Monday, September 26, 2016

First Person

Things that I expect in my mailbox (in no order):

The Shopper Stopper
Special offers for AAA members
'or Current Resident'
Solicitations for Money
The New Yorker
AARP applications
The magazine I work for

Things I do not expect in my mailbox:
Actual correspondence from the next president of the United States, addressed to my 7-year-old daughter.

I wrote Hillary Clinton on a lark. 

My daughter, a few months ago, declared at the dinner table, "I want to change my name to LILLARY." Me: "Why, hon?" Her: "So I can be president of the United States." 

Both of my kids are seriously thoughtful, funny kids. (I know, I'm biased). But as a writer, I do think that the way their minds work is fascinating. The words they choose to express their thinking, surprising. Their sense of justice and fairness, admirable. 

I mostly thought what the heck-- I thought this was funny, why wouldn't a Hillary staffer? Poor things. It's probably some intern who is sitting in a windowless basement, forced to read all the crazy pants stuff that people write to Hillary from her web site. Maybe I could give them a chuckle. Or maybe they could feel inspired, as my daughter obviously did, by this woman who is the first female major party nominee for President of the United States.

Fast forward to last Thursday. Mailbox open. No spiders (thank GOD! I mean, I appreciate them eating bugs and all, but I don't really want to touch one). Shopper Stopper? Check. And nestled into its nest of newspaper-print want ads and offers, a slim envelope with a red arrow. A letter. A letter addressed to Lilly.

I'm kind of a ninny and, at 42, I really don't care who knows it. I'm the person who signs petitions about endangered animals. I care deeply about issues, and about fairness, about the poor, the underserved, I care about gun sense laws that we can all agree on. So I get a fair number of form letters from my legislators about the issues I've written that I was a bit skeptical that this was something real.

But OH MY GOD. It was real. It was realer than real. And it was written for my daughter. Very specifically my daughter. 

If you're reading this, you probably know most of the rest of the story. I'm not here to retell it. What I am here to do is to say THANK YOU in this day of trolls and cynicism and sexism and racism and anxiety for reading those words in the letter. If you feel unhinged (like I feel right now), read them. Replace my daughter's name with your daughter's name, or your OWN name. 

We need to hear these words, and we need to speak them. As one of my idols, Glennon Doyle Melton says, "There is no such thing as other people's children." We are all a part of this one thing-- this life, and we need to show up and stand up for each other. We need to encourage each other's voices, we need to hold each other's hands. We need to read and write each other's stories, and our OWN stories. 

Let's write our own history. Together. Now. Forget the haters. Come sit by us. There's room on the bench right here. There's room for humanity, there's room for love and respect. We make it. 

"If the space you're in doesn't have room for your voice, don't be afraid to carve out a space of your own."

With love and peace, 

Friday, May 27, 2016

Ironing Naked

Read at the 2011 Madison Listen to Your Mother performance 

(click here to view)

The week before Mother’s Day it seems everywhere you turn, someone is sharing some great piece of wisdom their mother has bestowed upon them.

Well, ladies, today I will share with you one of the greatest pieces of wisdom my mom has shared with me.  Are you ready for it?


The first thing I thought after she told me was, “YOU iron?”  And second, had she tried ironing naked before, with “consequences”?  Or maybe this it just a piece of bizarre-- though well thought-out, you gotta give it to the woman-- advice?

To give you some perspective, let us view my first memory of my mom.  It is the blizzard of 1978-- the snow up to the lids of the garbage cans.  Everyone and everything stops.  And my mom decides to walk outside into our backyard naked

I watch her in disbelief (already at four years old I know it’s strange for someone to go outside naked, let alone into waist-deep snow.)  She is out there for three or four minutes-- it seems like an eternity-- just looking around, as my father and I watch from the kitchen window.

When she comes inside, I ask her why.  She shrugs her shoulders, “I wanted to feel what it was like.”  “Why did you come in?” I ask.  “My feet got cold.  Otherwise I would have stayed out there.  It was wonderful.”

As a child, you sort of think of your mom as normal, because you have nothing to compare her to.  As you get older (especially as a teenager), you think of all the reasons why your mother is abnormal (or obnoxious, or embarrassing).  Because she’s your mom.  Somehow her very being seems a reflection on your being.

It is not until recently, as an adult and as a mom myself, that I’ve been able to put together some of the pieces-- start to understand who she was-- the quirky, but emotionally and intellectually present mom-- with who she has become.

Who she has become.  Unreliable, for a start.  At times emotionally irretrievable.   

She and her common-law husband, in the past years, bought a fixer-upper to start a B&B.  She has spent all of her savings, her retirement.  She has racked up credit card debt.  The business failed.  Her health has been up and down.  When I talk with her on the phone, she monologues.  She hasn’t seen me or my children in two years.

And, as my sister found out one day, she’s growing pot.  Not just a little pot, A LOT OF POT.  Yes, kids, Granny grows weed.  She’s got an A-1 grow operation in her basement.  $25,000 worth of the best hydroponic growing equipment and exhaust systems.  Granted, it’s “medicinal marijuana”: Somewhere between illegal and legal, but still.  When I confronted her, I could hear her partner in the background yelling, excitedly, “We’ve even been featured in High Times!”

Now, no, I have never seen the TV series Weeds.  I don’t really feel like I need to.  My mother satisfies any need I might have for crackpot entertainment.  And aside from that, I was honestly upset at first. Upset about the bad decisions that led to her precarious situation. But also, as someone who loves and adores my mom, I somehow feel threatened.  (Might I lose my grip, too?  Could I go from intellectual, creative-type to crackpot in my old age?) 

And laughter aside, I do worry about my mom.  I don’t want her to end up eating cat food.  I don’t want to have to strip her of her independence, move her into my basement with my misbehaving tomcat.  But every time in the past four years my sister and I have staged an intervention, helped her along with advice, she hasn’t followed through.  She’s indignant, or she has cleaned up her act just enough to keep going. 

I can’t help but think that there’s some middle ground to find here between laughter and horror.  There is nothing at the moment that I, my sister, or anyone else can do to “solve” my mom or her problems.  She doesn’t want us to; she doesn’t see them as problematic. 

So here is my decision.  I’ve decided to accept our relationship for what it is.  She is allowed to be the caring mom she wasand the absent mother and grandmother that she is.  She is allowed to be her past (and MY past) as well as her present.  Mom doesn’t have to be perfect.  I don’t need her to be perfect.  And just because I am a mom myself, that doesn’t mean that I have to solve her problems.  I can love her and shake my head.

There are a shitload of things in life I learned from my mom.  How to think, how to love-- even, perhaps, how to mother.  And apparently, how to iron.  Or not iron.  And how to accept her and myself for who we are.  Really.  It’s good.


This piece was read at the American Family Dream Bank on Thursday, May 26, 2016, as a part of the DREAM BIG series: "Listening to Our Stories, Realizing Our Dreams" with Listen to Your Mother. It is a follow up/partner piece to my original piece "Ironing Naked" from the 2011 Madison cast of Listen to Your Mother.


“Hi mom, how’s it going?”

Mom (tentative): “Good, I think. Better than it has been. My memory is getting better.”

“Hi mom, how are you?”
Mom: “I’m getting much better. It seems that I had some big event, and it was causing me to not remember things. But now I realize, wow, I was really out of it.”

“Hey mom, it’s Jenny. How are you?”
Mom: “Okaaaay. Jim tells me I was having issues with my memory. But I can’t remember them. It’s very strange.”

After years of worry, of cajoling, of schlepping my mom to memory clinics where she was pronounced “very intelligent,” and showing little or no cognitive deficits, the bottom dropped out. One night she collapsed in a seizure, and wasn’t coming out of it. Airlifted to the next big medical center, we received a diagnosis. 

The MRI showed, along with anecdotal evidence, that she had been having seizures without us knowing it, probably for years. This time, though, the seizure had knocked the needle off the record, and her brain was having trouble booting back up because of dementia. This was the word that had been the terrible centerpiece of conversations about my mom for at least the past decade, with no medical corroboration until that point.

But see, here’s the rub. When you get a diagnosis, you say OF COURSE and at the same time you feel guilty, even when you did everything you could.

I went to a neurologist’s appointment with her shortly after her diagnosis, and she got really agitated and upset by us talking about her, and she put her hand on her hips and said, “Well, I’m not STUPID. Everyone is talking about me like I’m stupid and I don’t understand. I have a very well-developed vocabulary. You aren’t stupid if you have a master’s of fine arts and are the recipient of a national endowment for the arts individual artist grant.”

And she’s right, I remind her. She’s not stupid. No one is saying she’s stupid. We’re just saying she can’t remember shit. 

It sounds almost cruel to say it that way, but it ALWAYS makes her laugh. Then she snipes something back at me about me not being a piece of cake either. 

Today, she is no longer having seizures, but the medicines have taken away much of her independence. She feels unsteady on her feet, she’ll never be able to drive. I guess the good thing about having memory problems is that the bar is re-set every day. Every day you’re winning that race. Every night, like sisyphus, the rock rolls down the hill again.

Last year, we moved my mom and her partner to Grand Junction, so that they could be closer to their doctors. Most of the boxes were labeled “living room- books” or “decor” (that really could be anything— believe me). 

One box had a sticky note on it that read “No idea” in a shaky hand. And as I opened the box, the lifted flap revealed a perfect pizza. I mean, the most perfect pizza you could imagine. And I thought HOW COULD THERE BE A DAMN PIZZA IN THIS BOX? As soon as more light hit the surface, I realized… this is not a pizza. This is a perfectly felted, life-sized facsimile of a pizza.

She can’t remember her own medications, or what they’re for. She mourns her parents’ deaths every time someone tells her that they’ve passed away. But she can create— over days— a physical object out of hanks of colored wool that has an aspect of genius to it. There are moments she still seems alive in— when she tells a joke, offers advice, muses about her felting. But there are still parts of her that are (and will be) missing. 

I still don’t have the mom I had when I was a child, or a teen, or as a young woman. I don’t have the same mom I did ten years ago, or the mom I thought I had when I wrote “Ironing Naked” in 2011. 

Just like life, the box, marked “no idea”— it’s a truthful rendering of where we are at the moment. It can contain moments from the past— the waist-deep snow— almost forgotten— or a surprise. A pizza for no reason. A woman who dives down deep, and resurfaces every day the same woman, but perhaps different, when you open the box. My mother. 


Friday, July 05, 2013


I have turned 39. Turned. Rounded the edge to 39. 39, the almost forty. The epically almost. ALMOST.

And on my 39th birthday, I got a message that I had won $650. For filling out surveys. Really. Really? Yup, really. I usually don't do that kind of thing (I won't win, so I shouldn't do it), but somehow when I filled them out I thought, shit, I've got something to say that they want to hear, so I'm gonna win that money. And I did.  The. Fuck?

And you know what I realized? I realized that all of the things I didn't enter, didn't venture do because I thought I wouldn't win... I could have won. But I never did. I never won because I stopped myself from ever trying. In my mind I had lost before I had even started.

Before this starts sounding like a motivational speech that a high school football coach might deliver to his group of rag-tag losers, let me say that none of this should be particularly epiphanic. I'm not the smartest person in the world, but I can be pretty insightful sometimes. Sometimes.

How can it be that I made it all the way to 39 without calling myself out on my bullshit? WHO ELSE HASN'T BEEN CALLING ME OUT ON MY BULLSHIT, BUT SHOULD HAVE? YOU? YOU OVER THERE? Did I need more than 10 years of therapy only to NOT GET TO THIS?

Or is it true that I had to "come to it myself"... because, really, that is TOTALLY UNSATISFYING and I dare say really fucking late. I could have come to this at 29 and still had a really productive decade behind me. But no.

As much as I hate to say it, are THEY right? The people who say with age comes wisdom? I think that doesn't fully describe this scenario. I'll work on a catchy headline to try and describe my utter lack of emotional ability to, in a timely manner, recognize this easy truth...:

With Age Comes Giving Less of a Fuck About Failure

Optimism for No Good Reason Might Have Changed Life for the Past Ten Years

I've Done a Lot of Shit, But I Should Have Done a Lot More

"I like to sleep too much!"-- Local Woman Laments

Too many amazing things have happened to people around me-- random people. Now these amazing things are going to happen to me, too. (I happen to have just finished watching the last few minutes of the Muppet Movie with my son... and I may just be high on Muppet fumes), but all Muppet-related disclaimers aside,

I'm Gonna Do Some Shit. And It's Gonna Be Awesome. 

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Where have all the saucers gone?

I've been loading and unloading the dishwasher a lot lately. This might sound like a strange statement, (umm, ok? Was she living with piles of dishes like an episode of Hoarders for years?) but the feeling is true. I had ankle surgery earlier this year and had been laid up for months prior with torn this, fractured that, and for God's sakes don't stand on it! So loading the dishwasher was not something I did for a long, long time. A long blissful, exquisite time.

Like many things that are blissful and exquisite, this time was finite. Ankle open, ankle closed, stand up! I can stand everybody! I'm healed! Oh, wait a minute... I don't get to walk around just being fabulous on my ankle and having people say you can WALK! I thought you'd never walk! Look at you, all walking and shit! 

Which brings me to the dishwasher. Literally. Standing. In front of the dishwasher. That big, yawning, toothless chasm to be filled with this and this and that which must stand up and that which must not under any circumstances stand up. Spoons with avocado (nature's butter, or nature's super glue?) bowls with errant kernels of rice, coffee cups with their planetary rings of dinge. 

Now, my husband actually kind of enjoys loading the dishwasher. It's like grown-up Tetris (I ask: who would ever really want to play grown-up anything?) He likes the challenge of making things fit. Optimizing. I, however, have limited powers as such. I've got some things down, and the rest of it? Enh. Enh enh enh. Shrug. Stick it in, close the door, run that sucker. Ain't nothing in life that's perfect. Some things don't deserve more than a cursory try.

Upon opening, (the big reveal!) warm. clean. smooth. white. And the calisthenics of bend, grasp, unfurl, place. Stack coffee cups, perfect. Tea cups, uncooperative. Their handles force them akimbo like girls with attitudes. The saucers-- do we even use saucers anymore? Who is using saucers? WHY are they using saucers? Reach to the back of the cabinet where saucers belong. One lone saucer upon which to stack. Maybe three total, tops. Out of 12. There were twelve once. Like the lost tribes of the Israelites, at some point there was fullness, there was perfection. And then dispersion. 

From what was once a complete, things have multiplied and divided and disappeared, all without any kind of realization, any kind of whole picture of the state of things. As I finish, shoving spatulas into drawers (they are best nested, with their kind), I think, well, at least I can close the cabinet doors. And no matter how much I may detest loading and unloading the dishwasher, I can do it. And I don't have to stand at the sink and wash everything by hand, like in the days before dishwashers. 

There is equilibrium, somehow. Load, unload. Short stack, tall stack. Perfect fit, precarious jostle. The balance is not in the kitchen, per se, but in the person loading and unloading. The practiced bend and reach. The movement.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


The "Top 10 Emailed Articles" on the New York Times web site today:

1. An Immune System Trained to Kill Cancer
2. In Study, Fatherhood Leads to Drop in Testosterone
3. If It Feels Right...
4. A Child's Nap Is More Complicated Than It Looks
5. The Stone: The Meaningfulness of Lives
6. The Trouble With Homework
7. In Suburb, Battle Goes Public on Bullying of Gay Students
8. An Impeccable Disaster
9. A Squirt of Insulin May Delay Alzheimer's
10. Well: Is SpongeBob SquarePants Bad for Children?

America, I think we may need to up our meds.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pretty for you

Not to take the place of words, but sometimes you just need pretty.

This is a picture I took in 2003 in Barcelona of the floor in a house designed by Gaudi.  The shadows are cast from a lace curtain.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Old moon, new moon?

Last night, at 10:38pm, I was quite a sight to see.  Sitting on the leather couch in the basement, wrapped in blankets, a giant metal bowl which had contained my dinner-- 10 cups of popcorn dusted with nutritional yeast-- sobbing.  

Sobbing because I was tired and didn't know how to just go to sleep.  And because my husband has been gone almost a week to a conference in Poland.  And I know it shouldn't make a difference where he's gone to, but the further away he is, the harder gravity pulls the tides up within me.  

I am always shocked by this occurrence: it seems so out of character for me.  But I actually know it very well.  It's the straw widow peeking out.  The straw widow comes out only when the moon is new, and everything is quiet and dark.  

It always seemed strange to me that the new moon is called just that-- new-- because we experience it as an absence.  New suggests, somehow, presence.  

Then again, sometimes for the new to appear, room must be made.  Reminds me of the haiku by Mizuta Masahide:

Barn's burnt down --
I can see the moon.

Sobbing by yourself in your finished basement while watching an episode of a teenage musical drama while your two beautiful, perfect children sleep two floors above you is inane.  Yes, I was sobbing because I was tired.  And overwhelmed.  And unable to let go.  And missing my husband desperately.  

Which is actually, in a sense, redeeming.  I was crying-- stupidly, gulping for air and (though it was dark and I was alone) with a speckled, hottening face-- because in that stupid, stupid teenage love, I could feel the stupid feeling that I needed to feel.  Out of control and desperate for the love of someone I could not have (at least for the moment).  

It's embarrassing to feel you've become untethered.  It's embarrassing-- even in your own basement (perhaps especially in your own basement)-- to let go.  To sob.  

But, to my surprise-- I did just that.  I let it go.  The sobbing did something for me.  

Should that surprise me?  Actually, maybe it shouldn't.  Funny, that thing.  It's like as a baby, all you know is unravel unravel unravel and need the world to swaddle you in.  Then you become that binding for yourself; you become the binding for others. 

Sometimes that unravel unravel unravel is okay.  I really am OK.  Sad, but OK.  I can unravel sometimes, even if just to the floor.  Then I can be retrieved.  I can retrieve myself.  Weave, unweave.  Weave.