Three Things, Issue Fifty

ONE: RACHEL

I was nine years old and in third grade when my best friend, Rachel Owre, moved away and broke my heart. Rachel and I were quick soul sisters, both enamored with horses and books and scribbling our thoughts and pencil drawings in dog-eared notebooks we stashed in desk drawers at home. I had had good friends before, but Rachel was the first person who really “got” me. As a chubby, shy, awkward little girl and the youngest of seven, it was heady stuff to feel seen and understood by another. We hadn’t been friends for even a year before she left.

Rachel sent me her new address–somewhere far away on the east coast, Virginia, I think–and she and I exchanged a few letters after she left. Before long, the letters dwindled and eventually stopped and I went about my clumsy life, still dreaming of horses and books but more by myself than with anyone else. That summer, I built a fort in a corner of my backyard under the awning of three fir trees, the natural drape and swathe of their limbs creating a woodsy roof and a sense of seclusion. It was my clubhouse, a secret hideaway where I’d go to write and think and pretend I was the president of an exclusive club for girls who loved horses.

And just like that, Rachel moved back.

It was the start of fourth grade and I was thrilled to welcome back this beloved kindred spirit of mine. Suddenly, all was right in my little world again and I couldn’t wait to invite Rachel over to huddle together in our secret clubhouse and write stories. But Rachel Owre came back as Rachel Robinson.

Rachel’s parents were the first I knew to be divorced. Divorce was unusual in our suburban community during those years. If divorce was discussed at all, it was done in hushed whispers and nearly always between adults. Rachel didn’t talk about her parents’ split or her new father and her new (wonderfully alliterative) name, but I didn’t care. I was over-the-moon delighted to have my person back.

Suburban housewife style in the seventies ran the gamut from conservative frocks with rounded collars, cinched-in waistbands and full circle skirts to the newly-emerging hippie style with wide, bellbottom pants and patterned smocks. My own mother, who I thought looked like Elizabeth Taylor when I was very young, quickly eschewed skirts in favor of comfortable, stretchy pants and artsy blouses as the decade wore on. My misfit family tended to march to the beat of their own, very liberal and non-conformist drummer and my mother’s style reflected that.

It was a blustery Friday night in October when Rachel invited me over for dinner and a sleep-over at her new house with her new father and step-siblings. I was excited to spend time with my best friend and a little nervous at the prospect of having to be on my best behavior with these strangers. Rachel’s mom greeted me at the front door, complete with impeccably coifed hair, her tiny waist encircled in a trim, white belt that coordinated with the full skirt of her perfect dress and smart, white leather pumps. She was a stunning, flawless representation of Mad Men’s Betty Draper.

Their modest, tract-home rambler was filled with the aroma of dinner cooking and it wasn’t long before Rachel and I were called into the dining room to eat. Betty Draper and her Mr. Robinson husband, each sitting at their respective ends of the table, Rachel and I and her newly acquired siblings filling in the sides. We joined hands and bowed heads while Mr. Robinson recited grace before dinner. Even coming from a Lutheran minister’s family, this formality always made me uncomfortable. I closed my eyes, hoping my hands weren’t sweaty and pretended to pray.

Food was passed and plates were filled with Betty Draper’s chicken and dumplings. As much as my family cooked wonderful food, chicken and dumplings was a brand new thing for me. It smelled heavenly. As I dug into my serving, I silently swooned over how good it all tasted. And the dumplings! Like warm, tender bread balls soaked in a savory stew. I even managed to choke down a few of the mushy green peas I typically despised.

I cleaned my plate and washed it down with a chug of cold milk and searched for the serving bowl of chicken and dumplings. Politely, I asked if I could have a second helping. After all, Mr. Robinson was on his second and third dumpling and there was plenty left. Betty Draper flashed me a disapproving glance and begrudgingly shoved the bowl in my direction. My face grew red hot with shame–a shame I didn’t understand but knotted into a tight ball in my stomach and made me pray I could disappear. “Well, go on,” she barked, waiting for me to pick up the serving spoon. Rachel sat beside me, head down and wordless. I fished out the smallest remaining dumpling and put it on my plate. Rachel’s family and I choked down the rest of our dinner in uneasy silence.

Rachel and I spent the night in her basement, sharing a musty queen mattress, surrounded by shelves of old books and stacked board games. Mr. Robinson’s fishing and hunting gear stowed in a far corner, its forms casting eerie shadows on the walls and cobwebbed ceiling beams as I lay awake most of the night. I still imagine that very basement with the steep, creaky, wooden stairs leading from a door in the kitchen down to its murky depths every time I hear or read a horror story about bad things happening in basements.

It wasn’t long before Rachel moved again, this time for good and far away. After that dinner of her mother’s chicken and dumplings, we didn’t hang out as much. She never got to see my secret clubhouse nestled in the corner of my backyard beneath the thick canopy of evergreens.

And I never ate chicken and dumplings again. Well, until recently.

TWO: CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS

It was October and a recipe from Smitten Kitchen popped up on my social media newsfeed. Chicken and Dumplings, it read. Curious, I clicked on the recipe and scrolled down to read the reviews and comments. The best thing ever! someone swooned. On my regular rotation of cozy fall dinners! exclaimed another. Never fails to please the whole family!

Captivated and incredulous, I read through each of the comments and then the recipe and back again to the glowing comments. Before I knew it, I was back in time, sitting beside my best friend with her new family and her perfect mother’s delicious chicken and dumplings. The red-hot embarrassment searing my cheeks. The slap of shame. I shook my head to dislodge the memory and wondered how so many people actually ate chicken and dumplings with some regularity and enjoyed it?

I lived for many years with a secret but exhaustive list of forbidden foods that I would not touch. People around me marveled and praised my will power. Their praise fueled my disorder until there was never enough praise left. It’s taken hours of therapy to unravel my control issues around eating and how it defined me and my self-esteem. I am proud of the relationship I now have with food and eating but sometimes a seemingly innocuous recipe for Chicken and Dumplings reminds me of just how pervasive anorexia’s lasting influence can be.

I printed out Smitten Kitchen’s Chicken and Dumplings recipe, prepared a grocery list and made a plan. A Sunday dinner of Chicken and Dumplings was on the calendar.

With my favorite playlist on shuffle, I got to work that Sunday afternoon. Searing chicken thighs and rendering fat. Chopping and sautéing fragrant leeks and carrots and soft leaves of fresh tarragon. A pour of broth and milk, a stir of flour and an hour or so of simmer. I left out the gross, mushy peas. The house redolent and full of hearty aromas that invited you to pull up a stool, pour a glass of wine and sit for a bit. This Sunday, however, I was alone. Alone and on a mission.

The chicken stew nearly complete, it was time to make the dumplings. Flour, baking powder, salt and a bit of chicken fat. Golf-ball sized blobs nestled onto the stop of the bubbling chicken and vegetables. Cover and wait until doubled in size. I peered into the Dutch oven after 20 minutes and decided it was time. I pushed aside the dumplings and spooned the stew into my bowl. I carefully placed two dumplings on top of that. Proud of my creation and knowing the emotional heft it held, I snapped a photo of the bowl and posted it to my Instagram story. “I have a whole story about chicken and dumplings”, I wrote. “I’ll tell you about it later.”

But for now on this Sunday evening, it was about me and my bowl of chicken and dumplings. This beautiful food I had prepared from scratch on my own, with love and the intent of nourishment. With the hope of healing some remnants of shame from a dinner long, long ago. The stew–sublime, perfectly balanced, rich flavors of chicken with notes of tarragon. And the dumplings?

Meh.

I wasn’t a fan of the dumplings. They were tasty, as I’m sure most dumplings are, but I found myself pushing them aside in favor of the rest of the dish. I wondered how Betty Draper’s dumplings compared to mine. What was it that made them so delicious that night around their dinner table? I sat with my bowl and finished it and got a little bit more, thinking of Rachel’s mother the whole time, wondering if she was still alive and how Rachel had faired through the divorce and the moving and the rest of her life. Did she ever think of me? Would she even remember that night around her dinner table?

Leftovers packed away and in the refrigerator, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Chicken and Dumplings, now just another recipe, another food to eat or not eat.

Its power of shame and emotion beautifully, mindfully extracted from the soft dumplings and left in my bowl.

THREE: THE STORIES WE TELL

I first heard Portland-based author Lidia Yucknavitch say “I am not the story you made of me” at a writing workshop I took with her a couple years ago.

In my work as a yoga teacher and Wellness Coach, I hear countless stories from many people each and every week. I am continually amazed at how attached we humans are to our stories and how we limit and punish ourselves with these often false narratives. Imagine what we lose in the midst of our allegiance to stories that hold no truth for us.

My arms are too short for yoga.

I need people to like me.

I can’t lift heavy weights because I was a high school cheerleader. 

Meditation and going within just don’t work for me. I need to stay busy.

I don’t deserve to be happy.

I’m not enough.

If I just lose five/ten/twenty pounds…

I can’t eat chicken and dumplings.

Each one of us has stories–lots of stories–that we tell ourselves every day. Some we have lugged around for decades from our formative years, those stories others have built around and about us for their own comfort and convenience that we accept without question. Other stories we adhere to in an effort to avoid pain. There are stories that are convenient and comfortable for us, but not necessarily true.

“I am not the story you made of me” is what kept repeating in my mind as I remembered the dumplings and as I prepared my own on that recent Sunday afternoon.

“We don’t have to accept the stories we inherit, the ones that tell us who we’re supposed to be. We can stand up and say no at any point, even if we’ve been saying yes our entire lives. It’s never too late. We can always reject the story placed on top of us, and we can always revise and destroy one story and restore another. It’s a never-ending possibility.” ~ Lidia Yucknavitch

It’s your narrative. Own it. Take time to make sure it’s true and that it reflects the highest, very best version of you.

Be brave enough to make your revisions.

Three Things, Issue Forty-Nine

I opened her email, happy that she had thought to check in on me. She mentioned the “triggering headlines” splashed throughout the media about the alleged sexual misconduct of the most recent Supreme Court nominee. She shared how she has finally found some peace surrounding the sexual assaults she had experienced.

“And yeah—rapey men,” I wrote back. “I feel like I dodged a major bullet, having worked and played in such male-dominated fields since I was a young teenager and escaped without a rape story,” In parentheses–almost like a casual afterthought–I went on to recount an experience of being held down by a man I had a crush on. I finished by saying how sad I felt for the millions of women who have had to live with the memories of such shame and violence.

You know, other women.

ONE: TERRY

He seemed different from the rest of the roadies. Tall, with a confident swagger and shaggy, blonde hair–he could have been mistaken for the lead singer of a band, rather than part of the crew. My friend, Steve, introduced him to me and I felt his eyes take in my body with a hunger that made me blush. “I’m Terry,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling as he grinned and shook my hand. My entire arm buzzed with an energy I had never felt before.

“He’s an asshole,” Steve told me later. “Stay away from him.” I laughed his opinion off, figuring that he had noticed the chemistry between Terry and I and was jealous. It was no secret that Steve had always been a little sweet on me and I had never reciprocated his feelings. “Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”

At seventeen, I was a virgin and had already spent a couple of years hanging out with local rock and roll bands with my best girlfriend and Steve. I had found my happy place–all three of us had–a refuge away from the dysfunction of our respective family homes. A place where we belonged. The guys in the bands were cute and sexy, but largely unavailable. My bestie and I, like little sisters to these exciting older men with their guitars and microphones.

It was a warm spring afternoon when Steve and I were driving about, likely picking up equipment and supplies for an upcoming weekend gig. My best friend, relegated to home that day and not with us. “We have to pick up Terry,” Steve told me, and I felt a rush of excitement flush through my veins. Terry got in the back seat of the red Impala and the three of us chattered on about the band and the weather and what we were going to eat later on.

I don’t remember why we stopped at the house we stopped at, or even exactly where it was. It was unfamiliar to me, but I plopped down on the sofa in the living room while Steve left and busied himself with other things. Terry handed me a beer and sat down beside me. We began talking and I enjoyed the gentle flirtation between us. He was cute–cute enough for me to ignore the stale cigarette smoke on his breath. Terry put his hand on my leg and I felt that familiar charge of energy surge through me again. He leaned over and kissed me and I was thrilled.

At seventeen, I was a virgin but I loved kissing. Kissing boys was something I could spend hours doing. Terry was older, though–by four or five years, at least–a maturity that both frightened and intrigued me. As we kissed, Terry become more insistent, shoving his tongue to the back of my throat and beginning to press his body onto mine. We both fell back on the sofa, Terry on top of me. There was a point at which something changed in him–like a switch that was flipped that I didn’t understand, but viscerally felt. His hands shoved roughly up over my breasts and under my bra and I instinctively pushed them away. “You’re a little tease, aren’t you?” he sneered. The weight of his body and the shift in his demeanor panicked me. I struggled to breathe and turned my head away as he tried to continue to kiss me. Terry grabbed my hand and pressed it into his crotch as he began to unbutton his jeans. “No. Stop.” I said. I wanted to be nice, to let him know it wasn’t his fault, but I couldn’t breathe and I was terrified.

Be careful, don’t make them mad, my mother said.

Steve walked back into the room and everything stopped. I couldn’t tell you if it had been ten minutes or two hours. Terry sat up, took a swig off his beer and glared at me, shaking his head. He leaned over and hissed in my ear, you’re just a stupid little girl, you know. His breath was full of beer and cigarettes, disgust and irritation.

I’m sorry, I told him.

The three of us piled back into the red Impala and drove away, an uncomfortable silence filling the space between. I sat in the front seat and struggled to blink back tears as I stared out the window. Shame and embarrassment wrapped around my shoulders. I felt Steve’s eyes on me, a mix of disappointment and concern. I never saw Terry again. He was fired from the band, something about stealing equipment.

I told you so, Steve said later. I know, I said.

TWO: KRISTOFFER

At twenty-one, I was finally coming into my own. Or so I thought. My dirty little secret–my anorexia–resulting in an attractively flat stomach, narrow, boyish hips and no discernible breasts whatsoever. The boob thing–that was okay, I thought, a small sacrifice to pay in order to finally gain the admiration of family, friends and strangers, all of whom openly approved of my newly svelte figure.

Fresh out of my first, long-term relationship and finally old enough to go to the clubs we so urgently desired, my bestie and I found our way back to the music and the bands we had become acquainted with as teenagers. I was “legal” now, a hair model for a Seattle salon, immersed in edgy, punk rock and New Wave fashion trends and quickly becoming adept at masquerading a certain worldliness and hipster vibe that brought me the attention I craved.

Kristoffer was the bass player in one of Seattle’s most popular bands. Years prior, the lead singer and I had shared bouts of consensual, clandestine trysts in backstage broom closets, but now Kristoffer was openly courting me, like a legitimate girlfriend. More dark and brooding than the usual blonde pretty boys I preferred, I could see Kris watching me from the stage as the band played their set. He’d seek me out during their breaks, pressing his body close to mine, whispering in my ear me how attractive I looked. He sent me sweet Valentines and flowers and invited me to concerts where he took me backstage and introduced me to his famous friends.

He shared a two bedroom apartment in Ballard with the guitar player of another Seattle band, and my bestie and I would often stop by after a night of club-going to drink wine and watch old movies with Kristoffer and his roommate. The first time I watched  “It’s A Wonderful Life” was on a icy night in December, curled up in Kris’ apartment.

After I moved to Wallingford, a nearby neighborhood, my visits to Kristoffer’s apartment became more frequent and usually by myself. Our attraction was mutual and intense. We’d kiss and make-out for awhile until eventually I was giving Kris blowjobs on the sofa while his roommate played guitar in the next room. I’d stay fully clothed and he’d force my head down into his lap and hold it there until I could barely breathe. My neck ached and I’d feel that familiar sense of panic rise up again, but I figured it was just the way these things went. A few weeks later, with his roommate gone for the evening and plans for a nice dinner together, Kris unbuttoned my blouse and unhooked my bra. He fingered the fabric of my bra, immediately noticing the thick padding on the cups and my small breasts underneath. “What is this?” he spat out angrily. “What do you mean?” I asked him, already wishing I could disappear. “You lied to me!” Kris said, his voice filling with indignant rage, his face reddening, looking so unlike the man I thought I knew. “You deceived me! You’re fake! How dare you do this to me?”

I’m sorry, I told him and slunk out of the apartment, alone.

Desperate to rekindle the sweetness we once shared, I saw Kris one more time after that. I promised myself I’d swallow my shame and forget his bitter accusations about my body–my sham of a body that had let him down. We had sex–awful, horrible sex. Kristoffer was impatient and rough while I tried to cover my chest in shame and pretend to enjoy it all. He fell asleep and in silent darkness I pulled on my clothes and drove home.

You’re not so pretty when you’re drunk, my mother said.

THREE: TELEVISION

By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had built myself a respectable career in television production and broadcasting. Within a handful of years, I had worked my way up from a part-time graveyard shift master control operator to crew chief, overseeing a staff of a dozen or so broadcast technicians. I loved working in television–it reminded me of the music business with all of its buttons and knobs, flashing gauges and pulsing meters. The thrill and immediacy of live broadcasts. I was one of just a few women working in our department and I had developed a comfort level working with so many men. We were all pals–I knew their wives and kids and we’d hang out and party together. I felt like one of the guys. I was proud to be considered a “guy’s girl”.

The station I worked at was an independent channel, not affiliated with one of the three major networks at the time. It seemed we were forever under the threat of being bought and sold by new investors, our jobs always hanging by a thin thread. Tensions would run high as gossip trickled through the grapevine, each one of us always on the lookout for an opportunity for a better job before we were forced out. I was already moonlighting at a post-production house on the other side of town, but couldn’t afford to quit my day job quite yet.

“You’d be surprised at just how many people here keep guns in their lockers,” one of my crew members shared with me. I had just told him of my fear of guns during a discussion of the target practice he’d just come from. I was alarmed, but chose to interpret this information as just his way to add some shock value to his comments. He was like that–always with a bit of unpredictable crazy flashing in his eyes. Silly boys, I thought as I sighed and went back to work.

A few weeks later, I had to address a problem that had arisen within our department. Sloppy work, some misrepresentation of data and facts. I walked into the master control room where the two guys I needed to talk with sat, leaning back in their chairs, watching satellite feeds and our on-air broadcast. I told them of the problem, warning that if it happened again that there would be serious repercussions. One of them turned around slowly to face the other and said, “You know what Tracie needs? She needs a good gang-raping. That’s what she needs.”

The two men laughed and laughed, so pleased at putting me in my place. The sure exertion of power.

I remember them laughing, she said.

I didn’t sleep much for the next few days, but I did report their comments to my boss. He took it seriously and addressed it appropriately. Oh, we were just joking! they said before their apology. Can’t you take a joke? they asked me, these two men whom I had considered my friends. Whose wives and kids I knew and who knew my husband.

I never felt safe there again. Within a few months, I began my new career as a colorist at the post-production house on the other side of town.

Don’t make a fuss, don’t cause problems, my mother said.

EPILOGUE

I never told my mother about any of these. I never told anyone. I never told her about working as a secretary at the car dealership years earlier, when the general manager and the two sales managers would call me into their office, close the door and make me look through Penthouse magazines, all the while giggling and searching my face for a reaction. Or how they’d supply me with sports cars to drive on the weekends and drugs–so many drugs–to keep me quiet. Or how they finally fired me but made sure I was able to collect unemployment insurance because they sensed “I knew too much and might start talking.”

What did you do to make them mad? my mother asked.

It was Thursday afternoon and I had just come back from teaching my yoga classes–the last one so full of power and ferocity, the one in which I reminded the thirty or so women there that we needed everyone’s voices as we roared through our Lion’s Breaths. At home, The Mister had the TV on, rapturously watching the hearing. As I puttered through the house, I heard Christine Blasey Ford’s voice describe being held down by Brett Kavanaugh and how she felt panicked and powerless and how she worried she might accidentally die. How she never told anyone because she didn’t know how. How she was so afraid. I felt sick to my stomach and my insides shook as I began to remember. I thought of my email to my friend and my naiveté as I wrote about how I “dodged a major bullet.”

I grabbed my phone and typed out a text to my nineteen-year-old daughter in Seattle, on the cusp of her sophomore year of college. I shared with her my anger towards these rapey men and how I prayed that she would never, ever have to feel the shame and powerlessness that so many women have had to endure.

You know, other women.

Like me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Things, Issue Forty-Eight

I was in the throes of writing, researching and editing this post last night when my unruly sausage fingers accidentally hit “publish” somewhere between Thing One and Thing Three. If you received a notification that there was a bright and shiny new post only to be told “that page doesn’t exist”–whoops. It was late and I was two bourbons in. Here it is in the completely sober light of day, as it should be.

ONE: DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY

I had noticed the random sticky notes and white board messages popping up around the Health and Wellness office over the past few weeks.

Good things are going to happen! It’s a beautiful day, sunshine! If you can dream it, you can do it!

My eyes rolled as if they had a mind of their own as I fished around for a spare dry erase marker in the collection of pens and Sharpies. Chuckling to myself, I carefully printed in tiny black letters “Reallly? I need proof” underneath the cheery, rainbow-hued “good things are going to happen” sentiment. Pleased and amused with myself, I sat down and went about my appointments and tasks of the day. In my mind, I had imagined the start of a playful back-and-forth exchange between this mysterious Little Miss Sunshine and my natural Eeyore-esque self.

A Twitter friend once posed the questions 1.) Which Winnie The Pooh character do people think you are the most like, and then, 2.) Which character are you really the most like?

1.) Owl

2.) Eeyore

Two days later, I returned to the office only to discover my little black message was erased. Wiped away. My sad surprise was quickly replaced with a renewed wave of mischief and I drew a small, bleak frown-y face in the margin where my original retort had lived. Apparently, Little Miss Sunshine lacked my particular brand of humor. The next day, my bleak frowny-face was wiped clean away, too.

One of my favorite colleagues had recently moved on to a new chapter in her life and I had interviewed to fill her job. With her hundreds of miles away in a different state, I disgustedly snapped photos of the happy platitudes that were popping up everywhere since she had left and texted her the photos along with a panicked message: I know you would have never done this! Who is doing this? I can’t take this job with this stuff happening! I think I need to withdraw my application! Help me!

Change is hard. For me, anyway.

I could hear her signature belly laugh as she texted me back off the ledge. Between the two of us, we deduced who the cheery culprit might be and I took a few deep breaths. I mean, they weren’t death threats–they were just mindless, happy platitudes.

It’s the mindless part that gets me.

It was only a few days later when another friend posted this article on her newsfeed. It used a term I had never heard of before–“toxic positivity”–and I immediately began to understand why the happy little post-it notes everywhere had triggered me. Take a scroll through your social media feeds and you’ll come upon meme after meme extolling the virtue of “just think happy thoughts.” As someone whose moods tend to run a little darker than than your standard-variety yoga teacher, I’ve had issues with the “good vibes only” mentality that pervades the yoga industry as well as much of the fitness world. Those days when I’ve been grieving the loss of a loved one, the mornings when my hormones have pushed me into a muddy funk and my bed seems to be my only friend, or my struggles with tough transitions in my life–all of those days could have been eliminated with a positive attitude? Really?

Yeah, no.

I might say I’m an Eeyore, but there’s a whole lot of Tigger in me, too. Maybe even a bit of Piglet. Frankly, I see a lot of Pooh and Rabbit in most of us. Take all those beloved characters, mosh them together and you’ll likely come closer to what it means to be human. With September being National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I believe it’s more important than ever to stop the dumbing-down of our emotional health. Can you imagine what it might feel like to someone struggling with clinical depression to repeatedly hear “just turn that frown upside-down!” or, “no bad days allowed!”

I believe we are capable of accepting and experiencing the wide rainbow of complex emotions within us. Sadness–yours or mine–doesn’t faze me, unless it lasts for weeks and impedes one’s ability to function. (If that happens, it’s important to seek out help. Let’s de-stigmatize therapy and medication–both can be life savers.) But otherwise, give yourself a day or two or three. Journal. Meditate. Get outside and move. Don’t just “get over it” but be brave enough to mine those depths a little deeper, knowing that the shadows you might feel lost in are a beautiful, important part of you. Good mental and emotional health means feeling the full spectrum without being shamed into shallow cheerfulness. Shallow cheerfulness–that’s toxic positivity.

A well-meaning pal once told me that the dear friend that I was grieving the loss of “wouldn’t want me to be sad.” The hell she wouldn’t! When the day comes that I take my last breath, I sure hope there’s one or two people around who feel sad that I died. I hope someone out there sheds a tear or two because that means I made an impact in this earthly life. No one needs to be sad for long and certainly not forever, but just until the grief moves around and through and processes out the way it needs to. Because it always needs to.

Until then, I promise to practice my compassion and acceptance of the sunny, happy notes left around the office where I work. I’ll be grateful that they aren’t threatening or bitter or warning of imminent disaster. But I still might scribble a few dark remarks here and there.

You know, just for balance.

TWO: THINKING OF YOU

August sucked donkey balls.

It really did. And since we’re talking about mental health, I can honestly say I slogged through some pretty stiff depression during most of August. More circumstantial than chemical, and for a variety of reasons far too boring to list, but still. Depression is something that seems easier for me to see in the rear view mirror rather than naming and claiming it while I’m in the midst of it. It’s the nature of the beast and it’s what makes it so insidious and vexing. My heavy clouds are lifting as I write, I’m happy to say. The welcomed showers and cool gray skies have a way of seeping into those tough dark recesses and loosening stuff up so I can move it on out and breathe again. It’s so good to breathe again.

August was not without its bright spots, though, and some of the brightest were the unexpected cards and notes I just happened to get in the mail when I needed them the most. The simplest sentiment, hand-scribbled across a card that seemed chosen just for me was often all I needed to get through the most tangled up days. No one knew I was slogging through the mud of life, and yet these cards made their way to me at a time when I needed them the most. (Hey, thanks, Universe.) I wrote about the lost art of letter-writing just four posts ago and I believe so strongly in its simplicity, power and ability to connect with those you love.

My friend and yoga peep, Cat, recently turned me on to Thinking Of You Week. Cat is an artist, living and working in Everett, Washington who creates colorful, whimsical, handmade letter-press greeting cards that you can get here.  I have an entire collection of her cards, some of which I’ll be mailing out beginning tomorrow for Thinking Of You Week. Here’s how it works: for one week–seven days–you are encouraged to send one card a day to seven different people. Just imagine those seven souls in your life, plodding out to their mailbox, expecting only billing statements and advertisements, catching a glimpse of a real postage stamp peeking out from their stack of mail. The delight! The surprise!

Why wouldn’t you do that?

Thinking Of You Week begins tomorrow, September 24th and runs through Sunday, September 30th. For all you cynics who are assuming it must be sponsored by Hallmark or some other corporate conglomerate, well, the Greeting Card Association (GCA) is the sponsor, but so what? Sure, it’s a made-up thing intended to sell cards–much like Valentine’s Day–but like Valentine’s Day, why not tell someone you love them? This is where my idealistic Tigger and Pooh Bear influences override the pessimism of Eeyore.

Who’s the first person that comes to mind? Send them your first card tomorrow. If you’re like me, the first three or four recipients are easy to imagine. After that, pay attention to that one name or face that keeps popping up in your head. Doesn’t make any sense? Maybe you feel shy or embarrassed to send them a card? Do it anyway. I believe there’s a reason we think of people at some times more than others. Pay attention to that. Then, act.

You know, just do it.

Our world is bananas right now. So much of what we are going through is out of our control. Everyone has something they’re struggling with. Each of us has the power to brighten someone’s day and spread a little love around. Not in a mindless, syrupy-saccharine way, but in a way that is personal and intimate. Sending someone something that comes from your heart, something tangible they can hold in their hands and take out again when the road gets rough–that’s powerful medicine.

Thinking Of You Week starts tomorrow. Seven days, seven cards, seven people. So much love.

Let me know how it goes.

THREE: MUSIC

This blog was originally intended as a place for me to write about the music I’ve been listening to. Happily, the blog has naturally morphed and weaved and evolved beyond that and into many more things as well. Despite a dismal summer of live music-going, I’m still all about the music. October holds much promise, though, with next month frighteningly jam-packed with live shows I have tickets for. But until then, here are three bands’ most recent releases that I’ve been streaming non-stop.

1.) Brockhampton, iridescence

If you haven’t jumped on the Brockhampton train yet, I don’t know what to say except it left the station late last year and you have some serious catching up to do. Their new release is as fresh and unpredictable as this prolific, rule-breaking hip-hop band has always been. See them live if you can and if you dare. (And yeah, they’re pretty explicit, so if you’re sensitive to that, just move along.)

2.)  The Internet, Hive Mind

This is their fourth studio release and the very first I’ve heard of this delicious, groove-heavy R&B band out of LA and of which I am currently head-over-heels obsessed with. Be careful, you just might fall in love, too.

3.) Hibou, Something Familiar

Seattle-based, one-man-band of Peter Michel, AKA Hibou, is a dreamy, ethereal, musical force to be reckoned with. Hibou performs live as a four-piece band and I’ve seen them (him) twice–first, opening up for Unknown Mortal Orchestra a couple years ago and most recently, this summer at Capitol Hill Block Party. See them (him) live if you can, but if you can’t, download or stream “Junipero Love”, then lay back and get lost in your own mind. Trust me, it’s time well spent.

Happy Autumn, finally. If you need soup, hit me up.

 

 

 

 

Three Things, Issue Forty-Seven

It’s been a month since I last logged on to my website. Two full months since my last published post. I miss writing. My body misses it–the release of words and emotions I store away in my tissues–muscles, organs, veins–all tight with unexpressed everything. I feel congested in a deep, visceral way. Vaguely unwell.

You should probably write, my daughter tells me as she looks over and sees me crying during another episode of “Queer Eye”.

This summer has been dizzying. Literally.

ONE: VERTIGO

The neurologist finished his exam and shrugged his shoulders. “Some people are simply prone to having episodes of vertigo throughout their life,” he told me as my eyes struggled to focus back on his face after the head and neck maneuvers he had just put me through.

Well, at least most people don’t die from vertigo, I remember thinking as I drove home. There’s that.

It was nearly three years ago when the vertigo descended with a vengence. I first noticed it while driving home from Tacoma one sunny afternoon. Scrambled brains is the way I describe it. Usually only lasting five or ten seconds, tops, then returning to clarity. Sometimes it would only strike once or twice during a drive, other times so frequently I had to pull off the freeway for a bit. I googled and WebMDed and YouTubed for help in between visits to my healthcare providers. At its worst, I couldn’t bear to lay facedown for my regular acupuncture treatment. The room spun and my stomach churned as if I had drank two too many glasses of pink champagne.

Well, at least it doesn’t happen during yoga, I reassured myself. Until it did. During triangle pose. I felt my legs wobble in an effort to keep my balance as the scrambled brains took hold.

It was my acupuncturist who finally suggested a twice-daily “tea” of Chinese herbs to counteract my “damp” constitution. Willing to try anything for relief, I happily swilled the muddy, gingery concoction each morning and night. Within a month, my brains cleared up.

My brains were clear and the vertigo had stayed away for the past two years. Occasionally, I’d feel a hint of it coming on and I’d grab a bottle of the magic herbs and within a week I’d be okay again. It was such a relief to find something that helped me feel better relatively quickly and painlessly.

It was the trusty herbs that I reached for two months ago when the scrambled brains returned. It had been so long that I had forgotten what life with vertigo felt like. Life with unpredictable vertigo feels tentative and a bit risky. Constantly nervous to venture too far away from home. Dreading freeway driving. Unable to sit and focus on a computer screen for more than a few minutes at a time. My writing came to a screeching halt.

It’s hard to write with scrambled brains.

I knew I wanted a break from the weekly writing deadline I had imposed on myself, but it was never my intention to walk away for two months. Habits are hard to form, easy to break and a bitch to get back to. My writing muscles feel as shaky as my biceps as I curl the 50 pound barbell to my shoulders for the first time in a long time. But after three bottles of twice-daily Chinese tea that looks and tastes a bit like dirt, my brain is back.

And so am I.

Hey–hi. I hope to be writing more regularly again.

TWO: CLUTTER

It was hard to look at the “before” photo I had snapped of my closet. It still is.

Last weekend, I undertook the daunting task of completely cleaning out my bedroom closet. It was something I had been meaning to do for months and had successfully avoided for much longer. The task came up during lunch with a good friend who talked about her love of organization and how our living spaces can sometimes reflect something much greater. My confession tumbled out, almost in relief, sharing my dirty little secret. I told her about my mess of a closet and how it made me anxious everyday when I went in to get dressed for work. Slippery yoga pants in every color of the rainbow, cascading to the floor so many times I just stopped picking them up. Clean laundry left on the bed or bathroom counter because I couldn’t find space to put it back in the closet. I hated my closet and I hated the idea of cleaning it out even more.

Sometimes we have to do the hard things.

I had to cancel attending a friend’s wedding in eastern Washington because my scrambled brains were too risky to chance a five-hour drive by myself. I was left gazing into a weekend clear of responsibilities and plans. The Mister and daughter, both off on their own work and fun adventures. It was the perfect opportunity. Buoyed by a few encouraging texts and guidance from my organized friend and choreographed to the soundtrack of my favorite playlist, I got to work.

Pre-kid clothes. One maternity shirt holdover because I always liked the color. Baseball mom clothes. Trying-to-be-cool again clothes. Mom jeans. Mom sweaters. Eddie Bauer. So much Eddie Bauer. Levi 501s. Boot cut jeans from the Gap. Oh hey–my wedding dress! Tattered hoodies. Riding pants. Yoga pants. Yoga tops. Yoga totes. Hot tub clothes. My Zulily phase, when nothing could be returned. My actually-getting-cooler-phase. Black jeans. Skinny jeans. Ripped jeans. Boots. Boots. Boots.

Donate. Toss. Consider. Keep.

Four distinct piles, the “donate” pile towering far above the other three. I bagged up nine tall kitchen garbage bags full of clothes and shoes and drove them directly to the donation box.

Somewhere between the end of the first day and the beginning of the second, I was gripped with the fear of scarcity. Would I have enough? What if I didn’t? What if I made a mistake?

Abundance. There is more than enough, I reassured myself. My shoulders dropped and I exhaled. Of course there is.

Do I love it? Does it fit? Does it reflect who I really am today? My friend’s directives rang clear in my head.

By the end of the second day, the closet was coming together. Three more bags filled with donations. I stepped back and took it all in. My god, it looks like a little boutique! I thought to myself. Shelves, neatly stacked with yoga pants, organized by color and length. Clear, plastic boxes, each home to one pair of shoes that I could easily identify, tucked on the top shelf. My father’s favorite hat–the one I had taken home with me on the day he died–carefully placed in its own box, along with the bulletin from his memorial. (That is, right after I put the hat on myself and thought maybe I could rock a fedora after all.)

Everything in its place. A place for everything.

I texted my friend the “after” picture. She texted me back all the right things. I looked at my phone again and in a moment of vulnerability, posted each photo on my Instagram feed, along with a short narrative about my weekend of letting go. Side by side, swipe left, swipe right. Before and after.

Holy shit.

It’s amazing what we choose not to see. Overwhelmed with life in general, I had stopped seeing the mountain of clutter right in front of my eyes. I felt it, in the anxiety and stress that crept up in me every morning as I tried to start my day. The way I’d snap at The Mister when he’d casually mention the pile of clean laundry on the counter, rather than in the closet. How I just stopped trying because it wasn’t working anymore.

My closet looked exactly the way my scrambled brains felt with the vertigo.

I look at my closet today and I giggle a bit. It makes me smile. It’s beautiful, really. Clear and clean, with just enough plus a little wiggle room to grow and dwell in possibility.

THREE: SUMMER

My mind keeps flashing on a memory of a secret beach cove I discovered when I was a little girl. Well, maybe it wasn’t exactly a “secret”–I’m pretty sure it was someone’s private beachfront. But in my 10-year-old brain, it felt wonderful and mysterious and secretive. I didn’t tell anyone about it.

No one ever noticed when I’d ride my purple stingray down the dead end street that emptied out to Steilacoom Lake. Leaving my bike at the end of the grass, I’d tiptoe down a weedy, dirt path that led to a narrow swath of pebbly beach. Two quiet, modest homes–cabins, really–framed the small patch of lakefront and I’d sit at the water and escape. I never saw or heard another person down there, so I began to think of it as my own. I’d take sticks and trace patterns in the silty dirt and flick rocks into the water, waiting for the satisfying “plunk” of each as it hit the water’s surface. Sometimes a duck or two came floating by and I’d feed them crusts of bread and stale saltines I swiped from home. Mostly, I was alone and unseen and free to dive into my daydreams.

This summer has been weird and unsatisfying. Between the vertigo and the heat and smoke-haze and not having my favorite partner-in-crime available for summer shenanigans, I’ve found myself wishing I had my secret beach cove again. Somewhere to escape to and be unseen.

I felt it today as I strolled by myself though the modest crowd at the waterfront art festival. I walked to the end of the pier and leaned on the weathered railing. The gray-blue expanse of Puget Sound, shrouded in a filter of smoke from the wildfires, lay out in front of me. I wanted to find a quiet piece of beach and be alone with the gentle lap of the water. I nearly drove to Steilacoom Lake in hopes of finding it again.

Summer is not my favorite, but I love summer’s beginning when the finally-warm breezes carry scents of berries and grass. The longer days and early sunrises. Skies full of stars. I am past the days of school-year summer vacations and yet I still get giddy in June. July comes and goes, predictably balmy and busy, the front lawn left to go dormant and brown. But by the middle of August, I am exhausted. I even let my flowers die.

August feels long and dry and a bit lonely. The dog days of summer. A quick reference to Wikipedia even makes the connection of this late summer period to “…heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs, and bad luck.”

C’mon–is August anyone’s favorite?

I sat at the dining room table reading the newspaper yesterday morning, the windows open wide to let in the cool morning air. I sipped my coffee and heard the faint and familiar blast of an airhorn. Fifteen minutes later, it blared again. And then again. Football scrimmage just a mile down the hill at the neighborhood high school. A sure and welcome harbinger of fall.

September can’t come soon enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Three Things, Issue Forty-Six

ONE: BROTHER

Have you ever prayed for someone to die?

I was a young adolescent when I began to pray regularly for my brother to die. It’s not something I’m proud of and I’d usually send up a petition for forgiveness at the same time, just for good measure. Life with my brother was a living hell, with regular threats lobbed my way along with his perpetual sneer and general, unpredictable rage. In the summer months, he and his buddies would venture up into the mountains to camp for a few days at a time and I’d pray he’d never return, entertaining fantasies of him taking a quick tumble off a high cliff to a quick and painless death. He always returned, though, along with more threats and the accompanying fear I’d learned to live with.

It was my brother’s birthday last week. He would have been sixty-one years old.

As a young girl, I prayed for my brother to like me. When we were very young, there were days where he’d let me join in on his Lego-building ventures or an occasional battle with his little green army men. Playing beside my older brother made me feel important, as if I had been let into an exclusive, grown-up club. It didn’t last long. His potent outbursts and conflicts with my parents began while he was still in elementary school and only intensified as he grew older.

I don’t remember the date of my brother’s death, but I always remember his birthday. I have his birthday written on the calendar pinned to my yellow kitchen wall. June 5th.

Once we became adults, I didn’t see him for years at a time. This was intentional. I worried about him finding out where I lived and coming to kill me and my family. Regular nightmares of this scenario peppered my sleep and I’d awaken with a jolt in a cold sweat, chest heaving in fear. As years passed, he started showing up at Thanksgiving or other family gatherings—even my wedding. He was pleasant but distant and my fear of him existed on a deep, cellular level. Whenever he left, my insides unclenched and I felt my breath drop from high up in my shallow chest back into my low belly.

Each June, I’d think of my brother on his birthday and imagine him spending it alone with his dog. I feared him and loved him and wanted nothing to do with him, but still felt pangs of sadness over the disconnected rubble of a life he had built. Undiagnosed mental illness, learning disabilities. I often wondered if he had regrets.

I was busy raising my two young kids when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The diagnosis came after months of strange symptoms when he would often call me and ask for help in researching his ailments. He was my brother and I loved him as such, but he still scared the hell out of me. I helped as much as I could, always feeling the seize in my belly and the catch in my breath with each phone call.

My phone rang on a rainy evening just before New Years. My brother had been in hospice for a short time, my other siblings taking turns tending to him in his final days. Just one year prior, I had sat with my mother as she took her last breath and I didn’t think I possessed the fortitude to do the same for my brother.

The first thought in my head after hearing the news that he had died was, well, Tracie–your prayer was answered. I thought of all the hours I had spent praying that he would die so that I could live a life free of the terror his presence instilled in me. A wave of guilt washed up and over me, flooding my chest and throat, taking me under. Then, grief. Huge, sneaker waves of grief, pummeling me with sucker punches at my solar plexus, over and over and over again. I sat on my bed and sobbed.

I had been planning to see him the following day, but he went ahead and died before I was able to. I grieved over the opportunities lost, the loss of the brother that I might have had. The one I fantasized about having instead of the one who haunted my nightmares. I imagined me sitting at his bedside and hearing him whisper a deathbed apology. A plea for forgiveness and understanding. Taking responsibility.

When someone you love dies, your heart breaks. When someone with whom you have a conflicted, complex and unresolved relationship dies, the path of mourning is riddled with detours and potholes.

A close childhood friend of my brother’s hosted a memorial service for him a month after his death. My siblings and I piled into our cars and drove down, wondering who–if anyone–would be in attendance. The brother we knew was a bitter loner. We assumed it would be just us–his siblings–and a smattering of others.

The house where the service was held was packed with mourners. Most were strangers to me, but I recognized a few from our old neighborhood as they came up to give me a hug and called me by my name. I wondered if they knew about his years of threats and attacks. We filled paper plates with casseroles and salads and an informal remembrance of my brother began. One by one, his friends spoke glowingly of my brother’s kindness and love of animals. Of how he would drop everything to help a friend out. How he loved the outdoors and made a point to spend his birthdays in nature with his dog and perhaps a close friend or two or three. They used words like gentle and sensitive and loyal to describe him.

My siblings and I exchanged stunned glances with each other and said nothing.

The brother I knew had not existed outside the boundaries of our large, complicated family. I immediately felt silly for all the years I spent pitying him and the sad life I assumed he was living. I felt resentful that all these other people had known the brother I had forever dreamed of having. I felt cheated and duped and completely dumbfounded.

Family dynamics are fluid, tricky and tough to rise above.

TWO: FATHER

I always felt like I was my father’s last chance for a do-over.

Twenty years separate me from my oldest sibling. An entire generation. It’s safe to say that I had a much different father than the rest of my six siblings. Same man, same name, but an entirely different dad.

By the time I came along, my father had transitioned from his first career in the clergy to his second wind as a college sociology professor. Office hours, more or less. He still played the organ and directed the church choir each Sunday, but life was a bit more predictable than when he was a minister. Because of that, I reaped the benefits. Extra time to play catch with me, summer evenings spent kicking a soccer ball around the back lawn, holding onto my bike seat until he wasn’t anymore and I caught my balance and pedaled off into the sunset on my own.

I loved my dad, but I was no daddy’s girl.

He wouldn’t hear of that. Both of my parents valued education and raised strong, independent women. But I always felt as though I was my father’s last hope.

Professional challenges. Hectic life with seven children and aging parents. Struggles with his youngest son. Conflicted relationships with a few of his other children. A marriage that was rarely easy. Dashed hopes and dreams.

My father developed psoriasis early in my life. Crimson, scaly skin covered most of his body, except for his face. We had four bathrooms in the house I grew up in and one was designated as his. My father’s bathroom was always covered in a light layer of dead skin flakes that perpetually sloughed off his angry body. I hated using that bathroom and having to navigate around the piles of flakes. It was as if he was a snake, shedding, continually. Every few years, he’d spend a week or two in the local hospital receiving “tar treatments”–an event he seemed to look forward to. Whether it was the prospect of being tended to by young, attractive nurses or the opportunity to rest, unbothered by the demands of a large family, my dad thoroughly enjoyed his respite covered in tar. He usually came home with improved skin that would last until the next flare-up.

As I got older, he took me to soccer games and watched Wimbledon with me. When my school had an open house, he came and talked to my instructors and returned home boasting of the glowing reports they had given me. She can do anything she puts her mind to! he exclaimed proudly, parroting back the words he had heard from my teachers. And when I finally got up the nerve to move away from home for the very first time, he helped me find my way around Portland and rent my first apartment. We ate pastrami sandwiches at Rose’s Deli on 23rd as he regaled me with stories of living in New York City as a young man starting out on his own.

I felt like my dad was proud of me. Like I was his shining star after so much strife.

My father loved the sound of his own voice–his chosen vocations as a pastor and professor not by chance–and was always game for a lively debate. Politics, religion, social justice. My dad could speak confidently on nearly any topic, but rarely spoke of his feelings. I don’t remember him ever telling me that he loved me, although I never doubted that he did.

I often wondered if his psoriasis was his body’s way of shedding all the pent-up emotions he was never able to express.

The day that my father died, I went back to the small apartment he and my mom shared at my sister’s home in Redmond. I found his hat–he always wore a hat–and pulled it to my nose. Stale cigarette smoke and the unmistakable scent of old, dead skin. My dad’s skin. Familiar, just like I remembered. I took the hat home with me that afternoon and zipped it up in a plastic bag. It sits on a shelf in my bedroom closet.

After he died, the church where he spent most of my childhood as the choir director held a memorial service. Strangers I had never seen before stood up to speak of my father–Pastor Jansen they called him. They told stories of playing games with him during summers at vacation bible school and Camp Lutherwood. How he helped them through their struggles with faith as a young person. How his stories and sense of humor in his sermons made the gospel come alive for them.

Later that afternoon, my siblings and I sat around my sister’s backyard and ate egg salad sandwiches. I couldn’t believe what some of those people said about Dad, one of my sisters commented. It was as if they were talking about someone else. That wasn’t the dad I knew. A tinge of sadness and envy played around the edges of her words. A lost opportunity to have the dad she imagined.

Family dynamics are fluid, tricky and tough to navigate and I never took for granted the do-over dad I was lucky enough to have.

Happy Father’s Day.

THREE: FAMILY

She said it as matter-of-factly as if she was commenting on the weather. No one in the family really thinks of you as a writer. The words stopped me in my tracks, but then I nodded as I digested what she just said and pretended like I understood and accepted her explanation.

Family dynamics are tricky. Insidious and sneaky.

I had been struggling with finding my voice in my writing again and was looking for affirmation from my family. Hinting for an “atta girl” or a word of encouragement. Her words stung at first, like the pinch of a thin needle into a vein, but then spread out through my bones as I sat with them. No one really thinks of you as a writer. 

Well, okay.

As the youngest of seven children, I have spent most of my life looking up to everyone. Deferring. Taking advice. Assuming that I couldn’t possibly know because I wasn’t old enough.

I think I’m old enough now.

A friend recently let out a loud chuckle and asked me, incredulous, who are you? when I described to her how I’ve always tended to automatically defer to my older siblings. She went on to tell me, everything I know you to be flies in the face of you being deferential and passive! You’re a grown-ass adult! Why do you allow yourself to be that way?

Why, indeed.

I had no answer for her other than family dynamics can be a motherfucker. If we’re lucky, we successfully build a life away from the constraints of what our families think we should be. That’s not to say our families can’t be closely-knit, wonderful and supportive and they often are. But if we’re not careful, the dynamics we grow up in can prove to be limiting. Those tender, formative years where we learn how to interact with others. Where we begin to define ourselves as we are in relationship with others. It’s heady stuff and easy to fall into our prescribed roles, even when we’re old enough to know better.

The smart one. The emotional one. The baby. The responsible one. The skinny one. The leader. The shy one. The difficult one. 

I don’t know why my brother felt compelled and safe enough to create an completely alternative life with his friends rather than with us, his biological brothers and sisters. Maybe there was too much water under the bridge and he couldn’t find his way back. I can’t tell you why my father created memories of summer camp and kick ball with kids in his congregation more than the ones he went home to at night. I can tell you that family dynamics can be a slick and slippery slope.

No one really thinks of you as a writer, she said to me.

That’s okay, because I’m plenty old enough now to know that I am.