On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my mother and I walked among the violet bunches of prickly pear cactus at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Arizona. As we wandered, the desert landscape shifted from a forest of fragrant eucalyptus trees to towering saguaro cacti reaching ever skyward to rust-colored mountains I remember whizzing by on the Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland.
My mom, Jan, took my hand and said to me, “Jillian, see how the plants turn toward the light? They know what they need to survive.” I looked to her, my light.
The week I spent in Arizona with my mother, sister and grandfather was the most peaceful one I’ve had in six months. It started with the days I spent in Sedona alone with my mother; that’s where calm first trickled down my spine, like an ice cube slowly melting from my crown. I went walking at sunrise, watching the famous buttes come alive, feeling the crunch of frostbitten leaves underfoot. I experienced a tarot card reading, and turned smooth crystals over in my palms, and went into a deep state of meditation at a yoga nidra class that left my body suspended in a sweet state of pause. We hiked the red earth of Sedona’s energy vortexes, had long conversations, and watched deer saunter by.
I’ve lived as a raw, exposed nerve for a long time, sensitive to any breeze of hurt that comes my way. It’s a highly vulnerable, deeply uncomfortable state of existence, but one I’ve found I have minimal control over, no matter how hard I’ve worked to escape the expanding chasm of my emotions. (Of course, the key is to stop trying to escape. Easier said than done.) In fact, often the harder I worked and the more I demanded from myself, the more I suffered. I discovered how very much I have yet to learn.
Without the shield of a telephone call buffered by forced composure, my mom saw my pain instantly; she embraced me with strength, and let me talk, and dried my tears, and slept beside me, and enveloped me with limitless love. She is the only person in this world to whom I matter most; I never take that for granted. Her hand on mine was a promise—I am going to be okay.
We drove away from Sedona to pick up my younger sister, Jessica, and head to Florence, a sleepy town filled with older folks, where my Grandpa Chuck lives. (I interviewed him about his normal, miraculous life a few months ago.) We ate cereal together while he took his pills and told me about his days in the fire department, and watched all of The Irishman in one sitting, and ate endless dishes of spaghetti and chili and cornbread cooked by my mom. Those meals were like medicine. In the pleasant evenings, I’d head out on long walks to watch the sunset and see families of quail run by in terror. The woman who gave me a tarot reading in Sedona told me to “remove the rocks sitting on your head.” I raised my arms and did so.
Within two days of allowing myself to crawl into the fetal position and surrender to my mother’s presence, to curl up with her soft skin and familiar scent, I felt like myself again. As the days ticked on, and my emotional sea level remained, my hope it would stay grew. It has. In the most primal way, I needed my mother.
#CruelSummerBookClub reading list
Thank you for your reading recommendations on hardship and healing. I look forward to reading many of these books (and re-reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire…for the sixth time). Here’s a list of your picks:
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
It’s OK That You’re Not OK by Megan Devine
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
True Refuge by Tara Brach
The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams
What Remains by Carole Radziwill
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
To listen to: The "What Happened To You?" series on the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking
To attend: The Dinner Party
I’m also reading
Over at the Two Bossy Dames newsletter, Margaret H. Willison shares the breakup songs that have meant the most to her over the years. I am in awe of her reflective writing, just weeks after her breakup. Is this what a strong sense of self looks like?
Edith Zimmerman on Pema Chödrön’s books and heartbreak in The Cut. I’ve written about discovering Chödrön’s worldview and psychologist Guy Winch’s thoughts on heartbreak as addiction here before—Zimmerman’s articles are great reminders of healing helpers I already know.
Making a place at the table for grief on Thanksgiving by Saeed Jones at Buzzfeed
Why “Maps” is the best song of the decade and why it was the sound of New York by Helena Fitzgerald at her ever-wonderful newsletter, Griefbacon
What happened when I took a year off from having a personal life by Rainesford Stauffer in The Cut
A family isn’t a number by Laura Zigman in the New York Times
This Twitter thread from Rachel Syme on beating Winter Sunday Bummers
The replies on this Twitter thread that prove love still exists:
Support I got that you might need to hear
Moyagabo Maake@momaake1@ava how do you deal with heartbreak? #AskAva
Questionable self-care advice
This cheered me up
Dancing with my 87-year-old Grandpa Chuck:
Anthem of the week
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