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Articles, Equally Wed, featured

Feeling visible: filing together as a married lesbian couple should

kirsten-maria-june-lesbian-wedding-decatur

It’s tax day, and I’m feeling visible, which is a pretty damn spectacular feeling for someone who has felt invisible in her country for the past five years of being married to the woman I love. We have been together for 10 years, married for five, and, in the legal eyes of New York and every other state that recognizes marriage equality, we’ve been legally married for almost three years.

I can’t say I love tax day now. Who loves tax day besides the IRS and the accountants who make a steal of a living off of us? Nobody else! But this year, my wife and I were able to file our federal taxes together. It was huge! A victory! I feel accomplished and validated and recognized—our love is real, it is tender, it is meaningful. We make our home together. We’ve made two children together. We are in love and, most of the time, we like each other, too.

Last year, in June 2013, SCOTUS declared that the federal government would recognize our marriage if we had been issued a legally recognized marriage certificate. My wife and I, who live in Georgia, had flown to New York in August 2011, to become legal spouses. What did that mean for us as Georgians and Americans? Nothing on a technical level. Not on the surface, at least. But it recorded our relationship and commitment to each other in a legal form that suddenly was no longer discriminatory. But more than that, it enabled us to be seen as a valid couple by society at large.

Every time I am able to tell a Georgia resident that I have a wife—and they pause but say nothing or they look me square in the eye and say, “Is that legal now?” I am afforded an opportunity to gracefully share a learning experience that my wife and I are just the same as that person and their spouse, and we deserve equal marriage rights.

maria-kirsten-lesbian-legal-marriageOftentimes, nothing more is said. It’s not needed. No one wants to be lectured to. Not my 3-year-old sons, and not the 40-year-old cashier at my grocery store who just asked me if one of my children looks like his daddy. I take a more vocal stand when I can, going on CNN to discuss marriage equality, writing letters to my senators, reporting on marriage equality news and showcasing same-sex weddings in our magazine, giving visibility to lesbian, gay, trans and queer couples. But in my day-to-day life outside of Equally Wed, my stand is subtle yet strong: I live my love out loud. Even in Georgia, where our marriage is not recognized in the slightest bit.

Thank goodness we were able to both become legal parents of the children we created and are raising with love and devotion. We took great legal and financial measures to ensure that we have all the legal powers we need to make decisions for each other and our children should we ever need to. But if Maria and I were able to have marriage equality in Georgia, we wouldn’t have to get those documents drawn up or shell out thousands of dollars to acquire the protections our straight neighbors are afforded the moment they sign their marriage licenses. And there are many counties in this state where we dare not travel without these papers.

It is my sincere hope that we will have a bill for marriage equality in Georgia drafted soon (Karla Drenner, I’m looking at you, dear). The state’s constitution explicitly banned gays and lesbians from legally marrying in Georgia in 1996. Because it wasn’t enough to just not allow it before then. They had to get it written into their books, dammit. Before the crazy gays took over marriage and burned their traditions of love and long-lasting commitment to the ground! We make up less than 4 percent of the population of this country, and even if we were larger in number, I just cannot understand the threat to humanity of letting us marry each other. For the love, it’s not like we’re asking for the legal rights to forcing a straight person to be married to us. Oh, I could go on and on. But one day soon, I hope we do have countrywide marriage equality. I am so thankful to the work that Freedom to Marry, the HRC and many other organizations are doing on a national level, and that Georgia Equality is doing on a state level. To that end, Georgia Equality has set up a petition for Georgia to allow legally married same-sex couples to file state taxes together. If you’re a tax payer in Georgia, we could use your voice. Please add your name to it!

We have much work to do, but I am reveling in the victory of filing our federal taxes together. Commence happy dancing feet!

Photos: Our Labor of Love, Entwined Studio

This article was first published on equallywed.com on April 15, 2014.

Articles, featured, travel, weddings

Oceanside wellness: A bliss-filled Caribbean adventure on the Riviera Maya

The second longest coral barrier reef in the world stretches from Roatan, Honduras, to Cancún, Mexico. In the lush tropical jungle of Cancún, a host of activities await travelers, from the adventurous set, such as snorkeling, scuba diving, ruins exploring, swimming in cenotes (sinkholes) and sailing to the honeymooners seeking respite from months of charting seats, writing vows, interviewing vendors and managing the full-time job of planning a wedding.

banyan-tree-mayakoba-gay-honeymoon-mexico

Cancún is situated on the Riviera Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula. As vacation destinations go, Cancún is relatively new on the scene. Up until about 30 years ago, it was a dense jungle. Underneath, water runs freely from the river to the peninsula to the Caribbean Sea. An easy drive from Cancún is the sanctuary of Banyan Tree Mayakoba, a luxury resort attached to a heralded brand of international hotel chains known for its superior service.

playa-del-carmen-john-gray-duck
Duck breast with chipotle, tequila and honey at
John Gray Restaurant in Playa del Carmen

Everything that goes on behind the gates of the Banyan Tree Mayakoba caters to the guest. It’s a honeymoon destination all on its own. Though there’s plenty of exploring to be done off property—from visiting ruins of ancient cities like Tulum and Cobá, and exploring eco parks with knowledgeable guides to shopping and dining out in Playa del Carmen at notable restaurants such as John Gray—there’s so much to keep you occupied and satisfied at the resort. It all depends on the type of honeymoon you want to have.

banyan-tree-mayakoba-villa-mexico

Guests stay in private villas at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba. Every villa is outfitted with its own small pools, in-ground hot tubs, a hammock and a view of the water, whether it’s the canal or the Caribbean Sea. The villas are discreetly built into the carefully conserved landscape, which preserves four ecosystems in balance—the mangroves, dunes, low forests and coral reefs. To get around the property, guests can call for a golf cart pick-up or rent a bicycle from the front desk for $10 a day. Without a doubt, rent bikes for you and your new spouse. The resort’s property extends all the way to the Caribbean Sea. When you hop on your bike, you can cycle by mangroves, along canals, wind your way through the resort’s award-winning golf course, spot lizards sunning their dry bodies in the Mexican warmth and arrive at the sugary white sand and turquoise waters.

banyan-tree-mayakoba-gay-honymoon-mexico-sands-beach
Sands, Banyan Tree Mayakoba’s ocean-front restaurant

Here, the resort’s al fresco beach restaurant caters to refined palates with fresh sea food, authentic Mexican dishes and light fare. The bright white building is U-shaped and spills into an inviting pool with swim-up bar, leading to the ocean. Bartenders service at any lounge chair, so go on and relax.

A myriad of dining experiences abound at Banyan Tree Mayakoba with trained chefs at all the restaurants, from the elaborate breakfast smorgasbord laden with food from around the world to the aforementioned beach club to the upscale Asian-inspired Thai restaurant situated over the peaceful canals.

Because the resort is built around canals, the spiritual sense of moving water is quite calming. Boat operators are stationed around the property to taxi you back and forth from the beach to the main building. To better understand the eco-system, charter the taxi with a nature guide to tour the canals. Mangrove boat tours run three times a week, and provide a special opportunity to spot wildlife, from blue herons, gray herons, snowy egrets, crocodiles to great blue herons, the biggest in North America. There are 13 kilometers of artificial canals on property, but natural water from the sea flows throughout.

banyan-tree-mayakoba-beach-gay-wedding-mexico

There’s no shortage of romance at Banyan Tree Mayakoba, and the staff is generous with its pampering for all couples, straight or gay. To customize your love-themed visit, the property created an Experience Department, staffed with a romance and events manager and a romance coordinator. Options range from in-villa dining, where a chef privately prepares a lavish barbecue by your pool for you, to assisting you in planning your wedding ceremony at the resort. The expansive property boasts ample rooms for any size reception, as well as its own florist and catering staff. But the allure of marrying here is having an authentic Mayan ceremony, performed by a real shaman, who doesn’t discriminate against same-sex couples. Tied together through a spiritual ceremony celebrating the bonds of nature and each other, marrying in the Mayan tradition is a rare experience. Couples can arrange it all through the Experience Department, even ordering custom traditional Mayan wedding attire. The ceremony is available in your villa (for up to 10 guests) or surfside, and includes local floral decorations, Mayan musicians and a traditional performance during the ceremony .Packages starting at $2,200 include all of the aforementioned with an in-villa wedding, plus one 90 minute massage session for two at the award-winning spa and a dinner for two at Saffron, the resort’s fine dining restaurant, which includes one bottle of wine.

banyan-tree-mayakoba-spa-massage-gay-honeymoon

Though most resorts can boast a spa, Banyan Tree Mayakoba has the market on the serenity with its exclusive Rainforest experience, involving an intense pampering session through seven stations which titillate all the senses, from showers replicating tropical waters with a rainbow of lights and a medley of sounds to an avocado body mask to an invigorating body scrub of papaya to a plunge into the warm bubbling indoor vitality pool. Finish it off with an authentic Thai massage from a limber table-climbing therapist, and collapse on each other in your villa until you’ve got enough energy to hop on the water taxi to take in more of the Caribbean Sea.

WHEN TO GO:
The temperature is a comfortable 80 degrees year-round. For a beach wedding at sunset, April is ideal. September is the rainiest month. Hurricane season runs from June through November.

GETTING THERE: 
Fly into Cancún International Airport. Banyan Tree Mayakoba is an easy 45-minute drive. Arrange transportation through the resort.

ACTIVITIES:
All activities referenced can be arranged through the resort.

RATES:
Villa rentals start at $565 a night.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Banyan Tree Mayakoba
Carretera Federal Chetumal-Puerto Juárez Km. 298
77710 Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Tel. +52 984 877 3688

John Gray’s Downtown
Av. Xpuhil, SM 19 Mz 2, Lt 24. , Cancun
Tel. 998.883.98.00

Photos: duck dish courtesy of John Gray; all others courtesy of Banyan Tree Mayakoba

 

Editor’s note: This article was first published on Jan. 30, 2012 on equallywed.com.

 

Articles, featured, Fitness & Health, Food & Health, writing

A juice cleanse before the wedding

Warning: This isn’t a “how to lose weight in X amount of days before your wedding” article. Fact: I loathe those types of articles.

I was the kind of bride who eagerly showed up to cake-tasting appointments hoping to try all the flavors, not just the three I’d selected. Sorry, not sorry.

But beyond my personal weakness for sugar, there’s a difference between getting skinny for someone else’s vision for the perfect bridal size and achieving a state of wellness. That’s what I want to talk to you about today.

rainbow-juice-cleanse-book

There’s a new nutrition book that piqued my interest: The Rainbow Juice Cleanse: Lose Weight, Boost Energy and Supercharge Your Health by Dr. Ginger Southall
 (Running Press,
 April 2015, 
$17.00). The tummy-toning tome focuses on how juicing popular high-glycemic vegetables will affect the intricate physiology of the body. Each day of the program focuses on a different color of the rainbow—that is, drinking different colored veggies each day of the cleanse—ensuring the best possible nutrition profile and guaranteeing positive results.

While Dr. Southall’s book, The Rainbow Juice Cleanse, does promise losing seven pounds in seven days, those are likely seven pounds of gross things you don’t even want to know about. Toxic sh*t you need to get rid of. She also boasts that her book will help you boost your energy levels and supercharge your health. Well, I took her challenge—not the seven-day one (yet!), but I have felt extra wonderful when I’ve drank her recipes, so without further ado, let me show you what I did with her book, a trip to the farmer’s market, my newest kitchen toy, Omega juicer (NC800 series), and my Kenwood X-Pro blender (which I seriously don’t think I could live without in the summer or winter because it blends both hot and cold foods).

The first recipe I made was what Dr. Southall explains is definitely not juicing. It’s a smoothie. It’s a way to get your taste buds ready for the change that’s coming your way when you start replacing meals with liquid veggies. And these are veggies, not fruit. One tip I’ll never forget from her is “Eat your fruit, drink your veggies.” She’s still pro-fruit, but she explains over several useful pages how fruit is full of sugar, and how “eating whole fruit, with its fiber and full nutritional and phytonutrient package, is entirely different than drinking a glass of condensed fruit juice or even adding a few pieces of fruit in your veggie juice. This is especially true for someone facing a health challenge (as most of us are today) and for those trying to lose weight. From a healing and weight loss perspective, try to keep your total fruit consumption between 5 and 10 percent of your total daily calorie intake. The cleaner and healthier you become, the better your body can handle fruits and even fruit juice.”

Eat your fruit, drink your veggies.

— Dr. Ginger Southall

OK, doc. With that lesson, I think we’re ready to dive into Drink No. 1 that I tried, the Green Cilantro Smoothie, which was positively delicious, tangy, refreshing and filling.

 

 

Next, I made the Thai One on Tonic. Honestly, this one made me want to break up with cauliflower, for like, forever. But, it’s packed with many of the B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and omega-3s, which promote healthy sugar metabolism, according to Dr. Ginger, which she says helps with blood sugar stabilization. So I mentally pushed myself to finish it, and I was proud that I chugged it down. It tasted good, but it was more like a creamy soup. Mixing in some (pure) stevia and pouring it over ice could really help.

 

The Red Pepper-Mint Juice might resemble a Bloody Mary in appearance, but don’t add any vodka if you’re going for a cleanse. It’s full of vitamin E, manganese and more than 30 known members of the carotenoid phytonutrient family!

 

 

All photos except book by Kirsten Ott. Recipes copyright Dr. Ginger Southall, The Rainbow Juice Cleanse.

This article was first published on Equally Wed Magazine.

Articles, featured, Portfolio

Transcending time

Atlanta author Colleen Oakley wins hearts with first novel ‘Before I Go’

This article was originally published in the Jan./Feb. print issue of The Atlantan. Written by Kirsten Ott.

before-i-go-book-cover-colleen-oakleyThe looming threat of mortality is inescapable in our lives, but most of us can shrug off thoughts about it. But for Daisy, a witty Athens, Ga., graduate student who is lucky enough to have found lasting, meaningful love early in life is also painfully unlucky enough to have twice developed cancer before she turns 30. The protagonist for debut author Atlanta author Colleen Oakley’s novel Before I Go (Jan. 6, 2015, Simon & Schuster) is faced with a heartbreaking challenge when she learns that her breast cancer has returned, it’s in stage four, and she will not survive the year. Daisy’s husband, Jack, is a devoted guy with terrible life skills when it comes to pulling together the four basic food groups into an assemblage of a healthy meal, and unsurprisingly, Daisy’s more concerned about Jack’s future than she is her own. Putting his needs before her own health, Daisy starts looking for a replacement wife for him before she makes Jack a widow, employing her best friend Kayleigh to scout out potential suitors for her husband on dating sites and in coffee shops. Naturally, hilarity and hijinks ensue.

 

 

Colleen Oakley

Author Colleen Oakley Photo: C. Noel

Oakley expertly woos readers into Daisy and Jack’s love story with well-woven story arcs and characters you can root for. Her career as a former magazine editor and current freelance magazine journalist make Oakley a natural narrator, and it was one particular subject who sparked the creative juices for this book. “The inspiration for Before I Go hit when I got an assignment from an editor to interview a woman who was dying of metastasized breast cancer. It was a powerful interview for many reasons, but what struck me the hardest was the fact that she was around my age — late 20s at the time — so I couldn’t help but put myself in her shoes. I was a newlywed, and it surprised me that my first thought wasn’t ‘what would I do if I was dying?’ but ‘what would my husband do?’”

 

INKWELL

KO: What have you learned from this experience of writing (and publishing) your first book?

CO: “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I can actually do it. Writing a book is one of those things that I always vaguely said I’d do — like becoming fluent in Italian and moving to Capri — but I’m not sure I ever really believed I could. You type that first sentence, or first page, and realize you still have 300+ pages to go. It seems impossible. But then there’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment when you write those two little words: “The end.” I imagine it’s a lot like running one of those ultra 100-mile marathons, but with less sweat and blisters. (Probably the same amount of cursing though.)”

BEFORE I GO LAUNCH PARTY

Benefitting Susan G. Komen for the Cure

WHEN: Jan. 6, 2015, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

WHERE: Room & Board, 1170 Howell Mill Road NW

COST: Free; raffle tickets and book available for purchase at event

RSVP: colleenoakley.com

Articles, Atlanta, featured, restaurants, writing

Brewed to perfection

New Atlanta gastropub delivers a myriad of beers hailing from Atlanta to Belgium

By Kirsten Ott Palladino

ormsbys-atlanta

Tucked away in the bottom of the White Provision building (a former meat-packing plant in the early 20th century) on the Westside of Atlanta is Ormsby’s, a self-proclaimed good place to be. Co-owner Michael Goot won’t exactly confess to it being either a pub, speakeasy or a tavern, but the low lighting, dark milled walnut floors, oak booths, copper-topped bar with mahogany leanings, slightly secretive location with just a metal-worked O hanging by the front door and casual atmosphere of good times speak for themselves. The newly minted restaurant opened in December 2009, and has been packed most every night. The camaraderie found at Ormsby’s is scholarly in a grad student/professor way, but the fun to be had is for all drinking ages and personalities: A flight of stairs below the restaurant is a host of games, ranging from bocce ball, darts, pool, shuffleboard, ’80s videogames (think Donkey Kong, Pac-Man) and even Skee Ball is in the works for April. Ormsby’s is a collaboration between Michael Goot, a man whose work history is steeped in beer, and Warren Bruno, who opened his first bar in Atlanta in 1974. This is Bruno’s 12th bar, and he says it’s his final. He had a bocce ball court at his first one, and to bring it full circle, he wanted to have the precision game available at his last venture. Bruno also owns Atkins Park Tavern, Atlanta’s longest-standing bar and restaurant, which has two locations. The pair looked to Executive Chef Andrew Smith to design their easygoing but respectable menu, which features American-style pub dishes such as house-made sausage, hand-dipped corn dogs, New England clam chowder, bratwurst, fried cod, veal and mushroom meatballs, as well as more than 10 hearty sandwiches. But the real shining star of Ormsby’s is the beer. With more than 20 offerings on draft and 45 to 50 bottle brands available on any given day, it’s no wonder beerophiles flock to this hidden gem. Choices abound, from complex Belgian beers like Dupont Fore, which has the “Belgian funk,” according to Goot, because of its orientation in a Belgian farmhouse where the windows stay open to allow the yeast to blow in from the farm (also known as spontaneous fermentation) to simple craft beers like Avery Ellie’s Brown Ales from Boulder, Colo., which shines with vitality. Local Atlanta beer is a top seller, especially SweetWater 420 Extra Pale Ale, with hoppy characteristics and a crisp finish. Trappist beers like St. Bernardus Abt12, a dark ivory-colored beer with a high fermentation, is on draft, while St. Bernardus Prior 8, a fruity malt with a purple-ruby hue, is available by the bottle. While no favorites ever leave the beer menu, Goot continues to tweak the list to continue to intrigue and satiate Atlanta’s thirsty palate.

st-bernardus-649x3901

THE PERFECT PAIR

Savor the weekly special pot roast braised in red wine and served with root vegetables and buttered noodles with the notes of fig, raisin and dark stone fruit in Dogfish Head Paulo Santo.

Loop your fingers through local pale ale-battered onion rings, and wash it down with Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, a light, citrus IPA.

Southern hospitality takes center stage with shrimp and grits, roasted peppers, caramelized onions and cream sherry. The spice in Dupont Foret Organic keeps up nicely.

The spicy orange blossom, caramel malt and crisp hop at the end of the Ommegang Rare Vos Amber Ale balances out the spicy lamb merguez (sausage) with Tzatziki sauce, cucumber and pickled red onion served gyro-style in a grilled pita.

This article was published in Draft Magazine.

Blog, featured, healing, loss, pain, the vivid life

I believe in angels

barn-owl

My dad may have left this earth five years ago, but I am positive he is still here with me now. I’ve often thought I felt his presence, but it’s easy to dismiss that and tell myself that I’m just feeling my love for him and wishing him near me. But this year, the year I’ve dubbed “The Loss of George,” my dad has been cradling me and he’s made sure I’ve known it.

When he passed away suddenly on October 3, 2008, we were all shocked. He was 61, a strapping handsome man who took care of himself with just the occasional sneak of a cookie package from his work vending machine. He had just started running again, he fished, he worked in the yard, took long walks with his dogs in the woods, he rode his horse, he loved his wife and family. He did a lot of living. And the face smack of his dropping dead for no apparent reason was life altering for me. The rosy world I knew became an awful shade of gray, and life’s meaning withered. As I was crumbling in my father’s and stepmother’s home the week after his passing, I happened to ask my stepmom about a small barn owl in the kitchen. She said in her sweetest voice that my dad had placed this owl in this very spot because he felt like it was his mom looking over him throughout his life. She passed it to me and said you should have it now so that you can feel your dad watching over you. I took the little taupe owl, no taller than 2 inches, detailed with feathers and a rounded head as a small slice of solace, offering a weepy thanks in return. My dad’s owl found a new perch on our mantel, and I often kissed it as a way of passing my physical affection on to my father, wherever he might be. “Hi dad,” I whisper almost daily, giving the little owl’s beak a tiny peck.

The end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 has by far been the most challenging time of my life as I spent nearly 15 weeks by my brother’s hospital bedside as he lay dying from severe acute pancreatitis at 36 years old. It was an emotional roller coaster that I couldn’t help but be on, and it was alarming when that ride crashed to a deathly end, dumping me out on the side of the rusty cart with little faith left in anything. As I walked out into the foggy gray February morning shrouded in George’s death, I was almost broken. And I’ve remained that way this year. Though my wife and sons bring me so much joy, anytime I got a rare moment alone, I’ve just broken down sobbing, wondering where my dear men are. My heart aches harder than I ever knew possible. It never helped that I felt like a complete orphan, having been also deserted by my biological mother. She’s a distant memory now, but the raw pain of losing my father, brother and mother all in one swoop of five years has been quite the cross to bear.

Soon after George passed away, I announced to my wife, Maria, that it was time for Operation Fold-in. I didn’t want to see anyone who didn’t have a huge place in my heart and who I felt didn’t hold me in theirs. And it was very telling after George passed who cared the most. These precious people are on my team in life, and I feel very much finished with doing any people-pleasing for the ones who just don’t matter as much. In this short lifetime, we only have a certain amount of time every day to spend our precious hours doing things that matter, and to me, that means spending time with the precious few loved ones I have left and making a difference in this world. I am now realizing that those two actions are intertwined; I only have to look to my two shortcakes to see how I can make an impact on this earth. During Operation Fold-in, I haven’t spent hours on the couch in a gray, depressed cloud. But rather I’ve chosen to make the most of every day with my children, wife, family and friends. This has meant declining social invitations where I knew I’d be in an empty fog listening to random people prattle on and on about small things. Small talk has no place in Operation Fold-in. As I said no to more invites, they dissipated on their own. As usual, after a certain amount of time has passed after a traumatic event, the music starts back up and people get on with their lives. It’s up to you to decide if you’re going to jump back into the party or dwell in solitude, nursing your wounds.

So when my friend and PR maven Jamie invited me to a soiree at her home in August, I said to myself, “It’s time to join the party.” Jamie also has lost a brother, so it seemed like a safe, nurturing place to begin my journey back into the social fold.

Jamie’s party showcased several small business owners she was introducing to the media, including a medium named Jennifer. She was doing private readings throughout the evening, and though I had not initially planned on having a reading, I was swayed by all the praise people were singing for her. Not just from the readings that night but from long-term relationships elite members of the media had with Jennifer, who had been dead-on with her predictions and connections with spirits. So I made an appointment to have my 20-minute session.

Jennifer was sitting quietly in Jamie’s bedroom waiting for me. One of her first sentences after welcoming me was that if I wanted to know about anyone living or dead that I just needed to tell her their first name. And so after a short time of getting her predictions of my own future, I asked her about George and Bruce. She told me first that they had both “crossed over” and they were together. Jennifer told me that George had died from something with his stomach, but that he’d contracted a virus in the woods that was undetectable by the time he’d gotten to the hospital. This made complete sense to me, and it left me feeling peaceful. George’s girlfriend had been told almost the very same thing a week ago from her psychic reading, and this was all without prompting from either of us. I had agonized about why George had pancreatitis, knowing most of the typical causes didn’t apply to my brother. Jennifer said that George was watching out for his two children and that he was at peace with his death. By this time, tears were running down my cheeks.

We moved onto Bruce (my father, but I didn’t mention this). Jennifer said some really lovely things about him as well, and it made me incredibly happy to hear that she felt like he was doing well in the afterlife. As we were wrapping up, I asked Jennifer if she believed that spirits visit us as butterflies, as I’d often heard. She said that sometimes that’s true, but that spirits will find a way to communicate with us in a way we’ll most recognize as a sign from them, something special and shared. For example, smelling a strong pot of coffee, when none is brewing, or feeling a warm sensation of heat enshroud your body as a spiritual embrace. I left the meeting feeling at peace. As I talked to myself in my head, I said even if that was fake, it felt good, and really, isn’t that all that matters?

As soon as I walked into Jamie’s hallway and several media friends looked into my tear-filled eyes, Jamie swooped in, looped her arm in mine and took me out to her deck to talk. She wanted to check on me about my grieving and be there for me in an empathetic way that’s just not possible from someone who’s never lost a sibling. As we were talking in the early dusky evening, something caught my eye over Jamie’s shoulder. It was a barn owl, perched on Jamie’s detached garage about 15 feet away from us, and he was staring directly at me. I said, “That is a gorgeous owl. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real owl outside of a zoo!” Jamie swiveled her neck, her red tresses swinging with her. And we both silently stared at the woodland creature so clearly out of his element on a busy city street. As I looked into its eyes, I felt more comfort than I ever have since my father was catapulted out of his physical life. Jamie and I both sat still, savoring the moment, which lasted at least 3 minutes. Maybe 10. Time wasn’t a factor in this generous visit. A friend of ours stepped out on the deck, caught a glimpse of the owl and went to grab Jamie’s camera for us. As she motioned for it, the owl dipped down off his roost, expanding his wings in full glory and soared away. Motionless, I sat. Once I gathered my feelings as much as I could, I told Jamie about my dad’s owl at home. It was such a gift to both of us to share in this moment together, and one I hold very dear to my heart.

 

 

 

 

featured, healing, recovery

Thanksgiving through the years: an attempt at gratitude after a loss

thanksgiving

Every year, Thanksgiving gets a little sadder for me. All holidays do. I was born into a small family—a mother who is an only child, a father whose only sibling lives in another state, and one brother. Growing up in Athens, Ga., was a lesson in Spartan familial ties and my brother—older by 18 months—and I were fiercely close (sometimes we fought like angry rams but there was nothing we wouldn’t do for each other).

20131128-121708.jpg George and I became even closer after our parents divorced when I was 8, but there was so much we didn’t know how to talk to each other about: my mother’s increased nightly consumption of glass jugs of Carlo Rossi merlot and incessant sucking on menthol cigarettes; her live-in boyfriend freshly sprung from the county jail who filled our apartment with billowing clouds of marijuana smoke; the Playboy my dad awkwardly bought for my 10-year-old brother at the airport on our first Christmas trip without all four of us together (OK, maybe that was just awkward for me); the sexual assault I endured from a family friend; the chronic gang rapes I survived in high school (which started on Thanksgiving night, Nov. 28, in 1992 and ended in December 1993); and the strain of going back and forth between two parents’ houses, knowing somewhere deep down that we were loved, but the parental watchtower we desperately needed was sorely absent.

During this tumultuous period, George and I clung more to our friends than we did to each other, growing further apart after high school when I came out as a lesbian (he had married a devout Billy Graham follower and his slight societal discomfort with homosexuality leapt into a new dimension of hate when fueled by his then-pregnant wife’s disdain for me bringing my girlfriend around their expected child).

But we reunited, George and me. I wrote him a letter after a year of not speaking telling him that I missed him terribly. And so he called me. And that was it. We’ve been thick as thieves ever since. It really helped that he finally got a divorce. He called me a week before Thanksgiving in 2004 to tell me he and his wife were splitting up—their two children would stay with her and he had to move out over the holiday.

I trucked on down to Florida where he was living, and we spent Thanksgiving moving what little he was allowed to take from their condo into his new apartment. Then we went to Denny’s, one of the few eating establishments open to a couple of college-aged kids in soccer shorts and T-shirts, and had our Thanksgiving dinner—a cheese-and-veggie omelet for me, and Moons Over My Hammy for him.

George’s life was maddeningly heartbreaking after the split. His wife moved the children to Georgia, and he drove the 6-hour trip every other weekend to be with them. But he was a dedicated father and didn’t miss a legally afforded opportunity to see his son and daughter. We spent most of our Thanksgivings together when he was in town, especially with the children. Our grandmother gathered us up at a French restaurant outside of Atlanta to spend the day together, but in the blurry midst of laughter and turkey, there was always a layer of regret and pain, whether it was because we were choosing to be with my mom’s side of the family and not my dad’s, or because my mom couldn’t go too long without saying something wildly inappropriate, or because we knew George was going to have to return his children in just a few short hours. There was always something unsavory under the surface that no one quite knew how to handle, but we stuck together because what other choice is there than to cling to the family you have, no matter how wacky?

We were going about this turn-style life with pleasantries mixed with oddness when out of the blue, my father suffered a massive heart attack on Oct. 3, 2008. He was 61. My father was my biggest cheerleader, never had a harsh word to say about anyone, was loved by so many, took fairly good care of himself and poof, he was gone. George called me to tell me. My chest caved in where my heart once was whole. Broken and in disbelief, my fiancé Maria, drove me to my hometown, to my father and stepmother’s home. All I remember about that day after we arrived is crumbling into my brother’s arms when he stepped out of his cherry red SUV from his longer road trip. He held me so strongly against his chest, and I still feel his arms around me. It is my mental safe place.

The following month, Maria and I decided to put on Thanksgiving for several of our family members, including my brother and my stepmother, who has since become my true mother, a jewel of a human being. Despite having lost our dad almost two months prior, we came together from a place of love and the onset of peace at this Thanksgiving. As hard as it was for me to get through even one sentence without crying, I still found an immense sense of strength from our togetherness.

The following March, my mother withdrew further into her incomprehensible cycle of sheer meanness, and announced that she wasn’t coming to my wedding in June 2009. Lest you think it had anything to do with my sexuality, you’re wrong. That’s probably the thing she likes most about me: I’m different, which gives her more fodder for church gossip. And I’m pretty sure she had a crush on Maria. Anyway, that Thanksgiving, Maria and I were welcomed with open arms by her family, chowing down on a Southern feast, but my heart ached knowing that my mom didn’t want anything to do with me and the only one who might be able to make me feel better about it—to remind me that I was a wanted child—was my father, who I could only hope was somewhere better than this earth.

By the time Thanksgiving 2010 rolled around, I was a massive woman, waddling like a mother duck because I was carrying twin boys. My grandmother insisted Maria and I come to Thanksgiving at the French restaurant and see my mother. “Only if my stepmom can come too,” I responded. I positioned her between us at the table, and we made it through with only the occasional odd remark from my bio mom whom I hadn’t conversed with in more than a year and a half. My brother had gone to his new girlfriend’s family Thanksgiving, and I wished hard that he could be there to slice the palpable tension with some of his gut-busting humor.

By Thanksgiving 2011, my mother and I were working harder toward mending our relationship, and we again met at the French restaurant, where my stepfather, grandmother, Maria, George, his children, his girlfriend, Maria and our children all gathered at a large table and focused all our energy on the children while George and I whispered little jokes under our breath about our nutty family when we walked to the bountiful carving stations of duck and turkey (not to be confused with turducken). George and I could crack each other up with just a look, and his jokes lessened the burden on almost all that was wrong with my family.

He was so perfectly uncle-like with Maria’s and my sons. This was their first Thanksgiving, and they, especially baby B, had melted in George’s arms like butter on a hot sweet potato. Baby B looks just like George did as a toddler, and their bond was apparent not just to me, but to the entire family. I’ve always known that I wanted to marry a woman and have children with a woman, and I’ve known all along that our children would thrive with two moms and no father. But I believe very strongly in having a dependable and loving male figure in my children’s lives. Watching George with our boys on Thanksgiving Day reassured me that even though we didn’t have my dad around, we had George. And I remember the distinct feeling of comfort that George would be around as my sons became men, demonstrating how to be a successful and generous man, just as he was. A man we all loved to be around, a man that didn’t seem to have one enemy—even his ex-girlfriends all seem to flutter at the mere mention of his name.
But the universe had other plans for George.

Last Thanksgiving, my brother stayed home alone with what he thought was a horrible stomach flu. He sent me a cheerful text, not wanting me to worry. The morning after, he called an ambulance because he knew something was terribly wrong. A day later, he was put into a 9-week medicinally induced coma. He never came out of the hospital, and 14 weeks later after all those ups and downs, surgery after surgery, tears shed and a few rare smiles, my brave, sweet brother passed peacefully in the night.

It is heartbreakingly difficult this Thanksgiving, a holiday we always tried to spend together. But I am working hard on feeling gratitude in the midst of my grief 9 months after George’s passing.

So on this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for two beautiful, tender and silly boys I’m blessed to call mine, a crazy-smart wife who caters to almost all my crazy whims, a stepmother who has gracefully and lovingly stepped into the role of motherhood for me when mine has fully abandoned me after threatening to kill me the day George died, a few precious rock star friends who keep me sane and make me feel special, a loving aunt and uncle who have taken me under their wing, and my own life for I am truly thankful to just be alive. It’s a heavy-hearted way of expressing my gratitude, I know. But some years just aren’t lighthearted, glistening with candy-puffed rainbows. But I hope and pray that 2014 is that way–for all of us still lucky to be here. Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.

featured, happiness, healing, twinspiration

Deep in the earth

I’ve finally realized as of late what really makes me happy in between crying jags over my lost brother is to have my fingers sunk deep in the earth or rapidly slicing something bright and green on my bamboo chopping block. What better combo is there then but gardening and cooking? It couldn’t have come at a better time, this realization: My mother-in-law, wife and I are in a serious weight-loss challenge (the first person to drop 20 pounds wins two $20 gift certificates to the store of her choice).

For Earth Day (but really for our own personal slice of happy home on earth), my wife and I spent the weekend judiciously selecting plants for planting, and then I turned around and made all sorts of fun (and surprisingly delicious) vegetarian meals.

On Sunday afternoon, my trusty helper and I got started.

kid-gardening

OK, truthfully, that was snapped during Leo’s nap and Mama’s quickie trip back to the gardening store for more potting soil. But we did plot out how exactly we’d rule our yard during this rare one-on-one time.

Once all four of us were properly suited up in our lesiure yard clothes, diapers were changed and the laborious snack routine finalized, we got started laying out all our plants, from the veggies we’ll hang our next three grocery bill bets on to the fig tree that might one day be our bread and butter to the citronella plant that will save Mama and Leo’s sensitive skin in the summertime from all those crazy skeeters who don’t have any use for Rocco’s and my German blood.

rosemary

Perhaps the most exciting plant for me is the rosemary bush, which takes me straight to heaven in a single whiff. I’ve no idea why though perhaps it’s the idyllic childhood I longed for–one wrapped up in homemade pasta sauces, filets and pastries instead of the tastes of Hamburger Helper and Kool-Aid still sourly burning the tongue attached to the latch-key kid I wish I weren’t. I think perhaps that’s what has me hell bent on providing my children with a true farm-to-table childhood, and I am thankful my wife feels the same way. She grew up privileged with a lemon tree always ripening for lemonade and limoncello in her grandparent’s backyard, a loving mother and doting grandmother cracking and cackling away at some feast in the kitchen for a dozen or more for there were always people wanting to come by and welcomed when they did.

 bell-pepper-bud-gardening

We planted among other things green bell peppers (pictured above), golden bell peppers and yippee-kai-yay jalapenos to spice up our salads. My love already has a healthy lettuce garden donating handfuls of greenery to our bowls almost nightly.

gardening-buddy

My son, forever dubbed “meatball” because he ate far more than his fair share in the twin beds he and and his brother took up residence in while in utero, aims the hose at whatever interests him. As soon as my hands entered the soil to get dirty and happy, I no longer had access to the camera. And that made me happy, too, since it was another step from removing myself from technology. Though I’m sad I haven’t got the proof of our joyful gardening afternoon, except this fabulous Celeste fig tree we potted, just in case we move, in which we’ve invested probably too many hopes and dreams.

celeste-fig-tree

However, I did go veggie crazy starting last week, preparing all sorts of scrumptious vegetarian delights (who knew barley made an excellent substitute for risotto?), and I bought an enormous collection of Swiss chard. I’m admittedly a Swiss chard virgin, and I didn’t really even know what I was looking for as I scanned the veggie section at my local grocery store. And before you nutty shop-local-or-you-get-the-stink-eye folks get up in arms, know that I must shop only in places that offer me and my twin toddlers a double-seated grocery cart. 

kale-leaf-knife

Today I skipped working during my sons’ nap for a chance to enjoy myself in the kitchen instead, slicing off the leaves of Swiss chard and prepping them for our vegetarian burritos tonight.

chard-rolled-sliced

I took full academic pleasure in learning how to slice Swiss chard, which, if you don’t know, you cut the leaf as close to the rib vein running down the middle, roll the leaf into a tight cigar and slice it from there.

vegetarian-burritos-black-beans-corn-slow-cooker

After my concoction of corn, black beans, fire-roasted tomatoes and Mexican seasoning simmered in the slow cooker for a hefty 4 hours, I chucked in the chard for 20 more minutes to let it wilt enough to be delicate to chomp through. I added the mixture to warmed wheat tortillas, heaped on the all-important sour cream, cilantro from our herb garden and some salsa verde and called it a night.

That’s what made me happy today. What about you?

featured, relationships, the vivid life

Maintaining a marriage (a celebration of nine years together)

kirsten-and-maria

Nine years ago today, Maria and I became girlfriend and girlfriend. We’d been dating for about a month before she asked me to be hers. There was a fluttering feeling of little wings going crazy in my tummy as I tucked my chin ever so slightly and replied “yes” with a delighted grin on my face. Since that perfect moment, Maria and I have lived a jam-packed life loaded with all the extra toppings–some we ordered, some were extra, and some we wanted to send back. But we’ve taken it all and enjoyed almost every moment. I definitely haven’t been a perfect partner along the way, sometimes dipping down very low on the contribution ladder when it came to being the most romantic or giving. And I’ve had to learn a lot about compromise, more so in expecting it rather than me just compromising all of my own beliefs because I thought it had to be that way to keep a good relationship going. To be fair, Maria didn’t know when I was doing this. She just thought she had lucked up finding a woman who happened to believe everything she believed. In our nine years, I have come out more strongly in the last few years as more of my own person, owning who I am and what I think.

Along the way, I’ve also had to learn a lot about relationships in general. I didn’t have a fear of commitment, per se. I just took off when the going got rough. What was the point if we couldn’t get along every second? Those were my thoughts in my 20s. I didn’t know how to effectively discuss my feelings of agitation or to let Maria know she’d hurt me without acting out in a passive-aggressive way.

When we got married in 2009, my grandmother, who’d divorced her first husband before marrying my Papa, said with a very loving tone: “Good luck in your marriage, Kirsten. You haven’t had any good examples of a marriage actually working out. Everyone in your family has gotten a divorce, including me.”

And she was mostly right with the exception of my father’s third marriage, which lasted 17 years until his death, to my stepmother, Clare. They loved each other in abundance every day, and hardly ever disagreed. Theirs was a love affair I want to emulate.

But I also married a passionate Italian who possesses the confidence to get her feelings across and yet let me know that she loves me in abundance. Maria has taught me so much about what it is to maintain a relationship, to keep ours going. It’s not just about loving each other. We’ve got that down pat. It’s also about allowing ourselves to take time to fume over something that’s got one of us in a tizzy, to talk it over, and for our hearts to know that we can give it our all at all times because we know that the other one isn’t going anywhere. We must tend to the garden that is our relationship in order to have it continually bloom, and that we mustn’t abandon it or else weeds will grow.

As we’ve grown older and (hopefully) wiser, I feel like we’ve also grown with each other, like roots of two different plants, intertwined deep within the earth, and I love knowing that we’re together through anything life throws our way (and it has thrown some major curve balls).

I love Maria in abundance not just during our happy times, of which there are countless, but during the hard times as well. And you’re not going to be together for nine or more years without a difficult time coming at you hard at some point in your relationship. But I’ve learned that you have to work hard at making it feel easy, that when the going gets rough, you don’t just throw in the cards.

Happiness in a relationship, I’ve come to know, very much depends on what you’re willing to do once the honeymoon period is over. Because I’ve learned how to do the work–and so has Maria–I feel like we’re reaping those benefits tenfold now, and we’re riding high on a fluffy yet sturdy

Photo: Our Labor of Love

Articles, featured, writing

How optimism has saved my life (and sanity)

I don’t call myself an optimist to self-compliment. It can actually be a curse. I don’t get to wallow in self pity for long. I forgive people way too quickly. I trust others in bad situations, and I put myself in close proximity to toxic people because of my naïve nature, thinking that people will be good if I just give them a chance.

But I’m proud, too, of being an optimist. It’s gotten me through the dark times of my life. Very dark. I have survived a lot: When I was 8, my parents divorced. At age 10, my mother, the county jail nurse, moved a convicted felon straight from the jail into our home. By the time I was 15, I’d been molested by a family friend and then repeatedly gang raped by my boyfriend’s friends for a year and a half—all high school athletes—until numbness overtook me. For the remainder of high school, I acted out in every way possible, demonstrating just how poorly I thought of myself and found myself pregnant in my first year of college, but I lost the baby to a heart-wrenching birth defect. It took me seven years and five schools to graduate college, and I did it all on my own, amassing a huge amount of debt and hangovers and a strong circle of friends who believed in me as much as I did.

Finally, at 25, as I found myself through a career I’d wanted since I was a child reading books and magazines under the covers with my flashlight, I began to blossom, and my optimism, my ability to see the light through any tunnel I’d trudged through, started to do more than just save my life—it enabled me to fully enjoy it.

And that’s when the universe gifted me with Maria, a strong, sincere woman who loves me despite my troubled past and supports me emotionally through the good and bad times. For the next five years, our love bloomed and grew. The moment she proposed to me in Central Park, the day before I turned 30, rushing rivers of happiness plummeted through my body. I couldn’t wait for my father, a man for whom my affection was boundless, to walk me down the aisle.

When he was ripped from my life just 8 months before my wedding, my heart throbbed in a way I never knew possible. My whole chest ached as the loss drenched me. It would be years before I could even speak of him without tears quickly spilling down my cheeks, without warning. By my side through this has been my steadfast wife, but on my other side has been my sweet brother, a man whom I’ve admired and appreciated as a devoted father, a beloved uncle and a really fun comrade. George walked me down the aisle when I married Maria in 2009, and has stood by my side through thick and thin in every way. When my mother and I became estranged before the wedding, George helped me cope with comedic relief (how else are you going to deal with a woman who tells you a week after your dad dies that her responsibility to her children ended when they turned 18?).

It never got much better with me and my mom because every time we were around each other, I would open myself up with a forgiving heart, only to get hurt again (see how that optimism is my Achilles heel?). When my brother became terribly ill with severe acute pancreatitis this past November, it took me 24 hours of serious pep talk to embolden myself with nerves of steel and some serious detachment to put my strained relationship with my mother aside to help my brother. As George’s sickness progressed and he was put into a medically induced coma, my mother’s mental capabilities decreased and I had to take on the role of parent in addition to sibling, taking on all of George’s financial affairs and medical decisions.

It was a 15-week roller coaster of incredulous highs and rock-bottom lows, peppered with a sharp increase of verbal abuse from my mother (winning statements include disowning me and my children and telling me she was sick of me and didn’t want anything to do with me once George recovered), the death of our dog at Christmas, our water heater breaking, the threat of toxic air pumping into our lungs and thus our heat having to be turned off for two days, a close friend of George’s going absolutely mental on me, daily discussions with George’s doctors in ICU and then his horrid rehab facility and then getting him moved back to ICU, all on my own because my mother was essentially just a visitor coming to see George and looking to me to make all of the decisions.

The lowest point of the journey of George’s illness was his rapid decline at the end due to the development of three medically resistant infections. Ten days after he had taken 10 steps, the doctors were speaking to me with heartbreaking phrases such as “it’s time to think about hospice” and “we’re doing him more harm than good” and “he’s on the strongest antibiotics available and they’re not working” and “there’s nothing more we can do for him.”

We moved George into hospice on the last Friday in February. Those were some of the longest days, but they were no longer filled with the constant worry that had troubled me the last 14 weeks. While George was in hospice, I felt that I was watching his spirit being tangibly stilled with peacefulness, and though it was difficult to watch him slowly leave his body, it was an honor to be by his side throughout it all. By Tuesday night, his breathing became so shallow that it woke me up. I’m a heavy sleeper with serious hearing impairment in both ears. But I had watched him breathe for more than an hour before I’d finally given into sleep, only to wake three hours later when his breathing made significant changes. He was gone 30 minutes later, and I laid my head on his strong chest and let out my tears for my sweet brother, just 18 months older than me, with two children of his own, and his entire future wiped out. Poof. Gone. My heart remains broken, and I don’t know when it will be repaired. Maybe it won’t be. I’m not trying to fix it right now.

The family slowly gathered after I made the phone calls around 4:30 a.m., and by 11, the funeral home had come to take George’s body. At a family lunch at noon, my mother threatened the life of her only living child: me. And though I remained calm and polite and invited her to a therapy session with me, inside I knew that in order to protect myself and my own family, I needed to put some distance between us for awhile. Again. It’s not our first go at estrangement after all, and though I might be too forgiving, the time has come to be even more protective of what I have left.

Life will continue to hand out lemons, and though I’m honestly not trying to make lemonade from it, I am still able to enjoy the happiness that life offers, even in the midst of trauma and tragedy. Life is a bounty of smooth and rough patches, and I’m quite certain that it’s better this way, than always being easy with no challenges. Does life suck sometimes? Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Do people suck sometimes? Clearly they can. But most of them don’t, and I feel such a connection with the people on this planet, just for the simple fact that we are all in this together, that I haven’t lost any of my faith in humanity. Do I startle easily? Yes. Do I more easily suspect people of child abuse and molestation? All the time. Do I want to make sure my wife drives extra carefully and goes to the doctor once a month to make sure no crazy illnesses are developing? Yes, I’m guilty of now worrying that I might lose her, too.

But I’m not searching for any deep meaning for the reason that I have lost both my brother and my father and have been left with one family member—the one who loves me the least—from my original four-pack, because to me, there’s no good reason. Life just isn’t fair. We enjoy who we are blessed with for as long as we have them. I’m going to do my very best to enjoy the people I have left in my life while enjoying my own existence. I am just happy to still be here.