Sunday, April 27, 2014


"Comparison is the thief of joy." - Theodore Roosevelt

“That loss was my name…. I liked the idea that you have a secret name. … And that’s a name that no one can ever really pronounce, you know, because it’s who you are. There’s a magic to your secret name.” - Stephen Colbert

It has been well over a year since I have found the [ _______ ] to write…(time, courage, peace, clarity?). Having moved us far from home in search of stability in all forms, I have been focusing every cell of my body on establishing the necessary foundation for us to receive whatever return is possible on a leap of faith like that. There have been many upgrades to our lives and there has also been a great deal to process.  Two years ago, I started opening up about our lives in a way that flowed for me, and somehow since we moved I have managed to crawl further back into my private little bubble than ever. Much of that comes with meeting many new people, determining who I can and cannot trust with our very particular genre of life stress, and returning to a more self-conscious approach to life. With every hand I shake and every small-talk conversation comes the risk of having to dance around truths that are common but not commonly discussed. With every new introduction or deepening friendship, I have to decide who has the depth and compassion to understand all of it. To be truthful, I have even gotten bad about sharing with those closest to me through no fault of theirs. It's all on me. 

Within three weeks of our move, I landed a fantastic job with an easy 20 minute commute and my daughter was enrolled at a brand new high school in what Wikipedia tells me is an affluent suburb. I tend to agree, given the 20:1 ratio that can be applied on any given Spring morning to the Publix customer base: Decked out luxury vehicles to base models, tan housewives in tennis skirts to harried office-job moms in sweatpants and no makeup. In any case, headquarters is a nice apartment one mile from my oldest sister and her family where we now enjoy frequent dinners and general goofing around. I can sit on my porch in any of the four distinct seasons and watch airplanes blink on their way to and from nearby ATL. I am no longer geographically isolated from an airport, a healthy job market, or family. Basically, though, I traded living down the street from my dearest friends for access to some tools of survival. There is a hole where my super-fun social life used to be, my rent has doubled, and it may be a little while until I graduate from worrying about money, but decent health insurance and a break from subzero temperatures are luxuries I can now claim. 

Life - whenever asked - will sarcastically remind you with a condescending pat on the head that you will never have everything at once. I did not have any idealistic expectations for the first 12 months here, but I did believe progress in certain areas would happen more quickly and hoped that the amount of cortisol flooding my bloodstream for the past ten years would taper to healthier levels. Instead, we have continued to play hide and go seek with doctors, diagnoses, and pharmaceuticals, trying to find the antidote to my daughter's anxiety, insomnia, and roller coaster of depression that continue to hijack what should have been - at the very least - an adequately pleasant childhood. 

Though finishing high school will now mean passing a GED test, she has already received high honors in courage and compliance, reciting her own history repeatedly for strangers in all types of offices: medical, academic, cluttered, sterile, judgmental, and zen. I, also, have found myself forced by necessity to divulge our medical battle to school nurses, teachers, coworkers, and bosses while simultaneously resisting the urge to hide under my bed. Dust bunnies don't judge, stare blankly, or ask seemingly reasonable questions that are actually quite inane. "Are you sure this isn't just normal teenage moodiness?" is a favorite. "Well," I often reply silently, "normal teenage moodiness does not leave you wondering if it is safe to go soundly to sleep and not wake up to a parent's worst nightmare in the morning. Please, what else would you like to know?"  

Since this situation does not allow the luxury of denial and we are forced to think and talk about it SO MUCH, the last thing I have felt like doing is sharing it on here. Yet again, it feels like there is value in picking apart the raw spots we like so much to cover up. So here I am. The thought that crossed my mind so many times in recent months is that despite the universality of human struggle, so many of us are quick to glaze over our own. We all want public "Have My Shit Together" status. In fact, if you could pay a few bucks extra at the DMV, many of us would apply for a special seal on our license plates to put word on the street that we are thumbs-up, society-approved. Flip that one over, and I could just about jump up and down with gratitude that we are not openly flagged - for all to see - with the names of our lives' imperfections. Unless they were on the benign side, like "shameless farting uncle", "drunken dance freak at weddings", or "her potato salad is inedible".  Then I'm all for it. 

The First of July…

I kept thinking over and over as I sat in heavy traffic about how no one close to me (other than family) had any idea what I was dealing with at that very moment.  I hated it but had accepted that it was not something you can share by quick voicemail, text, or Facebook message. There are simply some situations in life that I believe are designed for us to walk alone, as if there is a velvet rope where we must stop and say, "Stay right here. I have to go the rest of the way by myself, but I'll be back. Wait for me?"

I am pretty sure somewhere between Macy's, where we had been happily shopping with my sister the afternoon before, and where I found myself after work a mere 24 hours later, was my velvet rope. This new venue was a meeting room full of oddly familiar strangers at a residential treatment facility. My daughter had asked to be admitted for more focused treatment for the fallout of unlucky genetics and some very private childhood traumas. Late, out of breath, and sweating from the humidity of the lush Georgia woods where the cottages were tucked in the late 70s, I hesitated to bust into a session in progress. But the required educational meeting was my ticket to visit my daughter in the eating disorders unit where she chose to go because it had the only available female bed on the entire campus. ('Atta girl.) The door creaked open to reveal a bright yellow room filled with four or five couples, flushing me with an annoying feeling that I recognized from every school play, teacher's conference, daycare pickup, lacrosse game, and birthday party, where being a single parent is pronounced. 

As I settled into a chair, surreal moments from the night before flew around my head. The inspection of belongings, the surrendering of anything that could be used to self-harm, our hushed tones as we checked in just feet from the young woman sleeping in a hallway bed (suicide watch) while clutching a carnival-sized stuffed animal. Then there was the unnatural mother-without-child drive home at 2 am on an empty highway after I honored her need to walk her path alone. Sitting in a room full of people who shared some part of my experiences, I was still struggling with how I would later explain it to my closest confidantes, nevermind her father. Our children were not interning somewhere, or taking riding lessons, or having a blast at summer camp. They were in the hospital - not on ventilators or chemotherapy - definitely, however, in closed-session negotiations with Death. So eloquently stated by another parent, "you don't talk about this stuff at weddings". 

Maybe it was the fatigue from a very late night or maybe I was just tripping from the overload, but I am telling you the people in the room that night were not completely unknown to me.  There was such a distinct sense of "you are exactly where you are supposed to be" that every Monday night since then prompts a small pang of nostalgia for that 90-minute slice of time when I felt - for the first time ever - among people who could truly understand my reality down to the last terrified molecule.  From the elephant sculpture greeting us in the dark garden the night before to the architecture that somehow reminded me of my grandparents, it all had an air of pre-destiny to it. Among the families was a sour-faced woman who turned out to be bitingly funny, her laid back husband, and two couples closer to my parents' age. It was the woman who could be a Diane Keaton impersonator that confirmed my life had legitimately become a Woody Allen movie.  It all got eery a few days later in my doctor's waiting room when I looked up at a TV to see one of the fathers being interviewed by the local news about city planning.  Everyone but everyone has a secret name. 

This blog was meant to combat a compulsive yearning to look good and be comfortable in conversation and on paper. It was my hope that talking about the taboo would help subdue the stigma and inexplicable shame of brain and mood disorders, but it is a struggle sometimes. I did humbly stop wishing my kid had something more socially acceptable like diabetes when my best childhood friend's son was diagnosed with Type I recently and I realized she, also, wears the Queen of the Midnight Fear crown while struggling to keep all her hard-earned successes going. I stopped envying the nuclear families in my life when another girlfriend had to divulge, friend by friend, colleague by colleague, that everybody's favorite fun couple was struggling and might not make it. I am guessing I will find more peace by living somewhere in the middle of what I thought my life would be and the reality that even gold can be dented and exquisite pearls form in reaction to irritants and parasites. And if a handsome, good man happens to recognize that I don't need a problem-fixer or a platinum card, just someone who learns my name and makes me laugh through the ugly stuff, then hey - I'll think about letting my guard down. I might even cancel my subscription to Cat Ladies' Home Journal.

Eighteen+ months in our new home and a crapload of heartburn later, this is how I see things. When we were little kids, the big thing was to swim to a big rock in the middle of the river, or to the floating dock covered in soggy astroturf. Varying levels of swimming skills and the hyped up threat of snapping turtles made it a somewhat daunting task, but you did it against all internal urges to stay in the shallows. The shore was safe but lonely so making it out there was one of those little childhood victories, like popping a wheely or flying off a swing mid-arc without breaking something. I am rarely going to have the company of those in similar situations, stating our names and current low-glory statuses to each other like the Yellow Room Parents' Club. Yet, the next time I am balancing on a slippery rock or a bobbing platform mid-river, I will remind myself there are many others strewn about the map, waking up every day knowing they might have to fight to keep something or someone alive - a child, a marriage, faith maybe. Some I know, and some I don't but they, too, are quietly whispering to themselves, "Good job, buckshot. Now take a deep breath. You still have to swim back."


Sunday, November 4, 2012


Let Go or Be Dragged. - Zen Proverb

An isolated line of lyrics. A blast from the horn section of a favorite funk song. A chorus on repeat. More lyrics. More deconstructed music. And round and round it goes.

As inner monologues go, I have concluded this is the sum and total of filler content among the more urgent thoughts in my head. It is directly wired to the music library that has been building since I was a kid; the one that almost drove my Nana bonkers in the car one day on our way to the movies. "Is there a song you don't know the words to?!", she pleaded as I hung over the "way back" seat just behind her, singing along to the radio. It is that same voluminous catalog that allows me the rare, golden opportunity to perform a daring feat: to simultaneously wow and irritate my teenage daughter on road trips. She flips radio stations, 5-second blips at a time, and I sing along to pretty much any song that plays, regardless of the era. I smirk; she shakes her head and asks the artist or title. Whether or not I spit out the answer in time does not matter, because she has already left me in her hasty audio wake, searching for something she knows and, hopefully, I don't. 

On the cool end of it, this thought-as-sound thing helped me tremendously as a long-time music student because, like many do, I can recall individual layers of instruments separately, or hear a section in my head and work (or try) to make that happen. The flip side to this quirk, however, is that there is almost always music in my thoughts and some days it is more bothersome than others. When the mad rhythm driving Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground stays on repeat, for example. Cool for the first few dozen times until it starts drowning out the task at hand (what was I doing?), or until I get caught casually bouncing around while cleaning up a silent kitchen.

A family friend (who, to be fair, operates in the genius realm) sometimes gets lost in the math and physics in his thoughts. Computer code wallpapers an old co-worker's conscious mind and probably his dreams, too. Integers, melodies, code, whatever…it all adds up after a while. These involuntary preoccupations mix with necessary thoughts and must be tamed in order to function constructively in the world. If not - at least the way I see it - those of us with thought-noise are quite possibly closing in on spitting distance to Dustin Hoffman's tics in Rainman. As a single woman who is also closing in on FORTY (!), the last thing I need is to answer a "so what do you do?"-type question over pinot noir with the syncopated bass line competing with my thoughts. "Ba-do-do-dah do-do-dah boppah / do-do boppah" is probably not going to find me a suitable companion. 

Years ago, when I realized the music clutter had me mindlessly singing around the house almost as incessantly as a high school drama club star (for the love of Les Mis, shut up!), I started self-policing. These days, I am much less vocal and a lot more mental jukebox about things. Meaning, fragments of songs tend to pop in my head that fit into themes and situations I am dealing with. Case in point: the older I get, the more fearful of flying I have become. I can do it, but a pre-flight glass of wine helps me better understand that my overstuffed suitcase is not going to make us too heavy to stay in the sky. With or without the wine, this might pop in my head:

I think about my fear of motion, Which I never could explain
Some other fool across the ocean years ago, Must have crashed his little airplane

Other times, a spoken phrase will queue lyrics from long-forgotten tunes and I am left wondering how I can remember those - often 30 years later - but forget what I need at the supermarket. The longer I am alive, the more memory I realize has been inadvertently sent to some hidden zone. Because we cannot know what exactly is in hyper-storage and what is lost for good, I can see how we get attached to things….and stuff. We hang on to a host of inanimate objects keeping us consciously tethered to what we want to remember…of ourselves and others, alike. Or, to what we think we are supposed to remember. But just like the jumble of repetitive thoughts in our minds, it also adds up. Sentimental sludge. 

Memory management has never been more relevant than it was in the weeks leading up to our move in mid-September. For many years, my daughter had begged to leave our small town for a variety of valid reasons, and I also craved more for us. For too long, I searched my heart for the right time and place, the means, and the nonexistent assurance that we would be okay - single mother and child - in a place where we didn't know the rules. Or, the players for that matter. There is no chart or graph for making decisions like these and in between birthday parties, snow days, and barbecues with friends, time slipped away while I scratched my head. 

Oh, If I knew where it was
I would take you there
There's much more than this
Much more than this 

This summer, she reached the very end of her patience and it became clear she did not believe it would ever happen; she no longer believed me. I placed a call and - with tremendous help - set it in unstoppable motion. Despite all the giant unknowns, as the gears started turning, it finally became believable to me, too.

Maybe I'm in the black, maybe I'm on my knees
Maybe I'm in the gap between two trapezes
But my heart is beating and my pulses start
Cathedrals in my heart. 

To many outside our daily lives and our often very private struggles, the move was sudden, and the ambitious dispersal of our possessions seemed rash and radical. To some, it almost had an air of criminal flight to it and I get that. Though years in the making, it just happened that it all finally came together at the 11th hour. It probably did not help that I also had a mad look in my eye while I watched the skies change. I quickened my pace as I felt the familiar cool August dampness descend, signaling the impending return of what has come to be our dark season, our falling iron gates, our isolation from things I finally came to understand we do not have to forfeit in life. 

Throughout those few weeks, a familiar chorus played in the background, dictating the rules of this game-changing move. It helped me keep the inevitable goodbye with one dear friend business-like, after we joked it was a more suitable alternative to tears for two girly-girls with some serious grit. It also coached me as I sorted, re-sorted, and sold what I could of our belongings before giving away what remained. With every box of things I carried out of the house, it got louder.

Keep it light enough to travel
Don't let it all unravel
Keep it light enough, light enough  

The narrow-it-down criteria became: what could we live without indefinitely, what was overdue to be replaced, and what was weighing us down? From the nostalgic pile, what was non-negotiable? In the end, the keepers were: my girl, me, and the doped-up road warrior cat; one 7 x 5 x 8 U-Box of essentials to be shipped, and whatever could fit in the car. I was still purging five minutes before we left the driveway even after 2 yard sales, giveaways, and ten or so bags hauled to the curb, bursting with well-used leftovers and totally spent household crap. New life, new template. 

Prior to blastoff, forgotten contents of boxes from previous moves were revealed one-by-one in the garage, shortening the trip to the trash. Most boxes were filled with my daughter's outgrown books, toys, and miscellaneous, and the letting go process was simplified by mildew from the basement (yes!). There were also bins of things I had kept as physical reminders of who she was along the way: stories, drawings, notes, handmade gifts. It was partly for sappy me, and partly for future her. What I cannot quite put into words is the musty melancholy that got mixed in with what I saved and what I found. There is a lot of baggage that comes with stuff, you know? 

So tough to stay with this thing
'Cause if I follow through
I face what I denied

I learned the hard way that there are certain years and ages she does not want to be reminded of unless she initiates it. No surprise nostalgia allowed. There was a moment when I tried to read her a note she wrote to the Tooth Fairy and she stopped me cold. How dare I forget that underneath all of our happy, funny memories is a smear of cruel ones from people and circumstances beyond our control? While the sting wore off, I chose to savor its cuteness anyway, and laughed to myself about the night she left it under her pillow. She had gone to bed before I realized I had no cash in the house, so she awoke to $2.00 in dimes in a little pouch, collected from dresser tops and coats. Yup. I am not proud of my lack of preparation, but money is money to a kid and in my defense it is the only dime bag you can legally exchange for a tooth in New York State. Somewhere in the history of bad parenting, someone had to have gotten worse than pocket change from the Tooth Fairy. Like a warm can of beer or a new lighter.

Some things left a bigger void in her than I ever knew. I gradually discovered there is a whole Grand Canyon of inexplicable shame and 'why me?'  and without warning, a single name, place, or item can push her in….which explains why at times she shuts down my reminiscing. Whenever this happens, I peer over the edge still trying to enjoy the view and just see a river of guilt that lies at the bottom of it…my fault or not. That is a feeling that could make the best-of-the-best start running and never stop. 

Your song still needs a chorus 
I know you'll figure it out
The rising of the verses
A change in key will let you out 

No, you can't run from problems, but I believe sometimes you can beat them into submission with a change of venue. Things often lose their edge when taken out of context. That same letter to the Tooth Fairy was read back to me with a laugh a few days later when she found it my room. The recollection and the healing is on her terms and I'm okay with that. 

Other items revealed in The Great Unloading of 2012 are too private to share and almost morbidly sacred in their sweetness; good intentions of a young child in denial of drastic change. These mementos are not unlike the suddenly overturned rock: it is difficult not to stop and stare at the light-deprived, writhing facts of life that revolt us and threaten to haunt our sleep. Even years after being tucked in a box, a similar fascination kept me hoping one day they would no longer make me wince or might even not phase me at all. However, some things just never cease to be unsettling in one way or another so I return them to their dark hideout and try again another day. 

Digging in the dirt
Stay with me I need support

When "another day" showed up amid the packing, there was no looking away and yet no time to figure out how to properly discard them - an act that feels a little like desecration. Keeping them serves no purpose other than to postpone the disposal of a 7-year old's handmade wish, and yes I realize this borders on neurotic voodoo. Now I see how people end up with homes filled to the rafters with what boils down to nothing more than talismans and relics, vested with the power of outdated emotions and memory. Fear and love from another time. Irrelevant matter(s).

When you believe in things that you can't understand, then you suffer
Superstition ain't the way

Unfortunately, there is no altar and no gravesite for untidy family situations where one can leave such offerings. So shouldn't there be somewhere these things can be mailed? "To: The Center for Letting Go, c/o Santa's Workshop, North Pole". And if I am forced to listen to the soundtrack of my life anyway, maybe the heavy moment such things are released from my protective grip could at least be lightened with a cheesy 80's guitar ballad. The one playing as Maverick throws Goose's dog tags into the ocean in Top Gun comes to mind. 

All of that time spent sifting got me wondering: Why do we need tangible proof of everything that has ever happened in our lives? Even the squirrel only hoards to survive, not to remember a really nice tree it once climbed. And really, will we know what we have forgotten anyway? Thankfully, in order to fit our lives into limited space and hit the road, I mastered this philosophy: You are not throwing away the child, the grandparent, the hope, the moment, the memory, the fact, the lie, or any variation thereof. Keep a couple of things. The rest….Let It GO.

Leave all your love and your longing behind
You can't carry it with you if you want to survive
The Dog Days are Over

Someday I will unpack a few special remaining boxes as we become ready and I will say, "This is who you were. These are the things we were doing. This is what your little hands made, what you said, and what you thought was fun. No matter what, these moments exist in time. You are a perfect little dew drop underneath everything else we picked up along the way. Here is the proof."

Out of the blue somewhere in Virginia, my daughter told me that she thinks it is really cool that I save all the little things she ever gave me. Underneath some of her own thought clutter and memory noise, my little girl - a flawless melody - is still in there. With forty-two boxes and 1200 miles left behind, that is all I need to remember.

Here comes the sun….

Music Credits:

Sunday, July 1, 2012


We were driving down the road earlier in the week when a small bomb of information went off in my lap, preceded by the signaling "can I tell you something?" which, these days, sends a surge of panic chemicals through my bloodstream and pushes my skull against the headrest. It was a here's-what-is-going-on-around-me piece of info that could have sent me through the roof. But all things being relative, I took a breath, stated I was not mad, and proceeded to explain why this was not something that "we" can be involved in. I was proud it was brought to me, I was proud she was proud, and I followed up with a few off-color comments throughout the evening, letting my opinion be known about both the company and the behavior while still cracking jokes. Don't be fooled. None of it was funny to me. It was a parenting tactic used in the vein of 'let's keep the data flowing, shall we?'

It does not pay for me to freak out, I have learned, which is not to say that I will not freak out five times before next, say, Thursday. And like I said, it is all relative. In particular, this little of nugget was relative to an A-bomb that was detonated (also in the car) three days earlier, of the variety that often requires sedation. I did freak out a little for that one, briefly, because it was both ancient information and gravely serious and I was just finding out now. It rattled me for a few days, and was thankfully tempered by my best friend's gracious receipt of my story-vomit. You know what I mean, ladies. The kind of thing girlfriends do for each other when something monumental has come their way without warning. You basically hold your hands out and prepare to receive a "download". It's a reciprocal act among the closest of friends and you must be prepared to do it in any location:  a restaurant bathroom, a coffee shop booth, a parked car on a quick store-run away from a barbecue. It is an emergency debriefing and you do not have to be able to handle it, you just have to pretend you can.

Mostly, however, when it comes to this stuff lately, I find myself walking robotically - mainly out of obligation - through the next activity and quietly imagining what I would love to have done instead. Cry, maybe. Scream like my hair is on fire, sure. In this instance, I would love to have gotten out of the car on the side of the road, leaned against it, and bent over to place my head between my knees to stop the dizziness. And maybe while I puked a little, wondered:  Why on earth is there never a witness to these types of moments that I handle the crap out of?!  It is not about seeking a pat on the back. Not at all, because I will not know for years if I am even doing this right. It is about someone close to me getting a glimpse of what I am made of from time-to-time (to balance out the fumbles, of course). For all I have mishandled in my life, sometimes it would just be nice to have a significant other witness it. And yes, there are perfectly good reasons why I am equally glad there is not someone to witness all of this, but my self-soothing daydream goes something like this: 

"Oh hon-…..…oh wow! I knew you were…….but I had no idea you can actually…..That was…that was…did you learn that in a movie?!  And oh my God, you didn't even crash the car! You were operating a MOTOR. VEHICLE. when she hit you with some really freaking heavy information! I totally would have run into something!  She's all, 'Mom, this blah blah blah, but I take the blame for this and that' and you're all 'okay, now let me explain why this is a problem, and it is not why you think'………..Babe, that's so hot! You're…wow.  Just wow. Can I kiss you right now?? Oh-…okay, not now? Ok. Yeah, you do look a little pale still……………..And YOU!  (turning around to the back seat) You are a good kid! Don't screw this up, because, you know, it was looking… was looking a little rough there for a minute…"     (For the record, no guy I know sounds like this…but anyway.)

This week got me thinking a great deal about the bomb blast moments in life, the grenades that fall in our laps on the most gorgeous days. And how no matter how they are handled, you can never negate the fact that they create a cleave in time. There is always a moment before and a moment after The Knowing that cannot be erased. We are almost always subjected then to a repeating loop, a split-second montage of shrapnel bits reversing to become a whole grenade. For some time after, there is that repeated pause, rewind, replay sequence that forces you to remember yourself in that innocent but now shamefully ignorant moment just before you found out.  Before that ugly fact, before that bomb. It could be a death, an affair, a firing, a miscarriage, an unexpected disagreement between friends, what have you. There is always that moment when someone could - if they had the power - reinsert the pin.  

Nothing, I think, is more cruel than the moment that repeatedly arrives with the first few mornings of fallout.  In fact, forget the moon landing.  Humans have really accomplished nothing of significance if they have failed to invent a pill to erase that bile-filled mental hiccup that occurs a few seconds after waking up….normal….normal….wait, there's something I should remember………Oh yeah.  That's it.  "X" happened.  The knowledge we can live with.  It's the forgetting and remembering.  Yes, Eli Lilly.  Get on that, would you?  

Coincidentally, I was already writing this when news of author Nora Ephron's death circulated and reminded me that she was a woman who wrote about bombs dropped in her lap. She made brutal situations funny but no less meaningful. In fact, I would probably not feel free to write in the voice of my thoughts (some of them anyway) had it not been for her. When I read Heartburn as a teen, a novel based on her failed second marriage, I had no idea how much of it would be mentally referenced later in life. One specific moment I am not proud of came to mind while recalling her dealings with her husband's cheating, but it made me laugh a little at the irony. It was in the raw, venomous stage of having just discovered a betrayal in my life when a statement, rocket fueled by anger at a million things, flew from my mouth: 

"Don't you know? If you ruin a family for another woman, you are!"  

After it landed somewhere on his neck like the product of a good cough, I clearly remember thinking two things:  1) They don't mention anywhere in the scorned-woman handbook that uttering such ugly yet justified-in-the-moment statements only feels good for about 1/2 a breath longer than the last word spoken and then simply becomes a stain on your character; and 2) THAT line would have been hilarious…if this was a movie based on a Nora Ephron novel.  

So I have to thank her for planting the idea fairly early on that pain and comedy are not necessarily an acceptable pairing for every crowd, but definitely for the ones that matter most to me. The people who know that we cannot be expected to behave perfectly when bombs go off in our laps. I would also like to think that Ms. Ephron would appreciate an idea that came to mind this week while trying to discuss some sleepover logistics with a friend, just barely hiding a rough day on my face:

I really wish there was a 'human dashboard' option to switch brimming emotions to stealth mode.  You know, those frustrated sleep-deprived tears that threaten to bust through at the most inopportune moment. And the fact is, I rarely shed tears but Internal Crying would be so pleasant for everyone involved. By my design, they would be as unnoticeable as Kegel exercises. Yep. These are the things I think about while shrapnel is flying around me.  

I dream of the day I can stand in the produce section, assessing the ripeness of an avocado, while also having a damn good cry on the inside.      

Friday, June 15, 2012


Now that I have decided the direction I am going, I am still mulling over where I am from. Friends responded to the last post with their ideas of home and I identify with their overall feelings of safety, comfort, family, and wherever they feel loved. By those terms, of course, I still can't pick just one and that is fine with me now. With the exception of an unwavering loyalty in relationships, this sample platter-style of decision making is evident in pretty much every other facet of my life.  Picking paint colors can take an entire season, for example.  So it is not a surprise to me that it extends to a slightly morbid topic: if I have belonged to and loved multiple places, where would my final resting spot be?!  Right now, I think the answer is 'give me back to the places that have given to me'.  

I smile a mischievous grin at the thought of a cremator (crematist? crematory artist?) shaking his/her head in annoyance while evenly dividing my ashes among several - I don't know - baby food jars maybe, each labeled in Sharpie marker with their intended destination.  This sounds utterly classless, I know, but I figure if you sent me home in a fancy urn, I would just have to be divvied up anyway and it is hard to picture imposing that task on my family.  Even though I know it would turn into another episode of hysterical, laugh-til-you-cry (or pee) foolishness, you really can't make that a kitchen table event like coloring Easter eggs or decorating Christmas cookies.  "Canning Whitney".  Nuh-uh.  

I say: leave me in all the places my mind and heart wander on both my darkest and sweetest days…

Charlottesville….for saving me.  (That's for another time)  
Cabin Rouge, Clayton, and Lake Ozonia….Too many formative events and good times with precious people to recount.  

New Jersey:  I know what you are thinking.  Of course, Jersey!:  Home of landfills and professional body disposal.  But no. In New Brunswick, a couple of generations of "Greats" are buried in the city where many of them arrived and made a home in this country. My own New Jersey is a one of a few tiny towns on the shore where my extended family has spent summertime vacation for much of the last century.  Aside from the nearby tacky, Snookified, greasy food-laden amusement pier (that still sometimes widens my childish eyes with its flashing lights and rides perched over the ocean), it is rife with smells and sounds that bring me back to the sweetest family memories.  Sun-drenched days and sunburn chills at night, the clink of shifting ice cubes in happy hour glasses, crabbing at the bayside pier, kite-flying on the beach after dinner, and the distinct laughter of late family members in conversations I don't recall. Yes, when I go…take me back to my Shore. Take me to the sea.  

The North Country:
My hometown, in Northern New York. The place where I could safely play in the street with my neighborhood pals, tearing around on a banana-seat bike, or on roller skates, and constantly testing the bounds of healthy circulation, hanging upside down on the monkey bars for medically abnormal lengths of time. (Add a couple of major headers off the bike and that explains some things, no?). This is where I did many childish things like pretend - along with my friends - to be asleep on the lawn when the girl down the street headed our way. To anyone driving by, it looked like a mini Jonestown until she went back home and we were resurrected........shameful! Later, it is where I did grown-up things like drive and argue and make horrible mistakes. And it is where I attended a friend's burial in the pouring Spring rain...where Adam drove us out of the cemetery to a soundtrack of Annie Lennox and - I swear - the loudest thunder I have ever heard, directly overhead.

This was also the small town (one I still insist is a movie set at night) in which my childhood imagination gave way to what I now know is a more mature but permanently Piscean relationship with the world.  That is, one foot on the earth and one on the starry path most people dismiss or cannot see…a blindness I envy sometimes!  The older I get, the more adept I am at anchoring myself responsibly and realistically.  (It keeps the pragmatists happy at the very least.) 

So I guess it is only fitting that this would be where I came to an agreement with that glittery, perfumed half of my world view and learned to reel it in…to start giving up on some things, and some people.  That said, it is always going to be the place where, staring out on summer nights - just thinking - would occasionally, magically, give rise to an almost Shakespearean dream....the sound of real pebbles being thrown at my window, and a quick kiss goodnight or an embrace goodbye in the dark.  As the watch gears of each season turn and pause at familiar notches, this town reliably - enchantingly - slips into the same gossamer breezes, temperatures, and scents of those perfectly irreplaceable slivers of time…. The only things I truly possess.  This town, it turns out, hosts a million memories and echoes of moments like those.  Including the one that leads my ashes East.

Cambodia:  On the tough days, when I feel buried alive in a pine box with dwindling oxygen, my mind goes to places I love but, more often, to places I have not been…yet.  One of those spots on the globe that I am itching to travel is familiar to the man who was once the teenager throwing rocks at my window, and who has weaved himself in and out of my life for 25 years.  Everyone (I hope) has someone like him…someone with whom they share a sacred, centuries-old bond. He has: the voice that puts me at ease during marathon phone calls in the wee hours, an intimate blueprint of my half-grit/half-starseed personality, a rare and epic grasp of romance, and the wisdom to remind me a few years back that I already possess all the strength I will ever need.  Long ago, he gave me a paper Purple Heart he knew (well before I did) I would earn.  He knew there were walls to scale, moats to cross, and armed guards to slay to get to the warmest, most tender spot I'll possibly ever know in this lifetime: the place where my ear fits perfectly above my favorite drumbeat.  He was the man who sent me letters while fighting a war, now lost with the Purple Heart in a move. A more recent history of our ever-nebulous connection is not up for public discussion, but as I continue to grow up and reluctantly release myself (at least in my head) from the proverbial back burner, I have a new medal to replace the old one.  It arrived from the once war-ravaged country in the form of an early-morning phone call that bounced a gift of words off satellites and towers, and shot them past the walls, moats, and armed guards that now reside within me. They got through to where - as of today - no one else has ever been.  Now, I don't know what the rest of my life holds in terms of relationships, hardships, disappointments, and more spoken intentions left unfulfilled by those I love, but I will always know - always - that I was thought of in a remote place still rebuilding from the wrath of the Khmer Rouge, on a road paved over a nightmare.

I will make it - maybe even with him as our tour guide - to the gorgeous Angkor Wat, the temple on the postcard he so obligingly sent a few days later to replace the war letters. Sooner rather than later. But whatever happens, do save one last jar……..take me to Cambodia.  (And if it is not too much to wish, a teeny tiny part of me hopes that as my ashes are tossed, the hot breeze shifts suddenly and he gets a gentle little smack of soot in his eyes and mouth as payback for being eternally fickle and not closing the deal. I am pretty sure after he stops coughing, he will start laughing, knowing exactly what just happened.)  


"Ohhh, those things are not accurate!  You are not.  Don't worry!  I'm sure it's a mistake." 

I still grin when I think of my dear friend, Adam, doing what best friends do when you are scared shitless: deny the obvious, laugh mockingly at the truth, and completely dismiss the situation at hand as fluff.  

If we can replay scenes from our life and apply any cinematic filter we want - and I delight in the fact that we can - I picture him as a caricature of, say, British actor David Tomlinson (Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins).  Add a bowler hat and a pipe, and he is throwing out reiterations of feigned disbelief at what I was telling him, between puffs:

I'm -

But I -


But seriously, Adam!

       "Balderdash…rot…moonshine…jive…tripe…drivel…bilge…bull…guff…bunk… bosh…eyewash…piffle…hooey…malarkey…hokum…"


      "….twaddle, gobbledygook, codswallop, and pardon my French, but that is nothing but a bunch of flapdoodle!"     

……………………..You done? I took two tests.  I'm definitely pregnant.  

So began the strange and gorgeous trip that has been motherhood, from which I have learned, so far…What exists as a monumental question on that first day of knowing you are carrying (or awaiting) the pea-sized start of a somebody, remains the same for all of your existence as a parent.  It is simultaneously the coolest and most nerve-racking thing about it all:  Who is this somebody going to be?  And not Who's Who "who", but what are the one billion and one things that will make up their personality, appearance, burdens, and victories?    

As a parent, you get answers to some of those questions incrementally, and some of them change along the way.  You are unwrapping a gift over and over, thousands of times throughout your child's life and always finding out more about them.  In fact, I often think that we get several versions of our children.  A collection.  I might have a brief thought of who my daughter was at a certain age and then suddenly realize that that particular girl slipped out one night while I was sleeping, visitable now only in pictures and videos; the newest edition taking her place.  I miss the other "ones" at times but I get excited for who is being revealed.  And now, love?  Who are you now?  

Early on, I realized that becoming a parent is not something that you accomplish, like memorizing a sonata or passing the bar exam.  It is a wild, wild rodeo and the ultimate act of faith in your own ability to stay on the bull, so to speak.  Scratch that.  To RIDE the bull.  Your hands will bleed, your spine will whip in ways it was not meant to, and you WILL eat dirt - often with an audience present.  Some days, you will be almost certain you have been gored in the keister by situations that arise.  I can tell you - without looking - you have.  And it does not necessarily have anything to do with succeeding or failing.  Luck of the draw, mostly.  You do your best and keep your chin up, but for heaven's sake, don't get cocky!  This is not a sport you ever truly master.

We have some say in the outline of who our children will become, but not as much as some people think, which is why I always laugh when parents try to narcissistically strong-arm their kids into being a copy of themselves, the person they wish they had become, or who they believe the world would approve of.  To the extent I am able, I say: Surprise me.  I am still working on me, little girl, so you might want to be you.  Within reason of course.  Please; nobody wants to raise a cute little future Charles Manson.

One Monday night, fifteen years ago (or 5 minutes ago, it seems), I had my daughter.   After some minor complications, they whisked her down the hall to clean up her lungs.  Thirty minutes of delirious waiting later, I watched her eyes shine and look around as her smiling father carried her into the room to put her in my arms.  I studied her face and hands in complete awe, then unwrapped her feet to see five toes dot the top of both.  It's you; you're finally here.  Who are you going to be?  What is our story going to look like?

The answers that have come so far have been both astoundingly beautiful and surprisingly painful, and that was perhaps the biggest shock about being a mom.  They don't tell you that in the books. Let's see: mucous plug, amniocentesis, cramping….ah yes, Chapter 8: Hang On To Your Heart.  Nope.  You have no way of knowing how very much it can ache to love someone in this way.  Side by side, it can make the pangs of romantic love feel like a cordial tip of the hat.  Lucky for the species, they are different varieties of love, neither less beautiful than the other.  Peonies and roses, Thailand and Tahiti.  

The greatest miracle of it all is that there is not one instance of parental heartbreak that could make me wish I had not become a mother.  To be honest, there are moments of  "You have got to be kidding me. I cannot believe I have to do this by myself!  This is not how it is supposed to be!"  And yet, I bet no one pictures their parenthood story accurately.  Whether it is a frightening illness or those uptight mommies in playgroup competing with you through their toddlers, you just have no way of knowing what lies ahead as the plot of your story is written, day by mysterious day.  

Still, I should have known my girl would have the tenacity to get through ours, and this is something I have to remind myself about.  Even the terrifying days on which we are not sure we will win against her sometimes paralyzing depression, there is a golden crumb of hope I cling to that goes back to the first day of her life.  The morning after she was born, she was sleeping on my chest when the doctor came to check on me.  She woke up, lifted her head, and turned in the direction of his voice.  (Oh shit, mama.  Look who is determined.)  The doctor blurted out, "Geez! I'm waiting for her to say 'hello!'".

Queue the black & white filter...

"Why, that's balderdash!  She's just a baby, doctor.  She can't possibly speak!"


The deep glassy black middle of Lake Ozonia is one of my favorite places to swim.  So dark and cool, I feel such peace when I slip into it off the back of a boat.  Peace, that is, until ridiculous scenarios pop into my head that both terrify and make me laugh while treading water.  Giddy fear. The malfunction is this: as a kid, I watched a lot of movies I probably should not have.  Creature From The Black Lagoon in 3D stained my brain with the indelible image of an amphibious man-thing swiping at a woman's feet as she swam, never quite touching them.  She was completely unaware.  That is a brilliant seed of terror to plant, even for hokey vintage sci-fi.  

So, in any body of water, my imagination cannot run too wild as long as I can see my feet.  Be it a harmless fish, snapping turtle, or shark, if I am going to be grazed, eaten or maimed by something, I want to see it coming, dammit.  It is crappy logic, I know, but it is the shock and subsequent heart attack that would kill me first anyway, so at least give me a chance to process the situation for a few milliseconds and possibly alter the outcome slightly.  Maybe end up with a peg-leg instead of being sucked under the waves in one bite, mid-conversation.  

If any of this is a metaphor in my life, I guess it is this:  tell me what I am dealing with, and I can handle it.  Deception is unnecessary.  Just let me trust something again.  

Standing on the edge of the Kokosing River in Ohio last week for the first time in almost nine years, I was reminded why I used to spend so much time in it.  It is almost as clear as an Adirondack stream, not terribly deep, and to the best of my knowledge, non-combustible (in case you have heard the stories).  I can see down to my feet in it.  

Driving by that spot last May for the first time since we moved away, I had a very unexpected physical reaction.  It felt like a mix of intense déja-vu but more like time travel….not in the H.G. Wells sense.  Rather, the kind of thing that happens when circumstances align and take a crowbar to the sealed crypt of memories we unknowingly or deliberately keep in our heads.   

Two days prior to that weird spell, there was a very lucid dream, too.  It placed me in the location of an intensely stressful situation from almost two decades ago, where I could explore precise details of rooms I had not been in since.  Maybe it was because of everything I was shouldering at the time that I had run out of room in my head.  Or maybe, it was my weariness that left me vulnerable to rogue memories that had been jiggling doorhandles for years, trying to find their way out to fresh air and acknowledgment.  The mind, it seems, is not unlike that glassy black lake.  Taking swipes while you swim in contentment.

This time at the river, I parked the car.  Standing there taking it all in, I waited for the vertigo to pass until my head caught up with my body in the present.  It was a place I had packaged away in a big Rubbermaid tub, along with pictures and a shoebox full of broken china and glass.  My daughter, her brother, father and I would hang out there on weekends, starting when she was three or four.  Fly-fishing, swimming, and fossil hunting would occupy us and I would wade in with sneakers on to cool off, walking slowly on algae-covered rocks so as not to disturb the silt.  Somewhere along the line, while my stepson would pull his sister on a tube or they would crack rocks open with their Dad and find fossils, I started spotting pieces of old china and globs of bottle glass among the slimy riverbed.  The sea-green glass chunks were likely from the defunct bottling factory up the river, but the origin of the other bits I still do not know.  

So, summer afternoons in the river became a slow, meditative labyrinth walk downstream, under a bridge and back, reaching for the rare aberration that would sometimes end up being a long-submerged shard of china.  Score.  I suppose you could look at it like some kind of hillbilly treasure hunting but at the time I found it incredibly peaceful.  Hot summer days goofing off with the kids and their dad, my long-time boyfriend.  Over the hump of some past problems and a separation, it felt like we had finally reached contentment……..I thought.  

Looking back (of course!) there were other pieces I should have been picking up.  But that's the thing about trust in relationships.  You either give it fully or not at all.  And when the deception is so complex, intuition fails.  Reasonable questions receive reasonable (fictional) answers and life carries on, merrily, merrily…  

When that last summer ended, we all moved back to New York, and I soon discovered that our partnership was a Lifetime Network movie.  Yup.  Embarrassingly enough, it was a Melissa Gilbert - Valerie Bertinelli doozy, complete with the double-blind, double-life plot line played out over several years.  There was so much duplicity, I started jokingly wondering paranoid things like…"are there life insurance policies or cement shoes out there with my name on them?"  

These are the nutty but not completely unjustified thoughts that come to mind when you suddenly find that you were either a) hated so intensely, or b) loved so erroneously that you were not allowed the simple truth .  I could elaborate, but I have made a strict point of keeping our relationship's demise from blurring into our daughter's bond with her Dad.  They were once beautifully close and are working to get back there.  I would be a she-devil to get in the way of that, and if I am a fool for protecting it, well…add it to the list of mommy guilt.  

Resisting the urge to get in the Kokosing last week, I started walking along the edge once again looking down at the rocks in the water, trying to reconcile some things.  Mostly, can I still let myself cherish our little family's past-life and those summers there, knowing what I know now?  And to be clear, what I know now includes my acknowledgement that despite the fact I loved her father and we got along 99% of the time (as we do now), the absence of that ocean-deep magic love on both our parts is nothing you can ignore or hope away.  You can be comfortable and deeply familiar, but not in love.  That was my unintentional lie to both of us.  My mistake.

Just after I stepped over that shining silver turd of truth, I found a piece of china, pearl white with a crackled glaze.  A few minutes later in a deposit along the shore, a fossil.  All because of a quiet, mini panic attack in the car last year that pulled me back Friday to a really happy place I had tried to forget.  Wow. 

I think if you could buy a ticket for a ride through your own brain, it would put the herky-jerky acid trip of Disney's Space Mountain to shame… The mind is a magnificent, unexplored planet of secrets, tricks, and black and white facts, all of which can lay dormant for sometimes decades in biochemical mine shafts.  Existing, but forgotten.  

Of what we do recall, what can we rightfully take with us through the rest of our lives?  If it is a done deal, good or bad, send it to the dump!  Right?  I am not so sure anymore.  Maybe that policy is more of a betrayal than any crime in the relationship ever was.  Take whatever you want.  Finder's keepers.

As for trust, I still can't do it.  I will be keeping an eye on my feet until I find my way back to ocean-deep magic love and giddy fear.  From time to time, I spot it on the horizon.  And if on a whim I dive in, hopefully there are no more silver turds or cement shoes waiting for me.   


It was while standing in my driveway one night last Spring that it became undeniably clear to me I was trapped inside my mind in the midst of circumstances bigger than me.  Shellshocked.  My closest girlfriend and I stepped outside for some air after dishing about life over some cocktails - a rare Girls' Night we had both earned.  I learned some things about her I didn't know, we traded old crazy relationship stories, and generally treated heavier subjects to equal doses of reverence and tasteless humor.  Even the most jaw-dropping lapses in our past judgment were credited for how they shaped us to date, and several implied "thank you Jesus!"es were sent up with both laughter and disbelief that those poor choices had not completely doomed us.  Thanks Be To The Universe for bullets dodged and whatnot.  It can always be worse.

After a lull, I knew what was coming next and even though my chest tightened into a familiar lead knot, I knew it was supposed to.  She said something to the effect of, "You have had a lot going on and you never really unload about it."  It shot me straight back to a memory of college, driving my VW Beetle in the Syracuse snow with friends.  Headed to a diner we frequented, my friend, Sal, randomly asked after the same kind of pause, "So what's the deal?  Your boyfriend of several years just dumped you out of the blue and you act like nothing happened.  You never say anything about it. I don't get it!"  I waved his thoughtful question off with a casual "what's there to say?"

The ex-boyfriend, the man to whom no other (even now) compares…….well, that is an otherworldly love that begets an otherworldly loss I will feel forever, softened only slightly by the fact he is still - thankfully - in my life.  It remains something I rarely speak of.  

But THIS.  This was my child we were talking about now, her struggle with severe depression, and the domino effect it touched off in our lives.  My lifelong habit of keeping a tight lid on certain subjects was not going to fly anymore.  I could not wave the question away. 

So, I started with what I could handle without my voice and mother-warrior armor melting, and described the biggest of the dragons I had been fighting in prior months:  Suicide Watch.  It was such a clear, cool night and I remember inhaling as deeply as possible, then watching my breath float dark, murky, impossible words up and out as I struggled to divulge a shortened but proper description of the Beast* that had invaded our lives.  To sum it up without diluting a terrifying experience that left me quietly imploding.   (*More on the Beast another day.)

That night, I realized my reluctance to discuss soul-wounding events is rooted in this:  if I can't speak and make you truly understand a difficult situation, I would rather not say a word.  Meaning, 'don't get it wrong, don't think too much or too little of it, and don't tell me how I should have handled it'......Huh.  While it may be a bit crass to underestimate someone who knows and loves you, some people just aren't good at listening intuitively and sometimes you're halfway into a really heavy conversation before recognizing it.  Then what? That scenario conjures - at least in me - a very unique flavor of cheek-burning shame I avoid at all costs.  Who knows why.  Something to work on.

That said, my friend listened and reaffirmed what I had forgotten in my weariness: that she is one of the most skilled listeners (and conversationalists) I have ever met and would handle the gritty content like a pro.  Naturally, we soon found our way back to cracking each other up.  That was a night I will remember for its revelations brought about by simply trusting and realizing that my strength is not defined by the ugly secrets I keep.  What's more, there is no extra mercy headed my way for maintaining silence while I take my lumps, nor less for speaking of them.  

We all experience (what I call) tiny deaths throughout our lives in the form of events that shock and abrade us at our core.  Things like:  having or witnessing a tainted childhood;  jobs we hate and have to stick with;  jobs we love and have to leave;  personalities we detest and are forced to tolerate;  people we love and lose somehow; people we love and purposely drive away;  relationships that don't work but are hard to leave; relationships that work magnificently but never get off the ground for foolish reasons; and those moments when we are forced to accept the difference between our imagined life course and actuality.  

So why write about it publicly? Why not journal?  Consider this:  Oh HELL yes, I will continue keeping many many things to myself, but there are also many that are okay to dissect openly.  Within these Little Deaths, there are new levels of consciousness, strength, and soul to be unlocked.  I can't see the sense in hoarding what we have individually learned if it saves someone else the trip, or at least prepares them for it in some small way.        

Whatever the situation, I am a firm believer that in order to survive this life you must give yourself a f*@king break and laugh about something mid-crisis; usually, the more inappropriate and irreverent, the more cathartic.  "Too soon!" might dutifully fall out of my mouth in response to a crude remark in a drastic situation, but only while I am quietly laughing my ass off…

…Which is partly where Laughing At Funerals came from.  The other part being, well…it has been known to happen. Listen, I have watched cousins unknowingly hit on cousins in funeral parlors, I have seen fluorescent orange sweatsuits worn to wakes, and I have witnessed with my own eyes the very loose interpretation of "casseroles" brought to the homes of the grieving, particularly in the South.   My Great Aunt Mary - a true and very proper lady -  taught me how to handle life's sad little circuses after my grandfather's funeral when she "accidentally" tripped & launched the contents of such a dish into the kitchen sink disposal.  "Oops!..."

I won't say it is always right to laugh, but it is almost always necessary.