Nuns, Breast Cancer, and Advice at Nineteen; Surviving the In Between

Lolo had breast cancer. Twice.

I was little the first time and it is the only time I remember my mother crying behind a locked bathroom door. My grandmother had a mastectomy and then spent the next two decades wearing a stuffed, lopsided bra. Her neighbor, a few houses down, a pistol of an Italian woman who chain smoked, had birds, high heels, and Prego tomato sauce and Twinkies lining her pantry, also had breast cancer. I remember taking car rides to the grocery store, sitting in the middle spot of my grandmother’s front seat (no seatbelt, of course) listening to Jo give Lolo a hard time about not having reconstructive surgery. My grandma, quiet, would shrug and say, “What for?”

I slept at Grandma Lois’s frequently. I would sleep in her bed, under sheets that smelled like Tide and bleach, under an oil painting of Jesus on the crucifix, while my grandma changed into her faded and sleeveless, knee length, nylon, nightgown. She would keep her back to me, but I could see the scar that wove itself to her mid-back, and when she crawled in next to me, she only had one breast and the top of her scar peeped out like misplaced cleavage.

She was much older for the second mastectomy. I was in high school, sixteen, working as a receptionist at a hair salon on North Avenue next to George Webb’s, a place where no one ever came in, except for one time, when the owner accidentally waxed off her client’s entire eyebrow and then offered her a free brow pencil as consolation. I sat at Lolo’s knee watching the ten o’clock news the night before her surgery and her hand rested on my head. It was heavy and felt like bundled up tears in a chest, except maybe those were mine. It’s hard to recall. She survived that surgery and my mom joked with her that now she could finally be the enviable size B cup we all dreamed of (on both sides now).

Last year, I skipped my mammogram. This week I went to the dentist and the receptionist was crying because her best friend had just died from breast cancer. I went home and made my appointment. As usual, I was called back to repeat the test because there was a suspicious shadow (there always is). I wasn’t too worried about it because my astrologer told me that my health looked good this year and seeing that she predicted Greta’s passing, I just trusted that. So I repeated the test today, still not really worried … worried a little bit I guess, when two technicians showed up instead of one, and kept trying to hide their knit brows behind their machine while I waited, holding my breath, and trying not to stare at my white breast, squished between two glass plates like rolled out pizza dough waiting to rise.

I kept getting sent back into the waiting room in between consultations with the radiologist. It was starting to get long and so then I started to worry for real. A tiny T.V. was blasting Wendy Williams. I reached for the remote to silence her. I looked up and a nun, in a full floor length habit walked toward me.

My heart stopped completely and all I could think of was that Jesus painting and that the hospital had quickly summoned up a nun to break the news to me, the mother of a four year old boy who WILL NOT REMEMBER ME IF I DIED TODAY, that I was surely dying. Just then, another nurse popped from behind the old nun and said, “This way, Sister,” and instructed her to take everything off from the waist up. A nun getting a mammogram will certainly weave its way into a future painting. I just never thought…

I continued to wait, now next to the nun, who, in the absence of her veil, looked just like every other nun I have ever seen in my life. Together we watched a commercial about a woman who was exercising and fell of her Bosu ball unexpectedly. The nun giggled. I giggled. We exchanged worried, “maybe this is it for me,” glances, and then it was silent.

My nurses came back and kicked the little old nun out of the room they needed for me. They explained that they were going to need to roll my breast and take pictures all at once, the Olympic sport of mammography. The one nurse lifted by breast as if it was a twenty-pound turkey and then started pulling it like pasta, while the other one smashed it between plates, like a game of whack-a-mole. I was instructed to hold my breath until they both technicians lit up like little Emoji’s, simultaneously saying, “Ah, that’s better. You are fine.”

Minutes later I was told the Wizard of Oz radiologist (heard from, but never seen) cleared me and I could go. I was still a little bit dizzy from being Silly Putty, reeling from flashing thoughts of how my whole life was going to change on this sunny, too hot day in July, a Tuesday unlike any other Tuesday, and they just shrugged and said, “See you in a year.”

It made me think about my Grandmother and about whether or not she had anyone to really talk to about how scared she was. She didn’t have a husband, a confidant … anybody, really, to crash into. She certainly didn’t blog or keep a diary of any kind. She didn’t start suddenly painting peaches or taking up meditation classes. She was just still about it.

I am not very good at sitting still for much of anything. I always was in awe of those women who could wait until the second trimester to tell people they were pregnant. I practically blurted the news out to the whole world before the pregnancy pee stick had time to dry up.

Yet, in the wake of this summer, one mixed with so much emotional weight and change, I have found myself unable to write or talk, and the idea of drawing or painting is actually a turn off all together. I don’t want to go to the beach or sit by a pool. I just want to sit, to be still. I want to slow time in order to digest all of the very real changes. I want to be left alone because I am really quite sure that no one in the entire world can understand what it’s like to lose a dog, send a kid 2500 miles away from home, send another kid to 4K, another kid off to high school, and to not feel guilt about whichever kid I am forgetting, and in the back of my mind feeling broke and panicking about the weeds out front. It’s a shit storm here. It’s like one long, bad teenage angsty poem entitled, It’s a Shit Storm in my Heart, and here I am, spending my summer replacing all of the dotted letter “i’s” with hearts.
But I am not dying. Not today anyway. Not that I know of anyway. Not a death that I can hear with the ticking of a hospital clock. Tonight, Luke, who is away with Haley, texted me the lyrics to the song In Between, by Bear Tooth. He texted, “In the in between, I won’t let pain get in my way/I can’t have silence claiming me/We have strength in numbers.”

Maybe God sent the nun as a messenger and I just missed it, so this time He sent Luke. Luke, who shares my worry in the form of a knotted up stomach, but who is brave enough to leap and intuitive enough to let his mother know that now is not the time for silence (well, maybe a little silence … like I should stop emailing the 4K teachers that I am freaking out about the idea of a nap for my kid … in that case, a muzzle might be helpful). Now is not the time for the kind of silence that creates distance. Now is the time to love loudly, to read Quinn books about dying and heaven, to plop into bed next to Lizzie and beg her to be my Snapchat friend, to remind William that Axe is not a good smell …

A few days ago I drove Lizzie and four of her friends to the beach. They were wearing bikinis and sunglasses and we played bad music at full volume and rolled all the windows down. I was excited for her youth and envious of it and also inspired to find that part of myself (I never wore a bikini at fifteen). It’s time to roll my own windows down because in my own in-between, I can’t have silence claiming me either.

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Bye, Greta. Back to the Barn.

I always remember my principal’s birthday because it falls on the day that Lolo died and I remember scrolling through Facebook on that day and seeing well wishes mixed with grief. My childhood dog, Casey, also died in July, a few days earlier on the 23rd, and now we add one more. Remind me to never book travel during this week in July.

Maybe it was fate that I showed Quinn both Bambi and The Fox and the Hound this week, or maybe there was just a part of me that knew Greta didn’t have much time left. Maybe it was fate that Jenny and Noel took Quinn away to the beach today so that he didn’t have to bare witness to the worst of it, or maybe there was some higher power moving us with Its suggestion.

Regardless, the dog that I told Sean we needed to buy because Lolo always insisted that “every boy needs a dog” to grow up with, died this afternoon. Our kids were 2, 3, and 7 then, and I wanted to add a dog to the mix (I still blame postpartum hormones). There were nine puppies and the breeder scooped up all the females and let them run around a beautiful field with us. I wanted the all-brown one, but Greta sat right in front of Sean and that was it. She chose us.

Shortly after we got her, she ran between my feet as I was hoisting William down the steps on my hip. I tripped over her, shattered the top of my foot (an injury that still causes my foot to swell like a pregnant belly in the dead heat of August), and so I re-named Greta to Re-Greta.

In her later years, Sean called her Tip Tap because her long nails dotted our wooden floors with a ballerina staccato. Combined with the jangling of her dog tags, her sound became the backdrop of our lives. Today, after a few days of not eating too much, she came in the house, stumbled, and collapsed. Later, the vet told us that she likely had a heart attack. Re-Greta was generous enough to live long enough, breathing deeply and steadily, the way all of us do when dying, to allow each of us to give her final hugs and goodbyes. Quinn made her a fort and spread his blanket next to hers and they had one last long nap together. Quinn raised his head, looked at her and said, “Greta. I think it’s time you go back to the barn.”

We sat with our fading dog until I caught her gaze. It’s a gaze I have seen both of my dying grandmothers hold. It reads, “I am dying and it’s okay, ” but it is also full of longing and love and bravery. It was then that I called the vet.

We pulled the seats out of the van and Sean carried her to sleep on its floor. She slid all the way beneath his seat when he drove and so I pulled her back and wrapped my feet around her to hold her still and to whisper words that were well wishes mixed with grief. I let her floppy ears slip between my fingers and I pressed on each paw. Sean and I, just the two of us, sat in the parking lot of the vet and cried. He carried her in.

As soon as we walked through the door, there was a young man standing there with another German Shorthaired pointer. We could tell he was uncomfortable, standing there awkwardly with his healthy, young, waggling dog, while we held our geriatric dog of the same breed in a blanket. He had to wait for his paperwork while we explained we couldn’t get Greta on the scale because she could no longer stand. He looked down when they asked us which type of wooden box we wanted her ashes in. We sat. He was about to leave, his bouncy, beautiful dog in tow, when he hesitated, looked at me, and walked his dog over to Greta. This stranger started to cry. He gave Greta a pat and he hugged me, hugged Sean. It was such a cool, silent transaction and all of us could feel the human connection. Heart threads.

They let us hold her as they killed her. They held her with us. We told stories about her. The vet told us that her heart had stopped and we left her there, in the shape of a long staple. Leaving was the hard part.

Mostly, Greta, I just wanted you to know that I don’t regret you. I couldn’t go to sleep until I told you that. You were the dog the kids grew up with. You leaving us now, weeks before Luke heads to college, is a beautiful reminder that life is short and important and fleeting, and that the most important risk worth taking is love. Say hi to Lolo for me. I hope heaven is filled with slow rabbits.

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A Time to Dance, A Time to Mourn

I skipped both birthday letters for my Spring babies. That is a first. Ever. I am either a horrible mother or I am paralyzed, still, with the waiting that comes prior to my eldest child leaving home. It’s like a pregnancy, but worse. With a pregnancy, I could imagine a baby. I cannot even imagine a house without Luke in it. I had to leave my space in line at TJ Maxx when Beautiful Boy came on the store speakers so that I could go cry in my car. My husband thinks I am bananas. He says, “Time to kick that bird out. Let go.” I know it’s the only direction to go. I’m getting bolder. Even children get older. That’s right. Go ahead. Play Landslide. I dare you.

As we move forward, however, I fall more in love. In 2005 I was with a student and his aunt in New York city and I was limping on what later turned out to be a broken foot. The aunt, an acupuncturist, demanded that I lie down on a bench in Central Park. She put a thousand needles into my skin and kept muttering to herself that I had “mother’s disease.” She implied that building a life around children was risky business. That my heart could not handle the stages of my life. She then instructed me to drink a gallon of water. I drank a bottle of wine. When I woke up 12 hours later in my hotel room, my tongue was jet black.

As I write this, Quinn is having a meltdown about TV. I could not find his show on Netflix. He is banging his head on the ground and repeatedly shrieking the word, “No.” He is kicking the couch and squeaking. Tears are flooding his face so heavily that he is starting to choke on them. One day he will leave for college too, and at the moment, that sounds fine by me. Perhaps I have romanticized motherhood, after all. Perhaps my tongue turned black because I had surpressed screaming myself. Maybe I will make a new Pinterest board and title it, “My House is Mine Again,” and I will fill it with breakable, fragile, gorgeous, minimal things with sharp corners that no one can leave fingerprints on or slice open a forehead on. A white couch. A white carpet. A coffee table made of metal.

I have ignored Quinn’s tantrum for so long now that he forgot about Spongebob and about television completely and is now playing with a noisy puzzle, sitting on a stack of four pillows. Now the dog is whining (her new old-age habit). I will create yet another Pinterest board called, “The Sound of Silence.”

Some birthday letter this is. Luke and Lizzie, you both chose pie over cake for your birthdays and that’s how I know you are mine. You both made the spring musical, Tarzan, so beautiful, that it will forever sit right in the center of my heart. I look back at photos of you both when you were small and I cannot imagine how life sped up so quickly. I imagine a giant fast forward button in the hands of God and that as soon as you turned eight, He forgot to take his hand off the button.

The processional at my own eighth grade graduation (William’s is two weeks away), we sang Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Byrds. “To everything, turn, turn, turn. There is a season, turn, turn, turn. And a time for every purpose under heaven.” It was our principal, Sr. Joselma’s, favorite song, but I think we sang it just so that our mom’s would cry. A time you may embrace. A time to refrain from embracing. 

Maybe when I let go and you are both out of this small and cozy nest, leaving two brothers in your jet-stream, you will glance back and feel a tug of home. I hope so. I hope that the concept of home always makes you feel just a tiny bit nostalgic and that despite everything, you know it means love. For me, it has been a constant heartbeat.

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I am super proud to announce that Lukemizer is now an official dot com thing. Check out Luke’s new wordpress site: lukemizer.com. 

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Photo credit: Wauwatosa Now

Photo credit: Wauwatosa Now


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Boy to Man

“Oh the power to be strong
And the wisdom to be wise
All these things will come to you in time
On this journey that you’re making
There’ll be answers that you’ll seek
And it’s you who’ll climb the mountain
It’s you who’ll reach the peak

Son of Man, look to the sky
Lift your spirit, set it free
Some day you’ll walk tall with pride
Son of Man, a man in time you’ll be

Though there’s no one there to guide you
No one to take your hand
But with faith and understanding
You will journey from boy to man”

My first born son has the lead in Tarzan. My first born daughter is a flying ape (I do hope that Lizzie grows to be a writer because I would love to hear her take on that spilled out in a beautiful tapestry of humor and sibling rivalry).

The theme of Disney’s Tarzan, the ultimate story of leaving home to find a new life, lining up with Luke’s path from a high school senior to a college freshman is either beautiful synchronicity or cruel irony. I can’t yet be sure.

Quinn has fallen in love with the idea of Luke actually being Tarzan ever since Luke landed the role and this sweet little four year old boy of ours sneaks out of his bed at night so that he can sleep with Tarzan:

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He asks if Tarzan can give him a bath and if Tarzan can pick him up from school and when Luke comes home at the end of the day, Quinn takes a running leap off of the couch and into Tarzan’s strong arms. Tonight, though, he called him Luke. He asked me why Luke was moving. I explained to his whimpering protests that Luke was going to a bigger school and it was in a different city, but that he would be home for Christmas, to which Quinn replied with glee, “AND for my bedtime.”

I have been trying to find where that courage to let go sits in my body and I find it somehow lodged right above my throat … like I want to speak out in protest, but swallow my words first. It just doesn’t seem fair … we spend all these years falling in love, picking up the pieces, offering comfort, rides, dinners, conversations in the car rides home, cold hands on warm foreheads, hugs at the end of a really bad decision, conferences with their teachers, playdates with practical strangers, and to be honest, there is a whole bunch of “raising kid stuff” that I sure as hell am not going to miss, but still … this feels like a break up.

The other day I was driving and I was thinking about how Luke’s birthday next month will be his last birthday waking up at home. As I imagined that, “You’ll be in My Heart,” played in the car, and I literally had to pull over and cry. The transition from boy to man … I guess it’s what we spend all this time getting ready for. Pretty sure this is why God made birds. If a bird can kick out a tiny little practically featherless little thing from a nest where the only option is fly or die, then surely, I can put a fully grown, 6′ 1″ human on an airplane.

Lizzie asked me if I am going to be this sad when she leaves for school (is it harder to say goodbye to an ape?). I am sure it will be, but there is something to the first kid, the guinea pig, that makes the fear of the unknown a little bit more daunting. I mean … the momma bird sees that the first one makes it, so kicking out the second is probably just a shrug of the shoulders, right? Sigh.

I got into an argument with a hotel receptionist in Seattle as I was booking our “see your college choices trip.” She wanted to charge me $120 extra dollars for our room because Luke is an adult. Initially, she was going to give me the university discount rate (as the school is right across the street), but when she found out Luke was eighteen, she tagged on the extra $40 a night. She explained that “adults use more towels and electricity.” Clearly, she does not live with a teenaged girl. First of all, how old does she think prospective college students are? Second of all, he is NOT AN ADULT. He is my baby. She did not agree. She would send him to war. She’d probably buy him a beer. She’d probably SLEEP WITH HIM. We aren’t staying there.

I have tried really hard not to be a helicopter mom. I have tried really hard to let my kids make mistakes, to fall on their faces, to get back up, to learn resilience and trust. We have raised them, all four of them, in a 1300 square foot house with one bathroom. The bedrooms don’t have doors. There are ongoing construction projects and the lighting is horrific. Our house is loud and constantly low on groceries. There are exactly forty-five loads of laundry waiting for me in the basement. We don’t have cable. Knowing all that makes me realize that these kids are more than prepped to be great roommates in a crowded dorm room than just about anyone. That momma bird must have a very similar line of thoughts rambling around in that tiny brain before she pulls the trigger.

For the first time in my life, I don’t want the school year to end. I just want to take each of these last sweet few months to enjoy waiting up at night until I hear Luke’s feet pound up to front steps, to fall asleep while he is sings in the shower (“I can see there’s so much to learn/It’s all so close and yet so far/I see myself as people see me/But I just know there’s something bigger out there”), to work with him on his drawings, to listen to him giggle on FaceTime with his girlfriend.

I am just soaking in every piece so that it can sit there in my heart and when he is far away I can find it. I am soaking in every piece so that the pieces of me remain whole. I am soaking in every fleeting piece because deep down I know that one day he isn’t the one who leaves. One day, I do. That thought paralyzes me sometimes. I want every lifetime to be with these five people. Next time give us the bigger house, though (I mean this has built character and all, but really, I’ve got it). I am soaking in every piece because I am madly in love with this boy. I mean man.

luke

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Thai Phrasi and 29 Other Phrasi’s

Last summer, I drew every single day. Those drawings are now live on the Thai Phrasi app. Live. Like you can live in Australia or Germany or Barcelona or Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and with a click of a button can see my summer on iTunes. It’s pretty cool and  it’s a happy time for me.

Though the language app is currently released for translating phrases in Thai, several other languages will launch this year. If you are traveling or just feel like supporting the work, or wondering how to ask for condoms or a glass of wine in another language, take a look:https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/thai-phrasi-free-offline-phrasebook/id924346397?mt=8

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Over the River and Through the Woods

Recently, I was contacted by Patience Brewster to see if perhaps I might want to chime in the holiday season by writing about my favorite holiday memory. I am seriously one of those people that flips back and forth between the two radio stations that play non-stop Christmas tunes from November 1st on, so nobody has to ask me twice to write about the holidays. In fact, I have been having several sleepless nights because my best friend does not celebrate St. Nick with her daughter on December 6th and even though I get that this is a very Wisconsin thing to do and that by BFF grew up in Boston for crying out loud, I have still been jolted awake at 2AM thinking about how T won’t get a stocking. Bring on the advent calendars and the egg nog and obnoxious lights. I love it all. The number one reason that I love Luke’s girlfriend is that she loves Christmas as much as I do (there are probably other number ones … she does love pie, and well, Luke).

Favorite memory? I don’t have one. I have a tangled web of Christmas eve’s at Lolo’s house. Christmas has never been the same for me since Lolo died, or really since she moved from the home she built to a condo for the elderly. I think the reason I am so excited to have four children of my own is the thought of future Christmas Eve’s … the chance for me to embody my grandmother’s spirit and make everyone else feel loved and snug and home. Sometimes I look around this too small, falling apart house and wonder if I will ever be able to pull it off, but the dream of it keeps me going.

When we would arrive at my grandma’s house, Rudolph had already left footprints in the snow. Herring and brandy old fashions and boxes of chocolates lined the kitchen counters. The house was dark, except for the bright kitchen, and the strands of lights on the tree. Everything else was candlelit and so even the ham glowed. It smelled like burnt rolls and snow and wool. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin always hummed in the background, along with laughter and the exchange of hellos.

I remember sitting on the floor and looking up at my grandmother, who had a pile of presents, literally a tower of presents, on her lap, and to me, she seemed like the happiest person alive.

A lot of people complain about the commercialism of Christmas and the bother and the money. To me, it’s never been about any of those things. I am not a religious person by any means. Religion will always be a bit lost on me. I do, however, understand ritual and love and tradition. I understand family and home and prayer. I understand that in the very roughest patches of my own marriage that it is the thought of these things that keeps me going. Blessed are the peacemakers … all I know for sure is that my grandmother was one of those. I know that for one evening every year, time stood still, and the true meaning of peace flooded through me.

Central to my art is the idea of home. Christmas Eve is probably the very nut of that fruit. I wish that each of you reading this gets a chance to experience that stillness and that joy and that Christmas, for you, means feeling like you are enveloped in love. I know for some of you, it’s not … that holidays are stressful and anxious with a list of shoulds a mile long. Still, my hope for you, is that for a single moment, you can feel home.

For those of you collecting ornaments or supporting the arts or finding a tradition to call your own, I encourage you to look at Patience Brewster’s ornaments http://www.patiencebrewster.com/ornaments.html and consider adding one to your collection. For years, my grandmother bought my mom a single santa from a certain designer. It was sad when the last Santa was purchased and when we knew their would not be any more. Almost twenty years ago my mom asked me which type of Christmas “thing” I would like to collect and I answered “angels.” Every year she gives me a new one at Thanksgiving. She will do that until the last angel.

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Young Arts and My Covered Buttons

I was in fourth grade when my teacher, Sr. Joan, told me that the art of growing up meant learning to “cover your buttons.” She also told me that getting my period would mean that for the rest of my life I would be terribly sick every month for just about the rest of my life. She did not lie.

Anyway, when Sr. Joan told me about covering buttons, she put her palm over her heart and said, “You gotta learn to protect it.” I guess even then I was someone who wore my heart on my sleeve.

Today, I told my oldest son about button covering. He spent over a year preparing for the YoungArts (http://www.youngarts.org) competition. When the news broke today that he wasn’t a finalist, it was a lump in throat moment. It just was. Two of my students did make it and that made me super happy and I am exceptionally proud of them and to be honest the reason that I make all sixty of my AP studio students submit work to YoungArts is not because they might win. It’s because they very likely might lose and learning to lose in the arts in different than losing in sports and it is a lesson best learned early.

I told Luke that when it comes to jurors that one needed thick skin and an open heart and he needed to learn to cover his buttons. Truth is, Luke will find another way, and like the organization tweeted to him when they saw the photo of him that I posted, “#youbeyou.”

One of my students who won, just a week ago, decided to scrap art and become a food scientist. Sometimes the universe has a way of deciding for you. That happened to Lizzie this week. She tried out for her volleyball team, the one she played with last year. She tried out with over 100 other girls and 30 of them got offers. Lizzie was ranked number 32. Learning to cope with the feeling that you just aren’t “good enough” is a really tough lesson, but if it’s one that you can stare in the face and then just shrug and say #youbeyou, then it’s a good one. Like I said, sometimes the universe decides for you, and this time it decided that Lizzie would be better off in the hands of a different coach and that if she embraces that, more opportunity will come. And for Luke, it decided, it was not his time.

Know this, Luke. You are brilliant and talented beyond measure. You light up the room just by being in it and one day the rest of the world will know too. Just because I feel like the world should know now, I am sharing (with his permission), below, his audition and a few of his paintings. Cheer him on from the sidelines because he just learned the art of covering up the hurt and if you know that feeling too, if you have ever been told that you just aren’t quite good enough, then watch this and be the silent audience to not disappointment, but to the art of bouncing back. And three cheers and a giant group hug to Kate Sarner, Luke’s mentor, theater director and hero, who has taught him not to cover those buttons, but to leave ’em raw.

The monologue: http://youtu.be/-Jlh7QbKf_8

A glimpse at his amazing painting:

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Good to You

“We were together. I forget the rest.” -Walt Whitman 

kelly

We have been in school for two months now and it feels like a year already. Two months without drawing or writing or baking. Two months of chasing in a city that has decided that the best way to do construction is all at once, making every path I take a two hour venture. Two months of watching two kids play volleyball, rehearse for a musical, study for algebra, and avoid my attempts to Snapchat (officially the first app that makes me feel like an old person).

Two months outside of myself. Two days in a row I found myself at the grocery store listening to other moms lose their cool. One woman was shopping with a newborn and two older children. The boy wandered away a few steps and his mom snapped about how she should be able to look away for “two seconds” to “take care of business” without having to worry about his “antics.” At the second store, a mom, after being asked about fifty times, “Can we get this? Can we have this?” finally screamed, “NO ONE ASK ME FOR ONE MORE THING. JUST STOOO-OP,” and I wondered if that is how I sound most of the time, during these months when we are racing out the door so early in the morning and then spending our evenings skipping meals to jump from one thing to the next.

Finally, last night I cleaned up the house and cooked a real dinner. Lizzie asked if we were having company. Sigh.

I need to know how to be more patient and also more selfish all at once. At school, my students have started to write their artist statements and the one I read today said that the only reason he makes art at all is to pass the class. I wonder if the only reason I do anything is do pass the day. Yesterday I made two samples for my drawing class so that I could demo stuff about composition and design and as I lost myself in lemon drawings, I wondered if I am wasting my talent or missing opportunities or if I should be waking up at four to meditate.

I resort to drinking brandy old fashioneds and going to bed at nine. Yesterday, my son woke me out of a dead sleep to tell me that he was hungry. The jolt of “I am awake” kept me wake until wee hours until I drifted off again, only to be woken my the geriatric dog, who peed on me.

Fall, usually my favorite season, has found me falling apart. The house, my friendships … my willingness to stay outside of myself and watch bad television or hours of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with Quinn, all because anything that demands more of the inner me feels too overwhelming.

I distract myself by ordering things on Zulily and scrolling through Pinterest, pinning dream studios and houses that are wide open and not crumbling, scrolling through Instagram and Facebook like perhaps there is a hidden secret there, an app that will tell me how to be me again. In a brief moment of belief, I considered finding a trainer that would maybe work out with me at four AM and then I brushed the thought off and went back to my numerology app. I am failing in just about every way possible.

On November 2nd the clock changes and we fall back and I am wondering if in that fake gift of an hour that I can fall back into myself … that for one hour I can be me again and that I will be allowed to be silly or loved or lost in a drawing that only matters to me. Often, I find myself humming the Avett Brothers lyric, “I want to be good to you.” I have always thought that I was singing that to my family, to my kids, to Sean, but I think the reason it keeps bubbling up as a mantra is because I am meant to sing it to myself.

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Eddie, Me, and the One Time I Never Spoke Up

I was seven when my parents transferred me to a private, mixed age level school. Before that, I went to a neighborhood school. The first time I remember actually feeling empathy mixed with fear was in kindergarten, when our fat, bully of a principal, wearing his too-tight, grey polyester suit and black horn rimmed glasses, strode into our classroom, scowling, and picked up a boy named Eddie by the armpit. The principal started to scream and curse at this skinny five year old boy and then in front of my entire class, beat the shit out of that kid. I made eye contact with Eddie and could see a single tear escape the corner of his eye. He remained completely silent otherwise. I was wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh dress with a red bow tie and (my mother didn’t notice) I never wore it again.

That story still stirs up hate in my heart. It sat with me the rest of my time at that school and I still think of it sometimes, when I am painting. Sometimes my need to paint comes from that place of injustice. Still, I have never directly painted about Eddie. Awhile back, I Googled the principal’s name and learned that he had passed away quite some time ago and when I read that I felt like spitting on something.

I never, coming home from school, told my parents about the incident. I never talked about how scary a lot of things that happened to me in that classroom were … how a boy named Erik tied me up at recess and stole my shoes, how I was the only kid who knew how to read already and my teachers would make me read aloud in front of everyone else, who in turn, teased me relentlessly, how a girl named Meg continually stuck out her bratty tongue at me and spread hateful rumors.

Years later, even at the private school, I never told them about how a boy named Damian made fun of my lunch box and how all the kids teased me because my mom made my clothes instead of buying them. I would get on the bus and kids would say, “Oh that’s such a nice dress,” and when I would thank them they would role their eyes and say, “I guess your mother made that. She must not know how to shop.” I also never told them about the horrible abuse my brother suffered on that same bus, not just from kids, but from the bus driver too. I can still hear that bus driver threaten my brother and it feels like drums at a parade.

None of those things really lingered with me for too long … only Eddie’s story did and so this past Saturday when I read the Adrian Peterson story and then foolishly chose to look at the photos of his torturous act, I became deeply depressed and angry. It doesn’t help that I also have a four year old son, so that imagining the abuse is that much clearer for me. I have been incredibly sad about the fact that people are debating this issue as if there is an issue up for debate and also troubled that it has also become somewhat of a talking point that revolves around southerners and race.

Every single person I know personally, that has been abused, is white, and they are from right here, not the south. Since I have been ranting about the NFL on Facebook, I have had countless conversations with friends, co-workers, and even childhood friends, many of them sharing their own stories of abuse. One guy told me that he used to have to go into a closet with his teacher and pull his pants down, lie across her lap, and she would beat him with a heavy gold ruler. Another friend told me about how her siblings would have to choose, each morning, if they wanted to be hit with a belt or a hairbrush. When I asked her what she chose, she said, “the belt.” I just worry that if everyone out there thinks that “whipping kids” is primarily a southern, christian, or black thing, then the kids who aren’t those things, will be even more scared to speak out.

If I didn’t tell my parents about something that happened to a boy I hardly knew, I can imagine that there are countless adults out there who have never, ever been brave enough to face their past, their accusers, or to even tell their best friend or their children,  about what they went through. Though I vehemently oppose any kind of corporal punishment (I almost had a lady at Target locked up for swatting her three year old) I am, at this point, not even addressing discipline. I am addressing mental and physical abuse, which oftentimes does not end for children once they are adults. I have a friend whose mother still hits her, and she is forty.

I don’t know how to fix this for anyone. It bothers me that I can’t fix it.

I think it is because of Eddie that I have always had a distaste for rules and authority. It is because of Eddie that when I took religion classes at a Catholic high school, I argued relentlessly with my teachers about their lessons. It is because of Eddie that I have extreme impatience with any type of violent behavior. Eddie has probably changed the way I parent. A five year old boy, the color of caramels, with big brown eyes, and a striped velour shirt, changed me forever.

Once, in high school, I went with my teacher to a Zen temple to mediate and the zen master straightened my spine, gently, with a ruler, and I never went back. I have never, ever liked being told what to do. As a teacher now, I avoid as many should’s as possible and have to go into most meetings with the silent mantra “don’t say anything, don’t say anything.” This hardly works. I can’t help myself.

Eddie is likely still alive and I am positive he doesn’t know I exist … that all these years I have kept his shame in my heart. My hope is that Adrian Peterson’s story will change the way some people parent. Maybe the best case scenario is that he changes his ways and then leads by his miraculous example. Maybe he can, in fact, “fix it.” I am doubtful that is going to happen because just a few months ago I stood behind a woman in a coffee shop who talked to her two year old like he was a beastly enemy and took his cookie away for because she didn’t like that he was walking in a circle.

Sometimes, I think about just packing up the kids and moving to some remote location in Alaska. We would have sled dogs and an igloo and I’d make enough money to get by … we’d leave everything behind and just be surrounded by sky and rabbits and the occasional friendly guest. Sometimes, the human race is just too much for me.

I will tell you a secret. Each year our school makes t-shirts and the faculty members are supposed to wear them on the first day. I never wear mine. This is for a variety of reasons  (the font is always bad, I don’t look good in red, boobs and a crew neck equal vomit), but the biggest reason is so that I stand out to the kids who notice that I don’t play by the rules either. Each year, after the opening day assembly, at least one kid comes into my room and starts to cry about the stress of the assembly, the noise, the pressure. They find me.

Maybe I can’t fix it all. Maybe I can’t fix the Adrian Peterson mentality or the asshole on Twitter who thinks all kids deserve “the ROD.” I feel like I can, however, be a safe place for some kids to land and that I can continue, each day, to make every kid I work with, feel valuable. Maybe that is enough. Especially if the alternative is Alaska. My parents would miss me and I don’t know how to knit.

It’s okay to love people, you know? Really love them. It takes the sting out.

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Fab Four (a birthday letter)

qcard bday

I have been carrying around the same school ID card since the day I was hospitalized in 2010. I went to school, got my picture taken. I was wearing lavender. Then, over lunch, I went for an ultrasound and did not return to school for a month. Ask any teacher what the worst months are for having kids and they will answer “the first week of September and the middle of May.” Somehow, I managed to do both. 

When I think about your birth I see myself, sitting alone on a hospital bed, late at night, after all my visitors had gone home and I was left with just the buzz of the antepartum unit, watching Weeds on Netflix, and singing to my premature belly, quietly. I sang Leona Naess’s Ballerina over and over and over again:

I didn’t think I wanted you
But I want you now
Was so empty in me
Feel you crashing down
Into the empty world
The music stops
I want to rescue want to scream out loud
You will always be mine

So so sorry
Just come back for me now
So so sorry
Just come back to me now

I am really so glad, Quinn, that you decided to stay. Our lives are so much richer and funnier and smarter because of you. At four, you are chatty and quiet all at once. You are madly in love with your stuffed friends, Teddy and Bunny and Pupford and today, you fell for a robotic goldfish from your uncle Chris. You named it Globefish and you grabbed him from his bowl and carried him in your lap the entire way to drop Lizzie off at volleyball practice and pick up William from volleyball practice(you have seen more volleyball in your four short years than most adults ever have). You wanted to remember to take a bath with Globefish when we came back from all of our chasing, but you fell asleep in the car, Starbucks chocolate chip cookie remnants plastered to your lips, and the last thing you said as you drifted off was, “I want a taco.” 

You scared us quite a bit last week, when you were rushed to Children’s Hospital and admitted for a severe asthma attack that came out of nowhere. Once stabilized, you fully enjoyed being in the hospital, peeing in a bottle, “room service,”and waking around with your IV pole. To watch you go from barely breathing and the threat of the ICU,to a few days later, having the energy and breath to blow out all four of your candles, is yet another reminder that all things are possible. No one knows that lesson better than you do and you seem to keep showing me again and again and again:

hospitalqday

 In the morning, Dad will take you to school to share four photos exactly and celebrate your big day. I told Sean that he would have to sing the Montessori birthday song, and after all this time, he did not know what that was (I always did the birthday celebrations at school, but you, kiddo, September 3rd? First day of class? Not gonna happen). I sang, LOUDLY, to Sean, “The earth goes around the sun, tra-la-la, the earth goes around the sun,” but he did not let me get to four verses. He stopped me midway through tra-la-la, with the words, “Please stop.” If ever I were to be a fly on the wall, it would be to witness your dad singing tra-la-la. 

So happy birthday, sweet boy. I wish you could remain four for more than a year. From past experience, I will tell you that it is an especially great year, one in which you drift between toddlerhood and childhood, hanging on to the wonder of one and reaching for the magic of the next. You getting more curious with each passing day. This week you asked me to name body parts that you did not know the words for (collarbone, vertebrae, and testicle … thanks for that, by the way) and then replied, “I just have so many round things,” which made me laugh and also recall one of my favorite quotes from “A Sketchbook with Voices,” that reads, “Our heads are round so that our thinking can change direction.” I hope that as you grow, you continue to wonder, to explore, to change your mind about things, to see things in a new light. 

As for me, you are my light, and through you, I see things anew every single day and I am grateful for that beyond measure. It’s why every mom cries when they sing, “You are my sunshine.” Just the mere thought of you ever going away, just the suggestion of it through the whisper of a lyric, is enough to bring us to our knees. You, my dear, are powerful and amazing, and I love you. You are, as Leona Naess sings, “my cupcake and my earthquake.” 

 

 

 

 

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