Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What I've learned so far

I am slowly realizing that it’s ok if things aren’t perfect. I know this sentence sounds a bit ridiculous, but it’s really true. I have spent so much time - way too much - pondering and lamenting and generally feeling bad when things haven’t been “just right”. Is it possible that it is finally sinking in that life itself is a process, that to be moving forward in a generally positive direction is the goal, as opposed to some unrealistic, perfect endpoint that doesn’t exist? 

A couple of years ago a high school classmate of mine died of cancer, at a ridiculously young age. Her two little girls, nearly the same age as my own kids, left without a mother before any child should have to face such a thing. I spent so much time thinking about her, and those little girls, wondering how on earth they would be ok, wondering who could possibly comfort them in those moments when only mama would do. I see through mutual friends that they are, of course, doing ok - because grief may feel like it can kill you but it actually doesn’t - but I can only imagine how much they yearn for their mother’s arms. 

And recently I’ve witnessed - from very afar and without even truly knowing the people involved - another young mother die of cancer, far before her time. She had the same birthday as Brian, and was a year younger than me. The youngest 2 of her 4 children are close to my kid’s age - though I think Oscar is actually older than her youngest. A child younger than Oscar has lost her mother. This fact is unbearable, unfair. I see photos of this beautiful, smiling woman, full of life and love, taken at a time when she did not know that the full experience of her life would be only 38 years. 

I wonder if there is some sort of tiny perfection in all of this, however. Because perhaps what we can see in these lives cut short is that perfection does not exist. What does, though, is doing our best to love fully, to forgive ourselves and others, and to take notice of the moments that matter. My children are growing quickly and the moments of their littleness seem to be fleeting and ethereal, nearly like the comet’s tail that you cannot really see. I have moments when they won’t listen or are fighting when I just want to walk away, sit in the backyard with a glass of wine and let them tear the house apart while I check out. There is no getting beyond the fact that parenting is an inherently messy thing, and there will be lots and lots of imperfect moments. What IS perfect, however, is that I love my two littles with my entire, imperfect heart. I love them so much it feels like my heart could burst into a thousand pieces. It feels like a love that could damage one of my internal organs, the way I used to worry that Dora’s screaming as an infant would actually permanently injure her somehow, that the pressure of her cries would cause her spleen or liver to burst inside of her. 

I am learning to see and accept and forgive myself for the things that I need: time to myself, time with the kids, time to create - to write, to imagine, to take photographs, to cook, to (sort of) clean the house. Not every day allows for that time. Not every shoot is perfect, not every image is in focus. Not every moment with my kids is without flaw. In fact, most of them are flawed. Maybe that is what love really is - perseverance in spite of imperfection. Loving our children - and ourselves - deeply and imperfectly. Accepting that life is about progress, and imperfection is inherent. 

Those who die young are no more perfect than anyone else. But their terminal diagnoses do push them to the borders of love and relationship. They make clear all that really matters. And I know from walking through death with my own mother that imperfect moments occur even when knowledge of imminent death is present. You might think that if you know someone is dying, you will be nothing but kind and understanding to them, and never pick a fight. But it isn’t true. Life is messy and imperfect to the end. 

Perhaps a terminal illness or a premature death allows us to see - all of us, not just those in the midst of such trials - that love in all it’s imperfect, messy, inconsistent beauty is all that matters in this life. That to love the best you can, to create beauty in your own way, and to try for progress where possible, is all that we are really called to do. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015


A year ago, I sat on a plane to Salt Lake City for the job I had at the time, worrying about flying and trying to distract myself with two new books I had purchased just for the trip. One was "The 100 Foot Journey" by Richard Morais (which I loved). The other was "Wild", by Cheryl Strayed. I started with Wild - I had heard it was wonderful. And on about page 15, as the details of the author's mother's demise from cancer became clear, I closed the book with tears in my eyes. Not ready. 9 years, and I'm not ready. 

Now, there is a movie. The book has been sitting untouched on my bedside table for a year. I am still not sure, at 10 years out, that I'm ready to delve into this story that - excluding the heroin and copious sex with strangers - feels remarkably like my own. But, a few nights ago, I went to the movie with a friend who has also lost her mother. She had ended up reading the book after seeing one of my posts about it, and when the previews for the movie came out we made a plan to see it together - knowing it would be hard thing for both of us to do. 

me, probably on my first day of kindergarten, photo by my mother 

The movie was wonderful. I cried, a lot, as I knew I would. A few times, I thought I might have to step out so as not to disturb the other viewers. I watched it all and, though I am quite sure I will never hike the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail, I do think falling on my knees in the wilderness and screaming "I miss you" might be really therapeutic for me. 

Primarily told in flashbacks of Cheryl's childhood and the loss of her mother, one thing that surprised me about watching the movie was that it made me as weepy about my own children as it did about losing my mom. Maybe it's that the movie kids are an older girl and a younger boy, like mine. Maybe it's that, though they seem to be poor and uprooted a lot, the mom is really happy and always loving with the kids. She doesn't seem stressed out, worried about money, or frustrated with her kids. Maybe I will understand this when I read the book - will see she was actually more flawed, or that she has been accepted into the sainthood of the dead and just appears perfect in memory - but I found myself worrying if my own children have as many sunny memories of me. When I am gone, will Dora think fondly of when we say goodnight and blow each other kisses? Will she remember how much she loves my chili? Will she think of all the times she told me I'm the best mommy in the world? Or will she remember my tired, stressed out, overworked self, easily annoyed and nowhere near as patient and nurturing as I would like to be? 

my mother's coffee mug and turquoise ring, which I wear every day. photo by Dora 

After the movie, I sat in my car in the parking garage of the Aloft hotel and wept, loudly, covering my face with my black fingerless gloves. The pain of missing someone you love - of missing your mother, the one who nurtures, cares for, and protects you - it is a shitty, relentless, ominous beast of grief that patiently waits for you to feel slightly ok before jumping out and beating you up again. It doesn't go away - at least not in 10 years - and strangely I wouldn't really want it to anyway. As another friend told me recently, in the remembering and grieving the one we have lost is kept alive. 

The movie transported me back to the feelings of total helplessness, fear, and exhaustion we felt when my mom was sick. It reminded me of how we started out hoping for big things like trips and ended up just hoping for a pleasant meal together. It reminded me of that claustrophobic little room where the doctor tells you it's terminal cancer. In the movie, Cheryl's mother asks, "can I still ride my horse?" My mother said, "You know, you're really ruining my dinner plans right now." Sigh. 

I sat in bed with Dora the following night, helping her fall asleep. I scratched her back as she closed her eyes, brushed her hair away from her face so I could watch her relax, so I could stare adoringly at her 7-year-old face that still looks like the infant I remember. I was flooded with an unexpected memory of my own mother, sitting on my bed and "checking me in" - drawing little checkmarks along my back with her fingernail as I fell asleep. I wondered, did she sit and stare at my face, wondering over my beauty, wondering about my future, feeling her heart swell with love for me? Did she stare at me and see my infant face hidden in my childhood features? Did she weep with love for me? 

first pair of rollerskates, being put on by my mom at my 8th birthday party

The day my mother died, there were a lot of phone calls to make. We divided them up and plodded through them, letting family and close friends know she had died. I don't really remember who I spoke to, or what I said, or even how I got through those calls. But I do remember one conversation. I called the bookstore where my mother had been working when she got sick, and told the store manager that she had died. "You were the light of her life, you know?" was his response to the news. What he said to me meant more than nearly anything else I heard on those calls, or in the wonderful cards that were sent, or in the thoughtful embraces at the funeral and beyond. To hear from someone else - someone outside our circle but who knew my mother well - tell me how she loved me, was a gift. It was so priceless - so meaningful, as meaningful as my own flashbacks and memories, as meaningful today as it was 10 years ago. 

Where am I now? I'm not doing heroin, I'm not a famous author, there hasn't been a movie made about my story. I'm not hiking thousands of miles by myself. I never will. But, I'm on my knees, in the wilderness, crying out how much I miss my mother. I'm in the wilderness trying, as much as I can, to ensure that my kids have happy memories of me when I'm gone, that they know they are the light of my life in every possible way. 

And, I'm finally reading the book. I'm not really ready, but I'm reading it anyway. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Last week, after a seriously busy December and in the midst of various deadlines, I started my day with yoga. I haven't taken a yoga class in years. The last time I plopped myself down in a room full of barefooted strangers, I had a baby growing inside of me. I found prenatal yoga to give me a deep connection to the little life beneath my heart, a chance to breathe and relax when doing so felt nearly impossible, and - surprisingly - a place where I connected with other soon-to-be moms who, 7 years later, are still friends of mine. 

Since then, I've started my own business, had a second baby, changed to a work-from-home job for a national non-profit, and generally worked myself into a corner with a to-do list that will melt your face. I love what I do, and I honestly feel like it's killing me. Meals are eaten in front of my computer, sleep is a long-forgotten luxury I can barely afford. I can actually feel the impact on my body - let alone my relationships - and I don't like it. People I know are facing illness and death at a very young age, and I'm guessing my current lifestyle is putting me at a much higher risk for such a thing to occur in my own life. 

So, I was offered a complimentary class at West Asheville Yoga, and I took it. Though I have fond memories of pre-natal yoga, there are definitely some things about yoga that I just don't like. I'm not a fan of bare feet, mine or anyone else's. It's just too much information. And some poses are just plain uncomfortable. Downward Facing Dog? Not my favorite.

But my yoga class a few days ago felt really good, a pause to breathe and focus and just not be in the midst of all of life - the communications, the to-do list, the glow of the computer screen. It was just me, and my breathing, and a room full of other breathers. Sometimes hearing other people breathe is annoying, but during the class I felt the room inhale and exhale together like some collective being, and it felt kind of awesome. At some point, the sun started shining in through the window to my right. As I tried to focus on my breathing and stretching, I also thought "come on, lady, shut those curtains - that sun is right in my face!" But as we wound down to Shavasana, the room suddenly felt too cool, my bare feet freezing against my borrowed and hopefully previously-sanitized mat. I turned my face towards the sun, with my eyes closed. It felt great - like it was there just to warm me up. It felt like a gift, a surprising one, that I had thought wasn't a gift at all. Today will be different, I thought. And perhaps tomorrow can be as well. 

Indeed, 2015 will be very different for me. My life is changing, some of it in ways I cannot control and some of it in ways that I can. My non-profit job is ending. I'm being laid off, which is new territory for me. I've got a little over two months to build some wings for a gigantic leap of faith I'm taking. I'm not going to look for another job. Instead, I'm going to do something I've wanted to do for years - I'm going to focus on photography full-time. I've got some other work lined up too - a bit of consulting perhaps, and some studio management for Brian and for Orange Krush. But the primary focus is going to be my photographs, my family, and finally burning the candle at only one end. 

You'll be hearing more about this in the weeks and months to come. If you're so inclined, your positive thoughts, referrals, and general good juju will be much appreciated as I step off this cliff. Like the sun in my face during yoga, I'm seeing this as a gift. Namaste, y'all. Here we go! 



Yoga image courtesy of my lovely photo shoot with yoga instructor Maggie. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

20 Locally Grown Weeks, Week 2: Garlic Scape Pesto

I had been hearing that you can make pesto from garlic scapes for a long time, but this is the first time I tried it. WHY did I wait so long?! It was delicious and the kids really enjoyed it. Dora often complains that true basil pesto is too spicy (from the raw garlic), but garlic scape pesto is milder, and stays green! 

The recipe I found called for pine nuts and parmesan like a traditional basil pesto, but I used what I had on hand. I rarely use pine nuts because they are just so stinking expensive (although they are, of course, delicious). I found cashews to be just right, adding the butteriness that you usually get from pine nuts. 

I rarely measure anything when making pesto - just go for it until the consistency and taste is right (requires tasting as you go). 

Use as you would any pesto - ours went into pasta with halved cherry tomatoes, grilled sausage, and a little pasta water. Mmmm. 

Garlic Scape Pesto (adapted from Food52)

In a mini-food processor combine:

1 bunch garlic scapes, sliced
1/2 cup (or so) roasted cashews (I like the "not too salty" cashew pieces from Trader Joe's) 
1/2 cup (or so) grated Asiago 
olive oil (until it reaches the right consistency) 
freshly ground black pepper 

Keeps in the fridge for a week-ish. 

Bonus: This week I also made Minestrone Soup with Collards and White Beans. I used this recipe, subbing in chicken broth for the water. Also I pureed some of the beans with some water (instead of smashing with a spoon). 

Monday, June 2, 2014

20 Locally Grown Weeks, Week1: Napa Cabbage 2 ways

This post is late. Oops. But let's not let that get us too off schedule - I made a delicious garlic scape pesto tonight that I can't wait to share! 

For now, we'll return to last week with 2 great Napa Cabbage recipes. I know - I'm whimping out a little because Napa Cabbage is such an easy ingredient to work with (I think). It's great sliced thin and turned into a salad or slaw, or tossed into a stir fry with ground pork, garlic, ginger, and fish sauce. But I made two different salads last week that are worth sharing here. 

One final note: I am no chef. I am definitely not a recipe writer. I'm a recipe reader, though. I love to read recipes and often do just for entertainment. I've gotten good at (usually) choosing ones that work well, making small adjustments that will suit my family, and adapting them to what we have on hand. So, I'm not promising to present original recipes here - just sharing what's working for us, what changes I've made, and illustrating things along the way. 

Recipe 1: Shredded Napa Cabbage Salad with Radishes, Golden Raisins, and Dijon Dressing (click link to view) 

We had this as a side dish with ... wait for it ... hot dogs and corn on the cob for Memorial Day. The kids thought it was kind of spicy (Napa Cabbage and radishes both have a bit of bite) but I have to say this is one of my new favorite ways to use radishes. I always think radish slices in salad are too much, but using matchsticks was perfect. 

Added bonuses: 

  • While we had the grill hot, I grilled some chicken cutlets to cut up and add to salads through the week. I added leftover grilled chicken to this salad the next day and it was even better than the day before. 
  • This recipe calls for fresh chives. When I have a new recipe calling for fresh herbs in summer, if I don't already have it growing in my garden, I just buy a pot at the store and plant them for use all summer (or longer if they winter over). 

Recipe 2: Next we enjoyed the second half of our Napa Cabbage as a slaw with fish. The original recipe called for salmon, but I'm honestly not a big salmon fan so I used tilapia (sorry - I know there are tilapia haters out there). 

Napa Cabbage Slaw with Curry Dusted Fish (adapted from Martha Stewart) 

1/2 head Napa Cabbage, cored and very thinly sliced 
3 - 4 carrots, shredded 
a handful of fresh mint leaves (don't plant this in your garden. I learned the hard way. I tore it all out last year and it's already back in my garden) 
1/4 cup-ish fresh lime juice
2 Tbs olive oil 

tilapia filets
2 teaspoons curry powder
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper 

Combine the cabbage, carrots, and torn mint leaves, then dress with a mixture of lime juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Heat broiler. Season fish with salt and pepper, then rub all over with curry powder. Place on a lightly oiled, broil-proof pan and broil until it's done - which means watching it like a hawk and taking it out pronto so it doesn't get overcooked. 

I served this with rice. The next day the slaw was even better, again delicious topped with grilled chicken. 

Thanks for reading! More to come later this week and beyond!! 


Monday, May 26, 2014

the launch of 20 Locally Grown Weeks: our CSA experience

When Dora was a baby, I had a conversation with a colleague whose child is close to Dora's age. He was boastfully telling me how she had never seen Elmo. "She has no idea who Elmo is!" This was because, apparently, he and his wife were the only parents in the history of the world to uphold their pre-baby, "our kids will not watch TV" plans. 

Moments later, our conversation shifted to food, and he explained that his daughter's favorite food was a can of Chef Boyardee. Luckily, my inner voice that had been berating me for the brain damage I had already caused to poor baby Dora by allowing her to watch TV paused just long enough for me to absorb this statement. "Well," I offered, "Dora might know who Elmo is, but she definitely does not know Chef Boyardee."

And so went an early lesson in parenting - we all have different, and equally valid, goals and aspirations as parents. For some people, what their children do (or do not) watch on TV is more important than the toys they play with or the food they eat. There are so many battles in parenthood, you can't face them all. In our family, food wins. Yes, my children watch TV. But, most nights, we eat something homemade. Not saying that is right or better than the alternative, nor am I saying we always eat perfectly, it's just what we choose to try to do well most of the time

One way food wins for us is that we have been members of the Flying Cloud Farm CSA for years - so many I've lost count, but farm owner Annie and I figure it might be as many as six or seven. That's 20 weeks every May through October of Western North Carolina's freshest produce, grown, nurtured, and harvested right from this beautiful mountain land by our friends and neighbors in Fairview. Being a member of a CSA has made me grow and expand as a home cook, and has helped us connect more fully to our home and community. It has helped me get into a routine with shopping, meal planning, and cooking that works well (usually) for our family. And, for the most part, my kids do well with eating their vegetables, in part because they have no other choice. 

I have my faults with this, of course. I'm not a big fan of yellow squash, but they grow plentifully in Western North Carolina. Kohlrabi? Yes, it baffles me. And turnips are low on my list of priorities. 

But, this year, I'm upping the ante on using the contents of our CSA box in delicious and creative ways. I love food, cooking, and photography, so this year I'm launching "20 Weeks" where I'm going to (try) to share photos, recipes, successes, and failures from this experience. Thanks for joining me on this adventure! I hope to share something that you enjoy. 

If you're a social media whiz you can follow this project on Instagram, hashtag 20LocallyGrownWeeks. 

I know. A hashtag for my project. Please forgive me. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

long in time

Dora did not have school again today, so I made up some little math word problems for her. If Oscar has two trucks, and daddy gives him three more trucks, how many trucks does Oscar have? She spent a good part of the day working on these. I have to remember this the next time she says to me, in her whiniest, teenager voice, "I don't know what to dooooooo!"

So, here's a word problem for you: 

Oscar is 2 and a half. Dora is 6 and a half. 2.5 + 6.5 = 9. I have 9 years of kid between the two of them. 

You know what else I have 9 years of? Missing my mother, who died 9 years ago today. 

At first when I realized this today I thought this would be true forever, that every year my children's ages would add up to the number of years since my mother's death. But in doing the math on a piece of paper now, it doesn't. Next year, if I don't include the half years, it does add up (3+7 = 10). But the following year, 4+8 = 12. Someone smarter than I, a mathematician or a statistician, could tell me what, if anything, this means. I guess it's just a little coincidence, a little oddity that happens when stars (or something) align. I'm not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved. It seemed like a morbid, freak-show kind of thing at first, and then it seemed like a bit of a comforting oddity, like the cowlick at the base of Dora's neck that she inherited directly from me. 

Regardless, I guess it's me trying to find some pattern, order, or level of understanding in this chaotic and desolate landscape of grief I find myself 9 years into. It's this crazy, elastic, unpredictable space that comes and goes, waxes and wanes, and evolves in ways I didn't know possible. Nine years later and I still have days where it feels like it happened THIS MORNING. I have days where I can still feel exactly how much dread I felt driving down the driveway away from my parent's house, knowing I would never again return to that place with my mother alive. I have days where my jealousy that my kids don't get to know their grandma is alive like another person in the room, standing in the corner up against the wall, a bit out of sight but there just the same. 

Dora, in her old age, has become increasingly perceptive about my feelings about my mom. Simultaneously she is also very curious about death, I think, and talks a lot about Grandma Carol in heaven, about how much I miss my mommy, about how sad she is not to meet her, and about how sad she will be when I die. She has even suggested that, when I die, I'll get to see my mother again. I know much of that is her mirroring my emotions - after all, she has seen me cry openly about my mother on many occasions - but I also have to believe that, in some way, this open dialogue she and I share about grief and love between mothers and daughters is influencing her own understanding of love and it's power. I want, I need, her to believe that our love lasts forever. 

I believe that it does and, also, I struggle to believe that the love between my mom and I lasts forever. I know mine is still going strong, but I don't always feel whether or not that love is getting picked up on the other end, or that it's being returned. I have faith and I'm a Christian and all that jazz, but when you lose someone you love like this - well, you WANT to believe they're on the other end of the love you send to them. You WANT to feel them watching over you, you WANT to sense their presence. But, my friends, it isn't that simple - at least not for me. She's no Casper on my shoulder. She's in my heart, yes, but I seldom - if ever - feel the love coming back to me. I want to believe that she's out there in the universe or in heaven or in God reflecting that light back to me, but, honestly, the signal ain't coming through. 

And here I am in that rubbery landscape of grief and I've found a whole new area I didn't know existed. That's what's so shitty about death - the person still living simply has no proof of whether the deceased still loves them. We want to believe it, we really do, but the flow of love from that other person feels like it ends when they do. 

So, I want and need my little Dora - and Oscar, when he's old enough to talk about it - to know that MY LOVE for them lasts forever. That our love will keep us connected no matter what. That when we are separated by death, our hearts remain fused, our love goes on into eternity, our light shines between us forever. My own mother, though she had many great qualities, never talked about her own death - even when she was terminally ill. This was a conversation we never could have had. As a mother myself, I know how much she loved me, but she never said, "Carrie, even when I die, our love lasts forever." I really wish she had. 

Grief is a rubbery landscape and also a place where we continue to look for answers, even when we know there are none. We look for something to make sense of, even if it's that our kid's ages somehow mysteriously add up to the number of years of loss we've experienced. I keep turning over the rocks, keep looking around for some clue. I cannot make sense of this, but at least I keep asking. At least I keep feeling it, at least I can still cry about it. If I lose that, well, then she would be even more lost to me. If I ever stopped exploring this landscape at least a little, it feels like I'd be closing the door on my relationship with my mother forever. Feeling the sadness, at least, feels a little like life, and a lot like love. 

9=long in time

May my connection to you, mama, be long in time...

Always, your girl