What is True?

Out of the blue, I received a phone call from someone in the midst of an anxiety attack. I wasn't prepared for this, but isn't this life? So much of it is full of things I am not prepared for, and I do them anyway. I asked my friend to take a deep breath (truthfully, I did the same because I had no idea what I was doing) and then I said, "Tell me... what's going on?" He talked for ten minutes, telling me a long and convoluted story, his voice rising to peaks and lowering to valleys that seemed to match the plot twists he was sharing. Some of it I could not follow. After he was done I said, "Ok. Now out of all of this, what is true?"

He paused. From all of his meanderings he could only identify two things he knew with certainty were true. The rest was a story he was telling himself. His breathing became normal and his sentences took on the sheen of someone more aware of the moment he was in and he was willing to hang up with a degree of certainty, that for the time being, he would be ok. The truth as he had determined was still hard but manageable.

This whole incident feels indicative of this new world we are living in. What is true? How do I find my way to the truth? I start with my breath. Then I move on to the warm cat in my arms and the sun filtering through the leaves casting a narrow shadow on my dog sleeping in her favorite spot on the couch. I see the remnants of breakfast in the sink, spy my coffee cup, mostly empty, and I think, "I am here."

"Here" means this point in history like none other. "Here" means I debate often with myself about when I will read the news. Morning, noon, or night? I have to decide how much time I will give to it. I choose a variety of sources and lately, they are all saying the same thing. What is true is I am watching an unhinged man "lead" our country. What is true is my seventh grader shows a much greater capacity for remorse and self-reflection than the adult male in the White House. What is also true is that the officials of the party he aligned with have remained silent, mostly, despite his unhinged behavior. This, at times, unnerves me. 

What is also true is people are starting to not talk about the president at all. Face to face, I see friends for walks and attend committee meetings and go about my business and rarely does anyone mention the news. This distresses me. It seems like we are accepting and normalizing a dangerous man. My family's not talking, my friends aren't talking, and really what it comes down to is, what is there to say? No one knows for sure, and isn't that the truth? 

Another true thing is I went to a meeting this morning for a group whose main purpose is to encourage engagement within our community about any number of things. This summer, we want to get our community talking to each other. There is no hidden agenda other than getting out of your house and getting to know those who live next to you. This is a concrete action I am taking in the place where I live. 

It's also true I drive to county jail and watch a friend lead some inmates through the steps that Molly Barker created in The Red Boot Coalition. Many of them sit there, free from alcohol and drugs for the first time, and ever-so-slowly start to put the pieces of their past, present, and future life together. I listen, mostly, and I am struck at how this is the real time version of what it means to be more alike than different. Anxiety and parenting and money and fear and an unwillingness to admit our faults and mistakes--every single person carries these things no matter how shiny their outsides look. As they make connections, I make connections I have never made before. I can't say what lasting impact this will have on them, but I feel changed. Once they leave the safety net of a jail, who really knows what will happen? But it is amazing! What is true is that good things can happen while the world appears to be falling apart.

Still, today, I am haunted by my own words. What is true? What is true is I have no idea of how to explain someone like Trump to my kids, but I can demonstrate kindness and healthy debate. I can feel fear in my heart with every headline I read and then replace that fear with one action that rises above every heartless and selfish act. I can keep writing and talking and using my own voice when it seems other people seem scared. I can keep reaching out to people until the truths I see and feel and create are larger and more powerful than the headlines. Perhaps I can change the headlines. It seems unlikely, but I can try. There seems to be no other choice for me...and that is the truth. 

A Birthday Girl

Today my girl turns 16.

We made a time capsule for her on her first birthday. Today we will open it at dinner and discover what is in there. I honestly can’t recall, but what I can tell you is what is in my heart today.

Parenting is a trip like none other. You can do all the “right stuff” according to books and experts and common sense and your gut, and still, none of that can account for some of the crazy things that happen.

I can’t rewrite the script.I can’t go back in time to undo every parenting fail. I can’t undo all the bedtime battles or the development of an illness that was just like watching a horrific car crash in slow motion. I can’t undo all my bad advice and emotional reactions. I can’t undo all the fun I did not allow myself to have for fear of not being the MOTHER.

And despite all of this, she rises. I am in awe of the person she is becoming. She has more grit in her little toe than I’ve ever known. She has found her way through determination and hard work. She enjoys living in her body and now moves with grace and confidence. She is mature beyond her years, cool when I am hot, thoughtful when I want to rage, and all I can do is remain her faithful student.

I don’t know why I got the girl I got. There are days when I don’t know how I have lived through the heartbreak and sorrow. And yet when I look at this girl, I see everything I need to know in her eyes. She came out wide-eyed and curious on May 24, 2001. She was craning her neck and looking around so attentively that a long-time nurse said, “I’ve not seen that before. She’s ready to go!”  And that was my first clue that the gift of her life with me was really quite temporary.

We are not best friends. We don’t have that kind of relationship. Things aren’t easy and breezy and she is not begging to take a selfie with me or hang out just because. She does not give up her thoughts easily as I taxi her to and fro. I settle just for being next to her.

But she does ask me about my day. She does come in every night to kiss me good-night and fistbump her dad. She says "thank you" for each meal and rarely does she ask for anything. She figures out most of her daily dilemmas without constantly texting me. And this: she notes my life as a writer. On the night of the reading, she attended. Later she complimented my writing by saying, “You’re good, mom”.

That is a jewel I will always carry.

I did get more than I bargained for and what a bargain it has been.

All I really know is that I have tried. She’s got a few more years with us, but I see one of her feet, clad in a tap shoe or a pointe shoe or a flip flop or a Chuck Taylor, and it is pointing out into the bigger world. Those feet are ready to run, dance, skip to the next place. She is ready and I see it. And it is my cue to get ready too.

Until then, I have just a few wishes for her.

Stay fierce.


Stay focused.

Laugh as much as possible.


And don't forget to pause once in awhile to look at how far you've come.

And always remember, I'm your mama.

You Heard It on The Radio

A local radio show asked me to discuss my writing as it pertains to some efforts I am making toward a book. Of course we discussed writing and life because the two really can't be separated in my mind and what I found myself thinking was, "This is so much fun!"

Talking is another way of processing the world I see. Taking these thoughts to the page is another step further in distilling how I see the world at any given moment.

This is all to say that I found myself thinking as carefully about what I said as what I write. If you choose to listen, I set up the work I am doing about my life in Iowa. The whole thing started because I felt like people were dissing the area where I spent my childhood. That stung and so I set out to sort it out a bit by examining those closest to me, my family. I am enormously grateful to them and proud of the people they are. I think you'll pick up on that.

If you'd like to hear a few stories, maybe you'll enjoy this.

The Art of Lisa Gray

On Birds and Change and Hope

We were both barely awake. I was not deep enough into my first cup of coffee and Ben's Monday morning eyes told me it would be slow going to make the bus on time. It had been a very full weekend and the remnants clung to both of us as we tried hard to work ourselves into the day. As I slid open the patio door to let the cats out on the deck, a lone robin warbled and it felt like a bit of hope. Despite everything that is true today, this bird was singing and for months to come birdsong will soar above the normal morning music of coffee percolating, water running, and toast popping. 

"Did you hear that mom?" he asked.

I nodded and he went on. "You know how they go away one by one and you just sort of forget because you get excited about the first snow and you don't think about the birds being gone? And then they come back slowly and you remember what you missed? I missed the birds."

Ben is 13. His voice is changing and the hair is appearing on his face and legs. He's dropped holding my hand, sharing a book before bed, and sometimes he even forgets to say goodnight. The kid who always wanted to "be" wherever we were suddenly wants to be elsewhere. I don't tell him I notice these things. I don't tell him I notice how the bedtime routine, once the hallmark of my evening, has gradually disappeared into the ether of  "when you were a kid'. I don't tell him I feel each loss a bit more acutely because a pining mournful mother is not what a son wants. 

What's that they say?  Eeeewww!

I also don't tell him I like that he noticed the birds. Instead, I let his words hang in the air with the birdsong and my heart seems to double in size. His observations and how freely he's given them have always been a gift to me. As his body changes and his brain works to keep up with the pace, I know these verbal riffs might also become rare.

And so I do what I've always done. I sit in the moment, I let my heart regroup, and then I smile.

He looks at me and says,"At least we know they always return, right?"

Ah...that is the hope, I think. 

Ben has moved on to food and clothes and Monday morning. But not me. Instead, I sit a bit longer in my hope of what will be.


I’ve always had trouble feeling comfortable in my skin. I can trace it back to junior high journals where I write, “I wonder what it would feel like to be at ease.”  I’ve said this at 13, at 21, at 27, at 33, at 41, and I can say it now. For as far back as I can go, I can point to times where I felt squirmy. I can see little moments where it’s like I’m in a bodysuit made for someone much smaller and I cannot get out of it, but I am trying hard for release. Maybe it started with noticing I didn’t look like other girls. Maybe it started with just thinking I didn’t look like other girls. I don’t really know.


Today I can tell you exactly when I started feeling uncomfortable again, sort of off and unsettled. Many people might say election night, but I was a fighter until inauguration day. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to face it. I just wasn’t willing to give up on everything I believed to be true about who Donald Trump showed himself to be. His actions never lied.

There is this life of mine before he became our president and there is a whole new life unfolding after it. There was the life of mature leadership and measured thought and equality and kindness (before) and the life of secrets and lies and manipulation and abuse and isolation (after). I feel whiplashed. I feel like I don’t know my country anymore. I’ve witnessed abusive relationships. I’ve had too much exposure to narcissism. I know enough to know this is bad. This is not normal.


Why divide my life into the before and after? Before I lost babies. After I delivered two children who live (still!). After Andrew died. Before I met my husband. After I got married. After my sister came out. Before I knew steady love. After she got sick. Before depression stole my heart. After the roof caved in. Before the fall. All these moments, big and small, all mine. What is the point in before and after? Is it to see that you really did have the sun and the moon at one time? Is it so that you know when the dawn breaks, it is a gift?


I have been labelled “too sensitive” and “touchy”.  I react and notice and I have a hard time trying to manage all I am taking in. I know my feelings enough to trust the ones that will pass. I know what to write through, walk off, let go. This doesn’t mean I am always good at it.

I was told to release my negativity, that I need to pray to find joy. But there is a far-reaching and treacherous malaise setting in and it’s not just happening to me. I think I am seeing that this is what it must feel like to anyone not white, not born here, not privileged. Finally, I am tasting a microsant of their exhaustion and I don’t mind letting others know that the power of positive thinking is not going to will away the nightmare unfolding around us. This doesn’t mean I don’t see the good and I don’t experience joy. I have cats! But so many are fearful and in pain.I will not be ignoring that.


I think back to my hot pink carpet and lime green bedspread of my seventh grade bedroom. I am sprawled across my bed and  I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is on repeat for me that year. I devoured everything Maya Angelou had written. I know I don’t think about why a chubby white girl from Iowa is drawn into the world of a mute African American girl. Was it the first time I “got woke”? Was this the first time I understood that beyond geography and skin color, our humanity is what unites us?

I am thinking about walking through Anne Frank’s hiding place in Amsterdam. I went there when I was 22. I am remembering the beautiful commode and how unexpected it was to find bright white porcelain inlaid with beautiful tiles. It was strange amidst the cramped quarters, the slanted roof and creaky boards. The tenacity and resiliency of the family in the midst of utter terror seems remarkable. I am wondering if this is what will be required of all of us now.

My introverted husband, peaceful, loving and tender asks, “ At what point do we become physical with our resistance?”

This morning my web browser history has a site I do not recognize. It is called Guns and Gear.

I don’t know anything so I keep writing. I keep asking questions and searching for answers that may not be there. I keep talking and typing towards relief, towards commitment, towards something that looks like a stance, a promise, a protection, a resistance to all that I do not believe in. I keep going. That is all I can do for now. And I won’t “release negativity”when it’s being trotted out on a daily basis for all to see. It’s not mine to release. Somehow, our country brought us here. I certainly didn’t ask for it, but I do know what I won’t stay quiet about what I see as unjust. Because when I am, a different sort of trouble begins.

Freedom is my voice.

I heard a young man say that the other day. He’s in jail for reasons I don’t get to know, but when I asked him why he mattered to the world he said, “Because I have a voice.”  And it’s true. Even in jail, he can use his voice to make his presence known.

I am grateful he reminded me that in difficult times it’s more important than ever to speak up.

I am thinking of him and the daughters he discussed with pride. I am thinking of the music he says he writes in his head when he can’t find a way to express himself. Even confined, he is not quiet.

It’s true I want to remain kind and that I want to treat anyone I encounter with kid gloves because everyone is under some duress. I have no idea how what’s going down is shaping my neighbor’s life or affecting my friend’s children. Or maybe I know, but I can only think about it little bursts. But none of this means I have to be quiet. That, I think, would be the worst thing.