For the past few months, not incidentally since my mother’s death, I have been feeling lack luster, uninspired and just okay. I tear-up easily and look forward to bedtime. The upshot is I haven’t had the energy to be anxious. I get what needs doing done, but not much more. So when one of my most reliable friend’s eyes filled with tears at the end of a long conversation, and said, “I wish you could see yourself the way I do, the way God does,” I didn’t know what the hell she meant. Except I did know what she meant because I started crying too, and then my insides slid out onto Peet's laminate wood floor.

I was lost to myself, again.

The exact nature of my wrongs is to forget my glory. To forget that there’s nothing wrong with me, that my humanity is my finest asset and that making mistakes is how I learn, not an indictment. My glory is real and my dead spots give contrast making the picture more interesting.

Most revolutionary: glory does not come from what I do, but who I am.

Glory is a fraught idea. In the home where I grew up, it was ascribed to God, and God alone. To God be the glory for the things he hath done, not, to Sandy be the glory for the gal that she is. Any personal entanglement with glory was a reason to feel shame. The problem for my family, (and the family in the novel WHAT YOU CARRY) is that essential belief, to God be the Glory, muddied with every vision of grandeur and Schizophrenic delusion my father had. Like a dirty cloth washing a window my Dad would become Christ and my Mom would flip out.

The novel I have written is named WHAT YOU CARRY.  The subtitle might as well be The Seven Self-Defeating Habits of Ineffectual People. What those self-defeating habits look like in the Thompson family, the family in the novel, are as follows:

1 –I better figure this out on my own

2 – Keep trying--you can control crazy

3 – My best is not good enough

4 – Don’t waste time attending to the wound, chase down the shooter

5 – I’ll feel better when you’re punished

6 – Continue polishing turds

7 – Keep your sick thoughts to yourself

Or some such nonsense. It’s fun to pull legs.

Unlike me, the Thompson family does not have a track record of relying on trusted friends. Sure, there are good people in their lives, but wisdom is not what they curate. The Thompsons are swinging wildly, scared to death and blaming the sick guy for ruining their days. Set in the seventies, in rural Florida, there are few good meds available and not a lot of family services. 

How easy it is to sink to the bottom where self-defeating attitudes fester and twist, where tendrils of self-loathing rise up and wrap around an ankle! To drift slowly downward and not realize the desire for fresh air has evaporated. And how powerful to know it is just as easy, if I chose to look, to grab the outstretched hand offered to help pull me back to the surface. It has to be my hand, my decision to reach, my willingness to look at my insides with curiosity not shame.

We all have a painful past. Why I love to read emotionally sweaty stuff is because I am emotionally sweaty. Literature acts like a conductor’s wand commanding bows to rise and fall over heartstrings. May that mission be accomplished in EXACT NATURE.

I'm good enough, and smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.

I'm good enough, and smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.

Good Sport

My Mom died Wednesday, November 30, 2016. She was 77.  Eight years prior, she had a debilitating stroke, lost the ability to control her speech, and the reliable use of her right hand. She was right handed. Linda Ellen Sellards Austin Stafford had been a painter, seamstress and excellent cook. The stroke took most of that away as well as her neuropathy, neck and back pain, decades of resentment and the migraine headaches that had plagued her since her twenties. The last eight years of her life she needed a walker, a lot of help from my nearby sister and brother-in-law, and the extended help of my two brothers and sister-in-law who lived a few hours away. With that support, she was able to live in her own apartment with her insane cat. From my perspective, she had a thing for crazies.

What she did not lose was her sense of humor, love of shopping, depression, green thumb, social anxiety, colitis, or appetite. She accepted her lot in life, once again, and plugged away meal after meal, television show after television show, phone call after phone call, doctor visit after hospital stay, and fall after fall. She was a good sport, especially for a woman who fell a lot. The falls scared us. Would she have to go back to the nursing home where she had rehab after the stroke? Her quality of life had been almost unbearable at the nursing home.

So Mom fell and got a black eye. Or she fell and cut her head bad enough to require staples. The last time I visited her, in February of 2016, she took a fall that landed her in the bathtub, where she spent most of the night blanketed by the bent shower rod and curtain. When I returned to her apartment mid-morning (I’d spent one night, just that night, with my sister) and knocked on the locked door, she yelled, “Help! Help me!” and began to whimper and cry, then wail.

I shriveled; plummeted into my eight-year old self, frightened and adrenalized. My mother was in distress and I did not have a house key! I stood in the hallway, trying to assess the situation just like I had as a child, at her bedroom door listening for clues.

“I’m getting help, Mom! We’re coming, Mom,” I yelled as I called my brother-in-law and texted my sister who was at work. Laura and Johnny would have the keys. I stood in the hallway of my Mom’s senior living apartment building, alone and small, filled with guilt and shame. The exact nature of my wrongs flooded me: I was bad, I had been wrong not to spend the night with Mom and prevent this crisis, I had once again failed my mother and would never be able to make things okay for her.

It was one of the saddest moments of my life. That it has become one of the sweetest memories I have of spending time with my Mom and sister is the miracle.

Outside that locked door my spiritual practice of recovery kicked in. I was given courage and strength, not to save the day, but to be in that moment, exactly as it was, without making it worse with a shame spiral and distorted thinking. I could be right where I was under some very lousy circumstances and not wither. There was nothing wrong with me or with anybody else, and we would do our best to take care of each other.

I did the next right thing, one next-right-thing at a time. I talked to Mom through the door, calmly, and gently. What I had to offer was a loving, concerned voice. Laura and Johnny got there in less than 10 minutes, and when the three of us could not get Mom out of the tub without hurting her further or wrenching our own backs, we called the paramedics. They came directly from helping another elderly woman out of her tub. Why our mother did not press the Medical Alert button she wore remains unknown.

Mom was exhausted and demoralized, but not so hurt that she or the paramedics thought she needed the Emergency Room.

My sister and I got her cleaned up, dressed her in warm clothes and had her eat a bite so she could take her medicine. We cooed and fussed over her, and somehow found something to laugh about. We talked about how awful that must have been and my Mom cried on my shoulder. After a nap, we took her to the Doctor’s for an appointment that just happened to be scheduled for that very afternoon.

It was a somber Doctor’s visit.

Afterwards, we went to Mom’s favorite restaurant to get pie, and the three of us ended up eating an early dinner. I’m pretty sure we had solidarity cheeseburgers and onion rings. We were so tender and sweet with each other. Rueful. There could not have been a better outcome to the day.

Mom fell again, and again. I was not there to catch her but my sister and brothers were. Not for a second do I believe my Mom thought badly of me, or that I had failed her. Even if she did, I’ve learned that’s not my business. What’s most important is that I know I did not fail her. We adored each other, trusted each other to the lives we had chosen, and there wasn’t one unspoken word between us. I will miss the sound of her panting as she carried the phone into the bedroom to talk, incapable of figuring out the remote and its mysterious volume button. I will miss her silliness, the way she’d say “Oh crap,” to get a laugh, when she got tangled up in her words. I will miss her warm and cushy embrace, the Mom-smell on her neck, and her big emphatic eyes. I will miss taking her to the DQ for peanut buster cups and WalMart for a haircut. But a weight has been lifted, and even though it left a hole, I feel grateful she will never be scared or lonely again, and there will be no more falls. Rest in peace, Mom. You deserve it.

Like a Hurricane

WHAT YOU CARRY is an unpublished novel set along the Florida Space Coast in the late summer and fall of 1976. Hurricane season. The Thompson family is under siege, in untenable relationship to one another, and the threat of weather is only one layer of their overwhelm.

Following Hurricane Matthew’s progress up the Atlantic coastline of Florida these past few days brought back memories from when I lived on the Indian River in Cocoa, Florida. Growing up there, many people worried that Florida would be subsumed, taken over by rising seas, permanently underwater. That it would happen in our lifetime. We were below sea level already, and our front yard often flooded from summer storms.

One stormy memory stands out: the afternoon sky was congested with purple, black and yellow clouds that hung full-to-bursting with the sick of a tropical depression. Thunder boomed in the clouds and lightning bolted nearby. The river churned murky and high, lapping across the road into our front yard. The radio warned a tornado watch was in effect for Brevard County, so Mom and Dad rounded us up, and we took cover in the concrete block garage. I trembled on the garage floor. Over the river, a waterspout whipped into being, and chaotic winds blew it across our yard. Luckily, we were spared. The roar subsided, and Telephone Line played from Dad’s transistor radio.

At least, that’s what I think happened. I was little.  And that’s one reason why my childhood story is fiction and not memoir. Life has become so dream-like. I watch a lot of quality television, and I read stacks of books. I can barely remember what I did last week let alone 40 years ago.

Like a hurricane, life is full of near misses and direct hits. There’s no end to the cleanup. It seems to me this a time that requires even more clean up, more heart, more generosity of spirit, even though it’s hard to be kind under threat.

WHAT YOU CARRY is my attempt to show how the unspoken, self-defeating assumptions that give rise to my thoughts and actions…the neurological trails and edits that were laid down in my stormy childhood...my hope is this novel shows how they historically played out. Writing this manuscript has been a one way to use my goodies, as opposed to my defects. I chose to heal, not hide. No more harm.

Here are Six Organizations that offer relief to the victims of Hurricane Matthew.

If you have a moment, visit the music section of this website for The Bellyacher's versions of several songs that are in the novel, including Telephone Line.

I’ve cancelled my plans to run for President.

     Dear Sandy,

     I’ve cancelled my plans to run for President.

     I am tired of trying to be important.

     And I have better things to do.

                                                  Sincerely Papa

Those three lines are as telling as a DNA test - I am undeniably my father’s girl. Just like my Dad, I strive. My ambitions are not as grand, but I do try to accomplish meaningful work. For instance, writing this blog to support my book, and submitting my novel, WHAT YOU CARRY to literary agents and publishers, because getting this book into the hands of readers may have value to people who grew up in the 70’s or have a mentally ill family member or are interested in the Florida wilds along the Space Coast near Cape Canaveral. Vying for a home for my book is kind of like asking for votes. It requires a pitch and a platform, and it can wear a girl out.

For as long as I can remember, my Dad had industrious plans, often thwarted by an array of obstacles that would plow most of us under and eventually did our family in.  Yet, even with a debilitating mental illness, he managed to co-create four humans, hand-craft a working fishing boat, remodel our weird old house, and by himself, in a pair of waders and armed with a jackhammer, build a dock in front of our Cocoa house that spanned 30 feet over the Indian River. 

My “Papa” is exceptional, and incredibly important to me. Letters like this one gave me good reason to bestow the central character in my novel, Lyle Thompson, qualities of my father. And, it’s interesting just how sane this letter seems today, a mere five weeks away from a really important presidential election.   

He only attempted running for President twice, as far as I know. Currently, he is writing a book about his life and philosophy entitled, NO BEGINNING, NO END. Maybe we can team up on book tours.


Peripheral Vision

The closest thing to an afterlife I believe is memory. Our cat, Burl transitioned from existing to not existing Tuesday morning. The way she died was gentle, at home on her pillow at the foot of our bed, and administered with tenderness by Dr. Evelyn Ivey, from Peace For Pets. She tucked her head into her paws after sedation, and eventually quit breathing. I feel like there’s a fist in my chest and lead pipe’s been laid in my throat. I’ve cried too much, I can’t cry enough.

Brian says he sees her in his peripheral vision. She’s at the edges, outside the center of his gaze. I keep looking for her in all the places she is not…at the end of my greeting when I come through the door at night, or by my foot when I try not to disturb her as I roll over in my sleep.

Memories are what we get. They wash up on the rocks in my dreams, they give me another moment with what’s gone, and they come when they want, not when called. They are slippery, oftentimes untrue and wholly unreliable. I know this to be true because the cat I loved more than anything in this world, the one before Burl, I can barely remember. Old pictures, the lock of hair, the rattle of her ashes and bits of bone in a wooden box do not bring her essence back to me. Memory cannot be kept as a relic collecting dust on a shelf; it has a life of its own.

My novel, WHAT YOU CARRY, began as a collection of childhood stories I did not want to forget. There was something I needed, something I wanted to wring out of it, something I thought I needed to understand. I wanted to be able to touch my childhood without being pulled under by sadness and shame, or to become brazen in the re-telling, and treat traumatic events as outrageous anecdotes. Basically, I needed to tell it I loved it anyway. Naturally I thought I was writing a memoir.

Not too far into the process, I realized I could not know anything that anyone else thought, and that my own recollections were incongruent with an expedient timeline. Plus I really wanted to write internal dialogues. So then I thought I was writing creative nonfiction. But when a completely fictional character, Uncle Ray drove up in his rusty pickup, I realized there was no way I could abandon him. I plowed through a first draft, queried the daylights out of it, and when I received very little interest, rewrote the manuscript with an editor. After writing this novel, I see the past is peripheral. It has to be in order for me to be present. It flickers and taunts at the edge of my vision but I no longer exhaust myself trying to pull it the center. As Johnny Thunders sang, You can't put your arms around a memory.

Photo by Brian Mello

Photo by Brian Mello

Chop Wood and Carry Water

Chop Wood and Carry Water

My exact nature today is shaky. I’d like to start over but I can’t move. I must have been born with this sadness because I do not remember a time when I wasn’t ankle deep in mealy black dirt. I’ve never minded. I love the smell of earth. Even the smell of my cat’s kidney-failing pee reminds me as much of eucalyptus as her impending finish. She’s my vanishing girl, on her way of out, becoming slighter and slower as a tumor webs her organs together and blocks her colon. Just in time to mingle with the dead and transition through the part in the curtains that opens with autumn.