family · Life · Writing


The other day a friend posted on Facebook a rejection she had received for poetry submitted for publication.

She is a wonderful poet and writer, and I ached because a rejection feels like, well, a rejection — a failure — and she is not a failure.

How do we measure success? I asked myself — and, in a flash, I saw the scene that I wrote out below. It’s a totally made up story, kind of like a nightmare — but here it is for what it’s worth.

“Thank you for filling out the questionnaire,” the doctor said, studying the paper in front of him. He was checking off my answers with a pencil. I felt like it was more a quiz, than a get-to-know-you form for the first visit.

“You prefer to be called Sally?” he asked, looking up at me.

“Yes, I do,” I replied. I smiled at him, but he was already looking back down at the paper.

“Height, okay… Weight,” he looked up at me again. “You might want to lose a few pounds.”

“I know,” I said, “but things have been stressful lately, and I stress-eat…” My voice trailed off. I was hoping for a bye, but he just kept going down the list.

“You noted that you’re a writer,” he said, looking up again.

“I did?!” I said, questioningly because I didn’t remember putting that down.

He picked the paper up and turned it toward me, his finger pointing at a fill-in-the-blank mid-page. In my handwriting, next to the word “employment,” was the word “writer.”

“Oh,” I stammered, “I’m not really a writer. I don’t know why I wrote that.”

“Do you write?” he asked.

“I guess,” I said.

“Have you submitted pieces for publication?” he asked.

“A few, I guess, a long time ago.”

“How many times have you been rejected?” he asked. It was more of a demand.

I squirmed uncomfortably. What was this all about? I wondered.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t understand. Why do you need to know this?”

He glared at me.

“Can I change my answer?” I asked.

“Real writers have a pile of rejections,” he said. “I think changing your answer would be wise.”

He picked up a pen and neatly crossed out my response, then sat with pen poised waiting for my new answer. “Employment?” he asked.

“Umm.. I’m mostly a mom,” I said.

“How many children do you have?” he asked.

“Eight,” I told him.  I found myself sitting a little straighter in the chair now. Surely this would impress the man.

“How many times have they broken your heart?” he asked.

“What?!” I asked.

“You know, how many times have they fallen, made bad choices, or failed?” he said.

“I thought you would want to hear about their successes. They’re doing pretty well,” I said.

“Real mothers have their hearts broken on a regular basis. They start off putting bandaids on skinned knees and move on to bruised egos and hurt feelings. They ache with their children. I’m trying to determine if you are a real mother,” he said, and then he repeated his question. “How many times have they broken your heart?”

I thought of the many emergency room visits, the hospitalizations, the times I stood outside a bedroom door and prayed for the child inside. I thought the listening and the insufficient advice I tried to give. I thought of skinned knees, skinned hands, stitches in the head, broken bones, tears, tears, tears, and more tears. I thought of driving when called for help and crying all the way, dropping kids off for college and crying all the way home, and watching them get married and crying for joy.

“How many times have they broken your heart?” he asked for the third time.

“None,” I said.



Moving On

“He was my mentor,” she said to me as she gave me a hug. “If there’s anything — really anything — I can do, don’t hesitate to call.” She was a woman doctor, a little older than me, who had known my father for many, many years.

I couldn’t respond. My eyes well up with tears at the slightest provocation these days.

This past Sunday in church, I stood in the communion line behind an elderly couple, he supporting her down the aisle, waiting for her to dip her bread in the cup and get it into her mouth before he took his. I felt the tears.

Then it was my turn. “The body of Christ broken for you,” said the pastor as he extended a chunk of bread toward me. My friend held the cup. I think she said my name as I dipped the bread. I was too busy trying to blink back tears to really hear.

Christ’s ultimate sacrifice of Himself, remembered every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, is echoed in the smaller self-sacrifice of the couple in church and the multiple self-sacrifices I saw as my father cared for my mother over the last years of her life.

When she thought that he was her father and argued with him about waiting for her date to pick her up for the dance, he seem unfazed. It had to have hurt — his wife not recognizing him and waiting for another man.

When she wouldn’t sleep in the bed with him — she sat in a chair all night, because there was a strange man in her bed.

When she served him inedible foods.

He patiently coaxed her to do the right things and kept her safe from the wrong things.

He learned to do new things — laundry and cooking — that had been her domain.

He finally made the difficult decision to place her in a nursing home.

Then he visited her every day. Twice a day.

These days, I have so many people offering advice.

“Just march right in and stand there with your arms crossed,” one person said as I told him about a deplorable incident at the nursing home where my father is staying for rehab.

“You can’t bring him home yet,” another person said. “You need to take care of you and get some help set up.” And she is so right.

“Isn’t it time,” asked another friend, “to think about permanent placement?” No. No, it isn’t.

My father was my mentor, too. He taught me what it meant to care for the elderly. Partly through having me work at a nursing home when I was young, but mostly through his example, his constancy with my mother.

When I hit a roadblock these days, I try to think, how would he handle this?

I can’t ask him anymore. That hurts just to write it down. But his advice-giving days are past, and it’s up to me and my siblings to figure this out.

How do I care for an aging parent? One who argues and cajoles and insists that he’s fine. One who falls and faints and forgets how to shave. One who all his life has cared for other people.

I think that the answer is one day at a time.

Looking too far down the road is scary.

For now, I’ll work to get him home again, and then work to care for him. One day at a time.

At the Fenimore Art Museum this summer

I began this blog when I was helping to care for my mother. It was my formal extensive education in elder-care, given by the best teacher, my father.

Now, I’ve taken the fallen mantle. My role has shifted to becoming the primary care-giver.

And I need to set Hot Dogs and Marmalade to rest. Over the summer, I have felt this blog hanging there, waiting, waiting.

But I can’t write about him.

Not here.

Not now.

A to Z Blogging Challenge


O is for Obscurity.

At Laity Lodge -- Jill is on the right.
At Laity Lodge — Jill is on the right. (I’m leaving the others in obscurity for now.)

Jill Phillips gave a devotion one morning at Laity Lodge and spoke about the book Forgotten Among the Lilies by Ron Rolheiser, a Catholic theologian.

Rolheiser talks about “The Martyrdom of Obscurity”, saying that ordinary life is enough.

The human heart is full of longings — but Rolheiser says that longing is our spiritual lot.

Today we are called as Christians to the martyrdom of obscurity. Christianity always invites its adherents to martyrdom. To be a follower of Christ demands that one lay down one’s life. But this takes various forms. … In our culture meaningful self-expression is everything; lack of it is death. Yet it is this death that paschally we must enter.


That stops me every time I read it.

Ordinary life is enough.

Yes, enough.

To live in a small town and attend a small church.

To grow green beans in my garden.

To color pictures with crayons with my children.

To watch a high school tennis match or an age-group swim meet.

To make macaroni and cheese for dinner — again.

To fold towels and clean toilets and wash dishes and sweep up the dog hair on the floor.

To be Niggle, in Leaf by Niggle, and have one leaf to show at the end of my life, because I helped my neighbor and put aside my longings for more.

All these things are enough.

To live in obscurity is not such a bad thing.

Indeed, it may be the best thing.

A to Z Blogging Challenge


Reading at LaGuardia

N is for Niggle, the main character in Leaf by Niggle, a short story by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Recommended reading for the retreat at Laity Lodge, I read it on my way there. At LaGuardia.

I’ve always loved the word “niggle”. Niggles are those gentle proddings — not nagging, just nudging.  They are the post-it notes hanging in the back of your mind to remind you of something you should do.

And such is the main character of the story. Niggle is an artist so caught up in his work that he doesn’t always want to do the things he should, like preparing for his journey, because he would rather finish the tree he is painting.

But he stops to help his neighbor, albeit a little begrudgingly, because

He was kindhearted, in a way. You know the sort of kind heart: it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything; and even when he did anything, it did not prevent him from grumbling, losing his temper and swearing (mostly to himself).

Ralph Wood, in one of his talks on Tolkien at Laity Lodge, said this, “It is extremely difficult to be an artist and a parent.”

How well I know that! For years whenever I would sit down to write, or even think, and I would be interrupted to tend to someone else.  Most of my children are grown now, so it happens rarely — and, truth be told, long ago I learned to embrace Henri Nouwen’s sentiment that my interruptions are my work.

Niggle, though, represents that tension — between creating and tending to the mundane, between painting and fixing the roof, between art and helping a neighbor in need.

The most important job I have ever been given was being a parent.  If I had to choose between writing and parenting, parenting would win easily.

These days, it’s the writing part that niggles at me.

Funny how that works.



Yesterday, my friend Laura Lynn Brown launched a new site:

I have previously written about how I met Laura at Laity Lodge.

I was honored that she asked me if I would be willing to submit a piece for her new site, so I found an old piece I had written, dusted it off a little, and sent it to her.  I was even more honored when she decided to include it in her launch.

quiltsquareMomswimcoach” was written about my time coaching the Cooperstown Girls Varsity Swim Team.

Feeling nostalgic, I pulled out another piece written about that era and read through it.

Gosh, those were the days.

No, they weren’t, really.  They were hard and stressful. I was in my forties, pregnant for some of it, working outside the home for the first time in decades, trying to homeschool, and still in the wake of the storm I mentioned yesterday.

But Bridget — Bridget was a gift to me.

She was a high school girl with a sunny smile, a giving soul, and Rocky Balboa’s work ethic.

When I started coaching, I had no experience coaching anything ever. Yes, I was a swimmer.  Yes, I was a swim official.  Yes, my children swam.  Did that make me a coach?  No.  Yet there I was, on deck, being called “Coach” by eighteen girls, one of them named Bridget.

I threw myself into coaching to the best of my ability.  I used workouts that the previous coach had left me, started watching videos on teaching the different strokes, researched swimming on the internet, and shamelessly asked other coaches how they did things.

The girls knew I was new. Some used it to get out of work.  The most common technique was to negotiate during practice.

Negotiations would go something like this.

Swimmer:  Coach, do we really have to do 10 100s of freestyle?

Me: Is that what I wrote on the board?

Swimmer:  Yes, but I was thinking, maybe I could just do 5 50s of butterfly since that’s what I’ll be swimming in the meet.

Pushover me:  Sure, I guess so.


Swimmer:  Coach, do we really have to do a 200 kick?

Me:  I was thinking we need to work on our kicking.

Swimmer:  I have this blister on my foot from some new shoes and kicking hurts.  Can I just do a 100 pull?

Pushover me:  Sure, I guess so.

Eventually, I started to catch on.  Only certain girls asked me and without exception they were negotiating for something easier.  Also, as I planned out the practices, I became more and more keyed into what I wanted to work on and what I wanted the team to accomplish over the course of the season.

The more I grew as a coach, the more the negotiating irked me.  I started to say no to all negotiations.

One day, when the chief negotiator began to propose her own sets, I said no, but she continued whining and wheedling.   Something in me snapped.  I took off my whistle, handed it to her, saying, “Apparently you know more about coaching than I do,” and walked off the deck.

Bridget came and found me in the locker room. “Mrs. Zaengle, I’m so sorry,” she said.

I looked at her – Bridget, who never gave me a problem, never questioned anything I asked her to do, was apologizing to me.

She followed up that verbal apology with a letter that she had every girl on the team sign.  In the letter they thanked me for my time and my efforts; they apologized for not respecting me; they promised to work hard for me.

I think that was the day I realized what a gift Bridget was to me.

She worked so hard at every practice.  Sometimes, in my quest for sets, I went to college sites and selected sets that were probably too hard for the girls.  One of those times, I looked at Bridget’s flushed cheeks mid-set, realizing how hard the practice was.

“Let’s change the interval, Bridget, or shorten the set,” I said.

“No, Mrs. Zaengle,” was her reply.  “I can do it.”

And she did.

She worked, and her work was a joy to me.  Even when I messed up.  Even when what I asked was unreasonable.  Bridget was a gift.

Bridget’s attitude was infectious, too.  I noticed more and more of the girls adopting her positive ways.

In the end, the team and I had the relationship described in Momswimcoach. That was a gift, too.

And Laura Brown? She’s also a gift. Encouraging me to keep trying.

We’re surrounded by people who are gifts. I’m quite sure of that. We just don’t always recognize them.