I signed up to know Cullen pretty early in my life. And I am very lucky, because I have decades and decades of good Cullen memories.
We met each other when we were 9 years old, and I had just moved to Georgia. She loved to tell the story of how we were at a school function, and she noticed I was slowly eating an entire bowl of mints. We were friends ever since.
She taught me how to make rings out of acorns in her driveway, and how to swing on the giant swing in her backyard. We went to the first day of fourth grade together, the first day of junior high school, and the first day of high school. I helped her get ready for the prom.
I came with her to Dunwoody United Methodist Church, and I sang in the choir and went with her to youth group and even Appalachian Service Project. I am sure the church representatives here at her funeral today will be glad to know that she made an honorary Methodist out of me.
We went to college together and lived in the same dorm. We even shared a set of bunk beds in the condo we moved into sophomore year. She, as always, was the first to excel and to join multiple clubs and to take us along with her on the path of responsibility. But, she also drove us around singing ABBA late into the night in a minivan packed to the gills with us goofy (and possibly inebriated) college friends.
We graduated from UGA together. We got our first jobs around the same time. I once travelled to stay with in her in hotel room in Vancouver when she was on a business trip, and I watched daytime television and ordered room service in her suite while she worked. She obviously had a better job than I did.
I knew her when she met her husband Tom, and I knew her when they fell in love. She was at my wedding and I was at hers. I got to see her grooving on the dance floor to Dancing Queen in Las Vegas – her and her momma, Kitty, too.
We were actually pregnant around the same time with our first kids, and I eventually got to meet her two younger sons. In fact, we had the very special honor of knowing each other’s children when they were 9, the same age as when we met.
For years, we’d see each other across the paths of busy life, at brunches or birthday parties. Most often it was at Sunday lunches at Cullen’s mom’s house with Cullen and Cameron and Hannah and sometimes Carr his family and the cacophony of kids – the “circus” as the family lovingly calls it. I am convinced they bought Girl Scout cookies from me just so I would deliver in person, and they would have a new audience to tell stories to.
It was at those lunches that I got to see first-hand Tom’s loving ministrations when it started to get hard for her to move and walk and stand.
For the last year or so, I got to see Cullen once a month on Zoom calls with our friends Ryan and Jean, who have both known her nearly as long as I have. And even when she couldn’t talk any more on those calls, we all got to see her smile and see the twinkle in her eye.
Just last week, thanks to our friend Jean -- who has an uncanny knack for showing up and making sure we do, too -- I got to hang out and hold her hand while she was in hospice. And on her very last day on earth, I got tell her that I loved her, and that we intend be around for many, many more decades to help take care of the people she loved.
I am so lucky to be able to say I got to do all that, and to have so much stored up Cullen in my body and my mind.
Because as you all know, she will be sorely, sorely missed.
And her memory is a blessing.
So far today, you’ve been up, out, worked, lunched, worked, called, worked, commuted. You texted your family about the dinner you planned. They will eat protein and vegetables, hot from the CrockPot. You will eat Cheez-Its in the car straight from the box because you won’t have time to go home before the volunteer leadership meeting.
After all, it’s Tuesday.
You check your texts as your tires rumble across the gravel parking lot to the Fellowship Hall. You stumble on that same gravel in your uncomfortable business shoes that you can’t take off because your feet stink from being shoved inside them all day.
You find the right door. You look for the sign in sheet. You smile politely at that one mom whose name you don’t know but she knows yours. You grab a nametag. You find a seat. Maybe you grab a roll of Smarties from the candy pile as your dessert.
The meeting begins. You talk about the newsletter. You talk about the fundraiser. You talk about who will put down the tablecloths. You stare into the middle distance when they ask for additional volunteers. You know better than to make eye contact. Besides, you already made three dozen brownies for that thing last month. Homemade brownies. Not even store bought.
The meeting goes long. You would at least like a bite of the CrockPot vegetables while they are still hot, but one of the moms in charge of training has one last thing. She’s going to teach you a fun song to sing with your children. She’s excited. She brought a ukulele.
You consider stuffing Smarties in your ears.
She starts to sing. You start to sigh.
Then … you pause.
She has a pretty voice. It’s high and clear and confident. She’s singing an end-of-night campfire song that’s soft and lyrical. One of the other moms knows the chorus and jumps in to sing along. They hum the in-between parts together.
You want to make fun of this, but they are charming. You think to yourself, “When’s the last time I heard a real person sing? Just sitting around the proverbial campfire? Just for me? Hell, when’s the last time I sang anything?”
The mom strums the ukulele and starts another verse. You feel your teeth unclench. You feel your shoulders drop. You start nodding your head to the rhythm. You hum along quietly with the chorus too.
You feel their voices in your body.
You forget about your stupid smelly shoes.
You remember why people have sung throughout history. You think of your ancestors singing hymns, singing songs while they worked, singing Christmas carols. You think about how long it’s been since someone sang to you. You try to remember the last time you sang a lullaby to your children.
Soon enough, the song ends. You clap and smile a wide and genuine smile. You compliment the lady on the ukulele and her cheeks flush pink. You hug her on the way out.
Then, you go home to load the dishwasher. You wipe down the counter and take out the trash. You check in with the children. You return that text.
After all, it’s Tuesday.
But that night, as you putter, shedding your dirty clothes and getting on your pajamas, you hum the song out loud, softly. You feel your breath moving, feel how your lungs and your voice box get warm. You turn out the lights and grin a little, thinking of the strum of a ukulele.
And you still feel the lullaby in your body as you put yourself to bed.
Honey, hush! I got another piece published by the lovely folks at Salvation South. Go read it!
I am pleased as punch to report that Salvation South (founded by The Bitter Southerner co-founder and generally delightful Southern guy Chuck Reese) has published on of my essays.
Go read my essay, The Casserole Mindset, on Salvation South's site right now!!
Today, I feel sad.
Let me elaborate.
Today, I am processing a very distinct feeling: the feeling of doing everything right, of executing beautifully, of putting forth a very fine and thoughtful effort only to find … no one gives a shit. I did the whole proverbial performance: I smiled, I landed the backflip, I scraped my knees and put holes in my tights as I slid into the big finish, and when the music ended, I heard nothing. Silence. I didn’t even get a pity clap from the guy in the back row, because there was no guy in the back row. I was there all alone. Nobody came.
As a grown up, I sometimes get too used to rationalizing this feeling and giving myself pep talks, so let me speak to your inner child to express the gross, gut punch-y level of where I am with this: I invited a handful of very special, hand-selected, popular friends from school to my birthday party. I set their places with handmade name tags, and I made sure they had their favorite color balloon tied to their chair. The party started at 3pm, and I am here with my party hat on. It’s 4pm. And nobody came.
Obviously, I am in the land of processing here, so I was trying to put words to exactly how I feel. As I was crying in the car to a beloved friend of mine, she reminded me of a tool that therapists and psychologists use to help people name their feelings called a feelings wheel. It starts on the outside of a circle with very grown up and complex and specific words about emotions, like nurturing and inadequate and serene, and aligns them with inner circle layers of simpler words for feelings, like happy, scared, and mad. You might feel amused, which maps to playful, which maps to joyful/happy, for example. Or frustrated, which maps to angry, which maps to mad.
Today, I am feeling inadequate, inferior, lonely, abandoned, ashamed, discouraged, disappointed, and hopeless, which pretty much is a perfect word score for all the grown-up words for sad. I feel sad. VERY sad.
My friend helped me sit with this for a bit and listened and supported me as I cried, and validated all of my feelings, and it helped. She’s really good at that. Then she said something interesting: on the version of the feelings wheel she was looking at, the biggest wedge of words was for those that mapped to happy.
Now, I am not a Pollyanna, and I am certainly not the kind of person who tries to drown uncomfortable feelings with positivity. I know that taking the time to meet your emotions where they are is very valuable and lifesaving skill, and one I try to practice. But, I have to tell you, in my moment of profound sadness, it comforted me to know that someone made a feelings wheel with an overabundance of words for happiness. That people out there are feeling respected, valued, courageous, loving, hopeful, and inspired. That somewhere, someone is having the best birthday party of their life, and that the sell-out crowd that saw their backflip is roaring with applause.
It reminds me that I get to have that, too. If we’re human and we’re lucky, we get to have all these feels eventually. Yeah, it can wipe you out, but it also makes me feel incredibly grateful.
Today I am sad.
But, the biggest wedge? The biggest wedge is happy, baby.
The biggest wedge is happy.
A note about this post: I talk a lot about death and parents in this one. I try, as always, to marry that with a little bit of comfort and perspective, but if that feels like not the thing you want to read today, no worries. Skip it. See you another time.
My parents are dead.
I say that in a non-sugar-coated way because most days, that reality for me is not very sugar coated. The people who knew how long it took to potty train me, who can tell me the address of the obscure relative, and who have that picture I’m looking for are not on this planet. They are gone. And the safety and security of knowing that someone will hold space for me, will take me in, help me up, and bail me out – in the most primal and unconditional ways – is not available at this time. And it never will be again. Not like it is with your parents.
Now, let me hasten to say that I am very lucky to have an incredibly robust support system, and I know for a fact that I have friends, relatives, and siblings who would all help me with anything I needed. I am also lucky to have had a good relationship with my parents, a thing many people don’t have at all, whether their parents are living or dead. But the truth is, my parents are gone. They are dead. That’s a lot to process on just a practical level – and that doesn’t even touch the amazing existential dread that comes with knowing there is no older generation to stand between you and void.
There’s a great book about this called The Orphaned Adult by Alexander Levy, and I am going to badly summarize it this way: The profound impact of losing your parents as an adult touches every single thing and every single relationship in your life, and it generally sucks. Also, because it is “common” or “expected” by society at a certain point, there are somewhat limited rituals and acknowledgements in place when it happens. However, those of us who have lost both parents do tend to recognize the particular flavor of grief that we share with others who have experienced the same. We can kinda spot each other if you put us in a room. It’s a small club, especially at my age, and what really stinks is that it has some awfully nice members.
What this book makes a point to say is that having rituals to honor your parents is a tool that helps people cope. You make your mom’s casserole every year at Thanksgiving. You toast to your dad on what would have been another of his birthdays. It’s sad and sweet and honors them, and you focus on them in that moment. It’s a nod to them and to the universe. A way to say “I see you, mom and dad. Thanks for having me.”
Today is one of those days for me. It’s what would have been my parents 61st wedding anniversary.
Here’s a picture of my parents when they got married. They were 20.
Here’s a picture of them in what has to be the early 1980s in Colts Neck, New Jersey. They are in their late thirties, I believe. Younger than I am now. I like to think they look like they’d be fun to hang out with.
And that’s exactly the point of the ritual. This dusty, blurry Polaroid lets me know that whether I believe my mother is smoking cigarettes with Elvis right now or whether I think my dad might be getting reincarnated as we speak, I had them. I had them like this, like they were in this picture.
They were mine.
I absolutely, firmly, and happily believe that they are off doing their thing in the universe now, and good on them. But the grief – and joy – of looking at them, thinking about them, is like plucking a particular string in time. My parents are dead. But in these pictures, they were 20 or 40, and they were here, and I was theirs, and they were mine.
And they sure do look like they would be fun to hang out with.
It takes a special kind of courage to put a kid on a bus to school.
But it takes a little extra to do it in a pandemic.
It takes some serious trust in science.
And in masks.
And in your kid.
And in their friends, and in their teachers, and in their school, and in their principal, and in the custodians, and in the bus drivers, and in modern medicine, and in the community at large.
Trust is something very personal. And, as this article in USA Today shows, it will be the thing you fall back on no matter where you are on the sliding scale of feelings about the fourth wave and the Delta variant and vaccinations and everything else.
But I just want to make this really real, and I know you other parents will feel it: I put my kids – my KIDS – out there in the pandemic today. And that takes a special kind of courage. And a whole LOT of $%&*ing trust.
It’s a tradition, on my friend’s birthday, to sit around her kitchen table, eat appetizers, and talk. Well, eat appetizers, talk, and get a little drunk, if possible. It helps that her birthday comes in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, a time ripe with post-holiday stories, complaints, and venting. It also helps the seats around that table are filled primarily with women.
There’s something terribly potent about a table full of women. It’s the high-proof hooch of the discussion world.
One of the great casualties of the pandemic is that this kind of gathering just isn’t happening as often, at least not in person. That is to society’s detriment – and certainly to my own. I mean, how the hell are we supposed to figure out what to do with our lives if it is not discussed over twelve cups of coffee and Creamy Dreamy grits with a platonic female soul mate? These days, I am resigned to half hour phone calls or maybe an occasional stolen moment in a driveway. It’s like freeze-dried ice cream: same ingredients, but not nearly as satisfying.
How are we expected to process hurts (perceived and actual) without the support of a trusted and beloved inner circle after a slow-paced dinner? I’ve tried to do it by Zoom, in a humid or freezing backyard, through masks on a playground bench, and even, one time, at a pandemic-safe Indigo Girls concert, but it is a pale version of what I’d like to have. Hugs and bites off each other’s plates and sips of one another’s cocktails are part of the alchemy. The closest I’ve come is getting weepy over a can of sparkling water in an appropriately social-distanced living room hang. My chair and the company were great, but honey, it just ain’t the same.
These exchanges, these communities, these face-to-face conversations between women are not some cutesy romcom thing. They are essential. Not only to me, but to the fabric of humanity. Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” If you don’t think she means a group of women talking and sharing a cheese plate, then you aren’t paying attention.
Maybe it is this, as much as anything else, that is adding to mental health crisis and general malaise that is the pandemic. The universe and the natural order of things knows many human females need to hang out and talk. Preferably at a table. Preferably with appetizers, and while maybe getting a little drunk. It is how deals get done, communities get formed, and the village survives the long winter. It is certainly how we change the world.
So, my hope for 2021, more than anything else, is the return of a communal table of women. Preferably comfortable, well-fed women with time to talk. Society needs it. And I sure as hell do, too.
One of my delights in the world right now is the amazing, obsessive food group I belong to on social media. It is filled with recipes, recommendations, and rants about everything from coffeemakers to taco fillings to rice cookers. When my husband threw away nearly an entire lemon cake I had made, mistakenly thinking it was old because it was in the back of the refrigerator, this was the place where I posted to garner the exact kind of sympathy I needed. (Note: the members of this group were so enraged at this cake murder, they were practically gathering pitchforks.)
I shared the following post in the group late last night, because I thought it would particularly resonate with foodies. However, I am wondering if it would resonate with you, too. Here’s what I said:
“Occasionally, if I get a little despondent and restless, and I have doubtful moments about the energy it takes to move through life in the pandemic (or otherwise), I am motivated by the fact that there’s a bunch of stuff I haven’t eaten yet ... or that I want to eat again.
Like, I can’t muster the energy to do another Monday, but damn, I would absolutely get in the car right now and drive to the coast because I can still eat fried shrimp at the beach. Or man, I was just going to lie on this couch and stare, but there’s the killer almond cookie recipe I haven’t tried, so I am going to get some almond flour and get baking.
Sure life is weird, but there’s still mu shu pork and fresh baked banana bread with butter on it and s’mores and Thanksgiving turkey with the crispy skin and cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning and chocolate fondue and barbeque ribs from that rib place and good chicken noodle soup and a chicken teriyaki bento box and birthday cake and fried garlic sushi rolls and a medium New York Strip with a wedge salad and a baked potato. Am I the only one the feels that way? That — if I may badly paraphrase — the way through this proverbial heart of darkness is through our stomach? It comforts me somehow that even in the face of the mighty trials of the pandemic, there is sushi.”
Sub in your own thing for sushi if sushi ain’t your jam, but you see where I am going here. Someday, even when everything is tangibly the worst, you have a thing … and variations on a thing … that might keep you going. The dog. The plant. Mountain biking. Pad Thai. Whatever. Don’t forget the thing. It’s there for you. Even now. Even in the weirdness. It’s there.
And it might even have chocolate frosting.
I was talking to a friend of mine who called me after spending yet another morning sitting by her daughter’s side during virtual online learning for school. “Zoom went down,” she explained. Not just at her kid’s school – in AMERICA. The whole freaking program crashed, presumably because there were millions of households logging on multiple kids (and, in many households, one or two adults as well) to video conferences supported by slide shows supported by digital document exchange platforms. Because that’s what we’re all doing these days.
The teachers did their best to cope, of course, as did the kids, as did my friend, who put down work on her masters degree so she could figure out how to enable editing on a document so her kid could do math. We’re all doing our best here. It’s nobody’s fault that we are just cobbling it together. But everything still kind of feels like it is failing. Like it’s unsustainable. Like we’ve really stopped smiling, and now we are just clenching our teeth.
Many of the wonderful women I know and love with school-aged children have expressed a similar sentiment. Sure, we will do our best to make it work. We and our partners (if we have them) will work excruciatingly hard at home or at paying jobs (or both) and multitask to the best of our abilities (this goes double for the teachers, essential workers, people in health care, etc., who have children themselves), so that we can find ways to help a nation full of kids during the school day, because … well, what the hell else are we supposed to do? We HAVE to do it. We have no choice. We know this is bad, but we will just do our best until something cracks, until it actually becomes unsustainable. We’re gonna break, we just haven’t broken yet. So, I guess we should just keep going? *looks around* Is that what you’re doing, too?
It occurred to me that this teeth-gritting moment isn’t just the normal part of coping with this pandemic. It is something above and beyond what this nice article describes as “surge overload.” I realized that it is not the feeling of failure that’s messing with our heads: it is the cold hard recognition of the actual inability to succeed. At least in the before times, we had some limited illusion of control over what might fail. Now, it feels impossible to get it right, or even to balance the fricking plate, because we all have no idea what will be slapped on next with this era’s goo-laden cafeteria ice cream scoop.
I know I am living a charmed life, even during the end of the world. I have a job, a house, plenty of food, a safe place to be, and a strong internet connection. I am even equipped with Gen X/Oregon Trail, Jan Brady-style coping mechanisms (which I have written about before here) that usually get me through just about anything hopeless. However, I still know failure is pending. The cavalry ain’t coming. Mars is in retrograde, and I know it will assuredly get worse. So, what’s the answer? What’s the cure? How can we survive this? What do we do?
Here’s my answer so far, and I have to remind myself of it often: It ain’t normal out there. So stop acting like it is. It’s still the earthquake, so stop fretting over where the outlets go in the house plans for when it’s time to rebuild. Quit thinking about how good that stolen idol is going to look in the museum, Indiana Jones. Put your strength into the fingers that are hanging on to the cliff. And for god’s sake, if your kid doesn’t learn about Mesopotamia or their multiplication tables or whatever, WHO CARES. We missed a Zoom meeting … during the APOCALYPSE. ALONG WITH LITERALLY EVERYONE ELSE IN AMERICA.
IT. IS. NOT. NORMAL. OUT. THERE.
You aren’t crazy. The world is.
So just stop for a sec. Rest.
This attitude gives me permission to sit down for a minute and see the Matrix for what it is – an artificial construct. I now understand that I can prioritize my energy, because I know I cannot possibly succeed. My real job isn’t to teach my kid math. It’s to successfully tolerate failure.
Is this attitude healthy? Sustainable? Reasonable? No, silly, and that’s the point. Nothing is. So stop pretending it might be. Sitting through the fail is our actual “have-to,” so do it in a way that might work semi-well for you. By all means, find the energy to do good things you care about: vote, help your neighbor, change the world, give more hugs. But just remember, today is not the day when we have to learn the multiplication tables. We are all home sick, babe, and sometimes you gotta be still, watch the Price Is Right, and wait for the Tylenol to kick in.
How long will we have to be this way and tolerate this failure? Oh, who the hell knows, but take comfort in the fact that’s not the question you should be asking. The real question is, and this is very important: if you do get to bid, how much are you putting on that second showcase in the Showcase Showdown?
Hi. I'm Amanda Dobbs.