What Happened When I Was Born

Back in April, I attended a memoir-writing workshop.  Before the class, I received an email from the instructor to bring five artifacts that would be used in writing exercises throughout the day.  A few things came to mind that seemed like low-hanging fruit, but I wasn’t convinced these were the items.  

Late one night, I padded down the stairs into the garage where I kept my most sentimental items.  The moment I put my hands on the photograph of my mother holding me, days after my birth, I started bawling.  

This was the picture to write about.  

My mother was twenty-six.  She looked youthful with a baby splayed out on top of her, not wrapped up like a burrito like babies nowadays.  Pinned to my shirt were religious medals and I half-chuckle at the thought of bringing a huge safety pin that close to a newborn. My mother’s blond hair was tied back with a pink ribbon and she wore a brown paisley silk robe and blue eye shadow.  Even with her eyes looking downward, I think she looks tired.  

When my mother went into the hospital, she reminded my dad to water the tomato plants in her absence.  She might not have known then that a hurricane had developed in the Yucatan Peninsula. Sometimes we forget that in the 1970s, news traveled by way of the daily newspaper and the television at 6 and 11 or by word of mouth.  

The hurricane, eventually named Agnes, caused a lot of rain, and departed back to the ocean.  Soon after, it returned and rained some more.  For days and days and days.  

The Polaroid picture has no date on it.  My mother was too put-together for it to be taken on the day I was born.  I wondered when she would find out what everyone was learning:  that the Susquehanna River was rising to unprecedented levels.

Within a few days, she was among the droves of patients discharged from hospitals that would soon be underwater. Here’s what became of Mercy Hospital in Wilkes-Barre in the days after my mother was sent home:

The story that was told over the years is that my family was among the last people across the Market Street Bridge.  The dikes broke within a few hours.

In the years leading up to my birth, my parents and older brother lived in a low-lying area, on Carey Avenue in south Wilkes-Barre, not far from the hospital.  We would all be displaced to Plymouth for some time where my grandparents lived on higher ground on Shawnee Avenue.  

Our home was gone when it was all said and done and that young mama and her little baby probably had a rocky postpartum period.

I admit that I don’t know a lot about it.  I wish I could have had the vocabulary to ask my parents about this trauma when they were still living. Talking about hard things was never our strength.

Having had a baby six years ago in the best possible circumstances – a smooth delivery, a short hospital stay, and a home to start life together in – I can collapse in tears thinking about what my parents dealt with. 

What I do know is that my uncle made trips through back roads to acquire formula and diapers. The streets were inundated with water that completely covered entire first and, in some cases, second floors of buildings. It’s unknown to me not only what preparations had been made for my birth, but also what items might have been moved to my grandparents’ before the evacuations. Once when my uncle went for supplies, he was given a tiny doll suitable for an eight year-old, which was my first baby toy.  

What I began writing that day at the writing workshop is in progress.  That photo calls up a lot about the trauma that hit when I was born.  Something that was no one’s fault and that everyone did their best to live through.  My family kept me fed to the best of their abilities and as safe as they could under the circumstances.  This snapshot is a moment in time that I still work through, fifty-one years later.

The Failure of My Lofty Summer Goals

Do you ever have lofty goals at particular times of the year?  I imagine for a lot of us, those times are January, the beginning of the summer, and when summer ends.  

So here we are, just a few weeks until school starts, and I’m hanging my head for missing the mark on some of the goals I’ve set.  

An intention I always set at key points in the year is to spend more time in creativity.  Something I do every morning is spend about an hour journaling while enjoying my first coffee of the day. The old “Artist’s Way” Morning Pages habit has never left me, though the free-associative quality it’s supposed to take is something I have a lot of resistance to.  

Where I fail is writing on a larger scale.  Like blogging or publishing.  Or even writing something just for myself.  A memoir has been in my craw for the last decade and I dip in and out of it every once in awhile. Sometimes at long bursts with lots of output and other times, it sits untouched for months.  

The challenge of writing isn’t always a time management problem.  Though that could feel particularly impossible sometimes.  Some aspects of my work can be unpredictable and having a child and a spouse and a house and cat and a car that’s been in the garage almost every week of this summer have an influence on what happens when.  Do I get to the gym today?  Is it going to be Chipotle or a piece of chicken in the oven?  Do I have time after I play that wedding or funeral to get to Target before I go on to play Saturday evening Mass?  

My life is not a heck of a lot different than most people’s in terms of feeling that we’re just throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks.  There’s also the negotiation of which one of us is addressing which ingredient of stuff stuck on the wall.  

I’m sure I could rein in the time management sometimes, even when the unpredictable happens.  Could I go into my office and type for a while as something cooks in the oven?  Could I put my phone down or stop scrolling in bed at night?    While I won’t share it, my screen time monitor proves that I have some hours in the day that could be better used.  

The holes in my productivity have a whole layer beyond time:  the chaos of my inner world.  Again, not much different from most people.  Creepy-crawly gremlins in my unconscious play dirty tricks on my creativity.  Clogging up the works.  Reminding me that I’m sort of lame.  Throwing up barriers of all sorts.  I like to take on the gremlins sometimes.  Pull up a chair and get to know them.  And politely tell them to leave me alone for a while.  

These less-than-lovable gremlins often have guilt written all over them.  Along with a healthy portion of you-suck on the side.  

Guilt as in “who do you think you are”?  Don’t you know – this is my inner world addressing me with the voices of people in my life, past and present – there are people who don’t have the luxury to sit down and scribble in a journal all day?  Don’t you know some people actually have to work for a living?  Don’t you know of all the pain and hardship in the world ?  Don’t you know you really don’t have anything valuable to say?  Don’t you know you should be spending more time with your child?  Don’t you have to cook and clean for your husband?  Hahaha.  I had to write that because it’s so laughable that I would ever be with anyone who had that expectation of me.  If you’ve seen my house, you’ll know it’s a joke that anyone would ever be with me for my cleaning acumen.  This could take on a whole other tangent of what’s considered “woman’s work” – a phrase that nauseates me just writing it – but that’s for another day.

I find myself sometimes on the receiving end of “must be nice” when I have a day like today. This day has been one where I’ve basically said, “not today” to some of the things on my to-do list, went to the gym, took myself out to lunch, and have spent the last few hours writing – both this blog post and other stuff, too.  I’m grateful for the occasional flexibility I have in my life, but I’ve also made sacrifices to create it.  In addition, I think it’s important to unplug a bit when I get wacky so I can continue to care for my clients in the way they should be cared for.

Sometimes the guilt chokes me inside like a creepy cartoon vine that winds its way through the world leaving destruction at every pass.  I get clogged up and often just pick up the phone and mindlessly scroll or stuff my face or do something else destructive.  The cruel trick of these little phones and my issues feeding my face is that even those things don’t feel great in the moment.

The clogging up causes me to have tons of ideas swirling around and then never getting them out.  I’ve had some fun writing ideas this summer and aspire to complete a couple of them.  They include stories about my husband’s beard (see – I knew that would pique your curiosity!), my milestone birthday this summer, how irritated I am by signs about being kind or being a good human all the time, and how it felt like to walk around my elementary school for the first time in over 35 years.  There are a few weeks left of summer and we have a vacation coming up so maybe I can finish something I’ve started.

Meh.  Maybe the world is not missing these stories.  And I partially care.  It’s fun to share the blog posts and get a little emoji in return or funny comments.  But creativity for me has always felt like something I’m busting to just put out there.  Not always for what I might get in return.  

That busting out also has a seedy underbelly for me.  It’s like the oh-crap-people-see-me-now feeling.  Even though that’s what we as humans sometimes desire.  We want to be truly seen in ways that maybe we weren’t seen by the important figures in our lives.  But I admit that sometimes I fear that if I were truly seen for what is really going on in the cobwebby sections of my nutty mind, I’d be shamed, humiliated, rejected, mocked.  Which I’m intimately familiar with since childhood.

So here’s me putting it out there that even though so many of us are always putting our best stuff out on social media, myself included, it’s not a complete representation of what’s going on in our lives.  The icky feelings rise up and get in the way.  

Until the joyful feelings return again.  

They always will.  

Even when it doesn’t feel that way. 

Still Thinking of Laura, Ten Years Later

It’s been ten years since my dear friend Laura passed away.  Every year around this time, I start missing her more and reminiscing. A few years ago I wrote a post about her and I wasn’t sure I had anything more to say.

The loss I experience since her death is nothing compared to what I imagine her children, husband, and family feels.  It still is a loss that I recognize frequently, even though we were not in close contact when she passed away.  Not due to any ill will on either of our parts, but because our lives had gotten in the way.  While I am very much a texter and social media user, Laura was more inclined to talk on the phone.  It was difficult finding spare moments to catch up with each other, especially because her children were not only very young but in activities as well.  Laura had also received a cancer diagnosis a few years before her passing and it was hard to remain close from far away when she was dealing with so much.

I often wonder how our friendship would have evolved as we got older.  Because she was two years older than I am, many of the things she experienced in her life happened before I would meet those benchmarks.  Graduating from high school and college.  Getting married.  Having children.  How would we have related to each other as 48 and 50-year-old women now?  How could we still be, at the core, the two Catholic schoolgirls who bonded so easily over a mutual love of singing alto?  (You can tell how cool and popular we were, based on how we became close.)

The high point of us getting together over the years – whether it was when she was home from college or I was home from wherever I was living at the time – was ending up at one of our pianos with the Bag O’Music we loved singing together.  A Penn State tote bag someone gave me became a repository for Chris and Laura’s Greatest Hits:  the cheesiest compilations of love songs, favorite songs we sang in Regional Chorus competitions or Seasonal Singers, and the many Glory and Praise numbers from school Masses.  Many of the scores were pieces that I “completely forgot to return to Miss M” because Laura and I secretly wanted sing them together again and again.  

Bag O’Music, as Laura dubbed our collection, has always been in my possession.  Some of our favorites included “Sow the Word” and the Seasonal Singers’ favorite goodbye song, “Maybe Someday” (it’s in the very appealing key of D-flat and suited our alto voices very well).  Laura also had a contemporary (circa 1980s) duet book of songs on the radio.  One of the best ones was “Where We Belong” because it had this kooky chord buildup that caused us to crack up laughing every single time.  The lyrics to that song also remind me of “Like an Eagle” which was always a graduation fave and another one we, ahem, borrowed from the Bishop Hoban music department. 

Our friendship was based on our love of music and singing and talking.  Laura could have pursued a music degree, but chose not to.  She majored in economics.  She had such a great ear and a deep love for music, especially choral music.  I’ve always been more into pop music than anything high-minded so i always found it amusing that when I’d go to Laura’s before going somewhere, she’d be doing her hair and makeup blasting the Brahms Requiem.  

Whether it’s theologically aligned with my religion, I don’t know, but I still feel a relationship with people who have passed away.  It’s comforting to imagine being seen and heard by Laura.  Sometimes I think of how happy she’d be that I had a son because she was the mom of two boys.  Even preparing to give birth, six years after she passed away, I recalled how labor went for her and I planned on being proactive about getting an epidural because of her.  (Here I will tip my proverbial hat to any of you who toughed it out and delivered your babies sans anesthesia.  I have a high pain threshold, but I didn’t want to find out how high on a day like that.)  

Laura is someone I truly admired. I loved her so much and it pains me that I can’t even remember what the last phone call or time we saw each other was.  She was so ridiculously intelligent and knew the right words to say.  Of all my friends that I’ve exchanged cards and letters with over the years, Laura’s are among the keepers.  There was always a funny quip in them that just felt so right.  

I know her presence is still with me even though we cannot communicate in person anymore.  She’s with me when I feel confused by how best to parent my child, when I sit down at the piano, and when I drive by our old high school back in Wilkes-Barre. I don’t care how it sounds when I say that I hope we meet again someday, somehow. I’ll definitely have the Bag O’Music with me.  

Failure at Domestic Arts

You might know this about me, but I do not have a knack for making anything pretty.  Whether that means home decorating, presenting an attractive meal, or creating content for my business.  If it looks presentable, it means I’ve put countless hours into making it so.  And not pleasant ones.  

Depending on who might be coming to our home, I might begin to have heart palpitations several weeks beforehand.  Generally speaking, we are not the best housekeepers so the fear of someone finding a part of my home that’s not been sprayed or wiped causes me anxiety.   

I recently considered more deeply what it is about “making anything pretty” that causes me to sometimes lose sleep for weeks at a time.  Some of it is the aggravation I’ve felt about the expectation that, as a woman, I should possess the pretty-making ability, but it’s never materialized. The aggravation is heightened when coupled with a memory of something my mother said to me long ago.

In my early twenties, possibly around the time I had lived in an apartment for college, my mother mocked my abilities at keeping a home.  The details surrounding this comment are fuzzy, which is how our memories work.  It’s a confluence of a number of vague pieces.  So vague that I’m foggy about the when and where or why of what she said.  But her voice rings through clear as day when I think of this.  

She said, “Well, Chris, you’ll never be a domestic.”

Which I took to be an insult.  

My mother had an amazing sense of humor and whatever comedic timing I have is due to her influence.  This comment wasn’t followed by a chuckle or a subtle smirk.  She meant business and it’s one of those things I’ve played over many times.  Especially while fighting with the vacuum cleaner or a pesky stain.

Keeping a home was very important to my mother when my siblings and I were young.  As I drown in keeping up with the dishes, wiping a table, preparing meals, stepping over a million toys all over the house, sometimes my mind wanders back to my childhood in the 1970s.  The smell of Spic N’ Span and the sound of a mop being squeezed into a bucket were so familiar.  

Our house was very clean and I’d have to think long and hard about whether I remember seeing anything out of order.  My mother took very good care of everything.  She didn’t work outside the home until my later elementary school years when the stability of our family began to crumble.

While I have been a passable housekeeper as an adult, the constant drum beat in my mind is “please, God, why do I have to do this?” I’m terrible about articulating the ins-and-outs of how I feel about “feminism” – it’s in quotes because I’m also terrible about aligning myself with causes or movements, so much so that I often don’t know what “feminism” means to me – but I often ask myself why keeping a home is something that women put a premium on.  And I hate to admit that sometimes it gets me downright angry.  Which also does not incentivize me to clean.  Just the opposite.

Perhaps this is where anxiety comes in for me.  Not being “a domestic” has caused me to feel inferior at times to other women and perhaps, less valuable to my mother. I’ve often wondered what she would make of how I’ve configured my life to work weird hours and take care of a child. She had strong feelings about people who raised their kids like we are raising our son. (She’s been gone for over twenty years so before you call her for a comment, the call will be a very long-distance one.) Before you roll your eyes at the melodrama, in my own therapy and in therapy with my own clients, you’d be surprised how much a small comment by important people in our lives can leave a lifetime mark.

The comment popped into my head recently when our preschool-age child helped me bake a cake for my husband’s birthday.  Our son is at an age where he is eager to help and we had a great time planning a Covid-safe birthday, just for the three of us. He and I went to Walmart together and picked out some fun plates for cake, a matching banner, and wrapping paper.  We also bought a few items to decorate the cake.

Most people say that they raise their children differently than they were raised.  One of the ways I do is an unconditional acceptance of his self-expression, as long as it’s not harming anyone.  Someday, I’m certain we may not always agree about how “unconditional” my acceptance is, but for now, I allowed him to help mix the ingredients and, when it was cooled, put icing on the cake.  

The “domestic” nag started coming in when it was time for the frosting.  Because here I was, a nearly 49 year-old woman, feeling inept at The Domestic Arts because crumbs from the cake had crept into the icing.  

Not a big deal, right?  My mother never, EVER, had crumbs in her icing.  Even if she used cake mixes, her cakes were always perfection.  

In that moment, I rolled with it.  Let my son see that his mom makes delicious messes and that she lets him decorate the cake in whatever way he sees fit. The so-called Domestic Arts are not duties I have any talent at!

Below is the finished product:

Our son was so proud of himself and I am proud of myself, too, for working to change up the trajectory of expectations.  Our son is not growing up in a home where his mom is saddled with all of the work that’s traditionally been done by women.  I mean, what century are we in?  And even while I struggle that other people’s houses are prettier or cleaner than mine, I want him to know how little those things truly matter.  He also knows that it’s not a big deal to make a mess and that creativity is something that his mom and dad both value above most other things. 

I’ve been hanging on to this blog post for about two weeks.  I’ve had some semblance of performance anxiety posting to my blog for the first time in over two years.  But when I woke up this morning and learned that it’s International Women’s Day, I thought posting about my aggravation with housework would be really appropriate today.  

Do I also sort of give these international-days-of-whatever a little stink-eye?  Of course!  If you know me, you know I’m a little contrarian about most things.  Especially when it comes to bandwagons.  Seriously, how much “progress” for women is made by the local classic rock station (which Sam and I endlessly mock) playing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” this morning?  Are we to expect all the Joeys and Tonys and Jimmys going to work at the construction site to form a kick line?

I guess the point of all of this babbling is to out myself about how terrible of a homemaker I am.  And to get comfortable with the reality that, nope, I’ll never be a domestic.  And that’s OK.  

Flaneur Therapy in the Big City

This city is my therapy. And I love therapy. Sitting in a room and talking about all the feels and the mental stuffs can be really magical. And so is roaming around on foot with music poking rhythmically at my ear follicles. Or whatever all that anatomical business is called.

I can’t decide whether I have a low threshold for overwhelm. I know so many people knocking it out of the park, busy as all get-out, running all over the planet like mad men. It feels like I work quite a bit, but I’m not certain whether I really work any more than anyone else. I also find myself having a healthy amount of time lounging around the house playing with cars and blocks and Tupperware containers and reading “Olivia” with our toddler. My life is a busy juggle, but I don’t know, I manage to figure out adult alone down-time when I need it.

A lot of it is possible, due to my husband. I don’t often rhapsodize of his greatness because I don’t want to be “that couple”. He really does help me find a satisfactory quantity of independence. I hope that all doesn’t sound too vomit-worthy. Over-the-top smoochiness on the regular for all the interwebs to see isn’t always my intent. You guys already know we’re an item.

Anyhoots. This time of the year gets pretty hairy. My therapy practice tends to pick up right after Thanksgiving. And I’m also working in lots of churches for Advent and Christmas and soon after, when my colleagues finally get to see their own families. I do manage to get a few hours to myself here or there every week or two, but especially when my body feels like it needs more significant relaxation, I wake up almost every morning thinking of New York.

The city has always been a fantasy for me. An escape from reality. Even when I worked here. And I say “here” and not “there” because I am here, right now. I always bring my laptop and hole up in a cafe for as many hours as my bladder can hold at one sitting to tinker around with my various writing projects. Plus with this crap-for-brains short attention span, it’s hard for me to do much of anything for more than a couple hours at a time. (Why I’ll never run a marathon, reason #3216.)

A trip into NYC is a little more logistically complicated since we moved further west of the city a few years ago so it involves a higher level of planning and time. But the night before, I decide what I’m going to read, how heavy my bag will be, whether all my electronics are charged and ensuring I have a phone charger.

A relaxing trip, for me, involves lots of walking before the writing. I may walk for up to two hours in the beginning, aimlessly, listening to music. I don’t always have a plan of where I’m going. Sometimes, the night before, like last night, I had some idea of wanting Indian food. There’s a place I once ate in up in Morningside Heights, but I’m not sure it’s there anymore. And I spent an inordinate amount of time on The Google, wracking my brain for the name or even what street it was on. I also typically avoid the subway or cabs on these journeys and I have to decide whether I’m up for the time involved in walking certain distances.

Walking first was the plan today. It’s chilly, but tolerable if you’re dressed for it. As a fan of police shows, I felt right at home seeing a guy in handcuffs getting escorted to a waiting NYPD vehicle as soon as I emerged from Penn Station. I turned up my music and walked.

Just like when I begin meditating, I slowly enter a trance, albeit a self-aware one. I have a healthy understanding of my surroundings, such that I’m always mindful of being the target of a shady criminal. I think pilots call it “situational awareness”. Someone calls it something like that. Today I chuckled, remembering my father saying to me once, when I called him on my lunch hour sitting in Bryant Park, “Don’t you ever worry about someone stabbing you in the back?” And then I wondered if he meant that literally or figuratively, but perhaps that’s a story for another day. A reading from the Book of George.

I’ve always loved cities. But I’ve mostly lived just on the periphery of them. There are lots of reasons for that, including possibly the desire for a city to always remain magical for me. That perhaps if I were to live there, it would lose its shimmer. I’ve also lived in enough apartments and listened to enough people snoring and coughing that I certainly don’t chomp at the bit to spend three grand a month living in a shoebox to listen to a neighbor urinating in the middle of the night.

I also have a mixed relationship with driving. I don’t hate it. Traffic isn’t my favorite, but the solitude of being in a car or having a private conversation or singing my crappy tunes or rapping is something I’d miss if I lived in a city.

It’s the holidays and even early in the morning, the tourists are out. I don’t completely avoid them. New York City is a place where thousands of people see it for the first time every single day. I love to see their wonder. I was once like them, too. I feel like I still am, after living over the river – and points further and further west – for over eighteen years. I love watching their smiles, pointing, and how they try not to look like tourists. How their eyes travel upwards, to see the buildings touch the sky.

I walk and walk and watch. And listen. The languages of a hundred nations commingling as we together pass through intersections.

This city saves my life every time. It’s been saving it since I arrived so long ago. These are the streets where I’ve worked out my grief, my failures, my career dissatisfaction, my failed relationships. Days when I’ve gotten really bad news or suffered a loss. Miles and miles of questions asked and problems solved and resolved and everything in between.

These are also the streets that have helped center my dreams and desires. The streets where I figured out what’s best for me. And what don’t work for me: CUBICLES AND FORTY-HOUR WORKWEEKS! And PowerPoint. And wearing a lanyard with a laminated picture of myself on a noose around my neck; please…don’t misunderstand me. If this is your life and you love it, I love you for it. But it took me decades to realize I don’t completely play well with others.

And I’m going to bring in the nausea-induction one more time and mention that I also learned on these streets that I had a fellow flaneur in the man who became my spouse. We carried on an email relationship for a short while before we met and I recall one day, walking all over Manhattan, bantering like crazy with this guy. He was regaling me with stories about flood data in the English countryside and some guy he grew up with that they called Dave Clark Bar while I concealed from him that I worked at a church and gave him various clues to try and figure out where someone would work that there would be various robes and drapey sorts of garments worn.  I was that dumb-dumb, furiously typing my most eloquent puns and cliches into my circa 2009 pink Blackberry. And doing it all with a silly grin on my face.

Early in our relationship, I traveled alone to Paris and it wasn’t until then that I knew that flaneuring was a thing for them. I spent hours roaming des rues (see how sophisticated I am? I used Google Translate to remember how to say “the streets” in French), listening to an MP3 player of music he gave me before I left. We do The Flaneur with our own Jersey flair. It’s significantly faster than the French, but we share a healthy distrust of scammers. (Unlike Paris, no one approaches you in New York asking you if you’ve “just dropped this gold ring”.)

At a certain time of day during these treks, I feel a little twinge of loneliness. I like being alone, but I also love sharing everything I see. I’m making a mental note of people and things I see.

So it’s probably about time to seek out some lunch. I’ve had sat in this place for a couple of hours. Chit-chatted with some people who weren’t from around here. Worked on a little writing. And thought about how much I love it here.  I’m at the corner of a complicated intersection near Lincoln Center so I have my choice of about seven streets to walk down. It’s time for some more Jersey-flavored flaneur therapy.

Our Refrigerated Summer

It’s probably been some time that my age has characterized me as a dinosaur to younger people.  My upbringing contained such absurdities as rotary telephones, no use of seat belts, copious amounts of sugar, breads, and fatty meats, and a television set that not only lacked a remote, but it had a record player and an 8-track player built into it.

During our vacation to the Outer Banks, we took an early-morning walk and heard a symphony of various insects, whirring and buzzing.  It catapulted me back forty years to the memory of what summer sounded like to me.

We lived in a house without an air conditioner.  Can you believe it?

Well, I should say, we did not get an air conditioner until I was maybe twelve years old and it resided downstairs in the back corner window of the family room where we hardly ever went.  Funny side story…the foundation of this part of the house was built into a side of a small hill and once when we had a tornado warning, in the early afternoon while Bonanza was on, my mother whisked us down into a closet until it passed.  So it wasn’t even necessarily a hot part of the house so why they decided to put the window unit down there, I’ll never know.

This is all sort of off the top of my head and the only panel of experts I can summon on vacation at the moment is my husband.  (I’m currently taking a break from using my telephone – not the rotary one with the twisted-up cord; I actually am addicted to my iPhone – and also on very limited bursts of time on the internet.)  He’s somewhat older than I am, but he concurred that his youth didn’t include use of an air conditioner.

Because we survived summer with the windows open as well as a few fans in the house – into which we sometimes inserted pieces of paper to see if we could slice them and also derived great joy of the distorted sounds our voices became when we sang or talked into them – I heard every sound of summer.

I love being outdoors, but I’m not much of a nature buff.  Even as a child, I somehow lacked the curiosity about what this bird was called or what that insect sounded like.  So I can’t even tell you who the buzzing and whirring belonged to.  I sort of just thought they were tree frogs and/or various varieties of insects, many of them tapping away their own sort of sultry rhythm.

Of course, there were the other sounds:  those of kids playing outside, cars rolling down our street, an occasional lawn mower, or the filter from our neighbors’ swimming pool.  But I realize that the soundtrack of my summer was always this hum of nature-y things that lived in the birch trees and weeds that dotted the culm bank across the street from our house.  (Culm bank, you ask?  It’s short-hand in the coal mining areas for waste product from the mines.  I mean, there’s probably a lot more to the definition, but I’ve already established that I’m not much of a scientist.)

Without a summer of windows open, one where a cool breeze is flowing 24/7 through our place, we are deprived from all of those sounds.  Even sitting here, where we are currently staying, I can hear those outdoor sounds, but they’re through the filter of the hum of central air.  It sort of feels like being confined to a comfortable refrigerator.

Now that I’ve established that I have been missing being lulled to sleep by these outside sounds, maybe I’ll make more of an effort to sleep with the windows open.  If I can convince my husband to join me in this endeavor…

Perfectionist Tendencies

A few years ago, I began a meditation practice. Whatever I do is not super-fancy and I can’t exactly even identify what sort of meditation I do. I was inspired to begin when I read Dan Harris’ book, 10% Happier. What I love about his book is that he’s a skeptical sort of sarcastic guy and I can relate to that. My meditation practice has ebbed and flowed over the years and I can say that I’ve seen a great deal of payoff from it. I love meditation so much that when I’m not able to do it, I yearn for it, almost like being hungry. That sounds so dumb, but I love it like food.

But the point of this post isn’t necessarily about meditation. It’s about perfection.

I listen to podcasts when I have long drives to make, which is fairly frequent due to my work as a freelance church organist. Playing on weekends or for funerals during the week, I can drive upwards of 100 miles in one day. Dan Harris’ podcast is one of my favorites for many reasons. He has a great speaking voice, is a generous interviewer, and has a way of getting people to speak about all sorts of things. I also always have various news crushes (Dan is on ABC, though I rarely see him.) and he is among the select few I adore. This afternoon, I listened to an episode where he interviews his wife, Bianca, who plays a role in Dan’s new book because of her own circuitous journey into a meditation practice.

Why her interview struck me so much is that she identified herself as having “perfectionist tendencies”. Here is a woman, likely younger than me, who has a successful career as a doctor and has been served well, in some ways, by being a perfectionist.

I have a mixed relationship with being perfect. It played a big role in my early childhood when I was recognized for academic stuff that my peers weren’t yet doing. Spelling unusually large words in first grade. Playing Mass on a large pipe organ without an adult present with me by sixth grade. Eventually, my behavior normalized and there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about it.

I knew being perfect – playing all the right notes and getting really good grades – was my ticket out of a town where I never felt like I fit in.

By the time I got to high school, anything resembling perfection was impossible. A great deal of instability in my family interfered with my ability to do much of anything. I learned shame very quickly and that has been very hard to shake. Shame for not having a seemingly functional life. Shame for all sorts of dirty secrets I was pretty sure that other girls my age weren’t keeping. I knew I had to keep on a brave face, keep showing up at school (even though by senior year, I was a chronic school-skipper, forging excuses and disguising my voice when the school called to ask where I was), even though I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb among my peers. Peers who seemed to have a much smoother life than I did with parents who cared about their day, or came to see your shitty concerts or school plays without telling you how terribly boring they are.

Sometime during my college career, I realized I was not perfect. It’s not something I gave up on due to a revelation or sense of enlightenment. I’m ambivalent about perfection: I want to be someone who cares about perfection; or do I? I gave up because I don’t feel capable of it. I often have an expectation that I can’t hit the mark and I’m simply not going to necessarily excel. I know exactly how that sounds, having been through my own therapy as well as working with clients on this issue. It’s not easy to concisely talk about or write about in a way that still allows me a small modicum of privacy surrounding it. I had very little support or encouragement growing up, other than the amazing teachers in my life and they probably didn’t realize how troubled my life really was. It’s humbling to be in touch with a number of them now as an adult and more fully share with them how important they were to me. More than they ever knew they were.

Maybe perfection itself really isn’t that important because it’s not humanly possible. There’s a lot of “messy” in my life. Complicated relationships with my family, questions I have about what I’m doing with my life, pressures both from within and outside about becoming a parent at an advanced age, working two busy jobs (as the owner of my own private psychotherapy practice and as a freelance church organist) that, to many people, seem like “fun” and not actually a very busy work schedule, and coordinating child care with a husband whose work also has its own demands. Life seems like it’s in free-fall all the time. Even typing all that feels like a whole load of crazy. And much of the time, I am fine with that and I am proud of my life, especially in all the crazy ways I got here. But occasionally, when someone makes a remark about how the pressures in my life are no different from anyone else, it makes me want to curl up into a ball and call it a day.

What I know about myself is I’m not someone who thrives in chaos. I think most people do not, but many people like to think they do…and they let everyone know it. I can stew in my juices a little and beat myself up about why I’m not Dr. Bianca Harris, a successful doctor in the big city I still dream of calling home someday. Of course I have larger dreams that I am also working behind the scenes to achieve and hope I can bring them to fruition.

Sometimes it’s very easy for me to say that somehow I’m “less than” because I’m not a doctor or a career woman or a world traveler or a skinny person or whatever garbage other women think has value. But if I just take the time, and slow down the tape, I can look at my life and say that I arrived here by sheer tenacity and belief in myself that, for me, I do not function in structure or in cubicles and I fought for years to escape both. This year will signal a full decade not answering someone’s phone or managing someone’s calendar. Now I’m in a position to need someone to help me manage my own life.

I don’t know how to wrap this up. Just to say, I guess, that I think all of us have a mixed relationship with our desire and ability to be perfect. And being imperfect doesn’t make us “less than”, it makes us human.

It’s Not Like I’m Dying or Anything

I make a terrible sick person. I’m not demanding or too complaining, at least that’s never been revealed to me. When I don’t feel well, I try to be chipper and make light of it.

So how does this make me terrible? Well, terrible in the sense that it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to get me to not go to work. Not that I’m such an ardent warrior about my work, believe me. I’m not Mrs. Career Woman who has something to prove that I can’t bear to be away from my work for a day. What I mean is that when I start getting sick, I ask myself, “am I sick enough to take a day off?”

I rarely get sick. I just told someone this the other day and boom, the next day, I had a sore throat. But honestly, I can go an entire year without a cold or stomach virus or whatever. My running joke, “thank God for immune systems” is due to the fact that I don’t use hand sanitizer, I’m not a germaphobe, and I have no problem being around sick people. I think I’ve just built up a tolerance. Even in years I worked in hospital and medical settings, the only time I had what may have been the dreaded flu, it was during an outbreak that was so widespread that the hospital I worked in was temporarily closed. That was twelve years ago. Oh, and the only time I’ve had a flu shot was during pregnancy.

My father had also never been sick. Sure, he had a sniffle here or there and that was pretty much it. I don’t know if they still make it, but periodically he’d take a Dristan for “sinus”, as people of a certain age say. He worked at the same office for nearly thirty-five years and didn’t need to call out sick until he was in his mid-sixties. I vaguely remember some sort of inner ear infection that caused him dizziness once, but it was probably over forty years ago by now. Even while my father was in assisted living and in a nursing home, he never picked up any sort of ailment that was going around.

Now that I’m a parent, I’m told, that will change, and I will be sick all the time. Which is what led me to get a cold of sorts this week. While I was singing at a funeral on Friday morning, I had gotten a cough toward the end of Mass, but thought nothing of it. Late that night, my friend asked me to sing for her at a Saturday Mass as they were stranded in another state due to inclement weather that messed up all the flights. It felt like I was getting a sore throat, but I denied it.

Oh, it’s just a tickle in my throat, I said, which is how these things always begin with me. It’s never, holy cow, my throat is on fire [which it was], let me ask my friend to find someone else to sing on Saturday. It’s always I’M FINE I’M FINE I’M FINE. And yes, to prove that I was fine, I went to the gym and ran for an hour because it’s the beginning of the year and I have resolutions and all. By the end of the Mass on Saturday evening, my throat felt like I had swallowed broken glass and I’m quite certain my voice sounded like Weezy Jefferson. The lady who told me my singing was “lovely” after Mass was just being polite. I’m sure of it.

Driving home, en route to pick up something for dinner at the store, I sneezed at least twenty times in a row. Denial. But what was I going to do? I had to play a Mass on Sunday morning and it’s not like I can just “call off” like people with normal jobs do. So I did something uncharacteristic of me: I went to bed and woke up and took some generic Day-quil. I think so little of my ability to get sick, I don’t even buy the brand-name stuff. Add to that, it must have been in our closet for a number of years because it’s just about to expire.

I felt good enough to get through it and then went home. After a few hours, I went back out to do grocery shopping for the week, and I forget what else I did. I was having a lot of symptoms that people get when they have colds: runny nose, congestion, feelings of maybe a fever, cough. All that fun stuff.

But even when I got up this morning, feeling worse than I did yesterday, I had to go to work in the afternoon. I’m also moving into a new office space and needed to make some phone calls. Coughing into the phone didn’t convince me that I’m sick. I’m still not super convinced, but I’m getting there. I had a number of clients scheduled, but because I canceled some due to the weather last week, I couldn’t not see them again this week. So I powered through and did two sessions and canceled everyone else.

And I feel incredibly guilty. I convince myself most of the time that being sick is in my head. I can appreciate when other people are sick and give others the benefit of the doubt when they are not feeling well. But I am my own worst enemy. Did I earn the right to stay home today? Even while I was seeing the two clients, I was conversing with myself, wait, could I have probably been fine enough to see the people I canceled? What’s wrong with me that I can’t sit here just because I have a cold? Rather than acknowledge that maybe staying home and watching TV might be something that could help me heal, I’d rather beat myself up and say maybe I’m just lazy.

I’m pretty self-aware and have processed a great deal of how my upbringing has influenced the adult I’ve become. I don’t have many recollections of being made to feel guilty for being sick. Was my sickness underestimated by people at times, yeah maybe. And perhaps that’s why I have a very strong denial system in place when I’m not feeling well. I can’t admit to myself that I’m sick because, on the grand scheme of things, it’s not like I’m dying or anything. I hope that when I am dying, I can maintain the same attitude.

So, this didn’t need to be as long as it was. And maybe it should just be in my journal. But heck, I guess it’s better that I’m home, putting my germy fingers all over my computer instead of coughing germs into my clients’ faces.

A generic New Year’s way-too-long message. Because everyone else is doing it.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted to this blog. Since I gave birth to my first child in 2017, I have posted just once. Stories of all sorts that I’d love to share are always swirling in my mind. But I never seem to get them down on paper. My husband is way better at doing this sort of stuff and even as we speak, he is writing a post for his own blog.

I have tons and tons of excuses – or maybe not excuses, but more explanations as to why I don’t post as frequently as I could. I should be doing more professional writing for the website for my psychotherapy practice. In the last year that I have been a one-man-band in my own practice, I’ve learned more about websites and SEO (yawn) and marketing and even I’m getting drowsy typing out some of the business-y things that go into being a solo act. So sometimes when I think of things to share here, I sort of sigh and say, well, maybe the time would be better spent putting together something for that other website.

Then there’s also the creative block sort of business that I deal with that seems to be getting harder and harder to get over. One of my favorite books of all time is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s hard as hell, both in terms of commitment (if you do it the way its intended), but also in facing some of the emotional brick walls that we all face when we know we have some creative stuff inside us and it just won’t come out. I’ve been a life-long journal-keeper and try to write everyday. I’ve maintained that practice within a few days of having our child and I continue to do so as often as I can.

But I struggle with the desire to be more creative and have been battling with a memoir for a number of years now. I have a story inside myself and in various notebooks and Word documents on my computer. I don’t know if it means anything, but a few instructors have encouraged me to put a proposal together in some classes I’ve taken. But you know what? I am scared shitless. When I express my frustration that I’m struggling writing, well-meaning friends use the demands of motherhood as an excuse, that I should give myself a break, that I’m managing my practice as well as continuing to play organ all over the place on weekends, blah blah blah.

On the surface, those things are all true. And for normal people who know their boundaries and limitations, they’d say, OK, let’s come back to it when we have a little more time. But I feel like I just cannot let it go. I dream about this story and I mull over the arc when I’m out running or going about my day-to-day activities or when I hear a song on the radio. So what am I supposed to do? Whether I were writing a symphony or painting something or writing a book, I think I’d be equally scared of emotionally revealing myself on a grander scale. In my close relationships with people, I am reasonably comfortable with vulnerability, but the what-if machine really does kick in and nail my motivation down as if it were an errant nail in a board.

I think a lot of creative and often super-talented people have all sorts of creative works in their homes. Painted canvasses stuffed in closets, notebooks hidden away in boxes, hard drives full of music. Stuff that’s just tucked away for fear of being seen. I feel it, too.

I’m sort of rambling here. Today I joined a Facebook group whose intent is to coach participants to write 500 words per day. So while I’m a day late hopping on the bandwagon, I ran extra hard today and jumped on board. Not unlike the video for “Say, Say, Say” when Michael Jackson hopped in the back of the wagon every time the townsfolk knew he and the McCartneys were snake oil sales-people. What the video has to do with the song, I’ll never know. And what this video has to do with me jumping on to a 500-word-a-day writing habit, also remains a pretty slippery association. I’m hoping to apply the 500 words daily to this story I’ve been writing, but if not that, to hopefully stir up the creative juices to do more blog posts either here or on my website or whatever else comes out of me. It sometimes feels like an exorcism and we all know from the movie that that is sometimes not a pretty picture either.

If I didn’t have to get myself to the office today, maybe I’d write 1,000 words to make up for the day. Even in my rambling, I’m sort of shocked already that I’ve written over 900 words so maybe I really could belly up to the bar and say something meaningful (don’t hold your breath!).

I do have a few topics on my mind for this blog that are posts for another time. Things about stuff. How’s that for vague? Like even stupid stuff I experience every once in a while. Exhibit A: Over the summer I thought of writing about the nice man who was riding his bike on the trail in the opposite direction while I was running. And I kept running even though I was tired and wanted to stop and didn’t want him to see that I was a wussy and needed to take a breather. So I kept running to save face and after he passed me, waved and said “nice job”, because I was running uphill and still had a ton of baby weight clinging to my frame, I ran 50 more feet and nearly fell flat on my face when I tripped on an exposed tree root. See, stupid stuff like that. It’s what the internet is yearning for. Everybody else does it; why can’t I? It’s not unlike my lifelong struggle to learn the guitar. Probably the easiest instrument on the face of the earth to play and while I can play a few other instruments reasonably well, the guitar seems way over my head.

So I don’t know what the point of this whole thing is. I haven’t decided whether to even share a link to this blog post because WTF is it really saying anyway? I should pull the plug on it because I need to get showered up and leave in 30 minutes to get to my office. It’s not good form for a client to beat you to the office. Heh heh.

Here’s to a more expressive and creative new year! And with that, I sign off. My 500-word goal became over 1100 words.

Stewing in My Frugal Juices


Let’s get the awkwardness out of the way.  As you can see, it’s been awhile since I’ve been here.  Various things in life have interfered with my ability to think up new and imaginative things worthy of a blog post here.  That being said, in my professional life, I’ve begun another website with a blog and much of my energy goes into thinking up new and imaginative things to post there!  There’s also a bunch of performance anxiety that goes into the work-related blog posts, especially the ones that are often scrutinized by fellow professionals or potential clients.  For example, I just posted one yesterday that has the same amount of words as this one…except it took me four days to write it, due to all the hemming and hawing and worrying about how it turned out.

I’m going to cut the excuses and post something very quick that I witnessed yesterday.

At our local grocery store, you have to put a quarter into a little mechanism to get a shopping cart.  The carts are chained together and once you put the quarter in, it releases the chain.  You then go and do your shopping and when you’re done, you return the cart to the corral, stick the chain into the mechanism and your quarter pops back out.

As I was leaving the store yesterday, I saw a man who was parked in the closest handicapped space to the door making his way to return his cart.  I saw him as I was exiting and, most of the time, I would have offered to return the cart (and retrieve his quarter) for him so that he didn’t have to walk all the way to the corral and back to his car.  But here’s my lame excuse:  I was pushing my own cart and after having had a baby a few weeks ago, I’m still in a fair amount of pain myself from a couple of old busted-up discs in my back.  My limping was about the same as the man’s.  So I had hoped that another customer in our nice town would come by to help him out.

A man in his early 20s came by and offered to take the cart off his hands.  But here’s why I have not been able to stop thinking about it.  That’s exactly what he said, “Can I take the cart off your hands?”  The young man was going to simply take the cart, not return it to fetch the guy’s quarter.

I sat in my car for a few moments wondering about the quarter.  The elderly gentleman put a quarter in to get his cart and he was leaving Shop-Rite twenty-five cents lighter.  Was the young man dodging the need to part with his own quarter, even though he would have gotten it back in the end?  Is he also of that generation of which I am a part who has zero coinage on them at any given time and he used his sweet-talking ways to bilk the man from his quarter because he simply didn’t have one?

What does it say about me that I am so concerned about the twenty-five cents?  I do lean toward the frugal end of the spectrum, but does this indicate that I am a massive cheapo that is going to waste precious energy worrying about a quarter?  Am I also wondering whether the man who is down twenty-five cents left the store equally peeved about his lost quarter?

It’s possible that I am making a bigger deal about this than I should, right?