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

Monday, February 1, 2021

My Goals Have Been So Good for Me, I'm Making More!

I just ended my best month ever since the death of my son. (I suppose every superlative will always have to be qualified now with a "before-or-after-my-son's-death" extension, because I am two different people in those divided worlds.)

But let me not get maudlin; I am here to share a reason to celebrate. It’s been four years and four
months since my son died, and last month – despite an attempted mob-coup and the choke hold of our national anxiety as we awaited the Biden-Harris inauguration--was the best month I’ve had since Kyle’s death. I felt productive and fully present, as if I were firing on all cylinders for the first time since my loss. I feel happy. It turns out keeping one's promises to oneself feels really good.

I had set out at the beginning of 2021 to live more “a life of the mind,” to waste less time scrolling and acquiring things and to spend more time reading, writing and reflecting. I also knew I needed to start planning the launch of my book (a poetry collection about the loss of my son to addiction and overdose), which goes into pre-sales with Finishing Line Press on March 29th. 

"I've done it!" I said to my wife yesterday in triumph. "I had an incredible life of the mind this month!" 

"Really?" she replied. "Are you sure? You don't feel you have to spend too much time cooking?"

Which just shows you how kind and encouraging of my goals she is.

(Don't tell her, but I have actual fun, often listening to an audiobook, as I prepare our dinners. Who ever dreamed I would be able to eat food that tasted this good every day? Who even knew there *was* food that tasted this good? And how awesome that I know how to create it and am privileged to be able to afford it. As someone who felt I was giving my kids a balanced meal when I heated up a bag of frozen peas to serve with boxed mac and cheese, I'm really proud of myself for the fresh, healthy mix of meats and veggies I whip into meals now.) 

Anyway, over the month of January:
  • I read and listened to lots of books – the best of which were Machines Like Me by Ian MacEwen,
    for which I am leading a Forbes book group on Feb. 8th, The Cold Millions by Jess Walter, and Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.  
  • I wrote lots of pages of poetry, essays and journal entries. If you would like to see my favorite poem I wrote over the past month, please subscribe or send me an email. (I can't share poems on my blog or they're considered published, but if you promise not to share, I can send one to you.) 
  • I signed up to take a five-week short-story course that started the last week of January, and as a result read a Raymond Carver short story, "Cathedral," for the first time. (What a pleasure.)
  • I attended multiple workshops and poetry presentations, some of them breathtakingly good, including hours spent live-listening to Jane Hirshfield, Jo Harjo, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Natasha Threthewey read their work.
  • I watched an energetic workshop by John Sibley Williams on submitting poems that inspired me to send out a dozen submissions last week, which made the encouraging rejection letter I just received today a little less hard to take. (And now, the workshop taught me, I should send out two more submissions in response: one back at the rejector with new poems, and one to send the rejected poems somewhere else.) I highly recommend this workshop, which you can see here.
  • I received an acceptance of a poem about my boobs that I’ve been trying to get published for years! Now it’s going into Logic86’s journal about the service industry, which comes out next month. You can check out their website here.
  • I kept twice-weekly writing dates with two writing friends, giving me about 10 hours a week of scheduled writing time with witnesses, and I launched a new monthly writing date with another friend.
  • I agreed to write two poetry reviews, volunteered to host a Florence Poets Society event on April 28th for all of the members with new books out, got myself scheduled to be the featured reader at a Straw Dog Writer’s event on Sept. 7th, and have been invited to be the opening act for one of the members' book launches on May 26th.
  • I submitted an application to be a featured poetry reader in Phosphorescence, a new Emily Dickinson monthly series launching this year -- and I found out I'm having an interview published with Kenyon Review in their online "Poetry Today" column. (!!)
  • Renee and I decided to run for local town government positions, and we sent away for the paperwork we need to gather signatures. I’m running for library trustee and Renee is running for select board.
  • I started tracking daily goals and habits in a bullet journal, which I used about half the time.  A good start.
  • I played lots of bridge with my mother (and some on my own and with Larry). And although I’m apparently still a really terrible player (based on my coming in near last most of the time no matter who is my partner), I must be learning something! (Right?)
  • I had online game nights with friends and family, arts and crafts and nature time with Jamie (below, who took me on several adventures in January), and 
    some family dinners where we played new games. Renee beat my ass at Scrabble (and more importantly, sweetly agreed to play Scrabble with me though I don’t think she loves the game). 
  • I had therapy every week to help me keep working on setting better boundaries. Better boundaries mean more time for this life of the mind I’m building. Boundaries are easier to keep when they help me reach concrete goals. 
  • I have begun working on an article about post-traumatic growth, which I just learned is not a concept familiar to all PTSD sufferers, which seems a shame
Not everything was about the mind last month. I also took care of my body:
  • I continued to do Yoga with Adriene every single day, which is keeping my body mostly pain-free. (As I said to the doctor at my annual physical last month, “If I’d known how great the return on investment would be on just 20 to 30 minutes of yoga a day, I would have started doing this years ago.” )
  • I flossed most days and recovered from losing a tooth. Those two items are connected. I wish I’d done more of the former to prevent the latter.
  • I started using a daily tincture that is working on my winter sadness like a miracle.
I’m also excited by what I did not do:
  • I did not use Buy Nothing at all (nor did I miss it), though I did enlist my wife to get rid of a few surplus items. Renee is invested in my getting rid of things, so I knew she’d be willing to help them find a new home. However, I’m pretty sure I am not increasing her fondness for the use of the Buy Nothing Facebook page, which is fine.
Now I have a confession: my meta-awareness of how I was spending my time this month helped reveal  one more area in which I am still a bit of a hoarder of free things: I have a frightening number of library books checked out, on hold, downloaded or in stacks all over my house. The audiobooks and ebooks are OK, because they disappear when their time runs out (leaving me half done with several books I have to keep taking out again.) But the number of library books in my house is out of control. I cannot possibly return all of them on time and still get them read. So… I have made the decision not to take out any more library books until every one of these is read. I know this may sound like a small goal to many of you (and will result in an anxiety-provoking number of late fees wracking up, though I know they’ll all be wiped out when the books go back), but I have been hoarding library books all my life (since early childhood), always feeling the need to take home great big stacks of every book I see that I could possibly want to read… and if I can learn to take out just one or two at a time, that will be an accomplishment.  

Also, while I’m confessing my book crimes, I have one borrowed book I haven’t been able to bring myself to return because I keep thinking I’ll finish it; I’m going to send a new copy to the kind lender who must think I am never giving that book back. You know who you are, Britt, and I’m sorry. 

Finally, my added goal for February is to do two blog posts a week. That way they’ll be shorter than this one. If you’re still reading, God bless you. 

How are you all doing on your New Year’s resolutions?

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Is That Hope I Feel? (Grief Made Me Dissociative But I Think That's Lifting Now)

I feel like we are all waking slowly from a bad dream this week-- though I also still have the creeped-out feeling that a monster's hand is going to shoot up out of the ground any second, as it doesn’t quite feel like the credits are done rolling yet. Anyone else feeling this way?

I am realizing, from this waking-from-a-nightmare feeling, that I have been in a somewhat dissociative state for the past four years, in part because of Trump’s win but also because my son died four years ago, just six weeks before the 2016 election. The day after the vote, people – no, actually, just women, who suddenly realized how totally devalued they (still) were--were crying in the streets about Trump being our next president, but I was having a very muted reaction to everything except my own grief.

I wasn’t crying about Trump because I still couldn’t have any feelings about anything except my own horrible loss. Still, it made perfect sense to me that others were now crying. I had wondered how the world could be going on as usual when my son had ripped himself out of the known universe. So when most people I knew went into deep grief over Trump being our president, I felt affirmed, as if suddenly everyone had realized with me what a wretched world we lived in.

Before I go on with the point of this post, which is about the protection the dissociative state provided me, I need to tell everyone reading this who is still in early-stage or prolonged-desperate-stage grief: there really is hope; you will not always feel as terrible as you do now. Nothing stays as it is, not the incredible moments nor our most awful ones, even if we feel permanently stuck. You may never feel like you did before your loss, may never be who you were in the land of before, but you will feel better than you do now if you just hang in there. You may even find you like your new self better, as that self will likely be less brash and arrogant having been put through the excruciating humbling we get when a child dies and we are shown we have no control over anything. In time you will stop trying to go back in time and change the past and that alone will give you more peace. Some of you might feel this increased sense of peace faster than four years, some of you might take longer, but that's how long it's taken me, and if I got here, I believe everyone can get here. If you are in the darkest place ever, I promise you it will change one day, just hang on like Rose after she fell off the Titanic and had to stay afloat on that door; I swear  you will eventually feel differently than you do now. (Though if someone is in that water with you, you might want to take turns staying on the door...Just saying, Jack didn't have to die!)

Which brings me back to how I just now feel that I am coming out of a benumbed spell that has been holding me and all my fellow citizens hostage and that has been keeping me slightly disassociative all these years. 

Yesterday my wife and many of my friends cried watching the brilliant inauguration poet  Amanda Garman (pictured here but please watch the video of her reading poem if you haven't). They cried when Kamala Harris smiled, squared her shoulders and lifted her chin at Sonia Sotomayor, something she advises young women to do if they find they are the first of their kind to have achieved a thing. They cried at seeing the little boy who’d been inspired to overcome his stutter by Biden’s example read us a speech during last night’s concert. They cried at JLo's Spanish shout-out and at Lady Gaga's emotional performance. And they cried seeing the list of the first 10 things Biden did with his executive orders. Through all of this, I was totally dry-eyed. I didn’t even feel choked up, not once, no matter how moving each moment was.

I used to be quite a softy, but since my son’s death, the only thing I have cried over is my loss or my increased fear of anything happening to my daughter. Today, though, I feel I might be waking up. (Is this morning in America?) I suddenly feel like it might be safe to come fully back into my body.

When I was in very early-stage grief, I felt like my skin had been torn off and I was being asked to go back to work with my entire body an open, weeping wound. I cried every time I saw anyone. But it didn’t seem like I had any choice, financially, about whether I could stay home any longer, so there I was, back in my office, crying through much of each day. When I had to make my first business trip after my son's death, I scheduled it for the morning after the election, thinking everyone would be in a good mood, celebrating Hillary’s win. I was a fund-raiser for Hampshire College, so my meetings were to ask parents and alums to support the college, and everyone I met with that day seemed in shock. One set of parents I met kept shaking their heads while we were talking, as if each moment they stayed awake that day their disbelief only intensified that this was our new reality. I knew exactly how they felt. Or rather I felt now they had some idea how I felt, as I, too, couldn't believe life without my son was my new reality.

I don’t know when I started to care more about the outside world. I suppose Trump getting into office drove me to care sooner than I might have otherwise. He seemed to be destroying things (civility, civil rights, our alliances, our air and water, immigrants lives) faster than I could keep up and after a year or so I felt like not participating in protests against his behavior was condoning it, so I just acted as if I cared and called senators or wrote letters or did other small things. Eventually, I did those things with more genuine feeling. But even as my ability to feel real outrage over what was happening to our Democracy and Black lives and, say, the Olympic gymnasts’ doctor having molested hundreds of girls, my tear ducts stayed stopped up. I wasn’t consciously choosing not to feel things, but I understand now I just could not fully embody the emotions that came with caring. 

What about children in cages? Surely that made me feel something. It's true, I could not believe how horrifically we were treating our fellow human beings. I was shocked that we were tearing small children from their families and putting them in concrete cells with Mylar blankets, feeding them gruel thinned with water from a hose, providing no one to care for them, and yet calling it a camp. I was pretty sure this was the worst federal thing that had been done in my name since I was born—but I still couldn’t really feel anything about it except anger, which isn't the same as feeling how traumatized and sad those children and parents must be. I did not have the reserves to draw on; it would take a few years for those to build back up.

For at least the first year after my son died, I thought vague things like, “Oh, if I didn’t want to die from the pain of being in the world while my son is dead I might be able to care about [fill in the atrocity]. But I can’t. Too bad.” My mind was preoccupied pretty much every minute with how I could go back in time and fix or change whatever had led to my son's overdose death. Though I slowly accepted that there was no going back, I continued to obsess about what I could have done that would have resulted in a different outcome. 

And, as mentioned, Trump’s behavior was so egregious that there were days I didn’t see how I could not at least have a Facebook argument with someone, try to save a cousin or a friend from whatever was happening to exponentially multiply hate among a significant minority of the population. I argued until I saw that no mind could be swayed. At all. No matter how many women came forward to say Trump had raped or assaulted them, including a woman with a credible witness who alleged Trump had raped and threatened to kill her and her family when she was just 13 years old, no matter how many disgusting things he said or did, it seemed no one ever stopped supporting him. Even my feelings about how thoroughly discounted his victims' experiences were did not really seep in. I had a protective bubble around myself. I could feel anger, but the emotions I ought to have felt for the actual victims of his behavior just weren’t accessible to me.

Which brings us to today. I am so heartened by Joe Biden’s immediate actions: just restoring our alliances in the Paris Climate Accord and with the World Health Organization and ending the Muslim ban and halting deportations and signing the Equality Act and ending the immigration policy that requires all Central and South Americans to stay in Mexico while they apply for asylum would have been enough to give me real hope. But he’s done at least twice as many things and hasn’t been in office 24 hours yet as I write this. 

Being able to feel genuine hope for my country makes me aware of how cut off I've been from having authentic feelings for anyone outside of  my immediate family and close friends these past four years, First grief and then the fear we've all been steeping in shut me down. I needed time to heal from the trauma of losing my son anyway--plus if ever there were a great four years to dissociate from the horrors of what was happening to my fellow humans, these were they. But I am hopeful I might just be ready to return to the world of feelings now that the odds have increased they can be happy, hopeful ones.

#grief recovery #disssociation 

Friday, January 1, 2021

My Happier New Year Resolutions Post

My wife loves setting goals; she inspired me to set more
of my own for the new year--which we celebrated last
night by playing Jackbox games with friends on Zoom.
I was recently asked to deliver a sermon on writing one’s way through grief, which led me to read a slew of books on how writing and the creation of other expressive arts helps people find their way out of the painful darkness that will overtake nearly all of us at some point in our lives.  The sermon went well, I think, and the benefits to me of having done research into this topic are continuing.

My favorite of the books I read was twenty years old but seemed highly relevant to this moment in our world: Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo. The author, extensively quoting research by James Pennebaker on how much better people feel if they develop a practice of writing about their emotions, reminded me that if I commit this year to write just five pages a week, I will wind up with more than 250 pages by the end of the year, enough to constitute a small book. I have determined to set and keep that writing goal, even if each week’s five pages aren’t going to add up to anything, let alone a book. Five pages of journal entries, poems, letters to friends, blog posts, parts of a short story--all the pages I write will count. And I will hope to devote at least 30 minutes to writing six days out of seven; four days a week I already have writing dates with accountability buddies, which helps ensure I write for two or three hours at a stretch for more than half the days.

DeSalvo quotes May Sarton’s  Journal of Solitude to encourage us to reap the benefits of steady writing: “We write not to create works of art,, but to build character, develop integrity, discipline, judgment, balance, order, restraint, and other valued inner attributes. …We develop self-mastery, which contributes to our emotional and spiritual growth.”

In other words, setting a goal to write five pages a week and keeping that goal will make me feel good about myself. Meeting any goal will enhance my belief in myself. “Seeing ourselves stick with a writing process is transformative,” DeSalvo promises, and I believe her.

This in mind, I’ve created my first bullet journal and set myself daily goals to write, floss, do yoga, and drink 64 ounces of water, and I’ve set myself the weekly goals of one-hour  devoted to card and letter-writing and one hour devoted to submitting my work for publication. 

I’ve also committed to scroll less--to take a book with me into the bathroom instead of my phone, for one thing, to take Facebook off my phone, for another. I can’t make myself give up Facebook entirely (at least not yet) as this month I’ve made a 30-day poetry commitment with an online group, Dive Into Poetry, which requires us to share our poems on that platform. And there's a Facebook page I love for  women and non-binary poets that sets a 100-rejections-a-year goal to help us keep our sense of humor about the odds against having our poetry accepted anywhere.

In one of the most important commitments I've made to reclaim my time for a life of the mind, I've committed to giving up the use of Buy Nothing, a Facebook page through which I give and receive free items such as books, shoes, clothing and home furnishings. I have obtained many, many items in my home, hundreds of items that I cherish, from fellow members of this group. I have brought meals to sick members, made pick-ups and drop-offs for those with no cars, given away rather than sold anything of mine that no longer serves us, made several friends in my community through our shared use of the site. But mainly I have acquired material objects and taken to compulsively scrolling the Buy Nothing page to ensure I see an object being given away as soon as it's posted, as quicker respondents get the most gifts. But I already have more than enough material items; I could die without ever acquiring another non-edible item and still live a full, happy life. Continuing to acquire things will not make me happy. And therefore, I must recognize my Buy-Nothing compulsion as just an addictive distraction and give it up to do more of what I know will feed my soul,

In my previous post, I made a resolution, which I thought would be my only one, to give up my self-pity about my granddaughter, who hasn’t been allowed to see me nor anyone in my dead son’s family since February of 2019, Just putting that resolution in writing made me feel it was already accomplished. I have accepted and released Maggie and her future to the universe, though I still hope someday she’ll find me. I accept that there’s nothing I can do anymore to hurry this process nor pressure Maggie’s mother into letting Maggie know us, so I am happy to turn my energy to things more within my control-- like writing five pages a day. Avoiding wallowing in self-pity will require me to focus my energy on other matters, which, along with my wife's excited love of goals, is part of what prompted me to make these additional resolutions. And here, today, are pages one and two of this week's five pages – which means I’m already 40% done with my top goal for the week. Not bad for day one.

What do you hope to get done in 2021? I'd love to hear your goals in the comments.  Happy 2021, everyone! 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

My New Year's Resolution: No More Self-Pity

I rarely make New Year’s resolutions; they seem silly to me—and statistics back me up. Only eight percent of Americans keep their resolutions, and 80% have abandoned their commitments within the first 30 days. But this year there is something I want to resolve—something I want to hold myself and be held accountable for doing. I want others to hear me state my intention and be prepared to point out when I’m not meeting it and encourage me to do better.

I suppose this is why people keep making New Year’s resolutions despite the low success rates; we feel more likely to do something if we tell others we will. Most years, happily enough, I don’t feel I need peer pressure to meet my goals; I am already doing pretty much what I think I ought to be doing for myself, so I don’t need to state an intention and ask people to hold me to it. This year, however, I know I need help reaching my goal. So here goes:

I want to stop feeling sorry for myself. I am drowning in self-pity and feel way less likeable and certainly less at peace for it, but I find I am unable to stop seeking public sympathy and feeling bad about how wronged I’ve been. I hate this quality in others. I have ended friendships with people who seemed stuck in self-pity, in seeing themselves as a victim of circumstances. We all endure tough breaks, and self-pity doesn’t help us in the long run. I know this, yet I continue to have a daily pity party playing in my mind’s background every day.  

It feels hard to admit I am displaying a quality I abhor. Everyone suffers; I cannot think of many friends who haven’t battled a painful illness or infertility or tragic loss or had to cope with a life-changing diagnosis for their child. And I have much to be grateful for: my wife, daughter, mother, friends, warm home, full fridge, and pets among them. But I just haven’t been able to stop feeling wretchedly sorry for myself and our family.

Many of you may assume I am consumed with self-pity over the loss of my son, shown above sleeping with his daughter. When he died of an overdose in late 2016, shortly after that photo was taken, it seemed natural that I would feel sorry for myself, and I welcomed all the sympathy I could get for the first year or so. The grief books I devoured encouraged me to wallow all I wanted, and doing so felt healing. But then, gradually, thanks to the support of friends and family, thanks to my wife’s extraordinary rearranging of our lives and budget to allow me to stop working outside the home, thanks to talk therapy and medication, writing and daily Yoga with Adriene, I started to feel a renewed sense of wellness and wholeness. I was gradually able to put Kyle’s life and death in perspective, and eventually to feel grateful once in a while for the 26 years we had with our brilliant, generous, hilarious son. I started putting together a poetry manuscript about my son, incorporating his poetry into the book, which helped me find some meaning in my suffering. I learned that finding meaning is key to healing. I found a publisher for the book.

Then, about a year and a half into my learning to live without my son, the girlfriend my son left behind, Amber,  asked if she and their daughter Maggie could come stay with me and my wife here in Massachusetts. To the right is a photo of them watching a 3D movie in our living room shortly after their arrival. Sharing more of this story is just another way of asking for sympathy, so I will refrain. Suffice to say that after Amber and Maggie lived with me for six months and then in a nearby apartment for another year, after Amber encouraged all of us in Maggie’s family to fall in love with Maggie and she with us, Amber cut us all off. She has not spoken to me nor let me or any of us see Maggie since shortly after Maggie turned 5 in February of 2019.  I tried to fight in court for visits, but Amber’s boyfriend (the man she said she needed to escape when she moved in with me) is wealthier than we are and paid for an expensive attorney to battle and bully me in court. After an exhausting and expensive year of trying everything I could, seeing a trial would not be scheduled for many more months, realizing that even if I "won," Amber would appeal and at least another year would pass without my getting to see my granddaughter, I agreed to drop the case. Amber said she would consider restarting our relationship in exchange for my signing away my rights. I never heard from her again.

My wife and I, who opened our home, supported Amber and Maggie, and worked tirelessly to help them both start a new life, have never in our lives felt so used and discarded. And to know that Maggie was cut off without explanation from her entire loving family without our even being allowed to say goodbye has been excruciating. Here's a shot of us at a local Bird Show from 2018.

But what can I do? Although Amber and her boyfriend have blocked us on every social media platform, I have tried reaching out with loving letters to Amber, all of which have been ignored. I no longer have any legal recourse, but I continue to send cards and gifts to Maggie; I fear most of them are thrown out. My last card included this P.S. “I take a picture of every note I send you in case you’re not seeing them now so I can show you all the times we tried to be in touch through the years.”

I sometimes dream of writing a book about other grandparents who have been unfairly cut off from their grandchildren after their child has died. There are a lot of us. Perhaps writing a book would help me find meaning in this experience, give me a constructive use for all of this self-pity. 

In the meantime, I am at a loss as to how to stop feeling sorry for myself. I am giving myself the rest of December to wallow—and to hear suggestions from all of you on how you have moved on from a brutal betrayal—and then, as of January 1st, I’ll be working on keeping this resolution. Thanks for your help. I’m going to need it. In the meantime, if anyone reading this knows how Maggie is doing, please drop us a note letting us know.