All posts by gailmilstein

Ode to The Sundance Kid

“Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” does not appear on any list of sexiest movies except mine.  Maybe it was the potent combination of my impressionable age as a tween when I first saw it in 1969, and the cultural context of the blossoming women’s lib movement at that time.  Or maybe it was the sizzling combination of Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Kathryn Ross, and hints of their menage a trois.  But whatever it was, that movie stunned me like a shot from Sundance’s six-shooter.  Something in me was so stirred by that movie—and by Redford, in particular—that after my family-of-origin finished watching it together, I asked my mother if she would come back and pick me up at the theater if I stayed to watch it again.  She agreed, perhaps recognizing something in her adolescent daughter that I didn’t quite recognize, myself.  I became a woman that evening, right there in the Terrace Theater, watching a movie about the Wild West in the western suburb of Robbinsdale, Minnesota.

Robert Redford and The Terrace Theater, two icons of my youth, have been in the news lately here in the Twin Cities.  Redford, whose movie-acting career began with a bang when he played Sundance in “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid,” is being exalted as an actor, director and champion of independent filmmaking in the Walker Art Center’s 6-week retrospective of his career, Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary.  The retrospective culminates this Saturday, November 12, with an appearance by the still ruggedly handsome Redford, himself.

The Terrace Theater, on the other hand, is being torn down despite efforts to save it by civic groups like Friends of the Terrace.  According to this group’s website, the Terrace was “…A soaring and inspired mid century movie palace…recognized nationally by architectural historians as ‘one of the first ultramodern theaters in America’,” after it opened in 1951.

I guess, like Butch and Sundance, even the most daring are no match for the law.

Redford has said “The art of making a film and its content are far more interesting to me than the result or impact. Of course, you hope it has impact. … I want an audience to be fascinated by the process of finding an answer, or finding out there isn’t one.”  I wasn’t looking for an answer when I went to the movie with my parents and younger siblings all those years ago.  And if anything fascinated me, it was the powerful new reaction I was having—one that simultaneously riveted me in my seat and moved me in a strange, deeply pleasurable way—that left me with more questions than answers.  Why does it feel so good to watch men who are behaving so badly? What is happening behind those closed doors above the saloon?  How does a good woman get mixed up with a couple of dirty bandits?  Is she really balancing on his handlebars?

I may have figured out the answers to some questions over the years, but I’ve also learned that when it comes to the mysteries of  love and attraction, more often than not, there isn’t one.

So Redford’s impact on me, personally, was an awakening.  Concurrently, thanks to the rising feminist movement of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, women of all ages were being encouraged to openly ogle and objectify men as only men had been given permission to do up until then.  The Sundance Kid was a good-natured outlaw caught in the crosshairs of my expanding culture and exploding hormones.

This raw sensuality was not only conveyed by Redford and Newman, a duo that would go on to win seven Oscars for “The Sting” four years later, but also by the artful elements of the movie itself, with its warm sepia tones and masterful Burt Bacharach soundtrack.  The content of this film is loosely based on fact, which is probably why the Library of Congress chose it for inclusion in the National Film Registry, calling it ”culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and why the American Film Institute ranked “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” 49th on its list of 100 Greatest American Movies.

The Terrace Theater, for its part, was a work of art in its own right.  The spacious lobby housed twin mod chandeliers that looked like big, round fireworks with large, clear, globe-shaped lightbulbs at the end of each spoke.  But what I remember most is the contemporary yet homey lobby, with its sunken “garden style” lounge and its huge, gleaming copper fireplace and plant boxes overflowing with lush greenery kept watered by a tiny, babbling fountain.

Today, once glamorous notions like movie star and majestic movie theater seem quaint, replaced by youtube stars and multiplex theaters with reclining seats and cocktail lounges.  Robert Redford is 80 years old, now.  Paul Newman is better known, these days, for his salad dressing and spaghetti sauce.  The Terrace Theater is being demolished to make way for a Hy-Vee grocery store and a gas station.  And Burt Bacharach songs are the stuff of Karaoke nights in dive bars.

But the magic of the movies and movie going experience will live on in my heart, the last refuge for all things sentimental.  And I’m beginning to notice how much nostalgia I harbor there, sometimes even before my landmarks are gone.



Consider this post a post-script.  One year ago today, I started this blog with the intention of having it serve two purposes: 1) as a warm-up writing exercise before beginning my daily thesis-writing to complete my MFA and 2) as a way of working through my last year with a chick in my nest.  The warm-up soon became a conflagration, completely consuming my other thesis idea, and ultimately I was awarded my MFA last May.  And my baby is now happily situated on a lovely midwestern campus, roughly 485 miles away from our home.  Both purposes have been served.

And then a third and completely unanticipated purpose was served; I found myself connected–in ways you can only hope to be connected when you are pouring your heart out–to a whole community of supporters willing to see me through this year of transition.  My thank-yous will be forthcoming.

Time, like a chick from the nest, flies.  Re-reading my first post from a year ago today brings me back to that day like it was yesterday.  But the first day of Sophie’s last year of high school was not yesterday.  Much has happened since then.

This morning, with no kids to get off to school, I was available to help Howie drop off his car at the dealership for service.  Along the way, we saw parents standing out at bus stops with children of various ages, in the rain.  There are some things I do not miss!  And it flashed through my mind that I feel too tired, anymore, to provide this vigilant assistance; to be a constant presence in the life of a school-aged child.

But there are things I sorely do miss.  Returning home this morning, I saw Sophie’s burnt-orange Ford Focus tucked, forlornly, in the corner of our driveway.  The car she earned the use of by being a good and responsible kid.  The car she earned the gas money for through jobs at Noodles and as a nanny (the job she started, also, one year ago today).  The car she used daily to drive herself (and sometimes others) to school, to work and all around town to meet up with friends.  The car she decorated with radio station stickers and other decals and with the occasional scrape. Other than her empty–and uncharacteristically clean–room, this idle car is the hardest relic for me to look at everyday.

To say I miss all her coming and going is only partly true.  I miss the activity, the life and livliness that having a young person around automatically brings into a house.  But the coming and going has also been a challenge.

I am enjoying living life according to my own schedule, a luxury I am just beginning to get re-accustomed to.  I am enjoying my new position in the English department at Normandale.  I am really enjoying being needed by and useful to other kids, other college freshman as my luck would have it, in ways outside my own family; in ways my hard-won degree has prepared me to be useful.  The skill set we develop as mothers is, also, highly transferable.

Sophie’s coming and going will feel different, from now on.  A friend of mine, whose daughter is a college sophomore this year, said that the coming and going is still the hardest part.  It’s wonderful when the kids return for a visit and it’s still difficult when they leave.  Although friends of mine who have adjusted to the empty nest say that the coming can actually be harder than the going!

A year ago, I didn’t know how I was going to survive the emptying of my nest.  Now I know that there are a few things that make even the most arduous journey bearable.  So here is the part with the thank-yous…

First of all, I must thank my modest but mighty readership for not only reading my posts but commenting on them, as well.  Your support has sustained me throughout this year and filled my heart as I was emptying my nest.  I can’t thank you enough for this touching outpouring of generosity.  Thank you to my WordPress “followers”, my Facebook friends, my fellow bloggers, my thesis and my writing groups.

Thank you to my friend and fellow writer, Susan, who pumped me up and said things like, “You know what you’re going to have to write about at some point, don’t you…” and prompted me with good ideas.  And thank you to all the other good friends who responded to these good ideas.

Thank you to my husband, Howie, who read my posts every day and kindly tolerated my daily chores that went undone almost as often.  Thank you to all my boys–my sons and Howie–for playing the supporting roles in this story.  And a special thank you to my Sophie, who didn’t have as much say in the matter as she should have, as her life was presented as an open book by her mother, the fledgling writer.  Though she had final veto power on all posts, she exercised this power judiciously and was a tremendous sport throughout it all.

I taught a story-writing class at The Loft this summer and taught my students, as my writing teachers taught me, that in order to keep readers interested in a character, that character must undergo some type of transformation.  Though I don’t believe my own tranformation has been very dramatic–if even noticeable–I feel able to move on thanks to all of you.

To all the parents of high school seniors this year and in the future, love your kids while you have them in your homes and look forward to the day that you marvel at their flight.  We’ll all be here to catch you when they fly.

Pack & Hold

Pack & Hold is the registered trademark of Bed, Bath & Beyond’s brilliantly simple “move-in solution” wherein kids leaving home for college can order everything they need (and many things they didn’t even know they needed) from their local BB&B store, and pick it up at the store nearest their campus. It’s also one way to describe so much of what I’ve done with and for Sophie over the years.

When Sophie was a baby, I didn’t want anyone else to hold her. I was so greedy with her, all I ever wanted to do was hold her myself. Nineteen years ago, when I found out I was pregnant with her–my third child–my first goal was just to hold on to the pregnancy for the full nine months. Howie felt our family was complete with the two sons we had, while I begged both Howie and the larger, cosmic powers-that-be for one more. My mantra during that pregnancy was,

“Just get me to June”, knowing that her conception was a fluke of biology (the details are not important) and I was not likely to conceive again if I lost her. In June when I delivered Sophie, I was so grateful for my good fortune at having been allowed not only a third, healthy child but also a daughter, I wanted to hold on to her forever.

When she was late in learning to walk, I asked my own mother,

“Why isn’t she walking yet?” to which my mom replied,

“How can she? You won’t put her down.”

Letting go has never been easy for me. I get very attached to all kinds of things: people, situations, even favorite articles of clothing. Buddhists and/or psychoanalysts would have a field day with me and my attachments. Being the self-diagnosed fear-and-grasping type, I held onto my children as tightly as I could while they were growing up, because A) I’m not that spiritually evolved and B) I consider them among the most precious gifts I have ever received.

Being a mother is supposedly a selfless endeavor, but honestly, we get many needs met through raising our children. We give birth to our own delightful companionship in the form of our children and to delicious physical bodies that for years are ours to have and to hold. It’s a powerful experience to feel needed as intimately and uniquely as we mothers are needed by our children. This bond is essential and one-of-a-kind. And I’ve always considered it a cruel trick of nature that these creatures, once packed tightly inside our very bodies, depend on us to first attach to them on the deepest level then to pack them up and ship them out.

Raising children requires constant packing and unpacking, literally and figuratively. We pack diaper bags, then backpacks and lunches. We pack them for family vacations, sleepovers and sleep-away camps. We help them pack when they get old enough to venture farther from home, say for study-abroad programs or other, life-enriching experiences we’re happy for them to have. And one, dreaded day, we find ourselves in Bed Bath & Beyond, shopping for things to pack them off to college and outfit them for their most one-way flight so far; Twin XL sheets, towels, storage bins, laundry hampers…all in an attempt to help them establish a feeling of home-away-from-home. Now that mine are all grown and gone, I’m trying to unpack what having children–and particularly having them living in my house–has meant for me; beyond the obvious and beyond what I have been able to figure out thus far (in my previous 80+ posts).

Most recently, in the two weeks between Sophie’s return home from two months at summer camp and the start of her freshman year in Kansas, our unpacking and packing frenzy reached epic proportions. I had seen mothers in summers past shopping with college-bound kids, lists in hand, pushing carts through the aisles like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. I had even been one of these mothers, but both my sons chose to attend college close to home, so we didn’t need to utilize the Pack & Hold program. I joke that when we dropped our eldest off to school, I cried all the way home; all 10 minutes. I was proud that our boys made it to college (another story), I was able to see them almost as often as I wanted & I had Sophie keeping me company at home throughout those two moves.

This last, packing phase before launching my last chick filled me with a frightening dark dread, especially toward the end of the last week. The second-to-the-last night as I lay in my bed, I had a simulated panic attack and found it impossible to calm myself enough to fall asleep. Trouble sleeping, waves of nauseous anticipation, fear of letting go of life-as-we-know-it, all of these symptoms reminded me of the final days of pregnancy. It is in this final phase that the discomfort of holding on becomes greater than the fear of letting go. It just needs to be over. Every bit of it begins to hurt. And the baby is shifting uncomfortably in her readiness to get out.

The morning of our scheduled departure finally arrived. In a somber procession, we filed past each other as we packed the boxes and duffle bags into the back of the rented van. I packed a cooler with fruit and drinks as Sophie held the cat one last time. I heard her say,

“Goodbye house.”

I packed more Kleenex.

My psyche was on high alert. I noticed every familiar landmark as we left everything that has been and headed for everything that is to be.

And then, an odd surrendering began inside me–one I feared would never happen or if it happened I feared it might kill me–a final release had begun somewhere deep inside me. If I had to locate it, I’d say it happened somewhere between my stomach and chest, somewhere between images from our past and visions for our future, somewhere between Des Moines and Kansas City. Maybe a long-badgered resignation was taking place once every hope of avoiding this inevitable moment was, at last, extinguished.

And in my final act of the day-to-day mothering of this child, I rose up–like a Phoenix–from the ashes of my fearful, clutching, neediest self and became the mother Sophie needed me to be in this moment, there for the sole purpose of providing strength and support to my anxious but excited daughter. I finally relinquished my hold on her and became the most selfless version of myself; the one I’ve always tried/wanted/hoped to be.

And once I released her in this new way, something incredible happened inside me; I felt released, weightless, happy, even.

We got into Lawrence early in the evening, after the seven hour drive, and unloaded all Sophie’s belongings onto two, wobbly dollies. We hauled them up to her room, took her and her new roommate out for a quick hamburger and left the girls to unpack and begin their college experience together.

Then Howie and I headed out for a more leisurely dinner at a Thai restaurant I could picture Sophie hanging out at with her new college friends in the years to come. And I cried through the whole dinner. Our waiter seemed un-phased, remarking that his mother did the same thing when she took him to college. And in the early hours of the next morning, the barista at the Starbucks in our hotel reported that a whole host of mothers had been crying in their coffee these past few days.

Around nine the next morning, Howie and I picked Sophie up for breakfast before heading back home to begin our lives together as empty-nesters and to see what she had done to settle into her new room. Her clothes fit nicely into the plastic, stacking drawers we bought, the trendy, fabric bins were filled, one with brushes and one with snacks, pictures of family and friends were strung around the shelves over her bed that was neatly made up with her hip, new comforter. We commended her on her organizational abilities and her sense of style.

At breakfast, I centered myself in that new-found space I discovered at the very end of our journey to this place and announced to her,

“I’m not going to make this any harder on you than it needs to be.” to which she responded,

“For ONCE!”

And with that, our new order was established. I love her with all the ferocity I have ever felt for her and now that tremendous love is requiring me to let her go; not only for her sake, but also for mine.

There’s a certain, giddy pleasure–a lightness of being–to be found in surviving something you fully expected would kill you. I helped pack Sophie for college, held her as we tearfully hugged goodbye in the parking lot of her dorm, let her go, got back in the van and drove away leaving her standing there on the threshold of her new life and found that I was still breathing.

The first words out of my mouth to Howie, as we exited the parking lot and headed north towards home were,

“I’m glad that’s over.” Saying goodbye to my baby at college was the moment I’d dreaded, on some level, since she was born.

I can see why Bed Bath & Beyond doesn’t call their service Pack & Hold & Release…no one would buy it.


Sophie got her tragus pierced last night.  She came home for two days for the inter-session break in her job as camp counselor and finally made good on her promise to herself of a new piercing.

The tragus is defined as “a prominence on the inner side of the external ear, in front of and partly closing the passage to the organs of hearing”.  She’d been threatening–I mean, wanting–to pierce some bit of cartilage (her nose, her upper ear) for years.  Our dermatologist informed us that pierced cartilage, versus pierced skin, never closes up.  My stalling tactic had always been,

“Once you turn 18, you can do whatever you want.  I’ll have no say in it.”

Well, she’s been 18 for one month and eight days, so she’s long overdue to assert her independence by puncturing the side of her face with a sharp metal object.

I, myself, have had my ears pierced twice.  The first time was by my father, an ear, nose and throat doctor, in his office, alongside my childhood BFF, Bonnie, when we were 13.  The second time was by someone at Claire’s–someone other than my father, who was probably nervous stabbing a needle through his daughter’s ear lobe–someone who was a practiced, piercing professional.  I had this second piercing done as an adult, not to follow the double-piercing trend, but to correct the placement of that first, relatively botched piercing.

Sophie came into our room last night after 11 p.m. to show us her new mutilation–I mean embellishment.  She had done the deed accompanied by her childhood BFF, Anna, and she was positively beaming.  She is now brandishing a tiny, gray-silver stud on the inner curve of her up-till-now unblemished ear; her “apricot ears”, as I’ve always called them.  Her ears, in my estimation, are perfectly shaped, innocent and soft as summer-ripe apricots.

She first talked about piercing something a little more bad-ass than her ear lobes, (which I caved in and agreed to let her pierce when she was 10, three years shy of the 13-year-old age limit I had originally set), when she spent six weeks in Israel two summers ago.  Why is it that kids have to establish their autonomy by sticking needles through or into their skin?

“I will never get a tattoo,” she solemnly swears to me, by way of consolation.  Can I please get this in writing (on paper, not skin).

I know exactly how I sound in voicing my disdain of piercings and tattoos.  And I want to state, for the record, that I honestly have no objection to anyone doing whatever they want to their own body.  Except my own children.

I guess what bothers me is that I look at their bodies as my creations, to some extent, and love them in their most pristine, unmodified state.  I feel like I’m their OEM; their Original Equipment Manufacturer.  I know this is nonsense.  I was, at most, a conduit through which they were delivered into this world.  But they are so perfect and glorious to me in their originally manufactured condition that it makes me wince to have this perfection tampered with.

The word “tragus” sounds kind of gross and a little obscene. It comes from the Greek, tragos, goat, in reference to the tuft of hair that sometimes grows behind it, inside the ear, and resembles (at least the Greek’s must have thought so) a goat’s beard.  Fortunately, Sophie has no such tuft of hair, there.  That would be gross.

You could argue that my fixation on my grown children’s physicality, my sense that they are living extensions of my own body, is what’s gross.  But then you could argue that childbirth is gross.  And you could claim that my primal involvement with and interest in the way they smell, feel and look is gross.  But a mother animal, like a goat, is just that; an animal.  Part of my connection with them is a deep, vestigial biological recognition.

Both of Sophie’s brothers have had their ears pierced.  One also pierced his eyebrow and the other, his lip.  Neither wears anything in those piercings anymore and the novelty seemed to wear off quickly, other than an occasional stud worn in an ear to this day.

Nate did manage to tattoo his own finger, at home, with a needle and some ink.  His middle finger on his right hand bears the letters, “MN”, for Minnesota or Nate Milstein, depending on which way you read it.

Why did I get my own ears pierced?  To wear cool or beautiful earrings, of course.  I don’t remember being compelled by a sense of needing to break free from my parents through this act, although piercings can make a young person feel more grown up. So there is the matter of cultural convention and fashion, which any kid alive today could use when it comes to piercings and other forms of body art.  Self expression, body beautification, trend following; the reasons are in the eyes (or eyebrows) of the beholder.

There’s also the implied sense of danger, daring and, oh yes, eroticism.

But maybe the supreme reason for using the body as a canvas is to stake a claim on our physical beings.  My body may have been synthesized through the genetic combination and physical matter of other human bodies, but now it belongs to me.  Not them.  I am in charge of these parts, now.

I went down to wake her up this morning and asked her more about it.

“Did it hurt?”

“Not at all.  It’s Saint Sabrina’s, so it’s very sanitary and very professional.”

This is not meant to be a plug–no pun intended–for Saint Sabrina’s.  Ironic, how one of my most-used nicknames for my Sophie is “Sabrina”.

“Sounds barbaric.”

“It is kind of barbaric.  They use a hollow needle with a hook on the end…”

I finally said,

“Does this have something to do with your independence?”

Without opening her eyes, she just smiled and nodded her sweet, newly-studded head; the head that pushed its way out of me 18 years and eight days ago, and has kept pushing away from me ever since.  Such self-satisfaction in the nodding of that gorgeous head.

“I just wanted to do some decorating.”

So why the tragus?  If you look back at the definition of that particular region, it’s described as “…in front of and partly closing the passage to the organs of hearing”.  It is a barrier, a boundary if you will, to the opening directly into her ear, the ear I have been filling with a steady stream of “do this, don’t do that” for the past 18 years.  She has driven a stake into the fleshy ground between us.  She is the queen of her castle, now.  She can lift the drawbridge and prevent me from entering.

In the car later this morning, on the way back to the camp buses she was to help load with campers, I said something about how the next time she comes home from camp, we’ll be getting her ready to go to college.

“We’ll be getting you packed for your new life.  And once you leave, I’ll be starting my new life, too.”  to which she replied, as much to herself as to me,

“My life is not your life.  And your life is not my life.”

Technically, this is true.  I waited for more elaboration on that thought, but none came.

And so it goes.  Sophie will return to camp this afternoon, where she will spend the next three weeks, the summer-ripe belly of this season, caring for her young charges.  I am amazed and heartened by how attached she gets to her campers.  She will return home for exactly two weeks, which we will spend shopping and packing for her departure to college.

For my part, I have landed a job for fall semester as a Supplemental Instructor at Normandale Community College.  I will be teaching Freshman Honors English Comp to students just like my daughter.  I might be just as excited–and anxious–about college this year as she is.

Kissing her goodbye at the busses, I leaned close to her tender tragus and asserted my interdependence,

“Your life IS my life.”

Watching the mothers of the young campers load their children onto the busses that not too long ago Sophie was boarding as a camper, not a counselor, I envied their stage in this game.  They may turn away and cry or turn away and sigh, relieved at the thought of having a couple weeks break from these kids.  I did both, over the years.  But knowing that your child is coming home from camp only to venture off into her own life–that the growing space between us will never completely close up again–makes for an even more bittersweet send off.

I just want her to keep her tragus open enough to hear me say,

Don’t go too far, in your quest for independence.  You are tattooed on my spirit; you have pierced my being.


Hasta La Vista, Baby!

As in any love relationship, there are aspects of the package-deal of having school-aged kids in the house that I will distinctly not miss.  We parents have been mindful not to throw out our babies with their bathwater, long after those babies started bathing themselves (and remember when some of them, fresh out of their showers, doused themselves in enough Axe Body Spray to asphyxiate a large farm animal?  Better than smelling like one, I suppose.)  But there is a substantial amount of bathwater I’m ready to throw out at this point.

Sayonara to dragging a teenager’s slumbering ass out of bed–and in the winter time, it’s still black as pitch when the alarm goes off–while they’re in the fathomless depths of Stage 4 NREM sleep.  I’ve heard of kids who get up early and easily on their own, but I’ve never had one of these, myself.  So anytime a child in this house has had to be somewhere before noon, which of course is every, single school day for the past almost 20 years, it’s been up to me to make sure they’re up. Before they could drive themselves, people would say, “Let them suffer the consequences of missing the bus,” but it was I who would suffer the consequences of chasing that bus through the neighborhoods, or driving that child to school myself, or having them hang around the house all day.  Who do those options punish? The question of who’s really being punished prompted a lot of my over-reaching parenting over the years.  So I picked my battles.  If I had a nickel for every time, every morning, five mornings a week that I called a child’s name down the stairs, I could probably fund a college education with it.  After the initial, up-close-and-personal nuzzling her awake with a kiss (the one moment of the wake-up ritual I will deeply miss), the calling-down-to-her room began,  “Sophie Milstein! Are you up? Please get up!” “Time to get up. Now.” “Do you see what time it is?! You MUST. GET. UP. NOW! I MEAN it!” and so on.  I’m not a morning person myself so I both sympathize and empathize; in this way, I suffer a double-shot of battle fatigue in the mornings. Now I am advising Sophie, if at all possible, to register for afternoon classes for the next four years.

Ciao to all the paperwork that is generated around each, individual school child.  There are Health forms, Emergency Contact forms, Order forms, Athletic forms (O.K. so I could count on one hand the school sports forms I filled out, especially at the high school level) and Classroom Expectation forms/Syllabi that required a parent’s signature. Then there are the Permission Slips, covering all kinds of activities that required parent’s permission, from field trips to sex ed.  And finally, the steady stream of notes to excuse them for tardies, absences and daytime appointments, which I really tried to keep to a minimum (but they don’t put braces on–or take them off–on weekends.)  It always felt like a sinister joke on the school’s behalf that each form is slightly different, even when soliciting the same basic information.  I thought about making an 8.5 X 11 rubber stamp of all pertinent “form” information, but each year, each form, for each child, differs just enough to make this impossible.  Can you imagine the hours of human form-filling time and energy that would be saved through the use of a Universal School Child Information form?  This is another of my brilliant stream-lining ideas that’s occurring to me, like Sophie’s arrival at school most days, too late.

Arrivederci to speaking with school office personnel, though they are some of the unsung heroes of any school’s administrative staff.  What will I do next year with all the extra time I’ll have in the mornings that this year I spent talking to Marge in the senior office?  That woman has shown me more patience, understanding and compassion than members of my own family and she often even remembers to ask about Sophie’s brothers, bless her heart.  There’s a special place in heaven–or better yet, in a hammock on a Caribbean beach somewhere–for these kind souls.

Aloha to being in charge of moving youngsters from here to there.  I mean this in both the physical sense (the brick-and-mortar of childhood, including school, religious school, sports, medical appointments, tutoring, haircuts, music lessons and corresponding performances, etc., etc., etc.) AND the developmental sense.  Remember when the pediatrician wanted to know if your child could pick up a Cheerio off the tray of his or her high chair?  Well, expectations only took off from there.  Now they want to know if a child has picked up a second (or third or fourth) language.  They want to measure if they meet the physical fitness standards we used to think of in terms of sit-ups and the 50-yard dash and are now so comprehensive the program is monitored by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.  We worry about our children’s intellectual, academic, emotional, social, spiritual and moral development, their global awareness and their self-esteem.  We had to teach them to say “no” to drugs and to strangers but “yes” to life.  I sincerely hope my kids continue to develop themselves as decent human beings and productive members of society, but they’re on their own to get themselves from here to there, from this point forward.

Peace-Out to nagging.  Kids are under the grossly misinformed impression that we parents get some kick out of nagging, about topics ranging from not leaving wet towels on the wood furniture to breaking-down semester-long projects into weekly increments, so an assignment that is 90% of their grade does not get started the night before the term ends.  Doing their homework is certainly not our job, but neither is getting THEM to do THEIR homework.  And while we’re at it, I will shed no tears over a home-work free environment, at least for the foreseeable future.  As much as I have been challenged by all this homework, both mine and theirs, I’m not gonna miss it.

Bye-Bye to contacting other parents, for the purposes of making arrangements with them or checking out our kid’s reports.  Though I have met some of the most wonderful people in my life through my kids (some of my best friends are parents, and even parents of my kids’ friends!), I will not miss calls to set up play dates and carpools and, more recently, to check if the parents who are reportedly hosting the co-ed bonfire/hot tubbing/sleepover are going to be home…or even in town.

Farewell.  Now that one I mean literally.  When you guys “dip”, I pray you fare well.  Of course we parents will be here to adore and advise you and marvel at your accomplishments; I have no doubt they will be many and impressive.

And there are goals of my own I hope to achieve  with all the time that is about to be freed up now that I am no longer responsible for all of the above.  I’ve even thought about taking singing lessons.  Then I could sing to you,

Happy trails to you, until we meet again…






Like No (M)Other: In Two Parts

For Mother’s Day, Sophie gave me a 16-ounce Caribou Coffee mug; a squat, bowl-sized, half-white-half-turquoise ceramic mug, with the words,

like no 


stacked in bold letters on the front.  The words face the drinker, if she grasps the handle with her right hand.

The mug is something to have and to hold, but something fragile nonetheless.  I could drop it in the sink and break it like I’ve done with so many other cups and glasses and even a coffee pot, once.  I’m already scared I’ll break this mug.  Anything my children give me becomes–like my love for them–overly-precious.

And like the cup’s design, I live my life half in the darkness and half in the light; half in delight of being their mother, half in de-dark of fear and worry over them.

For Mother’s Day, Sophie didn’t give me what I really wanted–which is more time to have and to hold her–but she gave me what I have refused to give us both; a firm grasp of the fact that it’s time to move on.

Wake up and smell the coffee, (m)other.

The other thing she gave me is a royal blue t-shirt, with the KU Jayhawk cartoon-character and the words, “Kansas Mom” emblazoned across the chest.  What she said when I unwrapped it was,

“I ordered it online from the bookstore!”

What she didn’t say but what I heard even louder and clearer was,

What part of…I’M LEAVING. THIS PART OF OUR LIVES IS OVER…don’t you get??!

But I do get it.  I can count things now.  As soon as numbers are involved, there is a stark, inarguable reality brought into play and I can apply numbers to things now.

For instance, check #6370, made out to Culinary Express, written on May 4, in the amount of $60.00 was the last check for lunch money I will be writing this year or ever again.  I know they have electronic deposit for lunch money–and have for years–but something about hand-writing a check for their lunches has felt more intimate.  An even more intimate, hand-made gesture would have been to actually make their lunches all these years.  I opted for writing the checks.

When the boys were in the school system with Sophie, if they had money left in their lunch accounts at the end of the year, it could roll over into her account.  Here, at the end of the line, I’m calculating carefully.  There’s no younger sibling coming up the ranks to spend this money on the cafeteria food they’ve all complained about but that has sustained them for the roughly 2,160 days of their 12 years of grade school.

I can also count the number of school days left for the senior class.  Two.  Count them, 1-2.

It was my intention to write every school day of this year and for the first half of the year I dutifully honored that intention.  But soon it became clear that in addition to tending to Sophie’s life, I had to breathe “new” life into my old life, as well.

The crowning (to use a good old birthing term) accomplishment of this year, for me, was my graduation from Hamline’s MFA program, just this past weekend.  Like bookends, my graduation last weekend will be mirrored by Sophie’s graduation this coming weekend. Our new chapters are about to commence!

And so, my writing will continue.  My new life is unfolding as is Sophie’s.  There are so many topics I need to return to: Sophie’s and my spring break trip to Paris, my graduate thesis reading, the afternoon I recently spent with the editor of the NYTimes Modern Love column, Daniel Jones, to name a few.  Since academic and employment-oriented writing have taken over so much of my writing time lately, my attention to the emptying of my nest has taken place in my head and my heart; not on the page.

As a result of all this new creative activity, I’m finding myself genuinely excited for both of us and, as has become my habit, I’ll keep writing my way through these transitions.

My sadness and disbelief that this time has come is something I continue to try to get a handle on, but like my coffee cup, I am trying to focus on the half-full aspect of it all.  In my own understanding of “faith”, I am just asking the Universe to continue to fill my life with bright new things as it continues to siphon-off so many of the responsibilities and the abundance that have filled it so far.


In truth, the most painful part of the separation between Sophie and me has already occurred.  I can’t put my finger on exactly when or how it happened–no ripping-off-of-a-Bandaid moment of brief and stinging pain that I can point to–but there was the long and complete period of time I couldn’t let go of her and now suddenly, I have.  There’s no blood because this letting go is mostly internal.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t let go of her and now I can, but rather I couldn’t let go of her and now I am.  There’s a difference.  I couldn’t let go of her and I let go.  Both/and, as they say.

Sometimes it feels so much like she’s already gone that her appearance in the house startles me.

She had everything to do with this separation.  She pushed the door of her leaving open between us, sat on the floor with her back against the proverbial wall and used her sturdy, young legs like milky-white pillars to hold that door open with all her strength.

Sometimes her urge for independence took on the viscousness of an animal caught painfully in a trap; one whose very life depended on breaking free.  I may have to write about that viscousness at some point.  At the time, though, all the thrashing was as much as I could bear.

Sophie did give me something, however, that her brothers boys couldn’t give me, which was reassurance that I was a good mother.  The boys love for me was tempered by defiance.  Or maybe (and I hadn’t considered this until now), their defiance was mellowed by love, like coffee is by cream.  I love them with every ounce of my being and they still resist me in certain respects.

Sophie resists me, too, but she has always allowed me to mother her.  She asks me for things and accepts so much from me.  She asks my opinion, she asks my advice, she asks me to take care of her, to help her and to spend time with her, though lately it’s been me begging for more time.

After so many years of struggle with my beautiful sons, I finally had a daughter who wanted the brand of mothering I had to offer.  And after so many years of needing reassurance that I was able to play the role I always felt I was born to play, I finally had a willing partner in the dance of mother and child.

I read somewhere, recently, that “Love is total acceptance of what is.”  As Sophie’s senior year in high school–as her daily presence in my house and my life– comes to a close, I will work on acceptance of all that is; in all its darkness and all its light.

Because this is a love that is

like no








Bloom Where You’re Planted

French painter Henri Matisse once said, “I don’t paint things. I only paint the difference between things.” What does this mean? Sophie and I saw this quote painted on a canvas and displayed on an easel in the gift shop of the Minneapolis Institute of Art last week.

I took a picture of this canvas (a picture of a picture, essentially) and thought I’d use the quote as a writing prompt in one of the classes I’m teaching at The Loft this summer. I can’t wait to see how the different age groups I’m teaching—9-11 year olds, 12-14 year olds and adults—interpret this cryptic quote. Will there be a difference between the way kids versus adults make meaning of this statement? My favorite thing about being a teacher is the privilege of working (or playing, as it so often feels like) in a hothouse where learning is perpetually blooming.

Sophie and I were at the Art Institute last week for our annual pilgrimage to Art in Bloom, the spring event that features floral interpretations of paintings and sculpture scattered throughout the museum. This 31st year of the event coincided with the special exhibit, Matisse; Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

When I first started going to Art in Bloom, I pushed one or more of my kids between galleries in a stroller. The event traditionally opens on the last Wednesday evening in April and runs through the first weekend in May, but I always try to get there while the flowers are still perky. There’s nothing sadder than an arrangement of brown-tinged and wilting flowers sitting next to a beloved Van Gogh or Monet.

The paintings, themselves, are real things (oil or acrylic on canvas, for instance). But they are also interpretations of real things; people (and lots of naked or partially-clothed people; men, women, children and combinations thereof), landscapes, cityscapes, still lifes, plant life, the sea.

The same can be said about the floral arrangements sprouting around the museum during Art in Bloom; the flowers (and vases and ribbon and many other interpretive artifacts) are real, but they are also interpretations of the artworks. So Art in Bloom features layer upon layer of interpretation, similar to the layers of paint on an artist’s canvas.

It’s occurring to me as I write this, that the companionship of art and flowers during Art in Bloom is a metaphor for parents and children.  Both are works of art in and of themselves, but the flowers are serving to comment on–in playful interaction with–the works of art they are planted by and each bouquet stands on a pedestal of its own.

It’s also occurring to me that interpretation–like imitation–is the sincerest form of flattery.  Interpretation is a form of homage.

My ritual of taking my kids to this highly-interpretive event is a layering of experience on the canvas of our own history. Over the years, I’ve been able to bribe them into going with me using food and the guilty pleasure of skipping a few hours of school for a private field trip to the art museum. Nate’s favorite Vietnamese deli is blocks from the MIA, so he could be enticed with the promise of spring rolls and mock duck banh mi.

This year, I let Sophie choose where we had lunch. She did not choose the Vietnamese deli or the museum cafe, which have been part of this tradition. When we got to the museum, I tried to initiate our ritualistic behavior, accumulated over the years. I insisted we take our traditional picture together outside the museum’s glass-walled entrance. And when I say “insisted”, I mean it. I could feel Sophie’s resistance to my predictable patterns pushing up through the rich, black dirt I’ve been planting us in all these years. Sophie succumbed to my desire for a picture, but insisted on her own interpretation of the snapshot. When she and I started going to this event, almost 18 years ago, there was no such thing as a “selfie”, but now she took one of us, with the large outdoor floral arrangement behind us on the sidewalk.

Once inside with the usual crowds, I unexpectedly released all expectation. I let my need for ritual re-enactment drop like so many rose petals inside the halls of the museum. In a spur-of-the-moment Zen experiment, I decided to relinquish my need to control the flow of the experience, one I have come to cherish–and one that I will have no children at home to bribe into coming with me to, next year–and turn it over to Sophie.

“You get to say where we go. I’m following you.” I told her.  And then I realized this would be a wonderful way to see what she loves in this museum (a place she clearly feels so at home); of seeing what’s made an impression on her.

Stopping at a particularly exquisite floral arrangement, next to an Impressionist painting that’s part of the museum’s permanent collection, I tested not only Sophie’s interpretive skills but also her willingness to play with me,

“So,” I ventured, as I’ve been doing with my kids since they’ve been old enough to talk, “tell me about this one.”

And in the manner through which we’ve become accustomed to teaching and learning from each other, she pointed her long, alabaster, ring-filled fingers to indicate various blossoms,

“This white one is his face, and the red ones are the drapes behind him…”

Hot, silent tears of adoration and nostalgia pooled in the corners of my eyes, and a knot of pride and gratitude slid from my chest into my throat like the knot of a necktie. I stood behind Sophie as she studied the pairing of painting and planting, so she didn’t see my melodramatic reaction to this moment framed in time.  But she showed me what I needed to see, which is that she loves this museum, this art, this beauty, our time together, our rituals, our history and even playing along with–and humoring–me.

The quote, “Bloom where you’re planted.” (attributed to both the Bible and to Mary Engelbreit, of greeting card fame) could be interpreted to mean let go, open up and become the most fully-actualized version of yourself, no matter where in life you happen to be stuck. I have spent this last year in a protracted state of mourning over the impending plucking of my last flower from my carefully-tended garden inside this house.

Sophie will be temporarily replanted in Kansas and I will stay planted here. But do we ever really stay planted, as in unable to move, or is this just another choice we make; another interpretation of the state of our lives and our selves?

In my ongoing Zen experiment of letting go, I am practicing allowing my youngest seedling to ride the wind, hoping she will land in a place where she will flourish.  And in the spirit of growth and flowering, I am looking for the sunniest spot I can find to thrive, myself.

When Matisse says he paints the difference between things, one way of interpreting what he might mean is that he sees the relationship between things; he doesn’t see things in isolation, because nothing–no one–in this world exists alone.  And though we are interdependent, we are also independent.

The term “difference” inescapably implies separateness.  Further wordplay has me considering the fact that I feel the difference between me and my kids most acutely when we are apart  precisely because they are “a part” of me.

The word “difference”, then, is a term of comparison–of interplay–like art and life, or mother and daughter, then and now, here and there.

In juxtaposition, the beauty of each individual element, each subject in the composition, is most fully brought to light.


Easter Sunday, Sophie’s social options were down; all the way down. But the temperature was up and so was the sun, warming the melted city lakes, the budding landscape and the moist spring air all the way up into the mid-70’s.  I had already been up, with the sun, for hours working on my thesis revisions, when Sophie got up and asked me,

“Do you want to walk around the lake?” knowing that asking me this is like saying to a rambunctious puppy, “Go get your leash!” I have to keep from piddling on the carpet at the mention of it.

“Aw, honey, you know I have so much work to do on my thesis, and only 10 more days to finish it.” was my initial disheartened and, as it turns out, unenlightened reply.

All this year–the year I’ve been bemoaning her leaving me for good–I have put my writing and other work ahead of being spontaneous and spending time with her (or many other loved ones, for that matter). And for what? Will anyone ever read my thesis, once it’s bound and collecting dust on the shelves of the Hamline CWP (Creative Writing Programs) House? Highly doubtful.

On the other hand, will Sophie remember that her mother threw academic caution to the spring wind and through her actions modeled the wisdom captured in the aphorism,

“Carpe diem!”, “Seize the day!” ascribed to the Latin poet, Horace.

Another aphorism (which is defined as an original thought spoken or written in a concise and memorable form), this one attributed to Hippocrates, reads,

“Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgment difficult.” I couldn’t have said it more originally, concisely or memorably, myself.

This year has seemed so short, except for all the mornings we woke to new snowfalls the last one just days ago on April 17 when I cleared about six inches and scraped ice off Sophie’s car for the umpteenth time.  And my “art”, my thesis, has seemed so long. The opportunity to spend time with my youngest is fleeting so rapidly I can count the number of days until she leaves, first for camp this summer and then for KU at the end of August.

Yes, you heard it, she is ready to commit to KU. We finally heard from the U of M last week, and Sophie was waitlisted. In truth, I couldn’t be prouder. Here is an explanation of the situation from the U of M site:

Admission to the University of Minnesota is highly competitive…We have received more than 44,000 applications for a freshman class of approximately 5,400 students….we have determined that the (waitlisted) applicant is academically prepared to succeed at the University of Minnesota…

but then the final nail in the coffin of U of Home-as-an-option,

Students who are selected for admission will receive an update in writing no later than June 15, 2014…we must encourage waitlisted students to continue pursuing their other college options.

Before heading out on our walk, Sophie said,

“Today I want to fill out the forms to commit to KU.” and on our walk she said,

“I can’t wait for you to meet my roommate, Emily. I can’t wait for me to meet my roommate, Emily!” Sophie feels like she knows this young woman she’s been corresponding with (“corresponding” seems like a quaint choice of words, like something we used to do with a pen pal or someone otherwise not electronically accessible to us).

Howie and I were out with my dearest high school girlfriend and her husband over the weekend (she and I did the math and realized we are going on 40 years of friendship) and she began talking to me in a measured tone that sounded like she was about to stage an intervention.

“You’ve got to be strong for your daughter, now. You’re the adult and she’s the child. She’s probably worried about what’s going to happen to you once she leaves, and that’s just going to make the whole transition harder on her.”

I hate when old friends think they’ve earned the right to tell you the truth, even when they have.

I remember just last week, Sophie was sitting at the kitchen table with her computer after we finished dinner. I was cleaning up and she was cruising the KU site. I must have been interacting with her with my characteristic non-enthusiasm about college, when she looked at me with a familiar glare of disappointment and said,

“Mom, you of all people…” but I don’t remember hearing the rest of her expectation of me in that moment.

I asked her to finish that statement again, on our walk yesterday and to add insult to guilt-trip, in a rather patronizing voice she said,

“I’ve told you about eight times now. I’m not telling you again. In fact, I think I saw you write down what I said. Try to remember.”

Well, I’m trying. And all I can figure is that it had something to do with needing me to be the grown-up right now. I do recall her saying something to the effect that leaving is going to be hard for her, too–that she’s scared, too–and that she needs my help, in particular, to get ready to take this next big step.

I hate when my kids call me out on my neediness, even when they’re right.

On this holiday when much of the world is celebrating the notion of resurrection, I have some resurrecting to do, myself. It’s time I resurrect the part of myself that celebrates adventure, mine and those of my children. It’s time to remember the mother I’ve been able to be in the past; the one who cheered my kids on when they toddled while taking their first steps, who ran alongside them holding onto their bikes until they were balanced enough to ride without training wheels, who took them to their driver’s  tests and woo-hooed when they got out of the test car, waving their paper license forms, smiling somewhat nervously at each threshold of their newfound freedoms.

We didn’t celebrate with an egg hunt on Easter, but still, I was able to find something sweet hidden inside the hard shell of my own stubborn resistance to this season of rebirth, growth and change. When it comes down to it, I want Sophie (and her brothers) to be able to count on me to rise up to meet life’s challenges right beside her, sacrificing my own comfort for what is best for her.

Because I–of all people–truly believe in her.

Blood Moon

As we were getting ready for bed last night, after returning home from Howie’s sister’s house where we celebrated the first of two family Passover seders this spring holiday season, Sophie said she wanted to get up at 2:00 a.m to view the lunar eclipse. I can’t get her out of bed in the morning, and I wasn’t about to try it in the middle of the night, so I made a deal with her,

“I’ll get up with you. But you get up first and wake me,” I said, pretty confident that I would be sleeping through till morning.

But sure enough, at 1:58 a.m, she opened our bedroom door, leaned in, wrapped in a blanket, and said,

“Let’s go outside!”

It was such an unusual event–that Sophie would wake herself and actually get out of bed, never mind the event of the eclipse, itself–that even Howie got up, pulled on his jeans, I grabbed my down jacket (overnight temperatures hovered around the 18-degree mark) and the three of us sat out on the front step to take in the celestial theatrics.

This is one of the things I’ll miss when Sophie leaves: her spirit of adventure, coupled with her sense of awe regarding the natural world, thinly veiled by her teenage cool.

This lunar eclipse was the first in a series of four that will happen between now and September of 2015. Such a series is known as a “tetrad”, and though tetrads do occur, they are rare.

What was even more spectacular about last night’s eclipse was the adornment provided by Mars, which appeared as a tiny, shimmering, copper jewel just to the right of the full moon. I wasn’t sure, last night, if this was a planet or a star and wondered if the glittering orange glow was being cast from the blood moon itself, but here’s what I found this morning in a report on the Fox News website:

Astronomer Bob Berman, who hosted a live lunar eclipse webcast…from Arizona’s Prescott Observatory, said the event was also one for the record books because of another bright object in the predawn sky.

“It was the most special one, I would say, of our lives…What made it particularly extraordinary was that it happened on the same night as the closest approach of Mars to Earth in years.”

So the Red Planet and the “Blood Moon” shined together in the predawn sky in a rare event, Berman said,

“We’ll never again for the rest of our lives see a total eclipse of the moon on the same night as the closest approach of a bright planet like Mars.”

Whenever you hear “we’ll never again for the rest of our lives” see or do something, that’s reason enough to get up in the middle of the night. But think how often this is the case, that we’ll never again for the rest of our lives see things just the way they are in any given moment.

At the seder last night, I was achingly aware that these may be our last two seders for a number of years that we celebrate with Sophie at the table. Passover usually falls at a time in the spring when schools are in session. Our holiday may overlap with college spring breaks, but this concurrence is almost as rare as a tetrad.

Last night, there were actually three alumni from KU at our seder table. Sophie, who is only a deposit away from committing to KU, was receiving all kinds of advice from the graduates, ranging from when to purchase season Jayhawks basketball tickets to where to go to celebrate the Jewish holidays on campus. I am thrilled to think of her finding solidarity, company and community away from home within which to express her Jewish identity.

But once again, I was struck by how little progress I’ve made in my efforts to be ready to let her go.

Part of the Passover story involves a famous exchange between Moses and the Pharaoh of Egypt who had enslaved the Jewish people up until the Exodus that we celebrate through our observance of Passover. “Let my people go!” demanded Moses, to which Pharaoh, who had been considering it, reneged, saying, “No, no, no! I will not let them go!”

Passover is a holiday that commemorates freedom, spring, life itself, and renewal. Yet this Passover, I am the one enslaved by my fear of letting my last Jewish child cross into the promised land of her own independence.

Several weeks ago, I had my thesis defense meeting, and shortly after that, spent a heavenly week in Paris with Sophie to celebrate her senior spring break. I have yet to report on these, and other important events (like how it felt when Sophie came home from school last week, carrying her packaged-up cap and gown for graduation next month).

Instead of continuing the saga of emptying my nest, I’ve been slaving away on revisions to my thesis. One of the main comments I got on my thesis was that I am asking the same questions now, in the spring of the year, that I was asking in the fall.

There is a portion of the Passover seder where we ask the same four, symbolic questions, year-after-year. My questions boil (“boils” being one of the ten plagues, but enough with the seder imagery) down to these: how am I going to let her go and how will I survive her exodus?

I explained to my advisors that this is not a flaw in the way I’m writing about this chapter of my life, it’s a flaw in the way I’m living it. I have no better answers now than I did when I started. In fact, the closer Sophie’s exodus gets, the harder it feels to face.

At the seder last night, friends of the family were there, including a woman older than I and her aging mother. They said,

“Gail, next year, you’ll have an empty nest!” and I knew they didn’t mean their statement of fact to come across as sadistic as I perceived it.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do without her,” was all I could muster.

“You’ll get used to it,” said the dear, elderly mother, which is probably closest to the truth.

I am aware that through my seeming forty-years wandering in the desert of my dread, I may have lost whatever readership I once had, here. It’s difficult to witness the ongoing suffering of another.

There are so many terrible losses people endure in this world, as a result of real tragedies such as bombings, like the Boston Marathon bombing that happened a year ago today, to shootings, like the one that happened over the weekend in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center in Kansas over the weekend, to illnesses requiring surgery, like the one a friend of ours is undergoing today. I have no right to be doing anything other than celebrating my daughter’s sense of adventure, her love of life and her impending launch into college and beyond.

So for my own sake, I will continue to work on freeing myself from the self-imposed bondage of grief that has kept me shackled all these months. If nothing else, it will provide me the curvature of the narrative arc necessary to revise my thesis. Like the curvature of the Earth that was reflected last night moving slowly across the blood moon, I will move and my story will continue to reveal itself.

After Howie went back in to bed last night, Sophie and I spent a few more minutes out on the front step, and she said,

“I always try to get what the moon is. You think the sky is a barrier, then you realize that we’re just sitting on this surface, looking up. That’s why camp is so cool; you look up and see millions and millions of stars, without the city lights.”

That’s the beauty of sitting in darkness; we’re more able to see the stars.


Spoiler alert:  I didn’t make it into the Listen to Your Mother show.  Let’s just get that out of the way.  No sugar coating.  I’ve included my H&D (hopes and dreams) for making it into this show in at least four blog posts so far, so if you’ve been following along on the edge of your seat, now you can relax and move on with your lives, just like I have to do.

(My guess is that most will say, Listen to Your Mother show?  Never heard of it.)

Yesterday, when I knew I would be hearing from the LTYM production team today, I felt a sense of vertigo from the height of my hopes.  All day, my legs felt rubbery and my heart was faintly surging.  I knew I had set myself in a precarious spot, teetering on the edge of desperate desire while peering into the abyss created by insanely wishing for something that was so out of my control.  Yet it was a familiar feeling.

After I had my two sons almost twenty-two years ago, I was filled with a desire I could not quench; not just for a daughter, as you might assume, but for a third child.  Howie was satisfied with our two wild, healthy boys.  I wanted one more.

I thank God every day not only that my wish for a third was granted, but that it was granted specifically in the form of Sophie.

I thought once my impossible dream of Sophie came true, I would be all done dreaming for the duration.  But dreams are like Doritos: Eat all you want; we’ll make more.

Wanting something so badly you can taste it, as the old cliche goes, is a double-edged sword (as another cliche goes), to be sure.  This longing is both dangerous and life-affirming.  Allowing yourself this form of want is not for the risk-averse.  And there’s a stubborn vitality in wanting, especially wanting something against all odds.  I can’t even calculate the odds that went into the arrival of Sophie or my other two beloved children.

The odds for the Listen to Your Mother show, on the other hand, are calculable.  Of 75 submissions, 40 pieces were chosen for auditions (I should feel good about making that first cut, I know) and about a dozen were chosen for the show.

I left the audition last Saturday feeling optimistic.  I had done everything in my power to deliver my best performance.  I had practiced my piece so many times I nearly memorized it.  Two days beforehand, I drove to the Washburn Public Library, where the auditions were to be held, and practiced reading at the podium in the room where we were to read.  The morning of the audition, I watched a TED talk by Amy Cuddy entitled  “Your body language shapes who you are”.  Following Cuddy’s advice, I struck the most powerful pose of them all in the mirror in the library bathroom just before being escorted into the meeting room to read my piece in front of the team of judges.

Whenever we admit we want something on this earth, we are saying, I’m alive!  And, I’m willing to lay it on the line!  I see tremendous things to be had in this crazy, exquisite, harrowing world that are worth staking my hopes on, that are worth my best efforts and devotion, that are worth fighting for or risking my pride or my safety to pursue!

And then there is the question of why do we want the particular things we want?  This is a question I’ve been asking myself about this show; why did I lock on this particular opportunity above all others?

Here’s some of what I came up with yesterday, when the pressure of anticipation boiled up inside me and this spilled out onto the page,

I really, really want this.  I want to be acknowledged in my “sweet spot” (my subject: motherhood, my genre: personal essay, my hometown).  I want that feeling of a gold medal performance when it really matters.  I want to feel elation and success and VISIBLE and HEARD and like a real artist and a master of my craft.  I want to buy a new dress and shoes, and feel I’ve earned them as a reward for the good work I’ve done.  I want to stand up there and I want to project.  I want to model for my kids that all that talk about going for your dreams is something you can do all your life, and that it’s not just something I say, it’s something I do.

When I first started learning to write, one of my neighbors stopped by and found me in my porch, reading.  I shared with him my aspirations for writing a memoir.  He said, smugly, “So you hope to write the great American novel?”  I said no, but I didn’t draw the distinction between a work of creative nonfiction and a “novel”, which is a work of fiction.  He said, “I would rather die thinking that I could have written a great book, than try to write one and fail.”  In response to that logic (and in the words of clergyman Robert Schuller) I say, “I’d rather attempt to do something great and fail than attempt to do nothing and succeed.”

I’m not feeling heroic, today, don’t get me wrong.  It hurts to be rejected.  In fact, the brain registers rejection like physical pain, according to psychologist Guy Winch (, in an article called, “Rejection is more powerful than you think”.  Here’s an excerpt,

“…why do rejections hurt so much more than other emotional wounds?

The answer lies in our evolutionary past. Humans are social animals; being rejected from our tribe or social group in our pre-civilized past would have meant losing access to food, protection, and mating partners, making it extremely difficult to survive. Being ostracized would have been akin to receiving a death sentence. Because the consequences of ostracism were so extreme, our brains developed an early-warning system to alert us when we were at risk for being “voted off the island” by triggering sharp pain whenever we experienced even a hint of social rejection.

And since we are social animals, we look to those closest to us for comfort.

I knew I was going to be notified by email of my status with the LTYM show first thing this morning, so I checked my computer and sure enough received my toughest news of this day by 6:01 a.m.

“What’s going on?” Howie came down to find me at my “desk” at the dining room table.  “You didn’t even watch the weather.  You’re throwing off your whole schedule.”

That’s what devastating disappointment can do to a person.

I appreciate how gingerly my husband handles me, emotionally, when he knows I’m hurt.  Even Sophie broke her 24-hour silent treatment of me (I pissed her off yesterday, in this case, by something I didn’t do) and offered me–under her breath and on her way out the door–a relatively sincere,

“Sorry you didn’t make it into the show.”

My father had requested that I call right away once I heard, but I waited till 8 a.m. to call him.

“I’m sorry.”  he said, “You really wanted it.”  For his part, it’s hard standing helplessly by and watching your kids suffer a huge let-down.  I know.  We all know.

“But like we’ve talked about,” he continued, fatherly, “you can learn things from disappointment that you can’t learn from success.”

And then he went on to list all the famous people–among them, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein (I always appreciate the theoretical company he has me keep)–who have experienced rejection before experiencing the breakthroughs for which they are so famous.

Artists, in particular, seem to suffer from chronic non-recognition and some of the greats, from complete obscurity.  My dad reminded me that many creators don’t achieve their due until long after they’re dead.  He spoke of manuscripts being discovered and gaining wide acclaim after the author is long gone.  I would like to ask, if such a fate awaits me, that someone dig me up or otherwise let me know I finally made it.

The one thing we cannot be rejected from is our own journey.  Whatever pain we experience via rejections along our way, we will bounce like a pinball off the bumpers, adjust our course and keep rolling along.

Poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”

In my case, I will search for a suitable home for the yoga-inspired piece I submitted to the Listen to Your Mother producers.  One of the three producers was actually kind enough to include a personal note at the bottom of my rejection notice, which read,

“As a fellow yogi and treasurer of moments, I so related to your heart and your words and am so grateful that you shared both with us. Please know that this was a ridiculously hard decision and really — and truly — came down to how each piece fit together. Please let me know if you want to talk. I’m here.”

This compassionate gesture rescued my hopes from being smashed beyond recognition.  Her words are like a salve upon the rejection that, like the psychologist said earlier, registered on contact like physical pain.

And then there was the long-distance text from my friend Christine, who is out in Hollywood at the moment, and picked a quote from Rocky–one uttered by Rocky Balboa, himself- in her attempts to soothe me,

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Novelist Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”  I am already planning to try out again next year for Listen to Your Mother.  I’m sure next year I will fail even better.

Or dare I believe I may even succeed?