A discussion about death over orange juice

“You’ll die first.”

My five year old daughter said that to me about two weeks ago. It was 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I was leaning into the fridge reaching for some orange juice. She was between bites of her cereal, sounding chirpy and chipmunky as she usually does.

“You’ll die first.”

Do not underestimate the creepiness of hearing your kid say that to you. Even on a bright Saturday morning while you are in your bathrobe and she is in her snowman pjs and all is right with the world — it was super creepy**. I admit I laughed, snorted and gulped at the same time wondering if I was about to have a kindergartener-exorcist-experience and marveling at how unexpected this parenting stuff is.

I aimed for an attitude of nonchalant curiosity as I emerged from the fridge with the oj. “What do you mean, honey? Can you tell me more? Do you have a question?”

Turns out that she was just confirming a logical sequence that she’d worked out in her head….it goes a little like this:

When people get really old, they die. Mom is older than me. Mom will get really old before I get really old. Therefore, Mom will die before I will die.

Mom will die first (before me). Right, Mom?

Yeah, and it was only 8:00 a.m. 

I agreed that she was right, that I would die first. Yep, yep, you bet, don’t worry about that. Knowing my kid as I do, I know she was looking for comfort and the standard assurance that if I did something first than it wouldn’t be so scary for her. That is her clear preference for how things work in our little family world — her dad and I pave the way, act things out, model behaviors, act as examples, then she feels safe enough to try for herself. On that Saturday morning, her little brain whispered something unsettling about her own mortality; she wanted to make sure that someone else was on the hook to figure that out first. That would be me….on the hook.

It is a sobering thought that your kid is looking to you to model how to approach death — even in the simplest-five-year-old understanding of that concept — yes, that is a sobering thought over Cheerios and coffee and orange juice and slippers and snowman pjs. I didn’t know I was signing up for that when I saw the double pink line on the pregnancy test, you know?

It’s not surprising though, when I consider that this kid is watching me all the time for clues about how to live in this world and how to interpret the events and the people in it. She is all the time looking for indications about what is frightening and what is not, what is safe and what is not, how to treat people/guests/family/friends/neighbors/strangers, how to express herself, the rules of society, the rules of being female, the rules of being a child, and more…She is looking to me and the other adults in her life to model very complicated ways of operating in the world — so she knows how to be and, more importantly, what to expect.

What can she expect? What should she expect? She wants to know. Geez, so do I.

So, death. It comes up from time to time. We see dead birds or dead animals in the woods – we attended my grandmother’s funeral – her grandparents’ dog died – she hears some snippet of news or adults talking or conversation at school about people dying or getting killed. Fairly often, she comes to me with questions about people who died and what that means for them and for us and for her.

I don’t know the answers to any of this. I don’t know what it all means. Once she learns how to read my blog, she’ll know that.

So, we talk about death. We talk about how the body stops working when you die — no more breathing, playing, moving, eating, sleeping, etc. We talk about the permanence of that bodily change (she doesn’t believe in the permanence — not one bit — that’s ok). We talk about our souls and what a soul might be and where it goes after death. Once we get beyond what happens to the body, I answer almost all of her questions about death with my own question “What do you think happens?” Because I’m curious. Because I want her to think it through in a way that makes sense to her five-year-old-mind. Because I don’t know. Currently, she is certain that all souls go directly to Mars to hang out after death. Alright by me. Alright for now.

Mostly, when she comes to me with questions, she’s really asking if she’s safe, if we are going to leave her, and if anything bad is going to happen in the immediate future. I have spent a great deal of time googling ‘age-appropriate conversations about death and dying’ — what the hell, I don’t know how to talk about this — and I’m doing my best to comfort her without feeding her misinformation. I’m doing my best not to make it all sound scary (like how much it scares me) and instead to frame death as a transition, as a mystery, as an aspect of life that we all have in common. I’m doing my best to make sure that she understands that no discussion topic is taboo whether it’s dying or sex or bodies or whatever, and that emotion-laded topics are not to be feared.  In this family, emotions are not to be feared, they are to be shared…even grief, even fear, even confusion, even courage, even love.

Even as I try to comfort her and remind her that she is safe, I know that life and death cannot be controlled. Bad, sad shit happens — wrong and out of order and out of tune and way too soon. I know this. I can’t control it. I can’t anticipate it. One day, she’ll come to me with more questions that I cannot answer about life, death, meaning, fairness, fate, and the f-ed up turning-wheel-of-fortune. In those moments, I will try like hell to hold space for her and her questions, and trust that she will find her own answers over time, as we all must. (Deep breath, deep breath)

In the meantime, I guess I’m showing her how to approach life as well as death (even as I’m figuring that out for myself in real time). I’m engaging what is frightening and what is not, what is safe and what is not; I’m considering how to treat people/guests/family/friends/neighbors/strangers, how to express myself, the rules of society, the rules of being female, the rules of being a child, and more…I am wrestling with the very complicated ways of operating in the world in the presence of my daughter knowing that she can see me and she is watching me live my life. 

We talk about living during this living-alive-portion-of-my-life. Daughter, let’s talk about life! I do my best to comfort her without feeding her misinformation. I do my best not to make it all sound scary (like how much life scares me) and instead to frame life as a series of transitions, as a mystery, as something else that we all have in common.

Like death, life still happens, even if we ignore it. I don’t want to ignore either one.


Yes, I want her to be right about me ‘dying first’ (there’s something I never expected I would say).

Yes, that is ok with me.

I plan to live to hit the triple digits. If my soul goes to Mars when I’m 100, she’ll still be a spritely 65. As far as I’m concerned, ‘first’ doesn’t mean anytime soon.

Triple digits, baby.

** Unless you are a five-year-old innocent, please be cool and refrain from repeating this statement to me.

A rather cranky meditation on fear

I’ve done many things I regret*. (No, I’m not going to list them here. Hee.) A few very big things, many medium and small things, and hundreds of teeny thoughts or words or actions that pile up drop by drop over time. Here I am wading up to my knees in regrets – I wish I hadn’t ** I shouldn’t have ** I should have ** Why did I ** I wish I could GO BACK and do… ** How would things be now if I just did…?

Regrets swirling around me like Exxon Valdez-oil-spill water – chilly, thick, life-stealing. Mistakes and missteps. I am stained by them and stayed by them. Ruminating on the woulda, coulda, shouldas leads to regret-paralysis, and I am stuck – feeling  gross, ungrateful, angry, afraid, and deeply unattractive — unable to learn from the past, live in the present, or move freely into the future.

Here I am in this familiar territory (I must like it here, I go here a lot), soaked and cold like a stone, self-indulgent, whining, trying to make sense of the drop by drop by drop….

There are many strained metaphors we could employ at this point in the post to solve this ‘regret problem’ —  I could clean and wash away my regrets, I could pull the drain and let them go, I could just accept them and don a pair of stylish wading boots, I could turn up the compassion in my heart and let the regrets evaporate in that loving heat, or perhaps in some twist of fate, Deus Ex Machina style, someone could save me and haul me out of my regret soup and fly me off in a private helicopter to a paradise where regret couldn’t find me. I guess those are all possibilities or blog posts or whatever, but here’s the deal….here’s the damn discovery that I am working with and working with and working with and making frustratingly little progress….almost all (maybe ALL?) of the things that I regret doing were motivated by fear. Fear is my greatest regret. My greatest regrets are linked to the times I was most afraid. In my fear, I turn ungenerous, mean, angry, grasping and cold. I run run run. My thinking gets muddled, my heart is eclipsed – at best I am clumsy in thought and deed, at worst I am destructive – and these actions, no matter how compassionate I try to be toward myself after the fact – all translate to thorny sticking regret. Most of my bad decisions have been built on a foundation of fear.**

Once upon a time, during a therapy session, a woman wept about one of the BIG things she regretted doing and how disappointed she was to discover ‘she wasn’t the person she thought she was.’ Wise therapist responded, “Look, your fear kept you from being the person you are. Your fear obstructed your sight and restricted you from acting as your authentic self. Your mind created a vivid scary vision of the future that seemed real to you, so you freaked out. But fear isn’t reality, it’s just fear.”

Yeah, ‘just fear.’ Enlightening, sure (a life-changing conversation actually), but also a little overwhelming to someone who’s ‘just afraid’ of so many things, many of which she cannot even articulate. You might never guess this about her.

But it’s irritating, right? My fear is so annoying. And boring. Boring and annoying and persistent.  And I know that I’m not the only one with a made-up-never-gonna-happen-and-who-cares-if-does fear. I mean, what the hell? As people who are so privileged and lucky, who have so very much, what are we afraid of exactly? Really, what is there to be afraid of in our wonderful lives? Shame on me, shame on us for being so fearful. (Not a compassionate response, I know).  It’s ridiculous and embarrassing and disappointing and deeply human. I don’t want to be deeply human. I’d rather be a movie star instead. Sigh.

So, in a somewhat reluctant effort to step in the direction of a happier, lighter, and more equanimous life, I am working on this.  All roads seem to lead back to mastering, befriending, or getting around my fears. I suppose I have to deal with that. Boo. Hiss. Damn. Boo and hiss and damn.

I’ll get back to you about how exactly I’m going to deal with it. Dude, I can’t figure it out today.

As Fran says in Strictly Ballroom, “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived”. Right? [This is a fabulous movie directed by Baz Luhrman. I love Baz Lurhman. You should see it.] I’d like to do some whole-living,  please, as scary as that seems. I’d like to cha-cha down the yellow brick road and ask the Wizard of Oz for some courage, please, so that I can more fully realize the person I am.

Sorting out how to do this consistently  – to be brave or at ease or sit with my fear – this seems complicated and hard, and frankly, makes me feel all sorts of cranky. But geez, what is the alternative, really? A lifetime of regrets? A lifetime of having a heart that’s two sizes too small? A half-life?

*I’ve also done some things I definitely don’t regret like moving to NC, marrying my husband, becoming a mom, making theatre, and having some fabulous friends and family. So there’s that.

**It probably goes without saying, but I am not referring to legit fears about health, safety and well-being. Obviously, in those cases, it is wisest to listen to your body and your heart, take your fear seriously, and get help. It’s ok to ask for help when you are afraid. In this post, I’m referring to those gauzy ill-formed imagined fears that can make a person act unskillfully, such as fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking weak/stupid/ugly/dumb, fear of disappearing or being irrelevant, imposter syndrome, fear of being alone, fear of not having enough/being enough/doing enough, fear of missing out, fear of not leaving a legacy, etc….and of course those fears we can’t do anything about like the fear of getting older and of dying.

How to fall like a cat

I’m intensely afraid of falling. Roller coasters? Um, an emphatic NO THANK YOU. I don’t have that fun kind of titillating scary wheeeee! experience on the coasters. I despise them. I fear them. Even riding the Ferris wheel at the NC State Fair has me muttering protective spells under my breath and trying not to show my 3 year old that I’m on the verge of passing out from fear. It’s funny — I’m not afraid of heights (as long as I am firmly strapped in to something sturdy that will not allow me to fall and does not move), and I’m not afraid of being upside down (fun!), or going very fast (fun!), or spinning (fun!), but I am truly undone by the sensation of falling.

Now if you were me, you might mull on this fear of falling and engage in strange internet research about ‘how to survive falls from a great height’. You might consider whether you had a metaphorical fear of falling as well, and you might discover that indeed you are afraid of any kind of falling — the literal and the metaphorical. You might spend a lot of time staring at your cats and marveling at the feline ability to survive falls.* Then you might ask yourself the question, “How can I fall like a cat?”. [Wow, if you were me, then you’d do exactly what I did. Amazing!]

Of course, I’m not literally asking “How can I fall like a cat?” because I’m not a cat and I’m not actually going to cure myself of roller coaster fears. My band aid approach for that is simply not to ride them. Ever. But metaphorically speaking, I like the rush of spending time high up in the trees of art and ideas, cavorting and pouncing along with other folks, and once in awhile I miss the next branch or someone knocks me off. Knowing how to survive a fall is essential for creative, risk-taking, vulnerable lives.

Who am I? A cat reflects.

So, if you haven’t done your pre-reading on cat-falling, I recommend the great post on the blog Science-based Life titled “How do cats survive falls from great heights?”. Check it out for details and some good falling cat photos. There’s also a quote below from the Animal Planet site.

How do cats manage to take falling so easily? For one thing, in comparison to human beings, a cat is much smaller and lighter. Also, a cat has more body surface area in proportion to its weight than a human being has. This increase in surface area results in greater air resistance, which slows the fall. The important thing, however, is that a falling cat apparently positions itself to form a sort of parachute. Less than one second after it starts to fall, a cat quickly rights itself in midair with all four legs pointing downward. The cat’s inner ears act like an internal gyroscope, telling the cat which direction it is falling. With the legs pointed downward, the cat then spreads its legs so that its body forms a sort of parachute that increases air resistance. With its limbs flexed, the cat also cushions the force of impact by landing on all four legs. The force of the impact is distributed through the muscles and joints.

So, this is a little odd, but I’ve assembled a list of tips to help me ‘make like a falling cat’ when things go unexpectedly wrong in my life. You’ll see them below. Hopefully these will allow all of us to walk away from a fall relatively unscathed.

How to fall like a cat (not literally, just when things go wrong in your life and you feel like you are speeding toward the ground):

Tip 1: Stay light. Cats are smaller and lighter than humans. They don’t jump around in the trees with their baggage strapped to their backs. They don’t carry years of unresolved resentments, expectations, and therapy-worthy self-talk as they cavort among the branches. All of that junk just falls with you (and on you) when you hit the ground. If you don’t carry it, it can’t fall on you. So let it go before you go climbing up high. Stay light, step lightly, take things lightly.

Tip 2: Increase surface area. I don’t know about you, but when I feel things are ‘going south’, I want to roll up into myself like a human cannonball. However, when we feel the sensation of falling, let’s resist our hedgehog nature, ok? Cats don’t contract. Rather, they make like a parachute and stretch out their limbs, increasing surface area to slow the fall. Increase your surface area by breathing and creating space in your body. Stretch out limbs and hands and face, and then ease into something that resembles a physically relaxed state. Ask your mind and heart to stay open to the experience. Reach out to people — not to drag them down with you, but so they can help you remain open (and perhaps they can lend you a hand). Breathe and open, open like a parachute to slow the fall.

Tip 3: Orient yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in the HOLY SH!T of falling and remain overwhelmed by it until you’ve hit the ground. However, if possible, and as soon as possible, orient yourself. Which way is up? Which way is down? What’s the landscape and where are you headed? What can you do? What resources are available to soften your landing? Understand what is happening in the moment. Orient yourself so you can land feet first.

Tip 4: Land on both feet. “Stick the landing” like the very best gymnast, and do your best not to land flat on your back, your head or your butt. A poor landing results in cats (and people) getting hurt and looking ridiculous. Landing on your feet requires orienting yourself (see tip above), an attitude of confidence and grace, acknowledging that you are falling, and the ability to respond to it. It also requires a lot of practice. Gulp.

How are you at falling? Do you have a literal fear that matches up nicely with a metaphorical fear? What are your ways of dealing with falling, with fear… with cats?

*P.S. No cats were harmed in the making of this blog post. Please respect and be kind to your cats.

Running toward monsters

If you ask my daughter what she’d like to be when she grows up, she’ll say a fairy-princess-ballerina. If anyone can do that, she’ll be the one. It’s been a long journey for us to Princessville. For a long time, I resisted cluttering her little girl life with what I considered to be the mind-numbing coquettishness of Disney prinnies, but with an admirable tenacity and sneakiness, those princesses have wormed their way into our lives (along with their fairy and ballerina cousins). She really loves their royal Pinknesses, and I’ve decided not to judge my daughter just because she wants to be a fairy-princess-ballerina. Heck, when I was little I wanted to be Carol Alt, the first female President of the United States. Plans change. And who am I to judge?

Monster-chases-the-Princess is her favorite game. She plays it with me, her dad, her little friends. Last time we played this game, I realized something very alarming. My daughter doesn’t run away. When she’s the princess, she doesn’t run. Sometimes she just freezes and squeals. Even worse, sometimes she runs toward the Monster and embraces it!


First, I tried coaching her (which was confusing when I was playing the Monster). “Run, honey, run away!” This had no effect. I called my husband and told him that we needed to enroll her in Tae Kwon Do immediately so she could learn to defend herself. Forget this ballet class crap, if she wasn’t going to run, then she could at least learn how to punch and kick the Monsters in her life. “Why doesn’t she run when she’s scared?” I asked him, “Why doesn’t she run away?”

As you can probably tell, I fastened a metaphor jetpack onto this incident and blew it up to signify that she would be taken advantage of by her friends, she would never defend herself, she would stick around even if things or people got scary, she would be too nice for her own good. I flew into a complete and utter panic.

But here’s the thing…I’m a runner. Not physically of course (ewww!), but metaphorically speaking, my tendency is to roll out when things get tough. When my Monsters come calling, I look for the exit sign and employ the strategies of get out, slip out, cut people out, make it go away, and leave. It’s true I’m peaceable, I avoid conflict, I have an appropriately developed sense of self-preservation, but mostly I’m just scared to stick around and deal with the hard bits in life. I’m still learning there’s a difference between ‘hard’ and ‘bad’. And I’m still learning that fear is just a feeling, just a state of mind. Thus far in my life, running from my Monsters has not helped me get away from them. In fact, I just used up a lot of energy and money moving me (and my Monsters) around.

So there’s something beautiful about my daughter’s willingness to run toward her Monster even if it’s just a silly game that she plays with her mom. There’s something touching about her willingness to embrace what scares her (because she really does get scared every time). And something wise about her knowing which is a real Monster and which is a pretend Monster. The pretend Monsters aren’t worth running from, you know?

The adult version of this running-toward-monsters seems hard. I’m gonna try it.

So, tell me…What’s your strategy when your ‘Monsters’ come calling? Has that strategy changed over time? How do you keep yourself brave and steady when things get tough?

P.S. In the event of a real Monster or other dangerous situation, run! If you find yourself in an unsafe situation of any kind, then do what you need to do to stay safe — no running toward real monsters! Find yourself a police officer, therapist, or reliable friend to help you out. In this post, I’m talking about those seemingly scary and anxiety-inducing messages we tell ourselves that are simply just unhelpful interpretations of our lives.