19

Is this a fever or not-just-any-fever
that our daughter has
Am I tired or
too tired to wake up next week
Why do I keep justifying a cup
of coffee from the drive-up shop
Why do I manage to laugh when a
waiter pulls down his mask to reveal
his smile
I cannot ignore the numbers or the signals
all around me
I won’t
Why do I feel like I am being
pushed into a corner
the odd duck out
inconveniencing others
by setting appropriate boundaries
by drawing a line in the heavy granite sand
on a Labor Day weekend beach
when I know and you know we
should all be doing something
anything else
at home
safe and away from others
protecting those who do not
know better
yet clearly we all
do not know better
and all we truly know
is the insatiable habitual power
of Instant Gratification
of Get it Now
and Get it Hot
and Get it Cheap
My Subway sandwich laughs
at me,
without a mask on
and I know
and you know
that somewhere
deep down within us
there is wisdom the size
of a particle of sand
(but it is there)
that does know better
and can do better
and can build fire
and can carry water
and can resist temptation
and can make their own sandwich
and can stop being grossly negligent
carrying on
practically licking
the shopping cart at Winco
laughing in the face of others
and thinking it won’t happen to me
because I am rich
because I eat organic
because I am me
this blatant display of gluttony
and luxury that our culture has come
to know and love so well
will love us
to death
if we
let it.


Autumn’s Mommy

Motherhood is complicated. Before I became a mother, my goal was to try to not become one of the moms who changed her social media handle to “Autumn’s Mommy” or who, when talking to non-parent friends, only talked about parenting. Popular opinion seemed to say that moms like that had “lost themselves” and that losing yourself, or changing, was a negative thing. But I want to point out now how very strong those mommies are, and how necessary their transformation was for their child to thrive.

The truth is that there are all different types of moms out there. And the mom who proudly displays her love by saying she’s “so-and-so’s mommy” is probably a really good one. There are moms out there who can manage a household of four kids with grace and a genuine sense of happiness, and others for whom one child seems plenty. There are Scary Mommies (whose “confessions” can be downright frightening) and there are women who have never become moms at all. I think that those women, too, deserve recognition.

I’ve meditated a lot on the things I think women should know before they become parents. I’ve found there are two types of women who I believe shouldn’t have children at all: those who cannot take care of themselves, and those who have a lot of exciting personal or career opportunities going for them that they don’t want to give up.

Of course that’s a generalization, but I’ve found that idea that parenting is mutual now—that dads will step up and meet you equally in the household—is an idealistic one. Statistics point to women taking a huge hit economically when becoming moms, and have even linked becoming parents to the wage gap. (See the “Explained” episode on wage gap which describes the 1-5 years that women take off to manage the household the actual reason responsible for the difference of pay in men and women. Mind blown.)

So as I line up fifteen blueberries in a row on the countertop in hopes of occupying Autumn for fifteen seconds of peace and introspection, I think about Mother’s Day and what it means to me. One aspect of what it means to me is having honest conversations with women about what parenting is and isn’t. And making this information accessible to young women, who may have idealistic visions of what modern motherhood will look like for them. Another meaningful aspect of this day for me is the opportunity to point out how important the work a mother does really is. (See: unpaid work of women in a society that equates high monetary return with success.)

Becoming a mother is such a deeply personal choice, dependent on factors like your current career possibilities, your ability to communicate effectively with your partner, your marital status, your ability to pay for childcare, or your access to free childcare (i.e. grandparents), or not.

I know for me the last factor really impacts my choice to not have any more children. It’s easy for a mom who has both sets of grandparents in the same city to feel that one should have a second child because “no childhood is complete without a sibling.”
But that logic just isn’t going to work for a mama like me.

Many of my readers know I have an estranged relationship with my own mother. Yesterday, I was driving my minivan and I was doing this ultra-mom move where I was throwing french-fries to Autumn in her car seat, which was facing away from me in the back. It dawned on me that my natural mom and I never had a relationship on even this level. The ease of communication that I have with my one-and-a-half year old is the first time I’ve experienced this natural state of a mother-daughter relationship.

“Didja get that one, babe?” I asked Autumn.

“Yea!” She responded, and I could imagine her shoving the salty stick into her chubby face.

A few nights ago, we both started giggling uncontrollably and couldn’t stop. Love joy. A similar warmth like the closeness I’d experienced with the french-fry incident enveloped me. Autumn has become an extension of myself.

My own mother, a nineteen year old, hadn’t made the transition to mommy in time for me to experience it. Luckily, when my brothers were born, she did.

I think one misconception is that this transition happens naturally, and for some women, I’m sure it does. But for many others (maybe more than we know), it is a choice.

So if you know an “Autumn’s Mommy” or an “Emmett’s Mommy” or a “Marigold’s Mommy,” consider yourself blessed. It means that despite the world wanting to preserve her “coolness” or “sexiness” or “youth” or whatever it is they don’t want to see change, the woman stepped into her role. And she makes that choice every single morning she wakes up.

A friend invited me over for a visit but I know it’s all I can do to just put the three square meals on the table, support Autumn through her toddler learning, keep our house picked up and in order….and maintain some sense of inner peace and sanity today. I may even proudly call myself “Autumn’s Mommy” and hope that my man sees how hella sexy—and important—the title really is.

This Mother’s Day, I ask that we embrace—celebrate!—the natural changes that come when women adapt to their new roles and realities. Because the truth is that (with the exception of a few) dads change a little bit, but mamas change a lot. And the second that your household mommy stops doing what she’s doing is the second your world becomes unmanageable, messy, and chaotic.

Women of my generation are educated and have more opportunity than ever before yet many have adapted to become someone’s mommy. I want to point out the absurdity of expecting them to not lose some aspects of their earlier selves during the transition to nurturing, teaching, and raising our young. I raise a strong mug of coffee to Somebody’s Mommy today. You sexy as hell.

Habitat Over Habit

HABITAT
I felt I needed to express “Habitat Over Habit” not just in writing, but visually too. I created this sculpture from a book that was already falling apart, “Magical Child” by Joseph Chilton Pearce, plastic, trash, wires, old digital materials, and ferns and sticks from outside our door.

Habitat Over Habit

Disease is an equalizer—it does not discriminate. Now Mother Earth has a captive audience, the world over. WOW!

Disperse           across           the           earth          and           feel          her          pulse.

Now we may finally choose Mother Earth over the economy… not just for three weeks, but entirely and for the good of humanity!

Now we may open ourselves to the actual possibility of EARTH REGENERATION. Now we may all SHIFT—all of the earth’s children, today and forever.

This global pause is an opportunity to reflect, repent, and ask forgiveness from our one true creator: Mother Earth! The form from which all life springs. Her ecosystem is so delicately dependent on a multitude of species, on clean, non-toxic reservoirs and waters, and on the trees that give all life breath! Make no mistake, Mother Earth is asking for our attention with this pandemic.

Now we may take the right type of non-action, a permission slip which has never before been granted. We have less air and ground traffic. We have disease everywhere but the Arctic. We have the collapse of distant goods. We are called to sit, face to face, with our loved ones in our homes. We are called to sit, face to face, with our habitat: a living breathing thing. Make no mistake.

How compelling that the safe place to be now is in the open-air, mountains, or sea! Make no mistake.

Now we may open ourselves fully to the concept of habitat over habit. We may REGENERATE, my people. We may SHIFT now, in this moment, today and forever.

Now we may think of the children. Now we may listen to them. Now we may protect them from things they do not even know are coming, by acting intelligently, responsibly, and humanely. By cutting our ties with non-renewable resources and maddening consumption. (See: toilet paper!)

Now is the time for scientists, not politicians, for empaths, not conquerors, for mothers, not tyrants, for native wisdom, not industry.

This is a window of opportunity that Mother Earth giving us. Brilliant, really, as if Mother Earth has a mind all her own…an intelligence beyond our knowing.

Now we may reset this maddening pace of life and habit of consumption.

What is more important than our elders, our earth, and our children? What?

Everything is connected, we can see that now. So let us connect with our micro-tribes: our neighbors, roommates, and families, and figure this thing out. Let us back up our lifestyle-changes with policy-changes, locally, state and nation-wide, and globally.

“You are but a drop of rain
clinging to the edge of the sumac leaf
by the grace of that same surface tension
that tethers you to your work and gives you traction.”
– Nina Gaby

Make no mistake, she’s warning us: lighten, lighten, lighten the impact.

images

We can’t buy our way out of this one, so let’s stop trying.

Where energy goes, attention flows: shut down Costco and support local economy. It won’t collapse in times like this!

Support local farmers, if you are fortunate enough to have them in your region.

Support your local soap-maker.

Wipe your ass with cloth. It’s really very simple.

Think about things like light pollution, and how it impacts species. Think about the interconnectedness of all things. Research what type of non-action or change-of-action would be beneficial in your unique ecosystem, whether you’re an urbanite or a ruralite. There’s hope for everyone, everywhere.

Let us choose Mother Earth over Father Economy.

This is the global SHIFT we’ve long been needing to restore our habitat. It can be done. Environmentalists and scientists know the action and that must be taken. If the Coronavirus response can be coordinated between nations, couldn’t saving the earth be, too?

WOW!

Shut. It. Down.

Rebuild with wisdom from our native and aboriginal elders, who understood interdependence and acted accordingly. Rebuild with our leaders in environmental science.

Let us choose habitat over our habits, today and for good. Now we may act wisely for the greater good of humanity, in the name of Mother Earth.

How, I beg, will we answer her calling?

Why Social Distancing Feels Right For Me

Social distancing restricts gatherings in an attempt to stop or slow the spread of infectious diseases, in this case I’m talking about COVID-19…who isn’t? Social distancing may include canceling events, slowing or stopping business, and requires just staying put. It has a long list of social and economic repercussions that I know nothing about—yet. As of today, I sense that I am taking this COVID-19 thing more seriously than other Oregonians, a fact that probably just boils down to my being able to stay put more than anything. As a freelancer who works from home, I have this luxury amidst a crisis. But I’m beginning to think it’s the most practical step for everyone.

I see social distancing (specifically self-isolation) as temporary. It requires a huge sacrifice upfront. Here in Oregon, we seem to be waiting to get a pass from our employers, school districts, universities and state officials on when to stay home. I’m not exactly waiting for that pass, but rather I’m thinking for myself as I watch the uptick of cases of COVID-19 world and state-wide.

Really, I’m self-isolating because I’m sick. So I am taking public health advice on that: stay home if you don’t feel well. But probably even if my daughter and I didn’t have runny noses and coughs, I wouldn’t be heading out to do shopping or work or anything else. In the past 18 days, we’ve stayed home 13 of them. This seems to be a logical approach to me, given everything that’s been happening with COVID-19 and the fact that we still have these stubborn colds!

Yesterday I left the house to go to the bank. Wearing a pair of large ski mittens, I cashed my check through the drive-in window. There was a shiny slate of glass positioned comfortably between the checker and me. Then I drove home, taking the long way by a winding creek. I didn’t see one soul in sight, and I didn’t have any bumping-into-anyone-guilt.

This week, I’ve had to reschedule three engagements. Even with all the infections happening worldwide and in the state of Oregon, I get a knot of anxiety inside my belly cancelling things. I feel the pressure to perform. Don’t we all? I also feel a glob of snot travelling down the inside of my right nostril. So this is not just precaution and I am not just paranoid. I’m being realistic and considerate. Autumn and I got back-to-back colds this spring with the second one hitting us on February 25th, five days after returning from our trip from Arizona. We flew and had layovers both ways, one in Seattle and one in Salt Lake City. So contraction of COVID-19 was possible, though not necessarily plausible. I am being extra mindful anyway. (Note: a Lane County public health official informed me that only those who had traveled to China, South Korea, Italy or Iran are currently being tested for COVID-19, as of the publication of this blog.)

I am fortunate that I can finagle social distancing, professionally and lifestyle-wise. I get that most people don’t have the option of staying home, and I empathize with them. But maybe they should draw a thicker line, and think about the long-term repercussions of this disease: the impact on our elders and the fact that it’s now a world-wide crisis.

I feel I am making the right choice for me, but the thing is: we’re all in this together. In fact my partner Steve breaks quarantine daily, bringing in and taking out whatever germs, however benign, we are carrying. To his credit, he is limiting his lifestyle too, and doing only the absolutely necessary engagements. As our primary earner, he doesn’t feel like he can just stop going to work.

As of Tuesday afternoon there are 15 positive cases in Oregon, across seven counties. The state of Washington, just north of us, has more than that number in sheer deaths. Some experts believe the numbers are projected to rise thousands, and that the virus has already been circulating regionally for well over six weeks.

As I reach for my handkerchief to blow my nose, I wonder if ingesting as much news as I have—listening to NPR, reading The New York Times and The Washington Post—has literally kept me snotty and coughing for the past two weeks. It can’t be helping.

Despite that, I know we are slowly getting better. I am hoping when we do recover from our colds, the threat of community-spread COVID-19 will be over.

My choice to semi-self-quarantine—to quarantine to the very best of my ability (I can’t make the same decision for Steve)—coincided with a 50% increase in Oregon cases on Sunday, March 8th. That’s double the number of cases overnight. So I am relying on my own judgement on this one, not just heeding the public opinion. If hypothetically we were infected, my conscience couldn’t handle infecting others!

I trust that everyone is doing the same and thinking for themselves. The good news is, we can all share different opinions. The bad news is that we will all be affected equally by the outcome of this disease.

COVID-19 or not, Autumn and I deserve to get better from our colds. So for this week I will be working exclusively from home, staying close to NPR and OPB news coverage, and praying for the health of our state, nation and world. I will also be drinking lots of mint tea, eating chicken soup, and wondering—as I see cars flying by on the highway—what everyone else is doing to stay healthy out there.

 

 

Dear Daughter,

Dear Daughter,

-You will always have more to offer than the shape of your body or the red of your lips. So reach deep within yourself for something substantial to contribute to the world.

-Moments are for living, not for capturing. When you realize that, you hang onto the sacred. The scared is slipping into the darkness of vanity. Don’t let it. Bow, caress, whisper your wishes into the wind. Do things just for the sake of doing them. Not for showing off. For so many centuries, this was how it was done. There is something lacking as we slip into vanity. The sacred is worth hanging onto, I promise.

-There was a time when humans cared about way more than likes and follows. I was there. I remember that time. Laughs were laughed louder then. Breakfasts were enjoyed more fully. When you looked into someone’s eyes, it really meant something. It mattered.  When you looked into the sunset, and really focused, prayers were answered. And if you got to know someone, you really got to know them, not with some device between you.  In junior high, a girlfriend of mine and I sat in a grassy median staring into each others eyes for a full five minutes. Let’s try it sometime. This is called peering in to another’s soul and there’s something to it. Discomfort is a natural part of living. Our addictions try to cover up that discomfort, that natural discord.

-I want you to practice getting up in the morning, making your breakfast, brushing your hair, reading a book, and setting your goals…all without the nagging of your phone and social media. If you watch me, I will show you. I will let my phone get buried in my purse and go dead and I will not worry. I will relish the sound of the natural world buzzing on around me. I will do this for the whole of the weekend until, for work, I must emerge and “connect” with the world again. I will do this and I will fail but I will reset and do it again. Phone dead and buried at the bottom of my purse.

-Take a trip to the sea or mountains or museum…without your device on you. Let’s do it together. Let’s stop and notice what is being offered, what is happening around us. Really noticing this time. Let’s witness some miracle and have it be our little secret.

-Skills like building things and growing things and poetry even and communicating respectfully through eye contact and spontaneous conversation…these things are being lost. I want you to preserve them. I will teach you skills that you will pass down to children, or people older than you or younger than you, it does not matter. Just share them. In real life. Learn to cook. Learn to love to cook.

-If all of your friends jump off bridge, don’t.

-Sparrow recently published a piece in The Sun Magazine stating that meditating is like playing the guitar, except without the guitar. I’d never meditated regularly until I read this, and his bit about meditating four minutes per day, instead of five. Four minutes per day isn’t too torturous in exchange for heightened long-term bliss and contentment, right?

-They call it a feed because it’s taking away our appetite for everything else.

-The people you should be working at impressing are the people around you, through kindness and respect. I vow to do this with you. We will do it together, dear daughter.

Water Signs

tumblr_mq8vp9Nqio1synikso1_500

Dad nearly drowned in the mouth of the river in Fort Bragg, California, but that was before I was born. He spent the rest of the summer in the hospital. That didn’t stop him from loving the ocean and water. You can’t trust it, he said. You can’t help but love it either.

Dad was in a coma for most of one month. When he came to he had to learn to talk again. He had to learn to walk again. He was just nine years old at the time. Somehow, though, Dad still knew how to swim. A photo of him and his parents posed alongside the doctor was published in the Fort Bragg newspaper. He was the boy whose life was almost taken by the river at Van Damme State Park. “Miracle Boy” the headline read.

I came thirteen years later. The daughter of Miracle Boy and Moonbeam.

When I was six years old and he was twenty-eight, Dad took us sea-kayaking off the coast of California. If I remember correctly he was trying to impress a woman who wasn’t my mother. We almost got pulled out to sea and I remember being frightened. Or maybe my memory doesn’t serve me right…maybe we did have fun. But the waves, they were so large and I was so little, how could I have? I just remember fearing for my life, I think the girlfriend did too.

I was around one years old when Moonbeam left us (I’m not looking for pity, those are just the facts). Some man I never learned the name of had lured Moonbeam away. I’ll never know the things he promised her. I’ll never know what tempted her. All I know is she took the Ford Pinto when she left. She didn’t go far—just down the road to Eureka. She wasn’t far, no, but she was gone.

Dad took to doing the dishes by hand, very slowly, with hot soapy water. But this wasn’t so strange because Dad did the dishes before she left too. I think he just liked being in the water.

As a toddler, I crawled around on the sticky linoleum floor. I remember looking up at Dad doing my mother’s job. He was in his work clothes and it was after dark. I saw a flash of myself in the kitchen sink before Moonbeam left. I could almost see her standing there washing my body—a dishwater blond with no face, just legs and shoes like the moms in those old cartoons. Comfort just for the fact that they were there. Dish-doers and diaper-changers and dinner-makers and ice-tray-fillers. An essential tool: missing.

Several years later I had my birthday party at the beach. I invited my entire sixth grade class and to my shock everybody showed up. Dad embarrassed me by bannering long streams of white toilet paper from the driftwood poles on the beach, a marker of where the party was. A store-bought stream of purple tissue paper had not been considered.

A couple of the mothers who dropped off their daughters off looked warily around for signs of my mother. But they found none. I just wanted them to go away. I did not even want them to stay because their judgement and misunderstanding was palpable. They finally left, not quite sure what to think. These are the ones who returned first for their daughters.

Dad warmed hot dogs on driftwood sticks over the campfire and we all ran around like we were still kids, which we were, but barely. My peers brought gifts, tons of gifts, each one of them. Dad bought me the expensive black and white Adidas jacket I had wanted so much. The ocean was lapping at the whole scene, father and daughter, fire and friends. The sun went down while we were still out running and playing up and down the beach. And even though I didn’t have a mother…well I thought life was just about perfect.

I had been so excited about my abundance of gifts but was so busy running and playing that I didn’t notice when tide came in and took my birthday booty— piece by piece into the setting sun. It was all gobbled up by the great inhale-exhale of the Pacific Ocean. And there would be no getting any of it back. It wasn’t far, no, but it was gone.

When Dad was a boy that same beach was at least 70 feet under water. The tsunami of 1964 picked up dive bars and fish n’ chip shacks and set them back down, upside down, right on top of Highway 101. To this day Crescent City, California is the only town in the continental United States where a tsunami has killed people. True story. Eleven people died. You can’t trust the ocean, Dad said. You can’t help but love it either.

images (1)

Water Signs is an essay from Earthside and Other Everyday Miracles which I am publishing through Groundwaters this spring. I will keep you updated on all the details here on my blog, and also over on my Instagram page! (See sidebar to follow me there.) Thank you, faithful readers!

Nourishment

I didn’t get published in The Sun Magazine’s “Reader’s Write” section as I had hoped, but I will share my reflection from the January 2020 “Nourishment” prompt below.

“The Sun is an independent, ad-free magazine that for more than forty years has used words and photographs to evoke the splendor and heartache of being human.”

NOURISHMENT:

Dad sat me down and told me two things: one, we were now vegetarians and two, we would sing the Mahamantra morning, noon, and night. That was part of being a Hare Krishna. So that’s what we did. No more Kentucky Fried Chicken. No McDonalds. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama. Morning, noon, and night. Every summer we took our epic road trip to the temple in the Bay Area. At the temple we were surrounded by other Hare Krishnas instead of being the only ones in town. At the temple, we rose at four a.m. to shower, which was required. At the temple, brown-skinned women with large, sagging breasts painted red Bindi dots on my forehead and brushed and braided my hair. I felt comforted by the touch of a woman, even though they didn’t speak to me. It was almost like having a mother. Almost. At the temple, I wore my pea-colored sari with little flowers on it every day. I felt so free as I danced with my father in the ballroom before the deities. At the temple, we were sometimes required to fast all day long but come night there was a massive feast with scrumptious vegetarian food—samosas, curried cauliflower, pineapple chutney—all piled high and sufficiently blessed.

Steps to Honoring Your Path

Hold your dreams up to the light. Natural light works best. So hold them up to your window in the morning. Or under a desk lamp, or full moon, at night. Take a few minutes to inspect the foundation: what is it built on, these expectations?  Brick? Loam? Are they your wishes or others wishes for you? How many children are stacked upon the thing? Remember: the children go on top.

Now that you have identified its strengths and abilities, decide what tools you’ll need, and use them with intention.  Fix any weak spots. If writing is your goal, grab a pen and paper and S P E L L I T O U T. One letter at a time. Get real specific. It is a brand-new decade, we haven’t got the time to waste. Yesterday’s gone. What’s done is done. Keep your toolbelt close, you’ll be needing it.

Be rigid. All that gray-area crap is just bs. For some the opposite is true. For you it is not. You need all the stability and predictability and tough love that was withheld from you in childhood. Black. White. Life. Death. Yin. Yang. It’s been twenty years now since you’ve see your mother. Twenty years since you were 14. Since Y2K. A natural rebel, reign yourself in. For even when you wake and say light, light, light, be the light, you cannot shake the darkness at the root of you. Scorpio sun, Aries moon. Befriend routine, the sister to stability. Come to like them. Come to love them. Routine. Stability. Come to understand how much you depend on them. Day. Night. Repeat. Stop stepping into the worn, predictable trail of chaos. You are a parent now. Be sure to act like one. This is your one chance and you won’t get another.

This life is all you ever wanted—a sentiment that’s ringing truer and truer.

Husband. Marriage. Scary.

Know how you feel and know who you are by examining your truths in the light.

Husband. Marriage. Means trusting someone with my heart.

Husband. Marriage. Likely someday, certainly with him. But I want to make sure I can love and trust fully first. Humbly, I am still learning how to do all of that.

Like your child, grow everyday. Grow taller, grow better posture. Study the letters and shapes. Practice your walking: walking into situations that will encourage you to blossom. Walking out of situations that make you feel like you are wasting your precious time.

Do not let others distract you. Even those you lie next to in the night. They have your path and you have yours. Respect your differences. Laugh/brush them off. Your future depends on it. You do you. Sparkle. Shine. Let him laugh when you talk like that. Come back to him in your heart. Only a fool would not. He is your touching stone in this world. Stone. Rock.

Focus on finding your voice through your fingertips. Remember what you care about. Keep coming back to it. Remember: the children go on top. But do take advantage of naptime by writing. Spell it out.

If needed, refer to quotes from your Yogi Tea bag: Appreciate yourself and honor your soul.

If needed, shake off comments and ridicule from others: those who don’t really know you, your past, the unique combination of circumstances that make you tick. For better, for worse. Shoot. You’re here and kickin’. To you, sometimes, that feels like a miracle. If needed, tell yourself you are loved, even if you don’t always feel supported by the world outside your door. You. Are Love(d).

Make art. You always did. You always have. Except for those few times you slipped back into the gray mundane. Make art of the clothes you put on in the morning. Go ahead and wear that yellow dress. Make art of parenting. When you’re throwing the frisbee for the dog on a rainy day, draw flowers in the mud with the toe of your boot.

Do not forget the lessons of your ancestors: Be bold. Be bizarre. Begin again. Begin anew everyday if you must. Queen of the comeback, kid.

Do not forget your longtime mantra: Focus and follow-through.

And this one: Don’t start anything you can’t finish yourself.

Rigid. Bold. Brazen. Independent.

Most people say ask for help when you need it. But you know better. You know the world will poke at your weak spots so burrow down inside yourself and emerge with your wisdom and insights. Do what you know works. Stick with what you’ve learned. Imagine you are a caterpillar, now visualize the miracle of the butterfly, and emerge. Now fly.

Hold your dreams up to the light. Natural light works best. The moon will do.

Now that you’ve spelled it out, what does it say? (For example, mine reads: “I want to be a writer when I grow up. Or a dancer. It was an old thing I’d written on a scrap of paper as a kid.)

Hold space for that little dreamer. Hold the scrap of paper you scribbled on as a child in your hand. Whether metaphorically or physically. Whether your dreams have morphed into something more realistic or not.

Notice all the steps you took to get here. Literally hundreds of miles walked, circling as if you were walking a labyrinth. Notice when space was not honored for your dreams and you had to fight hard for them. Literally gallons of tears cried, remember all the swimming you did to get out of there.

Say this out loud, “This is my space. These are my dreams. Mother, wife, or not.”

Say, “Yes, my dreams. They take up space and they take up time.”

Say, “Now or never. Here to stay or gone forever.”

Hold your dreams up to the light. See how they glisten and shine.

One billion bursts of color, uniquely yours for the taking.

Dear Aunt Dorothy,

Dear Aunt Dorothy,

Remember when you lived on that street I can’t remember the name of now—the one way on the outskirts of town, after you moved back to Crescent City for the second time? You were many years sober by then so our conversations happened around mugs of coffee, your second love. 

You had kitschy coffee mugs: Garfield, mugs with quotes about motherhood, one of the lady with the crazy hair, robe, and slippers. You weren’t a grandmother yet, which boggles me now since “Grandma” became your definitive role. Back then your mother-ness extended to me, your niece. 

Remember that night? We were jabbering, catching up. I was visiting from out-of-state and we only had so much time. There were lots of laughs. Cigarettes and ashtrays. If we ever watched television it was just the home videos you’d recorded of our childhood: Your boys reciting Jeff Foxworthy. Me doing cartwheels on the concrete pad outside the trailer on Olive Street. Crystal, who was just a baby then. 

Without having planned it, WHAM, I dropped the bombshell. The bombshell that would blow up your whole world: your present, past, and future. Probably you mentioned his name. My face must have shadowed. And then your openness, your vessel for others pain and suffering, allowed to me tell you—to tell anyone—what had happened to me right there inside our family. It happened in-between recordings, on set, hidden behind the inescapable patriarchy that permeated our culture and society.  

I was seventeen and had never told anyone before. 

I saw the lightbulb go on behind your eyes. This is the moment you that stubbed out your cigarette. Wait, what? 

I saw the quick well of anger and heartbreak rise inside of you. 

Disbelief. 

Guilt. 

Wonder. 

In a dark corner of your mind, I’m sure you were reaching for a gin. 

It was late. Your house was so small. As if turning on my heel, my laughter quickly turned to painful sobs. The burning-apple-in-your-throat-kind of sobs. My racking sobs filled your entire home, probably shook the coffee mugs in your cupboard as you held space for me. 

You didn’t call it that: holding space. Poor, white people don’t have vocabulary for our experiences. But other people do. We live through the tragedies, other people label them. People with food in their bellies and books on their bed stands, free from the everyday challenges we’d faced, free to think things through, I guess. 

Did you know that by now whole fields of study have been dedicated to our resurgence? There are probably university students somewhere right now discussing the phenomenon of the crashing white, rural American class. You would have hated that sentence I know. It made you crawly when I used words like phenomenon because it put you on the spot. You were an Army girl, a farm girl, and to no fault of your own you were never a scholar. We didn’t have the language to get to the bottom of what happened to me–the scary thing that I told you–so we just cussed a lot that night. Fucking sicko. Rot in hell. 

You probably had to go to work at the casino in the morning, but you held space for me. You always did that for others. You always gave more than you had. In the end, I believe, that’s what killed you.  

Cousin John, one year younger than me, must have heard everything that through the thin bedroom wall. In fact I know he did. He told me as much years later. Said he’d pressed his ear up against the wall listening to every word I’d said, welling up with anger, maybe tears. Cousin John is one of those sensitive men—men with single mothers tend to be. Yet another gift that women like you give.

images (1).png

Do you remember the day you died? What was it like? Was it sunny? Cold? Did you argue with people that day? Hold space? Both? Did you start the day out watching FOX news? Looking at old photographs in your albums? How many cups of coffee did you have? Did you eat breakfast? What did you eat? I want to know. I want to hold space for you. Come back from the dead and tell me.

Years later you admitted that my “telling you” had a hand in your decision (if you can even call it that—the swift, perplexing fall from grace) to drink again. It was a single poke that sent you closer to the edge, eventually to fall from maybe ten years sober. At least over five. (I need to get my facts straight with the family.) 

I myself never felt guilty for that. I can’t take that on. I know there were others things, too. Men, maybe, who drank. You thought you could “be around them.” You couldn’t. No one could. You thought you could walk down the wine isle at the grocery store. You couldn’t. No one could. “And what are we drinking with the steak?” A waiter asked you with a wink, mentioning a wine pairing. You couldn’t. No one could. The billboard with a cold, sweaty beer on a hot, Sacramento day. (You didn’t even look at the billboard but your brain saw it and stored the information.) You couldn’t. No one could. A career waitress at a casino, you served drinks day in and day out. You couldn’t. No one could. 

It was your genes, expressing themselves. You couldn’t. No one could. I myself was never a drinker, but I have my “things.” 

Do you remember the day you died? Was it a pleasant day? Did you catch the sunset? Call your boys? It was springtime, I know that. Cousin John called me, it was two, maybe three, a.m. 

It must have been warm in Oregon because I stepped out on the back porch to take the call, having been alerted from sleep and knowing John wasn’t calling to casually chat.

“She’s gone,” he managed to get out. 

“Hello? John? What?” 

One never says the right things in these moments.

images (1).png

We spread your ashes up on the hill above the farm. Your baby sister and her husband handled all the arrangements. Rented the town hall down by the river. Sprinkled photographs of you on the tables and designated a childhood friend to make the centerpieces. They managed to serve one hundred people pulled pork, potato salad and fruit. I don’t know if it was pork. I didn’t eat. I was juggling the newborn baby and rubbing John’s back, trying to be a friend to him. Suddenly he was hard to get through to. 

You meant a lot to a lot of people, so a lot of people were there. Later, in photographs taken above the farm on the hill, someone said the plume of your ashes looked just like an angel when the boys blasted it into the air.

It was the kind of thing you anchor to in times like this.

I didn’t know what to believe. I was reeling—angry—from your fall from grace to death at 61. Alcohol poisoning, the coroners report stated. I was thinking: one little sip—one little slip—then blip, you’re done. You were getting sober again. You were always getting sober. News would travel through the family grapevine: Dort hasn’t been drinking, 3 months now. Dort hasn’t been drinking, 1 ½ weeks now. Dort hasn’t been drinking, 5 months now! Honestly I stopped keeping count. There were so many starts and stops. But that, dear one, is what made you beautiful. Most alcoholics I know don’t even try. 

This was not your legacy. Don’t get me wrong. I am using your lessons to guide my voice. There is a point I we are getting at. I promise. Hang tight. 

You were always transparent about your alcoholism. You were almost curious. You talked to me about AA. How they make you have a sponsor. That they wanted you to pray. You struggled with both of those things. You weren’t vulnerable by nature. Not open with those who you weren’t close to. You just wanted it to be done and dealt with but you lived with a drinker, your second husband, and that, I believe was your biggest downfall…not leaving him to save yourself. 

Vodka in the freezer, you told me. You couldn’t. No one could.

You always gave more of yourself than was even there. Leaving ghosts of yourself behind for others to feed off of. Always wanting to give more, more, more. A pleaser, left thirsty.

I am using your lessons to guide me.

images (1).png

Man. 

I was so distanced from all of this at the memorial. And now that I’ve said that about your second husband everyone’s going to hate me. At the memorial for me it was just this: one foot in front of the other. Don’t slip like she did. Your message to me seemed loud and clear: Keep your head up, don’t look down. But everyone else was crying and carrying on, while I was in some state of blissed out focus. How was I going to explain this? What was going on with me? 

Back in Oregon it took me many months to come around to how I really felt about your death. I saw posts on Facebook, “I think about her every day. I am so sad. It just makes me want to cry every time I think of her.” 

Why didn’t I want to cry? I did think of you. I looked through the scrapbook you sent me, your script written in black Sharpie: Love you always, sweetie niece, it read. 

I thought of how much you had going for you. I thought, don’t slip. I thought, dead at 61. I thought of you, as a girl, going off to Germany with the Army. Your glory days. You went from California to Connecticut to Germany. You made good friends—eased the awkwardness of socializing by drinking. Most of us do. For you it was different.

You had a boyfriend out there in Connecticut. I wonder if he was as different from you as the Connecticut boyfriend I had was from me. We looked the same: white, young, scrawny. We partied together and all of that. They thought we were “pretty.” They could never know the rural swamp from whence we came. We never knew the dollar amount of the steak on our plate. That the cost of that plate amounted to our weekly grocery allowance. 

I remembered that night you held space for me. How when you ran your hand up your forehead—holding the bangs out of your eyes briefly—I saw we had matching widow peaks and dark, thick hair. I saw we had the same oily, pocky skin. I could have been your daughter. 

I did think of you. Fact I walked out on the porch one day and said your name out loud. It was a rough day for me. I was weighing this and that. I was torn between saying “fuck it” and staying on the strait and narrow. I was grappling with my “things” like we all do. 

Exasperated, I asked you for a sign. I toy with spirituality, having given some of it up with I paired up with an atheist. 

“Just, anything,” I told you, in a way I hoped was sincere. 

I held my coffee mug in both hands. The one that reads “Mom is just Wow upside down.” I latched on to the wisdom that you taught me–dare I say telepathically–with your death: Relationships matter. Don’t do what I did. Don’t throw it away for the brief, frequent explosion of addiction and harm. Turn to the light. Every time. Walk away, completely, utterly committed, from the things that threaten you. Physically. Emotionally. Walk away completely. Don’t look back. 

I was open to receiving it. That’s what I was doing at the memorial, when I couldn’t stare down a gin and cry. Actually, I was honoring you. Head up, focused on the future.

It’s what you wanted me–what you want all of us–to do. Perhaps others have experienced this phenomenon. 

Maybe it was because I was looking for a sign so hard that it actually happened, but just then the wind picked up out on the porch. It was a warm wind on an otherwise calm day. I couldn’t fucking believe it, but I wasn’t going to look away as the breeze carried to one single tree out in the yard. Just one tree. Of all of the trees. And it was the tree that was closest to me, a five leaf maple. The wind blew my hair back just a little, and I closed my eyes, gripping my coffee mug in silence. It was late summer, early autumn, and the leaves had turned but were yet to fall from the trees. When I opened my eyes that breeze—your breeze—was whipping around that maple tree like a whirling dervish or Tasmanian devil from the old Looney Tunes cartoon. I mean it was really whipping. 

I even thought to run get my phone to capture the odd, rare event but of course I didn’t. You don’t fuck with something that sacred. You don’t exploit messages from the great beyond.  

I watched as that narrow, focused breeze stripped a previously full tree of most of its orange autumn leaves. It was a clear enough message that I thanked you, looking out to see the one bare tree among the others full of leaves. I breathed in, I breathed out. I felt validated and whole again. 

I didn’t care what anyone thought. I only cared that I was around to see my grandkids, should I have them someday. So I was willing to latch on to anything, even this crystal clear sign from the no-longer-living. I only cared that I was downloading the accurate message that you wanted me to have all along: Do not mourn me outright in the traditional way. Please just walk away completely from the things that threaten your health. Walk away and don’t look back. 

And in-between the lines: Spread the message. Relationships matter. Turn to the light, every time. And this: you are worth it. 

Remember that night? You were many years sober. You lived on the outskirts of town on a street I don’t remember the name of. It was your Demi Moore days: short, cropped dark hair. I was visiting from out-of-state. You were a fulltime mom to two teenage boys. You didn’t want them to come home to an empty house anymore, so you were there waiting with your recipe books and kitschy coffee mugs when they got out of school. Even when drinking though, you were a good mom. Excellent even. Clean sheets on the bed and all of that. You threw Thanksgiving together for the family year after year. I remember the time you had us cousins over to make gingerbread cookies during Christmastime at the house on A Street. You set up your camcorder and had the radio on. Bette Midler sang “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which may have been a new song then:

It must have been cold there in my shadow,
to never have sunlight on your face,
you were content to let me shine, that’s your way,
you always walked a step behind.
Thank you, thank you,
thank god for you the
wind beneath my wings. 

 

Love, 

Your niece,

Terah