Women Fly

I am an aviatrix, a female pilot of fixed wing aircraft.

While other families had Life magazine or National Geographic on the coffee table, our house had Aviation Week.  There were no flight shows missed and we would sometimes go out to the airport just to watch the planes take off from the observation deck.

My father was obsessed with aviation. I imagine him as a child in the midst of Great Depression hunger, longing to fly away. It was a dream he longed after his whole life but went unfulfilled. He had been accepted into flight training by the Navy but because he developed hypertension he was forced to quit. He was only in his early 20’s.

One of my clearest memories of my dad is standing alone in Uncle Phil’s back yard at a family BBQ. A Cessna flew overhead in the bright, calm summer sky. We both watched it go by, my hand an echo of his as we both shielded our eyes from the sun.

When he looked back down, he hesitated in thought for just a moment. He turned to me with a look as if what he was about to do was something wholly unexpected, something that had only just occurred to him. He asked me, “Do you want to learn how to fly?”

It never occurred to me that I could, that women fly. In the early 80’s, it probably never occurred to him either. But what you must understand is that I was his daughter which meant I could do anything. My father believed that I could have flown to the moon and back if only I had been born with wings. I replied in 10-year-old girl excitement, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” He said, “Ok, when you are 16, I will pay for you to take flight lessons.”

Another morning, about two years later, I woke to a noise outside my second story bedroom window. I looked down to the driveway and there with a sky as bright and clear as that afternoon had been, under the tree of heaven that sheltered my room from the sun, I watched paramedics lift a gurney with my father’s dead body into an ambulance. Heart attack.

That was in August 1985. I was 12 years old, on the cusp of 13. All through high school, I told everyone I was going to learn to fly. In 1995, I took my first flight as a student pilot. Three years after that, I was a certified flight instructor with a commercial certificate with multi-engine and instrument ratings.

All because my father believed I could. And because he believed, I believed.

And because I believed, I flew.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, June 2018

 

 

Endless Summer

When I saw it, I knew. It was van Gogh. I knew it not by his distinct style, but by the raw emotion that radiated off the inanimate canvas. I stood at the opposite end of the gallery and cried.

It was endless summer.

Specifically, it was “Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun” hanging in gallery 355 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Experts believe it depicts autumn, November in Saint-Rémy, based on the vibrant orange and yellow paint. It was created just seven months prior to his suicide. It stands as the only time art has moved me to tears. And what moved me was how he captured the sunlight.

I know that blazing day.

I forgot about endless summer. Life became as adult life does, a series of days in which there is work to be done for the sake of survival, and a shot at happiness one day when the bills stop exceeding the money. When you’re young, all things are possible if you can just decide what you want to do.

Endless summer of youth.

There was a large field behind the grade school with a gravel track and baseball diamonds. It was June and it was covered with dandelions. Some had turned to seed. And I lay there, relaxed. No hurry, no worry… uncommon for me. In that moment of breeze and blazing sunshine that broke behind the passing clouds, the dandelions glowed as if they were lights themselves. I felt like I belonged. I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt one with creation.

All was right with the world.

Laying in the field behind the school in the last days of junior high, dreaming of the life to come, blowing cottony seeds in the wind like candles for wishes. What does the future have in store for me? Will I be happy? Will I be loved?

I, so consumed with grief at the tender age of 12. I, who sought solace in the arts and nature. I, who buried myself inside my own head, inside my dream world. I was ill prepared for the hard realities that would become my life.

But that girl… she was in love with the promise of endless summer.

Life back then, it was hard. I never felt safe or like I belonged anywhere. I knew I would escape to high school. I was convinced that it would be a better experience for me. I was wrong. I was wild and out of control. 13 years old in massive grief with a fuck-off attitude. Not much has changed.

While other girls were concerned about the brand of jeans they wore or their hair and make-up, I was trying to come to terms with my father’s death and the upheaval in my family. I couldn’t relate. I couldn’t see the value of the trivial concerns of others. I still can’t. But innocence was how I was supposed to be. That was stolen from me at too young an age.

That girl… she cried for van Gogh.

We make our choices and try to live with the consequences. Once I was in college, I worked my ass off. I never wanted to be financially dependent and vulnerable to anyone else. People hide how abusive they are… people die. So, as I watched other young people be young, while I held my face to the grindstone, time slipped away. Those years I was meant to be light and free, gone.

But twenty years later, I took up cycling.

That first summer ride along the bluff of the Mississippi River under the sparse clouds and impossible blue sky- that light made the leaves look silver; the heads of flowers, tiny lamps. The sun outlined every detail in the fabric of life. The endorphins rushing through me sucked all the color through my eyes and etched it into my brain.

Endless summer means peace, it means being fully present, it means being shocked into the now by the astonishing beauty of the natural world. It is being in harmony with the flow of life without distress. And on that day, it was OK for me to hope, OK for me to want love. I did not have to be embarrassed by my longing of dreams forgotten.

That endless summer day split my flaming heart.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, June 2019

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Mother’s Day

 

I don’t really celebrate Mother’s Day because I am 400 miles away from my mom. Truthfully, I miss most holidays and celebrations. But I send cards. I call with my well wishes.

Mom has terminal blood cancer. It’s tough to write about Mother’s Day when your mother is dying, when it might well be the last. It’s not that she is on her death bed, but she is getting thinner and weaker every day. She is grinding to a halt.

I read an incredible poem once, “Our Lady of Perpetual Loss” by Deborah A. Miranda that suggests the death of the mother is the worst one must endure. But I know better. There is no consolation for parents who lose a child. There is no consolation for a child who loses a parent.

It is hard for me to imagine a more difficult death than my father. I was 12. He was 50. I was old enough to understand what had happened but so young that I did not have the capacity or experience to process it. It stands as the most traumatic experience of my life.

My mother has lived a full life and at age 78, she is of an age. She is at the time in life when one might expect its end. Still, I know the loss of her will crush me. She is my life giver and the person I met first. You only get one mom.

Back in January 2013, my mother had a doctor’s appointment to look at an irritation she had in her mouth. But a week before she could get in, my childhood home burned. She was homeless. She cancelled that appointment and did not get examined for another few months.

The irritation turned out to be squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the tongue.

She had surgery to remove the lesion and was diagnosed. In September of that year, she had more surgery to remove those parts of her tongue that had cancer. They also removed her lymph node to check for migration. The hope of course was that the cancer was in its early stages, that her speech and ability to swallow would not be greatly affected, and that the cancer was localized to her mouth.

The surgery went very well, and she was sent home two days later. We lucked out with the speech and swallowing but not so with it staying localized…  The lymph node indicated that the cancer had spread to other parts of the body. There was no way to know where until it appeared again. As a precaution, she opted for radiation and chemotherapy. Eventually, the treatment ended, and she was declared ‘cancer free’. But unfortunately, there is a known risk for ten years post-radiation of developing myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS)…

She developed MDS five years later.

When mom called in May of last year and told me that all of her blood counts were down, I knew. I had spent years editing a book about leukemia treatment. If your red cells and white cells and platelets are all low, you have blood cancer. I was relieved that it was only MDS, not leukemia. But the result is the same. They are both blood cancers and the only cure is a stem cell transplant (bone marrow transplant). Mom is too old. She would never survive it.

There are seven sub-types of MDS with varying survival outcomes. I struggled to get the answers I needed about her condition long distance. She would forget to ask the doctor for the information and when she did get information, it was not specific enough for me. I needed to know exactly what type of MDS she has and how long she was expected to live.

In December 2018, I met with her medical team and they told me that she has myelodysplastic syndrome with multiple cytogenetic abnormalities. My mother is in the high-risk group which gives her a life expectancy of about a year and a half after diagnosis. She was diagnosed in May 2018.

We are at the one-year mark.

If you do the math, it makes the coming holiday season a bit foreboding. What will Christmas look like? I have caught myself imagining life after my mother goes. I think this is all part of the pre-grief, trying to process the inevitable.

Grief can trap you in time. Grief can steal years of your life away. Grief kills people.

But truthfully, anyone can die at any time. A dear friend has said to me, “You don’t have to wait for the other shoe to drop. It’s going to.” In other words, live without the grip of your fear of pain because pain is coming. Tomorrow is guaranteed to no one which is why we must live in the present, just this one day, and not anticipate trouble so much it sucks all the joy out of it. Fill the cup of life with as many good memories as possible to see you through the darkness.

It’s not just that life goes on… Life must go on. We must choose it.

And so, we do. Last month, mom traveled to Louisiana to meet her first great grandchild at 4 months of age. And in June, she will attend her 61st high school class reunion. We also have a fabulous road trip planned around her 79th birthday that will include beaches and margaritas. We can sit and enjoy our time together.

I pray we are given more than we dare hope…

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, May 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

I See You

I’m on my lunch hour. The sun peaks between the holes in the clouds. A small rain shower, enough to cool and clean the air. Enough to make a little muddy patch of dirt beneath my feet, where I sit on this cement bench beneath the caterpillar tree. Not mud really- wet earth. Roots of the tree are visible in places, some as thick as the smaller limbs overhead. Trees grow roots wide, not deep. Some grow in groves, so they do not fall over in high winds.

***

I arrive in the ICU after work. She is awake. It’s hard to watch her silently scream with the respirator tube in her mouth. Her lungs are not in good shape. She will go under the knife again, get a tracheotomy to attach the respirator to her neck. Increase her comfort levels. She is not out of the woods yet. Her abdomen is split open for access and won’t be sewn shut for months.

She almost died. I can’t talk about it. I always push this stuff off until a later time when I have the space and distance to deal with my grief. For now, someone needs to be present and hold their shit together. There are too many factors pulling me in multiple directions. Time is precious. Writing is painful. It stirs up every sort of horror that my eyes have seen, and my heart has registered, but my face left blank. I have friends and cats and bars. It will have to be enough.

***

It’s evening downtown on a Thursday. The youth are loud, full of anger and angst. School is out for summer and maybe forever for some of them. It is July in the 60’s and there is mist hanging over the fractured energy. The volume makes me tense. An old man says to me as I pass, “Smile, it’s not that bad.” I am transparent, my stress clearly on my face. I look at him kindly and say, “So says you.” I stand in the bus shelter to escape the cold. A teenage girl weeps on the bench and explains to the boy that has come to fetch her, “I’m OK; I was thinking about grandma.”

I wait for the #4 bus. In front of me is a five-story mural of Bob Dylan: three faces, three ages, staring off in kaleidoscope color. I try to find the associations in the schema but I can’t tease it out. The details of his wild curling hair, the wrinkle folded flesh, the wide red stripe splitting his guitar in half- where does the inspiration come from? I am lulled into meditation by the sound of a jazz saxophone street musician. His timbre is calm, and the kids grow quieter and move on.

When the bus stops, I line up but think better of it. Two dollars pulled from my wallet and placed inside his case. I do not look at him. I am worried about the bus and run to board it. As we pull away, I watch him: black man, bright sax, waning sunlight, mirrored glasses, reflected blue light. He looks like jazz- cool, peaceful, vibrating. I smile as we pass him. He plays on. I wonder if his eyes are closed.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, July 2016