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Archive for the ‘In the Moment’ Category


This last week we’ve seen two examples of parents facing something that no good parent can even dream of facing. I read about the child falling into the gorilla enclosure, and the toddler being taken by the alligator, and something in me recoils. I’m a fixer–“plan for the ‘what-if’s,” I’ve taught my son. I believe that. I believe in being careful, in planning ahead, and yes, even in padding the corners of the world for our children, at least until they’re steady on their feet and have a decent sense of self-preservation. I believe in that so deeply that many considered me over-careful–and yet never for one second have I regretted the pains I took. Even with all that, though, accidents happened. I felt awful, and worked all the harder to prevent the next one–and that there would be a next one I had little doubt.

The thing about accidents is that they come at us from random directions. By their very nature, they are accidental–things that happen that we never dreamed might. I believe in being careful. I also understand that accidents happen to even the best of us. And that’s why what I’ve seen unfolding in the comments sections of the stories covering these two tragedies has sickened me. Here are these parents who have just experienced something for which even I, with my passion for fixing things, can’t find a next step. What would I have done if my child had slipped away for a moment–only a moment–and devastation occurred? I don’t know. I can’t even imagine my next step. When I contemplate losing my child I realize that when his life stops, mine does, too. There is no next meal, next act, next step. There is only life with him in it, and then nothing.

Two sets of parents are struggling to find their way through something so terrifying in one case, awful in the other, that my mind shuts down at the very idea–and yet what I see in the comments section is all too often not supportive, empathetic comments, or even comments seeking to understand how such events might serve as teachable moments for the rest of us–hold on tighter, stay out of all water except in swimming pools while in alligator habitat–but blaming and shaming.

Why would we do this? Why would we figuratively “hit these parents while they’re down?” I think that some of the virulence can be attributed to  the form of religion many of the “perfect parents” who seem to be most vocal practice.

While there are many wonderful Christians, it’s hard to deny that Christianity has an ugly secret at its heart–it’s a religion custom-made for those who can’t stand the vagaries of life. It offers something it can’t deliver–the guarantee that God will watch over those whose worship habits are up to snuff, that good people will be rewarded with blessings, that tithe-payers will be rewarded with the treasures of heaven to such a degree their bank accounts can’t hold it all. This promise is called the “Wisdom Theory,”because it’s a formula found all through the Psalms and the “Wisdom” books–“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” for example. That Bible writers expected this to be the case is abundantly clear–story after story recounts instances of good people being rewarded and bad people punished. David often expresses anguish at the fact that even though he is a “righteous” man, his life all too often is in danger. “Why do the evil prosper?” he asks. Why indeed. And yet the Wisdom Theory still shapes the beliefs of millions. It’s often brought out at times like this to “explain” that the fact that this awful thing happened is “proof” that the parents failed God in some way.

The Wisdom Theory promises something it has never delivered–assurance that we can, by our own actions, keep ourselves and those we love safe. You hear it all the time: She was raped because she dressed provocatively, or she was in the wrong place at the wrong time; his kids went to jail because he left his wife; single mothers bring their hardships on themselves; poor people lost their homes in the financial crash because they lived beyond their means; the abused wife suffers because she has pushed her husband too far, spoken out of turn, burned the dinner. For those who believe in the Wisdom Theory, there can be no accidents. Every awful experience is earned by some failure in those going through it. They deserved it. Such a thing could never happen to us. We’re good people.

Alternatively, the “comforters” will assure each other (and the parents) that this devastation must be some part of God’s plan–that their child might have turned out to be a monster, so “God took him early.” The Wisdom Theory provides an illusion of control, the false assurance that we actually have control over not just our own behavior but the behavior of every one and every thing around us–that if we just love God well enough, and follow the rules slavishly enough, we can be guaranteed protection against all misfortune.

The thing that makes it so seductive is that to some degree we do shape our fates. We do need to be responsible for our own safety. But no matter how responsible we may be, we are all at the mercy of forces much greater than ourselves. None of us are all-knowing or all-seeing. Accidents happen. Accidents happen because we don’t have total control. They happen because we live in a world of intersecting chains of causes and effects, and sometimes those intersections can be dangerous, terrifying, and terrible places.

Here is the truth. The Wisdom Theory isn’t about life. It’s about power–about using emotional blackmail to coerce people into sometimes self-destructive or other-destructive behavior. It’s about coercing poor people to give money to religious institutions bloated with wealth–institutions who give lip service to “helping the poor” even while they exploit them. It’s about keeping slaves, wives, children, and the poor in their places, supporting the status quo, following the rules, not rocking the boat. The Wisdom Theory keeps the king safe on his throne, and the beggar on the street starving.

It’s time we relegated the Wisdom Theory to the dustbin of history, where it belongs, and follow instead another teaching found in Christianity–“Bear one another’s burdens.” It’s time to recognize that no matter our best efforts, we are all subject to the whims of fortune far more often that we would like to be. It means that rather than seeking to ferret out the grievous sin that made the loss of a child a suitable punishment, and then adding our own punishment to that, we instead recognize our common humanity, accept that those of us who have not faced such a loss are perhaps not so much better parents as just luckier, and then doing whatever we can to not ease the pain we see–perhaps no one can do that–but to not make it worse: to sit with the sufferers, hold them up, bring them food, love them and their children, do their laundry, vacuum and dust their houses, and perhaps, just perhaps, help them survive long enough to find their own way out of a very dark place.

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Photo on 12-24-15 at 12.10 PM #2aHere’s the thing–what with one thing and another in my life, I learned long ago that the future was uncertain. The corollary to that, of course, was that I had to take whatever immediate gratification was on offer. I have never had a substantial savings account. I have no 401k, or retirement savings. I can’t save for a vacation. I’ve always seen this as a disadvantage–and it has been. Not being able to believe in the future has meant that I have lived in the eternal “now,” and sometimes that was a nice place and sometimes it wasn’t. Moreover, my passage through “now” has been a bumpy road–lovely highs and terrifying lows, many of which might have been smoothed out by a little planning and foresight. And those are, regrettably, not within my skill set.

When I got the cancer diagnosis “now” was terrifying. I rushed around and did all the things that my “now” demanded–I made a will. I signed an advance directive. I signed a power of attorney. I added my son’s name to my bank accounts. I got the car ready for him to take his driver’s test. I paid the bills ahead. With the help of my amazing sisters I found a top-notch cancer treatment center and scheduled my surgery. With the help of my mom I found a ride up and back. With the help of local friends and some of my friends from back in my college days I’ve arranged for The Boy to get to school and back, and have company for the nights I’m gone, if he wishes it.

Then I was ready, and it wasn’t yet Christmas. And here’s where the gift of my “eternal now” comes in. Because I had done everything I could do, I was ready to go to the hospital. And because it had now been a couple weeks, the “now” of the diagnosis had faded into the past. The “now” in which I have lived the last two weeks has been great–we’ve had a lovely Christmas. We spent time together. I enjoy my work. I’ve been doing creative stuff (yet another uterus picture, since you ask–one that sent of of my son’s friends shying backward like a startled colt when he saw it yesterday, then provoked spasms of laughter). I like my clothes. My house is a mess, but that’s all right, sort of. I’m doing important things in my “eternal now.”

If I had the gift of foresight, this might be much, much harder. As it is, I know in theory that this might not turn out well–and so I’ve done whatever I can to hedge against that. Some of that creative writing I’m doing is stuff I want my son to have–stuff that I think he might find comforting and important if things go really, really badly. That’s the reason he’s now on the bank account, and the car’s ready as soon as he can take his driver’s test. That’s why we have a backup network of friends and family.

Things might go badly. I might die. But I’m not dying today, and chances are I won’t be dying for at least a few months–even if the very worst happens. So for me, in my “eternal now,” things are great, and I’m holding onto that.

I’m not stupid, even if I am shortsighted: I know things are going to be worse before they’re better. But for right now, they’re good. And I’m relishing that.

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Gladys_WilliamJ_ZimmermanSo tonight I’m making meatballs, bitterly regretting that I mixed up the whole danged package of meat because, let’s face it, you can only cook so many meatballs before the whole thing starts to get a little nauseating, and listening to Tig Notaro’s “Hello, I have cancer,” set for about the bazillionth time.

As she always does, Tig makes me think of my Grandpa, who was both a great storyteller, and a lifelong thwarter of Mr. Death.

Mr. Death and I have been having some conversations lately, what with the cancer diagnosis and the ongoing uncertainty about what stage I’m at–the CT scan hints at very, very, early, but I keep wondering–did they scan everything? Did they scan my armpits? I’ve got some weird warts there. How about my neck, jaw, and face? I’ve been prone to glandular swelling for years, and my non-smoker, non-chewer brother got salivary gland cancer when he was in his thirties. How about my brain? I know they didn’t scan my brain, and so far two or three of my dad’s ten sibs died of brain cancer.

Cancer’s an old frenemy around here–so far we’ve had brain cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, salivary gland cancer, pancreatic cancer, and thyroid cancer in my immediate family, and those are just the ones I can list off the top of my head. I know they scanned my torso, but what about all the other spots?

So Mr. Death and I, we’re talking these days. He’s saying he’ll get me, and I’m saying, don’t be so sure, and he’s saying I get everybody, and I say not when they’re in their fifties, and still have a kid who could use a mom for a while yet.

I feel comfortable sassing Death this way because sassing Death is also in my family. My grandpa and Mr. Death had several intense conversations, and until the last one Grandpa won every round. Mr. Death threw everything he had at Grandpa–black widows, stampeding cattle, loose concrete drainage tiles, a brain tumor, and a steep flight of stairs–and what did Grandpa do? He laughed in Mr. Death’s face. And then he made a story about it.

Mr. Death also had an unfortunate encounter with my great-aunt. Great-Aunt Pearl was old. She was blind and deaf. Most of her friends and peers were dead. Her family mostly lived far, far away. And so it was when the doctor palpated her abdomen and found a large mass Aunt Pearl opted to simply let nature take its course. She was old, lonely, and ready to go. Her family migrated home like salmon. They said goodbye. And then a few days later Aunt Pearl had the mother of all bowel movements.

The mass was gone. It was a miracle. But Aunt Pearl was still very much alive, and now her family had to figure out a way to tell her that she was likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. How do you tell someone who is Ready to Go that there’s been a delay? I don’t know what they finally did, but it can’t have been an easy conversation. As I recall, they were mostly worried about how pissed she was going to be at having Mr. Death stand her up.

Mr. Death’s one undisputed victory was probably Grandpa’s funeral. It’s a long story, which is best told with lots of voice impersonations, dramatic hand and body gestures, and funny sound effects, but the short version is that my uncle, who was videotaping the service, had a heart attack while he was taping. Since he was sitting down no one discovered this for far longer than I think any of us would have wished. When they did figure out what had happened things got very complex, very fast. My Dad and uncle administered CPR until the paramedics arrived, at which point everybody realized that there wasn’t room for all of Grandpa’s mourners AND the paramedics. Everybody picked up their chairs, went out in the hall, and waited for the funeral director to find them another chapel. Meanwhile, the mourners tried to sort out who would stay and bury Grandpa, and who would go to the hospital and support my aunt. It was a trying experience for all concerned.

Grandpa’s lifetime of survival stories, and most of all his funeral, changed my view of Mr. Death and how to handle him forever. I don’t know if this will work for other people, or only for families like mine, where we just plain can’t get the hang of dying gracefully, but here is what I know. Dark times come. You survive if you can. And then you make a story about it. If Mr. Death wins your round, you can know that somebody else will make a story about it.

I’ve been thinking about who will tell my story if Mr. Death gets the best of me. While I think some of my family would do a good job of it, there are others who, to put it kindly, would Not Photograph Me From My Best Side, so to speak. I don’t want them telling my story, I want to do it myself. This means I must make every effort to survive. I have to make sure  the voice impersonations, dramatic hand and body gestures, and funny sound effects get done right.

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Soraya Chemaly has written an excellent piece in the Huffington Post about Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break at the last presidential debate, and what it reveals about institutional sexism and the lack of respect for and understanding of women’s bodies, and what makes us human. Under normal circumstances I would perhaps nod, perhaps feel a twinge of fellow-feeling at the thought of Candidate Clinton having to stand in the bathroom line–something we women understand all too well. Who among us hasn’t pushed open the bathroom door, only to have our hearts sink at the sight of a long, long line of women and girls, snaking along the cubicle doors, past the sinks and towel dispensers, and sometimes out into the hall? Who among us hasn’t stood with an aching belly and crossed legs, terrified that our internal systems might fail us before we get into the stall and managed to get our pants pulled down far enough to pee without soaking ourselves? For women who have borne children–particularly for those who have borne several children–the problem is compounded.

There’s a case to be made about the sexism of our public spaces. But right now I read this piece with far more than a wince, because for me right now, and for thousands–perhaps millions–like me, this is more than just a matter of discomfort and quite possibly humiliation. It can be a matter of life and death.

For far too long, matters relating to “lady parts” have been dismissed as the sole province of women–the how and when of birth control and limiting childbearing is still seen as primarily a “women’s issue”–and conservatives have used shame, religion, and violence to strip women of the very tools they need to do those things effectively. Consider conservative statements about incest and rape, and their utter refusal to treat them as anything other than women’s responsibility, or God’s will. Childbirth as a result of incest is “beautiful.” Raped women gave “mixed messages,” or “dressed provocatively,” or let things progress beyond “the point of no return.” In other words, a victimized woman is to blame for her own victimization.

The answer in every case is, for conservatives, simple. Women must modify their actions to “protect” men from the reality of female bodies and sexuality–beyond the pleasure men derive from sex. Rape is okay–the baby that may result is the woman’s fault. It’s okay to make women pay for the processing of their own rape kits. Reporting a rape is often incredibly humiliating, starting with the questioning, moving on to the exams, and then, for those comparatively few bold women who persevere, facing the demeaning, patronizing faces of all too many legal professionals.

And it’s not just about rape and sex–there’s also the issue of menstruation. When I began the process four decades ago, the Tampax pads lived in a big box hidden back behind the gooseneck pipe under the bathroom sink–even though there were five women and only one boy living in our house for the vast majority of the time. Used pads had to be wrapped up like nasty little gifts and buried at the bottom of the trash can.

Girls were advised to avoid swimming and extremely strenuous activities while menstruating, but even in this there was a double standard. In my world, “strenuous activity” was defined as “strenuous recreational activity.” Farm work–lifting bales, hauling and toting all sorts of things, and walking miles and miles of fields was somehow not “strenuous activity.” It would be easy to excuse the men in charge of this labor because “they didn’t know.” And they didn’t, unless we women and girls were betrayed by our bodies–a flooded pad or tampon, cramps that doubled us over, blazing headaches. When that happened, when we were revealed as biologically female, the response was often impatience, combined with the suspicion that we were somehow using our femaleness to cadge undeserved breaks.

It’s not like that for every woman, but it was for me.

And then we had the whole religious thing. Women were cursed with painful childbirth (and by extension, periods) because Eve messed up. Women were responsible for not “leading men into temptation.” In my world, far too many of the men we encountered were pedophiles, so we started “not leading men into temptation” before we started first grade.We wore concealing clothing, since a hint of even pre-teen knees or breasts might turn men into ravening beasts. We didn’t wear makeup or jewelry because it was vanity to want to look beautiful. Our “beauty” was supposed to be “a meek and quiet spirit.”

For the record, the clothing didn’t work. The men in my world seemed to be “led into temptation” by remarkably little. What I remember most about the aftermath of those events is the corroding guilt, humiliation, and shame. A “nice man” had done something to me that “nice men” just didn’t do unless they were driven to it by the overwhelming reality of a female body.

Female reproductive health was something that we “didn’t need to worry about,” unless we were “doing things we shouldn’t be doing.” Even our uteruses were supposed to be good Christians–meek and quiet. Even now, after years of counseling, an ugly divorce from the “faith of my fathers,” and the birth of a child, the reality of my body both shames and eludes me.

All of this, perhaps, goes some way to explaining why I did a dangerous thing–and I did it because everything in our world–access to healthcare, attitudes toward women’s bodies, the force of conservative religion, even the very design of our effing public buildings, reinforces the desirability of “meek and quiet” as a female ideal. Here’s what I did: I went for seventeen years without having a pap smear or mammogram. And I did this in spite of the fact that I have a terrible family history of cancer.

In my family, lady parts are not “meek and quiet” unless they’re plotting something. Mine started bleeding–not all at once, just more and more, as the months passed. For the last four years or so, I have had about two months total when I wasn’t bleeding. I had no health insurance, and I was living very close to the poverty line, but a combination of just enough money to raise me almost out of poverty, the humiliation of acknowledging that I qualified for public assistance and my ingrained body shame made it easy for me to pretend that it was “just a bad period (for four years?), “peri-menopause,” “hormones,” “being fat.” Below all those “reasons” lay the unexamined, unbearable knowledge that my body was “disgusting”–it bled, it stank when that happened, and it kept me from traveling far from my own bathroom, where I had supplies to deal with the situation.

Because of my past, I lived in my head–I was a balloon, bobbing along at head level. And so I just ignored the messages that my unquiet, unmeek uterus was sending. But then something happened. My son reminded me of three things–that I have a body, that something was seriously wrong with it, and that he, for one, wanted to have me around for a while.

Which is not so say that he, too, had adapted to our circumstances. He has long been immune to shame at having to buy sanitary pads. From the time he has been able to work the credit card, he has fearlessly strode into Safeway, loaded up his cart with groceries and “lady things,” and checked out. I tried to time these things for when none of his peers were around, but the fact remains that he accepted that particularly reality as a fact of our life. I took care of disposal, because let’s face it, used sanitary pads are like snotty kleenex–you really should dispose of your own, but there have been times he’s dumped the bathroom trash with never a word about it being disgusting.

So when I developed a craving for ice and a sore mouth, when I managed to chomp up two big Safeway bags of ice in one week, he pulled up a chair and said, “Mom, something’s not right. You need to google this.”

Googling led to blood tests, which led to a pelvic exam, which led to a D&C, which led to a biopsy, which led to a diagnosis–uterine serous carcinoma.

I seem to be lucky. All those years of bleeding don’t seem to have been cancer-related (after all, all those excuses I gave myself hadn’t just been things I dreamed up–they actually do often contribute to out-of-cycle bleeding). The cancer seems to be a comparative newcomer. And if it weren’t for the ice, and my son, I still wouldn’t know about it.

The past few months have forced me to confront many of my own attitudes toward my body. I’m learning to understand that having a loud, sassy uterus can be a life-saver. I’m learning to accept the reality of my body as not just a good thing, but a necessary thing. I’m learning to treasure each and every minute with my son. I’m learning that I have a lot of really good friends, and some great family members, too.

Mostly, at last I’m learning to understand that I am a woman, with a woman’s body, and that if I love my son I have to not just be okay with that, but learn to love it–as much as I love him. I have to follow my uterus’ example and stop pretending that “meek and quiet” is okay when it means that people–including me–are being put at risk. I have to be honest about my own reality.

So Hillary’s long bathroom break? Not funny. Not something to sigh over. Not something it’s okay to say, “It was just the building” about. Because it’s more than just that building–it’s far too many of our buildings. It’s our schools, our churches, or government offices, our factories. It’s our buildings, and it’s what we’re still teaching our daughters and our sons in those buildings–that it’s okay that women be routinely, unnecessarily shamed, inconvenienced and victimized because of the reality of our bodies, that somehow we’ve decided that women should pay and pay and pay not for what they’ve done, but for who they are. It’s time that we’re honest with ourselves.

And in my case, it’s long past time that I made peace with my lady parts.

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“We’re going to the State Pen,” Dad said one night as he waited for Mom to finish filling his soup bowl and buttering his bread.

“The Pen?” my brother Matt asked. “What for?”

“We’re gonna chop their alfalfa. They didn’t get enough to bale, but they need to clear the fields so it doesn’t ruin the next cutting. We’re gonna do it. I’m gonna go talk to’em tomorrow about it; there’s a lot of restrictions.”

The next night at supper he was full details. “They didn’t want to let you girls in,” he told Mom, Sally, and me. “There haven’t been any women contract workers inside for over fifteen years—only the guards. But I told’em, ‘You haven’t met my girls. They’ll be fine. They’re my crew, and if they can’t do it, I can’t either.’ The warden talked to a few people, and they finally said it was okay, but there are some rules.”

“What rules?” asked Sally nervously.

“You can’t go into any building without a guard. There’s a bathroom in the dairy barn, but if you need to use it you have to get a guard first. No talking to prisoners. They’re not going to be allowed in the fields we’re cutting. There’s to be no contact. Absolutely none. And no provocative clothing.”

I wondered if he was joking. I was frightened at the very thought of being inside the prison compound, with no walls between me and thousands of dangerous men, and what with one thing and another our wardrobes were the very definition of ‘non-provocative.’

Still, though, Sally and I made a special effort. The day we started work at the Pen we dressed for the occasion by donning long-sleeved flannel shirts, buttoning them up to our necks and around our wrists, pulling bib overalls and then coveralls on, braiding our hair tightly, and stuffing it up under John Deer “gimme” caps. It would have been funny, if it weren’t over a hundred degrees out, and our trucks un-airconditioned. We were boiling hot, but we felt safer for our camouflage.

We drove our unlikely caravan up to the massive concrete walls and stopped at the heavily barred gates. Guards with guns stared down at us. Dad got out of the pickup and walked up to the guardhouse. Uniformed men carrying what looked like machine guns came out. They walked toward the trucks. I gripped the wheel nervously. Dad stepped up on the running board.

“They’re gonna search the trucks,” he said. “The scale’s outside the walls, so you’ll have to stop each time you go weigh, pick up a guard, have him ride to the scales with you, and drop him off on the way back. They have to be sure we’re not smuggling anything in.” I opened my door, dropped to the ground, and watched as the guard poked around in the dust, alfalfa leaves, and desiccated chopped corn that had accumulated under my seat. To my mortification, his probing turned up an unexpected mummified mouse. He sneezed, buried the mouse again, and backed out, satisfied. “It’s clean. Go on in.”

I hastily shoved the mouse corpse out the door with a gloved hand, then climbed back into my truck and pulled it into gear. The massive gates swung open and we chugged through, then waited for Dad to get back into the pickup and lead us to where the prison farm foreman waited. Men were everywhere. They turned as we drove in, gaped, and called to other men who came running and gaped, too. I pulled my John Deer cap down to my eyebrows and drove by, trying not to look at all the murderers, robbers, arsonists, and rapists. And around us all, on the high towers, stood the guards, staring down at us, machine guns at the ready.

We pulled up to the farm office. The warden came out, a gun holstered at his hip. He talked to Dad, who came back and told us, “Just follow the warden to the field. The bathroom’s in there—” he gestured to the dairy barn—“but you have to come here first and get a guard. Remember that. No going in buildings alone.”

Sally and I shook our heads. No, we wouldn’t go into any buildings alone. The murderers, rapists, arsonists, and robbers circled like sharks, keeping a safe distance, mindful of the guns overhead. Our caravan pulled out of the prison yard. Matt’s truck, pulling the bagger on the trailer, turned right and chugged out of sight around the dairy barn. Sally and I followed Dad and the warden’s pickups down a dirt road. The road wound out of the farmyard and past a massive gray building on the right. A huge yard, fenced with cyclone fencing and topped with tangled razor wire, ran beside the road on the left. Guards patrolled the perimeter. Inside men in blue denim shirts and jeans lounged, played basketball, and smoked. They looked up at the sound of our engines, stared, and ran for the fence.

“How do they know?” Sally asked, tugging nervously at her cap.

“I don’t know,” I answered, and tugged at my own, resolutely not looking at the crowd of men who now stood packed along the fence. We left the prison yard behind for a row of pigsties, then we were in familiar territory—fields. A cornfield came first, followed by a fallow field, and then the alfalfa field we would be cutting.

A man in a blue denim shirt and jeans drove a tractor in the fallow field. He stopped and stared as we drove by. Sally and I drove into the field and pulled up behind Dad, resolutely ignoring the man on the tractor. We unchained the chopper and Sally climbed into the high cab, fired it up, and backed it carefully onto the ground while Dad set the jacks and unhitched the trailer.

Matt drove up in the other truck, climbed into the idling chopper, shoved the throttle ahead, and we were off. Dad and the warden chatted by the field while we filled the trucks. The convict from the neighboring field climbed off his tractor and joined them. The three men talked until Sally’s truck was full, then the warden led her back to where the bagger was set up and Mom waited.

I pulled into the field and Matt filled my truck. I followed Dad’s pickup back to the bagger. Dad stayed to help Mom empty the trucks, and Sally, Matt and I were basically on our own. When I got back from dumping my truck I interrupted Matt and the convict from the fallow field, leaning against the chopper, talking. Sally said she saw the same thing. All day, Matt and the convict talked between trucks. When Sally or I showed up the convict hot-footed it back to his tractor. By the time we pulled up he was industriously tilling his field again.

The day heated. The alfalfa had been lying in the field for far too long. It chopped into a fine powder and coated us with light green-gray dust. The trips fell into a pattern: the fields, then the pigsties, then the prison yard with the watching men crowded along the fence, then the farm yard, then a wait if the guards were transporting a prisoner from the old prison to the new maximum security building, then the bagger—if the warden hadn’t asked for the load to be weighed—and then the whole trip in reverse. A guard rode with me the first time I took a load outside the walls to the scale, jouncing along on the passenger seat, gun in hand. He waited while I weighed the truck, then we jounced back. The next time he simply waved me through. The whole thing would have been monotonous, if it weren’t for the guns, the convicts gazing enthralled at pale green women completely encased in flannel and denim, and the pickup loads full of convict farm laborers.

The pickups—tiny Datsuns packed with men—seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time careening past the field we were cutting. When we met on the road the men filling the cabs and beds of the pickups and standing on the running boards grinned maniacally and nearly fell out of the trucks with the vigor of their waving. And then there was the jogger. The jogger never waved. He simply ran, every day, long, even, single-minded strides, his dog running with him, tongue lolling.

And, back at the field, there would be Matt and the convict. We learned his name was Reg. Reg told Matt he had been framed for armed robbery. The warden said Reg was in for murder. “Reg is a nice guy,” the warden told us. “He was a Golden Gloves boxer; his hands had to be registered as lethal weapons.” Reg was in prison because of a woman. “He just can’t stay away from her,” the warden told us. “Problem is, she cheats on’im, then he gets mad and loses his temper. Last time he took a swing at some guy made him jealous, and killed’im. So now he’s here.” He shook his head at the perfidy of the woman, forcing a nice guy like Reg to kill somebody and go to prison. “If he could just make a break, get away from her, he’d be all right.”

“But he said he was in for armed robbery, that he’d gotten drunk and was asleep in the car and the guys robbed a liquor store and—” Matt started.

“Son, in here they was all framed,” the warden said gently.

Every time I pulled into the field Reg would be ambling back to his tractor. Once Matt came over and swung up on my running board and stuck his head into my cab, grinning.

“Reg has been in here too long.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked, curious.

“He said, ‘You’ve sure got some good looking sisters.”

I laughed. Sally and I, though we both cleaned up fairly well, were, if not frights in those days, certainly very, very plain. We had set out to be. Matt laughed with me. “Let’s go, ugly girl,” he teased. And away we went, still laughing.

That night at supper Sally and I were discussing the jogger. “I didn’t know they could have pets,” Sally said. “What is he, a special case?”

“Maybe he’s blind,” pondered Matt. “It’s nice that he gets to have his dog in prison with him.” Matt’s dog had been hit by a car a few years before, and he still missed him.

“But he runs. The dog follows him,” I objected. “He can’t be blind.”

“I’ll ask Reg,” Matt said. Reg had quickly become our authority on all things penal. Matt wasted no time. After my first trip he came over to my truck and said, “I found out about the jogger’s dog,” he said.

“And?” I asked.

“The jogger’s a mass murderer, in for life and then some. They let him run for exercise. The dog runs with him so they don’t have to send a guard. The dog’s been trained to kill him if he leaves the road.”

I lifted my eyes and looked up the road. The jogger ran by, strides long, even, powerful, looking neither to the right nor the left. The dog ran beside him, tongue lolling. I imagined him running, running, then leaping for the wall, hands tangling in the razor wire at the top, the dog savaging his back.

“Let’s go, ugly girl,” said Matt. We filled the truck and I started for the bagger. One of the farm pickups careened by. By this time I recognized the faces, though I had spoken to none of them. When they waved I waved back, lifting my hand nervously. At the bagger I sat in the truck, ran the chain belt unloader, and watched the convicts in the yard playing with a little black and white kitten. They had named it “Cop Car.” Cop Car looked fat and sleek. As I watched a prisoner picked him up and tickled his round little belly.

The day grew warmer. I had emptied my water jug, and now had to go to the bathroom. I held it for several trips, too embarrassed to ask a guard to take me to the restroom. I considered peeing in the field, but had no idea when or from which direction one of the convict pickups might come. Sally was in little better condition. Finally we gave up and went to the farm office together.

I knocked on the door. A guard stuck his head out. “Yeah?”

“We need to go to the bathroom,” I muttered, red-faced.

“Just a sec.” He disappeared and then emerged, carrying his rifle. “Follow me.” Sally and I slunk through the pathway of prisoners in his wake, knowing that every person in the farmyard knew exactly where we were going, and why. At the door of the barn the guard stopped. “Everybody out!” he shouted.

Men filed out of the barn and lined up in two rows. The guard went down the rows, checklist in hand. When he was satisfied everyone was indeed outside he cocked his gun and led Sally and me past the gauntlet of eyes and into the barn. At a door halfway down the dim passageway he stopped, knocked, pushed the door open, and looked inside. “It’s clear,” he said. Then he turned his back and stood, feet apart, gun cocked and ready, while Sally and I scuttled into the filthy bathroom. We looked around nervously.

“We could get AIDS,” Sally said nervously. And what are those funny lights on the floor?” I tore my eyes off  the filthy black sink and looked at the floor. Little circles of light lay everywhere. We looked up, tracking the lights to their source. The bathroom walls were full of bullet holes.

We had come too far to back out now. We raced through the process, dropping our pants, peeing from a safe distance above the seat, and foregoing washing our hands so we wouldn’t have to touch the filthy taps. I balanced on one foot and flushed the toilet with my boot. We opened the door to see the guard’s broad back. When he heard us he turned. “Finished?” he asked impassively, then led us back outside and to our trucks. Of everything I experienced at the penitentiary, going to the bathroom was the scariest.

It was easy to forget that the truckloads of men who smiled and waved at us were in many cases guilty of terrible crimes. We were farmers, working with other farmers, as we had for years. These farmers never spoke to us, but they talked to Matt, and to Mom—even though it was against the rules—and they waved. Sally and I soon thought nothing of waving back. The trips past the prison yard were the worst, though passing the new maximum security building with its narrow window slits was almost as bad. Matt told us that he had seen a face on one trip. The man had had to turn his head sideways to fit both eyes in the narrow window slit, but he had done it. He was looking out the window, watching us. After that whenever I passed the big concrete building with the neat little prison cemetery nearby I looked for faces.

I left the penitentiary a changed person. The convicts had become more than beasts in numbered denim shirts; they had become people. It was easy to forget their crimes. Even the mass murderer with his dog had lost his aura of terror—and I found that loss of fear more than a little frightening. Was I losing my natural survival instincts, or was I simply becoming more humane? I didn’t know.

We spoke of Reg often, laughing ruefully at Matt’s conviction that he had been imprisoned for too long if he could find us attractive. Early that fall Dad told us over supper that the prison had called again; we would be bagging their corn. We looked forward to going back and seeing the familiar faces grinning and waving from the racing pickups, to hearing what Reg had to tell Matt about prison life, to watching the prisoners play with Cop Car. Sally and I still dressed for the occasion in loose, concealing, aging clothing, but we only put on the John Deere caps when we drove past the prison yard.

We arrived on a crisp, cool morning. The guards saw us, opened the gate, and waved us in. We roared past and out to the field, looking for the racing pickups full of convicts. The pickups were there, but the faces had changed. Reg still chugged around the fallow field in his tractor. “That has to be the best-tilled field in the state,” Sally and I joked, but we were relieved to see him there. Maybe he could tell us what had happened.

Matt filled my truck and I made the trip to the bagger, passing Sally on the return trip, as usual, and arriving at the field to see Reg jogging for his tractor. Matt waited for me to stop, then swung up on my running board and said, “A bunch of’em got sent back inside the walls.” “The Walls” was how the convicts referred to maximum security.

“Why?” I asked.

“They were growing pot in the cornfield and the guards caught’em.”

“Really? In the prison cornfield?” I snickered.

Matt chuckled along with me. “Yeah. Sally and I found their little garden on our last pass. It was sort of sweet, really. There was a watering can, and a blue shirt. One of the guys must have been out peacefully tending his little garden when they caught him.” The image of the convict gardener tenderly caring for his pot plants, nurturing them lovingly amid the cornstalks until the guards came crashing in like Demon Kings, struck me funny. The sheer gall it would take to do such a thing in a prison farm awed me. Matt and I started across the field. Sure enough, deep in the heart of the cornfield was a little clearing, trampled corn, a little tin watering can, and a twisted blue denim shirt. We left it as a sort of memorial, though to what, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps initiative. Perhaps quiet rebellion. I missed the familiar faces.

Cop Car had grown into a teenage cat, and no longer liked to have his tummy tickled. His convict owner had been released. The days passed hot, sticky, and long, even though it was fall. And then one day everything went wrong. It was hot and still. The prisoners in the medium security prison yard stood by the fence, staring and hooting at Sally and me. The chopper kept plugging. I had to go to the bathroom, but was too embarrassed to ask the guard to take me. My head and neck ached. Sweat stung the in scratches on my hands and arms. Early in the afternoon I pulled into the bagger, engaged the chain drive, and waited for the truck to unload. Dad was operating the bagger. I wondered where Mom was, but then she appeared at my door, a plastic bag full of little ice cream and orange sherbet cups in her hands.

“Here,” she said.

“I didn’t know anybody’d been to town,” I said, surprised. I took one, peeled the top back, and let the icy goodness slide down my throat.

“Nobody was. Reg stole them from the prison cafeteria for us. Here, take some more; there’s a whole bag. And take some out to Matt.”

I choked. My mother was knowingly giving me stolen ice cream. “He ripped them off? From the prison cafeteria?” The thought of Reg risking getting sent back inside the walls for ice cream cups horrified me.

“He just handed them to me and said, ‘You guys look awful hot out here.’ What was I gonna do, tell him to take’em back?” She laughed ruefully. I ate the ice cream gratefully and took several out to Matt, who reacted much as I had—first with shock, then with laughter at the sheer improbability of it.

But the laughter wasn’t the end of it. Those ice cream cups made me question myself. Would I have thought to bring ice cream to the convict farm workers, hot as it was? I doubted it. I hadn’t really seen past the number-stamped denim shirts, the guard towers, the razor wire fences, the guns, the dog trained to kill a running man. I had been thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” convicts, who slept within walls here, and free contract workers, who slept within walls half an hour away. Where was the difference? Reg’s ice cream cups said, “There is none.” They spoke of our common humanity, rather than our putative differences. “There is no “us,” they said, “there is no ‘them.’ There are only people, some kind, some terrifying, most a mixture.”

As a general rule people don’t get into the Washington State Penitentiary for parking violations. Most of the people there had done some very bad things. Reg himself was in for murder. I had always believed that it was right and proper that dangerous people be locked away from the rest of us. But then I thought of the ice cream cups, and I realized it wasn’t quite that simple anymore. I could no longer simply write off men behind bars as “them.” Instead, it had become “we,” hungry, thirsty, hot people, who felt better for the kindness of a little stolen ice cream. “Us” and “them” had become moving points, defining the person using them more than the people defined.

I would have liked to have thanked Reg, but the rules were there, and there for a reason. “Tell him thank you,” I told Matt.

“Will do,” he said. “Let’s go, Ugly Girl.” Then he swung up into his cab, still licking ice cream off his little wooden spoon, shoved the header into gear, grinned, licked his ice cream again, and we roared across the field and past the forlorn garden. The mass murder and his dog jogged by. Reg puttered around in his fallow field. Everything looked the same—and utterly different.

 

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Dear Son,

It’s Father’s Day. I’ve never really known what to do about that. It was just the two of us until we got the House Leroy, then it was just the three of us, and he was very clear that you had a dad–however far away he might live–that I was the Parent of Record, and that he was, well, our House Leroy.

The last time we talked about Father’s Day you said thoughtfully that, while your father didn’t really feel like a dad, you hoped that the two of you could be friends. “You’ve really been both my mom and my dad,” you said. And then you insisted that we go to Dairy Queen, where you went inside and explained that to the server, and wangled me a free Father’s Day ice cream cone. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I said “thank you,” and gave you a hug, and tried not to think about all the things a dad might have taught you that I hadn’t.

But that wasn’t true. You had Leroy, who showed  you how to do home repairs, and sat and joked with you, and drove me to all your out-of-town games, meets, concerts, and solo festivals, and bragged to all the neighbors that he wished he’d had a son like you. You have your football, wrestling, and weight-training coaches, men who have taught you about sportsmanship, and about what it’s like to be a man among men and boys. You have Uncle Tommy, who by living his life honestly as a “little person” in a “big world”  teaches you every day what it’s like to be a man in the face of enormous challenges. You’ve had a number of teachers who have seen things to admire and foster in you–and have done both things. And this year, your dad has started helping with some of your musical expenses.

None of those men are–or were–your “fathers” in the traditional sense. None of them were married to your mother (though the House Leroy came closest). None of them left our house to go to work every day, and came home every night and threw a football around the yard with you, fought with you about your hair, and taught you how to drive. Those things matter, but we’ve filled those needs if we decided we needed them filled. Having Leroy live with us taught you that it’s possible for men, women, and children to not only live in peace, but to actively enjoy each others’ company. I work every day. We don’t fight about your hair because, hey, it’s on your head, and it’s clean and you’re not running into “Stop” signs.

So why is it that I feel that there’s still something missing for you? Why is it that when your friends’ dads and grandfathers spend time with you I see a side of you that I don’t see otherwise? Why is it that I look in your eyes I sometimes wonder if you understand that you’re growing into a wonderful man, as well as a wonderful human being? I wish I could say that to you in words you could hear. I’ve tried. And I’ve done a pretty good job.

You know how to mow the lawn. You are a whiz at math, writing, literature, music–just about anything you set your mind to. You’re kind–I love watching you with my friends’ children and grandchildren. You’re respectful, even though you have a mind of your own. When we fight, we fight to find a solution, not to hurt each other. You know how to be part of a family. In a household as small as ours everyone plays an important role. And you play yours well. You’re amazing. I wish I could say that it was my doing, but you’ve always been that way. True, I’ve tried not to screw you up too badly, but you are who you are because that’s who you’ve always been. I just wish I was sure you understood what an incredible person–what an incredible man–you are. Do you? Do you really?

When you were little you worried that  some flaw in you had driven your dad away. “Maybe if I was lean..” you’d say. “Maybe if I liked football more…” “Maybe if my eyes were blue…” I don’t think that my explanation that people are who they are, and that if your dad’s love depended on those things the lack was his, not yours, soaked in. Maybe because secretly I was asking myself the same sorts of questions. Maybe if I were thin…maybe if I were blonde…maybe if I earned more money…maybe if I were better at sex…Maybe if I weren’t so smart…Maybe if I weren’t an artist…Maybe if I were funnier…maybe…maybe…maybe…

Maybe the truth was that some people just aren’t meant to be together not because they can’t be, but because relationships are hard, and they only work if at some point both parties see something irreplaceable in each other. I was with your dad because I wanted to be part of a family, I wanted to be loved and to love, he was funny, and it was better than being alone. He was with me because, hey, money and free sex. The things that made me unique weren’t things that he valued. And so we were better apart. All that happened before you ever came into the picture. The flaws were ours, not yours. He went on and found someone he loves, and who loved him. We went on and found Leroy. We found teachers. We found coaches. We found friends. Each of those good and caring men has helped you find something amazing in yourself. I hope you see those things for the gifts they are. I hope you realize that in our efforts to replace the gap not having a dad left in your life have in some ways challenged you to become more than you would perhaps have been otherwise. I don’t know. Woulda shoulda coulda.

There’s a saying that the people who best know what childhood should be are those who never had one. I suspect that not having a “real dad”–even though you’ve had a lot of good and kind men in your life–has taught you what a dad should be. You will have fortunate children. Happy Father’s Day, son. I love you.

Mom.

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09rodaI have depression. I’ve had it for years–I suspect since I was about five. I can still remember standing in the hallway just outside my bedroom door, staring at the wall, and thinking, “The world is gray for me. It always will be. It’s supposed to be that way.” The key things about that memory for me are first, that I recognized that the world’s grayness was somehow related to me personally, second, that it would never change, and third, that in hoping for a happier, more colorful world I was somehow sinning.

The world stayed gray for a long time. It got very, very dark when I was in sixth grade, and it didn’t really get better until I began to deal with the reality of my childhood, I had my son and my father died. The gray came back under the pressures the economic crash brought, and I’ve been dealing with greater or lesser degrees of grayness ever since.

It’s hard being chronically depressed. It’s harder in some ways now, because I had several years when the clouds blew away. There’s something very disheartening about knowing that this is a battle I will wage my whole life, and never really win. My only victory will lie in continuing to fight. The idea is exhausting.

But here’s the upside: Surviving depression for this long has taught me a few tricks. They’re based on my own experience, so they work for me, but might not for you. Still, though, it can’t hurt to share, right? For what it’s worth, here they are:

1. I know the difference between being sad and being depressed. Sadness happens. We just lost Leroy. That makes me sad–but it doesn’t necessarily make me depressed. When I’m sad there’s an immediate cause–and while sadness and grief can be intense, they are by their very nature transitory. Sadness is like the surf–it comes in waves. In between, there are periods of relative okayness. Grief generates energy, and for me, grief demands expression. I write. I paint. I talk. And I ease the pain.

Depression, on the other hand, is like quicksand. There is no momentary escape. It sucks me down and down and down until it’s all I can see. There are no periods of okayness. There is only the knowledge that the world is gray, and the sun will never shine again. Depression demands that I hide–that I retreat. When I am depressed I do not write, paint, or even talk much. I live by remote control. And above all, I never, ever, share my despair with those I love the best. What would be the point? The depression tells me that there is no solution, that I have no right to burden them with my gray world. After all, it is mine, alone. I must somehow be responsible for my depression (after all, Christians are happy people, right?). I caused it. I have to fix it. And I know there is no solution. When  I am sad or grieving I ask for–and receive–sympathy. When I am depressed I don’t ask. I know I don’t deserve sympathy–or help.

2. Depression has no one solution. The doctor who first diagnosed me with clinical depression explained it well. “It’s like inflation,” he said. “Depression results from multiple factors working together. You have to address it on multiple fronts.” And then he prescribed anti-depressants. But then he said, “The pills won’t cure your depression. They just replace chemicals in your brain that make it worse. They allow you to deal with the other contributing causes from a position of strength.” And so began a journey into self-discovery–one that I’m still making.

Depression is both emotional and physical. When some of us live with prolonged pressure and stress, our brains literally “forget” how to produce the chemicals that make us feel happy. Depression medication replaces those chemicals–but it does nothing to deal with the pressure and stress that exploited our initial vulnerability. Doing that takes hard work, honesty, and the kind of courage that journeying into the alien and unknown requires. For me, that’s exactly what was required. I was taught that my only happiness, safety, and indeed survival, rested with the very people and institutions that were causing me the greatest harm, even as they professed to have my best good at heart. Relieving those pressures required giving up the things I knew all the way to my soul were necessary for my survival. It required hurting people who couldn’t understand why I was acting as I was, and why I was limiting and ending certain relationships. But I did it, and the pressure eased, and so I had a number of years where I got sad and scared sometimes–but I wasn’t depressed.

Pressure is pressure. I’m back on the meds these days. The economic crash didn’t make me sad, but it applied unrelenting, seemingly unending pressure and stress–the things that triggered my depression in the beginning. I almost lost my house. I went through bankruptcy. And then I lost my cat. It sounds silly when I say it like that, but Ginger had been with me for twenty years, through all sorts of life changes. We had History. And then she was gone. And I grieved. Grief may generate energy, but it is also exhausting, and combined with the constant economic pressure I forgot how to be happy again. The world turned gray. And because I had been here before, I recognized what was happening.

It made me furious at myself. I had not needed the meds for years. Having to go back to the doctor and tell her I needed the anti-depressants again, having to find a good counselor and start on the hard path of working through yet more junk, felt like failure. It felt unfair. I had already done all this, hadn’t I? I was Better. Why did I have to keep fighting the same damned battle over and over again? Other people didn’t. And so there I was, right back where I had been before, only this time I had a son.

I wanted the fight to end. But the only way it would end would be if my life ended. And as lost as I was, there was a part of me that still refused to do that to my son. And so I sucked it up, admitted my “failure,” and went to the doctor. I found a counselor. And I started the long, painful process of detoxing my life all over again. It didn’t feel like victory; it still doesn’t. It just feels like survival. It feels like being a good mom.

Another thing that made this time different was that I had already discarded a lot of the things that had contributed to my depression in the past. I had learned some good coping techniques. I knew to get plenty of rest. I knew to not indulge in negative self-talk. I knew to get outside in the sunshine. I knew to meditate. I knew to remember that as dark as things looked, they did not reflect reality. I knew to have faith in what my reason told me was the true state of affairs. I knew to ask myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and look the Big Bad directly in the face, and say, “I can survive that. As long as The Boy is all right, I can survive that.” Mostly, I knew not to look to the things that had hurt me for help. I knew to ask myself, “When do I feel most connected, most my true, best self?” and then spend as much time as I could in those places, doing those things. I knew to hold onto the knowledge that nothing is forever. This seemingly endless pressure would end sooner or later, and if I held on and fought, one action at a time, five minutes at a time, the clouds would eventually roll away. And I knew that even though the pills tasted like failure, if I didn’t take them I was denying myself something that would allow me to fight my demons from a position of strength.

It works. I’m sad about losing Leroy, but I’m not depressed. I’m helping The Boy find his way through his first real brush with grief. I had a dinner for Leroy’s friends and family. I’ve notified the people who need to know about his passing. I’m working with the school to get The Boy caught up on the work he missed. I’m teaching my classes this term, but I’ll be taking a leave of absence for a year starting this summer. I’m writing again. I can see a future for us. I’m doing better than coping: I’m living my life well. Which isn’t to say there aren’t still ragged edges. I can’t find the lawn mower book, so I don’t know how to replace the battery on our electric lawn mower, or even where to get the replacement. The car needs work, and I have to arrange for that. The Boy and I still haven’t gotten a handle on the weeding. I still find finances a challenge. But the sun is shining.

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