Tag Archives: writing

Fallen Leaves

Another report from real time.  I apologize in advance that this post is longer than most.

A friend invited me to an five-hour writing and meditation retreat.  My first reaction was, Who’s got time for that!?  My second reaction was, If that was my first reaction, it must mean I need it.  So I signed up.

On Sunday I got up early and schlepped over to Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis, which is slightly smaller than New York’s Central Park.  I didn’t get lost because last winter I got “pre-lost” on a walk there.  I had to call this same friend to come and rescue me in the dark snowy woods.

The retreat was in the pavilion, which I would guess was built in the 20s based on its deco-era light fixtures.  It has a high vaulted ceiling, screen porches that run the length of it on both sides, and a gigantic hearth. The pavilion is set on a hill with oaks whose leaves were in their autumn finest colors of russet, pumpkin, and gold.

The retreat was led by a woman named Jeannine who runs something called Elephant Rock.  Their retreats “harness the transformative power of writing in breathtaking natural settings.” The first thing I noticed was the vocal fry.  I was going to be here for five hours, so I “set an intention,” as they say, to not let this get on my nerves.

Jeannine was paired with a guy named Tyler who is a Buddhist monk and the director of a temple in Chicago.  There were a dozen or so participants, all women.  White women with scarves, we call them where I work.  Upper middle class, white, professional women.  Oh well.  That was me, too, so for the second time that day I pledged not to be distracted by my observations.

The pattern of the day was that Tyler led a short meditation, then Jeannine gave us a writing prompt to inspire us in 10 minutes of scribbling, followed by a brief discussion.  The first prompt was an excerpt from The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich:

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”

I wrote:

In my new backyard, I sit on the bench we threw out here because we didn’t know where else to put it and the U-Haul had to be returned by 7:00.

I smoke a Swisher Sweet and drink a Blue Moon and look up at the leaves of an enormous oak tree.  It’s the end of September and the leaves are just turning.

Once a week or so I repeat this ritual and if I’m able to actually notice the leaves—if I don’t pass the entire time in my head—I notice they are now gold, now brown, now gone, fallen in heaps in the driveway, now slimy after a rain.

I moved, my mother had a stroke, then we moved her, all in a month.  My minimalist pride was blown because I had taken home piles of her shit that I just couldn’t throw away, like the giant, heavy-duty cookie sheet she used to bake chocolate chip cookies for the four of us.

My mother is recovering in her new $6,000-a-month “continuum of care” digs.  The same apartment can be independent living, assisted living, or memory care (they put a lock on the outside of your door when you get to that stage).  There’s a cemetery next door.

Just kidding.

But no one moves out of there alive unless they’ve run out of money.

We’re all moving along a conveyor belt.  My mom will never spend the winter in Phoenix again.  Never ride a bike again.  Now she’ll never drive a car again.  No more baths now.  She’ll never go for a walk in the woods alone again.  Now, no more showers without an aide nearby.  Her daily glass of wine is forbidden.

My mother is blessed with a mind that never worries, never obsesses, never ruminates.  Yesterday I found her in the party room at a Bloody Mary party.  When she saw me she put down her plastic cup and said with a foxy grin, “I forgot I’m not supposed to drink!”

I do worry, obsess, and ruminate, which is why I need to write and meditate and sometimes, have a beer and a cigar out in the backyard.  But not now, not until spring, because it’s too cold and dark outside.

Justice, Sweet and Sour

Summer is over, and so is my break from blogging.  In my last post, I listed all the things I was going to do with my extra time: sit outside in the morning with my coffee and listen to the birds, plan a fall trip, and figure out how to publish the first year of the blog as an e-book.  Oh—and write a novel.

I sat outside with my coffee once.  I am planning a fall trip to Italy, Malta, and Spain.  I didn’t write a novel, but Vince and I have started working with an editor on the e-book.

Mostly, I’ve tried to live in the moment.  Summer is so brief.  There were fun moments.  At a family weekend at a cabin, someone brought a Donald Trump piñata (Made in Mexico, appropriately).  I fostered a litter of seven kittens which drew visits from friends and family.  Vince and I went to the State Fair where, at the FabBrow booth, he insisted he wanted a uni-brow.  The makeup artists got back at him by making him look like a community theater actor.

pinatakittens

fabbrow

I spent a lot of time outdoors.  There were hikes and bike rides, and one day a friend and I spend hours making jewelry down at the river. Other times I packed a book and a beverage and biked to some quiet spot at a lake or the river.

The big local news this summer was of the killing of Philando Castille by a cop.  Castille was black.  The cop, Jeronimo Yanez, was Latino.  Castille was pulled over for a broken taillight.  He had a gun in his glove compartment, and believed that the proper procedure when interacting with a cop was to inform: “I’ve got a gun, and I’ve got a permit to carry it.”

I suppose Yanez didn’t hear anything after Castille said “I’ve got a gun.” Blam!  Shot point blank five times and left to bleed to death.  Castille’s girlfriend live streamed his last moments on Facebook.  I have not watched that video, but hundreds of thousands of people have.

I live within walking distance of the Governor’s mansion in St. Paul, where the inevitable protests took place. Traffic was blocked off by the police for a month and I was kept awake a couple nights by helicopter noise.  The protestors blocked off the nearby interstate and either police were patrolling with helicopters or it was news media copters, but they were loud.  Not that I’m comparing my minor inconvenience to the Castille’s family’s loss.

govs-mansion

This week marked one year since Vince was released from prison.  He is doing so well.  He just started a new job in catering, and he’s excited.  In a month he will go off intensive supervised release, which means he’ll be able to stay out past 10:30 or go to Wisconsin to visit cousins.  Best of all, he won’t have ISR agents showing up day and night asking him for urine samples.

Another event prompted me to write this post.

In 1989, an 11-year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a stranger at gun point in a small town in Minnesota. He was never found.

Vince was the same age as Jacob.  Vince became a Bar Mitzvah, got his first job, moved out, turned 20, had a serious girlfriend, had serious drug and alcohol problems, went to jail, got clean, relapsed, turned 30, moved to Lanesboro, went to prison, got out, and has two years of sobriety.  In a few months he’ll be 38.

This week, a man confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting, and executing Jacob Wetterling by shooting him in the head, then burying him—and returning a year later to move the remains.  Lying handcuffed in the last moments of his life, Jacob asked the man, “What did I do wrong?”

Vince was sentenced to over four years in prison for drug possession.  Because the statute of limitations has expired, Jacob’s killer will get 20 years on a child porn charge.  He’ll be a cho-mo—the most loathed prisoner among prisoners.  According to Vince, they are also considered a “protected class,” by officials, perhaps to prevent prison vigilantes from meting out real justice.

Easter Interlude

I was Skyping with someone at work who is an attorney who documents torture and other human rights abuses perpetrated against Syrians.  I loved this quote she had on her Skype account:

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

It was said by E.B. White, who along with William Strunk wrote The Elements of Style, usually just referred to as “Strunk and White.”  It was first published in 1918 and is considered one of the most influential English language books.  It was like a Bible to me when I first began my career.  Basically, in a little over a hundred pages (1999 edition), they tell you everything you need to know about punctuation, grammar, composition and commonly misused phrases and words.

Here’s another quote from White: “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”  That’s a great affirmation from someone who basically inscribed the Ten Commandments of writing on paper.  As someone who often wonders, “Why am I writing this blog?” I appreciate this one.

And finally, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” I hope I am both.

I’m going to share a couple posts from my son Vince in the next week or so. We started Breaking Free as a co-blog, to write about his experiences in prison and mine as a prison mom.  Is that a thing?  It is now.

Easter Interlude

The anxiety started a little over a week ago, when I found out how soon Easter actually was this year. I was finally going to jump over another big hurdle. I’ve been out of prison now for almost seven months and haven’t had the opportunity to attend a gathering with the extended family, and today was that day.

I don’t actually know what it was that I was afraid of. I guess it’s the fact that I haven’t seen them for a decade and I really don’t know that any of them have any idea where I’ve been. I visualize a hundred conversations all ending abruptly when they ask what I’ve been doing, or why they haven’t seen me in so long. And of course it’s not their fault that they’d be curious, we’re family. My grandparents are wonderful but as far as I know, they didn’t really spread the word about my trip to prison, or my years of alcoholism and drug addiction. And there’s the shame factor for me that I didn’t really want to go into any of that at Easter (or ever). I mean who wants to hear such a sad story on Jesus’ Birthday? Or whatever it is.

All the worry and apprehension was for naught. I was greeted with hugs, handshakes, and warmth. And truth be told, I felt some connection with a few of them that it turns out I really missed. And once again I was sitting at the table with my family, laughing, conversing, and feeling all the uneasiness dissipate. I didn’t recognize a few of them as they had all literally aged ten years and were just kids the last time I had seen them.

I think what I realized is that it doesn’t matter where I’ve been for so long, only that I am here now. Not just in this particular situation, but in everything. It took me a while to adapt to life outside the walls, but now that I have been away for a while, I think I can let that go. That time of my life is over, and even though I constantly need to be work on recovery, it’s not so much about not going back, but being able to move forward.

I just got home from the gathering and wanted to get those words down while the event was still fresh in my mind. I feel really good right now. As if a weight has been lifted off of me. But like many of these weights, it was put there by me.  I need to quit that. I’m a work in progress.

Poppies of Expectation

There’s a saying: “Expectations are disappointments in the making.”

That sounds so cynical. And as with all self-helpy kinds of things, I had to struggle with this concept intellectually before I could accept and employ it.

Some expectations are reasonable. I expected Vince to graduate from high school. I was bitterly disappointed when he didn’t. In this case the saying still holds true but you couldn’t fault me for the expectation, right? It’s a pretty minimal one held by most parents. (Vince has since earned his General Equivalency Diploma and finished two years of college.)

But there are other expectations that are unreasonable.

Vince wrote numerous times from boot camp about how he had spent four hours scrubbing the baseboard in the gym, or all day moving manure from Point A to Point B, or how he made his bed with sharp corners and ironed his clothes with exact creases. This was not the Vince I knew from before boot camp. “Wow!” I thought, “How wonderful that he’s learned to be a perfectionist clean freak like me!” I looked forward to him moving in. It would be great to have someone else in the house who would wash windows, dust and vacuum, wash the car (and here I got really carried way), paint the spare bedroom, clean the spider webs out of the basement, tear up the old patio and cart all the bricks away, maybe even wallpaper the dining room!

Ha. Suffice it to say that none of those things has happened. And why should they? Vince met the expectations of boot camp because his freedom was on the line. I had never even voiced my expectations to him—I was barely aware of them myself.

The progress I’ve made is this: I used to be completely unaware of my expectations, then feel shocked when they weren’t met. Now I catch myself—maybe not in the moment but eventually—and I laugh at myself a bit. The only disappointment I feel is in myself, for having unrealistic expectations.

Vince will never be a neatnik like me, but he does clean up after himself. He takes out the trash and puts gas in the car when the tank is low. He picks up items at the grocery that I forgot to get the day before. He replaces the toilet paper when it’s gone. He makes ribs and bakes cookies and offers them to me. He pays rent. He works full time and volunteers at the Goodwill on Sundays. He exercises. He’s started his own blog. He’s going to meetings and has sober friends.

I still have thoughts like, “I hope he goes back and finishes his degree,” and “I hope he meets a nice girl and gets married and has kids.” I notice these thoughts. I name them as expectations. I am kind to myself. I acknowledge that they could happen but that there are no guarantees and that Vince’s designs for his future may not match mine. Just for today, I’ll be grateful for what’s right. I will not go romping into the poppy field of expectations and disappointments.

Breaking Free, Mom-Only Version

ANNE

It’s been nearly two months since I’ve written a post.  For those of you who began following this blog recently, I’m Vince’s mom.  He and I co-wrote this thing for a year.  I had been posting every other day for over a year.  He sent me hand-written pages and I typed them and posted, alternating between his content and mine.

When Vince was released from prison, I checked with him every other day: “Do you want me to write a post?” and he’d reply, “No, I’ve got it covered.”  I asked him several times to give me a couple days’ notice if he wasn’t going to post on a given day.

I winced at his typos and sloppy spacing.  But Breaking Free was his blog too, and he was really unloading some powerful content—stuff he had not been free to write about in prison, some heavy experiences and emotions.

It was kind of a nice break for me.  Vince wrote that he wanted to take his writing in a different direction, and I started thinking about what else I might blog about eventually—maybe something fun like travel.

I felt blindsided when I read his post in which he announced that he was done with the blog—right now—for personal reasons.  I have no idea what the personal reasons were.  When I tried to discuss it with him he said, “You weren’t writing anything anyway.”  Aargh.

I was pissed.  I was hurt.  He hadn’t given me a heads up, so I had no content ready.  And when there’s no posting on a blog, readership falls off quickly.  I had invested over a year of my life in conceptualizing what the blog would be, figuring out the technology, keeping it fed, and getting the word out about it.  I watched as the readership stats shriveled with each passing day of inactivity.  It was like sitting by the bedside of a dying loved one, patting his/her hand, and feeling powerless to do anything.

I was waiting for inspiration (and time) to write.  Then I read one of those Facebook quotes—it was by Albert Einstein or Fred Flintstone or a maybe a fortune cookie—something like, “If you wait for inspiration you wait in vain.”  That snapped me out of my procrastination and resentment.  Hey, whatever works.

Co-blogging with Vince created a natural cadence, a tension, and a story arc that was a pleasant surprise.  I’m not sure how it’ll go with just me, but we’ll find out.

Good Boy

VINCE

After having written nothing by hand since my release from prison, I’m back to it with this journal I received for my birthday from Ms. Toaster.  I think it will help because I can write a little here and there and maybe not feel so rushed sitting in front of the computer screen trying to think of something to write.  It was a very thoughtful gift from a very thoughtful woman.

Today, my friends Curt, Sara, Seth, And Seth’s daughter Audrey came for a visit from down in Fillmore County.  They brought my dog Willie who I had not seen in two years.  I was so excited when I saw him and all my friends.  Unfortunately, only four out of the five recognized me.  Willie didn’t seem to have a clue who I was.  It was the exact opposite of what I pictured our reunion being.  I felt terrible.  I knew it was my fault because I had left him so long ago.  I pet him, and scratched him, and hugged him.  But he didn’t show any sign of affection that I thought he would have.  I had him for about 10 years before I left for drugs, and I hoped he would pick up on a scent or the familiar face, but nothing.  I was heartbroken, but I didn’t want to admit that so we continued on with the plan for the day.

We packed in the car and drove to Woodbury which will be his home until I can move out on my own.  My aunt has a nice back yard and a playful dog for him to hang out with.  He moped around and peed and pooped.  Good boy.  I will be able to visit him once a week for now as my restrictions allow, and as transportation is available.  I am going to have to start from scratch with him.  Get to know each other all over again.  I’m sure there’s something inside his little dog brain that will be triggered at some point that will make him know who I am again.  And if that doesn’t happen, at least I will know who he is, and I will love him for as long as he lives.  And that will make me feel better about it all.

We left Woodbury and headed to Afton State Park on recommendation from my aunt.  I wanted to look for agates along the shore of the St. Croix river and hike around with my friends.  We paid five dollars to get in and started the walk down.  The place was beautiful.  I don’t often care about the colors of leaves, but they really stood out there.  As far as the eye could see in any direction were rolling hills, babbling brooks, and multiple colors of leaves of so many trees.  The downward path was mostly wooden stairs.  We heard many languages as we made our descent into the colorful valley.  I felt quite like a tourist, and my friends probably felt like the minority for the first time in a while.  When we got to the beach it took me about 12 seconds to find my first agate.  It wasn’t big, but it’s always a good feeling to find the first one: you know they’re there.  I found a few small keepers and proceeded to a bench where I just sat and enjoyed the view. Children were everywhere and I was happy to see that a few of them were looking for rocks too.  We decided to make the journey back up because I’m on a schedule, of course, but not before Curt took a dreidel out of his pocket and suggested we do a little gambling at a picnic table.  It’s a tradition with us four.  We gamble for quarters, and I lost a dollar.  Not a bad day.

The walk up was much more difficult than the walk down as you may have guessed.  I did pretty well with my new shoes that I received for my birthday.  Man did I need them.  We had a very nice, small gathering for me yesterday.  Overall, it has been a great weekend.  There are many more to come as long as I keep doing what I have been doing.  Good boy.

Two Hundred and Thirty-Seven

VINCE

This marks the two hundredth post that my mother and I have written. It’s been quite a journey. Almost daily I look back through the blog and see such a wide variety of emotion, struggles, triumphs, and memories. Today also marks another important number, 37. For the second time in a year, it’s my 37th birthday, only this time it is actually real. You may have read recently about my miscalculation with my date of birth. Well, it was nice feeling young again when I realized 11 and a half months in that I was only 36. So, my two weeks is over and I’m old again. Boo-hoo.

 

A year ago today, I was sitting alone in a cold cell in St. Cloud prison where nobody cared about me or my birthday. I remember trying to make a big deal out of it with the other swampers (house cleaning crew) but nobody was interested. One person gave me a cup of Folgers instant coffee, and that was the highlight of the day. I sat. I read. I wrote. And I pondered where I would be a year from that day. I had no clue what was in store for me with boot camp. I actually received my acceptance letter a few days later which was dated Oct. 24th. I was so excited. I showed it to the swampers, the offenders, the guards. Again, nobody cared. I knew there was a good chance that I wouldn’t be in prison for my next birthday if I put everything I had into this boot camp thing. And did I ever.

 

It was shortly after that I was moved to Moose Lake into segregation, the single worst experience of my incarceration. Well, enough reflection, I’ve already lived it, written it, and read it. What’s new?

 

In my last post I talked about my new tooth falling out. I didn’t really mention why. My student dentist had actually forgotten to put on the bonding agent which would have secured the plastic onto the broken tooth itself. Oops. She did try to contact me, but we didn’t actually talk until a few days later at which point she explained the mistake she made and we set up a time to get it fixed. She said she felt like an idiot and she was so sorry, and couldn’t believe she could have forgotten…. I interrupted her and explained that it was okay. I learned a lot at C.I.P. And I explained that everybody makes mistakes no matter what. And when you do, you fix it, and move on. I have made some terrible decisions and made some huge mistakes in my life, and people still love me. So, I bet after she fixes my tooth, she will never forget to put the stuff on again. And that’s how we learn. Right?

I cooked vegan fajitas with my cousin tonight. Her mother was in from California, and I hadn’t seen her in roughly a decade, just like everybody else. We had a good talk, a good dinner, and we played with kittens. My cousin is a vegan and I love to cook, but I had never really given anything that wasn’t meat-based a shot. I didn’t turn into a zombie, and the desserts she brought were actually pretty good, too. I’m not saying that I will be a vegetarian tomorrow (or ever), but I did realize how much I actually enjoy veggies. Tomorrow I will realize how much I enjoy meaty, cheesy pizza for my birthday celebration. Win-win?

 

I’m really excited to see my dog Willie on Sunday. My friend Seth is talking to me on the phone right now confirming that he is actually coming. So, I’m done for now. I will write about the reunion in a couple days. Goodbye for now.