April 30, 2013

They Could Be My Stories Too

I work for a nonprofit. More specifically, I raise money for the nonprofit by writing grants, mailing solicitation letters, making calls and tap dancing and singing, if asked. It’s a challenge, I mean, let’s face it: my nonprofit’s not helping puppies, kittens or another awwww-so-cute-invoking constituency.

The people coming to us have alcohol and/or drug problems, or struggle to put food on the table, or are unemployed, or have been abused, or are abusing, or are on public assistance, or fall within any range of broke, struggling and searching for a lifeline. Sometimes one person has all of those issues, but more often than not, they’ve got a combination of a few. Issues like those never thrive in a vacuum.

We see and hear a lot of the ugly, seedy side, and it isn’t just the ugly seedy people from the ugly seedy side of town who need help. The well-dressed professional from the burbs is just as likely to ring us up or walk through the door as is the tattered person from the slums. They both need help, and we’re here to do that if they can’t help themselves.

Not everyone sees the value of standing in the gap the way we do, and I get that. There’s no shortage of arguments about welfare and public assistance being a handout and not a hand up. Or that drunks and druggies should be locked up in prison until kingdom come. Or that unwed moms ought to lie in the bed they’ve made. Or [pick an issue and fill in the blank here].

But I’ve heard enough stories and combed through enough statistics to know that the issues are more complex than any bootstrap meme floating around in cyberspace and that there are no quick-fix solutions, either.

I imagine what these folks would say if they could. Maybe it’d be something like this.
Dear Guy in Line Behind Me at the Grocery Store:
I wish you wouldn’t look at me like that. I may not show it, but I feel your disapproving eyes and hear your sigh. I feel your frustration. I hate being on food stamps. I’m not sitting around waiting for a handout; in fact, I work two jobs. Neither is enough to keep food on the table for my kids and I. And in case you were wondering, I haven’t always been a single mom. My marriage fell apart and my ex has been unemployed for over two years. His loss of income is our loss of income. So you and me, our frustration is the same…just different sides of the coin.
Dear Cul-de-sac Neighbor:
I didn't come over for morning coffee today because I was busy talking to the utility company trying to buy time to keep our lights from getting shut off. But how do I casually mention that my husband’s hours got cut and I can’t score a full-time job to make up the difference – even with my degree. Truth is I’m too embarrassed to tell you that we can only afford to pay part of our mortgage and we just let the other bills – like our utilities – just “ride” in the meantime.
Dear Cynic:
I find myself here applying for public assistance with “Those People”…at least that’s what I used to call them. Only now it’s “Us People.” But I’m not a Welfare Queen and from what I can see, neither are a lot of people standing in line with me. Believe me, I want to pull myself up by my bootstraps, but paying for a busted water heater and busted transmission on our only car have left us busted too. There aren’t any boots, much less straps.
More stories could be told, more letters could written. These are just a few.

The stories remind me that the work we’re doing does matter, even when a funding proposal gets rejected. Sometimes they’re a kick in the pants when I find myself whining about “first world problems” like our basement remodel taking forever to be completed. They keep me from turning into the frustrated Guy In Line Behind someone, or the too-busy-self-consumed Cul-de-sac Neighbor or after reading daily headlines, the Cynic.

Most of all the stories remind me that, but for the grace of God, those stories could be my own.

Do you have what it takes to be poor? Try this interactive quiz just to find out. Click here.

April 22, 2013

Just a Word for Her...

This is mom at about five years old.

It was long before she made the vow that changed her name, before balanced meal moderator duty, before matching five different people's multiple pairs of socks post-laundry, and before preventing four kids from strangling each other daily.

Even as an adult, it's still hard for me to imagine her as something other than Mom.

Maybe she had those days when it was hard for her to imagine it too.

I wonder if that season seemed a distant memory as she was elbow-deep in cloth diapers, or waiting at my brother's hospital bedside while he recovered from one his many surgeries at Children's Hospital, or realizing that every thought, every decision she would ever make would be tied to our best interest.

I wonder if she giggled at herself amidst the chaos of four children, absent mindedly signing her maiden name on a permission slip, quarterly grade report or some other piece of paper that we kids always seemed to be pushing in front of her. (Heck, we've only got one kid and I've signed Rochelle Dukes at least five times in the past ten years. But don't tell Jamie that.)

The writer in me wonders if she would've lassoed all those thoughts and blogged about them had she lived in our Information Oversharing Age. I wish I could know, but her reflections, her joys, her misgivings, her shining moments couldn't be bequeathed to me or anyone else.

These thoughts always creep up around Mother's Day, but this year especially as I, for the first time ever, will read some of the drivel I drivel about here in the blogosphere in a live performance. The reading will be included as one of the pieces about motherhood in Milwaukee's inaugural Listen to Your Mother Show; which is now a little more than two weeks out.

Sometimes I'm excited about being able to say out loud the thoughts that my mom most likely kept unspoken about the motherhood journey. Then the next minute, my palms are sweating, my knees are knocking and my face is hot over it...unless that's just perimenopause tapping on my shoulder.

Whatever happens - clammy hands, wobbly knees, sweaty upper lip and all - I'll tell the mother experience from my vantage point....and wonder if even a little of it will give voice to my mom's story as well.

May 5, 2013; 3p at Alverno College
Click here for tickets

April 12, 2013

Surviving 300 Years of Rain

It’s been raining here for about three hundred years.

I’ve turned these days that aren’t even colorful enough to be considered gray upside down and tried looking at them from a grateful perspective. You know...sunny thoughts like “This is God’s way of getting us to appreciate little things like sunlight” or “You can’t have rainbows without the rain” or “April showers bring May flowers.” That worked for about two days.

Turning on the nightly news didn’t help either. I can’t exactly remember what the "Up Next" teaser was. It might’ve been something about someone killing someone else and how they did it; or maybe it was about what war might break out next, or it could’ve been about a senior citizen getting scammed, but then again maybe it was just something about politicians being at each other’s throats in between filibusters. I frantically switched the channel in search of something lighter…like the Weather Channel.

The weather guy, who was donning a stove pipe hat, waxy handlebar mustache and a long black overcoat, momentarily stopped tying the damsel in distress to the train tracks only to leer at the camera and let out a “Mmmm-wahahahahaha!!! This rain’s never going to stop! You people will never see the sun again! Mmmm-wahahahahaha!!!” and went back to tying the lady to the tracks.

Okay, maybe I was a little delirious.

Kidding aside, we’re in desperate need of sunlight, but that ain’t gonna happen for a while if the weather folks are right. At the same time, we’re all hungry for some good news, or news that, as a friend put it, is praiseworthy. And we’re hungry for praiseworthy news because we know good things are happening underneath these murky perpetually drizzling skies…right?

Think about it: if news-crawlers and nightly reports are summations of our lives, we’d all be shoving bamboo up our fingernails by now; and if our life goal is to bask in eternal sunlit days, we’ve set the bar at an embarrassingly low level. But we know our lives are more than those crawlers, and we certainly live for more than a weather forecast. Maybe we instinctively remember this. Maybe it’s just common sense.

Either way, I figure that remembering, and hanging onto, the praiseworthy in between the rancor of current events and the raindrops alike ought to be enough to get us through this centuries-long downpour.

April 1, 2013


One-third of a woman's life is spent in menopause.

One-third. I heard this on a daytime newshow from a "Ladies' Doctor" who works at one of the nation's most respected hospitals. So it's true. Knowing this, and knowing I'm living in some fraction of the dreaded third, you'd think the last thing I'd have done was purge my closet, otherwise known as the Multi-Decade Crypt of 80's and 90's Beloved Relics.

Which is the very thing that makes the one-third statistic problematic.

My body won't stop changing. I figure I'm in the first third of menopause, which means I'm in perimenopause. My body's doing weird things. Stuff is shifting. Things are flattening out and increasing and decreasing in unpredictable zones at will. The cullling of the jeans made that apparent: some were the Skinny size and some were the Ah-What-the-Heck-I'm-Just-Expanding Size.

Jeans of Broken Dreams
I remember buying the Skinny sizes quite well. From the fitting room clerk bringing smaller sizes and high-fiving with me when I realized the size wasn't as big as originally guestimated, to the sticker shock I felt when the cashier who rang me up announced the total. It's all a movie looping in my brain along with the secret vow: "There's no way I'm outgrowing these jeans because they're so expensive." But yet, there I was, someplace in the first or second third of the third of menopause deciding whether or not it was time to chuck the jeans.

Or in truth, whether to chuck the dream of fitting back into them.

So lump in throat, I put them in the Give Away pile.

I'm not that girl -- or a Girl -- anymore. Disgusted with the jeans situation, I turned to the pile of novelty shirts collected throughout the years. There was the pink Harley-Davidson tank that looked amazing against my skin tone and clung in all the right places ten years ago. Somehow, time has since fulfilled the role of Beverly Hills plastic surgeon and filled in those right places in all the wrong ways. So, another contribution to the Give Away pile and another sigh. Another lump in the throat.

Then it was onto my favorite and best-fitting concert t-shirt.
Perfect for the big board meeting! Said no one. Ever.

It still fit my body. But the spirit of the thing wasn't a fit for this forty-three-year-old mom:"I Heart this bar."  It was a great song at a great concert,Toby Keith, but really, it's not like I'll be wearing it to work...or church...or a PTA meeting. Add it to the Give Away pile and swallow back another throat lump.

And on and on it went until it was broken by Jamie's sunny "Wow, that's a big Give Away pile! Good job, honey...Now don't you feel GREAT?" If tears hadn't been clouding my vision, I probably would've heaved the sexy pump I was about to toss into the pile of Broken Dreams AKA Give Away pile at him.

Men don't understand. You see, according to the WiiFit, Jamie hasn't gained or lost weight in five years. FIVE years. Basically, the guy still fits into clothes from the time when a Flock of Seagulls was running so far away from stuff they couldn't get away from. He's gotten some gray hairs, yes, but his hypothalmus doesn't have him saying "Hold that thought, I'm flashing right now," and he's not watching his waistline get out ahead of him. And he certainly wasn't chucking what he used to be, or used to aspire to be into a Give Away pile.

I explained that this whole thing basically sucked and that I wasn't very happy or cleansed or freed by it. Poor guy. He understood, but didn't know what to say, and then proved that it's better to say nothing at all when you don't know what to say by saying: "Well...do you think you'll ever fit into those clothes again?"

I just looked at him, one blink away from a perimenopausal breakdown and or tantrum. He got my drift and mumbled something as he ambled away out of sexy pump heaving distance.

And me? No, there was no grand revelation about being at home in my own skin. I'm hoping it'll come somewhere in the final two-thirds of the one-third of the menopause that all women go through.