Monday, May 19, 2014

A Farewell To My Father

Yesterday, my dad asked his beloved wife Lee to help him find his passport and then get him to the airport. He had a trip to make. Lee assured him she would. The thing is, she won't. 

My father had a stroke on April 11.

He spends his days in the advanced stages of dementia.

My father is dying.

Those words are not easy to write. When I think of them--which I do, about 247 times a day--I feel guilty. Sad. Powerless. He is my father; during the best parts of our relationship, he was my dad. Now, he is an 81-year-old man who cannot do anything for himself...who survived emergency brain surgery only to barely escape falling victim to heart attack and then was left too ravaged to fight off pneumonia. He has lost 45 pounds in five weeks. He doesn't want to eat. He hardly wakens, and he will never again do those things which brought him happiness--read a book, watch a sporting event on TV, linger over coffee with Lee. He will not survive. He will not. He will. He.

Like the words of my sentence above, Dad is just fading away, moment by moment. He gives us false hope, because every now and then, he says something that allows us to believe he could not possibly have dementia. Although weakened, he continues to try to make jokes with his caregivers. It is clear he resents their presence yet values their assistance. He does not want to be where he is, but he seems to understand that his journey on this earth is nearly complete. And to finish it, he must leave us behind. It is the eternal cycle of every parent-child relationship: Raise your child well, and he will leave you. Eventually, unless the the Universe has an alternate, twisted plan, you will one day have to leave your child. And all the preparation in the world will not make this event less vicious. It will not make you stoic. It will not bring you grace.

This saying goodbye again as I watch my dad disappear before my very eyes forces me to admit that this is all there is and all there ever will be. The good and bad, the highs and lows, the things that might have been and those that never should...these snapshots of my yesteryears fill my waking moments and waken me from those I should spend sleeping. Ours was not an easy relationship. In recent years, he expressed regret at how he chose to parent me and my brother and sister. He admitted to not being as involved as he could have been, to not being strong when strength is what our family needed. He hated his cowardice, how he ran away from us--three times, when all was said and done--and left us in the care of Mom, whose sanity was unstable at best and who, though she loved us fiercely, could not be relied upon to put a child's needs ahead of her own madness.

Dad lived with his demons, and throughout my childhood, he drank to forget them. His abuse of his children was thinly disguised anger and frustration over his own futility in our family dynamic. Such abuse--be it physical or emotional--is a hallmark of living with a person whose power is rooted in maniacal manipulation; how does one reason with insanity? It cannot be done. As children of this dysfunction, my siblings and I needed Dad to be a hero, the proverbial white knight on a fiery steed. What we got instead was a mere mortal who could neither defy or defend, who was wholly incapable of stepping past his own reflection to recognize that his babies were just as fearful and frustrated as he. Dad was not equipped for a life with Mom, and that fact seemed to trump anything we kids could possibly need.

I held it against him for years, this selfish attempt at self- preservation. Yet as I grew older and (hopefully) wiser, I softened in my stance. I spent a few years living alone with Mom. They were the most mentally challenging, frightening years of my young life. I eventually married and had children of my own, and as I traded in the role of child for parent, I couldn't help but see my Dad through new eyes. The upshot of this broader perspective resulted in a deeper disgust at how he put his own desires and needs not only ahead of ours but in place of ours, but also in a more forgiving attitude toward his inability to figure out how to make it all work. Somewhere in my early 40s I came to understand that there was no right response to his (our) predicament. There was wrong and more wrong, and no one is going to come of a situation like that in a favorable light. I chose to believe that Dad did the best he knew how to do with a heinously bankrupt situation. Making this choice allowed me to experience hurt and sadness every time he chose not to reach out to my children--his grandchildren--and build meaningful relationships without letting those emotions consume me.

Because of my ability to accept Dad on his terms and not expect more than I knew he would ever give, we shared a stable relationship over the last decade. I gave up on the idea that he might offer to babysit my kids for a day or night so that I could have some time to myself. I didn't count on him to send his grandchildren birthday cards, or to establish a relationship with them outside the 2-3 times a year he saw them, though we lived just over an hour's drive from each other. I put no pressure on him, asked for nothing, and that seemed to be the ticket.

And so as my dad lay dying, the life literally seeping from him one pound at a time, I choose to remember that it was he who attended my basketball games and tennis matches when Mom insisted that girls had no business playing sports. It was Dad who played games with me, and patiently waited while I added up my own Yahtzee scores so that I got practice with math functions. It was he who played Scrabble with me and challenged me to spell multisyllabic words, even before I was ten years old. He was a brutal opponent and never let me off the hook. It was Dad who valued language, who instilled in me a love of word play and appreciation of the power of words to move people to be better than they were even a moment ago. It was Dad who tucked me in at night and had me believing that my stuffed animals managed to climb and perch themselves all over my bedroom when I was busy during the day.

Because of my father, I know that no one is all good or all bad. In literary terms, there are no flat characters. We are all multi-dimensional, with the ability to both crush and nurture, wound and heal, destroy and inspire. I know Dad wishes he had, along his path, made better choices, thought less of himself and more about the world around him. I know he realizes that regret is forever, even if life is not. And I know he loves me as best he knows how, and that I return that love, hard-earned as it has been.

For now, though, all I can do is wish him safe travels, for he has a trip to make.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Obama: Give Me "Cool" Any Day

I just read a blurb in my fave news magazine, The Week, that President Obama (herein referred to as The Big O because I am in that kind of mood) is "cool." So obvious is his coolness factor that Karl Rove's American Crossroads Super PAC has focused its strategy on using it against him, calling him a "celebrity" and attempting to turn coolness into a political liability.

What the hell is the matter with people? So our country's leader likes music. He likes to sing Al Green tunes and jam with blues musicians on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and most likely other, less public, venues. He was interviewed on The View, where he gently but astutely corrected Elisabeth Hasselbeck's erroneous assessment that he and Mitt Romney basically held the a similar view of same-sex marriage (tsk, tsk, Liz...journalists should always do their homework or risk looking like amateurs). He also admitted to not knowing anything about the controversial best-selling sexual/bondage/S&M adventure, Fifty Shades of Grey, but jokingly assured his lady friends that he would ask his wife about it. The Big O also plays a decent game of hoops and seems to get his groove on by spending time with his daughters. Wow. Shame on him, right? How dare the President of the United States behave like...a regular guy.

I for one find that quality entirely refreshing. I love that my country's president behaves in ways that might embarrass his kids now and then. Perhaps because I have been both complimented and chastised for acting like the person I am regardless of where I might be or who might be with me, I totally appreciate The Big O's blurry boundary between the private and the public self. I respect the way that both he and his wife have redefined their roles as President and First Lady, not by pointedly doing anything to be different from their predecessors, but precisely by just being themselves. Yes, they have brought a certain flair to the White House. But it's more than that. They have brought a youthfulness, a vitality, a quality I would almost describe as joyful to their duties. Yes, they take their jobs seriously. But no, they're not going to take themselves too seriously.

I can see why the GOP is a bit unnerved by all this "coolness." Mitt Romney is to being hip what I am to being traditional. He reminds me of a paper doll, whose commitment to various stances is about as flimsy. He will never be cool, hip, groovy. He does not put off a fun-loving vibe. He is, actually, quite wooden. Great teeth, perfect hair, that whole Ted Danson-forehead/eyebrow thing...but I can't imagine him letting go and cutting loose. He seems so tightly wound, so...starched shirty and focused on what everyone thinks of him (though, admittedly, he was not too concerned about that when he drove around with his dog strapped to the roof of his vehicle).

I am not saying that being cool makes a man an effective president. I am saying that being cool doesn't automatically make him an ineffective president. It should not matter one iota if The Big O wants to jam the blues or if Mitt wants to...flip-flop on the issues. Oh, no wait. That latter part actually does matter. 

My point--and I do have one--is that being cool is not a reason to judge someone negatively. Don't like his politics? His performance? His beliefs? Fine, that's your prerogative. Don't vote for him. But don't hate on him because he leaves Mitt in the dust when it comes to personality.

This is a guy who created more private sector jobs in 2010 than his predecessor did in all 8 years in office. He extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. He signed the CARD Act to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive credit card practices. He enjoyed a 96.7% success rate in winning congressional votes his first year in office, an unprecedented achievement. His list of accomplishments is long and varied.

I'm confident that making Mitt Romney look even more stiff is not intentional; it's not a political ploy. It's just a bonus.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

In Search of the Perfect House

It doesn't exist, this perfect house I've built in my mind. 

Rick and I have been house hunting now for months. We need to choose one and be done with the search. The only other house I've ever owned was in Windsor, Colorado. I knew it was the house I wanted to raise my kids in the second I set foot in it. There was never any question; 900 Juniper Drive was home.

Finding the house we want is proving more difficult this time around. For one thing, Rick and I come from vastly different backgrounds. In all honesty, I could live in a primitive log cabin and be perfectly happy. Do I love the jacuzzi?Absolutely. Do I like living on the water? More than I can say. Is having an elevator in my home a necessity? Ummm, no. It moves at the speed of smell, as Max would say.

But my relationship with luxury is relatively young, and at 47, I know this about myself: I prefer the simplicity that comes with not having much in the way of material things. I would like to have room for a piano. I need a functional, brightly lit home office. And I want--almost more than anything else I could ever think of--a big porch or deck. No one uses a porch more than I do. Seriously...if it has a cover, I will likely live on it. If not, I will likely live on it. That would be me, bundled up in layers, boots and gloves covering my appendages, sitting on the porch swing or rocking chair in the middle of winter. I love the cold. I love the snow. And I love swingin' and rockin'.

We have toured homes of 5000+ square feet, and we will tour one this weekend that is just under 3000 square feet. We have walked through homes in the woods and homes on the water. We have admired the views from expansive backyards and lamented the absence of wood-burning fireplaces. We have appreciated functional floor plans and questioned decorating tastes (What were they thinking, installing pale pink seashell-shaped sinks?). We have toured a home built in 1901, one constructed in 2007, and many that were erected sometime in between. After seeing about eight houses, we can remember aspects of each one we saw and put them together to build the perfect house for our family.

But the reality is this: No one house is going to provide everything we'd like to have, be that desire big or small. We can build on or install those aspects of a house we truly want if necessary. We can knock down walls and add skylights. Rick reminds me that what will make our house special is turning it into a home, and he has faith that I can make that happen in any setting. His confidence makes me smile, because I know that what makes a house a home is the sound of laughter, the squabbling of siblings, and the knowledge that within those walls, we are all beloved.

Yeah, I can do that.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

2011: An Evolutionary Year

Wow. Time passes so quickly when you're immersed in living. I last posted a column several months ago, though I've thought many times to myself, "Oh! This would make a great essay!" as an intriguing idea or topic coursed through my brain. Unfortunately, I'm still trying to acclimate to waking at 6:00 almost daily; by 9:30pm, I'm wiped out. And those hours in between are spent working, ferrying kids back and forth, fixing meals, shopping for meals, or trying to keep up with this giant house and its many needs. I, a voracious reader, have not cracked open a book in weeks. That's criminal.

But it's almost my birthday, and that is the time of year at which I look back and take stock of my life. I will turn 47 this weekend. Forty-seven! That's almost 50. That's almost a half-century. That's almost...old. Older. Kind of old. I am grinning as I type because no matter how I word it, 47 is older than I ever thought I would live to be. I'm sure if Dad is reading this, he can remember when I, in all seriousness, declared my certainty that I would not make it past 19 because everyone on the planet annoyed the shit out of me. I am returning that favor to my teenagers these days, who find me obnoxiously annoying simply because I draw breath. I've tried to accommodate them by experimenting with ways to inhale and exhale (read: live) without actually opening my airways. Fun Fact: It's impossible. And so...I annoy them.

But seriously, as I recollect the past 365 days of my existence, I marvel at how different my life is now compared to then. When we are actually in the moments that comprise our days, it is nearly impossible to recognize those that will eventually be acknowledged as life-altering. But reflection offers crystal-clear magnification; it allows us to view our lives as a sort of slide show. Oh, look! There's Becky and Tavia holding up the Christmas tree that wants so badly to fall over, and hey! Here come's Tuck through the front door to save the day. 

Another slide reveals a surprised and visibly elated Tuck as his eclectic group of friends surround him in celebration of his 15th birthday in what Tuck eventually described as the best party he's ever had. 

And in another scene, there I am, packing boxes and crying because I'm thoroughly exhausted and torn between needing to move on and not wanting to move my kids from the only home (and community, and friends) they've ever known.

I watch as the kids and I make the monumentally difficult decision to let go of our beloved Oliver, whose seizures claimed his canine dignity and comfort. We surround him with love there on the vet's office floor as he takes his last breath and gently lays his head in my hand. We say goodbye.

In my mind's eye I see myself growing more frustrated and beleaguered as I try to maintain the house I sacrificed to stay in all those years, the one I lovingly painted and decorated and made into a home. I can't physically do it alone. I can't stay there, being told that it's not really my house anyway, that somehow, all the sweat equity I've accrued over the 12 years means nothing. I weep, for all the disappointment and loss. And then I resolve to keep my splintered family together because whether these kids know it or not, we are strong enough to start over somewhere else and create something wonderful. Different, yes. But wonderful nonetheless.

My brain cannot think of the most challenging moments without also conjuring memories of those most rewarding and enriching. I see myself in Mexico with Rick, where we slept late and indulged ourselves in whatever way we felt like indulging. Time ceased to exist, and we just enjoyed basking in each other's company. The breathtaking sunsets and crashing waves of the Caribbean didn't hurt, either.

I see Rick again, reaching out to my kids with patience and a genuine desire to make them feel comfortable. He knows it's a tough crowd. My kids are loving, but they're products of my influence: They say what they think and they aren't exactly in a place of great trust. I watch as he gently enters the sphere of this family in a manner that is at once cautious and yet oddly confident. He recognizes the importance of building relationships with my children; he knows I value their feelings and opinions. He understands that to embrace me is also to embrace my tribe. As weeks pass, I watch them accept him, welcome him, tread easier around him. He is with us when he can be, and we always look forward to his arrival.

As the year winds to a close, I see us pile into the van: Max, Tuck, Bella, and I (Tavi stayed in Windsor a few days longer), along with our two remaining dogs, Kya and Scout. We drive 2000 miles across the country and I marvel that the trip is so uneventful and, well, smooth. Ok, as smooth as it can be with four people and two dogs in an enclosed, moving vehicle. All in all, that trip could have been a nightmare and was pleasantly not.

Then there we are, Max having left for foreign shores, the three kids and I searching for our place in this new community. There are good points and bad, and in my most recent poll, I am told by all three that they would not choose to be living in Colorado now. Yes, they miss their friends. Very much. Yes, Bella misses her dad. Yes, school is better in some ways, worse in others. Typical issues that accompany a typical move. I miss my friends too, achingly so. I miss my old office, which was beautiful and bright and the only space I've ever occupied that felt like it was truly and only mine. 

But we are adjusting and finding things to appreciate: Bella and I especially love the ocean that sits right outside our front door. We love to go down to our pier, where I relax and she explores, showing me her found treasures. Tavi marvels at how quickly she's made friends, good friends, and how easily she transitioned into her school. Tuck has arguably struggled the most, but he also was the one who left the most behind, being oldest and having just embarked on a music career. But even he has found a core group of friends and has begun performing publicly. And we are all lucky because those people we love visit us. Our dear friends Jennie and Tim stayed for a few days. My sister was here to help us with the move. The girls' dad has visited once. Tavi's friend Ali just spent a week with us, and Tuck's friend Dakota will be here on Friday. I'm pretty certain to see Wendy and Tami here in Vacationland before 2012 comes to a close, and the girls are going back to Colorado for the second time in four months this weekend.

We are learning a lot. The move, which foisted our little gang into unfamiliar territory, brought us even closer. We have relied on one another in ways we didn't before, and I realized not long ago, as we sat around the dinner table and laughed and sang and talked, that my kids are friends. A stranger remarked on this phenomenon a couple weeks ago, when Max was visiting and we all were out together. She was amazed at how much my kids seem to like each other, and how much fun they had just talking with one another. I think our self-imposed exile from all that we had known made us appreciate each other more, even as we continue to fight and argue about things we one day will look back on and wonder why.

I also believe that this leap of faith has served to show my children how resilient and strong they are. What they did was not easy, and each has exacted a toll from me in his or her own way. I accept that, because what I essentially did was ask them to trust me, to believe in my wisdom, to blindly go far away. I asked them to think back on their own lives and consider if I had ever let them down or led them astray. I asked them if I'd ever lied to them, or even put my own needs or desires ahead of theirs. They knew I had not, and so they reluctantly took the leap with me. And ever so slowly, their new lives are unfolding. And whaddya know? Those lives aren't too shabby.

It's been a tough year. A tender year. An evolutionary year. A year that serves to remind that we are never too old to change, to grow, to risk. It's been a year that underscores the value in staying true to oneself, in recognizing a good thing when you see it and holding onto it. A year that reminded me that struggle is part of the glory, and trusting my gut is always the right thing to do. 

And so I embark on my 48th year with gusto and a belief that the good I put out into the world is coming back to me in spades. I have the love of a solid man and love him back like nobody's business; my children are good, interesting people whom I adore; I get paid to do something I love, which in turn helps keep my family going; and I find something to laugh about every day. I wake up to the sound of sea gulls every morning and coffee brewing in the kitchen. I regret little and have much to appreciate.

I am joyful.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

So This is Maine

I write this sitting on the sofa in what we call the "main room" while listening to Seals & Crofts. To my left is a fireplace, where a fire is roaring. To my right, on the floor, lies Kya, our beloved pit bull-lab; she is keeping my feet warm with her massive body. The view from where I sit is noteworthy: Rain is coming down in sheets, sometimes sideways, other times, all whirly and swooshy. The leaves on the trees that line our side of the inlet are red and orange, gold and green. The leaves on the other side of the water are still green.Wind keeps the scenery ever-shifting as trees sway and the water current swiftly churns. The tide will come in later today, as it always does, and the water line will be higher than usual.

I love being here.

The kids and I have lived here now for six weeks. We are still transitioning, and probably will be for quite some time. We've already had sleepovers, and we are learning shortcuts to the places we like to go. Tuck has found fellow musicians with whom he plays, and he has his first gig this coming Saturday in Portsmouth, NH. The girls and I have already stormed the public library, which is housed in two old buildings across the street from each other. I laughed when I realized that, instead of moving into one new, bigger building, it just adapted to the space it already had and made do. And you know what? It's exactly as it ought to be. Bella thinks the older building should have a ghost who haunts the top floor, where the young adult books are shelved. I agree; it's just that kind of place.

School has arguably been the most difficult transition for the kids to handle. Tuck went from a high school of 1200 students to one of 280. Within the first week, he knew basically everyone, and boy, did everyone know him. And somehow, before the week was out, kids at the middle school knew Tavia was Tuck's sister, though they don't even share a last name and the schools are not geographically close to one another. Word travels quickly in a small town, and though I had warned the kids that they would be looked upon as minor celebrities (I've been down this road myself, in high school) for at least a while, I don't think they believed me. Now that girls are after Tavia so that they can get to Tuck, I think my kids are getting the picture.

Tavi and Bella go to the same school, grades 4-8, student population of around 350 or so. They're already taking NECAPS (pronounced kneecaps), the Maine equivalent of CSAPs. Why they're taken so early in the school year, I don't know. And I've been asked by Bella's writing teacher to come in and make a presentation to the class about the importance of editing, much like I did at Skyview in Windsor. Looks like I will be teaching a creative writing class, too, for 6-8th graders during what they call CREW time, which is the same as a study hall. Academically, the school is decent. Athletically, not so much. Tavi dropped out of cross country because she felt it wasn't coached very well or effectively. Tried to sign up for soccer then, but it was too late. She's considering trying out for basketball now.

As small as we are here in Kittery Point, the kids have found things to occupy their time. Tuck continues with his music and has begun giving me guitar lessons (woo hoo!). How fortuitous is this: Two houses away from ours lives the owner of the York Harbor Inn, a restaurant and lounge. In his basement is a 16-track recording studio, and he gave Tuck an open invitation to take advantage of it whenever he wants. And the lounge has open mic night every Thursday beginning in November. My boy is heading down to Boston this weekend for his first concert at the House of Blues. Has another one to attend on Tuesday. He'll take the bus there and back. I like that he's broadening his autonomy while learning his way around a new city, doing something he loves to do. Life could be worse than being 15 and having the freedom to explore, maybe get lost, find his way, and return home to the comfort of his own family.

Tavi is enrolled in two dance classes at the dance academy in Portsmouth. She says they're hard-core and that she's learning a lot. She's considering auditioning for the school's honor choir, which joins other regional honor choirs to form one big group, and then they perform all over the place. She has also joined the school's yearbook staff. Come spring, she wants to audition for the regional theater troupe. Tavia? Drama? Really?

We arrived too late for Bella to sign up for the traveling soccer league (there weren't enough participants to have a local rec team), but she plans to sign up in the spring. She will begin violin lessons soon, as next week we make a trip into New Hampshire to fit her with a violin rental. Her interest in writing continues to develop, and she has joined the school's newspaper staff as a reporter.

As for me, I spent the first three weeks meeting just about every repairman in the area. Seriously, there were so many things that needed to be fixed in this house, I felt like Shelly Long in that movie "The Money Pit." I opened the mailbox and the door fell off. Rick flushed the toilet and nothing happened. The steam shower didn't steam, and the fireplace didn't light. To fix one thing sometimes meant damaging something else, so then that something else had to be fixed. It was unceasing. When things finally settled, I had deadlines, so that was two weeks of little else but work, and the last files for a book I'm writing were turned in this week. So here I am. 

There are many things to appreciate about my life here in rural Maine. Living on the ocean suits me well. I love to head down to our dock when the tide is coming in and the sun is shining and The water, the geese, the gentle sounds of the trees, the tugboats in the harbor, the scent...altogether, it offers a sense of solitude I find at once comforting and exhilarating. I appreciate the warm welcome my family has received--at Open House at the high school, several folks came up to me (admittedly, after staring at me for a while), shook my hand, and introduced themselves by telling me which house they lived in ("I live in the red house," "I'm in the yellow house next door," etc). I love how everyone here on our little hill has dogs, and no one cares if your dog visits them. So Kya and Scout have lots of friends, and it's kind of a canine free-for-all. I dig the weather. When it rains, it really rains. We've even already had flash floods and power outages (but seriously, what is this, compared to a tornado?). And when the sun shines, it reflects off the water with a brilliance that takes my breath away. Gratitude. It fills me with gratitude.

Other things, I'll have to get used to. I know many people well enough to say hello, but I don't have any real friends here (I know: it's been only 6 weeks). I miss my friends in Windsor more than words can express. I miss the connection, the being known and knowing them. It feels like so much work to start a new friendship at this stage of my life. Someone is going to really have to be something special for me to invest in. I'm not as generous with my time as I once was. On a more shallow note, I miss authentic Mexican food and melon margaritas from Guadalajara (the restaurant). I miss the convenience of being five minutes from the grocery store. Sidewalks. There are no continuous sidewalks here, and the roads are so narrow that you could high-five someone in a passing car without having to fully extend your arm. I'm not kidding.

So like all periods of transition and change, this one unravels one moment, one event at a time. The kids and I aren't always alone, as Rick comes in every other weekend, sometimes more often. His visits with us in Colorado were noteworthy because they were sporadic; the dynamic of the family would shift, even if only slightly. Now, though, he just seamlessly fits continues as it does during the week, only now we have one more person to talk to, laugh with, consider. His presence is a great support for me on so many levels. His thoughtful input, his willingness to treat my kids as his own, his easy rapport with them...these are the things I've come to cherish. 

And for myself, this feeling of being truly seen unleashes in me a veritable tidal wave of emotion I didn't know I possessed. It owns me, and I willingly give myself to it. Because in this life, I have developed a strength borne of necessity, of the desire to survive and thrive. It is an unyielding strength, and I have relied upon it for as long as I can remember. But the strength Rick encourages in me is flexible. It builds on a sense of communion, of togetherness, of trust. The glory of it brings me to my knees, and it's just one more thing I add to my ever-growing list of things for which I am grateful.

So. This is Maine.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Packing Up, Taking Stock, Moving On: Thoughts on Leaving Home

My house has always been cluttered. I share an intimate love-hate relationship with "stuff," and though I've tried to change my evil ways, I have never succeeded. Now my stuff is in boxes, neatly labeled and stacked along the perimeter of rooms. Except when it's lying in the middle of the floor, or stuffed into bags to be put in the garage and unpacked later this week for our yard sale. One of my favorite things, my simple pleasures in life, is to walk through my home at night, when children are asleep and lights are dim. I have taken comfort in checking doors to be sure they're locked, in folding that last load of laundry (alas, never putting it away until I need an empty laundry basket), in replenishing the dogs' food and water bowls. Before bed, I blow out candles, kiss the dogs, turn out the lights.

To walk through this house at night now is to put one's life at risk. Scissors, tape rolls, boxes both full and flattened litter every square inch. Thumb tacks, nails, even stray pieces of (unchewed) gum threaten my bare feet. I am leaving Windsor; I am leaving this house I've called home for the past 13 years.

I never dreamed I'd be leaving this house until Bella graduated high school. I fell in love with the house itself the first time Wes and I walked through it in 1998. I admired it for its practicality. I loved the open floor plan and imagined watching my kids playing in the backyard while I cooked supper. I liked the idea of playing music on the stereo in the family room and being able to hear it upstairs. I craved the sunlight that I knew would pour through the living room window each morning. I could easily envision raising my family within these walls, and so I set out to make it a home.

We covered those stark white walls in vivid colors: periwinkle, fire-engine red, autumn leaf orange, sunshine yellow, lime green, cerulean blue, turquoise, aqua, terra cotta, purple. This house is a veritable palette of color, and it loyally reflects the personalities of the people who have inhabited it all these years. I painted furniture--wood benches, kitchen chairs, children's bookcases, chairs, stools and chests of drawers. I decorated the walls with kids' artwork and family photos, and my kitchen cupboards became bulletin boards for pages ripped from coloring books, messages of "I love you, mom," and other youthful masterpieces. Books filled every room, and my children grew up understanding that, with books, you never have to be bored or lonely.

As the kids grew, our home became a place in which their friends came to hang out. Just this past summer, it was nothing to find a half-dozen--often times, twice that--kids in Tuck's room (sometimes, when he wasn't even here) or gathered on the back patio, just talking, laughing, and generally kickin' it. Some of Tavi's friends have basically grown up here, so much so that when Tuck came through the door just last week and saw one of them at the kitchen table, he asked, "Do you live here now?" And he was serious. 

Kids who spent a lot of time here over the years were treated exactly as I treated my own. They got hugs, food, advice. They heard me yell when I got fed up, and they knew they were expected to respect the rules of our home or face the consequences. They heard me play piano and sing, lose complete control in fits of laughter, say bad words, apologize. Tuck has, over the years, lamented the fact that I don't act differently when his friends are over. He would prefer I have two personalities: one for public and one for private. That's never been my gig, though, so he's had to learn to deal with that. And when all is said and done, I believe that the kids who have returned to our home time and again know they are welcome, that in some cases, I dearly love them. As I contemplate the days ahead and know I will not see the faces of my children's friends, I feel a genuine sense of loss. They have been a major part of my own life.

A house is just a house; I know that. It is because I made it a home that it matters and means something. But still, I struggle with leaving this physical structure. This is where two of my four children took their first steps.  In this family room, the kids and I would push the furniture to the side, crank up the stereo, and dance like there was no tomorrow. Sometimes, other people's kids would join us in our joyful silliness. Scores of birthdays were celebrated in this house and the backyard. How many birthday candles were blown out at this kitchen table? These walls once vibrated with the sounds of Max learning to play piano and baritone, of Tavi's singing and learning to play piano, of Tuck learning to play guitar and trombone. There was nothing I liked more than to be in my upstairs office and hear Max and Tuck playing guitar and bass and sometimes even singing as the sounds drifted up through the floor vents. The bedroom walls brought comfort as I read bedtime stories with my children each night before tucking them in and telling them one final time that day how very much I loved them.

The memories aren't all good, of course. The master bedroom is where Wes and I lost our baby boy, and where I very nearly lost my own life in 1999. I sat at the kitchen table in disbelief as my sister hyperventilated over the phone, screaming that our mom was dead, in 2004. It was in these rooms--and yet so far beyond them, as well--that my relationship with Wes fell apart, into such a state of disrepair that there was no salvation for us. And it was here that I had to tell my children what that meant for them. 

And consequently, it is within these walls that the kids and I learned how to regroup and continue growing as a family in which the dynamic had changed but the love remained. So I feel a profound sadness at leaving this place that has seen countless milestones, been home to the people I love with a fierceness unparalleled by anything else I know. And yet I leave it also with a sense of excitement, of hope, of security and certainty that I have never known before in my life. I know that home is something carried in the heart. It is created and nurtured, not simply found. It is not so much a where, but a who, a communion of hearts and souls.

I guess, then, I'm leaving home to go . . . home.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Do You Know Who I Am? I'm the Bejeweled, Long-Haired Cheese...the One in the Mini Dress

As of this past Saturday, I am the mother of three teenagers and one "tween." Technically, one of those teenagers is an adult, but that's a term loosely used on any 18-year-old, I don't care how mature or wise he may be.

Three teenagers.


How the hell did this happen? Well, I know how it happened. But I I am 46 years old, clearly old enough to claim these kids as my own. But I don't feel like I should be able to claim them. Just this morning, Tavi was chastising me for buying this very cool, multi-colored peace sign bracelet cuff. It screamed my name as I did my best to walk by and ignore it in the store. But seriously--that bracelet belongs on my arm. And it was under $5, which I interpreted as a sign from God that it should go home with me. Tavia informed me that I should give it to her, because I'm "way too old" to wear it. She did not, however, deny it's cuteness.

I remember my mom telling me that once a woman gets to a certain age (can't remember what that predetermined age was), long hair should be cut and no longer worn with ribbons adorning it. My hair is still long. And I still wear ribbons in it. And flowers. And flowered ribbons. I'm also partial to peace signs and anything reminiscent of the 60s, like go-go boots. I not-so-secretly covet a pair of shiny white go-go boots. And a mini-dress with bell sleeves made of some kind of groovy-patterned fabric. I can't help it. It's just who I am. I don't really care if I'm 60, 70, 80...if I want to tie my hair up with a pink ribbon and sashay around town in go-go boots, I'm damn well going to do it. So get the hell out of my way, people. Or at least stop and give me a ride. On your motorcycle, 'cause that's another thing I'll never get too old for. And the faster, the better.

But I digress. It's just the three kids and me living here now. I am outnumbered 3 to 1. And in any situation involving Tuck or Tavi, they gang up on me and take up each other's cause. Doesn't matter what it is, I am the enemy who must be brought down. Their ability to collaborate and cooperate is impressive; I wish they'd use that skill to do housework or wash the van. Or rub my feet. Something that might benefit me in some way. Alas, their focus is always on "making a point" or "proving" me wrong. Often, it's just on arguing for the sake of arguing.

I remember feeling as if I always had a point to make. That lasted until I was about 20. Then I gradually stopped caring if people agreed with me. In fact, if too many people agreed with my point of view, I thought I must be wrong. Because the cheese stands alone, and I liked being the cheese.

Now, in my late 40s, I still don't feel the need to get people to agree with me. Add to that a distinct lack of needing approval for whatever I might do or say, think or feel, and I've come to a satisfyingly liberating stage of my life. Is this what most women in their 40s feel like? I would truly like to hear from any of you, because in my 20s, I thought getting older would be awful. But now that I AM older, I actually prefer it.

The writer in me appreciates the irony in that concept. The mom in me relishes the idea that my kids feel sorry for me because I'm OLD. The woman in me just wants those freakin' go-go boots.

Friday, March 04, 2011

So I Wrote This Book...

In April of 2009, I was contacted via email by a guy named Travis Thompson. Travis had a story to tell. A BIG story. A loooooong story. A fascinating story, really, about a Mormon kid who made good despite having an extermination order on his head, witnessing his uncle's violent death, surviving the death of his own beloved 5-year-old daughter, and experiencing the inherently risky life of a 19th-century adventurer on the American frontier.

This pioneer's name was Perry A. Burgess, and if you're at all familiar with Steamboat Springs, you've heard of him, or at least his last name. It permeates that town. Maybe you've ridden his ski lift, or attended gatherings in one of his meeting rooms. Perhaps you've visited the Tread of Pioneers museum (which just happens to sit on the site that was once his backyard) or strolled along Burgess Promenade, which enjoys views of Burgess Creek. Seriously. The dude is everywhere.

So Travis asks me if I'd be interested in writing Perry's story. Only a fool would have declined that offer, and come August, Travis and his wife Becky were seated at my kitchen table, along with--literally--a suitcase of research and books and pamphlets and photos and well, stuff.

Initially, Travis tried to write Perry's story himself. He got to page 25 and realized this was not an undertaking for a novice. Travis is a whiz-bang IT guy; he is a technical systems god. Which makes him intelligent. Which allowed him to realize that he needed a professional writer. That he chose me was sheer luck. But when he and Becky arrived at the house, I greeted them believing the information he had shared with me already in an email: He had written those 25 pages and figured he needed another 50 or so.

Yeah, right.

After a couple hours pass and Travis is exuberantly explaining all the tangents of Perry's life story (Travis could not sit; he stood and paced, sat and fidgeted), it dawns on me that this will most definitely not be a 75-page manuscript. And boy, was I spot-on with that prophecy. The final book, published in late October 2010, was 540 pages.

Yes, that's right: 540 pages.

Beyond the Land of Gold: The Life & Times of Perry A. Burgess took more than a year of my life to research and write. Travis would send me outlines of what he thought each chapter might look like. Now, I use the term "outlines" loosely, because in my book, an outline is just that: a vague guideline. Travis's outlines were sometimes 13 typed pages long, single-spaced. I'm not kidding.

Both of us were learning as we went along. I don't think Travis had any idea how this book would take over his life, and I had to learn how to write using a process far different from the one I used to write any of my previously published books. I guess, at the end of the day, Travis and I weren't just developing a book; we were building a relationship.

Creating a book or building a relationship...either is a monumental endeavor. Try doing both simultaneously. Oh, and I should mention that while this was going on, I was extricating myself from a 12-year relationship with my daughters' dad. It was not a smooth ending. Toss into the mix the reappearance of a high school boyfriend who, 28 years later, was even more intriguing and wonderful than he was at age 16, and you can imagine the emotional rollercoaster I was riding. And there's the fact that I watched as my first-born child graduated high school, went off to college, and turned 18 (in that order); it was almost more than I could bear. All the while, my focus was on keeping life as drama-free as possible for my 3 kids who remained at home. It was no easy task. Most days, I felt hugely inadequate in one way or another.

All things considered, 2010 was both one of the worst and the absolute best of my 46 years. And I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Because I am immensely proud of Beyond the Land of Gold. Just last night, we found out that it is a finalist in the 2011 Colorado Independent Publishers Association Evvy & Technical Awards. They haven't yet announced the finalists for the content/editorial awards in Biography, Memoir, or History (all of which we entered), but the book has made it to the final round in Cover Design, Illustration, and Printing. I am honored, and await word on the finalist selection for the other 3 categories.

Since last fall, I've traveled to Boulder, Steamboat Springs and Craig, where Travis and I made presentations about the book...our audiences were gracious and enthusiastic. We've had book signings in Denver and Cheyenne, and have another planned for May in Longmont. Beyond the Land of Gold is carried by the Tattered Cover bookstore, and believe me, that's not an easy venue to get into for lesser-known writers or publishers. We're hoping to travel this summer--Utah, Montana--to further promote the Mormon and gold rush aspects of the book. In short, the book has allowed me to broaden my horizons as a professional, to visit places I might otherwise never see, meet people I wouldn't otherwise get to know.

But it has also enriched my personal life. I've gotten to know Travis and Becky Thompson, two wonderful people who recognized the value in what they had and have taken great pains to bring Perry's story to light. While it was me who put the pieces together to provide a comprehensive and clear picture, it was the Thompsons' relentless pursuit of information that made the writing possible. They put more than 10 years of their lives into this story. That's impressive. And the resulting book provides a heretofore missing piece of American Frontier history. To have made 2 new friends on the road to publishing a book? Priceless.

I remain vigilant in my dedication to creating a stable and secure home for my children. There have been some bumps in the road, but nothing we haven't been able to steer around or just completely jump over. I'm one of those lucky moms who has kids who know they will be just fine no matter where they land. I do have two teenagers in the house, however, so...well, I am often outwitted and always outnumbered. I am one tough cookie, though, and I will survive.

As for the high school boyfriend, well, let's just say I love being older and wiser. I love that he never let go of the idea of me. And I love him.

So yeah. I wrote a book.

(To learn more about the book or to purchase a copy, please visit

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Just How Similar Are We?

Writers write for different reasons. Most of us, if pressed for an answer, will say we can't not write. It's like exhaling; we must do it.

I write to make sense of my world. I've been writing since I was a young girl, when it became clear to me that there wasn't a lot of logic or predictability or even, sometimes, sanity, in my world. I wrote poetry and journal entries. As a tween, I suspected my mom was reading my diary, so I wrote a series of, shall we say, colorful entries regarding boys. Total fabrications, mind you, but it was the only surefire way I could tell if she was indeed invading my privacy. I came home from school one day to have my face slapped, hard. Yep. She was reading my diary.

At any rate, writing helps me think through both the tedious and the monumental. It allows me to cope, escape, confront. As an adult, I've written about my mother's struggle with mental illness, her death and my ensuing grief, the death of my son, the birth of my children, the raising of those children, my experience with divorce and late-in-life discovery of genuine, reciprocated love. I have also written about the more mundane: breastfeeding in public, children's carsickness, Spongebob Squarepants, politics, human nature...there is little I haven't covered.

I just finished reading a book about language and, because it is a cultural convention, we assume it reflects the culture in which we live. But there is a strong argument for the idea that individual languages actually shape the culture in which we live and how experience it. Because language and words are the tools of my trade, this idea fascinates me. It might not do much for you, though, so have no fear--that's not what this column is about. But the idea did get me thinking...

How much of our lives are based on the assumption that our experiences are shared? I don't mean shared in the sense that, say, when we go to a concert, there are a thousand other folks sharing that experience. I'm talking shared in that, what I see, you see. What I understand, you understand. How much of this sort of daily analysis is based on assumption?

For example, I was in my 30s before I realized I experience simple activities such as hearing music and tasting food in a way that is not considered "normal." I live with synesthesia, a condition in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by the perception of another. For example, I "hear" color. Every song has a color. Whether I'm merely listening to music or performing it on the piano or vocally, color accompanies every song. It's the same with food. All food has color to me; I literally "taste" color. Smells, too...each one presents itself to me in color.

Now, having not known that this is abnormal (estimate of synesthetes range from 1 in 200 to 1 in 10,000), and having experienced life in this way since I can remember, I naturally assumed everyone I knew shared this phenomenon. Then I had to research an article I was writing, and I came across this information and thought, "Holy shit! This is ME!" and that thought was immediately followed by absolute shock. So it's not normal to view life through the lens of an acid flashback? Your world is not psychedelic with colors like mine is?

I was left pondering the idea that all along, this world has shown itself to me in a way that is more vivid, more intense, than it is to most people. I got to wondering if this sensory issue was all-encompassing for me. I mean, if someone touches me, do I feel the same sensation as you do when someone touches you? I just always thought I was sensually vigilant. Turns out I am, instead, a scientific anomaly. Supposedly, this sensory crossfire is not supposed to be able to occur in the human brain. Huh.

This idea of assumptions then led me to contemplate our daily life experience. We humans assume so very much of others. How much of our miscommunication and misunderstanding is borne of the assumption that we share an experience and so must share the results of that experience? How many marriages and friendships have ended over the inherent (mis)understanding that the other person's response to any given situation(s) was wrong simply because it was not our understanding? A simple concept, but incredibly far-reaching.

I guess, at the end of the day, it comes down to judgment. When we judge, we analyze and determine the value or worth of any given act according to our own personal template. But wow. Those templates vary so greatly, yet we want--perhaps need--them to be one-size-fits-all.

Thing is, they aren't. And they never will be.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Of White Lights & Wisdom

In two days, I will celebrate my 46th birthday.

I can't look at that number without chuckling because it is the same age my mom once was, only then, it was as ancient as Mesopotamia to me. Now *I* will be the bearer of 16,790 days of life experience, and yet I feel remarkably...not old.

2010 was a year of change for me, and more often than ever before, I'd find myself pondering my life, my choices, my circumstances. Like most 46-year-old women, I have teeny white Christmas lights strung across the headboard of my bed. I like to lie there at night, looking at them, thinking. At first, I could only think about how cool those lights were. Everything looks better--dreamier--in the soft glow of white Christmas lights. It's true. Scientific studies have proven it. Now I have too.

But as I grew accustomed to having a purple bedroom with white Christmas lights on the headboard and vibrantly dyed Mexican sarongs hanging in the windows, my thoughts turned elsewhere, to more...grown-up musings. And eventually, I realized I was deconstructing my life as it has unfolded thus far. And here's what I know:

I know I've done the best I could. I think even as a young girl, I approached everything I did with 100% commitment to do it to the best of my ability. Whether it was my nature or a learned attitude or a bit of both, I can say I take great solace in the certainty that even if I didn't always make the choice a more prudent me would have made, I did, at least, dedicate myself to that choice and seeing it reach its potential.

I know I've grown and stretched beyond my comfort zone more in times of strife and conflict than in times of general peace. I've come to recognize the blessings inherent in even the most agonizing tribulations, and knowing those blessings serve a purpose makes forging through the challenges worthwhile.

I know I am one stubborn mother...and sister, friend, lover, etc. My iron will is a double-edged sword that both protects and at times wounds me. I've learned to wield it more carefully as I've aged.

I know I need very little to be happy. But I also know I can be happy with more. It's comforting to be able to straddle that line between struggle and abundance and feel at ease on either side.

I know that I deserve more than I've historically allowed myself to have. In every way.

I know that my children are so much a part of me--and I of them--that though we may one day live apart, we will always be together. They are the best things I've ever done with my time, energy, and love.

I know I'm no picnic. I'm opinionated. I can be loud. I am outspoken and don't need anyone's approval. I am not always diplomatic and I know how to use words as weapons. I don't let people inside my life easily and there will always be secrets I don't tell even those closest to me. At times I am remarkably vulnerable even as I stand strong in the face of great challenge. I protect my heart because it has been broken so often, always by those who claim to love me most. But at 46, I know there's more room in my heart for love precisely because it has been so boldly broken.

I also know I am worth the effort. I am simple yet complex, a free spirit who is demanding in some ways yet refreshingly low maintenance in others. I believe in the goodness of people and strive to find it, even if it brings me to my knees. I love fiercely and passionately, and support those I hold most dear even if I can't agree with what they're doing. I know joy and I share it without reservation. I believe in promises I've been given until they're broken. Then I believe again. I laugh a lot and never pass up a chance to let those people I love know how dear they are to me.

And most recently, I know that being independent doesn't necessarily mean standing alone. It doesn't mean I can't lean on someone when my own legs feel wobbly. I can be independent and still reach out for that hand to hold, that whisper to guide, that look to reassure. I can, finally, accept as my own the love I have always been willing to give.

So. Happy Birthday to me.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Why Do We Kill People Who Kill People?

I'm thinking about the death penalty and have been for weeks.

I don't know why this is so, I only know that it is. And then my most recent issue of Utne Reader magazine was delivered. After letting it sit on the kitchen table with approximately 237 other items that don't belong there for about a week, I opened it one afternoon while eating lunch. And there before me lay not one but two articles on capital punishment. OK, Universe. I'm listening.

I am not superstitious, but I do take this as a sign that I am supposed to be thinking about this topic. So I finally let it take hold of my mind. While preparing dinner, I'm thinking about state-sanctioned murder. While folding laundry, my thoughts turn to parents of victims and criminals alike. While soaking in a hot bubble bath, I close my eyes and wonder why.

Why, if capital punishment is justice served, do I struggle with it so?

On the days I entertain the idea that maybe society has legitimate use for the death penalty, I am focused on the idea of punishment. If someone takes the life of someone else, he should pay a price. I was raised in a home that was big on retribution. If we kids did something we shouldn't, we would be punished. That usually meant some form of physical pain. And as I would hide in my closet listening to my sister scream as our dad hit her, my little mind would wonder how this was helping my sis in any way. Oh, that's right. It wasn't supposed to help her. It was supposed to "teach her a lesson." Huh. Some lesson: If you do something you shouldn't, the people who claim to love you will hurt you.

We are a society that loves its retribution, though. Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne fell in love with a minister and when their love became physical, she was outcast and forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her breast, just in case the neighbors didn't already realize she was an adulterer. And what punishment was served up to her lover? Nothing. That's because punishment is never fair, and that includes the death penalty. It is applied somewhat arbitrarily, to people who are not always guilty. And so innocent people are put to death. Which means instead of one innocent victim of a crime, there are two.

How is that justice?

The logical part of me then considers the cost of life imprisonment. We like to think that it's cheaper to just kill someone rather than pay to let them live out their lives in prison. But that's not reality. The reality of capital punishment in this country is that it costs 2 to 5 times more to execute someone than it does to keep him alive. This is due to the numerous appeals and legal processes involved. It's a criminal waste of money and resources in and of itself.

I might actually be able to justify a judiciously imposed death penalty if it did, in fact, serve as a deterrent to would-be murderers. But there is no evidence that it does and plenty of research to suggest that it doesn't come close to serving that purpose. In fact, since 1990, the murder rate in states that inflict the death penalty has been consistently higher than in those that don't (according to the FBI and census figures). That means the death penalty has the opposite effect as intended. 'Nuff said.

There is, of course, the "eye for an eye" argument as bolstered by that bestseller, the Holy Bible. I don't buy into that logic for a minute. Even as a child, that seemed suspicious to me. I've read many accounts of families of murder victims who did not experience the relief or sense of closure they expected to upon the death of the person allegedly responsible for killing their loved ones. And here's where I try to truly imagine how I would feel if someone took the life of one of my kids. Would I want that person to die? Would that make me feel better, or somehow repay my child? The answer I always come back to is No. And it may very well tarnish every memory I have of that beloved child because I would never be able to separate in my mind my child from his or her murderer.

I can't help but wonder, too, why we don't televise state-sanctioned murder if it's really a good thing. If we truly believe in its innate usefulness and righteousness, let's put it out there for all the world to see. But no, we limit the viewing audience and do it behind locked doors. That alone gives me pause.

I understand that we are human and therefore subject to feelings of hatred and desire for revenge. But that same humanness also makes us inherently compassionate, even if we sometimes quell that trait in favor of something we deem more valuable or worthy. I don't have an answer. I only have intuition and gut responses. I have intelligence and the ability to reason and follow logic. I guess, at the end of the day, that's what we all have to do.

Sometimes, I let my heart lead me. Other times, I obey my brain. But here, in the case of capital punishment, I have to call on both and listen very closely to their responses. And then I have to decide for myself what I believe is just. I think we all must do that.

Perhaps Dante said it best when he wrote, "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Think You're in Control? Think Again.

I was talking with a friend over coffee the other morning. We share a common situation in that both of our eldest children have gone off to college this fall. It's a new experience for us, and one we acknowledge as bittersweet. It's great to have someone to make this parallel journey with me.

At one point Deb said, "I realized this last time that he's never really coming home again." Simple statement, but wow, did that pack a punch. She's right. She put words to this feeling I've had every time I've seen Max since he moved out in August: He will visit and find his comfort here, but he will never truly come home again.

There was a time not too long ago when this thought would have sent me reeling. Max is, after all, the child of mine I have spent the most time with. I had 3 1/2 years of him to myself, and he had those same years of not having to share me. He was the king and I was his queen, he told me when he was three years old. "What's Daddy?" I naively asked. "Sadly," my little boy replied, "he's just a knight." And truly, that about summed it up. Max has always been my kid. We belonged together.

But to go from literally wearing your child in a sling on your chest or hip and co-sleeping with him to nervously watching him navigate playground equipment to getting a quick kiss goodbye as he heads out the door with friends to hugging him one last time as he tells you it's time to leave so he can organize his dorm (and for the record, I'm not sure he's done that yet, two months into the school year) is a veritable lifetime. It is a constant push and pull, a see-saw, at times a merry-go-round that doesn't feel so merry. In fact, the older I get, the more that motion makes me want to vomit.

So when reality kicks me in the ass as Deb utters her observation, I look to the heavens (I do that whenever I'm in the midst of an epiphany, which seems to be quite often these days) and recognize the raw truth in that proclamation. And I instantly think how natural that idea feels to me now. Of course he won't come home. Of course he's a visitor. That's how it should be.

And, given all the other changes in my life as of late, I thought about how the idea of natural progression translates to each of those circumstances. For instance, I am now the only parent living in this house with my three remaining kids. I'm it. If it gets done, I do it. If it needs paying for, I pay it. If someone's yelling, it's probably me. If it warrants a laugh, I'm the one doubled over, gasping for air and worried that I'll wet myself because I can't control my snorting. I am Woman.

And it feels right. In my gut and in my mind, this living with my children alone is the way it should be. For now. I can't know what the future may bring, and I'm not concerned about it. I actually haven't ever been too adept at looking far ahead. I can plan about a month in advance and that's about as good as it gets. I have always been a live for the moment girl, and that life plan so many of my peers grew up with in their heads? It never existed for me. Made for a life of surprises, but it also afforded me surprising flexibility and the attitude of "OK, so this is where we are. Let's do this thing." As a result, I've got four kids who aren't rattled by much. If you know them, you know the boys are so laid back you have to check them for a pulse. And the girls have sunny dispositions (though at 12, Tavi is more often at turns dramatic and brooding these days).

Then there's my new book. For over a year, the research and writing of that book consumed my work schedule. Published in late September, the book has garnered a lot of interest in our region and beyond, into Montana and Utah. As a result, I am traveling to promote the book through book signings and slide presentations. It's an unexpected pleasure. But it's a nightmare logistically in terms of figuring out how to do that aspect of my job and see that my kids are taken care of. And that's a worry I never had before. I've always been home. I work where I live. Now I go on the road and hope I've instilled in my kids the security to know they can step up and take care of at least some of their needs on their own. I hope they use common sense when making choices that I'm not around to help support or discourage. I hope...that I've done my job as their mom well.

But even this, this traveling and separating from my kids now and then--this too, feels right. It's exactly what I should be doing. And I find solace in that knowledge. It's a new day. Wes and I are no longer together; Max has moved out; the family that was 6 is now 4 and we're finding our way. It's not always easy, but it's also not too challenging. And I chalk that up to the idea that this is so because it is right.

At the end of the day, we aren't in control. We can make choices and decisions. We can exercise free will and live with the consequences. But to believe we are in control is an illusion. Once I accepted that idea--and I had to grieve the death of my child before I could--so much of life became opportunity. For joy, growth, learning, celebrating.

Change is inevitable. What we do in the face of it makes all the difference in the world. It's kind of like giving birth: You go through intense pain at times, but the reward is so uncompromisingly fabulous that the pain is becomes a distant memory.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Choosing Happiness

I've got happiness on the brain these days. Maybe it's because I'm happy in a way I've never truly been for any consistent period of time. No, that's not right. I am happy in a way I've never been. Period. Which is not to say I've never been happy, because it is my nature to be happy. I am happy even when circumstances are not optimal. I am, at the core, a remarkably happy person, despite the fact that I spent a childhood--including those all-important formative years--in an atmosphere more consistently conducive to anxiety than to bliss.

Genetically speaking, I am even predisposed to suffer from anxiety and mental disorder. My brother experiences anxiety attacks; my beloved sis seems to fall victim to depression. My mother lived with serious mental illness, which inflicted its wickedness on the whole family. It was literally like living with an invisible monster; we never knew where it was lurking or when it would attack. That kind of dysfunction breeds distrust and a serious level of angst for all those who endure its wrath.

And as a small child, I was anxious. I was prone to stomachaches and even obsessive-compulsive disorder-like symptoms. I would think awful thoughts about my mom--they were uncontrollable, really--and then capitulate to the mind-numbing guilt those thoughts imposed upon my young psyche. How could I think evil thoughts about the woman who is supposed to love me more than anyone else in the world? But then, how could that woman do and say such hurtful things if she loved me? I could not break free of that cycle of taking responsibility for her choices (at the time, I had no idea she was officially ill) and feeling like I was a bad child, that I in some way caused her to behave like she did. From my earliest memories, I remember that unceasing torment of feeling unworthy and yet not knowing how to fix the situation. I would never be good enough, and yet I couldn't figure out what "good" meant because Mom was so inconsistent in her responses and reactions.

And then somewhere along the way, I made a conscious decision not to let her break me. I was still young...not even in double digits. Where the strength and determination not to let my circumstances dictate who I would be came from, I can't say. I don't even remember the moment I made that choice. I just know that I made it. I knew that I was not going to give up my one shot at being happy simply because it seemed it was my destiny to grow up in turmoil.

Maybe I was able to do that because deep inside, I always knew Mom loved me. Her actions and words may have indicated otherwise, but children are wise; they see and understand what is not apparent. I see that all the time in my youngest daughter. Although her illness was not officially confirmed for me until I was in my 20s, perhaps I understood that Mom was not always in control of herself. Maybe I saw that finding her own happiness was a major struggle for her. I don't know. What I do know is that my determination to be happy allowed me to get to age 45 and feel--truly believe--I've had a wonderful life so far.

And it just gets better. I am happy--profoundly grateful--for small things: the smell of rain, the moments of raucous laughter I share with my children, the opportunity to sit on my patio swing in the morning while I drink my coffee and watch the birds at the feeder. I love waking under mounds of blankets, the cast of light in this western sky around 6:00 each evening, the taste of ice-cold water as it slides down my throat. I consider it a blessing to be able to fill my refrigerator with enough food to keep my family comfortable, and I never underestimate the power of a kind word to strangers and friends alike. The feel of my children's arms around me as they hug me goodbye or the urgency of my man's mouth on mine when we are reunited after weeks of separation...these moments are what bring me immense joy. They make me happy even as other circumstances might pose challenges and difficulties.

There is no doubt in my mind that happiness comes from within. You can't buy it, and if you spend your life searching for it in other people, you'll be left with only a lifetime of disappointment and emptiness. Being happy within the context of the life you have been given is a choice; wanting what you have and letting that be enough is so much more fulfilling than being on a dedicated mission to acquire what you think you want. Because once the acquisition is made, then what? Where do you go from there?

I am fortunate not to have inherited the DNA that leads to mental illness or even anxiety. Those anxious tendencies I experienced as a young girl gradually disappeared. If there is a lingering after-effect of growing up in a home with that type of upheaval, it's that I am a realist. I don't count on much and I'm not good at depending on others. I believe I am the creator of my own destiny in that I choose what to do with the circumstances in which I am placed. I can embrace what is before me or reject it, and the results will depend on my choice. I find comfort in that.

Happiness isn't a goal; you don't reach it. You live it through your thoughts and words and actions. No one has the power to take it from you unless you give that power away. The world will always be full of pain and suffering, of evil and wrongdoing, of injustice and despair. Accepting happiness in spite of that is not an easy choice; it requires constant vigilance and commitment not to fall prey to misery. It requires you to allow yourself to experience all the normal emotions that make up humanity--grief, sorrow, disappointment, anger--and then move past them into the light.

Happiness isn't always easy; it's not your birthright. But it's always there, just waiting for you.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Like a Phoenix from the Ashes, Good Things Rise from Difficult Transitions

Every now and then, something happens that gives me pause to consider my life and where I'm at in the grand scheme of things. Yesterday, my newly published book arrived--100 copies of that book arrived, actually. And for a writer, I'm not sure there is a greater thrill than holding your book in your hands for the first time. It's heady stuff. In this case, that 500-plus-page book is the result of a year's worth of labor. So of course, I can't help but think back over the year.

And what a year it's been.

My life has been on ongoing series of transitions in the recent past. I left a 12-year relationship with the father of my daughters. It was a painful, gut-wrenching decision, one I had been struggling with for years. We had never married, but that fact didn't make the parting of ways any less difficult for us or our children. We had bought a house together, lost a son, built a life with four kids. Dismantling that life was not something I took lightly. Demanding something more, something better, for myself and those children required me to take a leap of faith. I knew I was making things more difficult on one level in the here and now in hopes of creating a brighter, more positive future for all involved.

I am fortunate--so incredibly blessed--to have four kids who know they occupy the first slots on my list of priorities. They are, in part, why I remained in the situation I was in for so long, and they are largely the reason I finally chose to leave it. Although tears were shed and anger brewed, they each knew, at the end of the day, that our life together was not ending, but rather shifting. Change was happening on several fronts this past spring, and we would face those changes as we always have: side-by-side.

In addition to my split from Wes, my son Max graduated high school. That last year of school was a tug of war for him, I think, internally and externally. I watched as he made choices--nothing major, but still--I wish I could have kept him from making on the one hand. But I felt I needed to trust that all the years I had dedicated to him would have some positive influence. And I believe they did. Max has repeatedly proven to me that he is a person of integrity and principle. We may not always agree--and frequently don't--but that is not necessary for me to love and admire him.

Still, watching him pull away and knowing he was doing exactly what he needed to do was not easy for me. Max and I have shared a strong bond, and I had to let that bond guide me as I saw him less and missed him more.

As if high school graduation wasn't enough, he had the audacity to go off to college. Now he lives in Boulder, and I see him more than I dared hope I might. We text regularly, and sometimes I chat with him on Facebook. He is in my heart constantly, along with his brother and sisters. But when I spend time with him now, it is clear he has an "other" life. That is, other from my own. And I'm okay with that.

All the while these struggles of the heart and soul were taking place, I was crafting a book. This wasn't just any book; it was one man's dream to see this story in print. He dedicated 15 years of his life to uncovering the story of American pioneer Perry A. Burgess, and he trusted me to make that adventurous tale come to life. Some days it took all I had to sit in front of the computer and immerse myself in Perry's experience. My emotional life was in turmoil as sadness and resentment crept into the corners of my solitude. I had no peace. Most of the time, it took all I had to remember to just breathe. Ugh.

And yet writing that story--researching the details and events of years gone by--breathed wonder into my life. There were days when time literally just disappeared as I felt myself being transported to a bygone era, one that was not influenced by technology or even motorized transportation. It was an era of great hardship and hope, persecution and loss. My spirit was buoyed by the determination and can-do attitude of the men I was writing about. In the end, as I typed the final word of the final paragraph of the final chapter, I knew that this writing assignment had been a major gift, its timing a perfect example of mystical synchronicity.

Having lived nearly 46 years, I am wise enough to understand that gifts come to us when we least expect them. And I've had enough experience with grief to know that sometimes, it clears the way for joy to grow. And joy is what I have found in someone I once knew who never completely let go of the idea of me.

After having made the decision to leave my relationship as 2009 became 2010, I got a phone call from an old friend, someone I had dated briefly in high school. Rick was charming, handsome, athletic back when I knew him. He came from a wonderful, loving family who welcomed me into their home and lives. But circumstances dictated the course my life would take, and I left the area soon after getting to know them all.

Twenty-eight years later, the phone rings and I find myself in a 2-hour conversation that leaves me smiling and feeling, well, happy. In the midst of the tempest that was my life at the time, there blossomed a seed of pure happiness at having reconnected with someone who had once meant something to me. As I thought about the details of that first butterflies-in-the-stomach-inducing phone call after hanging up, I realized Rick had become the kind of person--the kind of man--I wasn't sure really existed. He laid bare his soul in that conversation by willingly talking not only of his successes but also his failures. He made no excuses for his regrets but clearly had great expectations for a fulfilling future. He confided in me things he'd shared with no one else in his life...somehow trusting me not only to keep those secrets, but to understand. I did, and I do.

Since that phone call, Rick and I have managed to get together as regularly as two people who live across the country from one another can. Between us, we have 8 children between the ages of 6 and 18. We come from vastly different lifestyles: his has been one of luxury while mine has been one of yard sales and coupons. His kids attend private schools while mine face the wilds of public education. He votes Republican and I just have to forgive him for that.

It's easy to do, because Rick has awakened in my soul a peace I never imagined I would know in this lifetime. Somehow, he knows my heart so well that he often gives voice to thoughts and feelings before I get a word out. He talks to me--and truly listens--and sees me for the person I am. Being with him is at once exhilarating and comforting. He reflects to me a piece of myself I never knew existed. When I tell him I love him, it is with a depth and a knowing that I have never before experienced. And when one of my children says she loves him because she likes how he respects me, well, my heart soars to remarkable heights. Especially in light of the fact that he considers my own four kids "a bonus."

And so I am reminded that sometimes, the best things in life--the gifts--are born of those most difficult moments, those times when we forge ahead even as we really just want to curl up into the fetal position and block out the pain. Every now and then, perhaps we are rewarded when we force ourselves to push past settling for less simply because it is familiar and dare to demand something more because we deserve it. There is no growth without risk, and even if the risk does not pan out the way we thought it would, being able to say "I tried" makes it all worth it.

And sometimes, as this past year has shown me, letting go of what makes you sad makes room for unmitigated hope to find you.