Note: Since it is also National Poetry Writing Month (or NaPoWriMo) in addition to the 2017 A-to-Z Challenge, I will try to include a poem at the end of each blog entry. Today’s poem is a Haibun, a Japanese form in which a prose-poem precedes a haiku.
My mother only eats off of salad plates, and she will only use a salad fork. When we run out of small plates (we only have six and she will not use the one that doesn’t match the rest, the blue one with stars, the sun, and the moon) and small forks, she tells me it is time to run the dishwasher even though it may contain only her six salad plates and her six salad forks. She does not remember that she can wash the plate and fork by hand. She eats off of small plates and she drinks only tea but her teacup goes in the dishwasher rarely. It is brown with discoloration and stains and sticky from the sugar she ladles into her tea.
Her habit of eating off of the small plates is not new. She has been in the habit of using the salad plates for a long, long time now. It comes, I believe, from years of being monitored by my father for overeating. For as long as I can remember, my father scrutinized my mother’s eating habits. When I was a kid, a teenager, I remember going out for ice cream and my dad making my mom get a diet coke while the rest of us had ice cream cones. Divorced for 16 years, she now eats ice cream right from the container. It’s as if not using a bowl means the ice cream doesn’t count, doesn’t really mean anything, will not invite supervision or scrutiny.
My mom moved in with me in September. My brother and I had been fielding reports from her friends and neighbors for several months in which they outlined her memory declines and odd behaviors. She reported seeing Sasquatch in her back yard a year ago in March. She forgot that she had ever played Farkle, a dice game that she played regularly over the past several years with friends and family. She got lost driving and forgot why she went places, her best friend told us.
I expected she would move in with me last June, but she called and refused. She didn’t want to leave her community or her friends. She had book clubs and garden club and Friends of the Library, she said. I had time last summer, time to orient her to Bellingham, time to sign her up for services, time to drive her to appointments. But she couldn’t quite marshal her resources, became overwhelmed at the monumental task of packing up her house, of sloughing off unnecessary items, of sorting through the detritus. My brother and I showed up last Mother’s Day weekend and hauled a ton of stuff to Goodwill and the dump. We divvied up her Waterford crystal and boxed up the china to be auctioned off on Ebay. I prepared her room in my house, but she didn’t come in June. She didn’t come in July or August either. And when I asked, she told me she was too tired to pack, too overwhelmed to organize the boxes.
Her friends kept calling. She shouldn’t be driving, they said. She tells the same stories over and over, they said. As if I hadn’t noticed that. Each phone call was the same as the last. Each conversation might as well have been a recording of the previous one. She couldn’t muster the energy or wherewithal to travel. She had missed Thanksgiving and Christmas the previous years. She told her friends she hadn’t been invited. She told her children she didn’t feel like traveling. I know now that she couldn’t get organized, couldn’t leave her dog, didn’t know what to do to get ready.
My mother eats off of small plates. She only will use a small fork. Her life is getting smaller. The walls are closing in. On both of us.
My mother has become an old woman before my eyes, aging into forgetfulness and dementia, a victim now of ancient routines. She flutters toward the light, safe and trapped simultaneously, unable to escape the confines of what little remains, the walls of her cerebrum wiped smooth, scrubbed of the dust and fluff of daily nuances, the surfaces there papered only in history, teflon to what is new. She hunkers inward, shuttering her blinds, while painting on a brave façade.
Memory’s threads fray,
Ragged edges and patchwork
The mind’s makeshift quilt
So, I’m on the downhill side of this mental health counseling degree I started three years ago. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel—but before I can emerge victorious from the darkness, I must complete a handful of tasks:
First, I must accumulate three hundred hours of direct counseling experience. I am about a quarter of the way there.
Then, I must amass a dozen or so hours of direct observation of my counseling skills. I’ve got that covered—no sweat.
I must also acquire many hours of supervision, which I am working on and should have little trouble accomplishing.
Simultaneously, I need to add about 20 credits to my credit total, six of which will come from the two remaining required classes I must take, Intro to Research and Tests & Measures, eight of which will come from my remaining Case Consult classes, and the rest of which will have to come from a couple of electives.
I am taking Intro to Research now, right this very quarter, and it has me flummoxed. I should not have put it off this long. I should not have waited until I was in internship to take it. I should not have dropped it all those previous quarters when I registered for it. Nope. Bad decisions have come back to bite me in the ass, here Dear Reader. I have no room in my little pea brain for academic articles. I am up to my armpits in counseling clients who have many serious mental health needs, and I am having difficulty wrapping my head around how researching and writing a paper is going to help me be a more effective counselor. It seems an exercise for its own sake, a tuition-generating requirement, if nothing else.
So, while I could not give less of a fuck about this paper in general, I am quite interested in the specific topic I have chosen, which makes me reluctant to simply blow it off. I have decided to research Trauma and Transracial Adoption (TRA). It’s a topic that is near and dear to me, a topic that I neglected to address 27 years ago when I first adopted my oldest daughter, a topic that I am now ashamed to admit that I gave no serious consideration to until just recently.
It makes sense to me that if adoption is a traumatic experience, that transracial adoption would be even more so. I mean, think about it. How in the world can white people adequately prepare children of color to navigate our racist culture? I know now that our optimism when we adopted our girls was misplaced and the result of white privilege. We didn’t have a clue how steeped in white privilege we were. Of course, when the social workers asked if I would be willing to make sure my kids received information about their cultural heritage, I promised to provide it. Of course, I said. Of course. I will read them books. I will tell them about Martin Luther King, Jr. I will hang pictures of Rosa Parks and celebrate Black History Month. But I had no idea how, 27 years later, my ignorance would affect my girls.
I had no idea. I was so naïve, my friends. So very naïve. I did not imagine all those years ago that race relations would be WORSE in 2017 than they were in 1990. Who among us would have predicted? I had no idea raising two black children in our lovely little liberal bubble Bellingham would not prepare my daughters to live in the greater world as women of color, would not adequately prepare them for future encounters with racists, with white supremacists, with law enforcement officers who would just as soon shoot them dead as ask questions.
I should have known. I should have tried harder. I should have. I should have. I should have. And so now, here I am, trying to figure out what I wish I had known then, what I wish someone had slapped me upside the head with all those years ago: how will being raised in a white family impact an African American child? What will they learn? Who will teach them how to navigate this racist world? How did I contribute, willingly or not, to their marginalization? This is perhaps the toughest question: what was my culpability? Did I collude? Can I admit it?
Admittedly, getting to the place where I can acknowledge my culpability has been tough. When my ex-partner and I adopted our kids, we just wanted children. We did not think beyond our desire to have a baby. She wanted kids, and I was along for the ride. Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughters. I would not trade them for anything. But that love doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets about the way in which we went about the adoption process. I should have steeped myself in Black culture. I should have moved to a city more inhabited by Black people. I should have made an effort to connect my kids to their heritage. I didn’t. I admit it. I took the easy path. I surrendered my responsibilities.
And now, as a sort of atonement, I am writing this research paper. It is not enough, but it is a start.
Last week I had to write my Spiritual Autobiography for the Spirituality and Counseling class I’m taking this quarter. This particular assignment scared me a bit. More than a bit. In fact, just thinking about this assignment made me itch. By its very nature, the assignment implied that not only am I in possession of some sort of spirituality, but that I have been for most of my life. I’ve discovered over the past 15 years or so that the word “spiritual” conjures up positive happy feelings for a lot of people, yet there was nothing positive about my early spiritual development. In fact, I did not have a positive spiritual experience until just two years ago at the tender age of 51. Everything spiritual in my life up to that point came from either my parents pushing their religion on me or me trying to accommodate their wishes, or me fleeing from any and everything that even hinted of religion, spirit, or the supernatural. That’s what I have to work with: my own fear and dread regarding spirituality.
Sometimes, we get stuck in our stories, so I decided it was time to change the story. Below is what I ended up turning in as well as an art project I created to go with my paper.
It is time to change the narrative that has been my spiritual autobiography. It is time to rewrite my history from a power stance, from a strength perspective, from the view of a survivor rather than a victim. While my parents filled my formative years (ages 5-22) with radical fundamentalist christianity, and while those tenets and precepts haunted and dogged me for most of my life, I somehow found the courage to follow my own inner voice and at the age of 22 began shedding what held me back. I started to develop an ethos to call my own. I used to say that I spent the years between 22 and 51 avoiding all things that had even the faintest whiff of religious/spiritual energy, but in my reframe, I must say that I spent those years searching for a spirituality that worked for me. And, truth be told, I am still searching. Only in the past two years have I discovered the merest thread of a spirituality that may work, but when I look back, I can now identify the many sacred elements of my life that have been there all along. I just didn’t know that I could shift my definition of sacred to fit my needs. What I once thought to be profane is actually sacred, and much of what I learned early on to be sacred is, in fact, profane.
The bible served as my early foundation, and I learned god was angry, vengeful, wrathful, and to be feared. Scripture seemed to mock my most deeply held personal beliefs—equality, justice, fairness, and the right to love who I wanted. I grew up with a sense that no matter what I did, I would probably end up in hell anyway: if I took communion without all of my sins being forgiven, if I had premarital sex, if I even thought about someone with lust in my heart. If I took the lord’s name in vain. If I read “secular humanism.” If I listened to non-christian music. The world became a place not to be embraced but to be feared, a land fraught with temptation and danger. I couldn’t even love to be in nature because if I loved anything more than I loved god, I was committing an act of idolatry.
Somehow, I managed to hang onto myself just enough so that the summer before I started graduate school (the first time, when I was 22), I began to seek out other perspectives. I started reading those dangerous books and making friends with non-believers, and listening to the still small voice inside that urged me to stand up for what I actually believed, not what I’d been told to believe. I stood at my kitchen sink one morning, washing the dishes and decided in that moment that I could no longer be both true to myself and remain a christian. Christianity had to go. Thus began the journey in which I started collecting my own sacred experiences.
I started dating women. Sacred. I met and had a commitment ceremony with my first long-term partner. Sacred (and a little profane, but that’s another story). We adopted Anna. So sacred. I started therapy and exploring my feelings, wants, needs, and desires. Sacred. I learned I was depressed and began taking a new wonder drug that lifted my fog and allowed me to enjoy the world. We adopted Taylor. Sacred. I learned to stand up for myself and my needs. Sacred. And painful. When my ex had our daughters baptized without my permission after our divorce, I returned to church (I opted for the Unitarians) for the first time in ten years in order to provide my children with an alternative to mainstream religion. Sacred, though I didn’t end up staying long.
I bought a house and set about making it a home for my girls and me, an act that I now see as a step on my path to a personal spirituality. I met and married another woman and we lived and laughed and loved for fifteen years. When same sex marriage became legal, we got married with my children as our witnesses. Our love had finally been recognized and validated as sacred. Much of what we shared was sacred—some of it was struggle, and when it ended, we left each other intact, emotionally, having developed a stronger sense of what was sacred in the other.
During those fifteen years, I did not spend much time thinking about my spirituality or my soul or the sacred. From my vantage point now, I can see that I did continue to cultivate and sharpen my own sense of sacredness, however. I spent eight of those years working with for a Catholic elementary school, and I came to understand, perhaps for the first time, that not all who are religious are judgmental and/or narrow-minded. At Sacred Heart, I learned that the individuals in a religion could hold different values than the institution itself, and that community more than religion or dogma is what compelled most people to attend that church.
Also while working for the Catholics, I realized that I needed to start taking my body more seriously, that it was in fact sacred, and necessary to a healthy long life. I started working out, and found a connection with others, sacred bonds of friendship, which, for me, represented the spiritual connections with others I craved. Eventually, after I left the Catholics, I started running and found whole new worlds of spirituality open up. More connections and new friends, time in nature, the dawning awareness that my body really is a miracle in its own right. I started my runs (especially the more challenging runs) with a meditation: “I am thankful for my feet. I am thankful for my legs. I am thankful for my lungs and my heart. I am grateful for the time to run and for the money I have to buy shoes and running clothes. I am thankful I live here where I can run on trails instead of sidewalks.” By the time I got through my meditation, I forgot that running hurts.
Before I started running, I generally felt as if I were living two lives, and I often said in therapy that I needed to pull my circles into alignment. One circle represented the me I wanted others to see, and the other circle represented what I did that I wouldn’t want others to see, probably the real me. As running became paramount in my life, I began treating my running time as sacred, inviolate. Pargament (our text book author) writes that when we discover the sacred, our sense of fragmentation dissipates and the sacred becomes a passion and a priority.
As running began taking over my life, I began to wonder if it might not be time to stop taking the Wonder Drug, if it wasn’t maybe masking my (normal) responses to a difficult world. I found the new clarity to be sacred, and I redoubled my efforts in therapy to seek enlightenment, a search which led me to body work: massage, acupuncture, breath work. And on the massage table I had what can truly be described as my first encounter with The Divine. My massage therapist always finished our sessions with a blessing, her hands on my head, channeling love and oneness (that’s what she said, I just figured it was a nice way to signal the end of my session). This time, however, she stood at the head of the table, her hands hovering over my hair, and I could feel a new and different energy fill me up, a surge and a tingling from my scalp to my toes. She stood there for a good ten to fifteen minutes while something or some being left her and entered me.
Once I dressed and asked her what had happened, she just laughed and said, “You’ll have to ask Spirit.”
I wrote a haiku (that’s another sacred thing in my life: writing) to commemorate the event:
She laid hands on me Channeled a Divine spirit– Broke through to my Soul
That encounter with Spirit (or whatever/whomever) on the massage table served as a breakthrough of sorts, or at least it opened me up to the possibility of a spirituality absent of religion and a sense of The Divine unattached to the particular form of god on which I was raised. I felt pure love. And though my skepticism wasn’t completely eradicated, that experience gave me permission to explore my spirituality in ways I didn’t ever think I would want to. I now attend what I call Not Church, the local Bellingham Center for Spiritual Living, on a somewhat regular basis. They offer a 9:30 a.m. service in which there is no music and no singing, no “meet and greet your neighbor,” all things from traditional church services that tend to make me anxious. We end with a 10-15 minute meditation.
I’ve dabbled in meditation and mindfulness. Both sacred experience, and in the process, I’ve sort of fallen in love with Buddhism—the sacredness in not grasping, in letting go, in silence, in pausing. I feel as if these past two years have made up for a lifetime of ignoring my spiritual life, and if I were to describe myself spiritually, I would have to say that I am becoming a Warrior of the Light, as described by Paulo Coelho:
Karma is the Buddhist notion of moral causation, the idea that we all get what we deserve in this lifetime based on what we’ve done in previous lifetimes. It’s an interesting thought—and one that explains the discrepancies in fortune along the human spectrum, i.e. why some of us suffer and others don’t.
Whenever I ponder karma, I think of Newton’s third law of physics: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I don’t know why—I’m not much of a scientist, but that’s what comes to mind. Also, the law of the conservation of mass—that mass is neither created nor destroyed but remains constant over time. If science can have these sorts of intractable laws, why not the human condition?
Last summer I had an encounter with a spiritual advisor of sorts—a seer, a psychic, someone who purported to see into my past lifetimes. Her instructions before our meeting were that I should come with seven questions about my life. To be honest, the timing wasn’t very good. Immediately after our session I had an appointment at the lawyer’s office to sign my final divorce papers.
Anyway, I asked her about my writing and she waxed on for a bit, but didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t know, or anything I wanted to hear, as in nothing about my memoir writing itself and making the NYT bestseller list. So, I waved her off and asked my next question: What is up with the pain in my body?
I’d been experiencing a strange array of symptoms in my shoulder, liver, back, arms, and feet. But it was the weird sensation in my shoulder that caused me the most grief and discomfort. I expected an alien to pop out at any time. My physical therapist determined it was nerve pain, an assertion backed up by MRIs. Various massage therapists told me I needed to breathe more deeply or explained that I had steel cables running down my spine instead of the expected flat ribbons of muscle. The psychic consulted my Akashic records. Initially she reported that she couldn’t see anything—my records were blank, or, perhaps, closed.
Why would my records be closed, I asked, having absolutely no idea what an Akashic record even was, but imagining a very large filing cabinet in the sky. She replied that I might not be ready to see them, that whatever information they held might prove to be too much for me. Well, ask again, I admonished. I’ll be fine. So she asked again—and this time, after a few minutes with her eyes closed, told me a story.
“Do you have much experience with betrayal?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes. “Let me count the ways,” I said. “More than my fair share.”
She nodded. “The pain you feel in your back is the pain of betrayal, of your heart being broken. Of being stabbed in the back, metaphorically speaking.” And she went on to tell me a story.
Evidently, many, many, many lifetimes ago, I was a gay man with a devoted lover. We were very close, very respected in our community. We worked together as builders and architects. I thought we were happy and committed, but then I found out my lover was having an affair. My world crumbled then, and I never recovered. Three thousand years and many lifetimes later, she told me, I am still searching for that kind of love, trying to recreate that relationship.
Her words rang true. I’d never before heard of Akashic records. I’d never given much credence to past lives, though I tried to keep an open mind about such things. I felt the pain in my back more acutely at that moment and pushed away from the table, looking at my watch.
“I’ve gotta go,” I said. “Got an appointment.”
I thanked her and stumbled out into the sunshine and made my way to the lawyer’s office nearby. As I walked through the bright and warm summer day, I replayed in my mind every betrayal I had experienced in my 52 years. The ache behind my shoulder thrummed more intensely as each one sprung to mind. Had I really been trying to recreate this perfect relationship from millennia ago? Would I ever be rid of the pain? Did I even believe in Akashic records? Did it matter?
What I know is that her words rang true. What she said made sense to me on some deep, previously unexplored level. There’s so much we don’t know, so much we can’t see, so much happening beneath and beyond consciousness. Is karma real? I don’t know, but it feels like it might be.
Turns out that April is Counseling Awareness Month. Isn’t this just a serendipitous turn of events? I’m writing a blog a day, A to Z about my adventures as a graduate student in Mental Health Counseling and the American Counseling Association is making it a special month. Pretty sure I can’t take credit, but still . . . (maybe tomorrow I’ll tackle Delusional and Diagnosis).
I have a long history with counseling. I started seeing a psychologist in 1992 and have been in therapy of some sort consistently since then. For a long time, I thought of myself as having a serious character defect. I was young. I didn’t really understand how counseling worked, or could work. I had only a vague notion of Freud and his couch and Woody Allen’s neuroses.
Prozac and SSRIs hit the market about the time I began therapy* and not long after my psychologist diagnosed me with depression, she and my general practitioner agreed I would do well to try the new wonder-drug, Prozac. And, honestly, I looked forward to some relief. At 29, in 1992, I was a fairly new mom of an adopted bi-racial daughter, in a relationship with a woman 13 years my senior. I had just sold the bookstore I started, owned, and operated for three years, and I had moved back home full-time after living 90 miles away for most of each week. To complicate things, my fundamentalist Christian parents were only just beginning to adjust to my, er, lifestyle (as we called it then) and its unconventionality.
There’s more, but that’s enough. You get the idea. I was a stress monster. The crinkling of a tissue set my teeth on edge. The noise of someone actually blowing their nose sent me over the edge. The first time I swallowed one of those little green and white pills, I felt like I was taking communion. I crossed myself and sent up a prayer.
After four weeks of taking that precious little capsule every morning, I no longer cared who sneezed or how loud. Irritation rolled off my back. The grey veil that separated me from the rest of the world lifted, and I started seeing in color again. Cliché, I know, but accurate. Everything sparkled. I got a good job as the bookstore manager at the local technical college with a great boss as well as health and retirement benefits. Did the little pill have anything to do with my new job? I believe happier, less-stressed, less-depressed people tend to have more self-confidence and do better in job interviews, so yes. But I digress.
I felt good, and I loved talking to my therapist. I loved paying someone to listen to me. I loved the 50 minutes of uninterrupted attention. I could do this for a living, I thought. I’d love to listen to people’s stories, to help them make sense of their feelings, to help them gain the confidence to reach for their high dreams. I had no idea that someone who went to counseling could actually ever become a counselor. I thought my diagnosis and being on meds precluded me ever being in the field.
I had never heard of Jung’s Wounded Healer. I was an English major who, stupidly and stubbornly, avoided all social science classes. The books cost too much. The classes met on Fridays. What can I say?
I wanted to get off the meds, though, yet every time I quit taking them, things in my life would head south, and the psychologist would exhort me to stay on the meds. I got stuck in a loop and never really got to the issues that were causing me to become depressed. I’d just start popping the pills again, and things would improve. Etc.
I spent about twenty years with the psychologist before I found a new therapist, and the woman I chose to see was an LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor). I didn’t know what the difference was when I made the switch, I was just seeking someone a little more flexible and spiritual, a little less dogmatic and not so pharmacologically oriented. Turns out the switch worked very well for me then. I made several changes in my life at the same time: I got a new job, I relocated, I started taking writing classes and running, and found new community with both activities.
The psychologist got me up and out of the depression and quite literally saved my life on many occasions. And the LMHC has helped me move forward from there, developing self-confidence, practicing mindfulness, introducing me to non-Western philosophies. I have learned so much about myself, about why I am the way I am, and how I can move forward.
I’ll never be done working on myself, but it turns out, I can become a counselor anyway, not in spite of my past, but because of it. Jung believed that disease of the soul could be the best possible form of training for a healer. And as Victor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.” By these measures, I am perfect for this job.
*for a more in-depth—but still inadequate—explanation of the differences among therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, and psychology see this previous blog
I can’t believe I haven’t finished my first blog for the A to Z challenge yet. I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, planning, scheming, writing it in my head, but clearly I’ve not put any words down yet. Until now. These few, uninspired, last minute words that seem so unequal to the task, so small and worthless and hurried.
A is for Apology, apparently. Abject. Abysmal. But I’m at AWP this week, a conference all about writing, and so, apology or not, abysmal or not, tired or not, write I must.
I am going to write about Anxiety. My plan for this year’s A-to-Z Challenge is thus: I want to spend this month writing about my experiences as a student in the Clinical Mental Health Counselor Program at Antioch University. I want to weave together a narrative, exploring the concepts (from A to Z) that I study as a student of mental health counseling and how my studies intersect with my life. How my coursework shows up in my day-to-day world.
I haven’t studied Anxiety, per se. I have taken many relevant classes, delved into the DSM 5 and learned how I might diagnose a client who presented with symptoms that fit the criteria for, say, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I learned to write a treatment plan and theorized about which therapeutic modality I might employ to best help my client regain his or her equilibrium.
Most of what I’ve learned about Anxiety comes from first hand experience. I am not one who has been plagued with Anxiety for much of my life. No, my familiarity with this particular demon has only been recent and is one of the reasons I started running regularly a little over two years ago.
I started waking up in the mornings with a pit of dread churning in my stomach and found that if I went for a run, somewhere around mile two or three, the pit of dread loosened and eventually abated. I guess the endorphins kicked in, the oxytocin released, and the runner’s euphoria lifted the anxiety. Cured, if only temporarily, I could get on with my day. The next morning, the anxiety would return, and I’d start over. Run. Rinse. Repeat.
A nice side benefit to running off all my anxiety was that I started to lose weight. I felt healthier. My blood pressure dropped, as did my cholesterol, and my pants size. But, I digress. I still woke up most mornings feeling like something horrible was about to happen. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the axe to fall, for the bottom to drop out, for . . . well, you get the picture.
Anxiety chased me into my running clothes and out of the house each morning. But the thing about being a graduate student in a counseling program is that these sort of disruptions don’t slip by unanalyzed. While one part of me succumbed to the anxiety, another part of my tapped my forefinger thoughtfully against my chin and asked, “How do you feel about this, Pam Sue?”
Some people have angels and demons sitting on their shoulders. I now have Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, or their modern day equivalents, Jack Cornfield and Tara Brach. I can have a panic attack and simultaneously know for certain that while what I am experiencing might feel real, it isn’t true.
It’s weird, living with this meta awareness. I had all sorts of anxiety about traveling to AWP this week–logistical stuff that I know I’m capable of handling but for whatever reason just kept spinning on: how am I going to get to Sea-Tac from Bellingham? To the airbnb from LAX? I can’t check in until 4 p.m., but I arrive at 9 in the morning. What would I do? These questions dogged me for weeks. I envisioned myself in dire circumstances, dragging my carryon around LA for hours, sad and alone and dazed. Yet, I simultaneously knew my fears were unfounded and not based in reality. I could make a shuttle reservation, find a friend to stay with in Seattle, even one who might take me to the airport. I just couldn’t see the logical steps in the midst of my anxiety.
Something similar happened when I realized how expensive it was going to be to eat and drink here in Los Angeles. The first day I spent way too much money on so-so food and paid $8 for a mediocre beer. So, I took myself to the grocery store, but instead of going shopping at the end of the day, when the conference was over, I went in the morning on my way to the conference and so had to schlep my groceries around the conference hall, from one panel discussion to another.
I was so anxious about not having drinking water back at the airbnb that night, I bought a six pack of bottled water and stuck it in my already heavy backpack. All the while I’m hearing Jack and Tara on my shoulders, telling me not to believe the anxiety, reassuring me that all will be well, that I will be fine, that there will be water at the conference. That the universe will provide. But, do I listen? No. I buy the water. And I vow to do better tomorrow.
Every writer I know has trouble writing. —Joseph Heller
Nearly every night I sit down with my laptop and open it to a blank Word document, convinced that this is the night I will begin my masterpiece, my opus, my version of the Great American Novel. And then I get distracted: laundry, dinner, cats, a funny lump behind my earlobe, the stupid TwoDots game on my phone. Words with Friends. Something. Anything to keep me from putting my thoughts down. There are a million things I will do before I finally succumb to that little voice, that growing voice, that roaring voice, the one that pushes and pulses behind my eyeballs, that makes my heart pound faster. I have to, at some point, listen to that voice, give in to that voice or I will explode. Maya Angelou is credited with saying that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside. I agree.
Another trouble with writing, with being a writer, particularly if one is a writer of nonfiction, memoir, creative nonfiction, is that telling the truth, or our version of the truth, is bound to offend someone. Probably we will offend someone close to us, a family member, a good friend. And we may throw lots of other folks under the bus—there’s an entire cast of characters from which we can choose: teachers, grandparents, doctors, lawyers, therapists, the barista who forgot your regular order. The waiter who seated you near the kitchen. Really. This is an endless list.
And there are so many reasons we need to keep the peace with all of these folks. We need them to like us. And, what we often forget is that the chances of anyone actually reading what we write is slim. Oh sure, our writing group might, and a teacher, if we’re in school. But Grandma? Uncle Ed? The barista? Not likely. So, really, this is not a good excuse to suppress the urge to write.
Never mind the friends and relatives, though. When I think about writing, about what I want to write, an overwhelming sense of responsibility immobilizes me. I can’t write anything frivolous, I tell myself. What I write should be Serious. And Thoughtful. Well considered. And I should have read as much as possible on the topic. I don’t want to offend anyone. What I write should have a moral, a takeaway, but subtly. I don’t want to be too didactic. My prose should be poetic and authentic. My metaphors had better be spot on. My grammar and punctuation, impeccable. Most importantly, I don’t want to be misunderstood.
No wonder I freeze up. No wonder I’d rather play gin rummy on my iPad.
But no more. This year I resolve to write the stories. And if you happen to be a character in my life, oh well.
Many years ago, flummoxed by the joys and perils of raising two non-white children in our predominantly white culture, I wrote an essay expressing my doubts and fears, and (surprising to me now) my certainties (you will recognize them when you see them). Some of what I wrote makes sense and some of it clearly needs rethinking. Yesterday on the day we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., my eldest daughter, now 23, texted me (this is how we communicate these days). She was wondering if I thought it odd that the company for which she now works didn’t celebrate the national holiday. I do find it odd, odd that only governments and banks shut down on this Monday when the world grinds to a halt, more or less, for other national holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, the 4th of July.
Hello! I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to join a group of bloggers who are writing the 50 things for which they are grateful. The trick was we had to write the list in 10 minutes (adding pictures and links came later and did not count toward the total time). I had no trouble at all coming up with so many things to be thankful for. Life is rich. I live in a beautiful place. I have a solid support network, good friends, a loving family. When times get hard, I try to remember these things. I started the list off with some of the things I repeat to myself on mornings when running is challenging–I am grateful for my body parts that all work as they should. If you’d like to join in on the gratitude blogging fun, you can find instructions at the bottom of this blog. Enjoy!
If you’d like to join in, here’s how it works: set a timer for 10 minutes; timing this is critical. Once you start the timer, start your list. The goal is to write 50 things that made you happy in 2015, or 50 thing that you feel grateful for. The idea is to not think too hard; write what comes to mind in the time allotted. When the timer’s done, stop writing. If you haven’t written 50 things, that’s ok. If you have more than 50 things and still have time, keep writing; you can’t feel too happy or too grateful! When I finished my list, I took a few extra minutes to add links and photos.
To join the bloggers who have come together for this project: 1) Write your post and publish it (please copy and paste the instructions from this post, into yours) 2) Click on the link at the bottom of this post. 3) That will take you to another window, where you can past the URL to your post. 4) Follow the prompts, and your post will be added to the Blog Party List.
Please note that only blog posts that include a list of 50 (or an attempt to write 50) things that made you feel Happy or 50 things that you are Grateful for, will be included. Please don’t add a link to a post that isn’t part of this exercise.
I originally published this piece on my blog in December 2012. I thought it was worth re-posting, given that it’s that time of year again and my holiday anxiety is ramping up.
Christmas Eve always provokes anxiety in me. For all of the 1960s and well into the 70s, I was the sole granddaughter amongst many grandsons and as such the only target for girly gifts from my well-meaning Mema: dolls, dresses, and purses. While my cousins and younger brother gleefully tore through the wrapping paper to discover footballs, cowboy hats, cap pistols, and baseball gloves, I opened my gifts cautiously, always hopeful that my true wishes would be granted, that my grandmother would see me for the tomboy I was, not as the girly girl she wanted me to be. As the Barbies, ballet slippers, tea sets, and girly frou-frou piled up over the years, I knew better than to be expressively disappointed. Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I learned early that it is better to give than to receive, to be thankful for what I had, and to put others ahead of myself, so I pasted on a smile and gave my thanks with as much authenticity as I could muster.
As the years wore on and the family expanded, my girl cousins finally came along, gleeful recipients of all things sugar and spice and everything nice, and I could ignore my gifts and slip away to play with my boy cousins and their superior toys. They would share their bounty with me, and for many happy hours I wore the cowboy hat and shot the cap guns, threw the footballs around the basement. Still, an uneasiness always settled over me as the holidays drew near, and as much as I looked forward to Christmas Eve at Mema’s, a genuinely fun and spirited occasion where the alcohol flowed freely and everyone sang and acted out a verse in The Twelve Days of Christmas, where we all wore colored paper hats from the Christmas crackers, I dreaded going because I didn’t feel like I belonged.
A sense of Other became my Christmas cloak: fundamentalist Christian amongst fun loving Catholics; country bumpkin cousin among my sophisticated Seattle cousins; and something deeper that I sensed about myself, something I knew set me apart in ways I wouldn’t understand for many years.
So, no surprise then that those familiar pangs rushed back as I navigated our red late-model Volvo into Mema’s driveway for Christmas Eve in 1994. Even though I was 31 and had a family, the anxiety dogged me. I let out the breath I’d been holding during our hour and a half drive south from where I lived with my partner and our two daughters. I pulled on my wide-brimmed purple felt hat that matched my paisley purple dress and smiled through the rear view mirror at the girls, Anna four and a half, and Taylor six months old. They were ready to be sprung from their car seats, their holiday dresses hidden beneath their matching Christmas coats from Nordstrom. I squeezed Sweetie’s hand, both for comfort and for strength, and admired her stylish red wool coat and her fine black leather gloves. I allowed a small satisfaction and confidence to creep upon me. We looked so normal that no one could possibly know from first glance that we were lesbians with two children. I drew comfort from our appearance as we wrested the girls out of the car and arranged ourselves into presentability—straightening rumpled tights, buckling Mary Janes, wiping the spit up from Taylor’s chin and removing her bib, making sure Anna had a firm grasp on Blankie. We each carried a child and marched to the front door to ring the bell.
We knew better than to wait for someone to answer before letting ourselves in. The bell served only to announce our presence before we walked into the sounds and smells of Christmas tradition: cracked crab, singed spaghetti sauce, bourbon, scotch, laughter and conversation, the burble of children’s voices and laughter. Aunts and uncles yelled out greetings or raised their glasses to us as we entered. My mother came to coo over her granddaughters. We collected hugs and kisses as we waded deeper into the gathering, and because we were women, we all finally came to a stop in the kitchen.
“Merry Christmas!” My aunt Betsy said, “You guys look great. I love your dress Pam.”
“Where did you get that hat?” Mema sipped her vodka, the ice tinkling. “I love it!”
“Sweetie!” Uncle David stepped towards us, a glass of red wine in his hand. “Merry Christmas!” He gave her a sideways hug and a peck on the cheek. “How are the girls?”
“Hey David,” Sweetie matched his enthusiasm. “They are great. Thanks for asking! Your girls must be getting big, too!”
I began unbundling the girls, removing their coats, checking Taylor’s diapers for any obvious odors. They both looked amazing, their brown skin glowing against the red velvet dresses, their white tights gleaming, their Mary Janes shiny. Anna’s eyes took on the pensiveness of being in a strange situation, and Taylor’s eyes grew wide, her Surprise Baby look we called it. Since we’d only just adopted her in May, many of my relatives had yet to meet her.
“She’s so tiny! How old is she, again?”
“She’s so dark!”
“Well, yes, she’s African American,” I explained. “She’s just a bit over seven months old.”
“Anna, you’ve gotten so big!”
“Anna! How do you like being a big sister?”
Anna buries her face in the pleats of Sweetie’s red skirt.
“She’s still adjusting,” I say.
“Hey, Pamalamala!” My uncle Mike approaches, the funny guy in the family. “What can I get you to drink? You’re still drinking, right?” He nods at Taylor in my arms. “You’re not nursing are you?”
“Scotch on the rocks sounds fabulous,” I say, happy at that moment to be an adoptive parent, no breastfeeding required.
Anna peaks inquisitively from Sweetie’s skirt. “Pamalamala?” She laughs. “That’s funny Mommy!”
“That’s what I called myself when I was your age,” I explain. “I couldn’t say Pamela, so I said Pamalamala whenever someone wanted to know my name.”
Anna’s brown eyes light up, and some of the anxiety disappears. I want nothing more than for her to be free of the anxiety. Mike hands me my scotch and I relax, happy to be among family on this holiday, grateful for the acceptance from nearly everyone, and even thankful for the forbearance of those who might still disapprove. I am aware they might be masking their disdain with holiday cheer and copious amounts of alcohol. I don’t mind.
Before long, the girls and their cousins hear the prancing of reindeer feet on the roof and the ringing of sleigh bells. The little ones who are old enough to walk, rush to the window hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa. I hold Taylor as she wiggles and babbles excitedly and points to her big sister, eyes wide with anticipation.
“HO! HO! HO!” Santa opens the front door, a pillowcase bursting with presents slung over his shoulder. “I hear there are children here who have been very good this year!
“Sit over here, Santa,” one of my younger cousins points to a wing-backed chair between the fireplace and the lavishly decorated tree. Over the course of the next hour, each child under 18 sits on Santa’s lap and assures him they’ve been nice and not at all naughty during the year. Santa digs in his bag and presents each child with a present, and as they unwrap their gifts, they hold them up as cameras snap and flash. The adults grin conspiratorially at one another, remembering Christmases not that long ago when they did the same. I’ve chosen Anna and Taylor’s gifts carefully, the sting of disappointment still fresh on me.
Once the spaghetti and crab have been devoured, once the platters of cookies have been depleted, once the children have succumbed to the rush of sugar and the excitement of Santa and fallen asleep about the living room, once the adults have exchanged gifts, and had a final glass of holiday cheer, we begin to gather our newly acquired belongings, our coats, the diaper bag, Anna’s Blankie. We whisper our good-byes and carry our sleeping babies to the car and tuck them in to their car seats. After several more forays between house and car, more hugs and kisses, I put the Volvo in reverse and head north, letting out the breath I’d been holding the past several hours.
We had navigated through a family Christmas Eve, our little family of four breaking new ground, the four of us presenting as just another family in spite of our differences. No one else in my extended family had ventured quite this far outside of the norm: being a “married” lesbian mother of adopted multi-ethnic children broke some new family ground and gained not just tolerance, but acceptance. Still, my anxiety and self doubt colored my experience and I believed that the love and welcomes came because we worked so hard to be a normal family, we wore dresses and feminine shoes; we bought thoughtful and not inexpensive gifts; we were fortunate to have beautiful children and dressed them in dresses and lace. We drove a Volvo. I believed that acceptance required stringent adherence to heterosexual norms. I thought that if we were going to be a successful lesbian family, we were going to have to be as non-threatening and as normal as possible.
I was so busy hiding who I was, I didn’t even try to be myself. It didn’t occur to me that my family would love me anyway.