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Guest Posts, Inspiration

The Coach Who Breaks All The Records – Ronda Shirley

February 11, 2020

By Viktoria Velika

Ronda Shirley is 48 years old head volleyball coach. Shirley comes from small county town Earling, Iowa, where she grew up living at her family’s farm. She is currently located at University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg where she moved last spring. Looking at her one would never guess how important this woman is for many people. She is short with light brown hair, beautiful blue eyes which reflect her personality of caring and loving human being who loves to spend her free time reading and playing board games on the family nights. However, once she comes to her well-organized office, full of her awards, pictures with quotes and a diet soda on her table, she changes into focused, hardworking woman who brightens up every place with her confidence. Shirley is not just a successful coach, she is also mentor, and role model who motivates her players and children to become the best versions of themselves.

Besides having a busy life as a coach, always preparing for matches, spending hours in the gym or in the office watching film and recruiting new players, Shirley also has six beautiful children. They often come to her games to watch and support their mom, screaming and cheering for her and her team. Despite the fact of having a team of about fifteen players, who also become her kids as they join her team, being a mother and a coach is not hard for Ronda Shirley. When I ask her how does she handle everything her answer is simple: “I have great husband, Jeff is always supporting me, I know I couldn’t be as successful as a coach as I am without him, he takes a lot of pressure of me during season, he takes the bigger responsibility, so I can be more focused on coaching. I have to give a lot of credit to Jeff.”

Shirley was also a successful athlete herself. However, the sport she dedicated her career to as a student-athlete was not volleyball but softball. “I have always liked volleyball but softball was just natural to me,” explains Shirley when I ask her why she picked softball over volleyball. She was a Varsity Starter catcher all four years of High School and her team made it to the State Tournament three out of four times. When she was named All-Conference, All-Southwest Iowa, and All-State player it was clear which path she will choose. During her college career she won many awards but the one that she enjoyed the most was being named an All-American and winning NCAA DII National Championship for Kentucky Wesleyan. As we are speaking about her achievements as an athlete she looks at me with serious face: “I dedicated all of my time to softball and studying, I was working hard every minute of the practice, bringing hundred percent every day. I would always find time to do some extra work, because I knew how good I can be and how much I could help my team.”

After graduating from Kentucky Wesleyan with a degree in English, she began her career at Brown Mackie in 1995. “I never planned to be a coach, I wanted to be an editor, or teach English at college level, reading and writing was always my biggest passion, but my coach from junior college would always tell me that I should be a coach, he saw something in me that I didn’t at that time,” says Shirley with smile on her face. When she graduated, she took her first job as an assistant coach at her alma mater in Kansas where she spent four seasons on the sidelines and won Coach of the Year in 1998. Shirley coached for 13 seasons at Hutchinson, Kansas, where she achieved 378 wins and .708 winning percentage. She led the team to winning five Regional Championships and five NJCAA National tournament appearances. In 2017 she was inducted into the Hutchinson Community College Hall of Fame. After that she became a head coach at Tyler Junior College in Texas. She led Tyler to three Region XIV conference championships, while she was also named three times the Coach of the Year, and went to the National Tournament in 2012, 2013, and 2014. In 2017, she took over Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas.

Last season, Ronda Shirley was standing on the side of the Lee College volleyball court, leading her Navarro team towards breaking every school record. And they did. Navarro finished with a 37-8 overall record, winning the conference for the first time since 1999. At Regionals, they won a nail-biting fight against TVCC, scoring a ticket to the NJCAA Nationals for the first time in the school history.  “Nothing from what we achieved would be possible without coach Shirley, she is the reason why Navarro became winning team, why we now have a name in the volleyball world, she would push us every day making us work hard towards reaching our goals, and she was successful,” says Bailey Foy, one of Ronda Shirley’s All-American players.

Shirley changed history in every school she went to and the key to her success is quite simple: “I just work hard, I think people can see that I have passion for it and I really love it.” Over her 19 seasons as Head Coach, she has coached many successful players. Five Players of the Year, seven Freshmen of the Year, 53 All-Conference, 36 All-Region and 15 All-American players are just a few of the player nominations obtained under her belt. “What I enjoy the most about coaching is seeing my players reach a level that they never thought they could reach, but I knew they could do it, that is more important to me than any win,” said Shirley. She also has players who excel in their classrooms and 12 Academic All-Americans: “I always want to make sure my players are well educated, and I also feel like the skills they learn on the court like working hard, and pushing themselves to use their skills and all their tools, being a good teammate and leader, that’s going to help them to get a job in the future and be successful off the court.”

After spending almost twenty years as a head coach at junior college Ronda Shirley is now a head coach at a DI NCAA volleyball program at USC Upstate. “I loved coaching at junior colleges and I miss it a lot, it has more ‘family’ feeling. I loved knowing that I can help my players to go to the next best thing in their lives,” smiles Shirley. During her career at JUCO Shirley has achieved many awards including almost 600 wins in her 19 seasons as a coach. In 2015 she was inducted into the NJCAA Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The reason why she has decided to leave JUCO and coach at four-year University is simple. She needed to take the challenge, to experience new things, and change the way of how USC Upstate is think of. “All of the schools I went to coach to have never won conference title before, so one of my goals is that I can get them to win a conference championship, but before that my goals are to change how people think about this program,” says Shirley with confidence.

However, all this success is not easy to reach and being a player on Ronda Shirley’s team is not an easy task. Luana Rezende, one of her former players, who won All-American Second Team award last year says about Shirley this: “I would say that she definitely had huge impact on my life. Of course I didn’t agree with everything she did, but she made me a stronger person and she made me look at life differently. She is a really, ‘really’ nice human being, however sometimes it was hard to play for her.”

One of the quotes on the board in her office says: “Winners never quit,” and it is exactly what Shirley requires from her players. She wants them to give everything they have, to work hard, to be determined, confident, courageous and give their hundred percent every day. Despite all the wins and success, creating relationship with her players is the most important thing for Shirley. She wants them to be ready for the world, but also she makes sure that they know she believes in them, which makes them work harder not for her, but themselves.

During the season but also offseason she creates different types of team bondings. She takes her team to games, makes movie nights, when it comes to fall and Halloween time, her and her team paint pumpkins, and sometimes she invites the players to her house and cooks a good dinner for them. She becomes the second mother for her players while they are away from home. “Even though I know that sometimes it is hard to play for me, I know that at the end of the day my players know that I care about them as a person, that I am tough on them because I want the best of them, that I will always be there for them,” says Shirley. As we are finishing the interview Shirley tells me one last important thing: “It’s the moment when I see the look on the faces of my players. The look that shows amazement and shock when they realize how good they have become. They don’t believe it at first, how great they can be, but I do. And when they reach their potential, it is very heartwarming moment. It’s the moment when I know that coaching is what I am supposed to be doing.”

Viktoria Velika is a writer and sports enthusiast. 

Upcoming events with Jen

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Guest Posts, Health, motherhood

Promises

January 28, 2020
blood

CW: Stillbirth

By Whitney Lee

Four years ago, the Friday before Mother’s Day, a team of Emergency Department nurses barreled through the double doors of my Labor and Delivery Unit with a term-pregnant woman. It was just before dawn and I had been the physician on call overnight. In anticipation of this woman’s arrival, I’d already shed my white coat and removed my wedding rings––prepared to transport her to the operating room. As the gurney clattered across the linoleum floor, the woman twisted her body and clutched the dome of her abdomen gathering the fabric of a blue hospital gown into her fists.

Throughout the night, bleeding, adhesions, and brand-new babies had stolen my sleep. After twelve hours of standing, gravity pulled blood into the veins of my feet, my ankles, my calves. I felt as if there were weights in my shoes­­––I was tired.

The windows on Labor and Delivery glowed gold. It was a typical Southern California morning––a city with gorgeous yet monotonous weather. Soon, the sun would warm the air, the asphalt, and the enormous seals lethargic on the La Jolla shore. Light would illuminate brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea and the wings of hummingbirds, osprey, and lanky blue heron. All night, I had anticipated the sunrise that would signal the end of my shift and my escape from the hospital.

As the Labor and Delivery nurses rolled the woman into a triage room, the emergency department team explained that her name was Lisa. She was thirty-eight weeks pregnant with two prior cesarean deliveries. Severe pain started at home along with vaginal bleeding.

***

The week before I met Lisa, I’d promised my five-year-old son, Zachary, and my three-year-old daughter, Esmae, I would attend their school’s “Muffins with Mom” breakfast in celebration of Mother’s Day. I am an obstetrician and Obstetrics is a conspicuous thief. It has stolen weekends, my husband’s birthdays, Sundays at church, family dinners, at least two Christmas mornings, Zachary’s first day of kindergarten, and my grandfather’s funeral.

In truth, missing those events and navigating the interruptions was a nuisance but not a burden. I found meaning in my job and possessed a physician’s arrogance: I served a unique role. I felt necessary in a hospital, which provided instant gratification. A baby delivered, a family consoled, a diagnosis made, all justified my absence from home and validated the story I worked to build around my value as a physician and a person.

But the December before my life intersected with Lisa’s, when I came home from work, Zachary asked, “Where were you? All the mommies and daddies were at the Christmas Party but you. Esmae and I had to sit with Jonathon’s mommy.” I imagined my children in a neat, sparse, yet beautiful Montessori classroom filled with tiny versions of common adult items––china tea cups, a blue metal pitcher, glass bowls, a short countertop with a sink. I pictured them still and sad as they both waited for me to stroll through the classroom door. I imagined Zachary and Esmae sitting beside Jonathon’s mother––a woman I’d never met. But I pictured her lovely like calla lilies, ballerina skirts, ivory cashmere, soufflé, ribbons, and monarch butterflies. She wasn’t a woman who wore a pair of bloody scrubs and missed Christmas parties.

I’d sent a plastic container of store-bought oatmeal cookies with Zachary and Esmae that morning––my children’s contribution to the potluck lunch––price tag stuck to the side. The package of cookies was reflection of my approach toward many traditional maternal tasks. I found little value in baking cookies, cakes, or brownies.

***

Lisa twisted her body like a fish on a line. She pulled her knees to her abdomen, and shifted her legs right and left. I leaned over the metal rails of her bed and asked if she had any medical problems. Was her pregnancy complicated? Did she have a surgical history? When was her due date? She provided fractured breathless answers. She asked me to save her baby. She called him Jonah.

Nurses held down Lisa’s arms so they could thread needles into her veins, draw labs, and start intravenous lines. An obstetrics resident quickly rolled an ultrasound machine next to Lisa’s bed. I positioned the probe on her abdomen then gazed at the black and white image on the screen.

A baby’s heart pumps twice as fast as an adult’s. In a healthy baby, on ultrasound, the mitral and tricuspid valves, the flaps of tissue that separate the chambers of the heart, open and close in rapid succession like the wings of a starling. Rapidity offers reassurance. But the myocytes, the cells that coordinated the muscle of Jonah’s heart, were starving for oxygen. They had lost the energy and strength to beat, thus they failed to pump blood through his body. His heart contracted then fell open in a slow and labored motion. Jonah was dying.

With the tone and intensity of a drill sergeant, I instructed the charge nurse to call a Code Purple. In our hospital, like a Code Blue, Code Purple meant a life was at risk––that someone, in this case Jonah, may die without immediate intervention. The code alerts anesthesiologists, pediatricians, nurses, and scrub techs, to hustle, run, dash through corridors and up the stairs, toward the operating room.

I maneuvered the foot of Lisa’s gurney out of the triage room toward the operating room. The resident ran next to me and a nurse sprinted ahead of us opening three sets of double doors at various points along the path to our destination. As we rushed through the corridors, I directed the nurse to call the blood bank, call the NICU, explain to them that Lisa was abrupting­­.

An abruption meant that inside Lisa’s body, the arteries that connected her uterus and her placenta, the source of oxygen, to her baby, were shearing apart. Blood surged from both maternal and fetal vessels and spilled into her uterus, which clamped down like a vice in protest. This contraction was the source in Lisa’s unrelenting pain. Like all pregnant women, a half a liter of blood flowed through Lisa’s uterine vessels per minute. The bleeding was torrential. She and Jonah were hemorrhaging to death.

***

I had planned to leave the hospital at 8 o’clock that Friday morning. I would get to Esmae and Zachary’s school by 8:30 a.m., when the Mother’s Day celebration would begin. At that time, Zachary and Esmae would be choosing chocolate chip or blueberry muffins, opening their cartons of milk, and taking their seats at short square tables.

Every day that week, my children reminded me of the event and every day I promised them I had not forgotten. They excitedly described the details of all the presents they made for me: popsicle stick picture frames, ceramic necklaces, cards, and painted boxes.

***

Outside the operating room, the obstetrics resident handed me a surgical cap and mask. As I tugged the gauzy blue bouffant over my hair and tied the mask behind my head and the nape of the neck, I pushed through doors and passed the scrub sinks. Those sinks would remain silent––no hum of the plumbing, no water spraying on steel. We would not wash our hands. In emergent cases, sterility transforms from a necessity to a luxury.

Inside the operating room, a team of anesthesiologists and nurses moved Lisa onto the operating table. The pediatrics team set up equipment needed to resuscitate Jonah. A scrub tech opened a rectangular metal box, removed instruments and laid them on a sterile blue table––a scalpel handle, Kelly and Alice clamps, hemostats, Richardson retractors, bladder blade, Debakey forceps, Ferris-Smith forceps, Russian forceps, Adson forceps, Bovie tip, needle drivers, Metzenbaum and Mayo scissors.

I ignored Lisa’s cries and questions. There was no time to address them and I had no answers. I ran through a surgical checklist in my mind. I asked if we had antibiotics in the room. I positioned huge circular lights over Lisa. Then I picked my surgical gown off the back table, stretched my arms through the sleeves, and pulled gloves over my hands. There was no time to count instruments and no time to scrub Lisa’s abdomen. Lisa and Jonah’s condition forced us to start the case without performing the rehearsed rituals associated with almost every surgery.

A nurse tied the back of my gown. Another nurse opened two bottles of betadine and squeezed them onto Lisa’s abdomen––a crude, rapid, and likely ineffective way of sterilizing her skin before I cut through it. The brown liquid pooled in her umbilicus, spilled over her belly, then dripped down her pale flanks like a massive ink blot. The scrub tech passed me the blue surgical drape. In a synchronous motion the resident and I unfolded it over Lisa’s abdomen.

Then I paused. I could not start the surgery––I could not slice into Lisa’s skin––until medications rendered her unconscious. It took energy to alter the inertia I had set into motion. I shivered because a cold sensation grew and spread across my body––the sort of cold that comes when wind pulls sweat from your skin. I shivered because adrenaline zipped through my blood vessels teasing the muscles I worked to keep still. The commotion in the operating room had ceased. I heard Lisa’s cardiac monitor chirp. I folded my arms across my chest and bent my right leg then my left to the rhythm of her heartbeat––a subtle sway.

The anesthesiologist pushed Propofol, a thick white anesthetic, into intravenous tubing that snaked into Lisa’s arm. When her body relaxed, I peered over the blue surgical drape. He slipped a tube into her throat. “Go,” he said.

The resident pulled a scalpel over Lisa’s skin, cutting down to her fascia with one clean swipe, then handed the instrument back to the scrub tech. We hooked our fingers through two small nicks in the silver and white fibrous tissue that held Lisa’s abdomen together. We leaned back with all of our weight bending at the knees like water skiers. The force ripped open her abdomen. I split Lisa’s rectus muscles then felt the warmth of her abdominal cavity as I pushed my index finger through her peritoneum––a thin glistening membrane that draped over her organs.

The swirling muscle of Lisa’s uterus should have been pink. Instead, like India ink, shades of purple and black spread and diffused across its surface. Blood had seeped from her placenta into the centimeter of muscle that separated Jonah from me. The scrub tech placed a scalpel back into the resident’s open hand. Then he incised the lower portion of Lisa’s uterus entering the space where Jonah had thrived and grown for thirty-eight weeks. A tide of blood tinged amniotic fluid spilled from the incision, over Lisa’s abdomen, splashed onto the floor, soaked the bottom of my scrubs, shoes, and socks. The resident grasped each side of the uterine incision then pulled it open.

A blood clot, the size of a cantaloupe, erupted from Lisa’s uterus. I reached down into her pelvis, wrapped my hand around the top of Jonah’s head and pulled it up to the incision. The remainder of his slippery body followed with ease. Sixty seconds had passed from the time of Lisa’s skin incision to Jonah’s delivery.

Jonah’s dusky arms and chubby legs hung from his body motionless. He did not cry or gasp. His face did not grimace, his mouth remained still, gaping, and blue. I held his flaccid body in my hands. “Oh God,” I thought. “He’s dead.”

The resident clamped Jonah’s thick rubbery umbilical cord with two Kelly clamps and cut it with a pair of heavy scissors. Then I placed Jonah into the arms of the pediatrician. She carried him to the neonatal warmer, rested a stethoscope on his chest, and announced, “No heart beat.” Meanwhile Lisa’s uterus was failing to contract and the thousands of the spiral arterials that supplied her uterine muscle gaped open spilling blood into her pelvis, turning the surgical field into an opaque red lake. The resident sewed and stitched with a swift mechanical motion while I soaked up and swept away blood with white laparotomy sponges. Lisa had already bled enough to consume most of her clotting factors––proteins that achieve hemostasis. The more she bled, the more her body consumed the factors, and the less her blood clotted. In this situation, the only treatment is transfusion. Unless we replaced Lisa blood faster than she lost it, she would never stop hemorrhaging.

In the corner of the room, the pediatricians worked to save Jonah. They pushed epinephrine, performed chest compressions, and announced time, “One minute, no heart rate. Five minutes, no heart rate. Ten minutes, no heart rate. Fifteen minutes, no heart rate. Twenty-five minutes, no heart rate. Time of death, 7:10.”

Lisa continued to hemorrhage. I compressed her uterus in my hands slowing the bleeding while we repleted her blood and clotting factors. With my hands in Lisa’s pelvis, I asked one of the nurses to contact my husband, “Tell him my kids cannot go to school today.” I would not leave the operating room in time to make it to their school. I could not bear the thought of Zachary and Esmae waiting for me.

The morning Jonah died, no one reached my husband. Zachary and Esmae waited in their classroom. They waited with ceramic necklaces, popsicle stick picture frames, handmade cards, and homemade boxes. They each picked a muffin for themselves and they picked one for me. My kids did not know I saved a woman’s life. They did not know that Jonah died. And to them, those truths did not matter.

When I finally finished the case and stabilized Lisa, she woke, then asked about Jonah. I said nothing. Though I knew the inside of her body, though I had worked to keep her alive, though I held her son as he died, I did not know Lisa and she did not know me. We were strangers. She deserved to have someone else, someone closer to her, unveil the devastation.

As the anesthesiologist transferred Lisa to the Intensive Care Unit, I lumbered out of the operating room. My back hurt. My jaws were tired from clenching my teeth. My eyes had grown heavy.

Outside, the morning was ablaze and dust sparkled in the sunlight as it stretched through windows and across the hospital floor. The day-shift obstetrician, a colleague, had taken over the unit. He met me at the nurses’ station. As I approached, he opened his arms to hug me. I rested my forehead on his shoulder, then cried. We were not close friends. We did not confide in each other. We did not eat lunch together. But the pain we experience as obstetricians in the midst of losing a baby is universal.

After I settled, I collapsed in a chair. The rest of the world moved as it would any other Friday morning. Residents managed the laboring patients––flitting in out of rooms. Nurses wove through the unit. Pregnant women waited at the front desk to check into triage. Someone had abandoned a travel mug on the counter next to me. My white coat draped over the back of the chair where I sat. Monitors tweeted as they recorded fetal heart rates. Like a culture shock, I reeled from the contrast of the mundane world outside the operating room with what I had just experienced inside of it.

A social worker called from the Intensive Care Unit and informed me that Lisa knew Jonah had died. I made my way through the corridors of the hospital to Lisa. Through the glass doors of her room, she saw my pink scrubs, and panicked. I heard her say, “Don’t let her in here. She killed my baby.”

I bent over, put my hands on my knees and worked to catch my breath. I neglected my children who waited at an oak table with a muffin at an empty seat intended for me. I failed to keep my promise to them. For what? A dead baby? A critically ill mother? Painful accusations? This was an excruciating trinity. I found no solace or explanation for that morning. I dissolved into despair while Lisa suffered and grieved.

***

Four years after I delivered Jonah, on Mother’s Day, I wore a bracelet Esmae constructed out of clunky foam geometric beads and a pipe cleaner. She had asked me to promise I’d wear it all day, even to work. With great joy, I wore the bracelet. But after Jonah died, I quit making promises to my children because I break them. They forgive me. But I fail to offer that grace to myself. So, I don’t make promises.

But on that Mother’s Day, with Esmae’s awkward bracelet dangling from my wrist, I opened my laptop. Lisa’s name was in my email inbox. She had found me and sent a message. With reluctance, I opened it.

What waited for me was a great deal of peace. Lisa explained that she now had solace on Mother’s Day. The memories of Jonah were more of a celebration than a source of pain. I have always loved Lisa and Jonah in my own way. I bore witness to Jonah’s life and then death. I knew Lisa in the midst of excruciating pain. But I believed she would never understand how her story affected me as a mother and a physician. Yet, in her message, she acknowledged my pain and thanked me for enduring it so I could continue to take care of women like her. She shared that she only had to face the death of a baby once but knew as long as I practiced obstetrics, the tragedy would not end for me. Then, she wished me a Happy Mother’s Day.

Names have been changed. This essay first appeared in The Rumpus.

Whitney Lee is Maternal Fetal Medicine physician, an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University, former OpEd Public Voices fellow, and veteran. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Booth, Typehouse, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus, Crack the Spine, Gravel, Numéro Cinq, Huffington Post, and Women’s eNews. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four children. Currently, she is working on a memoir about a physician’s experience with death.

 

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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

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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.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

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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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

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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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

empty nest, Guest Posts, motherhood

Undone

November 18, 2019
cab

By Peg Conway

The unraveling began after we finished dinner at a Thai place in Lincoln Park. Our young adult son, his girlfriend, and another friend — all Chicago residents — had joined my husband and me for a drink at our hotel’s rooftop bar before riding together to the restaurant. After we feasted on sushi, stir fry, and bottles of wine, I expected more chatting outside during the wait for our separate transportation, a relaxed goodbye that would manage tectonic shifts beneath the surface where molten emotion simmered. Two weeks before, Michael had informed us that he and Kathryn will be moving in together this summer when their current leases expire.

Instead, I had barely exited the restaurant when a random cab appeared at the curb. Kathryn turned to Michael and said, “Should we just take this?” In the next instant, they hugged us in thanks and piled in the back seat. Michael waved and said, “See you tomorrow!” as the cab pulled away. Suddenly void of their youthful vibrance, the neighborhood became sinister.

Just as abruptly, my switch flipped, and I launched a tirade about the cavalier behavior of our son and his friends. “‘Well, dinner’s over, so let’s take this cab.’ Leaving us alone on the street corner!”

“They probably thought our Uber was on the way,” Joe said, his face angled toward his phone as he tapped out a ride request.

Perhaps, a tiny corner of my brain suggested, they treated us as they would their friends, assuming competence to summon our own transport. Pacing the sidewalk, impatient for our ride, I was not yet ready to listen to that rational voice. Finally, our driver did a U turn to pull up in front of us. I ranted softly about the slow Uber response, the traffic, and then the loud crowd in the bar as we crossed the hotel lobby, rode the elevator to the 7th floor, and entered our room. I imagined sending Michael a snarky text: “Safely back at hotel. Not that you cared.”

Then, suddenly deflated, I rejected the idea. I did not want negativity to define the evening or ruin the next day, the final one of the trip before our return home to Cincinnati. Standing rooted in place, I covered my face with my hands as tears leaked from my eyes and my breath came in gulps. The feelings that combusted there on the street corner came from something. What was it?

*****

Back when I was our son’s age, at another street corner in a different Midwestern downtown, early on a June morning, I prepared to make a right turn in my car, having just dropped off my friend Bitsy at work, when suddenly I heard a terrible, terrible THUMP half a block behind me.

“NO! Please, no!” I said aloud to myself, but I knew someone had hit her.

Without thinking, I stopped my car, jumped out, and there she was, lying in the middle of the street, her purse and tote bag beside her. I watched her attempts to get up, a dazed, almost vacant look on her face, but she was unable to muster all the necessary motions to stand. Bystanders were already gathering. A woman crouched next to her, a hand placed lightly on Bitsy’s shoulder. Stiff with fear, I forced my legs to walk over there. As sirens became audible in the distance, I realized I should notify her parents and ran into the bank to use the phone. Then I went to the fourth floor and recruited a co-worker to accompany her in the ambulance.

The two of us returned to the street in time to see Bitsy being placed on a stretcher. The sight of her in a cervical neck collar made my knees feel weak. “I really have no idea how seriously she’s injured,” I thought. I waited until the ambulance departed before returning to my car – which I’d left unlocked with the keys in the ignition and my purse on the front seat – and drove the few more blocks to my own office, where there were client projects to wrap up in preparation for flying out that afternoon on vacation with my brother.

The anxiety of not knowing the extent of her injuries numbed my limbs and tightened my chest, and I could not concentrate on the tasks I needed to accomplish. Neither could I overcome the fear of actually finding out what had happened. Seeing my distress, my colleague called the emergency room and obtained concrete facts: broken leg, broken nose, bruises and contusions, teeth damage. Bitsy was banged up, but she would heal. My exhale of relief released trembling and a few tears, clearing my mind enough to focus.

Several times during the trip, I called Bitsy’s family to receive updates on her surgery to insert a rod in her leg and her general well-being. Back home afterward, I began to notice how lost and empty I felt inside, as if I were falling through space. Perhaps it was the letdown brought on by the stress-laden vacation, but this inner void persisted. The sensation seemed out of proportion to Bitsy’s condition and in comparison to how others were handling it, but also strangely familiar in a way I couldn’t quite identify. I wept intermittently for no apparent reason, and my clothes grew loose as I dropped weight.

*****

During our afternoon in Chicago with Michael, Joe and I attended a middle school boys’ basketball game at a YMCA where he and his friend coached. The impetus for our weekend trip was to witness something of his life. The pounding of the basketballs on the gym floor, the loud whine of the horn, the piercing tweet of the referee’s whistle and the shouts of players and parents, all of it mirrored Michael’s grade school playing days. The opponents sank a bunch of outside shots early and were up by 15 points at the half, but the momentum shifted in the second and they were tied at the end of regulation. Michael and Fran’s guys went on to win by 4 in overtime, a major accomplishment for them.

Kathryn joined us in the row of metal folding chairs by the sidelines part way through the first half, and we chatted easily for the rest of the game, eventually striking up conversation with the parents on our left.

“Who is your child on the team?” they queried.

Our response — “The coach!” — evoked chuckles all around, but the interaction brought an empty feeling. Being at this game choked me up with happy memories of the past, but also sparked mourning for the present. I enjoyed watching the basketball, because of Michael’s involvement. It was something we had shared during his growing up. Now it wasn’t the same. He was out of college, working, living his own life. We were truly just spectators.

*****

Soon after Bitsy’s accident, I connected the lost and lonely feelings to another traumatic early morning, years before during childhood. It was late autumn during second grade, and my dad entered the pink-walled room I shared with my sister. His distinctive wavy black hair, normally combed smoothly back from his forehead and temples, looked tousled, and his blotchy face, eyes red-rimmed, made my throat constrict. “Well, kids, we have an angel in the family,” he said quietly, his voice cracking as he finished.

“Mom?” I whispered, launching into his arms sobbing even before he nodded yes. Soon after, I left his lap saying, “I need to get ready for school,” but Dad said we wouldn’t be going to school that day. Down in the kitchen I discovered my mom’s parents cooking breakfast. My aunt arrived shortly after. Their presence at our house on a weekday morning when I should be at school heightened my sense of wrongness. My insides felt empty, like I was floating in space, untethered. I had known she was sick and in the hospital, but no one had said the word “cancer” aloud to me. I sat in my older brother’s lap sucking my thumb as the grown-ups conversed in subdued tones.

A few days later, we stood silently at the church entrance watching the smooth unfolding of the metal stand on which the casket was placed after its removal from the hearse. Walking in procession behind the rolling casket down the long church aisle as organ music boomed, I noticed my classmates all seated together in the first few pews of the far left section. I felt glad to see them but funny about it too, the first taste of being motherless as setting me apart from other people, somehow different in a basic way.

*****

Standing there in the Chicago hotel room, the mother of a grown-up son, I confronted the specter of long-ago loss that had surfaced like it always did when life presented a transition. The feelings were the same whether it was moving to a new house or being the last to leave a social gathering or watching as a beloved child flourishes independently. I want so much to be “over it,” but the truth is that childhood loss never ceases to reverberate.

Of course things evolved as Michael became an adult. In theory I hoped that he would find someone to share his life, but this juncture has arrived sooner and in a different manner than expected. It was normal, but I was not. Broken by mother loss, I was inadequate to the task of letting go while also staying connected in meaningful ways. I’d come to understand that such harsh self-criticism pushed me to the periphery, creating the very separation that I fear. Over the nearly three decades since Bitsy’s accident shattered my defenses, this emotional cycle has played out hundreds of times. Circumstances trigger an outburst, followed by self-recrimination and then trembling vulnerability as the acute phase ebbs.

Now I asked Joe to hold me. He hugged me tight, saying little, and the physical contact broke the spell. Tears fell softly. My breathing slowed. My body anchored to the ground again. I returned to the present, knitted back into relationships, to a kinder self-understanding. It’s ok. It’s always part of you. Just let it be there. You’re ok. Breathe.

The storm’s passing washed clean my perspective to reveal the ways that Michael maintains family ties. In reality, he calls home often, and besides welcoming us in Chicago, he visits Cincinnati regularly. Though I miss him being nearby, I am not abandoned. Our relationship is not over; it’s changing. My task is to nurture this new stage gently, like a seedling, allowing it time to strengthen as it emerges and trusting the growth process.

“See you tomorrow,” Michael had said earlier from the cab, words that now resounded with hope and possibility.

Peg Conway’s memoir of early mother loss is out on submission, and an excerpt has been published at The Mighty. Her writing has appeared in America and US Catholic magazines, including an article that received Honorable Mention from the Associated Church Press, and online at Energy magazine and Feminism and Religion. She lives in Cincinnati, OH, and can be found on Twitter @peg_conway. Learn more at pegconway.com.

 

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Eating/Food, emotions, Guest Posts

Noise

November 17, 2019
eat

By Judy Harper

My daughter had her 15th birthday party at our house a few months ago. Eight teenage girls converged at our home and had the 2019 version of the classic sleepover: they scrolled through Instagram, watched YouTube videos, listened to Billie Eilish, ate a lot of junk food, talked about their crushes, giggled, and stayed up really late. The next morning, I tip-toed past the mass of girls sleeping in my living room, and went into the kitchen to dutifully make the breakfast my daughter had asked for: bacon and chocolate croissants. The young women ate their breakfast and the sleepover wrapped up at 10:30 a.m., with a mountain of blankets, wrapping paper, and leftovers for me to clean up. Oh, those leftovers. Pizza, croissants, bacon, cupcakes, chips…

Do you know how this story goes? What do you do with the leftovers? Do you throw away the slightly stale chips? What about the pizza? I do, eventually, end up throwing away the pizza, but not after I spend the majority of the day binge eating leftovers. I eat a chocolate croissant, a chocolate-covered donut, and five pieces of bacon at 11:30 a.m. About an hour later, I have a piece of pepperoni pizza, and at 2:00 p.m., I have four more pieces of pizza: two pepperoni and two cheese (I don’t eat the crust, though, you know, because I’m watching my carbs). Then, I drink two diet Cokes and sit down, stunned and dazed, in a sweaty stupor. The next day, I will throw away the pizza and the chips, but not yet. On this day, I just sit there, trying to pretend like it’s OK that I ate this because tomorrow will be different.

Do you do this, too, or is it just me?

That night, I sleep fitfully, having to get up to drink water and eat handfuls of Tums. When I do sleep, it is fitful and shallow. The next morning, I wake up, groan, get on the scale, and groan again. This number that I hate is staring at me, judging me, and this body that I hate and treat with such contempt is there, on full display, the symbol of my neglect and addictive tendencies. I want to cry, or scream, or punch something, but I don’t let it out. I never let it out. Instead, I start to scheme about how not to end up here again, ever, while also trying to forget all that I ate the day before. It’s a complicated dance requiring careful and exacting footwork that has to be performed in a specific sequence, and, usually, it works. It involves frantic, non-stop thinking, scores of internet searches, dozens of podcasts, trips to the library and, of course, Amazon purchases. It involves promises and lists and the constant, thrumming noise of trying to tune out of the pain and into something more comfortable.

I try to forget the pizza, the donut, the sweating, the Tums, and I focus on what I’m going to do to make sure this never happens again. The fixation on the image of the perfect life I’m going to start living just as soon as I’m done showering and getting dressed keeps me somewhat occupied as do the internet searches and lists of things I need to do and buy in order to finally become better, to finally become the perfect woman, like the one I see on-line who runs her own blog, makes her own soap, raises five children, runs half marathons in under two hours, and works on her PhD in psychology in her spare time. I want to be perfectly reconstructed into the woman I heard interviewed on NPR, the one who overcame horrific traumas and a severe learning disability to triumphantly publish her first novel and find herself short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The options and variations of who I want to become are endless; I can be the athletic intellectual, the intellectual comedian, or the quirky eco-warrior. The images dance in my head and for a while, I’m drawn into the creation of the woman I will soon become.

When I used to drink, this part of the morning took much longer…the frantic and desperate attempts to piece together what I’d done the night before, and often, no matter how hard I tried, not being able to remember. Those mornings were far darker and more torturous than the post food-binge mornings, but the action is the same: trying to twist time and memory into something other than what they are. Trying to find the space inside my soul where there is respite, coming up empty, and then replacing that respite or self-forgiveness with stuff…mental exercises, frantic writing of to-do lists, texting friends in search of validation, reading blogs, searching for new gyms, and reading about diet programs, and so on.

Wanting to forget something is almost as difficult as trying to remember, but a little less painful, and as my day progresses, I slip into that dark internal abyss of loathing and hatred—why did I eat all that? Why can’t I say no? Why can’t I control myself? Why do I eat until I can’t see straight? Why can’t I do better? Why can’t I be better? Why can’t I be someone else?

This continues for hours. I distract myself and then I have a fleeting thought that I wish I hadn’t thrown the pizza away because a slice or two sounds good. Then, I hate myself for having that thought, and sink back down into the awfulness.

This takes hours, and the ping-ponging between the highs and lows exhausts me. With each thought of the shiny new me that I’m going to forge comes also the crashing thought of a life without the escape of pizza or chocolate or chips or blogs or podcasts or internet searches.

And I am so uncomfortable there, in that swinging back and forth between the highs and the lows, that I grab my notebook and write out “the plan” to turn myself into someone else, someone completely new and different. Anything to get away from my thoughts.

The plan takes shape: I’ll never eat sugar again, goes the familiar refrain. Not one bite. I’ll also never eat anything with artificial sweeteners in it, oh, and of course, I’ll never eat chips or crackers again. Better to just wholesale go 100% Paleo and dedicate my life to eating this way. I’ll clean the whole house, top to bottom, organize every single drawer and cabinet. I’ll clean out my closet. I’ll write my book. I’ll run 5 miles every single day and do yoga, too, becoming that person who wakes up at 5:00 a.m. and cheerily goes about her day, non-stop, until 11:00 p.m. I’ll be that perfectly busy living that perfect life. Oh, and I’ll stop chewing my cuticles, too.

The day moves forward smoothly from here; I have now found an escape from my thoughts and I have a plan. I have eggs and avocado for breakfast, but I put milk in my coffee, which isn’t strictly Paleo. It’s OK, I tell myself. I’ll go to Whole Foods today and buy coconut almond creamer. This is the last time I’ll ever do this. I put my earbuds in, turn on a podcast, furiously clean the stove and sweep the kitchen. Then, armed with a list of 25 items that will make my life perfect, I head off to Whole Foods.

I arrive and walk optimistically through the store, filling my cart with things that will save me: pasture-raised eggs, ghee, cabbage, avocados, plantains, tomatoes, and ideas for recipes and images of the way everything will be when my life is perfect flood through my head. I find the coconut almond creamer and put three of them in my cart…if I’m going to change my life, wholly and completely, right now, today, I better be armed with groceries. A thought pops into my head: maybe I should give up caffeine, too, as I am far too reliant on my daily cup. But I manage to shut down the thought.

I move easily past the beer and wine aisle, grateful that the siren call of alcohol no longer plagues me. I turn the corner and see the banner hanging from the ceiling, a picture of a happy, achingly beautiful young mother, next to her cloyingly pretty little girl, and they are smiling at a tray of sponge cake, whipped cream, and beautiful berries. Shit, I remember, my thoughts and spirit sinking, I told my daughter we’d go downtown and go clothes shopping and get ice cream at our favorite place. What am I going to do? Watch her eat the ice cream? Eat some myself? Find a sugar-free, dairy-free variety? Shit.

I turn the final corner in my sojourn toward perfect living and I see the bakery, and the slices of cake and the cookies and chocolate bars. And, in an instant, I put two chocolate bars—one with almonds, one without—in my cart, right next to the cabbage and tomatoes and plantains, and I walk to the register. There is a low-level buzzing in my head, and a voice that just keeps saying “it’s OK. Just this once. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. This doesn’t mean anything.”

I pay, walk to my car, and carefully load in the $158 worth of organic, locally sourced groceries into the trunk. I slip the chocolate bars into the pocket of my sweatshirt and I get in my car. Before I can think or look at myself in the rearview mirror, I start the car and turn up the volume on the podcast I was listening to, and I quickly begin eating one of the chocolate bars. I try to eat one square at a time and savor it, but, of course, I don’t. I can barely taste the chocolate, but it is pulling me out of the feeling of fear I have of the groceries in the trunk and before I’m out of the parking lot, the first bar is done. I’m now waiting to get to a red light so I can rip open the second one, which I devour almost as quickly as the first. As I drive down the street, my teeth aching dully and my head buzzing, I feel a wave of sadness descend over me. I pull into my driveway, and, feeling like a fraud, I unload the groceries and carelessly put them away.

I stand in the kitchen, staring into space. I have worn myself down. I can’t figure out a way to justify the chocolate. It doesn’t make sense. I am not angry at myself anymore nor do I have thoughts of how to fix this, either. I’m just done, spent. An entire morning of bouncing between self-loathing and desperate attempts to pull myself out of it render me exhausted. I spend the rest of the day half-listening to podcasts, walking the dog, skimming through some work, and cobbling together a dinner of leftovers.

I don’t cook anything using the ingredients I bought at Whole Foods; they just remind me of what a failure I am, remind of the chocolate, which then reminds of the pizza, which then reminds me of the time I ate an entire container of French onion dip and a whole bag of potato chips and the roof of my mouth ached for days, which then reminds me of the time I drank so much that I passed out on the couch and spilled a glass of whiskey on the floor, which then reminds me of the time in college when I threw up on the stairs of someone’s house at a party, and so on. These thoughts are so painful that I shut them down the only way I know how, by stuffing them down with food or with podcasts or with Wolf Blitzer sharing 20,000 breaking news stories.

A week later, I find the cabbage that I had planned to braise with onions and tomatoes in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator, rotten. I put it in the garbage and see that the tomatoes on the kitchen counter are shriveled, and as I throw them away, I turn on a podcast and turn up the volume.

Have you ever done this? Anything similar to this? Or am I the only one? What is your thing? Is it food? Alcohol? Shopping? Perpetual busy-ness?

Drinking was, by far, the most destructive of my habits, and I’m so glad I quit. But food is also very destructive, and removing alcohol hasn’t cured me of what truly ails me: fear of my self. Not “myself”, but my self…my soul, my inner-most me. I don’t know her, probably never have. I’m afraid of what I might find if I do, and so I avoid her. I fear so terribly that she’s some awful disappointment that I distract myself in every way I can conceive, purposefully blind to the consequences.

Can you relate? I ask because I have a hunch you can. This isn’t about food addiction or alcohol addiction or cell phone addiction…those things are the consequence of the core issue: not knowing ourselves and not having the time or space (or desire) to actually know who we are. The most common manifestation of this is the Instagram moment or the duck-lipped selfie pose, those very falsely manufactured moments intended to show us something real. But of course, they aren’t real. They are fake, and yet we somehow elevate them in our consciousness and create ideas about how our lives are supposed to mirror this ideal.

I’m not writing about anything new here. For years, we’ve known that the internet and especially social media are robbing us of some aspects of real life, and I don’t know if my particular issue of binge-eating angst is because of the internet, per se, but I do know that my disconnectedness from the world around me, from feeling things in the here and now, have been exacerbated by the internet and the need for distractions in general. Or maybe, it’s just that I’m 46 and I’m in the throes of a bout of existential angst.

And yes, while existential angst is certainly a part of this, I also know that my food addiction and my podcast addiction and my addiction to anything that will keep me from a moment of quiet, a moment of reflection, a moment of stillness have gotten far worse in the years since I’ve had a smartphone and access to stories and pictures and interviews with people who live lives that are thousands of times more glamorous than mine at my fingertips. Everyone has a story, a life hack, a “you can do this, too.” You can organize your whole house, build your own compost bin, change your diet, do more core work, run your own business, and thus become just like someone else.

There is nothing wrong with self-improvement. Not one damn thing. But are all these books, podcasts, and blogs really aimed at self-improvement, or do they sell the idea that the way someone is doing something is the way we should all do it? In short, are they selling the idea that the way I am is fundamentally damaged and that if I can change external parts of myself, I’ll be better?

As someone who is, by nature, deeply insecure, deeply neurotic, and very impressionable, I think the answer is yes. I have bought, hook, line, and sinker, into the idea that I’m not good enough, but that there is an answer out there for me, that some blogger or self-help author is going to fix me.

I have been searching for years now, and I can’t find the answer, no matter how hard I try. And the harder I look, the less I know. I used to be able to eat a meal without second guessing myself, and now, I can’t. I can’t figure out if eating a banana with breakfast is good for me or not, and an internet search only makes this worse. And if I can’t figure out if bananas are good for me, then how will I ever figure out how to lose weight, get in shape, write that book, be a better person, and so on? If bananas are confusing, then what about life? How will I ever know?

I want to believe that I’m actually fine, just the way I am. I really do. It’s just very hard and overwhelming. I have read about and seen a lot of movement toward body positivity and inclusivity, but even that overwhelms because I don’t want to blog about it, be interviewed about it on the Today show, or post about it on social media. I don’t want to be famous or a vanguard. I don’t want to have the answers. I just want to be who I am, whoever that is, and not feel less than because I don’t run fast or compost or follow a strictly Paleo diet or a strictly vegan diet or write a blog or make my own goat milk lotion.

Or, how about this? I want to go through a day, a whole entire day, without feeling less than anyone else, without needing to drown out the self-doubts with noise. I want to be able to just be, whatever that means, and to not feel so afraid of that, just that.

Judy Harper is a 46-year-old adjunct instructor at a community college. She is married and has a 15-year-old daughter. She lives near the ocean on the central California coast.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Breeze

November 15, 2019
breeze

By Lisa Poulson

As I walked out of the grand lobby of the apartment building onto Riverside Drive, a soft, plangent breeze lilted across my face, swaying my hair. Equal parts summer humid and fall crisp, the breeze coming off of the river felt so delicious on my cheek that I had to stop, close my eyes and drink it in. For nineteen days, my skin hadn’t tasted a touch that delicate, that present, that sublime.

Nineteen days before I found my fiance in the ICU after the Coast Guard helicopter he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic. We had been engaged for two weeks.

As I walked into the hospital room he was still and barely breathing, his face so swollen and bloodied it was only his eyelashes I recognized, his body so broken it was only his fingertips I knew. No other fingertips traced my face the way his had.

Careful to avoid the IVs as I reached for his hand, I found that it was still warm. But the Coast Guard said he had been underwater for fifteen minutes. Was the soul I deeply and eternally loved still inside of that mashed and broken body? Would those fingertips ever come back to me?

Marc lay in the hospital bed, never opening his eyes, never parting his beautiful lips to say a word.

On the third day, the swelling from his injuries decreased enough for the doctors to do an EEG. When they said there was “no organized brain activity,” it was clear what that meant. Marc’s mind and soul were gone, even if his lungs were pushing air in and out on their own. I left the hospital with a leaden heart.

On the fourth day, his lungs stopped doing their work. He slipped away on his own, before dawn.

At the cemetery, when the hearse opened and I saw the coffin, I almost lost my capacity to stand. How could the strong, beautiful body I loved be in that box?

Two weeks after the funeral I was still in a stumbling, useless daze. Grief came in molten waves that flowed into my body with no warning, drowning my senses and suffocating my capacity to reason.

Sometimes it came when I woke in the morning and realized anew that he was gone. Sometimes it seized me in the middle of the afternoon at work, or in a restaurant, or on the train. When these waves overtook me, my mind and my senses would desert me as the heat rose from my gut or my heart. I would no longer be able to hear what people were saying to me, comprehend time or speak. The grief would growl and stretch, enveloping my whole body and subsuming my brain. I would shake, or sweat, or cry, or all of the above when it had possession of me.

***

I couldn’t be in my apartment because it was too full of his absence. He was not standing in the kitchen making us dinner, he was not sitting on the sofa inviting me to lay my head against his chest, he was not kneeling beside me to pray aloud with profound gratitude for our relationship at the end of the day. He was not there to nurture my quiet, budding hope of a life filled with love.

I did not go to work. I did not cook. I did not do laundry. I stayed with friends, barely able to breathe in and out. The competent 30-year-old I used to be was lost.

But there on Riverside Drive, nineteen days later, a moment of unexpected grace reached through my grief. I closed my eyes as the nerves under my skin awakened to the delicate sensation of the tender breeze.

My skin didn’t understand why it hadn’t been touched. I hadn’t realized how lost and hungry it was.

I opened my eyes to the afternoon sun glowing over the Hudson, my heart full of compassion for the mute grief of my body. I hear you, I said. I will care for you.

Lisa Poulson, is a San Francisco-based tech veteran. She has her own business as a communications coach and is reinventing herself as a writer. Lisa can be found on twitter as @thelisapoulson.

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