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Grief, Guest Posts, healing, poetry

On The Anniversary Of My Father’s Death.

February 25, 2014

By Stacey Brown-Downham

This piece is written in honor of Stacey Brown-Downham’s father, Peter Brown–photographer, carpenter and jack-of-all-trades (with a special finesse for the art of cursing)– who passed away three years ago today at 60 years old, but maintained his sense of humor through years of illness (e.g. After one of his many heart attacks, a nurse says to his wife, “He’s had a very bad heart attack.” His response from the other room, “It must not have been that bad. I’m still here.”) 

BREAK HERE. AND HERE. AND HERE.

It should break us all–to feel so much, to love so hard, to hold on so so tightly only to let go willingly (or not).  Maybe it does break us all in different ways only to put us back together better, at least different.

As children and perhaps parents we are made of each other, of our nasty and glorious insides and outs. I had (and still have, in some ways) no idea the ways that I could be broken, and then healed–all the things nobody talks about. Scar tissue in unmentionable places. Scenes etched in cerebral sharpie.

Scene 1: I dropped my son down the stairs, and listened to him roll down all twelve wooden steps in his three-and-a-half-month old body. We drove ourselves to the hospital in a dream. I ran into the emergency room, pleading for someone to help us, not knowing if he was okay. Somehow he was–the hairline fractures in his tiny skull healed long before I could shudder the memory away. It held onto me or I it, or both. I can only write about it now, five years later, and almost not hear it or see it happen in front of me.

We have since carpeted the stairs, but they are still wooden underneath. We have not fallen again, so carefully now we tread.

Scene 2: When my father passed away two years later, after years of illness, at the young age of sixty, we drove through the night to Canada from New Jersey, to sit by his side as he went wherever it is we all must go. I sang in his ear, watched him stare intently up at the corner of the room, and nod in communion with some unseen friend, pull his gaze back down with all his might to search for my mother, then with her permission, allow his soul to slip out and to leave his body still and quiet at last. I sang again at his memorial, ate far too much maple coffee cake and promptly returned back to work, suggesting to all who asked that it would be an adjustment.  An adjustment? You could call that term a gross understatement and perhaps it was at the time, but what else can any of these earth-shaking moments require of us than wholesale adjustments of the body and soul?

Scene 3: I tried to be okay–I was strong, right?– but my body revolted. I became unbearable to be around. I liked no one and nothing. My husband braced himself when I opened my mouth to speak–what accusation, what complaint might issue forth?  So I had to adjust, alright, or risk breaking it all.

Scene 4: At exactly the right time and place (a Saturday afternoon, Spring 2011, at Dhyana Yoga in Haddonfield, New Jersey) I found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor in Jennifer Pastiloff’s Manifestation yoga workshop and she told us to partner up and sit directly across from each other. I was odd woman out so I was paired with her. Our job was to stare into each others’ eyes for two minutes straight–into a stranger’s eyes for two minutes straight. I don’t think I’d looked into anyone’s eyes for that long, ever. My eyes welled up–no big deal. I can hold it together. But then she smiled, nodded and gave a little wink, just simple gestures of kindness. It was like she knew, knew that I had had no one to whom to bare this grief, no one whom I thought could bear it. But she smiled permission and so I gave it up, all that grief to a sister-like stranger and I did not break.

She set me on my way back. From there I talked, I breathed, I took strange supplements and new age tests, I stopped eating wheat, I moved my body and I wrote.  I was sick for months, maybe years, and then I was better.

These things should break us, and they seem to for a time, but they don’t. For here we are. We are here. And that’s the nasty and glorious truth of it all, at least for now.

Stacey and her father.

Stacey and her father.

But if you want it in other words:

“Resolution”

Each year at this time as
The earth revolves
Around the closest star
It slows just long enough
For us to stop and take
One last sweaty look at summer
Then reluctantly face forward
With immense resolve
To begin the year anew
(I keep a students’ calendar
If the sun does not)

In its recent circles
It has turned us askew
All the big things, you see,
It has let us see
The greatest of loves
Joined and divided and divided again
Two times made mother
Once the wife
And the grieving daughter
And the one who slipped
And watched him tumble down the stairs
Over and over and over
As the world spun too

It shone in their eyes
While we made humble promises
And donned rings
Outside it waited
While in those windowless rooms
We were first and then again made mother and father
It rose as we drove
Glinted off snowy banks in the
Hospital parking lot as we arrived
And was traveling westward too
As he took flight
And we walked out into the cold evening with and without him

No matter how far we go
We end up right back here
Parts the same but
Wholly different.

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Stacey Brown-Downham is these things (in no particular order):  Canadian ex-pat/recently baptized American citizen, the mother of two ceaselessly charming (charming and ceaseless?) boys, wife to an equally charming American gentle-man, high school English and Special Education teacher, singer-songwriter under the moniker of The Classic Brown, soul-student of Jennifer Pastiloff and when windows of time permit, an amateur writer of prose and poetry. 

Jennifer Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading one of her signature retreats to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif and she and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up:  SeattleLondon, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Tucson. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff. Join a retreat by emailing barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com.

Next workshop is London July 6!


And So It Is, healing, Inspiration

Us and Them.

March 25, 2013

When I was thirteen we moved to New Jersey from California. We had moved to California from New Jersey. So essentially we were moving back to New Jersey. I was just about to start eighth grade and the words New and Jersey were the worst words in the English language to me. They were vinegar and all things rotten. They were my past. They were equal to the words No Flipping Way Am I Moving Back to New Jersey!

If you remember the myriad of horrors that make up middle school, you will recall that seventh grade is where you make the friends that you will have in the eighth grade. You come into seventh grade all nervous and geeky and somehow find a few fellow and nervous geeky kids to be friends with and then the summer happens and you come back for eighth grade all cool and teenagerish, thinking you have no work to do, that you made your friends. Thinking that you were the coolest in the school. (We rule! We know everything!)

Little did you know that starting ninth grade and high school would be a whole new game of terror, but hey, you’d cross that bridge when you came to it. For now, you were the oldest and the best and eighth grade was going to be a breeze.

Right.

So I wandered into middle school (otherwise known as Hell) with my bangs and my I hate New Jersey attitude to a whole slew of already formed cliques and friendships.

Luckily I’d had a really “popular” cousin who was a year younger, in the seventh grade. He wasn’t a blood cousin but someone we grew up calling cousin for some reason. People begrudgingly talked to me because I was the cousin of So and So. I was So and So’s not real cousin-cousin and thus was not completely ostracized as I might have been had I come in as nobody’s cousin at all. Thank God for not real cousin-cousins.

Eighth grade was a dark and moody nine months. I resented my mother for moving us back to New Jersey. I hated the weather and the way people spoke. When we first moved back we had to live with the not real cousin-cousins. All of us. Me, my mother and my sister, squashed with all our girl stuff and junk in this one little guest room at the top of the stairs that was usually used to store wrapping paper and boxes.

I had to take the bus to school whereas in California I had always walked. California was like the cool kid and New Jersey with its busses was the nerd.

No one talked to me during those first few weeks on the bus. This was way before cell phones or iPads, so there was nothing to distract you from the nobody likes me and I have no one to talk to so I will just sit and stare out the window or read. 

I read a lot.

I remember finally being invited out with the popular kids. Somehow. Probably because of my false relation to the not real cousin-cousin. Here’s what “going out” consisted of when I was in eighth grade. A bunch of us would go to someone’s house and go down the basement and someone would shut the lights and everyone would make out with each other. They called it “hooking up.” With everyone else in the same room, they slurped and sucked.

So it was all dark and hot in whosever basement we happened to be in and there’d be six or eight couples hooking up in/on whatever open space they could find. Including the floor.

Except me.

I forgot about this until last night while I was talking to my friend’s 12 year old daughter.

Let’s call her Sammy. Sammy is in sixth grade. Sixth grade is now middle school as opposed to in my day when it was still elementary school. Sammy is in the unfortunate landscape of middle school at 12 years old. She kept talking to me about this group called The Populars. Sammy isn’t in The Populars but rather the Middle of the Road group, as she called it. She’s kind of friends with everyone and she likes Minecraft (what is Minecraft? I had to ask and at this point in time, I am still unsure.) She has a crush on one kid and we text each other, but that’s it! she told me.

I am fascinated by the so-called The Populars. I told her I didn’t really remember any specifically popular kids. That’s when I had the flashback of those dark basement nights in South Jersey. I’d wanted to vomit right there in her house in the Washington mountains which was far far away in time and space from those horny basement nights but you could’ve fooled me. There I was, biting my nails in the dark, praying for the night to be over. Or praying for someone to ask me to hook up.

Everyone else would be making out and getting their boobs felt or unbuttoning their pants and I just sat alone in a chair in the dark.

I had blocked this memory out until Sammy started talking about The Populars. 

You see, it was like I had been invited in but then made to wait outside.

You can come you can’t really part of us.

You can sit in the dark and listen to us kissing and sucking each other’s faces though, if you want. 

I literally sat in a rocking chair and waited for the night to end. Sometimes I had a cat on my lap. Sometimes I just sat there and cried quietly. I am not sure why I even said yes to going in the first place. The only thing I can think of is that I wanted to be accepted so fiercely, to not have to sit on the bus staring out the window by myself, that I was willing to sit in the dark while a whole bunch of horny thirteen and fourteen year olds slobbered on each other.

Let me tell you what this made me feel like. ShitWorthlessUglyPatheticLoser.

You name it.  Yet, every time they asked me to “go out” I said yes, despite knowing that I would sit alone in a chair and not be made out with, but rather made to listen to humping noises. There was no actual sex involved but there might as well have been. It was humiliating and yet I kept saying Okay, sure, I’ll come. Thanks for asking me. Thanks for letting me be your friend.

Why didn’t any of the boys ask me to make out? I don’t know. I was awkward, sure. During the summer between eighth and ninth grade I blossomed. Beyond that, it was a simple equation of Us and Them. I was not a Us. I was a Them that had been granted access but not love. Not acceptance.

I had been let in to hang on the sidelines but not allowed to play on the field. I was an invisible. I was a body on a chair in a dank basement in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I was never seen.

They were too busy kissing the same faces to notice a new one.

All that changed in ninth grade and that is all fine and good and a big F*ck You to all the boys who ignored me because by 9th grade I was being paid attention to by the older guys and I couldn’t care less about the ones in my own grade.

I just posted something about this on my Facebook page. I am fascinated by how many of us experienced some version of being either left out or of being the leaver-outer.

Someone posted: Jennifer, I am often amazed at the breathtaking way you have shared your pain and joy….so I will take heart from your courage and share with you my “left out story” My best friend from junior high that I absolutely loved and adored dumped me the summer between junior high and high school for a new friend with better connections to the “in” crowd. There we were, starting a new school year with our lockers right next to each other as we had planned and she would barely talk to me. The only answer I got from her, after I begged to know what had happened, was that “it wasn’t me, it was her.” I’m sure that was true. I was never going to be one of the “cool” crowd…at least that was the reason I came up with since she wouldn’t tell me for certain what happened. That didn’t help ease the pain for me much at the time and I went into overdrive trying to “fix” the situation by blaming myself and trying to figure out what I had done wrong to lose her friendship. I know now that wasn’t the best way to deal with the situation, but I will admit that even now, the mystery of “why did she drop me?” still stings a bit when I think it.

Reading that and listening to 12 year old Sammy talk about The Populars brought back that feeling of wanting to be accepted, of saying Yes to things I didn’t want to do because I thought they would make me loved.

I don’t know who the girl is that wrote that post on my Facebook but I want to ask her for a glass of wine and take the slight sting away. But I know that’s me wanting to fix it. I want to go back in time and befriend her younger self and say It wasn’t you at all. And the cool crowd stinks. It’s the nerds and the geeks that end up being the ones we want to be with when we grow up. They are the ones who invent iPods and Macs and write awesome books. But I don’t know if I knew all that back then so I will leave it at my thirty something self telling her adult self: The “cool people” still suck. I am sorry that you had that hurt and I hope that you found a way to heal and to love better for it.

Sammy told me that The Populars were mean and talked behind people’s backs and didn’t listen to the teachers but that everyone put up with them and was sort of scared of them.

Oh, the fear. The fear of being unlovable or not wanted. The fear of being ostracized or not picked for the team or sitting in the basement alone in a sea of couples. The things we do to not have to face that fear. To feel just a little tiny bit loved.

I try in my small ways to cultivate acceptance and love. Why do you think I call my students and the people in my workshops and retreats my Tribe? It’s like I am saying You! You over there, by the lockers! You in the basement on that chair! You on the bus! You! Come over here. You are part of something. There is no “us” and “them.”

But hey, it exists. Who am I kidding?

It always will exist, that Us and Them. The Populars. The Rich and the Poor. I can see that just by talking to a 12 year old and by looking at Facebook and even by watching some other yoga teachers.

What I can do, however, is my best. I can hope that I set an example of what it means to love one another without fear and to be inclusive and loving.

If you’re on the outside looking in, first ask yourself, do I even want to be on the inside? 

And then ask yourself what the inside even is? And if it is something that polarizes or leaves people feeling unwanted then say Hell No and Thank you but I will stay here on the outside, and, in fact, I am done looking in.

And then move away from the glass.

If you are on the inside, here’s a word to the wise: The Populars suck. You are being The Populars right now by making an inside and an outside. Erase that invisible line you’ve created between yourself and everyone else before it erodes everything and becomes impossible to erase.

Once you step out from the cocoon of the inside you will see there is a whole world of wacky and loving people waiting to ride the bus with you. Problem is, when you are living in that insular bubble you’ve created, you might as well be back in that basement in New Jersey. And you might as well get over the fact that you are going to keep swapping spit with the same people over and over, for the rest of your life, until you get out of the cage you are living in.

Do your best to bridge the distances. There will always be some distances. We cannot possibly make out with every person in line, but, we can offer our kindnesses. We can say Hey you! Yes, you, sitting all alone in that chair in the basement while everyone around you is making out, why don’t we turn on the lights and look at you.

And you know what? The Us and Them gets smaller until it’s usandthem and then the them gets dropped and it’s just us. And you realize it’s always been just us.

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Beating Fear with a Stick, healing, Inspiration

Taking Things Personally.

March 12, 2013

By Jen Pastiloff.

Yesterday someone asked me if I was pregnant based on a photo they saw of me. She asked if maybe she missed my Facebook announcement about it.

Nope. There was no announcement. Nope. I am not pregnant.

I wanted to say I’m just fat, I guess. But I know I’m not fat and I only wanted to say that to make her feel bad for asking so I didn’t say it. I just said that I wasn’t pregnant and asked why was she asking. She said it must have been a bad angle in a photo.

Eek!

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