14 Things That Made Me Who I Am

1 – Three days after I was born I was found in a pool of blood, while my mother placed her hand on my chest and whispered prayers. My grandfather rushed me to the hospital, but it was the black man who was waiting for his child to be born upstairs, who offered up his blood to save me.

2 – Much of my early understanding of the world came from stories my parents told. My father’s tales were of frightening beasts harming children, from the Abominable Snowman to the legend of the Green Man. My mother’s stories came second after her love of reciting poetry. Hers were tales of high drama: my “healing” when I was three days old in the hospital; her mother’s suicide as she leapt from the fourth floor of her apartment in New York City; my Native American ancestor who married a white man and together they fled persecution by emigrating to Ireland.

3 – From an early age, music made me feel as if I were on the edge of something fragile. It compelled me to move my body and to choreograph. I absorbed the lyrics of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan as my brother strummed his guitar. I cried at operas and could find harmony in any song Mom taught us as we gathered around the grand piano at night. My father would sing Mona Lisa as he cooked spaghetti, or in later years, stand up in a Mexican restaurant and sing the Toreador song from the opera Carmen. My bedtime music was my brother playing Eric Satie on the upright piano in his bedroom, his fingers, magic.

4 – When I was eight my dad fell in love with the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and bought a cattle ranch. I felt the pull of the unspeakable beauty of the mountains. For my entire childhood, we moved fluidly back and forth between the ranch and our home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

5 – By the age of nine, with the trees as my witness, horses became my life. Riding was one of the few things I could do well – better than anyone in my family. But the purchase of the ranch coincided in a change in my father, as he began to disappear into bars and spiral out of control. I’ll never know if he intended the harm that followed in his wake.

6 – Dad was infamous for his chore list. When I was twelve he taught me how to can tomatoes. The lesson included scooping steaming tomatoes out of the scalding pot with my hands. I could leave only if I didn’t cry out. From him, I learned to be silent. Within a few months, I began quietly taking scalding baths, adding boiling water to the tub to prove I was tough, and never crying out. What followed was years of compulsive behavior to manage my life.

7 – When I was fourteen, I rediscovered dance with a renewed vengeance, the image of my grandmother, a ballerina in New York, forever in my head. I leaped back and forth from horses to ballet, and in these found beauty, purpose and strength.

8 – When I was eighteen my father had all of his teeth removed – and refused dentures. He gummed his meals and entered detox months later, where he began a stumbling decline until his death at age 54. I felt nothing but relief. This began what I call the “He can’t get me anymore” years, where I numbed myself to my past, and tried to disappear into anorexia.

9 – Always a seeker of truth, at 24 I went to India to live at the ashram of my guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Compassion and an awareness of the struggles of others broke me open and forever changed how I looked at life.

10 – When I was twenty-eight I gave birth to a dark-haired beauty, Ashley, who to this day nudges me to look at all sides of an issue. Two years later, nothing prepared me for the tragedy of the death of my second daughter, Emily, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. One day she was there, and the next she was not. From her I learned about the everlasting grip that grief holds on your heart – and it left me with a passion to help others who are consumed by trauma and loss. Baby Elizabeth arrived a year later, a strapping angel of a child, who healed me in ways she will never know.

11 – In my thirties, I completed my literature degree and teaching credential, at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I was immediately hired to teach at my alma mater, Saratoga School, a beautiful, old Spanish-style building on the hill above town. The best part of my day there is choosing the perfect book to and read aloud, as children gather at my feet and lean forward to hear every last word.I spearhead performing arts opportunities for children, work as a writing mentor for the district, and teach writing to sixty third-graders each year. Perhaps the most memorable legacy is writing the grant for our school garden, which eventually became an award-winning outdoor teaching space through the efforts of many talented teachers, administrators, grounds staff and parents.

12 – When I was forty-five, my mother died. A devout Christian Scientist, she refused to take the medication that would save her life. I miss her voice and ridiculous outfits, and the way she would play with my daughters, giggling and painting horses galloping across the child-sized tepee in their bedroom.

13 – In my fifties, I met two unforgettable women. The first was Carolyn Atkinson, my Zen teacher. At our very first meeting, Carolyn softly urged me to consider doing two things: The first was to lean into the pain when it comes. The second was to give myself permission to exist. These suggestions were life altering. Within a month I met Laura Davis, the acclaimed writer and writing coach. Under Carolyn and Laura’s guidance I faced my past and began writing. While my original intention was to write for my daughters, the deeper I sank into the old trauma, the more I realized I was writing to heal.

14 – Today, my sweetheart demonstrates on a daily basis that fathers can be funny, kind and supportive. With his love came his amazing children and eventually our grandchildren.  They allow me to perform silly songs I make up for them or enter their fantasy worlds huddled on the living room floor pretending to be bears.  And then there are my colleagues and writing buddies who hold me in their thoughts when I cry about medical issues and support me in my effort to publish. Today I wear a necklace with one word dangling from the chain: lucky.