Aiming for “Okay”

Well, hello there. Here we are. Just a few fellow beings navigating space. Do we need to mention the year? Of course not. I’m also not going to spend any time breaking down the poop we have collectively experienced this year– you know the poop. Instead, cozy up, because I have a little story to tell you. Don’t worry, the ending is a happy one.

In 2019, as most of you know, I lost my younger brother, Tanner. Man, if you didn’t know Tanner, you missed out. He was wonderful – he was kind, loving, and talented. When I think of sadness experienced up to this point in my life, it was always a level of manageable sadness: like gut punches of sadness here and there that knocked me down, but only temporarily. When I got the call about my brother and then became the person to share the heart-wrenching news with my sisters and brother, it was like suddenly missing a limb or an organ, a ripping of intestines sort of sadness. What I didn’t expect of the sadness, however, was that it swallowed me up in a calm. Something about the aftermath, the peace, the end of a struggle, soothed me.

Other problems seemed minute. The details and calendars and activities, and the world of tiny stressors surrounding work and life became so insignificant. I also (high-five for me) immediately sought a mental health professional and stocked up on a mild antidepressant. (If I have one ounce of advice to give anyone struggling with situational depression or anxiety, do not stop trying to take care of your brain if your brain needs taking care of. Try all the things.) Now, back to the story. 2019 was also the year that my mother and stepfather both had severe strokes. 2019 was my 2020 before 2020 was 2020.

The Bright Spot: 2019 was also the year that I got married. My husband, Chris, is the light anytime I’m in the dark. He’s a dreamer, the most kind-hearted and fun person I have ever met. When I look back on life, though there are past loves that I still very much love, my heart grows and beats for my sweet husband. So, when we found out in June 2020, mid-pandemic, that I was pregnant (There. Phew. The bomb has dropped.), the news rocked our world in the best way. Pregnancy is always something I felt wasn’t going to happen for me. For some reason something inside me told me that it just wasn’t an experience I would be able to have. After watching friends struggle with infertility for years and witnessing that pain at a close distance, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to ever try. The what-ifs, the unknowns, the fears that remain fears, the fears that become realities. I felt all the things.

So, here I am now, after puking up spaghetti at work on my lunch break, thinking about the timing of life. Though I would have loved to smash this sonogram in the middle of a cheese enchilada plate and call it “the ultimate Tex-Mex combo created!”- I just couldn’t. I just couldn’t make an announcement of a baby with a cute picture of a sonogram and be done with it. I had to mix it with words and the pieces that make it a full picture for me. I couldn’t wear matching white linen outfits grinning under the awning Chris made for our wedding day (Chris’ sweet idea). Because for so many women, that’s a picture they never have, or it’s a black and white that never becomes a full color reality. Even now, in month five, my heart is still heavy with the hurt I’ve seen others experience. I do feel so much joy for the growing bits inside of me, but some days I feel alone, scared, and disconnected from myself. Luckily, I also feel …Hopeful, with a capital H.

Though I have an amazing set of “mother” examples, I don’t know how I feel about being a mother or how to be one. I worry about losing who I am, losing my independence, or being too selfish to focus on a tiny human. What if the kiddo has developmental issues that require extra love, financial support, and attention -will I be the best advocate? What if I give too much focus to the nugget and strain my marriage? Maybe I will fall short on friendships that already feel like deflated balloons post-pandemic: they are still there, floating as best they can, attempting to bring cheer, but like us all, they are tired too.

So, what is the point of my story? I guess I’m not sure yet because it is just the beginning. I know this path is a privilege, and I’ll do my best to treat it as such, but I’m sure I won’t get it right all the time, so I ask our friends and family for patience and guidance and support. Like life, I’ll be navigating motherhood with my shield of dark, uncomfortable humor. As I’ve told Chris, friends, and family, if my goal is to be “OKAY” rather than “great” at this Mom thing, I think I can handle that pressure. For all the moms, non-moms with mom aspirations, future moms, struggling moms, and amazing people who have full lives without children, let’s all agree that aiming for “okay” is OKAY.

And as far as 2020 goes, my shaky hand is here if you need to hold it. I can’t promise I know where I’m going, but I’m here. So, without further ado: here’s to a new chapter: an official announcement to highlight harboring our first alien. (Sara, you can quit policing my Facebook feed now.)

Christopher Tamez and Ashlynn Ivy-Tamez

are trying to create life,

set to arrive March 1, 2021. Wish us luck and love.

Questions answered:

Do you have a name? Not sure on names – send your suggestions, especially for boys!

Boy or girl? It’s going to be the ULTIMATE surprise. We are waiting to find out.

Natural or epidural? Mind ya business, but probably an epidural.

Working Out Your Core During Covid-19

Header Image: The Two Fridas, 1939 by Frida Kahlo

According to this web tracker that I’ve been following, we are about 2 million cases and 200,000 deaths into this beast. For those like me who have stayed their rears at home as the doctors and nurses and government officials have requested, this new normal is eerie. From a professional standpoint, my field marketing job that used to consist of four or five in-person meetings per week, now consists of meeting colleagues and clients in the virtual space: Skype. Zoom. Go-to Meetings. FaceTime. It feels like the future, but it also feels kind of depressing. This is what we have. We might shower tomorrow. We are in our baseball-caps, no makeup, hoping our camera isn’t making us into monsters. (Hot tip: Stack a book under your computer during a call for a more flattering angle).

Believe me, this isn’t a “woe is me” post. Woe is NOT me, the lady working remotely and childless beside a rescue Schnauzer named MAX. I get this time to hang out with my husband, who -to be honest- is a one-person, non-stop party even while social distancing. (I saw him dancing alone on three separate occasions yesterday) Those that know him will 100% agree with this sentiment. So, why am I still feeling like a grey cloud on the sunniest of these days?

The common thread for us all is fear– fear for our families, fear for my fresh out of chemotherapy 84-year-old grandmother, fear for my sister who is an RN, fear for my mother who is a respiratory therapist, fear for my friends who have small, delicate babies, fear for all our friends’ families, and – of course- fear of the growing statistics. Like all of you, (unless you are injecting bleach into your veins -please don’t- and not wearing a mask in public because ‘MERICA), I too am scared as hell, and I miss my family, my friends, my coworkers, and my clients.

This virus, the C-word (somehow seems appropriate) hasn’t shown us that disconnection wasn’t already present in our lives, but it has shown us (well, me, anyway) how I handle feelings of disconnection. As someone who is addicted to work and affirmed by peers and completing tasks (Type 2 Enneagram), this was new territory. The gift of time, the gift of sleep. Unfortunately, I thought I would do more with these gifts. On some days, I don’t recognize this expanding blob on the couch. I haven’t read a book or written a song. I haven’t written a story. I haven’t done anything extraordinary. And I guess that’s the strangest thing of all- seeing what your core self is up to when the distractions have been removed or greatly altered.

I realized that at my core, I’m a little sad to not have a child making art on the sidewalk or distracting me while I try to work. As I watch my siblings and my 8 nieces and nephews from a tiny square on a screen, it’s not a sadness I feel, but a great desire for more connection to their world. Just yesterday, my sister Sara brought my niece and nephew, Margot and Archer, to swim in a kiddie pool at my Mamaw’s house so that she could watch them from the safety of her home. Margot stayed in the pool so long that her little fingers wrinkled up. She noticed they resembled her Mamaw’s fingers. “I have Mamaw hands!” she exclaimed. This 3-year-old couldn’t have been more proud of her wrinkled hands. I want to be part of more stories like these.

But where this void lives, I too have so much to fill it with, and I’m not lost to that fact. Though I worked too much during my youth (full-time since I was 16), the hard work is starting to pay off. I don’t have children, but we just got approved to buy our first home thanks to the support of friends, family, and fiscally responsible decisions I’ve made in the last 6 years. (Hot tip for poor girls with good credit: do not go to Germany, Sweden, and France on a credit card with a 24% interest rate when you are in your early 20’s.) I don’t have children, but I spend most evenings grilling, drinking wine, and dancing in the backyard with my husband. I don’t have children, but there are two feisty squirrels fighting over sunflower seeds on my picnic table, and it is so quiet that I can hear the hush of leaves rustling in the wind. I don’t have children, but I might one day. I don’t have children, but if it doesn’t happen that’s okay too. So, for any of you who have tapped into those less than light mental places lately, remember to turn on a light, it’s not always going to feel this heavy. The have-nots you are experiencing right now, well, I hope -like me- you find peace and joy in what you have.

Bonus Material for Improving Your Core:

  1. Listen to this upbeat song. Josh Garrels,”Morning Light”
  2. Read this book. John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
  3. Buy some wild birdseed.
  4. Read this poem. Ambulances by Philip Larkin
  5. Read the short story “Greenleaf” by Flannery O’Connor
  6. Look at all my cute nieces and nephews below:

How to Have Happy Thoughts During a Global Pandemic

Well, hello 2020, you disease-infested whore.

Had to start with a little bitterness, so the sweet will be more effective later. So, like you (unless you are a jerk or a healthcare hero), I’m at home. In my teens and early twenties, this didn’t happen often. I was what they call a “social butterfly” – flitting about, singing love songs, being the most emotional version of myself, falling in and out of love with boys (cough. cough. And… men – sorry, Mom.) I was still shaping who I was. Thank heavens TikTok did not exist. Sidenote: That’s the scariest, weirdest social media outlet I’ve ever seen, and I’m a professional digital marketer. To be honest, I’d have probably just made videos of attempting to roll nice joints and played Blind Melon songs like “Mouthful of Cavities” acoustically on mine. I digress.

So, back then, when I was all hormones and high hopes, I was absorbing most of who I was from those I loved or looked up to. Poetry, music, writing- it was shared, and easily consumable, content. I remember reading Philip Larkin’s poem “Sad Steps” in R.S. Gwynn’s poetry class. (I still send him poems, hoping he’ll mark them up for me like he did then. He usually does.) The poem, which you can read here, really moved me. Still does. It represents those moments in life when you look to nature during some simple act and are reminded about the beginning and the end of your life. I think now, as we are huddled inside dealing with this global pandemic, it’s important to look for these moments of beauty and mortality, even when we are making a throne or small house of the toilet paper we’ve stolen from the elderly (kidding).

For those who know me well, you know I’m incredibly dark and morbid for an upbeat and generally cheerful person. This unique take is somewhat heightened by the “C” word. My husband had to tell me to stop talking about death yesterday. Apparently four death talks in one day is enough for him. When I was a little girl, Mom will have to give you the exact age, my mom got so sick of me saying that I was dying that she brought me to our primary care physician and had him draw blood, run a few tests, just to assure me I wasn’t dying so that I would shut up about dying. When I was in my twenties, I spent a full day creating a will and my own obituary, complete with pictures and songs. I’m sure this isn’t that uncommon. ::pretend it isn’t:: As an adult, as many of us do, I use dark humor and death jokes to placate fear. I am not saying it’s healthy – it’s just the reality of my approach to feeling uncomfortable or worried (and luckily, my weirdo siblings are on the same page.) A typical conversation with a sibling might be:

Me: Hey, have you talked to Mom, or did she die?

Sister : I think she’s alive. Her phone just isn’t charged.

These exchanges are frequent and would be disturbing to most. What’s interesting about these exchanges today are that the reality of the conversations have become more unsettling. Mom is a respiratory therapist, over 60, with a history of heart problems. Sara, my sister, is a nurse. My grandma just completed four rounds of chemo for a platelet disorder. (Don’t worry, we locked her away immediately.)

Me: Hey, Mom. Don’t die at work, okay?

Mom: I’ll try not to.

As I’m writing this, my Mom has asked if she can drive by my house (not come in) and wave to me and talk to me through the car window. I don’t have a medical mask, but I do have an alien mask created for me by a friend (that’s normal, right?), so we will probably have an encounter in just a few. Back to the point of this whole post, HAPPY THOUGHTS.

So, the question becomes, how can we effectively be less of a drag right now. Well, like the nature of the disease, I think this is going to be fluid. One day you’ll probably spend most of your time sleeping and feeling bogged down by worry, the next you might write a blog or create something cool- a recipe you’ve been wanting to try, a painting with your kid – I’ve seen a lot of chalk art that looks fun. Here are a few suggestions, my approach, and a few projects I’m hoping to knock out:

  1. FaceTime the crap out of everyone. It’s fun and offers a little bit of reprieve from the loneliness of seclusion. If you don’t have someone to FaceTime, feel free to hit me up. I can’t promise I’ll be clean or pretty, but I’m relatively entertaining in small bursts.
  2. Read a book. Yesterday I knocked out We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman. Domestic Violets is also amazing, and I plan on reading his newest as well. Today, I’m going to work through American Dirt.
  3. Play with your kids, pets, or plants. Hell, as I watch all of these videos online, it makes me really wish I had a few kiddies. I don’t, so I’ve been snuggling my rescue pup, Max, and will be attempting to bring life back to my plants.
  4. Give a personal Kudos to those who work in healthcare or the public sector. Now is the time to write a letter or record a quick video of appreciation. Even a text would probably help: “Hey, thanks for selflessly helping people. Hope you don’t die.”Or, something like that.
  5. Write. Event if you aren’t a writer, I’m a firm believer that vomiting brain matter through words is beneficial for mental health. Put your fears on paper, get them out of your body.
  6. Go outside. Preferably, just in your yard. Listening to nature can quiet the noise of fear. (Also, I’m pretty sure Tanner is now a cardinal, so we have been hanging out every now and then.)
  7. Tap into something spiritual. If you believe in prayer, do that. If you don’t, meditate or simply read a non-fiction book about the cosmos, harness your Chi, or do anything where you try to connect or navigate through the largeness and smallness of humanity.
  8. Organize the shit out of your house. Kon-Mari method anyone? Now is the time to wipe down the base boards and lick your toilet bowl clean. Kidding. I was just seeing if you were paying attention. Use gloves or a dental dam.
  9. Try to put your phone down. It’s hard. I know. But, I promise you there is no positive self development happening to your brain when you scroll through five hundred tweets about how Kim Kardashian and Kanye West lied about Taylor Swift knowing he was going to call her a “bitch” in his song “Famous.” I did that for an hour yesterday. I am not a better person for it. Instead, listen to an album you’ve been meaning to give a deep listen to.
  10. Last, but not least, prepare for death. Okay, now, I’m not saying pick out your plot, urn, or write a will (though I am a proponent of preparation), what I’m saying is now is the time to tell all those you love, you love them. When my mom was sick last year, I did this. I spent a few weekends ago recording an hour-long interview with my grandmother. She knows how I feel. Hopefully everyone that I know, knows the breadth of my love for them – it’s expansive. And if anything is going to get us through this, it’s that kind of love.

So, in closing, I’ll just ask that you all come to my funeral if I die. I’d like a small outdoor service. Release doves, or at the very least, play the weirdest Bonnie Prince Billy videos you can find.

And, remember, life is short. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to try to die loving it, die trying to find the beauty in the ugliest, most painful parts.

See you all soon.

My Brother’s Hands

I held your hands during the entire visitation.
Made them warm in mine, rubbing my thumb
between your thumbs and forefingers.
I spent those three hours shaping and reshaping
the edges of your red beard, bright against
the dark blue and plum of a new, stiff plaid shirt.

Only three weeks before, I held your hands,
navigating moss-covered rocks in the mountains
of North Carolina. You caught a brown trout
though- even then- we were searching for a
rainbow. We took our shoes off and travelled
the edge of the cool stream, heavy with current.

I watched your hands scramble farm-fresh eggs,
flip a steak with a fork, piece together a tent
at the campsite we made in the middle of the
Smokies. We joked about bears, talked, laughed.
You caught a firefly in your hands at the cabin,
the house with the spray of blue hydrangeas.
I understand now how your hands lost their way.

As your sky darkened around you, starless now,
no found vein could map a path to happiness.
On Friday, I adjusted the glasses we had to borrow.
You just didn’t look right without them.
And now the final hand off – back to earth,
to dust, as Claire de lune plays in the background.


Header image: Henry Darger, 175 At Jennie Richee. Everything is allright though storm continues., Watercolor, pencil, carbon tracing, and collage on pieced paper; double-sided, 24 x 108 1/4 inches. American Folk Art Museum purchase, 2001.

My 30 Day Digital Detox

I’ve started the new year feeling like a gosh dang ninja. I don’t know if it’s the vitamin or podcast consumption, but I’m PUMPED. My current goal is to learn to treat myself as my most valuable asset. I am making health a top priority, adapting to a more minimalistic lifestyle, attempting to live in gratitude, optimizing how I spend my time, and, last but not least, I’m refocusing on improving myself via continued learning, creative writing, and critical reading. Don’t get me wrong, I am the type of ninja that still sets down my mental Nunchucks and vegitates on the couch after work like a log for hours watching Father Brown. British Mysteries are my kryptonite.

In the spirit of my spiritual “reset,” I’m also undertaking a thirty day “Digital Detox” from social media after listening to an interview with Cal Newport and reading his book: “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.” My goals for the detox are to 1. To break the habit of picking up my phone and checking updates and social media, and watching endless videos of puppies being REAL cute. 2. To be more intentional with how I’m spending time. And, 3. To re-establish how I choose to interact with social media. As suggested by Cal Newport, we have to continually ask ourselves if how we are spending our time is bringing us closer or farther away from the person we want to become. After I lose the habit, I want to create boundaries and limit my interaction with most social medial. I also thought this would be an interesting blog post for February, which will further hold me accountable each day. Plus, it might inspire others to take the leap for 30 days!

Note: My Mom and my sister are joining me on the challenge, so I’ll be checking in with their progress as well.

Day 1: 1/11/20 This was the day of my Uncle Tory’s memorial service, so I kept my phone in another room and spent the day visiting with family. I did not delete the apps from my phone. I found myself wanting to post the pictures I took of my family on Instagram, but other than that, no major issues with refraining. We spent the day eating gumbo, playing music, and telling stories with my cousins.

Day 2: 1/12/20 This morning I did catch myself wanting to open Instagram. I opened it and closed it out of habit quite a few times. I spent the day cleaning, reading, writing, and I even got in 36 minutes of a workout. My sister, who deleted her apps from her phone on Day 1, said she picked up her phone a few times out of habit. My Mom said, “Ummmm, yeah, I failed.” She made it to 5:30 PM on Day 2. My Mom also wouldn’t allow her “Distraction Data” to be seen or posted.

Ashlynn – Distraction Data

Sara – Distraction Data

Day 3: 1/13/2020 Today my sister Sara asked if Pinterest is considered social media because she has been looking up recipes as well as researching my future sister–in-law’s wedding board. We agreed it is definitely social media, but we decided it can be used for gathering recipes if the time is limited, and there is no mindless perusing.

Days 4-5: 1/14 and 1/15 The last few days have been exceptionally busy, but I do miss my daily dose of LinkedIn. As of yesterday afternoon, I’m also rocking red hair, so I missed out on posting the obligatory, “Look at my new hair post.” A tomato and carrot mixed = the color. I have been picking up my phone more. I pick it up, and put it down once I realize what I’m doing.

Days 6-7: 1/16 and 1/17 Yesterday I had a lovely solo dinner after work at one of my favorite Houston haunts -Liberty Kitchen on Studewood. I usually use my phone as a back-up if I don’t meet someone interesting to chat with or if Micah, my longtime bartender friend, isn’t there. Luckily, I met a father and son duo (Hi, Pat and Landon), and we had a great conversation about books, plays, food, and, social media. Landon said he has a problem too. We looked around at those at the bar, and there were probably seven people engaged with their phone rather than with their neighbor or guest. Tonight I’m visiting with a good friend that I haven’t seen in a while. Human connections for the win!

Days 8-9: 1/18 and 1/19 Saturday night I had two of my long-time bff’s over, Celine and Bruce. They have known me for over 15 years at this point. Celine and I looked at pictures and talked about her recent trip home to France while Bruce was mentally preparing for the Houston Marathon (he was running the half, saving his energy for Boston!) I spent the morning cleaning, reading, and shopping for spaghetti supplies. Ended the day with red wine (Becker Vineyards!) and an early night. On Sunday, my sister relayed that she had worked out 6 of the past 7 days and had begun a no-carb diet. She also said she had been cleaning her house and spending more time with her kids. Looks like we are moving in the right direction! I still pick up my phone WAY too much. And, I have been texting quite a bit.

Days 10-16: 1/20 through 1/26 It’s been 15 days of no social media. I’m to the point now where I am not missing the platforms. My sister too. We both feel that there is no going back to the way we previously interacted with social media. My sister has started working out every day. She says she feels happier. I am less like a zombie when I have my phone with me, but I don’t feel completely unplugged as I still use and pick up my phone too much.

Days 17-23: 1/27 to 2/3 This weekend, I feel like I cheated a little bit. I did scroll a news feed on my phone for an hour. It was as mindless as my typical social media binge, so I am confessing. I know my distraction data at the end will now reflect this relapse. I do feel a little bothered by the fact that I’m missing out on certain social activities because many of my friends create invites only on the Facebook platform. I missed one of my best friend’s little girl’s birthday parties. I missed a memorial service of an old friend. This is the collateral damage of not being connected- though, overall, I feel more productive and happy.

Days 24-27: 2/4 to 2/7 Yesterday was the HARDEST day to avoid an Instagram post. Why, you ask? Well, one of my marketing clients had a freaking pony. It hung out with us in the house. It also goes on walks and car rides like a dog. So I basically got paid today to feed a pony carrots and bread. Adding the image here because you need to see them. I also told my husband to add pony to the Valentine’s list. This week my older brother was in town, so we hit an amazing sushi restaurant. It’s possible that less social media = more glasses of red wine, but I’ll have to continue compiling research on that.

Days 28-30: 2/8 to 2/10 Well, I’ve officially made it. ::ring all the bells:: 30 days of no social media. This weekend, however, I wish I would have been a little more digital. I felt the pain of not having a phone near me. On Saturday, I was enjoying a lovely day on blanket in the sunshine, taking a nap on the grass in the backyard with the dog. Unfortunately, my husband left for a BBQ and accidentally locked me in the backyard. I had no phone. I don’t know my neighbors. I hopped the fence, knocked on a neighbor’s door to use the phone, only to realize I also don’t know my own husband’s phone number by memory. Fail. So, I called my Mom and my best friend. No answer. No answer. I left a frantic text message with my best friend, and then hoped for the best as the neighbors were leaving. I decided at sunset I would break a small window with a pipe I found. Luckily, my husband rescued me just in time, two hours later. It was quite the adventure. I’m not going to lie when I say, the end of the thirty days doesn’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything too major. Maybe it’s because I’m feeling funky today. Maybe it’s because I simply replaced the social media browsing with “News” browsing this past week (and there was nothing good to see there!). Despite the fact that I did not get on social media AT ALL in 30 days, my screen time remained similar to before the detox. However, one thing that I did find kind of weird based on this little experiment: when my phone was inactive, at 6 a.m. specifically, my phone visited many sites that I don’t have a clue about. I even tried to set limits on those exact sites, and to no avail, my phone would visit them. I even tried clearing history, resetting the phone. I must have some hardcore cookies stored somewhere that I can’t escape from. Here is the end data. Nothing too exciting to see here. In fact, turn your head.

Ashlynn – Distraction Data

Sara – Distraction Data

Takeaways

Ashlynn: For me, even though I still picked up my phone and socialized on our family group chat more often, I consider this detox a win. I’m not going to totally rid myself of social media, but I will set limits for it in the future. I still have some work to do in terms of using my phone as a tool rather than a crutch.

Sara: I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m happier. I don’t compare myself to others multiple times a day anymore. Everyone posts their “best” – so, before, I believed everyone’s life was perfect, and I was doing something wrong. I know everyone is struggling in some way and they may too have a messy life, but you don’t see that. I could be on day three of “low days” with Aaron, dirty floors, fighting kids, bills while “Miss Molly” is backpacking in New Zealand with her family of five. Post-detox I’ve been working out, so I’m sure that that too has helped me regain confidence in myself. I also enjoy that I haven’t started any conversations with “Did you see on Facebook..” I’ve had more time to get things done at home, and my next challenge will be decluttering!

Out of the Blackest Black:

Well, I wish I had some good advice to give you, friends. I don’t.

In truth, I have both a bucket of nothing and everything as I sit here reliving the past year. 2019 left me with wreckage that was beautiful, heartbreaking, and completely soul-rearranging.  Parts of it were so heavy that, at times, I felt my chest would cave in or burst. Ever felt like your whole body was encased in a compression sleeve? If you have lived life and experienced struggle, I’m sure you can relate. Right now, however, it feels like the calm after the atomic bombs, and I’m going to carry these leftover bricks with me into 2020 with hope and grace in the chance that I can set up new foundations and habits, make something pretty out of the rubble. Write more. Read more. Create more. Nothing is remarkable about my pain, but I hope to make something remarkable out of myself.

Books aside for a moment, let’s chat a little bit more about death because so much in life sits on its lap. I am forever changed. Transformed. When we nearly lost my mother, I felt as if my body was carrying a bag of skin around. My skin bag (sounds gross, but still using it) went to hospitals and emergency rooms. It tried to sleep. It listened to doctors. It researched the heart’s anatomy. My brain couldn’t connect to the present moment. Then, when I lost my brother, my family and I felt the kind of loss that you would never wish on anyone. Let me pray that each of you never have to receive that call first, that you never have to hear your mother cry over a lost child. When people say grief comes in waves, I know now what they mean. It’s a tsunami that becomes a hurricane. The storm never ends, but there are moments of reprieve.

Pain changes the landscape. The lens from which I see the world now has been permanently corrected. There has been a pinpointed focus applied to living in the present moment now, along with a monumental shift of beliefs. I take care of my time. I treasure it. I value it. I believe in God. I protect my new marriage, which is my one bright spot from last year. I look at problems and my own faults with an intensity I never have before. When it feels like all is lost and there is no hope, the world goes from blackest black, to black and white, to gray, and then, ultimately, to all the shades of color you never took time to see. It’s the pain that turned the leaves from green to gold, the sadness that made me stop to feel the warmth in the patch of sunlight on the grass again. And like I said, these feeling aren’t original, but DAMN, it it still feels nice to dump them out on the page.

Let’s get back to books and reconnect to my original intentions. This post isn’t so much about my brother and loss as it is about beauty. To get through the blackest black, I started working through my hopelessness, depression, and anxiety with therapy and medication (Thank you, appropriately parceled doses of Prozac, Xanax and B-12); during the black and white phase, I started to try to improve my health in small ways: eating less fast food, hot yoga, listening to friends with good intentions and advice, drinking less- I started to read again; during the gray phase, I questioned everything about myself, how I spent my time, my choices, my work, my passions, who I am, who I want to be, how I treat others day-to-day, the last words I say to people. It didn’t happen overnight, but I started to see colors again. It is in this spirit that I’ve decided to share with you a few books that I read in 2019 that allowed me to discover bits of beauty and hope and color. It’s the least I can do for anyone else that is entering blackest black or leaving the gray.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I found this book on Bill Gates’ “Summer Reading List.” I thought, “Well, if Bill Gates likes it, it must be decent fiction.” Replace “decent” with “enchanting.” I believe Amor Towles has become my all-time favorite modern author. A Gentleman in Moscow was transporting in a way that I needed at that exact moment. I connected with the idea of being confined and imprisoned yet surrounded by magic that could be found in the ordinary, a book, a conversation, a room. For me, I was captivated by the delectable words – words that made you want to roll them around on your tongue for a while. His book made me want to read and write poetry, eat fine foods and wines, have tea with a stranger on a rooftop, appreciate freedom. All the descriptions made you feel as if you too were staying at Hotel Metropol, finding treasures, feeling lost and found, finding love, companionship. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s relationship with Nina and his commitment to his friends, Andrey and Emile, sharing secret dinners in the kitchen. Oh! What a treat. It’s not a dense or easy read, it lies somewhere in the middle. And once you devour it, immediately pick up Rules of Civility. Also amazing.

Educated by Tara Westover

Any recovering homeschooler will want to read this memoir. ::raises hand:: Think Glass Castle or Running with Scissors, but darker and less humorous. It’s so graphic and painful that every few chapters or so I had to put it down and take little breaks. My own parents went through what I thought then was an extremely religious period in life where I felt the fire of God was constantly breathing down my neck. My Dad played Satan in the passion play. We spent three days of the week at church. However, there is no comparison of my upbringing when compared to the threat-laden junkyard of the Westover family in the mountains of Idaho. Without giving too much away, I’ll say this. If you are struggling to overcome something heinous or any type of abuse, this memoir’s author and all she accomplished, amidst battling her father’s dangerous belief system, will give you hope. It will leave you with a feeling, in what I call your “deep tummy,” of both hope and sadness.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn = creator of the most memorable characters. The heroines are so poignant, the villains so despicable. I read the Alice Network in bite sizes, savoring and appreciating its rich characters, picturesque post-war landscapes, and poetic language. The heroines, of which there are many in this book, (Charlie St. Clair, Rose, Eve, Lili, Violette) each seem to capture a raw, zestful spirit and exhibit angles of the female psyche that aren’t as often portrayed in historical fiction. Though these women may have bent stems and withered petals, they are empowered by their harsher edges and experiences. These “Fleurs du mal” that spied throughout the Great War personified the fury and passion and unraveling of the many unknown victims of a war that was fought by woman who kept to the shadows, risking their lives to pass secret messages and codes to the resistance, wrapping them around rings and hairpins. I really enjoyed all of the dead ends, loose ends, paths, and routes taken in this book. Whether Finn was at the wheel of the Lagonda or Eve was steering her Luger in a certain direction, everything about the story was in motion and each road was interesting and felt necessary. I’ll be honest that I did have to put the book down for a few weeks when I realized I was getting close to discovering or witnessing what happened to cause Eve’s disfigured hands. And, man, that scene was oh so painful and oh so poignant at the same time. I will never see Baudelaire the same. Yeats all the way, for me.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

I think it was in 2006 that I went to Paris with my brother, my friend Julian, and our French teacher, Mr. Hanks, from our High School, who we begged to be our chaperone and show us the sights. We saw the Louvre. Ate snails. Went to Versailles. It was the first time me or my brother had taken a trip together or left the state of Texas, and I’m so grateful to have those memories of magic. What this book did was make me want to revisit France as an adult, and if I can’t, I’ll just reread this book over and over. The main character, Perdu is a character that makes you want to unhinge your barge and float downstream peddling books like medicines for those with maladies of the heart and mind. And the tango scene. I must learn to dance tango immediately.

The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll

Last, but not least, if you are obsessed with lists and tasks and goals and spreadsheets, you have to read up on The Bullet Journal Method aka #Bujo. This book is a tool that will make you remember your love of putting pen to paper, writing notes in hand. Even if you find yourself lost in technology and your various machines, you can appreciate this method of removing and prioritizing brain clutter. I ended my 2019 with this book to begin my 2020 with a clear path and plan ahead.

Note: It was before the death of my uncle, our troubles with Iran, and the national coverage of the devastating fires of Australia that I began to write this. It feels very inconsequential to explore personal feelings and hardships when so much of the world is suffering or on that brink of the blackest black. Ultimately, opted to share, but not without deep regard for current affairs, fears, and loss.

Life as a Toilet

Lately, creatively speaking, I feel like — well, there’s no triple-blend, cotton-soft way to put it — a toilet. Not a fancy toilet with shiny white porcelain with a bidet or some cool island-themed mango air freshener and Cottonelle wipes around. Nope. More like a true vintage version that never quite fills up all the way or flushes properly.  A little bit foul.  Stained around the rim despite a barrage of bleach products. And don’t even think of opening the tank. It looks like a murky scene from the Titanic in that thing.

What life as a creative toilet fills like (see what I did there) is pretty much how it sounds. I spend most of my days spinning, flushing thoughts and hopes and fears around like perky little turds. Nothing much happens. Thing go in, come up, or get sucked into a dark oblivion….only to begin again. And what doesn’t sink, floats. And, as we all know, floaters aren’t always a good thing.

My Personal Floaters: anxiety, how spaced-out and forgetful I can be at times, the dead ferns in my front yard, fears of the future, dead pine needles collecting on my rooftop, things I can’t control, three records I haven’t mailed out to people who have paid for them, sadness and anger suffered by friends and family, spells of social media time-wasting, not learning things, the Christmas lights that are still up, not taking vacations, the old garden hose wasting away in my yard, the mountain of “recycling” that has taken over our garage, dirty dishes, the lack of groceries, the staph infection in my finger (after three rounds of heavy antibiotics), lists, lists about the lists, bills, work-related to-dos, pictures not framed, house envy, child envy, furniture envy, the light that comes in the window when I’m trying to sleep…

Why have I spent the past few paragraphs spewing crap? A few reasons: 1)  It helps to clear out the bowels of the mind. 2) When I write I’m not having a panic attack. 3) I used to really enjoy writing. 4) Perhaps other people I know feel like a toilet too, and maybe we can celebrate or compare mental BM’s like true butt buds.

And before anyone whisks in with their favorite brand of bowl cleaner or anything that doesn’t sound like, “I feel that way sometimes too, and it feels terrible.” Hold it in. Wait until your next Buc-ee’s truck stop. Believe me I know I can step out of my metaphorical bathroom. Some people can’t. I know I’m lucky as hell that there are other rooms of my brain barn to hang out in. In those rooms I feel so so thankful. But sometimes it feels good to sit and acknowledge the excrement, to drop a load, to piss away a few minutes time, to feel a little lighter.

 

Why I Hate Mothers

CUTE KID ENVY

I hate mothers. There. I said it. Why? A) I’m not one. B) I’d like to be one at some point. C) That some point isn’t here and probably won’t be anytime soon.

When I see cute kids, I don’t think, “Oh my gosh, that kid is adorable. Good job, mother of cute, adorable kid.” I think, “Why the heck is that kid not my kid? Why is that your kid? What did you do to get/have/make that kid?”

The same is true for engagement rings and new houses and horses and miniature pigs. If you have those things, I probably don’t immediately think happy thoughts when you post a picture of them on Facebook or tell me about them. And that’s okay.

It’s okay, especially at 30, to be okay with not being okay. As a woman, there is so much pressure to conceive and to have a family, and when it doesn’t happen in your early twenties and you live in Southeast, Texas, well, you start to feel sort of faulty.
I’m saying “you,” but I mean “I,” and I’m obviously only speaking from and because of my own personal experience as a non-mother.

STORIES ABOUT YOUR CHILD POOPING

In the same way that my “mom” friends idealize my “freedom,” I idealize their ridiculous “you-wouldn’t-believe-what-baby-so-and-so-did-the-other-day” moments. Your kid shits on the rug. Funny. My dog shits on the rug. Gross. Your story is cute. My story is just sad.

BIRTH HORROR STORIES

For those mothers who had a kid the old-fashioned way, I am grateful, however, for the relief of not having something growing inside of my body like an alien. The one, singular thing that frightens the poop out of me about natural birth (See what I did there? Because that can happen!) is what it may do to my body. When you are creating a human and becoming a host for a giant parasite that is, in a sense, going to be stealing your life force for the rest of your life, the body suffers. The stress of birth, the stress of worry, the stress of worrying about the body after the birth, these things are all going to be there, sitting on my hips. Hanging onto me, hanging out of me. And though it sounds like a horror story, I’ve heard that if you have too many children, your bladder starts falling out. That’s right. Your. Bladder. Can. Come. Out.

Also, having a baby isn’t a miracle. If it is, I never want to witness a miracle again. I was there in the room for my nephew’s birth. What happened in that room was one step removed from Dead Alive. Keep your miracles to yourself. Jesus. Christ.
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Do I still want to hatch one? Okay. I guess. I think so. Maybe. One day? Three years from now. After I go for my PhD? After I live in Costa Rica for a year. No. I think I’ll adopt. Only if it’s an accident. No. Yes. No. OF COURSE I DO. Tonight!

SELFLESS OPTIONS

See. Here is the other problem I have with mothers. If you are a good mother, you’ve probably already started to limit your personal options. You drink less. You cook more. You’ve quietly and neatly and selflessly started closing off certain paths with child-proof safety locks, fastening those doors of opportunity from the inside. I’m a little annoyed that you now have a plan that consists of raising your spawn right and trying not to screw that up. I’m stuck with arrows that point in five hundred directions. My future is one big question mark. My sister is 21. She had my nephew, Alexander, at 19. She is one of the best, most energetic mothers I’ve ever seen. When she tells me things like, “Well, one day, when you’re a mother, you’ll understand,” (To be fair, she’s only said this once.) I want to run face first into the nearest wall. At least if I’m knocked unconscious, I don’t care about all those mommy perspective secrets, and I don’t care about not having something to care about.

FREQUENT LIES

Mothers lie. That’s the truth.
At first I think it comes from a good place. Santa Claus. Easter Bunnies. Tooth Fairies. I get it. Your mom always wants you to see the magic in the world. I’d rather my mom have told me about Leopard Seals. Those things are cooler than any princess or fairytale. See: http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_nicklen_tales_of_ice_bound_wonderlands

No, but really. My mother lied to me all of the time. I could walk in the kitchen with an oversized Korn t-shirt, a mouthful of braces, and play hackey-sack, and my mother would commend me on my talent and my style. She’d drop pearls of less than convincing wisdom as she balanced one of my sisters on her hip and opened a pack of Ramen Noodles with her teeth. She called my moles, “Beauty Marks.” LIAR.

All of this is weird to me. I want to tell my kids the truth. The first one being that they were hatched out of eggs by dinosaurs on another planet and then sent to me by the mail.

CHEETO FINGERS

At my sister’s high school graduation party, I watched something so horrific I almost threw up. It was a two-year-old eating Cheetos Puffs. At the time, my best friend was watching my face. She said, “If you ever look at my future child that way, I’m going to punch you in the face.” She is now a mother. At her beautiful daughter’s birthday party a few months ago, I watched her grab what she thought was a piece of tape from her daughter’s finger only to find that it was a booger. I repeated my look. We are still friends.

SUPER POWERS

I know you have them. All of you.

Lastly:

YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR KID WILL LOOK LIKE.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you ladies that kill me with inspiration! I hate you. (but love you too) (a lot) (more than you know)

Here are some pictures of my Mom. I hate her the most. I will never be able to live up to this beautiful woman who raised five kids with so much love and compassion. ❤
Hot Momma

I love her face.
I love her face.

Love,
Non-mother, Ashlynn Ivy

Visiting The Magician and His Wife

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When I was 19, I fell in love with a poet. When I was 23, the relationship ended, and I was left with a deep-rooted friendship, a head full of lovely words and experiences, new interests, poems, books, films, and most importantly, an extended family that gratefully asked to keep me. For the past ten years, Stella Jane and Ken Meaux have let me stay in the inner circle of their light, a magical place where we all sit in a cozy kitchen in Kaplan, Louisiana and talk about ghosts and life and recipes over strong coffee. It’s a relationship that has evolved into something that I can’t quite describe in words. For me, they exist as the physical embodiment of mystery. They fill my heart up with stories. Each visit is a release, a renewal. Confession is a long drive followed by cake and coffee. Communion is a bowl of red beans and rice. Salvation is a blanket in the sun encircled by the hymn of birdsong. Mr. Ken, also known as “The Great Boudini” (Google it), still performs magic shows on the weekends and is slowly perfecting his performance for his last “BIG show,” an event that will be held in a small haunted cabin in the woods.

THE HOUSE ON GOLDEN GRAIN ROAD
Eight miles East from Kaplan on Golden Grain road sits an old house with a rusted tin roof and boarded up windows. It is guarded by an angry rooster and a pair of chickens. The small field across the street is littered with white tombstones. It’s a forgotten cemetery that is always bright and baking in the sun. For the past nine years, on each visit, I make a special trip past the rice and crawfish fields to see this house. I take pictures of it from every angle, always trying to get a glimpse inside through its exposed beams. I’m not sure why I’m attached to it or why I keep going back.

I hope it’s always there.

FOR THE BIRDS
Stella Jane calls the blackbirds “Mardi Gras Birds” because they shine “an iridescent golden blue, green, and purple in the sun.”
“How do they sound, babe?” She asks Ken.
“Like glass dropping,” he replies.
“It’s like rusted hinges,” she tells me, mimicking the sound. “To him, every blackbird is a crow,” she says. “But there are so many different blackbirds. Red-winged Blackbirds, Starlings, with their speckled bodies and yellow eyes, Grackles.”

It’s obvious how their son became a poet.

GHOST STORIES
“Kenneth had a show at an old house near Evangeline. I was standing up and I felt two small taps, like a small child’s fingertips pressing against my back. I asked Kenneth if he had touched me, and he said he hadn’t. Kenneth spoke to the owner of the house, and he said his family had moved and that they now lived in Houston, but he still stayed in the house when he was in town. He said at night that there were always sounds upstairs. When they lived there, his daughter’s room was also upstairs. He told her if she ever needed anything, to call him, and he’d come get her. He didn’t want her falling down the dark stairs at night. One night, he woke up, and she was in the bed with he and his wife. He asked her why she didn’t call him, that he didn’t want her coming down the stairs on her own. She said, ‘But Daddy, you carried me.”

This first night I couldn’t sleep. I tried to force Annie to cuddle with me. She wasn’t interested.

CARDBOARD
I’ve always believed that my purpose in life has been to craft meaningful relationships, to try and be a benefit to someone else’s life, to create something beautiful out of my connection with other human beings. I know that even for my closest friends this can be unsettling. I get too wrapped up in the problems of others, have too many relationships that I can’t live without, become a beacon of anxiety. Empathy can be a curse, and sometimes I feel like I’m plowing through emotional war zones in my tank, armed with what I think is goodness, but in the end, the tank is made of cardboard and my bullets are just tears, and the only power I have is to carry weight, not lift it. Sometimes though. I think I’m getting it right. I just keep hoping all this cardboard is stronger than I think it is, and that all of these interesting and strange relationships I’ve made are perfect. And even if cardboard isn’t strong, with enough imagination and a bit of mystery, I can make my cardboard tank a boat, a house, a time machine, maybe even a spaceship. See. There is enough room for everyone.

*I would have loved to have ended this post with the poem that Kevin Meaux once wrote about his parents called “The Young Magician and His Wife.” I wish I had it at my fingertips, but my poetry books are all packed up from my last move, and I can’t remember it word for word. Samantha Meaux (always understanding and lovely wife of Kevin Meaux, if you read this, post it for us! Secretly. I know he probably still hates all forms of social media.)

Read This Valentine’s Day Story About Poo

The future scares the shit out of me. In fact, right now, this very second scares the shit out of me. There. A Valentine’s Day post that starts with something straight from the heart. Here’s my love story.

I can’t remember who said it, but a few months ago a friend of mine made a comment on a picture that I posted on Facebook that said something like, “One day, when I grow up, I hope my life is as exciting as yours.” Hold the phone. Cue the music. My real life doesn’t look anything like my Facebook timeline.

I hope that this is no surprise and that most of you feel the way that I do about social media. It’s a perfect distraction from feeling anything too deep. It keeps our heads on straight, filter-perfect. When I’m scrolling through all of my friends’ posts, I don’t have to think about much. It’s just a stream of non-thinking amusement, sometimes horror, sometimes sadness. Mostly though it’s just a dead-pan, zoning out thing I do to keep myself from thinking and actually doing anything productive.
It can be great.

And then there’s the posts and status updates. My BA and my MA are both in English, so I can generally use words to get a certain feeling out of people that I want. Now that I think of it, it’s sort of manipulative in a way. Adrienne, one of my best friends and bandmates, once said that I could post about poo and would get 100 likes on Facebook. If I could, it would only mean that I wrote about poo in a way that others found somewhat captivating. While they were doing their version of a zombie-Facebook-dance, I cut in and dipped them back. That’s how this shit works. Pun intended.

Also, I know I’ve met many of you in various bands that I’ve been in. Whether it was a solo project or singing with Mad Maude and the Hatters, some of you only know me through music endeavors. My actual day job, however, is as a Marketing and Communications Coordinator. I spend eight hours each day perfecting how to most effectively craft and sell a message, a mission. At this point, I’ve raised over half a million dollars for a nonprofit that I love, so I guess I’m okay at it. So keep that in mind if I ever write a poo post that gets 100 likes.

And let’s not forget about vanity. My grandmother and my grandmother’s sister died of lung cancer, my great-grandmother died of throat cancer, and my mother is a respiratory therapist. You know why I quit smoking? Because I don’t want wrinkles. So, if you see a cute photo I posted. I probably took twenty. I probably made my friend take twenty and then put a filter on it.

So, why do we play pretend? Well, because life isn’t so pretty. Take this photo for example:

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If we would have taken this photo an hour before, you’d have seen my head in Hattie’s lap, screaming and convulsing. This was the day that I had watched my brother fall back into the hands of addiction. For eight months he tried like hell to stay clean, but addiction is a daily, irrational beast to battle, and sometimes the problem feels like the solution. If you would have taken the photo at 2 a.m., you’d have seen me in a t-shirt, choking on tears and rain in the middle of the street, calling out for my brother. At 3 a.m., it would have been a calmer scene. Perhaps a black and white of the two of us, my brother and I huddled together on the porch, crying, wishing we could both fix each other. Loving each other at our worst.

That’s real life. Real life, real love isn’t always pretty. These raw images aren’t the kinds we’d want others to “like.” We all have them, tucked right beneath the surface. The worries. The doubts.

As I mentioned earlier, my fear of the future is debilitating. I’ve always tried to find a way to control it. I buy those Dollar Store planners and try to fill in every box, every day with an event, a future dinner, a coffee date, a talk with a good friend, a Rockets game. Worse than not having a plan, you see, is not having a plan and being alone. Filling in the spaces makes me feel complete. This process helps to curb the anxiety, the uncertainty of the future.

In terms of relationships, I’ve spent the last nine years of my life with three men who I tried to box into a plan. If they didn’t quite fit the part, fulfill every single need that I’d dreamt up, I left. At times I thought that it was a wedding ring, a kid that looked like me, or a move across the country that would have made the plan work.
During this search for the perfect future-version of my life, however, I forgot to see that the plan, that greater “future” that I had no control over was working.

I found out that I was about to turn 30. That I had built a world of relationships with people, co-workers, family, strangers, best friends, crushes, ex boyfriends (even ex boyfriend’s wives) and new semi-boyfriends that made me appreciate the hell out of Valentine’s Day. So, here’s to real life and real love.

I’m going to end this post with a few PARTY TIPS from Andrew W.K.
1. Doing what you love = partying
2. If you need someone to be your Valentine tomorrow, you can count on me.

Andrew W.K. playing his pizza guitar. Pizza=love
Andrew W.K. playing his pizza guitar. Pizza=love

Crystal “Clean” Beach, TX

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been driving back and forth from Beaumont to Bolivar Peninsula, where I’ve been, among other things, cleaning beach cabins with my grandmother. This “in-between” phase of my life is covered in Comet, bleach, Lysol Kitchen Cleaner, dust, Windex, dirt, Pledge, as well as all sorts of grime, and I couldn’t be happier.

After leaving my former full-time job to pursue other life opportunities, I’ve found myself again. When I have half of my body shoved in a stove and am wearing plastic gloves up to my elbows in a sea of Easy-Off, I smile. When I’m pulling out each drawer of a fridge to soak up a pool of fish blood left by a renter (not joking) at the bottom, I unroll the paper towels and soak it all up. I soak up that feeling of being young and motivated and free to choose what field or job I pursue next. With a rag tucked in each of my pockets, I make sure to step out on the porch every now and then. The ocean reminds me that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. Some days it’s still and peaceful, other days it’s littered with whitecaps, but one thing remains constant and awe-inspiring. Near sunset, this muddy sea filled with the runoff of the Mississippi turns purple and blue, and the sky bursts into flames of pink and orange that lick the skyline.

In between jobs, I drink coffee and listen to the waves. I take pictures of wildflowers. I listen to my grandfather play his saxophone. I walk down to the shoreline and watch the waves bite at my feet. I pick through seashells. The “in-between” is not so bad.

Though my advice may be a bit warped due to both sun and chemical exposure, it is rather simple stuff:

Comet works best for sinks. Magic Erasers are actually magical. Never clean with things that smell like lemon or pine trees. Fabuloso smells nice and is great to pour into toilets after they’ve been cleaned. Dyson’s are spectacular.

If you fold your toilet paper ends into a lovely, little triangle, you win at life.