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.

Little Words


I thank God for little words
which, when strung together by brave souls,
can bring tears over the brim of my eyes
and waves over my flesh where no ocean lives.


Once to my ears, and only for a moment,
they are quakes in the core of my heart
and music to the dead of my bones.

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…



A Clown To Entertain You…


I am crude among the artists
Petal fallen from the bloom
Neo-con amongst the Libs
The elephant in the room


With the skeptics I am Jesus
A thorn in both their sides
I am the whore among the Fundies
The beldam with the bride


I am stained among the sainted
On a cross of my own making
A believer with the atheist
A martyr at the staking


I doubt among the certain
My finger’s in the wound
My stammer’s in the speaking
I’m a lyric with no tune


I am the black sheep in the barn
I know where I belong
A clown to entertain you
With a poem and a song


photo/artwork by Vanessa Lemen


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.

Underneath Him


Self conscious underneath him
Aware of the woman who came before
Long-legged, hollow-hipped
A stinging work of art – painted, framed,
and hung where I can see her
from the corner of my eye


She’s all but gone, and I am here
open, aching, breathless
underneath him.


I’ve dreamt of his eyes for so long and, finally, fixing mine on them, I see
I see what I am.
Second, third, fourth, fifth,
I am anything, but not the one.
I am not her.
I will never be her.


I shut my eyes and wish the stars would die
so I won’t be seen as not some other, dying
underneath him


The dam breaks and he surges from me –
a river forming tributaries mapping my thighs,
trickling to an empty death.
And here I lie in the ruins of his unrealized civilizations,
but underneath him.


True Beauty

True Beauty
lyric by Kay Bess
music by Toby Petrie
 1997

I aspire for acceptance in an artificial world
I search in stacks of magazines
And wish I was the cover girl
As if somehow my happiness lies in what I wear
In the perfect shade of shadow
In straight or waving hair

True Beauty
True Beauty
Waiting here inside of me
True Beauty
True Beauty
Waiting to be free

I’m the judge of my own body
My sentence is so cruel
I set myself against myself
A never ending duel
Every day another struggle
As the mirror stares at me
How do I look beyond the image
When will I see?

All that glitters
All that’s gold
Leaves me lifeless
Leaves me cold
Holy wisdom
Touch my eyes
One day I will realize

Prayer at Ecclesia

Prayer at Ecclesia

i can’t give myself

Not my heart, not my soul

Not to You

You are Love, Perfection, Goodness


i am a cynic

a liar

a fake

a traitor

the worst kind

all sweet and self-possessed

i am oil

You are water

And we will never mix

No matter how i am shaken

By the tremors in Your house


My daughter ingested sleeping pills. It was a sunny June morning in 2005, she was 2 1/2 years old, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I had flown by myself to Seattle some months earlier, meeting up with my brother and sister to take our mother on a cruise to Alaska. In days past, whenever I would travel long distances I’d take Ambien and Xanax with me. Anxious to fly? Xanax. Can’t sleep? Ambien. But these drugs played new roles for me after I had my daughter. Mother’s little helpers, my girlfriends and I would call them, and we all know the golden rule for mommies: NEVER keep drugs in your purse – at least not in containers that aren’t childproof. But I was traveling without my daughter on this little cruise, so it didn’t matter. A few months later I found out the hard way that it did matter. I’d left those pills tucked away in my purse in an easy access container – a bright and tiny green one, most attractive to a curious toddler.


I had just signed with a new voiceover agency and took my daughter with me that day to an in-house audition. It was a little nerve wracking. I was a newbie at the agency and didn’t know anyone, and the climate in the lobby was something to behold. There was always an air of competition about it – sometimes silent and sometimes loud with a lot of joke-telling one-up-man-ship, everyone trying to outdo one another. I generally stayed out of the lobby altogether and recorded from home because I cannot abide that shit, but on this day I needed to put in a little “face time” with my agents and I had my sweet, unpredictable Esther with me. She could very well be dreamy and content, but if the wait was long she could easily become impatient, cranky and loud. Since I didn’t know anyone in the lobby I couldn’t leave her there when it came time for me to audition. So, I took her in with me, but left her just outside the recording booth and in the company of the engineer tending to my audition. She seemed fairly content with her plastic cup of water and snack bag of goldfish, but on a whim, just as I started to walk in the booth, I decided to give her the treasure she was constantly seeking: my handbag. I’d only be in the booth for two minutes. What kind of trouble could she possibly get into?


I read my copy in record time. I walked out of the booth and looked down at my daughter in her stroller. She had my handbag open, had dumped my green pill container and was fidgeting with it. I grabbed it from her hand. It was empty and there were pills scattered on the floor and in the seat of her stroller. “Did you eat any of these little things?” I asked her. She looked up at me and said “Delicious.” Oh. My. God. I fumbled around with my purse and the stroller and tried to get out of the booth as quickly and as calmly as I could. I had no desire to let the engineer know that I was a derelict mother who may have just poisoned her child. I pushed Esther in her stroller quietly out the lobby door, grateful that I knew no one with whom I had to stop and chat. I stopped in the long hallway and began picking up stray Xanax and Ambien tablets from Esther’s seat. I kept looking at her, looking for signs of drowsiness. “Did you put any of these in your mouth honey, did you? Mommy really needs to know” – like a two year old could possibly grasp the gravity of the situation. I didn’t know how many were in my purse since I hadn’t used any for months and had forgotten they were there. Did she take one or six or ten? Esther looked a bit droopy-eyed to me, but maybe I was just paranoid. I gathered myself together and once again began pushing her stroller out to the car. She couldn’t have taken any, I kept thinking. They’re so bitter. She would’ve spit them out. But maybe the bitterness was masked by the taste of goldfish. Oh God, this is ridiculous. She couldn’t possibly have taken any. Calm down.


By the time we got to the car I was shaking and Esther was looking very sleepy. “Okay Esther, Mommy needs to get you out of your stroller and into the car” I said. “So you just stand right here while I fold up your stroller.” As soon as I stood her on her own two feet she staggered left like a sloppy drunk. Shit. Shit. Shit. She took them. She swallowed sleeping pills. My baby girl. My Esther. Just as I reached down to prevent her from falling over, one of the actors that was in the agency lobby walked by. A familiar face. He’s got a lot of commercials running right now. He’s probably nice, probably helpful. “Do you know where the nearest emergency room is?” I asked.


“Oh… Ummm… Hmmm… Well… Huh… Let me think…” He said… S-lo-w-l-y. God. I asked an obtuse person to help save my baby’s life. He was wearing a baggy, wrinkled Hawaiian shirt with beige shorts, and white socks with stupid dark brown winter shoes. Who wears those shoes in summer? Say something, I thought. Anything. Even ‘I don’t know’ would suffice. I could feel Esther growing heavier in my arms and wondered how long the obtuse actor would keep saying ‘ummm.’ The grass on the median was wet and muddy under my feet and my shoes were starting to sink. A stray goldfish was lying by my left foot. It must have fallen out of Esther’s stroller when I took her out of it. I was sweating and agitated and the sun was glaring in my eyes. The street was busy with cars and people. I could’ve asked anyone on this side street of Santa Monica Boulevard, but I ask obtuse actor guy.


“Never mind. I’ll figure it out” I said and whipped around to get Esther into the car. I climbed in the driver’s seat and called Tim praying he’d pick up his cell phone. “Esther just swallowed some Ambien or Xanax or maybe both. I’m at Santa Monica Blvd and Westholme. Get on Mapquest and guide me to the nearest emergency room.” He directed me toward UCLA. I kept telling Esther to stay with me, to look at me in the rear view mirror and try not to sleep. I ran a red light, jumped a green and made 2 illegal u-turns. Where is a cop when you need one? I could’ve used an escort, but no such luck. Just a lot of other cars with drivers flipping me off and pedestrians yelling at me like I was a crazed lunatic, which of course I was. I pulled into the emergency room, unbuckled Esther and ran her in. I thought they’d jump to my assistance and that there’d be lots of panic and screaming like on ER. Instead the nurse calmly guided us to a room in the back. Another nurse checked Esther out, hooked her up to some electrode looking things and asked me a bunch of questions. I thought for sure they’d call child services on me. When I told the nurse I thought it might be Ambien she said “Oh, that’s a great drug.” I looked at her and wondered if I was in hell.


Another nurse tried to give Esther this rather disgusting black stuff that had the consistency of tar – liquid charcoal – which would absorb any of the drugs still in her stomach before they went into her blood stream, but Esther wasn’t going for it. The nurse handed the stuff to me and I fed it to her from a giant syringe. Boy was that a mess – black tar all over both of us. The nurse said they’d need to observe her for about four hours, which is about how long it takes those drugs to move through your system.


After about an hour, the doctor came in to talk to me. He finally uttered the words I’d been waiting to hear: “Your daughter is fine. She’s just fine. A 2-½ year old has a very different metabolism than you and I, and sleeping pills don’t have the same effect. But here’s the deal” he said. “Next time, carry your prescriptions in childproof containers.” I thanked him, smiled sheepishly, and thought, ya – no kidding.