Hi, I'm Jill
I'm a mom, an award-winning author of 3 books, and an avid outdoor adventurer, who married a performance artist and addiction counselor renown for the best risotto on the planet.
I grew up as an Army brat, traveling the world. Now, I'm psyched to live in Spokane and adventure around the Pacific Northwest.
Last night, while watching the spectacularly moving Marriage Story, I revisited the horror that was my divorce. We did all those things. Sat quietly in a room and agreed that we wanted an amicable divorce without lawyers or pettiness. And then he went out the next day and hired “us” an attorney. And “our attorney” began to dismantle my entire life. I’d stayed home with our kid for a year, and had only been back in the work force for two months. She buried me in aggressive orders and restrictions. I was in a scramble to find my own apartment, and resisted getting an attorney for months too long. I finally hired a Texas cheerleader who spit fire, and then resisted most of her advice. I didn’t want to win anything. It was all so horrible: splitting a child into small pieces of time; arguing over every holiday as though Valentine’s or Easter had ever meant shit to me.
The cruelty was squalid. We said things to each other that are still, thirteen years later, hard to forgive.
But I don’t think about that now. I got through that divorce, and custody dispute, and the next custody dispute, by remembering the last best thing.
On Easter in 2006, the kid woke from his nap and immediately vomited a black sludge. I bathed him, and then he threw up the same black sludge two more times. His fever climbed. I texted his dad that I was taking the kid to the emergency room. They admitted us immediately. The kid had a double ear infection in one ear, a regular ear infection in the other, and something was wrong with his lungs. His dad showed up as they were wheeling us for x-rays. The technician hung our kid from his armpits by this weird claw that gripped around his upper chest. She put me behind a glass window in front of my dangling 16-month-old and told me to call him.
“Don’t comfort him,” she added. “He has to scream for the x-rays to be clear.”
And so I stood in front of my child, and called for him while he screamed and struggled and reached for me and tears rushed down his face. I resisted every instinct I had. To strike this fucking technician. To run to my kid and yank him down from this terrifying machine. To say something — ANYTHING — consoling. I just kept calling him as tears ran down my face, too. It went on and on. I could see his dad behind him, reaching out to our screaming child, and then letting his hands drop to his sides, and then groaning and reaching out again.
When it was finally over, the kid wouldn’t look at either of us. He sat listlessly on the gurney as they wheeled it back to his room, where my mother was waiting, and he sprang into her arms and buried his face in her chest. He had the rotavirus. An illness so contagious that we already had it. The kid was sequestered in the contagion ward. He wouldn’t let anyone but my mother near him.
I couldn’t stay in his tiny room, but I couldn’t leave the hospital either. In my anguish, I stepped into the hallway and climbed on the window ledge, tucked my coat into a pillow and decided to sleep there. It was nearly four in the morning. The kid’s dad came out into the hallway and spoke to the nurse. He hadn’t spoken to me, or looked at me during the entire ordeal. Our divorce would get worse before it ended four months later. He stood with his back to me, and then the nurse returned with two large pillows. Once she left, he handed both pillows to me, and left the hospital.
That’s it. Pillows. He handed me pillows on the worst night of my life. It was the last best thing. And it got me through thirteen hard years of co-parenting. It got me through a second custody dispute. I recognized him. That’s what the last best thing meant to me. I recognized him.
I was 31, and still believed relationships were either tepid or manic, but short-lived in any case. I don’t understand people who get consumed with their ex. I was grateful to get out of that marriage. I love my kid more than anyone or anything. He is the best best thing. And I never wanted to be ashamed to tell him about my behavior, so I tried to be the best version of myself. I still try to be the best version of myself. Maybe for myself as much as for him these days. It’s all a love story. That marriage didn’t end with pillows on a contagious ward. It ended with an indomitable me. A woman so free that she can watch the Marriage Story and love them both.Read More
My brother is the only person I’ve ever accepted drugs from. Despite being a terrible student in a rigorously academic family, he knew everything about drugs. When he gave me a second batch of hallucinogenic mushrooms, he told me to take them with food. “Try pasta,” he said.
We cooked them with steak. They smelled feral. We devoured the steak, and went to a late movie. The theater packed, and lit in animated green. Our mouths formed Os and we both reached out to the screen like it was a waterfall.
Afterward, we drove home slowly through a heavy snowfall, let the dogs out, and walked through the blizzard to the tiny park two blocks from our house. Nearly two in the morning, the whole neighborhood dark and insulated with snow. I played hide-and-seek with my dogs. Snow fell on my bare head, and I remember crouching behind a fir tree, and watching my black lab stand at the top of the pirate ship play structure to scan the park for me. Her sister raced through the trees, and down to the creek bed. This is how they operated: one watched for me, and one ran for me.
I was 27. Impossibly, wildly young. Months away from being so ill that I’d require immediate surgery and months of recovery. Not yet reconnected with the woman who would tell me that she couldn’t have an affair with me because of my family. Not ever acknowledging that we wouldn’t have an affair because I’d given up cheating.
In my family of addicts, I’m the one who quits. I quit sports, and marriage, and guitar. I quit states, and women, and jobs. I quit people. I haven’t spoken to my brother in more than a decade. I give up coffee and alcohol and sex. For years, I was one packed bag away from leaving everyone. I want, more than anything, to be alone and uncomplicated. To stand in a park in a snowstorm, so high that I have lost track of my husband, and the snow feels like a baptism, and I am free. I am the fulcrum of the world. My arms spread out to the sky, and then both dogs tackled me.
Saturday night we watched a documentary about mushrooms, and the interconnectedness — that sense of being whole and part of everything — is why hallucinogenic mushrooms are so potent against PTSD. But I think of them as the way that I began to love Spokane. In the dark, in a blizzard, in a small park with my dogs. I lay in a pile and stared up at the sky and felt holy and loved. Holy and loved.
I wasn’t alone. And nothing would ever be uncomplicated. It only hurts because you’re alive. I don’t know you, but I love you.
I got high on mushrooms and fell in love with the world. That’s what happened. I quit leaving and I stayed. Not then, but soon afterward. Nearly a decade later, after I’d burned everything to the ground seven or eight times, I quit leaving and I stayed. When my dogs were old, and my child was young, I quit leaving and I stayed. I moved back to this neighborhood with my wife, and built the home I didn’t know I wanted. Could I see them that night? My child? My wife? Could I see a life where I would feel holy and loved and devout?
Who can say? Being alive felt important. That’s what I remember best. And the way the dogs tackled me with joy and discovery. We have found you! We have found you at last!Read More
The eagles are back at their nest. Or in trees nearby. Whenever they return, the meadow quiets of birdsong, and the doves hide.
What if all our stories are love stories? Once they end, I mean.
I’d stretched the ladder, leaned it against the porch roof, and climbed up. I used a broom to sweep the leaves from the corner, and cleared all the gutters. I’d dragged the whole thing out as long as possible before I approached the ladder again.
In Missouri, we climbed on the shed roof and leapt off. Climbed into the pine trees and then shot put ourselves from the lowest branches. We launched into the air from ramps, and curbs, and boulders.
But I have injuries now. Launching is metaphorical at 44.
So I am afraid to step back onto the ladder. I try several times, and my eyes fill with tears.
On the bottom rung of the ladder, my wife stands and looks up at me. She volunteered to climb onto the roof. Even after she twisted her ankle and fell down the hill while we were clearing the gutters at the back of the house.
“I think maybe if we move the ladder to my left side,” I say, “it’ll be easier for me.” I have no idea if this is true, but I’m hopeful.
“Sure,” she says, and we move it.
And now, out of excuses, I step on the ladder and climb down easily. As though there were nothing to be afraid of. Nothing dangerous.
My wife limps inside and ices her twisted ankle.
I put the ladder away.
We were just cleaning the gutters. Stretching our new ladder to accommodate our task. She fell, injured herself, and would have taken my place on the roof despite her injury. Because she knew I was afraid.
And I went up because she was injured. And because I only need to be careful, not frightened.
I walk through the neighborhood, down to the meadow. The eagles cry to one another. And the meadow rings with their calls.
It doesn’t always seem like a love story. Not at first.Read More
If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’ve probably met this Flannery O’Connor quote: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” My teachers loved to use these three sentences of O’Connor’s to bolster their sometimes savage approaches to student writing. I’m not a fan of the quote, or the idea that a teacher’s job is to stifle. Writing, after all, is subjective. If a teacher hates your work, it may not be because your work sucks. I hate all kinds of things that other readers love. I find most of the classics tedious and overwrought. Ann Patchett is my favorite writer, though half of her novels don’t work for me, and I get bored by her nonfiction.
When I was in writing workshops, I never savaged anyone else’s work. We were there to learn, weren’t we? I looked for what worked, and tried to encourage what worked to be developed. That was the whole thing. Find what works, and develop that. Writing is a trade; we’re supposed to get better at it. We’re also supposed to take risks. Some of those risks will work, and some won’t work until we have the skills to pull them off. And when you see a work in progress, it’s like seeing someone naked: you had better be kind.
That’s not to say that I’m a judgment-free zone. Years ago, as personnel manager at a bookstore, I was given a huge stack of applications to weed through, and I tossed anything with a spelling or grammatical error. I have an infinite set of pet peeves about writing, and I get upset when people don’t know the difference between possessives and contractions. If someone writes “loose” when she means “lose” I have to stop myself from correcting her. It’s almost a reflex to correct people. But it’s a reflex that I do everything I can to quash.
For me, everything changed when I read Jane Goodall’s biography by Dale Peterson. Goodall is, without question, one of the most brilliant humans of all time. She discovered that chimpanzees use tools and eat meat on her first research trip to Gombe. That was UNTHINKABLE when she discovered it. We had to change our definition of humans after her discovery. Nevertheless, when she began to pursue her doctorate in an effort to give more credence to her science, the gatekeepers criticized her for naming the chimps she was studying. They told her that real scientists are objective. They hated that she was a woman. They hated that she was a terrible speller. They decided that she didn’t measure up to their notions of a scientist. And it was savage.
I read her poorly written letters. I read the many versions of “friend” that she tried out because she just could not spell the damned word. And I realized that hating on people for their grammar or spelling is as shitty as savaging a writer’s work in progress. Or lambasting a student for his attempts at a poem. It’s art! There are rules, but the point is to be moved. And if you are moved by someone who broke the rules, that’s more vital than being bored to fucking death by someone who follows them.
I don’t want to be a gatekeeper. I don’t want to tell other people what they are not. Not smart enough. Not educated enough. Not talented enough. We’re all still learning. My mother had to correct my pronunciation of “machinations” when I was thirty for christsake. If you can’t help someone improve without humiliating them, you’re an asshole.
Is your meaning clear? That’s the first objective. The engine may need work, but you won’t know until you test it.
I make judgments about writing all the time. I love all kinds of stories. Have you ever read Sandra Boynton and not felt your heart lift? What qualifies as good for me, may not work in any regard for you. Like when people tell me they don’t read YA, or watch superhero movies, as though something is only art if it lives at a particular height. There’s beauty everywhere. And natural talent is self limiting. In the end, you have to work hard to improve. Get the work out first, and then get a good editor to help you polish it. Find what works, and develop that. Don’t let people bully you with out-of-context quotes that happen to support their own philosophies. Flannery O’Connor also said: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”Read More
You are 22. Snow on the cars; ice on the streets. She came out of her house at 4 a.m., barefoot, in a nightshirt, and kissed you for hours. She stood on your boots, her hands clasped at your neck, and kissed you.So lithe you could lift her.
You write heartbreak and violence. Poems where the butterflies devour one another.
Stories where the girl is a livid bruise. Nameless. Screaming.
In the mornings, at her house, the woman makes you pancakes, pours applesauce over them. Plays you a song you have never heard:
Think I’m going for a walk now
I feel a little unsteady
I don’t want no one to follow me
Except maybe you
You are 25. Fond of Jameson. Numb. Curious about everything except consequences.
You write murder. You write failure. You write breakups and think you are talking about love.
You open marriages. Get a letter from a wife written in blood.
Still, the woman visits you. You see Ani DiFranco at Bumbershoot, and she sings Untouchable Face. The crowd agreeing FUCK YOU! in dozens of choruses. Hours from now, you’ll learn that the woman is done sleeping with you.
I could make you happy, you know
If you weren’t already
For a while, you hear that song in every bedroom. The women singing it quietly as though they already know the mess you’ll make. But at least the show’s a musical. The most savage lines lyrically rendered.
You write the girl livid. The girl bruised. The girl named.
Loved? Do you write her loved?
First you are sick. Cut open. Masses of polyps sliced away. Reconstruction deep into the muscle.
What if you are the only one who loves the girl? What if you write her and that is love?
You are 29. The child handed to you mid-squall. His furious face beautiful and familiar. You feed him. You lean your face down to his and sing. Sway and sing and mother.
Tell you the truth I prefer the worst of you
You write a girl so loved.
You write a girl so loved.
You write a girl so loved.
You are 35, opening the door for a woman who keeps looking away from you. For days, your whole life has been texting.
There’s a changing constellation
A woman so loved.
You are 44. A woman so loved.
You narrate yourself inside the story. Not the observer of two women stepping into the kitchen for wineglasses. You slip her leather jacket from her shoulders. You lean into her hips.
Maybe they were all love songs.
Maybe there’s no mess without beauty. Maybe you got to look into all of these faces just to hear the singing.
Who am I?
Somebody just tell me that much.
Maybe you wrote yourself well.
Maybe you recognized her in the doorway.
Maybe they were all love stories.
Maybe there’s no beauty without mess.Read More
I get a number of emails every year from someone trying to police my language. “You’re too smart to use so many 4-letter words,” they tend to write. Using that old shaming technique that my grandmother tried out on me when I was a child. “Only ignorant people talk like that, JillAmy.” Bullshit. Talk however you want to talk. If you don’t like 4-letter words, don’t use them. If you hate the word queer then don’t fucking say it. I love the word queer. It’s the most inclusive word that I know. “But it’s been used to hurt people!” The language police remind me. Yeah, no shit. That’s why I’m adamant about using it for love.
Yesterday, my wife and I were stuck in the middle of a line of cars when some asshole in a nearby parking lot started telling the whole world that, “Republicans are here to crush the homos.” He managed to yell “homo” a second time when I was fucking done. I leaned across my wife, and told him, slowly, and calmly, “Shut. The fuck. Up.” He turned to me and tried to say something, but I just reminded him a few more times to go fuck himself. And then, because bigots are not good at details, he said, “You one of those homos? You a faggot? Well, lick my pussy, faggot!”
Good one, bro. Pretty clever.
That’s the second time I’ve been called a homo just this month. Mary says that I’ve reached peak gender bending.
There are lines. There are words that you don’t get to use without consequences. I wear TomboyX underpants. They are the fucking bomb! They are comfortable and dope as hell, and the company is run by queer people for queer people. But it took me a long time to order anything from them. I hate the word tomboy. It hits me like a bazooka and I get flashbacks to my little kid self afraid to go into the women’s bathroom just to be run out by some angry white lady trying to tell everybody else how to pee. Mary loves the word tomboy. She wanted to be a tomboy more than she wanted to be anything else when she was a kid. And people were always telling her she was too girly to be a tomboy.
I was thinking about this yesterday as I decided not to apologize to my wife for telling that asshole to go fuck himself. She would prefer that I ignore these dudes. Sometimes I do. If I can walk past, I tend to walk past. But if I can’t get away from them, I tend to engage. He can make choices in his own space, but once he gets in my space, we have a problem. Or, more specifically, he has a problem.
Language matters. Everything matters. And what’s the difference between policing my use of the word fuck and his use of the word homo? The difference is that you’re trying to argue class and education when you’re telling me how to speak or how to write. You’re trying to say that language that includes swears is not capable of elevating arguments to the appropriate level. And I am saying that I will speak as I speak. And the fact that it bugs you is exactly the point. It isn’t a meaningless invective at all. It has a history of working class struggles and women’s rights and queer rights and autonomy inside every letter. And my swearing doesn’t make you unsafe. So find something more vital to care about. My use of the word FUCK has never made you unsafe.
And his use of the word HOMO was an attempt to make me unsafe. His use of the word FAGGOT was an attempt to injure me. And that shit will not stand. Fuck that guy. Of course language has meaning. And language matters. Don’t tell me how to be queer. I’ve been out here trying to steel myself to go to the fucking public bathroom since I was a small child. And I’m not afraid of some asshole screaming about the purge. We are here. We are gloriously queer. And you can shut the fuck up.Read More
I’m listening to Brene Brown read her book, Rising Strong. And it feels like she wrote the entire thing specifically to address issues I struggle with. What I find most compelling about Brown is her honesty about anger. She talks about how often her first response is anger. In our culture, we rarely acknowledge women’s anger. We don’t talk through why we get angry, and what anger is a cover for. What is anger telling us about ourselves?
Anger is most likely to be my response when I feel certain, and righteous. I know ALL ABOUT THIS. I know what everyone’s intentions are, and I know why everyone is behaving like this, and I know what it all means.
I take long walks every day. And as I get older, I’ve realized that those walks are a kind of time out that I give myself to process my experiences. If I’m upset, I have to articulate to myself what I’m upset about. Is it an upsetting thing, or is it a regular thing but I am out of resources to deal with it? Is it something I need to take some time to process?
The block before I get home has a high wooden fence with some totally illegal barbed wire on the top. And every time I get there, I have the same reaction, stolen from one of my favorite Wes Anderson movies, Moonrise Kingdom:
“Was he a good dog?”
“Who can say?”
Is my anger about this real? Is my anger about this worth it? Is my anger about this an old lizard-brain reaction that I’m having because I’m still determined to fix things, and then get disappointed in myself for getting in the way of other people’s stories?
Who can say, man? Who can say?
What the fuck do I know? I know a nap will make me feel better. I know this walk has made me feel better. I suspect that tomorrow, I’ll be surprised by how much time I’ve spent on this issue today. And maybe it is real. And painful. And hard on my spirit. Maybe it’s overwhelming. Maybe there’s nothing to be done, and what I’m struggling against is this sense of helplessness.
Who can say?
I don’t really know anything. I have so many theories, and I have profound curiosity about the world, but I find relationships deeply mysterious. That is the best and worst part.
Who can say? is how I save space for myself to love without knowing. I just don’t know. Are people doing the best they can? Who can say?
I don’t have all the information. Or even most of it. But I suspect we are doing our best with the tools that we have. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
As usual, I’m talking about grace. You deserve some. Especially on those days when you want to burn the world to the fucking ground, but don’t, because your dogs live here, too.Read More
Years ago, I saw a play where one woman told another, “I can’t stand these young women who say their names like there’s a question mark at the end. Like they aren’t quite sure their name IS their name. Maybe it isn’t?”
I stressed about that for ages. I told every woman I knew about it. And most of them did what I had. Stood there struck by the dialogue. Retracing every time they’d told someone their name. Had they declared it? Or had they mimicked the question they’d been asked with their answer?
And then, I was telling a woman at the bookstore where I worked and she said, “Young women already have too many stupid things to worry about. They don’t need that, too.”
And I felt liberated.
Truly liberated. Nobody needs that. Nobody needs to be told they apologize too much. Or shouldn’t giggle if they expect to be taken seriously. Or should try harder. Or be less earnest. Or avoid the word bossy.
Fuck that. Bossy women are sexy as hell.
We have plenty to worry about. And most of it is stupid.
Our lives are meant to be learning curves. Arcing always toward compassion.
I don’t understand how someone can take the message of Love your neighbor and rebrand it as Hate the other.
And I don’t want to be in anyone’s way. I know that when I have had better opportunities, I have made better choices.
I know that I have failed my wife so many times that the only recourse is to learn.
To show my child that I am frequently wrong, but working to be better. And not afraid to own either.
Do the work. Tell the truth. Be kind.
I have never been holy, and so I never need to be holier.
Despite everything, I am sacred. I am the temple. I am the love.
I am the glorious queer. Sometimes my name is a question. Sometimes it’s a war cry. I am multiverses. Wrong and right and awkward and graceful and violent and tender and learning, motherfucker. I am constantly learning. And much of that learning involves questions.
Is this kind?
Is this necessary?
Jill? Jill! Jill. Here I am.Read More
When you were 44, you fell in love with the young woman you had been. The one that used to embarrass you with her earnestness, her certainty. Do you still remember the day that you woke on the beach in Kaneohe with your head in the lap of another girl, and her tears falling on your face? Her tears woke you. The sun had dragged the top of its head over the horizon, and this girl would be leaving for college in two weeks. And while you were still working out what the tears meant, she dipped her face to yours and kissed you. Her face bathed by the sea and the sunrise and her tears. You were so in love that it was like remaining asleep. The girl bent over you. The ruin of your final years in high school, bereft of this girl, yet to come.
Only the kiss still matters. And the light as it exposed you.
For a time, you worried that you looked too hard for meaning. You worried about snowstorms, and fires, and cruelty. You worried about thick-necked dogs that charged from unlatched gates at your Jack Russell. You worried about your son’s heart. About his joy. Where was it? Where was his joy? You bought yourself so much trouble. Do you remember?
How you stood in a pasture in Ireland, in the dark, and let the woman tackle you. Let the muck swallow the two of you whole.
Is it odd, do you think, how much of our memories wear down to pure affection?
I have been married for eight years, and I cannot wait, every day, to speak to her. What will you remember best of this time?
The child in his trucker hats and sunglasses. The way he climbs from the car, shoulders his impossible backpack, and says, “Have a good day, loser.”
That year your wife began to buy dresses with silly animals on them. Unicorns and preening birds. Her hair bound with wooden sticks. Her vials of perfume scattered around the house like some disorganized apothecary where the sandalwood and the rose create a heady magic.
Do you remember how much joy a bowl of blueberries brought you?
When you were young, you kept a tally of everything. You tracked meaning. I love that about you now. How the deer would stand near the road, and watch you pass with their great and curious eyes. How you spoke to them, and waved. How the dogs hurry to you, and set their faces on your leg when you cry. You are loved so well and so thoroughly. You no longer wonder if you deserve it.
The wildness in you has become more fierce and more quiet.
You would never have believed, that morning on the beach, how the joy would ring from you. How much pleasure you would find looking back at your heartbreak most of all. Those times when you did not yet believe that pain would help you mark the past. That you would love the girl that could cry so hard when love was just beginning.Read More