Three Little Birds


When they were little, it felt like the days stretched on without end.

Those were hard years—for everyone, yes, mothering very little ones is intense—but for me, I think maybe especially so. I am old enough to know that even lives that look smooth and easy from the glassy surface probably have hidden riptides. There was never anything smooth or glassy about the surfaces of my life, but when the rip tide rose up, it took with it any semblance of a stable life, destroyed my first marriage and ultimately took my first husband’s life. It left me with three babies and no visible means of support.

So when I say those years were hard, I mean it. In one paragraph, I can create a shiny, smooth surface over years of violent loss. But what those years really were was day in and day out of caring for the intense needs of three small children, while also watching my husband, their father, slowly die. In my mind, I can tick off the relapses and losses with matching snapshots of the kids’ first steps, first days of preschool, first loose tooth, first day of kindergarten. First all-night withdrawal, first overdose, first seizure, first in-patient hold, first ambulance ride…and on it goes.

Like any mother, I did my best to protect my kids from the reality of what was happening. When something like that starts, you really cannot see the end from the beginning. Your partner is hurt. They messed up. You can help fix it. It’s not too late. When you’re married, have three kids, and just bought the dream house where you both imagine living for the rest of your life, you don’t just give up. You just don’t. Even now, a decade removed and with the perspective of time and hindsight, I still don’t see a clear place where I could have chosen differently.

So my children spent their early years in this foundry of pressure and loss, and I was powerless to stop it, or to even hold it back.  While those individual days absolutely felt like a never-ending eternity, it turns out ten years flew by when I glanced away for a moment.

All of this is on my mind because my oldest son turned seventeen yesterday. Seventeen.

He was four and a half years-old when his father relapsed the first time, he was eight years-old when I took a deep, grief-filled breath and signed divorce papers, and he was thirteen years-old when the call came that his father was dead.

The seemingly small age difference between him and his siblings turns out to be a relational gulf in foundational memories. My oldest son carries with him the double-edged memories of his father that his brother and sister do not share. He remembers my frantic calls to 911. He remembers the paramedics pounding on his father’s chest. He remembers his grandmother crying in our kitchen. He remembers the judge’s order, and his dad not being allowed to see him for a year. He remembers.

He remembers packing up our home, and moving to a tiny place across town. He remembers crawling into bed with me, while we both cried. He remembers going to the welfare office and getting free school lunch. He remembers filling out his little paper ornament to hang on the charity Christmas tree in the foyer. He remembers having to sell the car so we could afford to keep the heat and water on.

He also has powerful memories of people helping. He remembers strangers dropping off boots and coats for us. He remembers packages arriving on our porch anonymously. He remembers kids from church canceling a ski trip to help us move. He remembers the scout troop helping set up swings in our tiny yard. He remembers fishing trips and garden plots and motorbike rides and free pizzas and sledding and invitations to multiple family Thanksgiving and Easter dinners.

The life he’s lived, while not one I would have ever chosen for him on his birth day, has changed him in powerful ways I also could never have imagined. I unequivocally do not believe the trite aphorism everything happens for a reason. That notion reduces people and their lives to bit pieces moved around on a chess board for another’s benefit. There is no world in which that is just or moral. What I do believe is that life is messy and hard and full of chance and dumb luck and grace when we are looking for it, and it will roll forward whether we want it to or not. We have very little power over anything outside of ourselves, but the power we do have for ourselves is pretty remarkable.

Had twenty-seven year old me been given the choice, I would have probably avoided every single thing coming down the pipeline. Thank God I didn’t know. Thank God we are not given that omniscience, because we would screw it up every time. I would have moved heaven and earth to try and save my children, myself, and David, the pain we would all experience. But looking back, I cannot fathom a bigger mistake.

The things twenty-seven year old me would want to avoid end up being foundational to who I am, to how I now move through the world. And while I cannot see yet what that means for the future from right here in the middle, what I do have now that I didn’t then is faith in the process. I don’t know why things happen, and sometimes they are wretchedly sad and sometimes loss is just heartbreakingly meaningless. I think the only why is what we do with our own pain.

So I look at my son. Seventeen.

He’s not like other kids. He’s acquainted with loss and grief in ways many kids aren’t. He’s comfortable with disabilities, with the language of inclusion, with blended families, and non-traditional roles. He volunteers in the SpEd class and walks a vision-impaired classmate to the bus in the afternoons. He is aware of how fortunate we are now, how wonderful it is to have a full refrigerator and not to worry about the heating bill. He keys in on the needs and feelings of others, and navigates easily between wildly different peer groups. He flew with me to retrieve the ashes of his father after he died, and held them in his lap on the flight home.

He’s also exactly like other kids. He forgets to do his homework, and spends too much time playing video games. He complains about picking up dog poop in the yard, and is a jerk sometimes to his youngest sister. He plays Dungeons & Dragons, and he lettered in Varsity football. He has an easy smile and a ready laugh, and will happily show you all the vintage rock on the phone he got for his birthday. He likes Billie Holiday and sings loudly off-key to Billy Joel with his step-father while he does the dishes.

And now he is seventeen, and the heavy lifting of the early years—and even the teenage years, to a large extent—are behind us. What once felt like an inescapable forever of sorrow and hardship is now a snapshot of complex and nuanced memories, with a tail on the curve of stability and a fair dose of happiness. To someone outside looking in, the surface looks pretty smooth. Don’t be fooled; those waters run deep.

I am grateful none of us are given the option of seeing the end from the beginning. I take a deep breath as I type that, because sometime I act braver than I really am, and we are all in the middle. The truth is, we simply cannot comprehend or manage that kind of magnitude, and we would stunt ourselves in the process of trying to create an ideal that can never exist.

I am utterly not ready for this child to graduate from high school, to be applying to college and to become an adult. His lived memories and experiences and mine are intertwined in a way that is inextricable. At the same time, I am ridiculously happy that he is so good, so competent and has so much to offer others. I am excited to see him thrive and find happiness, and I know that only happens when he learns to stand on his own.

When they were little, it felt like the days stretched on without end.

I was wrong.

It’s the process of learning to let go that is without end.

Empty Seat at the Table

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 3.37.21 PM.png

I never met him, but I started to cry this morning when I got a text telling me that Anthony Bourdain had died. I was no one to him—a nameless, faceless, American woman whose kids turned their noses up at the food I put on the table each day. Every once in a while I could distract the kids and find a spare moment to breathe, and surreptitiously change the channel from Noggin to Travel and see Bourdain living the life I dreamed of.

He meant something to me.

He might not have known who I was, but he paid attention to the women cooking noodles on the street corner in Vietnam. He listened to her story, watched her skilled hands move in the timeless rhythms passed down to her from her mothers. He didn’t romanticize the people he walked among- he was cutting and sardonic, but people were not ironic pawns in his story. He submerged himself in real life, messy life, complicated and beautiful and painful life. He showed reverence for the process, and I drank it down.

So much of my relationship with his travels and love of food was swallowed in stolen bits between the needs of my family. I have impressions burnt into my memory—a rickshaw ride through the swirling night, with lights and green hazy alcohol. A president meeting him at a flimsy plastic table to share a beer. The butchering of a camel and the consumption of the hump, much to my slight revulsion. The slaughter of pigs, and the using of every single valuable part of the animal. The slight terror of being at a shiny white hotel in the middle east, and suddenly being under siege and unsure of what would happen next.

He showed us that people are people everywhere, and they have beautiful stories if you will pause to truly listen. He modeled how to travel, how to be human with other humans, how to connect and really see the flux and flow happening constantly. He showed us—really showed us—that we have nothing to fear from difference, and everything to gain.

Food is personal. Food is fundamentally how we care for each other. It’s labor. It’s life. It’s also ultimately death. Food is love. My friends know that if I love you, I will feed you. And while I was nobody to the lucky bastard who got to travel the world finding the best food, because of the way he looked at, talked with, moved among, and actually saw the people he sought out who were cooks, I feel like he saw me too.

I wish there was a way to wind back the clock a few hours, to invite him to sit in my kitchen while I run my knife over todays garden picking, adding some salt and garlic and a few chilis to some pig. I wish I could pour him a beer in one of my chipped kitchen glasses, and shoo the dog away. I wish I could give him back some of the hopeful sustenance he gave all of us, and help him get through this day.

I’m just so damn sorry.  I hope the pain is gone.

More than seven years ago, I wrote about my secret crushes. Number three on my list was Anthony Bourdain.

Day 48: Childhood Toy

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

I’m still embarrassed by the red flannel cap I wore that Christmas. Do you have anything from your long-ago past that still makes your cheeks sting with chagrin? I don’t know how old I was, maybe ten? But I’d read Little Women and was enamored of the fashions and traditions of the idealized past, and I had started trying to sleep in flannel nightgown and sleeping cap–the kind you would see in Coca-Cola ads depicting sleepy-eyed children and Santa Claus. Nevermind that I lived in California, and a flannel nightgown and cap were not only absurd on their own, but particularly so when “winter” meant cooling to 72 degree December days.

I was a weird kid. Dreamy. Lost in my books. My books were my world, and I wanted to live there. So sometimes I tried. I wish it had stopped with that ridiculous lace-trimmed flannel cap, but it didn’t. I tried to make a corset from wire-hangers and duct tape after I read Gone with the Wind. I tried to dry plums in the sun on top of the chicken coop after I found Steinbeck. I imagined myself Fern, lecturing my father and his friends on the morality of killing a pig to eat.

So that Christmas, in my red flannel while the rest of my family was comfortable in shorts, I opened the last big package. It was a pair of roller skates. They were beautiful white leather with smooth nylon wheels that whispered on hidden ball-bearings, and giant purple pom-poms covered the un-marred toes. I gazed into the box, so happy, imagining myself gliding over the fresh patio my dad had poured in the backyard.

Then I remembered the stupid hat, and tore it off. One couldn’t wear a Victorian sleeping cap and possess the finest roller-skates on the west coast. Worlds collided, and modernity won.

I was a weird kid. But I roller skated the wheels off of those suckers, and I’ve never worn a sleeping cap again.


Procrastination Renovation

Or: How to Avoid Doing What You Should Be Doing


So in an effort to both avoid Writing the Next Book and Other Things, I got a wild hair to do some major home improvement. Thankfully, my family is game and goes along with most of my wild hairs, albeit not always with the same vision that grips me.

It started simple enough. I’ve lived in this house for several years now, and as with almost everyone, there were changes I wanted to make. I’ve done a lot of them, but apparently not as many as I thought. It started with replacing the curly-que door levers (pocket-killer and headphone rippers-out) with regular old doorknobs. Not a big job, and I found a great deal on knobs.

Then I decided a few of the light fixtures needed to go (they were never my taste, and didn’t remotely fit with the mid-Atlantic architecture of the house.) I also found some great deals on light, and can make second-hand things shine like new. I’m comfortable with electrical work, so I did all of this myself. When I pulled down the ceiling fixtures, I found old junction boxes that were only held in with one screw, so I found a YouTube video and replaced them all. It wasn’t hard, and with the breaker off, you really can’t hurt yourself.

So that was good, and I felt happy with the upgrades and safety changes.

Then it was time to use more of the house. Our house is as much house as I ever want—not a fan of giant McMansions in the suburbs, this house is a moderate size for an American  home, and certainly big enough for a family of six plus a dog. But it does require that we are smart about our spaces and use it wisely. We don’t have the luxury (or want it, really) of having a room or two set aside that doesn’t get used. No formal living room or dining room, just rooms that the entire family can functionally use. That required some rethinking.

The basement is 1/3 of our house. We’re lucky in that it’s a walk-out daylight basement and opens to our fenced backyard. But it was poorly designed, with choppy flooring, asymmetrical built-ins that jutted into the living space, and literally zero wall space unclaimed in an already awkwardly L-shaped room. Time to demo, boys!


It only took one Saturday, but we ripped out everything down to the badly marred drywall. Bean and Jon both really like demo, and Jeff was with me on the vision that was coalescing for the room.


Once everything was removed, it was time to learn to drywall. At first I thought about hiring someone to do it, but it just didn’t look that hard–and our budget is super tight. I turned to YouTube again to learn how to tape and mud, and I got to work. (Two thoughts: It’s not necessarily hard, but it’s a LOT of work, and if you take it on, expect it to take twice as long, and expect your arms, shoulders and neck to pay a heavy price. It’s serious physical work.)

I’m sure my patches aren’t perfect and my tape joints would make a drywall professional roll their eyes, but it wasn’t bad, and a little texture covers a multitude of imperfections.

Then I painted. A little bit about paint. A) paint is expensive, and B) if you have an eye for color, I’ve got a hack for you… All major hardware stores have a rack of “mis-tints” or paints that didn’t come out the color the customer desired. The store sets them aside, and marks them down significantly. Its not unusual to find a $45/gallon of paint marked down to $5. Check those racks. If you find a color you like, score! If they don’t have a color you like, you can mix your own! Grab a can or two of neutral colors, get a clean bucket and start mixing. Use a light-ish base, and add some brown, green, yellow, whatever… most colors when mixed will make a taupe-brown-grey color. If the color isn’t right or feels too muddy, add white!  Doing this, you can get a couple of gallons of a super neutral tone in a high quality paint that would have cost $100 for less than $20. My *entire* house is painted this way, by the way. Every room. (The only downside is that you can’t order more.)


This is the grey color I mixed with mis-tints from Lowes. Cost: $18. And it was their premium paint with primer built-in. You just have to be cool with imperfection. Can you see my drywall tape? Nope!

Then I scored a major deal at Lowes with some clearance flooring. Again, if you go in with an open mind regarding colors and style, you can really do well. I know a lot of people get freaked out by big decisions, but if you stay in a neutral family of colors, I promise it will look good when you’re done. You can mis-match a lot of stuff, as my own home proves…

We installed this ourselves. Floating floor is easier than drywall, honestly. Find a YouTube video, and recruit your family to help.


Meanwhile, Tiberius was terrified off all the chaos and noise, and spent the week hovering on the stairs, too afraid to come all the way down.

I found this chandelier meant for a castle at Costco marked down to $59. I bought it, came home and installed it, wanted to love it, and then got up at midnight (literally, I couldn’t sleep in a castle) and took it all down and packed it back in the box. My husband is a very patient man, and did sleep through my Castle phase. Now there isn’t a light in the dining room. But I’ll find something second-hand. It can wait.

So I enlisted the help of my teenagers (have I mentioned that teenagers are awesome? I feel like I have.) and we decided to move the boys to the new basement palace. It didn’t take long for them to think they were done:


Insert narrator’s voice: They were not.

What actually happened, instead of the man-cave they imagined was the creation of a new bedroom suite for the boys in the basement, and the girls getting their own rooms (and bathroom!) upstairs.


The boys’ game and living area.


Jeffrey’s space.


Bean’s space.


The dog finally screwed up the courage to come downstairs and promptly staked out Tiberius’ space.


Abby’s room…


…and Kelsey’s.

A word about decorating, because I have a lot of friends who are intimidated and who ask me for help…

First… Decorating doesn’t have to be expensive. Keep in mind my paint hack, and my willingness to look for sales, second-hand and shop garage and thrift stores. I realize this takes time, and not everyone has a lot of time, but a Saturday at a flea market or a thrift store can yield great results. I know it’s been said a lot, but look at the bones of things. A second-hand lamp that’s well-made can be re-wired with a $5 kit from the hardware store and can be spray painted. A solid chair can be recovered, painted, or stained. Nearly every single item you see in these photos of my home was found second-hand. Don’t buy junk particle board, look for solid wood, solid construction; you can tell when you hold something, when you touch it, if it’s good.

Abby’s bed is a thrift store find. Solid maple. I sanded and painted it. It’s lasted her more than a decade now. Bean’s bed is from IKEA, but found on Craigslist. Kelsey’s bed is vintage heavy-as-hell iron, also found on Craigslist. Every bookcase in my house is from from a garage sale. The dressers were hand-me-downs, the coffee table from a yard sale (it’s been pained three different colors over the years, but it’s solid!) The china cabinet was my grandmother’s, the TV cabinet and our sofas are hand-me-downs from Jon’s brother. My piano came from a garage sale. The yellow chairs in the basement, from my favorite thrift store. The rug is from the clearance bin at Home Depot. I painted the artwork on the wall (maybe you can’t do that, but maybe you can creatively frame a poster, or ask a friend to help, or hang a vintage table cloth on the wall… think outside the box!) Even the curtains are second hand. Really folks, it just takes a little faith to take some risk, and a tiny bit of creativity.

Oh. And one more thing. Forget matching things. FORGET IT. I mean it. Literally nothing in my house matches. None of the wood is the same color or species, none of the upholstery matches.  Do you notice? Nope. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. Matchy-matchy makes your home look like a store or a hotel. Give it up. Find things you love. Marry them together, and your home will shine.


Oh, I almost forgot… it all started with painting the porch ceiling (mixed that paint by hand, too.)


And Then There is This…

Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 8.40.12 AM

For those of you in the trenches with littles, where you still have to get up at night, still don’t get enough sleep, still are changing diapers, and trying to keep everything in the house from being ruined and broken every damn day…

I’ve had my kids tell me they hate me, take out their sorrow and grief on my body, and do every other typical thing, along with all the autism things that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. And yet today, when they are 16, 14 and 12, the world is different.

My 14 year-old son with autism tenderly checks in on me and makes sure I’ve taken my vitamins and fills my water bottle and brings me books. My 12 year-old packs her siblings lunches and cares for the dog and volunteers in the neighborhood. My 16 year-old drives me to appointments and takes me to lunch with money he earned himself.

Over lunch today (it’s a school holiday) we were talking about the upcoming prom and all that accompanies the occasion and he said to me, “Most people hope they can do a better job than their parents, but I think I’ll be doing great to do as good as you did.

I may have started crying in the diner.

So when you feel it doesn’t matter, and the poop and laundry and yogurt smashed into the carpet will never end, take heart. It does. And they will likely be amazing human beings when you’re on the other side.

A dear friend told me that there is a place in the Quran that teaches every negative thing you do is fleeting, but every positive thing you do returns you 1,000 blessings because of the power of love and kindness to multiply upon itself and change the world.

I dont know much, I do believe that that is True.

(Irrational?) Anger

It starts out simple enough. You have some things to check off your chore-list and a wide, warm Saturday before you. You send your partner to the store with a list of things to pick up, and get started on the items on your to-do list. The kids are all occupied doing their own stuff around the house, and the first few things go off without a hitch.

Your partner texts you half a dozen times from the store, while you’re up on a ladder trying to reach something, because they cant find something on your list. After the 6th time your phone dings, you finally tell them never mind, just get what they can find, and you climb back up on your ladder. Deep breaths, reach, and done.

It’s the first nice weekend day this year, so your partner has their own list of outside chores, while you are tackling things inside. Your muscles are sore from the yard work you did the day before, but you stretch, and then drag the ladder upstairs to replace the second of three light fixtures. The first is installed and you’re happy with it, but your partner bought the wrong bulbs and has to head back to the store, so you don’t know if you wired it properly yet.

Removing the broken light fixture from the ceiling over the stairwell proves to be a bigger hassle than the first one—the ceiling box is old, and one of the screws is stripped out. When you try and remove it, the entire housing breaks off in your hands. You spend the next two hours trying to figure out how to either remove the box and replace it, or fix the missing housing with a patch.

Your partner is in the backyard shoving dog crap, so even though you’re frustrated with your electrical issues, you are grateful they are outside and not you. You pull up a YouTube video of different electricians fixing problems like yours.

Texting a friend who knows electrical, you find out they are out of town, so you move on to fixture number three. When you remove the old light—which had been loose for years—the entire box falls out of the ceiling. That explains why the old light was crooked. Your shoulders hurt from being overhead for hours now, and sweat is dripping in your eyes.

You may start to cry, because what should have taken 30 minutes has now taken you into late afternoon. You go downstairs to find a tool, and end up crying in the basement because the utility room is a mess and you spend the next hour filling trash bags with old stuff to donate or toss. It’s a relief from being up on the ladder upstairs in the heat.

Your partner comes inside and doesn’t realize he tracked dog poo in on his shoe.

You cry some more, and go find the Clorox wipes.

You can’t find the vacuum. Someone left it upstairs in your office, behind a curtain. It was probably you. The canister is full and it stinks like dog hair. When you pick it up, the handle breaks off in your hand, and you look at it, bemused, toss it on the ground, and vacuum anyway. Your partner takes the canister out to empty the dog hair, and someone lets the dog in. He’s hot, too, and leaves a giant puddle of dog slobber when you just cleaned. You might yell, and you might send him to the basement with the kids.

Your partner is outside spraying the north side of the house and roof for moss—because in Virginia, the summer humidity will literally cause your home and car to mold. (It’s so gross.) The kids take out the bags of crap from the basement, and one of them wipes up the dog mess while you finish vacuuming.

There still isn’t any light upstairs now, with the junction boxes both broken, and you cannot stomach another trip to the hardware store today. You might let that one go.

“What’s for dinner, mom?”

You’ve been trying for days to make a pecan pie, and you realize you’re missing an ingredient. You decided to run to McDonanlds because you’re too tired to cook, and you can stop at the market and grab the missing thing. At the light, you can see the McDonalds like is ridiculously long, but you turn in anyway. It’s a weird design; you must drive around the store and order from the far side, and then loop all the way back around to get your food. Once you are in line, several cars pull in behind you and suddenly the line is so long that the cars with their food cannot pull around to leave. It’s gridlock, and no one can move forward or backward, a complete circle of cars around the McDonalds. An employee comes out to help the cars nearest the exit back up and maneuver the other cars trying to leave around them. It’s a nightmare.

Then they got Bean’s order wrong. Twice.

You get home, and the bag with $23 worth of McDonalds rips, and your teenager comes on the porch, “What took so long, mom?” and you glower. The kids come to grab bags and help with the groceries you picked up before the McD fiasco, and you head inside.

Everyone else eats, but you forgot to get yourself anything in the stress and anger of sitting in a drive-thru for half an hour. Whatever, you grab a few fries and a Powerade. You’re finally ready to make the pie. You get everything out and start…

Your other teen comes on the kitchen, right behind you, and you bump into them and wrench your back. You grit your teeth and feel your head pounding, and you try and joke but your head cant decide if it’s going to cry or explode. The kid opens the fridge to get some milk and knocked a full can of wet dog food all over the freshly cleaned kitchen floor. You toss them the now-almost-empty Clorox wipes and try to breathe.

The kid smears dog food all around the floor and you discover the straw that broke the camel’s back is actually made of wet natural chicken dog food with organic carrots.

Things to south from there, and I yelled. Maybe a lot.

I hate when I lose my cool. I hate when I yell at my kids. I hate when irrational anger boils over and the breaking point is reached. It was a shitty day. A whole lot of stuff went wrong, and every direction was hassle and delay.  But every single thing was also a minor non-thing in the grand scheme of things. I feel bad, and I really wish I was better at remembering in the moment that I just need a moment to cool down and regain my perspective. I never stay mad long, but man, I hate it.

My kids will have no shortage of examples of parental apologies. I know the good days far outweigh the bad days, but still. There is a partially started pie on the kitchen counter, and I am taking a time-out in my room. I’m wondering if I dare to even give it a go again, or if I should just call it a day and try again tomorrow.


Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 12.46.02 PM

“What did she look like?” he asks, eyes flicking over the humming road, his chin set with concentration on the wrong things.

I pause. My eyes linger briefly on the blurred white line of the shoulder and the shadows marching rapidly cast by the straight rows of something planted.

“What did she look like?”

She looked like poverty.
She looked like a lifetime of food insecurity
and pink Zingers shoved in a pocket.
She looked like blurry blue tattoos, meant to establish autonomy
but instead served as brands and judgement.
She looked like a lifetime of purloined drug-store medications
taken in desperation, and swallowed with a furtive prayer
that nothing worse happen.
She looked like the second owner of
clothes always meant to be disposable.
She looked like underfunded schools and budget cuts
and bureaucrats finding ways to shave benefits and pocket the rest.
She looked like abandoned neighborhoods
with liquor stores and no polling places or parks.
She looked like generations of no way out.
She looked like she needed the love of a foster family
as much as the other children the state took from her.
I wanted to hug her, to take her home, to feed her and
to fix everything, but I cannot—
so instead I will vote and riot and march
and never forget her face.

“She was young. She looked sad and tired.”