Open the Heart and the Mind Follows

While it may seem otherwise, especially with the way we report our news, people can and do change. These changes come when our minds are open, and our minds are open when our hearts are open. And we know how to open our hearts. We do that, of course, with love.

I’ve often wondered if maybe we don’t have it in us to change fundamentally – to change our minds, that is. We get so stuck and stubborn about being right, so resistant to consider that we might not be seeing things clearly or accurately, that we’re unwilling to consider another perspective. We like to be right and avoid being wrong, often regardless of the cost. But sometimes, the discovery that we’ve been wrong can be really great news. It can mean that our fear and anger are not needed, and that Love is prevailing.

Too often our minds run the show. When our minds are closed—by fear, or anger, or ignorance, we get stuck in our ways. But when our heart is open, we’re more willing to open our minds, because we’re unafraid.

Several years ago, Kevin and I spent a week at a youth leadership camp in rural Texas. Kevin did a keynote, I facilitated a workshop, and we both served as family group advisers. As we prepared to travel down there, Kevin told me about this area we were going, where he’d spent a few summers in his early 20s. This is the town where the KKK was extraordinarily active in decades past. This is the the same area as the camp where Kevin worked summers in college, where he eventually realized that whenever an African American staff camp counselor arrived, he would immediately find himself assigned to work in the kitchen, if not dismissed. At meal times, among the many varied and often silly songs and rhymes the campers would recite, Kevin heard them shout nightly, “1-2-3, Robert E Lee! 3-2-1, The South should’ve won!”  The same region where on at least one summer night each year, Kevin saw them set a cross on fire, and he was told that no, it didn’t mean what he thought it meant… it was just tradition. And they did not take kindly to Kevin asking questions.

With this background, I was not excited to get there. And although the memories Kevin shared were over 20 years old, I was nervous about being there openly as a couple with Kevin. We weren’t married yet at the time, but everyone knew we were together, and it didn’t occur to me to try to hide it. What would we see? So I arrived on guard, assuming, these people are ignorant, racist, homophobic, and I’m going to have to find a way to stand my ground, and speak up if confronted by hatred.

On the road into the hill country, we pulled up in front of a small general store. “I remember this place!” Kevin said. We got out to buy some bottles of water and some snacks. And as we walked toward the door, we paused to look at a grouping of bills and notices. There in the center of this bulletin board in red rural Texas was flyer for a local chapter of PFLAG. It wasn’t brand new. It had been there a while, which means no one had taken it down.“I can’t believe that’s there,” Kevin said. “That’s so great. That’s incredible.”

We had a great time at the camp. The kids were terrific, the staff was dedicated, kind, and respectful. None of my fears materialized there. Where I had expected judgement, or a sense that we were being at best respectfully “tolerated”, we found instead that everyone seemed delighted that we were there.

At the end of the week, they had a dance night. There was a hall for the kids, and an adjacent room where most of the adults and staff congregated for snacks and music and dancing. During a slow song, Kevin and I danced together. I felt a little self-conscious about that. Who’s watching? What are they thinking? Are they whispering about us?

A little while later, one of the other staff people approached Kevin. He said, “My parents were very active and high up in the Arian Nation. I was taught to hate people like you. Tonight, I stood here and watched you two dance together, and I thought it was beautiful.”

Before I realized that I was gay, I tried really hard to be what I thought I was supposed to be. For a time that included going along with what I thought I was supposed to say and think. I remember one day, I was riding in car with my best friend, Dorothy. We were just out of high school. And I don’t know how or why it came up, but we were talking about gays and lesbians and I said (I remember this so clearly) I “The thought of two men being together it just makes me sick.” I did not really feel that way at all., but I thought I “should.” I had heard other people say that, and I was still deep in denial about my orientation. But Dot would have none of it. She called me out immediately. “Well, I think it’s beautiful!” she said. 

I knew she was right. It broke through something that had kind of hardened over me. I said to her right then and there, “You know, you’re right. I shouldn’t have said that. You’re right.” It did not break through my denial (and in fact… I went on to marry Dorothy, which is a story for another day). But God, I admired her so much for speaking up. She always spoke from the heart, and it was always with kindness and love first – more so than anyone else I’d ever met up that point. She was fiercely loving. She got into my head by going through the heart.

My husband, Kevin, is a professional speaker. He talks about love and kindness. He tells jokes and funny stories. He entertains people, and in the process he aims to open hearts and minds, and encourage people to choose to love. It’s a good gig. He loves it, and I love working with him.

A few years ago, I was with Kevin in a town outside Atlanta. On the way there, Kevin told me that he’d spoken in this town at a specific conference for many consecutive years, and that had stopped when someone told a meeting planner that Kevin was gay. Now here we were again, same town, different conference. Kevin delivered a keynote for a few hundred adults who work with kids. It went really well, and after that he presented a diversity workshop for 60 or so people.

That was interesting to watch. In a conference room at the hotel, this apparent “old white guy” stood in front of an audience of about 70% African Americans to talk about diversity, and to facilitate an experience called Aspects of Identity. It was moving. People were shaken and stirred, as they usually are from the experience. The audience laughed and applauded Kevin’s stories, and an hour later they were filing out.

I like to hang out in the back, like a roadie, observing. And it’s typical for me to see a handful of people linger after a program to say hello to Kevin, to shake his hand or take a selfie. That day, the last such person was a woman about my age. From the back of the room, I saw Kevin hug her.

“Wait, wait,” she said. Kevin’s a hugger. It’s a good trait, and people often want to hug him, but maybe he jumped the gun a little this time. But she wasn’t upset.

“I wanted to tell you,” she said, “I really enjoyed your keynote, and this workshop, and I thought it was all wonderful. And then you referred to this young man as your husband and I… I didn’t like your program anymore. I thought, I don’t like any of this, in fact, I changed my mind: I didn’t really like your keynote either, and I just shut down. I couldn’t listen to you anymore. But I was in the middle of a row, and I couldn’t leave, so I felt stuck there, and I didn’t want to be here anymore. So I prayed. And God said to me, ‘Here is where you change.’ And I realized I have been wrong to judge you. I never thought I could accept gay people, and when you talked about acceptance and love, I… heard it in a way that I have never heard before.”

It was a beautiful moment. We talked about it as we went back to our room, where we packed up our suitcases. It was early afternoon now, and we were going to head back toward Atlanta for our flight. While we were putting our suitcases in the rental, a car pulled up and stopped in the street beside us, and the man driving said, “Are you the keynote speaker?”

Kevin said he was, and approached the car.

“Well, I’ve got to tell you, you did something to my wife. She’s not a talker, and she was at your keynote yesterday, and she came home talking, she went to bed talking, and she woke up talking. We have a young grandson that we have not seen in a while. My wife has not been on speaking terms with our daughter because our grandson is transgender, and our daughter supports him in his gender identity. I’ve been kind of ok with it, but my wife has really had a hard time. She said you talked about your daughter? How she came to live with you as a boy, but identified as a girl and… my wife called our daughter and now we have dinner plans with them. She wants to reconcile. Thank you.”

On a regular basis, Kevin and I get to see that when we touch the heart, we reach also the mind, and we do so way more effectively than when we try to get through purely on the level of mind.

People do have dramatic changes of heart. Minds do open. Love does perform miracles. And what we do, the kindness we show each other, and our dedication to authenticity, to speaking our truth with love, matters. It matters. It makes real, positive, important changes in the world, even when we don’t get to see the changes… because every change of heart changes the world.

Some Gifts of a Broken Heart

Loss and grief are inevitable. Every heartbreak offers a choice, and it’s the same one we get with every challenge in our lives: will we choose to love? How we navigate through loss determines how, when, and sometimes if we emerge from it. When heartbreak comes to us, if we lean into it we’re more likely to find its gifts.

I once had a house with a sweet little backyard, at the center of which stood a huge oak tree. It was gorgeous, tall, and old enough that couldn’t wrap my arms all the way around its trunk. We had mulched around the space, as one often does, and on top of the mulch I had spread out hundreds of smooth, flat river stones. I loved to walk on them in my bare feet in the shade of the beautiful tree.

One of my most vivid memories of that spot is a sad one. I was on the phone talking to a friend, and on this day, I was telling the story — very much in progress — of the extraordinarily painful end of what I had believed to be a life-long committed relationship. My partner of 14 years was ending our relationship. Up until that time in my life I had not known what devastation was. I was circling this tree, walking the stones, pouring my heart out over the phone as it sunk in that I would be losing this, too. This place, this spot, this tree, this home, along with the comfort of my partnership, my sense of security, and what I had thought was the love of my life.

A few weeks later, with everything I owned a movable storage unit, I drove away. I had packed all my clothes, enough furniture to suit an apartment for one, and a few pieces of art from the walls. I drove 14 hours nonstop to Denver. When I arrived, I couldn’t move into my apartment yet, so I drove seven more hours to the small mountain town of Silverton, a former mining town, to stay for couple of weeks with my best friend, Mollie. She was the artistic director for a small theatre company there.

Mollie showed tremendous compassion and patience over the next few months while I grieved. She got me out and about when I wanted to stay in. She went on walks with me. She rounded up an impromptu birthday party when I turned 39, just a few days after moving to Colorado. She took me high into the mountains to see stunningly beautiful places where are my sense of smallness felt beautiful and awe-inspiring.

One day we stood around 13,000 feet above sea level on a mountain, well over the tree line at the headwaters of the Rio Grande. In this place, I had no sense of scale. How far away was that mountain that peak? How large was that? How small? And what on Earth was I doing here now in this place? It was a deeply humbling and inspiring. Taking me to this place, she literally uplifted me. When we returned to town, I had begun to shift myself to a new perspective. My life, I decided, was in an adventure phase. It was incredibly painful, and I missed my old home, my old relationship, my old life, but I knew that life would continue.

I started to remember, then, that I wasn’t actually happy in my old relationship. I was just comfortable. I realized that for more than the last decade, I had felt like I couldn’t be myself, or that I shouldn’t be myself. Now because all was lost, I had nothing to lose. Knowing that, I found a new conviction that from now on I would just be me. I wouldn’t hide my interests, I’d say what I thought, share what I felt, and care for myself the way I’d always wanted my partner to take care of me. I learned that loss and grief can open our eyes, and can make us stronger. As Marilyn Monroe said, “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.”

I soon saw how my loss made room in my life for something better. Have you ever made a vision board? You know, a poster where you cut out photos of things you want in your life, and you visualize and imagine your perfect life? I had. And my vision board was becoming real. I ended up getting exactly the life I wanted. But it wasn’t to be with my former partner. There was someone else that was a better fit, a new family I was meant to be a part of. For that to happen I had to lose some things. Much sooner than I would ever have anticipated, I met someone new: Kevin. And as I got to know him, I discovered that he had all the qualities I had wanted in a partner. Before I knew it, I was in a new relationship. It felt much too soon, but I plunged in anyway, because it felt so perfect. Everything was in sync.

All these years later, I’m happy to say that things have worked out. We’ve been married now for four years, together as a family since 2011. I LOVE my life now, so much more than I ever did, more than I’d thought possible. And this life now could not have been if not for the loss of what I had before.

Very soon after I moved to Indiana to start this new chapter of my life, Mollie learned she had ovarian cancer. We lost her in late 2016 when she was only 42.

When she died, I felt this void. She was gone, but my love for her was not. I needed a place to direct it. So I turned to friends – not just my friends, but her friends and family. All my love for Mollie, I decided, I would now share among those who also treasured her. We gathered not just for her memorial and celebration of life, but we reconnected. And we remembered how much more we had in common than our love for and friendship with Mollie. Something else beautiful came out of this reunion that was prompted by her passing.

We wanted to do something to remember Mollie. She taught theatre for many years, and inspired a lot of young artists to pursue their creative passions. A few of us got together to talk about what we might do, and then last summer, we established The Theatre Mine, a new non-profit theatre organization in that small mountain town that Mollie loved. We raised money to bring in guest artists, and in early June of 2018, we got together for the first annual new plays festival named for Mollie. It was a fantastic week full of laughter, creativity, discovery, play, friendship, communion, and Love. And we’ll do it all again next year.

I would not say that these rekindled friendships and this new theatre company’s birth make up for the loss of Mollie. At all. But they are wonderful, beautiful, precious things that came about because she died, and I’m grateful for them. We lost Mollie, but not our love for her. And we get to pour that love into something that she loved doing, something that we loved doing with her. It has already started to touch the lives of many people who never met her.

I think sometimes we don’t really know the depth of our love until we lose someone we love. What becomes of the brokenhearted… that’s up to each of us to choose. Heartbreak can teach us a lot if we’re willing to let it. The gifts of heartbreak reveal themselves as we move through it. When we bear the pain we are sure will kill us, we find that we are stronger than we thought. Heartbreak teaches us the importance of honest vulnerability. When we find willingness to be vulnerable — or when the pain gets so bad that it breaks down our walls and our denial so we must be vulnerable, willing or not, we can discover new empathy and compassion.

If we’ve lost a relationship, we have an opportunity to choose to love ourselves more fully. And we don’t need someone else to love us first. That actually makes us easier to love, and helps us love others more freely, and with healthier boundaries.

Heartbreak and loss, unexpectedly, can prove to us that we’re not alone… if we choose to stay open. 

It can bring us back to what’s most essential, most important in our lives. It makes us humble. It can open our eyes. It helps us discover our resilience.

It can bring us closer to a higher power, or God, or Creation.

It can reveal strengths in us that we didn’t know we had.

It can open new doorways.

It reminds us to cherish the love in our lives, to savor the friends and family who mean the most to us.

It can shake us up and bring new clarity, helping us to see the world in a new way.

Heartbreak and grief are universal. Not if, but when we find ourselves in grief and heartbreak, we are presented with an opportunity, and a choice: Will we resist and deny, thinking we’ll avoid the pain and in doing so ensure that it’s worse and that it lasts longer? Will we swear we’ll never be hurt again? Or will we let our heart open even more? Will we isolate ourselves and close ourself off?

Sometimes when we experience a great loss, when things fall apart, we want to avoid the pain by shutting down, or numbing ourselves. I say, let’s have the courage to love, even in our grief and loss. Heartbreak can make us stronger, softer, more flexible, because the heart breaks OPEN. It doesn’t break closed. When you are feeling lost, alone, grieving, and heartbroken, don’t give up on love. Remember that you are not alone, that you are loved. Keep on loving, no matter how often your heart may be broken… open.

About Me

All of us fail to conform from time to time. That’s a strength, and I like to write about it.

I am a parent to a nonconforming child (two of them, actually). I use the term “nonconforming” descriptively here, not judgmentally. Sam is nonconforming because she doesn’t like the things that most of her peers do. She likes a lot of things girls typically do, including princesses and dolls. She likes to design dresses. She loves Lady Gaga. She’s passionate about lifeguards, school buses and mermaids. She’s uninterested in sports, and when she was living as a boy (she’s transgender), kids assumed she was gay.

My partner and his ex adopted Sam several years ago. Sam came to them when she was five. I’ve been part of the family since 2011. Sam experienced serious abuse prior to being placed in the foster care system, and she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and gender dysphoria. She’s now 18, and out of high school. We’ll have to wait and see what’s next.

We thought we were finished with parenting, and adamantly insisted that we would not parent another child. Then Jackson came along. He’s nine. We fell in love with him, and now he’s ours, or he’s about to be. He doesn’t conform, either. He has ADHD, PTSD, dyslexia, and other diagnoses. He’s funny and creative and really smart. As I write these words, he’s been part of our family for two months. We’re exhausted, sometimes stressed, very busy, and totally in love.

 

Adventures in Heresy

For most of my life, I didn’t have a close relationship with my father. But in my younger years I enjoyed spending time with him. I remember the smell of his workshop, our garage: the scents of motor oil, dirt, dampness, and the distinct odor of metal. And the images of it: those banged-up trash cans to my right as I walked in, next to the big overhead door, open in warm weather, closed in cold; half of the two-car bay empty but for tools and stuff lying on the cement floor, the other half occupied by an old truck I’m sure he tinkered on for years, a truck I don’t think I ever saw run. The room was lit by fluorescents and natural light filtered through dusty windows onto cracked pegboard walls holding tools over a workbench with its jars and coffee cans of unsorted screws, nails, and bolts, and my father’s breakfast beer, fizzing by the radio speaker. It was like Sanford and Son, but without the catchy theme music.

One day in the garage, he told me about his work in a tone that made clear he had no love for it. “I crawl into a hole and stare a light all day. Then I come home.” He was a welder, and on weekends he found ways to put his main vocational skill to use at home. He had a welder at home, and would use it on our old cars and wherever else it was useful. The first time I saw him welding, he warned me, “Don’t look at the light—you’ll go blind.”

Dad wasn’t exaggerating about the danger of staring into the light. Over the years, I did glimpse at it a few times, deliberately or accidentally, and even from yards away it caused a dull ache in the center of my skull. The brightness, apparently, could cause permanent damage and even blindness, so he wore a shield over his head and face with a small, nearly opaque rectangle to see through.

He reached into a tool box. “You have to look through this,” he said, and gave me a piece of glass like the one in his face shield, so black I could see nothing through it at all. But when he started working again, I saw the glow, still intense but not painful, and a shower of sparks. This was the light he looked at for hours on end, mending and building ships and submarines at a job he disliked to support his family.

I like Sunday mornings. I get to sleep in. When our travel schedule allows, I get to attend a church service where everyone is so nice and welcoming, and the music is great, and the message is interesting and not too long.

I didn’t always enjoy Sunday mornings, though. When I was young, I would wake up in the room I shared with my older brother to the sound of a hateful voice (it sounded hateful to me). On any given Sunday, I’d wake to the sound of an angry sermon. Dad favored Jerry Fallwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Vernon McGee, and their voices echoed down the hall from the kitchen into my room. My father turned the volume of the radio or TV up high so he could hear it wherever he went in the house. Many Sunday mornings he wasn’t even in the house when I woke up, but he had the sermon on so he could hear it if he stepped inside from the garage where a second radio or TV blared the same broadcast. I grew to really dislike that sound, but somehow it comforted him. I think Sundays were his favorite downtime.

I grew up Catholic, but my dad rarely went to mass with us, and when he did he brought his Bible and didn’t pay attention. Mass bored me. I believed in God, and I just figured… God likes boring stuff. And I believed what happened in mass was a miracle — or magic, at least, with the whole bread into body of Christ thing. And then eating it… I wondered does this make us cannibals? The devout, I learned, do not appreciate that question.

I went to Catholic school taught by nuns, who offered well-meaning but terrible council on a range of subjects. My favorite, from a visiting nun lecturer: “You may be asking yourself why I, a celibate, should be teaching you about sex. But think of it this way: If you had cancer, you wouldn’t tell your doctor he couldn’t treat you because he doesn’t have cancer.”

And can anyone explain all the felt? Remember the felt boards? I’ve heard from non-Catholic friends that their churches were also big on felt. Walls or cardboard covered in felt to which you could stick other pieces of cookie-cutter felt. Felt Mary,, felt Joseph, felt crosses, and entire felt landscapes, a cornucopia of iconography rendered lovingly in felt. Eventually I got it: obviously Jesus loves felt.

At church, I fidgeted in the pew, my butt itching from sitting on the hard bench, watching the clock, waiting for it to be over. And while the priest droned on, blah blah blah — I couldn’t pay attention even when I tried — I talked to God. I prayed constantly, even outside of church. And I mean that literally: constantly. Every thought passing through my mind I addressed to God, like an ongoing conversation. The subject of a thought made no difference. When I felt thirsty, I would think, Dear God, I’m going to get a glass of water. In my mind, I spoke all of my observations, feelings, desires, impressions, fears, questions – everything – to God, who I believed listened to my every thought. And I felt comfort. I felt safe, and held, and protected, and valued. I felt loved.

But this God, I was taught to believe, was the same one that my father’s favorite evangelical preachers claimed to be experts on. And in their sermons, they were so angry, so self-righteous in their convictions. They seemed always to be talking about hell, about damnation, fire, and sin. They believed the Bible to be the literal word of God, and they by God were here to tell us what to believe, what to think, and how to live. I felt no love in their preaching, only fear and judgment. They spoke of “the fear of God” as a virtue to be clung to. And in spite of my resistance, their message sunk in.

Eventually, I understood that if it was true that they had this understanding, that this religion was the One True Faith, that God was judging me and keeping a tally, and that sinners would be cast into Hell… then there was no hope for me. I do not conform, because I cannot believe what I have been told I must.

This means that I am a heretic. A heretic is a baptized Roman Catholic who willfully and consistently rejects any article of faith. “Willfully and consistently.” Yeah, that’s right in the money. More generally, a heretic is a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted.

I know in church circles heresy is something to be shunned, it’s not a word one embraces.  I like the word. I also like the words discombobulated, gargoyle, and nougat. But “heretic” I really like, less for its sound than its meaning. It’s a much more powerful word than “nonconformist.”

“Heretic” comes from a Greek word meaning “able to choose,” and choosing one’s own beliefs was —and still is — a practice that many powerful religious and political leaders find objectionable. They would much prefer that we all believe what we are instructed to believe, so much so that some have been known, both in the past and in the present, to threaten scary eternal punishment, or mete out earthly penalties—to this day, in some places in the world, people are fired, ostracized, shamed, beaten, tortured, and even killed for the audacity of choosing one’s own beliefs.

It is strange to me that in the church in which I was raised – and I realize this is an extreme example – I could do anything, commit literally any sin, and still be welcome in the church, still be given the church’s stamp of approval and entry into heaven if I believed and did the proper rituals. On the other hand, I could lead a life as sinless and flawless and Christ Himself, but if I were to publicly declare my disbelief in accepted dogma, I would be excommunicated.

It took me a long, long time to shake the belief that because I can’t change who I am that I am worthless. I don’t believe that anymore. What I do believe in is the power of Love. I value kindness, and charity, and sharing. I value freedom of thought, and unfettered scholarship, and science, and peace, and compromise, and negotiation, and respect, and compassion, and responsibility, and fairness, and equality.

I believe that it’s better to give, knowing that some without genuine need will “take advantage” than to not give and allow people to go hungry or uncared for.

I believe in erring on the side of kindness and compassion.

I believe in taking care of the planet; in the Golden Rule; and that we are all in this together.

These values and beliefs do not make me a heretic. Here is what does: I don’t believe in Hell or eternal judgment. I think the idea that God would be offended by disbelief is ludicrous. And I don’t believe in the devil as an entity seeking to drag us all into damnation. And because I know that the Bible was written and assembled by men with agendas, I cannot believe for a second that it is the literal word of God.

It seems to me that the stories of the Bible are not meant to communicate history; they are meant to transmit faith. The story is not the message; it is the vehicle for the delivery of the message.

In my understanding, the Jesus depicted in the gospels invites us to open our hearts and minds to the Love of God. Because he is human, he embodies an archetype that we can identify with and emulate. An archetype is a symbol; a symbol represents something, points to an idea. But as the great world religions demonstrate, we can become so enamored, so identified with and focused upon a symbol that we can lose site of thing to which it points.

I left the church when I came to recognize that its love was inherently conditional. I returned when I found a community that reaffirms not just in word but in action and in practice that God is Love; where the message of Love is more important than the system that delivers it; and no religion has a monopoly on the love of God.

I’m sure my father wouldn’t have liked the services here because they’re not based in “Scripture,” which he seemed to value more than anything else in his faith. He accepted without question the notion of God as a being we must all fear. But then again, he spent a significant chunk of his life looking out at the world through a very dark lens.

He had good reason to wear that shield when he was working, so he wouldn’t be blinded or burned. It offered real protection. And those sermons he studied also shielded him. They limited his view of the world and that was all he wanted to see. He even told me once, when I challenged the idea that we should unquestioningly accept these preachers interpretation of the Bible, that we were not meant to interpret it ourselves, that we weren’t qualified, that we could get it wrong, so we must be obedient, and anything else would be heresy.

I’m proud to be a heretic, to think for myself. I am happy to be a part of my new church community, because there the message I receive says, “We welcome Christians, and Buddhists, and atheists, and Muslims, and Jews, and all others, exactly as you are. Let us cultivate a community together, based on our shared values of compassion, respect, kindness, and goodwill. Let’s look out for each other. Let’s be responsible. And let’s share ideas about how the power of Love can transform our lives.”

Dad’s Passing

Dad died, and I’m waiting to feel.

That’s not entirely fair. I have feelings about it, but they’re not what I expected. Where are the tears and surprisingly-intense-even-though-it-was-expected pain of loss? What I feel is much more complicated, more subtly layered, and I have a peculiar sense of distance about it, almost as if I am anesthetized.

For the last year, Dad’s doctors had been telling Mom that he would die within weeks or days. His skin turned yellow, he stopped eating and his flesh shrank against his bones. He stopped drinking for weeks at a time. I guess when you feel like you can’t breathe, the desire to drink wanes. They said it was toxins in his system, another symptom of alcoholic cirrhosis.

Three years ago, my sister called me at work to tell me Dad was in rehab. “He had a seizure at work,” she said, which I later learned was a symptom of alcoholic withdrawal. He hadn’t quit drinking. He just hadn’t had a drink in several hours.

On hearing this, I couldn’t stop weeping. I felt relieved, and hopeful, and angry, and apprehensive, and hurt. Conversations with my father played vividly in my head, exchanges that never happened in which I told him in clear and certain terms how much damage his drinking did to our family. “Doesn’t Mom deserve to live with a sober spouse for a few years,” I wanted to ask him, “after all the bullshit she’s endured?”

I never had that talk with him exactly. Once, during the longest of his sober periods (lasting several weeks), I asked him how he was feeling. I imagined there must be something positive about it for him. Was he enjoying more quality time with Mom? Did he enjoy greater clarity? Did he feel hopeful, or empowered?

“I’m bored,” he said dully, and had nothing else to add.

He quit for a while, a month or two, long enough for me to feel hopeful, then angry with him for drinking again and mad at myself, too, for being stupid enough to think he would or could stop. It took another two years before I gave up, and I mean that in a positive sense. I let go, finally, of the wish that he would change. And it became easier to love him.

Almost a year before he died, I flew home to see him because he was, we were told, on his death bed. We wondered if I’d get there in time. He’d stopped eating, had lost a tremendous amount of weight, he was jaundiced (for the first time), in pain, he struggled to breathe, and said he was ready to die. When I saw him at the hospital, he looked frail and weak. He winced, moaned and gritted his teeth in pain at irregular intervals as urine drained through a catheter. Yet he was much improved, they said, and expected to go home in a couple of days.

Mom said the doctor told him he had about six months if he stopped drinking. But if he stopped, he would experience more seizures, which could be damaging and dangerous. He stopped and started, and finally, a few months before he died, he told my mother, “I love you, but I can’t stop.” And he continued drinking for as long as his strength to do so allowed.

His last week or so was really hard for Mom especially. He wanted to be at home, and she wanted that for him, too. But he was hallucinating, uncooperative and verbally abusive. At one of his first stays in the hospital, he’d called home and told my mother to bring him his gun. He said he was a secret agent and the hospital was keeping him there against his will. This delusion was frightening and painful for Mom, and she cried when she told me. And they said it would get worse as his liver quit functioning, and ammonia polluted his system. Finally, Mom guiltily consented to have him brought to a hospice. He fought her on it. “I know I’ll get better if you’ll just let me stay home,” he said, which made it even harder. But she couldn’t do it, she said, couldn’t take care of him anymore knowing that the worst was yet to come. He protested and cursed, “but that’s not really him,” I said. “He’s not in his right mind anymore. If he were, he wouldn’t want you to have to go through this anymore.” We all knew and we all told her she was doing the right thing. She was. She did.

He settled into the hospice on Friday night. He was given morphine at regular intervals. He did not regain consciousness. He died Sunday morning. He was 68.

The last time I spoke with him was a couple of months ago on the phone.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Tired,” he said.

We made small talk. I told him I loved him, and he said “Thank you.”

He said “I love you.”

And those were our last words to each other.

For that, I am grateful.

Can’t Control

I just spent a few days in New York City with Kevin. I welcomed the break, and as we sit on the plane waiting for take-off to return home, I feel sick with anxiety.

This feeling started when Kevin finished a call with Kyle and shared with me that Sam hasn’t turned in his homework this week and that she failed his tests today. Kyle was asking Kevin’s opinion on whether or not to permit Sam to attend a social mixer at school tonight. They settled on “no.” Sam was doing well as of last week, and this week, left to make good choices on her own (complete her work, practice her trumpet, turn in her work, study), she slacked seriously on the homework and studying, didn’t turn in what she completed, and skipped practicing her instrument altogether.

My emotional response is out of proportion to the circumstance. Sam did not meet my expectations this week. Knowing this, I feel anxiety and anger, and as I feel it and watch this, I tell myself, get a grip on yourself. Relax. She’s twelve. She messed up. This week. In sixth grade. This is neither surprising nor earth-shaking. And yet I feel myself shaking internally. This is how crazy people are. I am being crazy.

Several weeks ago, I agreed to join Sam on a ride at the state fair. It was one of those big contraptions that gyrate and swing simultaneously, taking one’s secure-but-flailing body into dizzying arcs of progressively increasing altitude before winding gradually back down. As we began to spin and climb, I felt that dropping feeling in my stomach and felt myself resisting. So I said to myself, This is happening—I am on this ride now whether I like it or not, and I cannot change it, so I hereby say “Yes” to it, I surrender to this, all of it, the heights and the drops, and even the feeling in my stomach. Yes. Yes. Yes. And when I quit resisting, all of the unpleasantness ceased immediately. I enjoyed the ride, and it was over very quickly.

This is what I’m practicing now as we sit on the runway. Whether I like it or not, Sam will make her own mistakes, and she will not always meet my expectations. So I say “Yes,” to this, I surrender to all of it, the ups and the downs. I cannot control her and I do us both a disservice when I try. My job is to role model, to guide, to advise, to help when I can. Then I’ve got to step back and let go of the result.

I Love Dogs

I can hear Maggie licking her butt.

“Quit it,” I say, and she pauses. She looks at me, her body still folded in half. She resumes.

“Don’t make me put the Elizabethan collar on you.”

I’ve been avoiding the big cone collar, the “E-collar” as the vet calls it (that word makes me think of e coli. Ew. But appropriate when you consider what this dog’s applying her tongue to). Maggie’s backside has been bothering her for months, despite all the dog doctor’s prescriptions, which include medicines, expensive new food, and frequent manual expressions of her anal glands (look that up on YouTube–I dare you).

Mattie’s butt, meanwhile, presses against my leg. I’ve pulled a chair up beside me for him because he’s fretting over what sounds like fireworks outside. And as I completed that last sentence, he climbed gingerly into my lap, sheltering himself and snuggling at the same time.

I love my dogs. They are worth every effort, every mess, every dog-hair-sprinkled floor surface, every mischievously stolen morsel. These beasts are pure love.

I grew up with a lot of animals around the house, although I learned early not to get too attached. In nearly every case, animals did not fare well for long at our house before we had to bid them farewell.

I remember a black lab we adopted when I was in first grade. We had him for a week or two before my uncle hit and killed him with his car. I have this odd memory of standing over his body after the accident. It’s odd because I remember feeling disappointment more than grief, like we’d lost a new toy. I feel more grief now as I write this than I did then.

We had another dog, Flash, whom I loved and played with a lot. When he began to behave aggressively and started to growl at me periodically, my affection for him turned to fear. I felt sorry for him, but I didn’t want to play with him anymore. He lived on a tether in our back yard year round for several years before my parents had him euthanized. If I think about that too much I feel angry at my parents and disappointed in myself. Maybe part of why I lavish so much love on my dogs now because of guilt about Flash.

My dad brought home a goat one day. It was incredibly cute, and smart, and affectionate. We named it Sheba. One day Dad and my brother took it on a walk and our neighbor’s dog ran out of his yard and killed her.

We also had a sheep. He was black, and sullen looking, as if he knew what was coming. And maybe he did, because he strangled himself. My dad tied him to a pole under the back porch, where I found him one morning still standing and stiff, having wrapped himself round and round the pole until there was no more slack in the rope.

Dad gave us rabbits, a pair of them, and their cage didn’t keep them safe. That same neighbor’s dog came down to our yard, tore the cage open, and mauled them.

We raised chickens, lots of them, and ate them. For years, each spring, we’d buy twenty or so chicks. They were adorable, and we’d play with them like pets until the novelty wore off. I liked to place them in my sister’s doll house because proportionately it looked like Barbie had a pet ostrich. But the fun didn’t last long. They weren’t, after all, very interactive. Most of them lived long enough to make it to our table. Dad would chop off their heads, then dunk their spasmodic bodies into hot water to loosen the feathers. I frequently helped.

We had some ducks. Dad slaughtered one on exactly two occasions, and never again. The first time he was flummoxed by the feathers, swearing as he vainly dunked the web-footed highly water-resistant carcass in a bucket. The feathers refused to be rinsed away, and they were hard to remove manually. So next time Dad added some Lestoil to the water. That actually worked, but it made rather a bitter marinade. And Mom didn’t know how to cook it. Try cooking a duck the same way you prepare a chicken and you get a greasy, flavorless, mess.

We had a horse once. I don’t remember where we got it. We sold it because it kicked my father in the teeth.

We had a cow for a while. My dad bought it at a county fair and brought it home in the back of the station wagon. We kept it in the chicken coop, where it got really bad diarrhea and died.

I should clarify that we did not live on a farm–not even close. My childhood home is a 1970’s Cape-style construction sitting on a single square acre. The chicken coop (aka cow-barn) was in the back yard. My parents still live there. Now and then my father says he wants to get another dog, and the family collectively cries, NOOOOOOooooo.

Sam loves our dogs, and I feel all warm and fuzzy seeing her dote on them. It’s therapeutic for her, I think. They have a lot to teach us about patience, compassion, affection and responsibility. And they’re love sponges. Mattie is crazy-smart, a chronic worrier, food-obsessed, and a compulsive licker. Maggie is more laid-back, but still a terrier. She’s dainty, mostly quiet, squirrel-obsessed, and likes to be with her person (me). She has lived here only as long as I have–she came with me when I moved here, and Sam adores her. She’s smaller than Mattie, and, well, girlier. Dainty. She’s a little Princess. Who licks her butt.

Anxiety

When I feel depressed, I catch myself thinking I have always been depressed, as if I cannot remember a time when I have breathed without this weight pressing down on, in, and through me.

When I feel anxious, as I do today, as I have for the past three days, I watch myself pacing around the house because when I sit still I think I have to move; I have to do; there is something else I can do to make things better; I will feel better when I do something, and I just have to figure out what that thing is.

I find myself thinking that this anxiety–again, this pressure–that pushes both in and out at the same time, is both my weakness and my strength. I feel anxious because I am weak-minded. I feel anxious because I care about so much that is not as I think it should or could be.

These are limited perspectives, I know. And I remind myself: this is temporary. I say to myself, breathe into this. Lean into it. That’s what Pema Chodron would say. Say “yes” to this. And this. And this. Yes.

And I feel like, No.

So I breathe into that.

No one appointed me the peace keeper of my home. But I listen, I feel, I am tuned in at all times the emotional broadcast of this house, feeling it so strongly it submerges me. I focus on it, resisting. When there is tension, or potential for it, I want to change it, resolve it, contain it. I’m watching a boulder perched on top of a hill over us, and no one else sees that the few pebbles holding it in place are loosening and ready to shift.

Sam just led Kevin downstairs and outside. A minute later, they returned and climbed the stairs to Sam’s room. Kevin, ever the generous spirit, has agreed to play “school,” and evidently Sam wanted to administer a fire drill. Outside Sam’s room, I heard her tell Kevin he could not go to the bathroom without asking because then Sam wouldn’t know where he was. Although I know they’re playing, I do not like Sam taking that tone of voice.

I admire Kevin’s willingness to indulge Sam in this kind of play. And it makes me nervous, because when Kevin gets bored with it (and who wouldn’t? I can’t stand it for more than two seconds) he begins to do ridiculous things like he’s in an absurdist play. But Sam wants him to play it straight, and this is where so many times in the past they would launch into verbal sparring ending with Sam having a tantrum.

Sam having a tantrum equals a twelve year old yelling and carrying on angrily in what is ultimately an impotent explosion of her frustration at not getting her way. This being so, I expend a disproportionate amount of energy fretting about when the next one will erupt. That’s an old habit I’m ready to give up.

Twelve and Throwing Tantrums

At twelve years old, Sam has tantrums on the scale of a two year old. She is still learning how to handle her emotions appropriately. Fortunately, these tantrums are limited now mostly to yelling, some stomping around and some door-slamming, so we’ve seen improvement. Each time she gets in trouble for acting out in this way, we remind her that she earns consequences not because she’s gotten upset, but because of her behavior when she is upset.

I find her tantrums extremely stressful. Way more often than I’d like to admit, I’m walking around on edge because I can feel Sam’s emotions building, and I anticipate a fit. Somewhere along the way I must have decided it was my job to control Sam, that I could control her and that I should. Saying that out loud or writing it, I know it’s ludicrous, but I catch myself believing it anyway. I feel the adrenaline and cortisol rising in my blood when I sense her becoming agitated. My stomach ties itself in knots, my breath constricts, my chest caves inward, and I think, futilely, I must prevent her from acting up again. This is where I get pulled into a struggle with her, where it’s been hardest for me to disengage. I’ve become a lot better at it, though some of the time I put on a performance of calm that conceals distress so palpable I can barely stop myself from trembling. And it’s here that I realize that what I’m trying to teach her–how to deal with his emotions in a healthy way–is just what she’s teaching me. She’s showing me what not to do (flip out), and as the adult, I’m trying to remember to breathe, choose my words with care, and act instead of reacting. That’s not easy for me as an adult, so I can appreciate his challenge as a twelve-year old (with PTSD) in handling herself properly when she feels this way.

An acquaintance who happens to be a psychiatric nurse shared a theory with me the other day. She said we develop some important emotional skills when we’re around two years old, that this is what’s going on during the so-called “terrible twos,” that we learn then to moderate our behavior when we feel strong emotions. And this makes sense, because at two years old, Sam was being seriously abused. Could it be that this part of his development was interrupted? Since that conversation, I’ve been able to feel more compassion for Sam when she fails to control herself as I would like. I’ve been able to maintain a more genuine calm (despite my stress) in the face of his upset. And I still want to help her as best I can to develop the skills she needs to control herself.

Kevin and I often debrief after one of Sam’s tantrums, and its usually to remind ourselves of what we already know. Experience demonstrates that when we decline Sam’s invitation to join her in her drama, it all fizzles out much more quickly. Still, we occasionally let ourselves get sucked in despite ourselves. We argue with her. Routinely, we used to declare consequences during one of her tantrums on the theory that it would show her we meant business. This only escalated things like fuel on a fire, so eventually we learned (mostly) not to do this. It’s not that consequences aren’t ever in order, just that giving them while she’s acting up has proven counter-productive. To date, the best advice we’ve heard has been to disconnect, to take away the audience. When she’s upset, Sam wants to argue aggressively, and to do that, she needs someone to fight with her. We’re still learning how not to be drawn in. Kevin still argues with her more than I do, and we have argued about that. I say, if one party (the adult) stops, the argument is over. Sam can’t keep it going by herself.

This is something we more or less agree on, and it’s often difficult to remember in practice. Like Sam, we’re so attached to being “right.” But as the parents, we hold the power, and we give it away if we allow Sam to hijack a conversation and turn it into a shouting match. It’s hard to walk away when she’s saying something obnoxious, defiant, or otherwise disrespectful, but it quiets her more quickly than anything.

It’s not always feasible to walk away. If we’re cooking dinner, or working in the living room, we cannot evict ourselves every time Sam acts up. So we tell her to go to his room. Usually, eventually, she will stomp his way up the stairs and slam her bedroom door in classic angry-kid fashion. But sometimes she seems intent to perform an aria of outrage. It’s as if she believes she could make us cave if only she could rage loudly enough. If that’s the aim, it’s puzzling because it has never, ever worked. Not once have we ever given in to a demand when she’s disrespectful or obnoxious. Which leads me to believe that if she’s not getting her way from it, she must be getting something from it, or wouldn’t she have dropped the habit by now? I suspect what she gets is some release. She gets the feeling out.

We’ve talked about that with her. “You can have your feelings–they’re always okay–and you don’t have to get in trouble if you can do something else to get them out. Go to your room. Listen to music. Go outside and ride your bike. Punch a pillow. Write down your feelings. And you can talk to your therapist about it. She can help you, give you some ideas of some things you can do instead of having a fit.” She doesn’t say anything to this. Her expression seems to say, “yeah, maybe.”

A few months ago, I did something different. Sam was carrying on and escalating about homework or something, had refused to go to her room, and began rapidly increasing his volume and intensity. She even started jumping up and down–just like a toddler. Spontaneously, without thinking, I began to do it, too. “I can yell, too!” I said. “I can act like this, too! Aaaaaaaaah!” And I jumped up and down.

Sam stopped cold, like she’d been struck. Her whole energy shifted. The rage turned to what looked like sadness or grief, and she ran outside crying, telling me I was mean and horrible. I felt really bad, and at the same time I realized that in a way, it had worked. She had shifted.

I told myself I wouldn’t do that again, but since then I have done it, about three or four times. Last time, before I did it, I said, “Sam, lower your voice. Would you like me to start talking to you the way you’re talking to me?” And on she went, and so I mirrored her (that’s the word I would like to use, because it’s kinder than what I fear may closer to the truth: mocking). Within thirty seconds she was leaving the room of her own accord. She wasn’t any happier, but she was removing herself.

Sam and I have talked about it. When she’s in a positive mood, she talks freely and openly about what’s going on with her during a tantrum. Last week, I said to her, “I know it doesn’t feel good to you when I act like you when you’re doing that. But honestly, it’s the only thing that has ever gotten through to you to make you stop for a minute. I don’t want to hurt you, I just want you to see what you’re doing.” She just nodded.

Two days ago, when we were talking about alternatives to yelling when she’s upset, she said, “You can always act like me again.” She seems to agree that when I’ve done that, it’s helped her shift. But I don’t like it.

Effective or not, I am not sure if mirroring her like this a good idea. I do know that it doesn’t feel good to me, and based on that, I am resolved not to make this a habit. Still, when all else fails, I often feel at a loss for what to do, how to respond. I guess in those cases, I can always take my own advice, whether or not it’s convenient, and disengage. Just walk away.

Dad

I wrote the following in a my journal in December 2010:

I’m at my parents’ house for the week of Christmas. I haven’t spent more than 48 hours here in fifteen years. I feel uncomfortable, awkward, out of place. I want very much to leave. But I also want to be here. I can do this. My being here means a great deal to my parents. They’re so happy I’m here.

I spent the day with my mom. I drove us to the beach–I hadn’t seen the ocean in a couple of years. We shopped in the afternoon, and in the evening went to a Christmas concert at my nephews’ school. We got back a couple of hours ago, and my father was still up. This was unusual for the hour.

“Would you care to sit down for a bit?” he asked. He looked vulnerable.

He was watching a thriller of some kind on TV. A bloody face filled the screen. I didn’t want to sit with him, nor did I want to watch this show.

“I’m not interested in watching that show,” I said.

He hit the power button the remote, and the screen went dark.

“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to watch the program. I asked you if you’d sit down.”

I did not want to, but I did. I can do this, I thought. For him. So I sat on the couch, leaving enough space for another body to fit between us. He smiled at me through an anesthesia of alcohol, something between a grin and a wince. Then he reached out to me tentatively. He wanted to touch me, to hold me. I let him. He sighed and held me close. I can do this, I told myself. It was ok, easier than I thought it’d be. Love to him, I thought. I can do this. I visualized light in my chest, allowing the glow to reach out to him.

“Thank you,” he said, still holding tight. “I feel it,” he said. “I feel… penetration.” I almost laughed at this choice of words. He let go for a moment, then pulled me in again. “I’m not done,” he said. He caught his breath as if laughing or sobbing. Then he sat back and looked at me blearily.

“You know,” he began, and hesitated. “In two years, it’ll be 50 years your mother and I will be married.”

“I know.”

He was silent for a few seconds while he stared toward the wall. Then he looked back at me and grinned. “You know, if you want to… if you really want to set her off… you…” and he leaned in toward me, pressed his lips against my shoulder, and exhaled. I felt the warmth of his breath seeping through the fabric of my sweatshirt. Then he sat back, smiling mischievously. “If I really want to upset her, all I have to do…”

“Let me ask you a question,” I said.

“What?”

He couldn’t hear me. I had to speak loudly.

“Let me ask you, why would you ever want to ‘set her off?’ Why would you want to upset her?”

He was flummoxed. I repeated the question. His expression shifted as he considered, looked confused, then unsure before a bland look came over him as he said (as if it should be obvious), “It can’t be all love.”

“Why not?”

He seemed to think this a naive question.

“Because it’s not out there.”

“You choose your behavior,” I said. “You choose to be loving or not. Why would you choose to upset her, on purpose, ever?”

He thought this over for a few seconds.

“For fun,” he offered.

“It’s not fun for her,” I pointed out.

“No,” he agreed. “It’s not fun for her, but…” and he went silent, then looked confused again.

“I don’t understand why you’d do that,” I said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“You’re not making any sense,” he said, shifting his body to face me. He was searching for words, clearly wanting to have a talk, to educate me.

“I don’t care to have this conversation with you when you’re this drunk,” I told him.

“What?”

“I’m not going to have this conversation with you while you’re drunk.”

Hearing this, he released me. “Oh. Ok. Good night to you.”

I went down to the guest room.

Twenty minutes later, I opened the door and stepped to the bottom of the stairs, listening.

“He’s downstairs,” he was saying. “What the fuck is up with that? That’s not right,” he told my mother. “There’s something wrong with that.”

“Don’t use that language,” she scolded.

It is very hard to be here.

I love my father. That hasn’t always been easy to say. When I was a kid I frequently told him I hated him. I was always so angry at him. I didn’t trust him. I experienced him as moody, erratic, unfair, creepy, invasive. He enjoyed teasing me. He admitted this years later. I got into the habit of just avoiding him, making myself invisible. I was good at it.

I’ve seen my father a few times in the last several years, on my brief visits back to the northeast. He’s ailing badly now, and his doctors have told him he won’t live long. Mom says he hasn’t had a drink in over a month. This time it’s not because he’s on medicine to curb the desire, or because he’s reached a resolution, but because he always feels like he can’t breathe. I guess that cuts the appetite for alcohol.

About ten years ago while I was in grad school, he and my mom visited me in Iowa City. While they were there, I set up a video camera and interviewed them as they sat in my living room. Not too long before this visit, I had recorded a conversation with my grandfather days before he died, and now I thought, why wait until they’re on their deathbeds? So they agreed to do it.

I’ve lost the recording. I had it backed up on a couple of drives, and last year when I tried to look at the files, they were irretrievably corrupt. But I remember.

“You used to hide all the time,” Dad told me.

I knew exactly what he meant. I didn’t say anything.

“Tell me about when you started drinking,” I said.

“I remember when I was a kid,” he began, “I used to see aunt Rita and Uncle Charlie pour themselves a whiskey, and they’d fill a glass like that…” He held his fingers out to suggest the size of a tumbler a little larger than a juice glass, which he then mimed holding and filling to the top. “And I saw them do that, and…” he searched for words. “I admired it. I wanted to be able to drink like that.”

Wow, I thought.

“So when I was old enough, I started drinking.”

I’d never heard this story before.

I’d asked the question because his drinking affected me, it affected all of us. I believe it’s one of the main causes of our strained relationship right from my childhood. I always knew he drank, but somehow I didn’t understand until I was a teenager just how much. When I was in high school, I got up one morning, and in the kitchen found what I thought was a flat, stale glass of beer on the kitchen counter left from the night before. I poured it down the drain. Not long after, I heard him moving angrily through the house asking “Who dumped my beer?!” I told him I did. I remember feeling very self-righteous and angry about it. I didn’t apologize, I just said, “I never imagined you’d be drinking this early in the morning.”

I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. I talk to mom just about weekly, and sometimes she hands him the phone. Our conversations are short. He sounds more pleasant, less gruff than I’m used to. Softer.

And it’s easier now for me to feel my love for him. I don’t feel angry with him anymore.