0/10 Countdown: Call to Action

Old composition pedagogy (very old) used to tell speech givers and essay writers to a) tell them what you’re going to tell them, b) tell them, c) tell them what you’ve told them. I hated that. How dumb do they think we are, I’d think to myself. Yet, there’s some truth to both (the a-b-c and the “we’re kinda dumb”).

Now that I’ve counted down from 10, it’s time for your call to action.

I can think of lots of things you can do:

  1. Buy my book—after all, 10% goes to NAMI, the organization that supports people with mental illness, a somewhat larger percentages more goes to a small press, and I can retire. Or, at any rate, I can go buy a Cubano Latte from Spencer’s.
  2. Go get a coffee at your local coffee shop (which gives you a pass for going to Giant Starbucks).
  3. Hug your child or your mom or your dad or your brother or sister or friend. (That’s if they like hugs. Don’t force them to hug if they’re not into it. Read Roxane Gay’s Hunger and you’ll know why.)
  4. Recycle. Reuse. Reduce.
  5. I don’t need to tell you what to do. This is silly.

What I’d really like you to do is read my book, and if you have a few minutes, write a review on Amazon. Or Goodreads. In a book group or have students? I will join you (zoom or in person) and read, discuss, or answer questions. A book like A Tree You Come Home To is meant to be shared. I guess that’s true of all books, isn’t it? Maybe a better way to say it is this: some of you have passed along the road I traveled, have looked into the mirror at the end of the road, have noted those moments of change. We have things in common and we can talk about them.

1/10 Countdown: Small Presses

Yvonne Petus’s “Braced”

For many of us who write, small presses are the best thing going, and there are other reasons to support them. In a world in love with giants—or if not that, then addicted to what they provide or infatuated with the power they wield—small things often offer more heart. My experience with two little presses (and lots of literary journals) has been delightful. I got to pick the art work, for instance, which my two editors, Sena Naslund of Fleur de Lis Press and Jodie Toohey of Legacy Book Press, approved and then used their resources to design the covers. I was able to use WKU Professor and local artist Yvonne Petkus’s work for the poetry collection and my son’s digital painting for The Tree You Come Home To. That was important to me. I didn’t want some mystical figure floating in brine or reaching a hand out (I’m making this up) which is my fear of what happens when you have no say . . .

Galen Olmsted’s digital painting for the cover of The Tree You Come Home To

But further than the artwork, Sena and Jodie both made good decisions about things that needed revision or deleting. Before Jodie took my memoir, she requested I bring it down from around 275 pages to 225. That led to a fun revision process, really from my perspective the best part of revision: cutting. I have called myself the Queen of Cut, with good reason. Cutting lets you hone, helps you get rid of the indulgent. Having a goal (cut 50 pages) puts you in the shoes of a detective, in a way, as you have to find the extraneous, pay closer attention to what the words say. Then you evolve into the sculptor who chips away, smooths the edges, lets the art emerge.

Supporting small book stores and presses increases diversity, opens doors for less accomplished writers. A giant like amazon gets us with the incredible ease they offer and prices lower than anywhere else. They can sell books for less than it costs to print them, for instance, and we gobble that up. But maybe this loads our diet with sugar and fat. You can run from them but you can’t hide. So if you choose, at least some of the time, buy local! Then maybe these small book stores and presses will survive and we can hold off our dystopic future a little bit longer.

2/10 Countdown: Motherhood

If you lose someone very close, someone in your blood, adoptive, or friendship family, especially if the circumstances are violent and unexpected, you may do what I did: doubt your role, scrutinize the ways you failed in it, dream and then when you wake up, remember, wishing you hadn’t.

I hope, then, that you are flushed with gratitude for the life that gave you such a role to fulfill, however flawed, however well. That happened to me, too.

Because being Casey’s mother is an important thread in The Tree You Come Home To, I am not sure what part to give you here. But here’s what comes first to mind, a dream, which I put into one of the parts of “The Architecture of Loss,” the poem I referred to a few days ago:


The doors slam shut on the night-time
river of sliding images as the boy rises,

brushing leaves and debris from his shoulders.

He looks up, a grin spreads slowly across his face . . .
but something gives him pause—is it in my reach
for him or a shadow on the vaulted ceiling?—

Oh, to stop that cellular movement of knowledge across
the eyes, nose, mouth drawing down—

What am I doing in your dream?

There, there, my darling, come and let me hold you,
I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry . . .

In the dream, we are in a kind of wooded ravine, maybe a cave but if so, very large and not dark. Who knows what the dream was doing before he appeared. Since he was new to the spirit world, perhaps he didn’t know his way around yet, when he stumbled into my dream. He rises and brushes himself off. He sees me, breaks into a smile. My heart fills and overflows, then he realizes that the only way he could be there, in that place, is if he is no longer living—this knowledge tracks across his face minutely, cell by cell. I watch. My heart breaks. All I can do is apologize.

This is one of two dreams where he comes to me so clearly. The other one I wrote into a poem, too, when I was putting Seeking the Other Side together. Other dreams in The Tree You Come Home To are less specifically about him and more about my doubts, guilt, all part of grief—at least for me.

When my mother died in 2001, I had feelings of gratitude that brought tears to my eyes. I thought of how she had protected me, loved me so unconditionally even when I wasn’t so lovable, believed in my abilities beyond their reach. But also for her many gifts: her love of nature, her love of music, her precise way of speaking, the depth of her thinking, the way she talked back to the television. The list is long and still growing. I thought that probably most of my good qualities came from her.

The parental urge to protect is probably in our DNA, so even when you’re not to blame, the feeling of failure runs deep. We need better ways to think about our inability to save others that doesn’t feel so rotten. I’m reminded of Stephen King’s 11.22.63, where he imagines two men who share a mission and go back in time (there’s a handy portal for that) to prevent the killing of JFK. But the past gains a kind of will and makes it more and more difficult for them to alter things, even if it really would be better if this or that murder hadn’t happened.

It was true for me and is for others, too, I imagine, that we need to work through whatever feelings of failure we have, wonder what if, but before too long, stop, before it becomes a well-rehearsed rehashing of the same old finger pointing . . . when that happens, we’ve allowed it to take on a persona, gain will, resist any kind of healing, say, “stay here, feel bad.”

I hope The Tree You Come Home To is not just a sad story. I hope it’s a healing story. I don’t want any of us to get lost in the cycle of regret.

A picture of a card from 1994:

And this, from a journal entry: “My mom will be gone for a couple weeks, and I miss her.” 

3/10 Countdown. Addiction

I’ve been avoiding this one. And for that reason, I think I will make this short. It’s impossible to tell Casey’s story without talking about his struggle with drug addiction. Why would I expose him in this way, our beloved son, brother, father, friend? Because he would have wanted me to, plain and simple.

Although Casey hid his drug related activities, he also got in trouble. A lot. So there was no hiding it. For all his teen years and until the autopsy, which showed a negative toxicology, Casey did what most addicts do. They give in to it, they fight it, they struggle, weep, rage. During his younger teen years, he lied a lot, stole from us, fought us. But as he got older, he became more and more spiritual in his inner life. He valued honesty and became more open about himself.

Casey, upon graduation from Care Academy, with his counselor, Mr. Wright.

When I decided to tell Casey’s story and not just my own grief story, I gathered all the documents we had, then contacted all the facilities he’d stayed in, all the social services who’d been part of his life. Lifeskills had the most documentation—doctor reports, Casey’s worksheets, summaries, and daily staff reports from the Children’s Crisis Stabilization Unit, Rivendell Psychiatric Hospital, Park Place—but we also had police reports, and most of the materials from Care Academy in Willisburg, where he stayed twice during his 9th and 10th grades.

Once Casey told me that during a particularly ugly trip—I think it was during a brief time when he used crack—he saw a demon. It scared him. Later, going through his writing (he was prolific), I found this drawing, which I take to be that demon, with its ominous warning, “I’m waiting for you.”

So don’t let anyone tell you that drug addiction is a walk in the park.

Maybe this won’t be as short as I thought it would. It seems to me that in the letter below Casey is both sincere and maybe a little ambivalent (maybe a lot).

Here’s something Casey wrote, a letter to “Mary Jane.”

That ambivalence, along with countless and often confusing contradictions, characterize a lot of his teen years. Casey would have wanted his life, including all his hard work, to mean something, not just to us who loved and love him. He would have wanted other people to confront their demons, too. After all, we all “have business to take care of!” It’s called life. (One of his favorite Bible passages was “Choose life” from Deuteronomy.)

4/10 Countdown: writing about people you know

It’s probably true that anyone writing about “life” has to consider, at some point, the possible effects of writing about people they know. (I quote “life” not because I’m being ironic or trying to say that it’s not really life, just what some people call it, but rather to suggest that it’s too big a word and too small at the same time.)

At one point in the revision process, which for The Tree You Come Home To, came in something like 1,329 waves, I decided to change everyone’s name. This way I could protect them from any uncomfortable reflection or mistake on my part. So, for instance, Adrian became “Adam,” and “Galen” became “Glen.” Did Latoya become Lavinia? However, every time I came upon “Glen,” I had a moment of cognitive dissonance. Who’s that? And what’s he doing in my manuscript? I found I didn’t care about Glen. He seemed rather like the stranger who comes to town, bent on destruction, and I didn’t understand his ways. He may have shared bits of Galen’s temperament, but not in a good way. He had a temper, for instance, but not my son’s endearing way of apologizing (or name calling, per my post a couple of days ago, on watching Court proceedings).

And what of the minor characters (minor in my story but clearly not in their own) who make an appearance? Was Molly to become Polly? It was becoming ridiculous. People would be trying to figure out who Mindy was, rather than settling on any deeper meaning the story might offer. I know my genres, and this is not a mystery. And, of course, in the end, I don’t say anything bad about anybody else. There may be a person or two who tested me beyond endurance, but they don’t get named. I understand my purpose, at least I think I do, and it’s not to be cagey or coy with the truth.

Thanks to word processing, I could change 332 instances of the wrong name for the correct name in less time than it takes me to look up from my laptop and see one of our wild birds alight on the feeder.

Some of the people who play a part, for which I will always be grateful. Left: Latoya, Leah, Diana, and Omni, family; Clay Smalley, who was Casey’s teacher and mentor in middle school. And below: Molly Kerby, making music during one of our SRSC symposiums.

Molly Kerby with her mandolin.

5/10 Countdown: Yoga and Meditation

The proverbial wisdom is that if you fall off the horse, you get back on. But this seems to blame the horse (you can’t let it get the better of you). My experience with getting slapped in the face, gut-punched, and shot down is that the horse has gotten hurt, too. You can’t break yourself without the thing you’ve fallen off—life—being affronted as well. Maybe it’s the butterfly effect, the ripple of a stone in the river.

But it’s true. You can’t give in, no matter how large the hole you’ve fallen into. I wrote about this in a poem called “Second Year,” which my friend Keila had told me is worse than the first year, after her son was killed at 16 in a wreck.

dreams thrust up their skinny arms
and fingers catch the light
before they sink into marshy sag.

There is no desire.
It doesn’t want to eat the rest,
it just does.

In another poem, “Architecture of Loss,” I tried to describe the way that heaviness becomes who you are. In the last section of the poem, I imagine that weight as a spot in the palm of your hand. Even when you want to share it, to get close to someone, you are unable, defined by that weight, which is just too much for the other person to handle. So you end up alone.

Matter condensed and carried just inside.
If I pull it out and show you, it will sit in the center
of my palm for a moment and then pull my hand
to the ground. You will kneel down as well, curious,
and then the earth will tremble and you will notice
that a crater has formed around us,
my palm and the thing I wanted to show you
there at the center, attached by an arm, a body.
You will scramble away, pulling yourself
branch by branch toward the crest, and wave
over your shoulder—I don’t blame you
for your swift departure.

To prevent myself from devouring myself, I went to two, maybe more, yoga classes. But, I wasn’t ready. Every time the teacher suggested I focus on my breath, I cried. I loathed the body that was moving around on the mat. I decided to try meditation instead, and went to a group meditation at our local UU church. There, the meditation leader Frank introduced us to the Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg. I found her easily enough on youtube, got a couple of her books, and discovered I could do this in my own room in my own house, the way I could not with a group of people, no matter how lovely, in a yoga class.

What was especially helpful was Salzberg’s book and youtube on lovingkindness. Because I was so consumed by my own thoughts and feelings, it was important to get out of myself. The meditation involves repeating May I be safe, may I be healthy, may I live with ease, may I be happy. Then you imagine a benefactor, someone who did you a kindness, and you repeat, saying, May you be safe, may you be healthy, may you live with ease, may you be happy. Then you think of someone you have less positive associations with and repeat. Eventually you work your way to someone who deeply troubles you. If that’s too difficult, you can place that person with someone else, and now the singular “you” becomes the plural “you” or even “we.” This movement outward, from self to all sentient beings, is at the heart of Buddhist lovingkindness meditation (as I understand it).

I have for about five years had an active yoga practice and am deeply appreciative of 4Yoga (and before that Harmony Yoga) for what they offer our community. I guess what I’m saying is, yoga helps you get back on the horse, and it does it in such a way that the horse herself is better, too.

We meet upstairs where that window is, and here’s the studio, overlooking Fountain Square. Photo credit: Heather Kessler. (The square is mine.)

6/10 Countdown (but you can get it now): Art for all our “sakes”

As I was thinking about this post, which is about art related to the loss of our son, the phrase “art for art’s sake” kept tapping at my brain. I do believe in the intrinsic value of art, but maybe not so much that it should be judged by its politics, which is (I think) what it meant when it came into being in the early 19th century. (Okay, I did google that, my art history being rusty.) But it wasn’t really that art movement that got my attention, but rather the word “sake,” which I assumed meant something like “side.” Here’s the easy-to-find definition:

Old English sacu ‘contention, crime’, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch zaak and German Sache, from a base meaning ‘affair, legal action, thing’. The phrase for the sake of may be from Old Norse.

Given yesterday’s post on the often bizarre experience of sitting in a courtroom (where all manner of “crime” gets its dime), I was struck by the serendipitous connection. I love the art that emerged out of the crime, that was created for Casey’s sake and for our sake… I have three artists I want to focus on, our friend Julie-Anna from Hopkinsville, our artist son Galen, and Casey’s dad Ken.

Julie-Anna’s Ginkgo Heart

Julie-Anna, photographer, painter, sculptor, gave us this heart made of ginkgo leaves—which themselves resemble hearts. Julie-Anna has at least one large ginkgo tree in their yard, and we have one in ours. Every fall, the trees’ leaves all turn yellow at the same time and fall soon after in a blizzard of gold. The leaves are associated with memory, so the symbolism is perfect—furthermore, she safety-pinned the leaves together, suggesting that memory is fragile, sometimes hanging by a thread, and yet also bound together with other memories. The gift was bound by love, just as loss is.

Memory is also the theme of three pieces that Galen created. The Black Hole of Memory was about 6’x4’x4′ and covered with images of Casey and his two brothers and us parents. The second is his sketch of Casey, from a photo taken for his senior prom. The third is a tower, again of pieces of photos repeated over and over. The tower is hollowed out inside and cut out on the edges to reflect the carved up nature of memory.

There are other examples of art—his father Ken’s watercolors, the poems the two of us wrote, sometimes together with writing prompts we made up—and the song Ken wrote. I love how all these expressions dwell on memory, the way we keep alive the people we love.

Here’s a link to Ken’s wonderful song, “Up on My Shoulders.”

7/10 Countdown to Digital Release (hard copy already available): Court

One thread weaving through The Tree You Come Home To is the trial proceedings. I don’t want to talk much about that here, but I will offer a couple of observations about the court room, including one that still makes me laugh. But first . . . I just said I wasn’t going to talk about the trial proceedings, and I won’t much, just this one incident involving people sitting behind us.

The defense attorney, the toad-like Brad Coffman, was laying into all the things that Casey had done wrong, implying that he was responsible for his own death. Some African American women began muttering (loudly), “So?” and “What difference does that make?” I don’t know who they were or why they were there, but I am so grateful to them!

That’s the sort of unexpected thing that can happen when you’re suddenly thrown into close proximity with people you don’t know, who may not be much like you, but who are sharing a space with you for long enough to make you companions, of a sort.

The second incident was just a comment my son Galen made. We were sitting on the court pews—the place was packed—and other cases were preceding ours. I wanted to listen (human interest, nothing prurient!), especially since a grandmotherly woman was responding to questions about her embezzling of $10,000. But the lawyers sitting at and leaning over the lawyer tables were talking too loudly to hear. Every once in awhile they’d pause to listen to something even they found interesting, but mostly it was as if they were killing time while awaiting their boarding call. It was clear they are important to all that was going on.

Galen leaned over and muttered, “They all look like douche bags.” It just cracked me up. Still does.

[As to a photo to illustrate this post, I looked for one of the statue of Lady Justice that’s inside our Justice Center, as well as photos of the Center itself or of a court room, but didn’t want to violate copyright. A photo of Galen makes sense (he did design the cover, after all), and you can imagine him making that comment when you look at that smile.]

8/10 Countdown to 1/25 Release: Haiku

Within a month after Casey died, friends and I started posting haiku. It began with Kathryn writing these two haiku:

Do not walk in pain.
Stay positive in the light.
Embrace your true friends

Monday morning now.
Someone should make me coffee.
Guess that would be me.

Funny, that second one, classic Kathryn.

People started responding. It surprised me that people who’d never tried to write one joined in, along with seasoned poets and professors. Sometimes the haiku talked back and forth, and other times they stood independently; some offered commentary on the writing process or on our seeming obsession with putting everything into verse. There was a series on the joy of new sneakers.

Here’s the Haiku collection (below for another look)

I loved the way my Fb community came together, rather like people did in the first waves of covid. So I put together a little book of our poems, made copies, and sent them to everyone who participated.

During one of the many, many revisions of The Tree You Come Home To, I started inserting some of the ones I’d written as a way to pause between sections.

Although all my sisters-in-law took part, Susan especially dove into the back-and-forth. I wrote:

I’d ride to find you
(if love were a big strong horse)
and bring you back home.

And Susan replied:

There are no answers
at the bottom of grief’s well
but the ground is firm.

I wrote:

my hands grasp at air 
every day the tear widens— 
will I split apart? 

And Susan answered:

No, you will not split
even if we don’t know how
we’ll hold together.

So, this post is my homage to our communities that support us, to our friends who join us when we strike out in some new way, who sooth and empathize, who share that tremendous love without which we really would split apart. One more example of our haiku conversations:

9/10 Countdown to January 25 Release

Mental Health. Today, I was thinking about mental health as it pertains to Tree. Initially, I was thinking of talking about it as a continuum, one that stretches infinitely in each direction, from blissed out ecstasy to suicide or murderous obsession. But there is no end point in either direction, is there? Where would destruction of Planet Earth belong? The smell of a kitten or an infant’s first smile? Where does a memory fit as it shifts over time? How many points on the line as we revise our past?

The other problem with a continuum is that it suggests that once you’re “here” or “there” you can go only in one of two directions, up or down. But my experience with mental health and mental illness tells me that it’s not so linear, or not always so, and that something more like ocean waves suggest the heaving and ebbing, returning and receding of mental health and illness.

Our mental wellbeing is something that we must nurture and cultivate even when we are stable and “happy.” And when we’ve been slapped down, we long for its return, often seeking it in ineffective, even damaging ways. I will have more to say tomorrow, maybe, when I talk a little about addiction.

At any rate, recovery from mental illness (situational or lifelong) is important enough to The Tree You Come Home To that my editor and publisher Jodie Toohey (more on her soon) asked if I’d be willing to donate 10% of the proceeds to NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and of course I said yes.

Casey at 15 or 16

10/10 Countdown to January 25

Counting down with a daily nugget regarding my memoir, The Tree You Come Home To, available in just 10 days! 

It’s two stories intertwined, that of my son Casey who was shot and killed in 2009 at the age of 20 and my own as I sought ways to find a way forward in this beautiful, difficult world. I began writing poems about Casey soon after he died, which make up a good part of Seeking the Other Side (Fleur de Lis Press). Writing about my internal life during the four years or so that followed became my part of this memoir. Casey’s story, from birth to death, came about when I realized mine was only half of our shared story.