Firsts (the Holiday edition)

Last weekend, two of my four grandkids came to stay for a few nights – the oldest, Claire, who is 12, and the youngest, Audrey, who is 6. I live in a small house with only one spare bed in my office, a twin, and an air mattress for company. With floor space at a premium, where we drop the air mattress is decided with careful calculation.

Audrey prefers the air mattress because it’s easier for my dog Zuzu (whose name you have to say in a very high pitch voice to capture the vocal rendition of Audrey saying her name, almost like an angel is singing it) to jump in bed with her. But for this combination of grandchildren, I decided it would be OK if Claire slept on the air mattress in the living room and Audrey slept in the spare bed. That way they’d have room for their bags and a place to change in the office without the acrobatics of maneuvering around a mattress in the middle of an already small room.

“Nooooooooooo!” said Audrey when I told her my plan. “I want to sleep on the air mattress!”

“The air mattress will be in the living room. Do you want to sleep in the living room?” I asked rhetorically.

“Nooooooooooo!”

“Then you’ll sleep in the spare bed.”

“Nooooooooooo!”

This went on for a good five minutes until Claire and I were able to reassure her that Zuzu could, in fact, jump up on the spare bed and would probably happily do so more than once in the middle of the night.

The rest of the weekend was mostly resistance-free. Jim and the girls worked on wood projects in the garage. Claire shot the BB gun. We played Skip-Bo, ate mussels (yes, even Audrey, the pickiest eater ever), went to see the Christmas tree in the rain, and watched Home Alone. Claire also mentioned her grandma Julia intermittently throughout the weekend, in that spontaneous, unconscious way we honor those who have died by recalling the ordinary, everyday things we loved about them. “I remember when Grandma would…” or “Grandma used to say…” and she laughed as she talked, because Grandma Julia was always making her laugh.

Julia died in February after a years-long battle with cancer. It’s been a difficult year of firsts for our grandchildren and the rest of the family, and now here we are at the front door of perhaps the most difficult of firsts: the holidays.

As is the tradition of many families on Thanksgiving, we go around the table and say one thing we’re grateful for. For me this year, that one thing is Julia.

In March I wrote about the last time I saw Julia, but I was too close to the loss to write more. I had to let the grief be there and not try to explain it to myself or anyone else. I needed to simply miss her and to honor the gaping hole in my heart by doing nothing other than feel the wind pass through it. Now, though the tears still come, the sharpness of her death has softened somewhat. With nine months of perspective, I remember more than I would have in the tight confines of grief, and I’m better able to offer a sincere thank you to the powers that be that gave us Julia, where in March, I was angry.

Obviously, without Julia there would be no Matt (my son-in-law) and therefore no Claire, Luca, Mae or Audrey. But what I’m most grateful for is how she lived her life as a grandmother and friend, and even as a woman dying. When I saw her the last time, I held her hand and thanked her for showing me how to be the kind of grandma who keeps a stash of color books and crayons in her car, snacks and wet wipes in her purse, and says yes to drive-through French fries. She looked at me a little confused and said, “Oh, honey, you would have figured it out!” Nope, no I wouldn’t have. Not in that Julia way anyway.

When Claire was born, my heart was full of so many strong emotions. It took me a few weeks to parse and understand them all, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to share her with others. Then when I saw Julia holding Claire and gushing all those same emotions over her, I knew that was the kind of love I wished for my granddaughter, the kind all of us can never have enough of.

There are times when I feel a burden of being Claire, Luca, Mae, and Audrey’s only living grandmother. Then I ask myself, what would Julia do if I was the grandmother who died, and I know for sure that she would share with them her memories of me and would never let them forget how much I loved them.

I know many of you are experiencing similar firsts this year. My hope is you can find peace in those dark places as you miss the person you lost and feel the gravity of their absence. May you be able to say, even under your breath, “I’m glad I knew you.”

20150228_160801_copyClaire took this selfie of me, Claire, and Julia in February 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Honor of All Veterans (and their mothers)

(My column from December 6, 2001)

I’m being weaned, figuratively, from my children by my children. At 17 and 18, Cassie and Carlene don’t need me for many things anymore, except maybe to buy face wash, body lotion, or tampons. Then it’s not really me they need, but my Visa card.

From the minute they were born, I’ve been letting go. I let them go with the nurses to be cleaned, weighed, and measured. I let them get on a bus to go to their first day of kindergarten. I let them go to birthday parties, sleep-overs, field trips, and to the mall and movies with their friends. I’ve even let them go on dates with boys I didn’t like, not because I trusted the boys, but because I trusted my girls. And trust is at the heart of letting go.

While Carlene grew up, her letting go of me was harder than me letting go of her. She hated day care, she wanted her first-grade teacher to call me after a thunderstorm one afternoon, and she usually sat on my lap when strangers or people she hadn’t seen in a while were in the room. As she got older, though, Carlene grew a strong backbone, and combined with her level-headedness, she’s turned into a strong young woman, even though I still buy her razors and shampoo.

On the opposite end of parenting is Cassie. Our letting go experiences have been of her pushing me rather than me pushing her. She had no problem disappearing into clothes racks when she was 2 years old while we were out shopping, leaving me frantic looking for her. She couldn’t wait to go to school, and loved it when I hired a babysitter if I went out. I always knew she needed me in some esoteric way, but she hasn’t given up the secret of why.

She’s done some fast talking and gentle pushing lately to help me face the hardest letting go of her yet. Last Tuesday, I signed a consent form allowing Cassie to join the Army Reserves. She made this decision before September 11, and I was mostly OK with it since she could finish high school without interruption, and go to college while doing her military work. Then as I watched the World Trade Center buildings collapse, and saw the Pentagon on fire and the smoldering airplane debris in a field not far south from where we lived, I decided there was no way in hell I was going to let her join anything that might put her in the middle of whatever was coming.

But when she came home from school that day, she was more determined than ever to sign up.

I knew out of my fear I could be the control freak I’m known to be and refuse to let her join, to make her wait until she was 18 and no longer needed my permission. But I’ve spent 17 years reigning in this child, and to hold her back might break her.

After all, this is a girl who, when she was 3, thought she could stick a penny in an outlet like it was a vending machine. When the lights flickered, I heard a “snap” and felt a bump on the floor. I ran in to her room, and there she was, blinking and stunned, with a penny bent and burned near the outlet. I didn’t punish her. I figured the electric shock that sent her flying a foot from the wall was lesson enough.

This is the same girl who, when she was 7, decided to visit her 80-year-old friend for five hours without telling me where she was. How do you get mad at someone who’s doing a good thing, but who didn’t follow the rules?

Just as control defined me as a parent, dichotomy defined Cass.

I read the consent form. It was perfectly clear. My signature meant I understood Cassie might be put in dangerous, life-threatening situations should her reserve unit be activated. It meant I promised to not sue the government if something happened to her while in their care, like a broken leg, loss of eyesight, or death. This form made the paper I signed so she could get her belly button pierced seem like a sales slip for lipstick. I was granting permission for the government I live under and pay taxes to, to use my child’s talents and interests for the country’s best interests. God help me, the government had better appreciate her.

She’ll go to basic training this summer, a complete letting go if there ever was one. If she screws up, it won’t be me talking to her about her mistake or grounding her for a night. She’ll have a drill sergeant in her face calling her names and screaming at her to do 50 pushups. Instead of her favorite mashed potatoes with cream cheese and sour cream, and Italian chicken drizzled in butter, she’ll be eating chipped beef on toast. Instead of sleeping in on warm summer mornings, she’ll be up at 4 a.m., running, learning to shoot an M16, and throwing grenades. They’ll even put her in a gas chamber. “Cool,” she said.

So, I signed it. She’ll come home a soldier. A lean, mean fightin’ machine. But she’ll still be my little girl, and she’ll still need me. And my Visa card.

I’m being weaned. Weaned from directing and controlling my girls’ destinies. But you know something? When I look at them, when I think of all we’ve been through, I smile like a Cheshire cat and think, ‘Damn, I’ve done a good job.’

 

 

Families (Un)Defined

I don’t remember what program I was listening to the other day, but what stuck with me was the person being interviewed said that it was his mother’s third husband who was his best father; the man who listened to him and raised him up to be the caring and kind person he is today. Paternal biology had nothing to do with it.

From the outside and in writing, my family history may seem (understandably) complicated to a newcomer. But like all complex family structures, if you take the time to look around it, you’ll see they are often a beautiful amalgamation, a patchwork quilt of daughters and sons and nieces and nephews and friends who are as close as sisters and brothers. No two families are alike, and that is grand!

When my husband died in 1983, my love for his family didn’t die with him. Parts of his family are still my family, 36 years later, and no one dare tell us otherwise. The same is true of my stepsons, now age 26 and 27, both of whom I’ve known since they were born. Their father and I were together for 14 years before we separated in 2010. But even though our marriage broke apart, our family didn’t. The grandkids still have their Papa Larry, and I’m still Evil Stepmother. We’ve remained a family through thick and thin, and right now, things are a little thin, which has me a bit nostalgic, to the days when the boys were little and I was a newbie stepmom.

To all the step and other families…rock on, despite what anyone else thinks. Your support and love for the people you consider family is all that matters.

Little Women Meet Ren and Stimpy

December 1999

If the number of stepfamilies continues to increase in the twenty-first century, as they are expected to, then stepmothers need some better press than they’ve received in the past.

Ever since Cinderella, people have a picture of stepmothers as cruel, mean, nasty creatures who rank just below mothers-in-law as the most ostracized family members. All my life I was sure I never wanted to be a stepmother. But I am one, and life, for the most part, is normal, as normal as it can be when a woman raising two teenage girls meets and marries a man with two young boys.

This coming together of our families is a little like Little Women meet Ren and Stimpy. My girls have learned to accept, or at least ignore, the boys’ burping contests, and the boys pass off the girls singing Dave Matthews songs loudly in the basement or prepping in front of a mirror as just weird.

Bras don’t dry over chairs in the kitchen anymore, and the froufrou lady stuff shares space in the bathroom with bubblegum flavored toothpaste and Star Wars toothbrushes. Marbles are strewn throughout the living room, and plastic bloody eyeballs are sometimes hidden in the refrigerator.

The boys taught the girls their favorite song: “Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart. The more you eat the more you…” You can guess the rest. The girls have turned the boys on to “cool” music – no more Raffi in this house.

The girls read Chicken Soup books and Brontë novels. The boys prefer Captain Underpants. The boys tell a lot of stories, usually the “Know what?” variety, and they take every opportunity to say the word “butt.” In their world, having smelly feet is a good thing. So is pro wrestling and Pokémon.

Unlike Cinderella’s stepmother, the chores I make them do are pretty benign. They clear the dinner table, dry dishes, and make sure the toilet lid is down. I’m kidding about the toilet lid. They never remember to do that.

They like to talk about their futures as astronaut paleontologists or anthropologist brain surgeons. We’re especially encouraging Andy’s most recent dream: to be a guitarist and a professional baseball player – professions that are sure to keep his dad and me comfortable in our retirement.

We’re fairly sure Kevin will be a detective or a biologist. He likes to crawl in bed with us and explain how ladybugs eat aphids, and he spies on the girls while they are watching television using his telescope. He also checks the cats for fingerprints.

This quasi Brady Bunch life didn’t just happen. Adjusting to each other’s personalities, needs, fears, and aversions was often difficult. But of all the relationships in this new family, the stepmother-stepson one was the hardest to forge.

By the time I married their father last year, the boys and I had interacted on several occasions, few of which were particularly memorable. Their behavior usually translated into: Who is this strange woman with our dad, and why should we listen to her?

I did few things right in their eyes and spent many frustrated moments in tears asking friends what I was doing wrong.

Finding my place in their lives and they in mine took time. But with each visit, we saw how important we were to their father, and realized, subconsciously of course, that if we wanted a part of him, we had to accept a part of each other as well.

I think our difficulty was mostly due to my desire to nurture them as I nurtured my own children, and their fear of allowing me to nurture them. Since they already had a mother, they didn’t feel they could be true to her while letting me wipe away their tears or laugh at their jokes. The words, “You’re not my mom!” frequently rolled off their tongues, especially if I didn’t allow them to jump on the couch or swing from their bunkbeds. There were times I wanted to give up.

But the tears, the time, the patience, and the prayers gradually paid off. I’m not exactly sure when or how it all happened, but their most recent visit demonstrated how far we’ve come in three years.

Andy, who just turned 8, doesn’t usually want to be hugged. The other night, he had a bad dream. He started crying because he missed his mom, but he let me hold him and stroke his hair and tell him it was OK to be sad. He thanked me the next day for listening to him. I told him I listened because I loved him. He said he loved me, too. I’ll bet Cinderella never said those words to her stepmother.

Kevin, on the other hand, is still a little boy of 6, and likes to be sung to and to sleep with his stuffed dog, “Pup.” He won’t let any of us catch him under the mistletoe, but he and Pup always snuggle on the couch with me while we watch holiday movies. He listens to me when I correct him, holds my hand when we cross the street, and climbs on my lap while we play a game on the computer – oblivious acts now that three years ago would have been met with resistance.

Being a stepmother isn’t about being cruel and nasty or having warts. It’s a lot like mothering, a little like friendship, and a lot like love. In fact, it’s a pretty good deal. I inherited two terrific boys without going through labor, highchairs, or potty training.

It’s a great beginning to happily ever after.

 

Happy Grammyversary to Me!

October 12, 2007

What a day! Little Claire Raelyn is perfect. She was born at 12:02 p.m. She weighs 6 pounds, 13 ounces, and is 18 inches long. She has big dark eyes and black hair, her mother’s long narrow feet and fingers and thick earlobes, and her father’s nose. Her skin is porcelain pink and soft and flawless, and she pooped three times the first hour of her life. Watching her birth and holding her for the first time changed my life in ways I can’t process yet. I love her so much.

And to think I almost missed it! Carlene and I had gone to the cafeteria around 11:15 to get food for us and for Matt after being assured nothing would happen before we got back. Thirty minutes later, as we walked toward her room, we saw a lot of activity, and I heard Cassie asking, “Where’s my mom?” The doctor walked into the hallway, saw me, and told me I needed to get in there now!

I dropped my food in the waiting room across the hall and took my place on Cassie’s right side near her head, supporting her as she pushed. Matt was in front of me holding her right leg. As the baby’s head crowned, he looked at me and asked, “Boy or girl?” I said, “It’s a boy.” He said “I think it’s a boy, too.” Cassie, annoyed with both of us, yelled with the final push, “It’s a girl!”

And true enough, it was a girl.

I stood over my granddaughter’s bassinette, stunned, amazed, and so completely and utterly in love as I watched her looking around and breathing. I couldn’t stop staring and smiling and saying, “Oh my god, she’s perfect!”

Someone offered to take my picture. Then my daughter called to me from her bed. “Mom, her name is Claire Raelynn.”

Are you kidding me?

My name is part of her name.

I drove home in stunned silence. The world is completely different now.

I am a grandmother.

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Claire and me in 2010.  I am and always will be so happy when I’m with her. 

Remembering 9-11

911I wrote this column a week after the 9-11 attacks in 2001, when I worked for The Clarion News. Reading it again today, on the 18th anniversary, I vividly recall the fear, confusion, sadness, and anger almost everyone in this country felt that day. Some things you can never not feel or see no matter how much time passes. I wish you all peace as you remember where you were when you heard the news and how it changed your life.

Life Can Never Be Normal Again

September 20, 2001

The word “normal” isn’t written or talked about as much now as it was last week. For a few days after planes flew into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in southern Pennsylvania, all anyone wanted was for things to be the way they were before. But during the last week, the initial shock of the attacks has turned into sadness and anger, and we’ve added “as near to normal” to our speech, which is more in line with what we can do.

We can get close to what we knew as normal, but we’ll never live there again. We now live in a new kind of normal and in a new kind of world. Last week’s attacks stripped this country of its naivete, and dragged us into a world community already familiar with the hatred and destruction of terrorism. Our confidence and sense of security in a rich and powerful nation may not be destroyed, but we are certainly disorientated. After all, you don’t get kicked in the gut several times and then catch your breath right away. It takes slow deep breaths, a straightening of posture, and the awareness of the dull aching bruise to begin walking again.

And while I catch my breath, as I try to find some semblance of normalcy, I wonder about so many things, worry about so many people, and think about the anger I feel toward people I don’t know.

At last count, nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on September 11. On average, if you take into account parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, coworkers, and friends, there are more than one million people who knew them personally. One million people. I can’t wrap my head around such a number. One million people’s lives are left with a gaping hole that their loved one and friend once filled. One million people will never again feel their mother’s or wife’s or daughter’s arms around them, hear their child’s laughter or cries, tease their brother or sister at family gatherings, attend their grandson’s wedding or witness the birth of their best friend’s first child. One million people will grieve all their lives and wonder what could have been.

Then there’s the rest of us. A couple hundred million of us who could only watch in horror and try to comprehend the number of lives lost as buildings collapsed and planes burned. We know it could have been us and in a way it was us. When those 3,000 people died, a piece of our souls went with them because this was an attack on our country. We can go back to work, shop, play, and laugh again, but nothing will be the same. Something will always be missing.

Also, as I try to breathe again, to put this all into perspective I can understand, I wonder about the rest of the world and how it, too, has changed. What will happen to the little boy who was among the small group of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip “celebrating” the attacks? He was eating ice cream and wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt. If you looked closely, one of the camera operators seemed to be directing the crowd. Using children, feeding them with someone else’s hate – is that the tactic of our enemies?

I am afraid for the people in Afghanistan who have so little because the Taliban and the war with Russia took it all away. I’ve wanted justice for the women so inhumanly oppressed by the Taliban, but not like this. More innocents should not die, but they probably will, and that reality is what makes “normal” impossible.

I am concerned for Muslims living in this country and abroad who believe in a loving God and not the tenants of a fanatic section of their faith. They had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks on our country, yet they are being singled out, and acts of hate have been carried out against them. Where will that get us?

We must remember that Christians, too, have their own fanatics. Jerry Falwell blames “…the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians…the ACLU, People For the American Way,” he said “I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’” Pat Robertson said, “We have sinned against Almighty God, at the highest level of our government. We’ve stuck our finger in your eye. The Supreme Court has insulted you over and over again, Lord. They’ve taken your Bible away from the schools. They’ve forbidden little children to pray.” They conclude that perhaps we, as a nation, deserved to be attacked.

How have we turned away from God when it is God so many of us across this country, including children and members of the Supreme Court, are praying to? Personally, I pray to a loving and caring God, one who doesn’t manipulate us or purposely put us in harm’s way. The god Falwell and Robertson worship is a puppeteer, a jealous and self-serving god. No loving god encourages terrorists to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. No loving god destroys the lives of 3,000 people. This kind of religious fanaticism will not help our country heal. It can only make us angry and divided, and divert our attention away from the root cause of the attacks: terrorists. I feel so sorry for people who follow fanatics like Falwell and Robertson. It’s that kind of hate and intolerance in any religion that inspires terrorism.

We’re all trying to adapt to a new kind of normal. And it will take more than a few prayers, a few days, and a few tears. It will take more than a few minutes of silence, a few memorial services, and the reconstruction of buildings. Not that these things aren’t important. But it will take constant patience and determination. President Bush uses the word “resolve.” Do we have what it takes? I hope so. It’s all I can wish for right now.

We’re sad, we’re angry, we’re worried, and we’re tired. And while none of us wants to be paranoid, it’s hard not to wonder what’s next in this new world of ours.

 

What’s real, what’s true, what’s on repeat?

I buy it with good intentions, but good intentions don’t preserve lettuce. It usually dies in my refrigerator crisper.

For years I ate a salad almost every day. Every. Day. Trust me, if you do that – or eat anything every day (except maybe chocolate, cheese, and bread) – you’ll get bored.

I ate salad almost every day because I told myself it was good for me, and physically speaking, it is good when you consider salad at its basic nutritional level, sans all the stuff that makes it really good like croutons and ranch dressing, or if you’re in western Pennsylvania, french fries. But I also ate a salad almost every day because I told myself that if I didn’t put salad on repeat, I would gain a whole bunch of weight and show the world what an impulsive, undisciplined person I was.

Because of other people. Yeah…that’s a reason to eat salad every day.

What is real and what we tell ourselves is real are often different things, and often not true. Undergirding what we think is real is usually fear, which is NOT fun to admit, let alone deal with. It’s easier to blame circumstances or other people for our actions, reactions, and go-to coping mechanisms. In the case of eating salad every day, what was real had nothing to do with outward appearances and everything to do with my fear of losing control of my body, and then if (and I did) gain weight, having to love myself as I am, and then living inside that loved body in public (and in private).

I’m better with the whole loving-my-body-as-it-is, and I won’t go back to eating a salad every day in support of what I know now isn’t real or true, but sometimes I still act from within that false reality of “If I eat a salad, I am (somehow) a better person.”

Weight is an easy target. But often our feelings about our weight masks more wide spread beliefs of what we inherently believe is real but not true.

Tara Brach talks of this often.  There is so much false reality in the world, our respective countries, our backyards, and our lives. Individually and collectively, when we cling to and act on what we think is real – whether it’s our political, religious, or medical beliefs (I’m referring specifically to vaccinations), or ideas and opinions of other people based on their race, sexual orientation, or gender identification – we expose our fears. For instance, it is not possible to hate or even casually disregard someone who doesn’t pray or look like you, or to take advantage of or purposely hurt someone without being afraid, to the core, of losing something, be it self or national identity, power, or fate (either here or after death).

What does this have to do with eating a salad? There is so much injustice all around, from the self-inflicted and personal to the universal. I am in the world, and so are you. Our personal concerns and belief systems, no matter how big or small, mingle and coalesce with the world, and they affect the world in a micro and macro way. It makes sense, and is necessary, to take a personal inventory and contemplate what we think is real to discover if it merely supports an ideology born of fear or if it is true.

Here’s an example, something I experienced and wrote in my personal journal prior to my hip replacement in July.

I woke up this morning feeling deeply sad and frustrated. I’d had a horrible dream and it took me a few minutes after I woke up to realize it wasn’t real. It set the tone for the morning.

 After breakfast, I put laundry in the wash, loaded dishes in the dishwasher, and started vacuuming. My left hip kept threatening to toss my ass on the floor with every step. When I needed to change attachments to vacuum the bathroom floor, I couldn’t disconnect one of the hoses. I tried, failed, and cursed, tried, failed, and cursed before I threw myself against the wall and cried. I thought I was crying because I couldn’t change the hose and because my hip hurt, but they were just the catalyst. In and of themselves, hip pain and vacuum attachment failures wouldn’t make me cry. Make me angry, yes. But I felt empty, and an even larger emptiness rose up; an indescribable loneliness.

 I took a deep breath and did a brief inquiry, ala my years of meditation training, and I think I figured out that I was crying because I couldn’t stop thinking about how last night I witnessed a tender moment between an adult daughter and her mother. A simple thing, really. The daughter and mother were talking and laughing with each other in that familiar way parents and children do when they like each other as people and love each other as family. It’s an intimacy that the outside world isn’t meant to understand or intrude upon. As I cried, I realized that what was really true in my head and causing the tears was not the hip pain and the vacuum snafu. That stuff was real. What was true was I missed my daughters and was frustrated that I didn’t live closer, and – and this is the hardest one to admit – sad that I didn’t have that same kind of intimacy with my own mother.”

Parsing out all that shit was hard, but in the end it was worth it. The things I put on repeat – the “you shoulds,” the “how could yous,” the “WTF were you thinkings,” the “why are you crying now???” – deserve my attention! And your own WTFs deserve your thinking, too! I really believe that.

Take inventory. Ask yourself: What is real? What is true? What do I put on repeat?

The world feels like it’s turned upside down, and there are times when getting inside myself seems selfish. But if we don’t get inside ourselves and figure it out, who will? No one, that’s who.

Now go eat a salad. Or not. All I ask is that you question why you do what you do on repeat when it feels…wonky.

 

Judgy McJudger Chooses the Carrot over the Whip

“We cannot judge ourselves into improvement. It doesn’t work.” Tara Brach

Yesterday, I did something I don’t usually do, mostly because I forget it’s the better, kinder thing. I made a pact with myself that if I vacuumed the house, made the bed, and cleaned the toilet, that I would reward myself by starting a new book (Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner).

Normally I say to myself, “Get off your lazy ass and get your chores done!” But I’m tired of being mean to myself, or rather, I’m tired of judgement being my go-to threat when I want to accomplish something. I would certainly never say that to a friend!

Judging is so…shallow and lazy. No real thought goes into judging. Over and over I know this is true because after all these years as a mom, grandma, partner, employer, and employee, I know that I get a lot more cooperation when I dangle a carrot instead of a whip.

So why doesn’t that rule automatically apply to me? Especially now. You’d think I would defer to a more kind approach since I’m only one month post-hip replacement surgery. I’m definitely on the mend, and yet my first thoughts on my recovery are usually more negative than positive. For instance, I can’t walk too far or too fast. I am still on a 90-degree restriction, meaning I can’t bend over very far or shave my legs past my knees. I can’t sit in a chair or in a car for longer than an hour without pain around the incision.

But what I can do is: Walk without a cane most days, and with zero hip joint pain. I wouldn’t be able to outrun a bear if it crossed my yard (which they do sometimes), but I couldn’t before either, so there you go. I have a grabber if I drop something, and I’ve mastered the golf ball pick-up move.

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Obviously, that is NOT me.

I can drive myself to physical therapy and to the grocery store to pick up my online grocery order. And for a week I’ve been riding the recumbent bike at home and at physical therapy for 10 minutes at a time, which is 10 minutes longer than I have the last 18 months.

Rather than buck, kick, and wish things were different or would hurry up and heal already, I decided yesterday that, since I have to put my feet up during the day anyway, I would use that to my advantage and reward my accomplishments. Also, I never thought I’d miss vacuuming or cleaning the toilet, but it felt really good to be self-sufficient again and contribute to the household chores. A positive reward in and of itself! Jim still has to do the laundry since the washer and dryer are in the basement and the stairs are uneven, but I admit that’s one chore I’m not anxious to resume, and I positively embrace that point of view!

Judging is a hard habit to break, but I’m consciously trying to be on Team Lynn and to see the half-full glass.

What about you? As I asked on my Zen Bag Lady Facebook page, do you reward yourself for completing ordinary tasks? Please leave a comment here or join us on FB!

 

 

 

Pain Is NOT an Identity

Physical pain is something most of us don’t like to talk about in public, or even among friends and family. I mean, seriously, who wants to be that person? Most people wouldn’t believe you anyway if you told them you hurt pretty much all the time, and it’s not easy to brace against the look that says, “Really? It’s probably all in your head.” When we’re asked, “How are you?” we politely reply, “Fine! And you?”

But pain can be scary, especially when its origins are unknown or sketchy, or the cure daunting, and when we carry that burden privately, holed up in our head, pain can make us feel isolated and emotionally weak. We might think we’re being brave by sucking it up and continuing to do the things that make us hurt, like it’s an act of defiance, but really it’s an act of denial. We take the Advil and the Tylenol and the prescriptions, and almost always we adapt, usually without realizing how and to what extent.

Now that I’m on the other side of hip replacement surgery, I recognize how I consciously and unconsciously coped with the pain, and how pain became my identity. I was someone who limped and sat around a lot. I planned my days by how many times I would have to move because standing, walking, and climbing stairs sucked equally and took a great deal of gritting my teeth to do. I stopped doing things I loved, like going to flea markets and perusing antique malls. Jim got the mail most days, even though our mailbox is only 40 feet from the house, up a slight incline. When we’d talk about going on vacation (hell, even going out for breakfast!), to me it felt like a pipe dream, something I used to do. I couldn’t think beyond the pain because it had taken over my life, and I had let it.

I also ate for comfort. My food intake was pathetic. Salads? Nope, because making one meant standing for longer than a few minutes. I’d throw a piece of lettuce and a slice of tomato on a cheese sandwich and call it a day. Fruit? Once in a while I’d slice a banana on top of a bowl of Cheerios. Most fruit and lettuce went to the crisper to die. White bread was more calming than whole wheat, Hershey’s Kisses more sympathetic than an apple.

Now that the hip pain is gone, I look at my world with a bit more hope. But I also realize how deeply embedded those adaptive habits are and how loud that voice is that still tells me I can’t. Therefore, I want to – consciously and in good faith – change the message and the habits.

  1. I want to listen to what’s going on in my body with joy and expectation that this new hip will allow me to move again without fear. When it would be easier to lay around, I will remind myself that it’s OK to move. To get up on that country road I live on and walk a little. Take the dog along, or call my neighbor and have her meet me halfway to her house a few tenths of a mile from mine. Who cares what I look like with a cane and T.E.D. hose? (Confession: I had to do some positive self talk this morning to get motivated to go to the grocery store wearing shorts, my T.E.D hose, and my sensible slip-on shoes. As I walked through the store, I realized that no one but me gave a damn what I was wearing, and it was a humbling and good lesson.)

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    First order of business once I don’t have to wear these anymore: a good shave and a pedi (in that order).

  2. I want to be more mindful of my food intake. Not that I will return to my militant ways from 2005 to 2012ish, but instead, I want to engage with food in a more balanced way. To see it as all things healthy and comforting. More vegetables, fewer nachos. That kind of thing.
  3. I also want to work on changing how I respond to pain in relation to other people. I noticed that in the last 18 months, I often compared my physical pain with someone else’s pain and pain circumstances, especially those that I perceived were worse than mine. I would then demote my experience to insignificant/not-so-bad, even though it impacted every facet of my life. But my pain is my pain, and it’s possible to acknowledge and sympathize with the pain others experience, while also acknowledging that what I feel is significant to my life.
  4. Also, there’s no need to feel guilty for reaching out to a friend to say, “Today is not a good day. I hurt. I needed to say that out loud.” I say this because today I reread something I wrote in 2014, the last time I had a hip replacement, that helped me remember that we really do need people, and that people need us to need them.
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Family therapy a few hours after surgery. The grandbabies brought me a pink sloth and a blanket that says “Namaste and Cuddle”. 

Pain is a suck fest, no doubt, but we’re better off acknowledging it, especially to ourselves and those closest to us. It’s the only way to be aware of our responses and our coping mechanisms. There’s nothing wrong with a good cry, a woe-is-me moment with a friend, or a slice of carrot cake when we’re mindful of why.

Pain is not an identity. It might be a part of our life, but it’s not who we are.

 

 

 

 

Laid Bare By a Questionnaire

Talking to a stranger about ourselves can (sometimes) be fun at a party or on a first date; cathartic when the stranger is receptive or being paid to listen; marginally OK/not OK standing in line at the grocery store; and downright disconcerting when the inquiry is particularly personal and your life kinda sorta depends on how you answer.

In preparation for my hip replacement on Wednesday, a surgical nurse called Friday to ask me questions about my medical history. Even the blogger in me, whose “job” is to write stuff about my life and share it with strangers, is unnerved by the medical interview because who doesn’t want to bring their best to an interview?

Martha, the surgical nurse, seemed very nice. She’d had her hip replaced last year, so she was empathetic. She started with the easy questions. Well, easy questions to answer, but not so easy to feel inside. Date of birth? How tall am I? How much do I weigh…? Apparently “Not what I’d like to” isn’t the right answer. Old habits die hard, and I made an excuse for being overweight again and vowed to her (reminder, she is a complete stranger who I’ll never meet) that I would lose 50 pounds once I had a new hip.

I could hear her typing and she offered no response, so of course I thought, ‘Crap, maybe she’s overweight, too, and I’ve insulted her!’, but I didn’t go there. Apologizing would maybe have furthered an even bigger cluster f*** than I’d potentially created.

My mind was everywhere it didn’t need to be at that point.

*deep breath*

Martha moved on. She asked about what surgeries I’ve had, how my various body systems were functioning, and how I responded to anesthesia. I gave short, succinct answers. She didn’t need to know that after I had my tonsils out, when I as 17, when I woke up after surgery, I lifted up the sheet and cried, “I’m naked! I want my mom!”

Martha asked if I had children. I said I did. God love Martha, I dodged a bullet when she asked, “When were your babies born?” I answered, without hesitation and with a deep breath out, “1983 and 1984.” In prior medical interviews, the question was phrased, “How many times have you been pregnant?” That’s a red-flag question for anyone who has had a miscarriage or abortion, and the response can trigger a shit-ton of regret and sad feelings. Thank you, Martha, for not making me go there.

Any depression or anxiety issues? Well, now, that’s complicated. I blabbed on for a while, giving her way more info than she probably needed, but then, I wanted her (again, a complete stranger) to understand that I wasn’t always depressed or anxious, and that lately, things were going well and…and… and… She listened patiently, and when I was finished, she simply said, “Take an Ativan the day of your procedure.” End of convo.

There’s so much about our lives we want to keep private, and it’s in our protective nature that we don’t want to offer full disclosure about things that, to non-medical folks like me, don’t seem relevant when being interviewed for a hip replacement. Just like a job interview, you want to stay upbeat and say what you need to in order to get the job.

Was I 100 percent truthful? Not really. But I doubt that the joint(s) I smoked when I was 16 (to 24) preclude me from getting this hip. I’ve had five other surgeries since that last high and I’m alive to tell the story.

Just don’t tell Martha, OK? (Or my mom.)

 

 

There Is Always an Otherwise

It’s early afternoon, and I write this propped up in my bed, listening to it rain…again…with my little dog Zuzu curled up at my side. Next to her is my tablet, in case I want to read or watch a show; my latest journal, which has some angry entries of late; my phone; and the strap I use to stretch my leg muscles, IT band, and hip flexors.

When I started writing this, I was reminded of a poem I saved from a teaching demonstration I gave in a grad class once, and I want to share it with you. It will help explain the rest of this post.

WHEN I COULD WALK

By Katherine M. Clarke

 After Edward Hirsch, “The Sweetness”

The times my failing body and I could walk 
come back to me now: strolls by the Charles River, 
ambles through Harvard Square…

Magnolias waved and buskers’ antics
delighted our summer nights, companions 
as we roamed and wandered.

Remember the bags of groceries muscled
from porch, to countertop, to cupboards? 
We made a dinner, we made a life.

Wasn’t that us sliding into a bath, slipping 
into fresh sheets, moving as we wanted, 
with whom we wanted, when we wanted?

They come back to me now, dear body of mine, 
the times when I could walk and loved you more.

I got about 90 minutes of sleep last night. Thanks to Dr. Google, at about 2 a.m. I learned I probably have a pinched nerve in my left hip. Twelve hours later, I fear sciatica has set in as well.

Surely we all know someone (yourself, perhaps) who suffers from no-turning-back physical pain or deficiency; the kind that will be around – in some form or other – the rest of their/our days. It is with all of us in mind that I write with empathy, sympathy, and – even – joy (or at the very least, acknowledgment) that we’re still breathing, one breath at a time.

When I turned 55 ten months ago, I was super OK with it, unlike when I turned 30, which I realize now, my response was ridiculous. I should have celebrated instead of getting drunk and getting a half-assed, unfinished tattoo of a dolphin because it reminded me of my high school boyfriend, who got a dolphin tattoo when he was in the Navy. What? But 30-year-old me, and most likely 30-year-old you, couldn’t possibly (thank god) know what life would be like at 55, and so we went with whatever flow was going on in our brains at the time, and my flow was having a bit of a meltdown. So be it.

These days, I’m less concerned with filling in that tattoo as I am putting my Humpty Dumpty body into some reasonable semblance of reliability. Last night, as waves of nerve pain snaked through my hip at 3- to 5-minute intervals, keeping me awake, I shifted from anxiety (thank you Ativan), to denial, to meditation. I concentrated on my breathing and told my thoughts that I’d think them later. For the most part that alleviated my fear, which was what dominated my monkey night mind. Can any of us claim to be rational in the middle of the night?

One of the more difficult things about grad school wasn’t the sometimes obscure reading, research, or writing papers. It was getting around campus on two bad knees, a bum hip, and a back in need of titanium rods and screws. Now, a year after graduating, and countless attempts at physical therapy, yoga, and trying to be “normal,” my body has slipped away from my control. A cane completes the leg that limps, 50 percent what it used to be. I sometimes let myself wish for my 48-year-old body. (I don’t think I’d know what to do with my 30-year-old body again!) When I was 48, I knew I wasn’t invincible. I sensed that my body and I were on the cusp of the inevitable, but still we had our adventures. I took advantage of my body because I knew it wouldn’t last long.

Last night, I wrote in my journal: “Do I want to live to 100? Meh…no. I’m OK dying ‘young’ish – sooner if pain will be constantly in the picture.” That neither alarmed or surprised me. I assure you I’m not suicidal. But the older I get, the more willing I am to face my fears. I don’t have to like them, and I don’t like how my body has betrayed me, but I want to live with them, live in this body, with as much peace as I can.

And so, from this perch on my bed, with my dog still beside me, I share another poem, one of my favorites, by Jane Kenyon, called “Otherwise.” In all of our lives, there is always an otherwise.

Otherwise

By Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.