Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Updated: A Minor Inconvenience to You (I Hope!)

Hello, readers! I hope you've been enjoying 'Doll Hair Doesn't Grow Back' for the past... wait a minute, could it possibly be more than five years??? Yes, it could. And 179 posts, including this one. That's a lot of my ramblings.
Me in 1979, thinking about the topic for my very first blog

Now that I have my awesome new website,, the blog is migrating over there (along with my writer's blog, Front Matter). The guys at Hanee Designs convinced me that it would be a good idea to keep everything all in one place, and since they did such a fabulous job making the website I decided to take their advice and just roll with it. It really is lovely, if you haven't had a chance to check it out.

SO, the blog is already over there, including all the posts from here, and despite the elegant new surroundings it's really making itself at home. It's already ordered room service and charged an adult movie to the room. Here's a tip: never give my blog your credit card number!

The good news is, this really shouldn't affect your reading experience too much, except that you need to do one simple thing to stay in the loop: please visit and scroll down to the little button that says "Subscribe to my RSS." [UPDATE: I found a way to put the form below, so you don't even have to go anywhere!] Put in your email address and you will get an update every time a blog is published. If you prefer to stay in the loop, but more at a distance -- like at the 6th grade dance -- you can subscribe instead to my newsletter and get an occasional summary of what's going on along with book release announcements. Either way, I hope you'll take this opportunity to stay in touch!


Here is the RSS form, so you don't miss a thing!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Go Ahead, Check Your Pockets

Last night I was having a great conversation with a good friend of mine, who is a former counselor like me, while we walked around the trails at a nearby park. It was a beautiful evening with air that seemed ripe for personal discovery and revelation. Or at least a picnic dinner and pick-up soccer.

Somehow we got onto the topic of confidence and professional identity, an area that we have both been exploring for years. I told her that when people ask me what I do, I usually say "Well, I'm home with the boys a couple of days a week, and I do some consulting work, and... I'm a writer." When I get to the "I'm a writer" part, I am generally looking in the direction of my shoes and my voice drops as though I were saying "and I'm an upscale prostitute on Wednesdays." Sometimes I don't even say "I'm a writer," but I'll say something weak and watery like, "and I write fiction, in my spare time."

"What?" my appalled friend said. "You don't lead with 'I'm a writer'?"

No. I don't. And I don't lead with 'I'm a mom,' either, which I consider an equally important part of my identity. The truth is, as much as I love being a mom, and enjoy my consulting work, when people ask me what I DO, my heart says "writer." Last year I made nearly four times as a part-time writer what I made as a part-time therapist. So why does my mouth start making excuses and justifying how I spend my time, rather than embracing who I am, who I have always been? Why do I deprecate the vocation about which I have been passionate since I was six years old?

My friend's theory, which I believe is valid, is programming. Somewhere along the way, I allowed myself to be programmed (by authority figures, by society, and most importantly by my own insecurities) to believe that writing isn't a real thing. It's not a prestigious, reliable, acceptable way to make a living. Sure, I've always known that some people make it as professional authors, but my brain says those people are the exception rather than the rule, sort of like the 300 guys who play professional basketball in the NBA, just less sweaty and maybe with fewer tattoos.

I won't get into all the heavy background of where my programming comes from, because that would be boring for you, even if it was therapeutic for me. But I will say that I'm realizing how often I have made the choice to do something 'safe' like getting and MBA on top of my English degree, or choosing a job that sounded more like a real job than 'freelancer' or 'aspiring author.' I was quick to give up when I met with rejection and hardship, quick to believe the people in my life who said maybe I'd better work on a backup plan. Am I glad I have a backup plan, a work ethic, and safety net? Yes. Have those professional experiences taught me skills, broadened my horizons, and informed my writing? Absolutely.

But if you're always doing the backup plan, isn't there some point at which it simply becomes The Plan? That would be fine, IF it's really what you want. Some people fall into a job and then fall in love with it, which is great. But for me, my journey outside of writing has been largely based on fear -- fear of failing at the one thing I have always loved, or worse, fear of succeeding. What happens if I succeed and don't feel worthy of that success? Or I succeed and it's not everything I've hoped, and then I will have lost the one thing I always thought I would love.

There's a story my college mentor, Coleman Barks, used to tell about a man on a train. When the conductor comes by to take the man's ticket, he can't find it anywhere. He checks his pockets, his briefcase, under the seat, his neighbor's seat, much to the annoyance of the busy conductor. When he doesn't find it, he starts the ritual again, looking in all the same places.

Finally the conductor says, "What about your breast pocket? You haven't looked there."

"I know," says the man. "But I can't look in there."

"Why not?" says the conductor.

"Because I have looked everywhere else. If I look in that pocket and the ticket isn't there, then I will have no hope."

Sometimes I think we hold onto something so tight, whether it's a dream or a relationship or a set of ideals, that we smother the thing we love rather than risk discovering that it is not perfect. We'd rather hide it in our pocket than find out what it really is, for better or worse. For me, I have done this when I don't give my all to something, writing especially. Because if I don't really try, I can't really fail, right?

Uh, wrong. Not trying is the only real failure. I'm teaching this to my three-year-old son already, and yet I've ignored it myself for years. So now I'm working to battle my negative programming, replacing it with freedom and positivity. I have glanced into my breast pocket (or in my case an overcrowded purse) and I have a feeling the ticket just might be in there. Now it's time to dig it out, brush off the Cheerio crumbs and the lipstick smudge, and see where it takes me.

What does your negative programming keep you from doing or becoming?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Letter to the Me of 1993

My 20 year high school reunion is coming up this year; and predictably, it has me thinking about what I've learned in the last two decades, and wondering how my life might have been different if I'd known then what I know now. (Equally interesting would be if I knew now what I've forgotten since then, but that's another blog). 

So, just in case someone invents an actual internet time machine, and said machine can make text-only email deliveries to the computer lab in Russell Hall at UGA... 

Dear 1993 Self,

Congratulations on your graduation from high school and acceptance at the University of Georgia. I know all you can think about right now is how annoyed you are that Dad is taking your picture in the driveway when you just want to get the show on the road to Athens, and wondering when you'll be able to come home to see your boyfriend. The whole wide world is waiting for you out there, and besides, you hate having your picture taken.

Well, sweetheart, I hate to break it to you, but you'd better smile for that picture, because you will never be this young or thin again. And that boyfriend you're planning to sacrifice all your weekends during freshman year to see? Don't bother. Your friends and family are right, he's not worthy of you, and in a few months he and some girl named Debbie are going to hand you your first real heartbreak. It won't be pretty, but it will help you start your own life.

The good news is, despite the jerk boyfriend and the freshman fifteen (plus another ten for sophomore year), you're about to start becoming a far more beautiful person on the inside. I won't spoil the surprise on everything, but here are some suggestions:

  • When someone new invites you to do something, go. Your comfort zone leaves a lot to be desired, and there will be plenty of time to stay in later.
  • Be patient with your roommates. You're not all that easy to live with yourself, and most of these people will be lifelong friends if you'll let them.
  • The summer at Oxford is an excellent idea. Don't hesitate.
  • Do yoga. Go jogging. Hike more. One day those activities will be considered luxuries with your time, and you'll have random pains that make each one a little harder to do. Do them now and establish good habits. You don't look fat in those running shorts. And if you do, so what?
  • Floss. One day your good luck with dentistry will wear off. And that ain't cheap or fun.
  • When you see the guy giving away free t-shirts if you apply for a credit card outside the dorm, keep walking. That free t-shirt will be the most expensive piece of clothing you ever own.
  • Don't sell your writing abilities short. Listen to this man's advice with an open heart and allow him to lift your creative spirit. It may not feel like a "safe" way to make a living, but you will rely on your writing in every job you have from here forward (not to mention several key relationships).
  • Allow yourself to get swept up in emotion, and to admit freely when you are wrong. People will love you better when you are not pretending to be perfect and strong all the time.
  • Hug your parents. They aren't perfect either, but they love you, and they will be gone sooner than you can fathom. In less than 20 years you will long for the days when Mom called you too often and Dad always had a camera in your face.
  • Speaking of cameras, don't hide from them. Smile big. Hug your friends. Ham it up. Use those images to spark wonderful memories, not to critique your body or focus on how much you hate your face in profile. Imperfections don't matter. Moments matter.
  • Take out 50% of what you think you need as a student loan, and get a job to pay for the rest. Trust me, it's far less painful to earn at 20 than it is to pay back at 30 or 35.
  • When you get ready to backpack around Europe for six months, take more money -- and fewer shoes -- than you think you'll need. Do NOT brush your teeth on the train from Prague to Vienna.
  • It's hard to say that your first marriage will be a mistake. It has some great moments and you will certainly learn and grow from it. So, go ahead and invest your whole heart. Move to Portland, move to Austin. Even unhappy endings can still leave you with happy memories, and some incredible experiences along the way.
  • Don't miss out on anything because you're either embarrassed or don't think you're good enough. You can do whatever you want; and you're not above anything.
  • April 9, 2005: Avoid the chicken salad. Trust me.
  • Know when it's time to let go. Your life will have many heartbreaks, but they will make you stronger and lead to a joy beyond imagining. Hang in there.
  • When the time comes, say "yes" to the guy with the good heart and incredible smile. You won't regret it for a second.
  • Take notes. Keep a journal. Someday you will strain to recall all those moments you thought you could never forget.
  • Write, Write, Write. Make the time. Find the courage. Do it.
Finally: In a couple of years, Baz Luhrmann will release a popular song advising you and your generation to wear sunscreen, among other things. You will think this adaptation of a newspaper column a little cheesy and overrated. Baz, however, will redeem his credibility with you in 2001 when you see the movie Moulin Rouge, and then again in 2012 when you have a precancerous lesion removed from your forehead. Just shut up and put on the damn sunscreen already.

Your 2013 Self

Thursday, March 21, 2013

My three year old, in a nutshell

We let Monkey stay up a little late tonight and snuggle between us on the bed for some Antiques Road Show. It was one of those rare quiet moments in which he is so happy for the special treatment that he actually behaves himself for a bit, like he's testing out the icy pond to make sure it's really frozen.

Out of that moment, before the drama of trying to get him to go to bed, I bring you this dialogue, which I think demonstrates the full range of a tender-hearted three year old boy's deepest thoughts:

[We were talking about grandmothers, for some reason]

Monkey: ...and Grandma Peggy died.
Me: Yes, she did. And I really miss her.
Monkey: I miss her, too.
[Hubs and I exchange a tiny smile since she died 10 years before he was born].
Monkey: But it's okay, she still loves us. She's in our hearts.
Hubs: That's right.
Monkey: And G-d is with her.
Me: [Can say nothing, tears flowing. Hugs him tight.]
Hubs: Yeah, buddy. You're right.
Monkey: And you know what else?
Hubs: What?
Monkey: If you cut yourself open and looked inside, you could see all your bones. And your heart. My heart is pink and purple. [Farts loudly] Did anyone hear that noise?

There are moments in life where you don't know whether to laugh or cry, and others where you're absolutely sure you must do both. I'm so grateful to my little boy for giving me one of those tonight!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Darkness and Light: The Suicide Blog

My mother, who died in 2001, would have been 65 years old this past Sunday. I say died because that's what happened to her. She didn't 'pass away' as people are so fond of saying, as when an elderly person drifts off to peaceful sleep and simply doesn't awaken. Most people in my life know already that my mother took her own life. They may or may not know that in our last conversation she was angry and disappointed with me, and that I was the one to find her body the following day.

I've come to understand that this is a more common experience than many people realize. I've never been a part of a suicide survivors group or anything like it, but I've still had two girlfriends who lost their mothers this way and several acquaintances who have lost loved ones to self-harm as well.

Homecoming Queen, 1965
When I was young and my mother (who battled her whole life with trauma and mental illness) would threaten or attempt to kill herself, I would run a gamut of emotional reactions, ranging from absolute desperation to keep her alive, all the way to a self-protecting cold acceptance. The first was totally unlivable; the latter became a hardness within me that I have both battled against and called upon for strength in later years.

Even now, I cannot imagine the kind of pain she must have been in: how desperate she must have felt herself, or how in her calmer moments she must have regretted the behaviors that put such a distance between us. In my calmer moments, the naive writer inside me thought suicide was sort of a romantic, noble end. I thought of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf and their tortured beauty. Buddhist monks burning themselves to death in protest of the Vietnam War. Romeo and Juliet.

The reality, when it came years later, felt both shocking and inevitable. I was stunned and saddened by her death, but also ashamed that I felt something else on both our behalf: relief.  After years of threats and attempts and close calls, decades of walking on eggshells and bending myself into impossible knots trying to avoid this very thing... the thing had happened. It could never be undone, and it could never happen again. As we said goodbye and scattered her ashes in a garden, I could not hold back the thought: It's done. She can never hurt me like this again.

It does hurt again, though. Over and over. I've written before about the longing I feel almost daily for my mother - whether it's the mother she was or the mother I wished for, I will never be sure. When I first heard my sons' cries in the delivery room, they echoed with her absence. She missed comforting me through a painful divorce, she missed meeting the true love of my life and father of my children, she missed my journey to Judaism and all the richness that has come with it. She has missed about a thousand nights or days when I have wanted to pick up the phone to call her: for advice, for comfort, for a laugh, for the gossip she was always willing to relate (with her own peppering of outrage, of course).

My parents, Huntsville, AL 1973
She missed the death of my father, with whom I firmly believe she was always in love and vice versa, even years after their divorce. I like to think they're together now, watching our kids and laughing at our trials. These things could be any story of a parent lost early, except there is an additional and painful element: choice. She chose to miss these things. At least, that's how it feels in my moments of anger.

Survivors of suicide are entitled to our anger. Nothing hurts quite so much as being left voluntarily by someone who was supposed to love you forever. You find yourself constantly wondering what you could have done differently, how you might have saved the person from their pain. You wonder what you did wrong. And all the platitudes and kind voices and "there, there, it wasn't about you," in the world don't make that feeling go away. At least not entirely.

Thirteen years later, and after working in a profession in which part of my job was to prevent people harming themselves, I have come to realize something else about my mother and others like her. It's almost ironic that my mother had Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder) because in her true self state, she had almost no filter, no ability to be disingenuous. Maybe her brain needed to allow her to be more than one person because she had no ability to be anyone other than herself on purpose.

My mother didn't tell little conversational white lies or make small talk like the rest of us do. She didn't pretend to be interested when she wasn't, and she could not turn off the caring and empathic part of herself that reached out to all those in pain. If she asked "how are you?" it's because she really wanted to know. She could not walk away from a homeless person with a story to tell. She could not watch her poor neighbors go hungry even when she could barely feed herself. Until my father insisted that she stop, she picked up hitchhikers in our family van, even with my brother and me in the backseat.

For Mom, there was nothing about herself that was better or higher than anyone else, nothing that could be kept separate from the injustice she saw in the world. In the psychology realm, we would label this as a 'boundary issue.' That is true in terms of her own mental health, but it's also true that the world needs people like my mother. In many ways, her giving of her whole self to the world around her was the living example of the human spirit. She was the embodiment of the Jewish concept of Tzedakah, which means both 'charity' and 'justice.'

We need her and others like her, even though they wound us so deeply by not caring enough for themselves. My mother gave herself over to pain because that was her experience of reality, and yet she kept her faith in God, the world, my brother and others (and, I hope, in me).

I believe there are people in this world who feel things more deeply, more personally, than most of us can bear to do. Whatever the reasons, whatever the causes, they carry with them a kindness and vulnerability so deep that it is both a treasure and a burden. They either don't have or don't use the protective filter that "healthy" people use to turn off pain and heartache so that we can function. (Don't get me wrong, the world needs us, too -- someone has to keep things working and stay strong for those who are not strong themselves).

I believe we have to learn from those among us like my mother, those who might be labeled as 'too sensitive,' 'impractical' or even 'crazy.' We can learn from their artistic talents, unbridled empathy and sense of justice, because we need those to maintain our basic humanity. We also have to help ground them and keep them safe and strong when we can.

But we can't always.

Sometimes their burden is simply too much to bear. Sometimes the depth of their feelings becomes an abyss from which they cannot return, even though they might desperately want to come back to us. Sometimes we must stand at the edge and say goodbye, realizing that we cannot change who they are, nor can we alter or even fully understand their fate. We have to bear our own burden of their loss, with as much grace and genuineness as we can muster.

When my mom died, the world truly lost a light of love. It was extinguished in the darkness of her own personal torment, gone to a place I cannot know or understand. As for me, I will keep my filters and boundaries and "healthy" mental state - such as it is. I will stay strong for my family for as long as I am able, because hers will not be my fate. But I will think of Mom when we put coins in our Tzedakah box, and whenever I have an opportunity to create justice in my own little corner of the world.

I cannot bring her light back to our lives, but I can try to rekindle it in the family she never got to know. We can build on her legacy, and in that sense, the light will never really go out.