Author Archives: Lynn Haraldson

Ignore It and It Won’t Go Away

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I am republishing this blog I wrote in 2013. Quoting Dr. Frasier Crane, I wish you all good mental health.

July 1987

It was 3 a.m. My mother, older sister, and I were watching Mickey Mouse cartoons in a hospital waiting room, anxious for news about Dad, who’d had a major heart attack. I was reclined sideways in a chair, my legs dangling over the arm when my stomach started to churn. The feeling crept upward to my heart, which began beating wildly. Then it went to my lungs and I couldn’t complete a full breath. It finally settled in my mind and I thought, ‘I’m dying, too!’ Within a few minutes, I was on a gurney in the emergency room, and a doctor was handing me a pill.

“You had a panic attack,” he said. “Here, put this under your tongue.”

It was Halcion. Valium with a kick, and now illegal in England. Within seconds, I was calm. So calm I forgot why I was at the hospital. My sister reminded me as she poured me into the front seat of my car to take me home. I remember saying, “Oh, that’s right,” and drifted off to sleep.

I slept the rest of the morning. When I woke up, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I was groggy and deeply frightened. Did my heart just skip? Why can’t I breathe? The panic had returned and my only defense was to slip a Halcion under my tongue.

Panic came back the next day and the next. By the end of the week, my defenses were spent. The pill bottle was empty.

The next two weeks, panic poured over me like tsunami. I went to every emergency room in the Minneapolis area begging for relief, usually in the middle of the night, waking my husband and dragging the kids out from their beds because I couldn’t drive myself. The last ER physician I saw said I needed to see a psychiatrist and refused to write a script. He sent me home shaking and throwing up.

So I called a psychiatrist. He wanted to explore my past. I just wanted drugs. He assured me I could control my panic through deep breathing. I told him I hadn’t caught my breath in weeks. He still refused me drugs.

A few days later, my Selectric II typewriter ribbon broke at work and I began to cry. I cried while I changed it, cried as I typed a memo, and cried when my boss sent me home because I couldn’t stop crying. I cried driving home, cried while I made and ate a grilled cheese sandwich, and I cried as I dialed the phone to tell my psychiatrist I was crying. I cried even harder when he told me he was checking me in to the hospital. A special hospital.

A few hours later, my husband dropped me off at the front doors, and I checked in to the psychiatric ward. I’d stopped crying, but I was exhausted. My head felt like a bowling ball, and I answered questions with monosyllabic words.

After filling out insurance forms, a nurse led me to a scale in the hallway across from the nurses’ station. I was wearing knee-length knit shorts and a size XXL t-shirt stained at the hem. Tears had washed away my makeup, and my hair was matted to my head. I took off my slip-on canvas shoes with the hole in the toe and laid them beside the scale. The nurse optimistically started the large metal weight at the 150-pound position and nudged the smaller weight higher and higher. The balance arrow didn’t budge. She moved the large weight to 200 and again moved the small weight higher. The arrow bounced a little around 240. For accuracy, she should have moved the large weight to 250, but she said cheerfully, “We’ll call you 249.”

The next day, I spent two hours in group therapy drawing pictures and writing in a journal and feeling completely out of place and ridiculously selfish among people facing electric shock therapy. One woman was the only survivor of a car crash that killed her niece and sister. She’d been the driver. A chain-smoking young man had locked himself in a closed garage and started his car’s engine a few weeks before. He’d been repeatedly molested as a child.

I thought, ‘Can I be a bigger baby?’ as I wrote my name with a blue crayon on a piece of yellow construction paper. We were to draw a “family tree of feelings.” The only thing I felt was guilty for taking up space in a facility meant for people with real problems, and stupid for having called my doctor in the first place. So I’d cried for a few hours? Big deal. People cry.

I took a two-hour, fill-in-the-hole-with-a-number-two-pencil psychological test that asked me to answer yes or no to statements such as, “I would like to do the work of a choir director” and “If I could sneak into the county fair or an amusement park without paying, I would.” Were they kidding me?

The next day, a psychiatrist went over my results. She showed me a line chart indicating how I “scored” in regard to various emotions and behaviors. The line was flowing along nicely, indicating I was “normal” here and “normal” there, just as I expected. Then a steep, jagged line rose across the paper like a fjord on the Norwegian coastline. It went all the way to the top of the chart before plummeting back to the middle.

“That’s your anger line,” the doctor said.

“What?” I laughed. “Just because I don’t want to be a choir director, I’m angry? I have nothing to be angry about!”

I explained that I had a panic disorder, and told her how a few days ago I couldn’t stop crying and that was why I was there. I just needed to calm down, maybe lose some weight. I’d be fine.

She nodded, wrote a few notes, and gave me Xanax. I promised to visit my psychiatrist weekly for a month and was released from the facility at the end of the week.

The Xanax worked almost instantly, and it kept the physical symptoms of anxiety at bay. But the relentless weeks-long waves of panic prior to the Xanax made me afraid of fear, and I was scared I’d have another attack at any moment. I needed something to change, something to help me feel normal again. God knows my psychiatrist was no help. He read the hospital psychiatrist’s report and ran with her whole “anger” diagnosis. He wanted me to journal about my anger, even though I insisted I wasn’t angry. But in order to get the Xanax, I wrote in the journal.

He brought up Bruce’s death and asked me about my current husband, who in the past had been physically and emotionally violent, but I wouldn’t go there with him. All was forgiven. There was nothing I could do to change the past, so why dwell on it? He said something about unresolved grief and lack of self-esteem and blah blah blah.

‘Buddy,’ I thought, ‘all I want is some control of my life.’

I discovered the golden loophole a few weeks later when I went to my gynecologist for a routine exam. I told her how anxious I’d been feeling, leaving out the part about the hospital and the psychiatrist, and she diagnosed me with severe PMS. She wrote me a script for Xanax and that was the end of journaling about non-existent anger. I focused my energy on the one thing I knew I could control: my weight.

I joined Weight Watchers, but not before saying goodbye to a few of my “friends,” the ones I knew I wouldn’t be able to “contact” once I was on a diet.

The week before the first meeting, I made macaroni and cheese with real butter, and I grilled a T-bone steak. I ate garlic mashed potatoes and cheesy hash browns, baked a chocolate cake, and went twice to Dairy Queen for a Hot Fudge Brownie Delight. I poured 2-percent milk over Captain Crunch for breakfast, and made a parade of pasta dishes for dinner. Then on Saturday morning, after throwing out the leftover brie and French baguette, deviled eggs, and Hershey Kisses, I walked into a Weight Watchers facility, paid the $8 fee, weighed in and left without attending the meeting. After four weeks, I’d acquired all the basic program materials and stopped going.

“You’ll leave me once you’ve lost weight,” my husband said.

“No, I won’t!” I insisted.

I subsisted on raw and boiled vegetables, fruit, skim milk, and plain baked white fish. In my WW food journal, I checked off every allotted carb, protein, and dairy allowed. I ate nothing more. I quit drinking and started riding a stationary bike I bought at a garage sale for $10. In return, I averaged a 3.5-pound loss every week.

I wasn’t angry. Heck no. Just highly motivated.

2019 update: I continued running away from my anger and anxiety for nine more years, always looking for shortcut solutions and substitutes for therapy. Finally, on a summer day in 1996, I decided I was done. I went to a sporting goods store and put ten percent down on a handgun. I filled out the background check paperwork and the clerk said I could pick up the gun in two days.

I drove to my favorite spot by the Clarion River. For an hour, I hated on myself, and I cried for my losses and the stupid decisions I’d made over the years. Then I remembered my children. They were just up the hill from the river, in our apartment, completely unaware their mother was thinking of leaving them.

I went home, made an appointment with a psychologist, and didn’t complete the gun purchase. 

Today, I still have anxiety, some full-blown panic attacks, and I have no problem taking lorazepam to help me out when it happens. I know people who treat anxiety and panic attacks as character flaws and believe if they were just “strong enough,” they wouldn’t suffer as they do.

Please, I’m begging you, if this is you, stop beating yourself up. Talk to your doctor. And if that doctor says it’s all in your head, talk to another doctor. Keep talking until you get the help you need. Also, read The Bloggess. She knows what’s up.


A Wake-Up (Scam) Call

It was the week that nothing I planned got done, and instead, I earned a degree in Phone Scams 101.

Since Tuesday, I’ve been on the phone with bankers and doctors and computer experts and a plethora of other people to help get back the $9,500 phone scammers stole from my brother, a vulnerable adult with short-term memory loss.

Some of you might recall that in 2011, Marty suffered a grand mal seizure, and the post-ictal period (the time during which the brain recovers from a seizure) lasted several hours. It was the next day before he recognized anyone, and five days later, he still had no sense of time. Eight years later, he lives independently in a senior living community, but his short-term memory is almost nonexistent, and so our younger brother Matthew and I serve as his power-of-attorney.

We’re not sure if it was the Social Security, IRS, or Microsoft scam because Marty can’t remember the details, but how it played out is in keeping with the description reported recently in the New York Times: “In some cases, the criminals are quite aggressive and try to scare their targets into action. In one common tactic, the fake callers tell the potential victim that his or her Social Security number has been ‘suspended’ because of suspicious activity or because it has been involved in a crime. The callers may ask their victims to confirm their Social Security numbers. They even say that the victims must withdraw cash from their bank accounts and that the accounts will be frozen if the victims don’t act quickly…Some people are scared enough that they follow the caller’s orders to withdraw money and put it on a gift card, then give the card’s number to the criminals.”

In Marty’s case, the pieces-of-sh*t (toned down from what I originally called the thieves) convinced him to transfer money from his line of credit at his bank to his checking and then they took it from there. Literally.

They also convinced him to go to the nearest retailer and buy a $500 Google Play gift card, which he did. But before he called them back with the card number, something in his fuzzy brain told him to report it. He went to the police, but they did nothing but call the county adult protective services to report Marty as a vulnerable adult. I was mad at first, both at Marty for not calling Matthew or me first and at the police for making a report. It turned out to be a blessing, though, because the social worker gave us some invaluable advice and information on how to protect Marty from future scams. His case, for now, is closed.

Thanks to the manager at his apartment complex, Marty was referred to a computer expert who cleaned up his computer, erased the malware, and created a Fort Knox-like wall that (we hope) no one can break through or climb over to gain access to Marty’s computer again.

There’s a special hell for people who prey on vulnerable adults.

I’m sure you, like everyone, get fake calls almost every day. I choose not to answer any call that isn’t from someone I know because the one time I did, it went something like this:

Me: Hello?

Caller: Lynn! Is that you? (like she was my best friend)

Me: Um…who…

Caller: I’ve been trying to get a hold of you! I’m a professional solicitor…

Me: Click.

I apologize to any of you who are employed as a “professional solicitor,” but that’s one job in the gray area of ethical. No legitimate solicitor should pretend to know the person they’re calling. For people like my brother, they could get confused and believe (and do) whatever the caller says.

My boyfriend Jim regularly gets calls from someone claiming that if he doesn’t pay his student loans, he will be prosecuted. Jim has never had a student loan, and he tells them that, only in a very…colorful way. He enjoys messing with phone scammers. So does my daughter and our milkman. They say it gives them a moment of satisfaction.

Matthew is in possession of the Google Play gift card, and thankfully Marty didn’t give the scammers the card number. We’ve also made sure his bank account is locked up so tight that he can’t withdraw $5 without us being notified. The only satisfaction I’ve gained from this scam is that it was a wake-up call to yet one more way in which my brother is susceptible to fraud. Matthew and I have said many times this week that we “should have been” more diligent, but we can’t figure out how we could have prevented this scam without taking away more of Marty’s ever-shrinking independence.

Have you ever had to take away Dad’s car keys? Move Mom into a nursing home? It’s a fine line we walk being responsible for a vulnerable adult. In many cases, they’ve entrusted us to make the right decisions for them when they can’t or won’t see the big picture, but love and a long history make these decisions emotionally difficult. We have roles as children or, in our case, as a younger sister and brother, and those roles are part of the emotional fabric of the family. It’s not “natural” to tell your mom or dad or older brother what to do, and yet we must.

If this is you, if you’re in the position of being responsible for a vulnerable adult, how are you doing? How do you walk that fine line? How do you make those decisions, and how do you feel when you do?

Chelsea Handler Made Me…Cry?

Chelsea Handler has made me gasp in disbelief (“OMG, did she just SAY that out loud?”) and laugh until I cry. But never has anything she’s written or said made me cry cry, as in, real tears of sorrow.

On Monday, Handler was on the NPR show Here and Now promoting her new book, Life Will Be the Death of Me…and you, too! Broadly, it’s a memoir about her psychological journey after the 2016 election, and more specifically, coming to terms with her oldest brother Chet’s death when she was 9 years old.

Handler and Here and Now host Robin Young covered a lot of ground in the eleven-minute interview, and I was … surprised? Is that the word? … by Handler’s serious and thoughtful exploration of her white privilege and the not-so-funny parts of her growing up.

At around minute nine, Young acknowledged that people tuning in to an interview with Chelsea Handler typically expect her to take down, in comedic fashion, the latest societal ridiculousness, but that their interview was pretty serious. Young asked, “Is Chelsea Handler going to be funny still?” Handler answered, “Of course! That muscle is fit and ready to roll. This other stuff is what I needed more of; this seriousness and thoughtfulness and to think about talking before talking.” I was sitting in my car, high-fiving (no one but me) Handler’s honesty and thinking how great it is to face that sh*t head on.

Then came the next question: “Where is Chet now? Where is he now in your life?” Handler broke down, and her answer is so heartfelt that I couldn’t help crying along:

“In my mind, now that I have a deeper understanding of awareness, of mindfulness, of like, you know, that people aren’t really gone, now I believe that he’s like — not that people die and they’re sitting around floating above your body, not that stupid nonsense — I believe that he’ll always be a part of me, and so will my mom…The people that we love are with us, and we should be spending our time honoring them, instead of grieving for so long. We can grieve, because we need to get that out, but we have to honor those people, and the way to honor them is by fixing yourself and getting healthy.”

I’ve written a lot about grief over the years, and countless numbers of readers have shared their experiences with loss, too. We’ve often engaged in what feels like an online support group. I will forever maintain that grief has its place.

To Handler’s other point (and maybe I’m splitting hairs), though, “fix” feels akin to “heal,” and nothing really gets “fixed” in our efforts to deal with or understand loss. When we experience loss, we’re forever changed. But she’s spot on about getting “heal”thy.

Something my pastor said to me in the days after my husband died has stuck with me, and I share it often with others who grieve. He said that time doesn’t heal, it only gives us perspective.

At the moment he said that, I was angry.

“What do you mean time doesn’t heal?” I cried. “It has to! It must! How else am I supposed to feel better and normal ever again if something doesn’t heal me?”

“Time doesn’t have the power to ‘heal,’” he replied. “Healing implies it all goes away.  But years from now, you’ll be able to recall this time, and feel everything you feel at this very moment. In time, you will get stronger, you will feel joy again, you will build yourself up, but this comes from inside you, not because a certain amount of time passes.

“It’s a lot of work and you won’t be the same person you were before he died. You can’t be.”

In time, I understood that he was right, and once I accepted that grief is a journey down a long and arduous road, I no longer put a time line on when it “should” end, because it doesn’t.

While “fixed” isn’t my go-to word or believe it should be our desired outcome when we are living with loss, Chelsea Handler is right about healing. We honor those we’ve lost by taking care of ourselves and not living in a rabbit hole of grief. It’s brave and takes a crap-ton of self-awareness to achieve acceptance, and I believe that it’s healthy grieving, even years later, that allows us to do that.





Black Holes and Asteroids

powPowehi is the recently (and only) named photographed supermassive black hole. Not to be confused with the song by Muse, Powehi was photographed after 10 years of work by 200 researchers.

“The supermassive black hole has a mass that is 6.5 billion times that of our sun.” I both know and don’t know what that means. I understand the concept broadly, but specifically? Not so much. In addition to being “distance challenged,” in that I can’t tell you how far it is in feet or yards or meters between my front door and mailbox, I cannot calculate, or more specifically, imagine, mass of that magnitude. To this English major, E=MC2 is more poetry than formula.

But there is a realistic intersection between advanced science and poetic imagination. Challenged as I may be in physics, I am fascinated by time, space, and the universe. I don’t believe our planet contains the only “life” forms in the universe, and heaven is too big to be an earth-bound religious concept. I’m on board with a little “c” “creator” that is beyond our imagination, and I hope I live at least until 2029 when 99942 Apophis graces us with its orbit.

 Written in 2007, I include a 2019 update on Apophis, a fascinating asteroid that I hope will spark your imagination, too.

Amoebas, Asteroids, and Life on Other Planets

NASA calls it 99942 Apophis, and while it’s been downgraded to a still-frightening one in 45,000 chance of impact in 2036, this asteroid fascinates me.

In Egyptian mythology, Apophis was the ancient spirit of evil and destruction, a demon that was determined to plunge the world into eternal darkness. The odds of the Apophis asteroid hitting Earth are about the same as hitting a hole-in-one in golf or being hit by a car while walking – things that happen every day and to people you know – so I’m hoping someone sends Bruce Willis to space to fix this problem soon, although humans will probably blow up this planet long before that asteroid.

I never took a physics course, and other than watching “Space 1999” and every incarnation of “Star Trek,” I’m not really a science fiction buff either. I’m fascinated by space exploration because I’m fascinated by our connectedness with the universe. We can’t possibly be all that’s alive out there.

Take the newly discovered, possibly life-friendly planet outside our galaxy called 581 c, which sounds more like a tax form than an interplanetary object.

“Liquid water is critical to life as we know it,” co-author Xavier Delfosse of Grenoble University in France, said in a statement. “Because of its temperature and relative proximity, this planet will most probably be a very important target of the future space missions dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life. On the treasure map of the Universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X.”

Other astronomers cautioned it’s too early to tell whether there is water.

“You need more work to say it’s got water or it doesn’t have water,” said retired NASA astronomer Steve Maran, press officer for the American Astronomical Society. “You wouldn’t send a crew there assuming that when you get there, they’ll have enough water to get back.”

NASA also shouldn’t assume that an intelligent life form would let an exploration crew get back. “They” might be pissed off by the intrusion. Or if we sent a probe first rather than a human crew, what if it arrived on 581 c and some kid found it in his backyard and brought it to his basement and no one there ever knew we tried to make contact?

All told, though, we probably need to find another planet to live on if we keep screwing up the one we’ve been given. Mark Morford, a SF Gate columnist, wrote a snarky, thoughtful column, as he always does, on the fate of the honey bee and its connection to the fate of humankind. A quick quote: “See, the sweet, sticky ontological truth is nature doesn’t really give a damn whether our species lives or dies. It is very possible that we are not nearly as essential or significant as we like to believe. Though I imagine if nature had her druthers, she might very well choose to eliminate us like a bad dream and let the honeybees and the ants and the trees and the whales take over.”

Science is based on evidence, not belief, and I’m looking forward to the day when evidence reveals that the tiniest one-cell amoeba existed or exists on another planet. That would tie the Kansas Board of Education’s underwear in a knot, wouldn’t it? It would certainly expand the field of theology. It’s about time for a new debate about “creation” in that stale field of the study of big G god. Because like it or not, humans, you, me, amoebas, asteroids, honey bees, DNA, and extraterrestrial children hiding space probes in their basements – everything in this universe – is connected, and we need to find a way to play nice.

 2019 Update: According to an article published in Astronomy and Astrophysics, Vol. 618, September 2018: “The asteroid will pass at a distance of 38,400 km, roughly six radii, from Earth’s centre, on April 13, 2029. Although first calculations showed that Apophis could be a potential impactor on our planet during this event, the catastrophic hypothesis was gradually, then definitely rejected with more and more constrained and refined calculations.” I think what they’re trying to say is, it won’t be Apophis that destroys Earth in 10 years. That may well enough be us.  

Thin Places

How this happened, I don’t know, but I’d never heard of “thin places” before this morning. (And I’m not talking about skinny.)

I was listening to Nikki Mirghafori’s weekly Happy Hour guided meditation. The topic was thin places. As she was explaining what it is, I started to tear up, realizing that I was in a thin place several weeks ago without realizing it. Too restless to finish the meditation, I decided to write about thin places instead. Meet the divine at my computer, so to speak.

Lacy Clark Ellman from A Sacred Journey blog defines it this way: “A thin place is a term used for millennia to describe a place in time where the space between heaven and Earth grows thin and the sacred and the secular seem to meet. The term comes from…Celtic spirituality and the Celtic Christians, who were deeply connected to the natural world and considered every aspect of life to be infused with the presence of the Divine, even (or perhaps, especially) the ordinary elements of everyday life.”

When I saw my friend Julia in early February, I sat next to her bed, holding her hand and talking with her about our grandchildren. (Julia is my daughter Cassie’s mother-in-law.) With only a short time left to live, Julia was consciously aware that she was in that thin place between Earth and the eternal world, and by holding my hand, so, too, was I. She said she was going to meet Jesus. She was certain. I said I was sure she would, but inside I was angry at Jesus.

Is it possible to encounter the divine with awe and anger?

Thin places inspire intimacy with the divine, but we have to be willing and open to the encounter. Perhaps I need to finish the meditation I abandoned this morning and feel what there is to feel; to enter the memory of that thin place and consider the certainty of Julia’s conviction that the divine was ever present as she lay dying.


Julia with two of our shared granddaughters, Mae and Claire, Thanksgiving 2018.

A Poem for My Little Dog

I let you out in the cold20190130_162729

January rain to pee. Instead,

you disappear around the house.

The rain is steady,

I assume you are eating

cat shit under the eaves.

I call your name, “Zuzu!”

and you trot to the house,

carefully, steadily,

your head high and a

soup bone gripped tight

in your teeth.

The one you buried in August.

I wish I had your recollection.

I honor it, I do.

But the bone is going in the trash.

Here, have a Greenie.


Running Naked Through a Graveyard (in loving memory of my grandmother)

Leave it to my Grandma Signe to die on a leap day. (February 29, 1996)

Unusual is too strong a word to describe a woman who chews gum with her front teeth, but to me, my grandma was eccentric for keeping a small bottle of Southern Comfort in her refrigerator.

Signe had an Andy Warhol eye for color, and was a slipper knitter and a first-rate doily maker. A coterie of widows were her loyal companions. She drove a big green boat of a Chevy, and with her right foot on the gas and her left foot on the brake (usually at the same time), and on Thursdays, she’d pick up her friends and road trip five blocks to the senior center for potluck and gossip.

Signe never forgot to send a card and a couple of bucks for every grandchild’s birthday, and when she came to visit, she always played games and talked to us about us, never about herself. She was careful to stay away from stories about her past. It’s as though she didn’t have one, like she was always a grandma, never a girl. To me, Signe was born at age 60 and simply grew older as I did.

We all have defining moments in our lives, some more difficult than others. Signe’s was when her husband Martin died. She was 33 and eight months pregnant. My dad, also named Martin, was 6.

When Martin died, Signe never spoke his name again, and insisted my dad be called by his middle name, Donald. Maybe she didn’t see the point in talking about something she couldn’t change, but I suspect she loved Martin so much that his death knocked the wind out of her, and the only way she found to breathe again was to not talk about it.

Signe and Martin grew up on farms just a few miles from each other. She went to college and eventually taught school a half mile from Martin’s homestead. They dated for many years, marrying in December 1930. My father was born in February 1931. You do the math.

Martin was good friends with Signe’s siblings, and was known around the area as the guy with the fancy car with a canvas top and side curtains.

Signe was never an overly-talkative person, but she was no wallflower. She had a way of letting you know you did something she didn’t like. My dad’s memories of his faather are few, but clear. He told me how one day, Signe poured Martin a cup of coffee. When it was full enough, Martin yelled, “Whoa!” Signe kept right on pouring, letting the coffee spill over the cup and onto the table. She said curtly, “Don’t you talk to me like you do your horses.” It never happened again.

Maybe her refusal to speak of Martin seems strange in our modern world of readily available therapy and support groups. But in 1937, a farmer’s widow with two small children didn’t have much time to feel everything she was feeling, let alone cry or talk about it. My guess is she simply shut off those emotions and went on with the business of raising her children in a world wary of single mothers.

Signe obtained a loan to buy a house, which she fixed up as a boarding house for single female school teachers. For extra money, she made donuts and sent my dad down the street selling them for two bits a dozen. He never got more than three blocks from home before running out.

During World War II, she went back to the classroom, teaching school until she retired 20 years later.

Signe’s parents moved in when they retired from farming, and from then on Signe kept busy with choir and Bible study and playing cards with her friends. Apparently, Signe’s mother griped about her never being home, but if you knew my great-grandmother, you’d hardly blame Signe for getting out once in a while.

And that’s how I knew Signe: as a woman who got out once in a while.

Toward the end of her life, Signe suffered from dementia. She said some things that, in more lucid moments, she would never have said. But with dementia, she no longer lived in the present, as she had since Martin died. Her past was all she had. She spoke of her parents, her siblings, her friends, and of running naked through a graveyard.

I mean no disrespect to my grandmother, but I hope a long time ago she did run through a cemetery, carefree, happy, beautiful, and spontaneous. I hope the last few years, weeks, and hours of her life were filled with the thoughts she spent all her life trying to forget. Warm, wonderful thoughts of how much she loved and was loved.


Reading and Writing in Prison

“When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions.” Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court Justice, 1974

I led an eight-week poetry workshop at our county jail a few summers ago, and there was a corrections officer who routinely laughed at me when I went through the security process to get to my classroom.

He’d say, “What do they need poetry for?” or “Writing poetry? Ha! Yeah, that’s what they need!”

I’d simply smile and say, “We all need poetry!”

I’ve been volunteering in the prison system for four years. I taught classes in writing and literature in our county jail, and I’m currently a writing mentor for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and an advisor/editor for the inmate-written newsletter, The Grove, at the State Correction Facility – Pine Grove. You can access our newsletters here.

I do this work because I believe with all my heart that writing and literature connects us to our humanity, and if there’s a place and time people need to feel connected to their humanity, it’s when they are in prison.

Working with the inmate community, I witness writing that is raw, truthful, powerful, self-reflective, angry, funny, searching, and every other kind of human emotion out there.

Reading poetry and literature, though, is a different animal. Upwards of 50 to 70 percent of inmates in the U.S. have not completed high school, or cannot read above a fourth-grade level. While many of my students have completed high school, almost everyone at first resists offering their ideas about a piece of writing or starting a conversation about a text that is confusing or complicated. This isn’t unique to the prison population. Could you analyze a text in front of your peers? Imagine if those peers were strangers you lived with every day! High school, college, graduate school…it doesn’t matter how much education, background knowledge, or experience you have, you’re probably going to be nervous offering a thought out loud.

What frustrates me the most is when students call themselves stupid. I know it’s a defense mechanism, so part of my job is to bring out their confidence, to help them believe in themselves as readers, and – in the grand scheme – to believe in themselves overall. So I try to select texts that speak to them or wake them up.

For instance, at Pine Grove, I met a man who goes by the pseudonym “Stone.” He writes poetry and has contributed several pieces to our newsletter. I asked him if I could use his poems in the men’s poetry workshop, and he agreed. Students couldn’t get enough. His words spoke to their feelings, and it helped them understand how to read and relate to an unfamiliar work.

Many of my female students wanted to read texts that addressed drug addiction, bad relationships, and motherhood. Their request is in keeping with what I said before: Literature helps incarcerated students relate to their humanity, to “find” themselves again, and reconnect to their former lives and selves. I don’t mean they want to wallow in their past or how they got to prison in the first place. They just need a place in which they feel engaged with a larger and similar community.

For instance, I like to use the poem “Emotional Idiot” by Maggie Estep. It’s a poem about emotional duality in an intimate relationship. It begins, “I’m an Emotional Idiot / so get away from me. / I mean, / COME HERE.” When my female students read it, several of them exclaimed, “Oh my god, that’s ME!” When male students read it, their reaction was similar, but in reverse. “Oh my god, that’s my wife!” (or girlfriend or significant other). Either way, both groups connected to the poem and, more importantly, connected to themselves and their lives.

I could go on and on with examples of how literature and writing impact incarcerated students, but I realize that some people think offering reading and writing classes to people in prison is a bunch of liberal BS. Believe me, I hear that all the time: “Why would you want to work with those people? Aren’t you scared?”

No, I’m never scared. I do this work because annually, roughly 641,000 people are released from state and federal prisons and back into our communities. The question we must all ask ourselves is: Who do we want them to be?

Study after study shows that the more literate an offender is upon release, the less chance he or she will recidivate. Check out these statistics. In general, the national recidivism rate, without engaging any education in prison, is as high as 75 percent. However:

  • Completing some high school courses cuts recidivism rates to 55 percent.
  • Vocational training cuts recidivism to 30 percent.
  • An associate degree drops the rate to 13.7 percent.
  • A bachelor’s degree reduces it to 5.6 percent.
  • A master’s brings recidivism to zero percent.

Hope is central to success on the outside, and when incarcerated individuals start to believe in themselves and believe that they can achieve academically, they can change the direction of their lives. It gives them a powerful tool that will not fail them on the outside, and can give them the confidence to engage with the difficulties that will most likely arise upon release.

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

For more information about education and the criminal justice system, please visit the website my friend and fellow grad student developed last year,

Clinging and Distraction

Have you ever thought about someone you haven’t seen in ages, and then a few days later you see them somewhere, like the grocery store?

This morning I listened to (checked Twitter) a dharma talk that I didn’t realize would address an issue I’ve been dealing with the last several days. (Checked email. Googled “dharma talk definition.”) (A dharma talk is like a sermon given on some aspect of Buddhism by a Buddhist teacher.)

The title was “Letting Go.” Gil Fronsdal, one of my favorite dharma teachers, asked the questions, What do we cling to? What non-helpful, non-beneficial thoughts and actions can we let go of? (Made the bed.) He wasn’t talking about things, per se (Googled Marie Kondo. Her approach to tidying things is very Buddhist-like.).

Suffering happens when we have a tight grip on ideas that “limit our ability to be wise, to see, to maneuver freely in the world,” and that freedom from those limiting thoughts and actions comes only when we intentionally let go.

In December I committed, again, to writing the book I’ve been saying for years that I would finish. Despite the self-doubt and (checked the news) questioning my ability (answered a text), I’m finally doing it.

 (Emailed my daughter.) Listening to the talk, I thought about how I cling to negative thoughts about my writing, and how my tendency is, while writing, to distract myself (responded to a Facebook message), like I hope the writing will write itself while I’m doing something else. Gil suggested that when we identify what we want to let go of, that we let go into the clinging itself and ask, What’s going on with that feeling? Where are those actions coming from?

Here’s what I came up with: I cling to the fear of failure, and staying present and writing through the clinging is not easy. Ouch! Keep going! And I soothe myself by thinking that if I fail, it will be a familiar feeling and it won’t hurt as bad. I’m afraid that if I put myself out there again, my voice will be ignored, or worse, it will be like talking into an empty barrel. (This is too much. Texted a friend). And I deal with these thoughts through distraction.

As you can see, in just seven paragraphs, I left the process of writing this blog nine times! Even more times if you include the times Jim called, and the dog needed to go out, and I adjusted the electric heaters because we have to conserve gas because the gas line is frozen, and I was hungry and made a sandwich, and I was in the mood for a cup of tea.

The distractions I invent are even worse writing the book. I walk away and distract for hours and days at a time.

But here I am, near the end of this blog, back from the distractions to finish. I will get this blog on my site today (paused…reached for my phone, didn’t pick it up, didn’t give in to the desire to leave), because this is a really important topic, and I want to talk to you about it. Not about my clinging, but yours. You don’t have to get personal, but what do you cling to? What do you want to let go of so you can be more wise and move more freely in this world? Leave a comment. I promise I won’t read it as a distraction mechanism.

If you’re interested in listening to the Letting Go talk, you can click here for the link, or watch the video. What Gil says about grief and depression starting at minute 30 is especially interesting. If you get that far, let me know what you think. I’ll be blogging about it soon and would love your input.


Polar Vortex Revisited

Another polar vortex is heading south, and a lot of us are in its path. The last time it was this cold – at least in my neck of the woods – was February 2013. I was living in a 100-year-old duplex with pipes that were about that old, too. From the archives, a story of water. (And the Jim of the story is the same Jim I love and adore, and for more than his mad plumbing skillz ♥)

Wishing you and your plumbing a safe and warm Polar Vortex 2019!

February 2013

To survive, we need air, food, water, and shelter. Last week, on the two coldest days of the Polar Vortex so far, I had air, food, and shelter, but for 36 hours, I was without running water due to what I thought was a burst pipe.

I knew I would be away for a few days, but I would be home before it got seriously cold in order to open the cupboards under the sinks and place space heaters in front of them. In Minnesota, I never experienced a frozen or burst pipe, but a few years after moving to Pennsylvania in 1991, the pipes in my apartment froze, and I spent several hours in the basement thawing them with a hair dryer. This time, I had a plan. And you know how the universe loves a plan.

Confident that I was prepared and in time for the deep freeze, I opened the door and walked into a lake in the kitchen as water hissed from a pipe under the sink. I stood there for a moment, confused, like the house yelled “Surprise!” Only there were no balloons, streamers or confetti, and there was definitely no cake.

When the shock wore off, I went downstairs and turned off the water main, and with every towel I owned, sopped up the flood in the kitchen. Next, I called my landlord, who called a plumber, who called me and said he might get a chance to stop by the next day. It was noon, the temperature was dropping, and I had one flush left in the toilet.

I needed water.

I have very little concept of distance or volume. I can’t tell you how long my driveway is or how much gas it takes to fill the tank of my lawn mower. And if I guessed, you’d laugh. That’s why I’m not an architect. At Target, I stared at the gallons of water on the shelf and wondered how much I’d need to get through a day, or at the very least, a night. I settled on 10 and wheeled my purchases out to my car, cursing the minus 10-degree wind chill.

It was sobering to realize how much water I use to simply wash my hands, brush my teeth, and flush the toilet. Ten gallons seemed like so much, and yet by morning, there were only two left. With no plumber in sight, I headed back to the store for six more.

Cold, cold, ridiculous cold. My Jeep was not happy. My exposed skin was not happy. When I got home, I turned on the stove and mixed up a batch of whole wheat, low-fat chocolate chip cookies. I heated a gallon of water on the stove so I could wash dishes, and poured another gallon in a plastic pan to rinse them, acutely aware that I normally use more than two gallons of water when I wash dishes in the regular way, when water magically comes out of the faucet.

Potentially-more-than-a-friend Jim the Carpenter called and asked if the plumber had been there. No, I told him. I’ll fix it, he said. I thanked him and told him I’d baked cookies. (I just didn’t tell him what kind.)

Jim arrived with everything to fix a broken pipe – gater bites, a piece of copper pipe, and soldering equipment – because from what I told him (in my “The pipe is hissing!” voice), he thought the pipe was split. I followed him downstairs and stopped just before the entrance to the creepy dark room in the basement under the kitchen. I’ve never been in that room because the bulb had burned out and I’ve read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe. Jim scanned the wall with his flashlight and said all the pipes were fine.

We walked back upstairs and he looked under the sink. He found the valve to the outdoor water spigot (so THAT’S where that is!) and turned it off. He went back to the basement, turned on the water main, and – low and behold – no hiss, no leak.

The valve, he explained, had most likely froze from the skimpy temperatures a few days before, but I was only half listening. The sound of the toilet tank filling was like a symphony.

The temperatures warmed the next day. I washed dishes and took a shower. I am fortunate, and I hope to not forget that.

As I write this, there are 300,000 people in West Virginia who are without running water because of a chemical spill, and there are hundreds of millions of people worldwide who lack safe drinking water. What I take for granted is another person’s precious commodity.

While my short-term water inconvenience hardly makes me an expert on chronic water shortage, I can allow it to teach me compassion for those who experience it.