• 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.

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  • 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 Lindsey is currently working on her first novel.



    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.


    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.

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  • Hearing the Wake-Up Call of Your Creative Life

    by Jennifer L. Hollis

    When my friend Kris suggested we take ourselves on a do-it-yourself writer’s retreat, I told her she was a genius. We are both writers in our forties and, like so many people in midlife, everything in our lives is growing: careers, children, those piles of unread library books on the nightstand. She’s a fundraising consultant who has shifted most of her professional work to writing. I’m a writer and music-thanatologist, which means I play harp and sing for people who are dying.

    I’ve been around end-of-life care long enough to know that the best place to find happiness is in the here and now, making time for the things, and people, you love. While writing makes me happy in a way that little else does, it is difficult carve out that creative space. As poet Mary Oliver writes, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

    It’s easy to promise ourselves we’ll get to our writing later, when the children are in bed or the taxes are done, only to find our to-do lists have no end, and never did.

    When Kris and I decided to commit to a weekend writing retreat, I suggested that we go to Martha’s Vineyard, where my husband and I have a house that we use in the summer but is mostly empty in the winter. We talked about dates, and backup dates, and also backups for the backup dates. Once our retreat was on the calendar, we anxiously waited for weather or illness or spouse calendars to force us to cancel. Nothing did, not even my worries about being away from my young son for two nights. My husband planned an exciting weekend complete with a movie and a boat show, and my son hardly noticed as I packed my bag to leave.

    I first met Kris in 2001, when we shared an upstairs apartment in an old two-family house just outside Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School and she worked for a large nonprofit in downtown Boston. One night I woke up to hear her running up the stairs to my attic bedroom. “Wake up, Jen!” she yelled, “I think the house is on fire!” Panicking, I wondered if I should carry the harp outside with me. What about my boxes of photographs and journals? By the time I pulled on jeans and a sweater none of it seemed important. I ran out empty-handed.

    We stood on the sidewalk and watched as smoke billowed out of the downstairs neighbor’s locked screen door. They did not respond to the doorbell and when the fire department arrived we discovered that they had fallen asleep with food on the stove. There was no fire, just a ruined pot. For weeks, the smell of smoke lingered in our apartment, a frightening reminder to us both. There was no fire escape or hanging ladder on the third floor where I slept; if the fire had been real, Kris’s wake-up call would have saved my life.

    A few days before our trip, Kris and I met for coffee to map out an agenda of solo writing time, craft discussions, goal-setting and readings. We were both a little too excited about the poster-sized post-in notes I brought along for brainstorming. On Friday morning, we sped down the highway toward the ferry terminal at Woods Hole, and I told her about an idea I’d heard on the “Happier in Hollywood” podcast, advice that movie producer Robert Evans had received. “You learn from success, kid – not failure. If you’ve only touched it once, a term paper, a temp job, hitting a homer, dissect it. Was it timing, focus, homework? Get to the core. Find the whys, the hows. That’s the key.”

    As writers, Kris and I had plenty of practice worrying over the steps to failure. But success seemed random and uncontrollable. What would happen if we analyzed the steps we had taken to various successful publications? What would we learn about doing it again?

    We arrived on the Vineyard around lunchtime, drove straight to my favorite diner and ordered avocado salsa, eggs, French Toast, and lots of coffee. At the house, I lit a fire in the wood stove and we made a brief timeline for the rest of the afternoon. After a few hours of solo writing, we took a cold walk on the beach at twilight and then came back to the house to make a simple dinner.

    For the rest of the weekend, we found an easy rhythm of writing balanced with conversations about craft and goals. I worked for several hours to shrink an unwieldy essay and Kris helped me smooth out the final transitions. She was researching an article about mushrooms, so we stomped around the damp woods behind the house, searching out local specimens. We both thought that we could channel the shared humor and writing advice of our MFA of Two into a podcast, so we signed up for an online class to learn the basics and Kris wrote an introductory bio for show’s future website.

    On the morning of our last day, we made a third trip to the diner, just before we had to return to the ferry. The server laughed to find out we were leaving; he thought we were regulars who lived on the island. But we had a life someplace else, and it was time to go back to kindergarten pick-up, lacrosse practice, and our never-ending email inboxes.

    Kris had not exactly rescued me from a burning building this time, but she called my attention to something vital to us both: our writing lives and how we are going to live them to their fullest. After all, how do you know if your creative life is on fire unless someone wakes you up and invites you to look at it once in a while? Her idea for a do-it-yourself writer’s retreat cleared out the smoke of my every day routines and helped me set real goals for the coming months. Those three days of giving “time and power” to our creative lives made us both so happy that we have decided to build on our success, and we just put another retreat on the calendar.


    Jennifer L. Hollis is a writer, music-thanatologist and the author of Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the PassageHer articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Progressive, the Christian Century and other publications. She is at work on a book about what she has learned (and refuses to learn) from her work in end-of-life care. Jen has a master of divinity from Harvard Divinity School, where she previously served as an assistant director of admissions. She lives in Somerville, MA with her family. 


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  • Should This Friendship End?

    In this month’s column Nina makes an unusual call for the end of a friendship. Do you agree that this friendship is doomed? Nina is always taking anonymous questions here. And catch up on all the other letters Nina has answered here.

    end a friendship

    Dear Nina,

    I’m writing to you because I’m unsure how to move forward from some serious arguments with my childhood friend of ten years. I live a state away from her, and over the years our communication has deteriorated. I find it very hard to be open with her about the events in my life due to the many explosive calls I’ve received from her.

    In one instance, she told me that I don’t deserve to be happy before she is happy. Furthermore, all of our discussions have become about her and her struggles. I don’t mind being a support system for her, but whenever we do discuss my life, she’s judgmental and mean-spirited. Therefore, I have limited how much I see her and talk to her, which has angered her to the point where she believes I don’t make her a priority.

    The thing is she’s right that I have made her less of a priority, but that’s for reasons other than our disagreements. My life has become very busy with all of the responsibilities I have to juggle as well as a recent family emergency.

    In our most recent argument, I had called her out for meanly phishing for information. What really angered me was how I was trying to tell her how uncomfortable she made me feel; yet she took offense to me calling her out for bullying me and told me she won’t ever give me advice anymore—instead she wishes for me to fall on my ass. Lastly, she told me I shouldn’t play the victim all the time and she shouldn’t have to apologize all the time because she has been through more problems than me.

    She revealed to me that she no longer trusts me. However, I have not trusted her in a long time. Overall, I agree I’ve avoided her and made her feel like I’m not in her life. But I have apologized for this. Yet, I don’t like the way she makes me feel. I admit I have not been the perfect friend, but I also feel that she refuses to be accountable for all of the things she’s done and the way she’s talked to me that has made me distance myself from her.

    I’m always afraid of hurting her feelings. How do I talk to her? Is it wise for me to take a break from her? Is there a way to for me to get her to realize it’s impossible to open up to her because she makes me feel like I will upset her? I always feel like we are walking on eggshells. I am afraid of losing a friend, but I’m also afraid we can’t move forward. Should we even be friends?

    Thanks for any advice,

    Not Sure I Can Continue This Friendship


    Dear Not Sure I Can Continue This Friendship,

    The answer to your final question, “Should we even be friends?” is clear to me, though the method to get there will still be difficult.

    You and this woman should not be friends. You need more than a break. You need a breakup.

    If describing a friendship worth saving, you wouldn’t be using words like explosive calls, mean, bullying, distrust, fall on your ass, and egg shells.

    Friendship is certainly work and takes compromise on both sides, but friendship should not be as much work as what you’ve described in your letter. Friendship shouldn’t be half the amount of work as what you’ve described.

    If you find yourself saying, This is just too much, that’s because it is. It is too much. It’s too much pain, too much frustration, and too much effort. She should be telling herself the same thing. Because even if she technically started all this drama with the exploding at you on the phone nonsense, you have chosen to stay in the strained relationship, which set up an expectation that she can treat you this way. You wrote a few times about the way she makes you feel, but she’s been given little reason to treat you any differently since you keep allowing her to stay in your life. If someone calls you yelling and you continue to take her calls, she will continue to feel she can yell at you. Period.

    I rarely say this concretely that a friendship needs to end because I like to believe there’s hope for people who’ve shared a history, especially from childhood. But in this case, I don’t see any reason to keep putting yourself and your friend through the agony. You’ve both stated a lack of trust. She has blatantly told you she doesn’t wish you well. I can’t find anything worth saving here.

    Here’s the bad news: There is no easy way to end a friendship.

    I’ve had emotional notes from people who’ve been ghosted, meaning their friends simply disappeared. The readers on the receiving end of a breakup like that wish the friend ending the relationship had written a letter or offered an honest reason in a face-to-face conversation. I’ve also have notes from readers who received such a letter or direct conversation and wish the friend wanting to end the relationship had found a way to fade away gracefully or “ghost” out of the blue. Some people don’t want such a direct goodbye. My point is that there is no “good” way to sever these ties.

    From what you’ve described of your friend, a face-to-face conversation sounds like a bad idea as does the phone. (I know she lives out of town, but perhaps a visit had been discussed.) One choice is to write a letter explaining some of what you’ve written to me. You know you haven’t been a perfect friend and you value your shared history, but the need to walk on eggshells has become so difficult that the good memories and good times are now too far in the past. Something along those lines.

    Another choice is to continue what you’ve already started, which is to fade away. Maybe you take longer and longer to return calls and texts. Maybe you interact less with her social media accounts than you do now. (Assuming you are interacting with them now.)

    You have my sympathy. The task ahead isn’t easy. Although I can’t tell you how to end the friendship, I do feel certain that you should end it.

    Wishing you as painless of a break as possible. If that’s possible.

    I’m sorry you’re going through this,


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  • After the Urgency

    By Elizabeth Neumann Fuller

     Every other week, an early morning bell sends me racing from my classroom out to the elementary school parking lot, donning my whistle and zipping up my reflective vest en route. I stride boldly into the white stripes of a crosswalk to face three lanes of cars that stretch the hundred yards of the lot and snake out to block traffic on the road beyond. I shiver, or sweat, depending on the season. And I squint into the sun, not daring to shade my eyes with a hand that is needed to either wave a car on, or make it stop.

     Often, I nod and smile in return to a parent’s friendly wave or good morning greeting. But just as often I have to wag a finger at parents for cutting another car off, or for driving over pylons to change lanes illegally. No doubt they justify these behaviors because they are in a hurry—to get to work, to go grocery shopping, to get an older sibling to middle school.

     I can see them drumming the steering wheel with impatience while they wait in the approach to the drop-off zone. Their hands fly up in frustration when the little girl in the vehicle in front of them struggles to open the back door of an SUV. She pushes her slight weight against it, and it pushes back, like a reverse tug-of-war, until her mom has to take the time to unbuckle, and get out and walk around to assist. I can lip read parents’ curses through their windshields when a little boy hustles out of the car in the drop-off zone, only to lose his grasp on his lunch bag and have his grapes scatter as if hit by a cue ball, and his water bottle roll and then rest under the exact center of his family’s car, where everyone behind them in line must wait while it is retrieved.

    Oddly though, for all this impatience, this rush, this PG rated road rage, there is—more often than not—a period in the coveted drop-off zone where time is suspended.

    After the urgency to get to the front of the line, to drop their charge and get on with their day, parents will wait for the slam of the car door, and then pause. They will rest a foot heavy on the brake, and swivel in the driver’s seat to watch their child walking away.

    They are suddenly reluctant to separate. They crane their necks to keep their child in sight.

    They slide the passenger-side window down and lean towards it, waving or blowing a kiss, or yelling a final “Have a good day” or “Remember to eat your snack” or “I love you.” I can see them willing their child to look back before disappearing into the school’s inner sanctum.                       

     I confess that as the teacher on duty, this delay in the drop-off zone has always annoyed me. For twenty years, I have had to do parking lot duty, and I have been in a hurry just like everyone else. I have started my day rushing, to get my own children dressed, to pack their lunches, to grade a few more papers. I have been antsy to get back to my classroom before the final bell rings and the onslaught begins. Before my students burst into the room and jockey for position to tell me that they forgot their homework, or their cat had kittens, or they ran out of lunch money but can they still buy a corndog? So in the parking lot, I wave with extra vigor and a hint of irritation at the drivers causing delay in the drop-off zone. I beckon them to move forward faster. “Keep the line moving,” I mutter. “They’ll be back out here again at 2:30.”

     But then this fall, I myself was the parent in a different drop-off lane. I drove my youngest child to college. We got up in the wee hours, and loaded her school backpack, along with Hefty trash bags full of clothes into my Subaru. We drove six hours down the I-5 to a cinder block dorm set back behind a well-manicured lawn. We found her room, put sheets on her bunk bed, laid a shag rug on the floor, and hung her clothes in the closet. We attended an orientation where we sat apart, then went out to dinner where I asked about her classes. She had registered for a Kafka class, and linear algebra, and there wasn’t much I knew or could say about those subjects.

     When we pulled back up in front of the dorm after dinner, dusk was settling over the front lawn, tingeing it a grayish-green. I kept the engine running at the curb, and we leaned awkwardly into a hug between our bucket seats. As she climbed out of the car and walked away, my foot was like lead on the brake. I thought about how she wouldn’t be waiting outside the Taco Bell for my ride home from high school the next afternoon. How I wouldn’t be studying her face as I drove toward her, discerning how her day had gone from her expression. How I wouldn’t ask, “How was school?” and she wouldn’t shrug and answer, “Fine.”  I craned my neck to watch her walk across the grass, squinting to keep sight of her in the deepening dusk. She turned slightly, and I’m pretty sure she blew me a kiss, before she pulled her key card out of her back pocket and disappeared through the dorm door.

     The next Monday morning, my house was quiet, allowing me plenty of time to read the paper and drink my coffee before work. Back on parking lot duty, I wore my whistle and my neon vest, and waved my hands and wagged my finger. But when parents paused in the drop-off zone to watch their children, I turned to watch them too. I saw the little girls with hair tightly braided and the boys with defiant cowlicks headed into classrooms where they would learn about action verbs, and explorers, and Harriet Tubman, and the planet Mars. They would collaborate with classmates to solve 2-part story problems, and swap celery sticks for Doritos at lunch. And they would emerge at the end of the school day with hair tousled and sweaty from the effort of learning. They would know the product of 9×9, or how to tie their shoes, or how to read a compass rose, or the meaning of the vocabulary word chasm.

    They would be that much closer to making their own way in the world. 

    Because it happens that fast, under the watch of a teacher, or a lunchroom supervisor, from 8:00-2:30. I can see that now. So I decided that for the time it takes for a child to walk, under the weight of a backpack, from the parking lot to the inside of the school, I will lower my hands and I will let the parents linger.


    Elizabeth Fuller is a teacher and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The Denver Post, The San Francisco Examiner, and other publications. She loves a good coffee shop, and hiking in the East Bay hills.

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  • Mouths of Babes

    By Jennifer Golden


    Children, especially our own, seem especially competent at guilelessly pointing out our flaws and insecurities. “From the mouths of babes,” is, after all, a proverb for a reason.

    For a few months not long ago, my four-year-old took to drawing portrait after portrait of her loved ones—stick-figured, crazy-haired, one giant black eye staring right at you and one slightly smaller eye staring off the page, a demonic Cookie Monster of sorts. And always, always: a purple dog, a red ice cream cone, and a brown blob of poop floating between the person’s legs. I once asked my daughter why she insisted on the poop. “I need to use the brown marker,” she informed me matter-of-factly.

    She papered the walls of her room, floor-to-ceiling, with these pictures—an unsettling gallery that will surely be recalled by friends and family should she ever end up on the wrong end of of a 20/20 investigation. And, although each picture looked almost exactly the same as the one on either side, she could tell you at first glance which one was Mommy, which was Daddy, Uncle Matt, a bear, a unicorn, whomever. As long as my portrait had me also looking like Uncle Matt or a bear or a unicorn, I took no offense. I was, like any mom, proud to accept my child’s artwork and display it for all the world to see, future psychological profiling be damned.

    Then she got more sophisticated. The poop, mercifully, went away. The images started to have distinct characteristics. “What is that?” I asked one day, pointing to the large, wobbly oval bisecting the trunk of my latest stick-figure likeness.

    Her: Those are your hips.

    Me (gulping): And what about those little circles sitting on top of the hips?

    Her: Those are your boobies.

    Me (voice pitched an octave or two above normal): Shouldn’t they go up a little higher, closer to my head?

    Her (irritated, as if I’m crazy): No.

    My eight-year-old’s artistic abilities are more advanced, but she is nonetheless similarly skilled at innocently highlighting one’s insecurities. This morning, eating breakfast, I noticed my eldest staring intently at my face.

    “Did you have stitches? You look like you have a scar here,” she asked, gingerly pointing to the corner of my right eye.

    She is stitches-and-scar-obsessed these days, coming off a deep gash in her knee that resulted in a trip to the emergency room and an army of stitches marching like ants across her puckered skin. I see her sometimes, fingering the purple line that now bisects her kneecap. “Will I always have it?” she asks me, but not with trepidation. With hope. I think I understand such wistful attachment. Her body is unleashed, bones stretching seemingly overnight, so that a pair of pants that fit last week don’t cover her knobby ankles today. Her tiny, pearlesque baby teeth have been pushed out by aggressively serrated permanent teeth that shift around in her mouth, searching for a place to settle.

    And vaguely, she seems to sense what is just around the corner, a body curving into womanhood, adhering like some ancient mystic to the rhythms of the moon. It must be a confounding state of impermanence, constant flux for which she is just along for the ride. I can understand, then, this affection for something that is enduring and singularly hers.

    Or maybe she just thinks it makes her look bad-ass, like a Ninja Warrior.

    No, no stitches, I informed my daughter, with a dose of defensiveness her question didn’t really deserve. Fortunately, the Soduku on the back of the cereal box had captured her attention in a way my not-scar failed to do.

    Later, just out of the shower, I wipe away a square of mist from the mirror to study my reflection. The crease isn’t hard to miss. It’s not a scar, it’s a Grand Canyon-esque wrinkle. I have always thought of myself as someone who would “grow old gracefully” as the Olay ads of my youth encouraged.

    I think I, more than most people my age, understand the great gift of old age, the harsh reality of the alternative. I knew only one grandparent. My father passed away when I was in my early twenties, my roommate died in hers. My son celebrated a single birthday.

    I will embrace this wrinkle, I silently command myself. It is a physical badge of honor, a laugh line that marks the joy I have had in my life. I arrange my face into a smile, but the wrinkle is untouched, not activated even a tiny bit by my deranged grin.

    Well…I’ve had a lot of sadness, too. I pantomime a frown, then full-on crying. Nothing.

    Standing before the mirror, I run through a panoply of emotions: surprise, fear, anger, consternation, befuddlement. The wrinkle is stoic, unstirred. I am, however, deeply impressed by the acrobatic abilities of my eyebrows.

    As I turn to leave, a final possibility seizes me…I sandwich my face between my hands, recreating the effects of lying on my side in bed, right cheek smashed against the pillow.  The wrinkle deepens like the San Andreas fault. No, it’s not a laugh line, or a cry line, or any other emotionally-earned line. It’s a pillow smush line.

    The foggy mirror has started to clear, revealing a clearer and regrettably more troubling view of the landscape of my body.

    Oh, God, I think. I’m getting jowly. Like Churchill, but without a World War to my credit.

    I note a stomach gone soft and doughy from carrying three babies, the three skin tags lined up like soldiers at the crease of my arm,  a wiry hair that springs from my chin. (“Are you a billy goat,” my brother exclaimed once, in front of all our friends, as he reached across a table to pluck a rogue whisker.)

    I am, it seems, slowly ceding parts of my body to the passage of time.

    My bravado withers. I reach under the sink for the free-gift Clinique bag filled with free-gift moisturizing creams of varying shapes, sizes, and potencies. I select a tiny glass tub of “Moisture Surge” and apply it more than generously to the wrinkle and its brethren, all of whom have churlishly carved themselves into my face sometime while I wasn’t looking in the past eight years.

    A knock on the door stops me just as I am circling the drain of self pity.

    “Mommy?” calls a tiny voice from the other side.

    “Whaaaattt?” I answer in the breathy growl my kids are no doubt used to hearing when they disturb me in the bathroom.

    “I want to show you something.”

    I throw open the door, my face glistening like a madman’s under a desperate sheen of Clinique-branded hope. My daughter is holding an orange piece of construction paper, another drawing scrawled in crayon on the back.

    “It’s you!” she cries with glee. And there I am: one huge, gaping black eye, one slightly smaller, googly eye. A mohawk of orange hair, hands that look like catchers’ mitts. But no poop and—here I breathe a sigh of relief—no boobies.

    “Isn’t it beautiful?” she sings as she twirls round and round, holding the picture to her chest. Then she stops suddenly, walks over and wraps her arms around my leg. “A beautiful picture of my beautiful mommy.”

    I feel her curled around me, cheek pressed into my soft belly. Can you believe that you once lived in my tummy? I have whispered to her time and again, watching the wonder bloom in her eyes. My body grew you.

    I think of her birth, laughing and crying as I pushed her into this world, the doctors and nurses laughing and crying, too, for they knew that I had buried my son not eight months before. This child, the one I never thought I’d have, this great gift bestowed on me during the darkest hour of my life, she thinks I am beautiful. I will choose to believe her…From the mouths of babes, after all.

    But I’m holding on to that moisturizer.



    Jennifer Golden is a mother of two daughters and a late son. Her writing has appeared in The Washington PostScary Mommy, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing, among others. Find more of Jennifer’s writing on

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