grief

A Bear is Born

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Anyone who lives in New York City is bound to see a celebrity at some point.  Being incredibly unobservant, I went five years without a single sighting.  Then, within just a few months, my little section of Brooklyn was transformed from a quiet, family neighborhood into a star-studded, hipster playground.  Believe me, this part of Greenpoint was not fancy.  But because there were numerous abandoned warehouses scattered along West Avenue, a litter-filled, broken strip of pavement on the East River that boasted a frightening amount of alley cats and a gorgeous view of Manhattan, quite a few television networks moved in: Boardwalk Empire built their 1920’s New Jersey boardwalk two blocks away, Lena Dunham and her girls with great hair yet no self-esteem moved in three blocks southward, and CBS took over a warehouse down the street to film their Broadway-meets-television flop Smash.  Our peaceful corner of the world had been discovered.

Contrary to what you might imagine, this hubbub wasn’t glamorous or exciting.  In fact, it sucked.  Whereas we once always found a parking spot right outside our building, we suddenly had to park a ten-minute walk away because trailers and equipment needed the street instead.  Crew members yelled at us for walking our dogs through their set, also known as the public sidewalk, and fans hoping to catch a glimpse of so-and-so clogged the delis, whose owners jacked up the price of a Modelo six-pack from six to nine dollars (for cans, mind you, not even bottles).

But this was our home – a rent-stabilized home with a yard, no less. My husband and our dogs, a mixed breed named Basil and a Boxer named Bear, loved that yard.  So, in order to keep it and to swallow the neighborhood transformation a little more easily, I devised a plan to turn us into super stars.  Or, more exactly, a plan to turn Bear into a super star, fulfilling the rags-to-riches dream I felt she so deserved.

— ◊ —

A few years before this transformation began, Dave and I enjoyed a honeymoon cruise to Bermuda.  Overflowing with giddy love the night we returned home, we visited our local bar and, drunk on beer, marriage vows, and personal pinball records, ran into our neighbor, Adam, standing on the corner with two big dogs, his Rottweiler named Zeus and Sarah the Boxer.

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“Why do you have Sarah?” Dave slurred.  She belonged to another neighbor of ours, a Polish man we often saw walking on West Avenue, and we’d never seen her with anyone else.

In his typical bro manner, Adam replied, “Well, dude, I hate to lay this on you, but her owner died this morning.”

As we pet sweet, stinky Sarah, Adam explained how her owner had been an alcoholic who lived in his broken-down car in the lot behind Adam’s house.  He’d get drunk and wrestle with her, to the point that they’d both draw blood on one another, then pass out in a pile in the backseat.  Adam discovered the man’s body earlier that day because Sarah, sitting on the pavement beside the open passenger door, was barking nonstop; her owner had died from alcohol poisoning that morning and his seemingly final act was to let his dog out of the car.  This was all shocking news to us.

“She’s a good girl, but I can’t keep her,” Adam said, gesturing at his already 100-pound Rotty who was only a year old.  “I don’t know what to do, man.  I just can’t have both dogs at my place.  This breeder in New Jersey was supposed to pick her up thirty minutes ago, but now he’s not even answering his phone.”

“No, no, we know this dog!” Dave exclaimed.  “You can’t give her to a breeder.  We’ll take her for the weekend, find someone who will spay her and be good to her.  Right, honey?”

“Yes, definitely,” I replied, knowing it was a question with only one answer.  But even if I’d had a choice, I still would have agreed.  Sure, she stank, she jumped, she licked, and, to be honest, I thought she was ugly, but, as Dave said, we knew this dog.  We could take a weekend out of our lives to find her a loving home.  Plus, little Basil would go nuts over a house guest.

I should have known what I was getting into when I first saw the look on Dave’s face as he listened to Sarah’s story, but I’d never “fostered” a dog before and honestly believed it would be a two-day commitment.  By the end of the weekend, our decision to keep her came down to a moment when Dave and Basil were both looking at me with pleading eyes, and I just couldn’t say no.  I blame it on the honeymoon vibes.

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— ◊ —

My love vibes had vanished by the time the neighborhood usurpers moved in.  (more…)

Happy 2019 + New Publication in Gateways, an Anthology!

I’m thrilled to share that a revised version of my essay, Our Mothers Have a Way of Shifting the Universe, has been published in Gateways, an anthology of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction from alumni of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Click here to order your copy!

As I reflect on 2018, I can honestly say that I am ending this year in happiness. The first half of it (and pretty much all of 2017!) was hard and painful, but things have balanced themselves now, and I feel that my family is finally emerging from our period of darkness. And despite all the crazy challenges this year brought me, it also brought more creative publications than any year before, and this makes me ecstatic.

Of course I’m grateful to every editor who has seen something in my words and deemed them worth publishing, but I am even more grateful to all of you who read what I write and encourage me to keep going. Part of my creative process is motivated by an impulse within me – a need to express, to tell my truth, to attempt to answer to some greater calling – but a huge part of it also comes from the joy of communicating with y’all. Knowing that you make the choice to sit with my words, to think about and even respond to them, is such a gift. THANK YOU.

I’m eager to see what 2019 throws at me, and I sincerely hope you stick around for the stories. Happy New Year to all!

Your Sister’s Ghost

It is 6:30 pm, Father’s Day is tomorrow, and we have nothing ready for your dad. To be honest, I was relying on your daycare teachers – for Mother’s Day, they helped you make this adorable and extensive art project that I completely love – but it seems like they don’t feel the same about dads. Your dad is a particularly chill one and not into fake holidays, but still, we have to do something. Or rather, you have to do something – I have to cook dinner.

“Why don’t you draw a picture of MommyDaddyLewis for Daddy’s special day tomorrow?” I suggest.

You run with this idea, literally, straight to your art table where you pull out a piece of blue paper and some markers. I wait until you’re settled then return to the kitchen to boil water for pasta.

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A few minutes later, I walk back in and glance at the three figures you’ve drawn in the middle of the page. I’m impressed; they’re the most detailed, complete images you’ve ever made, and I’m ready to burst forth in motherly praise. But before I say anything, you start drawing another figure in the top left corner, smaller than the rest of us and clearly separate. Without prompting or even a word from me, you say, “That’s my sister.”

“What?” I reply, taken aback.

“My sister.”

“Your sister?”

“Yes.”

I am stunned. We haven’t talked about Baby Wow since right after I lost her six months ago now. We actually haven’t talked about siblings at all since then. While her recent due date certainly triggered many things inside of me, I’ve been very careful not to mention this around you. In fact, I never even told you she was a girl. I first shared with you that I was pregnant when she was eleven weeks in utero, but then had to tell you just one week later that she wouldn’t be born. You were sad, but only for a couple of days. By the time the genetic test results came back and we’d learned her gender, you were long over it.

Thinking back to those days surrounding the procedure still hurts. But I have to put my own emotions aside so that I can be present and explore this moment with you. I don’t want to put words in your mouth or sway your thoughts in any way, so I decide to begin with, “Do you have a sister?”

“Yes,” you reply in the same intonation as an older kid might say, Duh.

“Okay. Where is she?”

“Here,” you say, tapping your drawing of her.

“I see. So do you have a sister for real, or just in the picture?”

Seriously and without hesitation, you say, “For real.”

“In real life, or just pretend?”

“In real life, Mommy.” I can sense the annoyance seeping into your voice, but I decide to push on just a little more.

“Okay, where is she for real?” 

“Mommy, she’s right here,” you say, pointing to the air beside you.

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Bamboozled

Did you know that toothbrushes are immortal? Unlike human beings, plastic toothbrushes keep on living even underneath tons of pounds of garbage. They keep on living even inside the bellies of dead dolphins. They keep on living even as they float all the way across the ocean until they wash up on Taiwanese beaches. Then, they keep on living even after they’ve become sculptures in the sand.

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— ◊ —

The past six months have tried to end me. The life I once lived in which I wrote, mothered, taught, sang, performed, took politic action, and somehow also relaxed, has been shattered. Instead of making art, going out, or sleeping, I’ve learned firsthand about anencephaly, the gray area of sexual harassment, and municipal regulations on basement apartments. I’ve dealt with wild hormonal swings. I’ve worked my ass off for a job I was promised that ultimately didn’t exist, then found myself in an uncomfortable situation when I said no more. I’ve packed, moved, unpacked, re-packed, re-moved, and re-unpacked – all with a cat, two dogs, and a busy-bee toddler who recently dropped nap.

I’ve never felt this much rage before, and while it has cracked me open in important ways, it has also shaken me to my core. My mind has raced in circles. My muscles have morphed into a single knot of tension. And my anxiety, after eighteen years of treatment, has found a new way to express itself: my throat is clenched tight, leaving my voice strained and hoarse, my neck and teeth throbbing with each heartbeat.

— ◊ —

Did you know that bamboo is the fastest-growing plant in the word? It is also one of the sneakiest. Its roots can run underground for over twenty feet before popping up again as a new shoot, called a culm. These culms then grow up to three feet a day for the next 120 years, sending their own runners out to sprout in surprising, faraway places.

Three to five years after its initial sprouting, a culm can then be harvested and transformed into basically anything: food, medicine, toys, rugs, clothes, bikes, houses, roads, bridges. In fact, bamboo can withstand twice as much force as concrete, and can hold up to 16 tons of weight. It can also cure cancer.

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— ◊ —

Becoming a mom has turned my home into a plastic palace. I look around the living room of my new new apartment, a place I hope will last much longer than the three months we spent in our illegal new apartment, and identify eleven items that will never die.

The bathroom isn’t any better. Three toothbrushes stick out from inside a plastic cup. A plastic bin filled with plastic toys is propped precariously on the lip of the tub. I move it to the floor, out of sight, then run hot water for a bath, but as I soak my stress-induced hemorrhoids and eat the M&Ms intended to aid in my toddler’s potty regression, I can’t relax; plastic is still very much on my mind. Also on my mind: pregnant women who’ve been denied access to proper health care, immigrants who’ve been detained for going to work, animals whose homes have been destroyed by loggers. I lament my now inactive Quick Action email list, my abandoned blog, the phone calls to senators I never placed. The enormous task of surviving my day-to-day has been all consuming, and while the depths of my strength have truly amazed and buoyed me up, I also feel like a failure of an activist.

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— ◊ —

Did you know that toothbrush bristles were once made from boar hair? Of course they contained loads of unhealthy bacteria, not to mention the moral issue of how these pigs were treated before they became tooth-brushing tools, yet, because animal hair is biodegradable and nylon is not, this is the only completely decomposable option presented thus far.

There are scientists out there who have dedicated their entire careers toward dissecting the greater impact of a single bristle. I think of these people doing this work, and I feel the knot inside of me loosen a little.

— ◊ —

I’ve always approached my activism from the angle of who needs it the most, but for the first time, I’m now approaching it from the angle of what I can most reasonably do. I am not ready to jump back into the strict schedule that once worked for me, and perhaps I never will be, perhaps that life wasn’t sustainable with or without my recent crises. But either way, here I am, dealing with effects of events that, though they’ve calmed, are still very much present: an unfulfilled due date, a static career and lingering sense of violation, an unresolved case with the Department of Buildings.

I will never solve all of the world’s problems. I will never even solve all of my own problems. But as I hold my recently purchased bamboo toothbrush and move its brand new form of bristles around my teeth, I realize, I don’t have to.

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— ◊ —

You can buy your own set of bamboo toothbrushes by clicking here. And if you need some more motivation to start the long process of giving up plastic, check out Margaret Atwood’s compelling piece in the Guardian.

Sources:
Encyclopedia Britannica: Bamboo
Bamboo Facts
Bamboo Herb
Brush with Bamboo
The Bamboo Solution
15 Creative Uses of Bamboo

Photo Credits:
1. Flotsam and Jetsam by F Delventhal
2. Bamboo by Serlunar

The Best, the Worst, Here.

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I’ve always held myself to impossibly high standards, standards that I don’t expect from other people. In fact, if someone else makes a mistake, I’m often the first to empathize and offer my support. But when it comes to me, well, I’m supposed to be perfect. Don’t my family, my friends, my students, the world, deserve the best from me?

In the first few months after my mom left her body, when I was so consumed by grief that everything else ceased to matter, I had a major revelation that “the best” doesn’t exist, that it’s just a construct we’ve created that keeps us disconnected from our present reality. During this period of intense grief, I would sometimes think the best choice was to go out with my friends, but then the moment I arrived at the bar, it felt all wrong. Other times it seemed best to stay at home and read, but then I’d cry and feel lonely and wish I’d gone out. Then there were times when whatever I’d chosen, whether it had felt right or wrong in the moment of choosing it, was exactly what I’d needed.

Because “the best” had become so nebulous and easily changeable in my mind, it started to seem not only unreal but also silly. Besides, the grief I was constantly grappling with overpowered everything else and made the process of analyzing if I should have gone out or stayed home feel unimportant, a waste of time.

Humans, or Americans at least, seem to despise discomfort. Even a little bit of it. We’re constantly complaining about how cold or hot the air is, how hungry or full our bellies are. We can’t seem to find that perfect situation. But instead of seeing that it doesn’t exist, we get lost in searching for it and then feel angry or sad that we continually can’t find it.

Now, four and a half years after my mother’s passing, I feel stronger, tougher, and wiser, but I’ve also fallen back into old habits of expecting “the best” then feeling guilty when I don’t achieve it. In a weird way, I miss those few months right after she died. I don’t miss the pain, but I miss the clarity it gave me, how it temporarily freed me from these constructs that I – we – have created.

But I don’t need all-encompassing grief in order to free myself again from these thought patterns. All I have to do is breathe.

 

Amazing comic by Gemma Correll.

Human Waves

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On this fourth anniversary of my mother’s death, I am struck by how often I find her in my day-to-day, by how alive she still is in so many ways. Yet I am also struck by how badly I wish she could have met my son. He has met her, through photographs, recipes, lullabies, records, but she never got to see his face, much less hold his precious little body, and this is the one big thing I still grieve.

But when we lose someone we love, there will always be that one big thing. As I meditate by this glorious ocean, two waves crash into one another directly in front of me, their waters flowing through each other until it’s impossible to tell where either one begins or ends. Seconds later they reverse direction and glide away, disappearing into the vastness of the great water behind them. I think of how my mom and my son are like two waves splashing together inside of me, their waters flowing through each other through me, how really all of us are like waves in the same great glorious human ocean, crashing and gliding and flowing through one another.

Moms, Roosters & New Tattoos

My mother’s obsession with roosters began when I was a kid. I’m not quite sure what sparked it, though there are a few different theories; much like the rooster itself, represented across cultures as a symbolic, magical creature, her passion for them was the stuff of myths. Roosters hung from our ceilings, sat cross-legged on our fridge, balanced on their claws in the corners of our kitchen. She had plates, silverware and salt shakers with roosters, aprons and t-shirts and dresses. She loved them in all forms: detailed and lifelike, polka-dotted and geometric, tall, serious, plump, goofy. If it were remotely a rooster, she adored it.

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While I didn’t personally share in this passion, I delighted in it. The way her face would light up with childlike glee when someone gave her a rooster-shaped knickknack. The way she’d smile, satisfied, as she stared at her collection. The way some of them made her laugh while others brought out an expression of reverence. It made me happy that amidst all of her struggles, something as simple as a rooster could bring her such joy.

As a kid watching our house slowly fill up with variations on the rooster, I could never have guessed how much they would come to mean to me. After my mom died, I found myself in my own kitchen eating from one of her rooster plates, surrounded by rooster ornaments and spice jars and even a rooster watering can, and I felt so grateful to have these regular reminders of her; the rooster had became a symbol of her humor, her uniqueness, her warmth, her amazingly deep love. So yesterday, in honor of my mother and so that I can carry this regular reminder with me everywhere I go, I got a rooster tattoo. It was difficult to pick which kind to go with, but I ultimately chose a Picasso sketch – I feel like it combines her funny obsession with her creativity and her love of art. I had a lot of emotions leading up to it, but as I walked into the parlor last night, I didn’t feel sad or anxious, just full of peace. I breathed and smiled and thought of her as the needles buzzed into my skin, and now, every time I look over and see my rooster’s curly head, I also see my mother’s bright smile, I hear her laugh, and I feel her love inside of me.

Huge thanks to Brian Faulk at Hand of Glory Tattoo for his good vibes and great work!