Lessons Learned from John Kaag: Re-Route, Re-Root.

Salvation can’t be accomplished in isolation.
-John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story

Words have a tendency to change meaning from profession to profession. In the world of  university adjuncts, for example, you may hear the words “professional development.”

We adjuncts hear “time suck.”

I’ve sat through webinars on sexual harassment in the work place (I teach from home), the importance of making time for yourself for the sake of your students (um, have you met my kids?), the costume choices used in different versions of Pride and Prejudice (because a literary festival requires a book to be present in some fashion, ha ha), and all sorts of meetings where we cheer on and on for our ever-present awesomeness for students all over the globe. “You are all so awesome!” My chair/CEO/dean/provost/etc. roots from my screen.

Yay.

51Ek3onp4tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Such was the situation to bring John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story into my hands. I had to fill at least an hour of professional development somehow, and I was sick of “how to keep students focused/use stand-up comedy in seminar for engagement” kinds of webinars. A different department was holding a monthly book club, with Kaag’s latest being May’s choice.

I had “studied” philosophy in college, and by “studied” I mean I audited the 400-level course without any previous credits in philosophy courses. Yeah, not my brightest move. But it promised deep discussions with at least two really cute guys and the teacher was one of those rare men who by all appearances balanced philosophy and faith with ease. I was intrigued then. Don’t remember a lick of it now. But Kaag’s title brought that old intrigue back. Why not? I liked stretching my lit boundaries, and it would earn me a PD hour in the process. I contacted the PhD in charge: I’m in.

~*~

At one point, philosophers like Pierce could determine the very language we use. They had the power to define reality. (25)

“So yeah, I guess it was pretty good, but I had a hard time sympathizing with the narrator.”

“It was informative, but I just couldn’t root for the guy, you know? I mean, he left his wife. Why should I cheer for that?”

The Google Hangout felt way too much like grad school for comfort. It was the dust bunny-addled classroom all over again with cracked plastic chairs and classmates declaring a book unworthy of them solely because they didn’t like the main character.

I was stymied, and conflicted. These people, especially the Dr. So-and-So in charge, should be better at this sort of discussion. Why such shallow comments? Why wasn’t anyone looking past this need to “cheer” a hero and not see the journey Kaag risked showing us? Because I understood this kind of journey. Any one buckled under by depression would.

“Yeah, I mean, talk about a first-world, white-privilege problem.”

~*~

May was not a good month in my house. Family crashed upon us in waves for not one, not two, but three parties for Blondie’s birthday. The church threw some extra duties my way because apparently no one thinks anything has to be done until mere hours before a major retirement dinner. Friends got married upstate, which meant more family gatherings to butter up the baby-sitting and to travel and to get back and to grade final projects and to START a new term and and and AND.

And, it was not a good month. When you’re an introvert, and would love nothing better than a few uninterrupted hours to read and write, this social storm nearly drowned me. Many nights ended in tears. My children noticed: on the “My Mommy” cards Biff and Bash made with their teachers, it was revealed that this is what Bash remembers more than anything:

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How did I respond? With sobs on the front porch. Fuck the neighbors, let them watch, it’s not like they have yet another conference about their sons kicking and fighting the teacher again, Mrs. S forgot this at church can you get it again, Jean we need to talk about the party food again, I need to clean the house again I need I need I need

I. Needed. Out.

So did Kaag. He does indeed leave his first wife, and he does indeed write about his alcoholism. Yet while my colleagues saw these as reasons to put the narrator down, I couldn’t help but think of my own postpartum depression, how my own marriage struggled with the arrival of children. Here I’d managed to write about my sexual abuse, but I couldn’t fathom writing about the purgatory my marriage wandered in for years.

Maybe another well-meaning American philosopher would find the library, but not the books. Maybe, on the drive back to my unhappy marriage, I’d get in the fatal crash I often imagined. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. (38)

I thought nothing of salvation and immortality at Durgin-Park, opting instead to drink myself senseless. At the end of the night I stumbled home and tried to convince my wife I wasn’t drunk. I was looking for help in all the usual places, all the wrong places. (14)

I couldn’t do alcohol, not after losing one uncle and nearly one sister-in-law to it. Motherhood: some days, it just fucking strangles the soul.

When that kind of feeling wraps round the heart, I knew I had to get out. If I didn’t, all the poison inside would dig itself in and suck my love dry. I lived through that once. Not going back there.

I envied Kaag his ability to simply uproot and begin again. What started as a small conference away from Harvard diverted to an exploration of self and of William Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher who gathered thousands of books and letters that together charted the roots and growth of American philosophy. In Hocking’s library, surrounded by old lives and skittering rodents, Kaag felt something new:

Alone in an empty library, in a deserted wood, in a nearly forgotten field of American philosophy, I felt momentarily at home. (32)

I’m betting that, for the first time a long time, he could breathe.

I’m familiar with such a moment.

~*~

But eventually I came across, quite by accident, what I desperately needed to find. (31)

Another fun piece to May was the road work that cut off my town from the town where Blondie’s school is located. Thank God for Google Maps–a new road to the north, and a cut through hilly farmland. On the way out of town I passed this sign: Charles Langer Family Park.

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A park? Where? Farmland as far as the eye could see. For the kids, invisible = nonexistent, so we continued in our new ruts.

Then one day–in May, for like I said, all things happened in May–Blondie had to attend yet another birthday party, but this one was rather short. It wasn’t worth going home just to rile the boys up with “WHERE’S MOMMY GOING!?” when it was time to retrieve the girl. I could drop Blondie off and–gasp, read! But where to read? The library was packed with their book sale (not worth it). The riverside park was packed with geese, who don’t much care for human beings.

And then I remembered. And knew.

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I watched the tractors work before driving on.

Where would this road take me? Considering the proximity of Madison, a small part of me hoped that I, too, would discover a forgotten library, or at least some literary treasure of equal awesomeness.

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I parked. The place looked popular, but…no playground? At least the nature trail looked promising. Once again, I’m out before spring’s taken full effect. Oh, Wisconsin, you are so temperamental. Yet you cannot dim the sun’s magic cast upon the water and the leaves, nor can you silence distant birds, calling together. Perhaps that’s why these rocks were set up as an auditorium: for nature talks.

Ting!

I think nothing of the goofy metallic noises and watch the river.

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I walked on.

The point, if one could call it that, was to experience the sublime in the mundane. And this experience, so common yet so rare, had intrinsic value, the sort of value that made a life worth living. (70)

Ting!

What the–

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DISC GOLF?!

You mean to tell me that my town, unable to support a grocery store or a pub or any normal amenity, can maintain a large, gorgeous disc golf course?

I couldn’t stop laughing. Yes, I pissed off one couple, who seemed to be doing this as a date (she sure looked thrilled) and a group of hipsters from Lord-Knows-What-Suburb.

I kept walking, and laughing, probably looking a little crazy, surely feeling a little crazy, but the more I walked along old tree roots, the less I felt like drowning. I was on dry land after all, with life still moving forward if I didn’t clean that day, if the retirement table wasn’t ornate enough, if the cake wasn’t to my in-laws’ preference. The kids would fight, but they’d hug, too. They’d wrap their little arms round me so tight, so strong, and hug until I laughed myself out of breath.

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And it occurred to me: I was breathing.

Ting. 

For all the love and wonder we hold for words, there is a time when words are the last thing we need. Sometimes we just need to pull ourselves up and away to a place so utterly outside of our normal, we can’t not take it in.

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Salvation is revealed in the long road of freedom and love.
-J. Kaag

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Expectations & Derailments

The railway lines of Wisconsin are old and fragile, like the veins on a grandfather’s hand. Few are used for freight, even fewer for people. One runs parallel to the county highway I drive weekly to take Biff and Bash to school. Unable to work with a dead laptop,  I milled about, catching a few lousy photos on that lousy grey day.

When Bo had decided to take a few days off, I told him I needed him to do more with the kids so I could work. I expected swathes of time to revise the website, write several chapters of Middler’s Pride, and establish realistic writing goals with essay revisions and book proposals. “I need BIG chunks of the day. Six to eight hours, at least,” I said. “Okay,” he said.

Well, guess what didn’t happen. Did I let Bo know it? You bet your ass I did. Every night: “I needed to get that done.” “You’ve got to handle the kids more.” “Can’t you take them out? I need to get stuff done.” “Dammit that should have been done by now.” The days sped by, and what happened? A little bit of reading, barely any writing. And of course, if lack of time wasn’t enough, both computers had to up and die.

Enough pictures. The wind hurt my cheeks like matchbox cars wielded by angry sons. Where was I even going to put these? It could be a week before we have a computer running properly at home. Never mind writing, how the hell was I going to teach?

Fuck never mind. Who was I kidding? Even when Bo had off of work, I couldn’t accomplish shit because the boys hoisted everything at me. How in Heaven and Hell did I think I could make a writer’s life for myself when my family needs ME, and needs me NOW. I may as well have picked up the rails at my feet, slung them over my shoulder, and plopped them by the Rock River to make a fun little bridge, perfect for a child’s adventure into another…

Stop it. The Motherhood Line never veers from its goal. Any car that runs its rails better be Mother-related, or it gets left on a siding to rot.

~*~

The lousy day turned to a lousy night. My black mood put Blondie on edge. She hovered on some invisible border, watching for an in. “Mommy, can I do the dishes?”

“No.” I didn’t even look at her as I clanked a new pile into the sink. “They’re fragile.”

“But I wanna help.”

Clank. Rinse. “You can help by keeping your brothers out of my hair.” Clank. Rinse.

She slid back to her chair, face down.

Bo came over from laundry. “I can do that,” he said with a hand full of clothes.

“What are you–” I snatched what was in his hand. “These can’t go together. This is a delicate, and this needs to go in a bag first.” Back to the clanking, rinsing. Thoughts washed in gunk that stuck fast: He PROMISED to help and he fucking DIDN’T, HE failed me, it’s HIS fault, I could have done more if Bo would have fucking stepped the fuck UP

Everything grew so rank inside I couldn’t even read to Biff and Bash. Instead, I complained about what never got done, what has to get done tomorrow by some miracle of God, that I was stupid to think I could even do this writing shit in the first place–

Bo rushed the kids to bed, hardly closing Blondie’s door before hauling me into the living room, kicking the boys’ Thomas trains aside to make room for my ass. “Stop. That. NOW.”

I rolled my eyes at him. He didn’t get it, of course.

“For the love of GOD, dear…look. Just…why don’t you go somewhere tomorrow and work. Do your website,” he practically growled the words, “do your writing. Get out and do it.”

Huh? He had wanted his last day off to be for the two of us. Mom was taking all three kids for the day–no small offer, I promise you.

I could just see it: me in a silent place, new computer all set to go, hours for my work…but…”Don’t you want to go out tomorrow?”

“YES! Of course I want to go out with you! We haven’t gone on a date since what, July? But…fuck you’ll think me an asshole…but why should we bother?” He tossed a piece of train track into the bin, such a loud THWACK would surely wake the kids, if they’re not up anyway. “All you’re going to think about is what you didn’t get done. That’s all you’re on.” THWACK. “It’s like you can’t see how far you’ve come in one year. I mean, you got the blessing of Pete Townshend. You get to use songs by The FUCKING Who for your story.” THWACK THWACK. “You’ve got thousands of people on both sides of the planet”–THWACK–“reading your stuff but all you look at is what you should have done by now. Like nothing you do is ever good enough.” He wiped his eyes on his sleeves as he shoved the bin of train tracks aside. “I believe in you, Jean. But it’s fucking hard when you don’t even believe in yourself.”

My mind and lungs froze on the formation of those words from his lips: I believe in you.

Never had Bo said those words. When I started this all in 2015 he saw it as something to quiet my whines about not writing. Whenever my motherhood/teacherhood/depression threatened to quash it, he would go silent, blink it off, wait for the threat to solve itself, or for me to solve it.

But today, Bo believes in my writing. My writing, and of all crazy things: me.

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I had always thought this writer’s path, muddy, cold, and unknown, to be a lonely one. The further I’ve gone, the more I’ve met on this same path: others struggling against the elements of their lives to still press on and discover the treasured language we know is hidden up ahead.

That night, I found a hand I could hold, physically hold, on that path. I grabbed it then. It grabbed me back. And for a good long while we held ourselves together, glued by love, tears, and snot.

I’d given up long ago on finding support for my writing from within my family. I was faith-less, and without that faith, I was blind to the growing support Bo wanted to give me. He may never understand my stories, but faith isn’t built on logic, is it? It comes from Hope. Love. Joy. Sacrifice.

Jesus once said that if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains.

I’ll settle for rails.

 

 

Hung in Memory

Three Christmas trees stand in our house, each trimmed with memories old and new.

The oldest tree is a fiber optic tree I bought in my years at boarding school. Its motor to change colors is as loud as a washing machine, but Blondie loves it. She decorates it with all the Peanuts ornaments Bo has given me since we first started dating twelve years ago. The boys have a tree Bo bought during his year of ministry internship. We keep its ornaments mostly unbreakable, as the garland is often pulled off to be rope.

The family tree is a collection of Christmases past. There are ornaments Bo and I have made or received over the past thirty-some years.

My grandmother made this one by hand. The time, the patience, the steady hand to wrap the thread just so, to pin the pearls and sequins.

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When I was young, our ornaments were all packed in a giant stove box. At some point my elder brother and I started a contest to find this glass dove. Some years it was in the first layer of ornaments; other years the fifth.

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Some ornaments hang in memory of those who’ve died. When my mother’s parents died, I received their Christmas angels. They always fly just beneath the star.

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When my father’s parents died, I received back a few ornaments I had bought them years ago.

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Christmases had more family then. More life.

Not so much these days.

Last Christmas, my sister-in-law tried to kill herself.  This year our relations with Bo’s side have been tense, but nothing…out there, into the darkness again. And for that I’ve been thankful. They even wanted to come to our house last week for Blondie’s Christmas service and my birthday.

In the hours before they arrived, my mother called to sing happy birthday–a tradition. One hour later, she called in tears.

“It’s…it’s Aiden. Oh, Jean, he’s…he’s not with us anymore. He was so despondent, his partner…” sobs.

I stopped breathing. My cousin was just a couple years older, a sweetheart. When Mom faded after “partner” all I could think was, What the fuck did he do to my cousin, I’ll fucking–

“His partner found him. He…he hung himself, Jean.”

The kids screamed for more peanut butter waffles.

The washing machine honked.

The oven declared something, I don’t know why the fuck that timer was even on, just so much God damn NOISE. Fucking NOISE when I all I could do was huddle up in the hallway and cry.

I managed to call Bo. He managed to get out of work just before his relatives came. My sister-in-law takes the coffee I offer her and asks, “So, how’s it going?”

Part of me just wants to punch her.

“Not great.” And I find I’m physically unable to make words. Do I just flat out say, “My cousin hung himself, so I’m pretty shitty right now because the last thing I want to do is celebrate a birthday or talk to people. I want to walk outside in the below-zero snow and fucking THINK, and cry, and let the tears freeze my face because I fucking failed my family.”?

I don’t say it.

Bo tells them later.

No one acts like anything happened. They carry on just as we were directed to do last year: lots of plastered smiles and talk without substance. I cringed inside and cried outside while they all sat around the Nintendo or the snack table. After the tenth worried stare I told Blondie that my cousin had died. “So now he’s with Jesus!” She tells me with a hug. My sob shakes her bones.

~*~

My elder brother wants me to ride with him across the state for the funeral. I decline. I wanted to sit in silence…or noise, if I wanted. I want to control my environment, however briefly. To have ONE thing under my control.

Why, Aiden?

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The obituary barely mentioned depression. Was his depression like my own postpartum depression? Bo knew I was sad, knew I was depressed, but he had no clue just how bad it was until I put it into writing years later. He looked at me like he didn’t know me.

I learned as a child to live two lives: the life locked away with The Monster, and the public life of the Preacher’s Daughter. I learned to smile and joke and shrug and separate the pain and confusion so it felt like an other-life, like it couldn’t possibly impact the world outside my bedroom. Did Aiden live as two selves?

And it never even occurred to me to get it out, to really talk about it, until these past couple of years. Between the writing and the reading of Zoe Zolbrod’s experience as an abuse victim, I hadn’t physically felt just how deep that pain had saturated me. It’s been a long, nasty time, working the poisons out. And until The Monster agrees to family therapy, the poisons will never be out completely.

What kept the poisons in Aiden? Or did he not even know he had been poisoned at all?

When pain is all we know, we don’t realize there’s an alternative. The toddler of a friend of mine often tires of walking because she’s a problem with her hip my friend can’t afford to have surgically handled. The girl’s not a fan of walking or running, and who can blame her? She’s never known the movement to not hurt. Was that life for Aiden? Did life just never not hurt?

Much of my father’s family fell out of contact with Aiden when he opened up about his homosexuality. My uncle didn’t help much: while a kind and funny man, he was also very selfish, much like his wife. The two split not-amicably, leaving Aiden and his sister with their mother in the North Woods while he moved to Florida. Even Aiden’s funeral wasn’t enough to bring him back.

No wonder, then, when I went to the visitation and studied the pictures hung about the room and saw near nothing of our branch of the family. To my shame, it’s only right. The stills of his past were filled with those who were there for him in the present. While I can look back on the warm glow of childhood Christmases spent together, we only saw each other a handful of times in the past fifteen years: I had gone on to school, marriage, and motherhood. I only caught snippets of his struggles with alcohol, relationships, and relations with his own mother and sister. The last time I saw him was at our grandfather’s funeral. We spoke for a long time about faith and love, the insanity of kids–he had been helping raise his nephew. The last I heard of him he even had custody of one because his sister continued to struggle with drugs.

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How I wish I would have known of his love of the 80s. Of writing. Of him. Because for all that philosophical and nostalgic talk we never really talked about each other. We never reached for each other.

I have to live with that missed chance now, but I’m not going to let that regret ferment into another poison. NW Filbert once shared this quote from Wendell Berry to me. It’s never fit more than now:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Reach for those whom you love this Christmas. Hug them. Plant a big wet one on their foreheads. Christmas glows not only with light, but with hope. May that hope shine as you call them out of their inner darkness.

Click here for more on the American Federation for Suicide Prevention.

Lesson Learned from Charlie Brown: Dream Big.

mv5bnte5nzmxnzkwnl5bml5banbnxkftztgwotq0nzk5nze-_v1_When one walks under the weight of depression, life itself aches. Despite therapy and the writing regimen both creative and confessional, I have felt little hope for the future. My school has me on reserve to teach not just 40, but potentially 80 students. Bo’s schedule has gone haywire, and we find ourselves in survival mode. I can’t get ten minutes’ peace on the computer when the boys were awake. The church wants me to do A, B, and C in a month–wait, actually 7 days. That’s fine, right?

All this over the past few months, plus taking notes on The Tellinga memoir about recovering from sexual abuse by @ZoeZolbrod. I had already shared two parts of my reflection: of facing the pain within myself, and coming to terms with how an abusive past impacts motherhood.What remains is the final, most painful facing: that with The Monster himself. It will end with either reconciliation and healing with my family as a whole, or severance, and the destruction of several blood ties. We await on when the children can be watched, when life will make it “convenient,” and all the while my lungs knot when my mother brings him up, of having him over for the holidays, and sleepovers, and….

A rather not-fun time, that.

Music, thankfully, alters my insides for the better.

Desperate for a change from Veggie Tales sing-a-longs, I got a copy of The Peanuts Movie soundtrack. My folks both enjoyed Peanuts comics, toys, and cartoons, and that joy passed down to me and my kids. When word came of a new film, I remained skeptical.

Now? My whole family loves it, and I strongly recommend you watch it with or without little ones. Oh, the kids love it when Snoopy the World War I flying ace saves his beloved Fifi, and Bo enjoys all the tightly executed homages to the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas, but I see something else: I see the journey of a writer.

No, not Snoopy (though he’s quite the author with his typewriter!). Charlie Brown.

He’s the odd one out, the one never really understood by others. He keeps trying to succeed with his passions such as kite-flying, but just. Can’t. Do it. The same old obstacles, like the kite-eating tree, snatch his hope away. He’s scoffed and ridiculed by his peers. When a new kid–the little red-haired girl, no less!–moves onto his street, he is awestruck. All he wants is a chance to show her the real him, the Charlie Brown no one else sees.

“Charlie Brown is not a quitter.” -Charlie Brown

How many of us have felt misunderstood, simply labeled and discarded as hopeless cases? How many of us come down with “a serious case of inadequacy,” as Charlie Brown puts it?

He tries different things to impress her: he prepares a magic act, only to give up his chance so he can help his sister Sally instead. He learns to dance for the winter dance competition, only to slip and set off the sprinkler system. He spends the weekend reading War and Peace and writing a book report for their team grade only to watch his paper get shredded by a toy.

Time, and time, and time again he gives his all and gets nothing in return. Even the star he wishes on falls from the sky. All he can count on is his dog, who remains loyal and loving no matter the disaster. (Dyane, I can’t help but think of you and Lucy!)

When I hear Christophe Beck‘s piano melody for Charlie Brown’s moments of defeat, I’m on the verge of tears, especially here, during his school assembly.

And yet, despite all the hopelessness, Charlie Brown dreams on. He sees the success of another kid’s kite-flying attempt, and hopes for his own. Don’t we have those moments as writers, too?

Then, out of beyond-nowhere, the little red-haired girl wants to be his summer penpal. His. Charlie Brown’s. All he’s been through, all he was ready to give up on, and…and he didn’t even DO anything this time! Why, why now? She tells him: she had watched him and all he went through over the year, and felt him a friend worth knowing.

How many of us have reached out with words, and wanted nothing more than to feel a reader’s hand find ours?

Perhaps you’ve been feeling nothing more than the football pulled out from under you. That the world has deemed you a failure because:

“You’re Charlie Brown, that’s why!” -Lucy Van Pelt

Well, guess what? Charlie Brown may be gullible enough to still run for Lucy’s football, but he’s also a thoughtful, kind, and giving person who never gives up, no matter how many kites he loses. He dreams of a chance to meet someone who can see him for all he is and could be, not just his failures and shortcomings.

Dream big, fellow writers. Charlie Brown is worth knowing. So are you.

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Writer’s Music: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

51tandu2qrl-_sy355_Do you imagine in words?

I do sometimes. When I’m working through a piece of life, as I am now with The Telling and my own history of sexual abuse, I tend to see in words. It’s a strange switch from seeing a story: I don’t smell, feel, or hear. My eyes see nothing but words an inch from my face, and even they have a fuzz to them, so it takes a few tries to decipher. The more I read, the more my senses follow, and life within me finds a focus.

 

Music helps me see more than the story. Music helps me see the language of me.

I knew how to read notes before words, having started piano at the age of 4. My father loved to write hymns, and my mother often directed choirs. We kids learned numerous church-friendly instruments, and sang in the choirs. (Bo likes to think my father secretly aspired for us to become a Christian version of the Partridge Family. Thank God THAT didn’t happen.) Even after Dad died, my mother and elder brother continued to give to the church with music, while my kid brother went on to become a pastor himself.

Despite all I have experienced–all the time-stops on those afternoons long agoor the endless days with my newborn sonsmusic and stories always propelled me forward. One word follows another; one note comes after another. They emote. Inspire. Begin. End. Define, yet live on without limit.

Which, at last, brings me to that which I wanted to share with you.

Whenever I’ve written about parenting, depression, or abuse, I pull up The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Some of the tracks are more narrative than others; these I ignore. But a few have such a…it’s a tense hope. Like Mychael Danna’s Capote, the score is dominated by strings and piano. Capote, however, has more menacing undertones to it than Assassination–a result of the bass and fewer harmonies, I think. I also feel more of a time-stop with Capote, especially during the solo piano I love so much. Assassination‘s “Song for Bob” has a very slow build while strings are added, and added. A sense of resolve comes through when the violin joins at the 1:30 mark, and even though the rhythm of the harmonies repeats, the build goes on. When the piano joins, the strings seem…not forced, but their harmonies alter, and for some moments the viola provides what feels like the final monologue in a Shakespearean tragedy. The return of the original rhythm and harmonies is different, yet the same.

How like us, we who undergo the shift within to reclaim our total selves.

 

Lesson Learned from Zoe Zolbrod: First, Face Myself.

Before my kid brother or true nightmares existed, I came across a blue jay on the sidewalk. Its plumage looked beautiful despite all the little bugs crawling all over it, and was it a problem its eye no longer stayed in place? I didn’t think so. I knew it wasn’t properly alive; a properly alive bird flies away when you get near it. But I really hadn’t thought too much about death apart from “Jesus died and rose again.” Death had no sense of permanence. When the time came, the bird would be properly alive again.

There is a difference, I think, in knowing something is not-right vs. knowing something is wrong. I knew the bird wasn’t alive like me, but I didn’t know it was wrong to put it in a dump truck and drive it around like any other stuffed animal. You better believe my mother made sure I knew after scrubbing my hands for several minutes. The disease, the dirt one can get from playing with the forbidden. It transfers. It festers.

telling-cover-3I still carry a dirtiness on me and in me, and I’ve never been able to scrub it off. Zoe Zolbrod used the same term: “my dirtiness, of which my victimhood was a part” in her memoir The Telling (71).

It was the first time I had seen the word tied to the Feeling. Experience. Person.

And through reading, that Person was me.

Zolbrod sent me reeling with the stench of old wounds and fears. When she recounted the first night her cousin came into her room, I remembered the hall light in my bedroom, and The Monster’s silhouette as my parents were occupied elsewhere in the house. Let’s play a game. His hands slipped under the elastic waistband of my pajamas. It felt wrong. It had to be wrong, but…but he’s family, so…so it couldn’t be THAT wrong, could it?

When Zolbrod wrote of the cousin’s coming in the day when her parents promised to be gone, all those afternoons pulled me back, those hours when The Monster knew my parents were bound to be at church for hours, got my kid brother to be quiet in the basement while he kept me in my room, knowing there was no way I could overpower him as he talked so damn calmly as he reached in. Pulled down. Slipped his tongue in. Put my hands there. This is what family does for each other. Don’t you want to be like other girls?

I didn’t. Yet The Monster spoke time and again, turning the wrongness into something normal-ish, practically traditional. It wasn’t properly wrong, just not-right.

Zolbrod takes readers through life after the abuse, including how she began to move beyond her cousin in a new “float of physical bliss” with the boyfriends of her youth  (76). She took back her sexuality, her body. I, on the other hand, retreated as far as I knew how. I wore sagging clothes that would have made my father look a wastrel, refused to do my hair or face. I was often mistaken for a man by strangers, and didn’t care. I didn’t want to be seen as other girls. I didn’t want to be seen. And no one could, not the proper me, so long as I hid it deep enough. Zolbrod calls it “personhood vacating” (121). I fled into myself where The Monster could never reach. Like Zolbrod, I discovered my own “inborn intricacies,” and thought that In Here, The Monster could never really hurt me (94). A body’s nothing, the soul everything. And he’ll never get that.

Until now.

Words make worlds, do they not? Writers create with language. And I had created a wall with the words of stories, metal so thick surely no villain could penetrate them.

But in reading Zolbrod’s memoir, words twisted into sinew and skin: the hands, calloused and hot, across my body. How does it feel?

Words betrayed me. They burned me so that every emotional poke from my children felt like an axe on firewood.

Little Loves, you’re better off tossing Mommy out with all that’s broken. I’m no good for you. You deserve someone whole. Clean. Better.

Does a phoenix feel like this when the fire finally comes and cleanses its rigid body of all the creepy-crawlies?

I have written of phoenixes before. They, too, live anew and beyond death. When I finished Zolbrod, I felt as she after reading Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: “I sensed some truth about armor and pure resolve arising from violence and shame” (41). For years I have struggled to make sense of why God put me through that pain. God’s plan is always sure and right, He never gives us more than we can bear, God knows best, etc. So apparently it was in my best interests to be abused?

At this point, a “Fuck you” screamed at heaven sounds near-logical. Sounds, but doesn’t feel. Perhaps it’s the preacher’s kid in me, who has always thought faith a second-breath, as important as blood and unable to be transfused if lost. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve already faced such horrible parts of myself during the years of post-partum that to look back on something even older and disown God on THAT seems…Petty?

Or maybe, and I think this may be the truth, it’s because I could feel the armor and resolve grow with me, and take me beyond the Monster’s reach. I have knowledge others do not: to be tortured year, after year, after year, to suffer on my own without hope of help, yet live. I fucking lived. My husband, my children, my friends, my masters, my teaching, my—well, this, here. MY words. They’re mine. And they don’t hurt.

Now the real duel awaits:

I must face The Monster, hands and all, in the present.

Click here for more on Zoe Zolbrod and THE TELLING.

Growing Pains

As a final Mother’s Day gift, Bo handled the kids so I could go to the Olbrich Gardens in Madison and spend some time by myself—sort of. The place was packed for poetry and graduation photos. Still, I spent over an hour speaking to no one, which, as a mother, was AMAZING.

Originally, I had planned on taking my mother, her sister, and Blondie to the Gardens on Mother’s Day. When my aunt declined, my mother decided we shouldn’t bother. “Nothing will be growing anyway,” she said with a sniff at our home’s lackadaisical attempt at landscaping.

To a degree, I can see she’s right: many of the blooms remain closed against Wisconsin’s temperamental spring. The green is bright, a true spring green, the kind of green that mothers know well as “baby vomit a la pois” (with peas). The color I do find is luminescent against the green foliage and uncertain sunshine.

These flowers linger in their transition, eager for the warmer season.

I, too, linger in transition.

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“You need to stop living a duplicitous lifestyle,” my therapist says. “Be authentic. You can’t heal until you let yourself come together.”

I nod, shake off the tears. Inside I wince at the word “duplicitous.”

Duplicitous. It sounds…evil. Dark. Full of wicked intentions under a happy mask.

A mask I’ve worn for many, many years.

I have always lived the public life, the Good Girl of the Pastor’s Family, the Perfect Daughter who plays in church and sings in the choir and does all her work and plays all the sports and helps at the nursing home and does and does and DOES

The mask grew with me, the Good Girl who gets the scholarship and goes to school and works the jobs and gets the grades and works and works and WORKS until she’s married, and a Good Wife, and a Good Mother, who fulfills all the family needs and cleans up the vomit and teaches online while two boys suckle at her breasts and sings with her daughter and cooks for the husband and hosts the holiday parties and does and does and DOES

All this fills the Outer Life, the Out Here that sees the mask, assumes all is well, and carries on.

Had my original plan worked, and I had come here for Mother’s Day, I could have witnessed my daughter’s delight as we stroll through shower after shower of white and pink petals. Too late—the petals wilt on the dirt like false snow for a performance. A fairy’s dance in a ballet, perhaps. Every bridge, trellis, archway of crossed branches feels like a portal to Elsewhere Fantastic, Anywhere But Where I Am.

I have written before of my draw to portals (“The Forgotten Portal“) and forest paths (“My Narnia“). Of course many writers are enticed by such things. But this bridge, that arch, mean more than fantasy.

They mark a fresh route of escape, a hiding place from what I am told is the only true way to heal:

To face myself, and The Monster who made me this way.

My Inside Life is very different.

In Here are worlds strange and complete, peopled by beloved characters real and created. My worlds are bridged by lightning and rainbows. Every world has an evil, and a good, and the evil never quite goes away, but hope never stops fighting, either. In Here, my soul found sanctuary against The Monster, and forged walls with my confusion, pain, and fear. Tears hissed on the hot metal. The walls locked the poisonous secrets away, protected my worlds. My soul learned to thrive in pieces.

It never occurred to me my soul could be anything but broken.

I thought my walls impenetrable, but then Jason Voorhees arrived with motherhood, and my walls were nicked, hacked, and finally breached (“The Machete and the Cradle“).

Motherhood does that: exposes old childhood fears. Nightmares you realize you lived, that you never, ever want to touch your children. Three lives have grown in me, and now grow in walls I help keep clean of strawberry jam and yogurt. Their souls burn so bright around me, I have a hard time believing a broken soul such as mine could have had a hand in their becoming. But then I think of my daughter’s age, my own age when The Monster came, and I run away to retch.

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Words are themselves duplicitous. They free and bind us, all at once.

Daughter.

Mother.

Victim.

Abuse.

Each word is wrapped so tightly in connotation and presumption that we never quite see how our individual connections alter their power. Maybe we are all too eager to wear that “Proud Mommy” shirt. We don’t know how to remove the “daughter” apron strings that our mothers have knotted around our necks. Other people are “victims,” but not us. Not us, we’re not like them. What happened back then, everyone goes through that. That wasn’t “abuse.” That was normal. That was how things were. What’s abuse, anyway? Everyone went through it, it’s life, it’s in the past, it doesn’t really matter because it’s all back there and not up here and the past doesn’t matter grow up be good be GOOD

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I watch a robin wash itself in one of the many waterfalls in the garden. All the creatures here have evolved to not fear people at all; birds nest right next to paths, chipmunks practically run over my feet as they find new patches to dig. Even the bees don’t give a toss, humming along as they weave among the open blooms they find and return to their hives along the Gardens’ perimeter. The numerous couples—hand in hand, a few feet apart, the boy purse trolley for the girl photographer—have a bad habit of posing right where I wish to shoot, be it bridges or waterfalls, but for once, I am alone. The robin takes one look at me, looks up at the sun (likely a bird’s version of an eye roll—“bloody tourists”), and goes back to bathing. The wings make a muted splash of soft, sparkled droplets. Bathing twin boys has made me forget one can splash without sending a gallon of water out of the tub.

The robin reminds me of a memoir promoted on a blog I follow about author Zoe Zolbrod coming to terms with her past as a victim of abuse. How she has shared it in her own way over the years, and how it has helped shape her life.

I find a gateway formed by a treebranch and leave for another garden.

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The Rose Tower feels like a good sanctuary, despite the children pounding on its floorboards. Clouds pass over then, and the cold stone of the tower’s room, with its four arches to four different gardens, feels like a crossing to other worlds.

Do I hide?

No. My children cannot afford for me to lock myself away in tears and darkness.

Do I go on as before, broken but functional?

No. I am exhausted by the forced smiles to cover the isolation and pain. My children need a mother, not a mask.

Do I bring my writing self and my real self together?

I…I don’t know. This scares me, truly, for my writing, my worlds, have always been a sanctuary. The only member of my family who understood writing’s pleasure died two years ago, and even he didn’t understand why I couldn’t write about the goodness of Jesus and a happy Christian life.

Do I bring my past self and my writing self together?

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This does seem to be the arch I take, doesn’t it? Here are the words as proof. I have written “victim,” and know I write about me. I have written of fear. Of pain.

But somewhere in all this, I wrote of hope, too. Of a soul.

If I want to write, really write, I cannot use a mask and call it a character. Characters are beings of bodies and souls. They have their own reasons to hide or fight.

The only way one create a complete person to inhabit a complete world is to make oneself complete.

My feet crunch upon the gravel. Out Here, among the pools and walkways, I search for the path that turns widdershins and guides me back into myself, to my soul.

To a fighter.

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Mrs. Fix-It

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My living room is a perpetual kill-floor.

“Mommy, fix Windlifter’s tail-fin?”

“No, it’s broken.”

“Mommy, fix the ladder truck?”

“Fix Dipper’s wing?”

“Fix the picture?”

“Fix it?”

“Fix it?”

“Can you fix it tonight?”

“No, it’s BROKEN.”

Bits of car, shards from a thrown plane. Train tracks strewn everywhere. Torn pictures, colored and blank. Books, stepped on, slid on, and therefore ripped.

Of course, this all comes from having twin boys who think biting and clawing are typical play. If something CAN break, it SHOULD, and because it is theirs it MUST be fixed. To accept something’s broken is to accept they did something wrong. Not the easiest task for a three-year-old.

And who is expected to fix whatever “it” may be?

Me.

~*~

My father was a Mr. Fix-It. Called away to the hospital to stabilize an uproar between family and staff. Between family and family. Called merely to sit, and to listen to those whose families act like they’re dead. Called away to sit, and to listen, and to attempt a bridging between those determined to tear their own families apart.

The demands on fixing didn’t stop with his vocation.

My aunt’s husband died a few years ago from excessive drinking and smoking. Surgery after surgery, warning after warning, and he never stopped. Many of us saw his death as inevitable. Not my aunt.

Life wasn’t quite so insane for me back then: Biff tucked himself quietly away in the back of my womb while Bash somersaulted to his heart’s content. Toddler Blondie loved to be with her Grandma and Grandpa, so we often visited on weekends. After a particularly busy morning outside Blondie crashed in the guest room; the rest of us settled for a quiet read/work time in the basement.

Then my aunt called. Mom put it on speaker, because apparently no phone call was private in that house. “I just got the autopsy report, and…” sobs.

This is my mother’s sister.

My mother hands her off to Mr. Fix-It, and goes to the laundry room.

I get up to go, but no–stay, Jean. You’ll wake Blondie.

So I sit, and listen to my aunt go on and on about why no one told her it was this bad, why her husband didn’t say anything. Dad all the while gently telling her no one could tell Uncle D what to do, Uncle D always had a strong faith, and on and on.

My mother occasionally comes by the phone, but doesn’t take over the conversation until my aunt’s sobs have died down. Until the fixing’s done.

Dad looks at me, shakes his head. Goes back to writing his sermon.

~*~

Being the stay-at-home-parent has made me the Mrs. Fix It of my family. All the ripped/cracked/frosted/peed on items are brought to me. When Bash gets over a tantrum, he comes to me to “clean his face.” Even if Bo is home, I’m the one sought. And if I plan to leave the home, Bo seeks me out to fix up the children’s schedule for him so he knows what to do and when.

~*~

Every family has a Fixer, the one who maintains the connections, is sought for improvements, changes.

Somehow, Dad’s death put his duties on me.

I didn’t feel it at first, overwhelmed by my own grief.

Then came the phone calls from my mother.

Grief counseling was a waste of time, she said. She wouldn’t talk to another pastor, because no one else was Dad.

I have two brothers: one who lives near her, the other a pastor elsewhere in the country. My mother and I have never been bound with more than the ties created by Christian duty.

Yet she talked to me. Sobbed to me. And I never, ever had the right thing to say.

Some souls are so…so rich with love and faith that when they are removed, it is a literal chasm in your emotional and spiritual self. I don’t know if, being my father’s daughter, my mom expected me to somehow replace Dad. I don’t know if, now that Dad was gone, she thought we could finally have a relationship. I don’t know. I’ve never known my mom, and in all the talks in tears I still don’t know her. Every attempt I made at comfort or encouragement was not what she wanted to hear, at least from me. So eventually, she stopped calling.

Then came the messages: friends of my parents, relatives of my father. At any given family gathering or run-in with friends I am the one who’s asked: “How’s your mom? Is she seeing anyone?” And all I can give are platitudes: “up and down.” “good days and bad days.” Facebook messages pop up from people I haven’t seen in years, wondering how she is. I am sought to maintain the connections. I am expected to Fix This, All of This.

~*~

I sit on the floor in my sons’ room. Shades still drawn. Dark, quiet, since the boys are happily watching their favorite trains.

Quiet but for my sobs.

There came a point where all I could see were expectations unfulfilled. Of progress dumped out onto the floor, and broken, again, to be fixed, AGAIN, and how come you can’t fix it why can’t you mommy FIX it Mommy FIX IT

And there’s nothing I can do.

Tomorrow I will leave the house, schedule neatly written and left on the kitchen counter for Bo, and pull up to an office building. Walk in. State I have an appointment.

Tomorrow I will go up to someone who’s never met me, and lay it all out. All the broken pieces, the twisted old bits that used to work until they were trampled one too many times.

Tomorrow I will ask someone else to help Fix It.

Me.

 

 

Facade

I walk into the master bathroom and find a square present with “Happy Anniversary!” written in silver. Granted, Bo and I got married on New Year’s Eve, so to see such a gift on Christmas Day wasn’t outlandish. In the bathroom, though…anyway.

“I’m so excited! Open it, open it!” My sister-in-law Bev revels in all things special occasion. She’ll spend hours at work planning lavish parties and celebrations, the tiniest details settled weeks in advance. The fact she has been written up at work for not doing work is beside the point. Parties! She sucks in her breath a bit to fit between the half-wall and Christmas tree. “I did it at work. So easy, so fun, you know?”

That’s comforting, I think as I unwrap…a photo book of my wedding to Bo. It’s sweet, nice. I say as much.

Bev looks over my arm at the family picture which includes Bo, his brother, her. We do not comment on the change nine years and a child have done to her once marathon-ready body. We don’t have to. Tears once again well up in the corner of her eyes. I flip the page and comment on Grandpa Varinski, already losing the fight to Parkinson’s. Grandma Varinski, bless the old bird, swooped in and grabbed the book with her talons before I could turn another page. Bev could talk to her about all the pictures, about the smiles. About the niceties.

I can see the appeal of The Show. Sure, our house is always this clean. I’ve always got time to scrapbook. Oh, this ol’ recipe? Sure it took three hours to prep, but who doesn’t have the time? Care for a race car made of crackers and olives?

That Show, it proves to others you can manage work and family with time for you to spare. PROVES it, beyond a doubt. In Bev’s mind, that is.

No one likes to think about Life After the Show. Of an alcoholic family who doesn’t understand what decades of neglect can do to a person. Of a toddler who bites and screams and kicks the pet. Of a husband who doesn’t want another child. Far easier to close the curtain on the Real, and embrace The Show. Make it go on, and on…

With the help of wine and pills, Bev nearly did just that.

Bo turned on his phone when he reached work at 4am to find a flurry of text messages from his brother: Bev locked herself in the bathroom and tried to kill herself. Cops were called. Boy is with the Varinskis. She has to stay at a clinic for an eval. Not sure if she’ll be out by Christmas.

It is not a reality many can easily understand. Grandma Varinski still thinks it has only to do with alcohol. Sure, alcohol didn’t help, but it’s only a microphone for the voices already there. Few get how those Dark Solutions can speak up in the calmest, quietest voices, the same voices that tell you to wear shoes because it’s cold outside. I can still remember my own:

Put your shoes on. Dump your son on the side of the road.

Fix your daughter a snack. Break your son’s fingers.

 

It all flows together and makes so. Much. Sense. For Bev, the Dark fixed on her rather than her son. You don’t matter. You’re a horrible mother. Your own family could give a shit. Why should you?

Bo receives word from his brother: Bev is out. We’re coming Christmas Eve. She doesn’t want to be treated differently.

O-kay.

So, here we are, Christmas Day, happy smiles and bawdy jokes, and Bev on the verge of tears. Always on the verge of tears. Everyone knows, but no one comes to her, asks her how she’s feeling. She requested this be a happy Christmas, so by God, we’ll make it a happy Christmas.

Facades aren’t allowed to react. We’ll go through our designed motions, provide loads of accolades to her for her baking, for how well her son sang with his class. Remain fixed on the excellent, and nothing else.

Christmas lights are always so good at softening the world, giving it glowing warmth and magic. Bev endeavors to capture the tree in as many pictures as possible, to capture proof she did, indeed, have a happy Christmas after attempting suicide. When her son refuses to follow her directions for a sweet pose, I point out I don’t even try with Biff and Bash. I point out my own shortcomings, my children’s shortcomings, time and again, and the façade grows ever more real with my reality’s harsh details contrasting her perception of how her life should be.

Inside, I can’t help but think, almost bitterly: I am no façade.

Shut up, Jean. Today is supposed to be a good day for the kids.

So why am I bitter?

The book didn’t help. Seeing my father’s face, so alive, so joyful, knowing he won’t hear Blondie talk about Darth Vader or watch Bash fly up and down the halls like a helicopter or Biff go around looking for words, spelling them out, remembering them. Knowing who wasn’t with me, in my house, made me bitter, yes. Life wasn’t perfect. It’s supposed to be perfect.

No.

That’s Dark Thinking, Thinking Bev invited, entertained, all too often. And that entertaining nearly led to her Last Show.

No.

I accept Biff and Bash can be right little bastards. But they are amazing, too. Blondie frustrates me with her lack of imagination, but that is only because she doesn’t have what I perceive to be the RIGHT imagination. My life is filled with little glowing blessings that one harsh moment, feeling, can cut out. But just because they’re turned off doesn’t mean they’re not there. I need only find the source of the problem, untangle it from myself, and throw it out. The glowing returns, and I sit, and stare, and marvel at how such blessings could possibly be mine.

A Fellow Writer and Her Inner Battle

Whether you are a writer or a mother or both, please take a moment to learn more about PMAD (Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder). I should think it’s no surprise that growing children inside and out will impact a woman’s body in negative ways, but we often don’t think about what those ways are. Time to find out!

Click here to read “My PMAD Gets No Respect, Part II,” by Dyane