This Was 36

In the past year on The Huffington Post, there have been a number of posts  by writers I admire encapsulating what their current age “is” to them:  Lindsey Mead with This Is 38, Emily Mendell, This Is 45, and Allison Tate, This is 39. These lovely pieces made me laugh, cry, but most of all….reflect.

Thursday is my 37th birthday.

I feel a lot of resistance to writing about 36. I am not one to look back or dwell on what was.  I am the client who says to the therapist, “Oh do we really need to get into all of that?”

I’d rather look to the future – to all the possibilities that lie ahead.  I think this is because I don’t like to be sad.  Because when I get sad, I get REALLY SAD.  And I am scared that if I go down that hole, I will never claw my way out.

But as I sit here right now, straddling two ages….I can’t help but think you need to reflect upon where you have been in order to know where you want to go. See? I’m more mature already!  And it’s not even Thursday yet.

This is me on my 36th birthday.  It was taken at a beach party in Scituate that was actually for the 4th of July, but I pretended was just for me.  It was a magical evening.  I look really happy because I was.  I felt 100% alive.   IMG_2392

For me, 36 was about my family: Phil, Emma, and Phoebe, and until January, our dog Ellie. This is the family I co-created, and before this year I am not sure I really grasped the hugeness of that – the beauty and joy and bring-you-to-your-knees challenges of having your own independently run familial operation.  Which is what we became when we moved from Philly to Scituate, MA, a town where we knew not a soul.

36 was “just us.”  A kamikaze trust mission. 36 was not running away from an argument because you are 30 minutes from the nearest Target and you forget where it is, exactly.

36 was realizing that sometimes you need to be the strong one.  36 was being the glue, the one that held things together.  It felt good to be the glue for a change.

36 was being a cheerleader; it was being more Tigger and less Eeyore.  36 was saying, “We can do this!” when you want to say, “Do we know what we’re doing?”  It felt good to be a Tigger for a change.

36 was being a caretaker.  It was spoon feeding your kid ice cream when she breaks her leg.

IMG_270036 was playing Barbies on the couch for hours.  It was using a chopstick to scratch that itch inside her cast, even though the doctor told you not to. 36 was spray painting a wagon Caribbean Blue so she could still perform her duties as flower girl at your best friend’s wedding.


36 was saying you weren’t going to cry at your best friend’s wedding, but then crying tears of happiness the entire weekend.

You remember all the years you didn’t cry at all, because you were just kinda numb.  So at 36, you are grateful for the tears, for the best friend singing Bon Jovi with the band, for the ability to feel real joy for someone else, all the way down to your french manicured bridesmaid toes.  Because for so many years you stood slightly outside the joy; you didn’t think you deserved to be in it.  At 36, you know that was a lie; that the only one who kept you on the bench was yourself.  So now you jump into the joy.

IMG_278836 was loving a dog through her final days, even though you never thought of yourself as a “dog person.”  It was letting her make out with you until you broke out in hives, letting her eat people food and lifting her up on the couch so she could watch TV.

IMG_348936 was lying on the floor with her in the vet’s office, crying and whispering “I Love you, Ellie-Dog” over and over and over until it was…over.  Your heart is broken, but you would do it all over again in a New York minute.  At 36, you see the tender beauty in having your heart broken.  At 36, you know this is a gift.

36 was about dreaming big.


36 was learning that sometimes dreams change.  Sometimes dreams become a horse of a different color. And you just have to roll with it.  You have to believe that the real dream is bigger and better than the one you manifested in your mind.


36 was wanting everyone to be ok.  And trying to make everything ok for everyone.  And then realizing that sometimes you can’t.  And you just have to roll with that, too.

37 will be different; I can already feel the shift.

Phil is finding his groove at work; he has his helmet on.  He is in it to win it.  He will be ok.

The girls are finding their feet back in PA.  Summer has healing powers.  They swim, do yoga in the driveway, sell lemonade on the corner.  I am amazed by their resilience.  They will be ok, too.


And when school starts, Phoebe will be in all-day kindergarten.  Those precious years of just her and I are behind me.  My little buddy, my co-pilot, my Pandora DJ.


So that leaves….me.

Me at 37.

I think it’s gonna be good.

I’ve got some ideas.

Stick around. I’ll let you know how it all shakes out.







Surrender Dorothy

I ran the Philadelphia marathon in 2010.  The long training runs are crucial to marathon training, but notoriously hard to squeeze into your schedule. Especially a schedule centered around children.  I had to bang out an 18 miler on a Friday at 3:00.  I had been running around all morning – from camp to the pool – and was not properly fed/hydrated. This because clear at mile 16 when I bonked on the Schuykill River Trail.

It started with my legs getting stiff and heavy.  My arms were noodles, my brain an overripe cantaloupe.  I started crunning (aka. Running + Crying = Crunning).  What the hell is happening?  How am I going to finish this? No one knows I’m here.  What if I lie down and die?  

My body had literally run out of gas.  I prayed to the patron saint of runners and poor planners: HELP ME.  I visualized a Gatorade and soft pretzel from Wawa. And then, the parking lot appeared over the hill like the Emerald City.  I’m almost there, at last, at last!

emerald city

But I can’t run anymore!  I’m so sleepy!


Somehow, I made it to my car.  I drove to Wawa, where I staggered around like a mental patient, then stuffed my face with soft pretzel and Gatorade in the parking lot.  Someone was looking out for me.

Glinda-the-wizard-of-oz-5590466-600-400Why am I telling you this story?

Because staying home with children during summer vacation is a marathon.  It requires rest, hydration, (tip: Gatorade cancels out the vodka), and proper self care.  I discovered this yesterday morning while out for a run.  A short, easy 3 mile run.

Not so easy. My legs felt like cement. What is my problem?  Why am I so tired?  I started walking, a little disgusted with myself.  I walked by a little gift shop, and something made me go in.

I poked around for a minute, and my eyes landed on a little brown book with a red spine.  I opened it up to this page:


Love the parts of you that need more loving. 

I got weepy when I read this page, which means -as we say in yoga – “there’s something in there.”  Something inside that needs attending to, that needs a little TLC.

In other words:

surrender dorothy

We are four months into our move from Boston to Philly, and things are still….delicate.  I have been borderline obsessing about the girls: Why are they fighting so much?  Why is Emma not sleeping?  Should I put more on the schedule?  Less?  Why does Phoebe incorporate the word “vagina” into almost every conversation?   I am a snowball-worrier. One worry leads to another, culminating in an avalanche of fabricated scenarios.  This is very exhausting.


And always, even when it is lots of work, love the parts of you that you would prefer to hide. 

I would love to be more like my husband, Phil.  He is spontaneous and cheery, at ease with new people and situations.  He is the ultimate extrovert; he gains energy from other people.  I, on the other hand, am introverted.  I become moody and anxious when deprived of solitude or quiet time, aka. Summer Vacation.

Moving, I am realizing, is basically hell for introverts, because everything is small talk.  I am a bumbling idiot when it comes to small talk.  No, really.  I MANGLE IT.  Where a normal person might say, “So, do you live around here?”  I say something like, “Have you ever had the feeling that you might have two tampons in?”


Love yourself enough to give yourself the things you need. 

I need a good cry once a month.  I need Taza 87% Dark Stone Ground Chocolate in my freezer at all times. I need friends who have known me for 15+ years, because the fact that they still love me is a miracle.  But more than anything, I need time alone with Phil. He is my  soft pretzel and Gatorade.

When I got home from my “run,” I grabbed a water and studied the invite stuck on the fridge.  We recently joined a swim club, and the invitation was for a new member cocktail party that night.  We had the babysitter lined up and everything.  Phil loves these events. No, really.  He’s could be a professional cocktail partier.  I didn’t want to rain on his parade by being the emotionally fragile party foul.  But….

Love yourself enough to give yourself the things you need.

I took a deep breath and sent him an email: “Any chance you want to ditch tonight?  Just go to dinner somewhere?”

To which he replied, “Absolutely.”


Sometimes, you need to be your own Glinda the Good Witch.

Rhythm Is a Dancer

Summer snuck up on me.

Maybe because last year in Massachusetts – after a winter of blizzard like conditions – the kids got out of school about 15 minutes before the 4th of July parade came rolling down the street.

But we ended this academic year in a Catholic school outside of Philly, and on June 2, it was all over. “That’s a wrap!”

Huh?  Already?

Transitions are not my thing.  This is because I tend to be rigid a creature of habit.  I enjoy spontaneity but only if it’s a little bit planned.  Spontaneity for the whimsically challenged.

Unfortunately, summer requires us to change our plans, to adapt them, to adjust to a different schedule.  This makes me incredibly anxious.  So I self-soothe by binge-planning; stuffing the calendar with random activities to overcompensate for my lack of an actual plan.

You know when you are at a wedding and the DJ blends one song into another, with no pause in between?

You are out on the dance floor.  You’ve just had half a vodka tonic and about 1.5 minutes into Billie Jean you start to feel like you are finding your groove, like your arms and legs actually CAN move simultaneously in a non-seizure like fashion.  You have found the rhythm.  Then, suddenly, Billie Jean morphs into Thriller.  Your little hip shimmy-jazz hands routine no longer fits the song.  You stand there, frozen. You have lost the rhythm. You completely blank on the Thriller zombie dance.  Where’s my vodka tonic?

My transition from school to summer was kind of like that.

Our first day of summer vacation was a disaster.  I started with the best of intentions, aka, a binge planning session.  I planned trip to a playground with a giant xylophone and self-cooling misty sprinklers built into the monkey bars.  I brought snacks, sunscreen, bug spray.  This lasted an hour at best.

“We’re hungry, we’re bored, we’re hot!”

On the car ride home I told them about my childhood summers of being dropped off at a dusty field where I was forced to play dodge ball for eight hours.  This fell on deaf ears because this parental strategy has failed for hundreds of years.

Craft projects made them frustrated.  Outdoor games made them hot.  “She’s touching me without touching me!  She’s making a vampire face! MOOMMMMMM!!!!”

After I caught Phoebe in the bathroom drawing a mural on her butt with a green Sharpie marker, I put on Peppa Pig, tapped my box of wine, and gave myself a time-out on the front porch.

It dawned on my that the kids were also struggling to find their rhythm; that they too were trying to find away to seamlessly transition from Billie Jean to Thriller.

Rhythm (rith-uhm) n.

1. Movement or variation characterized by the regular recurrence or alteration of different quantities or conditions.

Movement…alteration….different conditions.  All words that suggest ease and comfort with transition; an awareness to the ever-changing cadence of life, a tuning-in to the substrative hum of nature.  In the words of the German eurodance dance group Snap!:

Rhythm is a dancer; it’s a soul companion

You can feel it everywhere

Lift your hands and voices, free your mind and join us

You can feel it everywhere.

If Rhythm is a Dancer, then I am Elaine Benes.


Sitting on the porch with my glass of Pinot Grigio, I listened to the sounds of summer: the whizz of kids flying by on bikes, the buzz of a fly circling my head, the swish of the leaves in an unexpected breeze.  Summer is the music.  But as a mother, I am the conductor.  It is my job to ease my kids into summer, to help them move from one song into another.

These things are easy to remember when I am sitting alone on the porch with a glass of wine. But I needed a mantra to ground me when someone Sharpies her butt.  And what words could be more poetic than those of hip-hop duo Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock:

Cause I’m cool, calm just like a breeze.

I repeated these words to myself on Sunday as we drove home from a Father’s Day celebration at a beer garden in Philly.


We had a great time, but I could feel myself getting sleepy…lazy.  Phil said, “Let’s take the scenic route.”

I could feel my mind start to do it’s thing: We have no food.  We still need to get Emma a tennis racquet for camp.  Do the girls have clean underwear?  I started scrolling through my phone calendar, obsessing about dates in the distant future that had no relevance to the present moment. I could feel the thrashing suffocation in my body, like an elephant trying to take off a sweater. Then, I remembered:

Cause I’m cool, calm just like a breeze.

I looked up from my frantic phone-finger gymnastics and gazed out the window.  We were driving down a narrow road perpendicular to the Schuykill River.  People sat in lawn chairs around fire pits and barbecues, talking and laughing while kids played tag.  One man strummed a guitar.  Hanging from the trees were the biggest wind chimes I have ever seen.


“Where are we?  Are we still in Philadelphia?”

Phil smiled.  “Yup.  Like I said, this is the scenic route.”

“MOM!” That lady is on a HORSE!”


As we stopped to take this kind urban equestrian’s photo, I decided to leave the laundry and meal planning for…whenever.

To find my summer rhythm, I need to let go of the metronome; the steady tic-toc that sets the pace for the school year.  Summer is not the time for things to run like clockwork. Sure, we all need some structure to our day, especially kids.  But summer is the time for taking the long way home, for reading novels, for eating waffles and ice cream for dinner and playing board games on the front porch.


Summer is about lemonade stands and lightening bugs and running through sprinklers.

IMG_2174This weekend marks the summer solstice, which means “sun standing still.”  I love this. Because in between the inevitable bouts of whining and fighting, I catch glimpses of my two little suns standing still – relaxed and present, moving to their own rhythm, basking in their own light.








Nothing But The Truth (Because I Suck at Lying)

Transitions.FrontCover.NBTT3rdED_FrontCover_4.2.14Tonight I will be at a Soho bookstore in NYC, reading the essay I had published in the anthology Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions. This is the first time I have ever done a book reading….or had something published in a book….or typed the words “Soho.”

My editor’s instructions were to start the reading with “a few words about your experience with the book.”

Almost two years ago, I entered an essay contest – the topic was “Transition.” I read the contest requirements while sitting at the dining room table of our rental cottage in Scituate, MA, surrounded by boxes of books and board games. Most of our possessions were still in the house in PA we had yet to sell; the rest sat in a storage unit waiting to be reclaimed somewhere in the ambiguous future. I knew a thing or two about transition.

I entered the contest. I didn’t win. I wasn’t even a finalist. This was not at all surprising, considering the last thing I won was the Book Mark Contest in 4th grade. And even then I didn’t exactly WIN, I tied with my friend Deirdre.


A few months after the contest, I received an email from the editor at the publishing house who sponsored the contest, asking if I would be interested in having my essay included in their next anthology, Transitions.

Ummmm, YEAH.

I hooped, I hollered, I did the Dance of Joy. Then, I panicked. Like, cold-sweat-holy-shit-what-did-I-do kind of panic. You see, when I wrote the essay, I didn’t think anyone was actually going to read it. Especially the people who I actually wrote about in the essay. People like my mother-in-law. And pretty much Phil’s entire family. I had gone from happiness to hives in two minutes.

It’s not that I wrote anything bad. I love my in-laws; we are actually very close. Hell, this blog is named after my mother-in-law. The woman gives me some priceless material; she’s practically my muse. But the essay touches on how overwhelming it was for me to marry into Phil’s large and boisterous family – and how for many years I was a fish out of water. So while I didn’t write anything bad…I did tell the truth.

Putting the truth out there – or at least the truth as you see it – can be a tricky business: Am I hurting someone’s feelings? Is this my truth to tell? Should I wait until everyone is dead?

But I am a writer. I write about the world around me in order to make sense of it, because if I don’t, I start to go a little crazy. Sometimes a lot crazy. And it’s important for me to write the truth as I see it, because that is the only thing I know for sure. Writing about something I don’t really know triggers my deep, dark fear of being a fraud.  Of being found out.

As an English major, I spent my college years writing like I knew what I was talking about, when in reality, I was completely making shit up. Most of my papers were complete BS. My motto was: When in doubt, find the Jesus figure. It was a Catholic college, I figured no one was going to argue with that.

But this shot-in-the-dark strategy gave me terrible anxiety. I was sure people were going to call me out for the academic imposter that I was, because I am a terrible liar. My theory is that lying is controlled by the part of your brain that does math and reads maps.


This doesn’t mean I’ve never tried to lie. When I was a freshman, I came home for fall break with a giant hickey on my neck. I didn’t even attempt to hide it, even though it was the year of the J.Crew roll neck sweater. That’s how bad a liar I am – I didn’t even think to put on a damn turtleneck. I walk in the door and my mother says:

“What happened to your neck?”

“Uh..I walked…into…a wall..?”

“With your NECK?”

She walked away, disgusted by either my sluttiness or my inability to hide it, or both. She sat me down later and said: “You know, Jessie, some people can lie and get away with it. You will never be one of those people.”

Wiser words were never spoken.

So, I write the truth, because when I try to be coy or breezy, I look like a poser-idiot. The flip side to not looking like a poser-idiot, however, is the possibility of really pissing people off. Important people. People you need to sit next to at Thanksgiving.

Hence, the hives.

When Phil’s family got wind of my essay’s publication, they were obviously excited and wanted to read it: “What’s it about? Send me the link!”

I tried to avoid this in my signature suave, hide-the-hickey fashion: “Yeah…sure….I will….except that my computer, like…melted….because it was like, too close to the…sun…OMG I GOTTA GO I’LL CALL YOU BACK.”

One night at my house, my sister-in-law Trisha finally called my bluff. Despite my attempts to distract her with cocktails conversation, she insisted on reading the essay. I printed it out and hid in my bathroom.

When I came out, she looked up and said, “I never knew you felt this way. If I had known you felt this way, I would have…I don’t know…tried to help you not feel this way.”

A few things I have learned about the truth:

  1. When I think I know someone else’s truth, I am always wrong.
  2. When I think I know someone else’s truth, I am avoiding my own.
  3. When I am vulnerable, I give others permission to do the same.
  4. People want to tell the truth. You just need to give them a chance.
  5. There is always a deeper truth beneath the truth. So keep digging.




South To Drop Off, North To Pick Up: Adventures in Car Line

mr momIt’s the Great Parenting Challenge that no one tells you about: The Car Line.  A cross-section of parenting personalities condensed into a .3 mile auto-obstacle course. No matter how organized the system, even the most tightly run car line can go horribly wrong. Because there are people involved.

Let’s say you have never been in car line. You might say, “What’s the big deal? You are just picking up your kid at school.”  And then the rest of us would laugh at you. Not with you, but at you, maniacally, because car line makes you mad as a hatter.

With the school year coming to a close, here are a few of many examples -from my observations – of the “types” that make up this unique demographic:

The Competitor: The parent that treats car line like an army bootcamp. She arrives in car line at 2:30 – the bell doesn’t ring until 3 – so she can get “her spot” in the left lane.  She secretly makes her children do timed practice drills at home.  As she pulls up, fear registers on the faces of her children. They race to the door their crazy mother has climbed over the seat to open.  Bags are thrown in the car, children dragged in by their armpits. The older child chants: “GO! GO! BUCKLE! DOOR!” The younger child is crying: “Yelling scares people and it doesn’t work!” They pull away in silence, spent, sweating. The hands of the Competitor are bleeding.  Older child comments: “I think we shaved 2.4 seconds off our best time.”

little_miss_sunshine01Captain Compliance: The parent who thrives in a controlled environment but lacks street smarts. Always prepared, her bag is filled with wet wipes, bandaids, and Goldfish snack bags. Captain Compliance always follow the rules, but when the rules change, she is paralyzed. Scenario: A bus breaks down, but Captain Compliance won’t move, she’s a deer in headlights. Her face panicked, she mouths through the glass: But you’re not supposed to change lanes! A tornado could be barreling toward her car full throttle, but she will not move, because You are not supposed to exit your vehicle! Which brings us to….

The Hiney Honker: (aka. The Butt Beeper) The Hiney Honker is a subset of Captain Compliance. Despite the fact that her preschooler is incapable of entering the vehicle and securing a seat belt unassisted, the Hiney Honker will not exit the vehicle. Instead, she climbs over the back seat to buckle the child, and in the process honks the horn with her ass. She then freaks out, thinking she is in trouble: “Who is honking at me?? I’m following the rules!” Her 2nd grader, with a roll of the eyes, says, “Mom, that was you, you butt beeped again.” Ok…I might be the only person in this category. Speaking of honking, that brings us to…

The Taxi Driver: If the Taxi Driver is behind the Hiney Honker, all hell can break lose, because the Taxi Driver loves to lay on the horn and will reflexively honk back. To the Taxi Driver, car line is no different than rush hour in Manhattan. Typically male (but not always), the Taxi Driver has no patience for idleness and slow-moving people, even if the “people” are kindergartners or senior citizens. He consistently throws up his hands in disgust, mouthing the words, “Awwww, C’MON!” or “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS,” or “ARE YOU F*$#ING KIDDING ME?!” Note: Sometimes the taxi driver actually is a taxi driver. 


The Early Ejector: A close cousin to the Taxi Driver, the Early Ejector drops his child off at least 100 ft away from the designated drop-off zone. The Early Ejector’s schedule is of paramount importance, and he just doesn’t have the time for all the rules/safety nonsense. His attitude is: I need to BE somewhere, People.  While his kid bear crawls up a grassy embankment and rolls down the other side, landing directly in the line of traffic, the Early Ejector DOUBLE EJECTS by saying “I’m blowing this taco stand” and cuts through the right lane, over the orange cones, and speeds to freedom. Speaking of the orange cones…

Scan 19The Cone Dragger: (aka. The Curb Jumper).You know the orange cones that mark the zone of safety for your child? The cones that create THE LANES? Well, say goodbye to the left lane because the Cone Dragger just dragged it around the corner and left it by the baseball field. Always distracted, always on the phone, the Cone Dragger is a charmer, often feigning shock/innocence, as if the cone attached itself to his/her tire. He/She mouths “SORRY!!” to the irate traffic director without ever getting off the phone.

The Clown Car: This is the mom who is picking up for every house on her street. A line of kids pile in to the black hole that is her mini-van. Is there a mini-van that seats 13? She either lacks logistical planning or the ability to say no. She realizes she bit off more than she could chew when she leans in and says, “Oh Billy…do you still use a booster?” Yeah, like Billy is going to fess up to that, and risk being called Booster Billy for the entire summer.

The Lady’s Maid: The parent who forgot to dress their child at home and instead does it in car line.

The Smother Mother: You will see them at 3:00. They are going to school, not Afghanistan. No more kisses.

carline_ kiss and go

The Rearranger: The parents who feels carline is the appropriate time and place to examine the contents of her trunk. Even after the children have already exited the vehicle, the Rearranger can still be seen rolling up her yoga mat, moving her cold grocery items into her new insulated cooler bag from Trader Joes.  Oh, what’s this?  It’s Katie’s math book! “Katie! Wait!!” She turns around to the other cars, avoids eye contact, and holds up a finger, “Just one minute!” Which brings us to……

The Deserter: The Deserter is the curse of the car line. Not only does the Deserter break the cardinal law of car line -Don’t Leave The Vehicle – but then he/she NEVER RETURNS.  This triggers a reaction in every other car line personality: The Competitor is losing precious seconds off her time, Captain Compliance is stuck behind the Deserter’s vehicle but is paralyzed with fear (“Her flashers aren’t on! I can’t go around!”).  The Taxi Driver starts honking, the The Early Ejector can’t take this sh*t, he’s out of here, The Cone Dragger can’t hear his conference call, so he finds an alternate route, dragging the right lane with him. Pandemonium ensues.  Traffic backs up onto a major street. Fender benders occur, people are late for piano lessons, blood pressures rise, gas is wasted, the air is polluted with fuel and fury. Basically the car line Deserter messes with the entire ecosystem. The whole planet suffers.

True Confessions:  I am a Competitor/Captain Compliance.  My husband is the original Cone Dragger.  Which car line personality are you? 

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 where she has been blogging since 2008. She is a contributor to Huffington Post and her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 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.*