Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday Dad

This morning — Wednesday, June 12 — I sat down on my yoga mat before the sun rose and thought about my Dad. He would have been 76 today.

And I wondered: what would he think of this life I’ve made? This weird, independent, non-conforming, yoga at 3 a.m. life. It’s certainly not what either one of us expected, and yet…

When I was 8, he wrote me a letter while he was traveling for business. “I’m glad to hear you wanted to be different this year,” he said about the Halloween costume I was making.

Perhaps that same sentiment would apply to this different life that does not include the expected traditional trappings of the young woman he was raising in the 70s.

In that letter, written from a hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he also wrote that he was proud of me. That he loved me very much.

What more could a girl ask for — then or now?

The box I keep the letter in still smells like my Dad. Inside, there’s a stack of letters he wrote when I was little and when I was at UMass. Birthday cards with his familiar signature, “Love, Dad.” His watch, a stack of photos. The last photo I have of him, taken two weeks before he died, when he was just about the age I am now.

But my favorite thing in the box is a video of my Dad singing Happy Birthday to a colleague. He’s on a stage with some other people, but he has the mic — of course. He’s being loud and goofy, and obviously had one or two drinks. He’s dancing. And smiling. And signing off-key.

It makes me laugh. And cry. And laugh again …because that’s exactly how I remember him — the LIFE of the party.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you.


P.S. I know that was you who knocked over your picture on my desk just now.

Flood Insurance

These are the things I thought to save:

……shells from Cape Cod circa 1977

……an orange Sears towel from my grandmother’s house

……and the necklace she gave me from her trip to Arizona

……the dissected photos of my parents’ wedding

……my Dad’s watch, overnight bag

……(also, his hardcover copy of Walden with margin notes)

……Winnie the Pooh……in the red shirt my mother mended

No matter the flood of seas or tears, accidental fire or the kind that comes with brimstone, and with all apologies to Buddha of course, I will suffer these attachments — these glimpses of a past life, the smells of cedar and déjà vu.

Poem ©2017, Jen Payne. Image: Water Album – The Waving Surface of the Autumn Flood, Ma Yuan. If you like this poem, you’ll love Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind. Click here to purchase your copy today!

Life Lessons from Dad

Study hard, be smart.

Weigh the pros and cons of your decisions.

Stand on your own two feet.

Hard work is a key to success.

Dream big.

Love what you love with passion.

When you fall off a horse, get right back on.

Laugh a lot and often…

and you’ll come out on the other side just fine.

That’s my dad and me, college graduation 1988. He died 7 years later, 22 years ago today, at the age of 52. Life is fleeting — perhaps that is the biggest lesson of all.

Dad, Guess What!

On the 20th Anniversary of Your Death

I can almost hear the sound of the mailbox,
feel the gravel driveway beneath my feet
as I raced inside to call you.

“I got accepted to…” I squealed,
so excited to share the little successes
as they arrived 30 years ago,
before college, graduation, the accident.

There would have been hundreds more, Dad.
The headlines and the heartbreaks.

The business, a Company of the Year,
now 22 years, can you imagine?
The new house — my own.
The trip to France at 40.
The first published poem. The book!
Dad, I wrote a book last year…
and fell in love!

I’m pretty sure I would have called you,
that very first day, “Dad, I met…”
and told you everything, like I always do —
only quietly now, as words on paper,
and moonlight whispers.

©2015, Jen Payne




She spells it slowly, smiling, as if she’s landed on a triple-word score.

But the letters spit out like broken teeth after a tough fight.

“We are, aren’t we?” she asks in the same tone she uses for

“I was a good MOTHER, wasn’t I?” and “You do LOVE me, don’t you?”

There is nothing playful in these questions, and no way to advance from her pointed puzzling of letters.

We move one space forward and two spaces back, never passing Go,

never finding meaning in the words.

But this is the ongoing game of myF…..A…..M…..I…..L…..Y

always spinning, never landing on a square that takes you home.

Words: ©2015, Jen Payne
Image: Clandestine Game XI, Omar Rayo

To Actually Be Present


A friend and I were talking over lunch last week about life and health, work and family.

“Best to make the most of it,” I said.

“You could get hit by a bus tomorrow,” she added with a smirk.

We do smirk when we say that, don’t we? As it leaves our lips, it seems clever, but at the same time, we understand its tragic humor: our time here is finite.

As much as we think we can plan ahead, as much as we worry about tomorrow, as often as it feels like we must hold all of that in place for ourselves, the truth of the matter is, all you really have is right now.

I have a daily reminder of that here on my desk — a photo of my dad, my sister and me at a cousin’s wedding. It was taken two weeks before he died — August 31, 1995 — when he was, almost literally, hit by a bus.

In the blink of an eye — in a mere 16 seconds, according to the accident report — all of his planning and worrying and place-holding became irrelevant.

My dad did a lot of that — being on guard for the future. It is why he worked so hard and so much. It is why he was rarely home when I was growing up. It is why, in one of the last conversations we had, he admitted “I think often about quitting my job and just working at McDonald’s so I can punch in and punch out and be done.”

At the age of 52, he was ready to live in the moment. To actually be present in his life.

There is a confluence of that message for me lately — about being in the moment, about being present, about appreciating this right here.

It is a hard lesson to learn. And to remember. It was crystal clear to me, eighteen years ago. But it fades in and out, tangible, then shadowed.

Clear again right now, on the anniversary of his death, as I find myself reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are.

“If we are to grasp the reality of our life while we have it, we will need to wake up to our moments. Otherwise, whole days, even a whole life, could slip past unnoticed,” he writes, as if to remind me of the thing I already know so well.

In this gentle, heartfelt book about meditation and mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn writes:

“It is about stopping and being present, that is all. Mostly we run around doing. Are you able to come to a stop in your life, even for one moment?…The funny thing about stopping is that as soon as you do it, here you are. Things get simpler. In some ways, it’s as if you died and the world continued on. If you did die, all your responsibilities and obligations would immediately evaporate. Their residue would somehow get worked out without you. No one else can take over your unique agenda. It would die or peter out with you just as it has for everyone else who has ever died. So you don’t need to worry about it in any absolute way.

If this is true, maybe you don’t need to make one more phone call right now, even if you think you do. Maybe you don’t need to read something just now, or run one more errand. By taking a few moments to “die on purpose” to the rush of time while you are still living, you free yourself to have time for the present. By “dying” now in this way, you actually become more alive now….The stopping actually makes the going more vivid, richer, more textured. It helps keep all the things we worry about and feel inadequate about in perspective. It gives us guidance”

Throughout the book, Kabat-Zinn speaks often of Henry David Thoreau, with whom both my dad and I shared an affinity. Perhaps it is no accident I have found my way to this book in this moment, and found a way to share it with you, today?

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

• • •

©2013, Jen Payne

Excerpts: Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hypeiron, 1994.

On Your Birthday

Very often I walk alone,

and Wednesday was no different.

The morning was perfect —

you would have loved it —

so I stepped away from the

day-to-day I know you knew so well,

and went for a walk before noon.

I was sorry no one joined us —

but I celebrated quietly,

my memories like a mantra.

Oh the stories I would tell if

we gathered to tell them —

those of us who are left

here on your seventieth birthday.

But very often I walk alone,

and Wednesday was no different.

Except I knew that you were there.

• • •

Photo & Poem ©2013, Jen Payne

Sensory Memory

The cracker
in cellophane
from the diner
tastes like age eleven,
and I think of her—
“Grammy” —
sitting next to me
dunking Saltines into
Salada tea with
milk and sugar.
I hear the chirp
of her hearing aid,
smell Vicks
and Vasoline,
feel the softness
of her cheek
against my lips.

• • •

©2013, Jen Payne