Archive for Life’ Category



Hope for Hayden: Reflections and a community’s reaction

There are some people who grab our attention; pull us into their presence with their laugh, wit, peace, pain, or circumstance. As I perused through my Facebook timeline—catching up on dog videos, inspirational quotes, and updates from friends—the photo of a boy with striking blue eyes grabbed my attention. His face, his innocence, the softness of expression pulled me into his presence. And then I read the accompanying post: Hayden Jilka, age 7, undergoing cancer treatment. My heart plummeted to my toes, as though I’d nearly collided with another car on the road.10959409_10204209849538812_2391218010777871646_n

It’s been a strange several months for my family and me. We’ve seen a lot of illness, diagnosis, and death. We’ve delivered meals, prayed, grieved, felt a malaise hovering over an all-too-sunny winter. But this face, this boy—Hayden—I can’t explain it…I was so moved.

Through my friend Neal Pearlberg, who hosts KSCO’s Off The Lip Radio Show in Santa Cruz, California, I was able to contact the Hayden’s family. After a few emails and texts, we made a plan to meet. Over soup, salad, pizza fries, and a grilled cheese for Hayden’s little brother, Garrett, Samantha recounted Hayden’s journey.

“Hayden was diagnosed in October of 2014 when he was seven. He’d been experiencing pain in his cheek. We thought he had an infected salivary gland, and a growth inside of Hayden’s mouth was removed and biopsied,” Samantha says. She and her husband, Nate, got the call that changed their lives: Hayden had cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue. The good news is that the success rate is 90% with treatment. The bad news: radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the treatments.

As I listened to Samantha relay this information, I tried to imagine my child with this diagnosis; the worry, the anxiety, the pain of watching my child go through treatments that cause pain, nausea; how he would potentially miss out on “normal” kid stuff due to his treatment—school, parties, sports. Most of us will not experience first-hand what life is like with a child battling cancer. With that in mind, I asked questions that helped me gain a better understanding of daily life.

“He’s amazing. When he feels okay, he skateboards and surfs. He rarely complains. Recently, though, the pain got to be too much for him,” Samantha pauses, and tears up. “The medicines he was prescribed made him so nauseous, and all he did was sleep.”


The family sought out non-traditional medication, and Hayden has found tremendous relief from CBD, Cannabidiol, which is a cannabis compound that does not make people feel “stoned”, yet, according to Samantha, provides pain relief without sedation.

I was curious about the impact that cancer has on a school-aged child; how his peers were responding to Hayden’s diagnosis. Back in the 1970s, I had a classmate who had cancer, and none of this was discussed, which fueled a lot of anxiety, questions, and fear in a number of us.

Samantha shares, “The school did a great job. The teacher sat down with his class and explained that Hayden had cancer; that he may miss some days because of treatment; how he may lose his hair.” Samantha adds that Hayden’s friends have surrounded him, some shaving their heads to match the hair loss that Hayden has experienced from chemo.

“We also get a lot of support from our local church, Twin Lakes, and from Jacob’s Heart.”

This was not the first time that I’d heard of the generosity of Jacob’s Heart, a child’s cancer support service in Santa Cruz County. While writing GriefINK, a non-fiction book about memorial tattoos as a language of grief, one of the participants I interviewed stressed how critical Jacob’s Heart was in offering assistance to her family. For the Jilkas, the added cost of driving to and from Lucille Packard at Stanford and overnight stays were eased by the assistance from Jacob’s Heart.10676158_10204396192037137_6781313206354310526_n

With bills mounting up toward $100,000.00, I felt pride in my hometown that is wrapping its arms around this family. These businesses, individuals, and events have raised morale, money, and support for Hayden’s recovery:

Teddy Bear sales and baked goods at Pleasure Point, Neil Pearlberg’s Off The Lip Radio Show, Terry Campion and the Santa Cruz Boardroom, Ribsys Nickel Holiday Party at Bocci’s Cellar, Danny Keith and the Santa Cruz Warriors, Bud Freitas and Surf School Santa Cruz, Nikki Brooks & Shawn Dollar, Titans of Mavericks, Star Bene, Steve Periera “The Beach Guy”, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery, Freeline Surf Shop, local authors, friends, neighbors, and classmates.

As Hayden’s treatment continues, new conditions arise. When I met with Samantha and Garrett two weeks ago, Hayden was supposed to join us. Unfortunately, he had become neutorpenic as a result of the chemotherapy, resulting in a reduction of a type of white blood cells, which increase his inability to fight off infections or bacteria. It’s not a permanent condition, but when this arises, he must remain at home, and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

During our lunch together, I got a real sense that ordinary life does not stand still for families who have a child with cancer. The siblings need attention; food must be bought and prepared; holidays come and go; bills continue; parents have to work. Garrett and I played “pass” with a piece of paper folded into the shape of a triangle. We laughed. We chatted. I wondered what was going on his young mind. And as we ended our lunch together, he slipped off a rubber bracelet that says Hope for Hayden. “This is for you!” he beamed.


As much as this family feels blessed by the support of others, I was the one who walked away feeling blessed. I was let in to a very private, sacred space: a mother revealing her innermost fears, hopes, worries, sources of strength, and prayers. I count it a privilege to hold the Jilka family in my prayers, to reach out to others on their behalf, and to observe the presence of hope and grace amidst illness. Thank you, Hayden, for touching my life and the life of others.

If you would like to help, here are the links to Hayden’s recovery, as well as links to Jacob’s Heart, and Teen Kitchen, which provide meals to families in crisis.

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Coping with Grief: A Mother’s Story

IMG_2366Scattered throughout our lives are periods of grief. The loss of a pet, the end of a relationship, termination from work, the death of a parent—all of these bring up a mixture of emotions, and force us to make adjustments. In time, most are able to accommodate these changes, create a new reality, and move forward. The loss remains a part of us, but does not define us.

But, there is a different type of grief. Brought on by sudden loss—death by suicide, accident, or murder—complicated grief is long lasting, and mimics thoughts and behaviors akin to those who have Post Traumatic Stress. Dru Ann Davis is all too familiar with complicated grief, and the impact it’s taken on her life.  I met Dru Ann at her brother’s, Howard “Boots” McGhee, in Aptos, California. Their bond, support, and love for one another deeply touched me. Out of that time together, I spent several weeks gathering my thoughts, and how to honor Dru Ann’s loss…

On September 7, 2009, Dru Ann heard these life-changing words from a stranger: “Your kid is dead.” Her seventeen-year-old daughter, Desiree, was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Desiree was not a member of a gang. She was a carefree, quiet, seventeen-year-old girl who loved to sing. She’d had her driver’s license for just three weeks, loving the freedom of her car that an uncle helped purchase. On that September day, Desiree went to her friend’s for a barbeque. She never came home. Her killers remain at large.

Life for the survivor of a traumatic death can feel unmanageable, even after a significant amount of time. In the case of murder, the anger, violation, inability to protect one’s loved one, involvement in the justice system, and media coverage prolong and fuel the grief.

“I remember thinking: ‘Can I live without Dez?’ I knew I was going to, from this day forward, live in hell without her.”

Vague answers of Desiree’s whereabouts; rushing to a hospital, only to be told that Desiree’s body was not there; Dru Ann’s surviving daughter Taii learning of her sister’s death on social media; and an inability to see her deceased child amplified the horror for Dru Ann.

“The police would not let me be with my girl. I was told that the homicide detective would be calling me. I thought he would call me immediately, but it took him several days. Taii and I went home crying. When we reached home, I immediately got into Desiree’s bed, pulling the covers up over my face, trying to smell her before it should fade. I invited Taii to join me, but she couldn’t. We stayed in separate rooms, crying all night. It remains the very worst day of my life.”

“I have become a different person.”

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, often referred to as PTSD, is often associated with the intrusive thoughts and behaviors that military personnel suffer upon returning from service. Researchers in mental health have drawn similar links between trauma and grief over child abuse, natural disasters, and co-victims (those left behind) of suicide or murder, and the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with PTSS.

Symptoms can include:

  1. Recurrent and intrusive thoughts about the event
  2. Sleep disturbances, including nightmares
  3. Avoidance of places, situations, or people that remind one of the trauma
  4. Loss of interest in activities that used to bring joy or pleasure
  5. Feelings of detachment from others
  6. Lack of interest in the future
  7. Feeling numb
  8. Extreme upset or anxiety when reminded of the trauma
  9. Hyperarousal/hypervigilance

In Dru Ann’s case, tasks such as grocery shopping, seeing foods that Desiree enjoyed, and interacting with others in public became overwhelming, bringing up waves of anxiety and upset.

“I have two poster size photos of Dez in her room that I talk to and kiss every day. I’ve almost worn one out. I turn her light on every night so she knows we want her home. I’m on my second pillow that I made from t-shirts her friends made with her face on them, so I have her to hug and sleep with. She also had a little strapless hot pink cheetah t-shirt material blouse I sleep with every night. I take it with me when I go to my brother’s for the weekend. I don’t know what I’d be like if I couldn’t ‘hug’ her in some way.”

“I tell her all day, every day, she is not alone, I’m always there loving her. I tell her what a smart, beautiful, innovative sweetheart of a daughter she is/was. And that I’m here, fighting for justice for her lovely self.”

Part of the problem for the co-victim, like Dru Ann, is feelings of isolation. Like the elephant in the middle of the room, people avoid bringing up the questions or details about the murder, as well as how one is coping, in fear that the co-victim will be further upset.

“No one ever asks me about her case, or how I am doing behind her murder. I know no one wants to talk about it, or Dez, so I keep it to myself.”

IMG_6378As a former grief counselor, I heard this countless times—how the parent, spouse, sibling, or loved one is already thinking about the one who has died; that bringing it up gives honor to the deceased. In essence, talking about the elephant in the middle of the room removes the stigma and isolation that the co-victim experiences.

What can help the ones who are left behind? Psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital found that a combination of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications can help, as well as therapy tailored to address complicated grief.

The Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) offer a list of counselors in one’s area with a specialty in thanatology (death, dying, and bereavement). Therapists with training in this area are more likely to have a deeper understanding of complicated grief, as well as how to proceed in therapy.

In my work with the bereaved by suicide, grief groups specific to sudden loss appear to help those in mourning more than a generalized grief group, specifically in the area of isolation, stigma, and disenfranchised feelings. Sudden loss groups now exist in a number of cities, and allow individuals to be candid with their experiences, memories, intrusive thoughts, and feelings. Often in non-specific grief groups, the survivor of suicide or co-victim of homicide can feel too unique, fearing that their stories are too explicit. Additionally, fellow grievers who have not been impacted this way are prone to minimize their own grief, or experienced secondary post-traumatic stress from the details of such a death.

Grief specialist, author, and speaker, Barbara Rubel, MA, FT, reports that survivors of homicide must also address practical, safety, and legal issues.

“As survivors of homicide, also known as co-victims, cope with their profound loss, they must navigate the criminal justice system and learn their rights. Co-victims need to learn about parallel justice, a fundamental component of justice, which attempts to keep them safe. They must identify their local victim assistance professionals (e.g. Victim Assistance Coordinators and Victim Advocates) who will guide them through the system during a time when grief can inhibit their ability to focus,” says Rubel.

“Co-victims need to understand their rights; learn how to create a victim impact statement, apply for victim compensation through a crime victims reparations program; review all written information given to them, clarify any misunderstandings, and clarify those things that do not make sense to them. I always recommend to co-victims that they document everything for restitution and seek out financial reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses related to the homicide.”

For Dru Ann, bits of joy do shine into her life. Time spent with her surviving daughter, Taii, as well as other family members helps to lighten the darkness. She has become an avid bird watcher, where observing hawks, crows, and hummingbirds keep her going through each day. Writing about Desiree’s life and her death has offered clarity.

“I went to one Parents of Murdered Children shortly after Desiree’s death. I remember the meeting, but was definitely not fully there. No one in that club wants to be a member. I do remember them as being so welcoming and respectful of one another. They always remember Desiree on her birthday, and on her murderversary.”

“Biking to work and home every day gets a lot of emotion and anger out by using my energy. I also put a rose in a bud vase every week, and then save the leaves and scatter them at the bottom of Desiree’s photo.”


Pursing justice also keeps DruAnn going. “I will always be on the Oakland Police Department to solve her case.”

This is a story of a mother’s horror, her fight to find her daughter’s killer, and how she has coped with the intense grief of her daughter’s murder. This is also the story of spirit, strength, and courage. Dru Ann spent many hours speaking to me about Desiree, answering questions via email, and writing pages about her loss, and how she copes on a day-to-day basis. She is a strong survivor, and her words give witness to the human spirit. Our hope is that others affected by traumatic grief will feel less alone in reading her words.

“Maybe in the future I will be able to reach out and help other mothers who are in this horrible club.”

If you know someone who experiences complicated grief, whether by disaster, accident, suicide, or murder, you can help. There are no magic words, no quick fixes, no piece of advice you can give that will heal the wound. What you can do is listen. My life has changed in knowing Dru Ann, and I carry her, her family, and Desiree in my heart.



Below are a list of resources for those affected by traumatic grief.

Grief Speaks: a website devoted to those affected by murder and homicide.

ADEC: Association of Death Education and Counselors. Here you can find a list of therapists with special training in grief.

California Victim Assistance:

FBI Victim Assistance:

Research in complicated grief:

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Drug Free Surfers – John Solanoa


As a native of Santa Cruz, I have a deep attachment to nature, the beach, and love of surfing, albeit, from the beach or cliff as I admire this sport. Many of us are enamored with those who face walls of water that seem insane to ride.

There exists, however, an entangled relationship between surfing and drugs and alcohol: marijuana, alcohol, and methamphetamines take too many surfers out before their time. Dozens are left to battle their addiction, face jail time, and the damage to their families, friends, and own lives. Those left behind beg the question: how can one reach a culture where surfing and drugs and alcohol lay alongside one another?

John Solanoa, a local surfer in Southern California, who is a well-known writer and photographer in the surfing community, felt compelled to address this issue, resulting in an organization called DFS, Drug Free Surfers. Appealing to seasoned surfers and young alike, he rallied for them to take a stand, promoting a zero-tolerance for use of any drug. Members include Santa Cruz/Huntington Beach surfer Peter Mel, the winner of the past season’s Mavericks, his son John Mel, US Boys Champion, two-time Open Champion Brett Simpson of Long Beach, and San Clemente’s NSSA Champion Tia Blanco, to name a few.

johnmelDSF’s mission:

“…to promote and lift those who practice clean living within the extreme sports lifestyle. To build a vast network of professionals and amateur sports figures to help show the youth of our sports that there is another option to drugs, and to make aware those at risk kids that you can live that happy life you always wanted Drug Free.” 


out-of-breath-SMWhen I wrote my first novel, Out of Breath, which captures a surfer caught in the grip of addiction and its consequences, I had no idea how pervasive this topic was, although I later learned a great deal from Pro-Surfer Peter Mel and his father John Mel, owner of Freeline Surf Shop. Life flows in strange ways, and I was introduced to DFS when John Solanoa was on Santa Cruz’s radio station KSCO. On their show, Off The Lip Radio, co-hosts Neil Pearlberg and Terry Campion (owner of Santa Cruz Boardroom) interviewed John, spreading the word about DFS. Immediately, I knew I wanted to learn more and have John on my blog. Someone is daring to make an impact and a change that can save lives! Below is a snapshot of John’s and my time together, and his story of empowering the surf community to take the pledge to be drug free.


John, welcome to my blog, Can you share with my readers a bit about you and your life?

Hi Susan, thanks for having me. I am from Hawaii, but now live in Huntington Beach, Ca. I’ve been surfing the better part of my life, but have now turned into a weekend surfer that surfs about every third weekend, lol. I have been shooting as a professional freelance photographer for the past ten years, working with Quiksilver, Billabong, and Fox among others. I write editorials with Ghetto Juice Surf Mag, ESPN, O.C. Register, Surfline, Surfing Mag, Surfers Journal, and many others.   

What did you notice over the past twenty years in terms of drug use/abuse amongst the surf community?

In Hawaii and in California I have always seen drug use, but most of it was with the older guys. It wasn’t until the last two and a half years that I started to notice kids losing their way. 

On your website, you mention the death of twenty-year-old Chris Love, a grom (young surfer) whose life was cut short as a result of drugs. There’ve been others, as well, who’ve met early deaths due to the grips of addiction. Was this the impetus behind the creation of DFS?

Yeah, Chris was one of thirteen kids that I knew under the age of twenty-three who died as a result of overdose in the last twenty-six months. It’s been hard on so many people, and I just felt as a part of the surf community I needed to do something. I thought to myself, “Why are these kids dying like this? How does it all begin?” The only thing that kept popping up was peer pressure! These kids all want to be a part of something, they all want to climb that surf ladder of success and from a young age. They are exposed to this party culture that has imbedded itself into the surfing culture, so they think, “If I’m going to get ahead, I need to be a part of this party scene, and then my older peers will respect me not just for my surfing, but for my craziness as well.” So I came up with DFS, and to do nothing more than uplift those who live a DFS lifestyle. Positive peer pressure is born, and it seems to be working.  

What has the response been like amidst surfers, both young and veterans?

We’ve had a great response from so many big name surfers: Brett Simpson, Travis Logie, Nat Young—all on the World Tour. Nate Yeomans, Matt Pagan, Ezekiel Lau, Keanu Asing, Chris Waring and Kanoa Igarashi from the WQS Tour and Pro Junior Tour. And some of the most exciting groms to hit the water this year: Micky Clarke, Tia Blanco, John Mel, Nolan Rapoza, Daniel Glenn, Abby Brown, and Sebastian “Bash” Mendes among others.  We also have some of the most legendary names in the business: Peter Mel, Reef McIntosh, Jason Shibata, and South African Bill Sharp. 

dfs-squareHow can people support DFS?

If you would like to help support the movement you can go to the site and donate or fill out the form to become a DFS registered surfer. We have team stickers for team members and public stickers to help show your support. 

Thank you for not only your time with me, John, but for creating a powerful group of brave individuals who take a stand publically against drug use and abuse in the surf and extreme sport worlds. If this encourages even one person to not pick up that drink or drug, it’s an endeavor in saving lives.

Stay tuned for more interviews with drug-free surfers. Up next: Former professional surfer from Santa Cruz, Ca, Anthony Ruffo, and his story of addiction, recovery, and vision for the future!


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Renewed & Revitalized


In my blog, my writing has shifted from that which is comfortable and familiar to exploring deeper issues that draw likeminded, growth-oriented, pushing-the-envelope, willing-to-risk individuals. In the past six months, many of us have been brought together by our pursuit of quality, life-touching writing. Others, by our grief of parent loss, broken relationships, and life transitions. The experience of connecting with another soul through hardships, stress, parenting, loss, letting go, letting in has resulted in my knitting together an afghan of an intentional community from around the globe. Our conversations, chats, and exchanged emails fill me in a way I could only dream.

Sometimes it takes great circumstances to get us to shake out of old patterns, living with mediocre or merely satisfactory lives, or tolerating despair. This has certainly been my plight over the past two years. Along the way, the blessing of enduring trials has been in meeting amazing individuals who also yearn for intentional, purpose-filled living. Some do this by walking away from a predictable, sure-thing job that has merely filled the day when what they’ve dreamt of has been kept at bay, year after year. Now is the time, they’ve finally said. Not later. Others have shared visions of creating social change, being the one to make a difference in poverty, educating others about the horrors of sex trading, and other social injustices. They’ve begged the question: If not me, then who will make a change? While others have come into my world, stunned and blinded by grief. As the veil of grief lifts, they are changed, needing to reach out to others and assist in their suffering.

Life has vastly changed for me over the past several years, sometimes leaving me to hold my head in my hands, other times causing me to dance in celebration. I yearn to give others a voice who have risked it all for the sake of purposeful living.

As a result, I’ve invited several people to share on my blog—those who left the familiar, the comfortable, the empty, in search of intentional living: A musician who works with women and children escaping sex trade; a surf-writer who started a radio show that is not only entertaining, but features segments that highlight dangerous issues in the surf community; a writer whose father-daughter relationship was cut short when he suddenly died at age fifty; a professional surfer who has a passion for healthy living, family, and most recently won the Big Wave Tournament, Mavericks in Half Moon Bay.

Through our interviews, you will get a peek journey they made to achieve their dreams. I hope that these interviews are encouraging and challenging, offering hope to those who live in fear that change is impossible. As always, you, the reader, have a story to share as well. I welcome it here, knowing that as you tell your truth, others will be touched and moved to make a change.

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A conversation with my 65-year-old self…

My lovely writer friend, Terri Giuliano Long, invited me to take part in a fascinating blog post: Envision myself twenty years from now (65), with full knowledge of all that has happened between now and then—achievements, trials, and the wisdom gained along the way, and develop a conversation in which my 65-year-old self talks to current day Susan.

Timely? Absolutely. I’m hinging on some of the biggest changes of my life, and if ever I needed encouragement and hope for the future, it is now. Click the link below, and see for yourself.

More importantly, do this exercise! Take the time to see where you are…where you are headed…what bubbles up. You might surprise yourself!

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Celebrating Bloggers 2013 – Parenting Myself

Over the past couple of years on my blog I’ve presented a number of author interviews, delved into personal growth issues, allowed my readers to companion me on various grief journeys (my most recent being my father’s death), and, in a confessional manner, put my parenting life on display through stories and metaphors. It’s been a therapeutic, rewarding, and fun way to connect with readers, writers, and an audience of individuals who seek to find common ground while reading and having their morning coffee or an evening glass of wine (sipping), while responding (sharing) how my words touch their hearts.

As life turned a metaphorical and tangible corner this year as my final parent died, coupled with some major life changes in my family, as well as the rapid approach of my oldest child turning eighteen, I find myself in a position of needing a different form of parenting. None of us is above the need for a word of encouragement, sound advice, or tender words of, “You are loved.” But, what to do when those parents either never existed because of their emotional limitations, they have died, or a combination of both?

The concept of “mothering” oneself is not new to me. It’s a term tossed about in therapy, probably a bit cliché and “new-agey”, leaving die hard psychotherapists ranting about pop psychology. And yet, Freud and his psychoanalytic counterparts were clear: if we don’t fix old patterns, we are doomed to repeat them (the repetition compulsion).

As I recently sat alone in my home—the quiet so deafening that the buzzing in my ears caused me to worry about the whole “ear bud” safety for iPods and hands free driving—then later went to bed alone, only to wake up alone, I had some choices in dealing with my aloneness. I could:

(A) Drown out my sorrows with incessant noise (music, TV, other voices).
(B) Self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs.
(C) Invite someone over.
(D) Be alone…and let myself sit with the feelings.

Choosing (D) required a strong measure of self-parenting; the still, strong voice not of my mother or father, but of the mother I’d developed and wished I’d been parented. The voice of reason who says, “It is okay to feel exactly what you are feeling, and while these feelings are strong, they will not kill you.”

The more still and silent I became, the more my body began to talk with me, and as a result, I craved more silence. I ate when I was hungry. I slept when I was tired. I drank when I was thirsty. I went outside when I sensed that being indoors too much was stifling. I turned on some comedy when too many tears gave me a headache. And then the noise of the TV hurt, so I turned it off, and enjoyed the silence again.

In essence, I was becoming attuned to myself. This is what we strive to do to our children: help them become attuned. To listen, and respond. I fear that too often, we tell our children what they feel, what they think, and how they should respond. As adults, we plow through our days, driving, carpooling, working, cleaning, writing, paying taxes, cooking, with little mindfulness, shutting out our attunement. All of these activities are incredibly meaningful activities, and yet, without a sense of attunement, they are mere distractions; things to get out of the way so that we can collapse into a chair, stare at the TV, and numb ourselves.

Perhaps this is why yoga, meditation, and retreats have grown in popularity. We are screaming out for silence, so we pay for it, and then we feel that it’s okay…justified…we are taking a class, and so, therefore, it is productive silence.
What if we were to turn the thought process around? What if we were to ask ourselves each day, with the voice of a loving mother or father, “What do I need on this day?” and then await an answer, silently, with great anticipation. Mothering or fathering ourselves could be a compassionate gesture by which we stop the treadmill of the ordinary, learning to make the simple things in life extraordinary.


Connect with Susan…
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Out of Breath is available on…
Kindle | Nook | iPad | goodreads | Sony Reader

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Happy 2013! I will not be writing about my goals, resolutions, or asking you about yours in this first post of the year. Not because I don’t think that this isn’t a worthy idea, but because I’ve already been a guest on someone else’s blog answering such questions. Let’s face it: someone beat me to the punch, and that’s okay.

What I would like to do is break down the word new. Let’s explore what my computer gave me when I asked, “Give me something different for the word, ‘new’”.

  • novel
  • innovative
  • original
  • fresh
  • contemporary
  • pristine

I swear to you, without any pre-conceived thought, I plucked these six words from a list of at least twenty, and believe my sub-conscious mind is talking to me. If I had to place these words in a sentence, here’s what I think my sub-conscious is saying, “Susan, you need a novel that is innovative, original, fresh, contemporary, and pristine.”


You know what I really wanted to write about on this blog post, but chose against it, fearing it was too gloomy for a, Happy New Year!! post? I wanted to blog about my father’s death, how the stew of my childhood has been churned up, resulting in a bubbling over of midnight tears, awakened memories, resulting in new connected dots. I wanted to confess to you, my friends and readers, that I’ve been in the biggest writer’s slump of my life (well, to be fair, I’ve only been a writer for five years, but, you know, this is big for me), and that this death has given birth to an effortless stream of creativity.

With that, I’m taking a risk, and offering what I wanted to do: a chapter from what will probably be in my next novel. I pray that it is innovative. I know it’s original. Yes, it’s fresh. Contemporary, in that it takes place between the ’70s and now. As for pristine, well…you’ll be the judge. Enjoy…oh, and Happy New Year.


At what age are we able to see our parents as multi-dimensional people? Complete with faults, frailties, fears, poor judgment, anxieties, a history layered with unfulfilled dreams, passion, secrets, tears, joy, and everything smudgy that builds a life.

At five-years-old, my father was one giant ball of relief for me. At  5:00 pm, I would sit on our red shag-carpet, my eyes shifting back-and-forth between our cuckoo-clock and the Brady Bunch on TV, and my stomach flipping with excitement as I waited to hear my Daddy’s key fit into the front door lock.

As soon as he did, I would bolt from the floor, rush at him as though I’d not seen him for a month (perhaps a piece of me knew that every night could be the last…at least for a while), and spring into his arms, waiting for the ritualistic words I would hear every night—every night until he was gone—”How’s Daddy’s sweetheart, baby girl?” I’d breathe in the perfect mixture of pipe tobacco smoke, Aqua Velvet aftershave, and everything else masculine in my little mind. I don’t remember answering him, only being swayed back and forth, safe because Daddy was home.

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Thelma and Louise meet Velma and Mildred

My dear friend/writing partner and I hopped in my car for a four-day get-away to write, relax, stroll on the beach, and escape the day-to-day “stuff” that can suck out our creativity. We’d done a few of these trips before, and never written one page. This time we made a promise to ourselves, and I publicly declared, that we would return with pages in hand (or at least on our laptops).

And we did! But, what we also did was sleep. And take naps. And read. And eat. And go back to sleep. And eat some more. And watch movies. At one point during the trip, I gazed up from my novel with a sort of “third eye” to look at these two little old ladies hunkered down on the couch, cozied up with their cups of tea and afghans, one asking the other if the room was too cold, or should we turn on the pellet stove, and thought, “Good, Lord, when did we get so old?!”

It was comical: the first night we went down to the beach, but turned around because the fog was too dense! We watched a movie at 7:30 and were asleep by 10:00, waking at 8:30 the next morning. We calculated that in four days and three nights, we slept approximately 33 hours.

I am not going to publicly disclose our past “Thelma and Louise” days, but both of us recall moments of sleeping a total of 33 hours in a week...or fewer!

But, this is what raising teenagers does to a person. I truly feel that our life force is constantly being sucked out of us with a high-powered vacuum, then power-washed with a hose. Part of this exhaustion is from them pulling away, another from their need to be infinitely right. And yet, they need reality checks from us along the way. Combined with this is our psyches being triggered with our own  recollections of our teen years. Was I like this? Did I react this way? I couldn’t possibly have talked this way to my parents? And the worrying…don’t get me started. Upon asking for a later curfew, and my responding, “I’ll consider it…but I’ll never stop worrying,” I loved how my teen told me with such calm authority, “Well, you’re going to have to stop worrying.” You’re right. How silly of me. I’ll go look for that button on my back, and turn off my worry switch…

One of my favorite authors is Anne Lamott, who recently co-wrote a book with her son, Sam, Some Assembly Required. I love the blatant transparency with which she writes; it’s confessional. No pretention. She knows that she’s a wee bit controlling, worries, ruminates, and has to be reminded that if she could just pray and let go, she’d be less exhausted. I think I should probably commit most of her book to memory.

I do know this: laughing at ourselves, stepping away from the “insanity” of the hamster wheel of laundry, errands, cooking, “Pick up your room!”, and a million little “shoulds”, refreshed my soul like a drink of water in the desert.

Maybe we didn’t have the wild ride that Thelma and Louise had…those days are behind us. We’re settling in to a different stage in life. I’m sure we are fun and much nicer when we aren’t so exhausted. Then again, we wouldn’t want our lives to quite play out like those two women…we got to be refreshed AND come home…Thelma and Louise didn’t.



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Remember your first…

Tomorrow is a huge day for me and many parents whom I’m acquainted: our babies are starting high school. This is big. Colossal. Somehow, we could delay the fact that “we” are growing older, remain in some sort of denial, because, well…one of ours was still in grammar or middle school. Not anymore.

My daughter had her “final” sleep over of the summer last night. The air was filled with a mixture of laughter and grief…like a summer beach day, heavy with fog, leaving them longing for more.

Just moments ago, the mother of the other girl came by to pick up her daughter to do last-minute things. We began our trip down memory lane of our first days: the jitters, the excitement, wanting to just get it over with.

My first day at Marello Prep high school is starting to feel a little fuzzy around the edges, although there are a few images burned into my memory that still bring flutters of excitement. If I’d had a cell phone back then, I would have texted my best friend, who went to a different school, something to the effect of: foxy junior just smiled at me-OMG. But, we lived in an era of having to wait hours to report back to our friends, calling on land lines, twisting long phone cords around our fingers, whilst sprawled across our beds, staring up at posters of Lief Garret, Adam Ant, and any other version of our generation’s Justin Bieber.

Our “firsts” shape us, fashioning a heart that is trusting, forgiving, and open, or one that is cautious, guarded, and hesitant. First days, dances, loves, jobs, break-ups. Think back to how all of these “firsts” affected you and may have changed you to re-route the course in your life. I wonder, as I look through her eyes that have yet to experience so many of these firsts, how she will come to see the world, experience it, learn, love…I want to protect her, and yet, this is her first step of many into waving good-bye. Like the day she handed me her pink blankie, and pulled her thumb out of her mouth long enough to say, “Bye-bye, Momma,” when I dropped her off at pre-school, our children have been preparing to launch themselves every day. It’s we, their parents, who struggle to let go.

I’m also embarking on some firsts. This will be the first time that I don’t drive my daughter to and from school. I’m passing the baton to my son. I give up time with her, the chatter, the “How was your day,” but I gain a couple of hours of writing time. It’s my first time saying, “My children are in high school.” (Oh…that sounds old.) I’m practicing saying this with pride!

It’s also the first time that I can declare myself a “successful writer”. Why now? I’m not sure. I had a magic number in my head: 10,000 books sold. Where did it come from? I’m sure I picked it up at a conference or an article I read in Writer’s Digest. Maybe I invented it. When I wrote Out of Breath, I didn’t know if even 1 person, other than my writing partner, would buy the book. Then, I hoped for 100. 100 turned into 500. 500 to 1,000. You get the picture… So, now I have to set a new goal :) Why not 100,000! I’m learning that anything is possible.

By this time next year, I look forward to saying that it’s the first time that I’ve had two books published. It’s a stretch, but that’s what firsts are all about: looking at something new, often scary, and definitely wonderful, then doing it with your very best.

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The End- Bidding Farewell to Our Days at Montessori

Our keyboard is getting pelted with lots of tear drops lately. My daughter has been preparing her graduation speech for 8th grade. The theme: friendship. I read over it last night, in awe of what she pulled from inside. Later, I shed tears.

It hadn’t hit me that we were rapidly approaching the end of our time at this precious, protected time in life. I’d been busy with my ten days of crazy, birthday parties, Memorial Day “stuff”, another book signing, and working on my second novel. I pulled up to the school to drop her off one morning, when it dawned on me that I’d only be doing this for roughly three more weeks and then it would be over. The End. Period.

I cried all the way home–blubbering, hiccuping, temple-pounding, crying. I needed it, because I hadn’t been in the moment for a while. I’d been zooming from one activity to the next, with little reflection about what it all meant; uncharacteristic of me, really.

When we transitioned into Montessori back when my oldest was in fourth and my youngest was in second, our children felt adrift…quite frankly, we all did. It was as though we were in a giant ocean without a life vest. We’d envisioned schooling them in an alternative school and those dreams weren’t working. Then, Montessori threw us  a life-preserver and got us out of troubled waters. It took a couple of years for the waters to settle, but our children thrived and so did we as a family, making life-long friendships.

But, we are losing something as we move forward. We are losing the closeness of a campus that houses ~350 children. If I don’t know what’s going on with my child, someone does! We’ll miss the tight bonds between teacher-parent-child. In my son’s high school, I’ve met a couple of the teachers, but most are anonymous…it’s simply not realistic in a giant school. The amazing, adventurous field trips that require no sleep, yet 25 hour days, fill our photo albums and the hearts of our children and family.

Most of all, I know that this is symbolic of letting go of an innocent, wonder-filled time. I know if we peek into our hearts, there were times where, as young parents, we may have whispered (or screamed!), “Oh God, when are these kids going to grow up? I just need a minute to myself?” Now the minutes have become hours, the hours are growing  into full length days, and soon the days will become a few days as we let them go on trips with friends, and then poof, they are off to college. Where did the time go? I don’t know about you, but I feel as though the toddler years moved by as slow as molasses and these years are flying by like wind roaring through the Delta.

I’m in a tug of war of celebrating and mourning. Letting go and holding on. I wish I had parents to talk to about this dilemma. I call upon elders whom I respect, and they lament about their own push-pull experiences. I recall a story by one of my treasured friends who has raised two sons and a daughter, each one of them turning out as lovely as the next, respectful, kind, married to spouses whom they love. As his children grew, knowing how close-knit they were, I asked, “Doesn’t it kill you to imagine them moving out?” He got wide-eyed, and then chuckled. He clasped my shoulder with his hand and looked over at my son, who was then at the tender age of five, and my daughter, a delightful two, sucking her thumb, and said, “Oh no…I can’t wait. That’s what the teen years are for. They get you ready. Just wait. You’ll be helping him pack his bags.”

I looked over at my son, who looked up at me that toddler sparkle, and I cried. I thought, ‘Never!’

Here’s the thing…even on my darkest days, I still feel that way about both of my kids…’Never!’ Maybe I’m more Italian than I think!! I know my work over the next few years is to learn to let go so that they can let go. Maybe I’ll be that writer who cranks out a book a year to save my sanity. Getting lost in my characters is very cheap therapy and it does keep me company.

However, I began this day by posting a quote on Facebook from one of my favorite author’s, Elizabeth Berg. It’s from her novel, Home Safe. It’s about an author whose husband recently died and she’s in a dry spell with writing. She’s in conflict with her only child and is teaching a writing class, and through it, begins to heal. I love this novel for a variety of reasons, but mostly, because I feel that Elizabeth Berg speaks my language…she thinks my thoughts. As I end this post and reflect upon ending this time at Montessori and begin the letting go, I leave you with a quote from Elizabeth Berg’s book. It captures so much of who I am, what I think about community, how we need one another. For who are we, if we are not in community?

“And now a thought comes to her, a thunking kind of realization: that she is the kind of person who must do things for or on behalf of another. For her, the taste of the ice cream, the red of the sunset, the humor in the movie must be shared to be.”

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