300 Words About Grief.


You walk into the vet with a Saint Bernard and you leave with an empty collar that somehow weighs more than she ever did, 120 pounds of sadness pressing down against your chest. This is your second dog lost in seven days, following the evaporation of your 16 year marriage, and the grief feels too massive, something you can’t possibly bear. But you aren’t alone—you must also shepherd your children through this journey—and so you bundle their grief up too, folding it neatly into hatboxes and fastening it atop your own steamer trunk of sorrow with a strong sisal rope. And when your handle breaks, you gather the weight into your arms, cradling it like an overgrown child too old to be carried, yet still needing comfort. Burdened so, you sit by the river and, as the waves of fear and sorrow flood your body, you try not to flee but to be present to the pain. Wisdom must be earned—you know this—but the opposite bank seems too distant, a shore you can never hope to reach. You dip your toes in the water, thinking perhaps your load will become buoyant, that maybe you can grab hold of it like an overtipped canoe and float, carried along by the current. For even if you can never ford this river, somewhere downstream there must be a way out of this place, if only you follow its meandering curves far enough along. The weight of the grief drags you under and you think: I could just let go and I’d be free. Then you remember: Carrying grief is sacred work. So you kick your feet and surface, knowing that of course you can hold on to this burden a little longer. You’ve been carrying it all this time.

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When Everything Ends All at Once.


The floor in the back of the newly opened pet store was covered with sawdust. I wandered past row after row of large dogs in crates until I came upon a single tiny Lhasa Apso puppy, his brown eyes boring into my heart.

“She dropped him off just like that! All bathed with this brand new leash and collar!” The woman in charge of the adoption event scooped up the dog and handed him to me. “We don’t get many small dogs, certainly not purebreeds.”

I called Matt and told him he needed to come over right away, that this dog wouldn’t last long in a room full of pitbulls, senior canines, and frightened cats. I held fast to the leash, already claiming him as my own. “I’m just waiting for my husband,” I’d say to anyone who dared to inquire about the puppy.

Turns out, there was a reason someone abandoned a purebred six-month-old dog to a shelter. Oscar panicked at being alone, chewed his way out of our bathroom window, splinters on the floor, the remains of the screen splayed open to the breeze. He chewed everything, in fact, destroyed a coffee table, two couches, an ottoman. He apparently had missed some opportune window for house training and never got the hang of it in his entire fourteen year life. I gave up on floor coverings years too late, having lost hundreds of dollars of rugs to dog urine.

He was supposed to be mine, this sweet fluffball of fur, but when they met, Oscar placed his little paws on Matt’s chest and gently licked his face. In the back of that pet store, Matt—who never wanted a second dog—conceded, and they became constant companions.

In his final year, Oscar would cry if he couldn’t find Matt, searching the entire house and even checking the shower stall to locate his dad. No longer our clown who’d tear across the slippery wood floor, he became an old man. He lost six teeth, then an eye, then most of his hearing. Our marriage ended too and, when Matt moved out two weeks ago, Oscar moved out with him, finally losing sight in his remaining eye. He was scared and confused and in pain and we knew it was time.

Behind my desk, I notice that the tumor in our St. Bernard’s front leg has ripened to plum size and I know that we have mere weeks left with her, if that. She struggles to stand and hobbles down the three steps to the yard and I can’t lift her by myself. I curl up on the floor, face in her soft fur, and try to match my breathing to hers. The ceiling fan rotates on its axis, its chain ticking out the time we have left together. I could stay here with her until then, but there are children to be picked up and suppers to be fixed alone and bathroom doors to cry behind, the shower running to muffle the sound.

The leaves are changing here in western North Carolina and a chilly wind kicks up in the mornings, though by late afternoon we are again sweaty and I never get the layers right on my third grader when we dress for school. Night falls more quickly, but October can’t quite give up on summer and neither can I. And so I continue to tug on cutoffs that now hang off my frame, my appetite lost to a season of sorrow.

The pumpkins on my neighbors’ porches bring me to tears. November promises to hold too much that is unfamiliar and I lie in bed at night terrified of what I no longer know.

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Getting a Plan: How I Found Out I’m Not a Financial Loser


Two years ago, I quit my day job to become a freelance writer. This is the third time in my life that I’ve switched not just jobs, but careers, choices that have not been without financial consequences. So I was excited at the opportunity to try out a new online financial planning service for women called SUM180, which promises a jargon-free personalized financial plan that provides three next steps to create a clear path to achieving your financial goals.

How does SUM180 work? SUM180 provides reliable financial planning advice without any accompanying hard sales of investment products. Your payment gives you a year-long subscription to the service, so if your situation changes, you can update your information and get a new plan or, if you’re a real go-getter and complete your three steps, you can tick those off and get three more.

The process is simple:

  • Prepare for your online interview
  • Complete your online interview
  • Receive your plan
  • Take action and update your plan as needed

Preparing for Your Interview. SUM180 gives you a comprehensive list of the documents you’ll need for your interview – information about income, expenses, taxes, assets, investments, and debt. The process requires some legwork on your part to get your paperwork in order. Think: “Getting ready to do your taxes” level of legwork. When SUM180 says you’ll need PDFs of your securities statements and your latest Social Security benefits info? You’re going to want to download or scan those files before you hop onto the online interview. You’ll also need to categorize your expenses and have those figures at your fingertips. Plan to spend an hour or two getting your ducks in a row.

The Interview Process. Once you’ve prepped, the interview itself is simple because you’re just plugging in numbers or uploading statements at your own pace in response to SUM180’s prompts. The process should take 30-45 minutes max.

Receiving Your Plan. I received my plan in about a week, but I didn’t look at it right away, feeling that trepidation you experience before turning over a test you’re pretty sure you didn’t ace. Finances are always at the top of my worry list, and I was worried.

But the very best part of the SUM180 plan is that its opens by listing your key accomplishments, which position you in comparison to others at your stage in life. As a writing teacher, I appreciated this approach because it’s exactly how I provide constructive criticism to my students. Tell them what they’re doing well, then gently make suggestions on how to do better.

So when I finally did study my plan, I was pleasantly surprised that despite a career path that has certainly not been designed to foster the accumulation or growth of wealth, I wasn’t the financial loser I had feared. I felt an enormous sense of relief that, at midlife, while I am by no means cushioned for retirement, I am still in the hunt. This was especially welcome news after a first year of freelancing when our family also faced significant unexpected medical bills.

After the key accomplishments, you get your three steps. Why just three steps? Because probably you’ll do them. I paid for a marketing plan once that sketched out a whole year’s worth of action items. I read it, experienced a mild level of panic, did one thing, and filed it away. Instead, SUM180’s three steps are clear, specific, and actionable so that you’ll actually, you know, accomplish them.

And I’ve already started. Now I have a plan to get rid of some nasty lingering consumer debt. I have a new way of thinking about the resource that is the equity in our home so that maybe we can build wealth with it and not just throw up our hands and call ourselves “house poor.” And I have specific cash reserve targets that will move me to the next level of financial security. Because beyond just giving you numbers and targets, the plan gives you detailed strategies to meet them. I didn’t need a degree in finance to understand it. I just need to complete my three steps.

And when I’m done with those? I can go back to SUM180 and keep growing, three more steps at a time.

The best part? SUM180 is offering a special promotion for a limited time! Just visit SUM180.com and use code SPRING50 to get 50% off the current product offer.

This post has been sponsored by SUM180. I was provided with product at no charge to sample in exchange for my review. The options expressed in this post are my own. I am in no way affiliated with SUM180 and do not earn a commission or percent of sales.


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The Hair Intervention.

I have padded sock-footed on the edges of groups all my life, not so much disallowed from their embrace as disallowing myself, peering through their windows Little Match Girl-style, drawn by their golden circle of lamplight spilling onto the sidewalk.

Exception: Scotch in hand, I’d rush headlong into their fray, entering stage right, casting myself in the lead, hollering round for the others to hurry up, let’s shoot darts, let’s play “Electric Youth” on the video jukebox over and over, oblivious to the glares of the regulars, sloshing my drink on the table, wondering where my friends were when the music stopped, finding out they’d all gone bowling without me. Later, alone in my apartment, wearing a frayed gray comforter and a face mask I’d concocted from a recipe in Glamour, I struggled to position the rabbit ears on my UHF-only television to stabilize the picture for “Quantum Leap.” Snow on the screen, tears in my eyes.

Taxi-cab privacy screen locked in place, I have held myself at arm’s length from former classmates, coworkers, and even my own family, situating interstates and time zones between us. Through the magic of Facebook, I can still peer through the window, seeing law school classmates celebrating 25 years of friendship – why there they all are at the lake again this summer! Their babies now old enough to captain the boats and me, a mountain range and a lifetime away, having never gotten the hang of water skiing anyway, remembering them yelling from the dock Lean back! Lean back! as I dropped the line again and again, turning blue from cold, red from shame, pale white because I refused to wear shorts ever – hating my legs – an all-American loser in the land of 10,000 lakes.

I could say it all started with the hair intervention in seventh grade but that would be a lie. In photos from three, four years old, I’m all white-haired silkiness, my flyaway ends curling up to complete a smile my mouth refused to form, giving me away: Loner. Then ten, eleven years old: there are pixie cuts and darkening and coarsening and a horrible perm and mall haircuts, always – never at the good place that cost $18 where the girls on the tennis team went. I had no right to attempt the Dorothy Hamill wedge, disastrous as it grew out, widening, never lengthening, me yanking it down, willing it to straighten so no one would notice.

Oh, but they noticed. Four or five of them approaching in the hall at school as friends, maybe? Hi! We want to talk to you! Me thinking this would be a big moment, plans would be made, something that perhaps would not include water skiing but instead studying, and I was good at studying. But wait, what were they saying? We need to talk about your hair, you just can’t wear it like that, have you tried a curling iron, you can use mine, here – thrusting it into my hand and pointing me toward the bathrooms – no, I’ll go alone, I say, gosh thanks for letting me borrow this.

But I had no business curling my hair in the junior high bathroom. They might as well have handed me a circular saw and sent me to shop class to build shelving for all I knew about how curling irons worked. My sisters were grown, in college, and there was a curling iron at home, yes, caked with years of hairspray, but I had no idea how to operate it other than to turn it on and watch the red dot turn slowly to black, signifying danger, not beauty.

touch and curl curling iron

Alone in the bathroom, I made a valiant hair styling effort. I maneuvered the foreign instrument to the right side of my head, some confidence in my dominant hand, attempting the little sausage curls that seemed to be in style, so effortless on other girls. Then panic: What of the left side? I’d surely burn myself, the tool backward and inside out and me, already confused by viewing my mirror image – for god’s sake how was I supposed to get the left side?

So I didn’t. I waited for the iron to cool, had missed nearly all of lunch hour by this point, marched back out, overgrown wedge brushing the door on the left, failed sausage curls sagging on the right and there they were, still in a group, waiting for me. Gape-mouthed: What have you done? Why didn’t you do the left side? YOU JUST TURN IT UPSIDE DOWN TO GET THE OTHER SIDE! Laughter, me heading back into the bathroom, tears now, stepping on the floor pedal for the sinks, a waterfall springing up around me, Vegas style – those were the sinks we had, communal dancing waters so all the junior high girls could wash up at once, this considered beneficial somehow by the designers – cupping and filling my hands and wetting my hair over and over, curls on the right disappearing, unruly thicket on the left unmoved by the flood of water dripping onto my plaid blouse with the peter pan collar and the red grosgrain ribbon tied sweetly in a bow at my neck. Now attempting to squeeze the water out with the cloth towels that went round and round in the dispenser, but which, apparently, had no absorptive qualities whatsoever, because there was no disguising it: I was drenched.

And of course they were still waiting, now shouting: You didn’t have to get it wet! You shouldn’t have slicked it down! The bell ringing, fifth hour was it? Counting: three classes and a long bus ride home ahead of me. Their circle of light disappearing and me again on the other side of the window, shivering, no more matches to strike, as I parked myself behind my desk in Mrs. Maruska’s English class, intent on my notebook, my eyes seeing nothing.

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Swimming Laps with Helen Mirren and Santa.

Helen Mirren tugs her white Lycra swim cap over her sleek silver bob, then pops on her pink swim goggles. She smooths her swim skirt and eases herself into the water.

Santa is already here. Santa is always swimming laps before I arrive and he is always still going strong after I leave. Santa’s belly is not akin to a bowl full of jelly, but he is white-bearded and has a kindly smile. He puts me in mind of a right jolly old elf. Santa favors the breast stroke at a slow but steady pace.

I’m pretty sure Alanis Morissette was at the pool two nights ago too, in an ill-fitting one piece that she’d obviously given up hand washing and run through the spin cycle on high a few too many times. Alanis, of course, gives no fucks about the swim cap, letting her trademark long brown mane trail wildly behind her in the water. You look at her and think, “That is so Alanis.

These are the people who swim laps after the people who really swim laps are done for the day.

For the past week, I have been one of their number.

I like to arrive just as the pool staff is taking in the lane markers after the official adult swim time is over. One lane stays reserved for lap swimmers and that’s where you’ll find Santa. Helen Mirren likes to split the lane with him. They have a system.

I don’t know how to use the lanes. I swim next to the marked lane, though I occasionally have to dodge guests from the resort that shares the pool.

I’m new to pool etiquette. I’m new to belonging to any kind of athletic facility. I’m new to lap swimming. Last night was my fourth trip.

It’s the perfect pool for me. The “laps” are some random length unrelated to any regulation pool. But they are my laps, damn it, and if I want to say I swam six laps – or three, or ten – then I will. My daughter lets me count a lap each time I touch a wall, so when she swims with me I get to double the number.

When she’s not with me, I watch the clock. A half hour, that’s my goal.

I am winded at the end of each length and I have to take breaks. I hang on the edge of the pool as Santa keeps his metronomic pace. Helen Mirren takes breaks too, but mostly to change up her equipment. She likes to use props, which makes me feel more comfortable with my fledgling attempts. Sometimes she’ll breast stroke with a pool noodle tucked under her elbows or clutch a kickboard in lieu of a full on crawl.

Maybe I am supposed to be doing that. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.

I swim, each stroke a moving meditation. You can’t not focus on your breath because of the whole drowning thing. So I follow my breath. Sometimes it is gasping, sometimes my timing is off and I swallow water, sometimes one breath barely gives me the energy I need to make it to the next.

I breathe and stroke, breathe and stroke, avoiding the kids jumping in the shallow end, wondering if I’ll ever have the guts to split a lane like Helen Mirren and Santa do. When my half hour runs out, I lie prone on the cement pool deck, unable to move.

No one seems to notice, so maybe the post-swim collapse is a common occurrence amongst the people who swim laps after the people who really swim laps go home.

I stagger to the locker room. I am so tired it is probably dangerous for me to drive the two miles home.

But I am swimming towards 50, and I think I am going to make it.

ckr swim

I was a BlogHer 2016 VOTY Honoree

Want to write a kickass story this summer? Join me for “What’s Your Story: An Online Creative Nonfiction Writing Boot Camp.” 30 days of independent study with weekly check-ins and thorough personalized feedback on your personal essay from award-winning writer Cindy Reed. Learn more and register at CindyReed.Me.

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