1 December 2016
You may have noticed the long period of silence from One Year of Letters. In addition to the individual pressures keeping us from our beloved keyboards, we’ve all been reeling from the results of the American election. I can’t speak for the rest of my team, but I’ve spent much of the past two months absorbed in anxious hand-wringing and reading. Lots and lots of reading.
And lots of unpleasant social media confrontations.
I dislike confrontation, which may seem ironic to you, considering how frequently I use One Year of Letters to call out hate and injustice. You see, for writers it’s much, much easier to orate than to argue. Read more …
19 September 2016
With all the talk about universities, political correctness, and trigger warnings, I’ve been chafing to write something/anything on this subject, but knew I’d only get myself into trouble with my pro-Northwestern University, “suck it up, buttercup” stance. Then my alma mater Rice University played football against Baylor University last Friday, and I found a way in.
First, some background details.
As a freshman in 1983, with no band experience, I joined the Rice University Marching Owl Band (aka The MOB). Rice’s band went rogue a decade before my arrival and, in one infamous 1973 incident, ended up cornered in a tunnel by Texas A&M cadets. Notorious for making social and political statements, the MOB performs halftimes scatter-style, with skewering voice-overs, formations, and songs designed to drive home a message. Read more …
12 August 2016
Look at this photo of my classmates and me from 1969. I’m four years old, and it’s a preschool at Brandeis University in Boston. I’m the one with dark pigtails and a soul-piercing stare. Notice anything else? If you’re thirty or younger, it’s likely the scene looks normal to you, so let me repeat:
Check out this photo from 1969.
Not too many white people from my generation can say their education began during the Civil Rights Movement in an integrated classroom with an African American teacher. Read more …
July 1, 2016
He never knew what hit him, that young man in the restaurant who for some reason hailed three middle-aged ladies dining at the table beside him. Suave and handsome, he only meant to spread his charisma and good fortune. We exchanged pleasantries and explained where everyone came from—two of us were Midwestern, but our third was a local. He and his fiancée were born and bred in that area, out for a brief break from their busy lives.
He adored her. He touched her often and tenderly, and they exchanged loving glances. He complimented her aloud, as if to say, “Look at my woman. Isn’t she amazing?” She seemed very nice. Pretty, yet, if you looked closer, tired and self-deprecating and unsure of her worth, despite all the care he lavished on her. She seemed to have an unspoken past that hinted of sadness, exhaustion, and really hard times. She barely spoke, though she smiled at our confidence and banter. Read more …
3 June 2016
I grew up in west suburban Houston, Texas on a sleepy street called Wycliffe Drive. I led the kind of life you hear us Gen-Xers mourning these days. We were the last kids to grow up without video games. We had no digital devices, no phones, no internet, no cable TV. We played outside until the streetlights came on, and during the hours and hours we went missing from home we did things that would give us heart attacks now if our own kids did them.
We wandered for miles on our bikes, along snake-infested bayous and through dense woods filled with appalling numbers of poisonous creatures. We rode across fat storm pipes and played in a creek laden with iridescent oil scum, trash, and two-headed minnows. Before they put in curbs along Wycliffe Drive, our street was lined with deep, grassy ditches that filled during afternoon gullywashers. Read more …
6 May 2016
From birth, our hearts are like construction zones where the work never ends. They begin as open ground, ready for grading. Naked and new, without preconceptions, we invite the emotional equivalent of heavy equipment to burrow its way into us, shaping the foundation for who we become.
Our parents dig first and, if we’re lucky, their excavations shore us up with supports that extend deep into bedrock. Construction expands, exposing us to other family and friends. Some of our rooms are made for the public, while others we save for our innermost thoughts. Educators arrive, erecting spaces where knowledge can either wither or thrive. And just when we think we’ve made actual progress, society comes along and blasts holes in our walls, forcing us to rebuild all our boundaries. Read more …
16 April 2016
For the past three weeks, I’ve been seeing red, and I don’t just mean that I’m angry. I am talking about a grassroots organization I’ve joined called Periods for Pence, which appeared out of nowhere during the last week of March and today has nearly 50,000 followers. P4P was created by an anonymous Hoosier woman to protest the passage of a bill called HEA 1337, which sneaked through the Indiana legislature and was signed into law by Governor Mike Pence.
Specifically, this law—which goes into effect July 1st—addresses a veritable laundry list of issues surrounding women’s reproductive rights, and it is so sweeping and punitive that even hard-core pro-life Republicans in Indiana are fuming. Read more …
9 March 2016
As I watch my country go to pieces, I’ve noted another worrisome shift: Americans, who were always a bit uneven in the practice of civility, have apparently abandoned it once and for all. This trend cuts across all demographics, regardless of age, race, religion, or politics.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines civility as polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior. It’s one of the first skills we teach our children.
“Don’t grab, Susie, it’s not nice.”
“Say thank you!”
“Bobby, you apologize right now!”
Who among us really meant those apologies our parents forced from us? No one, of course, but it taught us that some things are better left unsaid or undone. This lesson had practical value. Bite your lip, count to ten, punch a pillow…we learned to do whatever it took to move through society without making a scene.
Personal control is the very essence of civility. Read more …
12 February 2016
The other day, my baby drove away with a man, and I will never see her again.
I should probably explain that better.
In this case, my baby is a beat-up, twelve year old cobalt blue minivan I traded in, along with a sedan of no consequence, for a car that will hopefully become my new baby. Yes, I’m one of those people who really loves cars. I become so attached that I grow emotional when their time with me ends. My first car was the 1978 Volvo 244 I learned how to drive in. Dad sold it to me for a dollar before my last year of college. Its final years were tortured and arthritic, thanks to two massive accidents it had endured before me, but I loved that old car. I cried actual tears the day I pushed its keys across the desk of a Honda dealer. Read more …
22 January 2016
There’s something ironic about the fact that we humans have evolved complex emotions and varied ways in which to communicate, but spend our lives miscommunicating on a near-constant basis. Even I, who pride myself in making a career out of imparting information, find myself frequently misunderstanding or being the one misunderstood by others. We cause each other so much needless grief, yet all of us have the power to write or say what we mean.
But we don’t, or we can’t, or we go around clueless that we’ve created a problem. Or else the listener inadvertently filters our message all wrong. Read more …
8 January 2016
Parenting sucks. More to the point, being a mother sucks.
It was simpler two hundred or more years ago. You had the kid, and then you died a week later at age 17. Or maybe you pumped out seven or eight kids, which definitely sucked, but chances were you died by the time the oldest was married at age 17, so you didn’t have to put up with their infernal late-teen/early-twenty-year-old crap.
It was even simpler in prehistorical times. You reproduced, grew old by 20, and died in a famine or sudden cataclysm.
The bottom line is, we were not designed to tolerate these alien people who think they’re adults. We women were designed to incubate and expire, leaving the marriage arrangements and dowries to the children’s sire and his teenaged fourth wife.
Read more …
2015: Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out
2 January 2016
The year Two Thousand Fifteen. Yeah, you were a doozy.
Do we say that about every year? I should record myself, really. I think we probably do. We sit around on New Year’s Eve and we say, “Good riddance to that crappy year! May this coming year will be the best one ever!”
It’s like childbirth, which sucks, but then two years later, you find yourself squeezing out another 8 lb. screaming watermelon. Afterward, you experience selective amnesia. “Meh, it didn’t hurt that much,” or, “The next one won’t hurt nearly as bad.” But, damn it, next time that baby still hurts like hell to squeeze out. Read more …
19 December 2015
A local friend read my essay from last year about helicopter parenting, and afterward remarked that the piece had surprised her. I asked why. My politics, she said, did not jibe with the position I’d taken. I had declared myself a laissez faire parent who prides myself in letting my kids fend for themselves. This outlook apparently runs contrary to the mollycoddling nature of liberals. Who knew?
Her response got me to thinking: what do politics have to do with it, and why do conservatives think liberals started this trend? So I Googled “politics” and “helicopter parenting,” and as it turns out, no one has ever officially linked these descriptors. Read more …
4 December 2015
She is a delicate creature, but strong as an ox in disposition and will. Her hands and feet are her father’s: long, slender, and easily hurt, yet when she applies her dancer’s discipline to them, they float in the air. She has my long neck and a wee pixie nose—not sure where that came from. Her eyes and curved brows express the many nuances of girldom, from scorn to surprise to sly manipulation. Her pre-orthodontic teeth have what they call character, large now for a face that has yet to catch up.
She is my lovely, bullheaded angel, my roller-derby queen, my wannabe Broadway musical star…or this week perhaps she will slay the judges at a tryout for America’s Got Talent. She has talent in spades, but she’s too impatient to take the time to hone it just right. She lives for the spotlight. She wants it all, and she wants it now. Read more …
20 November 2015
I love my country, but my country frightens me an awful lot these days. I despair at the widespread forbearance of hatred, which has reached an intensity unparalleled in my memory. From this restive mood has sprung a national conversation that shocks and dismays me: mass deportation.
I grew up in a land that seemed to slowly be learning to accept human diversity. My generation was the first to benefit from the Civil Rights Movement, and in consequence my children have never known a white bread world. Not long ago, I believed that We the People had come a long way. Yet in the past decade, Americans have become obsessed with deregulating weapons and regulating people who aren’t white, Christian, and straight. Both trends, I think, reflect a growing mindset of fear, of which hatred is a natural byproduct. Humans use hate as a defense against forces that strike fear in their hearts. Paradoxically, they then employ hate in an offensive maneuver to stave off attack. Such thinking goes: if we hate (fear) something, better to eradicate it first, before it gets us. Read more…
3 November 2015
When it rains, it pours. Life these days is putting the screws to the intrepid team at One Year of Letters. How can every one of us be sunk all at once? One would think we lived in the same house, but in fact we are scattered across the US.
This is no apology for our silence. If anything, drama makes for spectacular fodder. I am certain we each have plenty to say, but the current commodity is Time, as Kerry recently put it. One cannot find enough of it before exhaustion kicks in. We spend our days fighting demons, flood waters, bankruptcy, children, and bills. It wasn’t always so tough. For a year, we eked out the time to expound on the impact of those battles, but now we bow to a fierce autumn storm. We used to tag-team our troubles, fill in for each other. October 2015 finds us with no one to tag. Read more …
16 October 2015
We humans are born craving the validation of others. It pleases us to know when people appreciate and approve of who we are, what we do. Reciprocal love mutes the doubts that niggle the corners of our youthful consciences; it’s the mortar that glues our characters tight. Those deprived of validation in childhood often protect themselves with bluster or by choosing a path that seems calculated to diverge.
Chances are the hole continues to eat away at their soul.
Self-help gurus will tell you it’s harmful to spend your life seeking validation, that you are who you are without anyone’s permission, and that you must learn to accept yourself as okay. This kind of thinking requires us to go against deeply-engrained nature. It seems to imply that a person’s craving for approval is detrimental to wholeness. Certainly some people center their whole being around feeling unworthy, but the rest of us simply want to feel useful and loved. Read more …
9 October 2015
I’m a person with two distinct temperaments. In many ways, I consider myself progressive, forward looking, and fond of finding better ways to get large tasks done. In other ways, I’m an old-fashioned stick in the mud. While many thrive on chaos, I prefer life to be quiet and predictable. My daily endeavors must not vary too often, and nothing must obstruct me from keeping my schedule. This is not to say I’m terrible in crises; in fact, I pride myself in steering the helm with a calm hand. I simply prefer not to face those tests very often.
I have good reason. In the past 25 years, I’ve endured several protracted periods of chaos, periods so bleak I saw no probable end. I did not like the person I became in those times. I didn’t enjoy living like a lit fuse that might go off any moment. Read more …
2 October 2015
One year of letters—the concept sounds finite, but from the start I knew our project would not, nor could not, truly be finite. I always expected it to continue beyond the scope of one year, because we writers would go on living and reacting. We would never stop feeling and never stop having new things to say. Our only challenge would be in finding the discipline to transfer our thoughts to the page.
Elaina and I began this project with the notion that we and our colleagues would compose weekly notes to ourselves. These notes—or letters—would record what we felt about our individual selves at a moment in time but, rather than preserving these thoughts in a diary, we would post our reflections for all the world to see, to hold us publicly accountable for how we viewed our own characters and our personal goals. This concept was evident in the structure of our pieces, which we addressed to ourselves, and in the subject matter, which dwelt largely on our failings. We hoped you would see something of yourselves in our struggles, and in that way we would connect with you all. Read more …
18 September 2015
An early morning thunderstorm cleanses the air of dust and desiccation. Summer is winding down and—uncharacteristically for me—I’m ready for the change. It has been one of those summers where you think nothing much will happen, therefore everything does. Too much travel, although I had excellent visits with family and friends. Too many setbacks and not enough great leaps forward. Above all, too much DEFCON One level stress.
My emotions have whipped around in this summer’s hurricane like a grove of palm trees. So far those trees have weathered the storm, but they’re beginning to lean a bit toward the mainland. Where’s a cabana boy when you need one? Cerveza, por favor! Right now, all I want to do is lie on a beach chair and veg, preferably with several of my friends, who could also use a break from life’s vagaries. Read more …
11 September 2015
I hate to say it, but the terrorists won.
Fourteen years after we watched the towers come down, we are a nation that now lives with the constant specter of fear, hate, suspicion, and divisiveness.
And we let them do this to us.
This generation—those of us who were then in our 20s through 40s—was handed our Pearl Harbor, our chance to become the next Greatest Generation, and we screwed it up. Pretty sad, if you think about it.
For a while it looked promising. We rallied to save the survivors and mourners, raced to comb through the wreckage, raised money, spoke with outrage, waved flags, and sang patriotic songs in quavering voices. God, it was horrible and good all at once. I had not yet been born when Kennedy died, and I was too young to comprehend the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. I lived through the destruction of Challenger, but that event didn’t inspire people to change their whole outlooks. September 11, 2001 became the pivotal point in my generation’s future. No one wants to experience trauma on this scale, but one hopes that something good might come of it. Read more …
4 September 2015
Every week it seems someone or something new fascinates us, the collective population of the social interwebs. If it’s an especially juicy topic, we’ll tear at it like starved jackals, fighting and reducing ourselves to the basest life form. This week our prey has been the notorious Kim Davis, Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, who claims that religious beliefs preclude her from performing her duties.
Davis says her job description changed with the Supreme Court’s June ruling; technically, it did not. Her function is to issue marriage licenses to persons who qualify; it is not to analyze the moral character of said persons. Indeed, any heterosexual couple that desires to marry might “sin” in numerous ways, but until now Ms. Davis had never questioned their values. Justly so. Clerk Davis was not elected to evaluate the character of Rowan County’s citizens, but rather to check birth certificates and collect a fee. If she feels compelled to take her authority further than the county’s handbook defines it, then it’s her duty to resign the post and find another job. Barring that, the county’s only recourse is to either hold her in contempt or issue a fine. Yesterday the court ordered jail, probably since it expected Davis to pay the fine with a GoFundMe campaign, and this morning Rowan County deputy clerks began issuing marriage licenses to all applicants. Read more …
24 August 2015
We call ourselves modern, yet we still hold the heart as our most sacred organ. No other part of us represents so great a range of emotions and power. Not only does it drive our lives in the practical sense, it symbolizes the way we perceive our whole world.
The ancients revered the heart as the seat of strength; some cultures, on making a kill in battle or during a hunt, would cut it out and eat it while the heart was still beating. The Egyptians considered it the core of one’s being, and it was the only organ they did not extract before mummifying their dead. Probably because the heart so clearly kept us alive, humans came to believe that one’s intelligence and soul derived from the heart. Plato proposed an encephalocentric (brain centered) concept of human perception, but his pupil, Aristotle, held to the idea of a cardiocentric (heart centered) intelligence. Aristotle’s model continued to dominate well into the 16th century. Read more …
14 August 2015
I was recently stuck in a 30 minute traffic jam behind a large white pickup sporting the bumper sticker featured in my adjacent thumbnail. “You’ve got your family…I’ve got mine.” Above that, instead of a stick figure family, it showed an array of firearms, from automatic weapons to hand guns.
For 30 long minutes, I puzzled over this sticker. What kind of message was the driver conveying? Was he a gun enthusiast? Many car owners advertise their personal enthusiasms. They HEART cocker spaniels, Hilton Head, or even the Great Lakes.
This guy HEARTs objects designed solely for the purpose of taking a life.
Hmm, that’s a bit macabre. Perhaps I should give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he stuck it there to frighten off criminals. Maybe he really does love his precious collection of death-wands more than his kids. MAYBE I’m taking the sticker too seriously, and the guy in the pickup only put it there to be cheeky. Whichever the case, I saw in his sticker a reflection on the current mood of our country. Read more …
31 July 2015
Imagine you’re a brilliant mathematician, working on a formula that no one else has ever solved. You’ve spent years on this problem—lost significant others, family support, professional credibility, funding—but you’re certain the effort will garner you the Nobel Prize. Late one night, the answer hits you. You go to your classroom and fill the floor-to-ceiling chalkboard full of equations and scribbles. Exhausted, you slump over your desk and drop into a sleep of contented triumph. You wake an hour later to find the chalkboard wiped clean.
It was there, but now it’s gone. All gone.
Over the course of our lives, devastation hits us over and over. We kill ourselves with effort, plan our futures around certain outcomes, and in the blink of an eye our schemes fall to pieces. Read more …
17 July 2015
Fishnet bodysuits on most people look pretty disgusting. Thongs riding up over the waistband of pants? Disgusting. Those guys in pouch-like swimsuits? Disgusting! No one really wants to see that stuff, still we gawk at the People of Walmart and other nasty pictures that come across our newsfeed on social media. Afterward we all exclaim about needing eye bleach.
It’s like rubbernecking a bad accident. You can’t turn away. Probably because it makes you feel superior, or at least lucky not to be the one in the picture. But the truth is, in a way you are the one in the picture. All of you—that’s right! I’m talking to you—have pumped at least one salacious item, whether graphic or written, into the perpetual machine that is The Interwebs. Read more …
10 July 2015
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through
Like giving birth and puberty, social changes hurt like crap. My country is laid out on a slab, being sliced and diced while the world looks on with riveted bemusement. They need not bring knives and forks to the table—we’ll do it ourselves with sawed-off shotguns and words.
Welcome to 2015, and the Divided States of ‘Murica.
Haven’t we been here before, in 1861 and 1965?
Those who bear down and resist the inevitable, dragging out change though you know it must come, you think you’re so clever, sharing pithy memes that show a white flag and blame butthurt individuals for our sad state of affairs. Read more …
3 July 2015
I love my country. I love it truly, passionately, and deeply, down to the center of my red-white-and-blue bones. I’m unabashedly proud of my rich heritage.
My ancestors first set foot on American soil in the 1640s. They fought as Patriots in the Revolutionary War, and were among the first white settlers to populate the far reaches of our newly-formed nation. In the early 1850s, they lit out for the Upper Mississippi and stayed on to farm those high, blue-green bluffs. The people of my blood trekked from Minnesota to Mississippi to preserve our war-shattered Union. They were heroes at Nashville in 1864. They built bridges across the West during the 1910s. In America my family has multiplied, married immigrants, worked hard, become educated, and generally thrived.
Independence Day is hands down my favorite holiday. I love the buntings, the plain food, the baseball and fireworks, and outdoor games played with family and friends. I love the heat of the sun, and the coolness of crisp red watermelon on my tongue. I love the lack of commercialization, the lack of gift-giving, and the lack of exclusion that mars the joy of most other holidays. July Fourth is that one holiday we can all celebrate, regardless of gender, faith, or status. The ideal of what makes America so very American transcends the cultural conflicts we experience every other day of the year. Read more …
The Tragedy of Feeling Completely Immortal
19 June 2015
Humanity is united in very few things beyond the shared experiences of birth and death. Most births occur in roughly the same way—they are painful but they produce feelings of joy and relief. The manner in which we exit our lives varies immensely. Some deaths are caused by natural disasters, some by chance, and some deaths arise from the depths of pure evil. One can do very little to prevent most of those; they’re the horrible but necessary cost of existence. Then you have deaths that occur because the victims considered themselves invincible.
Oh, to be a teenager and immortal again!
We all went through our teens and somehow survived. Most of us can relate some stupid moment—or multiple moments—when we probably ought to have died. Usually, those tales involve excessive drinking. Read more …
Pick the DeLorean and Travel in Style
12 June 2015
My dear oldest son, on the occasion of your graduation from college,
You walked for your diploma last Sunday but you finished the degree in November, so I imagine you’re tired of people asking what you plan to do next. Decisions, decisions. I know you hate them. Would it help you to know I hate them, too?
I get it, really. Major decisions always feel so dangerously permanent. Perhaps you fear they can never be undone, or if they go wrong you’ll spend a lifetime reversing—or living with—the fallout. Risk terrifies and immobilizes us. It drives our backs into a corner.
But I’m here to tell you the worst thing you can do is to never make any decisions at all, to let things just happen through neglecting to choose a direction. Read more …
5 June 2015
Today is National Doughnut Day, which on some level is really kind of disgusting. Don’t get me wrong, I love doughnuts and I’m all for celebrating the greatness of foods, but why do we have actual days established to celebrate food? Okay, that was (mostly) a rhetorical question. I know why: Capitalism. Industries and constituents petition different levels of government to set specific observance days, which they use to promote the greatness of said industry. Awareness goes up and consumers purchase accordingly. I have no argument against the concept in general, but when you examine the list of just one month of national food observance days, you begin to wonder about the propriety of it all. Read more …
29 May 2015
She saunters down the street, all legs, slicked in sunscreen, her fifth grade class’ tie-dye t-shirt snugged in a neat knot on her small but blossoming hip. It’s Field Day today, and next week only two days remain of her grammar school years. She looks very happy. On top of the world. So excited, she woke at 5:30 am and got herself ready.
Eleven years old! To be eleven again!
From a child’s perspective, it’s only the beginning of those tumultuous years when friendships burgeon and fizzle, when schoolwork and activities become much more serious, when you feel the first jolts of interest in the opposite sex.
From a parent’s perspective it is a marvelous age. Read more …
I Fought The Wall and The Wall Won
22 May 2015
I hit The Wall the other day and failed to defeat it. That had never happened before, not in all my fifty years.
Granted, I’m not an endurance athlete, so it’s not like I’ve had many opportunities to tackle the famed physical and emotional barrier that slams down when the body depletes its supply of glycogen. To be honest, I’ve probably never actually hit The Real Wall, but rather a point where my body has said, “Forget it. I’m done.” Read more …
8 May 2015
Everyone, without exception, has cultural myopia. We can’t see things clearly because the factors that formed us have prejudiced our ability to view the world objectively. Our family’s religion, politics, class, education, and general health determine our outlook. Add to that the random happenstances of life plus our innate personalities, and you have the formula for each person’s unique perception.
We can, of course, break some of these patterns . . . if we choose. We can lose faith or gain it. We can revise our political affiliations. Read more …
Get Over It: Confronting White Privilege
1 May 2015
I am exhausted.
And if I am exhausted, I can only imagine how exhausted people of color must be.
I can’t possibly comprehend the minority experience. My white skin and privileged lifestyle erode any chance of understanding what it’s like to have assumptions made about my character and ambition.
Being female gives me some insight, despite the fact we women constitute half the world’s population. I know the glazed look in conversations with men. I know the suppositions they bring when discussing repairs to my house or a vehicle. I know what it’s like to have my educated advice flung back in my face just because I’m a woman, to hear the faux concern as a man says “you’re smart enough to know …” when in fact he really means “shut up, you stupid cow.” Read more …
24 April 2015
Anger may bring some kind of energy for a short period, but that energy is actually blind energy. And anger can really destroy the part of your brain which can judge right or wrong.
—The Dalai Lama
Il Mio Tesoro caught me crying my guts out the other night. I had just parted ways with her after a lecture about some minor infraction. I said goodnight and came downstairs for an “alone at last” breather, but then an accumulation of grievances and fears burst from my chest. I sobbed and she heard me. This extended the lateness of her usual bedtime and also the complexity of the situation at hand. First and foremost, I had to explain it had nothing to do with her. To convince her of this, I was forced to reveal a small part of my grievance. Read more ….
17 April 2015
It’s been a while, but I think I’m finally back in the Friend Zone. Not that one—the other kind: the period of life in which you find yourself with a posse you can hang with and rely on for help in a pinch. You and they might not even live geographically nearby, but that makes no difference to the closeness you all feel.
The last time I had friends who felt like extensions of myself was nearly twenty years ago, when I lived in Oregon. Read more …
Fifty Cent Piece: Random Thoughts on Money and Time
10 April 2015
Fifty pennies really weigh down your pocket, and each one was worth a whole lot more in your youth. Back then, if you found one in a parking lot you snatched it right up, ‘cuz that penny could buy you a piece of Bazooka. Plus it was good luck. You’d drop that copper disk in your pocket and feel its aura of fortune chase you all the way home.
Eventually you grew old enough to realize nickels were better, shinier, and best of all heavier. Dimes were good, too—you counted well enough to know ten cents bought you a pack of gum at the 7-Eleven—but gosh they were flimsy! So, you tossed aside the pennies and collected fives and tens like they were ingots of gold.
You grew to be ten, and now quarters meant a lot more. Read more …
3 April 2015
Elaina’s letter about our near-death experience in South Carolina and the two selfless people who came to our aid reminds me of a smaller—but no less significant—incident that occurred as I headed home from the conference.
Boarding the El from O’Hare Airport to the Loop in Chicago, I sat down with my suitcase in the aisle and an open window seat beside me. Just ahead sat two white people, each occupying one of those paired handicapped/elderly seats that face the center of the train. As we moved toward the city, the train began to fill up. A black man and his son, about twelve years old, boarded but could find nowhere to sit, let alone sit together. Read more …
27 March 2015
Days, sometimes weeks, go by when I don’t think about him. He is no longer part of my daily existence. But then, in innocuous conversations with friends, his tentacles work their way into my mouth, and before I know it I’m recounting some dead and gone moment. It begins as a tale of a slight or offense, and ends up spilling out in an ocean of outrage.
How is it that my indifference can spark instantaneously into anger so visceral? Read more ….
13 March 2015
I am incensed this week about a case in the national news, the one about adoptive parents “rehoming” little girls whom, against all professional advice, they had insisted on adopting. To me, the details don’t matter to today’s essay. Rather, it’s the principle of the thing. What incenses me more than the lying and politicking, more than the hubris of people who claim to know better but secretly plan to use witchcraft tactics on innocent children, what incenses me more is the idea that children are treated like discards in that hideous game called Cards Against Humanity. Fling one down and see what kind of immoral entertainment you can concoct. Fling two down, or three. After all, they’re only caricatures, not sentient beings. You don’t really mean to harm anyone; you just grew tired of working so hard at this parenting gig.
Well I have a message for those who would trifle with innocent lives: Read more…
5 March 2015
There are few phrases I find more irritating than “it’s the Christian thing to do.”
A person has a lot of nerve stating aloud that they’ve decided to do something because it counts as brownie points toward their faith. Nothing could be more smug than to imply an action done in the name of Christ carries higher value than the same action carried out by a nonbeliever. Read more….
We all judge. We can’t help it. It’s a form of self-preservation. When someone else is fatter, dumber, paler, weaker, or less talented, we identify those traits, whether aloud or in private, and then we experience emotional relief. Face it: No matter how good or thoughtful or righteous we are, everyone judges.
What differentiates us is whether we can stop ourselves from believing that our petty judgments matter. Do we think the criticism and feel shame, or do we think it and feel superior? Read more …
27 February 2015
She’s your last baby and she’s turning into a petite little lady. Words can’t describe the force of your love. Eleven years ago today, you lay in a hospital bed thinking, “I’m too old for this.” Eleven years ago today you met the love of your life.
She redeemed you. She gave you something to live for each day, in those darkest hours, when you felt you had no impact and nothing left to offer the world, she smiled and made you feel needed. Her body fit so perfectly into the crook of your left arm. Her hair smelled of baby and blankie and binkies. She embodied patience and good nature, tolerated siblings’ lessons and games, witnessed more grief than any child ought to at that age. Read more …
20 February 2015
I am in many ways a very tolerant person. I’ve faced with supernatural calmness challenges that most people couldn’t fathom. I spent far too long waiting for my marriage to wind down. I’m flexible and easy-going in most situations, and my older children will tell you I’m quite open-minded compared to many parents.
One thing I can’t stand, however, is any person or entity challenging my honor or that of someone I care for. When that happens, I simply cannot remain neutral; I fly at once into mother bear mode. Read more….
13 February 2015
By the time my parents marked their 20th wedding anniversary in 1984, they had weathered tornadoes, hurricanes, and several major moves. By the time I marked mine, my marriage was dead.
There’s no formula for success, no matter what anyone might tell you. No partner is perfect. No one can say who will tolerate pressure, and no one can predict what hurdles will end up falling your way. When nothing more can be done, when change is the only possible solution, the mere desire to honor a vow has to yield. Read more …
6 February 2015
You generally excel at making snappy decisions. You know what you like and you know when you like it; why waste time shopping around to save a few dollars? Burning up gas alone will negate such frugality. The time? That you can never recover. You’ve been known to choose carpet, paint, dogs, appliances, cars, and even houses on the fly.
“Yep, that’ll do. Where do I sign?” Read more …
30 January 2015
Today comes the final announcement for a writing contest you entered, and you long more than anything to be that lucky writer.
So, go ahead—pretend you are not as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Bluster about how you’ve submitted your work hundreds of times and grown a thick hide to shield your soul from rejection. Fake that you haven’t thrown a lot of emotional coinage onto the craps table this time.
Que sera sera.
Right. Uh huh. Anyone else buying this? Read more …
23 January 2015
You witnessed a spontaneous social experiment the other night, one that highlights a barrier we must overcome in order to unify this nation, if not the world.
While walking four blocks in a relatively nice Chicago neighborhood, you and your party passed a little storefront crammed with about fifty black young adults, several spilling out onto the sidewalk, most of them focused on some event in the store. Your first and only thought was, “Gee, I wonder what’s going on here?” Then you flashed them a smile and moved on. The two little girls in your party kept chatting. Your 6’1” son observed that the young people were watching a football playoff game on TV.
Meanwhile, the man in your party flared like a King Cobra. This actually happened: you watched in amazement as he broadened his shoulders, jutted out his chin, opened his elbows, and sauntered past the shop, eyes forward. Bigger than your son to begin with, he made sure the gathering knew he would flatten anyone who tried to interact with your group. You chalked it up to a man thing. Read more …
16 January 2015
Perhaps it’s the former columnist in me, but news stories often lead me to ask questions above and beyond. If enough facts fail to surface, I invent narratives to explain why people do what they do. Last week’s massacre caught my immediate attention. Suspecting the story was not as black and white as the media had portrayed it, I began to educate myself about the journal, about the politics at play, and particularly about the modern social narrative in France. A story formed in my head, one about a character nobody ever speaks of: a terrorist’s mother. Once again, I take inspiration from my colleague Elaina, who explored the theme first here on Monday.
Indulge me, if you will. Let us journey together into the mind of my nameless counterpart, a woman who could not possibly have predicted the course of her child’s life. I have, of necessity, fictionalized her story and emotions, but I did so as an exercise in finding commonality. We mothers, as Elaina said, speak the same language, regardless of culture. Let us compare our two lives. This, then, is “She.” Read more …
9 January 2015
Beating yourself up, are you? Sure go ahead. As Elaina said, it’s not as though the world came to an end because you didn’t post a new letter today.
But you can’t bloody stand it when you fail to live up to the promises you make. It’s one of the reasons you avoid making promises and keeping deadlines unless you know you can weasel some flexibility from the situation.
It’s your project! Get a life! Are they going to fire you? Is the project going to collapse? Will Elaina think twice about your worthiness as a creative partner? Read more …
On the Threshold: An Editor’s Message to Our Readers
2 January 2015
It seems such an arbitrary thing, this idea of the birth of a new year in mid-winter, and indeed the reason why January 1st is our year’s opening day has been lost to the mists of time. Shifting calendars through the centuries caused January 1st to not quite line up with the winter solstice (around December 21st), a day that carried seasonal significance. Most Europeans used the Roman method of dating each new year from March 15th; only in the 1600s did they begin to mark it from January 1st. Thus, New Year’s Day as we know it came about through a complex set of circumstances.
But January 1st isn’t just any day, flowing one from the next—it’s a day of new beginnings, and it holds a certain fascination for us.
We humans are attracted to the idea of rebirth, of getting second chances. Read more …
27 December 2014
She sat at the bar in her painted-on black and white animal print top, a “Reserved” card before her and a glass of red wine parked within reach. Her petite body curved in concert with the animal print, revealing enough but not too much cleavage and a swath of smooth back, tucking in at the waist and flaring out again over the swell of neat hips. A black skirt hugged there, and below it a pair of buckled black boots. Her arms spoke of hours well-spent in the gym; a tattoo peeked below the left shoulder strap.
We watched her with interest, guessing, as writers do, at the story we expected to unfold: She would go home that night with a drink-benumbed stranger. She had been here before, so often she had her own little corner and own little placard and the bartender didn’t have to ask what she wanted. Read more …
19 December 2014
I had planned to write about Christmas and how my lack of faith plays out during the holidays each year. I had planned something sentimental and soaring and sweet.
But now I can’t do it. I am too revolted by the state of the world to fake a syrupy essay. Being a first worlder who lives in relative safety, this mood will likely pass as the latest massacre fades from the news, but for now I can’t muster more than a lashing of words:
Why, why, why does humanity dedicate so much of its energy to fostering hate?
Because I am not keen on engaging in nasty debates, I don’t make a habit of collecting data about politics and other hot-button issues. Read more …
16 December 2014
That damn Cozy Coupe pickup truck…how the boys all coveted it from the moment we dragged it out of the box. It belonged to our nonprofit indoor playgroup and resided in the church basement we rented for members. My friends and I went there most dreary Oregon mornings to socialize while the toddlers ran off their steam. Naturally, our boys would race to take possession of the truck. If squabbles broke out, we ordered the current owner to surrender after a few laps; otherwise, we ignored all whining and tattling, kissed boo-boos, and nudged our kids back into the fray. When bad choices led to bonked heads or falls, we told our children, “You won’t do that again, will you?”
At this playgroup, we heard the first whirrings of what everyone now calls the Helicopter Moms. Read more …
“Rock Paper Scissors”
12 December 2014
Your dad and his brothers used to have a routine where they stood around with beers in one hand and played Rock Paper Scissors. Their version involved plenty of posturing, threats, and explosive man-giggling. Fists swung to the rhythm as they chanted ONE, TWO, THREE! and then displayed their weapons: closed fist, two fingers, or a flat palm-down hand.
Rock smashes scissors, scissors cuts paper, and paper covers rock.
In cases of ties, they immediately reset, eager to outwit and by extension outmaster. When one brother lost, he held out his bare forearm to endure the lash of his opponent’s spit-wetted two fingers. Roars ensued. Vows of reprisal. Fists raised again amidst belly laughs and trash-talk, and the cycle continued until everyone had welts peppering the tender insides of their arms.
Juvenile as it sounds, you think back and realize the game bore a certain resemblance to the whole scope of life. Generally, everyone’s born with the same set of tools: your metaphorical fist, the wits to anticipate, and the choice as to which form it should take. You can smash and destroy things. You can cover up problems. Or you can change something’s physical property and make it quite new. Most of us excel at one tool or another. None of them carries a surfeit of permanent power.
Like your dad and his brothers, you giggle and trash-talk your way through life—it shows you’re not afraid of possible defeat. You bite back the sting of today’s latest slap and raise your fist for the next skirmish.
Rock! Smash life’s trials.
Paper! Cover up problems.
Scissors! Create beauty from something quite plain.
Chances are you’ll win at least half the time, because of course the game isn’t really about wits, no matter how much you plan and trash talk, it’s about the probability that life will play a flanking maneuver.
You’re smart enough to know this, and still you step into that ring and bare your pale forearm. “Bring it on!” you declare. “I know I’ll outwit you.” Which tool will you choose? You’d prefer to use scissors, but too often you’re forced to stuff them away while you push your Sisyphean rock, lest it smash all your work. Then there are days where you want nothing more than to hide under a blanket and avoid the clenched fist with which life has chosen to best you.
As with the game, it turns out you need all three fists to succeed. Favor one tool, and sooner or later your opponent will prey on that weakness. All you’ll have to show for it are rows of throbbing red lumps. So go ahead and giggle and bluster. Show your tender-skinned arm to the world. Raise your fist high, take a chance, and play all the tools in your arsenal. Which one will you choose?
Rock, paper, or scissors?
“The Arrogance of Fixers”
5 December 2014
One of the many appealing aspects of your friendship with Elaina is the opportunity to engage in lively philosophical discussions. Last night she asked about your next-door neighbor who, despite a stellar attendance record and grade point average, was dismissed from graduate school, partly for speaking out against hate speech in class. (That story came up in an October letter.) The neighbor had also questioned the quality of the program itself and lobbied for improvements, if not for herself then for grad students to follow. She ended up paying a steep price for her efforts. As the Japanese saying goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
Elaina observed that such is the paradox of people with fixer personalities. One makes enemies when one questions a system in place, for it takes arrogance to suggest the system wants improving. Stakeholders will rush to protect their terrain; they’ll fight like cornered badgers, refusing to concede, even when fixers may have a good point. As a fixer personality, you declared you’d have responded quite the same as your neighbor.
“Was it worth it?” wondered Elaina, a self-admitted fence-sitter. “She lost 18 months of hard work. A new degree will take her three more years to complete.”
Which is a practical and reasonable way of assessing these weeks of emotional strife.
Back at your end of the internet, though, you squinted at this idea of the arrogance of fixers. Are you arrogant? Perhaps. Does that mean you are wrong? Respectfully, no. You’ve sparked a lifetime of confrontations ranging from petty to serious; you acknowledge your talent for polarizing others. Your tendency to speak out sometimes results in outcomes that don’t favor your cause, but you’ve decided you can live with collateral damage. Speaking out is your nature. You’ve embraced it as part of your authentic self.
Still, Elaina’s observation gave you pause. Perhaps at the core of your nature lies the sin of arrogance. You’d never considered this before, so you looked up the word. Arrogance, from Merriam-Webster: “an insulting way of thinking or behaving that comes from believing that you are better, smarter, or more important than other people.”
Your first thought on reading this definition ran like this: “someone needs to cut the second ‘that.’” Herein lies the problem. You don’t just believe you’re a better editor than the online editor at Merriam-Webster, you know you are. You don’t mean to insult that person, but face it—they made a mistake. Mistakes need correction. You hereby correct the editors of Merriam-Webster!
And so goes a typical unraveling of Colleen’s best intentions.
Very well, Elaina. (Smugless head-shaking duly noted.)
Without arrogance, however, the status quo would never change, and let’s face it the status quo doesn’t always deserve prolongation. White people hated Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his arrogance. Susan B. Anthony had the gall to demand suffrage for women. Wasn’t Jesus arrogant for setting out to save the souls of mankind? While you by no means class yourself in the category of such luminaries as these, you view them as fellow fixers: people willing to step into the breach when matters warrant correction. The insult, you contend, springs from the mind of those who blindly oppose change. Fixers disparage the systems they fight only because they envision a better way for all. At heart, they tend to think big and mean well.
Fixers draw enemies like excrement draws flies, yet both are natural and necessary functions in life. Not everyone can stomach the style of a fixer. Many prefer to stand back from the fray or sit on their fences. Some fight like cornered badgers, doing everything they can to quell the arrogant voice.
You’re a fixer and, ironically, that’s one thing about you which cannot be fixed. Never mind your intentions, fixers will always come across as arrogant, hence they polarize the people around them. You see no other way. You are the same person who at age sixteen chased down an adult shoplifter to snatch back the item he’d stolen. You’re the same person who returned to Jo-Ann Fabrics to pay for a costume the clerk had failed to ring up. And if you saw an injustice out on the street you would shout like hell to raise awareness, damn the consequences.
Otherwise you’d feel as if you were in a moral chokehold. Otherwise you would not be able to breathe. You would not be you, and that’s the plain truth.
“Two Empty Chairs”
28 November 2014
Dawn breaks over a snow-covered view as I review the aftermath of another holiday. Beyond my window, an unsullied blanket of powdery crystals shields the growth of the past year. Quiet accompanies the muted windless sky, and vapor breathes from the side of my house.
Exhale. The laptop’s fan burrs as I tap into a buried philosophical vein. Unbidden, a melancholic pathway unfolds.
Soon, too soon, my family has broken and scattered into bits and pieces of a mother’s tender heart. Now I know, or have known but not stopped to acknowledge, how my mother feels with her brood flung all over the world, and how her mother before her must have felt as her family drifted one by one to their own cities, produced children, and eventually formed new traditions.
It happened too soon. I thought I’d have them by me this Thanksgiving, but unexpectedly I did not; they had made other plans.
It shouldn’t matter so much. It’s one day out of dozens that I see them all year, a day with the same predictable dishes, the same games and conversations. For three of the past six Thanksgivings I’ve had no family at all. This time I counted on their coming, perhaps more than I should have. Disabused of my hopes, I shrugged off the disappointment. The rest of us set the table with holiday touches and huddled at one end, trying to ignore seats so glaringly empty. They were missed . . . did they know it?
Granted, the holiday has never been perfect—I’ve idealized it into sepia-toned Rockwellian splendor because I like the idea of it so well: the food, the lack of gift-giving pressure, and the pleasure of spending a few hours together. We have, in fact, had some dreadful Thanksgivings. Still, every year I approach the day anew and plunge enthusiastically into its requisite tasks.
Don’t get me wrong: I had a marvelous Thanksgiving with my daughter and parents. Everything tasted great, nobody argued, and aside from the dog licking part of the pie, we experienced no disasters. But throughout the hours of bounty and joy, I felt a hole in my heart that matched the two empty chairs at my table. It burned all the darker because, I suppose, I understood it was the first of many times I will likely experience their absence. I am learning the mother’s bitter lesson of letting her kids go.
They were missed . . . did they know it?
I cover the hurt by intellectualizing such moments as ‘just part of life,’ and yet next time I will probably romanticize my plans all over again. And so it goes. Reality, however, is inexorable. It corrects these two unattainable extremes—logic and ideal—with storylines the writer’s brain can’t even craft.
The laptop’s fan burrs. This melancholic mental pathway reaches its end. Outside my window, a snowy mantle shields the growth of the past year.
21 November 2014
You spent some time discussing theology with Elaina this week, so why not tackle your own personal take on the subject?
For starters, you liked her idea of a universal energy flow. You can relate to that concept, even if it is a bit mystical, because there have been times in your life where you’ve felt the gossamer breath of old souls brushing by. It happens rather often the deeper you delve into history. You have sensed their ghostly presences on battlefields and in old cemeteries where your ancestors’ remains have mouldered for more than two hundred years. You’ve stood where they stood when they breathed the fresh air and worked with the sweat of actual muscle. Standing in those fields on those streets on that cliff you feel the hairs prickle your neck, your pulse quicken, and your connection with the universe tightens a fraction. Elaina calls this God . . . you’re not sure what to call it. You are not convinced the phenomenon needs any name.
You’ve experienced a similar bliss when listening to music, especially—if not ironically—ecclesiastical music and the songs of lonely or heartbroken souls. In the presence of music, your spirit expands beyond the shell of your body, binding to the notes as they rise and then fall, and if the conditions are right you may even reach a state resembling nirvana. You’ll replay a piece multiple times just to sustain a powerful emotion. Music is your drug, a stimulant that feeds on your varying moods and prolongs the sensation you crave at that moment. Surely it’s no coincidence that music—i.e. sound waves arranged in pleasing harmonic patterns—embodies the very forces that Elaina celebrates.
This sensation of a universal connectedness can also arise from witnessing human creations of unsurpassable wonder. It dusts us with snowflakes, warms our skin with the rays of the world’s nearest star, and rivets our minds with infinite natural vistas. Energy flows around you wherever you go, and though you lack the inclination to recognize and celebrate that force through organized worship, you stop now and then to marvel at life.
Energy flows between you and other living beings in the simplest of gestures: the touch of a hand, the press of a hug, or a gift that elicits a little child’s smile. You feel all this ethereal interconnectedness, you even consider it sacred, but you have never been inclined to explore what it means. You don’t question its source. You don’t need to know how or why it all works. You merely embrace it as a symptom of your time here on earth. You’re not always adept at keeping the energy flow positive, but you do always try.
The mysteries of life, to your way of thinking, lie beyond the scope of your personal interests and goals. You enjoy and respect them, and do your best to enhance them with these humble writings. You believe what you see and don’t dwell on what you can’t. Leave the mechanics to scientists and the metaphysics to theologians. If a day of reckoning lies somewhere in your future, well then so be it. Meanwhile, your energy resides in the stories you tell and the love you have given and the wonder you feel when you watch dust motes whirling in a beam of sunshine.
14 November 2014
“I finished my second novel today,” you said. “Now all it needs is a date with the editor.”
He leaned forward with interest. “Hey, that’s terrific. Give me a synopsis of them, why don’t you?”
He nodded. Your heart sank inside. You turned into a terrified bucket of jelly. You really hate when this happens. You hadn’t thought about the first book in more than a year. You’d just emerged at ground level from the second one, so a bird’s eye view of the story did not pop to mind. Put on the spot, you blabbered something stupid, and the stupider it sounded, the more you struggled to somehow make your books sound less stupid. You could see his doubt mounting with every lame line. By the end, you’d convinced him you were just another hack author, no wonder you’re not published.
Great. Just great.
You have no problem letting your writing speak for you, in fact, most would say you have a pretty healthy ego (okay, that’s an understatement). You never question your work, no matter how many rejections, no matter how little luck you’ve had getting published. You have dozens of supporters who give you plenty of positive feedback.
But when push comes to shove, if somebody new happens to ask what you write, especially if that person is a man, you fall to pieces. You’re pretty sure it isn’t lack of confidence in your work. No, it comes down to the fact that you’re ashamed of your genre. You write like Jane Austen went to a superhero convention. You do not write great literature, but you do write great entertainment. In a sophisticated environment, like a party or meeting, talking about girl-power in skirts feels incredibly dumb, and certainly irrelevant to real life. You have earned the respect of men within writing circles; how can you secure that respect far and wide?
Good grief, how many people can claim to have written two entire novels, plus numerous short stories and essays? Your work appears in three publications. Take ownership of lines such as these:
“She felt strangely peaceful inside, much like when she killed the troll. She recalled its hot breath and the scent of decay on its pelt, and the bone-chilling promise of a painfully slow death. Calmness, not panic, had saved her life then. She gave a warning shake of her head, but Boyle’s partner kept coming, so she squeezed the trigger and shot him right in the chest.”
It’s a girl kicking butt in an epic fantasy. So what? Get over your bashfulness. Straighten your spine. Find a way to rattle off a quick and powerful synopsis, and no matter who does the asking give it with confidence, the same confidence you had when you wrote those lines in the first place. Make a connection between what you believe deep inside and what you project to others. They’re no better than you. In the privacy of their homes, they may read really bad fiction or play video games for hours and hours. Why do you care what they think of your creation? Hold your head up and feel pride.
And keep kicking butt.
7 November 2014
You have spent thirty years trying and failing to put down on paper what your dad means to you, failing in large part because you feared if you made yourself say it then that might somehow mean it was the end of the story.
There are two ironies, here. One is that everyone knows you should never leave important things unsaid. Two is that your dad has not yet bowed out of the story. He has added more chapters than you or he ever dreamed possible. He has lived to see his daughters marry and give him six grandchildren, lived to see most of these descendants grow to adulthood. The impact he has left on everyone around him reminds you of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.
Like George Bailey, your dad underestimates his own value. He plays the tough guy and often disguises his pain, while his gallows humor dares Fate to take him from you. He shakes his head in disbelief when each additional birthday rolls around. The rest of you sigh and uncross your fingers.
Thirty years ago, when you were 19, you found him sprawled out in the throes of a heart attack. He was 42 years old. At age 45 he underwent a triple bypass. Other episodes since then have ramped up your anxiety; thankfully, he has managed to overcome each one. Your dad’s guardian angel was modern medicine. His Clarence, so to speak, showed him how much he had left to contribute.
Dad comes across as a stern parent, but his offbeat sense of humor balances the scales. While he demands much of his children, he usually relents once you’ve given your all. When you were little, he taught you chess but never “let” you win. He had you reading flashcards when you were barely two. He never did manage to convince you, however, that calculus would’ve impressed your geometry teacher. As hard as he pushed you, Dad always rushed to soften life’s blows. He found you jobs, gave advice, was the shoulder you cried on when a college professor used your gender against you. On your wedding day your lips mirrored the poem he recited:
Little deeds of kindness,
Little words of love,
Help to make earth happy
Like the heaven above.
It resonated with you like an arrow through time, embodying the myriad occasions he had invited you to listen to classical music or watch him fix a machine or learn the essence of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Dad challenged you to counter the heights of your intellect with the simplicity of decent, bare-boned humanity.
He wrestled awhile when your kids came along as to how he should interact with them. Ultimately, he treated them exactly as he had you, with the occasional grandparental indulgence thrown in. They thrived under his mantle, clung to it even. You can’t begin to place a value on the role he played as your family shattered. He stood firm as a weathered rock, giving support when they needed it and correction when steadfastness was not always your strong-suit.
He saved you once, too. He heard the flat notes in your voice across a hundred mile distance and told you quite bluntly that your job as a parent was to put the oxygen mask on yourself first or everyone would perish. So you did, and eventually you climbed free of that crash. Dad waited for you, holding out his hand until you drew close enough to grasp it. Then he hauled you up and booted you off on your next flight, hanging close enough to catch you if things stalled out again, though distant enough to let you deal with most turbulence.
Dad’s chapters in your life story have spanned thirty more years than you ever imagined. You celebrated his seventy-second birthday this week, he with his usual incredulous shrug, you with your usual damp-eyed relief. It hasn’t been the easiest life, but having Dad as your wingman has made it a whole lot more wonderful that it otherwise would’ve been.
There, you’ve said it, but that’s not the end of this story. Another chapter starts . . . now.
31 October 2014
You’re having another one of those days where you can’t grasp a straight thought, but you try to push through it, just to see if you can craft something coherent with this pudding-for-a-brain. Isn’t perimenopause lovely?
For a week now you’ve thrashed while trying to sleep and then thrown in the towel long before dawn. Your inner thermostat is whack, so you run about in a tank top when it’s cool and windy outside. You have a constant low-grade headache and you verge on crying for no reason at all. That stuff isn’t so bad, but the concentration thing really irritates you. You remember having this issue back in your early 20s; it went away after a while. Unfortunately it’s returned.
How to describe it? You sit still, very still. Your head buzzes a bit. Thoughts whiz by at warp speed, whirling and swirling along the tissues of your brain. You imagine yourself trying to reach out and grab one—just one! One meaningful thought to focus on today. But you miss, or it slithers between your imaginary fingertips and vaporizes into the abyss of lost great ideas. By late afternoon, you’re wondering when it’s seemly to uncork the wine. You’ve watched TV for a couple of hours, made a cursory swipe at cleaning the house. All those precious opportunities to accomplish something brilliant have gone up in smoke. You poke idly at Facebook as the sun plunges below the horizon. Twelve hours of consciousness have flitted away.
Imagine several days like this, where you’re losing significant portions of time. To a person used to never-ending creative output, this mode creates frustration on a maddening scale. Let’s face it: perimenopause is a stupid, pointless, wasteful phase in women’s lives. Almost no one has an easy time of it, and half the planet eventually endures the experience. You wouldn’t mind if there was a switch you could flip or a pill you could take that would end the process once and for all. Why oh why must it take years for the body to sort itself out? Be decisive! Be done!
Perhaps some women grow thoughtful and introspective about the end to their childbearing years or some perceived loss of womanhood, but you don’t know any. Everyone suffers, though the delicate ones prefer not to talk about it. You and your friends agree if men had to deal with menopause they’d find a way to prevent it. It’s a joke, guys! Chill!
Really, women have no choice but to laugh about these things. A bitter laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. Eleven years ago you were five months pregnant; today you can’t imagine subjecting yourself to pregnancy again. You’re too old, and maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. You’ve got a growing daughter to raise and a whole new career mapped out for yourself. For the first time in thirty years you have a choice about where life will take you. Things are looking up.
Now, if only you could grasp a few brilliant thoughts. If only you could make better use of your days. If only those stupid hormones didn’t make you so stupid. Ah, but this too shall pass.
24 October 2014
This week reminded you of how acutely you feel the strain of not being able to say that you’re published. You tried to open an Amazon author page, but since you’re in three large anthologies you aren’t the author of record for any of them. You exchanged emails with Customer “Service”; they asked for proof that you’re actually part of those projects. You offered them images of the indexes and essays, but you didn’t know how to attach images to the Amazon response form. When you asked Amazon’s advice, they rejected you out of hand. You retreated without credentials, without an author page, depressed and defeated.
Does this mean you’re not an author? Of course not. But still . . .
You worked for three years as a newspaper columnist. That should count for something, even if the columns only exist on yellowing scraps in your files. Back in the day, people recognized you around town. They praised your work as refreshingly intelligent. That job came as a direct result of your first published piece; you mentioned the essay to someone and two weeks later you landed the newspaper gig. Your first job in eleven years! The gig itself did wonders for your beat down housewife’s ego, and indeed your whole future. It lifted you to believe that your childhood dreams had merit. You started writing fiction again. You poured tens of thousands of passionate words from your soul.
At this point, you engaged friends and family to preview the work. You dared to call yourself an aspiring author. You bit the bullet one day and submitted your story to a literary agent. Scores of queries followed, as did scores of rejections. The more you learned the business, the more you gained confidence, momentum, and a hide thick enough to make a rhinoceros jealous. Rejections trickled in, some expressing praise. People around town asked if you had been published yet. Month after month after year after year they asked the same question, but you could not explain the process in only a nutshell. Easier to say, “No, not yet.”
“No, not yet.”
“No, not yet. Still working on it.”
And so the years passed. You bit the bullet and ran the manuscript past a professional editor. Now, surely NOW, the agents would clamor to sign you! Once again you queried agents, only this time they remembered you, and agents don’t like saying “no” more than once. Meanwhile, the e-book market had exploded, enabling an influx of inferior writers to gum up the pipelines. Your hybrid story idea confused rather than excited the conservative old guard.
“No, not yet.”
It has grown just as tiresome for you to repeat this refrain as it probably is for people to politely ask it of you. You know what they’re thinking: “If New York doesn’t want you, then you must be a hack.” It’s not remotely that simple, but it would take an hour to explain the ins and outs of modern publishing. As you stand poised to explore the world of self-publication, defeat rings in your ears. You hear whispers of derision: “Vanity press—she had to pay someone to print it. She’ll sell a dozen or two at best.”
But you have bigger plans than that. You may be delusional, but you’re determined as hell. Your readers have led you to think you might have a shot at success. So, you throw a few irons on the fire. You generate projects of all sorts. You’re working efficiently for the first time in a couple of years.
“No, not yet,” you tell those who still remember to ask.
You wince inwardly but nevertheless lift your chin to the sky. “Not yet, but soon, very soon.” You’ll show Amazon you merit a proper author page. You’ll show the doubters who long ago grew tired of asking. You’ll show yourself and your kids that you weren’t wasting time. And sooner, rather than later, the pain of all this waiting and trying and waiting some more will reach its fruition. You are an author of essays and columns, of novels and letters. You’ve already accomplished so much that you ought to be proud of. Be patient, as always, and keep writing. Keep making decisions that nudge you ever and always in the direction of success.
Download Spooky Halloween Drabbles 2014 for a creepy short-short story by Colleen titled “Autopsy.”
“Haters Gonna Hate”
17 October 2014
This week you’ve been thinking a lot about hate. It affects all of us, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. Hate ranges from the petty, such as a dislike of certain foods, to global expressions that take millions of lives. You can’t avoid feeling hate, nor can you avoid being affected by others’ acts of hatred. You don’t believe anyone who claims to never feel hate; it’s far too primitive an instinct for us to suppress.
As a privileged white person living in a supposedly free country, you’ve been spared the first-hand horror of war and genocide. You haven’t felt the sting of racism, though you’ve witnessed it first hand. Still, your personal experience includes discrimination based on gender, marital status, and political beliefs. You know what it’s like to have somebody judge you—and indeed despise you—according to the thinnest of reasons. You feel helpless, betrayed, and stunned that anyone would define your character that way.
Hate also begins from personal conflicts. You’ve walked away from endeavors you’ve sunk your soul into when a segment of a group opposes you at all turns. They don’t see your vision, and instead of compromising they seek to drive you away. Their fear of differences blinds them to thinking differently about problems. You don’t set out to cause trouble, and yet it arises. As your mind reels and your gut clenches, you again find yourself the object of somebody’s hatred, somebody who doesn’t know the first thing about you.
The hater has managed to turn you into the hated.
You have a friend who’s suffering because she spoke out in her graduate studies program. As any thoughtful person would, she refuted classmates’ remarks directed at those of different religions and sexual orientation. Then someone twisted her words, claiming she tried to silence others’ free speech, and now she’s stuck in an academic review. Hate begets hate when it tries to justify itself. It consumes the spirits of its victims and of those who attempt to check its advance. Hate has caused your friend to question her life’s aspirations.
Hate frustrates us so deeply that we often resort to hating the ones who have wronged us. Loving your enemies and blessing those who curse you doesn’t work so well in practice. Ideally, you wish they’d just go away. They don’t, though, and their vitriol eats at your soul. You begin to hate them for upending your sense of stability. You hate them for hating you for speaking out about their hate. The circle builds on itself. Indeed, second hand hate will consume you unless you can break clean away.
In the scheme of things, we spend so little time on this earth. You don’t know how anyone has the time to hate anyone else, to meddle in their affairs, or to direct them to live their lives this way or that. Isn’t it enough for each of us simply to survive?
On Monday, Elaina described the spiritual crisis she underwent when she spoke out against hatred and was then vilified for speaking. Burdened with internal and external battles, she first had to heal festering spiritual wounds, then cut the perpetrators of hate from her life. As with your friend, Elaina suffered too much thanks to other people’s hate.
So much hate rules this world. You yourself feel the twinges, not toward innocent classes, but toward those who have transgressed against you. Removing yourself helps a good deal, but that’s not always an option. So you establish your own little haven from fear, filled with respect for all differences and a resistance to letting hate into your life. Speak out when you must, but in the end, those who attempt to inject you with hate are not worthy of your time, your precious, brief time here on wonderful earth.
Download Spooky Halloween Drabbles 2014 for a creepy short-short story by Colleen titled “Autopsy.”
10 October 2014
Oh boy. It’s the time of year that puts a curdle in your stomach and a sneer on your lips. Yeah, you know what I mean. The marathon of holidays has begun, and it doesn’t let up until sometime in mid-April. The front half is the worst: Hallowthanksmas. As the Grinch himself would say, “All the noise, noise, noise, noise!”
Your massive collection of holiday décor proves how organized and merry you once were, hauling up boxes filled with this theme or that, taking down one round of tchotchkes and installing another. You baked, made individually wrapped gifts, and sent care packages to all four corners of the nation. You wore costumes, played music, painted tiny plaster houses and lined them up on a shelf padded with faux snow. You displayed holiday cards and kept a spreadsheet of people’s addresses and names. Don’t forget those meals where you pulled out the stops. Numerous courses, numerous dishes. Your board groaned with the recipes you had researched for weeks. Nothing compared to that satisfied exhaustion after preparing another spectacular feast.
So . . . what happened? A perfect storm of things chipped away at your spirit.
What you once liked about holidays had to do with purity and fun, the uniqueness of a few days devoted to family cheer. The first blow came when holidays began to drag out beyond two or three weeks prior to their actual date. Commercialism and neighbors’ houses slathered in gaudy two-month displays stole all the charm. The second blow came when your family’s troubles erupted with great regularity at peak holiday moments. The comments someone always made about you martyring yourself ate at the remaining shreds of your enthusiasm. Eventually, you found yourself doing most of the work.
One by one, your rituals dropped to the side: the packages, the letters, the spectacular dishes. Your décor didn’t always get wrapped up so neatly before it went to the basement. You struggled to find gifts. You forgot key ingredients. Last minute panic ruled on holiday eves. The guillotine dropped when your family shattered. You spent Christmas Eve alone in a restaurant sitting at a table for one, choking down food that tasted like sawdust, wishing you had at least brought along a book. It was only the beginning—you’ve spent several holidays since equally alone.
So you’ve gone around shooting your mouth off for years about holidays sucking, but while expounding on this subject earlier this week you burst into tears. It felt different this time, and suddenly you knew: you missed a kid pretty badly who wasn’t coming home for Thanksgiving. You had expected him to, but now you wouldn’t see him at all until Christmas, and never in his life had you gone for more than a couple of weeks without him underfoot. You wept from your soul, because it’s one thing to know stuff happens in life and another to figure out a way to accept it.
Then you pulled yourself together and remembered you’ve got another kid who still loves holidays. Later that day you took that kid shopping, bought new décor, and let her talk you into planning what costume you should wear. You jammed the Grinch in a box and nailed down the lid, hoping it would hold. You’re not making grand promises, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll find a wisp of pure joy in this year’s annual slog through Hallowthanksmas. The Whos will thank you for it.
3 October 2014
By now you have noticed the cyclical pattern of life. You get a déjà vu shiver and realize you’re engaged in activities you’ve already done. Twenty years ago you created another letters project, albeit one with a different objective. You transcribed all the letters your mother had written to her mother during the first twelve months of your life, and interleaved them with journal entries about your first son. You bound it up nicely and gave it to Mom. Implicit in that gesture was the commonality you shared as fledgling young parents.
Those letters depicted the inextricable bond between a mother and daughter who share many interests, among them a love of books and great writing, and a compulsion to unearth the sprawling story of your family. To that end, you and she have prowled cellars and cemeteries, trespassed, talked to strangers, and leafed through old books. The footsteps you tread have been trodden before, trodden and buried under layers of time. You have found yourselves lost, only to end up in the most serendipitous places. Back at home she types your findings while you spin fantasies based on facts. Together, you and she write letters to the past, to be read by people born in the future.
And who besides you shall record the proof of this special bond? Set it down for the ages, how you and Mom garden till your arms and legs ache, then collapse on a couch and watch football together. Recount your crazy adventures and the evenings reminiscing over glasses of wine. Convey her essence in these letters, for they are you and you are her, and they will live on forever.
Few people take the time to write letters anymore, but without letters, we lose the subtleties of what makes each person unique. Official records don’t preserve your mom’s wisdom and guidance, her unwavering devotion to you and your children. They can’t capture your love, which is cookies and curlers, the poems she wrote, and her talent for picking the best presents ever. There’s no box to rate her generosity with your friends or the hours invested in supporting your dreams. Who else will remember how she roused you on your wedding day with a cool palm on your face, how she flew cross-country to welcome your babies, and later, much later, hugged you in court after you brought an end to your marriage? If you don’t write it down, then a hundred years hence no one will understand your mom, or comprehend the part of your soul she completes.
Now you live very close and have the frequent pleasure of her company. You hang out a while, then head home full of unconditional love. You’re lucky and you know it. You want her to realize how fortunate you feel, but sometimes you don’t say these things clearly enough. It’s not till your mom seems a little alone that you grasp the importance of making bold statements.
Twenty years ago you transcribed her letters because it amazed you how closely her experience of new motherhood mirrored yours. Today, on her seventy-first birthday, you’re almost afraid to look in her eyes, afraid to speak of those occasional hesitant moments. Memories flit away in delicate wisps, but your mom’s palm is still cool. Press it to your cheek. Codify her soul in your words. A letter acts as the perfect device.
26 September 2014
For this inaugural letter you might as well cut to the chase. What theme has governed your life this past month? Cutting out stress, even at the cost of leaving professional groups you love, even if it means having to let others down. What factor has driven the escalation of that stress? Your balls-to-the-wall attitude.
Face it, darling: You have what is called a polarizing personality. People either love you or hate you; there’s no in between. This behavior didn’t develop yesterday or even a year ago. You’ve always been this way, and while most of the time you chug along maintaining you don’t really care, now and then things backfire and bite you right in the butt. Why? Because destiny has also seen fit to endow you with the need to make everyone love you.
You can’t have it both ways.
Either change five decades of habit and hard-wiring and become a cool-headed charmer who’s universally admired, or stick to your guns and suck up the speed bumps.
Ah. So easy to say. You’re cool much of the time. You show patience and politesse, empathy and grace. The trouble arises when you butt heads with those who grate with your style or question your authority. Then it all goes so wrong and you end up feeling wounded. If only they had done this or that, like you said. Well, guess what? That’s not happening. Worse, these sorts of people tend not to retreat. Your choices at this point are to keep engaging or change tack . . . euphemisms for fighting them or backing away. You hate both these options, especially the latter.
So Plan A, running roughshod through life, works 90% of the time. Okay, 80%. That leaves you with Plan B, the diplomatic approach. It sounds good on paper. At every encounter, you step back for a moment and analyze the person with whom you’re about to engage. Watch the room for a while. Don’t speak first. Wait for others to reveal their character and skill. Wade in only when you have something positive to contribute. When you identify a problem person, decline to engage; if they go after you, refuse to play their game. All well and good, but the problem with Plan B is you can’t stick to this path and also defend others from bullies. You cannot remain silent when a powerful someone wreaks havoc with a working dynamic. You can’t just swallow your pride when you’re ignored, demeaned, or marginalized.
These values are supremely important to you. For better or worse, you were born to be the defender and fixer of wrongs. To remain silent in the name of minding your own business, in an effort to decrease your overall stress, you would have to compromise your deep-seated perception of justice. In short, a life on the sidelines would agitate you worse than you currently are.
What’s left then? Mindfulness, I suppose. Pay better attention when problems arise. Choose the battles worth fighting and seek opportunities to exit. It’s not always a concession to walk away from a fight. You know how to be diplomatic; just do it more often.
Mindfulness: both self-awareness and the awareness of the forces that swirl all around you. Pay attention, Colleen. Don’t dwell in your bubble, only to burst forth like an avenger when someone steps on your toes. Trim away generators of negative forces. You don’t always have to smash them.
In short, don’t stop being you, just try not to be always so . . . you.
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