An Open Letter to Millennial Voters

Dear Millennials,

I get it. I get you. As a student of generational dynamics, I’ve studied your generation quite a bit. I know, for example, that you’re pretty pissed off at me right now because you resent me telling you that I know you because, you can’t be known. You’re unpredictable, rebellious, you are custom-your own person. How dare I suppose to know what you’re thinking or feeling? Part of this knee-jerk reaction to conformity is the fault of my generation, Gen X. We raised you, and for the most part, we hovered. We were latchkey kids, raised with minimal supervision, and we vowed never to do that to you. We went to all of your soccer practices, trotted the entire extended family out for gymnastic competitions, argued with teachers when you were unjustifiably held inside during recess, bought you cars when you turned sixteen, gave you our credit cards willingly, and pretty much guided your lives along a track, rather than letting you forge a path.

Now, you’re pissed off. You want to buck against the status quo and what better way to stick it to the rest of us than to vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson? They’re outsiders. They’re not the “institution.” And I get that. I am the child of Baby Boomers, the quintessential provocateurs, and that resistance to conformity has been baked into me as well. In sixth grade, I flat out refused to support the first Gulf War, I held walkouts to protest the use of Styrofoam trays in the cafeteria, and as a high schooler I dumped out all of the testers at the Estee Lauder perfume counter because they tested on animals.  While I’m certain that none of those actions resulted in change, it felt damn good to be an agent of chaos, even if only for a fleeting moment.

But now, I’m a mom to two beautiful nine-year-old girls. I’m a teacher, a wife, and a citizen in my community. I pay taxes and attend school board meetings to see how those tax dollars are spent. I have a husband who equally supports our family with a union job. I worry about the economy, carry a mountain of student loan debt, and vote in every single election, especially the primaries.

My point is, I have a lot riding on politics now. When I was your age, I didn’t. If the government was running at a deficit, legislating against labor unions, or rolling back women’s healthcare, it didn’t affect me greatly at 18, 19, even 21 years old. At that young age, I cared more about feeling heard than I did about actual policy. Well, I’m here to tell you that we hear you Millennials, we do.

You are one of the greatest generations to have lived. In the short time you’ve been adulting, you have helped lead this country to some amazing milestones. You’re the least racist, most inclusive generation to have come along. You’ve legalized same-sex marriage, questioned gender roles, and advocated for mainstream education for all. You’ve connected us through social networks, transformed mass media, and showed us all how to express anger through emojis. But perhaps your greatest accomplishment, at least for you older Millennials, is that you gifted us the election of Barack Obama.

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So, I beg of you this- don’t let all the awesomeness you’ve helped create be destroyed.  If Trump wins this election, he has promised to rollback same-sex marriage, dismantle LGBTQ protections, and will appoint one, possibly two, Supreme Court justices. Why is that latter point so important? The religious right in this country is chomping at the bit to defund Planned Parenthood and to overturn Roe v. Wade. Trump will help them do so. Think about that for a second. You-the independent generation who wants complete autonomy from the government- will live in a country where the government will tell you what you can and cannot do with your body. Could you live with that?

I understand you don’t like Hillary. She’s charged outrageous speaking fees for private engagements, she deleted a whole shitload of emails, and she appears stiff when she should be laughing or relaxed. But she is the candidate your generation has created. Those of you who worked so hard to support Bernie Sanders helped make Hillary the candidate she is today-way more progressive and to the left than she ever was. She’s not pandering, she’s evolving. And she’s evolving because of you. You want to be heard? Hillary has heard you. She’s evolved on same-sex marriage, on public education, on trade, and even on the drug war. And we have you to thank for this transformation.

So, this November, I beg of you to do one thing: think of Bernie. Think of the legacy you’ve helped him create, the work you’ve done together on social reform, and help him get those policies and promises into the white house. I get the appeal of a third party, really I do. And I’m with you that they should have more of platform and voice than they do. And if this were 2008 or 2012, when a reasonable, not-so-scary republican were on the other end of the ticket, I’d say go ahead! Vote your conscience. But, I’m afraid Millennials, that this time is different. We need you now to help us. We need you to once again give us the president we deserve, not one that will erase everything you’ve worked for.

Simply put, you gave us Obama. Please don’t follow that act of graciousness with the delivery of President Trump.

Everything I Wanted to Know About My Grandmother I Learned From Her Palm.

 

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My grandmother as a young woman.

Everything I wanted to know about my grandmother I learned from her palm. A strong, deep life line with little attachment meant she was fiercely independent. She held two jobs down when most women didn’t work. She ran away from home, married a Catholic, lost babies, disowned siblings, and lived the last thirty-two years of her life alone. She loved to work in her home, rarely ventured out, liked order, and respected routine. Still, there was so much I didn’t know. I never knew the cut of her love line, still like a river across her hand, until it was cold in my palms the day we lost her. I could never imagine the woman who wouldn’t answer her door in anything less than full dress as a honeymooner rolling around in the backseat of my grandfather’s Lincoln. I never knew her as young. She was an old lady my whole life.

In the first section of my memoir, I have sex with two different men in three different places. In the second section, there’s two more. In the third, yet another. And when I write these scenes, I hold nothing back. My book is about divorce and body image. It’s about feeling insecure and using men to feel better about myself. I write myself the fool for sure. I write about myself as a young woman, as a divorcee, as someone who is so woefully unsure of herself that I cringe even now as I read the words. Because of my writing, this is the version of me that my children and my grandchildren will know. They will not wonder, they will not question, they will have an insight into my heart and mind that I would have given anything to have with my grandmother, or the mothers who came before her.

It’s not easy to write about our lives, especially if you’re accustomed to writing fiction.  Many of us worry about ex-husbands, parents, children, etc. We worry about splitting open our lives on a page and allowing the world a front seat. And as a memoirist, let me assure you, it never gets easier. That vulnerability is always there. But, the gift we give the generations that will come after us by allowing them access to the inner workings of our lives is invaluable.

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This makes me slightly nervous…

At first, the thought of my twin daughters-now nine-reading the perils of my life someday was terrifying. I imagined them pouring over the chapters in which I fumble, give myself over too easily to love, make the wrong choices, and laughing, losing respect for me faster than I can rewrite my past. Then I realized something. Someday, they will be me: a middle-aged woman with a cobbled-together sense of confidence, doing the best she can to raise her kids with love, hope, and strength. Then, their babies will have babies, and so on. What a beautiful heritage we can help create as mothers when we write down our stories?

You don’t have to write a memoir to leave a written record of your life. You can write a journal, write essays, poetry, or thinly-veiled fiction. The day my girls were born, I started a journal. I don’t write as much as I should because I’ve been busy with other projects, but I try to write once a month or so. I write a lot about what’s happening in the world around us and how I react to these events. I wrote about the sun bursting in my heart as I watched our country elect the first black president. I wrote about the absolute anguish I felt after the Sandy Hook shooting. But I also wrote a detailed description of every home and apartment in which I lived, stories of the men I’ve loved, and tender memories of my relationship with their father. I plan on giving them this journal when they become mothers.

I can’t help but wonder how different my life would have been had I been gifted a written record of my grandparents or their parents as young, hot-blooded men and women. How fascinating would it have been to read the secrets locked inside my grandmother’s heart? To know what she was afraid of, what made her cry, what she thought about life and love? Instead, what I know is highlights and recycled memories handed down through the generations. Lines on a palm with no stories attached.

As a writer, I can do more for my children. As a mother, I should. When you’re given the gift of being able to write, you should ask yourself what responsibilities come with that gift. I never knew where my writing was born from. I have artists in my family, sure, but mostly musicians and visual artists.  So, I’m the writer. I’m the record-keeper, the storyteller, and the one who should be taking it all down. I don’t question this, I welcome it. I refuse to be a stale story, someone remembered vaguely by a distant grandson. Someday, my grandchildren will be able to say that everything they learned about their grandmother, they learned from her own words.

South Franklin Street

I just finished watching the movie, Wild, based on the wonderful memoir by Cheryl Strayed.  And as I walked out of that theater, I couldn’t help but feel sad and more alone than I have felt in a long while.

I wrote a memoir about getting married and divorced.  I wrote a memoir about how lonely I was, about how it felt to have someone you love reject you, about how sometimes you need to start your life over again even if you lack the basic tools to do so.  An agent loved my book, took it on as hers, and I thought that was the beginning of something.  But publishers didn’t love it like we did.  They felt that nothing happened.  They like books like Wild, because in that book something happened.  So I had to make something happen.  Now it’s a different book.  I miss my memoir.

Crises are not always big.  Sometimes they are small and fall into the crevices of our hearts.  Hearts are not smooth, nor are they heart-shaped.

What if your crisis is that you eat too much?

What if your crisis is that you let your kids have too much sugar, or that you and your husband had exactly two therapy-worthy fights in front of them?

What if your crisis is that you told your father you hated him once, and have never forgiven yourself for it?

I walked myself to sanity once too.  It was not the Pacific Crest Trail, but it was South Franklin Street in Wilkes-Barre, and that path back to the one and only place I have ever lived on my own, was just as treacherous.

What if your crisis is that you don’t protect yourself from anything or anyone?

What if your crisis is that you don’t always know where to put a comma?

What if your crisis is that you loved someone that you shouldn’t have?

What if your crisis is that you don’t like playing board games with your kids?

What if your crisis is that you feel like no other person on the face of this earth understands you just as you are?

I don’t have one big crisis to sustain a book.  I have a million little ones that I carve into my chest day after day.

A Snow Day Poem

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.

 

 

 

The New Question We’re Asking Our Teachers

My husband and I are moving our six-year-old twin daughters across the country.  We’re leaving northeast Pennsylvania for the Seattle area.  As such, we’ve been doing a lot of research on our new town.  First, I researched the work outlook: good.  I researched the state government: two female democratic senators.  I researched the climate: not so great, but livable.  I researched the public transportation: great. I researched the school districts: some of the best in the country.  I called the schools, asked a variety of questions:

What is your curriculum like?

Do your students wear uniforms?

What are your after school programs like?

Are your art and music programs well-funded?

As my cell phone heated up against my cheek, the questions grew more and more vague.  The silences grew longer.  There was still one more question lurking in my throat, in my chest, lying against my broken heart: Would you take a bullet for my daughter?  

Lauren Rousseau's Parents

Lauren Rousseau’s Parents

This is the new rhetoric surrounding neighborhood schools.  This is the new fear that turns parents in their beds at night.  Will my child’s teacher be the next Lauren Rousseau, the Newtown, Connecticut, teacher who selflessly died trying to save her students? Will s/he be willing to stand up to the new face of terror in our schools?  And the even bigger question looming over all of us as parents is: do we even have the right to ask such a sacrifice?

My daughters now attend a small elementary school in Pennsylvania.  Their teacher, a wonderful and thoughtful educator, has a little boy all her own.  is it fair to hope that she would leave him motherless in an attempt to save me from an imaginable grief?  I don’t know if I, in good conscience, could ever ask that of another parent.

For weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre, I, like millions of parents across the country, couldn’t sleep.  I relived the story in my head a thousand times.  I imagined the fear in the children’s hearts in the two to three seconds it took them to realize what was happening.  I lived in that moment.  I lived in that classroom.  I lived in that grief for weeks and weeks.  I considered therapy.  I even considered religion.  Eventually, I began to move forward, slowly.  But in Newtown, there are families who never will.  I believe there is a community that will never get past this.  It’s too big,  it’s too horrible, it just doesn’t fit into any of the compartments inside of them.

The world became a different place on December 14th, 2012.   For me personally, it was the end of my love affair with politics and news.  I was an avid “newsie” for most of my adult life, but as time went on and my television was filled with men and women refusing to stand up to the gun lobby to ensure those children didn’t die in vain, I had to turn it off.  I had to bury my anger, bury my head, bury my pain in the arms of my daughters.  I’ve always been a staunch Democrat, battling fiercely for what I believed were democratic ideals.  Now, I’m just tired and I’m always sad.

I’m sad that my government has let me down.  I’m sad that this pain and fear inside those of us with small children is like a hot stove we are tied to, yet for most on Capitol Hill, it seems that heat has started to cool.  I’m sad that I have to look at my child’s teacher and wonder if s/he would protect them.  I’m sad that I even have to ask such a thing of another parent.  I’m sad for the parents in Newtown, who cannot fathom that gun control is even up for debate.  I’m sad that they don’t have the arms of their children for refuge from this cruel world.

sandy-hook-memorialThe Sandy Hook shooting and the political fallout are a language I will never understand.  I will never be able to comprehend what happened that day, how it happened, why it happened, and what to do with the fact that it did.   The massacre has changed the way I think, the way I feel, and the way I dream.  Now,  in my dreams, teachers are not asked to take a bullet, the children of Sandy Hook are alive and tucked into their beds at night, and teachers teach, and bad guys don’t have guns.  That is my dream, and the dream of so many parents.  The American Dream of yesterday is gone.  The new American Dream is a school from which our children return home at the end of the day, whole, fulfilled, happy, and…alive.

Tales of a Capsizing Mommy

I finished my book just in time to miss the best years of my twin daughter’s lives.  My MFA, two chapbooks of poetry, and an unsold memoir had consumed me for the better part of five years.  I guess I half-expected that they would wait for me, that the milestones: the walking, the rolling over, the talking, the first night sleeping all the way through, would be there for me on the other side, ready to repeat themselves and allow me to linger and actually pay attention this time.

Instead, when I finally lifted my head through the skin of the water, I found a pair of little girls, almost six, ready to cross that invisible threshold into “not a baby anymore” land.  Suddenly there were too-tight shoes, missing training wheels, a pint-sized boyfriend, and sight words that rolled off their pink shiny tongues like water rolling downhill.

Don’t get me wrong, I did what I could.  I kept copious notes in a black journal with embossed flowers on the cover.  Triumphs and achievements stretched out across each page like webs catching every date and every age.  But I had never really slowed down to experience them, to inhale their importance, and when I pulled that journal out weeks ago, after the dust had settled and my writing was dormant, it was as if I was a stranger glancing through a history book full of events I had never witnessed.

So, when Penelope, the baby (by one whole minute), came to me three months ago with a pain in her tooth and it was discovered that said tooth was loose, I reveled in the emotion of the moment.

tooth“Your tooth is loose!  Your tooth is loose!”  I cried as if she had just informed me of a full scholarship to Harvard Law School.  The afternoon sun lit up the kitchen and I danced her around the bare floor draped in the warm rays.  I called all of her grandparents, and acted as if this loose tooth would be it: the one event, the one benchmark of her childhood  I would remember forever.   I imagined she would call me up twenty-seven years from now and I would relive the loose tooth with as much vigor and detail as I had remembered her birth.  Still, just in case, later that night through weary eyes, I pulled out the journal and wrote: Loose tooth, October, 2012.

Now, three months have passed and already that moment is gone from my mind.  I remember the date, obviously, but I can’t remember the sequence, the order in which anything happened.  Did she wake up with the tooth pain?  Had she pointed it out earlier and I blew it off?  Did I know to look for the wiggle of the tooth or did she mention it first?

This is what has happened to my brain since I decided to live the writing life.  I used to remember moments effortlessly.  In my early twenties, I could have told you every single detail of every relationship I’d ever had:  How the leather back seat felt under my bare skin the first time I went parking with a boy, the smell of Jeff’s cologne, and how my stomach flipped every time I heard Mike’s voice.    I was able to recite the phone numbers of my very first girl friends, my employee badge number from SEARS, the first nine numbers of Pi.  Now, I cannot recall the simple historic moments of my own children’s lives.  The events most mothers have living on the tips of their tongues.

Sinking-shipIt’s easy to make excuses.  I’m teaching six classes this semester, that’s 120 students give or take.  That’s a lot of papers, a lot of deadlines, and a lot of emails to answer.  I’m also involved with a few literary magazines, host of a reading series, and mentor to some budding writers.  I’m overwhelmed, clearly, but that’s not all. What’s taking up so much precious real estate in my mind is my next book, play, poem, short story, essay, and haiku.  On any given day, there is a whole host of images and characters just floating around my head, taking up space.  I do everything I can to hold onto the important things, to tether Penelope’s loose tooth to something that will help me remember.  Penelope’s first tooth wiggled one week before Halloween.  I was teaching Creative Nonfiction, it was right after I finished the book.  I secure the rope tightly, but deep down I know it’s in vain.  A little loose tooth is no match for the high tide of unwritten stories.  The memory of my daughter and me in the kitchen, spinning on the balls of my feet while she laughs and beams with big-girl pride will be lost someday soon, the magic of the moment relegated to four words in a handwritten journal.   This is the life of mother, a writer, a captain of uncharted waters just trying to stay afloat.

The Monster Rears its Ugly Head

I’m young, too old for high school and too young for babies, when I first hear about the disease I have given myself.  PCOS: Poly-cystic Ovarian Syndrome.  I’ll save you the medical jargon, it sucks.  It’s a syndrome which means they can’t really isolate what it is, they just know what it does.  It is triggered by a hormonal imbalance.  It makes you fat(ter), it prevents you from ovulating, it impedes your ability to conceive.  From where I’m standing now I see it for what it is: an unfortunate condition which will seemingly complicate, but in the end actually save, my life.

But I’m eighteen or so, and I’m confused and I’m pissed off.  All I see is something inside of my body designed to further torture me.  When coworkers make fun of me, and they do, I tell them about this beast growing untamed inside of me.  I explain that I am fighting something I can’t see, something they can’t see, but you know what?  They’re bullies and they don’t give a fuck.  (It takes me almost a decade to discover this)  A crack starts to open up in my head and in it seeps a truth I start to accept: I am a defect.  I cannot get pregnant and I will always be fat.  I am not worth the materials it took to make me.

This might be where it starts.  This might be where it ends.

In my twenties, I discover an online support system: Soulcysters.  When my ex-husband and I try to make babies, it is this group of anonymous women that suffer through it with me.  Together we chart basal body temps, fail pregnancy tests, and synchronize our medicines.  A few of them become rising stars and leave our discussion boards (TTC=Trying to Conceive) for the greener pastures of (BFP=Big Fat Positive!!!).  I miss them, I send them my best wishes, I never get to join them.

PCOS is a barrier.  PCOS is a parasite, sucking away my female parts, saddling me with the androgyny of infertility.  There is only one way out of this tunnel.  There is only one way to reverse the damage I’m doing to myself.  It takes me ten years to get control of this disease, of this syndrome.  Ten years before I’m hunched over in a bathroom peeing on a stick and nearly fainting as the second pink line appears.  And that is how PCOS saved me in the end.  It saved me from having babies with the wrong man, from being anchored in a port I did not belong, and it saved my fertility for my babies.

Caught with My Pants Down

This morning, as I was weighing myself half-naked like I do every single morning of my life, my five-year-old daughter crept around the corner of the bathroom door and stood watching me as I stared down at the rather large number.

“Mommy, what are you doing?” she whispered.

I froze, not because I was startled by her presence, but because I was startled by her question.   I mean, I knew eventually one of them would see the scale, would see my morning ritual and ask questions, but I was stunned because, despite months of dreading this very question, I was completely unprepared as to how to answer it.

Mommy’s weighing herself honey because her self-esteem is wholly dependent on a number.  Mommy’s weighing herself because if she doesn’t, she will grow really, really fat again and Daddy will go away.  Mommy’s weighing herself because Mommy is an addict and if she doesn’t check in with her “sponsor” every morning, she will become overtaken by her disease once again.  

All of these thing sound ridiculous in my brain, yet I believe them as truth deep down in the middle of me.  This self-sabotaging dialogue is a train track running down the center of me, charging through and blowing to bits any healthy infrastructure I have erected.  Yet…My daughters are untainted.  They are like cotton: malleable, soft.   My problems with body image are a deep dark canyon, and right now, they are on the precipice of self-loathing.  My answer can either push them over, or save them from this agony.

“Mommy is weighing herself because I want to make sure I stay healthy and strong.”

She wrinkles her nose for a second as if she is sniffing out the validity of my statement, and within minutes her attention  turns to the dogs and she is gone, chasing them up the stairs and into the ripples of her sister’s laughter.

I don’t know if I said the right words.  I don’t know the truth myself.  I don’t know if anything I say can make a difference.  When I think about it, my parents never said anything about weight.  They set a good example and exercised and took care of themselves.  So, I guess the question then becomes,  how did I get here?  And how do I keep my own daughters from this place?