What My Husband Has Taught Me

What My Husband Has Taught Me

Although we’ve only been married for three years, Alex and I started dating in early 2012. By my count, that’s eight years of learning each other’s favorites. It’s also ample amount of time to find those quirks that begin as endearing and become insufferable. A few years ago, Alex became so attached to his particular brand of running shoes that when they fell apart, he marched back to Movin’ Shoes on Park Street and asked for an identical pair. When they discontinued the line, he searched high and low on the Internet to find as many pairs as possible in size 12.5—both new and gently used. He bought them all at once. For the last several years our entryway has featured at least three sets of the blue and gray Adidas lined up like a little family. Don’t fix what ain’t broke.

This lack of variety is anathema to me. Over the weekend a new acquaintance of mine asked me when my birthday was—upon finding out I was a Sagittarius her eyebrows lifted to the heavens. The only things I know about my horoscope are what I’ve deemed to be true: the wanderlust is real, when my gut says it’s important I do it IMMEDIATELY, and variety is oxygen and I need it to survive. I ask you, what’s the fun in getting new shoes if they are going to be exactly the same as the ones you had before? Sacrilege.

However with the pile up of trauma and loss we’ve experienced this year, I’ve found it deeply important to ruminate on little joyful things that still exist. I need them as touch trees to find my way back out of the forest of despair. And as I confided to my close friend, Kitty, there are many things that are wrong in my life, but at least I chose the right partner. Maybe it’s a good thing that when Alex finds something he loves he clings to it for eternity. In the spirit of that joy, I share with you the top ten lessons I’ve learned from my husband:

  1. Koop’s Arizona Heat will transform a grillable into the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Furthermore, the world of mustard is wider than you could know.
  2. Ritual can be beautiful. Every morning Alex makes coffee and sits on the back deck to throw the ball for our 85 pound rescue dog, Arrow. He then comes in and makes a very deliberate breakfast sandwich to fuel his day.
  3. There is always a way to pack more items into a hatchback, car trunk, or moving van. And the way to do that is for Alex to Tetris these items into the space himself and for you to get out of the damn way.
  4. VOTE. It’s important to watch and listen to the world around us. We are connected. Don’t take for granted that our relative comfort will remain indefinitely. We must fight to preserve what is good and right and to expand our privileges to others.
  5. It is possible to be very soft and sensitive and have a convincing gruff outer shell. This is a development born out of necessity, and sometimes that shell is heavy to carry.
  6. No creature is happier than a dog with a ball. Except maybe a man with a dog with a ball.
  7. A well-curated reading nook is desirable. To pass muster, the nook must be on a screened-in porch or by a window, and extra points are assigned for the presence of a bird feeder.
  8. Solitude is important and refreshing from time to time. (Again, Jess, get out of the damn way).
  9. Love letters can look like a clean kitchen and a freshly mowed lawn.
  10. Heaven is a big, rowdy crowd of our favorite people. The party soundtrack is a very important ingredient to get there.

It’s Personal: My Experience with Pregnancy Loss

It’s Personal: My Experience with Pregnancy Loss

When I started spotting, the rust seemed surprising but potentially harmless, according to what I read on the Internet. I felt a little crampy down low in my abdomen, the familiar ache of my lower back, like the monthly rites I’d observed since I was twelve. Another unexplained pain that I’d inherited from the mothers of mothers before me. Most of my wider social circles didn’t yet know that I was pregnant. My husband, Alex, and I had only begun to tell close friends and family the weekend before. I wanted to eschew the convention of waiting until the end of the first trimester to spread the news. After all, if I lost the pregnancy, I’d be telling the people in my life anyway, and I felt the traditional silence during the first three months contributes to a misunderstanding of how common pregnancy loss really is. I’m not superstitious, I thought, and pregnancies are not gained or lost by words.

Over the weeks that passed, I was observant. I know my body well, but I’d never known my body under these conditions. So when the cramping started I tried to give it grace. I chanted silently, please, please, please, as I applied the loving heat of my warm palms to the full throb underneath my belly’s softness, pressing against the pain. I talked to the unknown person inside me, the person who was doing the hard work of becoming.

I was sweaty, sticky like the late summer heat that hung in the air, as I sat across the patio from friends and shared our good news. No I haven’t been experiencing morning sickness, and I feel very fortunate, but they aren’t kidding when they say you’ll be exhausted. Yes, we are excited. Thank you.

No one told me that I would politely excuse myself, barricading the bathroom door to discretely take stock of what was happening down there. When I saw the first blood clot, I gasped Oh no reflexively, before my brain understood what I’d said. I returned to the table outside, resumed the friendly small talk, quietly tapped out a message to my doctor on the smartphone under the table.

When I finally got the call in the morning from the nurse, she was the first one who needed me to speak the truth of the situation into the world—to describe the timing, the color, the consistency. I hadn’t even mentioned the symptoms to Alex yet, hoping the conversation would be moot before I’d need to share. But the nurse needed to know, so I began. She was polite, professional. “The doctor does want to see you at 6:00 tonight, given your symptoms. It’s not a bad idea to do more than just order some bloodwork to be done, but no need to panic.”

My first prenatal visit would be two weeks earlier than scheduled, and it would be to hear the OB/GYN walk a verbal tightrope as she explained the possibilities. “The abdominal beta test will likely be inconclusive, it’s too early to tell, but we will do it just in case it could offer reassurance.” Alex sat nervously as she palpated my lower torso, looking for any signs that indicated the embryo had attached somewhere outside the designated area where babies grow.

They scheduled additional lab work and a Friday morning ultrasound, at which point I would have more conclusive answers. No one told me that I would manage several work calls and a training seminar while I waited for results, pretending professionally that the world I’d hoped for wasn’t crumbling around me. The stuffed dinosaur I bought, the one baby toy I gave in to purchase this early in my pregnancy was the only witness when I cried during my lunch break. Later, Alex would find me weeping as I cleaned the bathroom, coaxing me to lie down, letting me cry into his shoulder as I talked about my feelings of grief and loss and frustration at having to start again.

No one told me this, so I will tell you. At least one in four pregnancies end in a loss. 25%. One quarter. That number is so much higher than is publicly understood. Although people use the term miscarriage, I find the word itself is a misnomer, a lame attempt to describe a complex event in a single word. As if the person whose body carries the baby has much control over the intricate assembly of DNA occurring within. As if that potential life has been misplaced or mismanaged. As if it were simply a mistake made.

The truth is that many early pregnancy losses are unexplained. According to Emily Oster’s “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know,” roughly 90% are due to chromosomal complexities that cannot be tracked at this stage. The genetic building blocks aren’t piecing together correctly and the system shuts down—the foreman says gruffly, “Start over,” and hits the button to halt the assembly line.

What I didn’t know until I experienced this myself is that it would take several days before my body was done clearing the debris, and during this time I’d get to experience the creative ways my brain deals with grief. It’s not an instantaneous moment of trauma, like a car wreck. It’s more of a tsunami that leveled my town. I still had to wade through the ankle-high water as I went about picking up the pieces, worrying about aftershocks and flooding even once the damage was done. It was an exercise in endurance, where eventually I stopped thinking about how sad I was that I was losing the pregnancy and started waiting for the moment when the pregnancy was fully lost. At least then I could grieve without the abdominal pain. At least then we could start over.

Before the loss, Alex and I sat around a backyard fire with a couple who are expecting. We had just shared our good news, excited to be in the same cohort with them as first-time parents. As we stared into the flickering glow, we shared our concerns and fears about bringing a new and vulnerable life into the world in the midst of a pandemic, in a society awash with violence, selfishness, greed, and resultant political unrest.

We thought about the ways we had been wounded in our own lives, our complicated relationships with our parents, the tools we wish we’d had on hand to navigate the hardships of life. And there was one thing on which we agreed: to bring a child into the world is the physical manifestation of hope. It is the tiny step forward, a whispered vow, an existential contribution to the greater beauty that could be amidst the pain that is. We can offer up our best efforts to imbue a sense of empathy and bravery into a child beyond simply wishing for high test scores, physical prowess, or creative acumen. But true courage is in knowing that we will not be able to control the world around them or the choices they make and choosing to move forward anyway.

Despite the abrupt collapse of our expectations for a child in the next 40ish weeks, Alex and I are already parents. It’s just that our journey to embody hope in a broken world starts with how we move through grief to begin again. We’ve been forced to live the kind of brave that we hope our future children will be—to lay a foundation before we know who will live in the house or when they will move in. It’s scary. It sucks. But, it can also be beautiful.

If you’ve experienced pregnancy loss, please know you are not alone. Below are a few resources that have been helpful for me.

Share Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support

PALS (Pregnancy After Loss Support)

Life After Miscarriage with Shelly Mettling

ReplyForward

Feelings Are For Feeling

Feelings Are For Feeling

“To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”

Desmond Tutu

“Wherever you have friends that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”

Tibetan proverb

These are difficult days. It’s been said multiple ways by many people over the last six months, but I cannot get away from the fact that this season in American history and culture feels dark. We are suffering, collectively, from both known wounds—systemic racism, wealth inequality, and a general capitalist scarcity mindset, for example—and new ones, like the life-threatening nature of COVID-19 and our country’s lack of empathy towards the elderly, the differently abled, and the immunocomprised. Some in our circles are demanding angrily that the government relax restrictions on group gatherings, citing the massive impact on the economy and their offended sense of freedom, while others are terrified for the lives of their friends and families who could be killed by reckless individuals passing on the invisible death.

This isn’t news to you, I know. You’re feeling exhausted, too.

For me, the darkness has me turning inward more frequently—I have an altered sense of what feels urgent and important as compared to this time in March. In the early months of the pandemic, there was concern for my fellow man, but there was also a sense of adventure—that I would have the chance to test my mettle, like a child playing war. And when the novelty wore off, along with the affirmations that I would maximize my time at home to advance my own enlightenment, I could no longer hide the fact that my life, our lives, are and will be irrevocably changed.

In the previous post, I mentioned the concept that trauma is not what happens to us, but within us. This is doubly true, but the reality is that some days I still feel resentment at how many craters life has left in the lives of myself and my friends, in rapid succession. The meteor shower falls disproportionately, and some of my loved ones are still scaling the residual bluffs created by giant, falling debris. It’s disheartening to be in the process of deep personal transformation just to have more trauma interrupt the journey.

I have one dear friend who survived the loss of a child just to have this damned virus take her father from her way too soon. Another had to fold her business just as she was taking the leap to take additional professional advancement courses. Several friends who had to scrap their plans for weddings and baby showers, canceling or delaying the well-deserved celebration of life’s joys. Folks laid off in droves or working part-time hours, grateful for some small paycheck while also balancing homeschool education for their kids. Teachers wearing themselves ragged to adapt their curricula, trying to hit an ever-moving target of in-person, then remote, then partially remote scenarios. It goes on. Pain is surely creative.

Nothing is right or just, and I am angry. I feel helpless to protect the people I love. And I know that this righteous anger is also a convenient distraction from my own worries and fears; a new job prospect collapsing into dust, searching for a new job and training remotely, the emotional rollercoaster of familial and ethnic identity discoveries, and maintaining important relationships despite physical and geographical barriers.

My husband and I have been telling each other our dreams lately, usually right after we’ve stopped snoozing our alarms on alternating schedules, and we have a few minutes to lay in bed, awake, warming to the idea of consciousness. It’s been a melange of fantastical scenarios that scream STRESS! Missing the train for an international trip due to lost passports, gaining consciousness in an unfamiliar house and learning you’ve been drugged, running from violent dissidents with explosives, horrible scenarios in which we lose our beloved dog. Our hearts are full of loss (both real and imagined).

As Glennon Doyle would say, “Feelings are for feeling.” So, I’ve given myself space to feel the anger and the hurt, but I also hear my inner child, the optimist, the one who is usually out front waving the “Hope!” flag. She’s been quarantining, too, and she needs some time in the sun. A chance to dance like a goof in the front yard just to make the neighbors laugh.

In late 2019, I read “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.” It is compiled based on a series of interviews with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and it was enlightening to hear from two spiritual thought leaders on the ways they approach hope and happiness amidst the shifting sands of fortune. I discovered the quotes above from that book and jotted them down in my Notes app, unaware that they would come in handy in this moment.

There are little things I’ve attempted to do to harness this chest-baring bravery—thrilling in the casual conversations shouted across backyards and parks with friends who distance socially, working on loving my body for its abilities and intuition, as opposed to how it appears in photographs, investing in new books and media subscriptions to continue expanding the diverse, creative ideas in the world, buying stamps to send postcards and books to pen pals across the country. I’m learning that hope is an exercise in endurance. Refusing to only feel the sad feelings or the hard feelings, and scraping the barrel for the remnants of joy. Savoring them when they are there. Lapping up gratitude where I didn’t know it flowed before, and trying to give others the opportunity for thankfulness, as well.

So far, it’s kept me breathing. I hope it keeps you breathing, as well.

Rocks in the Riverbed

Rocks in the Riverbed

Ask yourself about your childhood. Was it a happy one? When you recount the story of wiggling your first loose tooth with your tongue or the time you got the chicken pox, is the sun shining in the background? What about the trip to the park where you flew kites with a neighbor kid? Or visiting Santa at the mall? Or falling off your bike? Or the stray kitten you found in the alley?

I realized recently how often I recite stories about my past beginning with, “I had a pretty happy childhood.” The stories I tell are often accompanied by a rye, self-deprecating humor where I retroactively giggle at the failures, the scrapes, or the desperation with which I navigated the world as a six-, ten-, or fourteen-year-old. I have many a joyful image stored away of tromping through the underbrush in our rural backyard with a gaggle of friends, dancing to Ace of Base albums with the neighborhood girls, or dressing in homemade Halloween costumes expertly crafted by my mother. The girls that lived across the invisible property line from our tan brick-and-stone house used to say that our family was “All-American.” Two parents, still married, one son, one daughter, all churchgoers and involved in the right amount of extracurricular activities.

That image of us as the perfect, normal family used to hang in my mind like a postcard on the fridge. Of course, I knew it was a generalization and would humbly say, “Nah, no family is perfect.” However, even that response was part of the glossy print I’d composed of our life. Polite people don’t brag, I thought, and besides, my brother and I had just been fighting over who could use the desktop PC in our family’s dining room. How human. No one close to me had died. I wasn’t battling betrayal or divorce or abuse. I had opportunities to hone musical skills, compete in spelling championships, read books, play sports. I was #blessed.

However, as Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm would say, “Life, uh, finds a way.” As I graduated from teen to adult, the reality of complex wounds, bereavement, and guilt began to crack its way through our family’s smooth shell. Drama and in-fighting among church leadership cast shadows on my belief system. I formed adult relationships and navigated the pain of infidelity, molting the chaste innocence that my mother had wished for me. I supported my boyfriend (now husband) through his father’s untimely diagnosis and death from malignant brain cancer. I helped my mother coordinate an intervention for my alcoholic father. I discovered via DNA test that I am not biologically related to the man who raised me, and that the man who passed me his genes also passed away before I could meet him.

After the intensity of the last decade and a half with grief building in new, creative ways year after year, I adopted stoicism as an advanced guard against fear. The longer I live, the more grief I will see, I quoted to friends on multiple occasions. I thought of that mantra as my form of the Doris Day song, “Que Sera, Sera” — that it wouldn’t keep me from living life, but perhaps I wouldn’t be so taken aback by pain if I knew it was waiting for me in the wings. I became bold and forward with my feelings, keeping no secrets and defiantly opening my arms to the world, sharing my authentic woundedness with friends and acquaintances alike. I saw myself as a rock protruding from an inevitable river of grief — holding forth bravely to fight against its slow, steady erosion of my being.

This approach sparked a fascination with family secrets — so much so that I imbibed every word of Dani Shapiro’s podcast of the same title. I listened to it in the car while running errands, while jogging around the nearby lake, while walking the dog in our Midwest neighborhood. I read books and watched documentaries about them. And then, amidst the stories of others who have uncovered life-altering revelations, I heard the words of Dr. Gabor Maté:

“Trauma isn’t what happens to us, it’s what happens inside of us.”

The world stopped. I paused the recording. I rewound it and heard it again. And again. And again. My vision of the rock in the middle of the river, whittled and smooth, blurred into a fine mist, and a new image took its place. I am not the rock. I am the river. I am in constant forward motion. I cannot change my origin, and the path where I have been is set. Instead it is grief that is the protrusion, the sudden push displacing me from where I’d intended to go. I will tumble around it, regrouping and coming back to myself, and grief will be the one that eventually sinks beneath the surface, worn to a pebble in my riverbed.

These boulders of grief are part of my story, but they are not my destination or definition.

I am the whitewater. I am the rapids. I am the river.

A Reflection

A Reflection

I’m on a kind of runner’s high ー that euphoric inner glow, fed by adrenaline and endorphins, my brain’s reward to a body that has gone the distance. I’m just across the finish line of this past weekend’s Rise! Yoga and Writing for Transformation retreat, led by Molly Chanson and Julie Tallard Johnson. I’ve spent three days alongside poets, writers, and bloggers, each of us delving into the inner sanctum of our hearts to surface the truths we’ve buried out of fear, shame, guilt, and vulnerability. It’s this, the realism, that will form our best work.

As part of this discovery, we are instructed to find a myth that most clearly illuminates our writing intentions and aids us in wrestling with the dynamics that muscle us away from the important work of meaning-making.  I begin, reciting my own intention as a mantra: Listen to my heart. Listen. Listen. Listen. I name the equal and opposite force that works against this endeavor ー the silencing of my one and precious voice. I am afraid. My fear makes me hesitant, small, quiet. But out of the silence, I hear her name:

Echo.

What a tragic creature she was. Her voice reduced to a whisper in the quiet places. Her body rendered into oblivion not once, but twice from fickle men. Wanting her and not wanting her, each worked his violence upon Echo’s being ー her only sin having obeyed the order of Zeus.
It seems Echo’s life and legacy is centered around the punishments she endured; we use her now as an explanation for the reverberations of the songs in our own mouths. She still serves us. First employed by Zeus to distract his wife, Hera, from the god’s adulterous ways, Echo caught the full retaliation ー conscripted by the betrayed bride to a life of imitation. Echo would never speak her own sentences again.

The voiceless nymph then fell in love with Narcissus, a man who could only love himself. She had not the tools to express her heart. The effect was to reinforce that his was the view that mattered ー his voice, the one she repeated back to him. When Narcissus languished by a pool, she bound herself to him in an act of despair, wasting into invisibility for a prize she would never receive. The other stories tell of her suitor, Pan, who when rebuked, tore her limb from limb. Her body scattered from corner to corner, she only retained a facsimile of the song she once sang.

I dream of Echo ー she awakes me at night, starkly. Her story is the cautionary tale every mother tells her daughters. To raise a girl in a world filled with men who would relegate her as a foil to their own purpose, something to manipulate, rail against, obtain love from ーeach day of motherhood must feel like preparing a soldier for war.

And yet, here I am, having protected the message in my heartーnot perfectly, but with love. In the past I’ve emulated Echo in her loyalty to unworthy causes, trying to make it work out of my trepidation. In the past I’ve wrapped myself in the lie of “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” In these moments, failure has been the truest miracle ー ended relationships, lost jobs, missed opportunities that were not meant to be. They’ve given me second chances, despite myself, to run across rocks, amidst fire, to push against those who would wield my voice as a weapon. To train for this moment.

So I set my intention deep within ー to sing where Echo cannot. I anoint her my patron saint, my mother martyr ー her story of self will live through the one I tell, her words amplifying my own. The gift I take from this story is edifying: I must be true for me in order to be true for her ー a voice for the voiceless.

A Letter to My Mother

A Letter to My Mother

The vow you made years ago
in the safety of your heart
was to launch your own ship onto a rocky reef,
to keep the treasure in the hold
from the hands of a watery god.

You were weather-worn, soaked in sea brine,
skin cracking from the salt spray
and thirsty.
You threw the bowlines,
dragging the anchor of your own wounds
deep along the ocean floor–
Prayers shouted to the gulls
and all else who would hear.

I am thirty four now,
awaking on an unknown shore,
battered, bruised, sun-blind from sudden light.
I cannot see you, but I sense you are there.
You left me! I scream,
eyes wet with rage.
My fists drum a frenzied beat
against the trunks and mussel shells.
I stumble through bracken,
counting the leaves as if they are sins.
The sharp edges slice cloth from skin
and skin from flesh.
I draw a map from scar to scar
and sing the bitter refrain:
You left me!

The forest cracks open, a cocoon of green.
I find you, smiling.
You are a child, pink and glowing,
not yet met with time’s erosion.
I shout, raw and ragged ー You left me!

You clasp my hand with tiny fingers,
saying: Listen.

You were the treasure.
You were the boat.
And you were the storm.

My child, how could I leave you
when you are the destination?

A Thread, A Feather, A Windward Leaf

A Thread, A Feather, A Windward Leaf

I am disoriented, the world around me murky, as I grasp for answers. The at-home DNA test results I’m viewing this Friday afternoon show that a quarter of my biological makeup is originated from Japan. This is impossible, you see, because I am descended from a long line of proud Germans and a cuvée of English, Irish, and French. Both sides of my family have done the genealogy to prove it.

Bewildered, I navigate to the Family Tree, mostly bare with dotted lines for the names of relatives I know by heart, but who have not submitted their own biological building blocks to be meticulously analyzed. There are a few names I recognize on my mother’s side: a first cousin who now lives abroad, a distant cousin I last saw at a Thanksgiving gathering about 20 years ago, a woman who shares the same last name as my grandfather. Other names and thumbnail photographs of faces I’ve never met. My mind is generating theories. Perhaps this brand of DNA test just isn’t as popular as others. Maybe Dad’s side haven’t submitted DNA since they are certain of their origins in Germany. I see no one with my maiden name, but there is a surname, Hibler, that is similar to my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. Could it be a misspelling? Was it anglicized when they emigrated? I send another follow up text message to Dad to ask if it rings a bell.

In the gap between my question and his answer, I think of the myriad times I’ve been back to Dad’s hometown since I was a child, arriving after a long journey in the back of a minivan with a stiff neck and a little dried saliva on my cheek. Bleary-eyed, we would emerge from between rolling waves of corn like the Israelites from the Red Sea if the desert were less arid and more attractive to ConAgra. We’d stop first at Grandma’s house to unload some luggage, stretch our legs, and make small talk while I eyed up her candy dish of Werther’s Originals. After an hour or two we would drive over to the family farm a few miles away, where Dad and his two brothers spent their adolescence and where my cousin, Matt, and his family still run the operation alongside my Uncle Reynold.

From the vantage point of the long gravel driveway, the farm looks like it could be cut from a classic postcard. The white farmhouse is now outfitted with a wraparound porch (an addition some time after Dad had moved away), and there’s always been at least one German Shepherd whose barking will make you triple check that you’ve got the right address. More than once I’ve sat immobile in the car, hatching an escape route in case the dog forgets I’m related to her people.  The original barn stands in the classic red and white Midwest uniform, and in recent years they’ve added additional large shop buildings and engineered an impressive grain silo and truck-loading facility. It’s a whole thing.

While Dad would make his way down to the shop to do man things with the guys, surrounded by tractors and other larger-than-life farming implements, Mom and I would shout, “Hello!” while simultaneously letting ourselves into the kitchen. In the early days we might find Aunt Barb soaking some sweet corn for dinner or tidying up her otherwise immaculate house; Kellie and I would wander upstairs to do whatever preteen girls do — admire a collection of stuffed animals, talk about school, or spy on the rest of the family walking back and forth on the lawn outside.

If we stayed through Sunday, which we almost always did, it was imperative that we attend the Sunday morning Lutheran church service. I knew not to wear high heels to this event, because to get inside the building we’d drive for about a mile on a white gravel drive, kicking up clouds of dust that looked more like a dense fog. More than once I’d teetered over the rocky road precariously walking from the car to the church building, praying I wouldn’t turn my ankle and embarrass my entire family line before we got inside. I always had the sense that they knew we were coming ahead of time and were watching the road as if in advance of a parade.

The outside of the Trinity Lutheran Church building was fitted with white siding and a stately steeple; inside the nave of the church were prim and perfect rows of wooden pews facing an intricately painted altar, complete with a large statue of Jesus in purple and yellow robes. As a child, I felt like Technicolor Jesus and I could have shared clothing, we were so similar in size.

It’s the basement of that church that I envision now as I consider my 9% German DNA. Downstairs from the sanctuary is a portion of the wood-paneled fellowship hall papered over with family portraits. Some are official framed family photos, some are printed in black and white on paper, and all bear the names of family lineages. Multiple generations. Dietrich. Engel. Andorf. Müller. Badenhurst. Schroeder. Engelhardt. Each pale face staring hard at the camera as if this picture is just one more burden — one more task they must complete to fulfill their duty as upstanding citizens. They look tired (and a little pissed off). Over the years I’ve met several of the great-aunts and great-uncles or cousins once and twice removed, many of which are descended from the people in these photos. I can never remember exactly who is related to whom and who is merely a neighbor, but it’s safe to say that even neighbors are family after years in the same community. Everyone’s fate feels intertwined.

I go back to diagramming family relationships on the back of a napkin. The DNA match with my maternal first cousin means that we definitely share a grandmother. Here I’m connected to this surname Hugoe, which matches my maternal grandfather. I know that Mom’s parents divorced and remarried more than once, so I start to wonder if there are more secrets held over from that generation, passed down to us quietly amidst the chaos of blended families and hardship.

Mom calls me with the answers to some genealogical questions I’ve sent her. She confirms the vague memory that my great great grandmother was nicknamed “Tiny Grandma,” and was part Indian. Could her ethnicity have been misattributed during that time in Texas? I begin constructing a nest from the small details I glean –each hunch becomes a thread, a feather, a windward leaf as I try to make sense of this information. I flit from here and there sending cryptic messages to the unfamiliar connections with whom I share part of my self via the 23andMe website. I tell them I’ve just gotten my results and would be interested in discussing which ancestors we have in common. I reactivate an old Ancestry.com account and begin scraping the database for the vital records and newspaper clippings of grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles. There is no rest. There is no stop. There is only the perpetual roving — a frenetic mental movement to push ever forward. The thrumming between my ears becomes a word, chanted in monastic rhythm: More. More. MORE.

Although this mystery of the Japanese DNA initiates a Nancy Drew-like investigation on my part, I wish I could say that I am completely scientific in my approach. Yes, I have an articulated list of possibilities written out, however, when my brother jokes, “Are you thinking Mom isn’t telling you something?” I immediately laugh it off and tell him my theory of Tiny Grandma’s true ethnicity. I am fixated on the assumption that the secret is generations removed and born of a time when the Texas census responses were handwritten and often misspelled or illegible. After all, I reason, it would have behooved her to assimilate into White culture in a Southern farming community in the 1890s.

Around 6:00 in the evening, I press pause on my scrambled research and join my husband and some friends on a social distancing “Happy Hour” via online web conference. We are among the throngs of people who have turned to digital engagement to try to stay connected in the age of COVID-19. We’ve fixed ourselves cocktails and are sitting in the upstairs office, side by side, grateful for some semblance of togetherness as we regale them with anecdotes about our dog, Arrow, and exchange updates about job status, headlines we’ve read, and funny Internet memes. One part of my brain has been expecting a call from Mom, and I’m subtly checking the clock on my cell phone every 15 minutes or so.

Finally, at 7:00, a few hours earlier than anticipated, I see the incoming call and duck out of the room to answer. Finding an isolated spot in the kitchen downstairs where I can lean nervously against the counter, I say, “Hi there!” There’s a buzzing energy in the air as I hear her greet me, and without hesitation she says, ” There’s no good way to say this, so I’ll just say it.”

This is not the first life moment where I’ve received difficult news, and I meet it dry-eyed, measured, even. It’s as if I’ve gained the superhuman power to move faster than time, and so from my vantage point each detail Mom shares is lofted smoothly into the air, drifting calmly toward me. I gather them from their suspended trajectory, as if to set the details down on the counter top for later inspection. My peripheral vision is a swirling mist, but I am focused on making sure that she (and our family) will survive.

There was an ex-boyfriend. She and Dad were on a break. The ex-boyfriend was half-Japanese. She is very remorseful. She has found an obituary from 2012. Will I be okay? She has told Dad. He has gone on a drive.

Mom and I hang up the phone. Time returns to its standard cadence, the transcript in my mind parrots our conversation back to me. I love you don’t focus on shame I will be okay I love you we will work through this I will call Dad make sure he’s not drinking I will be okay call me if you need me I will be okay I love you this will be hard everything will be okay I love you.

I leave a voicemail and text message for Dad: When you are ready, call me. I love you. Don’t drink about it. I sit back, hoping to get word that my life hasn’t completely unraveled in the matter of minutes I’ve been standing in this kitchen. The fresh knowledge of this secret, held for three and half decades, is moving through our family like a cyclone, and all I can do right now is wait to see where the houses land.

A World of Discovery: When DNA Doesn’t Add Up

A World of Discovery: When DNA Doesn’t Add Up

After three weeks of staring at the order’s progress bar, my at-home DNA testing kit has been processed. I’ve texted my friends from college to joke about how many shades of mayonnaise will appear on the ancestry breakdown, but I’m actually curious to see if there are any thrilling discoveries. It’s true that I’ve never felt especially romantic about my German and Irish heritage. I have a first cousin who studied German in school and was smitten with the language and culture, passing up a Fulbright Scholarship to start her career abroad immediately after college. Other friends have been to Dublin and Galway and returned with tales of haunted Irish castles and pints of Guinness, but these destinations have been further down my travel list, after most of South America and a smattering of countries between the Indian Ocean and the Philippine Sea. Maybe, just maybe, I could be convinced to bump them ahead in the queue if friends plan fun social trips in the next year or two.

DNA testing isn’t the first activity I’ve planned to fill my time during this banal COVID-19 cycle of sleeping, eating, Zoom calls and walking the dog. I’ve already read several novels that had been on my nightstand for months. Mailed away for a compendium of Flannery O’Connor works. Started a nutrition journal. Repainted a pantry. Racked up thousands of DuoLingo points practicing Spanish. Colored elaborate scenes in adult coloring books. So why not finally spit in a tube and mail it to a lab to see how much Neanderthal DNA I’ve inherited?

I’ve mentioned the test to my husband, Alex, in passing; his tepid response includes a comment about not wanting to give his DNA to corporations. Alex is used to my oft-spontaneous initiatives. However, while I think of them as whimsical and adventurous, he frequently tolerates my impulsivity with a not-so-subtle eye roll. I have no qualms about sharing my DNA after having read the copious disclaimers, however. I’ve read about how law enforcement used DNA databases to narrow the list of suspects in the Golden State Killer and Bear Brook cases, and as far as I’m concerned, sign me up. The world feels tenuous and broken, anyway, and I may as well be shouting, “C’est la vie!” and “LEEEROYYYY JENKINS!” as I click Accept on the Terms of Use.

Thus, as soon as I receive the email notification, I click the embedded link to log on to the 23andMe website, where this world of DNA discovery is waiting. The page is dense with information — tabs for ethnic and racial breakdown, genetic health indicators, likely physical traits, a page for my family tree. During the weeks-long wait for results, I’ve completed some of the voluntary research questions that the company poses to participants. Which is your dominant hand? Do you ever experience Restless Leg Syndrome? Do you taste soap when you eat cilantro? At this point, there’s not just one way to explore this page, and I’m hungry for the meat of it, so I go for the section that I find most interesting — Ancestry Composition. 

I see color-coding in a pie graph, the key expands when I click on the arrows. Each opened section drops down to offer up more information — 75.4% Northeastern European. No surprises there — I dissect it further. I’m 52.3% British and Irish. I click into that section; it takes me to a map of regions in the British isles, highlighting specific locations where my ancestors were most likely from, as well as ranked by where the most recent generations originated.

These numbers pull me to the stories of my maternal great-grandparents, both sets of which resided in the Lubbock area, a small city almost halfway up the length of the Texas Panhandle. My grandmother’s parents were one of the 33 families selected for a New Deal-era initiative called the Ropesville Resettlement Project. Those among the chosen few had survived the Great Depression only to meet a decade-long drought causing devastating dust storms across large swaths of the country’s farmland. Applicants who qualified had a track record of hard work, strong reputations among the community, and a pattern of debt repayment. According to my grandmother, Lena, prior to her birth her parents had lived in a grain silo together with another couple for a time. When they applied for one of the farmstead loans there were 1,200 other hopeful applicants. Lena’s parents obtained the right to live on a 120-acre farm and received a loan to plant the first year’s crops and obtain milk and livestock. Over time, they were expected to pay back the loan and would have the opportunity to buy the farm from the government.

There is a picture taken by Arthur Rothstein, one of President Roosevelt’s commissioned photographers, of my great grandparents standing at the doorway to their new farm; my great-grandmother, Jane, is pregnant with a son. He will be the first boy to be born on the project, and they will receive $50 as a congratulations gift for their fortune. She sweeps her left hand to her forehead, a grin on her face, as she blocks the sun from her eyes. My great grandfather, Emmette, leans against the doorframe with an angular jaw supporting a tight-lipped smile; the tan line of his hat falls squarely at his thick eyebrows. The wind is up, as evidenced by a few locks of Emmette’s dark hair and the swaying pant leg of his frayed coveralls. 85 years later, the prop master for a Netflix show will stumble across this photo and include it as plot point in a modern treasure-hunting story. The windfall of the Netflix show is different, but the desire is the same — Emmette and Jane’s legacy lies, not in the ocean, but in the land.

Their ancestors had also come from a long line of farmers, originating from the British Isles and filtering through Mississippi before making their way over to Texas. As was the custom, each generation had a bevvy of children and not enough pennies, making for expansive and gnarled branches of the family tree, decorated by cotton bolls and dust.

I claw my way back to the main Ancestry Composition report, having burrowed down several layers deep into the rabbit hole of British ancestry information. My eyes sweep the page, looking for familiar pieces of myself. French & German: 9%. Scandinavian: 3%. Broadly Northwestern European: 8%. I pause. Wait, only 9% German? This scant number seems odd given that my maiden name sounds like a type of bratwurst and that my father spent his 60th birthday visiting the small German village from which his grandparents emigrated. He’d told me all about standing outside the Lutheran church that his ancestors attended, and shared pictures of himself in front of modern shop signage that still bears the family name. Could there be secrets from the old country? My mind spins a yarn of excitement and intrigue in a far off land, illustrated in shades of gray.

And then I see it — at the bottom of the page, dangling as if it were the plumpest peach — 23.9% East Asian & Native American. The number breaks down further — 20.5% Japanese. 1% Korean. 1.2% Broadly East Asian. Even though the number is highlighted in red, I can’t make sense of what this could mean. My brain has already been running through a maze of possibilities, and this detail feels as if I’ve stumbled upon a hidden path, unfamiliar and bewildering in its placement.

I could tell you that I immediately know what this implies — that it is a grenade lobbed into my lap and the particles of my body begin rapidly expanding outward in a fiery blossom– but it isn’t like that at all. Instead, it is as if I’ve been overcome by an insatiable hunger, a rabid, frenetic compulsion for sustenance. The compulsion drives me from pantry to refrigerator, roving from room to room looking for a morsel of what will abate my appetite. My brain tastes different possibilities, unwrapping thoughts like candy bars. Great Grandmother Hazel’s mother was nicknamed “Tiny Grandma.” They said she was part Indian. Could it be? People crossed the Bering Land Bridge into the Americas to become Native American. Surely that’s it. My maternal grandparents have been remarried a few times. And on and on.

I begin a Word document on my computer and type out the various theories in a list, trying to make my approach methodical, rational, sleuth-like. I cross out and eliminate possibilities. I begin sketching out my known genealogy. I text my parents. I text my brother. Their collective responses are to effectively say, “Weird.” They offer no insight. I was not prepared for the magnitude of this discovery, and now despite attempting to go back to work, all I can think of is finding an explanation. What started as another frivolous hobby in the midst of a pandemic is now a full-fledged mystery of ethnicity and identity, and I’ve only begun to work the case.

Passing Phrases

Passing Phrases

When we first got the news that Governor Evers had declared a state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic, my instinct was to react in a measured way. To press pause on any wild terror and instead to move through the planning process methodically, wisely– to prepare. My husband, Alex, had been stockpiling canned goods for a few weeks, asking me, despite my eye-rolling, to buy a couple extra hermetically sealed items every time I visited the grocery store. I tried my best not to gaslight him aloud, but I silently downplayed the possibility that we would truly need three pounds of Basmati rice. After all, this was the same man who had two vintage gas masks hanging in the garage and had been acquiring potable water jugs in the event that we needed to survive a Mad Max: Fury Road scenario.

I had heard about the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic overseas and in large cities on the coasts, but I half expected it to bypass the Midwest for larger, hipper locales, like an influencer on her way to Coachella. I joked with Alex that if the world did end, I’d rather die than eat only canned beans; he said he’d rather die than smell what beans did to our bodies.

Some friends of ours had a small Pi Day party scheduled to celebrate math and sugar (and, plausibly, inebriation), and we opted to attend given we had been feeling healthy and had not interacted with anyone known to have the virus. It was a smirk in the face of the end of the world –one last hurrah the weekend before our places of business sent us home to hunker down and ride out the storm. We didn’t know then that it would be the last time we’d see those friends in person for over a month (and possibly more).

Now some odd weeks later, I’ve gassed up the car for $0.98 a gallon, holding my breath as I imagine tiny germs crawling from the touch screen of the gas pump and onto my outstretched fingertip. After liberally applying hand sanitizer I’m now driving aimlessly through our side of town just to remember how it feels to exist outside the confines of my home.

After 45 minutes of meandering aimlessly and listening to my favorite playlist of raucous Americana and indie rock, I take a right turn and creep slowly down the main artery that runs from the neighboring town of Monona into East Madison. I spy a plethora of bright murals splashed up on the sides of store fronts –some walls tagged with the artists’ distinctive graffiti lettering, others displaying pop art and street caricatures, still others the carefully shaded faces inspired either by a loved one or a lost one or both.

On the left side of the street a colorful flash catches my eye, and I make a U-turn to double back and see it again in person. THIS TOO SHALL PASS. I can’t remember if this mural has been up since before the quarantining began or not, but it’s perennially modern.

I realize I’ve heard this proverb since I was a child, and it always seemed callous, dismissive, maybe careless in its utterance. It’s a phrase devoid of emotion, and I wonder to myself, Who wrote this? Is that supposed to be helpful?

I snap a photo and return home to look up the phrase. It’s an old adage with roots in Sufi poetry — a phrase embedded among works that brought Hindus and Muslims together, reminding people for over 850 years to focus on community and Love Divine in the face of adversity. The phrase acted as a reminder of the temporary nature of humanity, grief, and glory as it was passed on from generation to generation across cultures, reaching from Persian poetry to Jewish folklore. I discover that the University of Haifa still contains multiple iterations of this proverb in its Israel Folklore Archive. The story goes that a Sultan asks King Solomon for wisdom that would remain true whether in times of prosperity or grief — Solomon says, “This too shall pass.” As the lesson has been passed down, the specifics have varied — sometimes Solomon provides the insight, and sometimes he is the one receiving it.

Poetic, then, that the cyclical nature of this phrase was to be learned and then taught again. British poet and author, Edward FitzGerald, was enamored of medieval Persian literature and did what many Western writers do — popularized the sentiment in English:

“The Sultan asked Solomon for a Signet motto, that should hold good for Adversity or Prosperity. Solomon gave him, “THIS ALSO SHALL PASS AWAY.” (The Works of Edward FitzGerald, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1887.)

This was then read and repackaged by Abraham Lincoln, and on and on. Now it has arrived, emblazoned on the cinder block wall of a Midwest store. How fittingly displayed in a time of grief and uncertainty, in its impermanence as a street art mural along a well-traveled road. The message lasts, the art will not. It’s a bittersweet reminder that this is neither the first nor the last crisis we are to survive.

I savor this fleeting moment like a paleta in the summer.

I Try My Best

I Try My Best

I’ll admit it.

I’m one of those annoying checklist people.

Before smartphones existed, with their Notes options, advanced calendaring, and a myriad of sleek task-management applications you can download from the app store, I was already addicted to the day planner. This analog habit for keeping track of items and due dates started sometime in my teenage years, where I would stand in the stationery aisle of a big box store, judging each day planner on a myriad of Goldilocks-esque criteria.

  • It must have ample space for me to write the assignment for each class period.
  • Week days should be granted the most real estate per page, but I also need to see the weekend represented (perhaps with Saturday and Sunday smashed together).
  • The size shall not exceed that of a small pamphlet — it should fit in a smaller pocket of my book bag.
  • Three-ring binders are ideal, but a spiral notebook binding is acceptable.
  • It must look cool. Not leather-bound (read: for grandma) and not Lisa Frank (read: for babies).

And so on.

This methodology was an important part of my Strategy. It was a system I’d come to rely on for keeping track of assignments, giving myself deadlines, and otherwise trying out for whatever the equivalent of Quiz Bowl is for Franklin Covey acolytes. I knew the right day planner would be my 3 wood golf club for long drives — the head start to keep my grades high.

This keen awareness of the hierarchy of life was an invisible force, underpinning everything I did. And not just from an academic standpoint — I wanted to be top tier in any of the activities I engaged in — volleyball, basketball, regional spelling competitions, finger-style guitar lessons, my Driver’s License exam. I had an insatiable hunger for success, and I gravitated away from any of the skills where I discovered I was mediocre. The joke in my family was that even my blood type was A+.

Thus, steeped in this meritocratic Earl Grey, I remember shopping for a going away present for one of my close friends the summer after we graduated from high school. I was with my best friend, Holli, and we perused the aisles of a local party store for confetti, cards, and other goofy items to include in her care package.

On the way through the checkout line, directly by the register, I saw a line up of the kitschy prizes used for award ceremonies, embossed with gold lettering, and affixed to a safety pin. The location was hilarious to me, as if it was common for people to impulse-buy accolades for $1.99 alongside party favors and helium balloons.

I couldn’t help but read through them, and amidst the standard 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place options, there was a lone purple ribbon that read, “I TRY MY BEST.” I doubled over in laughter, overcome with the tragicomedy of someone receiving this in lieu of an “Honorable Mention,” an alternative award which would confer at least some modicum of respect to the recipient.

The hilarity bubbled up within me that someone might receive this, the saddest little ribbon. Would they recognize it as a consolation prize? Would it make them a target for smug bullies? Was it actually better than not getting a ribbon at all?

In this unassuming shop full of crêpe paper and cardboard, I was facing a symbol of the world’s lopsidedness. I was a giggling achievement junkie faced with the reality that there might be someone who loses even though they gave it their all. This concept was inconceivable to me based on the stories after which I’d patterned my life.

As an adult, however, I’ve now seen first-hand how this competitive winnowing happens every day. People evaluate daily how to succeed when the odds are stacked against them. I’ve personally filed unemployment insurance claims via state website –noticing that the job board excludes the most lucrative opportunities and that the resume-writing tool watered down my broad experience to banal, inaccurate generalizations. I know a Dreamer who, despite having reassurance about her own legal presence in the United States has to worry day in and day out about her parents, who are still undocumented and in fear of deportation. They have lived and worked here for almost 30 years. I know a trans woman who still goes to the doctor and hears, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this,” when speaking with experts who should know how to advise her about her health.

The general manager of that card shop likely spent less than two minutes selecting the purchase of those ribbons, and yet they became a reminder for me that not everyone’s bootstraps are the same length, and some have none at all. This little ribbon was a single frayed thread in a carefully crafted tapestry, one that indicated that by trying one’s best you might end up on the winner’s podium, and that we would venerate you for your heroism if you won. Everyone loves an underdog, right?

In order to craft underdog stories, however, we have to have underdogs in the first place. What is it about American culture that only celebrates the people who fight against adversity and win, rather than those who simply fight against adversity? To celebrate someone who miraculously survives systemic injustice but to ignore those that are crushed by it? I’ve seen this attitude as it relates to people deemed as essential workers during the pandemic. Grocery store workers and gas station attendants filling the very roles that parents point to when attempting to scare their children into attending college. Line cooks who couldn’t make ends meet on the hourly wage they receive even if their employer granted them a full 40 hours per week. Nurses who are trying to save lives without sufficient protective gear for themselves or their patients.

Faced with a crisis like COVID-19, we allow our government leaders to deflect protective gear from front-line staff who are witnessing full critical care units and mass death. Our solution is to stand in doorways and applaud for healthcare workers as they start the next grueling shift. Instead of providing funds to keep grocery workers housed and fed, we hang signs in the windows saying “Thank you to our essential workers,” and then allow patrons to scream and curse at them when they are requested to wear a mask.

Standing in that gift shop, holding a little purple ribbon, I had discovered a nod to those who didn’t have a Disney-worthy comeback — for those who didn’t reinforce our underdog system. We give that ribbon in form of hero worship when we are unwilling to provide actual support to the people who fight for us. We love an underdog because it reassures that the world will be alright, despite the fact that we ourselves have done nothing to make it so. And we ignore the ones that fall under the wheel — their loss doesn’t fit into the beautiful narrative of achievement. We are children telling stories in the dark –that the world is beautiful, that light will defeat darkness, and we don’t have to lift a finger to help.