Stephanie Sprenger

  • Embracing Being the Odd (Wo)Man Out

    by Jennifer McCue

     

    “Oh look, the commie has arrived.” “Hey, let me introduce you to my one lefty buddy.” “Here comes the snowflake, we have to watch what we say now!” These are just a few of the comments that have been directed at me from some of my more—how shall I put it?—slightly-right-of-the-Kaiser family, friends, and acquaintances. Most of the time, I take the ribbing with a grin and let it roll off my back, but occasionally it strikes a nerve; that’s when inner-Jenn—the rebel, the actual social justice warrior, the little girl inside me who still wants to change the world—flares to life like a Molotov cocktail exploding in an alcohol-soaked bar.

    Sometimes I wonder how I find myself being friends with people whose beliefs are so fundamentally different from my own, and who are so unaccepting of the beliefs I hold dear.

    And to be clear, I’m not talking about differences of opinion on, say, the deficit, or the electoral college process. I’m talking about humanism, the very embodiment of the Three Musketeers’ rallying cry “all for one and one for all,” and how we treat the least among us, regardless of how they got that way. This leads me to wondering if and/or why any of these differences of opinion matter, but also wondering how I got to be the way I am, and why I think and feel the way I do.

    In the current era of President Trump, political affiliation does seem to matter, even among the closest of friends and family, with supporters and opponents arguing virulently and sometimes violently, with relationships ending or being fraught with tension. In part, this seems exceptionally foolish to me – a relationship should be based on more than politics, no? On the other hand, if the people you’re closest to do not accept, or worse, intentionally insult your values and the way you live your life, why on earth would one continue in such an unhealthy relationship?

    Emotionally, it feels like we are living in the most polarized generation ever.

    I don’t know if that’s true, but it surely feels that way.

    From my earliest days, I can remember learning the lesson that there will always be somebody worse off than us, somebody who needs our help, and that it’s our duty—as Catholics, and as humans—to do what was in our power to help these people. I grew up poor, but my mom still found money to put in our church envelopes each week, and we still donated our gently used clothing and linens and such, first to a group of nuns who lived in a “bad” neighborhood and worked with the residents therein, and later to an agency which operated halfway houses and a shelter that aided the homeless, recovering addicts, and domestic violence survivors.

    I can recall driving there to the agency with my mom on countless occasions. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, their headquarters were in an old building in a run-down neighborhood not far from where we lived, and it was always dark and dank and intimidating. My mom would tell me not to be nervous, that these people were grateful for the help and would not harm me. I mean, she was right, but when you’re a kid? It’s still a little overwhelming.

    Always though, when we would pull up, we’d have our minivan loaded with boxes or bags, and a few grizzled, scraggly-looking men would come over to help us carry our donation inside. I was the picture of naiveté, and was always a bit wide-eyed during these excursions, but looking back on them now, I’m so grateful for having had these lessons driven home. In hindsight, I can see how integral these experiences were toward creating my worldview.

    Add in decades of living and working in some seriously depressed neighborhoods, seeing some of the truly awful things humans can do to each other, losing my faith, finding it again, going to church, abandoning organized religion, and reading extensively about the human condition and the history of “civilized” man as an adult with life experience behind me, and you get present-day me: wanting to feed all the world’s hungry, and house the homeless, and save the addicted, and educate and rehabilitate those behind bars, and provide an education to anyone who wants one, and  give people who need it the medicine they need at no cost, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

    Because my desire to help includes people around the world, I have been called a communist, a socialist, a globalist, a libtard, un-American, a dirty hippie, and many, many other meant-to-be-unflattering terms, both online and to my face.

    For the most part, I grin and bear it. If such remarks come online, that’s pretty much an instant “unfollow” or “unfriend,” meriting no further response from me, with a “block” if it comes from someone aggressive and threatening. In real life though? There is virtually no point in arguing—it makes me upset, and in very few of these cases do I care enough about the other person to want to bother attempting to change their mind. Do I let these differences come between family and myself? Not intentionally, no, but I do tend to gravitate towards people who aren’t going to insult me.

    As Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” so I do my best to live each day in a way that betters someone other than myself. It’s a small act in most cases, but it’s what I can do, my contribution to improving this earth we all share. Imagine if everyone who could did just one small thing for someone else, with no strings attached?

    Can you imagine the positivity and progress that might bring about? I’ll do what I can, and continue to be the best example I can for my children, and hope that those who disagree with me someday see me with love and not disdain.

     

    A Staten Island girl living in a suburban New Jersey world, Jennifer is a stay at home mom to two young boys, but she is also a historian, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, a genealogist, and the ringmaster of the circus she calls her life. She survives, without a doubt, on coffee and laughter.

  • Uncluttering a Life

    By Jacqueline Dooley

    Last month my neighbor (I’ll call him “Dave”) lost his house. A deputy showed up at the house and stood on the curb while two men moved Dave’s belongings onto his front lawn. Dave had been in foreclosure for over a year. I only learned about it in May when a man knocked on my door to see if Dave was still living in the house.

    “Yes, of course,” I’d told the man. “I just spoke with him on, um…”

    I’d paused, trying to recall the last time I’d spoken to Dave. Had it been two weeks? Three? Had it been longer? I looked at Dave’s overgrown yard, at the abandoned car in the carport (it had been there for years), at the sagging awning cluttered with leaves and had felt like the world’s worst neighbor.

    We weren’t good friends–Dave and I–but we were friendly. I knew the code to his house. I’d fed his cat when he’d been away. He had a key to my house and had likewise fed my animals when I’d been away. Our daughters had been best friends when they were younger. Now, Dave’s daughter was eighteen. My daughter would’ve been seventeen, if she hadn’t died from cancer last March.

    I tried texting Dave, but the number didn’t work. I got his new number from a mutual friend, so I was able let him know about the man. I urged him to come back and take what he could because at some point—likely very soon—the bank would send people to reclaim the house, locking him out. A few weeks later, that’s exactly what happened.

    “The sheriff is here,” I texted Dave. “They’re putting your things on the lawn. You have twenty-four hours to come get what you want before they haul it away.”

    “I have what I want,” he’d responded.

    “I’m glad,” I texted, a lump in my throat.

    After my initial text, Dave had come home one last time with some friends. They’d filled cars and pickups with whatever they could carry. It hadn’t been much.

    The remainder of Dave’s things sat on the lawn for over a week—a fully decorated Christmas tree, oversized stuffed animals, his kitchen table (the chairs encircling it like an altar), two dozen black garbage bags stuffed with clothes, books and toys, a wicker side table (broken and covered with dust).

    After a few days, neighbors began dropping by—curious at first, then greedy. They picked through the pile and dumped out the bags. They walked away with armloads of his memories.

    The cleanup crew eventually came—a few guys with trucks—and spent an afternoon clearing out the yard. They were supposed to have it done in a day, but it turned out that the stuff on the lawn was only a tiny fraction of what was piled up inside Dave’s home. One of the workers saw me retrieving my mail and, eyes haunted, he said, “Do you have kids?”

    “Yes,” I said. “Why?”

    “Don’t leave this kind of mess for them to clean up when you die.”

    It was a terrible thing to say to a bereaved parent, but I only nodded.

    Of course, he hadn’t known that my daughter died a little over a year ago and that I’d agonized about what to do with her meager possessions—what to keep, what to throw away, and what to give away. I’d bought her most of her things—her clothes, her furniture, the candles and tumbled stones she’d loved. And, while these things reminded me of her, going through each item—with love and sadness–taught me a surprising lesson.

    We are not our things.

    I tried to remember this as I watched the workers fill the fourth, fifth and sixth truckloads with beer cans, framed photos, the scarlet curtains that decorated Dave’s windows for over a decade, an old piano, the refrigerator full of rotting food (duct-taped shut), mattresses, empty liquor bottles, and bags of junk excavated from the attic and basement.

    There was so much of it, so many things left untouched for years. I wondered if it was for the best that other people were tasked with disposing of it. When the men left, nothing remained, not even the old car that had been parked in the same spot since the day it wouldn’t start seven or eight years ago. They’d mowed the battered lawn and put padlocks on the doors. The house was empty and ready for a new beginning.

    I wondered what it had been like for Dave being surrounded by so much clutter—the remnants of a family that no longer existed. But what did I know? He’d barely lived in the house over the past year. It had become a weight around his neck filled with meaningless things.

    It’s tempting to romanticize someone else’s story—the failed dreams of a broken marriage, childhood toys discarded in a heap, loneliness and loss. But we can’t really understand anyone else’s life—not even when everything they own is piled up on their front lawn.

    I knew Dave had been in a new relationship for the last several years. He had a new job and a new place to live. He’d taken what he needed. Just like his empty house, he was ready for a new beginning.

    Dave’s things told me more about myself than about him. They reminded me of my own grief, how it tends to immobilize me, making even the simplest tasks seem impossible.

    Sometimes there are days when I can only sit, weep, and remember my sweet girl. But when those days turn into weeks, everything in my life becomes stagnant. My daughter wouldn’t have wanted that.

    It’s easy to picture my house never changing, filled with the debris from my past, easy to let my stuff back me into a cluttered corner forever, easy to imagine rotting alongside the things that once gave me joy.

    After the workers took the final truckload of Dave’s belongings away, I walked through every room in my house and tried to imagine strangers putting my things into black garbage bags and tossing the furniture out the windows. I picture the neighbors picking through it, finding treasure amidst my old pain. But maybe that’s not so bad. Do I really need all this stuff?

    My daughter grew up in this house. She died in this house. If I threw everything out, the walls would remind me of her. If every room was suddenly empty, the space around me would be filled with her. If I move to the other side of the world with only the clothes on my back, I’d take her memory with me. What else is there, really?

    I started my own process of uncluttering from an imagined center of open space.

    It’s slow and cathartic—going through each room and uncollecting its contents, letting them fall from my life until I’m all that remains. When I’m done, the house will be much emptier, but it will hold many more open spaces. There will be room for my grief to expand when it needs to and room to display the things that truly matter—artwork, photos, and little else.

    Someday I’ll leave even these things behind and I like to imagine that whoever hauls it away will wonder how I managed to get by with so little.

     

    Jacqueline Dooley is a writer and self-employed digital marketing consultant located in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley. Her essays on parenting a child with cancer and parental grief have appeared in The Washington Post, Modern Loss, Longreads.com, Pulse Voices, The Wisdom Daily, HuffPost.com and others. Ms. Dooley blogs about parental grief at http://www.thehalfwaypath.com and has published three fantasy novels – all of them feature a child with cancer. 

     

     

  • Latina Awakens

    By Tanya Estes

    In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the closest thing my mother could find to a doll that culturally represented her Mexican-American daughter was the Juan Epstein character from Welcome Back Kotter. Until Cabbage Patch Kids released a tan doll around 1983, he would shoulder the primary burden of the cultural void in my toy box. Despite this obstacle, my mother worked hard to instill cultural pride, to expose me to strong women and raise me without prejudice. Finding multicultural toys was one way she tried to achieve that. Finding diversity in books, however, became her white whale.

    “I just want you to be proud of who you are,” she would tell me after another trip to the bookstore.

    “I’m fine, mom. I don’t see why it’s so important. I like my books.” Often she said nothing. Reading was a cherished value in our household and she didn’t want to ruin it for me. We kept reading “Charlotte’s Web” and “Little House on the Prairie” together and I never felt out of place in those fictional worlds.

    Over time, however, the absence of Latinos in both my education and popular culture evolved into the sort of self-loathing my mother feared without my ever noticing. Like plaque, it was the slow accumulation of an invisible thing.

    Lack of cultural representation became compounded by a lack of female authors in school required reading, which were the books I thought mattered above all others.

    My sophomore year of high school, I tried “Pride and Prejudice” for fun and enjoyed the first few chapters, but it was about love and not the sort of thing I was “supposed” to read. I quit reading it to move on to “serious” novels. Despite my mother’s efforts to get me to read “Jane Eyre,” I chose “Oliver Twist” instead. After two hundred years, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters were still fighting for literary legitimacy and losing in my teenage mind because of a stigma defined by high school reading lists.

    I knew girls that read raunchy romance novels with salacious covers, but Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” taught me what happened to those sorts of girls. I also knew teens were as vicious as Hawthorne’s puritans when it came to a girl’s reputation. Some girls read “Dune” and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” to appeal to skateboarders and guys in garage bands who liked edgier books. I liked those boys too but I was too busy trying, and failing, to decipher “The Sound and the Fury.” I had no time for fun things by Douglas Adams. I felt jealous that boys could read what they liked and their little harlots could too.

    By the end of high school, understanding my place in the world as a woman was discouraging enough. As far as I knew, Latinas had no place at all.

    Hispanics occupied fifty percent of my south Texas town. One would think such demographics offered no room for cultural shame, yet many in my class utilized my same coping mechanism. We ignored our ethnicity. Latino artists, politicians and writers were never discussed at school, on television, or in books, so as far as we knew, our ancestors were simply the “bad guys” at the Alamo who offered nothing else to the world.

    After I graduated, I started to see an accumulation of books by Isabelle Allende and Alice Walker in my parents’ house. My mother’s favorite books in her growing library, however, were by Sandra Cisneros, a small Latina whose stories took place in south Texas towns, places we knew and passed through several times. She wrote about family, childhood and life in a Latina voice that my mother identified with, one that had the respect of other writers. Cisneros had established herself among the literary elite with a Fulbright scholarship and as a distinctive graduate from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She won awards and Oprah loved her. This was the literary voice my mother longed for and wanted to share with me, but I wasn’t interested. Like Austen and the Brontë sisters, Cisneros was still fighting against Melville and Faulkner in my mind.

    One day Sandra Cisneros came to town for a reading and book signing. I didn’t go but mother had a ticket. When it came time for the signing, my mother abandoned all decorum and hurdled across the rows of seats so fast that the momentum helped her leap onto the stage and land the first spot in line. The idea that literature inspired a dignified woman to rush the stage made me question everything. I wanted that sense of liberation and identity that I just didn’t feel with “Moby Dick.”

    For the first time in my life, I needed to see myself in something other than a mirror.

    I began my first semester at the University of Texas a few weeks later. I had never been away from home so, despite years of trying to overcome my hermit tendencies, my first reaction to a dorm full of new people was to hide in a bookstore. I came across a copy of “Like Water for Chocolate,” by Laura Esquivel. Though I knew nothing of the plot, I knew that the popular new film version had the winning combination of subtitles and beautiful people. I bought the book and spent the next two days lost in the taste and romance of Mexico.

    The next few years felt as though the world shared my cultural awakening. Mexican art became the hottest thing on the market, a fresh voice that felt alive in every medium. Books by or about Latino writers, artists and historical figures no longer lived on a single “Latino Studies” shelf in books stores, but actually stood alongside all the others in fiction, poetry, history and even children’s books. Sandra Cisneros quickly found her way into my library after I read Esquivel, as did Cristina Garcia and Julia Alvarez. “Latina Magazine” burst onto the scene and I read it cover to cover every month.

    As I evolved in my self-discovery, I diversified my reading taste to include other cultures and historical periods. I had the confidence to read books I chose rather than what I thought I was supposed to read. My mother’s objective with my toy box and library became clear. For both our gender and our heritage, understanding our contributions to society was critical to our individual success. When we see ourselves reflected in our world, we understand the value of our own voice. We are also more inclined to use it.

     

    Tanya Estes is a writer from Austin, Texas. While most of her career was spent as a bookseller and librarian, she now pokes around old graveyards and archives discovering unknown bits of Texas history for her upcoming podcast, Tales from the Moontower.

     

     

    **New call for submissions**

    The founders and editors of The HerStories Project — a writing community for Gen-X women and publisher of four previous anthologies for women — are seeking submissions for a new essay collection.

    A Fury of Her Own: Midlife Women on Embracing Anger and Changing the World will examine the reasons for women’s anger at this current moment and celebrate the ways (big and small) they are using their rage to create lasting change.

    See full submission details and guidelines here.

    **JOIN OUR COMMUNITY FOR MIDLIFE WOMEN WRITERS**

    Our new writing community, HerStories Writers, features ongoing mini-courses, live chats and co-writing sessions, weekly writing prompts, and more! Come interact and find support, learn about topics that interest you (personal essay writing, building a platform, balancing writing and life), and get feedback on your work in a community outside of Facebook! Learn more here.

  • A Friend Who Wants to Stay Out of the Middle

    In this month’s column Nina addresses two issues. Should a friend be expected to get in the middle of two other friends’ tension? And she also covers some thoughts on invitation lists for big parties. Nina is always taking anonymous questions here. And catch up on all the other letters Nina has answered here.

     

    nina badzin

    Dear Nina,

    A few years ago, I introduced a longtime, dear friend to an acquaintance as I thought they would have a lot in common. As it turns out, the women connected and their husbands really connected, and the two couples became fast friends.

    I invited both couples to my son’s Bar Mitzvah, but only invited the children of the longtime friend. The acquaintance-friend was very upset and shared her feelings with my longtime friend.

    Fast forward to after the Bar Mitzvah. The acquaintance no longer speaks to me if she sees me, yet she and her husband go out with my longtime friend regularly. I tried to make amends with the acquaintance to no avail.

    The question: I confronted my longtime friend, letting her know that it would have been nice if she had told me the issue before the Bar Mitzvah as I would have included the children rather than cause any upset. She had no explanation, nor has she ever tried to intervene to help the relationship. I feel betrayed by my longtime friend, especially when she talks about the acquaintance. Any advice?

    Signed,

    Looking to Move Forward

     

    Dear Looking to Move Forward,

    This is a tough one because I see why you’re upset.

    #1. You made a great friend match for the two women, but it seemed to backfire. Nobody likes that, even people like me who get a real thrill out of connecting people to each other.

    #2. Anyone planning a party needs to set boundaries on the invitation list or the sheer number of guests would make the party less fun and way less affordable.

    And yet, despite having every right to be upset, you will have to make the choice to let your longtime friend off the hook before any moving forward can happen.

    Nowhere in your note did you say you want to drop the friendship. Assuming you want to stay friends with Longtime (that’s what I’m going to call her), you either have to be okay with Longtime setting that boundary of not getting in the middle, OR, you have to talk to her about it again and understand that she may feel you’re asking too much of her.

    I want to rewind a moment and remind you (and all of us!) that it’s okay for people to be disappointed with us. Meaning, the acquaintance’s disappointment doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. And just because you wish Longtime would have intervened then and even now, it doesn’t mean that she agrees with you or that she made the wrong call. It’s clear she doesn’t feel it’s her place to get in the middle. I’m not saying she’s right or that you’re right. I don’t really know. But if SHE feels it’s not the right thing to be in the middle, then you have to accept that if you want to put this behind you. One extra point to make: I would argue that Longtime never should have told you that acquaintance was upset about the party. Because that WAS getting in the middle and not in a helpful way. It only served to make you feel bad about a party that was already underway.

    As usual I consulted a few of my best advisors for my own dilemmas.

    Taryn, my best friend from childhood said this: “I’m going to give Looking to Move Forward the same advice I give you sometimes. Don’t assume to know what was said between your longtime friend and the acquaintance. Staying out of it might have been your longtime friend’s way to stay loyal to both of you. Time to turn the page.”

    I agree with Taryn that there are simply too many assumptions here. What if your acquaintance wasn’t feeling a deep connection with you before the bat mitzvah and just used that as an excuse to let things drift? There’s really no way to know.

    My best friend from college, Rebecca, pointed out that if this acquaintance was truly upset about her kids not being invited then she was bound to get upset with you over something small some other time. Maybe you dodged a bullet. It’s totally inbounds not to invite the children of all your friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and so on to an event that is a special milestone for your child. Rebecca also said, “Don’t relive something that happened only once.” In other words, continuing to think about this event gives you the false sense that Longtime has wronged you many times when it was just this one event. (And whether she was wrong is still up for debate.)

    And of course I consulted my mom.

    “As hurtful as it is, it’s not reasonable to expect your old friend to give up the friendship with the acquaintance or to intervene. I remember something similar happening in my own life. I had a huge blow up with an old friend, and somewhere in my head I was hoping that some of my close friends who knew her would not be friends with her anymore. I kept the thoughts to myself, but felt that my friends had picked sides by staying friends with her.  After some time, my friends were no longer friends with the person I had fought with for some of the same reasons I could not get along with her. So who knows how this will all play out in the future.”

    I hope we were able to help you move forward. I sympathize with the situation as did Taryn, Rebecca, and my mom.

    Best of luck,

    Nina

     

  • One Day At a Time

    by Evelyn Krieger

    Teach us to count our days, so that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.

    Psalm 90

    The day social services take my friend’s children away, I am packing for a family trip to Maine. I hear Karen’s hysterical voice on the phone. “DSS came with a police officer! They wouldn’t tell me why. Or where they took my kids!”

    I try to calm her, gather details. My heart aches as I imagine Karen desperately throwing her kids’ clothing into a garbage bag, Devon and Ashley crying as they’re escorted into the social worker’s car. Karen says there wasn’t even a warning. But I know better.

    How can leave her for the week?

    “We’re going,” my husband says. I know he feels for Devon and Ashley, but he has grown weary of my friend’s chaos. “It’s out of our hands,” he tells me.

    I call DSS to speak with the social worker in charge. Everyone has left for the weekend.

    ***

    I met Karen through a Moms group. I liked her sense of humor and spunk. Our two dynamo sons hit it off as well. Three years into our friendship, Karen confessed she had an addiction to painkillers. I felt disbelief. I had known about her marital breakup, her financial problems, and her back pain from a car accident, yet I never suspected that she might have a drug problem. What else didn’t I know?

    Karen was ashamed by her confession. She cried, saying that she wanted to learn to live without the pills. I harbored no anger, only compassion. I will help you. You can beat this!

    Being a disciplined person, I believed I could help my friend overcome her addiction through willpower and motivation. I believed I could help her because that is what I had done most of my life—help and rescue.

    I told Karen all the things that made sense to me—that she owed it to her kids, that this was the only life she had, that she could die from an overdose. I call this the Common Sense Cure. It doesn’t work.

    Life got busy after I returned to my full-time teaching job, and I saw less of Karen. As the days sped by, my conscience nagged me to call her. When I did, she often sounded groggy. The few times I managed to see Karen, she’d talk nonstop about court battles over child support, eviction threats, and school problems with Devon. I’d offer advice and suggestions. Then she’d disappear for a while, only to pop back into my life, as if she had returned from a long trip.

    Months later, in June, Karen called me at work. “This is really a hard call to make,” she began. “I need your help. I thought I could quit on my own. I’ve made the hardest decisions of my life . . . to go into a drug treatment center.” Karen confessed that she had relapsed over the past few months. She was taking dozens of opioids a day. She blamed the stress of being a single mom, the rejection by her siblings, and her chronic physical pain. “If I don’t do this . . . I could die,” she told me.

    I commended her bravery. “You’re taking the right step, Karen. I’m behind you.”

    What was really behind her phone call, though, was Devon and Ashley. Karen needed to find a place for them to live during the next few months. The caseworker told Karen that her children would go into foster care if she couldn’t find someone to take them.

    “Ashley and Devon love you and your kids,” Karen cried. “If there is any way…”

    She pushed my rescue button.

    I had been looking forward to the summer break with my children, and to writing fiction. Devon and Ashley, as much as I loved them, were a handful. Yet, I couldn’t imagine turning my own three kids over to a stranger. I promised Karen that I’d think about it.

    “No matter what happens,” she said, before hanging up, “I want you to know what a terrific friend you’ve been.”

    My husband, the voice of reason, said taking the children was not an option, but that they could stay over some weekends. “Besides, maybe caring for her kids would make things too easy on Karen. Knowing Devon and Ashley are in a foster home is a great motivator.”

    I had not thought of that.

    ***

    Karen was not permitted phone calls in the halfway house, so I wrote her almost daily. In her letters to me, I detected the raw, burning voice of a writer.

    My dear friend,

    I am working so hard. My soul is sweating. There is no place to hide. I am a forty-year-old woman who has no idea how to live the life of a grown-up. I’m digging up buried junk. Wish it were treasures . . . 

    As we corresponded, I fantasized about Karen’s future. I proposed a “life-makeover” which included spiritual growth, physical health, community, and meaningful employment. In my letters, I encouraged Karen to think about using her culinary talents to make money. I offered to help write an article about her experience with addiction. I investigated acupuncture for her and yoga classes. I encouraged her to learn computer skills. I gave her a reading list of inspirational books.

         The problem with these sound ideas, I later realized, was that they were my plans, not Karen’s. In the end, the addict has to want to pull herself up from the hole and choose to rebuild.

    I might be able to throw Karen a life raft, but she had to climb aboard.

        

    Karen graduated from the treatment center just before Labor Day. My children made a Welcome Home sign to hang on her door. Karen tearfully thanked me for all my letters and for helping out with Devon and Ashley who would be coming home in two days.

    “They’re counting on you, Karen,” I said. “Me, too.”

    “I can only promise you today,” she replied. “For today, I am sober. One day at a time.”

    That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Karen’s response sounded trite to me. I could not go through this again.

     

    A month later, Karen dropped off Devon and Ashley at my house so she could run errands. Two hours passed. I fed them dinner. “When’s my Mommy coming back?” Devon asked. I invented explanations, while panic swirled inside me. At nine o’clock, Karen arrived at my door, breathless and spewing apologies. Her eyes were glazed and speech slurred. When I confronted her, she tried to cover up by saying she had a reaction to cold medicine.

    “I can’t let you drive the kids home, Karen. Follow behind me if you want, but I need to

    drive them myself.”

    She threw her arms up, and stumbled toward the door. “Have it your way!”

    In the backseat of my car, the children were quiet. Then Ashley started crying.

    “Ashley, sweetie,” I said. “No matter what happens, I will always be there for you.”

     

    During the following weeks, I became swept up in the drama of Karen’s life. I spent hours on the phone listening and advising about child support battles, eviction threats, sibling squabbles, and Devon’s school problems. DSS was watching Karen carefully and insisted on random drug screens. As long as she stayed clean, the children could live in her home.

    Then came the day the police called me. They had found Karen in a parking lot, slumped over the steering wheel. This time the temptation had been cocaine.

    Karen spent the next week in a hospital rehab unit. I spoke to her only once. Her tearful apologies now fell upon a tougher exterior. I couldn’t fathom how she could let her children down. Angry words flew from my mouth. This time Karen didn’t rationalize. She blamed herself.

    The fact that drug addiction could be more powerful than the maternal instinct left me with little hope. This stunning awareness compelled me to read all I could about the disease. I learned that Karen’s promises and “insights” were typical of drug addicts. They get the words right, but not the actions. I learned how addicts manipulate their friends and family, and how they cleverly cover-up their addiction. I recalled a time Karen had been desperate for cash because her child support was late. Had she used the fifty dollars I loaned her to buy drugs?

    Then I remembered our fun girl talks, Karen’s kind gestures over the years, like the framed photograph of us at my son’s birthday party. Now, I looked at the vibrant woman in that picture and wondered if I knew the real Karen, or just the Karen altered by drugs.

           I no longer knew how to help Karen, but did that mean I should give up on her?

    DSS finally gave up on Karen after a camp counselor reported her acting high when she picked up the kids. As I packed for our Maine vacation, DSS removed the children from their home. Karen stood by helplessly. Devon and Ashley entered foster care, then a group home where I was not permitted to visit them. After weeks of fighting to get her kids back, Karen surrendered, and entered a longterm treatment center.

    During her stay, I sent Karen a calendar so she could mark her days and progress. I, too, crossed off the passing days, waiting for my friend’s return. Now the recovery motto, one day at a time, no longer sounds trite. Its wisdom pierces my heart.

     

    Evelyn Krieger is the author of the award-winning YA novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Lilith, Grown & Flown, Hippocampus, Sunlight Press, Tablet Magazine, Family Circle, and other publications. When not writing, Evelyn works a a private educational consultant. She loves dancing, music, and sunshine but most of all, spending time with her three young adult children.

  • Putting the Pieces Together

    By Lindsey Goldstein

    I stood in the shower, warm water cascading over my shoulders and relaxing me enough to cause my eyes to close. My husband and daughter had left the day before to go skiing, leaving me with my toddler son and dog. Suddenly, my eyes snapped open. What if I have a brain aneurysm in the middle of the night and die? What will my son do? He can’t dial a phone to seek help or even get something to eat without assistance. He’d be stuck in this house with a dead mother and a dog. I shook my head. No, no, no. I took a deep breath and refocused.

    A few weeks prior, my therapist, whom I will call T, and I spent an entire session discussing my tendency to worry. I told her I can relate to a Shel Silverstein poem I’d read as a child about the “what if’s” crawling into my ear. When the news bombarded me with reminders that this year’s flu epidemic was something to fear, I’d begun the worry discussion with T, telling her I had become compulsive about hand washing, scouring my children’s hands when they walked into the house from school or foregoing play dates if a parent mentioned his/her kid had a sniffle. She listened, then leaned in.

    “What would be the worst thing that could happen if one of your children got the flu?” she asked.

    “Well, one of them could die,” I’d practically whispered not wanting to tempt fate. She nodded.

    “But the chance of that happening is very slim, right?” I had to admit that was true.

    Therapy isn’t something I’d ever thought I needed, but several months ago, I told my husband I had decided I wanted to try it. His initial reaction was concern, assuming something was terribly wrong. I assured him that no, there was nothing I could pinpoint, but in general, I just felt an overarching feeling of dissatisfaction. He was hurt to hear this, but I encouraged him to listen and try to understand.

    I told him, “It’s not that I hate my life. Not at all. I just feel like my days and weeks blur together, that I do whatever I need to do to get through my days rather than actually enjoy them.” As much as I didn’t want to sound like a cliché, I explained that I felt out of balance, felt a lack of presence in whatever I was doing, and my biggest concern was that I’d wake up one day a very old woman with a million regrets about how I chose to spend my time.

    I was reminded of a quandary a friend posed to me: What would you do if someone said you only had ten minutes left to live? I remembered searching for an answer but feeling lost and desperate to come up with anything.

    My first session of therapy started awkwardly. I squirmed, unsure of how to begin. So, I just started talking, nervously at first and later with more assertion.

    “I just feel as though I’m unsatisfied. That maybe I do a lot of things with my day, but that none of them get enough of my attention. I worry that one day, I will lie on my deathbed and be regretful that I didn’t accomplish anything.” She nodded but didn’t say anything. I kept talking. I told her about my marriage in a nutshell, about my two kids, about my job as a physical therapist, and about my writing hobby. I watched as the minutes ticked by on the clock, very aware that the express train of an hour was whooshing by in what seemed like a minute. She didn’t say much, but the sympathetic expression on her face told me she’d been in my shoes before, that the dissatisfied ground upon which I tread had been traversed by others.

    Since the birth of my second child, I’ve opted to treat patients who are not able to leave their homes. The vast majority of my patients are in the final moments of their lives. My favorite part of my job is to hear each patient’s life story, to hear what made them happy, to hear what still makes them happy, and to understand what each person would like to continue to do so long as they have breath in their body.

    I wish I could say I’ve met people without regret, but sadly, I haven’t. The overwhelming response I get from these people is to enjoy my youth, my children, my husband, and my body.

    Though I’ve thought about their recommendations before, I’ve never dwelled on the fact that everyday obligations and routines sometimes get in the way of what’s really important. Or that sometimes these same obligations get in the way of even thinking about what’s important.

    During my second visit, my therapist clearly had been listening because she asked me how I feel when I’m writing. I don’t normally discuss feelings. I tell stories, I make dry jokes, but to actually say how something makes me feel isn’t within my comfort zone.

    “When I’m writing, two hours passes by in what seems like two minutes,” I said. It was the best I could muster. She smiled.

    “That is an amazing feeling. To be so engrossed by something that you lose track of time.” I agreed. She wondered how I could incorporate more of that into my routine. And so we dissected my inability to say no to work that actually pays (my patients) and commit more time to something that I love. I explained to her that that seemed frivolous, almost irresponsible. That I should be as productive with my time as I can be in order to help support my family. Then I decided to stop arguing and remember why I’d sought her help in the first place.

    When I was much younger, I shied away from anything I feared. Following dreams or passions wasn’t in my nature, but rather practical choices were. Then I turned forty.

    Friends who were younger asked me what that was like. Some wondered if forty was terrifying. I wasn’t scared but suddenly was very aware of how fleeting my time is. I looked back at the years behind me and the details of so many experiences, of so many relationships with people, of loves and hurt and joy. It was as though they had been placed in a food processor and blended together to make a blurry collage of snapshots of my life.

    There is no slowing time down, but by going to therapy week after week, I realized I had gotten into a habit of being half-present in my life, of multi-tasking so I can get everything done in favor of committing myself fully to each moment of my life.

    At the last visit I had with T, she probed further into my relationship with my seven-year-old daughter. She and I have very different personalities, but I want to understand her and also have a healthy relationship with her. Her greatest need since we had our son is for me to be affectionate with her. She sees me carry him places or hug him and though I try to give her the same level of affection, she has voiced her feelings that it isn’t enough.

    “Mommy, will you lie in bed with me and cuddle?” she has asked on numerous occasions. Normally I put my son to bed, read with my daughter and then try to get her to bed in an effort to preserve one hour of alone time before I too need to go to bed. I told T how many times I’ve used the fact that it’s late and my daughter needs to go to sleep in lieu of cuddling with me. Or if I do sit with her on her bed, my mind goes to everything I still have left to get done in the paltry number of minutes I have before bedtime.

    “Do you think you could forego any of the things you have to do at night in order to lie with her and cuddle for five minutes?” T asked me. And then of course, I blushed because I felt like a selfish and terrible mother. “What would happen, for example, if you didn’t get the dishes done at night?” she asked.

    “Nothing,” I’d mumbled. Then I’d looked T in the eye and made a heart-wrenching confession. “The real issue is . . . I don’t like to cuddle. With anyone.” I explained how it had been a problem with my husband when we first dated because he enjoyed cuddling, while it made me feel suffocated. I compromised with him a bit, but I know it’s not what he really wanted. I explained to T that as awful as it sounded, I just wanted to be transparently honest. She applauded my honesty. We discussed ways in which I could meet my daughter halfway, to give her what she needs without compromising my comfort. And I believe these suggestions have helped.

    As I understand it, there isn’t a finish line in therapy. I won’t cross a line and be handed a medal. But I feel myself unfolding.

    Most importantly, I feel myself allowing truths to emerge. I have nothing to hide or lose by telling all to T. And only by admitting the deepest, ugliest, most wounded aspects of myself can I take myself apart and put myself back together.

     

    Lindsey Goldstein lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two kids and dog. In addition to writing, she works part-time as a physical therapist. She has published essays in the The New York Times, Modern Love column, in Kveller, and in Parent.co. Lindsey is currently working on her first novel.

     

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    A Fury of Her Own: Midlife Women on Embracing Anger and Changing the World will examine the reasons for women’s anger at this current moment and celebrate the ways (big and small) they are using their rage to create lasting change.

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