See, Mom? I told you I’d be okay.

“There’s a combination of joy and grief that can take your breath away.  The sum of those two parts wells up inside you and holds your breath hostage until you let go of the notion that you can control the paradox and choose between joy and grief.”

~Brene Brown via Instagram, 5/22/17


photo credit: Nisa Haron (Portland, OR, 2003)

Lately I’ve realized how I’ve been putting off things my mom would have been excited about because I am not sure how to be excited without her, how to be joyful inside this grief.  I thought I could only have one or the other, and grief is a given.  Joy happens, of course, but it feels somehow accidental.  Like I experience it in spite of myself.

Though there had been hints before, this realization struck me fully when I landed an awesome job teaching 9th and 12th grade English in Phoenix, which is news I’ve not made very public.  After the offer phone call, I texted my best friend and then called John at work to share the news, and when I hung up from talking with him, I burst into tears.  Because, of course, the next call I should have made would have been to Mom.

To be honest, it’s the first phone call I would have made.

She’s always going to be my first phone call.

She would be really irritated at me for putting things off on her account.  She would be sympathetic for a minute and then give me this sort of sideways look—it’s her equivalent of her mother’s over-the-glasses version—and use my name instead of calling me ‘my baby.’  (I have a version, too, much like hers; my students call it The Look.)  And then she would remind me, as she had many times before, that it is my responsibility to put my gifts into the world.  To not do so is to diminish both myself and the gift (and, in my mom’s worldview, the divine gift giver).

A little more than a week before she died, we had a rough night.  It was one of only two moments of conflict in the months I was with her, and though (after years of reading student evaluations of my classes) I know better than to dwell on the outliers, these are among the moments I remember most clearly.  One of Mom’s friends from church had come by to visit, and I was in the kitchen fixing her something to eat.  Just as I noticed that their conversation had gotten a little louder than usual, her friend called for me.

Mom was crying, which I had seen her do only a few other times between being diagnosed with two kinds of cancer to being transferred into hospice care.  And I was alarmed.  I sat on the edge of her bed and held her hands as she repeated over and over, “Courtney, I’m so scared for you.”

“Why are you scared for me, Mama?”

Her friend answered for her, “She’s afraid she’s not going to see you again.”

Cue The Look.

“Don’t worry about me, Mama.  I’m going to be with you always and you’re going to be with me always.  Don’t be scared for me.”

I tried my best to reassure her and eventually she drifted off to sleep.  I don’t remember how (or even if) I managed to send her friend on her way with any degree of civility.  I do remember sitting by her bed past midnight reading the same passages from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass over and over.

She may indeed have been afraid of not seeing me again, though our many hours of conversation about faith make me pretty sure that’s not what she was worried about.  She had concluded years before that, in her words, I am way too smart for any puny human to convince me to become saved: “God Himself is the only one who can do it, I’m pretty sure, and I’m betting on Him.”

I think it unlikely, given how completely her faith governed her experience with and her beliefs about her cancer, that she had some lapse in her conviction that God would “get me when I needed to be gotten.”  It’s much more likely that she was scared of what my life would look like without her in it.  I was, too.

The whole time she was sick we were held up in the love of others: family, given and chosen, and friends, new and old; nurses and doctors and pharmacists and the young man who brought the lunch tray and the woman who cleaned the hospital room; students and colleagues, past and present; random strangers in line at the pharmacy and in the elevator when I pressed five for the oncology floor.  And since her death, I’ve been held up by that same love, through Mothers’ Day, my birthday, her birthday, the holiday season, and the first anniversary of her death.

My life would not work without that love. I am grateful beyond words.  And convinced that this is what there is to do in this life: hold each other in love.

goofing around

sometime in 1973

If someone had tried to tell me last April that my life without my mom could be a life with joy, they’d have gotten The Look.  And also possibly a punch in the throat.

And now I’d owe that very brave person an apology.

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may G-d make peace upon us

You know those expressions you think might be true but you’re not really sure?  And then, by virtue of living your life, you become really sure?  For me, one of those was that Judaism gets mourning right.

Don’t expect mourners to function for the first few days.  And don’t try to console them.  Just show up.  Bring food.  Don’t expect anything from them.  Be quiet.

Cover the mirrors.  When I got home from the hospice the day my mom died, I caught sight of myself in a mirror and thought, “Holy shit.  I sat in a restaurant looking like this.”

Light candles.



Certain mourning practices are supposed to be done for 30 days, but children mourning a parent get a year to get it together.  But we’re not supposed to take longer than that.  After a year, the mourning becomes destructive rather than constructive.  In secular terms, destructive grief is called complicated grief and seems to go along with unresolved conflicts, things left unsaid, feelings left unfelt or unexpressed.

A year ago, I couldn’t have made any sense of constructive grief.  But, like seeing how Judaism gets mourning right, I see now how grief can be constructive.  I have learned things, things I really wish I didn’t know, at least under these circumstances, but things I’m grateful for nonetheless.

Like that some people show up and some people don’t show up. Grief helps you know who your people really are so you can spend your energy loving them as best you can.  And grief helps you stop giving quite so many fucks about those other people.  Because ain’t nobody got time for that.

Like that nobody has time to spend on anything that doesn’t bring joy.  There are obligations, of course, things we have to do to make our lives work, like paying the water bill and wheeling the trash can out to the curb.  But when we really tell the truth, there are a lot fewer of those than we think.  82 days: the number of days between getting the phone call that had me get on a plane to South Carolina and watching my mother take her last breath.  82 days is not a long time.

Like that grief burns things away.  Things that once seemed important, critical, things that seemed worth expending a great deal of time and energy on, now just don’t warrant much attention.  And grief offers opportunities for creation, for considering things newly.  I find myself making small choices that make me feel like I’m honoring my mama.  I wear her jewelry.  I’ve grown out my nails and am growing out my hair.  I serve good food to people I love on her china.  I tell people I love them.

Another Jewish mourning ritual is the lighting of a yahrzeit candle every year on the anniversary of a parent’s death and letting it burn for 24 hours.  More observant mourners fast on that date, or at least abstain from meat and wine.  More observant mourners also probably live somewhere other than Eugene, Oregon, where the population of observant Jews might not top 100.  Finding a yahrzeit candle required a bit of effort.  But I don’t really think this ought to be easy.

Yahrzeits are observed using the Hebrew calendar, so tonight at sunset I’m going to turn on the little LED tealight I found at Target.  Because there’s absolutely no way John is going to let me leave a candle burning all night.  And I’ll say the Mourner’s Kaddish to myself like I’ve done very other day since her memorial service.  And I’ll remember my beautiful mama and be grateful for uncomplicated grief, for getting to spend almost all of those 82 days by her side, for things being as difficult as they ought to be, and for being strong enough to stand in the difficult stuff, held up by people who love me and people who love her.


May G-d make peace upon us, and let us say: Amen.

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2016 was The Year of the Cookie until it was The Year of Surviving Indescribable Grief.  On the advice of a ridiculously wise friend—a woman who has inquired deeply into her own grief rather than looking away from it or trying to fix it, as we are so encouraged to do in our discomfort-avoiding culture—I set a very low bar for what surviving looked like.  I remember we were talking about self-care, that elusive and fantastical beast that so many people were encouraging me to capture and tame, and she recommended that I purposely reframe self-care based on some self-harming activity that would signal to everyone that I was in serious trouble.  Not the usual serious trouble of deep grief over the loss of one of the most important people in my life, but the sort of serious trouble that should signal to other important people in my life that an intervention was in order.

“Whatever that thing would be for you,” she counseled.  “And every day you don’t do that thing?  That day is a win.”

“Heroin,” I answered promptly.

I don’t know if my response (or its immediacy) surprised her.  It surprised me.  For a moment.  But then its rightness settled in.  I am not a person who uses recreational drugs, or even a person who has more than two drinks in one go terribly often.  That’s because I am (or I have been) a person who seeks out opportunities to not be in my body.  Sometimes I crave them, create them.

I don’t really know enough about the experience of addiction to imagine myself prone to it, though there is certainly addiction in my family.  I’ve used and quit using addictive substances before.  But I do know the profound relief that accompanies the disembodied feeling of intoxication in all of its senses—diminished physical and mental control; enthusiasm, exhilaration, or elation by means of intoxicants; poisoning—and I’m frightened by how much I like it.

Using heroin is the best and worst sort of disembodiment, the sort I wanted desperately during those days at McCall House Hospice, those days of waiting for my mother to die.  It’s a profane feeling, such waiting.  I would have done most anything to not feel during those days and all the ones that came after, to have escaped my body and that room and this life in which my mother is dead.

I’ve tried to explain the “I Didn’t Do Heroin Today, Therefore Winning” thing to people, mostly when they ask me how I am, with that tone and that eye contact to suggest they really, actually want to know.  So I really, actually tell them, “Well, I haven’t done any heroin today, so I’m counting it in the win column.”  Perhaps they think I’m being flip.  Or deflecting.  Or exaggerating.  Or perhaps they look at me and see a woman who would never, ever even consider taking heroin, much less want to take it.  Wrong on all counts.

It has gotten me through the disaster that was 2016, this low-bar approach to self-care.  I did not do any heroin in 2016.  And in the last few weeks, I’ve been toying with the idea of raising the bar slightly.  Just considering it, mind.  And just inching it up.  An incremental approach to anything would actually be a major victory for me, as I am (or have been historically) a person who thinks the only kind of change that really counts for anything is the total-overhaul variety.

So I’m considering the following revisions (just thinking about them, so don’t hold me to any of these):

I didn’t do heroin today, and I ate at least one food item that occurs naturally in the world.

I didn’t do heroin today, and I brushed my teeth.  (Maybe twice.  And maybe even flossed.)

I didn’t do heroin today, and I have spent at least some time wearing something other than pajamas.

I didn’t do heroin today, and I read from a book that is not about death.

I didn’t do heroin today, and I did not watch more than three hours of television.

I didn’t do heroin today, and I went outside for longer than it takes Matilda to do her business.

I didn’t do heroin today, and I wrote something other than a grocery list.

I didn’t do heroin today, and I danced.

I didn’t do heroin today, and I smiled without having to fake it.

Perhaps 2017 will come to be called The Year of Marginally Better Life Choices (At Least Some of the Time).



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as it turns out

2016 was supposed to be The Year of the Cookie.

For a variety of reasons, John and I are not exchangers of gifts on appointed holidays.  Instead, we usually plan and execute elaborate meals, trying out recipes we don’t usually make time for, or we eat a fancy dinner at a new restaurant or drive to the beach or do some other out-of-the-ordinary activity.

But I am a gift giver; it’s my “love language” (in equal measure with quality time, which, given how most of our lives are arranged, is a gift in itself).  I revel in finding just the right thing, perhaps something I noticed you admiring when we were out together or something you mentioned months ago but haven’t treated yourself to or something you are nostalgic for that I can recreate.  So I often deviate from the no-gift plan, usually with something handmade.  For Christmas 2015, it was The Year of the Cookie chart, complete with star stickers for rating the cookie of the week.


I had a rationale:

  1. While my love language is gifts, John’s is acts of service. He takes care of things. Cleans things.  Launders things.  Fixes things around the house, even though we live in a rental.  Plants things, like tomatoes and the herbs I like to cook with.  Baking things is, to my mind at least, both a gift and an act of service.  I end up with (hopefully) yummy cookies and a clean kitchen (since I always make such a mess and can clean it up while cookies are in the oven).
  2. Baking is something I didn’t do as much of as I wanted to while I was a graduate student, and it was on the top of the list of things I wanted back once I finished. Also, when we have homemade sweet treats in the house, we are less likely to make late-night raids to the grocery store for things that are usually much less satisfying.
  3. No one else in my family bakes, really. My mother was an excellent cook (by all accounts, not just my own admittedly highly biased one), and I established myself by cooking what she didn’t: dessert.  [This is a pattern I’ve learned to recognize only recently and about which there is much more to say.  Later.  After cookies.]

I started a Pinterest board with cookie recipes.  I stocked up on butter and sugar at Costco.  I ordered parchment paper from the restaurant supply store.

As I was choosing the first recipe, these Tehina Shortbread, my mom was receiving the results of a biopsy: “It’s cancer.  He’s not sure what kind yet.”

The third weekend of The Year of the Cookie, I was working on these Lemon Thumbprint Cookies when my phone rang.  It wasn’t a phone number I recognized, but since it was from South Carolina I answered it: “If it were my mom, I would get here.”  And so I bought myself a one-way ticket while the lemon curd set up in the fridge.

I was with my mom for almost all of the 82 days between that phone call and her last breath.

2016 was supposed to be The Year of the Cookie.   After 82 days of sickness and dying, a month of cleaning and sorting, and a week of driving myself back home, one of the first things I did when I got here was choose the next cookie, Nutella Meringues.

I want things to be as they were when I was making the cookie chart in December.  And I know that things will never be the same again.

Somewhere in between what I want and what there is, I am discovering moments of comfort.  They are fleeting right now, and I’m guessing they will be for a long, long time.  I know grief like this—the kind that makes me feel as though I’ve fallen off the monkey bars and landed on my back, that takes away all my air and leaves me sobbing and trying not to vomit—doesn’t follow any formula or timeline, and I ignore anyone who tells me otherwise.

Next up, Blueberry White Chocolate Brown Butter Cookies.






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If Some of Something Is Good, More of It Must Be Better

John is pretty much opposed to traditions.  I think they feel too obligatory to him, and he resists Supposed-Tos much better than I do.  I learn a lot from him. Like to try new, complicated, time-consuming recipes on the holidays that usually call for roasting a turkey.  Because really, unless it’s deep fried or smoked whole, who really gets that excited about turkey?

This year we declared it the Paul Prudhomme Memorial Thanksgiving, and poured through his cookbook to choose recipes.  I have the copy of this cookbook that I grew up with, its dust cover discarded years ago, its pages splattered and smeared, many of them rumpled from being damp and then drying out.  It falls open to a few recipes, shrimp creole, Cajun meatloaf, corn maque choux, bread pudding.  We contemplated his shepherd’s pie recipe, which replaces the boring meatloaf base with Cajun meatloaf, garlics up the mashed potatoes, and is served with a rich, spicy brown gravy.  But we decided to take on oyster dressing, a dish we’ve talked about for years but never made.

I grew up hearing stories about my Papa’s oyster dressing, but because my mom doesn’t like oysters, he never brought it to our house.  Which is strange, because he brought all kinds of other things she doesn’t eat, usually with me as the intended audience.  Deviled eggs by the dozen, gigantic cinnamon rolls from Sam’s, some strange kind of dip made with what he called sapsego cheese.  [Turns out Sap Sego is a brand of cheese, not a variety; the variety is Schabziger, a particularly funky hard Swiss cheese that is typically finely grated and stirred into butter.  Papa mixed it with cream cheese.]

I read lots of different oyster dressing recipes to figure out the general formula.  Our favorite dressing is my mom’s adaptation of Prudhomme’s cornbread dressing; it has exactly the right consistency, not too dry and not too mushy, with excellent flavor and heat from the “holy trinity” (onions, celery, and bell pepper) plus three kinds of pepper, and crunchy edges (corner pieces are the best!).  We wanted that consistency, so we chose a cornbread-based option for oyster dressing instead of Prudhomme’s, which calls for bread crumbs and just didn’t seem like it had the right bread-to-liquid ratio to set up the way we wanted.

And then, because I am my grandfather’s daughter, I tinkered. The recipe I started with assumes the cooking of a turkey, and our main course was to be shrimp creole.  So I didn’t have turkey parts to make the called-for stock, but I did have shrimp stock leftover from making my creole sauce, so I used that instead.  Some recipes I studied called for using the oyster liquor, but the one we picked didn’t mention it.  I’ve never cooked oysters before, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I got two pints of Yaquina Bay Olys (or Olympics, the only native Oregon oyster), which are known for being sweet and melony and having lots of liquor.  After I chopped the little guys and added them to the cornbread (the Homesick Texan’s recipe, baked in a cast iron skillet with bacon grease and buttermilk) and the vegies and spices, I looked at the liquor left in the pint containers.  No way was I throwing that out, so in it went, along with the shrimp stock.  Since I wasn’t using chicken stock, I also opted to replace the poultry seasoning with Old Bay.

John was at work while I was cooking.  He does not approve of altering a recipe the first time through.  He wants to do things the called-for way first and then make adjustments the second time through.  Which is totally reasonable.  My grandfather, on the other hand, almost never followed a recipe and often doctored to the point of inedibility.  [I’m recalling a story about a pot of shrimp and crab gumbo ruined with red wine.]  Papa’s food philosophy was that if some of something was good, then more of it must be better, resulting in ridiculously rich dishes that produced lots of ummmming and ahhhhing and high cholesterol.

Instead of stuffing a turkey, which we never actually do (we’re a dressing, not a stuffing, family), we stuffed mirlitons.  Mirliton is the Haitian Creole name for a squash also known as chayote.  We found them at our grocery store, the not-fancy one where we like to shop because we don’t do that thing people here in Eugene do of feeling superior because of where they shop.  When I told her about our menu plans, my mom reminded me that Papa used to call them melletons, which according to Wikipedia is the usual Cajun pronunciation.  I mean, Cajuns are known for dropping letters, whole syllables even, so that they drop an r is not really a surprise.  What is a surprise is that this pronunciation was not another of Papa’s Papa-isms, like calling cayenne pepper ‘canine’ pepper and mocha java ‘mucho’ java.  He was actually right about this one.



While the whole endeavor was not entirely a success—the dressing was too wet and we didn’t scrape quite enough of the flesh out of our mirliton pirogues—the effort meant that I got to spend the day by myself in my kitchen, dancing around to the iTunes Classic Alternative station, remembering my Papa as I simmered shrimp peels for stock, chopped and chopped and chopped onions, celery, and bell peppers, and washed many dishes.



The foodways of my family are a strange hybrid—Italian and Hungarian by way of the Gulf Coast—and what I am most grateful for inheriting is an adventurous spirit about food.  I don’t think more is always better, except maybe when it comes to boozy whipped cream on warm bread pudding with lemon sauce.



Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

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Turns out it isn’t so much about what you can do, but what you will do.

For many, many years, I’ve wanted to be a woman with a buzz cut.  But I didn’t think I could pull it off.  “I’m too fat,” I thought.  “I’ll do it after I lose XX pounds.”  “I’m going on the job market, and a buzz cut will make me less employable.”  “I already have plenty of piercings and tattoos.  A buzz cut would be too much.”  “I’m too old.  This is the rebellion of late teens, early 20s at most.”  “I’m not pretty enough to have no hair.”

It turns out, all those things might be true (whatever that means).  Likely they aren’t, because none of them are real (whatever that means), but maybe they are.  Maybe people around me might think it’s ridiculous for a woman my age (whatever that means) to sport a buzz cut.  Maybe it doesn’t look good (whatever that means) on me.  Maybe there are people who won’t want to hire me because of my hairstyle.

I don’t actually have to care.  I choose to, and I want to see what it’s like to choose otherwise.  So this morning, I buzzed off my hair.  I started with the #8 comb and worked my way down to #3.  I did a pretty good job for my first try with everything but my neckline, which is a bit wonky.  But I will try again.  And maybe next time I’ll use the #2 comb for the back and sides.  Just because.

Even though this decision will look spontaneous, it wasn’t.  I’ve considered it for a long time.  I’ve looked at many pictures of women with buzz cuts online, trying to imagine myself as one of them.  I watched YouTube instructional videos about tapering and fading, and then I opted to just go all in, at least the first time.  I considered going to a barber shop for the first cut, but then part of what interests me about such a low maintenance hairstyle is that it is a form of opting out of a set of standards that I want to interrupt.

See, it doesn’t matter if I look good.  That’s actually not the only thing that’s important.  Yes, this choice will have some consequences.  Yes, people may think things about me, make judgments and assumptions, but they were probably doing that already, and without any help from me.  So I don’t have to care.  I can choose to, but I don’t have to.  And because I’m not a mind reader, I’m really making up that other people are judging me anyway, so I’ve decided to make up that people are thinking, “Look at that woman rocking that buzz cut.  She doesn’t give a fuck.  That’s what not giving a fuck looks like, and it looks awesome.”

It turns out that my version of negative self-talk is imagining that other people are thinking negative things about me.  That way I don’t actually have to take any responsibility for it.  Clever, huh?

I want to see if I mean what I say when I say I don’t give a fuck.  Because really, I operate as though I give many fucks.  So this is practice.

I don’t think one can arrive at not giving a fuck; I think one has to practice not giving a fuck in the present moment, and then again in the next one, and again in the next one.  And there are lots of moments when one cannot not give a fuck.  It’s just not the day for it.  And there are moments when one needs to give a fuck, to give many fucks, not about what people think of one’s hair, but about the much, much more important things there are in this world about which we really must give all the fucks.

I’m experimenting with the idea of removing things about which I don’t want to give a fuck, to make room for things I want to give my limited resources of time and attention and money.  For now, it’s my hair.  I wonder what it will be next.


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own your slippers

I suspect most doctoral students feel overwhelmed by information at the end of their first year.  Because I’m the kind of student who can’t manage the anxiety of not being prepared for class, I read almost all of everything that was assigned to me, even if it was listed as optional.  And as often as I had time to, I read background material to help me understand what I was reading.  And then sometimes I read additional material that was listed in the references of assigned reading.  In short, I read a lot in 33 weeks.  And most of it I wish I had read more carefully.

So I am awash in ideas, theories, arguments, explications, and swimming in the midst of all this information about schools and teaching and power and discourse and epistemology and ontology is some information about me that I also need to read more carefully.

It turns out that there are people in my program who don’t like me.  Perhaps more importantly, it turns out that I am really bothered when people don’t like me, and that people not liking me consumes more of my time and energy than I have available right now when, you know, I should be reading.

Yesterday as I was walking home from the farmers’ market, feeling supremely grateful to be living in a town where I can walk to a farmers’ market and return home with garlic scapes and blue oyster mushrooms and baby rainbow chard and French breakfast radishes and snow peas and fava beans and a cucumber, I got over my shock at being disliked—I am so awesome, after all—and realized that the dislike I am experiencing here is much like the dislike I experienced at my last teaching job.  I think the term for me there was “suck-up cheerleader.”  Here it seems to be “elitist white girl who is taking advantage of her privilege.”

I begin to suspect that these dislikes are of the same variety.  Or, rather, that they are motivated by the same perception of my way of operating.  Because I am a cheerleader of sorts.  I do get cheerleader-level excited about what I’m up to, about what my students are up to, about things I read, about big talk with smart people who inspire and provoke me.  And I do take every opportunity to be up to big things.  And I do seek out other people who are up to big things, and I am not generally close with people who are not up to big things.  And I totally see how this way of being can quite easily be read as either sucking up or elitist, because I do enjoy many opportunities thanks to being so geeked about what I’m up to, and because I work hard at it, and because I am unbelievably lucky, in equal parts.

My friend Katherine, one of my loudest and most abiding cheerleaders, told me recently that my task is to figure out how to share generously even to folks who aren’t interested in or good at receiving generosity (and I should know who they are, she reminded me, because I am one of them).

I have a summer vacation kickoff ritual: I read a novel, usually one I bought ages ago that has been sitting on a shelf tempting me while I read for school or grade papers or write papers.  (This seeming digression will make sense momentarily, I promise.)  I just finished reading my first novel of this summer vacation, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone.  If you haven’t read it, stop reading this and go read it right now.  Seriously.

Verghese has one of his characters, Ghosh, recount the tale of Abu Kassem and his slippers; there are several versions of the story, but they all have to do with Abu trying to get rid of his slippers and the getting-rid-of causing some trouble that he must take responsibility for.  In Verghese’s telling, the tale gets explained this way: “The slippers in the story mean that everything you see and do and touch, every seed you sow, or don’t sow, becomes part of your destiny….The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t….Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny” (351).

So the task is for me to own my slippers, own my cheerleader-y geeked-out way of being about school, which I seem to capably sustain both as a teacher and a student.  There’s no getting rid of it, and the getting-rid-of would cause trouble that I would have to take responsibility for.

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