Movie Nights

I sometimes joke that I grew up thirty years before I was born. I was born in the early 80s, but most of my frequently watched movies and television shows are from decades earlier. As a child, my family rarely had cable, but we did have a large video collection. Most of the videos were carefully recorded from TV onto VHS tapes. Small white stickers with black numbers were dutifully placed on each tape and then entered into a handwritten index. We had indexes listing our movies both by alphabetical order and by number order.

This was mostly  my mother’s influence. She loved the old movies and the shows, many created even before her childhood. They made her laugh, and Mom has always clung to the things that bring her joy. I recently took a vacation with a friend to Niagara Falls and she honored my desire to re-visit these childhood memories by driving an hour out of the way to see a giant mural of one of Lucille Ball’s famous scenes on the side of a building in her hometown of Jamestown, NY.

Posing with a Lucy mural in Jamestown, NY. December 2015.

Posing with a Lucy mural in Jamestown, NY. December 2015.

On Friday nights in my childhood, my two brothers and I would spread our sleeping bags on the patchwork-brown linoleum in the living room for family movie night. On the kitchen table Mom and Dad would put out Breyer’s vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, cool whip, and often some type of candy or sprinkles. We’d build our traditional Friday-Night-Sundae and sit on top of our sleeping bags — ready to laugh along as Jerry Lewis belts out a (rather catchy) song about beans in At War With The Army. Or, we would giggle for the hundredth time at Lucy and Ethel as they shoveled chocolates into their mouths. Sometimes we’d invite friends over; sometimes it was just us. There are dozens of movies (and television shows) in my head that I remember with smiles for the way they filled my childhood with laughter.  

Other times, we’d watch the movies late into the night. My parents would delay bedtime and press play on an old favorite because the night was special. Once, I was laying on the couch, my head in my mother’s lap as she raked her fingers through my bangs. We were watching one of Martin and Lewis’ movies. I would glance up every time I heard her laugh to see the light in her eyes. There were days that it was hard for Mom to smile. Days where Depression did its best to keep her isolated and numb. But there were other days that stretched into the night where joy, and laughter, were present. Those were nights we celebrated and embraced the joy.

I used to wonder why we didn’t watch the movies on the sad days, so that they would bring the laughter. It took me into my young adult years to understand that the laughter came on the late nights because the clouds lifted, not because the movies penetrated them.

This Christmas my younger brother and I stood in our parents’ hallway and scanned the movie collection, laughing in recognition at some of our old favorites. Much of the family gathered around the television and put in Dean Jones’ Snowball Express (Dad’s favorite) and we all laughed along as Jones flew backwards down the mountain, on skis. A few days later we pulled out North Avenue Irregulars to keep us awake as we counted down to the New Year. Mom and my brother had tears in their eyes from their laughter as Cloris Leachman rammed her car into a mobster who had caused her to break her newly-manicured nails.  

Those late night movie watching parties where Mom joined us in the laughter are treasured memories, but as an adult I think the work of joy is more evident in the every-Friday-night routine. Mom set up that routine and maintained it. Despite her own struggles, she made sure there was joy and laughter in the house for her kids. A joy that still pays off for us all these years later.



Nicole bio YAH

Potty Talk

It was 2008, and I was in the bathroom stall again, my infant daughter balanced on my lap and my fully-clothed bottom perched on the edge of the toilet seat. I was not fully clothed on top–the entire point of this awkward visit. It was nursing time at the zoo.

Visiting the zoo was not a treat, but a tool of my sanity called “Get out of the house with the baby whenever possible.” At home, I was more likely to surrender; at home, I was more likely to start crying and not know how to stop. But not at the zoo. At the zoo, I held it together thanks to sunshine, distraction, and the presence of strangers.

There was no crying in front of strangers.

But also out of bounds in public–at least for self-conscious me–was wrestling with a hungry baby under a poorly-designed nursing cover. After a few close calls, my baby’s public meals took place in public bathroom stalls.

The ones at the zoo were the worst. First, they smelled like what they were–an endless parade of dirty diapers, muddy shoes, and children still learning to flush. Second, the tiny stalls were not made for multiple people. With all the balancing and odd angles, nursing was a circus feat–tightrope and clown car combined, heightened with the aroma of elephants.  

But smelly and crowded were small annoyances compared to the noise. The zoo had recently installed a super-vortex, skin-stretching hand-dryer, and every time that darn thing went off, my daughter would jerk her head toward the roar, and I would yelp in pain. (She was, after all, attached to a rather sensitive part of my body.) Scrambling to keep her head from hitting the toilet paper holder, I would nearly lose my perch.

It was all so ridiculous, it was laughable. But I didn’t laugh. I cried, and nursed, and cried some more. I cried until we were both done, and then I stared hard at the ground as we left the stall. I stared hard at the sink as I quickly dabbed my eyes with a wet paper towel. I didn’t want anyone to know.

There was no crying in front of strangers.

* * * * *

By the spring of 2010, I needed a double stroller at the zoo. A friend watched my toddler while I visited the stalls with the new baby, or I used the nursing cover. I didn’t care so much about the stares of strangers anymore–I had two kids under the age of three, darnit. Stare away. Thanks to a year of intensive counseling, a low dose of anti-depressants, and a second baby who slept much more than the first, my postpartum depression was abating.

The clouds were beginning to lift.

One day, someone asked me how I was doing, and I was surprised to hear these words come from my mouth: “Being a mother is no doubt the hardest thing that I have ever done. But I laugh, multiple times, every single day. It’s what keeps me going.”And it was true. I was laughing again. In the haze, I had barely noticed.

* * * * *

In 2013 both of my girls were weaned and potty-trained, but we were still crowding into bathroom stalls.

“I said first!” my youngest proclaimed one day, rightly,5272628825_4fee6a975f_o but her sister had already dropped her pants and planted herself on the toilet. I glared at her, “Just hurry up, okay?” My youngest recovered quickly, as she does, and crouched on the bathroom floor–she wanted to see the shoes of the person in the next stall. “Stop it!” I warned, “and don’t you dare touch that floor! I told you bathroom floors are dirty!”

My temperature was rising quickly, especially when I noticed big sister settling in with “number two,” which often took more than ten minutes. “Oh dear Lord,” I thought with some desperation, “Let the person in the next stall finish quickly.”

No such luck. The person in the next stall had also settled in, and I know this because my youngest suddenly announced “Mama! The lady next door has loud pooping! Did you hear it?”

She did not register the look of horror on my face as she looked up, waiting for my answer as if she was just making polite conversation. “Shh!!!!!!” I hissed at her, the force of my breath attempting to blow this humiliating moment away. “Shh!!!!” I wanted to run, to never leave the house again, perhaps to disappear completely.

And then I heard it. No, not the ‘loud pooping’, but giggling in the next stall. Giggling, and then laughing. And then my children were laughing, and I was laughing, and we were all laughing together in the two-stall bathroom. The ‘lady next door’ washed her hands and left, still giggling, but we stayed together, and the girls switched places. When our laughter subsided, my cheeks were damp.   

“Mama, are you crying?” I shook my head, but this wasn’t the whole truth. Sometimes, even in a bathroom stall, you laugh until you cry. And sometimes you cry until you laugh.

* * * * *

jen bio YAH

Potty photo by Keoni Cabral on Creative Commons

Stuck, Unstuck

It was January—that moment when, in Michigan, you are still descending into the depths of winter. (Never mind that the days are getting longer, lighter.)

I was continuing to descend, too. My descent was more deceptive than winter’s—a postpartum swirl of hormones and emotions that could just as easily trick me into believing I was rising as falling. There were moments of brilliant sunshine on fresh blankets of snow, joyful baby squeals, and the sense that I had never quite been whole without this little one in my arms. In those moments I felt buoyed. Was the falling sensation I felt actually a rising—a trick of the mind?

No, that wasn’t the case. At least not in any comprehensive, lasting way.

It’s hard to say what exactly triggered me to finally shut down that January day—to batten the hatches, boarding up windows and barricading with sandbags as if to protect myself against a storm I had been watching move toward me. Now I know this about depression: the “what” or “why” hardly matters. It’s not as if identifying “what” means it could all be easily “fixed.” It just was what it was—a mix of chemicals and hormones, disappointments and anxieties, fear and regret, converging and swirling. And suddenly that day, that moment, I couldn’t keep up the charade that had kept me inching forward on previous days.

I could only sit, blankly. Sometimes with quiet tears forging new paths down my cheeks.

Finally, while my baby napped, I called my mom. I couldn’t speak, of course—couldn’t begin to explain a thing about what was happening inside me. But she still heard me, like mothers do. She heard the tears from 70 miles away, where she sat in my childhood home, and she knew I was stuck; she knew I needed to move.

“I’m coming to get you,” she said matter-of-factly, not asking or suggesting, only stating the fact in a way that allowed me to breathe a bit deeper.

So I sat as she drove to me through the frozen world. I don’t remember her arriving at my house, or helping me pack a few bags, transferring the baby’s carseat from my car to hers. I only remember the drive home—to the place I still considered home. I was, after all, only a decade removed from the time I had last lived there, the summer I was 19.

291654079_bc3cf3ce06_bMy mom had dark chocolate in her car, and as we traveled she told me to eat as much as I wanted—that it was good for me. She didn’t ask me to explain anything, didn’t ply me with questions or ask what I wanted or needed. She simply directed and gave, taking the wheel both literally and figuratively as she moved me from point A to point B.

As we traveled I felt the panic and confusion within me dislodge and begin to move downstream. I cracked open the shutters on my mind and began to take in where I was: The warmth of the car and bitter-sweetness of the chocolate. The beauty of the snow stretching out from either side of the two-lane highway—the way it was whimsical decorating the evergreens, and then sophisticated blanketing the ground, seeming to change color as it rose on hills and dipped into valleys, the late afternoon sun slanting onto its smooth surfaces.

I took in the one-stoplight towns in a way I never had before, even though I’d passed through them dozens of times behind the wheel of my own car. There were people on the sidewalks, bundled against the cold: a mother walking slowly as her snowsuited toddler kicked his boots through the snow; a group of three teenage girls who seemed to meander and stall, in spite of the cold.

The towns were then behind us, the speed limit rose, and I saw the sad, sinking homes down along the river, a man getting out of his rusted truck, pulled up alongside a satellite dish. Closer to home, the terrain flattened, presenting farm houses and sleeping winter fields. There was nothing remarkable along that stretch of road—no one, I imagine, living remarkable lives. There were just lives, and I noticed them as my mother carried me along.

Toward the end of our journey she told me a story about when she was a young mom—not to say “I know exactly how you feel,” but just, I suppose, to broaden my perspective and help me see beyond the walls of my confining mind, just as putting me in the car helped me to see beyond the walls of my house, my life, which had become too small.

What my mother knew, what she taught me, is that becoming “unstuck” involves some form of moving, traveling, even if you don’t know exactly where you need to go.


Pull Yourself Together

It was well into summer when I started to lose my grasp on the splintering pieces. On my lunch break, I would drive to a large parking lot for a big box store and cry until I thought I might throw up, and I couldn’t breathe. Even then, I used a wet wipe to compose my features. “Get it together,” I said to my reflection in the visor mirror. Then I would drive back to work, heavy in the knowledge that things might never change.

I’d always prided myself on my ability to hold it together. “You can’t change your circumstances,” my mother would say, “but you can change your attitude.” My six year old self drank in those words, and didn’t realize that certain circumstances were not okay, no matter my attitude.

So I tried to change my attitude, using all of my tricks. I went to yoga at lunch and bought scented candles for my office. I read books instead of talking with my co-workers. But the days continued to roll over me, crushing my spirit a little more every day. My job was slowly killing me.

It started subtly. On the way to work I wondered what it might be like to drive off the ridge near my house. One small movement of the steering wheel, one gentle push over the edge. Or perhaps I could drive into the median. Nothing serious, just an accident. If I was in the hospital, I couldn’t go to work, right?

I’ll never forget where I was and how it felt. I was in my office, at my desk, the one right next to the window that looked over the parking lot. It was hot in the building, and my fan was on, pointed at my hands, hovering over the keyboard. An image entered my mind unexpectedly. I pictured myself walking into the kitchen and opening the drawer where we kept the knives, selecting one, and plunging it into my chest.

The room began to close in and I began to shake. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t focus. I’m not sure how I made it through the rest of that day and home. I’m even less sure how I made it to the home of my small group leader.

Pull Yourself Together by Cara Strickland | You Are Here All through the evening, as the other members of my group discussed the Bible in that small, cozy home to a single mother and three foster kids, I stayed silent. I was afraid to move or speak, because I knew that I could no longer keep it together. My next move would be the end, I would fall apart. I waited as long as I could.

After group was over and we continued to talk, I raised a timid voice. “Can I ask for prayer?” I said.

I sat on the large ottoman in the center of the room, legs crossed. I wasn’t sure how to begin. How do you fracture the image of togetherness? How do you admit that you want to die, and that you are terrified?

It wasn’t the sort of small group that talked about personal struggle. All the prayer requests around the circle were about other people, and physical health. I wasn’t sure if it was a safe place to fall apart, even as I shattered. But I couldn’t hold it in any longer.

There was silence for a time, after my flood of broken words. I waited for the clatter. Hugging my knees into my chest. But it didn’t come.

“Let’s start with therapy,” one of the women said.

“I can call and get you a doctor’s appointment,” said another.

I’ll have lunch with you tomorrow,” said another voice. “I’ll come get you at work.”

“You can quit your job,” said the single mom with the three foster kids.

In the days and weeks that followed that night, I began therapy, went to the doctor, quit my job, and almost jumped out a window high above downtown Denver. Often, after I stopped working and began to heal, I would stare at the wall, trying to muster the energy to drink the tea after I’d made it.

But I returned often to that tiny house, and that warm living room, even to that large, cushy ottoman. I awoke my memories of that circle of people around me, reminding me that I wasn’t alone, even if I wasn’t together.

The Fullness of Fall

 Everything dies. Nothing dies.
That’s the story of the Book.

It’s like this for me in Texas: fall is when love blossoms only to die in the spring.

In the fall, the air is fresh. The promise of cooler weather is heralded with storms rushing from the north. The grey winds from afar release the death grip of the Texas summer heat. The fall is football, Friday night lights, and the romance of a dying summer. It is a chance to actually enjoy the outdoors again, and a reminder that Texas is still a great place to live.

Autumn with its too-muchness,
Stretching the boundaries
Of Song

Fall is full. The wounded red of fall drips from the trees. There is an aching in the shadows of leaving trees, and even the very slant of autumn light stirs my overly romantic soul.

I once kissed a girl on a fall night after a heartbreaking home football loss. It was my first kiss. We were out under the October stars, still warm enough to only need sweatshirts as we lay looking up at the eternal markers. I am not sure I have ever been more scared. I am sure I have never been happier.

In a Texas spring the weather is violent. It unleashes furious storms, snows in the middle of a perfect week, and then hints at the hated summer heat. The wildflowers come roaring along Texas highways bursting forth in strokes of crimson, yellow, and blue. But their life is doomed by the coming heat. Aborted beauty burned up like martyrs holding out against the summer’s tyranny. Even the spring’s green brings with it an awareness of the brown it will turn to in the overbearing sun.

I was heartbroken by the next spring. The first kiss in the fall turned into a last parting kiss on an April day. A Friday, holding her at the door, my first broken heart left exposed before the summer heat.


Others in the north will speak of seasonal depression hitting them during the long winter, but for me, the weeks of early spring, the lenten season before easter, is when it comes. For the past 7 years, I have waited ominously through spring for it to strike. Sometimes it does not arrive, but sometimes it does as the creeping nausea of blank feelings emptying my heart of any joy.

Several years after my first broken heart during my last spring semester in college, I met this girl with burning blue eyes. I fell for her like a boy lost at sea, but she was unable to return it. Another spring romance born only to die.

The wave of depression that followed was one of the worst I have known. The weeks of late March and early April nearly crushed me. I could hardly breath much less attempt to write my senior paper, and I almost failed my last class at Texas A&M. It was the first time in my life where I fully felt the need to take a pill.

For the last three years I have attended an Ash Wednesday service during February before spring could come. It has been my bulwark against spring. I would like to think the reminder of my death, the passing from dust to dust recalled in the service, protects me with my own weakness. We are dying, yes and amen. On Ash Wednesday there are no false promises.


I read the Book for years
And never understood a word.
Scrawled in its margins.
Wrote my own versions
Of what I read there,
But never got a thing right.

Didn’t understand that each
Poem was a magic spell.
Was a voice,
And under that voice: an echo
That was the spell

As if each poem clearly spoke
The word “Death”
And the echo said “Life.”

And this is why I love the fall: it is full of death, but its echo is life. Roiling under its scenes of dying, I often sense the true vibrancy of life. Amidst all the life of spring I am too aware of its coming end, but in the fullness of fall heaving with death, I hear what sounds like a symphony to my soul: the oblique cry of life like an echo from an empty tomb.

(All quotes are from the beautiful poetry collection Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved by Gregory Orr)

Out of Place in Yourself

At the time, I had no way to describe it other than, “I just don’t feel like myself.”

Feeling out of place in my own skin was new to me. I was the person who seemed comfortable almost everywhere—the one who struck up conversations with grocery store cashiers while they scanned my purchases and with other parents as we watched our children play at the park. I didn’t get nervous at job interviews or speaking in front of a group.

The world was a fairly comfortable place. I had somehow lucked into the type of personality that “fits” best in the world, a circumstance that then snowballs in the best possible way: My general comfort allowed me the luxury of assuming the best of others and believing I also had something good to share with them.

But then, that vague out-of-placeness began lingering. It was like a dark cloud just over my shoulder, gradually seeping then settling deep into my bones. At first I was able to override it, when I needed to, but eventually it took root as a feeling of insecurity—a sense that I was no longer comfortable with myself, or with others.

Rather than seeing strangers as potential friends, and seeing friends as people who were looking out for my best interest, I began seeing them all as possible agents of hurt, as people not to be trusted with my fragile being.

I also saw myself as having little to share with others. Where I had once felt powerful in my ability to enrich and brighten people’s lives, I suddenly felt sure I would do the opposite. So I did something I had never done before—I turned inward.

*   *   *   *   *

IllinoisfieldUnfortunately, this turn in me coincided with a move I did not want to make, to a place I did not want to live. My then-husband had accepted a job in the middle of Illinois, so we moved our two daughters (one still in diapers, the other a busy preschooler) away from the wooded lakeshores of West Michigan to the flat cornfields of Illinois.

But it wasn’t the landscape that left me feeling foreign—it was being surrounded by people who only knew this out-of-place version of me. My history, my core, the way I had been just a year or two before—they were all unknown to the people around me, which made those parts of who I was feel even less real. When reality is shifting, one of the only comforts is being able to look into the face of someone who sees and recognizes it too—someone who can say, “I know. You are not crazy.”

It would be months before someone knew me enough to ask—and I trusted her enough to listen—“Do you think you’re struggling with depression?”

Now, looking back at that time, I find it hard to believe that I could have been so oblivious to something so obvious. But in most cases, depression sneaks in so gradually that you don’t recognize it, and then it changes you so profoundly that, before you know it, you don’t recognize yourself. It’s disorienting in the most fundamental way. Even your own sense of who you were—who you are at your core—is distorted and suspect.

*   *   *   *   *

Thankfully, anti-depressants have been effective for me, especially paired with a whole lot of self-reflection and a determination to uncover and embrace my truest self (which in many ways I had never done, even back in those pre-depression days when my skin and the world I moved through felt so comfortable).

Now I have a decade’s worth of perspective on that time in my life, and I’m able to see this: If depression is one of the darkest of clouds a human being can try to live beneath, my experience with it has a silver lining. Not only has it allowed me to develop great compassion for others who feel out of place—whether that sense is rooted in depression or in a too-narrow set of societal expectations and norms—but it has also revealed to me what love looks and feels like: a deep desire for wholeness in another. God’s love for me is rooted in his desire for me to live fully as my true self, the person he created me to be. And likewise, that is how I am called to love others, from my husband and teenage daughters to the people in my community who rub me the wrong way: To love them is to long for them to be at home in their skin.

Where I Came From: Stories from the Hunt

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

~ T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets

Ever since the 1960s, the Turner family has gone on a goose hunt the weekend before Thanksgiving in Eagle Lake, Texas, the self-proclaimed goose hunting capital of the world.  These hunts are visceral experiences with blood, guns, and excruciatingly miserable conditions involving 4 AM wakeups, late November temperatures, wet rice fields, and four hours of sitting in those wet rice fields. They are an acquired taste even for most avid hunters.

“Stories from the hunt” are an annual ritual performed generally the night before or the night after the hunt, and are lathered heavily in heart attack barbeque, beer, and gin and tonics. My grandfather, Jack Rice Turner, began taking my father when he was still an adolescent, and the stories of his first hunts still get retold year after year. They are told differently, but always with a twinkle in the eye of my grandfather who is the patriarch of the group we go hunting with and leads the way in all things Texan (i.e. drinking, shooting stuff, story telling, and general swashbuckling confidence (despite the fact that he is now barely over 5 feet tall as he has shrunk in his late 80s)). These stories always lead to my grandfather recalling more stories, from his 40 years in the Navy and Navy Reserve, 60 years of marriage to my grandmother who is one of the first women mayors in south Texas, and 50 years of being an architect along the Rio Grande River Valley. Amidst these stories, there will certainly be the hundredth retelling of the improbable three turkey kill with one rifle bullet (which I actually witnessed when my grandfather shot and killed two turkeys with a rifle bullet, then had a third die by what I can only postulate was a heart attack), the retelling of the turkey stolen by a bobcat story, and the always memorable telling of the other immaculate shot my grandfather managed: the double Canadian Goose in flight shot, where with a single shot he managed to kill two 25 pound geese while they were flying.

These grandiose stories about my grandfather will be offset by some serious ribbing and stories full of hilarity. The story of my first hunt will be retold where I was enlisted as a retriever and had to chase down and corral geese almost the same height as my 7 year old soul; one goose actually ended up chasing me instead of me chasing it. Or the more recent, fresh story will be retold about my grandfather accidently shooting a very slow and low flying crane despite everyone yelling at him not to shoot it and then had to hide it when the game wardens came over to our hunt.

All of these stories form the fabric of several generations of family hunts, but oddly, for many of these story telling events and even for some of the hunts themselves, I was not there. When I was younger, my introversion and love of books led me to spend large chunks of the these hunts reading books. In sixth grade, I spent most of the hunt reading The Lord of the Rings, in seventh, C.S. Lewis’ space triology, in 8th, the Count of Monte Cristo. I would barely leave my room while I was reading. I preferred the companionship of my books over my family, and in an all-too-familiar refrain in my life, I escaped into myself. When I got older and found myself adrift, in and out of college and in and out of seasons of depression, there were several years where I didn’t even go to the hunt with my family. I was so reclusive and lost in my own world I could not find it in myself to go to the one thing my grandfather and my father loved the most. They loved having their sons, their friends, and their stories, but I did not love myself, nor know myself, nor want to find myself in my grandfather and his stories.

In the past five years, we have been back to Eagle Lake several times. I have been back three times. We have welcomed a brother-in-law, we have shared stories, and I have watched my grandfather. We have witnessed the sunrise amidst the torrent of a thousand rising geese burning up the sky with their black, brown, and white flying V’s as their honking calls roar down on us like the thunder and wind of a sweeping Texas storm. And as I write, these are the sights I see more vividly than anything else my childhood holds, and I feel the rise and catch in my throat like I once felt when I first read about the Riders of Rohan charging down into Helms Deep in The Lord of the Rings, and I see the twinkling eyes of my grandfather, and I remember this is who I am from, this is from where I came.