Remembering Air India Flight 182

On Sunday, while in West Cork, we traveled to Ahakista in West Cork to visit a memorial to the 1985 Air India Flight 182 bombing and and plane crash.

The Air India flight was en route from Canada to India when a bomb exploded and killed all 329 passengers and crew on board. The memorial is beautiful; it is in a quiet, peaceful landing that looks out over the water.

On the anniversary of the tragedy the sundial points to the place in the sky where the tragedy occurred. Each year on June 23rd there is a memorial event to remember the lives lost; we were less than a month from the anniversary so some of the memorials were still present.

It was a horrible tragedy but we were glad we could visit and pay our respects.

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Running to Breakthrough Cancer for…Gerry O.

I am training for the ING 2013 NYC Marathon to help raise money for Breakthrough Cancer Research.  

Dr. Gerald O’Sullivan was many things in life.

The Irish Medical Times called him “the outstanding Irish surgeon of his generation” and “an Irish Giant.”  His medical peers in Ireland elected him President of the Royal College of Surgeons in 2006.  He lived and worked in Chicago, Canada, and even Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war.  He served as mentor of the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa.  He was an Honorary Fellow in the American College of Surgeons, a prestigious award since it is limited to only 100 living surgeons worldwide at any time.  He was loved by those he worked with, as evidenced in a touching YouTube video created after he died.  But perhaps most notably, Gerry founded Cork Cancer Research Centre in the 1990s, a world-class research organization driven to improve treatment and prognoses for the most devastating cancers.

He was a premier medical doctor in Ireland and beyond, but to me, my parents, my brothers and sister, and my cousins here in America, he was just Gerry.  Gerry, my mother’s first cousin, a man who took time out of his hectic schedule to visit us in New Jersey while on work travel to the U.S., his booming voice and lilting brogue filling our entry foyer when he arrived.  Gerry, the crazy-smart cousin who loved American history so much that he could recite every president and vice president going back to George Washington.  Gerry, whose sense of humor tickled you to your core, like when he surprise-crashed a family party in suburban Pennsylvania (where his daughter was living) disguised as a hobo…ambling down the quiet, meticulously manicured street wearing a mask, an old trench coat, a ratty old hat, and carrying a stick with a bag tied around one end of it…he had the entire party in stitches.  Gerry, who could talk and talk and talk over multiple pots of tea about topics as wide-ranging as cricket and hurling to current affairs, especially U.S. politics.

Gerry died on February 12, 2012.  He succumbed to multiple myeloma, a cancer that starts in the plasma cells in bone marrow.  It was a huge loss, both personally for our family but also for the community of medical professionals dedicated to eradicating cancer.  Fortunately, his legacy lives on through his family and Breakthrough Cancer Research, the new fundraising arm of Cork Cancer Research Centre.  Breakthrough Cancer Research collaborates with cancer organizations worldwide, from Sweden, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Slovenia, Scotland, as well as here in the U.S., including Harvard Medical School.

Cancer is horrific, cancer is cruel, and cancer is seemingly ubiquitous.  But cancer can be beaten.   As it says on Breakthrough Cancer Research’s websiteThere is hope, and that hope is in research.

You can donate easily and quickly by visiting my marathon fundraising site on JustGiving.com.  Donating through JustGiving is simple, fast and totally secure. Your details are safe with JustGiving – they’ll never sell your details or send unwanted emails. Once you donate, they’ll send your money directly to Breakthrough Cancer Research. So it’s the most efficient way to donate – saving time and cutting costs for the charity.

Thank you.

The Jeans Whore

As I dig deep to train for the 2013 NYC Marathon, I am reminded of a time when I was known as “the jeans whore.”

I was in high school and had a part-time sales job at Banana Republic, one of many stores at an upscale mall in Short Hills, New Jersey.  My job included greeting customers with a smile at the front door and explaining the difference between a weave and a knit.   I walked into the back stockroom one afternoon to find my manager sorting through boxes of fall merchandise, the pungent scents of packed leather and denim still fresh. My manager smiled as she held out one of the new fall items, a beautiful lambskin bomber jacket priced at $300.  It was gorgeous, yet out of my price range.  But then she explained an upcoming back-to-school sales contest whereby a salesperson would receive three dollars for every pair of denim jeans sold.  “You can do it,” she said. “Buy the jacket with contest money!”

I had my challenges.  In hindsight, I was not the ideal retail sales associate.  First, I felt awkward approaching customers who appeared to be browsing, and instead waited for them to ask me for help.  I preferred to work the cash register, finding comfort behind the repetitive motions of clicking the register pad, bagging the merchandise, and making small talk with someone who was experiencing the high of a new purchase.  But most of all, I was a high school student who worked minimal hours so I had a serious time constraint in which to sell a boatload of denim jeans.

When the contest began about a week later, I jumped in head first.  I offered to take weekend shifts from co-workers, increasing my time with the piles of denim stacked floor to ceiling in the back of the store.  I threw my feelings of awkwardness to the wind and started to approach every customer who showed the slightest whiff of interest in denim. If a customer was buying a blouse, I suggested she complete the outfit and purchase a pair of jeans as well.  If a customer wanted a belt, I offered him the right shade of washed denim to match the brown leather and silver buckle.  If a customer walked by that wall of denim, I was in her face, smiling, giving her my name, telling her I was there to help. I owned that wall of denim.  Before long, my co-workers, all older than me by several years and viewing me like a kid sister, jokingly started calling me “the jeans whore.”

The contest lasted ten days and by the end, I had sold sixty-seven pairs of jeans, making me the contest winner in the entire Northeast region and the third highest seller of denim in the entire company.  I also received a bonus for my performance.  Several weeks later, the jacket hung in my closet, entirely paid for with contest money.

I learned something valuable with all those jeans I sold: with a clear goal and sufficient inspiration and support, you can at least try.  Only then do you have a shot at succeeding.  It is with this attitude that I climb onto the treadmill most mornings before the kids wake up, trying to build my endurance for November 3rd.  Will I make it?  I don’t know.  But I sure am going to try.

And yes, I still own the jacket.

I am running the ING 2013 NYC Marathon on November 3rd in memory of my cousin, Gerry O’Sullivan, and to raise money for Breakthrough Cancer Research.  There is hope, and that hope is in research.  Please visit my JustGiving page here if you would like to learn more.

Chasing Dreams

I learned a valuable lesson recently: the dreams we seek are often not up in the stars, but lurking in the shadows of ordinary life.  I learned this in pursuit of two very different goals: becoming a licensed CPA and writing my first fiction story, a 51-page novella published on Amazon.com.

It took me seven years to pass the CPA exam.  Seven long, humbling years.  Starting out, I did not “dream” of becoming a CPA. Rather, an MBA professor had simply advised, “take the CPA exam to tell the world you’re a business expert.”  It sounded easy enough, but as with much of life, the devil was in the details.  To become a CPA, you first need a slew of business curriculum credits…I piled mine up in undergrad and MBA school.  Next, you need related professional experience; I earned my stripes at Deloitte Tax, sweating out 50-60 hour weeks.  But the most painful step – excruciating, in fact – is passing the Uniformed CPA Exam, a 4-part multiple choice behemoth with a less than 50% pass rate.   Studying for the exam requires surrendering your nights and weekends – for months! – to take sample multiple choice tests over and over again.  When I first took the test I failed all four parts.  It was then that I made a promise to myself: I will pass this beast. I will slay it.

Which brings me to my writing.

I have always harbored a dream of writing a story and publishing it.    But over the years, I have found my biggest obstacles were pride, pragmatism, and procrastination. Pride: what if no one reads what I write?  Pragmatism: what is the point of putting in all that time and effort if it is not a success?  Procrastination: yes, dreams are worth pursuing, but tomorrow will be the day I finally take the first step.  Yet when I quit my job last fall, I started hurdling those obstacles with small, mundane steps.  First, I realized after several months as a stay at home mom that I needed an outlet, so I started SpeckledNotebook.com.  Then, as I wrote each blog post and received feedback from friends, neighbors, even strangers, I realized that pride is over-rated; connecting to just one person through something I write is hugely satisfying. Which left procrastination…

As with many dreams realized, a bit of luck was sprinkled my way. Last month, Hugh Howey, author of the NY Times best-selling “Wool” books and a trail-blazing supporter of independent authors, joined KindleWorlds.  KindleWorlds is a publishing market for fan fiction, a virtual literary bazaar where each tent is a different story’s universe.   The pragmatist in me was thrilled; I loved the “Wool” books, and this was an opportunity to write a story that had a much higher likelihood of finding a micro-targeted audience.

So I set about writing my story.

I am not a professional writer, but now that I have written a story I can attest that writers are unfairly saddled with this cliched imaged: sitting with a glass of Cabernet or a fourth cup of coffee while you pound out words, the first draft being perfect and final.  But in truth, writing is akin to studying for the CPA exam. I had to carve out hours on nights and weekends, finding precious time to write after long days with the kids.  Writing a story is about mastering (or attempting to master) story structure, character arcs, dialog, and plot points.  It is about respecting the art of writing, from use of proper pronouns and prepositions to sentence structure and best placement of nouns and verbs.  “Writing is re-writing,” as the saying goes, which gets really mundane and boring as you revisit the same paragraph or chapter multiple times until it’s as perfect as it can be.  Writing is about persistence and discipline, and not giving up. I was struck by how exhausting writing my novella was; on more than one occasion I wanted to throw in the towel.

I finally passed the CPA exam on my second try, and I finally wrote my story and published it.  Having accomplished both, I learned that chasing dreams is less about looking up, and more about digging in.  Dreams do not live in the clouds; they live within us, lying in wait, eager to be discovered.

My book, “Silo Saga: Unhinged,” is available in KindleWorlds from Amazon.   It is a story set within Hugh Howey’s “Wool” universe.  Read Hugh Howey’s blog here, and check out his books on Amazon here.  Amazon e-books are downloadable to Kindles or the Kindle reading app, which is available on most smart phones, computers, and tablet devices.

Gay Marriage: It’s About Us All

If justice is good for one, then shouldn’t it be good for all?

I recently dined with the kids – sans husband who was stuck at work – at a French bistro around the corner from our home.   It was a balmy spring night, the dining patio full of patrons enjoying mussels, escargot, and pan-seared steaks.   As I settled the kids into their chairs and tore up chunks of bread for them to eat, I heard a man’s voice behind me.   “Excuse me,” he said, “I don’t know how you do it with two.  We just have the one and it seems impossible at times.” I smiled at him and his eighteen month old son sitting in a high chair, giggling adorably under a floppy green hat.  “No different from you,” I said.  A few minutes later the man’s partner – another man – returned to the table.  The three of us talked about their impending move to Maplewood, a popular Manhattan suburb, about their fear of isolation from the city, about their excitement of having a big backyard.  The conversation was utterly mundane, yet enjoyable because we were on the same plane, finding so much in common in the space of a few minutes.

Every child is born into a universe of possibility.  He knows only one truth at the outset: the love of his parents.  Yet he is also born into an imperfect culture.  The worst examples of our own imperfections are stunning upon reflection.  Our nation’s forefathers put pen to paper with the three-fifths compromise, which effectively declared a black man equal to three fifths of a white man.  Volumes could be written by people more scholarly than I about who was to blame, why the forefathers proceeded with a compromise to allow slavery, and so on; but the simple truth is this: it was evil, and they proactively permitted it in our Constitution.  It would require a civil war and the thirteenth amendment to eradicate this evil from our historical record, yet the imperfection would persist.  In 1959, Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and a white man legally married in Washington D.C., but living in Virginia, were banished from Virginia under threat of jail time for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation (interracial marriage) laws.  The Lovings sued Virginia; it would take eight years, but in 1967 the Supreme Court decreed – by unanimous decision – that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.  Yes, we live in an imperfect culture…but if history teaches us anything, it is this: we do not have to sit quietly about it.

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was passed in 1996; it is less than one page long yet its impact is devastatingly widespread; it denies the right to marry – and myriad benefits therein under federal law – to gay couples.  Their children suffer as a result. But DOMA is about more than gay families.  DOMA degrades us a society.   It is written with the same evil intention employed by those who would hold that certain men are only worth three-fifths of other men.  It dumps us into the same historical dustpan of those who would hold that a dark-skinned woman married to a white-skinned man is illegal and immoral. DOMA is a stain upon our national character.

Beyond DOMA, as a lifelong New Jerseyan, I think it is shameful that New Jersey does not yet occupy the moral high ground currently owned by Connecticut, New York, Washington, Maine, Vermont, and Iowa, among others, in legalizing gay marriage.  And yet we call ourselves a progressive state?

The two men I shared a drink and conversation with last week were good fathers who clearly loved their son. I safely assume they pay federal and state taxes and are law-abiding citizens.  They accordingly deserve the benefits and rights that my husband and I enjoy.  That they are gay should make no difference. That they are human beings should be all that matters.  Dignity is not relative.

Justice…we can embrace it or we can deny it.  But the real question is this: do we want our kids looking up at what we had the courage to embrace, or down at the justice that we chose to deny?

To learn more about the efforts to legalize gay marriage in NJ, please visit Garden State Equality, NJ’s largest civil rights organization comprised of 125,000 members, about half of whom are from outside the LGBT community.

The Prisms in Our Lives

Wisdom is like the full spectrum of light revealed through a prism; beautiful, spectacular, yet born of the ordinary.

When I was twenty-six years old, I snapped at my father with harsh words.  We were sitting in a crowded Starbucks around the corner from Washington D.C.’s Superior Court, awaiting the first day of the murder trial for a friend who had been killed two years before.  My father had traveled to Washington to attend the first few days of the trial, in part to support me, in part to bear witness to justice for my friend.  My father is like that; steadfast, righteous and honorable, like a rock planted in a riverbed, unmoved by rushing currents and shifting tides.  I do not remember exactly what caused me to snap at him, only that it was a momentary release of hot anger, profound stress escaping like steam from a kettle’s whistle.  As soon as the words flew off my tongue I felt guilt and shame burrow into my gut.   I apologized several times, but after my third or fourth apology, my father folded his NY Times in half, looked across the table, and said, “Brigid, I’m your father.  Don’t worry.  I forgave you before the words left your mouth.”

The impact of his words was immediate and lasting.  Guilt and shame washed away.  In their place, a feeling of profound security settled in.  The notion that my words and actions were incapable of altering his love for me, or his capacity to forgive, was extremely comforting.  It was comforting in the moment, but it also altered my consciousness about the nature of unconditional love and forgiveness.  Now that I have kids of my own, I think of my father’s words often.  I want my kids to feel the same sense of security that my father gifted to me that day in Starbucks.

Which brings me to my daughter.

She is only three years old.  Her mind is like fertile soil teeming with optimism, curiosity, and an ever-constant ache to please Mommy and Papa.  Yesterday she had a tantrum at the park; it was a monumental meltdown after a long day with her grandparents, water sprinklers, and a pickle from the farmer’s market.  It culminated with the tinkly song of Mr. Softee’s ice cream truck parked just beyond the swings.

“Mommy,” she whined as we walked towards the car, “I want ice cream!”

“Absolutely not,” I responded.  “You’ve already had a pickle.  That’s enough treats for one day.”

“But a pickle is not a treat!” she wailed as I strapped her into the car seat.

Later, over dinner, I asked her if she felt better and she said yes, but then ducked her head away, perhaps still angry, perhaps a bit embarrassed.  Perhaps feeling a bit of guilt at having screamed so loudly at me.   So I asked her, “Indira, how big is the sky?”

“So big, Mommy,” she responded, her eyes wide, her chubby arms outstretched to measure the bigness of the sky.

“Well,” I said, “Mommy’s love for you is bigger than the sky.  I never stop loving you.”

She looked at me, her eyes ever-wider.  “Mommy do you love me with every feeling?”

I felt a small lump lodge in my throat.  My eyes watered.  My little girl was my prism.  “Yes, honey.  I love with you every feeling.”

“Even when you’re upset?”

“Yes, even when I’m upset. I love you with every feeling.”  Then she asked me for more grapes.

What a simple truth.  Yes, of course I love my children with every feeling – joy, anger, frustration, hope – yet how easy is it for a child to assume the love stops when our faces darken in disappointment?  Would I have even considered this notion of loving with every feeling had she not asked the question?  Probably not.  I was attempting to transform my daughter’s comprehension of love and she in turn transformed me.

Life is an ever-changing, fantastic journey.  Made even more beautiful, and transformative, by the prisms in our lives.

The Nightcap

“What time are you going?” Her voice was barely a whisper.  The stillness swallowed her words.

“Later.  Let’s talk a bit more.  We still have time.”

She smiled and looked down at her knitting.  The needles went back to life, clicking and sliding the thick yarn into place.  The smell of musty blankets and burnt toast clung to the air.

“What are you making?” he asked.

“It’s a hat.  For John.  I just hope I have enough yarn.  I always seem to run out too soon.”

He rocked as she clicked, a time-perfected synchronicity.

She reached for her glass, took a sip, then noticed the circle of shine surrounded by dust and crumbs from blackened toast.  She hurriedly replaced the glass and swept the crumbs onto the floor, hoping he wouldn’t notice.  She never was one for dust.

The rocking continued.

She told him about the tree in Mr. Magee’s front yard that fell down in the snow storm.  “It was dead long ago, the trunk rotting, the bark peeling into husks that littered the sidewalk.  Now with the tree gone, sunlight dances through the curtains I sewed together before John was born.  Remember?  I used the scraps from the second hand store on Pine Street.  Those were the good days.  We were young and stretched in too many directions.  Too busy, too rushed.”

He nodded, smiling, rocking, his foot tapping on the dusty floorboards.

She told him about the grandkids, how John was now in California, how he called dutifully every Sunday afternoon, at half past two because he knew how much she loved attending the 12:30 mass with Father Bill.

“Doesn’t he know that Father Bill is dead?”

“No, I didn’t bother to tell him.  Don’t want him to worry.”

He smiled, leaned forward in the rocker, elbows on his knees. “Did you invite him back home yet?”

She glanced up, eyes watering and lips pursed.  The clicking stopped.

“Not yet.  I’m not ready. I need more time.”

He nodded, then sank back into the chair.  “Take your time,” he said. “Don’t bother with what your sister says.”

The clicking of the needles resumed, then she looked up, her eyes bright and wide.  “I’ll invite John when the raspberry bushes are in full bloom. We’ll go berry picking, down where the backyard slopes down to the creek.  I’ll take the kids out, we’ll mash the berries and mix with sugar and syrup and make a pie and top it with vanilla ice cream.  Just like we did when John was a boy.”

He nodded, rocking again, the floorboards in rhythm with the sewing needles.  Outside, a sharp wind rattled a loose shutter from its screws.

They sat in silence until the yarn ran out.  Her hands alone again, she looked up at the clock, her eyes red and starting to well with tears.  Exhausted, consumed by another day of isolated grief, she laid down the knitting needles, rose from the rocking chair, and walked quietly up to bed.

The Intimate Recovery from Violence

This post was written shortly after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013.

What happened in Boston this past week, what veterans see in war, and what inner city kids experience every day is real violence.  Not what the rest of us see on TV or read about on smart phones, but gritty, caustic, nauseating violence.  When violence does hit the headlines, the focus tends to be on the act – the bomb, the gunshots, the means of assault – then a brief period of mourning for those hurt or killed.  What often never gets discussed is what comes after: the private and intimate recovery from violence.

Recovering from violence is like an elevator ride to the depths of hell.  You are alone, in total darkness, surrounded by demons on all sides.  You have no sense of where bottom is until you finally hit it.  All you can do is hold on and try to survive the ride.

I experienced violence eleven years ago when my friend, someone I had dated, was murdered.  Even the most seasoned investigators were shocked by the brutality and randomness of the crime.  My friend was woken from sleep, bound and gagged, tortured for his bank card pin number, then strangled and left alone for two days until, frantic and distraught, we convinced the police to search his locked apartment.  When they found him, they had to identify him through dental records.  During the trial we learned that he had been a victim of chance; the kitchen window in his apartment was close to a drainage pipe that snaked down the side of the building to an alleyway below.  We later found out that his killer, who was tried and convicted, had been abused as a child, lived through foster homes, and attempted suicide in his early teen years; the tragedy, it seemed, knew no bounds.

Did justice through the courts bring closure?  Yes…and no.  Closure is an elusive ghost.  With a trial you have the satisfaction of knowing that someone was punished, that the rules matter.  But closure is about more than justice.  Closure is about reconciling the violence you experience with your previous worldview.  And that reconciliation is an excruciating process to undertake.

The immediate aftermath of violence, particularly when it is newsworthy as it was in my friend’s case, is traumatic from every angle.  There is the trauma of watching law enforcement go about their business; police officers swarming the site of the crime, questioning you as if you’re a suspect and telling you nothing about what is going on. There is the trauma of being questioned by news reporters who are well-coifed and rehearsed in their pity; you see in their eyes that they are looking beyond you to the potential of the story in the days ahead.  There is the trauma of feeling, for the first time in your life, what it is to be in a world without rules.

At some point the shock and awe of the violence slides from the news.  It starts to recede from the memories of those not directly impacted.  That is when you start your descent, alone and in earnest, into the depths of hell.  If you’re lucky, you have access to good healthcare and therapy.  You’ll need it, because your therapist is like the service operator that will help guide you down to hell, and then help you get back up.  If you’re lucky, you have a belief in something larger than yourself to cling to for support during the initial descent, be it God, a pride in country, anything.  But most of all, if you’re lucky, you have family and friends who love you and who are rooting for you.  They are your hope.  Your reason to claw back up after you’ve hit rock bottom.

The initial descent into hell is dominated by a singular revelation: a person’s life, just like a purse or a car or a pack of gum, can be stolen. We see this in TV all the time, but living it is entirely different. That life is so precarious and can be taken so easily, so wantonly, by another person is terrorizing.  For most of us, this concept is foreign because protecting and nurturing life is our state of normalcy; we take it for granted that everyone else feels the same way.  But in hell, it’s the opposite.  This revelation crystalized for me months after the murder when, holding my carving knife in the kitchen, I glanced at my future husband and thought to myself, “I could kill him with this; all I require is the will to do it.”  I quickly put the knife back in the drawer, disturbed by my own thoughts.  When I later told my therapist about it, she said it was normal to have such thoughts.  That your brain has to adapt to the trauma. But learning that these types of thoughts are “normal” after a trauma is cold comfort; you still feel like a freak.  You become afraid of your own humanity.

Being afraid of yourself, and feeling extreme discomfort in your own skin, is what characterizes the next part of your descent into hell.  You are increasingly consumed by a sense of dread.  You are now far enough down that you cannot see the world from which you came, yet you cannot sense where bottom is, either.   You cannot sleep because being alone inside your head is terrifying.  Silence and stillness are enemies.  You start leaving the TV on all the time, your nights bleed into mornings, and then sleep deprivation makes you increasingly irritable, more prone to outbursts and hysterics.  You search for ways to cope.  I chain-smoked for weeks and months afterwards, the smoke scratching down my throat and into my lungs, a searing catharsis to release the mental demons rattling inside my brain.  I understand why some people escape to drugs, alcohol, cutting themselves.  You need a release, any release.  What’s more, the demonic energy you absorb in hell needs an outlet; so what doesn’t get released through coping mechanisms eventually escapes anyway, often irrationally.  Many months after the murder, I became hyper-anxious around my mother; when I visited her, I would cry uncontrollably, sobbing and heaving on the floor anytime she left the house.  I felt despair in my gut, convinced her death was imminent.  The people around you start to grow increasingly concerned.  If you’re lucky, they stick by you, they tell you they love you, they re-assure you and give you time.

For me, the final phase of my descent to hell was characterized by feelings of suicide.  In my mind’s eye I was sitting on the precipice of a bottomless pit filled with dread and despair.  The pit had a pulsating energy to it; it was black nothingness that consumed the light.  I felt this pit swirling within my gut, I suppose within my soul.  When I had these feelings I cried uncontrollably and had specific thoughts about how I would kill myself, such as slitting my wrist with a razor blade or hanging myself from the planter’s hook in my living room.  My therapist told me that these thoughts, too, were normal.  She said that if I was really, truly, suicidal, my “plans” would have been more concrete and foolproof.  Her lack of alarm was a comfort to me, it helped me feel less deranged.  She also informed me that feelings of suicide were as bad as it got, rock bottom.  Somehow, it was extremely validating to learn that it couldn’t get any worse.  It helped to know that I now had a choice: to either stay in hell or start to haul myself back up that elevator shaft to a new normal.

Thanks to therapy, family, friends, and a belief in God, I recovered.  I was fortunate that I had means to make certain adjustments. I moved away from Washington, D.C., putting distance between myself and the countless associations with my life before and after the violence.  I got married and built a new life with someone who loved and supported me, and ultimately helped me move on.  I chose to leave therapy but I had close friends who were trained in psychology and social work; casual calls to catch up were transformed into hour-long discussions about grief and healing.  At some point I was able to finally let go; to say goodbye to my murdered friend and to live within my own skin.  To live within a world in which murder is not just a plot line on a TV show, but a real experience.  Now that I’ve lived through it, I feel tremendous compassion for anyone who must take that elevator ride for the first time.  I cannot imagine how much worse it is to take that ride after having lost a child, a brother or sister, a spouse, or a part of your body to violence.

I used to believe that things happened for a reason.  I now think that is simplistic and naive.  What I now believe is that when violence happens, we can choose to let it define us, or we can try to make sense of it.  We can learn how to prevent it going forward.  We can help shape a future defined by love instead of hate.  These beliefs are part of my recovery.

What happened in Boston this past week will have repercussion in the years to come for so many people who were near the bombs, heard the gun shots, or knew the victims.  It will surely impact those who are physically recovering in the hospitals.  What we can each do is acknowledge that their recovery is far from over.

The Princess Firefighter

My daughter and I have a secret: a Princess Firefighter lives in Jersey City.

Her name is Constance Zappella and she is Jersey City’s first female fire captain.  I met Captain Zappella at a meet & greet for toddler girls.  The invitation read “I Want to Be Captain Connie!” so I took the morning off work, pulled my daughter out of daycare, and trekked to the firehouse, determined to show my daughter a woman with guts.  A woman with heart.  A woman who swam against the current and shattered glass ceilings.  The anti-princess if there ever was one.

Captain Connie & Mom
Newly sworn-in Capt. Constance Zappella is kissed by her mother, Maryann, at the end of the ceremony. Photo/Caption by Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal (Article from December 17, 2011 written by Terrence McDonald)

Oh, how I needed an anti-princess.

I was not shocked when my daughter first started showing a preference for all things pink. When she started demanding choice over what she wore – usually with a stamp of the foot and an exasperated “but that onesie doesn’t go with those tights!” – I assumed it was a control issue.  When “princess” started to dominate her vocabulary, I smiled, thinking “so cute that she’s passing through this phase.”  But then it persisted.  “Princess” encapsulated all toddler aesthetics; princess toys, princess shoes, princess toothbrush, princess hat, princess stroller, and so on. She had never seen a Disney movie and her TV was limited to Sesame Street and Thomas the Train; where in God’s name was this coming from? What would happen as she grew older?  Was my daughter going to get sucked into the Cinderella storyline?  Become a Snow White stalwart?  Start to ingest the female-as-submissive fairy tale theme at such a young age?

As my confusion grew into outright concern, I received the invitation to meet Captain Connie.  The perfect opportunity to nip this princess persuasion in the bud.

When we arrived at the fire station, Captain Connie was there to greet us, dressed in navy cargo pants, a short-sleeved navy shirt, and thick-soled boots.  With soft blue eyes, blonde hair swept back into a tight ponytail, and manicured nails painted pearly white, Captain Connie cut against her workplace like a diamond in the rough.  The fire station was all function, no beauty; straight lines of concrete, cold gray steel, and piles of coats and boots stored behind metal cages.  Not exactly princess territory.

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My daughter sitting at the kitchen table inside the Grand Street Fire House in October 2012. The metal cages holding gear are visible in the top left of the photo.

We gathered around Captain Connie as as she knelt down and held out a fire helmet for the little girls to touch and explained how firefighters climbed up ladders to rescue people from burning buildings, wore heavy coats and big boots, ate together in a big kitchen, and rushed off to a fire when the bells rang.   Before long, the firehouse speakers blared to life announcing a fire emergency.  Captain Connie donned the heavy coat and boots and the firetruck roared to life. She jumped into the shotgun seat and, with sirens blaring, bade us farewell.

As I walked home I felt like a failure.  The metal cages filled with gear and the fire truck pealing out of the driveway had frightened my daughter.  The kitchen was all she was interested in, which seemed a pointless reason to drag her out of daycare and miss a day of work.  I felt more confused than before.  I was not connecting with my own child.  Worse yet, I came to a realization – felt it in my gut – that trying to tamp anything she expressed so naturally, so innately, was wrong.

And then fate intervened.

Several weeks later, I was strolling my kids across a busy downtown boulevard in Jersey City when my eye caught three figures marching towards us.  Two men in uniform and a woman wearing a knee-length skirt and heels.  The JCFD Headquarters was across the street so I pegged the men in uniform as firefighters.  The woman’s hair was blonde and it bounced off her shoulders, worthy of a shampoo commercial.   As they approached, I could barely contain my excitement as I leaned down into my daughter’s ear and whispered, “Look, honey! That’s Captain Connie!”  Then, without thinking, I added, “Doesn’t she look beautiful?”  My daughter glanced up just as Captain Connie and her colleagues walked by.  “Where is she, Mommy?  Where?”  Her eyes darted in all directions, but Captain Connie had already passed us.  But then, her interest piqued, she proceeded to ask a litany of questions about who Captain Connie was, where she worked, why she was pretty, and why she was walking across the street.  Without so much as a second thought, I found myself telling her that Captain Connie was a princess firefighter, that she was brave and bold, and that she was dressed in her princess clothes because she was going to a big party.

It was a breakthrough moment for me.  I met my daughter on her own turf, using princess power to communicate and connect.  I also realized a grievous shortcoming within myself; I had boxed Captain Zappella into the box of “firefighter” when in truth she was a whole person, a whole woman, more than just a career.  From that day on, I threw aside any fear that using “princess” to describe the life around us would somehow harm my child.  In fact, I have found it is very healthy; it allows us to connect, it validates what comes to her naturally, and I can gain greater insight into what she finds interesting, challenging, and at times frightening.  I march with her through imaginary adventures and join her in a revelry of pink, ruffles, and all things sparkly.

Every child’s life is fraught with complexity as the years progress.  But for a toddler, those years, and those discussions, can wait.  Because for many little girls, mine included, princess power is real.  Princesses can have guts.  Princesses can have heart.  Princesses can swim against the current and shatter glass ceilings.  Just like the Princess Firefighter.

My Speckled Notebook

My favorite place to journal when I was a teenager was my black and white speckled notebook. The smooth laminated cover, the thick white thread cutting the book in half, the dull black tape serving as a spine. It was a companion.  A private space to experience Life through words.

The world has changed dramatically since I was a teenager twenty years ago.  Private thoughts splash through LAN lines, across wireless networks, into living rooms and bedrooms, all in an instant.  We share who we are – sarcastic, introspective, sensitive, vitriolic – through words, sometimes typed carefully but often typed hurriedly, a momentary flash of emotion etched permanently in bits and bytes on server boxes that hum and click in protected solitude.  In this world, now, more than ever, words matter.  They are a record of who we are.  A record of who we become.  They provide a transcription of the journey we take as human beings, as mothers, fathers, children, and as neighbors.

As for my journey, I now stand at a nexus of my own making. I can pivot in many directions, and for the first time in a long time I feel a sense of profound choice.

For eight years I slogged it out at a consulting firm.  Most of my time was spent on PowerPoint decks, Excel spreadsheets, emails, client calls, team meetings, or some form of travel.  The frenzy of life had a cache to it; I was important, critical to the team’s success.  I stayed in five star hotels, traveled in business class, and was on call with high tech devices that I checked, by habit, seven days a week.  My mind was always at the office, always thinking about the next sale, the next project, the peers I had to out-compete.  Fifty plus hour weeks were considered light while eighty hour weeks were unspoken quarterly mandates given the ebb and flow of the work, the constraints of an understaffed team, and the expectations for yearly compensation bumps.  Go, go, go.  Don’t stop. The Job is Life.  Life is the Job.

Then I had kids.

I took on new jobs – mother, nanny, cook, laundress, healer, advocate.  New priorities surfaced. Health, schooling, community, personal growth of toddlers becoming conscious of their world and demanding explanations, insights, knowledge; every day I juggled these priorities, none more important than the other, yet all co-dependent, all critical.  I stretched in different directions, reached for new meaning in the face of observations posited by children who were awakening to a world with no Before, no Later, only Now.  My life demanded a change.

So I quit.

I wrote my first and, until now, only blog post about quitting my career in consulting a few weeks ago.  My friend Patricia, the writer behind GoodMomVsBadMom.com, invited me to write about transitioning from working mom to stay at home mom.  I was surprised at how cathartic it felt.  Putting words to my feelings gave me the same sense of satisfaction that my black and white speckled notebook gave me so many years ago.  Words are gems that can sparkle off the page if we take the time and care to nurture them.  They can help us define ourselves to others.  They can help us come to terms with our own lives; who we are and who we want to be.  So now the journey continues, one word at a time.