Gifts From My Grandmothers

In my blogging and other social media posts for May, I have largely focused on the gifts and challenges of mothers. Today I’d like to offer some snippets of wisdom each of my grandmothers offered as I was growing up.

My mother’s mother, Grandma Wetzler, ran a food stall at Hollins Market in Baltimore, travelled around the world, and held the family together with her calm and steady presence. My father’s mother, Grandeema Bracken, knew all 47 grandchildrens’ birthdays, hated to cook anything but dessert, and always had a pithy quote to offer in response to a problem. Two very different grandmothers, yet each one offered me gifts that I still treasure to this day.

Grandma Wetzler in Switzerland
Grandma Wetzler in Switzerland

In addition to being an entrepreneur, Grandma Wetzler was a wonderful cook and baker. One of her baking specialities was cloverleaf rolls, which she always made for us kids when we spent the night at her house. When I was in college, she taught me how to make bread, but only offered minimal instructions about the kneading process, which she always said was the most important part. “Just knead it until it feels right,” she offered. But because I lacked her 50 years of bread-baking experience, I had to find a recipe that told me to knead the dough for about 10 minutes or until it felt smooth and elastic. With that guidance gleaned from an old cookbook, I set off on my bread-baking career which continues to this day.

Grandma Wetzler was also an accomplished seamstress and made me and my two sisters all of our holiday dresses until we went to high school. When I was thirteen, she taught me to sew in much the same way she taught me to make bread, using a completely hands-off approach. She demonstrated how to cut and sew a skirt and then walked into the kitchen to let me make one on my own. Somehow I figured out the puzzle and managed to make a skirt with only one error—the darts were on the outside. An easy mistake to correct. After that, I went on to make nearly all of my own clothes for years and even established a dressmaking and sewing instruction business.

My grandmother Wetzler was a strong woman who inspired me all throughout my life. I never saw her cry or get discouraged, though I’m sure she dealt with many disappointments and challenges throughout her 101 years. When she was nearing 100, her favorite thing to do was to sit on her front porch and rock. When I asked her if she missed anything or ever got bored, she’s smile at me and say, “Honey, I’ve got my memories.”

We called my father’s mother Grandeema Bracken, probably to distinguish between the two grandmothers. Because she lived on the other side of town and did not drive, we did not see her as often as my other grandmother. Still, she had a powerful influence on my life. Every year when she sent me a birthday card, she included the day and time of my birth, and my birthweight, and length. I wish I had just one of those cards today.

Grandeema and 3 kids_123x173mm
Grandeema Bracken and 3 or her 10 children, 1915

Grandeema made it a point to tell all of us to take good care of our things so they would last. When I was about 10 years old, she gave me a slim box that contained a pair of tan and brown kid gloves and a hand-written note. The gloves were in perfect condition and buttery soft. They had been hers as a young woman, and she gave them to me as a special gift. I don’t remember the exact words of the note, but I know she emphasized the importance of taking care of those gloves so I could have them for a long time. I remember wearing them to church several times, and because I was a child, I managed to get them dirty somehow. My mother told me I could carefully wash them by hand and then stretch them out and let them dry on a towel. I’ll never forget how disappointed I was a couple of days later when they finally dried. Instead of the soft, supple gloves Grandeema had entrusted me with, the gloves were stiff and hard. I was embarrassed that I had failed to take good care of them and never told my grandmother. How I wish I still had them as a memento of her.

When I was in my 20s, Grandeema gave me a very practical, hand-held egg beater. As if to make up for my youthful carelessness with the kid gloves, I have managed to keep that egg beater and use it for the past 35 years. I still use it for whipping egg whites or whipped cream. Every time I do, I hope I am making my grandmother smile up in heaven.

Grandeema also left me with some very practical and poetic advice about the power of the written word. I hear her reminding me to be careful whenever I am tempted to fire off a quick email or write an angry letter to someone.

“Say it in flowers, say it in pink. Whatever you do, don’t say it in ink.”

This advice has saved me a lot of embarrassment and regret over the years. Simple and poetic.

I loved my grandmothers and still have wonderful memories of time with each of them. I’d love to hear your memories about your own grandmothers. Please share with me and my readers.

Warrior Writers: Interview With Drew Cameron

Poetry and visual art-making played a huge role in my own healing from depression and some of the traumatic events I suffered during my childhood and marriage. Through the work of David Whyte, I found the National Association for Poetry Therapy, where I completed training as a poetry facilitator and journaling instructor. Because of my own experiences in using the arts for heeling, I am always drawn to stories of people on a similar path to wholeness. I first encountered Drew Cameron’s story in 2008, and I offer this previously published interview as a tribute to all of our veterans who seek healing for the trauma of their war experiences.

Drew Cameron, 30, lives in San Francisco, California. He served in the United States Army beginning in August 2000 for four years on active duty and subsequently served two years in the Vermont National Guard, separating in August of 2006. As part of his healing work from the trauma of the Iraq War, Drew participated in a therapeutic writing program called Warrior Writers. Out of that came his idea to create Combat Paper, paper made from the uniforms of people who served in Iraq. Drew and his fellow vets have produced numerous journals and two books of poetry from the combined Warrior Writers and Combat Paper programs.

Ann Bracken: Tell me about Iraq.

Drew Cameron: The reality was a lot more chaotic, more callous [than what is portrayed in the media]. And when we weren’t fighting, we’d get in our trucks and tool around the country. We were young guys with lots of bravado; we got complacent. We got very comfortable and did whatever we wanted. We got a kick out of stupid things.

drewcameronAB: What do you mean, stupid things?

DC: We acted in what they (the officers) called a “show of force.” Guys would get a real kick out of it. You know, we’d drive fast. We’d go out with a number of trucks, all loaded up. If a car was in our way, we’d just push it to the side of the road or run it off the road. We had our sunglasses on and usually had our rifles hanging out of the windows, at the ready. The idea was that if we were really tough and looked like we were ready for a fight, people would be deterred. Instead, people felt harassed, brutalized, hurt and hunted. Innocent people were hurt or driven over. It was a real provocation. But when I got home, I told myself I had nothing to feel bad about since I had never killed anyone.

AB: You said you thought you had nothing to feel bad about since you never killed anyone. Are these the kinds of thing that people would feel bad about when they came home?

DC: Yes, most definitely. I am very fortunate that I never killed anyone. But that kind of behavior is a provocation. And those are the kinds of memories that play in your mind over and over, the kinds of things that wake you up at night. Even worse that that, many people will have a single horrible experience that will play out over and over in their minds. They’ll replay it and replay it, trying to make some sense of it and there is no sense in it.

AB: Describe how writing about your experiences has helped you. How has it helped others?

DC: I went from being quiet and all alone to being involved in art and helping my fellow vets. I am trying to bring about some kind of change through my work, through the art. Creating art comes from a good place inside. This work is also a political statement. My friends come here to the paper studio and hang out. This project of writing and then making paper out of our uniforms spurs a very positive, creative, releasing activity. It’s cathartic for those who get involved in both the writing and the act of making paper. And the healing that happens is not forced. The people are really doing it themselves.

They [vets] come in here and start talking, making paper, doing art and the ideas just start bouncing around. And I’m in my studio, which used to be a place for me to hole up in and spend a lot of time alone. Now it’s a place where I just love to bring people in. I can be generous with this and I want to continue in that vein. I went from being quiet and unable to relate to anyone to someone who brings his friends in here and can offer this opportunity to someone just home from Iraq. This healing is important and no one should have to do it alone.

AB: It really is an amazing transformative act to cut up your old uniforms and then use them to make paper for your journals. How did this idea come about?

DC: The story of the soldier, the Marine, the man, the woman, and the journeys within the military service in a time a war is our basis for the project. Creating handmade paper editions of the book and facilitating papermaking with my fellow veterans eventually led to using our combat uniforms. The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uniforms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reclaiming that association of subordina- tion, of warfare and service into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.

AB: What would you like to see come out of your experience? What do you want people to know?

DC: I want people to know that when we come home, we vets don’t fit in. Everything has changed. We’ve changed. I’ve been slapped in the face with a set of circumstances and I have a lot of choices as to how I can deal with them. I was sent to fight in an illegal, unjust, immoral war. I can wither away. I can reenlist. I can resist. I can organize. I have choices. I chose to write about it, reflect on my experiences, and move forward trying to do something different with my life.

AB: Can you share a writing exercise that was especially helpful for you?

DC: Sure. Here is what I wrote in my first writing workshop with Warrior Writers.

Warrior Writers has been an impetus for me, recollecting old letters and my overseas journal to pick apart the memories that I would carry on paper. Going back to a place that I have left over four years ago. Trying to remember, regard- less there hasn’t been a day that has gone by in the time since when I haven’t though about it. 1,460 days of thinking about war. I feel as though we must go to the beginning to tear apart the shroud of numbness. We have to find the way back, understand it, dig in and continue; there are no short cuts with this.

When I first moved here I didn’t want to be known as a veteran, I would ask my partner not to tell people. I didn’t think it necessary, nor did I want to be known as Drew the Army guy. Pushing away from the experience only manifested it in undesirable ways. My affliction isn’t flashbacks or in- trusive thoughts, drug use or violent behavior. My affliction is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel, hate, love, fear, or even care. My life was a monotone of going through the motions, I so very wanted to be emotional. I know in my train- ing I enabled myself to build various walls. Methodically constructing walls takes time and effort, it is an effective way to enable positioning one’s self against the brutality of combat. Unfortunately they do not teach a soldier how to deconstruct these walls. This is my charge, to find the foun- dations, to understand them and perhaps permit myself to move in—there will be no moving on.

AB: What is the message you’d like readers to take away?

DC: It’s so important that you’re here. We’re nothing without a broader push of people in society. There are many dif- ferent components to culture writing, art, the fine arts, com- bat paper. We can encourage others to do this, to participate in this shared experience. We can influence people by inspir- ing others. There are many small things we can do. For me, it’s a unique opportunity. Before, I never spoke about being a vet. Now, it’s a big part of who I am.

Originally published in July, 2008 in The Museletter, a publication of The National Association for Poetry Therapy.

Improv Your Life: Just Say Yes!

One of my most enduring lessons about teaching occurred during a speech therapy techniques class Towson University. One of my classmates asked a questions that seems to haunt all new practitioners when they are searching for that one way to do things, that one way that will work. The question? “What’s the best way to help kids learn the speech skills they need?”
The answer? “Do whatever works.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that one piece of advice—to do whatever worked for the students I had in front of me—was the master key to successful teaching. Because my professors were well-versed in the stages of child-development and knew the importance of play, they stressed the value of playing games to teach challenging language concepts and problematic speech sounds. After all, if kids learn about the world through play, then they will learn language and articulation skills through play as well. It was my job to figure out what engaged my students and then to provide a variety of activities that would allow them to practice the skills that they needed.

And what fun we had! I made puppets and we put on puppet shows where one of the goals was to give directions and then follow them correctly. We played “Fish” to practice social skills and learn about taking turns, as well as to reinforce various speech skills. Because it was often difficult for small children to leave their classrooms and work with me for half an hour in the speech room, I had to make that half an hour as much fun as possible. I had to find what worked. And I didn’t know it at the time, but I was improving my way through the daily challenges every teacher faces.

That same piece of advice—do whatever works—would be my most helpful parenting strategy as well. Snow day when I had planned to work on a new project? Pull out the boots and mittens and head outside for sledding. Rainy day at the beach? Paint the seashells the kids found just the day before. Prom dinner falls through at the last minute? Whip up a salad and serve the homemade stuffed shells your kids love so much.

I didn’t know I was modeling good problem-solving skills for my kids. I was just doing what worked in the moment. I didn’t know I was showing them how to handle disappointment. I only knew that I was faced with a challenge and had to resolve it quickly.

Gauging the needs of my students and my children and adjusting my plans based on their needs in that moment were also skills from improv. So whenever I feel like my routine is getting stale or I need to switch things up to get better results, I go back to some basic rules I learned in my improv classes, like the one I took with Larry Bukovey during the Florida Creativity Conference in March, 2015. Here are three gems from his class that can help you in teaching, mothering, and life—places where moods and needs are as fluid and unpredictable as the helicoptering seedlings swirling around my patio.

Rule#1: Say “Yes” and.

Larry taught us that if we want to move the scene forward, we need to say “yes” to whatever our scene partner offers. That way you keep the energy and action fresh. You are also forced to stay in the moment and respond to any challenge that your partner presents. This rule holds up just as well in the classroom as it does in the home. Faced with the unexpected, just say yes and see what unfolds.

Rule #2: Focus on the here and now.

That’s all you have when you improve a scene—the present moment. We played lots of games to help develop our skills of paying close attention to the now. By tuning in to the needs of those around you., you are free to drop any fixed-agenda and move with the energy of the moment.

And from improv artist David Alger, this rule:

Rule #3: Change, change, change.

Life is all about change. The more easily we can adopt to changes, the more fun we can have moment by moment. And the more fun we’re having, the more likely it is that our kids and our students will be smiling as well.

Are you ready for improv? Let me know which of these three rules you like best.

Gifts For a Young Mother

If I could time travel, I’d go back to when my son was born, bring a picnic lunch, and comfort my younger self. When I had my son back in 1980, I made a counter-cultural decision to stay home and raise him as a full-time mom. I can still hear the incredulous voices of my colleagues in the elementary school where I was teaching at the time. “Why do you want to waste your master’s degree staying home and taking care of a baby?”

I don’t remember exactly what I told them, but I do remember how much I looked forward to being a full-time mom. I wanted to do all the things with him that my own mother had been unable to do because of her depression. And I set impossibly high standards for myself.

I remember the insistent voices in the media telling me that if I stayed home and raised a child full-time, my brain would turn into a mush of baby trivia. Somehow, the competent woman I had been in my personal life and my career would devolve into someone who only cared about finding the best playgrounds and whether or not to put my baby on a schedule.

I was only 28 years old when I had my son, and I had not yet learned to tune out the voices telling me what to do. Instead, I embraced the do-it-all ethos of the day. And when I think of his first year, I remember that I rarely enjoyed a day at home relaxing with the new little person who made me so happy. Instead, I learned to play golf when he was about two months old. I began reading non-fiction books about politics and history. I landed a part-time job by his first birthday.
familyalbumscans1401But none of those achievements made me feel all right about staying home and raising children. I drove myself relentlessly, even after my daughter was born. I remember how I resented taking a nap every day because I just couldn’t get enough things done. It was as if my drive to achieve in the eyes of the world was more important than the secret joys I felt holding my children, reading stories to them as they book-ended me on the couch.

So as I approach my 35th Mother’s Day celebration, here are three gifts I wish I had been able to give to my younger self.

  1. Honor the Wisdom of Your Body: When you feel exhausted, take a nap. When you’re overwhelmed, decide to let go of something. Tuning in to the signals and messages of the body is one of the surest ways to take care of yourself. And it’s a valuable lesson to pass on to your children.
  2. Enjoy the Detours: Raising children is one of the best ways to learn flexibility and humility. Things rarely go as planned, especially when you are living with children who are curious and spontaneous. Instead of holding firmly to your idea of how the day should unfold, relax into the joy of the unexpected. My children have taught me that when Plan A falls apart, Plan B can often be a whole lot more fun.
  3. See Your Mistakes As Blessings: I can’t even count the things I wish I could do over if I were given the chance. More than anything, I wish I had believed in my own perceptions of my children’s gifts, rather than listening to authority figures in the schools. But because my children took different paths as learners, I’ve become a more compassionate teacher. When faced with parents of my students who are struggling in school, I am able to reassure others that their kids will turn out all right, especially if they take an unconventional path. And some of the stories about my mothering-mistakes that I share with my children have made for great memories that the three of us can laugh about. None of us would have those blessings without the mistakes.familyalbumscans1401
    Perhaps Anna Qunidlen writing in Conscious Moms places mistakes in the most helpful context when she says,“Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the Remember-When-Mom-Did Hall of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language – mine, not theirs… I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.”Happy Mother’s Day, readers. Be kind to yourselves. Be kind to your mother.

    What do you wish you had known as a young mother? I’d love to hear your ideas, so leave a comment if you’re inspired.

I am Not What Happened to Me

Last week Aaron Henkin interviewed me about my memoir in verse, The Altar of Innocence, on The Signal, a radio show he produces for WYPR in Baltimore. The call came on Monday morning at 9am, and he wanted me in the studio the next day to tape the show that would air on Friday. Of course, I said an immediate “Yes!” to his generous offer, then I went to work, barely able to keep my mind on the tasks in front of me. I’d been on the radio a few times before, so it wasn’t the interview that scared me. It was the subject matter.

Depression. Self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. Suicidal ideation. A car crash. Electro-convulsive therapy. Hospitalization for depression. Verbal abuse. The silence surrounding trauma. Keeping secrets. SchoolUniformWhy, you might ask. Why talk about all of those dark and private things? Many have told me, “They’re in the past. Let them go. Move on.”

All of those things are true. And to keep silent about them is to allow them to have power over you. In AA literature they tell you, “You’re only as sick as the secrets you keep.” Well, I’m not “sick” anymore—and now I strongly reject that label for my mother’s and my own experiences with depression, anxiety, and self-medicating. My mother and I were doing the best we could to cope with deep and painful wounds. Trying to live day after day—take care of children, cook meals, run households, even run a business (in my case). Trying to carry the awful weight of sadness that enshrouded our spirits. Trying to find some light.

Sadly, in my mother’s case, she never seemed to be able to find her way back to the woman she was before she fell into depression. And neither she, nor my father, seemed to have any understanding about the deadly interplay of psychiatric medicines and alcohol. Neither one understood how that daily cocktail could keep my mother imprisoned in her darkness when she so wanted to escape it.

I never knew my mother as the delightful free-spirit my dad used to reminisce about when the two of us sat in the kitchen and had a few moments of vulnerability together. I never knew the woman who played tennis or designed amazing dresses. I never even saw my mother paint anything, except a room in the house.

But, as the oldest daughter, I was often privy to her pain. She confided in me. She depended on me—to cook dinner or take care of my siblings. She sobbed in my arms.

How does a young girl hold all of that pain inside and still walk into the world and do what a child, an adolescent, needs to do? How does one keep silent about the pain all around her? Sadly, the times I grew up in offered no answers. No comfort. The only thing I knew about therapy was that my mother went once a week, and we never saw any improvement.

My pain, the pain of my father, the pain of my siblings was never disclosed in such a way that we could get help. So, when I experienced my own multiple depressions, finally culminating in a major depression that lasted four years, I had a lot of pain to unpack. And a lot of shame.

Brené Brown defines the difference between shame and guilt. She says that guilt is feeling bad about what you’ve done. Shame is feeling bad about who you are. I went back to the journal I kept for the duration of my depression, I found page after page filled with my own feelings of shame for experiencing depression.

And writing my book was about unpacking all of that pain. Hanging it like laundry in the warm sunshine of love. Finally realizing the truth of what Carl Jung tells us when he wrote:

“I am not what happened to me.
I am what I choose to become.”

That’s why I wrote The Altar of Innocence. That’s why I spoke on the radio. That’s why I am letting go of secrets.