Heels in the Hall

(A quick, writing-on-the-airport-floor reflection)

The keynote speaker, a storyteller, says she will tell us her leadership journey (the conference theme) by starting at the beginning. In a split second, something in my subconscious asks me what my beginning is, and without thinking, I am back entertaining myself in a somewhat sterile office, appropriate for a hospital, the people shuffling outside in the halls as background noise.

And I hear it. The unmistakable sound of heels on the hallway’s tile floor, and not just any heels, but my mother’s. I’m not sure how I can recognize her gait from the other female footsteps, but I can. I can tell it’s her, walking deliberately down the hall. Maybe she is coming from a meeting. After all, that is what I once told people my mother did for a living – attend meetings.

In reality, she was a hospital administrator, director of the physical therapy/rehab services, at a time when none of my friends’ mothers worked outside the home. I know now how hard it was for her. I know now the harassment she endured. I know now how others looked down on her for her choice.

Or, really, I don’t know. While I have experienced all of these scenarios in my own professional life, I’ve done so in a different place and time. The culture has shifted…slightly, but it’s shifted.

I will never fully know my mother’s experience, but I do know that when I heard those heels in the hall, I thought, “That’s my mother.”

And decades later, I find myself in a convention center, listening to a keynote speaker tell her leadership journey “from the beginning” and am caught off guard when the beginning of my leadership story comes to me as the sound of my mother’s heels in the hall.

I know now how many physical therapists she mentored. I know now how many patients she helped. I know now how many trails she helped blaze. And I know now, from that moment at the conference today, how my leadership journey started in my mother’s walk down that hall.

Happy International Woman’s Day, belated!

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This Is…Me?

I’ve written a few blog posts on Dead Dad Day, and they serve as textual time capsules that remind me where I was, literally and metaphorically, on those anniversaries.

On the first anniversary, I was writing my comps for my doctoral program.

When we were honoring my dad’s memory at our family dinner on the third anniversary, we heard the news that Whitney Houston died. (People were shocked, but losing a 59-year old parent suddenly tends to make you impervious to premature deaths of troubled celebrities.)

But when I think back to this year’s 9th anniversary, I will remember Jack’s death.

Yes, my father’s name was Tom, but Jack Pearson is the patriarch in the popular show This Is Us.

If you’re not familiar with it, This Is Us tells the story of a fictional family across decades with the use of flashbacks (and, recently, one flash-forward). We’ve known from early in the first season that Jack died sometime between the kids’ teenage years and their adulthood. (Warning: The rest of this post contains references to the last two episodes.)

This show has been on the air for a year and a half, yet the writers chose THIS WEEK to tell us exactly how Jack died and what his kids and widow do on his anniversary. Then, two days after this special post-Super Bowl show, we got an episode on his funeral.

Many people refer to the show as a tear-jerker, but I haven’t needed the tissues until these episodes. It was a bit too real, especially so close to Dead Dad Day. I’m cool with art imitating life, but not necessarily my life, and certainly not this week.

This Is Us felt like This Is Me.

Jack dies of a cardiac arrest. My father did, too. (Jack’s was due to a fire; my dad’s was due to type 1 diabetes.)

His widow Rebecca sees him dead on the bed in the ER. Been there, done that!

In the funeral episode, Rebecca is stoic, the pillar of strength she feels she needs to be for her 17-year old triplets (er, kind of…it’s complicated). Before the funeral, I had a chat with my father’s open casket that helped me deliver his eulogy without losing my composure.

These episodes were especially emotional because I had the enormous good fortune 20180210_214854of having a Jack Pearson dad. He painted my face as Raggedy Ann for my second Halloween. He came to my loooong gymnastics meets and dance recitals and softball games. He took me on my college visits. He was a hands-on father who remembered the things that mattered to me.

 

From flashbacks in the funeral episode, I was also reminded of some of the harder parenting moments from my teen years. Jack didn’t love Alanis Morisette like his daughter Kate did. My senior year of high school, I wrote the lyrics to one of Morisette’s songs on my paper-bag book cover. Imagine my embarrassment when I took the book out in class and saw that my father had written a response: “These lyrics aren’t appropriate for high school. Perhaps next year.” GULP.

Toward the end of the funeral episode, after spreading some of Jack’s ashes at a sentimental location, Rebecca tells the ethereal Jack, “I promise you, we’re gonna be okay.”

We know from watching the 2017 version of the family, almost 20 years after Jack’s death, that this proves true. They’re all a little broken in some places, but the brokenness is what makes them interesting.

And they’re okay. When you have a Jack Pearson, or a Tom Pesola, for a dad, you know you’re gonna be okay.

My Year in Books (Part 3: Memoirs)

Memoir

Just like the previous posts on fiction and nonfiction, this graphic shows you the memoirs I read in chronological order. Unlike the previous days’ genres, this one offered no disappointments. If you like memoirs, you cannot go wrong with any of the titles on this list.

Still, if you only want to read ONE…

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson – This book deserves all the hype it’s received. Some of the stories I knew from having heard Stevenson speak twice at conferences, but the way he tells them (both in person and in this book), I could hear them twenty times and still be moved. It’s hard not to want to make the world a better place, however you can, after reading this. (Note: I went back and forth on whether this title might be more aptly categorized as nonfiction, as it centers more on the cases Stevenson has been involved with than his life story, but it is his story of justice and redemption, so I put it here.)

The memoir that taught me the most

No One Cares about Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America by Ron Powers – Half memoir, half nonfiction research on the history and stigmatization of mental illness, this book was illuminating in many respects, as I hadn’t thought as deeply about the oppression of mentally ill people as I have about other oppressions.

Surprises

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – I added this to my 2017 list because of the many “Best of 2016” lists it landed on. I admit I was skeptical, as I am not a science-minded person. I do not have any living things in my house besides my family, and they are still alive because they remind me they need to be fed every now and then. So, the facts that I not only enjoyed this book but also now appreciate trees and plants more than before is rather remarkable. And, this memoir took some turns I didn’t expect.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah – I am not a Daily Show watcher, so I only knew of Trevor Noah peripherally before someone recommended this book. I also knew very little of South Africa. I cannot say enough about this book, which is really somewhat of a love story for his mother, all while tackling race, class, culture, and gender. Brilliant. (After reading this, I watched two of Noah’s comedy specials on Netflix, and I highly recommend his “Afraid of the Dark.”)

Hunger by Roxanne Gay – I read Gay’s Bad Feminist years ago and don’t remember loving it, so I reluctantly picked this up based on all the attention it was getting. It’s an excellent book for understanding body-shaming and developing empathy. I would put it in a similar camp as Shrill (mentioned below), but this one packed more punch and tugged on the heart a bit more.

The rest…

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance – If you want to further understand class, and further understand the white working class in America, this book is an insightful memoir to get you started.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West – I picked this up after seeing a blurb about it in the local bookstore. Jenny Lawson, another fabulous author, said it best: “Required reading if you’re a feminist. Recommended reading if you’re anyone else.” Hopeful and heartbreaking and funny and sad.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie – Having taught Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary… and knowing a bit about him, I was intrigued by this memoir about the loss of his mother. It was very raw, and some of the recollections were repetitive, but this is another one of those books I can see people recommending about grief, like Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. 

I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro – Picked this up after seeing Tig’s stand-up live. I was aware of the confluence of unfortunate events via the documentary on her (cancer diagnosis, sudden death or her mother, and a break up all within months), but this book was insightful, humorous, and very readable.

 The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich – This was so fascinating as a piece of writing – non-fiction…but not quite, given the many ways Lesnevich fictionalizes what she does not know. Memoir…but not solely, given how she weaves her story in with the murder case she is researching. It is gripping.

The Glass Eye: A Memoir by Jeannie Vanasco – I DEVOURED this book. Dead dad, grief, mental illness, and a dead half sister she never knew? All up my alley!

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy – Whoa, was this super readable. I have since read reviews, and I can see the criticism of Levy as a privileged woman whose elitism comes through…but that position does not detract from the immense trauma she experienced and writes of so poignantly.