Play Away…

 

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Sometimes I get assignments that make me dig deeper than others; force me to face certain truths or realities in my life that perhaps I didn’t see before. At first, writing pieces that shine LED lights on issues that were at first only lit by fireflies can be emotionally daunting, but once the initial shock wears off, I can always seen the benefit in unmasking these areas of my life: It makes me certain I am not alone.

Play is an activity woven into nearly every household that holds the breath of a child, but the package in which it comes can vary greatly in shape and scope. When writing Why Day-to-Day Counts as Much as Play, I was pushed to confront these questions: Did I really play with my kids? In what ways did they remember my role in their lives? Was it different in comparison to how they viewed their father? All became crucial pieces of a puzzle I attempt to bring together and form the picture of their childhood and my role in it.

I am so glad I was able to participate in the You Plus 2 Parenting‘s  28 Days of Play. The series allows writers like me (a different one is featured every day of the week in February) the opportunity to investigate the role of play in our lives. Please do check out the series – you will no doubt find elements of your own lives and experiences there, too.

Why Day-to-Day Counts as Much as Play

Manifest Destiny

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I loved The-Manifest Station, long before I ever submitted anything to them for consideration. Imagine my excitement when this piece found its home among the many other beautiful works I’ve read there.
I used to worry I might be a one-note writer. Like illness was all I had to dissect and discuss. Lately, I’ve come to shift gears a bit on this. I’m less apologetic about my musings. For as much as I’ve seen and experienced, perhaps this is precisely the role I’m meant to play. I’ve come to embrace the fact that, for me, cancer is not simply a calling card — it’s a calling.

Sailing the Waves of Cancer: Living With a Disease That Won’t Let Go

Death: The Ultimate One-sided Conversation

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My dad came to see me twice last month.

Like every other time he has visited in the four years since his death, the next morning I awoke with a mix of thrill at visualizing him so clearly, and sadness knowing it was just a dream. It’s no surprise he showed up; I found out about that time I was to have a piece of mine published in The New York Times, his favorite paper.

My father was a fabulous writer. His voice was strong, his prose fluid and conversational; but Dad directed most of his talent toward the academic realm. He wrote textbooks, research papers and journal articles. Even now when I flip through the pages, tapped out with two, furious index fingers because he never learned to type, I can see his love of the craft. Never boring or stilted, he managed to make psychological concepts and theories not just digestible for the average undergrad, but entertaining — no small feat. At the end of his life Dad began recording more of his personal history, too, but most of what he wrote can be found in a college library.

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He was also a voracious reader. A quick look at his nightstand would reveal his taste. Dad nearly always had three books going at once: an Elmore Leonard-ish crime novel, a current, political non-fiction, and a memoir. As I grew older and our tastes began to fall in line, it became more and more fun to compare notes on what we were reading and trade recommendations, but it was tough to keep up with him. Dad read fast and his appetite was huge.

What never changed, however, was the daily copy of The New York Times, tucked under his arm, which accompanied my father everywhere he went. Whenever we traveled overseas (which was frequently), at any hotel his first request was always a copy of the Times. Dad consumed the world through that paper; he read it cover to cover. I know he had at least one Letter to the Editor published, which he considered a major accomplishment.DadNYT

A couple of months ago, when I submitted my piece to the NYT Motherlode, I knew there was a possibility it would be published, but that chances were slim. After I read the email confirming it had been accepted, I cried. Out of pride, out of relief, out of confidence that someone as esteemed as editor KJ Dell’Antonia believed in my voice, but mainly because I wouldn’t be able to hear my dad congratulate me. I wanted, so badly, to pick up the phone and call him with the news. To listen to his voice raise an octave and somehow soften at the same time when he said “Wow, honey, that’s a big deal! The New York Times, that’s spectacular!”

We didn’t have everything in common and ours was a relationship that suffered its share of ups and downs, but when it came to writing, we were totally in sync. And mine made him proud. “My daughter the writer,” Dad said over the phone when my first piece was published in a widely circulated magazine. I could hear his smile.

In other areas of my life, Dad’s reactions left me wanting. Like many fathers whose primary focus was work, I found it tough to hold his attention for long.DadNYPD My trust in him suffered after too many of my attempts to engage him fell flat, leaving me heartbroken, so I rarely approached him with tender or personal issues. Instead the bond we shared was a cerebral one: A love of all things pop culture and literary. When we talked books, movies or current events his eyes, which were one of the many features we shared in common, came alive. We discussed and debated, compared and contrasted, jabbed and joked. I felt important, smart and admired. Connected. Loved.

Maybe his response about my piece, “After Cancer’s Calm, a Daughter’s Emotional Storm” would have left me deflated as he had in other areas of my life. I will never know. That is both the blessing and the curse of death: I can write the script. At once I can both mourn the loss of his praise, and protect myself by not risking the crushing blow of his ambivalence.

Like so many others, this experience will be projected onto the screen of my heart, already crowded with images of disappointments and joys I have ached to share with my father since he died. Time passes, but love and longing never do. Neither does the desire to hear the one voice whose validation often carried the most weight in my life, good and bad.

I miss you, Dad. I love you. Come back and see me any time.

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Nailed It

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For my twentieth wedding anniversary, I got a beautiful diamond solitaire. It stands high and proud, cradled in its six prongs, throwing sparkles in every direction from the light bouncing off its the facets. The only problem with it? It’s attached to my finger, which means people who look at it might follow the trail to my god-awful nail.

I have been a nail biter and cuticle picker, on and off, my entire life. Though I’ve gotten better (I no longer gnaw them down to the quick) each finger from my third knuckle up has paid the price for everything from my fear and anxiety to those pesky, extra-long stoplights. I came by the habit honestly; my father was a chronic nail biter, too.

Maybe it was because or in spite of this that both of my parents employed multiple tactics to try and get me to stop. “Betsy, get your fingers out of your mouth,” was the soundtrack of my youth.

As an adult I’ve tried just about everything:  Acrylic nails; it felt claustrophobic. Bitter nail polish; it washed away. I tried wearing gloves; I took them off. I tried will power; I clearly have none.

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I hate the habit. It embarrasses me on multiple levels. When I look at other women and see their luxurious, French manicures I’m envious not just for their nails, but for what I consider to be their obvious deflated stress level in comparison to mine. I feel weak; like I can’t handle my life, and that I have no choice but to take it out on my digits.

In a society where a mani-pedi is the ultimate in luxury and self-indulgence, I regularly have to turn down invitations from friends. Not because I don’t want to pamper myself, but because the idea of walking into a salon and having to show my jacked-up hands and feet to some poor, innocent professional would be beyond cruel. For both of us.

The worst part about my worst habit is how obvious it is. You use your hands to do so much that I find myself tucking my fingers under, wearing large bracelets to shift attention toward my wrists, and usually picking clothing with pockets, just to stuff my gnarled fingertips into so others can’t see them. Sometimes, though, there is no matter of disguise that will work and I can see the side-glances. Mortifying.

It’s not as if I don’t have things to stress over: Three kids, three dogs, my husband, my father and myself all diagnosed with cancer within a three-year span. A little nail-chewing is certainly legit. Still, I can’t quite forgive myself when I get all dolled up for a charity event, but the glam stops where the rings begin.

Once in awhile I will spot celebrities with the same, obvious affliction (Britney Spears and Tom Cruise are among them), and for some reason I feel better.

At this point I am resigned to the fact that the habit, like my stress and anxiety, ebbs and flows. I’m not sure how to “cure” it, but if Tom Cruise is truly a member of the club and Scientology didn’t help him, I think I’m doomed.

Thankfully, there have been some stretches in my life that were calm enough to allow my nails to grow past the ends of my fingertips. I looked at them and thought not “Wow, my nails look great,” but “Wow, things in my life must be calm!”

I wish I could say that my ultimate goal would be to forgive myself for my “short”comings, but ultimately I’d really just love to have so little anxiety that I’d be able to apply regular nail polish without embarrassment. For a long time. Maybe even in a salon.

Looking Good… Sometimes

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Author Jennifer Weiner tackles some common, yet tricky, issues in The Pressure to Look Good, her op-ed piece in The New York Times this week. In it she dissects the conflict surrounding the messages we send to young girls about embracing their own bodies and not caving to the pressures of perfection, while we ourselves continue to do just that. In her typically candid, humorous way, Weiner shines a light on an issue I have struggled with myself for years. In fact, it bothered me so much that this year I decided it was time to do something about it.

My 2015 New Year’s resolution was to post pics of myself that were about moments; not how I looked IN those moments. To trust that there were enough collective shots of me looking good to make up for the ones where I didn’t, and begin focusing solely on capturing the event rather than stressing about whether I appear to have a double chin. (I totally don’t, by the way, it’s just a bad angle. I swear. No, seriously.) It has been a humbling, yet liberating road, culminating in a recent HuffPo piece I wrote about teaching swim lessons featuring a photo with me, makeup-less, in a swimsuit. Of course it didn’t hurt that I had such a sweet student next to me.

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With social media and online content as our main artery of information updates about our friends and the world, the pressure is high and the scrutiny intense to be on your “A” game constantly; but as is the case with so many areas in our life, I believe the best examples for our kids are ones of balance. By showing not only my daughter but also my sons that experiences with them trump my need to look good while documenting those experiences, my hope is that they will see that I take them more seriously than I take myself.

I do still love getting glammed up (sans Spanx, I can’t stand those things) for a night on the town with their dad, and after nearly 25 years with him, both of us getting through cancer, and the fact that with three kids I even managed to get glammed in the first place, I think some vanity is in order. When I do, I shamelessly ask my 14-year-old-budding-photographer daughter to snap lots of pics so I can find one where I look as pretty as I feel, and then post away.

As a mother it’s my job to teach my kids, like with many other things in life, that a little of everything is okay as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. Ms. Weiner’s children will see her unclip those extensions and take off those heels. And my guess is that when she does she will sit, criss-cross-applesauce, on the rug with her daughter making silly faces and playing games. That is what is important and that is what they will take away.

In order to really empower them, what we owe our children is to teach them balance. That and the best lighting angles for selfies.

Story Slammed

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I’m not usually one to toot my own horn, but I’m really proud to be a part of anything that a local charity, ForKids, does. Of course I encourage all charity involvement and giving, but I particularly like the aim of ForKids: Breaking the cycle of homelessness and poverty for families and children.

This year I was invited to join their annual “Story Slam” where folks from all walks of life get up and tell a story from their life, then compete via online votes to see who is crowned the winner and awarded the coveted Slammie.  Each vote costs $1 and all money goes directly to the charity. I was thrilled to join the slate of talented story tellers (including one of my favorite people in the world, Kerri Furey) in this year’s ForKids Story Slam. Now you have the opportunity to see me, along with all of the other slammers get up and tell a tale. Then you just click the link listed below the video and pay $1 per vote!  Plus, you get to listen to me talk about my boobs for, like, 10 whole minutes.

Thanks in advance for your support and your vote!

“Bosom Buddies: Betsy Hnath’s Story Slam”

Is This Really What I Signed Up For?

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I really love and respect the site AgingCare.com. Not just because the editor is willing to post my work, but because it caters to a population I feel often gets overlooked: Caregivers.

To know a site like AgingCare even exists thrills me. The idea that individuals isolated in their own respective locations can go to one place to get support, practical information and to interact with others in the same predicament is so comforting to me. 404735_2614514794468_1279033597_n

As someone in my early 40’s, I represent an atypical segment of the caregiving population. I was surprised when AgingCare asked me to contribute my views to their blog, but thrilled at the opportunity to share them. I hoped my words might reach someone in the same situation as I once was who feels as I once did, like there is no one else in the world who shares their burden.

In piece linked below I address the notion that at one point or another, none of us feels like we signed up for caregiving. But that we can all take comfort in the fact that it’s okay to feel that way.

Is This Really What I Signed Up For?  Taking care of a husband with cancer while raising three kids younger than ten was a future I never expected when we first said “I do.”

Getting Stoned in 2015

I found these rocks on a beach in Maine after George was diagnosed the first time with melanoma over 10 years ago.
I found these rocks on a beach in Maine after George was diagnosed the first time with melanoma over 10 years ago.
I found these rocks on a beach in Maine after George was diagnosed the first time with melanoma, over 10 years ago.

I’m a perpetual navel gazer, in fact I do it so often that my bellybutton may take out a restraining order on me any day now. So I’ll take any excuse to reflect, like say, the beginning of a new year.

I think back on the previous 12 months and wonder how we managed it all. I look over the pictures I posted on Facebook because, let’s be honest, that is now my photo album, and smile at the moments I shared with my friends and family. I take stock in what I have and whom I love, and I think about the parts of my life that I’d like to change. I also think about (especially over the last few years) the challenges I faced. Basically, I shake up the sand and see what comes loose.

As much as I might like others to catch my attention, it’s always the big-boulder issues that jut out toward the top; the kind with jagged edges that leave psychological cuts and bruises. I know them well, their permanent scars show in my deepest insecurities and chronically bad habits. For years I got pretty good at dodging them; it wasn’t worth the pain of getting close.

In my youth it was easier to turn my back on something painful in my life and pick one of the many visceral pleasures I knew would soothe my ache for the moment. But we all know what that gets you: 15 lbs., a monster Visa bill and a raging headache. Without facing my pain and expressing myself about it, all of my potential steppingstones remained barbed.

As I grew older, and with the help of careers, kids and cancer, I realized that avoidance was no longer a luxury I could afford. To make a lasting change in my life I couldn’t simply sidestep these sharp stones, I had to grab them with both hands, turn them over, investigate them from every angle and suffer the scrapes. It was the only way to create a path through my pain rather than a detour.

Ground down with honesty and reflection, smoothed with attention and familiarity, even the sharpest of edges became easy to touch. I could move and fit these rocks nicely together with other rounded ones from my past. Each painful experience honed and transformed to work together and create a foundation of emotional resilience. And with even more time those challenges, which once seemed huge and insurmountable, became manageable.

The smaller pebbles of my history settled toward the bottom, filling in the cracks of my personal strength, shoring me up for the times when I felt like I might break. Those stones of losing an important job, or the letter from my editor telling me to start again combined to form the base; the grains of my 6th grade heartbreak and getting out-touched in butterfly when I was 10 provided the grout.

At 43, I have come to the age when many of my contemporaries have begun experiencing tangible trauma, and irreplaceable loss. Some have lost parents, spouses and even children to illness and accidents. I see others providing long-term care to loved ones facing disease, at great cost to their own families. They are divorcing, deploying and depressed. Regardless of the circumstance, very few are escaping the damage that only true sorrow can bring.

These are situations that, on a good day, cut so deep and so wide the word “cry” can’t do justice to the kinds of sounds and faces you make — the ones that would terrify your kids if they ever saw or heard you. Even as a writer, I have yet to find a word that accurately describes the head pounding, chest aching sobs that make your heart hurt and you feel in the pit of your stomach.

My family and I have faced some hefty loss, too and it would be so easy to slide into anger, especially when it impacts the lives of children. I have often questioned what could possibly be the purpose of this much hurt for ones so young. But I refuse to accept that any pain we suffer is wasted, or that a tear we shed is in vain.

Instead, I choose to believe that every challenge we face head-on isn’t just important, it is essential to our development as individuals to grow and succeed emotionally. It is by turning those stones and filling in the mortar that we establish our strength. Each time we suffer pain it is simply a building block in transit.

I stand upright because I lost that job, suffered that heartbreak, and got out-touched in butterfly. Because all three of our children were admitted to the hospital before each was a year old. Because my dad died before he could read this. Because George used to have three brothers and now he has one. Because George got cancer and so did I. And because when I see my loved ones suffer my heart breaks. Those are some big, big rocks.

But I keep picking them up, turning them over, getting cut, and figuring out why. And if I spend time working on them I soften the edges enough (I hope) not to get hurt by them again. Then I put them down next to the other weathered rocks to help make me strong. And I do it over and over, building up my footing.

I have always felt that the greatest gift from God is perspective. Since pain can often be a breeding ground for myopia, a step up is a great tool to prevent me from getting stuck. With each stone under my feet my view gets bigger and better; I guess I can thank my struggles, in part, for that vista.

I know I have much to experience, much to learn, but with each challenge the process gets simpler. And I know that all of my challenges have worth. I’m not done building, but it’s a start.

Wishing you all a year of rounded rocks.

–b