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

Supper Club

I am the proprietor of a supper club.

No, I have not invested in the restaurant industry. It’s just a private club of friends that get together once a month for dinner at each other’s house. Every month, one person volunteers to host at their house and those of us that can show up do. We are only on the hook for the months we volunteer for and no one is obligated to attend. At least that’s the plan…

People get busy in adult life, especially when marriage and family come but retirement has not. When I first became single ten years ago, I didn’t have much of a social life outside of that relationship. I was in my mid-30’s and went out with who was also available- singles much younger or older than me. I guess people my age were either coupled with kids or reclusive.

I had a blast. I was going out a couple times a week. I had a scheduled night with my closest friend which we designated as ‘Beer Tuesday’ because we would get beers on Tuesdays… creative, I know! Say it like it is people… Eventually as the years rolled on, twice a week became once a month, then once every three months… Time just slipped away.

I made a decision to set up monthly one-on-one dinners with those closest to me to ensure that we remained active in each other’s lives. Last Friday, 2nd Monday- it didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to see them. But by happy circumstance, their partners showed up and now they were coupled. And the dinners stopped. Such is life for the friend who remains single.

For me, dining is king. I can really think of no better times than the ones I spent sharing a meal and engaging conversation with people I love. When all that dried up, I was sad. I’d take myself out to eat alone to mixed reactions from the general public. Mostly, I write so I don’t notice people but for whatever reason, a woman eating alone is upsetting. I have gotten pity. I’ve made people visibly uncomfortable. Geez folks- I didn’t want to cook after a long, hard week!

Also, fuck off!

Now, I am in my mid-40’s and I still want to have monthly dinner with my friends. For years I entertained the idea of a dinner party that would have an established format that allowed enough flexibility for those of us who love to dine and cook and drink wine, to get together and share our lives. And so, the supper club was born.

My signature dish is Malaysian Spiced Chicken (I am not allowed to cook anything else). My first long-term relationship was with an Asian Studies major turned professional chef. I was exposed to the vast and wonderful world of Asian cuisine. My favorites are the curries- and screw curry powder, I make my own. I keep my spices in unlabeled glass jars in my pantry. I know them by sight and smell. Twenty years after our break-up, he might be proud of me if he knew.

My second long-term relationship was with an accomplished home cook who introduced me to the vast and wonderful world of soul food and Latin American cuisine. Neither one of them allowed me to cook. I was the baker and was spoiled rotten. As a single person, I had to learn how to cook for myself or suffer.

When I proposed the supper club idea, my friends were all about it. They are in the same boat, wanting to be in each other’s lives but with life passing too quickly. And while I complain about my isolation, these days I find that I have dinner plans for every week and have to schedule a month in advance. There are other singles like me- lonely, wanting friendship and connection, inviting me to get together. I am very lucky that I know so many people that can stand me enough to share a meal together!

For as independent and driven as I am, I have an amazing full life- full of friends and experiences and joy. I do not know how I ended up here but here I am- laughing, loving, and living.

Bon Appétit!





-Copyright C.M. Mounts, April 2019

Public House

A friend texts and asks if it’s true: Do writers write drunk and edit sober? I tell her what I know. Those are drinkers with writing problems. I can’t write drunk. All that will do for me is limit my vocabulary. But I suppose it’s a method to loosen the tongue, release the tension and anxiety that often comes part and parcel with bearing one’s soul to the page.

But it is Friday night. These are my coordinates. I am in this bar with all strangers.

The bartender knows me. I recognize a regular, the waitstaff. It is the beginning of patio season and there are people laughing outside. I sit at the bar inside in the hope of being left alone. Yet, I am here to be among others so that I am not at home alone at the end of the long work week.

Across the bar, there are women eating dinner together, buddies drinking, a gay couple on a night out. There is a lonely, run-down man waiting for takeout. My side is full of solitary people. Exhausted, broken, searching- and I am the only woman, my face buried in this journal. It is uncommon and I get noticed. I’m not here to drink and I’m not on the make. Occasionally, they are suspicious that I am writing about them.

What of it.

I don’t want to cook dinner. I am lonely and trying to have some company outside of my home and my cats. I’m working through my feelings about all that’s happened in my life over the past year: mom’s cancer, career upheaval, casual sex… what a mess.

People don’t talk to me. I actually don’t want them to. How many times have I tried to fit in and failed? I do not accept their social pecking order. See and be seen. I don’t really understand the unspoken rules of human social interaction. Spit it out asshole. What are these weird social constructs, weird class issues, weird ideas about who has and who has not, what’s in and what’s out?

I’m out. Period.

At times, I feel everyone’s defeat, the long slide off broken dreams into mediocrity, the surrender to aging and lost purpose. Longing for days past. Occasionally, people will try to figure out who I am. I have been asked if I write for the paper by fame seekers. I’ve sat in places where it is not uncommon to see local celebrities. Who are you? No one. But I am trying to go for it as if writing books meant anything.

I am clearly a professional here for happy hour on the occasional Friday. The bartender likes me. I tip. No trouble and deep in thought. But also, he thinks I’m cool. Maybe he’s a writer too or a musician or an artist of some other flavor. Like it or not, I have become a regular, a neighborhood fixture. I am part of the scene.

Lady, loner, writer.

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, April 2019

Geek

My career is in information technology (IT).

I am not a developer. I support software and the people who use it. I get excited about figuring out how it works, training people, and managing data. What the hell is wrong with me? I think it feeds a few things. It feeds my natural tendency to see the big picture and translate it into practical explanations. It feeds my need to fix, to find solutions, to create order from chaos. It feeds my deep-seated desire for world domination.

Hey, she who controls information controls the world.

Ok, so why information technology? Why is it my career after I devoted so much energy to music, aviation, and my deep desire and talent for writing?

There is a school of thought that classifies people as either right or left brained- as creative beings or logical beings. While I am right brain dominant (creative), I actually operate within both spaces. I can do either. I have a need for both creative and logical outlets. To me this is normal, so I never understand why people are surprised that I work with computers and am a musician that writes.

For the first part of my life, when I was completely focused on the arts, people categorized me as a creative person. They treated me as if I could not comprehend science, as if I were stupid and a flake. When I switched over to the sciences, at 21+, people then categorized me as a tech geek, unable to appreciate the arts, and super smart. While both categories fit me, both assumptions also offend me.

To explain how I came to IT, I must go back to the beginning. My father was a mechanical engineer and worked for Caterpillar for 25 years until his death. He was an extremely smart man. He held nine patents. My mother is also intelligent so naturally all of us kids are smart.

My brother is a strange bird. He is twelve years my elder and expresses an extreme form of logical intelligence. He was doing long division by age three. He is brilliant at math and science but not the humanities. He was the type to pull things apart and put them back together just to see how they work.

They bought him a Commodore 64 in the early 80’s. I would hang out in his room and watch him solder chips onto circuit boards. He would buy textbooks with BASIC code for computer games and sit for hours typing on that damn B/W TV he used as a monitor. I would watch him type code, I asked him to explain the code, and I would read the code. It made sense to me, a beautiful simple logic like music. At age ten, this all seemed perfectly normal.

So, I got to use his PC at a very young age when he would let me. In high school, I took a computer class because I thought it would be easy and it was. My teacher was surprised by my comfort level. He approached me and wisely advised, “You should consider doing this for a living.” I smiled and thought to myself, “No way dude. I’m going to be a rock star!” I was so obsessed with music…

I have resisted working with computers all my life. I like them, they come easy to me, but they are not my passion. Guess what is. When I gave up on the arts in college, I decided that I needed to get a day job that paid so that I could pursue my passions without trying to pay my bills with them. I was afraid that I would eventually learn to hate the arts for my inability to make a living at them.

Aviation was to be that day job and I did indeed finish my first B.S. in Aviation Management. Unfortunately, too far along in my flight training, I knew I didn’t want to fly for a living. They don’t tell you the reality of that industry until it’s too late. I took a hard look at IT but didn’t pursue it at the time. It would have only been for the money which I am philosophically against.

I was also too embarrassed to jump majors again, after being so sure of aviation in the beginning. I started as a music major then switched to an English major then finally settled on aviation. I struggled in college due to a lot of unresolved baggage. My experience at the University of Iowa went so poorly that I had to prove something to myself. I was not lazy or stupid or flakey. This loud, funny girl became very serious. I became disciplined, focused, and driven. I had no faith in my own work ethic until then.

I have a little too much now!

After I finally finished college I moved to Chicago. I volunteered at a fundraiser for a small non-profit and because I worked so hard, they offered me a temp job as the receptionist. I had so much trouble finding a job, I took it. It was my first non-profit gig. Their mission was workforce and small business development, adult literacy, and alternative high school. They provided educational and economic support and opportunities for disadvantaged communities.

After a time, they decided I was too valuable to let go. They cobbled together a permanent position and offered me a raise. It was the early 2000’s and I watched them struggle with their newly installed client management database. Given my need to ‘help’, to ‘fix’, I offered my assistance. Soon my boss said, “You- sit here, do this, figure it out.” My first foray into a large enterprise level relational database. Eventually, I was offered a position managing all the communications and databases for the company.

I was so not qualified.

So, I put myself back through school. I learned how to read binary and hexadecimal. I learned desktop support and network design. I learned visual basic programming and SQL. I learned systems analysis and web design. I took two years’ worth of classes in one year, worked full-time, and lost my fucking mind in the process. I did finish with honors. I did do my job better. I did complete my second B.S. in Information Technology.

Chicago is a hard place to try to make it in your 20’s. In 2003, I made a decision to move to Minnesota for better opportunities. I came here without a job but landed one at another small non-profit in St. Paul within two weeks. I was hired to work on the databases and reporting for the grant manager, until they needed an onsite IT person. I was then also doing desktop, software, and network support. Their mission is teen and young adult intervention and they provide medical, mental health, pregnancy support and services as well as an alternative high school and homeless drop-in center.

That all lead me to the University of Minnesota in 2009 where I currently work as a sysadmin. Career non-profit in Information Technology. I never set out to do this work. But I have to have a mission. I have to have a challenge. I have to have a job where I feel I am making a difference in the world. It is all just one big puzzle to my mind. I like puzzles. They exercise my brain.

Not bad for an English major drop-out.

 
-Copyright C.M. Mounts, April 2019

Months in review: Jan-Mar 2019

One of the most challenging aspects of writing books is the stamina it requires. There is a trick to writing. If I am happy, that feeling will come through and imbue my work. If I cry, you will cry. If I laugh… well, you might laugh. Comedy is hard. But my deep, turbulent, and powerful emotions are often quite clear to my audience. So is my boredom and stress.

So how then does one sustain the excitement through years of writing and revision?

It’s a lonely life, living with all this ink and paper. Last year, I finally got out and socialized with other writers at various events around town. I met a lot of people and had a lot of fun but quickly realized that the hours I spent out were hours spent away from my writing desk. Everything takes time. We have to make hard choices. And while I enjoyed supporting other writers and listening to their work,  I could no longer justify blowing a whole night to read one lousy poem.

“Solitude sometimes is best society.” -John Milton

Writing is an extremely isolating life simply because it takes hours and hours of concentrated alone time to produce anything of quality. I know this is the reason I was out. I got too lonely. Being among other writers can be a shot in the arm. You can steal their excitement and inspiration.

The best readings I have attended over the years were authors who spoke at the UMN as part of the English department reading series. I got to see Denis Johnson, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Natasha Trethewey read live- in the flesh!!! Absolutely inspiring and breathtaking…

I’ve talked to my mom about writing novels. This is roughly how that conversation went:

Mom- “Have you ever considered writing a romance novel?”
Me- “No mom. If I did, people would think I had been hit over the head.”
Mom- “Really?”
Me- “Yes mom. Really.”

*SIGH*

Sometimes, you just have to make the road by walking. There are no rules about how you get a novel written and really the only way to learn is to do it. I once read that there are two kinds of novelists- architects and gardeners. Architects already know exactly what the structure of their novel will be and fill in the prose. Gardeners have a handful of seeds (ideas), throw them, and wait to see what grows. I am a gardener. I have spent the last three months figuring out the architecture buried within the blob that is my current draft.

A former teacher once told me, “a book can do you in” and it’s true. If you intend to do it right, to cut up your soul and smear it on the page… I never have to look too far to know what makes me burn. I know what my calling is.

But writing a book is a slow, slow grind. You give up one day, only to return to it the next. I often ask myself, “Who is going to want to read this crap, anyway?” But whether it has an audience of 15 or 15 million, I am in it for the work, for the creation, for the birth of whatever *IT* is. Once it’s done, it will find that audience and it will no longer be mine. It will have a life wholly its own and there will be as many versions of it as readers.

How fucking amazing is that?

This past quarter, I posted 11 blog posts- 9 essays and 2 poems. I submitted some poems for possible publication. I got rejected from another submission (it wasn’t my best work). All the usual writerly stuff. And I have an enhancement to my blog in the works… to be launched in May.

Stay tuned!

  

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, April 2019

Cycle St. Paul. Hills and All.

I am seated on a steel bench just after lunch: June 25 at 12:30, hot sun, and worries about my sunburn getting worse. I cycle this university campus. Indeed, I was here 18 hours ago peddling my bike up the hill to the student center. I’ve cycled over 800 miles this season getting ready for RAGBRAI, most spent on the terrain of St. Paul. I hear a lot of groans from other cyclists when I tell them I choose to train here.

No really. I choose to ride these hills.

RAGBRAI is a 7-day ride from the western to eastern border of Iowa. About 20,000+ cyclists make the journey annually during the last full week of July. It averages about 468 miles in total length, which means 67+ miles per day. I can also expect over 12,000 feet of total climb. Iowa is not flat.

Have I mentioned the corn sweat?

I frequent a coffee shop downtown. It’s a good mid-way point and I have spent many hours there in the off-season writing (not in spandex). But it is summer, and the baristas are impressed by my mileage. I got a 50-mile ride in last Sunday and plan for 55 miles the next. I come into town by way of Shepard’s Road and out again by Big Rivers Regional Trail.

I often see eagles hunting along the river. Soaring grace until a fierce dive to the fish below. I feel that way on my bike. I feel like I am flying. There is no other world besides the connection between me and the steel bike frame… the bike tires and the road… the road leading forever to the horizon. Sometimes, the meditation is so deep I really believe I can go on for days. Then I stop for a snack and a dose of reality.

I came to cycling in 2014, about a year after my back surgery.

A friend asked me on a whim, “You wanna ride RAGBRAI with me?” I knew what it was having attended the University of Iowa as an English major years before. But I had never cycled before. I thought there was no way I could ever do such a thing.

Then I paused.

Two years earlier, just after my 40th birthday, a disk in my spine herniated and cut into my spinal cord. Intense waves of pain and weakness in my left leg caused it to randomly stop working. Some days, it was all I could do to walk the few blocks from the bus stop after work and lay on the floor all night. This went on for nine months: pain, mobility loss, and isolation all stealing my life and dignity away. Then I got back surgery. I got my life back. And I got asked to ride a large, insane cycling event.

My leg was working again… why couldn’t I ride RAGBRAI?

There is something about the slow pace of 14mph that allows you to see the world in a way that driving does not: deer darting through the high grass, tiny flowers of yellow and blue, and every butterfly that lights upon them. But that’s fast enough that if you are panting, and a June bug decides to commit suicide by flying into the back of your throat, you have little choice but to swallow it.

Hey, it’s fuel for the ride.

We are so spoiled in the Twin Cities by our extensive system of bike trails and lanes. I’ve tried cycling in other cities, in other states, but there is simply not the same quality and quantity. This place is dedicated to cycling access. I feel safe here. I don’t have to ride on the streets and when I do, there are safe places to do that. Without it, I don’t think I would have taken up what has become one of the best parts of my life.

Thank you for that St. Paul… ride on!

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, October 2018

Irish American

This blog post is a week late, but you will have to forgive me. I was too busy celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with my family.

The Feast of Saint Patrick is held annually on March 17, which coincides with the traditional death date of this patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival, all thanks to us Irish diaspora, those of us who are the descendants of Irish refugees. I am officially 2/3 Irish, with Welsh and western Europe making up the rest. The right to register as an Irish citizen terminates at the third generation and since my Catholic ancestors were forced to emigrate to the United States during the Irish famines of the late 1800’s, I cannot claim Irish citizenry and am considered an American. Fair enough.

I have been told that it is in my DNA to go to Catholic Mass, then hit the Irish pub and I suppose it is. Many authors have chosen to compose in pubs. Drinkers with writing problems. But unlike bars, pubs are ‘public houses’- social spaces to meet your neighbors over a pint and conversation. They are a different animal than your run of the mill bar. If there are rooms to rent overnight, they are called an inn. Strange concept for most Americans and yet so common in the old country. There are poetry readings, live music, and céilidh dancing. I can always pick out the non-Irish by not only the way they look but also by the confusion on their face. They sit uncomfortable while the rest of us clap and sing and dance shamelessly, even while sober.

I know no other culture than Irish American Catholic.

There is a weird phenomenon among Irish Americans, a sort of posturing with one another about who is ‘more Irish’. It is really stupid. I understand it though. I believe that the 500 years of occupation by the English and their systemic attempt to eradicate Irish culture, language, and religion developed this tight grip, this desperation among the Irish people to hold on to their identity. Maintain the old and stay ever true to it. That came over with them and that is perpetuated by their offspring.

When people get up in my face about how much ‘more Irish’ they are than I am, it starts to piss me off. I will then ask them what county their family comes from. They generally do not know what I am talking about and if they do, they don’t know the answer. Mom’s family is from County Mayo & Leitrim. Dad’s family is from County Carlow & Waterford. I’ve had native Irish comment how my parents’ families come from the north and the south, but they met in the Midwestern United States. All of the Troubles mattered less and less.

Corned beef and cabbage is not an Irish dinner. It is an Irish American dinner commemorating our immigration and poverty. It was the most affordable food for a special celebration, regular beef being expensive and out of the reach of most Irish households. Both corned beef and cabbage were ingredients of the lower working class.

And don’t pinch me if I fail in the wearin’ of the green. You, joe-average American, don’t know why we do it. You puke your green beer in Wrigleyville and perpetuate negative stereotypes of the Irish people as a bunch of violent drunks. That color is the color of the landscape and the color associated with St. Patrick, who legend says converted all us pagan Celts to Christianity using the shamrock to explain the holy trinity. But the wearing of the green in about Irish nationalism. At one point the British outlawed that color. So you see, the wearing of the green is an act of rebellion.

Learn your history.

There is song I sing every year to celebrate the day: Thousands Are Sailing by the Pogues. Not a traditional ballad by any standard but the story of my family and the family of millions of other Americans. The lyrics sum it up pretty well:

“Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
Where the hand of opportunity
Draws tickets in a lottery
Where e’er we go, we celebrate
The land that makes us refugees
From fear of priests with empty plates
From guilt and weeping effigies
And we dance to the music and we dance…”

-Written by Phil Chevron, featured on The Pogues’ album If I Should Fall from Grace with God.

le grá go deo

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, March 2019


Reference materials for this blog post:

St Patrick Day: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick%27s_Day
Irish Diaspora: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_diaspora
Thousands Are Sailing by the Pogues: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thousands_Are_Sailing