Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A few words about grief

I am in the thick of it.

I feel like the wind’s been knocked out of me. I can’t concentrate at work. I forgot to take the chicken out of the freezer to thaw for dinner tonight.

When I zoom in on my Grandpa’s face in my mind’s eye, he’s always got his eyes squinched tight because this is what he did when he laughed hard, and I’ll always remember him laughing. When the picture is really clear, that’s when I cry. When I remember that that picture will only ever be in my head, that there isn’t the possibility of another visit with him on this side of eternity, well, my heart breaks some more.

I’m preoccupied and a little snippy. My daughter has noticed and commented. “What’s wrong, Mom? You seem like you’re hiding something.”

I tell her I’m tired. But she’s no fool. I am hiding. I’m hiding the fact that all I want to do is crawl in bed and catch my breath. For a few weeks, maybe a month.

I know I’m okay. I know I’m not depressed. I know that allowing myself all of this annoying stuff is part of the process, but it’s exhausting.

I am aware of how poorly we westerners do this death and mourning thing. Because he was my grandfather, I was granted one day of leave for the funeral. I am grateful for the day I received, but this was not nearly enough. Nor would the three days have been had the loss been my child, parent, or sibling.

If I’m honest, I’m put off by the idea that this man, as my grandfather, doesn’t rank high enough for more than a cursory nod of acknowledgment. A friend called him my “shelter” in a note of condolence, and my, did she get that right.

I’ve thought of the beauty of the Jewish practice of Sitting Shiva, the seven-day mourning period for first-degree relatives. The bereaved are fed by friends and neighbors, visited, and sat with. The visitors, according to my Wikipedia search, do not initiate conversation, but simply be with the bereaved in their grief. In my faith tradition, we call this “ministry of presence.”

I have been the recipient of many kindnesses in the past three weeks. I have had long-distance friends text and send messages to check in on me. One friend told me to text her a heart when I needed an extra dose of prayer and support. I appreciated the wordless way to express a need to her. It’s a strategy I will offer friends in similar difficult circumstances in the future.

I’ve also received a dozen or more cards in the mail. Each one of these has meant so much and has been such a comfort.

While I am sad and tired, I don’t want to rush past this time. I want to honor it and the person I am grieving. I know that unprocessed grief can be harmful and I don’t want any of that.

My self-care practices also are helping. I started a new show on Netflix and have been surprised by its poignancy, humor, and comfort. I am reading a lot and writing a little. I’ve gotten a bit off track with doing well at feeding myself, but I am paying attention to how many evenings I eat cereal and work to eat better options at the next meal.

Since this is really a chronicle for me to look back on later when my heart doesn’t feel so tender, I don’t have a great conclusion to these rambles. I’ll end with a beautiful moment from the funeral home.

I greeted a man in cowboy boots, a buff-colored suede jacket, and a cowboy hat. I introduced myself as Melvin’s oldest granddaughter. I thanked him for coming and asked him how he’d known my grandfather. We talked for a few minutes. He told me what he thought of my grandfather, how he loved and admired him. Then he cocked his head to the side and said, “I see Melvin in you.” He smiled.

I smiled back and said, “You do?” This was the first time I’d ever heard this.

“Oh yes, I see him in your smile.” I couldn’t think of a lovelier thing to hear. I haven’t forgotten it either.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Reset - An Update

Two years ago I wrote a list of truthful statements (and some after thoughts) that marked my emotional terrain at the time. I remember feeling vulnerable putting those words out for others to read, but as I reread the list now, I barely recognize the woman or the description of her feelings. It is for THIS reason, that I blog. I am so grateful for the chronicle of where I am in a given moment. There is hope in rereading and knowing that the moment or season, in fact, did pass. To help me continue to mark time, I am responding to each of my statements with a few words about where I am now (in italics).

I am coming to terms with how I can be deeply content and profoundly sad at the same time.

I am still content—even more so than two years ago, but much less sad today. I’m not counting the sadness I feel about Grandpa’s recent death. I am making my way through my grief and my missing him. I also know that there won't be an end to the sadness I feel. I'll integrate his absence into my new normal. This is easier when I consider how many years I had with him. 95 years is a good, long run. 

I am lonely for something or someone I cannot quite put my finger on.

I don’t feel loneliness as acutely today as I did then. Mostly I believe it’s because I have become my own best friend. I am who I was lonely for and didn’t know it yet. I enjoy my own company in a way I never have before. I am not searching for the company of anyone else, so when I have the opportunity to spend time with my tribe, my time with them is richer. I am not needy or clinging to them for company as I know I have done in the past. This feels like a great relief.

I am weepy, and when those moments come I wonder if I can ever grow strong in my broken places.

I revel in the strength I have gained in my broken places. I don’t feel weepy.

I'm not eating enough.

This, too, has changed. I feed myself better now than I did then. It doesn’t feel like such a chore. I have accepted that I have a small repertoire of meals I can prepare without much thought and I stick to making those. I rearranged my pantry and got a handle on what I purchase regularly and stick to those things. Preparation is key for me, so I grocery shop with intention. My pants fit as they should, which for someone of my build is quite an accomplishment. I feel good in my skin these days. I don't feel "skinny" in a bad way as I have in the past.

I miss my daughter when we are apart.

This will never change, but the missing her doesn’t feel so tender and bruised. She is thriving in both households. We enjoy our time together after we’ve been apart, and now that she has a mobile phone, we are in constant contact. Her thriving eases this ache.

I'm tired of thinking about the debt I have to pay down. 

I’ve come a long way in my thinking about this too. Yes, I have debt, but I have extenuating circumstances that led to this. I also have a plan to pay it down. Experiencing the shame and frustration of this financial situation has served me well. I have proved to myself that I am resourceful, can delay gratification, and am capable of stretching a dollar without feeling deprivation. My creativity has surged as a result. Though hard, I know I will appreciate the lessons this chapter taught me. I feel no shame, now.

I'm scared that I may never be a published writer.

I’m too busy writing and thinking about my next project to worry about things that I cannot control. I have really come into my own when it comes to understanding why I write and what I hope to accomplish with it. The love for writing has nothing to do with fame and fortune. I would post to my blog even if there were no readers, no audience. That's how crucial a part of my writing is to who I am. Figuring this out is integral to my well-being as I continue to rack up rejections. What I mean is, what's important is that I am writing. My value as a writer comes from within.

I'm scared that the story I'm writing will never be as good outside my head as it is inside.

I trust my writing process because I’ve done A LOT more writing since 2016. This trust empowers me to keep writing until I get what I'm working on right. This is no longer a worry either.

I get anxious when I can't plan for the future or even have the remotest idea what might come my way.

Not anymore. I consider the unknowns to be adventures that I don’t know about yet. This has come about by my ability to be content in the present moment. The future is merely present moments that haven’t arrived yet. I’m okay in all of them.

These winter days have me feeling like I'm a character in Groundhog Day.

This is how I feel about winter these days: “Winter reminds us that everyone and everything needs some quiet time.” – Katrina Mayer

I am grateful for the slower, cozier pace of winter. It is practice in remembering that no season lasts forever.

I am an overthinker, and am wondering how to turn off the chatter in my head.

My practices of yoga, mindfulness, and deep breathing are the solutions to my chatter-y mind. I don’t experience this as often or as intensely.

Two years ago, I couldn’t envision being the woman I am today. I look forward to seeing where I am and what’s occupying my thoughts and activities two years from now. Wherever life takes me then, I can trust that I will be well and able to handle whatever life presents. This is priceless and the key to living a content life.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Papa and His Girls - A Celebration and a Goodbye

I was so busy enjoying my time with Grandpa, soaking in all the moments, that I didn't take many photos on our last visits. These three above are from his 2015 stopover visit on a train trip to Michigan to see the rest of our family. It was around Veterans Day, so in the middle photo he is reading the card that Cadence made for him, our Navy man. His military service was an important part of his life and he spent the rest of his life being part of the American Legion and honoring others who made the ultimate sacrifice.

This past Tuesday, we celebrated this precious man's life and laid him to rest. It's an embarrassment of riches that we had him for so long, and yet, it never would have been long enough. Below are the words my daughter and I wrote to honor our grandfather and great-grandfather. I learned days after his death that he had assumed that I would be too emotional to speak. I'm sorry I didn't clear that up with him before. For once, he underestimated me!

                                                           Letter for Melvin

I am Cadence Jewel Mahoney. I am Melvin’s first but not last great grandchild.  Me and my mom Julie visited him as much as we could. We loved coming to see him.  We would always have a blast and I would never feel bored or like we need to do more.  I felt happy and surprised. He would surprise me with going to go Chicken Mary’s or Braum’s.  On our way to these destinations we would slowly but surely jump in the car and drive there. When people are driving differently than grandpa would like, he would always say a different phrase like, “come on josie” or “my horses are faster than you.” Which would always make me chuckle.  I loved every time we went to see the horses at the Brock’s.  I would help him brush them down or feed them and a few years ago, he asked me “would you like to get on Minnie?”  and of course i couldn't say no to that because i had always loved horses and always had dreamed of getting to ride one. So he slightly would give me a hand and i would get my little foot on his hand and climb myself up on Minnie.  I could not believe my eyes. I was so happy on the horse.  After we went to see the horses, he would surprise me with going to go Chicken Mary’s and then to go get ice cream at Braum’s.

As soon as we got home from a long but fun day we would relax on the couches and watch Blue Bloods, MASH or Lawrence Welk.  Every time there was a joke or something dumb that he thought was very unnecessary he would brighten up the room with smiles and laughter. Whenever, he laughed I could not keep my mouth shut. His laugh is one of my favorite things about him.  

Finally I wanted to talk about what it meant to me to be his great grandchild.  Grandpa and I almost shared a birthday. He was born on April 9 and my birthday is April 10. It was cool to be 85 years and one day apart.

When we visited him, right before we went back to St. Louis, he would always tell me if I needed anything to give him a call and he would give me money to get on the train and come stay with Papa. It made me feel super loved.

He always reminded me to not do drugs and make smart decisions and to make Papa proud. He would always hug me and give me a kiss on the cheek. His hugs were so great. That’s another thing I will miss about him.

His advice was very inspirational. He always made sure he was positive about himself and others. I am glad to be able to speak here today. I will miss him so very much, but I am glad he will be in a better place. I am excited for him to reunite with my grandma. We will miss him dearly, but we will love that he was in our lives. I love you, Grandpa. You mean the world to me.


My grandfather had many memorable qualities, but the one that made the biggest impact on my life was his tenacity. He was determined to better himself, to stretch and to grow, to move beyond where he had been. He demonstrated tenacity in two separate ways in the last ten or fifteen years when he joined Toastmasters and bought software to teach himself how to type.

What is so remarkable to me about these things is how out of his comfort zone he must have been in the undertaking of each. He didn’t spend much time inside a classroom. His brilliance and higher education was hard-earned life experience. And in his late eighties and early nineties, you might say that polishing one’s public speaking ability and typing skills were out of place or unnecessary. On the surface, that could be true. But I admire these pursuits more for this very reason.

I told him I loved him all the time. We had really great, rich, frank conversation, but I realize now that I didn’t tell him how much I admired him doing these things. Through Toastmasters, he was learning how to tell some of the stories he’d carried for a long time. And the improved typing was a help as he wrote letters-to-the-editor of various publications.  When he saw something he thought needed fixing or required his perspective or expertise, he was quick to write a letter, and his words were published repeatedly. Another thing I admire! These skills helped him grow more confident and undo injustices of his past. He resisted the idea that there should be limitations of behavior or aspirations purely based on age. I love this.

My grandfather taught me many things by his quiet actions: how to respect and approach a horse, how to love one’s family, how to age gracefully, how to be vulnerable, how to soothe oneself through difficult patches of life. He also taught me what it looked like to love someone, disagree with them, and do so with kindness and respect. These are things I will spend the rest of my life fine-tuning in my own relationships and interactions.

He taught me the power of experiencing pain in life and then tempering it with joy and laughter. He taught me how to not get stuck in that pain, but to work to understand it and move on. He showed me what it looked like to not be satisfied with where you are and to take steps to build knowledge, increase understanding, and develop skills. I have learned how to face my fears and press on.

Melvin’s storytelling and laughter are the two things I will miss the most. He lit up the room with his tales and the funny way he laughed his way to the punch line. First by wheezing, holding his breath, and slapping his knee before composing himself and continuing with the story. I’d suggest watching an episode of M.A.S.H. to initiate his laughter if he hadn’t thought of a funny story to tell first.

Most of all, Melvin was my best friend and my biggest fan. Being his granddaughter means I am a better human, woman, and mother because of his love, mentoring, and friendship.
Papa and his girl, CJ


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Rejection 15

I took Rejection 14 really hard. It felt personal (it wasn’t) in a way that the others didn’t. I want to get published at that online publication so badly that the rejection stung.

Rejection 15 was a completely different experience. Two friends had sent me the criteria for this award. I talked myself out of applying on the first suggestion, and when the second friend sent it to me, I asked, what do I have to lose? It turns out nothing to lose, and so much to gain. Preparing this application was a tremendous experience and helpful for me to take stock of where I am with my craft at this point.
The application asked four things:

Who I am: Biography. Remember that the SAF’s unique trait is our focus on artists and writers who are also parents. If it’s relevant, we’d like to hear how your family life inspires or challenges your artistic career.
I am a midwesterner and mother-of-one who has the good fortune of having a day job where I am surrounded by words. I write acknowledgment letters for the dean of a School of Medicine. This, however, is not my real job. My real job is the writing I do outside office hours as a blogger, essayist, and first-time novelist. It is when I sit at the laptop working on a piece before work as my daughter sleeps, or tucked away in a corner of the public library while she searches for books, or late at night when I'm tired, but have things to say, that I find myself most alive and deeply satisfied.

This writer-as-real-work realization has been slow in coming, but I appreciate every twist and turn that  brought me to this place. Two years ago, a friend reminded me that 'writers write'. He challenged my 'talking about writing.' He persuaded me to squeeze a page-a-day into busy days of motherhood and full-time employment. I began writing, and within 11 days I felt new-found energy, grounding, joy. I was carving out a new path. In another 10 days, I took on a dare to write a novel. I didn't believe I could do it, but my friends did. I was so certain I would fail, but the page-a-day habit resulted in an 80,000 word rough draft seven months later.
During this time, I also celebrated my 40th birthday by creating a bucket list of 40 activities. I blogged about each activity as I crossed it off the list. The blogging and novel writing created a rhythm for my life during a vulnerable time as I filed for a divorce. These two writing projects and the discipline with which I devoted to them rearranged my internal infrastructure. I explored new levels of courage, tenacity, determination, and goal-setting. The writing was a balm to the anxiety that is embedded in the divorce process.

Of the many things I learned in this process, one of the stand-out lessons was that I am role-modeling for my daughter how to pursue a passion. Her elementary school's pledge includes four character traits: perseverance, responsibility, respect, and caring. As I showed up every day at my laptop, I exhibited these traits for her. At first I worried about a writing habit being selfish, but I quickly discovered that I gave my daughter a gift. I demonstrated to her that even mothers need to be occupied by something that is separate from their mothering. In time, we both learned that when this mama writes, she's a happier mama, and the household is happier too.
I let go of guilt that so easily seeps into the maternal experience. I did not apologize for the time I spent writing. In the process, my daughter learned about respecting someone's space and grew in her ability to meet some of her own needs, including how to occupy oneself. She also became my greatest cheerleader. “Mommy, have you written your page-a-day yet?” If my answer was no, she'd respond, “You'd better get going, Mommy.”

What I do: Artist Statement
concise description of your work and goals as an artist

Writing is the way I metabolize the ups and downs of life and the world around me. I know better how I feel or what I believe about something after I have spent time writing on the topic. My writer's statement is “to feast on words, explore their power, and serve up writings which inspire and encourage readers and myself.”

I created the blog 300 rejections to chronicle the trajectory of my writing pursuits. On the blog, I celebrate each rejection received as proof that I am writing rather than merely talking about writing. I know I cannot control what gets published, but I can control what I submit, and writing is the prerequisite to submissions. It has been a joy to transform the dreaded rejection into a celebration of the big picture: I am a writer, and I write. At 300 rejections, I also explore motherhood, my new single life, and whatever else crosses my mind. 

Writing has proved an invaluable tool for personal healing. For years I have felt the pressure to 'write what I know.' But what I know is a messy, complicated story ... At the advice of a counselor, I have spent the past six to eight months crafting painful stories into essays that have released the poison of difficult circumstances. My counselor has shared one particular essay with other clients who are navigating similar [circumstances]. While this essay has not been published, I feel gratified that it is making its way into the hands of people who can benefit from the experiences I wrote about.

What I've Done: Curriculum Vitae

It was helpful to remember that I have been published in numerous online and print publications over the past few years. I had dismissed them because they weren’t in the BIG publications that I deem worthy. This application knocked that notion out of my head. These publication credits are the stepping stones to bigger work and the whole point of 300 rejections: chronicling my writing life. Turns out, there IS a body of work to chronicle.

I included writing retreats and classes and remembered that when Cadence was five months old, I enrolled in an online writing course. More proof that I’ve been working on honing my craft for a long time.

I also chose to include my third place prize for short story I won as a high school in the Teresa Carpenter Writing Competition at Graceland College in 1993. Not a fiction writer, eh Julie? This contest begged to differ.

What I'd like to Do: How I would Use this award

The Sustainable Arts Foundation had 20 $5,000 unrestricted grants. Ten were dedicated to artists of color. These are the ways I structured how I would use the award:

Equipment: Purchase a printer/copier for my home office.

Travel: Plan a trip with my daughter to visit family friends in Colorado. Built into the trip would be time set aside for me to work on my novel alone while my daughter spends time reconnecting with friends. I would rejoin the group every day at lunch and spend the rest of the day together.

Fees: Cover the costs of submission entry fees.

Online Presence: Upgrade functionality and visual elements of my blog.

I also had to submit 15 pages of work. I chose an unpublished essay and work from my blog—pieces representative of the work I have crafted in the past year.

If a rejection email can be considered a work of art, this email surely was:

Dear Julie,

Thank you so much for your application to the Sustainable Arts Foundation.

As our program grows, it becomes even more competitive; in our 7th year, over 3,000 writers and artists submitted their portfolios. We continue to be humbled by the stories we read in the applications, impressed and inspired by the creativity of all our applicants.

As is our practice, past award winners served as our jurors, and each application was reviewed by at least two jurors who focused on the quality of the submitted portfolios. From a pool of applicants whose work was judged as excellent, we then narrowed the field, considering the many facets presented so thoughtfully in your applications.

Unfortunately, we are not able to fund your application, but we want you to know that we are moved both by your commitment to your craft and by the sacrifices you're making to pursue it.

Our jurors are invited to provide feedback about the applications they review; we want to share their comments:

Your spirit, humor, honesty, and courage is apparent in these pieces, and that spirit makes your writing engaging. Keep up the good work!
I like the approach you take: using letters to reveal the narrator. The letters become ever more revealing and are richly narrative.

We know that it is hard enough to create time for art while parenting, let alone to work on grant applications, and we do recognize and appreciate the effort you put into your submission.

We will announce our next application deadline early in 2018.

All applicants are eligible to re-apply, although we can't recommend strongly enough that reapplications be submitted with new work.

Thank you again for your application, and we wish you all the best, both with your work and with your family.
I was thrilled by the personalized feedback (in bold above). I cannot express how gratifying it was to know that there were people who had read my work and had these positive things to say about it. In another rejection, I’d been told that my work didn’t have enough narrative for the publication, so reading that that same piece was considered “richly narrative” helped me feel like I was on the right track.
I have new goals for my writing in 2018, so I absolutely plan to apply for the grant again. I’ll have new things to say and new work to showcase. It will be wonderful to receive feedback from a new set of jurors.
284 Rejections to go.