Stuff

I bought a dresser.

When I walked into my apartment on May 11, 2013 after a fire incinerated everything that I owned, I had little more than a garbage bag of clothes, a grocery bag of canned goods, an alarm clock, and a cot. The only piece of furniture I still had was a kitchen island with bar chairs that had remained in my car in its original box. I could not carry it up the three flights of stairs to my loft with a herniated back, so it survived and serves as my kitchen table now.

Like my clothing, I received a lot of second-hand furniture and household items for the living room and kitchen. For my bedroom, I bought crappy put-it-together-yourself furniture from a big box store. This winter, the bottoms of the bottom three drawers of my dresser all fell out at the same time. There was wardrobe everywhere. After years of trying to reassemble it, I gave up. I bought a real dresser. Thank God we celebrate President’s Day with up to 70% off all furniture…

But the truth is, it’s not the crappy dresser’s fault. I was trying to stuff too much stuff into it and it exploded. And as I look around my home today, it is bursting with items that seemed to just appear one day and never left. I walked in here with nothing and now six years later there is too much. But isn’t this how it goes for all of us? We live in our hovels with an ever-expanding pile of stuff that creeps up so slowly that we don’t notice it- until there isn’t room to live in our living rooms. Unless we move, we are not really forced to take stock of our stock.

This has all got me thinking about what happens to the heap after we are gone.

My mom has terminal blood cancer and is now too tired to consider sorting out her stuff. 2013 stands as the worst year of my life because, among other things, in January, my childhood home burned and then in April, my apartment burned- four months and 400 miles away. All of my stuff ended up in a dumpster in front of the building. All of my mom’s stuff went into storage. This means that when she is gone, we inherit the pile of products. We have to shift the shit.

Consider the difficulty of letting material things go. I was able to take the tack that no one died and the rest can be replaced. It helped that miraculously, all of my photos and the hand-written copies of my writing survived. I was also given only 24 hours to get out of the burned-out shell of what was my life. I didn’t have time to reminisce. If my friends had not come to help me, I have no idea what I would have done.

My mom could not bring herself to do it. Always, it would be someday that she would get her stuff back or go through it. She had to downsize into a smaller house so my advice to her was, take a picture of the thing and then get rid of the thing. You don’t need the thing. What you are after are the memories and the feelings the thing provides. Unfortunately, she didn’t do this and any suggestion that we help her sort through it was met with stubborn resistance.

Now we are at the end.

First, we will make good memories. Next, we will walk through health decline and hospice. Then the funeral. Then the estate. It would be easy for me to get angry, but I think about the 45 years my mom lived in her home, the cancer she was diagnosed with shortly after it burned, and the MDS she was at risk of developing from the radiation treatments that now will take her life. She just didn’t have it in her.

And time flies.

If this experience does anything, please let it teach me to keep my home in better order, to dispose of things in a timely manner. I want to enjoy my space. I would like to have people and laughter fill my home rather than piles of paper, knickknacks, yesterday’s fashion… Maybe buying new, quality furniture is just the kick in the pants I need. It’s the return of feeling invested in my own life, my own happiness.

That feeling has been gone way too long…

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, March 2019

Wardrobe

My mother has terminal blood cancer (MDS). Year 2020 is not guaranteed to her. If I were being honest, year 2020 is not guaranteed to any of us. I live 400 miles away and she is not online, so the telephone is all I have. Calls have become more frequent as I try to support her during the twilight of her life.

A recent conversation came up around the subject of clothing. She said she needs to buy some clothes but didn’t want to waste the money because she’s at the end. I told her to go out and buy designer clothes. It’s not as if you can take your money with you and just because you feel like shit does not mean you have to look like shit.

In all seriousness, if not now when?

Then the conversation led to her burial clothes. She designated an outfit that she only wore once, hanging in her closet, that was “good enough”. She mentioned that when she had this same conversation with her own mother, it upset her. Designating her final clothing does not upset me but the lack of careful consideration does. But I’m the same.

Put my body in whatever dress and throw me in the ground.

I want dignity for her life. Dignity for her end of life. I offered to drive down and take her shopping, but she didn’t sound interested. Mom was never one for consideration of fashion or ‘Girls’ Day Out’. She did try to look nice but more often the choice was dictated by what was on sale, on clearance, good enough… What difference does it make if it’s clean and looks decent?

But it does make a difference, doesn’t it?

I am a taller than average woman at just over 5”9’. If I wear heels, I am stacked to about 6-feet. Brick house. I’ve been asked to wear flats and slouch by a short date- his ego, not mine. I’ve watched other big women try to shrink, try to look smaller than the body they were born into.

I’ve done it too at various points of my life depending on what was going on inside of me. Mostly I wanted to disappear, to be left alone to deal with my pain and grief. But shriveling up your outside self, and inside yourself, in the hopes that you will not be noticed never protected anyone. You end up a target either way.

I am what I am.

I remain the same person whether in my Frye motorcycle boots or my cycling shorts. I can be statuesque in a floor-length dress or have legs for days in a miniskirt. I wear business casual for work, Boho-chic for hanging out, frumpy mom sweaters when I am too through… I may not wear anything to bed. But in all cases, I am the same being.

I think a lot about the role of clothing in a society. I was in theater as a young person and have always been fascinated with costuming. And costuming is what we do everyday of our lives. It’s about ego, status, and advertising: This is who I am. This is how much money I have. This is the sub-culture I belong to.

There are dress codes for a reason- to reduce friction, reduce distraction. Create as welcoming (antiseptic) of an environment as possible. Stay clean and subdued so that others may feel safe. In business, we are not there to make friends. We are there to get the job done and get along as well as we can with customers and co-workers. The product of the industry determines the dress code.

I don’t want my lawyer, therapist, or surgeon to dress like a beach bum while on the job. Sorry.

On the flip side is individual expression and counter-culture. If you don’t dress like a member of the club, you’re clearly not in the club. You must dress a certain way to show that you are an artist, a computer nerd, a sports fan, a devotee of religion, etc. There is a standard you must meet and that changes depending on who you are interacting with. The guy with the painted face at the football game is going to have an opinion about you if he thinks you dress like a fair-weather fan… And God help you if you don’t look ‘cool’ around a bunch of ‘artists’. If your reflected glory does not put enough coins in their ego bank, you best exit the scene no matter how talented you are.

FYI: your store-bought counter culture doesn’t make you a more interesting person.

For years, I’ve wanted to conduct an experiment: once a week, dress in any sort of subculture that I can think of, go to Mall of America on a Saturday, and see what happens. How do people respond and why? Because it’s not me- it’s them. I am the same person. I have seen some girls online who have conducted these kinds of experiments regarding their weight or clothing and it’s fantastic. Expose that cultural pressure, that bias we all must deal with in one way or another.

I currently wear a winter hat that looks like an artic fox fell asleep on my head. I found it at Glacier National Park in Montana in 2017. I fell in love with it but hesitated to buy it. I was convinced I was too old, it was too garish, that it was meant for some hot ski chick in tight pants. My niece encouraged me, so I bought it but was unsure when I wore it outside for the first time.

I really underestimated how Minnesotans appreciate a great winter hat. I have mostly received compliments. And it really makes a statement- a big fuzzy white hat against a fitted black coat. It’s not the kind of hat most people could pull off wearing.

But the truth is, it’s not the hat. It’s me.

So what statement do our final clothes make? What is the importance of how you are dressed in your coffin? Funerals are for the living but it’s also about dignity. How can I maintain my mother’s dignity through these final months and honor her final wishes in the end?

My father was buried in an expensive three-piece suit. He wore that every day of his career as a mechanical engineer. He also had a pocket protector and steel toe dress shoes. I think mom left those out of the casket. I think I remember a red tie and his 25-year work anniversary pin. It was 1985 and the memories of a 12-year-old are fuzzy.

Mom put a lot of thought and care into how my dad was buried. I want to do the same for her. How can I best express who she was in life through her clothing in death? I don’t want the clothes to be whatever she wore once that are hanging in her closet simply to avoid spending money. I want her to go out wearing red heels and all that jewelry she loved buying off the QVC channel.

I want her to greet St. Peter in style. Her style.

016

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, February 2019

The Great Wide Open

More than one person has said to me- take time. Be with your mom before the cancer makes her really sick. Plan a family vacation somewhere and make some quality memories together, one last time. We’ve been talking about what that might look like in practical terms of time, money, stamina, and risk of viral infection.

I love to travel. I am willing to travel just about anywhere in the world, for almost any length of time, for almost any reason. I am an adventurer at heart, an international explorer. One of the greatest gifts my father gave to me was his love for travel. It made me understand that there were other places, with a lot of other people who did not look or act like me.

Nothing held more interest for my dad then just getting out and seeing the USA. His career gave us the ability to take two big vacations a year. These trips were what I would describe as ‘The Bill Mounts Family Vacation’. They were characterized by an extreme urgency to see everything you could possibly see in the short time allotted. Two weeks was just not enough time to sit and relax. We had to go, go, go and went, went, went we did.

By the ripe old age of twelve, I had traveled to no less than forty states. I had been to innumerable national parks- Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Petrified Forest, Red Wood Forest, Rocky Mountains, etc. I had been in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, and Pacific. I had been to countless museums, forts, State Capitols, wayside historical markers, tourist traps, national monuments, scenic overlooks, zoos, amusements parks, etc.  Once dad died in 1985, our annual family vacations stopped for the most part.

Mom did take me to Hawaii…

So, where do I take mom for that one last ride? From my perspective, the most obvious choice is Florida. Dad was in love with Pensacola. He was stationed there during his time in the Navy and my parents planned to retire there. It feels like we visited every year while he was still alive. We camped on Santa Rosa Island, played on the beach, visited Fort Pickens, Trader Jon’s, the National Naval Aviation Museum, and wherever else dad wanted to feel nostalgic.

That was all before the island was built up with hotels. You could still collect sand dollars, starfish, and seashells. We even picked up a couple conch shells once. No one was combing the beach at the break of dawn collecting them all to sell. I have very clear memories of the smell of orange blossoms and the feel of the white sand beaches. I count them among the happiest memories of my life.

But that was Pensacola of the 1970’s & 80’s. It begs the question: could a trip to Florida today ever live up to those memories? And does mom want to go where dad would have chosen? Or does she have one last great adventure in her, one last uncharted destination, one unfulfilled wish?

It remains to be seen. And it may come to more than one trip this year with the various members of my family. We may not all be able to get the same time off. Quality time with more intimate groups of people might be a better way to go. And if we end up hanging around the mid-west… well, at least we won’t get lost.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2019

P.S. 2018

I love winter. I must since I chose to move north to Minnesota 15 years ago. It’s not the cold, it’s the 3 solid months of writing and reading with very little distraction. Cycling does not lure me out onto the forested trails and social invitations slow down to a crawl. No one wants to leave their home either and that’s fine.  I have plenty of paper and ink to spare.

Last winter, I committed to waking up at 5am and working on my novel before work. I had a smoke damaged, sooty copy of a 2nd draft I wrote 10 years before. It was somewhere to start. So, I scanned the 263-page document using optical character recognition software and imported that into Scrivener. After 1.5 months of work, it was formatted and cut up into sections, chapters, and scenes.

For the next 1.5 months, I wrote roughly 22,000 words of new content; total word count is sitting around 143,000 words. Now, I realize that if you participate in NANOWRIMO that 22K in 1.5 months is a puny amount… but what can I say? Slow but sure… It feels like I am writing a different book. 10 years will do that. Characters and the basic story are roughly the same, but I am not. I’ve had some practice. My writing voice is much more confident and authentic.

But 2018 was a tough year. By April, I was absorbed in implementing software at work and in May my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I did not have the energy or emotional resources to continue work on the book. I did continue to write poetry and post on my blog. I attended many poetry open mics and had my first show as a featured poet in March 2018. And I rode an emotional roller coaster for the rest of the year, often overwhelmed and feeling like a deer in headlights.

In November, I had a revelation: I was still hiding. I wrote for literally decades and shared very little of my work with anyone. I set-up my blog in 2014 and did not start posting on it until 2017 after I sent ‘Popcorn from the Void’ off to my editor. But I was mostly posting poems. I could still fool myself into thinking I was being vulnerable- and I was- but not in a way that people could see a clear picture of me. I could still hide behind the form.

‘Popcorn from the Void’ is a book based off personal essay blog posts that Todd Park used to manage his cancer- both in providing information to family and friends and in processing his experience. Was I not about to walk through my mother’s cancer and death? And could my personal essays about this journey help others?

My 2018 blog stats are very modest but solid: 43 posts, 1,147 visitors, 1,733 views, 107 total followers. That means I averaged 40 views per post and 10 visits per follower. There aren’t a lot of you, but you are loyal! I had two shows in which I was one of the featured readers. And I submitted ‘Popcorn from the Void’ to the 2018 Writers Digest Self-Published Book Awards. And while it did not win, it received a rave review from its judge and scored 30/30 points on its assessment. Not bad for an amateur.

So dear readers, 2019 promises to be an even tougher year personally but it is also the year that I intend to try to be published for real, for the first time. And it will be a year of personal essays where I will feel very, very naked. And it will be the year of my first finished novel.

It has to be… if I want to be sure mom can read it…

Blessed New Year!

Christine

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2019

Life as I know it: November 10, 2018

Life as I know it is this: My mother has a terminal blood cancer diagnosis (MDS). I am an artist with a professional career in IT. I am dog person living alone with two cats. And I burn with deep pain and passions that frequently erupt into the quiet practice of writing.

What is the function of my blog in my life? I consider the direction it has taken. I have many poems, hundreds probably, and have posted them here. I could keep up with that work, but I feel the call to something different.

My friend Todd blogged his personal journey through blood cancer- from his leukemia diagnosis to untimely death. It is a body of work I believe has helped others on that same journey (Popcorn from the Void). In the coming months, I intend to write about my own journey through grief alongside my creative writing.

Grief is my constant companion. It is the direct result of loving and having loved deeply and lost. I don’t write about my broken heart very much, but it plagues me with rage and sorrow. My deep fibers. They take my breath away.

I am standing on the tracks and there is a light coming toward me, a freight train that I cannot escape. I have read that all other death is merely practice for the death of your mother. Having lost my beloved father at age 12, it is difficult for me to imagine anything more painful than that (other than child death).

My mother is fine right now. She has treatments of chemo to deal with the cancer and anti-biotics to deal with the infections that low white blood cell counts allow to grow. She is active and living her life as normally as possible. She is not close to death yet.

But I am experiencing pre-grief. It is the sort of thing that comes at you sideways. It is feeling anxious without being able to do anything about it. It’s waking up, walking out, letting go. The ground beneath me is shifting- by my choice. I shaved my head. I broke my celibacy. I accepted a promotion.

In the midst of crisis, I am calm. This is typical for people who grew up like I did. I can be calm because I delay. I hold my shit together in order to get through it, to calmer waters. And when I get there, I let it wash over me. I experience the grief, the pain, the anger, the loss. But I have had a lot of crisis these past five years. I have both outgoing and oncoming grief now.

So, what is the solution?

I am in the in-between hours. It is the time for collecting good memories, to fill my cup, to feel free and alive, and take stock. I am visiting with friends, seeing live music, cuddling my cats, reading books- simply being without driving myself to some more constructive end. When the difficulties arrive, I will be able to look back on this time of my life and rejoice. There is happiness within me and within those I love.

It is precious to me, a reminder that life is not all darkness even when it is the darkest.

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Popcorn from the Void: one-year anniversary

July 10, 2018 was the one-year anniversary of the publication of Popcorn from the Void– my friend Todd Park’s memoir that I edited from his blog. The proceeds from the sale of this book go to support various cancer charities. It’s been doing well for a self-published book about such a serious topic: the arduous journey of a bone marrow transplant and the untimely death of its author.

I am proud that it is still selling copies. Self-published books in general don’t do very well without the assistance that a publishing house provides. Publishers will help with editing, polishing, cover art, marketing, and placement. It is in their financial interest to help their authors sell books. If you self-publish, you have to do it all or pay someone to help you.

Self-published books have a bad reputation that is unfortunately too often earned. There are too many early drafts offered up in the market that still need a ton of work. It’s work that people are not willing to commit time to. There is a lot of excitement around completing a first draft of a book, so I get why people are impatient to share it with the world. But it is still just an early draft and it’s not ready…

Writing, editing, and publication are lengthy and difficult phases of book creation (it can take years) but once they are complete, the really hard part begins: marketing. How do you get noticed in a flooded marketplace with dwindling readership? The vast indifference is deafening.

A self-published author needs to not only be good at writing but also good at the business of writing. Todd was such a good writer that generating a book worthy of publication was possible, though not easy. Then, came the challenge of how to market a book about such a heavy topic. For my part, I ran several marketing campaigns- emailing interested parties; releasing copies for circulation in free libraries across the mid-west; sending a mailer to cancer support groups; conducting a Twitter campaign; and attending a book fair.

It has mostly been a positive experience for me, with the exception of trying to market to the general public at the book fair. The book fair itself was great, but I made a lot of people uncomfortable. I would give my 60-second pitch and watch the look of horror gradually wash over people’s faces. They would take my candy and quickly leave my table. A fellow vendor felt the need to tell me that a memoir about a man’s journey though Leukemia treatment and dying was “a terrible story”. I know that’s about her, not the book.

What can I say? The truth is rarely popular. It’s a niche’ market. It’s a book intended to help friends, family, and patients understand what leukemia treatment is really like. And it continues to sell. And it has helped people. It has even helped my mother. She was diagnosed with MDS (Myelodysplastic Syndromes), a blood cancer sometimes referred to as ‘pre-leukemia’, in May 2018. The serendipity of life is strange at times…

I have learned so much that is invaluable from the entire process- from the actual production of the book, to the effectiveness of various marketing avenues, to interacting with people around the topic. It was my apprenticeship, the gateway to producing my own books.

As a philanthropist, I am proud that the work I have done will continue to produce money that will be donated to help people like Todd, people like my mom, to have access to better treatments and prognosis and quality of life. That alone has made this journey so worthwhile.

Happy anniversary, Popcorn.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, July 2018

Travel Log: Thunder Bay, Ontario

June 8-11, 2018 ~ 840 miles

Minneapolis, MN; Duluth, MN; Two Harbors, MN; Grand Marais, MN; Thunder Bay, ON

It’s still under debate whether or not I had visited Thunder Bay, Ontario before last weekend’s trip. The confusion is about whether or not I was included in what family lore now refers to as the ‘vacation from hell’. I would have been less than one year in age, if I was alive at all, and somehow being present as an infant or a toddler with no memory of anything or anyone still counts as me having visited. For further explanation of that logic, I will refer you to my mother…

Mom has cancer, again. On May 23, 2018 she was given the diagnosis of Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) which is a group of blood cancers sometimes referred to as ‘pre-leukemia’ and requires chemotherapy. Since the effects of the chemo on her life are yet unknown, she made the decision that she wanted one more vacation before she might become unable to travel. It had been about 45 years since her last trip to Thunder Bay and since I live in Minnesota, off we went. Continue reading “Travel Log: Thunder Bay, Ontario”