Friday, December 02, 2016

Treading New Ground

I had thought that, since I lost one parent already, there would be a sense of familiarity, of deja vu, of "been there, done that" when I lost the next one. Not in a dismissive way, just an "ok, I've got this, I know what to expect" kind of way.

Nope.

Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. He told me early on, I was there to listen, I went down when he had surgery to remove part of his left lung and some lymph nodes, I let him bounce ideas off of me for future treatments. We weren't certain of the timeline, but we knew he was sick and he was absolutely honest with me about how sick he was. It was excoriatingly, skin-flayingly, teeth-grindingly painful in the last week to watch him suffer. He knew me until the minute he died in my arms.

But Alzheimer's or dementia or whatever the hell this is that Mom has is a completely different animal. She isn't having some diseased cells cut away. She isn't calling me to tell me about the latest drugs or therapies her doctor has offered. She might live for six months or six years. She has no idea who I am.

This one-sided relationship is teeth-grindingly painful in a completely different way. When Dad took a turn for the worse, it was obvious. Over a period of several days, he began having pain in his legs and hips and when they took x-rays it was clear that the cancer had spread to his bones. An MRI showed it was in his brain, too - the cancer cells lit up like the night sky I once saw in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. From that point forward, we knew there was no rallying, no bouncing back.

Mom's slide has been gradual except when it seems to leap forward, and there have been many times over the last year when she was almost able to snap out of it and recognize me and have a conversation. The cruelest part of that is that it gave me hope. It made me wonder how we could capture those lucid moments and prolong them, whether there was some magical drug that she could take that would clear the way for a return to herself. Those moments, when they are gone, are all I can hope for and envision, but they are much fewer and farther between and I know I won't get a signal that tells me I've seen the last one. I didn't get a sign the last time I spoke to Mom on the phone that said it wouldn't happen again. I didn't get a warning the last time she called me by name and knew I was her daughter so that I could savor it.

There is a part of me that wonders if I am a little bit narcissistic in my grief. A part that thinks maybe it shouldn't matter so much whether she knows who I am, that tells me to just get on with caring for her the best way I know how without worrying whether she remembers I'm hers. Because somehow, I want to be special. I don't want to be just one of another cast of characters who comes through to visit and smile at her. I want to be her daughter, not for any sort of recognition of my efforts, but because I mean something more. There is something about the reciprocity of a loving relationship that makes it feel whole. When I sat with Dad during his last days, holding his hand and telling him stories, even though he couldn't speak, there was a familiarity. He squeezed my hand and his eyes danced during the funny parts, and his rough, calloused thumb rubbed back and forth against mine when I was being serious. We had a history that was fully intact until the moment he took his last breath and when I grieved for him, I grieved for all of it simultaneously, the loss of his body, his Self, and our relationship.  

This time, I am grieving in stages. While there are parts of Mom's Self that are still fully intact - her sarcasm and playfulness comes out sometimes with her husband - I have lost the history of our relationship as mother and daughter. She knows I am familiar, but she doesn't know why. Our inside jokes now belong to me, even though she is physically still here. When we sit together, I can't tell her stories about my kids or my husband because it confuses her - she doesn't know these people, why am I talking about them? We can't reminisce or look forward to sharing family holidays together or significant moments in the future because she isn't coming to my girls' high school graduations or weddings. There is a quality of suspended animation to it all, a sense that I am walking without a foundation beneath me.

I wish I had a succinct ending to this post. I usually am able to close the loop with some sort of insight, but maybe the fact that I can't this time is an apt metaphor for how all of this feels right now - loose and unfinished.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Memoir Excerpt on The Manifest-Station

Yesterday, Jennifer Pastiloff's site, The Manifest-Station, featured an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress on their site. I am thrilled to have this process begin. You can find it here. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Please Don't Unfriend Me

In the past several days, I have seen more requests for people to "unfriend" and "unlike" pages on social media than ever before.

I have spoken with people who acknowledge that their loved ones voted for a different Presidential candidate than they did and roll their eyes, saying that they don't get it.

I have seen calls for parts of the country to split off from the rest because of the deep philosophical divisions that showed up on Tuesday night, and I have listened and watched as groups form with the intent to "fight." I heard one person say last night that she doesn't talk to people who voted differently than her because "we can't."

We can't afford to not talk about this.

It's hard.
It is often painful.
It sometimes feels as though we are speaking different languages.

And we have to try.

The future of our country depends on it.

The first thing we can do is stop pretending that debate is conversation. In a debate, there are sides. There are factions with deep-seated beliefs and the goal is to show up and talk the other person under the table. The entire setup is predicated on the idea that this is a zero-sum game. That one side is "right" and the other is "wrong." Debates are about power, they aren't about common ground, and what the American people need right now is to find our common ground.

Instead of one-upping each other, we need to listen.
Instead of either/or, we need to start thinking in terms of yes/and.

When Lola headed out to take the bus with a couple of friends to the movies yesterday, I nearly had a panic attack. At some point, it occurred to me that I was sending my 14-year old daughter out with another young woman (who happens to be black) on to public transit and out into the world without an adult. Before Tuesday, I wouldn't have given it a second thought. But in the days following the election, my Facebook feed was filled with stories of women and girls being harassed in public, people of color and Muslims attacked for simply being who they are, and I was gripped by fear. I hated the fact that I had to give her instructions as to how to behave on the bus - eyes up at all times, assess the situation constantly, if your gut tells you something isn't right, scan the area for the nearest trustworthy adult and have an exit strategy that puts you in a safe place. I tried to do it as calmly as I could without scaring her, but still letting her know that she needed to heed my warning.

I am keenly aware of the daily fear that accompanies being a woman in this country. I am also aware of what many of my friends who are people of color go through on a daily basis and I think I understand their fears. I have heard and acknowledge the fears of those who are immigrants, refugees, and people who do not identify as Christian. I also feel as though I understand the concerns of folks who are part of the LGBTQ community.

And...

Yesterday, I had a very interesting exchange on Facebook with someone who supported Donald Trump's presidential bid. He wrote that he wanted us to all stop fighting and start working to make this country great for "our kids," and I inquired whether he meant all kids - black and brown kids, immigrant kids, gay and transgendered kids, and Muslim kids. What ensued was more than 30 minutes of back and forth clarification, peeling layers to really understand what he meant by making our country great and if it was inclusive of all of us. What I learned was that he doesn't care a whit about reversing Roe v. Wade or marriage equality. He isn't interested in deporting anyone and he believes that the Bill of Rights was written to include every single one of us, regardless of what we look like or where we worship or who we love. His reasons for voting the way he did had nothing to do with racism, xenophobia, homophobia or sexism.

In my quest to understand, I had to refrain from lumping him into the box that is so handy and makes it easy to jump right back in to that zero-sum game of Wrong and Right. Goodness knows, I didn't agree with Hillary Clinton on everything she said. In fact, I vehemently disagree with her on several issues, and I know that I wouldn't want to be characterized as someone who is in full support of her positions on military spending or energy policy. Because of that, it is my responsibility to treat others the same way. I can't make a blanket statement that every single person who voted for Trump is racist, misogynistic or sexist. They may well have voted for him despite that.

And...

The fears of folks Trump has alienated and denigrated are real.
They have every right to have their feelings validated and fight to keep their personal freedoms.

And...

The fears of folks who don't live in urban areas where the economy is rebounding, where opportunities exist for job training and social programs are just as real. Those folks who have struggled to put food on the table for their kids, whose schools have been taken over by the state because they have failed to meet standards for years, who have been farmers and miners for generations and still want to be, but those jobs are going away or getting harder to do without the support of the government? Their feelings are just as real. Their fears are just as existential.
They have every right to fight for someone they hope can pay attention to their plight, too.

Just because I haven't lived those fears doesn't mean they aren't real. They just don't show up on my radar. Like the fears of women and immigrants and minorities don't show up on the radar of folks who haven't lived that reality.

We can continue to try and convince each other that the things that show up on our personal radars are more important than the things that show up on someone else's if we want to. We may gather bigger numbers next time and "win" elections. But we won't have addressed the underlying issues that are driving the divide and we will continue the wild swing of this pendulum that throws our country into chaos every few years. The only way to slow it down is to learn about each other, to set aside what we think we know and listen to what others live with. Unfriending each other or voting to split states off from the Union might make us feel safer, but it only deepens the divide. And it won't make the other side go away. It certainly won't make them change their minds. It is the equivalent of a parent kicking their teenage daughter out of the house because she is pregnant. It doesn't make her any less pregnant, it just leaves her with fewer supports and it means you don't have to look at her anymore when you come downstairs for breakfast. We have to face this with compassion and a genuine desire to find commonality or we will continue to break apart even more.  I truly believe that the people of this country have more in common with each other than we know. It is in our own best interest to find those goals we all share and begin talking to one another because it appears that there are some folks in power who are more interested in being Right than they are in being part of something real and honest and human.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Immediate Takeaways from Last Night's Election


I sit here full to the brim. My heart is heavy, my stomach quivering, mouth dry and thoughts racing. I remind myself to breathe deeply a few times a minute and struggle to define what is happening. I am both drawn to social media and reminded to pay attention to how it makes me feel. I am grateful for the conversations I have had with Eve and Lola last night and this morning; appreciative of the opportunity to temper anger and fear with reflection and self-awareness. So far, here is what I believe to be true:


  • Americans who voted for vastly different outcomes than I did have just as much right to cast their votes as anyone else. Regardless of whether someone's vote was cast in anger or fear or hatred, the fact remains that we live in a democracy. Everyone's vote counts. 
  • I can't know what motivated anyone else's vote unless they tell me, and trusting the media to tell me isn't a valid option. They're the ones who were so wrong about how this election would go, remember? That means they have little insight into the way many people's minds work. The media is just as divided as this country's electorate is and is mostly populated by a group of college-educated, white folks. That is hardly an accurate representation of the country.
  • There are no more racist, misogynist, elitist, ableist people in America today than there were yesterday. And, more importantly, we can't know what motivated people's votes (see bullet point above), so saying that this election was a mandate for racism, sexism, or elitism is altogether incendiary and not useful. We don't know that, frankly.
  • The people of this country have allowed themselves to be divided by fear, income inequality, geography, and hatred. Fear is a powerful motivator, but unless we really strive to listen to each other with the intent to understand, we will get nowhere. I have watched (and I am guilty of this, too) people purport to have 'discussions' about the election that were simply about convincing the other person that they are wrong. When discussions become about right/wrong, winning/losing, they cease to be about understanding. It is human nature to dig in and defend our position. It feels too scary to stop and wonder whether anything is truly black and white and whether we could have something to learn from someone who thinks differently than we do. Until we learn to acknowledge and set aside our fears, we cannot hope to build bridges and come together around common goals. We won't even be able to identify common goals.
  • We often fail to recognize the ripple effects of our actions. Folks who voted as a reaction to something may soon come to regret that choice if the stock market crashes, they lose their health insurance, or Roe v. Wade is repealed. We are all connected and every single action we take has consequences that we can't predict. Reacting out of fear or anger or hatred often doesn't give us the time to think about what those actions might set in motion. Folks who are waking up today and reacting to the news out of anger or hatred - vowing to fight against those who elected our new president or threatening to leave the country - have every right to feel those emotions, but acting on them will only drive us farther apart as a people. We are all connected. 
  • The dichotomy that exists in America is amazing. The popular vote was split nearly 50/50. In the face of elections where conservative Republicans will control the White House, Congress, and the Senate, the number of women of color in the Senate quadrupled last night. Gun control measures are expected to pass in four states, and there were at least ten anti-corruption measures that passed across the country last night. My state just elected the first Iranian-American, disabled Lieutenant Governor. We are a complex nation of people who have more in common than we know, and if we can come together and begin to remember that the value of human beings is immense, and more important than money, we can begin to heal. 
I don't mean to sound naive. I live in a position of privilege that means I am not imminently worried about my citizenship, my health insurance, my civil rights, or my ability to remain in my home. That position affords me both power and responsibility. I will continue to remember that it is my duty to be engaged, to listen and try to understand, and to support the things I believe in most vehemently, all the while acknowledging the right of others to believe differently. That is what this country has always purported to be about. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Waiting

I can't believe that it's been over a month since I wrote here. Life is so full and so still, all at the same time. My daughters are continuing their inexorable shift to adulthood, the summer sun is giving way to brilliant oranges and reds in the trees while the light dims ever faster, and the house is quiet without my mostly-companion, CB. It is as though the days are pregnant with possibility and I can't yet predict the due date. I have a completed first draft of my memoir sitting on my desktop, notes from a fellow writer scribbled in the margins. There are emails from folks interested in my other work waiting for responses I can't bring myself to write quite yet. I voted by absentee ballot nearly two weeks ago and have sat in limbo since then, waiting for the moment someone will tally up my choices with the rest. There have been meetings about college applications for Eve and practice sessions for Lola's upcoming band gig and it feels like the things on the calendar are both racing toward me and sitting out in the future like some hologram I can't quite feel the edges of.

Some days, as I walk the streets of my neighborhood, I think that this must be what it feels like to float in a sensory deprivation tank. I know that there are things outside, but in this moment, I can only prepare and ruminate because it's not quite time. I don't feel a sense of angst or frustration about it, just an uneasy stillness. I have to remind myself that it will all unfold eventually and remaining open to the possibility and grounded at my core are the two healthiest things I can do.

When I was in junior high, we used to pass notes to each other in class - elaborately folded, origami-like things that would bloom open when you pulled a tab. The cleverness of the design was as satisfying as the note's contents, and we had half a dozen different ways to put them together. I had a friend who was incredibly talented at folding a simple sheet of notebook paper adorned with a drawing that would show one thing when it was folded and another when it lay flat on the desk. I marveled at her skill but could not reproduce it. Trying to imagine the sequence of creases and the 3-dimensional shape of the paper was beyond my ability. I copied my friends and was able to master perhaps two of the special patterns and contented myself with crafting a funny or sweet message inside.

I feel a little like that now - unable to decipher exactly how things are wrapped up and packaged, and I am reminded that it has never been one of my strengths. Instead of picking at it or pushing myself to learn how to do it, I choose to wait until it unfolds and see what is contained within. Then, knowing that one of the things I do best is to add content, I will set about doing my part.

Friday, September 30, 2016

On What it Means to Be Human

There are days when I find it really hard to just be a person making my way through the world, this world of instant opinions and shouting and clickbait and judgment. But, not coincidentally, I've learned that those days are the ones where I've narrowed my "world" to digital interaction - be it social media or watching the news.  It is on those days when I forget that what makes me breathe more deeply, lets my shoulders crawl back down my spine from the place they often perch up near my earlobes, helps me relax into my own skin is actual human contact. Face to face encounters. Speaking with other human beings while I look them in the eye.

As a writer and an introvert, I spend a great deal of my time alone, but with the internet at my fingertips, it doesn't always feel that way, and I sometimes forget that those experiences are not true human relations. I absolutely appreciate the web for purposes of research and connection - especially to those who live far away but about whom I care deeply. But they are no substitute for being in the physical presence of another person.

As I watch how quickly arguments get out of control and how easily it is to throw insults around, I am reminded of what it means to be human.

Last week when a person I love dearly was struggling with something, I felt sad for her. Half of my brain was scrambling to find a solution so that she wouldn't have to endure this discomfort any longer than absolutely necessary, and the other half was listing the reasons this particular situation wasn't really all that horrible (no doubt in some effort to both distance my self and to pretend that she wasn't in as much pain as she was demonstrating).

Fortunately, I was able to let my brain fire off thoughts like buckshot without ever opening my mouth. Instead, I sat with her until my feelings of discomfort with her pain subsided. And when I had sufficiently recognized my visceral response for what it was, I said this:

I don't get to decide what is hard for you and what isn't. And, I think mostly, you don't either. If I love you, my job is to trust you when you say something hurts. My experience or judgment of the situation has no place in the equation. It may be that you're walking barefoot over a bed of hot coals and, while my first thought might be to tell you to put some shoes on or find another path, that's not helpful. For whatever reason, you've found yourself here right now and if I want to show my love and support for you, I will acknowledge your pain and struggle and hold your hand while you feel it. I don't get to co-opt your feelings or your story. It is not my place to show you my own personal bed of hot coals in order to distract you from yours or prove that mine is longer or hotter. I will simply believe you when you say you are hurting and offer my strength as you make your way through this difficult time. 

So much of the content I see online and on TV on a daily basis consists of people fighting over whose trauma is the worst. We are competing for clicks and likes and bragging rights and forgetting to recognize that without connection to each other, none of us can survive our individual traumas. And while there are some incredibly positive things that happen online, too (I love seeing news of babies being born and people falling in love and hard problems being solved), there is no substitute for a hug or a high five from a warm-blooded person standing next to you sharing that news.  And so the next time I find myself neck-deep in frustration or sadness after checking my Facebook feed and the local news, hopefully I will remember to go find someone to look in the eye. Because being human is so much more satisfying than being "right" or being righteous.

Friday, September 16, 2016

PTSD and Wildfires: A Metaphor


I was listening to a story on NPR the other day about wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and one person who was being interviewed was part of what they call a “mop-up” crew. These are the people who come in after the fire is out and look for dead wood that might fall, trench areas that need it, and look for parts that still might be smoldering.  In large forests, it’s fairly common for roots to be on fire quietly beneath the forest floor and spontaneously erupt into new fires if the area isn’t checked thoroughly. It is these folks' job to be hyper vigilant, to scan the terrain for danger. 

I feel like that’s my nervous system in a nutshell. The original traumas were the raging wildfires that I worked to control and extinguish, but there are still hotspots in places I haven’t looked and when someone says or does something that triggers my original abandonment issues, I am suddenly right back in the middle of that forest with a raging flare-up. Hello, PTSD. 

Despite all the work I’ve done in therapy and on my own, learning to uncover my deepest insecurities and face them, sitting patiently with my demons and learning to embrace them, combating the mean voice in my head that says I’m worthless, there are still pockets of mess that I am occasionally surprised to find. Somehow, I thought I took care of this, but there was one more tree with smoldering roots just waiting for some oxygen to feed it. And oxygen feels like such a benign thing, right? Who is afraid of oxygen? Often, it is as much a surprise to me as it is to the person who said or did whatever they did, and as much as I’d like to be able to apologize for my massive response, the fact remains that now I have a new fucking fire to put out. I wish I had the time to explain or assure you that it's all going to be fine, but I don't. I have to put on my helmet and boots and fireproof jacket and wade in because ignoring these small flares isn't an option. 

There’s no way I have the time or resources to send out a mop up crew to look for every possible spot that might flare up some day. The most I can do is clear out the old dead undergrowth, set boundaries to help me feel safe, and look those damn flames in the eye when they rise up. The good news is that because I did the hard work to put out the original fires, it doesn’t take as much time or effort to quiet these smaller ones, and as long as I am completely honest and upfront with people about feeling triggered, I have done my part. 

Honestly, most of the time I go through life just admiring this forest of mine - wandering through its lush greenery and feeling blessed at the variety of things that grow there. I am so grateful to have come through those fires of my youth and be where I am today, and frankly, happy that I am in such a good place that I do get surprised when a flare-up happens. [That doesn't mean that I'm not annoyed as hell when it does. My inner monologue goes a little like this: Really? What the hell? Didn't we deal with this already? Who is the one in there that keeps flipping the switch? I told you, we're not in danger anymore. This is different.]

But these days, I can quickly move from frustration to compassion. Obviously, there's someone in there who is still afraid, who remembers all too well what it meant to be engulfed in flames, and she is hollering for help. And that's when I go into mop up mode. 



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