An integrated life: why I quit the 8-to-5

corrugated-boxesFor so long,

I’ve put the different

Bits of myself into

Separate little boxes,

Like disassembled doll parts

Played with by a

Disturbing little girl:

Arms twisted off the

Shoulder nubs,

The two stiff, plastic

Legs jerked loose,

The little fingers worked

Under the doll chin

And the head popped off

With a sound like a

Gum snap.

The torso now a

Dumb lump

Filled with a gray foam,

The skin Barbie-tan,

Crotch smooth.

All in separate boxes,

All boxes stacked,

Largest on bottom,

Smallest on top.

The little girl

Sucking her hair strands into

Knife-points on either

Side of her face.

The little fingers

Questing for

A scab to pick.

Won’t heal for weeks.

The doll part

Metaphor played out:

The mom in a box.

The professional in a box.

The writer/artist in a box.

The recovering alcoholic in a box.

The wife in a box.

The animal that needs sleep, food, etc.

In a box.

In one 24-hour period,

I would box-hop:

The animal sleeps.

The writer writes.

The mom gets kids ready for school.

The professional commutes to work.

The professional works in an office.

The professional commutes home.

The alcoholic goes to a meeting.

The mom drives kids around,

Gets kids ready for bed.

The wife

Tries and fails to

Connect to her

Similarly compartmentalized husband.

Finally, the animal sleeps

Because supposedly,

It is now time to sleep.

Out of all of the boxes,

Work is the one with the

Most artifice.

The professional

Who doesn’t talk about recovery,

Who mentions her blog and

Novel writing to select few,

Who slogs ineffectively through the

Post-lunch afternoon lag

When a little nap would

Make all the difference in

Actually getting something done.

Who clock-watches like a factory worker.

Who gives her

Brightest smile and

Lightest moods to her


Leaving the offal of

Tiredness and testiness for her

Kids and husband,

Whom she loves most

In this world.

I just

Couldn’t fucking

Do it


As I freaked out

Leading up to my 40th birthday a few months ago,

Being so disassembled went from being

Uncomfortable to being


So in a bid to

Gather some of my doll parts


I quit my job and

Went off on my own.

Back to school and

The freelancing life,

There to figure out how to

Put the doll pieces back together.

So far,

We have not


Or been turned out of our house.

And me,

I’m realizing what I see in people

Who have careers and

Lives I’d like to emulate

Is integration.

They’re not

One person here and

Another there.

They’re just


All the time.

They’ve figured out

How to make a living at

Something they’d be

Doing anyway–

Not an easy task for a


They sleep when they’re tired.

They don’t have a commute.

They have energy for their

Kids and spouse.

Their creativity

Flows through their

Entire lives


I refuse to believe

It’s not possible to

Have all these things.

Indeed, for the past four months,

I’ve managed to

Continue moving toward it

And still pay the bills.

But I still want to

Put that doll back together


Put a top hat on her,

Spin her around and

See if some glitter and stardust

Bring her to life.

This is my 2016.

The year of blurred lines and

Open box lids,

Of hyperlinks,

Of erring on the side of


Of refining this skill of

Hurling myself

Out into the world

Again and

Again and


Bright eyes and

Light moods for


Especially myself in the mirror.





My recovery from alcoholism: a story of paradoxes

Drunken days

Drunken days

October 1, 2006, I woke up in the

Guest bedroom of my best friend’s house.

My infant son was in a crib next to me

Crying like he had been crying for a long time.

A white rug on the floor was stained with red-wine vomit.

I popped a pacifier in my son’s mouth and

Dragged the rug into the bathroom

Where I hoisted it into the sink and

Vainly tried to scrub the vomit out of it.

There was a mirror above the sink

And if I looked in it,

I surely looked down again quickly.

I wasn’t in the habit those days of

Looking myself in the eye much.

The vomit wasn’t coming out of the rug,

So I filled a pail with cold water and

Left the rug to soak in the shower,

My feeble attempt at cleaning up after myself.

I brought my son downstairs.

My friend and her infant daughter were in the kitchen making lunch.

My son and I were spending the weekend, and I,

As usual,

Had shown up with a box of red wine

Which had been finished off to the point of

Opening the box and

Taking the foil bladder out and

Squeezing every last drop of wine out of it.

I was probably still somewhat drunk;

I don’t remember being particularly

Hung over that morning,

Which usually meant the

Alcohol hadn’t worked its way through my system yet.

I sat down at the table across from my friend,


One of my best friends ever,

And grinned.

She didn’t grin back.

“I’m not going to

Drink with you anymore,” she said.

“You can do whatever you want,

But I’m done.

You’re out of control.

It’s too sad to watch.”

The look in her eyes.

It wasn’t anger exactly,

And it wasn’t sadness either.

It was resolve,

And it was protection.

She needed to protect herself from me.

She was putting up a wall.

I think I sat in silence for a while.

Our two babies were playing on the floor.

My son.

Thirteen months old.

I was getting divorced from his dad,

And I knew my drinking could put me in danger of a

Custody battle.

I thought:

“I’m going to start losing people.”

It’s become a pop-culture trope:

That moment when the alcoholic or addict

Lifts her quaking eyes up from the tabletop and says,

“I need help.”

What I didn’t know until my moment for doing it

Was that that act of surrender

Took more courage and strength than

Anything I had done in my life up until that point.

It wasn’t weakness to ask for help;

It was a last gasp of strength.

A few days later,

I found myself sitting in an

Empty church sanctuary.

I had attended my first 12-step recovery meeting,

And I been unable to muster the words,

“I’m Jen.

I’m an alcoholic.”

I knew if I was going back,

I had to decide.

So I prayed to a god I didn’t believe in,

A god I had spent my whole life being

Skeptical about at best,

Vulgarly mocking at worst.

Screwing up all my energy into a tight little ball, I said,

“Okay, ‘god.’

Am I alcoholic or not?

Yes or no?”

Nothing happened.


Fuck this, I thought.

And at that moment,

These words came into my mind

As if spoken out loud:

“You are precious and delicate.

And it’s okay.”

I wept, friends.

It wasn’t the answer I had been looking for—

God or whatever you want to call it

Doesn’t tend to answer questions so directly,

I’ve since learned.

But it was permission to be powerless,

And it was a gentle, loving exhortation to

Start treating myself well.

It’s been more than eight years since my last drink,

And that’s important.

But as most alcoholics and addicts know,

Our drinking is but a symptom.

If I had never taken a drink in my entire life,

I would have filled that gaping hole with something,

Possibly an eating disorder

Or even more destructive sexual behavior

Than I had already engaged in.

Why do alcoholics drink and addicts use?

It’s truly insane.

We poison ourselves sometimes to death,

We destroy our lives,

The lives of people we love and

Sometimes the lives of strangers

Who have the misfortune of

Crossing our paths at the wrong moment.

If you had asked me on October 1, 2006

Why I did what I did,

Why I drank every day

At the most inappropriate times,

Why my eyes for years were

Unfocused and glazed over,

I would have been as baffled as anyone.

3,227 days later,

I’m starting to have a glint of understanding.

Alcohol is called “spirits” for a reason.

Alcoholics often describe themselves as having a

God-sized hole in their soul,

Into which they pour booze.

And for me, I know now I had a

Spiritual problem that needed a

Spiritual solution.

With recovery from addiction,

There’s often a feeling of being reborn.

As a religion skeptic,

It took me many years to feel comfortable

Identifying my experience as that,

But there’s really no other way to describe the

Fundamental perspective change that happened.

I began to understand that

The way I perceived the world was in many ways

Opposite from how the world actually worked.

This showed up for me in several of the

Paradoxes that are inherent in recovery from addiction

And in living a spiritually based life.

The first paradox is that

Suffering is often the door through which

We enter a spiritual life and

Gain some peace.

Before my recovery from alcoholism,

I had thought that spiritual people were

Just born that way–

If I thought about them at all.

There were spiritual people,

And there were unspiritual people,

And spiritual people were

Weird and weak,

Ergo, I was definitely not

One of them.

Now I understand that

It took me an immense amount of suffering

To surrender to a spiritual experience.

A spiritual life is not for the faint of heart.

The path to some measure of

Serenity and peace

Was a very painful one.

In that sense,

October 1, 2006 was one of the

Most difficult days of my life,

But it was also one of the

Best days of my life.

That’s another lesson I’ve learned from

Living a spiritual life:

That once I stop turning away from

Life on life’s terms–

Which is essentially what I was doing

Every time I put a drink to my lips–

There’s a depth to the experience

I had never known could happen.

It’s completely possible to

Hold several profound emotions

All at the same time,

To be wracked by them all,

And not be overcome.

I experienced this when,

After a long journey with Alzheimer’s,

My mother died when I had about

Five years of sobriety.

I felt so many things:





To plumb the depths of this

Experience of life at that level is

Such a gift,

And one I can only truly experience

When I’m consciously living as a spiritual being.

Another paradox I’ve been thinking a lot about is

The axiom that,

In order to keep something,

You have to give it away.

This is one of the three pillars of the

Recovery fellowship I’m a part of,

And we regularly see people who are

Not focused on being of selfless service to other alcoholics


I had no idea what it meant to

Be of service

Before I embarked on this

Spiritual journey of recovery.

It wasn’t anything that was

Remotely on my radar.

I was completely focused on myself,

Or at best on a select group of loved ones.

I suppose I was faintly aware that

There were people in the world who were

Generous or gave of themselves,

But any thought I gave them was

Couched in cynicism:

They were just doing it to

Look good or

Make themselves feel better.

I had no idea of the profound joy,

The symbiosis of how

Me helping someone else

Helps me

Just as much as it

Helps them.

It’s one of the most beautiful parts about life,

And I’m privileged to have the chance to

Experience it every day

If I want to,

By being of service to

Other alcoholics in recovery.

There is no more satisfying feeling

Than to spend an hour

Sitting across a coffee shop table

With another woman in recovery

Sharing my experience, strength and hope,

And receiving hers.

A final paradox that I,

As a writer,

Particularly appreciate is that

The stories of my worst moments in life

Are actually my greatest gifts.

When I think about the moment of

Desolation and fear on October 1, 2006,

When I realized that

I could not live with alcohol

But I could not live without it,

I had no idea that that story

Could be a gift I could give to

Other women

Suffering from untreated alcoholism.

My most difficult moments in life

Are also that ones that most deeply connect me with others,

And in that way I see them as

Gifts that I’m obligated to share.

One gift I get to share with others now

Is the gift of the words that I heard

In the church that day.

I get to say to you

The words that were said to me:

“You are precious and delicate.

And it’s okay.”

After 20 years with my head in the sand, back to feminist roots

thAs a girl,

I was unapologetically



In the safe cocoon

Of my parents’

Encouragement and


I could talk loud and

Indignant about the

Inequality I was learning

More about


And then

I went out in the world,

To college,

And quickly observed that

Most men–

And, to my dismay,

Lots of women–


Want to

Talk about


That word made people

Roll their eyes and even


And so,

I stopped talking about it.

I put my head down,

And I painstakingly gathered a

Life together that,

I felt,

Wasn’t affected by

The inequality.

“I don’t see it in my life,”

I’d think tremulously

When I did hear

Women talking about the


Male-centeredness of our

Society and our


I’ve never been beaten up by

A boyfriend.

I’ve never been


I’ve never

(To my unexamined knowledge)

Been paid less than a

Man doing the

Same work.

I wouldn’t have even

Wanted to stay home from work

More than

Twelve weeks when I had my



I have a job that gave me

Sick time to use and

Short-term disability

When I was on maternity leave.

I don’t live in a society that

Doesn’t let women drive,

Or slices out their clitoris,

Or makes them the

Property of their husbands.

So for 20 years,

I avoided.

Whenever there was an

Article in the news about

Women’s inequality

I skipped it,

Packing down the

Consternation in my gut that

This is




When I did hear women

Broach the subject

I’d nod along but

Not really



Too depressing.

Too big to solve.





And yet.

And yet.

My avoidance is becoming


I’m aware of a


Dismay that




The headlines are starting to

Bellow at me:

Wage inequality;

Women’s reproductive rights in peril;

Mass rape of women and girls in war zones.

The message is

Becoming clear:

It’s time for me to


Thinking and

Writing about




Things are

Pretty good for me.


I guess.

But this is still

Very much a



And I feel called to

Hash out a




For myself,

That makes sense


For this moment in history,

That’s not

Angry at men,

That sees myself in

Partnership and

Interdependent with

Men and


Around my community and




My formal

Education is


I read some,

But not much,

Feminist theory in


All I have is my


I can’t speak for


Women’s lives around the

Globe are so

Vastly different.

If you make a

Generalization about


You’ll always get someone saying,

“But that’s my



And yet.

Fear of that reaction

Has kept my

Feminism dormant and

Festering for 20 years.

And so over the next year or so,

My blog is going to

Explore my

Rekindled feminism.

Some topics I’ll explore include:

“Lessons from the gay rights movement;”

“What makes women women? Biology. Solution centered in the body?”

“Women having more doesn’t mean men having less;”

“Children aren’t a women’s issue, but let’s be real: Infants are;”

“My own personal feminist manifesto;”

“I’d don’t want special rights and I’m not angry. I just want to talk;”

“Maybe my life is okay, but other women’s aren’t. I have a duty to speak up;”

“Independence is a fallacy, we have to come together;”

“Men have a big stake in this, too;”

“The tragedy of misunderstood female sexuality.”

“Do we need a new word for feminism?”

I hope you’ll read

And let me know what you think.

Surrounded by screens, I need books now more than ever

thThe other day

On the morning bus to work,

I sat amongst

Five people

Reading books.

It was lovely and cozy,

The morning sunlight

Streaking through the windows,

The heater blowing warm air

On my legs

As we wended our way


My bus-neighbors

Flipping pages around me.


I love books.

I love reading books,

I love watching people

Read books

(I can’t help but

Glance over people’s

Shoulders to see

What they’re reading.

I try to be as

Uncreepy as possible.) th-10

I love browsing musty used

Book stores–

I have one of the best

Used book stores

Two blocks from my house on

University and Snelling,

Midway Books,

Run by a curmudgeonly old man,

His long, stringy hair flattened to his scalp

With a dirty sweatband.

He hates kids and


But he likes people like me:

Adults who

Retreat silently for hours into his


Whose purchases he makes

Comraderly comments on:

“Ah, spending some time with

Sinclair Lewis

This weekend?”

(Alas, I did waste a

Month this fall studying one of our state’s

Literary luminaries to discover that,

Despite his

Nobel Prize in 1930,

He kinda sucks.)


I finished a good book–

Margaret Atwood’s latest

Short story collection–

And didn’t have another book

Lined up to immediately start.

If I don’t have a book going,

Or one to look forward to,

It’s typical for me to

Feel adrift and irritable.

This time,

My reaction was stronger.

It was more like panic and fear.

What if this was the moment when I just




What if I just

Allowed myself to get

Sucked into the

Riptide of



And never pick up a



It would be easy enough to do. th-5

People seem to do it

All the time.

I had a deeply


Conversation with a colleague recently.

He was talking about how,

Since he reads all day

(On screens)

The last thing he wants to do

Outside work hours is




“Just gimme my

Remote control and a

Six pack,”

He pronounced with a


“You know what I mean?”

th-1I was silent.

He didn’t know that I

Write books

In my spare time,

And I didn’t want to

Make him feel like a

Jackass by

Telling him.

But I kinda got it.

Even for a bibliophile like me,

It takes something like


To put my device down at the

End of the day

And pick up a book. th-12


Affect me like


They make my brain

Quivery inside my skull,

They make this




Into a candidate for

ADHD medication.

And the content on the screens:

I slurp up information

On the screen


Out of control,

Like how I used to drink.

All those Netflix series!

All those real estate listings!

All that celebrity news!

So many


Digital rabbit holes.

Feed my head.

Feed my head.

Feed my head.

th-14That’s why

Even though it takes

One moment of

Discipline to

Close the laptop or the

Tablet cover

At the end of the day

And pick up my


I need that book


More than


The simplicity of the

Black and white pages,

The subtle texture of the


Give my brain

Space to

Delve deeply

Into the words,

The ideas.

Books have always been

A joyful part of my life.

But these days,

They’re a critical one.

To read a book th-16

At the end of a day

And let it lull me into


And then


Is a deeply

Precious  and

Necessary daily retreat.

To know that

There are enough books out there

To fill my lifetime

And then some,

That I’ll never run out of

Books to read

No matter how long I live

Is one of the things

I love most about


And in this


Screenified world,

I’m more sure of that

Than ever.







Done calling myself “busy”

thIf a life is like a

Jar full of rocks,

My jar is objectively

Pretty full.

I’m married,

We have four kids

Ages two to fifteen.

My husband and I both

Work full-time.

I spend time every week with my

12-step program and my church.

I see friends frequently.

Exercise daily.

Have a blog, and am

Working on a novel.

And yet,

I made a decision at the

New year:

I’m going to stop calling myself


A rich life?


A busy one?

No thanks.

When people asked

How I was, I always answered,



The “busy” somehow a

Qualifier to the “good.”

The busier I thought of myself

And the busier I told people I was,

The busier I felt.

Just saying the word


Tightens my chest like

Twisting a piece of cloth.

The panic of

Not enough time,

Feeling like I’m trying to do the


Fit more into this span of time

Than the limitations of our world

Allow for.

Or, to tack on to the

Rocks-in-jar metaphor,

To try to cram more rocks

Into the jar than

The jar can hold.

(Pushing down on rocks to

Compress them

Is a futile exercise,

A waste of time and energy,

And can break the fragile jar-vessel.)

There have been times when I’ve

Glimpsed the

Self-induced spin I’ve

Put myself into.

Sudden breaks in the action when,

Between this and that activity,

I have an unexpected blip of unplanned time,

And I’m at a loss.

I actually grasp for the

Next thing

(Or my




Because I’m so

Unpracticed at just

Hanging out.


There’s also a

Self-importance to my

Busyness, and an

Implication that

I don’t really have time for


So if I’m standing here

Talking to you,

You’re imposing on my



(Even if I have a smile on my face.)

In the last few months,

I started to suspect that,

Maybe I’m not as


As I think I am.

I’ve got a lot of rocks in my jar,

But there are

Spaces between the rocks.

And room at the top for

New rocks,

If I want there to be.

Thinking of myself as


I cut myself off from the


I’m so focused on

The next thing to do that

I don’t even see all these

Cool things and

Cool people

Happening around me.

I catch myself now.

When people ask me how I am,

I don’t tack on the



I’m trying to focus more on the

Spaces between the rocks,

The air in there,

The nothingness.

Those spaces,

That’s my paradise.

That’s my wandering without aim,

My earplug-quiet and darkness

Just before sleep,

My Sunday mornings when we

Skip church,

My clocklessness,

My finding myself with

Nothing to do,


Not reaching for my

Smart phone.

Paradise amongst the






New year’s train ride: a changing world, a changing self in the window

IMG_0093It’s new year’s day


(the year I turn




I’m on the train–

One of my

Favorite places to be.

The City of New Orleans,

20 hours between

New Orleans and


Gazing out this train window is

My kind of entertainment:

Scenery flowing steadily by,

The deep, damp greens and

Browns of

The south in winter.

The gray-day

Forests and fields and

Poor, small, rickety towns.

Looking out the train window

In the daylight,

It’s expansive thinking,

Thinking that quests over the

Landscapes and

Around these small-town buildings and

Between the scrub brushes like

Rippling water.

Who are the people

In those houses?

What are the stories of those

Old buildings?

Who’s poled along these bayous and

Tramped in these forests?

And I love the

Rock of the train.

To just lay on this

Sleeper car bed and

Let this almost-40-year-old body

Be rolled

Back and


To settle and


Deeper into my oldening skin and bones

With every gentle

Tug of the tracks,

This Buddha-grinning head

Lolling on the pillow,

These yoga feet

Flexing in the luxury of having

The whole bottom double berth

To myself.

To think that

Americans disdain

Riding the train!


Who think of ourselves as

Expanders and


There’s nothing more

Large and

Outward-glowing than a

Day-lit view out a

Train window.

IMG_0106And then,

The transition to night:

It’s that dark, snowless,

Southern winter kind of night

When you blink at your phone,

Amazed it’s only


Now the window is a



Flecked by passing lights outside.

Now it’s you and

Your reflection in the glass,

Your almost-40-year-old


Moving your stuff around the

Blue-lit cabin.

You and the reflection of the

Top of your head

Lit by the reading lamp,

Doming like a perfect


Like it holds a

Momentary miracle.

I’ve ridden trains for years.

How many times have I

Encountered the

Black train-window mirror,

Reflections of the back-lit

Shadowy hints of

Myself at

14 years old,

21 years old,



European trains in my

Twenties and thirties.

A lot of

Confusion and grasping,

Tears and

Unsteady cockiness in those

Old black-glass mirrors.

Today in the black-glass mirror,

I feel like a

Stretching cat,

Self-satisfied to

Loll here on vacation after




To have a strong-jawed husband in the

Berth above me,

A cantaloupe-bellied toddler

Sleeping in the pack-n-play,

Three other children

Growing in their sleep in the

Cabin next door.

(These children don’t

Save you from yourself but


If you keep enough of

Yourself to


They teach you

Many lessons.

And they are so funny.


Laugh and laugh.)

Today the

Black-glass mirror isn’t about

Angst and


Today it’s about a

Wink into the

Black night

And a curiosity for

What will be revealed

When the

Morning light turns this

Glass from a

Mirror back into a

Window on this

Mad, lovely





Recommitting to my gritty, authentic neighborhood: Hamline-Midway

P1050282Last weekend

Rocky, Victor and I

Walked around our neighborhood,


Me with my camera

Around my neck,

Bouncing on my chest

As I walked,

Pushing Rocky’s stroller,

Victor walking next to us in his

Swishy snow pants,

His begloved hand

Resting on the stroller handle.

The sky was utterly blue,


And the winter sun was

Small and hard,

Throwing symmetrical noon shadows from the

Southern sky.

I was out looking for

Cool stuff to


In my


In Hamline-Midway, this




Dynamic neighborhood where

I’ve lived for

Six years.

Growing up in the suburbs of St. Paul,

I was restless for a more

Complicated ambiance than the

1980s housing tract

Surrounded by marshland

My parents lovingly provided,

And I rushed into the city

As soon as I started college.

But it’s taken me a


Long time to

Get a grip on the trade-offs of

City living.

When we first started looking for

Houses in 2008,

I’d listed to our realtor

All the neighborhoods I wanted to

Look in,

And seeing my price range,

He’d mentioned the


“No way,” I’d said.

“Really? Midway?

Isn’t that kind of


“There are some nice

Neighborhoods back there,”

He’d said.


And so we’d bought our


1920’s bungalow,

Six of us in this

Little house,

Winter boots shoved in corners

Because there are no coat closets,

Refrigerator in the back hallway,

Visitors wedged

Hip-to-hip on the

Couches in the

Small living room.

And the neighborhood:

The empty shopping carts

Tipped over on snowbanks,

The pained stories on the neighborhood

Facebook page of

Home break-ins and

Cars rifled through,

The homeless folks with their

Cardboard signs

At the main intersections.

For the past couple years,

I’ve been

Planning my escape,

Emailing regularly with my

Mortgage banker and

Meeting with our realtor about

Plans and


A bigger, nicer house in a

“Better” neighborhood.

But deep down,

I knew I hadn’t really given

This house and

This neighborhood

A chance.

And I suspected that if I

Moved to a

Beautiful house in a




I would realize too late how

Valuable to my

Life experience

This house and this neighborhood has been.

How the century-old buildings


For all the

Life that’s been

Lived in them.

How living as neighbors with

People who’ve had

Very few breaks in life

Has helped me find my

Voice as a writer who

Writes about

People of privilege encountering

Marginalized people

And having their worldview challenged.

I’ve always suspected that

This is a precious place in the world.

That there’s real life going on here,

Life that’s not always easy,

Life where things don’t

Fall into place,

Complicated life.

Rich life.

In a two-block radius from our house,

There’s a

Russian tea house with

Line-around-the-block pierogies,

A men’s drug and alcohol treatment center,

A pawn shop,

A porn shop,

The best Thai restaurant

In the Cities,

A surplus store displaying a

Real iron lung (not for sale),

An Ethiopian restaurant,

A drum shop,

A used book store with

Surly signs in the windows about

No bus waiting and

No kids without parents,

A 1940s-era nightclub with a

Mosaic scene of

Cowboys artifying an

Exterior wall.

Recently, we’ve decided to stay.

To add on to this house we might be able to

Actually pay off some day,

To recommit to this neighborhood.

And as soon as we’d made that decision,

My eyes started seeing it:

All the art that’s here.

The architectural details,

The mosaic designs.

And the funny,

Humble people who believe enough in

This place

To make this art.

I needed to act on my re-commitment,

And so the picture day.

The day I started seeing how

Rich this

Hamline-Midway is:





































































































My little white boy in an all-black program

Pixelation14There’s almost nothing

I’d rather

Not write about

Than this:


And the honest truth about how I

Respond to racial difference.

But here goes.

After searching online,

I found a new after-school program

For my 9-year-old:

One that’s affordable and


That his school will bus him to,

And that had an opening.

I went over to

Sign him up and

As I was standing there

Waiting for the director to

Get some paperwork,

I read a brochure about the program

That I hadn’t seen online.

I learned that this program is

Intended to demonstrate and teach

African-American heritage to its students

Through different art forms.

And then I looked around and realized that

All the staff and kids

Were black.

I had two nearly simultaneous reactions:



Let’s just call it what it is:


Of putting my little white

Finnish boy in an all-black environment.

And then,


Shame for feeling that way.

For the next couple days before

He started there,

I thought about my son.

At nine, he was too old now to

Not notice race,

But not old enough to have

Too many culturally prescribed

Notions about it.

It was going to be something

New for him,

Something I’ve never experienced

In my life


For the first few weeks

Everything went great.

Everyone was friendly and welcoming,

The kids calling out,

“Bye Victor!” when I’d come to pick him up,

The staff giving me an

Indulgent play-by-play of his activities.

In the car,

I’d ask him how it went,

And he said his usual:


And then one day,

When I came to pick him up,

He was sitting on a bench

In the playground

Instead of playing with the

Other kids.

In the car

When I asked how things had gone that day,

He said,

“I dunno.”

I tried to probe a little, and he finally said,

“I don’t wanna go back there.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I feel embarrassed.”

“Why do you feel embarrassed?”

“Because I’m the only white.”


Here we go.

At that moment,

There was a part of me that wanted to

Yank him out of that program

To protect him from ever having to feel

Unsure of himself,

Or wary,

Or out of place.

But I knew that wasn’t

The answer.

He was going to stay in that program.

And we were going to talk about this.

“You know, buddy,” I heard myself say.

“A lot of black kids in Minnesota

Experience it all the time,

Being the only black kid in the room.”

I named a boy in his class at school

Who is one of a couple black kids

In his class.

And I told him about the

Handful of black kids at my

White suburban high school.

And I told him about how

I wish I’d had an experience

Like his

When I was his age.

What became clear as I

Stumbled my way through this


Watching him through the rear view mirror

As he gazed out the car window,

Screwing up his nose to push his glasses up

The way he does,

Was that I had



For him.

Just a handful of experiences

And a freaked out

Willingness to


If he wanted to discuss.

Now when I come to pick him up

I find him out of the playground with the

Other kids,

And he went back to saying,


When I ask him in the car

How it went.

It’s no big deal to him again.


I feel unsure even writing about this.

I brought up Victor’s situation

To a black girlfriend of mine,

Seeking some input on how to talk about


With kids


And honestly.

She was utterly gracious.

We laughed about how Victor used to call

Black people

Brown people,



Their skin is brown,

Not black.

And I confessed that once,

At the height of Victor’s struggles in school

When the district changed its busing policy

So that he might have to go to

Our neighborhood school,

I vowed not to send him there.

“He’ll be the only white kid in his class.

I won’t put him in that situation,”

I’d said then.

“I just won’t.

I’ll take him on the city bus myself

To a different school

If I have to.”

This is my liberalism:

Words, ideas, good intentions.

But when it comes to my family,

I stay where I’m comfortable.

I’m dismayed to think that

I don’t even know how to

Talk about this,

Or write about it,

That it feels like there’s no language

That strikes just the right tone.

I want to

Bear witness to the

Differences between

My experience and


To acknowledge past and present


And beauty,

And the commonality of daily living we all share:

The sleeping,

The eating,

The breathing,

The raising kids.

To just see you

And acknowledge you

And say,

“Yes, I see you.

I see you.

I don’t know what to say

And I don’t know what to do,

But I see you.

We see you.

My boy and I,

We see you.”

It seems like a start to

Me, who has

Lived long in

Shame and


Who doesn’t want the same

For her boy.



My brother’s wedding: first big family event since our mom died

10672363_10204471243522534_8656715992297499162_nIt was the

First big family event after

My mother’s death:

My little brother got married.

Doug’s now-wife,

The incomparable Sarah,

Had come into our family

Three months before our mom

Died of Alzheimer’s.

Unfazed by the

Slow-burn trauma

Our family was slogging through

At the end of Mom’s




Sarah plunged right in.

She and my brother exchanged

The giddy first Christmas gifts

Of their relationship

In the sick room where we

All had gathered.

No squeamishness,

No wariness,

Just a deep empathy,

And an intuitive sense of what

Needed to get done–

Meals cooked,

Thank you cards written after the funeral.

During those dreadful last months

Of my mother’s life,

There were flickers like

Lightning bugs of

Laughter and lightness and

Hope for the future,

And Doug’s relationship with Sarah

Was one of them,

And Sarah herself was another.

WP_000005The day of the wedding,

I carried in the palm of my hand a

Small, round picture of my

Mom and my brother

When Doug was probably about five,

His hair white blonde,

Sucking in his bottom lip the way

He used to as a child,

My mom in her late 30s–

Probably my age–

Pretty and happy to have her

Favorite little boy in her lap,

Looking slightly above the camera,


As we walked to the wedding together,

I silently showed the

Picture to my brother,

And we put our arms around each other

And he said,

“Thank you, Jen.

Thank you,”

Blinking tears.

I’m the one who cried for

Much of the ceremony,

Looking down into my palm

At the picture,

Or at the empty chair in the

Front row

Laid with a bouquet of yellow roses.

It was Mom’s little boy

Getting married,

The one she got to care for,

Who let her care for him,

Making sure he had flannel sheets

On his bed in the winter,

Patching up his

Favorite blanket over the years.

My brother gave

My mother the kind of

Motherhood she was suited for,

And now there he was,

Under a pure blue sky,

Starting on the next part of

His journey,

With Sarah.

With my mom, too

In a way,

But also very much

Without her.

Later at the end of the reception,

In the soft,

Other-worldly glow of the

Tent lights

It was me and a dozen or so of

Doug and Sarah’s friends left,

Dancing to an iPad playlist.

It was fun and wild and

Most people were pretty wasted and

Feeling the music in that

Drunken way

I remember

(or don’t remember).

There was my little brother and his


Their friends gathered round and round,

Laughing and moving their alive bodies,

It was a joyful and sweet moment,

But what would’ve been just a

Tinge of nostalgia about

Change and

New life journeys

Was instead a wave of grief.

Our mother,

Doug’s mom,

Was dead.

She was dead.

Her ashes moldering in a

Cemetery 80 miles away.

And our lives progress on.

Grandchildren born and

Children married.

There will only be more and more

Events and even


She will have missed.

This: Doug and Sarah’s

Life together,

She won’t see it.

They won’t get the

Benefit of hearing her say,

“I’m so proud of you.”

And indeed,

For all of us young,


Healthy people

Dancing under the

Glowing tent,

This is our moment to be

Heedlessly alive in this world,

But it’ll pass.

We’ll die, too.


I’ve learned,

Is a voluminous container that can

Simultaneously hold

Sadness and joy,

Bitterness and gratitude,

Fear and faith,

Pain and freedom.

And that night

Dancing with my little brother,

I was buffeted with them all.

It was almost

Too much to bear,

But as we do,

I bore it.

And I laughed,

And I cried,

And I danced,

And I cheered their dancing:

Doug and Sarah’s.

My neighbor, who strolls to work

e7c31270d4edaa92_barefoot-walking.xxxlarge_1There he is,

Across the street,

Emerging silently from his house

(Confederate gray with

Neat navy and burgundy trim,

And flowers–

Pink and white and alive–

Spilling from the window boxes).

Every morning he comes out as the

Sky is pinkening,

The eastern exposure of the

Neighborhood houses

Glowing softly,

The various greens of the grass and leaves

Hazy and still.

It’s 6:25 a.m.

In the summer,

I am on the front porch at this time,

Doing my writing

When he steps onto the sidewalk,

Slinging his backpack over his left

Shoulder like a


In a t-shirt even on the cool mornings.

He steps out of the house

Where I’ve seen him

Watering his flowers with a

Girlfriend, or maybe now a


“There he is,”

I whisper to Joe

Who’s come out to

Kiss me good morning.

“Look how he walks.”

And we watch him.

His walk is gentle,


Watching him is like

Listening to a delicious voice speaking.

He strolls silently and slowly,

Looking around the

Treetops of his neighborhood

Like a visitor,

Taking it all in.

His left hand

Loosely clutching his backpack strap,

His right arm swinging mildly.

“I love watching him walk,”

I whisper to Joe.

“He walks so slowly.

And I think he’s on his way to work,

Probably to the bus stop.”

Who, I always think

When I see him,




Looking around his neighborhood

As if he’s

Never seen it before?

Walking for me is


“I recognized you by

Your walk,”

Joe said to me recently.

“How do I walk?”

I’d wondered.


Purposeful,” Joe had said.

“That’s how I walk,”

Joe points out on the porch this morning,

A little piqued,

Because I’m always telling him to

Hurry up,

Or I walk ahead of him,

And then wait impatiently for him to

Catch up.

Walking is all about

Getting somewhere,

Doing something,

Especially on the

Way to work.


There is such a thing as

Walking meditation,


Ever so mindfully,

One places one’s bare foot

On the grass,

Relishing the

Textures and

Temperature and


Observing how one’s

Arms and

Shoulders and

Torso and

Hips respond to the


I’ve tried it

Once or twice.

It’s lovely and


These days,

I experience strolling


Through my neighbor.

I take a long breath and

Watch him walk and

Think how lovely it must be to

Just stroll.