The insufferable Marin Power Mom, bedecked in high-end technical fabrics and $200 running shoes, is doing plyometrics while barking orders at her two sons playing their iteration of something approximating bocce ball. Rather than play with them or join them in the merrymaking, she does burpees, cardio kicks and squat-knee-slap jumps (there's no doubt a better descriptor), demarcating her Self-Care. This exorbitantly overpriced 48 hours is her time too! Her Apple Watch and premium Fitbit Versa securely adorn her wrists, measuring her steps, her successes, her self-worth. She monitors her metrics more than her children, one senses, not just now but most hours of most days.
"Yes, Bryce!" she shrieks (oblivious to the post-vaccinated person, namely me, 30 feet behind her on a patio attempting in vain to meditate, having carved out a corner of should-be silence in a sublime setting at 7:30a for the first time in what feels like ... eleven months). "That's a great strategy -- you want to knock his ball away from the yellow** ball, so your ball is closer!"
It's never too soon -- her boys appear to be four and six -- in this privileged pocket of the world to foster an unhealthy sense of competition. To show who's who is boss. Ignoring the gyrating mother's coach/control/ing, the boys eventually start throwing the balls at one another. I'm admittedly pleased enough with this inevitable turn of events to pause my Insight Timer so I don't miss the teaching moment (for the mother of course, not the boys). With this development, however, she is perturbed, not because they aren't properly mastering the sport by heeding her helpful tips but because she has to cut her workout short.
Stomping through the wet grass, she grabs the older one's sleeve and frog marches them to the resort office where she loads up on "complimentary" coffee, continuing to fill the hole that is her soul with something outside herself, having long since cordoned off the funny, engaging chi within -- along with the perfectly imperfect human that created these two beautiful children.
**She meant pallino ball.
/// Flip side ///
How's That Working For You?
She'd been up most of the night again, unable to quiet her monkey mind. Her younger son had crawled into bed with her at some point, a no-no at home but she was too exhausted on this, her first "vacation" as a single mom, to object. Instead, she stared at the ceiling, afraid to move lest she wake him up. Limbs akimbo. Frozen and fretting. After 10 years of sleeping/not sleeping with her sons' father, she was not yet accustomed to sleeping/not sleeping without him.
This weekend respite was designed to offer solace to her boys, to let them know they could and would be okay because mom could and would be okay. Her therapist had repeated the research findings gently -- if the mother tanks post-divorce, the children will follow suit. The word behind the words, that she was beginning to hear everywhere, was that the children of non-intact families irreversibly swerve off into some trajectory other than overachieving student athlete and this, too, would be her fault. Everything would be her fault.
Never mind that her soon-to-be ex had been depressed for ten years. Never mind that he had not initiated sex for the last two years of their ostensibly perfect union. He was too tired, too sad, too stressed, too ... self-absorbed. He could take it or leave it. She could not. Leave it, that is. She had her theories, including but not limited to his eggs having been scrambled by a controlling, nightmare-of-a-mother, whose addiction to painkillers and elder anorexia were topics not to be discussed. Ever. That his mother treated his father like a servant (a pattern he was destined to repeat in their marriage) was likewise off the table, even during their half-hearted attempts at couples counseling.
Last week during EMDR, she was instructed by her therapist to imagine him as a young boy, afraid and alone despite being the youngest of five brothers. Imagine being raised in a family incapable of conveying warmth, vulnerability. In the movie in her mind, they were the cast of Ordinary People.
This helped her feel compassion towards him for up to 24 hours, until he would invariably pull a prick move, like refusing to pay his half of their sons' therapy.
"You were the one who left," he texted, "You pay for the mess."
Her range of possible responses to that text were obsessively occupying her thoughts when her older son, Auden, who had just turned six, wandered into the bedroom from his assigned pull-out couch. It was before first light, but she again gave in. She felt like she'd been hit by a Mack truck, despite assiduously abstaining from alcohol and sugar -- which didn't mix well with her cocktail of antidepressants and psychotropics designed to drag newly divorced people through the morass that would be Their Lives for at least three years.
The only way she would survive this day as a single parent would be by way of a lot of caffeine and what had become her half-assed, pathetic workout, a kind of Jane-Fonda-meets-Richard-Simmons routine she was relegated to doing for 20 minutes while the boys, God willing, occupied themselves in a way that didn't involve turning household objects into weapons or someone losing an eye.
She managed to belt half a cup of truly horrific coffee, get the boys dressed and herd them out the door into the pristine resort property, replete with Buddha statues and olive trees. They sprinted to the bocce court before she could object. Yes, it was early, but this was yet another battle she would forgo that day, saving her limited stores of energy for later, when they would be hangry, overtired and overtly hostile, missing their father.
She was sure they were alone when, about halfway through her one-armed burpees, she noticed the pinched, older woman shooting daggers at her -- no small feat, given that she appeared to be meditating.
How's that working for you? her sardonic self wanted to ask.
Instead, she was formulating her apology when Auden pelted Bryce in the chest with a ball, point-blank range.
Glancing over her shoulder as she ushered them quickly to the office, having remembered the free life force that is more and better coffee awaited her there, she hoped to make a connection by way of contrition with the meditator, whose eyes were now covered with a sleep mask.
"If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community. Something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That's what I think a meaningful life is -- living not for oneself, but for one's community."
Preparing a "go bag" is an exercise I highly recommend. Edifying. Illuminating. All the things.
We get to do it annually in Sonoma County (or so it seems).
We don't need much, it turns out, to live our best lives.
In fact, shedding that which we don't need is not only healing but liberating. Goodbye to the ...
More tk ...
Week 5 Artist's Way w/ 20 beautiful souls, most of whom are from SoCal and know from fires and evacuations. It's the week of "The Art of Possibility" when all things in our world seemed less possible. I'm using the same book I had in 1995 when my marginalia included notes from my ex. We did it together. It was integrating and healing to remember there was a time when our dreams, our marriage, our lives were limitless. And still we are coparents, doing our level best.
Also, this is the night before my middle daughter launches to NYC ... her true north. I'm feeling a confluence of emotions to say the least. She won't sleep tonight. She will be okay. And for THAT, I exhale in gratitude.
Week 8 prompt: "Design a t-shirt. What would it look like and say?" asked our mentor, mining for story gold.
Mine, it turns out, has already been designed. Three stripes. Blue on top, yellow in the middle, red below. C’mon. You know the one. Say it with me. The Police: Synchronicity Tour, 1983. July 23, 1983 in my case. Comiskey Park, Chicago, Illinois.
It was the zenith of my high school experience. I was a junior. I had nice, if not semi-unhinged, friends. I had inconceivably big hair.
We got dropped off by our relieved, unsuspecting parents at 9a – “See you at midnight!” Whitney Drury's mom called out, parade-waving.
“Excellent!” we responded, stolen alcohol from the adult’s cabinets buried in our purses to be consumed by 9:30a before entering the park.
What WERE we thinking? We were thinking we were on top of the world (despite our unfortunate, just-above-the-knee acid wash cut off shorts, sequins headbands and aforementioned bad hair). We were thinking we could dance inappropriately with boys we would know for up to 14 hours. Mitzvah.
The park was so packed that we moved, shoulder-to-shoulder as if underwater, soothed, held. We’d found our people. We’d endured the trials and tribulations of high school, made mistakes, large and small … but we were HERE.
Ensconced. Embraced. Loved. By Sting.
His current ran through us, electrified us -- a coaxial cable from his voice to our starved, adolescent souls. He knew we knew ALL the lyrics and were feeling ALL the FEELs.
We were that delusional. And delirious. Deliriously happy.
This was before we may or may not have dabbled with doing mushrooms in college for live shows.
Before our fantasy bubbles burst and we lined up jobs, husbands, mortgages, adaptive coping strategies. Before we had --- then curated and very likely helicopter/snowplowed over and under-parented -- our children, only to then have to set them free in this brave new hellscape world.
Yesterday, while running to my favorite Police radio Pandora station, Every Breathe You Take came on. Metronomic music and footfalls marking time. I was doing my monthly 10k in honor of my coworker who died from COVID-19. She was only 43, a mother, wife, friend and public servant who spent the lion’s share of her days and nights serving domestic violence and sexual assault victims. She asked to have the COVID test twice and was denied … she took her last breath in March.
The co-worker who organized the virtual run set it up so we could raise money for the cause, get a medal and a Run Fierce tank top, which, alas, has become my new favorite. I think Sting would be okay with the synchronicity of it all.
The Week 7 writing prompt was to select a fruit or vegetable you identify with, and all the ways you are like it. Have fun!
A coworker once had a sign on her desk that said “You can’t please everyone all the time. You are not an avocado.”
I belly laughed when I saw it – TRUE THAT! – but deep down, I considered the fact that I’ve always tried to be … had to be … the avocado.
A versatility player … infield, outfield, pitcher, catcher. Shit, I’ve gone through life trying to sell concessions, take tickets and play short stop … simultaneously.
Student-athlete-over-achiever-comprehensive-pretender was my default so why would fruit-that-presents-as-vegetable be a problem?
You see avos, hard on the outside and soft and soothing on the inside, are nothing if not contra-indicated.
They present as firm but flexible enough to adapt to any challenge: breakfast, lunch or dinner.
And yet … we all know they can fail epically … the strange strings, the dark spots, the unpredictable, incongruent consistency, even though they called out to you as PERFECT at Trader Joes.
Avos, then, are nothing if not surprising. We have that in common.
Like the time I got arrested for resisting a peace officer six hours after crushing the LSAT. (In my defense, my prefrontal cortex was still a work in progress, or in avo-parlance, I was not quite ripe.)
Or the time when I blew up my ostensibly Rockwellian marriage.
What is hidden beneath that deep green, outer casing, the cave-person must have wondered, before slicing it open to find the treasure within?
One never knows –- and that’s surely the point, the magic and the mystery of the avocado – and me.*
* And all women.
The assignment is to list all the hats we wear or have worn and write about each of them.
To start, the list:
Mother of three amazing young women -- 17, 19, 21
Wife of the love of my life ... we were meant to be
Fallen woman ... see aforementioned love of my life
Ex-wife of the father of my daughters ... kind person, good dad, wrong husband, so sad
Stepmother of two young adults ... one of whom acknowledges my existence
Daughter of four people ... each complicated, three dead
Daughter-in-law ... of two exceptional humans, ensconced in their RI assisted living facility, in the seventh decade of their marriage
Half-sister of two, possibly four ... or more, can't be sure
Sister-in-law ... of twelve exceptional humans
Cousin ... of countless
Auntie ... of more
Friend ... of those who are family to me
Former friend ... of those who were not
Advocate ... for women and children and victims experiencing homelessness
Colleague ... of like-minded, passionate souls
Attorney ... for twelve years, specifically ... and forever, generally
Neighbor ... to kind people with whom we are aligned (at last, never moving) and who, unbidden, drop off books and plums and wood for the campfire
Reader ... of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, news
Rabid fan ... of live music (Brandi Carlile, Gregory Alan Isakov)
Dancer ... in a past life, on a football field and basketball court in myriad Big 10 venues; aspiring salsa and swing -- if only
Writer ... it's in me and it has to come out, as a friend once observed
Blogger ... this blog and others, more and less private
Editor ... (currently) of the friend's client's memoir and the husband's book proposal
Producer ... of a short documentary ... and (hopefully) a longer biopic
Figure skater ... for a decade, before and after school, five days a week, with competitions throughout the midwest on the weekends, while mother smoked outside
Figure skating teacher ... of aspiring students ages 5 - 80, at the University of Illinois Ice Arena
Bartender ... in college
Overnight domestic violence shelter monitor ... in law school
Court Appointed Special Advocate ... for abused and neglected children, in law school
Girlfriend ... I was a serial monogamist, until I wasn't, at age 45 -- having been invisible for what seemed like an eternity
Student ... lo all those years
Cubs fan ... all weathers
Aspiring bilingual person
Yogini ... since 1996
Yoga teacher ... for a decade, when my daughters were young and I needed connection, movement, sanity
Morning meditator ... single-focus-challenged, but well-intentioned
Hoarder ... of NYT Magazines (for the crosswords) and Book Reviews (for the writing/recommends)
Adopted child ... having recently read in the Times that "Family is not defined by blood but by commitment and love"
NOW Board member ... in Chicago, 1993 - 1996
Legislative aide ...
Legislative liaison ...
Campaign volunteer ... for John Stroger, the first Black Commissioner on the Cook County Board, 1993 ... and for Obama for Senate 1996
Vegetarian chef ... I usually make it up
Vegan chef ... when the three vegan daughters grace me with their presence
Voxy mama ... we are a posse of sisters, who bare our souls thanks to an app
Runner/surfer/cyclist ... most early mornings
Grateful woman ... for this life of hats, worn or put away, cherished nonetheless.
Week 3 Prompt:
What needs to be illuminated?
(What do you want to bring into the light?)
What needs to be illuminated is the secret beauty in the heart of every soul.
To cope with the fact that our country is a hellscape of political, racial and economic division and derision, I meditate in the morning. Ya know, to gird myself for what is to come that day. I'm white, so it won't be that bad, but it will still suck.
Tara Brach had me this morning, as every morning, with “Greetings.” When she says that, I know that she is talking only to me and/or that I'm her favorite, (: and that she can see into the brightest and darkest corners of my heart.
Today, Tara reminded me that if we could just see one another as we are seen in the eyes of the divine, we would not have war, hatred or greed. She was quoting Thomas Merton. Our biggest problem, Merton said, once we saw each other that way all the time -- where neither sin nor knowledge could reach the sacred core of reality -- would be that we would fall down and worship each other.
What an illuminated world that would be.
Merton was Catholic, but he was a Jesuit Catholic. Jesuits, as we know, were the academics and less judgy than the fire-and-brimstone men of the cloth.
Merton’s words struck a deep chord. If we could all just see the humanity, heart and secret beauty in one another, maybe we could heal.
Arya (we’ll call her) didn’t want me to go to the end of the parking lot and behind the storefront to see the RV in which she has been living for four years. She was ashamed. She’s a 55-year-old veteran, trans, black artist from LA* -- and a polyvictim. In other words, she’s the most interesting person I’ve met in months. She knows from racial injustice and oppression. She knows from sexual assault – twice (once while serving in our armed forces), and she knows from housing discrimination – three times (even in "progressive" San Francisco). Likewise, she knows from her most recent victimization, when the “property manager," a bigot to the bone, tried to unlawfully evict her, turned off her electricity and broke her wrist. He assumed she wasn't aware of her rights and would be afraid of him. He assumed wrong.
I met Arya on June 3, nine days after a murderer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes.
For her pain and embarrassment, I’m angry. For her lifetime of victimizations, I’m sad. I didn’t realize how sad until she shared the reason she can’t find a place to live in her RV is that it’s not “self-contained.” That’s a euphemism for the fact that she has to use a porta potty of sorts and dispose of the waste somewhere. The bathroom to which she usually has access has been closed due to COVID.
"It’s been hard,” she allowed.
For her humiliation and humility, I’m devastated.
When I was safely out of Arya’s sight line, I pulled the car over and wept.
For all of it. For our failure to take care of each other and her.
For our failure to vote and our voter suppression.
For our failure to see, honor and revere the secret beauty in the heart of every soul – especially hers.
* Facts changed. Composite, per usual on this blog.
The writing prompts in my Tuesday night story sanctuary to date:
Week 1: I missed the mark when ...
Week 2: What I want to know is ...
Week 3: What needs to be illuminated ...
Week 4: What I want to be filled with ...
My response to the Week 2 prompt:
What I want to know is what it would have felt like to look into his eyes. I can’t say I regret not knowing my birth father, but I do regret not knocking on his door in the summer of 1989 when I had the chance. I had gone to visit my law school roommate in Georgetown when we made the short trek to Salisbury, Maryland with her Airedale terrier, “Ella Bella,” in tow.
The decision, to knock or not to knock, would be made in real time. A lot was at stake.
I’d been told by my birth mother, Peggy, who was 16 in 1965 when she became pregnant with his child, namely me, that he had lied to her about his age. George told her, when he repeatedly came to the convenience store where she worked, that he was 21. He was not. He was 25.
He also, as it turned out, lied to her about his marital status.
“I’m pregnant,” she told him, four months into their “relationship,” if that’s what we are calling statutory rape.
“I’m married,” was his terse, shocking (according to Peggy) response. “And have two kids.”*
She never saw him again, save once, in a grocery store, years later.
“We pretended not to see each other in aisle five,” she allowed during our first meet up, when she patiently responded to my endless questions.
In what I flippantly and repeatedly refer to as my “CBS After School Family of Origin Special,” in month five of her pregnancy, when she started to show, Peggy's mortified parents sent her to a home for wayward teens run by nuns, where she was blamed, shamed and stigmatized. Picture Philomena, only worse. And in St. Louis.
It was the one topic she didn’t want to revisit or recount.
“It was just okay,” she said, which would explain my many late nights spent googling the phrase “intergenerational trauma.”
Once Peggy shared with me my birth father’s name, age and the name of his all-boys Catholic high school, it was easy to find him. I spent a decade in my first career chasing down deadbeat defendants, whether they were corporate magnates who made a habit of deceptive trade practices or ageist, racist, misogynistic employers who made a habit of being their worst selves. I knew how to access property, driving, financial, criminal and civil records, among other things.
I started this search process by going directly to the archdiocese library to purchase copies of George’s high school yearbooks – they had his sophomore and senior editions. The librarian was happy to help. Turns out I wasn't the first person who'd marched in there to unearth information about a birth father.
So when Rhonda, Ella Bella and I turned the corner onto a bucolic, serpentine road that traced its way around a duck pond surrounded by cattails, I was armed with the following knowledge about my bioDad: high school wrestler who took part in student government, had a second home in Coral Gables, Florida, was Dutch, Irish, lily-livered, looked like me. I had his exact address and the black Escalade in the driveway of the quaint Cape Cod house on the corner also matched my research. He was home.
I got as far as getting out of Rhonda's car while pretending to casually walk Ella Bella -- to get a closer look.
The Big Wheels in the driveway, wedged between his car and the garage, stopped me in my tracks. The Big Wheels, the sand toys, and the kiddie pool propped up on the side of the house. He had grandchildren. He was home, but not likely home alone. And although HE knew about me, THEY most certainly did not.
I could not, would not, did not knock.
Consequently, I never got to know what it would be like to look into his hazel eyes, to see or not to see, a reflection of me.
He died a few years later.
* I’m not positive about the timing of the two kids. This part of my conversation with Peggy is hazy. After he died, I spoke to his (very surprised) sister who resides in Illinois. She confirmed that I have two half-sisters – I’m just not sure if they are older or younger than me. It's hard to tell from their Facebook photos. I also know that his wife is still alive and bears a striking resemblance to Susan Sarandon ... and that his other sister resides not far from me in the East Bay. He told none of them about me.
Coach Carrie (we'll call her) hails from LA, so she is unabashed in the Zoom room. She likewise wants us to be shameless when we write our first thoughts/best thoughts for five-to-eight minutes in response to her writing prompts every Tuesday night.
We have no time to edit before sharing with the group, some of whom have performed one-woman shows in LA. One guy danced all over NYC in the 80s with Bob Fosse. One woman -- who has been a dear friend since 1985 -- is an A-list film editor. These writers are nothing if not comfortable with vulnerable.
Then there's me. I've been conditioned to be silent. I was once told over coffee "If you ever write about [your failed marriage/new relationship] again, I will not be your friend."
"Promise?" is what I should have said. Instead I groveled, "I won't."
"Although it would make a great screenplay in ten years," she allowed, just before organically fading out of my life.
That coffee was about a week before someone's proxy, who called herself a therapist, contacted my publisher and asked her not to publish me in her anthology. Thankfully, my publisher ignored her and called me.
"Do you know [this person]?" she asked.
"No, but I know who does," I responded. I keep meaning to mail the good therapist a copy of the book.
This was also about a year after the same someone contacted my employer to try to get me fired by way of false allegations. Thankfully, my boss, a small business owner, had walked in my shoes and understood Rumi's meet-me-in-the-field-of-no-judgment mandate. We empathized with the caller, but I got to keep my job which was great since the money I earned wasn't "extra." Rather, it put food on the table for our children.
It was also a year or so after someone else texted my now-husband: "Hey dude, get this worked out before ski week so we can ski together!" The same person texted me the following day: "I don't think we can be friends again ... BUT and this is a big BUT, people get sick and die. We'll see."
Since then, people -- like both of my parents -- got sick and died. We are still not friends. Because we never were. When I became a political liability rather than an asset, having presumably and catastrophically ended my first marriage, I was discarded. (He still sends the occasional breezy, funny text, whilst declining my Instagram follow request, thereby demonstrating a lack of courage and character.)
I wasn't allowed to feel angry, hurt, sad. Only contrition, humility, deep shame. I wasn't allowed to be human, fallible, vulnerable. Only flawed, selfish, blessed to just be banished from the kingdom, not drawn and quartered.
I was certainly not allowed to seek solace or sympathy in my zip code. "Try a support group well up the 101," my other former bestie said, just before calling everyone she knew to relish in my original sin and consequent anguish. After all, she had a job to do as the alpha. Her subsequent apology to my children ("I'm sorry I wasn't there for your mom") was swiftly retracted when I had the gall to write about my loss, my love, my journey.
Then there was the highly-medicated Marin mom, who asked that I not play Aimee Mann in my classes because it was "too triggering." She left the love of her life behind in Ireland, she told me, and chose to stay married to her "best friend." She made no bones about it: I should have done the same. (Too many assumptions to count.) Perhaps this is what she was thinking when she approached my daughter years later to let her know that she too had a "toxic, narcissistic mother," and would it be okay if she dropped a book off to her dad's house on the topic? My daughter, blindsided, declined her offer and called me. My ex had the sense (and grace) to take my call to discuss the damage wrought. He also declined this meddling mother's offer to drop off the bad-mother book. Her persistence was only eclipsed by her wholesale lack of self-awareness. Shout out to her -- the filterless harridan who made my daughter sob the night before her hardest final exam as a junior in high school.
Finally, one former friend never allowed me to apologize or explain, much less mend. Not even by phone. My actions cut too close to the quick, I suppose, for my former friend in a Marin shell marriage. She and I both know why.
"Emotionally constipated," is how one writer describes her.
And still, it took almost a decade (and moving out of the county) for the unresolved anger to come up and out onto the page.
But there it is.
* Details changed to protect the innocent/not innocent.
Here, I am a writer and change agent. Opinions: not vetted. Stories: my own.