Featured on Nailed Magazine – Deathwish

Nailed Magazine is rich with raw, edgy, breathtaking art and writing.  I’m honored to find myself in such superb company.  Below is a short excerpt…click the “read more” link to visit the site and readJennifer Phelps on Nailed the entire (short) piece:

By the time I arrive, my mother’s body is already cooling in the bed, transitioning from animate to inanimate.  Her forehead is now the temperature of window glass on a late spring morning.  Read more on Nailed….


Writing Is Art

Writing is art. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, but it’s a phenomenon that I’m sure veteran writers have been dealing with for ages. What I mean when I say writing is art is that even if the writing is labeled “nonfiction,” it is a creative endeavor. It is not intended to represent the whole truth, nor can it. It is a slice of life, a snapshot, one angle on the truth in any given moment. That is not to say nonfiction writing is a lie – it’s not! But it is a piece of writing. It is not meant to convey the totality of the feelings and intentions of the writer.

writing is artNeither should the writer attempt to explain, justify, or soften the writing. This can be very slippery territory indeed. I’ve never published anything I regret, but I do wish I hadn’t answered questions about some of my pieces, and I have vowed never to do it again. Once, after reading a poem I’d placed in a lit journal, a well-meaning relative asked, “Was this about so-and-so?” She already knew who the poem was about, I’m sure, because enough of the details were recognizable. So the question caught me off guard and I answered, “Yes.”

“I thought so!” She sounded pleased – she’d solved a puzzle. She knew the inside story.  And I instantly regretted affirming her suspicions – because the poem didn’t tell the whole truth. It was only one piece, one facet. If you read that poem and thought, “This is what Jennifer thinks about so-and-so,” you’d be wrong. Did the poem represent a thought I’d had once about so-and-so? Sure. A recurring thought, even. A poetic thought. But it wasn’t the complete story. A poem can’t be the complete story. It’s a poem.  Continue reading

Conversations on Death

When the subject comes up and I tell people my mom died in the recent past, I watch them, watching me. They always look uncomfortable, like I’m about to burden them with some embarrassing display of emotion they won’t know how to respond to. The assumption seems to be that I’m sad, even though I’ve said nothing about being sad. They act like we’ve stumbled on an awkward subject that I don’t want to talk about, but nothing could be further from the truth.

conversations on deathOur vocabulary for grief and our experiences around death and dying is dismally limited. Losing my mom when she was 60 was/is a big deal, but I’m not “sad,” exactly, and I’m continually frustrated that I can’t have more meaningful conversations about my experiences around my mother’s death.

Most of my exchanges on the subject are like having an iPod that came with one song on it, and not being able to download more. I put on that same fucking song whenever I feel like music, but that song almost never matches the mood I’m in. I get up and dance to it anyway, because I want to dance and I don’t know what else to do. It’s pointless, boring, unsatisfying.  Continue reading

Show Me The Door

“Show me the door, and I will walk through it.”

This is the promise I made to myself during the most difficult time of my adult life, when all the elements of my existence seemed to be in discord.

doorwayIn the months – truly, the first raw years – after my mother’s death at the age of 60, not one thing in my life felt congruent with me. In dealing with her illness and death, I’d reconnected with parts of myself I’d long buried or shoved aside.  I now felt obligated to honor my “highest and best” self unequivocally.

This transition started many years before Mom actually died, when she suffered a traumatic brain injury. After that, my husband’s career was sucked into the vacuum created by the collapse of the housing market. Then our dog succumbed to a swift and brutal illness.  Mom’s cancer was diagnosed shortly after the loss of our dog, and although I carried on with my usual optimism and bravado, I must admit to feeling a little beset.  Still, I had this sense that even these difficult circumstances were leading me somewhere – deeper into my own life, to a more complete knowledge of myself.  Continue reading

Old Friends

We all need quiet in our lives.  We must sweep off the table and make space for it.  My life’s work dwells in the quiet spaces between things – of that I am certain.

When I was little, I had plenty of quiet.  We lived way out in the country, in the middle of an apple orchard, and I was always alone.  I had no siblings, no neighbors with kids, no playmates.  What I did have was an active imagination, and I was a voracious reader and so I enjoyed robust adventures of my own conjuring.

friendsStill, I thought I was lonely.  I built tree forts and yearned for a friend – a Diana to my Anne (of Green Gables) – to come climb with me.  We would giggle and tell secrets.  She would know my heart and understand me without a word.

I thought I was lonely, and maybe I was, with only an aloof cat, the mute companionship of a sweet-natured dog, and the rough-barked apple trees.  But as it turns out, along with the tree houses, I was also building something else.

I was building a relationship with myself.  I asked myself questions and listened to the answers.  The trees were my companions, the tractor-torn clay of the earth.  I ran barefoot and my feet became tough and impervious to rocks.  I ate plums and mulberries – and apples, of course – warm from the tree.

When I started school, I was confused by the complexities of interactions with my peers.  Many of them were abrupt, judgmental, inconsistent.  I began to see relationships as troubling, unsatisfying, and hurtful.

I have been blessed with some very dear friends in my life, but a true and durable friendship, as many of us know, is an uncommon thing.  That Diana to my Anne – that “kindred spirit” that L. M. Montgomery spoke of – I don’t know that I’ve ever quite found her.  Unless…

Unless I am that friend, to myself.  When I think about it, this dialogue that has continued for well over 30 years, this old and comfortable knowing of myself that goes deeper than words, has served me well ever since my childhood, when such self-companionship was forced on me through my isolated circumstances.

When I’m alone, undistracted, and able to really be with myself, it’s like a visit with an old, dear friend.  I thought I was waiting to meet her, but maybe she’s been here all along.  She’s been waiting in the quiet spaces between things…and she is always there for me.

The unbroken…and the broken

The other day I broke my ceramic sphere.  A purely decorative thing, it was glazed a rich blue with white daisies painted on it.  It sat atop a table in my garden, and I tried to move the Broken pieces...table – just a little – with the sphere on top.  Predictably, it rolled to the ground and shattered with a fantastic noise on the rocks.

I have endured enough of life’s difficulties to take these small tragedies in stride.  After yelping an expletive or two, more because I was startled than upset, I shrugged my shoulders and began gathering the shards.  This was an opportunity to examine the heretofore unseen inside of the sphere – a glimpse at something the would have stayed forever hidden had the globe remained intact.

I did experience a surge of frustration, though fleeting, toward myself.  I’d been careless, even reckless.  It was annoying to think that I’d done nothing to prevent such an obvious mishap.  Laziness had won out over caution.

But that was all.  I didn’t lament the end of the sphere’s “spherical-ness.”  The pieces are still quite pretty, I mused as I gathered them from among the stones where they’d fallen.  There is something poignant about a thing that is beautiful…and broken.  The aesthetic now seems to mean more than when the blue ceramic ball was perfect.

I used to believe that things had to be whole to be okay.  Something broken was a loss that I felt acutely.  Even a wine glass splintered in the kitchen sink could evoke strong feelings of remorse.  These days, my values are a little different.  I’m not so invested in things staying perfect…or staying at all.  Everything has an end.

I arranged the broken pieces of the sphere in a potted plant, where they form a mosaic of cobalt blue.  They look quite stunning among the petunias.  I’m not sure, but I just might like them better this way.

Beauty Trauma

My facial cleanser was recalled by the manufacturer.  When it started disappearing from drugstore shelves, I consulted the company’s website.  The reason for the recall: when the product sat, it would congeal, resulting in a higher concentration of active ingredient than what the label specified.

No wonder it worked so well!  My skin was so clear.  I’m not worried about what the preachy old FDA has to say about it.  I want my soap back.

Now that it has been discontinued, my face looks like it did in 1988.  Oh, joy.  Do you want a hot investment tip?  Buy stock in concealer.

It’s not just the cleanser.  My entire beauty routine (minimal as it is) has been under makeup blurassault lately.  Perhaps it’s a conspiracy.  Even before the face soap fiasco, my makeup was discontinued.  They still make the formulation, but not in my shade.  It’s oil control, for goodness sake.  I need the stuff.

All my adult life, I planned on becoming one of those old ladies who has used the same brand, and shade, of makeup for 50 years.  Alas, this is not to be.  So much for product loyalty.  My products are not very loyal to me, it seems.

The above instances are enough to make me want to stockpile hoards of every product I’ve come to rely on.  But there’s something I can’t stockpile: people.  Shortly after I recovered from the makeup trauma, my hairstylist announced an early retirement.  Now, I know it wasn’t my hair that made her want to give up her career.  I’m very low maintenance.  But my hair is curly, and Jane really knew what to do with curly hair.

I don’t know who to turn to.  Since I hate getting my hair cut anyway – it seems like such a waste of time – and I am reluctant to go elsewhere, with Jane out of business my hair just grows and grows.

Hairstylists are liars, anyway, I’ve discovered.  We’ve all been duped.  They (the cosmetologists) want us to believe that the more we cut our hair, the longer it gets.  If we want it to be long and luxurious, they proselytize, we must come in for regular trims.  Sure, trimming cleans up the split ends, but let me let you in on a little secret: when you don’t get your hair cut, it grows even longer.  Today I rolled mine up in the hose reel along with the garden hose.  I’m like Rapunzel.

I still haven’t figured out what to do about the hair problem.  I probably will need a hairstylist to trim my hair some time before my 89th birthday.  Cutting it myself doesn’t go so well.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  I’m still okay with DIY color, but for how long?  All this beauty trauma is causing my gray hairs to multiply exponentially.

As if I wasn’t suffering enough with my unruly (and untrimmed) hair, now I have to deal with the whole face soap fiasco.  It pains me to think that there are surely cases of the recalled cleanser sitting in some warehouse somewhere, congealing to maximum efficacy.  The longer it sits, the better it gets, I’ll bet.  Pretty soon it’ll be the drugstore equivalent of a chemical peel.  If I could get my hands on some I’d definitely buy a lifetime supply.

They say a woman’s beauty routine gets more complicated as she gets older.  Not in my case.  I’m crossing things off left and right.  What’s next?  Will they stop making my toothpaste?

There are only so many things “us girls” can rebound from, only so many products we can find replacements for or eliminate.  After that, our lives in public are over.  As for me, I’ll be okay until they discontinue my concealer.  At that point I’ll probably have to become a recluse and live out my days in the confines of my home.  Goodbye, world, I’ll blog, which, along with e-mail and Facebook, will be my only portals to the rest of humanity.  They stopped making Cover Girl Invisible Concealer in “Fair.”  It’s been nice knowing you.

Why I Write About My Mother Dying (and Other Imponderables)

Someone once remarked to me that my topics here on the Naked Notebook could be considered “depressing.”  Frankly, this observation surprised me.  Exploring themes of grief and loss, as I have been doing lately since the death of my mother, has never seemed depressing to me at all.

But the comment got me wondering: why do I write on these topics?  What compels me, Where earth meets sky and in betweenwhen I take pen in hand, to tell of my mother’s death?  To write of how, in dying, she was somehow larger than when she was living?

Then I remembered.  I don’t really write my posts at all.  They write themselves.  That’s how I know the notebook is truly “naked.”  My posts are the truth.  Maybe not the whole truth, but nothing but the truth, all the same.  It’s like I’m a windchime, and words are the wind.  I make a pretty sound from time to time, but it’s really the wind that’s doing it.  I’m just hanging there, waiting.

Maybe I’m reading too much into the whole “depressing” thing, anyway.  It’s entirely likely that my subject matter is not responsible for that perception at all.  The Naked Notebook’s monochromatic color scheme alone could be to blame.  I didn’t choose it to be funereal and macabre.  It’s just that I’ve always been drawn to darkness.  When I was 5, black was my favorite color.  I even insisted on black gravel in my fish bowl.   A photo in black and white, to me, instantly looks at least 20 percent more artistic than its color counterpart.  That’s just how I am.

Blacks, grays, they’re edgy.  I’ve always loved edginess.  In music, in art, and in people.  Things that walk the line between dark and light.  Because that’s what we’re all doing, every day.

Anyway, enough of this pseudo-philosophical crap.  I’m talking about my blog.  Specifically, whether the Dead Mother Posts, as I so irreverently refer to them, are depressing.  I certainly don’t think so.  I’m not feeling depressed when I write them.  I may be feeling acute, maybe even melancholy at times.  But that’s the richness of life, isn’t it?  Deep feelings, both good and bad.  It’s not all sunshine and roses, in case you hadn’t noticed.  Yeah.  I figured you had.

I would never have believed I’d be quoting reality TV’s Dr. Drew Pinsky, but he said something on an episode of Celebrity Rehab (everyone needs a guilty pleasure, right?) that stuck with me.  He said that he’d always considered people who were capable of deep emotion to be strong, not weak.  (He was talking to Heidi Fleiss at the time, so he was, no doubt, really reaching deep into his proverbial bag of tricks.)

Never mind the source; I love the sentiment.  I, too, admire people who do not shy away from the difficult, the poignant, the acute.  I don’t mean wallowing…I mean possessing a willingness to go there, to learn the lessons, to be with the experience.  Whatever that experience may be.  It’s not negative – that’s a value judgment.  It just is.

So here I am, mining the depths, holding my breath, diving down.  Coming back up to the surface, humbled but stronger.

My readers, you get it.  You have been supportive, receptive, empathetic.  You don’t flinch in the face of deep emotion.  You, too, are strong in all the ways that matter.  And I appreciate you more than you know.

My husband, who does not consider himself a writer, said it better than anyone:  A death is as astonishing as a birth, he said.  How very, very true that is.  Astonishing.  I’ve witnessed an astonishing experience.  And I’m writing about it.

My mom herself explored these ideas.  She devoted much of her adult life to the study of grief and loss.  As a Marriage and Family Therapist, her emphasis was complicated grief.  I feel I am honoring her by learning all I can from her illness and death.  My grief isn’t complicated – at least I don’t think it is – but it’s mine.

That I ruminate on those experiences isn’t an expression of sadness…it’s an appreciation for the complexity of being human.  It’s not about having a happy life or a sad life.  It’s about having a full life.

So if there is a reason for the Dead Mother Posts, I suppose it is one of self-discovery, of honoring the moment.  I haven’t written these posts to depress my readers or to marinate in misery and self-pity.  An eternal optimist, I’ve never been good at any of those things.  But I am a contemplative person, and I want to give this time in my life its due.

After years of rejecting the idea, lately I’ve come to embrace the fact that I am, at least in part, my mother’s daughter.  She would be pleased that I’m taking the time – and making the space, here in the Naked Notebook – to work through things in my own way.  She’d like the Dead Mother Posts.  I’m just sure of it.

Magic in Mirrors

More things of Mom’s keep finding their way into my home.  Just the other day, Dad brought me some odds and ends of hers, including her old stapler.  Apparently, it was something she had before they were married.  Dad loves staplers, so either he was being quite unselfish by passing it on to me, or he feels that he has entirely too much stuff since Mom died and he consolidated two households.

Another item he didn’t have room for, or didn’t want, was her full-length mirror.

“Do you want that mirror?” he asked when he called.

You bet I want it.  I knew exactly which mirror he meant.  Mom always spoke of mirrorwanting a full-length mirror, and she finally ordered this one from Pottery Barn.  I’m glad she got to have it…one small dream realized in a lifetime far too short to grant all her wishes.  But aren’t all lifetimes too short for that?

“Where will it go?” my husband worried.  After eight months of assimilating countless books, an impressive array of heirloom furniture pieces, and an extensive collection of decorative throw pillows, it was a fair question.  The mirror is tall and rectangular with an espresso-colored wood frame: simple, modern, elegant, and timeless. (Do you think Pottery Barn should hire me to write copy for their catalog?)  And it is large.

“In the corner, I guess,” I replied.

The mirror was placed in the corner, where it stands, working its magic.  I love mirrors.  They add depth, light, and mystery to a room.  They show us new angles of ourselves, but they are also enigmatic by nature.  Somehow, they seem to represent an answer and a question, all at the same time.  In this way, mirrors both frighten and reassure me.  There I am, but then again, there I am not.

As I look in this mirror, I imagine Mom standing before it, elegant and willowy, giving herself a sharp, appraising look.  Now that it is in my house, I shuffle past it wearing the new fleece monkey pajamas I received as a Christmas gift.  The beveled glass has been anointed with dog slobber.  My elegance, I suppose, is more sutble than hers.

Still, I’m glad the mirror is here.

Flash Mobs – I just don’t get it

I don’t understand the relevance of the flash mob.  The very idea irritates me.  Why?  I love music.  I am as entertained by dance as anyone.  The phenomenon, its appeal, eludes me, and I think I’ve figured out the reason.

According to Wikipedia, “a flash mob (or flashmob) is a group of people who assemble Photo Credit - Denver Librarysuddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then quickly disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression.”

The happening gives the appearance of spontaneity, but really it is carefully orchestrated.  Bystanders (if you can believe what you see in YouTube videos) look on in astonished wonder as the performance unfolds around them.

Now don’t get me wrong – I love public art, even when combined with a healthy measure of civil disobedience.  A talented graffiti artist, for example, whose intricate works of art materialize overnight in ordinary public places would delight me (if it wasn’t my building, that is).  But in that instance the spraypainted wall is left to discovery.  People can see the work of art, appreciate it, be surprised by it…or not.

On the other hand, a flash mob forces itself on its audience.  It’s as if the non-participants have been tricked into walking onto the set of a game show.  In one moment they are waiting for the bus, and in the next they are they are required to stop going about their business and take in the spectacle happening in front of them whether they like it or not.

It’s almost as if the flash mob is doing something to the audience.  The bystanders are drafted into participation.  After all, the flash mob is all about the audience; otherwise there would be no point.

That’s what I don’t like.  There is something presumptive about it, some element of “watch me, watch me, lookit what I can do.”

I’ve never seen a real flash mob in person.  It’s quite possible I would feel differently if I did.  But until I do, and am overcome with wonderment at the privilege of being a witness to such an event, I will find the concept annoying.

Sometimes people just want to go about their business.  They don’t want to get sucked into someone else’s melodramatic theatrical agenda.  They just want to get on the bus and go home.