How Well Do You Know Your Mother!

Mother’s full name? Judy LaSov

You’re in jail & you call her, what does she say? Do not know phone number. Do not know how to reach dead mother. Perhaps, a Ouija Board or psychic medium?  If I do reach her, jail will not be an essential element of our conversation. In fact, jail will not come up at all.

What is she doing right now? Good question. Some people say she’s watching me “from above.” But I have a different story of afterlife. It goes like this:

On the day a stranger cremated my mother, the molecules of her body ascended air. Flowers and trees inhaled her, absorbed her. She became sky, cloud, rain, earth.

Now my mother is busy being the atmosphere of everything. Like all mothers everywhere.

What kind of dressing does she eat on her salad? Has not eaten salad in 17 years. Dialysis diet restricted. Salad is a touchy subject, by the way. Because she was a Type-1 diabetic and anorexic & bulimic, which means food = super complicated. Avoided salad dressing in favor of sour but almost calorie-free balsamic vinegar.

 Name something she hates: Life with a chronic illness. Being dead. Sexism. Seersucker suits. Lace curtains.

 What does she like to drink? Coca-Cola. During an insulin reaction only. However, be forewarned: She might scream like the cup crawls with insects or poison.

 Favorite music to listen to? The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Wham!, Karen Carpenter, and especially “Close to You,” which she sang off key to her daughters  until they knew every word of that song.

 What is her nickname for you? May. For the first syllable of my name, for the month she was born, the month when roses and azaleas bloom, when flowers paint the land in Technicolor and we forget how hard winter was.

What is something she collects? Teapots, which her young daughters did not have the foresight to save when she died. So now their mother’s beloved collection sits in the homes of strangers or at the grimy bottom of a landfill. She would have wanted it this way. She would have wanted to free her daughters from the weight of a mother’s unfulfilled aspirations.

What would she eat every day if she could? Here’s the shitty thing about getting diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes in 1966: People made fun of her. Her family teased her. People said, “Mmmm. I’m eating this ice cream cone, and you can’t have any –– hahaha!” As if that were funny. As if, as a teenager, she wouldn’t learn how to binge and purge, wouldn’t learn the satisfying urgency and release of an addiction that trailed her though the rest of her life.

So, dear silly meme, the answer to this question is simple: She’d eat everything if she could.

What is her favorite color? Ripe cherry red, a color that makes her grown daughter shudder.

 What would she never wear? White shorts. They are an abomination unto the Lord.

What is her favorite sports team? Hmmm. She tried going to a baseball game once. Her daughters openly mocked the son of her boss, then disappeared for hours to do secret twin things. This was the end of attempting any family interest in sports.

What could she spend all day doing? Talking on the phone to all her cousins and friends while her introvert daughter hid in a bedroom and wondered how anyone could laugh so loud all the time.

What’s her favorite candy? Sometimes seen sneaking a box of Good & Plenty in bed while watching “The Golden Girls” and smiling like she believed she might live to be that old.

How many brothers & sisters does she have/had? Eldest brother, Bernard, died at four-and-a-half months, and proceeded her in death. Eldest sister died last September. Another brother still living.

 Favorite alcoholic drink? Admitted to getting drunk only once when she was “getting up the nerve” to have sex with a boyfriend who turned out to be the father of her children. This story, told as a cautionary tale to adolescent daughters, had zero cautionary effect.
Repost as How Well Do You Know Your Mother!

Sixty Five

Two weeks before you died, we curled up in your bed and watched “The Golden Girls.” On the TV across from us, four women huddled around a kitchen table, nibbled cheesecake and laughed fake theatrical laughs. I was too young to lose you, and old enough to sense your going. We never said death, dying, dead. If we spoke them, we’d make them true. Denial can be a life preserver. We preserved hope.

The summer before you died, we walked BWI together, and you whispered something shocking in my ear. At first, I didn’t understand. Travelers crushed around us. And I’ve never been good at walking and talking. You stopped moving. You put your arm around me. You said, “My pancreas rejected. It’s okay. I can live without a pancreas.”

I nodded, like I believed you. We walked toward baggage claim. My vision blurred. The airport looked like something under water.

I’d come home to visit the deathbed of your stepfather, the man I knew as a grandfather. I came home to play Sinatra while he took his last breaths. I came home to whisper it was okay to let go. I came home to bury him in Newark beside his first wife.

You couldn’t get out of bed the day of the funeral. We pretended you were just tired.

A month after cremating you, I marked his first yartzheit.

____

Your ashes. My God. Do you know what it is to be 21 and hear a package thump on the front stoop, make the sound of a body hitting cement? Do you know what it is to see the address stamped on the box and know your mother is inside that box?

Only, your mother is not merely your mother. She is your first god, first home, your mirror, your map, the blueprint of everything.

And then, one day, your mother is in a black box inside a cardboard box with a crematorium address stamped on the lid. Your mother is dust and splintered bones and sooty grit, a shadow you can never touch.

You remember denial is a life preserver.

Then you carry the box to a bedroom that still smells like your mother. You ignore a hairbrush holding remnants of hair that never went grey. You open a dresser drawer and tuck the box beneath a stack of sweaters. There, a burial.

____

Seventeen years later, you write before work, at night. Pronouns get confused. You are you. She is you. We are she, her, and me. You do all the mixed-up pronoun things you tell your students not to do. You tangle, untangle, tangle again. You make up for lost time. Grief makes a stern knot you don’t want to untie.

____

You read shitty self help books that say there’s a finish line for grief, say grieving too long is pathological, say sorrow and love are not proportional. You stop reading these books because they make you suspicious. You are not a pathology. You are devoted.

At a lecture, a famous writer talks about desire. Desire is the engine of literature, he says. What we want never adds up to what we have. All books, he says, are actually about crushes.

Okay.

So you have a crush on your dead mother. There are worse things. But what would it mean to stop desiring her? Would that make it okay that she is dead?

Who would you be if you didn’t want her alive?

____

You move through your twenties and thirties without her. You are effective, efficient at steering through life without a mother. You have a solid husband, a good mother-in-law, Google. You can find an answer to any question.

And yet, you delay childbearing because you are afraid to mother without her. Your friends have mothers who watch their grandchildren a few times a week. Still, your friends complain about their mothers to you, and you nod. Because what can you say?

You wonder who you will call in a childcare pinch.

Your sister hires a full-time nanny, manages to juggle a high demand job with graduate school, with two children under the age of five and one on the way.

A nephew has your mother’s eyes and all her facial expressions. A niece has her “whatever” attitude.

One day, your nephew asks to see pictures of your mother. He asks for these photos the same way he asks for Harry Potter Legos — he must have them. But there’s not enough time to show him everything, and you pull out a few photos you know he’s already seen.

You recognize the hunger in his eyes, the downturn of his shoulders when you cannot fulfill his desire to know her.

Still, a ghost grandmother is better than no grandmother at all.

____

You wish you had something wise or prophetic to say on the second week of May when her birthday and Mother’s Day intersect. For so many years, you say nothing, as if silence can erase her absence.

You graduate college on your first Mother’s Day without her.

You mark major milestones on her birthday, May 10: first day of your first job after college, the day you meet your husband, the day you decide to date him, the day he and you buy your first house together.

You mark all the birthdays she didn’t get: 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65.

And all the birthdays she didn’t see you mark: 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37.

And all the events in her grandchildren’s lives that she didn’t see: brit milah, Hebrew namings, Kindergarten graduation, first steps, first words, first Siddur.

As if by marking, you can somehow take something back. Not her life. But the right to tell the story of your desire. Her desire.

Desire, from the Latin, desiderare, means “long for” and “wish for” and derives from the sadly out of vogue expression “await what the stars will bring.”

She used to sing a song of desire to you, a Karen Carpenter song about dreams coming true, stardust, angels.

When you mark her birthday, you remember this song. You remember the gift each line intones, the burden.

She no longer trails your dreams. But nothing stays gone forever.

She finds her way back to you again and again, always in a different form than what you expected.

You watch, wait, listen.

On her birthday, she used to blow out candles, then tell you to make a silent wish.

You can’t say your wish out loud, she said, because then it won’t come true.

Once you gave her a journal and asked her to write down all her desires. She left every page blank.

You fill in the pages for her. You become every wish ever wanted, every wish she never saw come true.

My Body Doesn’t Lie

Living with late stage Lyme disease is like being on bad drugs. I hear phantom sounds, smell phantom scents, get paranoid: Everyone hates me. Everyone thinks I’m weird or stupid. People say words to me. I hear them. I don’t always understand.

It’s excruciating to be a writer and to hear words floating by, and to be unable to grasp them.

In a meeting this week I said, “I’m having trouble following the thread,” which is a poetic way of saying, “I have no clue what all of you are talking about.” And I thought I saw someone in the room make a suck-it-up-stop-complaining-face at me. I don’t know if I imagined this, or if it’s part of my Lyme paranoia, but I felt shamed and embarrassed. Like I was being weird again & weirding people out. Like I should minimize my own needs for the sake of other people’s comfort.

There is another story of who I am.

That other story goes like this: I am a good friend and a patient teacher. I am smart and strong. If you tell me something hard, I will listen to you. I will protect your confidence. I will help you. I will not judge you or manipulate you with fear or anger.

Even on my bad days, I get a ton done. I support my students because they are everything to me. I take pride in the fact that I’m an overachiever, even as I recognize the multiple problems in that sense of pride. I don’t want to tie my self worth to my achievements, and I have been conditioned to tie self worth to achievements.

Lyme disease took away friendships, child bearing years, energy, hope, trust.

But it didn’t take away my ambition.

Ambition kept me going. Ambition made me fight hard for myself.

________

In December, I started one course of long-term tetracycline antibiotics. My primary care physician added another antibiotic at the end of that month, and I improved drastically. My Lyme specialist added a third antibiotic in February, and this is standard: late stage Lyme disease requires treatment from separate classes of antibiotics. Nothing has helped me more than multiple antibiotics and eliminating gluten from my diet.

Seeing myself respond to treatment is reassuring and counters the effects of gaslighting I experienced in other medical settings, where doctors dismissed and disbelieved my symptoms.

And I can’t stop talking about this shift, which I suspect is starting to annoy to some of my friends. Because I was silenced for so long, I have become the person who can’t stop telling the same chaotic story over and over again. I can’t stop talking about myself.

My story goes something like this: When my symptoms first presented in July 2013. I went to the emergency room, and I was not seen that night even though I could not stop vomiting. I never vomit, like not even when I have a fever. I kept saying something was desperately wrong, but a nurse said I probably just had “a little virus” (in the middle of July).

Staff placed me in a hallway so I would not distress other patients. I fell asleep. I stopped vomiting. I went home, and felt like Hell for weeks. A blood test showed irregularly shaped red blood cells, which I now know is a telltale symptom of my most pervasive Lyme co-infection: Bartonella.

I took four lessons away from this experience.

Lesson 1: Women who vomit uncontrollably are not sexy. We must, therefore, be hidden, ignored.

Lesson 2: Authority figures who dismissed my illness made me question my sanity, my sense of reality. I believed them at my peril. I believed their myth of okayness because I wanted to be okay, and on the outside I looked okay.

Lesson 3: My body doesn’t lie. I’m learning to listen to what my body needs to tell me. My body can be trusted.

Lesson 4: There are excellent doctors & there are super shitty doctors. Do not excuse or minimize the behavior of a super shitty doctor. Believe you can do better. Believe you deserve better, and you will find better. Get out of that practice, and don’t look back.

________

When I wake up and run three miles, when I vacuum my house after working all day, I know a somatic shift has happened. I know I can trust my perceptions of reality. My narrative is valid.

Right now, I am having more good days than bad days. I can grade a big stack of essays, and I can focus my full attention on my students. They get my best energy. And this is why I meditate regularly. I need to bring attention and compassion into my classrooms. My students deserve my best energy. They deserve patience and compassion and generosity.

But, when classes are over, my brain is fried. I am frazzled.

If I rest, I bounce back.

If I don’t rest, my brain melts down.

Resting isn’t always an option. I work in the real-world, and I care about doing my job well.

So I’m learning how to “rest” inside the jumble. I’m learning how to bring my meditation practice into every area of my life. And this is another story that is true about me, a story of resilience and adaptation.

One of my friends is a Yoga instructor, and he has been kind enough to practice Yoga with me each week. He gives me instructions, and he knows I don’t always understand what he’s saying. He knows when I’m not following the thread, and he supports me until I figure it out. He never makes a mean face or rolls his eyes or mutters something rude. He doesn’t gossip about me.  Sometimes he has to stop his practice in order to help me, and each time he reassures me that it’s okay for me to not know what’s going on. He trusts that I’ll figure it out, and I figure it out.

This is what compassion looks like.

In order to have faith in ourselves, we need others to place faith in us.

________

This week, I had a terrible day. Most people around me did not know I was suffering. My friend Anne knew, and she helped me. I made it home, and Carl was there, and he helped me. And my amazing Mayo clinic trained Lyme doctor saw this coming. He had already shifted my meds, so that as soon as I needed them, I had them. Carl ordered dinner, and we ate. I took my meds. We watched Netflix. I fell asleep. And the next day, I was okay. I bounced back.

Writing those words terrifies me, and makes me uncomfortable. The image of a person “bouncing back” is inherently ableist. I am not cured or recovered. I will always have this disease, and it sucks. When I write, “I bounced back,” what I’m saying is that my treatment is working, and I am functional. What I’m saying is that setbacks are not permanent. What I’m saying is that recovery is also impermanent.

And there I go again, repeating the same story.

I’ll stop telling this story once medical communities, once society, starts listening to women, starts listening to the stories we tell about our bodies.

I’ll keep telling this story because it matters, because it needs to be told.

A Season of Loss

We’ve had so much going on this year, and I forgot to buy a yartzheit candle to mark the seventeenth anniversary of my mother’s death. This weekend initiates a trifecta of death anniversaries: my mother (April 7), her mother (April 8), and a beloved aunt (April 9).

I have marked these anniversaries back-to-back for years, often lighting candles in my kitchen. For me, marking death in early April can feel incongruous, an affront to the landscape’s perpetual message of rebirth.

This morning, because our past year has been so complicated, I also forgot that today was my mother’s yartzheit. I remembered only after I opened the kitchen door to let our dogs in from the yard. Nature reminded me. Each time I look at a cherry blossom or daffodil, I remember where I was on a Sunday morning seventeen years ago. I go back to the moment before I learned the news of my mother’s death, when I sat on a sofa while the walls turned salt-lamp pink, then swirled around me. I go back to the the moment after I confirmed the news, when I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out. My primary experience was one of silence, which now strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for death and grief.

In the past seventeen years I have mourned my mother, I have resisted cultural silences imposed on the grieving. I have resisted avoiding the topic of death. I have resisted language that denies the reality of death and grief. This blog is one form of resistance.

This week, I’ve thought frequently about how hard it was for me to go back to school after I lost my mother, how much pressure I felt to perform normalcy and perfection. I thought about how I learned to hide my sorrow, and how alien I felt in rooms full of 21-year-olds whose parents were still alive, and often paying their children’s bills. At 21, I had no such resources. I was on my own. To this day, I do not know how I graduated from college, only that I did – on Mother’s Day 2003. Some people tell me I’m strong or brave. But I don’t think finishing college was a heroic act. In a period of tremendous instability, the structure of an academic year gave me stability. I clung to stability. If anything, I feared further change. I avoided uncertainty.

After my graduation ceremony, I went out to lunch with visiting relatives but refused to go out to dinner. Instead, I stayed in my apartment with my sister and boyfriend. We ordered takeout. My graduation was not a celebration, and celebration felt fraudulent. My college graduation was the first major milestone I marked without a mother, and I marked this milestone in public, surrounded by jubilant people, on a Hallmark holiday that forefronts motherhood.

That day, I needed privacy. I needed to grieve alone with my sister. The next week, we’d “celebrate” her graduation. I cannot bear to look at photos from either of these events. I had such a sweet boyfriend at the time, and he stayed with me even though it was hard, and we were both too young to understand the emotional pressures bearing down on us. In the graduation photos, my boyfriend stands next to me. He holds me in a protective embrace. But my eyes are vacant, cold, dead.

I am barely there. I do not want to be there.

Something that bonds Carl and me is that we both lost parents young. We both lost the parents with whom we shared a gender identity – my mother, his father. We both walked across commencement stages, received diplomas, fell in love, began careers, bought homes without those parents present. At our wedding ten years ago, we claimed these losses in a candle-lighting ritual. We acknowledged how light and darkness exist side-by-side as natural elements of human experience, our experience. In our family, grief swims beneath each experience of joy.

This morning, because I could not find a yartzheit candle, I walked from our kitchen to our attic, which we’ve recently remodeled into a meditation/Yoga space and writing studio. I sat on my meditation cushion and lit the only candle we have, a rainbow chakra candle I gave Carl for Christmas. Then I carried the candle through our dark house and placed it on the stove, beside a plate of matzah brei I’d made for Carl’s breakfast. A spoon holder that once belonged to my mother sat behind the candle; it’s one of the few objects I have left from her house.

In our kitchen, the makeshift yartzheit candle still burns, will burn all day. I’ll light another candle tomorrow, and another candle the next day. Outside, the daffodils and cherry blossoms will open more blooms. Each time I see them, I will hold despair and hope in the same gaze. Despair. Hope. Neither cancels the other out. Each magnifies the other. Each reminds me how precious, how beautiful a life touched by death can be.

 

To All the Attention Seeking Drama Queens

In January 2002, my mother learned her transplanted kidney had begun to fail. She began dialysis. We spoke on the phone each night, and I visited her as often as I could. The mother I had known, the jubilant mother, grew depressed and fearful.

I offered to undergo a test that would determine whether one of my kidneys could be transplanted into her body. I was 20-years-old. She begged me not to have this test. She didn’t want to do anything that could compromise my chances of becoming a mother.

That is how much motherhood meant to her. She was willing to die in order to prevent me from making this decision. And she had hope. She hoped someone else in her family would come forward.

To my knowledge, no one did.

I write those words with tremendous anxiety of how they will be read: No one did.

My mother’s story is complicated. Perhaps someone came forward and she never told me?

Even so, she could not survive another transplant. Her death was inevitable, and within months of undergoing dialysis my mother began to accept this reality. For the first time in her life, she rejected the false narratives of cure and recovery so often projected on the seriously ill.

But I still harbored delusions. I called delusion hope. I pleaded with members of her family to understand the seriousness of her situation. I wasn’t ready to give up, to let her go. I believed she could recover, as she had recovered so many other times before. Others did not believe my mother was actually sick.

A relative told me my mother was exaggerating.

She said, “Your mother is a drama queen.”

She said, “Your mother likes attention.”

My mother was not a drama queen. She lived with a debilitating chronic autoimmune disease from adolescence through middle age. She was beautiful. She was sick. Because she was beautiful and sick and female, she fell prey to cultural biases that fail to acknowledge serious illness in young women. When people looked at her they saw pretty. They saw young. They saw stylish.

As my mother’s health deteriorated, I ignored her pleas. I had the test done. It was a simple blood draw – I barely remember the needle prick. In the blur of her multiple hospitalizations, and my struggle to perform normalcy as our lives collapsed, the test was not a big deal. Just one more errand.

My results came back after she died: I was not a good match. My kidney would not have saved her.

I was off the hook. I’d tried. She’d known I’d had the test. She’d known I was willing to give her a vital organ, even if that choice compromised my ability to become a mother. She knew I believed her. I had not abandoned her.

I’ve been remembering this time in our lives recently because of my own experiences of not being believed about illness in the past few years. I have also felt abandoned by friends and family who do not communicate with me in meaningful ways about Lyme disease, for which I am still being treated  — and this treatment takes a physical and emotional toll. To many, it is as if I am not sick at all, as if my illness does not exist because I present as able-bodied.

Is my illness easy to erase because I am young and female? Or because I am capable of holding down a job and publishing writing, so I cannot have a serious illness at the same time? Or is it because I typically do not perform a sick identity on social media?

Or maybe, I’ve just needed too much, and my needs are exhausting. Autoimmune disease. A miscarriage. A broken foot.  And then, out of nowhere, Lyme disease?

Maybe I am now perceived as the attention seeking, drama queen.

But I am not an attention seeking drama queen. Attention gives me anxiety. And drama?  Who has time for that?

Fatigue from Lyme disease and my current treatment plan means a lot is changing in my life. I cannot engage in relationships in ways that are expected of young women. No late nights. No long drives. I have to say, “No” a lot. Perhaps my “No” is heard as disinterest and not as self protection. Perhaps people think I don’t like them.

My mother gave me tools I would need to navigate chronic illness in my own young life.  She taught me I could say the word ill and the word did not have to be a negative, a reduction, something to resist or erase. Even now, she is present. She is parenting me when I need her the most, showing me the way.

Long ago, she told me illness would distill my relationships.

“You will know who your friends are,” she said. And she was right. I am figuring out who I can depend on and who I should let go. I am asking myself new questions.

Who will I become? How will illness change me?

That’s the keyword. Change. Lyme disease has remapped my body. I have no delusions of cure, of going back to who I was before. Healing is a complicated idea, not a portal to our past selves.

As Cheryl Strayed has written, “Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do.”

What I have to do now is be honest. Be real. Set boundaries and hold tight to them.
Rearrange a life where I’d once felt comfortable. Advocate for what I need. And then, let go of stories, people, goals, relationships, identities, and expectations that no longer support the person I am becoming because I am ill.

This is not about needing attention or being a drama queen or even pessimism. It’s about surviving and reclaiming and persisting.

Getting “Closer to Fine”

My friend Anne and I saw the Indigo Girls at Wolf Trap in 2015. I could barely move that summer, and going to the concert was a big deal. Before we went, Anne told me she’d ridden her bike to a pool, swum laps, and read a book that day. I couldn’t believe it – like, she could sustain concentration long enough to read a book? When was the last time I’d read a book? Swimming and biking were beyond me, so I didn’t even think about them. The book, I fixated on that. Reading seemed like something I should be able to attain – I have a master’s degree in English Lit. I’m a professional reader. And yet, when Anne spoke to me, reading a book from start to finish seemed as impossible as climbing Mount Everest.

The month of the concert, a weird rash had erupted on my legs. Before the rash appeared, I’d been following my father around Cleveland Metroparks, climbing railroad bridges and doing other outdoorsy things that would have made my mother panic, if she were still alive. I didn’t think to check myself for ticks – I don’t know why. I just didn’t. I was caught up in trying to understand my father’s boyhood, the events that made him the man he became. I was writing my way closer to him, and I did not think about myself. (This is a pattern.)

A few weeks later, I wore shorts and sandals and hiked around Multnomah Falls with Carl. I didn’t check myself for ticks there either. I was having a spiritual experience, completely blissed out on the woods and Portland. Why on earth would I stop and look for ticks?

And then, the rash appeared. Weird pinprick splotches on both calves, just below the knees. It looked like I was bleeding under the skin. And my GP tested me for Lyme and told me I didn’t have Lyme, even though I was too early in the testing window to know. And I didn’t know enough at the time to even know that detail I have just written. My doctor alluded to chronic Lyme as being a completely made up thing, the medical equivalent of a unicorn. Only crazy people had chronic Lyme disease.

I tape recorded him as he spoke because I didn’t trust him. Or I didn’t trust myself.

On the recording, I sound so smart and confident, completely opposite of how I felt in the moment. I do not sound like a person who tape records a doctor because she’s afraid he’s gaslighting her, because gaslighting is what she expects from men in authority. I sound like a person who is relieved because the doctor tells her what she wants to hear –– she’s healthy.  So she ignores all the terrible symptoms that wax and wane and escalate. They are all in her head. They are hormones or hysteria. They are something else and something else and something else. She accepts his version of reality at the expense of her own. (This is a pattern I’m learning to break.)

Anne came with me to a follow up appointment because I needed someone else in the room, and that night we saw Indigo Girls.

We sat outside, our feet touching the grass. We drank wine and ate chocolate and sang “Shame on You” and “Closer to Fine” and “Galileo,” and so many songs that spoke to us when we were younger and had no clue how our lives would unfold. When I think about that summer, I don’t think about all the hours I spent in bed, confused and scared. I think about that concert, about the songs of my past that held such promise for my future.

I’m writing a spiritual memoir and am getting closer to finishing — or “Closer to Fine” – as Anne wrote on Twitter the other day. My treatment for chronic Lyme disease is working, even if my symptoms are still scary and still make me feel like I’m losing my grip on reality. Chronic disease can also feel like gaslighting. I don’t trust my perception of reality. My perception of reality is distorted by a disease that impacts my senses and central nervous system.

This week, to calm myself, I watched Indigo Girls performances from the 1990s, and I rewrote the first chapter of my book, which is about what it means to trust in the multiple paths that carry us forward.

At the end of the 2015 Wolf Trap concert, Indigo Girls sang “Closer to Fine,” a song from their second album, a song that has defined their career. This song is also about what it means to seek, to trust, to take refuge. There’s more than one answer to these questions. 

The chorus of “Closer to Fine” inclines toward the mountain top, the “look out,” but my spiritual awakenings have always begun on the ground. That’s where I go to meditate, or where I lay when I’m too tired to stand. On the ground, I let go of ego and expectation.

This week, I was so tired, I fell asleep on my meditation cushion. I found myself thinking of that song title, the words Anne tweeted –– Closer to Fine –– about how writing and spirituality can be a movement toward something, but not a finish line. This isn’t the answer I – or my students – want to hear, but it’s a liberating truth I need to hear. In this confusion, or darkness, my friends light the way on the journey. They remind me that wandering isn’t the same as being lost.

Indigo Girls 2015
Anne & me seeing Indigo Girls in 2015

 

 

To My Creative Writing Students Now and Always

No one in my family wrote. That is, if you count “writing” as the kind of writing that gets validated in academic settings: journalism, opinion pieces, blogs, essays, book reviews, literary criticism, short stories, and poetry. E-mail wasn’t even a word when I was growing up. My mother wrote shopping lists. Notes to my teachers. Sometimes she wrote the occasional letter or card or college essay when she went back to school for her associate degree.

My parents never told me to write, or not to write. I just wrote. At the end of each school year, for example, I jotted down how I had changed from the year before, everything I could do differently: Write cursive. Multiply. Walk to the bus top alone.

But what possessed me to take a pen to paper and move it across a page? Who encouraged me to write?

A cousin put my first journal in my hand. I was nine, and the journal was baby breath’s pink. Its cover featured a kitten chasing a ball of twine. My cousin wrote an inscription inside the front cover. She told me to record my dreams and thoughts and ambitions. Until that moment, no one but me seemed to care about what went on inside a little girl’s head. Yet, the journal’s inscription bore a symbolic message that informs my work as a writer to this day: My writing and what I have to say are a necessary contribution to the world. It’s the same message I impart to you, my students.

Your writing and what you have to say are a necessary contribution to the world.

I initially started writing diary entries to get acquainted with my voice and to record moments of my life I wanted to remember. I write today to interrupt silences and to make meaning out of my failures or losses. I write to understand the other, the margins. I write to ask, not to answer.

What did it mean that my mother was chronically disabled for so many years?

How did I, as an adolescent and young adult, define myself against her illness?

What was I thinking at 21, when I boarded a plane for Glasgow, Scotland, to work in a country I could barely find on a map?

And then, two years later, why did I leave Scotland for another foreign country – the Louisiana Delta – to write about religion among people whose faith I did not share? What was I running away from? What was I running toward?

In each essay or book chapter or poem I create, I am writing toward and through such questions.

Like Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

I write to seek, never to find.

Writing has, in turn, given me a life I never could have envisioned when I was nine and first writing in a baby’s breath pink journal with a cat on the cover.

Writing took me overseas and into parts of the United States I initially feared –– the Deep South, for example. Writing introduced me to my husband. Writing made me a teacher. Writing gave me permission to find myself, to be myself, to live with less guilt and shame or a need for approval.

I can find a thousand reasons to write, and a thousand reasons not to write. I chose to listen to the thousand voices that tell me to write, and I want all of you to do the same. Right now. Tune out every single voice that says you’re not good enough –- or too good –– to be here.

Write when you’re tired, sad, angry, hungry, guilty, ashamed, sick, scared, happy, anxious, wide awake.

There will never be a perfect time to write. The perfect time is now.

Remake the world with your writing. Rebuild yourself. In the words of Wendell Berry, “Practice resurrection.”

Show up in this room. Show up on each page you read, each page you create.

Be who you are when everyone can see you. Be who you are when no one can see you.

Listen. Seek. Question.

Get serious. Own your words. Make them sharp or shiny or beautiful. Make them everything that matters.