Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Final Tally

I recently rediscovered a box I hadn't rummaged through in many years. I had taken it from Mom's closet after she died. It's filled mostly with things I made for her when I was little (drawings, poems, Mother's Day cards, silly letters I wrote her from summer camp), but there's also a pretty thorough collection of report cards, certificates of achievement, progress notes from teachers, award ribbons, samples of my schoolwork, school programs that featured my name -- even a taped envelope labeled "Katie's first haircut" and a newspaper clipping of the horoscope that was published the day I was born.

Also in this box I found a looseleaf sheet of paper titled "To Jean: My Self-Analysis."

From context clues, I know I wrote this self-analysis at age 17. That was a tumultuous year in our family. For starters, after having lived with Mom during the school year and Dad during the summers since I was 6 years old, my mom made the difficult decision to move to Washington D.C. to take a good job. It was a dramatic move, but the times warranted it. It was the '80s, the economy in Dallas was sluggish, and she'd been through two layoffs in less than two years. As a single mother of two, she needed more stability. I think her idea was that my sister and I would move east with her, but -- being every inch of the typical teenagers we were -- we chose our friends and stayed behind to live with Dad. However, because Dad lived in a different area of Dallas, my sister and I ended up having to change school districts anyway. For me, that meant leaving the friends I'd known since preschool to start my junior year at a school where I knew no one. Moreover, Dad ran a tight ship in contrast to Mom, so there were new house rules to obey, which did not sit well with Teen Goth Katie and her "nonconformist ways." All of this required a lot of adjustment for everyone in our family.

But wait. There's more.

That same year, Dad met, fell in love with, and proposed marriage to an incredible woman named Jean. Even though they had only been on four dates when my dad proposed, Jean said yes -- and, voila! -- my sister and I suddenly gained a stepmom. Oh, and she had two daughters as well -- ages 4 and 7 --  and all three of them moved in with us, which meant my sister and I had to share a bedroom for the first time in our lives.

Picture, if you will, Teen Goth Katie sitting on her bed, penning this self-analysis in her journal and intermittently peering out the window at the rain. (Technically, it might not have been raining on this day. But figuratively, it was always raining in Teen Goth Katie's mind.)

I no longer remember what prompted this particular writing exercise -- this "self-analysis" to Jean -- or how it ended up in my mom's box of Katie treasures. But I do know that this was something my mom had taught me to do when I was feeling blue ... which was basically all the time for Teen Goth Katie. The idea was to make a list of everything good in my life and then make a list of everything bad in my life. Mom's rationale was that inevitably I would discover in making these lists that the good stuff outweighs the bad stuff, and knowing this would make me feel better. And, to her credit, both of these things proved to be true 99 percent of the time.

So, on this particular day, when I was 17 and dealing with a lot of change, I felt compelled to make my lists. And this is what I discovered:

Good things 
I graduate and turn 18 this year.
My eyes.
My lips.
My buckle shoes.
My art.
My friends.
My records and tapes.
Never been mugged or raped.
My bedroom in D.C.*
My house has never caught on fire.
My feet.
Never had a serious car wreck.
My daydreams.
Thanksgiving and Xmas vacations are soon.
My first report card this year.
My childhood.
My free airfare**
Never had stitches.
My left pinky fingernail.***
My moonstone ring.
Laughing with my sister or Heather.

Bad things
My surgery.
My skin.
My weight.
My eating habits.
My deteriorating bank account.****
My endless generosity.*****
My cavities.
My health.
My insomnia.
Accidentally wiping out 9 wks of work on my floppy disk at school.
My high tolerance for taking shit.******
The damn bells at school.
The incredible amount of time it's taking to grow out my hair.

* Mom gave me free rein to decorate my bedroom in her D.C. house, which was a beautiful old row house in historic Old Town Alexandria. So, what did I do? I painted the walls solid black and hung posters of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Sid Vicious -- all of whom I admired because they were beautiful and, well, dead, which made them all the more mysterious and tragic.
** Dad was a pilot for Delta Air Lines.
***I had grown it out like I was some kind of coke fiend. I thought it made me look cool and dangerous. (Teen logic at its finest.)
**** I had an intense crush on this bad-boy punk rocker in my art class named Chris. He was a senior and only a year older than me, but in my recollection of him, he looks as wizened and haggard as Keith Richards. Anyway, I had inherited a couple thousand dollars when my great grandma passed away and, without telling my parents, I withdrew a little more than half of it to bail Chris out of jail when he got busted for having weed and drug paraphernalia in his car. In my mind, our reunion would be passionate. He would kiss me and tell me I was his girl. But when Chris walked into the jail lobby, he patted me on my head and said, "Thanks, kid. I'll pay you back" and then asked me to give him a ride to his buddy's house. I did not become his girl, and I never saw the money again.
***** See above story about Chris.
******See above story about Chris.

The final tally of this self-analysis:

21 - 13 =

+8 more good than bad

Mom was right again. If I looked at the bigger picture, my life was actually pretty good.

It's a lesson that has stuck with me all these years. To this day, if I'm feeling down about something, it's relatively easy for me to widen my perspective and recognize that the good outweighs the bad. And it only gets easier as I get older and my world view expands to reveal everything that life is capable of delivering -- opportunity, disappointment, love, loss, growth, joy, isolation, challenge, hope, friendship, peace, justice, redemption, forgiveness, the unknown. Always the unknown.

I list all of these as "good things." My list of good grows and grows. And for this I am forever grateful.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Heart Day’s Work

I feel most alive when I’ve put in a heart day’s work.

To see tears in eyes that haven’t cried in years.
To see a face soften with compassion for another.

These are moments I get to witness
when I put in a heart day’s work.

To watch a woman own her story,
realizing it no longer owns her.

This is what I get to witness
when I put in a heart day’s work.

To hear a woman speak authentic words
when before she chose silence.

This is what I get to witness
when I put in a heart day’s work.

To feel something like a mother’s love
even though I have no children.

This is what I get to experience
when I put in a heart day’s work.

To grow into the woman I was called to be
with a community of women behind and beyond bars.

This is what I get in return
when I put in a heart day’s work.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Why I Choose to Serve Convicted Criminals

I found this note in a pile of homework. It was written by a woman in her 50s. She is African-American, heavy set, missing teeth, soft spoken and a bit hard to understand when she talks. But she regularly raises her hand to offer supportive words to her classmates when I ask the women to share their thoughts on a topic. 

I would like to now am I doing this right. because my Reading and understand is not that Good. if you think I cannot do this Class my I get into the class wear there Speaking there Story.
Thank you so much
P.S. because I don't what to give up I have being doing that all my life.

And my response to her, sent via JPay, an online, one-way communication tool. (Inmates do not have Internet access and cannot respond via JPay. Incoming JPay messages are reviewed, printed and delivered by prison security.)

Dear x,

I read your note of concern and reviewed your homework. I want you to know that you will be fine in this class. I understand your writing, and I think it is brave of you to participate in this class when you don't have much confidence in your writing ability. If I am ever unclear on what you are trying to write in your homework, I will simply ask you in person later. Please continue to participate in this class. You are a valuable member. Don't be discouraged. This is not the type of class where we grade grammar and punctuation. This is more about writing to get your feelings out.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Non-Waking and Waking Moments

In a pedicure chair, listening to an Asian-inspired Muzak version of “We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters. I close my eyes and a scene unfolds in my mind. I’m sitting in a mostly empty restaurant in a hotel somewhere in Shanghai. As I pick at my plate of Moo Goo Gai Pan, a waiter pushes a carpet sweeper with a squeaky wheel past my table.

At the H-E-B in Mueller Park, I wheel my cart around a corner and come face to face with a little kid who reminds me of Gary Coleman in the height of his “Different Strokes” adorableness. He immediately strikes up a conversation with me, as if we’ve been friends for years.

“They don’t have nothing else to try,” he says, hand on hip. “There’s no more gluten-free fries or frozen yogurt samples. I checked both tables.”

“Aw man,” I say. “I haven’t even tried any samples yet.”

“They do have some of that sushi stuff, but…” he makes a face like he smells something rotten.

“Yah, I hear ya,” I say as his mother rolls up with her cart. She eyes me and then her son.

Without another word or glance my way, Little Gary Coleman falls in line with his mama and the two disappear down the cereal aisle. The thought crosses my mind that he’ll probably grow up to be somebody important someday.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Practice in Letting Go

In our final class together yesterday, I shared this poem with my students at Lockhart prison. Having graduated from the Level 1 Talk to Me class last week, the women this week are moving on to Level 2 Discovery, which is taught by other facilitators at Truth Be Told. This transition requires taking a risk, to accept the invitation of joining a larger community of women in Truth Be Told classes who are also embarking on a journey of self-discovery. They are upping the stakes, learning who they are when the bullshit is stripped away, when they stop pointing fingers, when they own their stories -- the horrifying, the regrettable, the beautiful, all of it. They are discovering that they have a voice. They are seeing themselves and others with new eyes. They are continuing to practice the tools of community building, communication, caring for self and creativity.

Like many semesters before, I hold hope in my heart for each woman; their faces -- young and old, of every race -- will not soon be forgotten. They are the faces of mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, your neighbors.

I must remind myself, time and time again: This is where I let go.

Their future is theirs to live, theirs to save.

The Journey
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

When I Dream of Her

When I dream of her, the setting is always different, but the premise remains the same.

This time I am walking through a neighborhood, and as I turn the corner I see Mom standing on the sidewalk. She is pacing, trying to decide whether to cross. Immediately my heart swells with love, longing, anxiousness. And in that same moment, she turns and notices me. She is just as glad to see me. Her lip begins to quiver and I realize that she is near tears.

I rush toward her, suddenly overwhelmed with emotion too. I want to hug her. I don’t remember yet that she has passed away.

And herein is the premise that remains the same: I never remember in the beginning. All I know is that seeing her fills me with unabated joy and an undercurrent of desperation — terrible, terrible desperation.

I don’t recall if we talk, but we hug. And as we do, I notice two police officers nearby. They have been watching her and now they are watching us. I understand within seconds that they are wary of Mom because she has been pacing, maybe appearing a bit crazy. I want to protect her, so I take her by the arm and lead her away.

As we walk I begin to remember. She is sick. She is feeble. She needs me. My heart starts sinking. We arrive somewhere. There’s a room, and in it a bed. She lies down and I sit on the edge. I am looking at her face, really examining her face, for the first time. She looks scared.

It’s the same look I remember from real life, one morning back in June of 1990, when she woke up disoriented, not able to speak the right words even though it was clear she knew what she wanted to say. I remember the tone of her voice, a tone someone would use as if to say, “Well, this is curious, isn’t it?” But her eyes betrayed her. Her eyes were full of panic. Hours later I would be standing in a hallway at George Washington Memorial Hospital as a nurse explained to me that my mom had had a stroke. The following day I would be sitting bedside with Mom in ICU, watching her head rock from side to side on her pillow, her eyes opening and closing, involuntary movements repeating over and over and over and over. Her body was rebelling against her, breaking down, short circuiting. But her mind was still there. I remember her wailing when the doctor tried to raise her hospital gown to place the stethoscope over her heart because my dad — her ex-husband — was standing in the room. Dad said soothingly, quietly, “Bonnie, it’s ok.” And I think I saw something that looked like defeat in her unfocused eyes as the doctor raised her gown and continued with the exam.

She would slip into a coma the following morning, and two weeks later, she would be gone.

In my dream I am sitting on the edge of the bed, but we are not in ICU and she is not in a hospital gown. The surroundings are home-like and comfortable. But there’s an overall feeling of dread in the air and I now remember how it ends. I want to scoop her up in my arms and hold her close to my chest as if she were my child. I reach for her in a panic, but my arms will not move fast enough.

I wake with a start, bolt upright, my arms flinging out in the dark. For a second, I am confused.

But then I recognize my bedroom.
       I realize I am alone.
            I remember she is gone. 

                      And I will always be,

                                             always be,

                                   a motherless daughter.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Smoke and Mirrors (or "My Love Life As I See It")

A friend once told me that being in a relationship is like having someone hold a mirror up to your face. Suddenly there's someone showing you how you appear to others when you say this or do that. In this "mirror," you see yourself from new angles—some flattering, some not so flattering. My friend—who travels frequently for business and purposely stays unattached—confessed to me that he worries about going so long without having someone hold up a mirror to his face. Is he putting himself at a disadvantage by not having this kind of personal reflection in his life? 

I'd never heard it articulated this way, but I understood my friend's concern.

Since getting divorced in 2002, I have been mostly single and mostly by choice. I knew when I left my marriage that I had a lot of growing up to do, and it was going to require some time in solitary. Simply put: I needed to learn how to be alone. I went from one high school boyfriend to another to one college boyfriend to another to a post-college boyfriend who then became my husband when I was 27 years old.

Let's keep my ex-husband out of this and fast forward to February 2002. I was entering my 30s and single for the first time in nine years.

My thirties were a time of substantial self-discovery. I went into business for myself. I bought a home. I traveled solo to places like China and India. I realized I no longer wanted to have children. I discovered that community work made my heart sing. I learned how to appreciate, support and rely on my friendships like never before. There were short-lived romantic relationships here and there, but mainly I got accustomed to living my life for me. I discovered my two feet—just my two feet—were strong enough to support me.

If the first couple years of my forties are any indication, I suspect this process of self-discovery—this rethinking, repurposing, deconstructing and reconstructing—is not a phase to get through, but a permanent condition of being human. It seems with every hard-earned answer, I gain the wisdom to ask more questions.

I write about this part of my life with confidence. I feel tuned in and full of possibility, wise in simply being aware and owning my life. I've grown comfortable out here on the edge, "living the question," as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it. The woman I am today feels strong, grateful, blessed, able to lead, willing to learn, full of love, connected to the pulse of life and passionate about serving others. Of course, there are times when I feel stressed and overwhelmed. I get tired. I get really lonely. I've thrown my fair share of pity parties and have been the last to leave. But I've learned to be patient with myself in those darker times. To trust that this too shall pass. I know to take a deep breath and reflect. 

However, this is what I see when I hold up my own mirror.

I've had three brief relationships in the past couple years, and the mirrors my partners have held up for me have reflected many of the positive qualities I named above. But also in their mirrors I have seen a woman who can be critical, temperamental and rigid. A woman whose feelings and words sometimes do not match. A woman who has trouble making time for another and projects her frustration onto her partner. A woman whose quickly drawn defenses prevent her from listening. A woman who can withdraw and disconnect without explanation. A woman whose expectations blind her from accepting or embracing what is. A woman who has more walls, rules and standards than anyone could ever possibly hurdle.

On my weaker days, I fixate on these unbecoming angles reflected in their mirrors and I see them as the absolute truth. I magnify these images at a blackhead-exposing level. I feel ugly and fucked up. I wonder what the hell my problem is.

A sweet man recently told me he could tell I was trying hard to make things work, to be patient, to stay open, to give things time. But he also could see in my eyes every time I was irritated or just not connecting with what he was putting out there, and it hurt him to see that because, really, all he wanted was for me to be happy. In the mirrors he and I held up for each other, we could see so many wonderful qualities between us, similarities too. But the hard truth was that there was a persistent disconnect in our interactions, an underlying tension, that prevented us from experiencing real intimacy. We had to wonder, especially so early in a relationship, should it be such a struggle to just get along? Probably not. I felt something like bittersweet relief wash over me as we agreed to give this budding relationship a rest. It was all so civil. So mature. So bereft of passion, actually, that I had to wonder: What the fuck just happened here? I mean, we did have something, right?

Or was it all smoke and mirrors?

In the years since my divorce, this scenario has played out more times than I care to count. And in the aftermath, I find myself asking the same questions: Have I forgotten how to love? Have I forgotten how to be a partner? Is it true what I sometimes see in their mirrors? Am I too critical and rigid? Do I have impossibly high expectations? Is something wrong with me?

In 2008, after a particularly hard breakup, I saw a therapist for several months. In her mirror, I saw a woman who simply knows who she is and what she wants. Forget being too critical of others; this therapist's observation was that I was being too hard on the relationships themselves. Why was I ladling such big expectations onto every new relationship that came to pass? And why was I so quick to beat myself up when things didn't work out? The way she saw it, most relationships aren't cut out for the long haul. "The thing is, true love—the kind of connection that can last a lifetime—is rare. I don't think it comes around that often, and that's why it's so incredibly special when it does happen. Do you think it's possible that none of these relationships have lasted because none of them were meant to last? Stop for a moment and consider the possibility that everything is unfolding as it should." 

I've thought a lot about that. It's true: Every relationship—whether it lasted weeks or years—has played a role in making me who I am today. And, for the most part, I like who I am today. I suppose none of these relationships needed to last a lifetime, but I needed them nonetheless.

So, as I move forward in this life, I continue to reflect upon the images I've seen in the mirrors of my past partners and in the way I see myself in my own mirror. Deep down, I feel my truest reflection is a melding of images from all of these mirrors. I'm a little bit of everything I see. I am multifaceted. I am lightness and darkness. I am strong and weak. I can be beautiful, and I can be ugly. I have good angles—and angles that could use better lighting.

I think the important thing is that I remain curious, that I remain willing to look in these mirrors that others hold up for me, no matter how disconcerting or reaffirming. Because in each reflection lies an opportunity to dispel the smoke and mirrors and gain a more holistic view.

At least that's how I see it.