Upcoming Events -- email for sign-in links


Jan. 6th (today!): a livestream of the Center for New Americans 30 Days of Poetry! public reading will be aired as the final segment on the program Connecting Point here: https://connectingpoint.nepm.org/ -- after which you can watch the segments, which will be posted separately. If you are looking just for me, I am the second to last poet == but the whole program was great, so I hope you'll enjoy all of it.

Jan. 10th at 1 p.m.: Podcast interview for Beyond Risk and Back, a parenting podcast that can be found here: https://www.mentalhealthnewsradionetwork.com/our-shows/beyond-risk-and-back/

Jan. 19th at 7 p.m.: Straw Dog Writers Conference Author Showcase no longer hybrid, now available only via Zoom. You can read about it and register here: https://www.strawdogwriters.org/post/8th-annual-straw-dog-writers-author-showcase

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Why People March

A mom friend in Australia asked me to explain to her children why people march. I couldn't find a book to explain it, so I wrote this. Feel free to share -- and offer feedback. 

Once upon a time, much of the world was ruled by kings and queens. One especially greedy king, Louis XIV of France, and his greedy wife, Marie Antionette, demanded all the people give their money to the royal family to make their big, fancy palace and their bejeweled, fancy clothes even bigger, fancier and more bejeweled. 

They told the people they didn't care if they starved.
Off with their heads!

The people of France grew angry at how unfair it was that they worked hard but then had to give their money to the king and queen. They thought Versailles, the palace, was fancy enough! They grew so angry, they marched into the streets and demanded change. This was the first known march.  Soldiers fought back, but in the end, the people won -- and made the soldiers chop off the heads of the king and queen!  (Things were very violent back then.)

Since then, all around the world, people have marched to get their leaders to pay attention to their demands for fairness and justice. If their leaders ignore peaceful marching, some people burn and break things to get the leaders' attention -- and the marches turn into riots. 

A lot of marches start, just like in France, because people are angry their leaders are taking too much of their money. When leaders take the people's money, that is called a tax, and tax money is supposed to be spent to help everyone, such as by building roads or schools or libraries--but greedy leaders often keep much of the tax money for themselves and their rich friends. Like that French king and queen, they don't care if people starve. 

Early Americans rioted by throwing tea off a boat because their leader, the King of England, was keeping their tax money instead of spending it to help them. When the Americans won that fight, they made a new rule: NO MORE KINGS AND QUEENS bossing the people around. They wanted every person to choose their leaders and their laws by vote.  

Everyone should vote -- as long as they have pale skin,
a penis and some land. (What?)

Unfortunately, those early Americans had a crazy idea about what “a person" was: they thought only people with white skin, a penis, and a lot of money should be able to vote. (No, really!) They made a new law that said only men with white skin who owned land could be the leaders and the voters.

How did we change this terrible situation? People marched! And protested! And sometimes rioted or broke the law to get the leaders to change their minds. 

White women had to march, riot, scream, break laws, starve themselves, and chain themselves to the White House fence for 134 years before they were allowed to vote. Here are 5,000 women marching in Washington six years before they could vote. All over the world women have had to march to get the right to vote. 
Here are women marching in Washington D.C. six years before we could vote.

Africans living their lives in Africa
and then after they were enslaved.

Things were even harder for men and women with darker skin. White people stole land from the darker-skinned people here before them--and then they stole actual darker-skinned people from their homes in Africa and made them work in the U.S. as slaves. Whites put the Africans in chains and made them do all the whites’ farm work and house work for no money. 

White people stole the babies of Black people and sold them. White people beat and even killed the brown and black-skinned people. This happened in Australia, too, to the Aboriginal people who lived in Australia for tens
Aboriginals stolen from their families and enslaved in Australia.
of thousands of years before the white people came. The Aboriginals weren't called slaves but they were beaten and forced to work for free, which is the same thing.

How did we change this terrible situation? People marched! And protested! And sometimes rioted or broke the law to get the leaders to change their minds. People with darker skin had to march, riot, scream, break laws, starve themselves, and run away for hundreds of years before they were allowed to be free. Some white people realized how wrong slavery was and helped the black people gain their freedom, but changing everyone's mind about slavery took a long time. Some people's minds still aren't changed! 

Even after we fought a war to end slavery and black people were allowed by law to vote for 100 years, white people still treated black people unfairly. They paid black people less money. They didn't let black people get a good education. 
This girl was spit on and screamed at by white kids
for going to their previously all-white school.
They didn't let black people live in their neighborhoods or borrow money from their banks to buy houses or start businesses. They put black people in jail for no good reason and made them do hard work for free, just like when they were slaves. They wouldn't let black people share their pools or water fountains or restaurants or bathrooms. 
And sometimes white people beat up or even killed black people just for looking at them.
Angry white men threw food on black people eating
in a restaurant that was supposed to be for "whites only."
So …how did we change this terrible situation? People marched! And protested! And sometimes rioted or broke the law to get the laws and people to change. Black people (with some white friends) marched, rioted, screamed, broke laws,
starved themselves, and fought back.

The people who have the power, mostly white men, fight hard not
to let women of all colors and men with black or brown skin get any of their power away from them. One of the ways they do this is by fighting the marchers. The police have guns with rubber bullets and real bullets, bayonets, batons or clubs, tear gas, snap bombs, water hoses, vicious dogs

and pepper spray. Sometimes police use these weapons to violently scare even peaceful marchers into giving up and going home. 

Marches for black people’s rights and women's rights are still happening today because things are still not fair.  A lot of white people say everyone has the same chances in life and gets equal treatment now from teachers, police, bankers, and employers. They insist this is true (even though the facts definitely show otherwise) because they like to think they have nicer homes or better jobs only because they worked hard and got what they deserved. But lots of black people work very hard and never get to buy a house or have a good job. 

The worst thing happening to black people now is that police are killing them for no good reason. Sadly, this has always been the case but now people have cameras on their phones and are taking videos of the killings, showing the black people didn't do anything wrong before police killed them. The police have been lying to us, which was hard for white people to believe, as police are usually nice to us. 

Most recently, a Black man named George Floyd was arrested for maybe

giving someone a fake $20 bill, and the officer arresting him choked him to death by throwing him on the ground and kneeling on his neck. George called for help. He said he couldn't breathe. People all around were begging the policeman to get off George's neck. George even cried out for his Mama. But the police officer stayed on George's neck until he was dead.

How can we get police to stop killing unarmed black people? We have to march! and protest! And sometimes we even have to riot or break the law to get the leaders to pay attention. Because people marched, the officer who killed George Floyd was arrested and is in jail. 

Sadly, the U.S. is currently ruled by a crazy, mean man who loves the police to use violence. He has told cops to be rougher when they arrest people; he had police hurt people to clear away a march in front of the White House. He even wanted them to use a weapon
called a heat ray that would make protesters' skin feel like it was on fire. The police don't want to give up their power so they have been doing what he says and treating th
e people they are supposed to serve and protect as if they are the enemies. They are spraying tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters, even peaceful ones, or beating them with clubs. Some protesters have even lost an eye or been killed. This little girl is crying because police shot pepper spray into her face; her parents are pouring milk on her eyes to help wash it away.  
And here is a little girl on her daddy's shoulders being threatened by police with giant guns. 

Many white people are trying to let black people lead the protests, because for too long white people haven’t listened to black people.  Now white people are trying to support black people with our money and our time. We are fighting against police violence and the leaders who support it. This November we may have to march to give everyone the chance to vote again, since in Black neighborhoods, many voting places have been closed. 

I have marched against wars, for women's rights, and for black people's lives. I have taken my children to march with me, and my now grown-up daughter is a passionate activist who marches all the time. I'm very proud of her.

My wife and I stand every Saturday for black lives in our town. (Standing vigil is like marching except everyone stays still. We do this now to avoid giving one another the Corona virus.)

So the next time someone asks you why people march, you can tell them people march to make life better for everybody. I plan to keep marching until more changes are made and black and white people can all feel safe together. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

What I Did That Killed My Son

The end of June marked my dead son’s 30th birthday. He died of an overdose at age 26, and marking his 30th birthday hit me hard, a reminder of all the landmarks he was missing. Heartsick, I stayed up most of the night before creating a video of Kyle’s life in pictures, which I posted on my YouTube and Facebook pages. (You can see the video here: https://youtu.be/IMy4qc5ZBWc.)

A friend commented, “[This is] a montage of love. If only love could have saved him.” Reading that, I had a sudden realization: I had created that video not so much to honor Kyle as to defend myself as his mother. 

Look! the video said. Here’s photographic proof that I was a good mom who signed her kid up for sports, took her child swimming, proudly encouraged his early career as a stand-up comedian, taught him to play board and card games until he could beat me with relish, celebrated him with big parties for every birthday and graduation, maintained a close, loving relationship with his admiration-worthy father even though we eventually divorced, read to and instilled a love of reading and writing in my son, took him regularly to the dentist and was proud he never had a cavity, took him skiing, taught him to be polite to older people, shared easy affection with him, took him on marches and volunteer vacations, encouraged the supportive bond he had with his little sister, went white water rafting and on rollercoasters with him, spent a lot of time camping, hiking and in nature with him, helped him get his driver’s license, taught him to love to dance and have fun, to treat women with respect, to climb trees, to wear his feminist shirt with pride, to be creative with his Halloween costumes, to love learning, to care about his family and friends.

I thought I’d just wanted to honor and remember my son’s life by showing him at every beautiful stage. But now I realized what I’d really wanted was to illustrate I did everything I could to help my son have a wonderful life. I wanted a video to prove that nothing I did caused my son to become addicted to drugs and eventually die of his disease. 

But, of course, I did many things that hurt and disappointed my son, none of which are featured in this video– but all of which have played in an endless, agonizing loop in my mind ever since my son’s death. Only because I have talked to dozens of other grieving mothers of overdosed children am I able to forgive myself for most of my mistakes—because I’ve discovered every mother of an overdosed child made different mistakes. None of us is perfect, but we were all pretty good moms, and there is no pattern of wrongdoing I can find, no one place I can point the finger.

All of which leads me to the only mistake I made that may have actually killed my son: At the end of his life, Kyle phoned me, desperate enough to ask for my advice. He had been trying to get Naltrexone, a drug that blocks opioid receptors, causing users to vomit if they take a drink and to feel no high if they take an opioid. Naltrexone started as a pill in the ’80s and is now available as an injection that can last six months or even a year. Kyle had stayed sober six months while getting a monthly shot of Naltrexone (known as Vivitrol); he knew the drug was helping because toward the end of each 30-day period, he started having drug dreams and cravings. 

Since then, he’d turned 26 and lost my insurance, then moved from L.A. to Las Vegas and discovered that Nevada’s Medicaid doesn’t cover Naltrexone for addicts. Like 21 other states, Nevada will only provide addicts with Methadone or Suboxone. This was infuriating to me. Naltrexone keeps addicts from getting high. Methadone and Suboxone, I thought, just make addicts dependent on a different opioid.

“Mom,” my son said to me at the end of our last phone call, his voice exhausted. He had just been released from detox after another relapse. He was essentially homeless; he and his girlfriend and their 2-year-old daughter were living in my mother’s house in Henderson, NV, and my mother wanted them out. My son’s girlfriend, though staying sober, he told me, was having bouts of rage at their daughter and refusing to look for a job. “Mom, I don’t know what to do. If I can’t get the Naltrexone the next time I go there, I’m thinking of just taking the Suboxone they’re offering me.” 

Did I say to him, “YES! Of course! Take it! Anything to keep you alive!” 

No. Instead, to my lasting shame and regret, I maintained a stony, disapproving silence. He knew I disapproved of Methadone and Suboxone, thought they were for weaklings who couldn’t beat their addictions on their own or who just wanted the state’s help to get high. 

So I said nothing. I let the silence extend. My son finally added, “I just don’t know what to do. I’m asking for your advice.”

If there were one minute in my life I could go back to, that would be the one. I wish I’d understood my son’s illness was terminal and would kill him within days if he didn’t take the Suboxone.  I wish I’d met some of the millions of people who are maintaining jobs, happily parenting their children, and living healthy lives by taking Suboxone or Methadone every day. I wish my silence hadn’t conveyed that I would look down on my son if he went that route. I wish it weren’t true that I would have looked down on my son if he’d started taking one of those drugs. I was ignorant, having only seen people on methadone as droopy head-nodders, and I didn’t understand the alternative was death.

Instead, after a sigh, I said, “If anyone can convince them to start giving out Naltrexone, it’s you, Kyle. You’re so eloquent. You can get them to change this policy—and just think of how many thousands of addicts you’ll be saving. Maybe hundreds of thousands! You’ll be changing lives.”

That was how I mothered him. I believed he was so special that even in the most desperate throes of his addiction, he could accomplish something for others. (We also spoke often of the book he would write about his experiences cycling in and out of the addiction-treatment complex, our hope that something meaningful could come from the years of relapse and new recovery and relapse and horror he’d been living.) Kyle claimed to have been dutifully trying to get this policy changed for weeks. The previous week he told me he’d spent all day Friday waiting to see the doctor considering his application for an exception to the no-Naltrexone rule. The staff said the doctor would see him soon and then forgot him. At the end of the day, they apologized and said there had been a mix-up, the doctor had left. They told him to come back the following Tuesday.

Or maybe that’s just a story my son told me. Maybe he had already given up and stopped asking for what they said they would never give him. I have no way of knowing, but I think his story is true. When he told me this story that weekend, my advice was to go back and try again.

The following Tuesday, at 4:45 a.m., he overdosed and died in a Best Western bathroom, biking distance from his grandmother’s home. He’d said he was going to a new job Monday morning but instead spent all day using. When he got home, he took out the garbage for his grandmother and was confronted by his understandably enraged girlfriend, who had been home waiting for him all day with their crying 2-year-old. Their daughter was having an eerie premonition, kept sobbing that her Dada was going to leave and never come back. His girlfriend smashed his phone into pieces and punched him in the face, abuse he surely felt he deserved. (Her punch left a dark bruise still visible on his cheek as I wept over his body in the coffin two days later. I didn’t blame her; we had all been furious at him, thinking he could save himself and enraged that he wasn’t doing it.) He left humbly, apologizing to his grandmother, and brought with him his anti-depressants, a pillow and blanket, fresh clothes, and his bike helmet, which suggests his overdose was not intentional; he seemed, based on what he packed, like someone who intended to keep living. But at that last moment as the Best Western cleaning staff was rousting him from where he was sleeping on the bathroom floor, telling him he had to leave, maybe for that moment he felt so defeated that he intentionally gave himself a fatal dose. Or maybe he just intended to get a little high for the road and miscalculated. We’ll never know for sure. 

I don’t think any of the other mistakes I made over the course of his life killed my son. While some of them –like my decision to leave his dad-- surely made my son’s life harder, I don’t think any of them made him a drug addict nor compelled him to take that final overdose. However, I do think I might have at least contributed to his death by not encouraging him to take Suboxone.

My wife reminds me that my son regularly ignored my advice; she wonders why I’m so sure he’d have followed my advice that day. But he was asking me to support him in what he’d already concluded for himself:  that there was no other way forward for him but medication-assisted treatment. I believe that when he heard my silent but deep disapproval of that path, he tried and failed to go forward without it.  

So my advice for parents of still-living addicts is this: celebrate your child choosing medication-assisted treatment. It doesn’t mean they’ve given up on getting sober. It means they’re choosing life. Many people are on medication for the rest of their lives for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease–why not for the terminal disease of addiction? Don’t send your child messages that you don’t believe he’s “really” sober unless he takes nothing at all. (Many 12 Step Programs, sadly, tell addicts that they can’t consider themselves sober unless they’re off everything, including the prescribed drugs that can save their lives; this, too, must change.) 

Surviving the disease of addiction is a lifelong challenge. More than half a million Americans have died by overdose in the past decade, and the only way I’ve seen people survive long-term addiction to hard drugs (crack, meth and heroin), aside from a few, rare just-plain-sober unicorns, is with medication-assisted treatment. (When my son told me the Narcotics Anonymous recovery rate was something like 5 percent, I paused, and then said to him: “Good thing you’re in such an exceptionally high percentile.” What a fool I was.) I encourage all of you to embrace this path as soon as you can wrap your head around it. Every needle your kid uses until they start medication could be the one that kills them. Stop waiting for your child to have super-human strength and just be glad there are medicines that can save their life right now.

As for my fellow grieving parents, the ones who share my terrible loss, who watched their sweet, gurgling babies turn into fiending strangers, my advice is to stop looking for what you could have done differently. Make yourself a moving, mournful video like the one I just made if it helps you to remember the good times and all the things you did right. Let yourself cry over how you’ll never experience those good times again, never hug your child again, never be able to stitch closed the wound your child’s absence leaves in your heart. But turn off that video running on repeat in your head of every mistake you ever made. Your child knows you loved him or her. In nearly every case, your child wouldn’t want you to keep suffering from the endless self-doubt we survivors experience. We all did the best we could at the time. Now we have to figure out how to keep going in a way that honors our child’s best self and helps other families suffering as we did and do. I hope this essay does that for someone.  

Saturday, May 23, 2020

What Would You Give to Hug Your Child One More Time?

Sept. 4, 2016 -- Hugging my son as my daughters cry. We
were all so emotional that day. I cried through the ceremony.
(Click post to read the whole thing.)

Some days I miss my son with my whole body. I can recall his hug, the full-muscled adult feel of his arms squeezing around me. No one will ever hug me like that again. I only had the one son.

Once upon a time, I would have said and felt some things like, “I would trade anything for one more hug.” My visceral hunger to hold him was so strong, it overwhelmed me. I don’t know if that’s a mother-son thing or a parent-child thing or a dead-child thing or what… I don’t think I thought about missing his body when we were apart for months. I was glad to see him, of course, and loved to feel his hug around me – that’s why I can feel it so clearly now. But I didn't long for him with an animal need; that longing came only with my grief.

Anyway, nowadays, I wonder what that kind of qustion, heard frequently, even means. What would I trade for one more hug? God, as I write that, my heart definitely says anything, absolutely anything, but my head has questions. Will I be bringing him back from the dead to live out his full life, whatever that is? Will I just get a one-minute hug and then that’s it, and I’d return to this life where all I’d traded would be gone? So perhaps this means where once I would have traded anything, now I would trade nothing of value, since one more hug with him would only feel good, but would do nothing to help me continue to build this life that I have to live. 

September 4, 2016
Me with my daughters, my son, my mother-- only missing is 
Renee. I so regret that we never got a shot with me with my 
kids and my new wife that day, our last chance.
I am blessed to have so many people to love now—some of whom made themselves even truer and more deeply loved friends after my son’s death--and I wouldn’t trade any of them, nor anyone in my family. I love them all—and I cherish them… and over the 3.5 years since my son died, I’ve had to let him go. I've had to incorporate into my self schema his absence. I've had to learn to live with that phantom limb.

This is my Memorial Day post. Not to take away from the soldiers and heroes for whom the holiday is a tribute; my son was not a hero except sometimes to a few of us who loved him, and he didn’t serve in the military. I just realized as I was writing this post, that it was Memorial Day weekend, and I was memorializing my great, grasping grief...the grief that would have done anything, traded anything to bring Kyle back. 

I see now (and have had many, many dreams in which you tell me this, Kyle) that I couldn’t have saved you. That if I could have saved you that day, you’d have died another day soon after. You were done with this life, and if I'd lengthened your life, I would only have prolonged all our suffering. It hurts terribly to think that, but it hurts more to think I could have saved you and watched you go on to live the healthy fulfilling life we all dreamed for you.

Wishing all the grieving mothers whose children were lost in battle all my deepest love this weekend.  

Friday, May 22, 2020

Welcome to My House

Does anyone outside our family remember
Entemann's chocolate-chip creme cake? My
cousin Debbie found the recipe and taught us
on her Craftpocalypse site how to make it.
My wife and I are now going into week nine of being quarantined together in our home. I am a little ashamed to admit how happy I've been here, under no obligation to see anyone (except my mother, around whom I wear a mask when I pop over to see her, and my daughter, for whom we've made a quarantining exception).

The days, though Groundhog-Day like in their sameness, pass quickly. I have video-chat dates with friends every week. I write for my MFA program (poems, short stories, 55,0000 words of my novel). I wear nothing but yoga pants and tank tops. I've been building a mosaic on the side of our house and making daily art with an online program I signed up for. I cook delicious meals and eat a lot of ice cream. (So, so much Vanilla Swiss Almond by Haagen-Dazs that I ought to become my own retail outlet just to have wholesale amounts delivered here.) I've been learning to play bridge with my Bridge Life Master mom, something I think I'll still be saying after 10 years of this "learning," as the nuances of this game are endless. I take part in writing accountability dates and Zoom critique sessions. I do yoga (with Adriene, on her Find What Feels Good channel) every day, the only commitment I never break with myself; I cannot say enough about how life-saving this practice, started right after my son died, has been for me. My dog couldn't be more thrilled about having me home with her.

Even the stress I had around touching groceries, back when I was spraying with Lysol every item that came into our house, has abated now that research shows we are all most at danger of catching corona virus when we're in an enclosed space together, breathing one another's air. So I've stopped scrubbing down our packages and purchases and have relaxed about hiking with my daughter, saying hello to neighbors as we walk our dogs, and visiting people to pick up items from my "Buy Nothing" group. (Buy Nothing Facebook groups, local to each community, allow members to give away things we don't need anymore and to be gifted items our neighbors don't need anymore. My house and wardrobe are furnished, decorated and enriched by literally hundreds of these items.)

All of the delights I'm enjoying do not change the terrifying fact that a coup is and has been happening right in front of us, in which inspectors general are fired and replaced by cronies and loyalists, in which good people are silenced, in which bad people are let out of prison early, in which the entire swamp of our federal government is abusing its power and stealing our money to enrich themselves, holding parties with big donors on our dime, making millions in stock deals with insider knowledge, giving themselves and their donors giant tax cuts, and looking for ways to keep us from voting in November.  I do my best to put the horror out of my mind, as I feel helpless to change what is happening, but that leaves me feeling slimy with guilt for all the pleasures I'm still enjoying.

So I'm going to go back now to my art project from yesterday. Just reading all of these statements aloud reminds me that in my practice of only controlling what is within my control, I'm doing well, I'm doing right, and I need to just keep going.

But if anyone has any ideas for how we can affect what's going on "out there," please let me know.