What Your Words Do To Me

Dear Emma,

Yesterday, you turned eight. Before bed, you said, “I am ready to say goodbye to seven. I have better luck with the even ages.” IMG_4871 It hasn’t been the easiest year, this is true. Maybe you are little angry with me and Dad. You don’t really understand why we did this to you, why we made you move mid-year. You had finally felt your feet sink into the sandy shores of Scituate, and now you are one those cats on a poster in the Scholastic Book Order; you know, the one with a kitty dangling from its claws on a tree limb with a goofy caption like:  I didn’t sign up for this. ??????????????????????????????? It’s true, you didn’t, which is a downside to being a kid with parents. But here’s the upside: you don’t need to dangle there with your claws digging, hanging on for dear life. You can let go. Because as long as I am around, I will catch you.  And even if I am not, you will be ok.

Believe me, if I could run underneath you with a safety net 24/7, I would.  I see you try to do it with Phoebe by being the big, protective sister. A few weeks ago, while riding in the car, you quizzed her on preschool social etiquette in the backseat:

“Now Phoebe, let’s say you are coloring with a purple marker, and your classmate comes up and takes it right out of your hand. Do you:

a. Say, “Can I have that back? I wasn’t done using it.”

b. Tattle to the teacher

c. Say, “Back off, Dude.”

Phoebe, as if on cue: “C. I go with C.”

I looked at you in the rear view mirror, your eyes closed, shaking your head. “No, no, Phoebe. The answer is A.”

Phoebe just shrugged. Pretty sure she stands behind C.

At my writing retreat last week, I watched a documentary called What I Want My Words To Do To You. It takes place in a women’s prison. The prisoners are given the opportunity to write their story through a writing workshop, and then actors come to the prison and perform the prisoners’ stories, reading their own words back to them.

I think everyone should have this opportunity, because you don’t have to commit a crime to feel imprisoned. Sometimes all our feelings can build an invisible cage that keeps us trapped; we want to escape but can’t find the key.

I’ll tell you a secret: your words are the key.

You are pretty amazing with your words – you can articulate feelings in a way many adults cannot. Just the other morning, you were trying to tell me how you felt about all the changes in your life and at school; about all the drawers in your head that are jammed with too much stuff. You even drew a diagram, pausing only to say, “You should use this in your blog, Mom. This is good stuff.” IMG_4872 And in my head, I got all cocky, thinking, This IS good stuff! Now we are getting somewhere! We are making diagrams, here People! I am NAILING this parenting moment.

Which of course is the moment it all falls apart.

Because I started giving a lot of advice.

I don’t remember exactly what I said – some paltry, parent-y sounding words of wisdom that ended with my closing statement of “it’s just going to take time.” Whatever I said, it caused you to storm off, because I “clearly don’t get it,” and what does that even mean, it takes time? What about right now? What about right now?

I sat there, abruptly alone, stunned. Crushed that I had blown it, this wonderful diagraming moment we were having. Then, I went for a run.

As my feet hit the pavement, I repeated your words in my mind. What about right now? What does she need from me right now? Right now, I need to stop and listen to the story that is taking shape for you, day by day. RIght now I can support you best by being with you, not doing for you. Right now I can ask more questions and give less advice. Right now I can be a little softer, because everyone is a little delicate. Right now I can paint your toe nails. IMG_4816 Right now I can try and make you laugh, or buy you a milkshake, or take you to yoga. IMG_4742 What I am NOT going to do is pretend I have all the answers. Because here’s another secret: I don’t.

I thought of the women in that prison, writing their stories. I thought of you, only eight years old, already writing your own story as you stumble through these new challenges, trying to make meaning out of these new – and sometimes uncomfortable – experiences.

But just as Phoebe is going to pick “C” even if you think the answer is “A,” she’s still going to do what she feels is right. And while you can offer your opinion, that’s her story. You don’t want Phoebe to get in trouble, you want to protect her by prepping her ahead of time. I get that. But you need to trust Phoebe enough that she can handle it, and if she get’s in trouble, that will be her lesson. IMG_4870 I understand the desire to feel prepared; to go into recess or lunch clutching a script written by someone “older and wiser,” with all the “right things” to say. But you don’t need a script; the right words are already inside of you. You just need to believe that they are there. And I need to give you the space to find them.

I know that coming into a new school midyear is intimidating.  But you – my sassy, strong-willed, pink-fedora wearing, Gwen Stefani loving daughter – are courageous. And you’ve got this.

IMG_4461 Last night, after your birthday dinner, you said to me, “Maybe we could write a book together, about moving and how its stinks, since we are like experts. I bet it could help people, to know…they are not alone.”

You are an amazing kid. At eight years old, you already understand the healing power of sharing our stories; of using our words to better understand ourselves and the diaphanous, cobwebby strands that tie us to others.

Your words are teaching me about what it means to feel compassion, to just be with someone, to really listen.

Your words are teaching me how to be humble, how to say I don’t know, how to release my grip on life, and on you.

Your words are teaching me how to trust that we know more than we think we do.

Your words are teaching me that maybe those we love need us to do less and be more.

That, my Emma, is what your words do to me.

Please keep telling me your story, and I promise to listen. Maybe someday, you will let me read it back to you. IMG_4714xoxo


My Writing Process

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”  -Stephen King


I am flattered and excited to be a part of a “blog hop” of different writers blogging about why they write, and how they do it.  Jessica Barlevi Halpeis of Nourished Mom was kind enough to ask me to join in.  I said yes immediately, before I was exactly sure what I was saying yes to, because I trust Jessica and find her writing inspiring.  Besides having a very clear and endearing writing voice, I see Jessica as a true seeker.  She can take a seemingly ordinary topic and dig so deeply into it that I feel like I am Alice chasing the rabbit down the rabbit hole.  Her writing is complex, full of light and dark, and committed to finding the core nugget of truth in every piece she writes.

So….here are my answers to the questions circling the blogosphere:

What am I working on?

Why does this question make me panic? I guess my answer depends on your definition of “working on.” I always have a bunch of ideas floating around, either in my head or scribbled in the back of notebook. I have some essays that I have started but remain in various states of revision; I am not sure if this is because I have short attention span or if they are still marinating. There are many things I would like to write but I am not ready yet, meaning, I don’t have the emotional distance to give the piece enough depth and perspective. There’s still too much “me” in it.

I only post one blog entry a week, and for me, that is plenty. It consumes most of my writing time, not to mention my head space. I have a hard time working on multiple pieces simultaneously. I wish I could say I just fire something off for the blog each week, but….no. I am a slow writer, and a perfectionist, so I will use as much time as I have before posting each Thursday morning. I give myself a deadline of 9:00, and even then, I don’t feel ready. Like Lorne Michaels says at Saturday Night Live, “We don’t go on because we are ready. We go on because it’s 11:30.”

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Do I have a genre? I have a blog, but I am reluctant to call myself a blogger, because I only post once a week, and I am still such a newbie to the blogosphere. I still don’t feel cool or witty enough for Twitter. I have deep admiration for people who can really nail a Tweet. It’s a skill.

So it’s hard to say what makes me different from anyone else, because how can you compare? Women or mothers who blog may have similar issues or experiences, but the voice, the details, the perspective – all the things that make up good writing – are unique. What I can say about my own personal voice is that I am almost completely filterless. That doesn’t mean I don’t edit – I can hack away at an essay until it becomes something else entirely.

But what I write comes from a true place, a place of transparency. And I always try to find the humor in any situation, or as we call in my house, finding the funny. I have to find ways to laugh at myself, and life in general. Otherwise I would need to be heavily medicated.

Why do I write what I do?

I write because I am in search of something. Why did this happen? Why do I feel this way? What meaning can be made from this?

This has always been my reason for writing, but when my friend Emily asked me to blog with her at Mothers of Brothers, she gave me a tremendous gift: an audience. Creating something with the intention of sharing it – whether or not anyone actually reads it – has deepened my writing tremendously. I still write in a journal, but re-reading what I write is tortuous. But I believe there is a place for being whiney and narcissistic. Just not a public place.

Writing for an audience motivates me to be the best version of myself. It forces me to find the deeper story…the universal motivation or longing…the redemption. If I can’t find redemption or humor in a story or situation, I know I am not ready to write about it. But mostly I write to combat loneliness and isolation. To feel less freakish. The first time someone said to me, “You write exactly what I am feeling but am scared to say,” my heart grew three sizes. Suddenly I felt connected. I went from standing slightly outside the world to being in it. Writing does that for me – pulls me out of isolation, out of hopelessness, out of the pit of whoa-is-me. All the things Prozac was supposed to do for me but didn’t.

How does your writing process work?

I think about writing way more than I actually write. I think of ideas when I am running, or driving, or in the shower. I scribble things down on napkins, on the back of magazines or my children’s drawings, and on Post-its. So many Post-its.

Our house has a space for “my office” but somehow I always end up at the kitchen table. It drives me husband crazy – all my books and Post-its everywhere, my dirty looks when the kids are shrieking or the Phillies game is blaring. “Go. To. Your. Office,” he says.

Just recently, my aunt told me a funny story about my mom. My mom was a very serious student but insisted on doing her homework at the kitchen table. Despite the kitchen being the central hub of a house, she would get bent out of shape when anyone – her three siblings, their friends, my grandparents, etc – disrupted her. One day, when the kitchen was bustling with people and activity, she reached her breaking point. She slammed her book shut and announced: “I simply can not work in these chaotic conditions!” In response, my grandfather started a conga line around the table, chanting, “Cha-otic! Cha-otic! Cha-otic Conditions!”

I am my mother’s daughter, I suppose. We want solitude yet we don’t want to miss anything.

To write well I need I total silence. On Thursday mornings -the morning I post my blog – I get up around 4:30 in the morning. I am the clearest at this early hour; the house is still and free of chaotic conditions. I wish I could say I sat down everyday at a desk in my office from 9-3. This is my goal. But I am not there yet. I don’t know why I am resistant to it. Well, maybe I do. To claim my space as a writer is to actually say, “I am a writer.” And I not quite brave enough to say that…yet. I am getting close, though.

I am very excited to “tag” my good friend Emily to answer these same questions next week.  I actually took a writing class with Emily many moons ago, and ended up co-blogging with her at Mothers Of Brothers.  Emily is a an accomplished writer, amazing mother, career woman, and skilled juggler of all.  But to me, she is an irreplaceable friend.  So check out her blog for her answers next week!

Emily Mendell is the co-founder of MothersofBrothers.com where she has been blogging since 2008. She is a contributor to Huffington Post and her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Babble.com and Chicken Soup for the Soul, A Tribute to Moms. She has been working in the venture capital industry since 2001 where she focuses on communications. Emily lives outside Philadelphia with her husband two teenage sons.



Into The Woods

Just three months ago, this is where we lived:

IMG_0773It was a dream come true, to live this close to the water. I am a Cancer, a water sign, a crusty crab. The ocean puts me in my place; reminds me of my smallness in the grand scheme of it all. Yet at the same time, it’s vastness can help me to expand. Transcend. Feel closer to God…if I am open to experiencing God. Somedays I am not. And then the ocean can feel like the loneliest place on the planet.

Phil loves the woods. “So much life surrounds you in the the woods,” he says. “When I step into a trailhead, I go into a meditative zone.”

When we moved into our house in Scituate, I bought two prints by Mae Chevrette, one for my office:


and one for Phil’s.


We didn’t live there long enough to hang them up.

Now, we live among the trees, in a suburb of Philadelphia. This past Sunday (Mother’s Day), there was a heavy energy in the house. The girls were cranky and combative; repeatedly banished to their rooms. Phil – already uptight because Hallmark holidays give him performance anxiety – had no patience for their pinching and poking; for Emma’s quiet teasing and Phoebe’s maniacal response: “EMMA’S MAKING A VAMPIRE FACE!!!”

“To your rooms!” Phil ordered. “Now!”

And up the stairs they trudged, whispering to each other: “It’s YOUR fault.” “Nuh-uh! YOUR fault!” “Nuh-uh! No it’s not! YOU are the one…”

And so on and so on.

I was being a Little Girl in a Huff because it’s Mother’s Day and CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG? I decided to leave the job of prison warden to Phil and went outside to mow the lawn.

But the lawn mower, of course, would not start. I yanked and cursed, yanked and cursed, until I finally kicked the pice of shit gave up and flopped down in the grass. Lying on my back, I looked up at sky and said, “Ugh, HELP.”  Something had to give. Our collective energy was as gunked up as the mower.  I thought of other times this has happened to us as a family, when everyone falls apart at once our combined resources were low. What did we do to salvage the day, to declare a Do-Over?

We went to the woods. Even when we lived at the beach, we went to the woods. The day following the school shootings in Newtown, we went to the woods.


When our dog Ellie died, we went to the woods.

IMG_3006I abandoned the lawn mower and went inside.

“Let the animals out of their cages,” I said to Phil.  “It’s Mother’s Day and I say we take a hike.”

We piled into the car and set out for Rolling Hill Park in Gladwyne. As we navigated our way down the trail head, I could feel us decompress; a collective “Ahhhhh.”  


Emma, who has had the hardest time with the move, said, “I love trees.  They are so…inspiring. They all have different faces, like friends, kind of. I feel like I’m in a cocoon of trees…like they are giving me a hug.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  “I never feel lonely in the woods.”

As a kid I remember wondering if the ocean felt lonely in the winter. It felt good to spend two winters by it’s side, to keep it company.  Our time spent by the ocean taught us how much in this life is beyond our control, and in order to live peacefully we must learn to just let it ride. To feel exposed. To not hold on so tightly. To let go. To be free.

But I can’t help but think that wherever we are – right now – is exactly where we need to be. That right now, this lush, wooded place is waiting to feed my soul something it needs.  Wading in the Mill Creek beneath the shade of the towering oaks,  life is calling us to go within, to lay some roots, to feel our feet firmly planted on the ground.



I think the lesson of the woods is to be still long enough to let our roots take hold. To reap the nutrients of the soil. To dig a little deeper into who we really are, what we really want, what we are here to do. To be sturdy and steadfast.  To stay. To grow older and wiser, together.


Post hike, the girls crashed on the couch, and I finally mowed the lawn. When I finished, I resumed my position, lying on the ground looking at the sky.

Phil feels guilty for moving us away from the beach. He thinks he stole my dream. But as I lie sprawled out on the driveway looking at the trees, dirt, grass and gravel stuck to the back of my sweaty legs, I am peaceful.

Because what he doesn’t realize is, he is my dream.


Why I Still Need My Mom

mom_jess_weddingIt was 7:00 the morning of Emma’s First Communion, and I already had been up for two hours prepping for the intimate gathering sacramental bender for 65 people following the ceremony.

My mom arrived earlier in the week, and we had been prepping ever since. We sipped coffee as our eyes scanned the room, our list-making brains doing their thing.

“The succulents don’t look right in that planter – they aren’t raised up enough or something.” I mumbled quietly to myself. Or so I thought.

But in the time it took for me to park Phoebe in front of Frozen, my mother had abandoned her coffee and disappeared. I looked out the kitchen window and there she was, in my backyard wearing her nightgown and robe, gathering bricks from my garage. Sweet Jesus. She’s collecting bricks to raise up the succulents.


My mom is a fixer, a do-er, a woman of action. She is also a listener – she hears your plight, and it becomes her mission to make it better.

When I was a teenager, I resented her fixing. I thought she was trying to fix me. I thought she was trying to make me better – when really she was just trying to make things better….for me.

Now I am a mother, and I see things from the other side. Mothers are helpers. We help our children into the world, and then we help them navigate their way through it. We help them to stand, use the bathroom, write their name, ride a bike….the list is endless. The helping is easy – it’s the not helping that’s hard. The world seems so big and scary; danger and disappointment around every corner. It all feels so huge and urgent.

This is the bitch of motherhood. While we wish we had a magic wand to make all things better for our kids, sometimes the trick is not to fix, but allow. To allow and make space for their sadness, their failures, their odd but passionate love for t-shirts featuring animals wearing bedazzled sunglasses.


Some nights Emma cries when I tuck her in. She misses her friends in Massachusetts, where “she was one of the planets moving around the sun.” Now she is just a “lone planet.” My throat gets tight and my brain goes into fix-it mode: A new puppy, a trampoline, a call to 1-800-RENT-A-FRIEND….anything to make it better. But I can only listen, or cuddle, or on really desperate nights, promise to paint pottery at Color Me Mine.

And I think of all the times my mom must have felt this way: When I didn’t make the cheerleading squad, got teased for my bad skin, failed my math test again, had my heart broken. How those events hurt her as much as they hurt me.

More. They hurt her more.

So I want to say thank you, Mom.

Thank you for all the times you drove me back to school to retrieve my flute from my locker, for staying up past midnight helping me with my First Lady report on Jackie Kennedy, my African Serengeti diorama, the Eqyptian pyramid out of sugar cubes. Thank you for changing “candy stripper” to “candy striper” on my college applications.

Thank you for saving every artifact of my childhood: my Lolly Dolly, my bound and illustrated story of Pete the Planaria, and my peach, taffeta 8th grade graduation dress. Even 23 years later, it still makes a statement:


Thank you for answering the phone 12 years ago when Phil called during our 24-hour “break-up,” and for telling him I was on a date with Danny Saland, even though I hadn’t seen Danny Saland since 12th grade, and for the record no one has called him “Danny” since 8th grade. It’s Dan.

Thank you for planting my tulip bulbs and for the buying/ironing/application of bed skirts (aka. “dust ruffles”) to my beds, things we both know would never happen if left under my tutelage. Thank you for reciting your cheeseball recipe for the 78th time because I always lose the post-it note I scribbled it on, for buying me a recipe box even though you know I will never use it, for mailing me a random newspaper wedding announcement of a girl from my Brownie Troop, an obituary of a priest I guess I should remember, and Bed Bath and Beyond coupons with a sticky note: “For the duvet cover clips.”

Thank you for spoiling my kids, for giving them rolls with lots of butter for breakfast but still making them eat broccoli for dinner, for hiding in a closet every time Emma comes home from school during one of your visits.  Thank you for always having new Sponge Bob toothbrushes at your house so I don’t have to remember to pack them. Thank you for taking the girls to the Florham Park Roller Rink and ACTUALLY ROLLER SKATING, for buying them socks at Costco, for playing ONE MORE GAME of Old Maid…for loving my children so much that you cry when they cry.



Thank you for the times you let me reject your help. For letting me make my own mistakes decisions when every fiber of your being wanted to scream “NOOOOOO!” Like when I flew out to Chicago to visit a boyfriend you already knew was gay, or moved in with Phil before we were married, or chose cash over Waterford crystal as a wedding gift from Nannie. You stayed silent.  Because some decisions aren’t meant to be fixed, but owned and assimilated by the person who made them.

Yet here you are, the Brick Lady in your seashell robe, risking back injury and neighborhood gossip so my succulents will stand tall and proud. And that doesn’t feel like fixing. It feels like love. And I need that as much at age 36 as I did at 16…or six.


Thanks for taking care of me, Mom. Please don’t ever stop.


Happy Mother’s Day xoxo


French Fries, Hamsters, and Bob Marley: The Wisdom of a 4-Year Old Mystic

One of the greatest mysteries of motherhood is how my two children can be such polar opposites in almost every way.

As I discussed last week, our recent return to Catholic school has drummed up a lot of “God Talk” in our house.  Emma, as I mentioned, takes things literally.  She is also not satisfied with an answer that involves the word “symbol.” So I try to put things in more tangible terms, but that usually backfires, too. As I curled her hair for her spring chorus concert, she says:

“So I get Jesus.  He was a real person, like…Abe Lincoln, right?”

“Yes. It is documented.”

“Then what’s the deal with the Holy Spirit?”

“The Holy Spirit….is….something that helps us in time of weakness. That helps put us on the right path.  Kind of Glenda that Good Witch from Wizard of Oz.”

The minute I said it, I wished I could take it back. Wrong answer, Jessie.  Buckle up. 

“So the Holy Spirit is a princess-witch??” Her voice was getting tense. “Or like, a symbolic princess-witch? Why can’t anything just BE WHAT IT IS?  AND CAN WE PLEASE GET HONEST ABOUT THE EASTER BUNNY?”


Now, I love Emma for exactly who she is, and I can relate.  My last letter to Santa said: “Show yourself, old man, or the jig is up.”

But sometimes I need a break from these probing philosophical inquiries.  Which is why I have Phoebe.


Phoebe is more like Phil in that she seems immune to the Catholic guilt of sin and unworthiness.


Don’t let this angelic pic fool you.

Phoebe is also on a God-streak as of late, but she doesn’t ask me many questions – in fact, she speaks with authority on the topic.  While eating her lunch at the kitchen counter, it is not uncommon for her to get quiet for a few minutes, and then say:

“God is here, you know.”

“He is?”

“Yup.  He’s eating a hot dog.”

“Does He want mustard?”

“Let me ask.” She cups her mouth and whispers to the empty chair next to her, then reports back: “Only if it’s Dijon.”

Since starting Catholic school, Phoebe blesses herself incessantly, which made me a little nervous at first.  Why is she doing that?  Does she feel she needs to do that to feel like, cleansed?  Is she sad?  What is she praying for?  

So when she blessed herself for the fifth time in an hour, I asked her:

“Hey Pheebs, you ok?  What are you praying for?”

“French fries.”


Now I know she’s only 4, and things could change as she gets older….but I am pretty sure Emma was not praying for french fries at 4.  In fact, that was about the age she drew this cheerful Easter picture:


That’s around the time we decided to take a break from Catholic school.

Phil, on the other hand, is 42, and I wouldn’t put it past him to pray for french fries.  And a Coors Light to boot.  So I asked him:

“How did you get through all those years of Catholic school without a guilt complex?  How do you still feel so good about yourself?”

“I just don’t give a shit about rules,” he said, “and I hear what I want to hear.”  “People get all bent out of shape about the word Commandment, because it’s such an authoritarian word.  But I just ignore that word and choose to hear “Love your neighbor and yourself.”

“I don’t think that’s one of the 10 Commandments…that was Jesus.”

“See? Details, details. They will bring you down.”

I had to admit he was on to something. Why choose to be heavy when you can be light?  And for me, listening to Phoebe’s theological ramblings is music to my ears.  Emma must feel the same way, because it’s the one time she will let Phoebe talk uninterrupted.  On the way home from school yesterday, this conversation happened in my back seat:

“Hey Emma, I’ve been to heaven you know. Before I was born, I was with God.”

“That’s cool Pheebs. What did you do in heaven?  Was God nice?”

“Yeah, He gives me gummy worms.  And He has a hamster who pooped on my hand!”

“Gross! Was anyone else there?”

“Yeah. Nannie, Ellie-dog, and Bob Marley. They are in a band called God’s Rockin’ Angels.  And George Washington. He plays the tambourine.”

Emma caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and smiled.  If that’s heaven, we want in.

Theologian Evelyn Underhill said:

The fundamental difference between [mysticism and magic] is this:  Magic wants to get, mysticism wants to give.

So, ok.  There is definitely an I Dream of Jeannie element to Phoebe’s mode of prayer.  She actually does a little Walk Like an Egyptian dance after blessing herself.  But I am not going to tell her to stop praying for french fries, or My Little Ponies, or talking hamsters.  Because it is my experience that the guilt about the getting eventually blocks the giving.

And Phoebe gives me a lot: hugs, finger paintings, sloppy-on-the-lips-kisses, and joy.  Lots of joy, in the present moment…and the realization that there are many ways to pray.




* Phoebe highly recommends rolling down a hill as a form of prayer.  Just not too many times or you might puke.*