Category Archives: writing

The Crumble of My Life

lifemap

The above is a summary of my life, all 50 years of it,  on a 22 x 27 piece of poster board.  It’s not one of those “inspiration boards,” used in team-building or ice breaker exercises.  In many ways, it’s the opposite–the sort of “anti-inspiration” board not seen and replicated on sites like Pinterest.

I work as part of a team that leads a 14-week employment program for homeless adults, most with serious addiction issues and criminal pasts.  The goal is that by the time the students graduate, they will be employed and ready to start rebuilding their lives with pride and a great sense of accomplishment.

Each class starts with 14 students, 7 men and 7 women, as young as 21 and as old as 65. The first couple of weeks are spent on self-reflection and group interaction, and culminates in the creation and presentation of something called a “Life Map.”

I had heard a lot about this project during my first week of work and had the opportunity to see some completed ones on the walls of the classrooms where the students had moved on to the next phase of the curriculum.  The images and words, clipped from magazines or written out in pen or marker, were very similar– syringes, bottles of alcohol, prison bars, and words like “loser,” “sex,” “hope,” and “God.”  As soon as I learned that all staff have to create their own, and then present them to a class, I was compiling my own, isolating themes and images that I would share.

Without question, my life is interesting and I wanted the students to know that.  I wanted them to know that I too have experienced trauma and tragedy but that I have managed to succeed and maintain a wonderful and incredibly happy, full and fun life.

Without going image by image and word by word here, my map has four pivotal dates, highlighted in yellow;  my date of birth, the day my mother was found dead, my daughter’s birthday and the day I married for the second time.   I presented a pretty happy childhood, the luxury of growing up so close to Manhattan where my father gave me access to wonderful cultural experiences.  I moved on through boarding school, college and landing in Boston, sprinkling the hard truths about my mother’s serious mental illness (and eventual suicide) and my parent’s divorce into the narrative and moved onto the present day.  The students were pretty stunned and surprised and incredibly gracious in their comments.  But, this isn’t really about me.  It’s about them, and their lives.

One by one, the students presented their maps, required to speak for at least 1/2 hour and not to go longer than one.  Many things struck me as each one bared their souls, flayed open to their deepest nerve. Most of them had lovely childhoods, much like mine, going on family vacations, eating together as a family each night, learning the value of an education and hard work.  A couple of them grew up vacationing in rented summer cottages in the mountains or on a lake, camping and fishing with their fathers, and laughing with their mothers.  And then, again, in most of these cases, a sudden switch in their narrative, in at least 4 out 5, the death of a parent while the students were still teenagers  lead to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.

I’m blessed not to have an addictive bone in my body.  I certainly would be hard-pressed not to fall to pieces if I had my coffee taken away, but drugs have always scared me.  I’ve smoked plenty of pot in my life, tried coke once, and as much as people say I would love it, would never dream of taking hallucinogens.  I tend to STOP drinking the second I feel a little tipsy and was able to quit smoking cold turkey.  So, when my mother died when I was only 21, I turned to other things like music, writing and friends without ever feeling the urge to numb the pain that I never seemed to experience.

The drug of choice in almost all of the students is heroin.  In some cases they started with other opiates like pain killers, but when they became too expensive switched over to the widely available and cheaper heroin.  Most swore they would never shoot-up.  Most ended up doing so, multiple times a day.  When the youngest in the class, a 21-yr old walked us through his timeline, he described this transition by pointing to a picture of a syringe and said, “This is where the crumble of my life began.”

In what will seem like an utterly selfish reaction to these presentations is my wondering and fear of what my 13-year old daughter would do if I died.   She has the addiction gene in her bloodline and it terrifies me to think of how missing me, how tragedy of any sort could trigger the similar reaction as these people have had.   She has shown me absolutely no reason whatsoever to have this fear, but she’s at the age where I tried pot for the first time and where a lot of my friends had started sneaking sips of booze from their parents liquor cabinets.  I naively believe that this isn’t happening in her middle school or that she is nowhere exposed to those temptations.  All I can do is pray that she’ll turn out okay, that she’ll make the right choices, and that her life will never crumble.

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Colonoscopies, Porn and Snuggies

This blog has just reached its 20,000th pageview.  In the grand scheme of things, this is a rather paltry number based on how many years its been since I “launched” it.   It’s embarrassing to even say it out loud.

As those of you with a blog know, there are stats that track what posts have been read on what day, the link they’ve clicked on to get to the blog, a map of the world where you can see who is reading your work in Iceland, for example. (Actually, there isn’t anyone reading me in Iceland but I have quite a following in Russia, France and the Philippines.)

There are big spikes in the numbers on days that I post my links to facebook and a handful of other places.  I can see who is reading these at the exact time someone has the post open and I love that some people are jumping on them within minutes.  It makes me realize that I have a teeny, tiny bit of a “following.”

On the flipside, and really, it’s like being kicked in the backs of the knees, are the statistics that show the    EXACT words that people have typed in as their search terms to get to my posts.

Here’s what I have learned:

If you have the word “porn” ANYWHERE in your blog, especially in the title of a post, you will get a LOT of traffic.  More than one person has wanted to know if there was porn in the Middle Ages.  Really, who could blame them.  Kids and older students do their theses on much worse.

When you use a title for your post that is the same name of a Snuggie-like thing that appears in an infomercial you learn a lot about how lazy people are.  Forever Lazy.

There are a lot of people having colonoscopies that want to know if you can use Coffee Mate during the prep.  This is a very important question and certainly one that I needed the answer to.  People are also very concerned about colonoscopy insurance coverage, and what your “effluence” is supposed to look like.

I use a lot of free clipart in my posts.  Apparently, there are a lot of people who also want to get their hands on “boy sneezing clipart,” “plane in storm clipart,” and “female therapist” clipart.

These are in my personal Hall of Fame of search terms:

“Celebrity flabby ass”

“Jew sneeze”

“Why does Barbara Bush look so old?”

“When will corned beef be back on the shelves?

And my own personal favorite….

“Do middle-aged women like giving handjobs.”

No matter how you’ve found this blog, thanks for reading.

What Does it Mean to Be Gifted?


With the return of “American Idol,” I’ve been hearing that tired cliché about people being born to be a star, possessing a God-given talent causing their parents to notice something in their child, apparently the second they are born, that they are different, gifted.

There are videos of these starry-eyed contestants at 2 or 3 singing along to animated musicals or Frank Sinatra to prove their point. The gushy judges say things like “You were born to sing, man!” (Steven Tyler) or “You sounded like an angel just then,” (Jennifer Lopez) and it must be rather heady for these kids to hear these compliments from their American idols.

The elimination rounds are somewhat heartbreaking. You literally can see the dreams of these castoffs crumbling at their feet. “I was MEANT to be a star,” some say, “I was BORN to be a singer.” I respect them for putting themselves out there, and hope that such a very public blow won’t shatter their determination.

Do we all secretly feel that we were born with a gift? Do we all want to be stars? Why do some make it and some don’t? If we don’t have people telling us we’re gifted at something, how do we know if we are?

I have a friend who is the textbook definition of self-actualization. She lives her full potential every day. One day she decided she wanted to be a window dresser, found an internship and within less than a year was dressing windows for Barney’s. Soon after, she discovered her great skill at jewelry making, got a website up, and has sold many a ring. At the same time she tried her hand at different art mediums and recently had a piece chosen as a part of a very cool group exhibit. She made loads of money making these unbelievable spicy nuts out of her kitchen, getting them into the hands of the right connected people. She married her best friend, has two great kids, and is in awesome shape. Best of all, she is incredibly humble and funny as hell.

I’ve had some really smart friends yelling at me lately for not promoting my writing. They tell me I could be rich, famous. I counter by reminding them that there are zillions of people who want to be famous writers and who think they can be. I tell them I’m a dime a dozen in a very crowded field of friends yelling at their friends for not doing something with their talents. I read some other blogs and think that I am nowhere near their level of humor and intelligence. Do I think I have a gift? Do I want to be a star? Is this what I was born to do?

Quite frankly, I don’t want to be a star. It would be fantastic to have a writer that I have tremendous respect for think my writing is different, that my voice is unique, and that I’m funny in all the right places. I wouldn’t turn down a back cover quote from, let’s say…Augusten Burroughs or turn down an interview on NPR. That’s where my dream takes me, but then I think of the writer’s equivalent of an actor’s cattle call and I get slightly embarrassed for myself.

Yes, I’ve certainly got a story to tell, as we all do, and I really hope that it will eventually reach a wider audience than just the 100 or so people who have subscribed to my blog. It would be so fantastic to be a self-actualized person, to live my potential and see where it takes me. (I actually just smiled, ear-to-ear, when I typed that sentence which I guess is a really good sign.) Maybe in the process I’ll stumble upon a different gift, like, having an amazing fastball or eating more hotdogs in a shorter amount of time than that guy who does that every year. OR, maybe instead, I should just focus on what may be more a talent, than a gift and make my friends stop yelling at me.

My Father Was a Rolling Fucking STONE, or, My Life Behind Bars

Every other Wednesday for about a year, I’ve been leading a writing workshop for female inmates at a prison in Boston. Most of the women are awaiting sentencing for one thing or another or are being detained because of their immigration status. I never really know what they are in for unless they tell the group, but from what I’ve gauged by their writing and sharing, most are in on drug-related charges.

My classroom is a big space at the bottom of a set of stairs. The women are brought in by a guard through an upper level and as they walk down the stairs and sit down at metal tables with stools nailed into the floor, I try to figure out who the hecklers and naysayers might be as I attempt to lead them through something different and meaningful for 45 minutes. They are white, black, Latino, gay, straight, old and painfully young. There are missing teeth, scars, and track marks. There are three different colored jumpsuits that designate what units they are in based on their crime. After almost a year, I still can’t remember what color means what. All I know is that all their sneakers are exactly the same no matter what color they wear.

On my first day of teaching, one of the woman was having a hard time reading the handout I had given them. I noticed her struggling and offered her my reading glasses. On my way out, all puffed-up and proud of my first class, Officer Steve, who has now become my prison guardian angel, pulled me aside.
“Please tell me you didn’t give that inmate your glasses to borrow.”
“Um…why?”
“These women are not your friends AND she could have used those glasses to attack someone. Those are contraband.”
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” I say with great shame and slight panic.
I suddenly felt like what all of us bleeding heart volunteers must have looked like to Officer Steve. I felt like I was in a bad movie about a teacher forced to teach the bad kids. He told me not to worry, that I couldn’t have possibly known, and that I’d catch on. If it WERE a movie, it would have been the time for him to wink. But you know, it was real life.
(I should also note that the inmates have to write with prison-issued pens that are supposed to bend if you go to stab someone.)
The class was initially pitched as a “sensory memoir writing” class. I had handouts, I read from a book that I thought was relevant to them, had them write some before and after pieces and had them share if they were willing. In my life, both personally and professionally, I’ve heard every hard luck story ever told. I flinch at nothing and I never look at anyone with pity or judge them for the parts they’ve played in making their own bad luck. I certainly know enough that it’s not okay for me to hug and soothe a weeping prisoner after she’s shared a gut-wrenching story despite every ounce of strength it takes for me not to.
There are classes where one woman will steal the show with humor and candor. My absolute favorite was a gender-neutral, maybe 22-yr old, who wrote about her father (interestingly enough, when I used to have the women write about a favorite memory, fathers and grandmothers were remembered most fondly). Somehow it came up in the story that her father had something like 17 kids and when we all gasped she responded by saying, “My father was a rollin’ fuckin’ STONE!” Doesn’t get much better than that.
Now, as I’ve gotten completely comfortable in front of women who I see only once as they cycle through their “orientation” to prison life, classes are a bit more free form and I’m finding that more and more of them are willing to share what they’ve written which inevitably leads to some incredibly poignant discussions.
I would have to say that 80% of the women I’ve taught are mothers. I would have to say that 60% of THEM are drug addicts who have had their kids taken away. Every single one HATES themselves for the kind of mother they’ve become. They know that they are good mothers when they are sober, but, their addiction screams louder than their kids. It amazes me that despite how happy they are to be clean and getting help in prison, they always seem to speak of it as a temporary thing. They don’t think they would be themselves if they weren’t on the street hustling or giving a stranger a blowjob. They have said that they would feel like impostors if they tried to be anyone else.
Yesterday, I wanted to talk to them about “judgement–” what had they been judged for, unfairly, in the past based on their looks or circumstance. I first ask them to judge ME, based on seeing me for the very first time. I got some great answers, some funny (they said my hair made me look like I had spent some time on the streets) and some things that were rather flattering. What I DIDN’T want to look like was yet another person from the outside coming to tell them how to live their lives. I had one woman say that the jury was still out on whether I was one of those or not. By the end of class, when I asked them to tell me their opinion of me after they had spent that time with them, they said that basically I had broken the mold, and then threw some compliments at me that made me cry.
When the prison was first built right next to an exit ramp I used every day, I watched a woman on the lawn outside the barbed wire fence, waving her arms to a male inmate in a window above. I found that to be, and still do when I think about it, an incredibly romantic act. It’s not really a HAPPY image, but there was great loyalty in it and it really touched me. I hate that I connect with 15-20 women every 2 weeks, and know that I will most-likely never see them again. Every once in a while I will Google to see what I can find out based on the name on a writing exercise and I’ve never really been able to find much. I want to think of them with their children flinging themselves into their arms on their day of release, but fear that won’t be enough to sustain them for too long. I do know, however, that they have taught me a hell of a lot more than I could possibly have taught them in the course of 45 minutes and I will be forever grateful for having known them.

Resolute

1. firmly resolved or determined; set in purpose or opinion.
2. characterized by firmness and determination, as the temper, spirit, actions, etc.

Along with the ubiquitous “lose ten pounds,” “save money,” “stop smoking,” for me, the blind item has always been “Stop squandering your talent. WRITE SOMETHING.”

When I was in elementary school, I tapped out about 20 pages of a wannabe novel called “He Was My Best Friend, He Was My Brother” (clearly poised to be optioned for an after-school special), typed in all caps and red ink. It was passed around the lunchroom, friends of mine pulling up to the table to get in line to read it. When my real life brother got spinal meningitis, the disease I used in the book to kill off the fake one, I got spooked, and never finished.

Ask old friends from camp what they remember about me, most of them will instantly spit out an image of me, on my top bunk, scribbling in a journal or reading a book. And, when one of those same friends (thank you Lauren) continues to yell at you for NOT writing now, well, you get sick of hearing her and do something like this, the modern day version of me scribbling from a top bunk.