Side Effects

There’s a quip about the cure being worse than the disease. No need to tell me that at 2 a.m., when my child is keening with stomach pain. We’re in the wilderness now – trying a relatively new drug not tested on children, for rare tumors with no proven treatment path. My kid is filling up the bingo card of side effects. And each day, I am supposed to hand her the drug that does this.

My husband and I sit up with her for the next two hours, hoping that the cramping recedes quickly. Eventually, the pain passes and she is finally able to fall into a deep, restful sleep. I am wide awake. I’ve sent a message to her doctor. This is untenable for the long term. Any ideas?

canstockphoto10766394Now that she is comfortable again, I am introspective. What am I becoming? I don’t sleep well anymore, even when a night is uninterrupted. I have copious notes, dates and times of this medicine, that reaction, what works, what didn’t. I’m on constant alert, vibrating with anxiety and now, caffeine. My stress hormones have cozied up to my menopause hormones, so every five minutes, I flash into a drippy sweat.

I’ve read every article and study I could find about the drug, the tumor, the side effects. After reading about one side effect treatment regimen, I asked the doctor if we couldn’t try a particular drug. Reading the same article, the doctor said sounds like it might be an option and wrote the prescription. Criminy, they realize that I only have a liberal arts degree, right?

But this is the speed of science. As quickly as one protocol gets established, four more options pop up. That’s a good thing, but it means everyone has to be read in, constantly.

canstockphoto17182715.jpgWhile I consider myself a relatively intelligent person, I’m no genius and the fact that our role as parents in her care is so outsized, really freaks me out. It has served me well to stay in the moment, except in the moments after a crisis has passed. Groundless again. My brain doesn’t know whether to stay on high alert or to relax. I am afraid to relax, as if my tension were a shield against calamity.

I think about the beginner’s mind from Zen Buddhism. If I looked around me, with fresh eyes, at this very moment, what do I see? My daughter is sleeping well. As is Pete, our old tomcat, with his little snores on the floor, near my feet. Snow is falling outside, muffling the city sounds. I’m tired, but healthy. The house is warm and smells of coffee and last night’s stew. My husband is able to work from home after the long night. I explore this moment, writing here, grateful that I still can. Open your eyes. Breathe.

I was thinking about advice on recharging phone batteries. With lithium-ion batteries, the lifespan of the battery doubles if you partially charge and discharge the battery. Then there’s parasitic loading – when you are using an item while it’s charging. It can induce mini-cycles, causing part of the battery to deteriorate at a faster rate. The writer in me wants to wring a metaphor from it.

canstockphoto2478779.jpgBeing a caregiver or a parent can be like this. You have to keep going, no matter how low your battery is. The only protection against deterioration is finding the time when you are only charging. The moments between crises have to be more than just time when bad things aren’t happening. This is tricky – the space between shaking your fist at the sky and noticing how beautiful it is. Enjoying the buoyant, cool water just before you feel like you’re drowning.

So this morning, I practice. I fold laundry at the kitchen table and watch the snow fall. I listen to Dar Williams sing “After All”. You catch your breath and winter starts again…

and the long night falls away.

 

 


Groundlessness and the Cultivation of Courage

I return here, unsure of how to proceed. Writing this blog has always been an exercise in being present, but distant. I’ve written from wherever I’m at, but writing itself, putting life in words, is an exercise in putting emotions at arm’s length. My family is having its worst best year and it will carry on into next year and perhaps, beyond. This is unfamiliar territory, this landscape of worst fears. My anxieties have always nibbled at the edges, but now they are front and center.

canstockphoto8606963.jpgAs I’ve written in previous posts, my teenage daughter has been seriously ill. After two major surgeries this year, we are now moving into the chemotherapy stage. I don’t want this blog to become a recitation of medical victories and setbacks, but now I understand why people write them. It becomes your life. How is it possible to write about anything else? In fact, how is it possible to do anything in the midst of this? I’ve been unable to focus enough to read, to really write much, to do anything but read dense medical articles and try my best not to be steamrolled by what if, what if. It’s funny that the what ifs never include positive outcomes. How very me.

Perhaps life would be easier if I believed in higher mechanics at work. But the pain of seeing my bright, beautiful girl struggle makes it better that I don’t. The rage and bitterness would consume me. I’d rail at the sky gods and pulpit liars. I’d be unforgiving. Thoughts and prayers indeed.

I’ve always been drawn to the tenets of Buddhism and Stoicism, lightly adhering to the idea that what is here is it. What is now is now. Never have your life philosophy tested. You will discover a derelict home and how little you’ve done to maintain it. You’ll find there are foundations of styrofoam and duct tape, leaky pipes, and an overabundance of distractions/fixes that no longer do the job. You’ll slap up a foreclosure sign and walk away. Time to start over.

Yesterday I read a chapter in Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for canstockphoto3326225Difficult Times and it hit me – nothing I was accustomed to doing for comfort/distraction/numbing in my life was working anymore. I was suddenly and sharply aware of a nightmare I have of falling off a cliff, before I jerk awake in a sweat. The sense that all that was before and all that would come after no longer mattered. But there is no waking up, no relief to discover I’d just fallen asleep on my arm, drooled on my pillow. I’m awake and groundless at this very moment.

I grew up in poverty, plagued by its cohorts alcoholism and domestic violence. I struggled to put myself through college by serving in the Army for four years. I quit smoking. I overcame years of dysfunctional relationships to meet and marry a wonderfully kind and smart man. I went through a dangerous labor and delivery to introduce my daughter to the world. I trained in martial arts in my 40s – bruised and injured sparring with behemoth 18-year-olds. But nothing, nothing in my life is as hard as this moment right now.

How does a person live in this space? I’ve asked friends who have had similar life experiences. How did you do it? The blank look on their faces said it all. They just did what they needed to do. I wrote in my last post about the exercise of stating exactly what one is doing to bring the current moment into focus. That little trick stopped working a few days ago when I found myself mentally shrieking Woman folding clothes while trying to fend off another round of laundry room sobbing. It started to seem more like a defense against thinking unpleasant thoughts.

canstockphoto8192278There is, at the heart of all this contemplation, a concrete reason to keep learning how to work with my own mind – I will be a better person, a better parent, a better partner if I can live well with uncertainty. My thinking brain is a construction site – all activity and planning and loud machinery. It does not provide solace. It does not expand compassion. It does not cultivate courage.

So I’m learning all over again – how to meditate, how to silence the raucous noise, how to sit still. This insistence is also an insistence to be courageous – to recognize I have no control, no soothsaying powers, no magic remedies. To face that no amount of chocolate or bingewatching or reading or writing or housecleaning will distract from the sharp edges of my life.

I re-read this post and thought well, this certainly sounds like you’re making things canstockphoto11582099about you, you narcissistic twat. To write about my daughter at this point would invade her privacy and likely shred me. She is who I want to be if I ever grow up – self-possessed, funny, and honest. I take so many of my cues now from her. Still, it’s not on her to make me a better person. I have to do the work. I have to practice. I have to be mid-air, still able to breathe, still able to comfort, still able to laugh. I’ve been in flight, trying not to notice the lack of a parachute or wings. The trick is to not look down.

Sources that Have Been Helpful to Me:

Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy by Bruce Tift

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard

The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and Calmness by Jonas Salzberger


Human in Chair, Writing

Life has started to really take its toll on me. I’m more tired, grayer, weightier, unfocused. There was a brief respite where my ego had time to rise – to think about goals and ambitions and productivity. Productivity. I’ve come to hate that word. It makes us all sound like robots. But robots don’t have children who get tumors. Again. Robots don’t watch their friends go through chemo treatment or their parents suffer from Alzheimer’s or partners in chronic pain. Robots don’t wake up each and every day wondering what that day might hold.

If it sounds as if I’m getting a little dark, stay with me. There is light. Eventually.

This has been a year of unending anxiety and constant resetting of expectations and plans – more than the usual chaos of being human. I found myself constantly saying I just need to find my center. I just need solitude. I just need a few days without menopausal shifts. A week without anxiety. A few nights of good, solid sleep. Then I will feel better. Then I will feel like me. Normal. Balanced.

Pardon me while I break into hysterical, teary laughter.

Depression has permeated my brain. We’re in the middle of yet another medical crisis – a drawn out one that will take months to resolve and may have lifelong impact. A parent’s nightmare. Trauma in slow motion. And still, I rise, I demand, get your shit together, Michelle. It’s an unkind, harsh voice. Who needs enemies with a brain like this?

7902654I turn to some old friends in the form of books. I pick up Toni Bernhard’s How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. I read it a few years ago, while supporting my mother-in-law as she wended her way through Alzheimer’s. It was a perfunctory read. Lately, I read with hungry desperation. Tell me how to cope with this. Give me answers.

Sometimes a message reaches you at just the right moment, when you’re an open wound in need of salve. The author of How to be Sick is chronically ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. I am not chronically ill, nor I hope, is my daughter, but this year has been a chainlink of catastrophes. Situational depression is to be expected. My little family has felt this in a myriad of ways. But still, we trundle on and we play a lot of card games.

There’s a practice I learned from the Bernhard book that I’ve started using. I’d been swimming in the disappointment of expectation. There was a brief space in time when everyone was well, when routine seemed possible. Then another medical scan revealed its terrible news. Immediately anxiety wrapped its death grip around my brain, as it played out every future scenario. Stuck in the past, throttled by the future.

canstockphoto16849001

The only tolerable memes.

If there’s anything that annoys me more, it is that every idea or thought is memed now. The be present exhortation is on coffee mugs, t-shirts, people’s email signatures, and one of the first pieces of advice that pops out of anyone’s mouth who imagines themselves to be wise or enlightened. Like a sulky teenager, I tend to react badly to what everyone else says or does. I’m likely to do the opposite, even when it shoots me in the foot. This time, though, I just have to ignore the commodification of an idea and focus on what it really means.

The practice is this: state exactly what you are doing in the present moment (Bernhard credits Byron Katie with this practice). As a writer, I find this interesting and sometimes amusing to do. Woman standing at sink, washing dishes. Person raking leaves. I like the paucity of words, the practice of narrowing the world down to subjects and verbs – seeing the world as it is actually happening, where nothing is before and nothing after. People easily say be present, but this is a practice that requires mechanics. Same goes for meditation. You need the mechanics to start you down the path. Focus on your breath. State what is happening.

38746152I started reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights yesterday. It reminds me that every single moment is filled with life – that there is beauty and curiosity wherever you are, but you have to be there, really there to notice it. I watched as my daughter slid in and out of the PET scan machine. She was swathed in a white blanket and my mind shot back to her crib nearly 14 years ago. I looked down at her round, rosy-cheeked face, her brilliant blue eyes, and her dark, spiky hair. At that moment, I wasn’t seeing radiation warning signs or hearing the beeping of machines. But that memory came with a terrible longing and I could feel the tears well up. It was bad time travel. Woman watching over daughter. Then, but more importantly, now.

So I practice. I practice reminding myself of what is. I practice deep breathing. I try not to be so cruel to myself. I write here, because it is my duct-taped practice of Buddhist Tonglen – giving or sending, receiving or taking. When I say the hard parts out loud, I feel the suffering recede. I see that we do our best, all of us. I see that there is beauty to be found in this very moment, in you, in me, in the world. We just have to open our eyes to what is in front of us.


Bone Weary

When the ambulance pulled away from our house the night before last, my shoulders slumped forward. The painful spasms that wracked my daughter’s body and impinged on her breathing had passed and she, with my husband, were chatting away, as if she’d not been screaming a mere half hour before. I locked up the house for the night, kissed and hugged them both and crawled into bed.

I fell asleep to the rhythm of their voices going back and forth, wondering if I’d ever feel well-rested again. I’m exhausted and this morning I’m trying to remember how I find my way back to a life where saying “I’m tired” is not an auto response.

canstockphoto10766394There are always the basics. Sleep. Movement. Hydration. Nutrition. Giving the body alternately the rest and fuel it needs to function optimally. So I start there. Beyond that, depression looms, a shadowy companion of sleep deprivation and constant anxiety. I can’t afford to indulge it at this point, so I try to remember the basics of taking care of my soul: solitude, writing, reading, music, gardening, running, the meditative braiding of words, movement, rhythm, silence – the solemn tending of Wordsworth’s inward eye.

Great art is often more about what you remove or leave out than what you add. Life, too, can be like that. I’ve started the process of cutting things away. It’s easier to do this when something dramatic happens, because priorities crystallize. Everyday life is full of scope creep. The hours are siphoned away by social media or fussing with picayune details of housework or being lured into further consumerism with artificially planted ideas of need.

Sometimes the jolt of fright that comes from a major life event can pull you out of the morass of mindlessness. Sometimes you choose to drown in a cesspool of distraction. It’s 50/50 for me these days – a push-pull of adrenaline and numbness.

canstockphoto16093077It is telling that as a child raised walking on eggshells, I become more placid as the stakes rise. I am deadly calm in the face of screaming, blood loss, hysteria. I’m the person you want with you during a mugging, but not necessarily there to help you through a cold (shake it off, dammit). My bedside manner is perfunctory if you go on too long. I’m wired to pull you out of a fire, to put salve on your burns, but irritable if I have to hear your retelling of the tale once again. I am the flow chart of next steps.

After the dramatic peaks have passed, the landscape flattens. I recognize the topography – a land of dulled-down plateaus, of depressive vulnerability, of self-recrimination. I try to re-frame the perspective, seeing it Edward Abbey-like, as a wilderness that is a necessity of the human spirit. It’s necessary to go through the desert in order to recognize the need for replenishment – to appreciate the small oases that one encounters.

canstockphoto3611259We’ve had the kind of emergencies lately that require a go bag. It sits in the corner, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice – toiletries, a change of clothes, critical medical documents, and that ubiquitous need of modern living – a tangle of chargers. I had thought about unpacking it over the last week, but after having to call 911, it will remain.

When I was in the Army, we used to be put on readiness alert duty. Wherever we were, whatever we were doing, we’d have to be able to report to post within 30 minutes, in uniform, with our packed duffel and gear. We’d sign out our weapons and be ready to head to the field for an unspecified duration. We were a ragtag lot, showing up disheveled and occasionally hungover, depending on the hour of alert. The relief was palpable when we could stand down.

I was young then, responsible for my own readiness, and there was an assumed end. Now I’m older, responsible for a child, with no end date in sight. Now is definitely canstockphoto11858226.jpgharder. Tired is the default mode. Sometimes I buy into the bootstrap myth – that whatever state I’m in, I should pull myself out of it.  But the real trick and wisdom is knowing when to ask for help, when to lean on others, when to let go.

Sometimes too, it’s just allowing yourself to rest for a bit. Sure, rally the troops. Reorient yourself to the mission. But first, a nap.


The Space Between

It took two minutes for the pediatric oncologist to shatter our high. The large tumor found in my daughter was benign and we’d just begun to process our relief and decompress from many nights in the hospital. He stopped us cold. The tumor has a 50/50 chance of recurring, of showing up in other organs, and has a chance of metastisizing as malignant. She had to go through more diagnostic testing. And here I sit, mere hours away from this doctor telling us the results of the latest PET scan. The space between knowing and not knowing.

canstockphoto0912560There have been a lot of spaces like this over the last few weeks. Before this medical drama, I’d been pondering spaces between, mostly from a creative perspective. I’d had trouble settling down to write, often wandering out into the garden to pull weeds or getting distracted by a lit journal. In the past, I’d chide myself for being a typical amateur writer, easily dissuaded from doing the thing which I needed to do in order to be what I wanted to be. Until recently, the spaces between were called procrastination and dilettantism. But I am my own spin master. The space between would hold value.

I decided to lean into it. What was happening between writing sessions? What was happening when my brain unraveled a bit, let down its guard, daydreamed? The answer is obvious to me now – I was writing the next story. Not everything is about writing, but at this particular point in my life, I want it to be. It’s something that keeps me afloat with hope for who I can still become. Or at least it was.

canstockphoto50379204Now the space between is a barren land. Gripped by the worst fear I’ve ever experienced in my life, my brain dare not relax. Daydreams are now nightmares about will readings and empty rooms. There is no inherent value except to keep me at the edge of the cliff. It’s an unsustainable state without there being damage.

I read articles about post-traumatic stress experienced by parents who go through a medical crisis with their child. I know I’m experiencing it. Reliving the moment when the ER doctor said there is a mass in her midsection. Reliving the moment when the surgeon said that there was a 95% chance it was malignant. Unable to sleep well, needing to be in constant motion, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Hyper-vigilance, alert to the slightest sound, standing over her at 2:30am to see if she is breathing, much like I did the first time she slept through the night as a baby.

There are several bird nests in our yard. We watched, as one by one, fluffy robins began canstockphoto49843428to fall out of the nest in their first attempts at flight. The mother robin was nearby interrupting her coaxing chirrs with sharp chirps of warning. The father swooping past to ward off predators. We watched baby cardinals being fed in turn by mom and then dad. They built their nest in a bush at eye level alongside our driveway. Despite all the activity, the sound of the garage door, the yard work, the mother forced herself to sit on those eggs, alert but motionless. The space between laying eggs and hatching them and sending fledglings off in the world is one of constant vigilance.

I read about post-traumatic stress not because I wish to avoid it, cure it, tamp it down. I only want to be aware of what is happening to me. I’m a fairly unshakeable sort who is now shaken. I feel a fundamental shift in my mental state and I know, at some point, I’ll need to make choices about who I become because of this shift. It’s early yet, but the future seems more uncertain than ever. Can I find value in this space? If I can’t, it will take years off my life, feeding the fear that has dogged me the older I get – that I will waste time.

When we returned home, after many nights hearing the beeping of monitors, the changing of shifts, the weak moans from the bed, it was apparent that nothing else mattered. And it might not again. It’s hard to care about weeds or workouts or washing. My husband and I have become mother hens, constantly milling about, checking up, never out of earshot. We have whispered conversations about meds and pain and temperature checks, even as our daughter has regained her color, her appetite, and her teenage eye rolls.

canstockphoto9520842I called up friends, went out for walks, even managed to get in a few workouts. But these posts are the extent of my writing. Somehow, I have to get back to writing fiction. A friend from my writing group said that she was sure that this time would prove valuable to my writing and she couldn’t wait to see what I would do. This might seem a mercenary perspective, but it was something that I needed to hear – to be reminded that regardless of outcomes, there will be value in this space between. I just have to be willing to look for it.

Update: The scans came back negative, so onto a monitoring plan. Thanks for the kind wishes and bearing with me as I posted my anxieties. Hopefully, I can get back to writing my usual rambling posts.


The Snowflake and the Fist

canstockphoto8520880Since I live in Minnesota, I find the term “snowflake” to be an innately irritating and overused bit. They all look the same at the end of my shovel. It’s generally used against liberals or basically anyone who disagrees with the person using it. It’s used as a way to shut down opinions, to end the conversation – a way to show what a tough you are. Liberals do the same thing with the “check your privilege” childishness. It ends conversations. It is aggressive and condescending.

Language matters and how we learn to talk to one another can be the difference between peace and violence.

I often struggle with this. Sounding tough is armor – a protection against getting hurt or having to examine one’s own words and actions.

My home life as a child was unpredictable and could, at times, be dangerous. When in pain or afraid or angry, I was mocked for being too sensitive and consequently spent many of my years practicing toughness. I put some meat on that bone by joining the Army, training in martial arts,  and becoming physically stronger. I was determined that no one should ever hurt or threaten me again.

canstockphoto3491219Over the years, especially being a parent, I’ve had to reverse engineer my vulnerability. I’ve had to learn to take harshness out of my tone, become more cognizant when teasing might cross the line to meanness, learn to nurture and give without regard to how it makes me appear. I’ve had my moments, though. I liked the idea that I could sing silly songs with my girl and still be able to take down an attacker if needed.

These days, I am approaching life with a little more subtlety. The current environment of political dysfunction and the dangerous things being done in the name of “toughness” have made me think about what strength means.

Imagine what the conversation would be if instead of saying “Lock her up”, people had shouted “we’re afraid”. Or instead of calling President Trump cutesy insult names, we had simply said “we’re afraid”. Would the conversation change? Would the tone of the whole campaign season have changed?

Instead, we’re bordering on an authoritarian regime. When people are done being afraid of Muslims, who is next? The rhetoric is already setting up the press, scientists, intellectuals, actors to be targets. We’ve seen this game before. A propagandist with the President’s ear now sits on the National Security Council, billionaires are preparing to dismantle citizen protections in order to fill their coffers, we’re being told lies are truth and anyone who says otherwise is an enemy. Meanwhile, people who have power are kowtowing and those who don’t, are risking more and more to protest.

So perhaps someone being snidely referred to as a “snowflake” should be the least of our concerns. But it is how we dehumanize others who disagree with us and this is one of the tenets of authoritarianism. It’s how to silence the opposition.  This isn’t President Trump and his confederacy of ne’er do wells. This is what we do to each other. This is the ground floor of the Tower of Babel, where we refuse to listen to each other and stop speaking the same language. Chaos and separation and disintegration ensues.

Several months ago, we put a sign in our yard. We choose love. It was a plastic sign, given out for free by a neighbor a few blocks over. I realized yesterday how it is getting harder and harder to make that choice.

I am afraid. I am afraid of the hatred and the actions being taken based on that hatred. I’m afraid that my daughter won’t have the same choices and opportunities that I have had. I’m afraid that our air and water will be poisoned by pollution and chemicals and that we’ll destroy this planet, one species after another.

I am afraid of all the guns and the violence surrounding them. I am afraid of the wars and the death they will bring. I am afraid of the religious zealots, the ones who live in this country who want to inject their archaic belief systems into our laws. I’m afraid of what we will do to each other in the name of our beliefs. I’m afraid that we’ll sit too long on our hands and then they will come for us.

canstockphoto2264577In the face of all those fears, choosing love can be quite difficult. It sounds like this inert, fuzzy thing on the face of it. Part of me wants to mock it, name call, make up some farcical meme. My lesser self still has space in my brain. It is so much easier to be a jerk in the face of fear than it is to wrangle with oneself and choose kindness or compassion or curiosity or love. And I wrestle with it everyday.

Even now, my mind is objecting. But, but, but… if I choose love, won’t that mean I’m complicit? Don’t people who use force and violence only respect force and violence? There are some people who will remain in their armor, no matter what you do. But there are others who will soften and engage and stop their own words and actions of violence.

And choosing love doesn’t mean being passive. It means that love drives our words and choices. It means that fear has to take a backseat. I am afraid that as I rise to this occasion in our history, I may inadvertently cause harm to myself or my family. But I love my family enough to know that passivity and cowardice is not the example I wish to set. Civic engagement is critical now. Speaking up is critical now. I’d rather be an alarmist and wrong, then passive and right.

canstockphoto25488454In the end, you may not change a single mind. You may not even be able to affect the course of events. But you will be someone with strength of character. You will be someone you can live with. I’ve ordered a carved wooden sign for a more permanent place in our yard. We choose love. Every single day we have to do the heavy lifting in re-choosing love as our guiding principle. That’s what being tough really means.

 


Back to the Beginning

canstockphoto21954338Once upon a time, I had a business card with a job title. Over the years, I’ve saved each job’s business card, a potpourri of assistants and coordinators and managers. For a good portion of my working life, I did not have a business card and it felt meaningful when that first box arrived at my desk.

After my daughter was born, I spent two years trotting my wiggly baby to a daycare each morning and commuting downtown with my husband to a many-storied building of glass and metal. One year of hauling a breast pump and hunching over in the corner of a windowed conference room. And a breaking point – my misery seeping into the office. I left the job, got my baby, and came home.

I’ve been home ever since, spending some of the best and worst moments of my life without a business card. It was easy to justify. My husband has a decent job which has survived multiple layoffs. We have health insurance. The house and car are paid for. It didn’t make sense to pay child care, which had become increasingly worrisome with each developmental stage. I also had the big dream of establishing a writing career.

My daughter is 12 now and shaking off the yoke of an attentive parent. A writing career would be a surprise, given my work habits. And while I’m still chugging away at it, I’m not counting on it. I have a business card that says I’m a writer and every once in a while, I dust off the box, open it and then close it again. The genie stays in.

Today, I start a volunteer job. I volunteered twofold – to tutor high school English language learners and to help in the volunteer program office. Part of me dreaded the idea of data entry and filing, but I’m good at those things. I’ll have a boss and a system to learn. I’m sure there will be jargon and acronyms. Every job has them.

For a moment, I felt a twinge of despair. What had I gained by all these years at home? I volunteered, threw complex birthday parties (treasure hunts and crime mysteries – holy shit, what was wrong with me?). I grew gardens and taught my daughter the words to canstockphoto24937827Elvis songs and how to draw cats. She remembers very little of those years. All that effort and awkwardly conscientious parenting, just a figment of my imagination.

I talked not too long ago with a mother at the school where I’d been PTO president. All those hours planning fundraisers and staffing book fairs. Of talking with teachers and parents and doing assembly presentations. My name occasionally shows up on old documents, to be replaced by someone else. I was the uber-volunteer until I burnt myself to the ground.

canstockphoto1854942For years, I’ve helped take care of my mother-in-law. She lived two blocks and one phone call away. Running her to doctor appointments, taking her grocery shopping, writing note after note as her memory failed. Guiding her through daily physical therapy exercises. Doing her taxes and paperwork. Sitting with her until the paramedics came. Now she is in a nursing home. And no one, especially her, remembers all the years before.

My resume has a canyon in it. A vast expanse of about a decade, filled with dirty diapers and strollers and wheelchairs. Silly songs about dinosaurs, patient and impatient answers to questions about the remote control and the telephone. A filling in the sandwich generation.

When I interviewed for the volunteer job, I put on the only dress pants I own, Talbot suits long gone to consignment shops. I talked too much and laughed at weird times. I tried too hard. I realized that I’d been away from things too long, that I feel uncomfortable with small talk and I have to make a conscious effort not to use swear words.

Self-pity was in order. And boy, did I ever feel it. All of it was for nothing. There was nothing to show for my efforts, my time, my love, my exhaustion. Not even a business card.

As with all self-pity, my reasoning was severely flawed. My daughter is this amazing person – loved and loving, kind and funny. She fills our home with music and light. She may not remember how many times I sang silly songs to her, but her heart does. My mother-in-law spent many years in her own apartment, the last few only because she was protected and cared for and loved. She doesn’t remember my name sometimes now, but her face always lights up with recognition when she sees me.

As for all the school volunteering, well, the very nature of it is transitory. I did some good things, like filing for nonprofit status, which will lead to corporate donations. But it’s all like so much smoke, evaporating and invisible.

canstockphoto3210183This morning, I sat on my cushion and prepared to meditate. I’d been feeling a tad smug that I’ve managed this practice for the last few weeks, without fail, building up from 5 minutes to a shiny 13. As I settled in, our tom cat began his caterwauling. I focused on my breath. He yowled louder. I kept my focus, feeling a little proud that I’d managed to let go of my sensory irritation. Then I realized that I had forgotten to set the timer.

My perfectionist self was tempted to start over, but I decided to continue for a bit longer.  With a laugh, my eyes popped open. It was all about humility. A messed up meditation. Love without recognition. Not having a good answer to what do you do?

When it was all gone, when there was no money, no accolades and no title, I still sought a sense of importance, even in the most mundane activities. To learn humility is to be grateful for the gift of starting over again. And again. And again.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind


Fight Harder

canstockphoto5811625At midnight, I woke up and checked the election results and began to cry. My first thought was about the conversation I’d have to have with my daughter in the morning. She stood by me as I proudly filled in the circles on my ballot. Like many of my friends and family, we were optimistic that the world might look different in the morning.

It does look different this morning. It looks like misogyny and racism and anti-intellectualism are now the colors that this country flies. How could it not look like that? Somebody’s drunk uncle just got elected president.

I got caught up in the news cycles, the Tweets, the demoralizing nature of these campaigns. My heart sank when I realized that what I had believed about my country was not true – that we were kinder, braver and smarter than we are.

It’s a wake up call. For me, as a middle class, white suburban woman, it means that I can no longer be comfortable, residing in my pseudo-intellectual pursuits.

Liberals are often accused of being smug or elitist. I am my own American dream, growing up poor, serving my country, going to college, working my way through a sundry mediocre jobs. I’m not wealthy or entitled or pious or academic. But I’ve been comfortable and am surrounded by people who generally share my views. This election has created a shock wave in my world.

It means that I have to take whatever skills I have and put them to visible and uncomfortable use. I have always been moderate and will continue to be so. I do believe reason and compassion are better guiding lights than anger, but anger also serves a purpose – to light those fires and end silent passivity.

It means that as a veteran, I must argue vociferously against our war culture. It means as a parent, I must defend the right to a decent education for all children. As a woman, I must stand up and fight against those who believe women’s genitals are the politicians’ to govern.

As a human, I must stand side-by-side with my brothers and sisters of color for their right to pursue happiness without being incarcerated unjustly and shot down in the streets with prejudice.

These are things that I should have been doing all along. I didn’t ever believe that at its heart, America would choose a man who has shown no integrity, no empathy and no common sense to lead our nation. As his second, we’ve chosen a theocrat who would, given the chance, impose his version of religious morality upon the country.

We will not be governed well or wisely. We will choke on media narratives and the every day reporting of conservative chicanery. We will watch as America sinks into a recession, while protections for our environment are gutted. We will sigh with every Tweet, every insult, every gauche display of inequity. But it is not the end of the world, just the start of four very long, very difficult years.

canstockphoto0484969I am angry, disappointed and embarrassed for our country, but the facade has been stripped away. We know who we are. There’s something amazing that happens when the tyranny of a slim majority gets put on display. The rest of us get stronger, because we have to fight harder.

What will I tell my daughter in the morning? I will tell her that it’s time to dig in and fight harder. Fight for our integrity as humans on this planet. Fight for our right as women to exist on an equal playing field. That we must pursue intellectual and artistic lives with vigor. That we must stand up at every opportunity and fight for the downtrodden, the disenfranchised. That we must defend the environment and animals and protect the vulnerable.

This is the time when real American heroes can be born. I cannot allow myself to sink into despair. I cannot show my daughter that at the first sign of distress, my ideals and beliefs collapse under their own depressive weight. I will not lose my shit and wail and gnash my teeth.

This is an opportunity to become more – more compassionate, more brave, more creative, and more loving.

For every racist who feels emboldened, we will speak loudly in defense of diversity.

For every misogynist who feels validated, we will raise a son or a daughter to be a decent, respectful, ethical human being.

canstockphoto1323495For every shrill cry about intellectualism, we will read and write more books, compose music, create art.

For every petty whine about political correctness, we will become more inclusive and more sensitive.

For every brazen public display of mob mentality, we will create more space for more voices.

That is the America I want for my daughter.

So take a break from the news, take a walk, read a favorite book, spend time with the people you love, recharge. And then roll up your sleeves, there’s work to be done.


The Green Study’s “Positively Happy Nice Story” Contest: 1st Place

canstockphoto142844611st Place goes to Kiri at The Dust Season for the “A Happily-Ever-After Story Involving Break-Ins and Police Action”. It takes a village to raise a child, but those villages often wait to show themselves. At just the right moment…

She was sent one Green Study Coffee Mug, a postcard from Minneapolis and $100 donation was made to the American Red Cross on her behalf.

“A Happily-Ever-After Story Involving Break-Ins and Police Action”

By Kiri at The Dust Season

My son is an escape artist. He revels in finding ways around the protective prison cocoon of his home life. This would be fine, if my son were normal. But he isn’t and this story isn’t. So, before everyone gets up in arms about my use of the word ‘normal’ in relation to my son, let me get one thing straight: something beyond ordinary happened—and that’s okay.

I am coming to terms with the fact my autistic son is getting older, bigger, faster—and let’s be honest—smarter than I am. He recognizes that, by the end of the week, mommy is flat out exhausted and lacking in due diligence. This has led to several problematic incidents involving the police.

Before my mother-in-law left to go back to sunny (drought ridden) California, we were enjoying a last Masterpiece Theater. We were snuggled on the couch waiting for Inspector Lewis to figure out who dunnit when there was a knock at the door.
Argh, fifteen minutes to the end….

canstockphoto17258172As I approach the door, I spy the red and blue lights flashing against the windows. This does not clue me in. I open the door to find an officer standing there.

“Ma’am, don’t you answer your phone?” The officer says.

“Uh, we don’t have a home phone, just a cell phone.” I say, nonplused.
(Note: No alarm bells are ringing yet. I haven’t had this pleasure before.)

His next question sets off alarm bells aplenty.
“Do you have a son?”

*DING! DING! DING!*

I scream my son’s name, whip around to go search the house despite the quite apparent evidence he—like Elvis—has left the building.

“Ma’am. Ma’am. I need you to calm down.”

I’m frantically grabbing shoes, my purse, my phone which has been in my bedroom recharging, but the officer won’t let me leave until I am no longer hyperventilating.

“Your son is fine. A neighbor called it in.”

Turns out my son was visiting a cul-de-sac two blocks east and north of our home. It’s a favorite route of his when we take walks. Someone at that address saw my son and realized how odd it was to see a boy scribbling on paper squatting in someone’s driveway at 10:30 p.m.

I follow the officer in my car, we get to the location where another officer is waiting with my son. He didn’t restrain him, just walked with the boy until mom arrived.

A conversation ensues in which I learn they figured out who my non-verbal child was because of a piece of paper he had in his hand which had his name scrawled on it. They called the local principal who helped to identify my son through process of elimination.

canstockphoto8143483This would be a feel good story, if it ended here. This alone, this interaction in which nothing bad happened despite the unlimited opportunity would be enough. But no, my son discovered his super power and he is now making the most of it.

Two more times, since this one, my son has escaped my hawk-like surveillance.* All of these times coincide with Sundays when I am tired, distracted, and just a little too grateful that he is being ‘quiet’ and ‘good’ when actually he is breaking into the local church and, then, two weeks ago, a neighbor’s home—a neighbor we don’t know.

This is where true serendipity comes in.

My twelve-year-old, who is big enough to no longer have the automatic cute appeal of a child, entered a stranger’s home. The stranger was alone at home with her small child and a dog.

I promise you, I have spent many nerve wracked hours imagining what could have happened. What might have happened. What didn’t happen.

Instead, the woman contacted the police. The police contacted me because they have my son’s information on file and now are getting to know him. The woman even took her dog outside because my son seemed upset. The woman was not mad, did not blame me and even tried to console me. I was never made to feel like I was a bad parent because I couldn’t keep track of my child.

In a world that is so very eager to tell you the worst case scenario, where autistic children die from wandering, where the police react before recognizing a special needs situation, it felt important to share that sometimes things turn out okay. And that’s simply extraordinary.

Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*If by hawk-like surveillance you mean geriatric, near-sighted-buzzard-distracted-by-carrion awareness.

Afterward
canstockphoto34208068The author has now installed a door alarm which shrieks like a demented banshee whenever the rear door is opened so much as a sliver. It is the most beautiful, heart-attack-inducing sound you will ever hear.

Congratulations Kiri (for winning and for your new door alarms)!

Here’s The Dust Season Sampler:

An Unnatural Brunette Gets Political

A Creep in the Nighttime

A Villain After My Own Heart…


Adult Education: A Neverending Curriculum

A wave of stale high school sweat wafted over me as I opened the door to the gym. Last week I started a community adult ed class for circuit weight training. I’ve taken a lot of classes over the years – everything from Chinese ink painting to yoga to first aid.

It’s always the same. There’s a group of people who have been taking the class together since the dawn of time, who smell new blood in the water. I end up on email lists,  preceded by an onslaught of handshaking introductions, and unsolicited advice. I take classes because most of them are local, relatively cheap, and I am likely to walk away with something I didn’t have before – a broadened perspective.

I believe in lifelong learning and not as a euphemism for what retired people do. It’s what we all do if we’re paying attention. Not a day goes by when I don’t learn something new – about myself or others or the world around me.

*****

It’s been a week of talking people down from trees. This is when the concept of “sandwich generation” hits me like a ton of bricks.

canstockphoto21347802.jpgThe week became about moments. My daughter is now in that world of preteen entanglements – friendships fraught with shifting loyalties. As an adult, I want to laugh it off for all its impermanence, but I know that her present moment is intense and painful. There are tears and conversations and hugs. I try to remember what it was like to be that age. I am not confident in my ability to teach her, but I tap into all that I know to offer her ideas and options. Sometimes I just try to make her laugh. This morning she told me that she dreamed she was being made fun of by high schoolers and that I beat them up. I try to be measured and wise, but sometimes all she hears is that I care. Violently so, apparently.

My mother-in-law was moved to a better room at the nursing home, triggering a cascade of cognitive impairment, common with dementia. She still remembers to call. Pick me up. Take me home. I’m at the casino. The staff expressed concern. She keeps hovering over her roommate, worried that she’s not getting fed. She wants to make sure the baby is okay. There is no baby. We make big decorative signs that say it’s her room. My husband or I visit her twice a day to remind her where she’s at. A palpable sense of relief comes over her when she sees us. At that moment, we are her home.

*****

canstockphoto8525201It might have been the setting, but with 700 stringed instruments, a gym was the only place to have the concert. One of the music teachers exhorted audience members to create an orchestra hall environment by turning off the sound on their cell phones and asking them to pay attention to the performances.

It seems like common sense, but over the last year, I’ve heard Bach and Mozart accompanied by ringtones and followed by hooting, whistling and hollering as if we’d just witnessed a professional wrestling match.

If I’m a snob, I come by it honestly. Growing up poor meant that live performances of music, theater or comedy were a treat. When money is tight, seeing the Cleveland String Quartet is a special occasion. Tickets to many events are expensive. We dressed up, used our best manners and treated the performers with awe.

There is something to the idea of making music accessible to a wider audience by not having etiquette expectations. Which is fine, until you slosh your drink down my back and do a shrill whistle in my ear to let your friends know where you are sitting. Or I can’t see the stage because of all the cell phone ambient lighting and cameras flashing around me. It’s an I hate people moment that I wrestle with every time I go to live performances these days.

My daughter said “Mom, sometimes I feel like crying when I hear live music.” Music does the same thing to me. The start of a symphony or a choir or an acoustic band sends chills up my spine. The ability of human beings to create such beauty, to cooperate and harmonize – this is an amazing thing.

Besides the love of my family and the natural world, the rhapsody of live music is the closest thing to faith that I experience. Hence the conflict between a roller derby audience and what I feel. But gratitude comes in all forms and I have to remind myself of that, next time someone yells woo-hoo! in my ear.

*****

This morning I struggled to write a letter. For several years, I’ve sponsored a girl in Ethiopia who is my daughter’s age through Save the Children. I know there are people who do more than I’ve managed, but I’ve told myself that at least I’m doing something. Perhaps too easy and too convenient, but something.

Ethiopia is now going through a terrible drought. The child I sponsor lists “fetching water” as a typical daily activity. I look at her picture. Her eyes are big, but her body thin. Her shirt has a tear in it. She does not smile. She wants to be a teacher.canstockphoto11235653

I fetch another cup of coffee. I’m thinking about taking a shower. I wash my hands and brush my teeth. Each moment, water taken for granted. What do you say to someone who cannot take water for granted? What do I say to a child in Ethiopia or in Flint, Michigan for that matter? My discomfort in writing a simple letter is nothing.

*****

canstockphoto8176108As I walked tonight, the crows swooped and raucously cackled as I crossed the park. The wind was cold and sharp on my face. The world expanded around me and I exhaled.

Sometimes the weight of my insecurities and fears presses down on me. I hear the voices that tell me that I’m a failure, that what I do matters little, that I’ll never be good enough.

Those thoughts are always there, flapping at the edges of my brain, trying to get my attention. A good week is when I feel strong and intentional and do nothing more than wave them off. This week, I invited them around a campfire. The s’mores of self-loathing were cooking away.

Like the crows, though, I know those thoughts are never going to stay. They can make all the noise in the world and that’s all it is, just noise to distract us from our true intentions. Sort of like politics these days.canstockphoto1392244

Spring couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

Wishing you a sense of renewal and happy intentions this week!