Free Write Friday: Makeup


She pulls out the shiny magenta case, like a tackle box but smooth at the edges, a mirror secured inside the lid. “I have to fill it with my makeup!” She exclaims, moving from room to room, collecting her beauty things. “Mom, have you seen my mermaid lipstick?” No, I haven’t. I hid it away somewhere and promptly forgot where I put it; a parent’s prerogative. It’s not really lipstick, just rose tinted chapstick, gifted to her by a well meaning friend. I got rid of it as soon as I was able to without her immediate protest. 

I suspect she suspects me as the thief, the culprit discarding of her treasured beauty trinkets, but I have to accept her eventual disdain for my actions. She’s five. She loves long flowy dresses, she’s gravitated toward high heels since she was two. She collects hair accessories like they’re candy, items to be savored and adorn her mousy brown locks. I worry. Will she be superficial? Will she self-scrutinize? Will she be consumed by what she looks like, how she appears to herself and to the world? Of course she will. But I want to temper the inevitable, preemptively find a way to help her emerge from the challenges of girlhood with the foundation of a healthy identity intact. 

She watches me hawk-like when I put on my own paltry morning makeup, scrutinizing every move: sponge applies a tinted moisturizer, brush of peachy blush, a swipe of eye shadow. I just started wearing mascara again a few months ago, conscious of my aging beauty regimen and tired mama eyes. She studies me like an artist regarding a celebrated sculpture, trying to deduce the method of craft. I’m self conscious as she analyzes me, defensive at my feminism and wondering at my hypocrisy in wanting her to avoid the trappings of the beauty counter world.

She and her brother used to stand below me as I regarded myself in the mirror, applying my cosmetics for the day. They’d ask for a makeup sponge and imitate my movements, swiping over their face and neck. Eventually they’d bore of this and use the sponges to “clean” the bathroom walls; perhaps a more appropriately concrete activity to occupy their imagination. 

She doesn’t really have any makeup of her own, so she fills her plastic box with sparkly headbands and large hair bows. She corrals her tiny hairbrush and her brightly colored elastic bands. I want to protect her from the self-scrutinization, the self-criticism of being a girl in this superficially focused world. I want to adjust her own lens, swap it out with one that filters with self-acceptance, appreciation of variation and an ability to discern a deeper beauty, the kind essential to all that matters.

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Free Write Friday: Resolution

She’s a goal setter, a rule keeper, a list maker. She pulls out the worksheets early each January, looks back, plans forward. There are questions about finances and fitness, family and work. She found this simple form years ago and it’s her favorite. Straightforward and practical, with New Year’s Eve reflections and promptings for concrete steps to be taken in the unblemished year to come.

Light streams in through the dining room windows, tainted with tiny handprints and a subtle layer of accumulated muck. The answers flow this year, falling out of her head and onto the page. 2016 was a crucible of sorts and it’s time to rise from the ashes. 

Midlife reached, she’s realizing the truth: that everyone hides in their cocoon of facades, that we share too little of ourselves, that authenticity is a rarity and an unexpected gift to those around you. Life isn’t just messy, it’s cruel at times. But the beauty, astounding magnificence, really, is in the sharing, in the connection that comes from journeying through the valleys together.

This all pours out, onto the page, infusing her goals, her plans, her lists. And what stands out: grace, boundaries, sleep, kindness, gratitude. So she starts with these as she binds herself to her tribe, stepping a little more boldly, a little more bruised, a lot more vulnerable into the new year. 

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Free Write Friday: Goodnight Moon


Her sister loved the book, requested it every night. Her brother, not so much. He wouldn’t sit still to listen to any board book; made me worried about his attention and future schooling prospects. The words rush back to me now with this littlest one, memorized at some point years ago with the repetition I endured. Every night: “In the great green room…” I rock the baby and read. 

She tries to eat the thick pages, colored with orange-red, yellow, kelly green. She too takes to the silly story of bidding goodnight to the bears, to the mittens, to the bowl full of mush. I discover I now find comfort in the rhythmic cadence, the sentences fall out of my mouth sing-song, lyrical and pleasing. 

Maybe that’s why she listens quietly, transported to the simplicity of a warm room, a rocking old rabbit, a nightly ritual of farewell to all the little things that surround us – the comb, the brush, the little toy house, and all the big things too vast for us to comprehend – the stars, the air, nobody, the moon. Goodnight to it all. Goodnight to the immediate and the immense. Maybe this still appeals at a time when everything seems virtual, intangible, rushing by. It’s nice to stop and acknowledge, step into the present space and recognize the greater cosmos above. 

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White

Due to the holiday week, I’m taking a break from Narrative Medicine Monday and sharing a favorite: River Teeth’s Beautiful Things. This narrative nonfiction journal posts a short piece of prose each Monday, highlighting a different “beautiful thing”. Today’s piece by Jennifer Bowen Hicks, entitled “White” captures a moment between her and her son as she walks him to school on a cold winter morning. I encourage you to check out River Teeth’s complete series; these short pieces never fail to inspire.

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Free Write Friday: Ornaments

The plastic boxes pulled down from the attic, thin film of dust, debris from the particles upset overhead. I begin to pull out, sort through. Shiny, shimmery reds, glittering silver, deep forest greens. I rediscover: Santa photos from years past, wide eyed children frozen in shock and concern, not wanting to flee from the bearded stranger lest it mean no presents; ornaments from childhood, a styrofoam princess with a billowing egg crate gown lined with purple glitter, angelic cherry red dot of lips, blank coal eyes, snowy tuft of hair; items bought on deep discount sale the year prior, appealing to my inability to resist a bargain, accumulating that which isn’t really needed. Candles, too many candles, shaped as evergreen trees, lined with sparkles that shed unceremoniously; I’m hesitant to light them and deplete the wick, thereby defeating the purpose of having said candle, year after year. 

I turn on the Christmas playlist, honed over the years to specific tunes that conjure up Norman Rockwellesque memories that may have happened, or that I wish had happened, in holidays past. We don’t have enough lights, depleted over the years by broken bulbs, but I’m hesitant to start anew with the energy saving LED lights; their glow just isn’t the same, less desirable to sit and stare at the sterile pale light rather than bask in the yellowed soft glow of traditional bulbs no longer available at the drugstore. 

I trim the tree; this year two of my children old enough to participate, take over with their careful placement too distal on the needled branches, causing them to sag, sad with the weight of the gibbous bulbs. Their eyes brighten as they behold each trinket, eager to cluster them at eye’s level. My kindergartener realizes some balance is needed, grabs the step stool, reaching high with her arms to give the wooden snowmen, the tiny wreaths, the fabric angels full view of the living room. She examines each ornament closely before placing it strategically, then steps back, admiring her work as the baby coos as if approving, down below.

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Free Write Friday: Mail


My mom used to send me magazine clippings in the mail. She’d come across an article about medicine or my old high school or our family summer vacation locale and she’d clip it and staple it and send it off in a nondescript white envelope. I’d receive the envelope, neat looped handwriting instantly recognizable, and I’d open it right away. The newspaper clipping or torn magazine sheets usually went into a pile meant to be read later. 

But I was in college, trying to keep up with a rigorous load of textbooks and essays and journal articles. Or I was in medical school, busy with anatomy lab and pathology and pharmacology, drowning in index cards and color coded diagrams meant to aid memorization of muscle insertion and organ innervation. Or I was in residency, distracted with an eighty hour work week and a new husband and new home and new reality of responsibility for very sick patients. Or I was traveling, studying abroad or working internationally, sorting through the complexities of the injustices and richness and suffering and beauty I encountered in the greater world and trying to determine my place in it all. So into a pile they went.

Sometimes I’d come across one much later, still folded neatly, pale yellow post-it with mom’s personal commentary attached: “Thought you’d be interested in this! Love, Mom” Sometimes I’d read it or toss it, but usually it went back in the pile. I felt guilty throwing them away; the effort she put in. 

After I got married my husband started receiving the articles too: about bamboo, education, triathlons. He came to recognize the plain white envelopes, the practical script. He started a pile of his own.

I don’t get clippings anymore in my mailbox. She still sends articles, but they’re attached to an email, they’re posted on Facebook. I usually put them in my mental pile of “to read”, same guilt setting in. I realize, though, I miss the paper piles, the tangible envelope pulled from a mailbox. I miss it in the sentimental way old people miss a diner or their favorite hand lotion or Reader’s Digest. The tangible sleekness of magazine pages, the coarse newspaper marking my fingers. My mom’s distinct cursive signaling the envelope, the article, indicating she thought of me, she thinks of me, and wanted me to know.

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Free Write Friday: Monitor

Grainy pixels coalesce into view with the push of a button. Static and then there she is: a babe in a cushioned box. She’s still, motionless, but I can’t stop watching. I peer closer, hoping to perceive the rise and fall of her chest under the sleep sack, a substitute for the blankets now outlawed due to associated risks. Today’s crib is a barren landscape of one fitted crib sheet. That’s all. No stuffed animals, no crocheted blankets. No binkies, no dolls. We even sacrificed introducing a lovey, modern parents that we are, saturated by the tragic news of the information age, too paranoid about accidental asphyxiation. 

I am entranced, can’t take my eyes away. Sometimes she moves, rolls this way, then that. I glance up, glance back to find her lying perpendicular to where she was before. One side of the crib, then the other. When her eyes open they glow neon with night vision, bright discs punctuating the darkness, signaling wakefulness. Sometimes there’s a pause before she erupts in cries that echo out her bedroom, through the house, through the monitor, ringing in my ears, ricocheting through my head. 

It’s easy to get obsessed with voyeurism. I can watch her every move, scrutinize her intentions. I want to predict: Will she wake now? How long will she sleep? And I wonder: Is she comfortable? Is she breathing? Is she dreaming? What about? I peer into the pixels, as into a crystal ball, willing the future to take form. Who will she be, this rolling, round-faced, murmuring babe?

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Free Write Friday: Book Club


I imagine we meet monthly, in the evenings, after dusk. People trickle in, peeling off their Frye boots and stylish rain coats, scattered with droplets from the evening drizzle. They hold tea cups with three fingers, china inherited from a grandmother, delicate gold rims. Or maybe wine glasses without stems, cupped securely in hand. A cheese plate laid out with warm Brie and rosemary crackers, plump purple grapes on the vine. The lighting is dimmed just barely, warm glow overhead illuminating the minglers.

Maybe it’s just women: friends from a church group or a baby group or a local elementary school; tethered by shared stage of offspring and the need to get out of the house for adult conversation. Or maybe it’s a neighborhood group: gathered from one street, connected by locale but varying in age and marital status and recreational interest. 

I imagine some have read the book, a few all the way to the end. Most have found time to make it only part way through, returning it to the library a week after the due date, resigning themselves to the fact that they won’t actually finish it and accumulating a small fine is not going to push the cause further. 

We take our seats, glass in hand, fruit tart on plate. Circling round, small talk continues in twos and threes. We’re friendly and interested. The host begins, we each rate the book on a scale of 1 to 10. I never choose 10, no matter how much I like the book. Extremes make me wary; there’s always room for improvement. Someone’s off on a tangent, dissecting the weather or their sister or the last movie they saw. 

Most like the book, a few dissent. We all wrote book reports in high school and college, but this is less analytical, more a social interaction, a question of how much one succumbs to group think. I imagine the conversation weaves through topics as they relate to our children, our jobs, our neighborhood. There’s a pause, pregnant with silence, and someone checks the time. I imagine we’re all a little hesitant to leave. Eventually we scatter, back to our homes and our bedside stack of novels and manuals on child rearing in the modern age. 

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Free Write Friday: Homework


In high school I used to work backwards. The answers to the odd questions were always in the back of the book. If I was stuck I’d flip to the last pages of my paper covered textbook, look up the answer and work my way back to how it came to be. Usually this helped me figure out the way forward on the even problems, the assigned homework. Sometimes I’d have to get help from my parents; my mom I went to for social studies or English, my dad for geometry or chemistry. But usually I’d keep it to myself, struggle through concepts I didn’t quite grasp. Maybe it was grit. Or maybe it was shame; the beginnings of an imposter syndrome already taking hold in my adolescent self.

 ***

I remember sitting at our dining room table, the brown protective cover shielding the glossy wood beneath. On Sundays I’d trudge through my Chinese homework worksheets, everything was right to left instead of left to right. My characters were lopsided, like a kindergartener’s first words spelled out, the letters mirror images of their true selves, looking as if about to topple over, bent in the wrong place. Repetition, repetition. My hand cramped with the recurrent motion of my pencil. I remember sitting in Saturday school class in the dusty church basement, surrounded by black haired children who knew what they were saying, understood what the teacher asked of us. I stared down at my pencil case, chosen carefully from Uwajimaya, the local Japanese superstore. My classmates were comfortable in this parallel universe, the weekend school environment. They played together loudly, boisterous and free, hanging from the monkey bars at the truncated recess. I couldn’t understand. I was the outsider, unfamiliar with the language, with the culture, like I’d been transplanted as an immigrant into a foreign land just for that sliver of a weekend morning.

***

It was my favorite class, the teacher who lived on an island and woke at 4 a.m. to take the ferry and drive 45 minutes to teach middle school English. I always did the extra credit homework, not because I wanted the points but because I loved the work: creative writing, poetry, reading novels about complicated characters making their way through a simpler time. I labored over a book of poetry and prose all year, the culmination of a year’s diligence of writing and art. That teacher gave us grades, no one else did in middle school. I think she got in trouble for this. She thought highly of us. Maybe it was considered too much to expect greatness out of such awkwardness. The writing assignments gave me a thrill, a satisfaction I hadn’t yet experienced. I should’ve known then, recognized a calling, but I foolishly was lured by so many other distractions. Writing was the work that wasn’t work; it reflected backward, propelled me forward, it whispered to me an understanding of self and of the world that I’m still learning to claim. 

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Free Write Friday: Hospital

 

1997

She’s volunteering, decided what she wants to do. She catches the bus to the hospital from campus, heavy backpack weighing down her slight shoulders. She has a badge, a short powder blue jacket. She works in the playroom: coloring, washing toys, light streaming through the wall of windows as she stoops to read aloud a picture book or set up a seasonal craft on the low plastic tables. The children come in wheelchairs, heads bald or misshapen or shaved with intention. Tubes may be in their nares or arms. All of it is foreign and she doesn’t know how to act naturally so she smiles a lot, maybe too much. Sometimes she delivers a toy to a child confined to their own room: in isolation. Before entering she puts on a crinkly gown and a mask and latex free gloves, just as she was trained to do. She plays with the child, chats with the teen, tries to connect, but her own awkwardness and all the barriers for protection get in the way.

2003

She’s in medical school, deciding what she wants to do. She rotates through the hospital, a shadow of a doctor in a short white coat, tagging along after her resident. Her pockets are weighed down with too much: laminated cards on how to run a pediatric code, a clipboard with preprinted index cards to keep track of each patient’s labs and history, black ball point pens to record chart notes, gum. She learns she always needs to have gum on hand. She walks the halls, familiar but transformed now she’s armed with some knowledge. She gets to know the palpable quiet of the hospital in the middle of the night. The ceilings here are low; everything is miniaturized to make children feel more comfortable, in this place where discomfort distinctively reigns.

2007

She’s in residency, an MD after her name. She doesn’t wear a coat, but instead a black fleece vest with zippered pockets. Sometimes she’s mistaken for a nurse, but she still doesn’t wear the long white coat; it’s just not the way things are done. She monitors her patients and her medical students. She presents each case to the attending each morning at rounds. She knows what she wants to order in the cafeteria when it opens at 2 a.m. for all the providers who are there overnight on call. She’d rather sleep than eat, but that’s not the way things are done here. Residents review the progress of patients with the medical students, with each other, over the mid-night meal. The lights are turned down low and the children are in cribs and in isolation rooms and can’t breathe well or can’t eat well and most certainly won’t sleep well. The nurses page her and talk in quiet voices. Many patients get better and she discharges them. Some are known by all the staff and roam the halls with their IV poles like tiny emperors, because this place, this hospital, too, is their home.

2016

She brings her infant, the youngest of her three, in to see the specialist. She parks in the newish garage built in the same place she used to catch the bus up the hill. She wheels her baby in the stroller. She waits in line to check in, gets an adhesive visitor’s badge with her picture and her child’s name. There’s a Starbucks downstairs now, in this new wing, but she doesn’t have time to stop for a latte. Her child is crying and she’s late. She wears a red raincoat, her pockets filled with the random items of a mother: a used tissue, a miniature toy construction truck, a purple hair clip, a binky, her smartphone. She’s anxious about seeing the specialist, about the prognosis and treatment plan. She has already texted her friend, the pediatrician, who made helpful recommendations, gave expert advice. She now has the luxury of giving and getting medical opinions in an instant, a byproduct of years of training and now experience as a practicing physician. She waits in the waiting room with other families. Some children read, some run, some sit in laps, some in motorized wheelchairs. Her child’s name is called and her baby is weighed, measured. She sees the physician. Her baby is prescribed medication, which she gets from the pharmacy. A girl waiting in line behind her talks animatedly about a book she wants to read. When she turns to check on her baby she can see the girl’s shaved head, the scar from surgery. So many children here so ill, so resilient. As a mother, she always feels grateful, feels guilty, in this place.

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