Sometimes

“She’s staring again,” Juan Jose’ remarked to Crystel on Tuesday. The three of us were dining at Pizza Luce. The 19-year-olds sat across from me. I was looking past them, merely looking, not staring at all, at the people coming in the door, the servers rushing into the kitchen, dodging for silverware, the water pitcher, the food that was ordered.

Crystel shook her head back and forth, “She always does that, you know that.”

It could be a girl Crystel’s age that will pull me back to the horror of being raped. A toddler sitting on my lap, dozing, her limbs a rag doll. Trusting. Safe. No worries. What would she have to worry about? She’s 2 years old. At 4, adorned in colorful scarves, beads, and unmatched socks. A Jasmine Princess at 5. Loving Johnny Depp at 8. Being the first to jump in the pool, the first to ride her bike, the first…

“I’m writing stories,” I say in my defense.

I’m studying people. Their familial relationships. Body language. Emotional state. Piercings. Tattoos. Eye contact.

That morning I studied a photo of a 10-year-old Wisconsin girl. She had long brown hair, parted in the middle, smiling eyes, smooth face. She looked happy.

I pictured the 14-year-old who raped and killed her. How much bigger he would have been than her. His height, weight, and strength. My stomach tightened.

I was her.

8 years old

8 years old.

The young girl with a smooth face. Smiling.

I was no match for a 14-year-old.

My four older siblings just kept getting older. And I would always be the younger.

The running track already set. An oval that I would run round and round.

Never getting away.

I asked for help when I was 9. I was afraid. They were bigger. I needed help.

None was forthcoming. I became that 10-year-old. Only I didn’t die.

It lives within me. The assaults. The rapes.

The watching of others.

How A Bullet Journal Helps Ease My Anxiety

I started keeping a (modified) bullet journal in January 2017, and I’ve recorded almost every day since. Not that I’ve written every day, but I’ve almost always gone back and recreated days I miss.

My journal is more diary than journal, recording events, how I’ve slept, what we ate, where we’ve traveled, things to do. I’ve occasionally written longer forms (this post started as handwritten pages in my bullet journal), but not often.

Lately, I’ve discovered that my notebook contributes greatly to managing my anxiety. On a recent Saturday I was feeling anxious and blue, more than I had in a while. It had been an emotional week. I’d seen my Uncle Don for the first time in years. I’d visited my 90-year-old mother in Michigan and found it difficult to leave her to return home. My husband’s sister was in the hospital with a life-threatening health crisis.

With all of the travel and activity, I hadn’t written in my journal. Sunday morning I made time to catch up on my entries for the week. As I wrote, I could feel the anxiety melting away. Nothing had changed, but the act of documenting my days seemed to be the panacea for my disquiet.

journal with micron penI realized that writing down these events ensures that I’ll have a record of them, that I won’t forget. But my journal also is a container for the challenging events in my life. I can close my journal, snap the elastic band around the cover and my emotions are safe, caught within the margins.

I spend a fair amount of time going back and reading what I’ve written in my notebook. Although mostly mundane, these entries serve a valuable purpose. They fill the gaps in my memory. They remind me of all of the wonderful people I have in my life. They show me that I’m resilient and can make it through any trials life throws me.

Unlike other journals I’ve kept, my bullet journal provides structure and order, two things I crave in my life. I often joke that I have “control issues.” But it’s not really a joke. I need to feel that I can have some control or influence over everything in my life. When I don’t, I get anxious. In a small way my bullet journal gives me that control. If I can put the words on paper, I can get them out of the endless worry loop playing in my head. I know I can always go back to my journal if I need to.

Another thing I love about my bullet journal is that there are no rules. (That seems a little contradictory to the previous paragraph, doesn’t it?) I can use it however I want. I control the contents. (Ah, there it is.) I can put a calendar on a page if I want one there, I’m not confined to the page with the pre-imposed date.

I’ve always loved calendars, but I can’t even count how many planners/diaries I’ve abandoned in my life because I’ve missed days or weeks and can’t tolerate the taunting of all those blank pages. This notebook is the perfect solution. Every page is full of ideas, events, thoughts, emotions, and yes, a calendar if I want one.

My favorite pages in my notebook are probably my version of the Calendex. I create small calendars across the top of the page using the grid, with a blank column beneath. Throughout the month I document the highlights (dinners out, parties, major purchases or repairs, writing groups attended and missed). At a glance I can recreate a week or month. I can then go to the date in my journal for the details.

Calendex

(Note for BUJO purists: I don’t use my Calendex for future planning. Eddy Hope explains how he created this concept in case you’re curious.)

I’ve learned that I prefer a “dot” notebook with a light grid on the page (Luechtturm1917 is my current favorite brand). I keep a ruler in my notebook and use my favorite pens (Micron-black) to draw lines to section off the page and create calendars and lists. (Lists! How I love a good list.) But I always write in pencil, I like to be able to make changes.

Recently I’ve decided that I want my journal to be more than just an accounting of days. So I’ve started adding sections periodically for “mood” and “observations.” I’m trying to be a little more thoughtful each day and use my notebook for inspiration and creativity. I usually journal early in the morning, when the house is quiet and I’m calm. I realize that it’s probably this time that I gift myself for quiet reflection that contributes most to my emotional state.

My bullet journal is the talisman that allows me to bring together the things that matter most to me – creativity, structure, order, inspiration – to live together in one place. The blank pages aren’t daunting. They’re beautiful and calm, waiting for me to use them.

 

What Was This Farm Girl Doing at AWP?

Ellen, Brenda, and Jill  Members of my Writing Group

Ellen, Brenda, Elizabeth and Jill
Members of my Writing Group

The Association of Writers and Writers Program (AWP) had their annual Conference and Bookfair this past weekend in Minneapolis and over 13,000 people attended, including me.

I could have left after the first panel discussion I attended: Stranger than Fiction: Personal Essay in the Age of the Internet. I got my money’s worth in the first hour of the four-day conference.

I heard, “What is our truth and are we doing that on the page?”

I heard, “I allow myself to be a person who can change.”

I heard, “Let’s put out shit that matters.”

Those few words gave me the courage to own my story in its entirety.

When asked what I write it was easy for me to say, memoir, adopting infants from Guatemala, raising them with another woman, etc…but I generally would not say the whole of it.

Fear of how people would see me was part of that.

But, no one else can tell my story.

My completed memoir manuscript, House of Fire, uses fire as a metaphor for the dysfunction in my family of 14 growing up on a Wisconsin farm. I interweave the incest that defined my childhood and teenage years with how I healed. The book describes how my partner, Jody and I, intentionally created a safe healthy family by adopting and raising two infants from Guatemala.

I’ve spent over thirty years working on myself to have my past not define me.

And, to that end, I’ve been successful.

I contain multitudes: the Tae Kwon Do black belt who is a goof who loves to spar at the Dojang, the mother of two twelve-year olds, the police reserve officer, the human resources manager, the soon to be Assistant Scoutmaster, the writer and author, and the woman who married her partner last August.

I’m also the woman who suffered repeated sexual abuse, who had a hushed-up abortion after I was impregnated at 14 by one of my brothers, who was pregnant again within a year by another brother, who gave up a son and never saw him again.

What I wanted most in my early twenties was to know that people could not only survive what I did, but heal and live a good life.

Now, my book, House of Fire, will help me be that person for others.

I didn’t go home after that first hour of the AWP conference. I remained among my tribe of 13,000 writers.

I also have another tribe who I hope to reach through the printed and spoken word.

What To Do When Your Editor Has Your Manuscript

ostrich-with-head-in-sand 2Surprisingly enough, I don’t have any nervous energy waiting for her response. I’m looking forward to her feedback. And, as soon as I receive her comments, I know that I’ll stick my head back into the manuscript and write, revise, and write.

An ostrich doesn’t bury her head in the sand but she does dig a hole in the dirt to use as a nest for her eggs. Several times a day, the ostrich puts her head in the hole and turns the eggs.

Since winning the 2013 – 2014 Loft Mentor Series in Creative Nonfiction, I devoted my time to babying my book. Every spare moment I had went into the work that would result in this baby growing into a manuscript worth publishing. I had a vision. I purged what wasn’t working and kept writing what was.

With my newfound free time, I turned my attention to the cat room. It had become a stockpile of possibly useful stuff. Every time I walked into this room it bugged me. I’m a purger by nature. I don’t like stuff.

Transforming this room became a creative process. I had a vision for the room. I knew that it could be more than it was. Focus, hard work, and purging would bring my vision to fruition.

I’m the purger in our house. That’s my role. I enjoy it. For me it is creative. When Antonio and Crystel get to the point that even they can’t stand their bedrooms, they’ll turn their rooms over to me. I’ll go through every slip of paper, every drawer, every pencil box and organize, toss, give away, and rearrange. At the end of the day they have bedrooms they don’t recognize as theirs.

Of course, there are those moments when I discard something I shouldn’t. Crystel asked me where her grocery bag of papers were. She said, “They are in the memory box like the pictures you took down off the wall, right?”

Sorry, honey, I thought. That paper bag went straight in the trash.

“Ms. Hutton said we’d need those later in the school year.”

“Oooooh,” I replied.

Jody, also enjoys when I get in this state of mind. I can bring orderly to chaos to any kitchen cupboard or linen closet.

Maybe I am a good purger because I don’t have an attachment to stuff.

There isn’t much that I won’t give away. I am one of twelve children and my mother would stack our clean clothes on numbered shelves. We each had a number that corresponded to our birth order. As the fifth child, I was number five. Even so, one day I couldn’t find a pair of blue jeans that I got for Christmas. Finally, I figured out that number six brother was wearing them. Possession became ownership.

173314-stock-photo-sky-movement-head-sand-power-forceI tackled that cat room with the same intensity and focus that I used to write my book.

Within three days, it wasn’t recognizable and I had a new sitting room.

Soon, I’ll be burying my head back into my manuscript. I’ll be a mother to my words. Turning each one over and over. The only difference being … will be where I’m sitting. The cat room has become my favorite creative space. I’m confident I’ll emerge with a book worth reading.

A Wonderful Dilemma for a Middle School Girl

Crystel and Natty

Apple Jack Invitational. Crystel and Natty after their first cross country meet – A one mile race.

“Go, go, go, dig, dig, dig.”

I hear my voice replaying on the video and cringe. I sound like a crazy woman.

It’s just my child running a 5th grade field day race for gosh sakes. In the scheme of things it doesn’t even count. The distance is approximately 50 (or is it 100 yards?) and none of the kids are called back for jumping the gun. Still, there I am, my voice reaching a high pitch squeal.

Here she comes, my girl crossing the finish line … first.

I wipe away tears, choke back a sob.

I’m sure it’s her strong body and competitiveness and has nothing to do with my out of control fervor.

My daughter is in for some rough years unless I get banned from her sporting events. I don’t think they can do that to moms. But if they do, maybe I can wear my police reserve uniform and sneak in. And, if that doesn’t work, I’ll go as McGruff.

Not that I screeched any less at her brother when he was running. “Go, Antonio, go. Dig, dig, dig.” He’s in for the same mortification.

When another mom, texted a photo of 12-year old Crystel and her daughter, following their first cross country race as 6th graders, it hit me that Crystel’s experience in sports will be very different than mine.

This year marks the 42nd anniversary of Title IX.

10th place for Crystel and 20th place for Natty at the Apple Valley Cross Country meet

10th place for Crystel and 20th place for Natty in the 2-mile race at the Apple Valley cross country meet

In 1970 when I was 12, Title IX had not yet passed. Although I could beat my older brothers at most anything and was the only one who dived off the cliff in Spring Valley, Wisconsin into the Eau Galle Dam, I couldn’t compete in sports.

Regulations on how to implement Title IX, signed into law, June 23, 1972, did not go into effect until 1975.

This past summer, Crystel was mulling over which activities and sports she was going to become involved in during middle school. “This is what you call a dilemma, Crystel,” I told her. “You have so many options that you will have to choose.”

Three weeks into middle school, she’s done what she can to cram in her interests: piano, dance, cross country, and Kor Am Tae Kwon Do. If she could she’d figure out how to add soccer and a number of other after school activities.

When Title IX was enacted, 1 in 27 girls participated in athletics. One in three girls participates in athletics today.

In the photo, Crystel and her friend are self-assured, confident, and have just run their first one mile race. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, women who are active in sports have more self-confidence and are more outgoing than women who do not participate.

Most people think Title IX only applies to sports, but athletics is only one of ten key areas addressed by the law. Other areas include: access to higher education, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students, employment, learning environment, math and science, sexual harassment, standardized testing, and technology.

Before Title IX

• In 1972, women earned just 7% of all law degrees and 9% of all medical degrees.

• In 1970, women earned only 13.3% of doctoral degrees.

• Women weren’t awarded athletic scholarships.

After Title IX

• For the graduating class of 2013, the Department of Education estimated that women earned 61.6% of all associate’s degrees, 56.7% of all bachelor’s degrees, 59.9% of all master’s degrees, and 51.6% of all doctor’s degrees.

• Last year, 140 women graduated with a college degree at some level for every 100 men.

• By 2003, there was more than $1 million in scholarships for women at Division I schools.

1045198_1472771266320064_3137456199553566764_n1My WordSister, sister in writing, Ellen Shriner has completed a book-length memoir called BRAVADO AND A SKETCHY VISION LED ME HERE, a coming-of-age story that takes place in 1979 and 1980 during her first year of college teaching.

Her memoir portrays the challenges of women faced as they sought graduate degrees and entered the workforce.

On July 5, 2012, Ellen also wrote a blog piece about Title IX.

Thanks to Title IX, Crystel has the wonderful dilemma of choosing which sport she will compete in. Eventually when she joins the workforce, she will have more choices to her liking than women of previous generations had.

And, because of Title IX, Crystel and Antonio will have to put up with a mom that alternately shrieks and sobs at the finish line.