St. Anthony's Stories

Bernie

“Merry Christmas, Bern.”

“You should say Happy Holidays, Pats. Not everyone celebrates Christmas.”

“Tomato, toh-mah-to.”

Bernie settled onto the barstool at the corner of the Formica bar. Patsy placed a glass with an orange and a maraschino cherry floating in caramel colored alcohol in front of him. He breathed it in, feeling its warmth before he sipped it.

This was the thing Bernie most looked forward to on Christmas evening. An old fashioned at Jack’s, the only place he knew in southwest St. Louis that was open at eight o’clock on Christmas night. It wasn’t a tradition. He’d begun to find tradition tiresome. His traditions were midnight mass followed by sleepless nights putting together some infernal plastic toy on Christmas Eve, tiny hands grabbing and pulling him out of bed a few hours later, eagerly awaiting Santa’s bounty. That twenty-four hours had become rote; just as his youngest began to sleep later and find less magic in the Christmas morning, his oldest was having her own babies and the cycle started anew for Bernie and Millie.

Forty-four years of this. It was enough tradition for one lifetime.

Five years ago things changed. Maybe it was six. Bernie didn’t keep track. Millie was too far-gone. He and the kids agreed–well, most of them–that it was time to allow someone else to care for her. The decision was agonizing, but now, sipping his old fashioned, Bernie remembered that she barely noticed the difference between the home they’d owned most of their marriage and the suite she’d been moved into at St. Boniface. When she had moments of clarity and looked at Bern with terrified, confused eyes and asked where she was, it broke his heart. But those happened rarely.

After Millie went to live at St. Boniface, everything changed. The kids began to have holidays at their in-laws. Chuck and Joan and Alec and Becky alternated inviting him to their homes for the holiday, but no one came to the big old house on Mead Street anymore. Perhaps this should have bothered Bernie, but he was relieved.

“How’s Millie, Bern?” Patsy stopped momentarily in front of him.

“She’s good. She loves the socks. You really shouldn’t have,” Bernie replied.

“Hey Bern! Why don’t you take a vacation? Go somewhere warm? I gotta timeshare in Fort Meyers, I’ll cut ya a deal.” Ronnie was a fixture so permanently perched on his barstool he resembled a gargoyle.

“No thanks, Ron.”

“Ah, c’mon. You got, what, like a dozen kids? Can’t they look after your old lady?”

“Eight.” Bernie sipped his old fashioned and let his eyelashes rest on his cheeks for a millisecond. Fort Meyers sounded blissful. There’d be people there his age, the warm humid air would lubricate the creaks in his joints. As long as Millicent shuffled through the corridors of St. Boniface, he’d be here.

What was so wrong with here, anyway? He looked around the room, mostly empty but for a young couple with their heads bowed together at a table in the corner, Ronnie and himself. Patsy played Handel’s Messiah on repeat. The tinsel and colored lights were timeless in their garishness, and the glints of primary colors reflected in the bottles behind the bar. Patsy polished glasses and stared out the window. Ronnie had lost interest in selling his timeshare and sat with his glasses perched on the end of his nose as he worked through his puzzle book.

He wasn’t sure if this was happiness. His guilt at leaving his wife, at being relieved to escape his children and their sullen teenaged offspring, at ignoring the slow decline of the house he and Millie had devoted themselves to for decades kept him from true, unfettered happiness. But this peaceful moment of contentment that he’d taken for himself every day for the last five years, was close enough.

This wasn’t horseshoes, after all.

 

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St. Anthony's Stories

Anton

Even in her illness, pale cheeks ruddy and eyes bright with fever, her thumbs steadily tapped on the glossy surface of her phone. He watched her intently and then marveled at the speed with which the screen changed from white (texting) to blue (more texting, this time with photos and a big thumbs up) to photos in some other application he didn’t understand. He saw a flash and her peaked, unsmiling face appear on the screen.

“Why do you put picture of yourself at hospital? No one want to see you like this,” he said.

“Just because.”

“Why you want everyone to know you are sick? Why not take vacation from pictures?” Anton grumbled half to himself, half for her benefit.

“My friends will wonder if I’m okay.”

The nurse called her name and Klara stuffed her phone in the pocket of her puffy pink coat and stalked to the front desk. The nurse handed her a clipboard with a stack of paperwork and then gestured in Anton’s direction. Anton watched as Klara shook her head, her long chestnut hair streaked with yellow bleach streaks. Anton’s heart felt heavier every time his eyes took in the carnage she’d imposed on her beautiful locks and he looked away.

He knew what Klara was telling the nurse—that he could speak English, but his reading and writing ability were abysmal. It frustrated him to look at the words on a page and not make heads or tales of them, he the poet, the voracious reader in his own country, now unable to fill out a simple form for his sick daughter.

She returned to her seat and set to scribbling. He pulled out his own phone, waving it at her.

“I have to take this,” he announced. “It is the restaurant.” She stared as if to communicate that she did not care if it was the zoo, his calls were none of her concern.

Anton answered and spoke loudly to his assistant manager, explaining in Ukrainian that he was at the hospital with his lovely daughter, that she was very ill he was deeply worried, distraught in fact, so great was his concern for her well being. Alek would have to cover the restaurant for the remainder of the evening; there was no other option. He couldn’t afford to close the doors, even for a few hours.

Klara understood Ukrainian, this he knew; yet she gave no indication that she heard him. He raised his voice. Heads turned in his direction as his deep bass filled the room.

“Dad, shh.”

He scowled at her and walked into the vestibule, pulling his sock hat further over his ears against the chill. When he returned, Klara was speaking to the nurse. He picked up her clipboard from the seat of his chair and glanced at it. He still couldn’t make heads or tails of most of the lines, but he recognized his address and phone number. On the top line, however, his eyes froze. He felt something that he had carried with him all these years across oceans, through lean years in studio apartments, watching his life in Ukraine fade slowly away, he felt it fracture. A slice of it fell away as he stared at his daughter’s handwriting.

Name: Clara

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Happy Little Writer Sarah, Journey, menagerie, Uncategorized, Words for Food

Culture Shock.  

It’s taken me two weeks to really get readjusted. Yet another thing I’ve never done before, this adjustment back–like grieving where you’ve been, its uniqueness and how impossible it is to both explain and replicate.

I returned from my month-long writing retreat in Ireland to a whole new ballgame. Really, it’s like I was playing golf and now I’m playing cricket.

I left my nonprofit work with a hard stop, spent four quiet weeks hibernating in the hills with the cows and kitties and fairies. And then I returned and within a week had a new gig as a social media/marketing wrangler, a new professional identity as a freelance writer, said the words “I’m working on my novel” out loud, put finishing touches on MFA applications, re-budgeted, reassessed, reconsidered…recovered from a kick ass headcold…

Here’s what I miss about my Ireland adventure:

Peppers--the writing annex, where everyone knew my name and what I was working on.

Peppers–the writing annex, where everyone knew my name and what I was working on.

  •  Druid Cottage
  • Brown bread
  • 2 hour-long walks in the country
  • Peat fires, specifically mine.
  • Silence
  • Simplicity—from food to routine, everything was barebones, accoutrement free
  • Walking into Peppers and feeling like I belong
  • Wind howling around the eves of my cottage making me feel strangely secure and cozy inside.
  • Not ever knowing what day it was or what time it was.

Here’s what I am so glad to come home to:

Here goes...

Here goes…

  • My menagerie
  • My new (fully functioning!) oven and it’s various culinary adventures (which may or may n to include baking brown bread).
  • OAK! The best burgers in Seattle. The best cozy winter bar. Happiness abounds.
  • Public transit (yes, really—it’s nice to not have to drive everywhere)
  • The right side of the road.
  • My new gig with these fun, creative, shit-kicking folks, Team Diva Real Estate. Taking buying, selling and renting to a whole new level. I love their commitment to relationships, neighborhoods, to knowing the quirkiest spots, to snark and pink.
  • IPA’s, especially this one. Guinness is oh, so good, but I’m a Northwesterner at heart.
  • Esquin and the Saturday wine tasting—what you’ve never been to Esquin? Best wine shop in Seattle. Nicest staff. Best back room with phenomenal deals.
  • A new adventure as a freelance writer (stay tuned)

 

 

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Happy Little Writer Sarah, Journey

Bringing it Home

When I work with young people, I talk about integration–it’s not a Sarah tool, it’s a learning tool, but I think it’s often overlooked. But critical. How can you take the experience you’ve just had–good or bad–and integrate what you’ve learned into your life? For example:

I was [bad at math]. Then I [asked for help from my teacher and worked with a tutor]. Because of this I [got a higher grade on my test]. I feel [proud, confident and less tense in math class].

The next step: how do you keep those feelings you have right now?

I am in the last few days of my writing retreat. I woke up with the sun (which is NOT early, trust me), ate bread slathered in butter and jam, took a long walk through the “neighborhood” in the pouring rain, took a quick hot shower (quick because the hot water lasts about 5 minutes), ate an egg and cheese and fruit. Now I’m curled on my cushiony daybed with hot tea next to the fire. I feel peaceful and inspired, ready to crank out the last few pages to complete one project.

I was worn out and worried all the time. I worried about my finances, my students, my career, my weight, my family. I worried that I didn’t have enough time to write and time was slipping away from me. I decided I couldn’t do that anymore, so I let it go.

Mr. B and I have long talks about how to live more simply so we can slowly start to spend more time doing what soothes and inspires. We want to spend less time chasing the bus to commute to jobs to take care of the customer or push for the outcome to show that we are competent and worthy of our paycheck. That is incredibly hard to change, it’s the way we’ve been taught to operate. It’s the way our culture works–we spend so much time chasing someone else’s permission or approval to validate our own happiness. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’m cutting out the middle man.

The trick, of course, is that in making that decision, I am faced with figuring out just what it takes to make me happy. And, it seems to me, this is not a one time project, but constant reassessment and adjustment.

This trip was my exercise in just that. In some ways, it been as much about establishing what is essential and what I can let go as it is about the writing. Because letting go of something will make room for better writing.

Here’s what I think I need more of in my life:

  1. Silence. It’s okay if there’s no one talking or music playing.
  2. Bread. I’ve eaten nothing but bread and butter for the last 25 days. I do not feel bad, I feel healthier than I’ve ever felt. Screw this low carb bullshit.
  3. Butter. See above.
  4. Liquor. I’m not a liquor drinker, but there is liquor on/in/around every dish I’ve eaten outside my cottage, I swear. It’s time to bring that back, ’cause it’s totally worth it.
  5. Walks. Long ones.
  6. Listening. All the writing I planned to do went back burner because in listening to people talk, the stories came. We don’t listen, really listen, enough.
  7. Laughing. I miss my chats and laughs with my great old friends, my wild wine Wednesdays and League nights. You shouldn’t ever be too tired to have a bit of that.
  8. Brian. That probably goes without saying, but I feel like my other arm is missing. You know you’ve got it bad when you talk to him and he’s not even there (see #1).

Here’s what I could let go:

  1. Coffee. I know, it’s PNW sacrilege. My insides don’t feel like they are boiling when I’m not drinking six cups a day.
  2. Wine. Not totally, but maybe less. See above…less on the boiling insides and more on the fuzzy head.
  3. Make up. Totally overrated. Stop putting on mascara to go to the grocery store.
  4. Running. When running starts to feel obligatory (read; I should go for a run–the should meaning, I’ll get fat if I don’t or I have to because I’m training or because I might want to train for something soon) it’s not fun anymore.
  5. Leaving the house everyday. I’m pretty sure there is enough food in my house at any given time that I don’t ever NEED to go to the store. Just stay home.
  6. Planning–Mr. B is saying his hallelujahs right now. I’ll never be able to totally give it up, but my anxiety levels would drop considerably if I just decided each day what I wanted instead of days or weeks out.
  7. Meat–I’ve probably had meat twice a week since I’ve been here. I don’t have a big fridge, so nowhere to store it or leftovers, so I only eat it out. I haven’t missed it.

Some of this is tongue in cheek, but really, I think the moral of the story is that all the things I do because I feel like I should are just cluttering out the things I do because they make me so very happy. Less is  more they say…

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Happy Little Writer Sarah, Journey

Halfway to Home

Haven't found the pot of gold, but it seems like a good sign.

Haven’t found the pot of gold, but it seems like a good sign.

I have been here for 18 days. I am well past the halfway mark of my retreat into the quiet and the writing.

I’ve never done this before. I have never gone somewhere and just stayed. Growing up we rarely took a family vacation that involved going to one place and just staying. We drove. We woke up in the morning, found breakfast and got on the road to the next spot. Sometimes we lucked out and found a random quaint town on the back roads in Wisconsin or New Mexico. Sometimes we found a Motel 6.

As an adult, same rules apply. My stays usually last about a long weekend at best. Usually that’s because the money runs out or the couch-surfing is only available for short stays. When I was in Ireland last, five years ago, I was here for something like three weeks and I didn’t stay in any town more than two nights. I managed to do a complete ring around the island, even making my way to the far-reaches of the Dingle Peninsula and the Aran Islands and the Antrim Coast.

This time, I’ve stayed put. I visited friends in Wexford and made a side trip to the Glencree Peace Retreat Center-that’s a whole different story. I slept in Bray. I staggered my departure time to make sure I didn’t hit Dublin commuter traffic. And when I finally made it past the tolls and back into the rolling hills I felt relief. Back to my cozy cottage, my laptop, my notebooks, the kitties, the fire.

I was talking to Mr. B last night on FaceTime (thank goodness for FaceTime) and I found my mood shifting drastically into tears. I spouted worries about money, holiday gifts, and obligations at home. When it really came down to it, though, I wasn’t crying about those things, because I’m not really worried about those things.

I’m sad to go home.

These 18 days have been perfect. I slowly unwound into this space, walked, read, ate bread and butter and walked some more (and ate more bread and butter—low-carb can go to hell). And then when I finally sat down, words started happening. Not even close to the way I thought they would, not on any of the projects I’d brought with me ready to tackle. But they came from deep recesses of my brain. They are scribbled on paper all over the cottage, the car, my phone, my purse. When they get stopped up, I take another walk, read another story, eat some more brown bread slathered in butter and jam.

Mr. B wrote me later and said “this isn’t a month long trip to Ireland to write but a trip to see if this life suited you.”

It suits me. I’m crying because while this is so great, I know I have to go home and make this happen there and I don’t know how.

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Happy Little Writer Sarah, Journey

Here in the Quiet

IMG_2579People are generally surprised that I’m an introvert. And, realistically, if it’s all on a spectrum, I’m probably just a few hairs over the line into the land of the Introvert. After all around people I know, small groups preferably, I am definitely not shy. I frequently have an opinion and feel compelled to share it. Mainly because I see some sort of injustice or underdog that needs defending and if there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s seeing a dog knocked around. By and large, I am deeply driven by relationships.

But then there is my overwhelm button which gets tripped when I’ve said too much, been around too many or listened too long. Then it feels like I’m hyper-sensitive–more anxious, irritable, indecisive, emotional. Sometimes I feel a bad cold coming on. I don’t think its psychosomatic, exactly, it’s just my body responding to what my brain can’t handle.

Pre-dawn breakfast, 7:45 AM

My previous job was so very, very about relationships and listening–to students, staff, partners. This was no doubt the reason I loved it. Also, it was very easy to slip into the land of overwhelm.

I decided months and months ago, before I decided to leave my job, to take a month away from everything and retreat into writing. I wanted to see what I could produce if all of my energy was focused there. I wondered what it would be like to not have to cram my writing into a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon and then to be discouraged when I couldn’t get enough done. What if theI had all the time in the world to just do this one thing? I wanted to return to Ireland to work on a particular project, and besides, it’s a place I love that I’ve visited before.

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The stroll up the hill.

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Mists and green and sunrising.

I am here now. The project has shifted, but the goals are the same. All the things I was most anxious about before I left–the driving on the left, the hidden costs of everything, getting lost in this very, very rural part of the world, not writing–have been dealt with. I made it, I found snacks and I figured out how to light a fire with peat (it is NOT like a wood fire, folks). I slept something like 12 hours and my jetlag is pretty minimal.

IMG_2548I feel great. I have not spoken to a soul (other than a quick FaceTime call to Mr. B to let him know I was alive). I don’t have a television and wifi is a little on the spotty side so I haven’t bothered to try Netflix. I haven’t listened to music or podcasts.

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Thank goodness for dry feet.

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I can’t bring myself to interrupt this quiet.

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I went for a couple hour stroll this morning to explore my corner of the world. I met several chatty mutts and some less chatty horses. I clambered through a bog to the top of a magnificent hill and talked to myself the whole time. I am not sure what I said in my head and what I actually uttered in sounds. It doesn’t matter.

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This quiet, it’s delicious. I am savoring it. And I feel myself slowly unwinding.

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Happy Little Writer Sarah, Journey

How to Quit the Job You Love

I am in my mid-thirties. I have a mortgage, student loans and credit card debt. I do not have the oft-advised 3-6 months salary socked away in a savings account. I am pretty sure I don’t have any sort of retirement account. My husband and I sometime talk about having a family. And I quit the job I love.

You’re reading this thinking “That bad? Really?” The truth is, I love LOVE what I do for a living. I am a mentor to low-income high school students who are long on potential and short on opportunity. Over the last several years I have developed relationships with dozens of bright, thoughtful, hilarious, driven students. They are the single greatest reason I go to work everyday. Their altruistic hearts, their deep curiosity for the world and what lies ahead, their willingness to crack open and share their deepest thoughts with me—it’s been one of the greatest gifts of my professional life. I watched these young people walk across the graduation stage this June—many who weren’t sure if they would—and I have not felt that sense of soaring pride, for either of my degrees.

I gave my whole heart to my job. I worked—sometimes happily and sometimes petulantly—way more than 40 hours a week. When the alarm went off each morning, I reached for my magic iPhone and checked my email. I made to-do lists on my 45-minute commute on the bus. I walked the dog and contemplated how we could be more inclusive in our messaging. I prattled on about our strategic outcomes while I chopped vegetables for dinner. I struggled with burnout. In my performance reviews often the constructive feedback I received was about how to find more balance, how to take care of myself better.

I am a writer—that feels funny to say. But it’s true; I’ve been a writer for decades now. I’ve studied it in college, I’ve built my writing life in evenings and weekends, found writer friend and taken classes. In the last year though, as I continued to tinker away at night and on Sunday afternoons, something began to happen. The more I wrote, the more energy I had for the rest of my life. I felt alive, electric. It was like being on drugs—every sense was more attune to the world around me. I felt on top of the world.

It was as though I’d found the antidote, the special pixie dust that was going to continue to fuel my work at my job. Clearly the recipe wasn’t quite right—I was exhausted by staying up late writing and going to work as usual. My friendships were suffering, my husband was picking up a lot of slack and I wasn’t doing my waistline any favors either. I wanted more of all of this—more time, lord what I could do with more time! I’d still get that electricity coursing through my veins as I clacked away on my stories and essays and it would stoke this fire I had at work. I’d be more inspired, more driven…

I’d hoped maybe I could do both. I was sure I could make it work—that I could find the balance between work and writing. I didn’t know how much it meant to me until I learned that this wasn’t possible. That the organization I worked for didn’t have the systems and structure to support me having more time away from the office. I was devastated.

That sounds melodramatic, it does, I know. But I felt ripped in half, as though I had to choose between two things I loved and felt so deeply committed to. I felt as though I was at a fork in the road—I could either choose the life I’d already created for myself, or I could create a new one.

There are so many people who are fulfilled by the work they do all day. And there are a lot more that don’t really care if they are fulfilled or not, as long as they have a paycheck that affords them the lifestyle they want. I wanted so SO desperately to be one of those people.

I supplement my happiness by driving hard for the next promotion, the next raise, the perfect performance review. And when that doesn’t work, I supplement by taking trips, buying new boots, splurging on special dinners, the extra glass of wine. I train for races, I grit my teeth and do more pushups.

In short, I spend most of my life either working or trying to recover from working. I’m a hamster on a wheel. No matter how much you believe in what you do, if it isn’t fulfilling a majority of the time, it’s still the rat race. And to what end?

Every time I write it’s a battle. I pace and curse and growl and wonder why the fuck I do this to myself, why do I continue to put myself through this wringer of staring utter failure in the face. Every time I sit down to write it’s either exhilarating or gut wrenching. And I’d rather be completely empty some of the time and know that there are other times that I’ll feel complete, full.

I’m willing to sacrifice my paycheck, the weekend trips, the extra glass of wine for that sense of electricity, the feeling that every sense is on high alert, for the feeling that causes the hair on my arms to stand up.

These students, though. They inspire me. For years I’ve coached and listened and nudged them into taking great risks and I’ve witnessed astonishing rewards. They take these incredible leaps, these huge risks to be the first in their families to go to leave home and go to college. They often are facing utter failure and they stare it bravely in the face and sally forth. Who would I be if I looked at the fork in the road and chose the path that led to mediocre?

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