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Guest Posts, parenting, Pregnancy

Yellow Coat

April 4, 2021
cyrus

By Samina Najmi

This is an essay I don’t want my son to read.

When Cyrus first arrived at the daycare center, a handsome two-year-old with dimpled cheek, he refused to take his coat off. For weeks the battle raged. Even when he could be persuaded to walk into his classroom and sit at the communal table, he would not permit anyone to unzip his puffy yellow coat or slide the hood from his head. His teacher, a no-nonsense young woman concerned about the hazards of overheating, insisted. Cyrus would back away, clutching at his chest as she approached, but stronger hands than his pried his fingers away and retrieved the shrinking arms from the yellow sleeves that cocooned them. He’d crumple in the corner, then, his body hiccuping with sobs.

By the time Cyrus was four years old, he was already a staunch creature of habit. Every morning he climbed down from the top of the bunk-bed, one careful step at a time, with a plush animal or two ensconced under his arm, and at the end of each day he gathered his critters and climbed back up the ladder to bed. No matter how late the night or how tired his legs, Cyrus never left his critters behind.

But then his mother accepted a tenure-track position in the English Department at Fresno State. During the five months in which our family of four had to pack up our lives in Massachusetts and move to California, Cyrus sorrowed for what he was about to lose: the bedroom lined with bookshelves that he shared with his older sister, Maya; the swing-set in the sprawling backyard with grass that his father mowed on a mini tractor, sometimes with Cyrus sitting ensconced between his knees; the above-ground pool he would venture into only with a yellow float that resembled a lifejacket; his preschool friends and teachers who had been part of his world for fully half his life–in a word, everything he knew.

I helped as I knew how: by buying children’s books on the subject. Together we followed the Berenstain Bears’ move from mountain cave to tree-house and Tigger’s move to a new home; we read about a human family’s sudden accumulation of cardboard boxes from the perspective of their dog, Boomer. In fact, I discovered scores of stories about animals whose families were about to relocate. The one Cyrus asked me to read most often featured a little boy mouse and bore the title:  I’m Not Moving, Mama!

Ten years later Cyrus would have to move again, this time within Fresno, following his parents’ divorce. I’ll worry about its effect on him, but though he’ll be more tentative about the condo than his sister, he will be surer of it than I. At fourteen, the relief of not having to water backyard trees or skim a pool, and the coolness factor of having the boutique drinks of Dutch Bros nearby will outweigh any sense of loss. This time it will be our four-year-old cat Winnie who’ll spend the first months after the move huddled in a cardbox box in our new garage.

But back then as we packed for the transcontinental move, Cyrus refused to part with any of his belongings, so we paid to have them all–not just the stuffed animals but every building block, every monster truck, every long-lost board-book, old socks, and worn shoes–we paid by the pound to have all of them driven three thousand miles in a big moving truck that sported the word Atlas on a blue wave across its breadth.

On the six-hour flight from Boston to San Francisco, Cyrus sat somber and resigned, like a kitten in a carry-cage that had stopped meowing but couldn’t be made to purr. An enthusiast about every mode of transportation, he allowed himself to be distracted only briefly by the airplane’s wing or the terrain below it. Often I’d look up to find his eyes holding the tears that would neither quell nor drop.

A single photograph captures the moment of Cyrus’s arrival at Fresno airport: he stands with his older sister at the top of the downward escalator in the terminal, a giant “Welcome to Fresno” sign visible above their small frames. Maya looks around her with bright, inquisitive eyes and a smile forming on her lips. Cyrus, on the other hand, wears a wary expression and a navy blue t-shirt with BOSTON in big red letters across his chest.

That first year, in addition to my new tenure-track job, the family had to adjust to the fact that dad was no longer working from home. This was especially hard for Cyrus. “I wish Daddy didn’t have a job,” he said more than once. (Until, within the year, his wish came true.) I arose at 5:00am to prepare or overprepare for my classes and get myself and my children ready for the day. I’d drop Maya off at Malloch Elementary and Cyrus at Kiddie Kare–the preschool he had picked over the more prestigious Fairmont on account of the quality of its playground (and yes, I gave him the choice because he had so few choices). Then I made my way twenty minutes east to Fresno State. I was teaching new courses and adapting to the rhythms of a large public university where the culture differed significantly from the small private colleges I had taught at until then. I was being tested and I didn’t want to fail.

Cyrus added to the challenges of my first year on the job by dragging his feet every morning. The day would begin pleasantly enough. He’d be the first person to awake after me, and as soon as he did so, he’d climb down from the bunk-bed with the stuffed toys du jour and come looking for Mama in the family room. He’d find her predictably reading on the couch, pen in hand. Our unspoken ritual dictated that I set my tome aside for a few minutes while he rested his head on my lap, and together we listened for the birdies. I didn’t know then how abruptly such rituals end or how often I would return to that morning communion between us when the teen years came. There are days now when my son will emerge from his bedroom and walk at brisk, preoccupied pace right past the living room, unseeing. But back then I would have to say, “Time for us to get up now, love.” And somehow as soon as the moment of idyllic stasis was behind us, as it came time to get dressed and head out of the house, the morning demanded some combination of coaxing, humoring, arguing, and reprimanding to get Cyrus out the door on time. Somehow, we managed.

Until one day, six months into the new school year, it got to me. And it was the morning of Cyrus’s fifth birthday.

He had come looking for me in the living room that cold February morning, his footsteps soft against the Mexican tiles of the hallway. But instead of bounding toward the couch, he paused at the threshold with smiling eyes, clutching Pinkie, the plush poodle, in one hand, his slender body wrapped in the fleece robe his grandmother had made him for Christmas. I went up to hug him before we returned to the couch together. That morning at the breakfast table he laughed at everything, the Birthday Boy, his dimples deep with the giddiness of turning five.

I don’t know when it began or how it escalated, but an hour later, the scene had shifted. Maya was dressed and ready, as was I. Also ready to go was a half-sheet marble cake for Cyrus’s classmates with strawberry filling and a miniature Lightning McQueen parked atop the icing. Then Cyrus was protesting–was it about wearing a sweater? putting his shoes on?–and I was trying to reason with him. Next thing I knew I was shrieking at him in a voice I couldn’t recognize as my own. It wasn’t even the worst of his procrastinations, but I couldn’t scale back. My words, whatever they were, bounced off the dark Mexican tiles and resounded throughout the high-ceilinged house. Maya stared. Six months of practiced patience at home and nervous diligence at work had erupted in unaccustomed volume that terrorized the five-year-old boy before me. His shoulders shook from the force of his sobs.

I like to think I didn’t let him cry for long. That I recovered my sense of proportion, abandoning whatever had seemed important to insist upon a few minutes ago. I held him until the sobs subsided, led him to the bathroom to wash his face and pat it dry, my fingers smoothing his dark hair.

I load the Lightning McQueen cake into the minivan. We drop Maya off at Malloch and within five minutes we have arrived at Kiddie Kare. As I reach for the sheet cake on the backseat, I wonder if Cyrus is a tad too quiet. The teacher takes the cake from my hands and assures me that the children will enjoy it. “Cyrus makes everyone laugh,” she says.

My husband and I had gone all out for our son’s fifth birthday, his first one in Fresno. We even colluded in buying him the big, red motorized All Terrain Vehicle he could only imagine owning. After Kiddie Kare, there was Pump It Up, an extravagant space where brother and sister bounced their hearts out together. The following day we hosted Cyrus’s four close friends from preschool, all of them boys who displayed good-natured envy of his new ATV and took turns driving it around our backyard. Photographs show Cyrus and his playmates with exuberant expressions, intent on their fun. All evidence suggests a happy birthday.

So why has that morning been on my mind these past few weeks of summer? Cyrus and Maya appear to have no memory of it. Does that mean it didn’t happen? That I didn’t ruin the day–didn’t make my son cry on the morning of his fifth birthday?

Moments after that moment, six-year-old Maya had said quietly, “He wasn’t really arguing with you, Mama. I don’t know why you got so upset with him.”

Maya has always been communicative–to a fault, her teachers might say. “Why not try to sit with silence?” I’d ask her at the kitchen table sometimes. “It’s not the same thing as nothingness, you know.” Now, in her last summer at home before leaving for college, she does yoga and we hang out at cafés together, as comfortable with quiet as with our chatter. Our conversations move across varied terrains. She’s my window into contemporary pop culture as shaped by artists of color–Solange Knowles, Childish Gambino (whom I once recalled as “Childish Bambino,” much to my children’s mirth). I can’t get into the macabre crime shows she loves, but Jane the Virgin reels me in with such vehemence that within weeks I’ve caught up on all eighty-one episodes available on Netflix.

Maya was a junior at Edison High when Cyrus entered as a freshman. Many in his class looked up to his sister as part of the cool set, one of those tweeting upper-classmen who have their fingers firmly on the pulse of their times. She made a formidable opponent in debates at Model United Nations conferences and performed in Edison Tiger Theater Company’s productions of The Wiz and The Lion King. She’s also a freelance journalist for The kNOw Youth Media and Fresnans have seen her pictured in The Fresno Bee among a small group of young people speaking up for their right to meaningful sex education in Fresno Unified schools. Maya has an opinion on most things, including high school robotics, which her brother loves.

Robotics. Cyrus’s freshman year, robotics became the wall between us that I couldn’t scale. He’s been loyal to soccer and piano since he was little, but neither of those shut me out like robotics, perhaps because sports and music make room for an audience. By contrast, the robotics club at Edison High gathers in an extension of the lab that is a warehouse–a metallic room cramped with tools that I can barely name, let alone use. This unbeautiful space fires my son’s imagination. During the six weeks of Build Season, he and a few other hardcore robotics students like him spend at least as many hours in the wareheouse after school as they do in class. There they feel the rush of the hands-on, head-on thrill of designing and building a robot that can compete at the prestigious First Robotics regional, national, and even global competitions. A tireless mentor stays with them, including parent-mentors who have both the time and know-how to make themselves useful.

I am not one of them. But sophomore year I spend more money than I should to tag along to Houston when Edison’s team, Mindcraft 3495, is invited to the World Competition, sponsored by major tech companies, including Google. Their robot’s unique four-bar arm design, which Cyrus had worked on with a senior, had won the Engineering Award at the Central Valley Regional and caught the attention of the First Robotics judges. They didn’t win the global tournament, but they were there. And cheering them on, I felt for the first time that I understood something of First Robotics culture, if not of mechanical engineering.

Still, the mother seeks traces of the little boy who loved his stuffed animals and never failed to scoop them up at the end of the day.

Is the boy who held on to his yellow coat there in the sixteen-year-old whose teammates trust him not only to design and build their robot but to drive it in the tense, adrenalin-charged arenas of a tournament?

Maya has her own take on her younger brother. With the vantage point of a graduated senior, she casts a suspicious eye on “STEM kids” as likely robotic themselves. And as an enthusiast of psychology, she has been known, half-seriously, to call her brother a sociopath–as distinct from psychopath, she tells him; more like the profiles of CEOs. I recoil from the noun and admonish her for typecasting. What does she know of Cyrus’s capacity for tenderness, his vulnerabilities, and his loyalties? Mine is the memory.

Perhaps the memories of Cyrus’s early years press on me now because Maya is about to leave home. I have spent the past few years anticipating what her absence will mean for me, for Cyrus, for our home life. We’ve moved twice before, but as a family; now Maya will be moving out. She will be moving on. For the first time in our world, it will be just my son and me. We’ll have only each other to greet first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Until, in two years’ time, Cyrus moves out, too.

As the harsh hand of change reaches toward me, I shrink into my yellow coat. I want to be the critter who won’t be left behind.

Samina Najmi teaches multiethnic U.S. literature at California State University, Fresno. A Hedgebrook alumna, Samina’s essays have appeared in such publications as World Literature Today, The Massachusetts Review, The Rumpus, and Entropy. Her essay “Abdul” won Map Literary’s 2012 nonfiction prize. Daughter of multigenerational migrations, Samina grew up in Pakistan and England and lived in Massachusetts before moving to California with her then-young family.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

The Art of Acceptance

March 15, 2021
jessica

CW: This story contains outdated, culturally insensitive references to individuals with developmental disabilities. Prior to the 1990s, the term ‘’mental retardation’ was used to describe individuals diagnosed with low IQ.

By Cathy Shields

“Your daughter Jessica is profoundly retarded.”

The string of words yanks like an invisible chain, back to that moment in 1988 when the doctor made his decree. Those five words launched a journey I struggled to navigate for twenty-four years. Today I face what awaited at the end of my passage.

I stand in the middle of Jessica’s bedroom. Everything appears the same as yesterday; the same, but different. An assortment of posters hangs on the wall above her bed, most of them, images of the band, the Backstreet Boys. In one photo, the five boys lean forward, arms linked. They smile, and for a second, I imagine they can hear me. I whisper the words like a well-kept secret.

“We moved Jessica to a group home today.”

I turn my attention to the posters Jessica told me to bring. My fingers tremble as I grab the edges. I wonder whether my heart will crack into a million little pieces, like the broken keepsakes she has refused to throw away. Jessica often followed me around the house and repeated the same questions. “Mommy where we go today? Mommy, what we do? Mommy? Why you no answer me?”

What if we made a mistake moving her? Thoughts teeter like a seesaw. We should have waited. What if she doesn’t like it? What if she thinks we’ve abandoned her?

“You’re making that face again.” My husband Chip stands in the doorway. “I can tell what you’re thinking. The staff at the group home said they’d call if there were any problems.” He folds his arms across his chest. “We were supposed to wait a few days. You’re going to call anyway, aren’t you?”

I shrug. “Sorry, I have to.” I grab my cellphone and dial. Two rings later, Nina, the house manager, answers.

“Hi, it’s Jessica’s mom. I know you advised us to wait a few days to call, but can I speak to her?” The words leap from my mouth as if they possess a mind of their own.

“Yes, Mrs. Shields, but we want her to adjust to the new environment. Can you wait? I promise she’s fine.”

A long silence follows. I’m not sure whether to wait or hang up. When I don’t respond, Nina sighs. “Okay, I’ll get her.”

Seconds tick by until I hear Jessica’s voice.

“What you want Mommy? When you come here?”

“Um, I’ll come soon. In a few days.”

“You forget my posters? You say you bring them.”

“No, I didn’t forget. I started taking them down.”

“Okay Mommy. I love you. Bye.”

I hang up the phone and stifle an urge to cry.

“So do you feel better now?” Chip uncrosses his arms, a tiny smile peeking through his graying beard. His green eyes are like beacons calling me home. “What are we making for dinner? It’s getting late,”

“I’m not hungry,” I murmur. “Go ahead and grab something. I might be a while.”

“Are you still worried? Nina just told you Jessica’s fine.” He waits for me to respond and when I don’t answer, he says, “Okay, fine. Do whatever you have to. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

A rumpled pink bedspread covers Jessica’s mattress. I sit, pull her pillow close to me, and inhale. Faint traces of her vanilla-scented shampoo remain. Chip doesn’t understand. He didn’t spend years worrying about how to make Jessica normal. It seemed easy for him to accept. Why couldn’t I?

Stacks of empty video boxes, loose CDs, magazines, and crumpled pictures are scattered over the top of Jessica’s nightstand, and when I straighten the hodgepodge of items, I spot my favorite picture, a photo of me and four-year-old Jessica. In the photo, we smile at the camera. Her saucer-like blue eyes sparkle with childlike innocence. Silky bangs frame her face and her blonde hair cascades like a waterfall of curls. People often said she should be a child model. If things had turned out differently, it could have happened. My finger traces the curly lines of the embossed silver frame. I had insisted Chip take that picture. To mark the occasion.

I slide the photo from the frame and turn it over. In blue ink, I had written the date. April 5, 1988.

Dr. Morgan, the neuropsychologist who headed the program, met with us. He made his pronouncement. My mind reconstructs the scene. Snippets of details; the cold room, the red leather chair, the click of a pen, the tears. The meeting ended. Chip clasped my hand and led me away from the shards of broken dreams. I remember the way Dr. Morgan rose from his seat as I swept past him and headed into the hallway. For one split second, my mind had conjured an entirely different scene. What if I could change the ending? Then Chip opened the door to the children’s activity room. Jessica saw us. Her eyes lit up. She pointed and beamed at us. “That my Mommy.”

The woman beside her, clad in pink scrubs, laughed as Jessica tugged on her hand. “I’m Carol,” she said, “one of the nurses here. Your daughter is so sweet and adorable.”

A second nurse sidled up and stroked Jessica’s hair. “She certainly is. She’s angelic.”

I nodded, barely able to look at Jessica. Perhaps I would never see her the same way again. What then?

Carol touched my shoulder. “Oh, please don’t cry. So many kids come to our center, but your daughter is special. Perhaps she arrived in your life to help you. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

I hated it when people said that. It sounded so condescending. Jessica held up both hands. “Up, Mommy. Pick me up. We go home?”

“Yes. Daddy and I will take you home.”

I remember how I held Jessica, pressed my face against her cheek, and inhaled the fragrance of her skin. A precious, heartbreaking moment. How could I live with the fact there was no cure for her irreversible brain damage?

*

Chip pokes his head through the bedroom doorway. “Didn’t you hear me call you? You’ve been in here for over an hour. Dinner’s ready. Come and eat.”

I steal one last glance at Jessica’s photo before I return it to the nightstand. It might take the rest of my life to learn the art of acceptance.

Cathy Shields is a retired educator with an M.S. Ed in Exceptional Education. She is a member of the South Florida Writers Association and a member of the Memoir Writers Circle. Her short stories have appeared in Ariel Chart International Literary Journal, ’45 Magazine Women’s Literary Journal, Flash Fiction Friday, A Story in 100 words, Spillwords and Variant Literature. Her work “The Phantom Ovaries” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2019. Cathy resides in Miami, Florida where she and her husband raised their three grown daughters.

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Mental Health, pandemic

Ghosts

March 1, 2021
shadowy photo of woman during day

By Laura Cline

I feel her following me.  The ghost.

Somehow, it is already seven p.m.  My hands are under the hot running water, rinsing the dishes and leaning over to put them in the dishwasher.  The little girl voices swirl around me.  “Girls, time to settle down.” They don’t hear me.  I keep rinsing the dishes and the ghost wraps her arms around mine- strangling- embracing.

I’ve been here before.  This feels familiar.

Not that I have lived through a global pandemic, but my heart has been in this place, my head, my hands, all the parts of my body. My days have melted together into the longest day, the mornings weeks, months from the nights.  The rhythm of my day is need- food, water, attention, sleep.

I wake up every morning and immediately feel the fog pull me back under.  I haven’t slept enough the night before.  I was up late folding the laundry, slipping into the warm water of the bath, rocking the baby, holding her to my breast.  I hear the voices, the cries.  “Mooooooom, mommy, get me mommy.”  This day will be just like the last. I put on my glasses so I can see and pull back the covers.  The ghost sits in the rocker across the room.  My eyelids feel heavy, made of lead.

The television is always on in the background, but I barely hear it.  My daughter asks questions about what is happening. “What is she doing, mommy?”  “I don’t know, honey.  I wasn’t paying attention.” Instead I scroll though post after post on Facebook.  I stop when I see one about the virus, when I see one about the baby.  I read it and feel it sewing the sides of my rib cage together, the tightening of uncertainty.  When will it be over? Will this last forever?

After my daughter was born, I was diagnosed with PPD, PPPTSD, PPA, and PPOCD.  Four acronyms, but one feeling.  One ghost, drifting through her days. One shadow, drawn in tears.

COVID-19 is it’s own ghost, invisible, but we all know it is there.

The afternoons are the hardest.  I’m at my worst.  Most days I feel like I am giving my ghost a piggy back ride, dragging her around the house by her ankles, asking her again and again to please leave me, but she doesn’t listen.  Most days, I curl around my daughter for a nap in my king sized bed.  I leave the window open and a warm breeze blows the blinds and taps them against the window.  I feel the softness of my daughter’s blond hair pressed against my lips.  Sometimes I sleep and she doesn’t.  She wakes me up, and my heart pounds, I feel dizzy.  Where am I?  What day is today?

After nap, I feel like I’m just waiting to sleep again.  Am I awake?  I feel raw on all my edges.  My nerves jitter around in my body.  So many sounds: squeaks and screams and crashes. My daughters’ sticky hands and sticky faces grab my hands and my clothes, wrap around my neck.  They run wild, play aggressively, fall and cry, and fall and cry.  They are all scraped knees and off the wall ideas.  I look out the window again and again.  Is my mom’s car in her driveway?  Should we get in the car and drive somewhere? I crave talking to another adult.  Out in our shared yard, my mom and I talk about the news of the day, what will happen next, what did the girls do today, as we pick up weeds from the driveway, water the plants, sit six feet apart in chairs.  My youngest always runs right up to her grandma, “No, June. Space.  The virus.”  They have seen her, hugged her, kissed her goodnight almost every day of their short lives. When we go inside, some nights I break. I scream at the top of my lungs in the middle of the kitchen.  I sob until I can’t breathe.  I kick around the toys on the floor, the trash, the crumbs sticking to the bottoms of my feet.  Some nights I am even, Zen almost. Numb.  We laugh at the dinner table, play Bob Marley and Elton John, have dance parties, read books, snuggle and eat chocolate. When I look in the mirror, my face is the ghost’s.

Every night it seems we go to bed later.  The sun lingers.  It is almost summer.  It is mid summer. It is the heat of the longest of summers. Some of the voices on the news wonder if the heat will kill the virus, render it dormant, but it doesn’t hibernate.  It still lurks in our breath, on our fingertips.

My firstborn came in the summer.  One afternoon in July, I swaddled her up and put her into her rocker.  She fell asleep and I waited for her to jerk awake, like she always did.  Instead, she stayed quiet, and outside it began to rain, one of the early Monsoon storms that season.  I turned on Fleetwood Mac.  I was still.  I felt like I was flying.

One day while I am watering the bush in front of the house, a bird shoots out.  My mom tells me that she has seen the bird too.  “It must have a nest there.”  The next day, the kids and I trim back the bush.  “Don’t touch the clippers. Pick up the leaves.”  Eventually, we can see the nest near the edge of the bush, four tiny eggs inside.  “Don’t touch them,” I tell the girls, but later that afternoon, I find them in the front, hiding their hands behind their backs, a cracked piece of shell on the ground.  “I saw the tiny beak, mom,” my daughter tells me.  My heart cracks and fissures like the shell.  I hope that the mama will come back.  I tell my girl that the bird is dead; that cracking it’s shell killed the bird.  Her sister tells everyone, “The bird is dead, dead, dead.  Gracie killed the baby bird.”  “Stop it,” she shrieks, “they already know.”

The next day I go out and rustle the leaves on the bush.  The mother bird flies out and hops across the yard.  She came back.

Every morning my girls want to check on the eggs.  I feel like I am holding my breath.  I so badly don’t want them to be disappointed.  How much loss can any of us stand?

The ghost has felt the hot summer sun on her shoulders and the back of her neck.  She has felt the sting of the sweat running into her eyes. She watches like the mother bird, shooting out, anxious, to watch as giants hover over her babies, with their careless hands.  Those hands already took one of them. Will they take the others?

But they don’t.  The eggs hatch and the babies – two of them- are there in the nest, naked, tiny, eyes glued shut, organs and veins just visible under their translucent skin. They grow patches of feathers.  My daughters give them names: Tiny and Flower.  One day, one of them is gone, just a rustle in the bush.  I push the girls on the swing, my feet in the warm sand, and when we come back, both baby birds are gone.  Did a crow eat them?  A javelina? Did something invisible take them away?

There are orioles all over the yard.  Some days, we think we see the babies, slightly smaller than the others, eating at one of our feeders.  The girls stand at the window, yelling, “I see them! Tiny and Flower!”  I see them too, I think, and I almost believe it.  “I see them, too.” My ghost nods.

We leave the house just a little for a few warm weeks at the start of summer.  We go to the playground.  We play with friends. The kids are almost like kids again.  I start taking the baby places.  She is stronger, bigger.  They are the healthiest they have ever been.  While we are out, I feel alive.  When I come home to the house, I feel the energy drain out of my body.  The house is a succubus.  The ghost is always inside.

And the virus descends.  Overnight, eleven people die. I don’t know them, but I feel their loss.  Were they alone?  I know they were.

I can’t control it anymore.  The chaos descends.  Every day is a whirlwind, and I want to get back in bed as soon as I get out of it.  The laundry piles up, the floors are dirty, every thing is wet.  The clutter makes me crazy.  I throw things out with abandon.  We take out the trash again and again.  I rage.  I cry.  I laugh at my kids’ antics.  They start to talk like me, to become me.  I wait for night when they go to sleep.  When I can breathe.  The sun stays out and they go to bed later and later.  Will it end?

When I find out the kids will be going back to school, I am terrified and exhilarated at once.  This must be how the mother bird feels when her babies leave the nest?  The act of protecting them, of holding them under my soft belly, is exhausting.  But outside, there lurks the invisible danger of the virus, of the unknown, of the dark chasm of what the future will hold for them, for all of us.

The ghost sits down next to me on the couch, surrounded by the mess of the day.  She takes my hand.  We wait together.

Laura Cline is an English teacher at a community college with an MA in Literature from the University of Arizona. She has published both fiction and non-fiction, including an article about birds and babies at Motherwell, and an essay titled ‘Dear Left Big Toe‘ published in Entropy.

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Kindness, parenting, Self Love

Golden Repair: A Disfigured Mom’s Quest to Raise a More Loving Child

February 8, 2021
god

By Melissa Akie Wiley

She looked at my face with disgust. My infant daughter cooed. I had just placed the baby into a shopping cart when the woman first approached. A stranger. She came too close. Staring at my daughter.

“Your baby is perfect,” she said. “She looks like a doll.”

I thanked her and pulled the cart away. Then the woman looked up at me and froze. She was silent and scurried to her car, as if I might run after her. I stood in front of the grocery store with my daughter. The automatic doors opened and closed but I didn’t move. My baby smiled. Too young to know that she is beautiful but her mother is disfigured.

My daughter is 2 years old now. She has round blue eyes and blonde hair. Her face inspires joy. My face is lopsided and scarred. It was a dog attack. I was five. I am not afraid of dogs. People always seem more concerned about my feelings toward dogs than they do about me. I have had over thirty surgeries and they helped. But my face is instantly noticeable. And the world is bothered by asymmetry and imperfection. I am also part Japanese and part white. My skin is too pale and my hair is too dark. People tell me that my daughter is perfect and then they say she looks nothing like me.

I have never looked like anyone. Bi-racial and disfigured is a cocktail of isolation. In childhood, I left my hometown of Boulder, Colorado every summer to visit my Japanese grandma in Tucson, Arizona. One summer I begged her to take me to a crowded shopping mall to buy doll clothes. I was 7 years old.

“Did you see that disgusting girl?” a woman said then.

She was talking to her daughter and looking directly at me.

The girl met my eyes and glared. Her hair twisted in a tight braid. I dreamed of ponytails but didn’t dare wear my hair up. I looked at the girl’s flawless appearance and sank into shame.

“So gross. I can’t believe she even came out of her house. She’s going to give me nightmares. She’s a monster,” the girl said. She was my age and already this callous.

The mother hugged her daughter and shot my grandma a scowl.

Then she said, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. People should know better but she’s clearly with some immigrant nanny who probably doesn’t even speak English.”

We stood in silence with our doll clothes. I felt devastation that my grandma should suffer due to my deformity. I tried to wedge myself behind stacks of toys to prevent further commentary. My grandma adjusted her glasses with shaky hands.

“I am sorry I don’t speak good English,” she said.

That day she bought more doll clothes than she could afford. She had worked as a hotel maid and saved tips in the form of crisp dollar bills. She set this carefully preserved money aside for me. When we approached the counter to pay for the items, the cashier said, “what’s wrong with her face?”

“Nothing wrong with my granddaughter,” she said, in broken English.

Once I asked my mom if she was mad at God. We were sitting in my grandma’s backyard in Tucson. Looking at the night sky. It’s easier to talk about God’s failings in the dark.

On the day of the dog attack, she had only looked away for a minute. Long enough to drain noodles from a boiling pan. When she turned around, the yard lay covered in blood and my face was gone.

“No,” she said. “Because you are extraordinary. You have shown me what it is to live next to suffering and become truly beautiful.”

People ask how I survived. The answer is my mom.

I want to tell her that I am not mad at God because he gave me her, and a good mom is worth more than a pretty face.  I am thankful I learned this lesson in youth. When I still have more years on the earth with my mom.

Tragedy in childhood is a spiritual offering. Early redemption creates a fast track toward a more meaningful and grounded life. I shed the frivolousness of appearance, money, and status like a butterfly discards a cocoon. Because when the world rejected me, I sheltered only with the tender hearted and my own soul. And if we’re lucky, that is where we all eventually end up anyway.

My daughter will grow up with a disfigured mom.

On my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten, middle school, high school, and college, I will take photos of her and children will stare. After I am gone, they will ruin these moments of childhood by asking what’s wrong with her mom. I know this because these moments were taken from me, too.

I will want to stay in the car to spare her. But I will not. Instead I will show up for everything. And when we hear the comments, I will tell her that the Japanese have a word, Kintsugi, which roughly translates to golden repair. It is the Japanese art of taking broken pottery and patching it with gold so that the imperfection is illuminated instead of disguised. I will tell her that my mother’s love was the glue that made my flawed life golden. And my love will hold her together, too.

This pain will make my daughter kind. It will teach her that the world is unduly harsh because we are all more broken than whole. And she will learn that love is restorative and the only thing of true beauty. She will inherit this wisdom in childhood. When we are both still young enough to walk the earth together.

And when people ask, I hope she says, “There is nothing wrong with my mom”.

Melissa Akie Wiley is a public servant and fierce local government leader by day and a mother and writer by heart. She strives to infuse joy into all aspects of service by living with authenticity and resiliance. After overcoming a disfiguring childhood dog attack, Melissa committed to a life of repair and love. She holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Pennsylvania and lives with her husband, daughter, and dog in Denver, Colorado. She is the director of the nationally-recognized, Denver Peak Academy and is currently working on her memoir.

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We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Drawers

October 11, 2020
drawers

By Hillary Richard

When I was a kid, my brothers and I routinely rifled through our single mom’s drawers. We didn’t really know what we were looking for. Clues, maybe? Mom was something of an enigma then, alternately mystifying and terrifying.

While we three roamed the Upper West Side barefoot, bedraggled, and unsupervised, Mom worked as a registered nurse, mostly at night because it paid more. Because she worked nights, she slept during the day. When we feral kids woke her (which was often) she raged. Screaming, hitting, and punishments galore followed. Sometimes, if we really, really misbehaved, she would take away holidays like Halloween or Christmas.

But Mom could also be really fun. A musician at heart, a lifelong pianist, she loved to cook up a big pot of spaghetti, invite tons of people over, and make music. More often than not, though, we sat alone at the kitchen table, eating chicken potpies and TV dinners. Sometimes a live-in student swapped rent for nighttime babysitting. Men came and went. Some were nice and taught us things we loved, like how to burp on command (I can still do this). Some, not so much.

Who was this mother we loved, but whose actions confused and frightened us? The answer, we figured, was in her drawers. My brothers and I were usually disappointed to find only scarves, pantyhose, and underwear. Sometimes, we found matchbooks and notes. We pondered their meaning.

In time, I would find much more.

I now have three kids of my own. I have the luxury of a husband, a well paying job. When the kids were younger, I was able to employ an excellent nanny who not only cared for them, but who cleaned and cooked.

I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my mom to never enjoy the gift of time when I was a child. Just time to play with me or read to me; time free from worrying about how to pay the rent or clean the apartment. I, on the other hand, have clocked countless hours playing with Barbies, endless games of Candyland (which I never let the kids win without a real fight), and hours and hours of reading to them in bed or just laying there, feeling their hearts beat while they fell asleep. These quotidian minutiae shaped my relationships with my three girls. As did my desire to be an open book, unlike my mother.

When I was in third grade, I found some pot in one of my mother’s drawers. I had been fully indoctrinated into the belief that marijuana was a gateway drug that led directly to heroin. Naturally, I was hysterical. I told my older brother Chris, a sixth grader, that our mother was a drug addict, likely to die any day now of a fatal overdose. I thought we could confront her directly, you know: scare her straight. Chris calmly explained that he too smoked pot. Perhaps, he reasoned, if I tried it, I would understand it wasn’t dangerous like heroin. While I appreciated his soothing tone and calming efforts, I demurred. And rather than confront her, I just kept on spying.

Naturally, I grew to learn that weed doesn’t kill you, although alcohol might. And raising three girls firmly convinced me that of the two, weed was definitely the safer option. Alcohol would inspire me to make stupid and risky choices. Pot just made me hungry. My mom struggled with both. I joked that she could get addicted to anything – Coca Cola, aspirin, you name it. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem so funny.

When my middle daughter started smoking pot in high school, I was relieved she wasn’t coming home drunk. I didn’t want her to be vulnerable. Unfortunately, just being female and a teenager makes you vulnerable. But I didn’t want her to be more vulnerable.

Eventually, I found some papers in my mother’s underwear drawer. They appeared to reference a medical procedure. I didn’t understand them. But I remembered the word abortion. Or a word close to abortion. They might have been in Spanish; I don’t really remember. But they scared me.

Sometimes we spent weekends with our dad (dads really, as my little brother had a different one). We never wondered what my mom was doing because we were kids and mostly just thought about ourselves. To the extent we ever thought about it, we just assumed she was at work or at home, like always. I was frightened to think that when we were away, my mom was having medical procedures, or doing who knows what else. But I couldn’t ask without admitting I went through her stuff. Was this taking away a holiday kind of bad? I wasn’t sure of the grade of the offense, and I didn’t want to risk it. Still, I thought about those papers for years.

We left New York for California soon thereafter. My mom married her third husband. We stopped going through her drawers. He had a bad temper and it wasn’t worth the risk. Also, she was home more. She stopped nursing. Actually, she stopped working altogether.

I understand now that she was desperately searching for herself. All of a sudden, she had the luxury of time. She wrote music, poetry, plays. She was finding herself as an artist. We kids remained feral, complicated, and unruly. I’m sure this contributed to the demise of that marriage. We moved on. My brothers left to live with their respective fathers. I stayed behind.

As a full-fledged teenager, I acted out, fell in love, got arrested, cut classes. My mom played in rock bands, had tumultuous relationships, and went on welfare. She was no longer an enigma to me. I learned she’d had a particularly rough childhood, was orphaned young, then separated from her three siblings in foster care, only to later learn that between her mother’s death and her father’s a year later, he’d remarried and sired another child. I knew that she was overwhelmed by sadness. That she had complicated relationships with men. That she loved us as best as she could, but often felt we were just too much for her.

I was no longer in danger of getting punished for going through her drawers years ago, so at 14, I asked her about the papers I had found.

As it turned out, she’d had an abortion. Not in New York, where it was illegal. She’d been having a fling, maybe an affair, with a doctor at the hospital where she worked. He didn’t want a child, at least not that one, and my mother couldn’t afford another one. So, he flew her to Puerto Rico, where abortion was legal. Indeed, during the 1960s and 1970s, it was fairly common for women to fly from mainland US to Puerto Rico to obtain a safe, legal abortion. My mom could never have afforded that on her own.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if she had gotten pregnant instead by the violin player she dated for ages, or the Con Ed worker who for a while was a fixture in our house. Would she have gotten a back alley abortion and possibly died? I can’t imagine her having another child when life was already so hard, money so strained, and my mother so tired. Our lives, already in motion, already difficult, would have been so much worse. Not only am I grateful, I’m astonished she could do such a thing. It must have been frightening to leave home, have an abortion, and return to three loud, needy kids, and pretend like nothing happened.

In that moment, I realized that there was so much of her I hadn’t realized. All along, she’d been a nuanced, complex woman with experiences and feelings unknown to me.

I soon left home and set out to live my own complex, nuanced life. About two weeks  before graduating from college and heading to law school, to begin what I saw as my real life, my adult life, I found out I was pregnant. I wasn’t in a committed relationship, although that wouldn’t have mattered. I was going to law school and there was no possibility that I was going there pregnant. Is it awful to admit that I don’t remember exactly who got me pregnant? It was a long time ago. What I do remember – vividly – was that I had a graduation party at Danceteria. I had the abortion money in my clutch (worn with my vintage cocktail dress and combat boots – thanks, Madonna). I guess he had given me his half at the party. I put my bag down to dance and when I looked over, it was gone. I ran off the dance floor and headed for the exit. (I had no money. This was a big deal.) There was the cuprit, fleeing down those steep Danceteria stairs. I screamed at her to stop and was about to jump when she tossed the bag up to me and ran.

My mother, sick with cancer, wasn’t able to attend my graduation. It was the first time I realized just how sick she was because she wouldn’t have otherwise missed it for the world. I didn’t tell her about the abortion; it didn’t seem necessary. And, given her pragmatism about hers, I was confident that she would appreciate my pragmatism about mine.

My mom died during my first year of law school. What can unmoor you more than that? (Spoiler alert: losing both parents.) I went to El Salvador and lived under martial law during a civil war. At least you can’t feel sorry for yourself under those circumstances. I blew up a relationship that probably deserved detonation. I graduated law school with honors. I had another abortion. These things were unrelated. I marched forward towards my real life. After graduation I met the man I’ve now been married to for almost thirty years. We’ve had three kids together. When I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, I longed for my mom. How did she feel when she was pregnant with me? Was she excited? Was I a surprise? I had so many questions that I’d never thought to ask. I longed for the time when I could rummage through her closets, scrutinize her expressions, pepper her with questions, if only I had known the right questions. Indeed, raising three girls, I long for her daily.

I firmly believe that we all keep secrets, even from those we have long, intimate, loving relationships with. Even those of us who consider ourselves an open book as I do. But am I an enigma to my kids? I think not. They know that I’ve had abortions. And they know not to eat any candy they find in my drawers because maybe it’s not just candy. But more than that, we spend endless amounts of time together; deeply together. We talk about things that were verboten when I was a kid: mental health issues, alcoholism, why every girl should own a vibrator, and just what it means to be alive and engaged in the world. Unlike my mom, I have the luxury of time. And I hope to have it long enough that they can ask me (once they are interested) what it felt like to be pregnant with them. How I coped working full time and raising kids. What to do when you find yourself pregnant and you don’t want to, or can’t afford to be. Let the rest of their lives be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Not me. Just stay out of my drawers.

 

Hillary Richard is a former lawyer and now helps run a social media platform for women over 40 called The Woolfer. She is editor of the weekly newsletter and occasionally writes short pieces for the site. Hillary also writes, is the executive producer, and co-host of a podcast called Raging Gracefully

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Guest Posts, pandemic, parenting

Tough As A Mother

October 4, 2020
tough

By Talya Jankovits

Four months ago, my children came home from school, and they never went back. Backpacks hung hopeful on hooks, until weeks passed, and it was clear that it was time to reach deep into the crevices of a dozen purposeless pockets and empty them of little bits of folded pieces of paper, a solitary cookie, a dried-out stick of gum. Even further still to the tiny colorful erasers hidden in the folds of the lining, these small prizes hoarded from teachers. Treasures of days traveling to and from school, all splayed out on the kitchen counter as I sorted through them like an excavator. What I could sneak into the trash before they catch me, what must get stored for next year. The backpacks went into the wash, then hung up to try before being put in the basement storage with no clear idea of when they might get pulled out next.

When I first faced the realization that we would be bunkered down, myself and my four daughters together as my husband, an essential worker,  continued to work outside of the home, anxiety filled my mornings, my nights and every hour sandwiched in between. I lost myself in the heaps of laundry, the ever-growing pile of dirty dishes in the sink. I sank heavy under the demands of varying ages of children from a baby up to a fourth grader who needed to learn how to write a state paper and all the tiresome math problems in between. Winter was still hovering in the slow birth of spring, and we watched the seasons change as the weight of our outerwear hanging on the coatrack thinned ever slowly into straw hats and baseball caps. Finally, summer had arrived and with that a redemption from remote learning and a rebirth that I had not anticipated.

As a mother, I now have never felt stronger as a result from having never felt weaker. I hadn’t understood the immense value in self forgiveness until I was one of the very few people in my new reality who could offer it. I had never embraced my flaws as a parent until I was face to face daily with the reflection of myself in the eyes of my daughters – all of whom needed me more than ever.  By the time the first tulips poked their heads out of the thawing ground I was slowly gaining awareness of my own metamorphosis. My body was softer than it ever was, fuller than its ever been. But I found that so was my heart. Parenting during a pandemic was, is, the fiercest thing I have ever done in my entire adult life.

Raising small humans was never a small task, but with the onset of a worldwide pandemic which held inside of itself historic happenings towards social justice, there was a surge in my responsibility towards fostering children that are human conscientious, anti-hate and anti-self-serving. I was terrified at all that was being hurled at us as human beings. All my obligations to absorb happenings and seize the opportunity to step up my parenting instead of retreating inside. And something remarkable happened, after months of all of us struggling with the changes, the challenges, the isolation, and the uncertainty, I noticed personal growth inside of our home.

Summer brought heat, sprinklers, frozen treats, and endless hours together to fill in any way we could think up. It also brought dialogue about why we wear masks and who we are protecting. Why we have given up certain opportunities to practice human awareness – the concept of tikkun olam, our part in caring and protecting the world. It brought on conversation about skin color, about systemic hate, about privilege, about standing up, about accountability and kindness and goodness in both large and small scales.

Summer days are hot and our heads hurt with weary happy heat by the time the sky glows pink. The kids fall asleep happy. They thank me. They tell me today was such a great day. And yet there are still times I am feeling totally gutted. As if I have hollowed all of myself out for them to grab and take with greedy fingers. I think of how far we likely are from our old normal. How long it may be until I can see my parents in California. How school may not arrive in the fall the way we want it to. How masked faces are the new face of human interaction. I think these things and I want to crawl into my bed, lay my head down and hibernate until a miracle solution is found.  But then I put on my T-shirt.

The words printed on the tshirt: Tough as a mother. My grey t-shirt, unassuming, unremarkable – feels like a superhero’s cape. I pull it over my head, slip my arms through the holes, and holler for my girls: I am ready to start our day. I feel invincible. It seems inconsequential, almost absurd, that this shirt would have any influence over me. In no time it will be sweat stained, snot marked, sticky from melted popsicles. It will get thrown into a laundry shoot with little consideration after late summer dark finally blankets the sky and the last daughter has crawled into bed. Yet, it validates me. This shirt from the internet, it fuels me.

I am one tough mother. I did it. I am still doing it. Did I get through every day with grace and dignity? At first, no, definitely no. There was yelling. There was crying on cold kitchen floors as a baby gently poked me. There was hiding in bathrooms and there was anxiety ridden nights where I never fell asleep because the dread of the mundanity that morning would bring kept me awake until the first mommy! of the day clawed open my heavy eyelids. But four months have passed and I’m not rough around the edges anymore. I’m undoubtedly tougher. There is still so much summer ahead without any of our usual summer luxuries and indulgences. There is still a fast-approaching school year with so many unknowns. I have given up so much of myself for these four girls, and I likely will be giving up so much more. But I am at peace with that. I am braver and stronger than I’ve ever been and as this virus continues to rage on, as our country sets out to do so much work that needs to be done, I want my kids to reflect back one day on this time of their lives and think, we made it through ok, because we had one tough mother

Talya Jankovits’s work has appeared in Tablet, Kveller, Bartleby Snopes, Hevria, Lilith, Literary Mama, The Jewish Literary Journal, and The Citron Review among others. Her short story “Undone” in Lunch Ticket was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart prize. Her poem, A Woman of Valor, is featured in the 2019/2020 Eshet Hayil exhibit at Hebrew Union College Los Angeles. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and resides in Chicago with her husband and four daughters..

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Guest Posts, Mental Health, parenting

All Boys Paint Cows

August 31, 2020
nick

Self-portrait by Nick O’Rourke, age 15

By Miriam Feldman

My husband and I are driving to Paris from the south of France. I am in the passenger seat, writing ideas for a story about our son, on a napkin. Our son, Nick, has schizophrenia.

You see, I am the self-appointed conservator of his legacy. I have no complete poem, painting or song to present. Yet. Scraps of a life, one piled up on the other, form the work of art that is his story. I will continue to document his life and put it into the world for as long as I am here. Perhaps he is stricken, but perhaps he is just too magnificent for this world, a blazing light they don’t have eyes to see. But I see. A mother’s eyes can always see. Super tough, I can look directly at an eclipse without damage. Blindness is not an option.

*

When he was still inside of me, a tiny little tadpole boy swimming around, my husband and I heard his heartbeat for the first time. Back in those days they didn’t do sonograms without a medical reason, so the mystery of an unborn child was a universe of questions. We sat in the doctor’s office as she placed the stethoscope on my belly, and the sound came whooshing through a speaker. It was like the repetitive slap of water on some distant ocean shore. My husband blanched and reached behind him for a chair, then sat down hard. He had to breathe into a paper bag, overwhelmed by the sound of Nick’s beating heart.

Afterwards, we went to a small Ukrainian restaurant to have lunch. I ordered soup. It was particularly delicious, and I tried to figure out why. Staring at the bowl, I noticed the way the carrots had been cut. They weren’t the usual uniform disks, graduating in size from the thick part of the carrot to the tip. They were crazy random shapes, as though the cook had performed a wild cutlery dance, shiny blades flying. There were circles, half-moons, rectangles…little snippets of carrot that defied description. That was why the soup was so good. Something about the constellation of shapes enhanced the flavor, made it more interesting. When something arrives in an unexpected form it holds adventure, interest, mystery.

Nick arrived six months later and filled our world with his own configurations of unexpected stars. Some were beautiful, some had sharp edges that cut.

*

Driving along a grey serpent of highway, we descend into a valley. Immediately, I see the blue and red lights. It is the blue that catches your eye. We are all used to seeing the red, yellow and green of traffic lights, but like the black and white of a police car, blue calls out “calamity!”

“What is going on down there?” I say, sitting taller, my straightest spine. The traffic slows down and I can see people on the median, an upside-down van, personal belongings strewn everywhere.

“Pull over, I need to go there.” My husband knows me well enough not to argue. There would be no way for me to pass and not go see about what I could do. It is how I am wired; I am addicted to trying to help. I need to know I tried. I want to be a hero but I never am. I read about a woman who was electrocuted running into water to help a man stranded in a storm, ignoring the downed power lines lapping creepily at the edges. I thought, “I would have done that.”

Grabbing a water bottle, I open the car door before we have even come to a stop. My husband admonishes, “be careful crossing…” but I am gone.

I can’t decipher the situation at first. First, I see two women attending to…what? Oh, a little dog. “He was thrown from the vehicle,” one says, as she pours water on his head. “I’m trying to cool him off.”

“Do you need more water?” I ask. No, they don’t.

The van is about a hundred feet away from me, several people lean inside, wearing blue latex gloves. Where did they get gloves? The ambulance hasn’t even arrived yet. The air has a very still, artificial feeling as I walk over, through the debris, artifacts of a trip, a life. My foot sinks into a package of mushrooms. I see shoes, papers, a book, an open box of spaghetti that landed like pick-up sticks. A young woman bends over and retrieves a wallet, “Here is his license, now we know his name.” I wish I had been the one to find the wallet. I walk over to the van.

Sound reduces to a muted decibel, wind moves slowly, and I see the two people in the vehicle, roof partially ripped off. I think of an Edward Kienholz installation I saw at the museum in L.A., everything in the whole world shoved into the corner of one room.

Kienholz left detailed instructions when he died in 1994. He was buried, sitting in the front seat of his brown 1940 Packard Coupe, a dollar bill and a deck of cards in his shirt pocket, and the ashes of his dog, Smash, on the seat beside him.

The couple in the van look pale, not just their skin, but the entirety of them is a shade lighter than the rest of the world. Arms and legs splayed out stiffly, they look a bit like big dolls. Blue gloves firmly hold a red-soaked towel against the old man’s head. “Hang on, hang on,” someone says. It sounds to me like they are all under water. The woman with the wallet says, “His name is Fred.” The woman in the car moans it is her shoulder that hurts.

There is nothing I can do, nothing for me to contribute. My fingers moving against each other as if I could feel the air at my sides, I just stand there. The old man and woman, vacation careened terribly off-course, will be tended to by other drivers until the professionals get there. I go back to the car.

As we drive away, we pass the ambulance, siren cutting the day, headed up to help Fred and his wife. The radio is playing one of Chopin’s 24 Preludes and mournful piano chords fill the car. My fingers still caressing thin air, I listen. The countryside condenses as we approach the city.

*

An hour after we leave the accident, we reach Paris and our small hotel. I immediately turn on the television, wanting to see the news. Ridiculously, I expect to find out about the crash. I want to know how Fred is doing.

Instead, I am informed that an abandoned, just born, baby has been found in some bushes by a policeman. The anchorman teases the story before commercials, “Stay tuned to see what the officer first said to the baby. It was captured on his bodycam!” They show a second or two of film, two dark hands reaching into the foliage, an infant’s quiet cry, wind sounds, a man’s voice.

I sit on the awful hotel bedspread and wonder if I can bear the sadness his words.

They return with footage of a stocky officer holding the infant and telling her not to worry, that help is coming. But I heard something else during the lead-in, in the moment he pulled her out of the bushes. I had heard the real first thing he’d said, and it was “I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry you came in the world like this? I’m sorry you came into a world that is like this? I’m sorry this atrocious thing happened to you?

The news media had missed what he’d really said first. They’d missed the most plaintive, simple and enormous apology ever made.

*

The Sacre-Coeur Basilica at Montmartre in Paris sits on a hill surveying the city. It can be seen from almost anywhere. Standing on the top floor of The Centre Pompidou with my forehead smashed against the glass of a floor to ceiling window, I stare. Far away and across the city, the Basilica seems to be lit by its own sun. The eerie light calls up a memory and I am struck, like a blow to the head, by the fear I’ve forgotten something important. I can’t remember the details, but something happened with Nick up there, a decade ago when we came to Paris to paint, just before he lost his mind. What was it? Straining for the memory, I think of the small black moleskin notebook he brought on the trip. I’d found it, and read it, years later. Just prior to his unspooling, he’d recorded a beautiful, unsettling narrative from the cliff. One foot in our world, one foot in his future world, he’d told us what was happening in arduous, aching cursive.

When was the moment? When was the exact second of the shift?

And then I remember what happened. We’d lost him up there. One moment he was next to us, and then suddenly he was gone.

“Where did Nick go?” I’d asked my husband,

“I don’t know, he was right here.”

We began to look for him. We searched everywhere, the building, the grounds, then back to the building. I remember standing at the top of the endless steps outside and squinting at a group of kids lolling around, thinking he must be with them. I was wearing a slippery crepe skirt and flowered blouse that whipped about my body with the wind. Eventually, he just appeared.

“Where were you?” I asked, my voice strident from worry.

“Right here,” he said, “around.”

From my perch at the Pompidou, I see a crack, a split second of light between the truth and what might have been. I want to dive into that space.

My husband walks up to me, leans against the glass, and I say, “Remember when we lost Nick up there?”

His voice low and measured, he says, “You know, I’ve always thought that was where it happened.”

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

“I think something took him, up there on that hill, and gave him back to us altered. I think that is where he went crazy.”

This had never occurred to me and immediately I knew it was true.

“That’s pretty woo-woo, even for you, buddy,” I say because the idea is more than my brain can manage and I have to trivialize it in order to continue breathing.

“I know,” my tall and dark husband says, “but I believe it.”

The sun dips behind a menacing cloud and the Basilica darkens. Its luminous stone façade suddenly looks drab, desolate. My husband wanders off to the contemporary collection, I turn to the modernists.

*

When my kids were small, they used to loll around on the floor of their father’s studio with big sheets of butcher paper and paint while he worked. One day Lucy was teasing Nick because he always made cows and he shot back, “All boys paint cows, and anyway, I’m just starting. I’m going to paint a lot of other things.”

*

Sitting on a narrow bench in the Modern Collection (from 1905 to the 1960’s), I think about the day we lost Nick at the Sacre-Coeur. The area under my jaw constricts and saliva begins to pool in my mouth. There is a quickening of the blood as it moves through my veins. My arms crossed tightly across my chest, like armor, I lean forward and stare at the floor.

We were just walking around and then you were gone. We looked and looked for you, we did. Where did you go? Was it a portal? Can we go there now and find you? Please. Or are you in here? Are you at the Pompidou? Is this where you went? Did you go through a door we couldn’t see and just come here? Are you in the big Fernand Leger, in the corner, with the cerulean and the ochre? I would have thought you’d go to a Picasso, NickNack, but did you decide to trick me with a Leger?

Or was it the perfect little interlocking slats of varied woods of the floor, all different colors, that drew you to the Pompidou?

I’m rocking back and forth now with clenched bones holding in the torrent. I don’t want to cry in public, but now I am convinced some bad magic really did happen and it is true that we lost him here in Paris.

So this is what happens if I let the stoppers out? This is what happens if I think about it?  Unbelievable, unyielding pain? Shredding of intestines? The longing, like gravity, for you? Then bring back the stoppers because I can’t live like this.

My husband walks into the gallery, sees me hunched over, sits down and puts a large hand firmly on my back, just between my shoulder blades.

*

It is 11:06 and I am at the desk in our hotel room, looking at the black night outside my window as if it were a painting. I want to believe Nick is sleeping peacefully right now, across oceans. If I could just know that, I would ask for nothing else. I haven’t gotten any texts from his caregivers, so he must be calmer than last night. I want to believe that with all my heart. I want to just slip into sleep and trust that all is well. Oh, I want.

Then, in the window, I can see Nick and his sisters painting in their father’s studio, the plywood floor a medium gray and the walls pure white in order to contain the colors of the paintings with neutrality. Against this palliative backdrop, my children are exuberant, messy, incongruous. Small pots of tempera are pushed to one side. The children lie on their bellies in baggy shorts, no shirts, legs flopping languidly as they move brushes across paper.

And then Nick looks up at me across time and space, as I sit at my computer in the dark. He smiles at me from his childhood, his cherub mouth so young and new, “I told her, Ma, all boys paint cows. I’m going to paint a lot of other things before I’m through.”

Miriam Feldman is a painter, writer, and mother originally from Los Angeles, California. After her son, Nick’s, diagnosis with Schizophrenia more than ten years ago, she began writing to document and explore the ways this new reality affected her relationship with her children, her husband, and herself. Her blog, https://www.miriam-feldman.com, explores issues of motherhood, mental illness and the politics of our mental health system. She holds an MFA in fine art from Otis College of Art and Design. Her paintings are in collections across the United States. She is represented by Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica, Ca. Most recently, she joined Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn Close’s organization to fight discrimination and educate around mental illness. She is on the Advisory Council and has a monthly blog on the website https://bringchange2mind.org. She is a frequent guest on mental health podcasts including https://player.fm/series/who-lives-like-this/art-and-chaos-with-mimi-feldman and https://www.sheilahamilton.com/category/podcasts/. Find her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/mimitheriveter/ where she is busy building a community of family and loved ones dealing with serious mental illness. Miriam now resides on a farm in rural Washington State with her husband, Craig. Nick lives in the small town nearby. She splits her time between the farm and Los Angeles, painting, writing, and staying active in the mental health community.

Upcoming events with Jen

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Child Birth, Choice, Guest Posts

No Kids, No Regrets

December 27, 2019
zoe

By Lisa Mae DeMasi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, Zoe begins to choke.

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

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

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

Someone, do something.

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

The little girl lies there flat as an ironing board.

Zoe?

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

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

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

She’s perfect again.

She asks for another chip.

This makes a number of bystanders chuckle.

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

“You can have some Goldfish,” she says.

Goldfish?!

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

Dennis elbows me, a prompt to behave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no, no, Mama!”

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

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

We’re practically standing still at 500 MPH.

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

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

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

So what’s the seduction of remorse, regret?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s pink and purple,” she says.

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

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Current Events, Guest Posts

Mueller Time

December 19, 2019
mueller

By Pam Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, Self Love

Who Are You Now?

November 6, 2019
snow

By Jamie Della

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Why I’ve Stopped Reading Parenting Magazines

October 2, 2019
magazine

By Tariya Mukai

I was finishing up a purchase at a maternity store a couple years ago when the shop clerk shared with me a special promotion on parenting and housekeeping magazines.

“Sure, sign me up!” I shrugged. I liked to read, and I actually really liked reading about raising kids and keeping a nice home.

Before I begin, let me say that I don’t have anything against parenting magazines. They’re so cute! I love the bright, colorful pictures, and I’ve always found the writing to be fun, both casual and informative. I especially look forward to the holiday guide with reviews of “The Best Books and Toys” of the year and all the photos of beautiful Christmas decor and fancy cookies (which never quite turn out like the pictures when I make them).

So my decision to filter the parenting info that I intake is a personal one—the way some people limit their carbs to lose weight. It’s not that all carbs are bad; a diet needs good carbs to be healthy. I just eat too many carbs that make me feel bad.

It was the middle of a hard year for our family; I became a regular at the pediatrician’s office, bringing the kids in  every six to eight weeks because of an allergic reaction or hand-foot-mouth or the chicken pox (which my daughter caught before she was old enough to be vaccinated). We were on Week 2 of hand-foot-mouth, which was slowly taking down each member of the family every so many days, when I checked the mail and found that month’s issue of the parenting magazine I was subscribed to. The cover story was about “Ways to have the best summer ever!” I pointed it out to my husband and laughed bitterly, “I can sum this up in one line: Don’t get hand-foot-mouth if you want to enjoy your summer.”

I was already a pretty self-conscious mom, so that year wrecked any confidence that I had left as a mother. I berated myself for not keeping my kids healthy, and I didn’t have the time or energy to teach the kids their alphabets and numbers or do fun science experiments. A clean house basically meant the dishes were washed and the laundry clean (not even folded and put away … just clean!). At that time, it was difficult to convince myself that I was a good mother.

But I walked away from that year with an important lesson: For a mom like me, who struggles with comparison and perfection and is quick to believe the lie that I need to do more to be a better mom, I have to be careful with what information I’m feeding myself, whether it’s through social media, Pinterest, or the latest parenting best-seller grounded in revolutionary scientific research.

There are no rules in parenting, and for a mama like me who desperately wants to know what to do to ensure that her kids are happy-healthy-kind-smart-brave, it is particularly frustrating that there is no Parenting 101 class or “Guide to Raising Perfect Children” book.

Parenting magazines and books are the closest things that I have to the parenting rules that I so desperately seek. If you tell me there are “5 ways to keep your house clutter-free,” I will live by those rules with a religious fervor that will turn everyone in my household against me. If you give me an article outlining “How to raise a child who is kind,” I will do all the things, even if it goes completely against the parent that I am or the children that I have.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that having the perfect home and the well-behaved children and the healthy meals on the table are not indicators of the job I’m doing as a mother, or more importantly, how much I love my kids. Mom guilt is real. So when I’m already feeling bad that I let my kids watch too much tv or eat Costco pizza two nights in a row, the article about how bad screen time is for child development or the feature on “How to make a week’s worth of healthy meals in just one hour!” just makes me feel defeated.

The pictures and the stories in the magazines and on carefully curated social media accounts are supposed to inspire us mamas. But when I’m in a position of feeling “less than”, it feels like salt in the wound, like I’m not doing enough to cook healthier meals or manage the kids’ screen times better.

So until I can work out those issues within myself—until I can trust that I’m a good enough mother because I love my kids and do my very best to care for them—I’m careful what I’m feeding myself (good carbs, anyone?). I refuse to be overwhelmed by All The Things that go into parenting; I will not become a fashionista/healthy chef/interior decorator/expert disciplinarian in one issue. I need to take it one thing at a time.

I still end up on Google or Pinterest for stir fry recipes and classroom favors during the holidays because I want to learn how to make a killer stir fry for my family and I want my son to feel proud by the gifts he hands out to his classmates. But these are the things that I’ve chosen to focus on because I think they’re important, not because someone in a parenting magazine is telling me it is important.

I’ll figure out for myself what is best for my kids because they’re MY kids.

Until I can trust my voice more than the parenting experts outlining the “five ways to prevent toddler meltdowns” (because they’ve never met my toddler and survived her unstoppable meltdowns like I have), I’m just gonna recycle my parenting magazines. For now.

Tariya Mukai is a stay-at-home mom/former teacher/future librarian living in Hawaii with her husband, daughter, and two sons. When she’s not chasing after her kids, she loves spending time with her family at the beach, running near the ocean, reading everything but romance novels, and writing about motherhood. You can find her work on Instagram at mama.keiki.reads.

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depression, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

The Intruder

September 22, 2019
intruder

By E.F.C Warden

I remember how my brain started working, how even well before my daughter was born I kept envisioning her death. Not a peaceful “died in her sleep” or was “born sleeping” death but horrific versions of the same endings.

While pregnant, I would envision falling on sharp objects that would pierce my belly and my daughter and end her life. I saw myself being hit by a car and her tiny form being squished to death inside of me. We died together in many ways inside my mind.

Visions after visions of our untimely end filled my senses on a daily basis to a point where it was all I thought and even dreamed, my brain consumed with how she would die and when she didn’t fulfill the nightmares new ones would form in their place.

This should have been my first clue something was wrong.

The thoughts never ceased after her birth. I thought she would die during her arrival. I thought she would suffocate from my inability to progress during labor. I believed she would choke to death or stop breathing before she was even born. Continue Reading…

empty nest, Guest Posts

Hello, My Future Self!

May 24, 2019
self

By Claudia Hinz

I leave the doors to their rooms open. I have tried it with the doors closed but that only makes me sadder. With her door open I can see straight into my daughter Anna’s room from the kitchen. Not that I pretend she is about to come home, but it feels more normal. When I go into the girls’ bathroom, I see the note. Anna has stuck the yellow Post-it to a new roll of toilet paper. “Hello future Nicole and Anna!” she has written. “Signed Anna (hee hee!) August 16.” Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood

Potty Training in a Typhoon

April 12, 2019
potty

By Melissa Kutsche

I scramble to fill pitchers, water bottles, and vases with water, creating a mosaic of receptacles on the kitchen counter. In the bathroom, I give the tub a quick scrub before plugging the drain. As cold water creeps up the side of the tub, I listen for chaos to erupt from the living room, where I’ve left the circus. My son is strapped into his bouncy seat, and my two-year-old daughter is sitting next to him, poring over board books. Naked. The typhoon has hit on Day 2 of what mommy bloggers call “potty training boot camp.” Like the kitchen counter, our living room floor has also been taken over, but by blankets – knitted, fleece, lady-bug-covered, and fringed. A plastic potty sits in the middle of the blanket patchwork.

I turn off the faucet and pray we won’t have to drink the bathtub water. Back in the living room, my son, only five weeks old, has fallen asleep in his bouncy seat. When he is older and doing the two-year-old version of American Ninja Warrior around our house all day, every day, I will miss these moments of his confinement. My daughter, the one without any pants on, is now over by her play kitchen. “What are you making, sweetie?” I ask the little chef, recently promoted to big sister. This week’s specials have been treats like blueberry-tomato tea and banana-corn soup. Instead of responding to my question, she lifts up her hands and looks at them with eyes gaping and lips curling. It’s getting dark, and I squat down for a better look. It’s the classic game of “Poop or chocolate?” I lost. Continue Reading…