Day 16: Learning New Things

464449_10150827831600963_635790962_9728664_2004239751_oTaking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Sixteen.

I was in my late thirties, divorced, and supporting three small kids alone when I filled out my first actual college application. I had gone to art school, and done a quarter or two half-heartedly at the community college when I was fresh out of high school, but that was the extent of my formal education. I had always loved school, but the way my life unfolded, it just wasn’t a priority.

Looking back, it’s actually more complicated than just not being a priority. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t really have anyone to show me or mentor me. I was bright, but I didn’t really know it, or more importantly, I didn’t really believe it. When I found myself suddenly in the terrible position of facing a future without an education, it was time to finally address and face those fears.

When the envelope from the state university came back with my acceptance letter, I was surprised. I was delighted- I stuck it to the refrigerator with a big magnet, where I could see it every day as I ran carpool and took care of my kids. It was a letter of hope. It meant someone believed in me, and they wanted me to come to college. It meant I had a future beyond where I currently sat.

My situation was special, but probably not unique- plenty of women find themselves in unexpected, unanticipated life situations. Most women still have a co-parent after a divorce, and some form of support. That’s once place where I was different. There was a sense of urgency, that I didn’t have time to waste, and I certainly didn’t need to figure out who I was and take classes that didn’t propel me towards graduation. I met with my advisor and figured out a plan, and if I carried a heavy course-load year-round, I could graduate in three years. My advisor was cautious, and didn’t recommend my plan, but agreed I could try it. Certainly it wouldn’t be advisable for a 19 year old. But I wasn’t 19.

That first day, I looked around at the young, fresh faces in my classes. I was intimidated, knowing I was old enough for some of these kids to be my kid. I didn’t say much, I kept my head down. I took notes fervently, studied hard, and wrote paper after paper. And I realized something important. I was smart enough. I had something to offer. I had a different perspective, a perspective my professors almost always welcomed. I learned to speak up, to offer my thoughts in different classes with different environments. I learned I was a very good writer, and could make my points clearly and argue effectively.

Three years later, I graduated. I graduated with honors. I wasn’t 19.

Now, several years on, I am arguing with myself about going back and finishing my graduate degree. On some days, I am even considering a radical change in plans and taking on a whole new program. Sometimes there is a little voice telling me I am too old. Telling me it’s a waste, and I don’t deserve/need/warrant the space in a program that interests me. I try really hard to tell that voice to shove it.

Learning is awesome. School is important. Never stop learning, however you go about it. We are just simply not meant to close up shop at dusk, like a shy day flower. Keep trying. Keep inviting in the new. Keep looking up. Keep your heart and your mind open.

Day 15: Camping


Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Fifteen.

There was a rustling outside my tent. It woke me in the pre-dawn dark, and it scared me. I sat up, eyes wide in the dimness, straining to see, my heart pounding in my ears. There were several tents scattered around the campground, and bears weren’t really a big problem in this area of volcanic Northern California.

The shuffling continued, but now accompanied by something familiar. “Dad?” I whispered. “DAD? Is that you?” Shuffle, mumble, and something brushed up against my tent. “Dammit, get back here!” I heard in the familiar, trying to be quiet, voice.

Crawling to the door, I unzipped the fly of my tent. On the ground in the soft dirt of our camp was my dad, decked out in his fishing vest and cap, creel tipped over in the grass, crawling  around frantically, cupping his hands to the ground, and furiously stuffing something in his pockets. “What are you DOING?” I stage-whisper. Tents are thin and I didn’t want to wake everyone else.

“I dropped my crickets!” as he pounced again and shoved something in his pocket. I started to giggle and crawled out and to help him, still in my pajamas. Dozens of crickets were hopping every direction, doing their best to maintain their freedom and evade our hands. Dad and I pounced and grabbed and I think maybe we caught a small handful. We must have looked insane, in the dirt, in the dark.

My dad is fly fisherman. Well, truthfully, my dad is an any-kind-of-fish fisherman. Put him on any body of water, salt, fresh, river, ocean, lake, stream, creek, long pole, fly rod, deep sea rig, didn’t matter. He is happiest fishing. We were camping at a place called Deep Creek, a branch of the Pit River far up in northeastern California, and he was determined to get out early, before the sun and start his day. In his haste, he’d dropped his container of crickets, and they had, of course, jumped for their unexpected freedom.

And there are me and my dad, crawling around camp in the dim dawn, desperately trying to capture his crickets without waking anyone. It’s one of my favorite memories.


Day 14: School Lunch

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Fourteen.

I had a great childhood. I grew up a hippie kid, of hippie parents.

My mom baked bread. As a matter of fact, the giant earthenware bowl she used when I was a child now graces my own kitchen. (It’s one of my favorite bowls. And I like bowls. But that’s a discussion for another day.) My mom baked bread. She baked bread, made jam from the plums growing in our backyard, and made fruit leather in our dehydrator. She ran a food co-op with the other women in our sunny California neighborhood, and it was always a fun day when the giant containers of cheese and grains would arrive in their big, heavy bags and boxes, ready to be parsed out and divided. We raised chickens, and one my jobs was to collect the eggs every day, which we would sell to the neighbors. We had enough eggs for all our neighbors. My dad hunted, and our freezer was full of venison, pheasant, duck and stripped bass. We had a vegetable garden with zucchini the size of my thighs, and more tomatoes than we could eat. We had a milk-man, for heaven’s sake! A real milk man who would deliver milk to our door when I was little. I lived in a little corner of heaven.

So do you think I got school lunch? I would have traded everything in my lunch sack for a bite of a single ho-ho. I would have given up my whole-wheat baked honey bread with fresh ground peanut butter and sun-dried plum fruit leather for a mere corner of a ho-ho. I would have traded an entire week of fresh applesauce for a slice of the deliciously greasy, salty, overcooked and soggy sausage pizza my friends inhaled every Friday. I wasn’t even allowed to get chocolate milk.

No one wanted to trade me anything.

Every day, I would sit with my healthy, homemade, wholesome, healthy food spread before me on the formica lunch table, and stare forlornly at the brightly colored, food dye #4, processed, salted, chemical laden joy my friends got to eat. And I would open my brown sack,  peel my brown banana and stare at my brown-bread sandwich, with egg salad from my brown chickens who laid brown eggs.

I felt like the most mistreated, unloved child in the whole world.

Then I would ride my bike home, climb the avocado tree in my yard, sit on top of the chicken coop and pick plums, feed the goat, play with the eight puppies the labrador retriever just had, fetch some more eggs for dinner, hand another dozen over the back fence to Burgie, the neighbor, pick some tangerines to eat while I held the rabbit, and climbed the fence to snatch some cherries from the neighbors tree. All before dinner.

After dinner we’d go for another bike ride with my aunt and cousins and siblings and a few neighbor kids, collecting aluminum cans from the neighborhood to recycle, which was always used to pay for our next tickets to Disneyland. Maybe we’d play hide and seek when we got back, and sometimes the moms would join us until it was too dark.

I grew up a hippie kid. Maybe missing out on the ho-hos wasn’t so bad. But don’t try and tell that to a second-grade kid.

Day 13: Hair


Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Thirteen

And on a lighter note…

All my life I have had thick, curly hair. It started out cornsilk blonde when I was a small child, and gradually darkened as I got older, as so many times happens. (It’s back to blonde now, thank you Revlon.) During my teen years, I hated it- my friends would have lovely smooth hair, and there was nothing I could do to achieve that look. My curls were unruly and, I didn’t yet know about flat-irons. Regularly, wimpy ponytail holders would snap as I tried to wrap them twice around my enormous poof. Once was too loose, twice, and *snap* they’d breaks into pieces. I started making my own scrunchies, back when that was a thing, and even long after it was no longer a thing. My hair was big. You could hide things in it- and my brothers sometimes did. I could dive into a swimming pool, and the under-coat (do people have those?) would not even get wet if I rose quickly.

I hated it. For most of my life, I was at war with my hair. I would stare enviously at women with silky, untangled locks. I wondered what it was like to be able to run your fingers through your hair. I tried cutting it short, I tried laying my head down on the ironing board, I tried braids and rollers and chemical straighteners. I finally gave up and just rolled with it, and learned a few tricks and learned about some styling products that helped. And I came to a place of peace with the beast.

My senior year of college, when I was in my thirties and raising three children alone, a strange thing started happening. I noticed my ponytail wasn’t breaking the elastics anymore. At first, it was no big deal. But then showering became a horror show, with hand-fulls coming out with my shampoo. I didn’t have any medical insurance, I was a single mother with three little kids, no support, carrying an overload of college credits every quarter, year round, and I didn’t have time to worry about my hair. Within a few months though, my long, thick hair was ragged, and I got worried. I started to think something terrible was wrong. I called a friend who is a doctor and described to him what was happening. He asked “Are you under a lot of stress?” Stress? See above.

He told me stress could cause hair loss, and I needed to watch my nutrition and start taking better care of myself. He also responsibly said it *could* be other things too, but that taking better care of myself was a good starting place.

I did the best I could to manage my stress and finish out a 19-credit quarter. I started taking better care of myself and trying to exercise and eat better. It helped. Slowly.

My hair gradually started to grow back and the shower horror-show ended. But I’ll never complain about thick, unruly, curly hair again.

Day 12: Decisions


Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twelve.

In my head, their names were Harold and Maude. They were yellow swallowtail butterflies living in the poplar trees lining my back fence. Perhaps there were more of them, but it seemed I would only see the pair, flittering and floating through the eddies and currents while the leaves started to yellow and fall. I would smile when I saw them out my kitchen widow. Even now, years later, when I see a yellow butterfly, I think of them.

Leaning against the large air-conditioning fan outside my back door, I clutched the phone to my chest. In desperation, I had called my friend to see if she could help me with my kids. For weeks I had been planning to fly to Houston for a quilt show- one of the biggest quilt shows in the country, into which, through a series of small miracles, I had been accepted as a new vendor. My eggs were all in that basket; every hope I had for the future meant I had to get to Houston. But that morning, after three years of struggle, half a dozen stints in rehab, and two hospitalizations, my husband had relapsed. Again. There was no way I could leave the kids with him. Last time he’d relapsed, it had been three days from first-use to over-dose. From the outside, I was watching butterflies in my backyard. Inside, the 641 days of carefully propped-up walls and stories were crashing in brittle, irreparable shards.

What am I going to do?

I was still watching the butterflies, fighting tears, lost in my own painful head when I heard, “You can leave now.” It was clear, but nonexistent. A roar of silence. It so startled me, I looked around, wondering who was in my yard. There was nothing but empty grass, the trees, and a yawning quiet stillness.

I held very still, muscles tense, my head swimming. Suspended.

Harold and Maude swooped down, the birds chirped, the breeze ruffled the poplar leaves, and the sky was a beautiful early October blue overhead. I exhaled.

I no longer wondered what I was going to do.

It just so happened my brother and sister-in-law were visiting for the first time that week. It just so happened they had brought their large family car, and it just so happened there were three seats with enough room for my kids and their bags. Together we packed everything up. Putting on a brave face, I told my kids they were getting a surprise visit to grandma and grandpa, and within the space of a few hours, I was standing in my driveway, waving with a teary smile as I watched my brother’s car get smaller and smaller as he drove south with my hearts buckled in his backseat. I will love him forever for that day.

I remember standing in the driveway for a long time, staring after the car long after it vanished. I don’t know for how long, but the pale pavement was warm on my bare feet. Time was weird that whole day, stretched and compressed, silent and roaring in my ears. The sky was blue. The leaves were starting to change. My children were safe.

There are gaps in my memories, but little things will bring up lost imagines, things I thought were gone. The scent of Elder flowers. A yellow butterfly. A birdcage with a singing parakeet. Poplar leaves against azure sky.

I walked back into the empty house.

Sitting down at my desk, I wrote an email to my parents, telling them everything I had spent three years trying to hide. I told them about the narcotics, the relapses, the hospitalizations, the things I had skimmed up against, but never directly addressed. I had not meant to obfuscate, but I had hoped fervently to repair my marriage, and I didn’t want my family to think badly of my husband, had he been able to recover. My opening up that vein and letting the blood flow was a concrete answer to what was next.

To this day I don’t know what happened in that backyard. The only thing of which I am certain is that I moved from years of instability and unrelenting fear into a space of irrevocable action in a bare moment. There were no more questions. There was no more waiting. There were no more excuses. There were simply facts, and the required action to deal with those facts.

The next day, I filed for divorce.

The surrounding events and my attempt to write while living it can be found in the 2009 October Dandelion archives. This is the first time I have tried to tell this part of story.

Day 11: Lost Things

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Eleven.

I’ve gone round and round in my mind on what is lost, circling around and trying to decide if things means something tangible, or the more ephemeral. Certainly there are physical items I have lost over my lifetime that I yearn for, wonder what happened, or where it went. When I first met David, he gave me a tiny wand with a fairy-ball at one end, and a star at the opposite. It made the most delightful lilting chime, like laughter. It was no bigger than my little finger, and I have no idea what ever became of it, but I do wonder. I hope someone has it and loves it.

More than things though, I imagine the intangibles I have lost over the years. I have lost much of the outrage I carted around for many of my younger years. It was leaky and messy and really wasn’t mine anyway. I borrowed it, and it was a relief to realize that lease was temporary and I could walk away. Somewhere along the way I lost some of my fears of not being good enough— that was also a relief. I lost my embarrassment of being messy and loud and big, and frankly, that needed to be lost. I lost the need, but perhaps not the desire, for approval from my loved ones. When I lost those things, I found there was room on my shoulders to relax a little, to take a deep breath, and to lift my head up and look around, and figure out who I wanted to be, and to decide I actually liked that person.

It’s funny, the things I feared losing most when I was younger ended up being the things I really maybe needed to lose most in order to fully grow up.

Day 10: Messes


Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Ten.

My grandma used to have a saying. “You’re a hot mess.”She would say it with a smile, to soften the edges, but the meaning was clear- my edges are not smoothed over, my hair is wild, my spaces can be messy, and I tended to be all over the place, even as a kid. For a long time, I imagined as I grew older, the edges would wear down a bit and I might even aspire to being meek and mild, and I even dared hope for genteel. So far, I’m out of luck.

But a funny thing has happened as I’ve gotten older. The things I would be teased over, the edges I worried about, the things I felt somehow weren’t as good about me because they weren’t neat and tidy (remember the 3rd grade obsession with white shoes?) are actually things I have grown to appreciate about myself. It’s okay that my friends had crisp, white shoes. Mine weren’t because I stopped thinking about keeping them clean as soon as something interesting and exciting happened. My pencils were never shiny and new, because I was busy drawing until they were nubs. My hair was a mess because I didn’t want to waste time fighting my rebellious natural curls, and it’s very convenient to tuck a pencil or paintbrush into a curled topknot. When I stopped caring about how I measured up to other people, I really started to like myself more.

This is translated into how I mother and wife, too. My kids are happy and they know without any doubt they are deeply loved- and they know they won’t get in trouble if their shoes get muddy on some adventure. They know I care more about the joy on Abby’s face as she takes her new pickax to rocks in the rain than I do about the deck she periodically hits as she misses the rocks. They know learning to cook a good dinner themselves is more important than a pristine kitchen, and they know having a giant dog who fiercely and loyally loves them is more important than perfect upholstery or shiny floors. My husband knows we can toss the clean laundry on the chair when a movie-thon beckons, and that sometimes, the dishes can wait, while he tosses me over his shoulder with a twinkle in his eye. People, experiences, and joy, are always more important than perfect order. These are my trade-offs. These are the messes I have learned to embrace in the service of a life well lived- at least by my own yardstick. If that makes me hot mess, so be it.

Day 9: Age Eight


Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Nine.

I was eight when I tasted my first bagel with cream cheese. Linda Hoffman brought one to my third grade classroom, and she tore off a small piece at snack-recess and let me try it. We were leaning against the metal bars on which we would fling ourselves forward and backward, tumbling in dizzying summersaults, until our hands and knees were raw and blistered, and I popped the chewy, creamy bite in my mouth. It’s been decades now, and that bite was still one of the best things I have ever eaten.

My teacher was Mrs. Hessenflow, and I still occasionally catch a faint wisp of the perfume she wore when I pass an older woman in a department store. When I was eight, she seemed to be about eighty. But she was kind and gentle, and she had patience with me and my wiggly, pencil-chewing self.

I had my first crush, and it was a monster crush, sitting in her classroom. His name was Erik, and he had blond hair and bright, rosy cheeks. He would make my own cheeks flush and I had no idea what to do with those feelings, so I would run away from him. Then I would sit in class, chewing again on my gnawed pencil, brushing the flakes of Ticonderoga yellow from desk, and wondering why my sneakers were never as white as Renee Steinberg’s shoes. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t keep my shoes white, or even tied. I didn’t know having white shoes should matter, but it somehow made me feel deficient, and I coveted having clean sneakers. Then I would go outside again, and forget that I wanted white shoes, and would jump over puddles, run from boys who gave me the oddest sensation in my tummy, and climb trees on the edges of the playground. They let us do that back them- climb trees, play in the dirt— we even had a wood cart with hammers and nails and scraps of wood we were free to play with. The wood cart always had a crowd of children around it. No one at the wood cart had clean shoes, either.

The whistle would blow, and I would drop from the metal bars to examine the new, broken open blisters dotting my palms, and run towards the drinking fountains, where the tepid California water would sting the raw skin and the smell of metal wouldn’t go away. Sweaty and disheveled, I’d bounce towards the line outside my classroom, my orange dress disheveled and my shoes untied, once again. So much for appearances.

Day 8: Birthdays


Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Eight

When I think of birthdays, I think of the day Jeffrey was born, the day I became a mother, and the day I first ever was certain of a belief in God. All points and directions in my life triangulated at that moment. It felt like the fullness of time, place and spirit. A pinpoint of light, tearing open the veil of heaven in the smallest—but very brightest—and most unmistakable way.

His eyes were still squeezed tightly shut, his body covered in the vernix of birth. They laid him on my chest, and I marveled, almost unable to breathe, that in that moment, something that wasn’t only a moment before, suddenly was. How was this possible? Where did he come from? I gingerly stroked his velvety cheek with my finger, almost afraid to touch him. The perfection of a newborn still leaves me in awe, every time.

Slowly, he opened one eye, the other smashed into my chest, his fists curled up like flowers still unfurling from their protective sepals. Tears were running down my face, and I looked up- he was a redhead! He had no hair, but his lashes— his tiny, new, curling lashes, were the color of a bright new penny. In all the years I imagined my child, I never once imagined a copper-haired baby. But there he was, and I was head over heels in love.

I have no idea how long I lay there holding his curled body against my warmth. I know the doctor was busy doing unseemly things to me, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was blown away at the act of creation, that creation happened through my body, and that this baby— this very clearly someone-baby—was suddenly, just-like-that, embodied. I was a mother. And I knew there was a God. It was a pretty triangle.

Day 7: (Un)Finished


Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Seven

I am terrible about finishing things. The better part of my life has been spent making stuff- painting, writing, sewing, knitting, babies, cooking. And while I finished the baby-making and I usually finish dinner, there are very few projects or goals I finish, really finish, on the first pass. I used to feel bad about this- when I would paint, I imagined if I didn’t finish it the first go-through, it was never getting done. And it became something of a self-fulfilling prophesy. I believed the story I told myself about me.

As the years have swept over and past me, I find I look at many things differently now, and my propensity to leave things unfinished is actually okay. I come back to them, I rethink my ideas, I circle around, with a new perspective, like ascending a spiral staircase. As my life moves on, I come back around to themes and vistas that are familiar, only I am not exactly in the same space, and I can add something different to my work. There is nuance in trusting myself this way.

Recently I have been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, and he spends one whole cast talking bout creativity, and the process by which art and made-things are brought into the world. There are people who burst full-force and fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, they are Picassos. There are people who incubate, who spiral around, who revisit and retool and rewrite; they are Cezannes. Both are important and vital. Age makes me more comfortable with the duality in my own life- there are times I am Picasso, and there are times I am Cezanne. Both manifest differing impetus to create in my life, and both yield important, if very different results.

I think the trick is to be kind enough to yourself to allow yourself the room to be both.

One of the things I have Cezanne’d is finishing my graduate degree. I started, full steam ahead, but when my program was changed and I was offered a spot in a different cohort, it wasn’t what I wanted to do, and I found myself at an impasse. It seemed like a good time to take a break, and now, education-wise, I am a lonely train on a siding, and I’ve got some weeds around my wheels. Honestly, I love (love!) being in school, but every time I mention it, my kids audibly groan and side-eye me. They remember my college years, unlike most kids, and they know the work involved. But it bothers me that I left it undone.

When I am kind to myself, I actually see the body of my work, and it cannot be summed up in a degree or in a trite statement. The things I have created are complicated, varied, vast— and maybe some of them are even meaningful to some people besides me. My life has not been simple or boring, and the stories behind the things I have made might one day fill books. More and more, I am hearing the whispering: It’s time.