A Sickening Snail’s Pace.

In our quarantine, we have found a rhythm to try and keep each day in its proper place.  Wake up.  Yoga.  Shower.  Drink coffee. Walk the dogs.  Then there’s the span in the middle that gets muddled.  Then dinner, another walk, and watch the sunset from the front porch and wonder where the day went before the muddy end with a movie or books or trying to stop working but feeling guilty if I don’t get one more thing done but there’s never time to have a break.  Through most of it, I am calculating when the living starts.  Presence isn’t my strong suit.

This isn’t so different from my normal life, except with running water and the consistent walk through the orange groves surrounding my Someone’s childhood home in Central California.  I wish for rain most days.  I like the weather matching the mood.  And lately, it’s complied, and caused new problems.  Any time I get what I want, it usually causes new problems.

I’m a vegetarian by choice, though I suspect also by nature.  It’s a difficult and conflicting reckoning for me in matters of pets and food, swatting mosquitoes and crying over grasshoppers.  For years, maybe in thanks to the racing snail in Neverending Story, escargot had been at the top of my cognitive dissonance list.  And with the recent rains I asked for, the snails have been creeping out every which way in the orange groves.  Including under my feet.

Our mental health walks became mental catastrophes.  I hopped around them, moving quick like a bunny, only finding the death toll increasing.  Then I tried moving slow, accidentally crushing one while avoiding another.

000573850008There’s a pandemic out there, I’m aware.  There are bigger, faster problems than snails.

But maybe it goes like this:

I wanted to give up.  And for a few steps, I did.  I closed my eyes and walked ahead, telling myself that the unfamiliar crunching wasn’t a real life.  It was a rock.  That it didn’t matter.  That my plans shouldn’t be disrupted by a crummy dummy little snail.  That it was beyond my control.  But then something pushed hard into my brain under my closed eyes and heavy feet–

You have to try.

You have to try.

You have to try.

Maybe one snail less in the world isn’t going to matter to anyone.  But it might.  So I opened my eyes again and looked down.  I tried.  Not always with success, but I tried.

I’m more grateful for sunny days on our walks.  I found a few crushed shells along the way.  When the crowded chaos is gone, the loss is much easier to detect.  I worry that it might have been my fault, and hope that it wasn’t.

I will keep trying, I tell the little gooey carcass.  I have to keep trying.

Hairy Armpits and Putting My Foot Down.

I’m not cutting kale with a knife very often, anymore.  That goes for broccoli, too.  These are added to the list:

I don’t wear makeup.

Or shave my armpits.

Or my legs.

There’s a proactive list, too.  It consists of things like:

Staring back when stared at– especially when doing yoga in a peculiar but public, and perfectly acceptable, place.

Saying things like, “That’s not what I said,” or “Let me finish what I was saying,” or “Excuse me.”

It might look like a slow descent into letting myself go, but that’s inaccurate.  I dress better and spend fewer days in yoga pants all day.  I don’t buy clothing that I know will make me feel bad about myself, or that pinches my glorious little muffin top that I’m becoming so fond of.  I spend much less time reeling over conversations with what I should have said.  I take quicker showers so that I have more time to massage my aching feet and calves, all the way down to my big hairy toes.  I’m eating what I like, and not too much of it.  But sometimes too much of it, and then I forgive me.  Or I celebrate.

None of these things feel rebellious or groundbreaking or revolutionary or even particularly feminist.

It’s not letting myself go.  It’s just letting go.

000431640022In ninth grade, I wore a silky red dress with straps a scanty two finger-widths wide, in black strappy clog heels.  I had entered– or maybe was entered– into the High School Talent Show.  In the weeks ahead, I agonized over which song to sing, practiced until my voice gave out, and stayed up late going over the future scene again and again.

As I stood shaking in the wings of the auditorium, peaking out to see my parents and friends watching expectantly, I tried to bolster.  I heard my name announced, walked to center stage, picked up the cordless microphone with one hand while my other hand clenched a single red rose.  The backing track began.  Just as practiced, I sang through the song, eking through each note and praying that my vocal idiosyncrasies would compensate for my poor intonation from shaking so hard.  On the final chorus, I walked toward the catwalk that stretched around the orchestra pit.  One foot after the other, the end of the song approaching, I made it to the closest point to the audience, the furthest from my starting point, bent down and handed my single rose to some shadowy boy figure in the front.  Then I stood back up and delivered the last notes.

Hot damn, I nailed it.

And I won!  I even beat out my friend Cody who played a Bach piece completely blindfolded (and flawlessly).

Afterwards, my parents celebrated by giving me chocolates and flowers.  They were always good for gifts, and had them on the ready regardless of the outcome.  On the short drive home, they told me I’d done a great job, that the dress was a hit– isn’t it so thinning!–, that the rose had been nothing short of a surprise twist.  And then–

“And your father said– and I agree– that the best part was that you didn’t clunk your way down the catwalk like those other girls your age in those heels.  Every step was completely silent!”

This was the one part I didn’t practice.

It dawns on me now that I learned much earlier than that to step lightly, and take up little space.  But that was the moment the mantra began.  With every pair of high heeled boots and shoes I mangled my feet with from that point forward, my brain accompanied, Softly, softly, quiet, quiet, easy, easy…

My parents were likely doing the best they could, trying to prepare me for the way the world really is.  Coaxing me with compliments has always been a successful tactic.  Especially for a kid who was always too much and somehow also not enough.

But I don’t wear high heels, anymore.  And I’m also learning to put my foot down.

000431630009I suspect this is why I resent my Someone so much for walking.  I can detect his gait from across a large echoing foyer over multiple polite conversations, from an upstairs room, from a distant sidewalk.  He’s a hard walker from cowboy boots to bare feet.  When we moved into our little camper home, it became problematic.  He shook the house just by going to the bathroom, leaving me splattered with boiling pasta water or tipping wine glasses.

But then, even outside the camper, I felt my irritation growing.  Particularly as my parents spoke to me less and less.  Until I exploded.

“You’ve never had to think of anyone else when you walk!” I cried, “You can stomp around all you want, and you can tip over water glasses, and it doesn’t matter– nobody says anything!  But I have to walk around quiet all the time and I never get to be loud and when I am loud I’m not acting right!  It’s not fair!”

I thought of the talent show.

No, it wasn’t fair.  For all the pretty singing and hard practicing I do to move with ease, I am judged by the ripple of sound my footsteps make.  I’d practiced walking “right” all my life, and it still wasn’t enough to be loved.

I went for a walk.  A big stompy one.

09900027From the Women’s Movement to my friends to my online free yoga teacher Adriene– they are all telling me to Take Up Space.  Other than a wide star pose on my mat, I wasn’t sure what that meant.

I’m still working on it.

On stage mid story last month, an angry venue owner with a reputation for condescending women stormed in front of me and told me to shut up and sing.  That if I didn’t start the song right that second, he was cutting me off.  It was shocking for everyone in the room.  I was, of course, humiliated.  But there was something else there.

The headliner of the night, a woman from Texas, performed her set with almost no talking in between songs, timid and lilting.  Afterward, the venue owner said I could learn a thing or two from her.  And that someday, when I was 80-something, I could earn the right to talk on stage, like his list of old white men he loved so much.

I didn’t learn a thing or two from her.  Likely, she and I learned it at the same time.  And now she, being praised into silence, was being used against me.  In this hostile environment, she was surviving, and I was bucking.  I was now all those other girls clunking around on the stage.

Our act hasn’t become quieter.  Sure, I was a little gun shy at first.  But now our show– it’s been foot stomping, story-telling fortified.

And I’ve added “Don’t listen to irrational chauvinists who try and make themselves louder so you will be quieter” to the list.

000431630021Maybe my friend won’t remember it at all, but I think of it with a significant amount of regret on a regular basis.  We were sharing a hotel room that night, laughing and listing the ways we didn’t live up to our mother’s expectations for us.  My friend, she’s been with me through most of it starting in early college, even housing my poor college ass for a summer where she welcomed me with a familial love that I had a hard time finding in my own home.  And she is a bright, exuberant person that can go from calm and nurturing to peals of laughter with a seamless transition that has you along for the ride regardless of where its going.

She was one of the first adults I’d met who made me believe that I wasn’t a oddity– that there were more like me out there, and that I was bound to find them.

So in a fit of high energy jesting, she sat up, leaning to one side with her head tilted and her hand to her cheek and said, batting her eyes, “But I’d say I’m rather regal wouldn’t you?”

I, still carried away, found a refresh of laughter and replied, “Oh, no!  You are a lot of things, but regal isn’t one of them!”

She deflated.  I stopped.  I tried to giggle sympathetically.  She brushed it off with another little laugh and changed the subject.

To me, regal meant stilted.  It meant reserved.  It meant quiet.  For her to be regal meant that she was not the comrade I’d known her to be– the one willing to sink in with a box of tissues and a bowl of ice cream and a sad movie while I waded through my divorce.

What I wish I had said, instead, was– “Regal doesn’t have anything on you.  You are kind and good and feeling and engaged and hilarious and a flash of light while also a burning ember and whatever everyone told you that you need to be in order to be better and more accepted– like regal– they were wrong.  You are perfect.”

But I stayed silent.

000383760009I don’t wear shoes much in the summer.  I downsized my purse to only be able to fit my wallet and one book so that I stop carrying everything around with me while my Someone carries just his tiny wallet.  My Someone has since taken to carrying a saddlebag.  He likes it, and it helps him have the space he needs to carry what he wants.  And it gives me the space to just take up space without my shoulders sinking me smaller and smaller.  My posture has improved.

My Someone works hard not to move the camper, now, when he walks, too.  I work hard to flop myself around on occasion.  Once, I even spilled a little hot wax from our candle.  It was glorious.

Blessed Assurance– Pastries are Mine!

My sister and my Someone and I were singing three part harmony to Blessed Assurance only halfway through a bottle of wine this week.

This is not normal.

I sing for a living, but I’ve never sung with my sister.  Even growing up, she remained tight lipped and glaring from the church balcony while I belted it out next to my parents in the fifth row from the front of the stage. I dutifully held my red hymnal and mimicked my mother’s loud alto that could be heard over nearly everyone else, barring Margaret Morris’ wide vibrato-ed, crisp soprano on the other side of the aisle.

Last Christmas break, I played a game with my sister called “Sing It When You Know It,” in which I would start a deep cut Sunday School Song and she would have to chime in when she recognized it.  She never let me down.  Even when Ananias and Sapphira got together to conspire-a plot *clap clap* to cheat *clap clap* the church to get ahead… 

My Someone would sit open jawed and wide eyed at our infallible recollection, our enthusiasm, and the horrific lyrics.

They knew God’s power but did not fear, they tried to cheat the Holy Spirit, Peter prophesied it and they both dropped dead! *Oof*

The “oof” is when you make fists and simultaneously cram both of your elbows into your rib cage.  It’s sort of like a celebration of Peter dropping those two people dead, while also showing how the Holy Spirit might sucker punch you right in the ribs for your cheating ways.  My sister and my’s simultaneous “oof” was enough for my Someone to shake his head and slide his chair back from the table with his hands up.  The song finishes up spouting how God loves a cheerful giver.  It’s a lot to take in.

But this year is different.

Maybe we aren’t interested in the shock value anymore.  Or maybe we are accepting it.  But as the three of us broke into the triumphant chorus of Blessed Assurance this week, it felt less like an outsider looking back in, and more like an insider taking what is ours back out.

This is my story, this is my song…

000431630008For this reason, I am eating more pastries.

It started in the summer of last year, as we were winding down our time in Eastern Michigan and doubling back to Ohio again.  We had a pocket full of cash and a tank full of gas, and were feeling like maybe with a little more luck and another generous audience, we could be ahead.  And so we stopped to deposit our cash and ended up next to a gluten free bakery in the same lot.

“Things really are turning our way!” we said, and went in to load up on a loaf of bread, an apple crumb cake, and two cookies for celebration.  On our way out, I was confronted with a freezer full of vegan gluten-free pierogies.

I hesitated.  Pierogies were for special occasions.  Pierogies were for the end of cold days, usually in February, when my mother wakes up early and works on them in a small Western Pennsylvania kitchen.  For being from a depressed old steel town of mostly European descent, where living generations can still identify the Polish part of town from the Italian part of town, where the Germans would hang out as opposed to the Irish, the ethnic boundaries of my culinary upbringing were a bit blurry– one rich in potato salads and pasta and French Fries on salads– a confusing configuration of carbs and meat and sauerkraut and Ranch dressing.  And two or three times a year, pierogies.

My mother would make the dough from scratch, rolling it out to fill with boiled, mashed potatoes and cheese, potatoes and bacon, potatoes and onion, and pressing the edges firming before tossing them in a big salted pot of boiling water.  Then she fretted over the pot as they broke or held, removing them with a slotted spoon and tossing them with onions and butter before presenting them ceremoniously at our small kitchen table where the six of us crammed in our designated seats.  Then, I was chastised for breaking them open and sucking the mashed potatoes clean out before eating the thick dumpling outside.

All this while standing in front of a freezer case of pre-made pierogies in Eastern Michigan.

“Let’s get them,” I said, pulling a bag and taking it to the register.

That night, somewhere in an Ohio rest area, I ripped open the bag and placed them in a pan of coconut oil and onions, humming to try and keep thoughts of my mother out.  My mother, who stopped calling me, who I missed more profoundly than if she’d died, who I’d be facing in a couple of short weeks to tell her that I love her and that I miss her and want us to be better.  I hummed louder.  Then I was singing.

Come home, come home– ye who are weary come home.

I stopped.  I was weary.  But I couldn’t figure out where home was.  I was tired of believing that I had no home, that I had no right to the inheritance of memory that my other, more dutiful siblings who’d stayed in Western Pennsylvania, had.  I didn’t need to reject my history to not repeat it.  I’d already tried that, and it only left me sad and a little hungry.  Just like I’d been taught– whether by God or my Mother or pasta– I needed to embrace it.  To be all in.  Whole.  Even if, when it boils down, a few tender pieces break apart.

Softly and tenderly, pierogies were frying.  And all at once, I was home.  Not in my mother’s kitchen, but my own.  I was allowed to love potato-filled pasta as much as anyone, and I was allowed to love it with no strings attached.  And I was allowed to love it anywhere.  Just as I loved the hymn that was falling from me– the melody buttery lilty and welcoming– without the shame of coming forward to the altar.  My altar was here: an old hymn and a plate full of pierogies across from the one who loves me unconditionally.

“These are kind of amazing,” my Someone said.

“You would’ve been so lucky to have them like I did as a kid,” I said.  “It’s like some kind of Holy.”  Then I told him about my mother, then about the people who dressed up like different pierogies during the Pittsburgh Pirates games’ 7th Inning Stretch and raced, everyone placing bets on which pierogi would win.  And as he laughed, it was some kind of Holy, too.  Like coming home.  No strings attached.

25640019It’s been over 7 months since my mother has called me.  I’m not waiting for her call, anymore.  Instead, I am taking a Pilgrimage of Pastries.  In Lincoln, Nebraska, I hunted down a cinnamon roll that tasted like the ones she makes every Christmas morning– and once a month in addition.  More caramely than gritty, more doughy than toasted, where the outsides are downright chewy with brown sugar.  I ate it slowly, with reverence, and also playfully, with delight as I remembered cramming them into napkins and sneaking them into my room, burning my mouth on the center from eating them too quickly for fear of being found out.  And I gave thanks for my mother.  I let the anger creep into my throat as far as it wanted, and when it was through, I soothed it down with a sip of coffee and another bite.

At my friend Kelsey’s house a month later, I missed my mother again.  And so I scavenged my cupboard for a flour mix and a crown of broccoli, then spent the morning preparing a crumbling version of my mother’s veggie roll, an original concoction she’d based on our favorite local pizza place’s ranch-and-cheddar based pizza.  I didn’t have a recipe, just a feeling.  I prepared it with a gentleness I don’t always possess, removing the giant roll like those patient actors always do in Duncan Hines commercials, letting the heat of the oven briefly close my eyes and smelling the bread deeply, as if being transported to their childhood kitchen.  But I didn’t go anywhere.  Instead, I stayed completely present in this state of home, being thankful for a mother who taught me to bake, and to cook intuitively.  And as I cut into it, the cheesey broccoli falling through the cracks of the swirled inside, and served it to one of my best friends and my Someone, I was satisfied with having done it out here on my own.  I waited for the anger, but it didn’t come.  Not even at the last bite, polishing it off within 24 hours.

000431630020Maybe this is a sign of forgiveness– these holy cinnamon rolls and half bottles of wine.  Or maybe it’s a sign of being tired of being tired.  Last year, in a game of “Sing it When You Know It,” we uncovered this gem–

One Door and only One,
And yet its sides are two–
I’m on the inside,
On which side are you?

Sitting in the Florida kitchen this year with my Atheist sister and my Agnostic Someone, prodigal me wasn’t so sure, anymore.  It seemed that where three or more were gathered, there wasn’t a door at all.  Just a wide open space where anyone who wanted to join in, can.  Sing it if you know it.  No guilt.  No strings attached.

I feel blessed assured of it.

On How to Break Up with Your Mom & Dad (Without Really Trying).

A Step-by-Step Guide on How To Break Up with Your Mom & Dad
(without really trying)!

(This is not recommended for all users.)

But First–
Determine if this is a good fit for you!
Let’s get started!  Answer Yes ! or No ! to the following questions. 


  1. …beg your mom & dad on numerous occasions to call you, only to have the most un-ringing-est phone in history?

    YES !                  NO !

  2. …find yourself saying “I wish I had a Mom and/or Dad” only to have your partner remind you that, in fact, you do?

    YES !                  NO !

  3. …never get asked to attend family gatherings, holidays, or activities?

    YES !                  NO !

  4. …have a sister who lives across the driveway from your parents who they love better in an unhealthy codependent sort of way and spend their time conspiring together to hold random strangers who are trying to turn around hostage in the driveway for “trespassing” under the threat of guns?

    YES !                  NO !

  5. …tell your parents you want to be included in the family and they respond that they “nearly choked on their laughter” at the request?

    YES !                  NO !

  6. …often hear yourself explaining your parents behavior by saying things like “Well, I’ve always been the dispensable one” or “I get why they don’t like me, but I don’t really understand why they don’t love me, either.”

    YES !                  NO !

If you’ve answered “YES!” to any of these questions, breaking up with your Mom & Dad may be a great fit!

Sooooooo, let’s get to it! (after a brief intermission).

S     T     A     N     D     B     Y

69860029Until three weeks ago, I did not love my newest dog.  I calculated the extra cost of dog food, monitored her behavior with only one peg on the scale to measure for goodness, and spent an inordinate amount of time ensuring that my other little dog never felt left out.  I raged at her slightest indiscretion and rolled my eyes at her oddities.  I introduced her as an apology.

It’s embarrassing to think about, now that I love her.  And the love came as an old one– no butterflies or sparkling eyes.  Just the ancient kind that’s been there all along, underneath the surface of the Earth, waiting to have me sink in deep enough to be tapped.

It’s the kind of love I am supposed to have for myself.

And now–

How to Break Up With Your Mom & Dad (Without Really Trying)

  1.  You Say / They Say!

    “I don’t think I can come home, anymore.”  /   “Okay!  Fine by us!”

    “I want to have a better relationship.”   /   “I’m not talking about this with you.”

    “I just want you to call me sometimes, maybe once a month? Twice a year?”  /          “I’m not dealing with you or  that Voicemail bullshit.”

    “I know you wanted a family photo, and I do, too, but only when the insides match the outsides.”   /  “Don’t worry, I won’t be asking for a photo with you ever again.”

    See?  Easy.  They really do the work for you!
    So now it’s just a matter of a little cleanup.


The first part of the revelation came on a walk in Arkansas.  We came across the Mammoth Springs by accident, and circled the park and bright blue green water once when a stray dog began walking alongside.  I loved him immediately, without reservation.  I loved him like I wouldn’t love my own dog.

I wished for a trade with the Universe, a happy accident where the owner finds his dog and asks to have ours instead.

“Why can’t I love her?” I half yelled.  And as we kept walking, our tagalong– a hunting dog– reminded me something of the dogs I grew up with.  I looked at Magpie Mae.

“Oh shit,” I said, “she’s me.”

Magpie Mae came at the beginning of the end with my parents, after an incident wherein I confronted them for holding people hostage in their driveway last November.  The “intruders,” or rather, wayward strangers, were “being taught a lesson” on my family’s compound.  It was a long, uncomfortable discussion that included a guard dog sister, the police, and two hapless, wide eyed middle aged people in a camper whose GPS took them down the wrong road.

I’d spent the last four years showing up uninvited, checking in, calling, telling my parents I loved them.  I’d been trying to be intentional.  I’d been trying to be included.  I’d been failing.  And after November, it seemed I couldn’t make anything right.

That’s when we got Magpie Mae.

By July, it had broken completely.

In the last year, every ounce of otherness Magpie Mae exuded threw me into a fit.  She eats too fast.  She is too eager for love.  She needs too much.  She’s too big.  She moves too much.  She barks too much.  She’s too eager for love.  She’s too eager to love.

And, just like me, the only bit of otherness she was allotted was her ability to sing.  I let her howl along to every sad country song and Happy Birthday voicemail we left.  It’s when her weirdness paid off.  People liked it.

Just like me.

And if Magpie was me, then I was my parents.  And I made the same mistakes.

“Oh, Magpie,” I said.  She glanced up at me, ducking her head as if waiting for me to scold her.  I pulled her head to my leg.  “Oh, Magpie, forgive me.”

You now have time to–

2.  Tie Up Loose Ends!
Since your parents have already slammed the door on you mid sentence begging them to love you, so that they could run to church where they can be a good example of Love and Light, you have a little time.  Maybe start with these!

~ Block Your Mom on Facebook!
This encourages her to make good on all those empty promises to call you.
–SIDES EFFECTS INCLUDE the removal of hope that in some way, your mother does care & is secretly watching you via social media in some sort of Benevolent God complex.  Now, you must go forward with your unringing phone knowing with certainty that if she does care, she will not show it (AKA gives no shits).

~ Walk Around Family Compound Looking for Something to Indicate That You Ever Really Belonged Here, and For Something You’ll Really Miss, and Come Up Short!
Except maybe that maple tree.  It’s worked so hard to rise above despite its roots being stuck in the backyard in the ominous shade of the family house.
SIDE EFFECTS INCLUDE self pity and a sense of free falling.

We landed in Nashville two days after my love of Magpie began, and I was eager to tell my friend Bryan my revelation.  How I was my parents, how Magpie was me, how ashamed I felt to have taken so long to figure it out.

“So, now, I need to start over with her,” I said triumphantly, “I need to stop raging at her for the things that make her like me.”

“Oh,” said Bryan, “I didn’t think that’s how that was going to go.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Magpie is you.  I don’t think you need to start over with Magpie, I think it means you need to stop raging at yourself.”



3.  Drive Away!
It’s important to drive and not be driven to give you a sense of ownership over your decision and reality, and to help combat your feelings of powerlessness in the scope of being unloved by your parents.
     – being envious of real orphans.
     – guilt.
     – relief.
     – guilt about relief.
     – incessant fear of your phone ringing.
     – incessant fear that your phone will never ring.

And that’s it, folks!  Easy as 1, 2, 3, (4).

000383760025It’s been five months, and my parents haven’t called.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still hoping for it.  I think that’s probably natural for a kid.  Last night, at my sister’s house– the good one– my mother Skyped with her grandkids.  Unwittingly, my niece turned the phone around–

“Look, Grandma!  Mallory and Scott are here!” she said.

My mother said she had to go, then.  My mother can’t even look at me.

In the meantime, I cry a lot.  I also love a lot, especially by big little dog, Magpie Mae.  She does these weird cute things all the time like lay upside down on her back and stretch back and forth like she’s trying to swim in the air.  She also has an adorable way of being at utmost attention where treats are involved.  She’s a great listener, and even when she’s not, she’s well intentioned.  She still sings, of course, but she also has a great way of sensing when I am so blue, blue, blue and places her big fat head on my lap while I am trying to type out a blog to sort out my feelings about my parents and myself.  Maybe it’s how eager and vulnerable she is for love that makes her so lovable.  I find that sort of eagerness irresistible now.

Stung: On Family and Bee-ing Bad.

“You’re a Graham?” he said.  We were in Vermont again, playing a favorite spot with a slew of our new friends drinking and next-morning-job-be-damned in favor of hearing us.

“I am,” I said.

“They’re a loathsome bunch,” he said, squinting one eye and pulling at his red beard. “I’m one myself, and when I went to Scotland, they told me to watch it.  They are the marauders, the thieves, the brawlers.  They don’t necessarily like us over there, but they sure are to stay out of the way.  Real rough ones.”

“Sounds about right,” I said.  I have been learning to stay out of their way for most of my life.  But then again, I’m a Graham.  A bit of a brawler.  I seem to end up tangled horns first just after treaty.

dragonI’m not sure what my thoughts on Karma are, but my thoughts on shame are pretty clear.  It is abundantly mine.  So when I burn the toast, or trip on the sidewalk, or lose my favorite hat, I have to first fight the belief that I deserved it.  I have to stuff down the sensation that the Universe or God or my own dumb luck forged a reckoning with my Resting State of Badness.

My Someone is consistently fighting it with me.  More often early in our love.  Like when a mug– a gift from my favorite person– fell from the cupboard after a particularly rough passage.  As I cleaned up the pieces, the grief moved rapidly– hope that it could be fixed, anger at our moving house on wheels, despair… but then fear.  Fear that my favorite person who had gifted this to me would believe what I believed about myself– that I am unworthy of gifts.  And then, it is me, crumpled on the floor–

“I am bad, I am bad, I am bad!”

And there, my Someone sitting beside me–

“You are good, good, good.”

cupsIt would be pretty easy to trace my Resting State of Badness back to religion.  I’d be hard pressed to find many of my friends who don’t carry a bit of Christian trauma.  As much as I heard that Jesus loved me, I heard that I am a sinner.  Maybe more.  For the Bible tells me so.

But Genetic Badness.  This was something that could help.  This was a hero’s story, against all odds.  I could be the Good Graham in spite of my freebooter’s lot.  As it turns out, nature and nurture are not the same thing.

stfrancicThe first time I was stung this summer was just a week after the confrontation with my parents.  The yellowjacket jabbed me, unprovoked, at the doorway of our friends’ house in North Carolina.  As I usually do when I’ve been hurt, I didn’t say anything.  I walked into the house, made conversation with our friend, all the while my foot beginning to form a bright red blaze around the stinger.

I finished packing our things, climbed into our truck, then told my Someone.

Then, I began retching, my lower back aching, and my chest heaving.

“I might be allergic, I think.”

My Someone drove faster.  We arrived just a few minutes later at our second driveway in town, our friends waiting happily on their porch.

“Go inside and get help,” my Someone said.

“I can’t,” I said.

We finished parking.  My face began to swell.  I finally asked for help as my body panicked.  Someone ran for Benadryl.  My throat began to swell.  I took the medicine.  I don’t remember much about the rest of the day.  Only the recurring thought–

This has happened because I was bad.  This has happened because I have disobeyed my parents.  This has happened and I deserve this.

basketcaseKelsey told me when my parents broke up with me that this particular divorce would be more difficult than the rest.  Harder than my actual divorce.  Harder than the time I confronted the sexual predator from my teens.  Parental trauma, she said, is more closely tied to what you believe is your identity.  Tearing out the toxicity will mean tearing apart who you think you really are.

It turns out, I am in shreds.

I had been waiting for the other shoe since the blow out– waiting for the repercussions for standing up for myself.  The truth of the world had to come out and remind me that there is no such thing as a good kid.  So even as we deliberated whether or not I needed to go to the ER for my sting, I resisted the kindness.  Somehow, this life-or-death attack from nature didn’t feel like enough.  There was more coming.

I told my Someone this before falling asleep that night.  We’d made a plan for him to check that I was still breathing through the night.

“You are good,” he said.  “You are good, good, good.”

shoedropWhen I was stung a second time last week, it was with my Someone’s parents.  Out for a hike in Ohio, we stumbled on a nest.  One got me to the back of the calf and I ran, hearing the shouts of everyone behind me.  When we arrived back at the campsite, my leg had swollen.  But my Someone’s mom had it the worst, multiple times and had to hunker down for the rest of the day.

“This is my fault,” I told my Someone.  “I made this happen.  I took everyone on this hike, and then I stung them.”

My Someone laughed, but then got serious.

“You did not sting my parents,” he said.

It sounded rational when he said it, but I felt the following of my Badness, and it was infecting everyone around me.

I am a loathsome bunch, I thought.

hikeKelsey says I am confusing Disobedience with a Toxic Cycle.

She’s not wrong.

saffyMy favorite sting I ever had was when I was 7 or 8 years old.  My Someone thinks that it’s sad to have a favorite sting.  I was sitting up near the garage– the big one that smelled like diesel and oil and dust.  My mother had run for an errand, or was working in the office across the driveway.  That part I don’t remember.  Just that I was alone and thinking again.  And so I went in front of the garage where the large, long spools of erosion control fabrics laid flat across on shelved stilts.  It was early summer, so the black fabric wasn’t too hot to burn my legs, yet.  My feet dangled from the side of the spools I sat on, which made it perfect thinking conditions, running my fingernails through the rough hatch of the fabric while watching the sky.

That’s when I saw my Pap Pap’s old blue truck pull up the driveway.  This was a lucky event, as I was just thinking I needed a friend.  When he opened the door, he smiled across the gravel and waved.  I began lifting my hand when I felt it.  I looked down to see a wasp on my fingers, then looked back at my Pap Pap.

I screamed.

He ran.  Toward me.

And this is why it is my favorite–

When he got to me, he did not say, “What did you do?”

He did not say, “Why were you sitting here where you could get stung?”

He did not say, “Stop crying.”

Instead, he picked me up and carried me.  He said, “It’s okay, I’m here now.  We are going to get help.  You are good.  You are so, so good.”

I was told later that I shouldn’t be sitting there on the fabric, anyway.

I would get stung a hundred more times if I could be carried like that each time.

kidshammockWe were leaving South Bend, Indiana, heading toward Kelsey’s house.  We split ways with my Someone’s parents, his poor mother and I still itching from our stings.  Otherwise, it’d been a good week.  We played great shows, ate good food, were healthy, happy, and had the day off.

And I felt terrible.

“I never should have taken us on that hike,” I said to my Someone.

“It was a great hike!”

“Except that I stung everyone at the end,” I said.  “This is what I get for not talking to my parents.”

My Someone exploded.

“You are GOOD!” he yelled.  “We probably would’ve been stung, anyway!  Mallory, you are allowed to sit on the fabric by the garage!  You didn’t do anything wrong!  Your parents keep moving the finish line!  You don’t have to run, anymore!”

I thought about it.

“I think my sting is getting better,” I said.

“I think so, too.”

Saint Kesha: On Hearing Our Prayers.

“Oh, praise baby lord god jesus of heaven and hell!” I said as we threw in the last of our laundry.  It was 8:34PM, four minutes past last load, and we’d made it by the grace of the attendant alone, even as her boyfriend who waited outside in his car tried to block us.

“It’s gotta be in at 8:30, you can’t come in here!” he’d yelled across the lot as my Someone ran the load inside yelling back “I got 8:30 RIGHT NOW!”

We were feeling haggard from long drives and quick errands, trying to maintain a sense of balance in a more chaotic week.  That morning in Indiana, we’d bought ourselves a new mattress with real springs to replace our lumpy pad we’d slept on for the last four years.  We picked up new sheets with llamas on them after our show in Ohio to replace the holey ones my mother had bought us at the start of our camper living.  We needed all things new.  We needed all things put together.  We needed all things clean.  And dammit if some dude who wanted his girlfriend out of work early tonight was going to stop us.

I watched the washer fill with water as my eyes filled with tears.  The woman beside me did the same.  Then she turned to me and said, “Lord, there ain’t no feeling like getting to the laundromat in the nick of time.”  Then she wiped her own tears and sat down to wait.

laundryIn the aftermath, I listen to Kesha.  And I am in the aftermath.  This time, of my parents.  After years of trying, after pleas of asking them to love me– or at least to call me– they pulled the plug.  There was a scene, there was crying, and there was my father telling me he’d never call me again and slamming to door to get to church on time to worship the Lover of the World.  There’s more to it, but in this stage on this day, the details don’t seem to matter.  My parents have broken up with me, and the searing in my heart needs Kesha.

We listen as she sings for kids with no religion, backed promptly by her prayers.  She sees no conflict, so I don’t either.  As far as I can tell as we charged across I-80 from Indiana to Ohio, Saint Kesha of the Broken Hearted Party Bus can be heard by God better than any of us.  All aboard.

queenI’m working it out.  I journal.  I talk to friends.  I write songs.  I try to treat others better.  But also, I get a new mattress.  I quit punishing myself for being unlovable, and instead love myself, hoping to set off a chain reaction.  And I watch my llama sheets gratefully as they swirl around in the last load of the night in a crappy laundromat outside of Cleveland, and count my stupid blessings.

“Are you looking for your basket?” the woman asked me.  I wasn’t, but I nodded anyway.

“When you stepped out,” she said, “there was a spider.  Like a big one– you didn’t want to take it home, okay?”

She gestured across the floor.  I looked to where she pointed.  There was a massive spider, legs up and a little squished.

“It was heading right toward your basket when you stepped out, so I moved it, and then we killed it.  I’m telling you, you were bound to take it with you, and I wouldn’t let it happen.  So I moved your basket.”

“Thank you!” I said, genuinely.

“Yeah!  Of course, but you owe me something in return,” she said.


“Your prayers.”

“Ummmm…” I started.

“Listen,” she pushed, “I got a whole list.  God’ll know what you’re saying, but let Her know that She can throw in anything extra, too, outside the list– okay?”

I considered it.  I didn’t think that I prayed.  I don’t even think I looked like I pray.

…I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m fucked up… Kesha sang in my head.

“Yes,” I said.

“Yes?” the lady said.

“Sure, I will.”

“Thank you,” she said.

That night, I slept on a new mattress with clean sheets.  It wasn’t a great night of sleep.  I had a Kesha soundtrack running through my head.  But I suspect an intercession– Saint Kesha of the Orphaned, Abused, and Laundering was heard louder somewhere than a few diligent Our Fathers.

Zoe’s Tigers: On Counting.

I am having hindsight compulsions.  I guess that just means regret. But its recurring, and I am stuck at inaction each time.  I am frustrated, mostly, by turkeys.

It started in November.  A rafter of turkeys gobbled themselves across the road in front of my littlest– and at the time only– dog on our walk back to our temporary Vermont house.  I talked to her smoothly as she and I both restrained her from running them wild.  It wasn’t until they beat the crest of the hill that I remembered:  I was supposed to count the turkeys.  The remorse was somewhere deeper than I’d wanted to uncover, so I wrote it down when we got back.

Why don’t I count the turkeys, anymore?

Then, I continued to forget in all the months since.  And the forgetting gets wider and deeper.  I am moved to count the whitetail deer beside the highway a good half mile past.  I am harnessing a fabricated memory for the number of ravens that sat on my picnic table that morning while I’m sitting at that same table in the afternoon.  But for the life of me, when I see them, I do not will myself to count them.

I’ve called it growing up.  I’ve called it being responsible.  But it’s really the opposite.  Just like toilet paper and tigers.

fearI suspect Zoe to be a future vegetarian.  From naming her chickens so they can’t be killed, to defending the cricket that the chickens foraged, all four years of her seems predestined as her bleeding heart leaks from her wide blue eyes.

We were staying in her driveway– she and her older brother Zeke showed us their Legos and their make up kits while we had a rare extended visit with their parents.  We are fortunate to be mobile, dropping in on people’s lives and being able to fully absorb their patterns.  Although Zoe’s compassion is evident within minutes.  She moseyed around the Western North Carolina property in her rain boots and pajamas, digging up bugs and worrying about whether their dog needed another toy to be happy.

Zoe reminds me of me.  Or, at least, how I used to be.  These days I’m all business and learning the hard truths about how the world really works.  But our short stay with Zoe changed me, as it seems to be changing everyone around her.

“Zoe needs me to figure out a new toilet paper situation,” her mom, Amanda, said to me while she poured my coffee.  Living in this family means that you never have a need un-met– and often it’s met before you ask.

“Toilet paper…?”

“Yeah, she just learned that the toilet paper people are using is being made from trees that are the habitat for tigers.  And the tigers are losing their trees, which means they are dying,” Amanda said, as matter-of-factly as Zoe must’ve reported.

I tried to process this as the caffeine hit.

“Poor ZoZo,” I said.

“Yeah.  She asked me to just call the people who are cutting down the trees and tell them to stop it so the tigers can live.”

Of course.

It made so much sense.  Someone is getting hurt.  All you have to do is ask the people who are doing the hurting to stop.  For a minute, I was convinced– can you Google that phone number?  Is it a letter writing situation?

The coffee came in full force.  I excused myself to the bathroom.  In there, I was confronted by the toilet paper that is killing the tigers.  That was using to kill the tigers.

It’s hopeless.  And then I felt myself trying to forget about the tigers.  All my compassion shriveled up to wipe my own ass with.

Then I remembered how I forget to count the turkeys.

feedthefishI am frustrated to find out that I am a grown up, and that I am still as helpless to save anyone as when I was a kid.  It’s all a sham.

When I was a kid, I counted the turkeys.  I counted the deer.  I counted the squirrels and the groundhogs and the baby rabbits.  I counted everything that could potentially be struck by a bullet by my family.  Occasionally, particularly with groundhogs or bunnies, I’d beg for their lives.

“When you’re older, you can save all the bunnies you want,” my dad said.  “But under this roof, we shoot them so they stop eating our house.”

I’m 33 now, but I still can’t save any bunnies, let alone call someone about the tigers.  So, I stopped counting them.  But it’s a bigger loss than I’d thought.  It seems in not counting the creatures who are helpless to help themselves, I’ve stopped counting myself.

treeMaybe it goes like this–

I will let the toilet paper make me sad.  I will count the turkeys, anyway, knowing that they will be someone’s dinner on Thanksgiving.  Because even if I am helpless, maybe it helps to have a voice in all of the callousness.

If I can remember to count three deer– one doe and two fawn– on the side of I-40 heading West through North Carolina, then I am more likely to remember the one mother and two children trying to cross an international border to safety.

Excuse me, we need a grown up!  Something is wrong, something is wrong, something is wrong…

It’s a small step, but an important one.  Any four-year-old knows that.

Wildflowers: On Grief.

We’ve been singing a song about my dead dog lately, and it’s a real doozy.  It took us months to work up to performing it live, with starts and stops of lumpy throats and staring at the ceiling.  Now, we can get through it fine most of the time, and leave the feelings for the audience.

And our audience is feeling it.  They are replacing our dog in the song with ex-husbands and dead wives, their own dogs or their parents, and sometimes their children.  It’s a world of grief out there, and we are grateful to be the ones facilitating a catharsis if it’s needed.  The conversations following the show are similar.

“You never stop missing them,” they will say.

“We never do,” I say, not sure whose loss we are speaking of.

“And they are always still there,” they will say.

“It’s true,” I say, and then add something I think is wise, “the grief never goes away.  It’s just a space you learn to work around, occasionally bumping into.”

“Yes,” they say.  And then, they are gone, bumping into the grief space on their way out the door.

magsbuttholelessBut maybe it isn’t like that at all.

When our friend Josh died, it was sudden and intentional, and we were speeding to Chattanooga late at night to catch a funeral we never imagined we’d attend.  At the funeral, the space of grief widened as we listened to a recording of Tom Petty singing–

You belong among the wildflowers…

I don’t listen to Tom Petty, anymore.  Maybe it’s more than an empty space.  Maybe it’s a black hole, sucking up those songs and next day hangovers and lit candles into a mass of memory you have to work very hard to avoid getting caught in again.

Last month, we watched our friend Thomas direct a choir of children at his school in a medley of songs ranging from Beyonce to Jerry Garcia.  When they sang Wildflowers, I tensed.  I thought about leaving.  I thought about covering my face.  Instead, I cried.

Grief is a space you bump into on occasion– a space you work around.  It is also a black hole, sweeping you down a long tunnel of old church pews and a mother bent over her son’s coffin.  Grief is also a room, lit brightly, that you choose to enter and walk through again and again, changing the flowers in the center table vase before closing the door again on the other side, occasionally with a choir of children or a little folk band guiding you in and safely out again.

I Was Here First: On Belonging.

In Maine, you’re either from here, or you’re from away.  Those that are from here have no trouble telling you you’re from away.  In fact, they will likely tell you before your first sip of beer, as they are already on their second pint.  They don’t care that it was your grandparents who first settled here.

“It can’t happen in just a generation or two,” John told me down in Cornish, a small town in the Southwest corner.  He’s owned his music store there that we played last Saturday night since 1974.  “You’ve got to have had family here for much longer than me.”  Charlene, his wife, is from here.  She inherited her grandparents’ house, who worked hard for it after their parents settled here.  Marriage is not a transferable ticket for being-from-here.

I don’t belong anywhere, but Maine is one of my favorite states.  I’ve had long dreams of becoming a waitress in a diner someday when I’m hard on my luck and need a place to recover in solitude.  I’ve got a bad attitude and nothing to lose, and potentially a dark secret that the town can only wonder… but, hell, if I ain’t a good worker.  In that alternate life, I don’t contest that I don’t belong there.  It’s part of the a-stranger-comes-to-town narrative.

But I don’t need anyone to tell me so.

netsIn Bangor, we woke up in a movie theater parking lot in hopes of catching an early showing of the latest superhero movie before our show that night in Ellsworth.  I love superheros, but I’m late to the game.  I didn’t grow up in Batman pajamas, or even attempt to care about Saturday morning cartoons that contained anyone with a flimsy mask and a cape.  I didn’t belong there.

Until someone told me I belonged.

By my late twenties, I’d taken to reading graphic novels– but only the kinds about the oppression of women in Pakistan, or the illustrated retelling of the life of Margaret Sanger.  You know, important stuff.  Stuff that didn’t group me into the nerd category.

My comic-curiosity appeared to my friend as a cry for help.  So one night, after babysitting his cute kid, he handed me the start of the New 52 Wonder Woman series.

“Just try it,” he said. “I think it might be what you’re looking for.”

“Oh, I don’t really do comics,” I said.

“You will.”

I came back the next week, strung out from lack of sleep and asking for more.

“This stuff is for everyone,” Justin said, checking his stash to see what else he could entrust with me. “You belong here.”

timeIt goes like this–

I spent half of my childhood laughing at jokes, some I didn’t know the meaning of, because it is good to laugh, and laughing makes me part of something.  Until I was told that the joke isn’t for me.  In fact, the joke is on me.

I then spent my next two decades holding my laughter carefully, just in case it wasn’t meant for me.  I scan the jokes in the ridges of my brain, ensuring its intent, its audience, its landing before letting out what is now a deflated, dissatisfying chortle.

It also goes like this–

As a kid, I am generous with my tears.  I dole them out for other peoples’ parents splitting up, for the evening news, for the broken robin eggs on the sidewalk.  I name and write poems for the dead German Shepherd I found on the railroad tracks.  I am an endless source of empathy.  And then I am told that it’s not mine to carry.  That I am too sensitive.  That I don’t belong with those who are grieving, because the grief isn’t mine.

I then spent the next two decades churning each devastation carefully inside, allowing it to filter through the cogs and see if I have any right to elicit a single tear.  I hear myself say, “I’m sorry to hear that,” but feel nothing inside.

There’s a traffic jam of feelings inside, and they are separating me further from anywhere I might belong.

keepoutI am calling bullshit on belonging.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

I suspect this isn’t just for the benefit of those who are rejoicing and weeping directly.  You are laughing or crying, too?  You belong here.  You’re laughing and crying because you haven’t been given adequate tools or space to express your empathy for decades for fear of making a fool of yourself and being outcast?

Oh, yeah, you definitely belong.

I do, too.

sexiststuffThere’s a funny scene with a taco and a spaceship in the new superhero movie.  I laughed so hard I got a popcorn kernel caught in my throat.  I didn’t have to assess if there was more to the joke or not.  Taco spaceship physical comedy is hilarious no matter who you are.

Two nights later, just before our show in Stockholm, Maine, my Someone told me that one of my favorite Christian social defenders died at 37.  I took the news stoically, beginning to assess the appropriate reaction for someone who I don’t know personally.  I tried to measure my grief to the correct ratio compared to, say, her grieving husband and children.  I scrolled Twitter to find out how others, more worthy than me, were responding, so I could respond to a lesser degree, being that I am not a Christian, nor a regular Tweeter.

Then, I stopped and just felt sad.  With everyone else.  If you’re feeling sad, too, you belong here.

We trudged downstairs to the bar for dinner, where a from-here man sat next to me, talking to the guy next to him.  I chewed slowly and read my book, their conversation getting louder and drifting onto my pages.

“You’re not from here, are you,” the Maine man said.  It wasn’t really a question.

“Well,” the other man said, “no, I’m from Connecticut, but…”

The Maine man laughed audibly and shook his head.

“…but!” the Connecticut man said, “I’m 60 years old!  I think I’ve been around long enough to learn just a little bit…”

It was too late.  The Maine man finished his second pint and turned straight ahead.  The conversation was over.

He looked my way.  I stared steadily at my book.  According to him, I wouldn’t belong either.  He hollered to the bartender in a familiar way, lurched from the barstool and left.  An ease replaced his space.

So maybe it goes like this–

Belonging here is to laugh and cry.  But sometimes, it’s just to take up space at the bar with whoever else is there.  It seems that those who are busy deciding who belongs and doesn’t belong squeeze themselves out of belonging themselves.  Even if their great-great-grandparents were here first.

The Top 5 Saddest Things: On How Much I Am Loved.

My Someone keeps a mental running tab of the things I say that make him feel sorry for me.  He calls it The Top 5 Saddest Things Mallory Has Ever Said, and takes the opportunity to recite it when I am sick and pitiful and down on my luck.  The recent list, in ascending order from least to most sad, went like this–

5. “I don’t belong anywhere.”

4.  “Since my mom doesn’t call me anymore, I sometimes pretend she is trying to tell me she loves me through the books she lent me.”

3.  “Even though we just ate lunch, my belly rumbles because I am future hungry.”

2. “If I only had four wishes, I would spend a wish on a hotel room tonight that doesn’t smell like cigarettes.”

1. “Sometimes in the bath, since we can’t afford bubbles, I just make the bubbles with my butt.”

I like the recitation for at least five different reasons, because they remind me:

5.  …that I belong somewhere when I am with my Someone, and that my future belonging is mysterious but certain.

4.  …that I am working on my relationships even if they are hard.

3.  …that someone is tending to my hunger, and that my hunger is not a threat to my life.

2.  …that I am able to take care of my body in ways that are bigger than the bare minimum, anymore.

1. …that I am not as poor as I used to be.

scottGuess how much I love you?  Guess how much I love youuuu?

I was standing over a boiling pan of curry in Kelsey’s kitchen, cooking dinner with my Someone while Kelsey’s almost-three-year-old watched an adorable program in the next room.  It’s a cutesy tune they sing at the end, and one that had been catching our brains in repetition for hours after.

I checked the rice while my Someone stirred the curry, when my Someone started humming, then singing–

Guess how much I love you?  Guess how much I LOOOOVE you?

Something in me rattled, and then burst like water pipe after a long, cold winter–

“I don’t want to guess anymore!” I cried, “I’m tired of guessing!  I don’t want to guess anymore how much, or even if anyone loves me at all!  Why can’t they just tell me?  Why can’t you just tell me how much you love me?!”

My Someone turned to me, surprised.  Then, he hugged me.

“One,” he said, “sometimes I just make the bubbles with my butt.  Two, I don’t want to guess how much you love me…”

“It made the list,” I said, relenting.

“It definitely made the list.”

I guess that’s how much he loves me.