When Place is a Verb

I don’t listen to music much on the radio anymore. Firstly, I hate commercials. They’re annoying as heck. Secondly, so much of the music today sounds the same. And that’s annoying too.

When I do want to listen to music, I pop in a CD. Yup, I still have those. Just wait – they’ll make a comeback. LPs did and they’re a whole heck of a lot larger. My car still has a CD player and I have one in my apartment as well. Course, I downsized and got rid of a bunch a few years back when I moved. Downloaded them onto my Mac, and along with years of buying music from iTunes, I accumulated a library of nearly 6,000 songs. (How can that be? But the collection does span widely across genres.) And those playlists that we now all make? I burn them to CDs.

Anyway, I did happen to flip on the radio the other day and I heard a song that struck me: Country Again by Thomas Rhett.

He talks about fishing and hunting and cracking open beers. Sitting by a fire under the moonlight. Driving a Silverado truck and wearing cowboy boots. All of this is country to him. He says he loves him some California but it sure ain’t Tennessee. All of which has me thinking…

Nashville is a pretty big city. But ok, I get what he means.

Certainly these things are a contrast to modern living, as he eludes to in the song: too much time on the phone, too many things on your plate, running around and not being present to nature and friends.

But having lived in a rural town for fourteen years and knowing a fair share of country folk, I’d say most of them are guilty of modern living too.

And I wouldn’t say fishing and hunting and fires and beers are the only ways to “be country.” Lord knows there are enough city folks who have rifles and drink beer.

I bought my first pair of Nocona cowboy boots in 1985 when I was living in San Francisco. Bought my second pair in 1990 when I was living in Chicago. I wore the heck out of those boots and many more since. But even when I lived in rural Idaho, the boots didn’t make me country.

I have a friend who was born and raised in Alaska. Got his M.B.A. at Harvard. He still hunts and fishes but he drinks more fine wine than beer. As far as I know, he’s never owned a truck. Behind one of his homes (not the one in the city), runs a creek and next to it is a regularly used bonfire ring. Is he country?

It’s interesting to refer to one’s self as a place.

Place is not a verb. And I get that in this song it’s an adjective. Still, would you ever say, It’s good to be city? It’s good to be New York? No. Maybe part of my problem with the lyrics, as catchy as they may be, is the grammar. You know those commercials I referred to earlier? Yeah, same thing. Even the electronic signs on the highway now tell me to “Drive Safe” instead of Drive Safely.

Pet peeves and grammar aside…

I’m pretty sure what Thomas Rhett is talking about is roots. Getting back to our primary nature. The person we really are, the things we love to do, the way we prefer to show up in the world.

For various reasons, we have a tendency to “try on” personalities. Sometimes to fit in, other times to find our true selves. As kids, maybe it was punk or goth or brainiac or slacker. As adults, maybe we traded in our sneakers for leather loafers. Our shorts for skirts and our t-shirts for ties.

There was a brief time when I wore gym shoes a lot. Ankle Reeboks, to be exact. Remember those – the ones that had two velcro straps at the ankle and came in red and black as well as white? Yeah, I had pair in each color. Good Lord, I shake my head to think of it. Truth is, I hate wearing athletic shoes. I have never been a jock, even if I have shoulders that make me look like a swimmer. And while yoga has been a staple of my life for decades, I don’t like wearing yoga clothes either. The casual messy look or “I just came from the gym” isn’t me.

Shortly after I moved back to Chicago from San Francisco, I was wearing loose black pants cuffed around the ankle, a black t-shirt, and black gladiator sandals in a suburban Chicago bar when a woman said to me, “You’re not from around here, are you?” I laughed. I grew up in Chicago. And honestly, I don’t think anyone in San Francisco would think I was from there either.

Three years ago when I started working in Oklahoma – first as a college administrator and then as a museum fundraiser – I was so grateful to wear suits again. I love suits, with nice shoes to match. I love blazers. I like clothing that says now I’m working.

This probably goes back to my childhood. Our roots always go back to childhood, yes?

We had a dress code in school: no jeans in grades up to 8th and if you had beltloops in your pants, you had to wear a belt. Even in high school, no shirts with any writing. Every  Sunday, even during hot and humid Michigan summers out in the country or during blizzards of snow and cold in the city, we dressed up for church. For Wednesday night services too. I didn’t wear pants to church until I was maybe fifteen. And now, while church is no longer my thing, when I do go, I still dress out of respect.

Crowds and traffic and noise, freeways, fast food, and shopping malls are abhorrent to me. I prefer dark silent nights punctuated by an occasional owl hooting or a coyote howling. I love the sound of car wheels on gravel. I’m most at home in a landscape filled with trees and rivers and streams, with wide-open fields, tractors, and barns. There’s no smell sweeter than fresh-cut hay. I like the sound of screen doors banging. My favorite clothes (when not working) are blue jeans and boots. Does that make me country?

What does it mean to be a place?

My current collection of boots, with the first pair I bought in 1985 on the far right. The photo above is the black Noconas I bought in Chicago and resoled four times over 16 years before having to admit they were shot.

What do you think? Can you relate to this Thomas Rhett song?

Are you country? Are you some other place?

The Children are Watching

I’ve been working for the United States Census Bureau this summer, interviewing home occupants for the American Housing Survey.

Occasionally, I get a person who is rude and shuts the door on me. One guy threatened to call the police, which actually is funny because I’m not soliciting – I’m with the government – and the police would tell him as much. Another said he was calling his lawyer but then ended up making me coffee. I seem to have success with folks who previously said no to another field rep. Maybe because I’m nice. Because I’m genuinely grateful for their participation. Because I really do believe that every person makes a difference. Bottom line, I enjoy this job.

Last week I was in Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City. While this is not where I’d want to live (for a variety of reasons), my encounters have been mostly good. I’ve seen the occasional Trump flag and many “Stand Up for America” lawn signs, which I suspect means something different to those homeowners than it does to me. I’ve also seen a number of “In this house we believe… black lives matter, science is real, love is love, etc.” lawn signs. These always make me happy. Then, yesterday morning I saw this:

I took this photo from a distance, deliberately obscuring it a bit to soften the blow. And then I watched a man drive up, park in the carport, and walk into the house with a young boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old. The man was probably in his 30’s.

This language, this anger, this hate. This is what that young boy is exposed to daily. Admittedly, I’ve been known to drop the F-bomb, though always for emphasis, for color, and always as an adjective. And when around children, I curb my tongue. Most responsible adults do. But to use this as a verb! That’s another thing entirely. As a verb, it is violent.

What makes a person hang a flag like this? Pro-Trump flags are one thing, but this – this is something altogether different.

This flag hurts. This flag is intended to hurt. This flag is violent.

We are already so divided. How do we come together, how do we even have a conversation when one side speaks in such language? How do we talk to someone carrying a gun in a crowd or ripping a face mask off a teacher? How are we to react to someone who screams about their rights while ignoring the rights of others?

I keep thinking about the 2001 documentary Promises  that looked at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes and lives of children – Israeli, Palestinian, and Jewish. Seven children filmed over four years who decide to meet and try to understand the other’s experience. It’s a powerful film, won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar.

Did these children affect a change in the conflict? Perhaps not. But certainly, a change happened within each of them. They are part of a generation that is changing the world. The generation that doesn’t care about gender constraints or who one loves or marries. The generation that does care about the environment and social justice.

But the little boy that I saw walk under that awful flag and into the house with the man who probably hung it… is he part of that generation? Or is he a new generation, one that will swing us backward, away from liberation, justice, and freedom? Away from love, respect, and kindness. Maybe. Maybe not.

Soon after seeing that disturbing flag, I turned a corner and saw this.

Clearly a response to the Covid19 pandemic, reminding me of the many Andra’ Tutto Bene (everything will be alright) signs throughout Italy during the Covid lockdown last spring.

Hope & Love. #AloneTogether.  If only this hashtag had caught on in the States as much as Andre Tutto Bene had in Italy.

Children are watching. They are always watching. They are sponges. They take in everything. They mimic adults – their parents first, yes, but also others.

May we each be careful with our words. Thoughtful in the things we write and in the things we say. Conscious of our actions. May we be patient, gentle, and kind, while firm in our boundaries. Love is strength. Love trumps hate. We must live in love.  As the garage door says, Hope & Love. Always have hope. Believe in love.

Because . . .

the children are watching all of us. Even when we are divided, we are still a large village raising our young.

Contemplating Suicide

I was going to post Part 2 of When We Marry but that will have to wait. This week I’m pondering other things.

On most days, Mazie and I walk along the Tulsa fairgrounds – on the sidewalk outside the western gate. At a certain point, there is a shallow ravine, a drainage ditch overflowing with tall grass. And every time we walk along this, I think of her. Lily.

I met her dad on Easter morning. He had just driven in from Colorado, pulling a trailer. Said his wife and daughter were only a short distance behind. They were renting the house across from my neighbor, John, while they looked for land to buy. A place to create a new home.

He asked me about the neighborhood. Said his wife and daughter liked to walk every day. We chatted a while and he was animated. A few hours later, I came back with freshly baked brownies. For him and his family. After that, I never saw him again. I never met Lily.

Ten weeks later, John texted me the news.

Turns out, John never saw much of this new neighbor either. They have a nice front porch with a table and chairs but never use it. The wife ventured over a few times to comment on John’s garden. His lilies were especially beautiful this year. So white. “My daughter’s name,” she said.

Lily was young and recently divorced. A few times, John said, she strummed her guitar on the porch, sitting in the chairs where her parents never sat. And sometimes he saw Lily and her mother walking. But that was it.

Then came the night with the police and the TV crew. The shoes sitting under a tree and a trail of money leading down to the ravine. No note, but she clearly wanted to be found.

My heart breaks for her parents. To lose a daughter like that. In a new place, isolated and alone.

I can’t imagine their grief.  But I can almost – just almost – imagine Lily’s.

What makes a person take their own life? And please, don’t tell me mental illness cuz honestly, I think that’s bullshit. That answer is too neat, too tidy, devoid of complexity. Depression, yes. A pain inside the chest, a darkness that never lifts, a problem that doesn’t go away, the insurmountable effort of facing another day, yes. All these things, yes. Depression is debilitating. But when we reduce all suicide to mental illness, we are lying. Every death has a story. Too often, we don’t know the story. In truth, we never know all of it.

I don’t know why the mother of my eighth-grade classmate took her life that summer. Or why Pam took hers, just weeks after having dinner in our home. A friend later did her biorhythms chart and apparently that fateful day they had been low. Did that make a difference?

Jack had AIDS. He was in great shape, buff and still healthy, but, he said, he couldn’t bear the thought of becoming weak or dying slowly. He sent a letter to his friends explaining everything and included a photo of him smiling. Then he laid down in bed and made sure that was it. For months he had planned and none of us knew.

Avi wrote a ten-page letter after it was revealed he had done something bad. Children were involved. Maybe charges would be pressed. He didn’t wait to find out. He took the tram up to the Sandia Mountains and as the sun was setting, one shot echoed. He was a warm, deep, and philosophical soul. Was he always tortured and we didn’t know? He was only twenty-seven years old.

Pam, Jack, Avi – these weren’t mental illness. And their deaths weren’t a response to bullying.

Is suicide the opposite of home or an attempt to try and find it? Feeling so far away from comfort, from peace, from a sense of safety, the endless aching, the despair. Perhaps convinced you are a burden, a mistake, and don’t deserve to be loved, to belong, to feel safe. At least in the moment knowing you are so far from it.

The truth is, there have been times when I was ready to die. To cease being alive. I don’t mean to alarm you. But maybe you’ve felt this way too?

The first time, I was grieving the death of my father. My chest felt blown apart, like swiss cheese or the way spoiled milk curdles in coffee. How easy it would be, I thought, to let the car drift, to hit the concrete median on the highway. I didn’t want to kill myself, only … I didn’t want to go on living.

Two other times, I was deep in depression. Most recently, last winter. Existential angst. Triggered, perhaps, by friends dying. Perhaps emotional fatigue. Every day took so much effort. Every day required a long nap. There’s a point when pain is numbing and in the numbness is an ache. Friends said, yes, yes, we are all hurting, and I couldn’t disagree. Pandemic and politics, we are all so exhausted. So of course, I couldn’t tell you this. I wasn’t looking for pity, or affirmations, or love. What I wanted was to close my eyes, to feel nothing, to forget.

The other time, the depression came on quickly – the swift and unforeseen swing from manic activity, years of working in HIV. I was inconsolable. I would let only my sister near me. The cliff, I said, I’m hanging by my nails from a cliff and the soil is crumbling. Clods of dirt are falling around me. It would be so easy to just let go.

And before all of this, when I was a teenager, I had a religious conviction that told me this life meant nothing. It was only the stepping stone to bliss. I wasn’t depressed, I was ready for the hereafter.

In all these times, I never considered taking my life. A desire for relief, to cease living, is not the same as contemplating suicide. I have often thought if I had a terminal illness, I wouldn’t fight it. What would you call that? Acupuncturists have told me repeatedly that I have low kidney chi, the life force energy. I was born with only a little, which, they say, explains my persistent childhood illness and my miscarriages. I don’t have enough blood. I have so very little energy. But you’d never suspect that if you knew me.

When my mom refused kidney dialysis because she also had pancreatic cancer, the hospital chaplain told me that was suicide. I told him he was wrong. Her decision was courageous. Her decision was faith. “I had a long conversation with my Lord,” she said. She was ready to go home.

I’m not sure what I’m saying.  I’m just wondering …

What does it mean to cause one’s own death?

Eating meat causes heart disease, but many of us still eat it. Over-eating and lack of exercise. Fast food and alcohol. Come on, the list goes on and on: the things we know we shouldn’t do and the things we do anyway. The things we should do and avoid.

What about not wearing a mask during a pandemic? Not getting the vaccine?

Is the right to die a civil liberty?

You can drink yourself to death but don’t drive when you’re drinking. Killing yourself shouldn’t cause another person harm. Same with smoking. You can do it at home but not in public places.

Where do we draw the line? What constitutes suicide?

Our actions have caused wildfires and flooding. We’ve changed the weather and we’re dying from the heat. Our copious consumption has depleted forests and oceans and polluted our air everywhere. The artic ice sheets are melting. Our passiveness allows corporations to poison our children. No clean drinking water in Detroit? That’s old news. Another oil spill? Old news too. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a report that is damming and well, again, we do nothing.  

Every day we are killing ourselves. We are complicit in the killing of others. The pain is overwhelming.

And then we see Afghans clamoring to leave their country in order to not die in their homes. Haitians carrying on after a catastrophic earthquake followed by Hurricane Grace. Who named that storm anyway? Was it meant to be ironic?

Then I consider the hero’s journey, which requires a transformation, a death of one life for another. At the beginning of each journey, our loved ones plea, “don’t go!” fearing for our lives. We leave anyway knowing we are already dying. We can stay and die slowly or leave. Death happens either way. Living – really living – is a perpetual act of suicide.

Every day we are dying. We must die to one life in order to live more fully in another.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”  – Seneca the Younger

Living and dying are one and the same. The yin and the yang. “To make an end is to make a beginning.”  How can we say that one person is living and another is dying?  That one is courageous and the other is not? Who are we to determine this? Who among us is living so fully and not complicit in death that they can throw the first stone? Do we package suicide as a sin, or as a result of bullying or mental illness so we don’t have to see ourselves in it?

Living and dying, it seems to me, both take courage.

Either way, courage brings us home.

What do you think?

Before & After We Marry, Part 1

Friends have asked me to officiate at their wedding in a few months. Which has me thinking again about something that is never covered in wedding planning or marriage counseling.

Actually, it’s never really discussed anywhere.

In movies, it’s portrayed as cold feet in funny scenes that typically end with realizing it wasn’t the idea of marriage that caused hesitancy but rather, marrying the wrong person. The message is always this: when you marry the right person, the only thing you feel is bliss.

And that’s hogwash.[i]

Though, to be fair, the excitement of the wedding can so overshadow all other emotions that they don’t reveal themselves until after the ceremony. Until you’re deep into the marriage. And then – especially then – the feelings get buried because, well, now you’re married. There’s a general sense that it’s too late to deal with these emotions. You’re supposed to be happily married – and if you feel anything else, then there’s something wrong with you.

This is hogwash too. Whatever we try to hide or suppress will always manifest in another way. We have to acknowledge our fears and hesitancies to keep them from over-powering us later in ways we don’t expect.

This happened to me when I turned twenty. I was living in San Francisco with roommates, far away from my parents, working several jobs, going to school, in a serious relationship, leading an important committee at church – and – I was the only one who knew my father was HIV positive. Without realizing it—or realizing it fully—I began speaking in a baby voice. A LOT. Kinda like the voice you use with dogs. Completely out of character for me. Yet, I did it all the time. Finally, after a few months, my boyfriend couldn’t take it anymore and called me out. I had some rationale for it until, with deeper probing, I realized I was freaked out about turning twenty. I already was so responsible, so mature, and such an adult. I never acted like a teenager. I never did stupid or risky things. And I wasn’t about to then. But turning twenty meant I was no longer a teenager. If I did do something stupid or if I wanted to do something dumb, I could no longer blame it on being a kid.

Getting married is similar.

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” – Anatole France, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard

This didn’t happen when I got married. Partly because I had been very clear and vocal about what I expected from a marriage commitment. Though in retrospect, this was heavily influenced by the impending death of my father. It was easily a decade before I realized my expectations were an attempt to not leave behind a part of myself when my father died. Essentially, my hope was that my beloved would become a replacement for my father. Like I said, it took years before I figured this out. But I do believe that having had these serious and thoughtful conversations around expectations before we married—even without understanding the complexes under which I was operating that motivated my expectations—did help us profoundly when our marriage hit the rocks.

The thing is, after a wedding, you are really never the same. There’s no going back to who you once were. There will always be the time before you were married and the time after. Marriage is a defining line in our lives. Once we marry, a part of us is gone forever.

Maybe all you’ve ever wanted is to be married. To find that special someone, the one who completes you. To wear a ring on your hand, to be called spouse, to know that you belong to another. Maybe you have always been in relationship, for as long as you can remember, and autonomy is the last thing you desire. Maybe your life as a single person has been less than happy and you’re ready for a new identity.

But if we look at current statistics, many of us are choosing to marry later in life. We’ve been or content as single people. We have our own money, our own friends, our own property. We buy what we want and do what we want, when we want. We have a lifetime of stories, a lifetime of being ourselves.

If you’re completely honest, there are probably some parts of your autonomy that you’re going to miss. I can’t tell you what those things are – only you know. But they may have something to do with what I just mentioned.

For women, there’s also the question of your name. Will you keep your “maiden” name or take your husband’s? Yes, I put maiden in quotes because it’s an outdated concept. More and more of us are far from being maids when we marry. We’ve been out of our parent’s house for quite some time. Yet when we marry, the question of our name always comes up. It doesn’t matter how old we are, how established in our career we are, or how long we’ve been together. There is still a cultural expectation that women take their husband’s name.[ii]  If a woman decides to keep her name – the name which has defined her for decades – it will always be a question that is asked. Assumptions will be made.

All I’m saying, far less eloquently than Anatole France, is that even as we embrace our new beginning with joy, anticipation, and full-hearted celebration, it helps to recognize what we leave behind.

Marriage isn’t a fairy tale. It takes work. To make it the best it can be—and the best we can be as spouses—we need to think about, and talk about, what marriage really means to each of us. What we look forward to and what we will miss. Don’t assume your betrothed feels the same. And don’t confuse fears with desires or intentions. Be honest. Listen. Be compassionate. Honor all your feelings. Because if you don’t, I guarantee, they’ll bite you in the butt eventually.

[i] Sometimes only a good old-fashioned word will do. Hogwash. In the 15th century, this meant kitchen waste fed to domesticated animals, such as pigs; slop. By the 17th century, it also meant cheap bad wine; swill. Today it is associated with anything ridiculous: nonsense, balderdash. Balderdash! There’s another fun word! I encourage you to use hogwash or balderdash in conversation today. Just for the fun of it.

[ii] A study by Dr. Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer published in Gender Issues Journal in 2017, found that more than 70% of adults think women should change their surname when they marry men and 50% believe they should be required by law to do so. The most common reason given by folks who believe this is a belief that women should prioritize their marriage and family ahead of themselves.

What do you think?

In Before & After We Marry, Part 2, we’ll look at what it means to be a married couple and how all of this relates to home.

Seniors Leaving Home

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My friend asks me, “Is there anything you want?”

We are clearing out her mother’s home, where she lived for thirty-five years, half of that with her husband before he died. The day I arrived (flying in from Tulsa), is the day her mother left. Put on a plane, first-class, to Seattle, where a one-bedroom apartment was waiting for her in an assisted care facility.

Her mother, eighty-six years old, had been resistant to leave. Resistant to give up driving. Fearful of losing her independence. Yet clearly suffering from memory loss. The cupboards, refrigerators, and garage are all testament to shopping for what she didn’t need: endless jugs of juice, rolls of paper towels, and frozen meat.

Add that to a lifetime of things. Some of it sold, some given away, and much of it tossed. Little white tags that only sometimes represent the financial value. $150 for a rug, $1 for a vase. And what of the china? Who will take the china? Does anyone use china anymore, except those of us old enough to have inherited it?

I hear Helga’s voice on the speakerphone. She’s packing, she says, she can’t stay. She’s leaving tomorrow. “But you just got there, mommie. You’ve only been there two days.”

“I can’t afford this hotel.”

“It’s not a hotel.”

“It’s not?”

“No, mommie, you live there now.”

“How long will I stay?”

“You live there now.”

What a blessing that she likes the place. She likes the art on her walls, painted by her husband, deceased for eighteen years. Or is it eighteen days?

When my friend Teresa was moved into memory care after a lifetime in the same home where six children were born and raised, it was the same. Oh yes, the place was nice. Her bed, her quilt, the photos on the walls. But, she said, she had to leave. She had to get home to Bellevue for Joe. Joe was coming home, she said, and she needed to be there.

Except that Joe had been gone for fifteen years. She never forgot that when she lived at home. She forgot many things, but never that. There, in the house they shared for over fifty years, her husband was still with her, all around her, on the streets and in the town. But here in this new place, he wasn’t. She needed to go home for Joe.

In the end, it’s easy to let go of things. We think we want them—they’re familiar, efficient, old. But we shed these things easily, unless the people we love are inside them, like genies. Rub the arm of the old couch enough and your deceased spouse will appear. Drink tea in your mother’s favorite cup and she joins you at the table. Hold a book that was once your father’s and you can hear him tell you again of its importance.

My sister and I cleaned out the home of our great aunt when she moved to assisted living in her 90s. She had lived in the same house for seventy years. Aside from the stacks of scratch paper accumulated from decades of never throwing out a card or an empty envelope and the rolls of rubber bands that could substitute for balls if only they would bounce, her house was filled with so much history. Letters and photographs and souvenirs from traveling. Genealogy charts, and correspondence from every branch of the family going back to the previous century. Records of another era in time.

It was hard for me to let go of those things. I wanted it all. To comb through it, devour it, treasure every morsel. To honor the lives associated with each memento. But my aunt had no problem letting go. She was pleased with our delight and moved on. She relished her new adventure: a life in a new city, released from so much responsibility, the keeper of family history. Now she was the treasure, and we treated her as such.

Tucked in a closet we found the framed college diplomas of my friend and her sister. Large diplomas, large frames. Neither daughter had lived in this house and yet there they were, ready to be hung. Obviously moved from their parent’s previous residence on the other side of the country, almost four decades ago. Neither daughter knew what to do with them now. In the end, they were kept. Shipped to the sister and packed for my friend.

We expect our parents to hold onto our childhoods for us, to bear the burden of storing the special artifacts of our youth. Not that we ever really want these things again. The things we want, we’ve already taken. But files of our kindergarten art and grade school report cards, trophies from intramural teams, and the sticky faded albums of photos remind us of who we once were: new little people filled with possibility.

When our mothers keep these things, we are affirmed that we are special. We were loved and treasured.

We need to relieve our elders of carrying these reminders. We are the elders now. It’s up to us to keep the stuff or let it go.

Our parents may be more willing to move on than we know.

We fret over their loss of memory yet it doesn’t seem to bother them as much as it does us. They have all the memories they need. Forgetting to take their pills is the least of their worries. What they desire is to be young again and free, the way they remember themselves to be. And most material things only weigh them down.

In the time they have left, may we give them the peace of their own memories, whatever those may be. In whatever ways we can, may we help them shed the shell, the weight, the things they no longer need.

My great aunt Ella at 99 years of age. She lived until 100 and a half. And the home she lived in for over seventy years.

What about you? Have you had to place a parent or beloved elder in assisted care? Have you had to sort through their lifetime of things and decide what to keep and what to give away? How was that for you? How was it for them?

Peter Rabbit, Imagination, and Our Sensory Love of Home

Today is the birthday of Beatrix Potter, whose beautifully illustrated stories of small animals found in gardens and woods made her one of the best-selling children’s authors of all time. She is, of course, most famously known for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, her very first book, but this is just one of the many books she authored, all drawing from her imagination and experiences as a child.

It’s hard to say if Beatrix’s childhood was unusual. Born during the Victorian Age when well-to-do families (such as hers) always had a governess who raised the children in separate quarters away from their parents, her young years were spent largely alone. But time alone is not necessarily lonely if we have our imagination to keep us company.

Beatrix’s governess was a young woman from the Scottish Highlands who believed in witches and fairies. Alone together for six years (before her brother was born), they shared their own apartments on the third floor of the family house in London, leaving only for walks in the park, to say goodnight to her parents, or on special occasions. Think of it: her primary influence as a young child was a woman who told tales of magic and wonder.

When her brother was born, he joined them in the third-floor nursery and together the two children acquired a menagerie of small animals including frogs, lizards, newts, salamanders, a snake, a tortoise, and a dormouse. She continued to spend all her time in the third-floor apartments until she was well into her teen years, with her younger brother and governess as her sole companions.

But in the summer, when Beatrix was between the ages of five and fifteen, the family vacationed in Perthshire, Scotland with family and friends and Beatrix was set loose to enjoy the magic of the outdoors. Here, the children played in the woods and along the wide beaches by the river while the adults fished for salmon and hunted deer.

Scotland was a treasure trove for her young imagination: a wild and enchanting place in a big wide world so vastly different from her London home. In Scotland, the stories of her governess, Aesop’s Fables, and all the fairy tales came to life. In this landscape, Beatrix found her greatest inspiration for her own stories.

In her thirty’s, Beatrix self-published her first book based on a story and illustrations she had created for her former governess’s children. She went on to publish 23 books in all, the profit from which made her quite wealthy.

When she was 37, she purchased a working farm in the English Lake District. As time went on, she purchased more farms, all with the intent to keep the land from being developed. When she passed in 1943, she left over 4,000 acres of land, including fourteen farms and many herds of cattle and sheep, to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Today that land is still preserved and home to an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population of Herdwick sheep.

With so much of her childhood spent in her imagination and in camaraderie with animals, as well as the most special times of her youth spent in nature, it is not surprising she chose to spend her adult life in the Lake District, purchasing working farms, raising sheep, and preserving land. The sensory experiences of her childhood had been imprinted on her and would forever feel like home.

The solitary circumstances of Potter’s childhood proved to be fertile ground for connecting with nature and creating magical relationships with animals. Her senses were nurtured and heightened by exploring uninhabited spaces and befriending small creatures. The energy of these places and beings ignited her imagination and became the fuel for her work, art, and passions throughout her long life.

Our senses are our first connection to home and they are never so acute as they are in childhood. Taste, smell, vision, hearing, and touch are all brand new and vivid. Each sense is super-charged. As the years go on, we tend to favor one or two senses more than others. As children, however, we use all our senses to learn something new and to understand the world around us.

A child senses a place. As children, our extrasensory perception is as strong as our other senses, telling us things not found in the other senses alone. Children experience their environment on a gut level and cannot easily articulate this knowing, yet this knowing becomes imprinted deep within our cells.

Memories of scents, sounds, and tastes return us to our childhoods and evoke a strong emotional bond. As a child, attachment to home begins with the senses. As adults, when our senses are triggered by the same—or similar—stimuli of our childhood, our attachment to that place is reinforced.

Imagination, even if it is not as strong or vivid as Beatrix Potter’s, can be the glue that binds us to our childhood home. Never is our ability to create mental images and scenarios stronger than it is in childhood. This imagination is a result of wonder and innocence, an innocence that is only available to us as children. As our childhood innocence is lost, so too is our wonder of the simplest things. John O’Donohue writes:

Childhood is an absolute treasure house of imagination. It is the forest of first encounters to which we can never again return. . . .  Never again do we experience so directly and powerfully the surprise and the fresh tang of novelty. The forest of childhood is also the territory where our dreams, imagination, and images were first seeded. So much happened to us there under the canopy of innocence. It was only later that we could notice that the shadows were present too. The memory of childhood is so rich that it takes a lifetime to unpack. Again and again, we remember certain scenes, not always the most dramatic, and gradually come to a kind of self-understanding.

O’Donohue, John. Eternal Echoes: Exploring our Yearning to Belong. New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999. Page 33

Over and over again we can be transported back to childhood, reminded of something we thought was forgotten or which has never left our memory only to understand it anew. And with each memory, we come to understand ourselves better, as if looking outside of ourselves at another. When we embrace those memories as reflections of ourselves and integrate them into our adult understanding, we are often able to find our way home.

Today, may you celebrate the spark of Beatrix Potter that still lives inside you: the child you once were and the child you may not have been for as long as you would have liked. This child is still there, filled with imagination who delights with wonder and giggles with joy at the smallest of things. May that child be with you today. See with those eyes. Listen to that voice.

And if a bunny crosses your path, talk to it. Who knows? It just might be Peter.

Original drawing by Beatrix Potter for The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Belonging, Part 2: my Story

My own story of belonging is both different from and similar to Brené’s.

Sure, school was sometimes a challenge. In the early years because I knew Santa Claus was based on the historical St. Nick, and, I suppose, because I felt obliged to tell the other kids. I thought they would thank me. They didn’t.

That same quirk in my personality is probably why classmates started calling me Professor in 5th grade.

By then, my parents had divorced and 5th grade meant a new school on the opposite side of Chicago. The first week was rough. I didn’t fit in. The kids made fun of me. So, after crying my eyes out at the end of each day, I figured I really only had one option: use my oddity as an advantage. If I couldn’t be like the others, I might as well really stand out.

In this regard, my father was my role model. He enjoyed standing out. He wore bow ties and a clerical collar. He skipped down the street holding my hand. He read poetry while waiting at doctor’s offices and would recite it from memory. He was a little guy with a big personality. He was filled with trivia that was actually interesting and not inane. People mostly loved my dad. They enjoyed his oddness, his booming laugh, and his penchant for turning conversations into an amusing and enlightening exchange. Being like him was a good thing.

The only place this worked against me was at home. By the time I was a teenager, my mother and sister would often say, “You’re so much like your father.” I knew that wasn’t a compliment. And it’s probably, in part, what drew me closer to him. He was an oddball and so was I. We understood each other.

But like Brené, my sense of security was a little turned inside out when my parents fought and divorced. I aligned myself with my father while living with my mother. I knew they both loved me but had a sneaking suspicion that my mother loved me conditionally, while my father loved me no matter what. Since my father was an extrovert and his world seemed larger than my mother’s, it took decades before I understood that I had sacrificed my individuality for the safety of being like him. Being like him assured me that I belonged.

It wasn’t until my father died of AIDS in 1990, that I truly felt I belonged somewhere outside of with my father. And yet, my father was the catalyst. Now I was part of a community of people with HIV, their caregivers, and friends. We were all on the front lines: whether in our homes, in community agencies, or in hospitals. We were bonded by our battle, connected in our grief. Mainstream society shunned us. We were outcasts. But together, we were family. With each other, we belonged.

The friends I made during those years are still some of my dearest friends today. We are our own minyan. Almost 30 years later, we are still a special kind of family.

That’s the thing with family – there is always a bond. Even when estranged, family is an identity we can’t shake. Family is our origin story. Every other story of our lives builds on this one. No biography is complete without it.

And then, if we’re lucky, we have several families. The one we grew up with, the ones we created, and the ones in which we were adopted.

As I’ve said before, I loved the Wood River Valley in Idaho and I loved my home in Picabo. But I never felt like I fit in with the people there. I didn’t dress like them and I didn’t share their interests. If it wasn’t for my boyfriend at the time and his mother and family who accepted me, I probably would have left long before I did. Because of them, I’ll always have a home there. But being loved by people doesn’t always mean you belong to a place.

At a certain point in my adult life – I can’t remember exactly when – my sister told me that I was using my identity as an outsider as a crutch. This revelation was a shock and I didn’t want to believe her. But she was right. The coping mechanism I had learned as a kid was hurting me as an adult. I didn’t need to be the oddball. I didn’t need to be so unique.

So I went through a phase of wearing pearl earrings and neutral colors. That wasn’t me either. The point wasn’t to blend in but rather to stop making myself stand out.

The truth is, I can be a bit of a chameleon. I know a little about a lot of things, enough to hold conversations with a diverse population. And it’s been said that Pisces always have a large closet. That’s me. Clothes for every occasion and every aspect of my personality.

I’m not a people pleaser and I don’t need people to like me, but I have always wanted others to feel at ease. So I would adapt myself. But that, in itself, was damaging. I lost my boundaries.

I’ve finally learned that I don’t need to make myself small. For some folks, I’m just too much. Too enthusiastic, too idealistic, too outspoken, too smart, too emotional. They want me to tone it down. Decades of professional evaluations where I was praised for my work but then told I needed to not be so ….  so. . . me.  I’m done with that. I’m done with others projecting their insecurities and complexes onto me.

I like who I am. And I am not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s okay. My dog likes me. I’m no longer a replica of my father, but I’m still unique. And in other ways, quite boring.

Today I am clear that the people with whom I belong are the ones that accept me as I am.

But the first long step to understanding this had to come from within. I had to discern my identity versus who I wanted to be or who others expected me to be. I had to separate my past and reevaluate my origin story and release my fabrications of what that story meant and what I expected from my family. I had to clarify what I wanted from relationships: romantic, friends, and colleagues. I had to create boundaries of acceptable behavior in order for me to stop changing colors and adapting to others.

And now I’m never quite sure if I belong anywhere. Except that I have family. Several families. And friends who love me.

Robert Frost wrote, “Home is where you go and they have to take you in.” Ultimately, this is where I belong: with those who will always take me in because they love me, because in one way or another, we are family.

My Community Response family (serving people with HIV) in 1993, with my siblings in 1986, and with my father in 1983 (on Halloween).


Listen for free!

We all have a need to belong.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, belonging is smack in the middle of the pyramid, right there with love. This is not to say the two are synonymous. You can certainly feel loved (by your family, a special someone, or a group) and simultaneously feel like you don’t quite fit. Yet feeling loved and feeling like you belong are key components to home, to feeling at home.

Brené Brown has spent her career researching belonging and vulnerability. In Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging, she discusses these topics in depth and reveals one personal experience that she feels is the origin of her life-long sense of not belonging anywhere, to any particular group. In this memory, she was only thirteen years old and failed to get picked as a Bearkadette (a kind of cheerleader) at her new school. Now, Brené had wanted this dearly, if not desperately, and the whole family was waiting for the news. When she didn’t make the team, her parents said nothing, nothing at all. She deduced, “They were ashamed of me and for me. My dad had been captain of the football team. My mom had been head of her drill team. I was nothing. My parents, especially my father, valued being cool and fitting in above all else. I was not cool. I didn’t fit in. And now, for the first time, I didn’t belong to my family either.”

It’s worth noting that at the time of this incident, Brené’s parents were fighting terribly, trying to save their marriage. Their own sense of security was in jeopardy. When a parent is hurting emotionally, it can be extremely challenging to respond to their child’s needs. Her parents were doing their best. At that moment, however, they were unable to respond compassionately to their child’s disappointment and this severely impacted her.

As a result, she never again tried out for anything. Instead, she “got really good at fitting in by doing whatever it took to feel like I was wanted and a part of something.” She also began acting out in ways that were harmful to herself. As a young child dealing with uncertainty and with parents who were unable to attend to her emotional needs at that time, she did what she could —all that she could—to manage some control over her situation.

Maslow notes that safety is the most basic need for children, far stronger than the need for independence and growth. A healthy child in pre-teen and teen years is learning to differentiate themselves from others and trying new things. But if a child doesn’t feel safe, their emotional growth will suffer. They will try to make themselves safe and, in doing so, their world will shrink instead of expand.

Brené’s story is a common example of a child surrendering their childhood in an effort to attend to the needs that the parents are unable to meet. Maslow writes, “The primal choice, the fork in the road, then, is between others’ and one’s own self. If the only way to maintain the self is to lose others, then the ordinary child will give up the self. . . If adults force this choice [upon the child, either directly or indirectly] … the child must choose safety even at the cost of giving up self and growth.”[i]

Brené discovered her way of fabricating safety in the midst of domestic chaos was to rely on research and data. As the oldest of four siblings, she was the one the others turned to when their parents were fighting. She would use her “newly formed fitting-in superpowers to identify what had led to the fighting, so [she] could concoct elaborate interventions to ‘make things better.”

Without a parent or another adult to soothe her fears and allow her to express the reasonable reaction of vulnerability, she steeled herself with new skills in an attempt to control her environment. By recognizing patterns of behavior in others, she learned to become a chameleon, which avoided any conflict. The result, as Maslow would have foretold, is that she surrendered herself for the sake of safety. She became lost—a stranger to herself. This led to years of destructive behavior until she met the man who would later become her husband. His acceptance of her, in all her human messiness, provided her emotional safety and shelter. His unselfish love—an unconditional love—assisted in developing her sense of worth and claiming her own voice and vulnerability, which has fueled her professional research and been shared with millions of people who can readily relate.

While this was not the ideal experience, by any means, her parents had always attended to her primary needs of shelter, safety, love and esteem. Only in the midst of marital strife that was occurring simultaneously with their daughter’s awkward time of adolescence — amplified by moving to a new school again — did they fall short enough to impact Brené’s trajectory into adulthood. Yet, she still played an important role in the family structure (being the one her siblings turned to), and, from years of experience before this incident, she also knew that her parents loved her. So while it wasn’t the kind of belonging that she hoped for – a need for belonging certainly amplified by her age of wanting to fit in at a new school – there was still a strong sense of worth and value that she added to her family unit.

Many of us can relate to Brené’s experience. Our parents are never perfect. They are regular people dealing with adult problems. As we were growing up, it’s pretty much inevitable that there would be a time when we felt our parents didn’t respond to us the way we would have liked. The bigger factor is whether this was the norm or an exception. Did our parents consistently provide for all or most of our needs?

When we are young, it is the responsibility of our parents to provide us with home – and that means the first four levels listed in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food and shelter, safety, love, a sense of belonging, and self-worth.

When one primary need is not met, we are often handicapped in having other subsequent needs met.

Children who are homeless or who experience food and/or housing insecurity, are unable to feel completely safe. Children who do have a home and enough food to eat but fear their own safety due to violence or abuse inside the home often struggle with feeling loved and valuing their worth.

However, research shows that our needs may not require fulfillment in the order Maslow describes. It’s possible for a child to feel loved, or to feel safe within the protection of parental love, even when physiological needs (such as housing and food) are not consistently met. Yet housing, food, and safety are the first things, the most basic things, we expect from home.

And – we also expect home to be the place where we experience love and belonging. Ideally, we receive this from our parents. But sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our parents are not equipped to provide us with the love we need – the love that leads to a sense of belonging – because they, themselves, are hurting and lacking. This is often how we find home elsewhere: in AA, in church, or in any other community that shares our interests. The TV series, Pose, (three seasons on FX and Netflix), is a great example of finding and creating home outside of our family of origin.

We all need a home that is safe, a place where we are loved, a place where we belong. This home contains our family, whether biological or chosen. Here, with them, we are not alone. We may argue, disagree, and fight, yet we are cared for, we are protected, we feel loved. How often I’ve heard someone say their family is crazy and then added, “but they’re my kind of crazy.” Or even simply, “but they’re my family.”

Home is not always a physical place but a place of the heart. Home is where we belong.

Where is your home of the heart? Where do you belong? Is it with your family of origin? In a community? With people you have chosen? And even within that family or community, have there been times when you felt like the others didn’t get you, where you didn’t fit in?

My friend, Ruth Frost, refers to families we choose as “families of the heart.” You can find her new book, Home with Heart: Turning Living Spaces into Loving Places at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.

[i] Maslow, Abraham H. Towards a Psychology of Being, Third Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 1999., p 61.

One Year with Mazie

Today is Mazie’s Gotcha Day anniversary. One year since we met and I brought her home with me. And what a year it’s been! She was four weeks pregnant when we met and had recently been rescued from a home with 100 dogs. No kidding. And no wonder she was pregnant. She was traumatized.

At first, I had no idea what I was doing, despite having had dogs before. I’m sure my Athena (whom I adopted at 6 months old in 2008) was traumatized, maybe even abused. She had the worst separation anxiety I’ve ever seen. But Mazie had never seen grass before, never been in a car, never gone for a walk. It was three weeks before I was able to get her to walk down the driveway and across the street.

And then, before you knew it, she had puppies!

She was such a good mama. She made me a part of the process right from the beginning. Those first few nights, waking me when I had finally fallen asleep to come back and look at the neat thing she had done. Truly, it was incredibly sweet.

This little girl has changed my life. I’ve had dogs before but I pretty much made them adapt to me. This time around, I’ve adapted to Mazie.

When she wants to walk a different route, I follow her. When she wants to play, I stop working. When she wants to snuggle, I move the book or food or whatever is on my lap to give her room. I’m typically gone for no more than four hours at a time and when I do leave, Lucky Dog is on the TV . Kinda crazy, right? I’ve become that woman. I admit it. And I couldn’t be happier.

I like the pace of my life now. I’ve recovered from the need to always be productive. I’ve allowed a little bit of chaos and spontaneity to infiltrate my routine. My life feels calm and drama-free. Every day this small dog makes me laugh, makes me happy. And what, my friends, is better than that?

Here’s to our first anniversary! May there be many more!


Grieving for our Childhood, Not our Country

The place I lived as a child . . . has completely vanished. . . there’s no evidence that any of what I remember actually happened, or that the people I knew ever existed. . . The place I thought I was going is imaginary, yet I have lived here most of my life. 

(1)      “Back Home”by Louis Jenkins

I love this poem. It so perfectly captures the unconscious mythology of our childhood. Even if there is still evidence of where we came from, when we return, it’s often far from how we remember it.

And this is how nostalgia forms: we long for a place and time created in our young minds, which may or may not have a basis in reality.

In 1688, Johannes Hofer wrote his medical dissertation on the ailment of “nostalgia or homesickness,” considering the terms to be interchangeable, and this is believed to be the earliest publication on the topic. Hofer formed the word nostalgia from the Greek words nostos, meaning homecoming or return to the native land, and altos, meaning pain or suffering. By the twentieth century, however, homesickness and nostalgia no longer meant the same thing. For a while, homesickness denoted a psychological problem (and was treated as such) while nostalgia became associated with a pleasant remembering.

But is nostalgia really a remembering? Certainly, it is a longing for the past. But often this is a past that never truly existed, or existed only in our limited experience. The past then, that which we long for, is an idealized place and time. A time when things were simpler. But the only time, truly, that things were simpler was when we were children. And it was simpler because we were children. Our parents, and adults of any time in history, still dealt with the same problems we deal with today.

There’s a great scene in the Woody Allen film, Moonlight in Paris, that speaks to the fantasy of nostalgia. Gil, the main character who is struggling to finish his first novel, has somehow stumbled on a way to reach the iconic 1920s, where he befriends Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and the Fitzgeralds. This is the time and place in history which he has always idealized. He also meets Adriana, the lover of Pablo Picasso. One night they are both able to tumble even farther back in time to the Belle Époque era, which Adriana considers the true Golden Age of Paris, where they meet the artists Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas. When Adriana is offered a job designing ballet costumes in the late 19th Century, she decides to stay and Gil returns alone to Paris in the ‘20s. Once he realizes that the 1920s in Paris is just like any other time in history with people having the same problems, he returns to the present and stays there.

We like to think that other times were simpler and better. We romanticize the absence of modernity as quaint and calming. If only, we think, we could return to an earlier time.

I have friends who are fond of posting images of places that no longer exist in the neighborhood where we grew up. The places where we shopped, ate, and played. Like the Woolworth store with wooden bins. We had so much fun there during our grade school years, ambling through the narrow aisles, marveling at tiny merchandise. But if it still existed, would we frequent it? No. Honestly. We wouldn’t. As adults, we want the variety of bigger stores and the freedom to move about with large carts that we lean on and push instead of carry. Or we shop online for convenience and even more variety.

The truth is, our nostalgia is for when we were young. When we were naïve. Romanticizing another era is a form of playing make-believe.

The tremendous technological and social changes of the twenty-first century can be frightening and confusing. It often feels like things are changing way too fast. And change is not easy; it can make us feel small and powerless. Reminiscing on another time can be comforting. But our recollections are often fabrications, based on childhood mythologies.

The United States has always been at the forefront of change. Innovation and change are what our country was built on. From horse and buggy to trains, planes, and automobiles. It was inevitable that solar and wind power would eventually compete with coal. Just as “self-service” technology replaces jobs. And cell phones have replaced landlines in the home. Oh, I rant against these things quite a bit. I miss being able to talk to a household before getting the person I really called for. I despise being told to download an app for discounts. I fume at self-service check-in at the doctor’s office or punching through options on my phone when calling a company. But others I know, particularly younger people, love the ease of these things. They love text messaging and not having to talk on the phone. If this technology was to suddenly disappear, they would lament and be nostalgic for it.

But back to coal: Did you know that modernization is more responsible for the loss of coal mining jobs than is any shift to alternative energy? According to a 2019 report from Business Insider, mechanical rock crushers and shovel swings replaced 79% of miners from 1979 to 2010, during which time coal production actually increased. And even with those fancy machines, fatal injuries and illness in coal mining is six times higher than all private industry. Coal companies cutting costs to increase shareholder profits are the number one reason why so many coal miners have lost their jobs, not alternative energy or political policy. But coal miners, like cowboys, are embedded in our cultural mythology and it’s easier to believe this way of life is being attacked from the outside than it is to recognize the culprit within.

Americans are preoccupied with change and, at the same time, resistant to it. We are a see-saw society. We want everything new and simultaneously everything familiar. We want comfort, but not at the risk of losing the comfort we already have.

A growing awareness of the laws which have systematically discriminated against people of color is threatening to those who are already nostalgic, longing for a simpler time, a time that never existed except in the innocent minds of our youth. And the people who are nostalgic are predominantly white.

Ask any person of color, Native American, Asian, brown, or black if they are nostalgic for the past. Do they miss the time before Civil Rights when colors and whites were segregated? When Japanese Americans were put in concentration camps? When Indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools? When slavery and genocide and lynchings were common and accepted? Does any person of color feel nostalgic for that America? No.

The current plague of American nostalgia stems from an adolescent point of view. When we are young, the world revolves around us. When we mature, we discover this is not true. That discovery is hard for us to accept. Like teenagers, we want our freedoms and our privilege but we don’t want to think about how these things affect others. The bigger picture is too big.

Nostalgia can be pleasant, even uplifting, in moderation – as long as it accepts the past cannot be brought back. We can never again be children. Things will never be as idyllic as we want to believe they once were.

While nostalgia is no longer considered a mental disorder, it can have a profound impact on our ability to fully enjoy the present. Clinical psychologist Arthur G. Nikelly notes that persistent nostalgia can result in “an atrophy in ego development that stifles positive thrusts toward the future and deprives the person of full enjoyment of the present.”(2)  If we persist in romanticizing another time, we become unable to appreciate all the good stuff in the present and consider future possibilities.

Nikelly also notes that nostalgia can become pathological “when used as an escape or evasion from responsibility or as a form of magical restitution in order to regain the love of the lost past and to restore the ego’s self-regard.”(3)  Whew. That’s quite a statement. Nostalgia, at its worst, is an evasion from the responsibility of adulthood. It becomes a sickness when we use it to reclaim the self-importance of our child self.

It’s understandable that we would sometimes be nostalgic. Life is challenging, life is hard, and the world is complicated. Being an adult requires us to be informed and make decisions that are not easy. Being an adult means there is no parent that will save us or take care of us – we are responsible for everything ourselves.

We need to allow ourselves to grieve the lost innocence of our childhood. The child inside us is begging to be acknowledged and comforted. If we can do this internal work, if we can take care of our inner child the same way we would a physical one, we will learn to carry on. To be grateful for what we have and work toward a more equitable and honest future.

We will stop grieving the fantasy of an America that was once “better” and accept that our country is as it has always been. There has always been corruption and greed, the haves and have-nots, racism and discrimination, the abuse of power, and political ideologies that disagree. There has always been crime and con artists, ignorance and innocent victims. The only change is the modernization of means. And the biggest difference now is that we, as adults, are responsible for dealing with these things. It’s our turn now to be elders.

Growing up isn’t easy, but it is a privilege. As is our democracy. And neither should we be too quick to dismiss.

This plate belonged to my Great Aunt who died at 100 1/2 in 2008.

(1) “Back Home”by Louis Jenkins (The Winter Road.) Holy Cow! Press, 2000

The place I lived as a child, the sharecropper’s farmhouse with its wind-bent mulberry trees and rusted farm machinery has completely vanished. Now there’s nothing but plowed fields for miles in any direction. When I asked around in town no one remembered the family. No way to verify my story. In fact, there’s no evidence that any of what I remember actually happened, or that the people I knew ever existed. There was my uncle Axel, for instance, who spend most of his life moving from one job to another, trying to “find himself.” He should have saved himself the trouble. I moved away from there a long time ago, when I was a young man, and came to the cold spruce forests of the north. The place I thought I was going is imaginary, yet I have lived here most of my life.    

(2)  Nikelly, Arthur G. “The Anatomy of Nostalgia: From Pathology to Normality.” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 1 (2), 2004. Page 184

(3)  Ibid. Page 188

Not Every Mom Is A Good Mother

Not every mother is a good mother.

I’ve known far too many folks who have had terrible moms. Moms who were self-absorbed, cruel, or absent. Yet as a society, we don’t talk about this. There is something almost taboo about mentioning these mothers. The mere feat of carrying a child in her womb seems to elevate women to a smidgen of saint status. Or maybe the reality of truly bad moms is just too awful for us to consider. But this is the truth: there are a whole lot of mothers who do not love their children as we expect mothers to and who do not provide the things a child needs to grow up feeling at home in the world.

As I’ve mentioned before, the archetypal Home corresponds to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Mom, as literally our first home, provides the first of these needs: food, nourishment, and a safe place for us to grow, sleep, and play. After we leave the womb, this responsibility falls to the archetypal Mom – whether our mother of origin or not – and to both parents. When we are young, our parents are responsible for taking care of us. But if there is violence in the home, abuse of any kind, or if parents are emotionally absent, our needs are often not met. We may struggle with feeling loved and feeling worthy of love. If our parents do not keep us safe, feed and love us, we may lack self-esteem.

I believe there is value in looking at mothers through the lens of Greek Goddess archetypes. Greek because, just like the Judeo-Christian religions, this is the history in which most Americans grew up. Greek culture and mythology is embedded in our art, literature, and laws.

Hera, wife of Zeus and Queen of Olympus, can be the worst of mothers. I’m not saying she’s all bad, and, as a woman, she can be an amazing regal presence. However, if there are no other archetypes present to soften and balance Hera, as a mother She can be self-absorbed, jealous of her children, vindictive, and even a narcissist. As a result, children often suffer when this goddess of marriage is a dominant archetype in the home.

Hera is the archetypal Wife. She represents the three aspects of a woman’s life as they relate to a spouse: the maiden (unmarried), the married (or fulfilled), and the widow (forever mourning the loss of her husband). These stages are significantly different from virgin, mother, and crone, which identify a woman on her own merit. Instead, Hera represents the stages in a woman’s life in relation to a husband. Which is to say, her relationship with her spouse is the whole point of her existence. Her fulfillment comes from being married, not from being a mother.  

A woman operating under this archetype typically does not have a strong maternal instinct. Having children is simply a function of being a wife. While she is happy to fulfill any obligations of this role, she will always put her husband, and her status as his wife, above her children.  

Hera’s most famous child is Ares, the god of war. However, Zeus wasn’t terribly fond of this son because he took too much pleasure in war and resembled his mother a bit too much. Ouch. Then there is their daughter, Hebe, who isn’t discussed much. Outside of eventually marrying Heracles (after he had appeased Hera’s wrath), and attending to Aphrodite at her marriage, she’s really only mentioned as serving nectar and ambrosia to the gods during their feasts. Such a task is more befitting of a servant than a daughter. Ah, but then Hera is a queen and expects others, including her children, to serve her.

You may recall the story of Athena being born, full-grown, from the head of Zeus. Well, this incensed Hera, to say the least. Firstly, Athena was the result of her husband’s infidelity and secondly, she was a rival for his attention. Athena was a formidable presence, so much like her father, and shared his interests. Clearly, he enjoyed spending time with her, which meant less time that he spent with his wife.

As revenge, Hera decided that she, too, would have a child without the help of her spouse. But as the Wife archetype, she could never be unfaithful. Instead, somehow, she becomes pregnant via parthenogenesis. (Which is to say, without the fertilization of sperm.) But the first time she tries this, she gives birth to Typhon, the most horrible of monsters, whom she promptly gives away to Python, the serpent. Then she has Hephaestus, who turns out a bit better. While not a monster by any means, he wasn’t perfect. He was ugly and misshapen, according to his mother’s eyes, so Hera threw him away, causing him to be damaged even more. (Hephaestus spends his life trying to receive his mother’s favor and when she will not give it, he finally achieves revenge. But that’s a different story…)

By some accounts, Hera gave birth to as many as eight children. But outside of those mentioned, we know very little of them. And this is not surprising. The Hera archetype wants the spotlight on her, not on her kids.

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan is a famous example of the Hera archetype. Both she and her daughter, Patti Davis, confirm that Nancy’s whole life revolved around her husband, even to the excess of excluding her children. Despite having been an actress, her entire life was defined as Ronald Reagan’s wife, and this was what she wanted more than anything.

Nancy writes in I Love You, Ronnie, “I’ve always said that my life began when I met Ronnie.” “Ronnie was my whole life. I couldn’t imagine life without him, and I didn’t want to run the risk of anything happening to us.” A year after her husband’s death she told Diane Sawyer, “Everything still is all about him.”

The Hera archetype wants a husband for life and expects to be the only wife, the only woman. Any previous relationships had by her husband are ignored, erased, or treated with scorn. Most people didn’t realize that Ronald Reagan had two children from his previous marriage, even as he was campaigning for the presidency. Nancy did her best to keep her stepchildren out of the spotlight. She wanted the spotlight as his wife and didn’t want anything that pointed to his life before her.  

It’s not surprising that Nancy admitted she never cooked. Hera is a queen; she has others cook for her. Nancy says she was great with pancakes, waffles, and french toast, but that was all. Instead, they went out to dinner and employed domestic help, which she hired and fired frequently. Her husband affectionately referred to her as “Queen Nancy” after he purchased his Malibu ranch, noting it was the same size as all of Monaco. Indeed, Mrs. Reagan was considered a grand first lady by the press and public. She refused to live in the California Governor’s mansion and instead insisted on renting a large house with a backyard and pool. She redecorated the Governor’s office and later, both Camp David and the White House, restoring the latter to “its former grandeur.” She purchased more than $200,000 worth of china for the White House and held elaborate state dinners, wearing designer gowns. Her inaugural wardrobe alone was valued at $25,000, (which today would be over $80,000) causing her to be dubbed “Queen Nancy” by the press.

As we know from the tale of Snow White, the Queen is often jealous of the King’s daughter. Fearful that the princess may be more beautiful or more loved than she, the Queen sees her as competition and attempts to have her removed. Patti Reagan believes her mother felt threatened by her when, at the young age of four, she asked her father to marry her. How many of us did this with our fathers? And how many little boys had the same wish with their mothers? This is very common for children to do. Yet in retrospect, Patti believes this was the moment her mother’s heart hardened against her. She writes, “My parents’ love for each other was a territory circled by fences and border patrols, and at that moment I may suddenly have appeared as a trespasser.”

As a child, Patti felt her mother keep her away from her father. She remembers only one summer, when she was a teenager home from boarding school, where she experienced an “easiness” with her mother, which she sensed was due to Patti becoming anorexic. She had starved herself so thin that she had erased any threat of sexual rivalry. It was clear to Patti that her mother was so fiercely in love with her father that “there wasn’t room for anyone else in her world,” including her own children.

The only time Patti remembers her mother being maternal was when she was sick. This temporary softness in her mother’s demeanor was the reason behind Patti’s occasional faking of illness; she longed to feel her mother’s hand stroke her cheek. Instead, far more common was the slap of her hand: abuse both physical and emotional.

Since the Hera mother appears to be the perfect wife, it is often difficult for people to see or believe that she would be abusive to her children. But remember, the Hera woman exists for her husband and wants him to adore her above all else. Children are rivals for his attention. And the time she is expected to spend with her children (as a mother) potentially takes time away from her husband, which is all that matters to her.

Again, Nancy Reagan. While in Vegas for Ronald’s work in 1954, Nancy left Patti with a nanny to attend her husband’s shows seven days a week, two each night, and three on Sundays. She made sure that even when Patti was born, she and Ronnie put their relationship above everything else. Children were a product of marriage; the marriage always came first. Their next child, Ron, was born six years later and, like his sister, had a nanny until the age of six. Patti was sent to boarding school at age thirteen.

If your mother embodied the Hera or Wife archetype, you were probably always aware that your father had the majority of your mother’s attention. You may have felt lucky if you received any positive attention at all.

Fictionally, Emily Gilmore from the wildly popular TV show Gilmore Girls presents the Hera Wife archetype. The “Girls” refer to Lorelai and her daughter, Rory. Lorelai’s parents, Richard and Emily Gilmore, appear in the series as a wealthy couple from upper-class “old money.” Emily cares very much about appearances and her position as wife. She does not work. Her time is spent as a board president of the local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, attending charity events, and managing household help. She intimidates her maids so much with her demands that she can never keep them long: in almost every episode a new maid appears, whose name Emily won’t remember. She is the queen of her home and her status as a woman is directly tied to her status as a wife.

Episode Sixteen of Season Two (“There’s the Rub”) highlights Emily as Hera. After purchasing a package for two at a very exclusive and expensive spa and hotel, Emily convinces her daughter Lorelai to be her guest and then proceeds to orchestrate every moment according to her own desires with no regard to her daughter’s feelings. Look closely: she claims to be doing something nice for her daughter when in fact she is only serving herself.

Lorelai, all too familiar with her mother’s domineering manipulations, tries to see beyond them and encourages some spontaneous bonding. She convinces her mother to go to dinner at a steak joint and drink martinis at the bar —something that Emily (as Hera) would never do, as it’s beneath her. When a man hits on her, she becomes furious with her daughter for “setting her up” like that. To have appeared as an available woman to a man and as a friend to her own daughter, she feels she has betrayed what is most important above all: her husband. To the Hera archetype, her commitment to her husband is central to her self-image: it is the only thing that matters. She perceives bonding with her daughter, bonding with anyone outside of her husband, to be a threat to this role.

So you see, the offspring of Hera and Zeus do nothing to increase intimacy between their parents. If anything, they are a distraction from Hera’s adoration of her husband and a female child may even be seen as a rival for his affections.

Happiness for the woman under the Hera archetype depends greatly on her husband’s devotion and his appreciation of her. Even, how much he worships her. If the Hera’s husband leaves her, she will likely blame the child(ren), but never herself and rarely her man.

When the husband dies, the Hera mother does not change. She does not suddenly become interested in her children or act more maternally. Her deceased spouse continues to be her focus. She keeps his memory alive in every way possible.

If her husband leaves her and she cannot cling to her role as wife, then SHE will be her sole focus. She is still a queen. She wants the best, even if she cannot afford it. She must be adored and catered to. Nothing her children do is good enough because they can never fill the role of husband. They are beneath her. They are there to serve her. Consequently, they are berated, insulted, and verbally abused.

Now, not all bad mothers fall under the Hera archetype. And, as I said, the Hera archetype is not always bad. But if this is the dominant archetype in a woman who becomes a mother, the children are bound to suffer.

Does this sound like your mom? If so, does it help to have this framework for understanding her behavior? Maybe not. At our core, we are all still kids who want to be loved by our moms. But, if she is still living, maybe knowing this will help you set better boundaries. You’re an adult now. You are not her servant. You can put your needs above hers. You ARE loveable. And you deserve to be treated as such.


Photo credits: 1) Getty Images, 2) from the cover of I Love You, Ronnie, and 3) AFP/Getty Images


Please note: this information is greatly edited for purposes of length. It is not my intention to malign Nancy Reagan, only to shed light on her complexity and her role as a mother, as detailed through numerous books, articles, and interviews. Archetypes and behaviors are always complex. My book on the archetype of home has more detailed information, but it is not ready for publication. In the meantime, I am always happy to discuss your questions and provide greater insight on an individual basis. Please email me!

Our Body, Our Home

“We need to better inhabit our bodies in order to fully inhabit our souls.”

I heard Krista Tippet say this in conversation with Joy Harjo during her On Being interview of May 13, 2021. It reminded me of something John O’Donohue wrote in Eternal Echoes:

“The body is your only home in the universe. It is your house of belonging here in the world.”

I’ve always struggled with inhabiting my body. People often don’t believe that. I look like someone who is comfortable. I walk and talk and dance like someone comfortable. But truly, it’s been a long journey.

I come from a family where the intellect was praised over the physical. We lived in the inner city where playing outside was not optimal nor encouraged. We were not athletic. We didn’t play sports, heck, we didn’t even watch sports. We read books. We played musical instruments. We went to church.

I was almost forty years old before I met women who loved to regularly hike, bike, ski, and ride. Women who did yoga and Pilates because it felt good and they felt good doing it. I had spent too many years in California where women mostly did these things simply to look good.

Honestly, so many of the women I know struggle with being in their bodies. With enjoying their body. With being physical. Being naked, loving sex.

Seems a bit odd, don’t you think? I mean, women are supposed to be all about the physical, nothing but physical. In the male-female dichotomy, women are reduced to the body and men are elevated to the mind. We bleed every month. We carry life in our bellies and then push eight-pound babies through a quarter-size hole. We feed from our breasts. According to religion, laws, and myth, women are the sensual seductress. We only need to show a little skin, purse our lips, and flip our hair for men to lose all reasoning, become unable to control their actions and not liable for their physical response.

Even if their response is violent. And it often is.  

Words and looks and assumptions can be just as violent as physical harm. The violence adds up. The violence doesn’t stop.

Maybe this is why so many women are not at home in their bodies. Because our bodies are not our own. They don’t belong to us. Our families, our religions, our laws tell us that our bodies are for the service of others. We are denied sovereignty of our skin, our hair, our mouths, and our vaginas. A lack of authority can be humiliating and debilitating. Especially when the authority we lack is over our own physiological homes.

Women’s bodies are not a safe place in which to reside.

To be at home, to feel at home, we must feel safe, we must feel like we belong. How can we feel at home in our bodies if they are not our own and if we do not feel protected?

A woman’s house is always under attack. Always at risk of being broken into, vandalized, and burgled. Every unwanted touch steals something. Every lecherous look is casing the joint.

Of course, this happens to men too. To transgender and non-binary. And, disproportionately, this happens to women.

For many years, I was a nationally certified, full-time massage therapist. I completed my training after years of working in HIV/AIDS, so I expected my clients to be mostly people with chronic or terminal illness. Instead, my practice was largely women recovering from trauma and abuse.

We attract what we are.

Little did I know when I started my practice (but I quickly discovered), I had been violated more than I remembered. My trauma was buried deep. I was in need of healing.

Trauma gets buried in order for us to cope and survive. Often it is so deeply buried that we don’t even remember it until something happens to trigger a response. It takes patience and a whole lot of time to surface. And even more time to heal.

My healing came in stages. It began in earnest in 1995 and it still continues today. Daily, I continue to fight back self-sabotaging behaviors. Massage, yoga, diet, therapy, and a spiritual practice all help. So does having a dog. But decades of theological indoctrination and cultural intoxication coupled with physical and emotional violations are challenging to overcome.

I’m not alone in this predicament. Even with the advent of the #MeToo movement, most of us struggle in silence. We don’t talk about the pain, our experiences, our scars. We try to relegate it to the past, even when it continues to happen.

We heal one layer at a time. Peel back one layer and there is always another.

This pain, this struggle, is a daily reality. We live in a society that body shames all people. That celebrates unhealthy behaviors. That excuses harassment. That sexualizes pubescence. That glorifies dominance and submission. That supports a puritanical double standard that elevates the intellect and reduces the physical to the profane.

We separate ourselves from our bodies as we separate ourselves from nature. We believe we can control it, subdue it, restrain it, and bend it to our will. Physical symptoms are treated as pathologies, instead of treating the cause. Medical care is a privilege, not a human right. Sickness is rewarded instead of health.

We are all hurting.

Our bellies are bloated, our backs are broken, our lungs are congested, our feet ache. Our heads hurt.

And we ignore it. Or we reach for a pill, a cocktail, a gummy, a treat, a toke, a hamburger and fries. Anything to numb our awareness. We are frogs in a pot of boiling water.

But our bodies are our homes. They are our homes in the world that we take with us wherever we go.

“We need to better inhabit our bodies in order to fully inhabit our souls.”

Indeed. May we all be a bit more conscious of our physical habitation. May we celebrate and support the sovereignty of our bodies: our own, and others.

As Rumi wrote, “Keep knocking, and the joy inside will eventually open a window and look out to see who’s there.” And then, my friends, we will be home.

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