The Nook

This week almost kicked Gratitude Month to the curb.  In a low moment I considered posting: “Life sucks.  The End.”

On Monday evening I ran into Shaw’s for a few things before picking Emma up from Brownies.  As the cashier scanned my items, a message popped up on my phone from one of my old neighbors in Pennsylvania:

Hey Jess, I am sorry to pass on some tragic news – Jen Stagnaro passed away this morning during her run.  She collapsed and couldn’t be revived.

“Excuse me, m’am, what is this?”

I looked up and saw the cashier staring at me, holding up a now seemingly foreign vegetable, waiting for a response.

“What?”  Suddenly I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing there.

“What is this? Is it like an onion or what?”

“No it’s……it’s a….omgwhatthefuckisthatcalled…..fennel.  It’s fennel.”

I somehow managed to pay for the groceries and get them into the car, where I sat in the dark for a while.  I read the message over and over, stunned.  Oh my God.  Jen.  Oh my God. My mind was suddenly flooded with images of Jen’s sweet face, her beachy-blond hair, her fair, rosy skin.

For the three years I lived in Malvern PA, Jen and I were friends and neighbors. I had the pleasure of getting to know her, her husband Mike and their three gorgeous kids. Sitting in the Shaw’s parking lot, memories played in my head like a home video: drinking wine with Jen at book club, waving to her across the gym at Body Pump, stopping for a chat when we were both out walking our dogs.

I pictured her two girls -blond, athletic, mini-versions of Jen- hopping my fence in the backyard on their way to a friend’s house. Her proud Facebook pics of her son Drew playing hockey.  Her supportive and thoughtful comments about something I had written – an opinion that meant a lot to me, coming from a teacher and bookworm like herself.  Oh my God. Jen. How the hell is this happening?

I moved through the rest of the night in a fog: pick up Emma, dinner, homework, bed.  I thought of my other Malvern neighbors, and how stunned and shattered they must be. Never before had I lived in a more tight-knit community: potluck dinners, pool parties, running groups and meal trains.  And Jen, always in the middle of these events, helping, contributing, making shit happen.  Sweet and strong.  Lovely and feisty.

I thought of Mike, Maggie, Annie and Drew.  How do they go on?  No, really.  How does that work?

My phone chimed and dinged with more messages from friends and neighbors.  One text from my friend Mo said:

I came home and hugged [her husband] immediately!  It makes you think, you know?

It did – it made me think about a lot of things. Just a an hour earlier, Phil had come home, having just heard the news himself.  He came up behind me as I sauteed some kale, put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Do you need a hug?”

I stiffened.  “No, thanks.  I’m good.”

I know, I know: What a frigid bitch!  What’s her problem?

I don’t know what my problem is – I have many – but all I know is that I absolutely did not want to be hugged, or held, or pretty much anything in the touching category.  This irked me, and continued to do so when Phil and I went to bed that night.

We read for a while on our respective sides of the bed, but when I turned out the light, I stayed on my edge, curled into a ball.  I could feel Phil’s eyes on my back, silently begging me to meet him in the middle…to lean into him, to spoon, settle into the nook.  On a night where he was hanging on by a thread in a world that felt so unsafe and tenuous, he wanted someone to hold onto.  So did I.  But I couldn’t.

Then, the next morning, as I was trying to make sense of this through writing, my friend Kari sent me this video.

Do we love harder?  Do we squeeze tighter?  Or do we pretend not to care that everyone we love is going to be taken away from us?

I fear the middle of the bed because I fear that one day Phil won’t be there to meet me.  So I try and beat him to the punch by pretending not to need him, by curling myself up into an icy cocoon, thinking that will prepare me, make it hurt less when my worst fears are realized.

But we all know it doesn’t work that way.

Yesterday we found out our sweet dog Ellie has bone cancer.


Our Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.  Not sure how I will ever say goodbye to those sad eyes. We have anywhere from a few weeks to a few months left with her.  This time will be filled with as much holding, hugging and squeezing as her fragile little body will allow.  That night in bed, after reading our books and turning out the light, I shimmied to the middle of the bed where Phil was already waiting, and settled into the nook.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This week I am grateful for Jen Stagnaro.  I feel blessed to have known her and called her friend. I will always remember her smile, her dry wit, and her deep love for her children. Those memories will keep her light alive for me. Forever.

I pray that her family and friends hold on to each other a little tighter and say,

I will not let go.


Grateful Pleasures

Gratitude Month Week #3: Guilty Pleasures

Last month I had dinner with my friend Mary, who in addition to being a marble friend is also a Health and Wellness Coach.  I told her that I was in a bit of a funk, but would soon snap out of it with the help of my vast library of self-help books.  I even had one in my bag as a reference, which I plopped on the table in between the chips and guac.

“See, this book says I really need to be going to yoga five times a week.  And maybe I need a vision board?  And I HAVE to get up earlier to meditate.  But I already get up at 5:00 so maybe….”  Two glasses of wine later I was an overwhelmed, weepy mess blowing my nose in a cocktail napkin.

Mary gave me a long, serious look. “You know what you need to do?”

“What??”  A silent retreat?  A juice fast?  A sugar detox?

She grabbed my book and held it up to my face.  “You need to stop carrying self-help in your purse.  PUT. THIS. SHIT. AWAY.  Read The Hunger Games or something.  Just chill out.  Do something for fun, and don’t feel guilty about it.”

On the way home, I thought about Mary’s advice.  The last book I read “for fun” was the novel Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.  It was in the summer, because that’s the only time I allow myself to read novels (Yes, as I type this, I realize how masochistic that sounds). I devoured it in 48 hours, curled up in my favorite chair.  No self-improvement, no end-of-chapter “dig deep” journaling prompts…just 100% guilty pleasure. Pure bliss.

Guilty Pleasure: (n). Something pleasurable that induces a minor feeling of guilt.

Why do we feel guilty about pleasure? For me, guilt comes from being Catholic the fear that self-care is the gateway drug to laziness.   Another contributor is my parents’ somewhat Puritanical work ethic.


I think that the guilt that comes with watching Dancing With the Stars or rocking out to Ace of Base stems from the feeling that we should be doing something else (more productive, cerebral, and growth-producing) or that we should be someone else (cooler, smarter, and more sophisticated).  We should askew fluff in favor of substance.  Use our time valuably.

But, sometimes….

Isn’t feeling good value enough?

I say yes.  Dammit.

This past week, I vowed to be grateful for guilty pleasures.  Here are some of mine:


TJ Maxx:  When Phil travels a lot, I can get a bit bitchy fried.  When he’s home, he will say, “Why don’t you get a pedicure?”

And I respond: “I just want to go to TJ Maxx. Alone.”

I don’t know what it is about that place, but for me  it’s more relaxing than a spa.  I roam the aisles peacefully, filling my cart with a designer bag, a sports bra, a pumpkin candle – and then methodically put everything back.   Then, before I leave blissful and (sometimes) empty-handed, I run to the bathroom to poop.  Because TJ Maxx is just that relaxing.


Coloring: I baby-sat a lot as a teenager, and always went armed with coloring books and the 64 pack of Crayolas.  “Wanna color?” I would say, whipping out my materials before they could say “Barbies.”  I use the same strategy with my own kids, and they usually buy it because I sit and color with them.  The problem is, they lose interest after about 10 minutes, which is not nearly enough time for me to finish my masterpiece.  They wander off while I sink deeper into the coloring zone, until I inevitably get busted by Emma.  With a nice big roll of the eyes, she says: “MOMMMMM!  Aren’t you gonna like, MAKE DINNER?”

vh1VH1- I Love the 80’s: This show makes me snort.  Where else are you going to find Carrot Top, Traci Lords, and Alice Cooper pondering the big questions of an entire decade, like:

  • Why did Doc from Love Boat get laid so much?
  • Was He-Man gay?
  • Can watching scrambled cable porn give you brain damage?
  • Do you need to be high on cocaine to master the Rubik’s Cube?

Excessive Texting: When I find myself waiting -the bus stop, school pick up line, or doctor’s office – I would love to say that I seize the moment of solitude by meditating or reading a passage from Rumi.  But the truth is, by 4:00, by brain is too toasty for Rumi, and if I tried to meditate I would fall asleep. So instead, I send a highly intelligent text, like this one to my cousin Meg:

IMG_3093Guilty Pleasure Playlist:  Here we go.  Now we get to the good stuff – the playlist of shame. You know you have one – it’s the reason the phrase “guilty pleasure” was invented.  I have to admit, posting this playlist – the one I only listen to in the car, alone – feels braver than having my colon removed.  I am musically naked. But in the spirit of Gratitude Month, I’m going for it.

Image 6

Do I feel embarrassed looking at this playlist?  Well…maybe a little bit.  But guilty?  Absolutely not.   Each of these songs make me feel something: silly, energized, peaceful, weepy…more alive.  And that makes me feel grateful, not guilty.

Sometimes I think we confuse pleasure with numbing.  But numbing is something else. Numbing is eating the whole box of Thin Mints with no memory of doing it.  To numb is to tune out.  To feel pleasure is to tune in. 

The idea of pleasure is to feel more, because it feels good: the “ahhhh” of sinking into the couch, the urge to dance that accompanies House of Pain your favorite song, the taste of your grandmother’s oven-roasted potatoes.

Kids get it.  They just do what feels good, because, why wouldn’t you? Kids don’t “dance like no one is watching,” because they don’t give a shit who’s watching.  They just dance.

Image 2

What are your guilty grateful pleasures?

Feelin’ Alive

Last week I declared November Gratitude Month.  Immediately I began noticing an abundance of things to be grateful for:  my family, the ocean, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. These are no-brainers.  So I decided to challenge myself by cultivating appreciation for something that can draw a more mixed bag of emotion.

This week I am grateful for: My Body.

Before my total colectomy in 2011, I was a spaz pretty active gal: hot yoga teacher, marathoner, etc.  If I didn’t wake up with tight hips and sore hamstrings, I wasn’t working hard enough.  I will spare you the gory medical details, but let’s just say my post-surgery body operates by a different set of rules.  It took me a long time to admit that, and even longer to accept it.

Ok, I didn’t really accept it.  I kept trying to do the same things I did before, as if I were some kind of colon-less Wonder Woman.  Then, after failing miserably, would say to myself, You just need to try harder.  And then perform the whole song and dance all over again.


I just re-read the memoir Waking by Matthew Sanford, who, at age 13, was in a car accident that killed his father and sister, and left him paralyzed from the chest down. Through the practice of yoga, he developed a keen mind-body awareness and a deep sense of compassion for his handicapped body.  It’s what he calls a “healing story.”

When I think of “healing stories,” a strong memory comes to mind.  Early in our relationship, Phil took me to a retreat run through Villanova called the HEC (Handicapped Encounter Christ).  Because that sounds like an obvious place to get laid for a third date.

The HEC, run by a gentle hippie Augustinian named Father Shawn and a group of lay people associated with the University, was an amalgam of Christian revival, Girl Scout camp, and a Grateful Dead show.  As one of the able-bodied participants,  you were responsible for changing catheters and other tasks I am pretty sure should have been handled by a licensed medical professional, not my boyfriend wearing a balloon hat.

But no one seemed to care who was doing the job as long as it was getting done.  Taking care of business left room for other activities, like dressing up in costumes, helping someone bang a tambourine with his elbows, and shot-gunning beers by an open fire. Safety was not a huge concern to the HECers.  They grabbed freedom where they could get it.

They just wanted to feel alive.

I was maybe 24 at the time, and was not the in a “grab freedom by the balls” phase of life. I was more in a rigid, neurotic, “I am going to control all the changes in my life by running 40 miles a week and eating only melon.”

I may not have known it then, but I really needed the HEC.  No one cared that I was such a hot mess, because they were all hot messes too, in their own unique way.  No one gave a shit if I ate the mashed potatoes or not, because most of them had mashed potatoes all over their faces.  I can say this with great fondness,  because we all laughed about it – no one took themselves too seriously.  Everyone made fun of themselves and each other, but in a loving way. It was pure, joyful madness.  It really wasn’t all that different from Thanksgiving with Phil’s family.  Relax, I’m kidding. Sort of.

In Waking, Sanford says:

My experience is not so different from yours, it is only more extreme…We all live on a continuum of ability and disability.  The process of aging guarantees this – everyone eventually will become less able.

The humility of his comparison blows me away.  All changes in our bodies – whether it be a spinal cord injury or the post-pregnancy curse of peeing when you sneeze – require some degree of adjustment, compassion, and acceptance.  I don’t mean forced optimism. You know, when people say things like: “Why would you need another baby?  You have two beautiful girls!”

Maybe for some that’s helpful, but it makes me want to respond with: “You’re right!  Who cares that I can’t absorb nutrients or procreate?  I can still go to the circus and eat ice cream and dream about rainbows and unicorns!”

A blessing doesn’t cancel out a loss, like some kind of spiritual Jedi mind trick.  It’s about holding space for both the disappointment and the gratitude. Running long distances and having my kids made me feel alive.

So what can I do to feel alive right now?

Recently, after a failed attempt at a run, I chose to NOT kick my own ass or plan a new training strategy.  Instead, I went for a walk.  And the next day I went for another walk. Then, a few days later, I walked for a bit, stopped, laid in the grass and looked at the clouds.  I haven’t done that in 25 years.

When I see my body as fleeting and impermanent with a No Moneyback Guarantee,  I am more inclined to stop and thank it for what it does for me right now.  Because while I may not be able to do this:


or this


I can still do this…


…and this….


…and this.

Jessie_yoga (7 of 7)

And that’s a lot to be grateful for.

What would make you feel alive today?

Marble Friends


I declare November Gratitude Month.  This week I am grateful for: Marble Friends.

Let me explain.

Emma -my 2nd grader- has been experiencing some playground drama.  When she gets off the bus,  I can tell from her face what kind of day she’s had.  I take a deep breath and jump in:

“How was school today?”

“Terrible.  On the playground, I tried to play tag with C and N, but they kept running away from me.  So then I asked M if I could play with her and she said she had to go ask K since the game was her idea.  But then they decided to to go on the monkey bars so I just stood there ALL ALONE.  Do we have Pirate’s Booty?”

I was not ready for this.  I thought I had more time to prepare for the “Surviving the Shark Infested Social Waters” conversation.  I was banking on 4th grade. Now I had to come up with something wise to say before I got around to reading Queen Bees and Wannabees. Dammit.

When I was Emma’s age,  I was taught to be nice. Respectful. Be polite to everyone even if they steal your lunch and beat you with it.   As a people-pleaser, I was committed to being liked, so I focused on being nice and funny.  Being funny was my ticket to social acceptance, because even if you are not popular, smart, or athletic, most kids enjoy eating lunch with someone who is willing to snort pretzel salt for a laugh.

Having a sense of humor saved me from myself many times, but the “be nice” thing landed me in therapy created some internal conflict.  Because not everyone is nice in return. Some people are assholes, and others are assholes pretending to be nice.  Many times I found myself being nice to someone who wasn’t respectful, or oversharing with someone who wasn’t trustworthy. Then I would feel icky and desperate, or like the bastard child of Teddy Ruxpin.


I find it interesting that my parents always encouraged me to “be picky” when it came to potential boyfriends, because I deserved to “be selective.”  But no one ever said that about girlfriends.  Shouldn’t these early friendships lay the ground work for deeper relationships down the road? 

My dad would say, Make sure you can really trust a person before you date him. How about: Make sure you can really trust a person before you play “Girl Talk?  A game that instructed you to “lap water out of a bowl like a dog” and cover your face with red zit stickers was way more traumatizing than getting felt up at a Blues Traveler concert.

80s-girl talk game

The main points I wanted to get across to Emma:

  1. Not everyone is going to like you.
  2. You are not going to like everyone.
  3. That’s ok.
  4. There are different degrees of friendship.

It took me many years to fully grasp #4.  I am pretty much an open book (I know, shocking) and I had to learn how to not projectile puke my feelings self-censor my emotions in certain social spheres.  In order to do this, I had to just shut the hell up for a while – and ease up on the wine, because then everyone is my BFF.  The shame spiral that occurs the morning after you told your neighborhood book club about your Ambien-induced Cool Whip incident is more humiliating than your worst college hook-up.  Yes, even him.  Trust me.


But how do I describe this whole hierarchy of friendship to a 2nd grader?  I don’t.  I let Brene Brown explain it, because she’s awesome and I drink whatever flavor Cool-Aid she is serving. In Daring Greatly, she describes a situation with her then 3rd grade daughter, Ellen. Ellen shared a secret with a girlfriend at school, only to have that trust betrayed. Rather than find the little Benedict Arnold and force her to play Girl Talk, Brown likened friendship to a marble jar.

Whenever someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honors what you share with them as private, you put marbles in the jar.  When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out.

I relayed the marble jar metaphor to Emma while driving home from karate.  I watched her face in the rearview mirror as she absorbed this concept.

“So who are your marble friends?” she asked.

“Well, I am lucky to have a few.  Aunt Lynnie is one for sure.”

“Why?  What makes her a marble friend?”

“Well….she’s very loyal.”

“What’s loyal mean?”

“She sticks by me. Remember when I had surgery? Aunt Lynnie bought me really nice body wash before I went into the hospital.  That made me feel really loved.  And she lets me be myself.  I can cry and blow a snot bubble and she won’t laugh or make fun of me until at least two days later. Does that make sense?”

She nods.  “Yeah.  It does.  I think I have some marble friends, too.”


“McKenzie.  Because she is kind and we both like to do art….and if I tell her a secret she won’t tell anyone.  And, probably Sophia too, because we’ve taken baths together and she’s seen my private parts.”

“Makes sense.”


Since that conversation, there has been no mention of the playground.  The Marble Jar.  It’s f***ing genius.

As for me, I’ve been thinking more about how to be a better Marble Friend: Listen more. Don’t fix.  Be on time.  Show gratitude.  SHUT THE HELL UP.

Anne Lamott says:

Maybe we don’t find a lot of answers to life’s closer questions, but if we find a few true friends, that’s even better.  They help you see who you truly are, which is not always the loveliest version of yourself, but then comes the greatest miracle of all – they still love you.

Thank you, Marble Friends.  You know who you are.