Debts paid, Lessons learned.


 

I don’t even know where to start… Partly because this story is a decade long and difficult to encapsulate, and partly because it is terribly embarrassing. But if by revealing my embarrassment and my mistakes and my naiveté, somebody else might feel less awful about theirs, I will count it a privilege to overshare this part of my life. I thank you in advance for your indulgence.

 

Perhaps I should start with the end. Today, after 9 long years, I made the last payment on a debt of over $100k to the IRS.

 

It all started in 2003 when my husband and I sold our house in Mar Vista after our daughter was born. I had suffered from postpartum depression for about six months and essentially stopped working, making it impossible for us to make our mortgage payments. Selling our house was our first mistake. We should’ve kept it, rented it, waited until my voiceover work took a swing back upwards. It always does. But we sold it, and ourselves, right out of the Los Angeles housing market which, at the time, was still booming. We used most of the very small profit we made and bought two rental properties in Oklahoma, sight unseen, but that didn’t stop us from buying a couple of other “investment” properties with no money down. That’s another story. Let me just say that 100% financing was all the rage in 2005.

 

About that time we also decided we were going to save our daughter from the insanity of Los Angeles and move to the midwest. So we bought a house in a Kansas City suburb, packed everything up, and waved goodbye to my home state. This house in Leawood KS was amazing. A mere $245k. A half acre. 2000 square feet. 3 beds, 3 baths. A basement in which I could build a voiceover studio. Awesome. A mansion by L.A. standards. And though it was never on our list of must haves, it turned out to be a pretty swanky neighborhood. Who knew? At that price it seemed like a fire sale to us, what with our west coast real estate sensibilities. Turns out we over paid. And we inadvertently threw in $100k to remodel the thing. We had intended to put in $20K, but that’s how remodeling goes, right? Where we got this money, I have no idea. Credit cards. Loans. Today, I tremble at the expense of needing tires for my car, let alone where I’d find $100k. But again, borrowing was all the rage and not a single lender said no. At least not until, after the remodel, we tried to refinance. Remodeling a house in the midwest does not increase home value like remodeling in California.

 

Then the ground began to shift.

 

Shortly after our move, my husband’s new job prospect in Kansas City fell through. His old job in Los Angeles kept him on, thank God. So, by necessity, he started commuting – coming home to Kansas from Los Angeles every other weekend – while he continued to look for work in KC. Our daughter was 3 years old at the time, and after about 2 months of that nonsense, she didn’t even want him to kiss her goodnight anymore. “Just go” she’d whisper, as he came to say goodbye before heading to the airport. It broke his heart. It was becoming clear we’d made a mistake moving to the midwest. (Ya think?) Our friends in Los Angeles knew this before we ever left, of course. We decided to “cut our losses” and move back to L.A. But it was there that our losses grew beyond our wildest nightmare. Right about that time the housing market began to crumble, and it always crumbles in the midwest first. We couldn’t sell our house. So, we rented it. To awful tenants. Then the house started to fall apart. We needed a roof, a new heating system, the basement flooded. You name it. We had purchased The Money Pit. We were now cash poor and tapped out of credit, and whatever equity we thought we’d gained by remodeling was now truly gone with the housing meltdown. So…

 

We emptied our 401k to save the house. We paid our penalties and our automatic 20% tax, but we had no idea that emptying that account would kick us into a higher tax bracket with seriously higher tax consequences, or that it would be the nail in the coffin of our financial undoing.

 

That year, we ended up with an $85k tax bill. And we were broke. We tried to sell everything, but nothing would sell. There was no help yet available from Uncle Sam for underwater mortgages. We were among the first wave of losers in the housing market crash of 2006, the lucky stiffs who paved the way for the tsunami of underwater home owners soon to devastate the economy to such a degree that the Feds were forced to step in.

 

We lost our Kansas City house to foreclosure in 2011. We lost our 401k. We were terrified of the IRS, who has rightfully earned its reputation for being intransigent, cold, and unrelenting in its collection methods. It didn’t matter to Uncle Sam that our dreams were crushed, that we were sorry for our terrible decision making, that we took responsibility for it all. It didn’t matter to them that the federal manipulation of money and interest rates and mortgage lending rules helped to create our perfect storm. Understandably, every piece of advice we got from every so called “expert” was not to negotiate with the IRS alone. Hire an attorney. Hire a specialist. Whatever you do, don’t face them by yourself. We hired one company promising to help us negotiate pennies on the dollar. They took us for about $5k and all we got were wage garnishments. We then hired a bankruptcy attorney to the tune of $9k who erroneously filed bankruptcy on our behalf TWICE before withdrawing the filings both times because he failed to gather pertinent information from us before filing. He also failed to tell us that voluntarily withdrawn bankruptcies stay on record for 10 years just like regular ones do, only without the relief of bankruptcy itself. No wonder he disappeared from our radar screen. We then hired a tax attorney to help us set up an installment plan and once again were threatened with wage garnishment. Needless to say we were seriously beginning to doubt our ability to judge anyone’s character. Lord.

 

Weary (so weary) in 2012, we fired the tax attorney and I called the IRS and FTB myself. What could they possibly do to me? Take my favorite sandals from Target? The well-worn china my mother-in-law gave to us? What? Our penalties and interest alone had grown to near equal our original debt which, if we’d just called the taxing authorities ourselves in 2007 and set up a payment plan, would’ve been paid by now. All that was required to negotiate with the IRS was my calculator and some very simple math. I did not dispute any part of the tax owed and told the IRS and FTB we just wanted to pay. Sweet music to their ears. We set up a plan for each, and each was accepted without a fight. Our plan for the State would take 4 years to pay off. Our plan for the Feds would take 6 years. But at least we could see the end.

 

Our luck began to change in 2014. I’d put my shoulder to the wheel and ended up having a pretty good year, and by a stroke of good fortune we were able to pay off the State of CA last September, 2 years early. It felt miraculous.

 

By several different standards, we make a lot of money. More than enough. By Southern California standards, we are just a working class family, trying to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck with no room for error. The bankruptcy attorney we hired refused to refund our money and has stopped returning our calls. The IRS attorneys we’d hired to help us in the beginning had class action and criminal suits filed against them and are in jail. Our credit is gone. We have Federal and State liens on our persons. And even living modestly in L.A., our rent is exorbitant. All that remained were the two modest investment houses in Oklahoma, neither of which had appreciated in the last 10 years. Still, we’d put 10% down on each and had ten years of paying down the mortgages. Perhaps there was something there to be culled. I brought this to My husbad’s attention, and this past Spring we put them on the market.

 

We closed on Oklahhoma house number one at the end of July, and on Oklahoma house number two on the 2nd of October. Our net (I should say “the return of our money down” as it could hardly be called profit) from both houses combined was a mere $56k. When I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, I was on hold for 90 minutes just to find out what our IRS payoff was – expecting something around $65k. We figured the sale of the houses would cover most of the remaining debt, but not all, and we were prepared for several more months of regular payments. The IRS agent uttered a figure that took me aback. $54 thousand. We could pay in full, with two grand to spare. I hung up the phone, dropped my head in my hands, and cried my little eyes out.

 

I’d like to tell you that paying off this debt in full was altogether celebratory, but it wasn’t. I’ve been a little depressed these last two weeks. The reality of it all just smacked me between the eyes, like standing in the aftermath of a tornado that has done its damage and dissipated. I’m so relieved it’s done. But what do I do with what’s left? I’ve spent the last decade – most of my 40s and into my 50s – with this beast on my back, as has my husband. It has colored everything, every last part of our lives. Our marriage. Our daughter – what we have been able to provide her, and what she’s gone without. She could’ve used some educational assistance, tutoring, perhaps schools better suited to her learning issues, and we can’t get her developmental years back. They are gone. We sold furniture, beloved drum kits, instruments. We’ve sold more crap on Craigslist than I can recall. We have foregone seeing family and aging parents, and visiting our dearest friends in their times of need. Even our inability to join friends at dinner or a concert now and again reverberates with a bit of melancholy. Each place we’ve rented has gotten smaller each time we’ve needed to move. It has been a most humbling experience. We made some really, REALLY stupid decisions, and we have paid more than a fair price for our failings. Isn’t it funny… In my stubbornness, I still maintain had we made those decisions a decade earlier, they wouldn’t have appeared so stupid. Some might have called us genius (!) and we likely would have made a nice nest egg for ourselves in real estate. Ha. No point in re-writing history. Stupid is as stupid does…

 

I think I ended up with the equivalent of a PhD double-major in Life and Economics – a detailed education in real estate, finance, borrowing, credit; in the fallibility of attorneys and experts, and opportunists who seek out the weak to exploit them. I learned what I am made of and that no expert has my best interest at heart – not like I do.

 

I learned I am not my credit score.
I am not my bank account.
I am not my failures.

 

I am not alone.

 

I learned to cook.
I learned to share.
I learned to live on less.
I learned to want less – less stuff, anyway.

 

And I’m happier that way.

 

I learned to want more of the good stuff:
More truth.
More transparency.
More love.
More humility.
More grace.
More faith.
More creativity.
More expression.
More presence.

 

More life.

 

And here I stand. 53 years old. At zero. No nest egg. No house. No property. No savings. No investments. No credit. We will not be paying for our daughter to go to UCLA, let alone Princeton. If she goes to college at all, she’ll be working to pay for it, and that may end up being the most valuable part of her education. I’d be lying if I told you that all of this doesn’t scare me. At the same time, I know I am terribly lucky to have been imparted by my father and mother and the whole of my faith family a value system that confirms the state of my heart matters more than the state of my finances. That’s an immeasurable gift for which I am eternally grateful. It’s what carried me through.

 

I am finally free of a truly ridiculous burden – and yet men have jumped off of bridges for less. That’s not lost on me.

 

I am also quite aware that this decade of struggle was, by and large, a “Western-world” problem. What we’ve gone through – this loss of security, of comfort, of “stuff” is nothing new, nothing unfamiliar to countless numbers of people over the course of time; nothing uncommon in the least. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country are still inside of similar or worse struggles. Some have a long way to dig before they find some light. Some may leap from the bridge. I can’t even talk about the rest of the world. My goodness. What’s a FICO score to a man scouring the streets for something to eat, or to a woman desperate for a place to lay her head in safety? What’s a foreclosure on a credit report to a refugee desperate to touch his feet to free ground?

 

Perspective. That’s what this has taught me. Perspective and gratitude. Gratitude in plenty is easy. Gratitude in darkness, in want – that’ll test your mettle. And mine was tested, for sure.

 

That’s it. Just a little thing called freedom. That’s the gift I wanted to celebrate with a bottle of fantastic champagne. So… Cheers, my friends. Here’s to hope, to perseverance, to gratitude.

 

I’m good now. 🙂

 

Onward.

xo



Arrivals


 

Another piece from my forthcoming collection of letters to Esther; this one written over three years ago. My goodness, time flies…

 

My Darling Esther,

 

It is May 30, 2012. I am flying at 36000 feet, traveling at 554 miles per hour, heading west from London and home to you. I miss you so much; so, so much. As I contemplate my arrival home in a few hours, I am remembering the moment you flew into my arms last year when I came home from a week long trip to New York. It seemed a lifetime spent away from you. I remember the sound you made as you jumped to me, wrapping your arms around my neck and your legs tight around my torso. You let escape a moan so deep it went straight through my heart and shook me alive. I know the depths from which that sound comes. It is primordial (Ooh, that’s a good word, honey. Look it up.) It is love and need, anxiety and relief all wrapped up together, and I felt it for you too. “Sighs too deep for words” – as Paul in Romans describes our most inexpressible prayers, my Esther – and I sighed for you, too, more intensely that day than even on the day you were born.

 

One day, my girl, when you set out on your own travels through the world, you’ll discover what a strange thing it is: to experience the fantastical freedom of flying off and leaving your silly, stodgy, irritating family behind; letting go your former things, your ingrained ways of doing and being, to make room for new things and new ways and new doings. And in a fit of the human condition even you will not escape, you’ll toss the old and new together, just as you will toss about in the lonely winds of that same fantastical freedom that lured you to its beauty in the first place. And then, like Dorothy, you’ll realize where you are may indeed be lovely, but where you came from ain’t so bad either. You’ll feel that paradoxical pull toward home every one of us comes to feel. You’ll click your proverbial heels and wind your way back into the arms that loved you enough to let you go; the arms that will welcome you home each and every time you choose to return, for how ever long you wish to stay.

 

You know what, Esther? It’s not so different for me, this leaving home and returning again. 10 days ago, when I set out on this rather extravagant journey to London and Paris to celebrate my 50th, I really needed some time away. It’s been a good trip and I’m so grateful for it, though it has not been without its difficulties. Even at my age it’s a good thing to tire of your kin, a good thing to travel away from them for a time, and even to miss them. But it’s better, I think, to book a return flight; and best of all, to arrive back home.

 

Can’t wait to see you, sweetheart.

 

Love,
Mama



In The Moment, When It Mattered Most


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My mom and my daughter, Esther, in June 2012.

 

I wrote this piece in December 2012; two weeks after my mother died. It has taken this long for me to shine it up for public consumption. The heart is ready when the heart is ready…

 

Those of you that know me well know I didn’t have a great relationship with my mother. It was fraught with strife from the start (if what I was told was true) and continued through most of my adult life. Of course I don’t remember much before the age of six, but from that point I had the perception that my mother didn’t like me too well, that I was difficult, that my conception was, for her, an unhappy accident, and I came along just at the wrong time. If not for me, so the folklore goes, my mother would’ve traveled more, and lived her dreams. If not for me, she would’ve gotten her PhD and really made something of her life.

 

If not for me.

 

These kinds of myths, when imparted to a young child whether by word or glance or silence, persist, loom and grow larger as years pass and, at least for me, they became the foundation of a life fraught with a sense of worthlessness, which I came often to experience as paralyzing anxiety. This manifested in many ways: fear of flying, the ocean, taking tests, getting sick, auditioning, stepping on stage, and the ever pervasive “nameless dreads” – the irrational sense that something bad is coming, and coming right soon.

 

It feels like I’ve worked a lifetime at ridding myself of these demons, and for the most part I guess I have. I started seeing therapists when I was 7 years old. I stuttered pretty badly at the time, and my father was wise enough in the late 1960’s to understand this was likely an emotional issue, not one of speech mechanics. So, he took me to the school psychologist, also known as the “speech therapist.” I’m still incredulous that they had such a person on staff at a public elementary school in 1969. The next occasion I had to see a therapist was almost a decade later, around the time my parents divorced; then again in my mid twenties when I just couldn’t shake the panic attacks, cigarettes, cocaine, or bad-boy men-friends; and yet again in my mid thirties as a result of self-inflicted emotional trauma caused by my own infidelity during my first marriage. Worthlessness takes on many forms, and I’ve worn lots of camouflage over the years.

 

In the year 2000, I had the good sense to marry Tim Klassen. Whether it was good sense for him to marry me is something I imagine he’s still pondering 13 years later… But, he’s free to write his own blog and bare his own soul… With Tim came a sense of calm and long sought stability (though it’s WAY more complicated than that) and, 3 years down the road, our greatest treasure: Esther. Now motherhood, as all mothers know, changes everything. Once you have a child of your own, you never see your own mother in quite the same way. And so it was that a light went on when Esther was born. I realized, Good Lord in Heaven, that my own mother is a human being. Who knew? My parents’ prohibitions, once thought equivalent to those of a jailhouse warden, began to seem quite rational and, truth be told, too permissive. Now I understood that my mom and dad had no idea what they were doing. While they appeared all knowing and all powerful, they were just doing what they thought best at the time. And while my father was busy saving the world one soul at a time, I imagine my mother was reading Dr. Spock blindfolded, crouched and shaking in the back of her bedroom closet.

 

Even as I have struggled to maintain a career in the 21st century and struggled to keep some culturally acceptable sense of a “personal identity” separate from my identity as a mother, I have NEVER struggled to love my daughter. That scenario is just not within the realm of possibility. And so it is that I’ve come to rethink the folklore of my childhood. Given my own experience as a mother, it seems likely that loving one’s children kinda goes without saying. So, is it not possible, logical then, that even in my mother’s struggle for identity and her desire to live her own dreams, she also loved me? Maybe even as fiercely as I love Esther? I think so. No. I know so. And I think, again based on my membership in the motherhood club, my own misguided belief that she didn’t love me broke her heart. I remember a few occasions when she tried with great desperation to explain her love for me, but it was all mixed up and awkward, rolled up in her ambivalence about career and marriage. It was covered so thick in Gloria Steinem, pop psychology, and Me-Generation rhetoric it turned my stomach, and I would have none of it. It took another 25 years and having a child of my own to understand the terrifying truth she was trying to express; something I, in my stubborn naïveté, have just barely come to accept: once you have children, you give up your dreams in deference to theirs – at least for a time, but maybe forever. It depends upon your kid, and it’s a risk you take. And I would add another somewhat controversial layer to it: A mother gives up her dreams in deference to her children’s, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

 

Knowledge of this truth has not kept me from pursuit of the illusory Brass Ring in my voice acting career, nor has it kept me from lone excursions to far away lands in pursuit of an ever-elusive peaceful state of mind, of lessons in how to let go of worry for the future, regret for the past and (at the risk of sounding just as entrenched in modern day Me-Generation bullshit rhetoric as my mother did in the early 1970’s) of learning to “be in the moment.” Why else, my friends, would I attempt to surf in Costa Rica with a bunch of 22-year-olds or balance myself in Bakasana (crow pose) at the age of 50? I’m a jokester about my own narcissism rooted in my parents’, but now that I’ve crested the great mountain of life and am staring down its descent, my desire to be in the moment has shifted focus. Lately, what I have wanted is to be fully present, not with myself, not with God even, but with the people I love right here, right now; my friends, my family, and especially my daughter. When I’m with Esther, I want to be with Esther, not focused on the dinner I “should” be making or the audition I should be recording. I want her to know I am right here with her doing homework from 1×1 to 12×12 and every word problem in between. I want to be with her on the swings and climbing the tree, not on the sidelines on my iPhone checking Facebook. It’s an on-going problem of mine, this not being “present,” and I’ve missed out on stuff I don’t want to miss out on anymore.

 

As Providence would have it, I did not miss out on what has turned out to be one of the most pivotal experiences of my life. Two weeks ago, my mother died. Her rather sudden decline over the last few months took us all by surprise, as my siblings and I were just coming to terms with having moved her to a residential care home where she would have round-the-clock oversight – necessary due to the deepening of her dementia. It was not easy for us to get to her, as I live 3 hours away by car and both my siblings live out of state. Nonetheless, we were all able to be with her at some point in her last weeks on this earth. Most of the time she knew who we were and was able to respond in kind when we told her we loved her.

 

After 4 weeks convalescing in hospital from an infection, she had been home only a few days before she was taken to the hospital again. This time she had suffered a few small strokes that sent her into a rapid decline. With the good counsel and care of the hospital social worker, we decided it was time to adhere to my mother’s advanced care directive, stop all heroic measures and bring her under hospice care. I asked the hospice nurse to be frank with me about how long she thought my mom might live and, God bless her, she was. Not months by any stretch. Not to Christmas. Maybe days, maybe a week. That was on a Wednesday. I planned on coming to see her that coming Friday, the 30th of November, and to stay a few days.

 

I drove to San Luis Obispo County and checked into my hotel, the Kon Tiki in Pismo Beach, before heading 10 miles further north to my mom’s. The ocean was roaring to the West and clouds were threatening rain ahead. I drove in the dark to Los Osos and arrived to see her at 6 pm. Ross, her caregiver, took me back to her room. I pulled up a chair next to her, reached for her hand under the sheet and fixed my eyes on her. The air in the room was warm, thick and humid. The only sounds were the rain outside the window and the whoosh of her oxygen machine. The room was peaceful and expectant, womblike almost. She was sleeping, and while her breathing was shorter than usual, it was steady and calm. I didn’t want to wake her, so I kept my eyes fixed on her and said nothing. Her skin, my god, her skin. It was still flawless with nary a wrinkle, even at 82. My mother never went in the sun. She wore the silliest hats and goofiest sunglasses when I was a kid, keeping herself protected all year long from the California sunshine she sought as a young wife and mother in her 20’s, escaping what she perceived as the drudgery of life in the small town Midwest. I remember we’d go to Disneyland in the high heat of August and she’d tell us girls to put on long-sleeved sweaters, so as not to let the sun burn our skin. My sister and I, who would slather ourselves in baby oil in the midday sun every July, thought she was crazy. Ya. Crazy like a porcelain goddess.

 

After sitting with her for about 45 minutes, I looked at my watch and remembered that I hadn’t eaten anything since 10 am. I squeezed her hand just a little and whispered that I was going to get something to eat and would be back in an hour. As I let go, she opened her eyes. I took it as a sign, a signal for me to stay. So I did.

 

I searched the Internet on my phone for hymns of her youth and favorite scripture (there are times to praise the internet, it turns out) and began to focus my vigil. As I read and sang, and as her eyes once again closed, I realize how much of those hymns and pieces of scripture I knew by heart… And in knowing, I was able to keep my eyes focused on my mother. I was looking at … no, seeing… so intently my mother’s skin that when I began to notice a shift in her coloring, I thought my eyes were going wonky. Her skin was becoming translucent and I could see the tiniest, most delicate capillaries on her forehead. Her bone structure was amazing. She glowed. How can that be? How does one glow in such a state? I kept blinking to make sure I was keeping her in focus, and began to realize that she was dying before my eyes. The blood was leaving her face. Her breath became shallow, inhales less frequent. But my god, even as life was leaving her body, her beauty was palpable.

 

I had arrived at 6 pm that Friday. I sang and kept vigil until 8:02 pm when she took her last breath. It was not days, it was not weeks. She’d had only hours left. And I was present for them. Along with the hours spent birthing my child, these were two of the most privileged hours of my life. Within the span of them, I got to encourage my mother to Heaven, while every resentment, everything bitter, every failure between us drifted away. Vanished. Like they never existed. And it was nothing I did. It was the last and most treasured gift my mother gave me. By her willingness to die in my presence, she confirmed that she trusted me, that she loved me, that I was worthy of being present at her birth into eternity.

 

I did not call in the nurse for a good 15 minutes. I sat alone with my mother’s body and took in the last moments of her life. I felt in some odd way that I had witnessed a miracle, and even now I find it hard to articulate. I mean, what is so miraculous about death? It’s pretty pedestrian, really, and inevitable for us all. I didn’t see her spirit hover or ascend or see anything I thought to be supernatural. But I was struck again by how beautiful she was. I wanted very much to share this experience with my siblings who had wished so much to be by her side with me. So, as odd as it sounds, I took a picture of my mother in a last, feeble attempt to capture the moment, to capture the beauty I saw as she left this realm.

 

It wasn’t until the next day that I looked at that picture. And what I saw was as plain as day: my dead mother. A shadow of herself. No life. No translucence. Just a strange emptiness. It was not easy to see, and for a moment I was deflated. But in the next moment I grasped, finally, that what I had been working so hard to experience over the last few years had come to pass. The moment my mother died, I had been fully present. I was in the moment when it mattered most. With her, and nowhere else. And by being in the moment, I saw her.

 

I saw her sweetness.
I saw her innocence.
I saw her vulnerability.
I. Saw. Her.
And she was beautiful.

 

For an experience as emotional as this one was, I shed very few tears over the next few days and had little to say. I was mostly in a daze and out of my body, like I was hovering over the tumultuous Central Coast ocean, yet at peace. I imagined that this was kind of what Mary Magdelene (my patron Saint) must have felt when she saw Jesus in the garden that First Easter Morning. Miracles do that to you, I think. Leave you speechless…

 

And so it is, I have found, that even in death there are gifts to be received. Some would say it was a gift to my mother that I was by her side when she died. Maybe so, but I think I got the greater gift. My childhood folklore was dismantled and, irony of ironies, it was my mother who set me free from its tyranny. I don’t know exactly how that happened, so I’m choosing to call it a miracle, and leave the mystery intact. I have no desire to explain it away, only to embrace it, and hopefully, when the moment comes, offer the gift to Esther.



In The Big Bed, Sleeping.


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This is another excerpt from the book of letters I am writing to my daughter…

 

Dear Esther;

 

You are lying next to me in the big bed, sleeping. I am up late, getting stupid stuff done, winding down, and happy that you are next to me. I’m not sure what it is, but I love the sight of your little body in the big bed. You look so cozy, you look so small; you are at peace.

 

We have had some hard days lately, you and I, and perhaps you lying close to me reassures me that we are not yet approaching the end of our long goodbye, that our worries and our struggles and our battles are ephemeral; that we are still inseparable.

 

As parents do, I worry about losing you sometimes, and oh to my dismay there are so many ways of being lost. You are a sensitive girl and so different from your peers. There is an innocence about you that many of your more already-hardened contemporaries will not suffer too much longer. The world doesn’t like innocence. Oh we pretend to like it. We long for it in a wistful kind of way, hoping we might touch once more the sweet, forgotten someone we once were. But really, out in the world, we aspire to sarcasm and quick-witted repartee. We aspire to wisdom, and expertise. We aspire to the answers even before we’ve earned them by our stripes. We fear ignorance and incognizance. We fear being shamed for not knowing, and we fear that shame showing up in our eyes lest someone we want to love appears one day and decides to look deep. We hide behind cunning and detachment, self-sufficiency and cynicism. Oh goodness, the clever ways we hide. But you, my love, are as guileless as an afternoon in early June when school lets out for summer, all bouncy and free. And when a person is as bouncy and as free as you are, it makes the not-free people nervous and uncomfortable in their hard, bound skin. So they start looking to find fault for their discomfort, and they look everywhere but in a mirror. They look in the boardroom and the classroom and the bedroom; at the dinner table and birthday parties and on playgrounds at recess. And when a friendly and disarming girl like you needs help with spelling, and you’re a little behind in math, and you’re the new girl at school, well… you are about as easy a target as they come. And I worry, with all that pixie dust in your eyes, you will believe that little shit Kate who says you’re stupid and no one likes you. And I worry that three years from now you will take the pretty pills she offers you in the bathroom after 3rd period just to prove to her and to yourself that you are likeable and cool, and that you “know better.” Oh, how I worry.

 

I woke up with a start at 1:56 this morning with an awful thought. Esther was not meant for this world… Esther was not meant for this world… Esther was not meant for this world… One day when you have kids of your own, you’ll know how terrifying such a thought is and you will badger God for some explanation. “What does that mean?” you’ll beg. “Does it mean something bad is coming? Is it literal? Figurative? Do You mean in the spiritual sense? What is it? What are you trying to tell me? Answer me please!” And then you’ll realize it is no premonition, it is no sign. It is one more imploring expression of hope from your own heart that you can keep your child safe and well and innocent. And there is no answer except to hold tight while you can, stay close while you can, and keep your arms open.

 

You are lying here next to me in the big bed, sleeping. You look so cozy, you look so small… And for a moment, I am at peace.



The Best Sermon I Ever Heard…


Before I became Catholic, I was a Presbyterian, and before that, a Baptist. But after 40 years, I grew tired of Protestants, tired of their protesting, tired of their reforming, tired of myself and my own small wit trying to make the whole conflagration cool enough for the privilege of my presence. So I gave up and turned to the Mother Church where I now sit in the pew, kneel at the altar, eat the body, drink the blood, confess my sins twice a year and call it good. I can’t make the Church better with my lying, cheating self, so I hope to be made better by Her. So far, I’m not sure it’s working.

 

One of the things I grew to loathe about Protestant churches is the sermon. A 30, 40 sometimes 60 minute long exercise in self-important blathering on the part of someone who thinks his thoughts are original because he went to seminary. Catholic priests don’t really preach. They give a homily that, even if they’re long-winded, lasts 10 minutes. Then it’s on to the main thing. The Supper. The Last One. Every mass is a recounting of those three crucial days we Christians celebrate big at Easter time – A little dinner with friends, a little death by frenemies, a little taste of the glorious resurrection. Afterward it’s a bottle of wine and a Sunday ham, and we’re off to Monday to start it all over again. Frankly, this is why I like being Catholic. Just get to it, you know? Keep it moving. Life is short and donuts are waiting on the patio.

 

One sermon, though, before my Catholic conversion, almost permanently secured my spot in the protestant pews of Church-dom. It was the best sermon I ever heard.

 

It is January 2005, maybe a week after the Indian Ocean tsunami that wiped out more than 250,000 people at once. Everyone everywhere is undone, and all the big questions are colliding in everyone’s heads like plastic bottles in a furious, littered sea. How could this happen? How could God let it? Did God let it? Is God powerless to stop it? Is there a God at all, because if there is, he clearly lost his nerve some time before the turn of the 21st century or he surely would’ve prevented it, right? When questions with no answers like these get bandied about, sooner or later someone gets blamed – usually George W. Bush. But the fine churchgoers at Bel Air Presbyterian aren’t big on Bush bashing, and they haven’t as yet concluded that there is no God. They do wonder in earnest, however, how their loving, peaceful Deity could allow to happen such a horrific thing, with such horrific death on such a horrific scale.

 

“Why?” is the question on everyone’s mind as they await the beloved Protestant sermon from their beloved Protestant pastor. Though a visitor here, I want an answer too, as I’m no longer inclined to blame Bush for the world’s woes, yet not cynical enough to conclude there is no God. “Why?” indeed.

 

Pastor Brewer reads from Luke 3, a New Testament scripture quite unpopular amongst warm fuzzy Christians. To paraphrase: Some folks are inquiring after Jesus as to why a group of regular ol’ people minding their own business sweeping their dirt floors just got rounded up and pounded to death. An appropriate scripture for the day, I’m thinking. The people asking the question in this passage are religious and expect to hear Jesus say something like “Well, they were taken out because they have offended God! They’re getting what they deserve! They’re paying for their sins! But Jesus answers with just one word: “Repent.”

 

Oh he’s a sly one, that Jesus.

 

“Repent” repeats the pastor. I sink my head into my hands. Here we go. Here we go with the proselytizing. I can sort of take it from Jesus, but not from some modern day, BBQ-bellied pastor in a Hawaiian shirt. The Bible lays unopened on the pew beside me, next to it a short pencil with no eraser, the kind I used to scribble with as a kid as I listened to my daddy preach The Gospel all those years ago. A plastic communion “shot” glass lies empty on the floor at my feet, likely missed by an usher from the 8 am service.

 

“I don’t mean to sound callous,” says the preacher “and I know you all are looking for an answer. You want to know “why,” but I think we’re asking the wrong question,” he says. “Did you know that more than 150,000 people die in the world – every day? I hate to break it to you, but we’re all going to die. Some sooner, some later. The question is not “why?” but “are you ready?“

 

He does not launch into any kind of accept-Jesus-in-your-heart-or-burn-in-hell altar call. I think maybe this particular protestant preacher may actually, in good evangelical spirit, be talking to the cynics in the crowd, who upon hearing such Christian-ese would just walk out the door. Cynics like me.

 

“Kay”, I hear someone say from the pulpit, I swear I do, as a fog comes over the sanctuary and razor-sharp clarity steals my breath. “Do the people you love know you love them? Have you forgiven your parents? Your friends? The lovers who used you, scorned you, left you? Have you made amends for all the shit you pulled? Did you say thank you for the sunrise this morning? For your double espresso and your organic half and half? For your marvelous daughter and your steadfast husband? Did you tell the truth when you wrote those poems, or were you just looking to please everyone? Because if you haven’t and if you didn’t, and if you were, I suggest you get a move on and make it right, because you’re gonna die one day. Maybe soon. Maybe today. And to go to your grave with the people you love wondering if you really loved them, while still holding those grudges tight in your fist… To go to your grave with your truth untold, well that’s a particular kind of hell for you and everyone who loves you, now isn’t it?”

 

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” begins the Doxology. The plate is passed as a wave of sorrow crashes over me and sun light from the north window clears the fog from my brain. Everyone stands for the Mandate; heads are bowed for the Benediction. It isn’t until the sanctuary is empty that I feel Tim pulling at my arm. “Come on” he says. “We have to go get Esther.” I walk down the steps and out of the sanctuary without a word, my eyes wide open like glass, my heart torn asunder for the monstrous love I’ve left unspoken, and for the vast love murdered and maimed by a deep, cruel, disinterested sea half a world away, sunk in finality at the floor of the Indian Ocean.

 

Yep. That was the best sermon I ever heard. I don’t much ask “why?” anymore when something awful happens in the world. I light a candle for the dead and the mourning, and wonder, when it’s my turn, if I’ll be ready.

 



A Beautiful Brain



I’m writing a book of letters to my daughter. On the eve of Esther’s 9th birthday, here is an excerpt.

 

Dear Esther;

 

Yesterday, just before you drifted off to sleep, you asked me why it is that everyone in your class is so much faster than you are, why you are so slow getting your work done at school. This question hit me hard. It’s the first time you’ve verbalized any knowledge that you are different than your classmates, and I was worried that you might be starting to doubt yourself and your abilities. So, let me explain something.

 

It’s a little more complicated than this, but basically, there are two sides to your brain, the left side and the right side. The left side is… well… it’s black and white, it moves left to right, it’s logical, orderly, and analytical. The right side is in full blooming color. The right side moves in circles, wanders around a lot, and finds answers outside the lines. The right side dances with tree frogs and paints with a spoon. The right side is magical and knows you’re a part of everything and everyone. The lines on the right side are squiggly and blurry but sometimes there just aren’t any lines separating anything from anything else. Life on the right side is open and boundless and hops on one foot from gumdrop to marshmallow. You, my little cabbage, are a right-brained girl.

 

Now it just so happens that you go to a left-brained school, which, frankly, sucks. I mean, it’s a really good school; it’s just not a really good school for you. Most schools are left-brained, and the schools that are right-brained usually cost a lot more money than we have, which is a bummer. If we had the money you’d surely be attending one, but since you’re not, you’re having to fight quite an internal battle to get the right side of your brain to do stuff better suited to the left side. You’re the square peg, sweetheart, working to get into that pesky little round hole. So, the truth is you are NOT slower than the rest of your class. In fact, you are likely working a million times harder than the rest of them and your brain is going a zillion miles a minute. You’re thinking about 25 things while they’re thinking about one! And that’s why it’s so hard for you to concentrate on just the one thing your teacher asks you to. Besides, you’ve got far more interesting things on your mind than writing the answer to 341 minus 267. I mean, who cares about that when there’s infinity to ponder and a unicorn prancing on a rainbow right at the edge of your eyelashes?

 

You also happen to be a very bouncy girl who hates to sit her bottom in a seat, so a classroom chair for you is like prison. You’d much rather be jumping rope and doing cartwheels and handstands to backbends, right? Well, you put that right brain together with your bouncy body, and doctors and teachers and psychologists like to call that ADHD, and they like to call it “disordered” and they like to “medicalize” it and medicate it and make it out like there’s something wrong with you. But there is nothing wrong with you. You just don’t fit into their left brained, black and white, orderly, logical world. Did you know, Esther, that your mommy is right-brained too? Did you know that when I was little they didn’t understand people like us at all, and that my 2nd grade teacher actually called me stupid? Isn’t that the silliest thing ever? I knew you ‘d think so…

 

I’ll tell you what else, Esther, right-brained people are the ones who make the world beautiful with paintings and poetry and purple pixie lipstick. And we don’t care about time. What is time, anyway, except an arbitrary boundary some left-brain people decided to place on our planetary experience? For you and for me there is no time, there is only right now. So how are we supposed to solve 50 multiplication facts in 15 minutes? What does that even mean? I’ll tell you what it means. It means nothing. Nothing at all. We can solve those problems, no doubt, but what’s with the clock? Why is that important? Why are only the ones who can finish in 15 minutes called smart? Why can’t we take 3 earthly days to finish? Why does that make us stupid? I know, Esther. I don’t get it either.

 

So remember, sweetheart. You are not slow; you are timeless. While others live bound by subjective time restraints, you live in infinity, so you’ve got forever to ponder 12 times 9. And when you finally decide to write it down, you’ll do it with your favorite markers and make the answer come alive with every color the world’s palette has to offer. You’ve got a beautiful brain, Esther. And one day, you’ll realize not only how lucky you are to have it, but that left-brain people envy you for it, and are awestruck by it, and wish they could be like you.

 

Love you, honey…

 

Mama.



The Long Goodbye


 

“Mommy?” she asks, taking my hand as we walk our afternoon ritual to the pool. “When people go to college, do they take their stuff with them when they go?”

 

“Yes” I say. “They do.” She stops in the middle of the street.

 

“Everything? Even their beds? Even their toys and their clothes?”

 

“Yes, sweetheart, everything. Now, keep walking. Don’t stop in the middle of the street.” I pull her along as I always do, trying not to rush her out of her thoughts, which frustrates her beyond measure.

 

“Well I don’t want to do that when I go to college,” she says, slowing down, hopping on one foot. I let go of her hand and let her hop. She’s happy when she hops.

 

“I’m guessing you may very well want to when you get to be that age.” I reply. She stops hopping, runs to my side and buries her face in my belly after poking it with her index finger a few times.

 

“No mama. I never want to leave. I always want to be with you. Always. I love you toooooo much. I could never leave you. Never.” She unwraps herself from my body and opens the pool gate. She runs for the water and I watch as she leaps.



The Imposition of Ashes and The Hope for A Little Hope…


 

Today is Ash Wednesday. I could get all technical on you about what that means in the Catholic Church, but I think I’ll stick to what it means to me. It’s the beginning of Lent, the 40 days before Easter, the day after Mardi Gras, a time which serves to remind me of my faults and shortcomings as a parent, a wife, a friend, a human being. It causes me to take stock of my life, be mindful and, in short, do something for 40 days to keep me mindful. Ideally, however, it causes me to place my focus back on the hope brimming at the horizon.

 

Today also happens to be the day that, after mass, Esther is to be awarded as Student of the Month. I knew this was coming, but she did not, and I was very excited for her. I wanted this day to be happy, special, and joyful, from the moment she opened her eyes. This, to me, would be a little Easter for my Esther, a little bit of life and hope in the midst of an ongoing struggle, too many days where I know she has felt hopeless. She has been working very hard in school to overcome some minor learning, vision, and sensory issues. She’s made a lot of progress and I am terribly proud of her. Esther is also terribly hard on herself and more often than not expresses with a grief no child should know at such a young age a sense of failure about her inability to do what the other kids seem to do so easily.

 

I woke her up, stroked her little face and snuggled in bed with her as I do every morning. I told her how much I love her and how today is going to be such a good day if we can all stay focused and work together to get ourselves ready. She smiled at me, as she does every morning, and said how much she loves me.

 

With a bit of prodding, she got dressed in good time and sat down to her breakfast of choice – waffles with an ice cold glass of milk. While at the table she found a piece of her religion homework that should’ve been done last night, but could easily be done while eating breakfast. No cause for alarm. No morning derailment. It was about the meaning of Lent, of course, and why we give something up or choose to do something nice for the period of time before Easter arrives. This led to us talking about the meaning of Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. Here’s her interpretation: On Ash Wednesday, people who were fat on Tuesday give up eating for 40 days. Clearly, we’ve got some work to do. She then rather suddenly announced with fear and welling tears that she didn’t want to get ashes on her forehead because they would never come off. I tried to explain that they come right off, but the ship had already left the dock. In an instant the time was gone. I was not dressed, her lunch was not made, and my husband was irritated that I told him he needs to put more peanut butter on the bread for her sandwich. I am now irritated with him for being sensitive about peanut butter sandwiches. But we are silent. We are always silent. And the tension grows. The blissful morning I had hoped for is now done for. Is it really too much to ask for a school-day of sunshine for my girl? The makings of a good memory, something to get her through the next few months until her carefree summer arrives? I guess it is. Her teeth are not brushed and her hair is not combed and now she is crying because she has been prodded and rushed and scurried out of her comfort zone. And we are late.

 

By the time I was able to attend to myself I, too, had been prodded and rushed and scurried out of my comfort zone. Now there is no time for a shower, no time for makeup, and barely enough time to brush my teeth. My own hopelessness sets in. Nothing will ever go as planned, no good memory will ever be made. Nothing I do is right. Why should I bother? Doesn’t anyone see how hard I am trying to make my daughter’s childhood better than my own? Doesn’t anyone give a shit?

 

We are silent in the car until Esther speaks up to say that she feels like she ruined every thing because she is a crybaby. Now, how do I respond honestly here? Do I tell her, ya, you did ruin it by being a whiny-ass 8 year old who is totally ungrateful for everything you have? Or do I placate her, hope for an in to a happy moment and tell her no, you are not a crybaby, everyone has bad mornings and you are as good a little girl as they come? I opt for something else entirely. “Esther” I say with resolve. “We all have a choice to make when we wake up in the morning. We choose to be happy or we choose to be grumpy. We choose to see what good there is or we choose to see the bad. You can’t ruin my day. Only I can ruin my day. And you are the only one who can ruin yours. It’s your choice.” Hmmm… perhaps this is a bit too heady for a second grader. I know it’s too heady for me at the moment, since in my head I am blaming a litany of people on the planet for my existential misery. “Yes, mommy. I understand,” she says. I think she says it just to get me to shut up. I think I’ve scarred her for life.

 

 

We arrive at church and Esther runs to sit with her class. Tim and I hesitate about where to land, and wind up sitting ourselves on the sidelines with The Blessed Virgin and an insanely loud child I would very much like to discipline seeing as his mother is not interested in doing so. I settle and stare into space, lamenting that this day is not what I had hoped for. My heart sinks a mite further and I feel the sting and water rise behind my eyes. Here they are. Finally. My hopeless tears. My husband is right next to me but feels a million light years away. Why doesn’t he say something? Put his hand on my arm. Comfort me. Something. A thought flashes through my head – why don’t I comfort him? Why don’t I reach out to him? Maybe he’s crying too but doesn’t show his tears…

 

I stand to see Esther receive her ashes. She sees me, points at her forehead and gives me a big smiling thumbs up. She did it. I hope she is not ruined for doing so, given her fear that they’ll never come off. I think twice about receiving the Eucharist. “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed” the Mass says. Truer words have not rumbled through my bones. If there’s one thing I’ve learned you DON’T do in a moment of darkness, it’s deny the light. And so I get in line behind the 4th graders to receive the Host.

 

 

 

 

After mass, the principal stands at the lectern to announce this month’s honored students. This is the moment. “Second Grade: Esther Klassen.” Applause. Applause. Applause. I watch her face break into an incredulous grin and she bounds for the altar. There it is. There’s the joy, however fleeting… Sweet, sparkling, bubbling over… She stands with the other kids holding high her certificate and beams at her daddy and me. She puts the certificate in her mouth and gives me an “I love you” in American Sign Language. I sign back to her “I love you too.” Tim turns and smiles at me and puts his hand on my knee.

 

Well, whaddya know… Perhaps there is a little mercy in that Host we just received, and in our willingness to muddle through the morning. Perhaps this will be a good memory for Esther. Perhaps a day that started out badly, will turn out well. There is the hope brimming on the horizon, and the day has just begun…

 

 



Math


Another “write like you talk” piece. It’s good to be back in writing class.

 

I was never good at math, and not being good at math definitely made me think I was not very smart. It sucks to carry that around your whole life. I can trace it all the way back to second grade, which I’m sure is why I feel so anxious about my daughter’s second grade year in school. So much happens to us when we’re young, stuff that forms us, forms our sense of our selves for a long long time, if not forever… Anyway, I remember second grade. My teacher was Mrs. Hoanig. She had a beehive and horn-rimmed glasses. She was tall and kind of thick in the middle. She always wore a dress, with stockings and low-heeled pumps. I guess all the female teachers wore dresses. These were the days before girls could wear pants to school – even public school, which is where I was.

 

I think I had been out sick for a week or something, and I was behind in math. Maybe 20 pages behind in the workbook. It seemed insurmountable to me. Pure dread. And what is true now, was true back then. You can’t push me to do something. If you do, I’ll stand firm in my tracks and I will not budge. I guess Mrs. Hoanig was trying to push me to catch up, and the more she pushed, the more I resisted. My dad came in to have a meeting with her and after going around in circles with her for a bit, as he recalls, he finally demanded that she just “get off my back.” I don’t think it was a friendly meeting. The next day during math, Mrs. Hoanig asked me to open up my workbook and proceeded to tear out all the past pages I had yet to complete and rip them to shreds. I guess that was her way of getting off my back. A week later my dad had me moved to Mrs. Van Dyke’s class. I liked her. She was nice, and I didn’t seem to have any more problems in school, except that nagging sense that I was no good at math. I’m not sure how I found out, but somewhere in the chain of events it was revealed to me that Mrs. Hoanig thought I was a daydreamer, unfocused, lazy and, the pièce de résistance, “mentally retarded” – as they said back in 1969. That was confusing to me as a child as I didn’t really know what she meant. As I got older, it became very clear.

 

In retrospect, I was a pretty good student. My teachers liked me. I got A’s and B’s, but I never fancied myself smart. In high school I took honors Algebra because my mom, who taught English at the school, wanted me to have this particular teacher, John Richards, who was hailed as the best. Because I was getting a B, I begged Mr. Richards to put me in Algebra A/B, which was the “remedial” Algebra class. He refused and said I was doing well, that a B was good. He just wanted me to show my work. That’s the thing. I couldn’t. Algebra made sense to me on an intuitive level and I couldn’t always show my work. I just figured out the answers in my head. But not showing your work could lead a teacher to think you’re cheating, so I understandably lost credit for some correct answers I couldn’t prove.

 

I did badly on the SAT’s, I mean really badly. My combined score was something like 775, and a perfect combined score was 1600. I think we can all do the math on that one. Nonetheless, I got into USC based on my GPA, my writing ability and an audition for the BFA acting program. Thank God for acting or I never would’ve gone to college. Still, I hated the lower division core classes. Hated them. I tested poorly and didn’t do well under pressure. All I wanted to do was play, and acting was playing. I loved my sophomore year. It was all Shakespeare. And I had a huge crush on two of my acting teachers, one from whom I had the privilege of getting a very popular STD, but that’s another story… So let me just say that I freaked out 3 days into my junior year (my first full fledged panic attack), walked off campus and never returned. That was it. A full scholarship to USC and I trampled on it; looked that gift horse right in the mouth and walked away. What a fool.

 

When I was 30, I decided to go back to college and see if I might get myself a degree. With so much time having passed since I’d walked off the USC campus, I’d have to take algebra all over again. I don’t have to get an A, I thought, I just have to pass. I mean, we’re all impressed when someone graduates from Harvard, but really, does anyone ask their GPA? No. So… I enrolled.

 

I took an evening class designed for terrified adults who’d been scarred by math in one way or another and it was nice to be in a room of people just like me. Ann Carroll was the instructor. I will never forget her. She loved math. I mean she REALLY loved math, in a way that only genuine geeks could love it. She saw its beauty and thought it transcendent. She got so excited when she had the chance to share with us more over-arching mathematical concepts and the joy in discovering absolute truths. I loved her for this, and I loved this class. There were no timed tests. There was no pressure placed on grades. She wanted us to love math. She wanted us to settle in, be thoughtful, and contemplate. I looked forward to Wednesday evenings, and eventually I lost my fear of weekly quizzes. I got it. Finally, I understood.

 

At the end of the semester, Ms. Carroll gave us a practice final, and if we did well, we didn’t have to take the real one. I was hoping to do well, since not taking the final meant I’d get out of school two weeks early. I felt like a kid all over again, eager and impatient for summer vacation. On the day of the practice final, I came into class, sat down, and waited. My hands were clammy. Even after all these years as a grown-up, I was still nervous… and a little sick to my stomach. I hate tests. Hate them. Especially finals. God, they just sound so… terminal. Ms. Carroll handed each of us one sheet of paper with 10 questions. “Begin” she said. Breathe, I thought. You can do this. Go ahead and show your work even. You know how to do it now. The classroom was full and stuffy and had a nervous feeling about it. Fluorescent lights flickered above, the clock buzzed on the wall and the sound of pencils held in the hands of my classmates began to scratch on paper. My seat was hard plastic held to its metal legs by four cold steal rivets. The desks reminded me of grade school – pale green metal with a wooden top you could open to store your books. It felt good when my knees touched the underside, like an ice pack on my body in the heat of a fever. Ms. Carroll was at her desk in the front of the room, with that quirky, perpetual smile on her face. She had rosacea, which made her cheeks and nose look red and swollen like WC Fields. She wore the same thing she always did, an over-sized white blouse, khaki pants and Birkenstock’s. She had large floppy breasts and her bras just weren’t quite working for her. I could probably help her with that. but how in the world does a person broach that subject? Anyway… The chalkboard was empty. No equations, no scribbles, just a lone, unused eraser sitting on the tray of the board. My pencil rolled off my desk and fell to the floor. I picked it up and started to work.

 

About an hour later, I was done. I checked everything one more time, then got up to turn in my test to Ms. Carroll, who graded it on the spot. When she was done she stood up, interrupting the class. “Excuse me, everyone. “ I started to walk back to my seat. “No, no. Stay here, Kay” she said. I stayed, but started to get a little nervous. What on earth was she about to say, and oh God I hope I haven’t done something wrong. “I just wanted to let you all know” she said, “that in my entire teaching tenure, I have never had a student earn 100% on every quiz and every test and the practice final… until today. I think we all need to give Kay here a round of applause.” The students put down their pencils and applauded me as Ms. Carroll gave me a hug. “You’re free to go“ she said. “I really don’t have to take the final?” I whispered. “Nope. You’re done. Great job.” I smiled and thanked her. I didn’t know how to thank her enough. I went back to my desk to get my things as the class went back to their tests. I put on my back pack, walked out the door, and burst into tears.

 

So, Mrs. Hoanig, I guess you were wrong. I am smart. I’m not bad at math. And I’m not mentally retarded. It only took me 25 years to undo what you did. But, finally, I did. Whaddya think of that?



My Regular Self


I wrote this as part of an assignment in a writing class. I’ll not bore you with the details of the assignment, except to say that this is not a polished piece of writing. It is “stream of consciousness” as it were, with run-on sentences and all. Sometimes the essence of something is lost when you try to clean it up too much. And the essence of this, it seems to me, might be worth tripping over a few clods of dirt.

 

Yesterday at mass, the priest was telling a story about Jesus. Well, that’s a big surprise, huh? Anyway… I was busy trying to get my kid to settle down and stop talking and stop drawing on the pew cushion, telling her to wait to talk to the priest until mass is over (she always wants to talk to the priest in the middle of the homily, raising her hand, calling his name, like some teacher’s pet in Freshman English.) I was trying hard not to swear, as I tend to do under my breath when frustrated with my kid, but you know, front row at the family mass… not a good place to be saying things like “Goddamn it Esther, please be quiet I’m trying to hear the homily” or “Jesus Christ Esther, can’t you see we’re praying?” Wafting in and out of my ears I hear a few of the words of Father Kurt (our resident Hippy Priest complete with Birkenstock’s and ponytail) about how Jesus wants us to be totally ourselves, full of life, joyful etc., and that Jesus cares so much about this he’ll pursue us into the depths of hell (if that’s where we are) and even hang a while to convince us to step away from the dark side (Ya. Darth Vader references and all) although he won’t hang forever because you have to actually want to leave hell yourself. You can’t be taken without permission. You have to want to get out to actually get out. Anyway. He kind of lingers on that notion for a minute and I’m thinking about donuts, wondering when I can go outside and get one and, most importantly, find my husband to take Esther for a minute so I can eat my donut in peace.

 

Then my daughter tugs at me, waking me from my donut dreams, and says “Ya, Mama. I don’t want to be there.”
“Where?” I said.
“Where the priest said. In that place.”
“In hell?” I whispered, incredulous that she was actually cognizant of the subject matter.
“Ya” she says. “I don’t want to go there. I just want to be my regular self.”

 

I just want to be my regular self. I just want to be my regular self. Jesus. This gem of wisdom from my five-year-old. I squeezed her so tight she whacked me. Right on the cheekbone.

 

That’s all I want too. I just want to be my regular self. I have been wanting to be my regular self now for about 45 years… and that, my friends, is long enough to forget who your regular self is.

 

I think I’m in that place my daughter doesn’t want to go. Have I really been here that long? Oh my god. I have no idea how to be my regular self.