11/4/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

I am struggling with how to write about the Moment this week. I have always been honest in the Moments, and at times, I’ve written about things that were uncomfortable for me. This week’s Moment brought about a quiet sense of happiness, but also an absolutely physical feeling of relief as an issue was lifted from my shoulders.

But how to talk about it?

It’s interesting to think about, because this week, in another Moment, I was invited into a high school classroom with kids who want to be writers. I appeared online, via the smartboard in their classroom. One of the kids read Today’s Moment Of Happiness Despite The News, the book published in 2018 which included the first year of this blog, when I wrote a Moment every single day. This student emailed me, telling me what the book meant to her, and in the classroom, she said that reading how I worked through my difficult Moments helped her get through hers. Then another student asked, “How did you get through them?”

And I explained how writing the Moments helped me to be more observant in my own world, in the life and air around me, in the events I was living through, in the sharing of my life with the lives of others. My kids. My family. My friends. My students and clients. Strangers on the street.

And now, here I am, wondering how to explain this Moment. Which is difficult.

So it’s well-known that I run my own business, AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop. It’s a studio and a community for writers at all ends of the career spectrum – just starting out with their first word, or writing their umpteenth book. The studio began with my having no knowledge on how to run a business, and it’s grown into an international community, filled with people that I consider a part of my writing family, people that I love.

Though every now and then, very, very rare, there’s an exception.

Over the years, the studio has grown into something that now provides for my family. I work no less than 85 hours a week, and I’ve done this for almost 17 years. Running this business is way more than just my walking into a classroom and teaching. I’ve had to learn so much. And I’ve learned it. I absolutely love what I do, even as I do so much of it.

But then…

So I had this client. He’s been my client for 8 months. At first, I really enjoyed working with him. His book was a challenge, he knew it was a challenge, and he listened and learned and applied what I was teaching him. And then his book went completely off the rails.

Slowly, the book became about justifying the abuse of women. It became about how men were completely innocent in this, and that actually, in his reality, abuse happened because women wanted it and coerced their men into abusing them.

Each week, I found my jaw dropping further. And each week, I tried to show him the error in his logic, in what wasn’t on the page, and that what was on the page wasn’t working.

Then his behavior toward me shifted. He became a bully. He became verbally abusive. And like in the book, where the abuse began to happen because women wanted it and coerced their men into doing it, he began to say that the fault with the book wasn’t what he was putting down on the page, it was with me. Because I am a woman.

And honestly? It took me a while to realize how much this was hurting me. How much this was shrinking me.

Now part of the hurt was flat down-to-earth practicality. The studio provides for my family. This student, who paid to have me work with him, was providing for my family. And so for awhile there, I took it. I took it because I wanted to help, as I want to help all writers. But I also took it because there are always bills to pay.

Our meeting last week was the worst. When I ran downstairs to meet my next client in the classroom, I did so in tears. Michael called after me, “I have never heard you sound so exasperated with a student!”

Exasperated really wasn’t what I was feeling. Or maybe, I was feeling exasperated with myself. Because I was beginning to see what was going on.

Over the weekend, there was a flurry of emails, each one putting me down, pushing me down, further and further. His final email ended with, “Well, let’s just get through it.” As if working with me was a chore, a difficult, difficult chore.

And bear in mind that “getting through it” meant getting through the rest of his already written over 800-page book – and we were only in the 300’s.

I didn’t sleep at all the night after that email. Not a bit. Around five in the morning, I dragged myself to my computer, booted it, and answered his email. I told him that we were no longer going to be working together. And that I would refund the balance of what he’d paid for – which was a year in advance of coaching.

This was not a small amount. It was a bite. And it was a bite into what provides for my family.

But his behavior was also a bite into me. And it’s me that provides for my family.

When I hit send on that email, I cannot even describe the feel of the weight off my shoulders. Off my body. Off my mind. Off ME. I didn’t know how weighted down I was, until I stepped back into myself and threw the weight away.

So it’s a bite. But I will find a way to provide. And I will be whole while I’m doing it.

After I told Michael what I’d done, he said, “I’m proud of you.”

I’m proud of me too.

(And for any students and clients who are reading this, no, I have never ever ever felt that way about any of you. That’s why it was hard to write this. You all need to know how very special you are.)

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Teaching.
Teaching some more!
Contemplating a student manuscript.

10/28/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

Getting up in the morning, turning on your computer, and seeing your child’s photo on your Facebook news feed is no longer unusual. It was unusual, back when I first joined up, however many years ago, thrilled to be able to join this soon-to-be social media giant which would allow me to see my kids, two in college, one on his own, the fourth still living with me and too young to be on Facebook, but I could see her every day. Now, waking up to these pictures isn’t typically heart-stopping, show-stopping, drop-your-coffee-mug stunning.

But it was, for me, this week.

My third child, my oldest daughter, Katie, posted photos of herself. Photos she’d even taken herself, because, she said in her post, “Gorgeous day out and I’m feeling cute too – so on my brief walk around campus for a break, I took a mini photo shoot at my favorite spot.  Cypress Lake.  Am I a model or a mathematician?”

I looked at the photos and my heart stopped, the show that is my life stopped, and I clutched my favorite coffee mug, a gift from this particular child, so I wouldn’t break it. I can never ever break it.

Katie, like all of my kids, was unusual. I could never find my children in all of the popular parenting books. Katie was born pre-STEM education, when, if a girl was good at math or science, she tended to hide it. Katie blew the top off of math, and most other subjects too, and with my encouragement, she didn’t tend to hide it. She didn’t show off either. But this light wasn’t being hid under a bushel, if there was anything I could do about it.

Her favorite toys were things she could count and put into groups and add and subtract. She had an abacus, something I bought at a rummage sale simply because I liked the sound it made when I shook it, but I think she actually used it. As time went on and her love of math grew, I haunted schools holding book sales and bought all their old math textbooks, which Katie then worked on…for fun.

At the end of Katie’s second grade year, the school called me and Katie’s dad in for a conference. They told us they felt she should be skipped ahead at least two grades. They suggested going from second grade to fourth grade, and fourth grade to sixth grade, and then we’d see where she should go from there. In general, they told us, the human brain needs 17 repetitions before a new skill is learned. Katie took one repetition.

ONE. Is it even a repetition if it’s singular?

But we said no. We also reminded the school that they had the responsibility of teaching everyone at their level, and they were just going to have to find a way to educate Katie while keeping her with her friends and other kids her age. It’s not a decision I regret.

There were moments over the years, of course, mostly boy-related. The boys knew she was smart and asked for her help in math, but not out on dates. She often despaired of having a boyfriend, and I kept trying to put hope out there. Wait til high school…wait til college…wait til grad school…Oh, man, the goobers and the goofs. Grad school even produced a boy I called the garden gnome. I don’t have to say anything else – he was a garden gnome. I worried sometimes that my daughter, who had the best smarts ever, wouldn’t be able to find her happiness.

One of my favorite memories is on her first day as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She texted me after her first class (I think – I can’t remember when cell phones came into the picture! It might be that she called me or sent me an email or messaged me on that new-fangled Facebook) and said, “Mom, it’s sunny and warm and I just had my first class and I’m sitting right by Lake Mendota and I’m drinking a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. I’m soooooo happy.”

That’s what I wanted to hear.

As college went on, Katie was encouraged to go into academia, something she hadn’t considered at first. Eventually, she went that route, and one day, on that fateful Facebook and its messenger, she told me about a math professor, one of the few female math professors she’d had. “Mom,” she said, “she’s beautiful. She wears these amazing clothes. She’s got gorgeous long hair. And she has kick-ass boots. I want to do that. I want to be her.”

The August before COVID hit, right after graduating with her PhD in math from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Katie left to teach math at the University of Louisiana – Lafayette. She was married to a man she met right after graduating with her Master’s degree – not the garden gnome. But someone who loves her for who she is, and respects her for who she is. I haven’t seen her since that August. It’s been very, very hard.

On this morning this week, I opened up Facebook and the first thing I saw was my daughter. And those photos. And there she was. Someone who taught math at a university. She has gorgeous long wavy blonde hair. She wore an amazing outfit and kick-ass boots. Kick-ass boots! And…she looked happy.

My daughter did it. She followed her passion. She’s using her smarts, not hiding them. She’s beautiful. And she’s happy.

(Do I wish she could be happy closer to home, and not on a campus with alligators? Well, sure.)

That smile. She’s happy.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

7 months old. Katie always gave her undivided attention to whatever she was doing. In this case, watching television.
One of my favorite photos. Katie in the middle, flanked by her older brothers. Andy on the left, Christopher on the right.
Katie’s high school graduation photo.
Katie and me in Florida, when she was earning her Master’s.
The photos this week. Great hair. Cute clothes. Kick-ass boots. Teaching math at a University.
Sun-soaked. That smile!
Still my girl.

10/21/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

Back in 2014, I purchased a Little Free Library for the studio. A Little Free Library is a little house-like structure that holds books for passers-by to look through and take for their own. The general rule is “Take A Book – Leave A Book”. I was charmed by this and thought it was a perfect match for outside of a creative writing studio.

The Little Free Library ended up being a very popular place. Folks who went to the Farmer’s Market made a point of stopping by and choosing a book for the week. People who were waiting for buses at the transit center across the street would run over and grab a book for their commute. Children loved that we had a concrete lion sitting under the Little Free Library and they talked to him and patted him while their parent chose a book. There’s a whole story of how that little lion was stolen, how a new lion was chosen, and then that little lion found his way home – but that’s in earlier Moments! You can see it in the 11/21/2019 entry. Here’s the link: http://www.kathiegiorgio.org/11-21-19/

One of my favorite moments with the Little Free Library was the day I was walking across the city parking lot right next to our building. A man came around from the front and I saw he was carrying a book. He looked at me, at the book, then at me again, and he shouted, “Hey! This is YOU! I just got this book from the Little Free Library around the corner, and it’s YOU!”

He had no idea I lived there. And yes, I do sometimes put my own books out.

He was thrilled. I had to sign the book for him.

But after 7 years, our Little Free Library was suffering from rotting wood. It was time for a new one. So I purchased our second library this past August. The new one is bright red, and it came with a metal roof instead of wooden…much less chance of wood rot. I set it up and business continued as normal.

Until a couple weeks ago, when I noticed the few books that were in the library had fallen over. I went to straighten them and realized I couldn’t open the door. It had a little wooden block that turned to allow the door to open and close, and it was wedged tight. Michael tried it; my son tried it. It wouldn’t move. I didn’t want to force it as I was afraid it would break.

I put in an email to the Little Free Library organization to ask what to do. While I waited, I reached out to my community neighbors and posted a message on the Next Door app. I asked if anybody knew what could fix this problem.

Well, I was amazed. Not only did many people have great suggestions, but one man, named Justin, offered to take a look at it. He came over, unwedged the block, and then volunteered to replace the crude block with an actual latch. He came and went quietly – I never even knew he was here. When he released the block, a teeny tiny bit of paint was taken with it, and Jason took the block with him so he could match the paint and come back and make the Little Free Library look brand new again. All on his own time. Which, like everybody’s, is valuable.

Can I say I was amazed again? This little bit of human kindness had a big impact on me. What a wonderful thing to do.

We’ve had a rough couple weeks in Wisconsin. There was a road rage shooting in Oak Creek. A mass shooting in Kenosha. A single mother was shot in Milwaukee and her 3-year old little boy is missing and has been, for a week now. Every year in October, the Women’s Center in Waukesha puts up purple silhouettes of women, complete with dates representing when a specific woman was killed through domestic violence – someone stole one of the silhouettes. Senseless things. Awful things. Violent things. Soul-shattering things.

And in the middle of the chaos, a man comes to fix a Little Free Library, owned by someone he doesn’t even know. And because of him, I can continue offering books to passers-by. Children. Harried workers. Anyone who needs to find comfort and joy and entertainment in words and stories.

I needed that kindness. We all do. Jason’s kindness to me allows me to extend kindness to others, through the Little Free Library.

Thank you, Jason. Thank you to everyone that helped with advice and encouraging words.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

The original Little Free Library, with Little Literary Lion underneath.
The arrival of Little Leo Literary Lion, after the original lion was stolen.
The New Little Free Library!

10/14/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

I hesitated at first before writing this blog, because the moments that stand out for me this week feel a little bit like back-patting. But then I thought, well, what the hell. The last thing I want to do is start editing out my moments of happiness, no matter what they are.

Twice this week, I found myself in a situation where I was told I was doing a good job in a role I took on this year: the Program Coordinator of the Southeast Wisconsin Festival Of Books. I was reluctant to take on the position, mostly because my schedule is already crazy, but also because I just wasn’t sure if I was up to the challenge. In the end, because of my love for the book festival, I said yes. The festival is coming up in a few weeks, and it’s been one heck of a journey.

So first this week, I found myself in front of a group of lifelong learners, to do a presentation on book culture and to let them know all about the book festival. It had been such a long while since I presented in front of a live group; the pandemic pretty much had me appearing in front of Brady Bunch block-style audiences on Zoom. But these were living, breathing people! As I spoke, I watched a man sitting in the front row. His face was skeptical, his arms were crossed. I think many of us are afflicted with pandemic angst right now, feeling like we’re never going to enjoy anything again without an undercurrent of fear, and this man embodied that. But as my presentation went on, I saw his arms drop, he began to look through the festival’s schedule, and my god, he smiled. He lit up! At the Q & A portion, he asked more questions than anybody.

He wasn’t the only one who lit up. So did I.

After the presentation, I was talking with a participant when I saw someone go up to the founder of the festival. I probably wasn’t supposed to hear, but I heard her say to the founder, “You did the best thing possible for the festival when you put Kathie into this position.” And then I heard the founder say, “I know.”

I fumbled for a bit in my own conversation, but then I picked it back up. I’m sure I grinned like a hyena for the rest of the day though.

Then yesterday, I was telling my Wednesday Afternoon Women Writers’ Workshop students about the festival, when a student who is on the planning committee of the festival spoke up. She told the class that, while other Coordinators have been fine, I did an amazing job. We were organized in record time, to the point where I couldn’t even write an agenda for our latest meeting because there’s nothing to do. My student said there were no arguments this year, no difficulties. And then my class applauded.

And I was a hyena again for the rest of the day.

I was asked a while ago to talk with a graduate student working on a project about how the pandemic has affected writers. She said that the general public probably thought we weren’t affected much, since we write in isolation anyway. Which is true. However, the pandemic affected us a lot, particularly in the arena of publishing and promotion.

But something that has affected writers before the pandemic, through the pandemic, and likely after the pandemic is that while we work in isolation, we also don’t receive the pats on the back that are so important in a job. My job, both as a writer and as a teacher of writing and a business owner, is solely dependent on my exterior world for a measurement of how I’m doing. When one of my pieces is accepted, I know I’ve done a good job. When a student succeeds (and that success isn’t just publishing – that success is being able to put down words on the page and feel like they’re worth something!), I know I’ve done a good job. When a nice review is left for one of my books, when a reader emails me to tell me how my story or poem or essay or book affected him or her, I know I’ve done a good job. I don’t have a “boss” – but essentially, my readers and my students are my bosses. My performance is reflected in them.

These things happen, but there are often long gaps in between. I rarely hear the words, “Good job!”,  myself, not because I’m not doing a good job, but because of the type of work I do. It is likely the reason why I finish most of my written critiques for students with, “Good job!”

Everyone needs to hear it.

I thanked my student for saying what she did in class. She said, “I came to the conclusion long ago that if I’m sincerely thinking something nice, it’s usually best to say it.” And she’s absolutely right.

When you see someone doing a good job, no matter what that job is, please tell them. It certainly made my week.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Teaching.
Presenting.
Writing.

10/7/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

I am most at home near water, whether it’s a river, lake, or ocean, or even a swimming pool, and I’m happy in the water as well. But I’ve never learned how to swim. I’ve certainly tried; I had swimming lessons as a little girl, and when I attended three different high schools, I had swimming class in each. I jumped into pools willingly. But I never came out with a knowledge of how to make myself swim.

When I was in early elementary school, my mother signed me up for several weeks of swimming class. A school bus met students at the junior/senior high school and we were driven to Big Lake. I was so excited. I had a swimming suit I loved. It was a one-piece, mostly blue, with a red and white striped yoke between the two tank top straps, and a blue anchor was set right in the middle of my chest. There was a red and white striped rope belt around my waist. I felt very nautical. My teacher was probably a high school student or college student; he seemed very adult to me at the time, and also really, really cute. I called him Sir Knight. I learned to dog-paddle quickly, and float on my stomach. The back float, though, was impossible. I freaked out as soon as he had me lean back in the water. He also had all of us kneel on one leg on the edge of the pier, duck our heads and point our hands like rocket ships, and try to roll into the water. I began to roll, but then pushed off the dock and jumped in. He said I’d learn. I believed him.

Then I caught a cold and I was out the rest of that week and into the next. When I returned, it was the final day of class. My class going off the diving board. I’d missed that lesson. I watched them do the roll-in motion off the end of a wobbling board into deep lake water where I’d never been. Then I turned, got my card where I signed in and signed out, and I handed it to Sir Knight. “I can’t do it,” I said. “Oh, Kathie,” he said. I turned and ran and hid on the bus until it was time to go home. I didn’t pass.

My family visited Misquamicut State Beach in Rhode Island that summer. Still wearing that same suit, I charged into the waves. Then I moved up and down the shoreline, basically dragging myself with my arms. “I’m swimming!” I yelled. “I’m swimming!”

Well, no. But I sure wanted to.

Then came the string of high schools and their swimming units in gym. In each school, you had to pass a skill before moving on to the next one. I made it to the back float in each school, then went into a panic attack whenever the instructors tried to get me on my back. I just could not handle that feeling of water trickling into my ears. I was held back every time while the rest of my class went ahead. And every time, I climbed out of the pool at the end of the session without a passing grade.

It was so frustrating. I wanted to swim.

As an adult, I sought out swimming pools, lakes, and of course, the ocean. During pregnancies, I took exercise classes in the pools and I loved the buoyancy. With my last pregnancy, with Olivia, I went into the Y during free swim and dog-paddled, floated, and walked the swimming lanes.

She was born in love with the water. I watched her do the crawl, the breaststroke, the side stroke, the backstroke, and I so wished I could do it too.

I tore the meniscus in my left knee a few months ago, and as I recuperated, I can’t tell you how many people told me that swimming would be a better exercise. I sighed and looked away. But then I looked at my computer screen instead. I went to the Y’s website and found one on one swimming lessons. I didn’t want to take a class. I was too afraid of being held back yet again, while the rest of my class moved forward. I wrote the swim director a note. “I want to take lessons,” I said, “but I do not want anything to do with floating or swimming on my back. It makes me panic. Can you teach me anyway?”

He said yes. He said of course.

In my very first lesson, my teacher showed me the front crawl! And I did it! I was swimming, not just dragging myself with my arms! I felt those arms rotate, my hands slice into the water, my feet kick, and my face lifting out to suck in some precious air before plunging back in.

I was swimming.

I don’t have a blue swimming suit with an anchor on it anymore. But that little girl who was so excited to get on that school bus to Big Lake is back. And she’s not saying, “I can’t do it,” anymore. I can. And even more important, I have teachers who are listening to me. Who hear me.

I can do it.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

At Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island. “I’m swimming! I’m swimming!”
Just out of the pool at the Y after my first lesson. I’m swimming!

9/30/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

A couple weeks ago, when I was being interviewed on Karen Osborne’s podcast called What Are You Reading? What Are You Writing?, I found myself telling the familiar story of my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Fatticci. Karen, after listening to me, said she had goosebumps. I had goosebumps on the day this memory actually happened, and I have them every time I remember that moment.

Thinking back over time, there were three teachers that really meant a lot to me. The first was Mrs. Fatticci in fifth grade. Then came Gary Salt, in the eighth grade. And Duane Stein, in my junior year of high school. All three of them had one thing in common – they encouraged my writing. And really, that encouraged should have a capital E.

I’ve made attempts to find each of them. When my first novel, The Home For Wayward Clocks, came out in 2011, I searched for Duane. I was living again in the town where I graduated from high school, and where I met him. I couldn’t find him on social media, but I found an address from a Google search. Taking a chance, I wrote him a letter and invited him to the book’s launch.

He came. In the chatter and clatter in the bookstore before the launch, I looked into the stacks, and there he was. He had two of my books under his arm. He glanced over at me, our eyes met, and I was suddenly that 16-year old girl again, struggling to maintain eye contact when he told me I had a gift, and I had a responsibility to use it.

He’s remained in my adult life. We have coffee together (at least, pre-COVID), and we work together on the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books.

The other two, Mrs. Fatticci and Mr. Salt, I’ve not had any luck. I’ve searched the internet, I’ve contacted the schools. No one seemed to know where they were.

And then, during that interview, I told the story of Mrs. Fatticci again.

In fifth grade, I was living in way northern Minnesota, in Esko, a teeny community between Duluth and Cloquet. I can sum up the environment and the era in one sentence: The girls were only allowed to wear pants to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And in this girls-in-dresses-and-fuzzy-tights community, a new teacher showed up. She had the exotic name of Fatticci. Her hair was swept up, she wore miniskirts and heels, and she had a smile that just wouldn’t quit. She taught English, and she announced that on Thursdays, we were going to have Creative Writing.

I chose a blue notebook just for that special day of the week. I wrote CREATIVE WRITING in block letters on it. On the first day, I walked with my friends from our homeroom to Mrs. Fatticci’s classroom.

She put a record on the record player. It was a song called “Oh, Shenendoah”. She said to just listen to the song and write our impressions. I swayed to the music as I filled my notebook with three solid pages of writing. When the song was done, she asked each of us to go one by one to the front of the room and read what we’d written. The other kids wrote things like, “There’s a boat. There’s a river. Somebody wants to see somebody.”

I got up and read my three pages. A full story. Characters, dialogue, setting, conflict, resolution.

When I was done, the classroom was silent, and boy, did that make me nervous. But from the back of the room, Mrs. Fatticci said in a hushed voice I can still hear today, “Oh my God, Kathie. You’re a writer.”

Bam.

I was eleven years old. I read avidly, anything I could get my hands on. I took my childhood picture books and early chapter books that were illustrated, copied the pictures using carbon paper, and rewrote the stories the way I felt they should be written. I drew pictures and wrote stories about them. But I hadn’t yet made the connection that I was doing what those authors in my beloved books were doing.

Oh my God, Kathie. You’re a writer.

Know how it feels when you go shopping for something, a new jacket, a new sweater, a new dress, and as you pull a certain piece over your head and it settles on your shoulders, you know before looking in the mirror that you’ve found the one? The one that most represents you, who you are, that fits with your definition of self, even if you don’t quite know yet what that definition is?

That’s how that felt.

I sat down two nights later and wrote my first “book”. It was about a deer that runs in fear onto a pier and then jumps into a canoe, knocking it loose, and off the deer sails down a river. I drew the cover, included an “About The Author” on the back, with a hand-drawn self-portrait, and shyly showed it to Mrs. Fatticci. She pulled me from my homeroom to hand it back to me. And when she did, she said, “Go, Kathie, go!”

I did.

After doing that podcast a few weeks ago, I cast about for Mrs. Fatticci again. Because I didn’t know her first name, I never looked on Facebook. This time, I did, just searching under the last name. I found several Fatticcis, but there was one in particular, who lived in Hibbing, Minnesota. Hibbing is even further north, by about 75 miles, but…it was Minnesota. This person was a man, but I took a chance and sent him a message via Facebook Messenger. I explained who I was, who my teacher was, and asked if he happened to be related to her.

Less than 24 hours later, he answered me: “That’s my mom!”

I found her. She’s 75 years old, and still working in a daycare center with toddlers.

It took me a minute to acclimate our ages. She’s only 14 years older than I am. But when I was 11, that would make her 25, which is exactly right.

Less than an hour later, her son called me. “She remembers you!” he said.

I found her. I found her. I found her.

“I want to say thank you,” I said.

Mrs. Fatticci is going to call me. We’re going to talk. And I’m going to say thank you for handing me my future when I stood in front of a classroom and read a story.

I found her. I am so happy.

Now where the heck is Gary Salt?

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Me in the fifth grade. A girl in a dress in fuzzy tights.

 

My official 5th grade photo. Same dress. My mother’s attempt at curling my hair and cutting my bangs.
Mrs. Fatticci’s son sent me this. There she is, last summer, with her grandchildren.

9/23/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

It seems funny that a week after writing the last Moment, one about Olivia, we run into a situation where Olivia had to deal with a jerk.

I’ve written often of Olivia’s love of the violin, her talent, her amazing connection with music. Olivia began playing in the fourth grade, a year before orchestra would be offered in the schools. She came home from school one day, after watching an orchestra play in the gym for an assembly, and declared she wanted to play the violin.  “I love it, Mama!” she said, her hands folded fervently in front of her heart. “I love it!”

The following weekend, I was participating in a poetry reading and Olivia came along. Before the reading, a string quartet played. Olivia sat on the edge of her seat through their entire performance. The eyes she lifted to me were enamored.

And so Santa brought a violin for Christmas and Olivia started in on private lessons. At just a few weeks shy of 21 years old, she is still with the same instructor, whom we adore. Olivia’s gone through three violins (the first accidentally fell down the stairs when she didn’t have the latches done quite right on the case), and has added acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and ukulele to her repertoire. She played in middle and high school orchestras, participated in the state competitions and came home with gold medals, and was asked to audition for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s youth orchestra. She politely declined, as she was worried that the time spent rehearsing would affect her academics.

When it came time for college, Olivia applied to four and got in to all of them. All came with attractive financial offers. When we visited these schools, we asked each one if they had a music program. While Olivia plans to become an art therapist, she still wanted to be involved with music too. All of the schools said yes. She chose Mount Mary University, the place I wrote about last week with the labyrinth.

And then we were disappointed to find out that their music “program” contained classes in beginning guitar and beginning piano and chorus. That’s it. No strings whatsoever. Olivia sighed and continued with her private lessons.

She told me once in her freshman year that a girl down the hall from her dorm room said that whenever Olivia practiced, this girl danced around her own room with her guinea pig. I think that’s just as amazing as being invited to audition for MSO’s youth orchestra.

So now in her junior year, Olivia felt comfortable enough with her time management to start looking around for an orchestra to participate in. She missed playing in a group. One of my students who also plays violin told me about her community orchestra, which was near the university. I reached out to the director, told him about Olivia, received an enthusiastic response, and then turned over communication to Olivia.

This director invited her to audition at the next rehearsal. Olivia chose her audition piece, practiced it over and over under her private instructor’s guidance, she dressed carefully for her audition, and she showed up.

No one was there.

Olivia called the director, who said he must have forgotten to tell her the rehearsal was canceled and rescheduled.

Strike one.

Olivia asked about rescheduling her audition. He told her to come to where he works, at a church, relatively late in the evening. No one else would have been there.

Strike two. I stepped in and said no.

Olivia scheduled the audition for a Friday afternoon, still at the church, but when others were around. At the audition, the director played some notes on the piano and asked Olivia to sing them. Sing. Not play the violin. Olivia sang and the director told her she was tone deaf. She’s not. Then she played and he told her her tonality was off and her rhythm was off. It wasn’t. He told her to come back in a few semesters. “Mom,” Olivia said. “He didn’t say one positive thing.”

Strike three. And she won’t be back in a few semesters.

Olivia was crushed. “I guess I’m not as good as I thought I was,” she said, all the positive words she’s ever heard, all the praise, all the honest and helpful critique, all her lessons, everything, going right out the window.

Mama Bear here had to pretty much sit on her hands. Nothing I could do would likely change this guy’s mind, his heart, or his attitude.

But I put my head together with Olivia’s private instructor, who was just as horrified and angry as I was. With some research, we found the Wisconsin Intergenerational Orchestra. I cautiously emailed the director. What I received back was phenomenal enthusiasm and a “Send her! Send her! Send her!”

This last Tuesday, Olivia walked in to her first rehearsal. It was her first time in a group setting since she graduated from high school two years ago. She spoke quietly to the director, who welcomed her. And by the time she left, Olivia was sitting second chair in the first violin section.

While she was there, I was teaching a class, but I was watching the clock. I knew when Olivia arrived, when she sat down, when she played. And then I ran upstairs and got to my computer just as she got back to her dorm room. “How was it?” I asked. “How did you do?”

“Mama,” Olivia said. “I loved it.”

Bam. Home run. Her doubts disappeared and it was the jerk who flew out the window, to fall a bajillion stories down, out of my daughter’s life forever.

Oh, what he missed.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

If you’d like to see information on the Wisconsin Intergenerational Orchestra: https://www.wiorchestra.org/

Olivia’s young hands learning the violin. Photo taken by her instructor.
One of Olivia’s first recitals.
Olivia at 12 years old, with her best friend, the violin.
Olivia at fifteen years old. Photo by Ron Wimmer of Wimmer Photography.
Senior photo. By Ron Wimmer of Wimmer Photography.

 

 

9/16/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

It’s amazing to me how things sometimes fall into place in such a way that it’s hard not to believe in kismet. Sometimes I think coincidence is so much more than coincidence. I think someone somewhere is maybe snapping his or her fingers and saying, “Look! Pay attention!” A whole story unfolded this weekend, but it was a story that presented its pieces to me over many years. Almost 21, in fact.

Oh, Olivia.

I will never forget my response to the doctor on the day I sat in his office and he told me that Olivia was autistic. Now please bear in mind that we all love this doctor. He’s been Olivia’s pediatrician since day 1. And he is probably Olivia’s #1 fan. On that day, he had to deliver the news from a specialist who tested and appraised and analyzed Olivia. Dr. Joe delivered the A-word, and then said, “This might mean that she will never speak. That she’ll look at you like you’re no more than a bump on a log.”

Olivia was three, and she hadn’t said much, that was for sure. But that day in the office, she played on the floor, and as Dr. Joe told me these things, she tapped my shoe. When I looked down, she looked me right in the eye, a very un-autistic thing to do, and she beamed. I, in turn, looked back at Dr. Joe and said one word.

“No.”

I wasn’t denying the autism. But I was denying what its effect would be on my daughter.

Dr. Joe looked at the two of us, beamed at me as brightly as Olivia did, and said, “She’s in there, Kathie.”

And that was the truth.

After her diagnosis, I was sent a big packet of forms to fill out by an organization, I don’t even remember who, and these forms were supposed to lead us the right way down an incredible number of possible therapies. It took me days to fill out those forms. Then I brought the big fat envelope to the post office and mailed it. Weeks later, I hadn’t heard a thing, and so I called the place the forms came from. “I’m sorry,” the person on the phone said. “We never received them. You’ll have to fill them out again.” And I said that word again.

“No.”

We didn’t search out therapies. In school, Olivia received speech therapy and some occupational therapy as needed. That was it. We looked at Olivia, we learned Olivia, and through her, we found the right paths.

When she started kindergarten, which she did with a queenly wave and a “You can go now,” to both me and Michael, I went down the hall after school to tell her preschool teacher how well she did on her first day. I told the teacher, “We expect Olivia to live a full life. We expect her to go to college and become whatever she wants to become.”

The teacher hugged me and said in the most patronizing tone, “We can always dream.”

Guess what word came out of my mouth again.

“No.”

We didn’t dream. Well, we did, but we also knew.

So you could call that the prologue to the story.

Then, on September 12, 2010, about a month before Olivia would turn ten years old, the three of us went to the Starving Artist Show at Mount Mary University. Olivia ran ahead of us through most of the show, and she exclaimed over all the different types of art on display. “I want to do that, Mama!” she crowed. “And that too!”

People smiled at her. Her exuberance and joy was contagious. She beamed back. She didn’t see bumps on a log.

I’d been told that there was a labyrinth on campus, and so once we finished with the art show, we went in search of it. When we found it, I was delighted. It was simple and well-maintained. I walked it, but Olivia danced through it. One photo I took of her shows a shower of sunbeams falling all around her. As she approached the meditation bench, she flung her arms skyward into the sunbeams and she shouted, “I’m going to go to college here, Mama! I’m going to go to college!”

See, she dreamed too. And she also knew. She was no longer “in there”. She was everywhere. She talked with a vocabulary of a college student. There was no silence. There weren’t any bumps on a log. She saw everything in life as vibrant. She was vibrant. She still is.

Years passed. She developed interests in music, art, and writing. She decided to become an art therapist and she was accepted, with fine financial offers, at all four colleges where she applied.

In August of 2019, she moved into a dorm room at Mount Mary University.

“I’m going to go to college here, Mama!”

She has been a Dean’s List student every semester but her first.

Last weekend, on September 12, 2021, exactly 11 years since we attended our first Starving Artists Show at Mount Mary University, we attended it again. Olivia didn’t run ahead of us this time, but she still looked and examined all the art with an avid interest. And she still said, “I want to do that, Mama.”

And she will. We dream it. We know it.

We stopped at the labyrinth on the way out, before Olivia returned to her dorm room and we returned home. I wanted to take a photo of her there. She rolled her eyes, but she sat for the photo.

A story told over years. “We can always dream,” said to the declaration of a college expectation. “I’m going to go to college here, Mama!” shouted during an exuberant dance in a labyrinth. And eleven years later, a Dean’s List student, supported by scholarships and grants for her academic and intellectual achievements, at that exact same college.

And there’s so much more to come.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

(And by the way, my poetry chapbook, Olivia In Five, Seven, Five; Autism In Haiku will be released on 8/22/22 by Finishing Line Press. The book has a series of 31 poems about Olivia, and concludes with a poem by Olivia. There is even a “blurb” by Dr. Joe! More details as we get closer!)

Olivia dancing in the labyrinth at Mount Mary University on 9/12/10.
The sunshower on that day. You can barely see her for the light, but she’s there.
Olivia in the labyrinth at Mount Mary University on 9/12/21. She’s a junior there now!
A self portrait drawn recently by Olivia. The rainbow infinity symbol represents autism.

9/9/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

Before our dog, Ursula, moved in, we had two beagles, Blossom and Donnie. Well, we called Blossom a boonglehound. The closest we could figure was she was a beagle and coonhound mix. All of her features were beagle, but she had long, long legs. Donnie was classic beagle. Short, stubby, and an eating machine. Blossom came from a humane society. Donnie came from an animal rescue. Both were beloved.

Blossom made it to fifteen years old, Donnie to thirteen. They both died on the same day. Blossom had advanced kidney disease that was supposed to kill her within a year; she made it five years. Donnie had a cancer in his leg bone that was supposed to be slow-growing and give us several more years. Three weeks later, he was walking in a daze and doing things like standing in his food dish and looking at me with the most confused expression I’ve ever seen on any dog. When we lost them, they went together, both on the veterinary table, with all three of us with a hand on each. There were two vets, and the dogs were injected at the same time. We were there, they were together, it was heartbreaking.

One of the best things about the beagles was their greeting. When I drove into my parking space at the condo, I would get out of the car and look up to the door for the second floor deck. Two beagle faces would be pressed against the glass or the screen, depending on the season. Their tails would be a blur behind them, and their faces would be rocking because their front paws would be paddling in place, just from the joy of seeing me come home. By the time I got up the stairs to the doorway that enters our condo, I’d open that door to two beagle bodies pressing forward, tongues licking, tails propelling, excited grunts and whines all around.

With that kind of welcome home, home always did feel like home.

Three weeks after the beagles’ passing, Ursula came home with us from a different humane society. She wasn’t a beagle. But her gentleness completely took me in at the kennel. It wasn’t until we got her home that we realized her gentleness came from fear.

Ursula was afraid of everything. The microwave. The icemaker. The television. The buses and cars going by outside. The sound of flags flapping from down the street. Wind. Wind chimes. Thunder. And for heaven’s sake, when the rare occurrence of a rocking church choir coming on television happened, that dog was a blur up the steps and into her crate, where she huddled, shivering.

Along with her fears was an aversion to narrowish spaces. Three years into owning her, she still wouldn’t walk down the hallway from our kitchen to the back of the condo, where Olivia’s room is, and where the treadmill is, and where the door to the second floor deck is. Livvy tried to coax her down to her room; no go. I laid treats on the floor. She only went as far as the bathroom and then turned tail.

Three years in to Ursula-ness, we’ve pretty much given up on Ursula ever making it through our entire house. Which means I also gave up hope of ever seeing a dog face pressed in welcome against my 2nd floor deck door.

But that doesn’t mean that Ursula isn’t as beloved as the beagles.

When I’m working at my desk, often that concrete head will suddenly be resting on my thigh, looking up with eyes that see me, appreciate me, love me.

In the morning, as I putter around getting dressed, brushing my teeth, making my bed, Ursula sits up on the loveseat that has become “her bed” and she tilts her head against the back so she can see me wherever I go.

I do still get greeted at the door of the condo. I have to stand stock still before stepping inside so that she can give me a thorough sniff, making sure that nothing happened to me while I was gone.

Her tail-wagging reverberates around the entire house as she thumps it on the couch, the loveseat, against the coffee table, against the cabinets, against anything within reach. Including the cats’ faces.

And she smiles, bringing her lips back, showing her amazingly tiny teeth for a 50-pound dog. She grins, which makes me laugh, which makes her grin harder.

One of my clients lost her 12-year old dog a little over a month ago. She finally managed to write about it. In her piece, she said, “He was no fur baby, but a companion of the highest order.” And she said, “The grief has been the howling kind, the kind I imagine the dog might feel for me.”

I think of Blossom and Donnie. And I think of two others, Penny, another beagle, and Cocoa, a chihuahua.

And I think of Ursula, her concrete head on my thigh.

They have all been companions of the highest order.

Early this week, I drove in to my parking spot at the condo. It was a nice day, and all of my windows and deck doors were open. I don’t know what made me step out of my car and look up to the second floor deck. There’s been nobody there for three years.

But there was on that day. Her face pressed to the screen, Ursula gave me her tiny-toothed grin. Her tail was a blurred whip behind her, and her body rocked with her prancing front feet.

“Hi!” I called. “Hi, Ursy! Hi!”

And she wiggled some more, then whipped around to meet me for my thorough sniff at the condo door.

She assured me I was just fine. And I was.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Blossom.
Donnie.
Beagles on the couch.
Ursula.
Concrete head on my thigh.
Life is always better with a raggedy pink blanket.

9/2/21

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

Lately, I’ve been finding myself craving silence. Typically, when I get into one of my cars, I immediately turn on the music, either via CD in one car or Spotify in the other (because the newest cars have the gall not to have CD players!). But for the last few weeks, I haven’t even reached for the switch. When I’m home alone, I keep the television off. I speak to the pets in a whisper. I’m avoiding crowds. I just want it to be quiet.

I know where this is coming from. The world is so loud right now. We’ve talked about noise pollution for years, noise coming from traffic and machinery. But our newest noise pollution is coming from people. I can’t turn on my computer or the television without seeing and hearing scenes of people standing in mobs, yelling and screaming. Everything seems to cause great anger, and everything seems a reason to protest.

I’ve been most shocked by the scenes coming from school board meetings. Across the entire country, parents are standing up and interrupting, yelling, screaming, cursing, over the mask debate. Over both sides of the math debate. All I can think when I see these scenes is that we, as parents, are supposed to be role models for our kids. What are we teaching them? That there’s no such thing as listening? No such thing as discussion? That it’s okay to use foul and violent language on everyone from teachers to principals to board members? That no one deserves our respect, at least long enough to listen and consider?

I look at my granddaughter and I worry.

This week, I talked with someone who is a new school board member in a different city. She supported the mask mandate. And then she had to sit for five hours through a meeting where parents pitched fit after fit after fit. She has now received death threats and vile messages. Over masks. Over masks! Death threats over masks?

Here in Waukesha, we made national news when our school board decided (wrongfully) to not take advantage of a federal program that provides free meals to all kids in the schools. One board member said (audaciously) that this would “spoil” our children. After much public outcry, the decision was reversed. But the woman who was worried about spoiling is now receiving – you guessed it – death threats and vile messages. Now, I’ll be the first to say that she was being ridiculous and cruel and likely should not be on a school board representing children. But death threats?

I was, until recently, the president of our condo board. At our last meeting, a neighbor interrupted my every sentence, shouted over me, and called me names. She didn’t seem to think this was unusual behavior. Then, a few weeks ago, I had to tell a neighbor that we couldn’t cut down and replace a dead tree in front of his unit because the condo association doesn’t own the strip of grass the tree is planted in. He responded by sending me a string of emails, filled with f-bombs and m-f bombs and all sorts of vile language. He finished by calling me a liberal.

I suppose I should be grateful he didn’t threaten my life. But all this over a dead tree that isn’t even on our property? I resigned.

Silence, please, silence. The noise is exhausting.

So late last night, or early this morning, depending on how you feel about 2:00 a.m., I was getting ready for bed. I live in the heart of downtown Waukesha, and so even at that hour, there was some noise. A car passing by. The hum of streetlights. A distant train, a not-so-distant siren. And then suddenly, there was a new sound.

I froze. Was that…?

It came again. A car went by, so I wasn’t sure, and I waited some more. But then…there it was again.

An owl.

I’ve lived in this condo for 15 years. I have never heard an owl.

I stopped what I was doing and went out on the 3rd floor deck. As I leaned against the railing, I heard it again and again. The call echoed in the empty parking lot. Somewhere, in one of the surrounding trees, was an owl. I closed my eyes, dipped my head, and listened with all my heart.

Back in 2018, I was sitting in an allergist’s office, after a night when I went into anaphylactic shock over sunflower seeds, something I’d eaten my entire life. The oral chemotherapy drug I took for breast cancer exacerbated current conditions, and my allergies were out of control. I sat there, defeated, doctor’s appointments and offices now routine in my life, wondering if breast cancer didn’t get me, if bizarre allergies would. I scrolled through my phone and suddenly, my screen was filled with the face of an owl. It was a photo taken by a student, who found the owl in her backyard.

I made that photo my Moment. In that blog, I said, I sat in that sterile room, expecting nothing and expecting the worst, and I just took in this owl’s face. I wasn’t in the forest, but as far as I’m concerned, we did breathe the same air. She drew me in to her meditation. Magical reality. My shoulders relaxed. My pulse slowed. My mind stilled.

And now, on my deck, I didn’t see this owl. But I heard it. I heard it with my whole peace-craving heart. And I stilled again.

When I finally climbed into bed, I could still hear that owl’s call, through my bedroom window. I slept deeper than I have in weeks.

I hope he’s still there tonight.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

(If you would like to see that original blog,, it was posted on 2/1/18.)

The owl! Photo by Sharon Grosh.