Thursday, February 8, 2018

It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to.

I’m a little sad today; more snow is on the way, a neighbor and former teacher is moving on from this life to his next adventure, and my post-stroke vocal chords aren’t working today (my friend DLB dubbed these my “Carol Channing" days). We prairie people usually stuff our feelings, especially sadness. We aren’t the only stuffers, of course, but we’re the BEST. Today, however, I’m letting sadness loose. I’ll try to explain why this isn’t just maudlin self-indulgence…

Each semester, my literature students (most of them prairie folk) ask, “Why don’t we EVER read anything happy?” This is a hard question to answer. We usually end up talking about the definition of “happy,” satisfying vs. happy, or the ways in which gross overgeneralizations like EVER distort the truth. Then I usually quote that beacon of literary sunshine & optimism, Cormac McCarthy: “The core of literature is tragedy. You don’t really learn much from the good things that happen to you.”

So maybe this is why I love sadness: It teaches us so much about ourselves and each other. I don’t mean that I wish everyone would stop smiling and suffer. I’m not itching to wear black eye shadow, write angsty poems, and take up the pipe organ. I do live with persistent depression (treated…I’m cool, thanks), and admittedly, this may color my comfort/familiarity with the non-happy side of our human emotional spectrum.

(SIDENOTE: I know that depression and sadness are not the same, believe me. Depression is wack brain chemistry, and persistent depression is NOT situational—sad things don’t make it happen. In fact, things don’t make it happen. Your brain makes it happen. You can’t “cheer up,” “get a hobby,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” or “think positive” to cure depression.)

Maybe this is why I love sadness: Turns out sorrow/sadness has its own peculiar language: As a writer, I find this absolutely interesting.

Maybe when I say I love sadness, what I mean is this: I have a deep and profound appreciation for it. Sadness, sorrow, grief—they’re Great Revealers. They lift the veil, cut through the noise. In times of true sorrow, a person stashes the ego, slices through the pretense, stops the show. Shit gets REAL, as the young’uns say. Maybe these are the ONLY times we get real. 

We are the most authentic, the most genuinely human, when we’re the most vulnerable. It’s all bare wires, stomach muscles, and shark brain in times of sorrow. And there’s something extraordinarily humbling about being witness to a person who, in those moments, doesn’t care what you or the rest of the world think. I believe we NEED our hearts to break open now & then in order to reconnect with compassion, to see into our core, and to remember what we’re REALLY made of.

Here’s another thing I love about sadness: Sorrow and grief are also Great Levelers. We all feel them. Let them out, stuff them if you must; they’re still there in every one of us. No amount of power, position, credentials, wealth, fame, good looks, intelligence, or single-source organic fair trade Sumatran coffee can change that.

I feel bad for stuffers, who can’t or won’t fully embrace their own sorrow for reasons of upbringing, “Stubborn Stoicism” (this should be the tagline on South Dakota license plates), fear of embarrassment, a clinging ego, a misguided need to “put on a happy face,” or the supposed propriety of finger-in-the-dam self-control. I have just enough upper Midwest Presbyterian in me to qualify as a stuffer, though I actively work at quashing my stiff upper lip.

Maybe this is the CORE, the nougaty center of why I love sadness: Sorrow gives us rare glimpses of unvarnished, raw, genuine, beautiful humanity.

On the flipside, no one wants to LIVE there, right? And this is another of sorrow’s gifts: When we face sadness, embrace it, move through it with tenderness and appreciation, we CAN move beyond it. Then, for me at least, the eventual return to wonder and joy feels a little electrified—more intense, surprising, healing, zingy—and that’s beautiful, too.

“I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.” –Zora Neale Hurston

Thursday, January 25, 2018

BIG ME, little me

Buddha said to wear your ego like a loose-fitting garment.  The ego, that “me” we each fabricate over a lifetime to present to and interact with the world, serves a purpose, but it's not real. Okay…it’s real, but it's not real real.

I’m in my 6th decade now, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ego, loss, and letting go. It’s true that we all face loss throughout our lives. Relationships end, people we know & love die, we lose jobs/houses/pets, tragedies happen. These losses are a natural part of living. And loss, especially in midlife and beyond, does something else besides make us suffer—it also chisels away at the ego by chipping away at our created identities—the things and people from which we have each built the story of ME. It was always a fiction, but I’m learning lately how comforting and safe that fiction has been for me, and how bare, how raw, it can feel to let it go, to strip it away.

The Jung Center says, “Aging means more than just staying on the physical plane while the years pile up. It includes activities like unifying the opposites...In these years we can work on individuation, as the ego experiences a host of realities that incline it to give way to the Self [my emphasis]. Submitting to the direction of the Self can foster the ‘gradual spiritualization of consciousness’” (

The layers of my garment—musician, student, mother, partner, daughter, grandmother, teacher, friend, etc.—come and go. I resist the going, because I’m human, and humans don’t like change in spite of what we say. And because our garments become familiar, protective, and cozy, we want to leave them on. Some of us even forget they’re garments at all; we don’t wear them loosely anymore—we live in them like skin.

Stripping off a layer (or having a layer unexpectedly stripped off) can be painful and confusing: You have a stroke, the stroke takes your voice, are you still a singer? The band breaks up, are you still a musician? Your kids grow up, they leave and turn into adult humans (even really cool humans), are you still a tiger mother? You lose a job, your friend commits suicide or gets hit by a car, your mother gets cancer, you graduate, you get old and infirm—are you still a bank teller, friend, daughter, student, wild woman? When the layers come off, it can feel like you’re under attack, losing yourself, coming undone, lost, invisible, no one.

It took years of meditation, inner work, waking up, a willingness to be honest about what I feel and believe, and a willingness to SEE my own misconceptions, but I’m finally getting it through my thick head that none of this was ever ME. (And, by the way, we all put on and take off layers all the time—I’m still tightly wrapped in teacher, daughter, grandma and other delightfully comfy, cozy layers—it’s knowing they’re only layers that matters.)

I believe that the spark & truth & love that is our true nature, our connectedness within all TRUTH, has never been and can never be altered, diminished, taken away, or lost. Once I figured this out (remembered it?), I could breathe a little easier through life’s inevitable chiseling away. I won’t lie and say I always smile peacefully through loss now, but it no longer completely undoes me. 

I’m not crazy about the word “annihilation,” but this quote from Jack Kornfield rings true for me: “Only to the extent that a person exposes themselves over and over again to annihilation and loss can that which is indestructible [my emphasis] be found within them.” 

That’s how it can feel—exposed—when layers come off. So now I like to think of my layers as scarves…filmy, silky, sheer, loose, beautiful scarves that at least keep the wind off my face. My scarves come and go, there are an infinite number of ways to wear them, and I never leave them on in the house (ME).

Monday, January 1, 2018

Cabin Fever


South Dakotans are a practical, innovative people. Take today, for example: It’s -23 degrees here this morning. That’s REAL temp, folks (the wind chill was -35 when I woke up). The dogs went out this morning and tried to pee standing on one foot. The outdoor thermometer froze at -10 and refused to budge. Needless to say, there’s no going out in cold like this—in under 10 minutes, frostbite can turn skin to blue glass.


When you’re stuck in the house for a few days, cabin fever is an ever-looming possibility. And unless you live alone, two or more of you are facing a WHOLE LOT of togetherness. The novice will experience the typical stages of cabin fever: Stage 1: You’re delighted to be able to reconnect with each other. You have conversations. Stage 2: You enjoy some “us” time, then you each wander off on your own for a while. Stage 3: You avoid a room with anyone else in it and only grunt if you pass someone in the hall. Stage 4: Nerves are like stripped wires. Sparks fly. Fires start. There is no Stage 5.


But because cabin fever is an annual risk for prairie people, we’ve come up with ingenious ways to hold it off until help (temps above -5) arrives:


1. Nap. Several times a day. In fact, since it’s hard to tell day from night when you’re snowed/frozen in the “cabin,” all your sleep should now be naps. If you’re not actually napping, pretend. Make snoring sounds.

2. Eat. This is a favorite strategy for Midwesterners. Bake. Cook. Eat. Experiment with what you have on hand: red hot candies, marshmallows, potato chips, Jell-O, 5 jars of mayonnaise, 2 power bars, cheese, pickles, dark chocolate, frozen hotdog buns, canned jalapenos, garam masala, truffle salt, croutons. Eat some more.

3. Make an elaborate hanging, moveable swing for your African grey parrot, because on Day 3 of this, you binged documentaries, one of which was Bird Brain, and now you NEED to move your parrot from room to room with you.

4. Go through the bin in which you’ve been saving makeup you’ve collected since 1975 (including the ice-white, sparkly Pot ‘O Gloss lip gloss you bought when you were 15). Throw out at least 3 things (but not the Pot ‘O Gloss).

5. Clean/organize your fridge. Clean/organize your pantry. Clean/organize your cupboards. Then see #2.

6. Wash every rug in the house.

7. Sort out your yarn and knitting projects. Shelve 17 half-finished projects, individually bagged and including patterns and appropriate needles. Shelve your yarn stash, organized by weight, color, and fiber content. File extra patterns in a 3-ring binder with transparent sleeves.

8. Start a NEW knitting project, and knit while you binge-watch British cop shows or documentaries on whales, birds, or elephants.

9. Take a shower at least once. Don’t bother with shaving, nail-trimming, chin-hair plucking, etc. You can do that someday when you can leave the house again.

10. Start a new batch of kombucha. In fact, turn your dining room table into a kombucha factory. Start a batch with each of the 23 scobies in your scoby hotel. Spend an hour or two making adorable labels for kombucha bottles, with cute names like Stir Crazy Strawberry and Gone Bonkers Blueberry.

11. Stay hydrated. Water is good, but Bailey’s and coffee is more practical: It will keep you awake to tackle projects, and it will soften those unfortunate run-ins you have with other humans. Also, see #10.

12. Build a new set of shelves out of an old plank table and some crown molding. See #7.

13. Blog.


These are just a few ideas to get you started. One last tip: If the weather doesn’t break by, say, Day 7 or 8, put on EVERY stitch of clothing you own, wrap your feet in plastic bread bags under fur mukluks, and make a break for it. Because any more togetherness than that, and it won’t end well…

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Christmas Letter

--> Ray and I spent Christmas at home this year, as we have since Mom retired and moved up north from Big City to Little Town. The West River kids & grandkids opted to stay home and have a cozy, quiet Christmas in the Hills this year (cowards!), and our oldest son in the Big, Big City had to work, so Christmas in Little Town was Mom; Ray and me; daughter, sweetheart, and two grandkids; and youngest son and grandkid. Two friends who had no family in Little Town this year joined us for dinner.
Speed Distribution


A Shimmer & Shine Christmas


Opening presents with two four-year-olds and an eight-year-old is like waiting until the cyclone is on your front porch, then opening all the doors and windows. The eight-year-old can read name tags and had already eaten a dozen Christmas cookies, so the whole process of distribution and unwrapping took about 30 seconds. When it was over, the adults were on the periphery of the room, unblinking and slack-jawed, and no one could move for oh, at least an hour, while one brave adult collected small, pointy toy accessories and storm debris (wrapping paper). I can’t imagine Christmas without small children, so I suppose if we ever get to the point where we’re all grownups, I’ll have to rent some toddlers for the day.

Yes, we ALL pressed our faces into this thing.

Because plains people, especially with winter setting in, are obsessed with food, leftovers, and well-stocked larders, I’ll give you our menu, which was potluckish: oyster stew, pork roast cooked in the crockpot on a bed of apples, maple-roasted sweet potatoes, son-in-love’s famous garlic-mashed potatoes, traditional green bean casserole now traditionally prepared by daughter, daughter’s gingersnaps (made with bacon grease…o the rapture!) dipped in her homemade cheesecake ganache, and apple pie. And Spritz cookies, of course. And Bailey’s & eggnog (don’t judge). There are always enough leftovers to send a couple days’ worth of food home with the kids, because as every good Midwesterner is taught from birth, food = love (this prairie programming is why I’ll be eating celery and boiled fish—again—starting in the New Year).


The stylist works her magic.

Ray had to go right back to work the day after Christmas. I’m on holiday break from Little Town U., and the outside temp has ranged between -20 and today’s balmy -14, so Mom and I have spent the past couple days knitting and watching documentaries (CNN avoidance therapy). My addled brain is now replete with factoids about orcas, dog behavior, cat intelligence, Auschwitz survivors, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, twins raised apart since birth, bird brains, and jaguars (the cat, not the car). I’ve finished a knitted hat and am now well into a matching poncho.


Love from the Borg. You will join us.

So merry Christmas to you all! Ray and I wish you all a new year full of possibilities, renewed faith in humankind, decent healthcare, love & compassion for both friends & “enemies,” and most of all peace, not as an abstract concept, but as the real and lasting result of our collective human effort. And lots of Bailey’s and eggnog (don’t judge).

Friday, August 11, 2017

...but I don't HAVE 20 minutes.

I did something this year, my 61st year, that I’d been mouthing off about for a decade or more now—I got my first tattoo. It’s a lotus flower (the mantra ohm mane padme hum translates loosely as “the jewel [true nature of reality] is in the lotus [mind]), sitting on top of the word satchitananda in Sanskrit, which means truth (sat), consciousness/awareness (chit), bliss (ananda).

Ray’s not a tat fan, but for me, the ink was a way to take possession and ownership of my own body and personhood, apart from my roles: wife, mother, daughter, teacher, etc.

Also, the design itself is a necessary and permanent reminder for me always to return to what’s true. Meditation—the actual subject of this convoluted post—is one way to do that.

Not everyone knows this about me, but I’m pretty tightly wound, not a person who’s good at relaxing. I’m a lot like my two three-year-old granddaughters, who NEVER STOP MOVING. Some part of them (and of me) is perpetually shifting, tapping out a beat, or twitching. That's a LOT of kinetic energy, a LOT of energy down the proverbial drain. So for me, meditation isn’t really about enlightenment—it’s about survival.

Most people know by now that meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, which is the kind I practice, isn’t contemplating one’s navel (and by “practice,” I mean like piano lessons: you do it when your mom makes you, but you’re 13 and you’d rather cut out with your crew to the pool). Meditation is simply slowing down long enough to be AWARE of the present moment, then staying in that awareness as long as you can. I’ve heard it said that living in the past causes regret, living in the future causes anxiety and fear, and only living in the present can bring peace. For me, this rings a big, fat truthiness bell.

Let's set aside the spiritual/psychological good that comes from meditation—that’s too touchy-feely for some folks. There are more tangible, PHYSICAL benefits as well (for these, look here: For an easy meditation how-to, I LOVE this one:

If ever there was a poster child for the most basic physical benefits of meditation, it’s me and my inner three-year-old. And I could reap these benefits in only 20 STINKING MINUTES A DAY. That’s

- 20 minutes of fainting goat or Bob Ross YouTube videos

- 20 minutes of Crackbook posts featuring perfectly-lit photos of my latest kombucha brew

- 20 minutes of blood-pressure-raising, doom-festering, hopelessness-engendering, fist-pounding, Trump-blathering CNN

- 20 minutes of Googling recipes for kale ceviche

- 20 minutes of toenail painting

- 20 minutes of Crackbook comments on other people’s posts about their recent meal/trip/gripe/illness

- 20 minutes of binging Supernatural season what? 24? 25?

Gosh; now that I see this list, it’s clear that (probably a lot like you) I simply don’t have time to meditate. I've got more important things to do. Like get more ink. Twitch. Twitch.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Warning: Sorting Out Suicide

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

Ray and I recently came back from a trip to bid farewell to an extended family member, a charming, compassionate, loving 31-year-old young man who committed suicide. I can’t begin to really understand what leads a person to this sort of utter and complete hopelessness, especially at such a tender age (or even much younger, as has happened with others to whom we’ve had to say goodbye). But I came away with the same thoughts that have been niggling at me for…well…years, really:

1. The Elephant Circle – The brain is not fully developed until about age 25 (probably later for young people who have also struggled with substance abuse before this age). Until that age, when the nerve fibers in the brain are fully myelinated (a fatty coating), young people have a hard time seeing the potential consequences of their actions. For this reason, I believe we need to keep young people in the center of the circle. Like elephants, we adults need to surround them with love and protection (even from themselves), until we’re SURE they can fend off the hyenas (despair, drugs, alcohol, gangs, whatever shape the hyenas take) on their own. This ability to be independent will come at different times for different kids—there’s no definitive magic moment, so we need to be vigilant with EVERY kid.

2. The Abyss Mirage – Imagine you look down the road ahead of you, but you can’t see where it leads. For most of us, it’s foggy ahead; we know the road goes on, we know there’s more stuff ahead, we just can’t see the details. But some people, it seems to me, look down the road and, for maybe only a split-second, see an abyss. Nothing. The void. And in that split-second, they do the only thing they can to escape that moment of complete despair. Maybe it’s not about ending life (because impulsive thought doesn’t see that); it’s about ending pain. Now. Someone said once that dogs have only two senses of time: now and not now. Maybe people who kill themselves see only now, and now is pain. They can’t see not now. They can’t see that the Abyss is a mirage, and there’s ice cream and sex and chocolate and music on the other side.

3. Pre-Funerals – As people from all over the country exchanged memories at the funeral, broken and aching over this young man’s death, I wondered how his life might have gone if we had all gathered 5, or 10, or 15 years ago to surround and enfold him with the same love, desperation to protect and defend, fierce loyalty, and open hearts we were all baring in the funeral home. Had this young man known how many lives he touched? how much he was loved? what joy he brought us? So I’m thinking we should have pre-funerals, a sort of It’s a Wonderful Life for any human who’s getting too close to the Abyss. Maybe there’s a panic button you can push at the first sign of trouble. Maybe you can even help bake your own reception bars.

Anyway, here’s a poem I wrote after our son’s best friend fell into the Abyss at age 19. Let’s form our circles, people...

                  for Ike

You will wake up tomorrow and the sun will be up.
                  Stores will open. Some idiot will forget to signal
                  his turn. There will be dishes to do. You’ll get a job
                  offer in Big Sky, Montana.
This will all get easier. Then it will get harder
                  again. Then it will get easier again.
That girl you love will leave her next boyfriend too.
Your mother is canning peaches right now.
                  She will need you here to eat them.
The pain you feel now comes from a cauldron
                  of teenage chemicals swirling through you like bad
                  soup, like toxic river water, like grain alcohol, like Drano.
                  It will eventually push through your system, and you will
                  be able to laugh and think straight again.
Remember that time I stomped in your house and screamed
                  in your face and jabbed at you with my finger? I really
                  wanted to hug you and lock you up and never let you go.
Going to the zoo is almost as much fun at 35 as it is at 13.
It will one day be a mystery to you that you ever felt this bad.
I don’t know if there’s an afterlife. But
                  what if you have to watch the chain
                  of sorrows you leave behind?
The belt will burn and cut into your neck. The pain
                  will be unbearable before you black out.
                  You’ll pee your pants.
                  You’ll change your mind.
                  You won’t be able to stop it.
I love the way your hair flips to the side, and the way
                  you look sideways when you grin, and the way
                  my youngest son’s heart opens up around you.
That girl you love will end up with four kids from three fathers.
                  She’ll work at Walmart and live over her parents’ garage.
                  She’ll try and fail to kick meth. Her kids will be taken away.
That girl you love will end up married to a banker
                  and will live on a lake and have a housekeeper.
That girl you love will be in therapy for the rest of her life.
That girl you love will use your memory like a crucible
                  in which she’ll stew future boyfriends and cook up
                  excuses for sleeping with her future husband’s boss.
After your sister died, your mother stayed alive for you.
We are only here for a blink anyway. Can’t you wait that long?
My son will have a redheaded child. She’ll skateboard.
                  She’ll be beautiful and jolly and full of mischief.
                  He’ll take her to the skatepark in Lennox.
                  He’ll cry because you’re not here to hold her.
You’re my child. You’re everyone’s child. We will all be broken.
You’ll fall in love again and again and again. You might have twins.
                  They’ll be skinny and blonde and hold your hand.
                  You’ll rock them to sleep with Jack Johnson lullabies.
                  When they’re 15, they’ll say we hate you.
                  You’ll try to keep a straight face.
Your mother’s smile will be manufactured and hard for the rest of her life.
You are so full of love and light and promise that it burns
                  our fingers to touch you. We are moths and choose
                  winglessness over being without you.
My son will carry you like a scar,
                  like a confession,
                  like a stone in his gut.
Someone will have to take a picture of your body.
There is nowhere else to go.

Please, please stay.