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Guest Posts, Mental Health

Nevertheless She…

January 15, 2020

By Shirley O’Shea

In 2016, my nervous system fell apart, like a blue supernova of gases collapsing in on itself. After a hot, sleepless night in July I knew it was time to go to the hospital. At the age of 49, I knew when the hospital was the only place I could be sick and not have to keep trying to be healthy for the sake of my family or employer or anyone else, and at this point, anyway, such efforts would have been impossible. On the morning of July 2, I sat at the kitchen table trying to calmly sip tea and hold my husband’s hand while I waited for my psychiatrist’s call to let me know if a bed was available. I smiled at my husband; I told him I would be in the hospital for only a few days. More than three years later, I am still working on my recovery.

I work hard at recovery. I exercise whenever I can muster the mental energy to leave the apartment and elevate my heart rate at the gym, go on a hike or roll out my yoga mat. I have a strong spiritual practice. I remind myself to be grateful for the good and precious things in my life – my husband and son, the natural beauty of the upstate New York region in which I live, my faith. But sadness dogs me. I never feel that I am anywhere near good enough for….what? What?

Recovery for me means being at peace with myself, being able to abandon my inner critic as I would a toxic “friend.” Why is this so monumentally difficult for me to do? Why is peace so elusive for me? Naturally, the roots of my lack of self-acceptance run deep. It is a hell of a journey to claw one’s way out of hell.

July is my month to break. The first time I experienced a major depressive episode with severe anxiety was in 1984. I was 17 years old. I had worked harder at my studies than I ever had, because I wanted to be accepted into a prestigious university. But I woke up one morning and, instead of thinking about what I could do that day to get into Harvard or some such institution, I felt lost, oppressed by guilty ruminations and sad about everything. For a few days I was sleepless and unable to eat. I told my mother about my feelings of guilt and shame and she listened, but did nothing. Her own father had just died from liver cirrhosis caused by a lifetime of self-medicating with beer, and my father’s sister was in the late stages of alcoholism, having survived a suicide attempt in the spring; she would not survive the attempt she would make in October of that year. Therefore, my parents were completely unavailable to help me as I struggled to survive my own illness.

There were one or two moments when I opened the hall closet where my father kept bottles of whiskey for when his father came to visit. While my parents slept, I contemplated drinking as much from those bottles as necessary to send me to heaven. But I was too afraid to try.

The one thing my parents did to try to help me was to request a visit from our family’s fundamentalist pastor and his wife. They brought a carton of ice cream and as I sat next to Pastor John’s wife, I told her about taboo thoughts I was in agony about having and about which I cringe now. The woman smiled bravely – this was clearly unknown territory to her – and told me there was a Christian psychologist I should see. My parents didn’t take me. They didn’t have health insurance, and most likely a conservative Christian psychologist would have done more harm than good.

I am convinced that religious fundamentalism is not just a social evil – it destroys the psyches of emotional individuals who are predisposed to self-examination and who care about being good people. As a teenager I had beseeched my parents to attend a mainline Protestant church, but for reasons never made clear to me, they resisted. The black and white theology they imbibed at our church suited them in many ways, and it did not occur to them that it was harming me.

Two things helped me to recover from that severe episode – time and literature, specifically, Kafka, whose “The Metamorphosis” convinced me I was not the only person who was mad around here, and even made me think that, possibly, the madness was around me, not in me. Also, during my first year in college, I discovered the religious poetry of George Herbert, whose gentle verses on the love of God showed me there was a different way of being Christian – something I had already intuited. George Herbert was a priest in the Church of England, and at the promptings of a seminarian I met while in college, I became an Episcopalian – a much more humane expression of the Christian faith, and a major step in my journey to becoming a Christian humanist.

But even sound theology cannot completely rearrange bad neurochemistry, the legacy of fundamentalism, a stern upbringing and a family history of mental illness. During my junior year of college, I became absolutely driven to earn straight A’s. I pulled it off, but that summer I became seriously ill again, plagued by the obsessive guilty thoughts and frightening thoughts that I might harm others. I had an exceptionally needy boyfriend who was devastated to discover that I was weak and flawed. He drove me past a state psychiatric hospital and said to me, “That’s where they put the crazies.” In the middle of the night, I took a pair of cuticle scissors and lightly drew them across my wrists, thinking what a feeling of relief I would have if all the hot and tormented blood in my veins drained out of me. But an internal voice told me, “It’s not worth it.”

A few days later I admitted myself to the psychiatric unit at my local hospital. I was diagnosed with OCD and secondary depression. Again, even with medication and psychotherapy, it took a year for me to recover, which was really just a return to baseline. I hadn’t really learned anything from my experience.

When I was 28, I worked as a paralegal at a law firm that was infamous for the mistreatment of its employees. I gave the job all my energy and dedication – I wanted to be the perfect paralegal. My second summer there I broke down again, went into the hospital and came out with a new diagnosis: major depression with obsessive and psychotic features. This time, I had a boyfriend who accepted my illness in stride, as part and parcel of someone who had ambitions of writing – the divine madness of the artist, that sort of thing. This sweet, accepting and gentle man became my husband.

Although I recovered from the worst of my symptoms – guilty ruminations, distressing OCD thoughts, sleep disruption and lack of appetite – I did not change the substrate of my mind, which was perfectionism. Perfectionism is a demon that condemns those who live with it to self-loathing and fear. Whether my illness causes my perfectionism or vice versa, I do not know and may never know. But I believe if I do overcome perfectionism, I will have achieved something greater than writing “Hamlet” or “Paradise Lost.”

I believe the genesis of my 2016 breakdown was my belief that I must be a perfect mother. Although I grew up wanting to have a career and motherhood, my illness made having a career very difficult. But I believed I could handle motherhood. It’s all about instinct, isn’t it? How hard can it be to love?

A strange and wonderful thing happened early in my pregnancy. I remember the moment distinctly. I was driving home from my part-time job at a small-town newspaper, and I realized that I could reject all the negative messages I had received from fundamentalist Christianity, or any faith, from my family – I felt profound liberation and joy. As I scanned the countryside all around me while I drove and thought these wonderful thoughts, I felt two new lives within me. Pregnancy hormones were the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had. The problem was, the moment I pushed my son out of me, the hormones immediately returned to pre-pregnancy levels and I returned to my baseline depressive thinking.

Loving a child, for me, is not a problem. But motherhood, the daily striving to meet the needs of a child, is more stressful than any tyrannical boss. And when it became apparent that my beautiful, exquisitely sensitive son suffered from anxiety and began to struggle in school, I became consumed with fear and guilt. I had failed at my most important calling yet. None of my husband’s or mother’s reassurances that I was doing my best, and all that was possible, put my fears to rest. This time, I was not failing my ego, or an employer, or a church. I was failing my flesh and blood. Psychically, I began to die.

Despite numerous drug trials and electro-convulsive therapy, my depression worsened. But I noticed that my depressions were sometimes, briefly, interrupted by times of elation and euphoria. I suspected I had bipolar type II disorder. I was diagnosed as such in 2012, but none of the medications prescribed for me worked. And then, in 2016, my mind disintegrated. I was practically unable to walk or speak. I lost 20 pounds in two weeks. I was gripped by fear that I would not be able to raise my son. Each time I walked past the cupboard where my battalion of medication bottles was kept, I thought surely now was the time to swallow them all and be done with it. But then, who would love my son? I believe the grace of God helped me to believe my life was worth sparing.

It is taking me longer to heal this time around. But now I have realized that the perfectionism I internalized and to which I am genetically predisposed, most likely due to an anxiety disorder, is my greatest enemy. Maintaining my spiritual practice, spending time in natural places and on my yoga mat are, for me, coming home. Yoga places great importance of awareness of the breath, and as a Christian, I believe I am made of stardust and the breath of God. And now, God’s oxygen is the substrate of my brain, rather than perfectionism – at least, some of the time. So I need to remind myself of this every day. It is okay to love myself as I am, just as I love my son as he is. The important thing for me is to keep going. For the sake of all the beings I love, I will.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and literacy volunteer who lives with her husband, Geoff, a psychology professor, and her tween son, Jeremy, in Oneonta, NY. Shirley grew up in the hinterlands northern New Jersey and graduated from Upsala College. She has worked as a paralegal and a first-grade teacher and newspaper reporter. She has had essays on mental health and experiencing the sacred in nature published

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Child Birth, Choice, Guest Posts

No Kids, No Regrets

December 27, 2019
zoe

By Lisa Mae DeMasi

“Children are not a zoo of entertainingly exotic creatures, but an array of mirrors in which the human predicament leaps out at us.” John Updike

Until a little princess, right out of a storybook, toddles into the seating area of our gate. She is unhurried, functions in her own dimension, immune to the chaos, the germfest, the push to get to point A to B.

Her presence casts a tiny spell on me. My book collapses into my lap. I’m drinking her sweetness in: a beautiful, clean-faced, bright-eyed little girl—a gene pool homerun.

What would my path have looked like with children in it?

Rarely do I question my decision to forgo becoming a vessel of reproduction. My goal in life was to become CEO of a wildly growing company, not wiping little beasties’ noses. I even left my husband when he wanted them. But as sometimes happens, this delightful girl seems to be showcasing my poor decision. She looks like what I imagine my little girl would have looked like had I not married my dark-haired husband of 5’7” with a 27-inch waistline, but Bob Redford.

Not to mention that I never did become the CEO of wildly growing company, and the jobs I have had have been sort of wildly unsatisfying.

I watch her, feeling that regret wash over me. She stands on sea legs between her mother’s thighs, crunching Cape Cod potato chips with less than perfect execution, savoring what makes it into her mouth. She babbles, a form of self-engagement, and randomly feeds “Kit-Tee,” a wide-eyed cat peering out from a crate on the floor.

Women of all ages watch her, heads cocked, wearing expressions of maternal yearning, remembrances, maybe regret, like my own.

I bet she still has that baby smell thing going on. You know, like puppies.

I surmise, too, that Zoe’s recently graduated from applesauce and whipped franks to adult food. And now, I think, and a disgruntled flatline my mother used to wear when I was in high school settles on my lips, her parents are giving her junk food, creating an unhealthy palate and a rhythmic type of oral indulgence.

I elbow Dennis. “If that sweetness were mine, I’d give her a hard cooked egg and fruit to eat, not crap food.”

He eyeballs Zoe for a nanosecond, nods and returns his gaze to his handheld.

I think of the other things I’d feed Zoe: Greek yogurt, kale crisps (much softer than potato chips), hummus, non-GMO whole grain crackers, organically grown vegetarian stuff.

And then, Zoe begins to choke.

When adults get something caught in their throat, we place a napkin to our mouth, cough, grumble it away. If that doesn’t work? We set into panic. We choke like hell to obtain clear passage. We don’t care how much attention we draw doing it. We want to live and we fight like hell to continue doing so.

Zoe, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the threat of death. Maternal instincts, ingrained in women’s DNA, alert three to their feet. Those not wearing headphones or enthralled with an electronic device, register a disturbance.

Zoe has one hand on her mother’s knee, stabilizing her squat before Kit-Tee’s crate. She brings herself upright and faces me. Her blue eyes have teared up, no sound comes from her windpipe. The fragments of crap food are lodged in her throat. She is the little girl I never had and wish was mine and she can’t breathe.

Someone, do something.

The book slides off my lap and crashes to the floor as Zoe’s mother scoops her up and lays her across her knees.

The little girl lies there flat as an ironing board.

Zoe?

Three deft pats on her back and Cape Cods chips in a variety of shapes project from Zoe’s mouth. Saliva spills over her lips. Oxygen returns to her lungs. She cries.

The maternal patrons lean in, ask if Zoe is okay. Her mother waves them off. “Yes, thank you,” she says.

My dream child is back on her feet; the waterworks have subsided. Her father strokes her cheeks dry. Her mood changes back to the state of pre-choking as if by a flick of a switch. I pick up my book from the floor.

She’s perfect again.

She asks for another chip.

This makes a number of bystanders chuckle.

I listen with the book covering my face, curious to learn if good ole mom is going to give her toddler just off Gerber Stage Four another chip.

“You can have some Goldfish,” she says.

Goldfish?!

In a Mickey Mouse voice, I say onto the open pages, “How ‘bout some yogurt?”

Dennis elbows me, a prompt to behave.

Over the P.A., a flight attendant announces the initial stages of boarding.

We gather our things. I impart a secret smile to Zoe, which she catches. Means nothing to her.

When we’re settling into our seats, an emaciated brown-haired woman with a Tom Petty overbite slides in. Her thighs are the same width as my forearms, and Zoe appears in the aisle. She’s screaming like a banshee. Ear piercing stuff. I barely get a glimpse of her because she passes by so swiftly—her father carries her like a surfboard. This must be a common position for her—flat and rigid.

Zoe’s mother follows behind, toting a handbag crammed with baby survival equipment and the crate containing Kit-Tee. She wears an expression indicative of the relief she’s feeling that her husband has finally stepped up to the plate, but also of deep embarrassment about her imperfect daughter.

Emaciated Woman and I snap together our respective seatbelts. By the sounds of it, Zoe has been strapped into a seat four or so rows behind us. Amid the chaos of the 737’s boarding, she has stopped crying and is sweetly introducing Kit-Tee to neighbors.

And now again, I wish she were mine, mine, mine.

The cabin is packed. There’s little clearance, cramming of luggage in overhead bins. Last minute phone calls are made. The air is stale. Actually there is no air. Tim is giving emergency landing instruction, his props old and yellowed. The teenager across the way is licking the remnants of a BK cheeseburger from his thumbs. Zoe’s voice pierces through all this clear as a bell. She has dismissed her affections for Kit-Tee and is dead set against keeping her seatbelt fastened.

“No, no, no, Mama!”

My dazzling opinion of this little girl, wanting to drown in the pools of her aquamarine eyes, having envisioned birthing her through my own womb and canal, flickers like a film noir played on an old projector. I don’t want it to. I want her to remain fresh, magical, novel, her presence filling me with regret about what I could have had.

The flight gets underway. The minutes slip into hours, it’s horrendous. Not because of turbulence, the crew, Emaciated Woman, or lack of turkey, sprouts and avocado sandwiches. It’s because Zoe’s steady stream of “no!” is now followed by parental correction with an edge and curmudgeon-type shushing. My iPod is packed away in cargo below; I have no way of tuning out the racket, which would have kept Zoe magical to me. Instead, I watch the display that shows the plane’s elevation, speed, and the long ass Midwest state we’re hovering over.

We’re practically standing still at 500 MPH.

Dennis types away on his laptop, the time flies by for him. I listen to little Zoe carry on; tearing apart her magicalness. She was so perfect before.

When descent at last begins from 40,000 feet, cabin air pressure intensifies. Zoe begins wailing with a set of lungs worthy of crossing the English Channel.

I know this: if I stayed married, I couldn’t have had all the daring affairs with executives my father’s age. I wouldn’t have experienced the freedom of telling off Gloria Steinem and discovering the rugged beauty of the West, proving myself and doing “boys’ chores” where my leg “got broke.”

So what’s the seduction of remorse, regret?

Even if we are self-actualized, accomplished people who have had good lives, why do we actually like that deep longing for what we could have had? And that’s when I discover something really genius about not doing things.

It makes us heroes in our own minds. It buoys us up. We can’t do everything, there will always be paths we could have taken. And the brilliance of that is we get to imagine doing it all and being perfect at it. I know I know we’re supposed to stay in the moment, but most of us don’t because the moment can be as boring as a…well, a long-ass plane ride.

So, thinking of all those unlived lives can be a way to boost self-confidence for one happy soaring moment.

If we’d written the novel, we would have written a bestseller. Not going to Hollywood to audition for all those bit parts and staying back east, we get to imagine our lives as movies stars. Not going to law school means we can tell ourselves we would have been kick-ass prosecutors, killing it in the courtroom. People tell us not to regret what could have been, but actually it’s sort of fun. Not becoming a mother is so much better than actually becoming a mother because I can imagine I would have had the perfect child. Never mind the choking, the quick-switch moods, the screaming like a banshee. I would have nourished my daughter perfectly, and she would have been absolutely flawless.

Zoe snaps me out of my reverie. She’s back to her ear-piercing screaming. Somewhere around 15,000 feet the display shows the aircraft has overshot SFO. The plane’s nose is sticking into the Pacific.

I see around me that people are glimpsing in Zoe’s direction—even Emaciated Woman—and shrugging their shoulders in a way that suggests they wish they could envelope their ears with them.

Land is drawing ever closer out Emaciated Woman’s window, but we’re back on track, the pilot tells us the 737’s nose is destined for the runway. We drop elevation in big chunks until at last the wheels skid. Only minutes remain before we get off this tin bus and little Zoe will disappear from my life forever.

When she and her parents file out before us, I catch those beautiful aquamarines, her body is horizontal and at waist-height again. In my mind I make peace with her, thank her for giving me the chance to be a perfect mother to a perfect child.

She has returned to lightheartedness and answering the saint-of-a-lady behind her about what color Kit-Tee is.

“He’s pink and purple,” she says.

Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. One of her essays appeared in the IPPY-award-winning anthology Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, published in 2017. She lives near Boston, where she rides horses and commutes by bike to her job writing and editing technology blogs for Dell Technologies. She is currently pitching her memoir Calamity Becomes Her to literary agents and is at work on two sequels. You can contact her at lisa dot demasi at gmail dot com.

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Guest Posts, parenting

THE FIELD

December 24, 2019
bat

By Maureen Mancini Amaturo

Just ahead is the familiar field, a triangle with rounded corners. I walk up with head down, anticipating that time will drag its feet while I sit and wish I could be attending to other things. But I sit on the aluminum bleachers, surrounded by mosquitoes, gymnastic squirrels, trees full of bugs, and everyone’s dogs. I’m here for my son. My son, who is at his designated spot on the field, crouching behind home plate, wiggling fingers, giving signs to the pitcher, his very handsome face protected by a caged mask. My son, the only baby boy ever born. He is why s-u-n and s-o-n are homonyms.

On arrival, I greet other parents, other fans, address the social niceties, then I dissolve into the book I’ve brought. Some comment that they don’t usually see someone bring a book to a game. But I always do, so the regulars are not surprised. I remember bringing a copy of WIDOW FOR A YEAR by John Irving to Madison Square Garden. The Rangers were playing. While hockey fans bounced in their seats and waved team towels, I focused on my pages until my husband tapped me on the shoulder to stand for the national anthem.

I arrive at the field after the national anthem this evening. I sit between the third corner and home, turning pages, moving through chapters, absorbed in Dan Brown’s words at this game. Being honest here, I’m not interested in the sport, not interested in the team. Don’t even care who is playing. Cannot pretend to root for someone else’s son. I’ll look up when my son is at bat, and I might glance a time or two to see him walk to his position when the innings change. I have no idea what the score is. I don’t know what team my son’s team is playing. I don’t know the inning is over until my husband says, “Michael is up.”

I hold my page with my finger and look at my son, his familiar batting stance. The intensity on his face. I say the “Our Father.” I imagine that Jesus Christ Himself is standing beside my son, and I say, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” The image of Jesus in flowing robes and billowing sleeves standing beside the batter’s box at Disbrow Park at dinnertime does not seem at all strange to me. I imagine that every time my son is up. I have complete faith that Jesus’ robes won’t get in the way of his swing. I say again, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” I know there are cancers to cure, crime and carnage to correct, and at this moment, I don’t care. I don’t care that people in countries with names I can’t spell don’t have clean drinking water. My son is up. This moment is important to my son, so it is important to me. My heart pounds. My teeth clench. I grip my book more tightly.  I am praying in a loop. Jesus is used to hearing from me. I’ve asked Him for many things, big things. I assume many people have. A hit is such a small request. I imagine Jesus shrugs and is amused. I’m still asking, “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.” As a mother, I can’t bear to see either of my children have anything less than a perfect experience. “Jesus, please swing the bat with him.”

I pray. I pray. I pray.

I hear the ching of the aluminum bat. It’s a double. I watch my son leave home and round the corners, stopping at second. I wish it were a triple, so he’d be standing on the third corner, closer to where I’m sitting, where I could see him better. I tell Jesus, “Thank you.” And I can breathe again. I go back to my book.

And in each inning my son is at bat, my interest will go from flatline to spike. I’ll close my book and focus on my son, praying, use meditation tactics to manifest an outcome, envision him surrounded in white light, picture Jesus with arms outstretched toward my son as if He is sending divine power straight to him like a laser. I conjure images of my son’s bat connecting with the ball. In my mind’s eye, I see my son getting a hit. The emotional effort is almost painful. The intense concentration gives me a headache, even my sinuses hurt. I feel his hits and misses to my very core; my soul vibrates with worry. No, unmeasurable love.

After the game, my son asks, “Did you see how hard I hit that? It was a bomb, right in the gap.”

I say, “No, I was watching you, not the ball.”

“Why would you watch me run? You’re supposed to watch the ball.” He tries to explain why I was watching the wrong thing, but I know I saw exactly what I wanted to see.

Maureen Mancini Amaturo is a New York based fashion and beauty writer and a contributing columnist for The Rye Record. She teaches Creative Writing, produces literary events for Manhattanville College, and leads the Sound Shore Writers Group, which she founded in 2007. Her publications include: two beauty how-to guides for Avon Products, personal essays, creative non-fiction, short stories, and humor pieces published by Ovunque Siamo, Boned, Bordighera Press, Months To Years, Bluntly Magazine, Mothers Always Write, Baseballbard.com, Flash Non-Fiction Food Anthology published by Woodhall Press, a poetic tribute to John Lennon published by Beatlefest, articles and celebrity interviews published in local newspapers and on line. She was diagnosed with an overdeveloped imagination by a handwriting analyst, and has been doing her best to live up to that diagnosis ever since.

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Guest Posts

Woman Reading Newspapear

December 22, 2019
gallery

By Judyth Sinclair

A middle-aged woman stood just inside the entrance door, tired and seemingly waiting for someone. I often looked over at her and wondered why she kept patiently standing there and why she was watching me each time I looked at her. She wore wrinkled khaki slacks and a colorful tee-shirt, had a burlap tote bag on the floor by her feet, and one hand rested on a bright beach type of umbrella. It makes me uncomfortable to say that it took me most of a day, passing her several times, to realize that she was a sculpture.

I discovered Duane Hanson that day at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut. It turns out he was a Minnesota-born artist who became a sculptor. He invented some materials and combined others so that his full-size “people” would look as real as possible. His technique used fiberglass and paint to show veins, freckles, wrinkles, sallow skin and all the other visible things that make real people less doll-smooth than we might like ourselves to be.

Hanson’s proprietary materials and skill succeed in avoiding the waxysmooth look that celebrity museum inhabitants often display, perhaps helped in part by his subjects. Unlike wax museums displaying actors and royalty, Hanson’s are slightly plain and “ordinary” people we see paused in their days. For example, he has a court reporter waiting on a bench, a lying-down couch potato, a head-phonelistening teenager, a cheerleader in full regalia, a surfer, a repairmen in a one-piece uniform, an exhausted political protester, and an old man relaxing and maybe napping, among others. And you expect them to start talking with you.

In the late 1990s, I took a group to see a Whitney Museum exhibition of Hanson’s work and they were delighted. The teenagers loved that the table and food in front of “Woman Eating at a Diner Table” looked like their own favorites. And they liked “The Sunbather” reclining in a black almost-too-small bikini on a white plastic chair with a huge colorful beach towel under her seemingly sweaty back.

Their enjoyment was overshadowed, however, by my mother’s. She murmured something along the lines of how well she’d fit into Hanson’s crowd. Indeed, true to her often dowdy appearance, that day she wore a baggy long wool black coat over polyester pull-on lime green slacks and she’d shoved a newspaper into her brown fake leather handbag along with her reading glasses and a small loose-leaf notebook. Her too-large shoes flopped as she walked. Her hair was mousy brown and straight, unstyled. Her red fingernail polish was chipped on several fingers. She did fit right in, the main difference being that she was covered in epidermis instead of fiberglass.

I had been wandering through other gallery rooms and went to join my mother only to see that she had claimed a spot on the floor near a corner. She’d seated herself, let her coat fall off her shoulders, plopped her handbag on the floor beside her, and arranged the newspaper in front of her as if she were reading. Within minutes, people walking by exclaimed things like, “this one is quite realistic, too!!”

The rest of our group came to find us, saw my mother on the floor, and started to squeal but I gestured to them to be quiet and join me on the gallery bench. We sat for nearly an hour, enjoying passers-by appreciating our very own performance artist. The gallery guard was apparently in on the illusion, directing people toward that corner and smiling at their reactions.

I wasn’t sure how long I would wait or what I was waiting for until a woman stopped in front of “Woman Reading Newspaper” and paced back and forth in front of her, frowning. Her friend asked what she was thinking. She said, “I’m not sure what it is but so many of the pieces are amazing. This one just doesn’t seem as realistically well done.”

My mother raised her head. People in the room gasped and one or two put their hands to their mouths. My mother stood up, gathered her handbag and newspaper, shrugged on her coat, nodded to the guard, and glanced at the spectator who thought her unrealistic. She walked over and greeted me and the kids on the bench.  “I fit right in,” she said.  “What are they all yammering about?”

 

Judyth Sinclair wrote her first book when she was a preteen at camp in New Hampshire. It was about a girl who loves horseback riding (at least partly to spend time with the handsome riding teacher), sleeping outdoors and watching the moon and stars, playing croquet, and swimming, while dealing with being both African-American and an orphan. Had to have a zinger and a twist, y’know? In the years since, she’s studied and written poetry and fiction, presented a paper at a Danforth Foundation seminar, had a story published about a girl and a giraffe, and tried to hold onto imagination and insanity while (sometimes) keeping one foot in practical life.

Judyth grew up in Greenwich Village, that hotbed of creativity and eccentricity, majored in philosophy t college, got married, moved to the exurbs, set up a library in a small grammar school, worked for a non-profit, and now at a great law firm. She loves to write, knit, sew, read (especially while eating out), go to the theater, watch movies, and – most of all – have long long long conversations. And, as they say in Playbill bios, she is very thankful for her family and friends.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Current Events, Guest Posts

Mueller Time

December 19, 2019
mueller

By Pam Anderson

It’s a hot day. The sun beats relentlessly and the sweat rolls freely and excessively down my back and legs as I cut the grass, and because I’m angry, I appreciate the feeling of punishment that the heat doles out.  We’ve recently had a significant storm in our small town, and so I’ve had much debris to cut, carry, rake, and stack along the edge of the driveway for the city clean-up crew.

I’m mowing on the diagonal, and as I get as close to the skirt of the driveway, my feet tangle in the uneven edges of the stacked fallen branches and I trip and thud heavily to my knees. The left kneecap throbs, but I manage a mostly graceful one-hand-on-the-mower-one-hand-pushing-off-the-ground return to an upright position. I, with equal grace, scream out “Mother Fucker!”, but my words are drowned out by both my mower—which has not stopping running—and the chipper down the block, busy grinding up a neighbor’s 60-foot pine tree downed by the storm.

My knee hurts, and my bad back has been aching from the physical labor, but I am dedicated to finishing the job.  I’ve got to do something, keep busy. The television drones on in the house as Robert Mueller, III, truncated and repetitive in his testimony, disappoints me.  Outside, wearing a gray “It’s Mueller Time” tee shirt purchased years ago, when the outlook of everything felt more promising, I mow ferociously and try to make peace with him.

I spend time in my head re-hashing what I’ve heard of Muller’s lackluster responses and I rationalize that he is just a man.  My mind instantly skips to the lines from the Jesus Christ Superstar musical number sung by Mary Magdalene, “He’s a man…he’s just a man”. The irony is not lost on me:  so many hoped Mueller would be our savior.  Sadly, he really is just a man, and he cannot fix the bigger thing that is broken in us, in our country. More importantly, it’s not his responsibility to.

I make a return pass of the lawn walking directly into the sunlight, and without warning, the weight of the day—the real weight of the day—hits. It’s Mueller and the self-satisfied Republicans who grilled him and treated him like an incompetent child, yes, but this moment, the one that forces me to physically double over, is so much more personal than that.  This moment’s pain is the culmination of ugliness and hatred all around me—big and small—the kind that sprays and ricochets like bullets, landing mostly on the vulnerable. And to those who are recently emboldened to behave aggressively and angrily simply because they can, my daughter, one of the vulnerable ones, wears a bullseye on her chest.

***

My daughter has a communication disability, a processing and word retrieval disability.  Her disability is invisible, and she presents in a completely average way, which tends to work against her.  People assume she’s a certain something, but then she’s not; they feel deceived..  And people get mad about it.  They get mean about it.

When Rachel lived with us in Las Vegas after high school, she stumbled through a series of part time jobs. She was fired from each one: Tropical Treat Frozen Yogurt, Port of Subs, Atria Elderly Care Facility, JC Penny’s, Energy Options Call Center.  Because of her disability, Rachel has trouble remembering a series of verbal directions—she loses track after 2 or 3 steps—and because of this she’s been accused of being lazy for not completing a task fully.  Rachel has a hard time thinking on the spot—she needs time to process—and so she’s been called dumb by customers when there is a problem at the cash register.  Rachel isn’t savvy—she was fired from the call center because she forgot her headset was “live” even if she wasn’t on a call, and so she was taped discussing with co-workers the partying she had done over the weekend.

My daughter’s vulnerabilities don’t end at work.  Peers misunderstand her.  Rachel studies people hard when she’s in a conversation, because she’s trying to focus.  In high school, girls accused her of staring at them or of giving them creepy looks.  Rachel doesn’t understand double entendre, so classmates made jokes and then called her “retarded” if she didn’t get them.  As she got older, young men found her attractive—she’s a beautiful young woman—but they also found her confusing. Rachel wasn’t practiced at the nuance of being flirty or coy, and so dates felt rejected and responded in kind, triggering Rachel’s insecurities.  A few early relationships did some considerable emotional damage to her; in one case my ex-husband and my son sunk to physical confrontation of a boyfriend, wanting to do considerable damage right back.  They came to their senses when the boyfriend ran, scared.

Rachel received educational support in school since first grade, and as is common, after years of being pulled out of class, she hated feeling different.  She started to reject support in high school, resulting in failed classes. I worked with her and found outside-of-school support and paid to send her to private speech and language therapy, but I could only do as much as Rachel would allow me to do: she had been led to water, but she was the one who had to decide to drink.

When our family moved to Wisconsin, Rachel moved in with us for a few months as she figured out what was next. I thought our small town would be perfect for her; maybe people would be more accepting, less unkind. She lasted here three months.  Turns out small towns practice a different kind of mean, but it’s mean all the same.

Because of the experiences I’ve seen Rachel go through, I have a heightened sensitivity to watching people treat others with blatant disrespect. And I’ve seen so much of it lately: from people offering my daughter opinions meant to sear and scar, all the way up to the president insulting others with his words and actions, separating us from our humanity, walling us off from one another.

The day of the Mueller Congressional Hearing, I seethed at committee members who spat rude remarks as Mueller sat taking it, seemingly either confused or incapable of biting response. But I was also mad at Mueller for not being who I wanted him to be, for not behaving as I’d hoped: strong, defiant, righteous.  The feeling of anger on behalf of a person while also feeling anger with that person for not fending off the ugliness—for themselves, but maybe also for me—hit too close to home. I couldn’t watch anymore.  The best I could do was tend to my lawn, trying to create  some sense of order.

Pam Anderson is a former high school English teacher, recently retired. After 30 years of helping young people with their writing, she to enroll in a graduate Creative Writing program and finally dedicate energy to her own. Pam is presently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Sierra Nevada College.

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Walk This Way

December 17, 2019
walk

By Sarah Boon

If you’d told me last summer that I’d be training for a half-marathon this summer, I would have laughed hard and loud. Not because it was funny, per se, but because of my mental illness and the crippling grip it has on me.

In 2014, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. The former is when your mood swings from euphoric highs during which you feel invincible, to deep lows during which you feel the world is going to end – something I realized I’d definitely been experiencing over the past five years. The latter is an underlying condition that I recognized as soon as he diagnosed it: I have been anxious since I was a child, always worried that something bad is going to happen or that I’ve done something wrong, and it’s coloured my whole life. He explained that this combination of illnesses is one of the most difficult to treat, adding that cognitive decline, or changes in your ability to think, is common among people with bipolar disorder.

I tried over a dozen different drugs to manage my illness. One required that I stay close to the bathroom, another sent me to the ER with a migraine so terrible I thought my head would explode. Some medications knocked me out to sleep in minutes, while others led to nausea and vomiting. I got used to experiencing a range of unpleasant side effects, until we finally found a mix of medications that made life a little bit more manageable.

All this is to say that I’ve spent the past seven years being held hostage by my illness. It tells me when I need extra sleep, when I need to avoid groups of people, when I should adjust my medications and, if there’s anything left, when I’m able to be sort of normal. It’s not clear on which days I’ll feel okay versus days when I feel terrible, and there’s no easy way to correlate certain activities or events with a specific emotional or mental response. I still have highs and lows, despite my medication being delicately balanced in an attempt to avoid these swings.

My illness dictates how my days and weeks go, and I often resent it for that. If, as Annie Dillard said, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” then my life is a combination of excess sleeping and trying to maintain a stable mood, like sitting on a children’s seesaw and trying to hold steady in the middle. This is definitely not the life I wanted or expected to live.

My illness has also made me less than active, and that – combined with the unfortunate but common side effect of the medications – has led to significant weight gain and reduced fitness. I haven’t been able to commit to regular exercise or joining a fitness club because my life is so unpredictable. Physical deterioration is not discussed much in mental health circles or stories. As Virginia Woolf writes in On Being Ill, we tend to focus only on the mind, “the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how it has civilised the universe. [We ignore] the body in the philosopher’s turret…Those great wars which it wages by itself…against the oncome of melancholia, are neglected.” But having a body you don’t like is just one more thing that feeds depression.

Then last January, something changed. I experienced one of the highest high moods of my life: so high that I had to increase my regular medications and take copious amounts of a new medication to manage it. I felt like I could do anything. I wasn’t sleeping. I was writing essays in my head at all hours of the day. I was purchasing all sorts of things online. I was pitching freelance pieces left, right, and centre. I was back to my former state of juggling more balls than I should have been able to manage. And I loved it.

When you’re used to being depressed, submerged under an immovable weight that just can’t be lifted, a bipolar high feels like a gift, even though you know it’s going to end badly and have serious impacts on your brain function and mood. Indeed, I did a series of cognitive competency tests shortly after one of my earlier high episodes to see if I could go back to work, and I failed several of them – likely due to a combination of cognitive decline and mental fuzziness caused by the medication.

One good thing came from this high, however – I decided that I needed to be more in charge of my life. I wanted a sense of personal agency, something I’d been missing as I was tossed around by the vagaries of my illness and the side effects of the medication. I wanted goals, and a series of steps to reach those goals – steps I’d chosen myself to track my progress. I wanted to be more fit, to be active like I used to be, when I hiked and skied in the Rockies, swam 3,000-4,000 metres every other day, and lifted weights every second day.

What did “taking charge of my life” mean in practice? It meant walking the trails around my house again, something I’d done when we first moved in but dropped during a depressive phase. It meant committing to writing a book about my field experiences as a research scientist. It meant deciding to do the Lake-to-Lake Marathon.

I first heard about the Lake-to-Lake Marathon last year and was intrigued. It follows a gravel railbed trail for 42 kilometres from Shawnigan Lake to Lake Cowichan on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, crossing several old train trestles along the way. I liked the idea of walking on gravel rather than asphalt, and checking out the view from each of the different trestles. I didn’t think about the training so much as I envisioned a lovely walk in the woods and crossing the finish line.

People with bipolar disorder are notorious for promising the world during a high phase. We have a tendency to take on more than we can manage, and that impulse collides with the inability to do it, leaving us holding the pieces and wondering what went wrong. During that high earlier this year, I promised several writing assignments and ended up having to cancel one and not do as good a job as I’d planned for another, which made me feel like a terrible writer. But I never lost that idea of wanting to walk the marathon.

Some people would have happily chosen a 10-kilometre race, but I wanted to challenge myself with something longer and more difficult, something that would allow me to enhance my fitness levels. I wanted to force my body to listen to me and do as I asked, to push me strongly over the finish line. As my high mood declined, however, I realized that there was no way I could do a full marathon. So I switched my sights to the half-marathon.

In June I got serious about training and started walking longer distances than my usual 3-4 kilometres. My plan was to just walk farther each day until I hit close to marathon length. My longest walk as of the middle of July was 14 km. But walking is time-consuming, and it’s difficult to fit a 2.5 hr walk into an already limited day. I’m up at 8.30 am and back in bed at 10 pm, with a 2.5 hr nap in the afternoon. Within those hours I not only have to walk, but I also have to eat, wrangle dogs, do house and garden chores, run errands, and keep up my writing – especially now that I’m working on a book.

What happens if I have a bad day (or week) and have to stay in bed? Like the day after that 14 km walk, when reality came back to bite me and I had to sleep all day? It’s made me realize that my training has to take into account how my body and mind feel, that I have to consider not what other people do, but what I’m able to do. I can’t afford to re-injure my knee, or to draw too deeply on my limited energy stores while training. I have to walk at my own pace, not the pace set by the faster walkers on the course.

Thank goodness I’ve found a half-marathon training program that allows for two days off a week, and includes only one long walk a week (like my 14 kilometre walk), with shorter walks at faster speeds or a session of repeated hill climbs during the rest of the week. Suddenly things seem much more manageable – I can fit most of my daily walks into an hour or two, and I can recharge on the days off. This also allows me to manage bad days – I can just shift my days off. I can also use the extra time for writing.

I’m proud of myself for sticking with the training so far, and am starting to see some benefits like reduced resting heart rate and some weight loss. The half-marathon itself will be tough, but it’s almost tougher to make sure I get out at least five times a week to train. I enjoy my training sessions, though. Walking gives me a way of thinking through life issues, plus writing and book ideas. It’s also a way to zone out and let my feet do the work. As Antonia Malchik explains in her book, A Walking Life, walking helps re-centre ourselves in our body and in society, heal hurts and organize thoughts, and remember the past and aim for the future. That’s exactly what I need to help me balance both my mental and physical health, and is similar to advice I’ve read from other prolific walkers.

I’ll never get rid of my illness, but I can do my best to take charge of it and work within its physical and mental limitations, and to focus on the positives as much as possible. As Anne Giardini writes, “The days cannot be stretched, but they can be shaped.” I can shape my days around my walking goals, with the understanding that they may need to be modified at times, depending on how I’m feeling. I can walk that Lake-to-Lake Half-Marathon. Crossing the finish line after having committed to all that training will be the best gift I could give myself.

Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, Hippocampus, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field research adventures in remote locations. Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, Hippocampus, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field research adventures in remote locations. Find her on Twitter at @SnowHydro

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

I Made Peace With My Body And Found My Soul

December 15, 2019
body

 By Lisa Poulson

The house, above the village of Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, is set on a hill overlooking the whole Luberon valley. Climbing roses cling to its traditional Provençal stone exterior. In California, a plant with just one or two flowers seems in ill health, but here a single blush rose on a vine by the front door feels like beautiful simplicity.

The chic and spare interior is layered with thick coats of pale plaster that curve around me as I walk up two flights of stairs to my room. It’s my first time in Provence, with six girlfriends in this wild, raw and beautiful part of France.

There are wide, cool terracotta tiles, a velvety duvet and no curtains in my bedroom, which is on the third floor of the house, facing the valley. After I settle in and unpack, my friends and I have our evening meal at a long, rough hewn dining table under a tree on the patio. It’s the first week of May. A hint of the Mistral rolls through the hills. I haven’t felt this peaceful in a long, long time.

The next morning, the barest hint of dawn through my uncovered windows wakes me. I smell the remnants of my Diptyque Pomander candle before I open my eyes. I turn my head toward the window and, drowsy and semi-conscious, am immersed in exquisite beauty.

It’s a little chilly as I sit up in bed to watch tender pink light emerge from a piercing bluish fuschia, to see the tall trees shift from shadowy black to darkest teal, to see the rows of lavender on the hill opposite our house emerge from the darkness. The mountains beyond the hills are a Pantone palette of dark to lighter slate blues. Birds are singing. The wind is soft. This dawn is as delicate and rich as Venetian velvet.

After several minutes of watching the colors change and the light bathe the whole scene, a voice, insistent and gentle at the same time, says, ‘If you didn’t have a body, you wouldn’t be able to experience any of this beauty. Not one bit.’

Sitting in my sleep-warm bed, bathed in this exquisite sunrise, I feel peaceful enough to simply accept this truth about my body without argument. As the sun’s light turns the trees green I roll this idea around in my head, thinking about what beauty means to me. Everything. Beauty means everything to me. I’m almost breathless as I absorb the blindingly simple truth that I can only experience beauty through and because of my body.

I am 56 years old. I’ve had a fraught relationship with my body since I was a tween. And yet, in this moment, seduced by the serene Provençal beauty all around me, I reorder what I feel and believe about my body, what it is for, what it has given me, why it’s a miracle.

 ***

It’s been a long and grinding road. I was 10 when I first doubled over with burning pain on both sides of my gut. It wasn’t until my twenties that I got a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which gave me a name but not a solution for the boiling distress that turned my body into an incomprehensible ‘other’, a caustic alien that delighted in causing havoc on dates, before job interviews, at baseball games.

At 30, the man I loved was killed after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks. Grief came in molten waves that would growl and stretch, enveloping every part of me. I never knew when my body would start sweating and shaking, drowning me in unbearable sorrow. When grief descend my only choice was to submit to being ravaged.

About a year after my fiancé died I went on a date, thinking it was time to “move on.” But at the end of the evening when he leaned in to kiss me I panicked. Another man having access to my delicate mouth was more than I could bear. I ran up to my apartment and burst into tears.

In the midst of this emotional disarray I accepted a job offer in Silicon Valley. Just 15 months after my love died, I left New York City and all of my friends behind. In a strange place, with few friends, tons of work pressure, and carrying a mountain of grief, I turned to food, the most reliable and consistent comfort I knew, and buried myself. I gained 75 pounds in six months.

My gut tormented me, I came down with mononucleosis, my head raged with migraines. I felt trapped inside a body that hurt and humiliated me daily. With bitter self-hatred, I told myself that this body, this alien saboteur, was a billboard for my weaknesses as a person. I didn’t deserve amity with my body, I wasn’t strong enough or good enough to be free.

By the time I was 35 I was emotionally numb, physically miserable and nearly 100 lbs overweight. I was in New York on an exhausting business trip. I stumbled into my hotel room and collapsed against the side of the bed in my underwear, my short legs splayed out in front of me. I stared at my undressed body in the wall of mirrors that were the closet doors. I watched my piles of flesh undulate as I breathed in and out. I forced myself to face everything in the mirror. My legs, my belly, my double chin. My lip curled in revulsion as I stared into deadened eyes. I hated everything about my life. My job. My body. Myself.

Eventually I lost the weight, but I couldn’t love and happily inhabit my complicated and demanding body, where the alien still reigned. In my 40s my career grew and grew, but inside my body was one long repressed scream of rage and frustration. I wanted to swear, to smash things, to scream and shake, to quiver and whimper with passion, to drown in and be intoxicated by love and lust. None of those things happened. Because I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a proper Mormon girl does not do these things.

I could have gone to the gym every day to expel that pent up desire, anxiety and anger. But a completely numb body is easier to manage than a body that is partially awake. A body that is awake and vibrant and beautiful wants things. Things a Mormon girl can’t have. So instead my weight yo-yoed. My gut burned. And then I got eczema – the skin on my palms became raw and started to peel off. My spirit was choked in a body I refused to love. I was a broken soul.

***

During the next decade I patronized several spas, worked with a cornucopia of health practitioners and healers, tried so many elimination diets. Sometimes I looked better, sometimes I felt better, sometimes I had beautiful moments of connection with my body, usually at an expensive spa after a luxurious treatment. But back in my real life, every time there was a new injury, every time my IBS flared up, every time I gained weight, I blamed the alien, the mute and malevolent force inside me who seemed determined to hurt and undermine my every effort to heal. I saw no way out.

But in late 2016 the movie Arrival hypnotized me. The heroine, a creative, accomplished linguist, was asked to interpret the language of aliens called heptapods. I drank the movie in, read Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life on which the movie is based. I thought and thought. What if my body is like a heptapod, a benevolent and complex organism with miraculous gifts to give? Was it possible that within my body I’d find a wisdom that would transform me if I could just learn to speak and listen to its language?

***

That late spring morning in Provence, watching that glorious sunrise, was the first time I heard and understood a sentence in heptapod. ‘It’s your body that gives you the gift of all of this beauty.’

For decades, I had only seen what was wrong and broken – I thought my body was 90% a disaster. I did not see that the things I love – color, art, music, flowers, the scent of perfume, the feel of cashmere on my neck – only come to me because I have a body. My body isn’t a crucible of humiliation and frustration, it is a miracle.

I let the slow and pure beauty of Provence work on my nervous system. Everything there taught me the simple joy of living in a body in the world – fresh goat cheese drizzled with new olive oil and tiny flowers, earthenware vases filled with hardy irises, fields of red poppies shimmering in the breeze, baby green leaves on grape vines that aren’t manicured into antiseptic perfection.

At the end of a week there, after several more ravishing sunrises and sunsets, after living among a people whose lives are bound up in the beauty of the land, I came home to California with a changed heart.

There’s a calmness between my body and me now – the anger and shame have been replaced by a patient, warm affection for the wise heptapod who is teaching me a new way to live. I am learning what it feels like to move through the world with a partner – a wise and remarkable heptapod who has always been with me, every moment of my life. I am whole.

Lisa Poulson is a voice in favor of the complex beauty of female power. She is the descendent of fiercely resilient pioneer women who crossed the American plains with their children – even after their husbands died along the way. She is a successful Silicon Valley PR veteran and a woman who survived her the death of her fiancé four months before their wedding day. Lisa lives in San Francisco, where she spends her free time absorbing and creating as much beauty as possible.

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Activism, Guest Posts, Owning It!

A Female Fighter

December 12, 2019
fighter

By Debra Des Vignes

As I drive from Indianapolis to the boxing gym, I feel my anger rising. My son’s farm accident is still fresh in my mind. And friends, I don’t even want to think about friends. At the gym, I’m one of only three female fighters. I’m 45, not old, but old for a fighter. Today, I’m headed to the gym. Working out, boxing, is how I alleviate my anger. While driving, I reminiscence.

Things happen in life, I know, even to the innocent, that we have no control over and that we can’t explain. No one knows why. It’s just life and its unexplainable ways. My son, Simon, was four when the accident happened. That morning, my husband and I were invited to have an early dinner at a friend’s horse farm, but first a tour of their beautiful property was suggested. I recall my son’s big, brown eyes, and his friend’s blonde ponytail. They held hands while the mother of our son’s friend rubbed the horse’s side. Suddenly, the horse spooked, no one knows why, and Simon’s body was flung mid-air. A child’s pained cry has a high, shrill, piercing sound that no mother wants to hear. Blood splattered the grass, the wooden fence and Simon’s ponytailed friend. Thank God that she wasn’t hurt.

My thoughts continue to revisit the accident as I pull over for gas and get back on the highway. It’s early evening and many are sitting down for dinner.

I remember sitting in the ICU – trauma – with my husband. Over the course of seven days and nights, I watch eye, throat and facial surgeons rush in and out to check Simon’s vital signs. I become numb, staring at a blank, white wall, day in and day out. I sit slumped at the edge of a chair, silently screaming inside, afraid to move. I feel empty. My thoughts are non-cohesive. I eat at the hospital cafeteria and shower in the room near where he lies in a medically induced coma. My anger is growing.

I become accustomed to the sounds of the trauma unit as I wait for the next doctor’s report. The sounds of feet pitter-pattering up and down hallways, alarms beeping, bells ringing, wheels of a carts squeak as they roll here and there, the hum and buzz of everyday hospital routines, are forever embedded in my mind. I realize the cold-heartedness of the world outside. Where are my friends?

On the radio, the broadcaster is talking about salmon invading nearby Eagle Creek Park and its 1300 acres of reservoir. I’m not interested, and I turn it off. Today, I’m only interested in getting to the boxing gym. I can feel the anger leave my body with each jab, hook and uppercut. Why do people find it strange when I tell them my idea of a good workout is boxing? Boxing is my passion and it entered my life at a time I needed it most. I was angry and wanted to hit something; anything in my path. The gym is my sanctuary.

As I drive, I think to myself, maybe I expect too much out of friends, but I don’t think so. I expect a friend to have my back in times of tragedy. After all, that’s what friends do. When Simon’s accident happened, his facial plate (maxilla) broke in half. I was devastated. After the accident, sadness gripped my heart. I worried myself sick about my son. I was completely overwhelmed as surgery after surgery had to be scheduled to repair his injuries. I had my husband, but I needed a motherly friend to lean on, to help me, to tell it would be OK. It was one of my darkest hours, and the friends I thought had my back deserted me. When I needed them most, they were off doing their own thing. That’s how it goes, but that is not how it’s supposed to be because I believe a true friend should have my back ‘til the bitter end.

A truck carrying livestock, cattle, passes me. He is going over the speed limit. I have never understood why people blatantly break the law.

I remember that I’m from the “easier” side of the tracks where dogwood trees give off the sweet fragrance of their white and pink flowers; a place where one doesn’t worry about the next meal or whether the power will be cut off, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of hard knocks because I have. Hard knocks have made me who I am. As a child, my mother’s alcoholism ruled the household and my father was strict. As an adult, Simon’s accident has dominated my life. Nevertheless, I’ve still managed to build a creative writing program for the incarcerated. Yes, I sometimes feel I have the weight of the world on my shoulders, but I’m a fighter who doesn’t give up a fight.

I remember my early days as a former reporter covering crime and courts for local TV affiliates NBC, CBS and ABC. I was filled with enthusiasm. I wanted to make a difference. As a reporter, I covered many stories involving prisoners, but often the prisoners’ side of the story was left out. I wanted to know those stories, so I got involved and became a prison volunteer. At first, it was a little intimidating.

I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the prison for the first time. The stereotyping of prisons and prisoners left me wondering, “Would I be robbed, raped, or stabbed with a handmade shank?” The clinking and clanking of metal gates sent cold chills up my spine. I moved through several layers of prison guards. Their keys jingled and jangled as they unlocked gates and doors. At every entry, I had to flash my prison volunteer badge. I began questioning my sanity asking myself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” I could be killed, I thought.

***

When I arrived at the designated location, it was nothing like I expected. The classroom was like any other classroom, and its occupants, although prisoners, like any other group of students. All my fears had been in vain. One of my first classes was a victim-impact class. I wanted to know how prisoners felt about victims. Amazed by the raw talent in the room; I laughed and cried at their answers to questions. I didn’t know any victims of a violent crime but I’d hope he or she would show remorse like the men did in the room that day. I was so moved that I worked to build a creative writing program for prisoners inside the facility. I remind myself that that writing program is now in three Indiana correctional facilities.

Another truck passes me as if I’m standing still. It is carrying frozen foods. I look at my speedometer. I’m going the speed limit.

I remember that I’m an older fighter who constantly needs ice packs for pain and old wounds. Today, I brought frozen, green peas because they were convenient. In a fight, it is imperative that a boxer controls both physical and emotional pain. Physical pain can be controlled by frozen peas, but emotional pain brought on by life (people), well, that is a whole different matter. As a fighter, I know that thoughts can create emotions that impede performance in the ring. Reason has it that if I can’t control my thoughts, I cannot win the fight. Emotions originate in the mind where vital nerves alert spirit and soul to feel one way or another. Consequently, as a boxer, I must be the gatekeeper of my mind’s door, keeping everything negative out, otherwise I’m a dead duck in the ring. It took me years to learn that.

The yellow Shell gas station sign ahead tells me I’m nearing my destination. I have about ten more miles before I reach the turn that leads to the boxing gym.

I remember one day at the gym several male fighters took an interest in me. They asked me where I was from and where I went to school. I’m about 5’5 with curly, short, hair, and I wear little make-up. At first, I thought it was innocent chatter, but then I sensed resentment in their demeanor. I was a female fighter in what was traditionally a male dominated sport and they didn’t like sharing “their” ring with a female. That resentment was later confirmed when a fighter in the ring treated me as if I were wounded, stray dog too injured to be worthy of his time. I got the message and they soon got mine because I’m a fighter, and I don’t back down because resentment rears its ugly head.

As I turn off the main highway onto the dirt road that leads to the boxing gym, I dread this road because it’s filled with deep potholes. I believe that someday this road is going to be the fault of me being stranded out here to fend for myself. Off to my left, I see glowing, red embers from a small trash fire outside a rarely seen house on this road. As I pull into the parking lot, I notice puffy, gray clouds that hang over the gym, a bad omen, but I hope not. The gym building is unmarked and ugly. It’s a dreary looking place on the outside. I park my car and gather my gear.

I approach the gym’s front door and hear yelling from a coach within that alarms even the birds resting in the nearby spruce trees. I enter and look around to observe the pecking order. Amateur fighters can be territorial. They lay claim to everything: punching bags and lockers. One can tell the elite boxers by the way they carry themselves, moving with purpose after years of discipline. They are admired by most in the gym. I hear fans suck out recycled, damp air. Rap blares out of a stereo. The heavy punching bags hang in unison. They are the only signs of order in the gym.

I find my place and prepare to fight as I wait to be paired with a sparring partner. I tuck my hair in and tighten my glove straps. We will fight six rounds. Each round will last five minutes. I’m ready to release some anger. I hear distant war cries of ongoing matches and the sound of ring-side bells.

Today, I’m going to kick somebody’s ass or I’m going to get my ass kicked. Either wayas a female fighter getting a good workoutI win.

Prior to establishing a prison writing program, Debra Des Vignes had a 10-year career as a journalist in Television News getting her start at KABC-TV in Los Angeles, California before traveling across the country working at various TV stations covering crime. Creative writing is her passion, especially flash fiction. She has served in various leadership communications roles for nonprofit organizations across the country and her story pitches have garnered national media attention in U.S. World & News Report, CNN, Miami Herald, The Washington Times, and more. Debra received a degree in political science from California State University Northridge.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Starting Over, Young Voices

Yellow Bath Towels

December 10, 2019

By McKenzie Fletcher

Sometimes life gets messy. Really really messy. And sometimes you are just tired. Really really tired. And you are sitting on the floor of your childhood bedroom. Bird seed making imprints on the bottoms of your shoeless feet. Your bright yellow towels on the floor next to you, crumpled, damp and in a pile because they’re homeless. They don’t have a consistent place to be. They don’t belong anywhere in this house.And then suddenly as you are sitting on the floor and realizing how badly your back is hurting hunched over, with your arms wrapped against the knees pulled to your chest, you realize you relate to these two, damp, crumpled bright yellow bath towels.  You feel homeless. You feel like you don’t belong. You moved to college half way through the school year, in with five party girls who ran the apartment. You didn’t belong there. You held your stuff in your room and the one cabinet that you bought from target and built late the night you moved in. The rest is theirs. You moved into an apartment you pay way too much for, to feel like a guest living with five strangers who turned out to be some of the most inconsiderate people you’ve ever encountered.

You are the yellow bath towels.

You travel “home” for the summer to gently land in a soft nest of a home you envisioned had changed since you left. You imagined a place where you felt welcome and safe, but the first night back you were sleeping on a friend’s milk stained, crumb infested couch, being woken up before the sun rose by her five year old jumping on your resting body excited to see you were back.

You hated the way it jolted your body awake but the excitement was enough to get you to get up and get her a bowl of cereal before your messy haired self, plopped back onto the couch. Again, you didn’t belong.

You are the yellow bath towels.

You pulled on the jeans that you tossed on the floor in exchange for your sister’s pajama shorts that you took because everything you owned was still in boxes. Messy boxes.

It was raining as you drove back to your parent’s suburban home.

You pulled up and parked on the street, walked into the garage where your stuff was strewn everywhere from the little hands of younger siblings who were eager to help get you back into the house.
You dug through to find a makeup bag and some clothes to get rid of yesterday’s clothes. You needed a shower and to get to a job interview.

Yellow bath towels.

As you pieced together the best interview outfit you could after having left professional clothes in storage in Denver because you didn’t anticipate this even though you should have, you leave and your mom who you’ve seen all of twice since you’ve been back asks where you are going as she pulls her phone speaker away from her mouth. You smile and answer and walk your way down the driveway in slightly heeled shoes that remind you of the early mornings you dug around in your closet for them as you ran out of the door to student teach.

The interviewer asks where you go to school and you explain your situation. The one you didn’t want to explain because who wants to apply for a job that isn’t just specifically for the summer and say you’re going to be leaving in three months. You didn’t belong here. You wouldn’t be staying.

Yellow bath towels.

And the second night, the one you spend at another friend’s house on the floor that gives the back of your legs rashes because of the dog hair imbedded in the carpet. The friend that will quietly get up early in the morning, tip toe around your sleeping body and get her day going, long before you would naturally wake up. You’re in the way. She will never admit it.

Yellow bath towels.

The third night you fall asleep on your little sister’s bed that has little colorful flowered sheets on them. You’ll grab any pillow you can find and build a soft place to rest your head. In the morning, there’s a naked kid having a mental break down is as severe as you would imagine the average mid-life crisis would be. She can’t find her shirt. And you being in her bed that she doesn’t sleep in is somehow contributing to her shirt being lost.

Yellow bath towels.

You sit at the kitchen table, eating something you found in the fridge. Appreciating the fact that you can now eat food you didn’t pay for. And your dad storms in angry about the boxes in the garage. Why did you bring so much stuff with you? He begs a response that you don’t know how to properly give. You want him to hear what he wants so he will leave you alone. You also want to be hugged. I’m home dad. You call me all the time saying you miss me, and I am finally home. I am back. And my stuff is too. Yes, I am sorry. Okay I’ll move it.

Where to move it though. Because you don’t belong here. Your stuff and your body don’t know where to go. Half welcomed and half feeling like a burden. Like a big elephant that just walked into the middle of time square. You’re in the way of so many lives. People trying to shove past you, not run into you, pick something up under you.

Yellow bath towels.

Your new home is made your parents’ RV in their backyard. Finally. A place for you and your belongings. A place that you can freely be without being in the way. A feeling that you haven’t had in a while. Because you had a roommate for the last five months.

Oh, but now your family is selling the RV. You need to move.

But where. Where can I go this time.

Yellow bath towels.

You make yet another move. It’s been two months. You’re losing count. You move into your childhood bedroom that is recently vacated due to your traveling 12 year old sister. She’s been more places than you and is undoubtedly cooler. Frustrated, you toss your stuff into the room. You don’t care where it lands or what breaks at this moment. All you care about is that it is dark, it’s raining and you’re moving again. You don’t have help. You are alone. You cry, as you pass your mom who is oblivious to the unexplainable feelings pouring onto your cheeks and leaving little familiar stains on your shirt. She yells at you. You and all of your stuff. You being in the way. The inconvenience you are.

Yellow bath towels.

So, you sit on your childhood bedroom floor, leaned against the tall queen-sized bed. The handles from one of the built in drawers is stabbing an uncomfortable place on your spine. You look at the empty blue walls and the floor lined with a few boxes of things that were never gone through after you tossed them during your emotional break down. You try to predict how long it will take you to pack all of this tomorrow for your fourth and hopefully final move into another friend’s house. Because this house is being sold and you need to leave. You’re an added body to the already overpopulated house that is soon not going to be your family’s anymore.

Yellow bath towels.

Your childhood close friend’s grandma. Basically, yours too. You lived with her when your dad kicked you and your siblings and mom out. When you didn’t belong in his eyes, so he threw you to the curb to be crumpled, your shirt damp from tears and snot that you can’t hold in any longer. Crumpled, damp but also bright. Just like the towels. Bright yellow like the sun. Sunflowers. The kind that grow in the midst of weeds. The kind that turn towards the sun to grow.
You are yellow bath towels in all of their crumpled, damp, but bright glory. You are a sun flower that springs up in unlikely places, fixed eyes on the sun, turning and growing towards the warmth, growth, healing, and belonging.

We can sit and wonder why our lonely selves got the life we did. Why we can relate to crumpled homeless bath towels in a grossly depressing way. Why are these the cards life handed me? But, there’s not much of a difference. In a sense, we are all the same. You and your eyeballs and brains and feminism and gender and race and theories. Me and my knee-caps and ideas and fears and religion and writings. We are all cells, and what makes the difference is where our cells end up. We cannot control the crap our cells are born into. We can’t change what our cells have to go through in this life. And even more so, we can’t understand this crap. It’s a lot to comprehend. Too much for the human mind. Too much for our wildest dreams. Too much for logic or our fears. We can come up with theories on why. But we never know why.

McKenzie Fletcher is a nineteen year old college student currently attending a university in Colorado. She is pursuing a degree in Psychology and writing is her passion.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

One Morning With Amy

December 8, 2019
shouts

By Susan McGee Bailey

For years, mornings with my daughter, Amy, began with shouting.

“Don’t you dare come in here, Mom!”

“Mom, I need you!”

“Mother! Where are you?”

Most mornings a familiar uneasiness in my stomach had already pulled me awake. My body learned long ago to hear Amy’s cries before any sound registered consciously. Since her birth more than forty years ago, she has survived complicated surgeries, spent endless months in rehab centers, and endured painful therapies. Her father and I made different choices when she was young. We divorced. I made a life with Amy on my own. I long for answers, for solutions to the difficulties my child confronts. But as is the case for most people with developmental and physical challenges, there is no single diagnosis. There is no silver bullet that can address all my daughter’s medical, emotional, and intellectual needs.

Years ago Amy moved from home to a more independent living situation in a group house, then home again when the anxiety of rotating staff became too overwhelming. We tried other group situations with similar results. Now she lives in a shared living situation with a young couple. Together we celebrate each new aspect of her independence: carrying her own house key, presenting her CVS gift card to the clerk, laying out her clothes for the next day. But I still jump up in the dark, half out of bed before remembering the sounds that awakened me are no more than the rustle of a birch branch or a breeze stirring the porch rocker. Some nights I fall back on the mattress and sleep. Other nights, I’ve fallen too far awake. Amy is not here. The house is empty and silent. A passing car breaks the stillness, a dog barks in response—daytime sounds out of place in the lonely night. I rock on the porch, hug my knees, and try to banish images of Amy calling for me.

One memorable weekday morning when Amy was in her late twenties, her voice was unusually loud. “Mother, I need help! Now! Right now!”

“I … am… coming…Amy.   I…am…here!” I hoped my voice was both audible and calm. Without her hearing aids, Amy hears only loud voices, words spoken a beat slower than normal.

Amy’s bowel problems, the ones that first developed when she was fifteen, had been worsening for several years. The many surgeries designed to help, instead weakened the muscles in her rectum. Controlling her bowels required constant vigilance to avoid daytime accidents. This success consumed her energy, increased her severe constipation, and worsened the nighttime situation. Four or five mornings a week she woke up with her body, her bed, often her walls, a smelly, smeared mess.

That morning I was glad it was winter. Every window was shut. Her agonized sobs, angry words, and slamming of doors would not disturb the neighbors. I would open the windows in her room and the bathroom before we left for her day program, never mind what it would do to the heating bill. The new deodorizer I’d paid twenty dollars for barely made a dent in the stench.

Once Amy was showered, shampooed, dressed, medications taken, bedroom and bathroom clean, her bedding in the washing machine, it often required the bribe of a store breakfast to get her out the door. By the time we’d reached the car that morning I was exhausted and close to tears. How would I make it through the workday?

The meeting of the project directors’ group at the feminist research center I directed hovered uneasily in my head. I needed time to think, to go over my planned remarks, but at this rate everyone would be assembled and waiting before I arrived. They would understand. Many had children. Those who didn’t were equally committed to a work environment that provided space for children, for families, for emergencies. Still, I didn’t want to take advantage of my position. The mornings when things went smoothly with Amy were fewer and fewer. She was not improving. New rounds of medical appointments would need to be scheduled.

I took a deep breath and started the car, trying to focus on the moment, not my meeting or Amy’s medical problems. “Where should we go for breakfast this morning, Amy?”

“I don’t care, I hate you! You are an ugly, stinky mother! I hate stinky!”

“It’s okay, Amy. What about Vidalia’s?”

“No, I say the Coffee Mug!”

The Coffee Mug was actually named The Clever Monk, but Amy’s hearing loss makes fine distinctions difficult. She often misunderstands words she does not know or has not heard before. She has always insisted the little shop was The Coffee Mug. When a couple of attempts to correct her resulted in angry shouts of “No, you are not right! I am right!” I surrendered to her certainty.

Two men on a ladder were putting up a new sign with the name “The Clever Monk” in large gold letters as we arrived. Amy was distracted from her anger, her blueberry eyes intent on this new activity. She rarely failed to embrace the excitement of the unexpected.

“Mother, look. They don’t know how to spell Coffee Mug! It should be C-O-F- E-E space M-U-G, right? They have C-L-E-V-E-R space M-O-N-K! That is silly! Can I tell them?”

My hopelessness faded. I was struck by her self-confidence, her persistence. Her designation was a more accurate description. Should I try to explain again that her version of the name was wrong? Should I use this opportunity to correct her spelling of coffee? I did neither. She was happy and had regained a sense of control, why spoil it?

“Amy, let’s just get some breakfast. You don’t like me to correct you….”

“Okay, Mom, I love you so much!”

She ran into the shop, her bad leg trailing a bit, her blond hair all higgily-piggily and still uncombed—my energy had failed at that final morning step. Her smile was broad, confident. “Besides, Mom, the sign looks really good anyway!”

“Yes, it does, Amy.” My smile was almost as wide as hers.

We lingered, ordered juice, coffee, warm, sweet muffins. We watched the painters. Amy’s day program and my office could wait.

Moments of joy must not be wasted. They are luxuries to be savored.

Susan McGee Bailey is a writer and a feminist. She directed the Wellesley College Centers for Women for 25 years before retiring to spend more time with her daughter and study creative nonfiction at Grub Street in Boston. Her non fiction has appeared in MS Magazine, The Boston Globe, and Gulf Stream. She is working on a memoir, “The Education of a Feminist.”

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Grief, Unfolding

December 5, 2019
gift

By Julia Dennis Car

“Jo, you can’t kill Daddy.”

My mom and her sister stood, broken, at the bedside of their father, my Granddaddy.  The cancer that started in his bladder had taken over his other systems; he “lived” mostly unconscious, thanks to morphine.

Mom couldn’t stand to see Granddaddy in such a way, and I know in her guts she would have done anything to separate him from his pain.  My aunt isn’t fiery like Mom, and she knew Mom had what it took to hold the pillow over Granddaddy’s face. She didn’t kill him; the cancer did, days later.

Now it’s my turn. I’m standing in her corner as she nears the end of her own battle with cancer. In the end, will I will have the same impulse to smother her?

Mom’s diagnosis of Stage IV ovarian carcinosarcoma delivered a sucker punch no one saw coming.  It’s incurable, and only about 25% of women live as long as five years. I imagine her little round body up against the ropes, her healthy tissue pummeled by disease and its treatment. If left untreated, her body’s systems will gradually succumb. They’ve already started.

They took the womb, ovaries, cervix, parts of her intestines, and the surface of her liver. Sewed her up tight.  My first home is gone.

With unbridled optimism, Mom trusted her doctor’s plan of care and faced off against her next enemy.  Chemotherapy. Can you imagine a more difficult choice? Don’t take chemo, and slowly die, or take chemo, and die slowly.

With fingers crossed, I watched Mom take the beating of her life and was lifted up by her light and positivity. After the months-long regimen, a scan found the stuff was no longer “active.” She got some time off for good behavior and slowly regained some strength and vitality.  Our family vowed to embrace each day, focus on the positive.

Mom is a feisty woman, a flaming introvert, but without a demure bone in her body. She’s crass, enjoys dark and twisted humor. Once, while visiting San Francisco, she high-fived a costumed Grim Reaper in a public park then insisted the image be framed on her gravestone.

Days after her diagnosis, Mom hung a set of pink boxing gloves on her front door to prove to the world that she intended to pummel her disease as Ali did Frasier.  In the oncologist’s office, two years into the bout, she laid some wit on the nurses. When they left the room, she told me “When I stop being funny, I’m done.”

She’s still funny, but her cheerfulness is waning.  The insidious fuck is still inside her, having its way with her, never really having gone.  It’s in her liver and her guts, probably other places too. She’s at the end of her second phase of chemotherapy.  The gnarly effects of the disease and the treatment are taking their toll, and she’s so, so tired.

Albert Einstein said, “human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust —we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”  As for my own part in this, I see myself dancing with grief and gratitude.  The maestro taps his baton, and I’m an accordion: bending, twisting, squeezing, breathing.  Some days the notes I play are fear, worry, sadness, regret.

I watch her struggle. And tire. Though outwardly I remain upright—strong in the face of this disease and her pain—the truth is at times there’s no air left in me, and I bend or lean into whatever will hold me up. I cry; wail the sharp notes away.

But soon enough, invisible hands unfold me, pulling and stretching me out as I fill with air.  Soon enough, I can breathe again. It’s not my cancer, but it’s changed me. It has wrung me out and left me raw. And I’m realizing that the painful stuff is a gift.

I’ve had this woman’s hand to hold for more than forty years. With unconditional love. Her illness and mortality have bitch-slapped me into understanding and appreciation.  My mother’s killer screams Wake up!  Don’t you realize the gift you’ve been given?  I do.

You see, in the midst of this pain and uncertainty and fear, beautiful things have happened.  These last two years have been the hardest, and best, of my life. I’ve been helpless, unable to affect change; therefore, I’ve had to let go.  I’ve unfolded. Aware and accepting of mortality—hers, mine—I’ve felt her love more deeply, tried to love her more deeply. I hope she’s felt it.

I’ve made two trips around the sun, and the days were full of love and light, opportunities and misfortunes, laughing and heartbreak. While holding the hand of impermanence, I’ve uncurled my fingers, loosened my grip on fear and insecurity. Wrapped myself in vulnerability.

I hiked for three days on the Appalachian Trail, confident and proud and strong. Crippled with despair, I limped into a therapist’s office, debilitated by depression. Swaddled with love of family and friends, I shaved my head and tattooed my arm and laughed till I cried and sobbed until I was at peace. I’ve said yes to more time by myself and prioritized more time with my family.  I’ve learned to say “no” to things that don’t nourish me. Except ice cream. I always say “yes” to ice cream.

I’ve asked hard questions and confessed hard truths.  Entering their adolescence, my kids broach topics Mom wasn’t comfortable delving into when I was their age:  illness and responsibility and death and sex. I answer with raw honesty. They’ve seen me in tears and I hug them to me and share my pain with them.  I think it’s wrong to pretend it’s not there.   I’m crying because I’m sad.  Yes, she’s slowly going to become sicker and sicker.  We aren’t going to the beach this year so we can spend time with her.  Yes, she’s going to be cremated. I want to be cremated, too. Regarding matters unrelated to Mom’s illness, but highly relevant to their curiosity and social understanding (and a disheartening example of the hyper-sexualized culture kids are growing up in) Yes, orgasm is “a really good feeling when you have sex,” but you can feel it by yourself too.  No, you don’t need to be watching porn.

For many years, I struggled to understand Mom.  She wasn’t blessed with physical gifts like Laila Ali and has never had a green thumb.  On the contrary; her favorite quote is “Sweating is gross and fresh air makes me sick.” She stays inside, reading; I’ve run marathons. She’s quiet; I’m loud. I deep-dive into conversations; she’s more comfortable on the surface.  I lift up furniture and tend to plants and pour my heart out on the page. She’s there, watching all of it. Though she kills all things that conduct photosynthesis, Mom grew a beautiful family; planted roots that spread deep and wide.

Before Mom’s illness jabbed me in the heart, I didn’t value her quiet; rather, I doubted its power.  Mom has shown me that there are more ways to demonstrate strength than with vigor and brawn. She’s shown me that I don’t always have to do something; hers is a quiet persistence of being.

My connection to Mom is primal, deep.  In so many ways my opposite, I feel her pull as the force that keeps me balanced.  Her spiritual tether is met only by the one I share with my own children. She’s been there, ready, even when I didn’t even know I needed her—I hope to be for my kids all she’s been for me.   And these days, when I’m rolling around on the mat in a struggle to make sense of all this, I try to use her own words of wisdom to self-soothe: “When you give birth to a baby, you grow a new heart.”

See, in a macabre way, my grief is a baby.  Mom’s disease birthed this dark pit inside me.  I like to imagine that as I trudge through the progression of her illness (and, ultimately, her death) I’m cultivating space in my heart for my grief and gratitude to live harmoniously.  Like Yin and Yang, there is literally darkness and light in my little heart, all snuggled up tightly together and swirling around.

Maybe that’s what this is all about: vulnerability and strength, terror and comfort, distortion and balance, heartbreak and growth, dying and living. The cyclical, recursive nature of it all.

Allow me my suffering, so that hers may end.  Allow the pain to break me, so that I may put myself back together.  I’ll be stronger where the cracks mend, and softer in the more stubborn places.  Allow me the lessons to be learned in her absence. Allow me to experience her in new ways—ideas, smells, sounds, gestures.  Allow me to grow bigger; big enough to hold my grief and build a life that’s richer and more beautiful. I think I can hold it all.

About a year and a half into this journey, at a concert with my brothers and some dear friends, I passed out cold. Imagine a beach ball that’s been forcefully submerged under water. The pain and worry I’d managed to shove down demanded to surface. An anxiety attack hit like a ton of bricks. As I awoke, my two brothers literally holding me up, I remember my body heaving as I sobbed: “I’m afraid of how much it’s going to hurt.”

The ancient poet Hafiz wrote that “It helps to see the Creator’s kind face / before he rolls up his sleeves, / and starts pumping the bellows / and cleans off his wire brush / and works with his other tools / he eyes you up / knowing how much this is going to hurt / to make you perfect.”

Why are we here? To be made perfect? I don’t know much, but that I was given the gift of consciousness. I believe it’s my job to do the work: to pay attention to the Universe and embrace my place within it. To learn the lessons. That means with open arms I must greet the anguish and the pleasure. I’m willing.

Mom is in the final round of this slugfest. She’s losing stamina in her bob and weave. Soon enough, she’ll receive the final blow, or choose to throw in the towel. I’ll be rocked from my foundation. But I will be ok down here; I am rooted in her. I will remember her.  I will celebrate her. I will talk about her and laugh, curse and cry. Her influence is indelible.

For now, I will sit with her and hold her hand and just be. For the rest of forever, my dust and Mom’s dust will dance; her warm, loving hands guiding me and loving me and leading me as the piper plays on.

Julie Dennis-Carroll is a family-centered West Virginia native who’s called Western North Carolina “home” since 2007. She is a writer by passion, and uses writing as therapy, though she is a speech-language pathologist by training. Julie fills her heart by reading, traveling, and playing in the dirt.

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Guest Posts, moving on

Who Are You – A Mad Libs Identity

December 3, 2019

By Xan L. Roberti

My goddaughter is two, and people are beginning to make predictions about her future. It’s never too early to ask— what will you be when you grow up? She plays with cars, we decide she’ll be a mechanic. She smears lipstick on her mouth, we decide she’ll be a fashionista.

Our minds are naturally wired to synthesize and predict. You never stop asking yourself what you want to be when you grow up. Strategy kept us alive in times when predators were common and food was scarce.

The evolutionary remainder is a mind that whirrs nonstop. If you’ve ever laid awake nights trying to wrangle out some difficult decision, you know that problem solving can become its own problem. You never arrive at the finish line of life and say, good, now that that’s over I can finally relax. That’s not how it goes.

We try to answer these big questions. We land jobs, relationships, and homes. We inhabit our adulthood, our responsibilities grow, and the questions change. We build routines and navigate skirmishes within them. And yet, that yearning to purpose creeps up again. Is this all there is? Wait, is this who I am?

There are two ways to handle this. The first is to dive into the muck and start strategizing. The second is to leave blanks in your life and trust it will work itself out. You need both, but we as a culture we seem to overvalue one.

Strategy is a great place to start if you are feeling stuck in a rut, and see a direction you want to go. If your life feels like it’s loaded with closed doors, and you want to open some, this is a great idea. I am happy to coach you through this process. A lot of practices I use begin with thought-leaders like Martha Beck, Abraham Hicks, and Gabby Bernstein. We can make lists and treasure maps to carve out that path. I’m happy to help.

But also, sometimes these questions just need time to marinate. Like each field needs a fallow season to be fruitful, we all need time to let go of strategy and be present. For some people, the process of looking for themselves is what makes them feel the most lost. Over-strategizing becomes a roadblock to living life fully. At times it’s best to live life with blanks, uncertainties if you will, so that some miracle can come and fill them in.

If you remember the word-game Mad Libs, you may recall how joyous it is to have a blank space that you fill in with whatever comes to mind. When you spend all your time strategizing to direct each uncertainty, the delight in the process can be nabbed. You miss what’s right in front of you.

Uncertainty is a gift. It’s both the blank page you begin your novel with, and the moment you get laid off. It’s when you notice your body as the container for your life, and the heart as the engine that drives it. It’s when your mind goes haywire, and you let it wail like a toddler mid-tantrum. And then, at the end, there is a calm where the question is answered in the best way possible.

It goes away. You arrive in the moment. You are enough. You sense a connection that is universal and particular. You are you. And when someone asks you who you are, you can reply with your name, and leave blank space for more.

Xan L. Roberti is the winner of the 2014 New South Poetry Contest. She is currently a nominee for * 82’s Best of the Net for 2015, and won 2nd place in the Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest 2013. In May 2015 her work was featured in “Poems on the Emery-Go-Round.” She has published in Beloit Poetry Journal; Sparkle + Blink, Off Channel, and Goodfoot, and Her memoir “Portable Housing” was nominated for the Walter Sindlinger Award. She is a contributor to LitSeen. She teaches English at St. Ignatius College Prep.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

death, Grief, Guest Posts

Breathwork

December 1, 2019
breathe breath

By Nicole Cooley

Now I say mom and I float to the ceiling.

Meaning “ability to breathe,” hence “life” is from c. 1300. Meaning “a single act of breathing” is from late 15c.; sense of “the duration of a breath, a moment, a short time” is from early 13c. Meaning “a breeze, a movement of free air” is from late 14c.

Five months ago in New Orleans my mother stopped breathing.

Now at yoga class in the final pose—savansana— pose I struggle with most because I must sink into stillness– I know it’s wrong but I imagine a lit cigarette between my fingers.

My mother was the first person to teach me to leave my body. She taught me well and carefully and with gifts. In high school, she bought me cigarettes so I would not eat, left cartons each week on my bed.

Breath: Old English bræð “odor, scent, stink, exhalation, vapor” Old English word for “air exhaled from the lungs,”

Now I mourn my mother through breath. Each morning I lie on a mat in a hot room and squeeze my eyes shut and breathe her in. Or breathe her out. Yes, breath is supposed to anchor me in my body but I use it to exit my body, just as my mother taught me. I rise to the celling of the yoga room, alone and untethered.

I lie on the levee in the dirt and gravel. I lie on the sticky mat miles away from the house where she died.

Drown smoke suffocate. What is the difference?

I close my eyes and in my dream my mother is drowning in the river two blocks from her house.

In the dream I shake my mother awake. I ask her, with frustration, if she will go on being dead.

I only practice hot yoga, infrared heat that spills from vents and warms the floor. I love the punishing heat. And the intense heat echoes a New Orleans levee walk, all stifling humidity. I lower my body into plank, crush my breasts to the ground. Think of my mother’s body,

Breath from Proto-Germanic *bræthaz “smell, exhalation” (source also of Old High German bradam, German Brodem “breath, steam).

As a teenager, I’d come home from school to find a carton of Benson and Hedges on my white bedspread. My mother saran-wrapped and labeled all my food with calorie counts. 25. 50. 75. I stood in the refrigerator’s wedge of light and counted. I unwrapped a pack of cigarettes. It will keep you from being hungry, my mother explained. Celery. Grapefruit. Diet bread thin as dress fabric. A silver lighter she pressed into my hands.

Breath: an act of breathing: fought to the last breath

Yoga reminds me of the geometry of the body, the shape the body makes—So then what shape did my mother’s body make on the living room floor? What shape was her mouth when my father pressed his mouth to hers to perform useless CPR? What shape was she under the sheet on the stretcher at the Veterans Highway Funeral Home– who knew a funeral home has a stretcher but if you don’t pay for a coffin you get that? — when she looked so small and thin and what shape was she—altered?—when my sister and my father and I ran back to her to kiss her for a final time?

Drown suffocate smoke.

The irony is that after my mother dies, in the days after, in New Orleans, we eat. My father, my sister and me. And we eat very good food. Friends bring platters and trays and Tupperware, and it is delicious. The kind of meals I would not normally allow myself. The kind of food my mother would have forbidden me. Red beans and rice and sausage. Baked ziti. Cheesecake. Doughnuts. A half-bottle of wine.

Now at yoga class I fill my lungs with imaginary smoke. I imagine I flick a cigarette lighter over and over on and off till my thumb scrapes with ache.

Breath: opportunity or time to breathe; respite. Also, a slight breeze

I’m lying on the mat. I am under the heat vent. I am under the spell of yoga. Or I am just under— as grief’s water closes over my head.

My teenage daughters think the stories about my mother telling me to smoke are very strange. This was the eighties—a different time, I say.

Three days after she is dead, my sister and I clean out my mother’s closet and find 72 cartons of Salem 100s hidden – in boxes labeled “Taxes 2003” and “Family Medical 2010.” And yet my mother often told me, when we were alone: “I’ll never stop smoking.” Then why did she hide her cigarettes like contraband?

Breath—

Mother’s Day yoga is — as I know it would be — the worst. Why did I go? The teacher suggests we dedicate our practice to “your mother or a mother figure in your life” and I feel tears leaking out the sides of my eyes. Later she returns to it: “Think of the mother or mother figure and focus on a happy memory.” I want to ban this language. I want to run from the room. So instead I still just work hard as I can to no imagine it: the crematorium, my mother’s body on a shelf, flames, body who once housed my body, turning to nothing.

For so long I longed for another body—is this my mother’s fault? What could I tell you about my relationship to my body and my mother? What could she tell me now?

A different time, I tell my daughters.

Missing my mother is pain that though it can’t possibly be feels bone deep. My wrists are splintering. My hips lock shut. My jawbone burns.

My mother’s legacy: how I don’t want my daughters to long for another body.

After my mother dies, predictably, all I want is to smoke. Though I have not had a cigarette in more than twenty years. In my mother’s room, I suck on one of her old cigarette butts in the ashtray, set my mouth where hers imprinted, while my sister watches, alarmed.

I want to ban this language.

Putting my mouth where her mouth once was—

Do you want to go in and say goodbye to her feel free to take all the time you need to say goodbye to her—

What could my mother tell me now?

What can I tell my daughters?

Once, I remember my mother taking a photograph of me after a bad break up when I stopped eating, a photo at the edge of a pool while I posed in a blue striped bikini. As my sister and I finish cleaning out our mother’s study, I think about this bikini photo, and my sister and I toss the cigarette cartons in the trash, aware of the waste of money yet not wanting others to have them.

Breath: a spoken sound: utterance. Also, spirit, animation.

Nicole Cooly is the author of six books of poems, most recently Of Marriage (Alice James Books 2018) and Girl after Girl after Girl (Louisiana State University Press 2017). Her essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, Feminist Wire and the Rumpus.

Upcoming events with Jen

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Compassion, Family, Grief, Guest Posts

I Didn’t Love Her Until The Day She Died

November 24, 2019

By Marie Prichard

Maura Anton, age 90, died September 6, 2009. Survivors include six children, 18 grandchildren, and 24 great-grandchildren. Maura Anton was my grandma for over thirty years, but I wasn’t her granddaughter until the day she died.

I was eight years old when my father took my sister and me to meet his newest girlfriend, Rita. There had been so many girlfriends since my parents had divorced. But this one was different. She didn’t have any children; she was younger than him––fifteen years younger––and she was still in college.

I remember spending weekends with my dad and Rita in her tiny, college apartment. It felt like a dollhouse to me, and I pretended like everyone was playing house. Looking back, it was just like a teenager’s room, complete with stuffed animals, pink frilly things, and posters of her favorite bands.

I assumed Rita wouldn’t be around for very long, so I didn’t think much about their relationship, or about the fact that we hadn’t yet met her family. Girlfriends coming and going were a common theme with my dad. However, things changed, and I can still picture the specific visit when they sat my sister and me down and told us they were going to get married right after she graduated from college.

Our first introduction to the Anton family was at Rita’s college graduation. My sister and I stood there shyly in our––too small––Christmas dresses, and our tennis shoes because my dad hadn’t thought ahead about what we were going to wear. He never bothered to think about those kinds of things, and I believe that Rita was too young and self-absorbed to take our clothing into consideration. My mom didn’t have the money to buy us new dresses, nor was it her responsibility, so we wore those same outfits when they got married.

I can only imagine what they thought. My father, a Mexican man almost fifteen years older than their daughter, was standing there with his two young children, introduced as her fiancé and her soon-to-be daughters. Let’s just say; it wasn’t the warmest of welcomes to the family.

Rita came from a strict Catholic family. She was the youngest of 6 siblings who were all raised in the church. They had all graduated from Catholic schools, gone on to marry their high school sweethearts, and were doing what good Catholic families do: get married and quickly start a family. No one in Rita’s family had ever married a person outside their race or religion, and divorce? Well, that was a sin and was unacceptable. Rita had broken the unwritten rules, and they weren’t happy, especially her mother.

I remember many tears and angry voices before the actual wedding. Rita was not allowed to have a white wedding dress or a large church wedding. Her wedding was a quick, hushed affair in the retirement park in which her parents lived. I didn’t understand that marrying someone who had been divorced and had children from a previous marriage would be the cause of so much upset. I was just excited that I got to be a flower girl. It wasn’t until later that I realized Rita’s mother did not approve of her marrying my dad, nor did she want to add two little dark-skinned Mexican girls to their family. We were an embarrassment to her.

After my dad married Rita, we didn’t spend much time with his family because we were always at her parents’ house. When we were with them, we were expected to go to church and have Sunday dinner with her parents, siblings, and their children. In my eight-year-old mind, I thought once my dad and Rita were married, that meant I had a new grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I was wrong. During family dinners, my sister and I were always seated away from the rest of the family with our backs to the dinner table. Our newly acquired grandma would always make “tskking” noises when we referred to her as grandma, and she never––not once––said, “I love you.”

She didn’t want to introduce us to her friends, and when pressed, she would say, “Oh, these are my step-grandchildren. You know Rita married that man who was divorced. These are his children.”

Christmas was the worst. All the “real” grandchildren would be there, and there were so many presents for them. As we sat and watched them unwrapping all the gifts, my sister and I would each receive just one neatly wrapped gift. When we were younger, it was usually a knock-off Barbie doll. When we got older, the Barbie doll was replaced with a card signed, “Merry Christmas, the Antons” and enclosed would be a ten dollar bill.

As I got older, it became apparent that Maura Anton was incapable of loving us. I still called her grandma, and she still referred to me as her step-granddaughter, but I had stopped trying to love her. When I was made to go to their house, I would stay in the bedroom and read. I was tired of always feeling unloved by someone I desperately wanted to be loved by, so when I was old enough to have a say, I stopped going altogether.

The marriage between my dad and Rita ended when I was an adult. By this time, divorce wasn’t quite as taboo in Rita’s family. The Antons had already experienced other family members’ divorces, remarriages, and blended families. My sister and I still kept in contact with Rita and her family, but I always felt like I was still that little girl who was sat with her back to the family dinner table and introduced as “the step-granddaughter.”

Rita’s father passed away, and her mom moved in with her. She had suffered several small strokes and became mostly bed-ridden. I would stop by periodically to see how she was doing. She loved to have her fingernails painted, so I would always paint them her favorite color––light pink.

She had softened with age, but she still never referred to me as her granddaughter or said I love you. It was so hard to love this woman I called grandma, and I often wondered why I even bothered to try.

One day I received a call from Rita. She said, “Please come; my mom had another stroke and isn’t expected to make it.” So I went.

Most of the family was there: aunts, uncles, spouses, and grandchildren. She was lying in a hospital bed in the living room surrounded by her “real” family, yet no one was sitting next to her, holding her hand. They were all seated or standing along the walls or in the kitchen. She looked so alone in that bed in a roomful of people, so I sat next to her and picked up her hand.

Her breathing was labored, and she looked like she was in pain. I’m not sure if she was cognizant, but the moment I took her hand into mine, she appeared to relax. So I just sat there, holding her hand, speaking quietly to her. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my voice kept her calm.

I sat there for hours; I kept asking if anyone wanted to sit next to her, but everyone said no. They knew she was dying, and they didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t sit there because I loved her. I sat there because I didn’t want to watch her die alone in a room full of people who should have been there holding her hand.

I thought back on all those years of feeling unloved by this woman. I was just a little girl who wanted to be loved. How hard would it have been for her to have given me the same love she had given her grandchildren? All the pain I felt over the years came rushing through me: the hurt, confusion, sadness, and anger. I sat there with this woman, who was dying and felt nothing but an overwhelming sadness.

Her breathing began to become shallow and slow. The hospice nurse listened to her heart and said it wouldn’t be much longer. The sun had gone down, and almost everyone had gone home, and yet, I stayed. I couldn’t leave without someone else sitting next to her to help guide her from this life to the next.

I looked into the face of this woman who did not love me, and I realized it was the face of a woman who only knew how to live one kind of life; A life that did not include two little, Mexican girls calling her grandma. It was beyond her ability to move past the vision she held for herself and her family.

In…out…in…out. Her breath came slower and slower. With each exhalation, my anger dissipated. With each inhalation, the pain receded. I gained comfort knowing when she died so, too would my pain.

As she took her last breath in the wee hours of the morning, I felt an intense surge of vertigo and a vibrating upward pull; I had to close my eyes to keep from falling over. It was as though a part of me had joined with her spirit as she passed, and just as quickly as it happened, it ended. I opened my eyes, and a quiet calm came over me.

I sat there for a moment looking at her light pink polished fingernails trying to digest what had happened. I sensed that I had traveled a short distance with her spirit as she departed from this world. It was a surreal experience, and a rush of love coursed through my body. I had received a gift.

I gazed down at Maura Anton, this woman I had called grandma for over thirty years and whispered the words, “She’s gone,” but no one heard me. So I repeated it louder as I slowly stood up to walk away. But before I did, I leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Grandma, I love you.”

I like to think that maybe––this time––she would have said, “I love you too.”

 

Marie Prichard is a longtime writer and educator. She lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with her wife, their two wiener dogs, and a Munchkin cat. She loves reading, writing, walking the beach, and filling her wife’s pockets with heart rocks.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

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