One thing I’m enjoying most about our entering the roaring (can they be soaring?) twenties is that everyone is writing pieces of memoir and sharing them on FB and the like. I guess that happens most days on social media, but people are putting thought into where they were twenty years ago, what this decade has meant to them, what they want for the future. That's s strong communal tea.
New Year’s Eve 1999 I was performing at a big, sloppy yuppie party at the Prudential Center in Boston with the swing band I sang with at the time. My mother had just died of ovarian cancer, so I wasn’t so worried about Y2K – my world as I knew it had already stood still.
Grief was quicksand with sharp objects embedded. My father was one of those sharp objects, his grief so acute and painful he turned it on himself and me.
“Quit your yapping,” he said as I cried in the car on our way back from Florida. I had a cold, he was smoking a cigar with the window barely cracked, my stomach turned with all of it, already sore from so much crying.
I let myself grieve. Friendships slipped away because I was a slippery glob of “she won’t get over it.” It didn’t help that my long-term boyfriend at the time and I broke up only a few months earlier.
While I tried to unbreak my own heart, I tore through several others’ hearts. Squishing together doesn’t mean you’re going to stick. I ate Lean Cuisine meals in my Cambridge apartment and in my better moments wrote music and finished writing my thesis on Joan Didion.
My ex met a cook from Idaho at Charlie’s Kitchen on Christmas Eve 2000 and when I met him and tried to look into his eyes (thoroughly covered with floppy hair) and saw his face erupt into his Brent smile I just wanted to live there. And so we made that happen. And continued to make that happen. And we’re still making it happen.
I learned how to grieve in part by just letting myself grieve without judgment. The floor + me + tears were well-acquainted. One of the perks of that which at first seemed like a lonely predicament: people who were fed up with my shit and grief at least were no longer around judging and reminding me I was doing it wrong. Grateful for endings that should be endings.
Therapy has been so valuable over the past twenty years. EMDR has helped me excavate and create new neural pathways around shit I thought I would never get over. Age doesn’t hurt either, if you stay curious. Yoga, too. I discovered one of my favorite yoga teachers (and friends) teaching in my neighborhood when I needed it/her most.
I did all kinds of self-enrichment stuff and self-care. Some worked, some was silly, all of it led me forward and kept me curious about myself. Rebirthing, past life regression, learning reiki. I started a blog. Thanks to that I ended up with a weekly column with the Newport Mercury in Rhode Island and covered the Newport International Film Festival and the Jazz and Folk Festivals, and did that for twelve plus years. Then I got my MFA in Screenwriting. But I didn’t want to live in L.A. or really be a screenwriter. Still I kept writing.
I wrote, I floundered, I joined other people’s bands so I didn’t have to work on my own music, I had a hard time listening to a lot of music, because it punched me in the stomach, reminding me I wasn’t making any of my own. Whenever Brent put on Blonde Redhead I would fall apart. I watched too much Real Housewives and finally yelled at the screen:
“What the fuck am I doing?” and turned it off and got off the couch. I had to do a lot of getting off the couch, or various seats, like barstools. I decided I needed to get really quiet. I listened inward. But not before listening outward a lot because, again, it seemed easier than following my own star. Until the inner lake of creativity started to grow because I was finally listening to it now and I would never ever change that again for anything in the world.
I started/hosted/ran a karaoke night for a bunch of years at Charlie's Kitchen, where Brent and I had met. Brent and I worked it together with my ex with whom I had remained friends. I liked giving people a space to belt their guts out and if anyone made fun of them you better believe I was on them (I definitely yelled "noodle dick" in one guy's face at least once).
One night after karaoke a large kitten with a tremendous tail showed up at our back door. I think Oliver Julius AKA The Doo could tell we would treat him like the king he is. To be sure and fair, we put up flyers, put him outside, etc., but he stayed. When we took him to the vet to get neutered and microchipped the receptionist said he used to be one of her kittens, but that he would roam.
“And now he’s theirs,” the vet said. Fourteen years later he's still the king.
Brent and I got engaged. My father was not supportive. Then he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I started recording music for him, wondering how long he’d be able to operate the CD player. Something broke open in me because I chose to make something for someone I loved, even if our relationship had been fraught, especially as we grieved my mother.
Brent and I got married at the Museum of Science in Boston and we walked back down the aisle together to the end of “The End” of Abbey Road. Friends and family surrounded us, including my dad who rallied after all. My smile was irremovable, I danced wildly and drank Prosecco until I collapsed into the car on the way back to the Liberty Hotel, all the adrenaline draining from my body.
We made amazing friends and deepened old friendships. Some fell by the wayside. Some imploded or were crushed. Sometimes you never squish, let alone stick. Somewhere around then I started the hard work of erecting and enforcing boundaries. It got exponentially easier the more I practiced. Still listening to that lake of my own quiet, my own creativity, I needed to say “no” a lot.
Brent and I visited Boise a bunch of times and played music with Steve, our old friend whom Brent grew up with. We were in Idaho like every six months or so visiting my wonderful in-laws (I got lucky there), so we’d stop into Boise, too. We started a band.
I went on a magical writing retreat in Carmel-by-the-Sea and started writing my first book. I met the most amazing friends who remain my squishies to this day. I worked in earnest and a lot and kept at it. And kept keeping at it. One book became three books, I'm still working on yet another draft. It's been a lot of drafts. I learned it takes a lot of drafts. And what a privilege it is to get to take pride in making it better and better. I found myself in a group of writers my mentor created for which I am now an admin. I am amazed constantly at the synchronicity between writers working on telling our stories and using our voices.
I was diagnosed with stage zero DCIS breast cancer in early 2016. Which kind of turned my world on its butthole, as these things are wont to do. It also taught me a shit load about life, caused me to give zero fucks about basically anything that didn’t matter, and helped me get really clear about what I call my “energetic trajectory,” which is just what it sounds like, and what was a part of it and what was not. Growing up with a mad dad and a mom who constantly checked his emotional temperature before expressing her own can create an inner environment where you ooze energetic ectoplasm from every pore, checking everybody first before yourself. So I worked on that. I had a lumpectomy and radiation and learned everything I could, but I did not spend all of my time obsessing about cancer on the Internet. My doctors were excellent. And sometimes hilarious.
“Just…flash us,” my radiation oncologist would say when it was time for her and the nurse to check how my breast was doing. It really helped to have some levity. And my boob was doing great.
My sisters came to town and helped me so much, shining their love on me the way only they could do. I’m so grateful to have them. I didn’t tell my dad about my diagnosis, not wanting to add more stress to his dementia and worried that he would have a nebulous understanding something was wrong with one of his kids but not be able to pinpoint exactly what it was.
My dad had softened with dementia. He started to appreciate all of us and we finally got to see the tender heart inside the tough exterior. He never forgot who we were, though I was worried he would. He even finally told Brent he loved him and apologized for not understanding what a wonderful person he was earlier. My siblings were careful stewards of his life.
Cancer made Brent and I say, “What do we WANT?” And we had been wanting to move from Cambridge for a while. Visiting Seattle for the first time a few years prior made Brent and I realize that you could really really love a place and that we didn’t really really love Cambridge, though we had built a great life there with lots of love and friends and, oh, the restaurants. So right after I finished treatment we visited Boise and looked at houses and decided to do a bicoastal-ish kind of thing. Which we did for a few years until settling in Boise for good for now.
While I was back on the east coast I got to hear this: “You. Are. Perfect.” My dad told me a week before he died, even though his speech had been garbled at that point. I gasped. I thought about it a lot. It wasn’t just for me. It was for everyone I ever get to tell. But it was also super for me because for a lot of my life no matter what I did it didn’t feel like I was doing quite enough to please my parents. You know how that goes. Hearing that was tremendous.
We also lost my brother-in-law Jim last year and miss him so much. Grief has become something that I allow to be at the table. I’ve gotten to know it. It happens to us, yes, but I also let it in now. I feel strong in part because I honor my vulnerability as the princess-and-the-pea tender-heart she is.
I also keep an eye on my privilege and keep working at doing less harm while learning and learning and learning. I amplify the voices of those less privileged than I am and speak up. Thanks to many teachers my eyes have been opened to the way our culture is structured and how it destroys people. I built resilience where there was fragility and continue to feel into that place. It is the least I can do and it is necessary that I do. I encourage others to do the same.
Things will always have their ups and downs if we allow ourselves the full range of human emotions. At any given time we've had anxiety, medical PTSD, depression in our house. But we’ve also written and recorded a beautiful album and are growing our community here and some of our loved ones from back east have visited and soothed bouts of loneliness. I also put out a solo album and can’t really express how grateful I am to have a fantastic studio in our neighborhood, where we’ve recorded with the band we moved here to make a reality, and our other besties from back east. Childhood dreams are coming true.
I celebrate all of this. I am deeply grateful for my own heart and those of my friends and family. I choose to continue to have my own back. I will be braver in the next decade.
“Stop hoarding your good shit," my coach Tanya Geisler says. I did a lot of integrating in 2019 without sharing too much about it because that was the nature of the learning. But I'm starting this year with the trust that my good shit must be shared. Even when sometimes my imposter complex will try to convince me it isn't good at all and just shit. I'm onto it. And I'm forty-four. Like, seriously enough with that. Ya funny, IC.
I will keep collaborating with kindness and compromise and beauty and trust. But I will also be sure I always make the space and time to create what I am meant to create on my own terms, manifesting my gifts on the physical plane regardless of what anyone else is doing. I will keep listening inward and outward, recalibrating where necessary. And I will keep honoring the muse by showing up, valuing excellence, clarity, vulnerability, innovation and deep connection.
The start of a New Year and a new decade might be "just another day," but then is any day "just another day"? I have a mind and heart that grieve hard and are sick with the injustice and blindness I witness in the world. But I also can wonder at the magnificent weirdness of this human existence.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.