I have bad teeth. Always have. By the time I had all my adult teeth, most of them already had fillings.
It wasn’t a surprise that I needed two more root canals and crowns when I was only 20. The problem was I was poor.
Not charming poor, as in “let’s decorate with used furniture.” Hard poor like I needed to work at jobs where a meal was part of my shift.
The dentist told me it would be $1,000 to fix my teeth. An impossible number.
My brother heard about it. “I’ll pay for you,” he said. “You can pay me back over time.”
I fixed my teeth. When you make $6 an hour, it’s a long way to $1,000. Paying him back took years. After a while, he said I could work it off by helping around his house.
This week was his birthday. He’s been gone five years now since his suicide.
Stories that involve mental health issues and drug addiction are never pretty. They don’t end neatly like they do in the movies with miraculous recoveries where everyone is happy and inspired, stronger for having gone through it. These stories are told day by day, sometimes moment by moment, even five years after.
I’m not going to say he was easy to have as a brother or that I was a good sister.
But on his birthday as I went for a walk, I felt the crowns in my mouth with my tongue and thought, “He’s never far from me. His kindness lives on.”
This week, be generous to someone who needs it.
May God bless you.
May you be remembered for your kindness. May you be remembered.
I’m a natural-born worrier. Through the course of my life, I’ve worried about the future, people I know, people I don’t know, my poor abilities as a child newt keeper, my poor abilities as an adult houseplant grower.
I have worried many times about what to say when someone I know has something bad happen. There are the big events, like death or a dangerous diagnosis. But the small ones can be overwhelming too. A job loss, a disappointment, a breakup after weeks of hopeful dating.
In my worry, I used to keep silent.
Now I dare to say the wrong thing.
What is the right thing to say after he finds out he’s HIV positive, or she receives the words from the doctor: aggressive and malignant? What to say when someone miscarries again or grieves a loss that seems unbearable?
It’s all going to be wrong, really, because there are no words that can do what we want for our beloved ones. We want to heal them, cure them and give them long, full and happy lives.
If only words could do that.
Yet saying anything is better than keeping quiet. Silence sounds suspiciously like rejection.
Say, “I care about you. I’m here for you. I’m ready to stand with you as you go through this.”
Anything we say might not be strong enough. It might not be good enough.
But we have to keep trying. We have to acknowledge one another’s pain.
I used to worry about saying the wrong thing.
Now I try to say what’s on my heart.
Like small porcelain cups of tea, sweetened with good wishes, I offer my words. Sometimes they are the wrong words. I can only hope my loved ones forgive me.
Lord, let the words of my lips
bring comfort. Let them be soft
as angel food.
Give us courage to show
our true pain and strength
to respond to suffering in kindness.
Suicide is hard. The way of death seems to define a life.
Entering the world is also hard; it’s often painful and awkward.
Before I got pregnant, I had the blessing to attend the births of my nieces. What an experience! I could feel a spiritual presence. The lighting was low and warm. Both times my sister-in-law snuggled her baby on her soft chest and rested in a glowy ease.
My own experience giving birth was bloody and medical; it involved screaming—my own. My son’s lungs weren’t strong enough to cry. The lights were bright. The machines were beeping. Six or seven medical professionals ushered my son in the world six weeks early. They placed him on my chest for all of two seconds. Then they whisked him off to intensive care to give him help breathing. His underdeveloped lungs weren’t quite ready to sustain his own life.
It wasn’t a joyous time. I was terrified of losing him. I had been on bed rest during my pregnancy for five months. Finally my baby had arrived, but it was still dicey. Would he live? Would he have developmental problems?
My brother and sister-in-law came to the hospital to meet my son. I took them on a walk through shiny halls to the neonatal intensive care unit. We looked through the window at the small wire-covered baby inside a plastic box. They said he was beautiful. They congratulated me. It was hard to hear them. The sound of my worry was loud in my head.
My brother said, “You need a camera?” He pulled the strap over his head and gave me his camera.
A film camera was an extravagant present in the mid-1990s. I couldn’t have afforded one myself. I accepted the gift with a grateful heart.
I took many shots of my new baby, tiny in his box. I paid extra to have my photos developed in one hour. I could visit my son four times a day in the neonatal intensive care. In between visiting times, I gazed at the photos of him. The camera was the perfect gift at just the right time.
My baby lived. I took many photos of him growing up. Now my son is a strong young man who runs fast.
My brother died of suicide. I remember him, and I work on remembering his generosity. I want the stories of his life to overcome the difficulty of his death. It’s a process.
Right now, you have a gift that is a tiny seed waiting in your heart. Its power will only grow once you place it in the heart of another. It might be the act of giving away a possession like a camera. It could be an act of service, honest words, a homemade meal, a hug or a smile for a stranger. I challenge you to give this gift this week.
Will your gift stop suicide? I don’t know.
I do know generosity softens the world, and our world could use softening.
God, bless us to give
in your name.
Strengthen us to love
in your name.
Challenge us to change
in your name.
I’ve looked, but I’ve never found a greeting card that says, “Mom, thanks for not killing me during one of your hallucinations.”
Complicated, striking, unforgettable: my mother. She suffered from schizophrenia and obesity, both conditions that made her a constant target for our society’s criticism. I was her shy, mortified child who trailed behind. With her loud breathing, she could have supplied the soundtrack to a horror film. She dressed in clothes that were too bright and shiny even for the 1970s. The volume of her voice dominated a room.
There was hell to pay if she didn’t receive a card for Mother’s Day. While she was alive, I browsed through hundreds of cards to seek the one I could honestly give. Most were sappy, and included sentiments like “Best Mom” and “Thankful I grew up to be like you”. I sought only the vague wishes that seemed truthful. Most years, I got something floral and noncommittal; “Thinking of you; happy Mother’s Day.”
I’ve been a mother myself for a decade and a half, but I don’t feel like I own the day. Mother’s Day belongs to my mother.
Gone for five years, she is still with me
I think of her most days. She would be so proud. She would delight in knowing that I spoke at the conference in Jeff City. She would put up this photo of my son with his state champion medal. She would love these artificially dyed fresh flowers in the grocery store.
Sunday is a day to celebrate motherhood for what it really is: snotty, competitive, clingy, exhausting, drippy, strengthening, messy, aggravating, holy and more fulfilling than anything else. All at the same time. It starts with babies who both smell like heaven and have a tendency to projectile vomit. It only gets more demanding from there. Motherhood isn’t neat enough to fit on a card.
You might miss the mom you had, or the mom you wish you had, or the mom you wish you could be, or the mom who remembered you before Alzheimer’s took her from you. Give yourself permission to make the day as comfortable as possible. You’ll reminisce. Indulge in what eases your mind. Do puzzles. Binge watch TV. Take a hot bath. Give extra smiles to everyone you see.
To the single moms out there whose kids won’t get it together to bring you breakfast in bed…
To the women who wanted to become mothers, but couldn’t…
To the stepmoms doing their best…
To the women who have lost a child…
To the ones who have lost their mothers…
To those of you who have a difficult relationship with your mom…
To all of you, I wish you an OK Mother’s Day.
If Mother’s Day hurts, remember you’re not alone.
Lord, bring your mercy and forgiveness
to our relationships.
Ease the ones who struggle.
Bless all of us, your children.
Tell me your thoughts!
How is Mother’s Day for you? Do you have plans? Do you have a favorite memory?
If I met her today, I would raise my eyebrows. They’d be the same eyebrows: thick, rogue and ready to go off on their own. That would be the end of what we have in common.
I’m 80,000 words into my memoir, and I have about 10,000 words to go. I waded through more than 100 journals to get my story. Through listening to the echoes my earlier self left on the page, I got to know who I used to be.
I didn’t like her.
My beloved half-Chihuahua Cookie struggles with social anxiety that she expresses through growling.
In a kind voice, her vet once explained to us that he was going to write “fear biter” on her chart so she would be treated with extra-gentleness. It didn’t mean she was a bad dog. It meant she needed special handling so no one got hurt, including Cookie.
We had a pet blessing at my church last weekend. I brought Cookie.
People make her nervous. Other dogs make her nervous. Loud voices make her nervous. Vultures make her very nervous. All these things were part of the event.
Between the nervous shaking and the growling, Cookie almost trembled her way out of her skin. She was blessed anyway.
Even the nervous, growly ones need blessing. Maybe they need it most of all.
I had a hard time making sense of the early journals, in part because I went through a period of not dating them so one day ran into the next, but mostly because I wasn’t making sense. I recorded things people said to me next to my own ideas. Like untangling a knot in a fragile gold chain necklace, I pulled apart the snippet of a conversation in a café from a song lyric.
An exchange overheard on a bus went next to my plans for the future and a list of foods I got from the health food store called the Food Bin but affectionately called the Food Binge.
Pages rolled on without explanation or context. For hours, I worked to draw a single clear thought out of anguish mounded in dark scrawls, a glass bead in a neglected corner crowded with dust bunnies. The memoir grew.
I acknowledge the person I was 25 years ago. It’s true I ran around and bounced off the walls of the city. Nightclubs seemed too small, and each time I saw the ocean, I was tempted to dissolve in it.
I didn’t believe in goodness.
I was prickly and unpleasant while wanting to be praised, needy but unable to accept affection. I cussed and walked in the street, rejecting the sidewalk’s offer to keep me safe. I slept in my clothes due to apathy, drunkenness or lack of ability to choose a different outfit.
I saw no point in hoping.
I refused joy or couldn’t find it. I don’t know if I was looking.
As I extract a story from raw materials, I see my past in a new light. I realize I need to break up with the person I used to be.
Like a dysfunctional friendship you only hang onto for historical reasons, I’ve been carrying around my old self. I’m ready to let go.
I acknowledge my differences with who I was and end it with grace.
We need to say this to the past: “It’s over.”
And we need to pray: “God, bless who I was, who I am and who you want me to be.”
Because even the nervous, growly ones need blessing. Maybe they need it most of all.
Beginnings carry their own rushing wind, as if we start every adventure at the top of a hill and coast down. Then the bike slows and we have to pedal. The thought comes, is it worth pedaling in the direction we’re going?
I started this afghan more than a month ago. Ah, the excitement of the start! I decided to do an afghan to honor my great-aunt. I gathered together my leftover yarn.
This was going to be an amazing afghan! I would use up my leftovers and have something happy.
I grouped the skeins together: purples, brown, sea foam, white, black and khaki.
Missing those bright 1960s colors, I stopped at the store. I got cherry red and orange.
What’s better than the first loop, and the chain to start the afghan? I could pick the size. Of course it should fit our queen size bed! I chained 140 loops.
Pretty Little Moss
This is going to be the greatest thing I’ve ever made! Better than the forest floor prayer shawl. With that project, I had it in mind that I wanted to look like I’d rolled on the forest floor and come up wearing the shawl. It did turn out that way. Unfortunately.
Have you ever seen a six-foot woman wearing a shawl modeled on a forest floor?
I imagined I would look earthy, warm and natural, something from picturesque glades in Northern Europe.
What I looked like in reality was more unkempt—possibly rabid—squirrel than stylish Scandinavian.
All I need is a few twigs in my hair when I wear that shawl and I could pass for a veritable wild woods woman.
Give me a black kettle and a falling down cottage and the look would be complete. So that’s how that project went. I still wear the forest floor prayer shawl. Almost as a dare to see how people respond to it.
I used green fun fur in the shawl, so it’s super soft for hugs. It even feels like a forest floor, mossy and inscrutable!
But this afghan, it’s going to be marvelous!
The need to pedal…and shop
As I started to work on it, I realized I needed more colors. I went to the store for bright yellow and a neon variegated yarn called Blacklight.
Because I’m impatient, I went with double crochet instead of single as my great-aunt did. I figured she was retired; she had the time to single crochet a bed-sized afghan. I have two jobs to work and high school football to watch so double crochet it is.
My ideal timeline for a project is two weeks. Then I’m ready to be at the top of the hill again. Even with the double crochet—and excessive tea drinking that keeps me up in the evening to work on it—this afghan is looking like it will demand three or four months. I’m in the pedaling phase.
I’m six weeks in with more than 9,000 stitches done. Only 18,000 more. But such a big number overwhelms me. Better to think of the fabulous finished project—so happy, so colorful!
This afghan, it’s going to be splendiferous!
I needed more colors for it to truly radiant the 1960s zeitgeist. I got some green and variegated blue.
My son said, “You bought six new skeins of yarn so you could make something that was going to use up your leftover yarn? Do you see a problem here?”
I don’t remember what I answered. I was too busy thinking…
When it rained, I took the bus instead of my motorcycle. By bus, I mean buses. I walked two and a half miles from the bus I called home to the Lompico bus stop. I took the Lompico bus to Felton. From Felton, I took the bus to the metro, the main station in Santa Cruz. From there, I could go anywhere.
The bus back from Cabrillo College where I took general ed and a poetry class (and an English class with lamps) was a slow ride. It seemed to stop every block. People would attach and detach their bikes from the front rack as if they had the whole afternoon free instead of a bus load of impatient passengers sending them hurry-up glares.
While taking the bus back from Cabrillo and heading to work in Scotts Valley, a tall man with a briefcase got on the bus and sat next to me. Uncommonly handsome with mussed dark hair and blue eyes, he had the look of someone who was used to getting attention. He seemed comfortable with admiration.
He opened the briefcase. I peered in. Inside he had a square bottle of thick mango juice and a stack of blue fliers, hand drawn with a Sharpie pen and photocopied. I wanted to talk to him.
I ran over possible lines in my head. Your mango juice might spill. No, too negative. Don’t see a lot of guys with briefcases on the bus. How was that a good thing to say? I settled on this: “What are the fliers for?”
He handed me one. “I’m in a band. We’re having a show tonight. Want to come?”
“I don’t know.” I hesitated but I was tempted.
“I could put you on the guest list.”
I longed to be known. I longed to be wanted. Being put on the guest list satisfied both longings. I was in.
“OK, I’ll come check it out.”
I spelled out my name for him. He wrote it down on the back of a blue flyer. He said it was a pretty name. He took care to tuck the flyer with my name on it in one of the inner silky pockets and closed the briefcase. His was the next stop. Uncurling his length toward the bus ceiling, he stood to go. He gave me a gargoyle’s smile as he shook my hand and told me he’d see me later that night.
It had been just a bus ride before the man with the briefcase boarded. Then it became an adventure.
The show was in a café that was seedy and charming, heavy on the seedy. The front door was kept open to the night air. It took a moment to orient myself to the atmosphere when I first got near the café. It was a world unto itself with its own smell, sound, look and culture. I could smell it and hear it before I could see it. French roast wafted out to mingle with the ocean air that carried strains of music, conversation and clinking dishes.
The café faced the metro station and the buses motored by at regular intervals. Next to the café, a whirring machine blew bubbles into the darkness. They rose, shining with tiny orangey reflections from the orangey street lights.
The café cockroaches knew martial arts and took no guff from the patrons. They sauntered over the floor during business hours without fear.
They didn’t matter much. It was so dark inside that it was hard to distinguish the cockroaches from the years of coffee stains and gunk built up in layers on the floor, like levels of civilization that an archaeologist could read in the future: We can tell that in 1988, someone spilled their soy latte here in this area. Then later in the afternoon, a vial of patchouli broke when a girl dropped her Guatemalan woven bag under the table.
I was peeling my Doc Martins from the sticky surface more than walking.
I walked through the front part of the café where the espresso machine hissed. Cool people draped themselves over furniture that had seen its heyday decades before. None of the tables matched and the chairs were metal folding chairs with different patterns of rust spots as if they’d been pulled from a soggy dumpster. Which they probably were.
I walked to the back room where the shows were. A big-bellied guy with a ZZ Top beard sat on a stool, a silver chain swinging from his wallet when he moved. He held a stack of money on top of a clip board.
“I’m on the guest list,” I yelled. “Genevieve.”
He looked at the clipboard and thumbed his way toward the room.
“OK, enjoy the show.”
My first time on a guest list, I felt like a mini-celebrity. I pulled my shoulders back as I entered the room. Once in, I scanned for a familiar face. I didn’t see anyone I knew so I joined the crowd standing around the stage.
The opening band was long on enthusiasm. Their vigorous playing only made up part of the gap between reality and talent.
I listened with a waiting ear. It wasn’t the music I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear him, the mysterious stranger with the briefcase from the bus. Would he be guttural, crooning or falsetto? Would he see me?
His flyer campaign and personal charisma had paid off. The room was full. Leather jackets dominated the dress code, with thrift store finds coming in a close second.
The walls showed art from a local artist. By local artist, I mean, one of the majority of the population. You couldn’t throw a rock in Santa Cruz without hitting an artist. The art was done in a neon cartoon style but with a gruesome subject matter. It might have been an ironic rebuttal to the ever present fact of mortality. Or it might have been the Technicolor vomit from a sick mind on drugs. Like the crowd and the decor, it was a mixed message and difficult to decipher.
Soon enough the group with the robust lust for performing was off the stage and his group was on.
His presence dominated the room. Screams replaced the polite clapping that the first group received.
I stood enraptured. With my youth, my impressionable nature and my ability to glom on, I was primed to be a groupie. He sang love songs and I took them personally. Did he see me? I pretended he did. I imagined he could see only me. The crowd blurred away. It was only me standing below and him, above on the stage.
The last song of the set was a cover of Lights by Journey. A blue spotlight lit his face and hair. It shone off him in a holy glow. His voice, sonorous and smooth, filled me with longing.
I had found my charmer. I swayed in fascination, a cobra transfixed. He held the mic in both hands, closing his eyes and telling about how he wanted to be back in the city. I started to miss home myself. Home as I had never known. Home as I could never find. I felt a melancholy so massive that it filled my mouth, like icing that is too heavy but still sweet.
I stood in a transcendent moment, pulsing with joy and connection, filth and shabbiness, beauty and harmony, sorrow and homesickness.
He found me after the show. I was standing to the side and he came up, sweaty with his eyes shining.
“Hey, it’s the girl from the bus. You came! How did you like it?”
“Wow, you’re amazing.” I looked up at him and could almost imagine him still haloed with a blue glow. I was star struck.
“We’re having a party at my house. It’s off Mission Street. Want to come?”
Me invited to his place! My stomach twirled as if my gut had a hamster running in a wheel. I managed an answer, “Yeah, that sounds good.”
“OK, see you there.”
He snaked his way through the crowd. I peeled my boots all the way outside but I hardly noticed. In my mind, I was flying.
A guest list. A rock show. A party. What more would come out of this bus ride?