writing to survive
. . . only the retelling counts

Toss off that leaden cloak!

I’ve got Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” going through my mind, tinny and dark like it sounded on the mix tape where I first heard it. The song brings up lazy late ‘80s stormy afternoons, as far away now as the late ‘50s were then (the kind of math that always stuns). Or I am back to a wintery Friday evening at Washington College, too early for my boyfriend to show up, and my roommate’s left town, and the dorms feel deserted, so I drink with the other misfits and show up drunk to the half-empty dining hall. These are humiliating times, where it is always dusk, the liminal moment, neither here nor there, also known as the gloaming. We can call it that because WC is a lit school with a Lit House. It has the biggest undergraduate writing prize in the U.S. We liked our fancy words.

My memories of those days are not sun-washed. It was always overcast or in between or the sky had flung its pierced curtain of darkness across the sky hours before, the moon pushing through only to lengthen the shadows. I was never fully present but kept trying to escape the recent past, to forget my hidden shame. In my quest to quell, to quench, I added to the burden.

Shame has the power to keep us in place. It is an ever-tightening garment, a binding of anger turned inward. It does not allow for flow. I carry that constriction. My future clients probably will, too. How would I guide a client to the point of self-forgiveness, to the shrugging off of shame? How do I guide myself?

Self-forgiveness is one of the reasons I started this blog over six years ago. I’ve done some bad things in my life, some of them within the lifespan of the blog, but the thing I thought I needed to forgive myself for was not completely my fault. When I was a teenager, my life blew up. I was unparented, essentially abandoned. After the explosion, I was left holding all the responsibility. That was my job, to take the pain away from the grownups, to contain the anxiety for the rest of us. Forgive myself for what? I played the role I was given. Nobody anticipated that it would be a life or death part.

I still carry shame for that time, for my actions as well as for my abandonment.
That felt personal. Over time, my shame became a heavy lead-laced cloak, me naked and trembling beneath. Reluctant to make myself vulnerable, to expose my shivering form, I pretended the cloak was a gossamer cover of insouciance. It was better to pretend than to show my true pitiful self. But over time, I pulled and ripped pieces of the cloak away until whole sections tore and dragged on the floor. As scary as that experience was, it was also freeing. I take more healthy risks, with great effort to be present as I do so, presenting myself as if I am fine with as is. I continue the process of shedding my shame.

can be done, in small concentrated moments or in huge, fantastical rips. Sometimes you will take those tattered pieces and reattach them. The process is not linear, but iterative. And I truly believe that everyone has the capacity within themselves to let go of those feelings and find the goodness within. Besides, shame is bullshit. A sham. The devil’s work. With guilt, you have the possibility to change, to do it differently next time. Shame traps you within yourself.

Gather up your strength and toss off that leaden cloak. Enlist help. Find someone to tug on one end while you pull on the other. Have a friend hold your hand as you let it drop to the floor. If you can do it, than I can, too. Because no one can do it alone. And that’s no crime. It’s a sign of strength.

Image from The Wit of the Staircase by the late Teresa Duncan. Her somewhat disturbing story can be found here. More here, from Vanity Fair. The things we stumble into . . .

(Tenuous) connections to the past

To the left is a vintage butter curler, a tried and true design made by the German company Westmark. I took it from my grandfather’s house before the sale or maybe when I ransacked the cutlery drawers to outfit my first apartment. I like it for its form, for its winks at utility: it is a butter curler, vegetable garnish maker, melon baller and a bottle opener. What I didn’t know until today is that Westmark continues to manufacture this product. You can buy one online or maybe even find it at your local Sur la table. The classic design lives!

I wish I could remember my grandmother making grand curls of butter with this thing, but all that remains is the cool smoothness of a
Parkay squeeze margarine bottle in my hands as it splurted onto corn on the cob or oozed over potato flakes resuscitated with water, milk, and “butter.” I have no real associations with it, except the remote possibility that my grandmother once used it, perhaps to make butter curls to serve with sliced Wonder bread for her card-playing friends. I doubt she used it for family diners. My grandfather was a practical man who had no patience for frill. He would not have understood the point of sculpted butter.

In my past life, in another time, I would have put this thing on the wall. Back in Columbus, we had an immense blank space in the kitchen on which I hung small antique cooking items. I liked old hand tools as well, and so they would come as presents to eventually be displayed on various walls in various abodes. I still like the shape and form of these old things, the fact that they once had a practical use. I just can’t get up the interest to load up the walls with them anymore.

So it goes with “things.” As I morph and shed skins, as I move on, these no longer useful connections to both my past and the pasts of strangers seem more tenuous and less important. But the wooden pear crate from my childhood continues its second life as a table, books filling the place where fruit once lived. The heirloom desk, a long-ago present from my mother, stands with dignity against the corner. And in a nod to my decorating past, the curved wrenches and shoemaker’s tool I got on the Portobello Road 15 years ago swim in the white sea of a living room wall, three against one, as if they were alive and trying to escape their inauthentic fates.

Perhaps these connections are less tenuous than I claim.
Images by me.

Nobody said this would be easy

7:15 a.m. Out of the house and to BART I go.

9:10 a.m. Group Counseling. Weekly quiz. Activity that had us out of our seats (one step forward, two steps back) and then breaking into pairs to discuss how our interpersonal styles might affect group co-facilitation. An exercise in pulling positives out of apparent negatives. (Independent . . . thinker! Not lone wolf.) Brief lecture. Personal, moving, intense story told by a professor. Weekly process group, the slowly loosening circle. Meeting after to discuss next week’s co-facilitation (gulp!).

12:15 p.m. Forty-five minutes of recovery. Lunch with friend (bright spot!). Two hours of reading and note-taking.

4:10 p.m. Family Counseling. Quiz completed in dyads and triads.
Attachment style questionnaire taken, then discussed in small groups broken down by type. (“Secure.” Really?) More discussion in the larger group. Psychodrama, the acting out of a classmate’s memory, recast with a helping friend. (Response to prof asking me if I wanted to psychologize my former drama: I am an introvert, and I am spent. Truth.)

6:55 p.m. Run to catch shuttle to BART.

8:15 p.m. Home. Totally. Fucking. Exhausted.

10:45 a.m. Out of the house and to BART I go.

12:35 p.m. Research Methods class. Lecture. Relevant exercises with partner. Meeting with group to discuss presentation.

3:10 p.m. Out early!

4:30 p.m. Home. Slightly exhausted. School week over!

8:00 a.m. Boy and husband leave for school and work. Entire day alone.

6:00 p.m. Boy and husband return.


It is good to accept who you are, to know your boundaries, your limits, your needs. But it’s hard for me to feel good about being an extremely introverted person when almost all my class activities are group-based. At some point, I cannot absorb a fact, a facial expression, a simple thought.

It’s not that I dislike people. I
like connection. I just prefer to do most things on my own. I prefer to write about them, actually, to think them through using my creative mind as it connects to my fingers, in the quiet of a moment, in the space I create in my head.

A little input is good, of course. Letting people in, thinking out loud with others, can be refreshing, a learning experience. A totally closed system does not allow for growth. And I
am growing, changing in real time. It’s an almost physical feeling, painful and intense, like the American werewolf in London shifting form in the light of the full moon.

This transformation, however, is positive, a blossoming. I have faith in the process. I have faith in myself. It’s a choice to believe that all this discomfort and newness is worth it.

Image from A Wordy Woman.


A house full of heartbeats

The boy was sick but not sick. I mean, he needed to be sick (and he was, really), but it was just not happening. So we kept the bowl nearby and hoped for the best while he flipped through The Dangerous Book for Boys, and learned about coin tricks and “The Road Not Taken,” waiting for his body to do what it needed to do. Eventually, it did. Overnight he went from restless sniffles to the even breath of deep sleep. Why his tummy needed to be involved in the whole transaction is a mystery.

Before the nausea, we three ate dinner in the sickroom, chiles rellenos made with home grown poblanos served with arroz verde and ancho salsa for the grownups, an ill-advised bowl of bland buttered pasta for the boy. There were kittens on the bed between us and a textbook, along with a stack of articles on resilience, drawings of a battle between humans and monsters, and a clutch of kids’ books paged through over the course of the day.

In the midst of the will he or won’t he, the boy supine on the bathroom floor or hunched over a metal bowl, my husband in the kitchen loading the dishwasher, scrubbing away the evidence of our meal, the vet called about Nora-dog. Our very own Curly Girl had a double ultrasound on Friday, a twofer, the inner workings of her heart and kidneys (really a threefer, I guess) revealed by sound waves penetrating clean-shaven skin. The ultrasound indicated leaky heart valves and a dilated atrium as well as the very beginning stages of kidney disease. The vet is going to consult with a cardiologist about whether Nora needs medication, though it’s early yet on both counts.

She won’t be here forever.

I don’t want to think about it.

At this very moment, as the words sluggishly leave my brain through sleep-thickened fingers, two kittens, a cat, and the dog stare at me. It was early wakeup by kitten again this morning with the usual toe attacks and leg pounces, and the writing has pushed breakfast back by approximately 60 seconds. But with those intent looks, who could forget the next step?

So goodbye for now from a house full of heartbeats, some stronger than others.

Image of Liam with the poblanos taken by me.
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