Letter #26 | Father's Day Bonus
original publish date 6.18.17 | by Kiddo
It’s impossible to let someone know who my Dad and Mom were. My wife, M, who never met Dad kindly asks about him. I try to give a corner puzzle piece but humans are complicated, contradictory beings. It hurts that I can’t be the doorway between these two people in my life. I can never share a complete picture of Dad and I can never go back in time and introduce Dad to my new girlfriend. In spite of, or perhaps because of that impossibility, I try. I try to tell M everything I can about Dad.
It would be my honor to make the same attempt here. This is a short series built on my experiences, family lore, and imagination that I hope provides a glimpse at this person who remains a support beam of my life. Happy Father's Day, my friends.
I am kneeling at the little faux wood coffee table wearing my best puffy paint tee / leggings combo. The TV is cueing the Wheel of Fortune theme and Mom is finishing steaks in the broiler. I’m squirming with delight on the carpeted den floor as my Dad shows me how he writes his signature. A scribbly abstract line with only F, T and C recognizable. He garnishes with a randomly placed dot “for the i.”
He tells me everyone has a distinct way of signing their name, especially artists. I am enamored with the process of defining my autograph, something that is only mine — evidence that I am individual. I stare up at the popcorn glitter ceiling and imagine the signing opportunities adulthood will bring.
There is practice to be done and a master to learn the craft from. I pick the orange washable fine tip marker and get started.
The family is at Ruby Tuesday’s. I am surrounded by junk nailed to the walls. A waitress hustles passed us as we open laminated menus with photographs that make promises we know won’t be fulfilled. My feet dangle and I can barely see above the booth divider glass. Dad shuts his menu (I know it will be the burger medium rare, a slab of raw onion). He takes off his SUNY college ring and inspects it.
The ring is bulky: center ruby for his January birthday, deep engraving and beveling with names and dates that I see only as symbols — the ring predates my ability to read. Dad uses the ring as a toy, perfecting his drop-n-spin techniques. I’m hypnotized as he snaps the ring and sends it to the paper placemat in front of me. He describes the centrifugal force that brings the weighty ruby to the top.
But all I hear is the solid crsvvvvvvssshhhhh of a tight pirouette and then the slowing hollow woosp woosp woosp as it wobbles to a stop.
Many times the ring falls to the floor and is recovered by a kind booth neighbor. Dad slips it back on as the waitress brings four plastic glasses of water to the table.
Fred and Larry — practically twins — are once again spending the weekend at their Nana's. Larry openly distrusts the strict, compact woman. Fred agrees to win his big brother's approval, though he secretly loves going to the house. Yes, the food is dry and the smell of the house is sour, but Nana's is where The Mural lives.
Last summer in an uncharacteristic surprise for the boys, Nana commissioned a high school student to paint a wall-sized mural in the guest room. The mural shows a cowboy on horse-back stopped in front of a deep canyon. On the far side stands another man on horseback. They two are locked in a stare-down. Art they friends? Enemies? Who is the good guy? How will they cross the divide? Art they parting of reuniting? The mural reveals a new narrative every visit. Fred yearns to study it again and again to find a hint. Some nuance of body language or frozen facial tick made infinitely harder to read by their amateur execution.
The day Nana sells the house and moves in with her daughter, Fred mourns the loss of his first mystery.
Dad and I are at Domenic’s Tavern, a dark joint recently upgraded from seedy local shit hole to profitable sports bar with nightly parking lot fist-fights. This is where Dad comes to play pool and be unextraordinary. At Dom’s he is not a suit.
It’s crowded this Saturday night and everyone seems happy to see Fred. The air smells like Wild Turkey and aluminum kegs. The low light comes from green glass overhanging the pool table. Dad puts a pile of four quarters on the corner pocket ledge to call the next game.
“Hey Steve! Jason! You playing?” Dad asks, smiling and shaking hands with the brothers. Both are regional hockey players with a twenty-year age difference, looking rough but generous with Dad. Puffed-chested, the brothers come ambling toward me as my self-preservation instincts kick up.
“Yeah of course! And this round’s on you, right?”
Dad introduces me and moves to a clear spot the get the bartender’s attention.
“No shit. You're Kath-a-leen? The Arteest in the big apple?” Steve asks with a grin that idles between menacing and friendly.
“Your dad is fucking killer at pool but he won’t join the Dom’s team. We go to Vegas to compete. We need decent guys like Fred,” Janson spouts, bouncing on his heels. I shrug in response.
“Your daddy’s a good one. You know? — he talks about you all the time. You got some fancy job in New York, huh? Yeah we know all about it.” Steve doesn't wait for my answers.
I feel relieved Dad has friends, embarrassed to be living in New York, worried he’ll have an off night trying to impress me. Dad joins the circle with shots and cheers to Dom’s congregation. His praise and affection are a coveted prize even among the barflies.
I can’t bear to disappoint him so I pick up a pool stick and agree to play teams.
Fred travels on 95 South at exactly 4 miles over the posted limit — enough to be in the flow of traffic but avoid getting pulled over. It’s early winter so the driver’s window of the Honda is cracked to blow out cigar smoke. Fred reaches for the mug of coffee — it’s late — after 11pm on a Tuesday and he’ll need to be up for work by 6.
Along 95 on Fred's far left, the Amtrak to DC noiselessly passes. He catches up with a Dodge missing a break light. The monster green signs show exits for Newark, Delaware. The monotony of any highway — he knows it well.
Tonight Fred is on a special mission. He is equipped with a large tackle box of tools and work gloves for the job. He flicks the right blinker on and turns up the Muddy Waters album. His smile morphs into a yawn. Fred is on his way to help his college daughter change a flat tire. He wonders how many more times he’ll get to swoop in and rescue her like this again. The exhaustion he’ll wear tomorrow is for tomorrow.
Right now, he’s the Hero.
I am in a tight hotel room in Downtown Brooklyn. The space is cramped but it’s the only place that allows dogs and Dad won’t stay overnight if Charley can’t come. The room is carpeted in EZ Cleen® panels and smells like flowery bleach alternative. My mother is loading her purse— a hefty burden she carries throughout the visit to New York.
We will be late for our scheduled appointment to the 9-11 Memorial if we don’t leave right now and instead of checking for hotel keys and heading out, Dad grabs the paper and heads to the bathroom.
I take a deep breath and try to stay calm and open, like my guided meditation practice has been telling me. They are visiting because they love me. Bring compassion. Be patient. It’s not working.
Charley jumps at my legs in the alleys surrounding the bed. There is nowhere to hide. The truth is that I want to meet up with friends and bike to an art exhibit. I want to be free to complain about my folks. The tension I feel is a tightness in my throat — it's a challenge not to check my phone.
When we leave 20 minutes later we need to drive to make it to the Financial District by 3pm. My mood continues to vibrate with impatience. By the end of our day I hug them quickly so I can jump on my bike and leave.
My hasty goodbye is the last time my Dad ever hugs me, or says, "Love ya, Kiddo." The distance between that last embrace and the present moment will stretch longer and longer filling up the rest of my life; an impossible canyon to cross.
My Dad at this very moment is in a box small enough to fit a basketball player’s sneakers. The box is inside the TV entertainment cabinet in the den among DVDs and McCullough hardbacks. But I know he’s not there at all. Right now he’s in the rings on Mom’s dresser; he’s in the handkerchiefs I stole from his nightstand; he’s in his watch that Mom resized for me and I lost.
He’s encoded in half my DNA, I fear and hope I recognize him. He’s simulataneously no longer on Earth and also just working late at the office. The way he was somehow both "Dad" and "Fred." He’s in my desperate attempts to be non-judgemental, light-hearted, and relentlessly curious; an effort to activate his best qualities and continually falling short.
He’s in these little flashes of familiarity that are so surprising my breath catches. He’s in moments and objects and fictitious memories — places I didn’t expect to run into him, because he is my Dad — frustrating, adoring, loving. The absence that still feels temporary.
Special thanks to guide and friend, Domenica Ruta who read many iterations during the development of this piece.
Letter #25 | Interview with composer, Avi Amon
original publish date 6.13.17 | interview with avi amon by kiddo
Musical theater composer, Avi Amon, talks to me about losing his songwriting process, First Generation identity, and finding new perspectives from dementia patients. We also talk about being peanut butter and how in creative work everything is Olympic training #truth.
Kiddo: You’ve been researching memory, forgetting and processes. Talk to me about where this work began.
Avi: I had a residency with Target Margin Theater all about developing your process in a new way. I had a realization before I started the residency: I was performing composerdom. I was performing this role of what a composer is. I had this set of muscle memories that I was very comfortable with. They were successful, they were achieving their goals, I was receiving positive feedback. But in that, I was just doing slightly different versions of the same thing over and over and over again.
You can’t do that your whole life. You gotta come up with new shit.
So, it started off as a quest to lose habits. And it just grew from there. That’s just on the process side. The spark into an actual project came from a New Yorker article.
The smallest thing in the article — just an offhand mention —through a cultural and archeological process we rebuilt a picture of the past that had serious implications for the future.
I was also thinking about identity. It’s in the air right now. As First Generation [American] some of my identity is very available to me and some of it is consciously made unavailable. Have I lost anything and how do I figure it out?
K: what came from those conversations with your parents?
A: It made me want to understand what it meant to be Turkish. My parents aren’t really thinking about [identity] because it wasn’t in the air for them.
K: And your parents didn’t speak Turkish in the house?
A: They did. They were speaking all kinds of languages to me and I wasn’t speaking giving them anything back. Now I can only speak English; I can understand all these other languages which further complicates it. I’m not fully American, but in Turkish spaces — even Turkish Jewish family spaces — I’m not quite there either.
That’s loss of a communication tool. My grandmother who passed away last year spoke a dozen languages, but the only one we could communicate in was the one she knew the least.
Growing up it’s like, this is normal!
K: Will you unpack that?
A: Many of us live in a liminal space between lots of different identities; we perform femininity, we perform masculinity, we perform American, Jewish, Turkish…whatever. All of these identities are true simultaneously. It became apparent that I wasn’t fitting into these spaces 100%.
I asked my parents questions to piece together a history, but there are holes in the information available.
A: It made me understand outsider status in a real way. It’s an empathy tool.
K: I want to come back to de-habituating creative process — how did you begin?
A: At the start it was hard. Making conscious choices. Find a different way.
It took longer. Which sucks! Because, The Deadline, or I’m sick of this song. But I have to invest in this process now because in 10 years I’ll be less flexible in the ol’ noggin.
K: Being a beginner at something you are already an expert at is infinitely more frustrating than starting a brand-new skill.
A: I don’t remember the last time I started something new. Everything I do is related to something I already do. We are so averse to pure failure.
But that shit’s fun.
If you build failure into your process, if you build not being precious about losing a thing, or losing at a thing, then it allows you to glide a little bit.
K: Yes – I forget the joy of the experience in favor of being good at it. Externally a “good” outcome.
A: Do you think it’s a peer evaluation thing?
K: Probably. Some fear of failure or humiliation, which of course under the slightest scrutiny I see is ridiculous. I need to consciously steer into “new.” I know it’s uncomfortable but if I power through, the fear evaporates.
A: After grad school, I could just crank that shit out. Songs would all be totally different but they were still in this “thing” and I fucking hate these.
Thank god for the 52nd Street Project thank god for working with people who aren’t song writers across mediums. There are no expectations.
[Nontraditional collaborators] say, I like music or I like sounds.
And I’ll say, yes but what kind of sounds? Tell me exactly so that I can deliver what you want and you can give me a 10 out of 10.
The collaborator is thinking no, that’s why I hired you to figure that out – I don’t know shit about composing.
Now it’s uncovering a voice and opinions you didn’t even know you had.
K: You broke down the process, you worked with these non-songwriting professionals — what tools came out of that?
A: Everything is additive. I still write songs. But I also have the freedom to wander and get lost. Solnit wrote about it —about the value of being lost and bored in a process.
On a micro tangible level, the way I save ideas on my iPhone has changed. I used to be very literal. I’d have a quick idea — I would name it, “it’s in this key, it’s in this time signature and it’s this feel.” Now ideas are named “Texas cloud pillows” or “bread on a Tuesday.” So, when I listen back to them it doesn’t give me any more information. It’s just a quick capture of a feeling.
I’ve been almost militant about getting ideas down but now, much more so. Those improvised things that you lose the second after you finish playing them…I have had so many times when I think, fuck! That was my arrival moment. I have achieved all of my dreams and I literally can’t remember it.
Now, to the point of obsession: get ‘em down.
More than 50% of the time it turns out to be a little bit of garbage (I’ll keep it — you never know), but sometimes I’ll listen back and it’s there. Oh yeah, That.
I’ll try to reproduce it and each reproduction gets worse and worse and worse. I have these polished finished songs that sound perfect, but I still prefer the original seed of an idea.
K: Liz Gilbert talks about ideas as entities that exist outside of ourselves trying to collaborate with a human. Pure idea.
A: The feeling of that specific creation is the temporary thing you lose as you refine and refine. You’re not trying to create a Thing, you’re trying to share the experience of making — of creating — with people. It’s elusive.
Feel how I feel when I’m making this.
K: For you — as the artist.
You’re trying to manage that experience for other people — impossible. But that creative birth that you love that’s lost to you as you play the refined finished version, is NEW for the audience.
A: It’s also a reminder to do work when you think of it. There have been pieces I have started that I loved when I started them. This could have been something. But now I go back to it and I don’t care about it anymore. Fuck, I really wish I finished it.
K: Will you talk a little about your process and how the The New Yorker article fit into what you’re working on now?
A: The [New Yorker] article was my in. I kept stumbling upon things with similar themes. One thing and led to another piecing histories together.
An old matzo factory in Turkey was closing down and my artist cousin was printing matzo ghosts on paper. Next I read about the only man who died on the Lewis and Clark expedition — his appendix burst which we know based on symptoms in journal entries. From there I found out about a man who woke up in a park in Seattle and didn’t know who he was. Which led to research I did about patients with dementia.
Dementia patients tend to repeat certain phrases. What are you actually trying to say? Why is this the thing you are repeating? A lot of researchers think that dementia patients aren’t actually losing their memory, but rather losing the capacity to form a through line. Space and time become less linear — it’s more like a cloud and they are jumping around. From there, I learned about Memory Studies which is a subject you can get a fucking PhD in. It’s all about studying how and why we forget. For instance, institutionalized erasure, or personal trauma blocking.
One thing led to another and now I have a massive collection of stories and ideas that I’m not sure what to do with yet but they’re all connected. They’re all loss.
Sometimes you have a deadline. The thing’s due next week. You’re not allowed to be inspired. You have to finish it.
This is different. The appreciation of time in a thing, enough time for boredom to occur. Looking at one thing and then another and another and another until you say “ohh, that’s it.”
Not everything can be Googled.
K: Thank god.
A: Thank god.
K: Does it bother you creatively that this might not become a Thing? That the amorphous pieces aren’t connecting?
A: No. Right now that’s my aesthetic. I’ve been finding narrative really boring. I’ve been into things that are paintings. This is a cloud of an idea of a meditation on a Thing. [laughter]
We all have things we don’t understand. Take the dementia patients for example. Losing your mind — whatever that means — at first understanding of that phrase, it’s terrifying. To be lost in a thing I already don’t understand. But maybe there’s something interesting in there; a new viewpoint, a new appreciation from which to be a better human.
K: What have you seen so far that leads you to believe that?
A: It’s the appreciation that at any moment I could be 100% wrong. Then taking ownership of that potential wrongness throwing it into the mix when I sit at the piano.
Assume the thing you are doing is incorrect.
K: What does loss mean to you in your creative work?
A: It’s two-fold: it’s losing processes that I thought were important or things I thought were the rules – appreciating that that doesn’t have to be the case. Being more flexible. A loss of structure.
Then, appreciating a loss or a lack of identity as an identity in it’s own right. The stories we tell are the skeleton we hang the whole world on. If you lose those stories because of a specific event or because of an unknown history you are in a state of trauma until you can rewrite a narrative to fill that.
Loss of personal narrative as opportunity for reinvention and genius. Being prepared for that in process and in practice so that when it happens I can exploit it to understand the world better.
K: What does that preparedness look like for you?
A: Getting better at no assumptions. I’m so far from that, but getting better.
I sincerely hope that you’ve enjoyed this first Loss Letter interview, you’ll see more in the coming weeks. Thank you to Avi Amon and his many works of creative brilliance. If you are in the New York area I urge you to see The 52ndStreet Project, follow Avi Amon’s latest vehicle, and stay ever-open to creative way-finding in loss.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Letter #23 | Tools for a Holiday
original publish date 5.30.17 | by Kiddo
As I write this, it’s Sunday night. Mother’s Day night — the first without mine. I spent this day in utter abandon to my own care.
I did my usual Sunday morning routine: walked the dog, picked up coffee from my wife at the café, showered, meditated, wrote for a bit, answered work emails…
I dressed in something nice, wore my Gram’s necklace, tucked in my shirt. I put a stone in each coat pocket — gifts from a fellow motherless daughter — Apache Tear for healing grief, protection and grounding, Rose Quartz for comforting and deep inner peace. My partner, M, and I walked to a small bookstore where I picked up Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World before we headed to an unusual Mother’s Day Brunch.
THIS WAS A SPECIAL brunch. Each guest in attendance had lost their mother — some through death, others through an unrecoverable severed relationship. The hostess, G, has a beautiful vision to reclaim a painful holiday and use it to share our stories, photographs, grief…the marks of our scar tissue. G is building a tradition: we bear witness to one another’s growing lives — the things our mothers are missing. The brunch is in its third year and I am the newbie.
Motherless Day Brunch had a spread of homemade savory brioche, deviled eggs, biscuits, piles of bagels with spreads, smoked salmon, inherited decorative plates, bowls, silverware, coffee. The makings of intimacy. We milled around introducing ourselves and telling a little of our story, laughing much more than one might expect from a congregation of this commonality.
WE SETTLED INTO OUR seats around the room and one by one shared a bit about where we were in our process, a memory of our mother, the tale of how we were separated from her. The honesty in the room made speaking about my loss manageable. No one in this crew was pretending their mother was perfect.We spoke about the flawed creatures that gave us life. That truthfulness meant I could grieve on a plane of reality.
I FELT GOOD and didn’t feel guilty about feeling good. New territory that I spent the day tasting because I honored my human, imperfect Mom outwardly,safely. Connecting on our grief.
I spent the evening alone walking in the sun through the Prospect Park thinking about my mother. Being with her by exercising my memory of her details. The night ended with a therapy phone session (a just-in-case I planned for the holiday).
The day was a skillful framework for deep support. I am sharing the experience to say this: I found a plan for my day that held the conflicting truths of my deep sorrow and my connected beautiful life. I felt held in love because I set the day up to be love-filled. My luck and gratitude for friends like G, who host inspired and healing events is bottomless. If you need this too, perhaps you can be the fire starter.
Letter #22 | Consolation Prize
original publish date 5.23.17 | by Kiddo
Loss transforms the chemistry of our lives in ways that are difficult to understand or even really recognize, but one of the more egregious changes is my thorough loss of control.
I never actually had any control over my life, the people in it, the places and surroundings. That is and always was the reality. Control is a delusion granted to me because of my privilege. Privilege that I had enough to eat every day as a child, that my life and security were not in imminent danger, that I had full mobility. The delusion of control fogs my vision and turns me into the sun center. I’m the main character of my life; things will certainly work out for me, right? When great loss happens, the illusion that I have any control over anything or anyone in my life absconds.
I am left with a lucidity that comes from understanding I am human and I will die, that everyone I love is human and will die. That clarity, as you may already know, is not a burden. Quite the opposite: it is freeing. Contemplating death is a common Buddhist practice meant to help the practitioner open to the life available to them. It’s not a meditation to instill fear and torture, it is meant to bring me to the present, real moment.
The clarity of loss is freedom from giving a fuck about most things. It’s a shift that highlights what Matters in my life. That might sound trite, perhaps because it’s a truth. The high-pitched striking clarity that happened directly after losing my Dad faded a bit — life and its petty dramas popped back up here and there — but the significance that loss articulated still defines my lens.
If I could trade that clarity for my parents, I would. But I don’t have control so I take the consolation prize.
With gratitude for all of it,
Letter #21 | The Watchman
Original publish date 5.16.17 | by 3rd daughter
3rd Daughter first shared her story with us in Letter #10 Dear BioDad. She generously took us deep into her path, bringing us along the push and pull of anticipatory grief and love for her imperfect biological father. 3rd Daughter's journey continues today with The Watchman.
YOU GAVE ME A WATCH for my son, for when he becomes a man. Your mother gave you that watch when you graduated college at 51, after two devastating strokes, a pile of seizures and two years of rehab to get you walking with a cane and a brace, to teach you to talk and read again. You were blind in one eye and 75% of the other, paralyzed on the left side. You'd be disabled for life but you went back to school, graduated with honors. They wrote about you in medical textbooks. The man who'd survived. You were six years sober, twenty years divorced, a father three times over, and you'd just then become a man in your mother’s eyes. Your mom wasn't the gift-giving type. I know how much that watch meant to you. Your brother Daniel was jealous, and said so.
It's a lovely watch. Platinum and gold band, navy blue face with tiny diamonds to highlight the most important numbers. You inflated its value of course. Saying it was worth thousands, telling me the designer's name again and again. My wife googled it — the watch is worth $678.45. The beat-up leather box it came in decreases the value. But also, it's priceless. His Grandad's watch. For when my son becomes a man.
It was easy, at first, not to cry in front of you.
I didn't let you see me cry when we got to your house in Florida, three-month-old in tow, and you were a hundred pounds smaller, staring at the floor, wrapped in your Irish blessing blanket and a cloud of pot smoke.
I didn't let you see me cry when we took you to your last AA meeting in Florida and you told your home group, the people you'd say with every single morning for seven years, that you were going to New York to “work on a new project.”
I didn't let you see me cry when my wife quietly went around the room afterward during fellowship to make sure that the people who loved you understood that you weren't coming back.
I didn't let you see me cry when we sat down with your new oncologist in New York and you started talking about plans for chemo and beating this thing. I didn't let you see me cry when I asked him to please tell us point blank if chemo was ever going to be an option for someone like you whose cancer had metastasized to every corner of your body.
I DIDN’T CRY when your brother Daniel called me at midnight to assure me he didn't want to criticize how my sisters and I were handling things but shouldn't somebody be seeking a second opinion, signing up for clinical trials, had I heard about that new light chemo? You were in New York by then, at my stepmom's house, dying in the home you'd once inhabited with her and my sisters, when they were babies. Daily you were puking bile because you hadn't eaten in months, your esophagus was an angry rock. I acted compassionate with Daniel but made my voice firm as I explained: the liver, the bones, the lungs, the adrenal glands and lymph nodes. Kidney failure. Organs shutting down. We were on our third opinion by then, you were fading in hospice, having already lived longer than anyone expected you to. He wanted to know why we weren't doing everything possible to extend your time on this planet and I explained about quality of life over quantity. I explained about acceptance, and how our hopes had shifted from “more life” to “a good death.” I tried to do patience with him.
I held his rage and fear and anguish and I didn't cry because he was your nemesis your whole life — your best frenemy, your strongest competition, the one who, when you came to find me, got angry because before I was a thing, he’d had the oldest grandchild and he felt usurped, accused me of seeking you out for your money. The thing he didn’t know, couldn’t see, was that I hadn’t come looking for you. I had a dad and resented the intrusion of you into my life.Also, he didn’t know but you were poor when you found me, newly sober and just starting to get on your feet with a grown-up style job and a rented apartment with a front porch and big windows, third-hand couch sagging comfortably surrounded by plants and guitars. You didn’t tell me just then about Daniel’s mistrust, about the lies you’d told your family for years, denying my existence and my paternity. I found out later and it didn’t hurt that much because by then I understood that when you came to find me, you were being your best and truest self. And for years before that, the person Daniel knew, the person he competed with and fought with and sang in a band-width, well, he wasn't the most truth-telling guy. The layers of hurt between you and him are old and crusty, love glues you two together, but so does pain and rage and one-up-man-ship. I didn’t cry when Daniel called me at midnight because crying in front of Daniel would've been worse than crying in front of you.
I DIDN’T LET you see me cry that night in Florida when you staggered out to the living room at three am in your underpants. I was on the porch smoking cigarettes in the dark and you looked like a stick figure, your heard wobbling uncertain on a pipe-cleaner neck, your tightie-whiteys sagging like my 1997 Jncos, your grey thighs like old French fries. You were looking for something, your phone maybe, and you leaned on chairs and the TV stand on your slow way around the room. I sat in the dark and ached at the question mark your body formed and I didn't let you see a tear.
I cried in bathrooms, in cars, on the subway and in bed. I cried loudest in the car. Choking and snorking and apologizing unnecessarily to my wife who just held my hand and kept driving. “Cry,” she said. “It’s ok. Just cry.” I cried while singing lullabies to my son, wetting his sweet head. I sobbed, curled around my cat on the couch. I cried at certain songs and one night on a road trip, when Delilah on the radio read aloud a story of a man who went and found his daughter twenty-one years later. I wailed but I didn’t let you see.
I cried in the hospital parking lot with my stepmom, once. On the highway with my mom, twice a week for months. On the train platform with headphones in my ears, Lin-Manuel Miranda singing “look at my son, my son,” my own son sleeping sweetly on my heart. I cried on my couch while texting with my sisters, searching out a new home for your cat. With my journal in hand I let the tears drip, writing writing writing trying to make space for these fucking feelings all these unsayable things knocking about in my heart.
But I didn’t cry when you cried. I didn’t cry when explaining to the night nurse that a bathroom call from you WAS an emergency, that because of the stroke you wouldn’t know you had to go to the bathroom until it was almost too late. I didn’t cry when you told me she accused you of peeing yourself on purpose. I didn’t cry when I met with the social worker, when I argued with your doctors, and I didn’t cry during conference calls with the hospice team.
But when you put that watch in my hand and said, “for Harry” I took a breath and the breath caught and when I tried to respond I said “Chris do you want to tell me what occasion I should give it to him for?” And I couldn't stop it, it was only a choking moment, a wet face and blurry vision, but I’m pretty sure you saw. I’m pretty sure you know I was crying when I took that watch and you said,“you'll know when.”
This letter is dedicated to CJB 6.20.55 - 5.5.17
Thank you so much to 3rd Daughter for sharing her on-going navigation through loss and love. We are so lucky to have this very brave woman among us.
Letter #16 | Counting Down
Original Publish Date 4.18.17 | by Kimberly Vogt
This week’s Letter comes from contributing writer Kimberly Vogt. With her incisive writing she takes us into the depths of an eating disorder. I want to jump right into Kim's work, so I'll keep this intro short.
I met Kim at age 6 — she was the first friend I chose. You. You're interesting. By 11 we were drawing the floor plans to our dream penthouse apartments in sidewalk chalk and deciding that we’d be the kind of women who hit our stride in our mid-thirties. I’m proud to have this woman's humor, wit and kindness in my life now that we have hit our thirties. I hope, dear Reader, you get as much out of Kim's essay, Counting Down as I have.
I'd first like to introduce you to a conversation I had at lunch today. There are about eight of us ladies who take our lunch break together. And since we are all around 20 to 30 years old, someone is always, inevitably, on a diet.
One is on Weight Watchers,
another Lean Cuisine's only.
One seems to eat only raw, green peppers
and another religiously types her macros into her phone tracker after every bite.
Sometimes we talk about it "How many calories are in those chips?" "Have you gone back to that trainer at super fitness?" and other times we don't. In fact, you've probably had lunch with people like us at some point. And maybe you are one of us. It's fine if you are.
From TV stations dedicated to eating the biggest, greasiest food possible to weight-loss competitions that parade the overweight around in shirtless gym clothes, we are a culture obsessed with food, fitness, and form. It's kinda, sorta, not our fault. Sorta. I only say this because I should say something. I should just scream, Oh just eat the damn chips! Because when others talk, they may not hear what I hear. I pick up on everything - every calorie, every comment, everything. I'm always listening.
I can safely say that I know of every convenient place to throw up in South Jersey. (You know, in case you ever need a place.) This includes fast food joints, diners, malls, parking lots, you name it. I began my eating disorder when I was 19 at college. A little bit of bulimia there, a dash of anorexia there. Before I knew it, I had all the makings of a blonde teenager from a Lifetime Original Movie. If you ask me why I started, I suppose I could direct you to my therapist. She probably knows better than me. However, what I can say, it started the way most addictions do: I had something lacking I needed filled. Some guilt. Some shame. Some discomfort. Some loss. I was at college and I was supposed to be happy. But I wasn't. My world was turned upside down and I didn't know how to fix it. All I knew was, I wanted that feeling to Go Away.
I wanted all the negative feelings to go away. It felt like if I got control over something, anything, it would make me feel - well - better. And for a while, it did. But much like any other addiction, that feeling didn't last and I needed more and more and more and more to get same effect. I began by throwing up part of dinner, then all of dinner, then every meal. Running for a 1/2 hour, then an hour, then to hit 2000 calories. The scale got lower, and lower, and lower. And I got more and more content. It gave me a goal, something to work for, something to be proud of. Before long, I was subsisting daily on black coffee until I just couldn't take it anymore, which led to me binging more than you could possibly eat in a Thanksgiving meal. My heart rate would increase, my palms would sweat, and I would get this pure euphoria when I finally gave in.Followed up by a trip to the bathroom where my pupils would be so dilated I would look to any outsider like I just did four lines of coke. Getting rid of it was never the best part but it felt good and bad all at the same time. ("How could you possibly do this to yourself? You're disgusting" "Good for you! This is so easy! You can do this forever!") I really had planned to. And for 10 years, I did.
Many people don't understand eating disorders and I get that. You eat, and you're not an "addict." Why can't I do the same? If you are an addict, you take whatever (food, drugs, sex) and use it in excess to replace what you are lacking. I could have easily been a sex addict, I guess, if sex were my drug of choice. It just wasn't. Food is easy. Food is there. Food is always there. Having said that, do you want to know what the best and worst thing about food is? You need it - daily. Not once a week or month. Every. Damn. Day.
The point is this: when you need your vice TO LIVE but your vice is simultaneously KILLING YOU, what do you do?
Well, I did what most people do in this situation: I absolutely lost my mind. I lost not only the ability to function physically as a normal twenty something (considering I was drastically underweight), but emotionally, I could not function period. I lived in what I like to call emotional purgatory. You can't leave, but you also can't stay.
I knew I needed an escape so I would create grand, epic fantasies of things to do to get out of where I was. (Join the Peace Corps to build huts in Africa! Move to California to become an Urban Planner! Enroll in grad school in NYC for Food Studies!). But instead of actually doing any of these things, I would over-analyze these plans until I decided not to do it. I would move on to the next thing, the next drive, that would give me something to strive for until the thrill wore off. I always liked the chase but never the destination. (One night, I actually enrolled in, picked classes, and dropped out of, St. Joseph's master's program. I basically paid $40 to dis-enroll from a university).
I moved out, but not far. I worked, but I hated my job. Relationships, personal, sexual or otherwise, were basically nonexistent. If you can't feel something for yourself, you can't feel anything for others. I starved. I binged. I purged. I lost weight. I gained weight. And I lost it again. I did everything to take me out of where I was without actually going anywhere. Emotional purgatory.What can make me feel good without actually making me feel good, since I can't feel anything?
I realize at this point most of you are probably like, well - if you knew you weren't ok (which I did), why didn't you get help? Which is a good, logical question. And if I can be honest, two reasons. One: I didn't think my eating disorder was the problem. I thought when I found that next job, school, apartment, degree, etc., I would be happy - and then I would stop. I didn't want to admit to myself that maybe it was the other way around. And I really did give my eating disorder the benefit of the doubt. I gave it a good 10 years until I finally thought, well - maybe I should address this.
Two: I simply didn't want anyone to know about it. Let me ask you...what's your deepest secret? What's the thing you hate most about yourself? What brings you shame? Ok - now admit it. Out loud. To other people. Not so easy, right? I didn't say anything because I didn't want anyone to know. Period.
One of the main things I learned from having an eating disorder is how to act "fine." When I was in the darkest trenches of it, I knew how to put on a good face. After all, who was I to say there was anything wrong? If I looked good, if I acted good, if I got all A's and everyone saw me as this perfect [employee, student, daughter, etc.], who's to say I wasn't?
I had that exact thought one day and in that one moment, I lost my whole identity. I became who others thought I should be. It was more important to be what someone else saw than to be myself. I cared more about how the world viewed me than anything else. Sometimes, I think I still do.
Any kind of rehab program is not as fun as it looks on TV. I did an outpatient program in Philly for about three months. After three months, insurance decides you're all better so they don't have to pay for recovery anymore. I'm surprised they didn't give me a lollipop on the way out. Oh, and spoiler alert, you're not all better. Somewhat better, yes, but not all better.
The truth is, at this point, it's even easier to pretend to be fine. And it's also way easier to convince myself I am fine.
There were the years I did follow-up individual therapy where we focused on other things. Easier things. New job, new apartment, etc. I was interviewed for a magazine a few years ago. In it, I described my struggle in great detail and how helpful recovery was. I acted like my struggle was over, was in the past. It wasn't. I wasn't consciously lying, but I was lying to myself. I was not fine.
I'm currently in a state of what I like to call "reluctant recovery." Like, I'm there, I'm doing it, but I'm not totally happy about it. I want to believe it will all work out in the end but I'm still not sure I completely trust it. You should know this: having an eating disorder, for me, for most, serves a purpose. If it didn't, I would never have done it. And as much as I do want to give it up, there is a part of me that really, really is afraid to lose it.
A lot of times it's way easier to hold on to something familiar even if you hate it than to face the unknown. But recovery is sometimes doing what you're supposed to do and not making excuses. I go to group every week. I go to individual counseling every week. I don't always want to go, but I show up. If I'm uncomfortable, it probably means I'm doing something right. There is also a part of me that doesn't want to deal with all I lost to my disorder. College, my twenties, relationships, trips, adventures, laughs.
Many peers are at a point in their lives where I'd be had I not held onto an eating disorder for so long. But that is reality. I cannot ignore that, but it doesn't mean I can't move forward. I could be looking back at 40 or 50 and saying, If I had only done it sooner. I wish that I could wrap this up in a nice tidy bow. The eating disorder part of me really wants to. But that's not always the truth.
This is not to say that I don't have hope. If I didn't, I wouldn't be doing anything at all. However, I have learned many times to put my trust in others - therapists, support systems. You have to learn to trust others when you can't always trust yourself. I have learned it's ok to ask for help. It's ok to not be perfect. It's fine to not be...fine. This is something I deal with every day. Some days it's easy and some days it's not. Some days I think about it constantly and other days I don't. Some days I joke about it and other days I can't stop crying. But that's the way most of life is. It's messy and complicated and as long as you're in it and not trying to push it away with a carbs or crunches (or lack there of), it will ultimately give you something far more rewarding than a number on a scale. I do believe that - even if I have to remind myself of it once in awhile.
Oh, and another reminder, it's totally fine to eat the damn chips.
Thank you, Kim, for your honesty and your voice.
Letter #15 | Practical Crying
Original publish date 4.11.17 | by Kiddo
Crying gets a bad wrap. Directly after a good cry, I have a modicum of clarity. Lightness, relief...it's an essential part of healing. I encourage you to experiment with some of the practical tips below.
If you’ve ever woken up looking more like a gerbil than a human, puff-faced, red-eyed and dehydrated beyond belief, you are in need of a crying makeover. For extended cries, make sure to keep a Nalgene 32-oz full of water handy — work that thing like a lifeline. Next, make sure to put plenty of moisturizer under and around your eyes throughout the day and before bed. That shit works wonders.
I also like taking a special cry pose. If I’m home it’s easy: I get down on my hands and knees (think yoga cat pose) and cry as hard as I can with my face toward the floor. Something about this feels safe and grounding. I’m able to breathe freely. Bonus: my dog will be called to duty and curl up under me, turning my body into a trembling house for him. I appreciate both the eye contact and human/dog language barrier…uncomplicated love.
Home is best for the obvious reason of privacy, but home is also a hot-water bath, and cold washcloths for after. When I emote from home I can sit on the kitchen floor and cry until I feel relatively fine, get up and then wash the dishes 1,000 pounds lighter.
If I happen to be in public, and believe me it’s happened plenty of times, I prefer to be on the subway. Every-living-soul in New York for longer than 6 months has cried on the subway. It’s practically a requirement of living in the city. In my experience other city dwellers will leave you alone — maybe give you a sympathetic smile — they've been that person too.
Exercise class is also a great cry spot. At the end of the workout the lights are low and everyone is already sweating so no one gives you much notice.
But of course, the shower is the unrivaled crying location. Private, warm and cozy. It has a sense of safety and containment that is first-rate!
I cry like an animal.
Barks, yelps, honks…an animal.
I got permission to cry like an animal from Victoria when I didn’t know I was waiting for it.
Making it stop?
“It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one's head in a Food Fair bag.”
-Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Letter #14 | Merry Unbirthday to You
original publish date 4.8.17 | by Kiddo
Today is your would-be-birthday, a strange absence of a holiday. I thought I’d write to tell you what we’d do today if you were alive and well…
Today, C and I are taking you to a game. Phillies home against the Nationals. Season home opener was yesterday which means it’s early — we won’t get worked up about a loss, but get pumped about the coming summer if it’s a W.
We park in Lot B — the one where the entrance feels far away, but it’s easier to get back out onto 95 and Walt Whitman Bridge. It’s one of your Phillies home secrets. We go in through the East entrance where we run into a customer of yours – retired sweet older man who scans tickets at the entrance because he simply loves baseball. He’s thrilled to see you and has a 2017 Season Opener tee (xl) he stashed away from yesterday hoping he’d see a friendly face.
Next, it’s a pit stop at the 200 level bathrooms; En route we linger at the merch booth and exchange some ooooh cute hoodies! We take our time finding our seats, stopping to peek through the section gaps on the lower levels. Maybe a “good spot” will open up in the 7th inning, doesn’t even look that full yet! We’re hopeful at the bottom of the 3rd. Here, nothing is rushed.
C and I ask you for facts and figures you learned on the stadium tours. The food all comes from Aramark, except in the locker room — that’s made-to-order…The dirt the game balls are covered in comes from a top-secret farm in Virginia…We listen like it’s all new information; all fascinating.
The 400 level has that woozy sea-sick effect on me, the perilous slope and day-drunk fans! We squeeze passed a man wearing a Penn State sweatshirt and you say, Yeaaah Go State! He smiles and chants back the language of your sports-crazed alma mater. The three of us maneuver around some rowdy college guys and find our spot, getting comfy with our jackets, bags, binoculars and camera. You look so happy — a little kid with those shiny apple-round cheeks. I’m proud to be here with you, relieved I’m past that teenage stage of embarrassed mother-daughter quality time.
By the top of the 5th you brilliantly suggest ‘dogs and Chickie’s. First: the dogs. We’ll make our way to the stand among a row of eateries all serving the same selection. Avoiding the long beer stand lines, we head straight to the hot dog warming station, each bundled gently in a foil wrapper. I pay and we dress the dogs in ketchup and mustard. Next: Chickie’s & Pete’s for crab fries. You’ll have finished the dog and be complaining of heartburn before we make it through Chickie’s velvet rope maze that would outdo the line at JFK airport security. At the Order Here counter it’s easy because they only sell one thing: cups full of crispy French fries coated in Old Bay seasoning. We step up and shout just one please! The Chickie’s teenager on duty scoops fries into a black paper cup and charges us some insane sporting event price, which C happily forks over.
The fries will be a quarter finished by the time we navigate out of the food area. That’s when we’ll try scoring a seat in the 200s. The 7th inning stretch along with its Jumbotron Dance Cam and sing-along have us laughing and swaying with the new neighbors in 211 and 207. We make it to the top of the 8th, but the abysmal score — Phillies down 4 runs — we say Let’s hit the road, pack up our jackets and bags and binoculars.
You’d be 64 today. Happy would-be-birthday, Momma.
Letter #13 | Everything Happens
Original Publish Date 4.4.17 | by Kiddo
This summer, after my mother died, I heard two things over and over:
“Your wedding was beautiful,” and “I’m so sorry about your Mother.”
“Your wedding is dead. Your Mother was beautiful.”
My wife and I received lots of cards in those weeks. I’d open just to peek at the color: ivory, white and charcoal meant wedding (open it), lavender, peach and pink meant sympathy (shelve it). The two messages were well-meaning, obligatory, kind. A sympathy card could leave me on the kitchen floor in heaves of sadness.
The condolence that quickly followed went something like this:
Everything happens for a reason. She held out for the wedding and then it was time for her to go. She wasn’t meant to be with us anymore.
These were fellow mourners and acquaintances who meant well — who love me and want to see my family heal. And yet, that catch-all phrase "everything happens for a reason" echoed over and over. The phrase that put responsibility on capital-D destiny with the vanishing hope it would bring relief. Why is that such a painful phrase in the throes of grief?
Maybe because I had too much information. I was there at the doctors' appointments, the tests, the treatments. I took notes, distilled and regurgitated the information so often that it lost its gravity. I had hope from oncologists and recovered patients. I had responsibility and somewhere somehow that transformed into culpability.If I had booked Mom a visiting nurse 1 week earlier; if I'd recognized her exhaustion as more than just a side effect of radiation; if I'd pushed the oncologist to give us more statistics...she'd be alive.
She'd get to see the wedding pictures, celebrate my sister's 26th birthday, eat turkey for Thanksgiving. "Everything happens for a reason" feels cruel. I know that I did everything I could. I know my sister did everything she could. I know that our family and doctors and partners and friends did all they could — a monumental collective effort.
That little phrase “everything happens for a reason” discounted the validity of my confusion and absurd surprise at Mom’s death. It said to me: don’t feelanything. Instead, think about the future and think about how this will ultimately make sense. “Everything happens for a reason” was cheap. “Everything happens for a reason” was blameless. Yet, “Everything happens for a reason” was an incredibly relieving thing for someone else to hear.
That is the maddening thing about words of comfort: nothing lands the same way for every bereft person. Nor is it the same day to day; words that comforted someone yesterday might not be helpful to that same person today. Speaking to those who are grieving is incredibly challenging — kudos to those who brave the canyon dividing raw nerves from the rest of the world. Greif can be a lonesome place, if I let it.
What if I suspend my distaste for that phrase for a moment? There are the changes we invite – setting goals for our professional life or self-improvement – and there are the changes that break our knees and bring us to the floor. The change I undergo because I have no alternative; living without Dad and then Mom. So, what next? I can talk to other people who are going through loss. I can share my own slowly healing heart as evidence that there might be a way through this quaking pain.
A smart and eloquent friend recently put it this way:
What if the “reason” I hear so much about is simply this: to allow some ancient or divine wisdom into our broken selves? Her perspective softened something for me. What if the grief cracks me open so that I can be available to someone else? Take my own experience and hope and give away the map it makes so that I can be helpful to someone else.
I still don’t think everything happens for a reason. But I do believe my experience gives me a bridge to relate to other people. Perhaps someone who needs proof that things get ever-so-slowly better.
Let’s stumble through this together and err on the side of listening to one another.
Letter #12 | Dreamhaus
original publish date 3.28.17 | by Kiddo
I had an unextraordinary dream on Saturday during an afternoon nap.
The dream was just a snapshot of me with my Dad.
He was putting on a new black, button down in a wonderful fabric: slightly shiny and crisp, starched to perfection, with a black on black surface design of tiny diamonds and stripes. It was collarless and much trendier than Dad’s typical fashion.
“Dad, that’s a Great. Shirt. You should wear that for every meeting you ever have.”
“Ha, you think? Too casual for the office. But I liked it.” He beamed his goofy lipless smile, head tilted to the side to prove he won’t take himself too seriously. Weekend stubble covered his face and his blue eyes squinted into self-satisfaction at his good taste and daughter’s approval.
When I woke up, it seemed so unlikely that he’s been dead for almost five years. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t basking in the joy of stolen time with Dad in a dream dimension. I just felt like the reality of Dad’s new shirt and the reality of Dad’s death were simultaneously and equally true. These paradoxical truths put me in a strange headspace for the rest of the day.
That night, I went with a friend to the Tribeca exhibit, Dream House. Dream House is a manipulated environment meant to distort the viewer’s perception of time and space using lights and sounds. I laid down on a carpeted floor under a purple beam staring at undulating shadows cast on a warm red wall. The space around me vibrated with a nearly unbearable cacophony of ringing of alarms, sirens and booming tones amplified on four chest-high speakers.
I tried to pull the afternoon’s moment with Dad back into my mind, hoping Dream House could hold both realities — life and death — comfortably.
Letter #11 | 1-800-Condolences
original publish date 2.21.17 | by Kiddo
If you've ever called to cancel a credit card, magazine subscription, or anything else for a deceased loved one, you've heard the ridiculous phrase, "Condolences from [insert corporation or organization here]."
It's that absurd phrase heard over and over that inspired this short fiction.
Condolences from Banana Republic
Thank you for calling to cancel the account of your deceased loved one. We are sorry for your loss, here at the customer service — nay — customer care center of Banana Republic, parent company GAP and subsidiary companies Old Navy, Athelta, INTERMIX, and all “Factory” discount variants of GAP Inc. commodities.
We are so sorry for the loss of account 6224785300961218 and the light she brought into the oft-rotating floor staff of the Echelon Mall Banana crew. Her keen sense for sale and its red stamped Non-Refundable receipts showed a true predilection for frugal fashion. What would we do without the opportunity to be of magnanimous service to this GAP Inc. card holder, who would reliably stroll in 13 minutes before closing every Wednesday to “Just try one sweater, really quick.”?
Although her card read Banana Republic, her heart (and non-reusable plastic bags) generously read GAP Kids, Banana Republic Factory, and GAP Holiday year after year. Each December during the 40% pre-Christmas — sorry, Holiday — stretch, she’d go straight for the novelty print pajama shorts. …And maybe throw in a body mist travel size, Air if its proximity to a friendly GAP team member at checkout was just right. And don’t forget the year 6224785300961218 visited Athelta, direct mail catalog in hand, asking to see a pair of “these in black maybe a small? Or medium?” Wavering on the decision and asking for weigh-in from both clerks and customers, ultimately abandoning the pants. Later returning to buy an unrelated sweatshirt. Large. Plum.
Our heart-felt condolences from Banana Republic at large, and from me, Jolene who in fact never interacted with your mother, but imagine she made a real splash at the office with the tulip print pale blue button-down from the Spring ’14 line. Phillips & Cohen LLC will be in touch for outstanding debt collection services, be on the look-out for threat-adjacent letters coming your way.
Press 2 to transfer to our customer retention specialist and get a Banana Republic relationship of your own started today. 30% off your first in-store purchase for pre-approved credit applicants. Best to you and your devastated family.
Letter #10 | Dear BioDad
Original Publish Date 3.14.17 | By 3rd Daughter
This week's Loss Letter could be a universal map for staying Present in uncertainty and conflicting emotions. Our generous author sets the gold standard for boundary-making with family. She has chosen to remain anonymous but we can all know her feelings reflected in our own hearts.
My sister calls this “pre-grieving”. This ache that hits our guts from time to time. Mostly we are getting through the days, doing logistics with the hospice workers and the day nurse, working the feeding tubes or trying to convince you not to yank out your IV just because it’s pissing you off. Mostly we are doing. But sometimes we stop and do feeling and man, that hurts. I watch you play with my baby son, wiggling your hands for him to grab, and I’m choking back sobs because each time could be the last time and I don’t want to waste any of this time crying. I don’t want you to see me crying.
I’ve told people, the ones I’m closest to, the ones who will get it, that it would be easier if my real dad was dying. And that feels weird to say but it’s true. My grief for the loss of him would be uncomplicated, unadulterated heartbreak, and the realest truest part of me feels grateful that the loss of him isn’t here yet. This feeling, the getting ready to lose you, it’s thorny. It’s messy and dirty and there’s relief in there somewhere.
It’s hard to explain. I say my BioDad is dying and the people who don’t know my story but care about me, they check in — how’s your dad? I’m so sorry about your father. And there’s a rush in me to explain. He’s not my real father. I’ve never called him dad. This isn’t that big a deal. But that’s not completely accurate. This is a Big Deal. It’s just not the deal the casual observer thinks it is. I love you — you know that. But I don’t like you and I don’t think I ever will.
You were never my dad. And yet, the gifts you’ve given me deserve honor. They are some of the brightest blessings of my life.
You left before I was born; you weren’t ready to put down your bottles and straws and rock-star dreams, and my mom gave you an ultimatum — Be a father, or don’t, but you don’t get to come in and out of this kid’s life at your leisure. It was the hardest line to draw and I’m so grateful she did. When you left you left a father-shaped hole and when I was thirteen months old, my mom met a man who fell in love with both of us. He stepped into the father-shaped hole and the edges closed up around him. He married my mom and adopted me in the same month. My dad learned to braid for my waist length hair, he came to every ballet recital, watched me grow up and loved every phase. He is the only person I’ve ever called my Dad and he’s a gift you gave me.
By choosing not to be my father, you left room for the father I needed to step in and be my Dad.
When I was 21 you came back into my life. Two years sober, you were on your 9th step and looking to make amends. You sought out my mother and I, you wanted to make things right. As far as I was concerned, things were already right and my family was already whole. I didn’t have a lot of room in my heart for you at first but you had an ace up your sleeve. When you came back you brought my sisters. I grew up with three brothers, tumbling like a pile of puppies, so many years younger than me and stair-step close in age. They barely even had names, they were just The Boys. I’d never missed out on having a dad but I’d spent my childhood dreaming of sisters. So when I met you and saw the photos of your daughters, I thawed a little. My sisters are bright and funny and feminist. They are curious and wounded and brilliant. They are less than a year apart, each other’s best friend. It’s been 16 years now that we have known each other. I’ve known my sisters for almost as long as I didn’t know them. I’ve gotten to watch them grow from gawky tweens in sparkle eye-shadow to feisty gorgeous women, pursuing career goals and finding their way in the world. Over the years we have built a friendship. I’ve gotten to watch them cuddle my son, smell his baby head and grow comfortable with the weight of him in their arms. I’ve gotten to make eye contact with them over your sickbed, sharing between our eyes the anguish of watching you say watermelon every time you mean woman, or start telling the story of who you gave your guitars away to for the seventeenth time this afternoon. We’ve gotten to scold you together when you make sexist comments about the nurses, eye roll to each other over your misogynist thoughts which come tumbling unbidden now that your filters are gone. I look at them now and while I can’t quite see our future, I don’t know what our lives will look like with you gone, I know we will stay sisters. We’ve been bonding over the weirdness of you for sixteen years and we will carry each other through. This certainty is a gift you gave me.
When I went back to college you bought me my first laptop. You said you wanted to make up for not supporting me throughout my life, for not putting me through school. Once in Old Navy you bought me a yellow rain slicker that you said made me look like the Morton Salt girl. I had to look that up but the raincoat warms my heart every time I see it hanging in my hall even though I haven’t worn it in years. When I went for a counseling certification you sent money monthly to put toward my tuition. When I got married, you read the bible verse in our ceremony and danced with me even though dancing became hard after the stroke. You were gracious and respectful about my Dad being the one to walk me down the aisle; you were grateful to be honored and included in the celebration. When I got pregnant you sent my unborn son a blanket printed with your favorite Irish blessing. You called our baby the Little Prince and Womb Nugget and called to ask about the sonograms and the hospital visits. You told me stories about when my sisters were little, the same stories every phone call. Every morning of my adult life you sent a group text to me and my sisters and later my wife too- greeting us, calling us beautiful or gorgeous or telling us to “go pretty up the day.” For awhile I hated those texts, because they reminded me of one of the things I hated about my relationship with you — how it seemed to sit placidly on the surface of a deep and murky pool. How your daughters might be kind and smart and passionate and happy but what really matters to you is that we are pretty. How you love me and my wife but you are far more interested in our son because he is Your Legacy. How you throw money around in your relationships, seeking to buy favor and control. But you can’t work your phone anymore and the texts have stopped and I’m already missing them.
A celebration of your sobriety was one of the first AA meetings I went to as an adult. True to AA form, you attracted me to the program by the power of your example. You never pushed me to get sober or judged my using the way my mom did. But I got to watch how you’d built a life out of a pile of rubble. I saw how your daughters loved you despite witnessing and having their childhoods shaped by your addiction. And more than once, sitting in a room watching you get handed a coin, I cried the tears of one who has found their home. When I celebrated my first year of sobriety, you gave me your one-year coin in an embroidered bag. This gift is so huge, so present in my life today. These blessings loom over every moment I have now.
But you also pulled me out of rehab once, because I wasn’t getting better fast enough. At a family therapy session, you got into an argument with my counselor because I wasn’t getting sober just the same way you did. You liked to speak badly of my mother, and my sisters’ mother, to me. Actually, you spoke poorly of nearly all women to me. I’m sure you spoke poorly of me to others. You don’t really like women — you view them as valuable accessories.After you moved to Florida, you obsessed about finding a girlfriend, joined dating websites and thirteenth stepped your drunken blonde housekeeper. You’d call to ramble about the weather in Florida, the first dates you’d been on, how pretty the women were. You never asked about my life. You never had second dates, the weather never changed, the pretty women were always blonde and you never acknowledged that you were ninety-eight percent blind from the stroke. When I called to tell you I was pregnant I had to interrupt you three times before I could get the whole sentence out and tell you that you were going to be a grandfather. And then you started telling me the stories about when your daughters were little. You’d call each week to ask about the baby but you never listened to my answers.
And when you got sick, we flew down to help you. You were using. Eighteen years sober, you were riddled with cancer and you were using. Your pain was so great it was the only solution you could see and I can appreciate that. But let’s also acknowledge that you didn’t give us any forewarning. Your sober daughter brought her sober wife and their three month old baby to your home for a week to help you prepare to return home to die, and you didn’t think to warn them that there were drugs around, specifically your daughter’s drug of choice. Well actually that’s wrong. I’m going to make an educated guess here: you thought to but you didn’t. You needed our help and you were scared we wouldn’t come so you didn’t tell us. Your fear led you to put your own desires above your concern for others. You put my sobriety at risk and that made me angry with you. And you’re dying so being angry with you doesn’t feel particularly safe. The angry can’t go anywhere. You were desperate, a wounded animal, cornered. I’m healthy, strong, and still sober.
You love us so much but you don’t know who we are. This hurts me less than it hurts my sisters. Because this afternoon when you told the story of baby Lizzie throwing up on your Armani suit for the twentieth time this week, I saw the tears in her eyes and I know they’re because you don’t have any favorite stories from her adulthood or even her adolescence, and she’s twenty seven years old. There was a lot of life between sweet baby Lizzie puking on your fancy suit and this moment now but you don’t remember those parts because they aren’t as pleasing to you. Those memories didn’t stick. You don’t really know what to do with your woman daughters except tell them they’re beautiful and talk about when they were babies. And when I see my sisters’ tears I feel guilty. Because while I’m losing you too, I still have my dad, who sees me and knows me, and you’re all they’ve got in the father department.
You’ll only be here a little while longer, anyone can see that. It’s in your hollow eyes and the way your knees are the widest part of your legs by far. I don’t know what I’m going to feel when you finally die. The months of emergency mode are wearing on me. Someone asked me if there was anything left unsaid, anything I needed to say before you go, and I thought awhile before I answered No. My feelings about you are complicated but they’re not really your business. I would do no service by sharing them with you. You know that I love you and I will keep your memory alive for your grandson. I know that you love me the best way you’ve ever known how. And that has to be enough, for both of us, because that’s all we are getting.
-Your 3rd Daughter
Thank you 3rd Daughter, for this honest, vulnerable portrait of a complicated anticipatory grief. Loss Letter readers far and wide are wishing you sustained strength and boundaries to keep you well.
Letter #08 | Tools Part II: Let's Self-Care Together
Original publish date 2.28.17 | by Amy Gall
Amy Gall is a writer, artist and activist living right around the corner (lucky me!) in Brooklyn NY. Since the election, Amy has been a source of measurable, actionable steps through her writing and her organizing. She sends a weekly email detailing clear steps to participate in this democracy and be heard. Her activist writing is a gift delivered on a silver email-shaped platter.
Amy calls her emails “Let’s Fight Trump, Together” and the together is the key. Along with a litany of resources across the web and IRL including the robust 5 Calls and Indivisible Amy details ways to feel connected to your community, your loved ones and your inner resiliency. Each email ends with great advice on self-care, which I’ve been taking to heart. I’m proud to highlight Amy’s self-care tips as this week’s letter.
Amy’s fiction, essays and interviews can be found in Tin House, Literary Hub, Women’s Health, Glamour and more. Amy Gall is currently working on her first novel. Find more of her work here.
Take an hour long walk by yourself.
This is something that I rarely do, but is incredibly helpful in times of stress. I turn off my phone, I have absolutely no goal or destination in mind, and I just walk. I try to notice the things that are alive, the trees, the grass, every scrap of green. It's amazing what grows in the city without tending, even in the late fall. I look at the houses, I look at the cracked patterns of the sidewalk, I look at the people. I connect to my legs and my arms and my breath. I connect to the fact that I am alive, and so are many, many other people. These people are laughing, yelling, crying, silent. But they are alive. We endure. And even when that is all we can do, there is incredible beauty in it.
If you really can't do the walk without something to listen to, I find the podcasts, "On Being" and "Another Round" to be particularly comforting and contemplative.
Meditate for ten minutes every morning.
I used to hate when people told me to meditate. I was suspicious and jealous of their blissed out, undistracted faces. However, over the years I finally realized, especially as a highly anxious person, that when I make this a regular practice, it really, really helps. I like guided meditations because I feel less alone and stuck in the silence of my thoughts. And I really like Pema Chodron's voice. I use the first ten minutes of this youtube clip, but do some googling and there is a wealth of guided meditations if this one doesn't speak to you.
At my new job there is also a weekly guided mindfulness meditation which I am so grateful for. Our teacher gave me this article on mindfulness meditation in the face of uncertain and terrifying times right after the election that I encourage you to read. It ends with a powerful quote from Howard Zinn, the last sentence of which, I've been trying to hold in my brain,
"The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory." -Howard Zinn
Dance for ten minutes each day.
Now that you are meditation experts (right?) add ten minutes before or after your meditation routine in the morning — or at night if that works, experiment with it — to dance. Nothing gets me out of my racing, anxious mind and into my body better than dancing. It wakes me up, it pulls me out of my fears, and it makes me feel happy, or at least, safe and calm. And if no one is around, I really don't care what I look like. I like to do it after I meditate to shake out and ground everything. But sometimes, especially if I'm super anxious and fidgety, I do it before. Here are two most excellent videos from, Christine and the Queens and Mykki Blanco to get you started, but really, just pick whatever excites you and gives you joy.
Do something creative for the pure fun of it.
I've been thinking a lot about capitalism and the value it places on constant production and consumption. Whether you are engaged in a creative pursuit as part of your full-time job or not, this concept can really tamp down the creativity we all have inside of us.
If I'm not about to publish, get paid for, or receive public praise for my work, I often feel like nothing I've done counts and I'm wasting my time. I lose sight of the actual, moment to moment process of creation, which can be really hard, but can also be thrilling, and engrossing and lead to life changing self-discovery.
So this week, I suggest doing something creative — dancing, painting, writing, drawing, whatever it is, for an hour, knowing that no one will see it. You can even rip it up and burn it at the end - unless you chose dancing, don't set yourself on fire — to really get into the special, ephemeral nature of creativity. This is a tough one for me, but I'm going to try to do it with writing as that's the thing I have the most ego about and therefore the most negative self-talk. Feel free to reach out to me for ideas!
Make a list of the things you have accomplished / are proud of in 2016.
Yes, this year has been a bit of a trash fire, BUT, all of you have done incredible things despite that. So, I challenge you to write a list of your accomplishments, big or small in 2016. It can be as simple as flossing once a day - which, for me, is actually an eternal struggle. Or as big as starting a new job, moving to a new place, whatever. Don't think too much when you're writing it. I urge you to include AT LEAST ten things, but hey, go for fifty, go for a thousand. You stayed alive, and relatively healthy and sane for 365 days, that in and of itself is a huge accomplishment. When you're done, read it over, spend some time thinking about and trying to access a sense of pride and well-being. Light a candle, surround yourself with smells you love — incense, fresh herbs, etc., put on music that makes you happy, really engage all of your senses in the process of self-appreciation. You deserve it.
Take a damn nap. There's not much to say about this except that it is cold as hell - if you are in the northeast, dark as hell - if you are in the United States, and naps are amazing - if you are a sentient being. Get in your favorite pair of pajamas, sweat pants, whatever, and bundle up in bed and close your eyes. If you don't fall asleep — which I sometimes can't, the practice of slowing your mind and resting your body has great effects. For added reference, below is a picture of me, demonstrating proper napping technique. Pacifier is not necessary, but, is highly recommended.
Transitions sometimes suck. And being back at work after a long break is a particularly sucky one. So this week, continue to do one of the kind, regenerate things you did for yourself on vacation. Can you get up a little earlier so you have time to leisurely read the paper or a book or meditate? Can you take a bath when you get home from work? Can you set aside some time to spoon your loved ones/ pets? Can you color or paint or do some free writing? Can you buy some pumpkin pie or cookies or whatever your favorite holiday dessert is and pack it in your lunch? Anything to keep that sense of abundance and luxury and comfort going into the new year. We all need that.
Buy a coloring book and set aside at least 20 minutes each night for some quality coloring time.
I have a particularly loud perfectionist part inside of me, which means that even if I set out to do something for the pure enjoyment of it, like collages or drawings or paintings, there's a voice in my body that immediately screams, "YOU'RE FUCKING IT UP!" That's why I like coloring. There's a lot less room for error, I know what all the steps are, and when I pick the picture I want to color, I tell myself that I am only going to color a very small portion of it so that I don't get stressed out about meeting an unachievable goal. Hopefully this resonates with you. This should feel like exploratory fun, not work.
Also, colors are wonderful and for very little money, coloring allows us to intimately experience them in all their glory. If you feel like sharing your creations with me, please do.
Here's a couple coloring books I'm a fan of to get you started:
Hip Hop Coloring Book
Lost Ocean Coloring Book
Listen to the words of activists who have done this work.
Yesterday, on MLK Day, I sat with my friend and listened to the last section of Dr. King's "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speech. I highly recommend listening to the whole thing here. I was struck by how skilled a story-teller he was, how he infused humor into even the darkest moments, including the day he was stabbed nearly to death by a woman at a book signing. But mostly, I felt deeply comforted and motivated by this:
It is so easy to feel alone in all of this, so easy to feel helpless and frightened, but there are so many people who have gone down this road before us, so many people who are going down this road with us, and despite the dangers of the work, despite the fact that MLK died doing the work, he maintained a hope and a belief in something much larger than himself that enabled to keep going. So, take some time this week to remind yourself of all the people who are doing the work, where they draw strength from, be it God, or humanity, or family, or friends, or goodness, or karma or a sense of "the right thing". And then think about what keeps you going, what makes you feel that the fight is worth it.
Stretch, every day for ten minutes.
Seriously. When I got back from the march, my body was grouchy as fuck. And I didn't stretch and now it's grouchier. I'm trying to treat my body like a special, sacred treasure, instead of this thing that I ignore until it hurts, which is a tall order, but when I get into a daily stretching practice I remember just how much my body does and just how much love it deserves. The thing that's helped me the most, bar-none is massage balls. They're basically just hard rubber balls, super cheap and you can use them to roll out your back, your calves, your hamstrings all those hard to reach spots. Sometimes, stretching can feel really boring, which is why I like to do it at night when I'm about to go to bed.
Do something that directly addresses your feelings of helplessness and rage and gets them out of your body. This could be going to a boxing gym and beasting out on a heavy bag. This could be buying a dozen eggs and imagining each one of them in Donald Trump's face and then smashing them into a trash can (thanks, Langston for this). This could be going to a nearby park, picking up the biggest stick you can find and hitting it against the trunk of a tree (thanks, Elea for this one). Late the other night, after a particularly trying day, I took an old Walkman to the playground near my house and busted it to pieces with a hammer. Did I look crazy doing it? Absolutely. Did it feel amazing? Absolutely. Did I clean up after myself? Ab-SO-lutely. The point is, when appropriately channeled, anger is constructive and destructive in all the ways it needs to be and clears out space for some calm and compassion which we all need a lot of these days.
Also, if you're really in a rough spot, here's an emergency self care plan made by social workers that you can fill out and keep with you and seems really helpful.
1.) Go to a black owned restaurant and get some grub:
It is, of course, black history month every month but, this month is the official one and what better way to celebrate, nourish yourself, and start or continue your commitment to putting your dollars to good use than visiting one of the delicious places on this list. This site includes a lot of NYC/ Brooklyn options, but also a lot of other cities including Boston, DC, Oakland, LA, Memphis etc. It's also a great resource not only for places to eat, but also nightlife, travel spots for black professionals, etc. DIG IN!
2.) Be Sad
You may be saying, "Yes, duh, I've been sad every damn day since January 20th." But, for me, everything since the inauguration has felt so manic and scary that all I was doing when I wasn't taking action was panicking. Then, on Tuesday afternoon I was meditating and I got hit with a wave of grief. I was at work so I couldn't cry and I couldn't really even acknowledge it, but, the longer I kept ignoring it the more trapped I felt. Then, my mother called me and I instantly started sobbing. I told her I felt like a hopeless, tired, miserable little kid. When I finally said that, and when I had someone to sit with me and simply witness my grief, without telling me to get it together, or calm down, or try to cheer me up, or even say it's going to be okay, I felt better. The world was still the world the next morning, but, I was able to make saner, calmer, more adult decisions because of it. Thanks, mom.
It may seem cheesy, but if you're up for it, pick someone in your life you trust with the directive that they do very little in response other than offer an encouraging word or rub or back or whatever and just see if you can allow yourself to get quiet and get sad. If you end up crying, great, if you end up just saying a bunch of things that are on your mind, great, if you end up sitting in silence for ten minutes, great. Then, do the same thing for them. I think sadness comes when we stop, which is why so many of us don't stop, but if we allow ourselves daily spaces to be sad, sadness won't stagnate and turn into despondency. Pro-tip: Cry in the shower. Hot water will be cleansing your body, no one will be able to see or hear you, and you can listen to The Cranberries "Linger" at full blast while you do it. Seriously, the champagne of crying.
Read some damn poetry. This week was the first week I had a hard time coming up with a self care step. And then I read my friend Vanessa Jimenez Gabb's knock-out poem "Raise" on Verse Daily and I realized OF COURSE.
Poetry is life-saving. It reflects to me all of the things I need to say and hear, and the things I don't yet know how to say or listen for. And afterwards, poetry gives me the time to sit quietly with all of the pleasures, discomforts and recognitions it stirs up - and I think those personal, pondering moments are where a lot of personal growth comes in. So, take some time with your favorite book of poems. Or treat yourself to a new book. The other great thing about poems is they require so little time from us in our busy lives, and yet, the spiritual returns are huge.
Here's a reading list to get you started:
Images for Radical Politics by Vanessa Jimenez Gabb
In Full Velvet by Jenny Johnson
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker
Night Sky With Exit Wounds Ocean Vuong
Cannibal Safiya Sinclair
Thank you Amy Gall for all the brilliant ways to care for ourselves in times of uncertainty. I feel honored to share this small part of her extensive work with you, Dear Reader.
Letter #07 | Stellina
Original Publish date 2.21.17 | By S.
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Letter #06 | Birthday Spells
Original publish date 2.17.17 | by kiddo
I miss my mother so badly I fear that saying it out loud will turn my organs to dust and I’ll crumble into paint flakes. It’s my birthday. The first without her. I wasn’t expecting it to hurt so vividly. I am not sure what to do with the day. Should I surround myself with as many friends as possible and stay buoyant by way of 1,000 life preservers? Do I hide and quietly let it pass without a peep so I don’t risk an emotional breakdown in public? I have been reflecting on the many, many people who are taking care of me in small and large ways. The pier and beam infrastructure of friendship, partnership and sisterhood as well as all the one-time wisdoms making me ever more pliable. Thank god for them all.
This time last year, I had been carrying Small Spells business card in my wallet for 6 months. My friend Andy had passed it along to me after he’d had his first Tarot Card reading and wanted to share the experience. My thoughts on Tarot Cards was the same as palms or star charts or horoscopes or fortune tellers. My opinion was two-fold: one, “readers” are nonsense. It’s pathetic that so many people are so desperate to have some certainty to hold onto — that those people hear something and mold their truths around vague information from a stranger. Two: I was terrified of hearing something so painfully true and cutting about my own path that I’d fall apart. I was a jaded skeptic/total believer with no experience in any of it.
I carried the card for so long because I was intensely interested and frightened to do anything about it.
And then my birthday rolled around.
My partner was working in LA, Mom wasn’t showing physical signs of succumbing to cancer yet, and I was running a freelance business while planning a wedding — life felt unrecognizable from just 6 months prior. On my 32nd birthday I reached out to Rachel Howe of Small Spells, suddenly desperate for the reading, for any kind of connection to a spiritual plane. A few weeks later I found myself at her apartment in Williamsburg, nervous on the walk up to Small Spells home base.
The apartment was warm and so serene I imagined I could hear a molecule of dust caught in the sun landing with a gentle tick on the couch’s arm. Outside New York was coated in slush post-snow mix of dirt trash and rock salt making the stark contrast a relief I could feel in my chest. I took off my coat and looked around at cream pottery, soft arches framing the entry ways, eggshell pillows on a chair of the same and simple framed drawings. The focus of the room was a large dining table of knotted, beaten-soft repurposed wood slab upon which a lazy black cat stretched out, barely willing to keep his eyes open.
When we settled in, Rachel asked me, “What question did you bring for the reading?” I forgot I was supposed to focus on a single question, and thought for a moment. Somewhere from inside bubbled up with “What do I do with all this grief?”
It wasn’t my usual barrage of questions (harassment) for myself including: What do I do next for my career? How will I make enough money to feel okay? Am I on the right track with my job?
It was a relief to have a deeper question, something I was wrestling on an unconscious level that had not revealed itself until that moment.
Rachel gently took me through the cards. For me, it was a kind of secret wonder that I won’t reveal in entirety here. What I will say, is that she unlocked something.Rachel talked about my intuition — that I had stopped trusting it and its voice inside me had been muffled. I needed to feel into that voice when I had a choice in front of me. She suggested that the more I got into that practice, the more I’d strengthen that soundless expression of my true north. I’d have more clarity, in millimeters and inches, “This” she said, “is a lifetime-long practice.”
The cards also showed that I was, as Rachel wisely put it, “trying to build a house on the ocean.” I was looking for stability, roots and solid footing in a moment of my life when none of that was possible. Instead, what I could do was get on the nearest raft and sail to shore. It would serve me to let go of a need for certainty and be open to the turbulent changes happening in my life, in my mom’s health, in my grieving process, in my partnership as we prepared for marriage, in my own heart…allowing the obstacles to change me and make me softer and stronger.
Stop trying to build a house on the ocean. I looked for a long quiet time at the card. The image that could be a log house falling apart on the waves or the construction of a raft…the expression on the person’s face depicted on the card kept changing from panic to skillful effort. I watched as it shifted back and forth.
I had a lot to think about. That night, instead of seeing friends, I took a meandering walk around Brooklyn, contemplating all that had happened at Small Spells, circling back home four hours later. Rachel’s reading was a gentle mirror that helped me see where I was in that moment and the possibility of trusting my deep and hushed inner voice. It was a gift that I return to often, thinking about that innate voice and asking “what do you want to tell me today?”
Letter #05 | The Elephant in the Strawberry Field
original publish date 2.14.17 | by Hannah Adkinson
Dear Lovebirds + Friends,
Happy Valentine’s Day to you. Typically, this is the holiday we focus on romance, whether it be lamenting a lack of it or indulging in our most extravagant expressions of self-love; we might be setting unrealistic expectations for a partner or spending deeply satisfying quality time with a partner. Valentine’s Day is synonymous with romantic love. But what I want to talk about this Valentine’s Day is friendship love, specifically friendship “breakups.”
The love that shapes our transitional adolescence period is friendship — complicated, dramatic, desperately important. As young children, we are limited to friendships based on proximity. Our budding interests deepen these bonds, or divide us. We get new friends. We get lovers. We get partners. We get more friends that share and strengthen our place in the world.
As we define who we are (and who we aren’t) we can shake off behaviors, objects, jobs, fashions…relationships that don’t fit us any longer. Sometimes it’s simple and natural and occasionally it’s excruciating.
It’s this painful boundary-making — growth — that attracts the new, meaningful, nurturing relationships, both romantic and platonic. Boundaries that help us outgrow childhood friendships that no longer serve our adult lives and welcome the ones that do.
This week’s Loss Letter author, Hannah Adkinson writes about that intense adolescence friendship and it's painfully divergent paths.
Dear former friend,
I think of you when I open my craft drawer and see those cute felted strawberries you gave me for my birthday a few years ago. I put the strawberries in the drawer because I don’t want to look at them, but I also don’t want to throw them away.
When we were kids, one of us had opened a fortune cookie: “True friends will share even a strawberry.” So strawberries became a shorthand for our friendship, a symbol of everything we’d shared, all the things we would share as we grew up, found our future husbands, got married, and had kids of our own. It was a given that we would stay friends forever.
Now it’s been over a year since we spoke: the longest we’ve gone without talking since we met in sixth grade.Our families don’t get together at Christmas anymore. We don’t exchange letters, or mixtapes, or first-of-the-month “rabbit rabbit rabbit” texts. It’s been over a year since you last reached out to me, emailing to say that you wished me well, that you were pregnant and wanted me to know, that you forgave me for not attending your wedding. The coral bridesmaid’s dress is still hanging in the back of my closet, the tags still on it. I don’t want to throw it away, but I don't want to look at it.
You had a simple question with a simple answer. “Will you be one of my bridesmaids?” Of course! I was thrilled for you and Ben. I was excited to be included.
Then I had a simple question for you. “Can I bring my girlfriend?”
I don’t know why it took me a few weeks to ask you this. I guess I knew it would be a point of contention. You’d been less than enthusiastic when I’d told you about the relationship over the phone earlier that year, and I knew you still had reservations about me dating women. Still, I had hope that the answer would be a simple yes.
Your answer started with a yes, but it wasn’t simple.
“Yes, of course, I’d love to meet her, and you’re welcome to bring her, but—” and here your voice wavered on the phone, you took a deep breath—“I feel like it’s only fair that I remind you of my beliefs. I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Just that. Just a slap in the face.
Oh, and also that Ben’s family is very conservative, very traditional, and in light of the recent supreme court ruling for marriage equality, I shouldn’t be surprised if they refer to that in their speeches, that I shouldn’t be offended if they talk about defending traditional marriage. If they toast this straight marriage as a victory in the culture wars.
But of course, my girlfriend would be welcome to attend.
I was a little stunned, my heart pounding.
I asked, “So… will people be uncomfortable if Anne and I dance together?”
“Oh gosh no! A bunch of my single girlfriends will be there, and I know they’ll all be on the dance floor all night, dancing with each other. No one will think that’s weird.”
“I don’t think you understand,” I said. “If I bring Anne, I’m going to bring her as my girlfriend, as a couple. We will look… gay. Will these people freak out if we’re holding hands, if I kiss her on the cheek?”
“Well, honestly, I wouldn’t expect anyone, including my straight friends, to be doing a lot of PDA. It’s a religious ceremony, and I would expect all our friends to keep in mind the moral tone of the event and behave accordingly.”
I don’t know why it came as such a shock to me, this roundabout rejection. My sexuality had been the elephant in our strawberry field for several years at this point. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Somehow I hadn’t seen it before, that you weren’t capable of being the friend I needed. I’d never seen so clearly how your religion divided us.
“Of course, I would hate for her to feel uncomfortable. I’d completely understand if you wanted to come alone, and then, you know, I could meet her some other time. Ben and I would love to come out to Brooklyn to meet Anne and hang out, just the four of us.”
The thing I can’t get over is that you thought you were being kind.
You and I were both raised Catholic in the suburbs of Houston. It was one of the things we had in common, early on. We attended Mass with each other’s families on Sunday mornings after sleepovers.
After junior high, you went to a Catholic high school, while I went to the public school. You were one of the first people I came out to in high school. We were sixteen, and I had known for three years. I was spending the night at your house, and I said I had something to tell you. I was so nervous—you were so religious—but you hugged me, reassuring me that this changed nothing, and that you loved me no matter what. You thanked me for trusting you.
You became an ally as I struggled with being closeted at school, coming out to my parents. You’d stop by the ice cream shop where I worked and listen to my latest worries, the girls I was crushing on, my fights with my mom. In between spoonfuls of raspberry sundae, you reminded me that high school wasn’t forever. You had another gay friend, a boy from your theater class at the Catholic school, who was going to a support group for LGBT teens on the other side of town. One night, we crafted an elaborate cover story for our parents, who wouldn’t have approved, so I could go with him and talk to other gay teens. It meant the world to me. You were on my side, and I was so grateful.
Things changed after high school, when we both went away to college. You went to a Catholic university in Dallas, while I went to a liberal arts college near Austin. We stayed friends though I left the Church and your faith grew deeper, though I was an out lesbian and a budding feminist and you were a devout Catholic and deeply pro-life.
We stayed friends though you took me out for coffee one winter break and told me you could no longer support my decision to date women. You cried. You told me that you wanted to see me in heaven, that you hoped I would come back to the church, that you’d been praying for me. You gave me a prayer journal you’d been keeping: letters you’d written to me on retreats, accounts of rosaries and Novenas you’d prayed for me, entreaties to Christ that I might see His face and know His love again. You said you understood that it was a lot to take in, that you hoped we could stay friends. I went home and stuck the journal in a drawer. I pushed away the hurt and confusion. I told myself it came from a place of love. We never spoke of it again. And somehow, we stayed friends.
You explained, instead of apologizing, that planning a wedding is a lot of pressure. That it’s so easy to get caught up in the details, and that you were just trying your best to make everyone happy, to bring together all these different worlds and just celebrate love.
It took a couple of weeks of soul-searching and talking with my girlfriend, my sisters, my friends, my therapist. How can I go to the wedding now? How can I not go?
In the end, I decided I couldn’t show up in celebration of your love when you wouldn’t be willing to do the same for me. And that was that, I didn’t go, I never wore that coral dress. You said you forgave me for not coming to your wedding. You said you’d be ready to talk when I am. It’s been over a year and I haven’t been ready. I don’t know if I ever will be.
It’s been almost 20 years since I turned to you in sixth grade social studies and asked if I could use some of your craft supplies for the 3D map-making project. It was just like me to forget to bring my own supplies from home. It was just like you to show up with two shopping bags overflowing with odds and ends from your mom’s craft room. You had this crinkly iridescent cellophane that I thought would be perfect for the oceans on my map, and you were so generous. Take as much as you want, you said, handing me fistfuls of rainbows. I’ve got plenty.
That was the moment we always pointed to, later, as the start of our friendship, the first strawberry you shared with me. You shared what you had with me as long as you could, and when you ran out of love to give to me, to my whole self, that was when the friendship ended.
Today, I’m joyfully married to the woman of my dreams, that same girlfriend you didn’t want me to be affectionate with at your wedding. My sisters support me unconditionally and embrace me for who I am. My parents love and accept my wife as a member of the family. I’ve surrounded myself with a strong community of loving friends; many of them are queer, and the straight ones are unequivocally supportive and enthusiastic about the love I’ve found. That’s the kind of friendship I want to keep in my life. That’s the kind of friendship I’ve learned I deserve. I no longer have to accept crumbs of barely-there tolerance disguised as kindness or concern.
That said, I think of you almost every day. While sitting in this coffee shop writing this letter, I’ve heard at least five songs that remind me of you, songs we belted out as teenagers on the highway in your mom’s van. We loved driving with no destination, windows down to let in a taste of freedom, the future we knew lay beyond our hometown. Our relationship was one of the defining features of my adolescence, a deep bond complete with an origin story, an officially designated friendship holiday, secret nicknames and codes and rituals, an entire codified history. It hurts me to have consciously cut you out of my life, and yet I feel like I made the right choice.
I miss you, my friend. I’m still grieving this loss. There’s no easy takeaway.
With love and with sorrow,
As you now know, Hannah Adkinson is an incredible talent,living and writing in Brooklyn. She is currently working on her first novel and can be found here.
Hannah’s bright light drew me in like a moth. I met Hannah just days after her move from Texas. Without her friendship, encouragement and sense of abundance I would not have launched Loss Letters. Thank you, Hannah, for your friendship and the beautiful creative work you put into the world. Happy Valentine’s Day to all my friends (best of all my exceptional wife).
Letter #04 | Resiliency & Hair
Original publish date 2.7.17 | by Chani Lisbon
This week's letter comes from comedian and writer, Chani Lisbon. So many of us (consciously, unconsciously, positively or negatively) identify with our external self — physical features, career, bank account, fashion, home...
What happens when an external feature is suddenly, visibly lost? How do we cultivate the internal self to be fundamentally okay?
Chani shares her sharp sorrow and resilient spirit as she reclaimed her confidence. This is a gal who dug deep — past ego, fear and self-pity — to find some freedom.
It's been months since I've really been able to look in the mirror. In the morning when I'm putting on my makeup, I scan my face but I'm not able to make eye contact.
I have so much shame and embarrassment about losing my hair.
Not that it's my fault, but somehow it feels like it is. There's no reason or explanation why some people get Alopecia and others don't. Deep down there's a part of me that feels I brought this on myself. That somehow my negative thinking had the power to create the chaos inside me. Even deeper than that, I know that's not true. I know my body is trying to have a conversation with me. To tell me there's more healing to be done with forgiveness in my life.
I first noticed a small bald spot right before I was about to get on stage at an open mic. I felt a tiny bit of my scalp and I remember my heart sinking, but I didn't have time to go and look to see how big it was. I got on stage and did my set like everything was normal.
But it wasn't.
My hair was slowly and gradually thinning and the tiny bald spot grew to the size of two inches right behind my right ear. I tried to cover up the thinning, I went out and bought tons of cute headbands. But after a couple weeks even those couldn't cover up how much hair I'd lost.
So I bought a new hat. A hat from the 47th street vendor, a hat that if my hair wasn't falling out I'd never even consider buying. But on that day that hat felt like it was my lifeline.
After buying the hat I never left my house without covering my hair. If someone accidentally pulled it off, my entire body would tense up and I'd be mortified. I felt gross, and I couldn't let the world see how ugly I'd become.
Two weeks ago a friend of mine lent me her custom wig. She used to be a practicing Orthodox Jew. It was long, blonde and very sexy. I was so grateful to have something to cover up my entire head. People loved me in it, but I felt so uncomfortable all the time. I felt like a fraud, and it brought up so many feelings from my childhood.
I was raised Jewish orthodox and I never liked the law that says a married women must cover her hair. The reasoning is that hair is sensual and once you're married only your husband can get pleasure from your hair. I appreciate the sentiment, but I've never been able to make sense of it. Most of the wigs women wear these days are ten times sexier than their actual hair. Also, wearing a wig all the time ruins your own hair. But here I was, single, and wearing a wig to hide what was going on underneath.
My friends were so patient with me as I cried and complained at how powerless I was, they were incredibly loving and compassionate.
My Acupuncturist suggested I shave off all my hair, that it could be an empowering thing for me: take back some control in a situation where I clearly had none. I couldn't even fathom doing that. All I ever cared about is what everyone else thinks of me. More than anything I wanted a boyfriend. What man would ever want to love me if I didn't have hair?
As the weeks went by I became more and more obsessed with my hair. I stared at everyone's hair on the subway, I dreamt about hair, it was all I thought about. I had a hard time being present in conversations with people. As they would be talking all I could think about was "You don't understand, I'm losing my hair, and very soon I’ll be bald". I was so scared of the inevitable.
A friend of mine put me in touch with a friend of his who is bald. I felt so safe being on the phone with her, for the first time I felt like here was someone else who understood the loss I was feeling. She gave me a homework assignment to start and end my day by looking at myself in the mirror and saying out loud "I, Chani, am a wonderful and beautiful person," nine times. I started doing that and it helped to soften something inside me. That conversation we had changed me. It helped me to feel validated, understood and it gave me hope that one day I too would be in a place of acceptance the way she was.
I went to see a doctor at Mount Sinai. She didn't want to do the traditional steroid injections because the thinning was all over my head, and there were too many bald spots. She started me on a treatment at the hospital once a week where a resident applies an extremely strong solution that was supposed to irritate my scalp so much that my hair grows back.
I went every Wednesday at 8:20am on 98th and 5th avenue. Every time I left feeling traumatized, emotional and full of despair.
Then the itching would start and last 24 hours. Holy fuck the itching was so bad. And I couldn't even touch my head, because the medication was so strong, If I had any contact with it, I needed to wash my hands immediately to prevent spreading the irritant.
This past Wednesday when I was there the resident told me she couldn't apply the medication, that my scalp was still too agitated from last week’s application, and she was worried that it needed more time to heal.
I left even more defeated. I'd have to wait another week to continue my healing process. At least I didn't have to put up with any of the horrific itching.
I went to my writing class that night wearing the wig for the first time. The other students were kind; they complimented me on my 'new look'. I cringed.
When I was in the shower that night, I felt my hair falling onto my legs as I'd felt the previous few months. I would bend down every couple of seconds to take the clump of hair off the drain so it wouldn't clog it up. Every time I showered I'd lose SO much hair, it was disheartening.
This week though something shifted inside me. I decided I wanted to take some control back. I was done cleaning my hair out of the shower drain and from my pillow in the morning. I was done avoiding mirrors and feeling sorry for myself.
I got out of the shower and ran to find my scissors. I started furiously cutting the thin strands I'd been holding onto. An overwhelming feeling of excitement came over me. I cut until there was nothing left to cut. When I finished cutting, I started crying. But quickly my crying turned into laughter. I was finally FREE! I'd finally surrendered to what was happening, and let go of what everyone else would think of me. Most importantly, I'd let go of what I thought I needed to be okay.
In that moment, and every moment since then I've been okay, more than okay. I've stood taller, walked prouder and smiled more than I can ever remember. I feel more like myself today, without any hair. I keep saying that mantra "I, Chani am a wonderful and beautiful person," I say it all the time now. I can't help smile as I say it. I'm starting to believe it.
I feel liberated and I'm “blessed to have a nice shaped skull,” as everyone keeps telling me. I know I couldn't have done it a minute before I was ready. I'm grateful for my friends on this journey who helped me embrace my truth.
My deep gratitude to Chani Lisbon, who is currently working as a comedian in New York City while co-writing a television series. I’d personally be lost without my Chani-humor-filled Sunday afternoons.
You can find more of Chani here.
Letter #03 | Way-Finding Tools Part I: Meditation
Original publish date 1.31.17 | by Kiddo
Meditation is not something I came to because I was introspective or thoughtful or interested in long-term self-care. I came to meditation because I had a mountain of anxiety and obsessive thinking. Somehow I’d pieced together the mostly-false notion that meditation cures anxiety. If I sat quietly for awhile I’d get relief. Meditation does help reduce stress and a plethora of other scientifically proven medical benefits, but I was envisioning a personality overhaul. A once avid worrier transformed with a meditative boom! into a woman of serenity.
I stumbled through meditation in the beginning, getting very restless and frustrated during every sit. But I didn’t quit — too embarrassed perhaps, to admit I wasn’t cut out for silent alone time. Instructions like “empty your mind” made me gnash my teeth and 30-day meditation challenges I found on Facebook featured cheap new age music I couldn’t get past.
My partner, M, introduced me to a podcast by Tara Brach with weekly dharma talks and guided meditation that helped put it all into context. Each week I listened to Brach discuss the thought-patterns, the insecurities and the need to figure it out reflected in my own interior life. I followed along with the guided meditations as best I could. I also started getting up earlier to sit before work (5:20am — a decision I almost can’t believe in retrospect). The first week — or two or three — I set a timer for 1 minute. Then 3 minutes. Then 5. Then 10. Then 15. Then 20. When 20 was too much, I went back down to 5 or 10 and worked back up again.
During these pre-dawn sits I kept the process as simple as possible. My meditation would start with setting my iPhone timer and closing my eyes. Concentrating on my breath going in and filling my belly and then pausing, emptying back out, pausing, repeat. I didn’t do it every-single-freaking-day, but I tried. I strived for frequency over length.
I got hungry for new guided meditations and reading material which friends were happy to recommend, lend or gift. I got a taste for what worked and what didn’t. Everything I tried was free and most had an option to donate to the teacher or institute associated. I downloaded an app called Insight Timer with lots of guided options and a beautiful sounding chimes (I paid 99-cents to upgrade to the singing bowls). My curiosity gave way to habit, which turned to practice. My meditation practice has grown and the resources I use have multiplied, but my early practice is still a staple in my life.
A Little Guide
I’d like to share the details of my practice from that first year or two. I hope you'll do some experimenting and find something that works for you.
Focus. Breathing is the most common anchor and it’s what I used starting out. There are lots of anchor options but I’m covering what worked for me, so you’ll need to do some digging if breathing is a triggering or painful function to focus on.
Sit. I find a comfortable seat, usually a pillow on the floor with my legs crossed loosely in front of me. Sometimes I use a kitchen chair and sit up straight and tall, away from the chair back with my feet flat on the floor.
Settle in. I set my timer, close my eyes and take 3 slow, deep breaths.
Breathe. I return to normal breathing and follow the air filling my lungs – the feeling of my belly expanding,hold, the emptying out and hollowing of my belly, hold, repeat.
Scan. I do a simple body scan checking in for any tension, noticing it, and being with it (“oh wow, my jaw is really tight. Okay…”). I start with the tiny muscles around the eyes; the jaw; the throat; the shoulders; the chest; and last, the belly.
Breathe. Then back to breathing — a deep inhale, and a long slow shallow exhale (twice as long as my in breath). Feeling the expansion and the shrinking in my belly I keep to the somatic experience. When I realize I’ve wandered into a thought, a story or a distraction I say to myself “oh, good girl, you noticed.” Then I slowly bring my focus back to the physical, present moment by feeling air filling up or emptying out from my belly.
Re-focus. When my mind is wandering a lot (thinking of to-do lists; scripting imagined conversations, worrying about an email I should get up and send…) I count. Sometimes I count 1 for in, 1 for out, 1, 1, 1. Other times I count up to five and back down: breathe in on 1, out on 2, in on 3, out on 4, in on 5, out on 4, in on 3, out on 2, in on 1…
Finish. When the bell chimes, I try to open my eyes very slowly, looking at the ground first. I want to remember staying in my physical awareness and ease back into the flow of my day. This delays the inevitable jump back into mind — the place where I try to figure things out.
What meditation is doing for me
So what? If I didn’t feel meditation making a difference in my life, I wouldn’t bother sharing it. It was a slow slow process but I found that meditation lets me sit with my anxiety and my worried thoughts. I can (usually) give those fears my attention, saying “yes, I’m here. What do you want to tell me?” It is a tool to return to my body and let my body interpret my state. Meditation helped me see the painful storylines I told myself about the future or past were constructs of my fear. The worrying eased up a bit because I had developed a pause. A silent little space between the world and my reactions.
My practice helps me be a bit more present — a constant work in progress. I’m able to listen better. I have the smallest insight into my shortcomings and some tenderness around them.
Regular practice can give me a sense of abundance.Creativity that I can tap into and share freely without fear that I won’t get my piece of the pie. It’s a very slow, cumulative process — I hope this is just the beginning of my journey.
In short, meditation is a glimpse of peace and that I can keep moving toward.
Letter #02 | Homesick
original publish date 1.24.17 | by Kiddo
I am homesick. Acutely homesick for a place that disappeared this September. My mother died July 23rd for a time my sister, C, and I still managed to get to her house weekly. We’d check on the mail, the garbage, each other. After two months of those trips we both needed a break.
We skipped a week — a respite from the sadness of missing Mom in an environment which reminded me so strongly of her cancer and not her life. When we went back the following week something had changed. Suddenly the brightly colored wreath was out of season, the cleaning we’d done for any visiting mourners had become undone, a forgotten floral arrangement had molded.
An energy had inexplicably shifted. This was no longer a Home. It had transformed into a shell; a familiar husk that held 32 years of object memories ceased being a Home. No daily exercise of living.
The house was simply
I’m homesick for the smell of dryer sheets, the sound of the hot water tank kicking on, the nearly inaudible fizzle of a muted TV in an adjacent room. I miss the feeling of other beings moving through a shared space. I miss the feeling of avoiding those beings in a resentful huff. I miss the jingle of Charely’s collar as she roamed about checking on Dad then Mom.
Most recently I have missed returning to the place where I have few adult responsibilities. I miss sitting on the carpeted floor near the coffee table and putting down the heaviness I had been carrying: stress of career, apartment hunts and rent increases, the crush of people on the subway, deadlines and hundreds of emails. I miss the luxury of a break and the privilege of feeling completely secure. Do some dishes, take out the trash, make a salad…those might be the biggest requests for a few days over Christmas. Oh god how I miss it.
I miss the frustration of the people living in this home. The circular stories, the signular cramped bathroom, the stiff sleep I'd get crunched up on an over-stuffed chair for a lack of bedrooms. Family. I miss my family. It is a homesickness that I know is incurable.
As C and I arduously go through our family’s things I feel less and less comforted by the space. On the rare occasions I’ve stayed overnight I experience a distracted mind and out of body alien sadness — unable to connect to specific aspects of Mom and Dad. Memories feel out of reach and only the vague unwelcome energy of the house rattles inside me. I miss home, because I miss my parents.
That sensation of sadness is a comfort. I took shelter in it occasionally to protect myself from The Holidays. As Dad’s birthday creeps up, as my own birthday follows. If you’ve lost someone to an illness or to a breakup, you know that warm blanket that grief can sometimes offer.
Grief Hides in My Body
Grief has manifested as long stretches of numbness these past few months. I am disconnected from my body, from my emotional mind. I don’t know what keeps us out of our bodies — a protective force? Perhaps my Grief believes I’m on a mission to obliterate it. It’s hiding deep away, fearful of my pulverizing ACTION ACTION that will attempt to drive it out. I try to coax it forward. A gentle Morse Code of meditation, therapy, baths.
I want to meet you, Grief. I want to invite you to sit and stay warm with me. You deserve my attention and care. I know that now.
When Dad died I dove into my job. I worked long hours and tried to exorcise the sadness with achievement. I’m sorry for that.
Grief doesn’t get displaced; it gets buried.
Dear Grief, you need softness. Tea. Slow stretching. You need sleep whenever and however I can get it. How do I open to the kindness you require? Kindness is not one my practiced methods, it’s not well-worn territory for me. I see that you will need more persuading because I have no clue where you live. How deep you’ve gone to hide from me.
This round though, I’ll wait. I’ll try.
To give time, Time.
Letter #01 | Welcome
original publish date 1.17.17 | by Kiddo
This past year my mother was diagnosed with and died of lung cancer. Three and a half years earlier my father died of a heart attack on his drive home from work. Both losses are disorienting, numbing, humor-filled, heart-smashing and on-going. The death of my parents has been an experience of grief waxing and waning. And of course, it has also been an experience filled with great love, joy and new community.
In response to this process, I am starting this weekly-ish letter series as a thoughtful, sensitive and occasionally ridiculous meditation on loss. By sharing my story, and the stories of my friends I want to show the ways in which loss and creativity are intertwined.
It’s not my intention to solve, sanitize or even make clear meaning out of grief, because grief can’t be cleaned up and because meaning-making takes distance, time, reflection, and clarity (none of which I have yet).
In these letters I’ll define loss broadly: loss of a job, loss of security, loss of a relationship, loss of freedom. Grief comes from an enormous spectrum of experience and I want to share many different individuals’ stories.
We find one another in many ways. I hope these letters can be one.