a farmer father and gardens tucked into every sunny spot. I spent my days writing stories, reading novels, discovering Boston’s gritty urban corners where flowers bloomed like art from the pavement, and the graffitied walls of the subway told bold-colored stories of ugliness, outrage, and passion.

#

Passion. Everything whispered to me of passion that summer, and when, I met Chris, a wannabe writer six years my junior, my lust for him—my novecito—summoned my tired libido back to life. Rail-thin with a shock of blonde hair that smelled sweet and clean like baby shampoo, Chris would come by a few nights a week with a bottle of wine, sometimes take-out, often a single rose plucked from a nearby shrub. We spent our time savoring that all-night-into-morning brand of lovemaking that I needed, like a lifer in a prison craves touch. We would trace each other’s bodies with ice cubes, slow jazz on continual loop playing to a persistent hunger circling inside, a pas de deux of body and spirit. Late at night when the heat kept us from sleep, we’d stagger across the street to the Middle Eastern market for Popsicles and little packets of Sominex. Then when Chris stumbled off to work the next day, I would sleep for hours more, lazing in the morning sunlight before starting my day at noon.

On Sundays I might stroll around the corner to Wally’s Café where old black men who once played with the likes of Charlie Parker would jam with longhaired white kids from Berklee College of Music, just down Mass Ave. As other guys wandered in off the street with a saxophone or trumpet, they would be called to sit in on a set. From a rickety table in the corner, I would watch them disappear into a song, their heads nodding the beat, their faces reflecting the rhythm of a beautiful riff. Once a big, graceful black woman in a flowered red dress got called up on stage and sang “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Eyes lifted, arms raised like an angel imploring the gods of love, she put that room under a spell that not one of us could resist.

That summer was an experiment in surrender, to music, to pleasure, to love, to food, the kind I hadn’t eaten in ages: bagels slathered with cream cheese for breakfast; for dinner, a greasy slice of pizza from the shop around the corner. It was too steamy to cook, or maybe that was my excuse. I’d spent five years fussing with European measurements, preparing dishes that tasted just fine, but never like home. So, I ate out when I felt like it, giving in to cravings, savoring a fullness I’d been denying myself for a decade. Sometimes, I’d go a day on coffee and dark chocolate, then late in the evening I’d call my friend Lisa for a stroll through the South End to Deluxe Café. We’d drink salt-rimmed margaritas and play Scrabble until we were slouched across the bar, half asleep but still bickering over the spelling of some word that one of us had maybe concocted.

On scorching August afternoons, I might coax my neighbor Paul, a gay guy who worked from home, to come with me to Walden Pond in Concord. We’d waste the afternoon with our books and a thermos of gin and tonics. Once we stayed until the park closed at 8 p.m., hiding in the depths of Thoreau’s woods as the guard who cased the pond had passed by, deeming the place empty. When it was as quiet and dark as No Man’s Land, we swam naked in the cool, deep water, the best respite we could find from that clinging heat. Another time we swam the entire width, laughing so hard we almost drowned midway. We got to the other side without our clothes and the worrisome realization that we likely would not survive the swim back. So, naked, we circled back on foot through the woods, mosquitoes feasting on us as we slapped our bodies and howled into the darkness with frenzied joy.

I needed that summer to recover my soul, my kid, my sense of joy. I also developed an appreciation for the rejuvenative powers of pleasure, pleasure so good and liberating I often had to remind myself that it wasn’t wrong. It was just pleasure. Personal. Satisfying. Essential. Never in 29 years had I lived so sensuously and decadently by absolutely no one else’s rules but my own. Never had I let myself wander with abandon to the opposite side of acceptable. For this middle-class Catholic girl, pleasure was always meted out in a carefully measured dose, then swallowed down with brimming glass of guilt. But here I was guzzling right from the bottle, feeling the warmth in my throat, the heat in my belly radiating out until it coursed through every vein.

Only towards summer’s end did I start to nervous, wondering how I would walk away from this lifestyle before becoming addicted like a washed-up rocker who still gets drunk in hotel rooms and smashes lamps. Indulgence can be habit forming, I was learning, and even this cautious Catholic girl was finding it increasingly easier to surrender to the sensual, to sleep late, to laze.

But then something happened. Was it because I’d surrendered? Was it because I was looking for nothing that the magic found me, and life offered up a version of the dream I’d been living all summer?

Through a conversation in a bar one night, I met a woman who knew my college boyfriend. We had parted ten years earlier when we weren’t ready for a real relationship. But my thoughts would often stubbornly wander back to him. Now we were both in Boston, and both recently single. We reconnected on the phone and planned a date.

When that still-swarthy boy-man picked me up in my South End studio on Friday evening, I instantly remembered being 21 with him in a sweltering Brooklyn apartment almost a decade earlier. I remembered life and its pleasures before stepping onto the up elevator of adulthood. And I believed that the universe was giving me another chance to love deeply, seriously, to not just indulge in the occasional pleasure now and then, but to insist on it as a part of my life.

So, with August fading to autumn and feeling sated in every way, I relinquished my sublet, got a job, and—hand-in-hand with the man who, 25 years later, still shows me pleasure—stepped around the corner to thirty.

Sandra A. Miller’s writing has appeared in over 100 publications. One of her essays was turned into a short film called “Wait,” directed by Trudie Styler and starring Kerry Washington. Her memoir, Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure, will be released by Brown Paper Press on 9-19-19. Sandra writes at SandraAMiller.com and tweets as @WriterSandram. You can also find Sandra on Instagram as Sandra.A.Miller.

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Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, Self Love

Who Are You Now?

November 6, 2019
snow

By Jamie Della

I moved to the mountains nearly two years ago to be with Joey, my beloved mountain man. I wondered if I moved too soon, just a few days after my youngest son graduated from high school and went to live with his dad. I disassembled the nest, so how can I call it empty? I didn’t realize the purpose it gave me to keep a home warm and inviting. I didn’t know what winter would feel like.

I lay on my couch, under a blanket, looking out of the window at the white sky. The falling snow is easiest to see against the dark green mass of a broad spruce tree. They say it will snow all day, maybe even become a blizzard. It is the perfect day for a three-hour meditation, a devotional practice as part of the second year in a priestess training program. I am learning how to be still.

There had been no time for the loneliness that now surrounds me when I was racing through southern California traffic from work to my sons’ soccer games, then to Trader Joe’s to keep up with ravenous teen boys’ appetites. Now I even miss getting up before the sun to make my sons eggs and bacon before heading off to school. I miss hugging them in the morning when they were still warm from bed.

Occasionally, the snow that clumps on the spruce tree branches becomes too heavy and falls to lower branches. I wonder if the top branches feel inadequate for not being able to carry such a heavy load? Do they feel guilty for making another take on their burden? Of course not, I think. That’s just me who wants to carry more than she can. Or maybe that’s being a mom?

And as if on cue, the wind whisks away the fluffy snow in spirals. Yes. I understand freedom that comes from the wind. I have a gypsy’s wanderlust, happiest when rambling through a mountain meadow or on a road trip with an open map and the great wide world. Most of the vacations I took with my sons were road trips, going as far as I could, just like Eddie Vedder sings, “Gas in the tank is like money in the bank.”

And now I sit watching snowflakes. There was no space for isolation amidst the perpetual doingness and competitive drive to build a life of luxury in Orange County. Now, the nearest big box store is two and a half hours away, in another state. The grocery store is twenty minutes away, unless there is a white-out blizzard. There is never a reason to hurry and traffic means waiting for a car or two to go by. I live in a town of 700 people, who mostly keep to themselves, unless I want to hear how Jesus saved them. I don’t.

I miss gathering around the appetizers at family parties like a hoard of starving vultures and listening firsthand to the antics of my seven nieces and nephews. Usually someone in my family will call during the monthly birthday parties or holidays, but it’s not the same. You can’t tease your mom for drinking from your glass of wine or have a food fight with your sister over the phone.

I slow my breathing and remind myself that through my silent meditation I hope to build a foundation of peace, stability, courage, and creativity in the quiet of my own inner wisdom. I watch as the individual snowflakes fall. They say no two snowflakes are alike. Some snowflakes float in a rocking motion, like a boat on the sea. Other snowflakes are like pinwheels or the spinning girls at a Grateful Dead concert. Some snowflakes are long and irregular, as if they collected other snowflakes to them, like star-shaped, flying skydancers. Others look delicate, like the snowflakes my sister and I made as kids by cutting folded squares of white paper.

I think of the crystalline shapes that form when you speak to water. That must be life responding to the words. I wonder if it could, would the snowflake lament the conformity of being singular? Does the snowflake care that its uniqueness is not special or outstanding in the least? How can you be special if everyone is special? I can’t stand the idea. My chest tightens. I remind myself to breath. I think of all the things I have considered as outstanding, including my own parenting. The house suddenly feels too quiet and Joey won’t be home for hours. I get up and walk outside to the wood pile.

The snow blankets the land, erasing the contours of the earth, covering the sagebrush, bitterbrush, and our campfire pit. It rests in clumps on the thorns of the rose buses and the bare branches of the aspen trees. It has nearly buried my wrought iron writing chair and desk. I cannot see the 13,000-foot mountain peaks because of the white wall of snow.

This whiteness reminds me of the silver streak that begins at my forehead and has now reached the bottom of my long, brown hair. I am entering my winter years. The golden glimmer of my youth has faded like the leaves from every tree but the pines and spruces. Heads no longer turn when I walk in a room, and I realize that I no longer want that attention. It was an exhausting any way.

I grab four logs, walk back into our home, and carefully stuff the wood burning stove. The embers glow molten orange and the fire roars to life. I turn to gain heat on my back where I need the warmth to feel supported in this maddening world as I seek the best part of me.  In this moment of pure loving surrender, my heart and mind begin to open to the all blessings I have known and the ease of my life today. This is what I wanted after all.

I don’t have to fight for a parking space or work in a cubicle. I am not doling out punishments for breaking curfew or smoking pot. My sons are creating lives of their choosing and I am proud of their independence. I am in love and my mountain man loves me. I play with clay on my potter’s wheel, finding shape, trimming, firing, glazing. I slake my thirst from earthenware I have made. I take care of friends I haven’t yet met at our successful vacation guesthouse. I set out the rocking chair that once lulled my babies to sleep when the guests bring the wee ones. But, I don’t go so far as to make them chocolate chip cookies. I’ve learned to let go of some burdens and tend instead to the fire within. I feel the Goddess rise in my consciousness through the stillness. I am grateful for the quiet and content, I realize, for perhaps the first time in my life.

I return to the couch and pull up the blanket. I see a pattern outside, as if snow is choreographed as it falls from the sky. Each snowflake is part of a dance, like a ballerina who dances for the sake of dancing. Can we be like the snowflakes, living for the sake of being exactly who we are in the moment, no matter who is watching or keeping score? Perhaps. The idea feels right and fuels my desire to let my uniqueness stand out against the white blanket of winter, like words on a fresh sheet of paper.

Jamie Della is the author of nine books, including The Book of Spells (Ten Speed Press, October 2019), an “Herbal Journeys” column for Witches and Pagans Magazine and an essay in River Avenue Book’s #Me Too anthology. She has been published by Rebelle Society, Manifest Station, and SageWoman Magazine. She has been awarded Best Reference Book from the International Latino Book Awards, Book of the Month from Las Comarades para las Americas.

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Guest Posts, motherhood, No Bullshit Motherhood

Don’t Tell Me How to Parent

November 4, 2019
calculated

By Amanda Marcotte

I’ll admit, this open letter was originally penned for other Moms. The mothers who look perfect at school drop-off and pick-up, the ones who say “don’t mind the mess” in their sparkling picturesque homes. The moms who feed their kids balanced meals for every breakfast, lunch and dinner; and still find time for Yoga, Pilates, and getting their nails done. The ones who think they’re raising their children the “right way”.

This letter isn’t just to those moms anymore, it’s to everyone. Everyone who offers unsolicited advice to me and my daughter. To the people who chime in with “Co-sleeping is bad for your own mental health” or “Screen-time is detrimental to brain growth”. LISTEN, co-sleeping allows me and my daughter piece of mind, and screen-time for a short while allows me to take a shower on my own.

I don’t care if you’re my daughters Dad, her grandmother, her aunt, or a concerned fellow parent – you do NOT get to tell me how to parent my child.

Nearly every decision I make is calculated. Every exciting activity I plan for my child is clouded with “how many pairs of extra socks should I bring?”, or “How many snacks and activities should I bring for the car ride to-and-from the special exciting activity”. My daughter is at the forefront of my thinking in EVERY single thing that I do, whether she is in my physical presence or not.

My full-time work schedule is calculated. My freelance writing is calculated. My “me-time” that seems to be non-existent lately, is calculated.

When I plan time out with my girlfriends, it’s calculated; usually nine-months into the future. When I go grocery shopping, it’s calculated; between buying things I know are good for my child, and buying things that she will actually eat.   When I clean the house, it’s calculated; which rooms are REAL-LIFE dirty, and which ones are “this-can-wait” dirty. EVERYTHING is calculated.

Why are people so goddamn quick to tell us of all they ways we are negatively raising our children, but never find the time to say “You’re doing an amazing job. You’re a great mother”, or “Wow she’s so smart and strong, you’ve done everything right”?

My daughter is smart. She is brave. She is kind, and she is funny as hell. Sure, do I get a little tired of company in bed? Absolutely. But do I miss her when she isn’t there? Undeniably so.

So to the “perfect-moms”, the grandparents, the great-grandparents, the not-yet-parents, the WHOEVER – You parent your kids your way, and I’ll parent mine, my way. If that means she gets her tablet so that I can pee? You bet your ass it’s happening. If it means she gets Cheetos on the way to school today because she refuses to eat anything else in that moment, fine. We’re surviving, and thriving, over here. You do NOT get to tell me how to parent my child.

To the other imperfect moms, to the moms who can’t seem to do anything right or on time, to the over-calculated moms and the moms who sometimes just don’t give a fuck; I see you. And I get it.

Amanda Marcotte is a single, working, writing mom of a three-year old spitfire daughter. Navigating the world of co-parenting, co-sleeping, and beyond. Follow Amanda on Instagram here.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Quality Versus Quantity

October 27, 2019
move

By Tracy Bleier

My son is here. Here is the two bedroom apartment in Chicago where I moved over a year ago with my husband, my eight-year-old son, the two dogs and the cat. Here is not where my middle son lives but here is where he visits on school vacations, and a few long scattered weekends throughout the year. Before he arrives I make sure he has his own toothbrush in his bathroom, I buy him shaving cream and a razor and the 2-1 shampoo he likes. I buy his favorite cereal.

Last spring, he had his junior prom and I was not there to take photos with the other moms. His dad sent me the photos via text. Look at our boy! He texted. And there he was in a tuxedo with a red vest handing a rose corsage to his prom date— a girl I didn’t recognize. When I received this text I was at a friend’s house for dinner and I showed the picture to my husband. “Look!” I said. “Look at him,” and he did and smiled and went back to his conversation but for me, the ache of not being there for this lasted well into the next week.

Every day I have to get used to not having my son live with me full time. Some days it feels okay enough. I justify me being here and him being there by telling myself it is good for him to live with his dad, to live in one place for his last two years of high school. He spent most of his entire life living in two homes. His dad and I divorced when he was barely three and while he and his older brother were shuttled back and forth, I practiced adapting to time away from them. After dropping them off at their dad’s, I would eventually appreciate returning to a much quieter house for a few days. By Sunday afternoon, I would be ready for them to come barreling into the house with all their noise and sports equipment and backpacks and boy smell.

There are days where the weight of not living with my boys hits me hard. When I fill out certain documents or school forms I hesitate to write that my son’s’ primary address is not my own. A low point: I once lied and refused not to write my own address on the line that asked for “address of primary caregiver” or “permanent residence of child.”

When a student or new friend asks me about my other sons’ whereabouts, I say they are in college which is only half true. It feels more reasonable to admit out loud that I moved to a different state at the same time that both of my boys went off to school. It feels less complicated than having to explain that one still lives back east with his dad.

When I speak with my friends and their young children whine for them to get off the phone and pay attention to them, I hear my friends’ frustration for having to get off prematurely, but they do not hear my slight envy. It’s the middle of the day and my apartment is as quiet as an ashram.

When my son was little I did all the mom things. I sat with my mom friends in big backyards while our children played on jungle gyms and swing sets and I huddled over my son while I cut up his hot dog and squeezed the ketchup onto his plate and wiped his hands and face and deposited him into the bath with his bath toys and soapy water and read him Caps For Sale and kissed him goodnight. If you would have told me that this mother would be the same mother who 13 years later chose to pack up her home and live away from her children I would have said, not in a million years. When people ask why I moved, I look off into the distance and wistfully repeat, “It was just time.” The past few years of heartache and money issues and poor choices come flooding into the air. Perhaps my boys who watched me struggle more than thriving, perhaps they understood in their own way that it was time for me to make a change before it was time for them.

The weeks leading up to my move my son would come into my room and sit on my bed. “This is really happening?” He would say not sounding upset, just in mild disbelief. I stopped with the bubble wrap and tape and looked at him. “Mom,” he said over and over again those weeks, “I will be fine! It’s you who I am worried about!”

The day of the move I met both my boys for breakfast. We went to the same local diner where I used to carry a portable high chair in my arms and attach it to the table where my son’s legs would dangle from the leg holes and we would play tic tac toe on the paper placemats until his pancakes arrived where I would stuff huge forkfuls into his mouth and hand him his sippy cup from my bag.They were planning their day — Going off to the gym later that afternoon. I was relieved that the magnitude of me leaving did not hit them hard enough to distract them from their basketball game. That at the time they laced up their sneakers I would be crossing state lines, following my husband who drove the Uhaul which housed the entire contents of our life now. At this breakfast I handed the boys some of their winter coats and sweatshirts that had been hanging in my front closet; and despite trying to convince my husband we should have some of their stuff at our apartment in Chicago, he looked at me sympathetically and explained that the boys actually might need and want these things at their dad’s for the coming season.

I hugged my boys goodbye in the parking lot and held them longer and tighter than I usually do. They were smiling and shuffling me off like two normal teenagers who needed space from their mother’s coddling. “We’re fine mom!” And it seemed that they were as they walked together to their car already onto their future day.

It’s been almost two years since the move. I FaceTime weekly with the boys. I sit in my living room and watch their faces pop on the screen. I see the posters in their room hanging above their head. Often they are multi-tasking while we talk — but I don’t mind. For me, it’s less about the content and more about just being there with them while they are living their lives. They have both shared on occasion that they miss being able to just come to my house. “Why are you a plane ride away now?” My son asks almost hypothetically. We are still getting used to the way our family feels. I have to ward off the expectations I used to have about what now defines me as a good mother — a definition that certainly did not involve leaving. I have to stop comparing myself to other moms. I I put my hand on my heart most days to offer myself a little compassion.

The days leading up to their arrival my mood elevates exponentially.  My oldest couldn’t come this time but my middle arrived on Passover. It’s his third day here on a seven-day visit. We sit on the couch most of our first day together watching stand-up comedy, something that has become a kind of ritual for us. Inside my mind I hear my mother’s refrain, it’s the quality, not the quantity that matters. She worked full time when I was growing up and when I would lament to her about not being there when I got home from school she would offer me that line with a hug. Now, it is one of my mantras.

I absorb my son’s visit into my bones. The weight of his legs resting on my lap. He is now the entire length of my sofa. The sound of his phone chats drifting into the living room. His size 12 high tops by the door and the extra plates in the sink to be cleaned. My mothering — distilled down to the absolute essence, redefined, transplanted but no less of a calling.

I am no longer breathy or belabored by the physical presence of young children but now find solace and beauty in remembering even a sliver of what that life used to be.

With a Masters degree in English Education from Colombia University in New York City native New Yorker, Tracy Bleier has been a local teacher and leading voice in the field of yoga, meditation and creative writing for twenty years.  She has had many classrooms, from inside a traditional high school where she taught English to inside a yoga room.Tracy is a wordsmith both in a class and on paper. She speaks to the heart and senses that transports your soul to a safe and creative place. Her wisdom is deep in spirituality, meditation, the body, and teaching the teacher. Tracy is happily married and co-leads a series of continuing education programs for teachers in Chicago and is a proud mama to three boys. She currently resides in Chicago where she is completing her first manuscript about the journey of raising a child who struggles with anxiety. Her most recent work is featured in Brain, Child Magazine.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

chronic pain, Guest Posts, Hope

The Shame of Pain

October 24, 2019
pain

By Francesca Louise Grossman

I have tried 46 different times to launch myself out of chronic pain. I know this because every time I try something, I write down what I have done, what it feels like, what it costs, whether it’s covered and how worth it is in a small purple book. No one knows I do this. I scribble in it like I’m confessing to my sixth grade diary. In it is the same kind of anxiety about the future that I had in sixth grade, just not about Andy Apstein and whether he was going to kiss me or ignore me. Instead, it is about the treatment or therapy I try, and whether this one will be the one to finally help.

I opened the book the other day to pen a possible 47th.

The book is chronological, of course, but I put it in alphabetical order for clarity. I flipped through.

It starts:

Acupressure: December 2010 – Feb 2010 – dull pressure, not much change, $120/hr not covered – not worth it

Acupuncture – July 2002 (on and off) until March 2018 – sometimes painful, usually calming, blood flow, lasts less than a day but is relief $75/15 mins – sometimes covered – worth it but has to be ongoing

Acetaminophen – When needed – does nothing – over the counter – $9.89 a bottle of extra strength – not worth it

Bioelectric Therapy – October 2016-April 2016 – possibly dulls pain a little – for about an hour $165/hr at office – not covered by insurance

Cupping – February 2014 – one time, hurt like hell, not worth it. $85/30 mins – not covered by insurance.

Codeine – March 2009 – April 2009 – numb, good, not a long term option – covered by insurance $20 copay

Craniosacral Therapy – September 2000 – October 2001 – When in conjunction with other body work  – Myofascial etc – decent relief but dizzy – lasts a couple of days maybe $200/session – sometimes covered by insurance

Cryotherapy – June 2018-October 2018 – feels great right after, like putting ice on a knee. Lasts a couple of hours, heart races. $60/3 min session. Not covered by insurance

And on and on—and on.

The book is 24 years old. The same age as my chronic pain, more than half my lifetime, all of my adulthood, eons.

This book exists because all this time I have had a continuous faith that there is a valve for this pain; that I can escape it, or, more accurately, it can escape me. For all these years I have I known this to be true. I will find it. I will heal. I am a warrior, a survivor; tough, strong, and able. People have told me that pain is weakness leaving the body in all different scenarios, with all different motivations. I don’t have this recorded as studiously but I wish I did.

I have other lists I don’t love revisiting, but help to explain the pain. In my twenties I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an illness of the intestines that leads to violent pain and an urgent need to empty your bowels. I developed Colitis later, a more general type of the disease that bloats my stomach to look four months pregnant. I have had surgeries for my stomach, some of which were determined later to be unnecessary. I had thyroid cancer through out my twenties, finally treated when the tumor on my neck was the size of a ping-pong ball. I developed arthritis along the way, both as a peripheral malady and also it’s own disease. My body is gouged from piles of polyps removed from my insides, and (usually) benign tumors removed from my outsides. My neck doesn’t turn all the way to the right. My hips need forty-five minutes before letting me walk in the morning. I have an unidentified liver problem that swells without notice and bends me in two. If the saying is to be believed, there’s a lot of weakness in there, and it seems to be stuck.

*

When I was twenty-nine, I had surgery to remove my thyroid. The overnight nurse was a doozie of a lady.  Opera singer large, big calloused hands that vice-gripped onto my shoulders. Thighs thick as trunks that she used to pin me against the side of the bed so she could administer my catheter without “so much squirming.” She was brutal and brutish. A small silver peace sign sunk deep into her cleavage, drowning in flesh.

She had a hard time getting the catheter in, and as she struggled, she noticed my twisted face.

Pain is weakness leaving the body, my love, she said, repeating it over and over like a command until I could actually pee.

This is an extreme example, but at least once a year, often as much as once a month, this phrase earworms into my psyche. Related to illness and chronic pain or not, this saying has appeared like a subtitle again and again at the bottom of the screen of my life. When I was a weak child? A coach. A teenager who could not stomach even occasional beers? A boyfriend. A young woman unable to go to a bar without scoping out the bathroom situation ahead of time? A roommate. A thyroid cancer patient: a nurse. Doctors, PA’s, med techs. Physical therapists, friends, masseuses, acupuncturists, pharmacists, bosses, guy on the street.

*

I went to the doctor a few weeks ago and a delicate med tech took my vitals. She asked the normal questions, made the normal small talk, took the normal introductory tests. Her thin fingers flew across the keyboard, recording my responses. She asked me if I had any pain.

I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly.

“You mean right now?”

“Yes,” she smiled softly.

“Nothing acute,” I said.

“So no pain?”

“No. I mean, yes, I have pain, the same pain I have all the time.”

“What would you rate it, 1-10?”

How do you rate pain on a scale made for people with no pain?

“I don’t know, 4?”

She nodded and her hands took off. That was the wrong answer. I knew this, I knew that anything under 5 wasn’t worth her noting, that saying 4 was like saying I had a dull headache, or a splinter in my toe. But what should I have said? 7? Wouldn’t that be alarmist? Especially when that pain had been a relative constant for over twenty years? Especially when I knew from decades of experience that the litany of potential remedies for that pain were not going to help?

*

My husband stepped on a quarter inch wire sticking out of the ground near the beach in Fire Island this summer. The metal went a good inch into his flesh, and when he pulled it out blood sprayed mercilessly all over the sand and sidewalk. He howled. He made noises that I have never heard him make before and I have been with him through a lot of painful things. He was pale and sweaty, teeth gritting, eyes rolling back, that kind of pain.

Later that night, his foot gauzed up and iced, still throbbing, he looked at me and said “I’m so sorry you are in pain all the time.”

I didn’t know how to respond. This wasn’t about me, he was the one in pain, and yet a part of me felt smug at his discomfort. Now you know how I feel, was a momentary thought, I’ll admit it, and not one I’m not proud of.

But it got me thinking about pain and the way people relate to it. It is very hard to relate to pain if you aren’t in pain. Which is why I have such a hard time with the 1-10 scale.

Instead, for chronic pain patients, they should ask what kind of sharp thing is in your foot. Splinter? Pushpin? Nail? Quarter inch wire? Razor blade? Glass shard? Burning glass shard?

Nail. I would have said. Occasionally glass shard.

But instead I said 4 and she smiled.

*

I have fought against my pain and weakness for a very long time. I have tried, often unsuccessfully, to be like my friends. In my twenties I tried to stay out all night, I tried to ski, I tried to walk down the street without doubling over. I worked, I played, I drank, I sat as still as I could so that no one would notice the aftershocks. In my thirties I had children, pregnancy an event that paused my pain for a while so that when it came back it felt like a tsunami. Like many mothers of babies I didn’t sleep and then I had severe postpartum depression; I found having small children so physically demanding I came undone. I’m forty-one now and I am very often a prisoner in my house. My stomach bleeds, my liver pulsates, my head spins. Not all the time, but enough.

From my teens until today, this minute, and all those in the foreseeable future, there is pain. At least nail in foot pain. Sometimes glass shard. Never pushpin. A splinter would be welcome. In fact, when I think back on my childhood and that which was difficult – most sports, endurance, gym class, partying, anything else that required my body to function – I think it’s possible that I have been in pain all my life. Back then I never considered that my resting state was anything less than normal, but now I know better. Most people do not live with nails in their feet.

I hurt. I hurt in the morning when I turn over to get up. When I walk, when I carry groceries, when I turn my head to the right to reverse in the car. My stomach burns, my joints swell, my liver rejects everything I eat and drink.

I don’t talk about pain very often. I tell myself it is because people don’t want to hear me complain but it is more than that, I can admit that. I’m ashamed of my pain. I’m ashamed of my weakness.

What is it about pain that is so shameful?

We live in a culture in which wellness equals strength. People my age do cross fit and triathlons, women have babies without drugs, are lauded for their tight abs, their thick skin, their ability to play tough. I have never been strong like this. I have tried, but I have failed. I was never scrappy. I don’t think I will ever be. I am soft. My belly, the place of much of my pain, is squishy. Distended, bloated, doughy, depending on the day. I’m sensitive. I cry at pop songs.

Our society’s greatest hero story is about overcoming obstacles. We love a fighter. We love an underdog who comes out on top. We love triumph and happily ever endings. We love to fix a hoarder, intervene and send someone to rehab, remodel a decrepit house. We love treatment. We love survival. We love hope.

But hope is complicated. After all of these tries, this list of 46 different treatments and therapies, I no longer have hope that things will get better. I have hope that things will not get worse, which is not the same thing. I have a hope that feels a lot more like mercy than it does like faith.

When I ask myself this question about weakness and shame I hear a quiet hum suggesting a better question: why am I fighting so hard?

In my experience, pain is not weakness leaving the body. I realize this is a trope, and any mantra is nothing more than a slogan. But slogans have power. They convince. And I’ll admit I have always believed this – that the suffering I endure might one day let me free.

When I was pregnant and exhausted, a friend of mine told me that of course I was tired, I was making a person in there. Though not the same, pain sometimes feels like that too. Of course I’m tired, I’m fighting against myself all the time, trying to quell the pain so that I can live my otherwise fortunate life.

I’m not delusional about this. I know I live a charmed life in almost every way. I am educated, from a family that loves me – even when I behave idiotically. I am not from a country ravaged by war. I have a husband who cares for me, does not abuse me, even dotes on me sometimes. I have two healthy children whom I adore. I am from a privileged minority, I have more than I deserve. I can walk, breathe and think to exist in my daily life. I can afford therapy, eastern medicine, treatment outside of insurance sometimes, to do part time work. I can try 46 things. In short; I’m lucky. Unfairly so. And yet.

Here’s the whole list, abbreviated to just the titles:

Acupuncture, acupressure, acetaminophen, alcohol, aleve, aromatherapy, bioelectric, CBD creams and oils, cupping, chiropractic, chanting, codeine, cranial sacral therapy, cryotherapy, dairy free, hallucinations, gluten free, guided breathing, fasting, fentanyl, flotation, ibuprofen, oxycontin, marijuana, massage, meditation, myofascial, quell, reflexology, radiation, salt baths, saunas, steroids, sugar free, sodium free, sound bathing, surgery, swimming, percocet, physical therapy, psychotherapy, psychiatry, praying, vicodin, xanax, yoga.

Everything helps a little. Nothing helps enough to be worth the life altering work and piles of money it takes to keep it up.

Here’s a truth: the things that actually take the pain away feel a lot like addiction. They don’t remove the pain, that’s the trick. They numb. And they are delicious. But they don’t last and they unleash other pain, often more severe that the original. It’s never worth doubling the pain tomorrow to have numbness today, no matter how attractive the reprieve.

So the pain is there. It’s always there and most likely it will always be there. I don’t know how it got in. Maybe the pain was waiting for me when I came into this world. Maybe it comes from my ancestors, my DNA, my parents’ tragedies, my childhood bullies, or little or big assaults. Maybe I am sensitive to the world for some reason, and it simply hurts to be here. As woo-wooey as that sounds, that’s the one that feels the most accurate, the most likely.

I think it’s actually softness that makes us strong. It’s not skin made of iron. It’s showing the underbelly. It’s not bracing for the storm, it’s putting a kite up in the wind. It’s the willingness to see the world as a series of experiences some of which are going to hurt like crazy and the ability to just keep going anyway. It’s vulnerability. It’s asking for forgiveness. From ourselves as much as from others. It’s mercy.

Mercy is an open palm. It’s the meaty bit. Curling your hand so that your knuckles face the world is so much easier. But a fist to heart feels quite a lot different from a palm to heart, resting square on your breastbone, staying there, the heel of it pulsing the same rhythm as the heartbeat on your chest, marching your body along in a long trek to some sort of quiet absolution.

My husband’s foot healed in a few days. He stopped limping. The knowledge that he would get better permeated and defined the experience – the faith that this would be over soon.

Therein lies the difference between acute and chronic pain, of course: in how we define hope.

So what kind of hope can I have? What if I looked at my years and piles of pain and perceived weakness not as a failure but as a step towards becoming who I am? What if I forgave myself the years of fighting myself and sank into the deep cool water of acceptance? How would it feel down there?

I do not mean that I should give up. I’ll try things if they look promising. 47, 48, that’s fine. But what if instead of fighting so hard I allowed the pain to be part of me? What if, for a while, instead of the restrictive eating and the therapy and the medicine and the exercise and the planning and the trying (and the failing), what if I just stopped? Even if it hurt? Even if the pain never left? Could I recalibrate to “0”? Could I see that as the most radical act? Doing nothing at all?

For now I’ll put the little purple book in the drawer. I’ll cap the pen and sit quietly. I’ll let what’s in me stay put. I’ll put my feet up, expecting and accepting the pulse of the nail that might be forever lodged there.

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor based in Newton, MA. Her work includes contributions to The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, Word Riot, Drunken Boat Literary Magazine, xojane, Kids in the House, Ed Week/Teacher among others. She is currently working on a memoir and a novel. 

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

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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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Advice, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Some Thoughts on Parenting

October 18, 2019
hug

By David D. Speer

Recently, my family was at a birthday party at Peter Piper Pizza in Ahwatukee. I was watching my son and his cousins run around, happy as children tend to be with pizza and games. It was while I was watching them that a few things occurred to me. These things are, in my opinion, things that all parents could and probably should have in common. With that in mind, here is some fatherly advice from an Arizona father:

  • Hug your kids. Often. For no reason at all. Sometimes they just need it and will never turn you down. In fact, hug anyone you love whenever you have a chance. Life is short.
  • Say, “I love you” as often as you can. In fact, make it the first thing your kids hear in the morning and last before sleep. Say “I love you” plenty in between, too. If we fill this world with children who know they are loved, perhaps this world will become a better place.
  • Let ‘em play. They will only be able to do this for a finite amount of time and these memories of playing will be the foundation of great memories.
    • Play with them whenever you can, too.
  • Chocolate milk was made for blowing bubbles into.
  • Don’t swear. At least don’t swear in front of your kids. If they hear you swear be prepared for possibly two things: 1) They are going to ask you what it means and 2) They may repeat it. In either case it is not a conversation you want to have.
  • Don’t get mad when the kids do something wrong and please don’t correct them in a way to embarrass them. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people yell at their kids just because they can. Its just awful to see and they may treat your grandchildren in this fashion someday.
  • Mom and Dad equals the name of God to children. Be a benevolent one.
  • Kids will go out of their way for your acceptance and to try to make you proud. If they don’t find it, they will look for someone who will accept them. Be very careful here.
  • Kids are usually quick to forgive and, therefore, you should be too. Don’t be afraid of saying “I’m sorry.” just because you’re a parent.
  • Kids are usually smart. In fact, they will surprise you if given the chance. However, don’t get hung up on math scores and academics. We all have individual talents and individual smart-ness. Kids are no exception. If they are struggling with their grades its ok. They ALL have a talent somewhere. Help them find it.
  • Teach them to say things like, “Please” and “Thank you”. They don’t cost a thing and are a simple way to be polite. Mr. Rogers was on to something with this.
  • Kids grow up fast. Before you know it, they go from asking for milk to asking to borrow the car. Cherish the little things that make them unique.
  • Take copious amounts of pictures while they are growing up. You can thank me for that one when they move out.
  • Never ask, “What’s wrong with you?” or “How many times do I have to tell you?” when you are mad. If they answer “Nothing!” or “Forty-two more times!” they gave you your answer. If you need to, take a few moments to compose yourself before dispensing discipline.
  • Be a friend when they need it and they need it more than you’d think. Be a parent when they need it too. I have found that the correct balance of parent and friend makes an amazing parent.
  • Leave home for a least a weekend once a year. Longer and more often if you can. Vacations are where the most memories of youth and strong family bonds tend to be made.
  • If you live in Arizona, get them a pool or take them to one and let them swim, all summer long.
  • You are going to make mistakes. Sometimes, big ones. Its ok. Admit it and move forward. Its when you hang on to those mistakes that things go south. Being human is allowed.
  • Stay off your phone (or other device) when your kids are around. They need to know they are more important then that text or whatever you think is more important. Trust me, they notice when you are not paying attention to them.
  • This one is for grandparents: You have waited your whole life for grandchildren, so make sure you are available for your grandchildren. The memories they have of you when they are older will resonate their entire lives. Make the most out of the small window that time has given.
  • Growing up is tough, but we can make it fun and little easier if we try.

There were some other things that hit me too. Not necessarily related to parenting, but I feel you should know:

  • Whipped cream has no business on cake and is NOT frosting, so stop trying to pass it off as such. Frosting is Frosting.
  • If you stand to pee, lift the seat. Or, at least wipe it after. To do otherwise is just lazy and gross.
  • If you haven’t called your mom today, pick up the phone and call her! Right now.
  • Don’t try to control things too much. You just can’t.
  • Delete Facebook, Instagram and other social media. IT IS A HUGE WASTE OF YOUR TIME. It also wastes the time of people closest to you. This is probably a form of addiction, though, so slowly ween yourself off.
  • No one can tell you the meaning of life but you. It is different for everyone and tends to change over time.
  • Say “Hello” when you pass someone on the street, in the hallway or at work. You never know if you are going to make a new friend or make the other person’s day.
  • Call someone from high school every year.
  • Visit all 50 states at least once (bring the kids).
  • Visit Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America at least once.
  • Put down that silly vapor pen. Those things will probably kill you, too.
  • When someone says, “To be honest” my first thought is that they probably tell lies most of the time.
  • Most things that seem important now probably won’t be in 10 years. (remember Walkman, Discman?)

And, finally:

  • Try something new and possibly thrilling. You’ll be glad you did.

David D. Speer is a husband, father of three, high school teacher, athletic coach, small business owner and aspiring author. He has a Master’s in Business Admin and a BA in Secondary Ed and a BA in History. He has lived in Phoenix most of his life, but has also lived in Colorado and Washington.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Reflections on Breastfeeding in Airplanes

October 16, 2019
breastfeeding

By Anna Luisa Daigneault

It’s 11am on a Thursday in mid-December, and I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in over 18 months. I am sitting on a cramped airplane, headed northward for the Christmas holiday. I’m in survival mode because I am solo-traveling with my baby daughter. I’m hyper aware of every little potential danger that could somehow harm her on this journey. I am also well aware of every possible way that she could annoy the dozens of people in close proximity to us on our flight.

Each person huddles in their own airplane seat doing their best to doze or block out the people around them by plugging into various devices. Beside us is a silent stranger who occupies every inch of his seat, and a bit of mine too. His headphones are on, and he is holding a smartphone very close to his face. I can see him browsing his social media platforms and typing away furiously with his thumbs. I do my best not to spy on him.

My writhing 18-month-old daughter is on my lap at the moment, but really she would much prefer to be crawling under the seat in front of us, which would of course be a death trap if there were any turbulence. So I am trying to mitigate that situation by breastfeeding her. In theory, the milk would help her slip into nap world for the rest of the plane ride.

Easier said than done. Truthfully, she is getting a little too big to comfortably nurse on a plane. When she was a little baby, she didn’t mind cuddling up to me for hours on end, so I didn’t have to worry about her smacking the passengers around us. Now, at 18 months of age, she is getting big, and has a mind of her own. She wants to be in charge of her own destiny.

As I gently wrestle her into the cradle position, while trying to not let my exposed boob flail around in public view too much, I am painfully aware that we are causing some discomfort and embarrassment to the passenger beside us. My baby keeps kicking him with her little sneakered feet, and he is averting his gaze because he needs to make sure he is not looking at my breast. I can see his sweat beads pile up on his neck.

I feel kind of bad that he might be nervous, so I keep saying sorry and maneuvering my baby’s plump little thrashing legs away from him. But she always finds a way to somehow jostle him, or press up against him. Even after such abuse, our fellow traveler doesn’t respond with a nod, a smile, or even any sound of dismay. He has retreated far away from this annoying reality by gazing into his smartphone, and he has every blessed right to do so.

I am glad he is not getting mad. But a little recognition of the situation, or signal of acknowledgment, would be welcome to us. At least my daughter is not trying to crawl onto his lap and play with his phone, like she did to our neighbor on the last flight.

Seeing as our stoic companion has had little to no reaction, I switch into my familiar mom mode of not caring too much. Motherhood is sometimes about embracing short-lived discomfort for the sake of the greater good. I often have a cruel little mantra playing in my head: we all have to make sacrifices.

But then my eye catches him posting tweet: “What’s up with mothers who still breastfeed their 3-year-olds? Are we still living in medieval times? Give the kid some cow’s milk and move on. Please and thank you.”

I feel my blood boil with rage. How dare he write that about us?! But then my anger diminishes to incredulity. Soon I sort of don’t care anymore, and shrug it off. His tweet is kind of funny, and in any case, he can write whatever he damn well pleases.

Ohhhh, life before parenting, I reflect. I used to be that person, thinking that I knew all of the things. Now, all I can do is stay in the present moment, and pray my baby will settle down soon.

Thankfully, baby drifts off into a peaceful slumber, milk dribbling from her mouth. I stash my boob away into my bra with ninja-like deftness, and try to doze with my neck at a weird angle. But I can’t sleep. I’m still a little hurt over the tweet, and want to say something. But I can’t risk waking the baby, after all that work putting her to sleep! Ugh. I tell myself, whatever, there is no point in arguing with a stranger right now. 

But if I did argue with this guy, this is what I would say.

Allow me to deconstruct your tweet, good sir. First of all, she is only 18 months old. Still technically a baby. Well, she’s a toddler, but she’s still more of an infant than a child. I can tell that you have no idea how old she is. She has enough hair for pigtails, so maybe she looks 3 years old to you, but trust me. She’s a baby.

Second, the reason why she is on my lap is because she rides for free as an infant-in-arms until the age of two. That’s coming up soon, I know, but we are not there yet. I’m on a budget over here. Have some respect! Did you know women are on average paid less than men?

Third, did you know that breastfeeding helps a child’s ears regulate the pressure changes in the cabin? Ha! You didn’t know that. Well, I can see why – I didn’t know that either until I became a mom.

And yes, my boobs are exposed. I know that makes people uncomfortable. I don’t really care. My boobs are not just sexual appendages anymore. They are a source of nutrition and life! They are the Milky Way! The Cosmic Breadbasket! The Sacred Keg!

Ok, I’ll stop there.

No, actually, hear me out. Lots of people breastfeed their kids until the age of two or more because of the multitude of health benefits. We’re obviously not in medieval times. We have many other sources of food. You haven’t seen her eat solid food: she loves it and it’s very messy. I’m actually saving you from being covered in fruity apple slime right now. Graham cracker crumbs and yucky, fruity slime that starts to smell bad surprisingly quickly.

Also, you should marvel at the fact that breastfeeding is really handy while traveling. Food and water on the go. Wherever you need it, it appears. Magical!

And since we’re on this topic, I actually kept breastfeeding my baby this long SPECIFICALLY so she would nurse during THIS exact flight and not cry about her ears hurting, and then as an added bonus, she would fall asleep. So there! I am ACTUALLY trying to help all of us on this plane. It’s not just about you or me. It’s all about the collective!

Lastly, what has our society come to? (Wow, I sound ridiculous). Can we no longer communicate with a human being sitting right next to us on a flight, and instead we decide to deal with our emotions by posting passive-aggressive tweets to our random and invisible assortment of followers?

Well, I suppose I am also communicating with you through a passive-aggressive blog post, months after the fact, so let’s just call it even.

Anyway, I’m sorry she kicked you for 10 minutes straight. Next trip, she gets her own seat.

Thanks for listening. Have a good flight.

Anna Luisa Daigneault is a mother who balances work, family life, being a musician, and endless chores. Originally from Montreal, Anna live in North Carolina with her husband and daughter, cat, dog, beta fish, where they all fend the house off from the million stray cats who wish to nest in their humble abode.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

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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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Beauty Hunting, Guest Posts

The Stream

October 11, 2019
stream

B Edward M. Cohen

Five year old Noah saw an old man in the market, he tells me, his body curling into an

imitation. He nods his head, pretends to be walking with a cane. The old guy was walking up and down the aisles, muttering, “Mine eyes! Mine eyes!” The memory makes him cackle.

I am not sure what this means but I’ll ask his mother later. Maybe she’ll know. Maybe not. . Ten minutes go by and, in the middle of another conversation, he mutters, “Mine eyes! Mine eyes!” his body curling, his voice crackling with make-believe age, and he giggles to himself once again. It doesn’t matter whether I understand or not. He enjoys the story.

He also loves to sing Allouette. He announces, “I can speak French, Grandpa!” Then he sings, “Allouette, gentil Allouette. Allouette gentil ploo merai!” He doesn’t understand a word. He is just mouthing sounds which his father probably taught him but he proudly sings the refrain over and over.

The most impressive thing about him at this age is the way he relishes private jokes, sets his own goals, pleases himself with his accomplishments, figures thing out, gets lost in his private fantasies.

We are spending the afternoon at the stream. His parents have rented a cottage near our summer home for the month because they can thereby get a vacation with free baby sitting: a treat for us all. They bring him over every afternoon and he has fallen in love with a nearby stream. We spent two hundred bucks on a membership in the town pool, figuring he’d meet other kids there, take swimming lessons, but no, Noah prefers the stream. The water only goes up to his waist so he can just wade in and sit and splash but the current is really strong and he loves to let the cool ripples rush over him. He has started to build a dam; flinging the rocks around, piling them up, then breaking them down, dousing his head under the waterfall he has created, singing Allouette to himself.

He used to be totally dependent on adults for information and stimulation. He soaked up whatever we told him. He wanted to hear the same story over and over. These days, when we walk to the stream, he talks to himself, repeats his favorite punch lines, does not care if I get the jokes or not.

In the fall, he will be going to a real school instead of the pre K he has been in for years. He will be learning letters and numbers. He will be losing old friends and will have to make new ones, travelling on the school bus. His parents are nervous, but not Noah. Now I know why; just when he needs it, his inner self is growing strong.

We walk home from the stream, he in his baggy bathing suit, hair golden from the sun, and he shows me his Karate poses, copied from television. He sucks in his tummy and I begin to see the outlines of muscles, like the very beginning of a scrawny pre-adolescent. He says, “I have to keep my knees bent like this for support!” God knows where he heard it but he seems to understand and is clearly impressed with himself.

I hope I never forget the way he is this carefree summer since there are so many hurdles ahead which he doesn’t even know about. He has been so happy in his current school, has been there for so many years, the darling of the teachers. This will be a great disruption in his life. To us, it seems frightening. Not to him. Maybe he is aware of the tension around him and, without even knowing, he has taken this summer to marshall his inner resourses. With the sense of self he is building, he will handle whatever awaits him. He knows it. We will learn. We have to, he is signaling. He will not be held back by our old-people concerns.

I know separation is a part of parenting but does it have to happen so soon?

This coming weekend, his friend, Andy, is visiting from the city so his parents tell us Noah will not be coming over until Monday. We will miss him terribly. After only these few weeks, we cannot remember how we used to fill the afternoons. And we are reminded how brief this period will be. Soon, too soon, he will be busy with soccer games and music lessons and boy scout meetings. There will be very little time for visits to his grandparents.

Maybe, every now and then, he will need to replenish his spirits by returning to the stream and, if so, we will be here.

Edward M. Cohen‘s novel, $250,000, was published by Putnam’s; his nonfiction books are published by Prima, Prentice-Hall, Limelight Editions, and SUNY Press. He has published over 35 stories in various literary journals, and his articles have appeared in CosmopolitanChildParentingAmerican Woman, and Out. Cohen has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the NY State Council on the Arts.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Young Voices

Amanda

October 8, 2019
coach

By Mary Clark

When I started texting my coach, I’d had a crush on him for two years. By the time things started with us, he was coaching a younger team. He started lending me things. I would find him after practice to return his copy of Brave New World or his first generation iPod, texting him later, “I like Animal Collective the best.”

I went to his house one warm morning for a date. We stuck our feet in the pool and joked about the legality of kissing each other. We asked, “Is this legal… is this?” as we leaned in closer to each other, or brushed our feet together in the water. We went inside to watch Ponyo and eat scrambled eggs from a bowl.

He often said formal things like “thanks for coming over” and “anime is my favorite genre.” At one point, as we sat close to each other on the couch, I farted and immediately turned to stone. I sat as still as I could, like a kid imagining I could make him believe nothing happened. No one said anything, but later he laughed too hard when a fish in the movie farted and a bubble floated to the surface of the water.

His roommate came home briefly and no one knew what to make of anything, so no one said anything beyond “nice to meet you.” I also gave a low nervous wave with the hand that wasn’t holding his under a pillow in my lap. Obviously, I wasn’t the loser in this situation, but how could I have known?

Later, I broke up with him, because one night a younger boy said to me, “I know I’m not unbiased in this situation, but I think that guy’s pretty much a creep.” I was convinced. Sam was more interesting and had already read Brave New World and was 17, not 27.

The coach and I had a date at the drive-ins that night, and when I showed up, he had two grocery bags worth of a picnic and a huge smile on his face. He brought cups for sparkling lemonade. I almost lost my mind. At that age, when I had to tell someone something horrible, I cried first so there was no getting out of it. He never took his hand off the parking brake while I told him I was done by saying, “You know that guy I went to homecoming with, remember him?”

He cried so hard and for so long I almost missed my curfew. He texted me that he loved me, that he had cried all night. A few weeks later he mailed a DVD of Ponyo to my parents’ house. I saw his tiny neat handwriting on the package in the mailbox. Thank god it was me who found it. Later, after I told my mom my secret, she told me that she wouldn’t tell my dad because he would have fought him. I thought that was ridiculous, but now, when I think about his tiny all- caps handwriting, I kind of want to fight him too.

When the roommate left the house that day of our first date, our knees touched each other’s on the couch. We had already kissed the weekend before at a First Friday downtown. I met him outside of a Spaghetti Warehouse, ostensibly to say hello. I said, “I just came from practice” and he said, “It smells like it.” Then we moved our heads around until we were kissing. It felt like kissing a brick wall. The kiss of a guy trying not to get arrested.

I changed his name in my phone to Amanda, as in, “A man, duh.” I loved that he was a man.

I went to his house after taking the SATs. He cut up an apple for a snack that we ate in his bed, before I gave him head for the first time. I hobbled naked to the bathroom for toilet paper. It was actually his parents’ house. I slipped on my green boots and drove away in the rain feeling proud of myself.

When I think about the way he looks I remember what a folk singer said about her ex-boyfriend. She said he looked like everyone she’d ever known. Walking around, I see a constant stream of similarly medium-sized sandy men with big arms and small noses.

On that first hang, at his own second-story brick apartment, we made out in his room where he had one framed Wes Anderson poster and man-themed bedding. I slept in all of my clothes on my side with a stomach ache.

My back had been tight for a few weeks, no doubt an athletic injury, and after being spooned all night by a man, I woke up feeling like I had been bent in half backwards. My mom was picking me up for church at 10. I told her I was getting breakfast with a friend, I’d meet her on the corner. I got into the car and could barely sit down. It felt like my body was strapped to a board, and I could barely bend my knees. My mom said I must have slept funny. I cried and asked if I could go home, but my mom said people were expecting me in the nursery where I worked.

When I got there, I could barely pick up the smallest baby, a recently adopted Russian orphan who was afraid of everyone except me. I tried to put her down, but she dug the plastic heels of her tiny Mary Jane’s into my back, pinching my skin and my nerves. I finally sat her down, and went to the bathroom to stand still and to cry.

Through my tears, I thought with relief, “Maybe now I can quit soccer.”

Mary Clark is a poet and fiction writer from Tulsa, Oklahoma currently living in Los Angeles. She graduated from UCLA in 2015 with a B.A. in Comparative Literature. Mary currently works as a nanny, and volunteers with the Prison Education Project.

Upcoming events with Jen

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Anxiety, Guest Posts

My Brain’s Airplane Busy Kit

October 6, 2019
airplane

By Darcy Lohmiller

Direct your focus to the little butterflies on my ceiling whispered the soothing voice in my head.  But there were no butterflies in the steel contraption about to launch 30,000 feet into the air.  After fifteen years of flying with prescribed sedatives, I was attempting a flight to South Africa with a backpack filled with aromatherapy scents, inspirational music, and ten recorded sessions of hypnotism.  Buried at the bottom was the emergency stash of Xanax I hoped I wouldn’t need to use.

I increased my phone’s volume and tried to focus on the therapist’s voice instead of the plane’s engines and my pounding heart.  You will have faith in the pilots and all of the training they’ve gone through… Keep in mind what you consciously already know, that this is one of the safest ways to travel……While we rumbled down the runway, I switched to the soundtrack from Apollo 13. My brain, like a toddler distracted by a bright rattle, took an interest in the soaring strings and the heroic brass anthem.  It remembered a rocket with Tom Hanks at the controls, launching to the moon.  I shook the rattle at my brain as we lifted off the runway.

I didn’t always fear flying.  My first flight was as a ten-year-old when my brain trusted adults and the safety they promised me.  A stewardess in a crisp blue uniform brought me a Pepsi with ice before the flight. I was so transfixed by the blurring tarmac outside my window the drink tumbled into my lap on takeoff.  I watched the puffy clouds and the sweeping quilt of wheat fields below, lulled by the engine’s steady hum and the stewardesses’ firm, businesslike steps up and down the cabin.  It became as familiar as the back seat of the station wagon with my father at the wheel and my mother’s intake of breath at each curve in the road.  My mother was an unbearable backseat driver.  She stared straight ahead at the road, clutched the armrest and applied her invisible brakes, always ready to alert my father to the dangers she was sure he couldn’t see. Her world view was if one was always ready for disaster, it would be easier to bear when it arrived.

I flew sporadically and uneventfully for twenty years. I’m not sure when I lost faith in technology and the men who handled it, when I stopped trusting the calm voice of the flight attendant assuring us the seat cushion could be used as a flotation device.  In the 70s, plane disaster headlines were accompanied by photos of suitcases strewn across blackened fields.  My brain stored these details and filled in the rest:  oxygen masks dropping from a disintegrating plane, passengers screaming and clutching each other as they plummeted to the ground.  How many minutes did they anticipate their own death?  My brain shuddered.

I was newly married when I traveled with my husband Dan and his family from Bozeman, Montana to Denver. The first rustlings of nervousness caught me when I entered the cabin.  The plane seemed smaller than I remembered, more fragile.   My footsteps sounded hollow on the thin floor and the plane wobbled when passengers stuffed their bags into the overhead storage and plumped into their seats.  Cracks in the upholstery, peeling paint on the armrest.  I looked out the window and watched the crew loading luggage into the hold.  A bored mechanic tightened a rusty bolt on a dented wing.   If the plane crashed, would he feel any responsibility?  Or were there so many cogs in the machine it would be impossible to find the loose screw and the person who had failed to tighten it?

As the plane gained speed, my heart beat faster in time to the spinning wheels.  I was trapped. I clutched the armrest and willed the plane to rise, but the moment it left the ground it seemed to lose all confidence.  The clouds fought the plane, hitting it on the side, the top, the bottom. The pilot’s voice assured us of a smooth ride, but the turbulence seemed to surprise even him.  “Looks like we hit a rough patch, folks,” his jaunty voice said.  Even the pilot didn’t know this would happen, my brain argued.  They had no control, it insisted.   We were all helpless against forces stronger than us, forces with no regard for us.  I clutched Dan’s arm with each bump and jolt and he was puzzled at my anxiety. In his mind, flying carried a low risk.  Until something happened, you may as well enjoy the scenery.  His fearlessness made me worry more.  I had inherited my mother’s brain with its fear of life’s unexpected bumps, and like hers it believed it must always be ready to take the jolt.  So while Dan gazed out the window, I braced myself for the next one.

Our flight back home was on a thirty-seater and I trudged to the gate as though I were on death row.  We had to walk directly onto a tarmac that radiated heat like an open oven.  As I followed everyone up the steep metal stairs, I recalled a Twilight Zone episode where a passenger is greeted by a stern-faced stewardess.  “Room for one more,” she says.  The passenger ran away before the plane exploded.  I walked down the narrow cabin to the last seat in the back of the plane and fumbled with my seat belt.  My heart had been beating wildly and now my hands were sweating as well.  I tried to calm myself but my body refused to listen.  My arms grew cold as blood flowed to my legs, telling them to move, to escape the danger.  But my brain knew there was no escape. I struggled to breathe.

The flight attendant asked, “Is she okay?”  Dan nodded.  The plane skittered down the runway and jumped into the air while Dan stroked my hand as though my fear was a spot he could rub out.  The flight attendant brought me a glass of white wine, and I downed it while she took her seat behind the pilots, two sturdy men in crisp blue uniform calmly adjusting the controls.  I focused on their closely trimmed hair beneath gold-trimmed military caps. Like my mother in the car, perhaps I could alert them to danger with a tap on the shoulder and a firm word.  As we descended through the mountains, the little plane took the gust of mountainous air like a boxer took body punches.  It shuddered, but righted itself, feinted to the side, then faced its opponent again. For an hour, I sat rigid against the punches that rained on me until we bounced onto the runway and braked at the gate.  I could barely walk off the plane.

For the next five years, I found an excuse to avoid any flight until a friend I wouldn’t visit urged me to see a doctor.  “You know, they have drugs for that.”

My doctor wrote a prescription for Xanax.  When the pharmacist handed me the little white bag, stapled at the top, she smiled.  “You’ll like this.”  No one thought less of me for using a drug to conquer fear.

And it worked.  It told the small amygdala in my brain to shut up but left my cortex free to manage terminals, gate changes, and subway systems.  My amygdala, I learned, had been working overtime, coordinating responses to dangers that did not exist.  My cortex tried to object, but it wasn’t fast enough.   Xanax put the brakes on the busy amygdala so the cortex could catch up.  My brain was quiet throughout the flight, and noted turbulence with only a mild curiosity.

For the next fifteen years, I traveled with a little yellow container tucked inside my bag.  Every six hours, I dug it out and snapped it open like a tin of Altoids.  The cabin’s noises turned into a soft buzz and I smiled at the flight attendants, talked to the person beside me about things I couldn’t later recall, and arrived at my gate with a calm heart and mind.  Thank you for the nice flight, I told the pilot and the flight attendants at the door.

But using Xanax had its tradeoffs.   I watched movies, read books, had interesting conversations and remembered little of them.  On a flight to the Bahamas, I looked out the window at a sea of turquoise waters and felt nothing.  Only a fully functioning brain can experience delight, wonder, and awe.  And though the numbing effects of Xanax were largely gone the next day, there was always a lingering dullness as my brain came back to life.  I only took it once or twice a year, but worried about its long-term effects.   I had hoped flying under the influence of Xanax would eventually allow me to fly without it.  But every time I tried to do so, the slightest bump would send me rustling in my bag for the tiny case of pills.  Doctors criticized Xanax because it made the brain lazy and demanding.   Using Xanax was like giving in to a child’s temper tantrum.  Okay, here’s your chemicals.  Now calm down.

As our trip to South Africa grew nearer, I worried about taking Xanax for the 22 hours it required to get there. How long would that lingering dullness last?  Would I spend most of the trip looking at wild elephants and lions with only mild curiosity?  Was it possible to retrain my amygdala instead of shut it off?   So I paid for six sessions with a hypnotist who tried to convince my subconscious that flying was safe.  My brain wasn’t an easy student.  It struggled to create mental images. It refused to respond to suggestions.  It never did achieve a trance-like state.  But I closed my eyes and listened to her voice assuring my brain it was safe, it was strong.  I just hoped it was listening.

During the flight across the country and the Atlantic Ocean and down the entire length of Africa, I was armed with my recordings and an emergency stash of Xanax.   Twenty-two hours of flying, twelve hours of two layovers, I arrived in Johannesburg drug-free, clear-headed and exhausted.  Without the rosy haze of Xanax, flying was as glamorous as a bus trip.  Hundreds of passengers were crammed into narrow rows of tight seats.  Lines formed at the bathrooms.  The flight crew pushed their carts through tight aisles and silently handed out Styrofoam cartons of food.  I didn’t have a panic attack, but I was drained from two days of trying to manage my restless brain in a three foot space.  I’d watched six movies, ate seven meals, and slept a total two hours out of the twenty-two.  I had been fully cognizant the entire flight.

It wasn’t that great.

On the flight back to the United States, my brain fought me for the first twelve hours.  It was tired.  It was whiney.  I had pushed it too hard.  Hypnotism had helped, but it didn’t eliminate over fifty years of hard-wiring.  My brain may always panic when it feels trapped, may always struggle to fight the disaster it is sure is on its way.  I hoped to train my brain to relax with reassurances of safety and images of butterflies, but instead forced it into a sort of whimpering, fearful submission.  Is a constant and simmering state of anxiety better for my brain than one milligram of Xanax?

With twelve more hours left in the flight, I surrendered.  I still hope to retrain my brain to become the calm flyer I want it to be, but at this moment I just needed it to shut the hell up.  I snapped open my little container and swallowed the pill.

Darcy Lohmiller is a middle school librarian and part-owner of a fly fishing shop in Bozeman, Montana. Her essays about fishing, hunting, dogs and trailers have appeared in The Drake, The Flyfish Journal, Shooting Sportsman Magazine, and The Big Sky Journal. You can read her essays at https://www.clippings.me/dlohmiller

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

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