Two weeks ago my 87-year-old demented mother fell in her memory care unit and broke a hip for the second time in less than a year. Eight days later she died in a hospital under the care of Hospice, my brother at her side.
Until I sat down to write this, I was afraid I had lost my words, lost the need to write them, lost the ability to form them into meaning. But I haven’t. I’m still a writer. This remains. That’s a relief.
Oh, I’ve been writing. Lists. Notes. An obituary. Texts. Updates to family and friends. Daily journaling. But it hasn’t been creative writing. It hasn’t been this blog, or my fiction. These last two weeks have passed by, the first in a blur of pity and anguish, and the second in numb relief glazed with exhaustion, and I have not posted or published. I haven’t kept track of the days; they spill into one another, as the days and nights blended together while my mother lay dying and we waited.
For a time words have simply been inadequate to relieve the pressure of my feelings in any organized or coherent way. They flew away from me, leaving a series of kaleidoscopic impressions, sensual details so vivid they frightened me with their power.
While my mother lay dying I reread my childhood copy of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham. Reading has also largely failed to sustain me during this time. I find myself unable to focus. I read a paragraph or two, and then realize I’ve been sitting staring into space, out the window or into the garden, not hearing, not seeing, not even thinking. Just sitting. But I needed a companion for the night watches, something comforting and familiar. Something innocent.
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash
The fan in my window purred during those hours, blowing in cool night air and an occasional moth or mosquito. Every night, when I go to bed, I light a tea light in a candle lantern. When calls or texts reached me, I knew when I opened my eyes if it was before midnight or after, according to whether the candle still burned. Propped up on pillows, glasses on, my small bedside lamp alight, I spoke to Mom’s facility staff, emergency department doctors and nurses. I texted with my family. I read, the well-remembered illustrations making me smile as I communed with Rat, Mole, Badger, and the ridiculous Toad, finding respite for a few minutes before turning off the light and lying awake in the dark room, listening to the fan, feeling my heart beat, resting, breathing, waiting.
While my mother lay dying and after, I’ve stained wooden pallets. My partner and I are building a 3-bin compost system against the back yard fence. We set out sawhorses. I found an old brush, a rag, a stirring stick. We bought stain. I lay a pallet on the sawhorses, brush away dirt and debris, and paint every surface. The raw wood soaks in the oil-based stain, a rich brown color. The brush is more and more frazzled. I’m sloppier than I would be if painting a wall. The pallets are splintery. Some of the boards are split or loose. I bend over, the sun hot on the back of my neck and my bare arms. Mosquitos bite me. Stain drips between the boards as I brush their edges, dappling the sawhorses, falling onto the filthy old cream-colored jeans I’ve been wearing all summer in the garden, and onto my worn-out sneakers, used only for outdoor work now. As I maneuver between the boards, stain smears the skin of my hands and wrists. I kept the phone close, in a patch of shade.
This is the only sustained work I’ve been able to do. Now and then I wash a few dishes. I’ve done a couple loads of laundry. I go out into the garden, note the trimming, pruning, composting, mowing waiting to be done, and turn away. It all feels like too much. I don’t know where to start. It’s impossible to open the garden shed, get the tools, wheel out the wheelbarrow.
But the pallets. I can do that. It’s a simple task, direct. I don’t need to make any choices. Each side takes fifteen or twenty minutes. When I’ve finished a side, I wrap the brush in an old plastic bag, cover the can loosely, let the pallet dry an hour and a half in the sun. Then I turn it over and begin again. Two coats each side. One side after another.
Photo by Manuel Barroso Parejo on Unsplash
The smell of stain. The prickly feeling of intense sun on my skin. I think about compost, recycling, breaking down life to sustain new life. I think of ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I wonder if I’ll ever use the compost bins without thinking of Mom. I wonder who names the colors of stain and paint. I chose ‘Canyon Brown’ for this project. I vaguely hear birds, cars passing by. Small groups of women walk by in clumps, hospital employees on their lunch break, talking about families, gardens, school starting, hospital gossip. I should be at work, on that same campus, just a ten-minute walk away. I should be, but I’m not. I’m here, staining pallets, waiting for Mom to die and then on bereavement leave.
Am I bereaved? How would I know? I wonder why I don’t care enough to follow the thought. I let it drift away.
I decide I want to make bread. I don’t eat bread often, so rarely make it any more. But my rosemary is bushy and ready to be harvested, and someone brought fresh home-grown garlic into work to share before … before all this. So I make a sponge, stirring together milk, a little sugar, yeast, water. I chop fresh rosemary and garlic, very fine. I take flour out of the freezer and let it warm. The dough is heavy under my hands, sticky at first and gradually becoming supple and smooth. The earthy smells of garlic and rosemary vanquish the smell of stain in my nostrils. I turn the dough, kneading. The timer ticks off seconds and minutes. I clean the bowl, grease it, use a linen towel to cover it for rising. I put it in the oven for safe keeping, because the cats are likely to lie on it or step in it, or nibble at it if I leave it out. The bread, like the pallets, is a project in stages. I don’t have to focus on any one step for more than a few minutes. I move between the kitchen and the back yard with my phone, not thinking, not planning, just taking the next step, and the next. I can’t remember times, so I write them down. About 90 minutes for the stain to dry. An hour for the bread to rise. Another 90 minutes for the pallet to dry. Another hour for the shaped loaves to rise. Another 90 minutes. An hour for baking.
Photo by Helena Yankovska on Unsplash
At the end of the day, I have two enormous round loaves of bread to cool, slice, and put in the freezer. This batch will last me for a year. I have finished another pallet. I leave it on the sawhorses to dry overnight. My stained hands smell like garlic.
I haven’t cried since the last night call, my brother telling me Mom was gone. Perhaps I cried all my tears before she went. I receive condolences with all the grace I can muster. People talk to me about God and heaven. They talk to me about Mom. They talk to me about their own experiences of death. I try to be gracious. I try to look like I’m listening, like I’m there. With my brother and sons, my partner, I can be real. The faces of my friends comfort me. They don’t need anything from me. They don’t ask for anything. I can see their concern, their love for me, their sorrow. They hug me, and smile. They talk to me about small things, the daily things I’ve lost track of – family, friends, outings, work. I pick up a friend’s daughter and feel almost normal, doing an ordinary thing, a manageable task I cannot fail.
I realize part of my feeling of unreality is rooted in a loss of identity. I catch sight of myself in the bathroom mirror and pause. I rarely look at myself in the mirror. This woman, who is she? She isn’t the disappointing daughter any more. She can’t be, if there’s no mother to disappoint. What else is she? Who else is she? I look into my own eyes and feel no shame, no guilt. Did Mom take them with her? How will I navigate my life without them on my shoulders, without the knowledge that Mom is alone, suffering, needing? For fifty years I was at her side, day and night, year after year, ineffectual, helpless to fix or heal her physical pain, her dysfunction. Feeling my failure, my powerlessness, knowing I more often made it worse than better as time went on, even though she clung closer and closer to me as she aged. She could not release me and I almost waited too long to release myself.
But the geographical distance I put between us brought no real release. She still suffered. She declined, grew confused. Her body aged and began to run down. She was just as lonely without me as she was with me, just as emotionally remote, just as relentlessly needy. She cut herself off from me, but I still carried her. Internally, I still orbited around her. I still agonized for her.
I still loved her. I always loved her. I accepted she could not find me lovable, but it made no difference. She was my mother, and I loved her. All I ever wanted was for her to be well, and happy, but I could not make it so, and in her eyes it was my responsibility to fill her need. Indeed, she told me long ago her physical pain started with her pregnancy with me. I accepted the blame, and was heartbroken, and have tried desperately to make up for it ever since.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
Now Death has come to stop her suffering. Has mine stopped, too? I don’t know. I’m too numb to tell. But I feel different. I feel … released. I prayed for her release and freedom, not mine, but perhaps they were linked. Many times a day I think of her, hear her voice in my head, and I realize with a painful clench of my heart she’s gone. It’s over. I can’t humiliate her anymore because of what I wear, how my hair looks, what I do, who I sleep with, or, most of all, what I write. She’s moved beyond humiliation. I can’t fail her anymore. And that’s a soaring, joyful, unbelievable thought. I can’t fail her anymore.
I wonder if I’ll finally feel good enough, if I’ll do a good enough job, live a good enough life. Might I simply enjoy my small talents, my joyful work, my community, my garden? Might I immerse myself in the loveliness of life without the gnawing guilt of knowing I’m happy when she’s not, I’m companioned when she’s not, I’m relaxed and rested and peaceful when she’s not, I’m laughing when she’s not?
The last couple of times I spoke to Mom, I told her it was okay to rest now, she could let go, be at peace. We told her her loved ones and animals were well and happy, and she could relax.
I told her, and I meant it. Was I telling myself, too?
She could not release me, yet I am released. Did Death break the chains when he gathered her in? Or now, at last, have I released myself, now that she’s moved entirely out of my power and knowledge?
As I write this, it’s Wednesday afternoon. I have finished another pallet. I have written. I have sat in the sun, read a paragraph or two at a time of an old Edna Ferber novel, rested my eyes on the garden. The lily stems are turning dry and brown, as are the leaves. Sunflowers bloom. The sun is hot. The phone has been sitting on my kitchen table all morning, silent, as I go in and out. I have balanced my checking account, scheduled a private swim lesson in a home pool, ironed a tablecloth and three napkins. Tomorrow I go back to work.
A new page of my life has turned. I can’t read it yet. It’s enough to sit with it in my lap, letting my gaze wander over blue sky and afternoon clouds, the garden, our old cars, the worn wooden boards of the porch, the bruise on my left knee, the mosquito bites on my right arm, the smears of stain on my hands. It’s too bright in the sun to read this new page, too hot, too much effort. I’ll read it later.
I dare to be at peace.
Daughter’s Dream (July 2014)
I dreamt I carried my mother.
The car had slipped out of her control
with a blind will of its own,
and I thought I knew she shouldn’t be driving.
We landed in water.
I swam to her and held her in my arms.
Then the water was gone.
I carried my mother,
but she left my embrace,
slipping free of her embattled flesh.
Irrevocably, I felt her go.
I was alone.
I carried the vacant body of my mother.
Empty beds stood all around me
but the sheets were disordered and dank,
Smeared with shit.
I carried the vacant body of my mother.
There was no clean place to lay her down.
I carried the vacant body of my mother,
seeking to slip into my own freedom,
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I subscribe to a Substack newsletter for writers by Lani Diane Rich. A few weeks ago, she wrote about being bad. On purpose. It made me laugh.
Photo by 小胖 车 on Unsplash
I’m one of those people who has a recording angel at my shoulder, busily writing down every single less-than-perfect thing I think, say, or do. It’s a full-time job.
The idea of being bad – on purpose! – caught my attention.
Well, maybe not on purpose. Maybe just living in such a way that “bad” and “good” don’t enter into … anything.
But then again, maybe on purpose. Maybe writing badly, acting badly, cleaning a dish badly, or eating a whole pizza and letting the grease run down my chin without regret or guilt on purpose.
My horror at the idea (not about the pizza, though) makes me giggle.
This writer makes a great point. Doing things badly, in general, will result in negative feedback of one kind or another. But so does doing things well. In fact, sometimes doing things well results in more negative feedback than doing them badly! Then there’s always the average middle ground: doing things well enough to get by, thereby avoiding attention for being really good or really bad.
Ugh. I’d rather be bad than fit myself into average if I can’t manage good.
How many times in my life have I thought or said, “I’m doing the best I can”?
Hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands.
Why is it my job to do the best I can?
It used to be my job because I had to justify my existence. However, I’ve outgrown that mindset now and I can’t take it very seriously. I don’t have to justify my existence anymore.
I also did it to stay safe and get loved.
Photo by Laercio Cavalcanti on Unsplash
It didn’t work.
I do it to make a deal with the Universe. I’ll do this thing as best I can if you’ll make sure I’m OK.
Hard to say if that’s effective. I’ve always been OK, but I might have been without killing myself trying to be good.
I do it to prepare for failure. I’ll try as hard as I can, and if (when) I fail, at least I’ll know I gave it my best.
Failure and success. I’ve redefined those. I haven’t always gotten the success I’ve wanted, but that doesn’t mean I’ve failed. In fact, some of my most stunning missteps and miscalculations have turned out to be life-changing gifts.
In the end, I have one good reason for being good, and that has to do with my own integrity. It’s important to me to know I’m doing the best I can in everything I do. I don’t expect praise or rewards. I’ve learned (sadly) it’s no guarantee my needs will be met. I know better than to expect reciprocity or appreciation.
It’s simply who I choose to be in the world.
But here’s a question: are “bad” and “good” mutually exclusive? Would I be more flexible, more creative, healthier, happier, and more whole if I could be bad as well as good? Is there unexplored territory in badness? Could the ability to choose to be bad be part of being good?
Could I choose to be some degree of bad along with good?
Being skilled, productive, effective, useful, kind, reliable, honest, etc., etc. all the time takes a lot of energy.
A lot of energy.
When we’re kids, we’re taught good things come to people who are good.
It would be nice if life was that easy.
I can’t help but notice while I’m doing my best from dawn to dusk some other people are not. Other people are sloppy and lazy and careless and they’re not struck down dead by a celestial lightning bolt.
A little voice in my head says that’s all the more reason I have to be continually good, to pick up the slack the fuck-it-I-don’t-care people leave.
Bullshit. I’m not the Cosmic Miss Fix-It.
Maybe it’s okay to think about taking a break from the job of being “so goddamn excellent all the time,” in Lani’s words.
Everyone needs a day off now and then. A lunch break. A vacation. Maybe I’ve worked too much overtime being excellent. Maybe I’ve lost my work-life balance.
I wasn’t ready to do either of these things, and I’m not ready to have to go in the water and rescue someone at work, either.
Wait! Let me think about this some more. Let me prepare. Let me figure out how to do it perfectly.
Except life doesn’t wait.
Godin is so right. When someone is drowning, I’m going in. It doesn’t matter if I have the proper gear, equipment, attire, or level of energy and alertness. The temperature of the water doesn’t matter. I won’t wonder which form of entry to use. I won’t plan an approach. I probably won’t follow the exact script in our Emergency Action Plan. None of us will. I will blow my whistle, and if I don’t have my whistle, I’ll yell. Loudly. And I’ll go in.
I’ve moved house before. I’ve sold, bought, and figured out how to make it work. I’m not ready, because no one ever is ready, at least not if ready means knowing every detail beforehand. I wouldn’t have planned to decide to do this in late fall with winter and the holidays looming ahead. It just unfolded that way.
I’ve been thinking for years about ways to get my fiction into the world. Why Substack? Why now? Especially why now when I decide at the same time we need to move?
I don’t know. It’s time. It’s just time.
We re-certify every two years to keep our lifeguard status, and we train frequently. I have experience with moving. I have a disciplined writing practice and am an experienced blogger.
Performing a water rescue, buying a new home and moving into it, publishing on Substack, are all things I can do. I’ve done them, or something similar to them, before. There will be no perfect time. Rehearsing won’t help me. It’s just a way of allowing my anxiety and all the critics in my head to sabotage me.
While we’re hesitating, afraid of failure or less-than-perfect, opportunity slips away. While we’re waiting for the “right time,” we’re losing the time we have now. While we’re rehearsing how to pull a passive victim off the bottom of the deep end, they’re drowning.
For me, the key is not so much courage, which I have plenty of. It’s confidence, which I struggle with. But a lot of my struggle with confidence is based on old lies and distortions that are not real. I know I can perform a water rescue because I’ve done it before, many times in practice and a couple of times in real life. It wasn’t perfect. It didn’t look like the Red Cross training videos, where everyone is calm, the sun is shining, and it’s all by the book. But nobody drowned. Nobody died.
I hate moving. It opens up a lot of old trauma. But we need to move, and I know I can do it. I know liquor boxes make the best book boxes. I know how to show a house. I know how to navigate the legalities. I know where my power is, and I know what I can’t control in the process. It’s a familiar journey. Waiting for nicer weather, for the market to get better for sellers, better for buyers, or more stable in general; waiting for loans to be easier to obtain, or interest rates to go down, or to win the lottery; waiting for the stars to align just right because I’m scared, is not effective. The time is now. We’ll figure it out. Whether we have two years or a month of the process ahead of us, it’s begun and it will play out the way it plays out. It will be stressful, and exhausting, and a chaos of boxes (and cats) and belongings, tape and markers, and things we can’t find. It won’t be perfectly thought out or executed.
On Substack, people will read or they won’t. People will like the fiction, or they won’t. They’ll tell their friends and share it, they’ll comment, they’ll help me build a healthy, interactive community engaged in discussing community, story, and how to live more effectively on our planet, or they won’t. I didn’t start out perfectly. I go back every couple of days and tweak things. I’m figuring it out as I go.
We figure life out as we go. Our friends help us. We learn. We adjust. We make mistakes. We do our best.
So, yeah. If you go down in one of our pools while I’m on the stand, I’m coming in after you, and the rest of my team will be right behind me. I’m not ready. But I’m coming in.
We compare ourselves to others in contests and competitions. Our capitalist culture shapes us to believe winners receive the most money and fame.
Our culture assures us money and fame equal power, and winners have to spend a lot of money in order to win. Everyone else has to spend a lot of money in order to compete with them.
The fact is, contests and competitions produce one winner and many losers. But those losers want to win, so they spend even more money to become winners.
Win-win for capitalism, but lose-lose for almost everyone else.
I recently heard of a question on Facebook to men: What woman do you admire?
Nearly all the answers involved women of extraordinary intelligence and talent who have made important contributions to the world but are not necessarily well known, although their male colleagues are!
Are they losers because they’re not rich and famous? Can they be winners if we’ve never heard of them?
Is our win meaningful if nobody recognizes it? Is it meaningful if it’s not part of our identity?
Is it the win we care about, or the validation, power and applause we expect to receive as a winner?
Are our wins and losses about what we think of ourselves (empowering) or about what others think of us (disempowering)?
How important is winning? More important than the truth? More important than our own integrity and dignity? More important than our health and well-being?
Is our win really about someone else losing (I’ll show them!)?
Winning, like perfectionism and people pleasing, is a moving target, not a permanent state. Winners come and go, just like losers. Money and fame come and go, just like winners.
Our personal power stays with us, win or lose, rich or poor, famous or unknown. We each hold the keys to our own success.
(For the beginning of this series of posts, inspired by Allan Savory’s book, Holistic Management, begin here.)
Allan Savory’s holistic decision-making process “ends” with a feedback loop of planning (assuming the plan is wrong, as in planning for failure), monitoring, controlling, and replanning.
So, having spent a couple of months working with this model and writing about it, what have I got? Where am I?
I have no idea! I feel like I’m in the middle of a hairball.
Using Savory’s template is not the problem. It’s elegant, logical, effective, and sustainable. It’s a model based on power-with and win-win.
It’s effective because learning the process has successfully excavated resistance, blocks, and unconscious beliefs that are and have always been obstacles for me in all areas of my life. Until and unless I deal with my internal landscape, neither this process nor any other will work for me.
As I think about defining my creative output and consider how to get it in front of those who would find value in my work, I’m forced into a narrow focus. I’m forced into choice and commitment.
In the beginning, starting Our Daily Crime and writing my books was an act of defiance. I had no expectations at all. My motivation was to express myself honestly in spite of what anyone thought or said.
Now, years later, I’ve created a body of work, grown from those first bitter seeds of defiance. I discover I’ve written a blueprint, a map for reclaiming and managing personal power through emotional intelligence. It’s not finished. It will never be finished. Not everyone wants it, or can use it.
But some people do, and can. People like me.
Who are they? Where are they? How do I find them?
Upon waking this morning, dimly hearing peepers in the pond (Spring!), a robin, and a couple of barred owls, I had this thought:
I cannot be/give/do/create anything that anyone wants.
To say that’s a belief is completely inadequate. It’s a law of nature, like gravity, immutable, everlasting, absolutely indestructible.
It’s a belief underlying my whole life.
Is it true?
Panic stations! It doesn’t matter. I refuse to answer that question right now.
OK, I said to myself. Let me ask you this: If it were not true, how would you find your audience?
Now, that’s a question I can work with!
I would have fallen on Our Daily Crime and its content with joy and relief, had I found it eight or ten years ago. It’s exactly the support and resource I needed.
I well remember how I started on the journey of emotional intelligence and power reclamation. I know where I’ve found my people – and where I haven’t. I follow several people who add value to my life and serve as teachers, guides, and examples of simplicity, honesty, and effective marketing. They have found their audience.
I can find mine, too.
If I empower the belief I have nothing to contribute that anyone wants, I’m at the end of possibility as a writer. If I acknowledge the belief and work around it anyway, I’m in a new world of unexplored, unimagined possibilities, and Savory’s model provides me with a decision-making tool that allows me to pursue my own joy and success, remain cooperative and authentic, and maintain healthy connections with others. Everybody wins.