Sandra Lafferty

Writer ~ Educator ~ Mental Health Advocate


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Picking Up Pieces of Other People’s Lives

EF5 TornadoDrought-breaking rains kept us from managing the several acres of vegetation that can’t legitimately be called a ‘lawn’ around our home. This day brought the first window of opportunity. I’d been eager to lose myself in the loud engine noise. This is where I go when I want quiet time alone. I find peace in the roaring barrier between me and household demands. On the mower I have time to think and just be.

But this day was different. There was no peace.

This week I felt odd, almost disloyal. I found my self-talk questioning my right to enjoyably cruise the yard while so many people were faced with a devastating pile of rubble that used to be their home. How could I care about foot-high dandelions right now? I’ve experienced a lot of feelings while mowing the yard but never before guilt.

Our brittle blackjack oak trees are forever dropping branches in the wind that serve as hazards. I can either walk the yard first or plan to stop multiple times to hop off the mower and drag dead wood out of my way. This day I’d chosen the latter.

I started with an open stretch that was dry, hoping the morning sun would have time to dry out the eastern sloping areas. The third pass afforded my first need to shut down and hop off the mower in retrieval mode. A flat piece of wood was lodged in the tall grass. I picked it up and held my breath. It was a thin piece of siding painted a soothing grey-blue on one side with jagged edges and empty nail holes that told how violently it had been removed from its place on someone’s home.

Tornado debris.

I tucked the siding by my seat on the mower and carried it with me. Tiny tufts of wet insulation dotted the yard. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

I brought the mower to a sudden stop when I caught a glimpse of a colorful picture. I hurried to pick it up, in case it was a photograph, a precious memory to its owner. A beautiful bird was printed on cardstock weight paper – a portion of an envelope shaped package with a woman’s name printed neatly on the flap. It was of no value and I had no idea what used to be inside it, but I couldn’t throw it away.

A twinkling silver reflection caught my attention and I picked up a tiny bow made of metallic ribbon. It was a premade bow designed to peel and stick on a small package. I wonder if the twister interrupted a celebration.

Ordinary people doing ordinary things when their world was ripped apart.

I kept an especially sharp eye on the ground in front of the mower, looking for odds and ends that had been torn from someone’s home and dropped on mine. Each scrap I retrieved felt important. It had a story to tell. I collected them with the blue siding.

Looking at the store receipt with handwritten directions on the back made me wonder if its owner was traveling along the highway to that address when the tornado tossed cars aside like Hot Wheels. A tattered fax listing job openings in Aerospace Propulsion was dated 1993 – someone had saved it for 20 years before it was swept away by a violent wind. Film production was the topic on a scrap from a book or magazine.

I look at the waterlogged battered pieces of other people’s lives and cry. Some lost loved ones, some lost homes, all lost priceless treasures and the security of the little things that were always there.

Am I feeling sorrow, grief, frustration, gratefulness, insecurity, or survivor’s guilt? On some level, all of the above.

To those who are laboring side by side with those whose lives were blown apart by the 2013 tornados, you have my deepest gratitude for being where I cannot be. To those who, for whatever reason, cannot donate time and labor, I entreat you to donate monetarily to help sustain those who must carry on and rebuild in the face of unspeakable loss.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, wild fires, tsunamis, tornados. Adversity draws humanity together; it brings out the helpers. It’s what we do.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Fred Rogers


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A Rose by Any Other Name is Not a Rose

Answering the question “What’s your name?” has always been an issue for me.  Knowing just who I am doesn’t come easy.

My identity doesn’t seem rooted in me.

There’s the name I was born with (the surname of a father who opted out when I was three) and the name of my step-father that I started using as my own even before he married my mother.  That name was never legally mine because I didn’t let Dad adopt me.  A decision I came to regret but learned to live with by using my dad’s name unless a legal father’s name was absolutely required, creating a plethora of confusion on school records and credit reports.

It still gives me pause when asked for my maiden name. I don’t think I have one.

Marriage gave me a new label. I’d begun freelance writing with that name and had several children so I kept it until I remarried. All too soon a second divorce lawyer asked me who I wanted to be the next day.

No way, no more. Throughout life my name had changed based upon who did or didn’t love me. I wanted my own name once and for all.

Photo Credit: Alanna Deidloff (used with permission)

I had adopted my second husband’s name and it fit. I liked it.  I vowed never to change who I am again.  The name remained mine well into marriage number three. We had children and it was their confusion and questions that moved me to hyphenate with their father giving me a link to my name and a link to their name —  a moniker too long to fit address labels or computerized forms. A defacto truncated version of my name spread like wildfire on bills, catalogs and UPS deliveries. It was weird and I didn’t like it.  Correction came in the form of a lost hyphen and the appearance of “my” last name as a middle name.  I was lost again.

I put on my I-don’t-care-mask and answered to Mrs. #3.   He’s my soul mate. We’ll always be together. But it’s not my name. And I do care.

So who am I? And why in the heck do I care so much?


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Learning Slowly and Forgetting Fast: Musings of an Aging Blogger

I have three blog posts started but just can’t seem to take any of them where I want them to go. I’m just not writing well this week.  There are days like that and it’s ok.  I have however been at the keyboard all morning. I’ve previewed my blog in just about all of the 180 plus themes in WordPress.  I love design.

I’m older than dirt so I predate this digital era.  When personal computers became available I had to have one and quickly started a self-taught desktop publishing business (some of you youngsters won’t even know what that is) working from my kitchen table. It did well and catapulted me into a wonderful creative world of writing, design, public relations and even teaching newsletter design at a university.   I love design.

HTML and putting together websites was recreational. I could speak code.

Today I’m struggling to do something beyond change a font with the WordPress Custom Design upgrade. Granted, I’ve never tried to use CSS before but I read about it and read about it, and it’s like I’m brain dead.  Why don’t I have dozens of fabulous pages designed?  I don’t get it.  I love design.

I think the answer resides on my birth certificate, and I don’t mean the fact that I don’t have a snazzy name.  Reality check … the brain works differently as we age. We process slower and remember less. A twenty-something Facebook friend posted a sad note about how there is no cure for memory. It was hard not to jet back a post saying yes there is, it’s called old age.

Part of me says to just forget it (pardon the pun) and use the predesigned pages as they are. After all, a pro put a lot of work into laying it all out for us. I’m a writer now not a designer.  But there is this little rebel voice in the back of my head saying not to take this lying down.  Fight back.  Read.  Study. Experiment.  If it looks ugly or blows up just start over like the old days when it was girl against machine and I never stepped down and let the machine win.

That was then and this is now.

Relax and enjoy the fact that I’ve stopped writing on the back of envelopes and hire a designer or choose an appropriate theme; or scratch and claw my way back toward a thinking, learning, human being by mastering CSS for some little tweak to my page.  I’m not sure which is the high road.  I’m not sure what to do.

I always used to be sure what to do. Being sure of everything is an essential part of youth. But young I am not. That doesn’t mean I’m not intelligent, worthy and productive. It simply means I’m different and still changing.

My creator planned it that way. He loves design.


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Learning Love From the Simple

I always loved Charlie Gordon just the way he was.  From my first reading of Flowers for Algernon, Charlie captured my heart. Just the way Kenny did.  His simplicity was pure, his smile captivating, and his vulnerability huge.  It was easy to hurt him and the general population felt no bones about doing so.  He was fair game — for hurtful names, pranks, teasing, manipulation.

I’m not sure what it is that makes people think that the Kennys and the Charlie Gordons of the world don’t feel pain.  Maybe it’s because they don’t hurt back.

Frustration comes easily when rote tasks are struggles.  It’s embarrassing when your peers are studying algorithms and you’re studying how to read a bus schedule and count change.  But if you fall, the Kennys and the Charlie Gordons are quick to extend a hand; if you miss the ball they cheer you on…because they understand that.

It was hard not to like Kenny if you took the time to know him. His smile was infectious, his heart was huge, and his hugs were wonderful.  He loved, he trusted and he followed.  And that made him prey, ultimately costing him his freedom and his life.

I’m angry with those who took his life but the greater struggle is reconciliation with those too impatient to wait, too lazy to teach, too unwilling to sacrifice. Those who said “I love you” but used him for their own good, left him when it was convenient, drew him near when it paid, and in the end threw him to the wolves.

I want there to be a special place in Hell for those who torture the simple but Kenny wouldn’t like that I feel that way.  He’d tell me they don’t really mean it. I still have much to learn from him.

I always loved Kenny just the way he was.


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Self-Harm Awareness Month: Someone Tear March Out Of My Calendar

The scars beneath the Love

This is self-harm awareness month. I was reminded by a Facebook post on my daughter’s wall and by a teacher friend who mentioned self-harm awareness day in a text to me on the first of the month. I was glad that I wasn’t eye to eye with either of them because I wouldn’t want them to see me flinch.

Every day used to be self-harm awareness day in my house. Cutting is an addiction that crept into our home like evil smoke oozing under a door.

I don’t see anything.

It’ll go away.

Open a window and air it out.

Turn on a fan.

Go out another door and stand in the fresh breeze.

I tried it all. But the smoke kept coming.

It made me choke. It made me cry.

It made me look foolish as I flailed against it with my hands trying to push it away only to find that I was spreading it throughout the house.

I understand, yet I will never understand. My mind comprehends the literature but my heart cannot comprehend the reason. We love our kids. They know we love them. We are good parents.   How can this happen here, in a good home, to us? How could we not know? What did we do wrong?

Pain stops pain? No. Just stop hurting yourself. What do you mean it’s not you that’s hurting you. I want to understand. I’m trying.  Relief?  In open wounds and blood? You’re finding relief?

You may not shave, you must use Nair!  I still had exacto knives in the craft cupboard? I thought I’d  . . . .

The physical pain stops emotional pain. I hear you, really I do, but you’re wrong it just masks it.  That’s good enough for you? You know it’s temporary and you still do this to your body? Why? Stop yelling. I know you’re angry. I know you’re hurting.  I’m trying.  How can I be trying too hard? Come back. I care. I care.

 Blood soaked tissues wadded into cotton balls sharp enough to cut my heart populate dark corners of the house.

Encounters with emotional pain stipe your arms, your belly, your thighs.

I hear your cries for help but cannot answer. I am mute with the very pain you are fighting.

Stop for me….please. You’re right. It’s not about me. It’s your battle. But I’m here. I’ll always be here.

There is hope  –   for us both.

It’s self-harm awareness month.

I am aware

and I love you.


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Both of Me: The Art of Being Shy

I grew up in Camelot.  I was lucky to live there long enough to discover rock n roll with the same kids who threw sand at me in kindergarten.  I could see both grammar school and high school from my front steps and walk to the beach where sun, sand and surf made up a little piece of heaven.  It was a cloistered world of white gloves and hats where crime would never think to go. The milk man let himself in and donuts and bread rolled up to the curb in a yellow truck wafting sweet aromas. There is a part of me that still lives there, unable to let go and move away. But move away I did, with the ire of a protesting convict banished from the city for being too happy by parents succumbing to the lure of bigger and better.

Attending three high schools was a challenge for a pathological introvert. My mother forced me into “charm school” to draw me out of my shell (which is why I’m so darn charming now I suppose) and then into a mini career in modeling.  I loved the runway because I could leave myself backstage and enjoy an anonymous persona in the limelight.

Later I got a clerical job and moved into an apartment with my best friend.  Before long we were both married with children and going our separate ways.  She headed north for Silicon Valley and I went south to Orange County, a hotbed of Republican conservatism, where I tumbled through the looking glass into local and national politics.  It was both macabre and magical.  I was painfully shy and mingling with the beautiful people and the movers and shakers was somewhat this side of a blessing.

Being an introvert of this magnitude is physically painful. Muscles tense and everything hurts. Sometimes it’s hard to move like it was the first time I found myself in a room full of celebrities and a president and embarrassed myself by having all the animation of an ice sculpture. I’m sure I made a wonderful impression, dressed to the nines standing there feeling like I’d melt if I had to make social small talk with someone I didn’t know except as a myriad of characters on the big screen. I don’t do small talk. Not even at neighborhood functions. Like pumping my own gasoline, it’s a skill I never wanted to perfect.

I like people, I do. There’s even a part of me that would like to do some public speaking. Not the part of me that feels like she will throw up on her shoes if she is in a group larger than three – the other part.


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When life exceeds fiction

     The pressure’s off.  I quit.

It seems like forever that I’ve been expected to write a book.  I freely admit to a love of writing and I’ve courted the idea for a long time. Of course by book I meant a book, not a novel. I don’t live in a world with room for make believe. My life has been surreal enough that I don’t need to add to the cadre of events with conjured up problems.

Don’t misunderstand. I want to be a writer. I have always wanted to be a writer. I think it’s who I am. (If it’s not, this wouldn’t be a good day to bring it up.)

To write fiction one must read fiction. That seems plain enough.

My attempts to hang out with the characters of Danielle Steele or David Baldacci never seem to get beyond one sitting. At the next reading I generally pick up an alternative selection from among the how-to books or better yet a magazine that allows me to pseudo-read and escape the novel I live in.

I have to read How Children Learn so I can be a guiding hand in the fuzzy world of learning disabilities. I have to read The BiPolar Child or A Bright Red Scream to find out why children want to harm themselves or others. Why, oh why, would I want to spend countless hours creating fictional people only to give them dragons to slay?

Well, write about your own life they say.

I can’t. It’s too unbelievable to be fiction.

Once upon a time I did write a book on a disability and it could have been a good book, a great book, if only I’d been willing to listen to the editor, but instead it sits as a box of typewritten pages. That’s a story for another day.

A year or so ago I bent to the pressure and tried writing a novel (which by the way is not a good way to start a first-fiction experience – the old eat an elephant one bite at a time adage, yada, yada, yada).

I have a requirement to overthink things.  I read how-to-write-a-novel books (that was fun) and bought multiple writing software programs that had me so wrapped up in structure I forgot I was crafting a story.  Learning new terms was great, but there was a continuing expectation in these programs that I fill blank spaces with fictional ideas.

I tried, I really did. But I’m done.

From now on I will sit in front of this glaring screen or in a waiting room with a notepad for at least a little time each day and require myself to write something. A paragraph, an essay, rambling thoughts, insightful musings.  It really doesn’t matter – I’m just going to write. But take heed – some of it may end up here and I can’t tell you what topic you’ll find.  But it won’t be a novel.

Life just isn’t like that.