Browsing Tag

family

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.

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cancer, Family, Guest Posts

A Walk in the Park

November 20, 2019
bother

By K.C. Pedersen

Six months after my ex-husband died, his brother left a message on my voicemail. He was going to blow my fucking head off, Luke said. While Tim was alive, Luke often showed up unannounced at our remote rural property. He was also apt to appear at the local café/bar and seat himself at my table as I visited with friends. Yet despite Luke’s history of violence, felony convictions, and easy access to guns, I was not particularly panicked. As a counselor, educator, and deputy sheriff, I considered myself skilled at soothing agitated men. I choreographed elaborate scenarios for how I’d rescue my students should a gunman appear in my classroom.

Besides, I’d known Luke since his birth; it was difficult to fear someone you’d first seen in diapers.

“Tim’s bothering me,” Luke’s message said. “If he doesn’t stop, I’m going to blow his fucking head off.”

I called Luke back. “I know about Tim bothering you. He bothers me too. But I thought I should point out that Tim is dead.”

So Luke threatened to blow my head off instead.

“Does he have a gun?” the 911 operator asked. After Tim and I separated, and he took to showing up outside my window in the middle of the night, they asked the same question.

“I have no idea,” I said then. “Should I go out and ask?”

Tim often told me, “There are things about me you’ll never know,” and despite our fourteen years together, I had no idea whether he had guns. Prior to our marriage, he’d been a Buddhist monk, so firearms seemed unlikely, at least to someone as much in denial as I was.

I found out the guns were real the day before Tim’s death. His young daughter told me he visited the shooting range daily to perfect his aim. When he tried to force her to hold one of the guns, she called me, sobbing

“I don’t know if Luke’s armed,” I told the dispatcher. She took my name, and an officer called me back.

“Did you record the message?” he said. “If so, we have a crime.”

“I did,” I said. But when I tried to retrieve Luke’s message, it had disappeared. “I must have messed up somehow,” I said. The officer started the recitation: “no crime has been committed, no witnesses, no blood, get a restraining order.”

“I am a deputy sheriff,” I said. “At your office. Look it up.” For eighteen months, I’d coordinated a drug and alcohol program. “I’m quite familiar with the danger of having one’s head blown off, whether I recorded the call or not. I’d like you to do something now.”

Within the hour, Luke was arrested. The following day, someone called from the prosecutor’s office. Would I be willing to drop the charges? “It’s a lot of paperwork for us,” she said. I requested they proceed. From working in law enforcement over the years, I knew that if charges aren’t brought, the crime never happened. You need a paper trail.

I was glad I insisted, because a few days before Luke threatened me, he’d stopped taking his antipsychotics. When his case went to court, he was let off for thirty days served, with instructions to take his meds. I’m presuming Tim stopped bothering him, although my own nightmares continued for years.

Tim was one of the first American males ordained as a Chinese Buddhist Monk. When I met him, though, he was in an alcohol rehab center. As was I. We were married almost a decade before I knew he’d written a book. He probably realized that if I read it, I would have horrified at how he treated his assistant, because it was the same way he treated me.

Though many Buddhist teachings are about preparing for death, when Tim was diagnosed with cancer early in our marriage, he refused to acknowledge he was going to die. Although his oncologist explained that there was no known cure, he insisted he was going to beat this thing. However, she added, it was a “good cancer.”

“What’s a good cancer?” I asked.

“The average life expectancy is seven years,” she explained.

About six years in, Tim’s symptoms flared, and he volunteered for an experimental protocol, “the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“A walk in the park.” He handed me the document that authorized the treatment. I was chilled to the bone.

“Nobody’s survived this,” I said. “Not even the beagles they tested it on. The longest even a dog lasted was eleven months. If you do nothing, who knows how long you might live?”

One seeks to understand unhappiness or grief in various ways. Tim’s parents found sanctuary in the Mother Church, as Tim called the Catholic faith in which he was raised. For ten years, monk’s robes provided sanctuary for Tim. But his alcoholism lurked just outside the monastery gates. One afternoon, he stopped into a tavern and ended up roaring drunk. Ashamed, he left the monastery and found work as an orderly at a managed care facility. On what was intended to be a one-night stand with the night nurse, he conceived a child.

That’s what he told me, anyway. When I met him, he was still in inpatient rehab and still married to that nurse. After he died, I found passionate love poems he and the child’s mother exchanged early on. Whatever flame they had, though, did not last. As co-dependent partners do, I devoted myself to analyzing my husband. Through the Enneagram, for example: Tim was a One. Per the Enneagram, he could be a great leader. Or he could be a despot. My delusion was such that when his oncologist told us his cancer was incurable, I wrote in my journal that I would find a way to save him.

Tim’s parents lived an hour’s drive down Hood Canal from us, and in the early years, his young daughter and I accompanied him to holiday gatherings there. Each time, halfway there, Tim would go into a rage. “You don’t really want to go,” he might accuse us. Or he might scold his daughter because she didn’t finish her homework. Eventually, in the death throes of our marriage, I refused to go. Tim went alone, and on the way back, just as when he fled the monastery, he stopped in at one tavern, and then the next. When he finally arrived home, he apologized for his relapse and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. But of course it did, and eventually I asked him to leave.

Tim’s ex-wife told me that the teaching brother Tim most trusted had molested him, but he never shared that with me. Instead, he repeatedly hinted that the teaching nuns and monks in the Catholic schools he attended from kindergarten until he was kicked out, had “done things.” He described inappropriate contact, but said it happened to a friend. He recounted physical abuse and beatings, but these anecdotes always implied he deserved it. The only part he did say, telling the same story again and again, was that he managed to get himself kicked out by hiding a bomb in the nuns’ car. And then he always laughed hysterically.

I listened to his stories until I stopped listening, and that is my loss. As reports of priestly abuse proliferated in the press, including at the schools he attended, I felt guilty. Surely, if I had pried forth Tim’s secrets, I could have healed him. Placing smoke bombs in the nuns’ car was his only cry for help, and in its way, it worked.

But to me, Tim’s descriptions of his father throwing shoes as his young son as he stood against a wall or dressing in a bear costume to scare him for leaving his bedroom at night seemed worse. I had little doubt that if young Tim had tried to say anything, his parents would have suggested he burn in hell. Even as he lay dying, helpless at last, they had him, a Buddhist, anointed with last rites.

During Tim’s final weeks of life, his daughter seized my hand. “No more blonde,” she said. I glanced at her. That week, her hair was the color of eggplant.

“What are you talking about, no more blonde? This is my natural color.”

“Not anymore it’s not.” She narrowed her eyes. The child I’d met at four, scared and mousy, had transformed into a striking beauty. “Brown, I think. Dark brown.”

After Tim and I separated, I dated a younger man, although we too soon split up. “Our love-making makes me insane,” he texted me. “I can’t do this without a traditional committed relationship. I feel empty and lost.” When I called to tell him Tim was dead, he wept. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Not for him,” the young man said. “For you. For how much he destroyed you.”

“You don’t ever have to be afraid again,” my friend Carla said. Still, I sobbed and screamed.

“You abandoned a dying man,” my father said.

Eleven months after the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants, Tim died. Two weeks later, I landed flat in the New Year, widowed yet not widowed, with dark brown hair. I inhaled the scent of seaweed and salt from the bay outside what had been our dream home. I exhaled in cries like the call of the loons that gathered just offshore. The first day one pair arrived. The next day five pairs paddled in a loose cluster. By the end of the week, dozens of the arched spotted backs trolled up and down, up and down, on their quest for the Pacific herring that spawn here.

And startlingly, Tim’s walk in the park had killed him, and I was free. I walked with my dog in Northwest fog and rain, and to keep from shaking to pieces, I filled the bathtub with as much hot water as I could bear—a lot—and sat for hours. Water embraced me. Water was my solace. I descended into the tunnel of winter, days that rarely saw light, only changed from one kind of darkness to another. What about death, I wondered. What about suicide? Maybe I should just commit suicide slowly, one breath at a time. From the time of Tim’s diagnosis, I felt he wanted me to throw myself upon his funeral pyre. “When people grow ill,” his ex-wife said, “They become more of what they are. Nice people become nicer. Mean people get meaner.” M.F.K. Fisher says as we age, we revert to whatever we were like at birth and as toddlers. The final day of his life, in the ICU, Tim’s body bloated, and his skin stretched as far as skin can stretch, and it seemed he were drowning in his own fluids. Blood oozed from every pore.

My hands and arms went numb. Pens, notebooks, cups and forks dropped from my hands and crashed to the floor. “Definitely MS,” his ex-wife told me. “No doubt about it. You’ll be immobilized by the end of the year.” She seemed pretty excited by the idea. The symptoms worsened. I’d hold a cup of coffee to my lips, and then the cup would fall and shatter, the coffee scalding my chest. At other times, my hands balled up into tight fists, and I had to manually unlock them.

Just as I lacked a handbook for navigating Tim’s cancer, when I became a stepparent at thirty, I was equally clueless. Before Tim’s cancer was diagnosed and he was pronounced infertile, I pored through books on every stage of pregnancy, birth, and the developmental phases of a child’s life. When I became a stepparent, the pickings were sparse. Several books asserted never to allow the child to call me “Mom.” This would confuse everyone. My stepdaughter concocted elaborate stories about how I was actually her real mom. “Are you sure you were never pregnant?” she once asked. “Maybe when you were in rehab?” When I said I was sure, she said, “Maybe your mother had another baby she forgot about?”

As for cancer, the patient fought the courageous battle. And he never died. He passed.

After Tim died, his daughter asked repeatedly, “What are we to each other now?” She told me that everyone asked why she bothered to speak with me at all. As when she was little and asked to call me Mom, I remained obtuse.

“I am here for you no matter what,” I said. But I wasn’t. We were both on our own, stumbling through the forest without light or path, gauging where we were by the space between the trees.

K.C. Pedersen holds an M.A. in fiction writing and literature, studying with Annie Dillard as thesis chair. Stories and essays appear in numerous journals and have been nominated for Pushcarts, Best American Essays, and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as notable by Hilton Als and Robert Atwan for Best American Essays 2018. Pedersen lives above a saltwater fjord in Washington State.

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Family, Guest Posts

Family Table

October 13, 2019
table

By Kat Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Family, Guest Posts, Making Shit Happen

Clearing A Landing Pad

July 29, 2019
landing

By Sarah Clayville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Guest Posts, travel

Tearing off the Supermom Cape

April 11, 2019
buddhist

By Dena Moes

“SIXTY THREE!” I shouted at my husband Adam and daughters Bella and Sophia. They had wandered into the kitchen expecting me to serve a meal one Saturday afternoon like I always did, with a smile and cloth napkins, most likely Genetically Modifed Organism-free and locally sourced.

“Do you know what that number is?” I asked, staring into their surprised faces. The girls, ages thirteen and nine, shook their heads, eyes wide.

“That is the number of times I feed you each week. Can you even believe it? Sixty friggin three. That is three meals a day for three people, seven days a week. And it is not even counted as a job. It is extra, taken for granted; on top of my actual paying job, plus laundry, paying the bills, keeping up the house, and arranging and chauffeuring all your damn activities.”

“What’s with her?” Bella asked Adam as I stormed out of the kitchen and into my office. I opened my laptop to scroll Tripadvisor.

Adam and I were plotting to rent out our house and spend a year India, visiting family, traveling, and learning. In the meantime, this unexpected thing was happening to me. Now that I knew we would be breaking the routines of our American family life, my patience with them and my belief in their absolute necessity dwindled. I had been holding down so much for so long. Sixty-three meals a week for thirteen years of parenting and I don’t even like cooking.

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Family, Guest Posts, The Body

Her Skin, My Skin

March 29, 2019
skin

By Niyati Evers

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

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

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

Family, Guest Posts

The Colors of Her Life

December 10, 2018
musicals

By Mackenzie Kiera

Lights.

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

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

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

Guest Posts, healing, Inspiration

Life After Stroke

September 24, 2018

By Arturo The Cuban

It was raining. It was the type of storm that dropped heavy downpours darkening the day. It was a bitter 42°F outside. The date was December 4th, 2014. It was the day I was released from the hospital after suffering a stroke at the age of Forty.

Yeah. 40.

Can you believe that shit?

Forty years old and I felt as if my life had just ended. I would no longer be able to work as a government contractor, a skateboarder, or musician. I would no longer be able to continue on the path I had chosen that was both an exciting and miserable as anyone could imagine.

It was for me anyway. Damn.

Worry filled my soul as I knew not how I would support my family moving forward. How would we survive? How would we eat? Pay bills? Questions I could not answer that would only serve to increase my pre-existing anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Regret enveloped me for not listening to the warnings of my doctors. My body, already damaged from decades of back-breaking work had finally failed me. I no longer would have any control over my future; about to be at the mercy of the government. People whom I do not know.

Years of being a semi-pro skateboarder, a heavy metal musician, a contractor, had steadily destroyed my body. I knew it. My doctors warned me for years. Prior to the stroke, my body had been sending me warnings via heat-strokes, dizziness, and fatigue. Signals that I ignored.

Five herniated discs in my lower back, two unrepairable tendons in my right hand, PTSD from the bodies in both the streets and in the homes of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I was a complete wreck. Yet I pressed on.

My neurologist and close friend would warn me and talk to me about slowing down and taking it easy. That working 12-14 hour days in the blistering hot sun, with temperatures that could climb above 100 degrees in the summers with regularity, would only lead to more health problems and potentially my demise, he would insist.

Again, I ignored his pleas.

What was I to do? This is what I’ve done my whole life. I can’t just stop. So my attitude was along the lines of “psssh, he doesn’t know,” meaning he has no idea about my life and what it takes to survive.

How would I support my family if I did that? How could I continue to provide my wife and kids with the lifestyle I made possible for them? My wife didn’t have to work, my kids were homeschooled, and if the family ever needed anything, I would provide it for them. Slowing down, for me, wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t.

We were doing alright.

Until of course that fateful day. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Howling Wounded Thing

June 11, 2018
howling

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. The world needs you.

By Beth Cartino

“I just want to get really high and then go to sleep forever.” They sits across from me in a dreary, unadorned office, knees tucked under their chin, arms hugging their legs tight to their chest, eyes peering out at me from behind a veil of midnight blue hair. This is the pose they adopt when they’re feeling exposed and vulnerable. They are in middle school, but they have the experience of someone twice their age, and right now, at this moment, they look painfully young.

“Have you been thinking about suicide?” My voice is even, my eyes unflinching. I notice a physical urge, like the one you get when you want to scratch your nose, to mirror their posture. I don’t. I ask myself a question I frequently ask when working with a kid who is thinking about suicide. What could somebody have said to me when I was twelve that would have stopped me from trying to kill myself?  I never can come up with an answer but this is the message I try to convey, not only with my words, but with every cell in my body: “You are loved. I see you. I will not judge you. I am here with you.  I am not going anywhere. You are not broken. You are not a problem that needs fixing.”

*** Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts, sisters

M45

June 4, 2018
sky

By Katie Duane

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

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

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

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

Awe & Wonder, Guest Posts

On Brothers and Other Solar Systems

April 13, 2018
brothers

By Jen Fitzgerald

Flagstaff, AZ feels like a place where it is safe to be in between. Maybe not between any two things as tangible as a wall and a bear, but in between way points, between jobs, between mountains, or in between a question and the possibility of its answer. The geographic placement of the city mirrors the position of Megrez, the star that marks the end of the Big Dipper’s handle; Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff then pouring into the deep bowl of the Hopi Nation and branching out into the entirety of Ursa Major.

Those from Flagstaff don’t stay in Flagstaff for very long without feeling some sort of way about it. The reasons are varied, but all seem to loop back into, “Flagstaff has got a lot of problems but it’s better than where I was.” I could like it there until it became too familiar. I could like it until the novelty wore off and I was the only stationary creature. I could enjoy the train coming through until the first fatality, the first near-miss I witnessed— until it solidified as a place where things happen.

There is much to love about this Dark Sky City, one of our rare 13 in the United States. The come as you may and are vibe is a holdover from the golden days of Route 66 and the Santa Fe Rail Line. Almost everyone there is from somewhere else, and that somewhere else is mostly Phoenix, with Tucson at a close second. This is a city that prizes movement—and I know what it means to move. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts

Finding Home

December 24, 2017
school

By Kathleen Siddell

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“So it will be snowing,” they cheered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My parents planted. I flew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guest Posts, parents

Fathers

October 11, 2017
fathers

By Acacia Blackwell

My mother told me that my father had the sweetest breath in the world. This was a man who chews tobacco and has been known to go for weeks at a time without brushing his teeth. “And you have it too,” she said. She leaned her face close to mine. Millimeters. The kind of proximity reserved for mothers and lovers. She said, “Breathe on me.” My mother closed her eyes and inhaled my breath like she was breathing in a part of my being. The way I inhale my lover’s armpits, craving the raw, human intimacy of sweat. “Yep,” she said, opening her eyes, “sweet breath and too much gums in your smile. You are your father’s daughter.”

Father’s daughter. Fathers’ daughter. Fathers. Daughter.

Once, when I was almost but not quite yet a legal adult, I managed to piss my mother off in the way that only teenaged daughters really can. She seethed but for the first time I didn’t back down from her rage. I raged back. Her glare receded—a softening—and she offered only a resignation that, “You are me. And your father. But you might be more of somebody else than both of us combined. He didn’t bring you into the world, but he clearly brought you up in it.” Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Marriage

A Good Marriage

August 11, 2017
marriage

by Marlena Fiol

We’re sitting around a Formica table at a booth in one corner of the Café in the Galesburg, Illinois train station. A faint stench of rancid grease hangs in the air. Barry Manilow’s otherwise velvety voice whines from a tinny speaker above our heads. Part of a rusty spring hangs out of a gash in the brown vinyl seat cover next to me.

Without looking up from her tray, the waitress places four tall plastic cups of water on the table in front of us.

“Can you please bring him a smaller cup?” I ask, nodding at our 4-year old. Only Stefan’s blond mop of hair and greenish-blue eyes peer over the top of the table. His sister, four years older and always his little mother, is trying to convince him to sit in a booster.

“It’s OK, Shareen, he’ll reach his food,” Steve says, gently laying a hand on our daughter’s arm.

Steve and I place our orders and ask for hamburgers and fries from the Kid’s Menu for the children.

“Look, Stefan,” Shareen says. “See how you can make airplanes with these napkins?” The two of them, heads bent over a pile of paper napkins she has ripped out of the rusty metal container, enter their own make-believe world.

I glance at my husband sitting next to me, slightly slouched, hands in his lap. The dark gray sweater, the one I gave him for Christmas four years ago – or was it six? – bags at his elbows.

In the booth next to us sits a couple carrying on an animated conversation. I watch the young woman leaning in toward her partner, laughing brightly. “I could hardly wait to tell you about …” I turn away, swallowing hard against something that remains stuck in my throat.

The waitress brings our food. Shareen breaks Stefan’s burger into little pieces. Steve cuts into his steak to check for doneness. The silence between us feels like air in a coffin, and I wonder when it was that we ran out of things to talk about. I stare into my bowl of chili, pushing the clumps of beans around with my spoon.

We met ten years earlier. I was 19, and had just arrived in the U.S. from Paraguay, South America, where my parents were Mennonite missionaries. Seven years older and wiser, Steve guided me through the strangeness of American flush toilets and traffic lights. I was safe with him.

The sixties were coming to an end, but we continued to ride the wave of their spirit. We filled our home with the sounds of Dylan and Baez, but also Brubeck and Brahms and Coltrane. Despite our relative poverty, we traveled to India, Europe, and South America. He sang opera. I studied French. Our kitchen was a favorite among our friends, always simmering with the latest gourmet recipes coming together. We made two healthy babies. Ours was a good marriage. Everyone said so.

But is good really enough? Is it asking too much to want a life partnership that provides more than safety and kindness? To want a partner who has the courage to put his hand into my heaped-up heart and, passing over all of the pathetic things that he can’t help but see there, draw out into the light all of the beautiful and radiant things that no one else has looked quite deeply enough to find?

I watch my husband now, contentedly chewing on his steak in the booth next to me; and our children who, having lost interest in their hamburgers, are back to making paper airplanes. They are my world, these three. The family I dreamed of as a child, when my parents were busy doing the Lord’s work.

My precious family.

Steve notices me looking at him and slowly raises one brow. His kind brown eyes seem to ask, “Is there something wrong?”

A shudder crawls down along my spine and I shake off the almost unthinkable, terrifying notion that in the midst of all of this serenity, something really is wrong. Almost unthinkable because, after all, ours is a good marriage. Everyone says so.

I shake my head. “How’s your steak, honey?” I ask, taking a small bite of my chili, which has grown cold.

Marlena Fiol, PhD, is a globally recognized author, scholar, and speaker specializing in personal transformation. Her significant body of published books and articles on the topic, coupled with her own raw identity-changing experiences, makes her uniquely qualified to write about deep change. For more information please go to www.marlenafiol.com

 

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