If Eve Had Been A Drinker

adam&eve

It’s Friday night. I’m sitting here with a big glass of Pinot. My dog is cuddled up next to me, and I’m waiting for the hubs to bring home dinner – pizza pie! THIS is my favorite time of day – wine o’clock. Last year, at my physical, I decided to be honest. On the line of the health history form that asks you to describe your alcohol consumption, I wrote, “one glass of wine daily.” In the past, I’d always just marked “Social Drinker.” The doctor read it and said, “So a glass of wine daily, right?’ with no tone of judgment. My reaction was a bit of a knee-jerk. “That’s right,” I replied defensively, “I’m a public school teacher and THAT is how I keep from losing my shit!” “Ooookay,” she said. In truth, I was only partially honest. Sometimes I have two big glasses. Sometimes I have one and some tequila drinks. It all depends on how many times I had a kindergartener throw himself on the floor in a tantrum or had two 5 year-olds have an octagon style throw-down over crayons or how many time I had my boob/butt patted to get my attention. In other words, it’s kinda like a teacher drinking game that I play when I get home.

I come from a looong line of people who like…and I mean really like…their drink. My paternal great-grandmother kept a cask of moonshine on her porch. She defiantly sold it by the cup…during prohibition. Of course, it helped that her son was the chief of police and most of the town was related to her. Some of my earliest memories of my mother’s family gatherings feature the most popular adult beverages of the time. I knew them all. What’s Uncle Howard got there? Oh, that’s a Harvey Wallbanger. What’s grandma drinking? Well, she made a big Tupperware container of Screwdriver and froze into a slushie! Grandma could never babysit on New Year’s Eve. She and her boyfriend always went bar hopping that night. My Aunt Char had her wedding reception in the fire hall next to my grandma’s house. “Oh, we can’t have alcohol in here? No problem! We’ll just set up the bar over in Mom’s garage.” One Christmas, Aunt Elaine gave everyone homemade Kahlua. Family reunions were always B.Y.O.B. (bring your own booze). That usually led to various family members getting into arguments, fist fights, engaging in expectedly inaccurate target shooting, and of course, the occasional random rifle shot into the night sky. I remember being surprised when my childhood friends didn’t know what a Whiskey Sour was or when their parents didn’t have a bar or liquor cabinet in their house. I thought everybody’s family was like mine.

Surprisingly, my first experience with drinking didn’t happen until the eve of my sixteenth birthday. What can I say? I was just an anxiety-riddled “good girl” who was too much of an emotional wreck to risk what little regard her parents had for her by engaging in underage drinking. The night before my sixteenth birthday, my “worldly” friend Kristen, who attended a fancy prep school on the East Coast, came to pick me. Maintaining an illusion of innocence, I bid my folks adieu and slipped into her junky brown Toyota Corolla hatchback. Away we drove. “Where are we going?” I asked her. “Not far,” she replied, smiling. We drove just a few streets over, to an area of my neighborhood that was under development. It was filled with partially constructed houses and was, largely, unoccupied. She parked the car in a remote corner of the area, reached into the back seat, and produced a bottle of Asti Spumanti and a bottle of Boones Farm. I know, right? You’d think a girl of her breeding would’ve made some classier selections, huh? The inexperienced drinker that I was didn’t know any better though, and it didn’t really matter anyway. These would serve the purpose and would’ve been enough for even the most seasoned drinker to have a pretty good time. Having been away at prep school, of course, Kristen had more experience drinking than I did. Actually, she had more experience with just about everything – booze, drugs, sex – everything. My world was tiny compared to hers. The only alcohol I had ever consumed prior to that night was a teensy bit of Kahlua during a slumber party I’d hosted one night when my parents went out and my siblings went to stay with my grandparents. This ridiculous adolescent “girls night” also included a viewing of “American Gigolo.” We’d heard that there was a scene showing male “full frontal,” and we were determined to find out what all the fuss was about. Since my family had HBO, fate made me hostess. None of us had much more than a nip of my aunt’s homemade coffee concoction that night, and the much-anticipated “full frontal” was disappointing. On my sweet sixteenth birthday, I was ready to take it up a few notches and do some big girl drinking.

Kris handed me the Asti. “This is for you since you’re the birthday girl,” she laughed. I might’ve been an inexperienced drinker, but, even at the tender age of sixteen, I was a bit of a baby badass. I’m Ancestry DNA certified Irish, see, so, I have a legit genetic claim to my ability to hold my liquor well – and hence the aforementioned familial propensity for it. And though I had never even laid a finger on a bottle of it before, that champagne cork wasn’t even a challenge. Kris looked impressed by my prowess. “Damn!” she exclaimed. Over the next few hours, we talked and drank and talked. She said she’d learned not to drink on a completely empty stomach, so she’d brought a couple snacks – a single bag of peanut M&M’s and some Corn Nuts. Trusting her wisdom, I picked the Corn Nuts for my entrée. We continued to drink and laugh and sing along to the radio. Somehow, the racket we were making didn’t disturb the occupants of the nearest house. If it had, we surely would’ve wound up with a police escort home. Once I’d polished off my bottle, she started the car. “Let’s get you home, “ she said. Okay. In hindsight, all of this was a series of truly terrible decisions on so many, many levels. While I’m fairly certain that Kris wasn’t nearly as drunk as I was, she wasn’t sober either, and yet she drove. Yes, she only had to drive a couple of streets over, but it was just dumb luck that nothing happened on that short drive back to my house. I dunno. Perhaps there was a guardian angel looking out for me that night, but it would not be the last time I did something so dangerously stupid and remain unharmed by it.

My dad was still up when we got home. Somehow we managed to get to my room without Dad detecting our intoxication…or so I thought. Before we both passed out on the bed, I distinctly remember thinking, “Man, this is the best feeling EVER!” Kris woke up at some point in the middle of the night, shook my shoulder, and said, “I gotta get back home before my mom gets up.” I nodded, groggily. I awoke a couple hours later, decidedly not feeling “the best feeling ever” anymore. And, just so you know, puking Corn Nuts made me unable to eat them again for, like, thirty years. In retrospect, my folks probably knew what I’d done. For one, I’m pretty sure they heard me in the bathroom being sick at 5 a.m. Second, it was super weird that my mom insisted on taking me to the mall to get my birthday present the next day. My mom worked at the mall and, normally, it was the last place she wanted to be on her day off. I think she thought the idea of going to the mall, feeling as sick as I did, might lead me to confess, beg to not go, and plead for forgiveness…you know, to “teach me a lesson.” I didn’t do too much drinking for a while after that.

Once I became an adult and a legal drinker, I only ever drank socially – out after work with the girls, at parties, on New Year’s Eve. I was pretty poor back then, so I really couldn’t afford to buy my own booze, and I mainly mooched off other people in those circumstances. Once I had kids, I almost never drank. I know right? It seems like that would’ve been the time I had the most reason to drink! Oh, I sometimes had a wine cooler or Zima on the rare occasions when we went to a restaurant or on New Year’s Eve. But most of the time I was just too busy being a mom. When I got divorced and my children and I moved in with my parents, I discovered that, once my younger brother and sister had finally moved out, my mom had begun a very particular Friday night routine after work. It was heralded by Todd Rundgren’s “Bang on My Drum” played precisely at 5:01 p.m. on her favorite radio station and consisted of feasting on an array of snacks, watching her favorite Friday night sitcoms, and drinking a big blender full of strawberry daiquiris. It was absolutely adorable. Here was this tiny little old lady rocking out to Todd Rundgren and blowin’ off steam after a hard week in the customer service department at JC Penney by getting her “drank” on! It looked liked fun. So, as a stressed out divorced, unemployed 33-year-old teacher intern raising two school-age children on her own, I was happy to join her in this weekly ritual when she invited me. Also around this time, my mother took an interest in wine and had found a local winery that she adored. She had a case of her favorite varietal shipped to the house monthly. It would’ve been rude to turn down her offer to share a bottle. And thus began my own relationship with the blessed fruit-of-the-vine, my beloved vino.

When we first met, my husband was not a drinker…at all. In fact, as unbelievable as it sounds, he made it well past 40 without ever having consumed alcohol. The reason stems from the traumatic interactions he’d had with his substance-abusing father while growing up. The smell of both alcohol and marijuana once induced extreme feelings of stress and anxiety for him. In the early days of our relationship, I had no idea about the depth of his reaction, and on one of our first dates, I asked if he minded if I had a glass of wine with my dinner. He told me that he didn’t, yet, after my first sip, his entire demeanor changed. It was then that I decided I loved this man more than I loved my wine. I went for years without drinking. Weeeell, I would occasionally hide a bottle of my favorite varietal in a cooler in the garage and enjoy it…on the down low…while watching my Britcoms when he had to work late. My husband’s feelings about alcohol intensified when a drunk driver killed my oldest daughter. So, it was amazing to me, a few years later, when he showed an interest in drinking wine “for the health benefits.” As you can imagine, I was only too happy to help him satisfy his curiosity. Yes, dear readers, I unfolded my arm, apple in hand, and extended an invitation as the serpent whispered in my ear, “Yeeesss! Go on! Do it!” And thus began my husband’s relationship with “demon” alcohol. I admit it. I corrupted him and officially earned my “Eve” card in doing so. Sadly, it was my only option since I never had the opportunity to take a man’s virginity. Well. Okay. I did have an opportunity. I just couldn’t close the deal. Sigh!

I could see it in my mind – St. Peter shaking his head and making a “tsk, tsk, tsk” sound as he crossed my name off the list. I’m not gonna lie. There are days when I feel guilty as fuck for corrupting my husband. Buuuut, man, do we have a goooood time now on Friday nights when we eat pizza and watch our Alaska shows on Discovery channel and DRANK! My little old mama had it right, y’all, and so did all those people in my drinkin’-fightin’-law breakin’ lineage. Life is short. Grasp those moments. Watch shitty TV for the sheer mindless pleasure of it. Eat the things you love, even if they aren’t “healthy”…sometimes. And don’t be ashamed to pop those bottles and DRANK! Just don’t drive when you do. Okay, playah?

Twelve

twelve

With a strong sense of accomplishment, I strode across the parking lot at 12:05 p.m. on my way to my car, fighting back tears. “Just a few more steps,” I thought, “and I’ll have done it. I finally did it.” Once inside the safety of my car, the dam broke. I drove the entirety of my blessedly short fifteen-minute commute with tears flowing, listening to “her song” – Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing – and all the other songs that remind me of my “Rockstar.” What an incredible feat! I was finally able to get through a day of work…well, half a day…on the anniversary of my daughter’s death. Every year since that awful, awful day I have taken a “personal day” off work on the anniversary. My job as a public school teacher requires an amount of energy directed toward the needs of others that I just haven’t been able to muster on this day for many years. So, out of fairness to the little ones that rely on me, I have chosen to stay away and let another caring adult look after them…just for the day.

Completely fatigued after coming off of two thirteen-hour parent/teacher conference days, I approached this day with trepidation. The night before, I stood in the shower with my forehead pressed against the cool, smooth fiberglass wall with the water as hot as I could stand it blasting down upon me. My thoughts were racing. I just wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it through even the few short hours I’d have to function in my role. I was scared. I had visions of falling into a million pieces in front of a classroom full of five-year-olds. I saw myself sitting catatonic at my desk or sobbing uncontrollably crumpled in a heap on the colorful “big carpet” in the middle of the room while one of the “responsible” students wandered the hallways looking for an adult to help. “There’s something wrong with our teacher,” I heard them having to say. I was scared that someone might have to call my husband, tell him, “Something has happened to Christine,” and ask him to come collect me. Or, worse, that I’d have such a breakdown that it would create a “spectacle” and my boss would have to call an ambulance to come take me to the psychiatric ward of the nearest hospital…which is, luckily, just around the corner. As someone with an already precarious grasp on emotional stability, none of these fears seemed out of the realm of possibility to me.

I tried my best to go “off-routine” this morning and not arrive at work my normal whole forty-five minutes before the students. I stopped and picked up a little breakfast. I took a short detour specifically to get a Starbucks coffee, but I still arrived at school close to my normal time. I was the first teacher there. After the previous night’s late hours, most of my colleagues smartly chose an arrival time that would compensate. I sat at my desk, in the quietness, sipping my Starbucks, trying to center myself and prepare. As an introvert who just happens to be a teacher, the sound of the school bell is what I assume the sound of an audience applauding and the sight of the curtain going up are like for an actor. It means that it’s “show time.” It’s always felt that way for me, no matter what day it is. And, like a stage performance, today had a true “the show must go on” feel to it. The students arrived – but only about three-fourths of my class. Some parents kept kids home because half-days can be a pain to make childcare arrangements for. But fewer students meant a quieter morning and the atmosphere I needed to make it through. It wasn’t until I came back to the classroom, after dismissal, that I felt the pressure of emotions so neatly tucked away into color-coded, teacher-organized compartments rising to the surface and tears building. As I closed my classroom door and headed toward the main exit, I made eye contact with a particularly empathetic co-worker – a fellow newbie to the school. I froze, certain that his acute sensitivity would allow him to detect my distress. “Have a good weekend,” I mouthed, as I resumed my beeline for the door. Luckily, I escaped without further interaction. When I got home, I felt completely spent and utterly exhausted from the super-human effort it took to keep it down for four straight hours. My dog, elated by my unexpectedly early return, greeted me with uncontrollable full-body wiggles, sloppy dog kisses, and snorts. But even this, something that normally never fails to comfort me, was just too much after a morning of locked down self-restraint. I had just enough energy left to go to the cemetery and shed the last of this day’s tears. I had to take a nap after that.

Knowing my history, people who have recently experienced the loss of a very close loved one often ask me questions. They wonder if what they feel is normal. I tell them, “Grief is not a ‘normal’ condition, but whatever you feel is just what you feel and that’s okay.” They want to know how long they will feel as awful as they do right now. They want to know, “When will it stop hurting so much?” The short answer is, “It never will…completely.” The long answer is, “It’s different for every person.” I cried every single day during my thirty-minute commute to and from work the first two months after my daughter died. After that, it was just the thirty minutes on the way home. After that, it was just a few times a week. Eight months later, by summertime when I was off work for a while, I was only losing it once a week – usually on my weekly trip to the cemetery. Then, over the years, it was just special events that shook me – the day she should’ve graduated high school, her birthdays, holidays, and the anniversary of her death. The only way I can describe it is that it felt like my grief was slowly…very slowly…turning “inside out.” The happy life events of others started to lose their ability to cut me to the core, as they once did. Graduations, marriages, and the birth of children of people Sarah’s age no longer hurt me quite as much. Now I just wonder…with some sorrow…what Sarah’s life would be like. She would’ve been twenty-eight. My God! How is that possible? In my mind, she is forever sixteen…with long flowing, dark hair and a smile that lit the room. I can’t hear her voice in my head anymore and that hurts. Yet, for some strange reason, I can still hear her laugh. She was always laughing. She didn’t take many things seriously, my little wing.

Sarah’s burial plot has slowly lost the intense feeling of connection to her it once held for me, too, but it took a really long time for that to happen. I remember how incredulous I once felt, when I visited the cemetery, about how people could neglect the burial site of a loved one by only occasionally placing flowers there. Now I understand. After a while, that patch of ground loses the full emotional charge it once had and becomes just “a plot of earth” where the remains of your loved one are buried. The place my Sarah resides now is within me. It took twelve years for me to feel that way. It took twelve years for me to be able to work just four short hours of my “normal” day on the anniversary of her death. I think that says a lot about loss and the power it can have over our lives.

The first law of thermodynamics, also known as Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another. I find comfort in this principle for a variety of reasons. I like to think of Sarah’s energy…floating around in the world…perhaps embodied in a sunrise or a snowfall or a moonlit night. I like to think about my love for her and hers for me, in the form of energy, radiating out into the universe and flowing into eternity. I like to think about how, one day, the energy that is me will join the energy that is her, and we’ll be joined again in a way similar to when I carried her inside me. Twelve years. It took me twelve years to feel beyond the pain…twelve years to feel the eternity of love.

 

 

 

 

The Exit Sign

exit

I confess. Part of me is afraid to put this out there. Yet another part is strongly compelled to. This post is real. This post is raw. Why? Because it’s time to throw back the curtain and expose an ugly hidden “shame” to the light of day. I’ve struggled on and off, all my life, with depression and suicidal thoughts. There have been many times when the voice of darkness has whispered into both ears, drowning out any and all other sounds. “They’re better off without you,” it says, “You’re better off dead.” And so ensues a spiral that sends me down into the pit of despair. I always know something is wrong when I can’t find the words in me and when that part of me from which writing comes feels numb. In my mind, I know what’s going on, yet I am shackled by my emotions. They imprison me. They bind me and prevent me from acting to help myself. When I feel this way, I am numb from the pain, and this pain is a tricky thing to explain. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I sometimes use it as a type of therapy…a catharsis, if you will. So, be advised, this is not a feel-good, fun, and humorous post. I will hedge a bet, though, that it’ll hit home for some of you in a scary-ass way. I will speak my truth here and hope it allows someone somewhere to understand a loved one…or, perhaps, themselves.

I’ve been trying to kill myself, in one way or another, ever since I was a child. Haha. I can feel you wincing already. Why can’t I just say, “end my life” or “commit suicide?” My dad liked to call it “committing sideways” or “going chop suey (crazy).” Nice, huh? Saying, “kill myself” embodies the reality of the feeling – you hate yourself so much that you feel compelled to murder yourself. Or maybe it’s that the pain is so deeply embedded within you that the only way to end it is to end you. I know, I know. It sounds brutal…and that’s exactly how it feels.

My attempts at self-destruction have taken a myriad of forms and have persisted throughout my life. I realize that reading something like this stated so frankly will make many of you uncomfortable, and, to you, I apologize. What can I say? On behalf of my fellow sufferers, I feel compelled to paint a crystal clear picture of what it is like to feel this way – to wish for…pray for…hope for…a day when you can just escape the pain. Yes, as hard as it is to understand, some people wake up many days feeling like they simply shouldn’t be here. I don’t know what brain chemical is responsible for that bullshit, but trust me when I say that it exists.

I was sexually molested when I was five. I was molested, again, from the ages of nine to eleven. I tell you this because I believe these events shaped my brain – physically and chemically. Yes. Really. Neuroscience has proven that trauma does, in fact, influence the development of the brain. With that being said, both the perpetrators of these crimes are now deceased, so there’s really no point in making an issue of the “who, what, and where” of it all. And, again, I’m simply mentioning these events because they – combined with the emotional, psychological, and (to a degree) physical abuse of my upbringing – were major contributing factors to my lifelong mental health issues. Depression is not always the result of trauma, of course. There are plenty of people that suffer from depression who had an uneventful childhood and grew up in a loving, supportive environment. That’s an important point. Depression is an illness, and like other illnesses, it’s indiscriminate.

Gentle readers, I’m writing this post in an effort to help you understand…those of you that love of us. I want you to know. I passionately want you to see that it’s us, not you. It’s not your fault that we feel this way. Hell, technically it’s not even our fault. It’s just the messed up chemistry of our brain and the raging battle deep within us. I know you feel like, “I should’ve seen it. I should’ve known.” Nope. No. Believe me. Some of us are really, really good at hiding it…and I mean REALLY good. In fact, some of us could get an Academy Award for how convincing a performance we give…and some of us actually have.

With all that being said, please don’t be mad at yourself. You love/loved us, and that should be/should’ve been enough. Know that there were times when you and the fear of hurting you were the only things that kept us here. Please don’t be mad at us though, either. Please don’t be angry that we got so lost in the maze of our confusion that we couldn’t find our way out…even though we heard your voice calling. It’s what we fear the most – you being mad at us and hating us as much as we hate ourselves for not being able to get it together. Please, just keep loving us – whether we are still here or not. That’s the other thing we fear – losing your love. Please know that we love you, too, even if you doubt that love in light of what we’ve done/contemplated doing to you.

If you had asked me thirty years ago if I thought I would still be here today, I could not, with any certainty, have answered in the affirmative. And yet here I am. As I’ve gotten older my battles have been fewer, with more time elapsing between them. I know it’s still inside me, though. Maybe it’s sleeping. Maybe it’s waiting. Maybe it’s looking for me to trip over some bump in the road and go tumbling so it can swallow me up for good. I don’t know. What I do know is that the words are here right now. I can find them. I can feel them. They’re flowing, freely, into my fingertips and spilling out onto this page. So, for me, it’s how I know I’m okay.

One of my favorite “self-help” authors, if you want to call her that, is Glennon Doyle. Many of her books and articles discuss what it’s like to live with depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts. She describes the feelings and experiences with an eloquence I can only dream of having. One of her articles likens attempting or contemplating suicide to trying to use an emergency exit. Afterward, the sight of the “exit” sign remains at the edge of your consciousness. You know it’s there, glowing just within the peripheral vision of your mind, even if you’re not thinking about using it right now. “If I need it, there it is. There it is, if I need it,” you think to yourself. I know loving someone with one eye on the “exit” sign sucks. What can you do? Just hold our hand when the lights go down in the theater. Squeeze it when you feel us tense up. The tension is us wanting to leave, but, if our hand is still in your hand, we probably aren’t planning on using that exit sign today.

To the Little Boys in my Urban Classroom

tears

I wish I could make you want it. I wish I could make you feel it – a deep desire…an aching thirst…to accept the keys I try to give you…every single day. I want, so badly, for you to grasp those keys, unlock the gate, and forge a path, fiercely, toward a bold future. I want you to have success beyond the minimum of what is required of you. I want you to claim your brilliance. I want you to outsmart them…all of them…those who look down upon you and underestimate you. I want you to surprise them with your eloquence and alarm them with your capabilities. I want those in the establishment to be threatened by your intelligence. I want you to seize the power that that brings you and wield it with the benevolence they never gave you…or me…or your sisters of color…or anyone that isn’t white and male.

The world needs you. The world needs men who understand what it’s like to be marginalized because there are so many others that have been, too. The world needs to see men of color who have found a way to rise above. It needs their heart…and grit…and guts…and perseverance. It needs to see you as something other than the stereotype that popular culture has painted you to be. It needs to see that you know…that you believe…you are more because you are. You are so much more to me. You are so much more to the people who love you. You embody the hopeful potential for which so many of us long – the hopeful potential of human evolution. Your success equals the success of our human race, not just your ethnicity. When humans overcome the direst of circumstances, we are all lifted.

Okay, guys, I know that I’m just some old white lady, but I love you. And I think you know that I love all the children in our classroom. As I tell you almost every single day, we are a “classroom family.” We love each other. Still, you still test me…almost every day. You want to make sure I’m not just saying that, like some people in your life have done. I know the things you do are, in reality, just asking me, “Will you still love me if I do this? Okay. Weeell, how about this?” Please know that the answer will always be, “Yes.” I plan to prove that to you. I plan to show you that I will never give up on you. I’m going to tell you, “Yes, you can,” when you say that you can’t. I’m going to expect you to do all the things I know you can…and that is everything your white counterpart does. Yes, it might be harder for you, and it might take longer. Yes, you didn’t come to me with the same advantages and background knowledge that those suburban boys did, but we can overcome that if you just trust me. I understand. I need to earn that trust. I promise I will try to make you believe in me…and, most importantly, in you. With that being said, just know I am expecting a decent “shout out” at your acceptance speech for the presidential nomination – after the one to your mother, of course.

Hot Mess: My Life As a Fabulously Un-Photogenic Woman

 

hotmesskinder

The first photo of me, as a newborn, hid it. The focus of the shot was my dad – the young, handsome, and thin version of him. The newborn me, balanced on his lap, looked like a cute little pink piglet swaddled in a brand-new receiving blanket as white as a first snowfall. It was downhill from there, though. Photos from my first birthday featured me with bright red decorative icing smeared all over my face, looking like a baby vampire. Mom and Dad were pretty poor, back in the day, so Mom used to cut my hair herself. Needless to say, ages two and three featured the asymmetrical bangs that accidentally made me look like a 60’s mod trend-setting toddler. When I was four, Mom became obsessed with the television show “Family Affair.” One of the characters was an adorable moppet named Buffy, whose golden hair was always pulled into two perfectly pipe-curled ponytails. My mother so adored this character that she had me spend the spring/summer chilling in the sun, in my little rocking lawn chair, with my baby-fine baby hair saturated in the then-popular hair lightening product Sun-In. What’s the downside to that? Yeah. Well, the only thing that could make a preschooler look like a white trash, hot mess is having brown roots and flowing bleach blond locks. That’s how I started kindergarten.

Kindergarten was my first school photo. It featured those roots and a shirt whose collar spanned the entire width of my shoulders. The kicker? The color – goldenrod! Sorry. I just threw up a little bit in my mouth thinking about it. By first grade, I’d lost my first tooth – a front one. Yup! First grade’s school photo was a snaggle-tooth nightmare. The dental situation was only the beginning, though. Scottish plaid was all the rage that year (thank you, Bay City Rollers!), and my favorite outfit was a “maxi-dress” with a smocked bodice in burgundy/gold/green plaid. This was not a good look against my anemic looking, milk-white complexion. I guess I should just be thankful that my roots had grown out by then. By second grade, I’d begun to put on weight (a LOT of weight), but the real tragedy is that I’d begun to experiment with boxed home perms. I know, I know, I know. In retrospect, I can’t believe it either. I mean, a boney gal like Gilda Radner could get away with hair that looked like Joan Crawford’s in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. But a butterball like me? No, not so much. Happily, my perm fascination was short-lived. So, apart from my hair always looking messy/greasy/dirty – whether I’d just washed it or not – school pictures in third, fourth, and fifth grade were awful mostly due to the horrendous fashion of the times – a navy-blue polyester dress with a white peter pan collar and a bonus tiny rose applique on the neckline that looked oh-so-flattering against my fat girl double chin, a polyester pinafore dress in hunter green with a gold floral blouse, a floral kelly-green blouse with a white cardigan. Have you thrown up yet?

Then, as I got older, I began “experimenting” with grooming techniques. The photographic evidence of this is featured in my seventh-grade school photo. I had THE coolest dolman sleeve sweatshirt… and that was a BIG get for me with my skinflint of a mother. It came from the Juniors department at JC Penney! Super cool! Unfortunately, the other “accomplishment” from that year was my failed attempt to remedy what I considered to be a “uni-brow.” In actuality, it was just a few stray hairs. In my thirteen-year-old mind, however, I was straight-up Frida Kahlo. Consequently, in my seventh-grade school photo, I am missing approximately a third of my left eyebrow, thanks to a failed attempt at shaving between the two. My eighth-grade photo featured yet another “fashion” trend – tinted glasses. Why, yes, I DO look like a stoner, but NO, I was not one. Hey, thanks for noticing, though! I looked pretty normal in my ninth, tenth, and eleventh-grade pictures…well, except for being fat. With that being said, after we got the proofs of my senior pictures, the pose I chose for the final one was based solely on how thin I thought I looked in it. Never mind that I appear to be looking off, wistfully, toward a future that was n’er to be as the thin, gorgeous, and photogenic lead singer of the next Go-Gos! Sigh! Some things never change. How thin I look is still the standard with which I choose any Facebook profile pic.

For many years, I put school pictures behind me. Then, at age thirty-five, I became a public school teacher. Of course, that meant the annual “picture day” was back in my life. Once again, evidence of the “hot mess” that I am has been thrust upon me year after year thanks to LifeTouch school photos. The good thing is that teachers don’t have to pay good money for these ghastly things. LifeTouch gives a few prints to them for free. I usually toss them in the closet, though, after giving one wallet-size pic to my dad. He gets a big kick out of showing it to people and saying, “This is my daughter. She’s in kindergarten” and then laughing like Pee-Wee Herman. “Haha!” The bad thing is that this photo also takes the form of the id badge I wear. It’s a daily reminder of just how un-photogenic I am. There it is…every day…hanging, literally, like an albatross around my neck. And, believe me, at this point in my career I have quite the collection of gag-inducing photos.

I think the only photographs of me I feel are truly “good” might be the ones from my second wedding. My dress, the most expensive garment I’ve ever worn, seemed to fit just right, and somehow this important day miraculously seemed to coincide with a “good hair day.” My complexion was clear that day, too. The home tooth-whitening system I’d been using for the previous six months seemed to have been effective. Although I did my makeup myself, exactly the way I always do, on that day it made feel like I was glowing. I felt beautiful, and, somehow, the photos translated it into the most flattering images of me that have ever been made…which, given my history, is no great feat. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the joy of that day somehow radiated into the molecules that compose the human shell I lug around, enhancing them temporarily, in the way photogenic people experience every day. It was nice.

Look. I’m okay with the fact that I don’t look like Gigi Hadid. At my age, really, I truly am. I’ve got other things going for me, I think. I’m just curious, though. I’d REALLY like to know what the secret is. How do you people do it, those of you that don’t have to take forty selfies before you find the one that’s the least disgusting to post as your profile pic? How do you do it, those of you that are always the best-looking family member in those holiday family snaps? And how the hell do you manage to look SO good in a fucking driver’s license photo? Really! HOW? Us ugly folks wanna know!

Self-Actualization and the Wisdom of Peter Frampton

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I should’ve been at a writer’s conference today. For the past couple of years, I have registered for it as soon as registration opened and waited, with great anticipation, to attend. This year, I didn’t. In fact, I missed the deadline altogether. I know this because twinges of regret about not going made me try to register at the last minute. It’s been a difficult year for me as a writer. I’ve written little, struggled to find the desire to write, lost confidence in my ability, and felt overwhelmed by the demands of the job that provides my income. It sucks. There’s nothing that hurts as much as being untrue to yourself. Anyone who’s ever lived a life of denial will tell you that. There’s a line in the song Ophelia by the Lumineers that goes, “I read the script, and the costume fit, so I played my part.” I feel like that’s me. That’s why I went into my current profession – teaching. It fit me, at the time. Look, it’s not like I don’t like what I do…well, I like the idea of what I do, anyway. I take it very seriously. I feel like it’s extremely noble and incredibly important. And it’s not like I don’t pour my heart and soul into it every day, day after day. Still, the intrinsic motivation I feel to give 110% to my job is mostly about my deep feeling of inadequacy…and having something to prove because of it…and my psychological status as a grade A people pleaser. It’s not because it’s my passion, though…and that sucks. My job has been draining every last ounce of my soul lately, because of the aforementioned reasons. Consequently, my passion…my writing…is writhing within me, starving and crying out to my conscious mind.

Okay. I am intensely aware that my plight is a total “first world problem.” I appreciate the things my job has given me – a decent income, health insurance, modest retirement savings. And, yes, my parents got what they wanted for me – for me to do a little better than they did. I got what I wanted, as a single mother, too. I worked my ass off to achieve a modicum of financial stability. I worked full-time while going to college full-time and raising two kids. After living in poverty, my goal was to stand on my own two feet and take care of my kids. I did that. Back then, though, I never once thought I’d find myself in a situation where I was considering what would make me feel fulfilled. I studied Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs in college. For those of you unfamiliar with it, his model details how basic human needs – food, shelter, and safety – take precedence over everything and then other needs like esteem, belonging, and self-actualization follow in that order. Sometimes, but not always, that hierarchy corresponds with the aging process and maturity. I spent a lot of my life trying to meet those basic needs. I am grateful that, thanks to my job, I rarely worry about them anymore. As a result, however, I can’t escape the nagging ache…the pull I now feel…to “self-actualize” and fulfill this burning need to write and only write. I dunno. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old. Maybe it’s because I’m feeling time ticking away. It’s just getting harder and harder to ignore. I have this crazy need to say stuff and a deep belief that the world needs to hear it. I have poems, just below the surface of my emotions, itching to burst forth. I have characters, the voices of whom are getting louder and louder, parading around in my head and demanding that I find an audience for them. I am confounded. I am perplexed. Aaaaand the final stupid thought floating around in this episode of “Hoarders” that is my mind? Peter Frampton’s lyrics, “Ooooh won’t yoooou show me the way?”

Ode to My Autumn Child

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October 7th, 2017:  I wanted the weather today to be gray and rainy and depressing, matching my mood. When I awoke, I lay in bed for a few moments. The light in the bedroom, at 8:30 am, was dim – suggesting that my wish had been fulfilled. From the delicious “sleeping in” comfort of my bed, I tilted my head back and peered through the partially closed blinds. A glint of gold from a few freshly turned leaves caught my eye. I sat up on the edge of the bed and opened the blinds fully. Thick beams of light stretched across the yard, illuminating those few golden leaves – their color accentuated by juxtaposition with the faded pale green of the surrounding ones, just on the verge of displaying their own vibrancy. “Shit,” I thought, “what an annoyingly beautiful day.” I appreciate the beauty of autumn. It’s like the leaves are donning their finest finery just to say goodbye to us in the most glorious way. It’s funny that we go on “color tours” to revel in what is, in actuality, a pretty clear signal of impending death. Comedian Jim Gaffigan summed up the sheer strangeness of this collective fascination with a few short words, “Everyone says, ‘Oh look, fall foliage! Let’s drive by the fall foliage! The leaves are SO beautiful just before they fall to their DEATH!’”

I love color…LOTS of color. Even when I was a child I was drawn to vibrant colors. I still love color, and fall has always been my favorite season because of its colorfulness. I remember feeling jealous of my father and sister, whose birthdays are in October. I recall many birthday preparations for them being carried out amidst the bright-hued orange, red, and gold foliage and golden rays of autumn sun. By contrast, my birthday, which is in winter – more specifically TWO DAYS after Christmas – was always set against steel gray skies and the black silhouettes of bare trees. Of course, since I live in Michigan, there was also the frequent prospect of a blizzard or slightly lesser snowstorm. Then there was the fact that people are coming off the major MEGA celebration that is Christmas. I have always said, “There’s just no competing with Jesus when it comes to birthday celebrations.” His is, of course, THE biggest. Plus, people are usually totally partied-out, after Christmas, and are just recharging their batteries in preparation for New Years. Consequently, my birthday has, typically, come and gone with little fanfare. Hey, no worries. I’ve long since been “over it.”

On October 7th, 1989, I found a depth of joy in autumn that I had never felt before. I gave birth to a beautiful little girl – Sarah Christine. Every year, I looked forward, with great anticipation to fall and to her birthday. Now, the changing of the leaves and the crispness in the autumn air are a reminder to me of what is not. The beauty of autumn still stirs my soul. The cool air still soothes my body, as I am not a fan of warm weather. Yet, the colorful foliage, the yellow fields of spent cornstalks, and the cool nights remind me that you came to me when the trees blazed color and the air held a chill. You should be here, still, Sarah Christine. I miss you. I love you. I’ll never stop loving you…or the season that, to me, is you.