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Post-FemRhet FreeWrite Day 13: ancestry, family, stories

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So, I wrote consistently for 6 days and then took 6 days away from this writing habit. And I had no idea that so many days went by! Time is a weird thing.

My writing actually has a focus tonight. This is the second month that I’ve been involved in a program called Soul Matters. Last month, the theme was “Letting Go,” and it was exactly what I needed to hear. I actually think I need to hear the “Letting Go” message over and over, in all kinds of different ways. It’s been difficult to “let go” of the “letting go” message. Hahahaha.

This month, the theme is heritage: “What Does It Mean to Be a People of Ancestry?” The packet discusses the ways “ancestors bless and burden us with a legacy” and the way each of us is not alone but instead “our hands are connected.” That means that our choices and individual stories are part of something much larger; our choices and our stories matter.

The idea in this program is that each person does something to put the theme into practice, and we also each think about a question connected to the theme, and then we gather and talk about the practice and the question in a kind of shared reflection.

So. I’m looking at the options for practice and none of them completely excites me. But I’m going to stretch one of the exercises to do what I’d like with it. I’m going to write about the stories my family tells.


Janet, Diane, and I were gathered on the bed. I had on my footy pajamas, and it was warm, and my dad sat on the bed and said our prayers with us. He always ended with, “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” no matter how many times we told him it was supposed to be “Holy Spirit.”

And then, we begged.

Please, please, please. Tell us about when you were a bad little boy. Please!

He couldn’t resist. He never could. Most of the stories have faded for me even though I knew them so well back in the day.

Except the one that ended with my dad, the bad little boy, misbehaving and falling into the ocean. He was rescued, of course, by my mom, who had been a mermaid.

We knew it wasn’t true. But I could picture it. My mom could definitely have been a mermaid, and she definitely could’ve saved my dad, and he definitely could’ve been a bad little boy who needed to be rescued.


Janet and I would be in bed, and Stephen would come to say good night to us. But we would beg and beg:

Please tell us stories! Please, please, please please please!

And he would.

Stephen would tell us stories of the school in Billerica with the twins who would sometimes switch places and fool their teachers. The long grass in the playground where the kids would hide when they didn’t want to go in for recess.

Stephen would tell us stories of the tree house he and Michael made. Stories of forts and adventures in the rocks of O’Garden Beach. Stories of Janet getting lost in the upstairs when they first moved into the house in Reading where we lived.

Sometimes Michael would join us and add to the stories.

And sometimes our mom would come up to see why we weren’t asleep yet, and Stephen and Michael would hide so they wouldn’t get in trouble for keeping us up.


Carole tells stories of each of us. They tend to be funny stories because we are all ridiculous. The time she came home and thought the house was empty, except the music was blaring. Eventually, she found Michael, sitting out on the roof overlooking the lawn while lip-syncing to the pretend crowd in the yard below.

I used to watch Carole get ready for high school every morning. I was small, and I would wake up when she was in the shower. I would leave my bed and slip into hers, and I would talk and talk while she did her make-up and dried her hair. I told her I wanted to be a sandwich-board advertiser when I grew up. We still laugh about it. I had been reading Homer Price. I was young. What can I say?


I tell my kids stories of my childhood. The time my family was on vacation and I didn’t want to go to the Flumes in New Hampshire, so I kicked my dad and he spanked me. Then Diane climbed a rock and refused to come down.

I regretted telling my kids those stories. We took them to the Flumes, and they were terrible. There was no kicking and no spanking, but there was some form of conflict that was no fun that I have since blocked out.

I’ve been better about telling my kids some good stories. The way my mom impressed me when she refused to go to a Sambo’s Restaurant because it was a racist name. The way we always expected my dad to freak out but he didn’t when it really mattered; when one of us was in trouble and needed our parents, they were there.

I don’t know if my kids appreciate me and their dad more because of these stories, but I like the way the stories help me appreciate my parents.


Stories. The idea that each of our stories is intimately attached to so many other stories. The stories that we most often tell are the funny ones or the dramatic ones. But the stories of our families are much bigger, and to some degree we might not share them explicitly but instead they provide a backdrop to our behaviors.

I guess what I’m thinking about is the ways stories are not just a means of understanding who we are; they can also be ways that we hold ourselves back. Maybe some of the stories we tell of ourselves and our families keep us from telling a new story, keep us from shifting the narrative.

That’s where this month’s practice is leading me.

What are the stories I tell of my family? To what degree are these stories healthy, and to what degree are these stories unhealthy?



Post-FemRhet FreeWrite Day 6: perhaps a poem again

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I’m not sure what I want to write today, but poems always seem good when I’m writing randomly in journals, so let’s go with that.

For the record, it’s way scarier writing anything publicly here on this blog than to write in a journal. But labeling this a “free write” helps. Freewrites aren’t supposed to be good! they’re just supposed to be free. I haven’t even linked to any of these posts from my Twitter or Facebook pages. If you’re here reading, then it’s by some random miracle.

Tracks across the page

lines laid out

these metal rails


ready for rumbling

strong enough to take the full-speed bursting weight of the train

to feel the dime crushed and spit to the dirt

Guiding the coal, the passengers, the cattle

to their final destinations

with a sureness

that reassures

and irritates me.

That poem started with me thinking about the ways letters are just these mini-pictures that we’ve attributed meaning to—they can look like hen scratches across the page. Somehow scratches turned into tracks, and next thing I knew, I was picturing train tracks.

Then I remembered a time when I was taking two kids I babysat someplace on a train. I cannot remember where, though I know we did go to a Patriots game in the same time period. Is there a train that goes to Foxboro? I have no idea.

Anyhow, the boys asked for coins so they could put them into the track and watch them get smushed by the train. Some guy yelled at me for letting them do that. He said people could get hurt if the coin went flying out. Maybe he was right, but he honestly just seemed incredibly grumpy at the time. I told the kids to throw the coins at the old man instead of putting them in the train rails.

No! I didn’t do that. Can you imagine? That would make for an interesting story, though, wouldn’t it?

As I kept writing, I would reread and think about the train and the rails and writing. I started using punctuation but I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. I did leave in a capital letter to signal (ha! train pun!) a switch (ha! I think that has something to do with trains, too?) in direction. Well, actually the point of the poem is that there is a lack of a change in direction.

Writing that is too sure of itself feels good but it also feels wrong. Like a romantic comedy or an episode of Law and Order—when things just go the way they’re meant to in the course of an hour or two, and you feel all good because of the closure, but you also know that it’s completely contrived and not at all applicable to real life for more than a half second.

Full disclosure: At some point the train-and-rail description also seemed sexual. I’ll let you decide where. Or maybe all writing is always sexual. That seems at least possible and perhaps likely.

I’m going to end on that fun note. And I’m going to add a picture of railroad tracks.



Post-FemRhet FreeWrite Day 5: Obsessed with The Walking Dead

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I haven’t been in the mood to free write today, which is the opposite of the last couple days. But I’m gonna do it anyhow!

This has been one of my most relaxing weekends in ages, and I still did a good bit of work. But I also spent a good amount of time watching episodes from Season 3 of The Walking Dead.

My son Jace and I started watching TV together when we somehow discovered that we both enjoyed Downton Abbey. Since then, we’ve watched Brooklyn 99 off and on, several episodes of Modern Family, The Newsroom, and a couple seasons of Sherlock. We were going to watch The Sopranos together, but once we started I realized: Too much violence. Too much sex.

And then, during one of Jace’s baseball games, I heard a family talking about The Walking Dead. A new season was starting, and they were all excited—the mom, the 20-something, the grandma, the little boy who likes to make tents out of umbrellas and blankets during the baseball games. They all were huge fans. Huh, I thought. Jace and I should check this show out.

It was too gory for me from the very first episode. Once in real life I saw entrails in my yard, and it was probably the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen. My stomach is turning again just thinking about it.

The show continues to be gory. And there are jump-scares on a regular basis. But I’m hooked anyhow. Because it is so ridiculously on my mind, I’m going to free write about The Walking Dead.

Keep in mind that I’m still on Season Three. My observations may be off!

Some things I like about The Walking Dead

  1. Most of the characters are beautiful. Yeah, I have a shallow side.
  2. It makes me think about the degree that I prioritize my family over others, especially strangers. Sure, I don’t do it in a post-apocalyptic way, but I do make sure my kids have what they need and want rather than give them less to give more to charity. But the characters drive me crazy when they are insular and do not welcome others. I hope I’m not as bad as they are, but it’s tough to even fathom when I’m inside a particular culture.
  3. It makes me think about gender roles. Mostly the gender roles are not questioned by the characters, and that irritates me to no end, but even when the characters are oblivious, I get a chance to think.
  4. Regularly when I’m driving, I find myself imagining walkers on the street and sudden changes to my landscape. Is it weird that I like that? It’s some kind of exercising of my imagination. Or maybe I’m crazy….
  5. I find myself growing attached to certain characters, and I like seeing them grow and develop. Jace makes that dynamic better—he has very strong likes and dislikes.
  6. Rick’s voice. It is so fun to imitate. I’m just waiting for him to say, “I’m Batman.”
  7. The way it becomes difficult to discern the good guys from the bad guys.


Some difficulties with suspending disbelief while watching The Walking Dead

  1. Most of the characters are beautiful.
  2. And all that make-up, even from Season One when things were very unsettled and make-up just could not possibly have been available never mind a priority.
  3. In Season One, Rick and company figure out that they should smell like walkers in order to avoid attracting walkers. And they never use that strategy again. (Although Michonne uses a similar strategy and others adopt it.)
  4. Everyone just allows Rick to be boss. No one ever pushes for discussion and a vote.
  5. Walkers are loud. Except when the plot requires them to be quiet.
  6. Walkers are slow. Except when the plot requires them to be fast.
  7. Walkers are powerful when they are all together pushing against a wall or glass or anything. Except when the plot requires them to not be quite strong enough to be a real threat.
  8. Geography. Woodbury, the jail, and Rick’s hometown are all in close proximity, and they’re not even that far from Hershel’s farm. And helicopters can fly over the whole scene. But sometimes it seems that they are in areas very far from anything at all familiar. Except when suddenly they’re not.
  9. Why don’t they go live with Morgan and help him clear the zombies? His set-up is way more secure than the prison….
  10. If I were in this particular post-apocalyptic world, here’s what I’d do. I’d organize an offensive strike against the walkers. They’re not smart! They’re all instinct. They are attracted to noise and light and the smell of blood or flesh. The former two can be achieved remotely with flash bangs and that sort of thing. So: attract them! To a pit or a stadium or some kind of closed area. Then use grenades and explode them all. More walkers would likely be attracted to the explosions, so simply rinse and repeat. Even if it took awhile to figure out and deploy a strategy, I’d do such things in small ways with decoys and so forth.

Jace says my solutions will never be deployed because the show would never make it to Season Six.


Some ways I cope with the stuff that’s tough to watch

  1. Place hand in front of the screen
  2. Look away! look away!
  3. Talk about boring details. Do we need more cereal? What time is soccer practice?
  4. Analyze how the music is contributing to my tension
  5. Analyze how tight framing is used to make us anticipate something coming in for attack from outside the framing
  6. Guess who’s going to be killed
  7. Guess where the walker grab is going to come from
  8. Think about the makeup process, the costume process, the process of making things that are not entrails look like entrails (they’re not actual entrails, are they? I sometimes wonder about this stuff because of reading that Anne Rice vampire novel that included actual vampires on stage sucking blood out of an actual victim….Maybe we believe it’s entertainment when it’s actually some sadistic folks putting actual entrails on screen….This line of thought is not helping me cope! Except inasmuch as it seems crazy!)
  9. Repeat to Jace as fast as I can, “Don’t look don’t look don’t look don’t look Aaaaah! don’t look!”
  10. Talk about the tension
  11. Enjoy the jump scares.
  12. Sometimes jump for no reason at all.


Post-FemRhet FreeWrite Day 4: Contemplating death

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It’s Saturday, and I just finished Meg Wolitzer’s novel Sleepwalking. At some point while reading, I felt compelled to write about death. I fought off the urge for awhile in order to finish the book, take a shower, and take my son to pick up a pizza for lunch.

But now I’m here, ready to think and write.

I guess when I think about death at all, five memories / ideas surface. Weird! As soon as I wrote that, I started thinking that all of my separate ideas fit into a single sentence. They all add up to a developing belief that

death is not a punishment.

  1. Many years ago, people at my church discussed capital punishment. And one woman said the only new argument I had heard about capital punishment since I had first heard it debated way back in eighth grade. Her name was Faith Boettger (perfect that her name is Faith!), and she said,

    My problem with capital punishment is that it treats death as a punishment.

    Whoa. That simple statement is incredibly profound. Death does seem like a punishment so often in our culture. But is it a punishment? Maybe not. Maybe not.

  2. That feeling that our conception of death as the ultimate worst thing has developed as I’ve read book after book after book. And a bit as I’ve watched The Walking Dead!

    I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and I could not relate to the narrator’s insistence on living at all costs. I guess that was not the point of the book, but as others exclaimed over the narrator’s indomitable spirit in the face of tragedy, I kept thinking, Enough is enough.

    I read Cold Mountain, and the end of the book made me think, It’s better to die than to survive at all costs. Some costs are simply not worth it.

    That’s also my takeaway from The Walking Dead. I’m in the middle of Season 3. Maybe my mind will eventually change.

    I don’t fault anyone for wanting to survive at all costs, and it’s even possible that I’d adopt that view if ever put in a life-or-death situation. But when it’s all from a distance, I can’t help but think that in some extreme situations, dying may be preferable than the alternative.

  3. I was only present for the passing of one person, my husband’s grandmother, Gertrude Hockenberry.

    We were in the hospital room with her. Callie and Jace were young; they bickered by the wall across from the foot of the bed. I was checking to see if Gram Hockenberry needed moisture from the cup of water with the spongey swab. She gave a final big breath. Scot knew she was gone. I didn’t—Scot had to tell me. Scot and I turned into each other, held each other. Callie and Jace continued to bicker.

    Gram Hockenberry had let herself go while we were there with her. Her son had visited the night before. Her daughter had stayed with her almost non-stop but had left that morning to go home and take a shower. I don’t know if Gram was protecting her children by leaving when she did. I just know that I felt like I had been given a gift, a privilege. She made death less scary for me. That’s no small thing.

  4. I don’t know the exact moment when I felt like I had filled my major purposes in life, and I don’t know if that sense will change at some point. But, for now, I feel like every day is icing.

    That’s a cool way to feel. It makes me grateful for all this extra time I’m given, and it frees me to do whatever I feel called to do.

    For many years, life was about moving forward. I entered a career field, married a good person, had two children, and helped raise Callie and Jace to the point that I think they’ll be okay whether I’m around or not. Every other thing is a bonus. I feel incredibly blessed for all these extra days. I want to do good and be happy.

  5. Twice I’ve developed a stronger appreciation for life because of medical issues. In both cases, my appreciation translated into prioritizing relationships in a way that I may not have been able to imagine without having gone through it.

    The first time, I was in fourth grade, ten years old. I was in a bicycle accident and broke my jaw in several places, and I spent a week in the hospital. When I returned home, I had no heart for arguing with my sister Janet, even though arguing had characterized our relationship up to that point. I remember it clearly: the sense of peace that made me see Janet and my life differently than I ever had before.

    The second time, I was thirty-three or thirty-four, and it was spring of 2003. I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ—breast cancer, at an early stage. One of my sisters (a different one—not Janet!) didn’t call me because there had been a lot of conflict in our family and she was likely angry with me because I was angry with her. I say “likely angry” because we have never talked about why she didn’t call me.

    But I called her. I told her that we didn’t have to talk about anything real, but we did have to talk. That was what we agreed to.

    The diagnosis was the reason I called her. I wasn’t near death, but as I went to test after test, and as I met with my doctor after each test, and as he said, It’s probably nothing, but we’re going to do this next step to be certain, and as each test led to the next test and as it all eventually led to surgery and radiation and so forth…

    Death became a distant presence that helped me know in my bones what mattered and what didn’t.

Do you see where all this leads me? to the idea that death is not a punishment. Death may, in fact, be a gift. And part of the gift is not a denial of life but instead an embracing of life, an acceptance of death.

Note: I am fully aware that all of my thinking here may change at any moment, especially when face-to-face with the deaths of those I’m not ready to let go, especially when face-to-face with my own passing. If you’re reading from such a situation and my thinking seems naive or offensive, my apologies. I am likely simplifying what is not simple at all, ever. If writing out your own thoughts and reactions helps, however, I’d love to hear.

Post-FemRhet FreeWrite Day 3: Grateful

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I felt stressed most of the day today, or maybe exhausted—not good, at any rate. And my instinct all day was to write. I love that it took only 2 days of allowing a pouring-onto-the-page for me to want more.

I haven’t yet told my writing classes that I started writing more. I wonder what they’ll think. It’s funny that I began prioritizing informal journal writing for them, but I am regularly the one who benefits.

So. Thus far I am writing about writing. I partly think all writing is about writing. But there’s more, yes?

It’s November, a month of Thanksgiving, and right now I’m thinking about friends. I have a crazy amount of people whom I’m crazy about. I apparently like the word “crazy” more than is completely normal. Anywho.

I don’t think I knew when I was young how many amazing people would end up coming into my life over the years. I couldn’t even imagine it, actually.

Here’s a secret. I’ve felt especially surrounded by a whole team of people since August—an unofficial team of people with a variety of gifts, people who have worked together, people whom I’ve turned to during this roller coaster of a semester. I’ve been thinking that maybe I should get them all a mug to let them know that they were there for me, and, more importantly, they were there for others…they were there supporting ideas and values bigger than any one of us.

But every time I think about this “team,” its borders shift and swerve. The people who have been there for me have been unbelievable. It’s been my book group friends and my neighbors, former students, colleagues, current students, people in my church, people on campus I hardly know who have come up to me and quietly asked, “Are you Laurie McMillan?” And when I say, “Yes,” they tell me they’re grateful for what I’ve done.

Of course, what I’ve done hasn’t been enough. I helped work for change on my campus, along with many many others, and the faculty held a vote of no confidence, and the leaders did not resign, and the Board did not force resignations.

It’s been difficult. It’s been painful. It’s been an experience in stepping up and standing up but not ultimately having power to effect needed change.

And I’m stopping now, abruptly. Stopping writing, that is! My daughter texted with a request to pick up her and her friends. She’s months away from getting her license. I don’t mind stopping writing for her at all.

PS There have been a number of people who have been an integral part of the efforts these past few months; they know who they are. I’m grateful for each of them, more than I can say.


Post-FemRhet FreeWrite Day 2: Chance encounter

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I feel less tension about my writing today. Probably because I’m super sleepy. There’s something freeing about writing while sleepy. It’s like talking while drunk—I don’t feel fully responsible for anything that comes out of my mouth or onto my screen.

Uh-oh. This could mean trouble.

So I’m going to write about a chance encounter today and what it made me think about.

I ended up having lunch at Zummo’s today with three colleagues who are fantastic people. It was the kind of lunch that was productive and enjoyable. We began leaving at 12:40 because we had 1:00 commitments, but as I headed to the door of the cafe, I saw a former student / current friend. The last time I had seen her, she and I had met for coffee in the exact same cafe. She had a world of trouble on her shoulders at that point, and my situation was not much different. We had listened to each other that day. You know what I mean by that—that act of listening. Not the passive sitting there but the real listening so the other person felt heard. That’s what we had done.

Today, I asked her how she was. She looked wonderful. She is wonderful. But she’s struggling.

As am I.

I told her that I seemed to be good when I thought about how I was doing, and I knew all the healthy ways I should think, and I was doing my best to think them, but sometimes my body betrayed me. I have sudden headaches for no reason. I wake in the night and cannot go back to sleep.

My body keeps telling me what I’m feeling, I told my friend.

She nodded. She knew. And she answered:

The answers are so easy when they’re in a meme.

Yes. That’s exactly it. We have all the answers. But living them—well, it doesn’t just happen. We are these struggling humans who are regularly stuck in our struggle, stuck in bad feelings, stuck. Stuck. STUCK.

So we spend time outdoors, and we laugh really hard, and sometimes we burst into tears. We create memes and share memes and create mandalas and let them go. We color in our adult coloring books (that are all about patterns and not about erotica, as it turns out). We create zentangles and we try out meditation and we walk or we run or we rock out to Twisted Sister and Rachel Platten in our homes and in our cars. We treat others with tenderness. We see pain bigger than ours. We make time for people we care about.

Sometimes we sit in Zummo’s. We listen.

And sometimes we plot.


Post-FemRhet FreeWrite Day 1: Do I dare to write a poem?

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Here’s the message posted on the CWSHRC Facebook page this morning:

Get ready to write, Coalition! Specifically, click this link <> and be part of the CWSHRC Post-FemRhet Free Write. We’ll be writing together, 20 minutes a day, for the next four weeks. That’s one week for each day of ‪#‎FemRhet2015‬.

Whether you attended the conference or not, you’re welcome to ride the momentum we gathered in Tempe and apply it to your own projects. You’re also welcome to join the Free Write for only a week just the next four weekends: whatever works for you in your quest to keep writing front and center this quarter/semester/year.


I feel nervous, anxious, adrenalized. I feel like I have to hurry. I feel like 20 minutes is both too long and too short. I wonder if it’s legit to spend part of that time finding the FB post and copying and pasting it here. Is that “writing”? What about pausing and thinking? Is that “writing”?

Here’s the funny / ironic thing. I went to the Google doc and read the opening note and then read the “About” for each of the 13 participants who signed on before I did. And it seemed like people were planning on doing serious work, productive work. But what attracted me was the word “FreeWrite” in the title.

I don’t want to commit to 20 minutes of writing work. I want to commit to 20 minutes of writing fun.

But here I am. Anxious. Worried. Judging the way I’m spending my time as if there are rules that I need to follow. Ah, what a spaz I am! (WordPress just autocorrected “spaz” repeatedly, to the point that I opened a new tab on my browser to make sure it’s a word. And, as I was doing that, I found myself wondering, “Does this count? Is this a legit way to spend part of my 20 minutes? Looking up ‘spas’?” I crack myself up!)

I think part of my anxiety is that what I really want to write right now is poetry. A poem. Something poem-ish. And that is SO risky!

But I’m not one to refuse to take risks. Except if they are likely to incur bodily harm. Then I’m very likely to avoid risks. And now I’m just rambling to avoid doing what I want to do.

It was really cold and wet for the beach and they wanted to love it because,

hey! it was the beach

but they had to hunch down inside their hoods

they couldn’t even hold hands because her hood kept blowing off and she needed to hold it on even though her hand was getting cold, and she knew if she looked at it the knuckles would be red, but she didn’t look because the wind would sting her eyes and she hated when her mascara got messed up; the best she could do was hunch down and hold that hood

and they separately wanted to head back but neither knew what the other wanted so they kept on

feeling like maybe it must be okay because at least the sand wasn’t getting inside their shoes

at least not too much

and then he saw a stick and inspiration hit.

He stopped and she didn’t notice at first but then swept her gaze across the sand like a spotlight ’til she saw his grayish-green pants flapping over his brown loafers

and just before his feet, the stick, vertical, moving, carving the plane of ridged sand.

She walked the few steps back to see, never raising her head to the wet salt air,

and saw the initials, the plus-sign, the heart that was almost complete.

He looked up, looked at her; she reached into her pocket, drew out her phone; their hoods blew off.

They returned to the motel room, connected to wifi, she uploaded the wet sandy heart.

He sat with leg touching hers, opened Netflix, and returned to The Walking Dead.

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