Relax and laugh at yourself!
Years ago, I taught eighth grade. One morning before the students arrived, I stopped in the bathroom. My mother always told me to put toilet paper on the seat of a public toilet seat before sitting on it. So, as usual, I did. After relieving myself, I pulled my pants up, and unbeknownst to me, the toilet paper came up too, hanging from my pants like a tail.
Strutting through the hallway toward my class, I noticed kids giggling when I passed them, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Word spread quickly, and by the time I made it to my classroom, everyone knew about the teacher with the toilet paper sticking out of her pants. Needless to say, my students could not focus when I told them to simmer down after the bell rang. Finally, someone raised their hand and said, “Mrs. Gurtman, you might want to go back to the bathroom!”Hearing this, I instinctively knew. Reaching behind my back, I pulled the long wad of toilet paper out as fast as I could and threw it into the trash. My face turned the color of an atomic fireball before a fit of laughter spilled out of me and my students.
Somehow, I made it through the rest of the morning. At lunch, the laughter continued when I discussed it with my teacher friends. One of my colleagues kindly told me that the incident would give me a better connection to my students because it made me seem human. Had this happened when I was an eighth-grade student, I probably wouldn’t have been able to shake it off as quickly. But it was funny, and it became a running joke throughout the year that my students and I could giggle about.
When I was writing Lost and Found in Aspen, I created a similar scene for the protagonist, Hope. Throughout the story, she experiences a few embarrassing situations. I included these humiliating scenes with the intention of adding humor to the story, as well as making her more human, attempting to conjure up empathy in the reader as they stepped inside Hope’s life—for the good and the bad––to laugh and to cry.
Another important piece of advice my mother told me when I was a little girl was to marry someone who made me laugh. And I did. My husband is hilarious. Thanks, Mom, for teaching me to protect my butt from getting strange diseases from a dirty toilet seat and emphasizing the importance of humor in my life––because laughter, after all, is medicine for the soul.
In the Car with My Teenagers.
A friend of mine, whose children were in high school when my daughter was in preschool, once gave me great advice about spending time in the car with her kids. She referred to the car as the safe place where her kids could freely express themselves without judgement from their mother. “The truth came out on those drives,” she told me. Her teenagers would openly discuss issues they were having about anything from sex to drinking to friends. At the time, when my friend shared the car-therapy tip with me, I could not relate. After all, my kids were toddlers, so we spent most of our time listening to The Wiggles, playing the same songs over and over again. I did, however, tuck what my friend had told me in the back of my mind.
I am currently in the thick of raising teenagers. My daughter is a junior in high school, and in two short years, she will be heading off to college. The clock is ticking fast. A few months ago, she got her license, which finally meant a little less time I would have to spend as my children’s personal chauffeur. When I first found out that she isn’t allowed to park the car at school until she’s a senior, I was bummed––because the driving break I had been dreaming about wasn’t coming that fast. I would still need to make the round-trip drive to and from school a few times a day, depending on my kids’ activities. But then I flipped the switch in my mind, and rather than complain about being an unpaid mom-Uber driver, I decided to embrace the time alone with my kids. As soon as my daughter leaves for the next chapter in her life, my son, who is in eighth grade, will get his license, and then my days of driving my kids and their friends everywhere will end abruptly.
Once my mindset changed, I remembered the valuable advice my friend had given me a decade ago. And she was right. It’s the one place where I hear it all. At school pickup, I listen to the details about their day—the good and the bad, trying to help them sort through issues. When I drive their friends, I overhear their conversations, learn how they treat one another, and find out what they’re up to. Sometimes I ask questions like I’m an investigative reporter, collecting information that I may not have heard if I wasn’t driving a group of kids around. Even better, the truth comes out when it’s just me alone with one of my children. I know who is vaping, who is drinking, where the parties are, who might be experimenting with drugs. I’m careful not to sound too nosy or annoying. I just remind them that it’s safe inside the car and they can talk freely—and most of the time they do.
Studies have shown how important it is for families to sit down together for dinner as often as they can. With sports, games, activities, and studying, family dinners are not always viable in our house. But let’s face it—it’s not about the meal––it’s about engaging with our children. So the car is where we connect with each other; it’s where I get to hold on to them a little longer. It doesn’t mean I talk to them incessantly on every car ride. We can sit in silence too, or sing out loud to pop music, or laugh at my son’s choice of inappropriate rap music. Every now and then, I glance at their profiles, noticing a ripe pimple here and there, and I admire their beautiful and changing faces. Most importantly, I savor each moment, enjoying the precious and limited time we have before I send them into the world. In another decade, I will have to find new ways to bond with my children as they journey through the next phases of their lives. For now, I will stop complaining about how many times I have to schlep my kids around town, and instead welcome it––grateful that I can.
“The Ebb and Flow of Aspen,” a poem by Lori Gurtman.
Weeks before, months after
The longest day of the year
Sunlight streams down
Tourists swell the town
Hotels and restaurants come alive
Patrons spend and businesses thrive
People frolic outdoors
Rafting, biking, hiking galore
Under the stars, swaying to the beat
Concerts entertain crowds on the street
But in the middle of peak season
Locals complain with good reason
Cars, bikes, and pedestrians
Create traffic and congestion
Cooler weather signals transition
And school begins a new session
Dance from Aspen trees
Visitors leave without a trace
Finally, an open parking space
Winter is officially here
The shortest day of the year
Christmas lights shimmer and glow
Mountains pile high with snow
On the slopes skiers and snowboarders abound
Playing like children on a powdery playground
Enjoying après before they dine
Sipping cocktails and fine wine
Smiling proprietors count their bills
Fattening their bank accounts until
Vacationers fly home on jets
And the town once again resets
Snow melts, flowers bloom, bluebirds sing
Earth permeates with the scents of spring
Aspen remains quiet for a little while
As the ebb and flow begins a new cycle
When the clouds of grief clear the way for light.
Death is life’s greatest equalizer. There’s no way around it. We can’t avoid it. We can’t escape it. We will all face it—our own immortality, and the loss of someone we love. It may come when we least expect it, or sometimes we are warned, but rarely are we prepared to lose someone we love. And no matter how many times we are forced to say goodbye, it never makes the pain any easier. I was only four years old when my father died. At the time, I didn’t understand what death meant. I remember a lot of tears, not my tears—but the waterfalls of tears pouring down the faces of everyone who loved my father. The hurt hit me later in life when I began to intellectualize what I was missing. As the years passed, other deaths would fall from the dark clouds that would occasionally pass over my head, eventually clearing the way for the sun to shine when the heartache dissipated.
Death can be ugly, but it can also make space for beauty and love. Rather than feeling sorry for myself, I have found a way—this is something that happens in time—to celebrate the people who are no longer in my life and thank them for blessing me with their gifts. Grief is a theme in my debut novel, Lost and Found in Aspen. It served as fuel for me to write the story. I can’t help but wonder if the book would not have been written if I hadn’t experienced losing so many loved ones. Looking back, I realize it was part of my grand plan—writing about grief because I knew it so well.
Death also has the potential to connect us and bring us closer to the living, particularly those who share similar stories and tragedies. Early in my marriage, my husband didn’t understand what it was like for me to not have a father, until he lost his beloved dad. Mourning his passing together, we came out on the other side––speaking a similar language. Now we put these special men on pedestals, cherishing their shortened lives.
A few years ago, I met a woman named Cathy who had just moved to Aspen. Cathy had a best friend in another state who was losing a long battle with cancer. I had a friend, also far away, who was desperately fighting cancer too. Commiserating over our sick friends is what drew us closer, but losing them is what sealed us together. I remember when Cathy first got word that her friend had passed. I was driving in town and saw Cathy walking on the sidewalk. Pulling over to say “hi,” I took one look in her eyes and knew something was wrong. After she relayed the sad news, I told her to go home, put on her ski clothes, and meet me at the Silver Queen Gondola at the base of Aspen Mountain. As soon as we began our ascent, she shared funny memories of her friend, and then we honored her life on that bluebird day, enlivened by the fresh air and glorious sunshine, carving turns down the mountain. Less than six months later, cancer took my friend’s life. Cathy, of course, was the first person I called to help me with my grief—after all, she knew exactly how I felt. It was our shared experiences with death that connected us, blossoming our friendship.
Growth happens at every turn throughout life. We continually evolve with the passage of time, and facing tragedy forces us on a new trajectory, altering how we view the world. Overcoming sorrow and anguish gives us an opportunity to reevaluate our sense of purpose, our self-worth, our love. I know all too well how it feels when death shoots daggers into my heart, but it’s those same sharp, painful weapons that have also strengthened and opened my soul to be flooded with oceans of light.
Prayer wheels artwork by Nagel-Gogolak.
I am a writer. My friend Nicole is an artist. She claims that she can’t write. I claim that I lack artistic ability. Although our creative mediums are different, we have a lot in common when it comes to pursuing our passions. Both Nicole’s art and my writing are shaped by our personal experiences, our self-identities, and the lenses through which we see the world. Like books, art tells stories. And these stories bring a piece of art to life.
The cover of my novel, Lost and Found in Aspen, is an image of Nicole’s sought-after art, which she aptly named “Prayer Wheels,” made from slices of wood and painted with hot wax. Although the photograph of her wheels is pretty––it doesn’t do them justice. When you admire them hanging on a wall in person, you can feel their energy and the intuitive message each one conveys. Learning about the origin and inspiration behind Nicole’s work enables the viewer to have a better appreciation of the depth and power of her art.
This is Nicole’s story, in her words:
In 2011, I went on a soul-searching trek to the Himalayas where I became entranced by the meditative power of the art in Buddhist temples. The fusion of sacred meaning into visual imagery resonated deeply with me. I was particularly moved by the crowds of Tibetans in Kora, circumambulating the city and spinning prayer wheels while chanting the prayer “Om Mani Padme Hum.” Walking in unison with them, I felt the transformative power of this beautiful pilgrimage. The prayer wheels worn down from the touch of so many intentioned hands, the clicking sound they made as each passerby gently spun them to continue their unending spiral path, the smell of yak butter candles, and the beautiful rustling of colorful indigenous garments shuffling in pace, step after step––awoke my senses.
When I returned to the mountains of Colorado, I started making my “Prayer Wheels” series. I knew I wanted to find a way to capture this spiritual and synesthetic experience through a combination of sight, sound, touch, and smell into a visual image that also incorporated the natural beauty that I have always found so moving and inspirational. The circular wood grain of the log slices and finely etched lines fused with colored wax was the perfect representation of what I had felt on my travels through Nepal and Tibet. And the grain in the wood slice symbolized time, growth, and even struggle––which is pure and authentic.
Several years prior to this trip, a life-altering tragedy had shattered my heart and sent me on a frantic search for connection and deeper meaning in a world that felt empty and broken. Through my art, I began to heal and become whole again. Each wheel I created held a prayer, intention of hope, or a new beginning. It was a journey of putting my heart back together piece by piece. As I added color and ink to create the sublime surfaces, I was reminded of the present and divine moments in life. Just like the pilgrimage in Tibet, every prayer wheel I make holds its own unique intention: wish, prayer, or blessing to be bestowed upon by the viewer, and many pieces come together to form a whole. My work is satisfying and powerful because it merges my love of the outdoors by unifying an intricate collaboration between the artist and nature. When I am arranging all the individual slices across a wall, they become something much larger and lovelier than I had intended. That is where the visual magic happens, similar to a breathtaking moment one feels as they look up at the sun dancing through the leaves of the trees or the dazzling light skipping across a lake as the sun sets on the horizon in a warm summer glow. There is visual poetry that happens in these moments. It is this type of expression that I strive to recreate as I assemble numerous pieces of my work in various sizes across a wall.
For more information about Nicole and her artwork, check out her website: nicolenagelgogolak.com.