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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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.

‘Twas The Night Before The Night Before Christmas

Growing up, my family opened gifts on Christmas Eve, including Santa gifts. This meant that the night before the night before Christmas, Santa came to our house.

Defying logic (like there is anything logical about Santa), our parents told us that Santa started his trip at our house before heading to where it was already Christmas Eve: the International Date Line. Of course I believed them. Magic and logic were all the same back then. Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Jolly Green Giant… They all seemed perfectly real to me, until I was 10. That’s when I cracked the whole Santa mystery. More on that in a minute.

Every Christmas Eve, Dad read the Christmas story from the book of Luke before we opened gifts. I always felt sad for Baby Jesus, getting gifts like gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Maybe back then those were considered awesome gifts. But to me they were the equivalent of socks and underwear. Not that socks and underwear aren’t good and often necessary gifts, but I was fortunate that there were usually a few things from my Sears catalog wish list under the tree, too.

Of all the gifts I’ve received over the years  – gold, frankincense, and myrrh not withstanding – one gift from 1980 is still the best. And most mysterious.

I was a senior in high school and was a waitress at Country Kitchen. A week before Christmas, I came home after the dinner shift, and there was a 12-inch red and green can on the front stoop. On top was a note: “To Lynn, From Santa.” I brought it inside and asked if anyone knew who left it. My dad said it wasn’t there when he came home from work, and no one remembered hearing a car pull up in the driveway.

Whatever was inside was sealed like a can of peas and could only be opened with a can opener. I brought it to the kitchen. My mom yelled from the family room, “You can’t open that until Christmas!”

“But why? We don’t even know who it’s from!”

That didn’t matter. Haraldson Christmas Rule No. 1: No gift shall be opened until Christmas Eve. No exceptions.

Perplexed (and ticked about Rule No. 1), I spent a few hours analyzing the handwriting on the lid. I was no stranger to handwriting analysis. Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden were my literary idols.

The Christmas when I was 10, I noticed that the thank you note Santa left was written on the same notepaper my mom kept in the cupboard. The handwriting was just like my dad’s. Being a wary and somewhat nervous child, I was relieved!! to know the truth about Santa; to know that on the night before the night before Christmas, no old guy wandered around our house looking for paper and a pen while we all slept. It was my dad all along! Whew…

Seven years later, though…

I couldn’t figure it out. The handwriting on the can wasn’t obvious. Was it a boy’s handwriting? A girl’s? I couldn’t tell. There were a few strange customers at Country Kitchen who might leave me gifts outside my house, but that was too creepy to consider. I wasn’t dating anyone seriously, and definitely not anyone of mystery or intrigue.

Out of guesses, there was nothing more I could do but let the can sit under the tree for seven torturous days.

On Christmas Eve, I sat on the couch with a can opener in my hand. Dad read the Christmas story. Then my little sister opened her first gift. Then my little brother opened his first gift. (Haraldson Christmas Rule No. 2: Gifts are always opened in order of age.) When it was finally my turn, I cranked open the can as fast as I could. Inside was a teddy bear and a note: “Merry Christmas. Love, Dad.”

Best gift ever.

Wishing you all a very merry night before night before Christmas!

Twin Daughters of Different Fathers

I’m (finally) putting together a book compiled of my favorite columns and blogs that I’ve written over the past 20 years. The process has been like looking at photo albums with commentary.

I wanted to share this particular column I wrote in 2004 because I am stunned/happy/laughing at how, 14 years later, what I wrote about my daughters still holds true. Carlene and Cassie, you still are the lights of my life, and I love you both so much. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Twin Daughters of Different Fathers 

Sometime in 2004 

Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisburg collaborated on an album in 1979 called Twin Sons of Different Mothers. It was my favorite nighttime music, and a welcome change from disco. Fogelberg’s words and Weisburg’s flute fed both the angst and peace of my typical 16-year-old self. I knew every note, every crescendo, every run. I even taught myself the flute part from the first track, “Twins Theme.” Life was full of possibilities. I was going to be either a veterinarian or a roadie for the Eagles. I’d have died laughing if someone told me that instead, within 5 years, I would produce my own “album”: Twin daughters of different fathers. 

Never one to do things the conventional way, I turned the old saying “The first child can take any time, the second one takes nine months” on its ear. 

Everyone assumed daughter number one was a guest at her father’s and my wedding. Otherwise, why would a 23-year-old farmer marry an 18-year-old city girl? When Carlene made her appearance, reluctantly, three weeks shy of our one-year anniversary, the finger counting had ended and people realized she took the “morally correct” nine months to come into being. 

We were a happy little family unit of three, making plans to expand. But just as life requires birth, it requires death. My farmer boy died, leaving me and our little daughter a family of two. We moved to the city, where I went through the motions of life, feeling very little and making choices I wouldn’t otherwise make if not for the constant numbness. It was within this almost hypnotic state that daughter number two came into being. 

Cassandre was an actual guest at my second wedding. She was 9 months old, teething and crawling, and unaware of the way she turned my world right side up again. Carlene had nicknamed her Cassie Bear in the hospital, and liked to hold her like her favorite Cabbage Patch Doll, which in so many ways Cassie was. They became like the Chinese symbol yin-yang: two opposite energies that could not exist without each other. So it was no surprise to me when Carlene moved to Pittsburgh recently, living as close to Cassie as she could without actually having to share a bathroom. 

When Carlene was born, her burgeoning personality was not like anything she’d exhibited in utero. A constant kicker and puncher inside, there was no child as quiet and modest as Carlene. Cassie, on the other hand, moved very little, which kept me anxious nearly the entire pregnancy. If not for the hiccups she got nightly, I’d have been a constant basket case. Once she was out, she hit the ground running, and made sure everyone knew she was alive. 

Carlene loved to nap. I had to wean her from them a few weeks before she started kindergarten. She still likes to get 10 hours of sleep when she can. Cassie, of course, liked being awake, and stopped taking naps at age 2 simply because, like Bartleby the Scrivener, she preferred not to. She still thrives on motion, and I usually need a nap after spending a day with her. 

Everyone has a ratio of book smarts to street smarts. Our ability to think more than feel or feel more than think parlays into our daily lives and influences everything, from the choices we make about which car to buy or clothes to wear, to the jobs we take, the people we choose as friends and lovers, the movies we watch, or the games we play. Mothering two such opposite children gives me a front seat to this psychology. Carlene thinks deeply and methodically. Cassie feels deeply and passionately. Carlene carefully plans. Cassie makes decisions on the fly. Carlene follows directions. Cassie makes up the rules as she goes. Both are independent in very different ways: Carlene stubbornly so and Cassie instinctively so. 

Cassie is a defender of the underdog. Carlene prefers justice. 

Carlene got As in calculus, but it took her weeks to learn how to check the oil and fill the windshield wiper fluid tank in our car. Cassie couldn’t see what the Pythagorean theorem had to do with her, but she earned enough money from dog sitting, cat sitting and a paper route to buy a stereo, computer and television. Cassie instinctively knows things most of us have to learn. The world outside of books makes sense to her, where Carlene would be lost without books. 

The girls often flew to Minnesota, Seattle, and Los Angeles to see family. As you might guess, Carlene was an aisle-seat girl and Cassie loved the window. Yet for all her adventurousness, it was Cassie I put in charge of the money and calling card (and her sister, too, for that matter). 

Sighing “I’ll do it” accompanied by an eye roll was a common occurrence for Cassie, killer of spiders and plunger of toilets. Yet it was Carlene who risked bodily injury to clean Cassie’s room while she was away so that Cass had a path to her bed. 

Cassie takes pride in her physical strength. I often wonder if it wasn’t Cassie’s example that convinced Carlene to join the track team in high school. We’d always said Carlene was smart as a whip, but ran like a girl. Challenging herself physically that way uncovered a new side of her, one she still embraces today. 

Their similarities are what we all want children to be: hard working and kind. They were courteous to my friends and co-workers and, except when Cassie would crawl under the table in restaurants to pull out a loose tooth when she was little, I was never embarrassed to take them out in public. 

Carlene never left home easily. Cassie was out the door almost as soon as she got her diploma. That they live in close proximity again makes me happy. I worry less that Carlene will get lost (she has a lousy sense of direction) or that Cassie will be sad (that dominant “feeling” side of her has its downside sometimes). 

I found my copy of Twin Sons of Different Mothers while writing this column. “Paris Nocturne” is still a lovely song, and it reminds me that the 16-year-old I was still lives inside this 42-year-old body. At 16, I dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, a groupie, a poet, and a pilot, but becoming a mother in a circuitous fashion to two engagingly polar opposites was more heady and humbling than anything I could have ever imagined sitting in my room in the dark, listening to music. 

 

Don’t Let the Anger Eat You. Please.

20171227_120043Around 2 a.m. this morning, Zuzu the Wonder Dog needed to go outside. Most nights, in a sleepy stupor, I open the door, she does her thing, and she trots back in. This morning, though, before I opened the door, I saw standing under the neighbor’s yard light the silhouette of a large buck. He was looking in our direction and Zuzu was looking in his. God knows she loves to bark at and chase wildlife (just ask our cats and the bear she chased away from the garbage last week), and so I snapped on her collar and leash and took her out manually. I thought the buck would run away, but he just looked at us. He was quite amazing.

After heading back to bed, I laid awake for 30 minutes before I gave up sleep and went to the spare room. The windows were open and I listened to the crickets, and heard the faint call of an owl. It warmed me inside. Melted some of that ice cold anger I’ve felt since Dr. Ford said #MeToo.

#MeToo is so big that it can be overwhelmingly draining without self-care. It’s as important to make space to listen to stories of sexual assault as it is to honor our own emotions and reactive feelings. For me, the good that’s come out of the last few weeks is that I’ve strengthened my meditation practice, heightened my awareness, and deepened my compassion. Have I been a perfect practitioner? Just look at my Facebook posts. But I won’t turn away from the anger – it has an important place in our emotional lives – but I won’t let it swallow me whole.

In these times, I’ve found the practice of inquiry to be the most useful. Rather than try to fix anything, I sit with my feelings of anger, disappointment, and downright despair, and I name them. Examine them. Allow them to wash through me without doing anything except being fully aware of their power. My mantra is “I don’t understand why this is happening,” rather than a question such as, “Why do people knowingly inflict harm?” I’ve found that sitting with a statement gives me strength to contemplate a question. As Tara Brach explains, “The intention of inquiry is to awaken to our experience exactly as it is in this present moment. While inquiry may expose judgments and thoughts about what we feel is wrong, it focuses on our immediate feelings and sensations.”

Sexual power and religious absolutism are the gods de jure, and they need to be brought to justice one story, one protest, one vote at a time. But please, take care of yourselves and your emotional lives as you journey on. Use inquiry to identify what’s good in your life, too. Breathe. And then breathe again. And again. Listen to crickets or children laughing or even the hum of a fan. Before you act, do nothing more than focus your attention on a tree, a house, a piece of artwork, or a deer standing in a yard light in the middle of the night. Inquiry builds the emotional muscle we need to carry on.

Namaste, my friends. Have faith that in the long run, justice and goodness – and not paranoia and fear – will prevail.

Grief Really Shouldn’t End. Here’s Why.

Recently, the husband of a dear friend was killed when a tree limb fell on him while he was working in his yard. A freak and random accident, it has left my friend stunned and so very, very sad.

I’ve written many times in this blog about grief, and how it bounces in and out and around our lives, and sometimes lands in the most unexpected places at the most inopportune times (like there’s ever a good time for loss). But you know grief. It doesn’t wait for an appointment.

Sudden loss can feel like an ambush. It barges in and takes over everything, and the accompanying emotions crawl inside us, infiltrate and define our most tender feelings, and they never really leave, even when we don’t feel them as acutely anymore. Time goes by and we go about our lives, not thinking about grief, perhaps even (foolishly) thinking we’ve conquered it, feeling like we’re so over ____________ (fill in your loss), and then WHAM! We find ourselves in a friend’s kitchen, helplessly hugging her as she cries desperately in her own mourning, grieving a loss that, while uniquely hers, feels very, very familiar. The emotions from our own day of loss flood back, perhaps not as strong, but it is grief’s way of reminding us that it never, ever goes away.

There are times, too, when grief is more subtle. It refuses to readily identify itself. Your life, by all accounts, is fine, you’re holding it together, and you even dared to be happy and smile again. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, you wake up one morning with an overwhelming sense of dread and sadness, feeling like you can’t pull the blanket off from around your head. You wander around dazed for a while – a day, a week, a month, longer – unable to put your finger on the culprit because, you know, that death/loss was so long ago and you’re, like, totally over it, so it must be something else.

But it’s not.

I write this to remind us that grief is not something we ever finish. And honestly, I don’t think it’s supposed to end.

I’m not saying we should feel miserable all the time or constantly remind ourselves of what we’ve lost in our lives. But loss and grief are inevitable for each one of us, and instead of trying to drink it away, drug it away, fuck it away, eat it away, or work it away, why not we use the hell out of it and grow empathy where perhaps there wasn’t any? Even if someone’s loss isn’t exactly the same as ours, understanding that the experience of loss is overarching and universal can train us to be more understanding, kind, helpful, and – when warranted – involved in bringing change to what is wrong.

Grief can strengthen us and, sadly, destroy us, but there’s no in between. The thing is, though, that even when we think it’s destroying us, it just might be strengthening us, teaching us more about ourselves than we ever wanted to know. This is not to say that what brought us to grieve is somehow a good thing. Personally, I’d rather my (and my friend’s) husband was alive, or the baby I miscarried had been born, or that the things I lost in the fire hadn’t burned, or that my brother’s memory was intact, or that any of the other losses I’ve experienced in my life hadn’t happened. But all of these losses make up my real life. Subsequently, grief, too, is a part of my real life, and I want grief to have meaning and a purpose, even if that purpose is simply to listen to a friend who is hurting.

P.S. We witnessed a simple and bittersweet lesson in grief recently when a female orca whale carried her dead baby on her back for 17 days before finally letting it go. She didn’t adhere to some cultural agenda that said you get a few days to grieve and then you’re supposed to get on with your life. She grieved in her own way, and so should we.

 

 

Weren’t You 18 Just a Few Years Ago?

My oldest daughter is 35 years old today, which is surprising considering I’m 39, or at least I still think like I’m 39 and not what I thought 54 would be like when I was 39. Anyway, I wrote this column in 2001 when Carlene was 18 (and I was 37) when she was a senior in high school and wondering where she should go to college. I love this girl to pieces, and I wish for her the same things now as I did then.

Blackbird Fly (published in The Clarion News, May 2001)

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly / All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

You asked me, “What do you want, Mom? What do you think I should do?” And it was clear by the tone of your voice that you expected me to say something customary like, “I just want you to be happy,” but with a choked-up guilt-ridden undertone that said “…but keep in mind I’d be happy if you stayed here in Clarion.”

Weren’t you surprised when I didn’t?

I don’t have eyes in the back of my head for nothing, my daughter. Yes I want you to be happy, but I’ve learned a thing or two about you in these 18 years and I know the life you’ve secretly dreamed about for years will die if you don’t leave this town, your home, and see for yourself what lies beyond these hills.

You have an adventurous spirit and a cautious heart. The combination has served you well so far and you must trust it won’t let you down in the future. You’ve learned there is no monster under the bed, no boogey man in the closet, no sandman, and no such thing as ghosts, yet you know there are bigger mysteries to solve, other truths to uncover, out there somewhere all your own. To not live where your heart and head can be free or to deny yourself that place of self-discovery would be placing yourself on a certain and predictable course, and God knows after years of listening to me tell you what the world is like you’re entitled to discover the world for yourself.

So…what do I want? That’s a question I’ve been thinking about and trying to answer since you were born. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

I want you to be happy in your own skin, to be at peace with your decisions, to love God, and to visit the Rocky Mountains in the winter.

I want you to drink good wine and see the midnight sun and walk along the Champs-Elysées with your best friend.

I want you to have babies when you’re ready and visit your grandparents once a year. I want you to never forget your sister’s birthday and to go to Jasper once in awhile and place flowers on your dad’s grave.

I want you to never know an overdue bill, an IRS audit, or a broken tailpipe you can’t afford to fix. I want you to concentrate on what you do that makes you successful and to not dwell on failures.

I want you to come home from wherever you are when you’re homesick and to go back again feeling stronger for having been home again, because I’ll always be here for you and you can wash your clothes while I make you manicotti and chocolate cake. Your room will still be purple and I won’t rent it out or turn it into the hot tub room like I threatened.

You see, I don’t care where you go to college as long as you get the education you need to be what you want to be.

I don’t care where you lay your head at night as long as it’s warm and safe and, when it’s right, with the person who loves you more than life.

I don’t care what you do for a living as long as it doesn’t hurt other people, that it envelops your God-given talents and gifts, and that it gives you satisfaction and affords you the kind of home you can relax in at the end of the day.

I trust you. I have faith in you. But mostly I love you, and love is the reason I can let go. I’m going to hurt for awhile and I’ll probably cry all the way home after helping you move into your dorm, but I don’t want you to feel you’ve caused me pain because you will not have. Love is just like that sometimes.

I’ll miss the smell of your perfume floating up the stairs after you leave for school. I’ll miss hearing you tell me good night and feeling your kiss on my cheek before you go to bed. I’ll miss seeing your face every day, our spontaneous talks in the kitchen and the way you play with the dogs.

But while I’ll miss you very much, I know I’ll still be your mother when you’re frustrated, your mom when you need advice and your mommy when you need money or just a hug.

Your moment is here, my girl, and you’re ready to fly. And that is truly what I think you should do.

 

In 2018, Maybe Poetry Can Help

The Internet can be a brain suck, for sure. Then there are sites like Dictionary.com that can inflate the brain, sort of. For instance, the word “pajamas” comes from the Persian words pah, meaning “leg,” and jammas, meaning “clothing”. The British spell it as “pyjamas.” If I were in London, I’d still be in my “pyjamas”. But sadly I’m not. In London, that is. Here in the U.S., I most certainly am still in my “pajamas”. Happy New Year to me.

And Happy New Year to you! Have you made any resolutions? Established any goals for 2018? Still in your jams? I made no resolutions, but I do have a goal: to see The Moody Blues inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April!! I’ll stand in the parking lot if I have to, but I need to be there. IT’S ABOUT DAMN TIME THEY WERE INDUCTED! Whoever thought inducting Dusty Springfield, Kiss, and The Animals before The Moody Blues needs some serious musical educating.

Looking back over 2017, there are several more things in my Best Of grab bag than I thought there would be, given how discomfited so many of us felt last year at this time. I had little hope for 2017, but a lot of good things happened. Jim and I had fun growing our on-the-side antiques business at a local antique mall. Zuzu the Wonder Dog moved in. I completed the fifth of six semesters of my master’s program (Graduation: May!).

And I solidly fell in love…

… with poetry.

I had the great fortune of teaching a poetry workshop this summer at the Indiana County jail. I’d taught a few classes in the women’s block, but this was the first time that my students were from two men’s blocks, and the first time the topic was all poetry.

I’ve always liked poetry, even though I have zero patience for epic poems like “The Faerie Queene” or the Sylvia Plath-ish ones that make me want to bang my head against a brick wall. But poetry asks us to pay attention to a moment for a moment. It gets in your face and says, “Look at me! What do you see?” It turned out that reading poetry with a group of men in jail was not a bad way to spend summer vacation.

Since then, I’ve fallen in love with poetry, and I wake up to a poem every morning in my email, thanks to Poem-A-Day from poets.org – another non-brain-suck website. While not every poem is a wake-up call or invites contemplation, each one is someone’s attempt to make sense of some part of their world. What speaks to you might not speak to me, but that’s the whole point!

I really like this book: Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. It’s a collection of poetry selected by Billy Collins when he was poet laureate (2001-03). Collins’ own poetry is accessible (meaning it shouldn’t usually make you want to bang your head against a brick wall). I use his work in my classes, and his Ted Talk is a lot of fun. It’s not a brain suck, I promise.

Suffice to say, poetry will help get me through 2018. I hope it lends you some comfort, solace, and contemplation, too.

Below are a few of my favorites. Please send me some of yours! Add them to the comments.

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World by Sherman Alexie

Losing the Narrative

A shattered bottle tore through my hand last month and split 
a vein until every finger was purple and I couldn’t
make even a tentative fist. I used the other hand to indicate
I’m okay. 
How unwise I am, how polite in a crisis.
In triage, an overheard photo of someone’s lover 
almost 3000 miles west made me seize with longing 
when I spied a palm tree in the background.
I understand what it says about me 
that my body lustfully wishes to place itself where it was never safe.
I have put enormous energy into trying to convince you I’m fine and
I’m just about there, no? 
Besides, decades on, poorly healed bones help me to predict rain!
though it’s true I like to verify weather
with another source because I tend not to believe myself.
I’ve been told repeatedly that I don’t understand plot but
it would be a clever twist, wouldn’t it, if in the end 
I realize it’s me who does me in.
Credit:

Copyright © 2017 by Lynn Melnick. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 26, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem:
“I injured my hand rather gruesomely last spring and it took a longer than expected time to heal. That injury triggered memories of earlier, more traumatic injuries, which got me thinking about how my instinct is to always reassure everyone I’m okay, whether I am or not.”
—Lynn Melnick

I’m baaaack! At least I think so. Maybe. We’ll see.

For more than nine years (2006 to 2015), Zen Bag Lady and Lynn’s Weigh were spaces for me to talk out loud, contemplate, negotiate, vent, and convince (mostly myself), and they acted as dressing rooms in which to try on different perspectives and attitudes that may or may not have always fit. I morphed Lynn’s Weigh with Zen Bag Lady (see my About page), because I realized that they are and always will be one and the same. They are timelines of change, both within and outside my control.

I’ve wanted many times during this 888-day hiatus to post a new blog, and to do that I thought I would have to explain the spiral of changes that have transpired, changes which still leave me a bit breathless. Revisiting some old posts recently, I see that explaining stuff isn’t why I blogged. I blogged because I had something to contemplate, negotiate, vent about, and try on. Putting myself out here again isn’t comfortable, god knows, but maybe no one will notice.

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I recently heard someone quote Benjamin Franklin: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’d heard that quote before, many times, and I certainly can’t argue with it. But old Ben was wrong. There are way more certainties in this life. Emotional and physical spaces will always be in flux, and our bodies and perspectives will change, even if we desperately hang on to dogmas and calorie counters. Even when we think we’re stagnant, we change. That is for certain.

And so here I go again… (you’re welcome).

New blog tomorrow.