The Right Man

When the one place I’d been taught my entire life to feel the most secure, safe, and certain suddenly became uninhabitable for me, I wanted an exit plan that would ensure the love of those I was inevitably leaving behind remained intact. It’s taken years to navigate, but based on the security, safety and certainty on which I stand today, I feel nothing but gratitude.

I was raised inside of a strictly dogmatic theology: right and wrong, black and white, good and evil were as clearly defined for me as the ten words on my weekly second grade spelling test. And just like the learning of my weekly vocabulary words required writing sentences for a grade to be sure I understood every word’s derivation, pronunciation and correct usage, so, too, did my parents and Sunday School teachers require a regular repetition of concepts, scripture stories, and commandments. 

I was the poster child for GOOD GIRL. I made every decision only through prayer; I participated in service opportunities at Olympic athlete levels; I turned every frown upside down and changed it to a smile; I quoted scriptures as off-handedly as the ABC song; I was a youth leader, showing my peers through my example exactly how easy it was to live righteously; I taught Sunday School for every single age bracket the packed Sunday service schedule could allow; I served a full-time mission. In Russia. I learned Russian to teach the Russian people in their own language everything I was told I know about God and Jesus Christ and the salvation of your soul. I know all about your soul, where it came from, why it’s here, where it’s heading next, and what you can do about it. I baked my own bread, could sew my daughter dresses, married the “right” man, kept a spotless house, served others without ever once thinking of myself, studied my scriptures, taught the 5 year-olds to be like Jesus, taught the 25 year-olds to believe in things unseen, taught the 55 year-olds to be less judgmental. 

The right man I married stopped attending church. No one at church asked why. They all made righteously safe assumptions about his whereabouts — must be at the hospital, obviously making rounds, so studious that one, God bless him. 

The right man I married yelled at me when I spoke to him without invitation, when I entered his (our) office unannounced — the computer and his access to porn lived there in the dark, when my (our) daughter cried (“Make her stop, goddammit!”), when his laundry wasn’t folded to his liking, when I wasn’t to his liking, when I weighed only 90 pounds and couldn’t feed myself or my baby or him but he wasn’t going to take care of me.

Do you hear me?

He wasn’t. 

Milestone Moments

I was this week old when I had my first taste of alcohol. Ever. Let me do the math for you. My half birthday was on October 1, making me 47.5 years old. My unlearning, letting go, and reidentification of Self as told me into Self as I create and choose me has now occupied a decade, plus at least four years more. There have been a handful of milestone moments in this my unlearning phase of the life I’m living. 

If I provide you a checklist it might be easier for you to follow along and keep track.

☑ Stop wearing the clothes I’ve been told to wear

☑ Start wearing sleeveless tops, shorts, and skirts above the knee

☑ Stop weekly attendance at Sunday service

☑ Breathe deeply when church members openly judge me and call my attention to my sins

☑ Actively engage in debriefing conversations with my daughter about what she is being told and taught and wonder if the entire world might actually stop spinning if we walk away entirely

☑ Remind myself my daughter’s accusation of me wearing a bikini is a sin is not my daughter’s thought but one planted in her by someone else

☑ Imagine, again, a world in which we live without the weight of what is expected, required and obligatory

☑ Show up to therapy and talk out loud to the sofa across from mine using language I was never taught correlated to marriage, relationship, and love. Words like rape and sexual abuse

☑ See that healing a wound I didn’t know I had will require behaving in a way I didn’t know I was allowed and I will, like Eve, sin in the eyes of others but in my own eyes, heart and soul understand the necessity of knowing I am not broken and be known by a man

☑ Go DEEP with the guilt of my learned bad behavior, spend countless sleepless nights praying and pleading with my God for forgiveness, understanding, and desperation that He not take my daughter from me, that the earth remain intact and not swallow me whole, that my sins not be as visible as Hester’s scarlet letter

☑ Drop therapy for making me feel worse on the other side of a session on the couch than progressing or understanding anything

☑ Know in my heart that constantly revisiting the past is no way to create a future

☑ Go back to school. Sure. Get a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology because that’s the obvious thing to do

☑ Reinvent God and my entire relationship to Him. Wow. He is so much bigger than I ever understood before

☑ Say “FUCK” for first time

☑ Recognize that using the words SHIT, FUCK AND DAMN take practice to incorporate into my vernacular — for others’ comfort and my own

☑ Send my daughter to university in a city too far from my heart

☑ Begin what may be a lifetime of grieving the vacancy left in her absence, a void from 18 years of daily loving no longer with me

☑ Sell my home and downsize into a city that is too small to hold me

☑ Move across the country to check off others’ dream of LA living that was never my dream

☑ Keep dreaming

☑ Survive LA

☑ Complete my graduate studies

☑ Fall in love with being with my Self

☑ Reconnect and reinvent relationship with my brother, be fully and truly seen by him — the first and only member of my family to reach out to me for understanding, for loving and being together by choice

☑ Receive my dad’s cancer diagnosis with a criss-cross applesauce move back across the country, carrying and keeping only that which fits into the Civic. Nothing else matters.

☑ For the first time in my 47 years come home as my Self, wholly, fully, in my loving

☑ Live simply as the presence of Love, loving both my parents exactly where, who and why they are. I am Love. And I am loving every single minute.

☑ Meet Grief again and in an entirely new way on June 29

☑ Take a deep breath and taste a mimosa because the earth won’t swallow me, my mom still loves me, my daughter will always be mine and I will keep creating me. With love. As love. Only always.

Cloud Gazing

Cloud-gazing is a time-honored portal of childhood and I have accessed this portal throughout my entire adult life — each time I need entry to another place or even moment in time. Sometimes I look beyond the obvious elephants and ships on the ocean to what message the image might carry for me in this exact moment of our meeting. What is it this bunch of balloons needs me to see, remember or to do as our paths cross only once moving away from each other faster than we are toward. If the balloons drift past too quickly for me to comprehend or to divine their meaning, I know a dragon or a butterfly will shortly be along to tell me again, as often as need be for me to remember. Until the next time I seek solace in the itchy grass beneath my neck and embracing my legs, each blades’ edges reminding me to be here now, to look around while being grounded. What message is here for me this time? And for what purpose will I return again and again — my lifetime membership to this playground of possibility renewed automatically with each use of the portal. 

He wasn’t much for dreaming or for cloud-gazing that man to whom I said, “I do.” He wasn’t much for anything or anyone not expressly connected to his own advancement or to his cloudless story of his own creation. He was easily provoked and always disgruntled. The tea leaves’ reading he pursued was dark and alone. Invitations to join him in agreement, pity and emotional poverty I readily declined. My sky still filled with clouds and my ground still covered with grass. His sky was always dark and stormy and his ground was no place I wanted to willingly lie down and get wrapped up. But I felt trapped, held by the gravitational pull of covenants and commandments, the seal of others’ disapproval and disappointment, the obligation of procreation and parenthood.

He disowned his own grandparents. 

Made it legal, got a notary public to sign and seal the letter of declaration in his own handwriting. He told me to sign my name, as if this were mine together with him, this burden of story and dark clouds and wanting that which he thought should be his, entitled by way of internal suffering. To exist in his orbit was to co-exist with a reckless child, out of control, lacking any sense of personal responsibility or decency toward others. Only ever MINE I DESERVE THIS YOU OWE ME I DID THIS ON MY OWN I DON’T OWE YOU ANYTHING and so on. Exhausting. Always.

I refused to sign his letter. An isolated act of independence. One that did not go unnoticed or without punishment, retribution, retaliation. Always his clouds conjured payback because his storm was always keeping a scorecard. His ground is strewn with hard objects against my bare feet; I always step with caution on that ground. I’ve been injured so many times when I skipped lightly, mistaking rocks and gravel for fresh grass.

His mother didn’t know to tread any way but with love. I can imagine the depth of her pain when the phone call came from her own mother — and not from her own son — about the notarized letter she had just received in the mail. 

I had two notifications of the receipt of that letter I did not sign:

1. A package in the mail containing a beautiful one-of-a-kind matryoshka we purchased in Russia for his grandparents. There was no note included.

2. A phone call from his frantic mother certain there must be a mistake, a misunderstanding, a message she never received. 

His retribution for my not signing: explain to her myself the mind of her own son, which gets its directions from storm clouds, stony ground and a life story whose past, present and future are as dismal as the dark-inked signature of the notary.

My portal to that other place is well-worn and the clouds in my wished-for sky never see the storms that can’t escape me. 

Schooled

Sitting on the edge of my daughter’s raised bed, legs and heart hanging listlessly over the side, I watch her unpack and arrange her laptop, her Bluetooth speaker, and a small picture of us that will be her replacement of me for the up-until-now daily seeing and being with her face. Lost in my own thoughts I maintain a steady stream of encouraging babble, suggestions for low-maintenance succulents and whether any additional throw pillows might be needed, all as a coverup for my inability to confront in conversation what I do not understand or have control over in my own heart: That my actual heart is not coming home with me today. I am leaving her here amongst the just-purchased pillows, tiny succulents, color-coordinated organizing bins and shared bathroom. Here with strangers who will become friends, no way to get or give a hug, and innumerable opportunities to discover and access the truth of how truly remarkable she is. 

“Mom! That’s internal misogyny and you need to check yourself.” 

Her accusation brings my full attention back to a conversation I can’t repeat on a straight line. “I’m sorry. What did you just say?”

“You need to check yourself.”

“No, the part before that — the term you used. What was it you said?”

“Internal misogyny?” 

“Yes,” I hear the words linked together and something clicks together inside my head. “Tell me what that means,” even though the knowing at hearing the words has already informed me.

“It means you, yourself, are a misogynist. Against yourself. You were raised that way — think about it. Everything in the church has taught you that you weren’t as important or as worthy as a man. And you believe it, so you speak it, live it, repeat it.” 

Listening to her define and describe these words, and my experience to me, I hear the truthfulness, the shocking awareness of her rightness, and I weep. For me. For the numerous dots that are suddenly being connected, for the shame at being caught as the one minimizing, mistrusting, misbelieving myself.

Quietly I thank her for showing me myself and my opportunity to unlearn what I have been conditioned to be and wipe away my tears for the moment.

We finish the unpacking, the organizing, the putting away of what’s obvious and right in front of us and walk our way back across the cold-tiled floors of her now common area, through the carpeted co-ed hallways smelling of cardboard and congestion, down the completely packed and awkwardly silent elevators, spilling ourselves into the lobby on the need-an-ID side of the security desk. Here we have our final hug in this public space.

Walking away from my Heart I feel the strings begin to loosen, and I weep openly for the loss of perceived control, for the seeing of the strings that have been in my hands all along and with gratitude that at 18 my Heart outside of my actual body knows more than this 43 year-old still beating body with more strings yet to clip. 

Love Out Loud

Growing up in such a large family meant many things were certain:

1. There was never not noise and commotion

2. If you wanted seconds you had to hurry through your first serving

3. Everyone shared a bedroom with at least one other person

4. Gardening was how we fed ourselves and participation was not optional

5. We all sat down together for supper every night

6. Monday nights were reserved as family nights, no exceptions

7. “Emergencies” like bleeding, broken bones or illness earned you focused, and often immediate, attention from 1-2 stretched-way-too-thin parents

8. Bedtime was a three-ring circus operating precariously under the supervision of an always-distracted ringmaster

9. Anytime the arguing got loud enough to draw the attention of a neutral party, said neutral party would start singing my parents’ favorite hymn for just such an occasion: “There is beauty all around, when there’s love at home. There is joy in every sound, when there’s love at home” and their singing would be met with shouts of “SHUT UP!” from the arguing parties now being reminded that Love is not supposed to be so loud. But who wants to think about love when such injustices are being committed against you right here in the family room?!

Loud. Love actually is loud sometimes. At least that’s my experience in my family of ten: how could it ever be anything different than it was? Than it still is even today with all eight of us siblings grown with families of our own? We love out loud. It’s what we know to do because our parents loved us out loud through every “Make your bed” reminder; “It’s your turn to help with the dishes” warning; Saturday morning listening to Daddy singing “Old Man River” with his left arm draped on the open windowsill of his 1976 red Ford pickup truck while I sit quietly buckled into the middle seat feeling his bigger-than-life right arm bump against me every time he shifts gears; the steam escaping Mama’s old iron waiting alongside the hum of her Singer sewing machine stitching my dreams-come-to-life dresses; after-dark-only games of Ghost in the Graveyard with Daddy as both ghost and protector when his surprising roars scared me to tears; the turning of oft-turned front wheels against the gravel drive coming or going with yet another precious cargo driven by an exhausted chauffeur mother.

Love is loud.

I wouldn’t hear it any other way.

The Gardener

The potatoes need to be dug up. The long-dead green bean vines need to be pulled out and composted. The cucumbers haven’t been harvested in at least two weeks; their ability to materialize and then immediately engorge themselves on the vine is nothing short of magical. Sadly, the cukes we have eaten, no matter how small I pick them, are bitter and no amount of salt has been their salvation. And the tomatoes — we planted 14 of them, maybe six varieties, but 14 different plants. They’re prolific, to say the least. The squirrels and birds are getting well-fed on the abundant crop. I can’t eat them all. We talked about salsa, tomato soup or even spaghetti sauce, but haven’t picked more than three tomatoes since that wishful conversation three weeks ago. 

The ground is every bit as red as the heavy-laden plants, littered after the crowd dispersed and left their fruit behind to decay without attention because the gardener is gone. He’s not coming back to clean up the messiness of what he so meticulously planned and we then planted. His spreadsheets, order forms, lists, and labeled popsicle sticks now lie in piles I can’t find or make order out of the weeds in their wake.

The zinnias clambering all summer long for the front seat screaming, “SHOTGUN!” are now elbowing each other in the face and tumbling toward the ground, unable to stop the stampede they started and my attempts to fence them in again look paltry in comparison to the original vision of ordered tall down the middle, medium next, then shortest on the outside, cascading heights along both lengths of the flowerbed. Is this overgrowth and death and abundance just because it’s late August or is it because the master planner, the gardener, is gone? I know he’s not coming back. 

I love being in the garden, although double-edged for me. I feel closest to him there, weeding, transplanting, harvesting. And saddest for the same reasons.

I dug up all the potatoes. I started with the pitchfork but couldn’t dig without stabbing one spud on every plunge. The potatoes were too close to the surface; they were planted just before I got here. Helpers from elsewhere came to assist; to be directed and taught by the gardener: how to turn your soil, how to lay the yardstick to measure your stakes’ distance from each other, how to slip the string over the end of the opposite stake making the line taut, how to hoe down the row as you go and exactly what amount of space to leave between each hill, and how to bury them so completely to ensure their growth into brand new potatoes. 

Their greens were beautiful; the prettiest the gardener had ever seen. When he went away I kept watch, kept watering, kept talking to the buried spuds. There were potatoes popping above-ground! It was too soon. They were green like their tops — I had to bury them again, had to coax them back down, give them more time, do the work that the gardener trusted others to do but they weren’t deep enough. I could see evidence. Bucket after bucket after bucket of mulch I shoveled, hauled, dumped and spread. I laid a fresh and false blanket on top of the bed, urging the potatoes in whispered tones: Keep growing; it’s not time yet.

I laid aside the pitchfork and dropped down to my knees. I dug with my hands, cradling each potato to wipe it of the earth dirt clinging to its sides before tossing them into the now mulch-free buckets that buried them back down two months ago.

They aren’t all strong and mighty like a Russet is “supposed” to be, but the gardener worked through me to grow something in the end, something that we did together. And after the harvest buckets were hauled inside, I cried my own buckets of tears, weeping for the gardener whose harvest survives him but lies buried on the surface of the ground, visible beauty decaying, seeding, burying itself until it flowers again in its season.

The Best We Can

My dad died. But that didn’t happen in a day. There was all the stuff leading up to my dad dying: the Christmas diagnosis, the chemo treatments, the scheduled surgery, the excessively long recovery in the hospital, the restrictions in place because of Covid preventing us from even entering the hospital to be with him during said recuperation. And then the three phone calls: 

1. Your dad’s leak hasn’t repaired itself yet but I’m sending him home in three days’ time because he will heal better at home than here alone. It’s going to be a long slow process. I’ll talk with you soon; I’m off to the OR for the rest of the day.

2. Your dad is being moved back to ICU and probably being intubated. Oh and his heart stopped for eight minutes talk to you later, maybe? bye.

3. You need to come to the hospital right away; your dad’s heart stopped for another four minutes, hurry, don’t stop, come NOW.

Hurried phone calls, quick text messages, even faster than a heart beat prayers ascending, so many questions, too many thoughts, overcrowding emotions, hurrying up to slow down a goodbye.

He 

She 

We 

Are all really doing the best we can.

He — my dad — is doing the best he can to breathe, to heal, to beat in time with his desire to stay.

She — my mother — is doing the best she can to breathe, to hurt, to heal in time with her desire for him to be here with her.

We — my Self and siblings — are doing the best we can to breathe, to hold, to choose our parting words before the parting is gone, leaving a trail of should haves in its wake.

He — my dad — couldn’t sustain his own living will. 

She — my mother — couldn’t hold on to a heart whose beating isn’t her own.

We — my Self and siblings — couldn’t have imagined the single-file opening of parting through which we have now walked, exit option non-existent.

The best we can is shattering, heartfelt and unavoidable. 

“Any feeling fully felt leads to love,” says Gay Hendricks. 

“Just lead with love and there’s no need to feel your way back to it,” says I, my Self, my heart bursting open wide from its freshly-tender new room with a view, no door back to where it lived before, there is only an opening to a deeper place, it’s ahead of me and not behind. And 

He

She

We

Are all really doing the best we can right there.

The Best We Can

My dad died. But that didn’t happen in a day. There was all the stuff leading up to my dad dying: the scheduled surgery, the excessively long recovery in the hospital, the restrictions in place because of Covid preventing us from even entering the hospital to be with him during said recuperation. And then the three phone calls: 

1. Your dad’s leak hasn’t repaired itself yet but I’m sending him home in three days’ time because he will heal better at home than here alone. It’s going to be a long slow process. I’ll talk with you soon; I’m off to the OR for the rest of the day.

2. Your dad is being moved back to ICU and probably being intubated. Oh and his heart stopped for eight minutes talk to you later, maybe? bye.

3. You need to come to the hospital right away; your dad’s heart stopped for another four minutes, hurry, don’t stop, come NOW.

Hurried phone calls, quick text messages, even faster than a heart beat prayers ascending, so many questions, too many thoughts, overcrowding emotions, hurrying up to slow down a goodbye.

He 

She 

We 

Are all really doing the best we can.

He — my dad — is doing the best he can to breathe, to heal, to beat in time with his desire to stay.

She — my mother — is doing the best she can to breathe, to hurt, to heal in time with her desire for him to be here with her.

We — my Self and siblings — are doing the best we can to breathe, to hold, to choose our parting words before the parting is gone, leaving a trail of should haves in its wake.

He — my dad — couldn’t sustain his own living will. 

She — my mother — couldn’t hold on to a heart whose beating isn’t her own.

We — my Self and siblings — couldn’t have imagined the single-file opening of parting through which we have now walked, exit option non-existent.

The best we can is shattering, heartfelt and unavoidable. 

“Any feeling fully felt leads to love,” says Gay Hendricks. 

“Just lead with love and there’s no need to feel your way back to it,” says I, my Self, my heart bursting open wide from its freshly-tender new room with a view, no door back to where it lived before, there is only an opening to a deeper place, it’s ahead of me and not behind. And 

He

She

We

Are all really doing the best we can right there.

Pink Walls and The Partridge Family

Sweat drips off my face, my heart is pounding, and all I can think about is that 4th of July we spent together in New Mexico three years ago — wrapped together in the big red blanket from the trunk of my car watching the fireworks light up Albuquerque. Ha! I can never not start singing, “Point me . . . In the direction of Al-buh-ker-ke-e-e. . . I want to go ho-oh-ah-ome. I need to get ho-oh-ohm.” I love hearing your laugh melt into those beautiful tenor notes joining me by the “I need to get ho-oh-ohm” every single time.

Do you ever wonder about the Partridge Family? I mean really wonder about the impact that family and their bus had on popular culture? I only wonder about it sometimes because I like singing “Al-buh-ker-ke-e-e” and also because my sister had a crush on David Cassidy and a poster of him hung in our shared bedroom for at least a year. Last week I saw an image of a young Partridge Family era David Cassidy gracing a wall clock on a shelf in an antique shop. It made me smile.

Did I ever tell you about the time I took a bite out of my sister’s 45? Okay, this is definitely worth repeating. I was probably four or five years old and my sister had boy crushes on lots of teen dreams from the 70s, David Cassidy among them. Anyway, she had a collection of 45s and her own record player, which strikes me as odd only because she was so young. I mean, how old were you when you were noticeably experiencing crushes for the first time? I can’t remember even being aware of boys at the age of 9 but whatever. She definitely had her own records and posters hanging on the wall and I know because we shared a room — geez that bedroom was my everything. Did I tell you the walls were pink, like Pepto Bismal pink, but please whatever you do don’t ever give me Pepto Bismal because it makes me throw up, which I think is kind of the point of it, but honestly it’s so disgusting. Anyway, we had pink walls and pink gingham canopies with matching bedspreads and pillow shams and curtains on the windows. There wasn’t anything in that room that wasn’t touched by pink and I loved every bit of it.

So my sister had her records in a little record box with a push-button latch on the front and mostly I liked to push that button and spring open the latch and then click it shut and do it all over again because I didn’t care much for records. But once I was playing with the lock on the record box and opened the lid just to look at the 45s lined up shining black in a row, covered in their sleeves, black shiny side up for easy access. And it was shining up at me so I picked it up out of the box and turned it over and looked at the picture on the cover of the sleeve and the little record slid out of its envelope and into my little hands. And it was slick and smooth and the grooves of the record going round waaaanted to be touched and I was so excited just to hold it and hug it close to my chest because I was too little to play with records because I might scratch them.

I wasn’t wanting to scratch anything. But the biggest urge to TASTE overcame me and I lifted that 45 up like a sandwich to my mouth and closed my lips on either side of the record and took a bite. Into my mouth fell a little semi-circle the exact shape of my teeth’s circumference, and I promptly spit it into my hand and brushed it into the waste bin, smearing my own spit as I wiped my hands clean of any evidence of guilt. I placed the 45 back in its sleeve, and the sleeve back in the box, and pushed closed the box latch, and put the box back on her side of the room, and skipped out of our shared pink room, closing the door behind me, remembering only one thing: vinyl records do not taste as good as they look and if I could choose a poster for my pink wall it would have been of the Partridge Family Schoolbus. 

Growing Pains

My dad died in the middle of the night Monday morning. 

As a little girl I often woke in the middle of the night my legs hurting so much I would cry out in pain and into my room would come my daddy, with his soothing voice to calm me and take me in his arms to assure me everything was alright, that my legs were simply growing and that sometimes growing hurts. I can still feel the two extremities of those middle of the night moments: the exhaustion of my small body lying rigid and racked with pain, hot wet tears forcing their way through my closed lids, dropping off the short cliff at the corners of my eyes, cascading into cold pools inside my ear cavities coupled with my father calmly and gently massaging the calves of my little legs with rubbing alcohol, all the while reminding me that everything was alright, that sometimes growing bigger can hurt, but the hurt wouldn’t last, and that my legs would be stronger in the morning. 

At the time my daughter started experiencing growing pains of her own, she and I were living with my parents. When she cried out in the night it was my father who would go into her room, rubbing alcohol in-hand, with his familiar and soothing assurances of how okay everything was. Even after she and I moved into our own home, whenever those middle of the night pains showed up, my very little growing girl would phone her grandfather, waking him from his sleep, and he would get dressed, drive to our house with rubbing alcohol in-hand and calmly put her back to sleep with his soothing reminders of how much stronger she would be in the morning.

I will always remember sitting next to and holding my dad’s hand throughout the entirety of the middle of the night Saturday, hot wet tears silently leaking their way down my face, acutely feeling and aware of the two extremities of daddy’s moment: the physical exhaustion of his strong and courageous body racked with pain, tender tears of love in his eyes looking at me with lingering thoughts of what might be left to do, to say, to feel, to see, coupled with calm and gentle assurances from my heart to his that everything was alright, that letting go was okay, that his hurting won’t last, and that our love will be here in the morning, stronger than ever.