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

I will remember you


2939612_sI love Sarah MacLachlan’s song I will remember you – you will hear me singing it often to myself when I am holding the story I’ve yet to birth in my heart.  When I do that, I feel this beautiful feeling, this warm sense of something larger than I am inside.  The feeling is resonant of that sweet stretch of  an April day when I  knew my daughter Katie would be born, but chose to keep the knowledge secret, this constant, bearable labor – an echo of a Christmas Bible verse I love:

” But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Luke 2:19: 


On that early March day in 2006, when I was diagnosed with cancer, the reality that I might not be there for my kids and my family struck first like a hot iron thrust in my center – I’m not ready-I’m-not-ready-I’m-not-ready was all I felt, as these stormy waves of fear and sadness passed through me,  sweeping me under. 

On that same day, I also thought of the story I’m speaking of (the one in the box in the closet)  and panicked –  if I wasn’t here, no one else would write it, and the world would never know the profound impact this one child had had on my life.


That September,  I applied for a writing residency at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, WA.  It was my 4th or 5th time applying. Here is part of my essay:

The piece I am creating is, by its nature, going to be a painful, like birth I imagine.  The places that I will need to go in my heart and mind are dark and uncomfortable ones: the murder of a child; a mother’s struggle with post-partum depression; and the gaping-hole-in-the-heart that is September 11.  Being diagnosed with breast cancer last March was probably the best and worst thing ever to happen to me. Cancer broke me, forced me to look in the mirror at the woman and mother I had become.  I had not recognized how isolated I was; how much I was taking my children and family for granted; how little of life I was allowing myself to experience.  I had built an iron wall around my heart, dug a moat around my life, and kept the drawbridge up and closed.

I can write this story now because I am here and alive to tell it.

My application was rejected (wisely).  And while I began an application again the following September, but in the midst of divorce, I needed to let it go . . .


The truth is:  I am afraid.

I am afraid that once I finish this piece (the one boxed up in the closet marked: Open on Mother’s Day 2016), and it is out there in the world, I will have accomplished all I am have been called to do in this One Beautiful Life.  That  the cancer will come back.  That I will die.

[Typing this now, though, I can see the frayed and irrational connection my mind has made – between this story and my health. As though by not writing it, I could somehow  keep Death over there, at someone else’s door]

Sarah MacLachlan sings:
I’m so afraid to love you, but more afraid to lose

Clinging to a past that doesn’t let me choose
Once there was a darkness, deep and endless night
You gave me everything you had, oh you gave me light


I didn’t directly answer the Quest 2016 prompt this time.  Instead, this piece emerged  when I held on to Seth Godin’s question:

Theme:  Imagine Your Future While Being Wholly Present
Seth Godin

Prompt:  “Would they miss you if you were gone?  What would have to change for that question to lead to a better answer?”

Would they miss me if I were gone?  All depends on who “they” is.

  • My children & Mike and my parents and my family (and of course the dogs, but probably not the cat) would miss me.  So much so it breaks my heart to think of their pain.
  • The few friends I have would miss me.   A little bit. (I’ve kept myself hidden from them for the most part anyway)
  • My corporate work colleagues would be shocked and some sad, but only for a moment, barely a breath.   Sure, there would be a flurry of activity trying to piece together budgets and understand where things are and how to cover my role.  But soon it would be like I had never been there.  I know this.  I’ve watched death visit  here too many times, in my 22+ year career.
  • Readers here might miss me  though, the sad truth is that they wouldn’t really know how much.   Because I don’t show up consistently for them.  And up to this point, I have not been  brave enough to finish the story and send it out into the world: to race it down the beach – smiling, laughing, child-like – to catch the breeze and to watch it rise and hold, and then hold and hold, tugging at its string – this soaring beauty cast against a wider sky.

The birth of the story I am to write has required an unusually long gestation and a great love.  It will also require great courage.


Seth Godin is the author of 18 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything.


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.

A full week without writing

A full week without writing.

Let me sit
and let the fact
drift into vision:

It is a prairie in June
dreamy with
brushing cheeks
pedaling forward

A full week without writing.
Let me sit
and let the fact
enter into body:

It is a communion wafer
on warm tongue of veiled girl
its full moon
bright and luminous
and haunting.

A full week without writing.
Let me sit
and let the fact
fall into soul:

It is presence in seated meditation
with breath
deep and down and wide
deep and down and wide
thoughts passing by like clouds.

boy at airport

My first-born-17-year-old child
is in flight
ripped away
from mother earth
and catapulted into
lower stratosphere
now 4,510 miles
beyond my view

I am a mother.
(I am his mother)
injected with pitocin
without my seeing the needle
and now this second knifing labor has come on
too fast, too hard.

I cry.

My heart and center
stretching so wide,
then contracting back
resisting the tide
racing out, rushing in

It aches,
this letting go

Yet, I pray the labor to be long.

I am a mother
letting go
and loving still,
and letting go
and loving still
ever still.

A full week without writing,
May I be
such a week
many times over

Reader, Reader, what do you see?

Thank you, Eric Carle & Bill Martin, Jr.
Thank you, Eric Carle & Bill Martin, Jr.

Reader, Reader, what do you see?

I see a Writer looking at me.

Writer, Writer, what do you see?

I see a Reader looking at me.

With gratitude (and a wink) to Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle for creating the picture book Brown Bear, Brown Bear

In my memory, it is summer and there is still light in the sky and my child is small enough to curl into that soft safe space that is my bent arm and lap.  And I am rocking in that old white-wicker chair, with the milky breath of my child warm on my skin, talking low: 

Blue Horse, Blue Horse, what do you see?
I see a Purple Cat looking at me.
Purple Cat, Purple Cat, what do you see?
I see White Dog looking at me.
White Dog, White Dog, what do you see . . .

How wonderful it is that a story can exist inside us, while holding us, at the same time.

“You are young. So you know everything”

Day 4 - the churn of the water I love the Mary Oliver poem West Wind #2 and have it here at my desk as a daily reminder to myself to “row, row for your life toward it”

When I was young and a new mother, I used to walk everyday, pretty much all day, with my months-old son Ben in his stroller.  We would first walk to the Green Mountain coffee shop next to Anderson’s bookstore, where I met Jay (my ex-husband and actor and bookseller) and stepped forward together into the dark & passionate maelstrom that would be our new life together.

I remember every morning I used to order a low-fat peach-berry-crunch muffin, which made me feel justified and good, but never satisfied.  Everyone knew me there.   Mothers coo-ed at the sweet little boy tucked in blankets.  I don’t know what I did – if I was reading or writing or just sitting there with my warm mug of coffee.

I wonder what they must have thought of me, there everyday, alone with this baby for hours.

After breakfast, I would walk the meandering brick path, running on both the north and south banks of the DuPage River.  I’d listen and watch the water flowing across the rocks, notice the ducks arguing, and stop at the same picnic shelter, when Ben would need his bottle or to be changed.  He never seemed to mind the day-long walks.  He’d look up at me in bright wonder.  I wonder what he saw?

I thought I wanted to be a stay-at-home mother.  I thought that was the best thing for a child – just like breast feeding & cloth diapers, which lasted, for me & Ben, only 3 days, if that.   But I wasn’t very good at being a stay-at-home mother.  I was restless. Purposeless. I was sad and lonely.  Motherhood  wasn’t what I dreamed it would be like.

I know now that going back to work in corporate America, was a good thing for me, yet, then I resented it so much. This wasn’t what I was supposed to be when I grew up, why I went to college, it wasn’t what my parents dreamed for me.

I always believed that being a wife and mother (and possibly a part-time florist or cake decorator, writer, or weirdly, a park ranger) was the right thing for me – to raise children, to create and hold together a family.  It certainly wasn’t my dream to commute to Chicago 5 days a week and send my child to daycare.

And god, how I blamed my ex-husband in every way possible, that I couldn’t choose to stay home with our son, like so many more affluent women in our town.  I was so jealous of the women and their organized playgroups – all of them seemed so adept at what I struggled with – being a mother to an infant and toddler.

Instead I spent those days in a heavy grey fog of depression.

Once I remember saying to my own mother (and knowing it was true) that Ben was in better hands with our home daycare provider Cindy.  She was so gifted at helping young children thrive – Ben loved being in her home, with the other kids his age – watching trucks rumble down the road, playing outside in the sandbox, going to story time at the library.  He loved Cindy. Sometimes, he would mistakenly call her “mom” when we were leaving her home at the end of the day and saying goodbye.  That hurt a lot to hear.  But I swallowed it and smiled.

If I wasn’t a stay-at-home mother (and part-time florist/bookstore worker/coffee shop waitress/writer in blue-felt hat), what was I?  

What was I called to do?  when would I feel “the mist on (my) mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming”?

So you will forgive me for hesitating and resisting packing away the Story that I thought I was called to write.  You will forgive me my fear of letting that Story go and turning away from rowing towards that “unmistakable pounding”.  Because then, what am I?

I am drifting in too-calm waters, purposeless

Yet, I wonder, could it be, that even at 48, I am still that young woman Mary Oliver’s poem calls to?  I don’t know, but I have lifted the oars anyway, and am listening.  Are you?

West Wind #2

You are young.  So you know everything.  You leap
into the boat and begin rowing.  But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul.  Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me.  There is life without love.  It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe.  It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied.  When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable
pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life
toward it.

~ Mary Oliver ~

And from Roger Housden’s “Ten Poems to Open Your Heart” – the opening coda to his discussion on this poem is a quote from Mary Oliver:

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force.  For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down for the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.  Yes indeed.”