Prayers, pleasing, and protecting

This is the part I don’t want you to see.   It would be so much easier to stay invisible, and not set obscure questions I ponder sometimes out there in the breezy air to flutter around . . .



It’s my fault.  I’m sorry. 

These phrases course through my blood like cancer cells.
I feel like they’ve always been there.
That I was born with them inside me: it’s my fault.  I’m sorry.

As an intuitive person, one with more empathy than any one person should have, I’m always sensing, always alert to how others are in a situation and to the unspoken vibration of moments.  “It’s my fault/I’m sorry” is my go-to emotional response, when a moment feels charged, uneasy, subtly dangerous.

My stomach muscles tighten, and my mind scurries across the past several minutes, back and forth, scanning, scanning:  Why is she not smiling?  Why is he not talking?  What did I do wrong?  Why is he yelling? Why is he in that room with the door closed? What did I do wrong?

I remember my 3rd grade teacher once stopped in the middle of yelling at some other student and looked straight at me:  “Am I yelling at you, Colleen? No, I’m not yelling at you. You didn’t do anything wrong.”  To her, I must have looked slapped in the face or terrified or something, I don’t know, but she could visually see I was reacting to her anger, even though it wasn’t directed at me.

So I know these things about myself now.  I spend time consciously reeling back this initial and irrational response I feel I was born with.

It takes energy and focus, but I’m doing it.

One day at the page, I began to reflect about this and a series of questions unfurled from my pen . .

Do you think an unborn baby can sense its unwed mother’s secret thoughts and prayers? Her heartbreak, her shame her sadness?  (Go away, go away, dear God, make this go away . . . )

And then, do you think it’s possible for this same unborn baby to grow up into a girl and then into a woman, yearning to be seen but never to be too much of a bother?  To feel, at her core, that she shouldn’t take up too much space, be too big.  And that she must please and protect – like some unspoken penance for causing this shame and suffering, this derailment of her mother’s then-intended life?

How is it possible to discern the beginning? Where is it?  When does one’s story start?


Postscript:  I’m happy to take the blame for my parents’ marriage.  In October 2016, they will celebrate 50 years together.

Reflection by Colleen Nolan Armstrong, drafted in June 2012 and completed today.  #outofthebox

Mostly afraid


You are mostly afraid.

What appears to be solid and trustworthy, just isn’t.  Again.

The world is adrift.  Kicked hard and off-balance,  trembling and reeling. The air shaky like summer heat on pavement,  the unseen static of fear.

“It will be all right.  It will be all right.”

You yearn for a mother’s arms.  To assure you that the nightmare you-can’t-quite-shake the-image-of, will go away soon.

Her  breath, soft above you.
Her skin, warm aside your cheek
Her blood thrumming a steady, strong seashell sound inside your ear

And you are comforted.   For a time.










Stories you aren’t allowed to tell

I survived breast cancer.   My first marriage did not.

No one talks about that.

How when cancer comes, your life suddenly snaps into sharp relief, and what you thought you could do if you just tried hard enough, for just a little while longer, until the kids get through high school, you can’t.  With cancer, you find yourself dropped into an ocean, choppy with waves,  no land in sight, and all you can do is grasp for things solid, those things that are dependable, trustworthy.  You hold onto them, literally, for your dear life.

Everything else – all clever artifice – must fall away – as though turning to ash, impossible to be held, a powder blown into wind and gone.

* * *

My daughter Katie is in Disney World this week, on a school field trip  with her sophomore Marketing class.  Katie has been so excited in the weeks leading up to this excursion. She is a Disney lover for sure, she has been to the Florida theme park twice in her life – first as an almost 4-year old donning her sparkle princess gowns, traipsing park-to-park-to-park in pink Mouse ears.  The second and last time was in January 2007, after my first 9 months of breast cancer treatment – two surgeries, 6 weeks of daily radiation and then a series of monthly shots of a some super-expensive drug that sent my body cruelly and immediately into menopause.

That Disney vacation was like a “Make-A-Wish” trip,  something happy to share with the kids, on the brink of our marriage’s terminal diagnosis.  For I  already knew inside my heart, before uttering a word to anyone else, my husband included, that our marriage was over.

That was to be our final journey together as a family, to play in that magical place we always found the most joy in, the most love.  In fact, my first husband and I honeymooned there, spending our first night upgraded to the Vice Presidential suite of the Grand Floridian hotel.  [But, you know, you can’t tell people this story anymore.   After divorce (and a beautiful & healthy remarriage) you’re not supposed to speak with  sweet remembrance about another relationship’s beginning (even one of nearly 15 years resulting in 2 children who fill your heart everyday with more love than you can bear).  It feels socially inappropriate to speak of the happy parts, the love-filled, hopeful parts, the “once was” parts – when a county court has deemed the marriage dissolved (and more than that, you were the one who filed the petition to end it, to sentence it to its long and painful evisceration of a death.]

Both of us were actors.

A staged photo and feature story “Supporting Roles: Fox Valley actors cast lots together in marriage” published in The Beacon News on Sunday, August 8, 1993

I, his Cinderella, he, my Prince Charming.  The year of our engagement, we were actually cast in a play of this fairy tale. We took to the stage – waltzing together at the Ball – creating this beautiful illusion for an audience of children who believed so strongly that we were really these characters.   Maybe we did, too.

This man I loved (and still love) breathed life into me, into the stories I was writing and imagining.  On our first date, he set them up there for me to see – there on some grand movie screen in his beautiful mind,  casting the roles, telling me how the costuming would be, the colors, the music.  Together we were a whirlwind of creativity and magic and storytelling and the art of imagination.

At our story’s beginning, we were these things.  We were hopeful and in love.


Two days ago, I texted my 15-year old daughter when she first arrived at the Magic Kingdom, her first day at the park:

“Disney has a special place in the story of your life.  Your dad and I were always happiest there.  Grateful we could share that joy with you.”

Later, I received the following texts back from her.

“Tonight was a lot harder than I thought”
“What do you mean?”
“Just thinking about how our family used to be”
“I know”
“Made me sad”
“It makes me sad still too”
“Yea it was just a little hard watching the fireworks because that’s the part I remember the most with you guys”
I know. 
It was just really hard to think about how happy we were and now it’s so different.
It is hard.  You wish it could be back that way, I know.
It was just something that hit me while seeing happy families at the park.
And sometimes feeling everything is a blessing but also a curse because feeling everything messes with your head a lot.
I love you.  And I am glad you feel everything – even if it is difficult.
Thanks mom.
Oh, and I love you too.

January 2007


A reflection written (hesitantly) after yesterday’s visit to the Loyola Cancer Center for my annual mammogram, which was clear.  My husband Mike drove me there, and waited with me, because he knows how scared I am, even when I try not to show it.  I am still scared.  I think I always will be scared.  For when that cancer diagnosis happened, my whole world changed, as did the world of my children.  As did the world of my first husband, whom I loved (and whom loved me as best he could, with what he had to give, having lost his mother to ovarian cancer less than a year before meeting me.)  Seriously, the two of us had no business getting married.  We were young, and hopeful, and believed in the fairy tale so much.  I will never regret the choice to marry him, foolish as it may look now.    I regret nothing.  Even sharing this story with you today, as hard as it was for me to hit the Publish button now.

What if people told the truth? 

14880132_sWhat if people told the truth? 

Would one person feel less isolated, trying to nurse her infant,  as she herself cries uncontrollably, not at all feeling this overwhelming maternal love everyone told her she would?

Would a divorced parent find solace that another divorced parent hates Christmas and spends most of the holiday crying because the day reminds her of how much her life no longer looks like a Currier & Ives commercial, of how much she has lost?

Would the stay-at-home mother, in that most beautiful home, tell someone that her husband was leaving her, and that she was scared of losing everything and that she couldn’t sleep and was so angry and didn’t trust herself around her 3 children and needed help?  

I don’t know the answers here, but I do know that feeling isolated and alone contributes to feelings of depression and compounds it.   I also know that our default response when someone asks “How are you?” or “How was your weekend?” is “I’m great, how are you?” or “It was fun, how about yours?”  And that, as a culture, at least in the US, we seem to prize happiness (“the pursuit of “) above everything else, and when we don’t feel happy, assume that there must be something wrong with us, that we are doing something wrong.

What if we risked answering today’s “How are you” questions more truthfully? What if we didn’t pretend so much?


Craft a burning question of possibility.  – the was the first task of Tracking Wonder’s  the 30-Day Dare To Excel Challenge, an invitation to top-notch innovators, creatives, and companies to advance a big idea with a few minutes of action every day.

JEFFREY DAVIS researches, interviews, and works with creative innovators, scientists, and social psychologists to discover how creatives flourish in times of challenge and change.

To Yellowstone and back

Last week, Mike and I journeyed by car to Yellowstone National Park and back.


Over the course of this (crazy) 6 day road trip through Illinois-Wisconsin-Minnesota-North Dakota-Montana-Wyoming-South Dakota-Iowa-Minnesota-Wisconsin-Illinois  I experienced so much fear:  fear of heights, fear of being lost, fear of driving, fear of going too fast, fear of losing control, fear of predators (specifically grizzly bears), fear of dying, fear of losing my job, fear of being of being dependent, fear of falling, fear of not knowing where I was, fear of having made a mistake,  fear of failure, fear of  being vulnerable, fear of the earth exploding, fear of falling through brittle rock that looked like moon crust, fear of running out of fuel, fear of falling, fear of falling, fear of falling some more . . ..

In Yellowstone, we were so high up that sometimes we didn’t know how high we were until suddenly a meadow on a road we were travelling gave way to a cliff then was back to meadow  in less than 5 minutes . . . nothing in Yellowstone was constant or made sense.  It was disorienting-ly beautiful , in what I imagine would be a Jurassic Park kind of way.

When we paid our entrance fee at the Roosevelt Arch, which is the North Entrance, the ranger enclosed a yellow slip of paper about bears.  I remember seeing the phrase: “your safety in the Park is not guaranteed”


As we drove the 80-mile distance across the park (that I didn’t know was an active  super volcano)  tracing roads with steep grades and switchbacks – from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt to Canyon Village and back again-  I held on to a handle in the car, leaning my body in toward my husband, away from the cliff face, as though the silver metal of our Volvo would protect me and my weight could shift the car away from the caldera’s edge.  How crazy is that? and yet, I did it and closed my eyes pretending the precipice not there.

The emotions I felt at the end of each day in the Park were gratitude and awe.

On the drive home to Chicago from Yellowstone, however, I experienced the kind of acute anxiety you are prescribed medicine for (or maybe even are hospitalized for.)  It began as I started my share of that day’s driving (2 hours of the 10 we planned). We were somewhere in Wyoming or maybe it was Montana – some state where there was a posted speed limit of 80 miles per hour.  I remember the hills on the highway all seemed the same brownish color and you couldn’t see over them, even after you’d crested them – it seemed they went on forever, twisting and turning into the horizon.   (There is a certainty of death crashing at that speed, isn’t there? I kept thinking this thought over and over – driving my own cumulative and compounded fear over its edge:  heart pounding, stomach tightening, leg muscles shaking, ribs aching, eyes darting, head clouding, voice shaking, words scrambling . . .

I felt so ashamed and weak as I braked too quickly at the exit ramp, pulling off the highway and stopping the car several feet from the curb so Mike could take over driving again.   

Fear is sometimes legitimate.  Sometimes danger is present – even in those moments when our breath catches at the beauty of a canyon or at the myriad of colors in a geo-thermal pool, thousands of degrees hot.    It is present in a field of alpine flowers where bison graze in the distance and a ranger has posted a note that there is bear activity due to a carcass on the trail you are walking on even as the June air is sweet and birds are calling with flute-like songs, and the breeze is the sound of kites catching –  against your ears – all so soothing and easing and meditative.

Sometimes danger is there, deceiving us.

Most times, though, it isn’t.