Sunday, September 7, 2014


I marvel sometimes at the way grief changes; how it changes over time, how it changes those grieving. How it differs between the bereaved. I've had a lot of time to reflect this weekend with P out of town. My schedule hasn't really changed that much with him gone for a long weekend--study, dishes, laundry, run, walk the dog, Netflix, a few social outings with friends--but when I've been at home, I've been alone. With no one else to hear my thoughts, they've expanded, or perhaps maybe collapsed in on one another. I don't know which best describes it. Ballooning, or a rabbit hole fall?

With a big change just around the corner for us, I've naturally begun to take stock of the chapter of my life that very naturally feels like it is ending, with a new one awaiting me. I have been nothing but excited about this change. I've wanted it to come quicker even, wishing away months of my life, which I know is never wise. And this weekend, my unanticipated gift to myself was to wish some of that time back, to slow down, to appreciate where I am as the cumulative harvest of where I have been. To analyze what it has all meant. To remember.

I see my life very starkly now, BC and AD, or "Before Carol" and After Death. When someone tries to orient me to a time in history my first reflexive thought is to place it before or after my mother died. As I age and, my god, could this be possible?, I reach a point where I've lived longer AD than BC, I wonder if I will still do this. I wonder if it will still matter the way it matters now. It will always matter. But maybe it won't always be the moment by which everything is oriented.

As a moderately tattooed woman, I thought rather soon after my mom's death about what tattoo I would get to honor her. I have one for both of my parents, but I considered one in her specific memory, and to mark my surface the way my experience of losing her marking my being. I contemplated getting her signature tattooed somewhere. One of my fondest thoughts is of her meticulous, beautiful, nun-taught handwriting. But I could never make the commitment. I wondered why. For someone with as much ink as I, why was a small signature, what could be less than an inch wide, giving me pause? 

I discovered recently an online company that takes drawings or signatures and stamps them into a necklace pendant. Immediately, I pulled out my credit card. It was as I was taking the photo of her signature with my phone to upload, staring at her steady handiwork for the billionth time in my life, that it came to me. Somedays, it's just going to be too painful to look at it. Somedays, it's just going to remind me that I will never receive another card in the mail signed in her hand. And on those days I can leave the necklace in a drawer. 

If I can move beyond BC and AD, maybe then I'll be able to stare at her in such an intimate way each and every day. When I recognize with a heart drop and a stomach flip that I have already forgotten the sound of her laugh, I see why some hang on to their grief. It's what remains. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The trouble with setting up a blog around a specific premise is that once you've said a lot of things about that premise, the blog becomes abandoned. Another scrap on the pile of detritus that was that issue, that topic, that moment. But it seems that few things in my life have been consistent enough to orient around, really. A good friend of mine writes The Feminist Midwife. She's in practice as, you guessed it, a midwife. She has consistent material. I was a want-to-be writer and corporate shill for a while, then went to grad school, and for a while I was my grief, and sometimes I'm a wife and a friend and a dog owner and a reader and always a feminist but there are so many people talking about that online so why not go back to trying to become a published writer with those existing sites?

Sigh. Deep breath. Swig of beer.

Maybe once I'm in practice as a social worker I can orient around that. Yet I am one now, albeit still learning and working for free. I often think there isn't enough time. But I've always known I am a better person when I make time for writing. I want to be a better person.

I have been exercising 5 days a week for over a month now and that makes me excited. The most obvious reason is the actual release of endorphins when I do it. But it also relieves my constant depression. That constant (and I mean constant) niggling in the back of myself that says I'm not good enough or doing enough and that everyone is smarter than I. It says that few things are worth all the trouble of life. It says I've had a hard road. It heard of Robin Williams' death and was sad for the reasons everyone was, but also because I can imagine sitting alone in a room with that thought before making that decision. The only thing to keep that in check is moving my body. I've made excuses in the past, and they aren't untrue. I have a genetic syndrome that limits the range of motion in most all of my joints, or causes stiffness and pain. But I have found things that I can do, at least 5 days a week. I find that deeply satisfying. I am a better person when I've sweat.

Tonight I'm getting some reading done for school, and of course my last semester is proving to be the most difficult and laden with words to read and write. But I love it. I love how I become giddy over an idea and want to explain it to the next person I see (sorry, husband, that you are usually that person). I think big and then the depression gremlin worries that I'll think so big that any job I get right out of school is going to feel small. Useless.

A friend told me her neighbors abuse their dogs and that has haunted me for about a week now. I love dogs. I worry about those dogs. I can't wait until she makes a report. This is why I need to run an hour a day to keep myself near functional: I worry about dogs I've never seen who live 300 miles away.

I hope to write more. The writing will take a turn from grief. I suppose that part of grief though--the next part. The part where it isn't the only thing.

And yet.

My husband brought a cake home from a coworker. It was billed as lemon bread but when I opened the Tupperware and smelled it, touched it, even before I tasted it, I thought of my mom. She made about a handful of recipes, and mostly from boxes. This was one of them. Her lemon cake. It was confirmed as soon as I put it in my mouth and a flood of cookouts and Fourth of Julys and her annual luau parties came flooding back to me and I calmly thought, I'm never going to see her again. Isn't that strange? Three years ago I would cry without prompt. I'd not get dressed for a few days in a row. I'd stay home from work. And now I can stand in my kitchen, undoing some of the calories lost during my mental health run, and think a very concrete and true thought, and hold it together. In fact, I don't even have to try. It's just there. It's a part of me, and it's just there.

I still have days and moments where I miss her so much it hurts and the unfairness of it all piles on me and it too is detritus but now I reach for my sports bra, I run it out, I kick box it out, and I am able to enjoy the memory of cake and Midwestern deck parties and the sound of a burbling hot tub underneath her laugh.

I'm starting to forget her laugh.

Monday, February 10, 2014


I had a dream about you last night. It was very corporeal. I woke up realizing that the loss of your form is something I perhaps have not death with, and not even realized that I must.

You were my mother. And our relationship was--no, is--essentially corporeal. As I witness my female friends yearn to carry children under their hearts, and see that burden change their bodies and their philosophies, I realize how my presence in you changed your body and your self. And now your body is no longer. The one that I altered with my existence. The idea that you yearned for that transformation is comforting, oddly, and yet also makes me miss you more.

When you were born, you were born with a piece of me already there. And so was your birth mother with a piece of you. The fact that she gave you up for adoption, that the two of us never met her, does nothing to disrupt the Matryoshka path to her, or the women before her. One after another, tumbling out of one another after the creaking, stubborn release that makes ones face twist with effort. And it's hard to conceive of something that is so mighty yet delicate as thin birch.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Oh earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you!"

I took a lot of time off the last week.

With P out of town, I hunkered down for the weekend and watched hours and hours of Netflix. I took naps. After my bad knee gave out on me Saturday, I even had a reason!

The outside-my-body-voice was monitoring the situation, asking if I was sliding back into a major depressive episode. I have felt nostalgic and a bit sad the past couple of weeks. Friends in my hometown are having babies, buying homes, and I want to be there for those things. I've had many days where all I can think is that I need my mom's advice. The winter is coming, and I am hoping that my internship will let me pick up more hours when the semester ends, as I can't have a month of down time without spiraling.

Am I already spiraling?

What I've learned about depression is that you have to be ever-vigilant. And I haven't been exercising, really, which is key for my mental health. And I've spent a lot of time alone. An alcoholic does not go into bars, if they want to remain sober. Similarly, I need to commit to stay ahead of the spiral.

I think I needed this weekend off before the real craziness of the semester hits me. But then sometimes I wonder if I am just lazy. Or maybe I will always struggle with depression. And it's scary because I see evidence throughout my life, starting around age 6, that this is the case. But when I have good stretches, it's easy to think it's over. But I have to believe that it never will be, in order to hold it at bay. It's a strange thought experiment.

I've been weighing a big decision heavily during this weekend of solitude. I keep thinking, "Once I decide, then I'll be happy." But I know that isn't true. I think of my clients, refugees, who can't do much to change their circumstances. And yet, they find a way to rebuild. And my situation is nowhere as precarious and traumatic as theirs. I need to find a way to be happy today. And I backslid this past week.

At the end of one of my favorite plays, Our Town, Emily asks, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every, every minute?" The answer, actually, is tattooed on my arm. This struggle to appreciate the present has been a constant for me. My arm, and Thornton Wilder, respond to Emily with: "The saints and poets, maybe--they do some."

I used to think that depression meant they you could not "realize life." But now I think that maybe, we realize it too much. Maybe that's the trouble.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Choosing my Choice: Explaining Women, the Wage Gap, and Passion

This weekend, known feminist rabble-rouser Hanna Rosin published an article on Slate declaring that the gender pay gap we all fret about is, actually, not real. My husband sent me the link thinking I was going to lose my mind. But really, as soon as I saw the piece title, I thought "I bet I know where she's going."

Rosin makes use of lit reviews and analysis of the information that conjured the statistic that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. When controlled for numbers of hours worked, age, education, and union affiliation however, that number broke down. Turns out, women aren't doing so badly when all factors are controlled. While we're not at 100%, we're at about 91%. In fact, women have been becoming more educated than their male counterparts for a while now. There is mostly good news here. But what about those 9 percentage points?

"The big differences are in occupation and industry. Women congregate in different professions than men do, and the largely male professions tend to be higher-paying," Rosin aptly explains.

This research, and Rosin's wrestling with it, perhaps unsurprisingly resonated with this social worker and freelance writer. I have the kind of career that illicits comments such as, "Well, you don't get into that for the money" or "Bless your heart. We need people like you." If I get the feeling that the person commenting has the wrong idea about social work, I've been known to respond, "No, I think you misunderstood me. I'm not a volunteer. I am educated at the Master level and work in a licensed profession. I am trained to work in politics and policy, as a resource broker for others, and in psychotherapy and mental health diagnostics." I find that this is news to most people. 

But to Rosin's point, I think the comment, "We need people like you" is particularly interesting. Why, exactly, are most people "like me" also women? I have attended task forces, coalitions, and summits of mental health professionals to find that all the social workers are women, while the psychologists are usually about evenly split, but the psychiatrists are mostly all men. As the pay scale rises, the number of women drops. Most teachers? Women. Childcare providers, domestic employees, housekeeping staff? You guessed it.

Last week, a blog post, "Just a Nurse," made the rounds on social media. The writer reflects on her place in the medical community, and the credibility she garners. When asked "Are you a doctor?" she would reply, "No, just a nurse." But then the writer carefully considers her training, her subsequent knowledge set, and her daily work. 

" I am often in a room with a small child on a ventilator, multiple intravenous medications infusing through central lines keeping the vascular system constricted or dilated. I monitor blood gases and adjust ventilator settings accordingly. If the blood pressure goes too high I adjust the medications related to these values. I keep my patient adequately sedated and paralyzed, for their safety, without over medicating them. It is often my responsibility to determine this balance."

No "just" about that to me. 

If women are valued primarily as nurturers in our cultural context, it isn't shocking that some of us gravitate to and feel more naturally talented in caretaking roles. And, given that we are the bodies that can house new life, and feed new life for months after birth, our careers often take a different trajectory than those of men. And I don't think any of these are the problem. The problem is that word: just. You just gestated new life, and fed it with your own body? You just control a room of 30 first graders all day, despite their various behavior problems, learning disabilities, and unknown family life? You just find ways for refugees to obtain housing, English language skills, employment, and medical care four months after they land in the States? 

Put that way, it sounds pretty ridiculous.

This is part professional identity and pride, yes. It's also part of the work still left for the feminist movement. And just as past feminist gains have been good for everyone, regardless of gender, changing the deeply ingrained value structure placed on our professions will raise status , wages, and benefits for the men performing this jobs as well. 

Rosin ends her article by saying, "you have to leave room at least for the option of choice—that women just don’t want to work the same way men do." I believe that extends to any of us who took a career knowing we would not be buying a lakehouse with our Christmas bonus. We have to redefine success to mean fulfillment.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Self care for social workers and all

One of the first pieces of jargon I learned in the social work world was "self care."

"If you can't take care of yourself, how are you going to take care of your clients?" Indeed. Absolutely. I'm with you. The insistence on it, however, leads me to believe that it's often forgotten in practice. That maybe professors of social work are hoping the next generation does better with this.

I have to be on campus three days a week. Given that this is only the second week of class and we also had Labor Day in there, I'm not too busy yet. I slept in until 9am, then laced up my sneakers and leashed up the dog. A Chicagoan for nearly a decade, I know that the likes of this mild sunny September morning will soon be gone to winter's harsh wind. I poked my head in my room mate's bedroom and asked him to walk to the bird sanctuary with us. We talked as my dog sniffed and munched on grass, and listened to birds tweet and skip among the wildflowers.

When we got home, I got to work in the kitchen. For about an hour, I sang along to Annie Lennox and prepared a healthy soup to eat off of the next few days. I felt happy. I thought about the packaged processed frozen food I used to eat when I was single, how I let P take over the cooking when we met, and how I eventually taught myself. I thought about how my mother never really taught me, or seemed to get joy out of it the way my family does now. As I tasted at various stages of progress, I tried to imagine what P would like or dislike about it. I thought about what friends I might invite over who would love this soup. I thought about the farmer's market trip to procure the kale I was ripping, and I thought that it would be so nice to share a meal I made with my mother. I thought about how shocked she would be.

I was, simply, enjoying myself. Sure, preparing food for my family is productive. Walking the dog is necessary. But today, I decided to do them with grace. With joy.

It occurred to me that teaching self care to social workers isn't enough--that maybe if we taught everyone self care, we wouldn't need as many social workers. How healing it is for me to spend a Sunday afternoon, as I did last weekend, canning 12 pints of marinara sauce with friends? It does more for my mental health than scrutinizing labels of jarred sauce at the store and finally deciding on the one with the least sugar and preservatives. I have had many mornings before, and will have more ahead, where all I have time to do is run my dog out long enough for him to do the necessary business, and then drag him back upstairs so I can leave. When we can enjoy the day, we should.

City life has made me live in fast forward. The rhythm of the city sort of determines it. And I have to fight against the impulse to wake up early and run on the eliptical in the dark workout room of our building, staring at a blank wall. To then run upstairs, grab a quick shower, run the dog outside, run him back, run to my to-do list. Instead, I walked a few miles, staring at whatever beauty caught my eye. I let my dog lead. We meandered home and I made soup and sang loudly. And I feel whole. How many of us don't feel whole? It seems that whenever someone shares that they enjoyed some leisure time it's met with "Must be nice!" or some other comment that basically means: That doesn't count. If you're not working hard, you're being lazy. But I refuse to feel guilt about enjoying life. I refuse to be made to feel less than when, actually, I am whole.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Urban Violence, Domestic Violence, and Vicarious Trauma: Part I

I've been thinking about violence a lot lately. As a social worker, as a Chicagoan, as a feminist.

Last week, I was in Indianapolis, Indiana, my hometown, visiting friends. Monday, my best friend, husband, and I venture to south central Indiana and spent the afternoon at Oliver Winery.

photo credit:

I sat in the sun and laughed with my best friend and my husband. The next day, we journeyed home to Chicago. And the first headline I read when I fired up the Chicago Tribune was that within walking distance of my home, a gang shooting has claimed one life and critically injured four while I was listening to a waterfall and eating cheese. I don't often walk that intersection, and actually even try to avoid it as a bus route, because it's pretty dicey. So it sort of feels removed. But it is also, in actuality, walking distance from me, one el stop north of my el stop, and in my zip code. 

We bought our current home in March of last year, so almost a year and half ago. In that time, there have only been three shootings on blocks that I actually frequent: blocks I take on my daily commute, to walk my dog, to my local coffeehouse. And I realized recently that saying "only three shootings" makes a lot of sense in Chicago where some neighborhoods experience daily violence, but to utter those phrase in south central Indiana, or even Indianapolis proper, sounds ludicrous. Indy of course has an inner-city, and the same problems any major city faces. But the body count in Chicago is unrivaled. We are now known nationally for this. And when I walk to Montrose Harbor and in one glance can see Lake Michigan stretching out like a great ocean to the horizon, a sandy beach of picnics, a bird sanctuary, and the gleaming skyline in the distance, I can almost forget that just miles away, some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation exist. And in the same zip code as this inspiring view that fills me with emotions every single time, gang shootings are perhaps not as regular, but still not unheard of. 
photo credit:

Nothing illustrates our city's violence problem better than the documentary, The Interrupters. The film follows CeaseFire, an organization operating in the most violent areas of the city. Violence Interrupters mediate potential incidences of violence. If a shooting has taken place, the Interrupters try to stop the retaliative violence that will undoubtedly occur. Most of the Interrupters are men and were formerly gang members, or have served time for violent crimes. They understand why the violence happens, and they are respected by those perpetuating the violent cycle. The documentary is one of my favorites. I've made donations to their organization since, and have real respect for all the men and women who work to quell some of the violence in my city.

Well, in May, one of CeaseFire's founder, Tio Hardiman, was arrested on domestic violence charges.

Hardiman was convicted of beating his wife, Allison, though she dropped the prosecution of these charges in July. He was also convicted of domestic violence against his ex-wife in 1999. Ceasefire let him go after this recent conviction, which I applaud. 

This is problematic for the obvious, right? Anti-violence activist is violent. I've been mulling this all summer. And it makes me physically ill. I re-watched The Interrupters this week, and hearing Hardiman talk about violence in his community was so difficult, knowing that he has also been a perpetrator of violence, and recently. Is violence against women not violence? Does it matter less?

When Trayvon Martin was killed, and George Zimmerman not convicted, many of us wondered, Do black lives not matter? When someone shoots up an elementary school full of white children, the NRA publicly declares that teachers should arm themselves for protection. No such declaration was issued to black men after Martin's death.

This is not the Oppression Olympics, because nobody "wins"--intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, and class don't allow for it. It's all bound together. So I am not suggesting that women are worse off. Clearly, we have a problem with violence when the biggest threat to mortality for young black men is being killed in violent crime. 

But when you search "Tio Hardiman" on Google, none of the first hits are about his recent violence against his wife. In fact, one of the first hits is an article he wrote for HuffPo about urban violence--with no mention of his own actions. 

I'll dissect his article in HuffPo in a later post, as I think it is a very telling example of how we think of violence against women as separate and different--and of course, in ways, it is. But then, not really at all. 

In the meantime, I'll vacillate between escape and engagement: for my own mental health, do I retreat to a safer place on the earth? It doesn't make the violence go away, but it removes it from my immediate, daily experience. But, does staying help anything? Does exercising my agency to leave insult those without it, or honor it?