When I first held you in my arms, you were smoldering and you melted against me like burning tar.

In the beginning, our life together was slow and thick.  I questioned everything.  There are no answers, my mother told me when I called her for a twenty minute consultation about your seemingly endless crying, it’s just trial and error.  And I did. try. everything.

You were once connected to me through here, I whispered to you and pointed to your protruding belly knobs.  You smiled at me with shiny, slippery gums.

At nine months, Samantha fell down a flight of stairs because I turned my back to toast a piece of bread. At a year, she ate a piece of plastic only to be saved by my father’s quick thinking as he pulled it from her throat at just the right time.
At eighteen months, Penelope screamed herself to sleep every night for a month.  Inside of me, where the guilt was supposed to reside, lived only exhaustion and a weight the shape of your lips.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe mistakes I made were endless.  There was everything between you and safety.  Fear had moved into my belly, the space you left vacant.

I dreamed of fire consuming me.  I made my father call me every morning to make sure I was alive.  If I don’t answer, I told him, come and get the girls.

I dragged the two of you through early development, and you dragged me into motherhood with equal force.

Then, one day, it wasn’t so hard.

Yesterday, the two of you helped me put up the Christmas tree.  Samantha’s arms draped in soft white as she fed me a string of lights, and Penelope carefully hanging the ornaments we’ve collected since the origin of our family.  When it was all over and the glow was celestial, I looked at you for the first time in your short lives and realized how easy it is to love you now.

I once had a man tell me that I am hard to love because I demand too much of people.

You’ve never had a hard time with it.

I put you to bed tonight, the night before you turn eight, and I held you in my arms, pressed you both hard against me.  You were once connected to me, I whispered into the still of the darkness, through here, I said, pointing to your thin slice of a belly button.

Last night it was my husband’s turn to take our eight-year-old twin daughters to bed. In recent years, our bedtime routine has been downgraded from a full-on vaudeville act which included singing, dancing, and occasional joke telling, to a leisurely tuck-in full of questions ranging anywhere from “Can we paint our room black?” (No.) to “Is God real?” (Um???) Last night, the latter happened, and had it been me in the room, had I been the one to receive the God question, I might have been okay with what happened. But it was not me. And I was not alright.

I was born on a Sunday, and we all missed mass that day.

When my daughters were born, we made the decision to not have them baptized. They’ve never stepped foot in a church, and up until the age of five they believed our local churches to be mystical castles. They’ve heard about religion, specifically the Catholic tradition, from grandparents and various community members, but they’ve never been formally instructed by any stretch of the imagination. Then, at the age of four, my grandmother decided to introduce them to Ba, my long-dead grandfather. And with that came heaven, because how could I look at their faces and tell them that Ba was simply no more? Because how could I believe that myself? Because how could I allow them to be so jaded at four years old that they believe nothing but blackness waits for them at the end of this light we call life? Because it was 2:30 on a Monday and I was in a hurry to shuttle them from school to piano and to make dinner and do homework in between. And because heaven was easy.

My grandmother wrapped a rosary around her wrist and prayed for my grandfather’s return. I hung rosaries from my preteen neck and pretended to be Madonna.

Match-made-in-heavenWhen I was twelve, I asked my father if I could “drop out” of my Roman Catholic instruction. He sat on the edge of my bed with particles of light in the sunbeams around him. I told him I didn’t believe in God, or heaven, or Jesus, or any of it. He told me faith is walking off a cliff and knowing someone will be there to catch you. No one has ever been there to catch me.
When I was marrying my first husband, we were married in a church by a Catholic priest who was later revealed to have a fetish for the feet of underage girls, and I told him what I knew he wanted to hear. Yes, I believe in the institution of marriage. Yes, I will honor and obey. Yes, yes, yes. We divorced eighteen months later.

Father Penn told my second-grade Sunday school class that Satan was making us yawn during his sermon, and that we should resist Satan and all of his ignorance by staying awake.

When I found out about the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, the children who were exactly the same age as my children, I called my mother with hysteria in my voice and sobs in my throat. I don’t know what to do with this, I don’t know where to put this. I would have given anything for a jar marked ‘FAITH’ in which to pour that pain.

The most religious person I know is my grandmother, who believes with equal conviction that a Scorpio rising sign has more of an influence on your physical appearance than genetics.

Before my girls were born, I swore that as a mother I would “breastfeed, use cloth diapers, and smile a lot.” None of those things happened. I also swore that I would debunk the Santa Claus myth early, not spend money on Christmas presents, never let my kids have soda, and be painstakingly honest most of the time. I just finished ordering two Kindle Fires to place under our tree from Santa, and I’m pretty sure one of my daughters is hooked on Pepsi. And now, they think their great-grandfather is walking around on a cloud somewhere in the sky. And it isn’t that horrible after all, because I’d like to think he’s there too. So, maybe talking to my kids about God isn’t the end of the world. Maybe the best religion is made up of the bits and pieces that work for each of us. What would my life had been like if, during that faith conversation, my father had said he didn’t know? That he was confused too, and that it was okay to be uncertain. Would I have been the better for it? Or would I have struggled more, not having something-real or not- to grab onto in the face of a storm?

There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.

What happened last night was the inevitable. “The girls asked if God is real,” my husband said.
Me: And?
Him: And what? I told them that I don’t believe in God.
Me: And what did they say?
Him: They said they don’t either.
And an incredible sadness welled up inside my belly, where they once lived, where I rubbed them, and sang to them, and prayed to God for them.

If there was ever a moment I believed in God it was when I first held them in my arms.

Shortly after Timmy and I started dating, he told me that his dream was to build his own house.  Now, that dream is happening!

We are on a shoestring budget.  We are building it from scratch by ourselves.  The only part of the process we are subbing out is the block (the foundation walls, hubs did the footer himself).  Anyway, the house and the move is going to be completely life-changing and traumatic for me.  I’m one of those that gets attached to place easily.  But, this is what Timmy and I have been working towards for the last five or six years.  We always knew we wanted to live in the country, and now we will.

As a poet, I am bursting.  I want to write about so much of it all at once.  The construction of this house is riddled in metaphor, from “bringing it out of the ground” to talking about hip roofs and roof lines.  He’s building us.  He’s building me.  Anyway, that’s how my brain works, and once I can get my head around some of these images, there will be poetry!!!!

Which, brings me to my next announcement!

My first full-length poetry collection, BANGS, will be out this fall with Big Table Publishing.  I’ll be touring a little bit, lining up some readings for that book, so check back in a while for that info.

In the meantime, here are some pictures of the building process!

The land "before"

The land “before”

The Hole!

The Hole!

2014-06-20 18.57.57

Block!

Block!

meI show you pictures of a teenage me, and instead of commenting on the height of my bangs or the short of my skirt, your lips form a perfect circle as you oooh and aaahh over a much thinner version of me.  The silence between us is a net, and into it the last twenty years of my accomplishments fall like bricks.

I have a picture of myself that I took with a real, physical camera.  I’m alone in my apartment after my divorce.  Behind me, a lamp glows against the bare white walls.  I am in a tomb.  I wear a fake tan and a tense smile.  The suggestion of the wrong man and the promise of a better one.

In our wedding picture, I lean against my new husband with a belly full of our babies. My neck is thick and my smile wraps around the world a million and a half times.

 

 

This selection originally appeared in PANK as part of their This Modern Writer series.  It is also the original version of the piece I performed for Scranton Storyslam, which you can see here.  It is also the opening chapter in my book, which is represented by Meg Thompson.

The women at Weight Watchers are tough.  We are a gang.  We are the Bloods, the Crips, and the Latin Kings all rolled into one.  Sure, we look harmless enough.  Ten or fifteen portly women standing like preschoolers in a straight line outside the door, waiting for the loud mouthed receptionist to swing it open and begin to weigh us.  But make no mistake about it, if you cross us, if you come to a meeting already thin and complaining about five extra pounds that you have gained over the winter and need to lose before bikini season, we will cut you.  We will grab you with our fat little paws, roll you up into a tiny little ball, and kick your skinny ass out of here.  Because this is our turf.  This basement of the Electrical Workers Union, with its mundane pine paneling and shiny medicinal floors, belongs to us every Thursday night from seven until eight fifteen.  So, if you have less than ten pounds to lose, stay the fuck home.  Get a stomach flu, stick your finger down your throat,  or swallow a laxative, we don’t care.  Just don’t come here.

“Ugh, I feel gross,” says Sherri (with an i).

“You’ll be fine,” says a voice from somewhere in the front of the line.

“No, I had a brownie last night and I swear to God it went right to my ass.”

“No, it takes a while to catch up with you.  You’ll probably see it next week,” says a different voice.

“I hate this,” sighs Sherri.

I am late, as always, so I am in the back and can barely hear the riveting comparisons of this week’s sins.  The line snakes around the long thin corridor and is full of women sizing one another up.  We smile and greet one another like we are soldiers on the same side, but internally we are praying for one another’s demise.  I am nowhere near as big as she is.  Wow, I hope I don’t look like that.   We stand staring at one another, bound together reluctantly by overindulgence.

It is warm out and all of us have come dressed as close to naked as we can get without being arrested for indecent exposure.  I’m wearing tiny little knit shorts, a tank top, and socks with sandals.  You cannot stand barefoot on the scale, that is a rule.  You cannot hear your weight, the specific number, out loud.  That is the other rule.  In my hands I hold my bible.  The list of everything that went into my body this week, with the exception of the Snickers Bar and three Tootsie Rolls I jammed in my mouth only moments earlier in the car.

Read More

A Snow Day Poem

If I could take images or memories and implant them into my daughters’ brains without expensive surgery or a lot of pain on their part, I would choose the following three moments:

1.  The day I first saw them-

purple and small

their skin still slick with the insides of me

my rapid sobs fogging the thick glass between us

the center of me suddenly collapsing in on itself.

2.  The preschool Christmas show.

They stood apart from me, separate

out                        there.

and I was in here, all alone.

The First Noel echoed between us.

and I swelled both with love and fear

the way a body holds its water in the wake of a shortage.

3.  Now, right this minute.

When bedtime stories come from their mouths

and my tongue is silent.  When the space between them

is filled with nicknames for cute boys and stories of lunchtime

betrayals.

And suddenly,

all the pain I have ever felt in my life

falls away with each whisper I cannot hear.

 

 

 

Last week, a woman I used to work with announced she is having her third baby.  During the same week, a different friend, a girl I went to high school with almost fifteen years ago, got married in a seaside ceremony in France.  Three of my friends got new jobs, two made tenure, and four sold their books.  It was a week of good news delivered via Facebook.  Meanwhile, at my house, nothing great happened, nothing at all.   And suddenly, for no good reason whatsoever, everything about my accomplishments and my life seemed dull by comparison.

momand_joneses2The idea of “Keeping up with The Jonseses,” a seemingly perfect family acting as a benchmark for the rest of society, is hardly new.  In fact, the saying is believed to have originated from Arthur R. “Pop” Momand’s comic strip, “Keeping up with The Jonseses,” which he created in 1916.  But for the better part of the 20th century, including during my childhood in the 80’s and 90’s, The Jonseses were singular, limited to one or two families in your lifetime.  Now, thanks to social media, the Jonseses are everywhere.  Their perfect lives are splashed across my computer screen every day.  And they’ve multiplied.  Now there are a hundred Jonseses.  And this is why I have decided to leave Facebook.

I’m just going to say the thing you’re not supposed to say: Facebook makes me feel shitty about my own life.  And I have a good life, believe me.  In my early twenties I was married to the wrong man, thought to be infertile, and stuck in a dead-end job.  Fifteen years later, I am happily remarried, the mother to two beautiful twin girls, and have embarked on the career of my dreams.   Yet, like anyone, there is a small bag of regrets I keep tucked away in the back of my closet.  I’ve never lived in an exciting city, and never traveled much.  I can’t seem to finish the book I’ve been writing for five years, and I can’t find a full-time job in my field because I chose an MFA over a PhD.  I will never have another baby because I made my husband get a vasectomy after our twins were born, and I never had a honeymoon because I was four months pregnant with my girls on our wedding day.

A Seaside Wedding

A Seaside Wedding (must be nice!)

These are small regrets, and it bears saying that I wouldn’t trade anything that I have to make those unrealized dreams come true, yet, Facebook seems to exasperate the discontentment I feel over these incomplete parts of my life.  And I’m embarrassed to say that I often find myself swelling with envy when I see my writer friends selling books (which they deserve because they have worked very hard, but still….), having new babies, travelling to beautiful far-off lands, living in the cities I wished I lived in, or losing the weight I wish I never found in the first place.   Seeing my unrealized dreams realized by others day after day is enough to break anyone’s spirit.  I’m in a great relationship right now, thankfully, I can’t imagine what this feels like for people who are unhappily coupled.  I have no doubt that If Facebook had existed while I was married to my first husband, I would have driven off a cliff.

And the blame is not on Facebook, or my friends who are basking in the glow of their wonderful lives, it’s squarely on me.  I’m an oversharer, a social media junkie with over 700 friends-most of whom I had never met.  So, I’m going to change some things.  I’m going to purge my friend list (more on this later), and work on using Facebook for the good that it brings to my life: connecting through my author page with people who like my writing, connecting with family members and close friends, and reading great writing from my literary friends.

For more on Facebook envy, read this article from HuffPo.  Or this great piece by Sonya Huber about being a writer and feeling, well, inadequate.

Would it be completely hypocritical of me to suggest you follow me on Twitter?  Don’t answer that.

 

“There are 206 bones in the adult human body.  Most of us can only name a few: the mandible or jaw bone, the cranium or skull, the ribs, the humerus or the “funny” bone, the leg bones: the femur and the fibula, and maybe, if you’ve really paid attention in anatomy class, the bones of the hand: the phalanges, the carpals, and the metacarpals.  These are the bones we can see, we can feel, we can break.  These were the bones I knew about… before.  Now, as Georgia curls into a fetal position to sleep and her blue hospital gown peels away from her back, I can see every hump, every curve, every peak and valley in her spine.  I can see every bone pressing against her skin like it’s a sheet.  It’s an image that will forever haunt me.  My best friend is a living, breathing, archaeological discovery.  Six months ago she was alive, full of color and shape.  Now, her body is white and gaunt.  She is a dandelion gone to seed.

This is from a scene in my book-in-progress, Fat Girl, Skinny, in which the main character visits her best friend in the hospital and for the first time, realizes the gravity of the friend’s eating disorder.  This was hard for me to write.  Not because as a fat girl, I have been so tempted to take up an eating disorder that writing about one might just seal the deal.   No.  Writing about Anorexia was difficult for me because I honestly could not understand what it was like to think in terms of starvation.

I once had a friend who used to quip, “I wish I could develop an eating disorder, it would be the answer to all of my problems.”  I used to look at her like she was insane.  The answer???  How could anything so horrible and self-deprecating be an answer?

The truth is that for most of my life I thought I was too healthy to develop an eating disorder.  My parents loved me, my family was “normal”, I had no parasite eating my insides.   But, through the process of writing this book, most of which is autobiographical, I made a  startling discovery.  I do have an eating disorder.  Unlike traditional disorders, however, mine is marked by lack of control rather than a compulsion to control.  Eating has destroyed me more than once in my lifetime.  Eating has become a thief in the night taking with it my self-worth, my self-esteem, and any integrity I thought I had.  Yet, it keeps happening.  I suffer from overeating just as an anorexic suffers from under-eating.  And as with Anorexia or Bulimia, there is an underlying psychosis that goes along with sabotaging your own life.

I’m not here to compare the severity of eating disorders.  I’m here to say that whether you allow yourself to whither away, or you abuse yourself, stuff yourself, and blow up your own life, we all suffer together.  Once I found that level ground in my brain, I was able to write about my character’s anorexia with deeper authenticity.  I guess I just can’t stop writing memoir.

Six months ago, my husband, Timmy, and I put our house up for sale and planned to move across the country to Seattle.  There were many reasons, but among the most dire was the job situation.   We live in a small Pennsylvania town and the only four or five colleges within driving distance don’t even offer a Creative Writing program.  The trades, in which my husband works, are trending more and more towards using non-union labor.  Unions in general are disliked by most in this area.  So, moving somewhere more liberal, where unions and teachers are valued, seemed like a good plan.

And it was.

Only, we didn’t count on not being able to sell our home.  We didn’t count on me landing a (Surprise!) job.  And we didn’t count on Timmy getting called up for a major build (although, since it is a another casino related project, I probably should have expected it.)  So, since the job situation resolved itself, we didn’t move.  We aren’t moving.  We made the plans and my heart soared towards Seattle.  Then, we landed here, again.

I don’t know if we should have waited longer for the house to sell and left regardless of job offers.  I don’t know if our daughters would have been happier out there.  But I suspect, just maybe, that it would have been a great move.  You see, something else happened in the time it took us to prepare for the now non-move: I spent months researching schools, homes, and neighborhoods in Seattle. I sought out Seattleites, formed friendships, and fell in love with what I thought was going to be my new home.  And now that we are not going, everything feels flat.   I still find myself yearning for the move, second-guessing our decision to stay here, and wondering what life would have been like somewhere else.

In short, I wonder if Seattle aches for me like I ache for it.

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