Category Archives: Family

The Pause

March 10, 31 years ago, was my daughter Carlene’s due date, but she wasn’t interested in coming out. According to his measuring tape and his best guess, my doctor said Carlene was in excess of 8 pounds and she wouldn’t be born for another few weeks if she had her way.

“Your blood pressure’s high, the baby is big enough,” he said, taking off his gloves. “We need to get the baby out.”

“Ok,” was all I said, like I knew what he meant. Only I didn’t.

He left, I got dressed, and a nurse came in with some papers. Told me to check into the hospital.

“Ok,” I said again, and again, I asked no questions because I was 19 years old and I was stuck between the fear of the unknown and the mandate by which I was raised: never question authority. I walked numbly to the waiting area. My husband, Bruce, met me near the coat rack.

“So, what did he say?” he asked cheerfully, helping me into my coat. Bruce was terribly excited to meet the baby. Every night, he rubbed my belly like it was Aladdin’s lamp. “Come out and play!” he’d say.

“I have to go to the hospital,” I said quietly, trying not to cry. “He said the baby has to be born soon.”

He took my hand and I clutched the papers with the other. We walked outside. Bruce helped me into the car. Nothing was easy anymore.

Bruce slid into the driver’s seat. I looked over the papers the nurse had given me and could feel my heart beating in my temples.

“I don’t know what any of this means!” I slapped the papers. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. Am I having a C-section? Is the baby OK?”

Bruce took a deep breath. “Let’s just sit here for a minute,” he said.

“But they’re expecting us at the hospital! We have to go!” I protested. God knows we had to do exactly what we were told.

“They’ll be there when we get there,” he said. He reached over and stroked my hair. “We need some time to think.”

So we paused. I took a deep breath and loosened my death-grip on the papers. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember not feeling alone. I was afraid and so was he, but we were afraid together. When we felt ready to go, as was always Bruce’s positive approach to life, he said, “We’re having a baby!” Which we did, the next day, at 7:27 in the evening after more than 13 hours of labor. No C-section.

Carlene Rae came out looking just like her father, and as she grew, she took on his nature, even though they only knew each other for 11 days. Like her father, Carlene prefers to take her time, and she chafes against the hectic world and deadlines. She’s the person you want holding your hand when you shake, and she will remind you – with a joyful heart – about the good stuff yet to come.

Carlene was the joy of his life, if only for 11 days
Our wedding day; Carlene today

Settling the Dust (and Nasoya coupon winner announced!)

What a long, strange trip this last month has been. (Not THAT kind of trip, although intoxicants of the wine kind have been used a time or three.) Most of us have been through enough snow and ice and cold this winter to last a lifetime. Throw in a move and a fire, and that’s enough to make me cry “Uncle!”

Dust like this blows around sometimes. I get that. And sometimes you get so used to the dust that it becomes normal, and the thought of it settling is unsettling. Thinking clearly isn’t always easy. Neither is figuring out how to do the right thing. Sometimes it’s easier to let the dust decide our fate.

One of the days between the move and the fire, I visited my grandkids. Their energy feeds me, sort of like the Borg, only not as creepy. I didn’t know there would be a barn-destroying fire in a few days, so the dust blowing around me was the kind your sandals kick up on a dirt road, just enough to get your jeans a little dirty.

Mae asked me, as she does every time I visit, “I find da Buddha, Grammy?”

The Buddha is a 1-inch thin stone with a seated Buddha carved in it. It’s a “worry stone” and I keep it in my purse.

Well-worn worry stone

Mae has a ritual in her pursuit to find “da Buddha”: She draws in my notepad; cuts a piece of dental floss and flosses her front teeth; counts all my coins; lines up my debit, grocery, gas, and credit cards in her hands like she’s playing poker; blows her nose; asks to write in my checkbook (“No.”); shakes up the child-proof pill bottle and asks what’s in it (I’ll never tell); squirts lotion on her hands; puts Burt’s Bees on her lips; and powders her nose (and face and the baby’s face and Luca’s face) before finally…FINALLY….

“I find da Buddha!” she exclaims.

Usually, she puts the Buddha back in whatever recess of my purse she found it in, but the last time – the time before the fire – she held it in her hand and pretended it was an airplane. She ran around the house exclaiming, “Flying Buddha!”

Mae is madly into princesses, and she was wearing one of her several sparkly pink jammies that have a princess on the front. Claire is madly into super heroes, and she was wearing her third outfit of the morning: Thor. Luca was sitting on the floor playing with a ball maze, sucking his thumb to help him strategize. Audrey just sat on the floor, contemplating whether she preferred princesses to super heroes. She’s not quite 1, so she has time to decide.

When I left them and drove back to my new home 60 miles away, I thought about these last 6 years as a grandmother, and the dust settled a little. I thought about my resume, the book, the blog, and about when I’d get in the pool at the Y again. I strategized “normal.” I envisioned my life as calm and cool and collected.

Two days later, there was the fire, and the dust kicked up like a V8 Chevy racing down a dry southwestern Minnesota country road. That kind of dust on the prairie goes nowhere without wind. Without wind, the dust is like a scene from “The Matrix,” suspended in air. It filters out  the sun and drifts back to the ground slower than flowing maple sap.

Some things can’t be settled in the mind in a matter of minutes or even days, no matter how badly we want them to. But given time, dust will settle. The laws of physics make it so.

Flying Buddhas and super heroes also make it so. Determination and patience make it so. Being kind and friendly make it so. Eating well and exercising make it so. Even going to Costco makes it so. Think about it: life is going to do whatever it needs to, but you still need a 32-ounce jar of pickled herring, right? And an 8-pack of tooth brushes, a 5-pack of toothpaste, and a 6-pack of dental floss to share? Windshield wipers and a cordless mouse? Retail therapy can help get you through the dust, too.

Dust happens. Dust settles. Dust will happen again.

How do you settle your dust?
The winner of last week’s Nasoya coupon giveaway is Diane! Please email your info to me at and I’ll get that coupon for a free Nasoya product off to you right away.

“The Letting Go Has Taken Place…”

Since Christmas, I’ve been looking at 2013 through a mental wide-angle lens, reading my blogs and perusing  photos, searching for a theme that sums up my year. Nothing really popped out at first. I mean, I met Jim in January.

Audrey in February,

And Alice T. Dog in March.

Carlene is Carlene, Cassie is Cassie, and Kevin became a mechanic and moved to Asheville.

Andrew is still in film school, I finished school, and my ex retired from school. Teaching, that is.

Then I zoomed in on the year a bit and saw that…by golly…I s-l-o-w-l-y got my brave on. Perhaps “brave” is a bit brave, but when I compare last year at this time with how things are now, I kind of feel like freakin’ Hercules, man. Despite what felt like a physical apocalypse, 2013 offered me a whole lot of focus and awareness.

A quote that sums up this year is from Anne Lamott’s book, “Help Thanks Wow”:

“When you get your hooks out of something, it can roll away, down its own hill, away from you. It can breathe again. It got away from you, and your tight, sweaty grip, and your stagnant dog breath, the torture of watching you do somersaults and listening to you whine, ‘What if?’ and ‘Wait, wait, I have ONE more idea…’”

Hoping something or someone will change is like getting mad at turbulence (something I actually did on a flight out to Minnesota in November). It’s futile and a waste of time. And yet, for so long I, with my stagnant dog breath, had my hooks in things I wanted so badly to be what I wanted them to be, refusing to see what they really were. People, knees, that slice of cheesecake…I wanted them to be different.

I wanted ME to be different.

In taking my hooks out of some (not all, by any means) of those things and people that weren’t what I needed them to be and saw that they were just being what they were designed or needed to be, I in turn set myself free. It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes letting go is like shaking tape off our fingers or picking a fleck of egg shell out of a frying pan. But those little leaps of faith didn’t cause my world to fall apart. They made my world less cluttered.

I’m heading into 2014 with a bit more courage and clarity than last year, but sans a Hercules costume. Perhaps granddaughter Claire will let me borrow her ninja mask.

Wishing all of you a happy, healthy, and a mostly nutritionally sound 2014. You can still pencil in chocolate, bread, wine, and brie once in a while.

(The title for this blog came from the song “The Letting Go” by Melissa Etheridge.

‘Tis The Season

Making the best of this particularly wintery (and technically it’s not winter yet) holiday season has included a walk through Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh and watching Jim (aka the Irishman) try out his new skates on the rink, dinner with friends, and a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert.
On the heels of a few 60-degree and sunny days last week was Friday night’s ice and snow and Saturday morning’s 28 degrees at the start of the Jingle Bell Run/Walk for arthritis research. Fortunately, a couple thousand people still showed up – including yours truly, my daughters, and my two oldest grandchildren.
Notice the semi-creepy photo bomb?

Claire and Luca ran the 100-yard Tinsel Trot. It was Luca’s first race and he ran his heart out. Claire placed third.

Cassie, in her Chuck Norris shirt, ran the 5K in 22 minutes and change, and Carlene, Jim, Claire and I walked almost the entire 5K in 47. Claire’s legs were getting tired and we took a wee shortcut, but still managed to keep our time at a 15- to 18-minute mile pace. Considering I couldn’t feel most of my toes (and Jim wasn’t going to carry me on his back), I thought that was pretty darn good.

Claire choking her ride

Let’s see…what else…

The Happy Bookers are reading “Christmas Jars” this month, selected by my kind-hearted and always positive friend, Cookie (even her name is fun!). What a well written and engaging story. If there’s a little ice around your ho ho ho this season, I highly recommend you give it a read, preferably lying on the couch, wrapped in an electric blanket, and drinking wine. Or maybe that’s just me…

I’ve watched “Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and next week, I’m mailing out a few Christmas cards, despite what some bah humbuggers think of the tradition.

“There’s little point to writing a Christmas update now,” Nina Burleigh wrote in Time. “The urge to share has already been well sated.” Sure…if everyone you know uses email or is on Facebook or Twitter. Twenty people on my mailing list don’t have email, or if they do, it’s only because their kids set up an account for them and they’ve long forgotten their password. These folks don’t care about social media, either.

It may not be chic to exchange Christmas cards anymore, but I rather enjoy catching up with and staying connected to the people with whom I don’t text/email/gchat/ichat/ or otherwise communicate electronically. I like seeing photos of their grandchildren, their gardens, their RV trip across the southwest. In a social climate increasingly diminishing its attention span to 144 characters or less, it’s relaxing to read a letter summarizing a friend’s or relative’s year of joys, sorrows, and gratitude.

My dad sent me lutefisk, something I haven’t eaten since going vegetarian six years ago. Because I’ve added some fish to my diet, I am excited to renew the tradition of eating lutefisk during the holidays. I just wish my dad didn’t live so far away. It’s way more fun eating it with him, but Jim wants to try it, despite my warnings, so this could be an interesting meal, too.

Of course, you can’t have lutefisk without lefse. As you recall, I made 40 rounds by myself last month, but that lefse’s long gone, eaten by my daughters and sons-in-law on Thanksgiving. Because I send lefse to three of my siblings and my dad for Christmas, I need to make even more this time, so tonight, Jim and I (Team Lefse, as he’s dubbed us) will roll and flip and fold somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 rounds. I’m sure Christmas music will be involved. Tall, strong, carpenter boyfriend knows every word to “We Need A Little Christmas” from “Mame,” (he likes the Angela Lansbury version), and has two Christmas channels preset on his XM radio.

Come January, I will be tempted to take “a long winter’s nap,” but I’m moving in the middle of the month, so not only will there be no post-holiday rest, but I doubt I’ll find my “kerchief” for a while. In the meantime, let it snow, I guess. Complaining about it would be as useless as stopping the cat from playing with the Christmas tree.

The Ghosts of Lefse Present

Lefse is like pierogi or halupki or dolmades. People love them, but few want to make them, because making them is time intensive and messy. But if you’re one of the few who make them and you make them right, you become a food legend…a title that’s both a blessing and a curse.

I was born into a family of stoic Minnesota Norwegian Lutherans who don’t like touchy feely, and will reply “Fine!” every time someone asks, “How are you?” even if they’ve just been run over by a Mack truck. We’re often a vapid lot. Independent, but not sure how to ask for what we need or even know what we need half the time. But mention lefse and every last one of us (with the exception of my mom and my daughter, Carlene, who may have been switched at birth) will bear our souls, tell you our deepest darkest secrets, whatever it takes to secure a round of lefse that we don’t have to share with anyone. Seriously, I’ve known people to butter and sugar a round and wander into a corner to eat it in peace. You do NOT ask a lefse lover, “Can I try a bite?” Or if you do and they share, marry that person immediately. Sharing lefse is the epitome of selflessness.

My grandmother, Katinka, made lefse every year, and so did a few of my aunts. Before Katinka passed away in 1994 at the age of 96, she gave me her lefse stick and her lefse rolling pin, but it would be another nine years before I used them.

My mom, as I mentioned, has a lukewarm like of lefse, so making it was never on her to-do list during the holidays. She makes killer date nut squares and Russian tea cakes, but alas, no lefse. We relied on my grandma and my aunts to supply us with our fix, and when we moved away from home, we sought out grocery store lefse and online suppliers. Most of that stuff is so cardboardy awful I finally broke down and learned the mystery of making lefse myself…time intensity and mess and all.

I am the lefse legend of my family, which comes with the curse of consistency. I must make it every year and make it well, and for the last 10 years, I made it well enough. Then this year’s batch happened, and everything I believed about my lefse for 10 years flew out the door. I finally nailed it. I finally made Grandma Katinka’s lefse. And I did it without trying to.

I had planned to make lefse in my own kitchen earlier this week, but snow was in the forecast (how much, who knew?). I needed to be in Indiana (Pennsylvania, not the state) for Wednesday evening plans, so as to not tempt the fate that is a western PA snowstorm, I loaded my lefse accoutrement into the back of the Jeep and headed to the Irishman’s. There I peeled and cooked eight pounds of russet potatoes. When they were cooked, Irish riced them (“I feel so Norwegian!” he said) and I set them out to cool.

When I reached in my bag for my copy of the 1984 American Lutheran Church cookbook (published in my hometown of Jasper, Minnesota) for my cherished lefse recipe – replete with hand-written side notes of advice from my aunts – instead I dug out…the Trinity Lutheran Church cookbook.


The ALC is where all the Norwegians went to church and the TLC was where all the Germans went to church, and the Minnesota Germans know a lot about hotdish, but nothing about lefse! I flipped out for a minute wondering how in the world I’d make lefse without my precious recipe, and then I did what any modern-day lefse-maker would do: I Googled “lefse recipes.”

I know my recipe’s ingredient list. It’s easy peasy to remember. It’s the amounts of each that I get a little grey on. In my recipe search, one called for a half-cup of cream, another for a quarter-cup of half-and-half. One called for one-third-cup of butter, one for a half. One called for four cups of riced potatoes, one for three and a half. None of them were “my” recipe, but I remembered what my aunt Shirley told me the day she taught me how to make lefse: “You’ll know the dough is ready by the feel of it in your hands.”

The thought of using cream instead of half and half and a bit more butter intrigued me, so I mixed my first batch with a third-cup of cream and a wee bit of milk and a half-cup of butter. The dough felt good in my hands and so I made a round and put it on the griddle. It smelled right. It looked right. I let it cool for a bit and then spread some butter and sprinkled some sugar on it. The second I took a bite, I was 10 years old, eating my grandma’s lefse at the Thanksgiving table. It was like I uncovered the secret to her lefse.

And I think I know why.

My aunt Ethel was one of the aunts who coached me in lefse making. Ethel discovered in August that she had metastatic lung cancer and she only had a few months to live (see “Pray Help”). In one of the final letters I sent her, I wrote, “…and I want you to know that I use Katinka’s lefse stick and roller every year, and every year I feel her presence and could you please tell her that when you see her?”

Ethel passed away Nov. 10. And if my lefse is any indication, she met up with Katinka, gave her mymessage, and they paid me a visit on Tuesday. I made my best lefse yet because I had the best teachers watching over me.

Lefse isn’t just food. It is a thread that ties my family together. It is a reminder of holidays past, of our culture and heritage, our faith, and our ritual. I am honored to continue this tradition, and one day I hope to teach it to one or more of my grandchildren. Perhaps one day, when they’re flying solo and panicking that they won’t make it right, I’ll join my aunt and my grandmother and together, we’ll make sure it comes out right.

Pray Help

One middle of the night a few months ago, I was half awake, tossing and turning, trying to run away from the incoherent thoughts racing through my mind. After an hour, no closer to sleep, I did something I haven’t done in years. I folded my hands and I prayed. I talked out the fuzzy thoughts and feelings with the one I know now as little G god, and the next thing I knew, the sun was up and I woke with a light heart and a calmed mind.

I stopped big G God praying several years ago and began a mediation practice, which is like prayer, only not a conversation with a deity. I find staying mindful and staying present for all feelings – good and bad – has brought me a greater sense of peace and understanding of who I am. But always in the back of my mind, I missed the deity. I missed the comfort of the one thing that got me and my brand of crazy.

After some thought about how I might reconnect with that deity, I realized how talking to big G God had often made me feel small and afraid to speak my truth. This wasn’t big G God’s fault. It was a simple matter of spelling. Stripping big G God of that big G did not diminish its greatness, but it brought it eye level with me, to a place where I would be heard and I could listen, even if both of us whispered.

I’m reading Anne Lamott’s book, “Help, Thanks, Wow,” a gift from a friend who I’m convinced is in cahoots with little G god because she is as close to understanding me without running away as anyone I know. She offers me shelter without judgment and honesty without making me feel wrong or ruined.

Praying Help, writes Lamott, is like saying, “Here. You deal with it,” and then waiting to hear back.

“The willingness to do such a childish thing comes from the pain of not being able to let go of something. The willingness comes from finding yourself half mad with obsession. We learn though pain that some of the things that we thought were castles turn out to be prison, and we desperately want out, but even though we built them, we can’t find the door. Yet maybe if you ask God for help in knowing which direction to face, you’ll have a moment of intuition. Maybe you’ll see at least one next right step you can take.”

Too often in my cries for help, I have already devised a solution. And so my intention now when praying Help is to sit in the quiet – of meditation, perhaps – and allow clarity to find me and work with the answer provided.

I have been praying Help all morning after learning that my Aunt Ethel is dying. Help that she be free from suffering, Help that her daughter, my mother, and Ethel’s family and friends find strength. Ethel dictated a note to her daughter that I wanted to share here because, to me, it exemplifies what it means to pray Help.

To my wonderful friends and relatives –

This is the most difficult letter I’ve ever had to write because it is my final one. I have been informed that I have 1 to 6 months to live. All of the medical issues I have been having are related to the metastatic lung cancer recently discovered.

Your wonderful cards and prayers have helped me through this difficult time. Now, however, rather than focusing on my getting well, I ask you to focus on a peaceful transition to my dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.

I’m sure I will be allowed to take my memories with me – and I have many with all of you.

I will love you forever, Ethel

I, too, will love Ethel forever, and I will honor her wishes and pray Help that she has a peaceful passing. A difficult thing to do, to be sure, because we prefer so much to pray for healing.

Pray Help. Breathe. Crying is OK, too.  And may you find your way out of those prisons you thought were castles, and calm the obsessions that became your new normal.

My aunts and mother, circa 1936. Clockwise from top left: Mavis, Ethel, Doris, Ardith (my mom), and Helen

How Cool Is 50?

Today, I am 50. I was born in Minneapolis on a hot summer day, just before dinner time, and exactly 10 years after my brother, Marty.
The other day I read an article called “50 Cool ThingsAbout Johnny Depp at Age 50.” 
He’s 50? I thought. Hunh…he makes it look really goooood!
In a quick search for “famous people born in 1963,” I found several other famous types who share my birth year, many of whom I thought were way younger than me, like Tori Amos, John Stamos, Mike Meyers, Brad Pitt, Coolio, Quentin Tarantino, and Seal. There were a few I thought were older, too, like Larry the Cable Guy and Charles Barkley.
I may not be as cool as Johnny Depp, or even as cool as my friend, Shelley, who bought herself a drum set for her 50thbirthday (see “And So This Is Fifty”), but I’m pretty happy with the cool I’ve got going on at 50: great kids, great friends, good cholesterol numbers….
I went through one of my baby books this week and found a few photos that tell some of the story of how I got to be who I am today…kind of. Clearly I didn’t grow up to be Ginger the Movie Star (see #7). But my grandkids think I’m pretty neat and that’s what matters.
1.       I’m a middle child, but there were 2½ years when I was the youngest. Don’t let Marty’s face fool you. He might look all, “Ohhhh…isn’t she cute? Another sister! Just what I always wanted!”, but he wasn’t enamored with my presence. My sister Debbie wasn’t real thrilled, either, since she’d held the title of “youngest and only daughter” for seven years. At least she had the courtesy to fake how she felt and smile for the photo.

My brother tolerated me for the seven years we lived under the same roof. He let me sit in his room sometimes when he played records (when my mom asked me once to tell Marty it was dinner time, I told her we were listening to his “Yeah yeah” music), and he let me feed his hamsters and salamanders. He went to college in ’71 and we moved 200 miles away, so I didn’t see Marty very often. But as we’ve aged, we’ve gotten closer, particularly in the last 25 years. He made me power-of-attorney three years before his seizure, which I had no idea he’d done until I flew out to Minnesota in 2011 when he got home from the hospital and I went through his legal documents to determine how in the world I was going to help him. While I hate that he suffers as he does, that he trusted me to make decisions for him is very humbling and speaks volumes to our relationship.

My sister and I get along famously…always have. Unless, of course, you count the time I stole her crutches after she banged up her leg in a bike-riding accident and I taunted her, “You can’t get me, you can’t get me!” and my mother gave her permission to hit me with them when she got them back. She didn’t, thank goodness, but that was the beginning of my short-lived brat phase, so maybe she should have!

2.     I have a very handsome dad, don’t I? He’s my favorite man in the whole world. BTW, I still have that lamp behind us, sans the shade 🙂
3.    I was born with a pigeon-toed right foot and the treatment back in the day was to put a baby in a cast for several months. It straightened my foot about 45 degrees, but because it was still pigeon-toed, I walked slightly abnormally. Nothing you’d notice, but it threw off my skeletal structure and my surgeon is convinced it contributed to my toe, ankle, and knee injuries over the years.This photo is of the first time my right foot felt grass. Either I was skeptical about the grass or it was the moment I decided golf would never be my game.

4.      I started stylin’ young. I put a couple of my mom’s curlers in my hair and secured them with a pair of my brother’s plastic pants. I’ve since learned how to use a hair dryer and flat iron.
5.     How many people can say they’ve met Miss Bloomington 1965?
6.     My love for wheels began early, but what I love most about this photo – along with the rockin’ streamers – is the scarf I’m wearing. My mother always put a scarf on my head when it was windy because I developed ear infections easily. I can still remember the feel of her tying the knot tightly under my chin and how I had to open my mouth wide a few times to get it to loosen a bit. I remember the echoes of the wind bouncing off my scarf and I wonder if the doo rag my friend, Debbie, bought me for my birthday will offer that same sound. I really hope it does.
7.     My mom and dad were never treated to much affection when they were children, and my mother never heard her father say he loved her. But you’d never know it by the way they raised us. The grooviest part of this photo, though, is my dress. I called it my Movie Star Dress and I wore it as often as my mother would let me. I especially liked to wear it when I watched “Gilligan’s Island.” You could have Mary Ann and her pies and Mrs. Howell and her furs. I wanted to be Ginger and her slinky tight dress when I grew up.
8.    I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love books. My dad read to me long before I could comprehend anything other than pictures. When I was 2, I had memorized a few books and my dad showed off my “reading” skills to the neighbors. I had no idea how to read, of course, but the neighbors were impressed and Dad was amused.I credit my mother for teaching me proper grammar. We were never allowed to say “ain’t,” and she corrected me if I said something like, “Her and me…” She also wrote the most eloquent excuses from school. “Please excuse Lynn from school yesterday, as she was ill. Thank you. Most sincerely yours….” When she says she has no idea where I got my gift of writing, I remind her of the school notes and the way she talked so proper. She just laughs and tells me I’m full of it, but I know it’s true, and I can’t image my life without stories, either those I read or those I write.

Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Mike Meyers, Lynn Haraldson…we were born in the age of Mad Men, JFK, civil rights, Duck and Cover, and the space race. But who I am today is a result of the safety, love, and guidance of my parents, siblings, and teachers, and the many dear friends I’ve made over the years. I welcome this new decade with a renewed commitment to health and personal growth, and sharing the things I’ve learned these last 50 years with my grandchildren, hopefully contributing to their safety, love, and guidance as well.But mostly, I’m going to have a LOT of fun! Bring it ON!

A Little Story About Mental Illness

<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>It was 3 a.m. and my sister, mother and I were watching cartoons in a hospital waiting room, anxious for news about Dad, who’d had a heart attack. What began in my stomach as a churning crept upward to my heart, which began beating wildly. The feeling crept to my lungs, which couldn’t complete a full breath. It then crept into my mind, which began thinking, I’m dying, too. Within a few minutes I was on my own gurney 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. Within seconds, I was calm. So calm I forgot why I was at the hospital. My sister reminded me and I remember saying, ‘Oh, that’s right,’ and I drifted off to sleep as my sister poured me into the front seat of my car and took me home.
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? What did that sigh mean? That I can’t breathe? But no fortress could stop it. Panic returned and my only defense was to slip a Halcion under my tongue. It came back the next day and the next. By the end of the week my defenses were spent and the pill bottle was empty.
For two weeks, panic poured over me like tsunami. I went to every emergency room in the Minneapolis area begging for Halcion, usually in the middle of the night, waking my then-husband, Jason, 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. We were in a shoot-off and I was running out of bullets.
Then came the day at work when my Selectric II typewriter ribbon broke 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 eating a grilled cheese and Old Dutch potato chips dipped in cottage cheese (best comfort food ever). I cried when I dialed the phone to tell my psychiatrist I was crying, and cried even harder when he told me he was checking me in to the hospital. A special hospital.
A few hours later, Jason dropped me off at Golden Valley Health Center 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, like their half-pound weight would make a difference.
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.
Could I be a bigger baby? I thought 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-#2-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 my psychiatrist said I had a panic disorder and that a few days ago I couldn’t stop crying and that was why I was there. I just need to calm down, maybe lose some weight, and 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 also brought up Bruce’s death and asked me about Jason (domestic violence issues….another blog for another day), but I wouldn’t go there with him. I said 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 Kraft 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,” Jason said.
“No, I won’t!” I insisted.
I subsisted on raw and boiled vegetables, fruit, skim milk and plain baked white fish. In my 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.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. NAMI is my go-to place for info and support. Mental illness is often a family thing and should not be an embarrassment. Ask for help, whether it’s for you or someone you love.

A Day Like No Other

Today is the 30th anniversary of the day my life changed forever. As many of you know, my husband died on March 22, 1983, when I was 19 years old and our daughter, Carlene, was 11 days old.
I suspect we all have a day or a moment in time that changed us, either by choice or by circumstance. Please, if you feel you can, share your day or moment in the comments below.
Here’s a glance into a few hours of that day, a day so long ago and yet still stings me to my soul:
It was a Tuesday. My Aunt Mavis called the house just before noon. My mom, who was staying with us for a few weeks, answered the phone while I folded laundry and watched “All My Children.” She put her hand over the receiver and asked, “Did Bruce go to town?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I thought he was working in the machine shed. Let me check.”
I opened the front door and called out his name. The sun was bright and the air was a promising 40 degrees. I saw a train stopped on the tracks a half mile from our farm and remembered hearing a whistle blowing longer than usual about an hour earlier. I called to Bruce again. Duke, our German Shepherd, was curled up on the rug at the bottom of the step, a sure sign Bruce wasn’t on the property.
I went back inside. Mom hung up the phone. Mavis heard there’d been a train accident, she said.
My mouth went dry.
“Call David,” I said and turned off the television. David was our pastor and a member of the volunteer ambulance crew.
David’s wife answered and Mom asked her if there’d been an accident.
Please, please, please say no. Please say no. I covered my heart with my hands.
Mom’s face went sheet white.
“Thank you,” she said and hung up the phone. Our eyes met. I knew.
“Lynnie,” her voice trembled. “Bruce is dead. David’s on his way here.”
You know how when you rip off an adhesive bandage and the pain doesn’t hit for a few seconds? The same thing happens when you find out your husband is dead. It takes your brain awhile to understand what you just heard. Even then it doesn’t sink in because the reality is just too big to grasp in the space of a few seconds.
I walked into the kitchen for a glass of water and to turn off the pork chops simmering on the stove. I stared out the window at the south end of our lawn. I thought about the garden I wanted to plant there and made a mental note to remind Bruce to till that up for me. Then David’s car and my brother-in-law’s pickup came speeding around the corner.
Wait. Bruce isn’t here anymore.
I met them at the door. They’d both been crying.
David wrapped me in his arms and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t cry. I wanted to throw up.
We sat down on the couch and I asked Mom to get my wedding ring out of my jewelry box. I’d taken it off a few months earlier because my fingers swelled. My hand shook as she handed me the small band, and I forced it past my knuckle.
“Do you want something to drink?” someone asked.
“You’ll need to keep up your strength to nurse.”
“I know,” I said. But I didn’t eat for another day.
I looked down at my body clothed in gray sweat pants and Bruce’s long-sleeved South Dakota State University t-shirt. My breasts leaked like sieves, and I was littered with stitches and hemorrhoids. It was one thing to feel vulnerable because I was overweight. Fat I understood. On my wedding day, my first thought as I walked down the aisle wasn’t, “I’m getting married!” It was, “Oh god, people are going to look at my ass!” But no amount of feeling fat prepared me for what crept through my bloated, post-partum body; a feeling so raw that it settled in my bones like damp winter cold.
From what little experience I had with the formalities of death, I knew people would soon come to our farm armed with casseroles and desserts to pay their respects. Still shaking, I changed out of my sweats and hoped no one noticed I hadn’t dusted or cleaned the bathroom in a week.

What To Do With Busy

If happiness could fuel our bodies, I’d be as energetic as my 2-year-old granddaughter, Mae. Audrey’s birth yesterday, while obviously expected, filled me with a familiar yet inexplicable joy.

But happiness is calorie-free, so after taking care of three small children and eating an all-over-the-charts, nutritionally sketchy diet for three days, this nearly 50-year-old body is beat.
Lifting 20- to 50-pound children, climbing stairs, cleaning “accidents” (Mae is being potty trained), washing clothes, washing dishes, washing children…I thought I was in pretty decent shape, but I’ve discovered muscles I never found working out at the gym.
And forget about my resolve to eat healthy. Resolve got tossed out sometime  Monday night, like one of those old t-shirts you find obscurely lying in an alley, dirty and torn from the weather and from being run over by pickups and garbage truck; barely recognizable as a shirt. I had the option of eating a salad for dinner last night, but I opted for Tex-Mex Bean Casserole and Frosted Mini Wheats instead. What the…? My only excuse was that it was easier and I was busy.
I’ve been busy before and I’ve managed to stay mindful of my eating. But the kind of busy I’ve been involved in these last three days is a busy way outside my experience. That said, I’m beginning to understand what so many of you tell me you struggle with: how to find the time to make a plan and time to implement your plan. Believe me, I have a new-found appreciation/empathy/soft spot for your schedules and your struggle to do what you know is best for YOU.
When I started this whole weight-loss thing in 2005, my parenting duties were greatly reduced. Carlene and Cassie were grown and living away from home, and my stepsons visited their usual 6 weeks in summer and during Easter and Christmas breaks. I was self-employed and lived with my (then) husband, who was also interested in losing weight. I had personal time and personal space. Time and space to think about and implement my plan.
As you can imagine, today I’m carb-o-blah. Exhausted. Pretty much useless. Happy? Yes. But I’m definitely in need of a food adjustment. A food adjustment and advice.
I would love to hear from those of you who do double/triple/quadruple duty as parents or caretakers or employees or employers. How do you make yourself a priority? How did you learn to work your food and/or fitness plan into the fabric of your busy schedule?