It was about five years ago. I had just walked into the church where the meetings were held. And there she sat. Raging red hair up under one of her beautiful knitted creations. Yellow was the yarn color I think. The people had begun to come in, most going to the back to get their coffee from the giant pots with spouts that were up on the counter in front of the kitchen. It was early thirty in the morning when these men and women of all walks gathered for a spiritual start to their day. On many days to follow, she would be in that kitchen. With those pots, filling giant paper filters with coffee grinds to make coffee for people who needed it. Giving back for what she had received.
But on this day, my first time here, I saw her first. Almost as if she were the only one in the room that had easily a couple dozen sleepy people, exchanging hugs and greetings. Without a word, her look at me spoke volumes. I was guessing it to say, “Who is THIS new person? I don’t know her, and I am not sure I want to.” Deluded by my thought that I could read her mind, I approached her table and sat down, introducing myself, almost defiant. Reluctantly, she received my gesture. She was kind and smart and funny right off the bat, as she sat knitting, which she was always doing when we were at meetings together. We bonded immediately.
I was new to this group, but not new to the rooms. And this became my family and my home. And she was one of my closest siblings there. A former student at Harvard University, she was as brilliant as her red hair. Articulate too. And if you looked up the phrase rigorous honesty, you might find her picture there. I loved her for that, among other things.
I remember one time with her that stands out from the rest. (The rest includes a wild weekend we shared in a room together for a conference with 2,000 other people and her indulging my boy watching when my eyes should have been focused on a podium at the front of the room.) We were all seated in a children’s Sunday School room, a bunch of full-grown children, also known as adults, in tiny chairs, humbling and beautiful in my experience. When it came to her turn, she opened her book to read. This was not one of the books that were stacked up on the table for the use of the members who might grace the meeting on any given day. This brown paper-covered pocket-sized book belonged to her. And you could tell she had used it, loved it, devoured it. Had it been one of those cardboard children’s books, the ones that teething children can chew on and still understand the story, hers was the adult version. Warn from the turning of the pages and the copious notes in her hand there in the margins. That book spoke louder to me than anyone’s share that day. Except for one. Hers. After she read from her loved on Velveteen copy, her opening remark was “This shit’s hard.” I don’t know if she said anything else. And it didn’t matter to me. What mattered was that I loved her from that moment on. And wanted to know her better.
She was slightly younger than me, but our inner kids got along great. Two quick wits, both single, commiserating about that and who we each thought was cute that we knew. Her home was humble and spotless. Bed made, dog well-loved. She always had the Cadillac vacuum cleaner, which she used in her cleaning jobs and every day in her home. I have to tell you, I felt vacuum shame. Mine only comes out about once or twice a month. And after learning that she vacuumed every day, I always think of her on those two days a month I get my jalopy out of the closet.
I learned in time that our connection was for good reason. We shared more than just trouble with substance. We had a common bond of being in bondage to brain chemistry that can be quite challenging to live with and painful to be sober for at times. I have been fortunate to maintain my sobriety during the dark times in my life. She was not so fortunate. I suspect demographics and available care and money played a part. Trauma had a starring role. I do know that her journey had been a struggle from the start. But for most of the years I knew her, she always pushed off the bottom. Until she didn’t.
About a year after we met, we were both in the same safe place dealing with those brain chemistry issues that could be plaguing. We had shared stories of our experiences here over the time we were friends. That is a bond only people like us who know each other can comprehend. I can only imagine it resembles the bond of soldiers who have seen action. I only wish she had gone there one more time. For her sake, and for the sake of her two children.
A mutual friend called me today to say that she had died. I learned from another that she had been found, alone. My first thought was that I did not act on it the last time I had the urge to reach out. I am not saying that I think I could have saved her. All I am saying is I wished I had heard her voice one more time.
After hearing this news, I tried to do what was in front of me. I walked into the grocery store to get a few things. And before I could get to the fifth and final item on the list, I broke down in the aisle. I was on the phone with a friend and while I stood there sobbing, A woman walked up to me, seemingly out of nowhere. She was several inches shorter than my 5’10” frame, had gray hair, neatly done, pretty blue eyes behind perfect fake lashes and she was wearing black. She reached up to me, gave me a hug, as if she had been assigned to me and spoke deliberate words into the ear that did not have the phone to it. “I understand. My father died yesterday.” And with that, she turned on her heel and was gone.
I had debated stuffing my feelings until I got in my car. I was shaming myself for even feeling sad. But I permitted myself, with the inner pep talk to say there was no shame in grieving out loud in public. And look what happened. My grief was seen by her grief. And we were able to comfort each other, even if for just a moment. Then, as I turned towards the next aisle, my friend still holding me up on my phone against my head, I looked through tearsinto the eyes of a man in a golf shirt mouthing the words, “Are you okay?” And the woman with the cart coming up behind him came to see if I needed anything. These words cheapen the experience. But it was spiritual. God was all over that grocery store.
I got my fifth item, a drink called Peace Tea, which I am sipping as I write, went into my day with the reminder that life is fleeting, precious, and can end at any moment. I had already been mindful of this because I had been reflecting on the fact that this weekend, I will be 19 years free of breast cancer. And a couple of days after that marks the one-year anniversary of a longtime close friend’s death, who also went to that church for morning coffee, from Covid. So all of this has me wanting to honor their memories, while giving proper respect for their loss, by living my best life. Something I take for granted at times.
The picture I chose here is one I have hanging in my house. I bought it in the months after Kate Spade’s death in 2018 to go with my black and white polka-dot Kate Spade bedding. I named it Kate in her memory. Her death made me sad too. But for my purposes here,I thought it was a beautiful way to picture my friend who has passed on, perhaps in a blue knitted hat around that beautiful, long red mane.
This poem by Emily Dickinson, was sent to me by a friend who was also a fixture in that same kitchen I referred to earlier. I think it is a good goal to aspire to.
I recently heard a story about a man whose grandmother swam out to sea, intending to die and succeeding in doing so. I can relate to her.
I am writing this as a woman who just moved from land locked status of 51 years in several states to the beautiful Florida panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico. I am 10 minutes from the beach and I go most every day. I have been here nearly a year and have only gone in the water over my head twice. Because I am afraid of the water.
The funny thing is, I love being near the water. This is a quote from President JFK that he made on September 14th, 1962, to a gala dinner held at The America’s Cup sailing event. It has always resonated in my soul. The painting, above, is mine and has that quote, plus sand from my beach on it.
“All of us have in our veins the same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea-whether it is to sail or to watch it-we are going back from whence we came.”- JFK
I must have been four or five years old when I began my swimming lessons. They took place in the swim lanes of our all white Yacht Club, between ropes strung with big red bumpers. The same color as my kick board that was assigned as a teaching tool. I hated swimming lessons. The water, which made up the swimming area, diving area and beach area was walled off from the Long Island Sound, so it was salt water.
As I recall that moment like it was yesterday, I was terrified by the instruction to hold my little arms as far as I could out in front of me, while holding the only thing I thought could keep me from drowning, my red kick board. From my child’s eyes, the gap between me and that board felt like a mile because I could not see through that water and feared that the dark space below would swallow me up whole. This was in the early 1960’s.
I lived in New York and Connecticut from age zero to nine, formative years with the trauma of the death of my young father being part of the story. He was 42. I was 7. He went to bed on a Friday night, and was a no show for our standing cartoon date the next morning. Because during the night, he had a grand mal seizure, which stopped his heart. For good. And the family fell apart after that.
Before he died, family outings to the ocean were regular practice, as my father loved the sea. He had a boat at the yacht club named for my brother and sister, who were here first, eight and nine years ahead of me. They were sailors too, and while I was in swim lessons, they were in sailing school.
Jones Beach in New York was a place we often went as a family. My first thought is the memory of the time I got to watch the filming of a Hawaiian Punch commercial there. I sported a red mustache stain often, so I was a big fan. They spread a blanket on the beach, filled it with lemons, limes, oranges, pineapple and ice cubes. Then, two people grabbed the edges and tossed up the contents like a trampoline while the camera filmed. The end result that made it to the screen was a slow motion scene of fruit and ice flying up and down, seeming like magic to me.
The next thought I have is the undertow. And my experience of having been caught in it. I don’t remember specifically, but I know that it happened. I had a recurrent nightmare for years, (not sure for how long or when they began or ended,)of blankets coming up over my head, and me struggling to breathe. I always reasoned that was because of being caught in an undertow, because the sensation was the same.
The truth is, based on more information coming to my consciousness over the years, there is also a possibility that those were real blankets and that at some point, someone tried to make me quiet with them. If that did happen, at this time I don’t know who or why or if so, or if they wanted me quiet for the moment or forever. So it’s no wonder to me that while I do have sleep apnea, I often sleep better when I rebel and don’t cover my face with my CPAP mask to sleep.
Two years after my father died, it was just me and my mom in 1969, in a big three bedroom house on two acres in Connecticut. My mom had sent my sister away. To college early. And my brother, was just sent away. In my nine year old experience, I had lost my father and only friend at age seven, followed two years later by losing my brother and sister, my home as I knew it, four collies, including “Buttons,” the one I called mine.
The greatest devastation was not the house or the dogs that were lost, it was any hope of ever having those who survived my father’s death to ever be anything like a family-ever again. My father had a traumatic brain injury where he was mugged and left for dead in a stairwell in Manhattan in his late twenties and when he drank against doctor’s advice, was emboldened to hurt people. My mom had suffered violence at the hand of my father for many years. From what I saw and know today, everyone in our family suffered at his hand, albeit mine seemed the least of it. But growing up around what was happening, that being my formative environment, took its toll on me, much like second hand smoke.
My mom had decided to move us. Me and her. And I was excited. Because we were moving to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida! I would get to live at the beach, in a fancy high rise condo and the plan was that I would attend a school with children from all over the world. I was thrilled. And it never happened. Instead, we ended up in her old home town in Southern Illinois and then Tulsa, Oklahoma. So when I am telling those who ask why I moved here to Destin, Florida, whether it is a local or one of 4 million tourists, I say, “I was removed from the beach against my will at age nine, so I decided to make that right.”
Fast forward to the 1970’s and the release of the movie Jaws. That did not help me. I was still working on going to the playground without fear after seeing the movie The Birds which depicted a small sea village overrun by angry sea and land birds that attacked and terrorized the towns people, teachers and children on the playground.
From then until now, the only vacation destination that held my interest was always the beach. But never to swim in the water. Just to be near it on the beach. And boy, have I landed on a beautiful one. It is considered by some, to be one of the most beautiful in the world. And for good reason. The sand is white and it sings when you strike it just right with your heels, the water is an ever changing experiential painting, boasting clear Coke bottle green waters on the sand bars, allowing the eye to see quite clearly what is frolicking there. One day, I got to watch the manarays, with their black ball diamond bodies, accented with white, long black tails swishing as they glided through the shallow water faster than I could keep up with as I walked knee deep behind them trying to keep up.
As the eye moves up towards the horizon, on a sunny day, of which there are many, the water likes to show of its Emerald green prowess, which has rightfully earned these beaches the name of Emerald Coast. But don’t tell anyone here, MY favorite water is that sapphire blue that, as you continue up from the bottom if you are scanning sand to sky, happens just before you see that navy blue line, setting a boundary that if it had a voice it would say to the viewer, “This is where the sky begins and don’t you forget it!” I have also heard it say, “Look at me. ALL of me. My water. My sand. My sky. My creatures. Take me in. Often. Because I am a gift. An ever changing display of the most beautiful living painting you will ever have the good fortune to see. I will never be the same way twice. Not from minute to minute. Not from day to day. I will dazzle you with my angry gray clouds, my bright white towers, my periwinkle sunrise with the sweetest pink accents. You will be stunned at what I show you. The colors, if you pay attention, will blow your mind. The bold orange and yellow fireballs that when they go under water for the night, don’t go without at times leaving a green burst of light at my horizon line.”
I have gone for a walk in cutoffs and a t shirt that took me chest high into the water some 40 feet offshore, shallow green waters allowing me to do so, to enjoy the show of the pelicans all around me. I have watched between 50 and 100 migrating loons on the water. My personal favorites, because they appear black with white polka dots, and I have a jar full of feathers that they leave me beach side on their way out of town to prove it. I relate to the sandpipers. Those little ones who travel in neurotic groups, their legs almost spastic as they scurry.
I don’t talk about this in the daylight much. But today, I felt I had to. Because once again, just last night, after a week filled with situational ups and downs of joy and disappointment, I felt down, and tired and spent. And again today, I woke up, so where the night at times can be like being in deep, dark water, waking up again affords me the chance to push off the bottom and resurface. And while it may be hard to believe, mornings like that it can still be hard to get up and go to the beach. Thankfully, most of the days I am gifted with the strength to do so. Because I have learned that no matter what the world is doing, and much of it right now makes me very sad, in my little world, the beach is healing me.
When I was 11, I had my first understanding that people could make themselves die on purpose when my 14 year old cousin, a beautiful, sensitive artistic soul shot himself. When Robin Williams died, I was heartbroken as the world was to lose such a joy bringer. But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both took their lives within months of each other in 2018, when I was in a year long severe depressive episode, I found myself googling how to hang myself. From my cousin’s death forward, the suicides of people who show a beautiful life to us, only to end it in private has left me marked with a fear at times that one day, suicide will come to me or my thoughts and it will win. I have never attempted it, and every time the thoughts were strong I went for help because the moods I live with at times change fast at no notice from up and embracing the moment, to a deep dive of hopeless despair.
And while I am on the subject, one which sharing it out loud here makes me feel naked because so many judge what they do not know, those people who have not been here cannot know. And sadly, they will continue in ignorance to judge a person whose pain moves them to leave a lifeless body on purpose as selfish. Mental illness IS NOT a character flaw. It is a real sickness. And for this person, those who do judge out loud, when I hear them if I am down at that time, just makes the pain worse, never better. So please, keep it to yourself. I have been in that dark space on and off now for a year never mind for most of my life and have shared that there are nights as I age when I say to my maker that I would be okay if I didn’t wake up, but I never volunteer to exit. I just express the feelings to safe people because much like cockroaches, they can sometimes flee when there is light. Frankly, that is part of why I am sharing this now.
Back on land and at home, after going to the beach, I am changed for the better. But back on land and at home is the rest of my life. And that has been hard at times, in recent days and before. Even moving to paradise is still change requiring the grief and loss of where I left to come here and all of the support and the people who gave it. I made this move because I was moved to do so. By the instinct that was put in me by whatever made me. And everywhere I go, there I am.
So I find myself healing in paradise. From unresolved grief over the loss of my 24 year marriage, the necessary loss of a 23 year old daughter, formerly dependent on me, who now is a young adult, with less need for me and more need to find her own way. I am now a life consultant and I am careful with that to just offer my experience if it applies and in most cases, I am just a listening ear to the young woman just looking for a safe place to sound out what is happening in her life in this world. And I miss her.
And here I am. Making my life. At the beach. As a woman who is afraid of the water, I find myself consumed by wanting to keep others from drowning or dying. People and living creatures alike. This morning, I scooped up a bee, struggling at the water’s edge the get right side up and fly. I carried it in a pile of sand to the dune nearby. This week, I found a bobber on a rope that floated up onshore. The rope was covered with some kind of mollusks, who looked like some kind of Mad Max community. All in burnt umber, appearing lifeless as they were attached to the rope with seagrass and muck, only to watch long enough and see signs of life. It looked like shell mothers twitching with babies attached. It was fascinating. In any event, when I learned that the line had been thrown in the trash, I made it my mission to save them. I dug them out of the the trash, found a fishermen’s knife, cut off the bobber, and threw the line out, hoping it would take them somewhere to keep living.
Earlier this year, I spent three hours helping rescue a loon who had beached with a spinal injury, consumed by doing my part so that it had every chance to make it. And yesterday, I saw something floating just offshore. It appeared gray, and round and shiny, I thought maybe it was a dolphin. I kept an eye on it for forty minutes or so, as a crowd began to gather and a long lens camera holder spotted what looked to be a sea turtle dead in the water. I went into action. Calling the Florida Wildlife people and was told they would need a call to pick it up once it has washed up on shore. I felt sad. Just then, a man swam out to see what it was and upon his return, he had good news. Not only was it a very much alive turtle, it was not alone. It was having a roll in the hay of the Gulf of Mexico, working on baby turtles, and when he told me that part, his eyes got wide as he said, “that is something you cannot unsee.”
I am a volunteer on the beach, trained to support the lifeguards and other agencies who try to keep the people here safe when the water is not. It is optional as to when I volunteer. They don’t require a commitment to a calendar. I go when I feel called from within. And typically that is on the days when the water is closed. Double red flags fly to warn of the rip currents. Rip currents which have killed five people here in the last few months alone. My job on those days, when I see people in the water, is to blow a whistle, wave them out, and explain that the water is closed. Then, if, and sadly when, they go back in, I am trained to take a picture of their back side, note their description, time and place of entry and report it so that if their body turns up later, they have some idea of what happened.
As I recount this to you, I am struck that I am trying to keep things and people alive. When I can only do so much. But I think it comes from several places. On the surface, I really want to do my part. And when I do these things, I feel value and purpose. But what troubles me is the emotion behind my action at times. It is almost a desperation. Ultimately, The life I think I am trying to save is mine.
To use a metaphor, I have had many times in my life when I go through periods of darkness. And some of them are frightening to me. The feeling is not unlike that same fear I felt when I was asked to trust a kick board with my life. And there was not much in my young life at that time that showed me ANYTHING was worthy of trust. So I see these times as me being under the water, in total darkness, part of me relishing in the quiet, the other desperate to spring to the surface to breathe, not wanting to suffocate. But I have had so many of these times that doctors like to call bipolar depressions that when they come, they find me as a tired woman who isn’t very fond of swimming to begin with. And I entertain the idea of staying down.
So I will let the beach and its water have the final word here. And I suspect it would speak to me in this way. “Keep coming to me. Daily if you can. More than once a day if you feel led. That is me calling you. See me as proof that beauty still exists in a sometimes ugly world. Kindness still happens in a sometimes angry society. The unexpected can surprise you with joy. And life is everywhere. All the things and the creatures all have a part.They matter. And so do you.”
“P. S. I will put people in your path who will help you to not fear my waves. And I will offer you joy and healing beyond measure when the time comes.”
My House-is a very very very fine house. Two stories that tell so many more. The stairway to the top is made of 12 steps because I qualify for enough 12 step programs to build a stairway to Heaven. Which goes well with the fact that at my age, I have a doctor for every orifice.
I came in through the kitchen window and then I fell into the bar. Food and alcohol were what kept me alive in their time. The food is supposed to do that, but not in the way those four slices of Wonderbread covered in Hellman’s did. They filled a love-shaped gaping hole in a 7-year-old girl with a toothless grin and long, stringy toe-headed hair. I had just lost my date to Saturday morning cartoons when my dad and only friend died. We were supposed to meet in his giant red leather chair at the top of the stairs. The chair sat next to his smelly pipes on a table in the family room looking down into the kitchen where the mayonnaise lived. Instead, I was greeted by the minister and my mother who told me that my dad had gone away in an airplane and wasn’t coming back. “We interrupt this episode of Tom and Jerry to bring you the first big lie in your life.”
The bar wasn’t that messy but it still needed clean up in order to stay alive. I was groomed for that one. I instinctively knew that no was a complete sentence and I used it at age 12 when the drunk man in the bar where my mother had taken me asked me to dance. My mother took my no away from me, making me dance with him anyway. That started a boundariless tango with alcoholic partners who I seem to attract still today, whether they are drinking or not. I was only at the bar for a little while, but long enough to lose my car and my virginity and a baby and my pride.
The bedrooms of my life tell many stories beyond their unspoken law to be used for sleep and sex only. I truly hope I’ve heard them all, but they say you can only say “yes” or “I don’t know” to a certain question about what or who may have gone down in that room.
I keep a king-sized bed in my bedroom today even though I live alone. I am holding space since the universe is going to bring the person to share it with me in due time. I end my days and take my naps there with room to spare for me and my one-eyed cat named Atlas. Besides, I need the extra space so that my mother’s shame for having a vagina with feelings has a place to sleep too. I carry that for her like a dutiful daughter even though her box that was shared with the others’ husbands is in a box in my living room with the rest of her.
The dogs need a place to sleep too. They were my only source of love in Connecticut after the household on 2 acres lost its head. Throughout my life, the dogs have been welcome to sleep with the humans. The smell of a wet dog could go under the aromatherapy label of “Unconditional Love” if you ask me. There were 14 dogs total over the years, who took turns sleeping and playing in shifts, leaving their fragrant mark on the beds and my heart.
No day today ends until I strap on my CPAP mask. I am a top gun pilot call sign Luna who flies top secret night missions that must be really stressful because I grind the shit out of my teeth and often wake up sweaty and exhausted.
The office has been neglected. That is where the business of living is meant to be managed. The files for taxes and divorce decrees live there. As do the unreconciled numbers and untold profits and losses. Currently, there is a “to be filed” pile spilling for attention and it is getting that.
I went reluctantly into the big room upstairs just last fall. Pain and the pattern of my feelings of abandonment that far outweighed the current day cause were screaming for attention. In my house, this is the room that knows the story from its beginning. Where the family and the disassociation originated. I have known about this one for many years but been too afraid to go all the way in and take my rightful seat.
I visited there half my life ago, but I heard people sharing their pain of origin and mine was quite happy hiding under the stories of pizza and booze binges I used to survive the war zone inside of our house down the street from the yacht club.
I don’t know what I was so afraid of. The unknown, I guess. Much like the Wizard turns out to be no more than a blow-hard little man behind a big curtain, this room is just a room that needs love, gentleness, humor, and respect. To get in, I had to push against a stack of busted up mismatched brown wooden chairs that were blocking the door. I didn’t put them there, but it is up to me to move them and find my seat. This room has cobwebs in the glare from the big window whose light comes through in spite of the yellow film from neglect. The light is so important you know. Without it, there is no life. And I want all of what is left of mine.
I am using the manual that tells me what to do to get that attic room in order. It starts with washing the window in three steps in order to let the light in. Then comes the decluttering. I am not there yet in this room, but it served me well when I cleaned out the kitchen and tossed that old crusty green white bread in the trash.
Hey, did you know that even spices have an expiration date? I digress.
“The women in my small group at the writer’s workshop were writing about trauma and stuff. I tried to tell them that there was a lot of that.” This comment from a man I met at the beach who is a fellow writer. The difference being, he writes fiction. I don’t. His inference was that there was already enough writing about trauma. I say write that shit because there is so much trauma to be written about and the writing and the telling will heal the writer and some of the readers. The message I want to convey in my stories about the things I have survived is that of survival. And you can’t hear enough about that. This is a tough world. And survival is part of living in it.
We met because he was talking about an annual writer’s workshop here in the Florida panhandle that happens every year. One that just wrapped up and that I was thinking of attending next year. Several things I heard him say provoked me. To be fair, I think he was coming from a place of wanting people to succeed, and by that I mean sell books, but I heard some rules around that and I am not sure that I want to plug into a formula to sell. I want to write what I am meant to and then let the results or any monetary success happen. Or not. “I tried to tell them in our sharing group that their writing was a little manic.” What does that even mean? Do I really want to go to a workshop to be told what someone who writes about sea monsters thinks of my work? Aren’t my opinion and that of the source of my words the ones that really matter? What is my motive in going to a workshop anyway? Don’t I already have a style of my own? Or am I looking for a magic formula to sell, sell, sell. And maybe get my ego stroked to the tune of $1000 to me.
I am a creative person. And a bit of a rebel in that. What I mean is, when I paint, I resist “rules”, like complementary colors, proportions, blending colors. I like to paint what is in me, which, so far, is two-dimensional whimsical, bold, and colorful, whether on furniture or on canvas. It sometimes happens that my instincts for what colors and patterns to combine fit some of these formulas. But it is not because I set out to do it. It is because I am true to my own creative expression. Most of the time. I just want to leave my mark of happy colors or inspiring words in the hope of brightening up the places in the world that need it. Like maybe your home. Or your heart.
The same is true of my writing. And I have been moved to write a book because when I share with others the good side of the things I have survived, they thank me for sharing. Say I give them hope. That I say what they want to in a way they can not find the words to express.
When I shared this with my fellow writer standing in the parking lot with the Gulf of Mexico playing back up as its angry waves crashed upon the shore, he was a bit dismissive, as if to say, “It’s already been done. And too much at that.” He also noted that these were women he addressed. Not sure if that was significant to him, but I wonder if he would have noted if they were men.
He challenged me to go home and write a story for an hour. Then put a bunch of stories together in a book. I entertained that for a minute thinking I probably should because, after all, the suggestion is being made and if it is true that there are no coincidences, it must be true for me. If I use that logic though, then the gallery owner who looked at my paintings and said that I should go online and practice to get good at mermaid bodies and faces so I could sell would have been the right thing to do. If I wanted a career cranking out paintings for Kirkland’s or Home Goods, I would do that. But I don’t.
The good news is that I have my own relationship with my work. And allowing others in needs to be done selectively when I am holding tight to my own convictions. Maybe I won’t sell any more art furniture or canvases. Maybe I won’t have a bestseller. Maybe there won’t be a book at all. I have only been able to write eighty-some pages so far because the subject matter is tough.
Here is the real truth about the block I have entertained up to now. Telling my story could potentially be cathartic, so that would mean parting with some of my baggage of grief and loss. Even though shlepping these bags gets old, it is what I know. It is in my muscle memory to remember that I grew up in a home bereft of nurture and rich with neglect, suffered from alcoholism and anorexia, marital abuse and mental illness, lost a baby, a house, two breasts, and two husbands, and more, I think I fear what I will do with my hands when I really let them go. But all of this is possible if I stay true to myself and what my instincts move me to write. Paint. Create.
There is also the possibility that I do sell a book. That there is abundance beyond belief in so doing. Just typing these words is a challenge because I am owning the very real possibility that my life may one day no longer be small and as I write, my hands want to grab that baggage instead, like a security blanket, but I refuse.
There is a movie called Finding Joe on Youtube about the influence of mythologist Joseph Campbell on our culture. In it, are testimonies of Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood, inspirational author/teacher Allan Cohen, professional skateboarder/entrepreneur Tony Hawke and others about finding your bliss and living it. The message here is one of how we are all tigers and that there is an abundance of food for sheep that we are offered, but very little food for tigers. I intend to feed my tiger and encourage you to do the same. Whatever you do that you love, that lights you up, that makes you feel young again, that brings you joy, DO MORE OF THAT. Bake the cake from scratch. Try the new recipe. Take the pictures. Plan the trip. Write the poem. Play the instrument. Make the move. Life is all about practice. The only thing stopping you from practicing yours is you.
And now I am going to take my own advice and get back to my book. This time, I will put my trepidations and hesitations in my suitcases under the bed so that I can get on with letting go. I suspect it will be awkward at first, but I am confident I will find something to do with my hands.
It is 2:30 a. m. I have been awake since midnight, in spite of the Trazadone I took at 9 p. m. that usually secures a good five or six hours of sleep for my tenacious brain.
I just finished a three day street art festival. I literally made art on the street, alongside some significant talent. To say I was humbled would be an understatement. I am new to the art community here in Florida, and had much hope for a three day fun filled art rich experience. Thankfully, the last two days brought much of that. But if I put aside my “How shall I present this through the fake filter of ‘I want people to think I have it together on social media’ appropriate”, I decided to get real. After all, it’s Mental Health Awareness Month and I have been at times painfully aware of my mental health or lack thereof for most of my adult life.
When I was thirty, I was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, type 2. My experience in the years since have been rich with creativity, agitation and a significant depression and anxiety. Through medication, a spiritual practice, a little yoga, beach life and a sturdy support network made up of therapists, psychologists and fellow travelers, I have survived a lot. But the story I want to tell here is about the favorite medicine for what ails my beautiful brain. Creating art.
This art festival was one where every artist was given a 10’ square of pavement upon which to art. I was ecstatic because I am currently obsessed with beach umbrellas, so I submitted an image and they signed me up.
About a month ago, I was diagnosed as being in an acute depressive episode. Always a mixed thing to be told. Like “Yay! I feel like shit and now I know why.” But also, “Fuck I am a mental case. My life will certainly go nowhere.” That last one is what happens when thoughts go through the filter of depression. Fortunately, I found a stellar new psychiatrist who put me back on a medication that has a great deal of success addressing these “bipolar depressions” for me in the past. Latuda. The cost to me, however, would be $500 out of my not deep pockets. But there is a God and that God put me with a helluva head shrinker who called my first month of success back on this drug “robust” and who has assured me that one way or another, I will have this medication, if I have to get samples for all of the two years until there is a generic available.
To try and make the samples go farther, she gave me a mg that was twice my RX so I could cut them in half and get more out of each one. Bad idea because these are time released, hence cutting into the protective coating that allows for the gradual release meant to happen over twenty four hours set me up for one rough Friday afternoon. In fact, I had been taking them cut in half for about a week and as I reflect, this marks one of several nights where I should be asleep but my brain has had me up and painting or writing or talking to my friend in England who is awake because it is five hours later there. So Friday, I had anxiety and panic like I have not seen since three years ago. Not fun. Creative, but not fun.
On Friday, I took my medicine with lunch and when that cut pill decided to explode, I went to hell in an hour. At 1:30pm, I got in my car with all of my supplies loaded up for this three day art festival.
On the drive there, I began to not feel grounded in my body. As if my car was on the road, but I was not there. Like disassociation on steroids. It is not a safe feeling. I got to the venue, parked my car and called a friend. The panic was erupting in me and there was not a damn thing I could do, except ride it out. I wanted to curl up in a ball in the backseat of my car, but that would not have done anything to help. Instead, I pushed my way to put my car into drive and drove through the beautiful shopping center where I had happily been for shopping just days before. When I parked my car, it was getting worse. And when I got to the info. booth to check in, that was as far as I got. I knew that there would be no unloading of supplies or meeting of new artist friends. Nope. I would be doing triage on what felt almost psychotic. The plan was to check in, find my space and commence to chalk art. Instead, I stood there, looking like someone who felt good, being someone who did not.
I looked at the event coordinator and said, “I am not feeling well. I am going home. I will be back tomorrow.” Words I did not believe to be true.
For the next four hours, I lived in hell between my ears. I called my doctor reporting that I was in a panic state and felt that the medicine was to blame. I called several friends, one who stayed on the phone with me while I drove home from the venue, moral support on the other end in Texas saying “Take some deep breaths. I am here with you.” When I got home, I could not wait to get inside my house. I felt like a horse running back to the barn for safety and security, things I felt I would never know again. Thoughts included, “I really am too much of a mental case to ever be a contributing member of society.” But fortunately, I have support from people who tell me that feelings are not facts and not all thoughts deserve to be believed.
When my doctor put me on the Latuda, she informed me that the bipolar label would have to go back on my chart, unless I’d rather pay $1300 for this drug that had been so helpful when I had better insurance that afforded it for $150 a month in the past. My bipolar label had always been a source of shame. So much bad stigma with that label. Arts and entertainment does some terrible things in their portrayal of manic depression in movies and books. It is a complex diagnosis with many sub diagnoses and somewhere along the way, I managed to get it taken off my chart.
“Commit to the treatment, not the diagnosis” the words from my new doctor to me, as she was sensitive to the fact that I hated that label. I have that up on my bathroom mirror now.
It took four or five hours to come down from the horror of that med exploding in my system and I gave myself complete permission to bail on the art festival if it seemed too much.
Happily, when I woke the next day, I felt better and I had a new resolve to show up for my art. That is what this story is meant to be about, but all this backstory is an important part of the context.
It was Saturday. Day 2 of the event. I got in the shower, dressed and off I went. I spent the day meeting people, cheering people on, crushing chalk with a wooden mallet to mix with water as paint to begin creating my current obsession of beach umbrellas on the pavement.
And I returned the next day, too. During the festival, I felt a little like a fraud here and there, as I was surrounded by some real fine artists. But I reminded myself that my art belongs to me. It is my gift. It did not get given to anyone but me and my practice of expressing that, particularly since the end of my 24 year marriage 6 years ago, has been exponentially healing for my grief, depression and anxiety. I am sure I could find science to support this, but my personal experience is enough for me.
For over two years, I have practiced my artistic expression every Thursday like a religion. This kind of commitment is far better than the psych ward and the doors are unlocked too. I have powered through chronic pain, insomnia, kicking benzos that I took for sleep for many years and heartbreak all through the action of making art. The part of the brain where the ideas come from is like a comfy chair. I love being in it. It holds me quite nicely, feeds me ideas and relaxes my mind because when I get centered in creating, I am FULLY PRESENT. That is my sweet spot. If you love to paint or to draw or to write or to bake or to entertain, you know what I am talking about.
Day three of the art festival was Mother’s Day. Families were everywhere. Some missing members who had passed this last year. I was missing my daughter, who now lives 800 miles away after just being in the room next to me this time last year. Others appeared whole and complete in their Sunday best of fine linen pants and Lilly Pulitzer dresses of lime and vermillion greens with neon pink tassel accents. It was a handsome crowd. Artists and spectators alike. I got a call from my daughter to wish me Happy Mother’s Day. It was one in a series of hour long delightful authentic exchanges. The kind old friends have and admire at their close.
The event was coming to its end and there were cash awards to be given. I had a secret hope I might get one, but was only a little disappointed based on those who did get recognized. One was Elle Farquhar, a little girl who, like me, recently moved here from Oklahoma who stayed out in the hot sun to the end to make her art in spite of a meltdown that her mother reported. I could relate.
My favorite of all those recognized however, was one Danny Kocher, whose work was announced as a winner as follows: “And the next award goes to someone who captured much of what we have all been feeling during this last year in his illustration called ‘Anxiety.’ ” Danny created for three days in the hot sun with the help of his precious red headed niece to commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month.
I may not have been given an award, but I recognized my own success for the fact that I showed up and stuck it out to practice my art. And I’d have to say, that much like that mallet did to that chalk, I crushed it.
Special thanks to Jim Clark Photography for some of these stellar images iamjimclark.com
Meet my cat Atlas. He is 8 years old, weighs 9 pounds, has 1 eye, a scrunched up ear and bad breath, sometimes accompanied by a bad attitude. But for good reason.
Atlas is positive for FIV. Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is one of the most common and consequential infectious diseases of cats around the world. In infected cats, FIV attacks the immune system, leaving the cat vulnerable to many other infections. Although cats infected with FIV may appear normal for years, they eventually suffer from immune deficiency, which allows normally harmless bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi found in the everyday environment to potentially cause severe illnesses. Though there is no cure for FIV, recent studies suggest that cats with FIV commonly live average life spans, as long as they are not also infected with feline leukemia virus.
That means the odds of him being adopted were low, because while he is not sick now, he could be and that can be expensive, never mind heartbreaking. That also means Atlas can never live with or be around other cats.
I first saw Atlas on Facebook in November 2020. A friend was fostering him for Alaqua, a local animal rescue agency in the Destin, Florida area that offers a wide menagerie of animals-big and small, from barnyard to exotic to domestic. I think Dr. Doolittle started Alaqua, but I’m not sure.
I fell in love with Atlas at first sight. He is so photogenic and just damn cute! And I knew we were meant to be together. But I did not adopt him for over a month after I first saw him. I was afraid of what I did not know about the FIV and what that would mean for him and for me. I wanted us to be together only if we were a match according to the universe and God.
Before Atlas, I spent all of October loving Miramar, a puppy that I bought on impulse because I wanted another heartbeat in the house besides mine. I spent that month falling in love, every morning feeling like a mother to her as she would slither out of her crate, warm and soft, right into my lap. Miramar is a Cadoodle, aka collie poodle mix, aka gonna be way bigger and need way more exercise than this mature adult living in a third floor apartment could give.
With a broken heart, I surrendered Miramar, who now goes by Mirabelle, to a dear friend in Alabama who welcomed her into a five acre wonderland with three loving humans, two other dogs and lots of mud on a good rainy day. And I can assure you that the rainy day I dropped her off, my waterworks gave the sky a run for the money.
Atlas had his first night home with me at Christmastime, when my daughter Abby was here visiting from Tulsa, OK. “He bites sometimes.” Words from my friend who passed this little bundle on to my care. The actual scoop was that he had been a little cantankerous with the people at Alaqua, “bity” and “scratchy” and “cranky” were on his rap sheet.
Abby and I sat on the couch, just watching Atlas as he became familiar with his new surroundings and eyed us like prey. Abby was sleeping on the couch. “You better look out. He’s gonna get you in your sleep.” Her words to me as we had both received his bitiness in response to our attempts to love on him. “Stop that!” I said, as I went to bed. That night, I slept with one eye open. I figured that would level the field if it came to blows in the dark of the night.
Now, after months of living together, Atlas has become quite the contributing member of my little society, here in my apartment. He helps me with my hygiene and has several hobbies and interests.
Atlas is a foodie. He has opened his own Catfe, where he serves both human and cat food.
His hobbies include reading, going to the museum (in my living room), dreaming of going to the beach and playing with his balls. And he has several of those. Four fuzzy sparkly ones that he likes for night time fun when the bar is open.
He likes to play with his other three balls while we do yoga together on the living room floor.
Atlas is pretty Zen. Although he was pissed to learn that the polka dots were not willing to come down from my shower curtain to play.
He is a part time contributor to my art business, as he studies me when I work and I gotta say, he has a keen eye. Fortunately, you only need one of those.
While actual travel is not in Atlas’ future, that doesn’t stop him from trying to stow away when I take little trips. What he lacks in a second eye, he makes up for in tenacity.
Recently, Atlas has decided to date online. But I think he is a catfisher because he can’t actually be around any other cats. He just chats them up on CatMatch.com. Leading them on. Leaving Fluffy and Snowball in tears from his abandonment after chatting them up with empty promises of caviar and lox. His profile reads, “Fuzzy in all the right places, strong jaw, living my best (third) life, seeking tabby or persian who likes catnip and tuna by the fire.”
The truth is, (well this is all true), but the other truth is I love Atlas. I did not know if I could form another attachment after Miramar, but happily I was wrong.
Atlas has breath that make me have to look to see which end the smell is coming from because if the FIV, still bites on occasion, and has an affinity for my once smooth and new leather couch, but I treat him with compassion. (The couch is now known as “The Velveteen Couch,” because Atlas has loved on it.) I can’t imagine what he has been through since he was just a newborn orange fur ball on February 23rd 2012. The years have clearly been hard to leave him with an eye missing, a messed up ear and a disease that forces him into social isolation.
I identify with Atlas. I was living in isolation when he came to me during a pandemic. And I have had some tough times since I was first a newborn fur ball. But thanks to Alaqua, and a universe and God that seemed to want us together, we are having a delightful time.
It was a lively group meeting for dinner. Me, my good friend Anne and five lively southern belles who had come to visit the beach.
I met three of them in October when they were visiting from Mississippi and Texas. I formed a strong bond with one of them.
She was a classic beauty, much like my mother, kind of a Barbara Stanwick stunning. She also had to her credit birthing 8 children, being one of 13 herself and having a hand in raising some of them. Our walk on the beach last fall felt much like the mother I never had was with me. Whatever made me is generous that way. Sending custom made experiences to me, when I am not even looking. That is my proof that while I times I feel alone, in fact, I am not.
Two more Steel Magnolias had joined the original three here at the Emerald Coast of Florida. All but one had been cheerleaders together in high school fifty plus years prior and they were having a girl time get together at the beach.
We met at a Thai restaurant. It is one of those places where you take off your shoes and step down to be seated around the table in kind of a nook. There are two steps up. That is where you sit to remove your shoes. There is a bamboo wall dividing the sunken booth from the one next door, providing a private dining experience. You can’t see other customers and they can’t see you, unless they are passing by to go to the bathroom. The table is down and in the middle, surrounded by black leather cushion seats. No direct back support, but there are cushions along the back side, so I always park myself there.
The seven of us took up most of the black cushioned area which felt cozy, or at least it had the potential to.
But this dinner, one that I initiated wanting the benefit of social engagement and what promised to be a lively experience with delicious food and spirited women was none of that for me. The experience was there to be had. But I was not there. My body was, but I was somewhere else. I was disassociating. Leaving my body to avoid discomfort. I knew it, too and I made great efforts to be fully present, but with minimal success.
It was like watching a television show. Something I have done lately to numb myself. And I did that in person last night. I may as well have been in a bubble. I was watching them, but I was avoiding eye contact when I did try to engage. And was acting a part really because as much as I desired to be fully present, I could not be. It was concerning.
Something had happened between me and the woman I had felt a maternal bond with. Something that she said to me the day before that triggered my experience with my mother and how she abandoned me while showing the world actions of a born again Christian.
My mother did some good things in the community under the umbrella of her churches outreach ministries, no doubt. She mentored a troubled teen, helping her find herself. She volunteered at a low income grade school, mentoring second graders. But what she didn’t do during that time, was be a mother to a daughter who needed help when the birth of her baby resulted in a disabling postpartum depression. For the first year of my daughter’s life, the first three weeks of which required us to be separated while I was hospitalized, I needed support to take care of me and my daughter. It was a rough year. And my mother was rarely there to help, keeping her schedule of ministering to others in the name of Jesus. The message I got was my needs for my mother were not as important as those of other families. Also, that God somehow supported this because what she did, was in God’s name. I am not saying that is what she said. I am saying that is what I internalized deep in my bones.
I have compassion for my mom. I think had she known better, she may have done better. But if my daughter were to go through what I did, I would make supporting her and her baby a priority and the fact that my mother did not do that for me while busy in the community ministry, frankly fucked up my head around God and faith and not feeling worthy of my mother’s love.
Back at dinner, we did the lean in funny group selfies and when I looked at the images that were caught of my facial expressions, I could see my disturbance in several. Almost a scowl. Not anger, but angst. Then, as I have been well practiced at doing most of my life, in the next few shots, I poured it on and smiled and laughed and those images were there too. But I know that the angst on my face was the only honest expression I had.
My friend Anne knows me well. She was seated diagonally from me, but it felt like a mile. When it is just the two of us, I feel safe to just be how I am and not feel like I have to be the fun one. A role I have taken on to survive at times or compensate for feeling insecure at others. We do play well at the beach, our inner kids one upping each other in imagination, but only recently I have let her into my heart, sharing some of my pain and trauma for which I seek relief.
That is a hard practice for me. To allow someone in to see my hurting, vulnerable side. The part of me that I have so much trouble embracing. The parts that feel unworthy of others attention, nevermind my own at times. Consequently, eye contact with Anne was uncomfortable too. I am seeing all of this upon reflection. In the moment, I was just floating around in my little invisible bubble, poking out of it now and then with a funny story or anecdote. It was exhausting. I struggled to listen to the conversation. I may have well been in my car in the parking lot.
In the days, weeks, months, years leading up to this dinner, trauma had been a main course. I hate that word, by the way. Trauma. It is overused, misused, misunderstood. Let me put it this way. Some shit went down in my childhood which formed me and which dictated my choices in adulthood for relationships and support people which only reenacted that shit from childhood. There were also some external traumas. Death of my father when I was 7, loss of my family as I knew it right after, breast cancer, sudden end of my 24 year marriage, just to name a few.
My body is screaming for attention. My complaints could wear the title of Fibromyalgia if I went to the right practitioner. I sometimes hurt all over, not just in my back or neck, but my legs and hands and feet too. Lupus is on the radar, according to my last blood work. My painful hips, have been charted as hip bursitis, a title, by the way, that I have renounced in the name of yoga and walking.
I am listening to the book, The Body Keeps Score, a book written by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk to show the correlation between the mind and brain and body in terms of its response to traumatic events. I am only at the beginning, but already this book has informed me that what I experience in the ways of body pain are symptoms of unhealed trauma that have set up camp all over my body. It is all just my body asking for attention to a problem that goes way deeper than the symptom of pain.
My breast cancer was born in the terror of the week of September 11th, as I lived in the trauma of that attack in my home for a week solid, marinating in the news and images, somehow relating on a visceral level. The tumor in my breast found in April 2002, was measured for how fast it had grown and based on the size, my intuition tells me that it got its start that week.
I have alot of therapy under my belt. Forty plus years of seeking relief or guidance for a world I was not properly prepared to navigate growing up. But none of that addressed the trauma beyond identifying and understanding what I experienced and on some level re-experience when things happen in my current day life to trigger the hypervigilence in my body and brain. Most of those years, practitioners were treating symptoms. Depression? Most likely largely grief at much loss, was and still is medicated. Anxiety? Same. Sleep? I don’t get any without medication. For now.
I am seeking help and have my first appointment for somatic therapy, https://therapy-mn.com/somatic-experiencing-ptsd/ to begin next week. I visited trauma work with a safe and compassionate practitioner last year at this time while I was still in Tulsa. One session in, and there was a rage in me that ran deep. I told myself I could not afford it, discussing it with the therapist. “Trauma is tenacious.” Her words to me, which I heard to say, “this shit is not going to get any relief until I get specific help to do the work.” My rationale at the time was, “I can’t afford this. I have other expenses and bills to pay.” I knew then that I would need to do this work at some point if I were to salvage whatever is left of my life in order to be present to it and to me. As it is, I struggle with disassociating on a regular basis, making jokes that St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things is my lover because I am always going to him to find my keys, my glasses, my wallet, my car. But it is not funny. Because I also lose my focus in my car. When I text and drive. When I drive while too tired to safely do so. I have been labelled with ADD too. And that accurately describes my struggle. But again, it is but a symptom, I believe of an underlying, untreated, unhealed problem. Trauma.
About a year and a half ago, I had such concern for my concentration and how it impedes my function that I had a thorough battery of two days worth with a neuropsychologist to look under the hood in my brain. My brain is fine. My score was off the chart for anxiety, however. Hypervigilence. In every fiber of my being. Fibermyvigilence.
When I moved from Oklahoma to Florida last fall, I knew that I would need to do this work if I was going to have relief and healing. So I told myself that after the darkness of winter, a time when I go dormant, (called by others seasonal affective depressive disorder,) I would get myself the help I need. And I am doing that. The rationale of not being able to afford it comes up in my ego, Elvira. She is so afraid I will send her packing. I won’t. But she cannot run this show anymore. I want and need more from myself than what she alone can provide. And as far as affording the therapy? Well, as a person who has a history of overspending, who has some recovery there that recent bouts of swimwear and fancy shoes have dented, I don’t see how I can afford not to.
I have also begun to listen to Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. (I have a friend who calls him This and That.) His teachings are famous in recovery circles that I have been in. For me, he is a warm fuzzy messenger of self love and self care. This is just one of his talks about how to deal with strong emotions. In it, he talks frankly of suicide. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOn-mOCKzrY&t=58s His teachings, gentle and simple work for me as I am new to the practice of loving and being a nurturing parent to my inner child.
So my spiritual support is all in place for me to do the work now. And I believe it is the timing that the universe dictated. Right on schedule. I have a support network of fellow travelers who are also recovering from childhood trauma that impedes their adult lives, an inner child mediation that feeds my soul and esteem, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3-haY5mbyg yoga and the beach, also good for my body and soul and now the trauma therapist to hold my hand for the next level of healing. I am grateful. I am willing and I am ready.
If this brings you any comfort or if you read this and relate on any level, I’d love to hear from you here or in the comments. It is my intention as I share here on my blog, to hopefully benefit others by so doing.
One last thing. Don’t give up. I have thought about it many times. And I am so glad that I didn’t.
I am writing this because you died today and dad died yesterday. Actually, as you know, he died 54 years ago and for you it has been 10. But the days are still right next to each other for me to go through without both of you.
I have been numb for both days. Until tonight.
I just got out of the shower and was thinking about you mother and how much I wish to feel something for you today. But I could not. And I don’t like feeling numb, as much as grief is no fun either because I know it comes out, eventually.
So I began to recall the day that you died. You were 88 years old. A shrunken version of your vital self. In that smelly nursing home, where your best friend told me last summer that when she visited you there and walked up to the desk to say, “I am here to see Phyllis Bunn,” she recounted that they pointed to a woman in a chair in the hall there, saying that was you and she said, “That is not Phyllis.” Because it was not the you that she knew and loved. Who was forbidden from touching her kitchen cabinets because your hands were always sticky from chocolate or candy. The you that when you were my current age of 61, you were a vital, stunning, vibrant, dynamic woman in the fashion world and community of Tulsa, OK.
You got a late start “getting it right” as a parent. Something I always held compassion for. I am referring to the fact that you started a 12 step recovery program for the family members of alcoholics and became a born again Christian seemingly all at once at that latter part of life. You often said how bad you felt for our family that you did not seek the support of this recovery group as it was recommended to you some 30 or 40 years earlier. I get that today. As I have just begun a new support group too. This one dealing with the issues of growing up with an alcoholic or dysfunctional family system. And as a mother myself of a daughter of two very dysfunctional parents, I even have empathy for what you said you felt about regretting not starting to find that solution when your children were still children.
I went on there, standing in the bathroom, thinking how earlier today I spoke of you to a friend I was painting with, sharing that when you were taking your last breath, we were singing you out. With “Jesus Loves Me” I think. They say the hearing is the last to go.
I went on to think about how you would have been there for me when my marriage of 24 years ended, abruptly to me, just six years ago. That is when the feelings came. I began to cry, missing you, knowing that as I comfort my daughter in tough times like no one else could because I know what trials she has had her entire life, the same comfort came to me from you in those last 20 some years. You weren’t perfect. But you tried to make things right.
You were supportive during my many struggles with depression and anxiety. You did what you could when I could not care for Abby due to postpartum depression so severe that I was forced to leave her at 3 weeks to be hospitalized. You attended the support groups of NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill to learn how you could best be there for me.You were there as much as you could be when I had breast cancer. And this was what made the feelings come stronger. I began to talk to you, as I stood there in my robe, wet hair, body aching and heart a little too.
“I miss you mom. You would have comforted me when my marriage ended. You would have been sad and angry that more challenges were coming my way. You would have held me.” And the tears came, so I decided to write, fearing that I would otherwise distract myself. With something outside of myself. A movie, a cookie, a man. And while writing does delay the feelings of sitting to read until I am done writing, at least it has a healthy motivation. So here I am, typing away.
And now, as I continue to go through growing pains in life, particularly dealing with the year long imposed isolation as an extrovert living alone during a global pandemic, if you were here and still independent, I feel sure I would have come to your house, and laid on your couch where you would have rubbed my neck or tickled my scalp.
Your ashes are part of my stand up routine, something you would also approve of. Because you were there that first night I got up on stage over thirty years ago. Sitting in the back. Sounding like you were up front. Rooting for me. I referred to you as “my mother, the one in the back with the 88 teeth.” Because that was how big your beautiful smile was.
Here is how you were a part of the act. What I would do is go up on stage, and say nothing. Then, I would take out the cute little french provincial chair that your ashes sit on today, with a picture of you as a young ingenue, alongside a long strand of knotted pearls, your signature accessory. I would have added your infamous black high top Converse, but that would have been cumbersome.
After setting this up, I would take the microphone and begin my routine. “This is my mom. She died 8 years ago. Her ashes have been in my closet for 8 years. She was homophobic, so I decided it was time to get her out of the closet.” Some of the laughs were out loud, some were on the inside. But you were laughing the loudest. I would continue, referring to the ugly burgundy drawstring bag that houses the box with your ashes in it. “She would never be caught dead in this color. “ That killed. Pun intended.
This morning, when I walked into the bathroom, I had a surprise from my cat. He had taken the little diva character that I keep with your pictures in the living room, and dragged you into the bathroom.
Below are the pictures, followed by the text I sent out to friends who would appreciate my dark humor today, when I walked into the bathroom to discover the scene of his crime, along with the pictures: FYI-My cat’s name is Atlas. He has one eye, a scrunched up ear, a bit of an attitude and all of my heart. And while you weren’t much of a cat person, you would have loved him. Because he’s orange, the same as your old jumpsuit and orange flip lipstick and because he is mine. And by the way, a text is something people do on their phones because they forgot how to actually make a phone call.
(Text message) “So now Atlas has decided to play The Clue game.
(Please note dark humor to follow.) As you know, today marks 11 years since my mom died.
The little character you see resembles her as a stylish fashionista and is normally sitting in front of a photograph of her.
I’m guessing it was Atlas in the Bathroom with the Claw. I win.”
I just put on Diana Krall and set a thirty minute timer so I could give this proper time and be sure to get up and stretch. I bet you really hated the aging process. I am not a huge fan myself.
I’d like to add some pictures now and post it on my blog. I think you’d be proud of me today. Since you were a journalism major and our whole family has some expertise in writing, I never thought I had any talent mother. It was a lot to be the youngest by a stretch of years, surrounded by the stage performance, news celebrity, Emmy and Peabody award winning talents of my older siblings in my formative years. But I know that I do have it. And I intend to use it. To share my stories with others. In the hope that they are moved, inspired, encouraged or perhaps all three. I hope to be a published author one day.
I am glad I have taken this time to reach out. I was numb to dad’s death for most of the fifty years I did not have him. That letter got written last year. And boy, did those musty tears flow. All over the Village Inn on South Yale in Tulsa. They have closed since then. I’m guessing it was water damage.
It was mid morning on a gorgeous sunny Sunday in Miramar Beach, Florida. The sun was warming up. The breeze was cool. I was at the beach for my walk. There were quite a few people beginning to show up there, as Spring Break was in full swing on the Emerald Coast of the Gulf of Mexico. I’m guessing there were easily 3 or four hundred people along the mile of beach to my west, as I had intended to be walking there. I began to walk west in the dry, white crystal singing sand, the gorgeous emerald green water lapping to my left, the green and dark brown stained wooden chairs and umbrellas lining the way to my right, two by two.
I had only taken a few steps when I looked down to see something that made me quite sad and a bit alarmed. There was a large, beautiful black and white polka dotted loon there on the beach. At first, I feared it was dead. I immediately called Michele Phillips. my friend the full time Beach Ambassador on duty. Thankfully the bird was still moving. But it was obviously injured as there was a big chewed up spot on the lower back. I thought that a leg was injured too, but I later learned that loons are unable to walk on sand.
I am a Volunteer Beach Ambassador, as Walton County has organized volunteers and paid folks alike to provide a service to the beach visitors, both local and those who travel up and down the county’s 26 miles of Gulf Of Mexico beauty during the season. Some of the jobs of a beach ambassador, paid or volunteer include educating the four million plus visitors who travel here each year-about the area, what to do and not do to keep sea turtles safe, where to safely set up on the beach so as not to impede the lifeguards-just to name a few.
When I got Michele on the phone, I quickly learned that she had already had reports from concerned visitors hours earlier and that the loon had been on the beach for a few hours. The nearest agency who she had contacted had informed her that they were not going to send someone to pick this loon up, (the loon, which shall now go by the name Lou 2, because the name Lou was already taken, given to me as a nickname by a fellow ambassador.) but they gave instruction on how we could try and save Lou 2 and if we were unsuccessful, we could call them back.
I am partial to loons. For their name, their beauty, for the fact that they migrate to Florida in the winter and the fact that when they shed their feathers, they make me one happy polka dot feather collector as I have a half a jar of them so far.
When I came to Miramar Beach a year ago February to “live” for a month, making sure that the move I did make months later was right for me, I spent every one of those 29 mornings on that beach at sunrise. And when I found my first polka dot feather, I was ELATED! I paint art furniture and painting polka dots is one of my favorite patterns to paint. I get so into it that sometimes my mouth makes a weird clicking noise. I agree that’s weird. But I like my weird.
I even did a little research on Loons and I love the fact that the mother carries the baby on her back! I made some whimsical art, painting a loon and her baby, and I used some of the feathers for the baby’s wing.
As suggested, I wet my beach towel, wrapped Lou 2 up, walked into knee deep water, and floated the towel, hoping he would pop up and be on his way. My concern and sadness went to cheering and hope as Lou 2 came out from under and began to swim out.
My next task, which I felt both honored and so purposeful to do, was to watch Lou 2 to see if he was able to fly, as that was the goal, and report back if Lou 2 was unsuccessful at taking off. I just kept thinking of this story about starfish:
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.
Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”
The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”
“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.
Then, smiling at the man, he said…..“I made a difference for that one.”
I began the same walk west that I had originally intended. This was a bit complicated, as by this point, families with lots of little ones were all over my path. Normally, I am just looking at my feet or where I am going when there are so many people. I am 5’10” and it would not be a stretch when I get my stride going for me to drop kick some cute little kid in a diaper suit who was darting from mom into the water. When they are low to the ground like that, kids are twice as fast you know.
So off I went, eyes glued to the black spot that had gotten ahead of me by riding the tide, briskly walking, trying not to lose sight. As the sun was reaching it’s high point, I realized I had no sunscreen and knew this was going to take some time, so I walked up to a mom who was at the water’s edge to my right. “Hi. This is going to sound weird. And I am not going to look at you when I say it. I am watching a bird we are trying to rescue and I have to follow it down the beach. I wasn’t prepared and I have no sunscreen, so would you mind sharing some of yours?” We chuckled as she offered and sprayed my back, while I stared at the water making sure not to lose sight of Lou 2.
I walked along, dodging kids and holes, eyes glued to Lou 2. About a mile in, Lou 2 began to appear bigger, which was not good news, as I had been watching multiple attempts at flight, wings trying hard to spread and take off, sadly followed by a white round belly as Lou 2 was struggling to stay upright.
At the end of a mile, Lou 2 washed up at the feet of the crowd along the beach in their green chairs. I called the ambassador and was advised to sit tight, watch Lou 2 and keep onlookers at a safe distance. Poor Lou 2 had to sit helpless in the sun with all those people looking at her one more time, people who were helpless to help. The agency from earlier now said that they could not come, my understanding was that the loon was not a bird in their jurisdiction of protection and while I understood, I was frustrated for Lou 2. It wasn’t his fault that the universe was directing Lou 2 to Florida and the Gulf to migrate in winter.
Fortunately, Michele made contact with the state, told me they were sending someone and back into action I went. I had borrowed a towel from the umbrella vendor who willingly loaned it to the cause. My towel was soggy and a mile east, hanging off the back of a green chair I had not rented, along with my keys and my clothes. This was not a naked rescue. I was wearing my suit.
I was instructed to wet the towel, wrap Lou 2 up, and walk that mile back to get Lou 2 to where the state would be arriving for pick up. I was nervous. Would I get bit? Would I drop Lou 2? I stopped thinking and went into action, gathering a posse of support. A dad, who was moral support and phone valet to carry my phone said yes when I asked for someone to help if I could not make the whole walk back. His teenage daughters came too, and did a lovely job of grabbing my things from that green chair on our way down.
I wetted the towel, wrapped Lou 2 up, and began a brisk walk, intent not to cause Lou 2 any more trauma than had already ensued. Dad and his daughters followed behind, dad saying how he was just talking about needing to get more steps in.
When Lou 2 squirmed, I was happy and nervous. Happy at the fight still left, nervous that I might drop the towel. There were moments of rest when I was calm and concerned, hoping Lou 2 was only resting. And just a few steps into this last mile trek, I began to silently repeat this prayer, “God, grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” This calmed me and also made the baby sized creature I held cradled against my heart feel like a part of me. I had imprinted with Lou 2.
The final step now was again, to wait. It was easier because there was help on the way and now Lou 2, that big brave feathered friend and part of my heart was now resting in the sand under a nice big umbrella out of the hot sun. Side by side, Lou 2 and I were enjoying the rest of the shade.
The woman from the forest service arrived to take Lou 2, at which point I told her I loved her, and Lou 2 and asked to please be kept informed as to the outcome.
It was not the Sunday I had planned, but I was so grateful I got to be a part of that 3 hour adventure. No Gilligan or Skipper, but count me as the millionaire because the value of the experience was infinite.
I will come back and let you know what I hear beyond this text that came in today. In the meantime, send out love and light for Lou 2 please. Thank you.
Update: It has been nine days since I last heard how Lou 2 was doing. I am happy to share the following text from the woman who brought him to be cared for. Yay!
I got high yesterday. It had been a tough day emotionally, one in a series of many. I did not plan it. I started my day feeling emotionally spent from having made some tough decisions. The kind that sap so much mental energy, I think I can’t move my body.
I used to misinterpret those kinds of days, when I was emotionally fried to mean I could not do anything physical. I would intend to do 3 exercise classes in a week, but then at the end of a workday from a dissatisfying job, I would tell myself I can’t exercise, not realizing that that was a lie. In fact, exercise was not only possible then, but I did have the physical energy, I just didn’t know it. That was 30 years ago. Now, I know that mental fatigue does not mean that my body cannot move. I am fully committed to walking 2 to 4 miles most days, in spite of the heavy emotional ones that leave my brain feeling like mashed potatoes. And I am always better for getting out there and moving my body.
After a morning phone call with a friend where I could hear exhausted chatter coming out of me, all the while my gut was saying “You are too tired to talk. You need to rest,” I caught myself. I told my friend I felt like I sounded like what tired animals look like when they pace aimlessly around in circles and she said she could hear that in my words. I hung up, revised my ambitious plan for the day to look more like gentle self care and self compassion. After all, I had just come out of several weeks of trolling online dating for hours on end. No wonder I felt so wiped out. I was.
I needed to go to the grocery store, and the beach was out because of rain, so I saw an opportunity to go get some paint for a custom order rocker I have to paint. And I wanted to attend a new support group online at six thirty in the evening. Perfect! A couple of errands, cook myself dinner, support group, a little TV, then bed.
But that is not what happened. I got through the first errand picking out some yummy colors for a rocker I was painting for a client in Memphis when an idea came out of nowhere. “Let’s go look at shoes!” That sounds innocent enough. My rationale was that I do need shoes for walking in the summer, as well as some inserts in my current walking shoes. But the energy was not there. And you don’t have the full context.
You see, I have a history of shopping and overspending to avoid dealing with reality. It goes hand in hand with an eating disorder and alcoholism, if you want to categorize it by addiction or disorder. Along with that, my most recent addiction of online dating to excess, you now have a better picture of my challenges. Or, the main moles whose heads pop up in my game of Whac-A-Mole.
Alcohol has been out of the picture for 36 years. But you can’t not eat and you can’t not spend and you can’t not have relationships with people, so those have all been to excess for me in the past thirty some years, talking turns rearing their furry little heads. The food has had a tremendous amount of work put in by me and that disordered eating, which has twice required treatment is most of the time in remission. The relationship/aka online dating obsession has only been a thing since my divorce five years ago, after a 26 year loveless marriage so that is a new mole, relatively speaking and as my previous story indicates, I have disconnected the power to that little furry guy just this week.
My mother was in the fashion industry. She worked for the chic women’s magazine Women’s Wear Daily in New York City, right out of college with her journalism degree in the 1940’s. Her last business which closed in the 90’s was a high end dress shop, serving the wives of wealthy monied oil barons and the old money of Tulsa, Oklahoma. She did fashion shows on private jets. Served wine in the sitting area outside of the dressing rooms. All of the nurturing that she had to offer went to her business. None of it came home to me. And many nights, neither did she.
My brother and sister were adults out on their own. I was in high school and I was home alone. Alot. My mother had her own problems, namely acting out promiscuously with married men and bar hopping to get attention. It was very important to her that she be seen. She had gotten used to that when she met and married my father in New York City, where he was a dashing handsome celebrity in show business. They were a beautiful couple, hob nobbing with the show business elite of radio and television and music in Manhattan in the 1950’s, so after my father’s untimely death in 1967 at the age of 42, her party, the one with the silver spoon and the Stork Club and Big Apple came to a screeching halt.
Her store was the only place I really saw her much. It was clothing for women, which did not fit my adolescent form in high school, but she would not buy me much from stores more appropriate for me, so I was stuck with pants that pooched where I didn’t have hips because that was what I got.
Over the years, I developed her love for clothing and fashion and pattern and texture and color, and I learned a lot from that exposure. In some weird way, the clothes I got from my mom, were a form of love in my experience, so it makes sense now as I write this that I would become a compulsive shopper, as I was groomed for it really when that actually WAS love from a mother who did a poor job of giving it otherwise.
I walked into the shoe store with the best intentions of just trying on some shoes for beach walking and getting some inserts for my sneakers. It was dark and rainy outside and I had just enough time for this quick stop before heading to the grocery store and then home. This is where the high comes in. Most of the time, when I go into ANY retail store, I pray this prayer, “God, please make this a sober shopping experience.” And for good reason. Because for me to walk into a store full of pretty things with a 1,000 open line of credit on a card and not say a prayer for protection, I can get and have gotten into some serious debt over that. Especially when I have been upset or emotional. And I practice what I call sober spending as a rule as a means to do just that. Be sober with money. Some people would call it being financially responsible. That works for them. For me, it’s sober spending.
Before I share what went down yesterday, I’ll share another episode of, let’s just say, me getting shitfaced on shopping at Chico’s. Chico’s is a women’s fashion store, similar to my mom’s and was at one time my favorite place to go for clothes. On this occasion, I was freshly wounded from the surprise ending of my 26 year marriage one night in my living room some weeks prior. I had dropped my daughter off to go to a concert in Oklahoma City and decided I would take myself out to dinner and shopping while I waited. And when I say my life blew up, I mean it. I thought my then husband and I were working things out when all in one 24 hour period, I learned that no only had he relapsed in his alcoholism, but he had been paying for sex and acting out in a full blown sex addiction, spending tens of thousands of dollars in the process for at least 6 years right under my nose, which had been up in the cloud of denial for that entire time. So, needless to say, I was hurt, and perhaps fit the description of a woman scorned.
So as I am putting my pile of merchandise on the counter that had to be 14 items stacked, I am vomiting this all to the woman ringing me up. Just like she were a bartender pouring me shots that just happened to come on plastic hangers.
“And then he…” me having inappropriate oversharing “this happened to me” tourettes all over her because that was the best I could do at the moment. Thing is, Chicos hires women my age for part-time work, so she was commiserating with me that she had had the same experience and the woman in line by me, who may have well been swivelling on top of a red leather trimmed in chrome bar stool said this to me. “You know what some women in your situation do, they go out and buy a ‘Fuck You’ Lexus.” Believe me, had that been an option, I would have. But that money was gone, so clothes it was.
Yesterday was not much different in that I was emotionally spent, for different reasons, but still raw and hurting. I walked into this brand new store, full of fabulous shoes, handbags, beach apparel, well lit and displayed, literally out of the dark of the storm into the light, and there they were. My bartender and the servers! The manager and two clerks who had no other customers, plus the owner, who happened to be there with his wife. I turned on and connected to get off before I even got near the register. Just looking at the funky artistic designs of the bold, colorful shoes in snakeskin, leopard, sapphire blue, metallic and combinations of all of these. When I tried on the first pair, the owner, or, should I say the dealer, spoke to how great the shoes looked and said maybe I should be a shoe model for him.
My ego grabbed ahold of that like a shot of tequila and went to town. What should have been a twenty minute stop turned into over an hour after I virtually created a position for myself in his store as someone who would essentially lurk around customers, getting a read on the one who might be receptive to buying if I saw them hovering at a display, slipped into the back to grab a pair of what they were looking at to wear out and show them, “this is how they look on,” it was brilliant. And the owner was all over it. I gave him my number, after extolling my retail history resume and upbringing, bragging how I knew when to leave customers alone and when to cater, sharing my lesson learned from my mom, who used to nag me to try things on, saying, “go on, try it on, you can’t tell until you try it on,” which was accurate, and he was literally going to create a spot for me. So I left, elated, but only as long as the light from the store’s door closing behind me still reflected upon me. By the time I got in my car, and after calling my neighbor still flying to tell her what happened, I hung up, my mood began to rapidly deflate and by the time I got home, the high was gone, replaced by exhaustion, no groceries, an overpriced to go order and me too spent to be on that support group meeting online. Instead, I checked out on the couch with Netflix and girl scout cookies.
I don’t want to abandon myself anymore, so today I succeeded in not doing so. I got my groceries, spent the afternoon sunning at the beach and fed myself a nice dinner. So tonight, I committed to myself that I would write this instead. And I love me more for doing so. Now, I can watch a little Netflix and go to bed feeling good about getting to the grocery store and being there for me and with me.