A Million Signatures of Friendship

I caught crickets with the boy you would marry. “I’ll give you a quarter for the Queen,” I offered, and he dispensed the prize insects in glass Coke bottles. My cousins got to keep theirs on the fire escape but aghast at the sight of black crawlies in her home, Mom threw mine down the incinerator chute. I was so mad. The Cricket Catcher breathed restlessly and contrived guns from wooden clothes pins and soda can tabs. Who knew he would find and love my dear friend someday?

You were in a different class in elementary school but somehow I liked you. We still get a kick out of the way that I, Bathroom Monitor at lunch in fourth grade, had the girls wait for a stall in size order…because you were short.

Even if I’d journaled the way we clutched bellies aching in laughter, how does one record the telepathy that provoked it? I could’ve noted all the times you found me waiting on the stoop of your building after school but the smell of your home, of worn leather couches that invited me to stay? I showed you how to make Jello and bake out of Betty Crocker. You taught me generosity. Whether from sugar or hormones or real profundity, we cried harder than we laughed. The peals of hilarity, tears and confidences – a million signatures of friendship. You saw the dumbest, boldest, smartest things I did and the words that spilled from my pen; were moved by the poem I published in the eighth grade yearbook but asked in high school what the point was to the vignette. We wore honesty like skin and tread a hundred thousand steps between our homes, passing apartment buildings that boxed in the sky when we looked up. And you told me to make something of myself. The encouragement, acceptance, breakfast and TV dinner rituals: the muscle and fiber of a childhood.

If I erased you from those early pages, I’ll end up with more emptiness than story. We didn’t expect to follow our hopes, heartaches, regrets to two lives on opposite coasts full of joys of family and the tiredness that is our inheritance as Korean mothers. I could not have guessed your boy would one day walk the shiny halls of my old high school. He would think, eyes on the girl by the window, that his parents never felt what he has with such density. We are startled by time because we feel younger than we did when we knew everything at fourteen.

The Land of the Living

March 2003, Journal

Friends were ready to call 911 this week.

Painfully sleep-deprived with glands really bad off, I attempted a home sauna. I didn’t realize it’d be too much after last week’s sauna at the gym. I drank at least a gallon of water this time but started seeing lights flash in the bathroom. My hands tingled. Things took a fast downturn the more I drank. I vomited myself completely out. Totally dehydrated, I went into shock.

I couldn’t move, lost sensation and perception of color. The few muscles I could still feel stiffened like wood. Lightheaded, I could hardly speak. Or crawl. I collapsed on the phone and managed to eke out a few words.

The wildest thing was the perfect succession of friends who came. After my doctor, the first friend I got a hold of was out on her lunch break right nearby. She made a bank deposit for me before the hour passed so the rent check wouldn’t bounce. Also went and picked up what I needed from my doctor’s to keep me out of the hospital.

She was stunned to see me like that but couldn’t stay. When she dropped off the goods, my roommate had just arrived. Roomie was indispensable. She held the phone to my ear because I couldn’t do even that and as I whispered back to the doctor, kept the paper bag over my mouth and swathed me in blankets. I later learned she happened to have dropped by that moment only to grab some medicine for a sick friend she had with her. By this point, I had called T for prayer. I couldn’t pick up his follow-up calls and then was disoriented and taken aback to hear him at the door. Two other friends entered on his heels. I didn’t want them there, felt so bad for being a bother when I didn’t know them as well, but later saw I would’ve had to call the ambulance if they hadn’t taken care of me that night.


So two guys, one girl. They didn’t have enough hands. Too nauseated and weak to move, I couldn’t open my eyes or sip water. Whatever I drank I promptly lost through both ends. I ran through the first remedy quickly and needed more. Friends spoke with the doctor and while one guy ran out to her office, I started regressing and losing feeling throughout my body again. I was limper than a rag doll (which at least has stuffing enough to sit up) that they had to push my chest and head up against the wall, keep the paper bag over my head, quickly lift it while one spooned me remedies every 40 seconds and pulled the bag back down.

It was so incredible we laughed. In his typical humor, T complained his hand was tired and hooked his elbow under my chin to keep my head up in a (gentle) wrestling choke. By the time they put me to bed at 11 pm, I hadn’t slept since three in the morning and my stomach was empty. What they had done was unbelievable. They had to work the next day but labored nonstop for seven hours to nurse an invalid back to life. I’d heard them pray.

It’s like…I’ve been in line forever at the DMV after an endless license suspension that’s kept me off the road, the land of the living. Just as I was making noticeable progress up the line, I found myself forced all the way to the end again. I’m looking out the window at the cars zooming past, sure I’ll never be able to join the world of normal again.


December 2014

It is hard not to get emotional revisiting this chapter of the craziness I once called my life. I went on to rebuild from Ground Zero, to become stronger, to dance, marry and give birth to the child of my dreams. I went on to write and live all over again. There are many things about my blogging journey that have startled me – not only the growth of this readership but the depth. You don’t know what it is you do for me. Some days I hit publish. And your comfort is so deep, though I hadn’t sought it. Apparently, I’m not done needing angels. We all talk about the treasure of community we discovered in one another. A fresh wonder, it’s a familiar refrain on my lips. I’ve come to genuinely care for many of you these 21 months, and to share in your happiness and sorrows. I wish I could make it better, that things will look up in the new year, that the sun will break through your grief and fears. I also learned to laugh with you. Now that’s living, isn’t it? I look back at these 11 years. Wow, I’ve come far. Thanks to those who would light my way back every time. Normal? I’ll never be normal. And this blog proves it. You are one extraordinary bunch, great minds with the biggest hearts, and I am so very fortunate to know your love, affection, and respect. As you’ve glimpsed, I’ve received a great deal over the years and if the candles I light should ever help you find your way and stay the course, I am so grateful to be able to pay it forward.

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Ten Cents a Blister

He was the survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. His parents and sisters perished there.

I met Robert Walker when I was about eleven years old.

I’m not sure if Robert felt sorry for me, genuinely liked me, or thought I needed a break, but he had me home for a weekend. It was a rare opportunity to spend time in the city. Living on a farm, a religious commune, my brother and I worked hard as we had next to no mechanization.

“After the camp, when the war was over, I came to Canada. I was only ten years old. The family I lived with had a farm. I was paid by the blister.” He held out his hands, palms facing me. “Ten cents a blister. I made sure I had ten blisters. I needed that money.”

Robert showed me his coin collection and his stamp collection. He demonstrated how to remove a stamp from an envelope by soaking it in water, and he explained that fingerprints on a coin are bad because the oils, over time, can corrode the metal. He took me to museums and told me of the importance of wearing a seat belt and that if you’re going to do a lot of walking, the best thing for your feet were shoes with thick rubber soles.

It was so alien to me to have someone talk to me rather than at me. I’m sure I wasn’t an easy kid to like. I smelled bad, my hair spiked in crude chops, and I could be rude and crass, as a result of having lived apart from the world.

The kindness Robert showed me stayed with me, and now as an adult I wish I hadn’t lost touch with him. I wish I’d thanked him. He opened a window to a life that was possible, one I hadn’t conceived of on my own but that had sparked my imagination. A life of being clean, eating sandwiches on a deck in the sunshine, and laughing with people who are content.

The lamp on the bedside table was still on in Robert’s guest room. I had slept with the light on throughout my childhood for the nightmares. My brother and I were told the Devil was always watching for a moment of weakness so that he may possess our bodies and claim our souls. I often dreamed of a creature blacker than night who would appear out of the dark and sit on my chest and choke me.

But that night I thought about Robert and the Nazis and all that he had lost and endured. I turned off the light. I realized that there are demons in this world more real and frightening than anything my father could conjure. And Robert showed me that even a little boy could endure a long, dark night and still be whole when morning came.

John Callaghan at Get Off My Lawn



My Father’s Box

When my father died, I kept the wooden box in which he had stored his tools. Dad worked as a plasterer, so the box is scarred and coated in plaster dust.  But this box reminds me of all that I learned from him about earning a living.  From Dad, I learned that loyalty and pride in your work are more important than how much you earn.

I was raised in North East England. For the first decade of my life, we lived in a small flat with an outside toilet.  We bathed in a tin tub in front of the fire.  Dad could have earned more working for another employer, but he was loyal to the small family firm he’d apprenticed to.  He took pride in his work and often carried out jobs for family and friends for nothing more than a couple of packs of cigarettes.

We didn’t have much money, but neither did the people we mixed with. My friends were from our street, from my school.  Those who had more money and lived in wealthier areas, those who spoke with less of an accent, were labelled “posh”.

Whether we like it or not, we inherit our parents’ attitude to money. I still carry the values that came from my traditional working class background: the need to work hard, be respectable, not act above your station, respect your elders and “betters”.  My upbringing gave me a sense of fairness and a desire for equality.  But in some ways, I always felt that I didn’t quite “fit”.  I wanted an education and a career but I was the first generation in my family for which that was an option.  When I achieved them, I would often underplay my success so that people wouldn’t think I had gotten above myself.

Just as having money can free us, so our attitude to it can bind us. I currently work as an area manager, responsible for a group of libraries and community buildings.  My job and my lifestyle now would be categorised as middle class.  Yet I will forever feel working class.  I can afford to do the things my parents never could, but I’m not always comfortable doing them.  I can eat in a fancy restaurant but never quite feel I belong there.  I can be intimidated visiting an expensive shop.  I value something because of its worth to me, not because it has a name that someone tells me I ought to value.  I often feel guilty spending money on myself, because the purchases are things I want but don’t need.  I would be horrified if someone called me “posh”.

I still feel as though I straddle two worlds: the world I was raised in and the one I have forged. Inside, I’ll always be that working class girl who never had much money.  And I’m proud of the woman she has made me.

Andrea Stephenson at Harvesting Hecate

Blogging: I CAN Have It All

I started this blog as a writer and now am writing you as a blogger. Did you know I care about my numbers? Did you know I think my readership rocks, not just for the depth but for the size? I have readers who have bolted their seat to this blog. Anyone who wouldn’t want that, raise your hand. Anyone who would rather have 500 subscribers over 5000, feel free to leave the room. You’re not for real. In my miniseries on successful blogging, I said almost a year ago:

I discovered my blog would be an art gallery – at least an attempt at one. Not with paintings or photographs, but with words. And so the way I give birth to my posts fits that vision. If I had to choose between searching for the perfect word and befriending 20 new bloggers in a given window of time, there’d be no competition. Because my goal isn’t to bust the roof on my stats. My art will always trump the blogging.

The cool thing I’ve discovered is there really is no competition. I can have it all, stay as demanding of myself (and guests) in the art and keep drawing new readers who appreciate the masochism. Hec, I can even laugh. I realized my writing was a a bit stiff last year. As a reflection of my ease as a blogger and a way to bridge any distance between me and the reader, I now try to say something more simply where I did it more formally before. I’ve also allowed myself more liberty, not insisting that I hurt my brain in every darn post. I discovered it’s called having fun. With you. Who cares what I did, where I went this week? Many of you let me know you actually do, in this thing known as relationship. A reader graciously praised me for keeping my ego out of this blog. That’s not been hard, as A Holistic Journey has become something bigger than me.  Yes, I’ve worked my butt off but I can’t take full credit for what it’s become. I almost couldn’t name what I was seeing as I watched it grow. My blog was alive, this worldwide community of artists and thinkers who share their history, fears, and dreams. I feel closer to some of you than I do with people in my day-to-day. As I evolve, I’m seeing that quality and quantity in blogging can be friends.

So the 133 views on my About in the last seven days tell me I had a good number of new readers. This view count is our speedometer. Your comments will often come from faithful readers, your likes from them as well as the pop-ins. But it’s the stat on your About that marks those who’re checking out your blog and tells you if you’re walking in place or going somewhere. Sure, people can follow you without reading your intro but that number can help you gauge your growth. Whether folks are just passing through or staying depends a lot on the content of that page.

I tend not to make promises to myself because life happens. But a goal is not a promise that you’ll make it. It is a hope you launch into the air with the commitment to keep it in trajectory. When a year after I gained 100 followers I found myself with 3000, I shut my eyes and then dared to peek into the sun. I set a hesitant goal of doubling my subscribers by the next June. A pie-in-the-sky aspiration, with these time constraints.

Turns out I’m terrible at dreaming.

What I’d considered a goal laudably higher than my reach was more than doable. I see the sign for 6000 feet up ahead and climb steadily to touch the milepost in two weeks. I hope this encourages you in your blogging. Remember, I didn’t know which way was up when I set out last year. You’ve shown me enough love; I’d like to hear if anything here is helpful for your own blog. Though I’ve seen people plateau in the higher numbers, I think success feeds success. With some notable exceptions in our midst, it seems to get easier for most of us after the first 1000 followers. But I will never compromise my standards in a chase for numbers. My exacting nature, which becomes a liability at times in my personal life, has served as an asset on this blog. The fastidiousness is what I’ve built this blog on. I want to offer content that would compel a visiting editor or publisher to pull up a chair.

And I wouldn’t be here without you who’ve done just that. It makes me happy to see you grow. I want your blogging to be as bright, deep, and expansive as you want it to be. I hope you feel the heartbeat of your blog as I do mine.

I May Be a Man

What is UP with the drama? Look, I don’t need any. See me over here sitting quietly on the end of the girly, feminine spectrum? I hate shopping, don’t do eyeliner, clip these nails the moment they’re long enough to go. If you want to torture me, force me to endure a bridal or baby shower and make me play the games – your idea of fun. I have nothing to add to inane talks about your favorite TV shows because I’m a bore who doesn’t watch TV or movies. I’d rather be writing my book on the meaning of life. Are you getting this? I’m not a busybody, don’t know pop culture, don’t gossip. And I still attract drama.

Because I am a woman.

Oh, to be a man! When life is as simple as the pork juice on your chin and the beer bite on your tongue. To be able to hear yes and no without translating no and no. To enjoy the peace of mind that a few minutes of exchange will not spin into a saga. Why in the world did I spend those months investigating the sport of fighting, wondering why men punched one another and then hugged? Oh, if I could upper cut a woman who pushes me over the edge, shake her hand, and call it good with some honest fun in a mean game on the court. Only with women could a BFFship of years dissolve in one hard acid day.

And how do you men take your nice, strong arm and sweep the clutter of To Dos off your mental table? It’s a gift – the amazing ability to check in with yourself, distill competing voices down to your need in the moment. Why did I ever complain of your one-track mind? Food, sex, game that’s on, sleep. You just roll over, close those eyes, and…”Honey? Honey? I was saying –” You’re gone. Way off in a deep sea of sweet nothingness. I’m jealous. I’m stupid. I mean, why wouldn’t I want sex or sleep? Ah, but I carry within the million-dollar answer. Hostage to hormones. People say that time of the month like it’s one day. It can run a week, people. And that’s all just the merry prelude to the bloody show. Did you know many of us also feel discomfort and get emotional when we ovulate? How many clear and free days does that leave us in the month? I’m pleased not to be one of those women who can call up tears at will. But catch me on the right days, and I’m a bawling mess. Weeks like this, I’m not sure which is worse. To be a woman or to have to live with one.


The Power of Story

What a series. We lit some dynamite this week, didn’t we? I had looked forward to introducing the all-star band of storytellers who had so much to teach us but they were the ones to be astonished by the level and depth of your response. Watching the relationships unfold was wonderful.

The success of the series Outsider, Looking In made me think again about the power of storytelling. Why would most of us – even a nerd like me – rather read a story than a textbook? Even to the point of spending years making them up for the hours it takes to read something called fiction? It’s as simple as that we are less lonely when we open ourselves to the world of another human being. Information alone doesn’t give us a sense of attachment or community. Which is why you have the social misfit geniuses, their mind plenty large. Stories engage and expand our spirit. We don’t just get smarter. We can become more compassionate.  A kind of osmosis takes place between storyteller and listener. Attending one another’s burdens opens windows of insight into our heart. Textbooks offer answers but stories take us into the mystery we call life and lend us courage to live the uncertainties.

Something I admired about our guest writers this week is the way they came to be able to reject self-pity and take ownership of the ball waiting in their court. Self-pity is lonesome. When you’re unbalanced, the loudest voice you hear is your own. Not rocket science that The World vs. Poor Me dirge leaves us in a pretty sad minority.

I thought it’s time to spell out something I’ve wanted to for a long time now. Those who’ve been with me a while can finish my mantra, that I hate to take up anyone’s time. I’ve been busy writing on the questions we all ask, turning over rocks we might use for stepping stones, the songs we all have laughed or cried. But I never expected such deep healing joy and comfort from my readers, times the holistic journey became rough going this side of the blog. It is a wonder. The fragments in my head that struggle for light make themselves out to readers around the world who let me know in my bones that they get me, are in my corner. With my pen and notebook, and here, right here on this screen is one place I have found I belong. And I have felt such love and affection for you.

They will reveal the poetry and pain of our humanity, sting your eyes with memories, kill, steel your resolve, breathe life, take your breath away with their holy beauty. They will, just words.

Insider Looking Out?

I got in a reader request today. She wanted to hear from the insiders. My questions for them:

So who of you grew up feeling you were an insider? Where or what group did you feel a part of? Was it by race or class? If not, was it tiring to maintain your status, stay “cool”? How deeply did this sense of belonging define you? Did you notice those who were outside or on the fringe? Did the easy belonging feed or diminish insecurity? Have you found yourself working harder to fit in anywhere over the years?

Having trouble disabling the likes. Be glad I don’t come to fix your computer or fridge.

My Misfit Brain

One sunny afternoon I went to a family and friends’ celebration, and I wanted the earth to swallow me whole. I’d that very week been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety; nobody there knew. Those at the gathering were celebrating religious and political beliefs that were virtually opposite to my markedly less conservative views. I was invited as a relative, and never knew if they really thought I shared their views or if it just didn’t matter. There was a lot of Bible reading, text interpreted to support favorite right-wing politicians. Many emotional speeches on the rightness and beauty of the group’s beliefs also implied that divergent views were stupid, evil or both. I wished I could disappear.

Mental health problems are inconvenient, messy, embarrassing. Incompatible philosophies and tastes, maybe even political or religious views, are sometimes socially acceptable as matters of personal leanings. But being exceedingly depressed or anxious? Lots of people would rather avoid or deny such things, and wish that mental-health patients, even functional ones like me, would keep quiet about it and get over ourselves.

Instead, I got help. I’m very lucky. I have terrific supporters, good doctors and meds. I’ve also recognized that I was already on the fringe before feeling so excluded at that long-ago party; that week’s personal crisis merely magnified it.

Feeling like such a misfit at the party simply exaggerated the real reasons I was miserable: severe depression and anxiety. Apparently I don’t have the balanced body chemistry that lets most people cope rather casually with everyday life. I think that every car on the road is about to crash into me; I have panic attacks in utterly benign situations; I believe everyone around me will reject me if they find out I’m so broken. My logic argues with my anxiety that this is all absolutely ridiculous, yet doesn’t always win.

The support and treatment have been great. I’m not ‘cured’ of being different this way, but for the most part I manage fine. Still, there will always be another odd-one-out party, another trial that seems gigantic though logic reminds me that being odd or upset is inconsequential.

What saved the day for me was to join the children. I discovered a wonderful kind of grace there: the littlest kids don’t care who believes what or who seems left out. While the adults bonded over joys I could never share, I wanted to escape to the car to nurse the emotional paralysis of my terrors in private. Instead, I slipped out to the front porch and sat on the swing in the safer company of kids, and we chattered aimlessly about how much cake and ice cream we all planned to eat. They didn’t care whether I seemed normal or grown-up, or not. Next party, I’ll be heading straight for the porch.

Kathryn at Art-Colored Glasses



J and I were closer than some sisters. We’d hang out in the high school auditorium, she with her Bible out. She would cover her ears when my mouth went off like a truck driver’s, ask me to ease up. Apart from the love of music we shared, we were as different as they came. She was pretty, very sweet, smiled easily; a feminine soprano to my contralto. She was Valentine’s Day. I, often in black, Halloween. But we were home when we were together. We often went off by ourselves during lunch. It’s been seventeen years since we last saw one another just before she went overseas. Not long out of college, we were each setting out on our adult way. I feel Jurassic sharing this, but we wrote letters back then. I didn’t have ready access to email. And so we lost touch. About ten years ago I ran into her cousin and got J’s email address. No luck. To think, she wasn’t even supposed to live far. I missed her so much. I’ve since pined about J to my husband who looked for her on Facebook. She and I had only our obsolete maiden names to go by on the dead-end searches for each other. Turns out you don’t want to hire me for a private eye, or my friend’s really good at hiding.

Because she found me last week.

Someone from the world of business wanted to connect with me on LinkedIn. Her married name was foreign to me on the sparse profile page but I recognized the earlier years of her résumé. She had pulled me up pretty easily just Googling what she knew of me. It was surreal. She sounded even more wonderful and kind on the phone than I remembered her. I had a part of my history, a piece of my heart, back. She even emailed me a photo of the two-dollar bill we had signed that she kept all these years. There was my handwriting: Ambrosia, the diner around the block, 6th period. December 4, 1989. I smiled also at the following words, had to share them with you:

I’ve thought of you nearly every time I wrote anything: letters, email, work. Do you know why? You were always a reminder to me to write as well as I can. I don’t know how this will sound to you, but all these years I would ask myself, “If Diana read this, would she like it?” And it would be in lots of different aspects too, such as grammar, word choice, use of jargon, colloquialism, etc. Your high standards back in high school have followed me to this day.

Although I was known as a grammar fiend even back then, I was surprised to learn that my zeal for the full experience with the written word had rubbed off on her like that.

I’m aware of the dynamics in my relationships, why I attract certain people, disinterest others, what I like in someone, what I most certainly don’t. But thinking back, I wasn’t sure why J had been my friend. I planned to ask her in the face-to-face we’re looking forward to. Not to fish for affirmation, but to undo what’s been like a math problem in my head. She answered today before I asked:

You were endlessly fascinating to me 20 some odd years ago with the intensely hard edges one moment and inviting tenderness the next.

Isn’t it interesting seeing what others see in us?

This is an introductory post to the upcoming series that will continue to explore relationships. If you read between the keywords ethnicity and culture in the The Race Around the World, you would’ve seen the series was really about belonging. The heritage and color that mark us into groups are one way we seek to anchor ourselves. You’ll soon be seeing a string of guest posts from wonderful writers who talk about other ways they have struggled to belong. Sometimes life happens and physically makes it hard for us to engage the world. Whatever the circumstances that leave us feeling on the fringe, we find there is a deeper struggle at hand – one with our own self and our fears. For those who missed this piece cast in fiction, I will jump-start our series which we can call:

Outsider, Looking In

I go about nodding and smiling, playing the social conventions that keep my family happy with places to go, people to see. Sing when I’ve lost my voice? Crawl on hot coals? I’ll do it as long as the outings and birthday parties continue to fill the pages of my daughters’ memories. The laughter rings out from the circle of women, muted and distant. My lips move. I cock my head and my hair stirs in the wind. The gaiety refracts to runaway ripples by the time it reaches me.

I am on the outside, looking in. Always.

Somewhere along the way I disqualified from the human race. My body forgot how to sleep, my heart started working real hard. I have taken the girls to the park when my legs threatened to give out, hosted company with my skull threatening to explode. I stopped trying to explain my life to anyone, even to myself. It is a daily battle to summon the strength to be and breathe and jump and work as it comes so effortlessly to the rest. I look on, hungry for what others don’t even know they need. I sweat harder than any of them and find, with the sunset, I have walked in place all day. This is my normal. Dreams, my beloved dreams, dance beautifully just beyond reach.

So I stand here, an alien among the living. Palms against glass wall cool and taller than my deepest resolve. My eyes follow the wall to the top where it gives way to sky. And I know I will make it over, though I fall a thousand heights.

For everyone who feels benched or cut off. Alone.