Origin Story

I can’t remember a single happy goodbye in my life. There is no such thing, far as I can see. I don’t know why people say it when it is so obviously stupid and wrong. Why would you want to leave a concert or your mom or your dad or your best friend or anybody? Leaving school is good, but nobody says goodbye to a building. Act like that and soon you’ll have no friends to say goodbye to, because everyone will think you’re crazy and avoid you like you’re not in the band anymore.

I am crazy, but it’s a secret so don’t tell anyone. I have to admit, now I’m thinking about it, I’m always happy to leave my shrink’s office. There are, in fact, moments of exuberant goodbyes. Don’t tell anyone I have a shrink, either, okay? My parents are divorced and they thought I wasn’t coping well because of all the goodbyes involved so they make me come to therapy.

My therapist is an idiot. He just sits there in his chair with his notepad and pen and waits for me to talk, like I’m going to spill all the horrors in my head, as if they will roll from my tongue like a tapeworm he can pull out with his silence. When I get tired of looking at the box of tissues on the table between us, I tell him my theory about goodbyes not being good.

He totally doesn’t say his usual “and why do you believe that?” Instead, explains, with out of proportion enthusiasm, that the word originated from the old English phrase “God Be With You.” So I say “namaste” and bow my head. He doesn’t get the joke. He is not on his game today at all. Inside I’m laughing. My mom has been practicing yoga forever, so I know “namaste” means essentially the same thing as “god be with you” depending on your version of God.

I ruminate a bit on how it’s kind of cool that way back when they were changing the lexicon in a very radical way. We are not the first generation to LOL. My shrink explains in painful detail, “god” was turned into “good.” BWY (Be With You) was turned into “bye” and ‘bye is what I want to say to this supposed therapist who is sucking on a mint and not doing a damn thing to earn his pay. I already have teachers endlessly cramming useless facts into my head. He’s supposed to make me less angry. He’s not. They’ve got me on medication and that’s what has stolen my rage. Even the guys in the band notice. They say I’m losing my intensity, but they take it easy on me because a couple of them have divorced parents too.

Rage was the one thing about this new life of goodbyes that was mine and of course they took it from me the way they took everything else. What nobody knows, so let’s keep this just between us, is that I flush the pills down the toilet now. Nobody’s caught on. When my rage comes back, I will keep it inside like all the other things I don’t want people to see. Maybe I’ll write a song about it. I think someone ancient already did a poem. Raging against death, I think he was. I can use his lyrics because way back then there was no such thing as plagiarism.

I know what that dead poet guy means, raging against death. Our family died even though we are all still alive. Goodbye family. Goodbye Mom. Hello Dad. Goodbye Dad. Hello Mom. It can get pretty monotonous in this head without the rage, but it will live again and it will be furious. Before the meds, I liked to feel rage building and then I’d channel it through my guitar, but maybe now rage will have it’s own way. Everyone knows you silence rage at your own risk.


What Silence Says

I sometimes have imaginary relationships with real people. It might be a side effect of being a writer. In fiction, I have to make up conversations all the time. I have to put myself inside every single character and imagine how they think, feel, act. I might carry that over into real life sometimes, for better or worse.

One example is my ex-husband. We’ve been divorced for thirty some years, but we have kids and grandkids, so we still see each other on occasion. When we first got divorced, I had this idea of how our relationship would be going forward. It would be friendly. We’d get along really well and have lots of laughs.

That didn’t happen.

It’s not that we’re enemies. We just don’t see each other much and when we do we hardly speak. At first, I tried to dive into my personal scenario, behaving all friendly and so on, but he just glanced at me and looked away. So gradually I backed off the overly-friendly chat and followed his lead into silence. But for me, for a long time, it was a very loud silence.

I had thoughts about his silence, like that by not engaging in the friendly plot I’d outlined in my head, he was in some way dismissing me. Insulting me. But there was nothing in his demeanor to suggest those things. He didn’t scowl or distance himself physically. He didn’t turn and walk away. So why then did his silence hurt me? Why did I feel embarrassed? Angry? Chagrined? Annoyed? Exasperated?

That’s the funny part, really, because all of the negative self-talk was internally devised. I have no way of actually knowing his motives or intentions or if indeed he has any at all. After all these years I am starting to come around to the idea that he doesn’t really think of me at all. Once we divorced, that was it for him. And that’s okay. That’s even healthy.

But for me it’s different. He gave me two brilliant children, the only children I’ll ever have. That’s the biggest gift anyone can ever give and it’s not something that I’ll ever forget or take lightly. Not saying he’s forgotten or taken anything lightly. Because I have no way of knowing how he feels. And that’s fine, because, really, it’s none of my business.

The Starter Wife

2wedding.SKMBT_C36413092514530Thirty years ago today I married my third husband. I was his first wife. He wanted the whole wedding, with a big party and the church and a tuxedo. I agreed, but only because it was his first go-round. Frankly I was a little embarrassed inviting people to yet another celebration of forever love. I knew damn well love, at least for me, didn’t seem to last forever. And there were already red flags flying, long before the wedding day dawned.

We’d broken up when he decided we should postpone the wedding after we set the date and everyone had been invited. Then we got back together, but only because I made him choose, all or nothing. Marriage or break up for good. I was a single mom, in the middle of a custody war with no end in sight. I had to be tough. He chose me, but sometimes he’d say “everyone has a starter wife, right?” I wasn’t sure he was joking.

On our wedding day, someone set a video camera up by the keg of beer on the patio. This would become our wedding video. When we got back from our honeymoon (not all hearts and flowers) and watched the video from our wedding day, I heard Al’s friends making bets on how long the marriage would last. Not long, was the general consensus. Less than a year.

Things were rocky as a landslide those first months, that first year. We had completely different ideas about how marriage worked and neither one of us was very good at compromise. There were lots of tears and hurt feelings. He flung the word divorce around so liberally I once went into the boys’ bedroom to find them filling their little gym bags, the ones they used when they switched houses to their dads’ place.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“We’re packing. Al says we’re getting a divorce.”

I told them Al didn’t mean it, we were not getting a divorce, grown ups sometimes said things they didn’t mean when they were upset. The boys calmed down and unpacked their toys and pajamas. But they looked sad. Which broke my heart. Maybe I should get a divorce. Maybe Al really didn’t want to be married to me and maybe I had been a fool to think I could fall in love again and finally make it work. So many more red flags had popped up since we’d said “I do.”

There was the way he never told me when he made plans with his guy friends, just went out. On Friday night. To the bar. And plenty of other nights, too. No discussion, just “see ya.” Or the times I’d try to do something nice for him, like throwing him a birthday party or buying him a little gift, and he’d always say “how much is this going to cost me?” Then there was the way he flung around the D word. The way he’d been so mean on our honeymoon, falling asleep on the road to Hana so I had to drive down that mountain myself, terrified the whole time. Not my idea of a romantic hero. Not at all.

Even on our wedding day, he spent more time drinking with his friends than by my side. He’d walked in on me smoking a cigarette and yelled at me in front of a bunch of wedding guests. Remembering all these raging red flags, I began to worry big time. Not so much about what this would do to my ongoing custody case, but what it would do to my own heart, and the hearts of those two little boys I loved so much. I’d been through a no-big-deal divorce at 18, from my high school sweetheart, and then I’d been through the wrecking ball with my second husband, the father of my sons. I wasn’t sure how we’d survive another divorce. I wasn’t sure I had a choice.

But I was strong back then, so much stronger than I am now. The years have made me soft, but back then I had time on my side. I believed that many good things were in my family’s future. What I didn’t know is if that family would hold three or four people. My mother seemed to think divorce was in the cards for Al and me. I had told her a little bit about our problems and she said “I never thought it would work.” I’m not sure there was anybody who believed we could make it work. Not my ex, not my kids, not my family, not our friends, and apparently not even Al.

I waited until the kids were with their dad and then I sat down on the sofa in the living room and had the talk with Al. I told him that I was done fighting for our love. It was pretty clear to me that he didn’t really love me and that this marriage had been a big mistake. I told him about the little scene in the boys’ bedroom. I don’t think I even had any tears left. Our relationship had started out so beautifully, as so many love stories do, but it had turned uglier and uglier and I truly believed it was past saving. Al agreed. We would divorce, less than a year after we married.

I got up off the sofa. I had no place to go, but I knew how to find an apartment. I’d done it plenty of times. Now it was my turn to pack. I guessed I really had been the starter wife he said I was after all. And good luck to the next one. I was heading down the hallway, ready to pack my own bags, when Al called me back into the living room. By this point, I wasn’t angry; neither one of us had even raised our voices during the entire discussion. All the tears and arguments were over.

I turned around to look at him sitting there, feeling so sad, because I still loved him, even though our marriage was impossible to fix. I was a born loser in love. Three times married, three times failed. He sat there on the sofa looking at me. “What?” I said, simply defeated. Nothing else he said could make me feel lower than I already did in that moment.

“I still love you,” he said.

That was thirty years ago. Somehow the starter wife became the only wife, with hard work, determination, abiding love, and many highs and lows in a very long, mostly happy marriage.


Single Mom Christmas

boys.xmas.84I left my husband in September of 1983. I was 28 years old, had two small children,  and absolutely no idea what heartache I was in for by the time Christmas rolled around. For their sake, I tried to put a good face on things. I put up a little Christmas tree in our apartment, bought gifts for them, cuddled and watched all the holiday cartoon specials.

This photo is at my parents’ house. They did not approve of my pending divorce and now that I’m older than they were then, I know why. It’s those two little ones off to the side–now that I’m a grandparent, I understand how protective you feel about your family, especially its smallest members, the ones who have no say so at all in what happens to them and to the people they love. All security is shaken and even though they have smiles on their faces, their eyes tell a different story. Yes, they were loved, but they were being pulled apart as surely as my marriage. My parents knew this, but I was in denial, because I needed to leave my husband to save myself.

My boys turned out just fine, but it still hurts to remember that time when we were three. Especially at Christmas. I felt things I was not prepared to feel: loneliness so vast there was no me anymore, just hurt. Just pain. Because all my life I had one dream: to be a mom and a wife. And I had failed. Now I was in a new world, one that left me completely alone on Christmas day, while my children were with their father. Yes, it was a relief to stop pretending everything was fine. But then there was that other wilderness, one I had not experienced in many years.

My main coping mechanism was denial. Fake it til you make it. So, instead of staying in bed with the covers over my head, which is what I would do today, I went to a friend’s for brunch. Had too much champagne. Showed up at my grandparents’ house with quite the glow on. Sure, I’ll have a scotch, I said to my grandfather. One scotch led to two and as I sat amidst my family, all of them matching sets with Mommy, Daddy, and children, I felt that spotlight effect psychologists talk about, the one where you feel like everyone is looking at you and judging you or maybe just pitying you. “Alone” was the title under my spotlight. “Loser” was the word that ran like a loop through my head.

A sweet member of my family warned me gently about a guy who wanted to take me out. “What? Just because he’s rich I’m not good enough for him?” The shock on her face was real. So were the tears her baby suddenly began to cry, as if sensing his mother’s distress.

“No. Not at all.” Her eyes wore that same look of bottomless sadness I’d seen so often in my little boys’ eyes for the past few months, ever since we’d left home. “I just…he’s kind of a player. I didn’t want you to be hurt.” I noticed that lots of family were listening. I’d shouted those words. I was drunk. My granny brought me coffee.

Ashamed, upset, bewildered, all alone in a room full of loved ones–I sipped coffee and tried to sober up. Then I went home and was truly alone. My choice. But it didn’t feel like it; it felt as if I’d done a necessary thing for myself and the worst possible thing for my boys–for my family–and that I would pay the price for the rest of my life.

And that was true. I never got over that one Christmas alone. Despite finding new love and blending my family as best I could, I never again woke up with my children on Christmas morning. I talked it over  with my ex and we decided that new traditions needed to be established. Christmas Eve would be my day with the boys and Christmas Eve night, after spending our holiday with my family, my husband and I dropped the boys off at their dad’s house. He had more money than we did, two more children, a new brother and sister for my boys, and all I had was a husband who hated Christmas.

I see now that I was punishing myself, depriving myself of my children, because I didn’t think I deserved to be their mom on that most special of days. I had not achieved the one thing I had always wanted: to create a happy home. Eventually, after many years of trial and error, I understood that Christmas was not a magic day, that every day I spent with my family was a precious gift, and I had the power to make it so.

If you’re a young single mom this Christmas and feeling sad, I have a true story of Christmas future for you. This year, my younger son is coming home to Michigan for Christmas. He is arriving on Christmas Eve with his wife, who is expecting our grandchild. They will be coming to my house from the airport and yes, waking up with me and my husband (who eventually admitted to the joys of the season) on Christmas morning. I feel blessed by stars set in motion so long ago, when I was young and sad and determined to do better.

Single, married, coupled, alone, widowed, abandoned, sad, with children or without, I am filled with gratitude for your visit here, and wish you the very best this season, and all the seasons of your life, have to offer. Do your best to make your life the one you always dreamed of and, stars willing, it will come true.

Make Love Happen: Post-Romantic Stress Disorder

unnamedMy writing critique partners looked skeptical when I talked about falling in love as being a kind of hijacking of common sense by our own bodies and the hormones they produce. I wouldn’t have believed it either if I hadn’t read Post-Romantic Stress Disorder and other books and articles with information, fact-based, provable stuff. fMRI brain scans have revealed to science the hormones that produce the feeling of being in love.  Scientists, psychologists and researchers have been tracking those effects for a while now. But I wrote all about it here.

And then I promised to write about what to do when those hormones calm down and the “in love” feeling goes away and you think you don’t love your partner anymore. Not true! And the same brain that produced those hormones is capable of helping couples stay together to create stable, mature love. We just have to make new pathways, cultivate new habits, and retrain ourselves from certain prevailing myths about what love is and what it is not.

First, recognize the signs of trouble when they start. Next, do something to subvert the process. Here’s the breakdown. The first sign is criticism. Do you criticize your mate or does your mate criticize you or do you both pick on each other? Stop it! Learn how to disagree constructively instead of destructively. Let go of nastiness and instead try for empathy and compromise. Don’t discuss when angry or tired. Wait until you are well-rested and ready to play nice. Then calmly say your piece with “I” statements so feelings don’t devolve into contempt and your partner doesn’t feel defensive and withdraw from communication.

Those bolded words are the steps in the process of walking away from intimacy. There’s a final warning sign, but by the time dissmell happens, it’s too late. Your relationship is doomed. Dissmell is a severe reaction, a disgust of your partners’ body odor. It could be a mouth like an ashtray, sweat that stinks, feet that make you faint when socks are removed, whatever the odor, if it offends you to the point of criticism, it needs to be addressed. Or you need to hire a lawyer. Because disgust can’t easily be turned around.

Hell, none of this is easy. But dissmell and disgust really are the death knell to a relationship. I should know, because it happened to me. I thought my partner (not my husband, but a former partner) was right and there was just something wrong with me that only he could see. I blamed myself. That’s a shame response and it happens when a relationship is out of sync because of childhood trauma. It’s all so buried and unconscious and insidious.

I’m well out of that relationship and have since done loads of work on my self-esteeem, which really for a relationship with anyone else to work, you have to be right with your own self first. You have to love yourself and out that shame that may be holding you back from true intimacy. Because intimacy is more than sex and cuddles. It has to do with trusting your partner with anything, including the things that have shamed and wounded you. Sharing these things builds intimacy, which puts the marriage back on the right track.

Here are a couple of other intimacy builders: make time for each other. My husband recently started taking off one day a week to spend just with me. Try new things. Be adventurous in ways that appeal to both of you. Listen, we are both 59 and there are still so many things we want to do. But we came up with something really wild, something so out of my comfort zone, but something I really want to do. We’re going to take lessons together. I can’t say what kind because my friends who don’t like guns will shoot me (hint).

Be spontaneous. Friday night a note popped up in my mail about a concert for one of my favorite bands. Problem was it happened to be the next night. And my husband had to work the morning after. And we were sure tickets would be sold out. And we already had a perfectly good plan to go out to dinner. But I thought about that spontaneous thing: getting excited about new and different things actually releases some of those same “in love” chemicals our souls crave. So we went for it. And we had a great time.

I’m not going to tell you the obvious things like to be kind and considerate because you know that already. It’s really easy to hurt the one you love because they are always there, right? But what if you develop some interests apart from each other? Everybody needs alone time and everybody needs something just for them. So build that into the relationship and suddenly your partner seems much more intriguing. Like someone you could really fall for all over again.