A curious mad pandemic skill to surface in my isolated corner of the world is visible mending, a term that usually refers to the art and politics of clothing repair. I’ve expanded my mending repertoire to include candles, a mirror and a zipper on a fanny pack—you read that right. FANNY PACK. (That’s hip sac, if you’re nasty.)
The beauty of visible mending is that it requires minimal sewing skills to get it right, i.e. there really is no right way to do it. Though some have elevated the practice to breathtaking heights, many artist-menders feel that the more raw and messy the mend, the more beautiful it is. A natural disaster with needle, thread and other things, I wholeheartedly agree. I recommend the book, Mended (A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto), by Kate Sekules for basic how-tos, as well as her enlightening prose about the history, politics and artistry of mending.
I started with socks, the repair of which is called darning, and what a misnomer that is—darn is not the word I used when I first started, jabbing my fingers more than fabric. As I slowly got the hang of it, though, the f-bombs dissolved away, and a soothing meditative state slid in…I moved on to elaborating on holes in sweaters, decorating tears in skirts with frankenstein stitches, blanketing worn-out elbows with patches.
Today’s project to deter me from actual work was to replace the zipper on my beloved aforementioned fanny pack, which hasn’t zipped in months, but I still use it because I love its functional fashionality (<I made up a word! FU autocorrect!), and I’m a daredevil like that. I have no business replacing zippers because my sewing skills are minimal at best, confined to replacing the occasional renegade button. In fact, once in 7th grade home ec, in the sewing unit, we had the option to make 1. a simple locker organizer (think: long rectangle of fabric, a few square pockets, straight sewing lines, embellish with a button or two, maybe rickrack trim—ta-da! A in Home Ec!) or 2. something more complicated, IF we had the experience. The girls whose moms taught them sewing when they were wee ones (same girls who could also make chocolate chip cookies from INGREDIENTS, not a plastic tube) chose skirts or dresses or shirts.
Back in 1976, my mom made bonnets for me and my sister Jill for our elementary school bicentennial celebration so we could look like little pioneers, out of a pair of her faded denim jeans and cut up cereal box cardboard (to stiffen the brim), and knowing my mom, I’d bet she didn’t sew ONE stitch, but instead used glue and staples and maybe paper clips. She patterned them after one of our little sister, Gretchen’s BABY bonnets, which did NOT look like anything any self-respecting 5th grader from 1776 would have worn, which is a long way to say my mom wasn’t one of those moms mentioned above.
Despite this minor detail, I didn’t want to make a locker organizer. I was obsessed with the short-lived 80s fashion craze: knickers—replete with zippers and buttons and pleats, o my! What? You don’t remember knickers in the 80s? Probably becasue the trend left town (hand-in-hand with fanny packs) before I finished my knickers.
Which brings me back to this visible mending tradition, which has been around since God was a kid, with roots in probably every culture on the planet…I found an old metal zipper at a thrift store that maybe had a former life on a jacket, and there’s no way on god’s green earth I’d be able to tell you how I did it—lots pins and hand stitching and f-bombing and YouTubing later, my pack is back in action! Look for me power-walking laps at your local mall.
I see now, that my mom was engaging in a form of visible mending with our bonnets—using what you have on hand—inadvertently teaching us to be creative and resourceful and to try not to give a fuck what anyone else’s bonnet looked like…in my home ec project that barely got finished before school ended, I see my propensity for jumping into the big stuff, without laying the basic foundation first (but I’m also kind of proud to remember that I did finish the knickers, replete with zippers and buttons and pleats, o my…I see that the raw basics are as powerful as anything….this idea of drawing attention to the flaws in the garments, rather than throwing them out or relegating them to the back of the closet or only wearing them for painting projects, is a rich parable for these strange times…people are talking about “post pandemic” days already; someone recently said to me they wish they could forget this past year ever happened. I thought, how sad that would be—it’s going to take some time, but there is immense power and awe, in the act of looking back to see all the hard things we did…if only we had hard evidence…
I wish for a visible mending of sorts for our souls, something to offer the world proof of the immeasurable losses we’ve endured this past year—lives, health, jobs, relationships, homes, comfort of the familiar and predictable… Maybe it would help us to be kinder to one another if we could see the haphazard patch over a heart, the criss-crossed stitches along our skin barely holding us together…maybe it would help us to be kinder to ourselves, too, if we could wear our scars as powerful, gorgeous embellishment, with the honor, grace and recognition they deserve. xo
Oh, so many stories in a single photograph, I could sit here all day, rifling through the memories—those steps in our old house, that sweater I’m wearing, the exposed wiring flailing like tentacles out of the doorway frame, that olive-green paint, why does li’l Gretchy look so calm and collected? But, I’ll reign myself in and tell just one, about the expression on Jill’s face, that reappears more than just occasionally on Otto’s face when we spend a day together.
Otto shows up at my house around 4 on Tuesday afternoons and hangs with me till about 8:45, or whenever Jill and Amelia get back from Ms. A’s tennis lessons in the cities. We cover a lot of ground in that short time together, Ottz and me, literally and figuratively. We usually take a walk shortly after he arrives. Or, as he tells his mom, with that look on his face, “Jenny’ll probably make me walk with her all the way to the dumpster, with a sack of garbage again,” referring to the bag of organics waste that I bring to the recycling site a half a mile or so away. He’s not lying. Last week, we were still stomping on ice along the edges of the streets and sidewalks. This week, the ice is gone, so are most of the puddles, and it’s nice enough to take a spin through Spring Lake Park. We find a big open field, where Otto tosses his football around a while (kid’s got uncle Kurt’s arm), until a remote control drone buzzing and diving overhead nearly drives Rocco over the edge of insanity, so we resume our walk and eventually make our way home.
Otto reads for about 20 minutes while I get dinner ready. I ask him how salmon, broccoli and rice sounds, face-deep in a Minecraft game that’s not his book, he mutters, “yeah, sure.”
“Put the iPad away, you need to read first. Or, we can get takeout from somewhere, if you’d rather,” I offer. He looks up from his game. “No, that’s okay, you can’t ever go wrong with salmon!” he says with a grin, reaching for a book. That he choses a home-cooked meal over pizza or Micky D’s gets me in the feels every time. Salmon it is. After dinner (he nearly always finishes what I make, with extra helpings of vegetables, if you can believe that), he usually calls a friend and/or his dad right away; last night, he’d brought a book along titled, “Bet You Didn’t Know” or something along that line, and entertained me with trivia tidbits as I scraped plates and loaded the dishwasher. “Bet you didn’t know Ben and Jerry’s employees get to take home THREE FREE pints of ice cream every day,” he tells me. I wonder aloud if B&J’s is hiring and if I can do the job via Zoom.
We’re still working on the shoe tying thing, so before he can call his pal, Lee, I say we have to give it a go a few times, Mom’s orders. The way things have gone the past few weeks, I would be lying if I said I didn’t think he might be destined to a future of velcro tennies, but I also believe in the magic of things like tying tennis shoes and riding bikes and falling in love—no one can explain when or how or why it happens, a cosmic alchemy of so many things, some seen but mostly unseen, coming together at just the right time, usually at that point when we’re about ready to give up and resign ourselves to a reclusive life of laceless shoes and walking, then BAM, the universe shifts ever-so-slightly in our favor. I’m really curious to see if my theory holds true.
Of course, there’s a little dramatic eye rolling and protesting and feet dragging involved, “but I don’t wannnnnnna tie my shooooes…I’m too tiiiiirrrrrreeeeddddd….I can’t doooooo iiiiitttt, Jennnnnnyyyyyy…..”
“I know you can do it,” I say, “maybe not today, maybe not next week, but every time, you get a little better, I just wanna see how things are going this week. Three tries on each foot, then you’re off the hook, k?” We park ourselves in my bedroom, he hunches over his feet and the tying commences. He’s got the first part down, it’s the follow-through that trips him up. His hands are big, like catcher’s mitts, but I know plenty of people with big hands who can tie their shoes, hell even play banjo, thread needles, sketch breathtaking pictures, and type like a mofo. I have faith. I crouch beside him, coaching him through each step, which is probably more annoying than helpful. His first try is totally half-assed; he’d rather call his friend, I can so tell. He drops the laces in disgust. “Seeeeee?? I told you can’t doooooo ittttttt,’ he whines. Of course, I imitate him, because I’m the adult here. Then I say, “Yessssss you caaaaaan. Imagine that tying your shoes is like that Minecraft game you’re so good at—for every step you complete, you get five points.” He gives me that look. “That’s dumb,” he says, but he’s also intrigued, I can tell. He hunkers down and starts again.
“Look!” I say, “there’s five points already, just for starting! And another five for that first crossover, and another five for that fabulous loop, and another for that second crossover—don’t let go! don’t let go!” I cheer him on, “now, tuck that part in there—don’t let go! don’t let go!—now, pull your fingers out and grab that piece—yes, that one! pull each loop—you’re sooo close, soooooo close— go easy peasy, George and Weezy—”
Otto stops mid-tie and looks up at me with That Look that reminds me so much of Jill in the photograph, it’s uncanny. “I don’t know what that even means—must be a cringy-aunt thing to say,” he says, dead-pan serious. “Excuse me?” I say, falling back onto the bed, laughing, “Did you say ‘cringy aunt thing to say’??!!”
“Don’t worry,” he says, “Gretchy says cringy things, too!” and now we’re both laughing. “Okay, just one more try on each foot, Ottz—you were soooooo close the last time, did you see that?” A little more whining, but he gets down to business, and if I weren’t watching like a hawk and whispering little coaching tidbits the whole time, I might not have believed it myself—the first cross over, the loop, the second cross over, the tuck, the pull and TA-DA—a perfectly tied tennis shoe, by the Amazing Ottz! We both leap from our hunkered down positions, erupt into squeals and let the high-fives fly, which sends Rocco into a barking frenzy not unlike what happened at the park with the drone, so we quickly reign in the celebratory antics to whispers and golf claps. “Rocco’s sure a party pooper, isn’t he?” I have to agree.
It was Otto, not me, who says, “okay, I’m going to do it one more time on each foot, but I don’t want you to say anything, just let me do it, okay?” so I have to sit with my hands clamped over my mouth and simply watch as the cosmic alchemy plays out again before my eyes, once again proving my theory true. Next week, it’s bikes, y’all. xo.
A whole fucking year ago…I don’t think I’ve use the word fuck more than I did in 2020 (which is saying a LOT, because I say it a LOT), though already, we’re only mid-March, and 2021 is a close contender. In my defense, I’d argue that studies prove people who swear are more verbally fluent (fuck yeah!), honest and intelligent than their non-cussing counterparts, but I might be accused of confirmation bias. pfffft. What the eff ever, I say to that.
Swearing nor not, I’d still offer this advice a year later, today, or any day: Get outside, take some deep breaths—exhale as long as you can….Jon Kabat Zinn says “as long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong.” I came upon his words months ago, when I was still living in Minneapolis, when the twin cities were still deep in the smoke of riots after George Floyd’s murder, when when breathing, or not being able to, was on everyone’s mind and lips, when I was wakened constantly by throbbing helicopters, wailing sirens, roaring pickup trucks tearing down 24th…I’d go for walks in the neighborhood, to local parks, sometimes drive to William O’Brien or Afton state park, just to feel the ground (not asphalt or sidewalk, but living, breathing earth) underfoot, wrap my arms around trees, glide my hand along rough skin, press my cheek against strong trunks. To feel a tree’s heart beat, when you have nothing or no one else to hold on to, is astonishing and calming, even amidst chaos. It really is.
Who would have thought, a year ago, we’d still be in this strange state a whole year later? Who could’ve possibly imagined the immeasurable devastation contained between last March and now? No one, that’s who. We were all so innocent, so optimistic last March, weren’t we? Well, except maybe the holy genius, Michael Osterholm, who’s probably been wandering around muttering “told you so, told you so, told you so” all day long, for decades. Why he hasn’t just bailed on humanity and our Olympian dedication to willful stupidity long ago speaks to his holiness. Lord knows I would have, which is probably why the lord of such things, if there is such a thing, didn’t put a brain like Michael Osterholm’s inside someone like me, who has zero tolerance for bullshit.
I recently read an interview with a scientist who isn’t Mr. Osterholm, described the impact that the past year has had on our bodies and minds as a “covid concussion.” I like the catchiness of the phrase; as I read through the article, I would be inclined to call this year-long state complex grief, with a heap of trauma thrown onto the steaming pile. Mind-boggling losses, this past year…the similarities between a concussion and the impact of the pandemic on our brain, though, is fascinating to consider.
Maybe thinking like this would help more of us to be kinder and gracious to ourselves in this jacked-up era if we understood the true impact the pandemic is wreaking on our physiology, psychology and dare I say spirituality… maybe instead of beating ourselves up for not doing more with this “gift of time,” we could decide we’re like someone with a concussion in the ICU, who is deserving of the greatest, tender loving care we can administer…maybe it would help knowing that we are still very much in survival mode and our body is doing everything it can to protect us…maybe what we end up doing is not the best thing for us, but maybe it would help to know that there is profound and gentle grace hiding in the doing, that we are doing the very best we can with what we have available, and that if whatever we’re doing isn’t working, at any point we can start over, as many times as we need to, and try something else. Maybe we would drop to our knees in awe, if we knew that our soul loves us so much, it’s using our body to get our attention. Maybe it would help to know it doesn’t have to be a massive overhaul all at once; that every day matters, every single thing carries weight—even the screw ups, especially the screw ups. And even the slightest of shift can offer a blessed reprieve…and slight shifts, as they accumulate, begin to nudge toward change, and it doesn’t take special equipment or a class or guru. It might simply begin with our breath, and as we marvel at our ability to tune into our breath, even if it’s just a short time today, we might begin to see that all along, we’ve been our own guru, patiently waiting to be noticed among the external things we keep turning to… and “dang those Indigo Girls,” you might think, “if only I’d studied Closer to Fine the way others study the Bible, all of this would have come together for me a long time ago…”
The catastrophic losses we’ve sustained continue to accumulate, on personal and communal and global levels. A year of extreme contradictions, incongruence, disruptions, chaos, violence of epic proportions, there’s barely enough time to catch our breath before the next wave crashes in—I’d argue that the hardest, most damaging element of this year has been the things that aren’t visible, touchable, breathable—the severing of relationships and connections to those so vital to our existence. A tragic version of Opposite Day, where staying apart became the deepest expression of love and care, and being together has the capacity to kill—I don’t know if our hearts will ever be able to reconcile such incongruence in our lives or the fallout…it will stain our hearts and brains to varying degrees, forever…but I also know that our world is filled with breathtaking stories of resilience and survival, and these stories are not fairytales or the Hollywood movie version, they’re often teeming with fuckups without a happy ending, or they’re quietly happening without fanfare or headlines, and not even realized as powerful survival stories until long after the tragedy has subsided.
A year ago, I lost all three sources of my income in one fell swoop; it took months to get on the state’s emergency unemployment program because my work is a strange hybrid that fell through the cracks (my deepest gratitude to my dear, wise friend Marty Bragg, for showing me through that quagmire). My loved ones were suddenly, jarringly inaccessible. A year ago, an all too-familiar anxious, incessant buzzing settled into my cells and followed me wherever I went, even to sleep (did I even sleep last summer? I sometimes wonder). This everpresent panic mode felt alarmingly familiar, echoing what I experienced when my husband was diagnosed with cancer and our life was thrown into a blender set on puree, the same alarm that resettled into my cells after the 2016 election and never went away.
A year ago, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were murdered, George Floyd’s murder would soon follow, the names on the list continues to grow… a president and his administration blatantly denying the global crisis that landed on our soil, refusing to do anything to mitigate the swiftly growing catastrophe or to help the average and disadadvantaged, our nation floundered, states left to their own devices, we in the midwest watched in horror as each coast was rapidly invaded by the virus, how long it would take to reach us. A year ago, I was in the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series program, which like everything, transitioned to the abnormal godsend/curse of Zoom. Even in two dimensions, our pained, bewildered state was so palpable, our ability to concentrate, shredded; my cohorts and I gave online readings instead of in-person, we had no idea if anyone was even out there listening to the stories and essays and poems we’d cobbled together in crisis. A year ago, we were thrust ass-over-teakettle into an epic tragedy, and our options for support suddenly, severely shunted…we were forced to become resourceful, or desperate, or despondent, whatever it took, to get through…
What was different about this crisis than others I’ve been in, is that a little over a year ago, I quit drinking; it was only meant to be a 30 day experiment, but at the end of January, I decided to commit to another 30 days, then another…my life was pretty ho-hum then; I wondered aloud, could I handle a crisis without any alcohol? Hell, what about a concert? A friendly gathering? Can I even dance without a couple glasses of wine? My sister blames me for the pandemic.
About a year ago, I wrote in my journal: “March 31, 2020. 91 days Alcohol Free As F*ck. Smack dab in the middle of a goddamned global pandemic, no less (is “global pandemic” redundant? does the goddamned make it not?). A wise person once said, ‘Life is what happens when you make other plans.’ To say that no one saw this pandemic coming, much less was prepared for it, is the understatement of the century. I sure as hell didn’t plan to be sober during a worldwide crisis—that’s not my usual crisis strategy. But I sure as hell plan to stay that way while riding this changing-by-the-minute-crawling-out-of-my-skin-waking-up-in-a-full-blown-heart-racing-mind-on-warp-speed-panic-attack-every-night-i-don’t-have-a-job-and-am-so-alone-and-my-god-all-the-people-getting-sick-and-dying-when-will-the-shit-hit-full-force-here-and-uncomfortable-doesn’t-even-begin-to-describe-these-excriciating-debilitating-waves-of-uncertainty-and-fear-I-think-I-might-vomit—which sounds an awful lot like a hangover, except it’s not. Believe me when I say it’s a million and one times better to wake up feeling like that without an actual hangover slathered on top. I think…talk to me in an hour, when the next crisis drops…
Right now, being AF feels like the only super power I have to help me navigate life on a planet that’s staging a mutiny-without-end against the collective transgression its inhabitants have inflicted upon it (I’m 100% convinced that’s what’s happening). Scared shitless, I feel like Signourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton and that little redhead girl from Brave, all bundled up into one, and I’m going to protect this superpower like it’s the last roll of TP on earth. I know too well what alcohol does to me in crisis. Kicks my fears, anxiety and worst-case-scenarioitis into hyper-drive sending me into a downward spiral of depression, paralysis, brain fog, shame, self-loathing, guilt. Pour, swig, sweat, repeat. Why has it taken me so long to come to this truth? My god, the timing…
I’ve quit drinking countless times in the past. Nothing to it. After 30 days, I check the “not an alcoholic!” box and head on my merry way, to celebrate with a bottle of wine…there’s a huge difference, I’m learning, between “quitting drinking” and digging-deep-and-do-the-hard-ugly-absolutely-worth-it-work-to-figure-out-why-I-drink-in-the-first-place, and spoiler alert: it goes back to childhood. Always does, doesn’t it. God, who wants to go back there? No one, that’s who, but another spoiler alert: it’s where real healing begins. I’m not gonna lie—I adore a good, hoppy IPA any time of the year, a robust red in the fall, a refreshing gin and tonic in the summer, it makes this introvert feel more at ease in an extrovert-intense world. But, I’m also not gonna lie—alcohol was an insidious intruder in my life, seeping in and slowly stealing my joy. Sure, drinking took a spike when Bob got sick, but out of the gate, it’s been a dysfunctional thing in my life. It’s the ultimate anesthetic—yes, it does a bang-up job of blurring sharp edges, dulling the sting of great loss and other life hardships, but it also cuts my creativity off at the knees, it disconnects me from others, except on a most unsatisfying, superficial level, most importantly, from myself. It numbs all the feels, not just the hard, but all the really good stuff, too, to the point where not much else exists in a body except dread and anxiety and looping thoughts of doom and failure. Do that long enough and you’ll begin to feel like you’re dying from the inside out…it’s funny, how few people even catch on…But, here’s an interesting discovery—I can do most every single thing I used to do when I drank, WITHOUT DRINKING. Most things, even better….WHO EVER EVEN KNEW??!!
How does it happen, that alcohol becomes so deeply engrained into every facet of our lives, we get to a point that we’re convinced we cannot do a thing without it? It’s hard to resist slipping in a “Don’t get me wrong—I wasn’t THAT bad!” disclaimer (the fine line between “not that bad” and “that bad” is often a crisis, say a pandemic, or plain and simple dumb luck—DUI, or…point is, it doesn’t have to take a tragedy, quantity or degrees of “that bad” don’t matter, there’s an insidious danger to that mindset, I speak from experience—you will do nothing for far longer than necessary, at your heart’s expense); at the same time, it’s horrifyingly nauseating, to reveal myself as someone who was not a superstar-caregiver-advocate but someone who was losing her shit behind the keyboard while her husband was dying (it never occurred to me until just recently, that I could be both—a deeply loving, competent caregiver and a brokenhearted, traumatized wife—such contradictions/truths can equally exist in the same body at the same time, we are divinely complex creatures like that)…who, even alcohol free, is as freaked out as the rest of the world is right now in a pandemic, maybe even more so, because I’m not resorting to my usual emotion-numbing strategy… I’m curious to know what it’s like to take on a crisis or hell, just day to day life, head on, with real, not liquid, courage. Do I even have it? Can I even do it?
The fact that I haven’t gone more than 90 days without alcohol for as long as I’ve been drinking, is a sobering thought, to use the AF world’s most over-used pun…I want to see with my own clear eyes and fog-free mind, how this shit show’s gonna go down. We’re living in terrifying, severely disconnected, maybe end-of-world times, and I can use all the help I can get, especially now that my usual reserves aren’t available…). I’m more alone than I’ve ever been in my life, and I know too well where isolation leads me when left unchecked…”
A whole fucking year ago, I wrote all that…which is NOT to say I’ve handled the past year like a boss because I’m not drinking. I often think I should be doing more, accomplishing more, embracing more, NAILING this pandemic, now that I’m of unadulterated mind…I still hate most things about it. I hate masks, I hate distancing, for someone who’s a self-proclaimed not-a-hugger, I miss hugging most of all. I still overall despise teaching restorative movement and Pilates online—I did not ever plan on teaching online (though a curious, unexpected side effect is that the clients I am working with are progressing at a rate like I’ve never seen in a studio setting. I am convinced that it’s because they cannot rely on me to “do” their work for them; the weird environment has made me a better teacher because I have to be more creative with modifications and progressions, more observant, among other reasons.)
I have to remind myself that feeling all the feels is insanely intense, even day-to-day life without a crisis layered heavily on top, and that is life. It’s hard, period. Makes it glaringly apparent why I’d drink in crisis in the first place. Intense emotions can be immobilizing, even the good ones. As a culture, we’re not particularly adept at handling them. Our first inclination is to somehow try to alter them—either enhance or subdue—so we don’t have to deal head-on (spoiler alert: they’ll still be there, patiently awaiting our attention…). There are as many ways to numb as there are stars in the sky. Alcohol is just one of endless coping strategies. Which also means, there are as many ways to begin returning to our precious selves as there are stars. Begin with the closest, simplest act: breathe. Then, take it to the woods, and give those trees a big hug. xo.
This boy, that dog, our afternoons together…kind of an on-again, off-again thing, for ten years or so. Makes my throat tighten, to see all that white on Rocco’s face, how tall that boy is now, an impressive thatch of chestnut brown hair under that hat, too. Hard evidence of how much time lives between these photos, feels both like a flash and someone else’s long-ago life I’m remembering.
Nearly ten years ago, when Jill returned to teaching after Otto was born, shortly after Bob died, I watched Otto a few days a week for Jill and Jade. I sometimes wonder, if they knew how precarious my entire being was then (or, how precarious my neighborhood was, for that matter—like, that one afternoon when Otto and I were having lunch, and I watched a St. Paul police car swoop in and slam to a stop outside my front windows, followed by another, and another, and another, and another, until my street was dammed up with squad cars and a swarm of bodies with SWAT emblazoned on their backs poured out the cars, down my boulevard, pooling around an abandoned house a few doors down), they might have thought twice about leaving their baby with me.
But, every time that sweet little face showed up at my door, my deep sorrow eased back just a bit, to make room for him. I didn’t stop thinking about Bob while Otto was there, not for a second, but when Otto was with me, Bob wasn’t the only thing I thought of. For a while, my head got a little break from its incessant looping, and my heart stepped in to help out a bit. Thing about grief is, you’d give anything for that to happen more than it does those early days, weeks, months, hell, even years following such a great loss, but there’s not a whole lot you can do to speed up the process, or get out of it. That’s not to say I didn’t try, lord almighty did I try, short of literally molting out of my own skin, I tried so so hard to escape dying-on-the-inside. That little boy, for a long time, was my only reprieve.
Ten years ago, Rocco took a liking to that little boy who’d come to visit twice a week, and I’m sure it’s in part because there were traces of yogurt or mashed potatoes on his face. Otto would just sit there and let Rocco bathe him with his tongue. It became a constant battle, every time I’d turn my back, Rocco would sneak in for a lick or 28; I’d separate the two, then go to the kitchen for a snack and come back to find Rocco snacking on Otto’s face again. I like to take credit for Otto’s spectacular immune system.
Ten years later, same cast of characters, but this time, instead of a myopic, singular tragedy, the whole wide world is sharing a precarious state, global crises piled on in thick, dense layers, impressing deep sorrow into each our beings, so much gone in the past year, it’ll take years to tally up the losses, if it’s even possible…I’ve started hanging with Otto once a week, so Jill can get Amelia to tennis lessons in the cities (which is why I never excelled at sports, just for the record—not because I wasn’t any good at them, I just didn’t need or want the hassle that goes along with supersportsstardom, okay?).
We had a busy night last night, Otto, Rocco and me. We walked a big bag of organics waste down to the compost drop-off site, stomping through puddles and throwing snowballs along the way, I was feeling kinda lazy and offered to get takeout from anywhere he wanted for dinner, but Otto was unimpressed with the choices I tossed out; when I suggested I make a roast with veggies, his eyes lit up as he exclaimed, “That’s my favorite!” So roast it was…I made dinner while he read a book—he forgot his at home and most of my books are still packed away, but I handed him a slim volume of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe, by Rebecca Elson, an astronomer and poet (I can’t imagine a more perfect coupling of passions than that), and asked him to read a few poems.
“‘What If There Were No Moon’ Jenny?” he said to me, then began reading: There would be no months A still sea No spring tides No bright nights Occultations of the stars No face No moon songs Terror of eclipse No place to stand And watch the Earth rise.
I think of how many nights I’ve kept the moon in close company this long year of losses, how I’ve come to know her waxing and waning shapes, native names to her fullness at different times of the year (we’re approaching the Full Snow Moon, or Full Hunger Moon, on the 27th), how she gives form to night branches, and glows in my living room window in the evening and greets me in the early morning hour through my kitchen window on the other side of the house), how sad it would be if there wasn’t a moon, we both agreed. And, already we were able to cross off two squares on his Reading Bingo card without even trying: read a poem, and read something someone has recommended to you.
I looked at the card to see what else we could x off. “Write a poem,” I read. “Hey, have you ever written a poem, Otz?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I don’t even know how to do that.” I said, “what if you used the poem you just read as a guide? What was it about again?” Right away, he said, “What if there wasn’t a moon?”
So, we decided to contemplate what would it be like if there wasn’t a sun. I asked, what would happen, do you think? Could you write five lines about it? He got right to work as I finished making dinner and by the time I had our plates served up, he presented me a poem that was even longer than 5 lines that I’d asked for. “What If There Wasn’t a Sun?” he asked, answering his own question: Oh, if the sun was gone, No solar energy no sunlight no daylight no bright ol’ sun No more asking if it’s light or dark out oh what a shame it would be if the sun was gone.
“It’s not very good,” he said. “Are you kidding me?” I said, “That’s a wonderful first poem, Otz—it makes me really sad. A good poem makes people feel deep feelings, Gramma Kathy would be so proud of your poem!”
We then made a list of 10 homophones (hair, hare), another list of 10 alliterative sentences, like “Mom mowed the meadow on Monday!” and x’ed off two more Bingo squares, made a few passes at trying to tie his shoes, an exercise in torture for him, an exercise in patience for me. I’ve decided there’s no teaching how to tie shoes—I swear, it happens like magic for every one of us, because I was even confusing the hell out of myself trying to break it down for him. I thought he was going to break down in tears, so I shared with him one of my favorite sayings, “Hey, bud, in order to be great at something, you have to start out sucking,” and I asked him what is something he’s really good at, “I’m really good at math,” he said, so I said, “You weren’t always really good at math, were you ?” (Actually he’s been a math freak, since practically his first day out of the womb, but I hoped he wouldn’t remember this detail.) “I mean, when you were in preschool, you didn’t know how to do math like you do now, right?” “No, I probably thought 3 x 10 was something like 845, that’s how bad I probably sucked!“ he said laughing. “But then at some point, it just clicked, right? And you probably don’t even know when or how it happened, but now it’s so easy for you, and you just keep on doing harder and harder math! That’s what’ll happen with tying your shoes,” I said, “one day, all the pieces will fall into place and you’ll be so surprised when it does and you won’t be able to explain how or when it why or maybe even when it happened, but it will…” It didn’t happen last night, the shoe tying; instead, he fell back onto my bed, which was Rocco’s invitation to jump up and resume their decades-long lick-fest.
This boy, that dog, our afternoon together…as I cleaned up after dinner and Otto went to call his dad, I though about those long sad days ten years ago, how every day, I thought I sucked so terribly at this grief thing, I was never going to get better, I was always going to be stuck, like a fly in amber, and wouldn’t you know it. Here we are 10 years later, a flash and lifetime later, smack dab in the middle of an epic crisis, the whole world so precarious, we’re barely holding our shit together, but I feel a little better prepared, this crisis-go-round, like at some point the things I did ten years ago, overandoverandover again, began to gel, stick, hold me together, and there’s no way I could break it down and tell you the recipe…while I would not say I’m nailing this pandemic, I will say that I think Brene Brown nailed it when she advises to “embrace the suck.” After a 10 year residency in sucking big time, I can honestly say embracing is a far better strategy than railing against it, both are insanely difficult, but for vastly different reasons. xo.
“If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, it would be enough.”
Recently (as in yesterday), I came upon these words from mystic Meister Eckhart, imbedded in an interview with the late holyman/poet/theologian, John O’Donohue, and I’ve not stopped thinking about them since, maybe because Eckhart’s words come on the heel of another recent (also yesterday) re-discovery of words—a copy of a letter I’d sent to a neighbor, years ago, when Bob was in hospice, which set flight a barrage of forgotten memories and emotions, which got me thinking about all the ways I’ve keep so many people alive in my life, for better or worse—mainly by preserving their words. Many have entered my life using written words in infinite, expressive, artistic, memorable, life-altering ways—they may not even realize they’re doing it—that become holy imprints of their souls on mine. Of course, there are those whose words give a secret away, that they are utterly void of anything resembling a soul, but those words are still valuable. I keep them for evidence, should the need arise—as in the case of an unscrupulous landlord—or perhaps as a writing prompt for an essay or, who knows how they’ll show up again in my life.
Since Bob died (it’ll be ten years in May, which launched a whole new series of thoughts—maybe that’s the source of the thick sludge that’s settled in-between my cells of late, along with the weather—which is on an upswing!—and pandemic fatigue), I’ve been engaging in a decade’s long process of purging and simplifying, paring things down to make my way back to the essentials. Marie Kondo would likely still tsk-tsk all the things I hold onto, but in my defense, most of my hoarding is now in the form of words—books, old letters, journals, emails, text messages, scraps of notes—if you’ve ever written to me in any way, shape for form, it’s likely I still have your words and your soul imprinted on me. Thank you for your gift of words, a lasting presence in my life.
In true Jen form, I started wandering down a path following the word “prayer,” to see where it would take me…if I am able to make even a shimmer of sense out of the thoughts that I have wound around, that have wound around me, over the past 24 hours or so, it will be a miracle (another strange, highly misused and abused word that I’ll have to leave for another wandering time), thank you for indulging me.
When my husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, for the second time in his life (he was a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, as a young boy in the late 70s), I began a blog, simply as a means to keep family and friends in the loop about what was happening. In a very short time, Bob went from being the most annoyingly healthiest person I knew, to the sickest I will probably ever, so intimately, know. It was like he suddenly disappeared from people’s lives—he wasn’t able to work, or attend family gatherings or outings with friends. He could barely sit upright or stand or walk, consumed by acute, chronic pain that never fully abated in spite of ungodly amount of opioids, the result of a massive bone tumor that had invaded his body, taking up residence on his sacrum. For about a year and a half, I wrote like a motherfucker, to quote the venerable Cheryl Strayed, on my blog, a living, breathing, raging, sobbing, bartering, begging, pondering, scathing, tender meandering real-time testament to a horrific time of our life together. I know now, that if I hadn’t had that outlet, I may have very well imploded. Thank you, Blogspot, for giving me a release valve to for the toxic things that may have otherwise pressurized me to death.
My blog wasn’t even a real blog—I had no intention of sharing or promoting our suddenly myopic world with the whole wide world, only with family, close friends, colleagues (who ended up sharing it with more people than I will ever know, since I didn’t set it up to track such statistics. I’d occasionally receive random messages from strangers around the country, which was both odd and comforting). Thank you, for tying me to others at a time when our world was severely disconnected…
When Bob’s secondary cancer appeared, I was simply going to resurrect the Caring Bridge site that I’d created for him a few years prior, when he had his first massive heart attack—the hazing, I called it, into the fucked-up world of cancer survivorship, another meandering story for another time—see how complicated this is, why it takes me so long to write this, why nothing ever gets done around this joint? Everything is related, it’s all connected, sometimes chasing threads is far more compelling than laundry, sometimes it’s the other way around, when revisiting these memories becomes too much for my heart to hold… but Bob was a private man and felt Caring Bridge was too public; that, and he said I swore too much, I’d be kicked off Caring Bridge for sure this time. So, what started out as our own personal take on Caring Bridge became a dumping ground for me, to empty the deep pockets of my head, heart and soul onto the page and sort through the mess that accumulated beyond capacity every day…most people who read the blog were nothing short of breathtaking in their support, reverence and respect for what we were going through; to them, I am so grateful. Our world had become so painfully tight, we were essentially living at the U of MN for nearly two years, battling an onslaught of crises without reprieve; the internet became a lifeline to almost everyone I knew and loved (which is why I begrudgingly stayed on facebook, when up till that point, truth be told, I think I had deleted my account on at least 3 separate occasions, I was so repelled by it; still am most days today, more truth). Thank you, emails, text messages, cards, even the godforsaken wasteland of Facebook, for keeping me connected to my loved ones, in such a brutally disconnected time.
Bob was in hospice for nearly 5 months, which is a damned long time in hospice years (did you know that you can “graduate” from hospice, which doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve defeated death; it mainly means you’ve overstayed your welcome. You get booted out if you don’t wind up dying within the predetermined time set forth by insurance companies, which is usually about 6 months. True fact. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, everything always is, but that’s the basic gist and wasn’t that fun little side trip…welcome to my brain, not even on drugs).
Hospice itself is a trip, especially if it’s one you’re ill-prepared to take, not when your husband’s doctors have tossed out words such as “battle!” and “curative” and “survive!” like candy at the Fight Cancer! parade, that you madly scramble for, hoard and hold tight to, because you’re in it o win it, this fucked-up game, you are strapped in for the long haul. When you watch as your husband is brutalized by not just cancer but barbaric curative treatments prescribed by the doctors you though were on your side, when you witness him survive the unsurvivable, time and again, you may be tricked into thinking he’s immortal—there’s no other option but to survive!, which makes suddenly shifting gears, from “cancer, you picked the wrong bitch!” to “whoah, wait a minute—after surviving all that, he’s still going to die?” a monumental effort, if you’re even able to. I sure as shit couldn’t do it.
Every day in hospice, for nearly five months, I’d bolt awake, gasping for air (did I ever sleep? I often wonder) with the thought, “Is this the day he’s going to die?” quickly followed by, “how will it happen?” and I’d start imagining all the ways it could play out, and those thought would stick to me, like a jagged shadow all day…there’s a price to pay, operating with a constant, electrifying undercurrent of terror running through your veins, there is no doubt.
Yet, there was also a strange grace to hospice; typically, anything done in hospice is purely palliative in nature, meant to provide comfort and quality of life, not quantity, which if you think about that long enough, and I did, you may become highly suspect of the fight cancer ruse and become consumed by guilt that you went whole hog into the game, at his expense, not realizing you’d thrown yourself into the fire, too.
When Bob’s oncologist finally called a cease-fire on the cancer treatments and sent him home to die, Bob’s 24/7 critical state quickly leveled out, exhibiting false evidence of recovery: his appetite returned, he gained weight (much of which was ungodly amounts of fluid dammed up in his body, one of many consequences of the inhumane surgery he was subjected to), his hair filled in so thick and curly, color stained his cheeks again. But, I’d read the hospice manual thoroughly, repeatedly—vigilance was now my default setting—and unwittingly, became a soothsayer of death. I could detect subtle, barely perceptible changes that told me he was not getting better, as his parents desperately wanted to believe, but in fact, was truly, slowly dying, right next to me. There’s a particular heaviness that comes with acquiring such a skill set, that becomes more a liability than a benefit, if not well-managed, though I don’t know how one could truly effectively manage witnessing watching your best friend die. The blog was the only way I had to diffuse the pressure that continually built up inside of me in this strange state, the only way I could dispel this strange knowledge I held.
A few weeks before Bob died—signs were becoming more pronounced, the inevitable was unmistakably close—I’d posted a long, rambling rant/diatribe/lament on the blog (that today, I’d unequivocally call a form of prayer), apologizing for not updating as frequently as I had been… we had moved into a space that felt so sacred and precious, I was fiercely protective of it and wanted nothing or no one to penetrate it or bastardize it in any way…being in hospice is an unfathomably disorienting space—even breathing takes on a new quality. We were here because my husband was actively dying, there was nothing anyone could say to me that would help or make me feel better; more than likely, it would only gravely offend. Nothing personal, it’s just where we were at; I couldn’t bear platitudes, well-wishes, or stories about someone’s 88 year old grandma whose hospice experience was so beautiful, I didn’t have the bandwidth for that, anymore.
April 11, 2011….I know I’ve been so sporadic in updating the blog in the past months and I apologize for that, after all, the whole intention of this blog, which goes back to ancient times, a year and a half ago, was to have a “go to place” to keep family and friends up to date and informed on Bob’s situation. But man, on this leg of the journey, it’s sofa king hard.
But, when it rains, it pours . . . I’m warning you, this blog entry might be a deluge of diarrhea of the keyboard, a whole lotta venting, too much “sharing,” a desperate act to get some shit out before I implode. Then again, maybe I’ll reel it all in, hit “delete” as I have too many times lately, and keep it to the bare minimum, because it’s a helluva lot easier, less confusing, less rambling, less everything.
Since Bob came home from the U in December, our whole perspective, our entire way of being has shifted, a complete 180 or something more complex, which makes it difficult to regularly post. Hospice has added a surreal dimension that I still can’t embrace, I just don’t get, probably never will. There’s nothing beautiful, precious or infinitely special about caring for my beloved 44 year old husband in hospice…he’s been dragged through hell repeatedly, fought so fucking hard, so much of his life left undone, each and every day of mine is spent watching him get through each and every day, with humbling, courageous strength, in spite of excruciating, debilitating pain and endless other issues . . .he never complains, that’s all I do is complain, it seems . . .to have gone through all he did, only to be told, this is how it ends? I have no words to describe what this feels like, but I feel like I need to try, for endless reasons.
This is the hardest job I’ve ever done, but it’s the best job I’ve ever had, a job I would never give up. Ever, ever, ever. His hospice nurse keeps telling me CNA’s can come out and help Bob with showers, meals, whatever I need, to give me a break, give me “respite” from my duties. I look at her like she’s nuts. Seriously. Would a CNA know how to give Bob a shower the way I know he likes it (or allow Rocco in on the fun and make the bathroom a sloppy wet mess that I’m always ecstatic to clean up because I so rarely get to hear him laugh anymore)? Would a CNA know how to change his surgery dressing and give him a relaxing little back massage afterward, like I do every time? Would a CNA kiss his feet every time they’d wrap his legs or put his compression stockings on, or apologize profusely and cry even, for causing any additional pain while wrapping his leg or wrestling to get the stockings on? Certainly a CNA wouldn’t climb into bed with him and wrap around him as tightly but gently as possible, to feel his breath, his heartbeat under her hand, the only thing that calms my own breathing these days? Would a CNA lie awake next to him, waiting for his sleep-sticky voice to call out to her, to help him to the bathroom? I think not. Thanks, but no thanks. It’s almost insulting to even suggest it—I mean, who will come in and give Bob a respite from the shit he deals with all day, every day? No one, that’s who. To suggest giving me a break is offensive beyond words.
It’s so hard, to try to define, to write about, put into words the simple, yet insanely complicated world we’re living in these days. Simple, in our daily activities, insanely complicated, the emotions entwined around those same activities. . . endless waves pummel us relentlessly, throughout the day, the multifarious nature of those waves . . . sticky, messy, intricate tangle of thoughts and actions and emotions we wade through, all day, every day . . . I am able to speak only selfishly, in a self-centered way, about myself and what I’m thinking and feeling; I would never be so bold or presumptuous, so arrogant, to speak for Bob; I so wish he could jump on and take over for a while, to speak for himself, but unfortunately, all you got is me.
I try to share what life is like here at Wrenwood, but wind up exasperated in my attempts and usually end up deleting everything I spewed forth and simply resort to reporting the daily mundane, sanitizing, sugar-coating with a cheerleader’s touch, which is a helluva lot easier than trying to delve into the deeper issues. . . but even reporting the mundane is misleading, at best. For instance, to say Bob’s having a “good” day is an insult to all he deals with on a constant basis, without reprieve. Everyone gets so excited to read that, but the reality is, he has mostly shockingly shitty days; once in a while, he has a day where the shit is infinitesimally less shitty for an infinitesimally shorter time; the bizarre, elusive alchemy of pain management might nudge in his favor for a blessed, short time—barely a blip on the screen—to see him savor that tiniest crumb of reprieve is excruciating, because I know it will not stay, it manages to slip away again, quickly. He never complains, which grips my heart deeply; all I can do is simply observe, try to translate as best I can, sanitize and make what I witness palatable for the masses.
Though things have stabilized, every day is so hard for Bob, every single day has been an exercise in torture, for a year and a half, and maybe I haven’t been as forthright about that as I should have been, articulating this truth. . . maybe because this has become our life for the past 18 months, it has become “normal” and “acceptable” to us, I’ve assumed those who read the blog do so hanging onto my every word, every detail, are adept at reading between the lines, that somehow, even if you’ve never been through something like this, my words make you instantly, wholly understand. I realize there’s no way I can do that, with my words. It didn’t occur to me to be even more blatantly, brutally honest and detailed about all Bob has to face, each and every day, because I think my heart knows the impossibility of that. I’m always taken aback when people act surprised or put out, when I say Bob’s not up for a visit or can’t return phone calls or e-mails, I feel deeply responsible for not being more clear in how fucking sick he really is.
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent endless hours recently, perusing Bob’s vast collection of photos in the past several weeks, which have been a bittersweet journey, mixed with harsh reminders, evidence of how achingly vibrant, strong and full of life Bob was just a mere eternity— a year and a half ago . . . maybe it’s that a few e-mails and phone calls I’ve recently received from friends and family, brought to my attention that I haven’t been clear enough in relaying just how sick Bob really is, that there is so much he simply cannot, will not ever be able to do, any more; it doesn’t matter how much you’d like something to happen when it simply can’t be done. . . maybe it was that so many people saw Bob at the benefit and caught him on a very rare good day (I believe in my heart, it was your energy that buoyed him that day—his spirit knew it would be the last time he would see most of you—and that knowledge, not a magical combination of opioids or anything else, is what sustained him that day), you saw him looking so good, so engaging, so gregarious, that you were mislead into believing he’s doing better than he really is. I’m not trying to be negative or a downer, I’m being realistic, which is not my usual state; anyone who knows me knows I tend toward dreamy more than reality. Maybe it’s all the thinking I do on the long walks with the dogs that gets things stirred up and boils to the surface, and needs an outlet, lest it kills me. . .
To be going through Bob’s vast photo collection lately as I have, is dredging up a lifetime long gone, a renewal of reminders of a beautiful life that has been so cruelly, violently, endlessly altered, 18 months and counting . . . he told me that seeing his photos is like a journal to him—all his senses light up, he can feel the ground as he lay in he grass taking that sunset phto, what the air was like on his face when that deer stopped in front of him, how the sun felt on his skin when shooting pasque flowers…to watch someone I love suffer so intensely, without a day’s reprieve, is some days, more than I can bear. I push past my own feelings of horror, fear and immense sadness—get over myself—and try to help Bob, be here for him, as best I can. I find myself stopping mid-sentence when I start to complain about a backache or waking up with a stiff neck, or a mild sore throat, because the instant the words leave my mouth, I realize who I’m talking to, and that’s enough for me to shut my f’n pie hole. . .
Some friends invited us on a camping trip at the end of April. It was so thoughtful to include us in their world—Bob’s old world of camping, hiking, kayaking—for the weekend, taking great care to tell me how they would accommodate for Bob, that the campsite is wheelchair accessible . . . another friend just asked us when we were going to visit them in Tennessee. Remember, if you will, so many months ago, when we were all talking about renting a Greyhound bus and heading down to Memphis for some real BBQ, once all this shit was done and behind us . . . “what would it take to get you guys down here?” our Tennessee friend asked me. The weight of such questions bear down so heavy, how can I even begin to answer them?
Pain is a constant, relentless bastard of a companion, always just around the corner, if not bearing down his back. The drugs he has to take to get relief turn him into a drooling zombie, picking invisible flies from the air…mobility is difficult for Bob—using a walker around the house is the only way he can get around, even then, it’s painstakingly slow, he can only travel a few feet with a walker, not much farther, he’s so weak; if he’s just taken his pain meds, I have to be extra vigilant that he doesn’t try to get up without me at his side . . . he needs my assistance with all his personal cares—showering, bathroom duties, getting dressed, in and out of bed. . . he wears a diaper, I have to cath him so he can pee, he can’t just get up and go to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich should the mood strikes (which is not much, these days). The best he can do, at rare times, is get up and slowly shuffle to the kitchen to fish out a popsicle from the freezer, that’s the extent of his independence these days. It’s so hard to write these words that feels so untrue about a man who, not that long ago, yet at the same time was he ever? so robust, so independent. But they are true, today.
He has an open, gaping gruesome wound on his back, a huge, ugly tumor protrudes from it. I see it every day, twice a day, when we do his dressing changes and wound care . . I’ve been watching the tumor changing, growing since his Bethesda days. . . both lower limbs are edemic, swollen to over twice their normal size with fluid, like thick, sodden sandbags that must add a good 25-30 extra pounds of weight to Bob’s normally feather-weight frame. . . heavy and cumbersome, it takes all of my strength to lift his legs onto the bed, or for him to heave them up the three steps to the bedroom, or down to the living room. I get so mad when he tries to get in or out of bed on his own, which he does, often . . . stubborn Polack (I‘m so bad at stereotyping, I don’t even know if Polacks are stubborn, just sounds like they would be. Maybe we’ve been watching too many All in the Family reruns . . .I fucking hate TV, btw, a mocking reminder of what our life has been reduced to)
All this and more, has been our “norm” for four months . . . almost daily, I vacillate between bartering with God or whomever is responsible for our being, that I would live like this forever, taking care of Bob like this, doing all this and more, if only he wouldn’t be taken from me. . . then, when I see how hard everything is for him, how much pain he’s in, even with copious amounts of opiates, how little quality of life he has, I know my pathetic plea is so selfish. . . last night, Bob said to me, once again, “I can’t do this much longer, Jen, it’s too hard, everything hurts too much…”
So, we’ve sold four sets of cards through our Etsy shop already, our first week in business! How cool is that?!? An abrupt change in topic, it seems, but there is a connection, if you choose to continue to follow me . . . so, my initial intention was this very lofty aspiration to use the proceeds of our store to help fund efforts to educate the public as well as the medical community about the late effects of childhood cancer treatments. . . that was my intention several months ago, when we first started kicking this idea around. . . as time has gone on and as I’ve thought long and hard about that commendable ideal, our experience (which includes countless encounters and conversations with doctors upon doctors along the way) along this journey in life has convinced me that the “war on cancer” is a farce. . . preventive medicine is a joke . . . cancer is too profitable for anyone/any institution in the medical community to really be serious about finding a “cure. . .”
We’ve been told, by several doctors on this long, living nightmare, that treatments for Hodgkin’s back in 1970 (when Bob was treated for his first cancer) haven’t changed much today. Which means that the long-term effects that Bob is dealing with now are a stark, very real possibility for newly diagnosed Hodgkin’s patients. We met with the long term follow-up clinic at the U several weeks ago, and were told by their “cancer survivor” specialty doctors, the same thing. . . I attended a “Cancer Survivorship” conference at the U last spring, with Penny and my mom, and sat in near horror, listening to doctors and researchers and scientists tell the audience that, when long term followup studies were started on cancer survivors, back in the 70s, they started seeing adverse effects of cancer treatments almost immediately; not years later, but a few short years after treatment. . .
Look up Hodgkin’s survivors on the internet. . . you’ll find endless chat rooms, message boards, websites, personal blogs devoted to discussing the late-effects survivors are dealing with. Not random anomalies. No, these are countless, endless, common stories. . . cure cancer, my ass.
Last year, Bob’s insurance company ponied up over two million dollars in payments to the U for his cancer “treatments;” that’s about the point I stopped keeping track, I was so horrified—everyone’s in on the this money-making scheme. Chemo, endless hospital stays, endless ER trips, literally months spent in hospital rooms at the U, enduring a horrific, disfiguring, debilitating 13-hour “curative” surgery. A “curative” surgery that resulted in horrifically disfiguring and disabling my husband, and still, the cancer returned. I watched the tumor grow, as Bob “rehabbed” at Bethesda, just a few short weeks after the “curative” surgery—after we were told that all margins of removed bone had tested “cancer free.” Fuck cancer. Fuck treatments, fuck the entire medical community and their for-profit, anti-preventive focus. Fuck, fuck, fuck…
So where does that leave us? Where does that put my lofty aspirations of sharing Bob’s photography with the world and saving it, in the process? I’m thinking I need to change my focus, bring it closer to home, closer to my heart, to our experience, to our world, to honor all of you who have been so near and dear (even if you haven’t been able to physically be near us) . . . one of the things that I’ve been beyond grateful for, in the midst of this neverending nightmare, is that, when the time came to be, I was able to quit my job to become Bob’s full-time caretaker. For better or worse, personified in me. . . we were able to do it for a long time on our own scrimping and savings, but there came a time when the shit hit the fan, when push came to shove, that we realized this battle was wasn’t going to end when I demanded it should end—that’s when our friends, family, strangers stretched out the net and caught us, carried us . . . you are still carrying us, and the enormity of that thought catches my breath, every time…how does a person express gratitude for such an act…thank you seems horribly inadequate, but it’s all I have…
So, the latest incarnation of my lofty aspiration to try to make some sense, some purpose, some meaning behind this Krazy Karival Ryde is to maybe use the proceeds of the photography sales to start a caregiver’s fund. . . to help a family in need . . . to help others organize a kick-ass benefit event, to provide financial guidance, budget advice . . . or, fuck it all to hell . . maybe we’ll take the benefit money and head to a remote island in the Pacific . . .fuck, I’m so sorry, everyone, this is so hard, everything hurts too much…
As I mentioned, the overwhelming majority of those who followed my blog were ardent, passionate supporters, often left speechless when they’d read all that Bob was going through. Still, simply knowing that people were reading my words, and holding us in their hearts brought more comfort than I could have ever imagined possible. Occasionally, however, someone, usually someone who didn’t know me well, would read my blog and feel compelled to set me and my thoughts on the straight and narrow, usually in a private oh-so-Minnesotan passive aggressive message. I’m having a hard time coming up with thanks for those people, I’m gonna need a little more time…
So, ten pages later, back to the email I re-encountered yesterday, while scrounging around my old desktop computer for another document…finding it sent me down another rabbit hole, to see if I still had the original letter from the neighbor, who sparked my response in the first place…remember, I’m a hoarder of words, anything you’ve written to me say to me can and will be used against you…I found it, in a box in the basement. The letter was from a neighbor, who had been following my blog: (dated the same day as my blog entry, she wasted no time in telling me what’s what):
April 11, 2011:
Dear Bob & Jen,
Jen from reading your blog, I suspect you will probably be angry at what I have to say, but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t say it.
I just want to share with you that God, the creator of heaven and earth, loves you. He not only made heaven and earth and all that is in it, but He created you and that is why he loves you. He showed this great love for each of us by coming to earth in the form of Jesus Chris, suffering a horrible death on the cross and shedding his blood to cover our sins. He offers us eternal life if we believe in Him. All we have to do is tell Him we believe He died for our sins, ask Him to forgive us our sins and accept His gift of forgiveness and eternal life in heaven.
If down the road you want more information or want to talk about it, please call me.
I hope you accept this in the same way it is offered, with love.
This letter also came with a check—fifty, maybe hundred bucks. Generosity with strings.
My response to Carol (name has been changed to protect the guilty):
Please take your money and go buy yourself a clue. Your words were not meant “in love,” they are a mean-spirited, insensitive, arrogant and self-righteous attempt (thinly disguised behind your “Christian” veil), to try and put me in my place, to tell me how to think, feel and act in the heart of a horrific life event.
It was not only out of line and completely uncalled for, but shows a blatant disregard and disrespect for what Bob and I have gone through and continue to go through.
If the only thing you have gleaned from blog and from Bob’s experience of the past 18 months is my anger, and that it’s your “job” to save us, then you have missed the point entirely. My advice to you is to quite reading it, because it’s clear you will never get it.
I took my letter and her check, stuffed them into an envelope, marched down our country road to her house about 1/2 mile away, and shoved it in her mailbox. I went back home to care for my husband, who died three weeks later. What neither Carol nor even I could see at the time, was that every word of my blog, in its deeply messy, rambling, angry, loving, heartbroken essence, was indeed, a prayer, and it was enough.
Today marks my 400 days w/o alcohol. In the grand scheme of all that has happened in 2020, that’s spilling over into 2021, this feels so small and insignificant. What’s kind of funny-not-funny is that when I joined the live version of Annie Grace’s Alcohol Experiment in January of 2020, that was exactly my #1 reason: to make alcohol small and insignificant in my life. The reverberating energy of each of the 2000+ people who joined me in the experiment a year and some odd days ago, is permanently infused into every one of my trillions of cells, and frankly, I think that’s a pretty BFD.
I can say with full confidence that if you had asked me on January 31, 2020 if I could make it a year w/o booze, I would have given a definite, hearty, noncommittal, “mmmmm—did you say a WHOLE YEAR??!! Like, 365 days? In a row?! Lemme think about that…” If you would have had the magical foresight to also tell me that we’d be thrust ass-over-teakettle into a devastating pandemic wrapped around a righteous revolution against racism that began in my beloved Minneapolis after the brutal murder of George Floyd, set aflame by a domestic terrorist attack on our nation’s capitol, and that along the way, I’d lose both sources of income which would force me into unemployment limbo for several months, scrambling to cobble together an online existence of sorts, and the disintegration of a five-year relationship, I would have said, “Nope, not this year, I’m good, thanks!” and instead, swung by the liquor store to pick up my usual coping strategies in crisis and got the hell out of here.
I did not plan to be AF for a year, certainly not in a year of epic global crises endless layers deep—that’s when I do my best drinking, in crisis. 30 days was the best I could commit to a year ago January, it’s the best I can commit to today. But, it turns out, it’s enough. I’m not a planner—anything more than that sends me into an anxiety tailspin, so in a strange way, this has worked out in my unplanner-self’s favor. Every month, I renegotiate with myself—another 30 days? Lemme think about it…because for me, it’s not just another 30 days without alcohol; it’s another 30 days of digging in a little deeper, and shit gets a little messier, dealing with whatever new thing that rises to the surface, old beliefs, old habits that need to be acknowledge, dismantled and reconfigured to a kinder, gentler, more expansive way of being, which reminds me of that time shortly after Bob died, when I disassembled our leaking freezer because I couldn’t find a repair person willing to take on the job, and all the freezer’s guts were spread out in a jumbled mess across the kitchen and I looked around in horror wondering WTlivingF did I just do here? I eventually, painstakingly put it back together—I fixed the leak, too!—with only one mystery screw leftover. But oh, how I digress.
Digging deeper is hard, but it isn’t always akin to punishment, sometimes it yields surprising gifts, like reconnecting with nature, hugging some trees (you should see the massive, powerful, gorgeous Medusa-as-cottonwoods protecting my still-new-to-me neighborhood! I can barely even stand how joyful I feel when I wrap my arms around their gigantic waists and I kiss their deeply wrinkled skin and I know that one of these days, someone in my neighborhood is going to report the weirdo kissing treehugger, which is why I tend to do it at night, under moonlight) sometimes it’s being more physical with my body (breathing is a thing I should think about? Or my shoulder blades? Some days, I have no clue what’s going on back there behind me, or inside of me, or beneath my feet, and those are the times, I’m learning, when I need to slow down, take notice and breathe, feel, inhabit…which is not just hard but sometimes downright excruciating for someone who’s internal switch is set to “run!”), sometimes it’s journaling like a mofo, you can see smoke billowing under my pen tip as it skips and skitters across the page. Sometimes it’s support groups. Other times reading a book about Medusa or carpenter ants, or signing up for an online seminar on systemic racism, or watching a menagerie of bellydancers shake their groove thang on Zoom or taking a walk in the woods with one of my sisters, or a neighbor who also happens to be my ex, to use profane, pedestrian vernacular that tastes bitter in my mouth, an insult to the five years we were together, but a more apt word doesn’t exist (trust me, I googled it) which means I might have to make one up, or a zoom session with a client that leads to a deep discussion about the pelvis, or feet or seeming harmless societal beliefs about bodies that have done more harm than anyone will probably ever know except those bodies to whom the damage has been done. This month, I am hoping to add one-to-one therapy, which I haven’t yet done, curiously (pandemic, is the short answer). Another 30 days, collecting data points on things I want to know—can I do all the things I used to do while drinking, but without drinking? Turns out, I can. Who knew it was even possible? Or how hard it can be, given the circumstances, or how strange it is, when you discover there are some things you really don’t like doing at all; alcohol just made them more tolerable.
So far, after every 30 days, I’ve said, “Yes, please. I want more,” so I keep going. Which is the most ridiculously simplified way to say that this past year has been simultaneously the easiest and the most tumultuous year of my life, pandemic and revolution and insurrection notwithstanding. I’ve collected enough data on both sides of the debate to confidently say that overusing alcohol in crisis sucks, and being alcohol free in crisis also sucks, but for profoundly different reasons, and it’s becoming more and more clear to me why I drank during crisis in the first place. There’s a sacred kind of grace and grief in confronting that truth—we only know what we know at the time, and we do the best we can until we know more, until we have more tools to help us.
Alcohol is a powerful anesthesia, that’s its literal job. It did a bang-up job numbing me not only from pain of various crises in the past 10 years or so of my life, but also from the day-to-day life, just as it is; it held me back from handling everyday life in more nourishing, mindful ways, but I didn’t even consider it as a hindrance, because I didn’t know any other way. And I’m also learning, at the same time, it also numbed me to the joys and wonder and contentment and humor and ease of life; it’s funny, what we’ll settle for as substitutes when we don’t know much better or simply different, it can really be…the “feeling all the feels” of life can be skin-crawlingly intensely sensory overload for some of us, though; layer in crisis and/or trauma on top, and sometimes life becomes too much to bear. Drinking is just one of endless ways to mitigate the intensity when nothing else is available; there is a strange grace in finding an even stranger truth: that the very thing that could possibly, eventually kill you, is the same thing that for a moment in time, is keeping you alive.
It wasn’t always like that for me; for years, drinking was fun! Mostly… it was normal! Mostly…meaning, it’d start out fun, like the first drink or two, and then quickly slide into not-so-fun. Not necessarily bad, just that instead of connecting, I’d suddenly feel disembodied, severed from not only the people I was with, but from something deeper in me. I mean, I’ve certainly had my share of fun while drinking, I never stood out as a “problem drinker” among friends, I’ve never been the one who has to get carried out from the bar or…but…was it really fun? Or normal? Or was I convincing telling myself that and playing along, because it’s the dominant belief? Just because we say something, does it make it true?
My “normal” drinking escalated into problem territory with my husband’s cancer and subsequent death in 2011, but my baseline “normal” has never been normal, or maybe it always has been, when stacked up against the rest of the world. Drinking, in my world, has been dysfunctional from the get-go—it’s a variation on the theme of running, which is another form of numbing—when dysfunctional is literally what everyone else is doing, it’s hard to see it as anything but normal. But I swear, my heart as always know this truth. As a teenager, it was “drink to get drunk!” because that’s what the adult drinkers in my life did and we kids couldn’t wait to get in on that brand of fun; in college, more of the same, only now it was legal. When I got married, my husband worked in the wine industry, I simply swapped college keggers and bar hopping for the more refined versions of “wine tastings,” microbrew festivals, whiskey flights, and now I had language and grown up culture to support ad at the same time camouflage my habit—red wine is healthy! Whisky makes this chick badass! Everything in moderation—even my doctor agrees! Wine with yoga! Beer after fun runs! Wine themed baby showers—bring wine to the new mom in the hospital, we gotta get her back on track with us again! Drink to celebrate, drink to mourn, drink on vacation, because work is stressful, because I got a promotion, because it’s Friday, because Hump Day…as prevalent as drinking was in my life then, it was always within the context of what other people were doing. Binge drinking is an acceptable norm in our culture, I did not stand out better or worse than anyone else in my life. Which means when I finally started questioning it, I ran into unexpected obstacles along the way, which was a big factor in me not doing anything sooner. External voices can easily drown out the quiet voice of our heart.
I never thought to drink alone, not even in college, not until my husband got sick. Overnight, our world turned into a living nightmare, I suddenly became full-time caregiver and health care advocate for my best friend, who used to be the healthiest, most take-charge person I knew, who fast became the sickest person I will likely, so intimately know, who would endure gruesome cancer treatments, the stuff of nightmares, that eventually killed him and nearly did me in, too. During his ordeal, colleagues sent us cases of wine, beer, spirits, well-meaning, of course, but Bob couldn’t drink, so I wryly joked that I was now drinking for two, the truth of that punchline breaks my heart today.
Drinking is normalized, expected, in the grieving world, in the widow world, as it is in mommy culture, as it is in the health and wellness world, as it is in writing circles. I watched with strange fascination this summer as a celebrated author got hammered on Twitter and the entire world cheered her on. I was simultaneously as entertained as anyone but at the same time, filled with a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), thinking “shit, now I’ve become reigning sanctimonious Queen of Dullsville,” a super-common phenomenon, FOMO, so strong a force, it has the power to dethrone even the best efforts.
None of this is to say that I didn’t accomplish much other than drink a lot in the wake of Bob’s death, or that I drank only to drown sorrows, or that I was falling down drunk all the time. There’s tremendous mythology around alcohol and addiction that I feel keeps a lot of people stuck and prevents people from doing anything sooner, it sure as hell did me. If you’re not of the epic variety, then you’re not “that bad,” you’re fine, you’re like everyone else, there’s no problem here folks, move along please. There is no hard line to gauge alcohol addiction, no confirming blood test, no MRI or CT scan. What if “not that bad” is, for a lot of people, actually pretty bad? I’m astounded at all I did in the wake of Bob’s death, in spite of drinking far more than I ever have at any point in my life. I started a new career as a Pilates and restorative movement facilitator, I went to grad school and earned my MFA in creative writing, I traveled, I dated (kind of), my first published essay was nominated for a Pushcart, I was awarded writing grants and scholarships, but I also grieve for so many lost opportunities while living behind such a thin but immobilizing veil. If I didn’t have a bad case of impostor syndrome already, it surely settled in deep into my cells soon enough. I presented myself to the world the picture of health and wellness, an emerging writer, a “successful widow!” rebuilding her life after devastation, the bigger, messier picture behind thin veneer. The tension of such dissonance has a shelf life, it can only be sustained for so long.
I was awarded a Minnesota state Arts Board Grant for 2018, the same year I was about to graduate from Hamline. I almost didn’t complete both the Arts Board project or my thesis. I write almost exclusively about very difficult topics—death, cancer, being a caregiver, a widow—what I didn’t realize is that every time I went to write a story, I had to relive the gruesome story of my husband’s cancer and death againandagainandagainandagain. Repeatedly traumatize myself for the sake of what? Art? At the sake of what? My sanity. At the time, I did not know that I should have been doing something intentional,something compassionate and mindful, to protect myself from this repeated thrashing as I wrote. Something like tandem therapy, perhaps. I didn’t know that. Instead, I continued to write and continued to thrash. The body can only withstand that kind of instability for so long before something has to happen, something breaks. In my case, my writing came to a screeching standstill, my keyboard wouldn’t budge. At the time, I thought I was cursed; today, I think it was my heart finally stepping in and telling my head, enough. Enough. I read somewhere once that our souls love us so much, it will use our bodies to get our attention. I fully believe my sudden drought of words was one such instances. Strange grace.
That same year, around Thanksgiving, I sat in my mom’s living room and told her I thought I had a drinking problem. She looked at me, startled, before saying, “YOU, have a drinking problem? Well, if that’s the case, Jen, then everyone I know has a drinking problem,” and that was the moment I was sharply cleaved in two. One half of me breathed a sigh of relief. “If my mom, who knows me better than anyone in the world, doesn’t think I have a problem, then there’s no problem—I don’t have to change a thing!” The other half, a little more meek, sort of whimpered, “If my mom, who knows me better than anyone in the world doesn’t think I have a problem, then maybe that’s the problem.” I knew, deep in my cells, that if I was going to do something about it, for real, it was going to require a lot more work than I could even fathom. Did I have it in me? Did I even want to?
I started going to 12 step meetings, because that’s what you do when you think you have a drinking problem, right? As I sat in the shadowy church sanctuary on the east side of St. Paul, in the shadowy community room of an apartment building in south Minneapolis, I listened as everyone went around the room sharing stories of disaster and destruction and praying for strength to not mess up the family holidays this year, it came my turn. “Don’t worry Jen, we’ve heard it all, we know how it is…” I stared at my hands in my lap, tears dropped onto my sleeves. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have any stories of disaster and destruction. Once again I was bluntly cleaved—one part was immensely relieved. “Thank god, I’m not that bad—I don’t belong here. I’m fine.” The other side quietly asked, “Is that how it works? That I have to collect such stories before I can find the help I seek? All I have is an incessant, gnawing decaying sensation in my tissues, like I’m slowly dying from the inside out, and I don’t even care. Isn’t that enough?
A month or so after that conversation with my mom, she died unexpectedly after the world’s shortest bout of cancer; I have a hard time even saying she had cancer, it happened so fast. For as gruesome and profane as my husband’s death was, my mom’s was something of the divine, the holy. What cancer took from him, it gave to her ten-fold—it was like my quiet, unassuming mom was directing the final scene of her own life, telling her medical team she wanted no heroics, quality, not quantity of life was her wish. Two days later, as we were waiting for discharge orders to bring her home for hospice, she fluttered for a few moments (which were probably more like few hours, but my mind sees it in time lapse), then died, encircled by all five of her kids. We toasted her memory any chance we got over the next year—it’s what she would have wanted, right? Until I couldn’t lift another glass because that inner decaying was now slowly eating and blistering through to the surface of my skin.
I finally said, enough, and I started going to therapy, though I still didn’t say “alcohol is kind of a problem here. I know, deep in my cells, it’s why I can’t sleep, I know it’s why I don’t care about anything anymore, why I can’t write, I know it’s why I am stuck. stuck. stuck.” Instead, I spoke in code, using words like “disconnected, lack of community, isolated, so alone” repeated over and over in my sessions. Never once, did my therapist ask pointedly about alcohol in my life. The blistering became more intense, anything that bumped against me burned raw, I clawed at my skin, wanting so desperately to tear it from my body, and begin anew.
It would take another several months to stumble upon the AE after another few disappointing 12 step meetings, after a handful more fruitless therapy sessions. I don’t mean to disparage the 12 step programs, or therapy—if I could find a group like what Veronica Valli, founder of Soberful and a powerful 12-step advocate, describes, I’d be all for it—but like finding a good therapist, they are hard to come by; the effort is daunting and exhausting, and sometimes it’s easier to just stay in place than move.
But. BUT. long story even longer (this is why I don’t post much; I have so much to say, half of me says, “oh shut up, no one cares,” but the other part says, “say it, say it, say it!” and once I begin it’s so hard to stop, it’s like these words have been building up inside of me since before I was born…), really, all of this is to say that when I began a little experiment a year and some odd days ago, my only goal was for alcohol to become small and insignificant in my life, as it had gotten too large and in charge, and stayed that way for too long. To say that I got more than I bargained for is a gross understatement, and yes, at the end of January, 20201 I said, “Yes more please, to another 30 days.” I read somewhere recently that the decision to be sober is not about deciding not to drink, but rather, learning to live a life that I don’t have to numb myself from. Far easier said than done, I’m fully aware, but at 400 days, I am also fully aware that that a bad day AF is still infinitely better than any good day with alcohol, hands down. Today, that’s more than good enough for me. 30 more days, please. xo.
If there’s one thing we all can agree upon, it’s that Trump has always been, is, and will always be transparent. Living proof that all the money in the world can’t buy depth or brains or class or self awareness, or kindness or empathy or compassion or a heart. Even before his disgraceful term in the WH, he’s never hidden the fact that he’s a petulant, vindictive, thin-skinned, privileged, corrupt, criminal piece of shit who will shit on anyone and anything to get what he wants. His history is one big shitsmear of evidence.
Still. In spite of the indelible stain he leaves on everything he touches, Republicans, from top officials down to individual voters, blatantly, willfully ignored all that, and chose him as their candidate, then pulled all stops to make him their president, then catered to his self-serving agenda (or their self-serving agenda, is probably more accurate), encouraged him, pandered to him, coddled him, excused him, justified him, apologized for him, saying shit like, “he’s better than the alternative,” and “oh my god I could never vote for Killary!!!’ or “we can’t have a SOCIALIST running the show,” or “well, I don’t really agree with his policies but I really like his tell-it-like-it-is personality!” admired and envied him, and probably hoped a little of his shit would rub off on them, if they got close enough. What happened last night, what has happened over the past 4 years—let’s be real, what’s been happening for far longer—speaks more about Republicans, as individuals, than anything. They have shown the world exactly what they’re made of. Shit. And got exactly what the bargained for—a shitshow of epic proportions.
I am so filled with rage and hate and disgust and fear and a damned lot of cuss words right now, tinted with a mild bit of amusement—what the even hell were some of those bizarre costumes? A Renaissance festival gone horribly awry? Were the Patriots playing? A Furry convention? A historical reenactment? NO. It was a failed couindignant, wronged white supremacist terrorist insurgents thinly disguised as patriots, attempting a hostile takeover of our nation’s capitol. Because they are “sick of it, and we’re not going to take it anymore!” but when pressed, couldn’t (or don’t want to, on camera) define what “it” is. I’m going to guess “it” is the very things the people in Georgia fought so hard to gain. GA’s first ever Black Senator, without a doubt, has something to do with the terrorists’ unnamed “it.”
I used to tell my sisters that the first and only question they ever needed to ask a potential suitor was, ‘Who did you vote for in 2016?” because the answer will tell them everything they needed to know. Now, it feels like an applicable, necessary question to ask anyone we meet, from here on out. But a lot have already outed themselves with their MAGA hats and banners and yard signs and bumper stickers, and social media posts, and right now, I’m wondering how do we ever move forward and begin healing as a nation? Will we ever? Maybe not, but we can’t ever stop trying…tonight, every. single. thing. feels daunting…futile…impossible…imperative…
As I sat in my living room last night, and again, this morning, listening to the coverage of the terroristic shitshow in our capitol, I had to do something to dispel some of that toxic waste surging through me…I kept going back to stories about Georgia, and reveled in the contrast of the two events playing out at the same time. I know these feelings are going to surge and recede, swell and release, ebb and flow. breathe… my anger today is huge and centered around Republicans, it’s an easy target, their transgressions are huge and violent and so damaging, but I know the answers that matter lie deeper…answers to the question: how am I connected to these events unfolding? That’s the harder piece to decipher, to confront…
I was compelled to break out my sketch pad and pastels, which I’ve dragged from move to move over the past 25 years, but haven’t used in almost as long, and began drawing the monster trees in my neighborhood from memory, which moved me into a meditative mind…the ragged old souls I’m in love with, that I hug every chance I get, gentle giants clustered in parks like gangs of Shel Silverstein sketches come alive.
I often wrap my arms tight around these monsters’ waists and press my ear against their chest, to hear their heart beat and the hum of their cells, and run my hands along deeply cracked, rough skin. Sometimes I sit at their feet with my back pressed against theirs, especially at night, and look up into their charcoal limbs exploding against the blue black sky, and breath in deep cold air, and I believe that trees are always in communication with the world, which includes us, and it doesn’t take much to stop and feel what they have to say. It really doesn’t.
I learned last night that I can invoke this energy by drawing them, too, as my hand swept across the paper, I felt the trees’ energy seep from the air to the page to the crayon to my hand and into my veins and my breath, swirling in with the hate and rage and disgust and slowly began to take the shape of something new…all of this is to say, it’s more than okay to be enraged and disgusted and yes even hate what’s going on right now, but it’s also imperative to do something productive with all that, whatever it means to you, or it’ll eat you alive. I suspect I’m going to be drawing giant cottonwoods for a long time to come. xo.
I took a road trip to my home town of Mountain Lake yesterday, to visit the sites of places I lived long ago and collect inspiration for a few essays that I’m writing. My sweet 15 yr. old niece, Amelia, accompanied me for the ride. Lucky me, to have such a divine traveling companion.
Mountain Lake is a small town scratched into the topsoil of southern Minnesota, population, about 2100. If you’re at all familiar with the area, you’d be correct to guess there’s not a mountain in sight for hundreds of miles. The namesake “mountain” is a large hill south of town that once made its living as an island in the middle of the namesake lake that is no longer, because it was drained for farmland around 1905. The ghost of the lake is visible in aerial photographs, an apparition outlined in trees.
My mission would be quick—drive to the addresses where I used to live, snap a few photos, then a meandering drive through town to wax nostalgic and show Amelia the sights, which would take all of fifteen minutes, even if I drove the speed of molasses in January, to use my father’s likely only g-rated quip. We’d go by the school, the park, the lake that isn’t the namesake, on the northwest end of town.
In case you’re confused about the lake thing, let me clarify: Mountain Lake’s “mountain” had a former life as an island in the middle of a lake south of town for which the town was named, which was drained for farmland in 1905. (An aside: in 1976, an archeological dig on the mountain-nee-island revealed evidence of an ancient native dwelling, carbon-dated to be about 2100 years old, the oldest dwelling found in MN thus far.) The lake that now exists in the city limits, is a manmade WPA project of the 1930’s. This lake has what we always called the “island”—even a campground near the lake, Island View Campground, says so. Except it’s not really an island, but more a peninsula. So much more could be said about all this, but I’m going to contain myself, because I need to get to bed soon.
The first home I lived in, on 9th Avenue, no longer exists. I suspected this, but wanted to confirm it. It was the home my parents brought me to after I was born, where my two brothers were anxiously awaiting my arrival, I can only guess. I shocked my mom one day when I as older, when I told her I remember this house. “How can that be? You were just a baby when we lived there,” she asked. I proceeded to draw the floor plans of my memory, telling in great detail each room looked like, how the furniture was laid out, of things I remember happening. She stared at me, shaking her head at the accuracy of my memories. “Good lord. I’m not surprised. You were a weird kid. Still are,” she laughed.
My sister, Jill, came along two years later. Our growing family was busting out of the seams in this little home; when I was nearly three, we moved to 538 6th Avenue. This house sat on an extraordinarily huge city lot on the edge of Mountain Lake. My parents purchased, contract-for-deed, the plain white three bedroom, one bath clapboard from the original owner who had raised eight kids here. The house came with a two-acre plot of land, though it might be more accurate to say that the two-acre plot of land came with a house.
The house itself was a rather dilapidated mess of peeling paint, crumbling foundation and windows in mismatched frames. The lean-to kitchen looked like an afterthought, hanging off the back of the house by threads. That didn’t matter to three-year old me. I wandered the expansive lot with my mom, awash in awe: all of this belongs to us? This tulip garden bursting in pastels? Those lilac trees with their heady, enveloping perfume? The strawberry patch at the bottom of the hill, spread out like a blanket next to the apple and plum trees, with a fringe of currant bushes? And the sea of tall grass beyond the patchwork of fruit trees, with that little shed poking through? And this massive silver maple next to the kitchen, with a canopy of leaves spread wide like a parachute and arms are begging for a treehouse to hold up to the sky? All this? Ours? I thought we’d won the fairytale lottery and had moved to our very own land of make-believe.
It came like a punch in the gut, one day in fifth grade when a couple of classmates announced that they had compiled a list of richest to poorest kids in class, and declared my family the third poorest. What? By what authority were they able to decide this? I recall asking, though likely not as articulate. Because of your house, and the clothes you wear, I was told. Did I burst into tears upon hearing this news? Did I lash out? I don’t remember, but it might have been then that I became acutely aware of things that matter to the rest of the world. An extraordinary fairytale of a backyard isn’t one of those things. A ramshackle house is.
This house, too, only exists in my memories; it was razed years ago. Still, I had to drive by and check on our tree. I barely recognized the property—the house and garage is gone, so are the lilac bushes, the fruit trees. The pasture is neatly mowed and the maple tree is a hacked-in-half version of its former parachute self. My heart was so startled to see so much of it missing, my eyes tried to trace the space in the sky that those branches used to occupy. Had lightning struck it? High winds? I don’t know, but still, in its wounded state, its massive trunk beckoned me.
I pulled over and to Amelia’s horror, I told her I needed to go and give our tree a hug. She cringed and shrunk low in her seat, “Oh God, Jen—there’s people over there! You’re going to get arrested for trespassing!” I couldn’t help but laugh, which softened the lump that had caught in my throat. “This is Mountain Lake, that won’t happen. I don’t think so anyway,” I said as I hopped out and ran across the lawn to give my old friend a hug.
I have been writing a lot, about hard things lately, diving deep into my history (and by “a lot,” I mean hundreds of pages in a really short time, and by “history,” I mean deep, sad, excruciating, exhilarating, shocking, enlightening, staggering, funny, infuriating, the-adjectives-never-end shit). As if I haven’t done enough of that over the past ten years. But, for all the writing of my past decade, so much has been superficial, a one-dimensional reportage about what I observed my husband enduring when he was battered by cancer. Not what I, personally went through, felt, thought, endured, came through, fell back into, again and again as a result…”jesus, who needs that story?” I told myself. “Tell the good stuff—the survival story (but the short version, please!)—a little gore in to appease the masses, the polished yet edgy, MFA-worthy stuff…” Turns out, that material has a pretty short life expectancy when one’s heart is missing. As my dad used to say, “Either shit or get off the pot, Jen.” He may not have been an eloquent man, but he knew how to call it when he saw it.
This current writing began benignly enough, an homage to my twenty-five years in the Twin Cities.
Back in October, before I moved to Mankato, I drove around and took photos of all the places I’ve lived in in the cities, with the simple idea of writing a few lines of memories about each home, conveniently forgetting that 25 years is a damned long time to live anywhere. A few lines begat a few more and before I knew it, I was writing long, meandering essays about each home. As I wrote, forgotten memories resurfaced, patterns began to emerge, themes of running, hiding, numbing, camouflaging fears and anxieties, surviving, adapting, moving forward, falling back, birth stories and death stories…the more I wrote, the more curious I became and I began to interrogate further—where do these stories contained within these photos really take root?
When I got to Mankato, I drove around and took more photos of all the places I’d lived while I went to college here, from 1987 to 1992. More memories, more stories, more patterns shimmered to the surface. More dots to connect, more truths emerge, more questions to answer, more roots unearthed…more pages to write. What have I done, I wondered, when will this end?
It can be exhausting and heartbreaking, to examine a life like this. No wonder most of us don’t do it. What becomes of this exercise in torture, except torture? The truths uncovered may be startling, not at all like the family lore we might have been told and held tightly to all these years, and how is that reconciled? We can get trapped in the past if we’re not careful, or run screaming from it, if we don’t like what we find. Coming back a space that feels calm between the two is essential and a skill that takes time to develop. (That would have been helpful know ten years ago…) then, the uncovered truths become guides, converging stars, gravitational pulls that entwine past to present, present to movement forward, and suddenly, that abhorrent adage, “everything happens for a reason,” makes blinding sense. Except I’ll still bitch-slap anyone into next month who tells me my husband had to die an excruciating death for me to learn this truth, because so much god-awful work has gone into shaping this truth, it’s so much bigger than a lame adage or I can ever contain.
One enormous truth that has emerged with my current writing, concerns the birth stories of each kid in my family. It was a tradition for my mom to call me on my birthday and share the details of my day of birth—she did this with all five of us kids. I loved these calls because my mom was such a gifted storyteller—the call alone was the best birthday gift. Even though I’d heard my birth story a million times before, every year, she’d tie a new thread to my tapestry in the form of a new detail, a new memory recalled, every year, the fabric of my story grew.
I was born the day after Thanksgiving in 1967, in Mountain Lake, MN, around 6:30 am—”The only time in your life you were ever early, Jen,” she’d laugh. This was in a time where mothers stayed in the hospital for days after giving birth; my mom said every meal she had was a derivative of the turkey dinner that had been served on the holiday—turkey sandwich, turkey casserole, turkey noodle soup…she told me about the little old man in a room down the hall, who would sneak out of his room, his bare backside flashing through the split in his gown as he shuffled down to the nursery to gaze at the little redhead baby that he was determined to steal for his own…that my grandmother showed up with an armload of frilly dresses that she hung on the curtains of my mom’s room, and that my mom felt that maybe she had finally done something right in her mom’s eyes—giving her a granddaughter who might make up for the transgressions she had inflicted upon her parents. Already, my young, tender mom—she was just 19, with two other babies at home (three, if you count my dad, which I sometimes do)—was absorbing far too much blame, shame, unwarranted guilt into her body, that she would carry with her for the rest of her life.
My sister Jill, recently gave me another thread to my birth stories, one that I didn’t know, or maybe had forgotten (the ways my mom’s voice continues talking to us after death is astounding). On Thanksgiving day, the day before my birth, my mom sat at the table of her family’s holiday dinner. Only my dad and my mom’s sister, my Auntie Pat, knew she was pregnant. At one point, my grandma (in other words, my mom’s very own mother) whispered to Pat, “I think Kathy’s pregnant again.” And then, the next day, I was born, like a holiday miracle, except nothing at all like a holiday miracle—that my mom had carried me to term, like a regular human birth, yet her own mother only vaguely guessed at the possibility the day before I was born is unfathomable. This single incident speaks volumes of my mom’s life, how, even in the midst of family, alone she was, so estranged from her now mother that asking for help was never an option, that keeping secrets was the family way. Maybe the miracle is that she learned to adapt, in spite of these family flaws.
Adapting does not always mean an improvement; sometimes it’s simply a means to survive, and sometimes those adaptations are things children inherit and continue to pass on down the line, repeating the cycle, until someone finally says, okay, I’m done with this shit. I’m going in deep, diving into the shit, to see if there’s anything else is hiding in there. And maybe begin shifting, if even ever so slightly, from the family narrative that’s been in control for too long, and adapting has probably been happening since the beginning of time.
For the past ten years, I’ve tried my hand at deep shit-diving, but I did’t have the right tools to help keep me steady or safe as I went in. It’s exhausting, excruciating territory, and if you don’t have some badass self-care tactics in place, the dive will wreck you, and not in a good way. In my past, this act of shit-diving ripped open wounds again and again until they became infected and began spreading to other parts of me. It felt like repeated failed exorcism—for all the writing I was doing, the ghosts not only remained, unfazed by my efforts, they invited all their rowdy friends in, too. I employed all kinds of means to anesthetize the wounds, so I could present myself to the world not as a woman covered with battle scars, but as something less true, more neat and tidy and admirable to the world.
A month or so before my mom died, I sat in her living room and said, “Mom, I think my drinking is becoming a problem.” She looked at me sharply and said, “You? Have a drinking problem? Well, if that’s the case, Jen, then everyone I know has a drinking problem.” How it felt like to be split in two by her words: at once, immeasurably relieved. If my own mom, who knew me better than anyone in the world, does’t think I have a problem, then there’s no problem! At the same time, indescribably devastated. If my own mom, who knew me better than anyone in the world, doesn’t think I have a problem, then there’s a problem. Of course, I went with Door Number 1, the don’t do anything about the problem option, because the familiar is far easier than the unknown, no matter how fucked up it is. And I wondered why the exorcism wasn’t working.
It took another few years to finally decide to stop the insanity, and I stopped drinking almost a year ago, January 1. It was only meant to be an experiment—30 days, alcohol free. Then assess the situation, and see how I feel. 30 days turned into 60, then 90, then six months, then…and suddenly, almost like magic (okay nothing like magic, because this too, was excruciating, this process of actually feeling all the feels, instead of numbing from them, but I’ll tell you a little secret—that pain is where the magic of healing begins), I began to like myself. A lot. Maybe for the first time in a very long time. Maybe ever. And then my writing took off. And then a fucking pandemic began. And I had no one to share this immense transformation with. But I kept at it. I kept writing, and collecting bits of insight and beauty in the midst of the shitshow. And I am learning that people will still do and say things to try to sabotage my hard work, like “Oh that’s right, you don’t drink anymore,” as though the not drinking part is the problem.
I don’t know if this is forever—another magic secret: nothing is forever. Literally nothing. but the magic truth to that is, would we really want it to? I mean, really? For now, this not drinking thing is working a helluva lot better than the alternative, especially as I navigate blindly in unchartered pandemic territory. And because I actually really like liking myself, and I no longer fear writing, but instead, see it as an exploration into new lands, I’ll stick with it for a while. Except if that mofo in the WH keeps up his toddler antics—then my resolve for all the things might soon come to a grinding halt.
All this diving made me pause in my thoughts, as I realized that each of my siblings has an equally heartbreaking story to tell about a profound event in our lives—our birth—that typically is anticipated, celebrated, rejoiced. The heaviness of the truths are layered deep inside of us. Each of us kids have absorbed this legacy, in our profoundly unique ways. But I’ve heard stories of grace appearing in the most unexpected sources, like finding a diamond ring deep in the lines of a clogged sewer, and I’ve known my own stories of grace, like sending a message to a friend that turns into a three-hour solve-the-worlds-problems kind of night…or just going down into the basement, alone, and living in my body in ways that I don’t know I ever have, in all the 53 years of my life. I mean, the movements might look exactly the same from the outside, but the way I feel inside is another-planet different. Like my inside and the outside are moving closer to one another, an inner-body reflection of the outer-body Saturn-Jupiter thing going up in the heavens.
Happy almost winter solstice, everyone. Feel the transforming energy around. It’s everywhere, even in the middle of a never-ending shitshow. xo
if your Thanksgiving (and birthday and Halloween and Labor Day and any old given day…) doesn’t feel weird this year, you’re not doing the pandemic right. Take your ass home, go to your room now, and think long and hard about how your actions are affecting everyone else, not just you, and don’t come out until you feel weird, like the rest of us do.
if your gratitude feels a little (maybe a lot) off this year…if your skin feels oddly ill-fitting at the same time as you laugh riotously playing Cards Against Humanity (who thinks up those god-awful answers to the questions?! And can I get a job there?) with your family on Zoom at the same time as you think if you never partake in another fucking Zoom call the rest of your life, it’ll be too soon…if all 37 trillion cells of your being ache with yet another anemic version of a family gathering, yet reverberate with curious solidarity when you buy take-out Thanksgiving dinner for five (there’s only one of you) from a local restaurant to help keep their doors open, that you split with your sister and zoom-eat with her, simultaneously choking your food down with tears and feeling the love from so many sources…if you find yourself going to the basement to switch out laundry and instead drag out tubs of holiday decorations even though for weeks you’ve said why bother this year…if you fall asleep crying into your pillow and wake with a vague dread weaving through your veins more days than not, but still find that your heart swells under an expansive blue-black 5 am sky scattered with pinpoints of light while walking your dog…if you find soothing respite in the woods, or by making something—anything—banana bread, an essay, your bed—no matter how crappy (it’s NOT) your stupid (they ARE) internal critics try to convince you otherwise, and every damned time you squash those voices and keep on walking and making, you will never not be not awash in wonder with how it all works, that somehow it’s all connected…
if you manage to get through another day (holidays add an extra uncomfortable helping of weirdness, you’ll need to loosen your belt to make room for the density of it), if it feels like barely some days, even if your phone’s “health” app seems to be giving you the finger, if every day makes you wonder will these dark days will ever end (Biden’s Thanksgiving address might make you feel cautiously maybe? somewhat? soon?…) if you wonder how much more can your poor heart take (you will continually discover, more than you could ever imagine, which usually happens on the precipice of not much more), when your only nourishment some days is coffee and the news (you should really do something about that, btw, starting with stepping away from the news and going for a walk in the woods and hug a tree or ten, or through the neighborhood and pick up some trash, or fill your senses with bird song, wind on your cheeks, ground underfoot…)
in case no one’s told you, you are not losing your mind. Everything is right with you. Everything is working exactly as it should. You are a deep-feeling, compassionate, passionate, wildly complex, sane human being, who can’t help but feel grossly unsettled in this grossly unsettling time, it’s by design. When you experience great loss—and that is what we have experienced in this pandemic, layer upon layer of uncontrollable loss—you will grieve. deeply, righteously, excruciatingly. which, in turn, sets a mysterious, painstaking, inexplicable, life-altering process in place called healing, which is where you catch shimmers of that thing called hope or growth or maybe there’s not a word for it, just a feeling that feels terribly incongruous, wrong even, next to the shit, but it will be the thing, the tiniest of things, that will will build on themselves and become stronger, in time, that will help you move forward, though at the time, it might feel anything but.
And always remember, you are in very good company, even if some days it feels like anything but. It might not look or fee anything like gratitude, but trust me, you are righteously, deservingly, messily steeped in it. xo.